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Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

By Jonathan Shieber

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

New $47M fund, Fil Rouge Capital, is ready to boost Croatia’s growing startup scene

By Mike Butcher

Croatia has not exactly been known for a huge startup scene in the past, and probably the most famous tech company out of there in recent years has been Rimac Automobili, the startup out of Zagreb that created an electric supercar to rival anything Porsche might make. But the technical talent in the country remains high, as is the way with many Eastern European countries, which have a long and deep heritage of engineering and science going back to the bad old Soviet days.

Croatia is about to get a shot in the arm, however, with the arrival of a home-grown dedicated VC fund, Fil Rouge Capital, which plans to invest in young entrepreneurs, startups and scale-up companies, as well as establishing a local entrepreneurial ecosystem in Croatia.

The fund is fully operational as of last month, having received funding commitments of more than €42 million ($46.6 million), demonstrating a strong interest of investors in the growing startup economy there.

Stevica Kuharski, of the firm, says: “Startups need to be given an opportunity, and opportunities are precisely what Fil Rouge Capital brings to Croatia. Startup founders, whose projects are in very early, early and growth stages now have a place to go to for mentoring and financial support.”

He says Fil Rouge will invest in a variety of sectors, including software, fintech, marketplace, manufacturing, hardware, IOT and logistics.

The fund aims to run over the next four and a half years until the end of 2023, and plans to invest in up to 250 companies operating in Croatia through its three investment stages: “The Startup School” for super-early-stage companies; “The Accelerator Program” for companies that are still early but already up and running; and more full-blown institutional funding-ready companies requiring capital up to €1.5 million.

How Facebook does IT

By Frederic Lardinois

If you have ever worked at any sizable company, the word “IT” probably doesn’t conjure up many warm feelings. If you’re working for an old, traditional enterprise company, you probably don’t expect anything else, though. If you’re working for a modern tech company, though, chances are your expectations are a bit higher. And once you’re at the scale of a company like Facebook, a lot of the third-party services that work for smaller companies simply don’t work anymore.

To discuss how Facebook thinks about its IT strategy and why it now builds most of its IT tools in-house, I sat down with the company’s CIO, Atish Banerjea, at its Menlo Park headquarter.

Before joining Facebook in 2016 to head up what it now calls its “Enterprise Engineering” organization, Banerjea was the CIO or CTO at companies like NBCUniversal, Dex One and Pearson.

“If you think about Facebook 10 years ago, we were very much a traditional IT shop at that point,” he told me. “We were responsible for just core IT services, responsible for compliance and responsible for change management. But basically, if you think about the trajectory of the company, were probably about 2,000 employees around the end of 2010. But at the end of last year, we were close to 37,000 employees.”

Traditionally, IT organizations rely on third-party tools and software, but as Facebook grew to this current size, many third-party solutions simply weren’t able to scale with it. At that point, the team decided to take matters into its own hands and go from being a traditional IT organization to one that could build tools in-house. Today, the company is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to running its IT operations, but getting to this point took a while.

“We had to pretty much reinvent ourselves into a true engineering product organization and went to a full ‘build’ mindset,” said Banerjea. That’s not something every organization is obviously able to do, but, as Banerjea joked, one of the reasons why this works at Facebook “is because we can — we have that benefit of the talent pool that is here at Facebook.”

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The company then took this talent and basically replicated the kind of team it would help on the customer side to build out its IT tools, with engineers, designers, product managers, content strategies, people and research. “We also made the decision at that point that we will hold the same bar and we will hold the same standards so that the products we create internally will be as world-class as the products we’re rolling out externally.”

One of the tools that wasn’t up to Facebook’s scaling challenges was video conferencing. The company was using a third-party tool for that, but that just wasn’t working anymore. In 2018, Facebook was consuming about 20 million conference minutes per month. In 2019, the company is now at 40 million per month.

Besides the obvious scaling challenge, Facebook is also doing this to be able to offer its employees custom software that fits their workflows. It’s one thing to adapt existing third-party tools, after all, and another to build custom tools to support a company’s business processes.

Banerjea told me that creating this new structure was a relatively easy sell inside the company. Every transformation comes with its own challenges, though. For Facebook’s Enterprise  Engineering team, that included having to recruit new skill sets into the organization. The first few months of this process were painful, Banerjea admitted, as the company had to up-level the skills of many existing employees and shed a significant number of contractors. “There are certain areas where we really felt that we had to have Facebook DNA in order to make sure that we were actually building things the right way,” he explained.

