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Beyond Meat shares soar after inking deal with Taco Bell on new menu items

By Jonathan Shieber

Shares of Beyond Meat are soaring on news that the company will be working with Taco Bell on new menu items.

The company’s stock was up $17.13, or 13.67%, to $142.48 and climbing in midday trading after Taco Bell announced that it would embrace Beyond Meat to come up with new menu items due to be tested in the next year.

The decision from Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, is a departure from the Mexican fast food chain’s commitment to go it alone as it developed new vegetarian menu items.

“We’ve looked. We’ve met with Beyond, we’ve met with Impossible — our head of innovation knows everybody, and they all know her,” Julie Felss Masino, Taco Bell’s president of North American operations, told CNBC back in 2019. “But I think what we’re proud of is that we’ve been doing vegetarian for 57 years.”

Now the company wants más alternative proteins from the Southern California alternative protein provider. “We have long been a leader in the vegetarian space, but this year, we have more meatless options in store that vegetarians, veggie-curious and even meat-eaters will love,” said Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s Global Chief Food Innovation Officer. 

Taco Bell boasts that it already has over 30 vegetarian ingredients on the U.S. menu, but its lack of protein alternatives was noticeable, as many of its competitors embraced the meat substitute craze.

Weber acquires smart cooking startup June

By Darrell Etherington

Outdoor cooking industry leader and famed kettle-grill-maker Weber has acquired June, the smart cooking startup founded in 2013 by Matt Van Horn and Nikhil Bhogal. While financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Weber has confirmed that June will continue to operate as its own brand wholly owned by Weber-Stephen Products and will continue to both sell and develop the June Oven and related products. Meanwhile, June co-founder Nikhil Bhogal will take on a role as SVP of Technology and Connected Devices across the Weber lineup.

Weber had already teamed up with June, with the startup providing the technology and expertise behind its Weber Connect smart grilling platform. That includes both the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub, which adds connected smart grill features to any grill, and the built-in smart cooking features on its SmokeFire line of wood pellet grills. That partnership began with a cold email Van Horn received in 2018 from then-Weber CEO and current Executive Chairman Jim Stephen, the son of the company’s original founder.

“He said he was a fan, he was a customer, and he couldn’t imagine a future without June technology powering every product in the Weber collection,” Van Horn told me in an interview. “I said, ‘Slow down — what are you talking about? Yeah, who are you?’ And he said ‘I’m flying out, I’ll be there Monday.'” I normally have my nice demo setup that I do, I’ll do like chocolate lava cake and a steak [in the June Oven]. So I got there about 15 minutes early to do that, and [Jim] was already sitting in the front steps of the office, ready to open the door for me — he’s like, ‘I don’t need a demo, I own this.'”

“His energy and ability to see things often before other people, it blew my mind,” Van Horn continued. “Soon after I met Chris [Scherzinger, Weber’s current chief executive], who was joining as CEO and [I] was able to experience firsthand this, honestly very surprising and wonderful culture of this historic Weber brand.”

As mentioned, June became a partner to Weber and powered the connected cooking platform it debuted at CES last year. Weber also led June’s Series C funding round, a previously undisclosed final round of financing that Weber led in 2018 prior to this exit.

Van Horn will act as president of June under the terms of the new arrangement and will continue to lead development of its current and future products. He said that Weber’s ability to help them with international scale and distribution via their existing global footprint was a big motivating factor in why June chose to join the now 63-year-old company. But another key ingredient was just how much Weber proved to be a place where the company’s culture was still centered on customer focus and a love of food.

“Obviously why Nikhil and I started June was that we love food, and we love cooking,” Van Horn said. “And a lot of the principles of how we think about how products get made are a lot of Apple’s principles — a large percentage of the June team comes from Apple. We’ve obviously kind of brought that to a microscale with our small 60-person startup. But being able to work with this very eager Weber team, that’s just been really excited from the start has been pretty incredible.”

As for Weber, the company gains a software and technology team that was born out of the idea of approaching cooking from a tech-first perspective — and they intend to infuse that expertise throughout their product lineup, with an eye toward building on their legacy of quality and customer enthusiasm.

“Once you infuse the software engineering, the connected product design and the machine-intelligence expertise that you have, you get these core competencies or capabilities, but that really undersells it,” Scherzinger told me. “Matt put together a team of superstars, and we just got a first-round draft pick [in June] that takes the Weber game to another level. That allows us to accelerate a significant number of initiatives, and you can expect to see an expansion of what Weber Connect can become in terms of new experiences for consumers, new services and new products, for sure, starting as early as 2021 and 2022.”

While Weber and June are not sharing specifics around the deal, as mentioned, Scherzinger did mention that “Matt and his team and his investors all did handsomely.” June’s prior investors include Amazon Alexa Fund, Lerer Hippeau, First Round Capital, Promus Ventures, Industry Ventures, Eclipse Ventures and more.

Walmart partners with smart box maker HomeValet for grocery delivery pilot

By Sarah Perez

Walmart announced today it will soon begin to pilot a new solution that could eventually allow the retailer to deliver groceries to customers’ homes 24 hours per day. The company is partnering with HomeValet, the maker of a temperature-controlled smart box that’s placed outside the home. Customers’ groceries can be delivered, contact-free, to the secure box and kept cold at any time — even if the customer isn’t at home.

The smart boxes will be tested initially with customers near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, starting this spring. There won’t be a way to sign up for the service. Instead, Walmart will conduct outreach to its current delivery customers in Northwest Arkansas to learn of their interest in participating.

The HomeValet boxes themselves are an internet-of-things platform which offer three temperature-controlled zones, making them capable of storing frozen, refrigerated and pantry items. The boxes communicate with the delivery provider’s device, which gives them secure access to the smart box at the time of the delivery to place the items inside.

According to the HomeValet FAQ, the boxes also disinfect the exposed surfaces of delivered items as well as the inside of the box itself, in between deliveries, using UVC light.

This could appeal to customers who have been trying to reduce their exposure to the novel coronavirus by wiping down all their groceries before putting them away. (The HomeValet website, however, makes no specific claims about COVID-19. Instead, it simply says the UV-C LED disinfection method it uses can create “inhospitable environments to microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, molds and other pathogens.”)

HomeValet notes that Walmart customers will be the first to gain access to its boxes, as the product is just now going to market. The general public will be able to pre-order boxes for themselves later this year, with pricing still to be announced. HomeValet intends to eventually sell to both consumers and retailers.

HomeValet, a D.C. Metro area-based startup, was founded by father and son team, John and Jack Simms, years before the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of offering more secure home deliveries. However, the pandemic created a new sense of urgency inside the company to get their product to market as consumers’ needs transformed overnight and continued at an accelerated pace, they’ve said.

As a result, HomeValet acquired an Indiana-based engineering firm, Envolve Engineering LLC, founded by former Whirlpool engineers, back in September. The company touted the deal at the time as a way to bring the capabilities of a Fortune 500 organization to its faster and more nimble startup.

“Consumers want convenience and peace of mind now more than ever. HomeValet’s safe, temperature-controlled Smart Box and app, can enable 24/7 secure deliveries whether customers are occupied at home or receiving remotely,” said John Simms, HomeValet co-founder and CEO. “We’re excited for Walmart customers to be some of the first to enjoy contactless, unattended home delivery,” he added.

Though Walmart envisions how a smart box could allow it to expand its delivery hours, it won’t be offering 24/7 deliveries during the pilot. Instead, the focus of the pilot will be to learn more about if and how its customers like to interact with this technology and how Walmart might incorporate it into its operations going forward.

