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I TURNED MY TESLA INTO A PICKUP TRUCK - YouTube

YouTuber Simone Giertz, celebrated DIY inventor, roboticist and general maker of cool stuff, decided not to wait for Tesla’s forthcoming pickup truck. Instead, she bought a Tesla Model 3 direct from the company new and then used elbow grease, ingenuity, some help from friends and power tools to turn it into a two-seater with a flatbed.

The amazing thing is, unlike some of the robots Giertz is famous for making, the final product looks terrific — both in terms of the detail work and in terms of its functionality. Giertz also installed a cage over the truck bed, and a tailgate that can double as a work bench. Plus, as you can see from this fake commercial for the so-called “Truckla,” the thing still rips both on and off-road.

TRUCKLA: The world's first Tesla pickup truck - YouTube

Along with her crew, Giertz rented a dedicated workshop to do the build, which took around two weeks and a lot of sawing at the metal chassis. The team had to rebuild crucial components like the roll cage to ensure that the finished product was still safe.

There’s still work to be done in terms of waterproofing, lifting up the vehicle, giving it a paint makeover and more, per Giertz, but the finished product looks amazing, and potentially better than whatever sci-fi nightmare Elon Musk is putting together for the actual Tesla pickup.

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Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees, many in prestigious engineering and design roles, have recently signed a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors to dramatically shift the giant company’s approach to climate change.

By deploying a kind of corporate social disobedience such as speaking out dramatically at shareholders meetings, and by engaging in a variety of community organizing tactics, the “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice” group has quickly become a leading example of a growing trend in the tech world: tech employees banding together to take strong ethical stances in defiance of their powerful employers.

The public actions taken by these employees and groups have been covered widely by the news media. For my TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology, however, I wanted to better understand what participating actively in this campaign has been like some of the individuals involved.

How are employees in high-pressure jobs balancing their professional roles and responsibilities with being actively, publicly in defiance of their employers on a high-profile issue? How do leaders in these efforts explain the philosophy underlying their ethical stance? And how likely are their ideas to spread throughout Amazon and beyond – perhaps particularly among younger tech workers?

I recently spoke with a handful of the Amazon employees most actively involved in the Employees for Climate Justice campaign, all of whom inspired me– in similar and different ways. Below is the first of two interviews I’ll publish here. This one is with Rajit Iftikhar, a young software engineer from New York who moved to Seattle to work for Amazon after earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering in Computer Science from Cornell in 2016.

Rajit Iftikhar

Rajit struck me as a humble and precociously wise young man who could be a role model — though he seems to have little interest in singling himself out that way — for thousands of other software engineers and technologists at Amazon and beyond.

Greg Epstein: Your personal story has been key to your organizing with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Can you start by saying a bit about why?

Rajit Iftikhar: A lot of why I care about climate justice is informed by me having parents from another country that is going to be very adversely affected by [climate change]. Countries like Bangladesh are going to suffer some of the worst consequences from climate change, because of where the country’s located, and the fact that it doesn’t have the resources to adapt.

Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of climate crisis; it is much harder for people to live in the rural areas, [people are] being forced into the cities. Then you have the cyclones that the climate crisis is going to bring, and rising sea levels and flooding.

So, my background [emphasizes, for me] how unjust our emissions are in causing all these problems for people in other countries. And even for communities of color within our country who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the emissions that largely richer people [cause].

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Rivian, the once secretive company that made its public debut in November with an electric pickup truck and SUV, plans to give its batteries a second life and put them to work in a solar microgrid project in Puerto Rico.

The automaker is teaming up with The Honnold Foundation, an organization started by Alex Honnold, the professional climber and subject of the documentary Free Solo, on the microgrid project. Honnold and Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe will discuss the project Saturday in Denver. The discussion, which is scheduled for 6 pm MT, will be live-streamed.

The microgrid project will be set up in Adjuntas, a city of about 20,000 people in midwestern Puerto Rico that was severely impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Casa Pueblo, an environmental watchdog based in Adjuntas that has been looking for ways to set up affordable sources of community power, is also a partner in the project.

Rivian is providing 135 kilowatt-hour battery packs from its development vehicles to support the microgrid. Earlier this year, battery engineers from Rivian and The Honnold Foundation visited Casa Pueblo and met with community leaders to design a site-specific system that will power many of the businesses located in the Adjuntas town square.

The downtown solar microgrid project will serve two purposes. It will give residents access to electricity for core business if the primary source of power is gone. The microgrid will also be used daily to offset the high cost of energy in Puerto Rico, which is twice the national average of the U.S.

