FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.

“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.

Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.

Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.

Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.

The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.

Airtel Africa gets an extra $200M for its mobile money business from QIA

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Three months ago, Mastercard invested $100 million in Airtel Mobile Commerce BV (AMC BV) — the mobile money business of telecom Airtel Africa. This was two weeks after it also received $200 million from TPG’s Rise Fund.

Today, the African telecoms operator has announced that it has secured another investment for its mobile money arm. The investor? Qatar Holding LLC, an affiliate of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar with over $300 billion in assets. The Middle Eastern corporation is set to invest $200 million into AMC BV through a secondary purchase of shares from Airtel Africa.

AMC BV is an Airtel Africa subsidiary and the holding company for several of Airtel Africa’s mobile money operations across 14 African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. The mobile money arm operates one of the largest financial services on the continent. It provides users access to mobile wallets, support for international money transfers, loans and virtual credit cards.

According to a statement released by the telecoms operator, the proceeds of the investment will be used to reduce debt and invest in network and sales infrastructure in the respective operating countries. The deal will close in two tranches — $150 million invested at the first close, most likely in August. The remaining $50 million will be invested at second close.

Airtel Africa claims QIA will hold a minority stake while it continues to hold the majority stake. This transaction still values Airtel Africa at $2.65 billion on a cash and debt-free basis like other deals. However, what’s different this time is that QIA is entitled to appoint a director to AMC BV’s board and “to certain customary information and minority protection rights.”

Airtel Africa’s most recent report for Q1 2021 shows signs of growth. The telecoms operator saw a year on year revenue growth of 53.7%, pushed by a 24.6% growth in customer base to 23.1 million. Transaction value went up 64.4% to $14.7 billion ($59 billion annualised); and EBITDA stood at $60 million ($240 million annualised) at a margin of 48.8%. The company also generated $124 million in revenue ($496 million annualised), while its profits before tax year-on-year for Q1 2021 stood at $185 million.

Mansoor bin Ebrahim Al-Mahmoud, CEO of QIA, said the sovereign’s wealth fund investment in Airtel Africa would help promote financial inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Airtel Money plays a critical role in facilitating economic activity, including for customers without access to traditional financial services. We firmly believe in its mission to expand these efforts over the coming years,” he added.

In February, Airtel Africa first made it known that it wanted to sell a minority stake in AMC BV to raise cash and sell off some assets. The subsequent month, it sold off telecommunication towers in Madagascar and Malawi to Helios Towers for $119 million and raised $500 million from outside investors.

Craft Aerospace’s novel take on VTOL aircraft could upend local air travel

By Devin Coldewey

Air taxis may still be pie in the sky, but there’s more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Craft Aerospace aims to do so with a totally new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city hops simpler, faster, cheaper and greener.

The aircraft — which, to be clear, is still in small-scale prototype form — uses a new VTOL technique that redirects the flow of air from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), making for a much more robust and controllable experience.

Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast, stable VTOL craft is the key that unlocks a new kind of local air travel, eschewing major airports for minor ones or even heliports. Anyone that’s ever had to take a flight that lasts under an hour knows that three times longer is spent in security lines, gate walks and, of course, getting to and from these necessarily distant major airports.

“We’re not talking about flying wealthy people to the mall — there are major inefficiencies in major corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shortening that delay is picking people up in cities and dropping them off in cities. So for these short hops, we need to combine the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft and VTOL.”

The technique they arrived at is what’s called a “blown wing” or “deflected slipstream.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of a vintage science fiction rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.

The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before now but never done on a production aircraft. You simply place a set of (obviously extremely robust) flaps directly behind the thrust, where they can be tilted down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downward. This causes the craft to rise upward and forward, and as it gets enough altitude it can retract the flaps, letting the engines operate normally and driving the craft forward to produce ordinary lift.

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During takeoff, thrust is redirected downward by extending flaps.

The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be minutely adjusted on each of the four “half-wings.” The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tried in a limited fashion (there are drones with it, for example) but ultimately never proved a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages, in this case, allowing for a much more stable, adjustable takeoff and landing than the two-engine Osprey. (Or, indeed, many proposed or prototype tilt-rotor aircraft out there.)

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During flight, the flaps retract and thrust pushes the plane forward as normal.

“Our tech is a combination of both existing and novel tech,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high flap aircraft has been built and flown. They’ve never been synthesized like this in a VTOL aircraft.”

To reiterate: The company has demonstrated a limited scale model that shows the principle is sound — they’re not claiming there’s a full-scale craft ready to go. That’s years down the line, but willing partners will help them move forward.

The fifth-generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using the blown wing principle, and the sixth, due to fly in a few months, will introduce the transitioning flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype doing tethered indoor hovering, but the company is not releasing this test footage publicly.)

The design of the final craft is still in flux — it’s not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for instance — but the basic size, shape and capabilities are already penned in.

It’ll carry nine passengers and a pilot, and fly around 35,000 feet or so at approximately 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal passenger jet, but whatever time you lose in the air ought to be more than regained by skipping the airport. The range of the cleaner hybrid gas-electric engines should be around 1,000 miles, which gives a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the top 50 busiest routes in the world, things like Los Angeles to San Francisco, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.

Image Credits: Craft Aerospace. It probably wouldn’t be flying at this altitude.

