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Today — January 21st 2020Your RSS feeds

Google Cloud lands Lufthansa Group and Sabre as new customers

By Frederic Lardinois

Google’s strategy for bringing new customers to its cloud is to focus on the enterprise and specific verticals like healthcare, energy, financial service and retail, among others. It’s healthcare efforts recently experienced a bit of a setback, with Epic now telling its customers that it is not moving forward with its plans to support Google Cloud, but in return, Google now got to announce two new customers in the travel business: Lufthansa Group, the world’s largest airline group by revenue, and Sabre, a company that provides backend services to airlines, hotels and travel aggregators.

For Sabre, Google Cloud is now the preferred cloud provider. Like a lot of companies in the travel (and especially the airline) industry, Sabre runs plenty of legacy systems and is currently in the process of modernizing its infrastructure. To do so, it has now entered a 10-year strategic partnership with Google “to improve operational agility while developing new services and creating a new marketplace for its airline,  hospitality and travel agency customers.” The promise, here, too, is that these new technologies will allow the company to offer new travel tools for its customers.

When you hear about airline systems going down, it’s often Sabre’s fault, so just being able to avoid that would already bring a lot of value to its customers.

“At Google we build tools to help others, so a big part of our mission is helping other companies realize theirs. We’re so glad that Sabre has chosen to work with us to further their mission of building the future of travel,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai . “Travelers seek convenience, choice and value. Our capabilities in AI and cloud computing will help Sabre deliver more of what consumers want.”

The same holds true for Google’s deal with Lufthansa Group, which includes German flag carrier Lufthansa itself, but also subsidiaries like Austrian, Swiss, Eurowings and Brussels Airlines, as well as a number of technical and logistics companies that provide services to various airlines.

“By combining Google Cloud’s technology with Lufthansa Group’s operational expertise, we are driving the digitization of our operation even further,” said Dr. Detlef Kayser, Member of the Executive Board of the Lufthansa Group. “This will enable us to identify possible flight irregularities even earlier and implement countermeasures at an early stage.”

Lufthansa Group has selected Google as a strategic partner to “optimized its operations performance.” A team from Google will work directly with Lufthansa to bring this project to life. The idea here is to use Google Cloud to build tools that help the company run its operations as smoothly as possible and to provide recommendations when things go awry due to bad weather, airspace congestion or a strike (which seems to happen rather regularly at Lufthansa these days).

Delta recently launched a similar platform to help its employees.

Skylo raises $103 million to affordably connect the Internet of Things to satellite networks

By Darrell Etherington

One of the biggest opportunities in the new space economy lies in taking the connectivity made possibly by ever-growing communications satellite constellations, and making that useful for things and companies here on Earth. Startup Skylo, which emerged from stealth today with a $103 million Series B funding announcement, is one of the players making that possible in an affordable way.

The funding brings Skylo’s total raised to $116 million, following a $14 million Series A. This new round was led by Softbank Group (which at this point carries a complicated set of connotations) and includes existing investors DCM and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. Skylo’s business is based on connecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including sensors, industrial equipment, logistics hardware and more, to satellite networks using the cellular-based Narrowband IoT protocol. Its network is already deployed on current geostationary satellites, too, meaning its customers can get up and running without waiting for any new satellites or constellations with dedicated technology to launch.

Already, Skylo has completed tests of its technology with commercial partners in real-world usage, including partners in private enterprise and government, across industries including fisheries, maritime logistics, automotive and more. The company’s main claim to advantage over other existing solutions is that it can offer connectivity for as little as $1 per seat, along with hardware that sells for under $100, which it says adds up to a cost savings of as much as 95 percent vs. other satellite IoT connectivity available on the market.

Its hardware, the Skylo Hub, is a satellite terminal that connects to its network on board geostationary satellites, acting as a “hot spot” to make that available to standard IoT sensors and devices. It’s roughly 8″ by 8″, can be powered internally via battery or plugged in, and is easy for customers to install on their own without any special expertise.

The company was founded in 2017, by CEO Parth Trivedi, CTO Dr. Andrew Nuttall and Chief Hub Architect Dr. Andrew Kalman. Trivedi is an MIT Aerospace and Astronautical engineering graduate; Nuttal has a Ph.D in Aeronautics from Stanford, and Kalman is a Stanford professor who previously founded CubeSat component kit startup Pumpkin, Inc.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

By Jake Bright

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech venture announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to do finance in Africa.

Yesterday — January 20th 2020Your RSS feeds

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.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

SpaceX could catch future Crew Dragons with astronauts onboard using ships at sea

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, but during a post-mission press conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.

Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that ‘catch’ the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recovering it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it’d be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing,” Musk said.
“Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”

This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon’s actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA’s buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it’s caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.

“We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon,” he added. “But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water.”

First crewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launch could happen in Q2 this year

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX and NASA hosted a press conference following their successful test of the Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system on Sunday to discuss the mission and next steps. The first question asked by media in attendance was about what this means for the timeline for a mission with actual crew on board, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided an answer sketching out a rough schedule of events.

“The hardware necessary for the first crewed launch, we believe will be ready by the end of February,” he said. “However, there’s still a lot of work once the hardware is ready to just cross-check everything, triple-check, quadruple-check, go over everything everything again until every every stone has been turned over three or four times. And then there’s also the schedule for getting to the Space Station, because the Space Station has a lot of lot of things going to it, so what’s the right timing because, and the collective wisdom at this point is that we think that hardware will be ready in q1, most likely in February, but no later than March, and that we think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed up with additional perspective from the agency’s side, noting that there could be some shifting mission parameters for that first trip that change the timing of when it actually goes up.

“I think, I think that’s a very fair assessment,” Bridenstine said. “I would also say we have to make some decisions on our end from a NASA perspective. Do we want that first crew to be a short duration, or do we want it to be a longer duration? If it’s going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station that we weren’t planning to have that initial test crew necessarily do.”

Bridenstine added that those decisions will be made in the “coming weeks,” and depending on whether they opt to make this first mission a quick trip, or a longer duration mission with more objectives, it could change their timing due to scheduling and training requirements for the astronauts actually going up aboard Crew Dragon.

Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on latest Starship spacecraft build and flight timelines

By Darrell Etherington

The holidays might be a time of slowed activity for most companies in the tech sector, but for SpaceX, it was a time to ramp production efforts on the latest Starship prototype – “Starship SN1” as it’s called, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. This flight design prototype of Starship is under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas development facility, and Musk was in attendance over the weekend overseeing its build and assembly.

Musk shared video of the SpaceX team working on producing the curved dome that will sit atop the completed Starship SN1 (likely stands for ‘serial number 1,’ a move to a more iterative naming system and away from the “Mark” nomenclature used for the original prototype), a part he called “the most difficult” in terms of the main components of the new spacecraft. He added that each new SN version of the rocket SpaceX builds will have minor improvements “at least” through the first twenty or so versions, so it’s clear they expect to iterate and test these quickly.

As for when it might actually fly, Musk said that he hopes this Starship will take off sometime around “2 to 3 months” from now, which is still within range of the projections for a first Starship high-altitude test flight given by the CEO earlier this year at the unveiling of the Starship Mk1 prototype. That prototype was originally positioned as the one that would fly for the high-altitude test, but it blew its top during testing in November and Musk said they’d be moving on to a new design rather than try to repair or rebuild the Mk1.

Musk also shared new details about the construction process for Starship, including that SpaceX will move its build process for future spacecraft to an enclosed building starting with Starship “SN2” in January – though mostly to block out the winds experienced in Boca Chica, since Musk says that welding for stainless steel (the primary material for the Starship fuselage) is much less sensitive to dust and debris than aluminum.

In another tweet, Musk detailed another change from SpaceX’s previous operating model in developing Starship: The future spacecraft’s development is being focused at Boca Chica currently, he said, while SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral teams are “focused on Falcon/Dragon.” Up until now, SpaceX has been operating two separate teams working in parallel on Starship prototypes at both sites. Musk didn’t detail what will become of Starship Mk2, the other earlier prototype that was currently in development at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Musk also shared updates about his tunneling company The Boring Co. (they hope to open their Vegas tunnel to drivers in 2020), Starlink (could be available to customers in the Caribbean either in 2020 or 2021) and chocolate chip muffins.

Simulation of first crewed flight of Falcon 9 / Dragon 2020 @NASA pic.twitter.com/BSDPYTcVIG

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 30, 2019

2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

By Jake Bright

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated by Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch .

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s engagement with Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.Nigeria naira

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and Africa expansion strategies.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operating there. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up fintech stats for Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated the standing of CcHub’s Bosun Tijani across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries in the world (by production volume). Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of ISP Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The past year saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop spearheaded Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund, which made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to expand globally.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt 21st century dynamics in Africa around politics, power, and philanthropy —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

MUBI’s production effort nets it a Sundance selection as the company goes cashflow positive

By Darrell Etherington

Streaming services are popping up like weeds these days, but MUBI has been at it basically since streaming video first emerged as a business. Founded in 2007, MUBI focuses on curated, independent film from international artists and creators, and the company has recently further differentiated itself from its competitors by becoming a distributor and production house – while also going cash-flow positive-during its most recent quarter.

