5 cleantech startups that didn’t survive to see 2024

Bird, Hyperloop One, Sunfolding and other VC-funded companies went belly up or bankrupt late last year. Here are key takeaways and lessons learned.
By Eric Wesoff

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(Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

Canary Media chronicles many of the bold venture-capital investments made in cleantech, but the flip side of that coin is that most VC-funded startups fail. While billions are being invested in shiny technologies such as nuclear fusion, carbon dioxide removal and sustainable aircraft fuels, billions will surely be lost in these and other sectors.

Perhaps there are some hard-won lessons to be learned by taking a look at the VC-backed climatetech startups that went bankrupt or shut down in late 2023.

Hyperloop One eighty-sixed

After failing to find a customer for its vision of zipping people or freight around in vacuum tubes at aircraft speeds, Hyperloop One is now selling off its assets and laying off the remainder of its staff.

Co-founded by Shervin Pishevar in 2014 as an alternative to trains and planes, the startup raised more than $450 million from investors including Dubai-based majority owner DP World, Caspian Venture Capital, Sherpa Capital, Formation 8, Zhen Fund and The Virgin Group.

A large cylindrical metal object in a dark interior space
The Virgin Hyperloop One XP-1 test pod on display at Rockefeller Center in 2019 (Z22/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The hyperloop dream lives on at startups such as Hardt Hyperloop, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Swisspod.

Lessons to be learned: Dramatically changing transportation systems is hard. The Segway, which supporters once claimed would forever alter the way people move around cities, is now largely relegated to mall cops. (See also the monorail episode of The Simpsons.)

Bankrupt Bird

On the topic of new transportation paradigms, six-year-old shared electric scooter startup Bird has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The company rose to unicorn status in less than a year and at its peak was valued at $2 billion, back in the days of zero-interest-rate-induced irrationality. Lured to the public markets via a special-purpose-acquisition-company merger in 2021, Bird was spanked by those same markets in 2022 and delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in September 2023 after its share price plummeted.

Bird is not the only scooter player to hit the wall: Shared e-scooter startup Superpedestrian is shuttering its operations 18 months after raising $125 million in equity and debt, according to TechCrunch. Micromobility.com was delisted from the Nasdaq in December for failing to maintain a minimum share price.

Lime now stands as the biggest micromobility player in a volatile, consolidating market that is nevertheless still growing. The number of micromobility trips is increasing in the U.S., and the market for e-bikes, owned or rented, is a standout.

Lessons to be learned: Municipalities cannot depend on VC-funded transportation startups to solve mobility problems.

Failure to flow

After losing its CEO and cutting most of its staff in September, Zinc8 Energy Solutions, a flow-battery aspirant, is struggling to survive. The startup, which never managed to generate any revenue, has a market capitalization of $1.4 million and a flatlining stock price.

According to the Kingston, New York Daily Freeman, the industrial park in Ulster County where Zinc8 was to operate was awarded a $10 million grant from New York state. In addition, the county’s Industrial Development Agency provided Zinc8 with up to $10 million in March for equipment, infrastructure and facility improvements. Local and federal tax credits for battery production and job creation were also in the incentive stew.

Zinc8 hasn’t gone under yet, but it doesn’t look to be long for this world.

Lessons to be learned: It takes a special type of bureaucrat to bet millions on a decade-old, revenue-free Canadian flow-battery penny stock. Did no one perform due diligence on this company or technology?

Short circuit

Volta Trucks, a Swedish electric-truck builder founded in 2019, filed for bankruptcy in October, attributing its difficulties to procuring batteries and citing the August 2023 bankruptcy of EV-parts supplier and bus builder Proterra as a contributor to its manufacturing and financial woes.

A large electric truck traverses a street in Paris
The Volta Zero prototype (Volta Trucks)

The company raised more than $500 million, according to Reuters, and claimed to have an order book of more than 5,000 vehicles. Luxor Capital, a hedge fund, was the firm’s largest investor and is now the owner of the company’s U.K. assets.

Lessons to be learned: Successful EV startups will be as rare as successful gas-powered vehicle startups. Billions have been invested in scores of companies vying to electrify the transportation fleet, so the recent Proterra and Lordstown bankruptcies will not be the last.

Sunfolding folds

Sunfolding, a solar startup with a clever tracker design, closed down its operations in October 2023. The shutdown was attributed to manufacturing troubles and a dearth of solar-project experience, a former employee told Canary Media.

Trackers are motor-powered structures that support solar panels, enabling them to follow the sun as it crosses the sky. It’s a fast-growing, multibillion-dollar industry that’s driven by the utility-scale solar business and dominated by industry leaders Nextracker and Array Technologies.

Sunfolding’s pneumatic tracker instead uses air pressure to inflate a flexible bladder that shifts the solar panels in a more efficient way, saving on materials and maintenance.

Sunfolding received seed funding from Y Combinator in 2017 and went on to raise more than $32 million from investors including G2VP and Macquarie Group.

Lessons to be learned: Solar developers and project financiers are a notoriously timid bunch when it comes to adopting radically new hardware into their commodity electron business.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.