Algal fuel maker Aurora Biofuels takes on $20M

Aurora Biofuels, an Alameda, Calif. startup with plans to produce algal biofuels, has raised a substantial second round of funding to speed development. Like most of the other algae companies that have publicly announced their plans, Aurora intends to use its oily charges to produce biodiesel, a near-copy of petroleum-based diesel fuel. However, there are few other details on Aurora. Algae is typically grown in water, but the specifics of what kind of water and whether anything is used to feed the algae are also of some importance. Other companies playing in the space include Solazyme, which has partnered with Chevron, Cellana, a company that is working with Shell, and independents LiveFuels and Sapphire Energy, whose $50 million funding and plans to make “green crude” we recently covered. The $20 million investment into Aurora was uncovered by VentureWire, which reports that only existing investors took part. Oak Investment Partners led, with Gabriel Venture Partners and Noventi participating. Aurora’s first round of $3.2 million took place a little over a year ago.

Sense Networks experiments with indexing the city

In what may be a first step toward bringing some real-time intelligence to local recommendation sites like Yelp and CitySearch, a startup called Sense Networks is today unveiling a new platform, called Citysense, that it says can create a Google-style “index” of places in a city based on where people are going. Think of people as being a bit like members of nomadic tribes, and you’ll be on the track to understanding what Sense wants to do. By tracking where users go by their cellphone signal, the company plans to map out the hot-spots of different social groups within cities, both collecting historical data and updating on a moment-to-moment basis. If it’s Saturday night, for example, a jazz-lover in his 30s might check his Blackberry for a recommendation on where to go from Sense, and he’ll get a listing for the jazz club where people in his age-group are headed to that particular evening, instead of simply the club users have found best overall. CEO Greg Skibiski calls the platform an “experiment” for his company, whose main offering is a product called Macrosense that offers data to companies, mainly retail stores, that want to know where to place their business. To date, Sense has built up most of its information from data it buys from taxi companies, which track the movement of their cabs around cities via GPS. Sense will also apply the cab information to CitySense, using internal machine learning software to start its initial index of San Francisco. Skibiski is interested in what other companies might want to do with the information from Citysense. The possibilities seem abundant. Sites like Yelp have enjoyed robust growth, but generally fall short in being able to tell you what to do right now. On the flip side, sites like Going and Eventful have information on planned events, but can neither tell you about how busy one street is compared to another on a given evening, nor whether that hyped-up DJ night at the local club is actually attracting people or not. Any of the above sites could use a platform like Citysense to provide mobile alerts and up-to-the-minute information to users, or a new contender could show up with a clever interface — club owners could testify that a simple application just showing where all the women in a city are going would be an instant hit. Skibiski, for his part, is confident that the data Citysense will generate is good, saying that its true strength is its machine learning, which factors in historical data, allowing it o function well even with few users in the system. Another take on the concept is’s Buddy Beacon, which lets you keep tabs on where your friends are. However, Citysense seems fairly original, since it shows similar people rather than just friends, thus potentially adding much more data and helping out users in unfamiliar towns.

XLumena raises $6.15M for endoscopic devices

XLumena, a Mountain View, Calif. maker of endosurgical devices, has raised $6.15 million for a new line of endoscopic examination tools, according to VentureWire. The company develop and sell ultrasound devices that are capable of clearly viewing internal organs. Prism VentureWorks led the round, and was joined by Ascent Biomedical Ventures and Charter Life Sciences. XLumena was founded in 2007.

Vantos raises $10.6M for enterprise investigation

Vantos, a Seattle-based software startup with a product that can help companies with internal investigations and auditing, has raised $10.6 in a second round of funding. Regulatory changes like the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley have opened the way for companies like Vantos. New laws demanding tight controls and tracking of issues can cost public companies millions. While there’s no way to avoid some cost, specialized software can help accountants, lawyers and managers learn how to navigate the regulations, and streamline that process.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology pushes concept of sustainable aquaculture

Aquaculture may not rank high on most investors’ priority lists, but with global food prices continuing their inexorable rise and billions now pouring into farming, one startup is making the bet that this growing sector may finally be ready for prime-time.

Kiptronic raises $3M for media ad insertion

Kiptronic, a San Francisco ad startup that inserts ads into audio and video files as they are downloaded, has raised a $3 million second round of funding, according to VentureWire.

