Startup Phononic raises $44M for solid state heating and cooling

Semiconductors have transformed many modern industries (computers! LEDs!) and if startup Phononic has its way it will change heating and cooling, too. On Wednesday, Phononic announced that it’s secured a series D round of $44.5 million in financing to help get more of its next-gen heating and cooling products out there in the market.

Phononic's heat pump compared to a traditional compressor.

Phononic’s heat pump compared to a traditional compressor.

The company is using thermoelectric materials — which are semiconductors that can turn heat into electricity — to create products that can make use of wasted heat (like in a car engine or power plant flue) or use electricity to remove heat (like in a refrigerator). Phononic has been pretty solely focused on next-gen cooling products up to this point, and the team has made things like solid-state heat pumps that can be used in compressor-free refrigeration units (a super quiet, efficient fridge) and fan-free cooling products for electronics like servers and computer graphics cards (a computer that doesn’t turn on a noisy fan when hot).

Phononic is currently shipping products for those electronics customers, and it will also start shipping a quiet efficient refrigerator for labs, research centers and medical facilities next year. The company has also been working on residential products — a quiet home wine chiller and replacements for window-mounted air conditioners — with a partner in China and plans to introduce those residential products in early 2015.

Clearly North Carolina-based Phononic’s thermoelectric materials have a lot of applications, but figuring out the killer products that could take off commercially will be the next step for the company. This latest round is intended for growth and scale. Here’s an interview I did with Phononic CEO Anthony Atti in 2011 when they were first developing the technology behind these products.

Phononic received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to work on the technology and later raised funding from Valley investors Venrock and Oak Investment Partners. To scale the residential-focused tech Phononic is focused on Asia, and in its Series C round brought in Beijing-based Tsing Capital.

Phononic's heat pump at the company's facility

Phononic’s heat pump at the company’s facility

The Series D round was led by Eastwood Capital Corp, the Wellcome Trust and a syndicate made up by WLR China Energy Infrastructure Fund, Tsing Capital, Venrock, Oak and Rex Health Ventures. Phononic has raised about $78 million to date.

First Solar’s former President-turned-investor Bruce Sohn and “Anthony Fadell” (I’m thinking this is Nest Labs CEO and investor Tony Fadell) are listed on the latest SEC filing, indicating they could also be investors. I’ll update this when I hear back from Phononic on whether or not Fadell and Sohn are investors. Nest was also backed by Venrock.

Other startups are working on using thermoelectric materials to capture waste heat at oil drilling, mining and power plant sites. Alphabet Energy recently launched the world’s first industrial scale thermoelectric generator, which captures waste heat from the exhaust stack of a diesel generator, and converts that heat into usable electricity. When installed in an offgrid remote location, the product can significantly reduce the amount of diesel fuel needed.

While Alphabet Energy scales up thermoelectrics on a large scale, other startups are using thermoelectrics to go small. Stealthy Silicium Energy is looking to develop thermoelectrics for wearable computing that can increase battery life.

Energy and tech butting heads over $5.2B Texas battery project

A battle is brewing in Texas over a power company’s $5.2 billion plan to install batteries in its network of power lines to help it manage its supply and demand more efficiently. The fight also reflects how new technology is disrupting the power generation and delivery business across the country.

When is that digital transformation finally going to happen?


source Flickr via Eksley

In a post last week, I stated what I consider to be one of the undeniable facts about business today, that high performance now is based on modern work technologies:

Stowe Boyd, Startups know what giants don’t: work tech is core to high performance, now
Work in the highest performing companies, and by the highest performers in other companies, increasingly has web- and mobile-centric work tech at its core. High performance today is predicated on working socially in fluid, nimble, and self-organized networks, and these are sparked and sustained by social tools that allow high degrees of cooperation between highly autonomous individuals connected through software-enabled work graphs.
This stands in distinction to the immediate past, and the techniques used in less productive companies or less productive individuals in high performing companies. These individuals and organizations think of work tech as an adjunct to work, a nice-to-have but ultimately non-essential apparatus than only — at the best — speeds up other approaches to communication, coordination, and cooperation. They operate as if email and phones are really all that’s needed, and the rest is — at best — frosting on the cake.

