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Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year, amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently, accelerating the economy,” says Declan Ryan, managing partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have more than 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. Rooms list at $20 per-night, including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile team with Airbus, China Telecom and more on stratospheric cell networks

By Darrell Etherington

A new industry alliance led by Alphabet’s Loon high-altitude balloon technology company and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile stratospheric glider subsidiary aims to work together on standards and tech related to deploying network connectivity using high-altitude delivery mechanisms.

This extends the existing partnership between HAPSMobile and Loon, which began with a strategic alliance between the two announced last April, and which recently resulted in Loon adapting the network hardware it uses on its stratospheric balloons to work with the HAPSMobile stratospheric long-winged drone. Now, they two are welcoming more members, including AeroVironment, Airbus Defence and Space, Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Intelsat, Nokia, HAPSMobile parent SoftBank and Telefonica.

The new HAPS Alliance, as it’s being called (HAPS just stands for ‘High Altitude Platform Station’) will be working together to promote use of the technology, as well as work with regulators in the markets where they operate on enabling its use. They’ll work towards developing a set of common industry standards for network interoperability, and also figure how to essentially carve up the or stake out the stratosphere so that participating industry players can work together without stepping on each other’s toes.

This new combined group is no slouch: It includes some of the most powerful network operators in the world, as well as key network infrastructure players and aerospace companies. Which could mean big things for stratospheric networks, which have the advantages of being closer to Earth than satellite-based internet offerings, but also avoid the disadvantages of ground-based cell towers like having to deal with difficult terrain or more limited range.

Is this the first step towards a future where our connected devices rely on high-flying, autonomous cell towers for connectivity? It’s too early to say how ubiquitous this will get, but this new group of heavyweights definitely lends more credence to the idea.

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.

Oyo’s revenue surged in FY19, but its loss widened, too

By Manish Singh

On Monday, budget-lodging startup Oyo reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and pledged to cut down on its spending as the India-headquartered firm grows cautious about its aggressive expansion.

The six-year-old startup’s growing revenue, up from $211 million in financial year ending March 31, 2018 (FY18), is in line with the company’s ambitions to be in a clear path to profitability this year, said Abhishek Gupta, Global CFO of OYO Hotels & Homes, in a statement.

But the startup’s loss has widened, too. Its consolidated loss at $335 million in FY19 rose over sixfold from $52 million in FY18. In India, where Oyo clocked $604 million in revenue in FY19 (up 2.9X since FY18), it was able to reduce its loss to 14 percent (from 24 percent) of revenue in FY19 to $83 million.

Indian laws require every local startup — and international businesses — to disclose their annual financials. Most of them filed their financials in early October.

The startup, which today operates more than 43,000 hotels with over a million rooms in 800 cities in 80 nations, said its expansion in China and other international markets contributed to the loss. Oyo entered China in 2018, and says the world’s most populated nation has already become its second largest market.

“These markets constituted 36.5 percent of the global revenues. While consistently improving operating economics in mature markets like India where it’s already seeing an improvement in gross margins, the company is determined to bring in the same fiscal discipline in emerging markets in the coming financial year,” the startup said in a statement.

Aditya Ghosh, who served as a chief executive of the startup and is now a board member, said in a call with reporters that since Oyo entered a number of markets last year it was in the growth phase and that needed some investments. Speaking especially of China, Ghosh said the company, like many others, is watching the outbreak of coronavirus that has resulted in shutting down some hotels.

He also said that Oyo has pared back from some markets, including India, where it pulled out of about 200 cities. The startup is currently not looking to expand to any new markets, he added.

It is now working on improving its gross margin. In India, its gross margin increased to 14.7% from 10.6% as of FY18.

Oyo’s growth in international markets

Oyo has come under scrutiny in recent months for its aggressive expansion in a manner that some analysts have said is not sustainable. The startup, which rebrands and renovates independent budget hotels, has also engaged in sketchy ways to sign up new hotels, as documented by the New York Times earlier this year. Several hoteliers have claimed that Oyo did not honor its agreements and owed them money.

In 2019, Oyo, which counts Airbnb among its investors, expanded in Europe and the U.S. among other markets. It bought Leisure Group from Axel Springer for $415 million to target Europe’s vacation rental market. It also announced plans to invest another $335 million for this effort. In the same month, it announced it had acquired the Hooters Casino Hotel Las Vegas for about $135 million in its first U.S. property purchase.

It also entered Japan in a partnership with SoftBank. Bloomberg reported on Sunday that Oyo currently has about 12,000 rooms in the country, far fewer than its ambitious 1 million target.

In recent months, Oyo executives have acknowledged that the startup grew too fast and is confronting a number of “teething issues.” Oyo has laid off at least 3,000 employees, mostly in India, in last three months. Ghosh said the startup is still hiring for new roles, but only in key areas such as data science.

“The company’s increased focus on corporate governance and building a high-performing and employee-first work culture will also drive this next phase of sustainable growth for us,” said Gupta.

SoftBank-backed Brandless shuts its doors for good

By Connie Loizos

It was a roller coaster ride — a short one.

Brandless, a San Francisco-based e-commerce company that made and sold an assortment of “cruelty-free” products in beauty and personal care, household, baby and pet categories, has shut its doors less than three years after officially opening them in July 2017.

In a statement provided to the news outlet Protocol, the company cited a “fiercely competitive” retail market. As part of its shut-down, the company will reportedly lay off 70 employees, with 10 staying aboard to resolve outstanding orders and presumably figure out how to sell its remaining assets.

