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Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Founders must show investors that sustainability is more than lip service

By Walter Thompson
Todd Klein Contributor
Todd Klein is a partner at Revolution Growth, a VC fund that invests in growth-stage companies. During his 20-year career, Todd has been involved in financing and building over 150 venture and growth-stage companies in the media, consumer, technology, education and healthcare sectors.

Ending years of debates over environmental sustainability, the United States officially declared a climate crisis earlier this year, deeming climate considerations an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security. After recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, President Joseph R. Biden announced an aggressive new goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pushed world leaders to collectively “step up” their fight against climate change.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to do business with brands that align with their growing environmental values, rather than ignoring the climate consequences of their consumption. Even without regulation as a stick, consumer demand is now serving as a carrot to increase sustainability’s impact on public companies’ agendas.

Startups have already followed suit. Investors today view sustainability as an important pillar of any business model and are looking for entrepreneurs who “get it” from the beginning to build and scale next-generation companies. Startups interested in thriving cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought and should be prepared to enter the public eye with a plan for sustainable growth.

Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media.

So what exactly do founders need to put in place to demonstrate that they’re on the right track when it comes to sustainability? Here are five attributes that investors are looking for.

1. A truly customer-centric feedback loop

It’s fairly easy for any company to claim that it understands customers’ wants and needs, but it’s challenging to have the tech stack in place to prove a company actually listens to customer feedback and meets those expectations.

Investors now expect startups to have both platforms and solutions — social listening channels, relationship management tools, surveying programs and review forums — that allow them to hear and act on the needs of their customers. Without the proper communications tools and actual people using them, your eco-friendly efforts will likely appear to be merely lip service.

Take the example of TemperPack, which manufactures recyclable insulated packaging solutions for shipments of cold, perishable foods and pharmaceuticals. The direct relationship between a packager like TemperPack and the end consumer is often invisible. But as we were looking into investing in the company, some of its life sciences customers told us about comments they had received from end users — people who were receiving medicine twice per day. Another supplier’s packaging required them to visit a recycler for disposal, a real-world pain point that was causing them to consider switching to a different medication.

Revolution Growth decided to add TemperPack as a portfolio company after directly seeing its customer feedback loop in action: End-user requests informed product development, proving both a market need and customer demand on the sustainability front. This firsthand example demonstrates how an investor, a packaging maker, a life sciences company and an end user are now interconnected in one relationship while underscoring how end-user feedback can connect the dots for sustainable product development.

2. Public commitment to sustainability goals

Over the past several years, we have seen millennials and Gen Z consumers demand transparency in sustainability efforts. As these generations grow in purchasing power, investors will look for startups that make their commitments to eco-friendly goals as transparent as possible to satisfy shrewd consumer needs.

For many VCs, making public commitments to sustainability goals is a sign that your startup is working toward becoming a next-generation company. Investors will look for goals that are thoughtful, with a clear understanding of where your company will have agency and influence, and that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). They will also expect regular reports on progress.

Although a company’s management establishes these goals, its board should play a behind-the-scenes role in driving the goals forward, keeping leadership on track and setting the playing field so executives understand that they’re being evaluated on criteria transcending positive EBIDTA.

Taking these steps will ensure goals are responsible and ambitious while also holding the company accountable to consumers and stakeholders to see the initiatives through to completion.

3. Purpose-driven culture

Even the best-laid sustainability goals will go unmet without a strong culture designed to guarantee leadership and employee alignment. Sustainability must be ingrained in a startup’s culture — from the top down and bottom up — and there’s a lot at stake if it’s not.

Another Revolution Growth portfolio company, the global fintech-revolutionizing startup Tala, demonstrates how young companies can imbue their cultures with purpose-driven values. While Tala’s mission is to provide credit to the unbanked, the company believes that the consumer’s best interests should always come first. During 2019’s holiday season, Tala contrasted with businesses fueling consumption by instead urging customers in Kenya to not take out loans, protecting them from predatory unregulated lenders amid a lack of functioning credit bureaus and loan-stacking databases. This forward-looking approach ultimately safeguarded Tala’s customers and its vibrant digital lending industry.

Beyond determining what they stand for, many of our portfolio companies face challenges securing talent. People have choices about where they want to work, and those with intrinsic motivations — such as concerns about the environment — will feel uncomfortable if their employers do not share their values. Regulatory risks and customer attrition pale in comparison to the human cost of losing star performers who seek other work cultures that better align with their values.

A clear values system should embed sustainability into the decision-making process, make obvious imperatives and empower employees to follow through.

4. Accountability

Companies aren’t only judged by their own initiatives — they’re also judged by their partners. As startups build new relationships or expand to work with new suppliers, investors will be keen to know that these outside parties align with their stated sustainability philosophies.

Before becoming publicly involved with another company, a startup should gauge each new supplier’s reputation, including insights into their employment practices. Take leading Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava or healthy-inspired salad-centric chain Sweetgreen, both Revolution Growth portfolio companies; neither will source proteins from farms with inhumane policies. If companies are not aware of these factors, their customers will eventually let them know, and likely hold them accountable for the oversight.

