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Software will reshape our world in the next decade

By Walter Thompson
Alfred Chuang Contributor
Alfred Chuang is general partner at Race Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

By Jake Bright

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has closed a $13.8 million Series A funding round led by Deciens Capital and plans to hire 30 new staff globally.

The raise caps an event filled run for the San Francisco based payments company, founded two years ago by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled.

The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds.

Two years and $22 million in total capital raised later, Chipper Cash offers its mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

“We’re now at over one and a half million users and doing over a $100 million dollars a month in volume,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Chipper Cash does not release audited financial data, but does share internal performance accounting with investors. Deciens Capital and Raptor Group co-led the startup’s Series A financing, with repeat support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures .

Deciens Capital founder Dan Kimmerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the investment and review of Chipper Cash’s payment value and volume metrics.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The company will use its latest round to hire up to 30 people across operations in San Francisco, Lagos, London, Nairobi and New York — according to Serunjogi.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has already brought on a new compliance officer, Lisa Dawson, whose background includes stints with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Citigroup’s anti-money laundering department.

“You know in the world we live in the AML side is very important so it’s an area that we want to invest in from the get go,” said Serunjogi.

He confirmed Dawson’s role aligned with getting Chipper Cash ready to meet regulatory requirements for new markets, but declined to name specific countries.

With the round announcement, Chipper Cash also revealed a corporate social responsibility component to its business. Related to current U.S. events, the startup has formed the Chipper Fund for Black Lives.

“We’ve been huge beneficiaries of the generosity and openness of this country and its entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Serunjogi. “But growing up in Africa, we’ve were able to navigate [the U.S.] without the traumas and baggage our African American friends have gone through living in America.”

The Chipper Fund for Black Lives will give 5 to 10 grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “The plan is to give that to…people or causes who are furthering social justice reforms,” said Serunjogi.

In Africa, Chipper Cash has placed itself in the continent’s major digital payments markets. As a sector, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the most significant fintech market in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

Chipper Cash expanded there in 2019 and faces competition from a number of players, including local payments venture Paga. More recently, outside entrants have jumped into Nigeria’s fintech scene.

In 2019, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay (owned by Opera) and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale first in West Africa and then the broader continent.

Over the next several years, expect to see market events — such as fails, acquisitions, or IPOs — determine how well funded fintech startups, including Chipper Cash, fare in Africa’s fintech arena.

Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

By Jake Bright

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica, Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard more than 250 global retailers, and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the U.K.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the nonprofit’s medical center in Huntersville — where front-line healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approval by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: The capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo, respectively — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya, South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On-demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from mini-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

A 12 year journey ends as Skimlinks is acquired by retail marketing platform Connexity

By Mike Butcher

Connexity, a lead-gen platform for online retailers, has acquired Skimlinks, a UK platform for publishers to make money through affiliate links. Terms of the deal were undisclosed. According to Crunchbase, Skimlinks had raised a total of $25.5M and reached a late a Series C stage of funding, the final round coming from Frog Capital which invested $16M.

An early Seed investor was Sussex Place Ventures way back in 2009. For context, San Francisco-based competitor VigLink, which has raised a total of $27.3 million, remains an independent company.

Sources in the VC industry indicate that the acquisition was a “decent one” that may even have hit three figures, with a possible a large-ish earnout and equity component. Certainly, this was not a ‘firesale,’ by any means.

Although coy on the price of the acquisition, co-founder and President Alicia Navarro said: “Every party, including many staff, has made money out of this deal and is very happy.”

Cofounded in 2007 by Navarro and Joe Stepniewski, Skimlinks rode the wave of online activity as publishers struggled to monetize their ballooning online operations in the mid-teens of the last decade. Affiliate programs allow publishers to get a cut of the revenue when their link drives a purchase on an e-commerce site. Skimlinks makes the process easier through automation.

Originally spinning out of an idea Navarro had about consumer online commerce habits — a startup called Skimbit which resembled Pinterest in some respects — it had scaled to the US by the time I interviewed Navarro in 2012.

In 2013 it took on a growth financing round led by Greycroft Partners.

A couple of years later the platform was driving more than $500 million in e-commerce sales for publishers.

By 2016 editorial content from its publisher network of 1.5M domains had driven nearly $1 billion of ecommerce transactions and the company said it was on a path to profitability.

In 2018 Navarro stepped away from the CEO position, taking on the role of President, and handed the reigns to Sebastien Blanc, previously Chief Revenue Officer.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Navarro said the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated the growth of the business as more publishers in its network monetized the massively increased online traffic, brought about by global lockdown policies.

Bill Glass, CEO of Connexity said in a statement: “Our solutions help retailers acquire new customers and sales while enabling ecommerce-oriented publishers to monetize engaged shopping audiences. Combining the companies creates more scale on both sides of the marketplace.”

Sebastien Blanc, CEO of Skimlinks said: “By marrying Connexity’s CPC search budgets with the broad CPA affiliate monetization coverage of Skimlinks, we provide best-in-class monetization for publishers. Our combined scale will fortify Connexity as a critically important customer acquisition channel for retailers and will strengthen publisher monetization solutions.”

And what of the founders? Stepniewski has taken on a senior role with Facebook UK. Navarro is now working on a fresh startup she bills as “AirBnB-meets-Calm as a service” allowing founders or executives to unplug and get into what is known as ‘Deep Work’.

She is now in the process of early-stage fundraising, so her entrepreneurial journey is clearly going to continue.

Omidyar-backed Spero Ventures invests in Mexico City’s Mati, a startup pitching ID-verification

By Jonathan Shieber

Spero Ventures, the venture capital firm backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has gone to Mexico City for its latest investment, backing the identity verification technology developer Mati.

Launched in San Francisco, the two co-founders Filip Victor and Amaury Soviche, decided to relocate to Mexico because of its proximity to big, untapped markets in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.

“After developing the technology in San Francisco, we chose to start commercially in Latin America. It has been the perfect petri dish for us: the markets here, especially in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, are very exciting. These countries have the highest payments fraud rates in the world, which makes their identity issues the most interesting,” said Victor in a statement.

