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These Tools Can Help You Find Your Lost Devices

By David Nield
Between Apple's new AirTags, Samsung's SmartTags, and Tile trackers, you have plenty of options to make sure you don't lose your phone—or your keys.

Weav raises $4.3M to knit together a universal API for commerce platforms

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Weav, which is building a universal API for commerce platforms, is emerging from stealth today with $4.3 million in funding from a bevy of investors, and a partnership with Brex.

Founded last year by engineers Ambika Acharya, Avikam Agur and Nadav Lidor after participating in the W20 YC batch, Weav joins the wave of fintech infrastructure companies that aim to give fintechs and financial institutions a boost. Specifically, Weav’s embedded technology is designed to give these organizations access to “real time, user-permissioned” commerce data that they can use to create new financial products for small businesses.  

Its products allow its customers to connect to multiple platforms with a single API that was developed specifically for the commerce platforms that businesses use to sell products and accept payments. Weav operates under the premise that allowing companies to build and embed new financial products creates new opportunities for e-commerce merchants, creators and other entrepreneurs. 

Left to right: Co-founders Ambika Acharya, Nadav Lidor and Avikam Agur; Image courtesy of Weav

In a short amount of time, Weav has seen impressive traction. Recently, Brex launched Instant Payouts for Shopify sellers using the Weav API. It supports platform integrations such as Stripe, Square, Shopify and PayPal. (More on that later.) Since its API went live in January, “thousands” of businesses have used new products and services built on Weav’s infrastructure, according to Lidor. Its API call volume is growing 300% month over month, he said.

And, the startup has attracted the attention of a number of big-name investors, including institutions and the founders of prominent fintech companies. Foundation Capital led its $4.3 million seed round, which also included participation from Y Combinator, Abstract Ventures, Box Group, LocalGlobe, Operator Partners, Commerce Ventures and SV Angel. 

A slew of founders and executives also put money in the round, including Brex founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi; Ramp founder Karim Atiyeh; Digits founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang; Hatch founder Thomson Nguyen; GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas; Vouch founder Sam Hodges; Plaid’s Charley Ma as well as executives from fintechs such as Square, Modern Treasury and Pagaya.

Foundation Capital’s Angus Davis said his firm has been investing in fintech infrastructure for over a decade. And personally, before he became a VC, Davis was the founder and CEO of Upserve, a commerce software company. There, he says, he witnessed firsthand “the value of transactional data to enable new types of lending products.”

Foundation has a thesis around the type of embedded fintech that Weav has developed, according to Davis. And it sees a large market opportunity for a new class of financial applications to come to market built atop Weav’s platform.

“We were excited by Weav’s vision of a universal API for commerce platforms,” Davis wrote via email. “Much like Plaid and Envestnet brought universal APIs to banking for consumers, Weav enables a new class of B2B fintech applications for businesses.”

How it works

Weav says that by using its API, companies can prompt their business customers to “securely” connect their accounts with selling platforms, online marketplaces, subscription management systems and payment gateways. Once authenticated, Weav aggregates and standardizes sales, inventory and other account data across platforms and develops insights to power new products across a range of use cases, including lending and underwriting; financial planning and analysis; real-time financial services and business management tools.

For the last few years, there’s been a rise of API companies, as well as openness in the financial system that’s largely been focused on consumers, Lidor points out.

“For example, Plaid brings up very rich data about consumers, but when you think about businesses, oftentimes that data is still locked up in all kinds of systems,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re here to provide some of the building blocks and the access to data from everything that has to do with sales and revenue. And, we’re really excited about powering products that are meant to make the lives of small businesses and e-commerce, sellers and creators much easier and be able to get them access to financial products.”

In the case of Brex, Weav’s API allows the startup to essentially offer instant access to funds that otherwise would take a few days or a few weeks for businesses to access.

“Small businesses need access as quickly as possible to their revenue so that they can fund their operations,” Lidor said.

Brex co-CEO Henrique Dubugras said that Weav’s API gives the company the ability to offer real-time funding to more customers selling on more platforms, which saved the company “thousands of engineering hours” and accelerated its rollout timeline by months.

Clearly, the company liked what it saw, considering that its founders personally invested in Weav. Is Weav building the “Plaid for commerce”? Guess only time will tell.

Archaeologists Unearth a ‘Lost Golden City’ in Egypt

By Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica
The Luxor finding has been called "the second most important archaeological discovery" since King Tut's tomb.

Saltbox raises $10.6M to help booming e-commerce stores store their goods

By Mary Ann Azevedo

E-commerce is booming, but among the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs of online businesses are finding a place to store the items they are selling and dealing with the logistics of operating.

Tyler Scriven, Maxwell Bonnie and Paul D’Arrigo co-founded Saltbox in an effort to solve that problem.

The trio came up with a unique “co-warehousing” model that provides space for small businesses and e-commerce merchants to operate as well as store and ship goods, all under one roof. Beyond the physical offering, Saltbox offers integrated logistics services as well as amenities such as the rental of equipment and packing stations and access to items such as forklifts. There are no leases and tenants have the flexibility to scale up or down based on their needs.

