Mike Barile spent two years and racked up nearly $20,000 in credit card debt to bring his first startup, Backflip, to life.
The former management consultant had spent years toiling in the startup grind, first at Uber, then, after taking a coding academy bootcamp through AppAcademy (where Barile met his co-founder, Adam Foosaner), at Google and at a failed cryptocurrency startup.
Burned by the crypto experience, Barile was casting about for his next thing, and trying to find a way to scrape up some rent money, when he hit on the idea for Backflip. The experience of selling electronics online was still shady and Barile and Foosaner thought there had to be a better way.
That way became Backflip. It offers customers cash on delivery for their used electronics — anything from Androids to Xboxes and Apple devices to Game Boys.
“When I first started working on backflip back in March 2019, I met this kid named Chris and he wanted to buy some of my old iPhones. He had been a student at USF and as a side hustle he started buying used devices and would refurbish them and then either sell them himself or sell them to an official reseller,” said Barile. “Chris started making so much money he dropped out of school. That was a ‘holy shit’ moment. He can make a lot of money doing this and he’s doing a really good thing.”
The problem, said Barile, was safety. “He’s got all these devices he’s acquiring paying cash for and he’s driving all around town… Everyone who works in the [refurbish and resell] industry has at least one story about getting robbed at gunpoint.”
Backflip solved that problem by being the intermediary between buyers and sellers and taking a small commission for managing the transaction.
The company raised its first money at the end of 2019, but before that, Foosaner and Barile lived off of credit and used electronics.
So far, Backflip has facilitated the exchange of roughly 3,000 devices. The company handles everything from wiping a device and ensuring its quality to finding a buyer for the electronics. The company pays out roughly $150 per device and has deposited a little over $500,000 with users of the service, according to data provided by the company.
“We did all sorts of stuff to get our first few users,” said Barile. We posted ads on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. We started experimenting at the end of the summer with the most bare-bones mobile app kind of thing. At that point it was just Adam and I,” Barile said.
Starting now, Backflip is working with UPS stores to provide in-person drop-off and packaging centers for the used electronics. Over time, Barile sees those services expanding to offer cash on delivery. “The experience will be similar to an Amazon return,” he said. “Except we’ll be paying you.”
Currently about half of the company’s inventory is used handsets and mobile devices, but Barile said that could drop to a third of inventory as word spreads about the hundred-odd pieces of electronics that Backflip is willing to accept.
“Unlike other resale options, Backflip prioritizes the user’s time and convenience,” said Foosaner in a statement. “Forget the back-and-forth of negotiating over price and scheduling a meetup. We’re here to do all the work for the seller and make sure they get paid fairly and quickly. Backflip users can know that they’re getting the most for their devices without having to do anything other than bring them to The UPS Store or box them up at home.”
The connection to the refurbishing community started early for Barile, whose mother had a side business called “Stone Cottage Workshop” where she was flipping refurbished furniture on eBay and at local thrift stores near Barile’s bucolic New Jersey hometown.
“We want to build the Amazon of making things disappear from your apartment,” Barile said.
Arm today announced Armv9, the next generation of its chip architecture. Its predecessor, Armv8 launched a decade ago and while it has seen its fair share of changes and updates, the new architecture brings a number of major updates to the platform that warrant a shift in version numbers. Unsurprisingly, Armv9 builds on V8 and is backward compatible, but it specifically introduces new security, AI, signal processing and performance features.
Over the last five years, more than 100 billion Arm-based chips have shipped. But Arm believes that its partners will ship over 300 billion in the next decade. We will see the first ArmV9-based chips in devices later this year.
Ian Smythe, Arm’s VP of Marketing for its client business, told me that he believes this new architecture will change the way we do computing over the next decade. “We’re going to deliver more performance, we will improve the security capabilities […] and we will enhance the workload capabilities because of the shift that we see in compute that’s taking place,” he said. “The reason that we’ve taken these steps is to look at how we provide the best experience out there for handling the explosion of data and the need to process it and the need to move it and the need to protect it.”
That neatly sums up the core philosophy behind these updates. On the security side, ArmV9 will introduce Arm’s confidential compute architecture and the concept of Realms. These Realms enable developers to write applications where the data is shielded from the operating system and other apps on the device. Using Realms, a business application could shield sensitive data and code from the rest of the device, for example.
“What we’re doing with the Arm Confidential Compute Architecture is worrying about the fact that all of our computing is running on the computing infrastructure of operating systems and hypervisors,” Richard Grisenthwaite, the chief architect at Arm, told me. “That code is quite complex and therefore could be penetrated if things go wrong. And it’s in an incredibly trusted position, so we’re moving some of the workloads so that [they are] running on a vastly smaller piece of code. Only the Realm manager is the thing that’s actually capable of seeing your data while it’s in action. And that would be on the order of about a 10th of the size of a normal hypervisor and much smaller still than an operating system.”
