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SiteMinder raises $70M at $750M valuation after cresting $70M ARR in 2019

By Alex Wilhelm

Today SiteMinder, an Australian software company focused on the hotel industry, announced a $70 million (USD) round that values the company at $750 million. That’s about $1.08 billion in Australian dollars, making the firm a Down Under Unicorn, even if it’s a bit shy here in America.

According to SiteMinder, the round was “led by equity funds managed by BlackRock.” The company has previously raised capital from TCV and Bailador.

TechCrunch discussed SiteMinder earlier this year as part of our running examination of companies that have reached certain annual recurring revenue (ARR) thresholds. At that time, we noted that the firm’s revenue was at AU$100 million ARR, while it was a bit light of the level in American dollars.

As we understand the company’s new valuation in both countries’ currencies, it is possible to calculate the company’s current ARR multiple. It’s about 11x. That price is similar to what public SaaS companies command in today’s market, according to Bessemer’s cloud index.

Growth

SiteMinder announced some time ago that it had surpassed the AU$100 million ARR mark in 2019. Software companies — SiteMinder appears to also generate service-oriented revenues from activities like website design — that reach similar scale tend to slow down in percentage growth terms.

To understand the company’s approach to growth, TechCrunch asked SiteMinder if its new capital would allow it to maintain its current pace of ARR growth. The firm had cited “accelerated go-to-market strategies” as a possible use for its new funds, helping frame the question.

According to SiteMinder CEO Sankar Narayan, the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” Narayan went on to say that the company has “the widest global footprint and the largest multilingual capability in our category, giving us pole position as technology adoption accelerates across the hotel industry.” Narayan also cited planned hiring and expanded distribution work in Europe and Asia as giving his company “even greater opportunities for growth.”

SiteMinder operates globally, providing it with a closer presence to some customers (80% of the firm’s revenue is international, it says). That distribution, however, raises a question. Quickly growing companies often struggled to hold their culture together when they are in a single office. SiteMinder operates in over a dozen countries, likely compounding the issue.

Narayan told TechCrunch that SiteMinder is “no stranger to the challenges that come with being a global business.” To combat cultural drift, the CEO says that he visits an overseas office every month, and that his company recently introduced “an all-staff shadow equity plan” to let everyone profit from the company’s progress.

With new capital, and presumably more staff and offices to come, it will be interesting to see what new things the company’s cultural integrity requires.

Regardless, SiteMinder is now the inaugural member of the AU$100 million ARR club, and is a local-currency unicorn to boot. And as it’s harder to reach that valuation outside of Silicon Valley than inside of it, neither of those honorifics should be viewed as dismissive; they’re compliments.

WorkBoard triples again in 2019, raises $30M from a16z to celebrate

By Alex Wilhelm

WorkBoard, a SaaS startup that provides goal setting and management software to other companies, announced today that it has closed a $30 million Series C. The new capital comes less than a year after the startup raised a $23 million Series B. WorkBoard has raised $66.6 million to date, according to Crunchbase.

Andreessen Horowitz’s David Ulevitch led the round, which saw participation from Microsoft’s M12, GGV and Workday Ventures, each of which had put money into the company in preceding rounds. 

Why did WorkBoard announce a Series C just 10 months after its Series B? That’s what we wanted to find out. As it turns out, the answer is growth. 

3x, twice

The company is growing quickly, making it an attractive investment for the venture class. However, it’s useless to explain its growth in numerical terms if we don’t understand why it is growing as quickly as it is. 

WorkBoard provides software and services to other companies relating to how they plan and track their progress against their plans. More simply, WorkBoard helps other companies set and leverage OKRs, an acronym that stands for “objectives and key results.”

If you’d like a longer-winded explanation of how the concept works, our notes on the company’s Series B are the jam. Briefly, OKRs are a planning framework that help companies set their course intelligently, and execute across smaller tasks that add up to the direction they want to go. You complete “key results” over a given period of time, which roll up into your “objectives.”

It’s a pretty okay way to set up a company’s planning system. OKRs are popular in Silicon Valley, where Google popularized the method. It was not clear, at least to your humble servant, how far the idea had spread when WorkBoard raised its Series B last year. What if the startup raised a bunch of money after selling into fertile ground (startups aware of OKRs), but struggled when it went after other, non-tech companies?

Whoops. After boosting its annual recurring revenue 3.5x in 2018, WorkBoard tripled its ARR again in 2019, according to CEO Deidre Paknad. Thinking out loud, WorkBoard raised its Series A in December of 2017. It probably had $1 million to $3 million ARR at the time, a wide but regular-ish range of ARR for a startup raising its first institutional (priced) round. Given its 3.5x and 3x results in 2018 and 2019, starting right after that Series A investment, the company’s ARR is now likely over $20 million and probably closer to $25 million. 

So if it can double this year, the startup may begin to approach IPO scale in 2021, provided that its growth can keep up.

On that point, I asked Paknad about her market, especially in regards to how much work she and her employees had to do in terms of market education; did they have to bring the gospel of OKRs to companies, sell them on the idea, and then sell its software? Or had the need to teach about OKRs themselves gone down?

She indicated that instead of needing to pull the market towards her firm, the trendlines are better than neutral. According to the CEO, it was harder to sell OKR software “five years ago” because “the need to educate” a half decade ago “was intense.” Companies were stuck on their love of PowerPoint and similar, dated tooling. However, that need for “education has declined rapidly” Paknad said. 

She says that in her company’s experience there is “ever broader recognition that if you want to drive smart growth — not growth at any cost but smart growth,” companies will need to have “everybody in the organization aligned, and you need to be able to see what they [are] aligned on.” 

OKRs are a natural and well-explored way to attempt to do so.

That market movement has helped the company have very efficient operations, in terms of the usual raft of SaaS metrics that we understand. Paknad told TechCrunch a few things that stuck out:

  • WorkBoard has a “hyper-efficient” enterprise sales cycle, closing new customers in “under 60 days” that are “several hundred thousand dollars in average deal size.”
  • That its “average deal size has more than doubled since the beginning” of 2019.
  • For every $1 that WorkBoard spends on sales and marketing costs, the company generates “about $2 in new ARR.” (That’s way better than the $0.86 in average ARR generated by $1 in new sales and marketing spend for SaaS companies more broadly.)
  • And, it didn’t need to raise this round, with Paknad telling TechCrunch that she hasn’t “spent the 23 [million dollars] from March yet,” but that it decided to add capital because that “opportunity really is unfolding in the way we would like,” and that her firm has an “opportunity to have really definitive enterprise leadership.”

The investor perspective

TechCrunch got Ulevitch, WorkBoard’s newest lead investor, on the phone. Ulevitch called Paknad “a force of nature” who “really connects to customers.” That was all well and good, but more fun were his notes on how the round came together.

Paknad told Ulevitch after WorkBoard’s March 2019 Series B that her company would triple in the year. When it did, Ulevitch said she didn’t want to wait any longer to put money into the firm. And the investment came together quickly, with the Andreessen Horowitz investor noting a roughly one-month timeframe for the deal’s lifecycle.

This round isn’t hard to figure out. Fast-growing, efficient SaaS companies make investors dream of the next Slack. Let’s see if WorkBoard can double or triple in 2020. If so, we’ll be chatting with Paknad about exits and IPOs, not middle-sized, middle-stage rounds.

Cloudinary passes $60M ARR without VC money

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re continuing our exploration of companies that have reached material scale, usually viewed through the lens of annual recurring revenue (ARR). We’ve looked at companies that have reached the $100 million ARR mark and a few that haven’t quite yet, but are on the way.

Today, a special entry. We’re looking at a company that isn’t yet at the $100 million ARR mark. It’s 60% of the way there, but with a twist. The company is bootstrapped. Yep, from pre-life as a consultancy that built a product to fit its own needs, Cloudinary is cruising toward nine-figure recurring revenue and an IPO under its own steam.