The company’s short run won’t come as a complete surprise to industry watchers. In July of 2018, Brandless announced that SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund had invested $240 million in the company in a deal that valued Brandless at a little over $500 million. It was a surprising development, given the company’s relatively nascent business.

As has happened across numerous companies backed by the Vision Fund, including Wag and more recently WeWork, it also meant an executive shake-up. Indeed, by March of last year,  CEO Tina Sharkey, who’d co-founded the company with Ido Leffler, resigned from her position, saying she was moving into a “more focused role” as the board’s co-chair.

At the time, Evan Price, Brandless’s then CFO, became the company’s interim CEO. In May, John Rittenhouse, the former COO of Walmart.com, took the job. His plan, according to Protocol, was to get more of Brandless’s products into brick-and-mortar stores, but by this past December, he’d quietly stepped down and left Brandless. (Sharkey, meanwhile, left the company’s board last fall.)

Impacts

Certainly, the development undermines SoftBank’s already shaky reputation for savvy deal-making. Though in fairness, Brandless did enter into an industry that has grown cluttered with new entrants, many of them with a good story about the quality of their products but also in heated competition with products that taste and perform similarly to many others on the market in similar price brands.

It’s also worth noting that of the $240 million in SoftBank dollars announced in 2018, less than half that amount ultimately made it to Brandless, says a source close to the company.

According to a report last year in The Information, SoftBank, eager to see Brandless turn a profit, was providing some of its promised funding to Brandless via installments and was holding back a large chunk of capital until the company met certain financial targets.

Because that didn’t happen, SoftBank wound up investing $100 million altogether, and, according to Protocol, Brandless’s board, including Price, Leffler, SoftBank managing director Jeff Housenbold, Redpoint’s Jeff Brody and Colin Bryant of NEA, decided to close the company while still able to provide severance packages for employees.

Arm focuses on AI with its new Cortex-M CPU and Ethos-U NPU

By Frederic Lardinois

Arm today announced two new processors — or one and a half, depending on how you look at it. The company, which designs the chips that power the majority of the world’s cell phones and smart devices, launched both the newest Cortex-M processor (the M55) and the Arm Ethos-U55 micro neural processing unit (NPU).

Like its predecessors, the new Cortex-M55 is Arm’s processor for embedded  devices. By now, its partners have manufactured over 50 billion chips based on the Cortex-M design. This latest version is obviously faster and more power-efficient, but Arm is mostly putting the emphasis on the chip’s machine learning performance. It says the M55, which is the first CPU based on Arm’s Helium technology for speeding up vector calculation, can run ML models up to 15 times faster than the previous version.

For many use cases, the M55 is indeed fast enough, but if you need more ML power, the Ethos-U55 will often be able to give device manufacturers that without having to step up into the Cortex-A ecosystem.  Like Arm’s stand-alone Ethos NPUs, these chips are meant to speed up machine learning workloads. The U55, however, is a simpler design that only works in concert with recent Cortex-M processors like the M55, M33, M7 and M4. The combination of both designs can speed up machine learning performance by up to 480 times.


“When you look back at the most recent years, artificial intelligence has revolutionized how data analytics runs in the cloud and especially with the smartphones, it’s simply augmenting the user experience today,” Thomas Lorenser, Arm’s Director of Product Management, told me. “But the next thing or the next step is even more exciting to me: to get AI everywhere. And here we are talking about bringing the benefits of AI down to the IoT endpoints, including microcontrollers and therefore to a much larger scale of users and applications — literally billions more.”

That’s very much what this combination of Cortex-M and Ethos-U is all about. The idea here is to bring more power to the edge. For a lot of use cases, sending data to the cloud isn’t feasible, after all, and as Loresner stressed, oftentimes turning on the radio and sending the data to the cloud uses more energy than running an AI model locally.

“Although I think a lot of the early discussions in AI were dominated by very loud voices in the cloud space, what we’ve been seeing is the innovation, the actual implementation and deployment, in the IoT space is massive and some of the use cases are fantastic.,” Dennis Laudick, VP Commercial and Marketing for Machine Learning at Arm, added.

Uber claims top spot in Indian ride-hailing market

By Manish Singh

Uber facilitated 14 million rides a week in India last year, the American ride-hailing firm said as it claimed the tentpole position in the key overseas market.

In a report (PDF) published on the sidelines of its quarterly earnings Thursday afternoon, Uber said that it commanded over 50% of the ride-hailing market in India — among some other regions — and was the category leader.

The publicly listed company cited its internal estimations for the claim, it said. In comparison, Uber handled 11 million rides a week in India in 2018, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The revelation is especially interesting, since both Uber and its chief local rival Ola have tended to avoid talks about the number of rides they serve in India.

In a 2018 blog post, Ola revealed that its platform “moves over two million people every day.” A spokesperson for the Indian startup, which like Uber counts SoftBank as an investor, declined to reveal the new figures, but issued a statement in which it identified itself as India’s “largest mobility platform.”

“As India’s largest mobility platform, Ola serves over 200 million customers through a network of 2.5 million driver-partners across a wide range of offerings including two, three and four-wheelers,” the spokesperson said, adding that the ride-hailing firm operates in 250 cities and towns in India.

Last month, Uber sold its food delivery Uber Eats’ India business to local rival Zomato for about $180 million in a move that some analysts said could help the ride-hailing firm better focus on its core business in the country.

An Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company plans to expand from about 50 Indian cities where it currently operates to 200 in the country by the end of the year. It will focus on onboarding two-wheelers and three-wheelers in many of these cities, the firm said.

Uber’s expansion in India comes as Ola is entering one of the American firm’s key territories. Last week, Ola said it will begin operation in London on February 10.

