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To rebuild manufacturing, the US needs to beef up the Small Business Innovation Research program

By Annie Siebert
Sean O'Sullivan Contributor
Sean O’Sullivan was a co-founder of MapInfo and is the managing general partner and founder of SOSV, a venture firm that operates the startup accelerators HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, and dlab.
More posts by this contributor

I grew up in poverty in upstate New York, but I was lucky enough to study engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I founded a company that went public when I was 28, and I used that wealth to invest in startups.

It’s been exhilarating to watch many founders flourish, but when I return to upstate New York, the desolate remains of long-closed factories remind me of the sectors that the tech revolution never reached.

The numbers behind those empty facades could not be more dire. In late 2019, even before COVID struck, U.S. manufacturing fell to 11% of GDP, the lowest level in 72 years. We ceded much of that ground to low-cost competitors in China, which became the world’s top manufacturer back in 2011. We now have only a small window of time to restore manufacturing as a foundation of American prosperity, and a remarkable but underappreciated federal program has a big role to play.

My firm, SOSV, specializes in running programs that help founders take technically difficult ideas from research to product. Many of these companies represent the future of American industry, especially when it comes to such national priorities as industrial automation and decarbonization.

You might think those startups would be ripe for venture investment, but in reality, only a fraction of venture capital flows to them. They are simply too risky compared with categories like SaaS and consumer.

SBIR’s brilliant design has helped thousands of technology-minded entrepreneurs cross the chasm from research to real products, new markets and venture backing.

That is exactly why in 1982 the U.S. Congress established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which, in the words of its founder, Roland Tibbetts, aimed to “provide funding for some of the best early-stage innovation ideas — ideas that, however promising, are still too high risk for private investors, including venture capital firms.”

For a little more than $3 billion per year in contracts and grants disbursed by federal agencies, the SBIR has produced 70,000 patents, $41 billion in follow-on venture capital investments and 700 public companies.

SBIR’s brilliant design has helped thousands of technology-minded entrepreneurs cross the chasm from research to real products, new markets and venture backing. We’ll need thousands more brilliant scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to step up in the decade ahead. They can do this from their garage, but they can’t do it out of thin air. Congress should act quickly to create an “SBIR 2.0” with three critical improvements over how SBIR works today.

First, we need at least 10 times more SBIR funding. Even at $30 billion, SBIR’s funding would be a rounding error compared to many budgets in Washington, like $693 billion for defense in 2020, and just a fraction of total U.S. venture investing, which in 2020 reached $156 billion. Yet, arguably, nothing in the federal budget could do more to help American industry.

Second, we need to focus new SBIR funding on critical strategic areas, especially decarbonization and advanced manufacturing. The first will save humanity’s future on this planet. The second will help us leap over our missed generation of manufacturing investment to establish leads in critical areas, including robotics, battery technology, artificially intelligent devices and additive manufacturing. Who could ask for better markets?

Finally, the review and reward process needs to be fast. One great example is the innovative U.S. Air Force “pitch day” programs in 2019 and 2020, which granted funds to the best founder pitches (carefully pre-qualified) in a matter of minutes. In our almost frictionless market for talent, long waits to deliberate and disburse funds is not a winning approach.

The Biden administration’s late-February issuance of an executive order on America’s supply chains suggests that the White House is already working hard on policy measures. No doubt the administration’s effort will draw on many approaches, but the key must be a relentless focus on America’s primary unspent fuel: the ingenuity and drive of our people.

We will only pull the depressed regions of this country out of poverty by giving them the tools to, with their own hands, rebuild American manufacturing through entrepreneurship.

Editor’s note: Former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond is now senior operating partner at SOSV.

Cloud infrastructure spending passed on-prem data centers in 2020

By Ron Miller

There is a prevailing notion that while the cloud infrastructure market is growing fast, the vast majority of workloads remain on premises. While that could be true, new research from Synergy Research Group found that cloud infrastructure spending surpassed on-prem spending for the first time in 2020 — and did so by a wide margin.

“New data from Synergy Research Group shows that enterprise spending on cloud infrastructure services continued to ramp up aggressively in 2020, growing by 35% to reach almost $130 billion. Meanwhile enterprise spending on data center hardware and software dropped by 6% to under $90 billion,” the firm said in a statement.

While the numbers have been trending toward the cloud for a decade, the spending favored on-prem software until last year when the two numbers pulled even, according to Synergy data. John Dinsdale, chief analyst and research director at Synergy says that this new data shows that CIOs have shifted their spending to the cloud in 2020.

“Where the rubber meets the road is what are companies spending their money on, and that is what we are covering here. Quite clearly CIOs are choosing to spend a lot more money on cloud services and are severely crimping their spend on on-prem (or collocated) data center assets,” Dinsdale told me.

