Submer is dunking servers in goo to save the planet

Digital technologies now serve as the central nervous system for the global economy, and making that nervous system work depends on networks of massive data centers that hoover up enormous amounts of power to keep businesses operating around the world.

It’s not just keeping those data centers on; keeping the rows and rows of servers that house all the data in a climate-controlled environment so they can operate effectively comes with a massive heating and cooling bill.

As companies struggle to address their energy consumption in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, they’re going to need to find ways to use less energy to keep the servers going. That’s where Submer comes in.

The Spanish company has developed a new way to store and cool servers. Basically, it dunks them in an eco-friendly goo that the company’s founders have designed, and stores them in specialized containers. The company’s founders said the approach can reduce energy consumption by 50%, reduce water use by 99%, and take up 85% less space.

Submer’s story actually starts with a rejection. The company was founded by Pol Valls, a former programmer and engineer, and his brother-in-law, Daniel Pope, who operated a data center business that was sold to Telefonica.

Four years ago the two men began brainstorming ways to make data centers operate more efficiently. They’d reached out to a few engineers and material science technologists that they’d known through their various networks and started developing a new material that was non-toxic, non-flammable and biodegradable. The idea was to submerge servers in containers filled with the goo to have them operate more efficiently.

Impressed with their own ingenuity, the two founders pitched Y Combinator. They made it to the final round, but ultimately weren’t accepted by the early-stage accelerator program.

“At that time, without having anything except for a crazy idea… we didn’t get into the batch, but we made it through the interview stage,” said Valls.

The two men, working in concert with retired engineers coming from the world of industrial thermodynamics, developed three initial prototypes. After six attempts, they’d gotten the product to a place where they thought they could take it to customers.

Submer isn’t the only company working with the concept of using liquid to cool servers. Microsoft recently publicized the results of an experiment off the coast of Scotland where it used ocean water to submerge servers and had the natural environment work to cool and store the hardware.

Valls said the approach from Microsoft was interesting, but doesn’t solve some of the key problems that new infrastructure technologies for data centers need to address.

Chiefly, computing needs to happen closer to applications that require real-time operations. Those are new 5G networking technology, smart cars and other innovations.

“Hyperscalers and data centers are trying to move infrastructure to the city center to reduce delays in communications,” Valls said. “Delays are dependent on the compute and where the user is… low latency applications will require more and more compute close to the city center.”

Submer’s approach was compelling enough for the company to raise roughly $12 million in new financing from a group of investors led by the Swedish impact investment firm Norrsken VC (the investment arm of the non-profit Norrsken Foundation) and Tim Reynolds, the retired co-founder of Jane Street Capital. Founded by one of the co-founders of Klarna, the European fintech unicorn, Norrsken focuses on technologies and services that promote the UN sustainable development goals of financial inclusion and sustainable development.

“Data centers power human advancement. Their role as a core infrastructure has become more apparent than ever and emerging technologies such as AI and IoT will continue to drive computing needs. However, the environmental footprint of the industry is growing at an alarming rate,” said Alexander Danielsson, investment manager at Norrsken VC. Danielsson said that Submer’s solution represented a compelling potential solution.

What’s likely equally compelling is the size of the market, which is expected to reach $25 billion, according to data from Global Market Insights. 

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