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Turntable.fm competitor tt.fm launches beta app for iOS and Android

By Brian Heater

You’d be forgiven for being confused. I’ve been following this story and am currently writing it and I’m still fairly confused. But Turntable (or tt.fm), not to be confused with Turntable.fm (the name of both the original and recently re-released social music app) today just announced that it has launched iOS, Android and desktop versions of its own service.

By way of brief explanation, the original Turntable.fm shut down in 2013 to focus on a live music platform. It was a sad day for those of us who wasted countless workday hours on the site. But stuff happens. People change, companies pivot.

Of course, that nostalgia returned something fierce when we were all stuck inside for the past year, searching for a social connection. Those of us of a certain age who maybe haven’t gone all in on Twitch started pining for the site. So founder Billy Chasen planned a return. In its current beta iteration, it’s a bit of a time capsule, albeit with a few key changes like relying on YouTube streaming to circumvent some royalty issues. It works well. I’ve been using it. It’s fun. Oh, and the company just raised $7.5 million to bring it into the new decade.

Seemingly around the same time, an early Turntable.fm employee decided to launch another take on the service. Focused on mobile usage and opting for the crowdfunding route, TT.fm rode that wave of nostalgia to $500,000 in funding, announced back in March.

Today that service is launching in beta. It’s in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store as we speak. Or you can visit it in a browser. Like Turntable.fm, tt.fm (as we’re going to refer to it for simplicity’s sake) relies on third-party music services. At launch, music is pulled from a linked Spotify or Apple Music account, as well as Soundcloud. YouTube functionality is coming soon.

As you can see from the above shot, the offering is based on the same format as Turntable.fm, with similar but different graphics. DJs play songs on the stage and the audience bops their heads in approval if they like it. One of the ways the new offering is looking to distinguish itself is through hosted DJ sets from artists.

“Original Turntable fans are eager to get back on the dancefloor and have been asking for a product that serves their needs,” Perla said in a release, “including live DJ sets, social networking with music fans, music sharing and an online music community.”

As a fan of Turntable.fm, suddenly going from zero to two services feels like an embarrassment of riches. But the question remains whether it can move beyond a niche and really thrive in the crowded media environment of 2021. There’s probably room for one Turntable.fm.

But two? This already strange story is likely only getting stranger.

Founders must show investors that sustainability is more than lip service

By Walter Thompson
Todd Klein Contributor
Todd Klein is a partner at Revolution Growth, a VC fund that invests in growth-stage companies. During his 20-year career, Todd has been involved in financing and building over 150 venture and growth-stage companies in the media, consumer, technology, education and healthcare sectors.

Ending years of debates over environmental sustainability, the United States officially declared a climate crisis earlier this year, deeming climate considerations an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security. After recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, President Joseph R. Biden announced an aggressive new goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pushed world leaders to collectively “step up” their fight against climate change.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to do business with brands that align with their growing environmental values, rather than ignoring the climate consequences of their consumption. Even without regulation as a stick, consumer demand is now serving as a carrot to increase sustainability’s impact on public companies’ agendas.

Startups have already followed suit. Investors today view sustainability as an important pillar of any business model and are looking for entrepreneurs who “get it” from the beginning to build and scale next-generation companies. Startups interested in thriving cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought and should be prepared to enter the public eye with a plan for sustainable growth.

Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media.

So what exactly do founders need to put in place to demonstrate that they’re on the right track when it comes to sustainability? Here are five attributes that investors are looking for.

1. A truly customer-centric feedback loop

It’s fairly easy for any company to claim that it understands customers’ wants and needs, but it’s challenging to have the tech stack in place to prove a company actually listens to customer feedback and meets those expectations.

Investors now expect startups to have both platforms and solutions — social listening channels, relationship management tools, surveying programs and review forums — that allow them to hear and act on the needs of their customers. Without the proper communications tools and actual people using them, your eco-friendly efforts will likely appear to be merely lip service.

Take the example of TemperPack, which manufactures recyclable insulated packaging solutions for shipments of cold, perishable foods and pharmaceuticals. The direct relationship between a packager like TemperPack and the end consumer is often invisible. But as we were looking into investing in the company, some of its life sciences customers told us about comments they had received from end users — people who were receiving medicine twice per day. Another supplier’s packaging required them to visit a recycler for disposal, a real-world pain point that was causing them to consider switching to a different medication.

Revolution Growth decided to add TemperPack as a portfolio company after directly seeing its customer feedback loop in action: End-user requests informed product development, proving both a market need and customer demand on the sustainability front. This firsthand example demonstrates how an investor, a packaging maker, a life sciences company and an end user are now interconnected in one relationship while underscoring how end-user feedback can connect the dots for sustainable product development.

2. Public commitment to sustainability goals

Over the past several years, we have seen millennials and Gen Z consumers demand transparency in sustainability efforts. As these generations grow in purchasing power, investors will look for startups that make their commitments to eco-friendly goals as transparent as possible to satisfy shrewd consumer needs.

For many VCs, making public commitments to sustainability goals is a sign that your startup is working toward becoming a next-generation company. Investors will look for goals that are thoughtful, with a clear understanding of where your company will have agency and influence, and that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). They will also expect regular reports on progress.

Although a company’s management establishes these goals, its board should play a behind-the-scenes role in driving the goals forward, keeping leadership on track and setting the playing field so executives understand that they’re being evaluated on criteria transcending positive EBIDTA.

Taking these steps will ensure goals are responsible and ambitious while also holding the company accountable to consumers and stakeholders to see the initiatives through to completion.

3. Purpose-driven culture

Even the best-laid sustainability goals will go unmet without a strong culture designed to guarantee leadership and employee alignment. Sustainability must be ingrained in a startup’s culture — from the top down and bottom up — and there’s a lot at stake if it’s not.

Another Revolution Growth portfolio company, the global fintech-revolutionizing startup Tala, demonstrates how young companies can imbue their cultures with purpose-driven values. While Tala’s mission is to provide credit to the unbanked, the company believes that the consumer’s best interests should always come first. During 2019’s holiday season, Tala contrasted with businesses fueling consumption by instead urging customers in Kenya to not take out loans, protecting them from predatory unregulated lenders amid a lack of functioning credit bureaus and loan-stacking databases. This forward-looking approach ultimately safeguarded Tala’s customers and its vibrant digital lending industry.

Beyond determining what they stand for, many of our portfolio companies face challenges securing talent. People have choices about where they want to work, and those with intrinsic motivations — such as concerns about the environment — will feel uncomfortable if their employers do not share their values. Regulatory risks and customer attrition pale in comparison to the human cost of losing star performers who seek other work cultures that better align with their values.

A clear values system should embed sustainability into the decision-making process, make obvious imperatives and empower employees to follow through.

4. Accountability

Companies aren’t only judged by their own initiatives — they’re also judged by their partners. As startups build new relationships or expand to work with new suppliers, investors will be keen to know that these outside parties align with their stated sustainability philosophies.

Before becoming publicly involved with another company, a startup should gauge each new supplier’s reputation, including insights into their employment practices. Take leading Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava or healthy-inspired salad-centric chain Sweetgreen, both Revolution Growth portfolio companies; neither will source proteins from farms with inhumane policies. If companies are not aware of these factors, their customers will eventually let them know, and likely hold them accountable for the oversight.

Think of it this way: If a diagram of your partnerships and supplier relationships was printed on the front page of The New York Times, would you be comfortable with what it shows the world? Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media. It’s no longer possible to fly under the radar with relationships that are antithetical to a company’s sustainability goals. So take a hard look at your supplier and partner ecosystem, and make clear that you are bringing your green vision to life through every extension of your business.

5. Financial realism

Financial realism acknowledges that a company can want to do good, but unless they have the economics, they won’t survive to make an impact. For most startups, beginning with financial realism as a mindset and incrementalism as an approach will be key to success, enabling all businesses to contribute to a more resilient planet. For startups that prioritize environmentally friendly business practices alongside a product or service, this strategy can prevent goodness from becoming the enemy of greatness. Founders in this position can commit to a stage-by-stage sustainability plan, rather than expecting an overnight transformation. Investors understand the delicate balance between striving to meet green goals and keeping the lights on.

Entrepreneurs looking to build a business that not only adopts eco-friendly practices but also has sustainability at its heart may have to consider starting in a niche industry or market that is less price-sensitive and ready for a solution today. Once that solution is firmly established, the business can build upon what they’ve created, rather than going big with something that doesn’t scale — and failing fast. Without an initial set of customers that value and love what you’re doing, you won’t get to the bigger play.