As its fundraising lags, SoftBank’s second Vision Fund could be near-sighted

By Jonathan Shieber

SoftBank, the technology conglomerate that transformed the venture capital industry and made waves in the technology world with its $100 billion Vision Fund, may not be able to repeat the performance or sustain its revolutionary approach to tech investing, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the Journal, SoftBank may only be able to raise half of the $108 billion target it had set for its sequel to the Vision Fund — with most of that money coming from the Japanese company itself.

Big backers like the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund (which helps support the financial stability of a regime responsible for assassinating journalists), and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Co. both balked at SoftBank’s attempts to set up Vision Fund II, telling SoftBank that it would have to use capital from the profits made off of previous investments to finance the second firm.

Those profits reportedly amount to roughly $10 billion.

While the Vision Fund launched with much fanfare and no small amount of jealous grumbling from investors, analysts and media amazed at the size of capital SoftBank’s founder and enigmatic chief executive Masayoshi Son was able to raise, the results have not managed to keep pace with the hype.

Part of the problem has been the disastrous investment SoftBank made in the co-working company WeWork. SoftBank wrote down its $4.4 billion investment in the company by roughly $3.5 billion.

WeWork’s woes may just be the tip of the iceberg for SoftBank, which has significantly curtailed its capital commitments to other portfolio companies. Those companies have recently slashed staff to reduce spending sending ripples through the broader tech industry and hinting at a potentially broader slowdown.

The Japanese conglomerate’s investment arm is also shedding staff. Earlier this week, the company lost one of its top managers, Michael Ronen, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs and was instrumental in SoftBank’s investments in companies like ParkJockey, Nuro and GM Cruise.

Ronen isn’t the only big departure. The company’s chief people officer, Michelle Horn and another U.S.-based managing director, David Thevenon, have also left the company in the past five months.

SoftBank-backed Fair puts the brakes on weekly car rentals for Uber drivers

By Josh Constine

When Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October, CEO Scott Painter promised it wasn’t shuttering leasing services to on-demand fleets. But just one week later, Painter was removed as CEO and replaced in the interim with Adam Hieber, a CFA from Fair investor SoftBank. Today, according to two sources, Fair announced at an all-hands meeting that it would end its Fair Go program that helped Uber drivers lease cars on short-term deals. The program will cease in April. Uber now confirms the news to TechCrunch, and now Fair has directly confirmed the news to us as well.

“Due to an unexpected increase in insurance premiums that would have significantly raised prices for Fair’s rideshare drivers, we will wind down our weekly rideshare service over the coming months,” a spokesperson said. “We are working to minimize the disruption for Fair’s rideshare drivers, including notifying these customers of the status of their subscription in the coming weeks. We are working closely with Uber and exploring options with third parties to provide alternative customer mobility options to ensure a seamless transition for them, as well as continuity in Uber’s vehicle supply. We are thankful for our loyal Fair rideshare drivers and are disappointed we can no longer operate the business in a cost-effective way for our customers.”

Uber drivers who want to lease a car for a month or longer can still do so through Fair. The current program that is being wound down allowed Uber drivers to lease for increments of a week at a time. From what we understand, the program comprised as much as half of Fair’s business with Uber at its peak.

Formerly valued at $1.2 billion after raising over $2 billion in equity and debt financing from SoftBank and Lightspeed, Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October. It had bought Uber’s XChange leasing program in early 2018. The deal lets drivers lease an Uber-eligible car with subscriptions to roadside assistance and maintenance for as low as $130 per week with a $500 start fee.

But Uber had sold the leasing program because it was unprofitable and adding to its losses at a tough time for the rideshare giant. As additional fees stacked up, Fair didn’t fare much better operating it.

A source tells us Fair Go was profitable. It was an important focus for the company as it retooled its subscription services for traditional drivers. Another source says at one point Fair Go was adding about 250 to 300 car leases per day and had thousands of active leases.

But Fair Go was facing higher insurance rates from carriers, which make sense since Uber drivers can be on the road far, far longer than traditional car owners.

Rather than trying to pass those fees along to drivers — many of whom are already cash-strapped — Fair told employees it would cease to lease to Uber drivers. That’s a respectable choice, since it could have pushed Uber drivers into debt if they didn’t fully comprehend what their total costs would be.

Attempts to reach Fair for comment were complicated by many of its in-house PR team being hit with October’s layoffs. An agency representative provided the statement above after publishing time.

An Uber spokesperson confirmed the shut down of Fair Go and their partnership, telling TechCrunch that “Unlocking options for vehicle access so drivers can earn with Uber remains a top priority. We’re thankful for Fair’s collaboration, and their contributions to our vehicle rental program. We’re continuing to invest in rental partnerships, and building more flexibility beyond hourly, weekly, and monthly options available today.” 

Uber tells me it remains committed to offering rental options to drivers through partnerships with Hertz, Avis, ZipCar and Getaround, and they may be able to work with Uber drivers formerly leasing from Fair.

Painter kept a role as chairman of Fair.com when he stepped away from the CEO position at the end of October — a change we are still confirming is in place today. At the time of the layoffs in October, he maintained that the action was proactive, and not in response to SoftBank pressure.

“SoftBank is a big shareholder and supporting my focus, and that is the reality right now,” Painter said at the time. “Leaning on us is not the term,” he added in response to our questions of whether SoftBank pressured it to make these changes. “They are supporting us — there is a big difference,” he stressed.

The CEO change one week later, and today’s news about Fair Go, points to a different unfolding of events that speaks to the pressure SoftBank itself is under.