The rise of a new generation of fintech startup across Latin America creates a unique opportunity for Mati in a number of markets — and so does a new generation of financial services regulations, the company said. “We view the fintech regulations sweeping across LatAm as an opportunity to help a lot of promising fintechs and marketplaces get to the next level”, Victor said.

Already working across three countries, with operations in Mexico City, St. Petersburg, and San Francisco, Mati is an example of the global scope that even very early stage companies can now achieve.

Identity verification is at the core of much of the modern gig economy and much of the social networking defining life during a pandemic.

The company said it will use the capital investment — it would not disclose the amount of money it raised — to continue product development and expand its geographic footprint.

The scope of the identity verification problem is what brought Spero to the table to discuss an investment, according to a statement from Shripriya Mahesh, the founding partner at Spero.

“For us, identity is foundational to scaling the vast array of gig economy, fintech, social, and commerce platforms that represent our collective future of work,” Mahesh said. “The ability to have safe and trusted interactions at an unprecedented scale, especially with people in places where national identity infrastructure is limited, will create opportunities and global connections we can’t yet even forecast.”

Work collaboration unicorn Notion is blocked in China [Update: It’s back]

By Rita Liao

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation, said on Twitter Monday that its service was blocked in China.

The productivity app has attracted waves of startups and tech workers around the world — including those in China — to adopt its all-in-one platform that blends notes, wikis, to-dos, and team collaboration. The seven-year-old San Francisco-based app is widely seen as a serious rival to Evernote, which started out in 2004.

Notion said it was “monitoring the situation and will continue to post updates,” but the timing of the ban noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.y

Update: On Tuesday — about 24 hours after its notice of the restriction — Notion confirmed with TechCrunch that it had been unblocked in most regions across the country and most of its users can still access their data, without elaborating on what was done to bring its service back. Tests by website performance tool Chinaz also showed that the tool was accessible in most provinces as of Tuesday morning.

For Notion and other apps that have entered the public eye in China but remained beyond the arm of local laws, a looming crackdown is almost certain. The country’s cybersecurity watchdog could find Notion’s free flow of note-sharing problematic. Some users have even conveniently turned the tool’s friendly desktop version into personal websites. If Notion were to keep its China presence, it would have to bow to the same set of regulations that rule all content creation platforms in China.

Its predecessor Evernote, for example, established a Chinese joint venture in 2018 and released a local edition under the brand Yinxiang Biji, which comes with compromised features and stores user data within China.

Rivalry in work collaboration

Just before its ban in China, Notion surged on May 21 to become the most-downloaded productivity app in the domestic Android stores, according to third-party data from App Annie. The sudden rise followed on the heel of its decision to make its core feature free for individual users. It also appears to be linked to its Chinese copycat Hanzhou (寒舟), which stirred up controversy within the developer community over its striking resemblance to Notion.

In an apologetic post published on May 22, Xu Haihao, the brain behind Hanzhou and a former employee of ByteDance-backed document collaboration app Shimo, admitted to “developing the project based on Notion.”

“We are wrong from the beginning,” wrote Xu. “But I intended to offend nobody. My intention was to learn from [Notion’s] technology.” As a resolution, the developer said he would suspend Hanzou’s development and user registration.

Some of the largest tech firms in China are gunning for the workplace productivity industry, which received a recent boost during the coronavirus crisis. Alibaba’s Dingtalk claimed last August that more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million individual users had registered on its platform. By comparison, Tencent’s WeChat Work said it had logged more than 2.5 million enterprises and some 60 million active users by December.

The article was updated on May 26, 2020 to reflect that Notion was unblocked in most of China.

The Station: Hertz files for bankruptcy, hailing “self-driving” scooters, Memorial Day travel

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 Saturday in your inbox.

Hi and welcome back to The Station. Memorial Day is this coming Monday, a holiday meant to honor military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Over the years, it has evolved for many Americans who use the three-day weekend to fire up the grill, go camping, head to the beach, local amusement park or take a road trip. It’s become the unofficial kickoff to the summer season — even though we still have more than three weeks of spring.

Every year around this time, AAA provides an estimate for travel over the weekend. For the first time in 20 years, AAA said it would not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.

The travel forecast often reflects the state of the economy or at least certain aspects of it. For instance, Memorial Day 2009 holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers. Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend, the second-highest travel volume on record since 2000, when the organization began tracking this data.

I will put my prognosticator hat on for a moment knowing I might very well be wrong (I’m sure ya’ll will remind me later). I expect this weekend to be a low travel holiday, but I fully anticipate this summer will mark the return of the road trip. And that’s not just my forecast for the U.S. I expect Europeans will stick closer to home and opt for road and possibly train travel over long haul flights for their summer holidays. That has all kinds of implications, positive and negative. And it’s why I’m going to spend some time in the coming weeks driving a variety of new SUV models in search of road trip worthy vehicles.

This past week I drove the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL (premium trim), a more smaller and approachable version of the massive three-row Atlas. I will share a few thoughts about it next week. After that, I will be driving the 2020 Land Cruiser standard trim. Have a vehicle suggestion? Reach out and I’ll try to put it in my queue.

Reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Shall we get down to it? Vamos.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Micromobility had some good action this week so let’s dive on in. Here in San Francisco, Bird’s Scoot redeployed 300 electric kick scooters. By Memorial Day weekend, Scoot will have 500 electric scooters available. Additionally, Scoot expanded its scooter service area to serve more parts of San Francisco.

Over in Atlanta, GoX and Tortoise teamed up to deploy teleoperated electric scooters. In Peachtree Corners, GoX riders can hail a scooter equipped with tech from Tortoise. As Keaks, aka Kirsten Korosec, explained earlier this week, riders can request a scooter to come to them and once they’re done, the scooter will drive itself back to a parking spot.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Tier brought integrated helmets to its electric scooters. The foldable helmets fit inside a box attached to the scooter below the handlebars. This month, Tier plans to deploy 200 scooters equipped with helmets in Paris and Berlin. Over the summer, Tier will deploy an additional 5,000 helmet-equipped scooters. Additionally, given concerns about COVID-19, Tier is experimenting with an antibacterial, self-disinfecting handlebar technology from Protexus. Tier is testing these handlebars in Paris and Bordeaux.

