Clean tech and energy Economy Startups Venture

Startups Tackle Keeping Cool (Or Warm) Without Heating The Planet

Illustration of polar bear on a shrinking iceberg. [Dom Guzman]

Amid a summer of relentless heat waves, we’re putting more resources than ever into keeping cool. Trouble is, lowering the room temp by a few degrees invariably involves technologies that contribute to making our planet hotter.

Same holds true for heating. And when you add in rising oil and gas prices, this winter promises to bring much greater economic demand to find greener ways to keep warm.

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These are pressing market needs that haven’t been missed by venture investors and startup founders. Companies funded over the past couple years with a focus on energy-efficient heating and cooling have collectively raised over $1.1 billion, according to a Crunchbase sampling.

We list 24 of them below:

It’s hot out there

On the cooling front, investment comes with a sense of urgency. With record highs this summer hitting normally chill places like Britain and the Pacific Northwest, demand for cooling technologies is rising in places that didn’t see a need before. At the same time, we’re seeing intensifying heat across India and other heavily populated places that were already famously hot.

“Across the world, access to air conditioning in a warming world is becoming a human rights issue,” said John Hingley, vice president of operations at Blue Frontier, a startup that just raised $20 million in Series A funding for early commercialization of what it describes as an “ultra-efficient sustainable air conditioning technology.”

Blue Frontier says its building wide AC system can reduce electricity use by up to 90% by combining cooling with liquid desiccant dehumidification. The desiccant, or drying agent, is recharged when electricity is cleanest or lowest cost and can deliver cooling at peak power times. It’s a particularly attractive approach in hot humid locales, like Blue Frontier’s hometown of Boca Raton, Florida.

Per Hingley, cooling is an area that hasn’t seen a ton of innovation that’s trickled down to end users. Though they’ve modernized over time, most cooling systems still use the same air compression technology that’s been around for roughly a century. “There have been incremental improvements in efficiency, but no step change,” he said.

Focusing on small areas

Perhaps that’s coming. A case in point is Phononic, one of the most heavily funded venture-backed companies in the cooling space. The North Carolina company, which according to Crunchbase data has raised around $215 million to date, develops solid-state cooling technology, producing semiconductors that can be designed to meet multiple heat pumping needs.

Phononic pitches its technology to a range of markets, including groceries, pharmaceuticals and automotive sensors as well as living spaces. For dwellings, the company says one advantage of its technology is that rather than having to cool or heat an entire home, you can simply set the temperature for the space you’re using.

In a similar room-specific vein, German startup tado° has developed an energy-efficient thermostat that can auto-adjust to changing weather conditions and allows users to set preferred temperatures by room.

Other upstarts are focusing on an even smaller area for temperature control: Your bed.

Eight Sleep, which has raised over $160 million in venture funding to date, sells mattresses, covers and accessories that cool and heat the bed to maintain an optimal sleeping temperature. The New York-based company counts a roster of celebrities among its backers and brand boosters.

Rival ChiliSleep, meanwhile, has raised over $38 million in venture and private equity funding. The North Carolina-based company sells a “smart thermostat” and assorted accessories aimed at maintaining bed temperatures at a level that allows for the most restorative sleep.

It gets cold, too

While many of us are too busy surviving this sultry summer to think about the coming winter, suffice to say it will arrive. And when it does, great masses of humanity will once again start noticing and complaining about high heating bills.

A number of startups are working on various ways to alleviate such gripes.

Among the most ambitious is Dandelion Energy, a New York-based home geothermal company. Dandelion has raised over $64 million to date to commercialize its offering, which enables homeowners to save on power costs by transferring heat from several feet below the ground.

Another sizable funding recipient, Sealed, is all about the energy-efficiency angle. The New York-based company, which has raised over $83 million to date, modernizes homes with upgraded insulation, air sealing and clean energy-powered heat pumps.

Brooklyn-based BlocPower, meanwhile, has pulled in over $100 million in debt and equity funding. The company is  focused on working with small and mid-sized apartment buildings to upgrade to electric heat pumps and water heaters.

Wanting it all

As usual, people want it all: More living space, plus the ability to maintain the perfect temperature, all while spending less money.

Of course, we want an environmentally friendly heating and cooling system too. Optimally, it should also be widely available to more places across the globe that either never had access, or, in the case of cooling, never thought they needed it.

The relatively meager quantity of venture capital going to heating and cooling (well below 1% of total investment), indicates there’s little optimism—even in futuristic founder and VC circles—that startups will be the ones to take us from vision to reality. However, funding to date does show there is at least hope they’ll make a worthwhile contribution to the cause.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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