“We’re in that sweet spot between co-working and raw warehouse space,” said CEO Scriven, a former Palantir executive and Techstars managing director.

Saltbox opened its first facility — a 27,000-square-foot location — in its home base of Atlanta in late 2019, filling it within two months. It recently opened its second facility, a 66,000-square-foot location, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that is currently about 40% occupied. The company plans to end 2021 with eight locations, in particular eyeing the Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles markets. Saltbox has locations slated to come online as large as 110,000 square feet, according to Scriven.

The startup was founded on the premise that the need for “co-warehousing and SMB-centric logistics enablement solutions” has become a major problem for many new businesses that rely on online retail platforms to sell their goods, noted Scriven. Many of those companies are limited to self-storage and mini-warehouse facilities for storing their inventory, which can be expensive and inconvenient. 

Scriven personally met with challenges when starting his own e-commerce business, True Glory Brands, a retailer of multicultural hair and beauty products.

“We became aware of the lack of physical workspace for SMBs engaged in commerce,” Scriven told TechCrunch. “If you are in the market looking for 10,000 square feet of industrial warehouse space, you are effectively pushed to the fringes of the real estate ecosystem and then the entrepreneurial ecosystem at large. This is costing companies in significant but untold ways.”

Now, Saltbox has completed a $10.6 million Series A round of financing led by Palo Alto-based Playground Global that included participation from XYZ Venture Capital and proptech-focused Wilshire Lane Partners in addition to existing backers Village Capital and MetaProp. The company plans to use its new capital primarily to expand into new markets.

The company’s customers are typically SMB e-commerce merchants “generating anywhere from $50,000 to $10 million a year in revenue,” according to Scriven.

He emphasizes that the company’s value prop is “quite different” from a traditional flex office/co-working space.

“Our members are reliant upon us to support critical workflows,” Scriven said. 

Besides e-commerce occupants, many service-based businesses are users of Saltbox’s offering, he said, such as those providing janitorial services or that need space for physical equipment. The company offers all-inclusive pricing models that include access to loading docks and a photography studio, for example, in addition to utilities and Wi-Fi.

Image Credits: Saltbox

Image Credits: Saltbox

The company secures its properties with a mix of buying and leasing by partnering with institutional real estate investors.

“These partners are acquiring assets and in most cases, are funding the entirety of capital improvements by entering into management or revenue share agreements to operate those properties,” Scriven said. He said the model is intentionally different from that of “notable flex space operators.”

“We have obviously followed those stories very closely and done our best to learn from their experiences,” he added. 

Investor Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing partner of Wilshire Lane Partners, said his firm was impressed with the company’s ability to “structure excellent real estate deals” to help them continue to expand nationally.

He also believes Saltbox is “extremely well-positioned to help power and enable the next generation of great direct to consumer brands.”

Playground Global General Partner Laurie Yoler said the startup provides a “purpose-built alternative” for small businesses that have been fulfilling orders out of garages and self-storage units.

Saltbox recently hired Zubin Canteenwalla  to serve as its chief operating offer. He joined Saltbox from Industrious, an operator co-working spaces, where he was SVP of Real Estate. Prior to Industrious, he was EVP of Operations at Common, a flexible residential living brand, where he led the property management and community engagement teams.

The Most Surprising Gaming Upgrade I've Made? Surround Sound

By Whitson Gordon
New mouse? New monitor? New keyboard? Maybe consider some new speakers, instead.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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Claiming a landmark in fusion energy, TAE Technologies sees commercialization by 2030

By Jonathan Shieber

In a small industrial park located nearly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, one company is claiming to have hit a milestone in the development of a new technology for generating power from nuclear fusion.

The 20-year-old fusion energy technology developer TAE Technologies said its reactors could be operating at commercial scale by the end of the decade, thanks to its newfound ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures over 50 million degrees (nearly twice as hot as the sun).

The promise of fusion energy, a near limitless energy source with few emissions and no carbon footprint, has been 10 years out for the nearly 70 years since humanity first harnessed the power of nuclear energy.  But a slew of companies — including TAE, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and a host of others across North America and around the world — are making rapid advancements that look to bring the technology from the realm of science fiction into the real world.

For TAE Technologies, the achievement serves as a validation of the life’s work of Norman Rostoker, one of the company’s co-founders who had devoted his life to fusion energy research and died before he could see the company he helped create reach its latest milestone.

“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” said TAE’s current chief executive officer, Michl Binderbauer, in a statement announcing the company’s achievement. “Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase. We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”

Rostoker’s legacy lives on inside TAE through the company’s technology platform, called, appropriately, “Norman.” In the last 18 months that technology has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching over 50 million degrees in several hundred test cycles.

Six years ago, the company had proved that its reactor design could sustain plasma indefinitely — meaning that once the switch is flipped on a reaction, that fusion reaction can continue indefinitely. Now, the company said, it has achieved the necessary temperatures to make its reactors commercially viable.

It’s with these milestones behind it that TAE was able to raise an additional $280 million in financing, bringing its total up to $880 million and making it one of the best financed private nuclear fusion endeavors in the world.