Also, don’t miss my analysis of why micromobility may come back stronger after the pandemic.

Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Vroom, the online used car marketplace that has raised some $700 million since 2013, filed for an IPO this week. (Yes, IPOs qualify as deals in my book). It plans to trade on the Nasdaq under VRM with Goldman Sachs as lead underwriter.

Vroom is an interesting company that I’ve been writing about for years now. And there have been times that I wondered if it would fold altogether. The company managed to keep raising funds though, most recently $254 million in December 2019 in a Series H round that valued the company at around $1.5 billion.

A look at the S-1 shows modest growth, rising losses and slim gross margins. Eck!

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Vroom’s revenue grew 39.3% in 2019 compared to 2018. During that same period, its gross margin fell from 7.1% to 4.9%. The company’s net losses as a percent of revenue rose from 10% in 2018 to 12% in 2019. (That doesn’t include costs relating to “accretion of redeemable convertible preferred stock.” By counting the non-cash cost, add $13 million to Vroom’s 2018 net loss and $132.8 million to its 2019 figure.)
  • In the first quarter of 2020, Vroom generated revenue of $375.8 million, leading to gross profit of $18.4 million, or about 4.9% of revenue. It also reported a net loss of $41.1 million in the first quarter, putting it on a run-rate to lose even more money in 2020 than it did in 2019.

TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm takes a look under Vroom’s hood and digs into why the company is heading to the public markets during this volatile time. Check it out.

Other deals:

Missfresh, a Chinese grocery delivery company backed by Tencent, is closing in on $500 million in new funding.

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals. The Series A funding round was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures.

Fly Now Pay Later, a London-based fintech startup focused on travel, raised £5 million in Series A equity funding and another £30 million in debt funding.

French startup Angell has signed a wide-ranging partnership with SEB, the French industrial company behind All-Clad, Krups, Moulinex, Rowenta, Tefal and others. As part of the deal, SEB will manufacture Angell’s electric bikes in a factory near Dijon, France. SEB’s investment arm, SEB Alliance, is also investing in Angell. The terms of the deal are undisclosed, but Angell says it plans to raise between $7.6 and $21.7 million with a group of investors that include SEB.

Layoffs, business disruptions and people

Signage is displayed at the Hertz Global Holdings Inc. rental counter at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Hertz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, a move we’ve been anticipating for awhile now. The bankruptcy protection stems from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s why.

Once business trips and other travel was halted, Hertz was suddenly sitting on an unused asset — lots and lots of cars. It wasn’t just that the revenue spigot was turned off. Used car prices have dropped, further devaluing its fleet.

The company said that it has more than $1 billion in cash on hand, which it will use to keep the business operating through the bankruptcy process. Hertz also said its principal international operating regions, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand are not included in the U.S. Chapter 11 proceedings, nor are franchised locations.

Other layoffs:

Indian ride-hailing firm Ola has seen revenue drop by 95% in the last two months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for its 1.3 billion citizens in late March. You can guess what has happened as a result. Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal said in an internal email the company is cutting 1,400 jobs in India, or 35% of its workforce in the home market.

India’s top food delivery startup Swiggy is cutting 1,100 jobs and scaling down some adjacent businesses as it looks to reduce costs to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s something on the “new” job front

There’s been a lot of attention on autonomous delivery robots. These companies will most certainly struggle to become profitable. On-demand delivery is a tricky business. But COVID-19 might have inadvertently expanded the labor pool for these companies.

On-demand delivery startup Postmates has seen an increase in demand for its autonomous delivery robots known as Serve, which operate in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company uses teleoperators, humans who remotely monitor and guide the autonomous robots. COVID-19 prompted Postmates to set up teleoperations centers within each employee’s home. Postmates sees potential to reach a new group of workers.

Tortoise, which we mentioned earlier in Micromobbin’, sees the same potential, according to its founder and CEO Dmitry Shevelenko.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear (and see) things. But we’re not selfish. We share!

For those not familiar with “a little bird,” this is a periodic section that shares insider tips that have been vetted. This week comes out of the super-hyped world of on-demand delivery. It’s a business that might be seeing a lot of demand. But demand doesn’t always square with profitability.

Take Postmates for example. The company has raised about $900 million to date, including a $225 million round announced in October that valued the company at about $2.5 billion. But now it seems that common shares are trading at a 45% discount on the secondary market, according to our sources.

Early investors do take money off the table from time to time. But it can also indicate other troubles worth watching out for. Postmates filed confidential IPO paperwork in February 2019, but those plans have been delayed. The company is also fighting for market share against giants like Doordash. A Uber-Grubhub merger would put it even with DoorDash.

That leaves Postmates in a distant fourth. Dan Primack over at Axios noted “multiple sources” have told him the company is seeking raise around $100 million in new private-market funding.

Other notable bits

Here are a few other items that caught my eye …

Amazon is joining India’s online food delivery market just as top local players Swiggy and Zomato reduce their workforce to steer through the coronavirus pandemic and months after Uber Eats’ exit from the nation.

GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system, Super Cruise, that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.

Cake, the Stockholm-based mobility startup, debuted the Kalk OR, a 150-pound, battery-powered two-wheeler engineered for agile off-road riding and available in a street-legal version.

Nauto has launched a new feature in its driver behavior learning platform that is designed to detect imminent collisions to help reduce rear-end accidents. It works by taking in driver behavior data, vehicle movement, traffic elements, and contextual data to help predict and prevent collisions.

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday. The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company is raising the price of its “Full Self-Driving” package of its Autopilot driver assistance package by around $1,000 on July 1. This has happened before and it will, I promise happen again. The Verge has a good breakdown of why. I, of course, care about the financial reasons. Right now, Tesla can only count about half of the revenue it generates from FSD. The other half is deferred revenue — money that Tesla can recognize on its balance sheet at a later date.

