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This Thiel Fellow thinks he can help scooters, drones and delivery robots charge themselves with sunlight

By Connie Loizos

From the time he was a high school student, Rohit Kalyanpur thought it was peculiar that although it’s possible to create energy from a solar panel, the panels have long been used almost exclusively on rooftops and as part of industrial-scale solar grids. “I hadn’t seen [anything solar-powered] in the things people use every day other than calculators and lawn lights,” he tells us from him home in Chicago — though he’s moving to the Bay Area next month.

It wasn’t just a passing thought for Kalyanpur. Through research positions in high school, he continued to learn about energy and work on a solar charging prototype — initially to charge his iPhone — while continuing to wonder what other materials might be powered spontaneously just by shining light on it.

What he quickly discovered, he says, is there were no developer tools to build a self-charging project. Unlike with hardware projects, where developers can turn to the open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino, and to Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer the size of a credit card and was created in 2012 to help students understand how computers work, there was “nothing you could use to optimize a solar product,” he says.

Fast-forward, and Kalyanpur says there is now — and he helped build it.

It’s been several years in the making. After attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for two years and befriending a fellow student, Paul Couston, who helped manage and invest the university’s $10 million green fund, the pair dropped out of school to start their now four-person company, Optivolt Labs. Entry into the accelerator program Techstars Chicago was the impetus they needed, and they’ve been gaining momentum since. In fact, Kalyanpur, now 21, was recently given a Thiel Fellowship, a two-year-long program that includes a $100,000 grant to young people who want to build new things, along with a lot of mentorships and key introductions.

Now, the company has closed on a separate $1.75 million round of seed funding from a long list of notable individual investors, including Eventbrite co-founders Kevin & Julia Hartz; TJ Parker, who is the founder and CEO of PillPack (now an Amazon subsidiary); Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher: and Jeff Lutz, a former Google SVP.

What they’re buying into exactly is the promise of a scalable technology stack for solar integration. Though still nascent, Optivolt has already figured out a way to provide efficient power transfer systems, solar developer and simulation tools and cloud-based API’s to enable fleets of machines to self charge in ambient light, says Kalyanpur. Think e-scooters, EVs, drones, sensors and other connected devices.

Asked how it all works on a more granular level, Kalyanpur declines to dive into specifics, but he says the company will begin testing its technology soon with a number of “enterprise fleets” that have already signed on to work with Optivolt in pilot programs.

If it works as planned, it sounds like a pretty big opportunity. Though some companies have begun making smaller solar-powered vehicles, there are presumably many outfits that would prefer to find a way to retrofit the hardware they already have in the world, which Kalyanpur says will be possible.

He says they can use their existing batteries, too — that the solar won’t just power the devices or vehicles in real time but allow them to store some of that energy, too. Optivolt’s technology “seamlessly integrates into everyday products, so you don’t have to change the product design meaningfully,” he insists.

We’ll be curious to see if see if it does what he thinks it can. It sounds like we aren’t the only ones, either.

Asked about Optivolt’s road map, Kalynapur suggests that one is coming together. The company’s top priority, however — beyond hiring more engineering talent with its brand new round — it to see first how it works in the field.

Techstars nabs $42M to expand its global presence

By Kate Clark

Techstars, a startup accelerator founded in 2006, has plans to double down on international growth with a new investment.

SVB Financial Group, the holding company of Silicon Valley Bank, led the $42 million round in Techstars, with participation from Foundry Group.

With $500 million AUM, Techstars is both a fund deploying capital to early-stage upstarts and an operating business nearing $100 million in annual revenue. Its latest equity investment, announced this morning, will fuel the latter, helping Techstars accelerate its global expansion efforts.

“Expect to see Techstars continue to expand more rapidly, not just in North America and Europe, but also throughout Asia, Latin America, Australia and more,” Techstars founder and co-chief executive officer David Cohen tells TechCrunch.