The MUBI story is a rare example of a startup maintaining clear and consistent focus over a long, storied history and achieving sustainable growth in the process. MUBI CEO Efe Cakarel told me at Disrupt Berlin that the company will be cash-flow positive this quarter, and that its revenue has grown at a rate of 72% year-over-year for the past three years running.

That’s a significant achievement and a rarity for just about any startup, but it’s particularly difficult and challenging in the context of the video streaming industry. It’s fairly standard practice among the larger players in the space to spend, spend and then spend some more.

Netflix, for instance, expects to have spent around $15 billion on new content over the course of this past year, while Apple has spent over $6 billion on new shows and films.

Despite swimming with deep-pocketed sharks, MUBI has not only seen a ton of growth over the years, but it has also branched out into original content itself, first by securing distribution rights and then later by getting into producing films and shows of its own.

MUBI has been distributing films, including theatrical releases, and now it’s also joining up to produce its first films, including Farewell Amor, which was just selected to be part of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; Port Authority, which had a debut at Cannes earlier this year; Maniac Cop, an original TV series from Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive.

The company has also made major expansions into Asia, including a launch in India with a dedicated service showcasing Indian cinema.

Eaze and Wayv founder explains how to raise money for cannabis startups

By Matt Burns

Keith McCarty could have retired after Microsoft bought Yammer. Instead, he founded Eaze to address cannabis delivery.

He lead the company through its B round and then stepped back, but last year, he founded Wayv, a new cannabis startup to address an even more significant challenge for the industry: supply chain logistics. So far, it’s raised $5 million and is currently seeking its Series A. Fundraising is hard for any entrepreneur, but McCarty’s experience sets him apart from most cannabis industry founders.

The company is now the first complete payment solution in the cannabis industry, allowing money to travel throughout the ecosystem in the fastest, safest way while remaining compliant with all of California’s regulations.

We spoke at length about this ability and along the way, chatted about the cannabis startup landscape.

McCarty has been in the industry for about five years, founding Eaze in 2014 and later leaving after raising a $13 million B round. At the time, startups generally didn’t seek venture funding and McCarty helped the company become one of the first to do so. Now founder and CEO of a new cannabis startup, he’s at it again.

How to build a diverse board

By Walter Thompson
Ann Shepherd Contributor
Ann Shepherd is co-founder of social impact venture Him For Her. She serves on the board of fintech startup HoneyBook.

Over a recent dinner with twenty C-suite executives, one founder-CEO recounted how he was preparing a slide for a company all-hands with headshots of his board of directors when he was struck by the contrast between his gender-balanced employee base and his all-male board.

“It wasn’t something I was proud to share with the team,” he told us, as heads around the table nodded.

The other CEOs in the room got it. A board populated exclusively by men is at odds with efforts to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the organization. For too many CEOs, the composition of their boards can feel more like a liability than a strategic asset.

Board diversity offers an array of benefits, including new perspectives that can improve decision-making and reduce “groupthink,” access to a broader talent pool, and of course the symbolic power of women and minorities at the top rung of the corporate ladder. Yet, according to a collaborative study published today by Crunchbase, Kellogg School of Management and Him For Her, the boards of 60 percent of the most heavily funded venture-backed startups don’t include a single woman

As the study shows, some of the gender imbalance can be explained by the dearth of women founders and funders. With investors composing the majority of private-company board seats, the paucity of female check-writers in the venture community carries through to the boardroom. But the problem goes beyond that. Only 19 percent of independent directors — those appointed without a prior operating or investing relationship with the company — are women.

Why should CEOs care about building boards that bring more women and minorities to the table? To answer this question, we sought input from three chief executives who’ve developed standout boards with an eye toward diversity.

What follows is a synthesis of the advice they shared.

View your board as a strategic asset

Well-functioning boards help CEOs see the bigger picture by providing an external perspective. For Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, “our board has been the most useful in discovering blind spots, by asking questions that force us to think outside of our day-to-day way of looking at things.” Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse says his board brings “a satellite view of the world so that we can analyze global macro trends that may converge or diverge, affecting Ripple’s future.”

For early-stage startups, board members can help address tactical needs, providing introductions to candidates or lending functional expertise to shape strategy. “Over time, you’ll rely on the board for flexing its fiduciary muscle,” according to Zander Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey. But “don’t be afraid of governance,” he advises. “A strong board is not your enemy — it’s there to help you thrive.” The bigger risk, he warns, “is in surrounding yourself with a bunch of ‘yes’ directors who heed your commands; that has proven to be a flawed strategy for all stakeholders.”

