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As Americans look to escape, this peer-to-peer RV rental startup is happy to accommodate them

By Connie Loizos

The world feels as fragile as ever, and those with any options at all are looking to get away this summer.

For many, planes and hotel rooms won’t be an option they consider owing to continued concerns about the coronavirus (not to mention the expense, which 40 million fewer Americans can likely afford). That leaves perhaps renting a local Airbnb this summer or, for a growing number of people, looking for the first time to rent an RV or camper van, including as a way to visit far-flung family members who might otherwise be unreachable.

Last week, we talked with Jeff Cavins, a serial operator and the cofounder and CEO of a company that’s poised to benefit from the latter trend: Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental company that was founded in 2015, bootstrapped by its founders for a couple of years, and has more recently attracted $88 million in venture funding, $13 million of it an extension to a $50 million Series B round that it quietly closed early this year.

We wanted to know what trends the company — which collects fees from both the vehicle owners and the renters on its platform — is seeing, including how its customers are changing and where they’re looking to park themselves this summer. Below are some excerpts from our chat, edited lightly for length.

TC: How has your model changed because of the coronavirus?

JC: We had typically seen an average rental on our platform would run about six days. That’s now over nine days. With COVID, as  with many other companies, we saw a lot of de-bookings in the platform, but then they all roared back and then some. We’ve seen a 2,645% increase in bookings from the low point of COVID, which was late March, to right now.

TC: What percentage of those booking trips are first-time customers?

JC: In the month of May, 88% of our bookings were by first-time renters, which is a record for us. And more than half of them have come back and already booked their second trip. So some booked in May; they went away for the Memorial Day weekend [and] came right back. And they booked another one for, in this case, like the Fourth of July or [trips in] June. As you know, a lot of people are at home with their kids, so everybody in America has this big, long extended summer break. And with the kids, they’re finding this is the safer option for travel.

TC: Are their expectations different? Are they looking for certain things that maybe more seasoned RV campers wouldn’t think to ask?

JC: The big trend that we’re seeing in the RV industry, and this is not unique to America, is the new consumers don’t want those big land barges. What they want are camper vans, because the average user on our platform is under the age of 40, which was a big surprise to this industry because it’s always leaned a little bit towards the Boomer or the retiree demographic. And they like camping off the grid. They like to operate with vehicles that feel comfortable to them, that have a smaller footprint, that are easier on the environment. And so things that have become popular are solar power, potable water that can be transportable, hookups for mountain bikes, sporting gear . . . They also to be able to head to unique locations where they can build those Instagram mobile moment. So we’re starting to see that trend, and it has become a global phenomenon.

TC: When we last talked, in January of last year, Outdoorsy had around 35,000 vehicles available to rent on the platform. How many are on the platform now?

JC: We have 48,000 peer-to-peer listings; when we add our international users and we have a lot of these mega fleets that are connected to our site via an API like Indies Campers or Jucy, that puts our our supply at 68,000 units.

TC: And how are you making sure that these vehicles are free of germs and don’t transmit diseases?

JC: Cleanliness is a big factor for any form of accommodation. In our case, we’ve been producing for our listing community CDC guidelines on cleaning standards. We’ve asked our owners to place additional time between rentals so they can let the vehicles take time to manually disinfect. One of the our investors at our company is a molecular biologist [whose] doctoral thesis at Harvard won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and he’s been helping us communicate with our owner community on things like these new ultraviolet radiation lamps that are common. You’ll see them installed in ambulances . . . if you let them set for a while, they will help completely decontaminate the environment.

We’re also encouraging renters to bring cleaning supplies with them if they you know A lot of people will feel much more safe if they’re able to control their environment. And we’ve started a contactless key exchange, [meaning] the owner will deliver the vehicle to a campsite, put up the awning, the camping chairs, and so on. And then the renter will come later.

TC: You mentioned changing user behaviors. Out of curiosity, are you you seeing renters who aren’t heading to Yosemite or Yellowstone but instead to an RV down the street so they can, say, work apart from young children?

JC: One of the things that we’ve seen is, I may live in San Diego, for example, and grandma lives in Kansas City, and there’s no way for the kids to go see her. So camper van and RV travel has become that way for families to see those loved ones they haven’t been able to see during quarantine and maintain family connectivity.

TC: You mentioned de-bookings earlier this year. Did you have to lay off staff?

JC: We had about 160 employees prior to COVID. And we did do some right sizing. Most of the impact in our organization was in our international markets — we had a  team in Italy, Germany, France, UK, Australia, New Zealand [that were cut].  In terms of our domestic employees, rather than cuts, we sat down with the team and said, ‘If everybody is willing to take a salary adjustment, we will reward you with more equity in the business. This could be a period of time where we save those jobs around us.’

I work with no income; I don’t have a salary.  And there are a few other executives who elected to do [forgo theirs]. So it was a way to align our employees with our investors by compensating them more in equity.

TC: As business picks up again, are you thinking about another round of funding?

JC: There is no plan to [raise more right now]. We were profitable in the month of May. We’ll be profitable again in the month of June. Unless there’s a second wave of COVID and lockdowns, our booking activity is now foretelling a profitable July, August and September, so we’ll possibly produce a year-on-year fiscal profitable year.

The ones we typically get inbound activity from are the late-stage growth investors. We’ll all sit down with the board and we’ll talk about it and decide: do we want to do something with that or just want to just keep, you know, chopping wood as fast as we can on our own?

As wildfire season approaches, AI could pinpoint risky regions using satellite imagery

By Devin Coldewey

The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.

Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.

Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.

This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.

“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.

The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.

They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.

You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas, and safety warnings.

The researchers’ work was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

By Devin Coldewey

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them?”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35% in soybeans, 70-100% in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25%,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly 20,000. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4 million seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

Greyparrot bags $2.2M seed to scale its AI for waste management

By Natasha Lomas

London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.

The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.

Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.

By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.

Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.

Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.

It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.

“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”

“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.

Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc. 

Dear Sophie: Can I work in the US on a dependent spouse visa?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

My spouse’s startup is transferring her to the U.S. to help set up an office there. Will I be able to go with her and work in the U.S.? How long will it take for me to get a work permit? How long will we be able to stay?

— Hopeful in Hyderabad

 

Dear Hopeful:

Congratulations on starting an exciting new adventure with your family. U.S. immigration law allows visa holders to bring their spouse and dependent children with them to the U.S. and you can check out this podcast on the topic. Dependent children are defined as children who are under the age of 21 and unmarried. Whether or not the spouse can get a work permit, which is called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), depends on which dependent visa the spouse receives.

How Lyft intends to navigate and survive COVID-19

By Kirsten Korosec

A glimpse at Lyft’s stock price Wednesday, which soared as much as 16.77% after first-quarter earnings were reported, suggested all was well in the ride-hailing company’s world.