Notably, however, Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL aircraft aren’t just for show: Regulations permitting, they can touch down in a much smaller location, though exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned is, like the aircraft itself, still being worked out.

The team, which just worked its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, is experienced in building sophisticated transport: Dorris was a primary on Virgin Hyperloop’s propulsion system, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build Karma Automotive’s drivetrain. It may not have escaped you that neither of those companies makes aircraft, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.

“You’ve seen what’s come out of traditional aerospace over the last 10, 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that the likes of Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And companies that partnered with automotive giants hit walls because there’s a mismatch between the scales — a few hundred aircraft is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.

So Craft is relying on partners who have looked to shake things up in aerospace. Among its advisers are Bryan Berthy (once director of engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of Uber Elevate’s co-founders), and Brogan BamBrogan (early SpaceX employee and Hyperloop faithful).

The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline serving low-friction flights on local routes, to purchase 200 aircraft and the option for 400 more if wanted. Dorris believes that with their position and growth curve they could make a perfect early partner when the aircraft is ready, probably around 2025 with flights beginning in 2026.

It’s a risky, weird play with a huge potential payoff, and Craft thinks that their approach, as unusual as it seems today, is just plainly a better way to fly a few hundred miles. Positive noises from the industry, and from investors, seem to back that feeling up. The company has received early-stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital and its adviser Nikhil Goel.

“We’ve demonstrated it, and we’re getting an enormous amount of traction from aerospace people who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We’re a team of only seven, about to be nine, people. … Frankly, we’re extremely pleased with the level of interest we’re getting.”

Nothing Ear (1) review

By Brian Heater

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments Will.i.am made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

[gallery ids="2182572,2182566,2182587,2182586,2182585,2182584,2182583,2182581,2182580,2182579,2182578,2182577,2182575,2182574,2182573,2182571,2182570,2182569,2182568,2182567"]

There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

Connected car insurance startup Flock raises $17M Series A led by Chamath Palihapitiya

By Mike Butcher

Cast your mind back to that scene in Minority Report where all those autonomous cars are whizzing through the city. The more practically-minded of you may well have gone: “Yeah, but what about the insurance…?”.

Among the startups building the on-demand, connected insurance world for the vehicles of tomorrow right now are UK-based Zego which has raised $201.7 million. Another is Flock.

Emerging from an academic project to look at drones, Flock shifted into providing drones insurance then commercial vehicle insurance. The twist is that it hooks into the telematics of cars so that the vehicle only triggers insurance cover when it’s actually moving, not when it’s sitting on the lot, incapable of causing any accidents.

Flock has now raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and Chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s Fintech Partner) joins Flock’s Board of Directors as does Ross Mason (Founder of Dig Ventures & MuleSoft).

Ed Leon Klinger, CEO of Flock said: “Transportation is changing faster than ever, but the traditional insurance industry can’t keep up! The proliferation of electric cars, new business models such as ridesharing, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles pose huge challenges that traditional insurers just aren’t equipped for.”

He added: “Modern fleets need an equally modern insurance company that moves as fast as they do. Commercial motor insurance is a $160Bn market, crying out for disruption. The opportunity ahead of us is enormous.”

In a statement Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital said: “Flock is bridging the gap between today’s insurance industry and tomorrow’s transportation realities. By using real-time data to truly understand vehicle risk, Flock is meeting the demands of our rapidly evolving, hyper-connected world. Flock has the potential to help unlock and enable a truly autonomous world, and even save lives. We’re excited to be a part of their journey.”

Speaking to me over a call, Klinger outlined how the company had hit a sweet spot by hooking into Telematics APIs for cars, or by doing special integrations with existing providers and OEMs: “We’ve built our own integrated approach whereby we partner with some and we build bespoke integrations with them. Often they are not as advanced as others. So we’ll either use our integration platform or or we’ll use their approach. We’re highly flexible. The core value proposition at Flock is its flexibility, so we don’t force our own integration approach.”

Ashirase, a Honda incubation, reveals advanced walking assistance system for visually impaired

By Rebecca Bellan

Globally, 225 million people are estimated to suffer from moderate or severe visual impairments, and 49.1 million are blind, according to 2020 data from the Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science journal. A Japanese startup that was incubated at Honda Motor Company’s business creation program hopes to make navigating the world easier and safer for the visually impaired.

Ashirase, which debuted as the first business venture to come out of Honda’s Ignition program in June, shared details of its in-shoe navigation system for low-vision walkers on Tuesday. The system aims to help users achieve more independence in their daily lives by allowing them to feel which way to walk through in-shoe vibrations connected to a navigation app on a smartphone. Ashirase hopes to begin sales of the system, also named Ashirase, by October 2022.

Honda created Ignition in 2017 to feature original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business. CEO Wataru Chino had previously worked at Honda since 2008 on R&D for EV motor control and automated driving systems. Chino’s background is evident in the navigation system’s technology, which he said is inspired by advanced driver assist and autonomous driving systems.

“The overlap perspective can be, for instance, the way we utilize sensor information,” Chino told TechCrunch. “We use a sensor fusion technology, meaning we can combine information from the different sensors. I have experience in that field myself so that is helpful. Plus there is overlap with automated driving because when we were thinking of safety walking, the automated driving technology had given us an idea for the concept.”

