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SpaceX launches 60 more satellites for its Starlink service on the heels of opening up access

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched yet another batch of Starlink satellites – a full complement of 60, the standard size for its current Falcon 9-based Starlink missions. This brings SpaceX’s total to just around 1,000 in active on orbit, taking into account the handful that were experimental or have been de-orbited to date. This follows SpaceX’s opening of orders for Starlink to anyone in a current or planned coverage zone.

Starlink is a global satellite-based data network powered by small, low-Earth orbit satellites. Historically, broadband satellites have been large, expensive spacecraft positioned much further out from Earth in a fixed orbit, providing service to a single coverage area. Because of their distance from Earth and the way they connect to base stations, coverage has been very high-latency and relatively inconsistent (which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever tried to use Wifi on a flight, for instance). SpaceX’s constellation-based approach sees the satellites positioned much closer to Earth, which improves latency, and also has the satellites orbiting Earth and handing off connections between one another, which in theory provides more consistent coverage – particularly as the size of the constellation grows.

Eventually, SpaceX intends to provide coverage globally from Starlink, with an emphasis on offering service to areas. where coverage has been weak due to ground infrastructure challenges in past. For now, however, coverage is limited, though SpaceX recently expanded its closed beta to an open one, with anyone able to sign up via the Starlink website after an address check, and place an order, including a deposit with the full amount for the hardware kit to be charged once it ships.

Starlink’s hardware includes a small satellite receiver dish for installation by the customer at their service address. The service itself costs $99 per month, while the equipment is $499 (one-time fee). This does seem steep, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter recently that the plan is to have the costs come down over time, once the significant initial investment is recouped. He also noted that the plan is still to spin off Starlink and have it IPO eventually, once the company “can predict cash flow reasonably well.”

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.

Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.

 

Kanarys raises $3 million for its data-driven platform to assess diversity and inclusion efforts

By Jonathan Shieber

Mandy Price was already a highly successful lawyer in private practice before she took the jump into entrepreneurship alongside two co-founders to launch Kanarys a little over one year ago.

The Harvard Law School graduated didn’t have to start her company, which helps businesses measure the efficacy of their diversity and inclusion efforts using hard data, but she needed to start the company.

Now, a year after its launch, the company counts companies like Yum Brands, the Dallas Mavericks, and Neiman Marcus among the dozen or so companies using its service and has $3 million in seed funding to help it expand.

For Price, the drive to launch Kanarys came from her own experiences working in law. It wasn’t the microagressions, or the lower pay, or casually dismissive attitude of colleagues toward her well-earned success that led Price to start Kanarys, but the knowledge that her experience wasn’t unique and that thousands of other women and minorities faced the same experiences daily.

I have had many things happen to me in the workplace that is similar to what many other women and women of color have dealt with and didn’t want to have my children have to go through similar issues,” Price said. 

So alongside her husband, Bennie King (himself a serial entrepreneur in the Dallas area), and her University of Texas at Austin and Harvard classmate, Star Carter, Price launched Kanarys in late 2019.

The company uses Equal Employment Opportunity reports and assessments of various policies involving promotion, recruitment, and benefits to track how a company is performing in relation to its industry peers.

“A lot of the inequities we see are from a structural and systemic standpoint. That is where Kanarys can see how they’re perpetuating inequity,” Price said. 

Kanarys starts with an independent assessment of a company’s policies and practices and then conducts quarterly surveys with employees of its customers to see how well they are meeting their stated goals and objectives. They also integrate with existing human resources systems to track things like pay equity and promotions.

The service has attracted the attention of the Rise of the Rest fund, Morgan Stanley, Jigsaw Ventures, Segal Ventures and Zeal Capital Partners, which led the company’s $3 million seed round.

“Organizations have typically tried to address this with individual interventions,” said Price. “What we’re saying is we have to address it on both fronts. So much of the inequities that we see are based off of institutional and systemic policies and practices.”

Not only does Kanarys track information on diversity and inclusion efforts for customers, but for job seekers there’s a database of about 1,000 companies which operates like Glassdoor . The focus is not just on worker satisfaction, but on how employees view the diversity efforts their employers are undertaking.

Notably, Kanarys founders join the (far-too-few) ranks of Black entrepreneurs launching businesses and raising venture capital. In 2017, studies showed that 98 percent of venture capital raised in the U.S. went to men, according to data provided by the company. Black entrepreneurs in general receive less than one percent of venture capital, and Black women founders make up only 0.6 percent of venture capital funding raised. 

