Three showstopping start-ups that aim to disrupt industry
Last month several fledgling firms pitched for investment on a live stream jointly hosted by tech start-up support forum ShowStoppers and a range of investors belonging to the Keiretsu Forum Southern California.
From electric flying machines to a plasma boring robot that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Star Wars, TechInformed attended the online roadshow as it reached SoCal to look at the most promising three pitches for enterprise.
EarthGrid’s “boring” robot
Founded in 2016 by clean energy entrepreneur Troy Helming, EarthGrid has developed a technology that it claims can dig underground tunnels a hundred times faster than conventional tech at a price that’s almost 100% cheaper.
Traditional tunnels are carved mechanically with big rotary boring machines. It is generally considered slow work and expensive due to the frequent tool maintenance and replacement required.
An alternative (although still relatively new technique) to have emerged in the past decade is thermal spallation drilling, which blasts away rock at high temperatures.
What EarthGrid has devised is a process around spallation drilling which places multiple burners onto large discs held out in front of a burrowing robot.
The bot fires on all torches at once and rotates the torch-bearing discs to ensure full coverage, blasting the rock backward and collecting it into small pushcarts, each connected along the cable supplying electricity to the drill rig.
In his colourful video pitch for his firm’s new burrowing method, Helming nodded to Star Wars for a forceful pitch: “Imagine a robot with ten light sabres on the front boring through holes vaporising all the rock and soil with a Mandalorian jet back on the back blowing out all the little bits of rock and it can go so fast and is so much cheaper than everything else out there.”
In a galaxy closer to home, according to Helming, EarthGrid’s boring robots will mean tunnel work will cost just 10% of the current cost of boring because the only operating costs involved are electricity and air.
“That also means that there will be no impact to the environment – we are not using chemicals and we will be using renewable energy to power it,” he added.
The entrepreneur adds that the fact that the bots are much faster also enables projects once thought of as unfeasible to become economically viable.
“We can bore at speeds of 1000 meters – that’s 1km per day – that’s almost 100 times faster than anything Elon Musk has done,” boasted Helming.
The latter statement is a reference to Musk’s The Boring Company which uses electric tunnel boring technology. Careful not to dig himself into any holes however, Helming told TechInformed that he was grateful to Musk for highlighting the importance of underground infrastructure and hopes to partner with The Boring Company eventually.
If the tech sounds ambitious enough, the firm’s business plan is equally bold, with promises of bringing “infrastructure 2.0” to the world – building a network of utility tunnels under the roads for electricity, water, communication and waste firms, which it also intends to run.
Helming – who has founded and sold four energy companies in the past including billion-dollar US wind farm company Tradewind Energy – predicts that his technology will soon be in demand as current infrastructure has not been designed for the proliferation of 5G data centres, electric vehicles and “the electrification of everything”.
He adds: “All this is going to cause a 3X grid demand and our creaking old grid in this country [US] cannot handle that – there’s an infrastructure gap between now and 2030 of over $2 trillion.”
Helming told the forum that EarthGrid would be looking to construct two types of tunnels – the 8ft kind for utilities and the 13ft kind for transport. The entrepreneur added that he plans to raise funding for the latter in a separate round later on.
According to EarthGrid, there are already firms willing to explore the potential of easier and cheaper tunnel digging.
The firm has manged to secure a number of contracts with privately held companies and is encouraged by the news that a major utility company in California has announced that it wants to bury 10,000 miles of power lines – an opportunity Helming hopes to grasp.
In a huge boost for the firm, it has been approved as a utility in California, New York, Washington State, Florida and two other US states.
Another partner to have come on board is Pipedream Labs, which is looking to use the network for underground e-commerce parcel transportation via pneumatic tubes.
The company, which claims to have a pre-money valuation of $30m, has raised $9m so far and, in its initially pre seeding funding round. It is asking (in this stage of its funding) for $5m investment to cover the costs of the robots and in legal fees and sales.
Zeva’s personal flying saucer
Conceived in 2018 by pilot and entrepreneur Stephen Tibbitts, Zero Emissions Vertical Aircraft – or ZEVA – is a one-person, clam shell shaped electrical take-off and landing vehicle (eVTOL) that its inventors claim is capable of flying though the sky at speeds up to 160mph.
The pilot stands vertically in the cockpit ahead of take-off, looking through a plexiglass window, before transitioning into forward flight mode, headfirst like Superman.