Build a board that makes you proud

If the most valuable contributions a board can make are to provoke thinking and see around corners, then having a range of voices in the boardroom is critical. For Kasriel, more diversity “means more viewpoints on the same problems. The whole point of having an eight-person board is to have eight very different and complementary — though sometimes conflicting, and that’s OK — perspectives.” 

“It’s important to have diversity of thought to protect the company from groupthink,” adds Garlinghouse. “Also, diverse boards bring different personal networks to bear… as companies scale, especially for startups, the most effective, impactful boards are diverse ones.”

A broader set of skills, life experiences and ways of thinking give CEOs more resources to draw from for assistance. Says Lurie, “a diverse set of perspectives and experiences will help you anticipate and respond to all kinds of challenges in your organization.

Make sure your board has the skill sets and diversity attributes that make you proud to show your employees and customers. You wouldn’t make a TV commercial starring only seven white guys; make sure you exercise the same duty of care when creating your board.”

This isn’t about optics. Lurie points to “one study [that] found that companies with one or more women on their board have 26 percent better share performance than companies with all-male boards. That’s part of why I’m so proud the SurveyMonkey board is comprised of 50% women and 50% men. More voices lead to better leadership.”

Reach outside your network

You’ve heard the argument that board diversity reflects a pipeline problem. Actually, it’s a marketplace problem. There is no shortage of exceptionally-qualified female and minority candidates. The real issue is that within the personal networks responsible for appointing most directors, these candidates are often simply invisible. So how can CEOs tap into this wealth of talent?

“Plenty of us suffer from affinity bias,” Lurie acknowledges. “We unconsciously gravitate toward people who look like us, share the same work background, or maybe went to our alma mater. This homogenous network isn’t going to serve you in building a diverse board, a diverse leadership team, or a diverse organization. Start going out of your way to connect with people who are dissimilar to you.

Find events to attend that wouldn’t normally be on your radar. Ask people you know to connect you with folks they know who might add a unique perspective. Investing in diversity takes effort in the beginning, but it’s well worth it for the gains you’ll see in performance, employee engagement, and more.”

“It’s not really different from any other executive search,” observes Kasriel. “If you’re just leveraging your personal network, then it’s likely to have the same level of diversity as everything else in your personal life which, for many entrepreneurs, isn’t a lot. I’ve also found that simple InMail via LinkedIn works quite well: find someone you really admire, approach them directly, explain to them why you think they could be an amazing addition to your board and why being on your board could be interesting to them.”

Garlinghouse cautions CEOs that, “building diverse boards and leadership teams take time and intention, so make it part of your mission from the beginning — it should not be an afterthought… otherwise, those with the ‘right’ experience who get the big jobs will continue to look the same.”

Always be recruiting

According to Garlinghouse, “CEOs should always be recruiting…it’s always the right time to take that coffee meeting.” 

Kasriel concurs. “Recruiting is the number-two priority for a CEO — number one is, don’t run out of money — and this includes recruiting your board. A great board can have an outsized impact in your ability to succeed, helping you navigate difficult decisions, making sure you have the right strategy and helping you attract great executives, investors, partners and customers.”

Focus on competencies, not titles

When it comes to defining the ideal new board member, traditional wisdom says to look for a current or former CEO. But increasingly today’s chief executives reject that advice which inherently favors male candidates. Instead they focus on adding key competencies to fill out the expertise in their boardrooms.

The first step is to assess your current board. “Take stock of where your board stands today and where you have gaps to fill,” counsels Lurie, “and draw a distinction between the titles listed on someone’s resume and the competencies they bring to the table.”

Kasiel explains that, in building out the Upwork board, “We were very thoughtful in finding people who brought a specific expertise.” Recently added directors were selected for their deep knowledge of finance and operations, enterprise sales and M&A and tech marketing.

“But equally importantly,” he adds, “we wanted board members who were passionate about the mission of Upwork — to create economic opportunities so people have better lives — and were aligned with our value of maximizing value for all stakeholders, not just our stockholders.”

Garlinghouse suggests that CEOs “pay attention to what’s happening in adjacent verticals, especially if you’re in a space that’s constantly evolving; the perfect director might not — and likely won’t — have a career dedicated to what your company does, but skills always transfer.”

“One potentially controversial tip,” offers Kasriel, “consider hiring ‘more junior’ board members. In tech, things move really fast and someone who has been a CMO for 20+ years may not know as much about recent marketing technology tools or marketing practices such as ABM and Inbound Marketing. The first 15 years of that 20-year experience may not be all that useful.”

Add independent directors early

When should a startup add its first independent director? According to these CEOs, it’s never too early.