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” Binderbauer said. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid.”

The company isn’t generating energy yet, and won’t for the foreseeable future. The next goal for the company, according to Binderbauer, is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary for making energy from a fusion reaction.

“The energy is super tiny. It’s immaterial. It’s a needle in the haystack,” Binderbauer said. “In terms of its energy discernability, we can use it for diagnostics.”

TAE Technologies Michl Binderbauer standing next to the company’s novel fusion reactor. Image Credits: TAE Technologies

Follow the sun

It took $150 million and five iterations for TAE Technologies to get to Norman, its national laboratory scale fusion device. The company said it conducted over 25,000 fully integrated fusion reactor core experiments, optimized using machine learning programs developed in collaboration with Google and processing power from the Department of Energy’s INCITE program, which leverages exascale-level computing, TAE Technologies said.

The new machine was first fired up in the summer of 2017. Before it could even be constructed TAE Technologies went through a decade of experimentation to even begin approaching the construction of a physical prototype. By 2008, the first construction began on integrated experiments to make a plasma core and infuse it with some energetic particles. The feeder technology and beams alone cost $100 million, Binderbauer said. Then the company needed to develop other technologies like vacuum conditioning. Power control mechanisms also needed to be put in place to ensure that the company’s 3 megawatt power supply could be stored in enough containment systems to power a 750 megawatt energy reaction.

Finally, machine learning capabilities needed to be tapped from companies like Google and compute power from the Department of Energy had to be harnessed to manage computations that could take what had been the theorems that defined Rostoker’s life’s work, and prove that they could be made real.

“By the time Norman became an operating machine we had four generations of devices preceding it. Out of those there were two fully integrated ones and two generations of incremental machines that could do some of it but not all of it.”

Fusion energy’s burning problems

While fusion has a lot of promise as a zero-carbon source of energy, it’s not without some serious limitations, as Daniel Jassby, the former principal physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab noted in a 2017 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article.

Jassby wrote:

Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions.

Now, an energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect neutron source, but it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. In fact, these neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

In addition, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible—as assumed here—they would share some of the other serious problems that plague fission reactors, including tritium release, daunting coolant demands, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks that are unique to fusion devices: the use of a fuel (tritium) that is not found in nature and must be replenished by the reactor itself; and unavoidable on-site power drains that drastically reduce the electric power available for sale.

TAE Technologies is aware of the problems, according to a spokesperson for the firm, and the company has noted the issues Jassby raised in its product development, the spokesperson said.

“All the callouts to tritium is exactly why TAE has been focused on pB-11 as its feedstock from the very beginning (early 90’s). TAE will reach D-T conditions as a natural stepping stone to pB-11, cause it cooks at ‘only’ 100M c, whereas pB-11 is upwards of 1M c,” the spokesperson wrote in a response. “It would seem like a much harder accomplishment to then scale to 1M, but what this milestone proves is the ‘Scaling law’ for the kind of fusion TAE is generating — in an FRC (the linear design of “Norman”, unlike the donut Tokamaks) the hotter the plasma, the more stable it becomes. It’s the opposite of a [Tokamak].  The milestone gives them scientific confidence they can increase temps beyond DT to pB11 and realize fusion with boron — cheap, aneutronic, abundant — the ideal terrestrial feedstock (let’s not get into mining the moon for helium-3!).”

As for power concerns, the TAE fusion reactor can convert a 2MW grid feed into 750MW shots on the machine without taking down Orange County’s grid (and needing to prove it to SCE), and scale power demand in microseconds to mold and course-correct plasmas in real-time, the spokesperson wrote.

In fact, TAE is going to spin off its power management technology into a separate business focused on peak shaving, energy storage and battery management on the grid and in electric vehicles.

A “safer” fusion technology?

The Hydrogen-Boron, or p-B11, fuel cycle is, according to the company, the most abundant fuel source on earth, and will be the ultimate feedstock for TAE Technologies’ reactor, according to the company. But initially, TAE, like most of the other companies currently developing fusion technologies, will be working with Deuterium-Tritium as its fuel source.

The demonstration facility “Copernicus,” which will be built using some of the new capital the company has announced raising, will start off on the DT fuel cycle and eventually make the switch. Over time, TAE hopes to license the DT technology while building up to its ultimate goal.

Funding the company’s “money by milestone” approach are some of the world’s wealthiest families, firms and companies. Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google and the Kuwait Investment Authority are all backers. So too, are the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg and Charles Schwab.

“TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs,” said Addison Fischer, TAE board director and longtime investor who has been involved with conservation and environmental issues for decades. Fischer also founded VeriSign and is a pioneer in defining and implementing security technology underlying modern electronic commerce. “TAE’s most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”

Google alum startup Cartken and REEF Technology launch Miami’s first delivery robots

By Rebecca Bellan

Self-driving and robotics startup Cartken has partnered with REEF Technology, a startup that operates parking lots and neighborhood hubs, to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami.

With this announcement, Cartken officially comes out of stealth mode. The company, founded by ex-Google engineers and colleagues behind the unrequited Bookbot, was formed to develop market-ready tech in self-driving, AI-powered robotics and delivery operations in 2019, but the team has kept operations under wraps until now. This is Cartken’s first large deployment of self-driving robots on sidewalks.