The system is expected to launch in 2020.

“Second-life batteries are a big enabler to accelerating widespread adoption of renewable energy, and it’s exciting to envision this system contributing importantly to a community. This project allows us to model a customized energy storage solution that takes into account space constraints, disaster resiliency and energy independence,” Scaringe said.

The project marks the beginning of the company’s long-term plans to find a wide variety of applications for second-life batteries.

The company designed its pack, module and battery management system to transition from vehicle energy storage to stationary energy storage at the end of their vehicle life. The module itself is thin, a design that allows for second-life applications that are space-efficient and customizable.

Rivian is an electric automaker focused on adventure vehicles like pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The company announced in February that it had raised $700 million in a round led by Amazon.

The company has spent the first part of its life operating out of the public eye. It was originally launched as Mainstream Motors in 2009. By 2011, the name changed to Rivian and moved out of Florida. Today, the company has more than 1,000 employees split between development locations in Plymouth, Mich., San Jose and Irvine, Calif. and Surrey, England. It also has a 2.6 million-square-foot factory in Normal, Ill.

Rivian plans to launch the R1T electric pickup truck and the R1S SUV in the U.S. in late 2020, with introduction to other global geographies starting in 2021.

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Zume Inc. (they of the robotic pizza) has acquired Southern California-based Pivot, designer of plant-based packaging material. Along with the deal, Zume will be opening up a 70,000 square foot manufacturing plant in the area.

Zume notes that it has actually been in the food packaging industry in one form or other since 2016, when it introduced a compostable pizza box made the fibers of discarded sugarcane. This acquisition find the company expanding its offering into additional containers, including bowls, plates cups, trays and cutlery.

The startup has set the lofty goal of replacing one billion plastic and styrofoam containers by next year. It’s an admirable target — food packing waste is undeniably out of control, and is likely to only get worse before it gets better.

“Food delivery is upending the food system as we know it, and we believe that the powerful consumer demand signals it generates can be a force creating a more sustainable world,” Zime CEO Alex Garden said in a release tied to the news. Food packaging is a huge part of this equation because it not only provides critical consumption data but it also provides useful information from the farm where its materials are sourced to the final disposal.”

The new manufacturing plant is the first of several in the U.S. in the works from the company.

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Tesla is currently installing its solar roof product in eight states, according to Elon Musk, speaking at the Tesla Annual Shareholder Meeting on Tuesday. The solar roof-tile project has had a relatively long genesis since being unveiled three years ago, in 2016.

In 2017, the company claimed its first-ever installations of the Tesla solar roof, after opening up orders for the product in the second quarter of that year. Musk noted during the company’s Q2 2017 earnings call that both himself and Tesla CTO JB Straubel had the tiles installed and operating on their homes.

The company also announced last year that it had entered into a partnership with Home Depot to sell its solar panels, along with its PowerWall home battery, but that was about its traditional panels specifically, not the new tile product. The tiles are designed to look like high-quality home tiles people use currently, with integrated solar panels that are not easily identified from ground level, in order to provide a more aesthetically pleasing solution.

In addition to having installations run in eight states, Musk said the solar roof product is currently on version three, and that this version is very exciting to him because it offers a chance of being at cost parity with an equivalent entry-level cheap traditional tile, when you include the cost of utilities you’d be saving by generating your own power instead.

Regarding timelines for wider rollout of the solar roof products at the costs he anticipates, his own words probably say it best: “I’m sometimes a little optimistic about time frames — it’s time you knew,” he joked at the meeting.

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Introducing the new #EmbraerX eVTOL concept - YouTube

Short-distance commuter air travel has come a long way in the past few years — at least when it comes to concepts. The latest vision from Embraer of how we’ll get around in the city skies of the (near?) future involves some of what we’ve already seen, and highlights a few things that make clear where it’s focusing its priorities — namely, on community adoption and acceptance.

The concept created by EmbraerX, which is aircraft maker Embraer’s market acceleration and innovation arm, features electric power, as well as vertical take-off and landing (the “eVTOL” piece of the puzzle). It’s optimized for a ridesharing model, and is focused on “user experience” as well as “making the aircraft easily accessible to everyone,” according to the company.

It includes redundant flight systems for safety, as well as an intentional effort to reduce overall noise output with an eight rotor system that distributes lift across the span of the vehicle’s body. The introductory video highlights how the concept vehicle can accommodate passengers who user wheelchairs, and there’s both fly-by-wire control for today, as well as all the technology on board needed for autonomous operation once the tech is ready.

