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LA-based Replicated adds former GitLab head of product as its chief product officer

By Jonathan Shieber

Replicated, the Los Angeles-based company pitching monitoring and management services for Kubernetes-based applications, has managed to bring on the former head of product of the $2.75 billion-valued programming giant GitLab as its new chief product officer. 

Mark Pundsack is joining the company as it moves to scale its business. At GitLab, Pundsack saw the company grow from 70 employees to 1,300 as it scaled its business through its on-premise offerings.

Replicated is hoping to bring the same kind of on-premise services to a broad array of enterprise clients, according to company chief executive Grant Miller.

First introduced to Replicated while working with CircleCI, it was the company’s newfound traction since the launch of its Kubernetes deployment management toolkit that caused him to take a second look.

“The momentum that Replicated has created with their latest offering is tremendous; really changing the trajectory of the company,” said Pundsack in a statement. “When I was able to get close to the product, team, and customers, I knew this was something that I wanted to be a part of. This company is in such a unique position to create value throughout the entire enterprise software ecosystem; this sort of reach is incredibly rare. The potential reminds me a lot of the early days of GitLab.”

It’s a huge coup for Replicated, according to Miller.

“Mark created the core product strategy at GitLab; transforming GitLab from a source control company to a complete DevOps platform, with incredible support for Kubernetes,” said Miller. “There really isn’t a better background for a product leader at Replicated; Mark has witnessed GitLab’s evolution from a traditional on-prem installation towards a Kubernetes-based installation and management experience. This is the same transition that many of our customers are going through and Mark has already done it with one of the best. I have so much confidence that his involvement with our product will lead to more success for our customers.”

Pundsack is the second new executive hire from Replicated in six months, as the company looks to bring more muscle to its C-suite and expand its operations.

With partnerships at major children’s hospitals, Manatee seeks clinical validation of its CBT-based app

By Jonathan Shieber

When Manatee founder Damayanti Dipayana’s brother was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the family took all the steps to ensure that he was properly cared for. All of the things that could have been an obstacle to getting treatment weren’t for Dipayana’s family.

A comfortably middle class background, a supportive family and ready access to care were all available, but still the therapy didn’t take. For Dipayana, it was witnessing the breakdown between the care provided at sessions and the differences in treatment at home, that led her to create Manatee.

“Therapy just sucks for kids,” Dipayana said. “My brother hated it.. It can’t be the best thing for children to put them in a room with an adult and have them talk about their problems for an hour.”

Now the graduate from Techstars Los Angeles has $1.5 million in funding from investors including the Michigan-based investment firm, Grand Ventures; Telosity, a fund launched by Vinaj Ventures & Innovation, that invests in companies improving children’s and young adult’s mental health; and the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, will pursue clinical validation for its suite of apps and services to provide a continuum of care for children with cognitive and behavioral disorders. 

Beginning with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Manatee has started a trial with ten clinicians and fifty families to evaluate the commercial use case for Dipayana’s service.

The first targets for care are anxiety and oppositional disorder, Dapayana said.

Image credit: Manatee

“I really want to focus on children. From a social [return on investment] perspective it seems insane to me that we don’t invest more in the early wellbeing of children,” said Dipayana. “If we did then we probably wouldn’t have to deal with a  ballooning juvenile detention system.”

From the company’s earliest days the stars seemed to align for Dipayana. She found her technical co-founder, Shawn Kuenzler, thanks to a post on AngelList. A veteran in the health tech startup world, Kuenzler ran engineering at Health Language and Zen Planner and has two exits under his belt. If that wasn’t serendipitous enough, Kuenzler’s wife is a clinical psychologist.

The two Denver-based entrepreneurs then took their startup on the road to the Techstars Los Angeles accelerator. It was there that they were introduced to contacts at companies including Headspace and LA Children’s Hospital that are paving the way for clinical validation of digitally delivered cognitive behavioral healthcare.

“We’re going to spend money and resources on launching our research with Children’s LA to understand the impact for a health system,” Dipayana said. “We position it as everyday therapy for kids. We provide the platform for providers to make it the day-to-day therapy for kids.” 

Manatee sells its services directly to healthcare systems to ensure that it can reach the broadest population of users rather than just ones who could afford to access the company’s app-based offerings. Doctors use Manatee as a clinical dashboard and way to communicate to both a child and their family around care plans and treatment.

“I thought about this really long and hard… Looking from my personal experience. Parents and families that have kids with autism… there’s so much snake oil that gets pushed down their throat that they’ll try anything,” Dipayana said. “It was very important to me that one i understand the clinical workflow and understood how the workforce manages behavioral healthcare and whether the work we were doing was valuable.”

Top LA investors discuss the city’s post-COVID-19 prospects

By Jonathan Shieber

When it comes to venture capital, Los Angeles is a city on the rise.

In the past year, it’s seen one of the most profitable venture-backed exits of any tech ecosystem (with the $4 billion sale of Honey to PayPal) and investors are minting billion-dollar companies in the region at a torrid pace. It’s also the city where investors are spending the most money outside of venture capital’s big major hubs: San Francisco, Boston and New York.

While Los Angeles has a lot going for it, that also means it potentially has a lot to lose in the current economic downturn. California continues to be hard-hit by COVID-19, despite local and state officials working to reopen businesses.

TechCrunch surveyed some of the city’s leading investors in sectors like property technology and cannabis to get their take on how the city may survive — and potentially thrive — in a new era ushered in by the response to the pandemic.

