Space as an investment target is trending upwards in the VC community, but specialist firm Space Angels has been focused on the sector longer than most. The network of angel investors just published its most recent quarterly overview of activity in the space startup industry, revealing that investors put nearly $6 billion in capital into space companies across 2019.
I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson about what he’s seen in terms of changes in the industry since Space Angels began publishing this quarterly update in 2017, and about what’s in store for 2020 and beyond as commercial space matures and comes into its own. Informed by data released publicly, SEC filings and investor databases — as well as anonymized and aggregated info from Space Angels’ own due diligence process and portfolio company management — Anderson is among the best-positioned people on either the investment or the operator side to weigh in on the current and future state of the space startup industry.
“2019 was a record year — record number of investments, record number of companies, a record on all these fronts,” Anderson said. “2019 in its own right was a huge year, but then you look at everything that happened over the last decade. We always refer to this last decade as ‘the entrepreneurial space age’ […] and you see everything that’s happened over the last 10 years, you see it all culminating in a record year like this one.”
Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.
This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.
Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”
These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.
The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.
“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”
Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.
In passing a short-term funding bill to avoid a U.S. government shutdown, Congress has also extended the government’s legal powers allowing it to collect daily millions of Americans’ call records.
Buried in a funding bill passed by the House this week was a clause that extended the government’s so-called Section 215 powers, which allow the National Security Agency to compel phone providers to turn over daily logs — known as “metadata” — of their customers’ calls, including their phone numbers, when the call was made and the call’s duration. The program is designed to allow intelligence analysts to sift through vast amounts of data to identify links between suspected terrorists. But the program also collects millions of wholly domestic phone calls between Americans, which courts have ruled unconstitutional.
Although it’s believed all the major phone carriers have been told to feed their call logs to the government, a top secret court order leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden only confirmed Verizon — which owns TechCrunch — as an unwitting participant in the program.
The Senate approved the funding bill on Thursday after a 74-20 vote. The bill will now go to the president’s desk, averting a midnight government shut down, but also confirming the Section 215 powers will be extended until March 15.
The Senate voted 74-20 to approve the bill (Image: C-SPAN)
But although the powers are to be extended, the program itself is said to have been shut down.
After the Snowden disclosures in 2013, Congress moved to rein in the NSA’s call collection powers amid public outcry. In 2015, lawmakers passed the Freedom Act, which allowed the continued collection of call records but ostensibly with greater oversight. Since the Freedom Act passed, the number of records collected has rocketed. But during that time the NSA was forced to come clean and admit that it “overcollected” Americans’ call records on two separate occasions, prompting the agency to delete hundreds of millions of call logs.
The second incident led the NSA to shut down the call records collection program. But the Trump administration has renewed efforts to restart the program by pushing for the legal powers to be reauthorized.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which first noted the legal extension, said it was “disappointed” that lawmakers “hid an extension of these authorities in a funding bill, without debate and without consideration of meaningful privacy and civil liberties safeguards to include.”
A source in the Senate said the three-month extension came as a surprise, but that the additional time would allow lawmakers more time to properly debate reforms to the program without rushing it through before the end of the year.
A little over a year after the dissolution of the once high-flying blood testing startup Theranos, another startup has raised over $27 million to breathe new life into the vision of bringing low-cost blood tests to point-of-care medical facilities.
Unlike Theranos, Truvian Sciences is not claiming that most of its blood tests do not need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and is, in fact, raising the money to proceed with a year-long process to refine its technology and submit it to the FDA for approval.
“More and more consumers are refusing to accept the status quo of healthcare and are saying no to expensive tests, inconvenient appointments and little to no access to their own test results,” said Jeff Hawkins, the president and chief executive of Truvian, in a statement. “In parallel, retail pharmacies are rising to fill demand, becoming affordable health access points. By bringing accurate, on-site blood testing to convenient sites, we will give consumers a more seamless experience and enable them to act on the vast medical insights that come with regular blood tests.”
Hawkins, the former vice president and general manager of reproductive and genetic health business at Illumina, is joined by a seasoned executive team of life sciences professionals including Dr. Dena Marrinucci, the former co-founder of Epic Sciences, who serves as the company’s senior vice president of corporate development and is a co-founder of the company.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Mate Marschalko
As part of today’s announcement, the company said it was adding Katherine Atkinson, a former executive at Epic Sciences and Illumina, as its new chief commercial officer, and has brought on the former chairman of the Thermo Fisher Scientific board of directors, Paul Meister, as a new director.