As the public and private sectors continue to address the climate crisis, sustainability will increasingly become a mandate rather than an option, and funding will increasingly flow to startups that have addressed potential environmental concerns. Unfortunately, pressure for companies to meet sustainability demands has led to “greenwashing” — the deceptive use of green marketing to persuade consumers that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing has forced investors to look beyond mere words for action. As we move toward a more sustainable future, startups pursuing VC funding will need to prove to investors that sustainability is a priority across their entire organizations, aligning their outreach, public commitments and cultures with accountability and concrete examples of sustainable activities. Even if those examples are just steps toward larger goals, they will show investors and customers that startups are ready today to contribute to a greener and better tomorrow.

Honeywell and Cambridge Quantum form joint venture to build a new full-stack quantum business

By Frederic Lardinois

Honeywell, which only recently announced its entry into the quantum computing race, and Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQ), which focuses on building software for quantum computers, today announced that they are combining Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions (HQS) business with Cambridge Quantum in the form of a new joint venture.

Honeywell has long partnered with CQ and invested in the company last year, too. The idea here is to combine Honeywell’s hardware expertise with CQ’s software focus to build what the two companies call “the world’s highest-performing quantum computer and a full suite of quantum software, including the first and most advanced quantum operating system.”

The merged companies (or ‘combination,’ as the companies’ press releases calls it) expect the deal to be completed in the third quarter of 2021. Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk will become the chairman of the new company. CQ founder and CEO Ilyas Khan will become the CEO and current Honeywell Quantum Solutions President Tony Uttley will remain in this role at the new company.

The idea here is for Honeywell to spin off HQS and combine it with CQC to form a new company, while still playing a role in its leadership and finances. Honeywell will own a majority stake in the new company and invest between $270 and $300 million. It will also have a long-term agreement with the new company to build the ion traps at the core of its quantum hardware. CQ’s shareholders will own 45% of the new company.

Image Credits: Honeywell

“The new company will have the best talent in the industry, the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the first and most advanced quantum operating system, and comprehensive, hardware-agnostic software that will drive the future of the quantum computing industry,” said Adamczyk. “The new company will be extremely well positioned to create value in the near-term within the quantum computing industry by offering the critical global infrastructure needed to support the sector’s explosive growth.”

The companies argue that a successful quantum business will need to be supported by large-scale investments and offer a one-stop shop for customers that combines hardware and software. By combining the two companies now, they note, they’ll be able to build on their respective leadership positions in their areas of expertise and scale their businesses while also accelerate their R&D and product roadmaps.

“Since we first announced Honeywell’s quantum business in 2018, we have heard from many investors who have been eager to invest directly in our leading technologies at the forefront of this exciting and dynamic industry – now, they will be able to do so,” Adamczyk said. “The new company will provide the best avenue for us to onboard new, diverse sources of capital at scale that will help drive rapid growth.”

CQ launched in 2014 and now has about 150 employees. The company raised a total of $72.8 million, including a $45 million round, which it announced last December. Honeywell, IBM Ventures, JSR Corporation, Serendipity Capital, Alvarium Investments and Talipot Holdings invested in this last round — which also means that IBM, which uses a different technology but, in many ways, directly competes with the new company, now owns a (small) part of it.

Apple’s RealityKit 2 allows developers to create 3D models for AR using iPhone photos

By Sarah Perez

At its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announced a significant update to RealityKit, its suite of technologies that allow developers to get started building AR (augmented reality) experiences. With the launch of RealityKit 2, Apple says developers will have more visual, audio, and animation control when working on their AR experiences. But the most notable part of the update is how Apple’s new Object Capture technology will allow developers to create 3D models in minutes using only an iPhone.

Apple noted during its developer address that one of the most difficult parts of making great AR apps was the process of creating 3D models. These could take hours and thousands of dollars.

With Apple’s new tools, developers will be able take a series of pictures using just an iPhone (or iPad or DSLR, if they prefer) to capture 2D images of an object from all angles, including the bottom.

Then, using the Object Capture API on macOS Monterey, it only takes a few lines of code to generate the 3D model, Apple explained.

Image Credits: Apple

To begin, developers would start a new photogrammetry session in RealityKit that points to the folder where they’ve captured the images. Then, they would call the process function to generate the 3D model at the desired level of detail. Object Capture allows developers to generate the USDZ files optimized for AR Quick Look — the system that lets developers add virtual, 3D objects in apps or websites on iPhone and iPad. The 3D models can also be added to AR scenes in Reality Composer in Xcode.

Apple said developers like Wayfair, Etsy and others are using Object Capture to create 3D models of real-world objects — an indication that online shopping is about to get a big AR upgrade.

Wayfair, for example, is using Object Capture to develop tools for their manufacturers so they can create a virtual representation of their merchandise. This will allow Wayfair customers to be able to preview more products in AR than they could today.

Image Credits: Apple (screenshot of Wayfair tool))

In addition, Apple noted developers including Maxon and Unity are using Object Capture for creating 3D content within 3D content creation apps, such as Cinema 4D and Unity MARS.

Other updates in RealityKit 2 include custom shaders that give developers more control over the rendering pipeline to fine tune the look and feel of AR objects; dynamic loading for assets; the ability to build your own Entity Component System to organize the assets in your AR scene; and the ability to create player-controlled characters so users can jump, scale and explore AR worlds in RealityKit-based games.

One developer, Mikko Haapoja of Shopify, has been trying out the new technology (see below) and shared some real-world tests where he shot objects using an iPhone 12 Max via Twitter.

Developers who want to test it for themselves can leverage Apple’s sample app and install Monterey on their Mac to try it out.

Apple says there are over 14,000 ARKit apps on the App Store today, which have been built by over 9,000 different developers. With the over 1 billion AR-enabled iPhones and iPads being used globally, it notes that Apple offers the world’s largest AR platform.

Apple's Object Capture on a Pineapple. One of my fav things to test Photogrammetry against. This was processed using the RAW detail setting.

More info in thread 👇pic.twitter.com/2mICzbV8yY

— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021

Apple's Object Capture is the real deal. I'm impressed. Excited to see where @Shopify merchants could take this

Allbirds Tree Dashers. More details in thread 👇pic.twitter.com/fNKORtdtdB

— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Network security startup ExtraHop skips and jumps to $900M exit

By Ron Miller

Last year, Seattle-based network security startup ExtraHop was riding high, quickly approaching $100 million in ARR and even making noises about a possible IPO in 2021. But there will be no IPO, at least for now, as the company announced this morning it has been acquired by a pair of private equity firms for $900 million.

The firms, Bain Capital Private Equity and Crosspoint Capital Partners, are buying a security solution that provides controls across a hybrid environment, something that could be useful as more companies find themselves in a position where they have some assets on-site and some in the cloud.

The company is part of the narrower Network Detection and Response (NDR) market. According to Jesse Rothstein, ExtraHop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, it’s a technology that is suited to today’s threat landscape, “I will say that ExtraHop’s north star has always really remained the same, and that has been around extracting intelligence from all of the network traffic in the wire data. This is where I think the network detection and response space is particularly well-suited to protecting against advanced threats,” he told TechCrunch.

The company uses analytics and machine learning to figure out if there are threats and where they are coming from, regardless of how customers are deploying infrastructure. Rothstein said he envisions a world where environments have become more distributed with less defined perimeters and more porous networks.

“So the ability to have this high quality detection and response capability utilizing next generation machine learning technology and behavioral analytics is so very important,” he said.

Max de Groen, managing partner at Bain, says his company was attracted to the NDR space, and saw ExtraHop as a key player. “As we looked at the NDR market, ExtraHop, which […] has spent 14 years building the product, really stood out as the best individual technology in the space,” de Groen told us.

Security remains a frothy market with lots of growth potential. We continue to see a mix of startups and established platform players jockeying for position, and private equity firms often try to establish a package of services. Last week, Symphony Technology Group bought FireEye’s product group for $1.2 billion, just a couple of months after snagging McAfee’s enterprise business for $4 billion as it tries to cobble together a comprehensive enterprise security solution.