From larger fund investors like Mark Suster and Kara Nortman at Upfront Ventures to Dana Settle at Greycroft Partners; to early-stage investors like Will Hsu at Mucker Capital; TX Zhuo at Fika Ventures, the responses were generally upbeat about the future opportunities for Los Angeles startups.

Even specialist fund investors like Karan Wadhera of the cannabis-focused investment firm Casa Verde Capital and Brendan Wallace at the real estate-focused firm Fifth Wall believe that Los Angeles will thrive in the post-COVID world.

As Mucker Capital co-founder Hsu writes, “There are far more great companies than there are venture dollars here in LA. Investors in other cities should continue to see LA as an underserved ecosystem with huge opportunities.”

  • Mark Suster, managing partner, Upfront Ventures
  • Kara Nortman, partner, Upfront Ventures
  • Will Hsu, Mucker Capital
  • Dana Settle, Greycroft Partners
  • Karan Wadhera, Casa Verde Capital
  • Brendan Wallace, Fifth Wall
  • TX Zhuo, Fika Ventures

LA Traffic

Image Credits: Getty Images/ROBYN BECK/AFP

Mark Suster, managing partner, Upfront Ventures

How much is Upfront focused on investing in the local LA ecosystem versus less geographically focused? 

Upfront invests about 40% of its investment dollars in the great LA market and invests about 40% split between the Bay Area and NYC. Upfront has always invested nationally and internationally with the final 20% and we have produced significant exits in Chicago, Baltimore, Paris, London and Las Vegas to name a few.

Where we do invest outside of LA of course we bring all of our contacts and relationships to bear, which makes us a logical choice for any startup raising capital where having access to the biggest influencers, media companies, academic institutions and medical professionals can help propel the company’s success.

How do you think COVID-19 will change entrepreneurial activity in Los Angeles?

It’s true that some startup businesses have been impacted by this pandemic but as we’re learning a few short months in, there has been much more acceleration of the trends leading toward technology growth that were already in place.

Specifically addressing some LA-based companies we can share with you the trends we see directly with demand data:

We already knew that telemedicine made sense for doctors and patients and now this trend has accelerated, regulations being lessened and cultural barriers overcome. We see a huge growth in food production and preservation (Apeel Sciences, for example) and food distribution (such as ChowNow). The need to reduce people in warehouses has propelled demand for robotics/automation for companies like inVia Robotics and the need for remote monitoring has helped LA-based DroneBase.

DroneBase nabs $7.5 million in a slight down round to double down on its work in renewable energy

By Jonathan Shieber

DroneBase, a Los Angeles-based provider of drone pilots for industrial services companies, has raised $7.5 million during the pandemic to double down on its work with renewable energy companies.

While chief executive Dan Burton acknowledged that the company was fundraising prior to the pandemic, the industrial lockdown actually accelerated demand for the company’s services.

Even with the increased demand, the company had to make some changes. It laid off six employees and refocused its business.

“In the past three months it’s become clear that this is a moment for drones as an industry,” Burton said. “We were really pushing hard as a company, certainly on revenue growth and harvesting all the investments we made in technology and having a clear, near-term view to profitability.”

The new round, which closed in May, was a slight down round, according to people familiar with the company’s business.

“We see raising a growth round later this year,” Burton said.

New investors in the company included Valor Equity Partners and Razi Ventures, who joined Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capitla and DJI.

In all, DroneBase has raised nearly $32 million in financing, according to a company statement.

The new round will enable the company to focus on its data and analytics services that it has been developing around its core drone pilot provisioning technology — and gives DroneBase more financial wherewithal to expand its European operations under the DroneBase Europe, which operates out of Germany.

“DroneBase’s expansion into renewable energy reflects our belief in the growth potential of wind and solar energy industries,” said Burton in a statement. “Since many energy companies have both wind and solar assets, we are well positioned to leverage our DroneBase Insights platform to grow our global market share in renewable energy.”  

The key application for DroneBase has been allowing wind power companies to monitor and manage their turbines, improving uptimes and spotting problems before they effect operations, the company said.

For solar power companies, DroneBase offers a network of pilots trained in infrared imaging to detect anomalies like defects or hot spots on solar panels, the company said.

“DroneBase has established themselves as the drone leader in the commercial market, and its new work in renewables will have a lasting impact on the future of energy by keeping infrastructure operational for generations,” says Sam Teller, Partner at Valor Equity Partners, in a statement. “We believe DroneBase will continue to be a valuable partner in drone operations and data analysis across a multitude of industries globally.”

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Impact entertainment ‘accelerator’ inks deal with Netflix

By Jonathan Shieber

Imagine Impact, the entertainment accelerator launched by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard to try and bring Silicon Valley-style mentorship and project development techniques to Hollywood, has inked a development deal with Netflix and is looking for submissions.

Under the agreement, Impact will identify and develop film ideas in four specific genres over the next year that they will then bring to Netflix to produce and distribute, through a global submission process.

The companies did not disclose the financial terms of the agreement.

“Netflix is the most innovative content creation and distribution company of the last decade, leading the way in streaming since 2007 and changing the original content game with House of Cards in 2013,” said Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Tyler Mitchell, co-founders of Impact, in a joint statement. “As Impact continues to evolve the way that global talent is discovered, projects are developed and how the creative industry connects, this partnership demonstrates both companies’ commitment to improving the development system in order to generate more original, quality IP to meet the growing demand.”