As Grisenthwaite noted, it took Arm a few years to work out the details of this security architecture and ensure that it is robust enough — and during that time Spectre and Meltdown appeared, too, and set back some of Arm’s initial work because some of the solutions it was working on would’ve been vulnerable to similar attacks.
Unsurprisingly, another area the team focused on was enhancing the CPU’s AI capabilities. AI workloads are now ubiquitous. Arm had already done introduced its Scalable Vector Extension (SVE) a few years ago, but at the time, this was meant for high-performance computing solutions like the Arm-powered Fugaku supercomputer.
Now, Arm is introducing SVE2 to enable more AI and digital signal processing (DSP) capabilities. Those can be used for image processing workloads, as well as other IoT and smart home solutions, for example. There are, of course, dedicated AI chips on the market now, but Arm believes that the entire computing stack needs to be optimized for these workloads and that there are a lot of use cases where the CPU is the right choice for them, especially for smaller workloads.
“We regard machine learning as appearing in just about everything. It’s going to be done in GPUs, it’s going to be done in dedicated processors, neural processors, and also done in our CPUs. And it’s really important that we make all of these different components better at doing machine learning,” Grisenthwaite said.
As for raw performance, Arm believes its new architecture will allow chip manufacturers to gain more than 30% in compute power over the next two chip generations, both for mobile CPUs but also the kind of infrastructure CPUs that large cloud vendors like AWS now offer their users.
“Arm’s next-generation Armv9 architecture offers a substantial improvement in security and machine learning, the two areas that will be further emphasized in tomorrow’s mobile communications devices,” said Min Goo Kim, the executive vice president of SoC development at Samsung Electronics. “As we work together with Arm, we expect to see the new architecture usher in a wider range of innovations to the next generation of Samsung’s Exynos mobile processors.”
Five years ago I landed the Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi after flying around the globe powered solely by solar energy, a first in aviation history.
It was also a milestone in energy and technology history. Solar Impulse was an experimental plane, weighing as little as a family car and using 17,248 solar cells. It was a flying laboratory, full of groundbreaking technologies that made it possible to produce renewable energy, store it and use it when necessary in the most efficient manner.
The time has come to use technology again to address the climate crisis affecting us all. As we enter the most crucial decade of climate action — and most likely our last chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C — we need to ensure that clean technologies become the only acceptable norm. These technologies exist now and they can be profitably implemented at this crucial moment.
Hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way,
Here are just four innovations from our solar-powered plane that the market can start using now before it’s too late.
The building sector is one of the largest energy consumers in the world. Next to a reliance on carbon-heavy fuels for heating and cooling, poor insulation and associated energy loss are among the main reasons.
Inside Solar Impulse’s cockpit, insulation was crucial for the plane to fly at very high altitudes. Covestro, one of our official partners, developed an ultra-lightweight and insulating material. The cockpit insulation performance was 10% higher than the standards at the time because the pores in the insulating foam were 40% smaller, reaching a micrometer scale. Thanks to its very low density of fewer than 40 kilograms per cubic meter, the cockpit was ultra-lightweight.
This technology and many others exist. We now need to ensure that all market players are motivated to make hyperefficient building insulation their standard operating procedure.
Solar Impulse was first and foremost an electric airplane when it flew 43,000 km without a single drop of fuel. Its four electric motors had a record-beating efficiency of 97%, far ahead of the miserable 27% of standard thermal engines. This means that they only lost 3% of the energy they used versus 73% for combustion propulsion. Today, electric vehicle sales are soaring. According to the International Energy Agency, when Solar Impulse landed in 2016, there were approximately 1.2 million electric cars on the road; the figure has now risen to over 5 million.
Nevertheless, this acceleration is far from enough. Power sockets are still far from replacing petrol pumps. The transport sector still accounts for one-quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Electrification must happen much more quickly to reduce CO2 emissions from our tailpipes. To do so, governments need to boost the adoption of electric vehicles through clear tax incentives, diesel and petrol engine bans, and major infrastructure investments. 2021 should be the year that puts us on a one-way road to zero-emission vehicles and puts thermal engines in a dead end.
To fly for several days and nights, reaching a theoretically endless flight potential, Solar Impulse relied on batteries that stored the energy collected during the day and used it to power its engines during the night.
What was made possible with Si2 on a small scale should guide the way to future-proofing power-generation systems that are made up entirely of renewable energy. In the meantime, microgrids, like those used in Si2, could benefit off-grid systems in remote communities or energy islands, allowing them to abolish diesel or other carbon-heavy fuels already today.
On a larger scale, we are looking at smart grids. If all “stupid grids” were replaced by smart grids, it would allow cities, for example, to manage production, storage, distribution and consumption of energy and to cut peaks in energy demand that would reduce CO2 emissions dramatically.
Solar Impulse’s philosophy was to save energy instead of trying to produce more of it. This is why the relatively small amount of solar energy we collected became enough to fly day and night. All the airplane parameters, including wingspan, aerodynamics, speed, flight profile and energy systems, had therefore been designed to minimize energy loss.
