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EV fleet management gets another venture-backed contender as Electriphi raises $3.5 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Electriphi, a provider of charging management and fleet monitoring software for electric vehicles, has joined the scrum of startups looking to provide services to the growing number of electric vehicle fleets in the U.S.

The San Francisco-based company has just raised $3.5 million in seed funding from investors including Wireframe Ventures, the Urban Innovation Fund, and Blackhorn Ventures. Lemnos Labs and Acario Innovation also participated in the round.

Electriphi’s pitch has resonated with school districts. It counts the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif. as one of its benchmark customers.

“Twin Rivers Unified School District has the largest fleet of electric school buses in North America, and our ambition is to transition to a fully electric fleet in the coming years,” said Tim Shannon, transportation services director, Twin Rivers Unified School District, in a statement. “This is a significant undertaking, and we needed a trusted partner that could provide us state-of-the-art charging management and help us with data collection and monitoring.”

There are several companies pursuing this market — all with either a bit of a head start, significant corporate backers, or more capital. Existing offerings from EVConnect, GreenLots, GreenFlux, AmplyPower all compete with Electriphi.

The company is betting that the experience of co-founder, Muffi Ghadiali, a former senior director at ChargePoint who led hardware and software development for fast charging infrastructure, can sway customers. Joining Ghadiali is Sanjay Dayal, who previously worked at Agralogics, Tibco, Xamplify, Versata and Sybase

There’s also the sheer scale of the opportunity, which is likely to see multiple companies emerge as winners.

“There are millions of public and commercial fleet vehicles in the U.S. alone that we rely on daily for transportation, delivery and services, ” said Paul Straub, managing partner, Wireframe Ventures. “Many of these are beginning to consider electrification and the opportunity is tremendous.”

Deep data running wearable NURVV closes $9M Series A led by Hiro Capital

By Mike Butcher

Launched at CES 2020, NURVV, a biomechanics startup, has closed a $9m Series A round, led by Hiro Capital, the sports/Esports VC fund, along with co-investment from Ian Livingstone CBE (Games Workshop co-founder) and Cherry Freeman (co-founder of LoveCrafts).

It turns out that if you can figure out how to protect a smartphone from smashing, you can also work out how high a basketball player can jump.

Jason Roberts founded Tech21, one of the world’s leading smartphone case manufacturers. He and his co-founder and wife Ulrica have now used that knowledge to launch new wearable tech product, which, when inserted into the sole of a shoe, can measure the strike of a foot on the ground, or the leap of its wearer.

The wearable uses 32 sensors fitted inside lightweight insoles to capture data from the feet at 1,000 times per second, per sensor.

The money will be used to bring NURVV’s debut product, NURVV Run, to a global market and fund further R&D.

Featured among the best lists of Wired, CNET and Gear Patrol, the wearable has also been tested by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory over the past three years,

It can measure running metrics such as cadence, step length, footstrike, pronation and balance, feeding the data into the NURVV Run coaching app to show a picture of the wearer’s running technique, and thus helping runners improve their technique and pace.

While runners are already able to collect a huge amount of data about their run, the data is always after the run. Jason Roberts, founder and CEO, says NURVV Run captures a runner’s metrics “directly from the point of action at the foot, before using live coaching to help them improve in a simple, easy-to-understand way.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Jason Roberts told me that the technology built into the sole is more “accurate than watches for steps, strides or energy dissipated. It will even detect when you are injured.”

He said “you could even broadcast a player’s live steps. Imagine if you could see that data from basketball?”

Co-founder Ulrica Roberts added: “We kept coming back to the same question: ‘Why is running measured from the wrist, when most of the important metrics happen at the feet?… We sought out the expertise to make it happen.”

