Serial entrepreneur and Heliogen CEO Bill Gross calls it the Sunlight Refinery. In the fall of 2019, the Pasadena startup unveiled a Lancaster facility designed to capture carbon-free thermal energy at over 1,000 degrees Celsius using a cluster of mirrors.
Gross wants the system to power heavy industries like cement and steel processing and replace fossil fuels with entirely renewable energy.
On Tuesday, the company got a boost. It announced a $108 million investment from giants including the mining company ArcelorMittal and Edison International to deploy the system around the world.
"This infusion of new support for Heliogen comes at a time when the paradigm shift toward clean energy is even further accelerated by the new realities the world is facing," Gross said in a statement.
The founder nurtured the startup in his own Idealab incubator, also based in Pasadena, which has so far birthed some 150 companies tackling carbon emissions and global warming.
"We are trashing the Earth," Gross said to a crowd at last year's Upfront Summit. "The world is completely ready [for clean energy]. I am very passionate about making this a reality in my lifetime."
The lofty raise includes two separate funding rounds: a $25 million round followed by an oversubscribed $83 million boost that pulled in the new backers. Add those to Heliogen's previous investors: Bill Gates, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Nant Capital and others.
It comes three months after the company announced it would launch the AI-powered system at Rio Tinto's borates mine in Boron, California. Once set up, the system will power the mine by creating and storing carbon-free energy from solar heat — a move that would drop carbon emissions at the site "significantly," according to the company.
The company will sink the money into deploying the systems first in the U.S. before "other regions with strong solar resources."
"We're being granted the resources to do more projects that address the most carbon-intensive human activities and work toward our goals of lowering the price and emissions of energy for everyone on the planet," Gross said in a statement.
The goal, he continued, is a "post-carbon economy."
Two months ago, Ken Lian, co-founder and CEO of Cheese, applied for a checking account at a major bank. He was rejected again, despite his sterling 800+ credit score.
Since immigrating from China to the U.S. in 2008 he has been routinely denied from opening bank accounts, had to pay thousands of dollars in fees and been limited to the least desirable no-rewards credit cards.
"This is a common issue," he said.
So, Lian decided to start his own challenger bank aimed at Asian Americans and other recent immigrants. It launches Wednesday with a zero-fee debit card offering cash back rewards, putting a modern twist on what Pasadena-based East West Bank has done since 1973.
"We run it not like a bank but put users first," Lian said. "We really are putting the user at the center."
While traditional banks frown on frequent address and phone number changes, Cheese takes a more holistic approach. It is looking at accepting visas and other forms of identification. The bank will also market in places favored by immigrants – think WeChat rather than Facebook – and is partnering with community leaders to help reach a population that has historically been distrustful of banks.
"Both my parents are immigrants and they have a lot of problems walking into a bank and feeling comfortable with that experience," said actor and advocate Jimmy Wong, Cheese's chief community ambassador.
There are nearly 21 million Asian Americans living in the U.S. and they represent the fastest growing, most affluent and educated of any racial or ethnic group.
A quarter of all households don't have full access banking services and half of foreign-born noncitizens are unbanked or underbanked, according to the FDIC.
Cheese co-founders from left to right: Zhen Wang, Ken Lian, Qingyi Li.
Based in Pasadena, Cheese, which is named for the popular slang term for money, is national but has a focus on three cities with the largest Asian populations – San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.
Though targeted at Asian Americans, anyone can sign up and Cheese said its waiting list is multiracial, with a third of prospective users self-identifying as Black and another third as white.
Lian worked a brief stint in business development in 2016 at Honey, the browser extension that helps consumers find deals and rewards and was acquired by PayPal in 2019. From that, he said he learned the popularity of rewards, which Cheese plans to dole out liberally.
Users can earn up to 10% cash back at popular merchants like Netflix and Starbucks as well as Asian grocers 99 Ranch Market and YamiBuy.
As part of its launch, Cheese has pledged $100,000 to nonprofits and community service programs in support of Asian neighborhoods and businesses hardest hit by hate crimes and economic hardship during the pandemic.
Cheese is the just the latest VC-backed challenger bank to target niche demographics including Black and LGBTQ people and take on the legacy banking industry. OnJuno, which launched last year in San Francisco, also caters to Asian immigrants.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify where the bank's service is offered, as well as accepted id verification.
Elementary Robotics, one of Los Angeles' top robotics startups, announced Tuesday it has raised $12.7 million in Series A funding to continue developing and deploying its automation products at scale.
Co-founded in 2017 by Bill Gross of Idealab and Arye Barnehama, a Pomona College dropout and former head of design at Daqri, the company says its mission is to assist people by "automating day-to-day repetitive tasks" but it adds cryptically on its website: "We can't detail too much about the technology because we're still in stealth mode."
"I'm extremely excited to go public with what we're building, continue to support more companies with their quality and traceability needs, and grow the Elementary team to expand and deploy our innovative platform," said Barnehama.
In 2018, Gross described to TechCrunch why he was bullish on the company. "Up until now, robotic actuation was mostly about super rigid, super stiff, super strong, repeatable actuation, mostly for manufacturing. But with the recent advances in computer vision, machine learning, and adaptive learning, now you can have a robot that is gentler, less stiff, but MORE (sic) accurate using vision as your feedback system," Gross wrote in an e-mail. "This is a game-changer, and opens up a new frontier of lower cost, easier to program, easier to use robotics for more mainstream operations."
This latest round was led by Menlo Park's Threshold Ventures (formerly DFJ), an early-stage investor in disruptive technology companies and also had participation from existing investors Fika Ventures, Fathom Capital, Ubiquity Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures.
"Elementary Robotics is one of a handful of 'new wave' intelligent automation companies contending that the application of AI and robotics will enable a novel set of functions that legacy providers are ill-equipped to address," said Mo Islam, partner at Threshold Ventures. "We were immediately impressed with Elementary's true software-first approach and its ability to deliver on it."
The valuation was not disclosed but the company last raised $13 million of funding in November at a $48 million post-money valuation, according to Pitchbook data.