Unfortunately, this approach still stands out against the inefficiency of most of our energy use today. Even though the IEA found energy efficiency improved by an estimated 13% between 2000 and 2017, it is not enough. We need bolder action by policymakers to encourage investors. One of the best ways to do so is to put strict energy efficiency standards in place.
For example, California has set efficiency standards on buildings and appliances, such as consumer electronics and household appliances, estimated to have saved consumers more than $100 billion in utility bills. These measures are as good for the environment as they are for the economy.
When we used all these different innovations to build Solar Impulse, they were groundbreaking and futuristic. Today, they should define the present; they should be the norm. Next to the technologies mentioned above, hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way, many of which have received the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label.
Just as for the Si2 technologies, we must now ensure that they enter the mainstream market. The faster we scale them, the faster we will set our economy on track to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and attain sustainable economic growth.
When the two year-old Indian company Jetsons Robotics began searching for a partner to help design charging stations for their autonomous rooftop solar installation cleaning robots, the Israeli company Powermat was an obvious choice.
While the company had made its name as the designer for wireless charging technologies for consumer electronics, over the past two years the company was shifting its focus to more industrial applications. So it made sense to work with the Indian company on new form factors and applications for its charging technologies.
Indeed, the consumer market that Powermat had hoped to capture had been, by that point, broadly commoditized, so the tech developer needed a new direction.
Cleaning rooftop solar installations can be a costly endeavor, running companies anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per year, according to Jetsons Robotics chief executive, Jatin Sharma. The use of robots to replace human labor can save money, but the autonomous solution that the company wanted to build necessitated some kind of wireless charging dock, he said.
Contact-based charging meant too many variables in the outdoor environment, but an inductive charger would be too costly. Until the company worked with Powermat on a solution, Sharma said.
Backed by 100x.vc, Sharma’s robots are already cleaning roughly 1.7 megawatts of solar installations on a daily basis.
For Powermat, the solar cleaning robots are a good test of the company’s new industrial focus, according to chief technology officer Itay Sherman.
“You can look at it like maturation of the market,” Sherman said. “Powermat had been a pioneer in driving wireless technology. This market is maturing and we are moving on to markets where the technology and innovation is important. We have decided to shift our efforts to these emerging markets. Robotics is one, medical devices, IOT, and the automotive market are others.”
A startup based out of San Diego and Taipei is quietly nailing fundings and deals from some of the biggest names in electronics. Kneron, which specializes in energy-efficient processors for edge artificial intelligence, just raised a strategic funding round from Taiwan’s manufacturing giant Foxconn and integrated circuit producer Winbond.
The deal came a year after Kneron closed a $40 million round led by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Amongst its other prominent investors are Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund, Sequoia Capital, Qualcomm and SparkLabs Taipei.
Kneron declined to disclose the dollar amount of the investment from Foxconn and Winbond due to investor requests but said it was an “eight figures” deal, founder and CEO Albert Liu told TechCrunch in an interview.
Founded in 2015, Kneron’s latest product is a neural processing unit that can enable sophisticated AI applications without relying on the cloud. The startup is directly taking on the chips of Intel and Google, which it claims are more energy-consuming than its offering. The startup recently got a talent boost after hiring Davis Chen, Qualcomm’s former Taipei head of engineering.
Among Kneron’s customers are Chinese air conditioning giant Gree and German’s autonomous driving software provider Teraki, and the new deal is turning the world’s largest electronics manufacturer into a client. As part of the strategic agreement, Kneron will work with Foxconn on the latter’s smart manufacturing and newly introduced open platform for electric vehicles, while its work with Winbond will focus on microcontroller unit (MCU)-based AI and memory computing.
“Low-power AI chips are pretty easy to put into sensors. We all know that in some operation lines, sensors are quite small, so it’s not easy to use a big GPU [graphics processing unit] or CPU [central processing unit], especially when power consumption is a big concern,” said Liu, who held R&D positions at Qualcomm and Samsung before founding Kneron.
Unlike some of its competitors, Kneron designs chips for a wide range of use cases, from manufacturing, smart home, smartphones, robotics, surveillance, payments, to autonomous driving. It doesn’t just make chips but also the AI software embedded in the chips, a strategy that Liu said differentiates his company from China’s AI darlings like SenseTime and Megvii, which enable AI service through the cloud.
Kneron has also been on a less aggressive funding pace than these companies, which fuel their rapid expansion through outsize financing rounds. Six-year-old SenseTime has raised about $2.6 billion to date, while nine-year-old Megvii has banked about $1.4 billion. Kneron, in comparison, has raised just over $70 million from a Series A round.
Like the Chinese AI upstarts, Kneron is weighing an initial public offering. The company is expected to make a profit in 2023, Liu said, and “that will probably be a good time for us to go IPO.”