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‘World’s largest tech investor’ puts US$110m bet on energy storage using concrete

Energy Vault's storage solution was created based on the principles behind pumped hydropower stations, which use gravity to store and release energy. Source: Energy Vault

The world’s largest technology investor, SoftBank’s Vision Fund, has made its first investment in an energy storage company, betting US$110 million on Swiss start-up Energy Vault.

The US$100 billion SoftBank Vision Fund has invested in technology companies like Uber, Grab, DoorDash, Slack and WeWork, and claimed last week that its operating profit jumped 66% in the first quarter of 2019. Its endorsement of Energy Vault sends a loud message to the market about energy storage solutions’ promise and commercial viability. The fund was started by Japanese telecoms provider Soft Bank, which became a prolific player in solar energy in its home country when CEO Masayoshi Son became a huge advocate for the technology in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent nuclear accident at Fukushima. 

Energy Vault has developed a form of energy storage inspired by pumped hydropower stations, which rely on the movement of water to store and discharge electricity. In its solution, concrete blocks weighing 35 metric tons are lowered up and down an energy storage tower, storing and releasing energy.

Energy Vault’s proprietary cloud-based software autonomously controls the cranes lowering and lifting the blocks. The software relies on a combination of predictive intelligence and algorithms that account for a variety of factors, including supply and demand, grid stability, and weather.

The company was started at California’s technology incubator and accelerator program Idealab Studio and launched officially in 2018.

Energy Vault will use the cash injection to expand its global presence, according to cofounder and CEO Robert Piconi. He said in a release that the company is "well positioned to meet the large and currently unmet demand for sustainable and economical energy storage worldwide.”

The start-up claims to have agreements with customers on four continents. It will be erecting its first 35MWh tower in northern Italy this year, and it has an agreement to deploy another for India’s largest integrated power company The Tata Power Company.

Akshay Naheta, managing partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers said in a release that “Energy Vault solves a long-standing and complex problem of how to store renewable energy at scale. The company’s integration of proven technologies with 21st century material science and machine vision software provides a solution that reshapes the unit economics of renewable energy while being restorative to the environment.”

Andreas Hansson, partner for SoftBank Investment Advisers, will join the Energy Vault board of directors as part of the investment.

In July, SoftBank launched a second fund, worth US$108 billion, targeting artificial intelligence.

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