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Boston Dynamics unveils OTTO Motors collaboration to bring our robot overlords to the warehouse

By Jonathan Shieber

Boston Dynamics, the undisputed heavyweight of technical robotics wizardry, unveiled a new collaboration with the warehouse autonomous material handling and transportation technology developer, OTTO Motors.

Over the past year Boston Dynamics has moved from building the stuff or robotic uprising nightmares to more mundane warehouse automation technologies with its Handle robot and Pick computer vision system.

Today, the company unveiled some footage from its proof of concept trials with OTTO Motors to automate the logistics space.

It’s part of a concerted effort to focus the company on revenue generation alongside revolutionary robotic innovation and follows the appointment of a new chief executive in January.

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

That focus on making the robots into products and delivering them is at the heart of the OTTO partnership, according to VP of Product engineering, Kevin Blankespoor.

“We’ve built a proof of concept demonstration of a heterogeneous fleet of robots building distribution center orders to provide a more flexible warehouse automation solution,” Blankespoor said in a statement. “To meet the rates that our customers expect, we’re continuing to expand Handle’s capabilities and optimizing its interactions with other robots like the OTTO 1500 for warehouse applications.”

For companies like OTTO Motors, which has long worked on developing autonomous warehouse and logistics technologies, the partnership with Boston Dynamics was a no-brainer.

“It’s exciting to engage with other cutting-edge robotics companies like Boston Dynamics,” said Ryan Gariepy, CTO and Co-Founder of OTTO Motors. “As leaders in our respective spaces, we can apply our technologies to field a whole new realm of applications.”

 

Aurora VP Jinnah Hosein is coming to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI

By Kirsten Korosec

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI is tomorrow and we have one more exciting speaker announcement to share.

Jinnah Hosein, the vice president of software engineering at self-driving vehicle startup Aurora, is coming to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI at UC Berkeley on March 3. Hosein will join Ike Robotics CTO and co-founder Jur van den Berg on stage to discuss autonomous vehicles, particularly safety critical software and the various technical approaches being taking to solve this game-changing technology.

If Hosein’s name sounds familiar, it should be. After a 10-year stint at Google, where he rose to director of software engineering, Hosein went to SpaceX . While Hosein was heading up the software engineering at SpaceX, he also was working at Elon Musk’s other company Tesla, where he was interim vp of Autopilot software.

Who else is coming to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI? Nvidia VP of engineering Claire Delaunay, the CEOs of Traptic, Farmwise and Pyka, a packed panel featuring Boston Dynamics’ Construction Technologist Brian Ringley, Built Robotics’ Noah Campbell-Ready, Tessa Lau of Dusty Robotics and Toggle’s Daniel Blank as well as TRI-AD’s CEO James Kuffner and TRI’s VP of Robotics Max Bajrachary. And that’s just a few of the speakers, not to mention demos and exhibits to be found at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

Tickets are on sale now for $345; you’ll save $50 when you book now as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are still available at the super-discounted $50 rate when you book here.

Newlab and The Boston Globe team up to launch AI tools startup Applied XLabs

By Anthony Ha

Applied XLabs is a new startup building tools that can automate data-gathering for journalists — and eventually, for knowledge workers in other industries.

The company is emerging from Brooklyn-based Newlab, with The Boston Globe as its launch partner. It will be led by Francesco Marconi (pictured above), who was previously R&D chief at The Wall Street Journal and head of AI strategy at the Associated Press.

Marconi told me that there’s a tremendous amount of data out there that could be useful to journalists, whether that’s inside public company filings or academic climate change research. But data-driven journalism remains a sliver of the industry, because “only a handful of organizations have the internal resources to create these types of tools, these types of analyses.”

The plan is for Applied XLabs to develop products to help newsrooms, starting with The Globe, automatically pull data and generate insights.

Vinay Mehra, president of The Boston Globe, said the hope is to use AI to improve the information that Globe journalists provide to different communities.