After a few test months, the REEF-branded electric-powered robots are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius in downtown Miami. The robots, which are insulated and thus can preserve the heat of a plate of spaghetti or other hot food, are pre-stationed at designated logistics hubs and dispatched with orders for delivery as the food is prepared.

“We want to show how future-forward Miami can be,” Matt Lindenberger, REEF’s chief technology officer, told TechCrunch. “This is a great chance to show off the capabilities of the tech. The combination of us having a big presence in Miami, the fact that there are a lot of challenges around congestion as Covid subsides, still shows a really good environment where we can show how this tech can work.”

Lindenberg said Miami is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning, with potential for the Cartken robots to be used for REEF’s other last-mile delivery businesses. Currently, only two restaurant delivery robots are operating in Miami, but Lindenberger said the company is planning to expand further into the city and outward into Fort Lauderdale, as well as other large metros the company operates in, such as Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and eventually New York.

Lindenberger is hoping the presence of robots in the streets can act as a “force multiplier” allowing them to scale while maintaining quality of service in a cost-effective way.

“We’re seeing an explosion in deliveries right now in a post-pandemic world and we foresee that to continue, so these types of no-contact, zero-emission automation techniques are really critical,” he said.

Cartken’s robots are powered by a combination of machine learning and rules-based programming to react to every situation that could occur, even if that just means safely stopping and asking for help, Christian Bersch, CEO of Cartken, told TechCrunch. REEF would have supervisors on site to remotely control the robot if needed, a caveat that was included in the 2017 legislation that allowed for the operation of self-driving delivery robots in Florida.

“The technology at the end of the day is very similar to that of a self-driving car,” said Bersch. “The robot is seeing the environment, planning around obstacles like pedestrians or lampposts. If there’s an unknown situation, someone can help the robot out safely because it can stop on a dime. But it’s important to also have that level of autonomy on the robot because it can react in a split second, faster than anybody remotely could, if something happens like someone jumps in front of it.”

REEF marks specific operating areas on the map for the robots and Cartken tweaks the configuration for the city, accounting for specific situations a robot might need to deal with, so that when the robots are given a delivery address, they can make moves and operate like any other delivery driver. Only this driver has an LTE connection and is constantly updating its location so REEF can integrate it into its fleet management capabilities.

Image Credits: REEF/Cartken

Eventually, Lindenberger said, they’re hoping to be able to offer the option for customers to choose robot delivery on the major food delivery platforms REEF works with like Postmates, UberEats, DoorDash or GrubHub. Customers would receive a text when the robot arrives so they could go outside and meet it. However, the tech is not quite there yet.

Currently the robots only make it street-level, and then the food is passed off to a human who delivers it directly to the door, which is a service that most customers prefer. Navigating into an apartment complex and to a customer’s unit is difficult for a robot to manage just yet, and many customers aren’t quite ready to interact directly with a robot. 

“It’s an interim step, but this was a path for us to move forward quickly with the technology without having any other boundaries,” said Lindenberger. “Like with any new tech, you want to take it in steps. So a super important step which we’ve now taken and works very well is the ability to dispatch robots within a certain radius and know that they’re going to arrive there. That in and of itself is a huge step and it allows us to learn what kind of challenges you have in terms of that very last step. Then we can begin to work with Cartken to solve that last piece. It’s a big step just being able to do this automation.”

Google promises better 3D maps

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.

Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.

Image Credits: Google

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

Image Credits: Google

As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).

Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.

And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).

Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.

And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.

ChargerHelp raises $2.75M to keep EV chargers working

By Kirsten Korosec

The coming wave of electric vehicles will require more than thousands of charging stations. In addition to being installed, they also need to work — and today, that isn’t happening.

If a station doesn’t send out an error or a driver doesn’t report it, network providers might never know there’s even a problem. Kameale C. Terry, who co-founded ChargerHelp!, an on-demand repair app for electric vehicle charging stations, has seen these issues firsthand.

One customer assumed that poor usage rates at a particular station was due to a lack of EVs in the area, Terry recalled in a recent interview. That wasn’t the problem.

“There was an abandoned vehicle parked there and the station was surrounded by mud,” said Terry who is CEO and co-founded the company with Evette Ellis.

Demand for ChargerHelp’s service has attracted customers and investors. The company said it has raised $2.75 million from investors Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. This round values the startup, which was founded in January 2020, at $11 million post-money.

The funds will be used to build out its platform, hire beyond its 27-person workforce and expand its service area. ChargerHelp works directly with the charging manufacturers and network providers.

“Today when a station goes down there’s really no troubleshooting guidance,” said Terry, noting that it takes getting someone out into the field to run diagnostics on the station to understand the specific problem. After an onsite visit, a technician then typically shares data with the customer, and then steps are taken to order the correct and specific part — a practice that often doesn’t happen today.

While ChargerHelp is couched as an on-demand repair app, it is also acts as a preventative maintenance service for its customers.