The first genre that Imagine Impact is looking for pitches in is “large scale action-adventure movies for all audiences.” Writers need to submit an idea and a writing sample from today through July 6.

Launched two years ago, Imagine Impact is a program that Howard, Grazer and Mitchell established to cultivate writing talent by combining the Silicon Valley mentorship model from accelerators like Y Combinator with the Hollywood storytelling magic that Grazer and Howard have perfected over decades as two of the entertainment industry’s most celebrated producers and writers, actors and directors.

The Imagine Impact vetting process involves both experienced readers and a natural language processing system that the talent incubator developed internally. From its first cohort through to last year’s team of presenters, Imagine Impact not only provides mentorship, but brings selected screenwriters to Los Angeles for an intensive period of workshopping, subsidized by the accelerator.

From the beginning, the Imagine Impact team recognized that Netflix was democratizing storytelling and creating a global platform for talent. Hollywood, the founders felt, was the best place to nurture that talent, according to interviews with the founders conducted at the company’s last demo day.

Since the first Impact program, the accelerator program has accepted 65 writers and paired them with industry experts including Akiva Goldsman of “A Beautiful Mind” fame. So far, 62 developed projects have come out of the process with 22 sold or set-up with major studios, networks and streaming services, including Godwin Jabangwe’s Tunga, an original animated family adventure musical inspired by the mythology of the Shona culture of Zimbabwe set up at Netflix, the company said. 

“Brian and Ron run one of the most creative and forward-thinking production companies in the business,” said Tendo Nagenda, Vice President of Netflix Films. “Having worked with them and Imagine Entertainment on the upcoming Hillbilly Elegy and Tick, Tick … Boom!, we were excited to extend our partnership to Imagine Impact on this new endeavor. We are looking forward to being a part of this new way stories and talent are discovered and mentored.”

 

Ford’s 2020 Escape plug-in hybrid takes aim at Toyota RAV4 Prime

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2020 Ford Escape plug-in hybrid — a first for the SUV — comes with an EPA-estimated 37 miles of all-electric driving range and 100 miles per gallon equivalent, stats that will put the redesigned model into competition with the new Toyota RAV4 Prime.

The Toyota RAV4 Prime has an estimated 42-mile EV range and 94 MPGe. Toyota unveiled the first plug-in hybrid version of the model at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2019. The vehicle is expected to hit dealerships in the U.S. this summer.

The Escape beats the Toyota RAV4 Prime on price. The Toyota RAV4 Prime starts at $39,220 (destination charge included, while Ford says the Escape will have a listed base price of $34,285, including destination charge. But Toyota’s plug-in hybrid has more get up and go at 302 horsepower with an ability to do 0-60 mph in a projected 5.7 seconds versus the Escape PHEV’s 209 hp. The RAV4 Prime is actually the most powerful four-door vehicle in Toyota’s portfolio.

The 37 miles of EV-only driving range in the Escape illustrates the progress Ford has made with its hybrid technology. The smaller Ford Fusion Energi plug-in gets 11 miles less than the new Escape PHEV.

“The original Ford Escape was the world’s first hybrid SUV and the all-new Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid represents how far we’ve come in technology and efficiency,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product development and purchasing officer, said in a statement.

The Escape PHEV is part of Ford’s $11.5 billion plan to electrify its portfolio.

The Escape PHEV comes with a fourth-generation hybrid propulsion system that includes a 2.5-liter cycle hybrid engine and a 14.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery

The Ford Escape PHEV has four modes that will allow drivers to choose how they want to use that electric power. Drivers who don’t want to think about which option is best can opt for Auto EV mode, which lets the vehicle decide whether to run on gas or electric power.  The EV Now mode puts the vehicle on all-electric power, EV Later mode lets drivers switch to full gas-hybrid driving to conserve electric miles for later and EV Charge mode will charge the battery while driving and generate electric-only miles to use later.

This is a plug-in hybrid and so it comes with an AC charging port. Drivers can use a 110-volt Level 1 charger, an option that takes 10 to 11 hours to power up the battery, or use a 240-volt Level 2 charger, which has a shorter, estimated 3.5-hour charging time.

The Escape PHEV comes standard with advanced driver assistance system features such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering, evasive steering assist and a voice-activated navigation system.

The plug-in hybrid system is available on every Escape trim level except S and SE Sport, according to Ford.

As fashion has its metaverse moment, one app looks to bridge real and virtual worlds for sneakerheads

By Jonathan Shieber

Fashion is having its moment in the metaverse.

A riot of luxury labels, music, and games are vying for attention in the virtual world. And as physical events and the entertainment industry that depends on them shuts down, virtual things have come to epitomize the popular culture of the pandemic.

It’s creating an environment where imagination and technical ability, not wealth, are the only barriers to accumulating the status symbols that only money and fame could buy.

Whether it’s famous designers like Marc Jacobs, Sandy Liang, or Valentino dropping styles in Nintendo’s breakout hit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons; HypeBae’s plans to host a fashion show later this month in the game; or various crossovers between Epic Games’ Fortnite and brands like Supreme (which pre-date the pandemic), fashion is tapping into gaming culture to maintain its relevance.

One entrepreneur who’s spent time on both sides of the business as a startup founder and an employee for one of the biggest brands in athletic wear has launched a new app to try build a bridge between the physical and virtual fashion worlds.

