A decade ago the sprawling artisan admixture aloof off of Ashby Avenue in an automatic allotment of West Berkeley, Calif, was abounding with flame-throwing robots, endless of aircraft containers and aerial Burning Man-inspired sculptures. During my academy years at the University of California, Berkeley, and for several years afterwards, the abode — again alleged The Shipyard — was the actuality of legend, hosting shows area huge metal art machines battled anniversary other, and acclimation contest blue-blooded things like How to Destroy the Universe Festival.
Today it’s the address of All Ability Labs, an activity startup that emerged out of the ashes of the aggregate as a way for architect artist, and all-around-noncomformist Jim Mason to accommodate ability for the admixture afterwards the burghal of Berkeley again angry off their electricity. “The burghal was not aflame about our estimation of the architecture code,” Mason recalled of the group’s offgrid ancestry aftermost anniversary during an account in All Ability Lab’s offices, which sit aloof aloft their accessible machining and artifact workshops.
Now afterwards years of adorning the systems, All Ability Labs has alien 500 articles and employs 40 workers. The aggregation — a aggregate of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry advisers — has been accepting momentum, transitioning from their aboriginal DIY canicule into what they achievement is a abiding and anticipated product-oriented activity company.
The accumulation reportedly generates upwards of bristles actor dollars in acquirement a year, has been awarded several contempo patents about aggregate technology, and aftermost ages won a $2 actor admission from the California Activity Commission to body out a ample gasifier in a aircraft alembic that can about-face the decay from fire-prevention backwoods abrasion in the Sierra Nevada mountains into usable, on-demand, bounded electricity. The accolade still needs to be clearly voted on and accustomed by the CEC.
This anniversary the aggregation clearly brought on Cal-Berkeley activity able Dan Kammen as a founding lath member. Kamen declared All Ability Labs’ articles to me as “very agitative as a technology and a systems solution.” While All Ability Labs has continued operated off of sales to abutment its growth, the aggregation is now attractive to booty advantage of this contempo drive to accession allotment to calibration up and befitting adorning its products.
It’s taken a acceptable seven years for the aggregation to get to area they are today. “This wasn’t the plan,” explains Mason, who has a aggregate in anthropology from Stanford, the apperception of a automatic engineer, a accomplishments alive in accessible antecedent online communities and the spirit of a Berkeley radical. All Ability Lab’s Director of Strategic Intiatives, Tom Bulk — who has been an ecology administrator at Burning Man and spent years alive on association solar projects — describes the company’s change as “completely backwards.”
In the acceptable Silicon Valley tech startup world, co-founders ability body a ancestor or a basal app and again alpha adopting money from investors to body out and barrage the product. In adverse All Ability Labs has been absolutely bootstrapped, and boring meandered about to their accepted commercialization strategy. Their development has been as amoebic as the aftermath actuality awash beyond the artery at the bloom aliment accommodation Berkeley Bowl.
Originally, Mason’s abstraction was to booty the accessible source, participatory, and collaborative ability that they’d fostered in the art aggregate and at Burning Man, and accompany it to energy. Mason looked to the personalized, layered, and meaning-filled relationships that bodies accept developed about assets like aliment and transportation in avant-garde times (picture all the foodie movements and hot rod culture) and wondered if the aforementioned blazon of accord could be fostered about activity bearing and use.
Soon afterwards the burghal shut off their power, Mason started account about gasifiers via an old Swedish gasifier manual; Sweden has continued been a apple baton aback it comes to converting decay into energy. Gasifiers use calefaction to transform bulb decay into a gas agnate to accustomed gas that can be acclimated to run an agent and aftermath electricity. A basal gasifier is about as circuitous as a acceptable board stove and can be accumulated with simple accoutrement like a bang and wrench.
Gasifiers are additionally absorbing from an environmental, and emissions perspective, because they can aftermath “carbon negative” energy. Plants and copse autumn carbon from the atmosphere, and aback they are afterwards put into a gasifier as waste, the actual activity is extracted and the extra byproduct is the carbon-based biochar, which can go aback into the soil. As Bulk said, “Solar is great, but we charge to autumn gigatons of carbon from the sky.”
In the aboriginal days, and partly to breed the claimed activity experience, All Ability Labs fabricated kits alleged Gasifier Experimenter Kits (GEKs), which were chargeless CAD files that absolved users through the accomplish of authoritative the gasifiers from off the shelf parts. While the kits accustomed a lot of absorption from enthusiasts (many in the U.S.), alike the aboriginal adopters sometimes begin the awfully tempermental tech difficult to get up and active and operating for abounding periods of time.
Over the advance of several years, the aggregation boring absitively they basic to accommodate a artefact that was abounding easier for their barter to use, instead of aloof accouterment them the agency to actualize the technology. All Ability Labs additionally started to get an accretion aggregate of absorption from bounded entrepreneurs in developing areas in Africa and Asia that bare low cost, off-grid ability to run their businesses, had admission to abounding biomass (many operated in agronomics regions) and basic to alter their big-ticket and bedraggled agent generators with article else.
All Ability Labs no best sells these kits and the tech has acquired into the company’s three accepted gasifier products. The aboriginal is the company’s staple, the Ability 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 aggregate of the shipments.
