Startups across the nation and around the world are looking for ways to relieve shortages of much-needed personal protective equipment and sanitizers used to halt the spread of COVID-19.
While some of the largest privately held technology companies, like SpaceX and Tesla, have shifted to manufacturing ventilators, smaller companies are also trying to pitch in and relieve scarcity locally.
Supplies have been difficult to come by in some of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the shortfalls have been made worse by a lack of coordination from the federal government. In some instances local governments have been bidding for supplies against each other and the federal government to acquire needed personal protective equipment.
On Sunday, New York’s governor Mario Cuomo pleaded with local governments to not engage in a bidding war. In fact, Kentucky was outbid by the Federal government for personal protective equipment.
“FEMA came out and bought it all out from under us,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear told a local newspaper. “It is a challenge that the federal government says, ‘States, you need to go and find your supply chain,’ and then the federal government ends up buying from that supply chain.”
Against this backdrop local startups and maker spaces are stepping up to do what they can to fill the gap.
Alcohol brands are turning their attention to making hand sanitizer to distribute in communities experiencing shortages. 3D printing companies are working on new ways to manufacture personal protective equipment and swabs for COVID-19 testing. And one fast fashion retail startup is teaching its tailors and seamstresses how to make cloth masks for consumer protection.
AirCo, a New York-based startup that developed a process to use captured carbon dioxide to make liquor, shifted its efforts to making hand sanitizer for donations in communities in New York City.
Endless West announced this morning that it would shift production away from its distillery to begin making hand sanitizers. The World Health Organization approved their sanitizers, which the company will produce in its warehouse in San Francisco.
The 2-ounce bottles will be donated to local restaurants and bars that remain open for delivery, so that employees can use them and distribute them to customers. Bulk quantities will be distributed to healthcare organizations and facilities that need them.
Endless West also put out a call for other companies to provide supplies to hospitals and health organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We felt it was imperative to do our part and dedicate what resources we have to assist with shortages in the healthcare and food & beverage industries who keep the engine running and provide such important functions in this time of immense need throughout the community.” said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West, in a statement.
Los Angeles-based Bev is no different.
“As an alcoholic beverage company, Bev is very lucky in that we are licensed to purchase ethanol directly from our suppliers, who are doing their part by discounting the product to anyone licensed to purchase it,” said Bev chief executive, Alix Peabody. “Community underscores everything we do here at Bev, and as such, we will be producing hand sanitizer and distributing it free of charge to the homeless and elderly communities here in Venice, populations who largely have insufficient access to healthcare and essential goods like sanitizer.”
Hand sanitizer is one sorely needed item in short supply, but there are others — including face masks, surgical masks, face shields, swabs and ventilator equipment that other startups are now switching gears to produce.
(Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)
In Canada, INKSmith, a startup that was making design and tech tools accessible for kids, has now moved to making face shields and is hiring up to 100 new employees to meet demand.
“I think in the short term, we’re going to scale up to meet the needs of the province soon. After that, we’re going to meet the demands of Canada,” INKSmith CEO Jeremy Hedges told the Canadian news outlet Global News.
Markforged is pushing ahead with a number of efforts to focus some of the benefits of 3D printing on the immediate problem of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers most exposed to COVID-19.
“We have about 20 people working on this pretty much as much as they can,” said Markforged chief executive, Gregory Mark. “We break it up into three different programs. The first stage is prototyping validation and getting first pass to doctors. The second is clinical trials and the third is production. We are in clinical trials with two. One is the nasal swab and two is the face shield.”
The ability to spin up manufacturing more quickly than traditional production lines using 3D printing means that both companies are in some ways better positioned to address a thousandfold increase in demand for supplies that no one anticipated.
“3D printing is the fastest way to make anything in the world up to a certain number of days, weeks, months or years,” says Mark. “As soon as we get the green light from hospitals, 10,000 printers around the world can be printing face shields and nose swabs.”
FormLabs, which already has a robust business supplying custom-printed surgical-grade healthcare products, is pushing to bring its swabs to market quickly.
“Not only can we help in the development of the swabs, but we can manufacture them ourselves,” says FormLabs chief product officer, David Lakatos.