Wunder Mobility, the Hamburg-based startup that provides a range of mobility services, from carpooling to electric scooter rentals, announced the launch of Wunder Vehicles and a business-to-business partnership with Chinese EV manufacturer Yadea. Wunder Vehicles is a service that gives customers a toolkit of sorts to launch a fleet-sharing company. The company provides software, a marketing plan, data, financing options and the electric vehicles, which will come from Yadea.

Rad Power Bikes unveiled the newest iteration of its electric cargo bike. The RadWagon 4 has been fully redesigned from the ground up. Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan recently described this on Twitter as the possible F-150 of micromobility. We hope to test it soon.

Image Credits: Rad Power Bikes

Scale AI releases free lidar data set to power self-driving car development

By Kirsten Korosec

High-quality data is the fuel that powers AI algorithms. Without a continual flow of labeled data, bottlenecks can occur and the algorithm will slowly get worse and add risk to the system.

It’s why labeled data is so critical for companies like Zoox, Cruise and Waymo, which use it to train machine learning models to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles. That need is what led to the creation of Scale AI, a startup that uses software and people to process and label image, lidar and map data for companies building machine learning algorithms. Companies working on autonomous vehicle technology make up a large swath of Scale’s customer base, although its platform is also used by Airbnb, Pinterest and OpenAI, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, or even halted, that flow of data as AV companies suspended testing on public roads — the means of collecting billions of images. Scale is hoping to turn the tap back on, and for free.

The company, in collaboration with lidar manufacturer Hesai, launched this week an open-source data set called PandaSet that can be used for training machine learning models for autonomous driving. The data set, which is free and licensed for academic and commercial use, includes data collected using Hesai’s forward-facing PandarGT lidar with image-like resolution, as well as its mechanical spinning lidar known as Pandar64. The data was collected while driving urban areas in San Francisco and Silicon Valley before officials issued stay-at-home orders in the area, according to the company.

“AI and machine learning are incredible technologies with an incredible potential for impact, but also a huge pain in the ass,” Scale CEO and co-founder Alexandr Wang told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “Machine learning is definitely a garbage in, garbage out kind of framework — you really need high-quality data to be able to power these algorithms. It’s why we built Scale and it’s also why we’re using this data set today to help drive forward the industry with an open-source perspective.”

The goal with this lidar data set was to give free access to a dense and content-rich data set, which Wang said was achieved by using two kinds of lidars in complex urban environments filled with cars, bikes, traffic lights and pedestrians.

“The Zoox and the Cruises of the world will often talk about how battle-tested their systems are in these dense urban environments,” Wang said. “We wanted to really expose that to the whole community.”

Lidar - Scale AI PandaSet flyover GIF

Image Credits: Scale AI

The data set includes more than 48,000 camera images and 16,000 lidar sweeps — more than 100 scenes of 8s each, according to the company. It also includes 28 annotation classes for each scene and 37 semantic segmentation labels for most scenes. Traditional cuboid labeling, those little boxes placed around a bike or car, for instance, can’t adequately identify all of the lidar data. So, Scale uses a point cloud segmentation tool to precisely annotate complex objects like rain.

Open sourcing AV data isn’t entirely new. Last year, Aptiv and Scale released nuScenes, a large-scale data set from an autonomous vehicle sensor suite. Argo AI, Cruise and Waymo were among a number of AV companies that have also released data to researchers. Argo AI released curated data along with high-definition maps, while Cruise shared a data visualization tool it created called Webviz that takes raw data collected from all the sensors on a robot and turns that binary code into visuals.

Scale’s efforts are a bit different; for instance, Wang said the license to use this data set doesn’t have any restrictions.

“There’s a big need right now and a continual need for high-quality labeled data,” Wang said. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles overcome when building self-driving systems. We want to democratize access to this data, especially at a time when a lot of the self-driving companies can’t collect it.”

That doesn’t mean Scale is going to suddenly give away all of its data. It is, after all a for-profit enterprise. But it’s already considering collecting and open sourcing fresher data later this year.

With an ex-Uber exec as its new CEO, digital mental health service Mindstrong raises $100 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Daniel Graf has had a long career in the tech industry. From founding his own startup in the mid-2000s to working at Google, then Twitter, and finally Uber, the tech business has made him extremely wealthy.

But after leaving Uber, he wasn’t necessarily interested in working at another business… At least, not until he spent an afternoon in the spring of 2019 with an old friend, General Catalyst managing director Hemant Taneja, walking in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood and hearing Taneja talk about a new startup called Mindstrong.

Taneja told Graf that by the fall of that year, he’d be working at Mindstrong… and Taneja was right.

“I was intrigued by healthtech previously,” said Graf.  “The problem always was…and  it sounds a little too money oriented.. but if there’s no clear visibility around who pays who in a startup, the startup isn’t going to work,” and that was always his issue with healthcare businesses. 

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: Daniel Graf accepts a Webby award for Google Maps for Iphone at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

With Mindstrong, which announced today that it has raised $100 million in new financing, the issue of who pays is clear.

So Graf joined the company in November as chief executive, taking over from Paul Dagum, who remains with Mindstrong as its chief scientific officer.

“Daniel joined the company as it was moving from pure R&D into being something commercially available,” said Taneja, in an email. “In healthcare, it’s increasingly important to understand how to build for the consumer and that’s where Daniel’s experience and background comes in. Paul remains a core part of the team because none of this happens without the science.”

The company, which has developed a digital platform for providing therapy to patients with severe mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorders, is looking to tackle a problem that costs the American healthcare system $20 billion per month, Graf said.

Unlike companies like Headspace and Calm that have focused on the mental wellness market for the mass consumer, Mindstrong is focused on people with severe mental health conditions, said Graf. That means people who are either bipolar, schizophrenic or have major depressive disorder.

It’s a much larger population than most Americans think and they face a critical problem in their ability to receive adequate care, Graf said.

