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Robotic Automations

Trellis Climate aims to bridge the 'commercial valley of death' for climate tech | TechCrunch

Let’s say you’re a founder who started a company that’s based on a breakthrough technology which can make hydrogen cheaper and faster than anyone else — so much faster and cheaper that you sailed through your first several rounds of fundraising, bringing in tens of millions of dollars to prove it works. And it does, even better than expected.

Now all you have to do is build a commercial scale plant, the so-called first-of-a-kind facility. Some call it the “commercial valley of death,” and it’s the point at which many climate tech startups struggle. Because no one has undertaken a project like that before, the usual financiers tend to balk; there are too many unknowns.

Climate nonprofit Prime Coalition is hoping to bridge the valley with a new program, Trellis Climate.

Prime Coalition has long taken a different tack to climate finance compared to its for-profit brethren. It makes the usual venture-style investments in startups through its Prime Impact Fund and also helps philanthropists direct their money to climate-related projects that it deems high impact. Trellis Climate follows the latter model with a focus on middle stages, where capital has grown scarce.

“There are more and more philanthropists that are really interested in solving the climate problem,” Lara Pierpoint, director of Trellis Climate, told TechCrunch.

“The highest, best use of philanthropy is in trying new ideas, in really swinging for the fences on the things that have a very high impact potential,” she added. “It is the most flexible and potentially risk-forward set of dollars that are out there.”

For founders in climate tech, that sort of funding is likely welcome news. Early stage founders have a wide range of capital to tap, from numerous venture capital funds to federal grants. It might not be enough to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, but so far it has been enough to prime the pump and keep climate tech investors busy.

There has been an assumption that once climate technologies have been proven, “then corporations and industry would scale those technologies,” Pierpoint said. “On the corporate side, a lot of companies are really getting pushed to do the things that create immediate shareholder value.” As a result, there’s a widening gap in the middle.

“We strongly believe that philanthropy is the catalyst, but that the goal is to bring in infrastructure investors that are willing to lean forward a little bit on risk,” she said.

The program’s first investments include Ample Carbon, a startup that converts old coal plants to bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and Ebb Carbon, a marine-based carbon removal startup.

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

With Vertex AI Agent Builder, Google Cloud aims to simplify agent creation | TechCrunch

AI agents are the new hot craze in generative AI. Unlike the previous generation of chatbots, these agents can do more than simply answer questions. They can take actions based on the conversation, and even interact with back-end transactional systems to take actions in an automated manner.

On Tuesday at Google Cloud Next, the company introduced a new tool to help companies build AI agents.

“Vertex AI Agent Builder allows people to very easily and quickly build conversational agents,” Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian said. “You can build and deploy production-ready, generative AI-powered conversational agents and instruct and guide them the same way that you do humans to improve the quality and correctness of answers from models.”

The no-code product builds upon Google’s Vertex AI Search and Conversation product released previously. It’s also built on top of the company’s latest Gemini large language models and relies both on RAG APIs and vector search, two popular methods used industry-wide to reduce hallucinations, where models make up incorrect answers when they can’t find an accurate response.

Part of the way the company is improving the quality of the answers is through a process called “grounding,” where the answers are tied to something considered to be a reliable source. In this case, it’s relying on Google Search (which in reality could or could not be accurate).

“We’re now bringing you grounding in Google Search, bringing the power of the world’s knowledge that Google Search offers through our grounding service to models. In addition, we also support the ability to ground against enterprise data sources,” Kurian said. The latter might be more suitable for enterprise customers.

Image Credits: Frederic Lardinois/TechCrunch

In a demo, the company used this capability to create an agent that analyzes previous marketing campaigns to understand a company’s brand style, and then apply that knowledge to help generate new ideas that are consistent with that style. The demo analyzed over 3,000 brand images, descriptions, videos and documents related to this fictional company’s products stored on Google Drive. It then helped generate pictures, captions and other content based on its understanding of the fictional company’s style.

Although you can build any type of agent, this particular example would put Google directly in competition with Adobe, which released its creative generative AI tool Firefly last year and GenStudio last month to help build content that doesn’t stray from the company’s style. The flexibility is there to build anything, but the question is whether you want to buy something off the shelf instead if it exists.

The new capabilities are already available, according to Google. It supports multiple languages and offers country-based API endpoints in the U.S. and EU.

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

GovDash aims to help businesses use AI to land government contracts | TechCrunch

Tim Goltser and Curtis Mason have been building things together since high school, when the two were the co-captains of their school’s robotics team. In college, Goltser and Mason teamed up to create an app — Hang, for scheduling hangouts with friends — with Sean Doherty, who Mason had met while an undergrad at Boston University.

Fast forward to 2022, and Goltser and Mason — along with Doherty — felt the entrepreneurial itch strike again. After considering a few ideas, they decided to go after what they saw as a largely unaddressed market: Tools to help small businesses secure U.S. government contracts.