Swabs for testing are in short supply in part because there are only a few manufacturers in the world who made them — and one of those primary manufacturers is in Italy, which means supplies and staff are in short supply. “There’s a shortage of them and nobody was expecting that we would need to test millions of people in short order,” says Lakatos.
FormLabs is also working on another piece of personal protective equipment — looking at converting snorkeling masks into respirators and face masks. “Our goal is to make one that is reusable,” says Lakatos. “A patient can use it as a respirator and you can put it in an autoclave and reuse it.”
In Brooklyn, Voodoo Manufacturing has repurposed its 5,000 square foot facility to mass-produce personal protective equipment. The company has set up a website, CombatingCovid.com, where organizations in need of supplies can place orders. Voodoo aims to print at least 2,500 protective face shields weekly and can scale to larger production volumes based on demand, the company said.
STAMFORD, CT – MARCH 23: Nurse Hannah Sutherland, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) awaits new patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station at Cummings Park on March 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Availability of protective clothing for medical workers has become a major issue as COVID-19 cases surge throughout the United States. The Stamford site is run by Murphy Medical Associates. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Finally, Resonance, the fast fashion startup launched by the founder of FirstMark Capital, Lawrence Lenihan, is using its factory in the Dominican Republic to make face masks for consumers on the island and beyond.
“To contribute to the Dominican health efforts, Resonance is acting to utilize their resources to manufacture safety masks for distribution to local hospitals, nursing homes, and other high-risk facilities as quickly as possible. They have provided user-friendly instructions and material and will pay their sewers who can to make these masks from the security of their homes,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Resonance is currently working to share this downloadable platform and simple instructions to their website, so anyone in the world can contribute to their own local communities.”
All of these efforts — and countless others too numerous to mention — point to the ways small companies are hoping to do something to help their communities stay safe and healthy in the midst of this global outbreak.
But many of these extreme measures may not have been necessary had governments around the world actively coordinated their response and engaged in better preparation before the situation became so dire.
There are a litany of errors that governments made — and are still making — in their efforts to respond to the pandemic, even as the private sector steps in and steps up to address them.
Formlabs, the privately held, Massachusetts-based 3D-printing company, will soon receive an exemption from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its swab designed for use in COVID-19 test kits, TechCrunch has learned.
Global supply chains for test kit components including swabs and chemical reagents have hampered the ability of governments to increase testing to a point where they can adequately ascertain the scope of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus within their borders.
“Yesterday we got a notification from the FDA that this is going to be a class one exempt product,” said Formlabs chief product officer David Lakatos. “As long as it’s manufactured in an ISO 135 controlled facility.”
As cases are identified across the U.S., tests are flowing to the geographies where the disease has spread the fastest, leaving other parts of the country under-resourced to address what could be an increasing outbreak in other communities that have yet to receive a complete picture of the disease’s spread.
With swabs, the problem has been compounded that of the few manufacturers of the sorely needed test kit component, only one is in the U.S. while another is in Italy.
“About a week and a half ago we joined this effort,” says Lakatos.
Formlabs is uniquely positioned to scale up production he said, thanks in part to the 60,000 printers the company has on hand and the recent acquisition of a facility in Ohio that enables the company to make surgical-grade products.
The company is currently finishing up human trials and gearing up to expand capacity at its Ohio manufacturing facility. According to Lakatos, the company will be able to supply 100,000 swabs per day. “We are starting to print these,” Lakatos said. “But we won’t send anything out until we get the green light.”
Currently most of the swabs are earmarked for partner hospitals that worked with the company to develop the swabs, but the company is also working with large distributors to access their distribution channels and get the swabs into roughly 3,000 hospitals around the U.S.
“At the end of the day we’re just looking to get them out,” Lakatos said.
Esports racing, helped by record-setting viewership, is hitting the big time.
Fox Sports said Tuesday it will broadcast the rest of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, following Sunday’s virtual race that was watched by 903,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While those numbers are far below the millions of viewers who watch NASCAR’s official races — the last one at Phoenix Raceway reached 4.6 million — it still hit a number of firsts that Fox Sports found notable enough to commit to broadcasting the virtual racing series for the remainder of the season, beginning March 29.
The races will be simulcast on the FOX broadcast network, Fox Sports iRacing and the FOX Sports app. Races will be available in Canada through FOX Sports Racing.
