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A new kind of cleantech. A new wave of hardware innovation enabling sustainability.

I spoke with two different people on phone yesterday that asked what ‘new’ cleantech innovations I was most excited about. One of them runs a very large national advocacy group for clean energy, and the other works to support energy policy matters inside the White House. They were expecting me to respond with some thoughts on the latest/greatest achievements in solar efficiencies, biofuel titrations, or wind turbine designs. Or maybe they expected me to rave about a new generation of home energy monitoring devices. But I had something else on my mind.

At Lux Capital, we are witnessing amazing things happening in what we call “core technology” sectors that we believe will also have stunning impact on many sectors that were previously classified as cleantech. But they don’t come labeled as such. And that is not a bad thing. Let me briefly mention three of them below:

3D printing: 3D printing or additive manufacturing is an exciting space for entrepreneurs, startups, as well as large public companies. Public market valuations of 3D Systems and Stratasys have risen tremendously, MakerBot was a few years old startup that was bought for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the first question asked of HP CEO Meg Whitman on today’s shareholder conference was about its strategy towards 3D printing. But 3D printing is also a cleantech story. 3D printing promises to take us away from mass manufacturing in dirty, polluting cities of Asia to customized, higher quality manufacturing in our own back yards where we can better control not only the clean energy feeding into our equipment, but also manage/mediate the pollution that would otherwise get dumped into rivers and oceans. Goods can now be designed and prototyped without tremendous waste, they can be produced in small quantities and better customized for specific uses, and don’t need to be shipped across continents. 3D printing companies may not mention it as much, but they are definitely helping improve the carbon footprint of manufacturing industries. (Disclosure: Lux portfolio companies in this space include Shapeways and Sols, but many others are utilizing 3D printing in their product development processes).

Space/Satellites: There has been a burgeoning interest in space sciences among the silicon valley entrepreneurial community. Elon Musk may have kicked off the new space age by launching SpaceX, but since then several new ventures have been creating to build upon the commoditization of hardware components and rapidly dropping cost of computation to launch small satellites that cost 1/1000th the cost of earlier ones. One of our portfolio companies, Planet Labs, has already launched the largest constellation ever of earth observing satellites, and expects to have 100+ satellites in space shortly, providing a detailed image of the entire earth every single day. So what’s the cleantech angle here? Well, you should talk to their founders to hear that story. They are helping identify poaching practices in Africa, deforestation in the Amazon, crop productivity and yield issues in North America and air/water pollution in Asia. They are providing eyes in the sky that can track airlines that go missing, ships that send horrific smoke pollution into the air, oil tankers that leak and spill oil in our oceans, and inform how traffic can be better handled in major cities and in urban centers. They are providing a wealth of data from a unique vantage point that has simply not been available before to help manage our resources better, improve productivity, and allow for mistakes to be caught early before they cause great environmental damage. (Disclosure: Lux is an investor in Planet Labs, Kymeta, and a stealth project – all focused on space related technologies)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): Unmanned aerial vehicles are already used for crop dusting in Japan and for managing cattle in Australia. But UAVs are about to take off in the USA as well. FAA regulations may still be forthcoming, but entrepreneurs have decided it is time for this industry to provide valuable service to so many sectors, including many that are related to energy/sustainability, such as agriculture, oil & gas, electric utilities,water management, nuclear risk management, and others. UAVs are small autonomous robots that are able to fly in the sky and cover large distances while carrying onboard an impressive suite of sensors, including cameras (capturing various wavelengths, including visual). AUVSI, a national industry association, expects UAVs to help create a $80B industry by 2020 and a vast majority of that business is expected to come from the agricultural sector. Monitoring crop conditions regularly, optimizing fertilizer usage (and preventing nitrogen run-off), improving harvest timing and yields, as well as alerting to dangers from rapid spread of disease are all projects for UAVs to accomplish, in concert with other equipment used in precision agriculture. In addition, oil & gas industries are interested in monitoring their facilities for safety as well as routine inspection purposes, construction sites want UAVs to help improve workflow, reduce waste, and improve productivity, and mining companies are interested in better meeting OSHA type worker safety regulations in remote geographies. A few years ago I remember learning about a company that got paid thousands of dollars per mile to fly helicopters with lidar sensors mounted underneath over transmission lines to identify where vegetation growth could become a problem and lead to a blackout similar to what NYC experienced in 2002. Now UAVs can do that autonomously, at much lower cost, and with very little fuel burned, and in fact most of them are all electric. In addition, UAVs are now also expected to deliver packages to our homes, obviating the need for large, heavy combustion engine powered cars and trucks to be driven around town to deliver packages. That future may still be a few years away, but it presents an opportunity to not only change the traditional package delivery concept, but also the way we consume locally grown food and other produce.  (Disclosure: Lux is an investor in CyPhy Works, manufacturer of commercial grade UAV systems).

Above are just some examples, and I am sure there are many others. Technical innovations in science and engineering disciplines that can positively impact our energy resource production, transport and utilization are very much happening, and getting commercialized…and VCs are funding them as well. We are not calling them cleantech per se, but the end results are the same, real and meaningful. And these should be celebrated no less than achievements in traditional cleantech sectors like solar, wind, biofuels, energy efficiency etc.

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