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Today — February 25th 2020Your RSS feeds

Best of Toy Fair (2020): Baby Yoda, ASMR for Kids, and More

By Matt Jancer
We played with tons of gizmos at the annual trade show (for, uh, work reasons of course).

Nintendo Cracks Down After High-Profile Leaks

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
With the highly anticipated *Animal Crossing: New Horizons* and E3 on the horizon, Nintendo has become “increasingly aggressive” combating leaks over the last couple of months.

Katherine Johnson Dies, Russia Sows Election Chaos, and More News

By Alex Baker-Whitcomb
Catch up on the most important news from today in two minutes or less.

With cinnamon, fruit and mint-flavored nicotine gum, is LA’s Lucy Goods the next Juul?

By Jonathan Shieber

David Renteln, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Soylent and the co-founder and chief executive of new nicotine gum manufacturer Lucy Goods, thinks there should be a better-tasting, less-medicinal offering for people looking to quit smoking.

That’s why he founded Lucy Goods, and that’s why investors, including RRE Ventures, Vice Ventures and FundRX joined previous investors YCombinator and Greycroft in backing the company with $10 million in new funding.

“We reformulated nicotine gum and the improvements that we made were to the taste, the texture and the nicotine release speed,” said Renteln.

These days, any startup that’s working on smoking cessation or working with tobacco products can’t avoid comparisons to Juul — the multi-billion-dollar startup that’s at the center of the surge in teen nicotine consumption.

“The Juul comparison is something that’s obviously top of people’s minds,” Renteln said. “It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference in nicotine products.”

Renteln points to statements from former Food and Drug Administration chief, Scott Gottlieb (who’s now a partner at the venture firm New Enterprise Associates), which drew a distinction between combustible tobacco products on one end and nicotine gums and patches on the other.

“Nicotine isn’t the principle agent of harm associated with these tobacco products,” said Rentlen. “It’s addictive but not inherently bad for you.”

Lucy Goods also doesn’t release its nicotine dosage in a concentrated burst like vapes, which are designed to replicate the head rush associated with smoking a cigarette, said Renteln.

“It is a stimulant and they will get a sensation, but it’s not as intense as taking a very deep drag of a cigarette,” Renteln said. 

The company’s website also doesn’t skew to young, lifestyle marketing images. Instead, there are testimonials from older, ex-smokers hawking the Lucy gum.

“I don’t want anyone underage using any nicotine product or any drug in general… [and] the flavors have been around for a long time.”

Joining Renteln in the quest to create a better nicotine gum is Samy Hamdouche, a former business development executive at several Southern California biotech startups and the previous vice president of research at Soylent. 

For both men, the idea is to get a new product to market that can help people quit smoking — without a social stigma — Renteln said.

“Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States claiming over 480,000 lives every year and costing the U.S. an estimated $300 billion in direct health costs and lost productivity. Lucy is committed to bringing innovative nicotine products to the market to eliminate tobacco related harm and we’re proud to be part of their journey,” said RRE investor, Jason Black in a statement.

Xbox Series X Details: Features, Processor, and More

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
Microsoft shed a little light on its next-generation console, including the ability to suspend and quickly resume multiple games at once. 

Sandra Oh to Star in Netflix Show from 'Game of Thrones' Creators

By Angela Watercutter
It's part of the deal that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made with the streaming giant.

Julian Assange Tops This Week's Internet News Roundup

By Graeme McMillan
Also, SpaceX has formed a partnership to send average citizens into orbit.

A Cruise Ship Quarantine, a Hunt for Cheaters, and More Car News This Week

By Aarian Marshall
Plus: A new helicopter ditches the traditional tail rotor for four fans, which could make the devices safer and quieter.

A Tiny Piece of Tape Tricked Teslas Into Speeding Up 50 MPH

By Brian Barrett
An MGM Resorts breach, natural gas ransomware, and more of the week's top security news.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Gaming-focused investment firm Bitkraft closes in on at least $140 million for its second fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.

For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.

Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.

The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.

Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.

While at Goldman, Baier-Lentz worked on the $67 billion Dell acquisition of EMC and the $34 billion acquisition of RedHat by IBM.

