China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

Norwegian corporate training startup Attensi raises $26M from NYC’s Lugard Road, DX Ventures

Corporate training startup Attensi — which originally emerged out of Oslo, Norway — has raised $26 million from New York-based Lugard Road Capital, DX Ventures (a VC fund backed by Delivery Hero), and existing shareholder Viking Venture. The new funding will be used to expand in North America and Europe.

Attensi uses a ‘gamified approach to corporate training, putting employees into 3D simulations of their workplace and work processes. Its competitors include companies like GoSkills, Mindflash SAP Litmos Skilljar.

With the pandemic shifting all office work to remote, digital training platforms like this stand to benefit.

This is also yet another recent example of how US VCs are ‘going hunting’ for startups in Europe, putting pressure on local VCs.

Attensi co-founder and co-CEO, Trond Aas said in a statement: “With gamified simulation training, we have combined the best of workplace psychology with our expertise in simulations and gamification to create a new category of training solutions.”

The company claims it’s experienced a 63% CAGR in annual recurring revenue. Its clients include Daimler Mercedes Benz, Circle K, Equinor, BCG, and ASDA.

Doug Friedman, a partner at Lugard Road Capital, said: “We could not be more excited to be investing in the Attensi team as they work to forever change and improve corporate learning and development through their Attensi solutions.”

How Jamaica failed to handle its JamCOVID scandal

As governments scrambled to lock down their populations after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared last March, some countries had plans underway to reopen. By June, Jamaica became one of the first countries to open its borders.

Tourism represents about one-fifth of Jamaica’s economy. In 2019 alone, four million travelers visited Jamaica, bringing thousands of jobs to its three million residents. But as COVID-19 stretched into the summer, Jamaica’s economy was in free fall, and tourism was its only way back — even if that meant at the expense of public health.

The Jamaican government contracted with Amber Group, a technology company headquartered in Kingston, to build a border entry system allowing residents and travelers back onto the island. The system was named JamCOVID and was rolled out as an app and a website to allow visitors to get screened before they arrive. To cross the border, travelers had to upload a negative COVID-19 test result to JamCOVID before boarding their flight from high-risk countries, including the United States.

Amber Group’s CEO Dushyant Savadia boasted that his company developed JamCOVID in “three days” and that it effectively donated the system to the Jamaican government, which in turn pays Amber Group for additional features and customizations. The rollout appeared to be a success, and Amber Group later secured contracts to roll out its border entry system to at least four other Caribbean islands.

But last month TechCrunch revealed that JamCOVID exposed immigration documents, passport numbers, and COVID-19 lab test results on close to half a million travelers — including many Americans — who visited the island over the past year. Amber Group had set the access to the JamCOVID cloud server to public, allowing anyone to access its data from their web browser.

Whether the data exposure was caused by human error or negligence, it was an embarrassing mistake for a technology company — and, by extension, the Jamaican government — to make.

And that might have been the end of it. Instead, the government’s response became the story.

A trio of security lapses

By the end of the first wave of coronavirus, contact tracing apps were still in their infancy and few governments had plans in place to screen travelers as they arrived at their borders. It was a scramble for governments to build or acquire technology to understand the spread of the virus.

Jamaica was one of a handful of countries using location data to monitor travelers, prompting rights groups to raise concerns about privacy and data protection.

As part of an investigation into a broad range of these COVID-19 apps and services, TechCrunch found that JamCOVID was storing data on an exposed, passwordless server.

This wasn’t the first time TechCrunch found security flaws or exposed data through our reporting. It also was not the first pandemic-related security scare. Israeli spyware maker NSO Group left real location data on an unprotected server that it used for demonstrating its new contact tracing system. Norway was one of the first countries with a contact tracing app, but pulled it after the country’s privacy authority found the continuous tracking of citizens’ location was a privacy risk.

Just as we have with any other story, we contacted who we thought was the server’s owner. We alerted Jamaica’s Ministry of Health to the data exposure on the weekend of February 13. But after we provided specific details of the exposure to ministry spokesperson Stephen Davidson, we did not hear back. Two days later, the data was still exposed.

After we spoke to two American travelers whose data was spilling from the server, we narrowed down the owner of the server to Amber Group. We contacted its chief executive Savadia on February 16, who acknowledged the email but did not comment, and the server was secured about an hour later.

We ran our story that afternoon. After we published, the Jamaican government issued a statement claiming the lapse was “discovered on February 16” and was “immediately rectified,” neither of which were true.

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Instead, the government responded by launching a criminal investigation into whether there was any “unauthorized” access to the unprotected data that led to our first story, which we perceived to be a thinly veiled threat directed at this publication. The government said it had contacted its overseas law enforcement partners.

When reached, a spokesperson for the FBI declined to say whether the Jamaican government had contacted the agency.

Things didn’t get much better for JamCOVID. In the days that followed the first story, the government engaged a cloud and cybersecurity consultant, Escala 24×7, to assess JamCOVID’s security. The results were not disclosed, but the company said it was confident there was “no current vulnerability” in JamCOVID. Amber Group also said that the lapse was a “completely isolated occurrence.”

A week went by and TechCrunch alerted Amber Group to two more security lapses. After the attention from the first report, a security researcher who saw the news of the first lapse found exposed private keys and passwords for JamCOVID’s servers and databases hidden on its website, and a third lapse that spilled quarantine orders for more than half a million travelers.

Amber Group and the government claimed it faced “cyberattacks, hacking and mischievous players.” In reality, the app was just not that secure.

Politically inconvenient

The security lapses come at a politically inconvenient time for the Jamaican government, as it attempts to launch a national identification system, or NIDS, for the second time. NIDS will store biographic data on Jamaican nationals, including their biometrics, such as their fingerprints.

The repeat effort comes two years after the government’s first law was struck down by Jamaica’s High Court as unconstitutional.

