Tapping the geothermal energy stored beneath the Earth’s surface as a way to generate renewable power is one of the new visions for the future that’s captured the attention of environmentalists and oil and gas engineers alike.
That’s because it’s not only a way to generate power that doesn’t rely on greenhouse gas emitting hydrocarbons, but because it uses the same skillsets and expertise that the oil and gas industry has been honing and refining for years.
At least that’s what drew the former completion engineer (it’s not what it sounds like) Tim Latimer to the industry and to launch Fervo Energy, the Houston-based geothermal tech developer that’s picked up funding from none other than Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (that fund… is so busy) and former eBay executive, Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group.
With the new $28 million cash in hand Fervo’s planning on ramping up its projects which Latimer said would “bring on hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”
Latimer got his first exposure to the environmental impact of power generation as a kid growing up in a small town outside of Waco, Texas near the Sandy Creek coal power plant, one of the last coal-powered plants to be built in the U.S.
Like many Texas kids, Latimer came from an oil family and got his first jobs in the oil and gas industry before realizing that the world was going to be switching to renewables and the oil industry — along with the friends and family he knew — could be left high and dry.
It’s one reason why he started working on Fervo, the entrepreneur said.
“What’s most important, from my perspective, since I started my career in the oil and gas industry is providing folks that are part of the energy transition on the fossil fuel side to work in the clean energy future,” Latimer said. “I’ve been able to go in and hire contractors and support folks that have been out of work or challenged because of the oil price crash… And I put them to work on our rigs.”
Fervo Energy chief executive, Tim Latimer, pictured in a hardhat at one of the company’s development sites. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
When the Biden administration talks about finding jobs for employees in the hydrocarbon industry as part of the energy transition, this is exactly what they’re talking about.
And geothermal power is no longer as constrained by geography, so there’s a lot of abundant resources to tap and the potential for high paying jobs in areas that are already dependent on geological services work, Latimer said (late last year, Vox published a good overview of the history and opportunity presented by the technology).
“A large percentage of the world’s population actually lives next to good geothermal resources,” Latimer said. “25 countries today that have geothermal installed and producing and another 25 where geothermal is going to grow.”
Geothermal power production actually has a long history in the Western U.S. and in parts of Africa where naturally occurring geysers and steam jets pouring from the earth have been obvious indicators of good geothermal resources, Latimer said.
“Fervo’s technology unlocks a new class of geothermal resource that is ready for large-scale deployment. Fervo’s geothermal systems use novel techniques, including horizontal drilling, distributed fiber optic sensing, and advanced computational modelling, to deliver more repeatable and cost effective geothermal electricity,” Latimer wrote in an email. “Fervo’s technology combines with the latest advancements in Organic Rankine Cycle generation systems to deliver flexible, 24/7 carbon-free electricity.”
Initially developed with a grant from the TomKat Center at Stanford University and a fellowship funded by Activate.org at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Cyclotron Road division, Fervo has gone on to score funding from the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office and ARPA-E to continue work with partners like Schlumberger, Rice University and the Berkeley Lab.
The combination of new and old technology is opening vast geographies to the company to potentially develop new projects.
Other companies are also looking to tap geothermal power to drive a renewable power generation development business. Those are startups like Eavor, which has the backing of energy majors like bp Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, Temasek, BDC Capital, Eversource and Vickers Venture Partners; and other players including GreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems.
Demand for geothermal projects is skyrocketing, opening up big markets for startups that can nail the cost issue for geothermal development. As Latimer noted, from 2016 to 2019 there was only one major geothermal contract, but in 2020 there were ten new major power purchase agreements signed by the industry.
For all of these projects, cost remains a factor. Contracts that are being signed for geothermal that are in the $65 to $75 per megawatt range, according to Latimer. By comparison, solar plants are now coming in somewhere between $35 and $55 per megawatt, as The Verge reported last year.
But Latimer said the stability and predictability of geothermal power made the cost differential palatable for utilities and businesses that need the assurance of uninterruptible power supplies. As a current Houston resident, the issue is something that Latimer has an intimate experience with from this year’s winter freeze, which left him without power for five days.
Indeed, geothermal’s ability to provide always-on clean power makes it an incredibly attractive option. In a recent Department of Energy study, geothermal could meet as much as 16% of the U.S. electricity demand, and other estimates put geothermal’s contribution at nearly 20% of a fully decarbonized grid.
“We’ve long been believers in geothermal energy but have waited until we’ve seen the right technology and team to drive innovation in the sector,” said Ion Yadigaroglu of Capricorn Investment Group, in a statement. “Fervo’s technology capabilities and the partnerships they’ve created with leading research organizations make them the clear leader in the new wave of geothermal.”
Fervo Energy drilling site. Image Credits: Fervo Energy
Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.
Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.
In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.
But news of the breach only became public after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.
Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.
In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”
“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.
Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.
It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.
Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests (from TechCrunch) for comment. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”
TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.
Erase All Kittens (EAK) is an EdTech startup that created a ‘Mario-style’ web-based game designed for kids aged 8-12. However, the game has a twist: it places an emphasis on inspiring girls to code (since let’s face it, most coding tools are created by men). After reaching 160,000 players in over 100 countries, it’s now raised a $1M Seed funding led by Twinkl Educational Publishing, with participation from first investor Christian Reyntjens of the A Black Square family office, alongside angel investors, including one of the founders of Shazam.