“1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness, and the pandemic is making these numbers worse. Meanwhile, more than 60% of US counties don’t have a single practicing psychiatrist,” said Joe Lonsdale, the founder of 8VC, and investor in the latest Mindstrong Health round, in a statement.  

Dagum, Mindstrong Health’s founder has been working on the issue of how to provide better access and monitor for indications of potential episodes of distress since 2013. The company’s technology provides a range of monitoring and measurement tools using digital biomarkers that are currently being validated through clinical trials, according to Graf.

“We’re passively measuring the usage of the phone and the timing of the keyboard strokes to measure how [a patient] is doing,” Graf said. These smartphone interactions can provide data around mental acuity and emotional valence, according to Graf — and can provide signs that someone might be having problems.

The company also provides access to therapists via phone and video consultations or text-based asynchronous communications, based on user preference.

“Think of us more as a virtual hospital… our care pathways are super complex for this population,” said Graf. “We’re not aware of other startups working with this population. These folks, the best you get right now is the county mental health.”

Mindstrong’s Series C raise included participation from new and existing investors, including General Catalyst, ARCH Ventures, Optum Ventures, Foresite Capital, 8VC, What If Ventures and Bezos Expeditions, along with other, undisclosed investors.  

And while mental health is the company’s current focus, the platform for care delivery that the company is building has broader implications for the industry, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, according to General Catalyst managing director, Taneja.

“I expect that we’ll see discoveries in biomarker tech like Mindstrong’s that could be applied horizontally across almost any area of healthcare,” Taneja said in an email. “Because healthcare is so broad and varied, going vertical like Mindstrong is makes a lot of sense. There’s opportunity to become a successful and very impactful company by staying narrowly focused and solving some really hard problems for even a smaller part of the overall population.”

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing raises $10M to scale its software for pilotless flights

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals.

The company announced Wednesday its Series A funding round, which was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures. Xwing has already hired several key executives with that fresh injection of capital, including Terrafugia’s former co-founder and COO Anna Dietrich and Ed Lim, a Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences veteran who more recently led guidance navigation and control for Uber’s autonomous car division as well as Zipline’s AV delivery drone.

Xwing is different from some of the other autonomous aviations startups that have popped up in recent years. The startup isn’t building autonomous helicopters and planes. Instead, it’s focused on the software stack that will enable pilotless flight of small passenger aircraft.

Xwing is also aircraft agnostic. The company’s engineers are focused on the key functions of autonomous flight, such as sensing, reasoning and control. The software stack, which is designed to work across different kinds of aircraft, is integrated into existing aerospace systems. That strategy of retrofitting existing aircraft will speed up deployment, while maintaining safety and keeping costs in check, according to founder and CEO Marc Piette. It also is a straighter path towards regulatory approval.

“It’s more effective for us to not constrain ourselves to a given vehicle and to develop technology that is considered more of an enabler— from a marketing perspective — than going full stack, Piette said when asked if Xwing would ever try to build an autonomous aircraft from the groundup.

Since Xwing’s last funding round — $4 million in summer 2018 — the company has been developing its tech and working with the FAA to receive flight certification for pilotless aircraft. Once approved, the company will seek to commercialize pilotless flights.

The startup hasn’t named any commercial partners yet. And Piette hasn’t provided details about its commercial strategy either, although he said to expect more announcements this year.

Xwing is already working with Bell for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS in the NAS) program, an initiative meant to mature the key remaining technologies that are needed to integrate unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. The program plans to hold demonstration flights this summer.

Color receives FDA authorization for COVID-19 test tech that speeds up results

By Darrell Etherington

Color has received an Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use of a testing method for detecting COVID-19 that provides accuracy it says is on par with currently approved best-in-class methods, but that can also produce results around 50 percent faster and with different supply requirements. That means more tests, done more quickly, and without the same supply chain bottlenecks – and Color is making its protocol for the tests available publicly for other labs.

In March, Color announced its intent to launch a high-throughput COVID-19 testing lab, and LAMP provides a big part of improving turnaround time since many parts of the testing process can be automated – which isn’t possible with the existing RT-PCR tests. Both these tests are molecular, meaning they detect presence of the actual virus int eh body, and LAMP has been used previously as a technique for testing for Zika and dengue fever.

In addition to making the LAMP testing protocol it developed freely available to other labs for their own implementation, Color is offering a protocol it designed based on available data for population-based screening and regular testing in order to facilitate back-to-work efforts, while also keeping workforces as safe as possible. The protocol details two phases, including one where there hasn’t been any confirmed case in a workplace, but alert remains high, and a second where there’s been a number of confirmed cases and containment is necessary.

Color has ben working with the city of San Francisco on testing protocol for its essential and frontline workforce, and it has also been working with MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard and Weill Cornell Medicine in development of its tech. These combined efforts put it in a good position to share its learnings with others as more in the U.S. seek to stage re-openings while continuing to contain the spread of the virus.

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.

3 views on the future of work, coffee shops and neighborhoods in a post-pandemic world

By Devin Coldewey

The novel coronavirus pandemic has disordered traditional notions of work, travel, socializing and the way we collaborate with colleagues.

It seems obvious that the future of work must evolve, given what we’re experiencing, but what will that future look like? Which changes are here to stay and which ones will revert the moment offices reopen?

TechCrunch has been a WFH employer for essentially its entire existence. Our staff is distributed across major startup hubs like SF and NYC, but we also have writers in smaller cities around the world, so we compiled reflections and thoughts from three of them about how remote work has changed our lifestyles and what we predict to see in the next few years, post-COVID 19.

Devin Coldewey talks about what’s going to change with coffee shops and co-working spaces, Alex Wilhelm discusses the future of the home office setup and Danny Crichton talks about the revitalization of urban and semi-urban neighborhoods.

Devin Coldewey on coffee shops and more flexible work arrangements

I’ve worked from home for over a decade and part of what makes it so lovely is the ability to do my work from a nearby cafe, or even a restaurant or bar. I’m lucky in that my part of the city is famously packed with excellent coffee shops, but in the time I’ve lived here I’ve seen them grow increasingly packed with — well, people like me. Some days they seem more like co-working spaces than cafes — and this is something business owners and neighborhoods are going to need to acknowledge one way or the other.