The ultimate goal, according to Hawkins, is to develop a system that can be installed in labs and can provide accurate results in 20 minutes for a battery of health tests from a small sample of blood for as low as $50. Typically, these tests can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars — depending on the testing facility, says Hawkins.
Using new automation and sensing technologies, Truvian is aiming to combine chemistries, immunoassays and hematology assays into a single device that can perform standard assessment blood tests like lipid panels, metabolic panels, blood cell counts, and tests of thyroid, kidney and liver functions.
The company’s system includes remote monitoring and serviceability, according to a statement from Truvian. Its dry reagent technology allows materials to be stored at room temperature, removing the need for cold chain or refrigerated storage. According to a statement, the company is working to receive a CE Mark in the European Economic Area and submitted to the FDA for 510(k) clearance along with a “clinical laboratory improvement amendments” waiver application to let the devices be used in a retail setting or doctor’s office.
“We don’t believe that single drop of blood from a finger stick can do everything,” says Hawkins (in opposition to Theranos). “Fundamentally as a company we have built the company with seasoned healthcare leaders.”
As the company brings its testing technology to market, it’s also looking to compliment the diagnostics toolkit with a consumer-facing app that would provide a direct line of communication between the company and the patients receiving the results of its tests.
Truvian’s data will integrate with both Apple and Google’s health apps as well as reside on the company’s own consumer-facing app, according to Hawkins.
“At the end of the day precision medicine is going to come from integrating these data sources,” says Hawkins. “I think if we pull off what we want we should be able to make your routine blood testing far more accessible.”
Data from the U.S. government sure seems to indicate that the Earth is warming (despite what the current leadership may say).
Apparently, the globe just experienced the second-hottest October ever recorded and is on track for the second-hottest year to date on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Not only are we experiencing a run of hot Octobers (this is the tenth year that temperatures have hit recorded-history highs since 2003 and all five of the highest temperature years were in the past five years), but arctic ice has also shrunk to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.
Even as the Trump Administration enacts policies to reverse course on curbing the emissions that seem to be leading to a changing global climate, federal agencies like the NOAA keep releasing reports that reveal exactly how much the planet is changing.
Earlier this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began the process of formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. As with most momentous events of the Administration, the world was notified via Twitter.
Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 4, 2019
While Secretary Pompeo was praising the nation’s approach to “reducing all emissions”, Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands hit historic record-setting temperatures and the world’s average sea surface temperature hit its second-warmest ever-recorded temperature.
Meanwhile, new projections are revising the risk that cities face from rising sea levels that are caused by melting glaciers due to warmer temperatures.
Maps created by the research organization Climate Central, and published in the journal Nature Communications indicate that rising seas could flood land that’s currently home to some 150 million people at high-tide by 2050, if steps aren’t taken to improve the resiliency of cities to flooding or reverse course on climate.
Even the Federal Reserve is waking up to climate change risks. The regulator responsible for U.S. monetary policy convened an event earlier this month to focus on the financial impacts of climate change.
“By participating more actively in climate-related research and practice, the Federal Reserve can be more effective in supporting a strong economy and a stable financial system,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board in Washington, said in prepared remarks at the same event, according to a report in The New York Times.
Rocket launch startup Rocket Lab is all about building out rapid-response space-launch capabilities, and founder/CEO Peter Beck is showing off its latest advancement in service of that goal: A room-sized manufacturing robot named “Rosie.”
Rosie is tasked with processing the carbon composite components of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle. That translates to basically getting the rocket flight-ready, and there’s a lot involved in that — it’s a process that normally can take “hundreds of hours,” according to Beck. So how fast can Rosie manage the same task?
“We can produce one launch vehicle in this machine every 12 hours,” Beck says in the video. That includes “every bit of marking, every bit of machining, every bit of drilling,” he adds.
Meet Rosie. She processes Electron's composite stages in just 12 hours. pic.twitter.com/NcC34Ylg66
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) November 13, 2019
This key new automation tool essentially takes something that was highly bespoke and manual and turns it into something eminently repeatable and expedited, which is a necessary ingredient if Rocket Lab is ever to accomplish its goal of providing high-frequency launches to small satellite customers with very little turnaround time. The company’s New Zealand launch facility recently landed an FAA license that helps sketch out the extent of its ambition, as it’s technically cleared to launch rockets as often as every 72 hours.
In addition to innovations like Rosie, Rocket Lab uses 3D printing for components of its launch vehicle engines that result in single-day turnaround for production, versus weeks using more traditional methods. It’s also now working on an ambitious plan for rocket recovery, which should help further with providing high-frequency launch capabilities as it’ll mean they don’t have to build entirely new launch vehicles for every mission.
New research commissioned by UK VC firm Octopus Ventures has put a spotlight on which of the country’s higher education institutions are doing the most to support spin outs. The report compiles a ranking of universities, foregrounding those with a record of producing what partner Simon King dubs “quality spin outs”.
The research combines and weights five data points — looking at university spinouts’ relative total funding as a means of quantifying exit success, for example. The idea for the Enterpreneurial Impact Ranking, as it’s been called, is to identify not just those higher education institutions with a track record of encouraging academics to set up a business off the back of a piece of novel work but those best at identifying the most promising commercialization opportunities — ultimately leading to spinout success (such as an exit where the company was sold for more than it raised).
Hence the report looking at data over almost a ten year period (2009-2018) to track spin-outs as they progress from an idea in the lab through prototyping to getting a product to market.
The ranking looks at five factors in all: Total funding per university; total spinouts created per university; total disclosures per university; total patents per university; and total sales from spinouts per university.
Topping the ranking is Queen’s University Belfast which the report notes has had a number of notable successes via its commercialization arm, Qubis, name checking the likes of Kainos (digital services), Andor Technology (scientific imaging) and Fusion Antibodies (therapeutics & diagnostics), all of whom have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.
The index ranks the top 100 UK universities on this entrepreneurial impact benchmark — but the rest of the top ten are as follows:
2) University of Cambridge
3) Cardiff University
4) Queen Mary University of London
5) University of Leeds
6) University of Dundee
7) University of Nottingham
8) King’s College London
9) University of Oxford
10) Imperial College London
Octopus Ventures says the ranking will help it to get a better handle on which universities to spend more time with as it searches for its next deep tech investment.
It also wants to increase visibility into how the UK is doing when it comes to commercializing academic research to feed further growth of the ecosystem by sharing best practice, per King.
“We are looking at a number of data points which are all self-reported by the universities themselves to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. And then we combine those in the way that we think brings out at a higher level which universities are doing a good job of spinning out companies,” he says.
“It means that you take into consideration which university is producing quality spin-outs. So it’s not just spray and pray and get lots of stuff out there. But actually which universities are creating spin-outs that then go on to return value back to them.”
UPS is rolling along with its drone delivery program, working with partner CVS Pharmacy to deliver prescription drugs to customer doorsteps via its newly deployed commercial drones. UPS delivered medications to two paying customers on November 1 using the M2 drone system that the logistics company developed in partnership with Matternet.
UPS received approval last month from the FAA to fly its fleet of commercial drones in service of customers, and now it plans to iterate its drone delivery program “in the coming months,” with the aim of ensuring that it can deploy UAVs in a commercial capacity at increasing scale. It also launched “UPS Flight Forward,” a dedicated division focused on autonomous drone delivery.
For these early deliveries, drones were loaded with prescriptions filled by pharmacists at a CVS location in Cary, NC. Once a UPS employee loaded the cargo onto the drones, they flew autonomously from the store location to nearby customer homes, dropping off the packages from a hover height of around 20 feet above these locations. One of the customers has mobility challenges that would make travel to a CVS store for prescription pickup difficult, UPS points out.
This isn’t the first time UPS has deployed drones in a healthcare industry setting: The company has been working with Mattternet and WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, doing commercial deliveries of medical samples in a B2B setting.
The $399 Mavic Mini lives in a sweet spot of core features and a low price. It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range, and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun. And it’s so small that you’re more likely to throw it in your bag and take it on Instagram adventures.
The small size is the Mavic Mini’s main selling point. It weighs 249 grams, and that odd number isn’t an accident. Drones that weight 250 grams and above have to be registered to fly. And yet, even though the Mavic Mini is lightweight and foldable, it’s packed with core features: 30 minute flight time, 4 km HD video transmission, 3-axis gimbal holding a 2.7K camera, and a physical controller that works with Android and iOS devices. At $399, it’s a lot of drone for the money even though it’s missing features found in DJI’s other drones.