While the existing EAK game is free, a new game launched in July will be paid for, further boosting the product’s business model.
EAK says its research shows that some 55% of its players are girls, and 95% want to learn more about coding after playing its game. EAK is currently being used in over 3,000 schools, mostly in the UK and US, and its traction increased by 500% during the lockdowns associated with the pandemic.
It’s Erase All Kittens’ contention that coding education tools for children have been largely built by men and so naturally appeal more to boys. With most teaching repetitive coding, in a very rigid, instructional way, it tends to appeal more to boys than girls, says EAK.
“Players edit the code that governs the game environment, building and fixing levels as they play in order to save kittens in a fantasy internet universe,” said cofounder Dee Saigal, co-founder, CEO and creative director. Saigal is joined by co-founder Leonie Van Der Linde; CTO Rex Van Der Spuy; Senior Games Developer Jeremy Keen; and 2D Games Artist Mikhail Malkin.
Said Saigal: “We’re designing a coding game that girls genuinely love – one that places a huge emphasis on creativity. Girls can see instant results as they code, there are different ways to progress through the game, and learning is seamlessly blended with storytelling.”
Saigal said: “When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer. I loved coming up with ideas for games but coding had always seemed like an impossible task. We weren’t taught coding at school, and I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me making games, so I didn’t think it was something I could do.”
“Whilst researching our target audience, we found that one of the biggest obstacles for girls still begins with gender stereotypes from an early age. By the time girls reach school, this snowballs into a lack of confidence in STEM skills and lower expectations from teachers, which in turn can lead to lower performance—a gap that only widens as girls get older.”
EAK’s competitors include Code Kingdoms, Swift Playgrounds and CodeCombat. But Saigal says these games tend to appeal far more to boys than to girls.
The new game (see below) will be sold to schools and parents, globally. EAK will also be carrying out a one-for-one scheme, where for every school account purchased, one will be donated to underserved schools via partnerships with tech companies, educational organizations, and NGOs.
Jonathan Seaton, Co-founder and CEO at Twinkl and Director of TwinklHive, said: “We’re really excited to partner with Erase All Kittens, as a digital company Twinkl recognizes the importance of preparing children to succeed in the digital age and we believe through this partnership we can really make a difference.”
“The team is particularly excited about helping further Erase All Kitten’s mission to empower girls and give them the same opportunities to learn to code and build their own digital creations. Ensuring that all children have equal access to opportunities to learn is at the heart of Twinkl’s vision and a key motivation in the development of this partnership for both organizations.”
Erase All Kittens
Erase All Kittens says it is addressing the global skills gap, where the gender gap is increasingly widening. According to PWC, just 24% of the tech workforce is female and women make up just 12% of all engineers, while only 3% of female students in the UK list tech as their first career choice.
Research by Childwise found that 90% of girls give up on coding after first trying it, and if they lose interest in STEM subject by the age of 11, they never recover from that. This is a huge and growing problem for the tech industry and for investors.
You can always tell a system is broken when you change the inputs and the outcomes don’t improve. Any software engineer will tell you that.
Using this metric, it’s clear the United States’ antiquated higher education system is truly broken. Overpriced and underperforming, the system is failing on two key fronts: addressing racial inequalities and closing our country’s growing tech skills gaps.
For all the changes made to the system to welcome people of color into the classroom, the outcomes in terms of wealth, equity distribution and representation are worse than ever.
On average, Black college graduates owe $25,000 more in student debt than their white peers. Worse still, four years after throwing their caps in the air, 48% of Black graduates owe an average of 12.5% more than they borrowed in the first place.
A labor market built on degree requirements has little hope of correcting course.
While colleges and universities do as good a job as they’ve ever done at preparing students with the cognitive and critical thinking skills they’ll need to be successful in the long run, the college system just isn’t providing the right training for jobs in 2021.
Looking past the college experience, the unemployment rate for Black Americans stands at nearly 10%, compared with 5.5% for white Americans, while the typical Black American family has eight times less wealth than a white family. This is coupled with the fact that Black people make up just 4.1% of Russell 3000 board members — compared to 13.4% of the population.
This isn’t just a matter of grave injustice. The racial wealth gap costs the U.S. economy $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in GDP output each year. There is a financial and moral imperative to do something about it.
Then there’s the skills gaps: For all the belated changes made to academic programs and curricula, and while colleges and universities do as good a job as they’ve ever done at preparing students with the cognitive and critical thinking skills they’ll need to be successful in the long run, the college system just isn’t providing the right training for jobs in 2021. Ten years ago, 56% of CEOs were “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned by the lack of talent for digital roles. By 2019, this had jumped to 79%. This is why well over 50% of new and recent graduates are underemployed in their first jobs out of college (two-thirds of whom will be underemployed five years later, and half a decade later).
There must be a better way. A way that empowers young people to achieve in-demand skills while avoiding the decades-long burden of student loans. A way that doesn’t discriminate based on socioeconomic background while exposing talent-hungry employers to a new pool of qualified, driven individuals.