HomeValet is one of many solutions to date that Walmart has tested to make grocery delivery more efficient. Not all those tests have rolled out broadly. For example, Walmart in 2019 began to trial an in-home grocery delivery service that allows Walmart delivery drivers to enter the home through a smart lock system and, in some cases, put groceries away in the customer’s fridge. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Walmart pulled back on the in-kitchen program, which is still only operating in Pittsburgh. (InHome delivery is also offered in Kansas City, Vero Beach and West Palm Beach, but groceries are left inside the door.)

Walmart didn’t disclose further details about the nature of its partnership with HomeValet, but said there’s no cost to the customers during the pilot period. More information will be available as the program goes to launch in the spring.

Jumbotail raises $14.2 million for its wholesale marketplace in India

By Manish Singh

Jumbotail, an online wholesale marketplace for grocery and food items, said on Friday it has raised an additional $14.2 million as the Bangalore-based startup chases the opportunity to digitize neighborhood stores in the world’s second-largest internet market.

The five-year-old startup said the new tranche of its Series B financing round was led by VII Ventures, with participation from Nutresa, Veronorte, Jumbofund, Klinkert Investment Trust, Peter Crosby Trust, Nexus Venture Partners, and Discovery Ventures.

The startup told TechCrunch that the new tranche concludes its Series B round, which it kickstarted in 2019 with a tranche of $12.7 million. It ended up raising about $44 million in the Series B round (including Friday’s tranche), and to date has amassed about $54 million in equity investment, the startup told the publication.

Jumbotail said it serves over 30,000 neighborhood stores (popularly known in India as kiranas) in the country. In addition to its business-to-business marketplace, the startup also provides working capital to neighborhood stores through partnerships with financial institutions.

The startup, which has built its own supply chain network to enable last-mile delivery, also supplies these stores with point-of-sale devices so that they can easily get access to a much wider selection of catalog and have the new inventory shipped to them within two days. It also integrates these stores with hyperlocal delivery startups such as Dunzo and Swiggy to help mom and pop shops further expand their customer base.

Ashish Jhina, co-founder of Jumbotail, said he believes the startup has reached an inflection point in its growth and is now ready for its next chapter, which includes hiring top talent and expanding to more regions in the country, especially in several cities in South India.

“We are seeing tremendous interest from investors across the globe who are drawn to our highly scalable and operationally profitable business model, built on the industry’s best technology and customer NPS,” said Jhina, who previously served in Indian army and then worked at e-commerce firms eBay and Flipkart.

At a recent virtual conference, Jhina said that the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown and put restrictions on e-commerce firms, has illustrated just how crucial neighborhood stores are in people’s lives. And for all the ills that the virus has wrought to the world, it did help accelerate the adoption of technology among these stores.

A number of food brands whose products neighborhood stores sell today are not standardized, which poses a question about their quality. To fill this gap, Jumbotail runs its own private label portfolio and Jhina said the startup will deploy part of the fresh fund to broaden this catalog. Having private label also allows Jumbotail to ensure that its retail partners can get the supply of items throughout the year — and of course, it also helps the startup, which has been operationally profitable for nearly three quarters, improve its margin.

There are more than 30 million neighborhood stores in India that dot across the thousands of cities and towns in the country. These small businesses have been around for decades and survived — and even thrived — despite e-commerce giants pouring billions of dollars in India to change how people shop. In recent years, scores of startups — and giants — in India have begun to explore ways to work with these neighborhood stores.

One of them is India’s largest retail chain Reliance Retail, which serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns in the country. In late 2019, it entered the e-commerce space with JioMart through a joint venture with sister subsidiary telecom giant Jio Platforms. By mid last year, JioMart had expanded to over 200 Indian cities and towns — though currently its reach within those cities and customer service leave a lot to be desired.

Reliance Retail also maintains a partnership with Facebook for WhatsApp integration. Facebook, which invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms last year, has said that it will explore various ways to work with Reliance to digitize the nation’s mom and pop stores, as well as other small- and medium-sized businesses.

For JioMart, Reliance Retail is working with neighborhood shops, giving them a digital point-of-sale machine to make it easier for them to accept money electronically. It is also allowing these shops to buy their inventory from Reliance Retail, and then use their physical presence as delivery points. At present, the platform is largely focused on grocery delivery. In a recent report to clients, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that Reliance could become the largest player in online grocery within three years.

Google AI concocts ‘breakie’ and ‘cakie’ hybrid baked goods

By Devin Coldewey

If, as I suspect many of you have, you have worked your way through baking every type of cookie, bread and cake under the sun over the last year, Google has a surprise for you: a pair of AI-generated hybrid treats, the “breakie” and the “cakie.”

The origin of these new items seems to have been in a demonstration of the company’s AutoML Tables tool, a codeless model generation system that’s more spreadsheet automation than what you’d really call “artificial intelligence.” But let’s not split hairs, or else we’ll never get to the recipe.

Specifically it was the work of Sara Robinson, who was playing with these tools earlier last spring, as a person interested in machine learning and baking was likely to start doing around that time as cabin fever first took hold.

What happened was she wanted to design a system that would look at a recipe and automatically tell you whether it was bread, cookie or cake, and why — for instance, a higher butter and sugar content might bias it toward cookie, while yeast was usually a dead giveaway for bread.

Image Credits: Sara Robinson

But of course, not every recipe is so straightforward, and the tool isn’t always 100% sure. Robinson began to wonder, what would a recipe look like that the system couldn’t decide on?

She fiddled around with the ingredients until she found a balance that caused the machine learning system to produce a perfect 50/50 split between cookie and cake. Naturally, she made some — behold the “cakie.”

A cakie, left, and breakies, right, with Robinson.

A cakie, left, and breakies, right, with Robinson. Image Credits: Sara Robinson / Google

“It is yummy. And it strangely tastes like what I’d imagine would happen if I told a machine to make a cake cookie hybrid,” she wrote.

The other hybrid she put together was the “breakie,” which as you surely have guessed by now is half bread, half cookie. This one ended up a little closer to “fluffy cookies, almost the consistency of a muffin.” And indeed they look like muffin tops that have lost their bottoms. But breakie sounds better than muffin tops (or “brookie,” apparently the original name).

These ingredients and ratios were probably invented or tried long ago, but it’s certainly an interesting way to arrive at a new recipe using only old ones.

The recipes below are perfectly doable, but to be transparent were not entirely generated by algorithm. It only indicates proportions of ingredients, and didn’t include any flavorings or features like vanilla or chocolate chips, both which Robinson added. The actual baking instructions had to be puzzled out as well (the AI doesn’t know what temperature is, or pans). But if you need something to try making that’s different from the usual weekend treat, you could probably do worse than one of these.

 Image Credits: Sara Robinson / Google

 Image Credits: Sara Robinson / Google

California vegan egg startup Eat Just yokes itself to China’s fast food chain

By Rita Liao

Eat Just, a food startup from San Francisco making chicken-less eggs, has ambitions to crack the Chinese market where consumer appetite for plant-based food is growing and other Western vegan substitute brands like Beyond became available in recent quarters.

The startup said this week it will be suppling to fast-food chain Dicos, a local rival to McDonald’s and KFC in China. The agreement will see Eat Just add its plant-based eggs to the restaurant’s breakfast items across more than 500 locations. The eggs are derived from a legume called mung beans, which have long been a popular ingredient for soup, noodles and dessert in China.

At Dicos in major Chinese cities, consumers will find Eat Just eggs in breakfast burgers, bagel sandwiches and Western-style breakfast plates. That diversifies the Dicos plant-based menu which already includes a vegan chicken burger supplied by local startup Starfield. Dicos also offers a gateway into China’s low-tier cities where it has built a stronghold and can potentially help evangelize plant-based proteins in communities beyond China’s urban yuppies. The chain operates a total of 2,600 stores in China and serves 600 million customers a year.