“Ashirase” comes from the Japanese words ashi, meaning “foot,” and shirase, meaning “notification.” As its name suggests, the device, which is attached to the shoe, vibrates to provide navigation based on the route set within an app. Motion sensors, which consist of an accelerometer, gyro sensors and orientation sensors, enable the system to understand how the user is walking.

While en route outside, the system localizes the user based on global navigation satellite positioning information and data based on the user’s foot movement. Ashirase’s app is connected to a range of different map vendors like Google Maps, and Chino said the device can switch to adapt to different information available on different maps. This capability might be helpful if, say, one map had updated information about a road blockage and could send over-the-air updates.

“Going forward, we want to develop the function to generate a map itself using sensors from the outdoor environment, but that’s maybe five years down the line,” Chino said.

The vibrators are aligned with the foot’s nerve layer, so it’s easy to feel the pulse. To indicate the user should walk straight ahead, the vibrator positioned at the front of the shoe vibrates. Vibrators on the left and the right side of the shoe also indicate turning signals for the walker.

Ashirase says this form of intuitive navigation helps the walker attain a more relaxed state of mind rather than one that is constantly alert, leading to a safer walk and less stress for the user.

This also allows the user to have more attention to spare for audible warnings in their environment, like, for example, if they were at a crosswalk, because the device cannot warn the user of obstacles ahead.

“Going forward, we’re thinking about technical updates for users who are totally blind because they don’t have such information like obstacle awareness like low-vision people,” Chino said. “So at this moment, the device is designed for low-vision walkers.”

While indoors, like in a shopping mall, the GPS won’t reach the user, and there isn’t a map for them to localize to. To solve for this, the company says its plan is to use WiFi or Bluetooth-based positioning, connecting to other devices and cell phones within the store, to localize the visually impaired person.

Ashirase is also considering ways to integrate with public transit systems so that the device can alert a user if they have arrived or are near their next stop, according to Chino.

It’s a lot of tech to pack into one little device that attaches to a shoe — any shoe. Chino said the device, which only needs to be charged once a week based on three hours of use per day, is made to be flexible and fit onto different types, shapes and sizes of shoes.

Ashirase intends to release its beta version for testing and data collection in October or November this year and hopes to achieve mass production by October 2022. It’ll have a direct-to-consumer model, the price of which the company is not yet ready to disclose, and a subscription model, which should cost about 2,000 to 3,000 Japanese Yen ($18 to $27) per month.

Chino estimates it’ll take the company 200 million Yen ($1.8 million), including the funds the company has already raised, to make it to market. So far, the company has raised 70 million Yen ($638,000), which came in the form of an equity investor round and some non-equity rounds, according to Chino.

Honda maintains an investor role in the company, supporting and following the business along the way, but Ashirase’s aim is to go public as a standalone company.

Egyptian ride-sharing company Swvl plans to go public in a $1.5B SPAC merger

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Cairo and Dubai-based ride-sharing company Swvl plans to go public in a merger with special purpose acquisition company Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital, Swvl said Tuesday. The deal will see Swvl valued at roughly $1.5 billion.

Swvl was founded by Mostafa Kandil, Mahmoud Nouh and Ahmed Sabbah in 2017. The trio started the company as a bus-hailing service in Egypt and other ride-sharing services in emerging markets with fragmented public transportation.

Its services, mainly bus-hailing, enables users to make intra-state journeys by booking seats on buses running a fixed route. This is pocket-friendly for residents in these markets compared to single-rider options and helps reduce emissions (Swvl claims it has prevented over 240 million pounds of carbon emission since inception).

After its Egypt launch, Swvl expanded to Kenya, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The company also moved its headquarters to Dubai as part of its strategy to become a global company.

Swvl offerings have expanded beyond bus-hailing services. Now, the company offers inter-city rides, car ride-sharing, and corporate services across the 10 cities it operates in across Africa and the Middle East.

Queen’s Gambit, the women-led SPAC in charge of the deal, raised $300 million in January and added $45 million via an underwriters’ overallotment option focusing on startups in clean energy, healthcare and mobility sectors.

The statement also mentions a group of investors — Agility, Luxor Capital and Zain Group — which will contribute $100 million through a private investment in public equity, or PIPE.

Per Crunchbase, Swvl has raised over $170 million. From an African perspective, Swvl features as one of the most venture-backed startups on the continent. The company has been touted to reach unicorn status in the past and will when this SPAC merger is completed.

The company will aptly trade under the ticker SWVL. The listing will make it the first Egyptian startup to go public outside Egypt and the second to go public after Fawry. It will also make the mobility company the largest African unicorn debut on any U.S.-listed exchange, beating Jumia’s debut of $1.1 billion on the NYSE. In the Middle East, Swvl joins music-streaming platform Anghami as the second startup to go public via a SPAC merger.

Swvl had annual gross revenue of $26 million in 2020, according to the statement, and the company expects its annual gross revenue to increase to $79 million this year and $1 billion by 2025 after expanding to 20 countries across five continents.

On why Queen’s Gambit picked Swvl for this deal, Victoria Grace, founder and CEO, said in a statement that the company fit the profile of what she was looking for: “a disruptive platform that solves complex challenges and empowers underserved populations.”