There are more expensive drones packed with a lot of features. I own most of those drones. They’re fun, but several years ago, feature creep started sneaking into DJI’s products. Now, with a convoluted product line, a spreadsheet is needed to deceiver DJI’s drones. Most come loaded with countless features owners will likely never use. The Mavic Mini is something different. It’s basic, and I dig it.
Here’s what’s missing: collision detection, ultra-long-range connection, 4k camera, gesture control, and advanced camera features like trackable follow, panoramic, timelapse, and optical zoom.
The Mavic Mini is quick enough to be fun, but it won’t win any races. It’s responsive and fast enough. Light and easy. Compared to a Mavic 2, it feels smaller and less powerful — because it is — and yet it never feels too small or underpowered. The Mavic Mini is well balanced, and owners should find it enjoyable to fly.
Despite its tiny size, the Mavic Mini holds up well in high wind. I took it up to 200m on a windy fall day in the Midwest. The wind was clearing leaves off the trees, and I was bundled up in hat and gloves. It was gusty. The Mavic Mini didn’t care. It took off like a drone much larger and stood tall against the wind. What’s more, the video didn’t suffer. The gimbal held the camera steady as it recorded the autumn landscape.
The drone uses DJI’s new app, and I’m using a beta version to test the drone. Called DJI Fly, it’s a streamlined version of DJI Go and packs several enhancements. Safe fly zones are better integrated into the app and have an additional level of detail over the older app. DJI also better built-in support for its social community app, SkyPixel. However, as this version is streamlined, it lacks a lot of information standard on the Go version, most notable, a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I’m hoping DJI adds more features to this app after it launches.
The camera is good for the price. The pictures here were taken from the drone and not altered or adjusted. They were taken on cloudy and sunny days. The range is surprisingly good as the drone can capture blue skies and dark highlights. Occasionally in direct sunlight, the camera colors become washed out.
They say the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s where the Mavic Mini comes in. The best drone is the one you have with you. For years, I lugged around a massive Pelican case containing Phantom 2 and later a Phantom 3. I thought I was the coolest. At a moment’s notice, I could go to my car’s trunk and retrieve a suitcase containing a flying camera. A few minutes later, after my phone synced to the drone, and the controller joined the drone’s network, I had 15 minutes of flight time. Then came the foldable Mavic, which fit alongside my camera gear like a large telephoto lens. Other drones came and went. I liked the GoPro Karma for a time.
The tiny Mavic Mini is a game-changer. It’s small enough that I’ll bring it everywhere. It’s small and light enough that it feels like a large point and shoot in my computer bag.
Want more features and a better camera but keep the portable size? Earlier this year DJI announced the $919 foldable Mavic Air that has a 4k camera and 5 mile video transmission.
The Mavic Mini gets everything right. It’s small, comes with a lovely case, and in a $499 bundle, two extra batteries with a clever charging pack. The camera is surprisingly good though admittedly less powerful than DJI’s more expensive drones. The Mavic Mini is the perfect drone for a first-timer or experienced drone enthusiast. DJI stuff enough features into the 249 gram body to make this a fantastic drone for anyone.
Ever since the days of Windows NT, the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (better known as ConfigMgr) has allowed companies to manage the increasingly large number of devices they issue to their employees. Then, back in 2011, the company also launched Intune, its cloud-based endpoint management system for corporate and BYOD devices. These days, most enterprises that use Microsoft’s tools use ConfigMgr to manage their PCs and then opt for Intune for mobile devices — and that’s a complex system to manage, even for sophisticated IT departments. So today, at its annual Ignite conference for IT professionals, Microsoft is announcing a way forward for these users to modernize their systems with the launch of the unified Microsoft Endpoint Manager.
As Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me, he takes some blame for this. “A lot of this falls on my shoulders because we just allowed everything to get complex. So we’re just simplifying everything,” he said. “So really at the core, what we think modern management is that modern management is it’s management that is driven by cloud intelligence.”
