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Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

DoorDash launches a convenience store

By Megan Rose Dickey

On-demand delivery startup DoorDash has launched a digital storefront to sell household items, as well as the types of things you’d find at a convenience store. So, chips, ice cream, spices, and packaged foods from local restaurants. Called DashMart, the convenience store is available in eight cities throughout the U.S. and plans to launch in additional cities over the next few months.

These are essentially micro-fulfillment centers that carry around 2,000 items where DashMart warehouse associates pick and pack the orders, and then delivery workers, known as Dashers, come to collect the order and deliver to the customer.

The move into the virtual storefront comes a few months after DoorDash partnered with more than 1,800 convenience stores throughout the country to better respond to the needs of customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, DoorDash has been under scrutiny for its labor practices, especially amid this global health crisis. Last month, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin sued DoorDash for “illegally misclassifying employees as independent contractors.” In the complaint, Boudin argues DoorDash misclassified its workers and in doing so, engages in unfair labor practices.

In a statement to TechCrunch at the time, DoorDash said it’s been supportive of its workers throughout the pandemic by offering them safety equipment, telemedicine and more. DoorDash has also long been a proponent of keeping its workers classified as independent contractors.

Up for vote this November is Prop 22, a measure backed by DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and Instacart, which aims to make drivers and delivery workers for said companies exempt from a new state law that classifies them as W-2 employees.

However, a report conducted by the Partnership for Working Familiesargues voting yes on Prop 22 would “create a permanent underclass of workers in a growing sector of the economy.”

Californians: Vote #NoOnProp22. Why? Because we must protect rideshare drivers’ ability to bargain for better wages and working conditions under the law. https://t.co/RYCb6zKhTP
#RiggingTheGig pic.twitter.com/whgFfBJZyu

— For Working Families (@P4WF) July 8, 2020

Sight Diagnostics raises $71M Series D for its blood analyzer

By Frederic Lardinois

Sight Diagnostics, the Israel-based health-tech company behind the FDA-cleared OLO blood analyzer, today announced that it has raised a $71 million Series D round with participation from Koch Disruptive Technologies, Longliv Ventures (which led its Series C round)and crowd-funding platform OurCrowd. With this, the company has now raised a total of $124 million, though the company declined to share its current valuation.

With a founding team that used to work at Mobileye, among other companies, Sight made an early bet on using machine vision to analyze blood samples and provide a full blood count comparable to existing lab tests within minutes. The company received FDA clearance late last year, something that surely helped clear the way for this additional round of funding.

Image Credits: Sight Diagnostics

“Historically, blood tests were done by humans observing blood under a microscope. That was the case for maybe 200 years,” Sight CEO and co-founder Yossi Pollak told me. “About 60 years ago, a new technology called FCM — or flow cytometry — started to be used on large volume of blood from venous samples to do it automatically. In a sense, we are going back to the first approach, we just replaced the human eye behind the microscope with machine vision.”

Pollak noted that the tests generate about 60 gigabytes of information (a lot of that is the images, of course) and that he believes that the complete blood count is only a first step. One of the diseases it is looking to diagnose is COVID-19. To do so, the company has placed devices in hospitals around the world to see if it can gather the data to detect anomalies that may indicate the severity of some of the aspects of the disease.

“We just kind of scratched the surface of the ability of AI to help with with a wish with blood diagnostics,” said Pollak. “Specifically now, there’s so much value around COVID in decentralizing diagnostics and blood tests. Think keeping people — COVID-negative or -positive —  outside of hospitals to reduce the busyness of hospitals and reduce the risk for contamination for cancer patients and a lot of other populations that require constant complete blood counts. I think there’s a lot of potential and a lot of a value that we can bring specifically now to different markets and we are definitely looking into additional applications beyond [complate blood count] and also perfecting our product.”

So far, Sight Diagnostics has applied for 20 patents and eight have been issued so far. And while machine learning is obviously at the core of what the company does — with the models running on the OLO machine and not in the cloud — Pollak also stressed that the team has made breakthroughs around the sample preparation to allow it to automatically prepare the sample for analysis.

Image Credits: Sight Diagnostics

Pollok stressed that the company focused on the U.S. market with this funding round, which makes sense, given that it was still looking for its FDA clearance. He also noted that this marks Koch Disrupt Technologies’ third investment in Israel, with the other two also being healthcare startups.

“KDT’s investment in Sight is a testament to the company’s disruptive technology that we believe will fundamentally change the way blood diagnostic work is done,’ said Chase Koch, President of Koch Disruptive Technologies . “We’re proud to partner with the Sight team, which has done incredible work innovating this technology to transform modern healthcare and provide greater efficiency and safety for patients, healthcare workers, and hospitals worldwide.”

The company now has about 100 employees, mostly in R&D, with offices in London and New York.

Jakarta-based Wahyoo gets $5 million Series A to help small eateries digitize their operations

By Catherine Shu

Wahyoo’s team, including CEO Peter Shearer (third from left)

While growing up, Peter Shearer watched his mother get up every day at 2AM or 3AM to prepare for her catering business. For many people who own small food businesses in Indonesia, “everything is handled on their own, so I really, really wanted to create a system so they can have better operations and get more quality of life,” Shearer told TechCrunch.

His startup, Wahyoo, was founded in 2017 to help small eateries, called warung makan, digitize and automate more tasks, from ordering supplies to managing finances. Today, Wahyoo announced that it has raised $5 million in Series A funding led by Intudo Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on Indonesia.

Other investors in the round included Kinesys Group, Amatil X (the corporate venture program of Coca-Cola Amatil, one of the world’ five largest Coca-Cola bottlers), Arkblu Capital, Indogen Capital, Selera Kapital, Gratyo Universal Indonesia and Isenta Hioe. The capital will be used on hiring, developing Wahyoo’s tech platform and expanding beyond the Greater Jakarta area.

In a press statement about the investment, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “Small-and medium enterprises represent one of the major engines of economic growth in Indonesia and are being transformed through new innovative businesses like Wahyoo, bringing greater economic prosperity to small business owners throughout the country. Through the company’s digitization efforts, Wahyoo’s highly targeted support for warung makan businesses is creating positive economic and social impact for Indonesia’s working class.”

Wahyoo launched its app almost exactly a year ago and has onboarded about 13,800 warung makan so far. The company’s co-founders are Shearer, the chief executive officer; chief operating officer Daniel Cahyadi; and chief technology officer Michael Dihardja.

With about 268 million people, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest markets, and there are already startups, like Warung Pintar and BakuWarung, that focus on helping warung, or small corner stores, digitize more of their operations.

Shearer said he wanted to focus on Indonesian eateries in particular because “my background is in the food industry and I love anything related to food. Second, the potential is very big because no one has tapped into this type of warung before. Everyone focuses on retail, but no one taps into the culinary business.”

Wahyoo currently employs about 170 people, including on-the-ground teams who meet with warung makan owners. The eateries are “usually run by a family, from generation to generation,” with almost all tasks performed manually, including bookkeeping and going to markets early in the morning to buy ingredients, Shearer said.