Cohen adds the company will also use the fresh funds to grow Techstars Studio, where it builds and launches its own companies; Techstars Ecosystem Development, which helps communities grow and sustain startup economies; Techstars Talent, where it lists available startup roles and more.

Techstars currently runs 49 accelerator programs in 35 cities in 16 countries. Known for backing a number of companies, including Plated, ClassPass, SendGrid and PillPack, Techstars invests roughly $80 million into 490 new startups per year.

“We have a model that is working consistently,” Cohen adds. “We’re helping entrepreneurs succeed all over the world. In turn, this is creating a better future for everyone. We owe it to entrepreneurs everywhere to bring the power of the Techstars network to their doorstep. We believe that talent is equally distributed around the world, but the opportunity is not. It’s on us to continue to grow our network for the benefit of current and future generations of entrepreneurs around the world.”

 

Mobile messaging financial advisory service Stackin’ adds banking features and raises cash

By Jonathan Shieber

When Stackin’ initially pitched itself as part of Techstars Los Angeles accelerator program two years ago, the company was a video platform for financial advice targeting a millennial audience too savvy for traditional advisory services.

Now, nearly two years later, the company has pivoted from video to text-based financial advice for its millennial audience and is offering a new spin on lead generation for digital banks.

The company has launched a new, no-fee, checking and savings account feature in partnership with Radius Bank, which offers users a 1% annual percentage yield on deposits.

And Stackin has raised $4 million in new cash from Experian Ventures, Dig Ventures and Cherry Tree Investments, along with supplemental commitments from new and previous investors including Social Leverage, Wavemaker Partners, and Mucker Capital.

“Stackin’ has a unique and highly effective approach to connect and communicate with an entire generation of younger consumers around finance,” said Ty Taylor, Group President of Global Consumer Services at Experian, in a statement.

Founded two years ago by Scott Grimes, the former founder of Uproxx Media, and Kyle Arbaugh, who served as a senior vice president at Uproxx, Stackin initially billed itself as the Uproxx of personal finance.

It turns out that consumers didn’t want another video platform.

“Stackin’ is fundamentally changing the shape and context of what a financial relationship means by creating a fun, inclusive and judgement free environment that empowers our users to learn and take action through messaging,” said Scott Grimes, CEO and co-founder of Stackin’, in a statement. “This funding allows us to build out new features around banking and investing that will enhance the relationship with our customers.”

Later this fall the company said it would launch a new investment feature that will encourage Stackin users to participate in the stock market. It’s likely that this feature will look something like the Acorns model, which encourages users to invest in diversified financial vehicles to get them acquainted with the stock market before enabling individual trades on stocks.

According to Grimes, the company made the switch from video to text in March 2018 and built a custom messaging platform on Twilio to service the company’s 500,000 users.

“In a short time, we have built a large customer base with a demographic that is typically hard to reach. Having financial institutions like Experian come on board as an investor is a testament that this model is working,” Grimes wrote in an email.

How top VCs view the new future of micromobility

By Arman Tabatabai

Earlier this month, TechCrunch held its annual Mobility Sessions event, where leading mobility-focused auto companies, startups, executives and thought leaders joined us to discuss all things autonomous vehicle technology, micromobility and electric vehicles.

Extra Crunch is offering members access to full transcripts key panels and conversations from the event, including our panel on micromobility where TechCrunch VC reporter Kate Clark was joined by investors Sarah Smith of Bain Capital Ventures, Michael Granoff of Maniv Mobility, and Ted Serbinski of TechStars Detroit.

The panelists walk through their mobility investment theses and how they’ve changed over the last few years. The group also compares the business models of scooters, e-bikes, e-motorcycles, rideshare and more, while discussing Uber and Lyft’s role in tomorrow’s mobility ecosystem.

