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Yesterday — April 3rd 2020Your RSS feeds

Valispace raises $2.4M to become the ‘Github for hardware’, joins fight against COVID-19

By Mike Butcher

Hardware engineering is mostly document-based. A typical satellite might be described in several hundred thousand PDF documents, spreadsheets, simulation files and more; all potentially inconsistent between each other. This can lead to costly mistakes. NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units, for instance.

Germany-HQ’d Valispace, which also has offices in Portugal, dubs itself as “Github for hardware”. In other words, it’s a collaboration platform for engineers, allowing them to develop better satellites, planes, rockets, nuclear fusion reactors, cars and medical devices, you name it. It’s a browser-based application, which stores engineering data and lets the users interconnect them through formulas. This means that when one value is changed, all other values are updated, simulations re-run and documentation rewritten automatically.

That last point is important in this pandemic era, where making and improving medical ventilators has become a huge global issue.

Indeed, the company is currently partnering with initiatives that develop open-source hardware solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. They are partnering with several initiatives that gather thousands of engineers working on the problem, most prominently the CoVent-19 Challenge and GrabCAD, as well as Helpful Engineering. Engineers working on ventilators can apply here for free accounts or email engineering-taskforce@valispace.com.

Valispace has now raised a Seed Extension funding round of €2.2M / $2.4M lead by JOIN Capital in Berlin and was joined by HCVC (Hardware Club), based in Paris.

The funding will be used to expand into new industries (e.g. medical devices, robotics) and expansion of the existing ones (aeronautics, space, automotive, energy). The company is addressing the Systems Engineering Tool market in Europe which is worth €7Billion, while the US market is at least as big. It’s competitors include RHEA CDP4, Innoslate, JAMA and the largest player Status Quo.

Marco Witzmann, CEO of Valispace said: “Valispace has proven to help engineers across industries to develop better hardware. From drones to satellites, from small electronic boxes to entire nuclear fusion reactors. When modern companies like our customers have the choice, they chose an agile engineering approach with Valispace.”

Tobias Schirmer from JOIN Capital commented: “Browser-based collaboration has become a must for any modern hardware company, as the importance of communication across teams and offices increases.”

The company now counts BMW, Momentus, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Airbus as customers.
Witzmann previously worked on Europe’s biggest Satellite Program (Meteosat Third Generation) as a Systems Engineer, while his Portugal-based co-founder Louise Lindblad (COO) worked at the European Space Agency, developing satellites and drones.

As satellite engineers, both were surprised that while the products they were working on were cutting edge, the tools to develop them seemed to be from the 80s. In 2016 they launched Valispace as a company, convincing Airbus to become one of their first customers.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Forward launches ‘Forward At Home’ primary care service to address COVID-19 healthcare crunch

By Darrell Etherington

The global coronavirus pandemic has already caused a tremendous strain on healthcare resources around the world, and it’s leading to a shift in how healthcare is offered. Startup Forward, which debuted in 2016 and has since expanded its tech-focused primary care medical practice to locations in major cities across the U.S., is launching a new initiative called ‘Forward At Home’ that reflects those changes and adapts its care model accordingly.

Forward’s primary differentiator is its focus on what it terms a patient’s ‘baseline,’ which is established by an in-person visit they make when they join that employs a body scanner at a doctor’s office to take a number of readings and produce an interactive chart displayed on-screen in the doctor’s exam room. Forward founder and CEO Adrian Aoun, who previously led special projects at Google before building the health tech company, said that as the company has ramped its efforts to support patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through in-clinic and drive-through testing, it also wanted to address the ongoing need for care for non-COVID patients.

“If people aren’t leaving their homes, and frankly, you don’t really want them to leave their homes unless you need them to, you have to figure out how to do all that remotely,” Aoun said in an interview, referring to Forward’s comprehensive biometric data gathering process. “So we’ve we’ve implemented a bunch of different things as rapidly as possible. The first is, how do we collect some biometrics – so we put together a kit that has a bunch of sensors in it that we actually mail to you. This includes an EKG, a connected thermometer, connected blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter.”

This approach provides a whole new level of remote care, over and above what’s typically defined as “telemedicine,” which generally amounts to little more than video calls with doctors, Aoun points out. Forward’s approach includes automated vitals monitoring for alerting a doctor if a patient needs intervention, and a patient has access to all their own data in the app as well. The Forward At Home product also take their exam room smart display and brings it to their mobile devices, presenting it for shared consultation between doctor and patient during viral visits, which are available 24/7 to Forward members.

At launch, the service also includes home visits to collect urine and blood samples, as an added measure designed specifically to help patients adhere to CDC and health agency guidelines around self-isolation while also getting a detailed and thorough level of care. Aoun says that this part of the offering doesn’t make sense at scale, and will likely revert to in-clinic visits once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

The rest of the model, though spurred into deployment because of the coronavirus conditions, and the need to limit the number of people going in to medical facilities and hospital all across the country unless they absolutely need to, is here to stay, however. Aoun says that Forward’s goal has always been to address the need for tech-friendly, advanced and comprehensive primary care for everyone, but that it took an approach similar to Tesla’s by addressing the top end of the market first in order to be able to fund development of more broadly available services later on.