In this COVID 19-era, “well” is a relative term. Lyft’s net losses did dramatically improve from the year-ago quarter (a loss of $398 million versus $1.1 billion in Q1 2019). However, Lyft was clear in its earnings call: COVID-19 had a profound impact on its customers and its business and the future was uncertain.

“It is impossible to accurately predict the duration and depth of the economic downturn we face,” Lyft CFO Brian Roberts said during an earnings call Wednesday afternoon. “Our business may be impacted for an extended period of time. So we must be prepared to adapt accordingly.”

The difficulty of predicting what will happen has hamstrung thousands of companies trying to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Lyft withdrew its previously provided revenue and adjusted EBITDA guidance for full year 2020 because of the vast unknowns.

“Given this fluidity, it is impossible for us to predict with any certainty our results,” Roberts said. After the requisite warnings, Roberts did eventually provide an outlook for the second quarter — and it isn’t pretty. The outlook focused on adjusted EBITDA, which doesn’t give the most complete financial picture. It provides enough to understand that even with considerable cost-cutting measures, Lyft will suffer losses nearly four times wider than the first quarter.

Roberts said Lyft can manage to keep its second quarter adjusted EBITDA loss under $360 million if rides on its rideshare platform remain at April levels — which were down 75% year-over-year — for the remainder of the quarter. Lyft reported Wednesday an adjusted EBITDA loss of $85.2 million in the first quarter.

There are some early signs of a recovery. Ridership in the week ended May 3 was up 21% from the lows experienced in mid-April, according to Lyft. However, Lyft can’t afford to simply hope rideshare will return. It has to — and already has — enact a plan that will allow it to navigate the pandemic and come out as a survivor. In other words, Lyft will be judged at how well can stem the losses and find new revenue streams.

Work to cut costs has already started.

The company put together an aggressive plan to strengthen its financial position, Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green said during the earnings call. Lyft reduced its more than 5,000-person workforce by 17% and furloughed nearly another 300. Lyft also initiated a three-month pay reduction for all salaried employees, ranging from 10% for its most non-hourly team members, up to 30% for its senior leadership team and board members.

“Every other expense line is being scrutinized and no stone will be left unturned,” Green said.

The company expects to be able to cut its annualized fixed costs by $300 million by the end of the year. The reductions are based on its original expectations for 2020. Lyft has also ended rider coupons once ridership began to decline in mid-March and paused adding new drivers in nearly all markets.

“This reduces costs we incur associated with onboarding new drivers and helps protect utilization and earnings opportunities for existing drivers during this time of lower ride demand,” Green said.

Lyft reduced its 2020 capital expenditure plan by $250 million. And its sought out cost savings on the insurance front. (The company’s primary auto insurance policies expire at the end of September; Roberts said they’re considering the best options to reduce future volatility, as well as lower overall costs.)

The company is also shifting attention and resources to projects that executives believe will improve its unit economics. Finding those revenue streams will be tricky. Lyft has already provided a few clues of where it’s headed.

The company will continue with its Essential Deliveries pilot that launched April 15. The initiative lets government agencies, local non-profits, businesses and healthcare organizations request on-demand delivery of meals, groceries, life-sustaining medical supplies, hygiene products and home necessities.

Green said the company will evaluate any future opportunities based on how it performs. But he quickly added “that we have no interest in launching a consumer food delivery service. And so, we will not be doing that.”

Green also seemed cautiously optimistic about a new lost cost product called “Wait and Save,” that allows Lyft optimize the marketplace and be more efficient with matching drivers and riders.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Kirsten Green for a Q&A next Thursday at 8 a.m. ET/11 a.m PST/6 p.m. GMT

By Jordan Crook

Last month, the Extra Crunch Live team hosted conversations with folks from all over the venture community that ranged from the pre-seed world with Charles Hudson to shark territory with Mark Cuban. We’re starting off May with a packed agenda, including talks with Hunter Walk of Homebrew and Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures. 

Kirsten Green is one of the most respected VCs in the country, with investments in Bonobos, BirchBox, Dollar Shave Club, Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Rockets of Awesome, Hims and Modern Fertility. 

TechCrunch’s Jordan Crook and Natasha Mascarenhas will host the chat with Green and talk about how D2C is changing amidst the coronavirus pandemic. We’ll get into the opportunities ahead for consumer brands, advice she’s giving portfolio companies and how to spot a breakout company. Extra Crunch members can also ask their own questions, so come prepared! 

Green founded Forerunner Ventures in 2010 and has already seen a number of high-profile exits. One of the firm’s first checks went to Dollar Shave Club, which sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2016. We’ll ask if her investment appetite has changed, which sectors she’s newly bullish on and what metrics are now more important than ever when pitching her. Of course, we’ll get the record on if Forerunner is open for business right now — but we have a feeling it is. 

Kirsten is a founding member of the female mentorship collective All Raise, so expect some conversation on how the landscape is changing for underrepresented founders. 

If we have time, we’ll get into influencer culture, misconceptions about D2C and how founders should think about pitching Green. 

During the call, audience members are encouraged to ask questions. We’ll get to as many as we can, but you can only participate if you’re an Extra Crunch member, so please subscribe here

Extra Crunch subscribers can find the Zoom Link below (with YouTube to follow) as well as a calendar invite so you won’t miss this conversation.

Dear Sophie: Can I still get a green card given COVID-19, layoffs and recent H-1B changes?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I was recently laid off but found another position at a growing biotech company. My new employer just submitted the H-1B petition before the end of my grace period. I would like to stay permanently in the United States. How long do I have to apply for a green card?

If my employer isn’t willing to sponsor me, I heard I can self-petition for an EB-1A or EB-2 NIW green card?

—Hopeful in Hayward

Dear Hopeful:

Congrats on your new job offer and H-1B transfer. Many companies are hiring talented individuals right now. Every company has the right to their own immigration sponsorship policy, so it can be worthwhile to discuss this going into your new role to make sure that everybody’s on the same page as to how things can unfold with respect to your green card.

Oxwash bags $1.7M for a cleaner spin on laundry

By Natasha Lomas

Oxwash, a UK-based laundry startup that’s aiming to disrupt traditional but environmentally costly washing and dry-cleaning processes by using ozone to sterilize fabrics at lower temperatures, along with electric cargo bikes for hyper local pick ups and deliveries, has bagged a £1.4 million (~$1.7M) seed.

Backers in the funding round include TrueSight Ventures, Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter), Paul Forster (founder of Indeed.com), Founders Factory and other unnamed angel investors.

Prior to this, Oxwash was working with a £300k pre-seed round — which it used to fund building its first washing hubs (which it calls “Lagoons”) and to test its reengineered washing process.