The news is the latest low point for the SoftBank portfolio in the wake of the WeWork implosion. That’s caused potential repeat LPs for SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund to tighten their purse strings and other late stage investors to focus on sustainable unit economics. Late-stage startups have been left scrambling to cut their burn rates, often through layoffs.

SoftBank’s portfolio, which may have trouble raising on good terms after what many saw as inflated valuations propped up by the megafund, has been hit the hardest. This week TechCrunch broke the news that Flexport was laying off 3% of staff, or 50 employees.

Other SoftBank-funded company layoffs include Zume Pizza (80% of staff laid off), Wag (80%), Getaround (25%), Rappi (6%), and Oyo (5%). There may be more to come: activist investor Elliott Management, which now owns more than $2.5 billion of SoftBank shares, has reportedly been in talks with the company over a range of issues including better corporate governance and more transparency and management around investments.

Updated with confirmation from Fair, and a correction that Uber will continue offering car rentals through partners but not leasing as we originally printed.

Advocating reform, activist investor Elliott Management takes a $2.5B stake in SoftBank

By Jonathan Shieber

The activist investment firm Elliott Management has steadily amassed a $2.5 billion stake in the headline-grabbing, Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank even as a series of missteps battered the company’s share price.

Famous for its investments in companies like Slack and Uber and infamous for betting billions on the co-working real estate marketplace and development company, WeWork, SoftBank presented an enticing target for Elliott’s brand of financial speculation, according to an initial report in The Wall Street Journal.

Last November, SoftBank Group reported a $6.5 billion loss thanks in part to its efforts to bail out its investment in WeWork — a company once valued in private markets at $47 billion.

Those losses sent the stock price tumbling, but despite its troubles, SoftBank still holds a vast stable of portfolio companies. It’s those assets that Elliott Management thinks are appealing enough to carve out some of its $34 billion in assets under management for a minority stake.

Elliott’s substantial investment in SoftBank Group reflects its strong conviction that the market significantly undervalues SoftBank’s portfolio of assets,” a spokesperson for the firm wrote in an email. “Elliott has engaged privately with SoftBank’s leadership and is working constructively on solutions to help SoftBank materially and sustainably reduce its discount to intrinsic value.”

SoftBank made waves in the technology investment world with its massive $100 billion Vision fund, which was designed to take stakes in emerging technology companies that required lots of cash, but could potentially transform various industries.

The audacious investment strategy was financed by working with sovereign wealth funds like the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (whose principals are linked to a leadership known for ordering the assassination of journalists) and companies like Apple and Microsoft.

Through its limited partners and with its own cash, SoftBank was able to take large equity stakes in companies across a range of different industries. However, it now appears that those large equity stakes will be difficult to maintain or justify.

Over the last year, several of SoftBank’s portfolio companies have run into trouble, and it’s an open question whether any changes Elliott might be able to effect at the top of the organization would have an impact on the performance of the underlying portfolio.

Indeed, given SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s 22% ownership stake in the business, any corporate activism that Elliott may initiate or advocate for could have limited results.

There are good businesses in the SoftBank portfolio, and public investors have rushed in to buy the company’s stock on the back of the disclosure of Elliott Management’s investment.

However, the flood of capital that came into the venture market in 2018 seems to have crested, which could leave SoftBank and its new investors soaked.

Watch OneWeb launch 34 satellites for its broadband constellation live

By Darrell Etherington

One of the various companies looking to deploy a globe-spanning broadband internet satellite constellation is adding 34 more satellites to its existing operations in space. OneWeb will launch that many satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan with a liftoff time set for 4:42 PM EST (1:32 PM PST) today. The new satellites will join OneWeb’s six already in orbit, which launched last February.

In total, OneWeb hopes to eventually operate at least 650 satellites in low-Earth orbit, the combined network of which will be used to provide internet service to customers on the ground. Launch provider Arianespace will be flying as many as 19 more missions on behalf of OneWeb to fill out its constellation goals between now and the end of 2021, and will look to begin offering connectivity in a pilot testing capacity by sometime later this year, with full commercial service coming online next year, too.

OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in funding last year, raising its total overall funding to $3.4 billion, to help cover the cost of their mass manufacturing and deployment phase, and a significant portion of its funding has come from SoftBank. This launch will put it in good stead to begin its first tests later this year, but the competition for constellation-based broadband internet service is intensifying, with SpaceX already having put up 240 satellites for its own Starlink project, with a lot more launches of 60 satellites each set for this year. SpaceX, of course, is also its own launch provider which simplifies delivery.

Meanwhile, Amazon is undertaking a similar project, currently codenamed ‘Kuiper,’ but it has yet to begin putting any hardware in orbit for its endeavor. OneWeb is targeting maritime, aviation, enterprise and government customers – as are other smaller startup companies, like Swarm Technologies and Kepler. Speed to market is definitely a factor as these operators begin to come online, but the potential market is massive and spans multiple industries, so there will likely be more than one winner when this ultimately shakes out.

OneWeb’s launch will be available via the YouTube stream above closer to launch time, so check back for updates.

 

Alphabet’s Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile turn solar-powered drones into flying cell towers

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company that had been focused on delivering internet communications to remote areas via stratospheric balloons, has completed development work on a new payload for partner HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank that’s building high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed aircraft. The two companies jointly adapted the communications technology that enables Loon’s balloons to beam communications networks to Earth for use on HAPSMobile’s drones, effectively turning them into high-flying mobile cell towers.

