Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

Japan’s mobile payments app PayPay reaches 10 million users

Paytm, India’s biggest mobile payments firm, now has 10 million customers in Japan, the company said as it pushes to expand its reach in international markets. Paytm entered Japan last October after forming a joint venture with SoftBank and Yahoo Japan called PayPay.

In addition to 10 million users, PayPay is now supported by 1 million local stores in Japan, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm said Thursday. The mobile payment app has clocked 100 million transactions to date in the nation, he claimed. In June, PayPay had 8 million users.

“Thank you India 🇮🇳 for your inspiration and giving us chance to build world class tech…,” he posted in a tweet.

Like in India, cash also dominates much of the daily transactions in Japan. Large medical clinics and supermarkets often refuse to accept plastic cards and instead ask for cash. This encouraged Paytm, which also has presence in Canada, to explore the Japanese market.

And it has the experience, capital, and tech chops to achieve it. The mobile payments app has amassed more than 250 million registered users in India. Most of these customers signed up after the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in the nation in late 2016.

PayPay competes with a handful of local players in Japan. Its biggest competition is Line, an instant messaging app that like China’s WeChat has attempted to expand its offerings in recent years. Line Pay, the payments service of Line, has north of 30 million users.

Like PayPay, Line also has no shortage of money. Earlier this year, it announced a ¥30 billion ($282 million) reward campaign to boost usage of its payments service.

More to follow…

Toyota partners with AI startup Preferred Networks on building helper robots for humans

Toyota is enlisting the help of startup Preferred Networks, a Japanese company founded in 2014 with a focus on artificial intelligence and deep learning, to help move forward its goal of developing useful service robots that can assist people in everyday life.

The two companies announced a partnership today to collaborate on research and development that will use Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR) robotics platform. The platform, which Toyota originally created in 2012 and has been developing since, is a basic robot designed to be able to work alongside people in everyday settings. Its primary uses involve offering basic car and support assistance in nursing and long-term care applications. Equipped with one arm, a display, cameras and a wheeled base, it can collect and retrieve items, and provide remote control and communication capabilities.

Preferred Networks already has some experience with Toyota’s HSR – it demonstrated one-such robot programmed to clean a room fully autonomously at Japan’s CEATEC robotics conference in 2018. The system could identify objects, responsd to specific human instructions and, importably pick up and put down objects it couldn’t define from its database in a safe manner.vision predict 01Toyota will be providing “several dozen” HSR units to Preferred Networks for the startup to work on, and then over the next three years, the two will collaborate on R&D, sharing the results of their work and the resulting intellectual property, with no restrictions on how either party uses the results of the joint work.

One of Toyota’s guiding goals as a company is to develop commercial home robotics that can work with people where they live. The automaker has a number of different projects in the works to make this happen, including through research at its Toyota Research Institute (TRI) subsidiary which works with a number of academic institutions. Toyota also recently revealed a number of robotics projects its bringing to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which will help it field test a number of its projects.

Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

For nearly fifteen years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

Google’s Titan security keys come to Japan, Canada, France and the UK

Google today announced that its Titan Security Key kits are now available in Canada, France, Japan and the UK. Until now, these keys, which come in a kit with a Bluetooth key and a standard USB-A dongle, were only available in the U.S.

The keys provide an extra layer of security on top of your regular login credentials. They provide a second authentication factor to keep your account safe and replace more low-tech two-factor authentication systems like authentication apps or SMS messages. When you use those methods, you still have to type the code into a form, after all. That’s all good and well until you end up on a well-designed phishing page. Then, somebody could easily intercept your code and quickly reuse it to breach your account — and getting a second factor over SMS isn’t exactly a great idea to begin with, but that’s a different story.

Authentication keys use a number of cryptographic techniques to ensure that you are on a legitimate site and aren’t being phished. All of this, of course, only works on sites that support hardware security keys, though that number continues to grow.

The launch of Google’s Titan keys came as a bit of a surprise, given that Google had long had a good relationship with Yubico and previously provided all of its employees with that company’s keys. The original batch of keys also featured a security bug in the Bluetooth key. That bug was hard to exploit, but nonetheless, Google offered free replacements to all Titan Key owners.

In the U.S., the Titan Key kit sells for $50. In Canada, it’ll go for $65 CAD. In France, it’ll be €55, while in the UK it’ll retail for £50 and in Japan for ¥6,000. Free delivery is included.