Eat Just first entered China in 2019 and currently generates less than 5% of its revenue from the country, Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just, told TechCrunch. But over time, the company expects China to account for more than half of its revenue. Ten of its 160 employees are based in China.

Eat Just’s vegan egg recipe / Photo: Eat Just

“We have been intentional about starting small, going slow and hiring people who know the market and understand how to build a sustainable business there. We’ve also been focused on finding the right partners to work with on downstream manufacturing, sales and distribution, and that work continues,” said Noyes.

The partnership with Dicos arrived on the heels of Eat Just’s announcement to set up an Asia subsidiary. The nine-year-old company, formerly Hampton Creek, has raised over $300 million from prominent investors including Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It was last valued at $1.2 billion.

Before its tie-up with Dicos, Eat Just had already been selling online in China through Alibaba and JD.com among other retail channels. Its China business is currently growing by 70% year-over-year.

While there’s no shortage of strong competition in the plant-based food race in China, Eat Just claims it’s taken a unique angle by zeroing in on eggs.

“Plant-based meat companies offer products that pair deliciously with Just Egg,” the brand name of the startup’s main product, Noyes noted.

“Plant-based foods are increasing in popularity among Chinese consumers and more sustainable eating is becoming part of a national dialogue about the feeding of the country in the future. China produces about 435 billion eggs per year and demand for protein is increasing.”

Indeed, Euromonitor predicted that China, the world’s largest meat-consuming country, would see its “free from meat” market size grow to $12 billion by 2023, compared to $10 billion in 2018.

Plant-centered prepared food delivery startup Thistle raises $10.3 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Eating less meat is the easiest way for anyone to lower their carbon footprint and the prepared food delivery startup, Thistle, has just raised $10.3 million to make that choice even easier for consumers. 

The company delivers plant-based full menus (with meat options available for customers that want them) for its customers along with a range of juices and sides.

That pitch of making tweaks to customer behavior for more conscious consumerism and healthy eating was enough to attract Series B funding from PowerPlant Ventures, with participation from Siddhi Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, and the venture arm of Rich Products Corp.

The company said it would use the financing to expand geographically — setting up a production facility on the East Coast to bring its healthy prepared meals to potential customers along the Eastern seaboard.

“With this funding, we’ll be able to support even more people through scientific, evidence-based principles of nutrition that lead to optimal wellness, enjoyable eating, and a healthier planet,” said Ashwin Cheryian, Co-Founder and CEO of Thistle in a statement. 

Since its launch seven years ago, Thistle has served over 5 million meals and is intent to not just launch in new geographies, but provide more robust services for its customers. Those services will include virtual consultations with an in-house registered Thistle dietitian who can give customers guidance on the best diet for their needs, the company said.   

The new offering was born from customer feedback, according to chief operating officer and Thistle co-founder Shiri Avnery.

“We tested the program last fall, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. We’re excited to be able to officially roll out the program to our customers this month, with the primary goal to further support our customers along each stage of their wellness journey,” Avnery said. 

The husband and wife duo offer menu plans starting at $42 a week or $11.50 per meal, according to the company’s website and all meals are gluten and dairy free (with vegan options available).

The financing for Thistle comes during a plant-based food boom that’s been sweeping the nation — and the nation’s investors.

“Eating a plant-forward diet is the single most impactful way to reduce your overall environmental footprint, reducing climate change, pollution, resource consumption, and species extinction,” said Dan Gluck, Managing Partner of PowerPlant Ventures, in a statement. “Consumer demand for plant-based foods is outperforming total food growth today, and this trend is expected to increase over the next decade as more people realize that eating more plants is a critical component to the long-term health of both the planet and our population.”

Agricultural biotech startup Boost Biomes adds a strategic investor in Japan’s Universal Materials Incubator

By Jonathan Shieber

Boost Biomes, the Y Combinator-backed developer of microbiome-based bio-fungicides and bio-pesticides for agricultural applications, has added $2 million in funding and picked up a new strategic investor in Japan’s Universal Materials Incubator.

To date, Boost Biomes has raised more than $7 million in financing to support the development of new products like its bio-fungicide developed from the microorganisms that live in the soil in a symbiotic relationship with plants.

The work that Boost does is primarily on understanding the interactions between microbes and plants in the soil. “The goal is to be the discovery engine and develop new microbial products for use in food and agriculture,” said Boost chief executive and co-founder Jamie Bacher.

The commitment from Japan’s Universal Materials Incubator expands on a $5 million institutional round led by another strategic partner, Yara International, a global crop nutrition company, and venture investors like Viking Global Investors and Y Combinator.

Boost hopes to tackle issues in agriculture like spoilage, bacterial contamination and pathogen infestations, as well as addressing diseases that can affect plant health directly.

Boost is already working with an undisclosed biomanufacturing partner to develop its bio-fungicide.

UMI’s decision to invest in Boost comes from our evaluation of their team, technology, and the associated market opportunities. We believe that Boost’s platform generates a unique data set that can be exploited for far superior products with many diverse microbiome applications in food and agriculture,” said Yota Hayama, an investor at UMI, in a statement. “These are critical areas to achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture. We also expect Boost’s huge potential on other areas where microbiomes are utilized.”

 

New York-based indoor ag company Gotham Greens raises $87 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Lettuce celebrate the rise of indoor agriculture.

In the past few months AppHarvest, a developer of greenhouse tomato farms went public through a special purpose acquisition vehicle, vertical farming giant Plenty raised $140 million, and now Gotham Greens, which is developing its own network of greenhouses, is announcing the close of $87 million in new funding.

These new agriculture companies certainly have a green thumb when it comes to raising a cornucopia of capital.

Gotham Greens latest round takes the company to a whopping total of $130 million in funding since its launch. Investors in the round included Manna Tree and The Silverman Group.

While App Harvest has taken to tomatoes in its attempt to ketchup with the leading agricultural companies, Gotham Greens has decided to let its hydroponically grown leafy greens lead the way to riches.

The company said it would use the latest funding to continue developing more greenhouse across the U.S. and bring new vegetables to market.

“Given increasing challenges facing centralized food supply chains, combined with rapidly shifting consumer preferences, Gotham Greens is focused on expanding its regional growing operations and distribution capabilities at one of the most critical periods for America,” said Viraj Puri, the co-founder and chief executive of Gotham Greens, in a statement. 

The company already sells its greens in over 40 states and operates greenhouses in Chicago, Providence, R.I., Baltimore and Denver. From those greenhouses the company distributes to 2,000 retail locations including Whole Foods Markets, Albertsons stores, Meijer, Target, King Soopers, Harris Teeter, ShopRite and Sprouts. 

And Gotham Greens has already begun to expand its product portfolio. The company now sells packaged salads, cooking sauces, and salad bowls in addition to its greens.

Assorted packages of Gotham Greens lettuces on a white field. Image Credit: Gotham Greens

DoorDash amps its IPO range ahead of blockbuster IPO

By Alex Wilhelm

DoorDash filed a fresh S-1/A, providing the market with a new price range for its impending IPO.

The American food delivery unicorn now expects to debut at $90 to $95 per share, up from a previous range of $75 to $85. That’s a bump of 20% on the low end and 12% on the upper end of its IPO range.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


DoorDash still anticipates 317,656,521 shares outstanding after its IPO, giving the company a new, non-diluted valuation range between $28.6 billion and $30.2 billion. On a fully-diluted basis, the company’s valuation rises to more than $35 billion.