Sarah Smith: It was very clear last summer, that there was essentially a near-vertical demand curve developing with consumer adoption of scooters. E-bikes had been around, but scooters, for Lime just to give you perspective, had only hit the road in February. So by the time we were really looking at things, they only had really six months of data. But we could look at the traction and the adoption, and really just what this was doing for consumers.

At the time, consumers had learned through Uber and Lyft and others that you can just grab your cell phone and press a button, and that equates to transportation. And then we see through the sharing economy like Airbnb, people don’t necessarily expect to own every single asset that they use throughout the day. So there’s this confluence of a lot of different consumer trends that suggested that this wasn’t just a fad. This wasn’t something that was going to go away.

For access to the full transcription below and for the opportunity to read through additional event transcripts and recaps, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Kate Clark: One of the first panels of the day, I think we should take a moment to define mobility. As VCs in this space, how do you define this always-evolving sector?

Michael Granoff: Well, the way I like to put it is that there have been four eras in mobility. The first was walking and we did that for thousands of years. Then we harnessed animal power for thousands of years.

And then there was a date — and I saw Ken Washington from Ford here — September 1st, 1908, which was when the Model T came out. And through the next 100 years, mobility is really defined as the personally owned and operated individual operated internal combustion engine car.

And what’s interesting is to go exactly 100 years later, September 2008, the financial crisis that affects the auto industry tremendously, but also a time where we had the first third-party apps, and you had Waze and you had Uber, and then you had Lime and Bird, and so forth. And really, I think what we’re in now is the age of digital mobility and I think that’s what defines what this day is about.

Ted Serbinski: Yeah, I think just to add to that, I think mobility is the movement of people and goods. But that last part of digital mobility, I really look at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds. And it’s really that intersection, which is enabling all these new ways to move around.

GettyImages 1129827591

Image via Getty Images / Jackie Niam

Clark: So Ted you run TechStars Detroit, but it was once known as TechStars Mobility. So why did you decide to drop the mobility?

Serbinski: So I’m at a mobility conference, and we no longer call ourselves mobility. So five years ago, when we launched the mobility program at TechStars, we were working very closely with Ford’s group and at the time, five years ago, 2014, where it started with the connected car, auto and [people saying] “you should use the word mobility.”

And I was like “What does that mean?” And so when we launched TechStars Mobility, we got all this stuff but we were like “this isn’t what we’re looking for. What does this word mean?” And then Cruise gets acquired for a billion dollars. And everyone’s like “Mobility! This is the next big gold rush! Mobility, mobility, mobility!”

And because I invest early-stage companies anywhere in the world, what started to happen last year is we’d be going after a company and they’d say, “well, we’re not interested in your program. We’re not mobility.” And I’d be scratching my head like, “No, you are mobility. This is where the future is going. You’re this digital way of moving around. And no, we’re artificial intelligence, we’re robotics.”

And as we started talking to more and more entrepreneurs, and hundreds of startups around the world, it became pretty clear that the word mobility is actually becoming too limiting, depending on your vantage where you are in the world.

And so this year, we actually dropped the word mobility and we just call it TechStars Detroit, and it’s really just intersection of those physical and digital worlds. And so now we don’t have a word, but I think we found more mobility companies by dropping the word mobility.

Microsoft and the second SoftBank Vision Fund as another play for corporate cloud dominance

By Jonathan Shieber

It looks like the return of SoftBank’s Vision Fund may be less reliant on murder money and more reliant on Microsoft’s money-making machine for its backing.

The rumored involvement of Microsoft in financing SoftBank Vision Fund II (electric boogaloo?) is interesting for what it may indicate about how the relationship between venture investors, startups and the large corporations that dominate the tech industry are changing.

If the name of the game is platform and services, then corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Apple are in interesting positions to invest in startups as a flywheel for growth in some of their most profitable and strategic business units.

To some extent this has always been true, but it’s becoming more important now as web services become larger slices of the corporate balance sheet at these three companies (particularly — although IBM is also playing in this game). Basically, like corporate accelerators and venture arms, investing in SoftBank is another service that’s being potentially offered to lock in startups to corporate cloud ecosystems.