Here is the first stable release of Microsoft’s new Edge browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Right on schedule, Microsoft today released the first stable version of its new Chromium-based Edge browser, just over a year after it first announced that it would stop developing its own browser engine and go with what has, for better or worse, become the industry standard.

You can now download the stable version for Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as macOS, directly. If you are on Windows 10, you can also wait for the automatic update to kick in, but that may take a while.

Since all of the development has happened in the open, with various pre-release channels, there are no surprises in this release. Some of the most interesting forward-looking features like Collections, Microsoft’s new take on bookmarking, are still only available in the more experimental pre-release channels. That will quickly change, though, since Edge is now on a six-week release cycle.

 

As I’ve said throughout the development cycle, Edge is a competent Chrome challenger and I have no hesitations to recommend it to anybody who is looking for a browser alternative. It’s still missing a few features, most importantly the ability to sync your browser history and extensions between devices. I’ve never found that to be much of a roadblock to using Edge as my main browser, but your mileage may vary.

Like all modern browsers, Edge features various options for protecting you from online trackers, support for extensions (both from the Chrome Web Store and Microsoft’s own extension repository), reader mode, the ability to switch profiles and pretty much everything else you would expect.

What it doesn’t have yet is a killer feature or something that really makes it stand out from the rest. While Microsoft seems quite excited about Collections, I admit that it’s not something I’ve found all that useful for my own workflow. But the team now has a stable platform in place to start innovating on, so we’ll likely see a stronger focus on new features going forward.

With Firefox going through its own renaissance, the Edge team may have trouble convincing people that they should switch back to a Microsoft browser, no matter how good it is. For most users, switching browsers isn’t a casual thing, after all.

Either way, if you were hesitant to try out the new Edge, now it the time to give it a shot. The easiest way to do so is to download the update directly. If you’re on Windows 10, the new Edge will replace the old Edge over time through the usual Windows OS update channel, but Microsoft is making this a very gradual rollout that it expects to last several months (and once it’s installed, it will update independently, outside of the Windows Update system).

Enterprise users get a choice for how and when they want to make the move, of course, which Microsoft detailed here and here.

TechCrunch’s Favorite Things of 2019

By Greg Kumparak

Each year the TechCrunch staff gathers together to make a big ol’ list of our Favorite Things from that year.

As always, we’re keeping the definition of “thing” very… open. Maybe it’s a physical thing. Maybe it’s a thing you listen to, or watch. Maybe it’s a thought, or a genre, or a mode. We didn’t worry too much about it. It’s a list of things that, in a sea of things, stood out to us at the end of the year.

This is our list for 2019.

Greg Kumparak, Editor

Parasite

THIS MOVIE. Oh wow. It’s hard to write much without spoiling anything — and really, you want to go in knowing as little as possible, so skip the trailer if you can. Director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) is really flexing here, showing his mastery of cinema by sneakily shapeshifting this film from genre to genre as the plot unfolds. Be aware that it gets pretty brutal at times — it’s hard to pin any one genre on this one, but a “Family” movie it is not.

The Office Ladies Podcast

The Office is on a near constant loop in my house, and I thought I knew just about everything there is to know about this show. Then Office co-stars Jenna Fischer (Pam!) and Angela Kinsey (Angela!) decided to re-watch the whole thing a decade later and chat about one episode each week, and it’s just an endless fountain of insight.

While there are a few fun surprise appearances from other Office stars in some episodes, the real gems come out when they hop on the phone with the production crew. I could listen to the show’s prop master Phil Shea talk about the work that goes into even the most seemingly simple of props — like, say, a big cardboard box for Dwight to hide in — all day.

The Mandalorian

I was excited for The Mandalorian, but wary. Would Star Wars work as a live action TV series? Turns out: absolutely, positively, yes.

This is the most “Star Wars-y” a new Star Wars thing has felt to me in decades. Give Jon Favreau more Star Wars, please. I don’t even mind that they’re releasing it weekly instead of letting me binge the whole season at once! To be honest, I … sort of prefer it..

Anthony Ha, Writer

The Criterion Channel

Criterion Channel

It can be hard to believe that The Criterion Channel exists.

While giant media companies are throwing billions of dollars into acquiring recent hits and creating seemingly endless slates of new shows and movies, The Criterion Channel feels humbler and worthier, a $9.99 per month streaming service designed to keep some of cinema’s greatest achievements in view. In some ways, my Criterion membership can feel like a gentle rebuke to all the bad habits I’ve developed on Netflix — how can I justify spending hours on a dumb reality show when I could be making my way through a great director’s filmography? And if all this sounds forbiddingly arty, I will also note that the service includes fun, smart programming — things like double features and interviews with current filmmakers — designed to make the movies more accessible.

The Void

When a friend and I walked into The Void’s Malaysia location back in January, I was pretty skeptical of anything involving VR. Sure, I’d had some interesting and/or promising experiences, but nothing that really made me feel like I understood why some people are so convinced that VR is the future. Then, after signing up for “Secrets of the Empire,” I walked out a believer.

Thanks to The Void’s combination of VR and physical environments, I came closer than I ever have to feeling like I was really in the world of Star Wars, infiltrating an Empire base and trying to dodge stormtrooper laser blasts. Naturally, when I heard that The Void had opened a pop-up in New York and was selling tickets to its newest title (“Avengers: Damage Control”), I had to try again. Some of the novelty had worn off, but the experience was still a delight — once again, The Void succeeded in transporting me to another world.

Bryce Durbin, Illustrator

Steven Universe

This Cartoon Network series premiered in 2013, but it wasn’t until this past summer that my kids and I devoured the entire five seasons, then waited patiently till “Steven Universe: The Movie” arrived in the fall.

The series, about a family of aliens with super abilities known as the Crystal Gems (including the titular character, who is half-human) has a delightful mix of humor, action, pathos and downright weirdness while exploring ideas of identity, moral obligations and familial bonds. And any cartoon whose recurring cast includes Tom Scharpling, Charlyne Yi and Joel Hodgson has to be good, right? A separate “epilogue series,” Steven Universe Future, began earlier this month.

Nintendo Labo VR

I reviewed Nintendo’s foray into VR back in April. It’s a fun, affordable introduction to VR gaming, and part of the fun is building the novel cardboard toys that house the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers. The games are whimsical and accessible in the classic Nintendo style. To be honest, I’ve hardly played in the second half of the year, but it was such a memorable experience that I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

Untitled Goose Game

You play a goose whose only purpose is to cause grief for the people in a small town for your own amusement. Nuff said.

Brian Heater, Hardware Editor

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Rich, lush and haunting, Natalie Mering’s fourth album under the Weyes Blood moniker has one foot firmly planted in the winding drives of ’70s Laurel Canyon and another unstuck in time. Titanic Rising’s biggest shortcoming is its too brief 40-minute runtime. But that brevity only serves to underscore how much the Southern Californian musician has managed to pack into each of its 10 tracks.

AirPods Pro

Airpods Pro

I’m in the habit of caveat gadget recommendations. Every so often, however, devices come along that I feel fully comfortable recommending to just about anyone who asks — even those who already own the original AirPods.

Apple’s first generation cracked the code for fully wireless earbuds. The second gen improved the experience ever so slightly, but these pricey additions to the family perfect it. The AirPods Pro haven’t left my side since I first picked them up.

Succession

The perfect TV series for the moment. The Roys are the Murdochs and the Trumps and the Kochs and the Redstones and the Kushners. They’re the ruthless billionaires and the corporate-owned media and the armies of failed sons we’ve inherited amidst the gasps of late capitalism. The family of billionaires flashes the occasional glimmer of likability, but it’s far more the exception than the rule amidst Machiavellian overtones and bumbling decision making, all of which might otherwise be completely insufferable were it not so consistently funny. If the fact that the world was gifted Kendall Roy’s “L to the O.G.” a week after The Righteous Gemstone’s “running ’round the house with a pickle in my mouth” doesn’t convince you we’re living in television’s golden age, I don’t know what to tell you.

