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

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

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China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

Why D2C holding companies are here to stay

By Walter Thompson
Alex Song Contributor
Alex is CEO and co-Founder of Innovation Department, a tech-empowered platform building the next generation of consumer brands. Previously, he worked at Goldman Sachs and Pershing Square Capital Management.

It wasn’t that long ago that digitally-native, vertically-integrated brands (DNVBs) were the talk of the startup world.

Venture capitalists and founders watched as Warby Parker, Casper, Glossier, Harry’s and Honest Company became the belles of the D2C ball, trotting their way towards unicorn valuations. Not long after, the “startup studio” was unmasked as the elusive unicorn breeding grounds (think Hims). Today, there’s yet another buzzword that’s all the rage and it goes by the name “D2C Holding Company.” And it’s not going away anytime soon.

What are DNVBs?

In 2017, DNVBs were a game-changer. Different than e-commerce, DNVBs sell products online directly to consumers and maintain control and transparency through each stage of the production and distribution process, all without the involvement of middlemen. This allows DNVBs to determine where and how their products are sold and to collect customer data that helps optimize their marketing strategies. 

DNVBs have exploded over the last decade, growing sales and venture capital funding at a rapid pace. These brands use digital engagement strategies to create stronger relationships with consumers, which — when implemented alongside captivating content — contribute heavily to brand success by increasing customer LTV and creating compounding unit economics.

The problem with DNVBs

In the last three years alone, more DNVBs have launched than in the entirety of the previous decade.

While this growth is encouraging, the problem is that these DNVBs are raising so much venture capital that in order to meet the return requirements of their investors, they need a significant purchase offer or IPO valuation. With more than 85 percent of acquisitions happening below $250 million in purchase price, strategic acquisitions offers that meet investor expectations are few and far between.

This ultimately creates a state of startup purgatory where DNVBs have no choice but to take a downround to find a lifeline — sorry, Honest Company — making it difficult to develop disciplined operational habits and achieve sustainable growth. With these challenges becoming more glaringly apparent in recent years, there came a need for a new approach to D2C at large. Enter the modern D2C holding company.

Make way for the D2C holding company model

Today’s version of the holding company model takes what companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever did in the 1950s and modernizes it for the existing D2C market. Instead of taking a siloed approach, brands pool resources, operational costs and institutional knowledge to accelerate growth and achieve profitability at a faster rate. 

DNVB darlings Harry’s and Glossier are great examples of this. Harry’s diversification efforts have been centerstage as the company works to grow beyond men’s grooming to include personal care for men and women, household items and baby products. In May, Edgewell Personal Care, which owns brands like Schick, Banana Boat, and Wet Ones, acquired Harry’s for $1.37 billion. Glossier is also working to diversify its portfolio, with the launch of Glossier Play, a younger, more colorful sister brand to its original.

For DNVBs to successfully pivot to a holding company model, they will need to prioritize 1) diversification to satisfy customers’ short attention spans, 2) a data-first mindset to deliver the best possible customer experience, and 3) operational and capital efficiency to not only stay afloat, but thrive. 

An evolving landscape

The landscape for D2C holding companies is just starting to take shape, but here are some of the key players who have adopted this approach and are finding early success:

ProducePay nabs $190 million debt financing to lend to farmers

By Jonathan Shieber

Los Angeles-based ProducePay has inked a $190 million debt facility from CoVenture and TCM Capital, to expand its lending business and marketplace for farmers.

ProducePay offers farmers cash advances throughout the growing season to smooth the sometimes lumpy revenues and give farmers a bit more predictability, the company said. It buys produce ahead of delivery and sets itself up as a middle-man between distributors, growers and grocers.

Since its launch in 2015, the company has seen $1.5 billion worth of produce flow across its marketplace  and $750 million of those transactions were in the last year.

ProducePay’s pitch to farmers is the company’s centralized marketplace, which the company says offers growers higher pricing and certain payment from distributors along with better pricing for supplies and services like seed, equipment and logistics services.

