This Berkeley startup & its energy machines are about to take off

A decade ago the sprawling artist compound just off of Ashby Avenue in an industrial part of West Berkeley, Calif, was filled with flame-throwing robots, stacks of shipping containers and towering Burning Man-inspired sculptures. During my college years at the University of California, Berkeley, and for several years afterwards, the place — then called The Shipyard — was the stuff of legend, hosting shows where huge metal art machines battled each other, and organizing events titled things like How to Destroy the Universe Festival.

Today it’s the headquarters of All Power Labs, an energy startup that emerged out of the ashes of the collective as a way for engineer artist, and all-around-noncomformist Jim Mason to provide power for the compound after the city of Berkeley repeatedly turned off their electricity. “The city was not excited about our interpretation of the building code,” Mason recalled of the group’s offgrid beginnings last week during an interview in All Power Lab’s offices, which sit just above their open machining and fabrication workshops.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, in the headquarters of All Power Labs, Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, at the headquarters of All Power Labs, in Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.

Instead of art machines, the place now produces machines that make distributed clean energy and are mostly shipped to the developing world. Over the past seven years, the group has been building devices called gasifiers that take plant waste (like walnut shells and wood chips) and turn it into electricity with a byproduct of biochar. It’s decades old technology — which was popular during World War II and is still used on a large industrial scale today — but Mason’s vision was to shrink down the tech to a personal scale, not just to run The Shipyard off the grid, but also to make it available to anyone who wanted to make it or buy it.

Now after years of refining the systems, All Power Labs has shipped 500 products and employs 40 workers. The team — a combination of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry execs — has been gaining momentum, transitioning from their early DIY days into what they hope is a stable and predictable product-oriented energy company.

The group reportedly generates upwards of five million dollars in revenue a year, has been awarded several recent patents around core technology, and last month won a $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build out a large gasifier in a shipping container that can turn the waste from fire-prevention forest thinning in the Sierra Nevada mountains into usable, on-demand, local electricity. The award still needs to be officially voted on and approved by the CEC.

This week the team officially brought on Cal-Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen as a founding board member. Kamen described All Power Labs’ products to me as “very exciting as a technology and a systems solution.” While All Power Labs has long operated off of sales to support its growth, the company is now looking to take advantage of this recent momentum to raise funding to scale up and keeping refining its products.

All Power Labs' latest gasifier is large enough to fit in a shipping container, and the company is using a grant from the CEC to finish work on it.

All Power Labs’ latest large gasifier fits in a shipping container, and provides over 100 kW of power from plant waste. The company is using a grant from the CEC to finish development work on it.

A backwards evolution

It’s taken a good seven years for the team to get to where they are today. “This wasn’t the plan,” explains Mason, who has a degree in anthropology from Stanford, the mind of a mechanical engineer, a background working in open source online communities and the spirit of a Berkeley radical. All Power Lab’s Director of Strategic Intiatives, Tom Price — who has been an environmental manager at Burning Man and spent years working on community solar projects — describes the company’s evolution as “completely backwards.”

In the traditional Silicon Valley tech startup world, co-founders might build a prototype or a basic app and then start raising money from investors to build out and launch the product. In contrast All Power Labs has been entirely bootstrapped, and slowly meandered around to their current commercialization strategy. Their development has been as organic as the produce being sold across the street at the health food coop Berkeley Bowl.

Originally, Mason’s idea was to take the open source, participatory, and collaborative culture that they’d fostered in the art collective and at Burning Man, and bring it to energy. Mason looked to the personalized, layered, and meaning-filled relationships that humans have developed around resources like food and transportation in modern times (picture all the foodie movements and hot rod culture) and wondered if the same type of relationship could be fostered around energy generation and use.

An All Power Labs' gasifier being run in Liberia.

An All Power Labs’ gasifier being run in Liberia.

Soon after the city shut off their power, Mason started reading about gasifiers via an old Swedish gasifier manual; Sweden has long been a world leader when it comes to converting waste into energy. Gasifiers use heat to transform plant waste into a gas similar to natural gas that can be used to run an engine and produce electricity. A basic gasifier is about as complex as a traditional wooden stove and can be assembled with simple tools like a hammer and wrench.