Think of it this way: If a diagram of your partnerships and supplier relationships was printed on the front page of The New York Times, would you be comfortable with what it shows the world? Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media. It’s no longer possible to fly under the radar with relationships that are antithetical to a company’s sustainability goals. So take a hard look at your supplier and partner ecosystem, and make clear that you are bringing your green vision to life through every extension of your business.

5. Financial realism

Financial realism acknowledges that a company can want to do good, but unless they have the economics, they won’t survive to make an impact. For most startups, beginning with financial realism as a mindset and incrementalism as an approach will be key to success, enabling all businesses to contribute to a more resilient planet. For startups that prioritize environmentally friendly business practices alongside a product or service, this strategy can prevent goodness from becoming the enemy of greatness. Founders in this position can commit to a stage-by-stage sustainability plan, rather than expecting an overnight transformation. Investors understand the delicate balance between striving to meet green goals and keeping the lights on.

Entrepreneurs looking to build a business that not only adopts eco-friendly practices but also has sustainability at its heart may have to consider starting in a niche industry or market that is less price-sensitive and ready for a solution today. Once that solution is firmly established, the business can build upon what they’ve created, rather than going big with something that doesn’t scale — and failing fast. Without an initial set of customers that value and love what you’re doing, you won’t get to the bigger play.

As the public and private sectors continue to address the climate crisis, sustainability will increasingly become a mandate rather than an option, and funding will increasingly flow to startups that have addressed potential environmental concerns. Unfortunately, pressure for companies to meet sustainability demands has led to “greenwashing” — the deceptive use of green marketing to persuade consumers that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing has forced investors to look beyond mere words for action. As we move toward a more sustainable future, startups pursuing VC funding will need to prove to investors that sustainability is a priority across their entire organizations, aligning their outreach, public commitments and cultures with accountability and concrete examples of sustainable activities. Even if those examples are just steps toward larger goals, they will show investors and customers that startups are ready today to contribute to a greener and better tomorrow.

Honeywell and Cambridge Quantum form joint venture to build a new full-stack quantum business

By Frederic Lardinois

Honeywell, which only recently announced its entry into the quantum computing race, and Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQ), which focuses on building software for quantum computers, today announced that they are combining Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions (HQS) business with Cambridge Quantum in the form of a new joint venture.

Honeywell has long partnered with CQ and invested in the company last year, too. The idea here is to combine Honeywell’s hardware expertise with CQ’s software focus to build what the two companies call “the world’s highest-performing quantum computer and a full suite of quantum software, including the first and most advanced quantum operating system.”

The merged companies (or ‘combination,’ as the companies’ press releases calls it) expect the deal to be completed in the third quarter of 2021. Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk will become the chairman of the new company. CQ founder and CEO Ilyas Khan will become the CEO and current Honeywell Quantum Solutions President Tony Uttley will remain in this role at the new company.

The idea here is for Honeywell to spin off HQS and combine it with CQC to form a new company, while still playing a role in its leadership and finances. Honeywell will own a majority stake in the new company and invest between $270 and $300 million. It will also have a long-term agreement with the new company to build the ion traps at the core of its quantum hardware. CQ’s shareholders will own 45% of the new company.

Image Credits: Honeywell

“The new company will have the best talent in the industry, the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the first and most advanced quantum operating system, and comprehensive, hardware-agnostic software that will drive the future of the quantum computing industry,” said Adamczyk. “The new company will be extremely well positioned to create value in the near-term within the quantum computing industry by offering the critical global infrastructure needed to support the sector’s explosive growth.”

The companies argue that a successful quantum business will need to be supported by large-scale investments and offer a one-stop shop for customers that combines hardware and software. By combining the two companies now, they note, they’ll be able to build on their respective leadership positions in their areas of expertise and scale their businesses while also accelerate their R&D and product roadmaps.

“Since we first announced Honeywell’s quantum business in 2018, we have heard from many investors who have been eager to invest directly in our leading technologies at the forefront of this exciting and dynamic industry – now, they will be able to do so,” Adamczyk said. “The new company will provide the best avenue for us to onboard new, diverse sources of capital at scale that will help drive rapid growth.”

CQ launched in 2014 and now has about 150 employees. The company raised a total of $72.8 million, including a $45 million round, which it announced last December. Honeywell, IBM Ventures, JSR Corporation, Serendipity Capital, Alvarium Investments and Talipot Holdings invested in this last round — which also means that IBM, which uses a different technology but, in many ways, directly competes with the new company, now owns a (small) part of it.

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Blendoor data lets you know if companies are living up to diversity pledges

By Ron Miller

Many companies talk the talk when it comes to diversity, but it’s harder to know if a firm is actually going the extra mile to hire more qualified people from underrepresented groups, or if they just make noise about it. Blendoor, a six-year-old startup, wants to put data to work on the problem by giving companies a score based on publicly available data to let the world know just how diverse a company actually is.