Its goal is to give hypebeasts a chance to collect virtual versions of their physical objects of desire and win points to maybe buy the gear they crave, while also providing a showcase where brands can discover new design talent to make the next generation of cult collaborations and launch careers.

Aglet’s Phase 1

The app, called Aglet, was created by Ryan Mullins, the former head of digital innovation strategy for Adidas, and it’s offering a way to collect virtual versions of limited edition sneakers and, eventually, design tools so all the would-be Virgil Ablohs and Kanye Wests of the world can make their own shoes for the metaverse.

When TechCrunch spoke with Mullins last month, he was still stuck in Germany. His plans for the company’s launch, along with his own planned relocation to Los Angeles, had changed dramatically since travel was put on hold and nations entered lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Initially, the app was intended to be a Pokemon Go for sneakerheads. Limited edition “drops” of virtual sneakers would happen at locations around a city and players could go to those spots and add the virtual sneakers to their collection. Players earned points for traveling to various spots, and those points could be redeemed for in-app purchases or discounts at stores.

We’re converting your physical activity into a virtual currency that you can spend in stores to buy new brands,” Mulins said. “Brands can have challenges and you have to complete two or three challenges in your city as you compete on that challenge the winner will get prizes.”

Aglet determines how many points a player earns based on the virtual shoes they choose to wear on their expeditions. The app offers a range of virtual sneakers from Air Force 1s to Yeezys and the more expensive or rare the shoe, the more points a player earns for “stepping out” in it. Over time, shoes will wear out and need to replaced — ideally driving more stickiness for the app.

Currency for in-app purchases can be bought for anywhere from $1 (for 5 “Aglets”) to $80 (for 1,000 “Aglets”). As players collect shoes they can display them on their in-app virtual shelves and potentially trade them with other players.

When the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders came through, Mullins and his designers quickly shifted to create the “pandemic mode” for the game, where users can go anywhere on a map and simulate the game.

“Our plan was to have an LA specific release and do a competition, but that was obviously thrown off,” Mullins said.

The app has antecedents like Nike’s SNKRS, which offered limited edition drops to users and geo-located places where folks could find shoes from its various collaborations, as Input noted when it covered Aglet’s April launch.

While Mullins’ vision for Aglet’s current incarnation is an interesting attempt to weave the threads of gaming and sneaker culture into a new kind of augmented reality-enabled shopping experience, there’s a step beyond the game universes that Mullins wants to create.

Image Credits: Adidas (opens in a new window)

The future of fashion discovery could be in the metaverse

“My proudest initiative [at Adidas] was one called MakerLab,” said Mullins.

MakerLab linked Adidas up with young, up-and-coming designers and let them create limited edition designs for the shoe company based on one of its classic shoe silhouettes. Mullins thinks that those types of collaborations point the way to a potential future for the industry that could be incredibly compelling.

“The real vision for me is that I believe that the next Nike is an inverted Nike,” Mullins said. “I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have young kids on Roblox designing stuff in the virtual environments and it’ll pop there and you’ll have Nike or Adidas manufacture it.”

From that perspective, the Aglet app is more of a Trojan Horse for the big idea that Mullins wants to pursue. That’s to create a design studio to showcase the best virtual designs and bring them to the real world.

Mullins calls it the “Smart Aglet Sneaker Studio”. “[It’s] where you can design your own sneakers in the standard design style and we’ll put those in the game. We’ll let you design your own hoodies and then [Aglet] does become a YouTube for fashion design.”

The YouTube example comes from the starmaking power the platform has enabled for everyone from makeup artists to musicians like Justin Bieber, who was discovered on the social media streaming service.

“I want to build a virtual design platform where kids can build their own brands for virtual fashion brands and put them into this game environment that I’m building in the first phase,” said Mullins. “Once Bieber was discovered, YouTube meant he was being able to access an entire infrastructure to become a star. What Nike and Adidas are doing is something similar where they’re finding this talent out there and giving that designer access to their infrastructure and maybe could jumpstart a young kid’s career.”

Aspiration, the LA-based fintech focused on conscious consumerism, raises $135 million

By Jonathan Shieber

When former Bill Clinton speechwriter and political wunderkind Andrei Cherny launched Aspiration four years ago, the upstart fintech startup was one of Los Angeles’ early entrants into a  financial services market dominated by players from Europe and the financial capital of the U.S. in New York City.

Fast forward four years and the big New York fintechs are still around, but Cherny’s Aspiration remains undimmed and has today disclosed a $153 million funding round to get even bigger.

Unlike other financial services startups that compete around a suite of product offerings designed to offer no-fee checking and deposits or upfront cash payments and short-term no-interest loans, Aspiration differentiates itself with a focus on sustainability and conscious consumerism.

The company first pitched the market with an investment management service like those from Betterment and Wealthfront, but one where customers could choose their own fees. It also guaranteed investments in sustainable companies and a portfolio that would not include fossil fuel companies or other businesses deemed to be less-than-friendly to Mother Nature.

The conscious consumerism is a through-line that knits together the other products in the Aspiration portfolio including its Impact Measurement Score product that gives customers a window into how their shopping habits measure up with their desires to be more earth-friendly.

The company’s just-announced $135 million cash infusion brings the total capital raised to $200 million and was led by local investor Alpha Edison. Additional new and existing investors including UBS O’Connor Capital Solutions, DNS Capital, Radicle Impact, Sutter Rock, Jeff Skoll, Joseph Sanberg, Social Impact Finance, the Pohlad Companies, and AGO Partners, also participated in the financing.

