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Yesterday — July 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA Traffic

Image Credits: Getty Images/ROBYN BECK/AFP

Mark Suster, managing partner, Upfront Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

Fashion is having its moment in the metaverse.

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

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

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

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

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

Aglet’s Phase 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Adidas (opens in a new window)

The future of fashion discovery could be in the metaverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. House approves remote voting, though the tech is unclear

By Jake Bright

Congress will allow remote voting for the first time in its history, after the U.S. House approved Resolution 965 late Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure — sponsored by Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern — authorizes proxy voting by members for renewable periods of 45 days and allows for remote participation in committee hearings.

H.R. 965 could also permanently alter the way Congress operates through a provision that establishes a bi-partisan process to explore digital voting away from Capitol Hill.

Per the directive, “The chair of the Committee on House Administration, in consultation with the ranking minority member, shall study the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House, and shall provide certification…that operable and secure technology exists.”

Previous House rules required in person voting only. The Senate still makes decisions by recording verbal “Yeas” and “Nays” on a tally sheet.

Friday’s congressional action is another example of how COVID-19 is forcing every organization in the U.S. to overhaul longstanding ways of doing things, usually through a mix of digital tools.

We still don’t have clear details on what tech the U.S. House will use to implement both the short and longer term provisions of H.R. 965.

The proxy voting arrangement will allow members to vote remotely through designated representatives on Capitol Hill — effectively a form of pinch-hitting for Congress. For remote participation in hearings, there are a range of options that could be selected — from Google Meet to Microsoft Teams. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before the U.S. Senate using Zoom.

On determining long-term means for remote voting, that’s now up to the Chairperson of the Committee on House Administration —  representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) —  and the ranking minority member Rodney Davis (R-IL), who voted against H.R. 965.

Lofgren offered a preview of how it could shape up in a statement supporting H.R. 965 late Friday: “For voting on the floor, we will rely on a secure email system, coupled with member-driven, remotely-directed authorizations.  This system would use secure email for proxy votes: a solid, well known, resilient technology with very low bandwidth requirements that we understand very well from a cybersecurity standpoint.”

Of course, she and Republican Congressman Davis will have to find agreement on this during a time when both parties rarely agree on anything. The vote on H.R. 965 was split along party lines, with 217 Dems voting in favor and not a single Republican member supporting the measure.

In the past, Congress has resisted calls to allow for remote voting. There was discussion of the need for such provisions after the September 11 attacks and 2001 Anthrax attacks. These was overridden by a long time expectation that those elected to represent constituencies be physically present to vote.

Over the last two months, it appeared the House might become a last holdout in the U.S. for in person only workplaces, as much of the country has shifted to tech-enabled measures for remote operations.

Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in March, Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) pressed a resolution with Arkansas Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) that would allow members to participate virtually in hearings and vote remotely, under special circumstances.

US capitol building at night

Image Credits: Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

That was nixed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  who, at the time, wanted Congress to remain in session and present to pass the first coronavirus stimulus bill.

Two months and nearly one hundred thousand American deaths later, it appears COVID-19 could force one of the more significant procedural changes in the House’s 231 year history.

In person voting could soon be replaced with some form of two-factor authentication, digital voting. This could change longstanding patterns for how lawmakers travel, interact with constituencies, and divide their time between the Beltway and districts back home.

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.

Lost item finder Tile expands partnership with Comcast, as Apple’s competitor looms

By Sarah Perez

Bluetooth-powered lost item finder Tile is expanding on its two-year old partnership with strategic investor Comcast to help customers find misplaced items around their home. The two companies had first announced their intention to partner in early 2018 and later that year introduced a way for Comcast users to locate lost items using their Xfinity X1 Voice Remote. Now, Comcast is adding more set-top boxes and xFi Gateways into the mix as access points.

The companies announced today that select Comcast X1 and Flex set-top boxes as well as xFi Gateways will be able to work as extensions to the Tile network. Specifically, this includes the newer Xfinity devices like the xFi Advanced Gateway, and Xi5, Xi6, and XG1v4 devices, Tile tells us.

What this means Comcast’s boxes can supplement or even take the place of the Tile mobile app in terms of being an access point used to look for a lost Tile device, when an item goes missing.

This could be useful for those who don’t have the Tile app installed on their phone, whose phone is not within easy reach or has run out of battery, as well as for those those who just want the added convenience of having another way to search for their lost item.

