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Cobalt ore
Cobalt extracted from ore is used in the lithium-ion batteries that power devices ranging from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. (National Institutes of Health Photo)

KoBold Metals’ quest to find new sources of cobalt, a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, has received high-profile backing from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the $1 billion innovation fund spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Andreessen Horowitz also joined in the Bay Area startup’s funding round, which was disclosed today. The amount of funding, however, went undisclosed.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures was created by Gates and a bevy of other billionaires — including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg and Jack Ma — to make long-term investments in cutting-edge energy technologies. KoBold Metals uses artificial intelligence and “machine prospecting” techniques to search for likely locations of cobalt ore.

“KoBold’s Machine Prospector technology combines never-before-used datasets with conventional geochemical, geophysical, and geological data in statistical association models to identify prospects,” CEO Kurt Zenz House says on the company’s website.

Cobalt is found in the batteries that power devices ranging from Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has a poor track record on human rights and child labor. That’s led some to call cobalt the “blood diamond of batteries.”

Finding ethical sources of cobalt is one of the reasons why KoBold was founded last year. But there’s more than ethics to the venture’s business model: Connie Chan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said she was excited about the prospect of using software to master the traditionally hardware-centric mining industry.

“Such sophisticated software-defined prospecting techniques can be applied to the entire universe of mineral exploration… and beyond,” she wrote in a blog posting.

House told Bloomberg News that KoBold has already acquired several properties in North America that it hopes to explore for cobalt, and plans to have about a dozen such prospects by the end of the year.

The cobalt market has gone through a roller-coaster ride over the past few years. Shortages led to escalating prices, which led to increased production and a price drop. House acknowledges that the near-term economics point to oversupply, but says that the mushrooming market for electric vehicles should cause demand to outstrip supply by 2022 or so.

“KoBold Metals is doing the science, developing the technology, and making the investments to ensure a robust and ethical cobalt supply for the electric vehicle revolution,” he says.

That fits in with the long-term philosophy behind Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ portfolio. The first two ventures, focusing on power storage, were announced last June. Seven more companies came to light last September.

In addition to KoBold, these four ventures have been added to the list since then:

  • Baseload Capital: Investing in and developing electricity-generating “Heat Power” projects that take advantage of innovations in low-temperature geothermal technology.
  • Malta: Developing an electro-thermal system for grid-scale energy storage.
  • Motif: Offering sustainable alternative proteins and ingredient solutions for food producers.
  • Sustainable Bioproducts: Developing new ways to grow edible proteins through fermentation.
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