Acumentrics receives $15.6M grant for solid oxide fuel cells

Acumentrics, a Westwood, Mass. technology startup working on solid oxide fuel cells in the kilowatt generation range, has received a $15.6 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Like many fuel cell companies, Acumentrics ultimately hopes to sell to the US military, and for that purpose makes a range of high-output cells for use by ground units, as well as industries like telecommunications. However, the company also hopes to move its cells into the markets for home power and heating and cooling. Part of the grant specifies development of a 10KW generator unit, which would have more extensive off-grid uses.

Rockport Capital closes third cleantech fund at $450M

Rockport Capital Partners, a cleantech-focused venture firm co-located in Boston, MA and Menlo Park, Calif., has closed its third fund with $450 million, almost twice the size of its last raise. One of Rockport’s more notable deals of late, a partnership with Kleiner Perkins to start a North American subsidiary of the Norwegian electric car maker Think, points the way to Rockport’s shifting strategy: Mixing later-stage deals in with new startups, and helping existing companies to commercialize. Overall, the firm is looking to invest in fewer companies with its new $450 million pot than the 40 startups it put money into with its $125 million first and $261 million second fund. Although some are warning of overheating in the cleantech space, Rockport managing partner David Prend seems confident his firm will have no trouble doing well. “The prospects for exits look rosier all the time. When successes start materializing, you get a lot of me-toos, [but] I don’t think that’s necessarily bad,” he told me. One positive side affect of ever more money pouring into cleantech is in the quality of the people it attracts, Prend says. “Historically, the challenge was management and entrepreneurs. If you look now, the quality is an order of magnitude higher.” As to where the sector stands overall, Prend says it’s roughly comparable to IT some 35 years back, or biotech two decades ago, suggesting that plenty of work remains to make it mature. However, he does thinks that it will be permanently considered one of the most important areas for investment. “In 5 years if you interview anyone from Rockport, we’ll just be another venture fund. The fact that we do cleantech won’t be notable,” he said.

Yodlee takes large financing — could spell trouble for Mint

Yodlee, an online finance web platform that directly serves banks and other financial institutions, has raised a large round of $35 million, led by banking giant Bank of America. Although Yodlee has been something of a dark horse while popular personal finance sites like Mint have taken the spotlight, the company’s apparent success could indicate a more difficult road than anticipated for their competitors in the personal finance market, including Buxfer, Geezeo, Wesabe and many others. The basic idea behind Yodlee is aggregation. The average American has 12 financial accounts of various types, according to CEO Anil Arora, and there are thousands of different services on offer, from banks to stock accounts. Yodlee got its start in 1999 as an aggregator of all the information from those different account types. Today, it offers something called the Personal Financial Management Suite, which Arora called “a better, faster, easier Quicken online.” That product, in fact, is the back-end for Mint, which adds its own custom touches to help users understand where and how their money is distributed. However, it’s also used a growing majority of the country’s largest banks. That should be worrying for independent finance sites. Most banks were very slow to add any online functionality beyond showing account balances and a list of transactions. That’s what provided an opening for personal finance sites to start up — consumers obviously want to see all the information from their various accounts in one place, arrayed in ways that are understandable. But banks are beginning to catch on, Arora says, and add the same tools to their own sites. Given that the motivator for most people to seek out a personal finance site is a desire for things to be as easy as possible, if banks begin to aggressively use tools like Yodlee, there will be less incentive for their customers to seek out Mint and its cohorts, even if those sites continue to have an edge in visualization and functionality. In fact, Yodlee itself has only 50,000 users on its own personal finance portal, compared to 10 million who unwittingly use it through a bank. Interestingly, Yodlee’s other big product, a recently-released bill payment solution, also sounds like a potential PayPal competitor down the road. Aside from the obvious function of paying bills from your utility, internet provider and other companies, it can transfer money between your various accounts. Arora said you can also pay individuals, like your maid or gardener (if you’re lucky enough to have them). When I asked whether the service could be expanded, he only agreed that “other payments” could be addressed, but added, “Obviously, a lot of financial institutions are very interested in expanding transfers.” That seems to imply that other payments, for instance to a store or online auction, could be arranged in the future. The funding, led by BoA, also brought on previous investors Warburg Pincus, Accel Partners and Institutional Venture Partners. Yodlee recapitalized with $40 million in 2002, making Warburg the primary shareholder; combined with the current funding, it has taken $75 million. It’s based in Redwood City, Calif.