On Cinema At the Cinema

This is long-form comedy at its finest.

Spread out over a podcast, an 11-season (so far) Adult Swim series, a four-part mock trial and this year’s feature film Mister America, there’s a strong case to be made that the rich, deep lore of the On Cinema universe is the defining comedic statement of our time.

Natasha Lomas, Writer

Twelve South Curve MacBook Stand

The MacBook Pro’s broken keyboard has had one positive impact this year — forcing me to switch to a (reliable) external keyboard that also convinced me it was long overdue to fix my working screen height by using a laptop stand. But which stand to buy? I wanted something simple that, er, “just works” (to coin a phrase).

Turns out there’s an awful lot of over-engineered product trying to convince you to shell out for fancy, adjustable metal. So I was pretty happy when I came across Twelve South’s Curve elegant single-piece design. It’s a shaped metal bar topped with a little padded rubber to coddle the laptop. Gravity does the rest.  The height of the stand isn’t adjustable, but I figured I could always stick it on some books if I needed to (I haven’t). The relative lack of metal in the design is a major plus; less being more from a sustainability point of view. But it’s also just good design, as it allows for free airflow around the laptop. This means it’s helpful in summer for keeping the machine cool. Lastly you get a neat concealed space on your desk, under the laptop, where you can cram some unsightly junk. Win-win all round.

The Irishman

Screen Shot 2019 07 31 at 11.02.45 AM

De-aging technology lets Martin Scorsese be a time-thief with “The Irishman,” serving us another choice cut of De Niro, a fillet of Pacino and a full side of Joe Pesci — lured back from unofficial retirement to preside over the 209-minute mobster epic as head of a Philadelphia crime family with his faithful hit man in tow.

I saw the film in the cinema where the de-aging technology was undoubtedly helped by a little fuzzy projection. Suspension of disbelief was quick and easy in such velvet surroundings, even as the film itself ran on and on. If you’re watching on Netflix — the film’s distributor — you’ll inevitably get something a little more uncanny valley; a small(er) screen, detail-filled, more compact and color-saturated view (depending on your TV) lends more of a sickly, otherworldly look to the de-aged faces, at least from clips I’ve seen. But even on the big screen there were moments of disconnect when your brain realizes the younger faces don’t exactly match with how stiffly the bodies of older men move.

Yet it’s petty detail in a masterful tale that sweeps along at Scorsese’s choice of pace, now lingering like a Renaissance painting, now smashing bullet-like through your brain. The best of it were the scenes played for pure absurdity when you wonder whether the genius is really the juxtaposition of such iconic veterans, mellowed and rounded by a lifetime’s experience of telling stories, playing at being young mobsters again but with the lived excess, in brains, bones and bellies, to send up and show up characters wearing digital masks of their younger selves.

Roborock S6

There is domestic life before and after (a good) robot vacuum cleaner. After about half a year with the Roborock S6, it would be hard to give it up now. It’s not that the device can do all the cleaning — and you’ll find yourself tidying stuff out of its way, so it does actually create new tasks — but since it can do the floors so well it feels like it buys you the time to sort out the rest of your household mess. Also, if you have pets, there’s added entertainment in watching them try to ambush it.

Zack Whittaker, Security Editor

Peace and quiet/do not disturb mode

Peace and quiet. In this day and age it’s a rare commodity.

Your phone is constantly buzzing. Social media, that person you hate is getting married. News alert, Trump did a thing. Play this game, check-in for your flight. Buzz, buzz. It’s a never-ending stream of anxiety-inducing notifications. But there is solace knowing you can switch it all off. “Do not disturb” mode will silence your phone more than the mute switch ever could.

It’s bliss — it’s the peace and quiet you crave. But wait — what if I miss something? The fear of missing out is almost worse than the constant stream of goings-on. Do not fear. “Do not disturb” keeps you tethered to your phone — your lifeline in the modern age — without having to be bombarded by the outside world. Enjoy the calm, take a moment, breathe, relax and once you’re ready to see the world again, you can switch it off and go back to the world.

Jake Bright, Writer

Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire

Harley Davidson LiveWire Track

Harley released its 105-horsepower, all-electric, digitally controlled LiveWire in 2019. With this, America’s oldest motorcycle company became the first big gas manufacturer to sell a production e-moto in the U.S. This put Harley on a competitive footing with EV startups (such as Zero) and pre-empted its competitors to create digital, electric and emissions-free motorcycles in the near future.

Devin Coldewey, Writer

Grovemade Task Knife

I used to reach for some scissors or my trusty switchblade or really anything sharp when I needed to open a package, snip off a label and so on, but Grovemade has replaced them all with this beautiful, elegant little object. It’s “just enough knife” as they say, a solid slab of metal with a satisfying heft and grip that looks lovely just sitting around.

Several waxed canvas bags

waxed messengers 28

I got to review several excellent waxed canvas bags for Bag Week 2019, and man, some of these things feel like they’re going to outlive me.

Death Stranding

This game is very good in some ways, and quite bad in other ways, but most importantly it’s totally unique and an attempt to create truly strange and serious Art in the genre of games. Whether it’s successful is a matter of some debate, but there’s simply nothing else like it out there.

Catherine Shu, Writer

OtterBox PopSocket Case

PopSockets are great, but I have trouble getting anything to stay on my iPhone because I live in a humid climate (and also because I tend to use my phone as a fidget spinner). The OtterBox PopSocket case is basically indestructible, so I can continue being really mean to my phone.

Two Dots

This is the only game I have on my phone. I play it because it is visually soothing and the developers constantly release cool new game mechanics. I also enjoy the noises the dots make when you connect them. It’s like popping bubble wrap, but more environmentally friendly.

“Heads Gonna Roll” by Jenny Lewis

I’m not very good at writing about music. It’s hard for me to capture exactly why this track means so much to me. But I’ve listened to it on repeat almost every day over the past year, and each time still feels like the first time I heard it.

Derry Girls

The dark and (very) goofy humor of “Derry Girls” is interspersed with just the right amount of tenderness. The show is about teenagers growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, trying to be ordinary teens during an extraordinary and devastating time. I enjoy the Irish slang (keep the subtitles on) and ridiculous dog pee jokes, but the reason I’ve watched both seasons twice is because these kids are trying to navigate crushes, strict teachers and school-bus feuds in the middle of turmoil they didn’t create and perhaps don’t even fully understand yet — something that still resonates, perhaps now more than ever.

Jon Shieber, Editor

The Watchmen

It was original while staying true to the source material. Like all good myths, it put a mirror up to current society to show how cracked it is. It exposed the events of one of the nation’s most horrifying acts of racial violence in the twentieth century and grounded the entire enterprise of superhero mythmaking in its aftermath. It was a merger of pop culture and high art that had “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger” that Martin Scorsese says he finds lacking in comic book films.

The New Yorker

Staring at a computer screen for hours at a time reading and writing for work doesn’t give me a lot of downtime in the reading department (especially in the golden age of television). But reading a hard copy of The New Yorker every week (er… almost every week) is a welcome escape from the digital world. It’s still the single-best weekly collection of long-form non-fiction, short fiction and poetry written in English.

David Hammons exhibit at Hauser & Wirth

Going to art galleries is another chance to reset from the work grind. Of all of the ones I saw this year, the David Hammons show at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles was the most memorable. Hammons’ installations and individual pieces are beautiful and thought-provoking. And some of the work (like filling the courtyard space of the gallery with tents to call attention to the homeless population living just a few blocks away from its manicured garden and bustling restaurant) was a welcome and powerful reminder of the income inequalities that confront the city and the country.

“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X

That song was an earworm. It also was the first hit to encapsulate and highlight the power of all the digital tools creators have at their disposal to make and distribute music. Also… that Nine Inch Nails sample is ridiculous.

Steve O’Hear, Writer

Eurorack modular synthesisers

Nearly 20 years late to the party, 2019 was the year that I really discovered modular synthesisers based on the “Eurorack” standard started by Dieter Döpfer in 1995. Over the last 12 months I’ve assembled a modular synthesiser of my own, purchasing modules from mainly boutique manufactures and one-person shops that mostly sell via independent e-commerce stores and online marketplaces like Reverb and Etsy.