The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.

As Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners told TechCrunch last year:

“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”

Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.

For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”

Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz

Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them. 

“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”

It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.

Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.

In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.

“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”

SpaceX alumni are helping build LA’s startup ecosystem

By Jonathan Shieber

During the days when Snapchat’s popularity was booming, investors thought the company would become the anchor for a new Los Angeles technology scene.

Snapchat, they hoped, would spin-off entrepreneurs and angel investors who would reinvest in the local ecosystem and create new companies that would in turn foster more wealth, establishing LA as a hub for tech talent and venture dollars on par with New York and Boston.

In the ensuing years, Los Angeles and its entrepreneurial talent pool has captured more attention from local and national investors, but it’s not Snap that’s been the source for the next generation of local founders. Instead, several former SpaceX employees have launched a raft of new companies, capturing the imagination and dollars of some of the biggest names in venture capital.

“There was a buzz, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of bench of people that investors wanted it to become,” says one longtime VC based in the City of Angels. “It was a company in LA more than it was an LA company.” 

Perhaps the most successful SpaceX offshoot is Relativity Space, founded by Jordan Noone and Tim Ellis. Since Noone, a former SpaceX engineer, and Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer, founded their company, the business has been (forgive the expression) a rocket ship. Over the past four years, Relativity href="https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/01/relativity-a-new-star-in-the-space-race-raises-160-million-for-its-3-d-printed-rockets/"> has raised $185.7 million, received special dispensations from NASA to test its rockets at a facility in Alabama, will launch vehicles from Cape Canaveral and has signed up an early customer in Momentus, which provides satellite tug services in orbit.

Expanding its women’s health benefits offerings for employers, Maven raises $45 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Over the past twelve months, Maven, the benefits provider focused on women’s health and family planning, has expanded its customer base to include over 100 companies and grown its telehealth services to include 1,700 providers across 20 specialties — for services like shipping breast milk, finding a doula and egg freezing, fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption.

The New York-based company which offers its healthcare services to individuals, health plans, and employers has now raised an additional $45 million to expand its offerings even further.

Its new money comes from a clutch of celebrity investors like Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, and Reese Witherspoon and institutional investors led by Icon Ventures and return backers Sequoia Capital, Oak HC/FT, Spring Mountain Capital, Female Founders Fund and Harmony Partners. Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, is also an investor in the company.

Maven is addressing critical gaps in care by offering the largest digital health network of women’s and family health providers,” said Tom Mawhinney, lead investor from Icon Ventures, who will join the Maven board of directors, in a statement. “With its virtual care and services, Maven is changing how global employers support working families by focusing on improving maternal outcomes, reducing medical costs, retaining more women in the workplace, and ultimately supporting every pathway to parenthood.”

In the six years since founder Katherine Ryder first launched Mayven, the company has raised more than $77 million for its service and become a mother of two boys.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she told TechCrunch after announcing the company’s $27 million Series B round, led by Sequoia. “You do it when your careers is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Some of Maven’s partners include Snap and Bumble to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The company connects users with OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services around family planning.

Zero Motorcycles unveils new SR/S — a full-fairing 124-mph sport EV

By Jake Bright

California-based mobility startup Zero Motorcycles has a new e-moto in its lineup — the fully-faired SR/S, unveiled today in New York.

The company’s CEO Sam Paschel pulled the cover off the two-wheeled EV, which is based on the platform of the company’s SR/F, released last year.

The new SR/S has similar stats to the SR/F: a 124-mph top-speed, up to 200 miles of range, 140 ft-lbs of torque and charge-time of 60 minutes to 95%, Paschel told TechCrunch at the debut.

ZERO SR/SZero’s latest EV is an IoT motorcycle and manages overall performance — including engine output and handling characteristics — through digital riding modes.

The major differences on the SR/S over the SR/F are the addition of the full-fairing, a more relaxed riding position (through re-positioning of the bars and pegs) and a 13% improvement in highway range, from improved aerodynamics.

The fairing brings around 20 pounds more weight to to the SR/S over the 485-pound SR/F.

On price, the base version of the SR/S is $19,995 — a dash over the SR/F’s $19,495 — and a premium SR/S (with a higher charging capacity) comes in at $21,995.

