At a first glance, it seems almost three years of low fossil fuel prices and a regime change in the U.S. would stunt the growth of sustainable and clean-technology sectors here and abroad. But solar and wind technologies keep scaling and dropping in price, and energy-efficiency technologies remain in demand. The challenges of a growing population, and less space in which to live and grow food, will spark more innovations in water and agriculture technology.
To that end, TriplePundit recently spoke with Roy Wiesner, CEO of Hutchison-Kinrot, a global seed investor in clean-technology startups.
Wiesner has a birds-eye view of the sector. His role requires him to work closely with his firm’s portfolio of companies during all stages of research and development, strategic planning and, of course, financing. He has lived and worked a short drive north of Tel Aviv, Israel, for several years. And this base immersed him in what he called the “startup nation,” where the confluence of national security, food, energy and water challenges made this rapidly growing nation of 8 million people home to a sector rivaled only by the emerging companies of Silicon Valley.
He outlined four broad trends to watch over the next year. Sprinkled in the discussion are some examples of firms that are capitalizing on the world’s need for products that have a minimal or even a remediating impact on the environment. And while this is by no means an endorsement for investments in these companies, the market shifts are surely interesting.
“We certainly see a lot of interest in everything around the circular economy, from carbon capture to turning organic waste into bioplastic,” Wiesner told us. “And this ‘trash-to-treasure’ is a trend that we see growing, as investors and corporates are interested making firms’ operations more efficient.”
On the bioplastics front, one Israeli company that stands out is 3PLW. The firm says it has developed an anaerobic digestion process that can shorten the process of churning biomass from municipal waste into a material ready for biochemical production. It claims its process takes 72 hours. That is a huge drop from the typical range of time, which varies from 10 to 40 days.
Over on this side of the pond, a bevy of notable startups and social enterprises are finding creative ways to cope with plastic and other forms of waste. Looptworks, for example, collaborated with airliners such as Southwest and Alaska Airlines to repurpose seat upholstery into bags and apparel. The Pittsburgh-based social enterprise Thread has found success in processing bottles found on the streets in Haiti into fabric purchased by the likes of Timberland.
Then there is the pesky challenge of turning carbon into something useful. LanzaTech, for example, can harness emissions from industries such as steel manufacturing. The company’s technology then combines these emissions with microbes in order to produce chemicals or fuels such as ethanol. One bio-economy publication named LanzaTech as the top company among 50 other ‘hottest startups to watch’ in 2017.
Agriculture, aquaculture and food technology
“How are we going to feed the world?” Wiesner asked us rhetorically. “There is one side: improving yields with technology, as in water sensors. But he said “alternative foods, especially with sources of protein other than meat” also play a role.
The country’s innovation culture also promises to change industries such as aquaculture, which already provides over half of the world’s seafood – a figure the World Bank estimates will soar to two-thirds by 2030. (For those unfamiliar with aquaculture, it’s basically fish farming, which can happen in contained ponds or offshore net pens.)
The aquaculture sector scored a huge boost in startup funding in 2016 compared to the year before, so as fish starts to overtake meat as the world’s most consumed protein, watch for aquaculture to enjoy a steady boom.
But this industry consumes significant amounts of energy, mostly due to the aeration necessary to ensure enough oxygen to keep fish and other sea creatures healthy. The problem is that these aerators are heavy, which also poses a risk for electrocution of fish. Waterator, an Israeli startup, has developed a system that relies on water pressure rather than electricity – and this pedal system is made of plastic and free of electrical components, which makes it easier and safer to maintain.
Then there is the challenge of sourcing enough food to supply these aquaculture ponds without creating more of an impact on the world’s fisheries or relying on materials such as soy. Watch for several companies to capitalize on this trend in the coming year.
In Belgium, TomAlgae strives to manufacture microalgae-based feed that is both cost-effective and rich in nutrition. TerraVia, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, morphed from an algae-based biofuel technology company into one that aims to supply fish farms with feed while minimizing any impact on land and water supplies.
The water-energy nexus
As more people move into urban areas, and sources of fresh water become even more strained, entrepreneurs will find more opportunities as a growing planet is forced to do more with less. Wiesner said the demand for desalination, smart water networks and wastewater treatment will drive even more innovation.
On that last point, wastewater treatment can kill two birds with one stone: Recycling water shows potential for inspiring renewable energy technologies as well.
Boston-based Cambrian Innovation is one example of how wastewater treatment can help municipalities cope with the need for more energy. The company’s line of EcoVolt reactors treat wastewater with electrically-charged microbes. The result, says the company, is a far more cost-effective option to create a new source of clean water while producing biogas that can generate up to 200 kilowatts of power.
Then there is the problem of treating contaminated water, which can result in even more headaches and costs. WellToDo, a project affiliated with the BIRD Foundation (a 40-year-old Israeli-U.S. joint research and development initiative), says it can treat contaminants without creating byproducts such as brine. The company’s technology uses catalytic modules to turn nitrates into nitrogen gas, eliminating waste that would otherwise require an expensive storage option.
Internet of Things 4.0
Finally, Wiesner noted that companies’ need to monitor, measure and maintain everything within their operations has paved the way for the rise of the Internet of Things (IOT).
And those technologies are driving “smart homes,” paving the way for Israeli startups like Etugo Technologies. “IOT 4.0 is not just not about how to gather data, but gain results,” Wiesner said, referring to the next generation of the IoT and the proliferation of even more IoT companies. “Challenges, such as predicted maintenance, are among the things that companies want to see so they know what is going on in real time in order to optimize their operations.”
One startup in India, Precimetrix Technologies, is trying to capitalize on manufacturers’ desire to monitor all of their processes remotely in order to improve efficiency. Based in the western city of Pune, Precimetrix says it can offer industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, automakers, and cable manufacturers software solutions that can gauge a firm’s fleets and plant operations, while simultaneously improving relationships between a manufacturer and its customer base.
ITiZZiMO, which has offices in the U.S. and Germany, says it can manage, integrate and share information from any device, including a smart watch, and have all of that company’s data digitally managed on one central platform. Information gleaned from machines and sensors can be leveraged to help workflows progress more smoothly.
ITiZZiMO offers customers a wide range of apps beneficial to employees, such as programs that break down tasks into easily followed steps on next-gen wearable devices. The company says its technology is not about automation and eliminating human jobs. In fact, it insists it can boost efficiency as it allows for benefits such as live video and audio streaming, permitting employees to learn from each other even more seamlessly.
These are just some of the stories unfolding from the world’s top clean technology companies. We’ll keep our eyes out for what’s next.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Editor’s note: Vibe Israel funded Leon Kaye’s December 2016 trip to Israel. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.