FTL Solar caps first round for thin-film solar

Another day, another thin-film solar startup getting serious cash: Here it’s New York-based FTL Solar, which just capped a first round of funding and is en route to raising $50 million by the end of the fourth quarter. The first round, which yielded an undisclosed amount, was led by Terra Firma Capital Group, the Josh Mailman Foundation and private investors.

Tigo Energy raises $6M for solar panel boost

A Los Gatos company that says it brings together innovations from solar, IT and the semiconductor industry, Tigo Energy has raised a first round of funding for a combined hardware / software designed to improve solar panel installations. Power output, up-time and reliability are all improved, according to Tigo, speeding payback time and heightening the effectiveness of solar panels. The $6 million funding was co-led by Matrix Partners and OVP Venture Partners.

Solicore, maker of flexible, rechargeable batteries, raises $5M in debt

Solicore, maker of flexible, rechargeable batteries, raises $5M in debt Solicore, the Lakeland, FL owner of the Flexion brand of batteries, has raised an additional $5 million in venture debt from BlueCrest Capital FInance, according to VentureWire. Flexion batteries are made from lithium polymer, an environmentally safe mix that also allows for a thickness of less than half a millimeter. That width, in turn, allows for a great deal of flexibility, so that the battery can be built into non-standard device configurations. The company has raised in excess of $40 million since its founding from investors including Braemer Energy Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Firelake Capital, OPG and Rho. It last venture financing was in 2005.

Back to the basics — American Biomass funded for wood-fueled home heating

Skyrocketing prices for crude oil, natural gas and their associated products are having interesting side-affects on cleantech. Alongside a high level of excitement for investments like algal biofuel, some non-standard deals are appearing, including one for a company called American Biomass. Based in the chilly state of New Hampshire, American Biomass is betting that high fuel prices for traditional heating fuels will inspire consumers to look elsewhere for warmth — in this case, back to the same trees their forefathers used. The heating method in question uses wood pellets that vaguely resemble high-fiber breakfast cereal. The pellets, essentially refined wood that contains very little moisture, sap, bark and other messy bits associated with fresh-cut logs. are fed into special stoves, a more efficient and cleaner twist on the wood-burning fireplace. There are multiple advantages to the scheme. Aside from being a better way to burn wood, pellet stoves don’t require a chimney, and include feeders and temperature controls for automatic operation. Compared to a forced-air heater burning cheap methane or propane, wood pellets can’t compete. But that’s exactly the point — the heating fuels that have been used for the past few decades aren’t so cheap anymore. In response to that trend, wood pellet stoves were already starting to pick up in popularity a few years ago. If anything the trend of switching to pellet stoves for price-conscious consumers is likely to pick up. That’s good for the environment, in the long run — at the very least, pellets are probably a better renewable fuel to make from wood than cellulosic ethanol, in terms of both price and efficiency. But the design of the modern pellet stove is over 20 years old, so it might seem like a bad area for venture investment. The niche American Biomass is carving out for itself deals with another area: The logistics of moving all that wood around. Wood pellets are already fairly cheap but aren’t always widely or easily available. There’s decades of built-up infrastructure behind the use of liquid and gaseous fossil fuels, but if growth in pellet use continues, a parallel distribution structure will be needed. The $4 million funding, provided by .406 Ventures, is the first for American Biomass. 

Spineworks Medical raising $8.8M for spinal devices

Spineworks Medical, a Santa Clara, Calif. maker of medical devices, has raised about $7.6 million toward a total round of funding of $8.8 million, according to a regulatory filing acquired by VentureBeat. Spineworks is a stealth mode company, without a significant public presence. However, a patent filing made for the company suggests that it is working on a stabilization device that can be attached to cancellous bone like spinal vertebrae, with methods for cutting into the bone and expanding to secure itself. The investment appears to be an expansion on an earlier-disclosed round of $5.2 million. The financiers include Hatteras Fund, MedFocus Fund and private investors.