This is the result of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced back in April of last year, but an important step because it means that Loon’s technology will get its first functional tests on vehicles other than its ballon-based platform. The HAWK30 aircraft that HAPSMobile developed is a solar-powered electric aircraft that flies at speeds of over 100 km/h (around 60 mph) in the stratosphere (with an operating altitude or around 65,000 feet) which is much faster than Loon’s balloons, which meant adapting the payload to perform at these speeds. Part of that customization included making the antenna used to beam the LTE connectivity to devices on the ground much more responsive, allowing them to rotate quickly to maintain the best possible connection.

Loon and HAPSMobile say the their communications technology can provide connections between devices as far as 700 km (435 miles) apart, with data transfer speeds reaching as high as 1Gpbs. HAPSMobile’s goal with the HAWK30 project is to expand the scope of coverage vs. terrestrial cell towers, since their high-altitude position can cover a much larger surface area vs. even the tallest cell towers. In fact, the company notes that just 40 of its aircraft could provide coverage to the entirety of Japan, vs. “tens of thousands of existing terrestrial base stations.” Plus, fewer areas would be considered out-of-range as a result of inhospitable terrain or difficult to reach areas in terms of infrastructure installation.

For Loon, this is a signifiant expansion of their current operating model, providing another path to revenue that includes adapting their communications technology for use on different types of aircraft and delivery models. It’s yet another example of the type of commercial partnerships available to the company, even as it ramps up its existing balloon-based deployment plans with partners including Telefonica and others.

Layoffs hit Flexport, another SoftBank-backed startup worth $3.2B

By Josh Constine

Fearing weak fundraising options in the wake of the WeWork implosion, late-stage startups are tightening their belts. The latest is another Softbank-funded company, joining Zume Pizza (80 percent of staff laid off), Wag (80 percent),  Fair (40%), Getaround (25 percent), Rappi (6 percent), and Oyo (5 percent) that have all cut staff to slow their burn rate and reduce their funding needs. Now freight forwarding startup Flexport is laying off 3 percent of its global staff.

“We’re restructuring some parts of our organization to move faster and with greater clarity and purpose. With that came the difficult decision to part ways with around 50 employees” a Flexport spokesperson tells TechCrunch after we asked today if it had seen layoffs like its peers.

Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen

Flexport had raised a $1 billion Series D led by SoftBank at a $3.2 billion valuation a year ago, bringing it to $1.3 billion in funding. The company helps move shipping containers full of goods between manufacturers and retailers using digital tools unlike its old-school competitors.

“We underinvested in areas that help us serve clients efficiently, and we over-invested in scaling our existing process when we actually needed to be agile and adaptable to best serve our clients, especially in a year of unprecedented volatility in global trade,” the spokesperson explained.

Flexport still had a record year, working with 10,000 clients to finance and transport goods. The shipping industry is so huge that it’s still only the seventh largest freight forwarder on its top Trans-Pacific Eastbound leg. The massive headroom for growth plus its use of software to coordinate supply chains and optimize routing is what attracted SoftBank.

Flexport Dashboard

The Flexboard Platform dashboard offers maps, notifications, task lists, and chat for Flexport clients and their factory suppliers.

But many late-stage startups are worried about where they’ll get their next round after taking huge sums of cash from SoftBank at tall valuations. As of November, SoftBank had only managed to raise about $2 billion for its Vision Fund 2 despite plans for a total of $108 billion, Bloomberg reported. LPs were partially spooked by SoftBank’s reckless investment in WeWork. Further layoffs at its portfolio companies could further stoke concerns about entrusting it with more cash.

Unless growth-stage startups can cobble together enough institutional investors to build big rounds, or other huge capital sources like sovereign wealth funds materialize for them, these startups might not be able to raise enough to keep rapidly burning. Those that can’t reach profitability or find an exit may face down-rounds that can come with onerous terms, trigger talent exodus death spirals, or just not provide enough money.

Flexport has managed to escape with just 3 percent layoffs for now. Being proactive about cuts to reach sustainability may be smarter than gambling that one’s business or the funding climate with suddenly improve. But while other SoftBank startups had to spend tons to edge out direct competitors or make up for weak on-demand service margins, Flexport at least has a tried and true business where incumbents have been asleep at the wheel.

As a top manager leaves amid fundraising woes, SoftBank’s vision looks dimmer — and schadenfreude abounds

By Connie Loizos

Every once in a while, an organization implodes so fantastically that it’s hard in retrospect to understand why another outcome once seemed possible. With every passing day, SoftBank — which shook up the investing world with the largest investment fund ever pooled, then seemed to use its capital as a weapon — looks to become one such operation.

The very newest development centers on the departure of Michael Ronen, a former Goldman Sachs banker who joined SoftBank in 2017 and became one of five U.S. managing partners at SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, where he led the firm’s transportation investments, including in Getaround, GM Cruise, Nuro, and Park Jockey.

Ronen tells the Financial Times that he has been “negotiating the terms of my anticipated departure” in recent weeks. Meanwhile, sources tell the FT that his departure is tied directly to the failure of SoftBank to raise any outside investment for the company’s second Vision Fund.

The FT further reports that other top lieutenants may also be on their way out, including SoftBank vice chairman Ron Fisher, who has been a part of SoftBank and a close advisor to SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son since 1995.

SoftBank is denying that Fisher is “going anywhere.” We’ve meanwhile reached out to Ronen for further information, as well as to the Vision Fund’s press relations office.

It was in mid-summer last year that the first hints of trouble began to surface publicly. Son himself began seeding doubt when he announced in July that the Japanese conglomerate’s second Vision Fund had reached $108 billion in capital commitments based on a series of memoranda of understandings.