Gasifiers are also interesting from an environmental, and emissions perspective, because they can produce “carbon negative” energy. Plants and trees harvest carbon from the atmosphere, and when they are later put into a gasifier as waste, the remaining energy is extracted and the leftover byproduct is the carbon-based biochar, which can go back into the soil. As Price said, “Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

In the early days, and partly to cultivate the personal energy experience, All Power Labs made kits called Gasifier Experimenter Kits (GEKs), which were free CAD files that walked users through the steps of making the gasifiers from off the shelf parts. While the kits received a lot of attention from enthusiasts (many in the U.S.), even the early adopters sometimes found the notoriously tempermental tech difficult to get up and running and operating for substantial periods of time.

[pullquote person=”Tom Price” attribution=”Tom Price, All Power Labs” id=”912301″]”Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”[/pullquote]

Over the course of several years, the team slowly decided they wanted to provide a product that was much easier for their customers to use, instead of just providing them the means to create the technology. All Power Labs also started to get an increasing amount of interest from local entrepreneurs in developing areas in Africa and Asia that needed low cost, off-grid power to run their businesses, had access to abundant biomass (many operated in agriculture regions) and wanted to replace their expensive and dirty diesel generators with something else.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.

All Power Labs no longer sells these kits and the tech has evolved into the company’s three current gasifier products. The first is the company’s staple, the Power Pallet, which produces 15 kW to 18 kW of power, fits in the bed of a truck, costs $30,000 or $1.50 per watt, and represents the bulk of the shipments.

All Power Labs now has Power Pallets operating in 40 countries, including in Liberia using old rubber trees, the Philippines using coconut shells, and in Haiti, gasifying corn cobs. They had to temporarily halt their on-the-ground work in Liberia when Ebola hit.

At that $1.50 per watt price point, a customer that buys a Power Pallet to replace a generator and diesel fuel can recover their costs in 15 months, Price said. That price also significantly beats the cost to install solar panels, which can cost $2.27 a watt for large rooftop solar systems for companies and organizations, and $3.60 a watt for residential systems, according to GTM Research. And unlike a solar panel, the Power Pallet can run around the clock, whenever it’s got plant waste to gasify.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Systems has two other products in the works. There’s the Power Cube, a regulation compliant version of the Power Pallet for the European market that is just starting to go into production. And there’s the Powertainer, which is the larger, 100 kW unit that the company is working on with the CEC grant, and which isn’t yet on sale publicly (they’re shooting for 2016).

Despite the fact that the tech is centuries old, All Power Labs is still able to claim at least three patents for new gasifier innovations. Price said that they’re also using state of the art materials like cast in place ceramics in the reactor, and the electronic brain of the systems — which use Arduino sensors — are utilizing the latest in electronics, helping the gasifiers bypass many of the messy problems that plague older systems.

Gasifiers, in general, are messy systems, and produce tar, a dirty pollutant. They also can be very temperamental, which is one of the reasons why the technology hasn’t taken off on a broader scale. In addition to those two hurdles, the lifetime of the systems are dependent on how often the owner runs them; the basic four cylinder engine in the Power Pallet might need to be replaced after two years.

What’s next?

While All Power Labs has been commercially operating for years, it hasn’t fully transitioned into a streamlined business with automated manufacturing or some of the typical operating metrics that guide larger production companies. In the energy generation world, technology needs to be predictable and repeatable. Variation in products should be minute. And the more reliable the products are out of the gate, the less time the All Power Labs engineers need to spend in the field fixing them.

That’s one reason the company is looking to raise a Series A round of $10 million, so it can continue to “productize” the technology. It has also brought in some more experienced management in recent years: COO Alejandro Abalos joined the company two and a half years ago after spending a combined decade at solar companies GreenVolts, SunPower and PowerLight. Price also joined close to two years ago, too. Clearly they’re excited about the potential, even after having worked in the newly booming industry of solar.

A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.

A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.

It could be difficult for All Power Labs to raise funds from traditional venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Many of the larger firms that were once aggressive on cleantech have now moved away from new investments. The firms that are continuing to invest in energy now tend to take a lighter approach, opting to support digital energy focused startups that might require less capital to scale.

But there’s a growing amount of money being invested in clean energy in general in the world (much of it in solar projects and offshore wind), and there’s still some money for equity in early stage technology, though much of it is coming from outside the Valley. Corporations, like Shell, Siemens and GE, are looking to make energy investments as part of their corporate R&D strategy. And more family offices are willing to support energy startups that have a triple bottom line.

The Altaeros, high altitude wind turbine.

Altaeros’ high altitude wind turbine, which Softbank invested in.

Some of the deeper investor pockets can be found in Asia. For example, telecom giant Softbank has a new fund to invest in early energy generation and storage technologies that can be implemented in Japan and Asia. Japan is struggling to remake its energy generation mix after the nuclear disaster.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has backed some of the harder to fund startups out there. Some startups have been able to scale dramatically with funding in China, like Boston Power, LanzaTech and EcoMotors.