For the on-demand giant, the upgrade is enormously positive news. Not only will its valuation stretch even further above its most recent private price — around $16 billion, set this summer — but DoorDash will also raise even more money than it previously anticipated. That war chest will be welcome when a vaccine becomes widely available and food consumption habits could shift.

DoorDash will raise as much as $3.135 billion in its IPO, according to the filing.

After mulling over the company’s updated valuation from its new SEC filing, I’ve decided that there are three things worth calling out and discussing. Let’s get into them.

It’s Friday, so to make our analysis as easy as possible I’ve broken it into discreet sections for your perusal. Let’s go!

A path to profitability is important

DoorDash’s most profitable quarters that we are aware of were its two most recent. During the June 30 quarter, the company saw positive net income of $23 million off revenues of $675 million. In the September 30 quarter, on the back of even more revenue growth, DoorDash lost a modest $42 million against $879 million in top line.

Those two quarters contrast with the first quarter of 2020 when DoorDash lost a far-greater $129 million against a far-smaller revenue result of $362 million, and Q4 2019 when the figures were a $134 million loss and revenues of just $298 million.

SunCulture wants to turn Africa into the world’s next bread basket, one solar water pump at a time

By Jonathan Shieber

The world’s food supply must double by the year 2050 to meet the demands from a growing population, according to a report from the United Nations. And as pressure mounts to find new crop land to support the growth, the world’s eyes are increasingly turning to the African continent as the next potential global breadbasket.

While Africa has 65% of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, according to the African Development Bank, the countries on the continent face significant obstacles as they look to boost the productivity of their agricultural industries.

On the continent, 80% of families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but only 4% use irrigation. Many families also lack access to reliable and affordable electricity. It’s these twin problems that Samir Ibrahim and his co-founder at SunCulture, Charlie Nichols, have spent the last eight years trying to solve.

Armed with a new financing model and purpose-built small solar power generators and water pumps, Nichols and Ibrahim, have already built a network of customers using their equipment to increase incomes by anywhere from five to ten times their previous levels by growing higher-value cash crops, cultivating more land and raising more livestock.

The company also has just closed on $14 million in funding to expand its business across Africa.

“We have to double the amount of food we have to create by 2050, and if you look at where there are enough resources to grow food and a lot of point — all signs point to Africa. You have a lot of farmers and a lot of land, and a lot of resources,” Ibrahim said.

African small farmers face two big problems as they look to increase productivity, Ibrahim said. One is access to markets, which alone is a huge source of food waste, and the other is food security because of a lack of stable growing conditions exacerbated by climate change.

As one small farmer told The Economist earlier this year, ““The rainy season is not predictable. When it is supposed to rain it doesn’t, then it all comes at once.”

Ibrahim, who graduated from New York University in 2011, had long been drawn to the African continent. His father was born in Tanzania and his mother grew up in Kenya and they eventually found their way to the U.S. But growing up, Ibrahim was told stories about East Africa.

While pursuing a business degree at NYU Ibrahim met Nichols, who had been working on large scale solar projects in the U.S., at an event for budding entrepreneurs in New York.

The two began a friendship and discussed potential business opportunities stemming from a paper Nichols had read about renewable energy applications in the agriculture industry.

After winning second place in a business plan competition sponsored by NYU, the two men decided to prove that they should have won first. They booked tickets to Kenya and tried to launch a pilot program for their business selling solar-powered water pumps and generators.

Conceptually solar water pumping systems have been around for decades. But as the costs of solar equipment and energy storage have declined the systems that leverage those components have become more accessible to a broader swath of the global population.

That timing is part of what has enabled SunCulture to succeed where other companies have stumbled. “We moved here at a time when [solar] reached grid parity in a lot of markets. It was at a time when a lot of development financiers were funding the nexus between agriculture and energy,” said Ibrahim.

Initially, the company sold its integrated energy generation and water pumping systems to the middle income farmers who hold jobs in cities like Nairobi and cultivate crops on land they own in rural areas. These “telephone farmers” were willing to spend the $5000 required to install SunCulture’s initial systems.

Now, the cost of a system is somewhere between $500 and $1000 and is more accessible for the 570 million farming households across the word — with the company’s “pay-as-you-grow” model.

It’s a spin on what’s become a popular business model for the distribution of solar systems of all types across Africa. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into the development of off-grid solar energy and retail technology companies like M-kopa, Greenlight Planet, d.light design, ZOLA Electric, and SolarHome, according to Ibrahim. In some ways, SunCulture just extends that model to agricultural applications.

“We have had to bundle services and financing. The reason this particularly works is because our customers are increasing their incomes four or five times,” said Ibrahim. “Most of the money has been going to consuming power. This is the first time there has been productive power.”

 SunCulture’s hardware consists of 300 watt solar panels and a 440 watt-hour battery system. The batteries can support up to four lights, two phones and a plug-in submersible water pump. 

The company’s best selling product line can support irrigation for a two-and-a-half acre farm, Ibrahim said. “We see ourselves as an entry point for other types of appliances. We’re growing to be the largest solar company for Africa.”

With the $14 million in funding, from investors including Energy Access Ventures (EAV), Électricité de France (EDF), Acumen Capital Partners (ACP), and Dream Project Incubators (DPI), SunCulture will expand its footprint in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire, the company said. 

Ekta Partners acted as the financial advisor for the deal, while CrossBoundary provided additional advisory support, including an analysis on the market opportunity and competitive landscape, under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Kenya Investment Mechanism Program

Wellory raises $4.5M for its ‘anti-diet’ nutrition app

By Anthony Ha

Wellory, a startup that bills itself as taking an “anti-diet approach” to nutrition and wellness, is announcing that it has raised $4.2 million in funding.

The round was led by Story Ventures, with participation from Harlem Capital, Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Ground Up Ventures, NBA player Wayne Ellington, Hannah Bronfman and others.

Wellory founder and CEO Emily Hochman (who was previously the head of customer success at WayUp) told me that she struggled with dieting in college, to the point where she was risking chronic illness and infertility. As a result, she became determined to gain a better understanding of nutrition and her own health, eventually studying and becoming a certified health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Hochman said that through Wellory, she wants to offer that same understanding to others, which she said has created a “managed marketplace” matching users with a licensed nutritionist, registered dietitian or certified health coach. Those coaches create a personalized plan for losing weight or achieving other health goals, then continue to provide feedback as users share photos of each meal and additional health data.

For example, she said that a customer who had just given birth and was interested in postpartum weight loss would get matched with a coach who specializes in that area.

“The thing that is so important is that we build personalized plans,” she added. “We don’t have anything that says, ‘At Wellory, we do these 10 things and that’s a standard diet.’ We’re actually going to help you learn how to make smart and healthy decisions.”

Wellory CEO Emily Hochman

Wellory CEO Emily Hochman (Image Credit: Wellory)

Wellory officially launched in September, but Hochman said some beta testers have been using the service for nine, 10 or 11 months. She said early customers include people who are interested in weight loss, those who need nutrition advice due to chronic illness and “optimizers” who simply want to make sure they’re eating as healthily as possible.

She also noted that although customers usually sign up with a specific goal in mind, “once they hit their goal, because of the power of a strong relationship, they say, ‘I don’t want to go back to where I was, let’s keep building, let’s make sure I can sustain this.’ ”

The app is available on iOS and Android and currently costs $59.99 per month. Hochman plans to introduce additional pricing tiers. and she said the funding will allow Wellory to expand the technology and marketing teams, and to explore new partnerships.

“As a data technology investor, we get approached by different types of wearable or diagnostic companies nearly every week,” said Jake Yormak of Story Ventures in a statement. “We love the category but what we saw in Wellory was a way to put a human coach at the center of understanding this health data. With nutrition as the wedge, Wellory has built a trusted relationship with people who affirmatively want to better understand and improve their wellbeing.”