It didn’t take long for industry observers to start wondering whether the money was real. When we asked SoftBank why it was counting unrealized gains as profits in its first fund, for example, or whether investors in its first fund would accept SoftBank’s plans to use proceeds from its first fund to invest capital in a second vehicle (mixing money from different funds is not kosher in the world of VC), two spokespersons declined to answer our specific questions. Instead, we were pointed  to an online presentation by Son on SoftBank’s investor relations page that answered none of our queries.

Soon after, the WSJ reported that SoftBank planned to loan employees up to $20 billion so that they could buy stakes in its second fund. Again, the news raised eyebrows. Yet it was only when the Financial Times reported that some executives were being encouraged to borrow more than 10 times their base salary — and that some employees worried that opting out might hurt their career —  that the degree to which SoftBank was struggling became clearer.

Even still, few could have anticipated the speed with which the crown jewel of SoftBank’s first Vision Fund — WeWork — would fall apart as investment. Though the co-working giant was thought wildly overvalued by many in both the real estate and tech industries, it was difficult to imagine a scenario in which SoftBank — to rescue its more than $18 billion investment in WeWork — would pay so richly to get rid of its founding CEO, scuttle its IPO plans, then try to run the company itself.

As it happens, those who’ve worked with Son in the past seem least surprised by what’s happening now. Last fall, a former associate didn’t mince words when it came to Son, telling us, not for attribution, “If you are dumb enough to hand your wallet to him, he’s a genius at making money on his own terms for him and by extension, I guess, a small circle of shareholders and advisers. But if you [disagree with him in way], you are chum.”

Another source described the first Vision Fund, which relied heavily on debt and promised its providers an annual coupon of 7%, as “akin to a check-kiting scheme, where you hope someone isn’t cashing that check at the bank before you’ve spent the money and earned more and can put it back.”

Son has “parasitized Japanese banks,” added this person. (In November, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that while SoftBank was in talks to raise billions of dollars more from Japanese banks, having lent so much money to SoftBank already, they were nervous about taking on more risk.)

Meanwhile, the first Vision Fund’s biggest backers — Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi — which represented $45 billion and $15 billion of its capital commitments, respectively — have become concerned about the perception of pouring any more money into SoftBank funds following “flops from the first Vision Fund,” reports the FT.

It’s a very different picture than one drawn by Vision Fund investor Caroline Brochada, who we interviewed on stage in December, and who was asked whether WeWork and other challenges would change either the scope of the mandate of the Vision Fund in 2020.

At the time, just two months ago, she suggested it would not. “The mission of investing in great teams, in mission-driven companies that are changing the way people live, will not change . . . SoftBank and Masa himself are very long-term thinkers, and hopefully, the message that founders took away from WeWork and the way SoftBank behaved after the IPO didn’t go forward is that we really will work with founders for a long time, and we will hold stock in the public markets, because we believe that this is a 10-, 20-, 100-year vision.”

Brochado, who joined SoftBank a year ago from Atomico, added at the time: “[T]he Vision Fund is two years old. And people sometimes forget that. So I think there’s a lot of learnings. There is definitely going to be a way forward. And the mission will remain the same.”

And yet the mission may be too challenged in the short term to be a viable one. In addition to WeWork, SoftBank hasn’t seen the return it was expecting from Uber, whose market cap is currently $65 billion. (It invested in the company when it was still privately held at a $49 billion valuation, buying up a little more than 16 percent of the company’s shares.) SoftBank parted ways in December with the dog-walking company Wag, into which it had poured $300 million just two years earlier.

Oyo, a SoftBank-backed, India-based startup with ambitions to become the world’s largest hotel chain, is also part of a “bubble that will burst,” according to a former operations manager at the company who talked earlier this month with the New York Times.

Yet another problem for Son: his high-profile wager on Sprint, the nation’s fourth-largest wireless provider, which he needs desperately to merge with T-Mobile, but which is stuck in a kind of limbo, sued by 13 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia over concerns that the merger would hurt competition and raise prices for users’ cell service.

In the meantime, layoffs at companies that raised huge amounts from the Vision Fund have become routine, including at Oyo, Rappi, Getaround, Zume, and Fair, to name just a handful.

All have led to a growing number of questions over the deal-making prowess of Son, who is the ultimate arbiter of all deals that SoftBank funds.

As another U.S. managing director, Jeff Housenbold, explained to us at a 2018 event we’d hosted, “Masa meets every single entrepreneur who we invest in, which is phenomenal because he’s brilliant . .  . he has amazing pattern recognition. But what’s really amazing is, he’s fearless. He’ll sit with an entrepreneur and go, ‘I really love that concept. Have you thought about what if we remove barriers?’ Or, ‘What if capital wasn’t a restriction?’” Housenbold continued, “If Masa says, “Yes, I’m intrigued, move forward,’ then we go to our formal investment committee to do confirmatory due diligence, then we close the deal.”

Now, those questions about his processes look to grow louder with Ronen’s departure. In fact, they might become deafening if not for SoftBank’s 25% stake in Alibaba, whose market cap has reached $600 billion. It was Son’s discerning $20 million bet on the Chinese conglomerate that began earning him accolades as a visionary.

For now, at least, it’s looking like an outlier in a sea of other decisions that have put his reputation to the test.

Report: WeWork has a new CEO and he’s a real estate — not a tech — exec

By Connie Loizos

If WeWork wanted to cement the impression that it no longer strives to be viewed as a tech company but rather as a real estate giant focused on leasing space, it would probably choose a veteran from the real estate world.

That’s just what it has done, too, according to a new story from the WSJ that say the company, which was famously forced to pull its initial public offering last fall, has settled on Sandeep Mathrani as its new top banana.