Critics have cited the JamCOVID security lapses as a reason to drop the proposed national database. A coalition of privacy and rights groups cited the recent issues with JamCOVID for why a national database is “potentially dangerous for Jamaicans’ privacy and security.” A spokesperson for Jamaica’s opposition party told local media that there “wasn’t much confidence in NIDS in the first place.”

It’s been more than a month since we published the first story and there are many unanswered questions, including how Amber Group secured the contract to build and run JamCOVID, how the cloud server became exposed, and if security testing was conducted before its launch.

TechCrunch emailed both the Jamaican prime minister’s office and Jamaica’s national security minister Matthew Samuda to ask how much, if anything, the government donated or paid to Amber Group to run JamCOVID and what security requirements, if any, were agreed upon for JamCOVID. We did not get a response.

Amber Group also has not said how much it has earned from its government contracts. Amber Group’s Savadia declined to disclose the value of the contracts to one local newspaper. Savadia did not respond to our emails with questions about its contracts.

Following the second security lapse, Jamaica’s opposition party demanded that the prime minister release the contracts that govern the agreement between the government and Amber Group. Prime Minister Andrew Holness said at a press conference that the public “should know” about government contracts but warned “legal hurdles” may prevent disclosure, such as for national security reasons or when “sensitive trade and commercial information” might be disclosed.

That came days after local newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner had a request to obtain contracts revealing the salaries state officials denied by the government under a legal clause that prevents the disclosure of an individual’s private affairs. Critics argue that taxpayers have a right to know how much government officials are paid from public funds.

Jamaica’s opposition party also asked what was done to notify victims.

Government minister Samuda initially downplayed the security lapse, claiming just 700 people were affected. We scoured social media for proof but found nothing. To date, we’ve found no evidence that the Jamaican government ever informed travelers of the security incident — either the hundreds of thousands of affected travelers whose information was exposed, or the 700 people that the government claimed it notified but has not publicly released.

TechCrunch emailed the minister to request a copy of the notice that the government allegedly sent to victims, but we did not receive a response. We also asked Amber Group and Jamaica’s prime minister’s office for comment. We did not hear back.

Many of the victims of the security lapse are from the United States. Neither of the two Americans we spoke to in our first report were notified of the breach.

Spokespeople for the attorneys general of New York and Florida, whose residents’ information was exposed, told TechCrunch that they had not heard from either the Jamaican government or the contractor, despite state laws requiring data breaches to be disclosed.

The reopening of Jamaica’s borders came at a cost. The island saw over a hundred new cases of COVID-19 in the month that followed, the majority arriving from the United States. From June to August, the number of new coronavirus cases went from tens to dozens to hundreds each day.

To date, Jamaica has reported over 39,500 cases and 600 deaths caused by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Holness reflected on the decision to reopen its borders last month in parliament to announce the country’s annual budget. He said the country’s economic decline last was “driven by a massive 70% contraction in our tourist industry.” More than 525,000 travelers — both residents and tourists — have arrived in Jamaica since the borders opened, Holness said, a figure slightly more than the number of travelers’ records found on the exposed JamCOVID server in February.

Holness defended reopening the country’s borders.

“Had we not done this the fall out in tourism revenues would have been 100% instead of 75%, there would be no recovery in employment, our balance of payment deficit would have worsened, overall government revenues would have been threatened, and there would be no argument to be made about spending more,” he said.

Both the Jamaican government and Amber Group benefited from opening the country’s borders. The government wanted to revive its falling economy, and Amber Group enriched its business with fresh government contracts. But neither paid enough attention to cybersecurity, and victims of their negligence deserve to know why.


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Whereby, which allows more collaboration over video calls, raises $12M from Point Nine and 20 Angels

Zoom, Microsoft and Google all rocketed to the top of the charts in the virtual meetings stakes during the pandemic but a plucky startup from Norway had others ideas. Video meeting startup Whereby has now raised $12 million from German VC Point Nine, SaaStr fund and a group of more than 20 angel investors.

Angels investors include Josh Buckley(CEO, Producthunt), Elizabeth Yin (Hustlefund) and Jason M. Lemkin (founder of Saastr).

Øyvind Reed, CEO at Whereby said in a statement: “The past year has led many of us to question the future of work, with video meetings set to remain a big part of our lives. More than ever, the tools we use to connect have to enable effective and enjoyable meetings, providing focus, collaboration and wellbeing. .”

Whereby’s platform has three pricing plans (including free) and allows users to embed tools like Google Docs, Trello and Miro directly in their meetings, unlike other video platforms.

Whereby was demonstrated to me by co-founder Ingrid Ødegaard on a coffee table during 2016’s Oslo Innovation Week. I immediately set-up my username, which has existed even as the startup changed it name from Appear.in. Ingrid told me during an interview that they “tried to be much more human-centric and really focus on some of the human problems that come with collaborating remotely. One of the big mistakes that a lot of people making is just replicating the behavior that they had in the office… whereas we think that you actually need to work in a fundamentally different way. We want to help people do that and by making it really easy to jump in and have a meeting when you need to. But our goal is not to push people to have more meetings, quite the opposite.”

The startup’s secret weapon is enterprise integrations. If you had a video meeting with a UK GP over video in the last year it was probably over Whereby (indeed, mine was!). Whereby won a contract with the NHS for its remote video patient consultations during the pandemic. Competitors for this include Jitsi and AccurX. The company claims it saw a 450% increase in users across 150 countries last year.

“Last year we saw the mass adoption of video meetings,” said Christoph Janz, Partner at Point Nine. “Now it’s about taking the user experience to the next level and Whereby will be leading that charge. It’s amazing to see a Scandinavian startup playing in the same league as the tech giants.”

America’s small businesses face the brunt of China’s Exchange server hacks

As the U.S. reportedly readies for retaliation against Russia for hacking into some of the government’s most sensitive federal networks, the U.S. is facing another old adversary in cyberspace: China.

Microsoft last week revealed a new hacking group it calls Hafnium, which operates in, and is backed by, China. Hafnium used four previously unreported vulnerabilities — or zero-days — to break into at least tens of thousands of organizations running vulnerable Microsoft Exchange email servers and steal email mailboxes and address books.