The first independent director at Upwork joined the board about six years before the company’s IPO. “I don’t think it was too early,” recalls Kasriel. “In fact, I often advise early stage companies to add an independent board member as early as they can.”

“It’s never too early to have an independent director on the board,” agrees Garlinghouse at Ripple, where the first independent was appointed only a year after the company’s founding. “The advantage of having independent directors,” he points out, “is that CEOs can prioritize diversity of thought because they are not constrained by board seats controlled by shareholders… With independent directors, CEOs have more flexibility in choosing an expertise in a specific area or a unique experience that’s currently lacking to bring companies to the next stage of scale.”

To CEOs worried about upsetting board dynamics, Kasriel responds, “the whole point of adding a new director is to change board dynamics! Obviously, you can make a bad hire on the board, just like you can make a bad hire on your management team, so it’s very important to make sure that the new board member is not only chosen well but also onboarded professionally so they can contribute fully to the functioning of the board. The onboarding may require existing board members to also evolve how they themselves operate. It goes both ways.”

Daimler and Bosch take a mixed mobility approach to autonomous vehicles

By Kirsten Korosec

A fleet of Mercedes-Benz S Class vehicles are now plying the roads of San Jose, California as part of a robotaxi pilot project that Daimler and Bosch have been developing for two and a half years, but the launch itself could be chalked up as a mere blip on the autonomous vehicle scene.

At last count, 65 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles in California. And a handful of companies, including Waymo and Zoox, have the additional permit from the California Public Utilities Commission to transport passengers in their robotaxis through the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot.

It’s a milestone for German automaker Daimler and Bosch, one of the world’s largest automotive tech and hardware suppliers, but the most noteworthy aspect is how the pilot has been structured. The companies’ approach provides a marker of sorts for exactly where the “race” to develop and deploy commercial autonomous vehicle stands. In short: this is no sprint. Adventure or expedition racing — a contest that requires strategy, partnerships, expertise in multiple areas, endurance and a head for navigating risk— might be a more apt analogy.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the launch of the pilot or that it will use self-driving Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles, the Sonderklasse (special class) of the automaker’s portfolio. What might have been missed is that this is really two projects in one.

Wayv launches Payments, the first all-digital payment solution for the cannabis market

By Matt Burns

Wayv is taking a big step towards mainstreaming the cannabis industry. Wayv Payments, launching today, is said to be the first digital, compliant payment solution for the cannabis supply chain. From growers to distributors to consumers, this solution should reduce the entire industry’s reliance on stacks of cash by providing a credit-card like transaction to all. More so, Wayv Payments is compliant with California’s stringent laws, allowing companies to redirect capital from compliance management.

This is the latest project from Wayv, which launched its distribution product a few months back. With both systems in place, Wayv is set to be a major force in the cannabis market — a familiar position with founder Keith McCarty who also founded Eaze.

Wayv is working with Hypur on this project. Wayv Payments gives cannabis companies a line of credit that will allow the businesses to have predictability around payments without paying any payment fees. The solution provides customers with complete transparency around payments. The dashboard enables customers to see incoming and outgoing payments as well as computing taxes and fees.

“Businesses will no longer be beholden to inefficient and unpredictable payments with WAYV as the industry’s facilitator and partner,” said WAYV CEO and Founder Keith McCarty said in a released statement. “We provide a turnkey solution that is the most efficient, least costly way to exchange capital and products throughout California.”

McCarty says this solution is compliant with all the regulations in the cannabis industry, including generating manifests for transportation.

“It’s required by state law that manifests are generated and submitted to the state,” McCarty said to TechCrunch. “At any given time, you can be pulled over, and there can be an audit on it. And if those things are not being done you’re in jeopardy to lose your license that can cost millions of dollars.”

The system’s API is designed to track a product from feed to sell — meaning, from the moment it’s planted to hitting a retailer’s shelf. McCarty says this process is often currently done by teams of people and can now be done automatically while eliminating mistakes.

This solution is needed to help ease the burden on legal cannabis operators. Without something like this, he says, illegal operators will continue to thrive in the heavily regulated industry. With Wayv, it helps reduce lost payments and products while abiding by the changing regulations.

Right now, this product is only available in California, though the company built it in a way to easily scale it to other markets.

I spoke to McCarty in length about funding a cannabis company and he feels the company needs to dominate a particular market before expanding, and that seems to be his strategy here as well.

North ending production of current Focals smart glasses to focus on Focals 2.0

By Darrell Etherington

Smart glasses maker North announced today that it will be ending production of its first-generation Focals glasses, which it brought to market for consumers last year. The company says it will instead shift its focus to Focals 2.0, a next-generation version of the product, which it says will ship starting in 2020.