The mismatch between this appreciation of the central role of digital technologies in the realization of today’s corporate imperatives is the key reason for the growing rift in the corporation between IT management and the CEO. As Laura Stuart relates in her fourth quarter Buyer’s Lens analysis and outlook, companies are striving to move ahead with new technologies — like the transition to cloud-based work technologies — and are held back by poor IT management:

  • For many companies, technology and technology management are the constraining factors in their corporations’ response to change and growth. As a result, other departments from marketing, HR, and finance to lines of business are getting more directly involved in technology acquisition and management, forming what has become known as shadow IT organizations. This dynamic itself is further advancing the move to the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) delivery that makes such direct involvement feasible.
  • Organizations need more CEO, board-level, and line-of-business engagement to grasp technology-driven market change and set resultant corporate and technology strategies. A proliferation of titles and new formal roles are effectively creating a shadow CIO function to guide technology strategy at the same time that CIOs need to effectively become shadow chairmen, providing direction on technology’s impact on board-level issues.
  • Standards are still forming around integrated online and in-store marketing and services. With technology driving everything from high-visibility credit card and other customer privacy breaches to the constraint on an organization’s ability to respond to market changes, issues of both technology opportunity and risk must percolate to the board level. The inadequacy of formal board structures to address technology risk reflects how few organizations have come to terms with the new environment.

As Laura and other GigaOM analysts have pointed out, these issues — added to the fundamental disconnect that I mentioned at the outset, that high performance requires the adoption of advanced work tech — set the stage for what is likely to be a dizzying rethinking of IT management in 2014.
And the most obvious response is a refactoring of the role of IT in the business by rebooting the idea of the CIO. In the early 1900s, when electricity was a brand new technology, companies had VPs of Electricity. Just so, when computers and networks became available, companies went outside and hired a geek with an appropriate degree and a pocket protector, and made him (or her) CIO. Those days are past. We no longer see any VP of Electricity, and in a world where ‘computication’ is the bloodstream and nervous system of the business the premise of an IT department makes no sense. It’s like having a department of human language, or rational thought. These can’t be sequestered to a group a wizards in the basement, and neither can IT.
So, we are seeing the continued rise of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO), as I wrote about last year (see Leading digital (and social) change in the business). The stark truth is that CIOs have the wrong mindset to transform businesses to meet the challenges of today’s world, and it may be a mistake to imagine that they should. But is is clear that making the transition to a new way of operations is critical.
As I said in Overview of my Social Now talk: The Future Of Work In A Social World,

The arrival of social tools is one part of a larger, swirling mess of large-scale change smashing into our lives like a tornado, and tearing the roof off the world of business. The elements of that mess all influence each other — tech factors like digital, mobile, and the cloud, societal shifts like urbanization, new media, and the always-on lifestyle, and correspondingly massive stressors like climate change, globalism, the shifting social contract, and the boom/bust cycle of the world economy — these seem to be the new normal in the 21st century. The new normal is that there is no normal anymore. Welcome to the Postnormal.

And we need a CDO-style figure in most businesses — if not the CEO — to make that transition to a postnormal footing, where work technology is at the core of what everyone does, not an afterthought or add-on. The inability of traditional IT to deliver on the promise of today’s technology is the universal business facepalm of our day.

Bring Your Own Wearable

The trend lines for BYOD (bring your own device) are running up and to the right pretty fast. July 2013 research suggests 80 percent of respondents agree that BYOD is the “new normal” (even though only 45 percent have a formal BYOD policy in their company). My bet is that the security concerns that have hindered more widespread adoption will decrease. The recent enhancements of iOS 7 relative to enterprise concerns has led to large increases in buying plans for iPhones and iPad, for example, (see Amazon Workspaces now on iPad).

The additional cost of wearables and the complexities in their use make it harder for companies to ask their employees to switch to company gear. Besides, at least at this point, the average company is unlikely to feel that it should shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for wearables for its workers. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be happy to gain whatever productivity increase comes from their use.

The recent CES conference has stirred a great deal of excitement for wearable devices, despite the fact there really weren’t any world-beater products released there. But the geeky otherworldliness of Google Glass and the yearnings for iWatch are leading to a great deal of speculation about the wearable world to come. So, here’s a few observations:

Wearables will accelerate BYOD — The increased reliance on companion devices (so-called mobile: smartphones and tablets) will only increase when people acquire wearables. Some devices will only pair with certain OSs. Google Glass pairs with Android and iOS devices, and may pair with others they recommend only those two at present. We can expect similar pairings with Apple and other companies’ products. As a result, people who have acquired a smartwatch or some headgear that works well with their iPhone 6 will be even more disadvantaged and unproductive if they have to take off their rig every morning.

