This Thiel Fellow thinks he can help scooters, drones and delivery robots charge themselves with sunlight

From the time he was a high school student, Rohit Kalyanpur thought it was peculiar that although it’s possible to create energy from a solar panel, the panels have long been used almost exclusively on rooftops and as part of industrial-scale solar grids. “I hadn’t seen [anything solar-powered] in the things people use every day other than calculators and lawn lights,” he tells us from him home in Chicago — though he’s moving to the Bay Area next month.

It wasn’t just a passing thought for Kalyanpur. Through research positions in high school, he continued to learn about energy and work on a solar charging prototype — initially to charge his iPhone — while continuing to wonder what other materials might be powered spontaneously just by shining light on it.

What he quickly discovered, he says, is there were no developer tools to build a self-charging project. Unlike with hardware projects, where developers can turn to the open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino, and to Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer the size of a credit card and was created in 2012 to help students understand how computers work, there was “nothing you could use to optimize a solar product,” he says.

Fast-forward, and Kalyanpur says there is now — and he helped build it.

It’s been several years in the making. After attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for two years and befriending a fellow student, Paul Couston, who helped manage and invest the university’s $10 million green fund, the pair dropped out of school to start their now four-person company, Optivolt Labs. Entry into the accelerator program Techstars Chicago was the impetus they needed, and they’ve been gaining momentum since. In fact, Kalyanpur, now 21, was recently given a Thiel Fellowship, a two-year-long program that includes a $100,000 grant to young people who want to build new things, along with a lot of mentorships and key introductions.

Now, the company has closed on a separate $1.75 million round of seed funding from a long list of notable individual investors, including Eventbrite co-founders Kevin & Julia Hartz; TJ Parker, who is the founder and CEO of PillPack (now an Amazon subsidiary); Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher: and Jeff Lutz, a former Google SVP.

What they’re buying into exactly is the promise of a scalable technology stack for solar integration. Though still nascent, Optivolt has already figured out a way to provide efficient power transfer systems, solar developer and simulation tools and cloud-based API’s to enable fleets of machines to self charge in ambient light, says Kalyanpur. Think e-scooters, EVs, drones, sensors and other connected devices.

Asked how it all works on a more granular level, Kalyanpur declines to dive into specifics, but he says the company will begin testing its technology soon with a number of “enterprise fleets” that have already signed on to work with Optivolt in pilot programs.

If it works as planned, it sounds like a pretty big opportunity. Though some companies have begun making smaller solar-powered vehicles, there are presumably many outfits that would prefer to find a way to retrofit the hardware they already have in the world, which Kalyanpur says will be possible.

He says they can use their existing batteries, too — that the solar won’t just power the devices or vehicles in real time but allow them to store some of that energy, too. Optivolt’s technology “seamlessly integrates into everyday products, so you don’t have to change the product design meaningfully,” he insists.

We’ll be curious to see if see if it does what he thinks it can. It sounds like we aren’t the only ones, either.

Asked about Optivolt’s road map, Kalynapur suggests that one is coming together. The company’s top priority, however — beyond hiring more engineering talent with its brand new round — it to see first how it works in the field.

DoorDash reveals details of its new tipping model

DoorDash announced last month that it would be changing its controversial tipping model. Today it’s revealing the basics of how the new system will work.

Under the past model, Dashers (DoorDash drivers and other delivery people) were guaranteed a minimum payment per delivery, with DoorDash paying a $1 base, then providing an additional payment boost when a customer’s tip wasn’t enough to meet the minimum — a system that made it seem like tips were being used to subsidize DoorDash payments.

Under the new system, DoorDash will pay a base between $2 and $10 (the amount will depend on things like delivery distance and duration), with additional bonuses from DoorDash.

Most crucially, as CEO Tony Xu put it in a blog post, “Every dollar customers tip will be an extra dollar in their Dasher’s pocket.”

Now, you might think that’s how tips are always supposed to work, but Xu said the old system was developed “in direct response to feedback from Dashers,” while the new one will result in “greater variability in total earnings from order to order” (that variability is one of several reasons why tipping is a flawed compensation model in general).

So why change?

“We thought we were doing the right thing for Dashers by making them whole if a customer left no tip, but the feedback we’ve received recently made clear that some of our customers who were leaving tips felt like their tips didn’t matter,” Xu said. “We realized that we couldn’t continue to do right by Dashers if some customers felt we weren’t also doing right by them. To ensure that all of our users have a great experience on DoorDash, we needed to strike a better balance.”

Plus, he said, “Dashers will [now] earn more money on average — both from DoorDash and overall.”

The company plans to roll out these changes to all Dashers next month.

Workplace digital assistant startup Capacity raises $13.2M from Midwestern VCs

Solving information scatter inside enterprises seems to be the founding idea behind dozens of enterprise software startups. Capacity, which recently rebranded from Jane.ai, is raising new cash to tackle the issue with its corporate data search platform.

The company just closed a $13.2 million Series B, funded entirely by Midwestern private investors and angels.

The St. Louis workplace startup helps its customers pull all of their organizational data together into a platform that makes company information more accessible to people inside the company. It’s all done through a chat interface and directory that employees can use to search for information. There’s a pretty high degree of flexibility in customizing how questions are answered and when a line of questioning gets routed to a person onsite.

Alongside Capacity’s name change, the company opened its platform to let developers connect apps to the Capacity network so that more information can be integrated.

asset management hero

“We got to this point where we realized that we’re never going to be the experts in building out every one of these tailored apps, so opening up our developer platform has been crucial to helping expand the number of apps that we’ll be able to connect to,” CEO David Karandish told TechCrunch.

These automated chat bots aren’t silver bullets, but the fact is a lot of this content is usually found in disparate places, and tools that can crawl through documents and pull out the key context solve a pretty clear pain point for companies.