The startup’s pitch is that its applying “space age” technology to clean dirty laundry, burnished by the claim that its co-founder and CEO, Kyle Grant, is a former NASA engineer — having spent two years as a systems engineer where he researched the use and effect of microorganisms for extended space travel.

That said, it’s packing its reengineered cleaning system into standard (but “massively” modified) industrial washing machines. Just add coronavirus-safe ‘space suits’ (er, PPE)….

“Washing still has crazy carbon emissions, pollution and collection/delivery services cause large amounts of congestion. We saw a way to re-engineer the laundry process from the ground up and to be the first truly sustainable, space-age laundry company in the world,” says Grant, discussing the opportunity he and his co-founder spied to rethink laundry.

“We’re developing processes to have zero net carbon emissions for the whole laundry process — from collection to washing and back to delivery.”

The team is developing “chemistry that works at 20˚C better than at 40˚C or higher, integrating ozone disinfection to remove microorganisms by oxidation rather than using heat and developing water recycling and filtration systems to reduce water consumption and remove microfibre pollution at the same time”, per Grant.

It’s also structuring business operations to locate washing hubs in city centres, where its customers are based, so it can make use of electric bikes for moving the laundry around — allowing for a next day service with 30 minute collection and delivery windows.

“Traditional washing processes use huge amounts of water, energy to heat said water, harsh chemicals and normal petrol/diesel vans for the collections and deliveries. These process warehouses are usually located outside of cities and there are large lags in when items are returned to the customers (up to two weeks),” he further claims.

While ozone itself is a pollutant that degrades air quality, and can even be dangerous if released, Grant says the ozone used in its cleaning machines — which is produced from oxygen in the atmosphere — degrades back to oxygen “within minutes and is therefore inert and safe”.

“After extensive analysis ozone is far safer to use in commercial laundry processes than heat and harsh chemicals such as peroxides (bleach),” he suggests.

On safety, he also says their washing machines are modified to be sealed whilst “washing and disinfecting”, and can only be opened after the ozone has degraded. “Our lagoons are also fitted with ozone sensors that will cut off our generators if the ozone concentration in the air ever goes over the safe limit,” he adds. “Thankfully this has never occurred. The risks to our staff are far lower than when working with boiling water tanks, harsh chemicals and manual handling, the usual work flow in commercial laundries.”

Oxwash launched in the UK in early 2018 and now has more than 4,000 individual customers, per Grant, along with “several hundred” business customers — including the Marriott Hotel Chain, NHS GP practices, London Marathon and Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

It’s executed a slight pivot of focus over the past two months — spying an opportunity to target risks related to the coronavirus. “We’ve developed a service in the last 2 months that is available to provide coronavirus disinfection,” he says in a statement. “We are working closely with [the UK’s National Health Service] NHS and vulnerable groups to provide support when needed.”

“We have adopted laboratory-grade PPE [personal protective equipment] processes, heavily inspired and adapted from my time working at NASA but also from guidelines from the NHS and HSE England,” Grant adds. “For example, we now perform contactless collections and deliveries whereby the customers pre-bag their items in supplied dissolvable bags. Our rider then has gloves, goggles and a respirator to perform the transfer back to the lagoon where a member of our team in full hazmat gear will load and unload the machines where disinfection is performed.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he says the startup was getting traction from customers wanting to remove allergens that caused them allergic reactions.

“We were confident of moving into the healthcare market in the years to come but usually the tender process for such contracts is not conducive to a startup,” says Grant. “However since the advent of COVID-19 and our ongoing healthcare certification, we have seen a huge increase in the value of proper hygiene to both the individuals and businesses we serve. The Marriott Hotel chain and Airbnb have both expressed serious intent to work on a non-healthcare hygiene rating much like that of the Food Standards Authority. We are working with CINET (the international textile committee) to bring this to market with our technology and processes.”

The seed funding will be used to expand to more cities within the UK and Europe — with London and other European hubs, such as Paris and Amsterdam, in its sights. Its initial two locations are Oxford and Cambridge.

It’s also going to spin up on the hiring front, planning to add a head of growth and head of tech, as well as new operational roles in London.

Ploughing more resource into software dev is another focus, with funding going to expand the tech stack and the software systems which run its logistics and integrate with its digitised washing process. More work on its app is also planned. 

Asked what makes Oxwash a scalable business, Grant points to the development of this proprietary software alongside the reengineered washing service. “This iteration of technology and service allows us to develop our washing technology rapidly and get real-time feedback on the end-product and service from our customers,” he says. “The scalable technology element is the proprietary washing process driven by our bespoke software stack and process algorithms.”

On the labor side, Grant says Oxwash is “working towards a B Corp accreditation”.

“[We] have long held that our team should be properly reimbursed for their work but also as ambassadors for our brand out on our bikes. To that end all of our riders (couriers) are fully employed and like the rest of the team they are paid in excess of the national living wage,” he adds.

Dear Sophie: How will President Trump’s order ‘suspending immigration’ affect me?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

The president said he would stop immigration due to COVID-19. I work at a biotech firm that’s doing research on a coronavirus treatment. I’m currently in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, and my company is sponsoring me for a green card. How will this affect me?

— Scientist in South San Francisco

Dear Scientist:

Thank you for everything you do! As you mentioned, the president tweeted last week that immigration would be suspended. However, the crazy thing is that the proclamation has been issued, and it’s really just a rehashing of the status quo. However, a lot of people haven’t learned this yet, so they’re scared. I just recorded a video about how immigration is still possible. So employers and immigrants can take a deep breath, things are ok.

The proclamation that President Trump signed last Wednesday falls far short of the outright suspension of immigration he tweeted about on Monday. The order places a very limited 60-day moratorium on issuing green cards to individuals seeking to come to the U.S. from abroad. Aimed at protecting job opportunities for unemployed Americans and relieving U.S embassies and consulates of the green-card processing workload, this “temporary suspension” has already begun. It’s possible that it could be extended beyond 60 days.

Most people with U.S. immigration needs are not affected by this proclamation, such as people who are:

  • Adjusting status from a temporary visa to a green card while in the U.S. (Form I-485)
  • Coming to the U.S. on temporary visas for work or travel subject to the existing travel restrictions (such as travel to China or the Schengen area in the last 14 days).
  • Filing for a non-immigrant status extension in the U.S., such as H-1B.
  • Beginning the green card process in the U.S. with PERM, I-140 and I-130
  • Changing status from one non-immigrant status to another within the United States.

What this new policy actually means is that no employment- or family-based green cards will be issued to candidates living outside of the U.S. except for spouses and dependent children of American citizens, physicians, nurses, or other healthcare professionals who are coming to the U.S to perform research or work to combat COVID-19 in the next couple of months. The Migration Policy Institute estimates 26,000 individuals will be blocked from getting green cards for each month the order remains in effect.