“We know that a focus on DEI in business is not just the right thing to do for employees, it also makes good business sense,” said Price, CEO and co-founder of Kanarys, in a statement. “Kanarys’ DEI data arms companies, for the first time, to make precise, immediate, and informed decisions using real, intersectional metrics around their diversity goals and inclusion programs that ultimately drive bottom-line business objectives.”

 

Virgin Orbit targets launch window opening January 10 for next orbital flight attempt

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.

While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).

This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.

The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.

Despite the pandemic, small business optimism persists

By Walter Thompson
Kathryn Petralia Contributor
Kathryn Petralia is the president and co-founder of Kabbage, an American Express Company providing small businesses cash flow solutions.

Businesses and consumers alike are finding ways to adapt and stay resilient during these unprecedented times. Though recovery may take time, a new report confirms the strength of entrepreneurialism and grit of small business owners, who remain optimistic that their businesses will overcome any present and future obstacle with the right resources and preparedness.

Even amidst the pandemic, the survey showed 75% of small business owners are optimistic about their business’s recovery.

In the inaugural American Express Entrepreneurial Spirit Trendex, which polled 1,000 small and midsized businesses, revealed notable insights about the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States. Even amidst the pandemic, the survey showed 75% of small business owners are optimistic about their business’s recovery and 82% feel that they are better prepared to handle a future crisis.

They continue to believe in their business and pursuing what they love. Of those surveyed, 81% believe the benefits of owning their own business outweigh the challenges, including financial stability, being their own boss, turning their passion project into a business and flexibility to set their own hours. The study uncovered more insights showing the current mindset of small businesses.

Small businesses are actively seeking advice

In order to successfully navigate these unprecedented times, business owners are searching for resources that can properly aid them. Businesses are actively seeking virtual business conferences and webinars (47%), virtual networking events (44%), advice and resources about leading through a crisis (44%) and learning ways to destress and stay mindful (42%).

Cash flow is top of mind

No surprise during an economic crisis, over 81% of business owners are prioritizing cash flow management and are identifying ways to cut back spending and increase sales, namely by moving services online. The survey found the top activities are:

  • Increasing marketing efforts (41%).
  • Increasing products/services online (40%).
  • Cutting expenses (36%).
  • Diversifying revenue streams (35%).

Pivot, then repeat

It would be difficult to find a small business that didn’t need to adapt their operations in some form due to the pandemic. It was the year of pivots for so many, and the survey finds the trend will continue into next year.

According to the data, 76% of business owners have pivoted or are in the process of pivoting their business model to maintain revenue, and among those that already pivoted, 73% expect to pivot again in the next year. Staying nimble to meet the demand of new market needs and demands is crucial to maintaining the health of your business, whether there is a pandemic or not.

Taking a stand

Aside from navigating the pandemic, business owners are also facing a historic moment in the fight for racial justice. Many business owners (43%) are fighting for change through public statements against racial injustice or monetary contributions to a racial justice organizations.

Business owners are also making change within their organizations, as 73% of those surveyed aim to increase diversity in the workplace. Top-of-mind actions include:

  • Completely changing their company culture to make diverse employees feel more included (54%).
  • Changing their hiring and recruiting processes (47%).
  • Making measurable commitments to addressing racial injustice in the future (47%).

This year has taken a toll on so many small businesses, yet the data shows the entrepreneurial spirit remains strong with a drive to push onward, improve and succeed. The full report from American Express is available here.

Virgin Orbit targets launch window on December 19 for second orbital test launch

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit has announced the target timing for its next orbital flight attempt, which follows a demonstration launch earlier this year that went mostly well – right up until its rocket separated from the carrier launch craft and fired up its own engines for the crucial rest of the trip to space. The company says that it’s undertaken a number of upgrades based on that first try, however, including updates to the engine systems, carrier aircraft and data systems to hopefully have a better demo flight the second time around.

The new launch window is December 19, between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM PST. There’s also a backup window set for December 20 ranging across similar hours, the company says, and others in the following weeks, in case it needs to be rescheduled for nay reason. This demonstration will involve a full launch cycle of the entire Virgin Orbit launch system, including its Cosmic Girl launch aircraft (a modiified 747 passenger airliner) and LauncherOne, the rocket that detaches from Cosmic Girl at cruising altitude before firing up its own engines to make the rest of the trip to space with small satellite payloads on board.