Previously, Comcast Xfinity customers could use their X1 voice remote to see a Tile’s last-known location on the screen. Now, not only can Comcast users ring their Tile directly, the Flex set-top boxes and xFi Gateways can also work as finding extenders in the home.

Tile devices themselves come in a variety of form factors, including keychain or luggage dongles like Mate and the more powerful Pro, a Slim device ideal for wallets, and Tile Sticker for anything else — like laptops, bikes, tools, cameras, and more. In the home, Tile devices are often used to find small items like car keys, purses, or even a child’s favorite toy that’s always getting misplaced.

Alongside the support for Comcast boxes, the companies also updated the existing X1 remote functionality to include a new feature to directly ring missing items. Now, customers can say things like “Xfinity Home, find my keys” to have the Tile make its distinctive ringing sound so the lost item can be found.

“The average person spends about 15 minutes a day looking for lost items,” said Tile CEO CJ Prober, in a statement about the expanded partnership with Comcast. “We’ve been working with Comcast to alleviate this daily disruption. By allowing Comcast Xfinity customers to use their xFI Gateways and X1 and Flex set-top boxes as finding extenders, the Tile network becomes stronger and ensures users will quickly and easily find lost or misplaced items, bringing convenience to their daily routine,” he said.

Tile claims to now locate some 6 million items daily across 195 countries worldwide, with a 90% success rate in finding lost items. To date, it has sold 26 million Tile devices.

However the company is preparing to face steep competition. Apple has effectively confirmed its plans to release a Tile competitor called Air Tags that are more deeply integrated into its iOS operating system and have special privileges that aren’t offered to third-party apps. Tile has gone on the offensive about Apple’s plans, arguing to Congress that Apple’s behavior is anti-competitive and needs regulation.

This month, Tile told a congressional panel that Apple has failed to live up to promises aimed at resolving their dispute, noting Apple did not reinstate the “Always Allow” background permission. This permission would allow Tile to compete on a more even playing field with Apple’s own “Find My” app, which doesn’t have to continually remind users that it’s using their location data like third-party apps do. Tile also spoke about how Apple planned to allow its own Air Tags to use UWB (ultra-wideband) for better location finding, but not open that up to competitors like Tile.

The fight for regulation will be a long-term battle. In the more immediate future, Tile’s partnerships are how it will continue to grow its customer base and device usage.

On this front, Tile also recently partnered with Skullcandy to release the first wireless earbuds that are findable with Tile: Skullcandy’s Push Ultra, Indy Evo, Indy Fuel and Sesh Evo. This allows the earbuds maker to better compete with Apple, whose Find My app can locate Apple’s own AirPods.

In total, Tile now works with over 20 partners across audio, travel, smart home and PC categories.

 

 

Manufacturing startup Divergent 3D reduces staff by one-third

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21C Czinger- vehicles

Image Credits: Czinger Vehicles

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Companies in the new class include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Prime Lightworks makes electric propulsion systems for small satellites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The firm wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App development shop V/One is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds to budding LA mobile businesses

By Jonathan Shieber

The Los Angeles-based app development shop, V/One, is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds through the rest of April as the company officially launches its platform for would-be, LA-based mobile app moguls.

Since its soft launch, December 20th of last year, the app development company has built over 100 new applications.

The company’s December launch featured an “app accelerator” and offered a guidebook for people who wanted to develop mobile applications to work with the development shop on early applications.

Under the terms of the development agreement, wannabe app creators get their application for free as long as they sign up for the monthly hosting service. “They can walk away at any time and cancel the hosting if they don’t want the app anymore. Builds of the apps will be delivered around 60 days upon signing up,” said V One founder, Jeremy Redman.

For founder Jeremy Redman, V/One was a business that solved a problem he had faced himself as an entrepreneur just starting out, but lacking the technical experience to build his own applications.

“I had an app idea but no real idea how to executive it. I’m non-technical, meaning I can’t code. I tried finding a technical co-founder but got abandoned when things got tough. Dev shops were too expensive and on the verge of predatory, and cookie cutter builders don’t address the designs I had in mind,” Redman said. “But, I wasn’t going to let someone tell me I couldn’t be a tech entrepreneur.”

