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Meet the 21 emerging leaders transforming the future of clean energy – Business Insider

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Meet the 21 emerging leaders transforming the future of clean energy – Business Insider

From left to right: Joel Jean of Swift Solar, Etosha Cave of Opus 12, Brenden Millstein of Carbon Lighthouse, and Christine Ho of Imprint Energy.

Justin Knight/Swift Solar; Etosha Cave/Opus 12; Imprint Energy; Carbon Lighthouse; Yuqing Liu/Business Insider


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  • An enormous transition is underway across the electric grid.
  • Power plants that run on fossil fuels are being replaced by solar panels and wind farms, while more batteries and electric vehicles are plugging in.  
  • Once niche, the clean energy industry is going mainstream. Goldman Sachs says it’s an investment opportunity worth as much as $16 trillion through 2030
  • Within the industry, researchers, entrepreneurs, and workers are bringing a wide range of solutions to bear, from batteries that store energy in molten salt to water turbines that are fish-friendly. 
  • Business Insider has identified the 21 emerging leaders in clean energy that we think everyone should know.
  • For more stories like this, sign up here for our weekly energy newsletter, Power Line.

The global energy industry is in the middle of an epic transition, away from fossil fuels and towards clean sources of energy. 

This year, for example, the US is set to generate more electricity from renewable sources than from coal for the first time in history. Meanwhile, 2020 is also expected to be a record year for solar power, and energy storage installations including batteries are set to double

This transition, though ultimately motivated by the threat of climate change, has created an enormous economic opportunity.

Clean energy was the target of more than $600 billion of investment last year, relative to investment in the broader energy industry of about $1.9 trillion, according to the International Energy Agency. And looking forward, Goldman Sachs says renewable energy is an investment opportunity worth as much as $16 trillion, through 2030

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It’s now undeniable that the industry is going mainstream. In the US alone, it’s home to more than 2.5 million workers employed within an expansive corporate landscape that has startups that store energy in molten salt on one end and solar giants like Sunrun deploying droves of rooftop panels on the other.

That’s one reason why Business Insider started expanding its clean-energy coverage late last year. It’s also why we embarked on this project, a showcase of the rising stars of clean energy — 21 people quickly making a name for themselves within the industry, whom we think everyone should know.

These rising stars, identified by experts as emerging leaders within the industry, are taking a bite of this $600 billion market while promising massive gains for the environment.

Dandelion Energy’s Kathy Hannun, for example, has found carbon savings in holes dug under homes in the Northeast. Swift Solar’s Joel Jean, on the other hand, is designing a new generation of hyper-efficient solar panels.  

These 21 people were selected by Business Insider’s editorial team. We began with an online nomination process and then narrowed the list with our own reporting.

These are the 2020 rising stars of clean energy. The list below is arranged alphabetically by company name. 

Staff Sheehan, cofounder and CTO, Air Co.



Air Company


If you’re looking to drown your climate-change dread in a stiff drink, Staff Sheehan has just the one for you. It’s vodka, and it’s made from greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, one 750ml bottle from Sheehan’s company, Air Co., sucks up as much carbon dioxide as 8 fully grown trees, CNBC reports. Plus, it’s apparently tasty, having won a gold medal at last year’s Luxury Masters competition. 

Air Co., as you may have guessed, is a vodka company. Unlike most other vodkas, which are made from fermented grains like corn and potatoes, the Brooklyn-based startup uses industrial carbon dioxide and water, and only releases oxygen as a byproduct. The process is similar to how other technologies turn carbon dioxide into fuel

Sheehan met his cofounder, Gregory Constantine, over whiskey a few years ago, while the two were in Israel for a Forbes 30 Under 30 event (they’re both on Forbes 30 Under 30 lists).

At the time, Sheehan was tinkering with a technology that could convert carbon dioxide into alcohol, while Constantine was working at Diageo, one of the world’s largest spirit producers. The two got to talking and soon decided to leave their jobs and start Air Co., which launched in 2017.

Today, the startup, based at the incubator Urban Future Lab in New York City, has a commercial pilot plant up and running in Brooklyn. In spring, the company decided to temporarily pivot and make hand sanitizer to address the needs in New York, but Sheehan says it will be back to vodka soon. He said you should be able to buy Air Co. vodka online in the next few months. 