Most urban and suburban American communities were formed around the convention of commuting, which means fewer work-related resources where people live. Instead, we have all the restaurants, bodegas, thrift stores and all the other things that cater to people who aren’t working.

Runa Capital closes Fund III at $157M, with an added focus on quantum computing

By Mike Butcher

VC fund Runa Capital was launched with $135 million in 2010, and is perhaps best known for its investment into NGINX, which powers many web sites today. In more recent years it has participated or led investments into startups such as Zipdrug ($10.8 million); Rollbar this year ($11 million); and Monedo (for €20 million).

HQ’d in San Francisco, it has now completed the final closing on its $157 million Runa Capital Fund III, which, they say, exceeded its original target of $135 million.

The firm typically invests between $1 million and $10 million in early-stage companies, predominantly Series A rounds, and has a strong interest in cloud infrastructure, open-source software, AI and machine intelligence and B2B SaaS, in markets such as finance, education and healthcare.

Dmitry Chikhachev, co-founder and managing partner of Runa Capital, said in a statement: “We are excited to see many of our portfolio companies’ founders investing in Runa Capital III, along with tech-savvy LPs from all parts of the world, who supported us in all of our funds from day one… We invested in deep tech long before it became the mainstream for venture capital, betting on Nginx in 2011, Wallarm and ID Quantique in 2013, and MariaDB in 2014.”

Going forward the firm says it aims to concentrate much of its firepower in the realm of machine learning and quantum computing.

In addition, Jinal Jhaveri, ex-CEO & founder of SchoolMint, a former portfolio company of Runa Capital which was acquired by Hero K12, has joined the firm as a venture partner.

Runa operates out of its HQ in Palo Alto to its offices throughout Europe. Its newest office opened in Berlin in early 2020, given Runa Capital’s growing German portfolio. German investments have included Berlin-based Smava and Mambu, as well as the recently added Monedo (formerly Kreditech), Vehiculum and N8N (a co-investment with Sequoia Capital) . Other investments made from the third fund include Rollbar, Reelgood, Forest Admin, Uploadcare and Oxygen.

N8N and three other startups were funded through Runa Capital’s recently established seed program that focuses on smaller investments up to $100,000.

Alphabet’s Loon partners with AT&T to extend coverage globally in case of disasters

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company focused on providing connectivity via high-altitude, stratosphere skimming balloons that can act as on-demand, deployable cell towers, has signed a new agreement with AT&T. This partnership will help Loon ensure it’s in a much better position to address any potential need for disaster response cellular network coverage, thanks to AT&T and it global network partners.

The main benefit of the tie-up is that Loon’s system will now be fully integrated with AT&T, and this will also extend to any third-party mobile service provider that is already partnered with the U.S. carrier in order to provide international roaming for its network. That’s a key ingredient because the nature of disaster preparedness means you can’t really be sure when or where service will be needed, so the extended AT&T network provides a good swath of global coverage ready to be turned on in relatively short notice.

This is actually one of the most time-consuming elements of the entire process of setting up an emergency response Loon deployment, and can take “weeks or months” according to the company. Perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has worked with carriers, there’s a lot of discussion and negotiation involved, which in many ways is more difficult than launching balloons to the stratosphere and navigating them thousands of miles with sensitive antenna attached.

The new partnership means that Loon should have over 200 global roaming partners ready to go in case of need, thanks to AT&T’s existing agreements. Loon notes that this won’t mean they don’t still work with local operators directly in order to improve and expedite response, and it still needs to work with local regulators and ensure that there is ground infrastructure present that can work with its equipment.

Loon is also tackling those potential hurdles, however, securing agreements with various regulatory bodies and governments for fly-over permission (it has signed over 50 thus far), and it’s also placing ground infrastructure where it’s likely to be needed most – like in the Caribbean, where it’s in the process of installing ground stations in anticipation of the forthcoming hurricane season for this year.

Loon previously worked with AT&T during its disaster response efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, so the two have a history of working collaboratively in times of need.

Meanwhile, Loon is also readying its first commercial service deployment in Kenya, which will be a big milestone in terms of its broader goals of providing reliable service to hard-to-reach areas around the world.

Grab your Disrupt Digital Pro Pass today for Disrupt SF 2020

By Emma Comeau

We’ve always wanted to make the Disrupt SF (September 14-16) experience available to people who can’t travel to San Francisco. Nothing like a global pandemic to shift priorities and spur innovation. We’ve reserved the Moscone Center for September 14-16, but if you can’t attend in person — for any reason — why not join us online with a Disrupt Digital Pass?

The Digital Pass offers unprecedented, interactive online access to a range of Disrupt SF content. As always, we offer different pricing tiers to keep Disrupt accessible to as many people as possible. You have your choice of two digital ways to play.

Looking for the most immersive, interactive Disrupt experience and the opportunity to engage with the global TechCrunch community? We’ve got you covered — and it won’t break the bank.

The Disrupt Digital Pro Pass is just $245 for a limited time and includes access to content from all stages via live-stream and videos-on-demand so you can watch on your own schedule. You’ll have live-stream and VOD access to:

The Extra Crunch Stage — where top experts (think growth gurus, investors, legal eagles and leading technologists) join TechCrunch editors to discuss the crucial topics founders need to succeed

The Q&A Stage submit questions during live Q&A sessions with speakers who have appeared with TechCrunch editors on the Disrupt and Extra Crunch stages.

The Showcase Stage — watch as top founders exhibiting in Startup Alley step on stage, pitch their products and field questions from TechCrunch editors.

Startup Alley — peruse and interact virtually with hundreds of exhibiting startups, view product demos and schedule virtual one-on-one meetings with founders.

Disrupt wouldn’t be Disrupt without world-class networking, and that still holds true in 2020. Experience easy, effective networking from home with CrunchMatch. This AI-driven networking tool helps you find like-minded attendees, request meetings and connect via a private video conference. It’s the easiest way to network with the people who can help you move forward.