Mathrani, has spent the last 1.5 years as the CEO of Brookfield Properties’ retail group and as a vice chairman of Brookfield Properties. Before joining the Chicago-based company, he spent eight years as the CEO of General Growth Properties. It was one of the largest mall operators in the U.S. until Brookfield acquired it for $9.25 billion in cash in 2018.

Mathrani also spent eight years as an executive vice president with Vornado Realty Trust, a publicly traded real estate company with a market cap of $12.5 billion. (Brookfield is slightly smaller, with a market cap of roughly $8 billion.)

Mathrani will reportedly relocate to New York from Miami, where according to public records, he owns at least one high-rise apartment that he acquired last year.

He’ll be reporting to Marcelo Claure, the SoftBank operating chief who was appointed executive chairman of WeWork in October in order to help salvage what Claure has himself said is at least an $18.5 billion bet on WeWork at this point by SoftBank.

Specifically, Claure told nervous employees at an all-hands meeting shortly after his appointment, “The size of the commitment that SoftBank has made to this company in the past and now is $18.5 billion. To put the things in context, that is bigger than the GDP of my country where I came from [Bolivia]. That’s a country where there’s 11 million people.”

Claure — who earlier spent four years as the CEO of SoftBank-backed Sprint —  was reportedly trying to hire T-Mobile CEO John Legere for the CEO’s post. Legere later communicated through sources that he had no plans to leave T-Mobile, yet just days later, in mid-November, Legere, who joined T-Mobile in 2012, announced that he’s stepping down as CEO after all, though he will remain chairman of the company. (According to the Verge, his contract is up April 30.)

Sprint and T-Mobile were expected to merge, though 13 states, led by the attorneys general of New York and California, are suing to block the deal.

Either way, Mathrani is a stark contrast to WeWork’s cofounder and longtime CEO Adam Neumann, who was pressure to resign from the company after his sweeping vision for it as a tech company that would enable customers to seamlessly shift from one WeWork location to another — paying for ever increasing software and services as monthly or yearly subscribers — was met with extreme skepticism by public market investors.

Indeed, though SoftBank marked up the company’s value over a number of private funding rounds to a brow-raising $47 billion, public investors began raising questions about its real value — and WeWork’s governance — as soon as WeWork publicly released the paperwork for its initial public offering.

Between the in-depth look its S-1 provided into the company’s spiraling losses, the degree of control held by Neumann (not fully understood previously), and a series of unflattering reports about his leadership style, including beginning with the WSJ, it didn’t take long before the company was forced to abandon its IPO dreams.

No doubt it’s now Mathrani’s job to eventually resuscitate those.

According to the WSJ, SoftBank has already established a five-year business plan that it expects will get the company to profitability and allow it to be cash-flow positive by some time next year. Part of that plan clearly involved layoffs; it cut 2,400 employees in late November, shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. It has also been selling off companies that were acquired at Neumann’s direction but are seen as non-core assets. What WeWork does not intend to curtail, reportedly, are its efforts to open new locations, even if it acquires them at a slower pace than in previous years.

Uber’s self-driving unit starts mapping Washington, D.C. ahead of testing

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.

Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.

Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.

At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington, D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.

Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.

Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.

Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington, D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.

Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

Layoffs reach 23andMe after hitting Mozilla and the Vision Fund portfolio

By Alex Wilhelm

Layoffs in the technology and venture-backed worlds continued today, as 23andMe confirmed to CNBC that it laid off around 100 people, or about 14% of its formerly 700-person staff. The cuts would be notable by themselves, but given how many other reductions have recently been announced, they indicate that a rolling round of belt-tightening amongst well-funded private companies continues.

Mozilla, for example, cut 70 staffers earlier this year. As TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois reported earlier in January, the company’s revenue-generating products were taking longer to reach market than expected. And with less revenue coming in than expected, its human footprint had to be reduced.

23andMe and Mozilla are not alone, however. Playful Studios cut staff just this week, 2019 itself saw more than 300% more tech layoffs than in the preceding year and TechCrunch has covered a litany of layoffs at Vision Fund-backed companies over the past few months, including:

Scooter unicorns Lime and Bird have also reduced staff this year. The for-profit drive is firing on all cylinders in the wake of the failed WeWork IPO attempt. WeWork was an outlier in terms of how bad its financial results were, but the fear it introduced to the market appears pretty damn mainstream by this point. (Forsake hope, alle ye whoe require a Series H.)

The money at risk, let alone the human cost, is high. Zume has raised more than $400 million. 23andMe has raised an even sharper $786.1 million. Rappi? How about $1.4 billion. And Oyo? $3.2 billion so farEvery company that loses money eventually dies. And every company that always makes money lives forever. It seems that lots of companies want to jump over the fence, make some money and rebuild investor confidence in their shares.

It’s just too bad that the rank-and-file are taking the brunt of the correction.

Boston Dynamics appoints its first-ever new CEO

By Brian Heater

After more than a quarter-century spent developing some of the industry’s most iconic and advanced machines, Boston Dynamics is a company in the midst of a profound transformation. This week, the Waltham, Mass.-based organization issued a number of key announcements, all focused on the same fundamental shift, as it readies the release of two commercial robots: Spot and Handle.

The top of the company has recently seen its first major shakeup since its founding in the early 1990s. Founder Marc Raibert has stepped aside from his role as CEO, a transition that occurred quietly back in October. Longtime employee Rob Playter will be stepping into the position, having most recently served as Boston Dynamics’ COO.