Luke Alvarez, managing Partner of Hiro, said in a statement: “Hiro is delighted to be investing in NURVV as our Fund’s fourth deal and our first Sports tech investment. NURVV’s success comes from putting the athlete’s body at the heart of everything they do. Nurvv is based on fundamental patented sensor technologies combined with deep biomechanics and data science that have revolutionary potential across sports, gaming, VR/AR and wellness.  Jason and Ulrica are extraordinary entrepreneurs and we are excited to be working with them and their team to take NURVV to the next level.”

Alphabet’s Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile turn solar-powered drones into flying cell towers

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company that had been focused on delivering internet communications to remote areas via stratospheric balloons, has completed development work on a new payload for partner HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank that’s building high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed aircraft. The two companies jointly adapted the communications technology that enables Loon’s balloons to beam communications networks to Earth for use on HAPSMobile’s drones, effectively turning them into high-flying mobile cell towers.

This is the result of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced back in April of last year, but an important step because it means that Loon’s technology will get its first functional tests on vehicles other than its ballon-based platform. The HAWK30 aircraft that HAPSMobile developed is a solar-powered electric aircraft that flies at speeds of over 100 km/h (around 60 mph) in the stratosphere (with an operating altitude or around 65,000 feet) which is much faster than Loon’s balloons, which meant adapting the payload to perform at these speeds. Part of that customization included making the antenna used to beam the LTE connectivity to devices on the ground much more responsive, allowing them to rotate quickly to maintain the best possible connection.

Loon and HAPSMobile say the their communications technology can provide connections between devices as far as 700 km (435 miles) apart, with data transfer speeds reaching as high as 1Gpbs. HAPSMobile’s goal with the HAWK30 project is to expand the scope of coverage vs. terrestrial cell towers, since their high-altitude position can cover a much larger surface area vs. even the tallest cell towers. In fact, the company notes that just 40 of its aircraft could provide coverage to the entirety of Japan, vs. “tens of thousands of existing terrestrial base stations.” Plus, fewer areas would be considered out-of-range as a result of inhospitable terrain or difficult to reach areas in terms of infrastructure installation.

For Loon, this is a signifiant expansion of their current operating model, providing another path to revenue that includes adapting their communications technology for use on different types of aircraft and delivery models. It’s yet another example of the type of commercial partnerships available to the company, even as it ramps up its existing balloon-based deployment plans with partners including Telefonica and others.

Utah tech magnates create new Silicon Slopes Venture Fund to boost startups in the state

By Sarah Buhr

Those looking outside of Silicon Valley as a potential hub for their startup might want to take a gander at Utah — at least that’s the kind of trend the new Silicon Slopes Venture Fund hopes to create.

The newly formed fund, put together by Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith, Omniture and Domo founder Josh James and Stance co-founder turned Pelion Venture Partners’ Jeff Kearl, pledges to invest solely in Utah-based startups. The goal? To become every bit as notable as a16z or Sequoia Capital.

Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith and Domo and Omniture founder Josh James onstage at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit.

“I grew up in the Bay Area,” Kearl told TechCrunch of the energy he feels in the state. “This feels like the 1990s in the Bay Area. You can find hundreds of open jobs up and down the Wasatch Front.”

Utah has a reputation as a mostly religious, conservative and sleepy mountain region for outdoors enthusiasts but tech has fast become the leading job sector in the state, with some salaries from companies like Adobe and Qualtrics rivaling those in Silicon Valley. The state recently pledged a push to include at least one computer science course in every high school in the state by 2022 and also just hosted a massive, 25,000 person startup festival called the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, where it held a Utah state governor’s debate and both Steve Case and Mark Zuckerberg spoke on stage.

It’s unclear how much the fund has set aside for its mission to help Utah become a full-fledged tech ecosystem rivaling Silicon Valley but one would imagine it would have a sizable sum to invest, if, as Smith tells TechCrunch, it is to help Utah’s up-and-coming startups go all the way from seed stage to IPO.

“I want to see companies get even bigger than Qualtrics…and do it in this state,” Smith said. Qualtrics sold to SAP in 2019 for $8 billion, notably the largest private enterprise software deal in tech history.

Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 Gubernatorial Debate

One of the many issues tech hubs around the world face is both the networking capabilities and the ability to invest after the seed stage or Series A. Most startups throughout the globe still find the need to travel and make connections in Silicon Valley to get them through the next step of growth. This has been true for every billion-dollar startup idea in Utah as well so far. Both Smith and James took in Silicon Valley venture for their companies, as did unicorn turned public ed tech startup Pluralsight and the recently rebranded sales platform Xant (formerly InsideSales), before making it big.

However, this new fund represents the kind of push needed to create a strong innovation ecosystem in the future, as Steve Case mentioned on stage at the summit event this last week. “Venture capitalists must look at ‘what’s happening in the Silicon Slopes’ and make sure it ‘is happening other places’,” Utah newspaper Deseret News paraphrased the AOL founder as saying.

Pelion Venture Partners, which operates in both Utah and Southern California, will act as a support to Silicon Slopes Venture Fund, providing organizational overhead. Each partner will still keep their day job and donate most fees to support the ongoing operation of the non-profit tech organization, Silicon Slopes, which runs the annual tech summit of the same moniker. However, the Silicon Slopes Venture Fund will be an independent fund from Pelion, with the sole purpose of investing in deal flow the three partners find through their respective networks within the state.

“I used to hate the term ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ because I want to be the only boat,” James told TechCrunch. “But I really think it applies here for what we are trying to do [in Utah].”

NASA reveals the payloads for the first commercial Moon cargo deliveries

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has finalized the payloads for its first cargo deliveries scheduled to be carried by commercial lunar landers, vehicles created by companies the agency selected to take part in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In total, there are 16 payloads, which consist of a number of different science experiments and technology experiments, that will be carried by landers built by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both of these landers are scheduled to launch next year, carrying their cargo to the Moon’s surface and helping prepare the way for NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine is set to launch aboard a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will make its own lunar trip aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both landers will carry two of the payloads on the list, including a Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) that is basically a mirror-based precision location device for situating the lander itself; and a Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) – a laser-based sensor that can provide precision navigation during descent and touchdown. Both of these payloads are being developed by NASA to ensure safe, controlled and specifically targeted landing of spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, and their use here be crucial in building robust lunar landing systems to support Artemis through the return of human astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

Besides those two payloads, everything else on either lander is unique to one vehicle or the other. Astrobotic is carrying more, but its Peregrine lander can hold more cargo – its payload capacity tops out at around 585 lbs, whereas the Nova-C can carry a maximum of 220 lbs. The full list of what each lander will have on board is available below, as detailed by NASA.

Overall, NASA has 14 total contractors that could potentially provide lunar payload delivery services through its CLPS program. That basically amounts to a list of approved vendors, who then bid on whatever contracts the agency has available for this specific need. Other companies on the CLPS list include Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and more. Starting with these two landers next year, NASA hopes to fly around two missions per year each year through the CLPS program.

Astrobotic Payloads

  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL): SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing, and evaluate contaminants injected into the regolith by the landing itself. It will give scientists insight into the how a spacecraft landing might affect the composition of samples collected nearby. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS): PILS is a technology demonstration that is based on an International Space Station test platform for validating solar cells that convert light to electricity. It will demonstrate advanced photovoltaic high-voltage use for lunar surface solar arrays useful for longer mission durations. It is being developed at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS): The LETS radiation sensor will collect information about the lunar radiation environment and relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft’s inaugural uncrewed flight in 2014. It is being developed at NASA Johnson.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS): NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane – all resources that could potentially be mined from the Moon — while also mapping surface temperature and changes at the landing site. It is being developed at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo): MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles. It can be installed to either measure the lunar exosphere or the spacecraft outgassing and contamination. Data gathered from MSolo will help determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources. It is being developed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere after descent and landing and throughout the lunar day to understand the release and movement of volatiles. It was previously developed for ESA’s (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission and is being modified for this mission by NASA Goddard and ESA.
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS): NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface by measuring how much hydrogen-bearing materials are at the landing site as well as determine the overall bulk composition of the regolith there. NSS is being developed at NASA Ames.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS): NMLS will use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface, and also observe and detect the presence of water or other rare elements. The data will help inform scientists’ understanding of the radiation environment on the Moon. It’s based on an instrument that currently operates on the space station and is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG): MAG will characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface. NASA Goddard is the lead development center for the MAG payload.

