But some of their proposals could actually hurt the smaller companies they’re meant to protect, venture capitalists warned CNBC.
VCs are particularly concerned about efforts in Congress to restrict mergers and acquisitions by dominant platforms. Some of those proposals would work by shifting the burden of proof onto those firms in merger cases to show their deals would not harm competition.
While proponents argue such bills would prevent so-called killer acquisitions where big companies scoop up potential rivals before they can grow — Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram is a common example — tech investors say they’re more concerned with how the bills could squash the buying market for start-ups and discourage further innovation.
Of course, venture capitalists and the groups that represent them have an interest in maintaining a relatively easy route to exiting their investments. A trade group representing VCs, the National Venture Capital Association, counts venture arms of several Big Tech firms among its members. (Comcast, the owner of CNBC parent company NBCUniversal, is also a member.)
But their concerns highlight how changes to antitrust law will have an impact far beyond the largest companies and how smaller players may have to adjust if they’re passed.
Why start-ups get acquired
When venture capitalists invest in a start-up, their goal is to make a large return on their spend. While most start-ups fail, VCs bank on the minority having large enough exits to justify their rest of their investments.
An exit can occur through one of two means: through an acquisition or by going public. When either of these events occurs, investors are able to recoup at least some of their money, and in the best case scenario, reap major windfalls.
About ten times as many start-ups exit through acquisitions as through going public, according to the NVCA. Venture capitalists say that number shows just how important it is to keep the merger path clear.
The top five tech firms aren’t the only ones scooping up tech deals. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have accounted for about 4.5% of the value of all tech deals in the U.S. since 2010, according to public data compiled by Dealogic.
Reform advocates have pointed to some acquisitions, like that of Instagram by Facebook, as examples of companies selling before they have the chance to become standalone rivals to larger firms. But VCs say that’s often not the case.
“They all think they could be public companies one day, but the realities are, it’s not realistic for most of these companies to achieve the size and scale to survive the public markets as of today,” said Michael Brown, general partner at Battery Ventures.
While going public is a often the goal, VCs say it can be impractical for start-ups for various reasons.
First, some start-ups may simply not have a product or service that works long-term as a standalone business. That doesn’t mean their technology or talent isn’t valuable, but just means it could be most successful within a larger business.
Kate Mitchell, co-founder and partner at Scale Venture Partners, gave the example of a company called Pavilion Technologies that made predictive technology for manufacturers and agriculture, which sold to manufacturing company Rockwell Automation in 2007.
“That’s a company that just couldn’t get to escape velocity,” she said of Pavilion. “Because they were selling globally to large plants, we couldn’t figure out how to sell the technology cost effectively.”
It was still a useful technology, but needed the infrastructure of a larger business to accelerate further, she said. After Rockwell acquired it, it became incorporated into its offerings and several employees stayed for years.
Sometimes, she said, an acquisition is a last resort before bankruptcy, and at least helps investors get some of their money back.
“It is better that they’re sold for even 80 cents on the dollar than that they go bankrupt,” she said.
In addition, going public can be difficult. The IPO process is expensive and VCs said that small cap companies often struggle on the public market in part because of the lack of analyst coverage of such businesses.
Clate Mask, co-founder and CEO of venture-funded email marketing and sales platform Keap, said greater merger restrictions on the largest companies would likely “change the calculus” for start-ups. But the shift would not be between getting and acquired and going public. Instead, he said, it could make entrepreneurs think harder about whether to raise venture funding at all.
“When you have capital behind you, you can think and operate differently,” he said, adding that entrepreneurs can take more risks with that backing.
Loss of investment and innovation
Several VCs told CNBC they were worried about the trickle-down effect that merger restrictions on the largest firms would have on the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Their fear is that if companies no longer have enough viable exit paths, institutional investors that back VCs — like endowments and pension funds — will shift their money elsewhere. In turn, VCs will have fewer funds to dole out to entrepreneurs, who may see less reason to take the risk of starting a new company.
The ultimate concern is for a loss of innovation, they say, which is exactly what lawmakers are hoping to fend off with merger restrictions on the largest buyers.