Green Vision Systems gets $5.4M for contaminant sensors

Following the Israeli trend of companies with a dual focus on the water and anti-terrorism markets, ten year old company Green Vision Systems has secured its first funding for remote contaminant sensors. Based on land or above, in satellites, Green Vision’s sensors can pick up dangerous impurities not only in water, but also in the air or on the ground. Where those impurities might come from could differ — dumping, inadvertent spills or terrorist attacks could all be culprits. While the company doesn’t appear to have gained traction so far, the market for sensing technology is likely to grow in coming years. Closer to home, San Francisco was recently promised $8 million for water monitoring technology by the EPA. And another Israeli firm, Checklight, just picked up a large order for its water sensors following its May earthquake. Globes reports that Green Vision has been given $10 million over the years by its founder, Danny Moshe. The new $5.4 million (EUR3.5 million) is from the Gabriel Lippmann Institute of Luxembourg.

Zannel gets $10M for multi-media mobile messaging

While the idea of text messaging has grown in popularity — both via the phone and in the form of Twitter — startup Zannel seems convinced that people are more interested in sharing pictures and video, at least while on their mobile phones.

Stealth educational startup Grockit raises $8M more

Grockit, a San Francisco-based educational startup, has raised an additional $8 million, led by Integral Capital Partners with previous investor Benchmark Capital participating. The company has been working on a product since last year, but has managed to keep the details close to its chest. Last July, we reported that it had raised $2.7 million from Benchmark. Grockit was started by Farbood Nivi, a former exam prep teacher for Kaplan, a major test maker for all levels of the educational system.

AeroSat gets $14M for Internet on the plane

Ever since the advent of the cellphone, along with ubiquitous public WiFi and mobile email, airplanes have served as the last place busy execs can relax, switch off and drop out of communication. AeroSat would like to change that. AeroSat is an Amherst, NH company that makes plane-mounted antennae that can deliver Internet and cell access to passengers. The antennae can communicate with ground-based stations, or with others mounted on (relatively) nearby aircraft. The firm says it has already gotten contracts from several airlines, and installed the systems on over 30 types of aircraft. The $14 million funding was provided to AeroSat by existing investors CAI Managers & Co. and AeroEquity, and new investor PAR Capital Management.

Sapphire Energy gets “open checkbook” from investors for algae-based gasoline

Another algal biofuel company has emerged from stealth mode, and this one has the biggest story yet, at least according to the estimation of its investors.Only a year old, Sapphire Energy is a San Diego startup that has lab-developed an algae that it says can create a substance akin to crude oil that can be processed by existing refineries, transported through existing infrastructure and burned without difficulty by today’s vehicles.Sapphire has raised over $50 million from three investors, including Arch Venture Partners, whose Kristina Burow helped co-found the company. Burow told me in an interview yesterday that Arch, along with Venrock and UK-based medical research charity The Wellcome Trust, has given Sapphire an “open checkbook” not based on the usual venture model of set rounds and valuations, from which the company can draw as much capital as necessary to commercialize the technology as rapidly as possible.The excitement of Sapphire’s investors and founders over its technology stems in part from the size of its plans. CEO Jason Pyle says that where other biofuels can only promise to replace a small fraction of the oil use in the United States, the algae that Sapphire is working on could replace all of it.How is that possible? Well, where fuels like ethanol and biodiesel rely on grown feedstocks — corn, sugar, switchgrass, trees — Sapphire’s algae requires no feedstock at all, just water and sunlight. Pyle claims that the requirement to grow without relying on a food crop was one of the company’s founding principles.The two other requirements, that the algae cultivation not take useful land or use fresh, potable water, should quell many environmental concerns. Instead, Sapphire plans to use non-potable water like agricultural runoff and salt water.One of the distinguishing factors of algae startups is that they tend to dream, and talk, rather large, and Sapphire is no exception. Like other companies, its algae has yet to be proven at commercial scales — a step that has foiled initial attempts by other companies, most famously Greenfuel Technologies, whose first large algae project grew so rapidly it choked itself out. But when I pointed that out to Pyle, both he and the two VCs I spoke to on a conference call (the other being Arch co-founder Robert Nelson) shrugged off the objection. “The ability to produce this organism and use it is well understood at scale … the attempts of biofuel companies do not represent the best attempts at scaling these systems,” Pyle said. And although Sapphire won’t reveal where or how it intends to initially cultivate its algae, Pyle says it is specially developed to fit a particular niche in the ecosystem, which will both keep it from escaping into the wild, and keep wild algae from invading and damaging production, a significant problem for many algae startups.However, despite the implicit criticism Sapphire has for its competitors, Pyle believes that there will be many winners in the algal biofuel space. “In a trillion dollar market, it’s hard to believe in a winner take all strategy,” he said.While algae currently accounts for an almost negligible amount of the fuel market, in any country, it may take less time to commercialize than other technologies. Sapphire plans to move forward next with pilot testing, going from production of 100 barrels of “green crude” per day, to 1,000, all the way up to 10,000 per day.If that model turns out to be the right one, the future of the biofuel industry looks fairly straightforward. Cultivation ponds drawing water from farms, waste-streams, tainted reservoirs, the ocean and other sources would be dotted thickly throughout the southern half of the United States, each producing three to four million gallons per year. To replace the entire crude oil usage of the country, it would take between two and three thousand of these ponds, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations.That scenario is a long way off, though: Sapphire plans to have its first commercial production plant in about three years, after which it would require billions of dollars in project financing to build up production. And how quickly that project financing comes through will depend almost entirely on the price of the finished product versus the crude oil prices at the time.

