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Japanese mission to land a rover on a Martian moon and bring back a sample is a go

By Darrell Etherington

A bold mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mars’ two moons, including a lander component for one of them, is all set to enter the development phase after the plan was submitted to the Japanese government’s science ministry this week.

Dubbed the “Martian Moons Exploration” (MMX) mission, the goal is to launch the probe in 2024, using the new H-3 rocket being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is expected to launch for the first time sometime later in 2020. The probe will survey and observe both Phobos and Deimos, the two moons that orbit the Red Planet, which are both smaller and more irregularly shaped than Earth’s Moon.

The MMX lander will park on Phobos, while the probe studies the two space-based bodies from a distance. This is the first-ever mission that seeks to land a spacecraft on one of the moons of Mars, and it’ll include a rover that is being developed by JAXA in partnership with teams at German space agency DLR and French space agency CNES.

The mission will include an ambitious plan to actually collect a sample of the surface of Phobos and return it to Earth for study — which will mean a round-trip for the MMX spacecraft that should see it make its terrestrial return by 2029.

NASA is also planning a Mars-sample return mission, which would aim to bring back a sample from the Red Planet itself using the Mars 2020 six-wheel rover that it’s planning to launch later this year.

Both of these missions could be crucial stepping stones for eventual human exploration and colonization of Mars. It’s possible that Phobos could act as an eventual staging ground for Mars missions, as its lower gravity makes it an easier body from which to depart for eventual astronauts. And Mars is obviously the ultimate goal for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to first establish a more permanent human scientific presence on the Moon before heading to the Red Planet.

Google Cloud opens its Seoul region

By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud today announced that its new Seoul region, its first in Korea, is now open for business. The region, which it first talked about last April, will feature three availability zones and support for virtually all of Google Cloud’s standard service, ranging from Compute Engine to BigQuery, Bigtable and Cloud Spanner.

With this, Google Cloud now has a presence in 16 countries and offers 21 regions with a total of 64 zones. The Seoul region (with the memorable name of asia-northeast3) will complement Google’s other regions in the area, including two in Japan, as well as regions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the obvious focus here is on serving Korean companies with low-latency access to its cloud services.

“As South Korea’s largest gaming company, we’re partnering with Google Cloud for game development, infrastructure management, and to infuse our operations with business intelligence,” said Chang-Whan Sul, the CTO of Netmarble. “Google Cloud’s region in Seoul reinforces its commitment to the region and we welcome the opportunities this initiative offers our business.”

Over the course of this year, Google Cloud also plans to open more zones and regions in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

By Ingrid Lunden

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

Alphabet’s Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile turn solar-powered drones into flying cell towers

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company that had been focused on delivering internet communications to remote areas via stratospheric balloons, has completed development work on a new payload for partner HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank that’s building high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed aircraft. The two companies jointly adapted the communications technology that enables Loon’s balloons to beam communications networks to Earth for use on HAPSMobile’s drones, effectively turning them into high-flying mobile cell towers.

This is the result of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced back in April of last year, but an important step because it means that Loon’s technology will get its first functional tests on vehicles other than its ballon-based platform. The HAWK30 aircraft that HAPSMobile developed is a solar-powered electric aircraft that flies at speeds of over 100 km/h (around 60 mph) in the stratosphere (with an operating altitude or around 65,000 feet) which is much faster than Loon’s balloons, which meant adapting the payload to perform at these speeds. Part of that customization included making the antenna used to beam the LTE connectivity to devices on the ground much more responsive, allowing them to rotate quickly to maintain the best possible connection.

Loon and HAPSMobile say the their communications technology can provide connections between devices as far as 700 km (435 miles) apart, with data transfer speeds reaching as high as 1Gpbs. HAPSMobile’s goal with the HAWK30 project is to expand the scope of coverage vs. terrestrial cell towers, since their high-altitude position can cover a much larger surface area vs. even the tallest cell towers. In fact, the company notes that just 40 of its aircraft could provide coverage to the entirety of Japan, vs. “tens of thousands of existing terrestrial base stations.” Plus, fewer areas would be considered out-of-range as a result of inhospitable terrain or difficult to reach areas in terms of infrastructure installation.

For Loon, this is a signifiant expansion of their current operating model, providing another path to revenue that includes adapting their communications technology for use on different types of aircraft and delivery models. It’s yet another example of the type of commercial partnerships available to the company, even as it ramps up its existing balloon-based deployment plans with partners including Telefonica and others.

Company-builder Antler passes $75M raised after investment from Schroders and Ferd

By Mike Butcher

Antler is a “company builder” that emerged a couple of years ago, running startup generator programs and investing from an early stage, bringing a heady mix of technologists, product builders and operators together with its own technology stack.

