Innovation at home

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Mighty Buildings uses 3-D printing to construct low-cost housing. MIGHTY BUILDINGS
Mighty Buildings uses 3-D printing to construct low-cost housing. MIGHTY BUILDINGS

Oakland’s a city of people who see opportunity where others often don't. From coming up with new solutions to old problems, to devising products or services that increase our enjoyment of daily life, these entrepreneurs are at the forefront of innovation—and often with a healthy dose of social conscience.

Lithium for the future

At Lilac Solutions, a new lithium extraction process has been developed, which fulfills several needs: lithium is used for medication for bipolar disorder and the manufacture of lithium batteries. Using older processes, lithium extraction could take two years to recover 40 percent of the available lithium. With the new method that is down to two weeks, and results in 80 percent recovery.

Given the demand for lithium batteries to power electric vehicles, Lilac is poised to be busy for years to come. Lilac’s CEO Dave Snydacker, who started his career in electric vehicle batteries, says, “It’s incredibly exciting to see all the progress in electric vehicles .... The biggest problem facing the industry is the supply of raw materials to make the batteries. Lithium in particular is the bottleneck.” He says the industry needs to grow by “3x” for a 100 percent electric vehicle future.

Snydacker moved to Oakland from Chicago to hire, he says, “the most innovative employees working in this industry.” Lilac Solutions is headquartered at 1700 20th St. “Oakland is at the center of the Bay Area and full of people who are passionate about clean energy and cleaning up the air from smog and protecting the climate,” he says. “The most exciting part of the business is ... [creating] jobs for people who want to contribute to improving the environment and protecting the world from fossil fuels.”

3-D printed houses. Yep.

Another powerhouse of using more environmentally friendly processes is Mighty Buildings, which uses 3-D printing to create housing. Helen Chong, head of Public Relations and Marketing for Mighty Buildings, says, “When Covid happened, everyone was worried, concerned. But Covid helped our business because everyone wanted a backyard home.” When suddenly stuck at home, for many people it seemed to be time to focus on a pool house, art studio, or in-law unit. Mighty Buildings made that construction almost impossibly easy with 3-D printed panels, including full-sized walls. Some have referred to their builds as “Lego buildings” because of the nature of putting together the panels.

The company moved to Oakland in November 2019 to a 79,000-square-foot facility. The manufacturing process involves zero waste, is cheaper than traditional construction, and circumvents the need for a site inspection. “We are turnkey,” Chong says; Mighty Buildings takes care of everything from pulling the proper permits, to delivery and installation. She said it’s the only company in the state whose structures are pre-approved for Underwriters Laboratories certification.

They have two product lines. Mighty Mods is the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) line, which is fully printed and assembled in the facility, put on an oversized trailer, and craned into the customer’s backyard. And the Mighty Houses Single Family Home product line utilizes the Mighty Kit system designed by EYRC Architects.

Mayor Libby Schaaf visited Mighty Buildings to investigate how it could be used to help with Oakland’s affordable housing crisis. In a video on the company’s website, Schaaf is kitted out in a pink hard hat and safety vest and says, “We see [the housing crisis] on our streets. It’s a moral outrage, and this innovation is something we’ve been waiting for. We know that housing construction has not gotten any more productive or efficient for years, and so this is a quantum leap toward really making the supply and affordability of housing change overnight.”

Since launching out of stealth in August 2020, Mighty Buildings has delivered seven ADU units to homeowners across California and has over 60 in contracted revenue in the pipeline.

Interested persons can book a free private 3-D printed ADU tour.

Since construction is an essential business, Mighty Buildings continued working throughout the pandemic. “We raised our Series B in the middle of the pandemic, and we have raised a total of $100 million of funding to date,” says Chong. The company was about to announce another round when we spoke in July. At first it was forced to downsize half the employees, but then hired back and doubled again and are still hiring. Mighty Buildings is planning to have microfactories outside of Oakland to add to their manufacturing capability: “When you buy a BMW, you don’t get it in Germany. You get it in a dealership nearby.”

CNN reported in March that the nation’s first 3-D printed community was being created in Rancho Mirage, with 15 homes made of modular panels printed by Mighty Buildings, situated on a five-acre lot.

Getting in the game

Much has been made of the fact that the tech and video game industry often leaves behind the Black and Latinx communities and women, while catering to the white and Asian community. But that’s changing, says Damon Packwood, the founder and CEO of Gameheads. Besides a more inclusive thrust based on race, he says “A lot of data shows that women are the fastest growing number of video game players.” His company Gameheads helps low-income youth and youth of color ages 11-25 years thrive and succeed in technology and video game industries with a tech training program.