Visible World, a targeted cable advertiser, raises $25M

Targeted advertising, based on geographic location, age, gender and other factors, is a pretty common concept by now. Visible World wants to bring it to cable television, with an added twist — editing of specific commercial spots to appeal more to individuals. Say a large company like Toyota doesn’t want to exclude certain groups from an advertisement, but does want to make it appeal more to each individual. Visible World’s technology allows a special version for each person; for example, an urban dweller would see a car rolling through a cityscape, while a rural viewer would see it speeding past trees and fields. Visible World has about 200 advertising partners and can reach 52 million homes, according to an article in TV Week. It was founded in 1999, and is based in New York, close to its Madison Avenue targets. The $25 million funding was discovered by VentureWire (update: based on an older release, as noted by a commenter below). Adams Street Partners and AllianceBernstein led the round, and were joined by Comcast Interactive Capital, Dawntreader Ventures, Grey Ventures, Leucadia National, Marketing Services Risk Surety, Time Warner and Viacom. The company has raised about $75 million to date.

Actelis adds on $15M for copper-based broadband service

Actelis Networks, a Fremont, Calif.-based ethernet company that enables high speed transfers over existing copper-based wire infrastructure, has raised $15 million in a sixth financing round, according to Globes. The company, which has its R&D center in Israel, maintains a worldwide sales network and has a number of international partners, although it has also gained deployments in both rural and metropolitan areas of the United States. The $15 million funding was provided by ATA Ventures, The Carlyle Group, Dupont Capital and Global Catalyst Partners, while some of the investors in its previous round of $22 million, including New Enterprise Associates and Independent Venture Fund, did not return for the round. The company has raised about $177 million to date, according to VentureBeat’s records.

Ontela claims $10M for mobile to computer photo transfers

Ontela is a Seattle-based startup that helps consumers move photos from their mobile phone to their computers, charging a monthly fee of $2.99 for the service. The company benefits from the profusion of different phone and computer models, which make it difficult for manufacturers or carriers to develop a one-size-fits-all solution. It has so far signed three customers — Alltel, Cellular South and Cincinnati Bell Wireless. The $10 million funding, Ontela’s second, was first reported by John Cook at the Seattle PI (who includes a sweet story about the founder getting the funding and news of his wife’s pregnancy in the same day). The round was led by Steamboat Ventures, and joined by Oak Investment Partners and Voyager Capital. The company has raised $15 million to date.