Intuitive Machines Payloads

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aide future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. In addition, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.

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.

Disney’s ‘Myth: A Frozen Tale’ should be a case study for anyone filmmaking in VR

By Matthew Panzarino

This week, on my way to check out a little ride debuting at Disneyland in California, I stopped by Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank to check out “Myth: A Frozen Tale.” Myth is a new VR experience created by a team working at the studio that debuted with the movie but has not yet launched for the public.

It uses Frozen 2 as a jumping off point but is not a continuation of the story.  Instead, it builds off of the story of the movie and uses the tech to put the viewer into the world to experience the “spirits” of the film up close.

It’s incredibly effective, and an example of what can be done with VR when you have both expansive resources and full intellectual buy-in from an animation master foundry like WDAS.

I tried out Myth in the same building where Frozen 2 was made, the building itself is a living pipeline with story development on the top floor and departments working on animation and effects filling out the building in a cascade. The VR studio just off the main gathering space is right in the center of this activity and the team says that they used as much of the animation pipeline that was making Frozen 2 as was possible or effective.

MYTH: A FROZEN TALE – For the groundbreaking new VR short, “Myth: A Frozen Tale,” Walt Disney Animation Studios artists, technologists and engineers used stylized art direction to deliver a unique virtual and visceral experience. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Despite the Frozen 2 connection, Myth is not just a marketing stunt for the film, it’s a real animation title from a team that has already produced the lovely and touching Cycles VR short. A team backed by the most effective animation studio on the planet and with access to and integration to that apparatus.

Myth is an introduction to and encounter with the elemental spirits that play a large role in Frozen 2. We’re brought into the world through a family gathering around the fire for story time and are thrust quickly into another era where we see the spirits alive and active.

The project is presented as a sort of inverse theater in the round, with little movement required on the part of the audience. There are no interactive elements, but viewers will likely react to the scenes anyway as they’re quite effective. The spirits of fire, earth, air and water make an appearance and the sense of presence that is such a big part of VR’s innate appeal is put to real work here. Especially when it comes to earth and water.

Artist Brittney Lee served as Myth’s production designer and the impetus behind its 2D-in-3D aesthetic. If you’re familiar with Lee’s design work then you know the general look and feel of the fantasy landscape. But the surprise is exactly how well they nailed translating a sort of 2D multi-media look into three dimensional space.

If living illustrations in the vein of Mary Blair excites you, Myth is going to blow your shit.

The effectiveness of Myth has a lot to do with the set of affordances the team has built in. Audio, as always in VR, is an effective tool to guide the viewer’s attention around the space and through an unfolding narrative. But Myth uses a few additional tricks that I think would be wise for other creators to study.

As you watch, the focus gently and naturally moves around you in a circle (never quite making you turn a full circumference, which is important to avoid distraction for wired setups). There is also, quite deliberately, no aggressive changes in attention that would require a viewer to do a 180 degree turn. Even the surprising and impactful moments are carefully telegraphed to avoid VR whiplash.

“We talked about how much interactivity we wanted against how cinematic we needed it to be,” says Producer Nicholas Russel. “And, we make cinema, we make films and we wanted to make sure it felt like that.”

As that focus changes, the scene gradually desaturates in areas that are not currently in play and eventually will dim and darken. A sort of organic-feeling ‘hot or cold’ game that it plays with your eyes. This leads to the viewer getting the point pretty quickly that the action is taking place over there not over here.