In the explosion of edtech businesses with new approaches, we are in danger of overlooking an established model that can be adapted to solve these challenges. That model is apprenticeships.
There’s a lingering perception in America that apprenticeships are the province of construction and building trades, or even medieval guilds like smithing and glass-blowing. Well, not anymore. While we’ve been focused on edtech, or despairing over the widening skills gap, apprenticeships have been rebooted. Modern, tech-driven apprenticeships are emerging as a faster, cheaper and more impactful alternative to higher education.
In Europe, tech companies — and nontech companies increasingly hiring entry-level workers with discrete tech skills — are already leveraging apprenticeships to provide a direct route into the labor market for diverse talent. From software engineers to data analysts, the apprentice of the 21st century is as likely to wield a keyboard as a wrench.
Fully employed from day one, apprentices earn a wage while they learn on a program that is entirely free to the individual. Their training is delivered alongside their role, with this applied learning approach ensuring relevant skills are tested and embedded right away.
Part of the challenge presented by the existing system is that college provides a single shot of learning at the start of a career, with a focus on knowledge rather than skills. Instead of time-consuming traditional education models, we should be encouraging companies to focus on training individuals for highly skilled jobs and adapting training as roles shift through a lifelong learning journey.
Against a college system churning out graduates armed with knowledge of limited applicability in the workplace, apprentices have real-work experience and transferable skill sets in the tech and digital spaces.
As we write this, tech apprenticeships represent less than 1% of American apprenticeships , while 78% of apprentices are white. But change is in the air. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has gone out of its way to highlight tech as a growth area for apprenticeships.
The president also announced his commitment to raising apprenticeship standards, starting with casting off industry-recognized apprenticeship programs lacking in quality and training rigor.
These aren’t just words, either. The apprenticeship reboot will be powered by a new National Apprenticeship Act . This proposed legislation commits $3 billion over the next five years to expanding registered apprenticeship programs across a range of industries. If it’s done right, tech will be front and center.
All this is welcome good news for businesses desperate to close skills gaps. As roles evolve at an ever-faster pace, it’s becoming more and more difficult to know what a college degree actually says about an individual’s ability. Yes, they went to a “good” school. But when half of Americans say their degree is irrelevant to their current role, how does prestige translate to jobs, let alone ability to perform in the workplace?
Increasingly operating in the dark, tech businesses and nontech managers hiring for tech roles are competing with each other to poach experienced talent into senior roles. It’s continuing to fish in a very limited, homogeneous pool and an expensive short-term solution.
Professional apprenticeships allow business leaders to be more strategic and proactive in their hiring practices. They can mold apprentices to the roles they actually need to fill while focusing on their organization’s specific requirements. It beats relying on uniform, outdated education models.
Better still, by training apprentices from the start of their career, companies inspire loyalty and eliminate the tricky transition phase recent grads and external hires usually need. Once converted to full-time employees, apprentices tend to persist for twice as long as traditional direct hires.
While skills gaps are created by the future racing toward us, racial inequalities are rooted in our past. Professional apprenticeships help break down entrenched structural barriers to careers in industries like tech.
Most important, they look beyond the degree requirements that screen out 67% of Black and 79% of Hispanic Americans. Because apprenticeships are paid pathways to economic opportunity, they truly level the playing field and allow companies to make genuine advances toward racial equality — beyond a few neatly crafted Instagram posts. Meanwhile, by tapping into diverse talent pools early, businesses can develop individuals and build real, recognizable routes to the boardroom.
They would be right, too. A 2020 report by McKinsey found companies with the highest diversity earned 35% more than their industry average. Similarly, the share returns of the most diverse companies in the S&P 500 outperformed the least diverse by a staggering 240%.
The time for change is now. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 41% of grads end up in roles that don’t require a degree. With COVID-19 hitting young workers particularly hard, this figure is set to rise unless we embrace new approaches, including professional apprenticeships. In creating a direct and meaningful career pathway for young adults, they can help businesses close skills gaps and hit their much-vaunted diversity targets.
There’s no single solution to these challenges. But the professional apprenticeship can be education’s biggest contribution.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
Meroxa, a startup that makes it easier for businesses to build the data pipelines to power both their analytics and operational workflows, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Drive Capital. Existing investors Root, Amplify and Hustle Fund also participated in this round, which together with the company’s previously undisclosed $4.2 million seed round now brings total funding in the company to $19.2 million.
The promise of Meroxa is that can use a single platform for their various data needs and won’t need a team of experts to build their infrastructure and then manage it. At its core, Meroxa provides a single Software-as-a-Service solution that connects relational databases to data warehouses and then helps businesses operationalize that data.
“The interesting thing is that we are focusing squarely on relational and NoSQL databases into data warehouse,” Meroxa co-founder and CEO DeVaris Brown told me. “Honestly, people come to us as a real-time FiveTran or real-time data warehouse sink. Because, you know, the industry has moved to this [extract, load, transform] format. But the beautiful part about us is, because we do change data capture, we get that granular data as it happens.” And businesses want this very granular data to be reflected inside of their data warehouses, Brown noted, but he also stressed that Meroxa can expose this stream of data as an API endpoint or point it to a Webhook.