Blendoor founder and CEO Stephanie Lampkin says that when she launched the company, it was more focused on finding qualified diverse candidates by mitigating unconscious bias in the hiring process. That involved removing name, age, gender or any other indications that could potentially create bias and just let the person’s work record stand on its own. She said that the startup targeted companies that had made public DEI pledges as a natural place to start.

As the company directed its efforts in this direction, however, Lampkin says that it quickly became apparent that the public positioning of a company, and how it directed its hiring resources, were often two different things, and she decided to switch focus. “So we decided to create an index, a credit score, and we pulled in a ton of data from their diversity reports, their EEO One forms if they publish them and all of this buzz around different pledges and investments and partnerships, etc.,” Lampkin told me.

She then took this data and structured it, normalized it and built an algorithm that could dynamically score companies much the same way that our credit rating or security scorecards work and make that information public.

She said the George Floyd killing was a turning point for her and the company. “When George Floyd [was killed] and I saw this resurgence of the diversity pledge, I decided that I don’t want to play in this diversity theater anymore and just be another check-the-box-solution that companies are using to demonstrate that they care,” she said.

She added, “So we decided to double down on BlendScore and in doing so hold companies accountable for all of these big financial commitments that they’re making in order to track the deployment of that capital, but also the downstream effects in terms of their hiring, retention, promotion rates, compensation equality, etc.”

That culminated in a report the company recent published looking at the data and finding that companies’ public stance doesn’t always match its public face, especially with pledges following Floyd’s death. “My initial purpose was to demonstrate if there is a negative correlation between pledges and performance — and the only area where we found that to be true was with Black employees versus Black Lives Matter pledges.” She says that everywhere else there was pretty consistent positive correlation around companies that said they wanted to improve in areas like gender diversity and pay equality, and those that were actually doing that.

In terms of making money, Lampkin says that she wants to focus on helping companies with governance when it comes to diversity pledges, especially for public companies, which will have to answer to a variety of constituencies, from investors to consumers. She also believes that their approach to measuring diversity will also increasingly have an impact on who wants to work at a company and the ability to attract the best talent.

She says that if people are insisting on making diversity a political stance, she’s going to focus on diversity as a fiduciary responsibility. While it may be good for society as a natural byproduct of that, some companies only see it through that governance lens, and if that’s the case, she intends to work that angle.

“I’m doubling down on ESG and fiduciary responsibility. No more talk about what’s good for a society. [It doesn’t matter] what you believe is good for society. This is now about risk management and ESG,” she said.

So far the company has 13 employees and she reports she’s raised about $1.7 million. She acknowledges raising money is a challenge, especially for a Black woman founder. It’s worth noting that fewer than 100 Black women have ever raised more than $1 million as of last year.

“It’s been really challenging. We’ve had to just survive off revenue, and think in part it’s because we sit at the intersection of social activism and for-profit venture, when a lot of investors are like Marc Andreessen they don’t see a path [for Stakeholder Capitalism], but I think that’s changing and the investor community claims to be on board for more impact investing, so we’ll see.”

CISA launches platform to let hackers report security bugs to US federal agencies

By Zack Whittaker

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has launched a vulnerability disclosure program allowing ethical hackers to report security flaws to federal agencies.

The platform, launched with the help of cybersecurity companies Bugcrowd and Endyna, will allow civilian federal agencies to receive, triage and fix security vulnerabilities from the wider security community.

The move to launch the platform comes less than a year after the federal cybersecurity agency, better known as CISA, directed the civilian federal agencies that it oversees to develop and publish their own vulnerability disclosure policies. These policies are designed to set the rules of engagement for security researchers by outlining what (and how) online systems can be tested, and which can’t be.

It’s not uncommon for private companies to run VDP programs to allow hackers to report bugs, often in conjunction with a bug bounty to pay hackers for their work. The U.S. Department of Defense has for years warmed to hackers, the civilian federal government has been slow to adopt.

Bugcrowd, which last year raised $30 million at Series D, said the platform will “give agencies access to the same commercial technologies, world-class expertise, and global community of helpful ethical hackers currently used to identify security gaps for enterprise businesses.”

The platform will also help CISA share information about security flaws between other agencies.

The platform launches after a bruising few months for government cybersecurity, including a Russian-led espionage campaign against at least nine U.S. federal government agencies by hacking software house SolarWinds, and a China-linked cyberattack that backdoored thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers, including in the federal government.

A new climate calculator for livestock aims to help ranchers reduce emissions

By David Riggs

When it comes to sustainable livestock production and agriculture, measurement is the first — and sometimes most elusive — step in the process of turning our food system from a carbon emitter into a carbon sink.

So DSM, a science-based company that focuses on agriculture and other parts of our food systems, and Blonk, a data analytics for sustainability consultancy, developed Sustell, a combination software and practical service for ranchers to understand and improve the sustainability of their operations.