Powering up

The idea for ChargerHelp came from Terry’s experience working at EV Connect, where she held a number of roles, including head of customer experience and director of programs. During her time there, she worked with 12 manufacturers, which gave her knowledge into inner workings and common problems with the chargers.

It was here that she spotted a gap in the EV charging market.

“When the stations went down we really couldn’t get anyone on site because most of the issues were communication issues, vandalism, firmware updates or swapping out a part — all things that were not electrical,” Terry said.

And yet, the general practice was to use electrical contractors to fix issues at the charging stations. Terry said it could take as long as 30 days to get an electrical contractor on site to repair these non-electrical problems.

Terry often took matters in her own hands if issues arose with stations located in Los Angeles, where she is based.

“If there was a part that needed to be swapped out, I would just go do it myself,” Terry said, adding she didn’t have a background in software or repairs. “I thought, if I can figure this stuff out, then anyone can.”

In January 2020, Terry quit her job and started ChargerHelp. The newly minted founder joined the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where she developed a curriculum to teach people how to repair EV chargers. It was here that she met Ellis, a career coach at LACI who also worked at the Long Beach Job Corp Center. Ellis is now the chief workforce officer at ChargerHelp.

Since then, Terry and Ellis were accepted into Elemental Excelerator’s startup incubator, raised about $400,000 in grant money, launched a pilot program with Tellus Power focused on preventative maintenance and landed contracts with EV charging networks and manufacturers such as EV Connect, ABB and SparkCharge. Terry said they have also hired their core team of seven employees and trained their first tranche of technicians.

Hiring approach

ChargerHelp-07886

Image Credits: ChargerHelp

ChargerHelp takes a workforce-development approach to finding employees. The company only hires in cohorts, or groups, of employees.

The company received more than 1,600 applications in its first recruitment round for electric vehicle service technicians, according to Terry. Of those, 20 were picked to go through training and 18 were ultimately hired to service contracts across six states, including California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Texas. Everyone picked to go through training is paid a stipend and earn two safety licenses.

The startup will begin its second recruitment round in April. All workers are full-time with a guaranteed wage of $30 an hour and are being given shares in the startup, Terry said. The company is working directly with workforce development centers in the areas where ChargerHelp needs technicians.

Closing on $103M, MaC VC is changing the face of venture capital

By Jonathan Shieber

The partners at MaC Venture Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that has just closed on $103 million for its inaugural fund, have spent the bulk of their careers breaking barriers.

Formed when M Ventures (a firm founded by former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty); the first Black talent agency partner in the history of Hollywood, Charles D. King; and longtime operating executive (and former agent) Michael Palank joined forces with Marlon Nichols, a co-founder of the LA-based investment firm Cross Culture Capital, MaC Venture Capital wanted to be a different kind of fund.

The firm combines the focus on investing in software that Fenty had honed from his years spent as a special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz, where he spent five years before setting out to launch M Ventures; and Nichols’ thesis-driven approach to focusing on particular sectors that are being transformed by global cultural shifts wrought by changing consumer behavior and demographics.

“There’s a long history and a lot of relationships here,” said King, one of Hollywood’s premier power players and the founder of the global media company, Macro. “Adrian and I go back to 93 [when] we were in law school. We went on to conquer the world, where he went out to Washington DC and I became a senior partner at WME.”

Palank was connected to the team through King as well, since the two men worked together at William Morris before running business development for Will Smith and others.

“There was this idea of having connectivity between tech and innovation… that’s when we formed M Ventures [but] that understanding of media and culture… that focus… was complimentary with what Marlon was doing at Cross Culture,” King said.

Few firms could merge the cultural revolutions wrought by DJ Herc spinning records in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the internet, but that’s exactly what MaC VC aims to do.

And while the firm’s founding partnership would prefer to focus on the financial achievements of their respective firms and the investments that now comprise the new portfolio of their combined efforts — it includes StokeGoodfairFinessePureStream, and Sote — it’s hard to overstate the significance that a general partnership that includes three Black men have raised $103 million in an industry that’s been repeatedly called out for problems with diversity and inclusion.

MaC Venture Capital co-founders Marlon Nichols, Michael Palank, Charles King, and Adrian Fenty. Image Credit: MaC Venture Capital

“Our LPs invested in us… for lots of different reasons but at the top of the list was that we are a diverse team in so many ways. We’re going to show them a set of companies that they would not have seen from any [other] VC fund,” said Fenty. “We also, in turn, have the same investing thesis when we look at companies. We want to have women founders, African American founders, Latino founders… In our fund now we have some companies that are all women, all African American or all Latino.”

The diversity of the firm’s ethos is also reflected in the broad group of limited partners that have come on to bankroll its operations: it includes Goldman Sachs, the University of Michigan, Howard University, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Foot Locker, and Greenspring Associates.

“We are thrilled to join MaC Venture Capital in this key milestone toward building a new kind of venture capital firm that is anchored around a cultural investment thesis and supports transformative companies and dynamic founders,” said Daniel Feder, Managing Director with the University of Michigan Investment Office, in a statement. “Their unified understanding of technology, media, entertainment, and government, along with a successful track record of investing, give them deep insights into burgeoning shifts in culture and behavior.”