For example, Mehra said that The Globe has been expanding its coverage in Rhode Island, partly in response to the disappearance of local newspapers and the resulting “news deserts.” When the team started talking to the community about what kind of coverage they wanted to see, they came up with a long list of ideas like restaurant openings and closings. (That’s something news startup Hoodline, co-founded by Extra Crunch Managing Editor Eric Eldon, has also tried to tackle with data and automation.)

But providing comprehensive coverage in these areas is tough with a small newsroom, Mehra said: “We can’t keep throwing journalists at this.” So the idea is to “mine that data” and make existing journalists more effective.

At the same time, he emphasized that he doesn’t see AI as a way to replace journalists or justify newsroom cuts, and he noted that The Globe continues to hire.

“We can’t sit back and ignore these technologies that are coming out every day,” Mehra said. “The opportunity here is to redefine what is possible with AI, to expand our own thinking and horizons around how we do journalism today and how we serve these communities.”

Marconi added that ultimately, these tools could also be sold to knowledge workers in a variety of industries.

Newlab

“The same way that you have Salesforce for managing the sales process, we are building the platform for knowledge workers,” he said. “The reason why it’s so important to start with news and why we’re working with journalists [is] the threshold is really, really high. If you are able to build products and seeds of information that editors can use and sign off on, then you can quickly expand into other industries.”

Applied XLabs is also the first startup to emerge Newlab’s venture studio program. When we first visited Newlab back in 2016, it described itself as a workspace for companies in robotics, AI and other fields. Now it’s created a studio model where it aims to bring together “diverse stakeholders” to create new companies in frontier tech.

“There is a substantial investment from Newlab, and in addition to capital, Newlab is providing all of the back office services,” Marconi said. “I get the stability of an established company with the freedom, flexibility and creativity of a new venture.”

SpaceX alumni are helping build LA’s startup ecosystem

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard Smith

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

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

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

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

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

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

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

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

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

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

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

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

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

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

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

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

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

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

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

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

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

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

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

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

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

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

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

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

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

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

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

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

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

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

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

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

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

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

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

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

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

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

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

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

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

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

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

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

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

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

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

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

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

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

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

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

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

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

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

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

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

Final Tickets Available

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

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

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Boston’s year jump starts as two local startups raise $520M in two rounds

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Late last week two Boston-based companies raised big rounds. The size of the two investments — each over the $100 million mark — and their rapid succession made them stand out.

The pair of investments raised a question: Is Boston seeing an acceleration in the pace at which it attracts venture capital? Of course, Toast raising $400 million and Flywire raising $120 million within a day of each other does not, by itself, constitute a trend. So we’ve pulled some recent, and historical data from Boston to figure out what’s up.

Today let’s take a look at how many rounds of $50 million or more, and $100 million or more, have been raised in Boston so far in 2020 compared to the city’s full-year 2019 results from each category. We’ll be able to see if Boston is ahead of the pace it set last year. This will let us know if Boston’s venture scene is heating up, or cooling thus far in 2020. (Recall that we wrote about the Northeast in December, and found its venture activity to be intense.)

We’ll start with a quick peek at the Flywire and Toast rounds, and then dig into the data.

Winged Bread

Toast, Boston’s restaurant payment processing unicorn, put together $400 million in fresh funding last week, adding to its preceding haul of just over $500 million in known capital. The company, founded in 2011, has now raised $902 million, according to Crunchbase.

Watch experts from Boston Dynamics, Built, Dusty and Toggle discuss robotic construction at TC Sessions: Robotics

By Brian Heater

After recently doing a survey of the top robotics investment rounds, it became pretty clear: construction is going to be huge for this industry. Global construction is expected to hit $13 trillion by 2022 (with China alone hitting that number in 2030), and there are plenty of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that seem well positioned for potential automation.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a fantastic — and packed — panel set to examine how robotics, AI and automation are poised to transform the industry. There’s a wide range of potential opportunities for the right startup, from producing construction materials to surveying sites. The latter, in particular, could amount to a big market for a company that can help correct mistakes before they become too costly.