Image Credits: Chris Ede / Getty Images

The app development toolkit that V One uses was built entirely in-house to automate the build process on the back end, says Redman.

For small businesses, the plan is to charge $297 per month for app development and customization along with any future builds, hosting, and product support and maintenance. The company’s more robust place is a $997 per month package. Both offer the option to cancel anytime with the ability to own the code for the app.

“So far the only limitations are one’s creativity. Essentially speaking, if you can design it it can be made a functional app in our builder,” Redman wrote in an email. “If I had to put a constraint on it I would say we are not good at AR/VR and machine learning and some obscure features 99% of people don’t need [or] want.”

Redman thinks that roughly 98% of an app can be built using the company’s toolkit and then the final bit of coding and development (specifically for augmented or virtual reality — or other components) can be added in a final customization.

“If customers can describe their idea in one, clear sentence then it can be made in our builder and it can be made quickly,” Redman wrote. “What we don’t do is take pages and pages of details and make an app out of it. They can fill in the details later.”

V One uses a cross-platform framework, serverless technology and modern development practices to generate apps using an easy to use app builder, the company said. Users can think of it like Wix or WordPress for mobile app development.

“Never before has someone been able to build an app from just typing their idea out, let alone for this low a cost,” says Redman.

Energica CEO plots her Italian EV company’s reboot from lockdown

By Jake Bright

There could be more demand for electric vehicles post COVID-19 crisis, believes Energica founder Livia Cevolini.

The CEO of the high-performance Italian motorcycle manufacturer offered that point of optimism, as her Modena based EV company remains closed by government decree.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Energica to hit the brakes on production of its battery powered machines that can reach top speeds of 168 mph.

From lockdown in her Northern Italy home, Cevolini shared perspective on the future of motorcycling, acquisition offers and plans to recharge her company when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

At a time when her country has been hit particular hard by the coronavirus, she offered some upbeat thinking.

Energica CEO Livia Cevolini on lockdown in Modena, Italy

“I don’t want to look only at the negative…Maybe there are things that are positive that come out of this bad crisis,” Cevolini told TechCrunch on a video call.

One of those is greater demand for EVs after the pandemic. Cevolini highlighted greater awareness of the smog internal combustion mobility creates and scientific evidence that air pollution exacerbates viruses as factors that could swing more folks to electric.

Reporting has made much of urban areas attaining visibly cleaner air — featuring before shots of global cities with smog and after shots of clear skies since COVID-19 forced traffic off the roads.

“Maybe at the end of this situation we will have a greater awareness on climate change. Then people will approach electric with more consciousness,” Cevolini said.

Before the health crisis shutdown most of Italy, Energica had already seen larger demand for its high-performance e-motos, with a price range of $17,000 to $23,000. The company — that has has a California office and U.S. general manager (Stefano Benatti) — filled more orders in the first two months of 2020 than all its sales for 2019, according to Cevolini.

As an EV venture, Energica is located in the famed Italian motor valley and positions itself similar to its neighbors — Lamborghini, Ducati, Ferrari — in offering a merger of sleek design and elite performance.

MotoE Worldcup racing, Image Credits: Energica

The venture is also one of the few e-motorcycle companies drawing engineering tips from competition. In 2018, Energica was named the sole manufacturer to the MotoE Worldup — an electric version of MotoGP motorcycle racing. MotoE riders use the company’s EGO model as their base bike.

Technology from the track is transferring to production models, according to Cevolini. “The goal is to use racing to test in extreme but safe conditions and then we move stuff to the road bikes,” she said.

Energica credits the application of race tech to production e-motos for some of the increased order flow it saw early this year. The company reduced the weight of its 2020 production line by 5% and increased range by 60% based on adaptions it brought over from MotoE.

Track competition is a secondary arena for Energica. The primary venue is an increasingly crowded e-motorcycle marketplace, which will most certainly face declining demand given the economic impact of COVID-19.

Harley Davidson introduced its all electric $29K LiveWire in 2019, becoming the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S.

Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — including Mission Motors — and put it in the market with existing EV ventures, such California startup Zero, with 200 dealers worldwide.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

When it comes to core e-motorcycle specs — such as performance, charge-times and range — Energica has held advantages with its 145 horsepower machines that can charge in 20 minutes for max ranges of 140 to 250 miles.