While sustainable and regenerative agriculture doesn’t have a universally agreed-upon definition, it usually involves changing land management practices to sequester more carbon in the soil, using more environmentally friendly animal feeds and reducing fossil fuel usage of tractors and other farm equipment among many other changes. The goal is to reduce the 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere, about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, created by the livestock industry.  

“There’s this tremendous need for accurate footprinting of animal production down to the individual farm level,” said David Nickell, vice president of sustainability and business solutions at DSM. “And each farm, of course, is very different. And you have to have a system which is able to use actual farm data, and to get an accurate picture of that particular farm.” 

The system analyzes the environmental impact of a farm’s activity on 19 different categories, including climate change, resource use, water scarcity, runoff and ozone depletion. Farmers provide data on their daily operations, including feed composition and use, manure management practices, animal mortality, the electricity system and the other infrastructure, transportation logistics and mitigation technologies employed, like scrubbers or excess heat circulation systems, and sometimes packaging to the software.

Blonk’s environmental footprint technology then produces a life cycle assessment of the farm, an analysis of the environmental impact of rearing an animal from inception to when it exits the farm gate. DSM and Blonk have created Sustell modules for most land farm animals, including chickens, pigs and dairy and egg production, and plans to extend it to cover beef and aquaculture. 

“What is really key is that we were able to build on this momentum of methodologies and standards that have been developed,” said Hans Blonk, CEO of Blonk Consultants and Blonk Sustainability Tools. 

Blonk was able to combine agriculture environmental standards from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, European Commission and many others in one place to create the vast library of background data needed for the software to produce useful and actionable insights.   

“Customers at the moment really want to understand what they’re doing,” Nickell said. “They want to understand their baseline [footprint] and rank them. Understand what’s good, and what’s not so good. Customers want to understand how they rate compared to peer benchmarking, whether it’s a country or an industry benchmark.”

Once the Sustell software gives farmers clarity on the emissions on their farms, they can then identify where improvements need to be made and DSM helps implement ways of reducing those emissions, creating an end-to-end service for customers and hopefully a positive impact on the planet. 

“Practical interventions make change happen,” Nickell said. “We’ve invested in technologies which reduce the footprint of animal products production. The service is measurement and marry that up with bringing solutions, which make a difference. That’s the complete solution to making this much-needed change happen.”

But in order for Sustell to create that change, it needs to be adopted widely and the learnings need to be shared between competitors. Right now, DSM and, in some ways, the capitalist system, isn’t set up for that. 

According to Nickell, DSM is first focusing Sustell on big integrated livestock companies. This is a common challenge with new innovative environmental technologies that can be adopted by big farming conglomerates or co-ops with money and resources to spend, while smaller family farms get left behind. But Nickell hopes that Sustell can scale to work with smaller farms, as well. 

The second issue is around data sharing. While Nickell was very clear that Sustell will be following all applicable data privacy and ownership rules — and that’s usually a good thing — in order to really create meaningful environmental change, transparency is actually key. Competitors need to share the best ways for reducing emissions so everyone can adopt them and save the planet, but many companies are very data protective. 

“I think maybe that [data sharing] develops in time,” Nickell said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. Maybe it will get to that level as more and more customers are transparent on their footprint and their reporting.”

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

Apple finally launches a Screen Time API for app developers

By Sarah Perez

Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.

Oh there’s a Screen Time API, nice #WWDC21 pic.twitter.com/Et6lfs6g7X

— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) June 7, 2021

The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.

The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.

ScreenTime API looks great, I sincerely hope someone provides me a way to bulk change stuff for my kids. If I had known I would have to tweak each kids ScreenTime individually like I do today, I might have had less children. #WWDC21

— Stan Lemon (@stanlemon) June 7, 2021

 

Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.

The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)

The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.

And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.

Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.

Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.

Oooh – an API for Screen Time! Definitely want to build support for this into Streaks, if possible.https://t.co/keuaJ6WFvo#wwdc21

— Quentin Zervaas (@qzervaas) June 7, 2021

Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.

Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple’s new App Store Guidelines aim to crack down on fraud and scams

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is releasing a new version of its App Store Review Guidelines, its lengthy document which dictates the rules which apps must abide by in order to be published to its App Store. Among the more notable changes rolling out today, are several sections that will see Apple taking a harder stance on App Store fraud, scams and developer misconduct, including a new process that aims to empower other developers to hold bad actors accountable.

One of the key updates on this front involves a change to Apple’s Developer Code of Conduct (Section 5.6 and 5.6.1-5.6.4 of the Review Guidelines).

This section has been significantly expanded to include guidance stating that repeated manipulative or misleading behavior or other fraudulent conduct will lead to the developer’s removal from the Apple Developer Program. This is something Apple has done for repeated violations, it claims, but wanted to now ensure was clearly spelled out in the guidelines.

In an entirely new third paragraph in this section, Apple says that if a developer engages in activities or actions that are not in accordance with the developer code of conduct, they will have their Apple Developer account terminated.