The company is able to do this because its core architecture is somewhat different from other data pipeline and integration services that, at first glance, seem to offer a similar solution. Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools on top of these data streams.
“We aren’t a point-to-point solution,” Meroxa co-founder and CTO Ali Hamidi explained. “When you set up the connection, you aren’t taking data from Postgres and only putting it into Snowflake. What’s really happening is that it’s going into our intermediate stream. Once it’s in that stream, you can then start hanging off connectors and say, ‘Okay, well, I also want to peek into the stream, I want to transfer my data, I want to filter out some things, I want to put it into S3.”
Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools to utilize the real-time data stream. With this flexibility, Hamidi noted, a lot of the company’s customers start with a pretty standard use case and then quickly expand into other areas as well.
Brown and Hamidi met during their time at Heroku, where Brown was a director of product management and Hamidi a lead software engineer. But while Heroku made it very easy for developers to publish their web apps, there wasn’t anything comparable in the highly fragmented database space. The team acknowledges that there are a lot of tools that aim to solve these data problems, but few of them focus on the user experience.
“When we talk to customers now, it’s still very much an unsolved problem,” Hamidi said. “It seems kind of insane to me that this is such a common thing and there is no ‘oh, of course you use this tool because it addresses all my problems.’ And so the angle that we’re taking is that we see user experience not as a nice-to-have, it’s really an enabler, it is something that enables a software engineer or someone who isn’t a data engineer with 10 years of experience in wrangling Kafka and Postgres and all these things. […] That’s a transformative kind of change.”
It’s worth noting that Meroxa uses a lot of open-source tools but the company has also committed to open-sourcing everything in its data plane as well. “This has multiple wins for us, but one of the biggest incentives is in terms of the customer, we’re really committed to having our agenda aligned. Because if we don’t do well, we don’t serve the customer. If we do a crappy job, they can just keep all of those components and run it themselves,” Hamidi explained.
Today, Meroxa, which the team founded in early 2020, has over 24 employees (and is 100% remote). “I really think we’re building one of the most talented and most inclusive teams possible,” Brown told me. “Inclusion and diversity are very, very high on our radar. Our team is 50% black and brown. Over 40% are women. Our management team is 90% underrepresented. So not only are we building a great product, we’re building a great company, we’re building a great business.”
Sophie Zhou Novati worked as a senior engineer at Facebook and then Nextdoor, where she struggled to hire great engineers for her team.
Frustrated, she decided to try training engineers to meet her team’s hiring standards by mentoring at a local coding bootcamp. After two and a half years of mentoring on nights and weekends, Novati decided to turn her passion into a career.
She and her husband, Michael, founded Formation with a couple of goals in mind. For one, they wanted to offer personalized training to help people not just learn to code, but to become “exceptional” software engineers. Sophie was also struck by the diversity of the people she witnessed going through coding bootcamps, but she realized that those graduates weren’t getting access to the same opportunities that students from traditional universities do.
With Formation, her goal is to personalize the training experience via a remote fellowship program that combines automated instruction with access to a “network of top tier mentors” from companies such as Facebook and Google. After one year in beta, Formation is unveiling its Engineering Fellowship, where every fellow gets a “personalized training plan tailored to their unique career ambitions.” So far, it’s placed just over 30 people in engineering roles at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Lyft with an average starting salary of $120,000.
Formation aims to offer an experience beyond bootcamps, which Sophie argues “have gotten too big, too fast, churning hundreds or thousands of students through fixed curriculums without individualized attention.”
The startup attracted the attention of Andreessen Horowitz, which just led its $4 million seed round. Designer Fund, Combine, Lachy Groom, Slow Ventures and engineers from Airbnb, Notion, Rippling and others also participated in the financing.
“The first thing that really struck me about this community is just how diverse it is. Forty-four percent of graduates are reporting that they identify as nonmale, and the percentage of Black and Latinx graduates is nearly double the national average at traditional universities,” Sophie told TechCrunch. “But the problem is that only about 55% of bootcamp grads are getting a job as a software engineer, and of the ones that do, their median salary is only about $65,000. At the same time, companies everywhere are just desperately looking for ways to diversify their talent pool.”
Instead of having students follow a fixed curriculum, Formation leverages adaptive learning technology to build a personalized training plan tailored to each student’s specific skillset and career goals. The platform continuously assesses their skills and adapts their roadmap, according to Sophie.
About half of the people participating in Formation’s program are current engineers already working in the industry in some capacity.
Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said she’s been examining the edtech space for a while, including companies building new tools for teaching and upleveling coding skills.
Formation stood out to her as the “only true tech-based and scalable solution that optimizes each student’s mastery of important skills.” Its ability to dynamically change based on a student’s performance in particular was compelling.
“The founder-product fit is also super clear — Sophie brings her own best-in-class engineering experience to Formation, as well as her long-time passion for mentoring,” Chan wrote via email.
At its Octane21 conference, Okta, the popular authentication and identity platform, today announced a new — and free — developer edition that features fewer limitations and support for significantly more monthly active users than its current free plan.