Art app SketchAR to allow artists to list their artworks on NFT marketplaces directly

By Mike Butcher

An update to an existing art app that allows artists to access NFT marketplaces directly, could have the potential to democratize access to the NFT world for artists not currently in crypto. SketchAR, is an existing mobile app that allows artists to turn photos into illustrations using its AI-based computer vision. It is now is launching a new feature that allows users to turn their art into NFTs directly inside the app, and then sell it. Content produced on the app can also include a public community feed and digital learning courses.

The app, which boasts it has almost a million users already, will start off selecting a single ‘Creator of the Week’ from its community for their art to be NFT’d on the OpenSea marketplace. But a new feature will shortly enable any artist using the platform to create and auction an NFT on-demand.

However, there a catch. The artwork will have to be created directly in the SketchAR app in order to prove the artist is the legitimate rights holder, says the startup. This is, however, an advantage, says the startup, since very few marketplaces monitor the derivation and authenticity of artworks uploaded proactively.

And for now, it looks like there is no real equivalent app on the market, although there are of course plenty of ways to create an artwork and then upload it to an NFT marketplace in a separate process.

Andrey Drobitko, CEO and founder told me: “It’s a unique offer since it allows even amateur designers to create an art piece and turn it into an NFT without diving deep into the ecosystem, connecting their wallet to their OpenSea account and paying significant gas fees to minting.”

He said: “Since the art piece comes from the app SketchAR, it also ensures it’s authentic and wasn’t stolen – something that happened quite a few times with NFTs.”

SketchAR said it also built its own infrastructure that allows it to use Ethereum and other 2-layer solutions like Flow, Immutable, or Binance Smart Chain, to reduce costs.

“Basically it competes with artists and designers learning a lot about blockchain, how to work with it, and working directly with marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible” added Drobitko.

“15 years ago I realized I couldn’t make much money as an artist and only continued to make art for pleasure. It’s different now and we’re excited to support artists, help them develop creative skills, and successfully monetize their artworks,” he said.

It’s estimated there are roughly 50 million artists globally, but fewer than 10% are able to make it their primary source of income.

According to NonFungible.com more than $2 billion was spent on NFTs during the first quarter of 2021 representing an increase of about 2,100% from Q4 2020.

Airbase raises $60M as the corporate spend market segments, matures

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Airbase, a corporate spend startup, announced that it has closed a $60 million Series B led by Menlo Ventures. The deal’s announcement comes after Divvy, another corporate-spend focused startup, sold to Bill.com for several billion dollars, and other unicorns in the space like Brex and Divvy each raised nine-figure rounds.

According to Airbase CEO Thejo Kote, his company’s round is not a response to the Divvy sale. Instead, he told TechCrunch in an interview, his company kicked off its fundraising process before that deal was announced.

Not that what Airbase undertook was a process in the traditional sense; Kote did not spend months schlepping a deck along Sand Hill Road, imbibing mediocre architecture, overdressed MBAs and good weather in equal quantities. Instead, he decided that his firm was open to raising more capital in April despite having capital in the bank from previous investments, and 10 days later had signed a term sheet with Menlo.

Menlo partner and new Airbase board member Matt Murphy told TechCrunch in a separate interview that his firm had had its eye on the company for some time before its deal, allowing it to move quickly when Kote opened the door to more funding. (Murphy was candid in sharing that he had spent quite some time getting in front of Airbase, which we pass along as evidence of just how competitive the venture capital market can be in 2021.)

According to Kote, his firm’s new capital was raised on a $600 million valuation, post-money, which means that the Menlo-led transaction involved 10% of the company’s shares.

A segmenting market

TechCrunch’s coverage of the corporate spend market has largely focused on the revenue growth of the competing players, and their decision to either charge for the software that they offer along with corporate cards or not. But Kote views the market as segmenting in a somewhat different manner, namely along target customer scale. Divvy, for example, went after SMBs, while Airbase has more of a mid-market focus.

The customer targeting matters, with Kote telling TechCrunch that mid-market companies are looking for a single solution to replace various point-services that they have traditionally paid for. In the case of corporate spend, that could mean that many companies are willing to pay for new software so long as it can replace several services that they were buying discretely before; say, corporate cards and expense management software.

Kote said that the Divvy-Bill.com news was a “massive validation” of his company’s thesis that software would prove key in the market formerly focused on corporate cards, and that offering cards was itself a “race to the bottom.”

In the view of Airbase’s CEO, his company has a six to eight quarter lead on its competitors in product terms. The market will vet that perspective, but the company’s confidence in its vision and new capital should provide it with ample opportunity to prove out its thesis in the coming quarters, and see whether where it views its product in terms of market positioning viz. demand and competitors is correct.

The investor perspective

Menlo Ventures seems to think so, to the tune of its largest single check to date from a non-growth fund. What did Murphy et al. find so compelling about the company? In the investor’s view, Airbase has a shot at replacing point-solutions in mid-market companies, precisely as Kote imagines:

Airbase consolidates all the different spend apps which greatly decreases complexity in workflows as finance teams previously had to jump from app to app and don’t have a real time, holistic view in one place. […] Of course there is an advantage in not having to pay for multiple apps, but the biggest benefits are simplicity of workflows which is where we heard most of the product love.

Murphy continued, adding that at many companies “a manager won’t know until after [a quarter ends] whether the team for example spent above or below budget,” which makes integrated solutions more attractive.

Why does the viewpoint matter? It implies that the market that Airbase can sell into is rather large; instead of considering the aggregate non-payroll spend that its possible customer companies may generate and then applying an interchange vig to the total to calculate its potential scale, we might tabulate mid-market software spend on expenses, accounting and other categories as the startup’s true TAM. And as Airbase can still generate top-line from interchange and other sources, it could be well-situated for long-term growth.

Of course, its competitors are not interested in letting Airbase have all the fun. Ramp recently raised lots of capital, and is investing in its own software stack. With a free price point, it’s perhaps the most aggressive player on the interchange-first side of its market. And Brex is working to make lots of public noise, again, and has its own tower of cash, software focus and recently launched paid-SaaS service.

Now Airbase has more cash than it has ever had in its accounts, and has been busy hiring. The company has picked up a CFO, a general counsel and a VP of sales, from Mattermost, Robinhood and Dropbox, respectively.

Which all sounds very much like the long-term prep work for an eventual IPO. Set your timers for 2024.

Chinese lidar maker Hesai lands $300M led by Hillhouse, Xiaomi, Meituan

By Rita Liao

The rush to back lidar companies continues as more automakers and robotaxi startups include the remote sensing method in their vehicles.

Latest to the investment boom is Hesai, a Shanghai-based lidar maker founded in 2014 with an office in Palo Alto. The company just completed a $300 million Series D funding round led by GL Ventures, the venture capital arm of storied private equity firm Hillhouse Capital, smartphone maker Xiaomi, on-demand services giant Meituan and CPE, the private equity platform of Citic.

Hesai said the new proceeds will be spent on mass-producing its hybrid solid-state lidar for its OEM customers, the construction of its smart manufacturing center, and research and development on automotive-grade lidar chips. The company said it has accumulated “several hundred million dollars” in funding to date.

Other participants in the round included Huatai Securities, Lightspeed China Partners and Lightspeed Venture Capital, as well as Qiming Venture Partners. Bosch, Baidu, and ON Semiconductor are also among its shareholders.

Another Chinese lidar startup Innovusion, a major supplier to electric vehicle startup Nio, raised a $64 million round led by Temasek in May. Livox is another emerging lidar maker that was an offshoot of DJI.

Lidar isn’t limited to powering robotaxis and passenger EVs, and that’s why Hesai got Xiaomi and Meituan onboard. Xiaomi makes hundreds of different connected devices through its manufacturing suppliers that could easily benefit from industrial automation, to which sensing technology is critical. But the phone maker also unveiled plans this year to make electric cars.

Meituan, delivering food to hundreds of millions of consumers in China, could similarly benefit from replacing human riders with lidar-enabled unmanned vans and drones.

Hesai, with a staff of over 500 employees, says its clients span 70 cities across 23 countries. The company touts Nuro, Bosch, Lyft, Navya, and Chinese robotaxi operators Baidu, WeRide and AutoX among its customers. Last year, it kickstarted a partnership with Scale AI, a data labeling company, to launch an open-source data set for training autonomous driving algorithms, with data collected using Hesai’s lidar in California. 

Last July, Hesai and lidar technology pioneer Velodyne entered a long-term licensing agreement as the two dismissed legal proceedings in the U.S., Germany and China.