Virtual racing, which lets competitors race using a system that includes a computer, steering wheel and pedals, has been around for years. But it’s garnered more attention as the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has prompted sports organizers to cancel or postpone live events, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, NBA, NHL and MLB seasons as well as Formula 1 and NASCAR racing series.
(And Jeff helps him notice a bit of damage ) pic.twitter.com/5gFgl1f0e3
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 22, 2020
NASCAR ran its first virtual race in the series on Sunday in lieu of its planned race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Not only was it the most watched esports event in U.S. television history, it was Sunday’s most-watched sports telecast on cable television that day.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 22, 2020
“This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,” Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer said in a statement. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”
Granted, there aren’t any live sports to watch in this COVID-19 era. Still, it bodes well for the future of esports, perhaps even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,” said four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is announcer for Fox NASCAR. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.”
You can see what the virtual racing looks like here in this clip from Fox Sports.
NASCAR isn’t the only racing series to turn to esports. Formula 1 announced last week that it would host an esports series, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, with a number of current F1 drivers alongside a number of other stars.
The virtual Formula 1 races will use Codemaster’s official Formula 1 2019 PC game and fans can follow along on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, as well as on F1.com. The races will be about half as long as regular races, with 28 laps. The first race took place March 22. The first-ever virtual round of the Nürburgring Endurance Series kicked off on March 21.
As the world becomes more deeply connected through IoT devices and networks, consumer and business needs and expectations will soon only be sustainable through automation.
Recognizing this, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being rapidly adopted by critical industries such as finance, retail, healthcare, transportation and manufacturing to help them compete in an always-on and on-demand global culture. However, even as AI and ML provide endless benefits — such as increasing productivity while decreasing costs, reducing waste, improving efficiency and fostering innovation in outdated business models — there is tremendous potential for errors that result in unintended, biased results and, worse, abuse by bad actors.
The market for advanced technologies including AI and ML will continue its exponential growth, with market research firm IDC projecting that spending on AI systems will reach $98 billion in 2023, more than two and one-half times the $37.5 billion that was projected to be spent in 2019. Additionally, IDC foresees that retail and banking will drive much of this spending, as the industries invested more than $5 billion in 2019.
These findings underscore the importance for companies that are leveraging or plan to deploy advanced technologies for business operations to understand how and why it’s making certain decisions. Moreover, having a fundamental understanding of how AI and ML operate is even more crucial for conducting proper oversight in order to minimize the risk of undesired results.
Companies often realize AI and ML performance issues after the damage has been done, which in some cases has made headlines. Such instances of AI driving unintentional bias include the Apple Card allowing lower credit limits for women and Google’s AI algorithm for monitoring hate speech on social media being racially biased against African Americans. And there have been far worse examples of AI and ML being used to spread misinformation online through deepfakes, bots and more.
Through real-time monitoring, companies will be given visibility into the “black box” to see exactly how their AI and ML models operate. In other words, explainability will enable data scientists and engineers to know what to look for (a.k.a. transparency) so they can make the right decisions (a.k.a. insight) to improve their models and reduce potential risks (a.k.a. building trust).
But there are complex operational challenges that must first be addressed in order to achieve risk-free and reliable, or trustworthy, outcomes.
Customer engagement platform Freshworks today announced that it has acquired AnsweriQ, a startup that provides AI tools for self-service solutions and agent-assisted use cases where the ultimate goal is to quickly provide customers with answers and make agents more efficient.
The companies did not disclose the acquisition price. AnsweriQ last raised a funding round in 2017, when it received $5 million in a Series A round from Madrona Venture Group.
Freshworks founder and CEO Girish Mathrubootham tells me that he was introduced to the company through a friend, but that he had also previously come across AnsweriQ as a player in the customer service automation space for large clients in high-volume call centers.
“We really liked the team and the product and their ability to go up-market and win larger deals,” Mathrubootham said. “In terms of using the AI/ML customer service, the technology that they’ve built was perfectly complementary to everything else that we were building.”
He also noted the client base, which doesn’t overlap with Freshworks’, and the talent at AnsweriQ, including the leadership team, made this a no-brainer.