While there are no guarantees that a nudge from an investor to use one tech platform for web services over another would make any difference, it’s clear that big tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft are all over startups to use one web stack over another.

Amazon has tied itself ever more tightly to the Techstars ecosystem of incubators for new tech companies, Microsoft has its own corporate accelerator programs and investment arm and Alphabet does the same.

As technology continues to advance, the big companies have more services they can offer to tech companies that will be increasingly more compelling and drive increasing revenue.

All three big companies mentioned above (and even IBM, bless its big blue non-existent heart) have machine learning tools that they’d love to provide as a service to startups as well. And even as IBM sunsets Watson as a balance sheet item (an event that was an elementary conclusion to anyone who has tracked its long, slow spiral), machine learning services are going to become a larger slice of revenue for the providers who can effectively tie startups into those services.

Most entrepreneurs pay lip service to the fact that enhanced algorithms are going to become table stakes in new product offerings so observers can watch that become another engine of growth for the big companies that can get it right.

Also, startups are going to increasingly become a sales channel for big tech, even as big tech has traditionally been a sales channel for startups.

Software as a service businesses using a freemium business model have an easier time getting into a corporate environment than Microsoft or Google . And even as the productivity suites from these companies battle it out (Verizon, FWIW, is team Google for now), some of the money flowing to a SaaS company’s coffers from a big corporate entity will ultimately wind up in either Microsoft, Amazon or Alphabet’s returns.

This model also helps venture investors, who now have more assurance that there will be late-stage capital to bolster their businesses (including really, really bad ones), although most traditional firms have a love-hate relationship with Masayoshi Son’s gargantuan investment vehicle.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that divorcing SoftBank from Saudi Arabia’s journalist-killing murder money is a good thing for the firm and the larger technology industry, which has enough moral conundrums to consider without adding to the mix another problematic geopolitical relationship.

Techstars Detroit announces first class after major refocus

By Matt Burns

At the beginning of 2019, Techstars Mobility turned into Techstars Detroit. At the time of the announcement, Managing Director Ted Serbinski penned “the word mobility was becoming too limiting. We knew we needed to reach a broader audience of entrepreneurs who may not label themselves as mobility but are great candidates for the program.”

I always called it Techstars Detroit anyway.

With Techstars Detroit, the program is looking for startups transforming the intersection of the physical and digital worlds that can leverage the strengths of Detroit to succeed. It’s a mouthful, but makes sense. Mobility is baked into Detroit, but Detroit is more than mobility.

Today the program took the wraps off the first class of startups under the new direction.

Techstars has operated in Detroit since 2015 and has been a critical partner in helping the city rebuild. Since its launch, Serbinski and the Techstars Mobility (now Detroit) mentors have helped bring talented engineers and founders to the city.

Serbinski summed up Detroit nicely for me, saying, “No longer is Detroit telling the world how to move. The world is telling Detroit how it wants to move.” He added the incoming class represents the new Detroit, with 60% international and 40% female founders.


Airspace Link (Detroit, MI)
Providing highways in the sky for safer drone operations.

Alpha Drive (New York, NY)
Platform for the validation of autonomous vehicle AI.

Le Car (Novi, MI)
An AI-powered personal car concierge that matches you to your perfect vehicle fit.

Octane (Fremont, CA)
Octane is a mobile app that connects car enthusiasts to automotive events and to each other out on the road.

PPAP Manager (Chihuahua, Mexico)
A platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry, known as PPAP, to validate production parts.

Ruksack (Toronto, Canada)
Connecting travelers with local travel experts to help them plan a perfect trip.

Soundtrack AI (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Acoustics-based and AI-enabled Predictive Maintenance Platform.

Teporto (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Teporto is enabling a new commute modality with its one-click smart platform for transportation companies that seamlessly adapts commuter service to commuters’ needs.