Facebook’s structure creates an additional challenge for the team. When you’re joining Facebook as a new employee, you have plenty of teams to choose from, after all, and if you have the choice of working on Instagram or WhatsApp or the core Facebook app — all of which touch millions of people — working on internal tools with fewer than 40,000 users doesn’t sound all that exciting.

“When young kids who come straight from college and they come into Facebook, they don’t know any better. So they think this is how the world is,” Banerjea said. “But when we have experienced people come in who have worked at other companies, the first thing I hear is ‘oh my goodness, we’ve never seen internal tools of this caliber before.’ The way we recruit, the way we do performance management, the way we do learning and development — every facet of how that employee works has been touched in terms of their life cycle here.”

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Facebook first started building these internal tools around 2012, though it wasn’t until Banerjea joined in 2016 that it rebranded the organization and set up today’s structure. He also noted that some of those original tools were good, but not up to the caliber employees would expect from the company.

“The really big change that we went through was up-leveling our building skills to really become at the same caliber as if we were to build those products for an external customer. We want to have the same experience for people internally.”

The company went as far as replacing and rebuilding the commercial Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system it had been using for years. If there’s one thing that big companies rely on, it’s their ERP systems, given they often handle everything from finance and HR to supply chain management and manufacturing. That’s basically what all of their backend tools rely on (and what companies like SAP, Oracle and others charge a lot of money for). “In that 2016/2017 time frame, we realized that that was not a very good strategy,” Banerjea said. In Facebook’s case, the old ERP handled the inventory management for its data centers, among many other things. When that old system went down, the company couldn’t ship parts to its data centers.

“So what we started doing was we started peeling off all the business logic from our backend ERP and we started rewriting it ourselves on our own platform,” he explained. “Today, for our ERP, the backend is just the database, but all the business logic, all of the functionality is actually all custom written by us on our own platform. So we’ve completely rewritten our ERP, so to speak.”

In practice, all of this means that ideally, Facebook’s employees face far less friction when they join the company, for example, or when they need to replace a broken laptop, get a new phone to test features or simply order a new screen for their desk.

One classic use case is onboarding, where new employees get their company laptop, mobile phones and access to all of their systems, for example. At Facebook, that’s also the start of a six-week bootcamp that gets new engineers up to speed with how things work at Facebook. Back in 2016, when new classes tended to still have less than 200 new employees, that was still mostly a manual task. Today, with far more incoming employees, the Enterprise Engineering team has automated most of that — and that includes managing the supply chain that ensures the laptops and phones for these new employees are actually available.

But the team also built the backend that powers the company’s more traditional IT help desks, where employees can walk up and get their issues fixed (and passwords reset).

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To talk more about how Facebook handles the logistics of that, I sat down with Koshambi Shah, who heads up the company’s Enterprise Supply Chain organization, which pretty much handles every piece of hardware and software the company delivers and deploys to its employees around the world (and that global nature of the company brings its own challenges and additional complexity). The team, which has fewer than 30 people, is made up of employees with experience in manufacturing, retail and consumer supply chains.

Typically, enterprises offer their employees a minimal set of choices when it comes to the laptops and phones they issue to their employees, and the operating systems that can run on them tend to be limited. Facebook’s engineers have to be able to test new features on a wide range of devices and operating systems. There are, after all, still users on the iPhone 4s or BlackBerry that the company wants to support. To do this, Shah’s organization actually makes thousands of SKUs available to employees and is able to deliver 98% of them within three days or less. It’s not just sending a laptop via FedEx, though. “We do the budgeting, the financial planning, the forecasting, the supply/demand balancing,” Shah said. “We do the asset management. We make sure the asset — what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed — is there consistently.”

In many large companies, every asset request is double guessed. Facebook, on the other hand, places a lot of trust in its employees, it seems. There’s a self-service portal, the Enterprise Store, that allows employees to easily request phones, laptops, chargers (which get lost a lot) and other accessories as needed, without having to wait for approval (though if you request a laptop every week, somebody will surely want to have a word with you). Everything is obviously tracked in detail, but the overall experience is closer to shopping at an online retailer than using an enterprise asset management system. The Enterprise Store will tell you where a device is available, for example, so you can pick it up yourself (but you can always have it delivered to your desk, too, because this is, after all, a Silicon Valley company).