“If you restrict the potential to generate exciting rewards and returns from investment, entrepreneurs could find other things to do with their time,” said Patricia Nakache, general partner at Trinity Ventures.
Nakache said placing restrictions on the largest tech firms’ ability to make acquisitions could actually discourage entrepreneurs from building companies that compete with their core businesses. That’s because many entrepreneurs like having a back-up plan incorporating possible acquirers if they can’t go public. With greater uncertainty about whether the Big Tech companies could be potential buyers, they may seek to build businesses outside of the largest players’ core offerings, she said.
VCs also warned that without the biggest players in the mix, sale prices for start-ups would drop significantly.
But outside the industry, some believe these concerns won’t be as bad as VCs fear.
“These sorts of laws, if they work as intended, you’re going to have a more competitive marketplace generally, so there’s going to be more potential buyers,” said Michael Kades, director of markets and competition policy at the non-profit Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “I get it if you’re at the VC today, what you’re concerned about is the next couple of years or what your company can get, but increasing the number of potential buyers for firms … also means that there’s still a very thriving market for these sorts of acquisitions, just not by dominant firms.”
Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said while venture capitalists are probably right that acquisition prices could slide under new merger restrictions, entrepreneurs will still have a drive to innovate.
“Ultimately people are going to adapt and yes, some of the valuations, some of the bidding may be stunted. Some of the acquisitions may go for ten, 20% less,” he said. “But ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference because entrepreneurs are going to go after ideas, they’re going to build them, they’re going to put together teams, and venture money needs a place to invest.”
Kades agreed that good ideas will still likely get funding even if the largest firms can’t bid on them or would have a harder time completing an acquisition. Restricting mergers from those companies is about “trying to limit the anticompetitive premium,” he said.
VCs are also concerned the new rules could accelerate the shift of venture investment outside the U.S.
Mitchell said while other countries including Canada have been adding incentives for entrepreneurs to come and stay in their borders, regulations under consideration in the U.S. will push them away.
“We would be making it difficult just at a time when everyone else is trying to make it attractive” to be an entrepreneur in their country, she said.
According to the NVCA, the U.S. has seen its share of global venture capital fall from 84% to 52% in the last 15 years. That’s why lawmakers shouldn’t rest on their laurels that U.S. venture capital can keep up with the rest of the world under new arduous regulations, VCs contend.
But Chakravorti disagreed the merger laws would push investment outside the U.S., as many alternatives are worse.
“There are very few alternative locations,” he said. Exits in China would come with heightened scrutiny, and Europe is known for a more heavy-handed approach on business regulation.
Still, Brown said, should stricter merger laws pass, he would have to consider casting a wider net for potential buyers when it comes time to exit an investment. That could include more international buyers than he’d otherwise consider.
Nakache said should merger reforms pass, she may consider investing more heavily in start-ups whose potential acquirers wouldn’t be impacted by the laws. For example, if enterprise platforms like Salesforce or Oracle didn’t meet the threshold for stricter merger enforcement, VCs might shift spending from areas like search and social media to software as a service.
Open to some reforms
Some of the VCs interviewed by CNBC felt existing antitrust laws were adequate, but others acknowledged that reforms outside of mergers could be beneficial.
Restrictions on platforms leveraging data they collect to compete with businesses that rely on them is one example that could help level the playing field if done correctly, Nakache suggested.
Mitchell said the most helpful change would be to create more consistency in enforcement of the antitrust laws, particularly from one administration to the next.
Mask, the Keap CEO, said he’s not opposed to Congress taking some action to curb Big Tech companies’ power, but that most entrepreneurs recognize those firms overall “are good for the ecosystem.”
“Those Big Tech companies are helpful in driving a lot of the momentum of the overall sector,” he said. “And I think to have them broken up in some kind of extreme aggressive way I’m not sure is a great thing either.”
Apple releases fix for overheating iPhone 15
Apple iPhone 15 series devices are displayed for sale at The Grove Apple retail store on release day in Los Angeles on Sept. 22, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images
Apple released iOS 17.0.3 on Wednesday, including a fix for an issue that caused Apple’s latest iPhone 15 models to run hot.