It also details what, specifically, must be done to restore the account, which includes providing Apple with a written statement detailing the improvements they’ve made, which will have to be approved by Apple. If Apple is able to confirm the changes has been made, it may then restore the developer’s account.

Apple explained in a press briefing that this change was meant to prevent a sort of catch and release scenario where a developer gets caught by Apple, but then later reverts their changes to continue their bad behavior.

As part of this update, Apple added a new section about developer identity (5.6.2). This is meant to ensure the contact information for developers provided to Apple and customers is accurate and functional, and that the developer isn’t impersonating other, legitimate developers on the App Store. This was a particular issue in a high-profile incident of App Store fraud which involved a crypto wallet app that scammed a user out of his life savings (~$600,000) in Bitcoin. The scam victim had been deceived because the app was using the same name and icon as a different company that made a hardware crypto device, and because the scan app was rated 5 stars. (Illegitimately, that is).

Related to this, Apple clarified the language around App Store discovery fraud (5.6.3) to more specifically call out any type of manipulations of App Store charts, search, reviews and referrals. The former would mean to crack down on the clearly booming industry of fake App Store ratings and reviews, which can send scam app up higher in charts and search.

Meanwhile, the referral crackdown would address consumers being shown incorrect pricing outside the App Store in an effort to boost installs.

There are hundreds of these. And then, there's hundreds of *real* ones too:
⭐
"SCAM. What shady business. Downloaded this app on concept. It doesn’t even work. There is no free version AT ALL. You are tricked into downloading and then asked to pay $7.99 per FREAKING WEEK. Wow."

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) January 31, 2021

Another section (5.6.4) addresses issues that come up after an app is published, including negative customer reports and concerns and excessive refund rates, for example. If Apple notices this behavior, it will investigate the app for violations, it says.

Of course, the question here is: will Apple actually notice the potential scammers? In recent months, a growing number of developers believe Apple is allowing far too many scammers to fall through the cracks of App Review.

One particular thorn in Apple’s side has been Fleksy keyboard app founder Kosta Eleftheriou, who is not only suing Apple for the revenue he’s personally lost to scammers, but also formed a sort of one-man bunco squad to expose some of the more egregious scams to date. This has included the above-mentioned crypto scam; a kids game that actually contained a hidden online casino; and a VPN app scamming users out of $5 million per year, among many others.

The rampant fraud taking place on the App Store was also brought up during Apple’s antitrust hearing, when Georgia’s Senator Jon Ossoff asked Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer why Apple was not able to locate scams, given they’re “trivially easy” to identify.

Apple downplayed the concerns then, and continues to do so through press releases like this one which noted how the App Store stopped over $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2020.

But a new update to these Guidelines seems to be an admission that Apple may need a little help on this front. It says developers can now directly report possible violations they find in other developers’ apps. Through a new form that standardizes this sort of complaint, developers can point to guideline violations and any other trust and safety issues they discover. Often, developers notice the scammers whose apps are impacting their own business and revenue, so they’ll likely turn to this form now as a first step in getting the scammer dealt with.

Another change will allow developers to appeal a rejection if they think there was unfair treatment of any kind, including political bias. Previously, Apple had allowed developers to appeal App Store decisions and suggest changes to guidelines.

These are only a handful of the many changes rolling out with today’s updated App Store Review Guidelines.

There are a few others, however, also worth highlighting:

  • Apple clarified rules around “hookup” apps to ensure developers understand porn and prostitution are not allowed on the App Store — often an issue with the fly-by-night hookup apps, which bait and switch users.
  • Creator content apps are instructed that they must follow rules for user-generated content, when applicable, meaning they must have content blocking, reporting and robust moderation.
  • Apple added the ability for licensed pharmacies and licensed cannabis dispensaries to facilitate purchasing provided they’re legal and geogated.
  • Apps that report criminal activity require the developers to work with local law enforcement. (Citizen is a recent example of an app gone awry when users hunted down the wrong person. That level of carelessness may be coming to an end now.)
  • Bait-and-switch marketing and ads about app pricing isn’t allowed.
  • Cellular carrier apps can now include other kinds of subscription apps besides music and video services.
  • Apple clarifies that developers can communicate on email with anyone, but says they can’t target customers acquired through the App Store with messages about how to make purchases outside of the App Store.
  • Apple has enough drinking game apps. Stop sending them in.
  • Apps that offer account creation also have to offer account deletion.
  • Other clarity was added around in-app purchases for gift cards, app metadata, bug fix submissions, and more. But these were not major changes.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

The hidden benefits of adding a CTO to your board

By Ram Iyer
Abby Kearns Contributor
Abby Kearns, chief technology officer at Puppet, has more than 20 years of experience scaling growth for numerous Fortune 500 and startup companies.

The pandemic forced companies around the world to adjust to a “new normal,” which caused many leaders to pivot their business strategies and adopt new technologies to continue operations. In a time of chaos and change, there is no senior leader that can navigate this sort of change better than a CTO.