It’s not clear what Hafnium’s motives are. Some liken the activity to espionage — a nation-state gathering intelligence or industrial secrets from larger corporations and governments.

But what makes this particular hacking campaign so damaging is not only the ease with which the flaws can be exploited, but also how many — and how widespread — the victims are.

Security experts say the hackers automated their attacks by scanning the internet for vulnerable servers, hitting a broad range of targets and industries — law firms and policy think tanks, but also defense contractors and infectious disease researchers. Schools, religious institutions, and local governments are among the victims running vulnerable Exchange email servers and caught up by the Hafnium attacks.

While Microsoft has published patches, the U.S. federal cybersecurity advisory agency CISA said the patches only fix the vulnerabilities — and won’t close any backdoors left behind by the hackers.

There is little doubt that larger, well-resourced organizations have a better shot at investigating if their systems were compromised, allowing those victims to prevent further infections, like destructive malware or ransomware.

But that leaves the smaller, rural victims largely on their own to investigate if their networks were breached.

“The types of victims we have seen are quite diverse, many of whom outsource technical support to local IT providers whose expertise is in deploying and managing IT systems, not responding to cyber threats,” said Matthew Meltzer, a security analyst at Volexity, a cybersecurity firm that helped to identify Hafnium.

Without the budget for cybersecurity, victims can always assume they are compromised – but that doesn’t equate to knowing what to do next. Patching the flaws is just one part of the recovery effort. Cleaning up after the hackers will be the most challenging part for smaller businesses that may lack the cybersecurity expertise.

It’s also a race against the clock to prevent other malicious hackers from discovering or using the same vulnerabilities to spread ransomware or launch destructive attacks. Both Red Canary and Huntress said they believe hacking groups beyond Hafnium are exploiting the same vulnerabilities. ESET said at least ten groups were also exploiting the same server flaws.

Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at threat detection firm Red Canary, said there is “clearly widespread activity” exploiting these Exchange server vulnerabilities, but that the number of servers exploited further has been fewer.

“Cleaning up the initial web shells will be much easier for the average IT administrator than it would be to investigate follow-on activity,” said Nickels.

Microsoft has published guidance on what administrators can do, and CISA has both advice and a tool that helps to search server logs for evidence of a compromise. And in a rare statement, the White House’s National Security Council warned that patching alone “is not remediation,” and urged businesses to “take immediate measures.”

How that advice trickles down to smaller businesses will be watched carefully.

Cybersecurity expert Runa Sandvik said many victims, including the mom-and-pop shops, may not even know they are affected, and even if they realize they are, they’ll need step-by-step guidance on what to do next.

“Defending against a threat like this is one thing, but investigating a potential breach and evicting the actor is a larger challenge,” said Sandvik. “Companies have people who can install patches — that’s the first step — but figuring out if you’ve been breached requires time, tools, and logs.”

Security experts say Hafnium primarily targets U.S. businesses, but that the attacks are global. Europe’s banking authority is one of the largest organizations to confirm its Exchange email servers were compromised by the attack.

Norway’s national security authority said that it has “already seen exploitation of these vulnerabilities” in the country and that it would scan for vulnerable servers across Norway’s internet space to notify their owners. Slovenia’s cybersecurity response unit, known as SI-CERT, said in a tweet that it too had notified potential victims in its internet space.

Sandvik said the U.S. government and private sector could do more to better coordinate the response, given the broad reach into U.S. businesses. CISA proposed new powers in 2019 to allow the agency to subpoena internet providers to identify the owners of vulnerable and unpatched systems. The agency just received those new powers in the government’s annual defense bill in December.

“Someone needs to own it,” said Sandvik.


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Two European companies are mapping a future service for direct air capture to sequestration of CO2

The Swiss-based, venture capital-backed, direct air capture technology developer Climeworks is partnering with a joint venture between the government of Norway and massive European energy companies to map the pathway for a business that could provide not only the direct capture of carbon dioxide emissions from air, but the  underground sequestration and storage of those emissions.

The deal could pave the way for a new business that would offer carbon capture and sequestration services to commercial enterprises around the world, if the joint venture between the Climeworks and the newly formed Northern Lights company is successful. It would mean the realization of a full-chain carbon dioxide removal service that the two companies called a necessary component of the efforts to reverse global climate change.

Northern Lights was incorporated in March as a joint venture between Equinor, Shell and Total to provide processing, transportation and underground sequestration services for captured carbon dioxide emissions. The business is one of the lynchpins in the Norwegian government’s efforts to capture and store carbon emissions safely underground under a plan called The Longship Project.

“There is growing awareness of the need to build capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to achieve net zero by 2050. We are enthusiastic about this collaboration with Climeworks. Combined with safe and permanent storage, direct air capture has the potential to get the carbon cycle back in balance,” said Børre Jacobsen, the  Managing Director of Northern Lights, in a statement.

The two companies are hoping to prove that Northern Lights facilities combined with Climeworks direct air capture technologies can prove to be a part of a push towards negative emissions technologies that allow companies in non-industrial sectors to become either carbon neutral or carbon negative.

There are a number of caveats to the project, which reveal both the potential promise and pitfalls of direct air capture initiatives and sequestration and monitoring projects.

The first issue is the need to set a global price for carbon dioxide emissions that would take to make the projects economically viable.

“There is one legislation worldwide that is paying for direct air capture of CO2 and that is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California,” said Christoph Gelbad, the co-chief executive and co-founder of Climeworks. “It’s paying up to $200 per ton… this price range is the price range that will be needed to make this full chain, really going from the atmosphere to direct air capture to underground storage and monitoring. That will be the price range needed to build up the infrastructure and finance it.”

A breakdown of the costs associated with different carbon capture technologies.Image Credit: Climeworks

That price is on the highest end of any that world leaders have discusses as a potential cost for carbon emitting industries (and it’s well below the price that China has set for carbon emissions, which is important to note given the scale of China’s contribution to the production of greenhouse gases that cause global warming).

