CITRIS Foundry alumni innovate for a more sustainable world

Collage of four photos: a solar-powered air quality sensor with Clarity on the base mounted on a pole; two people reviewing a piece of paper standing in a tropical forest setting; a solar-powered sensor mounted on a power pole; a hand holding a cell phone showing the EcoCharge app next to an electric vehicle.
Images, from left to right, courtesy of Clarity Movement Co., New Sun Road, Gridware and WattTime.

This Earth Month, the spotlight shines on nine student and faculty startup successes out of the UC’s multicampus incubator program.

In the 10 years since the CITRIS Foundry opened its doors in 2013, the University of California’s deep tech incubator has supported more than 125 ventures, working to bring the innovations of faculty and students from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. 

As part of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS), the Foundry shares CITRIS’s mission of using information technology to address society’s greatest challenges. 

Nearly 20 percent of the companies that have completed the CITRIS Foundry program, including some of its most high-profile startups, are using their innovations to combat climate change, improve energy efficiency and create a more sustainable world. 

As the CITRIS Foundry welcomes its latest cohort under the guidance of new managing director Marc Theeuwes, we celebrate nine program alumni that are innovating to accelerate climate tech.

CalWave (2014 cohort)

Ocean waves off the coast of the United States have the potential to produce more than 2.5 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) — more than the amount generated by fossil fuels in the U.S. in 2022. However, as the World Economic Forum notes, the development of wave energy technology is “far behind” other renewable sources.

CalWave aims to harvest the enormous potential of ocean waves with its patented, fully autonomous energy generation technology, a submerged platform called the xWave. The system, winner of a 2016 DOE Wave Energy Prize, has been designed to withstand the notoriously harsh ocean environment with anti-corrosion and anti-biofoul coatings, and each device is projected to last more than 20 years.

Illustration of a person on a surfboard emblazoned with a charging-battery emblem, riding a large blue wave with an island peeking out behind them. A chicken stands at the very front of the board with one of its wings in a shaka or hang-loose sign.
Illustration by Dan Chapman

In September 2022, CalWave completed a successful 10-month open ocean test off the coast of San Diego. The xWave achieved 99 percent uptime and operated fully autonomously for about 80 percent of its operating time. Next up? CalWave will use a $7.5 million award from the DOE to test a bigger version of the xWave at the PacWave site off the coast of Oregon.

Clarity Movement Co. (2014 cohort)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called air pollution the “single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being,” contributing to nearly 7 million premature deaths each year through diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and stroke. 

With its low-cost sensor networks, Clarity Movement Co. makes air quality data more accessible, using an oft-repeated motto as motivation: If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it.

By making the hardware, software and know-how necessary to monitor air pollution affordable and accurate, Clarity Movement has seen its technology — including the solar-powered Clarity Node-S sensor and data visualization dashboard — adopted across the world. The company is now operating in more than 70 countries, with networks deployed from Accra, Ghana, to the Waikoto region of New Zealand. 

As of May 2022, Clarity Movement is also supporting the largest school-based air monitoring system in the United States through a public-private partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District in its home state of California. In August, Clarity raised $9.6 million in series A+ funding, which it will use to accelerate product development and continue to grow its global presence.

“The CITRIS incubator ecosystem was the ideal atmosphere for bringing our technology from the lab to a commercially viable solution,” said David Lu, co-founder and CEO of Clarity Movement Co. 

WattTime (2014 cohort)

WattTime is somewhat of an outlier among its Silicon Valley startup brethren: As a high-tech nonprofit, the organization aims to empower people, companies and policymakers to select cleaner power sources by analyzing grid emissions at a granular level and expanding its suite of emissions-reducing tools. 

“The guidance and support we received from CITRIS Foundry helped us jumpstart our growth and connected us with invaluable stakeholders and experts.”

Gavin McCormick, Watttime

Its flagship product, Automated Emissions Reduction (AER), is a set of environmental software tools that allows technology enabled with the Internet of Things (IoT), such as electric vehicles and smart thermostats, to automatically charge when the power grid will pull from less carbon-intensive sources. WattTime also pioneered emissionality, a technique that factors the location of renewable energy sources to prioritize building projects that displace more dirty energy sources on the grid.