SunEdison raises $161 million for solar services and installing

SunEdison, a solar services company based in Beltsville, Md., has taken $131 million in venture funding and $30 million in debt to finance its rapid expansion and ongoing projects, including some of the largest solar installations in the United States. In the booming market for solar installations, there is a profusion of different business models, serving markets from residential to business and military, and selling or leasing panels, or simply selling their electricity. SunEdison often handles the up-front costs of installation for its large corporate and institutional clients, so the hefty amount of this particular funding is encouraging, but not terribly surprising. Depending on how you count funding, it’s not even the largest to date. Recurrent Energy, a West Coast startup that has its own large projects, can tap into some $200 million from Morgan Stanley for its projects, although the money is not a direct investment in the company. Other companies have their own, smaller financing agreements to help fund their operations. SunEdison’s projects to date include a 16 megawatt solar farm near Charlotte, N.C., which may be the biggest solar photovoltaic deployment in the country when it’s completed. It won’t be the largest in North America, though — that distinction will probably be held by the 19 megawatt farm SunEdison is building in Ontario, Canada. The company also does work for Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market, and a number of other large corporations. The bigger story here is SunEdison’s role as a facilitator. Projects taken on by SunEdison for other companies and utilities help create ecosystems of smaller companies where the installation is taking place, and pull in solar panels and other equipment from companies around the world. One example of another up-and-coming solar company benefiting from the projects is Evergreen Solar (NASDAQ: ESLR), a thin-film manufacturer that has agreed to sell $500 million worth of its panels to SunEdison by 2011. Both the $131 million venture financing and the $30 million in debt were provided by Greylock Partners, HSH Nordbank AG, Applied Ventures, Black River Commodity Clean Energy Investment Fund, MissionPoint Capital Partners, and Allco Renewable Energy Limited.

EnterMedia, a Russian in-game advertising firm, raises first funding

EnterMedia, an in-game advertising firm based in Russia, has raised a round of over $1 million from Mangrove Capital Partners and ABRT Fund, according to coverage of a Moscow press conference posted on the Quintura blog. The company has a proprietary technology it uses to place dynamic ads in flash-based games. Since the Russian market is fairly tiny, it seems likely the investment was made to help migrate the technology to other language markets. The exact amount of the funding was not disclosed.

ZinkoTek gets $2M for recyclable toys

ZinkoTek, a San Francisco-based startup that makes environmentally friendly toys for children, has taken a first round of funding. The company’s building blocks, which operate via the same basic concepts as Legos but are much larger, are made from the same recyclable foam that is used for other products like Crocs shoes, according to VentureWire, which first reported the funding. The $2 million funding was an angel round, provided by private investors.

Smart grid investments come hot and heavy — SmartSynch gets another $20M for talkative electrical meters

Two days ago it was Optimal Technologies with $25 million toward software for electrical grids; today, it’s SmartSynch with $20 million for wirelessly communicating meters. I haven’t gone back and done an official count, but with well over half a dozen large fundings in the past few months, the efficiency-focused smart grid space looks to have emerged as the hot cleantech venture space du jour. “Smart grid” is a catch-all term for a number of technologies that aim at measuring and controlling the process of sending electricity from generation plants to homes and businesses. The former area is SmartSynch’s specialty. The company’s meters are capable of hooking up to networks via any of several wireless standards like WiFi, CDMA or ZigBee to divulge the data they collect. Fundings may be flooding in right now, but SmartSynch is no newbie. Founded in 2000, the company has taken $80 million to date. It has also deployed about 125,000 meters, and grew 125 percent last year. Meters have turned out to be a particularly bright area to innovate in, because they’re advantageous to several constituencies. The advantage comes in giving more information to both customers and utilities. Instead of seeing electricity usage as one big block on a bill received once a month, customers can see usage on an almost moment-to-moment basis. Following the old adage “knowledge is power”, that information gives both parties the ability to plan out usage based on when electricity is most available, saving utilities power and both sides money. SmartSynch’s chief technology officer, Henry Jones, says his firm’s communication technology, which is installed in meters made by Elster, General Electric and Itron, has brought in about $15 billion in additional revenues for utilities so far. That’s good news for the company, because it’s the utilities that buy and install the meters. Their customers include some rather large ones, including Socal Edison, Florida Power & Light, and Canada’s Hydro One. Other firms, including Silver Spring Networks, have fairly similar technology and strategies. However, Jones claims that’s not a problem: Each firm has its own approach to communicating data, he says, and each approach is useful for different applications, leaving a wide market chunk for each competitor. But that’s not much use to any new startups who might want to muscle in on the action. After all, several of these firms have years of lead time. So what are the next big opportunities? Jones thinks the next step is getting meters to report not just back to the utility, but also directly into the home or business they’re installed in; he says SmartSynch is preparing to release several meters that do just that.