The SR/S starts shipping today to Zero’s global dealer network, which stands at 91 in the U.S. and 200 globally — the largest for any e-motorcycle company, according to Paschel.

He positioned the SR/S as more of a sport-touring machine than the the SR/F, which has a naked-bike set up that includes a more aggressive riding position and less aerodynamics on the highway.

Zero’s latest entries — the SR/F and the SR/S — come at a time when startups are pushing the motorcycle industry toward electric, though it’s not evident there’s enough demand to buy up all the new models.

The American motorcycle market has been stagnant for over a decade and is becoming crowded with EV offerings. New motorcycle sales in the U.S. dropped by roughly 50% since 2008 — with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40 — and have never recovered, according to Motorcycle Industry Council stats.

In a bid to revive sales and the interest of younger riders, in 2019 Harley-Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S. — the LiveWire — which is a forerunner to an HD product-line of electric-powered two-wheelers.

Harley Davidson Livewire static 1

Harley-Davidson’s EV debut, the LiveWire

Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — Alta Motors, Mission Motors and Brammo — and put HD in the market with existing EV ventures, such as Zero.

That list is growing.

High-performance Italian EV company Energica has expanded marketing and sales in the U.S., along with Cake — a Swedish e-moto maker. This year should also see e-moto debuts by California-based Lightning Motorcycles and Fuell, a French and American-founded company with plans to release the $10,000, 150-mile range Flow.

Zero appears to have created an edge up on Harley’s LiveWire — coming in at $10,000 less than the $29,799 HD — though it’s hard to know how they stacked up against each other in 2019 since e-moto sales stats aren’t reliably tallied in the U.S.

Zero doesn’t release their sales numbers (though I tried my darnedest to pry them out of CEO Sam Paschel).

Zero SR/S That price advantage over Harley’s LiveWire will carry over on Zero’s new SR/S, which could find its biggest competitor in the anticipated release of Damon’s Hypersport.

The Vancouver e-moto startup plans to go to market with its 200-mph e-motorcycle debut. The $24,995 Hypersport is targeted toward Tesla owners and brings proprietary digital safety technology and adjustable ergonomics that are absent in Zero’s offerings — and pretty much anything else on the motorcycle market.

Time, burn rate and sales will tell which companies can find market-traction and turn a profit across all these new e-moto offerings.

Zero doesn’t divulge financials, but among the startups, they could be furthest along. The company, with $120 million in VC in its rear-mirrors — per Crunchbase — has no plans to raise more, according to Paschel.

“We don’t need it,” he told TechCrunch, adding that the venture’s biggest challenge in 2019 was keeping production up to speed with buyer demand for their SR/F.

Zero is likely hoping for that good kind of a problem with its new SR/S in 2020.

Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Richard Smith

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Join the Q&A with top speakers at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI (March 3)

By Brian Heater

Over the past four years, TechCrunch has brought together some of the biggest names in robotics — founders, CEOs, VCs and researchers — for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI. The show has provided a unique opportunity to explore the future and present of robotics, AI and the automation technologies that will define our professional and personal lives.

While the panels have been curated and hosted by our editorial staff, we’ve also long been interested in providing show-goers an opportunity to engage with guests. For this reason, we introduced the Q&A stage, where some of the biggest names can more directly engage with attendees.

This year, we’ve got top names from SoftBank, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, Nvidia and more joining us on the stage to answer questions. Here’s the full agenda of this year’s Q&A stage:

11:30 – 12:00 Russell Book signing
Stuart Russell

12:15 – 1:00 Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions
Carlos Kocher (Qualcomm)
/> Kass Dawson (SoftBank)
Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

1:15 – 2:00 Founders
Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise)
Noah Campbell-Ready (Built Robotics)

2:15 – 3:00 VC
Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners)
/> Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures)
Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

3:15 – 4:00 Building Robotics Platforms
Steven Macenski (Samsung)
Claire Delaunay (Nvidia)

$345 General admission tickets are still on sale — book yours here and join 1,000+ of today’s leading minds in the business for networking and discovery. The earlier you book the better, as prices go up at the door.