Meanwhile, the need to shift as much care as possible to in-home is pressing, and evidence from countries around the world is increasingly pointing to how important that is to stopping the spread.

“The big thing to flatten the curve, the whole point of it, is that the hospitals are going to be overrun,” Aoun said. “So you want to take as many cases as you can, where they don’t actually have to be in the ICU, and treat them outside of the ICU – that’s your first principle. Then your second principle is, and China kind of discovered this early […] they started moving to getting people out of the hospitals, as much as possible for a second reason, which is not that the hospitals are overloaded, but that the hospitals are one of the fastest ways to spread COVID-19.”

That’s a perspective also supported by lessons shared from Italian medical professionals in their effort to deal with the COVID-19 situation there, which has essentially decimated large parts of their medical facility infrastructure.

Forward is also still continuing the other work it’s doing to address COVID-19 needs, including providing its risk assessment screening tool to all, as well as offering testing via clinics and drive-throughs to members, as well as mental health support. It’s also looking to expand its drive-through testing to new sites across the U.S. The Forward At Home initiative, meanwhile, will help ensure that clients who have other pressing health needs aren’t left behind while the effort to combat COVID-19 continues.

VR chair startup raises funds, as pandemic boosts prospects for VR and gaming

By Mike Butcher

Roto VR, startup which markets an interactive, ‘360 degree’ chair, has raised £1.5 million in a funding round led by Pembroke VCT. Others in the round include TVB Growth Fund, managed by The FSE Group.

The chair is designed to make VR more accessible to a mass audience, many of whom have turned to VR and gaming to while away the hours as much of the world is locked-down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in 2015 by video games industry veterans, Elliott Myers and Gavin Waxkirsh, Roto VR is an interactive chair that addresses the physical problems of consuming VR whilst seated, such as motion sickness and tangling cables, whilst also enhancing the immersive experience with haptic / vibration feedback in the chair.

The Roto chair is motorized and can auto-rotate to wherever the user is looking, allowing for 360-degree viewing, and thus allows the user to stay in the VR simulation for longer periods of time.

The inbuilt desktop also supports input devices such as a keyboard and mouse which means it can be used in 360-degree desktop computing.

“Most people sit down to watch movies, work, play games and browse the internet whilst seated and we see no reason why the exciting new medium of VR will be any different,” said Myers.

The product is compatible with most VR Head Mounted Displays and is also compatible with all movies and games, as well as additional accessories such as racing wheels and joysticks.

The company is due to launch the consumer and office version of Roto imminently. In addition, it will be marketed to cinemas and arcades.

Andrew Wolfson, CEO Pembroke Investment Managers LLP, said: “In Elliott we have found an entrepreneur who has solved a problem for the VR market with a solution that addresses the physical issues encountered whilst consuming VR content, as well as significantly enhancing the experience. We see future customers coming from both the B2B and B2C markets, in fields such as experiential attractions, home, cinemas and shopping centres.”

Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3,671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus, up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Tesla email reveals two employees have tested positive for COVID-19

By Kirsten Korosec

Two Tesla employees, who had been working at home for nearly two weeks, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an internal email sent Thursday morning by the company’s head of environmental, health, and safety department and viewed by TechCrunch .

The employees were not symptomatic in the office, and both are quarantined at home and recovering well, according to the email from Tesla’s EHS department head Laurie Shelby. Their co-workers, who were already working from home for nearly two weeks as well, were notified so they can quarantine, the email read. The email did not disclose what locations the employees were working at.

“In both cases, interactions with the individuals had a low likelihood of transmission based on the minimal staff onsite and social distancing measures we took earlier this month,” Shelby wrote in the email.

Tesla could not be reached for comment. Business Insider previously reported on the same internal email.

The email has heightened concern among several Tesla employees that TechCrunch has spoken to, as they weigh the risk of coming into work or using paid-time off or unpaid leave to stay at home. Tesla employs more than 48,000 people at its headquarters, factories, sales and service centers and delivery hubs throughout the U.S. While some employees are able to work from home, the company still has workers at its delivery and service centers as well as an estimated 2,500 people at its Fremont, Calif. factory.

Tesla suspended production at its Fremont factory beginning March 23, days after a shelter-in-place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” have continued at the factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people.

The decision to suspend production at Fremont came after a multi-day public tussle between the automaker and local officials in Alameda County over what was considered an “essential” business.

Tesla has also suspended operations at its factory in Buffalo, N.Y., except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains,” the company said in a statement. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday that he plans to reopen the Buffalo factory to produce ventilators, a critical piece of medical equipment used in severe cases of COVID-19.

The email comes just two days after reports of at least two positive COVID-19 cases at SpaceX, another company headed up Musk. The positive cases at SpaceX sent some employees into quarantine, CNBC reported. The company is making hand sanitizer in house and taking other steps to protect nervous workers, according to CNBC. TechCrunch could not reach SpaceX for comment.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has rippled through corporate and industrial America. Manufacturers have suspended production of vehicles, tech companies have ordered employees to work from home and city, county and state governments have issued a variety of orders to try and slow the spread of COVID-19.