Eat Just to sell lab-grown meat in Singapore after gaining “world first” regulatory approval

By Catherine Shu

Eat Just will start offering lab-grown chicken meat in Singapore after gaining regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). The cell-cultured chicken will eventually be produced under Eat Just’s new GOOD Meat brand through partnerships with local manufacturers and go on sale to restaurants before it is available to consumers.

No chickens were killed to obtain the cell line used to produce Eat Just’s cultured meat, global head of communications Andrew Noyes told TechCrunch. Instead, the process starts with cell isolation, where cells are sourced through methods that can include a biopsy from a live animal. After the cells are cultured, they are transferred into a bioreactor, fed with a proprietary mix of proteins, amino acids, minerals, sugars, salts and other nutrients and then harvested after they achieve enough density.

While there are plenty of other companies working on lab-grown meats using various techniques, Eat Just describes the Singapore government’s review and regulatory approval as a “world first.” The company said that during the approval process, it went through 20 productions runs of cell-cultured chicken in 1,200-liter bioreactors to prove the consistency of its manufacturing process. Eat Just also said no antibiotics were used and that its cultured chicken has an “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken.”

Noyes said the company is already working with a restaurant to add its GOOD Meat chicken to their menu, and hopes to announce a launch date soon.

In Eat Just’s announcement today, chief executive officer Josh Tetrick said, “Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system.”

The government is currently engaged in an initiative, called “30 by 30,” to produce 30% of the country’s food supply locally by 2030. Spearheaded by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the initiative was prompted because Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food, which makes it vulnerable to export bans or the logistics issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. As part of “30 by 30,” the SFA and Agency for Science, Technology and Research has made $144 million SGD in research funding available.

Eat Just, whose other products include a plant-based egg substitute, announced last month it is partnering with Proterra Investment Partners Asia to launch a new Asian subsidiary. The partnership includes a factory in Singapore that received support from the government’s Economic Development board.

There are several factors driving demand for cultured meat and plant-based protein in Asian markets. The first is concerns about the safety of meat from slaughterhouses that gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also highlighted vulnerabilities in the production and supply chain that can be potentially be avoided with lab-produced meat and meat alternatives.

Google Maps takes on Facebook with launch of its own news feed

By Sarah Perez

People are getting frustrated that Stories are everywhere now, but Google Maps is keeping it old school. Instead of adding tiny circles to the top of the app’s screen, Google Maps is introducing its own news feed. Technically, Google calls its new feature the “Community Feed,” as it includes posts from a local area. However, it’s organized as any other news feed would be — a vertically scrollable feed with posts you can “Like” by tapping on a little thumbs up icon.

The feed, which is found with the Explore tab of the Google Maps app, is designed to make it easier to find the most recent news, updates, and recommendations from trusted local sources. This includes posts business owners create using Google My Business to alert customers to new deals, menu updates, and other offers. At launch, Google says the focus will be on highlighting posts from food and drink businesses.

For years, businesses have been able to make these sorts of posts using Google’s tools. But previously, users would have to specifically tap to follow the business’s profile in order to receive their updates.

Now, these same sort of posts will be surfaced to even those Google Maps users who didn’t take the additional step of following a particular business. This increased exposure has impacted the posts’ views, Google says. In early tests of Community Feed ahead of its public launch, Google found that businesses’ posts saw more than double the number of views than before the feed existed.

Image Credits: Google

In addition to posts from businesses, the new Community Feed will feature content posted by Google users you follow as well as recent reviews from Google’s Local Guides — the volunteer program where users share their knowledge about local places in order to earn perks, such as profile badges, early access to Google features, and more. Select publishers will participate in the Community Feed, too, including The Infatuation and other news sources from Google News, when relevant.

Much of the information found in the Community Feed was available elsewhere in Google Maps before today’s launch.

For example, the Google Maps’ Updates tab offered a similar feed that included businesses’ posts along with news, recommendations, stories, and other features designed to encourage discovery. Meanwhile, the Explore tab grouped businesses into thematic groupings (e.g. outdoor dining venues, cocktail bars, etc.) at the top of the screen, then allowed users to browse other lists and view area photos.

With the update, those groups of businesses by category will still sit at the top of the screen, but the rest of the tab is dedicated to the scrollable feed. This gives the tab a more distinct feel than it had before. It could even position Google to venture into video posts in the future, given the current popularity of TikTok-style  short-form video feeds that have now cloned by Instagram and Snapchat.

Image Credits: Google

Today, it’s a more standard feed, however. As you scroll down, you can tap “Like” on those posts you find interesting to help better inform your future recommendations. You can also tap “Follow” on businesses you want to hear more from, which will send their alerts to your Updates tab, as well. Thankfully, there aren’t comments.

Google hopes the change will encourage users to visit the app more often in order to find out what’s happening in their area — whether that’s a new post from a business or a review from another user detailing some fun local activity, like a day trip or new hiking spot, for example.

The feature can be used when traveling or researching other areas, too, as the “Community Feed” you see is designated not based on where you live or your current location, but rather where you’re looking on the map.

The feed is the latest in what’s been a series of updates designed to make Google Maps more of a Facebook rival. Over the past few years, Google Maps has added features that allowed users to follow businesses, much like Facebook does, as well as message those businesses directly in the app, similar to Messenger. Businesses, meanwhile, have been able to set up their own profile in Google Maps, where they could add a logo, cover photo, and pick short name — also a lot like Facebook Pages offer today.

With the launch of a news feed-style feature, Google’s attempt to copy Facebook is even more obvious.

Google says the feature is rolling out globally on Google Maps for iOS and Android.

 

 

Gift Guide: Camping and backpacking gear that the outdoors lover in your life really wants

By Lucas Matney

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

Like plenty of others, I dug much deeper into the great outdoors and camping this summer amid social distancing restrictions. It’s pretty easy to stay COVID-safe when you’re several days’ wander into the wilderness. Whether it’s a fun day hike, a car camping excursion or a multi-day backcountry backpacking trip, there’s plenty of great camping and hiking gear that can make life easier for the outdoors person (without going overboard).

I bought a ton of camping gear online this year. I had the fortune of timing a 40-mile backpacking excursion through the Los Padres national forest with one of REI’s annual sales, a time when the majority of online camping retailers also tend to offer steep discounts on their stuff. Most of my gear was optimized for backpacking and I ended up replacing most of my decade-old gear with some lighter, better-quality stuff. Backpacking leaves room for fewer luxuries, but add a few car camping trips and you’ll see the fun in bringing in the nice-to-haves to your outdoors gear repertoire.

With camping gear, you can almost always find a good sale on any individual item during the year so stay patient and keep an eye out. Plenty of sites offer one-off discounts for first time buyers or have pretty reliably timed, wide-ranging seasonal sales so if you’re smart about your purchase you can get it at a discount.

One note to hammer home: when buying gear, one of the main things to consider is whether you anticipate getting bit by the backpacking bug. It’s not always easy to tell ahead of time, but if you do think you’ll end up using your gear on backpacking trips, you’ll want to account pretty heavily for the weight of any new gear. You can certainly upgrade later too, but it’s always good to future-proof when you can. If you’re just planning to hop into the car and hit up a nice drive-in campsite, you have a lot less to worry about in terms of size and weight restrictions which makes things much simpler.

These are all things I bought with my own money or am planning to buy at some point, so no sponsored suggestions here. That said, this article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Mpowerd Luci Solar String Lights

Image: MPOWERD

When it comes to camping, light can really expand your options for what you can do at night. I’ve been one to rely on campfire light during the evenings but with campfire bans hitting plenty of campsites in California this season, I upped my lighting game this year.