The hardware itself is a thriving example of the maker community, which would find it hard to exist without the internet, and I absolutely love unwinding after work making weird and wonderful sounds (and sometimes music) with my Eurorack synth. The year even ended with a Eurorack module being released with my name on it, quite literally).

MyVolts Ripcord

Sometimes companies just “get it,” and Dublin-based MyVolts is one such example. The company sells power adapters — or wall-warts — for just about anything, and has a searchable product database to match the correct gear to the correct power supply.

More recently, MyVolts has ventured into original products of its own, including the Ripcord, which cleverly lets you power a range of devices via USB, such as guitar pedals, drum machines and synths. Use a USB powerbrick at the other end and your music gear becomes portable. The small company even sells a special tip for the Ripcord that lets me power my original 1970s Stylophone via USB instead of its intended 9V PP3 internal battery.

Romain Dillet, Writer

UniFi Dream Machine

How much internet is too much internet? If your answer is that you can never have enough internet, the UniFi Dream Machine is a little box that can get you to the next level. It combines a router, a switch and a rock-solid Wi-Fi access point. But the best part is that everything is configurable, making it both wonderful and scary — if optimizing a local network for maximum performance and optimal security sounds like a great weekend project.

Raspberry Pi 4

The Raspberry Pi started as a simple pocket-sized computer for tinkerers. But that thing has grown up tremendously over the years. The fourth iteration is a powerful, energy-efficient ARM-based computer that can easily replace a home server. You can use it as a file server, as an always-on backup server, as a DNS-based ad-blocker or as a media entertainment machine. You can run a VPN on it, host a web service or turn it into a video game emulation console. Even more than what you can do with it, I just love interacting with it using SSH, spinning up a Docker container and learning how computers work.

My local café/bistro/bar

There’s something wonderful about going to my local café/bistro/bar/you-name-it down the street. Sure, I can meet up with startup founders, grab some lunch, work a bit, read a book and drink until very late with my friends. But what makes it wonderful is that you get to see other people going through happy and sad times, you get to invite complete strangers to join your table for a board game and you get to joke with the staff who very progressively become familiar faces. This is a living place where you can find something that rarely happens on the internet anymore — human coincidences.

Darrel Etherington, Writer

Weiss 38mm Standard Issue Field Watch

This hand-wound watch was a gift to myself this year, and it provided welcome relief from years of wearing an Apple Watch full time. I still keep the Apple Watch for workout tracking, but the Weiss is on my wrist most of the time and manually winding it to top off the power reserve periodically throughout the day is intensely satisfying, and an opportunity to steal a few quiet seconds.

Sony A7RIV

sony alpha a7riv

Sony’s A7RIV came out this year, and I pre-ordered it on a hunch it would deliver. And deliver it has — I’m a long-time Canon shooter, but after using the Sony A7RIV for a few months personally and professionally, I’ve sold all my old gear to finance an investment in top-notch Sony lenses that really show off the A7RIV’s amazing resolution power.

Samsung’s The Frame TV

Samsung’s The Frame QLED TV doesn’t have its best panel, nor is it really the best value for money, but its wall-mount (which comes in the box) is super easy to install, and allows the TV to mount truly flush with the wall. I basically use mine as a large, expensive digital frame, but the 4K resolution and QLED color is ideal for showing off photos snapped with the camera I also included in this list.

“On The Line” by Jenny Lewis

I’m stealing from my colleague Catherine Shu a bit here as she already shouted out “Heads Gonna Roll” from this album — but the album is my favorite of the year, and already a cherished classic for me. Jenny Lewis has a discography that’s hard to find fault with, including her Rilo Kiley days, but this one really stands out.

Public investors loved SaaS stocks in 2019, and startups should be thankful

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today, something short. Continuing our loose collection of looks back of the past year, it’s worth remembering two related facts. First, that this time last year SaaS stocks were getting beat up. And, second, that in the ensuing year they’ve risen mightily.

If you are in a hurry, the gist of our point is that the recovery in value of SaaS stocks probably made a number of 2019 IPOs possible. And, given that SaaS shares have recovered well as a group, that the 2020 IPO season should be active as all heck, provided that things don’t change.

Let’s not forget how slack the public markets were a year ago for a startup category vital to venture capital returns.

Last year

We’re depending on Bessemer’s cloud index today, renamed the “BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index” when it was rebuilt in October. The Cloud Index is a collection of SaaS and cloud companies that are trackable as a unit, helping provide good data on the value of modern software and tooling concerns.

If the index rises, it’s generally good news for startups as it implies that investors are bidding up the value of SaaS companies as they grow; if the index falls, it implies that revenue multiples are contracting amongst the public comps of SaaS startups.*

Ultimately, startups want public companies that look like them (comps) to have sky-high revenue multiples (price/sales multiples, basically). That helps startups argue for a better valuation during their next round; or it helps them defend their current valuation as they grow.

Given that it’s Christmas Eve, I’m going to present you with a somewhat ugly chart. Today I can do no better. Please excuse the annotation fidelity as well:

Gift Guide: Gifts for the commuters in your life

By Ingrid Lunden

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

Remote working has become a new normal in the life of an employee. Spurred by ubiquitous broadband and mobile connectivity, lighter and smaller computers, and everything you need in the cloud, a lot of people have felt a lot less of a need to be in the same physical space as everyone else, day in day out, to get things done.

And yet, there remains a critical mass of people in and near big towns and cities who continue to commute.

For this guide, we’re focusing on commuters who eschew cars for all the obvious reasons — traffic, parking, gas costs, and more traffic — and instead opt for buses, trains, subways and bikes to travel to their “offices” — be they actual offices, or cafes or other workspaces — on a regular or semi-regular basis.

Daily commutes around most of the world’s metro areas can stretch into more than an hour per day on average, according to research from Moovit. In other words, these are presents that go to the heart of how your special people spend significant chunks of their days, weeks, months and years.

This gift guide is to help make that time more well spent. 

These products are the epitome of the genre-crossing, “prosumer” lives many of us seem to live today: they straddle the worlds of practicality and of fun, presents that might help them work during their commute, or get their minds off work, or to make their work trip a little safer or easier. Happy shopping (and hopefully, happier commuting).

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Smart bike lights

There’s been a big shift in these over the last decade or so. The bike lights of yesterday were barely-visible front and rear lights, semi-permanently attached to your handlebars and backseat, powered by batteries that always seemed to run out. Today, you can buy much brighter LED-based lights, which work on USB chargers to keep doing their job and easily attach and detach wherever you choose to buckle them.

Smart lights are the next gear up on that trajectory, with app-based controls and so.much.more. UK company See.Sense’s version packs a strong punch: on top of the being brighter, easier to remove and recharge, the lights link up with an app to alert you when someone appears to be stealing your bike, and they sense when you are cycling faster and slower and blink more rapidly when there’s more traffic to make sure the cyclist is better seen. The downside is that hills won’t be the only steep thing on your horizon.

Price: $120 on Amazon for a Front/Rear set

Bike-mounted speaker

A worrying number of cyclists get around the streets with headphones in their ears to pick up navigation instructions, listen to music or podcasts, or talk on the phone. This is not ideal, though, as it means they cannot fully hear the noise of traffic in their midst. A bike-mounted speaker is a way to let the rider continue to listen to their audio, but not at the detriment of hearing other important traffic noises.

This Celtic Blu speaker is one of the more fancy of the dozens of bike speakers that are on the market today. Alongside the basics of offering a Bluetooth connection to play music or other media from your phone and being waterproof, it doubles as a charging bank for other devices, can work as a microphone to take calls, and has an additional set of controls that you access from the handlebars to adjust sound, answer calls and other actions more safely. The downside is that it’s one of the bigger of the speakers,  potentially taking up space you migh have mounted a water bottle.