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For accessories, Facebook also offers self-service vending machines, and employees can walk up to the help desk.

The company also recently introduced an Amazon Locker-style setup that allows employees to check out devices as needed. At these smart lockers, employees simply have to scan their badge, choose a device and, once the appropriate door has opened, pick up the phone, tablet, laptop or VR devices they were looking for and move on. Once they are done with it, they can come back and check the device back in. No questions asked. “We trust that people make the right decision for the good of the company,” Shah said. For laptops and other accessories, the company does show the employee the price of those items, though, so it’s clear how much a certain request costs the company. “We empower you with the data for you to make the best decision for your company.”

Talking about cost, Shah told me the Supply Chain organization tracks a number of metrics. One of those is obviously cost. “We do give back about 4% year-over-year, that’s our commitment back to the businesses in terms of the efficiencies we build for every user we support. So we measure ourselves in terms of cost per supported user. And we give back 4% on an annualized basis in the efficiencies.”

Unsurprisingly, the company has by now gathered enough data about employee requests (Shah said the team fulfills about half a million transactions per year) that it can use machine learning to understand trends and be proactive about replacing devices, for example.

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Facebooks’ Enterprise Engineering group doesn’t just support internal customers, though. Another interesting aspect to Facebook’s Enterprise Engineering group is that it also runs the company’s internal and external events, including the likes of F8, the company’s annual developer conference. To do this, the company built out conference rooms that can seat thousands of people, with all of the logistics that go with that.

The company also showed me one of its newest meeting rooms where there are dozens of microphones and speakers hanging from the ceiling that make it easier for everybody in the room to participate in a meeting and be heard by everybody else. That’s part of what the organization’s “New Builds” team is responsible for, and something that’s possible because the company also takes a very hands-on approach to building and managing its offices.

Facebook also runs a number of small studios in its Menlo Park and New York offices, where both employees and the occasional external VIP can host Facebook Live videos.

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Indeed, live video, it seems, is one of the cornerstones of how Facebook employees collaborate and help employees who work from home. Typically, you’d just use the camera on your laptop or maybe a webcam connected to your desktop to do so. But because Facebook actually produces its own camera system with the consumer-oriented Portal, Banerjea’s team decided to use that.

“What we have done is we have actually re-engineered the Portal,” he told me. “We have connected with all of our video conferencing systems in the rooms. So if I have a Portal at home, I can dial into my video conferencing platform and have a conference call just like I’m sitting in any other conference room here in Facebook. And all that software, all the engineering on the portal, that has been done by our teams — some in partnership with our production teams, but a lot of it has been done with Enterprise Engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, there are also groups that manage some of the core infrastructure and security for the company’s internal tools and networks. All of those tools run in the same data centers as Facebook’s consumer-facing applications, though they are obviously sandboxed and isolated from them.

It’s one thing to build all of these tools for internal use, but now, the company is also starting to think about how it can bring some of these tools it built for internal use to some of its external customers. You may not think of Facebook as an enterprise company, but with its Workplace collaboration tool, it has an enterprise service that it sells externally, too. Last year, for the first time, Workplace added a new feature that was incubated inside of Enterprise Engineering. That feature was a version of Facebook’s public Safety Check that the Enterprise Engineering team had originally adapted to the company’s own internal use.

“Many of these things that we are building for Facebook, because we are now very close partners with our Workplace team — they are in the enterprise software business and we are the enterprise software group for Facebook — and many [features] we are building for Facebook are of interest to Workplace customers.”

As Workplace hit the market, Banerjea ended up talking to the CIOs of potential users, including the likes of Delta Air Lines, about how Facebook itself used Workplace internally. But as companies started to adopt Workplace, they realized that they needed integrations with existing third-party services like ERP platforms and Salesforce. Those companies then asked Facebook if it could build those integrations or work with partners to make them available. But at the same time, those customers got exposed to some of the tools that Facebook itself was building internally.

“Safety Check was the first one,” Banerjea said. “We are actually working on three more products this year.” He wouldn’t say what these are, of course, but there is clearly a pipeline of tools that Facebook has built for internal use that it is now looking to commercialize. That’s pretty unusual for any IT organization, which, after all, tends to only focus on internal customers. I don’t expect Facebook to pivot to an enterprise software company anytime soon, but initiatives like this are clearly important to the company and, in some ways, to the morale of the team.