And the potency of the short also has a lot to do with the music-driven narrative. Composer Joe Trapanese roughed out the score early for the project and was able to come to the studio as well, which meant that, very unlike most Disney features the team was able to animate to the music itself. Gipson says that this leads a lot of people to make a comparison to Fantasia or Peter and the Wolf, which I definitely think is valid.

I mentioned before that the team was able to use the animation pipeline of Frozen 2 to help them realize the spirit characters. One of the most visceral of these is the Nokk, the water horse that features heavily in the film.

As a part of my visit I got to talk to Svetla Radivoeva, Animation Supervisor and Marc Bryant, Effects Lead on the Nokk for Frozen 2. They worked for 7 months along with the 38 members of the Technical Animation, Tech Anim, team to make the Nokk happen. There were 8 technical artists working full time on the water Nokk and 7 on the ice Nokk alone.

MYTH: A FROZEN TALE – For the groundbreaking new VR short, “Myth: A Frozen Tale,” Walt Disney Animation Studios artists, technologists and engineers used stylized art direction to deliver a unique virtual and visceral experience. In this visual development piece, Disney Animation artist Brittney Lee creates a stylized look for the fire salamander character. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant says that robust communication, being in the same building together and continuous sharing of tools and strong simulation rigs allowed them to pull off such a complex character.

That intensely developed character was then brought into the world of Myth, adapting its design to one of living and moving illustration using Epic’s Unreal engine. Though the strength and beauty of the horse is one of the more technically impressive and emotive moments in the movie, actually being in its presence wasn’t something a Frozen fan could expect to happen.

Myth does that and it’s a testament to the interlinked way that the animation and VR teams worked on this project that it actually plays. It’s damn good, and so was Director Jeff Gipson’s previous title Cycles. Disney is doing some great filmmaking work that just happens to be in VR.

“What does it mean to have Disney animation in VR vs we have to make it for this reason or this purpose,” Gipson says, “instead it’s how do we continue to innovate [in filmmaking].”

“It wasn’t a marketing study,” notes VR Technology Supervisor Jose Luis Gomez Diaz, “because we’d say oh let’s use Olaf who everybody loves. We could have done something with those characters, but this is more the story that Jeff wanted to tell and it’s a good companion to the movie.”

The short is designed, they say, to transmit that feeling of what it’s like to be Elsa in front of the Nokk. And it works. You feel that intense sense of presence.

After Cycles and A Kite’s Tale, Myth is a strong new entry into Disney’s canon of VR productions, and it’s a clear bright spot in the landscape of virtual filmmaking. Cycles will debut on Disney+ on January 24th after premiering in the US at NYFF 2018, but the VR version isn’t out there yet. It’s a real emotional gut punch of a short and I hope it hits in VR soon.

The eventual viewers of Myth will not have to intellectually appreciate the energy and cleverness with which this project was tackled, but they will feel it emotionally. It’s quite simply one of the best VR presentations like this I’ve ever seen executed and it should be studied by anyone trying to execute a non-interactive cinematic story in VR.

Myth: A Frozen Tale is showing in VR at Sundance next week but Disney says is still exploring different ways to bring it to audiences.

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

Slack’s share price and the future of direct listings

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the grey space in between. Today we’re starting off with a venture capital Q&A, a quick look at Slack’s share price stability and some thoughts on direct listings and their possible future frequency.

Bu before we do, I wanted to ask for help. As we look at startups and IPOs and the impact that public companies have on young tech companies, I want to make sure that I’m touching on the right topics.

So, email me with thoughts and complaints. During December I’m going to riff and then settle a bit on format and topics as 2020 starts.

With that, let’s begin.

Piva’s $250M energy fund

Petronas (Petroliam Nasional Berhad) is a Malaysian state energy company best for sponsoring Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One team, but the oil giant is drilling deeper into the startup world. The company announced a $350 million corporate venture fund in October, creatively named “Petronas Corporate Venture Capital.”