And it extends to the firm’s portfolio, a clutch of startup companies headquartered around the globe — from Seattle to Houston and Los Angeles to Nairobi.

“We look at all verticals. We’re very happy to be generalists,” said Fenty.

A laser focus on software-enabled businesses is complemented by the thesis-driven approach laid out in position papers staking out predictions for how the ubiquity of gaming; conscious consumerism; new parenting paradigms; and cultural and demographic shifts will transform the global economy.

Increasingly, that thesis also means moving into areas of frontier technologies that include the space industry, mixed reality and everything at the intersection of computing and the transformation of the physical world — drawn in part by the firm’s close connection to the diverse tech ecosystem that’s emerging in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing these SpaceX and Tesla mafias spin out, entrepreneurs who have had best-in-class training at an Elon Musk company,” said Palank. “It’s a great talent pool, and LA has more computer science students graduating every year than Northern California.”

With its current portfolio, though early, the venture firm is operating in the top 5% of funds — at least on paper — and its early investments are up 3 times what the firm invested, Nichols said. 

“The way to think about it is MaC is essentially an extension of what we were building before,” the Cross Culture Ventures co-founder said. “We’re sticking with the concept that talent is ubiquitous but access to capital and opportunity is not. We want to be the source and access to capital for those founders.”

LA’s socially conscious bank challenger, Aspiration, launches a carbon offset credit card

By Jonathan Shieber

Aspiration, the financial services business for socially conscious consumers, is back with another environmentally friendly offering for its customers — this time, it’s a credit card.

The Los Angeles-based company, which has raised roughly $250 million from investors including the celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition, and Orlando Bloom and more traditional institutional investors like AlphaEdison, Capricorn Investment Group, the Omidyar Network, and Allen & Co., wouldn’t say how much about the terms of the card or the credit limits available.

What Aspiration co-founder Andrei Cherny did discuss was the company’s sense of the significance of its new offering.

“There are plenty of credit cards out there that let you rack up miles, this is the only card that rewards you for taking miles off of the planet,” Aspiration co-founder and CEO Andrei Cherny said in a statement. “For the first time, you can have a climate change-fighting tool right in your wallet.” 

The key to Aspiration’s offset services is nothing more or less than tree planting. It’s the easiest way for consumers to eventually cancel out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with daily living in the U.S.

Every time someone uses the card, Aspiration will have one of its global reforestation partners plant a tree. If a customer uses Aspiration’s credit card 60 times, the resulting trees that are planted are enough to offset the carbon emissions from an average American home

“What we’re doing is basing it on the average American’s carbon footprint,” Cherny affirmed. “Every time you make a purchase Aspiration plants your tree. The way the math works out. The average carbon impact of the average tree when you have 60 of them you eliminate the emissions from an average American home.”

Using Aspiration’s app, which includes other tools for consumers to gauge the social impact of their purchases, credit card customers can track their progress towards offsetting their emissions. For every month in which a user gets to carbon zero, Aspiration will reward them with 1% cashback on their credit card purchases.

Cherny said the company works with accredited partners and uses satellite imaging and on-the-ground monitoring to ensure that the forestation projects are proceeding according to plan and that the trees aren’t being harvested.

The company isn’t just doing this out of a sense of corporate responsibility there’s actually an arbitrage case where the planting of seeds becomes a profit center (however nominal) for the company.

“As we get to scale that will be the case,” Cherny said. “We are not a nonprofit, we’re a for-profit company dedicated to saving the planet. Until people can make a profit off of saving the planet in the same way people have been profiting on destroying the planet, there are going to continue to be problems… If only oil companies and incumbent banks can make money by destroying the planet, then we’re in trouble.”

Bill Gates wants Western countries to eat “synthetic meat”; Meatable has raised $47 million to make it

By Jonathan Shieber

In a recent interview discussing Bill Gates’ recent book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster“, the Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy founder (and the world’s third wealthiest man) advocated for citizens of the richest countries in the world to switch to diets consisting entirely of what he called synthetic meat in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Gates’ call is being met by startups and public companies hailing from everywhere from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, London to Los Angeles, and Berkeley to… um… Chicago.

Indeed, two of the best funded companies in the lab-grown meat market hail from The Netherlands, where Mosa Meat is being challenged by a newer upstart, Meatable, which just announced $47 million in new financing.

The company aims to have its first product approved by European regulators by 2023 and notching commercial sales by 2025.

Meatable has a long road ahead of it, because, as Gates acknowledged in his interview with MIT Technology Review (ed. note: I’m available for a call, too, Bill), “the people like Memphis Meats who do it at a cellular level—I don’t know that that will ever be economical.”

Beyond the economics, there’s also the open question of whether consumers will be willing to make the switch to lab grown meat. Some companies, like the San Francisco-based Just Foods and Tel Aviv’s Supermeat are already selling chicken patties and nuggets made from cultured cells at select restaurants.

These products don’t get at the full potential for cellular technology according to Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technology officer. “We have seen the nugget and the chicken burger, but we’re working on whole muscle tissue,” Luining said.