Beyond any pricing concerns associated with making these direct air carbon capture and storage solutions viable, there’s the scale at which these projects would need to be developed to make a real dent in global emissions.

Here again, Gelbad offers a clear-eyed assessment of his company’s capabilities and the size of the problem.

“The numbers given by science 10 to 20 billion tons of CO2 for removal,” Gelbad said. “Direct Air Capture will need to grow at a gigaton scale. This [potential] site will be in the megaton scale. [But] this is the range where our journey together with Northern Lights definitely could go. We see it going into the megaton ranges.”

Climeworks uses renewable energy and waste heat to power modular collectors that can be stacked into machines at any size. The only limit to the company’s ability to capture carbon dioxide is the availability of power, according to Gelbad.

The company already has a collaboration with an Icelandic company called Carbfix, where the Climeworks technology is used to capture carbon dioxide and store it in mineralized basalt. The company said in a statement that it’s looking globally for other opportunities for permanent carbon dioxide storage and that the Northern Lights solution of deep geological sequestration in an offshore saline aquifer under the North Sea represents an ideal alternative site.

To develop its technology, Climeworks has raised over $150 million from investors including the Swiss lender Zuercher Kantonalbank.

For its part, Northern Lights is already planning on capturing carbon dioxide from industrial point sources in the Oslo region, which will then be shipped to an onshore terminal on the Norwegian coast. A facility there will transport the liquefied carbon dioxide by pipeline to an offshore storage location 1.62 miles below the seabed in the North Sea.

“Northern Lights is offering carbon capture and sequestration as a service. From the idea of doing this project and from the early days of working with the ministry … my biggest surprise was the level of interest in [carbon capture and sequestration] among emitters in Europe,” said Jacobsen. “This awareness. This interest. And the need to find a solution is accelerating. We are talking about what are the possibilities and what are the solutions. Northern Lights offers a great part of the value chain.”

Some companies are already interested in becoming early customers for the project, Jacobsen said. “We have a number of MOUs and confidentiality agreements with customers and letters of support. Big interest in discussing with us. The key will be that we have to bring conversations into agreements so that we can bring this business forward.”

6 Oslo VCs discuss 2021 trends, deal flow and regional opportunities

The Nordic countries make up just 4% of Europe’s total population, but they account for a significant amount of venture capital investment.

That said, Norway’s VC community has been somewhat dormant for a while. The country makes far too much money from oil, giving it one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and a large system of socialized support. Not a bad thing, but as a result, there are few “hungry” tech entrepreneurs.

High-profile players like Northzone and Creandum did well with early entries into Spotify and Klarna, among others, and now Norway is catching up with the rest of the European hubs. Among the trends our survey respondents identified were e-commerce, blockchain and crypto, healthtech, energy, mobility and climate.

Investments highlighted included Fairown, Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite, Pexip, PortalOne, Dignio, Speiz, Plaace, Glint Solar, variable.co and Nomono. Local investors tend to invest 50% to 90% of their fund into local startups, “but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries,” said one.


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On the horizon, there is hope for an increased focus on mental health and wellness from organizations, the press and the government; many also celebrated the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, bitcoin’s rise and a new occupant in the White House.

Green shoots of recovery are coming from portfolio revenue growth, exits and IPOs. One investors we spoke to said Norway is “becoming a major hub, with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days.”

Here’s who responded to our survey:


Sean Percival, managing partner, Spring Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
E-commerce.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Fairown.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Martech.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Not just COVID-proof but services that thrive in COVID times.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
In Norway, sustainability-focused companies. Lots of good ideas but little revenue growth proven so far.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50% Norway, 50% Nordic/Baltic.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway does video tech well.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Strong B2B, weak B2C, lots of SDG focus.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
We are not so hard hit in Norway, so Oslo will likely not see much exodus. It’s still the best place to build a company in this country. Although personally I moved to a small village and don’t see myself moving back to Oslo.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
E-commerce is booming here post-COVID, where before it was rather weak.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our portfolio is heavy on SaaS, which has weathered things well. So for our founders, it’s mostly about keeping churn-and-burn rates low to survive.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
In some cases yes, including our e-commerce SaaS companies and my recent Bitcoin exchange investment (MiraiEx).

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Bitcoin’s rise and new open banking solutions have shown the world’s financial engines are still pushing forward. Everything is being built with less friction these days. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know. Iterate is a cool company builder company flying under the radar. Just had their first big investment success/cash out with a company called Porterbuddy.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Norway is slowing, becoming a major hub with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days (recent investments from SoftBank and Founders fund, for example).