Apple’s new encrypted browsing feature won’t be available in China, Saudi Arabia and more: report

By Rita Liao

Apple announced a handful of privacy-focused updates at its annual software developer conference on Monday. One called Private Relay particularly piques the interest of Chinese users living under the country’s censorship system, for it encrypts all browsing history so nobody can track or intercept the data.

As my colleague Roman Dillet explains:

When Private Relay is turned on, nobody can track your browsing history — not your internet service provider, anyone standing in the middle of your request between your device and the server you’re requesting information from. We’ll have to wait a bit to learn more about how it works exactly.

The excitement didn’t last long. Apple told Reuters that Private Relay won’t be available in China alongside Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.

Apple couldn’t be immediately reached by TechCrunch for comment.

Virtual private networks or VPNs are popular tools for users in China to bypass the “great firewall” censorship apparatus, accessing web services that are otherwise blocked or slowed down. But VPNs don’t necessarily protect users’ privacy because they simply funnel all the traffic through VPN providers’ servers instead of users’ internet providers, so users are essentially entrusting VPN firms with protecting their identities. Private Relay, on the other hand, doesn’t even allow Apple to see one’s browsing activity.

In an interview with Fast Company, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, explained why the new feature may be superior to VPNs:

“We hope users believe in Apple as a trustworthy intermediary, but we didn’t even want you to have to trust us [because] we don’t have this ability to simultaneously source your IP and the destination where you’re going to–and that’s unlike VPNs. And so we wanted to provide many of the benefits that people are seeking when in the past they’ve decided to use a VPN, but not force that difficult and conceivably perilous privacy trade-off in terms of trusting it a single intermediary.”

It’s unclear whether Private Relay will simply be excluded from system upgrades for users in China and the other countries where it’s restricted, or it will be blocked by internet providers in those regions. It also remains to be seen whether the feature will be available to Apple users in Hong Kong, which has seen an increase in online censorship in the past year.

Like all Western tech firms operating in China, Apple is trapped between antagonizing Beijing and flouting the values it espouses at home. Apple has a history of caving in to Beijing’s censorship pressure, from migrating all user data in China to a state-run cloud center, cracking down on independent VPN apps in China, limiting free speech in Chinese podcasts, to removing RSS feed readers from the China App Store.

Daily Crunch: At Apple’s WWDC 2021 keynote, everything old is new again

By Richard Dal Porto

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

Today was the kickoff of Apple’s developer conference, WWDC, meaning that the TechCrunch crew was super busy all day and that we have an ocean of news from Cupertino for you to enjoy. But the startup market was just as busy, thankfully, with some fascinating funding rounds, acquisitions and more to parse through. Today we have something for everyone! — Alex

P.S. Including all of you interested in finance. Here’s a teardown of the Babylon Health SPAC deal. Enjoy!

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Apple’s keynote lucre: Apple’s keynote today was the usual affair of animation, on-screen text, musicals, and lots and lots of news. More below but iOS 15, SharePlay and iCloud+ are obvious standouts.
  • The global chip shortage: The global chip shortage won’t lift until late next year, meaning that we’re likely going to see investment in new chip-fab capacity. Like the news today that Bosch opened a $1.2 billion chip manufacturing facility in Germany. Much like the AI market is cleaving along geopolitical fault lines, in time, more countries are going to want to have domestic chip-fab capabilities as a form of self-reliance.
  • Paytm is going public: Noida, India-based Paytm, the most valuable startup in the country, will go public, it told employees recently. That’s good news for the company, we suppose, but also potentially big news for India’s larger startup and venture capital scene.

Startups and VC

  • Astra buys Apollo Fusion: This is a fun one. Astra, a space launch upstart that is pursuing a SPAC-led IPO, is buying Apollo Fusion, which is focused on what TechCrunch described as “electric propulsion.” So not fusion, sadly, but electric propulsion is a key space technology that allows satellites, for example, to move around while in orbit. It can also be fuel-sipping to a degree, making it a tech that could help satellites and other heavenly bodies enjoy long service lives.
  • Briq raises its construction-focused fintech service: The recent implosion of construction-unicorn Katerra is not stopping venture investment in its market. Today Briq, a startup that provides fintech solutions to construction companies, announced that Tiger Global has led a $30 million round into its business. Normally a $30 million check would give us a good feel for how big Briq’s revenue base is today. But with market scuttlebutt indicating that Tiger is content to pour capital into companies with diminutive revenues, it’s hard to say. Briq told TechCrunch that its annual recurring revenue grew by 200% in the last year.
  • Mendel raises $18M to structure unstructured medical data: Every industry creates lots of data these days, but the medical industry sweats data like a first-time Peloton user. And, as you can imagine, most of the data that off-gases from the medical world is unstructured and generally a mess. Enter Mendel, which wants to organize, share and exchange medical data after it ingests and cleans it up. I dig it.
  • Finally today, Lightspeed has acquired “e-commerce platform Ecwid for $500 million, and NuOrder, a B2B ordering platform servicing wholesales, brands and retailers, for $425 million.” The Canadian point-of-sale provider has been busy buying startups in recent years, part of a larger roll-up strategy that it expects will accrete into an enticing package of services. Or, as the company put it, the deals will help Lightspeed become “the common thread uniting merchants, suppliers and consumers.” That’s pretty heavy on the corporate-speak, but does speak to Lightspeed’s ambitions. I raise this particular set of deals because Lightspeed is not as well known as its scale might have you think.

The hidden benefits of adding a CTO to your board

Conventional wisdom says startup boards should include a few CEOs who are able to offer informed advice, but having a technical leader in the mix creates real upside, according to Abby Kearns, chief technology officer at Puppet.

Beyond their engineering experience, CTOs can help founders set realistic timelines, identify pain points and bring what Kearns calls “pragmatic empathy” to high-pressure situations.

“A CTO understands the nuts and bolts,” says Kearns.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

As noted above, there’s a lot of Apple news to dig through, but we also have notes from Microsoft and Pinterest to parse. So let’s get done with WWDC and then dive into the rest.

Today’s Apple event generated oodles of coverage. Here’s what you need to know (products bolded to help you find what you need):

And there’s more to come. So, if that’s not enough from the Apple news column for you, keep your eyes on the site.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Elsewhere in BigTechLandia

Pinterest is finally rolling out the ability to save items into a shopping list. The general argument for the long-term value of Pinterest has been that, sure, it has ads, but it’s also essentially an e-commerce sleeping giant. Perhaps Big Pin wants to awaken a bit faster than we had expected.

To close, Microsoft is renaming Windows Virtual Desktop to Azure Virtual Desktop. Why the change? Because, loosely, there’s lots more demand for the product in a post-pandemic world than the one that came before it, and thus the ability to “set up a full virtual desktop environment from the Azure portal” using only “a few clicks,” as Frederic reported, could be a big deal.

Community

What were you looking forward to the most at WWDC? You told us iOS updates. And there are a bunch. Come chat on the Discord server about what Apple did (and didn’t) announce.

TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility is happening this Wednesday, and there’s still time to buy tickets. On the fence? Come hang out with us tomorrow on Twitter Spaces at 4 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. EDT to get a taste of what you’ll experience at the event.

Speaking of events, keep an eye on the site for some Pittsburgh Spotlight-related news tomorrow.

TC Eventful

Whether you’re into artificial intelligence, autonomous and/or electric vehicles, robotics or hunting the next transportation unicorn, you’ll want to make sure you’re at TechCrunch’s Sessions: Mobility event this Wednesday, June 9. Bring your questions and join the conversation with CEOs and founders from Scale AI, Ford, Joby Aviation and Hyundai and discover 30 of the hottest early-stage mobility startups poised to become the next big thing. Register today and get a free expo ticket with promo code DAILYEXPO. Or save 50% for access to the entire event with promo code DAILYCRUNCH50.

Apple Maps upgrade brings more detailed maps, transit features, AR view and more

By Sarah Perez

Among many updates coming to iOS 15, Apple Maps will receive a number of upgrades that will bring more detailed maps, improvements for transit riders, AR experiences and other changes to the platform. The improvements build on the new map Apple began rolling out two years ago, which had focused on offering richer details, and — in response to user feedback and complaints — more accurate navigation.

Since then, Apple Maps has steadily improved.