Price: $80 on Amazon

Streaming, podcast or audiobook gift cards

Streaming services from Spotify, Apple, Amazon and others have been growing in ubiquity by leaps and bounds, but if your commuter isn’t already subscribing to one of these, or if they’re only using the free tier, giving them a chance to test out the premium service with a giftcard could be a welcome present. It can also be one to personalise: find a mix of podcast programs you think your commuter might like to hear, or pick out a selection of books for the listening, to give alongside the card. (See some book recommendations here and here.)

Price: Audible starts at $15/month; Spotify Gift Cards are widely available from retailers including Amazon.

Wireless ear buds and headphones

Airpods Pro

I personally worry about how safe these are for cycling, so I won’t endorse them for bike usage. But they have quickly become one of the must-haves for commuters on other transportation modes who are mad as hell about tangled cords and not going to take it anymore. Apple’s Air Pods Pro, at $249, are a noticeable improvement on the previous generation of their wireless buds, and the world has noticed: they have been a huge sell-out success, with orders now only shipping in January. There are dozens of others now on the market if you don’t want to wait, or pay the premium to own an Apple product.

Price: Airpods Pro, $249 on Amazon | For a more classic (and cheaper) headphone style, try these from Sony.

E-Reader

No, not everyone has one of these. Yes, they are still a huge seller for Amazon, underscoring their enduring popularity. We like the Kindle Paperwhite (pictured above) or the Kindle Oasis, the latter of which is around $145 more but brings in a bigger screen, an adjustable-warmth backlight, and physical page turning buttons.

Read some of our book recommendations here.

Price: Kindle Paperwhite, $105 on Amazon | Kindle Oasis, $250 on Amazon

Panniers

I’m a bike commuter myself and have been toughing it out (literally and figuratively) with a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Classics for years. These monsters are so durable that the set I have now are as old as my oldest child (14) and they still look nearly new.

But I’m going to be honest. They’re not beautiful, and even with two inside pockets, they can be hard to peer inside when you’re looking for something smallish. (The blood has rushed out of my hands more than once thinking I’d somehow lost my wallet or phone, only to find them deep down inside the bag.)

The cool thing is that there is now a huge range of options on the market for new bags, whether you want them for leisurely use, for work commuting, for a fashion statement, to make them easier to carry when you’re off your bike, or all of the above.

Arkel’s bag is laptop-focused (but sells as a single); Timbuk2 (pictured above) if you’re after a “tandem” style; and if you are looking for a stylish pannier to replace purely functional ones used by your commuter, you can consider the Norfolk model from Brooks or the Sac from Linus.

Price: Arkel Commuter bag, $189 | Timbuk2 Tandem bag, $129 on Amazon | Brooks Norfolk, $120 on Amazon | Linus Sac, $70

Activity tracker

These are not just for the people who cycle, run or walk to work. While a lot of a commuter’s journey might take place sitting or standing on public transportation, there is actually quite a bit of walking that comes at the start and finish of the route. A good activity tracker can help a person track how they rack up the miles and feel a little better about all the hours they subsequently spend sitting at a desk.

You can go for a premium Apple Watch starting at around $400, or you can opt for a basic Fitbit at under $100.

Price: Apple Watch, from $384 on Amazon | Fitbit Inspire, $80 on Amazon

Privacy Screen

Borrowing one from Zack, who has a much more extensive list of privacy-related gifts, to draw one out for those who pull out their laptops during their morning commutes, whether it’s to work or do something else. Whatever it is: wandering eyes sitting nearby can see what you’re doing. A special screen that blocks all angular views except straight on in front on the machine is a good way to keep the nosey parkers out of your business.

Price: Around $17 on Amazon.

Touchscreen gloves

Not strictly (nor even loosely) a gadget, but something that will help you keep using your screen-based companions as the weather turns cooler. You can buy beautiful leather, cashmere-lined versions of these; or you can buy them in acrylic. You can go colourful or stay basic in black. People lose or rip gloves all the time, so even having an extra pair is not a bad thing.

Price: Downholme Leather/cashmere gloves, $60 on Amazon here | knit gloves (a little more modest but still perfectly good),  $8 on Amazon.

 

Samsung has sold 1 million Galaxy Fold smartphones

By Matt Burns

Today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, Samsung Electronic’s President Young Sohn revealed the company had sold 1 million foldable Galaxy Fold smartphones. Estimates from October pegged sales at that time at 500,000 units.

“And I think that the point is, we’re selling [a] million of these products,” Sohn said. “There’s a million people that want to use this product at $2,000.”

Today’s conversation at Disrupt Berlin focused around growth through innovation. Sohn commented on the sales number while explaining Samsung’s process of releasing products to get feedback. He said, in part, if they kept devices like the Fold in labs, they wouldn’t get the input they needed.

And Samsung got a lot of feedback about the Galaxy Fold.

The foldable phone was first announced early this year at MWC 2019, where it was among a handful of foldable devices. It launched several months later in April, where reviewers quickly discovered multiple problems, including screens that cracked. The company soon (though perhaps not quickly enough) reworked the product, re-releasing it in late September.

The re-released Galaxy Fold was more durable, though our review unit still had screen issues.

Today at Disrupt Berlin, I asked if Samsung is comfortable selling a $2,000 device that is essentially a beta device. He said yes, and pointed to the new sales number as justification.

Previous media reports stated Samsung is ramping up plans to sell 6 million foldable devices in 2020.

And the winner of Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019 is… Scaled Robotics

By Romain Dillet

At the very beginning, there were 14 startups. After two days of incredibly fierce competition, we now have a winner.

Startups participating in the Startup Battlefield have all been hand-picked to participate in our highly competitive startup competition. They all presented in front of multiple groups of VCs and tech leaders serving as judges for a chance to win $50,000 and the coveted Disrupt Cup.

After hours of deliberations, TechCrunch editors pored over the judges’ notes and narrowed the list down to five finalists: Gmelius, Hawa Dawa, Inovat, Scaled Robotics and Stable.

These startups made their way to the finale to demo in front of our final panel of judges, which included: Andrei Brasoveanu (Accel), Andrew Reed (Sequoia Capital), Carolina Brochado (SoftBank Vision Fund), Lila Preston (Generation Investment Management) and Mike Butcher (TechCrunch).

Winner: Scaled Robotics

Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can produce 3D progress maps of construction sites in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off. Supervisors can then use the software to check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas.

Read more about Scaled Robotics in our separate post.

Runner-Up: Stable

Stable offers a solution as simple as car insurance, designed to protect farmers around the world from pricing volatility. Through the startup, food buyers ranging from owners of a small smoothie shop to Coca-Cola employees can insure thousands of agricultural commodities, as well as packaging and energy products.

Read more about Stable in our separate post.

MUBI’s production effort nets it a Sundance selection as the company goes cashflow positive

By Darrell Etherington

Streaming services are popping up like weeds these days, but MUBI has been at it basically since streaming video first emerged as a business. Founded in 2007, MUBI focuses on curated, independent film from international artists and creators, and the company has recently further differentiated itself from its competitors by becoming a distributor and production house – while also going cash-flow positive-during its most recent quarter.

The MUBI story is a rare example of a startup maintaining clear and consistent focus over a long, storied history and achieving sustainable growth in the process. MUBI CEO Efe Cakarel told me at Disrupt Berlin that the company will be cash-flow positive this quarter, and that its revenue has grown at a rate of 72% year-over-year for the past three years running.

That’s a significant achievement and a rarity for just about any startup, but it’s particularly difficult and challenging in the context of the video streaming industry. It’s fairly standard practice among the larger players in the space to spend, spend and then spend some more.

Netflix, for instance, expects to have spent around $15 billion on new content over the course of this past year, while Apple has spent over $6 billion on new shows and films.

Despite swimming with deep-pocketed sharks, MUBI has not only seen a ton of growth over the years, but it has also branched out into original content itself, first by securing distribution rights and then later by getting into producing films and shows of its own.