“Having established a leadership position in key emerging markets, we believe Swvl is ready to capitalize on a truly global market opportunity,” she added.

In May, TechCrunch wrote that SPACs didn’t target African startups for several reasons, including a lack of global appeal and private capital and market satisfaction. Judging by Grace’s comments, Swvl has that global appeal and is ready to venture into the public market despite being in operation for just four years.

The Lilium electric jet will use batteries manufactured by Germany’s Customcells

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Electric air taxi startup Lilium has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.

The battery IP is the result of “multiple players,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch, but the manufacturing will be the sole job of Customcells. While Lilium declined to specify the number of battery systems as part of the agreement, it confirmed that Customcells will be manufacturing guaranteed capacity until 2026.

Customcells specializes in high-performance lithium-ion batteries for the aerospace, automotive and maritime industries. The manufacturer recently announced a new joint venture with luxury sports car maker Porsche AG, dubbed Cellforce Group, for the low-volume production of batteries for racing cars and performance vehicles.

This is just the latest partnership Lilium has announced in recent months as it prepares to shift into component and vehicle testing. The Munich-based eVTOL company has developed an international network of partnerships with suppliers like Japanese company Toray Industries for carbon fiber composite; Spanish aerospace supplier Aciturri for the jet’s airframe; and Palantir Technologies, one of its investors, for software services. In June, Lilium added aerospace manufacturing giant Honeywell to its roster for the jet’s flight control and avionics system.

Lilium’s decision to outsource major components to established manufacturers is a departure from many of the other leading eVTOL developers, like Joby Aviation, which have chosen to keep much of the engineering and production in-house. The strategy has a few advantages. For one, Lilium doesn’t have to spend millions – possibly hundreds of millions over time – in manufacturing facilities, or production and testing equipment. But the key advantage, Lilium executives suggest, may lie with the certification process.

Like other eVTOL manufacturers, the Lilium Jet must receive regulatory approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration in order to operate commercially in the EU and U.S., respectively. Lilium, in line with other major would-be players in the industry, has set an ambitious target of 2024 for commencing commercial operations. Established aerospace suppliers may use components that have already achieved a minimum performance standard recognized by regulators, which could save time in the certification process.

“Collaborating with experts, aerospace partners, is a deliberate choice for us,” Lilium’s chief program officer, Yves Yemsi, told TechCrunch earlier this year. “It will help us to reduce our time to market and still be safe.”

TikTok a Year After Trump’s Ban: No Change, but New Threats

By Will Knight
The popular short-video app survived a plan to block it on US phones. Now, it’s mistrusted by both the US and Chinese governments.

A DNS outage just took down a large chunk of the internet

By Zack Whittaker

A large chunk of the internet dropped offline on Thursday. Some of the most popular sites, apps and services on the internet were down, including UPS and FedEx (which have since come back online), Airbnb, Fidelity, and others are reporting Steam, LastPass, and the PlayStation Network are all experiencing downtime.

Many other websites around the world are also affected, including media outlets in Europe.

What appears to be the cause is an outage at Akamai, an internet security giant that provides networking and content delivery services to companies. At around 11am ET, Akamai reported an issue with its Edge DNS, a service that’s designed to keep websites, apps and services running smoothly and securely.

DNS services are critically important to how the internet works, so when things go wrong or there’s an outage, it can cause a knock-on effect to all of the customer websites and services that rely on it.

Akamai said it was “actively investigating the issue,” but when reached a spokesperson would not say if its outage was the cause of the disruption to other sites and services that are currently offline. Akamai would not say what caused the issue but that it was already in recovery.

“We have implemented a fix for this issue, and based on current observations, the service is resuming normal operations. We will continue to monitor to ensure that the impact has been fully mitigated,” Akamai told TechCrunch.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen an outage this big. Last year Cloudflare, which also provides networking services to companies around the world, had a similar outage following a bug that caused major sites to stop loading, including Shopify, Discord and Politico. In November, Amazon’s cloud service also stumbled, which prevented it updating its own status page during the downtime. Online workspace startup Notion also had a high-profile outage this year, forcing the company to turn to Twitter to ask for help.

FTC puts hardware makers on warning for potential ‘unlawful repair restrictions’

By Devin Coldewey

As phones and other consumer devices have gained feature after feature, they have also declined in how easily they can be repaired, with Apple at the head of this ignoble pack. The FTC has taken note, admitting that the agency has been lax on this front but that going forward it will prioritize what could be illegal restrictions by companies as to how consumers can repair, repurpose, and reuse their own property.

Devices are often built today with no concessions made towards easy repair or refurbishment, or even once routine upgrades like adding RAM or swapping out an ailing battery. While companies like Apple do often support hardware for a long time in some respects, the trade-off seems to be that if you crack your screen, the maker is your only real option to fix it.

That’s a problem for many reasons, as right-to-repair activist and iFixit founder Kyle Wiens has argued indefatigably for years (the company posted proudly about the statement on its blog). The FTC sought comment on this topic back in 2019, issued a report on the state of things a few months ago, and now (perhaps emboldened by new Chair Lina Khan’s green light to all things fearful to big tech companies) has issued a policy statement.