So far, 1.5 million Americans have signed up to use Aspiration’s financial management and banking services and the company has seen $4 billion in transactions pass through its accounts.

There’s a whole suite of new services designed to help customers go green too. The company launched a matching feature where the company plants a tree for every debit card purchase that its customers make, when they round up to the nearest dollar. And it’s offering a premium subscription tier that includes debit cards made from recycled ocean plastic. The card offers higher cash back and interest rates and a feature that offsets the carbon emissions of every mile a customer drives.

Finally, Aspiration has inked partnerships with other socially conscious companies like Toms and Warby Parker giving its customers extra cash back rewards when they shop at those businesses.

“Aspiration has built deep, trusting customer relationships that are beginning to unlock latent demand for financial services among the tens of millions of conscious consumers,” said Nate Redmond of Alpha Edison, in a statement. “We are excited to lead a great group of investors to fuel Aspiration’s durable growth and lasting impact.”

Polestar to open first US stores in the second half of 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open in the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Florida. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

Uber drivers and riders will be required to wear face coverings

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber is planning to require drivers and riders to wear face masks as it prepares to ramp its ride-hailing business back up after being hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNN was first to report that executives approved a new policy that would require drivers and riders to wear face masks or coverings in some markets, including the U.S.. TechCrunch confirmed Monday that Uber has developed a policy for certain markets.

Uber still faces one considerable challenge: securing enough face masks and other supplies to protect drivers. The company said multiple orders have either been delayed or canceled as from major manufacturers prioritize healthcare workers and other first responders.

It’s also not clear how Uber will enforce its policy.

“As countries reopen, Uber is focused on safety and proceeding with caution,” an Uber spokesperson said in a emailed statement. “Today, we continue to ask riders to stay home if they can, while shipping safety supplies to drivers who are providing essential trips. At the same time, our teams are preparing for the next phase of recovery, where we will all have a role to play. We’ll communicate updates directly to users when ready, but in the meantime, we continue to urge all riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings when using Uber.”

Uber has been encouraging riders to stay home through an in-app message and through marketing such as TV spots. The app is still available and people have used it to take trips to grocery stores, to essential jobs and pharmacies. Uber has urged, but not yet required, riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings.

Protecting drivers

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe and North America, Uber drivers have found themselves on the front lines, often times transporting healthcare and other essential workers who were potentially exposed to the disease.

Uber announced last month that it would buy and ship face masks to active drivers and delivery workers globally. However, COVID-19 has squeezed global supplies for face masks and disinfectant. Uber and other ride-share drivers have reported problems accessing the supplies.

In the first week of April, Uber said it began receiving and then shipping about 500,000 ear-loop face masks to drivers. The company initially targeted the most active drivers in COVID-19 hotspots such as New York City and Los Angeles. (In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a Worker Protection Order that requires companies to provide essential workers with personal protective equipment.) Uber said it also is prioritizing cities and states such as San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New Jersey that have asked drivers to wear face covers.

Uber said it will make these supplies available to all active drivers as more become available. Uber’s goal is to be able to offer masks nationwide regardless of local regulations.

As of this week, Uber has either shipped or preparing to ship 1.4 million ear-loop face masks in the United States. The company also started in early April to ship disinfectant to drivers in Chicago, Los Angeles, NYC, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Manufacturing startup Divergent 3D reduces staff by one-third

By Kirsten Korosec

Divergent, the Los Angeles-based startup aiming to revolutionize vehicle manufacturing, has cut about one-third of its staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended startups and major corporations alike.

The company, which employed about 160 people, laid off 57 workers, according to documents filed with the California Employment Development Department. Founder and CEO Kevin Czinger didn’t provide specific numbers. However, he did confirm to TechCrunch that he had to reduce staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A core team remains, he said.

“Whenever you’re doing something that’s affecting people’s jobs  — and especially in a company where I basically recruited everyone and knew everyone by face and name — it’s obviously super painful to do that under any circumstance,” Czinger said in an interview this week.

The company’s No. 1 priority was to ensure long-term financial stability and secure the core team, technology development and customer programs no matter what the scenario, Czinger said, adding that there is still enormous uncertainty surrounding the real impact and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This was about making the company as totally weatherproof as possible,” Czinger said.

Divergent 3D is essentially a Tier 1 supplier for the automotive and aerospace industry. But it can hardly be considered a traditional supplier. After resigning as CEO of the now-defunct EV startup Coda Automotive in 2010, Czinger began to focus on how the vehicle manufacturing process could become more efficient and less wasteful.

Divergent 3D was born out of that initial exploration. The company developed an additive manufacturing platform designed to make it easier and faster to design and build new cars at a fraction of the cost — all while reducing the environmental impact that traditional factories have.

The platform is an end-to-end digital production system that uses high-speed 3D printers to make complex parts out of metal alloys. This system produces the structures of vehicles, such as the full frame, subframes and suspension structures that are part of the crash-performance structure of the vehicle.

In its early years as a company, Divergent 3D was perhaps best known for Blade, the first automobile to use 3D printing to form the body and chassis. Divergent 3D made Blade — which was on the auto show circuit in 2016 — to demonstrate the technology platform.

It was enough to get the attention of investors and at least two global OEMs as customers. Divergent can’t name the customers because of non-disclosure agreements.