Focals are North’s first product since rebranding the company from Thalmic Labs and pivoting from building smart gesture control hardware to glasses with a built-in heads-up display and smartphone connectivity. CEO and founder Stephen Lake told me in a prior interview that the company realized in developing its Myo gesture control armband that it was actually more pressing to develop the next major shift in computing platform before tackling interface devices for said platforms, hence the switch.

Focals 2.0 will be “at a completely different level” and “the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said in a press release announcing the new generation device. In terms of how exactly it’ll improve on the original, North isn’t sharing much but it has said that its made the 2.0 version both lighter and “sleeker,” and that it’ll offer a much sharper, “10x improved” built-in display.

North began selling its Focals smart glasses via physical showrooms that it opened first in Brooklyn and Toronto. These, in addition to a number of pop-up showroom locations that toured across North America, provided in-person try-ons and fittings for the smart glasses, which must be tailor-fit for individual users in order to properly display content from their supported applications. More recently, North also added a Showroom app for iOS devices, that included custom sizing powered by more recent iPhone front-facing depth sensing camera hardware.

North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses.

To date, North hasn’t revealed any sales figures for its initial Focals device, but the company did reduce the price of the glasses form $999 to just under $600 (without prescription) relatively soon after launch. Their cost, combined with the requirement for an in-person fitting prior to purchase (until the introduction of the Showroom app) and certain gaps in the product feature set like an inability to support iMessage on iOS natively, all point to initial sales being relatively low volume, however.

To North’s credit, Focals are the first smart glasses hardware that manage to have a relatively inconspicuous look. Despite somewhat thicker than average arms on either side where the battery, projection and computing components are housed, Focals resemble thick acrylic plastic frames of the kind popularized by Warby Parker and other standard glasses makers.

With version 2.0, it sounds like Focals will be making even more progress in developing a design that hews closely to standard glasses. One of the issues also cited by some users with the first-generation product was a relatively fuzzy image produced by the built-in projector, which required specific calibration to remain in focus, and it sounds like they’re addressing that, too.

The Focals successor will still have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving mass appeal, however. It’s unlikely that cost will be significantly reduced, though any progress it can make on that front will definitely help. And it still either requires non-glasses wearers to opt for regularly donning specs, or for standard glasses wearers to be within the acceptable prescription range supported by the hardware, and to be willing to spend a bit more for connected glasses features.

The company says the reason it’s ending Focals 1.0 production is to focus on the 2.0 rollout, but it’s not a great sign that there will be a pause in between the two generations in terms of availability. Through its two iterations as a company, Thalmic Labs and now North have not had the best track record in terms of developing hardware that has been a success with potential customers – Focals 2.0, whenever they do arrive, will have a lot to prove in terms of iterating enough to drive significant demand.

Tesla all-electric ATV makes a surprise debut at Cybertruck event

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla CEO Elon Musk definitely didn’t have the most issue-free presentation during last night’s Cybertruck unveil, but he did pull off a pretty impressive ‘one more thing moment’ – revealing a surprise all-electric all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that Tesla created to pair with its futuristic pickup.

The Tesla electric ATV didn’t get a lot of time to shine on its own, and instead was used primarily to demonstrate how the Tesla Cybertruck bed and active suspension works for loading up cargo, but it’s a real enough thing that Tesla made sure to point out that you can charge the electric four-wheeler right from the Cybertruck while the ATV is loaded in the bed.

Musk didn’t reveal anything about pricing or availability regarding the ATV, but a demo drive did actually drive it up on stage and load it into the bed, so it’s real enough to be functional. Like the Cybertruck itself, it also featured a body design with a lot of intersecting flat planes and angels, and it was done up in matte black, which makes it look like the ATV version of a stealth bomber.

In the past, Musk has discussed the idea of electric motorcycles, dismissing Tesla’s interest in the category in favor of electric bikes. Musk said that a motorcycle was not in the cards at a Tesla shareholder meeting in 2018, and also floated the idea of doing an e-bike instead that same year.

An ATV is a very different kind of vehicle – designed more for utility and recreation than for road use, but it’ll be interesting to see what kind of consumer launch Tesla has in mind for such a vehicle. A ‘Cybertruck: ATV Edition’ would probably incur a lot of demand.

GM will bring an electric truck to market in 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

GM CEO Mary Barra said Thursday that the automaker will bring its first electric truck to market in the fall of 2021.

The comments were made Thursday during GM’s investor day. Later this evening, Tesla, which also plans to start selling an electric truck in 2021, will reveal its “cybertruck” at an event in Hawthorne, Calif. Reuters first reported the news.