For instance, California Gv. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home directive that ordered all nonessential businesses to close and for residents to only leave their homes for essential needs like groceries or to visit the pharmacy. Other states where Tesla has operations such as New York are also under a stay-at-home order.

Musk’s actions during the pandemic have caused a variety of reactions among employees, critics and his millions of Twitter followers. He has appeared dismissive of COVID-19 in emails to employees and on Twitter, where he has spread a misinformation on the disease, including that children are “essentially immune,” a statement that contradicts with information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one internal email sent to SpaceX employees, Musk noted that they were more likely to die in a car crash than from the disease. 

Even as Musk seemed to downplay the disease, he has also stepped up to donate medical supplies needed by hospitals and has directed employees to not come to work if they feel ill or are uncomfortable. Tesla employees have received emails from human resources head Valerie Workman that if they could not or were reluctant to come to work they could use PTO or take unpaid time off after they exhaust their PTO. The email told one employee (who spoke to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity) that they would be not be penalized for their decision or face disciplinary action for attendance based on health or impossibility to come to work.

Musk has also donated essential personal protective equipment to hospitals that are facing a shortage of these supplies and has committed to trying to help ramp up production of ventilators.

Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.

Zindi taps 12,000 African data scientists for solutions to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Since its inception, Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi has been building a database of data scientists across Africa.

It now has 12,000 registered on its its platform that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems and will offer them cash-prizes to find solutions to curb COVID-19.

Zindi has an open challenge focused on stemming the spread and havoc of coronavirus and will introduce a hackathon in April. The current competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months.

The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5000.

The competition fits with Zindi’s business model of building a platform that can aggregate pressing private or public-sector challenges and match the solution seekers to problem solvers.

Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data oriented issues.

Zindi’s model has gained the attention of some notable corporate names in and outside of Africa. Those who have hosted competitions include Microsoft, IBM and Liquid Telecom. Public sector actors — such as the government of South Africa and UNICEF — have also tapped Zindi for challenges as varied as traffic safety and disruptions in agriculture.

Zindi Team in Cape Town 1

Image Credits: Zindi

The startup’s CEO didn’t imagine a COVID-19 situation precisely, but sees it as one of the reasons she co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker.

The ability to apply Africa’s data science expertise, to solve problems around a complex health crisis such as COVID-19 is what Zindi was meant for, Lee explained to TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

“As an online platform, Zindi is well-positioned to mobilize data scientists at scale, across Africa and around the world, from the safety of their homes,” she said.

Lee explained that perception leads many to believe Africa is the victim or source of epidemics and disease. “We wanted to show Africa can actually also contribute to the solution for the globe.”

With COVID-19, Zindi is being employed to alleviate a problem that is also impacting its founder, staff and the world.

Lee spoke to TechCrunch while sheltering in place in Cape Town, as South Africa went into lockdown Friday due to coronavirus. Zindi’s founder explained she also has in-laws in New York and family in San Francisco living under similar circumstances due to the global spread of COVID-19.

Lee believes the startup’s competitions can produce solutions that nations in Africa could tap as the coronavirus spreads. “The government of Kenya just started a task force where they’re including companies from the ICT sector. So I think there could be interest,” she said.

Starting April, Zindi will launch six weekend hackathons focused on COVID-19.

That could be timely given the trend of COVID-19 in Africa. The continent’s cases by country were in the single digits in early March, but those numbers spiked last week — prompting the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm on the rapid evolution of the virus on the continent.

By the WHO’s stats Wednesday there were 1691 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 29 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa has prompted countries and startups, such as Zindi, to include the continent’s tech sector as part of a broader response. Central banks and fintech companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya have employed measures to encourage more mobile-money usage, vs. cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the virus.

The continent’s largest incubator, CcHub, launched a fund and open call for tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia has offered African governments use of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Zindi’s CEO Celina Lee anticipates the startup’s COVID-19 related competitions can provide additional means for policy-makers to combat the spread of the virus.

“The one that’s open right now should hopefully go into informing governments to be able to anticipate the spread of the disease and to more accurately predict the high risk areas in a country,” she said.

Africa turns to mobile payments as a tool to curb COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Africa is using digital finance as a means to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Governments and startups on the continent are implementing measures to shift a greater volume of payment transactions toward mobile money and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s an option facilitated by the boom in fintech that’s occurred in Africa over the last decade. By several estimates, the continent is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

But because of that, fintech — and startups focused on financial inclusion — now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

As COVID-19 cases began to grow in the continent’s major economies last week, the continent’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

The country’s largest teleco, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency in response to COVID-19.

Image Credits: Flickr

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

The move came after Safaricom met with the country’s Central Bank and per a directive from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta “to explore ways of deepening mobile-money usage to reduce risk of spreading the virus through physical handling of cash,” according to a release provided to TechCrunch from Safaricom.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of mobile-money adoption in the world, largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which stands as Africa’s 6th largest economy. Across Kenya’s population of 53 million, M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

M-PESA Sector Stats 4Q 2019 per Kenya’s Communications Authority

With all major providers in Kenya there are 32 million subscribers, which means roughly 60% of the country’s population has access to mobile-money.

