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This Amazon-backed startup is trying to save the planet, one motor at a time

Turntide Technologies is on a mission to save the planet, one motor at a time.

The startup, armed with an influx of cash from Amazon, Bill Gates and actor Robert Downey Jr., wants to replace the antiquated and energy-wasting motors used to power fridges, HVAC systems and cars with a smart motor that uses a fraction of the energy.

Turntide’s machine learning-powered motors are already being used to reduce the carbon footprints -— and energy bills — of buildings owned by BMW, commercial real estate firm JLL and Five Guys, as well as in cooling systems on dairy farms.

The ambitious, perhaps unrealistic, goal is to upgrade all of the motors in the world, a herculean task that the company says would wipe out a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions.

“We’re trying to build a huge, world-changing and impactful company that will be up there with the greats,” Turntide CEO Ryan Morris told CNN Business.

Some of those greats are throwing their weight behind Turntide: The startup recently announced an $80 million investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Gates-led fund aiming to help the planet reach zero carbon emissions through innovation.

But unlike some other Gates-backed startups that are attempting to shrink the supply of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, Turntide is squarely focused on the demand side of the equation.

“We see great potential for their technology and believe that, once widely adopted, it will play a critical role in reducing electricity consumption globally,” Carmichael Roberts, business lead on Breakthrough’s investment committee, told CNN Business in an email.

Amazon is using the Turntide motor to shrink its carbon footprint

Electric motors, which power everything from cars to the heating systems in office buildings, are crucial in that equation. They account for more than 40% of global electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency.

The problem is that these motors rely on century-old technology. Turntide says it’s using advances in software, machine learning and electronics to design and control motors that are vastly more efficient.

“The first motor changed the world. This one can help save it,” the startup titled a YouTube video explaining its technology.

Turntide says companies that retrofitted their old motors with its smart motor have reduced their heating and cooling motor energy consumption by an average of 64%.

Amazon is one of those companies. Beyond deploying Turntide’s smart motor system in its own facilities, it also invested in the startup through the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund.

“Amazon is uniquely positioned to help companies like Turntide Technologies overcome challenges to growth not only through Climate Pledge Fund investments, but also by becoming a customer,” Matt Peterson, the fund’s director of corporate development new initiatives, said in an email.

The VC world was ‘burned and scarred’

Morris, the Turntide CEO, said it’s been “pretty awesome” to receive the backing of prominent investors like Gates, Amazon and Downey’s Footprint Coalition Ventures.

“It certainly matches the scale of the problem we’re trying to solve,” Morris said. “It’s not just money, but these are partners. They help us break into new markets. And to get initial customers as references is super critical.”

Turntide says it has now raised $180 million in funding. The appetite among investors for clean energy solutions, especially hardware ones, has changed dramatically, Morris says.

He credits the blockbuster success of Tesla and the sustainability push from leaders like BlackRock’s Larry Fink with helping investors move past the failures of the cleantech investments made around the Great Recession.

“The VC world was burned and scarred by cleantech 1.0,” Morris said. “In the last six months the capital markets have really woken up to the opportunities of cleantech 2.0.”

The timing was key for Turntide, which was founded in 2013 2004 and needed more capital to fuel its next level of growth.

“Our funding was extremely challenging for all of our history, until very recently,” Morris said. “It was like crossing the desert. We managed to get through it, while others failed.”

Scaling up, from cows to EVs

But even as Turntide survived, now it needs to scale up dramatically. It’s the biggest obstacle facing the startup today.

“The company will face the usual technology development hurdles,” said Roberts, the executive who sits on the investment committee at the Gates fund, “as well as the challenges of deploying at scale. However, we feel that the technology and the benefits it can provide show a pathway to success.”

The early focus is on upgrading the HVAC motors used to power commercial buildings and to retrofit the systems used to keep cows cool on dairy farms.

“It turns out it’s very important for milk production to keep cows very happy,” Morris said.

Morris said Turntide plans soon to announce a push into electric vehicles, following a hiring spree in the EV space last year.

“We are past the point of, ‘Does this work or not?’ There aren’t fundamental barriers we need to break through,” said Morris. “Now it’s about how to scale our impact — across the world.”

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