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Following in the theme of great-but-unusual cleantech startups I talked about last week, I recently took some time to talk to Bill Reichert of Garage Technology Ventures about a couple of his firm’s latest investments in the field.
Garage is the firm that Reichert heads up with Guy Kawasaki and Joyce Chung. An early-stage investor, the fund also had one of cleantech’s first IPO exits with its investment in Hoku Scientific, which makes materials and equipment for the fuel cell and solar markets.
The two more recent investments, however, don’t even sound like cleantech. One, ThermoCeramix, has a special material that heats up easily. The other, D.light Design, makes lamps for the developing world.
It’s a well known fact that energy is lost every time it’s converted from electricity to machinery, and vice versa. Cars don’t run at anything near peak efficiency (hence hybrid designs) and the electrical grid leaks energy at every stage from generation to consumption.
Much of the problem is heat loss. Heat leaks from car engines, lightbulbs, any kind of machinery, wasting precious energy. Many startups aim to lower heat loss — for example, by replacing incandescent lightbulbs, which dump out as much heat as light, with LEDs. The easiest way to explain ThermoCeramix is to say that it’s exactly the opposite: It wants to lose as much heat as possible.
The standard method of heating everything from hot water tanks to stoves is using a metal wire that emits heat. However, these wires tend to lose as much as a third of the energy that goes into them without converting it to heat.
ThermoCeramix makes materials with a much higher “emissivity”, meaning they’re more efficient at heating up. These materials have some obvious uses in everyday household appliances like those I just mentioned, as well as commercial processes.
However, there’s a bit more to the business. The materials are actually coatings that the company can apply to nearly any surface. So imagine, instead of having a centralized water heater in your house, having a bit of ThermoCeramix material wrapped around the pipe in your faucet. When you turn on the hot water tap, it heats up instantaneously.
The company hasn’t tested out that application yet (Reichert says his house will be the first to be fitted with such pipes), but it’s a fun mental exercise to count up the number of stages at which energy would be saved by doing that. Here’s what I came up with:
1) The material itself has better emissivity than the metal used in a hot water heater
2) Even the best-designed water tanks leak heat constantly; no need for a tank here
3) A great deal of heat is lost from water that’s flowing through, or sitting still in pipes
4) No need to have both cold- and hot-water lines in future plumbing arrangements.
On the other hand, the electrical wiring would need to be a bit different — I’d imagine it wouldn’t be long before a plumber ended up electrocuting himself trying to install a ThermoCeramix system. The company is working first with some large manufacturers on making appliances, including General Electric.
It’s nice to return to D.light, because we’ve covered the company since its beginnings at a Stanford entrepreneurship competition. The basic idea behind D.light is to replace dirty, polluting kerosene lamps used in developing countries like India with an LED lamp charged daily by a solar panel.
D.light has now finalized a design and begun to distribute the lamps, which, as we mentioned in our more extensive coverage of the company, sell for far less than some competing options like Mightylight.
What’s interesting about D.light is that it sounds more like a philanthropic mission than a highly profitable company. But its founders, a pair of Stanford MBAs, think that having a good business is actually the secret sauce — a more profitable company has a better chance of having an impact than a money-starved non-profit.
Reichert says he had the same reaction. “When we looked at it initially, we said OK, it’s not really a venture investment. But they’re driven by the idea that the best way to make a big contribution is to make a huge for-profit company, and that’s absolutely aligned with the venture capital model,” he said.
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