The marketplace service, which only launched in October,  has already seen $100 million in purchases.

“In just four years, ProducePay has had a transformative effect on the financial health and success of scores of farmers and value-additive distributors in Latin America and the U.S.,” said ProducePay Founder and CEO Pablo Borquez Schwarzbeck, in a statement. “This new debt facility will accelerate ProducePay’s impact, empowering more farmers and distributors to run their businesses more profitably, making high quality and affordable fresh produce available throughout the U.S.”

Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

By Josh Constine

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There are a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward as its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011, Facebook said that 95% of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past eight years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same three people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends, as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots (above) of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking creepier sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals, as those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, live streaming and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends,” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

Volkswagen’s new all-electric concept wagon could be coming to the U.S. by 2022

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

[gallery ids="1914304,1914306,1914307,1914308,1914309,1914310"]

Audi’s next all-electric vehicle, the e-tron Sportback, is a “coupé” SUV

By Kirsten Korosec

Audi revealed Tuesday evening in Los Angeles the e-tron Sportback as the German automaker begins to chip away at its plan to launch more than 30 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2025.

The e-tron Sportback reveal ahead of the LA Auto Show follows the launch earlier this year of Audi’s first all-electric vehicle, the 2019 e-tron.

Audi has delivered 18,500 of its all-electric e-tron SUVs globally since March 2019 when the vehicle first came to market. And the company is hoping to grab more, and different, customers with the Sportback.

Audi plans to offer two variants of the vehicle, a Sportback 50 and Sportback 55. The Sportback will come to Europe first in spring 2020. The Sportback 55 will come to the U.S. in fall 2020.

Audi calls this e-tron Sportback a SUV coupé, the latest evidence that automakers are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional automotive terminology. This is not a two-door car with a fixed roof and a sloping rear, although there are “coupé” elements in the design.

This is in fact a SUV with a roof that extend flat over the body and then drops steeply to the rear — that’s where the coupé name comes in — and into the D pillar of the vehicle. Then there’s the classic “Sportback” feature in the body where the lower edge of the side window rises toward the rear.

There are design details repeated throughout the exterior, specifically the four-bar pattern in the headlamps, front grille and wheels. And of course there are special interior and exterior finishes – 13 paint colors in all — and a first edition version customers can buy. The base price of the Sportback is 71,350 ($79,000).

But importantly, besides some styling and design changes, this vehicle boasts longer range and for everyone outside the U.S., futuristic looking side mirrors and new lighting tech.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a 86.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has a range of up to 446 kilometers (277.1 miles) in the EU’s WLTP cycle. The EPA estimates aren’t out yet, but expect the range numbers to be slightly lower.

The company is targeting an EPA range of about 220 miles over the 204 miles of range that the regular e-tron gets.

Audi was able to improve the range by increasing the net battery capacity. It also decoupled the front motor and improved the thermal management.

Lighting and mirrors

Audi is known for its lighting and the company has made this a key feature in the Sportback. The vehicle has a new digital matrix headlights that breaks down light into tiny pixels. The result is precise lighting that has high resolution.

Inside the headlight is a digital micromirror device that acts like a video projector. Inside the DMD is a small chip from Texas Instruments that contains one million micromirrors. These micromirrors can be tilted up to 5,000 times per second.

The upshot: The headlights can project specific patterns on the road or illuminate certain areas more brightly. And for fun, animations like the e-tron or Audi logos can be projected on a wall when the vehicle is stopped.

Check out this video to see it in action.

The safety piece of this is the most interesting. For instance, on a freeway the light might creates a carpet of light that illuminates the driver’s own lane brightly and adjusts dynamically when he or she changes lane.

Then there are the virtual exterior mirrors. This wing-shaped side mirror doesn’t have an exterior mirror. Instead, it supports integrate small cameras. The captured images appear on high-contrast OLED displays inside the car between the instrument panel and the door.

If the driver moves their finger toward the surface of the touch display, symbols are activated with which the driver can reposition the image. The mirrors can be adjust automatically to three driving situations for highway driving, turning and parking.