Espen Malmo, founding partner, Skyfall Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Skyfall focuses on software companies, marketplaces and hardware companies with a recurring software revenue bundle. We are really excited about the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. Our team has been involved and invested in crypto since 2012, so we’ve been excited about the industry for a long time. We have invested in two great companies in the sector, the blockchain analytics tool Nansen.ai and the cryptocurrency exchange MiraiEx. We also love embedded commerce and social commerce, which we think will boost the more independent long tail of e-commerce in the years to come. Our portfolio company Outshifter is positioned well to utilize this trend.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
It is always hard to pick favorites since we are excited about all our investments, but Nomono is one that really excites us. Nomono is a software and hardware solution to capture and intelligently process voice recordings and spatial audio. The solution enables podcasters to edit their recordings with the click of a button, as a sort of digital audio technician in your pocket.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
This is super hard to pinpoint and it is really challenging to label an industry as overlooked. Bioinformatics is maybe a little bit overlooked in Norway, but I don’t feel that is the case globally. Also, I think the pure B2B SaaS focus of a lot of VC funds makes it harder than necessary to get funding for hardware companies and companies with a rundle business model, even though hardware revenues bundled with recurring software revenues can create extraordinary outcomes due to high order values and strong lock-in effects.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We invest in strong technical founders solving big problems in markets ripe for change. We usually prefer that the company has a prototype or beta of their solution and some initial market traction.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Both micromobility and telemedicine seem very crowded at this point, and we believe the current market leaders in these sectors will become the winners. I think it will be very hard to enter this space as a new startup at this moment in time.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We have a Nordic investment mandate, but we primarily focus on Norway as we are a Norwegian pre-seed/seed fund and have our competitive insight, network and brand here in Norway. So more than 50% in Norway, but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway has a great track record within the video conferencing and audio industry. After Cisco bought Tandberg, a world-leading video conferencing company, for $3.3 billion in 2010, Video Valley (the area of Lysaker right outside of Oslo) has churned out a lot of successful companies within the space. For example, Acano (acquired by Cisco for $700 million), Pexip (IPO’ed, now valued at $1.4 billion) and Huddly (IPO’ed, now valued at $0.5 billion). From our own portfolio, both Nomono and Oivi are started by serial entrepreneurs with track records from successful Video Valley companies. Also, Norway is by far the leading country globally in adoption of electric vehicles per capita, and today over 50% of all new cars bought are electrical. This means that Norway is a great playing field for startups piggybacking on the EV revolution and also the green revolution in general. The EV home charger Easee is a company to watch.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Norway is a country where you get access to a highly educated and technically skilled workforce that is proficient in English, and the valuation of the companies is well below the levels you see in the U.S., or even in Sweden. I think Norway is a country to watch, but I obviously also believe that all the Nordic countries will continue to punch well above their “weight class” in the years to come.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes, the acceptance of working remotely will democratize the startup ecosystem globally. We should see a relative decrease in growth in the traditional hubs of Silicon Valley/SF, Beijing, London, Berlin and so on, compared to a relative increase in companies formed and managed “in the cloud.” We already have one such company in our portfolio, Nansen.ai, which truly is distributed across the world, “in the cloud,” and has been so from day one.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We do not invest in sectors that have been hit directly by the pandemic, so we have been lucky in that way.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
No, we have in many ways been affected positively by COVID-19 as we have major investments in companies that are working with remote work, home delivery, e-commerce, cryptocurrencies and so on. In general, technology looks like the winning category during this pandemic, and I believe that will continue.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
As answered above, a lot of our companies are actually performing better than usual amid COVID.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The decline in infections locally and the rollout of the COVID vaccines. Also, Trump leaving the Oval Office. I don’t think I would have managed four more years with him in the spotlight, inciting hatred and nonsense on Twitter.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Yes, Johan Brand, co-founder of Kahoot and now an angel investor.

Kjetil Holmefjord, partner, StartupLab

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Sector agnostic. Personally interested in climate.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Latest one announced: Variable.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Positive impact, fast team, big returns.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% Norway.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Video, health, climate.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Getting better every day.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Increase but maybe not a surge.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Uncertain.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
More international competition for investment opportunities.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Vaccine news.

Anne Solhaug Tutar, partner, Antler

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We focus on technology companies and are industry agnostic in general, but in Oslo we have a particular focus on startups within the energy, property and mobility sector.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Speiz, Plaace and Glint Solar are a few examples.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Absolutely! We love any company that removes friction and focuses on solving real problems. Very often we see that the best companies are started by founders that have directly been impacted by an inefficiency or problem themselves, and later dedicate their lives to fixing it. Those founders will go above and beyond, and work relentlessly to understand their customers’ needs. We will see a lot of new opportunities from decentralized finance and a shift to a truly global economy where borders and barriers will be surpassed with smart technology.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The most important factor for any investment we make: a very strong co-founder team. Beyond that, a thoroughly validated business idea and model, a concept that has the potential to scale, traction; rapid growth week over week and founders solving a real problem and not a made-up problem.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We have a decade behind us of incremental innovations. In the next 10 to 20 years, we will see huge leaps and groundbreaking new technologies. Lots of current small improvement solutions will be replaced by technologies that are dramatically changing the way we live, work, collaborate and act.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We can invest anywhere, but the Oslo branch typically invests in locally established companies. I’d say 90%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Our focus in Norway says a lot about the industries we think have potential for disruption and where Norway holds a particularly strong position; energy, property and mobility.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Compared to other locations, we see that startups based out of Oslo are typically cheaper than in other parts of the world. Investors that are able to identify the right founders can make great investments in Norway. At the same time, Norwegian founders would benefit from more investors with an international focus. The ecosystem of investors and accelerators is rapidly growing in Oslo, and with more and more successful local startups we have a great environment set up for breeding more great companies going forward. We’re very bullish on what will come out of Oslo over the next few years.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Generally we experience two simultaneous trends: More talent being freed up from their previous engagements and more uncertainty, with founders being more on the fence about making the leap. We haven’t made observations of this being connected to specific cities or areas yet.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I’m not sure it’s wise to develop completely new businesses based on opportunities from COVID only; rather, COVID can, timing-wise, really spark the launch or growth for some and significantly slow down the growth pace for others.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We invest as per normal and see that there is still a lot of capital ready to be deployed in Norway. Our companies have received a lot of soft funding from government initiatives, which is a huge and highly appreciated help to our portfolio companies. For our startups, and most others, the advice is always to keep the burn rate at manageable levels during this time of extra uncertainty, and plan the fundraising strategy accordingly. Otherwise, it’s never been more important to be lean and agile. The founders that are able to navigate well in a context with lots of uncertainty can do really well in the current climate!

Daniel Holth Larsen, principal, Investinor

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Resource efficiency, healthier lifestyles, internet of behaviors, how we work and learn.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Dignio (SaaS/medtech).

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Forestry technology; a lot of focus on agriculture, but not forestry. Massive market opportunity, well positioned for SDGs, and driven by megatrends (building with wood, etc.).