Note that since these wearable connect to smartphones and other devices, there don’t introduce a great deal of new security issues. That means they will speed not slow adoption of non-wearable devices in the business setting.

The additional cost of wearables and the complexities in their use make it harder for companies to ask their employees to switch to company gear. Besides, at least at this point, the average company is unlikely to feel that it should shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for wearables for its workers. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be happy to gain whatever productivity increase comes from their use.

BYOW undercut centralized IT even more than BYOD has — Since companies *won’t* take on the burden of outfitting these devices — which may wind up being some of the most used communications devices that people will be using — IT will start to look less and less central to the provisioning of the workforce, and more like the way that IT originally started: tending enterprise applications in the back room. The rise of desktop computers and networking pulled the dweebs out of the basement, and inserted them intot he foreground of everyday business operations.

Many companies had a Vice President of Electricity in the early 1900s, when electric power was a breakthrough and an esoteric innovation that few understood and which powered expensive machinery that only trained experts were permitted to touch. But with respect to ‘computication’ devices — like laptops, tablets, smartphones, and now wearables — the opposite is the case. Everyone knows how they work. They are low-cost and ubiquitous. So the time has come to chase the IT guys out of the building, and to aggressively move all enterprise software as fast as humanly possible to cloud services, and where companies will rent IT expertise by the hour, and it will be of higher quality and more up-to-date.

Wearables will be like the future, unevenly distributed — Some functions in business will adopt Google Glass-style headgear as fast as possible. Military, obviously. A great proportion of field workers, like construction, warehousing, security, policing, and the like, will likely be outfitted with headgear since it will free their hands, and allow for easy sharing of visuals. But I expect will see very fast adoption in retail, medical/hospital, and other customer/patient/client facing roles, so that information pertinent to customers can be readily accessed, and when connected to tablets, can be shared with them in real time. In these cases, the companies (or governments) will pay for the gear. And at some much later date, a trip to the DMV might have a clerk say to me — before I’ve said a word! — “Hello, Mr. Boyd. Are you hear to get a license renewal? I see you only have a few months left on your current one.”

Smart watches will spread even faster, because of their lesser geekiness factor and lower cost. I predict this will be the fastest adoption curve of all time, with hundreds of millions sold in the 12 moths following the release of a killer product, like an iWatch (2014) or a low-cost second generation Glass (2015?).

Wearables are the ultimate in the personalization of technology, often called consumerization. These gizmos will be touching our skin, perhaps 24 hours a day. We will be wearing them in the bathroom, while eating, while making love, and, yes, while in meetings with clients, and while doing a talk’n’walk with a colleague. They will become indispensable immediately, the way that laptops did for the mobile worker in the ’90s, and smartphones did in the ’00s.

The time has come to chase the IT guys out of the building, and to aggressively move all enterprise software as fast as humanly possible to cloud services, and where companies will rent IT expertise by the hour, and it will be of higher quality and more up-to-date.

And they will increase the value of smartphones in a non-additive way, making us less reliant than we might otherwise have become on tablets. Tablets are now — in a world about to be swamped with wearables — more likely to be seen as a replacement for laptops and desktops, rather than a big smartphone.

The implications of wearables for business are very, very rich, and they will become the foreground of communications in business very, very quickly.

A solar boom so successful, it’s been halted

In an attempt to jump on the solar trend, many homeowners in Oahu plunked down an investment on rooftop photovoltaic systems — but the response was so overwhelming, Scientific American reported, that the local electric company couldn’t manage the scale. The solar grid by Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) was not built to withstand the level of solar energy surging through it, meaning that residences will have to foot the bill for an upgrade. Scaling solar is a complicated issue fraught with many costs — but how much will everyday citizens have to pay to make green energy accessible?

One month with the Chevy Volt; so far, so very, very good

Has it really been four weeks since we bought a Chevy Volt to supplement our 41 solar panels? Indeed it has and after topping 1,300 miles we’re about to fill the gas tank for the very first time. Here’s how the initial month of driving went.

This small plug and your smartphone could save you electricity

Looking to cut down or measure the energy usage of an appliance? MeterPlug is one option. This small pass-through device watches electricity consumption in real-time to a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. It also cuts power when an appliance isn’t in use, helping to save electricity.