The new map experience has since launched in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada and will now make its way to Spain and Portugal, starting today. It will then arrive in Italy and Australia later this year, Apple announced during its keynote address during its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday.

maps driving

Image Credits: Apple

In addition, Apple said iOS 15 Maps will include new details for commercial districts, marinas, buildings and more. Plus, Apple has added things like elevation, new road colors and labels, as well as hundreds of custom designed landmarks — for example, for places like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Apple also built a new nighttime mode for Maps with a “moonlit glow,” it said.

For drivers, Apple added new road details to the map, so it can help drivers as they move throughout a city to better see and understand important things like turn lanes, medians, bus and taxi lanes and other things. The changes are competitive with some of the updates Google has been making to its own Google Maps platform, which brought street-level details in select cities. These allowed people — including those navigating on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike or on a scooter, for example — to better see things like sidewalks and intersections.

Apple is now catching up, saying it, too, will show features like crosswalks and bike lanes.

It will also render things like overlapping complex interchanges in 3D space, making it easier to see upcoming traffic conditions or what lane to take. These features will come to CarPlay later in the year.

Image Credits: Apple

For transit riders, meanwhile, Maps has made improvements to help users find nearby stations.

Users can now pin their favorite lines to the top, and even keep track on their Apple Watch so they don’t have to pull out their phone. The updated Maps app will automatically follow your transit route and notify you when it’s time to disembark, making the app more competitive to third-party apps often favored by transit takers, like Citymapper, for instance.

maps train stop

Image Credits: Apple

When you exit your station, you can also now hold up your iPhone to scan the buildings in the area and Maps will generate an accurate position, offering direction in augmented reality. This is similar to the Live View AR directions Google announced last year.

This feature is launching in select cities in 2021 with more to come in the year ahead, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple introduces SharePlay for co-watching, streaming and screen sharing over FaceTime

By Sarah Perez

As part of its FaceTime update in iOS 15, Apple introduced a new set of features designed for shared experiences — like co-watching TV shows or TikTok videos, listening to music together, screen sharing and more — while on a FaceTime call. The feature, called SharePlay, enables real-time connections with family and friends while you’re hanging out on FaceTime, Apple explained, by integrating access to apps from within the call itself.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple demonstrated the new feature during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, showing how friends could press play in Apple Music to listen together, as the music streams to everyone on the call. Shared playback controls also let anyone on the call play, pause or jump to the next track.

The company also showed off watching video from its Apple TV+ streaming service, where the video was synced in real time between call participants. This was a popular trend during the pandemic, as people looked to virtually watch movies and TV with family and friends, prompting services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to add native co-watching features.

But Apple’s SharePlay goes much further than streaming music and video from just Apple’s own services.

The company announced a set of launch partners for SharePlay, including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+ and Pluto TV. It’s also making an API available to developers so they can integrate their own apps with SharePlay.

Image Credits: Apple

Users can screen share via SharePlay, too, so you can do things like browse Zillow listings together or show off a mobile gameplay, Apple suggested.

“Screen sharing is also a simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment, and it works across Apple devices,” noted Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.

The feature will roll out with iOS 15.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Endua creates hydrogen-powered clean energy storage, using tech from Australia’s national science agency

By Catherine Shu

Hydrogen-based generators are an environmentally-friendly alternative to ones powered by diesel fuel. But many rely on solar, hydro or wind power, which aren’t available all the time. Brisbane-based Endua is making hydrogen-based power generators more accessible by using electrolysis to create more hydrogen and storing it for long-term use. The startup’s technology was developed at CSIRO, Australian’s national science agency, and is being commercialized by Main Sequence, the venture fund founded by CSIRO and Ampol, one of the country’s largest fuel companies.

Main Sequence’s venture science model means that it first identifies a global challenge, then brings together the technology, team and investors to launch a startup that can address that problem. Through the program, Paul Sernia, the founder of electric vehicle charger maker Tritium, was brought on to serve as Endua’s chief executive officer, working with Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma to commercialize the hydrogen-based power generation and storage technology developed at CSIRO. Ampol will serve as Endua’s industry partner.

Endua is backed by $5 million AUD (about $3.9 million USD) from Main Sequence, CSIRO and Ampol. The company plans to launch in Australia first before expanding into other countries.

Sernia told TechCrunch that Endua was created to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the transition to renewable energy—how to store renewable energy in large quantities, for long periods of time.”

Endua’s modular power banks can run up to 150 kilowatts per pack and be extended for different use cases, serving as an alternative to power generators that run on diesel fuel. Batteries serve as backup, but Endua’s goal is to deliver renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, enabling off-grid infrastructure and communities to have self-sustaining power sources.

“Hydrogen electrolysis technology has been around for quite some time but it still has a long way to go to meet the expectations of commercial markets and be cost-effective when compared to existing energy sources,” Sernia said. “The technology we’ve developed with CSIRO enables us to make the cost more affordable compared to fossil fuel sources, more reliable and easily maintained in remote communities.”

The startup plans to focus on industrial clients before reaching smaller businesses and residences. “One of the biggest opportunities, that few have really tackled, is that of diesel generator users like regional communities, mines or remote infrastructure,” Sernia said. “In farming, Endua’s solution could be used to power equipment such as a bore or irrigation pumps.” The power banks can plug into existing renewable energy systems, including solar and wind, to make the switch economical for users, he added. Water is part of the electrolysis process, but only a small amount is needed.

“Batteries are a great way to deliver dispatchable power in small increments and are a complementary part of the overall transition plan, but we’re focusing on delivering renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, for large periods of time, so communities and remote infrastructure can access reliable, renewable energy at any time of day,” Sernia told TechCrunch.

Ampol is working with Endua as part of its Future Energy and Decarbonisation Strategy. It will test and commercialize Endua’s tech to reach its 80,000 B2B customers, focusing first on the off-grid diesel generator market, which the company said generates 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

In press statement, Ampol managing director and CEO Matthew Halliday said, “We are excited to be involved with Endua, which is part of our commitment to extending our customer value proposition by finding and developing new energy solutions that will assist with their energy transition.”

The Station: Aurora gets closer to a SPAC deal, Spin’s new strategy and Waymo One app numbers

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

We are days away from TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a one-day virtual event scheduled for June 9 that is bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in transportation. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you want to check things out but are short on cash, register and type in “station” for a free pass to the expo and breakout sessions. If you want access to the main stage — where folks like Mate Rimac, Chris Urmson and GM’s Pam Fletcher will be interviewed — then type in “Station50” to buy a full access pass for a 50% discount. Tickets can be accessed here.

Buying a ticket will also give you a months-free subscription to Extra Crunch and access to all the videos of the conference. We have a star-studded group of folks coming from Aurora, AutoX, Gatik, GM, Hyundai, Joby Aviation, Motional, Nuro, Rimac Automobili, Scale AI, Starship Technologies, Toyota Research Institute, WeRide, and Zoox. (to name a handful).

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

The big micromobility news of the week revolves around Spin, and it’s not about whether or not Ford is spinning out the company; they kept a pretty tight lip on that, but clearly big changes are happening. Co-founder Derrick Ko is stepping down as CEO and moving into an advisory role, along with his other two co-founders Zaizhuang Cheng and Euwyn Poon. In Ko’s place is Ben Bear, who previously served as CBO of Spin.

Along with this news came a flurry of other announcements, but it makes sense to start with Spin’s latest public strategy for winning the e-scooter business. Spin is actively seeking out limited vendor permits with cities. In other words, the company doesn’t want to see its cities messing around with other operators. Spin is seeking exclusive partnerships and is prepared to better itself to get them. It’s positioning itself as the most desirable for cities as it shares even more news…

If Spin wants to have a kind of deal that Lyft-owned CitiBike has with NYC, then it needs to bring more to the table. It’s starting with e-bikes. 5,000 of them, to be specific, in the coming months, starting with Providence, RI in June and spreading outward into a few other mid-tier cities over the summer.

Spin is also flexing its tech that will help make its scooters safe and reliable — just what a city wants in a long-term commitment. This week, it brought its Drover AI-equipped scooters to Milwaukee (with plans to launch in Miami, Seattle and Santa Monica, as well) that are equipped to detect sidewalk and bike lane riding and validate parking. Seattle, Santa Monica and Boise, Idaho will soon be graced by Spin’s new S-200, a three-wheeled adaptive scooter built with Tortoise’s repositioning software that allows a remote operator to move scooters out of gutters or into more dense urban areas.

Tier gets some more money

Berlin-based Tier Mobility, which recently won a London permit, has raised $60 million so it can expand its fleet of vehicles and battery charging networks. Technically, it’s a loan. The asset-backed financing comes from Goldman Sachs.