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
In general: Proven scalability in a massive global market opportunity, with a (both) nice and savvy founding team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

  1. I think the consumer fintech space will get hard for startups in the coming years. Banks and institutions have competitive advantages through their large customer bases and access to resources and are investing heavily in the space (both through M&A, but more importantly with in-house initiatives and projects).
  2. Not one particular product per se, but I’m concerned about nice-to-have enterprise products that are not embedded and adapted in several departments of the customer (i.e., a marketing tool solely used by the marketing team at an organization, or a procurement tool used exclusively by procurement). I think many of these services will have a hard time in the tailwinds of COVID, and I think it is essential to get noticed by C-suites and other departments to survive in the longer run (regardless of your size and number of customers).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%. We are the largest and most active player in Norway by far. In 2020, we did 16 new direct investments, more than 60 follow-up investments, four IPOs, six investments in other venture funds, two complete exits.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
The Norwegian ecosystem will continue to thrive and be more and more relevant internationally in regards to software, particularly B2B software. This is driven by:

  1. Leading technological adaption and usage by the government, institutions and business.
  2. Low risk in career changes: talent fluctuating from leading companies to startups.
  3. Leading support and growth financing initiatives: Innovation Norway, funds, etc.
  4. Great global market access: EU networks, foreign investments, etc.

I think we especially have advantages in subsectors like proptech, energy, healthcare and education. I’m particularly excited about Kahoot, Cognite, Dignio (portfolio), Xeneta (portfolio), Gelato, Play Magnus (portfolio) and reMarkable.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?

  1. Transparent way of doing business: honest, close to zero corruption;
  2. High grade of innovation and many opportunities;
  3. Happy population = happy founders and FTEs, and high productivity;
  4. Favorable policies and regulation (policies and legal proceedings, IPOs, etc.);
  5. No language barriers;
  6. Significant support from government, institutions and local business.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Maybe, maybe not. I still think cities will be the most prominent location for startups as (1) Big business is not rural, and startup founders typically come from banks, consultancies, corporations, etc. and also recruit from the likes of it; and (2) Network access and information is more vast in cities, and even though people are currently staying at home, geographical proximity remains a key factor.
This might happen in the longer run as more corporations recruit more people remotely, but I don’t see this happening the next following years as a consequence of our situation today. I think it will take more time.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Oil and gas; we have not made any new investments the last three years, but still have some companies in our portfolio (mostly specific technologies for the O&G industries). Its attractiveness was obviously declining pre-COVID as well, but the crisis has only made the sustainable shift stronger. I don’t see it rebounding to its previous levels. I think startups have opportunities in business partnerships cross-industry, and we are seeing many examples of that now. I also think that software companies that are thriving in the current market have a clear upper hand in building sustainable long-term cultures in their organizations and attracting talent from those other industries affected (travel, aviation, O&G, retail, hotels and accommodation, etc.).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Hasn’t impacted it in a big way as most of our companies are performing well. Founders are primarily concerned with the mental health of their employees. My advice: CEOs should especially spend a lot of time on vision and goals, culture, teamwork and collectiveness.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, last year was a record year for us both in terms of exits, IPOs and gross IRR in the portfolio. More than 80% of invested capital is in software, hardware and healthcare, and most of our companies are thriving. We see some, but very few, being negatively affected in a big way.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I’m doing well personally, but I have enjoyed seeing:

  1. Our fantastic team members and founders getting the recognition they deserve.
  2. Stagnating unemployment, people getting back to work.
  3. Increased focus on mental health and wellbeing from organizations, the press and government.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Some:
Kremena Tosheva (SNÖ Ventures, investor), Karen Dolva (No Isolation, founder CEO), Frida Rustøen (Idékapital, investor), Ann-Tove Kongsnes (Investinor, investor), Trond Riiber Knudsen (TRK, investor), Patrick Sandahl (Investinor, investor), Bente Sollid Storehaug (chairperson), Birger Magnus (chairperson), Erik Langaker (chairperson, investor), Anders Kvåle (Arkwright, entrepreneur, investor), Mathilde Tuv Kverneland (Arkwright X, investor), Dilan Mizrakli Landgraff (Antler, investor), Jacob Tveraabak (entrepreneur, investor), Remi Dramstad (Selmer, lawyer), Martin Schütt (Askeladden, founder/investor), Christian Sagstad (Thommessen, lawyer), Jan Grønbech (growth expert), Nils Thommessen (ex-lawyer, investor and board person), Eilert Hanoa (CEO of Kahoot, investor), Tom Even Mortensen (investor, growth expert), Birgitte Villmo (Investinor, investor), Bente Loe (Alliance Ventures, investor).