 

SoftBank announces AI-focused second $108 billion Vision Fund with LPs including Microsoft, Apple and Foxconn

SoftBank Group announced today that it will launch its second Vision Fund with participation from Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft and other tech companies and investors. Called the Vision Fund 2, the fund will focus on AI-based technology. SoftBank said the fund’s capital has reached about $108 billion, based on memoranda of understandings. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.

It is worth noting that the second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government (the first Vision Fund’s close ties to people, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has understandably been a major source of concern for investors, companies and human rights observers).

But SoftBank Group also said is still in discussions with other participants and that the total amount of the fund is expected to increase. The full list of participants who have signed MOUs so far are: “Apple, Foxconn Technology Group, Microsoft Corporation, Mizuho Bank, Ltd., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, Ltd., The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Limited, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Standard Chartered Bank, and major participants from Taiwan.”

SoftBank’s intention to launch Vision Fund 2 was first reported earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal. The new fund is expected to decrease SoftBank’s reliance on Saudi Arabian investment and also potentially change the relationship between startups, corporate giants like Microsoft and investors.

Toyota invests $600 million in Didi, with the two setting up a new joint venture for driver services

Didi Chuxing announced today that it has received new investment totaling $600 million from Toyota Motor Corporation. As part of the deal, the two companies will also set up a joint venture with GAC Toyota Motor to provide vehicle-related services to drivers on Didi’s ride-sharing platform. GAC Toyota itself is a joint venture between Toyota and GAC Group, one of China’s largest automakers.

Nikkei Asian Review first broke news of the deal at the end of May, reporting that Toyota was considering a $550 million investment in Didi and setting up a new mobility-services company in China.

Didi and Toyota announced last year 2018 that it would work together on services that use technology developed by Toyota for its mobility and vehicle-sharing platform, which includes autonomous driving software, a fully electric battery and the “e-Palette,” or modules that can be used to build autonomous vehicles of different sizes, ranging from small ones for deliveries to passenger buses.

Toyota has also backed other vehicle-sharing companies, including Uber and JapanTaxi.

DiDi’s partnership with Toyota is one of several partnerships it has made with car manufacturers and other vehicle-related companies as part of its D-Alliance, including Toyota, Volkswagen, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, as well as major Chinese automakers like FAW, Dongfeng and GAC, with the intention of expanding its reach beyond its ride-hailing services by creating a platform that uses new energy, AI-based and mobility technology.

Didi recently announced that it will open its ride-hailing platform to third-party service providers as part of agreements with FAW, Dongfeng and GAC, three of China’s largest auto makers.

Meet the robots Toyota is bringing to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games are fast-approaching, and Toyota is playing a key role in on-site mobility and transportation. The Japanese automaker has unveiled five robots it’s also going to be bringing to the games, which will each help in some way to support athletes and attendees at avenues get around, get information, experience the games remotely, ferry food, drinks an equipment and much more. The robots range from humanoid to strictly purpose-built and functional in design.

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First up are two robot designs based on Tokyo’s official Olympic mascots, Miraitowa and Someity. These blue and pink big-eyed bots will be on-site at official venues acting as greeters and photo-ops, but they’re equipped with cameras and digital eyes that can offer expressions in response to human interaction. They’ll also be able to move their arms and legs, and part of the plan for deploying them is to potentially distribute them across Japan to offer kids in other cities a chance to get a taste of the games from afar.

T HR3 Humanoid Robot Latest compressor

T-HR3 offers a similar set of features, albeit in a very different design. This humanoid robot is a lot less ‘cute’ than the mascot bots, but has a lot more potential in terms of articulation. It’s also intended to provide a remote experience of what it’s like to be at the games, and can reproduce the movements of its mascot robot counterparts in real-time. T-HR3 can also stream images and sounds from the remote locations back to the Olympic site, acting as telepresence bots for Olympic fans off-site and mirroring their movements – they can “converse with and high-five athletes and others,” Toyota says specifically.

T TR1 Remote location communication Robot

Next up is T-TR1, a more traditional kind of telepresence robot that has a wheeled base, cameras ad a super large vertical display. It can show people at basically life-size scale, and let remote people chat in real-time with Olympic athletes and fans on-site to really feel like they’re there.