Now, Petronas is back at it, putting up the capital for a new $250 million fund announced today called Piva. The fund will operate independently from the main corporation, even as the energy giant exists as its sole limited partner (LP).

I was curious about the dollar amount and the goals of the new fund so I got in touch. Here’s a condensed and edited set of questions and answers to help better describe what all that oil money may buy:

TechCrunch: Why is Piva’s first fund $250 million, and not, say, larger? 

Piva: This is the ideal size for our first fund; not too small which would allow us to make too few deals, not too large that would force us to only focus on growth-stage deals. It provides us with the right amount of capital needed to back 15-20 companies we’re expecting to invest, given the size of the team that we have in mind. We expect to invest $5-$10 million per company initially, and $20-30 million overtime, in companies creating breakthrough technologies, services and solutions in the industrial and energy sectors.

Is Piva’s goal to help fund strategic partners for Petronas, or strategic acquisitions?

We have the freedom and independence to invest in any company that meets our investment criteria though we’re always looking for ways to introduce our portfolio to Petronas and its global partners. Therefore, we are not required to invest for strategic reasons and certainly can’t control who ultimately becomes the acquirer of our portfolio companies.

Having said that, we are looking to leverage our partner Petronas to help create value for our portfolio companies, and similarly looking to leverage our portfolio companies to create strategic value to Petronas. We view that as a win-win-win. And like any VC fund, the goal of the fund in to make strong financial returns for investors.

The rest of the interview, including notes on Piva’s views on battery tech, continues at the end of this post.

Slack’s new stability

Slack’s direct listening was a key moment in the startup world in 2019. By eschewing a traditional IPO, Slack helped stamp direct listings as the cooler way to go public. In the wake of its debut, Asana and Airbnb are also considering direct listings, for example.

But while Slack’s direct listing went well, its share price has since suffered. After receiving a reference price of $26 and reaching an all-time high of $42, Slack is worth a little over $21 today.

But notably, the slide that the company’s shares took through summer into fall has arrested. And, after its recent earnings report, Slack managed to stay in its $20 to $23 per share range, more or less. So, we now know what Slack is actually worth: about $11.7 billion.

That’s far more than its final private round’s post-money valuation, mind, which put a $7.1 billion price tag on the corporate chat company.

For Slack, finding its value must be a relief. Especially as its new trading band values it north of $10 billion. Call it an inverse Dropbox.

The question now becomes if Slack’s market repricing is considered a positive (the company found price stability sans traditional banker support) or negative (it’s worth less than its reference price and suffered a public fall in value) for direct listings overall.

Direct listings

Sticking on the direct listing point I wonder if they are going to see as much of a place in the 2020 IPO market as many expect. Summarizing market sentiment (based on what I’ve read, and investors and founders that I’ve spoken with), there’s optimism that the stock market will see more direct listings in the future than the past, as they are — putatively — better mechanisms for pricing companies when they go public while reducing value capture by banks.

China Roundup: Y Combinator’s short-lived China dream

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we looked at how Alibaba and Tencent fared in the last quarter; the talk in Silicon Valley and Beijing this week is on Y Combinator’s sudden retreat from China. We will also discuss the enduring food delivery war in the country later.

Brief adventure in the East

The storied Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator announced the closure of its China unit just a little over a year after it entered the country. In a vague statement posted on its official blog, the organization said the decision came amid a change in leadership. Sam Altman, its former president who hired legendary artificial intelligence scientist Lu Qi to initiate the China operation, recently left his high-profile role to join research outfit OpenAI. With that, YC has since refocused its energy to support “local and international startups from our headquarters in Silicon Valley.”

What was untold is the insurmountable challenge that multinationals face in their attempt to win in a wildly different market. Lu Qi, who wore management hats at Baidu and Microsoft before joining YC, was clearly aware of the obstacles when he said in an interview (in Chinese) in May that “multinational corporations in China have almost been wiped out. They almost never successfully land in China.” The prescription, he believes, is to build a local team that’s given full autonomy to make decisions around products, operations, and the business.