Magne Uppman, managing partner, SNÖ Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We invest across all digital tech, but some of the areas we have been looking more into lately include health tech, future of work, event and creative tech.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment was a follow-on investment in PortalOne, the world’s first hybrid games company. PortalOne converges gaming, shows and the broader entertainment industry into one platform in a really fun and engaging way. It is like nothing you have ever seen before. Spun out of Oslo, they are soon ready to launch in the U.S.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
One space that continues to evolve is the integration of social into various sectors — e.g., social fitness, social shopping, etc. And particularly, how we can recreate the connections that we make in the physical world in the digital version, leveraging the unique accessibility and reach that the digital platform offers.
We also think there are significant advancements to be made within the privacy sector against a backdrop of increased data vulnerability and third-party access to information.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Brilliant and ambitious founder teams. And being in Norway, we want them to target a much larger and hopefully also global market pretty soon after launch. Norway and the Nordics are perfect testing pits, with a digitally advanced, high-trust population, but too small a market for most tech companies that want to become big.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We believe that most areas pretty fast become crowded, and try to avoid companies that do only incremental improvements in oversaturated areas. But we don’t necessarily avoid competition if the businesses have a transformative technology and see solutions or have secrets that others have not yet seen.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
So far we’ve been focused on Norwegian companies only, but with our upcoming fund, we will be pan-Nordic. We expect that about 50% of our investments will be Norwegian, whereas the other 50% will be spread across Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
We see a good variety of exciting companies from Oslo and Norway. Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite and Pexip have been leading the way lately, with new ones like Memory, Tibber, PortalOne, reMarkable and many others coming right behind. We also believe that Norway’s strong roots with industrial companies now seem to move into tech, for example with a highly skilled workforce moving over from the oil and gas industry, as well as really exciting companies coming out of this area — Cognite being a strong example. Norway also has some unique strengths in ocean tech, renewable energy, agriculture and shipping, all fields that we believe will produce exciting startups built around tech advancements.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Oslo is a city with a strong foundation and an exciting momentum in tech. There’s too few local VCs, though, and that creates a funding gap around the Series A stage, but at the same time lots of opportunities for investors taking their time to get to know the ecosystem. They should know that the Nordics are fragmented, so it’s not enough to know Stockholm; they should also invest time in the other Nordic hubs in order to succeed with a Nordic investment strategy.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The trend of remote work will increase. We have portfolio companies that don’t even have an office today; Confrere, for instance, which offers a video meeting and conferencing platform currently focused primarily on the healthcare sector, has all their employees working remote. But we also see a strong advantage of companies being tightly connected to a startup hub, there is so much learning, inspiration and network to be shared. Hopefully we’ll see even more minihubs being built around the country, and them connecting tightly to each other. There is a lot of potential in more and better collaboration between the different hubs, locally, nationally and internationally.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Some of the industry segments that look weaker are business travel, retail and hospitality. Exciting opportunities exist within event, games, work tools and efficiency, health tech and sustainability. One particularly interesting challenge is to understand and anticipate which of the trends that have arisen during these times will be temporary and which will be permanent.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Some areas have developed fast, and that impacts which areas we focus on. The biggest worries on the portfolio side have been (1) that their B2B sales will be affected and (2) that the investment climate will be more challenging. Our advice has been to secure a long runway for some companies, whereas other companies have accelerated because of the shifts caused by COVID-19 and need to run even faster.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, the first two months were hard for some of the portfolio companies, but after that things recovered and they mostly are back at the revenue growth that they planned for before the pandemic.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
At SNÖ we often draw the comparison between being a founder and the proud heritage we have in Norway with polar explorers and their great expeditions. What our founders have shown the last year, through these uncertain times, gives me good hope that this comparison is valid like never before. Entrepreneurs are the polar explorers of 2021.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
There are many in the Oslo scene that have contributed a lot during the last few years; Rolf Assev, Alexander Woxen, Per Einar Dybvik, Tor Bækkelund, Kjetil Holmefjord at StartupLab, Ingar Bentsen and Hans Christian Bjørne at TheFactory, Anniken Fjelberg at 657, Anders Mjåset at Mesh, Heidi Aven at SHE, Knut Wien and Maja Adriaensen at Startup Norway, Lucas H. Weldeghebriel and Per-Ivar Nikolaisen at Shifter. And many more. All great people who deserve praise.


TC Early Stage: The premiere how-to event for startup entrepreneurs and investors

From April 1-2, some of the most successful founders and VCs will explain how they build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios.

At TC Early Stage, we’ll cover topics like recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session includes ample time for audience questions and discussion.

Use discount code ECNEWSLETTER to take 20% off the cost of your TC Early Stage ticket!

Calling Oslo VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Oslo and Norway will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Norway’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Norway, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email [email protected]

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

Planning 500,000 charging points for EVs by 2025, Shell becomes the latest company swept up in EV charging boom

Shell’s plan to roll out 500,000 electric charging station in just four years is the latest sign of an EV charging infrastructure boom that has prompted investors to pour cash into the industry and inspired a few companies to become public companies in search of the capital needed to meet demand.

Since the beginning of the year, three companies have been acquired by special purpose acquisition vehicles and are on a path to go public, while a third has raised tens of millions from some of the biggest names in private equity investing for its own path to commercial viability.

The SPAC attack began in September when an electric vehicle charging network ChargePoint struck a deal to merge with special-purpose acquisition company Switchback Energy Acquisition Corporation, with a market valuation of $2.4 billion. The company’s public listing will debut February 16 on the New York Stock Exchange.

In January, EVgo, an owner and operator of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, agreed to merge with the SPAC Climate Change Crisis Real Impact I Acquisition for a valuation of $2.6 billion— a huge win for the company’s privately held owner, the power development and investment company LS Power. LS Power and EVgo management, which today own 100% of the company will be rolling all of its equity into the transaction. Once the transaction closes in the second quarter, LS Power and EVgo will hold a 74% stake in the newly combined company.

One more deal soon followed. Volta Industries agreed to merge this month with Tortoise Acquisition II, a tie-up that would give the charging company named after battery inventor Alessandro Volta a $1.4 billion valuation. The deal sent shares of the SPAC company, trading under the ticker SNPR, rocketing up 31.9% in trading earlier this week to $17.01. The stock is currently trading around $15 per-share.

 

Not to be outdone, private equity firms are also getting into the game. Riverstone Holdings, one of the biggest names in private equity energy investment, placed its own bet on the charging space with an investment in FreeWire. That company raised $50 million in new round of funding earlier this year.

“The writing is on the wall and the investors have to take the time. There’s been a flight out of the traditional investment opportunities in markets,” said FreeWire chief executive, Arcady Sosinov, in an interview. “There’s been a flight out fo the oil and gas companies and out fo the traditional utilities. You have to look at other opportunities… This is going to be the largest growth opportunity of the next ten years.”

FreeWire deploys its infrastructure with BP currently, but the company’s charging technology can be rolled out to fast food companies, post offices, grocery stores, or anywhere where people go and spend somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour. With the Biden Administration’s plan to boost EV adoption in federal fleets, post offices actually represent another big opportunity for charging networks, Sosinov said.

“One of the reasons we find electrification of mobility so attractive is because it’s not if or how, it’s when,” said Robert Tichio, a partner at Riverstone in charge of the firm’s ESG efforts. “Penetration rates are incredibly low… compare that to Norway or Northern Europe. They have already achieved double digit percentages.”