HSR Human Support Robot DSR Delivery Support Robot

This next robot is actually a pair – Human Support Robot (HSR) and Delivery Support Robot (DSR). The HSR is basically a robotic usher, providing guidance to seats for guests at venues, and also transporting some snacks, souvenirs and other light cargo to them at their seat while they watch the games. DSR, which is all-new for the Olympics, is more dedicated to delivering drinks and concessions to attendees on-site at venues, with people being able to order from a dedicated tablet – a modern replacement for hawkers walking the stands with trays of popcorn, peanuts and drinks.

FSR Field Support Robot Field Event Support Robot

Last but not least is Field Support Robot (FSR). This box-on-wheels should actually play an instrumental role, specifically supporting those game that involve hurling something as far as you can throw it. FSR’s entire purpose is to take the best route possible to retrieve things like javelins and shot-puts and return them to where they’re needed once thrown and recorded. They live to fetch.

Sadly, we’re not yet at the point where the robots are actually competing against the humans in a ‘winner-takes-all’ battle for the future of the planet. But these should nonetheless provide a look at what our future might be when robots are much more common in daily life, supporting humans in similar ways when there isn’t an international competition of the best-performing athletes in the world going on.

How US national security agencies hold the internet hostage

Team Telecom, a shadowy US national security unit tasked with protecting America’s telecommunications systems, is delaying plans by Google, Facebook and other tech companies for the next generation of international fiber optic cables.

Team Telecom is comprised of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice (including the FBI), who assess foreign investments in American telecom infrastructure, with a focus on cybersecurity and surveillance vulnerabilities.

Team Telecom works at a notoriously sluggish pace, taking over seven years to decide that letting China Mobile operate in the US would “raise substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks,” for instance. And while Team Telecom is working, applications are stalled at the FCC.

The on-going delays to submarine cable projects, which can cost nearly half a billion dollars each, come with significant financial impacts. They also cede advantage to connectivity projects that have not attracted Team Telecom’s attention – such as the nascent internet satellite mega-constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon .

Team Telecom’s investigations have long been a source of tension within Silicon Valley. Google’s subsidiary GU Holdings Inc has been building a network of international submarine fiber-optic cables for over a decade. Every cable that lands on US soil is subject to Team Telecom review, and each one has faced delays and restrictions.

Snap turns to search giant Baidu to court Chinese advertisers

Two years have passed since Snap Inc first struck a deal with Baidu that authorized China’s largest search engine to be a reseller of Snapchat ads for companies in Greater China as well as Japan and South Korea, where Baidu runs a portfolio of mobile apps.

This week, the pair announced they have renewed the sales partnership without revealing how revenues are divided between the two and when the extended agreement expires.

Despite being blocked in China like most other western social media services, Snap has shown interest in China in various capacities, including a research and development center in Shenzhen for Spectacles. It’s also serving the country’s game developers, e-commerce merchants and other export-led advertisers who wish to capture the network’s 190 million daily active users around the world.

Facebook and Twitter are in the same overseas ad business in China. Facebook, with an “experience center” in Shenzhen for clients to learn how its ads work, counted China as its second-largest ad spender in 2018, according to Pivotal Research Group. Twitter also holds an annual summit in China for small and medium enterprises going global.

None of the western social giants can go it alone in China, which is why Snap chose Baidu to be its local partner to not only overcome regulatory restrictions on foreign entities but also tap the latter for language support, account management and an extensive advertiser network.

Baidu also intended to resell Facebook ads but did not manage to get a license, a former Facebook employee who wishes to remain anonymous told TechCrunch. Instead, Facebook works with Cheetah Mobile, PapayaMobile and seven other advertising representatives in China.

Through the deal, companies that purchase media through Baidu gain access to all forms of ad slots in Snap’s videos, real-time selfie effects, overlays and more. The return can be satisfying. Besides the opportunity to capture a predominantly young user base, advertisers are reaching a sticky group who, on average, opens Snapchat over 20 times and spends over 30 minutes on the app every day.

“With its young, vibrant user base, Snap’s advertising platform has been instrumental in driving growth for our game AFK Arena,” said Chris Zhang, vice president of Shanghai-based Lilith Games, in a statement.

“Our partnership with Snap Inc. provides Chinese companies new avenues to expand their businesses through Snapchat advertising,” said Sheng Hu, head of U.S. strategy and partnership at Baidu’s Global Business Unit that operates a range of overseas products such as Japanese keyboard app Simeji. “We look forward to connecting with marketing executives in China and beyond on behalf of Snap to discuss the benefits of these advertising solutions.”