The Washington based start-up behind this remarkable looking flying machine adds that its small, light size means that it can take off and land from anywhere within a 50-mile radius as well as fit into a small parking space.
The carbon neutral octocopter is powered by eight electric motors (four on the top plane, four on the bottom plane) lending it a drone-like sound, while its appearance resembles a flying saucer from a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie.
And yet, thanks to four successful unmanned test flights of a full-sized prototype in January, which totalled more than four minutes of ‘hover’ time, its Zeva Aero model is being hailed as big step forward in the development of flying cars.
That’s because fewer than 10 eVTOL companies have achieved this status so far, according to Tibbitts, whose previous start ups include Silicon Reality, PICCO, FabLab LLC and Tigar Software.
As you can see from the test flight footage the vehicle was able to reach heights of about 40-50 feet and completed several 360-degree turns.
Last year, the start-up was also awarded a grant by Washington’s Joint Centre for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI) to work with Washington State University on the vehicle’s aerodynamic configurations – with the aim of using the findings to design a two plus passenger plane.
According to Zeva’s director of business development Jason Simas, who was presenting to Keiretsu ShowStoppers, Zeva is working on two different models, and he estimates it will take “two to three years” to bring these mini flying saucers to market.
Interestingly, to expediate receiving the correct approvals from the FAA, Simas told the forum that Zeva intends to sell its patent-pending product as an aircraft kit – meaning it will be completed by the purchaser (“something that’s extremely popular in the aircraft industry,” he claims). This way, it can be categorised as “an experimental craft” requiring a lower burden of certification, he added.
Zeva believes that the small light vehicle – which it claims boasts faster speeds than many vehicles in its category – would be ideal for first responders or for carrying emergency goods quickly over challenging terrain.
In Zeva’s pitch documents the firm claimed that it has also received customer interest from LA law enforcement, army special ops and the Navy – for ship to shore use.
Simas added that, after the emergency services, its next step would be to expand into the consumer space – where, he believes, the potential of growth is “limitless” with the aim to have “a Zeva every garage by 2040”.
To date, Zeva has raised $700k (some of this through equity crowd funding sites) and is looking for a further $15m in series A funding for continued flight testing, to expand industrial partnerships; to build new prototypes and new product introduction.
Sky Republic’s blockchain “for tomorrow’s supply chain”
From Brexit to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, shortage and disruptions in the supply chains are fast becoming a fact of life. But while people have been investing in systems to improve the supply chain since the 1980s, goods are still changing hands faster than related data and records.
Sky Republic, founded in 2016 by middleware exec Chris Fabre, believes that it has come up with a solution to this problem using blockchain tech “where others have failed”.
Modern systems that try to unify legacy business data – such as control towers, crypto currency and enterprise blockchains all fail to do so, says Fabre, because the ecosystems they run in pre-date the internet.
”They simply don’t fit in with the ERPs that companies have invested in for decades,” Fabre told the forum.
Sky Republic’s platform, he added, has been designed to integrate processes and data without affecting a business’s legacy applications and transactions standards.
The firm’s Atlas platform claims to automate digital supply chains with a mix of blockchain properties ‘under the hood’ drawing from distributed ledger technologies such as Ethereum, Fabric, Corda and blockchain middleware.
This enables the platform to use a “unique virtual machine and proven cryptography” that allows each smart contract to be notarised safely by one of the parties involved or one or multiple third parties like a blockchain consortium.
Business events and records are pushed in real time through the network to the right recipients. The firm claims that recipients can verify them on the fly through their local copy of a smart contract “so they don’t have to blindly trust smart contract notaries as they would in leading enterprise blockchains”.
Fabre explained: “Our blockchain mirrors assets on the old ERP systems. It doesn’t force them to change what they already have. We are recomposing data; we can augment their processes and data.”
The start-up has a long-standing partnership with airline IT services specialist Sita, using the technology to transform its complex maintenance, repair and overhead process by using NFT smart contracts to streamline maintenance.
Fabre adds that, ultimately, the technology is able to “shorten the length of time that aircraft is stuck on the ground due to part failing.
“We can also optimise schedule maintenance processes; and it can also give end-to-end visibility on part recalls and protect the value of the parts when they trade them.”
Subscribe to our Editor's weekly newsletter