Let’s talk about bikes

Lyft has got a new e-bike piloting this month, starting in San Francisco, then Chicago and New York. It’ll be dropping the sleek, white bikes with soft purple LEDs at random around the city for people to test out. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater gave it a spin, and his general consensus was, Yeah, it’s a good bike. Can’t complain.

While Lyft may have anti-theft protection on its e-bikes, the rest of us are not so lucky. According to market research company NPD Group, we saw a 63% YOY growth for bike sales in June. Bike Index, a national bike registry group, tells us that the number of bikes stolen has seen similar increases. The number of bikes reported stolen to the service was a little over 10,000 between April and September, compared to nearly 6,000 during the same period in the previous year. That’s an uptick of nearly 68%. So, when are apartment complexes going to be forced to build bike storage rather than car parks?

Best cities for biking

If you are going to risk theft and bike around, you’ll want to do it in one of the cities PeopleForBikes just announced are the best for biking.

“Topping this year’s ratings in the United States are Brooklyn, NY; Berkeley, CA and Provincetown, MA (each ranking first in the large, medium and small U.S. city categories, respectively). Top international performers include Canberra and Alice Springs in Australia; Utrecht and Groningen in the Netherlands and Gatineau, Longueuil and Montreal in Canada, all located in the province of Quebec.”

Biking is not all about fun and commuting. For some of us, it’s work. URB-E, the compact container delivery network that wants to replace trucks with small electric bikes, has announced PackItFresh as its final-mile refrigeration provider. PackItFresh’s totes can keep food at safe temperatures for up to 24 hours, yet another reason supermarkets need to be nixing the delivery trucks in favor of these more sustainable alternatives.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

I hesitate to put this one under deal of the week, because, well, the deal ain’t done. But it is interesting, and this is my show, so here we are. I’m talking about Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company, and a potential merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Here’s the tl;dr for those who didn’t catch my Friday story. Several sources within the financial sector told me that Aurora is close to finalizing a deal to merge with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the newest special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson. It appears the valuation is going to be somewhere in the $12 billion neighborhood. The deal is expected to be announced as early as next week. I should add that both Aurora and Reinivent declined to comment.

The Hoffman, Pincus, Thompson trio, who are bullish on a concept that they call “venture capital at scale,” have formed three SPACs, or blank-check companies. Two of those SPACs have announced mergers with private companies. Reinvent Technology Partners announced a deal in February to merge with the electric vertical take off and landing company Joby Aviation, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Reinvent Technology Partners Z merged with home insurance startup Hippo.

Is it possible that the deal could fall apart? Sure. But my sources tell me that it has progressed far enough that it would take a significant issue to derail the agreement. One more note: there is the tricky issue of Hoffman and Reinvent’s existing relationship with Aurora. Hoffman is a board member of Aurora and Reinvent is an investor. While Hoffman and Reinvent showing up on two sides of a SPAC deal would be unusual, it is not unprecedented. Connie Loizos’s accompanying article digs into the increasing cases of conflicts of interest popping up in SPAC deals.

Other deals that got my attention …

Getir, the Istanbul-based grocery delivery app, raised $550m in new funding. This latest injection of capital, which tripled its valuation to $7.5 billion, came just three months after its last financing, the Financial Times reported. The company, which just started to expand outside of Turkey in early 2021, is now planning a U.S. launch this year.

Faction Technology, the Silicon Valley-based startup building three-wheeled electric vehicles for autonomous delivery or human driven jaunts around town, raised $4.3 million in seed funding led by Trucks VC and Fifty Years.

Flink, a Berlin-based on-demand “instant” grocery delivery service built around self-operated dark stores and a smaller assortment (2,400 items) that it says it will deliver in 10 minutes or less, has raised $240 million to expand its business into more cities, and more countries.

FlixMobility, the parent company of the FlixBus coach network and the FlixTrain rail service, has closed more than $650 million in a Series G round of funding that values the Munich-based company at over $3 billion. Jochen Engert, who co-founded and co-leads the company with André Schwämmlein, described the round in a press call that TechCrunch participated in as a “balanced” mix of equity and debt, and said that the plan will be to use the funds to both expand its network in the U.S. market as well as across Europe.

Locus, a startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, raised $50 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its presence. The new round, a Series C, was led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. Qualcomm Ventures and existing investors Tiger Global Management and Falcon Edge also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $79 million. The new round valued the startup, which was founded in India, at about $300 million, said a person familiar with the matter.

Realtime Robotics announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.

Roadster, the Palo Alto-based digital platform that gives dealers tools to sell new and used vehicles online has been acquired for $360 million by retail automotive technology company CDK Global Inc. As part of the all-cash deal, Roadster is now a wholly owned subsidiary.

Sennder, a digital freight forwarder that focuses on moving cargo around Europe (and specifically focusing on trucks and “full truck load”, FTL, freight forwarding), has raised $80 million in funding, at a valuation the company confirms is now over $1 billion.

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, dropped the “AI” and has been reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The firm is commemorating its new identity with a new $300 million fund that will focus on emerging technologies and carbon neutrality. The capital is split into two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. The introduction of these two new funds brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million.

Trellis Technologies, the insurance technology platform, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by QED Investors with participation from existing investors NYCA Partners and General Catalyst.

VTB, Russia’s second-largest lender, has bought a $75 million minority stake in car-sharing provider Delimobil, Reuters reported.

Waymo: by the numbers

the station autonomous vehicles1

Waymo has been on my mind lately — and not because of the executive departures that I wrote about last month. No, I’ve been thinking about Waymo and how, or if, it’s been scaling up its Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service, which operates in several Phoenix suburbs. The latest example is that Waymo One can now be accessed and booked through Google Maps.

But what about ridership? The folks at Sensor Tower, the mobile app market intelligence firm, recently shared some numbers that give the tiniest of glimpses into who is at least interested in trying the service.

First, a bit of history. Waymo started an early rider program in April 2017, which allowed vetted members of the public, all of whom signed NDAs, to hail an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. All of these Waymo-branded vans had human safety operators behind the wheel.

In December 2018, the company launched Waymo One, the self-driving car service and accompanying app. Waymo-trained test drivers were still behind the wheel when the ride-hailing service began. Early rider program members were the first to be invited to the service. As these folks were shifted over to the Waymo One service, the NDA was lifted.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up in fall 2019. TechCrunch contributor Ed Niedermeyer was among the first (media) to hail a driverless ride. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit.

In October 2020, the company announced that members of Waymo One — remember this is the sans NDA service — would be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members were given first access to the driverless rides. The company started to welcome more people directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides would be fully driverless, which it has maintained. Today, anyone can download the app and hail a driverless ride.

OK, back to the numbers. Sensor Tower shared monthly estimates for Waymo’s installs from the U.S. App Store and Google Play. The company said that most of the installs are on iOS, as it looks like the Waymo app only became available on Android in April 2021. This isn’t a ridership number. It does show how interest has grown, and picked up since February 2021.

Waymo one app data

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi folks, welcome back to Policy Corner.

Another infrastructure bill was proposed in Washington this week. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure introduced a new bill that would invest $547 billion over the next five years on surface transport. While much of those funds would go toward improving America’s roads, bridges, and passenger rail, the INVEST in America Act would dedicate around $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and around $4 billion to invest in zero-emission transit vehicles.


And that’s in addition to major infrastructure bills already proposed by President Joe Biden and House Democrats. It’s likely that this bill, should it pass, would be significantly scaled back — just as Congressional Republicans are attempting to do with Biden’s infrastructure plan. You can read more about the bill here.

President Biden has set his sights on battery manufacturing as a way to recover and reuse critical minerals in the EV supply chain. This is after it was reported that he walked back earlier signals that he might support domestic mining for these minerals, like lithium. Instead, it looks like his plan is to push for continued importing of the metals from foreign countries and then to recycle and reuse them at the end of a battery’s life.

This news is a blow to America’s mining industry but sure to be a boost for metal recyclers, like Redwood Materials in Nevada and Canadian company Li-Cycle, which is expanding its operations in the States.

Some of the biggest pushback against mining has come from environmental and conservation groups. A good example is the situation currently unfolding out in Nevada, where a proposed lithium mine may be halted due to the presence of a rare wildflower. Conservation groups want to get protected status for the flower. If they succeed? No more mine.