Ghana is also using digital finance as a monetary policy lever to reduce the spread of COVID-19

On March 20, the West African country’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa is prompting more countries and tech companies to include mobile finance as part of a broader response. The continent’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

Source; World Health Organization

By the World Health Organization’s stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The country with 40% of the region’s cases is South Africa, which declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Unlike Ghana and Kenya, the government in Africa’s second largest economy hasn’t issued directives toward mobile payments, but the situation with COVID-19 is pushing fintech startups to act, according to Yoco CEO Katlego Maphai.

The Series B stage venture develops and sells digital payment hardware and services for small businesses on a network of 80,000 clients that processes roughly $500 million annually.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

With the growth in coronavirus cases in South Africa, Yoco has issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. The startup has also accelerated its development of a remote payment product, that would enable transfers on its client network via a weblink.

“This is an opportunity to start driving contactless adoption,” Maphai told TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

In Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million — the growth of COVID-19 cases has shifted the country toward electronic payments and prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

Parts of Lagos — which is connected to Nigeria’s largest commercial hub of Lagos State — have begun to require digital payments in response to COVID-19, according to Paga’s CEO Tayo Oviosu .

“We’re seeing some stores that are saying they are not accepting cash anymore,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

Cash only Nigeria Paga

Image Credits: Paga

Paga already offers free P2P transfers on its multi-channel network of 24,840 agents and 14 million customers. The startup, that recently expanded to Mexico and partnered with Visa, will also allow free transfers up to roughly 5000 Naira (≈ $15) from customer accounts to bank accounts, to encourage more digital payments use in Nigeria.

Paga’s CEO believes the current COVID-19 crisis will encourage more digital finance adoption in Nigeria, which has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments.

“I think it will help move the needle, but it won’t be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Time and research will determine if efforts of African governments and tech companies to encourage digital payments over physical currency yield results in halting the spread of COVID-19 on the continent.

It is a unique case-study of mobile finance in Africa being employed to impact human behavior during a public health emergency.

Stocks blast higher on expectation of sweeping federal action

By Kirsten Korosec

There are no free market fanatics on corporate boards the moment the economy wobbles. Today makes the point, with stocks shooting higher on the back of news that a sweeping federal package of aid and stimulus should soon pass Congress. The goal of the financial package is to blunt the impact of COVID-19-related market disruptions that have led to mass layoffs, and an economy expected to slip into recession.

Today in regular hours the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) led American indices by climbing over 10%. It was the best day for the venerable Dow since the 2008 crisis in percentage terms, though the index has posted sharper declines in percentage terms in recent days.

Its kin also rose, if less. Here’s the day’s results:

  • DJIA: rose 11.37% to 20,704.91
  • S&P 500: rose 9.38% to 2,447.33
  • Nasdaq composite: rose 8.12% to close at 7,417.86

SaaS shares, as tracked by the BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index, rose about 7.2% on the day. Bitcoin saw its value jump by 5% in the last 24 hours, and is worth about $6,600 as of the time of writing. The day may not meet the criteria for a market melt up, but it certainly was a welcome respite from recent weeks’ declines.

The next test for the American public markets comes tomorrow. After posting huge gains today, can they be retained? In the past dozen trading sessions, there has been a market habit worth noting in which any sharp action — up or down — was met with a similar, opposite result the following day. Call it Newton’s third law of stonks.

Ride-hailing get a boost

Lyft and Uber were lifted by the broader gains across all major indices. Lyft rose 19.68% to $27.06, while Uber shares increased 17.81% to $27.38. The companies saw increases even as the ride-hailing industry faces continued pressure amid the spread of COVID-19. Both companies have seen a decline in demand, prompting a shift towards delivery and partnerships with non-profit organizations to provide transportation services to health care workers and others who need it during the pandemic.

On Monday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent a letter to the White House, asking lawmakers to include protection and financial support for gig workers in the COVID-19 stimulus packages. Khosrowshahi also argued that there needs to be a third employment classification for gig workers that “would update our labor laws to remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers.”

Astra encounters anomaly during pre-launch testing, will evaluate options for next attempt

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket launch startup Astra, which had been attempting to claim DARPA’s prize for successful demonstration of flexible space launch capabilities until earlier this month, will not be moving forward with an attempted flight of its launch vehicle this week as planned. The company’s “One of Three” rocket ran into an “anomaly” during pre-launch testing in preparation for its flight this week, and the schedule for a make-up launch are currently is currently up in the air.

“Astra’s launch vehicle “One of Three” suffered an anomaly following an otherwise successful day of testing in Kodiak in preparation for a launch this week,” explained Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp via email. “Fortunately, our own hardware was the only thing harmed, and our team is already hard at work to determine the root cause so that we can improve the vehicle’s design. As a result of yesterday’s anomaly we will no longer be attempting a launch this week. We do intend to attempt another launch from Kodiak once conditions with coronavirus improve and we have resolved the cause of yesterday’s incident.”