“Our overall philosophy isn’t, ‘we want to just provide […] a set of authentication and authorization services.’ The way we’re looking at this is, ‘hey, app developer, how do we provide you the foundation you need to get up and running quickly with authorization and authentication as one part of it,’ ” Diya Jolly, Okta’s chief product officer, told me. And she believes that Okta is in a unique position to do so, because it doesn’t only offer tools to manage authorization and access, but also systems for securing microservices and providing applications with access to privileged resources.
It’s also worth noting that, while the deal hasn’t closed yet, Okta’s intent to acquire Auth0 significantly extends its developer strategy, given Auth0’s developer-first approach.
As for the expanded free account, Jolly noted that the company found that developers wanted to be able to access more of the service’s features during their prototyping phases. That means the new free Developer Edition comes with support for multi-factor authentication, machine-to-machine tokens and B2B integrations, for example, in addition to expanded support for integrations into toolchains. As is so often the case with enterprise tools, the free edition doesn’t come with the usual enterprise support options and has lower rate limits than the paid plans.
Still, and Jolly acknowledged this, a small to medium-sized business may be able to build applications and take them into production based on this new free plan.
“15K [monthly active users] is is a lot, but if you look at our customer base, it’s about the right amount for the smaller business applications, the real SMBs, and that was the goal. In a developer motion, you want people to try out things and then upgrade. I think that’s the key. No developer is going to come and build with you if you don’t have a free offering that they can tinker around and play with.”
She noted that the company has spent a lot of time thinking about how to support developers through the application development lifecycle overall. That includes better CLI tools for developers who would rather bypass Okta’s web-based console, for example, and additional integrations with tools like Terraform, Kong and Heroku. “Today, [developers] have to stitch together identity and Okta into those experiences — or they use some other identity — we’ve pre-stitched all of this for them,” Jolly said.
The new Okta Starter Developer Edition, as well as the new documentation, sample applications and integrations, are now available at developer.okta.com.
We’re living in a phenomenal moment for machine learning (ML), what Sonali Sambhus, head of developer and ML platform at Square, describes as “the democratization of ML.” It’s become the foundation of business and growth acceleration because of the incredible pace of change and development in this space.
But for engineering and team leaders without an ML background, this can also feel overwhelming and intimidating. I regularly meet smart, successful, highly competent and normally very confident leaders who struggle to navigate a constructive or effective conversation on ML — even though some of them lead teams that engineer it.
I’ve spent more than two decades in the ML space, including work at Apple to build the world’s largest online app and music store. As the senior director of engineering, anti-evil, at Reddit, I used ML to understand and combat the dark side of the web.
For this piece, I interviewed a select group of successful ML leaders including Sambhus; Lior Gavish, co-founder at Monte Carlo; and Yotam Hadass, VP of engineering at Electric.ai, for their insights. I’ve distilled our best practices and must-know components into five practical and easily applicable lessons.
Recruiting for ML comes with several challenges.
The first is that it can be difficult to differentiate machine learning roles from more traditional job profiles (such as data analysts, data engineers and data scientists) because there’s a heavy overlap between descriptions.
Secondly, finding the level of experience required can be challenging. Few people in the industry have substantial experience delivering production-grade ML (for instance, you’ll sometimes notice resumes that specify experience with ML models but then find their models are rule-based engines rather than real ML models).
When it comes to recruiting for ML, hire experts when you can, but also look into how training can help you meet your talent needs. Consider upskilling your current team of software engineers into data/ML engineers or hire promising candidates and provide them with an ML education.
Image Credits: Snehal Kundalkar
The other effective way to overcome these recruiting challenges is to define roles largely around:
If you develop software for a large enterprise company, chances are you’ve heard of Tricentis. If you don’t develop software for a large enterprise company, chances are you haven’t. The software testing company with a focus on modern cloud and enterprise applications was founded in Austria in 2007 and grew from a small consulting firm to a major player in this field, with customers like Allianz, BMW, Starbucks, Deutsche Bank, Toyota and UBS. In 2017, the company raised a $165 million Series B round led by Insight Venture Partners.
Today, Tricentis announced that it has acquired Neotys, a popular performance testing service with a focus on modern enterprise applications and a tests-as-code philosophy. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition. France-based Neotys launched in 2005 and raised about €3 million before the acquisition. Today, it has about 600 customers for its NeoLoad platform. These include BNP Paribas, Dell, Lufthansa, McKesson and TechCrunch’s own corporate parent, Verizon.
As Tricentis CEO Sandeep Johri noted, testing tools were traditionally script-based, which also meant they were very fragile whenever an application changed. Early on, Tricentis introduced a low-code tool that made the automation process both easier and resilient. Now, as even traditional enterprises move to DevOps and release code at a faster speed than ever before, testing is becoming both more important and harder for these companies to implement.
“You have to have automation and you cannot have it be fragile, where it breaks, because then you spend as much time fixing the automation as you do testing the software,” Johri said. “Our core differentiator was the fact that we were a low-code, model-based automation engine. That’s what allowed us to go from $6 million in recurring revenue eight years ago to $200 million this year.”