The company has raised about $150 million from investors that include venture capital fund Horizons Ventures, automotive and aerospace engineering services company Altran Technologies and Chinese backers O Luxe Holdings, an investment conglomerate backed by the Hong Kong-based real estate investment magnate Li Ka-shing and Shanghai Alliance Investment Limited, an investment arm of the Shanghai Municipal Government.

The latest example of Divergent’s technology is the 21C, a hypercar unveiled in March that was built using the additive manufacturing platform. The high-performance 3D-printed vehicle was produced by Czinger Vehicles. Divergent 3D and Czinger Vehicles are wholly owned subsidiaries under Divergent Technologies.

21C Czinger- vehicles

Image Credits: Czinger Vehicles

Czinger said the company is poised to navigate the pandemic and ultimately survive. Divergent 3D has two global OEMs as customers. Structures such as chassis components and subframes, for which Divergent has supply contracts, are going through various testing and validation stages, depending on the program. Those programs, which are for serial production vehicles, are moving forward, Czinger said.

There will be delays as automakers have slowed or stopped operations. Czinger is hopeful that by 2021 the company will be able to announce that its 3D-printed structures will be production vehicles.

An LA-led, public-private partnership pitches a $150B green infrastructure package to Congress

By Jonathan Shieber

Representatives from the government and the utility managing the power of Los Angeles are proposing a sweeping infrastructure package worth roughly $150 billion centered on the broad electrification of transportation and industry.

Drafted by the Los Angeles-based public-private Transportation Electrification Partnership, a collaboration between the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the proposal lays out a number of initiatives based on work that’s already being done in Los Angeles to electrify the city’s infrastructure.

As the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, boasting an over $1 trillion economy, decisions made in the city can have broad economic and social implications that ripple far beyond the Southern California region. Alongside New York, Los Angeles has set some of the nation’s most aggressive targets for the rollout of renewable and sustainable industries.

The proposal sets out four big initiatives, including zero-emissions vehicle manufacturing, assembly and adoption; zero-emissions infrastructure investments; commitments to public transit investments; workforce development; and job training. There’s also a relatively modest request (of only $4 billion) for funding devoted to pilot projects, startup companies, and public clean technology investment initiatives (like LACI).

The initiative reserves the largest cash pile for the development of electric charging infrastructure around the country, according to the proposal seen by TechCrunch and sent to House and Senate leadership including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Image Credits: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Of the $85 billion set aside for the deployment of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, the TEP proposal reserves roughly one-fourth for upgrades to the electricity grid. The funding would include $20 billion for utility upgrades. Of that, $10 billion will go toward solar and energy storage projects designed to make grids more resistant to climate-related catastrophes like extreme weather events, wildfires and other disasters. The remaining $10 billion would support commercial and residential vehicle charging, solar energy development and energy storage projects.

Another $15 billion is dedicated to medium- and heavy-duty vehicle charging that would be administered by state governments, transit agencies or regional agencies. New developments could be added to truck yards, truck stops and plazas, as well as strategic locations, such as ports and airports.

Funding of the scale proposed here could enable a transformation not only in the LA metropolitan area, but across the country, as well as provide opportunities where possible for local hire through community benefit agreements, which are an effective mechanism to ensure charging infrastructure projects include workers living local to a project, as well as other targeted hiring policies, such as US Veteran hiring, are achieved,” writes LACI chief executive, Matt Peterson.  

Light-duty charging infrastructure occupies another $10 billion of the suggested stimulus measures. The goal, is to get local, shovel-ready projects the financing they’d need to start the process of hiring workers immediately. One project that’s already being rolled out in Los Angeles is the development of curbside charging infrastructure on streetlight poles to serve drivers who don’t have access to charging infrastructure at home.

Finally under the infrastructure bucket, the proposal recommends that Congress set aside $11 billion for transit and school bus charging to be administered via states, transit agencies and school districts;  $5 billion for state and local government fleets; and $4 billion to support the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The LIHEAP money is critical for the over 12 million Americans who have recently lost their job, the consortium argues and could also help finance the Department of Energy’s Weatherization program.

Popular programs like Opportunity Zones, New Market Tax Credits and Community Development Finance Institutions could be used to boost the government’s commitment with private capital, the plan’s authors argue.

Non-Electric vehicles fill a parking lot in Rosemead, California, where two Electric Vehicle charging stations are offered on September 12, 2018.

All of that charging infrastructure and grid upgrades are in part designed to help meet the increased power demands that the proposal expects to bring onto the grid through another $25 billion in government funding for electric vehicles of all types. The funds could be allocated through existing programs including the extension of the electric vehicle tax credit for automakers and new programs that would allow consumers to trade in older model vehicles for newer, preferably electric, vehicles.

An additional way the government could juice the auto industry — and specifically electric vehicles — is by providing point of sale rebates for all vehicles that could be issued through car dealerships, according to the proposal. “This will also help dealerships increase sales and bring needed sales tax revenues to local and state governments,” Peterson writes.

There’s $25 billion in money set aside for public transit and $12.5 billion set aside for workforce retraining and education.

For startups, the programs that could have the most impact — aside from the broad infrastructure package that could mean additional demand for new technologies — is a far smaller and more targeted proposal for roughly $4 billion that would allocate money directly to small and medium sized businesses and local incubation and corporate development programs.

“Startups and small businesses are the engine of every local and regional economy,” writes Peterson. “Targeting resources to this sector is critical to help entrepreneurs continue America’s leadership in technology innovation, restart small businesses, and help put people back to work.”