Chart comparing on prem spending to cloud infrastructure spending from Synergy Research.

Image Credits: Synergy Research Group

The total for on-prem spending includes servers, storage, networking, security and related software required to run the hardware. “The software pieces included in this data is mainly server OS and virtualization software. Comparing SaaS with on-prem business apps software is a whole other story,” Dinsdale said.

As we see on-prem/cloud numbers diverging in this way, it’s worth asking how these numbers compare to research from Gartner and others that the cloud remains a relatively small percentage of global IT spend. As workloads move back and forth in today’s hybrid world, Dinsdale says that makes it difficult to quantify where it lives at any given moment.

“I’ve seen plenty of comments about only a small percentage of workloads running on public clouds. That may or may not be true (and I tend more toward the latter), but the problem I have with this is that the concept of ‘workloads’ is such a fungible issue, especially when you try to quantify it,” he said.

It’s worth noting that the pandemic has led to companies moving to the cloud much faster than they might have without a forcing event, but Dinsdale says that the trend has been moving this way over years, even if COVID might have accelerated it.

Whatever numbers you choose to look at, it’s clear that the cloud infrastructure market is growing much faster now than its on-premises counterpart, and this new data from Synergy shows that CIOs are beginning to place their bets on the cloud.

Proptech startup Knock secures $20M to grow SaaS platform for property managers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In recent years, the U.S. has seen more renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data. 

Competition for renters is fierce and property managers are turning to technology to get a leg up.

To meet that demand, Seattle-based Knock – one startup that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge – has raised $20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.

Existing backers Madrona Venture Group, Lead Edge Capital, Second Avenue Partners and Seven Peaks Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total capital raised to $47 million.

Demetri Themelis and Tom Petry co-founded Knock in 2014 after renting “in super competitive markets” such as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. 

“After meeting with property management companies, it was eye-opening to learn about the total gap across their tech stacks,” Themelis recalled.

Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords. 

“Apartment buildings, like almost every customer-driven business, compete with each other by attracting, converting and retaining customers,” Themelis said. “For property management companies, these customers are renters.”

The startup — which operates as a SaaS business — has seen an uptick in growth, quadrupling its revenue over the past two years. Its software is used by hundreds of the largest property management companies across the United States and Canada and has more than 1.5 million apartment units using the platform. Starwood Capital Group, ZRS, FPI and Cushman & Wakefield (formerly Pinnacle) are among its users.

As Petry explains it, Knock serves as the sales inbox (chat, SMS, phone, email), sales calendar and CRM systems, all in one. 

“We also automate certain sales tasks like outreach and appointment scheduling, while also surfacing which sales opportunities need the most attention at any given time, for both new leases as well as renewals,” he said.

Image Credit: Knock

The company, Themelis said, was well-prepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our software supports property management companies, which operate high-density apartment buildings that people live and work in,” he told TechCrunch. “You can’t just ‘shut them down,’ which has made multifamily resilient and even grow in comparison to retail and industrial real estate.”

For example, when lockdowns went into effect, in-person property tours declined by an estimated 80% in a matter of weeks.

Knock did things like help property managers transition to a centralized and remote leasing model so remote agents could work across a large portfolio of properties rather than in a single on-site leasing office, noted Petry.

It also helped them adopt self-guided, virtual and live video-based leasing tools, so prospective renters could tour properties in person on their own or virtually.

“This transformation and modernization became a huge tailwind for our business in 2020,” Petry said. “Not only did we have a record year in terms of new customers, revenue growth and revenue retention, but our customers outperformed market averages for occupancy and rent growth as well.”

Looking ahead, the company says it will be using its new capital to (naturally!) hire across product, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance and human resources divisions. It expects to grow headcount by 40% to 50% before year-end. It also plans to expand its product portfolio to include AI communications, fraud prevention, applicant screening and leasing, and intelligent forecasting. 

Fifth Wall partner Vik Chawla, who is joining Knock’s board of directors, pointed out that the macroeconomic environment is driving institutional capital into multifamily real estate at an accelerated pace. This makes Knock’s offering even more timely in its importance, in the firm’s view.

The startup, he believes, outshines its competitors in terms of quality of product, technical prowess and functionality.

“The Knock team has accomplished so much in just a short period of time by attracting very high quality product design and engineering talent to ameliorate a nuanced pain point in the tenant acquisition process,” Chawla told TechCrunch.

In terms of fitting with its investment thesis, Chawla said companies like Knock can both benefit from Fifth Wall’s global corporate strategic partners “and simultaneously serve as a key offering which we can share with real estate industry leaders in different countries as a potential solution for their local markets.”

For Marginalized Groups, Being Studied Can Be a Burden

By Grace Huckins
Academics often research minority communities in the hope of helping them. But too much time under the microscope can cause its own harms.
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