Gameheads has a tech training program that helps low-income youth and youth of color thrive and succeed in technology and video game industries. LAYLA CRATER / GAMEHEADS
Gameheads has a tech training program that helps low-income youth and youth of color thrive and succeed in technology and video game industries. LAYLA CRATER / GAMEHEADS

Packwood says the thing he’s most excited about with his company is that the program works. “Thirty-nine percent of our students are employed part-time, full-time, or with contract work or interning at video game and tech companies right now,” he says. “That’s the thing I’m really juiced about. When we started the program, we didn’t expect that.”

He says some are already making $150,000 a year or got $10,000 signing bonuses to work on Call of Duty. “I have students now, they’re making more than me. I don’t say that out of jealousy; I’m quite happy with how I get paid, but that’s cool.” Gameheads is free for participants; Packwood says there are currently 150 active students in the program.

Building a stronger commercial district

In a unique private-public partnership, a community-led initiative resulted in the formation of the Chinatown Business Improvement District 2021. Forming a BID had been under discussion for years as a way to generate revenue for this cultural asset as merchants organized to protect and highlight this important commercial area that dates to the 1850s. In late July, the formation was approved by City Council resolution following the property owner ballot count that saw more than two-thirds casting their vote in favor of BID formation. BID funds will pay to beautify the area, clean sidewalks, and make the area safer by hiring security services.

Investing for community

At Oakland-based CNote, investing can be a mutually beneficial win/win that feels like more than just a financial high. This fintech streamlines community-centered investment in companies owned by women or BIPOC-led. “We’re on a mission to close the wealth gap. Join us,” reads the website. CNote, which itself is women founded and women led, states it has created or maintained over 4,000 jobs, that over 50 percent of its capital has been invested into BIPOC-led small businesses, with over 40 percent going to women-led small businesses (it notes that this is eight times the national average), and all of this with zero losses since Catherine Berman and Yuliya Tarasava opened CNote in 2016. The co-founders also express a commitment to funding affordable housing. Tarasava first emigrated to the United States from Belarus in 2004 with $300 in her pocket and not much more to her name. A friend later connected her with Berman, and CNote was born.

CNote partners with federal certified commercial lenders to funnel money into CDFIs (community development financial institutions). Companies can participate in a Promise Account with a minimum of $250,000, which earns interest to benefit the donor while achieving important racial equity and social justice goals. Mastercard has pledged $20 million. As of this summer, CNote had 16 employees, and was adding more, to their headquarters at 2323 Broadway.

Thrifting for sustainability

And finally, if someone says they’ll give you the clothes off their back, you might be talking to a thredUP customer. This company has taken the sometimes-iffy, sometimes-treasure-filled clothing racks from a thrift store and put them online, then multiplied them by thousands of closets. You can browse the clothes individually or take your chances with a 10-item “goody box,” hand-selected for you by a stylist after you fill out a quiz on your taste in clothing. But there’s no risk, really; returns are accepted for seven days with a prepaid shipping label; the $10 fee for the styling quiz is applied to any items that you keep.

You can shop by brand, season, or mood. ThredUP’s focus is on finding an appreciative body for a garment that still has many more wearings to give — like a rescue shelter for clothes. The company’s socially-conscious mission is to upend the throwaway culture that plagues our western world, where much is made of a princess donning the same outfit twice. According to thredUP, one in two people throw clothes into the trash rather than donating or reselling them. Most of those aren’t pulled out and go to the landfill or the incinerator, when they could be reworn by a new owner. A new garment takes 77 gallons of water to make, says thredUP , which makes one shudder in a drought year. Want to understand more about the carbon footprint you personally are creating with your shopping choices? Try the fashion footprint calculator on the website.

Celebrities have gotten in on “climate change meets Coco Chanel” education. Actor/director/gorgeous person Olivia Wilde teamed up with thredUP to create a secondhand T-shirt collection, while the aptly-named designer Zero Waste Daniel made a couture collection out of recycled clothes and remnants.

Since its 2009 founding, thredUP says its has processed 100 million garments. It can list 2.4 million items at any given time, and 5.5 million can fit in the distribution centers. The company's headquarters are in the beautiful Old Oakland Delger Block building, at 969 Broadway.