TEP is proposing a $1 billion grant for early stage research and development of cleantech and zero-emission mobility innovations and $1 billion for shovel ready pilot projects deployed by startups and small businesses via local governments.

Still more money would include $500 million in emergency loans and grants for cleantech startups and small businesses that are involved in solar installations, energy storage, and electric vehicle technology development. Revenues for these companies have dropped precipitously as consumer-facing demand has fallen off a cliff.

There’s also a $500 million pot targeted for startups and small businesses founded by women and people of color and $500 million for nonprofit cleantech and innovation incubators.

Alongside LACI, there are a few of these nonprofit investment programs which have cropped up across the Midwest that could be a boon to budding entrepreneurs.

Finally, the proposal advocates for at least $500 million in funding to train unemployed or underemployed would-be laborers along with veterans and the formerly incarcerated.

Some of these initiatives have been tried in the past, and despite partisan complaints, proved effective. The Obama-era loan program established to boost clean energy companies generated revenues for the government despite the much-publicized flameout of the solar startup, Solyndra. Even Tesla benefited from the program, paying back a $460 million loan from the program a decade ahead of schedule.

With increasing volatility in oil prices, the move to an increasingly electric infrastructure makes sense because it offers more stability for energy buyers, including consumers and businesses.

Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator reboots its incubation program with 16-member cohort

By Jonathan Shieber

The Los Angeles Cleantch Incubator is rebooting its incubator program and moving from rolling applications to a cohort model beginning with 16 new startups. 

Los Angeles’ not-for-profit incubator exchanges sweat equity in the form of services and office space, and the promise of $20,000 in funding for local pilot projects, for a 1.5% to 3% stake in a company.

“This is a renewed incubation program switching to the cohort model. The great part of a rolling program was that you could meet the startups where they were. The challenge with that was giving founders steady programming,” said chief executive Matt Peterson.

Nearly one-third of the founders involved in the incubator’s latest program are women, over half of the founders are people of color and more than 5% are veterans, making the new cohort the most diverse in the incubator’s history.

Peterson is also flagging what he believes is a first for an incubator where startups can earn back their equity if they show hard numbers that indicate privileging diversity and access in hiring and in the availability of technologies and services to low-income communities.

Some of the companies in the incubator’s current cohort may also provide a small degree of support — and jobs — to Los Angeles residents hit hard by the social distancing measures the city and state have enacted to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Companies like SparkCharge, ePave, and CERO Bikes are all companies that could employ local residents and launch shovel-ready projects with potential funding from local stimulus plans.

“As LA’s most established incubator, we have a strong track record of empowering and supporting entrepreneurs truly representative of our energetic, diverse and innovative city,” says Matt Petersen, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. “It is critical to help startups deliver solutions for clean air and greenhouse gas mitigation. By continuing our investment in startup incubation, we will help stimulate the economy now, invest in industries that will bring future clean jobs to our communities and spur innovation to develop climate mitigation solutions.”

The new incubator program will last two years and is structured in a way that allows for startups to buy back equity from the incubator upon completion of certain milestones. 

Companies in the new class include:

  • Alumina Energy is a U.S.-based energy storage technology company designing and building energy storage systems for the utility, industrial and commercial scale power generation and process heat markets.

  • CERO Bikes is a family-owned and operated business that designs and produces compact electric cargo bikes.

  • ChargerHelp! is an on-demand charging station repair service.

  • ePave has developed a new composite material that can reduce the greenhouse gas effects of surfaces.

  • InPipe Energy has developed a technology that generates low-cost electricity from the flow of water through gravity-fed water pipelines. 

  • Jump Watts sells fixed and mobile charging stations for all types of electric vehicles.

  • Maxwell Vehicles offers power train conversions, maintenance and management for light industrial vehicles to make the switch to electric or hybrid electric vehicles.

  • NeoCharge makes smart splitters that allow for faster home electric vehicle charging without the need for panel upgrades or other home modifications.

  • Noria provides education and services for industrial companies to improve efficiency by enhancing their lubrication processes.

  • Prime Lightworks makes electric propulsion systems for small satellites.

  • SEED sells a farm-in-a-box for folks who want to grow their own produce.

  • SparkCharge is a manufacturer of modular electric vehicle charging units. The company partners with roadside assistance companies to service electric vehicle owners when they run out of range.

  • Substance Power and Mobility is founded by a team of former aerospace and automotive entrepreneurs and executives and is working on developing energy storage hardware.

  • Sustainable Building Council uses modified shipping containers with grid-independent water and power to make affordable housing.

  • TBM Designs makes self-shading window systems using thermo-bimetal to reduce energy costs by cutting the need for air conditioning.

  • Xeal has an electric car charging system that makes chargers money-making assets for apartments and offices.

Cruise hires PG&E board chairman Jeff Bleich as chief legal officer

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, automaker Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, is turning to a heavy hitter to head up its legal team.

The autonomous vehicle technology company has hired Jeff Bleich, board chairman of utility Pacific Gas & Electric, as its chief legal officer. Bleich has a lengthy resume that includes a position as special counsel to former President Barak Obama and as a U.S. ambassador to Australia.