A warung makan owner on Wahyoo’s platform

Wahyoo’s features include a next-day grocery delivery service from its own warehouses and integration with Go Food, a popular delivery app. The startup also runs an education program called Wahyoo Academy, with financial courses to help warung makan owners increase customer traffic and revenue, and offers advertising and brand partnerships.

For example, a restaurant on Wahyoo’s platform can earn money by placing ad banners or brochures in their stores. That is one of the way Wahyoo monetizes. It is free to use for restaurant owners, and makes revenue by taking a percentage of brand commissions.

Another revenue stream is Wahyoo’s fried chicken franchise, which gives warung makan owners the option of opening a small stall in front of their stores. It currently has about 350 stalls and keeps costs low by partnering with one of Indonesia’s largest poultry suppliers. Shearer said the company’s goal is to increase the number of stalls to 1,000 by the end of this year.

While eateries on Wahyoo saw a drop in their business in April and May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shearer said that it began to recover in June and July, and is now back to normal, partly because of the platform’s Go Food integration.

In the future, Wahyoo may face competition from other warung-focused startups if they decided to expand their services to restaurants as well, and new startups that want to tap into the business opportunity offered by the 59.3 million small- to medium-sized businesses in Indonesia, many of which haven’t digitized their operations yet.

Shearer said Wahyoo’s value proposition is its portfolio of complementary services. “We are basically creating an ecosystem,” he added. “We are not only focusing on the supply chain, but also our own brand. We have the fried chicken brand and in the future we will tap into financial technology and the catering business as well.”

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Amazon’s 16% bite of Deliveroo finally clears UK competition probe

By Natasha Lomas

It’s official: Days after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was peppered with awkward questions by US lawmakers concerned about the market power of his e-commerce empire, the UK’s competition regulator has confirmed it’s happy for the tech giant to take a 16% bite out of local on-demand food delivery app, Deliveroo.

The CMA had been investigating the planned stake for some 15 months, completing phase one of its scrutiny in December. At the time it decided it had enough concerns to move to a phase 2 probe — chewing over whether or not the stake might discourage Amazon from re-entering the online restaurant food market and “further developing its presence within the online convenience grocery delivery market in the UK”, as it put it.

Soon after the regulator started in on this work COVID-19 struck Europe — impacting investigation as it had a marked impact on Deliveroo’s business. Initially the impact of the coronavirus looked negative, with Deliveroo claiming it would have gone out of business without Amazon’s stake. The CMA concurred with this analysis, treating it as a “failing firm” and reasoning that Deliveroo’s exit from the market would have been worse for competition — thereby provisionally clearing the Amazon stake in April.

Then again in June the regulator provisionally cleared the deal — although it now no longer considered Deliveroo failing, being as, from April 2020, it found a sharper than expected recovery in the restaurant food delivery market, as well as a shift in the restaurant ‘mix’ (“towards smaller, independent restaurants and away from large fast food chains”) — both of which resulted in money being poured into Deliveroo’s coffers. Yet then — with the startup’s finances experiencing “rapid and significant turnaround” — the regulator felt it necessary to complete a “substantive assessment” to of the risks to competition.

Now it’s finally concluded that Amazon’s 16% stake does not cross the competitive risk threshold. So Bezos can crack out the bubble — assuming he knows what the heck Deliveroo is of course.

The CMA said its decision to clear the deal on competition grounds is “the culmination of extensive analysis of internal documents from Amazon and Deliveroo, a survey of more than 3,000 consumers, and extensive submissions from interested third parties”.

It said the assessment looked at how a 16% shareholding by Amazon would “affect its incentives to compete independently with Deliveroo in both restaurant delivery and online convenience grocery delivery in the coming years”.

“The CMA ultimately found that this level of investment will not substantially lessen competition in either market. However, if Amazon were to acquire a greater level of control over Deliveroo — through, for example, acquiring a controlling interest in the company — this could trigger a further investigation by the CMA,” it added.

Commenting further in a statement, Stuart McIntosh, inquiry chair, said: “Taking account of the higher legal standard that applies at Phase 2, the Group has concluded that the transaction will not result in a substantial lessening of competition in either restaurant delivery or convenience grocery delivery.”

McIntosh was also at pains to emphasize that the decision reflects the scale of the investment and Amazon ‘s “incentives to compete in both markets” — reiterating the warning that should Amazon try to increase its share of Deliveroo a fresh investigation may be triggered. 

The announcement that Amazon was leading a $575 million Series G investment in the UK food delivery app business dates back to May 2019.

The move signalled a second act for the ecommerce behemoth in the UK food delivery market, after it launched an on-demand food delivery offer with London restaurants for Prime members back in 2016. However it went on to shutter the effort a couple of years later — having faced fierce competition from the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Responding to the CMA’s clearance of the Amazon stake, Deliveroo emphasized that “none of the five ‘Theories of Harm’ on which the CMA based its investigation have been substantiated”.

A company spokesperson also emailed this statement:

We are delighted that the CMA has concluded its 15 month investigation and that the Amazon minority investment can now go ahead.

This is fantastic news for UK customers and restaurants, and for the British economy. British born Deliveroo will use the investment to increase choice and value for customers, support for restaurants and will be able to offer more riders the flexible work they value as the company expands.

Deliveroo is excited that Amazon, the most customer-obsessed and innovative company in the world, has shown such a huge vote of confidence in Deliveroo and chosen to invest in the company’s future.

The company offered some updated business metrics, saying there are now 100,000 restaurants on its platform globally, with 30,000 joining this year alone — which it claimed points to “the extent to which the Covid crisis has seen restaurants turn to delivery as a vital source of revenue”.

“75,000 of the restaurants who work with Deliveroo globally are small, independent restaurants who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” it added.

Using population health analysis to improve patient care brings Sema4 a $1.1 billion valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

Sema4, the Stamford, Connecticut-based digital healthcare company now worth just over $1 billion, takes its name from the system of sending messages via code.

And like its namesake, Sema4 is trying to send messages of its own to the broader healthcare system based on the signals it uncovers in massive data sets of population health that can reveal insights and best practices, according to the company’s founding chief executive, Eric Schadt.

Spun out from the Mt. Sinai Health System in June 2017, Sema4 is the second digital healthcare company in a week to reach a billion-dollar valuation from investors (Ro, too, is now worth over $1 billion). In this case, Sema4’s $121 million financing came from BlackRock, Deerfield and Moore Capital, and follows only 12 months after another $120 million institutional financing from investors, including Blackstone, Section 32, Oak HC/FT, Decheng and the Connecticut Innovation Fund.

The company’s ability to attract capital may have something to do with a business model that’s managed to amass nearly 10 million patient records through partnerships with 10 major health systems and several hundred thousand more patients through a strategy that has the company offer direct insights to patients as part of enhanced care services.

“My effort centered on… how do we aggregate bigger and bigger sources of data to better inform patients around their health and wellness,” said Schadt. 

Sema4 chief executive Eric Schadt. Image Credit: Sema4

Sema4 works with physicians to provide analysis of genetic data so doctors can make informed decisions on what care would work best with their patients. “We’re providing a meaningful service on behalf of the physician and it’s a service that the physician wants us to do because they’re generally not adept at the genomics,” said Schadt. 

The company provides screening services for reproductive health and oncology as two of its core competencies, acting as a single point of care to collect and store information in a way that’s easily portable for patients, Schadt said.