But the competition is closing in on some of the Italian EV maker’s numbers. In 2019, Zero launched its high-performance SR/F, with 110 horsepower and a top-speed of 120 mph. And the entire motorcycle industry — gas and electric — could face competitive pressures from new EV entrant Damon Motors. The Vancouver based startup debuted its 200 mph, $24K Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.

On top of strong competition in the e-moto space, there’s a growing uncertainty on the buying appetite for motorcycles that could persist into 2020 — and beyond — given the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world.

In the U.S., new motorcycles sales didn’t weather the last recession very well, dropping 50% in 2008 and remaining stagnant since. In addition to Energica, other manufacturers, such as Harley Davidson have been forced to stop production due the coronavirus.

Energica CEO Livia Cevolini believes her company has a leg up on its e-moto competitors and an ability to rebound, once it restarts operations.

She flags the manufacturer’s racing connection as something that will continue to give Energica an edge in product development. Speaking to competition with Zero Motorcycles in particular, “We are in a different category,” she said. “They have less power, less range and less fast charge capability.”

Energica has also created another revenue stream through a joint-venture to provide battery, computing and drive-train technology to Dell’Orto, a supplier to the global scooter market.

As more of the major gas motorcycle companies enter the EV market, Cevolini is open to a merger or acquisition, but only on her terms.

“If someone comes to me with a real proposal…that you want to grow our business and our company and not destroy it, we can talk,” she said. “Otherwise, we prefer to go our own way.”

Energica

Image Credits: Energica

Energica is prepared to restart production, and has done contingencies for adaptations — such as safe and socially distanced operations — when it gets the go head from the Italian government to reopen.

“We’re ready to fulfill the orders we received before the shutdown and take more,” she said.

When Energica is able to switch on the plant electricity again, Cevolini suspects her niche market of motorcycle enthusiasts will be eager to roll.

“Our customers are telling us they are just waiting to ride again. And as soon as they can ride again, they will ride again,” she said.

Internet of Elephants launches Wildeverse, an AR game about endangered animals and conservation

By Jonathan Shieber

On Friday, the Kenyan augmented reality game developer Internet of Elephants launched its latest game in partnership with the conservation science experts from the Borneo Nature Foundation, Goualougo Triangle Ape Foundation, Zoo Atlanta and Chester Zoo.

The new game, called “Wildeverse”, uses AR to create a virtual forest that players can explore to find certain animals — or clues to an animal’s whereabouts.

Though the game was intended to be played outdoors, the COVID-19 crisis forced the team to pivot, creating an option that lets people move about virtually using in-game controls, or walk around in more confined spaces.

The game starts with a chat-based segment introducing players to the gameplay and setting up some context around the virtual environment players will be exploring. Its graphics aren’t focused on recreating a completely immersive jungle environment, but create an abstracted forest and canopy of trees which players explore. A timer keeps track of how long a player takes to complete a mission, which involve identifying certain animals or looking for traces of their presence in the AR-created forest.

Once a mission is complete, the player runs through a scripted interaction with an actual conservationist who helped the Internet of Elephants game developers come up with the concept for the game and provided research assistance and support for the actual animals represented in the gameplay.

Image courtesy of Internet of Elephants

The game can be played on any iOS or Android device that support ARKit or ARCore.

Challenges range from searching for the animals themselves or their footprints, food leftovers or poop to looking for illegal human activity and threats to the habitat of four real orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.

To make the game, Internet of Elephants developers led by company founder Gautam Shah, actually went to the jungles of Borneo and Congo to speak with conservationists about their work and scout for wildlife to use in te game, the company said in a statement. The game developers tracked several families of monkeys 

 

“Ape populations are being decimated across the world. Wildlife protection will only become a global priority if enough people take an interest. Conservationists on the ground are fighting an uphill battle with the support of only a handful of people,” said Shah in a statement. “We are on a mission to turn the 2 billion people playing games today, into wildlife lovers and supporters of conservation efforts.”

For Shah, the newest launch for Internet of Elephants continues the company’s mission, which began in 2015 when the American-born Shah forsook a career in consulting to launch his AR-based gaming company. Other members of the Internet of Elephants team have equally interesting stories, including product lead, Jake Manion, who had spent six years as the creative director for Aardman Animations, the Academy-award winning studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

Shah sees three primary conservation elements to the Wildeverse game. First, he says, it creates a link between players and the conservation societies that the company works with, giving people a better sense of what conservation organizations actually do. The game also forces players to confront issues like forest fires, illegal logging, poaching, and the challenges surrounding conservation work that are exacerbated by development and human consumption changing the composition of the jungles these animals call home. Finally there’s an educational element to the game.