A former executive at an American company’s China branch, who asked to remain anonymous, argued that Lu Qi’s one-man effort can’t be enough to beat the curse of multinationals’ path in China. “All I can say is: Lu has taken a detour. Going independent is the best decision. When it comes to whether Chinese startups are suited for mentorship, or whether incubators bring value to China, these are separate questions.”

What’s curious is that YC China seemed to have been given a meaningful level of freedom before the split. “Thanks to Sam Altman and the U.S. team, who agreed with my view and supported with much preparation, YC China is not only able to enjoy key resources from YC U.S. but can also operate at a completely independent capacity,” Lu said in the May interview.

Moving on, the old YC China team will join Lu Qi to fund new companies under a newly minted program, MiraclePlus, announced YC China via a Wechat post (in Chinese). The initiative has set up its own fund, team, entity and operational team. The deep ties that Lu has fostered with YC will continue to benefit his new portfolio, which will receive “support” from the YC headquarters, though neither party elaborated on what that means.

Alibaba’s food delivery nemesis

The food delivery war in China is still dragging on two years after the major consolidation that left the market with two major players. Meituan, the local services company backed by Tencent, has managed to attain an expanding share against Alibaba-owned Ele.me. According to third-party data (in Chinese) provided by Trustdata, Meituan accounted for 65.1% of China’s overall food delivery orders during the second quarter, steadily rising from just under 60% a year ago. Ele.me, on the other hand, has lost nearly 10% of the market, slumping to 27.4% from 36% a year ago.

In terms of monetization, Meituan generated 15.6 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) in revenue from its food delivery segment in the quarter ended September 30. That dwarfs Ele.me, which racked up 6.8 billion yuan ($970 million) during the same period. Both are growing north of 30% year-over-year.

meituan dianping

Source: Meituan

This may not be all that surprising given Alibaba has arguably more imminent battles to fight. The e-commerce leader has been consumed by the rise of Pinduoduo, which has launched an assault on China’s low-tier cities with its ultra-cheap products and social-driven online shopping experience. Meituan, on the other hand, is fixated on beefing up its main turf of on-demand neighborhood services after divesting its costly bike-sharing endeavor. 

When both contestants have the capital to burn through — as they have demonstrated through heavily subsidizing customers and restaurants — the race comes down to which has greater control of user traffic. Meituan holds a competitive edge thanks to its merger with Dianping, a leading restaurant review app akin to Yelp, back in 2015. Dianping today operates as a standalone brand but its food app is deeply integrated with Meituan’s delivery services. For example, hundreds of millions of users are able to place Meituan-powered food delivery orders straight from Dianping.

Alibaba and Meituan used to be on more friendly terms just a few years ago. In 2011, the e-commerce giant participated in Meituan’s $50 million Series B financing. Before long, the two clashed over control of the company. Alibaba is known to impose a heavy hand on its portfolio companies by taking up majority stakes and reshuffling the company with new executives. That’s because Alibaba believes that “only when you operate can you generate synergies and really create exponential value,” said vice chairman Joe Tsai in an interview. Whereas if you just make a financial investment, you’re counting an internal rate of return. You’re not creating real value.”

Ele.me lived through that transformation. As of September, Alibaba has reportedly (in Chinese) completed replacing Ele.me’s management with its pool of appointed personnel. Ele.me’s founder Zhang Xuhao left the company with billions of yuan in cash and joined a venture capital firm (in Chinese).

Meituan’s founder Wang Xing had more unfettered pursuits. In a later financing round, he refused to accept Alibaba’s condition for portfolio companies to eschew Tencent investments, a strategy of the giant to hobble its archrival. That botched the partnership and Alibaba has since been gradually offloading its Meituan shares but still held onto small amounts, according to Wang in 2017, “to create trouble” for Meituan going forward.

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