Neither the mirrors of the digital matrix LED lighting is available in the U.S. and won’t be until the government changes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, which are the regulations that dictate the design, construction, performance, and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

Vulog will power Hyundai’s new LA car-sharing service

By Kirsten Korosec

The technology behind Hyundai’s new car-sharing service in Los Angeles is provided by a company that is largely unknown despite its ubiquity.

Vulog announced Tuesday during Automobility LA that Hyundai will use its technology platform for a car-sharing pilot that will launch in Los Angeles at the end of 2019 and will eventually grow to 300 vehicles.

Vulog might have a low profile, but it’s hardly a startup. The French-based company has been providing the underlying hardware and software needed for car-sharing services since 2006. Vulog’s product, which includes tools like fleet management and a consumer-facing app, is used in car-sharing services in more than 30 cities globally. The company says its turnkey product can get a large-scale car-sharing service up and running in about three months.

Today, its platform is used by Volkswagen’s WeShare, Kia Motor’s Wible and Groupe PSA’ Free2Move car-sharing service. Aimo, which is owned by Sumitomo Corporation, and a British Columbia Automobile Association company called Evo also uses the platform. And now, Hyundai.

Earlier this month, Hyundai Group launched MoceanLab, a mobility service venture based in Los Angeles and the latest effort by the automaker to diversify and modernize its core business of producing and selling vehicles. MoceanLab will focus on piloting autonomous ridesharing, shuttling, multimodal transportation, and personal mobility in Los Angeles.

One of the efforts under MoceanLab is Mocean Carshare, the car-sharing service that will use Vulog’s technology platform. The service is part of a permit pilot program offered by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The car-sharing service will use 20 Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Mocean Carshare will eventually transition to a fleet of 300 fully electric vehicles from Hyundai and Kia Motors. 

MoceanLab, the umbrella mobility services venture, will do more than car-sharing. The Hyundai-owned company is eyeing the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles as an event to offer a variety of services to alleviate congestion, including autonomous ridesharing and shuttling.

The creation of MoceanLab follows Hyundai’s joint venture with autonomous driving company Aptiv and the launch of BotRide, an autonomous ride-hailing service in nearby Irvine, California with Chinese autonomous startup Pony.ai  and Via.

Meanwhile, Vulog has its own ambitions. The company plans to double its footprint in the next year to hit 60 cities by the end of 2020.

Heliogen’s new tech could unlock renewable energy for industrial manufacturing

By Jonathan Shieber

Last Monday a group of millionaires and billionaires took a trip to an industrial site in Lancaster, Calif. to witness the achievement of what could represent a giant leap forward in the effort to decarbonize some of the world’s most carbon intensive industries.

For Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab and brains behind the excursion, the unveiling was simply the latest in a string of demonstrations for new technologies commercialized by his nearly three-decade old startup company incubator. However, it may be the most significant.

What Gross is pursuing with his new company, Heliogen, offers a way forward for renewable energy to be applied to manufacturing processes for cement, lime, coke, and steel — some of the most energy intensive and polluting industries that exist in the world today.

“Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions,” said Bill Gates, a Heliogen backer who has committed millions of dollars to the development of new renewable energy technologies. “These materials are everywhere in our lives but we don’t have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable, zero-carbon versions of them. If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do. I’m pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross’s novel solar concentration technology. Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”

According to Gross, Kittu Kollaru, an investor in Heliogen who is also backing another of Idealab’s incubated companies working on developing an energy storage technology, Energy Vault, said after seeing the demonstration, “Bill… this is even bigger.”

At its core, Heliogen is taking a well-known technology called concentrated solar power, and improving its ability to generate heat with new computer vision, sensing and control technologies, says Gross. \

Four high resolution cameras capture real time video of a field of mirrors that are controlled by sensors to focus the sun’s energy on a particular spot. That spot, either at a transmission pipe used to transport gas, or a tower, is heated to over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Previous commercial concentrating solar thermal systems could only reach temperatures of 565 degrees Celsius, the company said. That’s useful for generating power, but can’t meet the needs of industrial processes. 