Unlimited Engineering (Barcelona, Spain)
Unlimited develops modular Light Electric Vehicles as a fun, cheap and convenient solution to last-mile trips that are overserved by cars and public transportation.

Zown (Toronto, Canada)
Open up your real estate property to the new mobility marketplace.

Last day to save $100 on tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2019

By Emma Comeau

This is it. The final call for all the mobility and transportation startuppers who want to save a solid Benjamin on their ticket to the TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 conference in San Jose, Calif. on July 10. The early-bird ticket price disappears tonight, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Beat that deadline and buy a ticket — or pay full freight.

Get ready to experience a full day devoted to the revolution that’s taking place within the mobility and transportation industries. More than 1,000 people — the greatest minds, biggest names and influential thinkers, makers and investors — will attend a day packed with interviews, panel discussions, fireside chats, demos and workshops.

Along with TechCrunch editors, speakers will question assumptions and examine complex technological and regulatory issues. They’ll discuss capital investment concerns and look at the ethics and human factors in a future of autonomous cars, delivery robots and flying taxis.

Here’s a small sample of the programming that’s on tap. The event agenda can help you plan your day, although you may have to clone yourself to catch it all.

Building Business and Autonomy: Co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson will be on hand to talk about Zoox, an independent autonomous vehicle company. Its cars can navigate tricky San Francisco streets — including the notoriously iconic Lombard Street. We’ll hear how Zoox plans to navigate the challenging road to business success.

The Future of Freight: The trucking industry is in serious trouble, and startups and OEMs are scrambling to come up with a solution. Volvo’s Jenny Elfsberg and Stefan Seltz-Axmacher of Starsky Robotics will join us to debate whether autonomous trucks are the fix we need or if another near-term technology can pave the way to a more efficient and profitable industry.

Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Michael Granoff of Maniv Mobility, Ted Serbinski of Techstars and Bain Capital’s Sarah Smith will debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.

Today’s the last day you can save $100 on your pass to the TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 conference in San Jose, Calif. on July 10. Buy your ticket by 11:59 p.m. (PT) tonight, June 14 or kiss that early bird — and $100 — goodbye.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Only 48 hours left for early-bird tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2019

By Emma Comeau

If you’re wild about anything and everything related to mobility and transportation, you do not want to miss the TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 conference in San Jose, Calif. on July 10.

If you’re also wild about saving money, then synchronize your Apple watches — there are 48 hours left to score the early-bird price and save $100. That train leaves the station on Friday, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT), so book your pass now.

More than 1,000 of the industries’ top technologists, founders, investors, engineers and researchers will be there to explore the current and future states of transformational technologies — flying taxis, delivery drones, dockless scooters, autonomous vehicles and more.

World-class speakers and TechCrunch editors will look at both the exciting benefits and the formidable challenges that will ultimately and profoundly affect billions of people around the world. Here’s a taste of what’s coming (you can also check out the full agenda):

  • Bringing Ethics to Self-Driving Cars: Voyage’s Oliver Cameron and Uber’s Clark Haynes will discuss ethical decision-making in autonomous vehicles and detail how robot cars are designed to prioritize some objects over others.
  • Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Michael Granoff (Maniv Mobility), Ted Serbinski (Techstars) and Sarah Smith (Bain Capital) will debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.
  • Rebuilding the Motor City: Ken Washington, Ford’s CTO and vice president of research and advanced engineering, will discuss how the historic automaker is rapidly changing its culture and processes while it prepares for an electric future.
  • The Last Mile: Challenges and Opportunities for Startups: Regina Clewlow, Populus founder and CEO, and Stonly Baptiste, Urban Us co-founder break down what it means to be a last-mile innovation business — the money needed to succeed, how data and technology will change the way people move from Point A to Point B and the hurdles that stand in the way.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 takes place on July 10, and you have only 48 hours left to get wild, be an early-bird and save $100. Get your ticket today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