The final piece of news this week is a recent survey from Pew Research Center which found that 51% of Americans oppose phasing out the production of gas-powered cars and trucks. The report also found that those reported hearing “a lot” about EVs were more likely to seriously consider one for their next vehicle purchase. Also, while Americans are roughly in agreement that EVs are better for the environment, they’re equally in agreement that they’re more costly.

The upshot is that more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of EVs and the question of their benefits (on the environment, for example) is pretty well understood. But policymakers and OEMs clearly still have a ways to go in convincing a huge swathe of Americans to get on board.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

A few more notes

 

I won’t be providing the looooonnnnggggg roundup of news this week, but here are a few little bits including some hires and other tidbits.

7-Eleven said it plans to install 500 direct-current fast charging ports at 250 locations across North America by the end of 2022. These charging ports will be owned and operated by 7-Eleven, as opposed to fuel at its filling stations, which must be purchased from suppliers.

Baraja, the lidar startup, appointed former Magna and DaimlerChrysler veterans to its executive team, including Paul Eichenberg as chief strategy officer and Jim Kane as vp of automotive engineering.

Brian Heater, hardware editor here at TechCrunch, covered a recent gathering of ride-hailing drivers in Long Island City, Queens. The group protested outside of Uber’s offices ahead of a proposed state bill. The drivers support the proposed bill that would make it easy for gig economy workers in the state to unionize.

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has secured a permit that will allow the company to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The permit, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its driverless pilot program, is one of several regulatory requirements autonomous vehicle companies must meet before they can deploy commercially. This permit is important — and Cruise is the first to land this particular one — but it does not allow the company to charge passengers for any rides in test AVs.

DeepMap has developed a crowdsourced mapping service called RoadMemory that lets automakers turn data collected from their own fleets of passenger vehicles and trucks into maps. The company says the tool is designed to expand geographic coverage more quickly and support hands-off autonomous driving features everywhere.

Joby Aviation is partnering with REEF Technology, one of the country’s largest parking garage operators, and a real estate acquisition company Neighborhood Property Group to build out its network of vertiports, with an initial focus on Los Angeles, Miami, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Populus, the platform that helps cities manage shared mobility services, streets and curbs, launched a new digital car-sharing parking feature in Oakland. The gist is that this feature helps cities collect data on car-sharing and deploy curbside paying payments. The company launched this particular product in 2018 and has been expanding to different cities.

Starship Technologies, the autonomous sidewalk delivery startup, has hired a new CEO. The company tapped Alastair Westgarth, the former CEO of Alphabet’s Loon, to lead the company as it looks to expand its robotics delivery service. Loon, Alphabet’s experiment to deliver broadband via high-altitude balloons, was shut down for good at the beginning of this year. Prior to working at Loon, Westgarth headed the wireless antennae company Quintel Solutions, was a vice president at telecommunications company Nortel and director of engineering at Bell Mobility.

Yuri Suzuki, a partner at design consultancy firm Pentagram, recently conducted a research project into the crucial role electric car sound has on a user’s safety, enjoyability, communication and brand recognition, out of which he developed a range of car sounds.

YC-backed Ziina raises $7.5M seed led by Avenir Growth Capital and Class 5 Global

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Cash is the predominant method of sending and receiving payments in the Middle East. If you owe someone a cup of coffee or a trip over a long period, repaying via cash is your best bet. This is one problem out of many financial issues that haven’t been addressed in the region.

The good news is that startups are springing up to provide solutions. Last month Telda, a now two-month-old startup in Egypt, raised an impressive sum as pre-seed to offer digital banking services. Today, Ziina, another startup based in Dubai, has closed $7.5 million in seed funding to scale its peer-to-peer (P2P) payment service across the Middle East and North Africa.

Ziina has managed to enlist top global investors and fintech founders in the round. Avenir Growth and Class 5 Global led this latest tranche of financing. Wamda Capital, FJ Labs, Graph Ventures, Goodwater Capital, Jabbar Internet Group, Oman Technology Fund’s Jasoor Ventures, and ANIM also participated.

The founders who took part include Checkout CEO Guillaume Pousaz via his investment fund Zinal Growth; Krishnan Menon, BukuKas CEO, as well as executives from Paypal and Venmo. This adds to a roster of executives and early employees from Revolut, Stripe, Brex, Notion, and Deel that joined Ziina’s round.

According to the company, it has raised over $8.6 million since launching last year. This includes the $850,000 pre-seed raised in May 2020 and $125,000 secured after going through Y Combinator’s Winter batch early this year.

Ziina was founded by Faisal Toukan, Sarah Toukan, and Andrew Gold. It’s the latest addition to the Middle East’s bubbling fintech ecosystem and is capitalising on the region’s rapid adoption of fintech friendly regulation.

The company allows users to send and receive payments with just a phone number —no IBAN or swift code required as is the de facto method in the UAE and some parts of the Middle East. It also claims to be the country’s first licensed social peer-to-peer application “on a mission to simplify finance for everyone.”

After meeting during a hackathon in the U.S., Faisal and Gold began exchanging ideas on how to build wallets, wanting to mirror the successes platforms like WePay, Paytm have had. At the time, VCs seemed to be interested in how the wallets ecosystem intersected with banking.

“The lines between wallets and banking have become really blurred. Every wallet has a banking partner, and people who use wallets use them for their day-to-day needs,” CEO Faisal Toukan said to TechCrunch.

On the other hand, Sarah, who is Faisal’s sister, was on her personal fintech journey in London. There, she attended several meetups headlined by the founders of Monzo and Revolut. With her knowledge and the experience of the other two, the founders decided that solving P2P payments issues was their own way of driving massive impact in the Middle East.

So how far have they gone? “We launched a beta for the market but it’s restricted for regulatory reasons and basically to keep ourselves in check with the ecosystem,” Toukan remarked. “Since then, we’ve gotten regulated. We’ve got a banking partner, one of the three largest banks in the UAE, and we’ve set a new wallet a month from now. That’s also what we were working throughout our period in YC. So it’s been quite an eventful year.”

The fintech sector in MENA is growing fast; in terms of numbers, at a CAGR of 30%. Also, in the UAE, it is estimated that over 450 fintech companies will raise about $2 billion in 2022 compared to the $80 million raised in 2017. Fintechs in the region are focused on solving payments, transfers, and remittances. Alongside its P2P offering, these are the areas Ziina wants to play in, including investment and cryptocurrency services.

According to Toukan, there’s no ease of making online investments, and remittances are done in exchange houses, a manual process where people need to visit an office physically. “So what we’re looking to do is to bring all these products to life in the UAE and expand beyond that. But the first pain point we’re solving for is for people to send and receive money with two clicks,” the CEO affirmed.

Starting with P2P has its own advantages. First, peer-to-peer services is a repeat behavioural mechanism that allows companies to establish trust with customers. Also, it’s a cheaper customer acquisition model. Toukan says that as Zinna expands geographically — Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2022; and Egypt and Tunisia some years from now — as he wants the company’s wallet to become seamless cross border. “We want a situation where if you move into Saudi or Dubai, you’re able to use the same wallet versus using different banking applications,” he added

To be on the right side of regulation is key to any fintech expansion, and Toukan says Ziina has been in continuous dialogue with regulators to operate efficiently. But some challenges have stemmed from finding the right banking partners. “You need to make a case to the banks that this is basically a mutually beneficial partnership. And the way we’ve done that is by basically highlighting different cases globally like CashApp that worked with Southern Bank,” he said.

Now that the company has moved past that challenge, it’s in full swing to launch. Presently, Ziina has thousands of users who transacted more than $120,000 on the platform this past month. According to the company, there are over 20,000 users on its waiting list, and they will be onboarded post-launch.

Ziina has already built a team with experience across tech companies like Apple, Uber, Stanford, Coinbase, Careem, Oracle, and Yandex. It plans to double down on hiring with this new investment and customer acquisition and establishing commercial partnerships.

Google’s Gradient Ventures leads $8.2M Series A for Vault Platform’s misconduct reporting SaaS

By Natasha Lomas

Fixing workplace misconduct reporting is a mission that’s snagged London-based Vault Platform backing from Google’s AI focused fund, Gradient Ventures, which is the lead investor in an $8.2 million Series A that’s being announced today.

Other investors joining the round are Illuminate Financial, along with existing investors including Kindred Capital and Angular Ventures. Its $4.2M seed round was closed back in 2019.