However, to me it seems like there’s not really that much of a marginal effect, since all the U.S. consulates around the world have been closed anyway for weeks due to COVID-19 concerns and visas are only being issued in emergency (think life-or-death) situations.

Also exempt from this proclamation are foreign nationals who are:

  • Applying for an EB-5 investor green card.
  • Members of the U.S. armed forces and their spouses and dependent children.
  • Deemed to have skills or knowledge that is in the national interest.
  • Important in helping U.S. law enforcement.
  • Prospective adoptees.
  • Seeking asylum.
  • Iraqi or Afghan nationals who have worked for the U.S. government and qualify for special green cards.

Legal challenges to the new policy are expected and a temporary stay could occur.

Even before Trump’s latest order, the issuance of both visas and green cards has temporarily stopped due to coronavirus-related closures and travel restrictions. U.S. embassies and consulates have been closed to routine visa and green card processing and travel bans from some countries are in effect through at least June 30. In addition, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices have been closed to the public due to COVID-19, effectively canceling all green-card interviews. An interview with an immigration official is required for all green cards. USCIS announced last week it may reopen offices as early as June 4.

The good news for you is that the temporary policy will not impact your prospects for getting a green card. Your employer will still be able to submit a green-card petition on your behalf including PERM and the I-140.

The U.S. Department of Labor is expected to continue processing labor certifications (PERM), which is the first step your employer needs to take in the green-card process. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Labor Department took anywhere from four to seven months to review labor certifications, so you and your employer should take that timing into consideration. Remember your employer should submit an I-140 green-card petition and labor certification at least one year before the sixth year of your H-1B so you can qualify for AC21 extensions.

Additional immigration restrictions may be coming down the pike: Trump’s order calls on the Secretaries of Labor, Homeland Security, and State to review temporary visa programs and recommend changes that would “stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.” Earlier this week, Trump said another, more restrictive executive order on immigration is under consideration. He didn’t offer any details other than saying that migrant farmworkers would not be affected. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and keep our readers updated.

Remember: Immigration still remains possible. The U.S. is a democracy with checks and balances. The president’s authority to change immigration policy is limited and any overreaching is sure to prompt additional legal challenges.

Despite the current climate of uncertainty and unpredictability, one thing remains crystal clear: Immigrants are key to maintaining and restoring America’s physical and economic health. More than three million immigrants work in the health care system in the U.S. as doctors, nurses, researchers, and health-care workers, according to a research article published last year. That means about 1 in 4 health-care workers are immigrants. Moreover, immigrant-owned businesses employed more than 7.9 million workers, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey analyzed by the New American Economy. In 2017 alone, households led by immigrants contributed more than $400 billion in tax revenues to federal, state, and local governments. Most unicorn startups have at least one international founder. Immigrants create a plethora of jobs for U.S. workers.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch.

— Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms; if you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

Our love of the cloud is making a green energy future impossible

By Danny Crichton
Mark Mills Contributor
Mark Mills is the author of the book, “Digital Cathedrals: The Information Infrastructure Era,” and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and a partner in Cottonwood Venture Partners, an energy-tech venture fund.

An epic number of citizens are video-conferencing to work in these lockdown times. But as they trade in a gas-burning commute for digital connectivity, their personal energy use for each two hours of video is greater than the share of fuel they would have consumed on a four-mile train ride. Add to this, millions of students ‘driving’ to class on the internet instead of walking.

Meanwhile in other corners of the digital universe, scientists furiously deploy algorithms to accelerate research. Yet, the pattern-learning phase for a single artificial intelligence application can consume more compute energy than 10,000 cars do in a day.

This grand ‘experiment’ in shifting societal energy use is visible, at least indirectly, in one high-level fact set. By the first week of April, U.S. gasoline use had collapsed by 30 percent, but overall electric demand was down less than seven percent. That dynamic is in fact indicative of an underlying trend for the future. While transportation fuel use will eventually rebound, real economic growth is tied to our electrically fueled digital future.

The COVID-19 crisis highlights just how much more sophisticated and robust the 2020 internet is from what existed as recently as 2008 when the economy last collapsed, an internet ‘century’ ago. If a national lockdown had occurred back then, most of the tens of millions who now telecommute would have joined the nearly 20 million who got laid off. Nor would it have been nearly as practical for universities and schools to have tens of millions of students learning from home.

Analysts have widely documented massive increases in internet traffic from all manner of stay-at-home activities. Digital traffic measures have spiked for everything from online groceries to video games and movie streaming. So far, the system has ably handled it all, and the cloud has been continuously available, minus the occasional hiccup.

There’s more to the cloud’s role during the COVID-19 crisis than one-click teleconferencing and video chatting. Telemedicine has finally been unleashed. And we’ve seen, for example, apps quickly emerge to help self-evaluate symptoms and AI tools put to work to enhance X-ray diagnoses and to help with contact tracing. The cloud has also allowed researchers to rapidly create “data lakes” of clinical information to fuel the astronomical capacities of today’s supercomputers deployed in pursuit of therapeutics and vaccines. 

The future of AI and the cloud will bring us a lot more of the above, along with practical home diagnostics and useful VR-based telemedicine, not to mention hyper-accelerated clinical trials for new therapies. And this says nothing about what the cloud will yet enable in the 80 percent of the economy that’s not part of healthcare.

For all of the excitement that these new capabilities offer us though, the bedrock behind all of that cloud computing will remain consistent — and consistently increasing — demand for energy. Far from saving energy, our AI-enabled workplace future uses more energy than ever before, a challenge the tech industry rapidly needs to assess and consider in the years ahead.

The new information infrastructure

The cloud is vital infrastructure. That will and should reshape many priorities. Only a couple of months ago, tech titans were elbowing each other aside to issue pledges about reducing energy usage and promoting ‘green’ energy for their operations. Doubtlessly, such issues will remain important. But reliability and resilience — in short, availability — will now move to the top priority.

As Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) last month reminded his constituency, in a diplomatic understatement, about the future of wind and solar: “Today, we’re witnessing a society that has an even greater reliance on digital technology” which “highlights the need for policy makers to carefully assess the potential availability of flexibility resources under extreme conditions.” In the economically stressed times that will follow the COVID-19 crisis, the price society must pay to ensure “availability” will matter far more.

It is still prohibitively expensive to provide high reliability electricity with solar and wind technologies. Those that claim solar/wind are at “grid parity” aren’t looking at reality. The data show that overall costs of grid kilowatt-hours are roughly 200 to 300 percent higher in Europe where the share of power from wind/solar is far greater than in the U.S. It bears noting that big industrial electricity users, including tech companies, generally enjoy deep discounts from the grid average, which leaves consumers burdened with higher costs.