Achieving temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius gives manufacturing facilities the opportunity to replace the use of fossil fuels in a significant portion of their operations.

A facility hoping to install Heliogen’s technology (Image courtesy of Heliogen)

“They already have a power source/burner that is variable, based on the flow rate of materials, and is servo controlled to have the correct air flow exit temperature,” says Gross of many existing industrial operations. “So when we add heat (when the sun is out) the fossil fuel burner just automatically gets scaled back like a thermostat on a room heater (albeit at much higher temperature).  So it’s a seamless control integration.”

A plant could still operate on a 24-hour production schedule, and could still use fossil fuels, says Gross. But by deploying the Heliogen system, companies could reduce their fossil fuel consumption by up to 60%, according to the serial entrepreneur and investor. Gross believes that Heliogen’s systems will pay for themselves in a two-to-three year timeframe if companies buy the system outright, or Heliogen could manage the installation for a manufacturer and just charge them for the cost of the power.

Gross has been testing smaller versions of Heliogen’s industrial heating technology at a field with an array of 70 mirrors to prove that the super-concentrating technology could work. A full scale facility covers roughly two acres of land with mirrors and a tower where the rays are concentrated. “It’s like a death ray,” Gross said of the concentrated solar beams.

While initial applications for Heliogen’s technology will concentrate on industrial applications, longer term, Gross sees an opportunity to drive down the cost of Hydrogen production at an industrial scale. Long believed to be one of the keys to global decarbonization, Hydrogen’s use as a fuel source has been limited because it’s difficult to make without using fossil fuels.

Hydrogen’s importance to a carbon-free energy future can’t be overstated, according to energy advocates and longtime renewable energy entrepreneurs and investors like Jigar Shah. The founder and former chief executive of solar installation company, SunRun, Shah now invests in renewabel energy projects.

“As we move closer to 100% clean electricity grids, it will be necessary to not just store excess electricity production from the spring and fall, but to turn all of this excess electricity to valuable commodities that can help decarbonize other sectors outside of electricity — transportation, industrial heat, and chemicals,” Shah wrote in an article on LinkedIn. “That’s where hydrogen comes into play.”

Investors in Heliogen include venture capital firm Neotribe and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire Los Angeles-based investor and entrepreneur, who owns the Los Angeles Times and an investment conglomerate. THe investmente was made through Dr. Soon-Shiong’s investment firm, Nant Capital.

“For the sake of our future generations we must address the existential danger of climate change with an extreme sense of urgency,” said Dr. Soon-Shiong, in a statement. “I am committed to using my resources to invest in innovative technologies that harness the power of nature and the sun. By significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating a pure source of energy, Heliogen’s brilliant technology will help us achieve this mission and also meaningfully improve the world we leave our children.”

TriNet sent remote workers an email that some thought was a phishing attack

By Zack Whittaker

It was the one of the best phishing emails we’ve seen… that wasn’t.

Phishing remains one of the most popular attack choices for scammers. Phishing emails are designed to impersonate companies or executives to trick users into turning over sensitive information, typically usernames and passwords, so that scammers can log into online services and steal money or data. But detecting and preventing phishing isn’t just a user problem — it’s a corporate problem too, especially when companies don’t take basic cybersecurity precautions and best practices to hinder scammers from ever getting into a user’s inbox.

Enter TriNet, a human resources giant, which this week became the poster child for how how to make a genuine email to its customers look inadvertently as suspicious as it gets.

Remote employees at companies across the U.S. who rely on TriNet for access to outsourced human resources, like their healthcare benefits and workplace policies, were sent an email this week as part of an effort to keep employees “informed and up-to-date on the labor and employment laws that affect you.”

Workers at one Los Angeles-based health startup that manages its employee benefits through TriNet all got the email at the same time. But one employee wasn’t convinced it was a real email, and forwarded it — and its source code — to TechCrunch.