Astra’s launches are set to take off from Kodiak Launch Complex, which is located a the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. The company had challenges with weather conditions leading up to its attempts to win the $2 million DARPA prize, the deadline for each expired at the beginning of March, but the anomaly yesterday had to do with the vehicle hardware itself, and not external conditions. Local news additionally reported this morning that while the emergency response triggered by the anomaly had ended, the “areas is still hazardous and should be avoided” according to Alaska Aerospace CEO Mark Lester.

Kemp also cited the current coronavirus crisis in his statement to TechCrunch, and while that doesn’t look like it contributed to any technical issues, the ongoing global pandemic definitely seems likely to impact any attempted work that would involve repairs or rescheduling the launch at this time.

Fiat Chrysler to start producing 1 million face masks a month

By Kirsten Korosec

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Monday it will start manufacturing face masks in the coming weeks and donate the critical medical equipment to first responders and health care workers — the latest automaker to direct its manufacturing expertise towards the COVID-19 pandemic.

The automaker confirmed to TechCrunch that production capacity is being installed this week at one of its factories in China. Manufacturing will start in the coming weeks and distribution will be focused on the U.S., Canada and Mexico. FCA said it plans to produce 1 million face masks a month. All of masks will be donated to police, EMTs and firefighters and workers in hospitals and health care clinics.

“Protecting our first responders and health care workers has never been more important,” FCA CEO Mike Manley said in a statement. “In addition to the support we are giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the healthcare industry and it was very clear that there is an urgent and critical need for face masks. We’ve marshalled the resources of the FCA Group to focus immediately on installing production capacity for making masks and supporting those most in need on the front line of this pandemic.”

The FCA announcement follows a plea last week from Vice President Mike Pence for construction companies to donate their stocks of N95 respirator masks to hospitals. Construction companies have responded, Pence said in a subsequent press conference. Other companies have started donating their caches of face masks as well, including Apple, Facebook, IBM and Tesla.

COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus, has led to a shortage of protective equipment such as N-95 respirator masks, gloves and gowns.

Vice President Pence asked construction companies to donate to their local hospitals their stocks of N95 respirator masks and stop ordering more for the time being. This call comes in the middle of a major shortage of these kinds of masks, which get their name from being able to block at least 95% of 0.3 micron particles.

Other manufacturers such as GM, Ford, VW and Tesla have started to work on the complex task of producing ventilators, another critical piece of medical equipment for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19. The disease attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. Musk had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

Jumia adapts Pan-African e-commerce network in response to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia is adapting its digital retail network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — announced a series of measures on Friday. Jumia will donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has offered African governments use of of its last mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers. Jumia will also reduce fees on its JumiaPay finance product to encourage digital payments over cash, which can be a conduit for the spread of coronavirus.

Governments in Jumia’s operating countries have started to engage the private sector on a possible COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, according to Jumia CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“I don’t have a crystal ball and no one knows what’s gonna happen,” he told TechCrunch on a call. But in the event the virus spreads rapidly on the continent, Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” Poignonnec said.

Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm. “About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s latest stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

Dr. Moeti noted that many socioeconomic factors in Africa — from housing to access to running water — make common measures to curb COVID-19, such as social-distancing or frequent hand washing, challenging. She went on to explain that the World Health Organization is looking for solutions that are adoptable to Africa’s circumstances, including working with partners and governments to get sanitizing materials to hospitals and families.

As coronavirus cases and related deaths grow, governments in Africa are responding. South Africa, which has the second highest COVID-19 numbers on the continent, declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Kenya has imposed its own travel and crowd restrictions and the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta urged citizens and businesses to opt for digital-payments as a safer means for transactions.

Across Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has seen significant growth in startups and now receives $2 billion in VC annually — a number of actors are stepping up.

Jumia Nigeria Fleet

Image Credit: Jumia

In addition to offering its logistics and supply-chain network, Jumia is collaborating with health ministries in several countries to use its website and mobile platforms to share COVID-19 related public service messages.

Heeding President Kenyatta’s call, last week Kenya’s largest telecom Safaricom waived fees on its M-Pesa mobile-money product (with over 20 million users) to increase digital payments use and lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through handling of cash.

Africa’s largest innovation incubator CcHub announced funding and a call for tech projects aimed at reducing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

A looming question for Africa’s tech scene is how startups in major markets such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa will weather major drops in revenue that could occur from a wider coronavirus outbreak.

Jumia is well capitalized, after going public in a 2019 IPO on the New York stock exchange, but still has losses exceeding its 2019 revenue of €160 million.

On managing business through a possible COVID-19 Africa downturn, “We’re very long-term oriented so it’s about doing what’s right with the governments and thinking about how we can help,” said Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“Revenue wise, it’s really to early to tell. We do believe that e-commerce in Africa is a trend that goes beyond this particular situation.”

Ford, GM, Tesla given the ‘go ahead’ to produce ventilators, Trump says

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford, GM and Tesla have been given the “go ahead” to make ventilators to help alleviate a shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump said in a tweet Sunday that ended with a challenge to auto executives to show how good their companies are.

Ventilators are a critical piece of medical equipment for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

The tweet follows a plea Sunday morning from NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the federal government to nationalize medical supply acquisition instead of leaving it to individual states. Cuomo is one of a growing group of officials to call for Trump to order companies to produce medical supplies under the Defense Production Act, a law that allows the federal government to compel private industry to produce materials needed for national defense.