“We play in the testing arena as a growth hack engine to engage patients and generating high amounts of quality data and seek to engage with them to get to higher scales to build the biggest models to get what [doctors] need on any condition of interest,” he said. 

Sema4 is currently working in three areas: reproductive health, precision oncology and now COVID-19. In April, the company had no ability to analyze tests for COVID-19, but did have lab space that was certified to perform the necessary analysis. Now, the company can handle 15,000 tests per day.

As a result of the round, Andrew Elbardissi, a managing partner at Deerfield, as joined Sema4’s board of directors. Other recent additions to the board include Mike Pellini, the former chief executive of Foundation Medicine and current investor at Section 32 (the venture firm launched by former Google Ventures head Bill Maris); former principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Rachel Sherman; and former Goldman Sachs chief financial officer, Marty Chavez. 

“Sema4 is a leader at the forefront of one of the most exciting intersections in healthcare – the application of technology, AI and machine learning to help improve patient outcomes. We are excited to support this talented management team as Sema4 begins its next phase of growth,” said Will Abecassis, managing director at BlackRock, in a statement. 

Goldman Sachs acted as a financial advisor to Sema4 on the transaction.

 

The Not Company, a maker of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes in Chile, will soon be worth $250M

By Jonathan Shieber

The Not Company, Latin America’s leading contender in the plant-based meat and dairy substitute market, is about to close on an $85 million round of funding that would value it at $250 million, according to sources familiar with the company’s plans.

The latest round of funding comes on the heels of a series of successes for the Santiago-based business. In the two years since NotCo launched on the global stage, the company has expanded beyond its mayonnaise product into milk, ice cream, and hamburgers. Other products, including a chicken meat substitute are also on the product roadmap, according to people familiar with the company.

NotCo is already selling several products in Chile, Argentina and Latin America’s largest market — Brazil — and has signed a blockbuster deal with Burger King to be the chain’s supplier of plant-based burgers. It’s in this Burger King deal that NotCo’s approach to protein formulation is paying dividends, sources said. The company is responsible for selling 48 sandwiches per store per day in the locations where it’s supplying its products, according to one person familiar with the data. That figure outperforms Impossible Foods per-store sales, the person said.

NotCo is also now selling its burgers in grocery stores in Argentina and Chile. And while the company is not break even yet, sources said that by December 2021 it could be — or potentially even cash flow positive.

NotCo co-founders Karim Pichara, Matias Muchnick, and Pablo Zamora. Image Credit: The Not Company

With the growth both in sales and its diversification into new products, it’s little wonder that investors have taken note.

Sources said that the consumer brand focused private equity firm L Catterton Partners and the Biz Stone-backed Future Positive were likely investors in the new financing round for the company. Previous investors in NotCo include Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment firm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the London-based CPG investment firm, The Craftory, IndieBio and SOS Ventures.

Alternatives to animal products are a huge (and still growing) category for venture investors. Earlier this month Perfect Day closed on a second tranche of $160 million for that company’s latest round of financing, bringing that company’s total capital raised to $361.5 million, according to Crunchbase. Perfect Day then turned around and launched a consumer food business called the Urgent Company.


These recent rounds confirm our reporting in Extra Crunch about where investors are focusing their time as they try to create a more sustainable future for the food industry. Read more about the path they’re charting.


Meanwhile large food chains continue to experiment with plant-based menu items and push even further afield into cell-based meat using cultures from animals. KFC recently announced that it would be expanding its experiment with Beyond Meat’s chicken substitute in the U.S. — and would also be experimenting with cultured meat in Moscow.

Behind all of this activity is an acknowledgement that consumer tastes are changing, interest in plant-based diets are growing, and animal agriculture is having profound effects on the world’s climate.

As the website ClimateNexus notes, animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels. It’s also a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss.

There are 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, which occupy one-third of the planet’s land arable and habitable land surface, and consume 16% of the world’s freshwater supply. Reducing meat consumption in the world’s diet could have huge implications for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If Americans were to replace beef with plant-based substitutes, some studies suggest it would reduce emissions by 1,911 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Cooks Venture raises $10 million in Series A funding

By Jordan Crook

Cooks Venture has raised $10 million in Series A funding led by SJF Ventures and Cultivian Sandbox, with participation from Larry Schwartz and John Roulac.

At its most basic level, Cooks Venture provides a proprietary breed of chicken to grocery stores for consumption. The company also lists Fresh Direct and direct online sales to its distribution channels. But it’s far more complex than that.

For one, Cooks Venture spent years researching the genetic lines of chickens to develop its own breed of heirloom chickens. Why? Cooks Venture chickens grow more slowly, can live in a wider range of climates, get sick less frequently, and most importantly, can thrive on a much more diverse diet than your average chicken.

These features breed (see what I did there?) their own benefits. For one, this new proprietary breed (called Heritage breed) can be sold to emerging nations that perhaps can’t afford to build state-of-the-art temperature-controlled facilities or don’t have access to tons of corn (but do have access to yucca or quinoa) for feed. Cooks Venture also color sexes its chickens, making it easier for a farm without advanced infrastructure to quickly tell the difference between male and female chickens, which have different uses.

Secondly, feed for livestock is a huge source of demand on the agricultural industry, but much of that demand is for a small number of grains, like corn.

With Cooks Venture Heritage chickens, which can eat a wide variety of foods, farmers can practice regenerative agriculture and run a biodiverse farm with a reliable place to sell those yields.

As part of the fundraising deal, Cooks Venture has also partnered with FoodID.

The platform tests for the presence of antibiotics and other adulterants in near real time, providing a solution to the problem of label fraud.

Cooks Venture founder and CEO Matt Wadiak (cofounder of Blue Apron) explained that the USDA runs what is called a follicle test, “and one of the issues [they’ve] determined with this kind of testing is that the thresholds for those tests will never lead to a positive test.”

He said the same animal (that wouldn’t test positive in the USDA’s test) would be found to test positive for various proteins and antibiotics when submitted to FoodID’s mass spectrometer test. Moreover, your basic mass spectrometer test takes a few weeks to offer results, which by then means that the flock has already been slaughtered and is in the midst of being processed and sent off to stores. The FoodID test can be done in near real time.

Wadiak says that food fraud is one of the biggest challenges to Cooks Venture, which goes above and beyond to provide healthy chickens to customers. If other products can simply fake it, it’s all the more difficult for Cooks Venture to stand out at the point of sale.

Cooks Venture says that, through this partnership, it’s the first company in America to test for synthetic inputs and the only company that can independently validate that it never uses antibiotics and provides verified non-GMO feed to its birds.

The company has significantly expanded since its $12 million fundraise in September 2019, serving broad swaths of California, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Seattle, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Northeast.

The Cooks Venture team is made up of about 240 people, 42 percent of whom are female and 52 percent of whom are people of color. The leadership team, made up of 11 people, includes six women and two people of color.

Investors drop off $33 million for Chowbus, a delivery service for ‘mom and pop’ Asian restaurants

By Jonathan Shieber

When big platforms have carved out large swaths of the delivery market, the best thing for an upstart company to do is to specialize.