Put in somewhat simplistic terms: this means that consumers are paying more to power their homes so that big tech companies can pay less for power to keep smartphones lit with data. (We will see how tolerant citizens are of this asymmetry in the post-crisis climate.)

Many such realities are, in effect, hidden by the fact that the cloud’s energy dynamic is the inverse of that for personal transportation. For the latter, consumers literally see where 90 percent of energy is spent when filling up their car’s gas tank. When it comes to a “connected” smartphone though, 99 percent of energy dependencies are remote and hidden in the cloud’s sprawling but largely invisible infrastructure. 

For the uninitiated, the voracious digital engines that power the cloud are located in the thousands of out-of-sight, nondescript warehouse-scale data centers where thousands of refrigerator-sized racks of silicon machines power our applications and where the exploding volumes of data are stored. Even many of the digital cognoscenti are surprised to learn that each such rack burns more electricity annually than 50 Teslas. On top of that, these data centers are connected to markets with even more power-burning hardware that propel bytes along roughly one billion miles of information highways comprised of glass cables and through 4 million cell towers forging an even vaster invisible virtual highway system.

Thus the global information infrastructure — counting all its constituent features from networks and data centers to the astonishingly energy-intensive fabrication processes — has grown from a non-existent system several decades ago to one that now uses roughly 2,000 terawatt-hours of electricity a year. That’s over 100 times more electricity than all the world’s five million electric cars use each year.

Put in individual terms: this means the pro rata, average electricity used by each smartphone is greater than the annual energy used by a typical home refrigerator. And all such estimates are based on the state of affairs of a few years ago.

A more digital future will inevitable use more energy

Some analysts now claim that even as digital traffic has soared in recent years, efficiency gains have now muted or even flattened growth in data-centric energy use. Such claims face recent countervailing factual trends. Since 2016, there’s been a dramatic acceleration in data center spending on hardware and buildings along with a huge jump in the power density of that hardware.

Regardless of whether digital energy demand growth may or may not have slowed in recent years, a far faster expansion of the cloud is coming. Whether cloud energy demand grows commensurately will depend in large measure in just how fast data use rises, and in particular what the cloud is used for. Any significant increases in energy demand will make far more difficult the engineering and economic challenges of meeting the cloud’s central operational metric: always available.

More square feet of data centers have been built in the past five years than during the entire prior decade. There is even a new category of “hyperscale” data centers: silicon-filled buildings each of which covers over one million square feet. Think of these in real-estate terms as the equivalent to the dawn of skyscrapers a century ago. But while there are fewer than 50 hyper-tall buildings the size of the Empire State Building in the world today, there are already some 500 hyperscale data centers across the planet. And the latter have a collective energy appetite greater than 6,000 skyscrapers.

We don’t have to guess what’s propelling growth in cloud traffic. The big drivers at the top of the list are AI, more video and especially data-intense virtual reality, as well as the expansion of micro data centers on the “edge” of networks.

Until recently, most news about AI has focused on its potential as a job-killer. The truth is that AI is the latest in a long line of productivity-driving tools that will replicate what productivity growth has always done over the course of history: create net growth in employment and more wealth for more people. We will need a lot more of both for the COVID-19 recovery. But that’s a story for another time. For now, it’s already clear that AI has a role to play in everything from personal health analysis and drug delivery to medical research and job hunting. The odds are that AI will ultimately be seen as a net “good.”

In energy terms though, AI is the most data hungry and power intensive use of silicon yet created — and the world wants to use billions of such AI chips. In general, the compute power devoted to machine learning has been doubling every several months, a kind of hyper version of Moore’s Law. Last year, Facebook, for example, pointed to AI as a key reason for its data center power use doubling annually.

In our near future we should also expect that, after weeks of lockdowns experiencing the deficiencies of video conferencing on small planar screens, consumers are ready for the age of VR-based video. VR entails as much as a 1000x increase in image density and will drive data traffic up roughly 20-fold. Despite fits and starts, the technology is ready, and the coming wave of high-speed 5G networks have the capacity to handle all those extra pixels. It requires repeating though: since all bits are electrons, this means more virtual reality leads to more power demands than are in today’s forecasts.

Add to all this the recent trend of building micro-data centers closer to customers on “the edge.” Light speed is too slow to deliver AI-driven intelligence from remote data centers to real-time applications such as VR for conferences and games, autonomous vehicles, automated manufacturing, or “smart” physical infrastructures, including smart hospitals and diagnostic systems. (The digital and energy intensity of healthcare is itself already high and rising: a square foot of a hospital already uses some five-fold more energy than a square foot in other commercial buildings.)

Edge data centers are now forecast to add 100,000 MW of power demand before a decade is out. For perspective, that’s far more than the power capacity of the entire California electric grid. Again, none of this was on any energy forecaster’s roadmap in recent years.

Will digital energy priorities shift?

Which brings us to a related question: Will cloud companies in the post-coronavirus era continue to focus spending on energy indulgences or on availability? By indulgences, I mean those corporate investments made in wind/solar generation somewhere else (including overseas) other than to directly power one’s own facility. Those remote investments are ‘credited’ to a local facility to claim it is green powered, even though it doesn’t actually power the facility.

Nothing prevents any green-seeking firm from physically disconnecting from the conventional grid and building their own local wind/solar generation – except that to do so and ensure 24/7 availability would result in a roughly 400 percent increase in that facility’s electricity costs.

As it stands today regarding the prospects for purchased indulgences, it’s useful to know that the global information infrastructure already consumes more electricity than is produced by all of the world’s solar and wind farms combined. Thus there isn’t enough wind/solar power on the planet for tech companies — much less anyone else — to buy as ‘credits’ to offset all digital energy use.

The handful of researchers who are studying digital energy trends expect that cloud fuel use could rise at least 300 percent in the coming decade, and that was before our global pandemic. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency forecasts a ‘mere’ doubling in global renewable electricity over that timeframe. That forecast was also made in the pre-coronavirus economy. The IEA now worries that the recession will drain fiscal enthusiasm for expensive green plans.

Regardless of the issues and debates around the technologies used to make electricity, the priority for operators of the information infrastructure will increasingly, and necessarily, shift to its availability. That’s because the cloud is rapidly becoming even more inextricably linked to our economic health, as well as our mental and physical health.

All this should make us optimistic about what comes on the other side of the recovery from the pandemic and unprecedented shutdown of our economy. Credit Microsoft, in its pre-COVID 19 energy manifesto, for observing that “advances in human prosperity … are inextricably tied to the use of energy.” Our cloud-centric 21st century infrastructure will be no different. And that will turn out to be a good thing.

Replacing plastic with plant pulp for sustainable packaging attracts a billionaire backer

By Jonathan Shieber

In a small suburb of Melbourne, two entrepreneurs are developing a technology that could mean big changes for the packaging industry.