And there’s still some funding in the Valley for big energy ideas. Cleantech heavyweights Nancy Pfund and Ira Ehrenpreis have teamed up at DBL Investors for a new fund. Groups like Other Lab and M37 are testing out new models around developing energy innovation that are part government lab, part corporate lab and part Valley incubator. And perhaps the few VC-backed energy companies that have done well, like Tesla and SolarCity, will help produce the next-generation of entrepreneurial energy investors willing to make bigger, and smarter, risks in new energy startups.

I do wonder how the team at All Power Labs would feel at the end of the day about joining up with the sometimes slick, and always-optimizing, investors of Silicon Valley, or even investors outside the Valley. It would help them reach another of level of efficiency and growth, but it could also mean giving up some of their core tenets and lifestyle.

But whatever happens to the group going forward, they have the enthusiasm, momentum, and innovative thinking rarely seen in such an organically-emerging startup. And if their gasifiers are ever able to reach any substantial scale, they could have a profound effect on the emergence of off-grid power in the places that need it most.

Open Garden’s hard sell: A world of shared radios

On the evening of Sept 28, Open Garden co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel was on Skype call in a hotel room in Hong Kong complaining to his CMO Christophe Daligault that their new app FireChat wasn’t getting any traction in Hong Kong.

Benoliel wasn’t there on business or vacation. He was on his way back home to San Francisco from a conference in India, and he was forced into an overnight layover in Hong Kong. Shortly after he hung up with Daligault though, he saw something that made him change his plans.

Downloads of FireChat started skyrocketing in Hong Kong before his eyes, jumping from a few hundred to 100,000 Android and iOS installs in a single evening. What happened? Occupy Central protesters, fearing a government shutdown of cellular networks or blockage of social media apps, began turning to FireChat as a means of bypassing the internet.

A protestor texts on his phone during a demonstration outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014.   (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

A protestor texts on his phone during a demonstration outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

One of the key features of the messaging app is its ability to create direct peer-to-peer links between nearby phones using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Protesters could use FireChat to communicate and coordinate even if mobile networks got congested or went down completely, and the next few days were a whirlwind for Open Garden.

FireChat had already become an underground success in tech circles, but overnight it gained international prominence. Benoliel was all over cable TV news and the media heralded FireChat as the newest tool for dissident movements facing repressive government regimes.

The odd thing is that [company]Open Garden[/company] never thought it would find itself in this kind of situation. When the startup launched at TechCrunch Disrupt 2012 it never intended to become a tool of political revolution. It was just looking for a way to get people to share their internet access.

Why the mesh matters

Open Garden is still in the early stages of its startup life. It’s raised a $2 million seed round, and it’s still a small operation in the most unlikely places among the Bay Area’s numerous tech corridors. Surrounded by boarded-up naval barracks, Open Garden occupies a warehouse on Treasure Island behind a chain link fence with a sign that says “Hardhat Required.”

Open Garden founders Hazel, Benoliel and Shalunov

Open Garden founders Hazel, Benoliel and Shalunov

Benoliel comes from a telecom background, having worked with Skype to launch Skype In and Skype Out as a means to connect to traditional telephone networks while Stanislav Shalunov and Greg Hazel came over form BitTorrent. While working at academic network consortium Internet2, Shalunov created LEDBAT, an algorithm used heavily today to manage congestion on the internet. Hazel led development of the popular BitTorrent file-sharing client µTorrent.

Open Garden started as a conversation in a San Francisco Thai restaurant between Benoliel and Shalunov about the proliferation of smartphones and what it would mean for the future of networking if everyone toted about a connected computing device in their pockets and purses.

[pullquote person=”Stanislav Shalunov” attribution=”Stanislav Shalunov, CTO, Open Garden” id=”899764″]“We took the principle of the internet and applied it to the edge of the network.”[/pullquote]

Smartphones have always been considered endpoints of the internet, where traffic began and terminated, but they haven’t been thought of as way stations within the network itself. Shalunov and Benoliel wanted to change that by making smartphones and other mobile devices nodes within the network capable of connecting to each other and passing along traffic. Open Garden was born shortly afterwards in 2011.