“You really really do learn a lot of juicy stuff and we don’t shy away from getting technical,” says Shah. “All that collectively is about creating a connection between you sitting in St. Louis and someone in Borneo trying to study orangutans,”

Originally, the game was meant to be played outdoors, with a thirty-meter radius of space to get the full sense of the gameplay, but it can work in a small studio apartment in Los Angeles equally well, given the modifications the team made before the game’s launch.

The text component of the game is informative and gives players a chance to learn about the foods orangutans eat, their habitat and their lives in the jungle. The script is slightly clunky, but not tiresome, and is based on conversations with the actual conservationists working in these different forests.

Ultimately Shah hopes to expand the number of habitats and the breadth of the game so players can explore different geographies and learn about endangered species on every continent.

There’s no monetization in the game yet and it will remain free-to-play, but Shah hopes to add some revenue-generating elements as development continues along with multi-player features, he said.

Ultimately, the game is about connecting and educating a new generation to the wonders of nature conservancy through the newest tech tools and gameplay.

“We want to make wildlife a positive, exciting topic of daily conversation for millions of people currently unconnected to conservation. We want to make Fio, Buka, Chilli and Aida celebrities, just like Kim Kardashian, Messi, and Donald Trump,” says Shah. “People’s attention matters so much more than they think.”

New guidance on SBA loans means most startups are still excluded from $349 billion stimulus

By Jonathan Shieber

Under new guidance issued by the Small Business Administration it seems non-profits and faith-based groups can apply for the Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to keep small business afloat during the COVID-19 epidemic, but most venture-backed companies are still not covered.

Late Friday night, the Treasury Department updated its rules regarding the “affiliation” of private entities to include religious organizations but keep in place the same rules that would deny most startups from receiving loans.

(b) If you are a faith-based organization, *no affiliation rules apply to you,* because the SBA just said so. Out of nowhere. At like 10pm on a Friday night.

It doesn't matter if you have a zillion employees; as long as any 1 entity has <500 employees, it can get a #PPPloan.
4/ pic.twitter.com/V0x3Vx6G7x

— Doug Rand (@doug_rand) April 4, 2020

The NVCA and other organizations had pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to clarify the rules regarding startups and their potential eligibility for loans last week. And House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy even told Axios that startups would be covered under the revised regulations.

Apparently that didn’t happen, as Mark Suster, the managing partner of Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures, noted in a tweet.

2/ There are rumors that the PPP Loan program may still fix the Affiliate Rule next week. Until fixed, it's nearly impossible for most VC-backed startups to apply because it would require huge legal lift to amend all of the charters of these companies to change control provisions

— Mark Suster (@msuster) April 4, 2020

At its essence, the issue for startups seems to be centered on the board rights that venture investors have when they take an equity stake in a company. For startups with investors on the board of directors, the decision-making powers that those investors hold means the startup is affiliated with other companies that the partner’s venture firm has invested in — which could mean that they’re considered an entity with more than 500 employees.

“[If] there’s a startup that’s going gangbusters right now, they shouldn’t apply for a PPP loan,” wrote Doug Rand, the co-founder of Seattle-based startup Boundless Immigration, and a former Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, in a direct message. “But most startups are getting killed because, you know, the economy is mostly dead.”

The $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump was designed to help companies that are adversely affected by the economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak in the US and their employees — whether those businesses are directly affected because their employees can’t leave home to do their jobs or indirectly, because demand for goods and services has flatlined.

While some tech startups have seen demand for their products actually rise during these quarantined days, many companies have watched as their businesses have gone from one to zero.

The sense frustration among investors across the country is palpable. As the Birmingham-based investor, Matt Hottle, wrote, “After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the SBA PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.”

After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the @SBAgov PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.

— Matt Hottle (@MattRedhawk) April 4, 2020

And although the rules around whether or not many startups are eligible remain unclear, it’s probably wise for companies to file an application, because, as the program is currently structured, the $349 billion in loans are going to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis, as Suster flagged in his tweets on the subject.