Not only do CTOs understand the ever-changing tech landscape, they also provide invaluable insights to help organizations go beyond traditional IT conversations and leverage technology to successfully scale businesses.

Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

There are now more reasons than ever to consider adding a CTO to your board. As a CTO myself, I know how important and impactful it can be to have technical-minded leaders on a company’s board of directors. At a time when companies are accelerating their digital transformation, it’s critical to have diverse technical perspectives and people from varying backgrounds, as transformations are a mix of people, process and technology.

Drawing on my experience on Lightbend’s board of directors, here are five hidden benefits of making space at the table for a CTO.

A unique mind (and skill) set

Currently, most boards of directors are composed of former CEOs, CFOs and investors. While such executives bring vast experience, they have very specific expertise, and that frequently does not include technical proficiency. In order for a company to be successful, your board needs to have people with different backgrounds and expertise.

Inviting different perspectives forces companies out of the groupthink mentality and find new, creative solutions to their problems. Diverse perspectives aren’t just about the title –– racial ethnicity and gender diversity are clearly a play here as well.

Deep understanding of tech

For a product-led company, having a CTO who has been close to product development and innovation can bring deep insights and understanding to the boardroom. Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

Apple TV to support using HomePod Mini as speakers, among other updates

By Sarah Perez

Apple didn’t announce that rumored combined Apple TV device that would combine the set-top box with a HomePod speaker during its WWDC keynote, but it did announce a few features that will improve the Apple TV experience — including one that involves a HomePod Mini. Starting this fall, Apple said you’ll be able to select the HomePod Mini as the speaker for your Apple TV 4K. It also introduced a handful of software updates for Apple TV users, including a new way to see shows everyone in the family will like, and support for co-watching shows through FaceTime.

The co-watching feature is actually a part of a larger FaceTime update, which will let users stream music, TV, and screen share through their FaceTime calls. The Apple TV app is one of those that’s supported through this new system, called SharePlay. It will now include a new “Shared with You” row that highlights the shows and movies your friends are sharing, as well.

Another feature called “For All of You” will display a collection of shows and movies based on everyone’s interests within Apple TV’s interface. This is ideal you’re planning to watch something as a family — like for movie night, for example. And you can fine tune the suggestions based on who’s watching.

A new Apple TV widget is also being made available, which now includes iPad support.

And the new support for HomePod Mini will help deliver “rich, balanced sound” and “crystal clear dialog,” when you’re watching Apple TV with the Mii set up as your speakers, Apple said.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Tiger Global leads $30M investment into Briq, a fintech for the construction industry

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Briq, which has developed a fintech platform used by the construction industry, has raised $30 million in a Series B funding round led by Tiger Global Management.

The financing is among the largest Series B fundraises by a construction software startup, according to the company, and brings Briq’s total raised to $43 million since its January 2018 inception. Existing backers Eniac Ventures and Blackhorn Ventures also participated in the round.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy is a former executive at construction tech giant Procore (which recently went public and has a market cap of $10.4 billion) and Canadian software giant CMiC. Wall Street veteran Ron Goldshmidt is co-founder and COO.

Briq describes its offering as a financial planning and workflow automation platform that “drastically reduces” the time to run critical financial processes, while increasing the accuracy of forecasts and financial plans.

Briq has developed a toolbox of proprietary technology that it says allows it to extract and manipulate financial data without the use of APIs. It also has developed construction-specific data models that allows it to build out projections and create models of how much a project might cost, and how much could conceivably be made. Currently, Briq manages or forecasts about $30 billion in construction volume.

Specifically, Briq has two main offerings: Briq’s Corporate Performance Management (CPM) platform, which models financial outcomes at the project and corporate level and BriqCash, a construction-specific banking platform for managing invoices and payments. 

Put simply, Briq aims to allow contractors “to go from plan to pay” in one platform with the goal of solving the age-old problem of construction projects (very often) going over budget. Its longer-term, ambitious mission is to “manage 80% of the money workflows in construction within 10 years.”

The company’s strategy, so far, seems to be working.

From January 2020 to today, ARR has climbed by 200%, according to Hamdy. Briq currently has about 100 employees, compared to 35 a year ago.

Briq has 150 customers, and serves general and specialty contractors from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue.  They include Cafco Construction Management, WestCor Companies and Choate Construction and Harper Construction. The company is currently focused on contractors in North America but does have long-term plans to address larger international markets, Hamdy told TechCrunch.  

Some context

Hamdy came up with the idea for Santa Barbara, California-based Briq after realizing the vast amount of inefficiencies on the financial side of the construction industry. His goal was to do for construction financials what Procore did to document management, and PlanGrid to construction drawing. He started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to become a construction industry unicorn.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy. Image Credits: Briq

“I wanted to figure out how to bring the best of fintech into a construction industry that really guesses every month what the financial outcomes are for projects,” Hamdy told me at the time of the company’s last raise – a $10 million Series A led by Blackhorn Ventures announced in May of 2020. “Getting a handle on financial outcomes is really hard. The vast majority of the time, the forecasted cost to completion is plain wrong. By a lot.”