These string lights come in a nicely designed package and are perfect for adding some ambiance and solidly bright light to your campsite. They’re a bit of a luxury but they provide a good bit of light on multiple brightness settings. The company now also makes a version with colored lights if you want to get festive.

They lights do suck up a decent amount of power so they may only last you a night or two on a single charge depending on your usage, but the handy built-in solar charger can help there. Truthfully I’ve always had mixed success with relying on solar charging, so I might save this one for the car-camping trips where you have easy access to somewhere to charge the light with its integrated USB cable.

Price: $28 from Amazon

Sea to Summit dry sacks

Image: Sea to Summit

Though mobile gear is increasingly gaining waterproof IP ratings, especially when it comes to higher-end camera gear, not everything is friendly with moisture. One purchase I made this year that felt like a no-brainer was a set of small dry-bags. They are certainly a more expensive option than the humble zip-locks which I’ve been using for years, but while a wet roll of toilet paper or map can be a bummer, a wet mirrorless camera is a disaster.

Dry bags keep the wetness out. They’re also just a nice and functional organizational tool to keep all of your tech gear together and protected from the elements. Earlier this summer I bought this small 3-pack which is sized perfectly for the tech gear I tend to bring along. Later I bought a much larger 35L sack to house gear like my sleeping bag and clothes that I really need to keep dry while hiking through river beds or while it’s raining.

I opted for a set of Sea to Summit bags which seem to be the gold standard, but if you search for dry bags on the web, you’ll come across plenty of sets with some good ratings. Just be sure to peruse the reviews to get a sense of their durability which is the only thing that matters.

Price: $43 from REI

Garmin inReach Explorer+

Image: Garmin

I have two big items on my next wish list for backpacking gear upgrades to make before next season. One is a bear can to stuff my food and toiletries into when backpacking through Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness as I soon hope to. The other is the inReach Explorer+. I’ve relied on friends with handheld GPS units in the past but Garmin’s option, which seems to be quite popular, bundles a GPS unit with a phone that operates on a satellite network.

You need a plan for the device to use the satellite network, which you can activate on a monthly basis whenever you need it. That network is good for a couple things: sending off text messages with GPS points to friends and relatives so they can see your progress and know you’re safe, while also being able to reach the outside world if you find yourself in an emergency and might need to be rescued. While these evacuations are assuredly going to be a pricey affair, it’s never worth gambling with your life or opting for a backup plan that you might not make it back from.

Garmin also sells a mini version of the inReach that eschews GPS navigation and a decent screen size for a much smaller footprint, more of a “don’t use it unless you absolutely need to” version. I will also quickly note that satellite phones are actually illegal to have on you in some countries so be sure to check out whether that’s the case before you pack one in your bag.

Price: $450 from Garmin

Helinox Chair Zero

Image: Helinox

These chairs are probably some of the best things I’ve ever purchased. Oddly, I actually haven’t used them that much while backpacking, which seems to be the intent of the product given how light they are at just over 1 pound, but they’ve been amazing for tossing in a tote bag for a day at the park.

I’ve gotten so much use of them partially because I live in a city and don’t own a car. If I had a car, I might just opt for a larger and cheaper folding chair that I could keep in the trunk. That said, what’s great about these is that they are light enough to bring backpacking — though they are definitely still a luxury item to bring along. My one complaint is that these chairs don’t play so nicely with the sand or mud so you want to find a fairly hard surface to set them up on if you want to feel fully secure placing your full weight on these tiny chairs.

I got these for about half-off when I bought them, but there are definitely cheaper options than those from Helinox if you can’t find a deal and don’t mind an extra pound of weight or so. I have friends who are particularly big fans of the REI versions.

Side note: this year I also found a deal on a lightweight Helinox hard-top table which has been great for playing board games on or setting up a cook station.

Price: $150 from Amazon

A giant duffel bag

Image: REI

One of the big issues with amassing a collection of camping gear is storing it all during those non-camping months. The best solution for this is a big ‘ole duffel bag. They’re great to store your gear in, and it’s so easy to just toss a duffel in your car when you’re ready to go camping and not have to deal with a dozen little trips to the car and back.

I ended up buying a 90-liter REI bag during a sale, but I’ve seen great things on the bags from North Face and Patagonia as well. This size fits a ton and has the added advantage of being just about the maximum size for a standard checked bag on a flight, anything larger will require an oversized baggage fee. These bags all go on sale in pretty often so I wouldn’t rush into buying especially if you don’t need one ASAP.

Price: Varies; the one above is $140 right now from REI

Travel chess set

Image: Kidami

Cards are great, but sometimes you want to spice up your options for games. For those of you who have just binged through Queen’s Gambit, I’ll recommend searching for a good travel chess board.

I ended up going for this very random travel chess set on Amazon because the magnetic board made me feel confident I wouldn’t lose all of the pieces immediately. It’s not the most high quality-feeling but the price was right and it strikes a good balance. There are definitely plenty of options that are more robust or more lightweight.

Price: $18 from Amazon

Nalgene Mini Bottles

Image: REI

One thing every camper should have in their gear collection is a bunch of different sized mini Nalgene bottles. These things are great and can hold your soap, shampoo, oil, sauces, booze and other liquids securely and (as long as you’re religious about tightening the screw-top bottles) can ensure that you won’t have any accidental spills.

I use these aggressively for meal planning and measure out the various quantities of a liquid or sauce I’ll need for a given meal and toss them inside a bigger plastic bag with all of the ingredients. As such, I have a few sizes ranging from an ounce to 4 ounces. That’s not a use case everyone needs when you’re car-camping and don’t have the luxury of measuring everything ahead of time, but they’re also awesome for toiletry kits and I use the 2 ounce bottle for shampoo and soap when I’m flying and want to bring my own stuff.

One complaint is that these will hold onto the smell of some more pungent liquids even after you wash them so keep that in mind and maybe be careful to separate the ones you’re storing your toiletries in from the ones holding sauces.

Price: $2 from REI

Who’s building the grocery store of the future?

By Walter Thompson
Christopher Wan Contributor
Chris is a venture fellow at Bessemer Venture Partners and a JD/MBA candidate at Stanford University who writes a weekly newsletter about tech, policy and business strategy.
Tess Hatch Contributor
Tess Hatch hopes to travel to space, in the meantime she is a venture investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, investing in frontier tech.

The future of grocery stores will be a win-win for both stores and customers.

On one hand, stores want to decrease their operational expenditures that come from hiring cashiers and conducting inventory management. On the other hand, consumers want to decrease the friction of buying groceries. This friction includes both finding high-quality groceries at consumers’ personal price points and waiting in long lines for checkout. The future of grocery stores promises to alleviate, and even eliminate, these points of friction.

Amazon’s foray into grocery store technology provides a succinct introduction into the state of the industry. Amazon’s first act was its Amazon Go store, which opened in Seattle in early 2018. When customers enter an Amazon Go store, they swipe the Amazon app at the entrance, enabling Amazon to link purchases to their accounts. As they shop, a collection of ceiling cameras and shelf sensors identify the items and places them in a a virtual shopping cart. When they’re done shopping, Amazon automatically charges for the items they grabbed.

Earlier this year, Amazon opened a 10,400-square-foot Go store, about five times bigger than the largest prior location. At larger store sizes, however, tracking people and products gets more computationally complex and larger SKU counts become more difficult to manage. This is especially true if the computer vision AI-based system also must be retrofitted into buildings that come with nooks and crannies that can obstruct camera angles and affect lighting.

Perhaps Amazon’s confidence in its ability to scale its Go stores comes from vertical integration that enables it to optimize customer experiences through control over store format, product selection and placement.