The gist of the unanimously approved statement is that they found that the practice of deliberately restricting repairs may have serious repercussions, especially among people who don’t have the cash to pay the Apple tax for what ought to be (and once was) a simple repair.

The Commission’s report on repair restrictions explores and discusses a number of these issues and describes the hardships repair restrictions create for families and businesses. The Commission is concerned that this burden is borne more heavily by underserved communities, including communities of color and lower-income Americans. The pandemic exacerbated these effects as consumers relied more heavily on technology than ever before.

While unlawful repair restrictions have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for a number of years, the Commission has determined that it will devote more enforcement resources to combat these practices. Accordingly, the Commission will now prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under relevant statutes…

The statement then makes four basic points. First, it reiterates the need for consumers and other public organizations to report and characterize what they perceive as unfair or problematic repair restrictions. The FTC doesn’t go out and spontaneously investigate companies, it generally needs a complaint to set the wheels in motion, such as people alleging that Facebook is misusing their data.

Second is a surprising antitrust tie-in, where the FTC says it will look at said restrictions aiming to answer whether monopolistic practices like tying and exclusionary design are in play. This could be something like refusing to allow upgrades, then charging an order of magnitude higher than market price for something like a few extra gigs of storage or RAM, or designing products in such a way that it moots competition. Or perhaps arbitrary warranty violations for doing things like removing screws or taking the device to third party for repairs. (Of course, these would depend on establishing monopoly status or market power for the company, something the FTC has had trouble doing.)

More in line with the FTC’s usual commercial regulations, it will assess whether the restrictions are “unfair acts or practices,” which is a much broader and easier to meet requirement. You don’t need a monopoly to make claims of an “open standard” to be misleading, or for a hidden setting to slow the operations of third party apps or peripherals, for instance.

And lastly the agency mentions that it will be working with states in its push to establish new regulations and laws. This is perhaps a reference to the pioneering “right to repair” bills like the one passed by Massachusetts last year. Successes and failures along those lines will be taken into account and the feds and state policymakers will be comparing notes.

This isn’t the first movement in this direction by a long shot, but it is one of the plainest. Tech companies have seen the writing on the wall, and done things like expand independent repair programs — but it’s arguable that these actions were taken in anticipation of the FTC’s expected shift toward establishing hard lines on the topic.

The FTC isn’t showing its full hand here, but it’s certainly hinting that it’s ready to play if the companies involved want to push their luck. We’ll probably know more soon once it starts ingesting consumer complaints and builds a picture of the repair landscape.

Spreadsheet.com wants to put apps in your spreadsheets

By Alex Wilhelm

An old rule of thumb for building a startup is to find a group of professionals who use spreadsheets to do their work and then build an app to replace their spreadsheet usage. Presto, you have a startup, and perhaps even a new software category.

Spreadsheet.com, however, is doing the opposite. Instead of turning spreadsheets into apps, the startup wants to put apps in your spreadsheets.

TechCrunch caught up with the company when it reached out, disclosing that it raised $5.5 million last June. That round, wrought from the coffers of Spark Capital, First Round Capital and Firebolt Ventures, is now a pretty dated event. (PitchBook details a valuation of around $22 million, post-money, for that funding event.) But what Spreadsheet.com is up to is neat. Let’s talk about it.

People love spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are a blend of database (structured data storage), calculator (averages, sums and all sorts of other goodies), and programming interface (functions and more). That hybrid feature set has kept traditional spreadsheet tools like Microsoft’s venerable Excel relevant amid a growing sea of applications.

Jokes abound concerning just how much spreadsheets hold up the world. This meme remains stuck in my mind, for example:

I got more pic.twitter.com/t4ibeRWhIf

— Amy Deep (@deepenergyy) July 20, 2021

The movement to replace spreadsheets has yet to strike a lethal blow against their general usage. That reality forms part of Spreadsheet.com’s thesis. CEO Matt Robinson told TechCrunch that companies that break out parts of their workflow from spreadsheets into tailored apps wind up merely running both sets of software at the same time. So, Robinson and co-founder Murali Mohan want to build a spreadsheet that helps companies avoid running more apps at one time than they must.

What does the company’s product do? Robinson answered that question with a question of his own: What do we currently do with spreadsheets? He offered up managing data, assigning tasks and linking to docs as examples. Using his startup’s service, he said, those are things that you can do in a spreadsheet, without having to use a separate app.

“We designed Spreadsheet.com to be the best of both worlds,” he explained in a follow-up Q&A. “It works just like the traditional spreadsheet you already know, but with a whole new set of capabilities.”

The company’s software can display spreadsheets in various formats like a timeline-style perspective, something that should be familiar to Airtable fans. Robinson also emphasized that Spreadsheet.com can handle formulas that folks already know, adding that it will be able to handle if-then functions to send data to other apps or trigger emails. The CEO argued that his company is building first-party features instead of third-party plugins.

Notably, Spreadsheet.com is not generally available today, so if you haven’t heard of it, don’t consider yourself behind. The company told TechCrunch that it currently has a 16,000-person waiting list, which it plans to open to others on October 17, which, it turns out, is Spreadsheet Day.

Asked how the company managed to build such a large waitlist while being in something akin to stealth mode, Robinson noted that Fast Company did cover the company back in 2019. Not a bad result.