AnsweriQ, which has customers that use Freshworks and competing products, will continue to operate its existing products for the time being. Over time, Freshworks, of course, hopes to convert many of these users into Freshworks users as well. The company also plans to integrate AnsweriQ’s technology into its Freddy AI engine. The exact branding for these new capabilities remains unclear, but Mathrubootham suggested FreshiQ as an option.
As for the AnsweriQ leadership team, CEO Pradeep Rathinam will be joining Freshworks as chief customer officer.
Rathinam told me that the company was at the point where he was looking to raise the next round of funding. “As we were going to raise the next round of funding, our choices were to go out and raise the next round and go down this path, or look for a complementary platform on which we can vet our products and then get faster customer acquisition and really scale this to hundreds or thousands of customers,” he said.
He also noted that as a pure AI player, AnsweriQ had to deal with lots of complex data privacy and residency issues, so a more comprehensive platform like Freshworks made a lot of sense.
Freshworks has always been relatively acquisitive. Last year, the company acquired the customer success service Natero, for example. With the $150 million Series H round it announced last November, the company now also has the cash on hand to acquire even more customers. Freshworks is currently valued at about $3.5 billion and has 2,7000 employees in 13 offices. With the acquisition of AnsweriQ, it now also has a foothold in Seattle, which it plans to use to attract local talent to the company.
Lately, the venture community’s relationship with advertising tech has been a rocky one.
Advertising is no longer the venture oasis it was in the past, with the flow of VC dollars in the space dropping dramatically in recent years. According to data from Crunchbase, adtech deal flow has fallen at a roughly 10% compounded annual growth rate over the last five years.
While subsectors like privacy or automation still manage to pull in funding, with an estimated 90%-plus of digital ad spend growth going to incumbent behemoths like Facebook and Google, the amount of high-growth opportunities in the adtech space seems to grow narrower by the week.
Despite these pains, funding for marketing technology has remained much more stable and healthy; over the last five years, deal flow in marketing tech has only dropped at a 3.5% compounded annual growth rate according to Crunchbase, with annual invested capital in the space hovering just under $2 billion.
Given the movement in the adtech and martech sectors, we wanted to try to gauge where opportunity still exists in the verticals and which startups may have the best chance at attracting venture funding today. We asked four leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in marketing and advertising:
Several of the firms we spoke to (both included and not included in this survey) stated that they are not actively investing in advertising tech at present.
The loss of several big-name streamers is finally taking its toll on Twitch, according to a new report from StreamLabs and Newzoo out today. In August 2019, top streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, announced his intention to leave Twitch for Microsoft Mixer. Several others have since defected as well, including competitive gamer Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek who went to Mixer in October, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop who left in November for YouTube Live, and Jeremy “Disguised Toast” Wang who also left in November, but went to Facebook Gaming.
The loss of Ninja hadn’t impacted the amount of time Twitch users spent watching content on the platform as of Q3 2019, but the total hours streamed had slightly dipped. As of Q4 2019, however, Twitch’s momentum began to slow.
While the Amazon-owned streaming site is still by far the leader in terms of hours of content both watched and streamed compared with rivals with a market share of 75.1%, the number of hours watched on Twitch declined from Q3 to Q4 2019 by 9.8%.
This resulted in the lowest number of hours watched on the platform (2299.6M) since Q3 2018 (2283.9M).
That being said, Twitch overall is still growing on a year-over-year basis, with a 12% increase in hours watched on the platform in 2019 compared with 2018.
The high-profile losses are also now impacting the hours streamed on Twitch, the report found.
The platform in Q4 2019 saw the lowest number of hours streamed (82.7M) since Q2 2018 (86M). Again, the trend on a year-over-year basis is still climbing upwards, with a 16.1% increase in hours streamed in 2019 versus 2018.
Twitch saw declines in the number of unique channels streaming over the course of 2019, too, dropping from 5.6 million in Q1 2019 — the highest ever — to 3.7 million by Q4.
Concurrent viewers declined on a quarterly basis by 9.4%. This is the lowest average concurrent viewership figure since Q3 2018. On an annual basis, however, concurrent viewership was still up by 12.3%. The average number of viewers per channel was stable and has increased by 12.5% since Q1 2018.
YouTube Gaming Live, meanwhile, became the only platform to see increases in hours watched, streamed and concurrent viewership in Q4 2019.