Without the nationalization, states are competing against each other for supplies, Cuomo said. Prices have spiked as a result, putting more pressure on a health care system.

Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! @fema Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are? @RepMarkMeadows @GOPLeader @senatemajldr

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2020

Trump has issued an executive order that invokes the Defense Production Act, but it’s unclear if it has been used. Trump said last week during a press conference that it had been, but Federal Emergency Management Agency head Peter Gaynor told reporters Sunday that the president has not yet ordered any companies to make more critical supplies.

I’m calling on the Federal Government to nationalize the medical supply chain.

The Federal Government should immediately use the Defense Production Act to order companies to make gowns, masks and gloves.

Currently, states are competing against other states for supplies.

— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 22, 2020

Several automakers said last week they were looking into the feasibility of producing ventilators. GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators that are needed by a growing number of hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemics spreads throughout the U.S. The partnership is part of StopTheSpread.org, a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to COVId-19, a disease caused by coronavirus.

Ford told TechCrunch in an email Sunday that it stands ready to help the administration, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment.

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” the Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said. “It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Saturday that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. He had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Addressing #COVID19 is a group effort. We are grateful for the discussion with @ElonMusk and @Tesla as we work across industries to solve problems and get patients and hospitals the tools they need to continue saving lives. We're all in this together. https://t.co/MdZ3u8k2nR

— Medtronic (@Medtronic) March 21, 2020

Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

By Darrell Etherington

The tech industry is mobilizing its considerable resources to attempt to support efforts against the growing global coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their company’s ongoing contributions, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread of infection.

Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is joining “millions of masks” for this use. Apple also detailed some of its other updates via earlier releases, including a $15 million donation, along with two-to-one corporate matching for all employee donations that go towards COVID-19 response.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided an update on Saturday on the company’s official blog that included details about the change in Amazon’s prioritization for its warehousing and logistics operations, which now focus on essential items including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies. Bezos also reiterated Amazon’s commitment to hiring 100,000 new roles, along with raising hourly wages for fulfilment workers.

Bezos notes that while the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” that it intends to distribute to its full-time and contract workers who are not able to work from home, “very few of those orders have been filled” to to the global supply shortage. He further notes that these resources are likely to go to frontline healthcare workers first, and that the company will focus on getting them to their staff in order of priority once they become available.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella provided a lengthy update about his company’s various efforts in a LinkedIn post on Saturday, publishing an email he sent to all Microsoft employees for external consumption. Nadella describes some of its telehealth platform software work, as well as a number of collaborative data projects, including the John Hopkins University global COVID-19 confirmed case tracker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a chatbot assessment tool for COVID-19 that uses Microsoft’s health chatbot tech as its underlying framework.

Microsoft is also seeing Teams and Minecraft being used globally for remote learning iniativies designed to supplement in-perosn school closures, and it’s working on machine learning and big data projects to support global research efforts. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz announced that it would be providing an open research data set in partnership with colleagues at academic institutions around the world, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. The data set, called the COVID-19 Open Research Data Set, includes more than 29,000 scholarly articles about the virus, and will grow as more are published.

Female-founded startups landed more deals globally in 2019 than ever before

By Natasha Mascarenhas

We all know the disruptive stories of female-founded startups like Glossier and ezCater. And we also know how those success stories belie the much harder time thousands of other women entrepreneurs have when it comes to raising capital.

That’s why it’s so important to have historical data and a window into how these things may be changing, so that the industry can consistently benchmark its successes and failures in an attempt to correct historical inequities in the ways venture firms distributed capital. 

Looking at the latest numbers from All Raise and Pitchbook, it’s clear that for every step forward, the industry still has a long way to go. 

In 2019, female-founded startups across the world landed a record 4,399 investments, according to data from All Raise, a nonprofit organization that wants to increase the diversity in the venture capital industry, and Pitchbook data.

While deal count has increased, dollars raised declined in 2019 sliding to $37.7 billion from $49.9 billion in 2018. It’s worth noting that 2018 included an outsized round from Ant Financial, which may have skewed dollar totals. It’s also worth pointing out that over the same period venture capital firms in the U.S. alone invested more than $130 billion into startup companies

For what it’s worth, 2019 broke all kinds of records. All Raise and Pitchbook’s data shows that 2019, compared to a decade ago, had a 1408% increase in deal value. Additionally, according to Crunchbase data, female-founded unicorns, companies valued at over $1 billion, were being born at an unprecedented rate in 2019. While a female-founded unicorn is still rare, the proliferation is notable, and goes well with one of All Raise’s goals: to increase investment in female-founded companies.

However, All Raise’s latest data doesn’t touch on one of its goals, which is to double the percentage of female investment partners at tech VC firms over the next 10 years. Last month, Pam Kostka, the CEO of All Raise, wrote a Medium blog on how more women became VC partners than ever before in 2019. All Raise claimed major US firms added 52 women partners in 2019. Last month, Recode said those numbers might be “overstating the progress” due to the different definitions of partner. For example, some female partners may have the title of partner, but not the decision-making capabilities. 