Tricentis, he added, wants to be the testing platform of choice for large enterprises. “We want to make sure we do everything that a customer would need, from a testing perspective, end to end. Automation, test management, test data, test case design,” he said.
The acquisition of Neotys allows the company to expand this portfolio by adding load and performance testing as well. It’s one thing to do the standard kind of functional testing that Tricentis already did before launching an update, but once an application goes into production, load and performance testing becomes critical as well.
“Before you put it into production — or before you deploy it — you need to make sure that your application not only works as you expect it, you need to make sure that it can handle the workload and that it has acceptable performance,” Johri noted. “That’s where load and performance testing comes in and that’s why we acquired Neotys. We have some capability there, but that was primarily focused on the developers. But we needed something that would allow us to do end-to-end performance testing and load testing.”
The two companies already had an existing partnership and had integrated their tools before the acquisition — and many of its customers were already using both tools, too.
“We are looking forward to joining Tricentis, the industry leader in continuous testing,” said Thibaud Bussière, president and co-founder at Neotys. “Today’s Agile and DevOps teams are looking for ways to be more strategic and eliminate manual tasks and implement automated solutions to work more efficiently and effectively. As part of Tricentis, we’ll be able to eliminate laborious testing tasks to allow teams to focus on high-value analysis and performance engineering.”
NeoLoad will continue to exist as a stand-alone product, but users will likely see deeper integrations with Tricentis’ existing tools over time, include Tricentis Analytics, for example.
Johri tells me that he considers Tricentis one of the “best kept secrets in Silicon Valley” because the company not only started out in Europe (even though its headquarters is now in Silicon Valley) but also because it hasn’t raised a lot of venture rounds over the years. But that’s very much in line with Johri’s philosophy of building a company.
“A lot of Silicon Valley tends to pay attention only when you raise money,” he told me. “I actually think every time you raise money, you’re diluting yourself and everybody else. So if you can succeed without raising too much money, that’s the best thing. We feel pretty good that we have been very capital efficient and now we’re recognized as a leader in the category — which is a huge category with $30 billion spend in the category. So we’re feeling pretty good about it.”
The home medical supply market in the U.S. is significant and growing, but the way that Americans go about getting much-needed medical supplies, particularly for those with chronic conditions, relies on outdated and clumsy sales mechanisms that often have very poor customer experiences. New startup Better Health aims to change that, with an e-commerce approach to serving customers in need of medical supplies for chronic conditions, and it has raised $3.5 million in a new seed round to pursue its goals.
Better Health estimates the total value of the home medical supplies market in the U.S., which covers all reimbursable devices and supplies needed for chronic conditions, including things like colostomy bags, catheters, mobility aids, insulin pumps and more, is around $60 billion annually. But the market is obviously a specialized one relative to other specialized goods businesses, in part because it requires working not only with customers who make the final decisions about what supplies to use, but also payers, who typically foot the bill through insurance reimbursements.
The other challenge is that individuals with chronic care needs often require a lot of guidance and support when making the decision about what equipment and supplies to select — and the choices they make can have a significant impact on quality of life. Better Health co-founder and CEO Naama Stauber Breckler explained how she came to identify the problems in the industry, and why she set out to address them.
“The first company I started was right out of school, it’s called CompactCath,” she explained in an interview. “We created a novel intermittent catheter, because we identified that there’s a gap in the existing options for people with chronic bladder issues that need to use a catheter on a day-to-day basis […] In the process of bringing it to market, I was exposed to the medical devices and supplies industry. I was just shocked when I realized how hard it is for people today to get life-saving medical supplies, and basically realized that it’s not just about inventing a better product, there’s kind of a bigger systematic problem that locks consumer choice, and also prevents innovation in the space.”
Stauber Breckler’s founding story isn’t too dissimilar from the founding story of another e-commerce pioneer: Shopify. The now-public heavyweight originally got started when founder Tobi Lütke, himself a software engineer like Stauber Breckler, found that the available options for running his online snowboard store were poorly designed and built. With Better Health, she’s created a marketplace, rather than a platform like Shopify, but the pain points and desire to address the problem at a more fundamental level are the same.
With CompactCath, she said they ended up having to build their own direct-to-consumer marketing and sales product, and through that process, they ended up talking to thousands of customers with chronic conditions about their experiences, and what they found exposed the extend of the problems in the existing market.
“We kept hearing the same stories again, and again — it’s hard to find the right supplier, often it’s a local store, the process is extremely manual and lengthy and prone to errors, they get the surprise bills they weren’t expecting,” Stauber Breckler said. “But mostly, it’s just that there is this really sharp drop in care, from the time that you have a surgery or you were diagnosed, to when you need to now start using this device, when you’re essentially left at home and are given a general prescription.”
Unlike in the prescription drug market, where your choices essentially amount to whether you pick the brand name or the generic, and the outcome is pretty much the same regardless, in medical supplies which solution you choose can have a dramatically different effect on your experience. Customers might not be aware, for example, that something like CompactCath exists, and would instead chose a different catheter option that limits their mobility because of how frequently it needs changing and how intensive the process is. Physicians and medical professionals also might not be the best to advise them on their choice, because while they’ve obviously seen patients with these conditions, they generally haven’t lived with them themselves.