“General Motors understands truck buyers and… people who are new coming into the truck market,” Barra said during the investor conference, explaining the company’s rationale for the move.

GM’s foray into electric trucks has been public before. Last month, the Detroit Free Press reported the that GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant would remain open to produce an electric pickup under a deal between the UAW and the automaker.

This is the first time the company has provided a timeline.

Several other companies are expected to bring electric trucks to the marketplace in the next several years, including newcomer Rivian, Tesla and Ford.

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 fails during testing, next step will be to move to a newer design

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype encountered an explosive failure during early testing in Texas on Wednesday – you can see exactly what happened in the video below, but basically it blew its lid during cryogenic testing – a standard test that you use to see if the vehicle can hold up to extreme cold temperatures, like those it would encounter in actual use. The good news is that this is exactly why SpaceX (and anyone building rockets) does this kind of early-stage testing on the ground, in controlled, relatively safe conditions. The bad news is that this might delay the company’s optimistic timelines.

RIP Starship Mk1. @LabPadre stream:https://t.co/CwiHPUf7D3 pic.twitter.com/SckLfdIhw3

— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) November 20, 2019

As for next steps, the plan appears to be to take what Starship Mk1 has taught SpaceX so far and proceed with the next iteration of the prototype spacecraft – Starship Mk3. ‘Wait, didn’t we skip a Mk?’ you might ask – no, because SpaceX is already building Mk2 in parallel with this now-destroyed Mk1 at its other facility in Florida.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was quick to answer a question on Twitter from YouTuber Everyday Astronaut regarding the next steps for Starship testing, saying it’ll move on to Mk3 design, and that Mk1’s value was primarily “as a manufacturing pathfinder,” noting that “flight design is quite different.”

This is still a different version of events and Starship development from what’s been discussed previously: Starship Mk1 and Mk2 were originally characterized as high-altitude test flight vehicles, to follow the success of the ‘Starhopper’ snub-nosed subscale demonstrator, which was used to test a single Raptor engine for a couple of low-altitude hops at SpaceX’s Texas site.

Timelines are always fluid in the space business, however, and in particular in the launch industry. SpaceX also sets incredibly optimistic timelines for most of its ambitious goals, by the open admission of both Musk and SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Still, the company has said it’ll look to achieve orbital flight with a Starship prototype vehicle as early as next year, so we’ll have to wait and see whether this inopportune test result affects that schedule.

SpaceX provided the following statement regarding today’s test:

The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected. There were no injuries, nor is this a serious setback.

As Elon tweeted, Mk1 served as a valuable manufacturing pathfinder but flight design is quite different. The decision had already been made to not fly this test article and the team is focused on the Mk3 builds, which are designed for orbit.

Sonos acquires voice assistant startup Snips, potentially to build out on-device voice control

By Darrell Etherington

Sonos revealed during its quarterly earnings report that it has acquired voice assistant startup Snips in a $37 million cash deal, Variety reported on Wednesday. Snips, which had been developing dedicated smart device assistants that can operate primarily locally, instead of relying on consistently round-tripping voice data to the cloud, could help Sonos set up a voice control option for its customers that has “privacy in mind” and is focused more narrowly on music control than on being a general-purpose smart assistant.

Sonos has worked with both Amazon and Google and their voice assistants, providing support for either on their more recent products, including the Sonos Beam and Sonos One smart speakers. Both of these require an active cloud connection to work, however, and have received scrutiny from consumers and consumer protection groups recently for how they handle the data they collect form users. They’ve introduced additional controls to help users navigate their own data sharing, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence noted that one of the things the company can do in building its own voice features is developing them “with privacy in mind” in an interview with Variety.

Notably, Sonos has introduced a version of its Sonos One that leave out the microphone hardware altogether – the Sonos One SL introduced earlier this fall. The fact that they saw opportunity in a mic-less second version of the Sonos One suggests it’s likely there are a decent number of customers who like the option of a product that’s not round-tripping any information with a remote server. Spence also seemed quick to point out that Sonos wouldn’t seek to compete with its voice assistant partners, however, since anything they build will be focused much more specifically on music.

You can imagine how local machine learning would be able to handle commands like skipping, pausing playback and adjusting volume (and maybe even more advanced feature like playing back a saved playlist), without having to connect to any kind of cloud service. It seems like what Spence envisions is something like that which can provide basic controls, while still allowing the option for a customer to enable one of the more full-featured voice assistants depending on their preference.

Meanwhile, partnerships continue to prove lucrative for Sonos: Its team-up with Ikea resulted in 30,000 speakers sold on launch day, the company also shared alongside its earnings. That’s a lot to move in one day, especially in this category.