In fact, according to McKinsey, an astounding 80 percent of projects run over budget, resulting in significant waste and profit loss.

So at the end of a project, contractors often find themselves having doled out more money and resources than originally planned. This can lead to negative cash flow and profit loss. Briq’s platform aims to help contractors identify outliers, and which projects are more at risk.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Briq has proven to be “extremely valuable” to contractors, Hamdy said.

“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” he added.

Apple introduces SharePlay for co-watching, streaming and screen sharing over FaceTime

By Sarah Perez

As part of its FaceTime update in iOS 15, Apple introduced a new set of features designed for shared experiences — like co-watching TV shows or TikTok videos, listening to music together, screen sharing and more — while on a FaceTime call. The feature, called SharePlay, enables real-time connections with family and friends while you’re hanging out on FaceTime, Apple explained, by integrating access to apps from within the call itself.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple demonstrated the new feature during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, showing how friends could press play in Apple Music to listen together, as the music streams to everyone on the call. Shared playback controls also let anyone on the call play, pause or jump to the next track.

The company also showed off watching video from its Apple TV+ streaming service, where the video was synced in real time between call participants. This was a popular trend during the pandemic, as people looked to virtually watch movies and TV with family and friends, prompting services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to add native co-watching features.

But Apple’s SharePlay goes much further than streaming music and video from just Apple’s own services.

The company announced a set of launch partners for SharePlay, including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+ and Pluto TV. It’s also making an API available to developers so they can integrate their own apps with SharePlay.

Image Credits: Apple

Users can screen share via SharePlay, too, so you can do things like browse Zillow listings together or show off a mobile gameplay, Apple suggested.

“Screen sharing is also a simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment, and it works across Apple devices,” noted Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.

The feature will roll out with iOS 15.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

This SPAC is betting that a British healthcare company can shake up the US market

By Alex Wilhelm

Welcome back to the week, and welcome back to The Exchange. Robinhood has yet to file its IPO, so we’re looking at other companies in the meantime. Today it’s Babylon Health, a British healthtech company that is pursuing a U.S. listing via a blank-check company, or SPAC.

You have questions. I have questions. We’ll get to some answers.

But before we do, we wanted to note that Anna and I are looking into the AI startup market tomorrow morning. If you are a VC with notes regarding the current pace of investment into the sector or thoughts on where customer traction is highest, let us know. If you are a founder building an AI-powered startup, we’d also like to hear from you about what you are seeing. Use the subject line “AI startups,” please.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. 

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


With that out of the way, let’s get into Babylon Health. We’ll kick off with a short riff on its fundraising history, talk about its product, and then dive into its numbers and, bracing ourselves for impact, its projections.

The larger context this morning is that we’re doing legwork ahead of what could be a super active Q3 2021 IPO cycle. Kanzhun, a Chinese company, has also filed for a U.S. listing. Toss in Robinhood whenever it gets off its duff and gives us its own filing, and we’re being promised a good time.

Babylon Health

Per Crunchbase data, Babylon has raised north of $600 million as a private company. Its funding, however, has not come from sources that we tend to discuss here at TechCrunch. Instead, the company raised some money from more traditional investors like Hoxton Ventures and Kinnevik, but the bulk of its capital was raised from the Saudi Arabian “Public Investment Fund,” or PIF. The PIF led a $550 million round into the British healthtech company back in August 2019.

PitchBook has the round cut into two parts, the larger, first portion of which valued the company at $1.9 billion on a post-money basis.

That figure brings us to the SPAC deal that Babylon is now pursuing. The company’s new equity value after its SPAC deal will land around $4.2 billion, with Babylon sitting on around $540 million in cash after the deal is completed. The company will sport a lower, $3.6 billion enterprise valuation after its merger with SPAC Alkuri.

Mendel raises $18M to tease out data structure from medicine’s disparate document trove

By Ingrid Lunden

The medical industry is sitting on a huge trove of data, but in many cases it can be a challenge to realize the value of it because that data is unstructured and in disparate places.

Today, a startup called Mendel, which has built an AI platform both to ingest and bring order to that body of information, is announcing $18 million in funding to continue its growth and to build out what it describes as a “clinical data marketplace” for people not just to organize, but also to share and exchange that data for research purposes. It’s also going to be using the funding to hire more talent — technical and support — for its two offices, in San Jose, CA and Cairo, Egypt.

The Series A round is being led by DCM, with OliveTree and MTVLP, and previous backers Launch Capital, SOSV, Bootstrap Labs and Chairman of UCSF Health Hub Mark Goldstein also participating.

The funding comes on the heels of what Mendel says is a surge of interest among research and pharmaceutical companies in sourcing better data to gain a better understanding of longer-term patient care and progress, in particular across wider groups of users, not just at a time when it has been more challenging to observe people and run trials, but in light of the understanding that using AI to leverage much bigger data sets can produce better insights.