The general idea here, Anderson explained, is that in earlier eras of IT management, Microsoft and its partners didn’t have the tools to collect and analyze all of the signals it received from these management tools. That’s obviously not a problem anymore today and see the company can use the telemetry it gets from a company’s PC deployments, for example, to figure out where there are problems.
“One of the things that we’re able to do is be learned as cloud-scale as we can help organizations improve their end-user experience,” Anderson noted. Common issues with that experience could be extremely long boot times, which slow down and frustrate employees, or issues with the delivery of important security patches. Today, all of this is often still managed by spreadsheets and complex security policies that are administrated manually — and Anderson argues that these days, you always have to think about security and management together anyway.
To quantify this user experience, Microsoft is also introducing what it calls the Microsoft Productivity Score, which looks at both how employees are working and using their tools, as well as how their technology is enabling them (or not) to do so. “The Productivity Score is all about helping an organization understand the experience their users are having — and then giving them the insights and the actions on what they can do to improve that,” explained Anderson.
Over the course of the last few months, Microsoft actually worked with some large customers and took over the management of their Windows 365 and Office deployments, meaning those machines ran nothing but Microsoft 365 agents (and a control group that was managed in a more traditional way). The devices with the modern management system saw an 85 percent reduction in boot time and an 85 percent reduction in crashes and a doubling of battery life. Unsurprisingly, the employees that used the devices were also far happier.
As far as the device management experience goes, the new Endpoint Manager and the licensing changes that come with that are meant to not just simplify the branding but also the experience. And Microsoft definitely wants people to move to this modern system, so it’s giving everybody who has ConfigMgr licenses Intune licenses, too, so that they can co-manage their PCs with both tools and get access to the cloud-based features of Intune. The Microsoft Endpoint Manager console will show a single view of all devices managed by either product. “It’s all about simplifying — and we’re taking that simplifying deep and broad from a branding, licensing and product perspective,” said Anderson.
Today, ConfigMgr and Intune manage well over 190 million Windows, iOS and Android devices. Yet Microsoft knows that not every company is ready to move to this modern device management system just yet. That’s why it’s making these licensing changes to help get people on board, but also leaving the existing systems in place and giving them an onramp to move to provisioning new machines to be cloud-managed, for example.
Here’s a horror scenario for you: You’re flying in a small plane and suddenly the single pilot who knows how to fly passes out. In the movies, somebody would probably talk one of the passengers through safely landing the plane. In reality, that’s unlikely. Flying planes is hard.
Autoland takes all the navigation and communications tech in the plane and combines that with a sophisticated autopilot. Once a passenger activates the autoland feature — or the plane determines the pilot is incapacitated — the system will look at all the available information about weather, remaining fuel on board and the local terrain to plot a route to the nearest suitable airport. It’ll even alert air traffic control about what’s happening, so they can route other planes around you.
The system also then takes over all of the touchscreens in the plane that are part of the G3000 flight deck and displays a simplified interface that allows the passengers to talk to air traffic control — and very little else.
Taking all of that information into account, the plane then plans the decent, lands the plane and shuts down the engines.
“The vision and development of the world’s first Autoland system for general aviation was a natural progression for Garmin as we looked at our aircraft systems and existing autonomous technologies and recognized it is our responsibility to use these building blocks to deliver a technology that will change lives and revolutionize air travel,” said Phil Straub, Garmin executive vice president and managing director of aviation.
It’s important to note that this is meant to be a system that’s only activated in the case of an emergency. Because it automatically alerts the authorities when somebody presses the button, nobody is going to activate it unless it’s absolutely necessary — and the FAA would surely want to ask you a few questions.
It does show, however, that we’re getting closer to a time when autopilot systems get significantly smarter. The number of variables a system like Autoland has to deal with is relatively small compared to those an autonomous car in a city has to navigate, after all. And autopilot systems for planes have already become quite sophisticated.
The launch partners for Autoland are Piper and Cirrus, which are making it an option in the 2020 models of the Piper M600 turboprop and Cirrus Vision Jet, pending FAA authorization. Those cost a few million dollars, though, so you better save up. Existing planes with the Garmin G3000 cockpit may also be retrofitted with the autoland capability, but that’s up to the manufacturer.
Given how old the general aviation fleet in the U.S. is, you’re not going to see any planes with this feature at your local airport anytime soon, though. Most of those 1970s Cessna 150s for rent at your local FBO don’t even have an autopilot, after all.