Colorado Tech Roundup: Big Bucks for Biofuel and Mapquest’s New App

Here is a quick roundup of recent news from Colorado startups and tech companies, including a great week for a Fort Collins biofuels startup, smart sprinklers, and a new app from Mapquest.

Biofuel startup’s big week: The past few years have been rough ones for cleantech startups, as the enthusiasm around the industry has waned dramatically as natural gas prices plummeted and prominent startups failed or struggled.

That’s been true for biofuels, but don’t tell that to Red Rock Biofuels, a three-year old company based in Fort Collins, CO. Last Friday the company, which reportedly employs only 10 people, received a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Then, on Wednesday, Southwest Airlines announced it would buy 3 million gallons of “renewable jet fuel” per year from Red Rock.

Red Rock Biofuels converts woody biomass feedstock—like wood leftover from the logging and timber industries—into what’s known in the industry as synthesis gas. That gas is cleaned and then condensed into a liquid fuel additive that can be blended with conventional fossil fuels.

Southwest will get its first delivery in early 2016, a release from the airline said.

Red Rock will use the big federal grant to build a refinery in Lakeview, OR, that can produce 12 million gallons per year. The funds come from a government program intended to develop alternative fuels the military can use and to diversify domestic fuel sources.

This isn’t Red Rock’s first big contract. In June, it agreed to a $4.1 million contract to provide the military with biofuels as part of its Advanced Biofuels Production Project.

Sprinklers get smart: There are a few key metrics like revenue and user growth that startups can use to measure their success. Gallons of water conserved usually isn’t one of them.

But it is for Rachio, a Denver-based company developing smart home irrigation systems. The company announced this week its Iro smart sprinkler controller saved users 10.6 million gallons of water this summer.

Iro is a controller that can be added to existing sprinker systems to give it “a brain,” according to Rachio. Users can control their systems through Rachio’s smartphone app, and the system is able to automatically adjust to weather conditions to find the right balance between water conservation and nourishing lush lawns. The system connects to the Internet using WiFi and sells for $249.

Rachio is about two years old, but it already has achieved some notable landmarks, including getting the Apple Store and Home Depot to sell Iro. The company debuted last year by winning $65,000 in two Colorado startup competitions. The Foundry Group has invested in Rachio through its FG Angels fund.

Mapquest commuter app: Mapquest has long helped travelers find their destinations. Now the Denver-based subsidiary of AOL has a new, free mobile app that can help drivers find ways around traffic.

This week, Mapquest unveiled Commute, a navigation app that provides real-time updates about traffic conditions like backups, accidents, and construction. The app also can suggest alternate routes.

There certainly are other traffic and navigation apps available to commuters, like Waze, and products like Google Maps have features that tell users about accidents and delays. Mapquest is pitching Commute as the simplest-to-use standalone app on the market, saying it can give commuters up-to-the-minute information without the bells and whistles competitors load into their software.

Mapquest says Commute will learn drivers’ normal commute patters. Drivers can also enter in the endpoints of their trips and when they want to depart. The app will provide a traffic update 15 minutes before a user plans on hitting the road.

The app does have a feature or two that isn’t just about commuting. For example, users can create a to-do list, and the app will tell them where the closest stores are along their rout.

Commute is available through the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon Apps.

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  • Cl1ffClav3n

    Red Rock may only have 10 employees, but they have been living rich on the $4.1 million the government paid them two years ago. They are now getting $70 million and still have never had to produce one gallon of commercial biofuel. This money, like the previous money, is for biorefinery construction and a promise to deliver cost competitive biofuel two years from now. The military professing that these contracts will deliver drop-in biofuel at competitive prices is complete subterfuge. After catching grief from Congress for spending $26.75/gal for biofuel for its “Great Green Strike Group” in 2012, The Navy and DOD have publicly pledged to only pay competitive prices for bulk biofuels. So this round they and USDA have devised a clever scheme to split the true cost into a DOD portion which matches the going rate for petroleum fuel, and a separate USDA portion which pays a premium out of a different pot of money. When the Navy finally starts buying fuel from Red Rock (assuming commercial quantities are even produced), it is going to openly pay the advertised “competitive price” of something less than $4 a gallon and trumpet it to the moon. But the USDA is going to covertly pay a supplementary amount off the books called a “Biofuel Production Incentive” out of Commodity Credit Corporation funds billed by the vendor on a separate invoice. Also, this deal only requires a biofuel blend of 10%, and drops the hard requirement for an EPA-approved D-coded feedstock and pathway. The small print also expressly allows the vendor and government to ignore GHG emissions from indirect land use change in calculating EISA Section 526 compliance, which is not only disingenuous, but a violation of ISO 14067, the global standard for calculating lifecycle GHG emissions. So the end result is that the federal government will pay a huge premium for 90% fossil fuel cut with only 10% bio additive, that has dubious GHG emissions performance and is exempted from both EPA and international standards. All this information is available to the public in the official government solicitation, but the press amazingly fails to report it.

    • Chris

      Also, this project is seeing environmental pressure over Lakeview, OR air pollution and forest use advocates. It will be a miracle if they ever get an air quality permit.