This creates a bit of friction, too, though, given that the Enterprise Engineering group’s mission is to build internal tools for Facebook. “We are now figuring out the deployment model,” Banerjea said. Who, for example, is going to support the external tools the team built? Is it the Enterprise Engineering group or the Workplace team?

Chances are then, that Facebook will bring some of the tools it built for internal use to more enterprises in the long run. That definitely puts a different spin on the idea of the consumerization of enterprise tech. Clearly, not every company operates at the scale of Facebook and needs to build its own tools — and even some companies that could benefit from it don’t have the resources to do so. For Facebook, though, that move seems to have paid off and the tools I saw while talking to the team definitely looked more user-friendly than any off-the-shelf enterprise tools I’ve seen at other large companies.

Another day, another reversal in stock fortunes as recession fears grow

By Jonathan Shieber

U.S. stock markets plummeted today as recession fears continue to grow.

Yesterday’s good news about a reprieve on tariffs for U.S. consumer imports was undone by increasing concerns over economic indicators pointing to a potential global recession coming within the next year.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 800 points on Wednesday — its largest decline of the year — while the S&P 500 fell by 85 points and the tech-heavy Nasdaq dropped 240 points.

The downturn in the markets came a day after the Dow closed up 373 points after the U.S. Trade Representative announced a delay in many of the import taxes the Trump administration planned to impose on Chinese goods.

In the U.S. it was concerns over the news that the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes had dipped below the yield of two-year notes. It’s an indicator that investors think the short-term prospects for a country’s economic outlook are worse than the long-term outlook, so yields are higher for short-term investments.

China’s industrial and retail sectors both slowed significantly in July. Industrial production, including manufacturing, mining and utilities, grew by 4.8% in July (a steep decline from 6.3% growth in June).  Meanwhile, retail sales in the country slowed to 7.6%, down from 9.8% in June.

Germany also posted declines over the summer months, indicating that its economy had contracted by 0.1% in the three months leading to June.

Globally, the protracted trade war between the U.S. and China are weighing on economies — as are concerns about what a hard Brexit would mean for the economies in the European Union .

The stocks of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Salesforce were all off by somewhere between 2.5% and 4.5% in today’s trading.

Proterra, the Tesla of electric buses, closes in on $1 billion valuation

By Kirsten Korosec

Proterra has authorized shares to raise $75 million, a new round of funding that would push the electric bus maker’s valuation past $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.

The company authorized the sale of 10,857,762 shares at a price of $6.91 in a Series 8 round, according to a securities filing that was obtained by the Prime Unicorn Index, a company that tracks the performance of private U.S. companies, and reviewed by TechCrunch. If all of the shares are issued, the company’s total valuation would be $1.04 billion, pushing it into “unicorn” territory, according to Prime Unicorn Index.

Proterra declined to comment.

Efforts to raise capital come as the company explores an IPO, according to a report last month by Reuters that said Proterra had hired underwriters from Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.

Prior to this August 2 filing, Proterra had raised a total of $551.77 million in funding from investors that include G2VP, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Constellation Ventures, Mitsui & Co. as well as BMW i Ventures, Edison Energy, the Federal Transportation Administration, General Motors’s venture arm and Tao Capital Partners.

Proterra produces electric buses for municipal, federal and commercial transit agencies; it has a line of electric buses, hundreds of which have been sold, that can travel 350 miles on a single charge. The Burlingame, Calif. company, which has a number of former Tesla employees in leadership positions, including CEO Ryan Popple, has since diversified its business.

Proterra rolled out in April a $200 million credit facility backed by Japanese investment giant Mitsui & Co. to scale up a battery leasing program aimed at lowering the barrier of entry of buying an electric bus.

And just this month, the company announced it has added a new business line called Proterra Powered that will sell its vehicle battery systems, powertrain technology and charging infrastructure to commercial truck and manufacturers of heavy-duty vehicles like garbage trucks.

This new business line stems from its previous relationships with companies like Van Hool and Daimler . Proterra announced last year it was working with Daimler to electrify the company’s Thomas Built Buses division, which makes a line of school buses. That relationship comes with some financial backing and an agreement to share technologies.