“We have talked to people who tell us, ‘I’ve had an ostomy for 19 years, and this is the first time I don’t have constant leakages’ or someone who had been using a catheter for three years and hasn’t left her house for more than two hours, because they didn’t feel comfortable with the product that they had to use it in a public restroom,” Stauber Breckler said. “So they told us things like ‘I finally went to visit my parents, they live in a town three hours away.'”
Better Health can provide this kind fo clarity to customers because it employs advisors who can talk patients through the equipment selection process with one-to-one coaching and product use education. The startup also helps with navigating the insurance side, managing paperwork, estimating costs and even arguing the case for a specific piece of equipment in case of difficulty getting the claim approved. The company leverages peers who have first-hand experience with the chronic conditions it serves to help better serve its customers.
Already, Better Health is a Medicare-licensed provider in 48 states, and it has partnerships in place with commercial providers like Humana and Oscar Health. This funding round was led by 8VC, a firm with plenty of expertise in the healthcare industry and an investor in Stauber Breckler’s prior ventures, and includes participation from Caffeinated Capital, Anorak Ventures, and angels Robert Hurley and Scott Flanders of remote health pioneer eHealth.
Facebook on Wednesday announced new actions to disrupt a network of China-based hackers leveraging the platform to compromise targets in the Uyghur community.
The group, known to security researchers as “Earth Empusa” “Evil Eye” or “Poison Carp,” targeted around around 500 people on Facebook, including individuals living abroad in the United States, Turkey, Syria, Australia and Canada. Through fake accounts on Facebook, the hackers posed as activists, journalists and other sympathetic figures in order to send their targets to compromised websites beyond Facebook.
Facebook’s security and cyber espionage teams began seeing the activity in 2020 and opted to disclose the threat publicly to maximize the impact on the hacking group, which has proven sensitive to public disclosures in the past.
Though Facebook says social engineering efforts on the platform are “a piece of the puzzle,” most of the hacking group’s efforts take place elsewhere online. They focus on attempts to gain access to targets’ devices with watering hole attacks and lookalike domains, including a fake Android app store offering prayer apps and Uyghur-themed keyboard downloads.
When downloaded, those fake apps infected devices using two strains of Android trojan malware, ActionSpy and PluginPhantom. On iOS devices, the hackers leveraged malware known as Insomnia.
While the hackers targeted a small number of users relative to what the company sees in disinformation operations, Facebook stressed that a small, well-chosen group of targets can result in huge impacts. “You can imagine surveillance, you can imagine a range of secondary consequences” Facebook Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher said.
The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in China that continues to face brutal repression from the Chinese government, including being forced into labor camps in the country’s Xinjiang province.
Facebook declined to link what it observed to the Chinese government, saying that it defers to the broader security community to make those determinations when it lacks the technical indicators to do so itself. Researchers believe that adjacent hacking campaigns are Beijing’s efforts to extend its surveillance of communities it already subjugates within China’s bounds.
As NASA is quick to remind people, the investments it funnels towards space exploration often winds up improving life on Earth – and it’s now in the business of speeding up some of that work through startups. SMART, a startup founded in 2020, has a partnership with NASA through the Space Act Agreement and is part of the agency’s formal Startup Program that aims to commercialize some of its innovations. The young company today revealed its first product: An airless bicycle tire based on technology NASA engineers created to make future lunar and Martian rovers even more resilient.
SMART’s METL tire is the the first fruit of the startup’s work with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where NASA engineers Dr. Santo Padula and Colin Creager first developed their so-called ‘shape memory alloy’ (SMA) technology. SMA allows for a tire constructed entirely of interconnected springs, which requires no inflation and is therefore immune to punctures, but which can still provide equivalent or better traction when compared to inflatable rubber tires, and even some built-in shock absorbing capabilities.
Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center assemble the new shape memory alloy rover tire prior to testing in the Simulated Lunar Operations Laboratory.
Dr. Padula and Creager’s key development was creating an alloy that can return to their shape at the molecular level, meaning they can deform to adapt to uneven terrain, including obstacles like gravel and potholes, and return to their shape without losing structural integrity over time.
SMART, which is co-founded by Survivor Fiji champion Earl Cole and engineer Brian Yennie, worked with Padula and Creager, along with former NASA intern Calvin Young, to apply the benefits of SMA to the consumer market. They’re targeting the cycling market first with their METL tire, which is set to become available to the general public by early next year. Following that, SMART intends to also pursue bring SMA tires to the automotive and commercial vehicle industries, too.
Already, SMART has a partnership in place with Ford-owned Spin, the bike and scooter-sharing company focused on novel micro-mobility models. SMART’s technology has the potential not only to make flat tires or under inflation a thing of the past, but could reduce cost and waste long-term by supplementing the need for rubber tires, which need frequent replacement and can be a danger to riders or drivers when used without proper pressure.
SMART is also using WeFunder to seek crowdsourced equity investment, with SAFEs currently available at an $8 million valuation cap.