Playter joined the company early on, after penning a PhD thesis on “Passive Dynamics in the Control of Gymnastic Maneuvers.” A former NCAA gymnast himself, Playter’s work clearly has a bit of a spiritual successor in the complex maneuvers of the bipedal Atlas — arguably the most advanced of Boston Dynamics’ machines.

The move comes during an important crossroads for the company, and Raibert, its longtime leader, public face and chief evangelist. “I just had my 70th birthday,” he tells TechCrunch. “So I’ve been thinking about this for about a year that we needed a succession plan and I had been working on it during that time, talking to SoftBank, making sure they were cool with the idea, and making sure I was cool with the idea.”

Playter has hung with the company through numerous changes, serving as a Robotics Director at Google after the software giant purchased Boston Dynamics back in 2013. When the company switched hands to SoftBank, he took on the COO role.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

“I’ve been the organizational guy for a long time,” he says. “I basically hired most of the people in the company and growing us aggressively is a big challenge right now. Over the past year, bringing on new people into our executive leadership team has been a primary goal, as well as feeding an insatiable appetite for our technical teams to grow in order to meet the goals we’ve set for them. Which includes not only advancing the state of the art of robotics but actually making some of our robots into products and delivering them and supporting them and changing the organization to do so.”

Focus for many at Boston Dynamics has shifted in recent years. At our Robotics event a few years back, Raibert announced plans to offer a commercial version of its Spot robot, aimed at performing security, construction site inspections and a variety of different tasks. Spot officially went on sale in September, and the company tells TechCrunch that it’s ramping up production with hopes of hitting 1,000 a year.

Boston Dynamics has long insisted that the production version of Spot will be a platform, allowing end users to tailor it to a variety of different tasks. That dream takes a step closer to reality with the release of the Spot software development kit on GitHub this week.

“The SDK enables a broad range of developers and non-traditional roboticists to communicate with the robot and develop custom applications that enable Spot to do useful tasks across a wide range of industries,” VP Michael Perry said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “With the SDK, developers in the Early Adopter Program can create custom methods of controlling the robot, integrate sensor information into data analysis tools, and design custom payloads which expand the capabilities of the base robot platform.”

The company has already announced a few early partners. Perry again, “One of our customers, HoloBuilder, is using the SDK to integrate Spot into their existing app. With what they’ve developed, workers can use a phone to teach Spot to document a path around a construction site and then Spot will autonomously navigate that path and take 360 images that go right into their processing software. Other customers are exploring VR control, automated registration of laser-scanning, connecting Spot’s data to cloud work order services, using Edge computing to help Spot semantically understand its environment, and much more.”

In keeping with the company’s longstanding viral approach to marketing, buster of myths Adam Savage is among the early developers. Savage will participate in development with the robot for the next year, a milestone he celebrated with the release of a Tested video that understandably mostly entails him controlling the robot like a kid with a new RC car on Christmas morning.

Ultimately, Boston Dynamics will only have so much input into what happens to these robots once they’re out in the world. There are currently nearly 100 robots out in the world, and production is ramping up to around 83 units a month. A video that debuted onstage at our robotics event last year recently caused a dust up with the ACLU after showcasing state police using Spot in hostage rescue field training.

“There is a part of a humanity that loves to worry about robots taking over or being weaponized or something like that,” says Raibert. “We definitely want to counter that narrative. We’re not interested in weaponized robots. We’ve also gotten positive feedback from the fact that the police were using our robot to look at suspicious packages. There’s a real safety issue there and that it generated some additional interest with us as well. I mean, this isn’t really anything different than any new technology. There’s a wide variety of things it can be used for. We’re working to be responsible and trying find the good things that it could be used for.”

SoftBank’s 2018 acquisition marked a major turning point for the company, of course. Though Boston Dynamics insists that the investor firm has done little in the way of pressing it into commercialization. Those plans, it explains, were already in the works.

“I think the remarkable thing about SoftBank is they’re absolutely interested in the products and the moneymaking potential of what we’re doing while having a very serious interest in support for the longer range stuff we’re doing,” says Raibert, who is staying on at BD/SoftBank in a chairman role. “And over the 18 months that we’ve been part of SoftBank, I’ve repeatedly tested that commitment. Talking to the top leadership at SoftBank and they have repeatedly endorsed that. They’re very enthusiastic also for us to productize and make robots and make robot products.”

The company will maintain its commitment to developing research robots, a role Raibert will continue to help facilitate. That list includes products like Atlas and, no doubt, some still unannounced products. Others, including Handle, will be developed with an eye toward production. In April, the company acquired Bay Area-based 3D vision startup Kinema Systems to bring imaging to the pick-and-place robot.

Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it plans to offer the robot up for commercial use in the next two years.

“We’ve been doing proof of concept tests with Handle and some early customers to validate our expectations on what the useful tasks are in a warehouse for moving boxes around,” says Playter. “We have a small set of those customers and we’re getting feedback from them. So far they’re really excited about this capability. It’s unique. As far as I know, we’re the only case-picking warehouse robot in development right now. And this is just a ubiquitous job, whether you’re unloading trucks or loading trucks or building pallets or de-palletizing. There’s thousands of warehouses just full of boxes.”

Memphis Meats raised $161 million from SoftBank Group, Norwest and Temasek

By Jonathan Shieber

Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.

The investment brings the company’s total financing to $180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.

Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.

Innovations in computational biology, bio-engineering and materials science are creating new opportunities for companies to develop and commercialize technologies that could replace traditional farming with new ways to produce foods that have a much lower carbon footprint and bring about an age of superabundance, according to investors.

The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.

“For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. “This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it’s important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”

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