72 hours left on early-bird savings for TC Sessions: Mobility 2019

By Emma Comeau

We’re totally stoked to see all of you at TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 on July 10 in San Jose, Calif. That’s slightly less than a month away, and if you want to save on the price of admission, you need to play beat the clock. Early-bird pricing ends on Friday, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

That’s a hundred bucks, people. Why pay more? Buy your early-bird ticket now and save that Benjamin for a rainy day.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 is a day-long conference focusing on the current and future state of mobility and transportation. More than 1,000 members of these communities — founders, technologists, engineering students and investors — will gather to learn, share, demo and network.

TechCrunch editors will interview some of the best minds and makers in mobility and transportation — the people making it happen. They’ll look at the promises, expose the hype and address the complex challenges inherent in these revolutionary industries.

Autonomous vehicles are a hot topic, and you’ll hear a lot on that subject. We can’t wait to hear from Jesse Levinson, co-founder and CTO of Zoox. He oversees the company’s software, artificial intelligence, computing and sensing platforms. He’ll talk with us about the company’s deployment plans and the challenges ahead.

The jam-packed agenda includes some of the transportation industry’s biggest names. Folks like Seleta Reynolds of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington, Mobileye co-founder and CEO Amnon Shashua, Karl Iagnemma of Aptiv, Alisyn Malek with May Mobility and Dmitri Dolgov at Waymo.

What’s happening with mobility investment? We’ve got that covered, too. You’ll hear from Michael Granoff (Maniv Mobility), Ted Serbinski (Techstars) and Sarah Smith (Bain Capital).

Here’s another way to experience TC Sessions: Mobility 2019. Buy a demo table. You won’t find a better place to showcase your mobility startup to a more targeted, influential audience. We’re talking founders, investors, technologists and media. The price includes three attendee tickets for extra ROI.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 takes place July 10 in San Jose, Calif. It’s time to play beat the clock. Early-bird pricing ends in 72 hours on Friday, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Buy your ticket today and save $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Voatz has raised $7 million in Series A funding for its mobile voting technology

By Connie Loizos

Voatz, the four-year-old, Boston, Ma.-based voting and citizen engagement platform that has been at the center of debate over the merits and dangers of mobile voting, has raised $7 million in Series A funding. The round was co-led by Medici Ventures and Techstars, with participation from Urban Innovation Fund and Oakhouse Partners.

Voatz, which current employs 17 people, is modeled after other software-as-a-service companies but geared toward election jurisdictions, working with state and local governments to conduct elections and provide related election management and cybersecurity services.

As we’d reported back in March, the city of Denver agreed to implement a mobile voting pilot in its May municipal election using Voatz’s technology, an opportunity that was offered exclusively to active-duty military, their eligible dependents and overseas voters using their smartphones.

The company hasn’t yet shared how many people wound up using the platform. As Voatz cofounder and CEO Nimit Sawhney told us late yesterday, “Our most recent election in Denver CO finished last night on June 4th and the post election audit will be beginning shortly.”

Denver was not the company’s first pilot program. Rather, Voatz had conducted more than 30 pilots previously, including two in West Virginia last year that had attracted the financial backing of Tusk Philanthropies, the philanthropic operation of investor and strategist Bradley Tusk.

As for where Voatz will be used next, Sawhney says to “stay tuned. The next phase of our pilot programs will be announced by the relevant jurisdictions a bit later in the summer.”

Voatz has become the best-known mobile voting app, which has also made it the target of some unflattering attention, including last summer, when numerous security experts criticized it roundly in a Vanity Fair piece. One said it was “going to backfire.” Another warned that the “United States needs some form of vetting process for online voting in elections.” A software expert separately called Voatz an “horrifically bad idea.”

Apparently, investors, along with growing number of city and state governments, are still willing to bet that it’s better than what’s currently available.

Voatz had previously raised $2.2 million in funding led by the venture arm of Overstock.com.

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