MUBI has been distributing films, including theatrical releases, and now it’s also joining up to produce its first films, including Farewell Amor, which was just selected to be part of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; Port Authority, which had a debut at Cannes earlier this year; Maniac Cop, an original TV series from Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive.

The company has also made major expansions into Asia, including a launch in India with a dedicated service showcasing Indian cinema.

MindAffect wants to let us control devices with our minds

By Greg Kumparak

MindAffect, a team which presented in today’s TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield, wants to explore whats possible when we can control the devices around us with our minds — and to let others explore the possibilities, too.

MindAffect was selected as a wildcard entry into the Startup Battlefield from the companies exhibiting at the show.

One early area of research for the team has been helping those who are unable to move anything but their eyes (due to neurological disorders such as ALS or stroke) communicate by typing.

Through this research, the team has designed a brain-computer interface which uses existing electroencephalogram (or EEG) hardware and unique flashing patterns to allow a user to control a device using only their eyes and the signals generated by their brain. Now they want to let others build with this interface (whether it’s for medical use cases like they’ve explored so far, or things like gaming/entertainment) with plans to launch a development kit next month at CES.

Here’s MindAffect’s system wired up to control an AppleTV:

While there are existing solutions for tracking eye movements to control computers, this approach sort of flips the concept upside down.

Whereas eye tracking solutions mostly use cameras and infrared reflections bounced off the eye to determine where a user is looking, MindAffect’s approach analyzes signals from the brain to determine what a user is looking at.

To accomplish this, MindAffect flashes each button on an interface (such as every key on an onscreen keyboard) at a different frequency. As the user shifts their gaze from button to button, the company says, the unique frequency the user sees causes their brain’s visual cortex to generate similarly unique signals. A non-invasive EEG headset detects and amplifies these signals, and MindAffect’s algorithms work backwards to match the signal to the desired action or input. MindAffect says its current algorithms require little to no training to function accurately.

With those differences in mind, what are the advantages of this approach over camera-based eye tracking? In a chat with me backstage shortly before his pitch, MindAffect CEO Ivo de la Rive Box was quick to note that they’re still trying to figure that out. He mentions, as an example, environments where lighting conditions might interfere with eye trackers.

MindAffect is on the hunt for use cases where this tech could prove particularly advantageous – something that opening up a dev kit to others could help with.

Founded in September of 2017, the company has raised $1M to date.

Arcona uses machine learning to compose adaptive soundtracks in real time

By Brian Heater

Arcona Music took to the stage at Disrupt Berlin today to showcase its adaptive music service. The local startup utilizes machine learning to create musical beds capable of adapting to different contexts in real-time. The user simply needs to input a handful of parameters, and the service will adjust accordingly.

“Give it a style, an emotion and a musical theme, and you can say, ‘play this,’ and the engine will take that blueprint and realize it,” service cofounder Ryan Groves explained, in a conversation with TechCrunch. “If, at any point, the emotion or style changes, it will adapt to that and create this essentially infinite stream of music. You can play a particular song blueprint for as long as is necessary in any dynamic environment.”

The service is still in its infancy, at the moment. Its two founders are its only two full-time employees, along with a part-time developer. Groves and co-founder Amélie Anglade bootstrapped the scrappy startup, which has yet to seek funding.

 

Groves is a composer and musical theorist who formerly worked at popular AI-based music composition service, Ditty. Anglade is a music information retrieval specialist who worked at SoundCloud.

Rhythm gaming is the first clear application for the service. The popular gaming genre is built around a changing soundtrack and could potentially benefit from music that requires minimal pre-programing. Moving forward, the potential for such a service is far broader.

“In the very long term,” Groves said, “we should see this being almost your own personal orchestra, leveraging augmented reality, GPS and all that stuff, and just responding to your environment as you’re listening.

Wotch is building a creator-friendly video platform

By Anthony Ha

The team at Wotch has created a new social video platform — but wait, don’t roll your eyes quite yet.

“Obviously, we’re very used to someone creating a new internet video-sharing platform,” said co-CEO Scott Willson. “It must be very irritating for everyone to hear that.”

And yet Willson and his co-founder/co-CEO James Sadler have attempted it anyway, and they’re competing today as part of the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin. They’re only 22 years old, but Sadler said they’ve been working together for the past few years, with past projects including the development of e-learning platforms.

They were inspired to create Wotch because of YouTube’s recent problems around issues like demonetization, where many YouTubers lost the ability to monetize their videos through advertising, and other controversies like an attempted overhaul of its verification system.

Willson said YouTube has been “leaving out creators in terms of communications,” and as the controversies grew, the pair thought, “There has to be a better way of doing this.”

The key, Sadler added, is giving video creators a bigger say in the process: “We’re very hands-on with these creators. We’re not just sending them an automated email.”

In fact, they’re giving creators an opportunity to buy equity in Wotch to get a stake in the company’s success. They’re also appointing a creator board that will be consulted on company policy.

Wotch creators will be able to make money by selling subscriptions, merchandise and ads — not the standard pre-roll or mid-roll ads (which Willson described as “irritants”), but instead partnerships where they incorporate brand products and messages in their videos.

Asked whether this might create the same tension between advertisers and creators that YouTube has been struggling with, Willson argued, “What it comes down to is correctly matching advertisers with creators.” Some advertisers don’t mind working with video-makers who are “pushing the boundaries” — they just need to know what they’re getting into.

Sadler also said that Wotch will be providing creators with more data about their viewers, like identifying their most loyal fans, their most engaged fans and their first “wotchers.”

And the site will take a different approach to content moderation, using technologies like video frame analysis to identify “risky” content, as well as relying more on community moderation. Sadler said it will be a “consensus” approach, rather than the “dictatorship” of other platforms.

“We’re rewarding users for helping to cleanse these platforms,” he added.

Wotch isn’t identifying any of the big creators who he says have signed on, but Sadler told me that the company is largely focused on emerging markets and has already recruited 25 of the top creators in Brazil (where YouTube has an enormous audience, to sometimes detrimental effect) and throughout South America. Those creators won’t be posting on Wotch alone, but they will be creating exclusive videos for the service.

Sadler said it’s those creators who will draw the viewers: “Consumers are loyal to the creators and not the platforms.” And once they’re drawn in, they’ll also experience “a more social platform — see the things your friends are ‘wotching,’ see the things that your favorite creators are ‘wotching.'”

The startup has raised funding from Dominic Smales, the CEO of influencer marketing company Gleam Futures; Bidstack co-founder Simon Mitchell; and Melody VR founder and COO Steve Hancock. Smales is also leading the creator board.

While a beta version of Wotch is already live, Sadler and Willson plan to launch a revamped version of the service early next year. You can get an early preview of the changes by using the promotional code “TECHCRUNCH.”

Gmelius wants to fit all of your startup’s software needs right into Gmail

By Lucas Matney

Few spaces are hotter right now than enterprise SaaS and tools that streamline communications in the workplace have been some of the more popular investments for savvy VCs.

The workplace email inbox is a nightmare, but there are plenty of wrong ways to kill it. Gmelius is building a workspace platform that lives inside Gmail, allowing teams to get more bespoke tools without adding yet another piece of software to their repertoire.

Gmelius slots into the Gmail workspace, adding a host of features like shared inboxes, a help desk, an account-management solution and automation tools. This integration fits into the existing interface while hiding heavier tools including Trello-like Kanban boards inside Gmail. It can understandably feel like an awful lot of functionality to fit into one app.

Gmelius has been around for a long time as a Chrome plugin, but the company has made significant strides this year to revamp their product as a premium tool for startups looking to supercharge their email and collaborate internally inside Gmail. The company still offers a free tier with limited functionality, but now has several professional tiers scaling up to a $49 per user enterprise plan.

The startup is rebelling against an overwhelming trend of service unbundling which has led startups to pay for more SaaS products than ever. Gmelius is taking on competitors like Front and others that have built out their own distinct platforms.