“This update provides important bug fixes, security updates, and addresses an issue that may cause iPhone to run warmer than expected,” according to the software’s change log.
Over the weekend, Apple confirmed reports on social media that its new iPhones had a tendency to get warm. Apple said the problem was a combination of some apps that weren’t properly configured, bugs in iOS and an expected set-up period that requires extra processing and heat generation.
Wednesday’s update addresses the issues in iOS, the iPhone’s operating system. App developers are also pushing updates with fixes to their apps.
Apple said the heat issue was unrelated to a new titanium and aluminum frame design on the higher-end Pro models, and also said that it wasn’t related to the USB-C charging port on the new phones either.
Apple’s website says all iPhones may feel warmer when they’re being restored from a backup, when they’re wirelessly charging, using graphics-heavy apps or games or streaming high-quality video. Apple says iPhones are safe to use unless they display an explicit temperature warning.
Google’s latest Pixel phones have new camera AI tricks
Google’s new Pixel lineup including the Pixel 8, the Pixel 8 Pro, the Pixel Watch 2, and the Pixel Buds Pro.
Google announced two new Pixel phones and its latest Pixel smartwatch on Wednesday during its Made by Google event in New York City. The new Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro are Google’s latest attempts to capture a fraction of the market share from Apple’s iPhone.
The Pixel 8 starts at $699, while the Pixel 8 Pro starts at $999. That’s a $100 increase from last year’s Pixel 7 and 7 Pro. The Pixel brand has a small but growing market share, and Google’s hardware business doesn’t drive significant revenue for parent company Alphabet. Of the $74.6 billion in revenue Alphabet reported for the second quarter, for example, $58.14 billion came from Google ads. Another $8 billion was generated by Google Cloud.
The Pixel 8 phones and Pixel Watch 2, which starts at $349, are available to order beginning Wednesday and will hit store shelves on Oct. 12
Here are some of the best new features in Google’s new products.
Google Pixel 8 Pro
The new Pixel 8 and 8 Pro have rounder corners and a flatter display compared to last year’s models. The entry-level Pixel 8 has a better screen with refresh speeds as fast as the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max, which means scrolling through websites or playing games will look smoother.
Both the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro run on Google’s new Tensor G3 chip. The G3 is Google’s in-house chip, which allows the company to leverage its artificial intelligence and machine-learning resources in areas like the phone’s camera.
Google Pixel 8 Rose
The Pixel 8 Pro includes new AI-powered editing tools. It still has the popular Magic Eraser tool, which allows you to remove unwanted images in photos, but it also has a new photo tool called Best Take. Let’s say you take a series of group photos, Best Take lets you combine similar pictures into one where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling. Google also says it’s improved its Real Tone photography feature to help better represent the nuances of different skin tones.
Audio Magic Eraser allows users to remove unwanted sounds from videos. So, if you’re capturing your kid riding a bike for the first time and a pesky truck is reversing in the background, Audio Magic Eraser allows users to remove that distracting beeping noise.
Google Pixel 8 Pro
The Pixel 8 Pro also has a built-in thermometer. It’s marketed as a tool to get the temperature of beverages and cookware by scanning them. It’s not immediately clear what other purpose it might serve.
Google says its G3 Tensor chip will improve call quality and help the phone detect and filter out more spam calls.
The Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro are the first smartphones to launch with Android 14 out of the box.
Google Pixel Watch 2
One of the most interesting new features is stress tracking. The watch gathers data like your heart rate variability and skin temperature to help detect when you’re under pressure. The device will then make healthy suggestions for you: like going for a walk or trying a guided breathing exercise.
Google Pixel Watch 2
The Pixel Watch 2 also includes improved heart rate tracking and workout detection. It has the same battery life as the original — Google promises up to 24 hours using the always-on display.
Veterans from Tesla, Northvolt hatch plan to mass-produce huge batteries to store solar and wind energy
Cameron Dales (L), president and chief commercial officer of Peak Energy, and Landon Mossburg, the CEO of Peak Energy, on a hike in the earliest days of the company. The mountains of Colorado in the background inspired the name of the company, Peak Energy.