Open Garden’s first eponymous app basically allows nearby devices to connect directly through Wi-Fi forming vast mesh networks where they can crowdsource their internet connections. Typically our devices rely on a single link provided by your mobile carrier or ISP to ferry your traffic back and forth to the internet. But Open Garden proposed to overturn that notion and build an access network of myriad links, where devices could coordinate and optimize the flow of their collective traffic over the most efficient – and often the cheapest – connection available.

“We took the principle of the internet and applied it to the edge of the network,” Shalunov, who is the company’s CTO, told me in a recent interview at Open Garden’s Treasure Island offices. You can think of the links Open Garden forms like the peering agreements that ISPs negotiate to connect their networks together – just at a very accelerated and very individual level. “It takes months for ISPs to negotiate these [agreements],” Shalunov said. “Individuals can negotiate these things in seconds.”

Basically Open Garden was pushing the idea of a broadband commons, in which everyone cooperated by sharing their bandwidth, and everyone stood to benefit. Instead of buying a mobile data plan for your tablet, you can hook into the local Open Garden network and use your neighbor’s smartphone connection. In turn, that smartphone could connect to a neighboring laptop and ride its faster, cheaper wired internet connection.

There was only one problem. The Open Garden app was mainly gaining traction among a tech-savvy set.

“It’s too abstract a concept for many people,” Benoliel said.

Making the mesh social

Open Garden originally developed FireChat as a proof-of-concept, not intending it would become its primary application.

Micha Benoliel Open Garden Sascha Meinrath New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute Steven van Wel Karma Mobilize 2013

Micha Benoliel (second from right) speaking at Gigaom’s Mobilize conference in 2013

“We saw the limits of the Open Garden app,” Benoliel said. “We launched FireChat to demonstrate the power of our technology.” If people were presented with a concrete use case that showed the advantages of linking our devices into a constantly morphing mesh network, then maybe convincing them that other applications like bandwidth sharing weren’t such a strange idea, Benoliel said. The obvious application to start with was social networking.

In its global mode, FireChat looks like dozens of other chat apps, allowing people around the world to communicate in rooms over an internet connection. But FireChat could communicate directly through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections like Open Garden’s bandwidth sharing app, and it immediately stood out from other messaging apps. By letting its users connect their devices directly, they could not only communicate off the grid but they created a new social context for that communication.

FireChat created hyperlocal networks where everyone in the same vicinity basically wound up in the same chatroom. There are other apps that follow similar hyperlocal principles ranging from Foursquare’s Swarm to Yik Yak, but none of them bring quite the same sense of communal chaos as FireChat. FireChat isn’t a virtual bulletin board or a way to coordinate with friends. It basically brings together a bunch of strangers that happen to be within Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range of one another to anonymously share their random thoughts.

“When it first launched people immediately grasped the concept,” Benoliel said. There weren’t any abstract ideas like shared bandwidth to explain, he added: “it was a new way for people to message each other without the internet.”

Of course, to make FireChat work on the hyperlocal level, you need multiple people in the same location so those ad hoc networks can form, and even if they do connect there’s no guarantee random strangers will find anything in common to talk about. So Open Garden started looking toward big events like rock festivals where it could get large group of FireChat users together as part of communal experience.

An example of how FireChat's ad hoc networking connects attendees at Burning Man (Photo credit Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Modified by Open Garden.)

An example of how FireChat’s ad hoc networking connects attendees at Burning Man

In September at Burning Man, 5,000 burners came together to use FireChat as a communications and logistics tool that could overcome the spotty cellular coverage in the Nevada desert. And last month bands at India’s largest music festival NH7 began using FireChat as a means to communicate directly with the fans surrounding them at the event.

But it was among protest movements that FireChat really came into its own.

Occupy Central and Firechat

Just a few weeks after its launch on iOS, FireChat shot to the top the iTunes messaging app charts in Taiwan surpassing even messaging local leader Line in the rankings. The app was embraced by Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, which was protesting new trade agreements with China.

But in September the world definitely noticed FireChat after the Occupy Central movement made it a core organizational tool. Benoliel, who spent 10 days in Hong Kong observing the protests, said he believes FireChat’s phenomenal growth among the protesters was due to several reasons. First, Hong Kong not only has one of the highest density’s of smartphones in the world, it also has one of the highest population density’s in the world, making it much easier for FireChat’s hyperlocal networks to form.

[pullquote person=”Christophe Daligault” attribution=”Christophe Daligault, CMO, Open Garden” id=”899765″]“I slept 12 hours that week, and I got more sleep than our developers.”[/pullquote]

While the Chinese government never shut down cellular networks during the protests, there was plenty of fear that it would. And in places like Central and the Admiralty, there was such a density of protesters that cellular networks become too congested to be used reliably, Benoliel said. Finally, protesters latched onto FireChat’s anonymity.