No word on target timelines for bringing these to the actual skies, but this looks a lot more technically feasible when compared to existing aircraft, beyond maybe an electric drivetrain that can provide the kind of lift needed for transporting what looks like up to four passengers, and doing so reliably and consistently.

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Google has employed its network of street-view vehicles to also measure street-level air quality in recent years, through an initiative it calls “Project Air View.” Today, it’s making available to scientists and researcher organizations more of the resulting data from that ongoing initiative. The company is releasing an updated version of its air quality data set that includes information collected with partner Aclima’s environmental sensors gathered between 2017 and 2018.

The combined data cache includes info from the SF Bay and San Joaquin Valley area, originally starting in 2016, along with the additional two years’ worth of data for those areas as well as for other parts of California, and other major cities, including Houston, Salt Lake City, Copenhagen, London and Amsterdam.

All told, Google’s mapping data set for air quality now includes info covering more than 140,000 miles and 7,000 hours of combined driving time spanning 2016 through 2018. That’s a significant base upon which to build a study of the trajectory of air quality changes over time, and Google plans to not only continue this program, but expand it with additional coverage for more cities globally, including in Asia, Africa and South America.

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Air travel accounts for a significant chunk of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, and the amount of air travel has risen steadily over the past few decades, with emissions from aviation predicted to grow significantly through 2020 and beyond. Electric passenger planes are in the works, but unlikely to replace our workhorse passenger jets any time soon – which is why efforts like a new type of conventional fuel aircraft designed being backed by KLM Airlines.

The new aircraft design, conceived by designer Justus Benad and being further realized by a team of researchers at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, per CNN. The look of the aircraft is clearly different from the start, ditching the typical cylindrical tube main fuselage for a ‘squat slice of pizza’ look that extends the body through the wings of the plane.

This beefed up core holds passengers, fuel and cargo, and through this distribution, which improves the aircraft’s overall aerodynamics, the plane will manage to be 20 percent more fuel-efficient vs. the Airbus A350, which carries approximately the same amount of passengers depending on its configuration.

FlyingV Teaser - YouTube

A savings of 20 percent in fuel consumption may not seem like much, but over time, and at scale, it could potentially make a huge difference – especially if the pace of electric aircraft development and other alternatives doesn’t pick up. That said, timelines for deployment aren’t super immediate: These could enter service sometime between 2040 and 2050 based on the current development schedule, which isn’t exactly tomorrow.

Testing an all-new design for passenger jets, which basically look like they did when they were first introduced, is obviously not something one undertakes lightly, however. The good news is that the team is hoping to put a scale model into real-world flight testing later this year.

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Entering into the world of Anthemis is a bit like stepping into the frame of a Wes Anderson film. Eclectic, offbeat people situated in colorful interiors? Check. A muse in the form of a renowned British-Venezuelan economist? Check. A design-forward media platform to provoke deep thought? Check. An annual summer retreat ensconced in the French Alps? Bien sûr.

Sitting atop this most unusual fintech(ish) VC is its ponytailed founder and chairman Sean Park, whose difficult-to-place accent and Philosophy professor aura belie his extensive fixed income capital markets experience. He’s joined by founder and CEO Amy Nauiokas, who in addition to being one of Fintech’s most prominent female investors also owns a high-minded film and television production company.

When Arman Tabatabai and I recently sat down with Park and Nauiokas in their New York office, the firm’s leaders were in an upbeat mood, having blown past the temporary perception-setback associated with the abrupt resignation last year of Anthemis’ former CEO Nadeem Shaikh .

And as the conversation below demonstrates, Park and Nauiokas are well poised to bring the quirk into everything they touch, which these days runs the gamut from backing companies involved in sustainable finance, advancing their home-grown media platform and preparing a soon-to-be-announced initiative elevating female entrepreneurs.

Gregg Schoenberg: With the two of you now at the helm, how does Anthemis present itself today?

Sean Park: I’ll step back and say that when Amy and I were working at big financial institutions in the noughties, we saw that the industry was going to change and that existing business models were running into their natural diminishing returns.

We tried to bring some new ideas to the organizations we were working in, but we each had epiphany moments when we realized that big organizations weren’t built to do disruptive transformation — for bad reasons, but also good reasons, too.

GS: Let’s fast forward to today, where you have several strong Fintech VCs out there. But unlike others, Anthemis puts weirdness at the heart of its model.

Yes, you’ve backed some big names like Betterment and eToro, but you’ve done other things that are farther afield. What’s the underlying thesis that supports that?