While Amazon Go is vertically integrated, in Amazon’s second act, it revealed a separate, more horizontal strategy: Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it would license its cashierless Just Walk Out technology.

In Just Walk Out-enabled stores, shoppers enter the store using a credit card. They don’t need to download an app or create an Amazon account. Using cameras and sensors, the Just Walk Out technology detects which products shoppers take from or return to the shelves and keeps track of them. When done shopping, as in an Amazon Go store, customers can “just walk out” and their credit card will be charged for the items in their virtual cart.

Just Walk Out may enable Amazon to penetrate the market much more quickly, as Amazon promises that existing stores can be retrofitted in “as little as a few weeks.” Amazon can also get massive amounts of data to improve its computer vision systems and machine learning algorithms, accelerating the speed with which it can leverage those capabilities elsewhere.

In Amazon’s third and latest act, Amazon in July announced its Dash Cart, a departure from its two prior strategies. Rather than equipping stores with ceiling cameras and shelf sensors, Amazon is building smart carts that use a combination of computer vision and sensor fusion to identify items placed in the cart. Customers take barcoded items off shelves, place them in the cart, wait for a beep, and then one of two things happens: Either the shopper gets an alert telling him to try again, or the shopper receives a green signal to confirm the item was added to the cart correctly.

For items that don’t have a barcode, the shopper can add them to the cart by manually adding them on the cart screen and confirming the measured weight of the product. When a customer exits through the store’s Amazon Dash Cart lane, sensors automatically identify the cart, and payment is processed using the credit card on the customer’s Amazon account. The Dash Cart is specifically designed for small- to medium-sized grocery trips that fit two grocery bags and is currently only available in an Amazon Fresh store in California.

The pessimistic interpretation of Amazon’s foray into grocery technology is that its three strategies are mutually incompatible, reflecting a lack of conviction on the correct strategy to commit to. Indeed, the vertically integrated smart store strategy suggests Amazon is willing to incur massive fixed costs to optimize the customer experience. The modular smart store strategy suggests Amazon is willing to make the tradeoff in customer experience for faster market penetration.

The smart cart strategy suggests that smart stores are too complex to capture all customer behaviors correctly, thus requiring Amazon to restrict the freedom of user behavior. The more charitable interpretation, however, is that, well, Amazon is one of the most customer-centric companies in the world, and it has the capital to experiment with different approaches to figure out what works best.

While Amazon serves as a helpful case study to the current state of the industry, many other players exist in the space, all using different approaches to build an aspect of the grocery store of the future.

Cashierless checkout

According to some estimates, people spend more than 60 hours per year standing in checkout lines. Cashierless checkout changes everything, as shoppers are immediately identified upon entry and can grab products from the shelf and leave the store without having to interact with a cashier. Different companies have taken different approaches to cashierless checkout:

Smart shelves: Like Amazon Go, some companies utilize computer vision mounted on ceilings and advanced sensors on shelves to detect when shoppers take an item from the shelf. Companies associate the correct item with the correct shopper, and the shopper is charged for all the items they grabbed when they are finished with their shopping journey. Standard Cognition, Zippin and Trigo are some of the leaders in computer vision and smart shelf technology.

Smart carts and baskets: Like Amazon’s Dash Cart, some companies are moving the AI and the sensors from the ceilings and shelves to the cart. When a shopper places an item in their cart, the cart can detect exactly which item was placed and the quantity of that item. Caper Labs, for instance, is pursuing a smart cart approach. Its cart has a credit card reader for the customer to checkout without a cashier.

Touchless checkout kiosks: Touchless checkout kiosk stations use overhead cameras that verify and charge a customer for their purchase. For instance, Mashgin built a kiosk that uses computer vision to quickly verify a customer’s items when they’re done shopping. Customers can then pay using a credit card without ever having to scan a barcode.

Self-scanning: Some companies still require customers to scan items themselves, but once items are scanned, checkout becomes quick and painless. Supersmart, for instance, built a mobile app for customers to quickly scan products as they add them to their carts. When customers are finished shopping, they scan a QR code at a Supersmart kiosk, which verifies that the items in the cart match the items scanned using the mobile app. Amazon’s Dash Cart, described above, also requires a level of human involvement in manually adding certain items to the cart.

Notably, even with the approaches detailed above, cashiers may not be going anywhere just yet because they still play important roles in the customer shopping experience. Cashiers, for instance, help to bag a customer’s items quickly and efficiently. Cashiers can also conduct random checks of customer’s bags as they leave the store and check IDs for alcohol purchases. Finally, cashiers also can untangle tricky corner cases where automated systems fail to detect or validate certain shoppers’ carts. Grabango and FutureProof are therefore building hybrid cashierless checkout systems that keep a human in the loop.

Advanced software analytics

Uber officially completes Postmates acquisition

By Darrell Etherington

Uber today announced the official completion of its Postmates acquisition deal, which it announced originally back in July. The all-stock deal, valued at around $2.65 billion at the time of its disclosure, sees Postmates join Uber, while continuing to operate as a separate service with its own branding and front-end – while some backend operations, including a shared pool of drivers, will merge.

Uber detailed some of its further thinking around the newly combined companies and what that will mean for the businesses they work with in a new blog post. The company posited the move as of benefit to the merchant population they work with, and alongside the official closure announced a new initiative to encourage and gather customer feedback on the merchant side.

They’re calling it a “regional listening exercise” to be run beginning next year, wherein they’ll work with local restaurant associations and chambers of commerce to hear concerns from local business owners in their own communities. This sounds similar in design to Uber’s prior efforts to focus on driver feedback from a couple of years ago in order to improve the way it works with that side of its double-sided marketplace.

Focusing on the needs of its merchant population is doubly important given the current global pandemic, which has seen Uber Eats emerge as even more of a key infrastructure component in the food service and grocery industries as people seek more delivery options in order to better comply with stay-at-home orders and other public safety recommendations.

HungryPanda raises $70M for a food delivery app aimed at overseas Chinese consumers

By Ingrid Lunden

Food delivery apps have been a big deal this year for consumers stuck at home and unable (or unwilling) to go to restaurants or grocery stores; and for investors who are eyeing the opportunity to back rising stars to help them grow.

Today came the latest development in that story: HungryPanda, which makes a Mandarin-language app specifically targeting Chinese consumers outside of China, has raised $70 million to continue its global expansion in delivering food from Chinese restaurants and Asian grocery stores targeting the Chinese diaspora.

Estimates put the number of Chinese people living abroad (counting students and first-generation immigrants, and counting those living outside of the Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) at around 50 million, with most of them concentrated in other Asian countries, so that is a specific target for the startup. Longer term, there are tens of millions more people if you consider second-, third- and further generations of people, although that will likely see big changes to the app, including introducing other languages.

The funding comes on the back of a surge of usage of HungryPanda . It is now live in 47 cities (versus 31 in February of this year) across Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the UK — where it is was founded. Growing some 30-fold in the last three years, HungryPanda’s CEO and founder Eric Liu said in an interview that it is already profitable in its earliest markets in the UK, as well as in New York City, and is safely en route to getting into the black in other locations, too.

The Series C is being led by Kinnevik (a prolific backer of e-commerce startups), with participation also from 83North and Felix Capital (which backed HungryPanda in its last round of $20 million earlier this year), and Piton Capital and Burda Principal Investment.

HungryPanda is not disclosing its valuation right now, but it’s notable that most of its four-year life has been spent bootstrapped — it has raised only $90 million to date, all of it this year.

Food apps have come into their own this year. Already popular with consumers who like the convenience of using a phone or website to browse and order food to be brought to their door, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many services were stretched to capacity in cities where people were being ordered to shelter in place and restaurants were closed.