Bottom line: the numbers are important, but the nuance within them is more telling, especially when it comes to diversity. For proof, look as far as Kostka’s headline: “More Women Became VC Partners Than Ever Before In 2019 But 65% of Venture Firms Still Have Zero Female Partners.” 

Datastax acquires The Last Pickle

By Frederic Lardinois

Data management company Datastax, one of the largest contributors to the Apache Cassandra project, today announced that it has acquired The Last Pickle (and no, I don’t know what’s up with that name either), a New Zealand-based Cassandra consulting and services firm that’s behind a number of popular open-source tools for the distributed NoSQL database.

As Datastax Chief Strategy Officer Sam Ramji, who you may remember from his recent tenure at Apigee, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, Google and Autodesk, told me, The Last Pickle is one of the premier Apache Cassandra consulting and services companies. The team there has been building Cassandra-based open source solutions for the likes of Spotify, T Mobile and AT&T since it was founded back in 2012. And while The Last Pickle is based in New Zealand, the company has engineers all over the world that do the heavy lifting and help these companies successfully implement the Cassandra database technology.

It’s worth mentioning that Last Pickle CEO Aaron Morton first discovered Cassandra when he worked for WETA Digital on the special effects for Avatar, where the team used Cassandra to allow the VFX artists to store their data.

“There’s two parts to what they do,” Ramji explained. “One is the very visible consulting, which has led them to become world experts in the operation of Cassandra. So as we automate Cassandra and as we improve the operability of the project with enterprises, their embodied wisdom about how to operate and scale Apache Cassandra is as good as it gets — the best in the world.” And The Last Pickle’s experience in building systems with tens of thousands of nodes — and the challenges that its customers face — is something Datastax can then offer to its customers as well.

And Datastax, of course, also plans to productize The Last Pickle’s open-source tools like the automated repair tool Reaper and the Medusa backup and restore system.

As both Ramji and Datastax VP of Engineering Josh McKenzie stressed, Cassandra has seen a lot of commercial development in recent years, with the likes of AWS now offering a managed Cassandra service, for example, but there wasn’t all that much hype around the project anymore. But they argue that’s a good thing. Now that it is over ten years old, Cassandra has been battle-hardened. For the last ten years, Ramji argues, the industry tried to figure out what the de factor standard for scale-out computing should be. By 2019, it became clear that Kubernetes was the answer to that.

“This next decade is about what is the de facto standard for scale-out data? We think that’s got certain affordances, certain structural needs and we think that the decades that Cassandra has spent getting harden puts it in a position to be data for that wave.”

McKenzie also noted that Cassandra provides users with a number of built-in features like support for mutiple data centers and geo-replication, rolling updates and live scaling, as well as wide support across programming languages, give it a number of advantages over competing databases.

“It’s easy to forget how much Cassandra gives you for free just based on its architecture,” he said. “Losing the power in an entire datacenter, upgrading the version of the database, hardware failing every day? No problem. The cluster is 100 percent always still up and available. The tooling and expertise of The Last Pickle really help bring all this distributed and resilient power into the hands of the masses.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

Honeywell says it will soon launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer

By Frederic Lardinois

“The best-kept secret in quantum computing.” That’s what Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) CEO Ilyas Khan called Honeywell‘s efforts in building the world’s most powerful quantum computer. In a race where most of the major players are vying for attention, Honeywell has quietly worked on its efforts for the last few years (and under strict NDA’s, it seems). But today, the company announced a major breakthrough that it claims will allow it to launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer within the next three months.

In addition, Honeywell also today announced that it has made strategic investments in CQC and Zapata Computing, both of which focus on the software side of quantum computing. The company has also partnered with JPMorgan Chase to develop quantum algorithms using Honeywell’s quantum computer. The company also recently announced a partnership with Microsoft.

Honeywell has long built the kind of complex control systems that power many of the world’s largest industrial sites. It’s that kind of experience, be that that has now allowed it to build an advanced ion trap that is at the core of its efforts.

This ion trap, the company claims in a paper that accompanies today’s announcement, has allowed the team to achieve decoherence times that are significantly longer than those of its competitors.

“It starts really with the heritage that Honeywell had to work from,” Tony Uttley, the president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, told me. “And we, because of our businesses within aerospace and defense and our business in oil and gas — with solutions that have to do with the integration of complex control systems because of our chemicals and materials businesses — we had all of the underlying pieces for quantum computing, which are just fabulously different from classical computing. You need to have ultra-high vacuum system capabilities. You need to have cryogenic capabilities. You need to have precision control. You need to have lasers and photonic capabilities. You have to have magnetic and vibrational stability capabilities. And for us, we had our own foundry and so we are able to literally design our architecture from the trap up.”

The result of this is a quantum computer that promises to achieve a quantum Volume of 64. Quantum Volume (QV), it’s worth mentioning, is a metric that takes into account both the number of qubits in a system as well as decoherence times. IBM and others have championed this metric as a way to, at least for now, compare the power of various quantum computers.

So far, IBM’s own machines have achieved QV 32, which would make Honeywell’s machine significantly more powerful.

