Clean tech and energy

Crunchbase Insider: My Techonomy Conference Takeaways

I recently attended the Techonomy 2022 conference hosted by long-time journalist David Kirkpatrick and conference CEO Josh Kampel. The gathering in Sonoma on Nov. 13-15 offered a peek into the future, and I found that climate tech, a growing arena for venture investment, was threaded throughout the two days.

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Speakers at the event also offered glimpses of what might be on the horizon in areas ranging from private air travel, to new vaccines, to solar energy.

My top 10 takeaways from the event

1. Nuclear fusion: Keynote speaker Michael Schroepfer, ex-CTO and current adviser at Meta, discussed his work on climate and biomedical research through Additional Ventures, a research and grant organization he co-founded with Erin Hoffmann. He called out MIT spin-out Commonwealth Fusion for its science of fusion reactors. “It is the most energy dense reaction that humanity knows in the universe,” he said. The focus is now an engineering problem of how to build it. If Commonwealth Fusion gets this to work “you can build this in a small area and produce basically unlimited free clean energy.”

2. Electric vehicles: “Battery electric is the future for mankind’s mass mobility,” according to Peter Rawlinson, CEO of electric car maker Lucid and the former chief engineer for the Tesla Model S. With the launch of the Lucid Air in 2021, the company is purposefully starting at the luxury end of the car market. “There is a financial imperative at work,” said Rawlinson. “Paradoxically, it costs less to industrialize a high-end product than a low-end product” due to the cost of factories for mass production. Tesla followed this model as well to establish the brand, and then moved to cheaper models. Rawlinson said many Americans imagine regular road trips when shopping for cars, but weekly road trips are a myth. In fact, 95% of electric vehicle charging is done at home overnight but many people lack access to overnight charging — a gap in the market which would benefit from government support, he said. Not all electric vehicles are born equal either. Some are so-called “electron guzzlers.” Lucid apparently has achieved efficiency of 4.6 miles per kilowatt hour, which translates to smaller and cheaper batteries, more miles per charge, and a more comfortable ride, said Rawlinson.

3. Driverless cars: Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of autonomous ride-sharing service Waymo, said the company is seeking to address safety, or “how do we deploy this technology without asking humans to stay in the loop?” The experience of autopilot, where a driver needs to pay attention but the car will self-drive, does not lead to safety, she said. “We are not going to invite you to be distracted, and then invite you to be attentive.” Waymo is working to develop fully autonomous driving, and its ride-sharing vans are its first product.

4. Robotic friends: The next iteration of robotics that Amazon is focused on includes “robots being companions and endearing members of your family, actually having personality and being able to have conversation with you and knowing something about the environment,” said Ken Washington, VP of consumer robotics at Amazon who showcased the company’s robotic movable device. The robot, named Astro, can monitor your home for security, help elderly family members, and even engage your pet.

5. Venture investment in Africa: Janngo, a venture firm that invests across Africa, is raising its second fund. Firm founder Fatoumata Bâ noted the population across Africa in the next 30 years is projected to  double from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion, which creates challenges, specifically the need to create 900 million jobs, but also the need for food, health care and education. With 93% of Kenyans using mobile financial services, “tech can be a very powerful way to leapfrog development,” said Bâ. However, there is a big gap as the current GDP and population in Africa equals that of India, but the continent receives less than 1% of global venture spending.

6. Global vaccines: The Open Source Pharma Foundation is looking to create more affordable medicine for a global population, said Jaykumar Menon, its chair and co-founder. It wants to create a global vaccine that works for COVID as well as other vaccinated diseases, with a cost as low as 15 cents a dose. The vaccine is in phase 3 trials. The foundation is also working to  address the most common form of malnutrition, iron deficiency, which affects 2 billion people. Adding iron to iodized salt at a cost of 25 cents per person per year would address this deficiency, which has currently reached 20 million people, explained Menon.

7. Private air: What could private air travel look like in the future? One potential solution could be from  Beyond Aero, a builder of zero-emission private aircraft that use hydrogen-electric propulsion.

8. Energy: TerraPraxis is a climate solution incubator nonprofit engaged in reengineering coal plants with small modular reactors by 2050.

9. Recycling: As companies are stepping up to carbon emissions, Plastic Credit Exchange wants them to commit to recycling plastics. It is partnering with companies to get plastics that have polluted nature collected and recycled.

10. Solar: GAF Energy, a solar shingle company, integrates as part of roofing solutions.

Final thoughts

For me, discussing the future of tech in this intimate Sonoma setting harkened back to the early days of PC Forum, which I attended in the late ’90s. That event, run by angel investor Esther Dyson, was an annual pilgrimage for tech leaders well before Facebook and smartphones were a thing. Sidenote: Dyson also attended Techonomy this year to discuss her Way to Wellville project.

But overall, the range of issues and speakers more than 20 years later at Techonomy proved, to me at least, that the reach of Silicon Valley has extended beyond this narrow corridor.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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