Daimler co-led a $155 million funding along with Tao Capital Partner. Proterra is lending its battery and drive train expertise; Daimler will show Proterra how to scale its manufacturing business even further.

The partnership has already been fruitful. Thomas Built Buses received certifications from the California Air Resources Board and the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project for an electric bus, known as the Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley, which uses Proterra technology. Electric school bus production for demonstration and innovation vehicles begins in 2019 and commercial production begins in 2020.

Calling all hardware startups! Apply to Hardware Battlefield @ TC Shenzhen

By Neesha A. Tambe

Got hardware? Well then, listen up, because our search continues for boundary-pushing, early-stage hardware startups to join us in Shenzhen, China for an epic opportunity; launch your startup on a global stage and compete in Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12.

Apply here to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019. Why? It’s your chance to demo your product to the top investors and technologists in the world. Hardware Battlefield, cousin to Startup Battlefield, focuses exclusively on innovative hardware because, let’s face it, it’s the backbone of technology. From enterprise solutions to agtech advancements, medical devices to consumer product goods — hardware startups are in the international spotlight.

If you make the cut, you’ll compete against 15 of the world’s most innovative hardware makers for bragging rights, plenty of investor love, media exposure and $25,000 in equity-free cash. Just participating in a Battlefield can change the whole trajectory of your business in the best way possible.

We chose to bring our fifth Hardware Battlefield to Shenzhen because of its outstanding track record of supporting hardware startups. The city achieves this through a combination of accelerators, rapid prototyping and world-class manufacturing. What’s more, TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 takes place as part of the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen that runs November 9-12.

Creativity and innovation no know boundaries, and that’s why we’re opening this competition to any early-stage hardware startup from any country. While we’ve seen amazing hardware in previous Battlefields — like robotic armsfood testing devicesmalaria diagnostic tools, smart socks for diabetics and e-motorcycles, we can’t wait to see the next generation of hardware, so bring it on!

Meet the minimum requirements listed below, and we’ll consider your startup:

Here’s how Hardware Battlefield works. TechCrunch editors vet every qualified application and pick 15 startups to compete. Those startups receive six rigorous weeks of free coaching. Forget stage fright. You’ll be prepped and ready to step into the spotlight.

Teams have six minutes to pitch and demo their products, which is immediately followed by an in-depth Q&A with the judges. If you make it to the final round, you’ll repeat the process in front of a new set of judges.

The judges will name one outstanding startup the Hardware Battlefield champion. Hoist the Battlefield Cup, claim those bragging rights and the $25,000. This nerve-wracking thrill-ride takes place in front of a live audience, and we capture the entire event on video and post it to our global audience on TechCrunch.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12. Don’t hide your hardware or miss your chance to show us — and the entire tech world — your startup magic. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019, and join us in Shenzhen!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

With Y Combinator’s seal of approval, MyPetrolPump raises $1.6 million for its car refueling business

By Jonathan Shieber

Even before pitching onstage at Y Combinator, Indian car refueling startup MyPetrolPump has managed to snag $1.6 million in seed financing.

The business, which is similar to startups in the U.S. like Filld, Yoshi and Booster Fuels, took 10 months to design and receive approval for its proprietary refueling trucks that can withstand the unique stresses of providing logistics services in India.

Together with co-founder Nabin Roy, a serial startup entrepreneur, MyPetrolPump co-founder and chief executive Ashish Gupta pooled $150,000 to build the company’s first two refuelers and launch the business.

MyPetrolPump began operating out of Bangalore in 2017 working with a manufacturing partner to make the 20-30 refuelers that the company expects it will need to roll out its initial services. However, demand is far outstripping supply, according to Gupta.

“We would need hundreds of them to fulfill the demand,” Gupta says. In fact the company is already developing a licensing strategy that would see it franchise out the construction of the refueling vehicles and regional management of the business across multiple geographies. 

Bootstrapped until this $1.6 million financing, MyPetrolPump already has five refueling vehicles in its fleet and counts 2,000 customers already on its ledger.

These are companies like Amazon and Zoomcar, which both have massive fleets of vehicles that need refueling. Already the company has delivered 5 million liters of fuel with drivers working daily 12-hour shifts, Gupta says.

While services like MyPetrolPump have cropped up in the U.S. as a matter of convenience, in the Indian context, the company’s offering is more of necessity, says Gupta.

“In the Indian context, there’s pilferage of fuel,” says Gupta. Bus drivers collude with gas station operators to skim money off the top of the order, charging for 50 liters of fuel but only getting 40 liters pumped in. Another problem that Gupta says is common is the adulteration of fuel with additives that can degrade the engine of a vehicle.

There’s also the environmental benefit of not having to go all over to refill a vehicle, saving fuel costs by filling up multiple vehicles with a single trip from a refueling vehicle out to a location with a fleet of existing vehicles.

The company estimates it can offset 1 million tons of carbon in a year — and provide more than 300 billion liters of fuel. The model has taken off in other geographies as well. There’s Toplivo v Bak in Russia (which was acquired by Yandex), Gaston in Paris and Indonesia’s everything mobility company, Gojek, whose offerings also include refueling services.

And Gupta is preparing for the future as well. If the world moves to electrification and electric vehicles, the entrepreneur says his company can handle that transition as well.

We are delivering a last-mile fuel delivery system,” says Gupta. “If tomorrow hydrogen becomes the dominant fuel we will do that… If there is electricity we will do that. What we are building is the convenience of last-mile delivery to energy at the doorstep.”

Lessons from the hardware capital of the world

By Brian Heater

A week is obviously not enough time to truly understand a market as massive and fascinating as China. Hell, it’s not really even enough time to adjust to the 12-hour time difference from New York. That said, each of the three visits I’ve taken to the country in the past two years has yielded some useful insights into my role as hardware editor here at TechCrunch.

Late last week, I got back from an eight-day trip to Shenzhen in the Guangdong Province of South China and nearby Hong Kong. In some respects, the cities are worlds apart, though a newly opened high-speed rail system has reduced the trip to 30 minutes. Customs issues aside, it’s the height of convenience. Though for political and cultural reasons I’ll not get into here, some have bemoaned the access it’s provided.

This particular visit was sort of a scouting trip. In November, TechCrunch will be hosting its first Hardware Battlefield event in a couple of years. Previous events had been held at CES for reasons of easy access to young startups. This time out, however, we’ve opted to go straight to the source.

The birthplace of hardware

Volkswagen and Autodesk turned a vintage Microbus into a tech design showcase

By Darrell Etherington

Volkswagen and Autodesk teamed up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the automaker’s biggest R&D facilities with an iconic vintage VW Microbus that looks retro on the outside but packs a ton of tech on the inside, including an electric powertrain and significant weight savings afforded through use of ‘generative design.’

That’s the design practice in which designers use software to autonomously create (or ‘generate,’ get it?) designs based on input of their desired performance requirements, the materials they have available, or what they’re using in terms of manufacturing.

In this case, one of the key requirements for this retrofit was saving space and weight to make the Microbus more energy efficient. That’s what led to things like the almost organic-looking wheel design, which offer 18 percent weight savings vs. standard wheels. Similarly, the steering wheel, rear-view side mirror mounts and back bench supports sport similar, root-structure like looks that it was grown more than manufactured.

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In addition to light weight, strength and ease of construction, designers on the project say they hope that these results of generative design generally invite touch more often from users of the vehicle, which is not typically a result of utilitarian support structure design for your average car.

Engineers and designers from both Autodesk (which has also done generative design collaborations with GM and NASA JPL previously) and Volkswagen’s Innovation and Engineering Center California worked together on this project, but it’s just a show car so don’t expect to be able to buy any tree vans anytime soon.

Pavegen, which harvests energy and data from footsteps, secures crowd and Hinduja Group funding

By Mike Butcher

Pavegen, a UK startup which harvests energy from people’s footsteps and also tracks that data, has raised £2.6m on its crowdfunding push having doubled its initial £950k target.

The campaign secured funds from over 1,400 investors, including partnership and anchor investment from major global engineering conglomerate Hinduja Group and family investment firm Tamar Capital.

The Hinduja Group, whose Co-Chairmen topped the UK 2019 Rich List, aims to use the technology to reduce the cost of manufacturing and provide access to fast-growing markets in India and South East Asia.

The funding round follows expansion into 36 countries worldwide, and £1.8m in revenues in 2018, with installations including smart city developments, retail destinations, transport hubs and education institutions in Hong Kong, India, Korea, Thailand, UAE, UK & USA.

In 2018, Pavegen also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with global engineering and technology giant, Siemens, to develop smart city projects together.