The sheer number of entrants in the category — and the capital they’ve raised — points to the opportunity for several winners if companies can walk the tightrope balancing cost at scale and quality replacements for free range food.

“The mission of the company is to be a global leader in providing proteins for the planet. Pork and beef and regularly eaten cuts have on environmental and land management,” Luining said. “The technology that we are using allows us to go into different species. First we’re focused on the animals that have the biggest impact on climate change and planetary health.”

For Meatable right now, price remains an issue. The company is currently producing meat at roughly $10,000 per pound, but, unlike its competitors, the company said it is producing whole meat. That’s including the fat and connective tissue that makes meat… well… meat.

Now with 35 employees and new financing, the company is trying to shift from research and development into a food production company. Strategic investors like DSM, one of the largest food biotech companies in Europe should help. So should angel investors like Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, the executive chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; and Dr. Rick Klausner, the former executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a founder of Juno Therapeutics, GRAIL, and Mindstrong Health, after leaving Illumina where he served as chief medical officer.

Institutional investors in the company’s latest round include Google Ventures founder Bill Maris’ new fund, Section 32,  and existing investors like: BlueYard Capital, Agronomics, Humboldt, and Taavet Hinrikus. 

The company’s first commercial offering will likely be a lab-grown pork product, but with expanded facilities in Delft, the location of one of the top universities in The Netherlands, a beef product may not be far behind.

“[Meatable has] a great team and game-changing technology that can address the challenges around the global food insecurity issues our planet is facing,” said Klausner. “They have all the right ingredients to become the leading choice for sustainably and efficiently produced meat.”

Tile brings its lost item-tracking service to wearables with Google Fitbit deal for Inspire 2 owners

By Sarah Perez

Lost item finder Tile, the maker of the popular Bluetooth-powered tracker that can help you find your misplaced keys, bag, wallet or more, is bringing its tracking service to a wearable device for the first time with the launch of its Fitbit partnership. Starting today, all new and current Fitbit Inspire 2 users will gain access to Tile’s Bluetooth-finding technology at no extra cost, the company says.

As a result of the deal, existing Inspire 2 users will soon be prompted to update their device’s software via the Fitbit app, which will make the new Tile feature available. Once updated, users will be directed to download Tile’s mobile app for access to the lost item-finding features. From the Tile app, Inspire 2 users will then be able to locate their misplaced Fitbit when they’re within Bluetooth range — for example, if the device has been lost somewhere inside their home. If the device is farther away, users will be able to tap into Tile’s broader finding network which leverages the Tile app installed on all Tile users’ smartphones. When anyone with the app is near the lost item, its location is shared back through the network to the original owner.

At present, Tile says it’s locating up to 6 million unique items per day across 195 countries.

Tile’s service is made available for free to Fitbit users and other customers, but it monetizes through a combination of device sales, in-app subscriptions and other partnerships. The Tile Premium subscription will also be available to Inspire 2 users as an optional upgrade from within the Tile app at $2.99 per month or $29.99 per year. This service, originally targeted toward Tile tracker owners, includes free battery replacements for Tile devices, access to 30-day location history, item reimbursements and smart alerts that remind you when you’ve left home without important things.

“Now with Tile technology, we’re adding even more convenience and helpful tools to Inspire 2, our accessible, easy-to-use activity and sleep tracker,” said Larry Yang, director of Product Management of Fitbit Devices at Google, which finalized its Fitbit acquisition in early 2021. “We’re excited to partner with Tile so our users can focus on building healthy habits without worrying about not being able to find their misplaced device, with the potential to bring Tile’s finding technology to more Fitbit devices in the future,” he added.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile’s partnership with Fitbit is now one of over 20 partners leveraging Tile’s technology in some way across audio, travel, smart home and PC categories. And while technically Fitbit is the first “wearable” partner, Tile has worked with others in the consumer electronics space, including headphone makers like Skullcandy, Bose and Sennheiser.

The company’s ability to expand its reach through industry partners may become even more critical to its future in the face of new competition from Apple, and to some extent, Samsung. Apple has been developing its own Tile competitor, AirTags, which the company accidentally disclosed in a YouTube video last year. These will leverage both Bluetooth and newer ultra-wideband technology to more precisely locate lost items. Meanwhile, Samsung’s newest Tile competitor, the Galaxy SmartTag, will also come in an UWB-powered version later this year.

This competition, specifically from Apple, could spell trouble for Tile, which has become a vocal participant in the U.S. antitrust investigations against Apple. The company has testified against Apple in congressional hearings about how its business has been negatively impacted by Apple in the past, and it pushed for third-party access to Apple’s “Find My” app as a means of evening the playing field between Apple’s upcoming trackers and its own. Tile also joined the Coalition for App Fairness, an advocacy group that’s now pushing for legislation to regulate the app stores in various U.S. states.

Partnering with Apple’s competitor, Google (by way of Fitbit), could be seen as another way for Tile to shore up a position for itself within a key section of the wearables market before AirTags arrive.