But it’s his legal career that Cruise is tapping into. Bleich was a partner during two stints for a collective 19 years at Los Angeles-based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. After leaving Munger in 2015, Bleich became partner at Dentons and led the firm’s global consulting group. Bleich left Dentons in March 2019 and was named board chair of PG&E a month later. During his three-decade career, Bleich has become a specialist in complex litigation with a particular interest. in cybersecurity, intellectual property and international disputes. He has also been awarded California Lawyer Attorney of the Year among others honors.

“Cruise is leading the way to change lives in a shift that is as important as the move from horses to cars,” Bleich said in a statement. “I am honored and inspired to be joining a team that is unrivaled in their focus on safety, accountability, and trust. That perspective is critical to scaling this extraordinary technology to everyone, everywhere.”

The autonomous vehicle industry is at a crossroads of sorts. The flood of startups that popped up several years ago is starting to recede. A handful of well-capitalized and partnered players have emerged, a group that includes Argo.ai, Aurora, Cruise and Waymo. Cruise has raised upwards of $7.25 billion.

Money is just part of the challenge. Companies hoping to commercialize autonomous vehicles to shuttle people and packages face a maze of legal hurdles, including protecting trade secrets, determining product liability and even squaring off against local, state and federal governments.

Curative received FDA emergency use authorization for its novel COVID-19 tests

By Jonathan Shieber

The diagnostics startup Curative has received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its novel test to determine COVID-19 infection.

The company says that its tests have already been used by the City of Los Angeles since late March and have tested over 53,000 city residents.

Curative’s tests use an oral-fluid sample collected by having the subject cough to produce sputum, which release the virus from deep in the lungs, according to a spokesperson.

Here’s how the letter digitally signed by the FDA’s chief science officer, Denise Hinton, describes the Rucative test:

To use your product, SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid is first extracted, isolated and purified from oropharyngeal (throat) swab, nasopharyngeal swab, nasal swab, and oral fluid specimens. The purified nucleic acid is then reverse transcribed into cDNA followed by PCR amplification and detection using an authorized real-time (RT) PCR instrument. The Curative-Korva SARS-Cov-2 Assay uses all commercially sourced materials or other authorized materials and authorized ancillary reagents commonly used in clinical laboratories as described in the authorized procedures submitted as part of the EUA request. 

Curative, which was first covered by DotLA, is processing the tests in conjunction with Korva Labs, a testing facility associated with UCLA.

These tests hope to get around the supply chain shortages that constrain the number of tests the US can conduct. Currently, the US is still experiencing a shortage of test kits because the supply chain for critical components used in test kits has been disrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the company said.

Curative is working to build alternatives to many of the sample collection and extraction kit components and what it calls more scalable RNA extraction methods that don’t rely on the use of magnetic silica beads.

The company was initially founded in January 2020 to focus on a novel test for sepsis, but pivoted to focus on COVID-19 testing as the disease swept across the globe.

“Our goal is to assemble an orthogonal supply chain to supply coronavirus test kits. Doing so will help us avoid buying materials that would constrain public health and CDC laboratories from ramping up production,” the company said on its website. “We are also working to partner with other operations looking to spin up testing facilities to help them source necessary reagents.”

Curative says that its test is better for two reasons. Its sampling method reduces the risk of exposure for healthcare workers and requires less Personal Protective Equipment and its use of an alternative supply chain means it can scale tests rapidly.

The company can already process roughly 5,000 tests per day and is manufacturing 20,000 test kits over the same period. Test results can be delivered in around 31 hours.

“Broad access to testing is critical to our nation’s response to COVID-19 and with this authorization, we can continue scaling and distributing our test nationwide,” said Fred Turner, the chief executive and founder of Curative Inc. “Our work with the Cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach has helped thousands of people access testing at drive-through facilities and we are fully equipped to expand that access to help thousands more across the country. At the same time, we are continuing to work with the FDA to validate our test for at-home collection, which would expand access even more.”

With the new authorization, the company is going to begin working with additional distributors around the country.

The Curative tests are already used by Los Angeles, Long Beach and through testing organized by LA County and the LA County Fire and Sherrif’s Department. The tests aren’t being sold directly to consumers and must be ordered by a physician, the company said.

Backed by the venture firm DCVC, Curative has already been the subject of some controversy when its investor sent a letter to limited partners indicating they’d be able to get access to the Curative tests upon request.

The firm wrote:

“… please let us know as soon as possible if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are unable to get tested. Through a unique relationship with one of our portfolio companies, we will expedite delivery of a test kit (simple, fast, safe saliva/cheek swab) that should provide results within 1-3 days via return by mail.”

In a subsequent blog post, the partners at DCVC explained their outreach.

With changes in regulations enabling telemedicine across state lines, we wanted to make sure everyone DCVC knows was aware of Carbon’s excellent care and full suite of testing. And yes, that includes people who work at our Limited Partners, who are making difficult decisions for themselves and their families in difficult times like the rest of us.

With Carbon moving at the pace they do with their fast, friendly electronic on-boarding, and with Curative’s testing capability likely ramping to 10,000+ tests a day in the next ten days, the combined health care firepower can indeed “expedite” care for everybody.

Was our language a little boastful? Yes, no excuses. And we’re sorry if folks got the wrong idea. No one is “jumping in line.” We will always strive to point out to our friends and community where they can get quick access to quality care as well as access to other cutting-edge technology in our portfolio.

Accurate testing remains the most important feature of any effort to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and a number of startup companies are working on novel diagnostics.

As Harvard University epidemiologist, William Hanage told Business Insider, “Figuring out what’s actually going on in the community is the key part of dealing with this pandemic.”

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