Khan, whose company provides software tools for quantum computing and was one of the first to work with Honeywell on this project, also noted that the focus on the ion trap is giving Honeywell a bit of an advantage. “I think that the choice of the ion trap approach by Honeywell is a reflection of a very deliberate focus on the quality of qubit rather than the number of qubits, which I think is fairly sophisticated,” he said. “Until recently, the headline was always growth, the number of qubits running.”

The Honeywell team noted that many of its current customers are also likely users of its quantum solutions. These customers, after all, are working on exactly the kind of problems in chemistry or material science that quantum computing, at least in its earliest forms, is uniquely suited for.

Currently, Honeywell has about 100 scientists, engineers and developers dedicated to its quantum project.

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.

Announcing the agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

TC Sessions: Mobility is back in San Jose on May 14, and we’re excited to give the first peek of what and who is coming to the main stage. We’re not revealing everything just yet, but already this agenda highlights some of the best and brightest minds in autonomous vehicles, electrification and shared mobility.

We’ve selected the most innovative startups and top leaders from established tech companies working in mobility. This past year saw huge leaps forward, and we’re thrilled to bring the latest and greatest to our stage.

This year, we’re holding a pitch-off competition for early stage mobility companies. More details to come.

Don’t forget that early-bird tickets (including $100 savings) are currently available for a limited time; grab your tickets here before prices increase.

Some speakers have already been announced, and more will be added to the agenda in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out this early look at the agenda:

AGENDA

9:35 AM – 10:05 AM

Investing in Mobility: with Reilly Brennan (Trucks VC), Olaf Sakkers (Maniv Mobility) and speakers to be announced.

Reilly Brennan, Olaf Sakkers and two yet-to-be announced venture capitalists will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Coming soon!

10:25 AM – 10:50

The next opportunities in micromobility with Danielle Harris (Elemental Excelerator), Dor Levi (Lyft), and Dmitry Shevelenko (Tortoise)

Worldwide, numerous companies are operating shared micromobility services — so many that the industry is well into a consolidation phase. Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Dor Levi, head of bikes and scooters at Lyft, Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator and Dmitry Shevelenko, founder at Tortoise will discuss.

10:50 AM – 11:10 AM

Waymo Grows Up with Tekedra Mawakana (Waymo)

Waymo Chief Operating Officer Tekedra Mawakana is at the center of Waymo’s future from scaling the autonomous vehicle company’s commercial deployment and directing fleet operations to developing the company’s business path. Tekedra will speak about what lies ahead as Waymo drives forward with its plan to become a grownup business.

11:10 AM – 11:30 AM
Innovation Break

11:30 AM – 11:40 AM

Live Demo. Coming soon!

11:40 AM – 12:00 PM

Setting the Record Straight with Bryan Salesky (Argo AI)

Argo AI has gone from unknown startup to a company providing the autonomous vehicle technology to Ford and VW — not to mention billions in investment from the two global automakers. Co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky will talk about the company’s journey, what’s next and what it really takes to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-Off

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have 5 minutes to present their companies.

1:25 PM – 1:45 PM

Building an AV Startup with  Nancy Sun (Ike)

Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun will share her experiences in the world of automation and robotics, a ride that has taken her from Apple to Otto and Uber before she set off to start a self-driving truck company. Sun will discuss what the future holds for trucking and the challenges and the secrets behind building a successful mobility startup.

1:45 PM – 2:10 PM

Working with Cities, Not Against Them with Euwyn Poon (Spin) and Shin-pei Tsay (Uber)

Many micromobility services got off to a rough start with cities in the early days of the industry. Now, operators are making a point to work more closely with regulators from the very beginning. Hear from Spin co-founder Euwyn Poon and Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay on what it takes to make a copacetic relationship between operators and cities.

2:10 PM – 2:30 PM

Innovation Break

2:30 PM – 2:50 PM

The electrification of Porsche with Klaus Zellmer (Porsche)

Porsche has undergone a major transformation in the past several years, investing billions into an electric vehicle program and launching the Taycan, its first all-electric vehicle. Now, Porsche is ramping up for more. North America CEO Klaus Zellmer will talk about Porsche’s path, competition and where it’s headed next.

2:50 PM – 3:15 PM

Navigating Self-Driving Car Regulations with Melissa Froelich (Aurora) and Jody Kelman (Lyft)

Autonomous vehicle developers face a patchwork of local, state and federal regulations. Government policy experts Jody Kelman, who leads the self-driving platform team at Lyft, and Melissa Froelich Senior Manager, Government Affairs at Aurora, discuss how to get your startup back on the road safely.

3:15 PM – 3:35 PM

Coming Soon!

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Future of Trucking with Xiaodi Hou (TuSimple) and Boris Sofman (Waymo)

TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou and Boris Sofman, former Anki Robotics founder and CEO who now leads Waymo’s trucking unit, will discuss the business and the technical challenges of autonomous trucking.

4:00 PM – 4:20 PM

Innovation Break

4:20 PM – 4:30 PM

Live Demo. Coming soon!

4:30 PM – 4:55 PM

Coming soon!

Don’t forget to grab your tickets and join us this May.

❌