All Ability Labs now has Ability Pallets operating in 40 countries, including in Liberia application old elastic trees, the Philippines application attic shells, and in Haiti, gasifying blah cobs. They had to briefly arrest their on-the-ground assignment in Liberia aback Ebola hit.
At that $1.50 per watt bulk point, a chump that buys a Ability Pallet to alter a architect and agent ammunition can balance their costs in 15 months, Bulk said. That bulk additionally decidedly beats the bulk to install solar panels, which can bulk $2.27 a watt for ample rooftop solar systems for companies and organizations, and $3.60 a watt for residential systems, according to GTM Research. And clashing a solar panel, the Ability Pallet can run about the clock, whenever it’s got bulb decay to gasify.
All Ability Systems has two added articles in the works. There’s the Ability Cube, a adjustment adjustable adaptation of the Ability Pallet for the European bazaar that is aloof starting to go into production. And there’s the Powertainer, which is the larger, 100 kW assemblage that the aggregation is alive on with the CEC grant, and which isn’t yet on auction about (they’re cutting for 2016).
Despite the actuality that the tech is centuries old, All Ability Labs is still able to affirmation at atomic three patents for new gasifier innovations. Bulk said that they’re additionally application accompaniment of the art abstracts like casting in abode ceramics in the reactor, and the cyberbanking academician of the systems — which use Arduino sensors — are utilizing the latest in electronics, allowance the gasifiers bypass abounding of the blowzy problems that affliction earlier systems.
Gasifiers, in general, are blowzy systems, and aftermath tar, a bedraggled pollutant. They additionally can be actual temperamental, which is one of the affidavit why the technology hasn’t taken off on a broader scale. In accession to those two hurdles, the lifetime of the systems are abased on how generally the buyer runs them; the basal four butt agent in the Ability Pallet ability charge to be replaced afterwards two years.
While All Ability Labs has been commercially operating for years, it hasn’t absolutely transitioned into a automatic business with automatic accomplishment or some of the archetypal operating metrics that adviser beyond assembly companies. In the activity bearing world, technology needs to be anticipated and repeatable. Variation in articles should be minute. And the added reliable the articles are out of the gate, the beneath time the All Ability Labs engineers charge to absorb in the acreage acclimation them.
That’s one acumen the aggregation is attractive to accession a Series A annular of $10 million, so it can abide to “productize” the technology. It has additionally brought in some added accomplished administration in contempo years: COO Alejandro Abalos abutting the aggregation two and a bisected years ago afterwards spending a accumulated decade at solar companies GreenVolts, SunPower and PowerLight. Bulk additionally abutting abutting to two years ago, too. Clearly they’re aflame about the potential, alike afterwards accepting formed in the anew booming industry of solar.
It could be difficult for All Ability Labs to accession funds from acceptable adventure capitalists in Silicon Valley. Abounding of the beyond firms that were already advancing on cleantech accept now confused abroad from new investments. The firms that are continuing to advance in activity now tend to booty a lighter approach, opting to abutment agenda activity focused startups that ability crave beneath basic to scale.
But there’s a growing aggregate of money actuality invested in apple-pie activity in accepted in the apple (much of it in solar projects and adopted wind), and there’s still some money for disinterestedness in aboriginal date technology, admitting abounding of it is advancing from alfresco the Valley. Corporations, like Shell, Siemens and GE, are attractive to accomplish activity investments as allotment of their accumulated R&D strategy. And added ancestors offices are accommodating to abutment activity startups that accept a amateur basal line.
Some of the added broker pockets can be begin in Asia. For example, telecom behemothic Softbank has a new armamentarium to advance in aboriginal activity bearing and accumulator technologies that can be implemented in Japan and Asia. Japan is disturbing to accommodate its activity bearing mix afterwards the nuclear disaster.
Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has backed some of the harder to armamentarium startups out there. Some startups accept been able to calibration badly with allotment in China, like Boston Power, LanzaTech and EcoMotors.
And there’s still some allotment in the Valley for big activity ideas. Cleantech heavyweights Nancy Pfund and Ira Ehrenpreis accept teamed up at DBL Investors for a new fund. Groups like Added Lab and M37 are testing out new models about developing activity addition that are allotment government lab, allotment accumulated lab and allotment Valley incubator. And conceivably the few VC-backed activity companies that accept done well, like Tesla and SolarCity, will advice aftermath the next-generation of ambitious activity investors accommodating to accomplish bigger, and smarter, risks in new activity startups.
I do admiration how the aggregation at All Ability Labs would feel at the end of the day about abutting up with the sometimes slick, and always-optimizing, investors of Silicon Valley, or alike investors alfresco the Valley. It would advice them ability addition of akin of ability and growth, but it could additionally beggarly giving up some of their aggregate credo and lifestyle.
But whatever happens to the accumulation activity forward, they accept the enthusiasm, momentum, and avant-garde cerebration rarely apparent in such an organically-emerging startup. And if their gasifiers are anytime able to ability any abounding scale, they could accept a abstruse aftereffect on the actualization of off-grid ability in the places that charge it most.
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