For Chowbus, that meant building a food-delivery business that finds restaurants whose cuisines specialize in regional cuisines from Northern and Southern China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

It’s a strategy that has now netted the company $33 million in financing led by the Silicon Valley-based investment firm Altos Ventures and New York’s Left Lane Capital. Hyde Park Angels, Fika Ventures, FJ Labs and Silicon Valley Bank also participated in the round.

Founded four years ago in Chicago by Suyu Zhang and Linxin Wen, the company said that its goal was to connect people with authentic Asian food that’s not easy to find on delivery apps. Over the past year, the company touted significant growth in its business, a traction that can be reflected in its decision to bring on the former chief operating officer of Jump Bikes, Kenny Tsai, as its chief operating officer, and Jieying Zheng, a former Groupon product leader as its head of product.

“When we say we’re true partners to the restaurants we work with, we mean it. By eliminating hidden fees, helping them showcase their best dishes, and other efforts we make on their behalf, we really go the extra mile to help our restaurant partners succeed,” said Wen, Chowbus’ chief executive, in a statement. “We only succeed if they do.”

And seemingly, Chowbus is succeeding. The company raised $4 million in its first round of institutional funding just last year and its rise has been precipitous since then.

The Chicago-based company said it would use its new funding to expand to more cities across the US and add new products like a “dine-in” feature allowing diners to order and pay for their meals on their phone for a contactless experience at restaurants in cities that have flattened the curve of COVID-19 infections and are now reopening. 

Chowbus pitches its lack of hidden fees and footprint across 20 cities in North America including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, and many other cities across North America. In Los Angeles, the company offers menus in Mandarin and Cantonese and allows its users to bundle dishes from multiple restaurants in a single delivery.

Other companies are experimenting with specialization as a way to differentiate from the major delivery services that are on the market. Black and Mobile, which launched in Philadelphia but is in the process of expanding across the country, is a delivery service focused on Black-owned restaurants and food stores.

Founded by David Cabello, Black and Mobile was started in 2017 by the 22 year-old college dropout. The company launched its first operations outside of Atlanta earlier this month and is available on iOS.

“The market is experiencing a permanent shift from offline to online ordering, a trend that Chowbus is actively driving,” said Harley Miller, Managing Partner at Left Lane Capital . “Focusing on this large and loyal constituency with a vertical-approach to supporting Asian restaurants and food purveyors has allowed Chowbus to differentiate itself on both sides of the marketplace. The capital efficiency with which they have operated, relative to the scale achieved, is extraordinarily impressive, and not something we often see.”

Shelf Engine has a plan to reduce food waste at grocery stores, and $12 million in new cash to do it

By Jonathan Shieber

For the first few months it was operating, Shelf Engine, the Seattle-based company that optimizes the process of stocking store shelves for supermarkets and groceries, didn’t have a name.

Co-founders Stefan Kalb and Bede Jordan were on a ski trip outside of Salt Lake City about four years ago when they began discussing what, exactly, could be done about the problem of food waste in the US.

Kalb is a serial entrepreneur whose first business was a food distribution company called Molly’s, which was sold to a company called HomeGrown back in 2019.

A graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in actuarial science, Kalb says he started his food company to make a difference in the world. While Molly’s did, indeed, promote healthy eating, the problem that Kalb and Bede, a former Microsoft engineer, are tackling at Shelf Engine may have even more of an impact.

Food waste isn’t just bad for its inefficiency in the face of a massive problem in the US with food insecurity for citizens, it’s also bad for the environment.

Shelf Engine proposes to tackle the problem by providing demand forecasting for perishable food items. The idea is to wring inefficiencies out of the ordering system. Typically about a third of food gets thrown out of the bakery section and other highly perishable goods stocked on store shelves. Shelf Engine guarantees use for the store and any items that remain unsold the company will pay for.

Image: OstapenkoOlena/iStock

Shelf Engine gets information about how much sales a store typically sees for particular items and can then predict how much demand for a particular product there will be. The company makes money off of the arbitrage between how much it pays for goods from vendors and how much it sells to grocers.

It allows groceries to lower the food waste and have a broader variety of products on shelves for customers.

Shelf Engine initially went to market with a product that it was hoping to sell to groceries, but found more traction by becoming a marketplace and perfecting its models on how much of a particular item needs to go on store shelves.

The next item on the agenda for Bede and Kalb is to get insights into secondary sources like imperfect produce resellers or other grocery stores that work as an outlet.

The business model is already showing results at around 400 stores in the Northwest, according to Kalb and it now has another $12 million in financing to go to market.

The funds came from Garry Tan’s Initialized and GGV (and GGV managing director Hans Tung has a seat on the company’s board). Other investors in the company include Foundation Capital, Bain Capital, 1984 and Correlation Ventures .

Kalb said the money from the round will be used to scale up the engineering team and its sales and acquisition process.

The investment in Shelf Engine is part of a wave of new technology applications coming to the grocery store, as Sunny Dhillon, a partner at Signia Ventures, wrote in a piece for TechCrunch’s Extra Crunch.

“Grocery margins will always be razor thin, and the difference between a profitable and unprofitable grocer is often just cents on the dollar,” Dhillon wrote. “Thus, as the adoption of e-grocery becomes more commonplace, retailers must not only optimize their fulfillment operations (e.g, MFCs), but also the logistics of delivery to a customer’s doorstep to ensure speed and quality (e.g., darkstores).”

Beyond Dhillon’s version of a delivery only grocery network with mobile fulfillment centers and dark stores, there’s a lot of room for chains with existing real estate and bespoke shopping options to increase their margins on perishable goods as well.

 

From bioprinting lab-grown meat in Russia to Beyond Meat in the US, KFC is embracing the future of food

By Jonathan Shieber

From a partnership with the Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to make chicken meat replacements using plant material and lab cultured chicken cells to an expansion of its Beyond Fried Chicken pilots to Southern California, KFC is aggressively pushing forward with its experiments around the future of food.

In Russia, that means providing 3D Bioprinting with breading and spices to see if the company’s chicken replacements can match the KFC taste, according to a statement from the company. As the company said, there are no other methods available on the market that can allow for the creation of complex products from animal cells.

“3D bioprinting technologies, initially widely recognized in medicine, are nowadays gaining popularity in producing foods such as meat,” said Yusef Khesuani, co-founder and Managing Partner of 3D Bioprinting Solutions, in a statement. “In the future, the rapid development of such technologies will allow us to make 3D-printed meat products more accessible and we are hoping that the technology created as a result of our cooperation with KFC will help accelerate the launch of cell-based meat products on the market.”

KFC beyond meat

Image: Beyond Meat

Closer to its home base in the US, KFC is working with the publicly traded plant-based meat substitute developer Beyond Meat on an expansion of their recent trials for KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken.

Continuing its wildly successful limited trials in Atlanta, Nashville, and Charlotte, KFC is now setting its sights on the bigger markets in Southern California, near Beyond Meat’s headquarters in Los Angeles.

Beginning on July 20, KFC will be selling Beyond Fried Chicken at 50 stores the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego areas, while supplies last, the company said.

Unlike the 3D bioprinting process used by its Russian partner, Beyond Meat uses plant-based products exclusively to make its faux chicken meat.