Gmelius recently graduated from Y Combinator and is in the midst of raising new funding to scale its team to take on more customers. They are competing in TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield.

Scaled Robotics keeps an autonomous eye on busy construction sites

By Devin Coldewey

Buildings under construction are a maze of half-completed structures, gantries, stacked materials, and busy workers — tracking what’s going on can be a nightmare. Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can navigate this chaos and produce 3D progress maps in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off.

Bottlenecks in construction aren’t limited to manpower and materials. Understanding exactly what’s been done and what needs doing is a critical part of completing a project in good time, but it’s the kind of painstaking work that requires special training and equipment. Or, as Scaled Robotics showed today at TC Disrupt Berlin 2019, specially trained equipment.

The team has created a robot that trundles autonomously around construction sites, using a 360-degree camera and custom lidar system to systematically document its surroundings. An object recognition system allows it to tell the difference between a constructed wall and a piece of sheet rock leaned against it, between a staircase and temporary stairs for electric work, and so on.

By comparing this to a source CAD model of the building, it can paint a very precise picture of the progress being made. They’ve built a special computer vision model that’s suited to the task of sorting obstructions from the constructions and identifying everything in between.

All this information goes into a software backend where the supervisors can check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances, or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas. But it’s not all about making the suits happy.

“It’s not just about getting management to buy in, you need the guy who’s going to use it every day to buy in. So we’ve made a conscious effort to fit seamlessly into what they do, and they love that aspect of it,” explained co-founder Bharath Sankaran. “You don’t need a computer scientist in the room. Issues get flagged in the morning, and that’s a coffee conversation – here’s the problem, bam, let’s go take a look at it.”

Scaled Robotics

The robot can make its rounds faster than a couple humans with measuring tapes and clipboards, certainly, but also someone equipped with a stationary laser ranging device that they carry from room to room. An advantage of simultaneous location and ranging (SLAM) tech is that it measures from multiple points of view over time, building a highly accurate and rich model of the environment.

The data is assembled automatically but the robot can be either autonomous or manually controlled — in developing it, they’ve brought the weight down from about 70 kilograms to 20, meaning it can be carried easily from floor to floor if necessary (or take the elevator); and simple joystick controls mean anyone can drive it.

A trio of pilot projects concluded this year and have resulted in paid pilots next year, which is of course a promising development.

Interestingly, the team found that construction companies were using outdated information and often more or less assumed they had done everything in the meantime correctly.

“Right now decisions are being made on data that’s maybe a month old,” said co-founder Stuart Maggs. “We can probably cover 2000 square meters in 40 minutes. One of the first times we took data on a site, they were completely convinced everything they’d done was perfect. We put the data in front of them and they found out there was a structural wall just missing, and it had been missing for 4 weeks.”

The company uses a service-based business model, providing the robot and software on a monthly basis, with prices rising with square footage. That saves the construction company the trouble of actually buying, certifying, and maintaining an unfamiliar new robotic system.

Scaled Robotics

But the founders emphasized that tracking progress is only the first hint of what can be done with this kind of accurate, timely data.

“The big picture version of where this is going is that this is the visual wiki for everything related to your construction site. You just click and you see everything that’s relevant,” said Sankaran. “Then you can provide other ancillary products, like health and safety stuff, where is storage space on site, predicting whether the project is on schedule.”

“At the moment, what you’re seeing is about looking at one moment in time and diagnosing it as quickly as possible,” said Maggs. “But it will also be about tracking that over time: We can find patterns within that construction process. That data feeds that back into their processes, so it goes from a reactive workflow to a proactive one.”

“As the product evolves you start unwrapping, like an onion, the different layers of functionality,” said Sankaran.

The company has come this far on $1 million of seed funding, but is hot on the track of more. Perhaps more importantly, its partnerships with construction giant PERI and Autodesk, which has helped push digital construction tools, may make it a familiar presence at building sites around the world soon.

BeBlocky is using gaming to educate a new generation of African programmers

By Jonathan Shieber

Nathan Damtew, the founder of new Ethiopian education technology and gaming company BeBlocky, has always been interested in games.

An avid Call of Duty player, the young entrepreneur, who founded BeBlocky in his senior year of college, was always struck by the disconnection between how adept his generation was at playing games and how little they knew about how those games were built.

The problem, Damtew thought, was especially acute across Africa, where most students are introduced to programming in high school — if they’re able to get those classes at all.

BeBlocky is his attempt to change that.

The company’s initial product is a programming learning platform for kids. It uses animated programming lessons as a traditional app and through augmented reality to teach children the basics of computer programming using a modified curriculum based off of lessons from Code.org.

BeBlocky launched a mere five months ago and already has 6,000 users on its app. In Ethiopia, it has grown through its partnership with the local Addis Ababa-based organization Yenetta Code, which teaches Ethiopian students in the nation’s capital coding skills.

The company has also scored early partnerships with national celebrities to attract kids to the platform. BeBlocky uses avatars from pop culture icons like Rophnan, a popular Ethiopian musician, and Jember and Hawi, two characters from a popular Ethiopian comic book.

It’s an indicator of how BeBlocky expects to make money. Damtew says that sponsorship opportunities will exist for companies that want to advertise in the app. And, there’s an opportunity for in-app purchases, he says.

“These characters… kids love them… we want to have the characters as toys that can have a bar code so kids can take a picture and then engage with the game characters in the app,” says Damtew.

The merchandising component also informs the company’s move to develop an augmented reality application as well, which the company developed after seeing the success of Pokemon Go. 

“We thought it would be a very cool thing to integrate the education system with the Augmented Reality,” says Damtew.

Gameplay in the app is designed to encourage users to roam free in the environment once they complete lessons peppered through five different levels of the game, so they can build out their own worlds.

Going forward, Damtew envisions a fully realized merchandising and storytelling platform that includes tech-enabled toys and games and user generated content built with BeBlocky’s assets.

“One of the things that makes us different is that education and coding in Africa has been overlooked and we’re making characters that are relevant to African people around the world,” says Damtew.

To date, the company has raised a small, pre-seed investment from the Baobab Network, after participating in the impact investor’s two-year technology accelerator program and is currently in the process of raising its seed round, with an eye toward expanding the marketing and development of the app across theAfrican continent.

Price insurance platform Stable protects farmers from price volatility

By Kate Clark

From a Southwest England farmer’s son comes a risk management platform, Stable, a solution as simple as car insurance designed to protect farmers around the world from pricing volatility.

Using Stable, food buyers ranging from owners of a small smoothie shop to Coca-Cola employees can insure thousands of agricultural commodities, packaging and energy products. Led by founder and CEO Richard Counsell, London-based Stable has raised a $6 million seed round from Anthemis Group, agricultural company Sygenta and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

“I knew instinctively what a huge problem and how much damage volatile pricing does,” Counsell, who comes from a long line of farmers in Somerset, England, tells TechCrunch. “You could say it was in my blood. It’s not often you get the chance to bring two sides of your world together.”

After four years of research and development, Stable is launching on stage today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. For the former currency trader and farmer-turned-CEO, building the data-rich risk management platform was no easy task. To adequately protect farmers, Stable’s team of data scientists, analysts and developers collected 3,000 niche and un-traded indexes from 40 countries, allowing customers to match their risk to a local index.

“We make it simple and precise for businesses of every size and every sector to protect their business from volatile prices,” Counsell said. “Everything from fish to timber to food and then the packaging as well energy, whether that be fuel or electricity.”

Counsell said the business plans to set up shop in Chicago, the global epicenter for commodities risk management, and Sydney, a massive commodity producer, as soon as next year. For the foreseeable future, Stable will focus solely on the agri-food industry, worth more than $4 trillion, according to Stable’s statistics. Eventually, Counsell says Stable will expand to include other sectors like metals or construction.

“Almost every business on the planet is exposed to one commodity,” Counsell said, alluding to the company’s grand ambitions.

Clideo promises an easy way to make shoppable videos

By Anthony Ha

Clideo says it can help marketers reach consumers in a smarter way, by making videos shoppable via an “interactive overlay.”