TriNet is one of the largest outsourced human resources providers in the United States, primarily for small-to-medium-sized businesses that may not have the funding to hire dedicated human resources staff. And this time of year is critical for companies that rely on TriNet, since health insurance plans are entering open enrollment and tax season is only a few weeks away. With benefit changes to consider, it’s not unusual for employees to receive a rash of TriNet-related emails towards the end of the year.

But this email didn’t look right. In fact when we looked under the hood of the email, everything about it looked suspicious.

This is the email that remote workers received. TriNet said the use of an Imgur-hosted image in the email was “mistakenly” used. (Image: TechCrunch/supplied)

We looked at the source code of the email, including its headers. These email headers are like an envelope — they say where an email came from, who it’s addressed to, how it was routed, and if there were any complications along the way, such as being marked as spam.

There were more red flags than we could count.

Chief among the issues were that the TriNet logo in the email was hosted on Imgur, a free image-hosting and meme-sharing site, and not the company’s own website. That’s a common technique among phishing attackers — they use Imgur to host images they use in their spam emails to avoid detection. Since the image was uploaded in July, that logo was viewed more than 70,000 times until we reached out to TriNet, which removed the image, suggesting thousands of TriNet customers had received one of these emails. And, although the email contained a link to a TriNet website, the page that loaded had an entirely different domain with nothing on it to suggest it was a real TriNet-authorized site besides a logo, which if it were a phishing site could’ve been easily spoofed.

Fearing that somehow scammers had sent out a phishing email to potentially thousands of TriNet customers, we reached out to security researcher John Wethington, founder of security firm Condition:Black, to examine the email.

It turns out he was just as convinced as us that the email may have been fake.

“As hackers and self-proclaimed social engineers, we often think that spotting a phishing email is ‘easy’,” said Wethington. “The truth is it’s hard.”

“When we first examined the email every alarm bell was going off. The deeper we dug into it the more confusing things became. We looked at the domain name records, the site’s source code, and even the webpage hashes,” he said.

There was nothing, he said, that gave us “100% confidence” that the site was genuine until we contacted TriNet.

TriNet spokesperson Renee Brotherton confirmed to TechCrunch that the email campaign was legitimate, and that it uses the third-party site “for our compliance ePoster service offering. She added: “The Imgur image you reference is an image of the TriNet logo that Poster Elite mistakenly pointed to and it has since been removed.”

“The email you referenced was sent to all employees who do not go into an employer’s physical workspace to ensure their access to required notices,” said TriNet’s spokesperson.

When reached, Poster Elite also confirmed the email was legitimate.

This is not a phishing site, but it sure looks like one. (Image: TechCrunch)

How did TriNet get this so wrong? This culmination of errors had some who received the email worried that their information might have been breached.

“When companies communicate with customers in ways that are similar to the way scammers communicate, it can weaken their customer’s ability over time to spot and shut down security threats in future communications,” said Rachel Tobac, a hacker, social engineer, and founder of SocialProof Security.

Tobac pointed to two examples of where TriNet got it wrong. First, it’s easy for hackers to send spoofed emails to TriNet’s workers because TriNet’s DMARC policy on its domain name is not enforced.

Second, the inconsistent use of domain names is confusing for the user. TriNet confirmed that it pointed the link in the email — posters.trinet.com — to eposterservice.com, which hosts the company’s compliance posters for remote workers. TriNet thought that forwarding the domain would suffice, but instead we thought someone had hijacked TriNet’s domain name settings — a type of attack that’s on the increase, though primarily carried out by state actors. TriNet is a huge target — it stores workers’ benefits, pay details, tax information and more. We had assumed the worst.

“This is similar to an issue we see with banking fraud phone communications,” said Tobac. “Spammers call bank customers, spoof the bank’s number, and pose as the bank to get customers to give account details to ‘verify their account’ before ‘hearing about the fraud the bank noticed on their account — which, of course, is an attack,” she said.

“This is surprisingly exactly what the legitimate phone call sounds like when the bank is truly calling to verify fraudulent transactions,” Tobac said.