Now, plenty of “company builders” have come and gone. It’s a bit like Apocalypse Now: everyone goes in thinking they will come up with the major formula to spit out startups at a prodigious rate and they come out screaming “The Horror! The Horror!”

But Antler appears to have been on an interesting run. It has so far made more than 120 investments across a wide range of companies, with several going on to raise later-stage funding from the likes of Sequoia, Golden Gate Ventures, East Ventures, Venturra Capital and the Hustle Fund.

Since its launch in Singapore two years ago, Antler now has a presence across New York, London, Singapore, Sydney, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Nairobi and Oslo.

Today, it’s announcing that it has attracted investment from British investment management company Schroders, investment house FinTech Collective and Ferd, the vehicle used by Johan H. Andresen, the Norwegian industrialist and investor.

This latest investment takes the capital raised by Antler over the past six months to more than $75 million.

These investors join an existing group that includes Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Canica International and Credit Saison, the third-largest credit card issuer in Japan. The idea here is that these investors get exposure to early-stage companies as they are built.

As with most company builders and accelerators, Antler only takes 1-1.5% of the applicants

Its portfolio includes Sampingan, an on-demand workforce in Indonesia; Xailient, a computer vision technology; Airalo, a global e-sims marketplace; and FusedBone, which enables medical centers to produce bespoke, non-metal implants on-site.

Magnus Grimeland, Antler co-founder and CEO said: “With our support, our founders start refining their ideas and building new and innovative businesses. What is equally important is the deep relationship our founders build with their peers, our advisors and backers. Having accomplished investors like Schroders, Ferd and FinTech Collective on board means we can provide a more valuable network for our startups as they grow their businesses.”

Peter Harrison, Group CEO of Schroders, who will also be joining Antler’s advisory board, said: “We are in a period of unprecedented change. The visibility on venture capital activity and innovation that Antler provides is therefore leading-edge.”

Antler says more than 40% of its portfolio companies have a female co-founder and 78% of these have a female CEO.

Japanese vacation rental management startup H2O raises $7 million Series B from investors including Samsung Ventures

By Catherine Shu

Japan’s tourism industry is booming, but it faces a hotel room shortage, especially in Tokyo as it prepares for the Summer Olympics. H2O addresses the market opportunity with a platform that helps vacation rental owners manage their properties. The startup announced today it has raised $7 million in Series B funding from Samsung Ventures, Stonebridge Ventures, IMM Investment and Shinhan Capital, bringing its total raised to $18 million.

H2O (the name stands for Hospitality 2.0) allows owners to manage operations, housekeeping and bookings from different online travel agencies on its platform, lowering the cost of doing business. The company also recently launched H2O, a vacation rental brand, to expand its real estate development business, including a new hotel near Universal Studio Japan.

The company began in 2015 with Wahome in South Korea, a home cleaning service, before launching H2O two years later after acquiring several hospitality management companies in Japan, including a housekeeping service for vacation rentals. There are currently about 5,000 managed rooms connected to the platform, which is used by about 25 online travel agencies. Since the third-quarter of 2018, revenue has doubled every quarter, says founder and CEO John Lee.

Lee, who studied hotel administration at Cornell University and previously worked in banking at Morgan Stanley, told TechCrunch in an email that there were three market trends that made launching a hospitality business in Japan compelling: strong domestic tourism, increasing inbound tourism and a huge shortage in accommodations. It first focused on allowing flexible housekeeping bookings for vacation rental properties. Then in 2018, H2O expanded to full hospitality management services, including property, yield, revenue and operations.

Lee said that he believes “the core value of the hospitality industry is how to increase the yield of the real estate. I always believed that managing one building with high fixed costs (front desk, housekeeping department, etc.) was very inefficient from building owners point of view.”

H2O’s property management system works by syncing three calendars: guests, rooms and housekeeping. All are linked and automated to prevent double bookings and make sure housecleaning services are available. This allows H2O’s software to manage revenue, inventory and yield on a per room basis and schedule guests and cleanings.

The platform also allows clients to manage multiple properties at once and offer smart locks, online check-ins and chat-based customer service.

In June 2019, Japan implemented the Housing and Accommodations Business Act (also called the minpaku law, after the Japanese term for private residences rented out as short-term accommodations, similar to properties on AirBnb), formally legalizing and regulating vacation rental management. Lee says the new regulation allowed more real estate investors, who already owned other types of hospitality properties, to enter the minpaku market. H2O manages properties under four licenses, including hotel, ryokan and kanishokuksho, but the majority of its properties are under the minpaku law, which allowed it to grow its B2B business.