Students, save big with a $50 ticket and get full access to the show. Student tickets are available to current students only. Book yours here.

Facebook prototypes tabbed News Feed with Most Recent & Seen

By Josh Constine

Facebook may make it easier to escape its ranking algorithm and explore the News Feed in different formats. Facebook has internally prototyped a tabbed version of the News Feed for mobile that includes the standard Most Relevant feed, the existing Most Recent feed of reverse chronological posts that was previously buried as a sidebar bookmark and an Already Seen feed of posts you’ve previously viewed that historically was only available on desktop via the largely unknown URL facebook.com/seen.

The tabbed feed is currently unlaunched, but If Facebook officially rolls it, it could make the social network feel more dynamic and alive since it’d be easier to access Most Recent to view what’s happening in real time. It could also help users track down an important post they lost that they might want to learn from or comment on. The tabbed interface would be the biggest change to News Feed since 2013 when Facebook announced but later scrapped the launch of a multi-feed with side bar options for just exploring Music, Photos, Close Friends, and more.

The tabbed News Feed prototype was spotted in the Facebook for Android code by master reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong who’s provided tips on core of new features to TechCrunch in the past. She was able to generate these screenshots that show the tabs for Relevant, Recent, and Seen above the News Feed. Tapping these reveals a Sort Your News Feed configuration window where you can choose between the feeds, see descriptions from them, or dive into the existing News Feed preferences about who you block or see first.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg reveals the later-scrapped multi-feed

When asked by TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed this is something it’s considering testing externally, but it’s just internally available for now. It’s exploring whether the tabbed interface would make Most Recent and Seen easier to access. “You can already view your Facebook News Feed chronologically. We’re testing ways to make it easier to find, as well as sort by posts you’ve already seen” the spokesperson tells TechCrunch, and the company also tweeted.

Offering quicker ways to sort the feed could keep users scrolling longer. If they encounter a few boring posts chosen by the algorithm, want to see what friends are doing right now, or want to enjoy posts they already interacted with, a tabbed interface would give them an instant alternative beyond closing the app. While likely not the motive of this experiment, increasing time spent across these feeds could boost Facebook’s ad views at a time when it’s been hammered by Wall Street for slowing profit growth.

To many, Facebook’s algorithm can feel like an inscrutable black box that decides their content destiny. Feed it the wrong signals with pity Likes or guilty-pleasure video views and it can get confused about what you want. Facebook may finally deem us mature enough to have readily available controls over what we see.

The *Stranger Things* Season 4 Trailer Is Full of Surprises

By Angela Watercutter
The Duffer Brothers sent it out with a message signed, “From Russia with love.” 

The Station: Lucid Motors spy shot and the birth of an AV startup

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hello again — or perhaps for the first time. This is Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch and your host here at The Station. This weekly newsletter will also be posted as an article after the weekend — that’s what you’re reading now. To get it first, subscribe for free. Please note that there will not be a newsletter February 22.

It was a drama-filled week with a hearing on the hill in D.C. about autonomous vehicle legislation that got a bit tense at times. Meanwhile, Uber tipped its hat to the past, EV startup Lucid started to lift the veil on its Air vehicle (scroll down for a spy shot!) and micromobility prepared for headwinds in Germany.

Before I ride off into the sunset for my vacation, one reminder for y’all. Don’t forget to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome back to micromobbin’, a regular feature in The Station by reporter Megan Rose Dickey. Before we get into her micromobility insights, a quick note that shared scooters are facing a fight in Germany that has prompted companies to unite over their “shared” cause. (Get it?)

Micromobility vehicles, first legalized in Germany last June, have flooded the marketplace and caused a backlash in cities like Berlin, where at least six apps, including Bird, Circ (now owned by Bird), Lime, Tier, Uber Jump and Voi operate. As the Financial Times first reported, amendments to the country’s Road Traffic Act would give individual cities the power to heavily restrict the areas in which e-scooters can be parked or ban them altogether.

Now back to Dickey’s micromobbin’.