“The federal contracting community has seen a shrinking of the small business industrial base for much of the past decade,” Doherty told TechCrunch. “It’s hard for these companies to compete against giants like Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman. It’s also expensive for them to bid on contracts — if they don’t win, they may run out of cash.”

As a result of labyrinthine systems and mountains of paperwork, finding and bidding for U.S. federal contracts is a laborious process. It takes weeks at a minimum to complete, according to Doherty — and often the best-resourced companies are the most successful.

In a 2023 survey from Setscale, a purchase order financing startup, small business owners cited insufficient cash flow and working capital — and a lack of time and resources — as their top roadblocks to securing government contracts.

To attempt to give these small businesses a boost, Goltser, Mason and Doherty founded GovDash, a platform that provides workflows to support government contract capture, proposal, development and management processes. GovDash was accepted to Y Combinator in 2022; Goltser dropped out of college to help spearhead it.

GovDash is essentially a contract proposal generator. The platform automatically finds contracts possibly relevant to a business, reads through the requests for proposals and — leveraging generative AI — writes proposals

GovDash can trawl through solicitation documents to identify requirements, requested formats, evaluation factors and submission schedules for contracts, Doherty says. It can also identify contracts a business might be qualified for based on their past performance, sending alerts to the inbox of a customer’s choosing, according to Doherty.

“When a contractor wants to respond to a government solicitation, they can run that through GovDash to produce a proposal in a fraction of the time,” Doherty said.

Now, generative AI makes mistakes. It’s a well-established fact. So why should businesses expect GovDash to be any different?

Two reasons, argues Doherty.

One, GovDash built a system that cross-checks a businesses’ info to see just how relevant the business is to a given federal contract. If the relevancy — as judged by the system — isn’t obvious, GovDash prompts the business to template out sections of the contract proposal with more information.

GovDash’s platform tries to automate many of the more tedious aspects of going after — and securing — U.S. federal contracts.

Two, GovDash involves heavy human review. At each stage of the proposal-generating process, the platform checks in with a human reviewer to get their seal of approval.

These steps — cross-checking and human review — aren’t infallible, Doherty admits. But he claims they’re better than what a lot of the competition’s doing.

“Companies now have one place where their business development data flows seamlessly, with an AI agent at its core to automate tedious workflows,” Doherty said. “This is a huge win for the C-suite as they can get out more proposals, at a higher quality level, in a fraction of the time, and put all the associated workflows on autopilot.”

GovDash’s competition is growing — and quickly.

GovDash competes with Govly, whose platform lets companies assess, search and analyze government contracting requirements across disparate sources. A more recent rival, Hazel, aims to use AI to automate government contracting discovery, drafting and compliance. Both — like GovDash — are Y Combinator-backed, interestingly.

But Doherty claims that GovDash is positioned well for expansion.

Having raised $12 million from investors including Northzone and Y Combinator, inclusive of a $10 million Series A funding tranche this month, GovDash plans to grow its engineering team, hire additional federal proposal managers to guide its product efforts and add new capabilities to its existing platform.

New York-based, six-employee GovDash currently works with around 30 federal contractors across the U.S., Doherty said, and is “nearly” cash-flow positive.

“We’re building for the long term for our customer base,” Doherty said. “[We’re] well-capitalized for eventual market tailwinds.”

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

New U.S. ‘green bank’ aims to steer over $160B in capital into climate tech | TechCrunch

For years, banks have been financing large renewable power projects, from utility-scale solar farms to horizon-spanning wind farms. But smaller projects, like installing a heat pump in someone’s home or retrofitting affordable housing, often get passed over. They simply haven’t been lucrative enough.

But the demand is there, which is why advocates have been clamoring for the federal government to support a so-called green bank, which will underwrite these sorts of projects.

That green bank is now a reality. On Thursday, the EPA announced that it had awarded $20 billion in grants from the Inflation Reduction Act to eight organizations that will use the money to make loans that will help with those projects.

“It’s a chance to prove that this works and creates real benefit on the ground for people across America,” Dawn Lippert, founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator, told TechCrunch, adding that “tribal communities, rural communities, low income and disadvantaged communities are really the focus here.”

Indeed, over $14 billion of the funding will go toward communities that fit those descriptions, the EPA said.

What’s more, since the money is to be used for loans, it can be recycled once those loans are paid off. Green bank loans have a pretty good track record, too. The Connecticut Green Bank, for example, has a delinquency rate that’s on par with other commercial lenders across both residential and commercial portfolios.

In addition to providing financing for energy upgrades, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, as it is known, is hoping to attract $7 in private capital for every dollar it disperses. In fact, that might be a conservative figure: McKinsey expects the new green bank should attract more than $12 of private investment per dollar on its balance sheet.

The U.S. is expected to need $27 trillion by 2050 to hit net-zero carbon emissions, McKinsey estimates, which might make the green bank’s $20 billion seem small. But its ability to spur private investment and the fact that it’s not a one-time grant should allow it to have an impact that extends beyond its initial bottom line.