The average daily rate for accommodations on H2O was around $160 in 2019, with an average occupancy rate of 87%. Of the property owners who use H2O, the majority, or 70%, are real estate property managers, 20% are local property owners and 10% are overseas real estate funds. About 60% of guests who use H2O to book accommodations are inbound travelers (of that number, 40% are from China, 40% are from Southeast Asia, 10% are from South Korea and 10% are from other countries), while the rest are domestic tourists.

In press statement, Eric Kim, senior investment manager at Samsung Ventures, said “We’re pleased to be part of the fastest-growing hospitality company in Japan. H2O has already proven product market fit within Japan, and we expect them to continue to thrive as they expand outside of major cities.”

Diligent’s Vivian Chu and Labrador’s Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

By Brian Heater

Too often the world of robotics seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Assistive robotics, on the other hand, are among one of the primary real-world tasks existing technology can seemingly address almost immediately.

The concept for the technology has been around for some time now and has caught on particularly well in places like Japan, where human help simply can’t keep up with the needs of an aging population. At TC Sessions: Robotics+AI at U.C. Berkeley on March 3, we’ll be speaking with a pair of founders developing offerings for precisely these needs.

Vivian Chu is the cofounder and CEO of Diligent Robotics. The company has developed the Moxi robot to help assist with chores and other non-patient tasks, in order to allow caregivers more time to interact with patients. Prior to Diligent, Chu worked at both Google[X] and Honda Research Institute.

Mike Dooley is the cofounder and CEO of Labrador Systems. The Los Angeles-based company recently closed a $2 million seed round to develop assistive robots for the home. Dooley has worked at a number of robotics companies including, most recently a stint as the VP of Product and Business Development at iRobot.

Early Bird tickets are now on sale for $275, but you better hurry, prices go up in less than a month by $100. Students can book a super discounted ticket for just $50 right here.

TRI-AD’s James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

By Brian Heater

With the Tokyo Summer Olympics rapidly approaching, 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for TRI-AD (Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development). Opened in 2018, the research wing is devoted to bringing some of TRI’s work into practice. The organization is heavily invested in both autonomous driving and other key robotics project.

TRI-AD’s CEO James Kuffner and VP of Robotics Max Bajracharya will be joining us on stage at TC Sessions Robotics+AI on March 3 at U.C. Berkeley to discuss their work in the field. The company has been working to promote accessibility, both in terms of its work in automotive and smart cities, as well as robotics aimed to help assist Japan’s aging population.

The Summer Olympics will serve as an opportunity for TRI-AD to showcase those technologies in practice. Kuffner and Bajracharya will discuss why companies like Toyota are investing in robotics and working to make every day robotics a reality.

Early Bird tickets are now on sale for $275. Book your tickets now and save $150 before prices go up!

Student Tickets are just $50 – grab yours here.

Startups, book a demo exhibitor table and get 4 tickets to the show and a demo area to showcase your company. Packages run $2200.

Waymo buys Latent Logic, drives deeper into simulation and Europe

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo has acquired Latent Logic, a UK company that spun out of Oxford University’s computer science department, as the autonomous vehicle company seeks to beef up its simulation technology.

The acquisition also marks the launch of Waymo’s first European engineering hub will be in Oxford, UK. This likely won’t be the end of Waymo’s expansion and investment in Europe and the UK. The former Google self-driving project that is now an Alphabet business said it will continue to look for opportunities to grow the team in the UK and Europe.

Earlier this year, Waymo locked in an exclusive partnership with Renault and Nissan to research how commercial autonomous vehicles might work for passengers and packages in France and Japan. In October, Waymo said that its working with Renault to study the possibility of establishing an autonomous transportation route in Paris.

Waymo has made simulation a one of the pillars of its autonomous vehicle development program. But Latent Logic could help Waymo make its simulation more realistic by using a form of machine learning called imitation learning.

Imitation learning models human behavior of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. The idea is that by modeling the mistakes and imperfect driving of humans, the simulation will become more realistic and theoretically improve Waymo’s behavior prediction and planning.

Waymo isn’t sharing financial details of the acquistion. But it appears that the two founders Shimon Whiteson and João Messia, CEO Kirsty Lloyd-Jukes and key members of the engineering and technical team will join Waymo. The Latent Logic team will remain in Oxford.

“By joining Waymo, we are taking a big leap towards realizing our ambition of safe, self-driving vehicles,” said Latent Logic co-founder and chief scientist Shimon Whiteson. “In just two years, we have made significant progress in using imitation learning to simulate real human behaviors on the road. I’m excited by what we can now achieve in combining this expertise with the talent, resources and progress Waymo have already made in self-driving technology.”
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