Swiftmile, the startup that wants to become the gas station for electric micromobility vehicles, announced its move into advertising this week. Swiftmile already supplies cities and private operators with docks equipped to park and charge both scooters and e-bikes. Now, the company is starting to integrate digital displays that attach to its charging stations to provide public transit info, traffic alerts and, of course, ads.

“It adds tremendous value because it’s a massive market,” Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “Tons of these corporations want to market to that group but you cannot do that on a scooter, nor should you. So there’s a massive audience that wants to market to that group but also cities like us because we’re bringing order to the chaos.”

Meanwhile, Bird unveiled more details about its loyalty program, called Frequent Flyer. It’s currently in the pilot phase, which means it’s only available in select markets. But the benefits for riding five times in 28 days include no start fees for rides between 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday and the ability to reserve your Bird in advance for up to 30 minutes at no cost.

— Megan Rose Dickey

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We don’t just hear things. We see things too. This week in a little bird — the place where we share insider news, not gossip — I’m going to share two spy shots of a production version of Lucid Motors’ upcoming Air electric vehicle. See below.

The photos of the production version of the Lucid Air were taken during an event hosted for some of the vehicle’s first reservation holders. (I wasn’t there, but luckily some readers of The Station were.) By the way, we also hear that reservations are in the “low four figures.”

Lucid Air production reveal

You’ll notice that the production version of the Air is nearly identical to the beta version. Unfortunately, we don’t see the interior. But reports suggest it falls in the understated luxury category and without giant screens.

Lucid is preparing for one of the more important moments in its history as a company. The production version of Air will be unveiled in April at the New York Auto Show. In the run-up to the auto show, Lucid is revealing more information about the vehicle, including a recent video that suggested the vehicle had a real-world range of more than 400 miles. Lucid has hit that 400-mile range in simulated testing, but how it operates on the roads is what really matters.

What’s impressive, if those numbers bear out, is that it was accomplished with a 110-kWh battery pack. That’s an improvement from back in 2016 when Lucid said it would need a 130-kWh battery pack to achieve that range. In my past conversations with CEO Peter Rawlinson — and one wild ride with him behind the wheel of an early Air prototype in Vegas — it’s clear he is obsessed with battery efficiency. That apparently hasn’t waned.

Car and Driver, which was at this special event, noted in its report that Rawlinson has a goal to get to five miles per kilowatt-hour. Right now, Tesla can lay claim to the most efficient electric vehicle with the upcoming Model Y at a claimed 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour.

And late Friday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the Tesla Model S now has an estimated EPA range above 390 miles or ~630 km.

Inside the beltway

It got a little prickly on Capitol Hill during a House panel hearing this week that aimed to tackle how best to regulate autonomous vehicles. Watch the hearing to see it all unfold. Here’s a handy link to it.

A quick history lesson: The SELF DRIVE ACT was unanimously passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. AV START, a complementary bill introduced in the Senate, failed to pass because Democrats said it didn’t go far enough to address safety and liability issues.

A bipartisan group revived efforts to come up with legislation that would address Democrat concerns and give auto manufacturers and AV developers greater freedom to deploy vehicles that lack controls like a steering wheel or pedals, which are currently required by federal law.

There was some level of public agreement between the traditional auto manufacturers and AAJ over the issue of accountability. But there is still a huge divide between organizations like the Consumer Technology Association and safety advocates and trial lawyers over the issue of forced arbitration.

Groups like the American Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, want to ban forced arbitration in any autonomous vehicle bill.

Meanwhile, CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro submitted testimony that was clearly opposed to limiting the use of arbitration. The CTA argues that arbitration reduces the cost of litigation and provides more timely remedies.

People who were in the room told me they were surprised by how unwavering Shapiro’s comments were, and suggested that it wasn’t in step with how some auto manufacturers view the issue.

Following the hearing, the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committees circulated seven sections to industry groups covering issues such as crash-data sharing and cybersecurity, according to reporting by Bloomberg Government. There was one missing provision. Any guesses? Yup, the provision dealing with forced arbitration. That has caused some Democrats to abandon the bill.

There are two ways for this bill to survive in this congressional session — by unanimous consent, meaning everyone agrees to it, or by being attached to another bill. The first option is highly unlikely. And the second is just as slim, as there are limited opportunities in the Senate to attach self-driving legislation to another bill.