Beyond Fried Chicken first appeared on the market last year in Atlanta and was made available in additional markets in the South earlier this year.  The menu item — first available in a one-day consumer test in Atlanta — sold out in less than five hours, the company said.

“I’ve said it before: despite many imitations, the flavor of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one that has never been replicated, until Beyond Fried Chicken,” said Andrea Zahumensky, chief marketing officer, KFC U.S. “We know the east coast loved it, so we thought we’d give those on the west coast a chance to tell us what they think in an exclusive sneak peek.

Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets will be available as a six or 12-piece à la carte or as part of a combo, complete with a side and medium drink starting at $6.99, plus tax.

Meanwhile, KFC’s Russian project aims to create the world’s first lab-made chicken nuggets, and plans to release them this fall in Moscow.

Popularizing lab-grown meat could have a significant impact on climate change according to reports. The company cited statistics indicating that growing meat from cells could half the energy consumption involved in meat production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while  dramatically cutting land use.

“Crafted meat products are the next step in the development of our ‘restaurant of the future’ concept,” said Raisa Polyakova, General Manager of KFC Russia & CIS, in a statement. “Our experiment in testing 3D bioprinting technology to create chicken products can also help address several looming global problems. We are glad to contribute to its development and are working to make it available to thousands of people in Russia and, if possible, around the world.”

The Espresso Display is a fantastic portable display for your Mac or PC

By Darrell Etherington

Australian-based hardware startup Espresso Displays has taken a category with a lot of relatively unremarkable, but functional entrants, and added features, design and quality improvements to set itself apart from the crowd. The Espresso Display offers a portable form factor for easy packing, magnetic mounting, single cable operation via USB-C with a compatible modern Mac, built-in speakers and 2.5mm audio out, and optional touch functionality.

The basics

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Espresso’s display comes in two different sizes – a 13.3 inch or a 15.6-inch model. The display itself is very thin and light, at just under 0.2 inches thick, and under 2 lbs. The display panel features touch sensitivity, which works in tandem with a driver that you install on your Mac to enable touch features.

The display is made of glass and aluminum, and feels very high quality to match your MacBook. There are two USB-C and a mini HDMI port on the side, and a 2.5mm mini stereo jack for audio out. One of the USB-C ports is dedicated to power only, and the other is for connecting a display, with power delivery supported as well for a single-cable connection to modern Macs.

Espresso offers 4K resolution, and provides a unique mounting system that uses magnets to secure it to the optional folding display stand. The company also offers a VESA mouth adapter for attaching it to more traditional stand or mounting arm. There’s also a soft case included to protect the display during transit.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The company is currently funding the display’s production via Indiegogo, but is nearing mass production, and the unit they sent me to test out definitely felt like a finished product. The 13-inch version is $249 USD but will retail for $320, and the Display 15 will retail for $350 when generally available.

Design and performance

The Espresso Display is a cut above the competition when it comes to both build quality and materials, as well as actual panel image quality and color. I’ve actually been using a 15.6-inch portable display purchased from Amazon recently, and while that has been a satisfactory solution for extending my desktop when I want to work from a few different locations, it’s definitely sub-par with its color rendering and all plastic build.

Espresso’s glass and metal composition feels much more at home with my MacBook Pro, and while I can’t quite tune its colors to match my Apple’s output, the built-in profile is generally pleasing and fairly color accurate. It’s bright enough, and renders crisp text and graphics at 4K resolution, with excellent contrast.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Also unlike my generic Amazon display, Espresso Display actually works with just a single cable with my MacBook Pro. The other doesn’t draw enough power through just a USB-C connection, and so requires an adapter to be plugged in. Espresso works flawlessly in this regard, using the includes USB-C cable for true on-the-go one cable connectivity.

Espresso also offers touch capability, which comes in handy for things like graphics work. It ships with a small stylus, but don’t think of this as a Wacom alternative – it’s more for multi-touch interactions than pen input, and lacks pressure sensitivity. The touch features are further helped by the flexibility of the magnetic stand, which can flip around for a more low-angled mode that facilitates hands-on work. It’s easy to then flip it up for a more iMac-like stand orientation, or turn it to portrait orientation for working on documents or code.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The stand is actually a big part of Espresso Display’s appeal, since it makes it very flexible for working anywhere. I’ve yet to find a great stand solution for other portable displays that match their portability, and this one definitely does, folding into a square no larger than a thin slice of toast.

At 4K and 60Hz, the performance of the display panel itself is excellent, and provides a great way to gain a whole lot more screen real estate than is possible with your built-in screen alone.

Bottom line

The portable display market is increasingly crowded, but the Espresso Display manages to stand out thanks to its use of high-quality materials and unique magnetic mounting solution. Many existing options out there require some kind of compromise or trade-off, of varying degrees of severity, but the Espresso Display is thin, light, durable and provides a great image, with easy, flexible mounting options and true single-cable connectivity.

Crisp, the platform for demand forecasting the food supply chain, gets $12 million in funding

By Jordan Crook

Crisp, a demand forecasting platform for the food industry, has today announced the close of a $12 million Series A funding round led by FirstMark Capital, with participation from Spring Capital and Swell Capital.

Crisp launched out of beta in January of this year with a product that aimed to give food suppliers and distributors a clearer picture of customer demand at retailers. Before Crisp, these organizations usually had several data scientists compiling data from various sources into an unintelligible spreadsheet, making it difficult to see general demand outlooks, and nearly impossible to spot anomalies.

Not only does this lead to losses in revenue, but it also contributes to a terrible amount of food waste.

Crisp looks to solve this by giving these suppliers and distributors a visualization of their data instantly and in real time. The company has built integrations with a large number of ERP software, ingesting historical data from food brands and combining them with a wide range of other signals around demand drivers, such as seasonality, holidays, price sensitivity, past marketing campaigns, changes in the competitive landscape and weather that might affect the sale or shipment of ingredients or the product itself.

The end goal is to consolidate data across the industry, from brands to distributors to grocery stores, so that each individual link in the food chain can do a better job of matching their supply with their demand on an individual basis.

Since launching out of beta, Crisp has expanded beyond food brands and suppliers into retail and distributor space. The company has also expanded beyond produce and dairy into verticals like beverages, bakery, CPG, flowers, meat and poultry. The startup says its seen an 80% increase in the number of customers using the platform since January.

Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic brings its own unique challenges and opportunities to Crisp’s business. On the one hand, grocery store shopping is booming and the supply chain behind it is certainly in need of better data science and demand forecasting as user behavior shifts rapidly. On the other hand, user behavior is shifting rapidly.

With state by state, and sometimes county by county, lockdowns and shifts in the restrictions imposed on small businesses, Crisp has had to manually track what’s going on around the country in order to provide clear insights to its customers.

“This period we’re in has increased that willingness to share data and increased collaboration between everybody in the supply chain,” said founder and CEO Are Traasdahl. “We’ve seen a big shift there. Earlier, everyone assumed that everyone else was able to deliver, but now this ability to have a full, top-down visibility across a whole depth of companies, not just the companies next to you in your trading relationships, but being able to unify data and have more insights from multiple steps away from yourself, and get that data in real time been accelerated.”

Crisp currently has 33 employees (with plans to hire on the back of the funding), which is 33% women and 15% people of color. Half of Crisp’s management team are women.

Brave Robot ice cream launches as the first brand from the Perfect Day-backed Urgent Company

By Jonathan Shieber

The founders of the alternative dairy protein manufacturer, Perfect Day, have joined with a longtime product developer in the dairy industry to create a new sustainably focused consumer food company called the Urgent Company.

Focused on creating sustainable food brands manufactured, packaged and sold in a more environmentally friendly way, the Urgent Company is unveiling its first product — Brave Robot ice cream.

It’s also the first indication of how Perfect Day will deploy some of the massive amounts of money it raised since it closed on its mammoth $300 million funding round led by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board with additional commitments from Temasek and Horizons Ventures.

Perfect Day founders Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi first met their Urgent Company co-founder and general manager, Paul Kollessoff, when Kollessoff was performing due diligence on Perfect Day while working for the Irish dairy company Glanbia.

“What I was doing there was actually looking at new business ventures,” said Kollessoff. “I met the guys three years ago when we were doing some flavor work with them.”

The conversation ended there while Pandya and Gandhi built up Perfect Day, but around three months ago the two founders reached back out with idea for a new consumer food company, based on the latest in plant-based, or genetically modified proteins (including their own), that also used the latest in packaging technology, logistics, and other technologies to reduce the entire carbon footprint of a CPG company. 

Image Credit: The Urgent Company

“It’s not that we are trying to create a company that’s going to commercialize Perfect Day proteins,” said Pandya. “There are so many other things across the value chain of food that need to be improved and modernized including all of the things around how a food gets to the consumer.”

So Brave Robot’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond the use of alternative proteins to replace animal husbandry and the particularly ecologically disastrous dairy industry and its cows. “There’s a load of exciting stuff going on in ingredient innovation and packaging innovation,” said Kollessoff.

Those innovations help The Urgent Company not only become more sustainable, but give the company the ability to move products into the market more quickly, according to Kollessoff.

With only eight full-time members of the Urgent Company staff it managed to shepherd its ice cream business from inception to product launch within a three-month timeframe according to Kollessoff.

Co-founders of Perfect Day, Ryan Pandya (L) and Perumal Gandhi (R), showcase the prospective product portfolio fueled by its flora-based dairy protein. Image Credit: Business Wire.

So Brave Robot will be launching with a direct to consumer pitch for its dairy-replacement pints of ice cream for a $5.99 price point. Initially available to customers in the California region, any number of buyers are talking to the company, Kollessoff said. “We’ll be on store shelves through the next month. Working with a national broker… we will have a direct to consumer platform as well.”

Before anything could happen with bringing a product to commercial scale, Kollessoff said he had to go through a rigorous process of testing the product — with his kids. At one point, there were 400 pints of ice cream in the Kollessoff freezer. He and his team whittled the initial over thirty flavors of ice cream and settled on a core group of eight.

They include: Vanilla, A Lot of Chocolate, Vanilla ‘N Cookies, Buttery Pecan, PB ‘N Fudge, Blueberry Pie, Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk and Raspberry White Truffle.

“We wanted to create something that is bigger and broader in vision that can bring innovation across the board,” said Gandhi of the drive to build another business with a broader scope than Perfect Day. “What Perfect Day is focusing on …we made cow 2.0… we’ve reimagined the cow… [but] we want [The Urgent Company] to use any protein on planet earth.”

Part of the reason why the company is so unfettered is to encourage speedy experimentation for the simple reason that there’s not much time to take the steps needed to slow down — and ideally reverse — climate change.

“You only get so much time on earth… and we wanted to do more… That’s why it’s called the urgent company.. [because] let’s hurry the fuck up world.”

Asmoke’s portable pellet grill is super affordable and great for small spaces

By Darrell Etherington

Smokers and pellet grills are growing in popularity, likely because a lot more people are cooking at home – and looking for other ways to up their home chef game. The Asmoke Pellet Grill, which is currently in the final stretch of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, has a price point that’s far below most other options out there – but don’t let the price tag fool you, the grill packs more punch than its cost and portable size might suggest.

Basics

If you’re not familiar with pellet grills, they’re a combination of smoker and BBQ that burn condensed hardwood pellets feed by an auger to create smoke and heat. The most popular options out there include Traeger’s grills, as well as Camp Chef, Pit Boss, and others. The Smoke Pellet Grill is a new, portable pellet grill that features a lot of the same features you’d see in higher-priced brand name options, but at a much lower cost when you factor in their accessories – particularly now, during the tail end of their crowdfunding campaign.

Asmoke’s $176 USD backer price includes one grill, a meat injector, a thermometer, grill gloves, shredding tools for breaking down smoked meat, tongs and a 5lb bag of their applewood pellets to get you started cooking right away. That’s over half-off their estimated retail price once the campaign ends. Even at the full final price you’re still going to come out cheaper than the closest brand name competitor – the Traeger Ranger – once you factor in all the included accessories.

The Asmoke is electrically-powered, so you can use it outside anywhere you have access to an outlet. It includes a larger cooking surface that can fit up to 8 burgers at once, or one full rack of ribs. As mentioned, there’s a temperature probe included that plugs into the front and displays the internal temp of any meat you insert it into within the grill itself while cooking. A dial on the front provides the only control you need, enabling setting temp from 180 all the way up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Design

The Asmoke Pellet Grill is designed to be portable, at just over 2 feet by around 1.5 feet, and 14.45 inches tall. It weights around 45 lbs, which is heavy, but that’s still portable compared to most pellet smokers, which tend to be very large and essentially designed to sit in a fixed location. The Asmoke is also made from steel and stainless steel primarily, so that weight represents durability, which is good for an appliance designed to be used exclusively outside.

Construction of the grill feels very sturdy and high-quality, with good fittings and finishes across the board. The heat resistant paint comes in four different colors, including the red and blue shown below, as well as an aquamarine green and black. Latches secure the lid while cooking, and there’s an insulating gasket that runs the length and width of the edge to keep the heat in while giving you a secure closure. A large handle opens and closes the lid, and four feet elevate the grill off whatever surface you’re resting it on.

Inside, there’s a hopper where you put the pellets on the left which is separated from the cooking area on the right. The cooking area includes a large grill surface, and an optional raised rack for a small second level cooking area. A stainless steel grease slide installs over the cup where pellets are driven by the auger to burn and smoke, and a second slide goes over that – giving you the ability to keep it closed for smoking and grilling, or opening it up to allow flame through for char-broiling.

On the front, you can see the control unit, which includes a large, readable display that uses a few different colors to clearly present information including the set temperature of the drill, auger speed, and sensor temperature when cooking with the probe. The large, single dial is your only control mechanism, providing temperature setting and letting you turn the grill on and off.

Some assembly is required to get the Asmoke ready to cook, but it’s actually super easy to do. Basically you just install the legs and front handle, and then remove all the internal components from their packaging and put them back in the grill. It took me about 20 minutes start to finish. The grill needs to be primed upon first use (and any time you run out of pellets), but that’s only a few more minutes. And the first time you ever use it, there’s a burn-off procedure that involves running the grill at higher temps for around 30 to 40 minutes, but it’s very easy to do.

Performance

The Asmoke punches above its weight class. In testing, I did an extended, 7-hour smoke of a pork shoulder blade roast using the provided Applewood pellets, and the results were fantastic. I’ve smoked a lot of meat using a Traeger Pro 575, and this was easily on par with the best results I’ve had out of that cooker in terms of the quality and flavor of the finished product.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Best of all, the Asmoke is small enough to work on my condo deck, which is not somewhere I’ve typically been able to consider using a smoker cooker. The grill does put off a lot of smoke through its exhaust, particularly when it’s first heating up to reach temperature, but it also dissipates rather quickly, especially if you’re on a higher floor. Just be aware that especially in close proximity, the smoke produced from cookers like these will be powerful and strong-smelling – which is a benefit for me, but which might not be what you’re after if you’re living in a dense city environment.

Actually using the Asmoke is very simple. You can find smoker cooker recipes available readily on the internet, and then it’s a matter of just following those instructions. The Asmoke gets up to target temperature quickly, and is good at maintaining a constant temp throughout a cook once it reaches those levels. If you need to refill the hopper mid-cook, it’s simple enough to open the box and do so, and you won’t lose all that much temperature so long as you do it quickly. And since the hopper compartment is insulated separately from the cooking area, you can do it without fear of burning yourself, too.

Because the Asmoke offers such a wide temperature range, it’s also good or grilling, and even baking. I also made burgers on it at a much higher temp, and those results were fantastic, too – far exceeding standard BBQs in terms of retaining juices and adding subtle smoke flavor.

One thing to consider is that post-cook, especially after long ones like the pork roast I did, there’s a fair amount of cleaning up involved. It’s not difficult, but it is time consuming, and includes scraping the grease tray, cleaning the cooking grate, and vacuuming out the leftover ash from the pellet pot and the bottom of the cooking box. This isn’t specific to Asmoke: It’s part and parcel of operation any pellet cooker, and I found that Asmoke’s high quality materials ensured it was relatively easy to clean.

Bottom line

If you’re looking to bump up your outdoor cooking game, the Asmoke Portable Pellet Grill is a remarkably affordable way to do so, especially during this crowdfunding effort. Normally, I’d advise caution in any crowdfunding scenario, but in this case, grills are already in the process of shipping to customers, and they work exactly as advertised, providing high-quality results.

This is a category where top-brand incumbents rightly earn a lot of respect and customer loyalty for their long history of delivery reliable products, so it’s hard for a newcomer to break in. But Asmoke’s product and results far exceed their newcomer status.

White Castle becomes the first fast food chain to test out the robot fry cook, Flippy, from Miso Robotics

By Jonathan Shieber

The next time Harold and Kumar go to a White Castle, there may be a robot making their French Fries.

In one of the first trials of a robotic fry cook at a national burger chain, White Castle said it would work with Pasadena, Calif.-based Miso Robotics to test that company’s robotic chef at a restaurant in the Chicago area. It’s a  trial run for potentially bringing the robot to other White Castle kitchens across the country, the company said.

White Castle first began talking about using the Miso Robotics robots in its kitchens about nine months ago according to White Castle’s vice president of shareholder relations, Jamie Richardson. For the company, it was a question of, “How can we start to make the kitchen of tomorrow today?” 

Already a success on social media, where videos of Miso Robotics’ Flippy robot have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, White Castle was intrigued about the prospects of a burger flipping, chicken, onion, and french frying robot in its locations, Richardson said.

“I think automation is here to stay and this is the first example of a really large credible player starting down that journey,” said Miso Robotics chief executive Buck Jordan of the new collaboration with White Castle. 

White Castle has a fairly interesting track record when it comes to working with startups. The company was the first fast food chain to embrace Impossible Foods for its sliders.

At an undisclosed restaurant in the Chicago area, Miso Robotics is already working to install the latest version of its Flippy robot. The robotic fry cook will be integrated with the company’s point of sale system so that the robot can begin preparation as soon as an order is taken at the register.

That first robot will be coming online in September, according to Richardson.

And Richardson said that White Castle employees don’t need to worry about a robot coming for all of their jobs… yet. 

“It’s going to save us money in food costs because there will be less waste,” said Richardson.  “The other savings will be in terms of output… that’s going to be helpful.. If you maintain speed of service that’s getting a little bit better and a little better you do see more visits… that’s where we see it having the biggest impact… we’re not looking at this as a way to reduce people power.” 

A typical installation of a Miso Robotics system in a kitchen would cost a restaurant $30,000 upfront and then another $15,000 per year. However, with White Castle, the terms (which were undisclosed) were a little different.

Jordan said the goal is to bring the cost of the robotic system down to $15,000 for the entire system, obviating the need for any upfront costs, and convincing restaurants and franchisors that the robot can pay for itself right out of the gate.

There’s a clear path to getting that down to 20K,” said Jordan. “I’m trying to chisel that down to 15K,… at that kind of price and these things have lifetimes of seven to ten years we can afford to take the loss upfront.”

The robots have taken on new significance in the post COVID-19 era as restaurants like White Castle become essential services even as they struggle to keep the lights on with fewer customers. 

At White Castle that meant pay cuts for executives in order to retain staff. “We cut a lot of investment and we didn’t want to lose one job,” Richardson said. However, even with the strategic cuts, the implementation of at least this first robotic system remained a priority.

“There were things that we thought, COVID or no COVID were important,” Richardson said. “This project falls under that banner.”

White Castle’s decision to pilot Flippy in the kitchen creates an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process – reducing potential for transmission of food pathogens. The implementation also brings intelligence to cooking, tapping into sensors, intelligent monitoring and anticipated kitchen needs to keep food temperatures consistent, that ensure optimal quality and a perfect bite for customers. With Flippy in the kitchen automating repetitive, time consuming and dangerous tasks like frying, team members can be redeployed to more customer-experience driven tasks.

Image Credit: Miso Robotics

Luckin Coffee replaces chairman Charles Lu

By Catherine Shu

Luckin Coffee has replaced co-founder and (now ex-) chairman Charles Zhengyao Lu, despite his efforts to maintain control over the troubled Beijing-based coffee chain. The company disclosed in an SEC filing on Monday that Jinyi Guo, another co-founder, board member and former acting chief executive of Luckin, has been appointed as its new chairman and chief executive officer.

In today’s SEC filing, Luckin also said a total of four directors have left the board (Lu, David Hui Li, Erhai Liu and Sean Shao) and two new independent directors have been appointed. The new additions are Jie Yang, vice dean of the business school at the China University of Political Science and Law, and Ying Zeng, who was a partner at law firm Orrick Herrington and Sutcliffe and previously served as El Paso Corporation’s vice president and country manager for China.

The company’s disclosure comes after weeks of strife during which Lu sought to hold onto control of Luckin. Earlier this month, an attempt by Luckin Coffee’s directors to remove Lu as chairman failed to get enough votes during a board meeting.

The proposal to oust Lu was made on June 26 after an internal investigation found that Luckin Coffee’s net revenue in 2019 was inflated by about RMB 2.12 billion (US $300 million) and that fabrication of transactions began in April 2019, with Lu, former chief operating officer Jenny Zhiya Qian and several other employees participating in the false reports.

Luckin Coffee disclosed last month that Nasdaq had decided to delist the company, a spectacular fall from grace after it raised $651 million in its United States public offering in May before allegations of fraud caused its stock to plummet.

 

A glint of hope for India’s food delivery market as Zomato projects monthly cash burn of less than $1M

By Manish Singh

Food delivery startups in India have been struggling to make financial sense for years. They have each lost as much as $50 million a month to win and sustain customers by offering discounts. And unlike some other markets, food delivery startups have been severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

But Zomato, one of the two market leading startups operating in the space, today offered a rare sign of hope for the market after it said it had severely cut its cash-burn as it looks to become profitable.

The Gurgaon-headquartered firm said it estimates it would lose less than $1 million in July, the lowest in years for the 12-year-old firm that acquired Uber Eats’ India business earlier this year.

Zomato also shared its performance for the financial year that ended on March 31, 2020, and the quarter that ended on June 30.

In FY 20, the startup said its revenue surged 105% to $394 million compared to the year before while its losses at EBIDTA-level — a popular metric used by businesses that does not account for interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization — ballooned to $293 million, up from $277 million the year before.

But the startup said the coronavirus pandemic, which has significantly reduced the number of orders customers place on the platform, has also helped it to improve its unit economics.

In the quarter that ended last month, Zomato clocked $41 million in revenue at an EBIDTA-level loss of $12 million. In the month of June alone, the startup’s revenue stood at $17 million at an EBIDTA-loss of $1.5 million.

As India eases its nationwide lockdown, which it enforced in late March, more workers are moving back to the larger cities. Zomato said this has helped the firm increase the number of orders on its platform. The startup said it expects its revenue generation this month to be at 60% of the levels before coronavirus wrought havoc to the industry.

In the quarter that ended in June this year, each order on Zomato earned it — made a contribution margin of — Rs 27 (36 cents), compared to loss of Rs 47 (62 cents) a order during the same period last year, claimed Deepinder Goyal, co-founder and chief executive of Zomato.

Goyal cautioned, however, that the current contribution margin is not sustainable and he expects it to go down to Rs 15 to 20 per order over time.

I wish I understood the world of funding better. Maybe we could scale up my world of scalable ideas. We just keep plodding away, swimming against the current in everything we do, creating multiple successes but watching the swirling sea of investors because it’s an unknown world. https://t.co/dX7vV09yrB

— Neelesh Misra (@neeleshmisra) July 10, 2020

More to follow…

As pandemic drags on, interest in automation surges

By Brian Heater

Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.

For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.

Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.

Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.

The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.

“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

Singaporean startup Karana raises $1.7 million for meat substitutes made from jackfruit

By Catherine Shu

Singaporeans have a growing appetite for plant-based meat substitutes. In fact, demand for products from companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Quorn have grown during the pandemic, partly because consumers are making more health-conscious decisions, according to the Straits Time. Now there is a new entrant to the market. Headquartered in Singapore, Karana announced today it has raised $1.7 million in seed funding and plans to launch its first product, a pork substitute made from jackfruit, this year.

Karana’s seed investors include Henry Soesanto, the CEO of Monde Nissin Group, which acquired Quorn Foods in 2015; agtech investment firms Big Idea Ventures and Germi8; and angel investors Kevin Poon and Gerald Li, both Hong Kong entrepreneurs with experience in the food and beverage industry. Karana said the round also included participation from an undisclosed leading Asia-based FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) distributor.

Karana’s jackfruit is sourced from Sri Lanka, where jackfruit is already a common meat substitute. What Karana’s processing method does is create a texture that replicates minced and shredded pork more closely, making it easier to use in dishes like dumplings, char siu bao or bahn mi.

Founded in 2018 by Dan Riegler and Blair Crichton, Karana turns organic jackfruit into a pork substitute by using a proprietary mechanical technique that the company says does not use any chemical processing. Its pork substitute will be available in restaurants this year, before arriving in retail stores at the beginning of next year.

Riegler and Crichton told TechCrunch in an email that Karana uses jackfruit because it not only has a “naturally meaty texture,” but is an environmentally-friendly crop. It is usually grown intercropped (or with other produce, in the same field), has a high yield and low water usage. But about 60% of jackfruit harvested currently goes to waste, they added. “There is a lot of room for further commercialization, which means additional income streams for farmers.”

Karana’s founders started with pork because it is the most frequently consumed meat in Asia. Its seed funding will be used on research and development to launch new products and the company currently talking to strategic partners in other Asian markets. Future Karana products will use other crops grown in Asia to create new meat substitutes.

“Karana is a whole-plant meat company, our focus is on leveraging what nature has given us and enhancing these amazing biodiverse ingredients to create delicious products. In the future, we will launch products using other regional ingredients that will enable us to expand beyond pork,” the founders said. “This is a real differentiator from other companies that are by-and-large relying on commodity crops in processed forms.”

Nuggs rebrands as Simulate with new cash, a new CTO and an expanded line of faux-meat foods

By Jonathan Shieber

Nuggs, the alternative-meat company founded by serial entrepreneur Ben Pasternak (who previously co-founded the social media app Monkey), has raised $4.1 million and gotten itself a new name and a new CTO as it looks to move beyond chicken nuggets.

Now called Simulate, Pasternak’s startup is readying the launch of new products including spicy nuggets, a “chicken burger product” and, eventually, a hot dog, that required a branding change to befit its newly broadened ambitions in the ultra-competitive industry out to reform consumers’ carnivorous impulses.

Since Pasternak first began pitching his direct to consumer chicken nugget replacements a bit over a year ago, the company has sold 1 million pounds of nuggets. Over the next week, Simulate’s frozen nuggets will make their debut in around 30 Gelson’s supermarkets in California. The company has plans to release its chicken patty within the next few months and a hot dog replacement, DOGGS, in the fourth quarter.

Pasternak began to rebrand earlier this summer when his company launched the second iteration of its nuggets in June.

In addition to his new brand, and new investors including Lerer Hippeau, style="font-weight: 400;"> AgFunder, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian; former Whole Foods chief executive Walter Robb, and model Jasmine Tookes; Pasternak also has a new chief technology officer. 

Bringing Thierry Saint-Denis, the former senior director of research and innovation at Danone, on as CTO is a coup for the company. As a business Nuggs seemed to be more of a marketing play backed by a savvy founder and a frozen food giant that wanted to make a play for the burgeoning market for meat substitutes and replacements. Now, with Saint-Denis, the company brings on a developer of food products that have reached nearly $1 billion in sales who holds over 14 patents related to functional ingredients, probiotics, and enzymes. 

With the new executive in place, new and previous investors like McCain Foods, Rainfall Ventures, Maven Ventures, NOMO Ventures, MTV founder Bob Pittman, and Casper founder Neil Parikh are now backing a company with a bit more technical heft behind it.  

Not that Nuggs wasn’t improving its product line over the past year. Pasternak touts the company’s iterative approach to product development, embodied in its different “release notes” as the company toyed with different formulations.

That software driven approach may also yield other sales options, like a subscription service, Pasternak said. “We have seen this core community of people obsessively purchasing the new versions. We are looking at launching some kind of beta testing subscription thing shortly.”

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