Today we’re excited to announce that Boston Dynamics’ Construction Technologist Brian Ringley will be joining an already packed panel that includes Built Robotics’ Noah Campbell-Ready, Tessa Lau of Dusty Robotics and Toggle’s Daniel Blank at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.

A longtime robotics pioneer, Boston Dynamics is a recent entrant into the construction space. The company’s now commercially available Spot robot is currently being piloted at construction sites. With LIDAR and other imaging technologies mounted on its back, the robot is able to give a more complete picture of in-progress construction sites.

 Save $50 when you book your tickets today as prices go up at the door. We still have a small handful of Startup Exhibitor Packages available that can be booked here. Each package comes with 4 tickets so you can divide and conquer the show.

What robotics’ biggest raises tell us about the industry’s future

By Brian Heater

I visited Boston last week and met with a number of robotics researchers, startups and established companies — more on that later — in the lead up to TechCrunch’s fourth annual TC Sessions Robotics + AI in early March. A big part of prepping for that event and my recent trip involved surveying some of the biggest funding raises from the past year.

A quick survey of these trends finds most investments concentrated in a handful of key categories. From there, we can get a pretty clear view of what the robotics industry will look like in the coming years and the roles we can expect these machines to play in our daily lives.

The definition of robotics is, of course, broad and only getting broader, as these technologies grow and mature. It’s worth noting that for the sake of my own research, I’ve mostly excluded autonomous driving — one of the key targets of robotics investment. It is, perhaps, an arbitrary distinction that has more to do with the way we categorize technologies — placing them in automotive or mobility, as opposed to robotics.

Artificial intelligence startups, too, are included sparingly for similar reasons. With those caveats in mind, these verticals have been the key focuses of robotics investments: warehouse automation/fulfillment, construction, retail/food, agriculture and surgical/medical.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot gets an SDK and co-starring role in an Adam Savage video

By Brian Heater

This next year will be one of the most important since Boston Dynamics was founded back in 1992. After changing hands from Google to Softbank, the robot maker is getting more aggressive about commercializing products, bringing Spot to market, while Handle waits in the wings.

The news includes a new CEO, its first since founding. This week, Boston Dynamics is also making Spot’s SDK available to the public via Github. That will go live tomorrow. It’s a pretty big step for the company and its plans to grow its first commercially-available robot into a platform — something it’s talked up for a while now.

VP Michael Perry offered up the following comment to TechCrunch,

The SDK enables a broad range of developers and non-traditional roboticists to communicate with the robot and develop custom applications that enable Spot to do useful tasks across a wide range of industries. Developers will still need to become part of the Early Adopter Program to lease the robot to execute their code, but all interested parties will now be able to view the SDK and existing early adopters can open source their own code. With the SDK, developers in the Early Adopter Program can create custom methods of controlling the robot, integrate sensor information into data analysis tools, and design custom payloads which expand the capabilities of the base robot platform.

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

Boston Dynamics has already showcased a number of potential applications for the robot on stage at TechCrunch’s annual Robotics+AI conference. Early uses include security and construction site monitoring. Spot’s ability to walk up and down stairs and open doors make it uniquely qualified among these sorts of robots. Another video, which featured Spot being used in state police drills, meanwhile, raised some concern with the ACLU.

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

The truth is that the nature of Boston Dynamics’ robots have — and probably always will — raise suspicions among an audience trained to be suspicious of large robots like Spot through generations of sci-fi stories. Certainly having it in the field with officers only contributed to such suspicions for many. Also true is that once Spot and the SDK are out in the world, BD will only have so much control over how such products are used in the world.

One well-known early adopter is Adam Savage. The former Mythbuster got his hands on a Spot over the holidays and produced a video wherein he interacts with the robot like a kid on Christmas day. Understandable. I’ve controlled Spot myself and it’s pretty awesome once you get over the fleeting concern that you’re going to break a machine the size of a large dog that costs as much as a car.

According to his video, Savage will be working with Spot for the next year.

Boston Dynamics appoints its first-ever new CEO

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

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