Amy Nauiokas: Whatever we do at Anthemis has to be a non-zero-sum game. It has to be for good, not for evil. So that means that we aren’t looking in any place where you see predatory opportunities to make money.

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The Valley’s rocky history with clean tech investing has been well-documented.

Startups focused on non-emitting generation resources were once lauded as the next big cash cow, but the sector’s hype quickly got away from reality.

Complex underlying science, severe capital intensity, slow-moving customers, and high-cost business models outside the comfort zones of typical venture capital, ultimately caused a swath of venture-backed companies and investors in the clean tech boom to fall flat.

Yet, decarbonization and sustainability are issues that only seem to grow more dire and more galvanizing for founders and investors by the day, and more company builders are searching for new ways to promote environmental resilience.

While funding for clean tech startups can be hard to find nowadays, over time we’ve seen clean tech startups shift down the stack away from hardware-focused generation plays towards vertical-focused downstream software.

A far cry from past waves of venture-backed energy startups, the downstream clean tech companies offered more familiar technology with more familiar business models, geared towards more recognizable verticals and end users. Now, investors from less traditional clean tech backgrounds are coming out of the woodworks to take a swing at the energy space.

An emerging group of non-traditional investors getting involved in the clean energy space are those traditionally focused on fintech, such as New York and Europe based venture firm Anthemis — a financial services-focused team that recently sat down with our fintech contributor Gregg Schoenberg and I (check out the full meat of the conversation on Extra Crunch).

The tie between clean tech startups and fintech investors may seem tenuous at first thought. However, financial services has long played a significant role in the energy sector and is now becoming a more common end customer for energy startups focused on operations, management and analytics platforms, thus creating real opportunity for fintech investors to offer differentiated value.

Finance powering the world?

Though the conversation around energy resources and decarbonization often focuses on politics, a significant portion of decisions made in the energy generation business is driven by pure economics — Is it cheaper to run X resource relative to resources Y and Z at a given point in time? Based on bid prices for Request for Proposals (RFPs) in a specific market and the cost-competitiveness of certain resources, will a developer be able to hit their targeted rate of return if they build, buy or operate a certain type of generation asset?

Alternative generation sources like wind, solid oxide fuel cells, or large-scale or even rooftop solar have reached more competitive cost levels – in many parts of the US, wind and solar are in fact often the cheapest form of generation for power providers to run.

Thus as renewable resources have grown more cost competitive, more, infrastructure developers, and other new entrants have been emptying their wallets to buy up or build renewable assets like large scale solar or wind farms, with the American Council on Renewable Energy even forecasting cumulative private investment in renewable energy possibly reaching up to $1 trillion in the US by 2030.

A major and swelling set of renewable energy sources are now led by financial types looking for tools and platforms to better understand the operating and financial performance of their assets, in order to better maximize their return profile in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Therefore, fintech-focused venture firms with financial service pedigrees, like Anthemis, now find themselves in pole position when it comes to understanding clean tech startup customers, how they make purchase decisions, and what they’re looking for in a product.

In certain cases, fintech firms can even offer significant insight into shaping the efficacy of a product offering. For example, Anthemis portfolio company kWh Analytics provides a risk management and analytics platform for solar investors and operators that helps break down production, financial analysis, and portfolio performance.

For platforms like kWh analytics, fintech-focused firms can better understand the value proposition offered and help platforms understand how their technology can mechanically influence rates of return or otherwise.

The financial service customers for clean energy-related platforms extends past just private equity firms. Platforms have been and are being built around energy trading, renewable energy financing (think financing for rooftop solar) or the surrounding insurance market for assets.

When speaking with several of Anthemis’ clean tech portfolio companies, founders emphasized the value of having a fintech investor on board that not only knows the customer in these cases, but that also has a deep understanding of the broader financial ecosystem that surrounds energy assets.

Founders and firms seem to be realizing that various arms of financial services are playing growing roles when it comes to the development and access to clean energy resources.

By offering platforms and surrounding infrastructure that can improve the ease of operations for the growing number of finance-driven operators or can improve the actual financial performance of energy resources, companies can influence the fight for environmental sustainability by accelerating the development and adoption of cleaner resources.

Ultimately, a massive number of energy decisions are made by financial services firms and fintech firms may often times know the customers and products of downstream clean-tech startups more than most.  And while the financial services sector has often been labeled as dirty by some, the vital role it can play in the future of sustainable energy offers the industry a real chance to clean up its image.

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