Now approved in LA, Abodu’s backyard homes can now go from contract to completion in as little as 30 days

By Jonathan Shieber

Abodu, one of a slew of startup companies pitching backyard homes and office spaces to Californians in an effort to help address the state’s housing shortage, has instituted a new “Quickship” program that can take an order from contract to construction and installation in about 30 days.

Behind the quick turnaround time is a pre-approval process that was first rolled out in Santa Fe and came to Los Angeles in recent weeks.

Abodu began installing homes through a pre-approval process back in 2019, when the city of San Jose created a program that allowed developers of alternative dwelling units to submit plans for pre-approval to cut the time for homeowners.

That approval process means that ADU developers like Abodu can be permitted in one hour. Other ADU developers pre-approved in San Jose, California include Acton ADU, the venture-backed Connect Homes, J. Kretschmer Architect, Mayberry Workshop, Open Remodel and prefabADU. In Los Angeles, La Mas, IT House, Design, Bitches, Connect Homes, Welcome Projects and First Office have all had homes pre-approved for construction.

Beyond the cities where Adobu’s ADUs have received pre-approval, the company has built across California in cities ranging from, Palo Alto, Millbrae, Orange County, LA and Oakland. Units in the Bay Area cost roughly $189,000 as a starting price, compared to the $650,000 to $850,000 it takes to build units in a mid-rise apartment building, or $1 million per unit in a steel-reinforced highrise, according to the company.

“Our Quickship program is the fastest way to add housing,” said John Geary, CEO at Abodu. “Homeowners with immediate needs, be it family situations or those looking for investment income, can now complete an ADU project in as little as four weeks. A key mission for Abodu is to make a serious dent in our state’s housing deficit while providing people and municipalities the necessary blueprint to enact real change.”

For Initialized partner (and former TechCrunch writer) Kim-Mai Cutler, who serves on the Abodu board of directors, the achievement of a 30-day construction milestone is almost a dream come true. Cutler wrote the book (or the equivalent of a book) on the housing crisis and its impact on the Bay Area and California broadly.

That piece led Cutler to work in public service “on boards and commissions overseeing the spending of federal dollars on homelessness and the proceeds of municipal bonds directed at financing affordable housing (because yes, for some segments of residents, you do have to explicitly subsidize housing at the local level),” as she noted in a blog post about her investment in Abodu.

The interior of an Abodu home. Photo via Abodu.

Cutler backed the company because of her deep knowledge of the issues associated with housing.

“The reason this is a big deal is because Northern California has been the most expensive and unpredictable place to build new housing in the world. Projects typically take several years because of uncertainty with entitlements and materials,” Cutler wrote. “Over the past year, Abodu co-founders John Geary and Eric McInerney have put homes in the backyards of parents bringing kids home from college, a mother-and-son pair that each bought one for their homes in Millbrae, a couple looking to eventually house a grandmother in San Jose and on and on.”

The key inspiration that Abodu’s founders hit on was their concentration on granny flats, casitas and backyard dwellings. “While deliberations over mid-rise density were stalling in Sacramento, the state legislature (and legislatures up north in the Pacific Northwest) were passing bill after bill, including Phil Ting’s AB 68 and Bob Wieckowski’s SB 1069, to make it really easy to add backyard units,” Cutler wrote. “This is the kind of change that suburban America wants, is comfortable with and can politically pass and implement easily.”

To Cutler’s thinking, Adobu’s 30-day construction schedule will change consumer behavior, thanks to the fact that the home can be craned in and installed in less than a day on a foundation constructed in less than two weeks. Its incredibly low cost will enable a lot of opportunities to develop new inventory and the simple fact is that inventory remains a scarce commodity. As Cutler noted, only half as many homes are trading across the United States as were available a year ago, which is happening at the same time as when millennials are entering prime family formation years. 

Squarespace raises $300M at a staggering $10B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Squarespace has raised $300 million in a round of funding that values the company at a staggering $10 billion valuation.

New backers include Dragoneer, Tiger Global, D1 Capital Partners, Fidelity Management & Research Company, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and Spruce House. Existing backers Accel and General Atlantic also participated. 

Squarespace founder & CEO Anthony Casalena said the fresh capital will advance the company’s growth initiatives and help it scale its product suite.

The move comes less than two months after the company filed confidentiality to go public via a direct listing or initial public offering.

Squarespace, which has helped millions create their own websites, was founded in 2003 and bootstrapped until a $38.5 million Series A in 2010 that was co-led by Accel and Index Ventures.

The online website creation and hosting service — which has now expanded into e-commerce by hosting online stores — then raised another $40 million round in 2014. But it is perhaps best known for its epic 2017-era $200 million secondary round that General Atlantic financed. That round was raised at a $1.5 billion pre-money valuation.

At that time, TechCrunch reported that Squarespace was a profitable company, with revenues increasing 50% in the prior year, to about $300 million. Execs are declining to comment on the company’s latest funding round beyond a post on its website.

New York City-based Squarespace has over 1,200 employees spread across its headquarters and offices in Dublin, Ireland; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, California. 

 

Companies Are Rushing to Use AI—but Few See a Payoff

By Will Knight
A study finds that only 11 percent of firms that have deployed artificial intelligence are reaping a “sizable” return on their investments.
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