What’s ahead?

When a startup flies out of the ether to announce a historical funding round, our first question is whether it’s about to fundraise again. TechCrunch doesn’t want to play patsy to a company’s next funding cycle. In this case, Robinson said that his startup has received inbound Series A interest and may raise in the next 12 months. Because that’s not tomorrow, I’m content to yammer about them in the interim.

Robinson indicated that Spreadsheet.com has around 2.5 years of capital in the bank and is not cash-constrained. If it does raise in 2021, then, it should be able to extract a pound of flesh in the form of a strong valuation; raise when you don’t need to, another startup rule of thumb states.

Why raise more capital inside the next year if the company doesn’t need cash? Robinson said that if his startup wants to scale its non-engineering roles — it is currently around 92% engineers by headcount — and wants to hire the best, and those folks won’t come cheap. And the CEO noted that some competing players have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Competing won’t be cheap, either.

In the larger universe that Spreadsheet.com plays in, there are many competing companies. Airtable is the obvious mention; the unicorn has raised more than $600 million, per Crunchbase data. Layer wants to make spreadsheets more collaboration-friendly. Stacker wants to help no-code developers build apps from spreadsheets, something akin to the antithesis of Spreadsheets.com. So does Rows, which was known as dashdash earlier in life. Flowhaven wants to do brand work outside of spreadsheets, an example of the market trend that Spreadsheet.com wants to combat. And Fivetran wants to “bring spreadsheets into the modern age and make it easier for users to work with messy data and analyze large amounts of information,” per our own reporting.

So, we now wait for Spreadsheet.com to open its doors and let the world get a better look at its tech. Are spreadsheets going apps, or are apps going spreadsheets? We’ll find out.

Pink Floyd drummer invests in Disciple Media, a platform aimed at the creator economy

By Mike Butcher

Much has been made of the rise of the “creator economy” in the last year. With the Pandemic biting, millions flooded online, looking for a way to make money or promote themselves. The podcasting world has exploded, and with it platforms like Patreon, Clubhouse, and many others. But the thorny problem remains: Do you really own your audience as a creator, or does the platform own you? Companies like Mighty Networks, Circle and Tribe have tried to address this, giving creators greater control than social networks do over their audiences. Now another joins the fray.

Disciple Media bills itself as a SaaS platform to enable online creators to build community-led businesses. It’s now raised $6 million in funding in what it calls a ‘large Angel round’. It already claims to have garnered 2 million members and 500 communities since launching in 2018. Investors include Nick Mason (drummer in Pink Floyd), Sir Peter Michael (CEO of Cray Computers, founder of classic FM, Quantel and Cosworth Engineering), Rob Pierre (founder and CEO of Jellyfish), and Keith Morris (ex. chairman Sabre Insurance). It’s also announced a new Chairman, Eirik Svendsen, a expert in online marketplaces, SaaS and the publishing and media industry.

On its communities so far it has American country star and American Idol judge Luke Bryan, Gor Tex, and Body by Ciara. The platform is also available on iOS and Android and comes with community management tools, a CRM, and monetization options. The company claims its creators are now “earning millions in revenue each year.”

Benji Vaughan, Founder and CEO said: “The scale and rapid growth of the creator economy is extraordinary, and today that growth is being driven by entrepreneurial creators looking to build independent businesses outside of Youtube and the social networks.”

Vaughan, a Techno DJ and artist-turned-entrepreneur, says he came up with the idea after building similar communities for clients. He says the data created on Disciple communities is owned entirely by the host who built the network, “removing third-party risk and allowing insights to be actioned immediately”.

He told me: “We are moving from a position of effectively having ‘gig economy workers for social networks’ to owners of businesses who use social networks for their needs, not the other way around. Therefore, these people are starting to leave social networks to build their businesses and using social networks as marketing channels, as the rest of the world does. Once that migration happens where they move away from social networks as their prime platform, they need a hub where their data is going to get pulled together, they have an audience, which we see as a community that connects with itself as much as they do with the host.”

He thinks the equivalent of Salesforce or HubSpot in the creative economy is going to be a community platform: “That’s where they’re going to aggregate all the information about their valuable audience or community engagement. So, we are looking to, over time, to build out something very akin to what HubSpot sites they have for tech companies or SaaS businesses: a complete package, a complete platform to manage your engagement with your users, grow your user base and then convert that into revenue.”

Rob Pierre, founder and CEO Jellyfish said: “Creating and engaging with your community digitally has never been more important. Disciple allows you to do both of those things with a fully functional, feature-rich platform which requires very little upfront capital expenditure. It also provides numerous options to monetize your community.”

Biden taps Google critic to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration tripled down on its commitment to reining in powerful tech companies Tuesday, proposing committed Big Tech critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is a lawyer with a long track record of representing smaller companies like Yelp in antitrust cases against Google. He currently practices law at his own firm, which specializes in advocacy for state and federal antitrust enforcement.

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House press release stated. Progressives celebrated the nomination as a win, though some of Biden’s new antitrust hawks have enjoyed support from both political parties.