Users registered under pseudonyms and fake email addresses, and by using local mesh networking they were basically able to keep their communications below the internet’s radar. There was no way to centrally track a user or censor the app or any messages. Not even Open Garden could see these hyperlocal conversations because those communications never hit its servers. The messages would proliferate directly from phone to phone and then just disappear.

FireChat, however, isn’t a secure communications tool. It’s designed to show all messages to anyone who happens to be in range to see them, which makes it great for open social networking. But it also means that it’s just as easy for a government agent as it is for a protest organizer to see or participate in a conversation as long they’re part of the same ad hoc network.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT1j8V-P1PQ]

During the weeks of the Hong Kong protests, Open Garden’s developers started adding new features like verified IDs, which allowed trusted voices like journalists to sacrifice their anonymity to deliver more reliable information. The startup’s devs also began tackling the more difficult task of building encrypted direct messaging channels in the app, which can still be used over local peer-to-peer connections.

“I slept 12 hours that week, and I got more sleep than our developers,” CMO Daligault said. Open Garden wasn’t just experimenting with social networking anymore. It was actively trying to optimize its app so it could be used as a protest and political organization tool.

Coming full circle

Open Garden is in a rather odd place. It was founded as a startup trying to change the way we think of internet access, but today it finds itself a social messaging company.

Benoliel readily admits the focus of Open Garden is now squarely on FireChat. The company is trying to find more contexts for which its app will be useful behind protests and public festivals, so it can grow its user base (Open Garden isn’t releasing any specific numbers on FireChat subscribers though it said it has now seen 8 million downloads of all of its apps).

Open Garden will put its bandwidth sharing apps on the backburner, but it’s not abandoning them. In fact, the bandwidth-sharing app and FireChat have a lot more in common than you might think.

Ultimately Open Garden is company trying change the architecture of the internet by turning the billions of devices that connect to its fringes more than just endpoints, CTO Shalunov said. Bandwidth sharing and off-grid messaging are just two examples of applications that can make good use of that architecture. Open Garden’s mistake, Shalunov said, is that it started with the wrong application.

Open Garden, mesh network

Open Garden plans to build more apps on its mesh technology, and in fact, its business model depends on it. It makes no revenues from any of its apps today, but in the future it plans to sell access to its APIs to developers. It’s already laid the groundwork for this with a small company called TrackR, which builds Bluetooth tags that let you keep tabs on your valuables. TrackR is using Open Garden’s growing FireChat network to scan for lost items, effectively putting millions of smartphones to work monitoring its tags in the internet of things.

Eventually Open Garden wants to license its technologies to mobile carriers and ISPs. That idea might sound a little far-fetched since it would require competing operators to share their bandwidth with one another. That’s a hard concept for an operator to wrap its mind around, said Don Hutchison, former GM of cable broadband company [email protected] and one of Open Garden’s seed investors, but Hutchison said Open Garden convinced him that ISPs and carriers will eventually start looking at such shared networking models. It’s just a more efficient way to use a finite broadband resource and deliver connectivity to the masses, Hutchison said.

“If it’s going to happen at all, it’s going to be a third party like Open Garden that will engender it,” he said.

Open Garden has a lot of potential, but there is no proverbial low-hanging fruit for this company. If it wants to sell access to its network, it needs to build that network to a grand scale. You can’t sell hyperconnectivity and hyperlocation if there aren’t enough users to actually form a network at any given place.

And the carriers, well, they’re carriers. Their networks are their most valuable assets. Sharing them just isn’t in their DNA. Even Hutchison admits it will be tough to convince them Open Garden’s technology is in their best interests.

But apart from the operators, Open Garden also will have to convince consumers to share their devices’ radios and internet connections. We’ve come to think of our home and mobile connections as our own private driveways onto the internet, but for Open Garden’s model to work we’ll have to think of our devices as part of larger network. Our neighbors will have just as much right to access our radios — if not our actual data plans — as we will. That’s going to be a hard sell.

But Shalunov thinks that’s a cultural hurdle society will eventually overcome once the benefits of forming these grand meshes are fully explained. People who use FireChat, for the most part, understand that their devices are all creating a communal communications network and that they’re better able to chat because of it. It’s not that much further of a leap to get people to accept the idea of sharing their actual internet connections, Shalunov said.

“Technical limitations form our cultural expectations,” Shalunov said. “Once you remove those technical limitations then cultural expectations change.”