The recently signed $1.2 trillion U.S. infrastructure bill—though pared almost in half from President Biden’s original vision—still sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars for government investment in sectors where venture-backed startups are likely to play an active role.
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That includes spending earmarked for cybersecurity investment, electric vehicle infrastructure, broadband internet expansion, and a host of clean energy and climate tech initiatives. Venture investors say that all adds up to opportunities for startups working on the next generation of infrastructure-related technologies.
Smart infrastructure and connectivity
While building out the water and sewer infrastructure, as well as reinforcing the electrical grid in the country, may not seem like the typical problem tech startups look to fix, it could present opportunities for several companies.
“I think for venture there is a real opportunity around smart infrastructure platforms, or virtual twins,” said Dan Deeney, a venture partner at Touchdown Ventures who focuses on 5G and edge computing, cloud native, security and future of work.
A digital twin is a digital or virtual representation that can map out something like a power or transmission plant in real-time, helping give key data and insight into operations. Such mapping could help utilities better manage and evaluate critical infrastructure around electricity and water—which are set to receive about $120 billion in funding from the bill.
Deeney said the startups in that space typically work in one vertical—such as water—and eventually expand to others as their platforms grow.
Laying cable and fiber also is not a typical startup venture, but the $65 billion for broadband and 5G deployments also could spark interest in companies that provide “fixed wireless” networks, Deeney said.
Fixed wireless is an emerging technology in which you can deliver broadband over a 5G network, typically in rural areas where large telecommunication companies do not see the financial benefit for laying down fiber.
“There are startups that are looking at how to manage to do that,” he said.
Having better connectivity also may enable different industries to spin up private 5G networks to better manage data and operations. Typically manufacturing plants and port or container facilities use such networks, but large agricultural companies may look at private networks with better connectivity.
“You could see this helping in Ag-tech 1.0,” Deeney said. “You could use this data to do things like look at how temperature influences crop yield. Large food and ag companies like Archer Daniels Midland could look to further digitize their process.”
— Chris Metinko
How to keep critical infrastructure and all that new connectivity safe is another issue the infrastructure package tries to tackle.
The bill includes about $2 billion for cybersecurity initiatives. While that may seem like a pittance in a $1 trillion bill, it is a start for a problem the government just now seems to be recognizing after several devastating ransomware attacks.
The funding is set to go into a variety of places, including about $1 billion dispersed to state and local governments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for upgrades to IT infrastructure. An additional $21 million will go to the Office of the National Cyber Director, which has had trouble getting funding since being established earlier this year.
John Funge, managing director at cybersecurity foundry and investment firm DataTribe, said with so much of the bill involving upgrades to critical infrastructure like water and energy, operational technology and industrial control security could likely see increased investor interest.
New York-based Claroty, which raised $140 million in June, and Hanover, Maryland-based Dragos, which raised a $200 million Series D funding at a valuation of $1.7 billion just last month, are the types of companies that could benefit as state and local agencies look to secure critical operations.
— Chris Metinko
The Biden administration’s commitment to building electric vehicle charging infrastructure will likely spur investment into startups focused on software for EVs, according to experts in the space.
Overall, the plan allocates $110 billion to fix older bridges, roads and highways across the country. And better road infrastructure would benefit vehicles, including the electric and self-driving cars of the future.
Among other priorities, the plan separately budgets $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and $5 billion for electric and hybrid school buses. Biden previously set a goal of installing 500,000 EV charging stations across the country by 2030.
When there’s more infrastructure in place for electric vehicles, such as more charging stations, the plan will likely lead to innovation around connectivity of cars and technology addressing when and how to charge cars, according to Katie McClain, a partner at Energize Ventures, a Chicago-based VC firm that invests in companies focused on energy and sustainability.
“There’s a huge opportunity for the software layer on top of the hardware,” McClain said.
Startups working on EV software will likely see significant investment, according to McClain. With the government focused on repairing roads, building highways and installing charging stations, startups can focus on the software aspect of EVs.