General Catalyst is advising its companies that are also backed by SBIC investors to apply for the loans, because that trumps any other rules regarding affiliation, according to an interview with Holly Maloney Burbeck, a managing director at the firm.

And there’s already concerns that the money could run out. In a tweet, the President announced that he would request more money from Congress “if the allocated money runs out.”

I will immediately ask Congress for more money to support small businesses under the #PPPloan if the allocated money runs out. So far, way ahead of schedule. @BankofAmerica & community banks are rocking! @SBAgov @USTreasury

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2020

“Congress saw fit to allow Darden to get a forgivable small business loan—actually a taxpayer-funded grant—for like every Olive Garden in America. But Congress somehow neglected to provide comparable rescue measures for actual small businesses that have committed the sin of convincing investors that they have the potential to employ a huge number of people if they can only survive,” Rand wrote in a direct message. “The Trump administration has full authority to ride to the rescue, and they did… but only for large religious organizations.”

Zelos is like a cross-game battle pass, rewarding you for completing challenges in games you already play

By Greg Kumparak

People seem to love the concept of the battle pass.

Largely popularized by Fortnite, battle passes reward players for playing well, and playing often. The better you do, the more XP you earn; the more XP you earn, the more stuff (new looks for your character, or victory dances to fire off at the end of a gunfight) you unlock. Willing to cough up a few bucks for an optional “premium” battle pass? That’ll open up a whole new set of rewards. The model has made its way into countless games over the last couple years, from PUBG to Rocket League.

Zelos, an LA-based company out of Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch, is aiming to make that same concept work across multiple games. Tackle challenges in one game, earn rewards for another — or use your points to buy new games altogether.

Each day, Zelos offers up a handful of challenges across each of the games it supports, like dealing 10,000 damage in League of Legends or getting 5 kills with Wraith in Apex. Completing a challenge earns you “zips”; most challenges I’ve seen will earn the player somewhere between 15 and 150 zips, depending on how tough it is to pull off.

Once you’ve pooled up a pile of zips, they can be redeemed for all sorts of virtual goodies. The more something would cost otherwise, the more zips it’ll require. 60,000 zips, for example, gets you a $5 Steam gift card —or 90,000 zips for $10 worth of Apex Coins. Once you get into the 50,000-200,000 zip range, you can redeem them for digital download codes for games like Rainbow Six Siege, Monster Hunter: World, and Tabletop Simulator. Getting the good stuff can mean completing a lot of challenges, but remember: these are games people are playing anyway.

In addition to zips, each challenge earns the player a bit of EXP. EXP levels up your Zelos profile; with each level, you unlock a bundle of zips, additional challenges, and items for your Zelos avatar.

Zelos is currently issuing challenges and tracking stats across seven games: Fortnite, Apex, League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, DOTA 2, Counter Strike: GO, and Clash Royale. Stat tracking works a bit better in some games than it does in others, depending on how open a game’s developers are with the data. With League of Legends, for example, they’re able to ping Riot Games’ dedicated API for a rich backlog of match data; with Apex, on the other hand, they’re limited to pulling stats based on a handful of unlockable trackers players can flip on between matches.

Zelos co-founder Jeffrey Tong tells me they’re focused on ensuring they stay above board with the data they pull, making sure they comply with each provider’s ToS. That makes sense, of course: getting on a developer’s bad side could mean losing access to the data firehouse, in turn squashing Zelos’ ability to support a game. The more popular games Zelos can support, the better the whole idea works.

So if they’re giving stuff away based on challenges in games they themselves aren’t selling.. how will they make money? The same way the aforementioned games do: a premium battle pass. Tong tells me that they’re currently testing a subscription-based battle pass that’ll unlock new challenges, more prizes, and increase the rate at which points are earned.

This isn’t Tong’s first foray into the gaming space; he previously built and sold OverStats, an analytics system for tracking a player’s esports stats over time. Co-founder Derek Chiang, meanwhile, was previously a senior software engineer at the decentralized computing company Dfinity.

Tong tells me they raised $2.8M in the days after YC demo day, eyeing expansion of the platform, supported games, and their team. The Zelos team is currently three people, with plans to hire another “six or seven” in the coming weeks. They’re currently seeing over 50,000 weekly active users, with 55% of their users playing 2 or more games on the platform.

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