Air Co. has received more than $1 million from grant funding. Sheehan declined to share the company’s total investment to date.  

Andrew Ponec, cofounder and CEO, Antora Energy



Antora Energy


At a time when most kids are still navigating college, Andrew Ponec had already dropped out of Stanford, founded a solar technology company, and sold it off to SunPower, one of the nation’s largest solar installers. 

It didn’t take long after returning to Stanford a couple of years later to finish his degree for Ponec to layout his next big challenge: Making cheap, long-duration energy storage. 

“It was starting to become clear that it wasn’t going to be enough just to have cheap solar,” he said. 

Ponec and his cofounder, material scientist Justin Briggs, started working together in 2017, and then joined the incubator Cyclotron Road, where they met their third cofounder, David Bierman. Together, they “explored everything under the sun” that might store energy for days at a time without the high cost of traditional batteries. 

The technology they landed on, now the core offering of their company, Antora Energy, is nothing like your typical battery. 

The device uses electricity to heat up carbon to the point where it’s radiating light, like hot coals in a fire. Then, when electricity is needed, it simply exposes the glowing carbon to solar cells, which convert that light back into electricity. 

While that might sound a bit roundabout, Antora has already demonstrated that its technology is the most efficient solid-state device that turns heat into electricity on the planet. Ponec says 30% of the energy put in as heat comes out as electricity, and he sees a path towards getting that up to 50%. 

Antora has raised seed funding so far and it’s also received grants from organizations including Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Shell’s incubator, Shell GameChanger. 

Kiran Bhatraju, founder and CEO, Arcadia



Arcadia


Most Americans don’t think much about where our power actually comes from. Largely, that’s because it doesn’t seem like there’s a choice in the matter. 

“There’s a dissonance,” said Kiran Bhatraju, the founder and CEO of the startup Arcadia. “Very few people connect flipping the switch to the fuel source.”

That’s a problem, says Bhatraju, who began his career in politics. When people don’t care about their energy usage, he says, they’ll be less likely to participate in the solution — that is, helping to reduce carbon emissions. Last year, the electric power sector accounted for about a third of energy-related emissions in the US.

In 2014, Bhatraju founded Arcadia to give consumers a choice when it comes to energy. The idea behind the startup, based in DC, is to make it easier for anyone to access clean and more affordable energy, whether or not they have space on their roof for solar panels.

When you sign up, Arcadia starts managing your utility bill and instantly matches 50% of your monthly energy usage with renewable energy certificates. 

Read more: Inside the opaque $6 billion market for renewable-energy ‘certificates,’ where dozens of companies buy and sell the right to call your electricity clean

Depending on where they live, customers are also provided with a handful of other options, from enrolling in community solar to participating in the company’s Smart Rate program, which Arcadia says can save them 20% to 40% on their power bills. 

The startup has raised over $70 million, including a $30 million round in December. As of February, the company had about 400,000 users. 

Read more: Arcadia has raised $70 million on the promise it can take on ‘a massive old monopoly industry’ and slash your power bill

Jennifer Wagner, president, CarbonCure



CarbonCure


The fight against climate change can take a lot of different shapes. This particular one is built out of concrete. 

Jennifer Wagner is the president of CarbonCure, a startup that’s trying to trap harmful carbon dioxide emissions in concrete. Based in Nova Scotia, the company sells a technology that allows concrete makers to mix in recycled CO2, which strengthens the concrete and permanently sequesters the gas.  

A chemist by trade, Wagner didn’t love lab work, so she opted to get an MBA at Dalhousie University, where she saw a path for herself between science and business. It was there, more than a decade ago, where she got the sustainability bug, she said. 

Eventually, that bug led her to Rob Niven, who was just getting his idea for CarbonCure off the ground. He invited her to join him, and she set to work securing the company’s first grant for about $1 million from Sustainability Development Technology Canada. 

Today, CarbonCure is among the world’s buzziest clean-tech startups. It was named the 2020 clean-tech startup of the year by Cleantech Group and is backed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

CarbonCure’s technology works by recycling CO2 into wet concrete as it’s mixed, which causes the gas to react with water and calcium ions in the cement, forming solid limestone. The carbon is stuck in the limestone indefinitely, and this mineralization process makes ready-mix concrete slightly stronger than some alternatives, according to the company. 

More than 200 concrete plants now use the company’s technology, Wagner said. The company claims that it’s reduced CO2 emissions by more than 70,000 metric tons. 

Read more: Meet the 5 buzziest startups turning carbon emissions into profit.

Brenden Millstein, cofounder and CEO, Carbon Lighthouse



Carbon Lighthouse


When Brenden Millstein walks into a building, he can’t help but stare at the lights and then dash over to the thermostat to see how the building’s HVAC system is controlled. 

“I’ve ruined buildings for myself,” Millstein said. 

A Berkeley, California native, Millstein spends all day thinking about buildings — or more specifically, how to make them more energy-efficient. That’s core to the mission of Carbon Lighthouse, a startup he founded in 2010 along with Raphael Rosen, another Harvard alum. 

Carbon Lighthouse set out to help buildings — which are responsible for more than a third of US carbon emissions — save energy, and thus money. While the firm, based in San Francisco, will do things as simple as replacing inefficient lights, it also deploys as many as 400 small sensors throughout buildings to gather data, such as from fans and compressors involved in the HVAC system, to ensure the whole building is running efficiently. 

One of Carbon Lighthouse’s most innovative features is how it charges customers. Millstein’s firm guarantees a certain dollar amount in energy savings in exchange for a fixed monthly fee. If the building owner ends up saving less than that fee, Carbon Lighthouse will make up the difference. 

The firm, which is in more than 800 buildings, says its partners can see as much as 20% savings across a whole building. Carbon Lighthouse has raised about $74 million in equity to date. 

Kathy Hannun, cofounder and president, Dandelion Energy

Kathy Hannun.

Dandelion Energy


Kathy Hannun studied civil engineering in college, but she didn’t know what to do with the degree. So after graduating, she followed the path of many smart Stanford grads to Google, where she became a product manager. 

That was a decade ago. Now, Hannun runs a startup, fit only for a civil engineer. 

Her company, Dandelion Energy, is in the business of home geothermal energy, which requires digging holes down as deep as 500 feet into the Earth. The technology can replace traditional heating fuels like natural gas, and even air conditioning, by relying, instead, on the natural temperature of the Earth. 

Geothermal, as an idea, isn’t new. The innovation of Hannun’s company — which was born out of her research at Google’s secretive R&D lab, X, is in technology and business design, both of which collectively drive down cost, she says. 

“Geothermal is actually by far the least expensive way to provide heating and cooling energy in buildings,” said Hannun, who cofounded the company with James Quazi, another Google alum. “But it’s been held back in the past, and it’s been a niche technology because they’re very expensive to install.”

Hannun says there’s been little innovation specific to the geothermal industry, which has kept costs high. Most companies still use drills designed for making water wells, for example.

Dandelion, on the other hand, has invested in manufacturing a drill specific for geothermal that makes the process less expensive and cleaner, she says. Dandelion is also trying to make its geothermal offerings, which are currently only available in the Northeast, into a more clear-cut consumer product, instead of a highly custom install. 

Essentially, Dandelion digs a hole as deep as 500 feet into the Earth, through which it circulates water through a U-shaped pipe called a ground loop. The water adjusts to the temperature of the ground — which is warmer than your house in the winter and cooler in the summer — and then enters your home, where it’s converted to hot or cold air. 

Dandelion is in almost 500 homes, Hannun said. The firm has raised about $35 million. 

Elizabeth Muller, cofounder and CEO, Deep Isolation



Deep Isolation


Some problems can’t be solved by just burying them underground. Nuclear waste is an exception, says Elizabeth Muller, CEO of the startup Deep Isolation.  

Deep Isolation, which she founded with her father, the nuclear physicist Richard Muller, is after a challenge of enormous scale: The US has 80,000 to 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste sitting above ground that need to be permanently disposed of.

That waste isn’t putting people at risk, Muller says, but it’s in storage that’s meant to be temporary. Plus, it’s costing taxpayers a lot of money

“No high-level nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel, has been disposed of. Period,” said Muller, who also cofounded the data science nonprofit Berkeley Earth. “Everybody knows it has to go somewhere.” 

For more than 30 years, that was supposed to be deep within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but that plan has run into challenges. While Yucca is officially still in the works, Muller says that it’s been pretty much abandoned at this point. 

“We’re left with nothing,” she said. “Deep Isolation, as a company, we’re trying to change that.”

Her approach borrows technology from the oil and gas industry: direction drilling. First, you drill down several thousand feet, far below the water table, and then you drill sideways for thousands of feet more. There, you deposit the canister of nuclear waste. 

This approach is safer than putting fuel inside a mountain, Muller says, because you don’t need to send humans underground. That also reduces the cost.

Muller says the startup did a demo early last year. She expects that within the next couple of years, Deep Isolation, which has raised about $14 million from individuals, will begin drilling commercial holes.

Tim Latimer, cofounder, Fervo Energy



Fervo Energy


Tim Latimer learned about the costs and benefits of fossil fuels at a young age. When he was a middle school student in the small town of Riesel, Texas, a company came in and started building a big coal plant. It had a huge economic impact, he said, but it was also noisy and generated pollution. 

“The thing I took away from it was that economics matter and the environment matters, and if we make people make choices with today’s technology, they’re always going to be making tradeoffs,” Latimer said. “We can improve it through better technology so people aren’t forced to make difficult decisions.” 

To Latimer, one kind of better technology is geothermal — that is, using heat deep within the Earth to generate steam and power an electricity-generating turbine. It’s now the focus of his startup, Fervo Energy. 

Latimer wouldn’t have known much about the technology had it not been for his career in the oil and gas industry.

In 2013, when he worked for BHP as a drilling and completions engineer, he had to research how to drill through high-temperature rock, he remembers. Latimer started reading about geothermal drilling and eventually stumbled on an MIT report about the future of geothermal energy. 

“Geothermal energy from [enhanced geothermal systems] represents a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States, while incurring minimal environmental impacts,” the report read.

Later, Latimer decided to dedicate his career to geothermal. Not only was he starting to think more about climate change, he said, but he also had the tools from his time in the oil-and-gas industry to make geothermal affordable. 

In fact, it’s the very technology used in shale production — horizontal drilling — that gives Fervo Energy a competitive edge. By drilling wells sideways deep into the Earth, Fervo is able to access more heat to produce steam, he said. 

“What we get is more productive wells that can bring more steam back up to surface than traditional geothermal, and do it more consistently and for a longer period of time,” he said. 

Fervo plans to take its first commercial plant online by the end of 2021. The firm, based in Berkeley, California, has raised about $11 million. 

Francisco Morocz, cofounder and CEO, Heila Technologies



Heila Technologies


Across the US, most homes are plugged into a large electrical grid that receives power from a centralized utility. If the utility shuts off power, the grid goes dark. That’s what happened in parts of California last year when the utility PG&E initiated mandatory power shutoffs to prevent wildfires. 

But what if there wasn’t just one grid? What if any given region was powered by lots of smaller microgrids, so that if one goes out, the others are still online?

That’s the future of energy in the US, says Francisco Morocz, cofounder of the startup Heila Technologies.

“The grid is undergoing a shift from a centralized system to a more distributed renewable world,” Morocz said. 

Distributed microgrids, which can operate independently from a centralized source of power, are not just useful in the event of a blackout. They also enable the spread of renewable energy, he said, by aggregating a bunch of smaller distributed resources — such as rooftop solar panels or batteries — to power distinct locations like a college campus. 

Headquartered at Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts, Heila builds microgrids. The startup aggregates local energy resources into a distinct unit, using small computers attached to power sources and software that helps them all talk to each other. 

“If you make it mainstream, you can actually transform how the grid behaves,” Morocz said. “You could have whole cities generating and storing and using the electricity created locally.” 

Heila is announcing its first raise shortly, he said. Up to this point, the startup has operated mostly on revenue and grants, he said. 

Christine Ho, cofounder and CEO, Imprint Energy



Imprint Energy


Imprint Energy’s innovation is like something out of the future — printable batteries. 

Printable batteries are the brainchild of Christine Ho, a Berkeley-credentialed material scientist, but she credits much of her entrepreneurialism and inventiveness to her father, Dennis Ho.

A material scientist and entrepreneur himself, Dennis exposed Christine to tinkering at an early age. In elementary school, she remembers making crystals with him and building an Operation-like game from scratch.  

In 2001, Christine Ho brought her inventive spirit to college, where, as a sophomore, she answered an ad to join a battery lab as an undergraduate researcher. She stayed on as a graduate student, studying lithium-ion cells — the ones found in electric cars and most portable electronics.

Ho’s career took a turn when her lab lost its funding from Ford and picked up new backing from the California Energy Commission. 

The commission was interested in fostering the internet of things — essentially, a world of smart, internet-enabled devices. Those devices, from sensors to watches, require tiny, flexible batteries, and Ho was on a team tasked with making them.

That research formed the foundation of Imprint, which designs printable zinc batteries. 

“If you’ve ever looked at silk screen printing for a t-shirt or art, we’re using the exact same tools,” she said.

To print batteries, Imprint makes inks with the relevant materials that it then pushes through a mesh screen. Batteries are like sandwiches of material, she says, comprised of layers that have been painted on. 

Key to Imprint’s batteries is flexibility, she says, which enables them to be added to devices, such as glucose monitors, that might be bendable. The batteries can also wrap around products like EpiPens. 

Imprint has raised about $15 million in institutional funding, Ho said, and another $12 million to $14 million in non-dilutive funding. 

Thomas Folker, cofounder and CEO, Leap



Leap


When most people think of power plants, they imagine a physical facility — a coal plant, a wind farm, or nuclear cooling towers with steam billowing. 

Thomas Folker, a Netherlands native, has a different idea.

Folker’s company, Leap, sells energy into the grid. But in this case, there’s no physical power plant, and it doesn’t technically generate power.

Instead, Leap uses software to talk to hundreds of devices, from electric cars to AC units. When power demand across the grid is surging, it can tell those devices to use less energy to lower overall demand.

The company already partners with Google Nest, allowing it to automatically reduce the power demanded to cool homes, and with a company that operates refrigerators for Whole Foods.

To the grid, lowering demand is an alternative to generating more power. When a utility sees demand spiking it can either buy electricity from a supplier, such as a gas-fired power plant, or it can purchase the equivalent reduction in demand that Leap offers. The startup currently aggregates more than 100 megawatts of power, Folker said. 

Folker, who cofounded the company in 2017, says this technology is especially important as more renewable energy sources and EVs are plugged in. If you can control electricity demand, you reduce the need to run a fossil fuel plant when solar panels or wind turbines aren’t producing a lot of energy, he said. 

Folker has spent most of his career in clean energy, working in offshore wind in the Netherlands, solar on the Caribbean island of Aruba, and energy-related technologies at Enphase Energy, one of the largest energy-tech companies in the world. 

At Enhpase, Folker realized that as the grid welcomes more intermittent clean energy sources it will need to manage the load. 

“How can we create a grid that’s flexible and reliable?” Folker said. “That’s where the idea for Leap came from.” 

Leap’s main market is in California, but the San Francisco-based firm is starting to work in Texas and looking at opportunities to expand internationally, as well, such as to Australia. The company has raised about $8 million to date from investors including Union Square Ventures and the utility National Grid. 

Ramya Swaminathan, CEO, Malta



Malta


Ramya Swaminathan knows money. She spent more than a decade as an investment banker, with stints at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and UBS. And so it’s no surprise that she now works in long-duration energy storage — an industry that is all about bringing down the cost per kilowatt.

When Swaminathan left UBS, she started a hydropower development company, chasing down what she saw as a huge opportunity: There are about 80,000 dams in the US and just a fraction of them produce power.

That work soon evolved to encompass pumped storage, the oldest form of long-duration energy storage. It involves sending water up and down a hill to store and discharge power.

Then, in 2018, Swaminathan got scooped up. Around that time, a storage startup called Malta Inc. spun out of Google’s X and it needed a CEO. With a background in finance and long-duration storage, Swaminathan was a strong fit. 

Malta’s tech is far more complicated than pumped hydro.

When charging, the device uses electricity to heat and ultimately melt salt and, at the same time, create a separate, cold liquid. It’s kind of like a refrigerator, Swaminathan says, in that it produces both cold and hot substances that are separated, like the inside and outside of the fridge. To then discharge the stored energy, the device uses something called a heat engine to convert the differences in temperature to electricity. 

Swaminathan says so-called thermal energy storage has a big benefit over hydro: It isn’t location-specific. Unlike hydro, you don’t need two giant reservoirs with different elevations.

Malta is planning to start construction on a pilot project next year, Swaminathan said. In 2018, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company raised $26 million from investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Gia Schneider, cofounder and CEO, Natel Energy



Natel Energy


Gia Schneider’s story starts in the calming waters of Saguache Creek in Southern Colorado, where, for years, she went flyfishing with her brother.

Ranchers had removed beaver dams in parts of the river system, she remembers, and in those areas, there were fewer fish. Where the dams were left intact, the ecosystem appeared to be thriving, she said. 

The idea that small dams can benefit rivers stuck with Schneider through college and beyond, as she began building her career in the energy industry. With a degree from MIT, she joined Accenture’s energy practice, eventually becoming an expert in energy commodity trading and landing a role at Credit Suisse. 

When the recession hit in 2008, she left Credit Suisse and, along with her brother, founded Natel Energy — a startup that combines her knowledge of the energy industry and river ecology. 

Natel’s core offering is a new type of small water turbine that can be installed in rivers to generate electricity. Unlike traditional hydropower dams, which are massive, expensive, and generally considered environmentally destructive, Natel’s turbines are designed to benefit the river ecosystem and fit within a structure closer to the size of a beaver dam. As a result, they require minimal excavation. 

A key innovation of the turbines is that they allow fish to pass through safely, owing to the structure of their blades, Schneider said. Not only is that better for wildlife, but it also cuts costs, she added. The more stuff you have to screen out of the turbine, the more expensive it becomes, she said. 

Natel’s first project was installed in a stream in Freedom, Maine last December. In March, the company announced that it raised $11 million from investors including Schneider Electric and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a Bill Gates-led fund. 

Etosha Cave, cofounder, Opus 12



Opus 12


It’s an elegant idea: Instead of pumping oil out of the ground to produce chemicals and fuels, which generates carbon dioxide emissions, use technology to turn those emissions into the same chemicals and fuels. There’s a near-endless supply of CO2 in the atmosphere and removing it has both monetary value and environmental benefits. 

That’s the thinking behind Opus-12, a Berkeley-based startup cofounded by Etosha Cave, along with Kendra Kuhl and Nicholas Flanders. The device their company created bolts onto the source of CO2 emissions, and then recycles those emissions into carbon-based products like ethanol. 

Cave developed her technical skills while pursuing a doctorate at Stanford, but she traces her interest in climate technologies to her upbringing in Houston, Texas. Her neighborhood, Crestmont Park, was adjacent to an oil and gas waste site that had leaked into the local water supply, she said. 

“From then on, I wanted to do something in the climate space,” Cave said. 

Technologies that convert CO2 into chemicals and fuels tend to be more expensive than using petroleum because they require a lot of energy. But Cave sees a future in which the costs become competitive, thanks to cheap renewable electricity.

“We see a world in which we’re building a lot more renewables, and we’re building them cheaply,” she said. “Eventually, if that trend continues, then we will be able to make compounds and products and molecules that are indistinguishable from their petroleum counterpart at a cost-competitive rate.” 

Opus 12 says it can make 16 carbon-based compounds using its technology. So far, it’s made various plastics for the auto and fashion industries through partnerships that have yet to be publicly announced.  

Read more: A look inside Shell’s 25-year-old incubator program and the startups it’s betting on to fuel a new energy economy

Nikhil Vadhavkar and Eddie Obropta, cofounders, Raptor Maps

Eddie Obropta (Left) and Nikhil Vadhavkar (Right)

Raptor Maps


Eddie Obropta and Nikhil Vadhavkar are solving a problem that hardly existed 10 years ago: Some electricity producers operate such large solar farms, sprawling across hundreds of acres, that they can’t feasibly inspect all of the panels manually. 

Relying on drones and software, their startup, Raptor Maps, headquartered at Greentown Labs in Somerville, automates the inspection process.

“It’s about eliminating all of the busy work in solar,” said Vadhavkar, who previously worked with drones at MIT through a grant from the Gates Foundation. 

Raptor Maps’ technology can detect overt problems, such as trees that knock out panels, but it can also identify anomalies that are harder to see, such as electrical outages.

While the pair’s enthusiasm for solar is noticeable even through a Zoom call, it wasn’t always about renewable energy for them. When Obropta and Vadhavkar launched the company in 2015, they were working with a different industry: agriculture.

At the time, Raptor Maps used drones and software to create digital models of farms. But then one winter, a different and bigger market emerged: Obropta and Vadhavkar started getting calls and emails from solar companies asking for their technology, so they decided to pivot. 

To date, Raptor Maps has analyzed more than 60 million solar modules across the world, amounting to more than 18 gigawatts of energy — almost a fourth of the total PV capacity in the US. The company is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and it’s raised more than $3 million, according to PitchBook. 

Gene Berdichevsky, cofounder and CEO, Sila Nanotechnologies



Sila Nanotechnologies


Gene Berdichevsky dropped out of college, but he certainly didn’t have trouble with academics or lack ambition.

In the summer of 2004, Berdichevsky left Stanford to work at Tesla, where he became employee number 7. At Elon Musk’s firm, which now has almost 50,000 employees, he led battery development for the Roadster.

Over the next several years, Berdichevsky saw the price of batteries plummet, enabling cheaper and better electric cars. Then, leading up to 2008, battery costs stopped free-falling, he said, because the existing chemistry of lithium-ion cells, found in Teslas, had reached a limit. 

Berdichevsky has since dedicated his career to breaking it. After returning to Stanford to complete his undergraduate degree, and then obtain a Master’s, Berdichevsky, along with Gleb Yushin and Alex Jacobs, founded the battery technology company Sila Nanotechnologies. 

Sila Nano relies on silicon. When used in the anode, the part of the battery that holds a charge, silicon can store a lot more energy than graphite, the material found in most traditional lithium-ion anodes.

Though it stores more energy, silicon comes with a challenge — as it absorbs charge, it swells, causing all kinds of problems. This is where Sila Nano’s tech comes in: It encases the silicon atoms in what’s called a nanoparticle scaffold, which essentially provides space for them to expand without damaging the battery. 

Read more: Inside the $1 billion race to develop breakthrough batteries that could store up to 40% more energy and revolutionize our phones, cars, and planes

Berdichevsky says his battery tech can increase energy density by about 20%, relative to traditional lithium-ion cells. That translates to roughly 20% more range on the road, or it means that carmakers use fewer cells, resulting in a cheaper, lighter car. 

Sila Nano is headquartered in Alameda, California. The company has raised almost $350 million to date and currently has a valuation of about $1 billion, per Pitchbook. 

Joel Jean, cofounder and CEO, Swift Solar



Justin Knight/Swift Solar


You’d be hard-pressed to find a startup that rivals Swift Solar in brainpower. Each founder has a Ph.D. and there are more than 80,000 citations across all six of them, according to the MIT magazine Energy Futures

Cofounder Joel Jean fits right in. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT in electrical engineering, was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 fellow in energy, and developed ultra-lightweight, flexible solar cells as an MIT researcher. Oh, and he just turned 31. 

Starting a solar company was a logical step after finishing his doctoral degree, Jean said. He’d spent a decade or so researching solar technologies and coauthored the flagship MIT Future of Solar Energy Study. Plus, as someone involved in campus environmental activism, Jean realized how fast the world would have to change to disarm climate change. Better solar panels would help, he thought. 

Based in Silicon Valley, Swift is developing a new generation of solar cells, which make up solar panels. In lieu of silicon, found in nearly all panels, the startup uses a material called perovskite.

Perovskite is cheap and highly efficient at turning light into energy, especially when you stack two layers of the material together. In fact, some so-called tandem perovskite cells could be almost twice as efficient as a typical silicon solar panel, Grist reported

“The fundamentals are there to make it a very exciting technology,” Jean said. “Because of the fundamental advantages of perovskite technology, we can actually go and compete directly and exceed the performance and cost of silicon.” 

Launched in 2017, Swift has raised about $7 million in equity and is now looking to raise a Series A, Jean said. 

Leila Madrone, founder and CTO, Sunfolding



Sunfolding


There aren’t many people on Earth who can claim they played Balinese gamelan music at Carnegie Hall, worked at NASA, and turned down a job at Tesla.

In the solar industry, there’s just one — Leila Madrone.

The founder and CTO of Bay Area startup Sunfolding, Madrone realized years ago while working for a solar technology company that solar arrays are unnecessarily complicated and clunky. 

“I remember sitting there and looking at this giant machine, and there were motors and gearboxes and tons of steel, and there were the panels on it,” Madrone said. “I looked at the amount of power coming out and I just knew in my gut that this did not make any sense. You should not need this much complexity in this much stuff for that much power.” 

Following a stint at the NASA Ames research center, and before turning down a job to work at Tesla, Madron teamed up with the inventor Saul Griffith.

Together, they came up with the idea for Sunfolding, a startup that specializes in elegant sun-tracking technology. By enabling solar panels to tilt with the sun throughout the day, they absorb more solar radiation and thus generate more electricity.  

To be clear, solar tracking isn’t new — but Madrone’s approach is. Instead of relying on clunky motors and gearboxes, which use up a lot of material, Sunfolding’s technology relies on air pressure.

“All you’re doing is changing the pressure on one side of the machine versus the other side of the machine, and that naturally causes the panels to tilt,” Madrone said. 

The motor-free technology has 95% fewer maintenance locations, the company says. 

Sunfolding, which closed a $32 million Series B last year, sells its technology to construction companies that build utility-scale solar farms. Last year, it deployed its technology across more than 100 megawatts of solar, Madrone said. 

Sunfolding is based in the Bay Area, home to the country’s first Balinese gamelan group. 

Karyn Boenker, manager of public policy, Sunrun



Karyn Boenker


There are all kinds of flashy solutions to combatting climate change.

Then there’s streamlining the regulatory process for putting solar panels on your roof.

But while that might not sound thrilling, it’s arguably one of the most important tools to accelerate the adoption of residential solar energy in the US.

Today, most permitting — which involves local government approval — is slow and burdensome, according to Karyn Boenker, manager of public policy at Sunrun, the leading rooftop installer. That can slow down projects or lead to them being canceled, she said. 

At Sunrun, Boenker has been spearheading a tool called Solar Automated Permit Processing (SolarAPP) designed to make the permitting process much faster. It’s essentially an online platform that allows solar installers to register arrays with local governments, sidestepping the lengthy permit application and review process. 

“When it takes forever to go solar, you lose your excitement, your annoyance builds,” Boenker said. “What I’m doing with SolarAPP is trying to create instant online permitting.” 

Boenker said this new permitting process could also make solar energy a lot cheaper in the US. 

In the last decade, the cost of solar energy has fallen 82%, largely driven by technical innovation that’s yielded cheaper panels. But soft costs, which include installation and permitting, have fallen at a much slower pace, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and remain an obstacle to lowering prices further.

Boenker just finished the testing and debugging phase for SolarAPP and says the tool will be ready to pilot in July.

Read more: Coronavirus forced Sunrun to sell solar panels online. The CEO shared one number that reveals why that approach is here to stay.

Shawn Murphy, cofounder and CEO, Titan Advanced Energy Solutions



Shawn Murphy


The market for new, longer-lasting batteries is swelling as more carmakers churn out electric vehicles — and Shawn Murphy wants a piece of it.

He’s not as much interested in designing new batteries as he is in making the ones we already have much better. That’s the thinking behind Titan, a startup he cofounded with Sean O’Day that sells technology to improve the efficiency and lifespan of lithium-ion batteries. 

“Every single battery in a car or in a laptop is being used tremendously inefficiently,” he said. 

Murphy says that most existing lithium-ion batteries are designed to carry between 15% to 20% of excess capacity which ensures that you’re never overcharging or overdrawing the battery. That safety buffer protects the battery from damage.

Titan has a solution to use that power without sacrificing the life of the battery. Using ultrasound, Titan’s tech analyzes the battery’s charge and health and relays that information to whatever device the battery is powering. That allows the device to potentially use more of the battery’s charge without running the risk of damaging it. 

Murphy’s background is impressive and eclectic. He started and sold a digital security company, headed up a science and technology program at Draper Laboratory, and later joined the oil giant Shell, where he founded and directed its innovation center, TechWorks.

At TechWorks, one of his responsibilities was reviewing the global energy system and producing a report for Shell’s board. In doing so, Murphy realized that energy storage was the key to advancing clean energy. He left Shell in 2016, went on vacation, and while relaxing away from home he thought up the idea for Titan. 

Titan is currently working with about six car manufacturers, Murphy said, and it plans to announce a partnership with Nissan-Renault in the fall. The startup has raised about $12 million, including grants and personal funds. 

Read more: The battery market is set to break half a trillion dollars by 2035. These are the top 6 industries that will fuel that eye-popping growth.


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