Virgin Orbit’s system is unique because it takes off and lands from a traditional airport, eliminating the need for specialized launch sites and opening up the potential of relatively low-lift global launch flexibility. It also have the potential to offer cost and scheduling advantages to small satellite companies looking to launch just one or a few spacecraft, without having to wait for timing on a rideshare mission on a larger rocket like one from SpaceX, or pay a premium for something like Rocket Lab’s offering.

Last time around in May, Virgin Orbit’s flight went perfectly from takeoff through the separation of LauncherOne from the carrier aircraft. The rocket even fired up its engines on time as planned, but the engines cut off essentially right away due to a built-in safety system that also worked as planned when it detected some unusual readings.

With this second attempt, Virgin Orbit wants to show that it’s system works from that point on, as well, with a full first-stage powered flight, and operation of the upper stage. Stakes are a bit higher this time around, as on board will be actual customer satellites, even though this is technically still a demonstration mission the primary purpose of which is to collect data.

The 10 payloads on board are from NASA, and represent a number of different scientific and educational programs created entirely by U.S.-based universities and academic institutions.

LA-based Boulevard raises $27 million for its spa management software

By Jonathan Shieber

Boulevard, a spa management and payment platform, has raised $27 million in a new round of funding despite a business slowdown caused by the COVID0-19 pandemic.

Founded four years ago by Matt Danna and Sean Stavropoulos, Boulevard was inspired by Stavropoulos’ inability to book a haircut and Danna’s hunch that the inability of salons and spas to cater to customers like the busy programmer could be indicative of a bigger problem.

The two spent months pounding the pavement in Los Angeles pretending to be college students doing research on the industry. They spoke with salon owners in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and other trendy neighborhoods trying to get a sense of where software and services were falling short.

Through those months of interviews the two developed the booking management and payment platform that would become Boulevard. The inspiration was one part Shopify and one part ServiceTitan, Danna said.

The idea was that Boulevard could build a pretty large business catering to the needs of a niche industry that hadn’t traditionally been exposed to a purpose-built toolkit for its vertical.

Investors including Index Ventures, Toba Capital, VMG Partners, Bonfire Ventures, Ludlow Ventures and BoxGroup agreed.

That could be because of the size of the industry. There is more than $250 billion spent per year across roughly 3 million businesses in the salon and spa category, according to data provided by the company. By comparison, fitness attracts roughly $34 billion in annual spending from 150,000 businesses.

“With limited access to the professionals that help us look and feel our best, I think the world has realized something that our team has always recognized: Salons and spas are more than a luxury, they are essential to our well-being,” said Danna, in a statement. “We are humbled that so many businesses are placing their trust in us during such a turbulent time. This new capital will help accelerate our mission and deliver value to salons and spas that they never imagined was possible from technology.”

According to data provided by the company, Boulevard is definitely giving businesses a boost. On average, businesses increase bookings by 16%, retail revenue jumps by 18% and gratuity paid out to stylists jumps by 24% for businesses that use Boulevard, the company said. It also reduces no-shows and cancellations, and halves time spent on the phone.  

“Boulevard is revitalizing the salon and spa industry, as evidenced by the company’s sustained 300-400% revenue growth over the last three years,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, whose firm led the company’s Series A round and has doubled down with the new capital infusion. 

Customers using the company’s software include: Chris McMillan the Salon, Heyday, MèCHE Salon, Paintbox, Sassoon Salon, SEV Laser, Spoke & Weal and TONI&GUY.

Boulevard now has 90 employees and will look to increase that number as it continues to expand across the country.

Investors have taken a run at the spa market in the past, with company’s like MindBody valued at over $1 billion for its software services. Indeed, that company was taken private two years ago in a $1.9 billion transaction by Vista Equity Partners.

As Boulevard expands, the company may look to get deeper into financial services for the salons and spas that it’s already working with. Given the company’s window into these businesses’ financing, it’s not impossible to imagine a new line of business providing small business loans to these companies.

It’s something that the founders would likely not rule out. And it’s a way to provide more tools to entrepreneurs that often fall outside of the traditional sweet spot for banks and other lenders, Danna said.

 

Why is GoCardless COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas pivoting to become a full-time VC?

By Steve O'Hear

Index Ventures, a London- and San Francisco-headquartered venture capital firm that primarily invests in Europe and the U.S., recently announced its latest partner. Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, currently COO of London-based fintech GoCardless and previously the chief product officer of Skyscanner, will join Index in January.