Photo courtesy Peak Energy
Battery industry veterans are coming together to launch Peak Energy, which aims to mass-produce giant batteries to even out production fluctuations from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power generators.
Because Peak Energy is focused on scaling up production of battery technology that already exists, they don’t think of themselves as a traditional “startup.”
“A normal Silicon Valley startup is 10 years in the lab, come up with a better mousetrap and go to market. We’re completely the opposite,” Cameron Dales, president and chief commercial officer of Peak Energy, told CNBC in a video interview Friday.
Peak Energy hopes to partner with a technology company (yet to be selected) that is already an expert in battery technology but does not have the capacity to scale manufacturing.
“In the battery market it turns out the rarest commodity is not the technology — there are many excellent ideas out there at academic labs and startups — but rather the ability to scale to manufacturing,” CEO Landon Mossburg told CNBC. “The difficulty of manufacturing scale up is one of the reasons you see so many ‘breakthrough battery technology’ announcements but very very few companies who actually reach market.”
Peak Energy launched in June and is coming out of stealth on Wednesday, announcing a $10 million funding round lead by Greg Reichow at Eclipse, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Before joining Eclipse, Reichow worked at Tesla for more than five years, where he was responsible for battery, motor and electronics manufacturing and then led global manufacturing. Also joining the funding raise is TDK Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of the Tokyo-headquartered multinational electronics company TDK.
“The No. 1 issue we face as it relates to expanding renewable energy sources is storage,” Reichow told CNBC. “This problem must be solved, but the existing approaches using lithium-ion and other technologies are not yet at a price point that enables the kind of scaling that society needs across sectors.”
Demand for grid-scale storage will continue to grow. The United States Energy Information Administration has projected that battery storage capacity will grow from 9 gigawatts in 2022 to 49 gigawatts in 2030 and then to 247 gigawatts in 2050. That’s a baseline projection that includes the Inflation Reduction Act and assumes no additional changes in U.S. policy throughout the projection period.
(L to R) Ryan Gibson, Eclipse Venture partner; Landon Mossburg, Peak Energy CEO; Aidan Madigan-Curtis, Eclipse partner and Cameron Dales, Peak Energy president and chief commercial officer, in protective gear at a battery factory clean room.
Photo courtesy Peak Energy
Peak Energy is still in its very early days. There are about 10 employees and a business office in San Francisco.
But that headcount will triple in coming months, and Peak Energy aims to build its first prototype battery systems, with individual batteries bound together into larger systems using batteries sourced from a third party in 2024. By 2030, Peak says it will be producing “double digit gigawatt” quantities of battery cells for its own battery systems and for other applications.
That’s no small feat. It takes between $50 million and $100 million per gigawatt to build a battery factory, and a 30-gigawatt factory would employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people and be between 1 and 2 million square feet, Mossburg told CNBC.
It’s an aggressive and expensive buildout plan, but Mossburg has done this kind of rapid production scale up before when he worked at Northvolt, a battery manufacturing company that launched in 2016 in Sweden. Northvolt was founded by Peter Carlsson, who was the global head of sourcing and supply chain at Tesla from 2011 to 2015, and Mossburg joined 2017. After 18 months, Northvolt had 300 people, and grew to 4,000 people by the time Mossburg left four years later.
Cameron Dales and US Representative Rho Kana in 2021 at the Enovix battery factory in Fremont, Calif.
Photo courtesy Cameron Dales
Of course, Peak Energy will have to raise more money to fund this kind of expansion. A lot more.
“We’re running a playbook which I and the rest of the executive team initially demonstrated and deployed at Northvolt,” Mossburg told CNBC. Northvolt also started with a small seed round of funding and ended up raising more than $9 billion in a combination of equity and debt. Mossburg was involved with securing all of that financing except for the most recent $1.2 billion announced in August.
Dales has similar experience. He was an early employee and co-founder of the equipment business Symyx Tools at material sciences innovation company, Symyx Technologies, which went public in 1999, and in 2009 joined the battery company Enovix.