Vault sells a suite of SaaS tools to enterprise-sized or large/scale-up companies to support them to pro-actively manage internal ethics and integrity issues. As well as tools for staff to report issues, data and analytics is baked into the platform — so it can support with customers’ wider audit and compliance requirements.

In an interview with TechCrunch, co-founder and CEO Neta Meidav said that as well as being wholly on board with the overarching mission to upgrade legacy reporting tools like hotlines provided to staff to try to surface conduct-related workplace risks (be that bullying and harassment; racism and sexism; or bribery, corruption and fraud), as you might expect Gradient Ventures was interested in the potential for applying AI to further enhance Vault’s SaaS-based reporting tool.

A feature of its current platform, called ‘GoTogether’, consists of an escrow system that allows users to submit misconduct reports to the relevant internal bodies but only if they are not the first or only person to have made a report about the same person — the idea being that can help encourage staff (or outsiders, where open reporting is enabled) to report concerns they may otherwise hesitate to, for various reasons.

Vault now wants to expand the feature’s capabilities so it can be used to proactively surface problematic conduct that may not just relate to a particular individual but may even affect a whole team or division — by using natural language processing to help spot patterns and potential linkages in the kind of activity being reported.

“Our algorithms today match on an alleged perpetrator’s identity. However many events that people might report on are not related to a specific person — they can be more descriptive,” explains Meidav. “For example if you are experiencing some irregularities in accounting in your department, for example, and you’re suspecting that there is some sort of corruption or fraudulent activity happening.”

“If you think about the greatest [workplace misconduct] disasters and crises that happened in recent years — the Dieselgate story at Volkswagen, what happened in Boeing — the common denominator in all these cases is that there’s been some sort of a serious ethical breach or failure which was observed by several people within the organization in remote parts of the organization. And the dots weren’t connected,” she goes on. “So the capacity we’re currently building and increasing — building upon what we already have with GoTogether — is the ability to connect on these repeated events and be able to connect and understand and read the human input. And connect the dots when repeated events are happening — alerting companies’ boards that there is a certain ‘hot pocket’ that they need to go and investigate.

“That would save companies from great risk, great cost, and essentially could prevent huge loss. Not only financial but reputational, sometimes it’s even loss to human lives… That’s where we’re getting to and what we’re aiming to achieve.”

There is the question of how defensible Vault’s GoTogether feature is — how easily it could be copied — given you can’t patent an idea. So baking in AI smarts may be a way to layer added sophistication to try to maintain a competitive edge.

“There’s some very sophisticated, unique technology there in the backend so we are continuing to invest in this side of our technology. And Gradient’s investment and the specific we’re receiving from Google now will only increase that element and that side of our business,” says Meidav when we ask about defensibility.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Gradient Ventures founder and managing partner, Anna Patterson, added: “Vault tackles an important space with an innovative and timely solution. Vault’s application provides organizations with a data-driven approach to tackling challenges like occupational fraud, bribery or corruption incidents, safety failures and misconduct. Given their impressive team, technology, and customer traction, they are poised to improve the modern workplace.”

The London-based startup was only founded in 2018 — and while it’s most keen to talk about disrupting legacy hotline systems, which offer only a linear and passive conduit for misconduct reporting, there are a number of other startups playing in the same space. Examples include the likes of LA-based AllVoices, YC-backed WhispliHootsworth and Spot to name a few.

Competition seems likely to continue to increase as regulatory requirements around workplace reporting keep stepping up.

The incoming EU Whistleblower Protection Directive is one piece of regulation Vault expects will increase demand for smarter compliance solutions — aka “TrustTech”, as it seeks to badge it — as it will require companies of more than 250 employees to have a reporting solution in place by the end of December 2021, encouraging European businesses to cast around for tools to help shrink their misconduct-related risk.

She also suggests a platform solution can help bridge gaps between different internal teams that may need to be involved in addressing complaints, as well as helping to speed up internal investigations by offering the ability to chat anonymously with the original reporter.

Meidav also flags the rising attention US regulators are giving to workplace misconduct reporting — noting some recent massive awards by the SEC to external whistleblowers, such as the $28M paid out to a single whistleblower earlier this year (in relation to the Panasonic Avionics consultant corruption case).

She also argues that growing numbers of companies going public (such as via the SPAC trend, where there will have been reduced regulatory scrutiny ahead of the ‘blank check’ IPO) raises reporting requirements generally — meaning, again, more companies will need to have in place a system operated by a third party which allows anonymous and non-anonymous reporting. (And, well, we can only speculate whether companies going public by SPAC may be in greater need of misconduct reporting services vs companies that choose to take a more traditional and scrutinized route to market… )

“Just a few years back I had to convince investors that this category it really is a category — and fast forward to 2021, congratulations! We have a market here. It’s a growing category and there is competition in this space,” says Meidav.

“What truly differentiates Vault is that we did not just focus on digitizing an old legacy process. We focused on leveraging technology to truly empower more misconduct to surface internally and for employees to speak up in ways that weren’t available for them before. GoTogether is truly unique as well as the things that we’re doing on the operational side for a company — such as collaboration.”

She gives an example of how a customer in the oil and gas sector configured the platform to make use of an anonymous chat feature in Vault’s app so they could provide employees with a secure direct-line to company leadership.

“They’ve utilizing the anonymous chat that the app enables for people to have a direct line to leadership,” she says. “That’s incredible. That is such a progress, forward looking way to be utilizing this tool.”

Vault Platform’s suite of tools include an employee app and a Resolution Hub for compliance, HR, risk and legal teams (Image credits: Vault Platform)

Meidav says Vault has around 30 customers at this stage, split between the US and EU — its core regions of focus.

And while its platform is geared towards enterprises, its early customer base includes a fair number of scale-ups — with familiar names like Lemonade, Airbnb, Kavak, G2 and OVO Energy on the list.

Scale ups may be natural customers for this sort of product given the huge pressures that can be brought to bear upon company culture as a startup switches to expanding headcount very rapidly, per Meidav.

“They are the early adopters and they are also very much sensitive to events such as these kind of [workplace] scandals as it can impact them greatly… as well as the fact that when a company goes through a hyper growth — and usually you see hyper growth happening in tech companies more than in any other type of sector — hyper growth is at time when you really, as management, as leadership, it’s really important to safeguard your culture,” she suggests.

“Because it changes very, very quickly and these changes can lead to all sorts of things — and it’s really important that leadership is on top of it. So when a company goes through hyper growth it’s an excellent time for them to incorporate a tool such as Vault. As well as the fact that every company that even thinks of an IPO in the coming months or years will do very well to put a tool like Vault in place.”

Expanding Vault’s own team is also on the cards after this Series A close, as it guns for the next phase of growth for its own business. Presumably, though, it’s not short of a misconduct reporting solution.

Elon Musk officially hits the brakes on Tesla Model S Plaid+

By Rebecca Bellan

Tesla CEO Elon has made it official and publicly cancelled plans to produce the Model S Plaid+, a supercharged version of the upcoming Plaid version of the electric vehicle that will be delivered to the first customers this month.

Musk’s reason: Plaid is so good that another variant isn’t needed.

“Model S goes to Plaid speed this week,” Musk tweeted on Sunday. “Plaid+ is canceled. No need, as Plaid speed is just so good.”

Model S goes to Plaid speed this week

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 6, 2021

Tesla Model S Plaid powertrain can go from 0 to 60mph in 1.99 seconds, has a top speed of 200 miles per hour and an estimated range of 390 miles, according to the company’s website. The powertrain produces 1,020 horsepower, and the cost of the vehicle starts at $112,990. In late May, Musk tweeted that the delivery event for the electric sedan would be pushed back until June 10 in order to finish one last tweak. Musk described driving the Plaid, which has three motors as feeling like a spaceship.

Model S Plaid delivery pushed to June 10. Needs one more week of tweak.

This car feels like a spaceship. Words cannot describe the limbic resonance.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 29, 2021

The now-canceled Plaid+ wasn’t coming to market until mid-2022. Musk had promised this version would pushed the performance and range even higher. The listed starting price also popped up to $150,000. Tesla stopped taking pre-orders for the vehicle on its website in May, prompting coverage and speculation that the Plaid+ would never come to fruition. The tweet from Musk on Sunday confirms those theories.

China Has Triggered a Bitcoin Mining Exodus

By Gian Volpicelli, Wired UK
The promise of a crackdown is sending the country's crypterati scrambling for the exit.
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