Stuart Gordon and Mark Appleford are the co-founders of Varden, a company that has developed a process to take the waste material from sugarcane and convert it into a paper-like packaging product with the functional attributes of plastic. 

Their technology managed to grab the attention — and $2.2 million in funding — from Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund managing the money of Li Ka-Shing one of the world’s wealthiest men.

It’s an opportune time to launch a novel packaging technology since the European Union has already instituted a ban on single use plastic items, which will go into effect in 2021. Taking their lead, companies like Nestle and Walmart have pledged to use only sustainable packaging for products beginning in 2025.

The environmental toll that packaging takes on the earth’s habitats is already a concern for most concerns and the urgency to find a solution is only mounting with consumers and businesses actually producing more waste in the rush to change consumer behavior and socially distance as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“I like technologies that focus on carbon reductions,” said Chris Liu, Horizons Ventures’ representative in Australia.

A longtime tech and product executive who had stints at Intel and Fjord, a digital design studio, Liu relocated to Australia recently and has actually taken himself off the grid.

Living in Western Australia, the climate emergency was brought directly to the top of Liu’s mind when the wildfires, which raged through the country, came within two kilometers of his new home. 

For Mark Appleford, it wasn’t so much the fires as it was the garbage that kept washing up on the shores of his beloved beaches.

Over beers at a barbecue he began talking to his eventual co-founder, Stuart Gordon, about the environmental problem they’d solve if they had the ability to change things. They settled on plastics.  

Working in Appleford’s laundry room they started developing the technology that would become Varden. That early laundry room-work in 2015 led to a small seed round and the company’s long slog to get an initial product in the hands of test customers.

Finagling some time with the New Zealand manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, the two co-founders put together an early prototype of their coffee pods made from sugarcane bagasse, a waste byproduct of the sugar feedstock.

“We worked backwards through customers to supply chain, which led us to material selection, which was something that would allow us to create a product that people understood,” said Gordon.

The production process has evolved to fit inside a 40 foot container that holds the firm’s machine which takes agricultural waste and converts that waste into packaging.

Instead of using rollers like a paper mill, Varden’s technology uses a thermoform to mold the plant waste into a product that has the same properties as plastic.

It removes a complicated step that’s been essential to the current crop of bioplastics which use bacteria to convert plant waste into plastic substitutes that are then sold to the industry.

“It looks like paper… you can tear it in half and it sounds like paper when you rip it, and you can throw it in the bin,” said Appleford. 

Gordon said that the company’s containers are outperforming commodity based plastics. And the first target for replacement, the founders said, is coffee capsules.

“We went for coffee because it’s the hardest,” said Appleford.

It’s also a huge market, according to the company. Varden estimates that there are over 20 billion coffee pods consumed every year.

With the new money, Varden will begin manufacturing at scale to meet initial demand from pilot customers and is hoping to expand its product line to include medical blister packs in addition to the coffee pods.

“A pilot plant on the products we’re looking at is a pilot plant that can generate 20 million units a year,” said Gordon.

Both men are hoping that their product — and others like it — can usher in a generation of new sustainable packaging materials that are better for the environment at every stage of their life cycle.

“The next generation of packaging will be better… there are plant-based flexibles for your salads for your potato chips… [But] the next generation of molded packaging is us… bioplastic will ultimately go.”

 

Tesla’s newest board member has a long stance against short selling

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has added Hiromichi Mizuno as a new member to its board of directors and audit committee — the former chief investment officer of Japan’s $1.5 trillion pension fund and a longtime opponent of common market practices like short selling.

With Mizuno’s appointment the Tesla board now has 10 members, including Oracle founder, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison and Walgreens executive Kathleen Wilson-Thompson. Mizuno will also sit on the board’s audit committee.

Hiro has a long career in finance and investment that included a stint as executive managing director and chief investment officer of Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), the largest in the world with about $1.5 trillion in assets under management. Hiro left his position in late March.

During his time at GPIF, Hiro promoted environmental, social and governance practices. He was also known for challenging short selling — a practice that has plagued Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk . During his tenure, the GPIF suspended stock lending, which caught many by surprise. Hiro’s opposition to short selling is at odds with some market purists who believe the investment strategy — which speculates on the decline in a stock — actually provides greater price transparency. Hiro has said in previous interviews with media outlets like the Financial Times that it conflicts with his long-term perspective.

Hiro is on a number of government advisory boards, including the board of the PRI, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council and the Japanese government’s strategic fund integrated advisory board.

He also challenged many established market practices, including short-selling, to promote long-term value creation by corporations.

As a director, Mizuno will get an initial award of an option to purchase 2,778 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting and exercisable on June 18, 2020. For serving on the audit committee, he will get an initial award of an option to purchase 4,000 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting in 12 equal monthly tranches assuming continued service on each vesting date, according to a regulator filing Thursday.

Tesla’s board had sat unchanged for years until late 2018 when Ellison and Wilson-Thompson joined the board as independent directors as part of a settlement with U.S. securities regulators over CEO Elon Musk’s infamous tweets about taking the company private. Under the settlement, Tesla agreed to add two independent directors and Musk would step down as chairman for three years. Robyn Denholm, the former chief operations officer of Telstra Corporation Limited, a telecommunications company, was named chairman in November 2018.

In April 2019, the company said it would cut its board down by more than one-third, to seven directors, by 2020, a move that included the loss of some of Musk’s  early advisers and allies.

Longtime board members Brad Buss and Linda Johnson Rice, who joined two years ago as an independent director, did not seek re-election in 2019 and their terms expired at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June. The board said in the proxy filing at the time that it didn’t plan to fill their seats.

Antonio Gracias,  whose term ends in 2020, and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson will leave the board in 2020, according to a regulatory filing last year.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Charles Hudson for a look at today’s seed-stage landscape

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Earlier this week, we kicked off our Extra Crunch Live series with an interesting chat with Cowboy’s Aileen Lee and Ted Wang. Today, we will be back at 3 p.m. PST/6 p.m. EST/10 p.m. GMT with a new guest: Charles Hudson, the general partner of Precursor Ventures.

Extra Crunch members will find an AddEvent link below to drop the details directly into their calendar and folks who want to participate directly can hit up the Zoom link (also below). We’ll ask as many audience questions as we can, so please make them sharp — no pitches, please.

Charles Hudson founded Precursor Ventures to invest in pre-seed and seed-stage companies. Earlier this year, the firm filed paperwork to put together a $40 million third fund after previously raising two main funds and one $10 million “opportunity” fund.

As we await hard and accurate numbers on how COVID-19 is impacting fundraising, we’ll ask Hudson to walk us through the changes he has seen and will cover some basics: The best way to pitch him, what his to-do list looks like these days and if the pandemic has made Precursor newly bullish or bearish on certain sectors.

Then, we’ll get much nerdier: Will we see the number of party rounds fall further now that it’s harder to gather investors in real life? Do you think we’ll see pre-seed raises ask for more ownership terms? And what is the latest with the wacky world of early-stage valuations?

There’s a lot to talk about. And we haven’t even mentioned YC’s pro rata change yet.

After Hudson, we have a stacked lineup of Extra Crunch live guests, including Mitch and Freada Kapor, Mark Cuban, Roelof Botha and Kirsten Green, with more to be announced soon.

You can find information below with details for joining today’s discussion, as well as an AddEvent link to put the details directly onto your calendar.

Sign up for Extra Crunch to get access to all these episodes where you can view the talks live, participate in the Q&A with industry leaders and watch later on-demand if you can’t make the live timing. Talk soon!

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Google data centers watch the weather to make the most of renewable energy

By Devin Coldewey

Google’s data centers run 24/7 and suck up a ton of energy — so it’s in both the company’s and the planet’s interest to make them do so as efficiently as possible. One new method has the facilities keeping an eye on the weather so they know when the best times are to switch to solar and wind energy.

The trouble with renewables is that they’re not consistent, like the output of a power plant. Of course it isn’t simply that when the wind dies down, wind energy is suddenly 10 times as expensive or not available — but there are all kinds of exchanges and energy economies that fluctuate depending on what’s being put onto the grid and from where.

Google’s latest bid to make its data centers greener and more efficient is to predict those energy economies and schedule its endless data-crunching tasks around them.

It’s not that someone at Google looks up the actual weather for the next day and calculates how much solar energy will be contributed in a given region and when. Turns out there are people who can do that for you! In this case a Danish greentech firm called Tomorrow.

“Organizations are realizing that using electricity at the right time and the right place
allows them to reduce both their costs and their carbon footprint,” said Tomorrow CEO in a press release.

Weather patterns affect those energy economies, leading to times when the grid is mostly powered by carbon sources like coal, and other times when renewables are contributing their maximum.

This helpful visualization shows how it might work – shift peak loads to match times when green energy is most abundant.

What Google is doing is watching this schedule of carbon-heavy and renewable-heavy periods on the grid and shuffling things around on its end to take advantage of them. By stacking all its heavy compute tasks into time slots where the extra power they will draw is taken from mostly renewable energy sources, they can reduce their reliance on carbon-heavy power.

It only works if you have the kind of fluid and predictable digital work that Google has nurtured. When energy is expensive or dirty, the bare minimum of sending emails and serving YouTube videos is more than enough to keep its data centers busy. But when it’s cheap and green, compute-heavy tasks like training machine learning models or video transcoding can run wild.

This informed time-shifting is a smart and intuitive idea, though from Google’s post it’s not clear how effective it really is. Usually when the company announces some effort like this, it’s accompanied by estimates of how much energy is saved or efficiency gained. In the case of this time-shifting experiment, the company is uncharacteristically conservative:

“Results from our pilot suggest that by shifting compute jobs we can increase the amount of lower-carbon energy we consume.”

That’s a lot of hedging for something that sounds like a home run on paper. A full research paper is forthcoming, but I asked Google for more information. Shortly after posting this I received the following response from Ana Radovanovic, technical lead for the project:

Early results for the new system are promising, however, as you note, we are not sharing specific metrics at this time. Our team plans to publish a scientific paper later in the year which will contain a detailed overview of the load shifting methodology and the observed results from our roll out.

How much a single data center facility or an entire fleet can increase its use of renewable energy is dependent on a number of variables. As such, we are taking time to conduct additional analysis before we share specific numbers.

It seems they are holding off in order to better estimate the effect, but today being Earth Day it makes sense to publish the news early and augment it with more data later.

Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator reboots its incubation program with 16-member cohort

By Jonathan Shieber

The Los Angeles Cleantch Incubator is rebooting its incubator program and moving from rolling applications to a cohort model beginning with 16 new startups. 

Los Angeles’ not-for-profit incubator exchanges sweat equity in the form of services and office space, and the promise of $20,000 in funding for local pilot projects, for a 1.5% to 3% stake in a company.

“This is a renewed incubation program switching to the cohort model. The great part of a rolling program was that you could meet the startups where they were. The challenge with that was giving founders steady programming,” said chief executive Matt Peterson.

Nearly one-third of the founders involved in the incubator’s latest program are women, over half of the founders are people of color and more than 5% are veterans, making the new cohort the most diverse in the incubator’s history.

Peterson is also flagging what he believes is a first for an incubator where startups can earn back their equity if they show hard numbers that indicate privileging diversity and access in hiring and in the availability of technologies and services to low-income communities.

Some of the companies in the incubator’s current cohort may also provide a small degree of support — and jobs — to Los Angeles residents hit hard by the social distancing measures the city and state have enacted to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Companies like SparkCharge, ePave, and CERO Bikes are all companies that could employ local residents and launch shovel-ready projects with potential funding from local stimulus plans.

“As LA’s most established incubator, we have a strong track record of empowering and supporting entrepreneurs truly representative of our energetic, diverse and innovative city,” says Matt Petersen, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. “It is critical to help startups deliver solutions for clean air and greenhouse gas mitigation. By continuing our investment in startup incubation, we will help stimulate the economy now, invest in industries that will bring future clean jobs to our communities and spur innovation to develop climate mitigation solutions.”

The new incubator program will last two years and is structured in a way that allows for startups to buy back equity from the incubator upon completion of certain milestones. 

Companies in the new class include:

  • Alumina Energy is a U.S.-based energy storage technology company designing and building energy storage systems for the utility, industrial and commercial scale power generation and process heat markets.

  • CERO Bikes is a family-owned and operated business that designs and produces compact electric cargo bikes.

  • ChargerHelp! is an on-demand charging station repair service.

  • ePave has developed a new composite material that can reduce the greenhouse gas effects of surfaces.

  • InPipe Energy has developed a technology that generates low-cost electricity from the flow of water through gravity-fed water pipelines. 

  • Jump Watts sells fixed and mobile charging stations for all types of electric vehicles.

  • Maxwell Vehicles offers power train conversions, maintenance and management for light industrial vehicles to make the switch to electric or hybrid electric vehicles.

  • NeoCharge makes smart splitters that allow for faster home electric vehicle charging without the need for panel upgrades or other home modifications.

  • Noria provides education and services for industrial companies to improve efficiency by enhancing their lubrication processes.

  • Prime Lightworks makes electric propulsion systems for small satellites.

  • SEED sells a farm-in-a-box for folks who want to grow their own produce.

  • SparkCharge is a manufacturer of modular electric vehicle charging units. The company partners with roadside assistance companies to service electric vehicle owners when they run out of range.

  • Substance Power and Mobility is founded by a team of former aerospace and automotive entrepreneurs and executives and is working on developing energy storage hardware.

  • Sustainable Building Council uses modified shipping containers with grid-independent water and power to make affordable housing.

  • TBM Designs makes self-shading window systems using thermo-bimetal to reduce energy costs by cutting the need for air conditioning.

  • Xeal has an electric car charging system that makes chargers money-making assets for apartments and offices.

Cowboy VC’s Aileen Lee: Your coronavirus scenario planning should be more conservative

By Jordan Crook

The tech industry (and the world at large) is not experiencing temporary anxiety — the uncertainty we’re all coping with is the new normal.

Sudden shifts in behavior have made some startups targeting slow-moving, old-school industries more relevant than they could have imagined, such as those in telehealth, distance learning and remote work. Most, however are seeing massive decreases in revenue, forcing them to cut costs and even lay off teams to slash burn rates. Other startups simply won’t be here in three to six months.

Cowboy Ventures founder and managing partner Aileen Lee, who coined the term “unicorn,” says tech companies going through scenario planning need to begin thinking long-term.

“We’ve spent the last month scenario planning with our portfolio companies, and in most cases, we’ll have conversations about what these scenarios can include,” said Lee. “And when we look at the planning around those scenarios, they often don’t feel conservative enough. Most entrepreneurs are optimists, and we are, too! But it seems safer to have more conservative plans [and start expecting] that this is going to impact us for longer and be worse than we expected.”

Lee and Cowboy Ventures partner Ted Wang joined TechCrunch on Tuesday for our first episode of Extra Crunch Live, a virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members. In a live Q&A that included questions from myself and the Extra Crunch audience, Wang and Lee covered a wide range of topics, including PPP loans, advice for business leaders around layoffs, the right time to seek funding and the right firms from which to seek that funding, how to pitch during a downturn and which sectors in particular Cowboy is interested in financing right now.

You can check out the best insights from the call, or catch up on the full conversation via the YouTube embed below.

We have several outstanding guests, including Charles Hudson, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Mark Cuban, Roelof Botha, Hunter Walk and Kirsten Green, joining us on Extra Crunch Live over the next few weeks. Sign up for Extra Crunch to get access to all of them.

Dear Sophie: How can we support our immigrant colleagues during layoffs?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Borders can’t stop germs. But borders will also never be able to stop ideas, or love, either.

Last night Trump tweeted that he will temporarily suspend immigration. I’m still waiting to review the text of the executive order, which at the time of this late writing, hasn’t been published yet. I expect significant litigation, as only Congress has the authority to cease immigration pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act. I’m hopeful that a court will issue a temporary restraining order in the near future.

We’re monitoring the situation closely and will continue to provide updates. Stay tuned, and be well. We all share this one Earth. We’ve got this. We’ll figure things out, one step at a time. Together.

Big hugs,
S


Dear Sophie:

We’ve decided to wind down our existing startup to move on to a new biotech opportunity. A co-founder is on H-1B and we sponsored an employee for a TN. How can we support both of them to stay in the U.S.?

— Winding Down in Woodside

 

Dear Winding Down,

It sounds like you’re handling the transition with grace. Every new experience teaches us what we want and what we don’t want, so I’m excited for all of you that you’ll be freeing yourselves to pursue new ideas. The fact that you care so much about your team makes you a strong leader. Your international colleagues will greatly appreciate your support as everybody transitions to new roles and new adventures.

ClimateView raises $2.5 million for its toolkit to visualize climate mitigation plans

By Jonathan Shieber

ClimateView, a Swedish software development company working on monitoring and visualization tools for greenhouse gas emissions, said it has raised $2.5 million in its latest round of financing.

While the world is gripped by the material and economic toll of the COVID-19 epidemic, the problems society faces from longterm global climate change have not gone away.

It’s against this backdrop that investors including the Norrsken Foundation, an impact investment firm established by Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalberth; and Nordic Makers, an angel syndicate composed of founders from Zendesk, Sitecore, and Unity Technologies, decided to invest in ClimateView. Nordic Makers, Max Ventures, and GGV Capital also participated in the funding, the company said.

Using ClimateView’s software, cities around the world have a window into their climate data — including emissions and other sustainability and resilience information — so that they can plan accordingly for how best to proceed with decarbonization efforts and climate change mitigation plans.

So far, around 1,348 municipalities, townships, and villages in 26 countries have declared a climate emergency, but there’s no real effort to understand from a systems perspective what steps need to be taken to mitigate the worst impacts of the changing global climate, the company said.

“It’s an exciting time for ClimateView as we work to reinvent the way in which society works with the climate challenge,” said founder and chief executive Tomer Shalit, in a statement. “Our solution-focused approach to climate action is already gaining traction in a number of cities across the globe and we hope that, with this investment, we can continue to lay the groundwork for decision making so that, together, the world’s cities and nations can forge a common path towards global carbon neutrality.”

Historically, environmental policy and planning has been limited by a lengthy decision-making, planning-intensive process that hasn’t been able to access the latest data visualization tools and projections to make decisions based on current developments, the company said.

ClimateView’s software provides a central hub of all development, emissions, and projected urban planning data to accelerate the planning process.

The company’s premier project has been its work with the Swedish Climate Policy Council, which used the ClimateView software and suite of services to release a publicly available digital roadmap using the company’s Panorama software.

“Norrsken invests in startups that make the world better, so ClimateView is an ideal fit for us,”said Tove Larssen, a general partner with Norrsken. “We are really intrigued by their ambition to provide a global platform that makes it possible to fight climate change faster and more efficiently, and are delighted to be on board to help them achieve this goal.”

What happens to edtech when kids go back to school?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

In just a few weeks, homeschooling has gone from a rarity to a baseline in homes across the country.

Jonah Liss, a 16-year-old student at International Academy of Bloomfield Hills in Michigan, was sent home out of precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak.

While the transition has been okay for Liss, who has used some of the extra time to create a service to help those impacted by COVID-19, he recognized that other students are experiencing some pain points; not everyone has access to the same technology outside of school, so they can’t complete assignments. The school, he says, isn’t giving tests because they have no way to prove students aren’t cheating. And learning doesn’t feel personalized.

“It can be difficult to learn in an environment where there is less structure, direct instruction and ability to ask as many questions as possible,” Liss said. His school is placing emphasis on Google Classroom, Hangouts, Zoom and Khan Academy — all currently free for schools that have been shut down.

Edtech companies are seeing a usage surge because they’re offering services for free or at discounted rates to schools that are scrambling to switch to remote learning. But when students return to campus, many of the hurdles to adopting education technology will persist.

And as edtech startups find their time in the spotlight, these emerging challenges must be addressed before companies can truly convert those free customers into paying ones.

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