“I thought naively, ‘Well, how hard could batteries be? It’s just a plus and a minus, everybody has a Duracell. How hard could it be?’ Little did I know, 14 years later, I would still be there,” Dales told CNBC. Enovix was making very high energy density batteries at a battery factory in Fremont, California, and is building another one in Penang, Malaysia. The company went public in a billion-dollar-plus SPAC deal in 2021.
“Peak Energy’s team comprises of two industry veteran leaders who have scaled a battery company before,” Anil Achyuta, who lead the investment for TDK Ventures, said in a written statement shared with CNBC.
So, too, for Eclipse.
“Landon and I worked together at Tesla and I know what he’s capable of delivering,” Reichow told CNBC. “After leaving Tesla, he went on to build a battery company as an executive at Northvolt. Similarly, Cam was a core part of the founding team at Enovix and was instrumental in helping them build the business. These are proven executives that have built battery companies in some of the hardest spaces and that makes them unique.”
Peak Energy is focused on making large sodium-ion battery systems to pair with wind and solar energy production facilities. Large grid-scale batteries can capture the energy generated from renewable sources, then hold that energy and dispatch it later when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
Peak Energy will make individual battery cells, about the size of a loaf of bread, says Dales. Then those loaf of bread battery cells get wired together to make modules, which would be about the size of a filing cabinet. Then those filing cabinets will be assembled into a battery the size of the back of a tractor trailer truck, then deployed near a solar or wind farm, 50 to 100 at a time.
One hundred blocks can power 62,500 homes for four hours, Mossburg told CNBC.
An artist rendering of the Peak Energy battery system.
Rendering courtesy Peak Energy.
The most typical battery technology right now is lithium ion, used in cellphones and electric vehicles, and they are prized for their energy density. Sodium-ion batteries are less energy dense and heavier — bad for mobile devices or cars, but less relevant when it comes to grid-scale batteries.
“Weight, and therefore energy density, is much less important in a stationary storage system. The fact that these batteries are less energy dense isn’t really a big consideration for this application,” Reichow told CNBC.
What does matter when you are talking about storing huge quantities of energy is the cost.
“A much more important consideration is the cost per unit energy that you’re able to store and that is where sodium ion, we believe, will have a big advantage over lithium ion in the future,” Reichow told CNBC.
It’s too early for Peak Energy to commit to a specific price for its battery systems, but a Tesla Megapack battery system costs about $1.3 million without installation, and Mossburg says he thinks Peak Energy can be at roughly half of that cost with its system.
In addition, lithium-ion batteries can be a fire hazard and the electric vehicle makers are eating up all available supply, Dales told CNBC. The problem utilities have is “the minute Ford or GM needs more batteries, basically their contracts for lithium ion just get canceled and the suppliers just go for the car, because it’s today the largest market,” Dales told CNBC.
Also, China dominates the battery market and supply chains right now. “They’re the dominant player in batteries generally — by far — they are massive in terms of battery production,” Mossburg told CNBC. “And they’re positioning to do the same with sodium.”
Alun Thomas, Head of Manufacturing Engineering at Peak Energy, inside a battery production machine.
Photo courtesy Peak Energy
While Mossburg says he thinks it is a benefit for the world for the United States and China to continue to trade, and Peak Energy is willing to work with Chinese partners, there are geopolitical risks associated with depending on China completely. Peak Energy’s plan to manufacture in the United States is a geopolitical advantage, he says. (It’s also more climate-conscious to make these giant batteries in the U.S. as opposed to making them in China and shipping them to the U.S.)
“You don’t want to be in a situation where a critical component of the energy infrastructure of your entire economy, which batteries are increasingly becoming, is principally sourced from a party that you can’t be sure you’re going to be friends with,” Mossburg told CNBC. “If the U.S. wants to continue to have a robust economy, especially an economy that can make things like cars or even like high-tech things, ceding an entire industry that’s this important to any other player — doesn’t matter if it’s China or anyone else — is a dangerous prospect.”
The first real gigantic battery factory in the world was the Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory in Nevada, and Reichow led the development of that, Dales said. The second generation “arguably” was the factories that Mossburg built with Northvolt and that Dales helped build at Enovix, Dales said. Peak Energy is “taking that learning and the people who developed those factories and we are going after the third generation of factory design,” Dales told CNBC.
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