Founders and investors should see some benefit, too. Though the money is aimed mostly at consumers and small businesses, equity investments are a possibility, Lippert said. Plus, the funding should juice demand for technologies that have been proven and are ready for commercial deployment.

For those that aren’t yet, the green bank’s loans should have a cascading effect, sending a signal upstream to founders and investors that there are markets for consumer-level climate tech that works for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

“This $20 billion of funding is going to have a really significant impact on creating jobs, reducing costs for American families, creating a healthier, safer future for our children,” Lippert said.

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

NewRetirement aims to shake up retirement planning with a holistic approach | TechCrunch

When entrepreneur Stephen Chen’s mom began approaching retirement age, she was forced to borrow money from Chen — and Chen’s brother — to make ends meet. They wanted to help, but the siblings also wanted to figure out a more sustainable, long-term solution that’d help their mom retire without having to worry about finances.

Chen tried to get guidance from a financial adviser, but no one would take his mother as a client because her net worth wasn’t considered high enough. So Chen started building spreadsheets and financial models himself, doing his best to figure out how his mom could live the retirement lifestyle that she wanted.

“People like my mom lack the tools to look at their money holistically and strategically so they can make informed decisions, monitor their financial situation, understand which levers to pull and when and make the connection between the choices they make today and the long-term ramifications to their plan,” Chen told TechCrunch. “There’s a confluence of factors that may alter the future of financial planning and advising.”

It was after Chen helped his mom lower her expenses, figure out when to claim Social Security, decide when to downsize and take other steps to become financially independent that Chen realized lots of other older Americans were facing the same challenges.

So Chen founded NewRetirement, a Mill Valley-based company building software to help people create financial retirement plans. Today, NewRetirement’s direct-to-consumer products power financial planning for 70,000 users managing close to $100 billion in their own financial plans, according to Chen.

“Our models go beyond savings and investments, taking into account all of the other factors in a person’s life, from home equity, healthcare costs and taxes to Medicare and Social Security,” Chen said. “Every time a user makes a change, we run thousands of simulations in order to help them optimize their plan … We account for thousands of different scenarios, enabling users to confidently map out accumulation and decumulation projections with digital guidance.”

NewRetirement is Chen’s second startup after Embark, an online college search and admissions tool he launched in 1995. And, like Embark, Chen sees NewRetirement as a digital solution to a transition faced by millions of Americans.

“120 million Americans over age 50 hold 80% of the wealth in this country,” Chen said, “But running out of money remains a top 10 fear, with nearly half of Americans saying they are worried about it.”

NewRetirement’s platform uses predictive modeling and data analytics to help users suss out the right savings approaches. Image Credits: NewRetirement

Indeed, the majority of Americans — as many as 65%, per Charles Schwab’s Modern Wealth Survey 2023 — have no formal financial plan. And while 37% of respondents say that they work with a financial adviser, two-thirds of Americans believe that their financial planning needs improvement, according to Northwestern Mutual’s Planning and Progress Study 2023.

NewRetirement, which began as a consumer offering and in 2021 expanded to the enterprise, charges $120 per year for access to a suite of tools, calculators, recommendations and scenario comparisons and ~$1,500 per year for check-ins with a certified financial planner. In addition, NewRetirement sells a subscription-based private label version of its tools aimed at financial advisers.

Now, you might wonder, what makes NewRetirement different from startups like Retirable, which similarly provides an array of retirement planning tools and access to asset managers? Chen asserts that NewRetirement is one of the few — and perhaps only — financial planning platform that serves consumers as well as advisers and workplaces.

“Our core innovation is allowing anyone to create a plan with industrial-strength tools, enabling advisers to collaborate with the end user and making this available at scale through enterprise partners who bring it to their customers,” Chen said. “As more financial services companies see their offerings like investment management become commoditized, there’s huge value in helping clients and prospects think about their money holistically. By offering self-directed digital planning to clients versus starting with a human adviser, they can scale and serve any number of users, learn about them, help them make good decisions and position their products and services more effectively.”

Chen says that about 70% of NewRetirement’s revenue is enterprise presently, with the remaining 30% coming from consumer customers. The platform has 20,000 individual subscribers and “several” wealth management clients as well as “multiple” enterprise customers including Nationwide, which recently expanded an existing partnership with NewRetirement.

That momentum no doubt helped NewRetirement to cinch its Series A funding round this month.

The company raised $20 million in a tranche that brings its total raised to $20.8 million, led by Allegis Capital with participation from Nationwide Ventures, Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures, Plug and Play Ventures, Motley Fool Ventures and others. Chen says that the cash infusion will be used to expand 50-employee NewRetirement’s enterprise products, scale up onboarding, accelerate R&D efforts and build capacity to meet future demand.

“With this new capital, we will have three to four years of runway,” Chen said. “That gives us time to continue to scale our enterprise partnerships and enhance our product. What’s more, the current downturn is enabling us to bring in incredible talent. We have a strong team in place and will expand headcount further this year.”

Software Development in Sri Lanka