This can be important, for example, in proactive identifying symptoms of particular ailments or the pathology of a disease, but also recurring and more typical responses to specific treatment courses.

We previously wrote about Mendel back in 2017 when the company had received a seed round of $2 million to better match cancer patients with the various clinical trials that are regularly being run: the idea was that certain trials address specific types of cancers and types of patients, and those who are willing to try newer approaches will be better or worse suited to each of these.

It turned out, however, that Mendel discovered a problem in the data that it would have needed to enable its matching algorithms to work, said Dr. Karim Galil, Mendel’s CEO and founder.

“As we were trying to build the trial business, we discovered a more basic problem that hadn’t been solved,” he said in an interview. “It was the reading and understanding medical records of a patient. If you can’t do that you can’t do trial matching.”

So the startup decided to become an R&D shop for at least three years to solve that problem before doing anything with trials, he continued.

Although there are today many AI companies that are parsing unstructured information in order to extract better insights, Mendel is what you might think of as part of the guard of tech companies that are building out specific AI knowledge bases for distinct verticals or areas of expertise. (Another example from another vertical is Eigen, working in the legal and finance industries, while Google’s DeepMind is another major AI player looking at ways of better harnessing data in the sphere of medicine.)

The issue of “reading” natural language is more nuanced than you might think in the world of medicine. Gali compared it to the phrase “I’m going to leave you” in English, which could just as easily mean someone is departing, say, a room, as someone is walking out of a relationship. The “true” answer — and as we humans know even truth can be elusive — can only start to be found in the context.

The same goes for doctors and their observation notes, Galil said. “There is a lot hidden between the lines, and problems can be specific to a person,” or to a situation.

That has proven to be a lucrative area to tackle.

Mendel uses a mix of computer vision and natural language processing built by teams with extensive experience in both clinical environments and in building AI algorithms and currently provides tools to automate clinical data abstraction, OCR, special tools to redact and remove personal identifiable information automatically to share records, search engines to search clinical data, and — yes — an engine to enable better matching of people to clinical trials. Customers include pharmaceutical and life science companies, real-world data and real-world evidence (RWD and RWE) providers and research groups.

And to underscore just how much there is still left to do in the world of medicine, along with this funding round, Mendel is announcing a partnership with eFax, an online faxing solution used by a huge number of healthcare providers.

Faxing is totally antiquated in some parts of the world now — I’m not even sure that people the age of my children (tweens) even know what a “fax” is — but they remain one of the most-used ways to transfer documents and information between people in the worlds of healthcare and medicine, with 90% of the industry using them today. The partnership with Mendel will mean that those eFaxes will now be “read” and digitized and ingested into wider platforms to tap that data in a more useful way.

“There is huge potential for the global healthcare industry to leverage AI,” said Mendel board member and partner at DCM, Kyle Lui, in a statement. “Mendel has created a unique and seamless solution for healthcare organizations to automatically make sense of their clinical data using AI. We look forward to continuing to work with the team on this next stage of growth.”

Endua creates hydrogen-powered clean energy storage, using tech from Australia’s national science agency

By Catherine Shu

Hydrogen-based generators are an environmentally-friendly alternative to ones powered by diesel fuel. But many rely on solar, hydro or wind power, which aren’t available all the time. Brisbane-based Endua is making hydrogen-based power generators more accessible by using electrolysis to create more hydrogen and storing it for long-term use. The startup’s technology was developed at CSIRO, Australian’s national science agency, and is being commercialized by Main Sequence, the venture fund founded by CSIRO and Ampol, one of the country’s largest fuel companies.

Main Sequence’s venture science model means that it first identifies a global challenge, then brings together the technology, team and investors to launch a startup that can address that problem. Through the program, Paul Sernia, the founder of electric vehicle charger maker Tritium, was brought on to serve as Endua’s chief executive officer, working with Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma to commercialize the hydrogen-based power generation and storage technology developed at CSIRO. Ampol will serve as Endua’s industry partner.

Endua is backed by $5 million AUD (about $3.9 million USD) from Main Sequence, CSIRO and Ampol. The company plans to launch in Australia first before expanding into other countries.

Sernia told TechCrunch that Endua was created to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the transition to renewable energy—how to store renewable energy in large quantities, for long periods of time.”

Endua’s modular power banks can run up to 150 kilowatts per pack and be extended for different use cases, serving as an alternative to power generators that run on diesel fuel. Batteries serve as backup, but Endua’s goal is to deliver renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, enabling off-grid infrastructure and communities to have self-sustaining power sources.

“Hydrogen electrolysis technology has been around for quite some time but it still has a long way to go to meet the expectations of commercial markets and be cost-effective when compared to existing energy sources,” Sernia said. “The technology we’ve developed with CSIRO enables us to make the cost more affordable compared to fossil fuel sources, more reliable and easily maintained in remote communities.”

The startup plans to focus on industrial clients before reaching smaller businesses and residences. “One of the biggest opportunities, that few have really tackled, is that of diesel generator users like regional communities, mines or remote infrastructure,” