Breakthrough Energy Ventures has made seven more long-range bets on startups promising everything from fusion power to solar panels that capture water from the atmosphere — as well as a few more practical concepts.
Last week, the $1 billion fund that counts billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Richard Branson, Masayoshi Son and Michael Bloomberg as investors announced its second round of investments, following its June stakes in next-generation battery startup Form Energy and underground pumped hydro storage startup Quidnet Energy.
The new roster of startups includes one more energy storage startup: QuantumScape, a solid-state (lithium-metal anode) battery startup which had already raised $100 million from Volkswagen Group, as well as investments from Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures, the firms of BEV investors and Silicon Valley venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla.
But the rest of BEV’s new investments cover new territory, ranging from new ways to capture carbon and make fertilizer, to fusion power and atmospheric water harvesting. Here are the companies.
- Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ efforts toward the Holy Grail of fusion power involve a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built on its genesis within MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and $50 million in investment from Italian energy company Eni. The startup is exploring the use of superconducting magnets to contain the plasma of superheated subatomic particles within a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak. Working with MIT, it expects its first experimental device, dubbed Sparc, to be ready for testing in the mid-2020s.
- Zero Mass Water is an Arizona-based startup that’s raised about $24 million for its rooftop devices, called Hydropanels, that extract drinking water from the air. While the devices cost about $2,000 apiece and only generate up to about 5 liters per day, CEO and founder Cody Friesen hopes they can someday augment drinking water supplies at large scale. The startup has installed them in eight countries, as well as in U.S. test deployments in California and at a Duke Energy facility in North Carolina.
- Pivot Bio is a Berkeley, Calif.-based startup that has developed microbes that can naturally “fix” nitrogen in soil to help growth of cereal crops like wheat, and it expects to start testing them with farmers in 2019. The goal is to replace nitrogen-based fertilizer, which today is almost entirely made from natural gas. This would help solve the problems of synthetic fertilizer runoff, which has led to large ocean “dead zones” at the mouths of rivers carrying large amounts of fertilizer, as well as freeing up natural gas for other uses.
- CarbonCure is a Canadian startup working on technology to use carbon dioxide in the concrete manufacturing process, both to lower that industry’s carbon emissions and to fix carbon captured from power plants. Early this year it announced the opening of its first pilot facility, in hopes of helping to serve a role in the Global CO2 Initiative estimates of a potential $400 billion market opportunity for carbon dioxide usage in the concrete sector.
- Fervo Energy is a San Francisco-based startup working on “enhanced geothermal systems,” tapping the technology of “mixed medium stimulation” to expand the energy output of both existing geothermal sites and new sites that can’t be effectively tapped using today’s predominant vertical well technologies. The company is working with oil services giant Schlumberger on a Department of Energy-funded pilot project, with the aim of delivering energy at a cost of 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour and expanding U.S. geothermal power capacity by as much as 30 percent.
- DMC Biotechnologies is a Boulder, Colo.-based startup named after its “dynamic metabolic control” technology, which is used to manage the process of growing and testing different strains of microbes used to generate biofuels and other bioproducts. The startup, spun out of Duke University, believes its technology can significantly reduce the time and complexity of this work, and in January it raised a $1.75 million round led by Capricorn Ventures.
BEV didn’t disclose how much money it has invested in each startup, although it noted that it has invested about $100 million of its $1 billion fund to date, with typical investments ranging from less than $1 million to about $20 million.
BEV’s “patient capital” model differs significantly from the traditional technology VC approach, which typically demands a five-year window for realizing a return on investments. But this model hasn’t worked as well for startups exploring energy technologies that require years of upfront R&D in partnership with universities or national laboratories, as well as long-term relationships with utilities and well-capitalized energy industry partners.
BEV, by contrast, makes its investments over a 20-year period, intends to offer larger amounts of capital to companies that can be commercialized, and also plans to partner closely with university labs.
Both Khosla's and Doerr’s firms have made some failed investments in energy-related startups — think Fisker Automotive or KiOR, to take two prominent examples.
In a conference call last year, Doerr highlighted this experience as guiding BEV’s investments, which require “a really long point of view,” as well as commitments to put several multiples more capital into companies compared to an average VC investment.