Wethington noted that other suspicious indicators were all techniques used by scammers in phishing attacks. The posters.trinet.com subdomain used in the email was only set up a few weeks ago, and the eposterservice.com domain it pointed to used an HTTPS certificate that wasn’t associated with either TriNet or Poster Elite.

These all point to one overarching problem. TriNet may have sent out a legitimate email but everything about it looked problematic.

On one hand, being vigilant about incoming emails is a good thing. And while it’s a cat-and-mouse game to evade phishing attacks, there are things that companies can do to proactively protect themselves and their customers from scams and phishing attacks. And yet TriNet failed in almost every way by opening itself up to attacks by not employing these basic security measures.

“It’s hard to distinguish the good from the bad even with proper training, and when in doubt I recommend you throw it out,” said Wethington.

LA warns of ‘juice-jacking’ malware, but admits it has no cases

By Zack Whittaker

Los Angeles’ district attorney is warning travelers to avoid public USB charging points because “they may contain dangerous malware.”

Reading the advisory, you might be forgiven for thinking that every USB outlet you see is just waiting for you to plug in your phone so it can steal your data. This so-called “juice-jacking” attack involves criminals loading malware “on charging stations or cables they leave plugged in at the stations so they may infect the phones and other electronic devices of unsuspecting users,” it reads. “The malware may lock the device or export data and passwords directly to the scammer.”

But the county’s chief prosecutor’s office told TechCrunch said that it has “no cases” of juice-jacking on its books, though it said there are known cases on the east coast.When asked where those cases were, the spokesperson did not know. And when asked what prompted the alert to begin with, the spokesperson said it was part of “an ongoing fraud education campaign.”

Which begs the question — why?

Security researcher Kevin Beaumont tweeted that he hasn’t seen “any evidence of malware being used in the wild on these things.” In fact, ask around and you’ll find very little out there. Several security researchers have dropped me messages saying they’ve seen proof-of-concepts, but nothing actively malicious.

Juice-jacking is a real threat, but it’s an incredibly complicated and imperfect way to attack someone when there are far easier ways.

The idea, though — that you can plug in your phone and have your secrets stolen — is not entirely farfetched. Over the years there have been numerous efforts to demonstrate that it’s possible. As ZDNet points out in its coverage of the juice-jacking warning, the FBI sent out a nationwide alert about the threat after security researcher Samy Kamkar developed an Ardunio-based implant designed to look like a USB charger to wirelessly sniff the air for leaky key strokes. And just earlier this year, a security researcher developed an iPhone charger cable clone that let a nearby hacker run commands on the vulnerable computer.

LA recommend using an AC power outlet and not a charging station, and to take your cables with you. That’s sound advice, but it’s just one of many things you need to do to keep your devices and data safe.

Los Angeles-based BuildOps, subcontracting software for real estate, raises $5.8 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Software development companies tackling services for niche industries, like commercial real estate subcontracting, continue to find Los Angeles to be fertile ground for development.

The latest company to raise funding from a clutch of investors is BuildOps, which raised $5.8 million in seed financing from some big names in the Los Angeles tech ecosystem.

Led by Fika Ventures, with additional investments from MetaProp VC, Global Founders Capital, CrossCut Ventures, TenOneTen, IGSB, 1984 Ventures, L2 Ventures, GroundUp, NBA all-star Metta World Peace, Oberndorf Enterprises, Wolfson Group and scouts from Sequoia Capital, the new financing will be used to support the company’s continued growth.

BuildOps sells software that integrates scheduling, dispatching, inventory management, contracts, workflow and accounting into a single software package for commercial real estate contractors with staff ranging from a few dozen to several hundred employees.

Software for the service industry is nothing new for Los Angeles entrepreneurs. The unicorn ServiceTitan hails from the greater Los Angeles area and a number of other software as a service businesses are calling the greater Los Angeles area home.