CourageJD’s move to YouTube Gaming Live has helped to boost Google’s platform, but the increases can also be attributed to YouTube’s broadcast of top esports events and influencer moments.
The total number of hours watched on YouTube Gaming Live grew 46% from Q1 to Q4 2019 to reach 909.1M — making that the largest percentage increase among gaming sites. Hours streamed remained stable, closing the year at 12.3M. Unique channels increased 4.8% on a quarterly basis but declined 24.6% from Q1 2019.
YouTube Gaming Live’s biggest jump was in concurrent viewers, which grew by a sizable 33.8% in Q4 — making it the only platform to see an increase in average concurrent viewership in the quarter. Average viewers per channel also increased by 21% quarter-over-quarter — even though the number of unique streaming channels grew by 4.8%, which usually means a drop in average viewers per channel would occur.
YouTube Gaming Live closed the year with 22.1% market share.
Ninja’s move to Mixer has encouraged other streamers to start broadcasting on the platform, but despite that deal and the one with Shroud, the number of hours watched declined 8.5% quarter-over-quarter from 90.2 million in Q3 2019 to 82.5 million in Q4 2019. But year-over-year, Mixer’s hours watched have more than doubled.
Ninja and Shroud have helped to boost the number of hours streamed on Mixer, more than doubling the number of hours in Q3. But in Q4, the number of hours streamed dropped 12.9% from 32.6 million to 28.4 million.
However, 80.3 million hours of content was streamed in 2019 versus just 35.2 million hours in 2018.
There was also a 7.5% decrease in the number of Mixer channels in Q4 (3.9 million to 3.6 million), but a 78% increased in 2019 compared with 2018. Mixer now has triple the number of unique channels streaming, compared with YouTube Gaming Live.
Average concurrent viewership on Mixer declined 8% from Q3 to Q4, but was up 55.1% year-over-year. Average viewers per channel remained stable.
Mixer closed the year with a 2.7% market share.
The report doesn’t include Facebook Gaming live streaming data. But it does note there was a 400% increase in the number of live streams in 2019, from 504,173 live streams in Q1 to 2,525,863 in Q4, based on Facebook Gaming streamers who used the Streamlabs’ OBS product. Additionally, the number of total hours streamed increased by 275% from 438,835 in Q1 to 1,648,557 in Q4.
Also in Q4, several live streamers made the switch to Facebook, including Disguised Toast, as noted above, as well as Zero and Corinna Kopf. This could have also contributed to the momentum in the quarter, as well as launches of charity live streaming tools, and the arrival of the Facebook Gaming app in Thailand and Latin America.
For the year, the most-watched publisher was Riot Games, due to League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics. Epic Games (Fortnite) trailed by only 25.1 million hours. The latter saw a 29% decline, year-over-year, in terms of hours watched, while the former grew just 3.6%.
Similarly, League of Legends was the No. 1 game streamed on Twitch in 2019, followed by Fornite then Grand Theft Auto V. Fornite topped YouTube Gaming Live and Mixer.
While none of the streamers’ defections from Twitch have been significant enough to force the platform from its No. 1 position, it has created a healthier competitive landscape among streaming services. But in reality, it’s still too soon to see what long-term impacts the moves will have on Twitch and whether or not its rivals can continue their momentum in 2020.
3D printing isn’t the buzzy, hype-tastic topic it was just a few years ago — at least not with consumers. 3D printing news out of CES last week seemed considerably quieter than years prior; the physical booths for many 3D printing companies I saw took up fractions of the footprints they did just last year. Tapered, it seems, are the dreams of a 3D printer in every home.
In professional production environments, however, 3D printing remains a crucial tool. Companies big and small tap 3D printing to design and test new concepts, creating one-off prototypes in-house at a fraction of the cost and time compared to going back-and-forth with a factory. Sneaker companies are using it to create new types of shoe soles from experimental materials. Dentists are using it to create things like dentures and bridges in-office, in hours rather than days.
One of the companies that has long focused on pushing 3D printing into production is Formlabs, the Massachusetts-based team behind the aptly named Form series of pro-grade desktop 3D printers. The company launched its first product in 2012 after raising nearly $3 million on Kickstarter; by 2018, it was raising millions at a valuation of over a billion dollars.