In 2019, WattTime received a $1.7 million Google AI impact grant, which it used to co-found Climate TRACE alongside former Vice President Al Gore and others. The coalition of researchers and tech companies tracks greenhouse gas emissions across borders and sectors with the hope of holding polluters accountable. Climate TRACE released its most detailed global inventory in November 2022, identifying more than 70,000 sites that represent the top known sources of emissions. 

WattTime has formed a vast array of partnerships in recent years, working with brands such as Google Nest, Microsoft Windows and Xbox, and Salesforce to incorporate energy-saving options into their products and corporate strategies. In early 2023, WattTime announced a collaboration with Toyota Motor North America to bring its ECO Charging feature to Toyota and Lexus electric vehicles (EV), including the Prius Prime.

“The guidance and support we received from CITRIS Foundry helped us jumpstart our growth and connected us with invaluable stakeholders and experts,” said Gavin McCormick,WattTime’s founder and executive director.

Ayar Labs (fall 2015 cohort)

Data centers, like Amazon and Google’s massive server storage facilities, consume 10–50 times as much energy per square foot as a typical office building and account for roughly 2 percent of the United States’ total electricity use. 

The optoelectronic chips engineered by Ayar Labs, which use light to transmit data instead of metal wires, reduce energy usage in chip-to-chip communication by 95 percent while offering 10 times as much bandwidth as multi-chip packages that use copper. These ultra-efficient components could cut energy usage in data centers by 30–50 percent.

Ayar Labs has made strides toward commercialization in recent years, raising $130 million in series C funding in 2022 from investors such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Nvidia. The company will use the funds to solidify its supply chain and ramp up production of its TeraPHY optical input-output (I/O) chiplets and SuperNova light sources

New Sun Road (fall 2015 cohort)

New Sun Road develops smart remote control technology that enables solar microgrids to deliver reliable, renewable electricity and broadband internet to remote communities. As a registered public benefit corporation, the company is expressly guided by, and beholden to, its mission: to provide clean energy to underserved populations.

“Our team sees clean energy as the linchpin to sustainable development for economic empowerment and resilience in the face of climate change,” said CEO Adrienne Pierce.

New Sun Road’s Stellar line of products, which includes an integrated microgrid system, smart device controller and remote monitoring platform, made its debut in Uganda in 2015 and now, thanks in part to support from Microsoft, Stellar operates microgrids in more than 20 countries. 

“What I liked about the CITRIS Foundry was they didn’t push us into a particular mold for a startup, but took the time to understand the context of decisions we had to make.”

Jonathan Lee, New Sun Road

In 2022, New Sun Road announced a partnership with PG&E to control microgrids in wildfire-prone locations in California, replacing several miles of overhead powerlines near the remote communities of Paskenta, Mariposa and Ahwanee. 

“What I liked about the CITRIS Foundry was they didn’t push us into a particular mold for a startup,” said New Sun Road co-founder Jonathan Lee, “but took the time to understand the context of decisions we had to make.”

Coreshell Technologies (spring 2018 cohort)

Lithium-ion batteries are powerful, rechargeable and energy-dense, and their long lifespans have helped them become ubiquitous in consumer electronics such as smartphones and laptops. They’re also the most common battery used in electric vehicles, a market that’s expected to grow by leaps and bounds over the next decade. 

Illustration of a person behind the wheel of a battery-shaped vehicle, honking the horn with an annoyed expression. A chicken is crossing the road in a crosswalk, turned to the vehicle with an exasperated expression.
Illustration by Dan Chapman

However, lithium mining is labor- and water-intensive, and the batteries themselves are prone to catching fire and contain heavy metals that can leach out of landfills into water supplies. Safe disposal can be challenging, and recycling is inefficient and expensive.

Coreshell Technologies engineers nanolayer coatings for battery electrodes that makes their production 25 percent cheaper and 50 percent faster while also increasing safety, capacity and longevity. The company’s thin-film technology can be integrated into existing manufacturing processes for current lithium-ion designs, as well as designs in development that rely on other chemical compositions.