Jonathan Kanter's nomination to lead @TheJusticeDept’s Antitrust Division is tremendous news for workers and consumers. He’s been a leader in the fight to check consolidated corporate power and strengthen competition in our markets. https://t.co/mLQACA0c4j

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 20, 2021

The Justice Department already has a major antitrust suit against Google in the works. The lawsuit, filed by Trump’s own Justice Department, accuses the company of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” through anti-competitive practices in its search and search advertising businesses. If successfully confirmed, Kanter would be positioned to steer the DOJ’s big case against Google.

In a 2016 NYT op-ed, Kanter argued that Google is notorious for relying on an anti-competitive “playbook” to maintain its market dominance. Kanter pointed to Google’s long history of releasing free ad-supported products and eventually restricting competition through “discriminatory and exclusionary practices” in a given corner of the market.

Kanter is just the latest high-profile Big Tech critic that’s been elevated to a major regulatory role under Biden. Last month, Biden named fierce Amazon critic Lina Khan as FTC chair upon her confirmation to the agency. In March, Biden named another noted Big Tech critic, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for tech and competition policy.

All signs point to the Biden White House gearing up for a major federal fight with Big Tech. Congress is working on a set of Big Tech bills, but in lieu of — or in tandem with — legislative reform, the White House can flex its own regulatory muscle through the FTC and DOJ.

In new comments to MSNBC, the White House confirmed that it is also “reviewing” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a potent snippet of law that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content.

Little Spoon scoops up $44M to grow its children’s nutrition delivery service

By Christine Hall

The quest to disrupt the traditional baby food aisle continues as more of today’s parents seek out nutritional food for their children.

One of the startups taking on the $100 billion children’s health and wellness market is Little Spoon, producing fresh, direct-to-consumer baby and children’s meals.

The New York-based company announced on Tuesday a $44 million round of Series B funding led by Valor Equity Partners, with participation from Kairos HQ. The new financing gives Little Spoon $73 million in total funding since it was founded in 2017 by Lisa Barnett, Ben Lewis, Michelle Muller and Angela Vranich.

The subscription-based service delivers meals from its Babyblends line of organic purees, and Plates, a healthy toddler and kid’s meals line. Babyblends costs less than $3 per meal, while Plates is less than $5 per meal. It also provides vitamins and natural remedies under its Booster line.

Barnett, president and chief marketing officer, told TechCrunch that the new funding round enables the company to evolve as a children’s nutrition solution and provide more engagement with parents through its “Is This Normal” community platform.

The baby and kid’s market is “very sleepy” traditionally, as is the parenting space as a whole, she said. Legacy companies aren’t staying on top of the needs of today’s parents, and consumers are not tolerating subpar products and experiences.

The four founders of Little Spoon came together to respond to those needs, Barnett said, and that is why more brands are also emerging. Another startup in the premium baby food space is Serenity Kids, offering low-sugar baby food. In June, it raised $7 million in Series A funding led by CircleUp Growth Partners.

“It’s not an accident that when we started, seven in 10 new parents using our products were of the millennial generation,” Barnett added. “Millennials entered this stage, en masse, more aware of the connection to food, health and nutrition. They don’t want old baby food sitting on the shelf, and they are dual-income households where it isn’t convenient to cook it yourself.”

Little Spoon products. Image Credits: Little Spoon

Little Spoon is differentiating itself from the competition by creating an entire experience around the consumer with its community platform and by providing a range of products for every stage that are high quality and accessible in price.

The Series B comes as the company is doubling down on what is working as it builds out its platform, CEO Lewis said. Aiming to be a holistic solution for parents, he intends to use the new funding to build the community and content platform — what he considers the company’s “secret sauce,” and bulk up operations to support the growth.

The company is on track for more than 300% in revenue growth. This year, it quadrupled its team from 10 to 37 team members. Since its launch, Little Spoon delivered more than 15 million meals.

“We are still in the early innings of what Little Spoon could be,” Lewis said. “We are laser-focused on developing new products, investing in the community, building out more capacity and bolstering operations.”

Alex Fiance, co-founder and co-CEO of Kairos, told TechCrunch that his firm invests in companies whose business model starts with the problem. He sees Little Spoon at the intersection of food tech and healthcare amid the concept of food as medicine.

He’s known the founders for over a decade and liked that the company’s product vision “could run for decades.” He also backs the brand’s mission for following children as they age and becoming a trusted source for keeping children healthy.

In fact, he is also among Little Spoon’s target customers. Fiance’s daughter was born in November 2019 and grew up eating Little Spoon. When it was time to switch her to solid foods, Fiance said he was happy when the company introduced its Plates line.

“Little Spoon makes my wife’s and my life easier,” he added. “I was sad to see that she might have aged out of Little Spoon if they hadn’t launched Plates. We couldn’t be any more believers.”

 

No, Facebook and Google Are Not Public Utilities

By Gilad Edelman
It’s time to retire one of the most half-baked ideas for regulating Big Tech.

The US Needs to Get Back in the Business of Making Chips

By Will Knight
Pandemic-induced supply disruptions and competition from China put more pressure on US companies to manufacture semiconductors at home.

Whisper Aero emerges from stealth to quiet drones and air taxis

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The skies are on the cusp of getting busier — and louder — as drone delivery and electric vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft startups move from moonshot to commercialization. One former NASA engineer and ex-director of Uber’s air taxi division is developing tech to ensure that more air traffic doesn’t equal more noise.