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New Space startup Astra, which is currently focused on commercial rockets, but which plans to eventually build satellites, too, has hired one of Apple’s key engineering leaders to head its own engineering efforts. Benjamin Lyon spent over two decades at Apple, where he worked on everything from the iPhone, to input devices and sensor hardware, to special projects: the department at Apple working on autonomous vehicle technology.
“When I’ve looked at what to do next at Apple, it has always been this combination of ‘What is the most impactful thing that I can do for humanity?’ – the iPhone was very much one of these,” Lyon told me in an interview. “Phones were awful [at the time], and if we could fundamentally come up with a new interface, that would completely change how people interact with devices.”
Creating a mobile device with an interface that was “completely flexible and completely customizable to the application” was what seemed so transformative to Lyon about the iPhone, and he sees a direct parallel in the work that Astra is doing to lower the barrier of access to space through cheap, scalable and highly-efficient rocketry.
“Astra me feels very, very much like redefining what it means for a phone to be smart,” Lyon said. “I think the Astra vision is this magical combination of fundamentally taking the rocket science out of space. How do you do that? Well, you better have a great foundation of a team, and a great foundation of core technologies that you can bring together in order to make a compelling series of products.”
Foundations are the key ingredient according not only to Lyon, but also to Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, who explained why an experienced Apple engineer made the most sense to him to lead a rocket startup’s engineering efforts.
“We did not want anyone from aerospace – I’ll just I’ll say that out of the gate,” Kemp told me. “Aerospace has not figured out how to build rockets at scale, or do anything profitably – ever. So I found no inspiration from anyone I talked to who had anything to do with with any of the other space-related companies. We do feel that there are people that are at SpaceX and Blue Origin who are really good at what they do. But in terms of the culture that we’re trying to establish at Astra, if you look back at Apple, and the things that that Benjamin worked on there over many decades, he really took on not only designing the the thing, but also designing the thing that makes the thing, which was more important than the thing itself.”
Kemp’s alluding to Apple’s lauded ability to work very closely with suppliers and move fundamental component engineering in-house, crafting unique designs for things like the system-on-a-chip that now powers everything from the iPhone to Macs. Apple often designs the processes involved in making those fundamental components, and then helps its suppliers stand up the factories required to build those to its exacting specifications. Astra’s approach to the space industry centers around a similar approach, with a focus on optimizing the output of its Alameda-based rocket factory, and iterating its products quickly to match the needs of the market while keeping pricing accessible.
And Astra’s definition of ‘iteration’ matches up much more closely with the one used by Silicon Valley than that typically espoused by legacy aerospace companies – going further still in questioning the industry’s fundamentals than even watershed space tech innovators like SpaceX, which in many ways still adheres to accepted rocket industry methods.
“You don’t do the iPhone X at iPhone 1 – you start with the iPhone 1 and you work your way to the iPhone X,” Lyon told me. “You’re going to see that with Astra as well, there’s going to be this amazing evolution, but it’s going to be tech company-rate evolution, as opposed to an ‘every 20 years’ evolution.”
That sentiment lines up with Astra and Kemp’s approach to date: The company reached space for the first time late last year, with a rocket that was the second of three planned launches in a rapid iteration cycle designed to achieve that milestone. After the first of these launches (Rocket 3.1 if you’re keeping track) failed to make space last September, Astra quickly went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design to come back for its successful attempt in December (Rocket 3.2) – an extremely fast turnaround for an aerospace company by any measure. The company is now focused on its Rocket 3.3 launch, which should only require software changes to achieve a successful orbit, and put it on track to begin delivering commercial payloads for paying customers.
Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.
Astra’s rocket is tiny compared to the mammoth Starship that SpaceX is currently developing, but that’s part of the appeal that drew Lyon to the startup in the first place. He says the goal of “design[ing] a rocket to match the application,” rather than simply “design[ing] a rocket to end all rockets” makes vastly more sense to serve the bourgeoning market.
“And that’s just the beginning,” he added. “Then you’ll take the next step, which is if you look at the technology that’s in a satellite, and a bunch of the smart technology that’s in a rocket, there’s a tremendous amount of duplication there. So, get rid of the duplication – design the rocket and the satellite together as one system.”
Eventually, that means contemplating not only launch and satellite as a single challenge, but also managing “the entire experience of getting to space and managing a constellation” as “a single design problem,” according to Lyon, which is the level of ambition at Astra that he views as on par with that of Steve Jobs at Apple at the outset of the iPhone project.
Ultimately, Astra hopes to be able to provide aspiring space technology companies with everything they need so that the actual space component of their business is fully handled. The idea is that startups and innovators can then focus on bringing new models and sensing technologies to Astra, worrying only about payload – leaving launch, integration and eventually constellation management to the experts. It’s not unlike what the App Store unlocked for the software industry, Lyon said.
“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in aerospace, which is to really scale the production of rockets, and also focus on the overall economics of the business,” Kemp explained about additional advantages of having Lyon on board. “As we become a public company, in particular, we have very aggressive EBITDA targets, and very aggressive production targets, much the same way Apple does. We also want to have a new rocket every year, just like [the iPhone] and so to some degree, we found every aspect of Benjamin’s ethos aligned with our values, and the culture that we’re creating here at Astra of relentless, constant innovation and iteration.”