Engage with sponsors. They’re a smart bunch of folks, and Digital Pro pass holders will have plenty of opportunity to schedule one-on-one meetings with reps or watch sponsor presentations.

For those with tighter budgets, we created the free Disrupt Digital Pass. This pass provides access to the Disrupt Stage live stream and access to all the Disrupt Stage content via video on demand (VOD).

What happens on the Disrupt Stage? TechCrunch editors interview the biggest names in tech. Disrupt always features an amazing lineup of speakers with top founders, investors and experts from across the startup ecosystem. Case in point: Don’t miss the conversation with Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, who also knows a thing or two about investing in software, fintech, agriculture and energy.

Disrupt SF 2020 takes place on September 14-16, and even if you can’t join us in person, you can still experience all the opportunities Disrupt offers. Get your Disrupt Digital Pass today, and keep your startup moving forward.

TechCrunch is mindful of the COVID-19 issue and its impact on live events. You can follow updates here.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt San Francisco 2020? Contact the sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

The Station: Audi punts on Level 3, Lyft layoffs and Nio’s $1 billion deal

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 Saturday in your inbox.

Hi readers. Welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

While COVID-related stay-at-home orders have been extended in places like the San Francisco Bay area, officials in other counties and states in the U.S. have decided to open up for business. The rest of us are watching and waiting to see how these two experiments play out.

These opposing approaches have managed to create even more tension in the United States. If politics didn’t divide us before, how and when to open amid a health pandemic is proving to be an effective wedge.

The “how” is as important, or even more so, than the “when.” What will life and business look like? Wuhan, China, a transportation and manufacturing metropolis of 11 million people and where COVID-19 started, offers a view into one approach. (The photo below shows a worker disinfecting a bus in Wuhan on April 30.)

China-wuhan-bus-covid

A staff member sprays disinfectant on a bus at a long-distance bus station in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 30, 2020, ahead of the Labor Day holiday which started May 1.

When those stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, returning to work won’t be quick or easy. Wuhan was placed on lockdown January 23. Wuhan officials eased outgoing travel restrictions April 8. While the strictest component of that lockdown has been lifted, many businesses remain closed. Didi didn’t reopen its ride-hailing services in the city until April 30.

In short, it’s going to be complex. Ford’s back-to-work playbook is a case in point. The plan includes a number of daily measures such as online health self-certifications completed before work every day, face masks and no-touch temperature scans upon arrival. But that’s just a sliver of what it will take. Check out their complete playbook.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty folks, shall we dig in? Vamos. 

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility. Over at Lyft, the company laid off 982 employees and furloughed 288 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyft also permanently ceased scooter operations in Oakland, San Jose and Austin.

“We’re focusing our resources where we can have the biggest impact and best serve cities and riders,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to invest in our bike and scooter business, but have made the tough decision to shift resources away from three scooter markets and toward opportunities where we are set up for longer-term success.”

At Lime, the startup let go 13% of its staff while the very next day relaunching its electric scooters in Baltimore and Ogden, Utah.

“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing,” Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote in a note to employees.

Just one day after those layoffs, the company relaunched scooters in Baltimore to help support essential medical workers as well as in Ogden.

Uber is weighing its own layoffs. The Information reported that the company could cut up to 20% of its staff. That translates to more than 5,000 jobs. Those cuts could be announced in stages over the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Thuan Pham, who was hired as Uber’s chief technology officer by former CEO Travis Kalanick back in 2013, is leaving the company in three weeks, the ride-share giant revealed in an SEC filing.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.

The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.

Why deal of the week? The deal alleviates some concerns about Nio’s liquidity. It also marks the latest Chinese EV startup to turn to the state as private capital has shrunk.

There is no free lunch, however. The deal itself is complex and involves some asset shuffling. Nio is transferring its core businesses in China into a new company called Nio China. The investors will get a 24.1% stake in Nio China. The shareholding structure of the parent company is unchanged.

Other deals announced this week are below. Keep in mind that just because a deal is announced that doesn’t mean it closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising rounds often close weeks and even months before they’re announced.

Otonomo, an automotive data services startup based in Israel, raised $46 million in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The company has a software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

KlearNow, a startup that has built a software platform to automate the customs clearance process, raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by GreatPoint Ventures, with additional participation from Autotech Ventures, Argean Capital and Monta Vista Capital. Ashok Krishnamurthi, managing partner at GreatPoint Ventures, will join KlearNow’s board. Daniel Hoffer from Autotech Ventures is joining as a board observer.

Skycell, a Switzerland-based startup that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport pharmaceuticals has raised $62 million.

A merger between U.K.’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com has been approved by regulators. The merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

Cheetah, a San Francisco-based startup that provided a wholesale delivery service and has pivoted to selling to consumers during COVID-19, raised $36 million in Series B funding.

Innovation of the week

Computer vision company Eyesight Technologies has tweaked its driver monitoring system so it can detect driver distraction and drowsiness even while wearing a medical face mask.

This “innovation of the week” gets back to my opening remarks about “how” we get back to work. Face masks will likely be a part of our world for some time.

Driver monitoring systems, which are increasingly being used by commercial fleets, are trained to detect and monitor facial features of the driver. The system will take in data points like head pose, mouth, eyes and eyelids and use the gathered visual data to detect signs of drowsiness and distraction. If the sensor can’t read one or more of these features the system could fail to detect a drowsy truck driver or inattentive transit worker.

Driver Monitoring with mask

Eyesight Technologies

Eyesight Technologies says that its computer vision and AI algorithms have been trained to detect distraction and drowsiness even if a driver is wearing a mask and glasses.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Eyesight Technologies CEO David Tolub said. “Without a concrete end date to the current situation, wearing medical masks may be a reality for the foreseeable future. Eyesight Technologies is forging ahead and adapting to provide a reliable solution to help guarantee safety even under less than ideal circumstances.”

Audi punts on Level 3

Audi has scrapped plans to roll out a Level 3 automated driving system in its A8 flagship sedan. Automotive News Europe broke the story.