Gonzalez-Cadenas is a seasoned entrepreneur and operator, but has also become a prolific angel investor in the U.K. and Europe over the last three years, making more than 50 angel investments in total. Well-regarded by founders and co-investors, his transition to a full-time role in venture capital feels like quite a natural one.

Earlier this week, TechCrunch caught up with Gonzalez-Cadenas over Zoom to learn more about his new role at Index and how he intends to source deals and support founders. Index’s latest hire also shared his insights on Europe’s venture market, describing this era as the “best moment in entrepreneurship in Europe.”

TechCrunch: Let me start by asking, why do you want to become a VC? You’re obviously a well-established entrepreneur and operator, are you sure venture capital is the career for you?

Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas: I’ve been an angel investor for the last three years and this is something that has basically grown for me quite organically. I started doing just a handful and seeing if this is something I like and over time it has grown quite a lot and so has the number of entrepreneurs I’m partnered with. And this is something I’ve been increasingly more excited to do. So it has grown organically and something that emotionally has been getting closer and closer as time has passed.

And the things I like more specifically are: One, I’m quite a curious person, and for me, investing gives you the possibility of learning a lot about different sectors, about different entrepreneurs, different ways of building businesses, and that is something that I enjoy a lot.

The second bit is that I care a lot about helping entrepreneurs, especially the next generation of entrepreneurs, build great businesses in Europe. I’ve been very lucky, in the past, to learn from great people, like Gareth [Williams, Skyscanner co-founder] and Hiroki [Takeuchi. CEO at GoCardless], in my journey. I feel a duty of helping the next generation of entrepreneurs and sharing all the things that I’ve learnt. I care a lot about setting up founders as much as possible for success and sharing all those experiences I’ve learned [from].

These are the key two motivations that have led me to decide that it would be a great time now to move to the investing side.

How have you managed your deal flow while having a full-time job and where is that deal flow coming from?

It is typically coming in three buckets. A part of it is coming from my entrepreneur and operator network. So there are entrepreneurs and operators I know that are referring other entrepreneurs to me. Another bucket is other investors that I typically co-invest with. Another bucket is venture capitalists. I basically tend to invest quite a lot with VCs and in some cases they are referring deals to me.

In terms of managing it alongside GoCardless, it takes quite a lot of effort. It requires a lot of dedication and time invested during evenings and weekends.

The good thing is that my network typically tends to send me quite highly curated deals so essentially the deal flow I have luckily tends to be quite high quality, which makes things a bit more manageable. But don’t get me wrong, it still takes quite a lot of effort even if the deal flow is relatively high quality.

Presumably you haven’t been able to be all that hands-on as an angel investor, so how are you going to make that transition and what is it that you think you bring with the operational side to venture?

The way I think about this is, the entrepreneurs I typically invest in and their companies tend to be quite capable in their day-to-day perspective. Where they tend to find more value in interactions with me is what I call the “moments of truth.” Those key decisions, those key points in the journey where essentially it can influence the trajectory of the business in a fundamental way. It could be things like, I am fundraising and I don’t know how to position the business. Or I’m thinking about my strategy for the next 18 months and I will basically welcome an experienced person giving me a qualified opinion.

Or I have a big people problem and I don’t know how to solve that problem and I need that third person who has been in my shoes before. Or it could be that I’m thinking about how to organize my team as I move from startup to scale-up and I need help from someone who has scaled teams before. Or could be that I’m hiring three executives and I don’t know what a great CMO looks like. It’s those high-impact, high-leverage questions that the entrepreneurs tend to find helpful engaging with me, as opposed to very detailed day-to-day things that most of the entrepreneurs I work with tend to be quite capable of doing. And so far that model is working. The other thing is that the model is quite scalable because you are engaging 2-3 times per year but those times are high quality and highly impactful for the entrepreneur.

I typically also tend to have pretty regular and frequent communication with entrepreneurs on Slack. It’s more like quick questions that can be solved, and I tend to get quite a lot of that. So I think it’s that bimodel approach of high-frequency questions that we can solve by asynchronous means or high-impact moments a few times per year where, essentially, we need to sit down and we need to think together deeply about the problem.

And I tend to do nothing in the middle, where essentially, it’s stuff that is not so impactful but takes a huge amount of time for everyone, that doesn’t tend to be the most effective way of helping entrepreneurs. Obviously, I’m guided by what entrepreneurs want from perspective, so I’m always training the models in response to what they need.

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