Adventures in ride hailing

Two items to mention that illustrate how the world of ride hailing continues to evolve.

First up is Uber. The company is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The pilot is launching in Arizona, followed by other yet unnamed states. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s not quite like calling a taxi dispatcher, though. You’ll still need a phone that can receive SMS or text messages to get information on the driver and their ETA.

Now let’s jump over to Nigeria where new regulations in the country’s commercial center of Lagos are creating some chaos.

Lagos has started to restrict where shared motorcycles, called okadas, can operate. That is affecting motorcycle-taxi businesses like ORide, Max .ng and Gokada.

In a statement via email, ORide’s senior director of Operations, Olalere Ridwan, said the rules entail “a ban on commercial motorcycles…in the city’s core commercial and residential areas, including Victoria Island and Lagos Island.”

The motorcycle taxi limitations have also thrown off Lagos’s disorderly transit grid — overloading other mobility modes (such as mini-buses) and forcing more people to pound pavement and red-dirt to get to work, according to reporter Jake Bright.

Google’s axe sparks a spin-off

Google bookbot-cartken

I wanted to highlight one of our ONMs, otherwise known as original news manufacturers. Ba dum bump.

Freelancer Mark Harris is back with a scoop on Google’s short-lived Bookbot program and how its death sparked a new and still-in-stealth startup called Cartken.

Bookbot was a robot created within Google’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products. The plan was to pilot an autonomous robot in Mountain View that would pick up library books from users and bring them back to the library. Apparently, it was well received. But it was killed off far before its nine-month pilot was slated to end. Bookbot’s demise followed Google’s decision to scale back efforts to compete with Amazon in shopping.

But Bookbot appears to be back, albeit in a slicker form and with a broader use case than a library book shuttle. Engineers working on Bookbot as well as a logistics expert who was once in charge of operations at Google Express left the company to form Cartken in fall 2019.

Check out Harris’ deep dive into Bookbot, Google’s shift away from shopping and Cartken.

TC Sessions: Mobility savings

You might have heard or read here in this newsletter that TC Sessions: Mobility is returning for a second year on May 14 in San Jose — a day-long event brimming with the best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Now here’s my discount deal for you. To get 10% off tickets, including early-bird, use code AUTO. The early-bird sale ends April 9. Early-bird tickets are available now for $250 — that’s $100 savings before prices go up. Students can book a ticket for just $50. Book your tickets today.

So far, we’ve announced:

  • Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber
  • Boris Sofman, who is leading Waymo’s autonomous trucking efforts
  • Nancy Sun, Ike Robotics chief engineer and co-founder
  • Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan
  • Porsche North America CEO Klaus Zellmer
  • Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility

Expect more announcements each week leading up to the May 14th event.

Max Q: SpaceX gets ready for first human flight

By Darrell Etherington

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.

Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arrives in Florida

The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.

NASA taps Rocket Lab for Moon satellite launch

Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.

Astronomers continue to sound the alarm about constellations

Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.

Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.

Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket factory

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft moves to its spaceport

Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.

Astranis raises $90 million

Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.

Astroscale will work with JAXA on an orbital debris-killing system


Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early-Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

Facebook pushes EU for dilute and fuzzy internet content rules

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in Europe this week — attending a security conference in Germany over the weekend where he spoke about the kind of regulation he’d like applied to his platform ahead of a slate of planned meetings with digital heavyweights at the European Commission.

“I do think that there should be regulation on harmful content,” said Zuckerberg during a Q&A session at the Munich Security Conference, per Reuters, making a pitch for bespoke regulation.

He went on to suggest “there’s a question about which framework you use”, telling delegates: “Right now there are two frameworks that I think people have for existing industries — there’s like newspapers and existing media, and then there’s the telco-type model, which is ‘the data just flows through you’, but you’re not going to hold a telco responsible if someone says something harmful on a phone line.”

“I actually think where we should be is somewhere in between,” he added, making his plea for Internet platforms to be a special case.

At the conference he also said Facebook now employs 35,000 people to review content on its platform and implement security measures — including suspending around 1 million fake accounts per day, a stat he professed himself “proud” of.