The feature, which is branded Traffic Jam Pilot, theoretically allows the vehicle to operate on its own without the human driver keeping their eyes on the road. But it’s never been commercially deployed.

Traffic Jam Pilot was supposed to be in the latest-generation A8 that debuted in 2017. It’s now 2020. What happened? Regulations, or lack of them, have been the primary scapegoat. But it’s not quite the whole story.

TechCrunch reached out to Audi to dig into why? In short, the company told us, that it’s complicated. The lack of a legal framework has raised concerns about liability. To further complicate the problem, the A8 is now progressing through its generational life cycle. And Audi was faced with continuing to pour money into the feature to adapt it without promise of framework progressing.

Here’s a few tidbits from the folks at Audi.

On the legal framework:

As of now, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving. Consistently it is not possible to homologate such function anywhere in the world in a series production car. It is still very challenging to plan the exact introduction scenarios for level 3 systems, as we continuously moving in an intensive interplay between the findings from ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and approval authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving.

On development costs:

As these clarifications and safeguards continue to take time, we also monitor economic aspects in addition. This includes development costs, which are summing up continuously. Secondly, the remaining life of the determined target model A8 combined with the forecasted installation rate and the expected market greediness in the individual countries are playing an important role.

This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned level 3 series function in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle.

Audi’s belief in automated driving:

We still believe in the technology of automated driving and today we know better than almost anyone when it comes to the decisive technological key factors. During the development phase we continuously learned more and more technical “unknown unknowns” and developed approaches how to handle the fact, that there will appear more.

Together with the above mentioned dependencies concerning legislation and type approval, we believe that actually it is not the right moment to deliver the function to the customer. This is our attitude of responsibility.

How Audi is moving forward:

An important part of the truth, which the industry is now facing: development of automated driving is extremely complex and cost-intensive. Our aim more than ever before is to generate the greatest possible synergies.

Within the VW group we therefore have the best preconditions. We have consolidated our efforts to further develop level 3 automated driving in the Car.Software organization. This is a new organization within the Volkswagen Group .

Former Audi managers will be head of two out of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Müller will manage the automated driving area, and Dr. Klaus Büttner will manage the Intelligent Body&Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the Volkswagen Group.

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.

Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

By Jake Bright

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch               

Tech for good during COVID-19: Sky-high gifts, extra help and chips

By Natasha Mascarenhas

When Roger Lee, the co-founder of Human Interest, heard that San Francisco imposed shelter-in-place orders, he started blogging about layoff news and posting crowdsourced lists of employees who were laid off. His goal was to increase awareness about layoffs and give recruiters a place to search for candidates.

However, one week and 40 startup layoffs later, Lee saw his blog was not going to be able to keep up with the massive number of cuts happening across the country. So, Layoffs.fyi tracker was born and currently receives tens of thousands of visitors every day.

As for how he’s balancing the tracker and Human Interest? Lee noted that he has transitioned to work at the company from a board-level capacity.

Lee’s work is one example of many inspiring initiatives we’re going to showcase this week. Let’s get into the list.

  1. Plan your future adventures. A number of sites have popped up to encourage people to buy gift cards and support their local restaurants. But what about their local tourism industries? Adam Faris, a student at the University of Oregon, launched a coronavirus initiative with a team of folks to support businesses in the action sports and adventure experience space. Faris has aggregated a number of businesses offering discounts on skiing, surfing, whitewater rafting and more to encourage people to support small businesses.
  2. Extra help for developers. YouTeam, a Y Combinator-backed marketplace for building remote development teams, is launching a volunteer developers group. Any startups working on COVID-19-related issues can turn to the group to find technical support to aid them, and apply for free development hours of front-end, back-end or UX support. 
  3. Tiny steps, big impact. Tiny Organics, a child nutrition company, is pledging $10,000 annually to Partnership for Healthier America, which works to make sure kids have access to health food. Tiny Organics also created a special edition plant-based meal, Michelle My Broccoli Belle, and will donate 100% of the proceeds to the Food Bank for New York City. 
  4. Help from above. Skydio is donating dozens of self-flying drones to first responders across the country, as part of its Emergency Response program. The drones do not have speakers and will not be used as a communication mechanism, but instead as a way for fire and police units to see potential issues close up. Skydio will provide training and support at no cost. Additionally, the company is teaming up with Frontline Support, a nonprofit, to source and deliver more than a million units of PPE equipment to the University of Washington Hospital System through its logistical and supply chain systems. 
  5. A safe space. Equal space (=SPACE), co-working space for multicultural, LGBTQ, and women-owned startups, has opened up its doors virtually. =Space is offering resources online for freelancers and small business owners that includes training, workshops, productivity sessions, and wellness talks all free of charge.
  6. Aid for healthcare workers. Work & Co partnered with employees at Adobe, Dropbox, and a number of medical students to create a tool to connect healthcare workers with access to grocery delivery, discounted childcare, and free mental health services. The tool was made with input from doctors, nurses, and medical school faculty to help workers meet their basic needs, beyond PPE. It is currently available in New York.
  7. Bandcamp waives fees. Bandcamp, a music company that lets users directly support artists, announced that it will be waiving fees for artists for a number of select days. Last time the platform waived fees, sales for music and merchandise pulled in $4.3 million for artists. It’s a refreshing way to support artists in a world where concerts are no longer a reality. Read more here
  8. A pro bono portal. The American Bar Association and a justice tech company, Paladin, teamed up to create a portal to connect those impacted by COVID-19 to lawyers working pro bono. LegalZoom and Clio are also connected to the project. Read more here.
  9. Hiring help. Binc, a recruitment company that works with companies like Tiktok, Stripe, Nest, Groupon, and more, has launched a free program to help tech workers find jobs. The company is placing employees in engineering, product, design, market, and recruitment professionals in jobs for no charge until the end of the month.
  10.  Chipping in for COVID. Morning Brew is holding an online poker tournament-turned-fundraiser to raise money for Frontline Foods, which supports restaurants and feeds frontline workers. A donation of $100 is required to play.

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