Mark Moore, who was most recently director of engineering at Uber Elevate until its acquisition by Joby Aviation, has a launched his own company called Whisper Aero. The startup, which came out of stealth this week, is aiming to designing an electric thruster it says will blend noise emitted from delivery drones and eVTOLs alike into background levels, making them nearly imperceptible to the human ear.

It’s a formidable challenge. Solving the noise problem comes down to more than simply cranking down the volume. Noise profiles are also characterized by other variables, like frequency. For example, helicopters have a main rotor and tail rotor that generate two separate frequencies, which makes them much more irritating to the human ear than if they were at a single frequency, Moore told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Complicating the picture even further is that eVTOL companies are designing entirely new types of aircraft, ones that may generate different acoustic profiles than other rotorcraft (like helicopters). The U.S. Army recently undertook a research study confirming that eVTOL rotors generate more of a type of noise referred to as broadband, rather than tonal noise which is generated by helicopters. And as each eVTOL company is developing its own design, not all of the electric aircraft will generate the same level or kind of noise.

Whisper is designing its scalable product to be adoptable across the board.

Moore said the idea for the company had been fomenting for years. He and Whisper COO Ian Villa, who headed strategy and simulation at Elevate, realized years ago that noise (that is, less of it) was key to air taxis taking off.

“The thing that was abundantly clear was, noise matters most,” Villa said. “It is the hardest barrier to break through. And not enough of these developers were spending the time, the resources, the mindshare to really unlock that.”

Whisper CEO Mark Moore. Image Credits: Whisper Aero (opens in a new window)

Helicopters have mostly been able to get away with their terrible noise profile because they are used so infrequently. But eVTOL companies like Joby Aviation are envisioning far higher ride volumes. Moore is quick to point out that companies like Joby (which purchased Elevate at the end of 2020) are already developing aircraft that are many times quieter than helicopter, and are “a step in the right direction.”

“The question is, ‘is it enough of a step to get to significant adoption?’ And that’s what we’re focused on.”

Whisper is staying mum on the details of its thruster design. It has managed to attract around $7.5 million investment from firms like Lux Capital, Abstract Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Kindred Ventures and Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures. It’s also aiming to convert its provisional patents with the United States Patent and Trademark Office sometime next year.

From there, the startup envisions launching in the small drone market around 2023, before scaling progressively up to air taxis. Moore said the goal is to get the thrusters manufactured and in vehicles by the end of the decade. Should the first generation of eVTOL go to market in 2024 (as Archer Aviation and Joby have proposed), Whisper’s product could potentially appear in second generation eVTOL.

In the meantime, Whisper will continue testing and working out remaining technical challenges – least among which is how to manufacture the end product at a reasonable cost. Whisper is also preparing to conduct dynamic testing in a wind tunnel, in addition to the static tests it has undertaken at its Tennessee headquarters, some in partnership with the U.S. Air Force.

“It’s got to be quiet enough to blend into the background noise,” Moore said. “We know this and that’s the technology we’re developing.”

Introducing the 2021 WIRED Resiliency Residents

By Caitlin Kelly
Over the next six months, five professionals from outside of journalism will give WIRED readers an inside perspective on their changing fields.

Archer Aviation hits back against rival Wisk Aero’s request for injunction in trade secret suit

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Archer Aviation is ramping up its defense against claims by rival Wisk Aero that it misappropriated trade secrets. Archer, which unveiled its Maker eVTOL earlier this month, alleged in a court filing late Wednesday that Wisk learned of Archer’s aircraft design weeks before it filed its patent design application – effectively reversing claims that it stole Wisk’s design.

Wisk claimed in its April lawsuit that its design is nearly identical to Archer’s, and that the similarities are the result of a former Wisk employee (who was later hired by Archer) stealing proprietary work files. In this new filing, Archer alleged that it shared its plans for a 12-rotor tilting design with Geoff Long, a senior engineer at Wisk, whom Archer was considering recruiting. Archer alleges that Long shared Archer’s plans with Wisk executives weeks before Wisk filed its patent application.

Still following? Archer also says that it hired a third party to conduct a forensic analysis, which found no evidence of any of the allegedly stolen documents on Archer’s systems or the devices belonging to the former Wisk-now-Archer employee.

The filing was made in response to an injunction Wisk filed in May, requesting that the court immediately prohibit its rival from using any of the 52 trade secrets it alleges were stolen. It’s a request that could have potentially catastrophic effects on Archer, as the company itself admits in the filing. Archer argues that approving the injunction would take it “offline indefinitely” and pose a “grave danger” to Archer and its network of partners and suppliers.

“Wisk’s legal and media blitz is threatening to derail Archer’s anticipated merger and its business partnerships and compelling Archer to redirect significant resources to defend this lawsuit,” Archer says in the filing. The company further requested that if an injunction should be granted, it should also require a $1.1 billion bond – which Wisk would have to pay should the court ultimately side with Archer.

Wisk, in response to the filing, sent the following statement to TechCrunch: “Archer’s latest filing is full of inaccuracies and attempts to distract from the serious and broad scope of misappropriation claims it faces. The filing changes nothing. We look forward to continuing our case in court to demonstrate Archer’s improper use of Wisk’s intellectual property.”

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under case no. 5:21-cv-2450.

❌