The key to Pavegen is not just power generation. Pavegen which converts the kinetic energy of footsteps into both electricity and data, and it is also developing an ecosystem allowing people to be rewarded for steps on Pavegen walkways.

The company says its first shopping center deployment at The Mercury mall in East London has raised engagement with the site by 15%.

Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen, said: “We believe in placing people at the heart of the smart city. With the support of Hinduja Group, Siemens and Tamar Capital, our plan of making our technology ubiquitous for all cities becomes achievable.”

Hrag Sarkissian, Founding Partner, Tamar Capital, said: “Pavegen is very relevant when it comes to Smart cities, from a power and a data play. As cost comes down, large scale deployments could really change the game.”

Shom Hinduja, President of Alternative Energy and Sustainability Initiatives at Hinduja Group said: “It’s an exciting time for Pavegen with new projects in airports, retail sites and smart city developments in Asia, the Middle East and North America. We believe the Hinduja team will be able to play a key role in enabling the Pavegen team to rapidly bring their ambitious vision to life.”

South African SME finance startup Lulalend raises $6.5M Series A

By Jake Bright

South African digital lender Lulalend has raised a $6.5 million Series A round co-led by IFC and Quona Capital.

The Cape Town based startup uses an online application process and internal credit metrics to provide short-term loans to small and medium sized businesses that are often unable to obtain working capital.

Lulalend will use the round to build its tech and data team and improve its ability to reach more SMEs in South Africa, according CEO Trevor Gosling—who co-founded the startup in 2014 with Neil Welman.

“The biggest thing is strengthening our balance sheet so we can access traditional debt funding to grow our loan book,” Gosling told TechCrunch on a call.

On the market for Lulalend’s business, Gosling highlighted IFC numbers indicating a $23 billion financing gap for South Africa’s SME’s—which are estimated to contribute 34 percent of the GDP for the country of 56 million.

Lulalend’s loan sizes range from around $1500 (≈ 20,000 South African Rand) up to $70,000, for 6 to 12 month tenors, requiring monthly payments of one-sixth or one-twelfth the total loan with monthly costs of 2 to 6 percent.

The most common loan is around $10,000 (≈ 148,000 Rand) over a 6 month term for a cost over principal of roughly $1700, according to Gosling.

Lulalend loan terms

SMEs can apply online and need a bank account to receive a loan disbursement. A high percentage of Lulalend’s approvals are processed automatically—without requiring manual due diligence—using the company’s proprietary credit scoring tech.

Loans by sector for the startup run pretty evenly across online commerce companies, manufacturing and distribution type businesses, and professional and business services firms.

Lula 197 2Lulalend does not release info on revenue or loan portfolio size, but Gosling said the company has a loss-rate below 4 percent and has reached profitability—something confirmed in the round due diligence process.

The startup has an internal data-base, developer team, and operates on Microsoft’s Azure cloud services. Co-Founder Neil Welman is the company’s CTO and brings previous experience in financial credit risk analysis.

“When we set up the company the biggest piece within the automation that we’ve had to solve for is the underwriting component and ability to score companies,” Gosling said.

That internal ability to assess loan risk and process loan applications (largely) straight through is how Lulalend is able to serve an under-served SME market. For many big South African banks, that require traditional due diligence and collateral, booking small loans doesn’t make economic sense, according to Gosling.

“With a very manual credit process and little automation, it doesn’t make…it….profitable to do $5000 loans,” he said.

As part of the $6.5 million Series A, investor Quona Capital (which is sponsored by fintech organization Accion) will join LulaLend’s board.

On why the fund invested in the startup, “We believe Lulalend’s tech-enabled scoring, combined with their ability to provide funding in a quick and transparent way, has the potential to…catalyze SME growth in South Africa,” said Quona Capital Partner Johan Bosini.

LulaLend co-founder Trevor Gosling said the the startup could consider expansion in the future but will remain focused on South Africa for now.

On long-term performance goals for the startup, he named generating revenue and lending volume as the primary target. “What we’re trying to achieve is building a $100 million loan book as quickly as possible and that’s what this raise is assisting us with,” he said.

“We believe if you build a quality business opportunities will present themselves, whether it’s through a strategic partnership or an IPO or whatever makes sense at that time.”

Gosling said Lulalend is also keeping its door opened to partnerships with big banks or telcos to provide access to finance to greater numbers of South Africa’s SMEs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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