Smart Compose is coming to Google Docs

By Frederic Lardinois

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian today announced that Smart Compose, the AI-powered feature that currently tries to complete phrases and sentences for you in Gmail, is also coming to G Suite’s Google Docs soon. For now, though, your G Suite admin has to sign up for the beta to try it  and it’s only available in English.

Google says in total, Smart Compose in Gmail already saves people from typing about 2 billion characters per week. At least in my own experience, it also works surprisingly well and has only gotten better since launch (as one would expect from a product that learns from the individual and collective behavior of its users). It remains to be seen how well this same technique works for longer texts, but even longer documents are often quite formulaic, so the algorithm should still work quite well there, too.

Google first announced Smart Compose in May 2018, as part of its I/O developer conference. It builds upon the same machine learning technology Google developed for its Smart Reply feature. The company then rolled out Smart Compose to all G Suite and private Gmail users, starting in July 2018, and later added support for mobile, too.

Luna is a new kind of space company helping biotech find its footing in microgravity

By Darrell Etherington

Toronto-based startup Luna Design and Innovation is a prime example of the kind of space company that is increasingly starting up to take advantage of the changing economics of the larger industry. Founded by Andrea Yip, who is also Luna’s CEO, the bootstrapped venture is looking to blaze a trail for biotechnology companies who stand to gain a lot from the new opportunities in commercial space – even if they don’t know it yet.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the public and private health industry, doing a lot of product and service design and innovation,” Yip told me in an interview. “I was working in pharma[ceuticals] for several years, but at the end of 2017, I decided to leave the pharma world and I really wanted to find a way to work along the intersection of pharma, space and design, because I just believe that the future of health for humanity is in space.”

Yip founded Luna at the beginning of this year to help turn that belief into action, with a focus on highlighting the opportunities available to the biotechnology sector in making use of the research environment unique to space.

“We see space as a research platform, and we believe that it’s a research platform that can be leveraged in order to solve healthcare problems here on Earth,” Yip explained. “So for me, it was critically important to open up space to the biotech sector, and to the pharma sector, in order to use it as a research platform for R&D and novel discovery.”

The International Space Station has hosted a number of pharma and biotech experiments.

NASA’s work in space has led to a number of medical advances, inducing digital imaging tech used in breast biopsy, transmitters used for monitoring fetus development within the womb, LED’s used in brain cancer surgery and more. Work done on researching and developing pharmaceuticals in space is also something that companies including Merck, Proctor & Gamble and other industry heavyweights have been dabbling in for years, with experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceFarma have now sent entire minilaboratories to the ISS to conduct research on behalf of clients. But it’s still a business with plenty of remaining under-utilized opportunity, according to Yip – and tons of potential.

“I think it’s a highly underutilized research platform, unfortunately, right now,” she said. “When it comes to certain physical and life sciences phenomena, we know that things behave differently in space, in what we refer to as microgravity-based environments […] We know that cancer cells, for instance, behave differently in short- and longer-term microgravity when it comes to the way that they metastasize. So being able to even acknowledge that type of insight, and try and understand ‘why’ can unlock a lot of new discovery and understanding about the way cancer actually functions […] and that can actually help us better design drugs, and treatment opportunities here on Earth, just based on those insights.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Credit: Blue Origin .

Yip says that while there has been some activity already in biotech and microgravity, “we’re on the early end of this innovation,” and goes on to suggest that over the course of the next ten or so years, the companies that will be disrupting the existing class of legacy big pharma players will be ones who’ve invested early and deeply in space-based research and development.

The role of Luna is to help biotech companies figure out how best to approach building out an investment in space-based research. To that end, one of its early accomplishments is securing a role as a ‘Channel Partner’ for Jeff Bezos’ commercial space launch company Blue Origin. This arrangement means that Luna acts a a sales partner for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, working with potential clients for the Amazon founder’s rocket company on how and why they might seek to set up a sub-orbital space-based experiment.

That’s the near-term vision, and the way that Luna will seek to have the most impact here on Earth. But the possibilities of what the future holds for the biotech sector start to really open up once you consider the current trajectory of the space industry, including NASA’s next steps, and efforts by private companies like SpaceX to expand human presence to other planet.

“We’re talking about going back to the Moon by 2024,” Yip says, referring to NASA’s goal with its Artemis program. “We’re talking about going to Mars in the next few years. There’s a lot that we will need to uncover and discover for ourselves, and I think that’s a huge opportunity. Who knows what we’ll discover when we’re on other planets, and we’re actually putting people there? We have to start preparing for that and building capability for that.”

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