CEO Michele Mazzaro (who previously worked as an executive at Ki Group and in mergers and acquisitions at KPMG Italy) said these videos are meant to address a larger issue: “Businesses are failing in communicating on digital media. I don’t remember the last time I clicked on a banner, pre-roll or mid-roll ad. I hate it as a consumer.”

To address this, Mazzaro and his co-founders Nitzan Mayer-Wolf and Andrea Iriondo have created what Mazzaro described as a way to “turn any video into a discovery experience.” They’re presenting the product today at Disrupt Berlin as part of our Startup Battlefield.

Although the videos are described as interactive, the Clideo team isn’t trying to power the kind of branching narratives popularized by startups like Eko (not to mention Netflix’s “Black Mirror” special “Bandersnatch”), but rather taking a standard video and adding new capabilities around the products featured — the ability to buy something, save it to a wishlist or share it on social media.

Mazzaro argued that these features give marketers crucial data about which audiences are engaging with which products.

“Stop throwing your video budgets into the garbage and undersatnad why your consumers are engaging with you,” he said.

Clideo videos require their own video player, so they can’t be played directly on YouTube or social media. However, Mazzaro noted that they can be promoted on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere via links.

And despite this limitation, Madrid-based Clideo has already been tested by e-commerce websites, including Spain’s Modalia.com, with conversion rates as high as 33%.

Interactive and/or shoppable video isn’t a new idea, but Mazzaro said most existing solutions either come from creative agencies working with a limited number of luxury brands, or video marketing platforms that include very limited interactive capabilities.

Mazzaro contrasted this with Clideo, which he said is creating “the do-it-yourself solution without compromising creativity.” In fact, he said an interactive video can be created in as little as five minutes.

He also argued that Clideo is differentiated by its business model — where, in addition to a monthly subscription, customers pay an additional fee tied directly to Clideo’s results driving viewers to checkout pages.

“We’re the only ones to align our goals to our customers,” Mazzaro said.

Clideo has been bootstrapped thus far. Mazzaro said that the product is available globally, though early customers are likely to be based in Spain, Italy and Israel.

Nodle crowdsources IoT connectivity

By Frederic Lardinois

Nodle, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin Startup Battlefield this week, is based on a simple premise: What if you could crowdsource the connectivity of smart sensors by offloading it to smartphones? For most sensors, built-in cell connectivity is simply not a realistic option, given how much power it would take. A few years of battery life is quite realistic for a sensor that uses Bluetooth Low Energy.

Overall, that’s a pretty straightforward idea, but the trick is to convince smartphone users to install Nodle’s app. To solve this, the company, which was co-founded by Micha Benoliel (CEO) and Garrett Kinsman, is looking to cryptocurrency. With Nodle Cash, users automatically earn currency whenever their phones transmit a package to the network. That connection, it’s worth noting, is always encrypted, using Nodle’s Rendevouz protocol.

The company has already raised $3.5 million in seed funding, mostly from investors in the blockchain space: Blockchange, Work Play Ventures (Marc Pincus), Blockchain Ventures (Blockchain.com), Olymp Capital, Bootstraplabs and Blockhead.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t Benoliel’s first rodeo in this space. He also co-founded the mesh networking startup Open Garden, which used a somewhat similar approach a few years ago to crowdsource connectivity (and which made a bit of a splash with its FireChat offline chat app back in 2014). Open Garden, too, competed in our Startup Battlefield in 2012 and won our award for most innovative startup. Benoliel left his CEO position there in early 2016, but Nodle definitely feels like an iteration on the original idea of Open Garden.

“We define the category as crowd connectivity,” Benoliel told me. “We leverage crowdsourced connectivity for connecting things to the internet. We believe there are a lot of benefits to doing that.” He argues that there are a number of innovations converging right now that will allow the company to succeed: Chipsets are getting smaller, and an increasing number of sensors now uses Bluetooth Low Energy, all while batteries are getting smaller and more efficient and blockchain technology is maturing.

Given the fact that these sensors depend on somebody with a phone coming by, this is obviously not a solution for companies that need to get real-time data. There’s simply no way for Nodle to guarantee that, after all. But the company argues it is a great solution for smart cities that want to get regular readouts of road usage or companies that want to do asset tracking.

“We do not address real-time connectivity, which is what you can do with more traditional solutions,” Benoliel said. “But we believe IoT is so broad and there is so much utility in being able to collect data from time to time, that with out solution, we can connect almost anything to the internet.”

While some users may want to simply install the Nodle Cash app to, well, make some Nodle cash, the team is also betting on working with app developers who may want to use the platform to make some extra money from their apps by adding it to the Nodle network. For users, that obviously means they’ll burn some extra data, so developers have to clearly state that they are opting their users into this service.

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The team expects a normal user to see an extra 20 to 30 MB of traffic with Nodle installed, which isn’t really all that much (users of the standalone Nodle app also have the option to cache the data and postpone the transfer when they connect to Wi-Fi). Some app developers may use Nodle as an alternative to in-app payments, the team hopes.

The company is also already working with HTC and Cisco Meraki, and has a number of pilot projects in the works.

If you want to give it a try, you can install the Nodle Cash app for Android now.

Inovat modernizes tax reimbursement for streamlined international shopping

By Darrell Etherington

If you’ve ever traveled to Europe and purchased something, you’re either likely aware that you can get the Value-Added Tax (VAT) reimbursed once you depart since it’s actually only intended for taxpaying residents of the country wherein its charged. Whether or not you actually bother to get your VAT reimbursement might depend on how convenient it is to do so, and generally speaking, the process is paper-based and pretty annoying. Inovat is a startup that aims to simplify and digitize the process so that it’s not such a pain, opening the door for people to get more of the money they’re rightly owed.

Inovat accomplishes this with an app, available on mobile or on desktop, which employs optical character recognition (OCR) and machine learning to interpret receipts you upload or photograph, determine how much VAT you should be owed for your purchase, and prepare the requisite forms for submission to a customs officer or via an online customs filing form like those found at some airports.

Innovat co-founders Ilya Melkumov and Sonya Baranova came up with the idea because they themselves had encountered the problem of VAT remittance many times, as Russian and Ukranian nationals respectively, traveling within Europe and making purchases on their trips. Melkumov, a former professional e-sports player, met Inovat’s CTO Igor Titov while playing games online, after the two struck up a conversation about getting VAT returns.

Melkumov and Baranova both believed the outdated process, which included high fees and often required paper forms or a lot of manual work to track receipts, could benefit from technologies that are helping improve and modernize other areas related to economics, like the finance industry. They mapped out the currently available solutions, figured out what the industry didn’t yet have and where they could offer solutions. They then quickly got to work building the actual product.

“In July we got together, and by September we had the first version of the product and we started testing it ourselves,” Melkumov told me in an interview. “From there, we started automating parts of it – we had to solve the scalability, we had to understand how we could scan and extract the information from the recipes in a scalable manner.”

That’s where Titov came in, bringing experience from work done for banks and other clients to help make it technically feasible. The resulting app is easy to use, and takes what was a painful and complicated process and makes it as easy as remembering to snap a photo when you make a purchase. They also say they can return up to 50 percent greater refunds to customers versus traditional methods.

“You go to a store, you get the receipt, you take a picture of the receipt,” Melkumov explained. “Then we analyze the receipt and create a unique digital form, which has all your receipts compiled in one digital form linked to a QR code and then you scan that with the customs officer (or automated scanning) and get that processed right away.”

Inovat is focused entirely on the U.K. right now, and its product is designed specifically for that reimbursement flow. That market alone represents $4.3 billion, Melkumov estimates, so it’s large enough for them to focus on it narrowly for now. But, he adds that they definitely have their eye on potential expansion down the road.

“The European market is around $20 billion, and we’ve been contacted by multiple European governments towards creating a more digital tax refund solution,” he said. “Next steps for us is definitely expansion into other European countries.”

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