E-marketer estimates that in the US alone, usage went up by more than 25%. It all still came at a cost, though. For example, the increased measures that needed to be taken to ensure social distancing meant higher costs for the companies, which are often already stretched in their unit economics.

In that sea of apps, however, you might be hard-pressed to distinguish one from another. At one point in the UK, for example, even the delivery bags and logos of two big rivals, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, looked the same.

HungryPanda is a very different bird compared to these. For starters, the whole app is in Mandarin. And it focuses primarily (in most cases, only) on Chinese food. If you want pizza or a burger, or if you want to read the menu in English, go somewhere else.

The app was founded four years ago by Liu, who was an international student in computer science student at the University of Nottingham. Coming over from China, even though there are indeed a number of Chinese restaurants in the city, he and other Chinese students found it nearly impossible to order from them.

The reasons? All of the menus were in English, and the names of dishes, as they were translated, had no meaning for them; and in any case they were all essentially filtered and altered for local (read: British) palates. This was a bigger deal than it might be for some: Chinese people prefer to eat “traditional” food, said Liu, and they take the business of eating very seriously.

His solution was to build an app that provided all the information to students like him in a format that they could actually use, including items that typically might only be offered on side menus to Chinese customers in Mandarin, if at all.

What’s interesting is that while food delivery unit economics can be very challenging in a sprawling city, the same does not apply typically to HungryPanda. Typically, at a company like Deliveroo, the rule of thumb has been to be slightly above two deliveries per hour per driver to make that hour profitable. That is not always possible, however, in the real world. (And that’s before counting all of the other costs around marketing, and so on.)

HungryPanda, however, was delivering to students who were in dormitories, and often ordering in groups to eat “family style”. It meant that HungryPanda was mitigating a lot of the typical unit economics, said Antoine Nussenbaum, the co-founder of Felix Capital.

“This made the efficiency of delivering much higher,” he added.

The same has gone for grocery delivery. Panwen Chen, the global VP of strategy and an early employee of the company, was also a student at Nottingham and said, considering that even students don’t want to eat out all that time, getting groceries was next to impossible for him and others like him.

“I didn’t have a car, and so getting to the Chinese grocery in Nottingham meant taking two buses or 50-60 minute walk,” he said. “Before you know it, you’re struggling with very heavy bags of groceries. It’s not a nice experience. We then started working with groceries, and what we found was that with food delivery we already had the infrastructure, so it was a natural extension of what we do, especially since the community was the same. That helped us to understand also what they wanted.”

He added that takeaway ready-made food is still majority of the startup’s business, both growing very fast.

Loading in one, then two functions into the app sets up HungryPanda for how it might grow further in the future. Asia has been a pioneer on that front, with apps like WeChat, and more specifically those focused around delivery services like Grab, really carving out a place for themselves as “super apps,” providing users with a vast array of services beyond the core, original purpose of those apps.

Consumers and businesses in the wider network are accustomed to the existence of “super apps”, and they are well-used. In a world where some of the homegrown Chinese apps have found it harder to break into international markets (and in some cases like the USA, they may be downright challenged to do so) this gives HungryPanda, which is a UK app, an interesting position, potentially as a partner or as a strong competitor in those markets.

Indeed it already provides a wide range of offers to users from partner organizations, which stretch well beyond basic food ordering.

HungryPanda started for Liu as a side project to school, and his plan was to go on to the London School of Economics for post-graduate work after getting his Nottingham degree. The business took off, though, and so he deferred for two years. Last year, he got the reminder from the LSE to nudge him on what happens next, and he said he ended up deferring indefinitely for now.

“I feel it’s been not just a good experience for me, but for the Chinese community that uses us,” he said. He now lives in New York City, building the business in the US.

Dija, a new delivery startup from former Deliveroo employees, is closing in on a $20M round led by Blossom

By Steve O'Hear

Dija, a new U.K.-based startup founded by senior former Deliveroo employees, is closing in on $20 million in funding, TechCrunch has learned.

According to multiple sources, the round, which has yet to close, is being led by Blossom Capital, the early-stage venture capital firm founded by ex-Index and LocalGlobe VC Ophelia Brown. It’s not clear who else is in the running, although I understand it was highly contested and the startup had offers from several top-tier funds. Blossom Capital and Dija declined to comment.

Playing in the convenience store and delivery space, yet to launch Dija is founded by Alberto Menolascina and Yusuf Saban, who both spent a number of years at Deliveroo in senior positions.

Menolascina was previously director of Corporate Strategy and Development at the takeout delivery behemoth and held several positions before that. He also co-founded Everli (formerly Supermercato24), the Instacart-styled grocery delivery company in Italy, and also worked at Just Eat.

Saban is the former chief of staff to CEO at Deliveroo and also worked at investment bank Morgan Stanley.

In other words, both are seasoned operators in food logistics, from startups to scale-ups. Both Menolascina and Saban were also instrumental in Deliveroo’s Series D, E and F funding rounds.

Meanwhile, few details are public about Dija, except that it will offer convenience and fresh food delivery using a “dark” convenience store mode, seeing it build out hyper local fulfilment centers in urban high population areas for super quick delivery. It’s likely akin to Accel and SoftBank-backed goPuff in the U.S. or perhaps startup Weezy in the U.K.

That said, the model is yet to be proven everywhere it’s been tried and will likely be a capital intensive race in which Dija is off to a good start. And, of course, with everybody making the shift to online groceries while in a pandemic, as ever, timing is everything.

Resilience raises over $800 million to transform pharmaceutical manufacturing in response to COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Resilience, a new biopharmaceutical company backed by $800 million in financing from investors including ARCH Venture Partners and 8VC, has emerged from stealth to transform the way that drugs and therapies are manufactured in the U.S.

Founded by ARCH Venture Partners investor Robert Nelsen, National Resilience Inc., which does business as Resilience was born out of Nelsen’s frustrations with the inept American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a statement the company will invest heavily in developing new manufacturing technologies across cell and gene therapies, viral vectors, vaccines and proteins.

Resilience’s founders identified problems in the therapeutic manufacturing process as one of the key problems that the industry faces in bringing new treatments to market — and that hurdle is exactly what the company was founded to overcome.

“COVID-19 has exposed critical vulnerabilities in medical supply chains, and today’s manufacturing can’t keep up with scientific innovation, medical discovery, and the need to rapidly produce and distribute critically important drugs at scale. We are committed to tackling these huge problems with a whole new business model,” said Nelsen in a statement.

The company brings together some of the leading investment firms in healthcare and biosciences including operating partners from Flagship Pioneering like Rahul Singhvi, who will serve as the company’s chief executive’ former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a partner at New Enterprise Associates and director on the Resilience board; and Patrick Yang, the former executive vice president and global head of technical operations at Roche/Genentech .

“It is critical that we adopt solutions that will protect the manufacturing supply chain, and provide more certainty around drug development and the ability to scale up the manufacturing of safe, effective but also more complex products that science is making possible,” said Dr. Gottlieb, in a statement. “RESILIENCE will enable these solutions by combining cutting edge technology, an unrivaled pool of talent, and the industry’s first shared service business model. Similar to Amazon Web Services, RESILIENCE will empower drug developers with the tools to more fully align discovery, development, and manufacturing; while offering new opportunities to invest in downstream innovations in formulation and manufacturing earlier, while products are still being conceived and developed.”

Other heavy hitters in the world of medicine and biotechnology who are working with the company include Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning professor from the California Institute of Technology; George Barrett, the former chief executive of Cardinal Health; Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the former president of product development at Genentech; Kaye Foster, the former vice president of human resources at Johnson and Johnson; and Denice Torres, the former President of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical and Consumer Companies.

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