It’s hard to argue with the size of the commercial construction market. Over the past three years, commercial construction spending grew from $626 billion to $807 billion, according to data provided by the company. And while most large vendors — architects, general contractors and property management companies — have some project management software, the fragmented group of subcontractors that provide services to those customers has remained resistant to adopting new technologies, the company said.

The firm was co-founded by former ServiceTitan developer Neeraj Mittal; Microsoft, Nextag, Swurv and Fundly former executive Steve Chew; and Alok Chanani, who previously founded a commercial real estate company and was a former commander of a transportation unit of the Army in Iraq.

“At BuildOps, we are on a mission to bring a true all-in-one solution on the latest technology to the people who keep America’s hospitals, power plants and commercial real estate running. We are privileged to be working closely with some of the country’s top commercial contractors,” said Chanani.

That sentiment is echoed by Liquid 2 Ventures managing partner and former National Football League superstar, Joe Montana .

“Liquid 2 Ventures has an investment thesis in supporting America’s working class and I just love the idea of making their lives far easier and better. You have one solution that does it all and talks seamlessly to every single part of their business from parts to ordering to inventory and more,” said Montana in a statement. “There are very few world-class technology solutions for commercial subcontractors like this and we believe in the founders.”

Backed by Will Smith and FabFitFun, Our Place brings cookware and dinnerware direct to consumers

By Jonathan Shieber

The husband and wife co-founders behind the direct-to-consumer cookware and dinnerware startup retailer Our Place are big believers in the notion that the doorway to inclusive communities opens through the kitchen. 

Amir Tehrani, the company’s co-founder and chief executive spent, his life in the cookware and kitchen business, while his wife, Shiza Shahid, is the co-founder of the Malala Fund, supporting educational initiatives for young women around the world, and Now Ventures, an impact seed investment fund based in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles-based company is taking Shahid’s belief in social missions and the power of entrepreneurialism to transform communities, and Amir’s knowledge of the multibillion-dollar cookware and dinnerware business, to create a consumer-focused business that celebrates the culture surrounding cooking and uses it as a way to educate and inform — all while selling high-end pots, pans, plates and glasses to an audience of socially conscious consumers.

Joining the two co-founders is  Zach Rosner, the chief operating officer and third co-founder at Our Place, who previously helped build out e-commerce teams at Everlane and MeUndies.

The project has received its initial capital from some pretty high-end backers. So far, the company has raised $2.35 million in financing from investors, including the venture arm of Los Angeles’ startup retail giant, FabFitFun and Will Smith’s Dreamers VC.

Two of the new products available from startup direct to consumer cookware and dinnerware brand OurPlace

The company’s initial line of dinnerware and cookware is manufactured in China and its glassware is manufactured in Thailand.

But the two executives have plans to source its future collections from artisans living in emerging markets around the world. “Our next collection is sourced from Oaxaca,” says Tehrani. “The Oaxaca line… it’s artisans making things out of their home. They’re making everything by hand and there’s no sophisticated machinery to speak of.”

The challenge, says Amir Tehrani, is to help these artisans begin producing products at scale, while staying true to the artisanal nature of the products.

Ultimately, the idea is to educate and inform consumers about the cultural context behind the products they buy, according to the company’s two founders.

There’s also a financial incentive to launch a direct-to-consumer brand, the founders say. It’s an industry that has yet to be disrupted by the technological innovations that have reshaped so many other retail markets, they say… and one that’s equally as large as the mattress industry.

By 2021, the cookware and dinnerware market is projected to be $12.7 billion, according to a study by Freedonia Focus Reports. By comparison, mattresses are about a $14 billion market in the U.S.

And it’s a market that Amir Tehrani knows well. His grandfather founded TableTops Unlimited, one of the largest white-label suppliers of kitchenware, cookware and dinnerware in the U.S. That experience is what brought investors like FabFitFun to the table.

“They understand our capabilities around the family business and they want to help bring it to their community as well,” says Amir Tehrani. “Aside from what they were already doing around fashion and cosmetics the largest opportunity they weren’t already doing was around cookware.”

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