A recent Super Bowl commercial from GM featuring Will Farrell showed just how far ahead Norway is when it comes to electric vehicle adoption. 

“The demands onc capital in the electrification of transport will begin to approach three quarters of a trillion annually,” Tichio said. “The short answer to your question is that the needs for capital now that we have collectively, politically, socially economically come to a consensus in terms of where we’re going and we couldn’t say that 18 months ago is going to be at a tipping point.”

Shell already has electric vehicle charging infrastructure that it has deployed in some markets. Back in 2019 the company acquired the Los Angeles-based company Greenlots, an EV charging developer. And earlier this year Shell made another move into electric vehicle charging with the acquisition of Ubitricity in the UK.

“As our customers’ needs evolve, we will increasingly offer a range of alternative energy sources, supported by digital technologies, to give people choice and the flexibility, wherever they need to go and whatever they drive,” said Mark Gainsborough, Executive Vice President, New Energies for Shell, in a statement at the time of the Greenlots acquisition. “This latest investment in meeting the low-carbon energy needs of US drivers today is part of our wider efforts to make a better tomorrow. It is a step towards making EV charging more accessible and more attractive to utilities, businesses and communities.”

 

EV charging stations, biofuels, the hydrogen transition and chemicals are pillars of Shell’s climate plan

Royal Dutch Shell Group, one of the largest publicly traded oil producers in the world, just laid out its plan for how the company will survive in a zero-emission, climate conscious world.

It’s a plan that rests on five main pillars that include the massive rollout of electric vehicle charging stations; a greater emphasis on lubricants, chemicals, and biofuels; the development of a significantly larger renewable energy generation portfolio and carbon offset plan; and the continued development of hydrogen and natural gas assets while slashing oil production by 1% to 2% per year and investing heavily in carbon capture and storage.

These four large categories cut across the company’s business operations and represent one of the most comprehensive (if high level) plans from a major oil company on how to keep their industry from becoming the next victim of the transition to low emission (and eventually) zero emission energy and power sources (I’m looking at you, coal industry).

“Our accelerated strategy will drive down carbon emissions and will deliver value for our shareholders, our customers and wider society,” said Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Officer, Ben van Beurden, in a statement.

To keep those shareholders from abandoning ship, the company also committed to slashing costs and boosting its dividend per share by around 4% per year. That means giving money back to investors that might have been spent on expensive oil and gas exploration operations. The company also committed too pay down its debt and make its payouts to shareholders 20% to 30% of its cash flow from operations. That’s… very generous.

gas vs electric vehicles

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

The Plan

Shell is a massive business with more than 1 million commercial and industrial customers and about 30 million customers coming to its 46,000 retail service stations daily, according to the company’s own estimates. The company organized its thinking around what it sees as growth opportunities, energy transition opportunities, and then the gradual obsolescence of its upstream drilling and petroleum production operations.

In what it sees as areas for growth, Shell intends to invest around $5 billion to $6 billion to its initiatives including the development of 500,000 electric vehicle charging locations by 2025 (up from 60,000 today) and an attendant boost in retail and service locations to facilitate charging.

The company also said it would be investing heavily in the expansion of biofuels and renewable energy generation and carbon offsets. The company wants to generate 560 terawatt hours a year by 2030, which is double the amount of electricity it generates today. Expect to see Shell operate as an independent power producer that will provide renewable energy generation as a service to an expected 15 million retail and commercial customers.

Finally the company sees the hydrogen economy as another area where it can grow.

In places where Shell already has assets that can be transitioned to the low carbon economy, the company’s going to be doubling down on its bets. That means zero emission natural gas production and a trebling down on chemicals manufacturing (watch out Dow and BASF). That means more recycling as well, as the company intends to process 1 million tons of plastic waste to produce circular chemicals.

Upstream, which was the heart of the oil and gas business for years, the company said it would “focus on value over volume” in a statement. What that means in practice is looking for easier, low cost wells to drill (something that points to the continued importance of the Middle East in the oil economy for the foreseeable future). The company expects to reduce its oil production by around 1% to 2% per year. And the company’s going to be investing in carbon capture and storage to the tune of 25 million tons per year through projects like the Quest CCS development in Canada, Norway’s Northern Lights project, and the Porthos project n the Netherlands.

“We must give our customers the products and services they want and need – products that have the lowest environmental impact,” van Beurden said in a statement.”At the same time, we will use our established strengths to build on our competitive portfolio as we make the transition to be a net-zero emissions business in step with society.”

Money or finance green pattern with dollar banknotes. Banking, cashback, payment, e-commerce. Vector background.

Money talk

For the company to survive in a world where revenues from its main business are cut, it’s also going to be keeping operating expenses down and will be looking to sell off big chunks of the business that no longer make sense.

That means expenses of no more than $35 billion per year and sales of around $4 billion per year to keep those dividends and cash to investors flowing.

“Over time the balance of capital spending will shift towards the businesses in the Growth pillar, attracting around half of the additional capital spend,” the company said. “Cash flow will follow the same trend and in the long term will become less exposed to oil and gas prices, with a stronger link to broader economic growth.”

Shell set targets for reducing its carbon intensity as part of the pay that’s going to all of the company’s staff and those targets are… eye opening. It’s looking at reductions in carbon intensity of 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035 and 100% by 2050, using a baseline of 2016 as its benchmark.

The company said that its own carbon emissions peaked in 2018 at 1.7 giga-tons per year and its oil production peaked in 2019.

The context

Shell’s not taking these steps because it wants to, necessarily. The writing is on the wall that unless something dramatic is done to stop fossil fuel pollution and climate change, the world faces serious consequences.

A study released earlier this week indicated that air pollution from fossil fuels killed 18% of the world’s population. That means burning fossil fuels is almost as deadly as cancer, according to the study from researchers led by Harvard University.

Beyond the human toll directly tied to fossil fuels, there’s the huge cost of climate change, which the U.S. estimated could cost $500 billion per year by 2090 unless steps are taken to reverse course.