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Yesterday — January 21st 2020Your RSS feeds

Berlin’s Home pulls in €11M Series A for its landlord and tenant solution

By Steve O'Hear

Home, the Berlin-based startup that set out offering an app to help landlords manage rentals but has since pivoted to solve the landlord-tenant problem more directly, has raised €11 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Capnamic, EQT Ventures, FJ Labs and Redalpine, whilst the new capital will be used for “product innovation”, particularly on the tenant side. In addition, Home plans to bring its offering to new cities.

“[We] started with an app for landlords, which tracked rent payments etc., but Home is now a managed marketplace for landlords and tenants,” Home co-founder and CEO Thilo Konzok tells me.

“Home now acts as both the tenant and the landlord. Landlords get an instant offer and sign a contract with Home. A digital lock is fitted at the apartment and the landlord then simply gets rent – no maintenance stresses, financial risks etc”.

The idea of essentially becoming a full-stack landlord (my words, not Konzok’s) is so that property owners don’t need to become experts in renting apartments, understanding legislation, maintenance and knowing what rent to charge.

“Tenants also have a far better, more transparent experience,” argues the Home CEO. This includes the ability to visit and book apartments themselves, thanks to Home’s use of smart locks. “If they need anything, they can reach Home 24/7 via the app,” he adds.

The proposition is currently available in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and appears to be proving popular. Konzok says that every month more than 1,100 landlords request an offer from Home. To be able to accept more of these requests, the company will expand into new cities throughout 2020. Specifically, this should see seven more German cities by April 2020 and one international city in October 2020.

Adds Jörg Binnenbrücker, Managing Partner at Capnamic: “When we first met Thilo and Moritz we were impressed by their vision of creating a new asset class and form of ownership. Capnamic is excited to have found the best team to bring this new housing experience to everyone and capture a massive market opportunity”.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

While other tech giants fund housing initiatives, Amazon is opening a homeless shelter — inside its HQ

By Connie Loizos

As big tech gets bigger, industry leaders have begun making more noise about helping homeless populations, particularly in those regions where high salaries have driven up the cost of living to heights not seen before. Last January, for example, Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, among other participants, formed a group called the Partnership for the Bay’s Future that said it was going to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to expand affordable housing and strengthen “low-income tenant protections” in the five main counties in and around San Francisco. Microsoft meanwhile made a similar pledge in January of last year, promising $500 million to increase housing options in Seattle where low- and middle-income workers are being priced out of Seattle and its surrounding suburbs.

Amazon has made similar pledges in the past, with CEO Jeff Bezos pledging $2 billion to combat homelessness and to fund a network of “Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” as he said in a statement posted on Twitter at the time, in September 2018.

Now, however, Amazon is taking an approach that immediately raises the bar for its rivals in tech: it’s opening up a space in its Seattle headquarters to a homeless shelter, one that’s expected to become the largest family shelter in the state of Washington.

Business Insider reported the news earlier today, and it says the space will be able to accommodate 275 people each night and that it will offer individual, private rooms for families who are allowed to bring pets. It will also feature an industrial kitchen that’s expected to produce 600,000 meals per year.

The space is scheduled to open in the first quarter of the new year, and is part of a partnership Amazon has enjoyed for years with a nonprofit called Mary’s Place that has been operating a shelter out of a Travelodge hotel on Amazon’s campus since 2016. The new space, which BI says will have enough beds and blankets for 400 families each year, isn’t just owned by Amazon but the company has offered to pay for the nonprofit’s utilities, maintenance, and security for the next 10 years or as long as Mary’s Place needs it.

BI notes that the shelter will make a mere dent in Seattle’s homeless population, which includes 12,500 people in King County, where Seattle is located, but it’s still notable, not least because of the company’s willingness to house the shelter in its own headquarters.

It’s a move that no other tech company of which we’re aware has taken. The decision also underscores other cities’ equivocation over where their own, growing homeless populations should receive support. In just one memorable instance, after San Francisco Mayor London Breed last March floated an idea of turning a parking lot along the city’s Embarcadero into a center that would provide health and housing services and stays for up to 200 of the city’s 7,000-plus homeless residents, neighboring residents launched a campaign to squash the proposal. It was later passed anyway.

Vox noted in report about Microsoft’s $500 million pledge last year that many of these corporate efforts tend to elicit two types of reactions: admiration for the companies’ efforts — or frustration over the publicity these initiatives receive. After all, it’s hard to forget that Amazon paid no federal tax in the U.S. in 2018 on more than $11 billion in profit before taxes. The company also threatened in 2018 to stop construction in Seattle if the city passed a tax on major businesses that would have raised money for affordable housing.

Whether Amazon — one of the most valuable companies in the world, with a current $915 billion market cap — is doing its fair share is certainly worthy of exploring in an ongoing way. The same is true of every tech company that’s ‘eating the world.’

Still, a homeless shelter at the heart of a company like Amazon is worth acknowledging — and perhaps emulating — too.

“It’s not one entity that’s going to solve this,” Marty Hartman, the executive director of Mary’s Place, tells BI. “It’s not on corporations. It’s not on congregations. It’s not on government. It’s not on foundations. It’s all of us working together.”

Pictured above: A view of the new Mary’s Place Family Center from the street, courtesy of Amazon.

4 Robot Vacuum Tips That Will Help You Keep a Tidy Home

By Adrienne So
With a few simple tips, an automated robot vacuum can be your new best friend.

Remembering the startups we lost in 2019

By Brian Heater

All manner of startups fail for all manner of reasons. But there’s one constant: this is an incredibly difficult business. Launching a successful company isn’t just a matter of drive and finding the right people (though both, clearly, are important). Doing well in this business requires the stars to align perfectly on a billion different things.

A cursory look at this year’s batch of companies doesn’t find any story quite as spectacular as last year’s big Theranos flameout, which gave us a best-selling book, documentary, podcast series and upcoming Adam McKay/Jennifer Lawrence film. Some, like MoviePass, however, may have come close.

And for every Theranos, there are dozens of stories of hardworking founders with promising products that simply couldn’t make it to the finish line. There’s also room for debate about what is and isn’t a startup. For our purposes, we’re focusing here on independent startups, not digital initiatives from larger companies — though in at least one case, the startup was acquired by a larger company before shutting down.

So without further ado, here are some of the biggest and most fascinating startups that closed up shop in 2019. 

Anki (2010 – 2019)

Total raised: $182 million

In 2013, a promising young hardware startup showcased a new generation of slot cars onstage at the World Wide Developer Conference keynote. It was quite an honor for a young company. Apple was clearly impressed with how Overdrive pushed the limits of what could be done on the iPhone.

Three years later, Anki released Cozmo. The plucky little robot was the result of large investment, including the hiring of ex-Pixar and Dreamworks animators brought on board to craft a high range of emotions in the robot’s eyes. In late 2018, the company launched the similar but adult-focused Vector robot. By April 2019, Anki had shut its doors, in spite of selling 1.5 million robots and “hundreds of thousands” of Cozmo models.

Chariot (2014 – 2019)

Total raised: $3 million, acquired by Ford in 2017

Chariot was a shuttle startup hoping to reinvent mass transit with a fleet of vans for commuters. The routes, supposedly, were determined based on a “crowdsourced” vote.

After acquiring the service two years ago, Ford shut it down at the beginning of 2019. The company didn’t offer many details, except to say that “in today’s mobility landscape, the wants and needs of customers and cities are changing rapidly.”

Daqri (2010 – 2019)

Total raised: $132 million

Daqri, another high-flying, heavily funded AR headset business, shut its doors around September and completed an asset sale. The company is one of many in the sector that failed to succeed in its efforts to court enterprise customers, as well as in its efforts to compete with Magic Leap, Microsoft and others.

Daqri was, at one point, speaking with a large private equity firm about financing ahead of a potential IPO, but as the technical realities facing other AR companies came to light, the firm backed out and the deal crumbled, according to earlier TechCrunch reporting. Sadly, Daqri wasn’t the only AR business to crumble this year.

HomeShare

Total raised: $4.7 million

HomeShare

HomeShare tried to deal with the challenge of rapidly rising housing costs by matching roommates who shared apartments split into “micro-rooms.” The company said that as of March, it had about 1,000 active residents.

As part of the shutdown, HomeShare said residents would not be getting back the deposits for their partitions — but they would be able to keep the divider or sell it.

Jibo (2012 – 2018/19)

Total raised: $72.7 million

Between Anki and Jibo, you could say it was a tough year for consumer social robots. But then, there’s never been a great year for the category. Not yet, at least. Like the sad death of the original Aibo before it, Jibo’s end was punctuated by the incredibly depressing nature of watching an adorable robot friend draw its final breath. Jibo did just that in April, telling consumers, “I want to say I’ve really enjoyed our time together. Thank you very, very much for having me around.”

Jibo technically died in late-2018, but we’re making an exception due to the dramatic nature of its demise. The end came in spite of a successful crowdfunding campaign and a healthy amount of venture capital raised. In spite of it all, the startup was forced to lay off most of its staff and then, ultimately, send Jibo upstate to live on the robo-farm.

MoviePass (2011 – 2019)

Total raised: $68.7 million, acquired by Helios and Matheson in 2017

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Holy hell. Where to even start with this one? When we were putting this list together, one TechCruncher remarked that he swore MoviePass shut down years ago. That’s because (not unlike some current political events), the ticket subscription service’s magnificent train wreck of a demise appeared to unfold over the course of several years, in excruciating slow motion. We wrote a lot about it. A lot, a lot.

In fact, there seemed to be a new disaster every week, as the company hemorrhaged money, limited its service, experience outages, borrowed even more money, was forced to enter a kind of zombie state and had a massive data breech. Oh, and then there was the John Gotti movie it financed that was arguably even worse. By the end of it all, MoviePass’ ultimate demise almost felt like an act of mercy.

Munchery (2010 – 2019)

Total raised: $125 million

One of the first startup scandals of 2019 involved a once well-known meal delivery startup, Munchery . After the business emailed its customers notifying them of its imminent shutdown, its vendors came forward with a slew of accusations. Namely, the food delivery startup took advantage of them in its final hours, knowingly allowing them to continue making deliveries it couldn’t pay for.

The company’s sudden demise sparked a debate around accountability. While the CEO and its venture capital investors stayed largely silent, its vendors cried out for an explanation and even protested outside the offices of Sherpa Capital, one of Munchery’s backers, in search of answers and payments.

Nomiku (2012 – 2019)

Total raised: $145,000

One of the most recent additions to this list, Bay Area-based food startup Nomiku called it quits earlier this month. The company helped pioneer the consumer sous vide category, only to see the market flooded by competing devices. In multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns totaling $1.3 million, backing from Samsung Ventures and an attempted pivot into meal plans, the startup just couldn’t survive.

“The total climate for food tech is different than it used to be,” CEO Lisa Fetterman told TechCrunch. “There was a time when food tech and hardware were much more hot and viable. I think a company can survive a few hurdles, and a few challenges [ …] For me, it was the perfect storm of all these things.”

ODG (1999 – 2019)

Total raised: $58 million

A pioneer in the AR glasses space, news emerged of Osterhout Design Group’s (ODG) demise in the first few weeks of January. Only a couple of years ago, the company raised a $58 million financing — less than a year later, it had burned through its funding and couldn’t pay employees. By early 2018, ODG had lost half of its workforce as it sought loans to pay back employees. By early 2019, only a skeleton crew awaited a patent sale after acquisitions from several large tech companies, including Facebook and Magic Leap, fell through.

“I hope Magic Leap is a huge success. I want everyone in AR to be a huge success,” Osterhout said in an interview with TechCrunch in 2017. “[Augmented reality] is going to be transformative.”

Omni (2014 – 2019)

Total raised: $35.3 million

The startup began as a physical storage company, then tried to pivot after selling off its physical storage operations to competitor Clutter in May — it tried, unsuccessfully, to build a white-label software platform that would allow brick-and-mortar merchants to operate their own businesses for renting and selling products.

As part of the shutdown, roughly 10 Omni engineers were hired by Coinbase.

Scaled Inference (2014 – 2019)

Total raised: $17.6 million 

Founded by former Googlers Olcan Sercinoglu and Dmitry Lepikhin, Scaled Inference made headlines in 2014 with a plan to build machine learning and artificial intelligence technology similar to what’s used internally by companies like Google, and making it available as a cloud service that can be used by anyone. The ambitions were grand and attracted investors like Felicis Ventures, Tencent and Khosla Ventures.

Unfortunately, the company was forced to call it quits recently. Former CEO Sercinoglu tells us the shutdown was a result of a lack of funding due to insufficient commercial traction. “We were working on various options until the last minute and retained the team as long as we could, but it did not work out. On the plus side, we were able to be transparent with the team throughout the process,” he said.

Sinemia (2015 – 2019)

Total raised: $1.9 million

Sinemia

It was a rough year for MoviePass -style movie ticket subscription services in general. Sinemia seemed at first to be a more sustainable competitor, but it was plagued by subscriber complaints and even lawsuits around app issues, hidden charges and policies for shuttering accounts.

In April, the company announced that it was ending U.S. operations. To be clear, it did not say that it was shutting down entirely (much of its staff was based in Turkey), but the company’s website has since gone offline. If Sinemia survives in some form, it has disappeared from view.

Unicorn Scooters (2018 – 2019)

Total raised: $150,000

Unicorn Scooters was one of the first fatalities of the electric scooter craze of 2018, though certainly not the last. As the story goes, the business spent way too much money on Facebook and Google ads; the startup quickly shut down with no money left over to issue refunds for more than 300 of its $699 scooters that had been ordered.

The not-so-aptly named Unicorn had completed the Y Combinator startup accelerator only a few months before it called it quits, likely making it one of the fastest YC grads to shutter post-graduation. “Unfortunately, the cost of the ads were just too expensive to build a sustainable business,” Unicorn’s CEO Nick Evans wrote, according to The Verge. “And as the weather continued to get colder throughout the US and more scooters from other companies came on to the market, it became harder and harder to sell Unicorns, leading to a higher cost for ads and fewer customers.”

Vreal (2015 – 2019)

Total raised: $15 million

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via @VrealOfficial twitter

Vreal was an ambitious game-streaming platform that aimed to let VR users explore the worlds in which live-streamers were playing. Those users could walk around streamers as avatars, or they could explore on their own as passive observers while listening to the live-streamer blast their way through zombies.

“Unfortunately, the VR market never developed as quickly as we all had hoped, and we were definitely ahead of our time,” the company said in a blog post. “As a result, Vreal is shutting down operations and our wonderful team members are moving on to other opportunities.”

The last decade in real estate, and a peek into the next one

By Walter Thompson
Allen Miller Contributor
Allen Miller is a principal at Oak HC/FT based in San Francisco. He's excited by bold entrepreneurs building great companies across categories, especially in fintech.

As we barrel towards the start of a new decade, it’s amazing to think about the ongoing transformation within real estate.

In the U.S., housing’s contribution to our GDP is ~15-18% spread across residential transactions, construction and housing services (i.e. rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) For the average homeowner, their primary residence is the biggest component of their net worth. And for employers, affordable housing programs can increase employee retention, productivity and success on the job. Apple, Google and Facebook have all launched different programs focused on addressing the high cost of living, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.          

Technology has allowed for some real progress 

Technology has accelerated the rate of progress within the real estate vertical. There are now more than a dozen real estate tech companies valued at an aggregate ~$75 billion (depending on where The We Company lands in the coming months). This batch includes three publicly-traded companies (Zillow, Real Page and Redfin), two others primed to go public in the next year (Airbnb and Procore) and one other that recently put its IPO plans on hold (Lemonade).

us vcv backed real estate tech

New entrants have succeeded by bringing a fresh take to the category and/or creating entirely new categories. Airbnb, WeWork, Knotel and Sonder have all used the “monetize underutilized assets” playbook — applied in either residential or commercial settings. Compass and Redfin are re-imagining what it means to be a modern, tech-enabled brokerage firm. Realpage and Procore are bringing application software solutions to property management and construction. Lemonade and LendingHome are more traditional fintech companies applied to the real estate transaction ecosystem.

Significant opportunities remain

Over the coming decade, we at Oak HC/FT expect more innovation to come within real estate as we anticipate a continued influx of talent into the sector. And we think the total market cap of real estate tech companies could more than double to $200 billion in aggregate value by 2030. Here are some of the innovations and companies we are watching in 2020 and beyond:

  • More value for buyers and sellers: Zillow brought much needed transparency into what was “on the market” (i.e. the top of the funnel). But the home transaction process is still convoluted and prohibitively expensive. In recent years, there has been a wave of new entrants focused on improving the transaction process in different ways, each with a slightly different approach. The iBuyers, like Opendoor and Offerpad, allow for sellers to sell instantly. Flyhomes allows buyers to put down cash offers. ZeroDown and Divvy lower the barrier to entry to buying a home. And Homie brings assembly-line specialization and vertical integration to drive down agent commissions. In the coming years there will be multiple wins here, with each appealing to different segments of this massive market.    
  • Better tools for ecosystem players: Agents and other providers are itching for better software tools to do their jobs. Side provides agents with all the tools they need (across marketing, vendor management, legal, insurance and transaction coordination) to run their own business — rather than relying on the incumbent brokerages with their hefty fees. Qualia, Spruce and Modus provide next generation title and escrow services. Great Jones, TenantCloud, Avail and Mynd help landlords better manage their properties. 
  • Increased access to data: The availability of data for decision making, especially on the commercial side, is still very much underdeveloped. Crexi has brought a Zillow-like experience to listing commercial properties. Reonomy has made nice progress using machine learning to surface key financial and asset-level data on commercial properties. We expect these and other new entrants to win big by bringing more transparency to commercial real estate.
  • Greater flexibility in how we work and live: As the demands of modern life have changed, so too have the ways in which consumers desire to work and live. The Wing and HubHaus provide communities that appeal to more targeted groups. Feather allows its customers to rent furniture wherever they live or work. And prefab housing companies, including Dvele, enable consumers to design their home before moving in.

But core challenges need to be addressed

14 Great Gifts for Mom (2019): Gift Ideas for the Mother in Your Life

By Adrienne So
Mothers come in all types, but these are our favorite picks for the WIRED mom in your life.

Jeanette Manfra, senior DHS cybersecurity official, to leave government

By Zack Whittaker

Jeanette Manfra, one of the most senior and experienced U.S. cybersecurity officials, is leaving government after more than a decade in the public sector.

Manfra, who served as assistant director for cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), will join the private sector in the New Year. CISA is Homeland Security’s dedicated civilian cybersecurity unit set up a year ago to respond to help protect against threats to U.S. critical infrastructure and foreign threats.

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Manfra said it was a “really hard time to leave,” but the move will give her successor time to transition into the role ahead of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

She did not say what her new job will be, only that she will take time off to be with her family in the meantime. She will leave her post at the end of the year.

Cyberscoop first reported her pending departure, citing sources.

Manfra’s departure from government will be seen as largely unexpected. At Homeland Security, she has served three presidents and worked on numerous projects to improve relations with the private sector, which are considered crucial partners in defending U.S. cyberspace. She also saw the agency double down on election security, threats to the supply chain and efforts to protect U.S. critical infrastructure (like the power grid and water networks) from nefarious attempts by nation states.

At TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Manfra also talked candidly about the ongoing threats to U.S. cybersecurity, including a skills shortage and the risks posed by another global “WannaCry-style” cyberattack, which in 2017 saw thousands of computers infected by file-locking malware, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

Manfra joined Homeland Security in 2007 under then-president George W. Bush, half a decade after the department was founded in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Manfra described the early years as a time when there weren’t “a lot of people talking about cybersecurity.”

“It definitely was not really on the national stage at the time. It was, you know, there was still a lot of debate as to whether ‘cybersecurity’ was one word or two words,” she said.

But in the years past and as internet access and tech companies continued to grow, she said the U.S. saw several “wake up” calls that brought cybersecurity into the public mainstream. The hack of Sony Pictures in 2016 and the WannaCry global ransomware attack in 2017 were two, and both were blamed on North Korea. Another, she said, was the 2015 data breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which saw suspected Chinese hackers steal more than 21 million sensitive background check files of government employees who had sought security clearance.

The department’s cybersecurity presence started out as a “very small, frankly relatively unknown group of people,” she said. A decade later it had become a major force in managing crises like the OPM attack, a breach that she said helped push government to better prioritize cybersecurity.

“[The OPM breach] forced us to make some changes across the government that’ve been good,” she said.

In the aftermath, the government took steps to bolster its own systems and networks to lower its attack surface by removing Kaspersky from its networks, citing fears about Russian intelligence, and taking the lead rolling out HTTPS website encryption and email security protections across the federal domains — an effort still to this day largely neglected by some of the world’s wealthiest companies.

Election security, she said, was another major wake-up call for the government. Russia waged a wide-scale disinformation — or “fake news” — campaign during the 2016 election to sow discord and exploit divisions in communities across the U.S. But there were also fears that hackers could break in and modify the tallies in voting machines, a concern that never came to fruition but one that security experts say remains a threat. Lawmakers have been pushing for the removal of paperless and electronic-only voting machines to reduce the risk of hackers manipulating the votes in favor of a particular candidate.

“In 2016, it was our best judgment that the Russians were looking to undermine confidence,” Manfra told TechCrunch. “The public confidence is important, and we need to be thinking within the government about the adversaries’ ability and willingness to use those against us,” she said.

Manfra said the department knew it had to work closer with state and local election boards to figure out their needs following the 2016 election. “We had a lot of honest conversations with [election boards] about what they need, what do we do, and how can we help,” she said. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a sector come together.”

Those partnerships with local elections have given Homeland Security unprecedented visibility into the nation’s election infrastructure, she said, going from “some coverage” in 2016 to near-absolute insight across the country.

“If we ever did again get technical indicators that an adversary was trying to do something, we would be able to move more quickly and much more expansively across the country,” she said.

That effort paid off. Last year’s midterm election was remarkably quiet compared to 2016. Both the Justice Department and Homeland Security said there was “no evidence” to support foreign interference during the midterms.

It’s that running theme of public-private collaboration that Manfra looked back on with pride. “We don’t have all the answers and we can’t do it alone.” Those partnerships across the industry verticals — from elections to finance, energy and manufacturing — are “crucial to everything that we do,” she said.

“It’s really easy to say how important it is to have the government and the private sector working together,” she said. “But to do it well, it’s actually really hard.”

Manfra said the government had to be “willing to open itself” to build trust with its partners. “We now have some of the largest companies in the country that we built trusted relationships when they know that they can give us sensitive information — and we can take that and use it to protect other people, but we’re not going to abuse that trust,” she said.

Speaking of her time at Homeland Security, Manfra said she was most proud of her team. “A lot of them have been with me since we started,” she said. “They could be working out in the private sector making a ton of money, but they’re dedicating their lives here,” she said.

But she said she was “forcing” herself to have no regrets during her time in government.

It’s not yet known who will replace Manfra or take on her responsibilities. But her advice for her eventual successor: “Trust your team, trust your partners, and stay focused,” she said. “It’s such a broad mission. It’s easy to lose focus.”

Related stories:

Shark IQ Robot Review: Convenience Makes Up for a Low IQ

By Adrienne So
Shark’s first robot vacuum has a self-emptying bin, but it struggles to make a map.

The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

By Darrell Etherington

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

Four must-haves for the Tesla ‘Cybertruck’ all-electric pickup truck

By Matt Burns

Tesla is set to unveil its pickup this week and it needs to be widely different from its current lineup. The current line of Tesla vehicles share a lot of parts, and, logically, the Tesla pickup will do the same. However, a truck has different demands than a passenger car or sport utility vehicle. It has to be more robust and able to stand up to more abuse. It has to tow and haul and scale more than a mall flowerbed.

The Tesla pickup is launching as Rivian’s electric pickup is nearing launch. The Rivian R1T looks and feels like an electric pickup. It’s also built off of a purpose-built platform designed to haul and tow. Tesla does not have a similar platform as the Model X SUV is more car than a truck.

Eventually, more automakers will offer electric trucks. Ford has confirmed it’s building an electric F-150 and recently showed it off pulling a train. The upsides are profound. An electric truck will, in theory, offer improved toque (better towing), high payload capacity (due to better weight distribution), and improved performance numbers (electric motors are quick). A truck platform is also, by nature, larger and stronger allowing automakers to stuff more batteries into the frame.

Here’s what we want to see in a pickup from Tesla:

Twice the towing capacity of the Model X

The Tesla Model X is incredible and by most measures, the fastest production SUV available. But it cannot tow much. That’s not because of the powertrain but rather the vehicle platform. A Tesla pickup needs to be able to tow and haul.

According to the Model X owners manual, the vehicle can tow 5,000 pounds. That’s good enough for a couple of jet skis or a tiny trailer, but not much else. For comparison, most Ford F-150 models can tow over 10,000 pounds with some models topping off at 13,000 lbs. Rivian projects its electric pickup can tow over 11,000 pounds. The difference comes from the frame design and vehicle length.

The design of the vehicle often limits towing. The rear suspension needs to be able to support the weight, and the vehicle needs to be long enough to reduce trailer sway. Short vehicles have a hard time towing trailers, and the Model X, built on a version of the Model S, is a compact vehicle. There’s nothing worse than looking out the driver-side window and seeing your trailer racing you down the hill.

In the name of safety alone, a Tesla pickup must have improved towing capacity over the Model X. It should have an integrated trailer brake controller, too — something missing from the Model X.

The Model X platform is not built for hauling either. According to the owner’s manual, when two passengers are in the vehicle, it can only hold an additional 654 lbs. That’s just eight bags of Quickrete cement. To make matters worse, the rear deck of the Model X can only support 285 lbs somewhat saying the rear axle cannot hold that much weight, and the additional weight needs to be spread between the two axles.

A pickup needs to be able to take a load of wood mulch or a couple of major appliances, and Tesla’s current platforms are not designed for such.

Most light-duty pickups, from the Honda Ridgeline to the F-150, can support from 1,500 lbs to 2,000 lbs in the bed. And it’s easy to exceed that rating, too. An open truck bed is an invitation to load it up, but unless you’re using a heavy-duty pickup, don’t get a pallet of landscaping bricks.

Robust Serviceable Parts

Even if a pickup is only used for monthly Home Depot runs, it sustains more abuse than passenger vehicles due to its size. Brakes wear out quicker, and tires need more attention. If it has a light-duty suspension, bushings and joints wear out faster than in cars or SUVs.

Tesla makes it difficult for owners to repair the vehicles they purchased. I don’t expect that to be any different with the Tesla pickup. Tesla is not going to want owners wrenching on the truck. Since that’s the case, the pickup must come with improved parts.

The serviceable parts (brakes, suspension, and tires) that come on the Tesla pickup needs to be more robust and reliable than that used on the Tesla passenger vehicles.

Electric vehicles feature much fewer parts that can go wrong than internal combustion vehicles. It’s great. Owners do not have to change a timing belt or engine oil. But there are still items that will wear out, and most pickup buyers need assurances that they can go the distance.

Off-roading capabilities (or the ability to add off-roading capabilities)

The electric Rivian R1T is currently racing across South America to demonstrate its off-roading chops. Here’s the company’s blog post about it. This excites the truck guy in me. Now that’s a truck, I yell!

I don’t have the data, but I suspect most light-duty pickups are hardly used to their potential. I have a well-equipped F-150 that is used to tow a trailer twice a year.

Trucks are often aspirational purchases where buyers shop for potential lifestyles. Sure, you must have a truck, because one day, you’re going to buy that travel trailer and drive through Yellowstone. To fulfill this dream, a pickup should be able to run the desert or climb rocks.

The Rivian R1T gets a lot of things right, and I hope Tesla is following Rivian’s lead. It’s longer than a Ford Ranger and exceeds the Toyota Tacoma’s bed capacity rating. The wheel wells are large, seemingly saying it can support larger tires than the original from the factory. The R1T has an imposing stance. It looks the part, and the Tesla pickup needs to look the part, too.

Even if the Tesla looks like a weak truck, it’s essential to be able to modify the truck. Add-ons are a big part of the truck culture. My F-150 has become a money pit as I’ve thrown cash into buying accessories. Rivian knows this and has shown off its pickup with a handful of adds-on from tents to kitchens.

Power output

A Tesla pickup could have a unique selling point by allowing owners to use it as a high-output generator.

Right now, a lot of trucks have plenty of power ports, both 12v and 110v. They’re found throughout the cab and bed but cannot power serious tools. The 12v system used in internal combustion vehicles will not power much more than a drill or small saw, let alone a house by acting as a whole house generator.

The functionality would be well received. Homeowners would appreciate the ability to power parts of their homes during blackouts. Campers could use it when taking the pickup on an adventure. Construction works could use it to power and recharge tools.

Right now, there isn’t a way to output the full power of a Tesla vehicle. Owners can use an inverter, but that’s also limited and requires extra parts. Tesla would need to build safeguards and regional power ports into the battery platform to ensure safety and compatibility.

A word about the price.

There’s no way around this. A Tesla pickup will be more expensive than its internal combustion counterparts. It will be an upscale pickup, aimed at those that wear Arc’teryx instead of Carhart.

Rivian is pricing its pickup with a starting price of $69,000 and a Tesla pickup will likely start in the same range. If it’s a new platform built for hauling or towing, Tesla will have a lot of engineering and manufacturing hours to recuperate, which will drive the price north. Until more are available, Tesla and Rivian will be able to set the market price.

It’s a lot for a truck. That’s the price of a fully-spec’d out Ford F-150 that’s more comfortable or capable than it has any right to be. It’s also the same price as a beefy F-350 with Ford’s most potent engine and a towing capacity of 37,000 lbs.

Check back later this week as TechCrunch will be on hand later this week when Tesla unveils its pickup.

Homeis adds community tools for Mexican immigrants

By Anthony Ha

Homeis, a startup building networking tools for immigrant communities, officially launched its community for Mexican immigrants this week.

Co-founder and CEO Ran Harnevo (pictured above) previously founded video syndication company 5min, which was acquired by AOL, where he served as the global president of the company’s video division. (AOL also bought TechCrunch and then was acquired, in turn, by Verizon.)

The company’s goal is to create networks that are focused on the needs of specific immigrant communities — starting with Israeli, French and Indian Communities — helping them find things like new friends and job opportunities.

In the launch announcement, the startup says that its Mexican community will “address specific pain points for Mexican immigrants,” for example by helping them find trusted immigration lawyers.

And if building tools for immigrants seems like a political act in 2019, that’s something Harnevo (an Israeli immigrant himself) seems to be embracing.

“It’s our personal mission to empower immigrants, and that has never been more critical,” he said in a statement. “The increased tension and hostility towards immigration has made it clear that tech companies must step up. With the launch of our Mexican community, we are able to share our technology and resources with the largest immigrant community in the U.S. As immigrants ourselves, that means a lot to us.”

Homeis raised a $12 million Series A led by Canaan Partners and Spark Capital earlier this year.

Google Nest WiFi Review: Home Networking Made Easy

By Scott Gilbertson
If you're already on the Google bandwagon, the Nest WiFi fits well with the company's vision of a connected home.

Where VCs are looking for voice startup investments

By Eric Peckham

Led by Amazon’s Alexa, smart speakers’ install base is expected to reach 200 million units worldwide by 2020. A quarter of Americans over the age of 12 own a smart speaker, and the majority of those users have more than one device in their home. Moreover, Apple could sell 50 million of its Airpods this year (generating $8 billion in sales) as Bluetooth earpieces explode in popularity.

For the market penetration of this hardware, the app ecosystem remains limited in terms of mainstream adoption. Podcast production and consumption has exploded, but they don’t take advantage of smart speakers and headphones as interactive devices. Even though there were 57,000 Alexa skills available at the end of last year, most people are using smart speakers mainly to check the weather, check the news, ask simple questions and play music.

If voice is a new operating system, where are the opportunities to build giant companies on top of it?

To get a better sense of how the smart money views this market, I asked five VCs who have spent the most time in this space to share which types of startups have captured their attention:

  • Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures
  • Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
  • Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon
  • Ann Miura-Ko, Partner at Floodgate
  • Jordan Cooper, Partner at Pace Capital

Here are their responses:

Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures

The most recent wave of audio was about constant connectivity and streaming, and we invested in Anchor, Gimlet, and other audio-first businesses that would thrive in the podcast renaissance. For the next wave of audio, we’re focused [on] three broad categories: personalization, new behaviors/new interfaces, and monetization. Personalization means both utilizing location, Apple Watch, and other data to create magical audio experiences and customized audio content, but also advances in generative content like Resemble.ai and Descript that can create custom audio. 

In terms of new behaviors/new interfaces, people are leaving their Airpods in longer, which means there may be an opportunity for “Airpod-first” product design. Finally, as audio becomes an industry, monetization will be improved and also re-thought: subscription products such as Shine and Headspace are interesting in the context that if they don’t really work as ad-supported podcasts, and they are packaged in such a way that people are willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription.

Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

We are in between platforms and it’s not clear what the next platform will be. VR and AR are options, but I believe voice will be the next major platform with mass adoption. The biggest hurdle right now is discoverability which in turn leads to engagement and retention issues. This was the same for mobile before the App Store allowed us to discover new apps. We need the same for voice.

We will then see voice move from a music and list creation tool to one which quickly becomes part of popular culture around shopping, games, travel, meditation, etc. Leading audio apps such as Calm, the meditation and sleep app, are already set up to take advantage of the move to voice.

Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon

Alexa got its start in the home, but we knew early on that bringing this experience to customers outside the home would become important. Our investments in companies like North (smart glasses), Vesper (power-efficient microphones) and Syntiant (power-efficient AI chip) were inspired by this vision, and reflect the idea that ambient computing is becoming part of daily life.

These companies are also helping create the surface area for interactive entertainment and information services, such as Drivetime’s trivia games (we are an investor there too), and social ones like TTYL, which enables friends wearing earbuds to maintain “audio-presence” with each other throughout their day while they multi-task. We also expect to see innovation in how voice can help seniors aging in place — our recent investment in Labrador Systems, which builds assistive robots, is a good example of this trend.

Sonos Move Review: The King of Wi-Fi Speakers Adds Bluetooth

By Jeffrey Van Camp
Our time with the first Sonos speaker that has a battery and Bluetooth. Is Sonos ready for portability?

8 Best Labor Day 2019 Mattress Sales That WIRED Recommends

By Jeffrey Van Camp
All of our favorite bed-in-a-box mattresses are on sale for Labor Day weekend, including some by Helix, Leesa, and Casper.
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