The Facebook chief is due to meet with key commissioners covering the digital sphere this week, including competition chief and digital EVP Margrethe Vestager, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton and Věra Jourová, who is leading policymaking around online disinformation.

The timing of his trip is clearly linked to digital policymaking in Brussels — with the Commission due to set out its thinking around the regulation of artificial intelligence this week. (A leaked draft last month suggested policymaker are eyeing risk-based rules to wrap around AI.)

More widely, the Commission is wrestling with how to respond to a range of problematic online content — from terrorism to disinformation and election interference — which also puts Facebook’s 2BN+ social media empire squarely in regulators’ sights.

Another policymaking plan — a forthcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) — is slated to upgrade liability rules around Internet platforms.

The detail of the DSA has yet to be publicly laid out but any move to rethink platform liabilities could present a disruptive risk for a content distributing giant such as Facebook.

Going into meetings with key commissioners Zuckerberg made his preference for being considered a ‘special’ case clear — saying he wants his platform to be regulated not like the media businesses which his empire has financially disrupted; nor like a dumbpipe telco.

On the latter it’s clear — even to Facebook — that the days of Zuckerberg being able to trot out his erstwhile mantra that ‘we’re just a technology platform’, and wash his hands of tricky content stuff, are long gone.

Russia’s 2016 foray into digital campaigning in the US elections and sundry content horrors/scandals before and since have put paid to that — from nation-state backed fake news campaigns to livestreamed suicides and mass murder.

Facebook has been forced to increase its investment in content moderation. Meanwhile it announced a News section launch last year — saying it would hand pick publishers content to show in a dedicated tab.

The ‘we’re just a platform’ line hasn’t been working for years. And EU policymakers are preparing to do something about that.

With regulation looming Facebook is now directing its lobbying energies onto trying to shape a policymaking debate — calling for what it dubs “the ‘right’ regulation”.

Here the Facebook chief looks to be applying a similar playbook as the Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai — who recently tripped to Brussels to push for AI rules so dilute they’d act as a tech enabler.

In a blog post published today Facebook pulls its latest policy lever: Putting out a white paper which poses a series of questions intended to frame the debate at a key moment of public discussion around digital policymaking.

Top of this list is a push to foreground focus on free speech, with Facebook questioning “how can content regulation best achieve the goal of reducing harmful speech while preserving free expression?” — before suggesting more of the same: (Free, to its business) user-generated policing of its platform.

Another suggestion it sets out which aligns with existing Facebook moves to steer regulation in a direction it’s comfortable with is for an appeals channel to be created for users to appeal content removal or non-removal. Which of course entirely aligns with a content decision review body Facebook is in the process of setting up — but which is not in fact independent of Facebook.

Facebook is also lobbying in the white paper to be able to throw platform levers to meet a threshold of ‘acceptable vileness’ — i.e. it wants a proportion of law-violating content to be sanctioned by regulators — with the tech giant suggesting: “Companies could be incentivized to meet specific targets such as keeping the prevalence of violating content below some agreed threshold.”

It’s also pushing for the fuzziest and most dilute definition of “harmful content” possible. On this Facebook argues that existing (national) speech laws — such as, presumably, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (aka the NetzDG law) which already covers online hate speech in that market — should not apply to Internet content platforms, as it claims moderating this type of content is “fundamentally different”.

“Governments should create rules to address this complexity — that recognize user preferences and the variation among internet services, can be enforced at scale, and allow for flexibility across language, trends and context,” it writes — lobbying for maximum possible leeway to be baked into the coming rules.

“The development of regulatory solutions should involve not just lawmakers, private companies and civil society, but also those who use online platforms,” Facebook’s VP of content policy, Monika Bickert, also writes in the blog.

“If designed well, new frameworks for regulating harmful content can contribute to the internet’s continued success by articulating clear ways for government, companies, and civil society to share responsibilities and work together. Designed poorly, these efforts risk unintended consequences that might make people less safe online, stifle expression and slow innovation,” she adds, ticking off more of the tech giant’s usual talking points at the point policymakers start discussing putting hard limits on its ad business.

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