Building on support from one of the California Energy Commission’s first CalSEED clean tech grants, Coreshell raised $12 million in series A funding last year, led by Trousdale Ventures, Industry Ventures and Helios Capital Ventures. Its tech will hit the road — or rather, the dunes — for the first time soon, when the coating is used in an upcoming all-electric version of the iconic Meyers Manx electric beach buggy

Gridware (spring 2020 cohort)

In just the last five years, two catastrophic California wildfires — the 2018 Camp Fire, deadliest in the state’s history, and the 2021 Dixie Fire, its largest — shared a common cause: Both were sparked by downed power lines.

“CITRIS Foundry was the first to believe in my co-founder and me. We approached the program with a crazy idea, and they welcomed us.”

Tim Barat, Gridware

Inspired by co-founder and CEO Tim Barat’s experiences as an electrical lineman, Gridware has created a robust solar-powered, AI-enabled sensor network called Gridscope that can be mounted on power poles to detect outages and potential hazards in real time. 

“CITRIS Foundry was the first to believe in my co-founder and me,” said Barat. “We approached the program with a crazy idea, and they welcomed us.

“CITRIS provided us with the necessary resources and guidance to establish our company and then successfully apply for grant funding from the California Energy Commission.”

After the stint in the Foundry, Gridware joined Y Combinator’s winter 2021 batch, and that spring, it raised $5.3 million in a seed round led by True Ventures and Fifty Years. Its technology has been deployed in California, Washington, Colorado and Utah, and was incorporated into Marin County’s firefighter training program

Gridware’s real-time power line monitoring was named one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2022.

Sundial Foods (spring 2021 cohort)

In the words of CITRIS’s own Camille Crittenden, if you want to address climate change, start with your sandwich. Large-scale animal agriculture raises a number of environmental and ethical concerns, due in part to the demand on energy and water resources for the animals themselves and the crops that feed them. Reducing meat consumption offers a simple yet powerful path to a lower carbon footprint

Illustration of a white chicken holding a vegan wing with a look of shock on its face. The background looks like the set of Hamlet, and the text Alas Poor Yorick appears at top left.
Illustration by Dan Chapman

Alt meat startup Sundial Foods is doing its part to offer sustainable protein for a growing world with nutritious and affordable plant-based meat alternatives. The company uses an innovative method to structure plant proteins to create meatlike textures, and its flagship product, a vegan “chicken wing” made from chickpeas, has less fat, more fiber and the same amount of protein as the real thing.

Following a test launch in Switzerland, Sundial announced a $4 million seed round led by Nestle in November 2021. The Sundial wing made its debut in the United States in 2022 at select restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. The company is moving into full-scale manufacturing mode and expects to expand into retail markets in 2023, exploring a range of products mimicking different meat cuts and textures.

Wonderfil (fall 2021 cohort)

Plastic takes a walloping four centuries to fully degrade, and less than 9 percent of the 8 billion tons of plastic produced in the last century has been recycled. Half of all the plastic manufactured today is designed for single-use purposes and ends up in a landfill within a year

Wonderfil is working to reduce single-use plastic containers for consumer packaged goods (CPGs) by building autonomous bulk refill stations for liquid and cream products, such as dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo and conditioner, and placing its refill stations in universities, hotels and stores. 

Illustration of a chicken sitting at a bar-like setting, shaking a bottle with a tired expression on its face. A pump dispenser for the bottle lies on the bar in front of it. Across the bar, a bartender is pouring something into another bottle. Two people stand near the bar talking, and one is holding a bag filled with bottles. To the top left are self-serve stations that look like drink machines, as well as big barrels with pump dispensers on top.
Illustration by Dan Chapman

The winner of a spring 2021 CITRIS at UC Santa Cruz Tech for Social Good award, Wonderfil  received a Westly Prize in February 2023, which it plans to use to grow its development team. Wonderfil stations are currently installed at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, as well as low-waste retailer Ethos in Capitola. 

These companies have created a solid precedent for future entrepreneurs hoping to create a more sustainable environment through innovative products, materials and services. The University of California itself has clear sustainability goals and, with funding from the state of California, will provide climate action funding to advance research in this area. 

The CITRIS Foundry contributes to this mission of carbon neutrality by helping UC entrepreneurs to develop and market innovations with a significant societal impact, providing them with space, resources and advice. The application period for the next Foundry cohort will open in June 2023.