“As these cars become smarter and they become more electrified, there’s a lot more opportunity for software to play a role,” she said.
The shift to electric has been slowly happening for some time, but before the infrastructure bill there was the question of who would pay for EV charging infrastructure, according to Lyubov Artemenko, co-founder and chief operating officer of EV charging software startup Go To-U.
Tesla responded to the challenge by building its own infrastructure, but now Biden’s plan will make charging infrastructure more widespread.
“Building charging stations is the first step,” Artemenko said. “Really, there’s a need to invest in this hardware equipment, selling these charging stations. The next step is how do we provide connectivity to the EV chargers? How do we make their experience charging a nice and easy one?”
Right now, the EV market is also lacking a connected platform that can bring together information about charging stations for drivers, Artemenko said. There needs to be investment in technology that helps users find EV chargers, reserve them and access other services as their car is charging.
And, she added, 500,000 EV charging stations probably isn’t enough. With more drivers and automakers shifting to electric, there will be more demand for charging stations in places that typically don’t have them, like hotels and restaurants.
“This translates into more investment, this translates into more opportunities for startups,” Artemenko said.
— Sophia Kunthara
The infrastructure bill sets aside $47 billion for climate resilience measures and another $65 billion for electric grid and clean energy investments. That marks the largest investment in the country’s history to prepare the nation for more floods, heat waves, fires, storms and droughts that scientists say will come with climate change.
At least one climate startup is already seeing the benefits, even as the ink is drying on Biden’s bill.
Bellevue, Washington-based nuclear power startup TerraPower, which is founded and funded in part by Bill Gates, announced last week it would replace a coal-fueled power station in Wyoming with a $4 billion advanced reactor. The government is footing $1.5 billion of that cost from the money allocated in the infrastructure bill. If all goes to plan, the new plant—expected to open in the next seven years—will be a proof-point for the design, construction and operations of such technology, the company says.
But more clean energy and climate companies will have a chance at getting a piece of that government funding.
As part of the $65 billion for clean energy improvement and technology, the bill creates a Grid Deployment Authority, which will invest in research, development and technology focused on electricity distribution, smart grid improvements, carbon capture, clean hydrogen and nuclear reactors.
That funding comes as clean energy tech is already taking off, and investors are paying attention.
In January, New York-based Union Square Ventures announced its new $162 million Climate Fund, followed by General Atlantic’s launch of BeyondNetZero, a venture armed with $4 billion to focus on climate technology. And in July, TPG announced a $5.4 billion investment fund focused on climate change.
New York-based Lowercarbon Capital, which is entirely focused on carbon-busting technology, in August announced its latest fund for the cause: $800 million raised in mere days.
The fundraising wasn’t too hard, Lowercarbon founder Chris Sacca wrote in a blog post this year. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote. “In fact, all that pollution may have lent a warm, beautifying haze to our Zoom calls. Like an Incendiary Doom Glow Insta filter.”
Although the investment into climate and clean energy is unprecedented, climate experts say it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the need.
“Fifty billion dollars for resilience is both transformational and totally inadequate,” Shalini Vajjhala, executive director of the San Diego Regional Policy & Innovation Center, a nonprofit associated with the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times last week.
What could help move the needle more, climate advocates and the Biden administration say, is the $555 billion dedicated to tackle climate change in the Build Back Better Act. That legislation, a separate $1.75 trillion proposal from Democrats, would, among other efforts, fund renewable energy credits and provide incentives for domestic manufacturing for clean energy, as well as greatly expand the U.S. social safety net through efforts like universal preschool and paid family leave.
The bill, which on Friday narrowly cleared the Democratic-controlled House but now faces a much tougher road in the 50-50 Senate, includes money to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are a major driver of climate change.
The Biden administration has been clear it sees the infrastructure bill as only one part of its climate change agenda that would work in tandem with the Build Back Better Act, but whether that bill will also make it to his desk remains to be seen.
— Janice Bitters Turi
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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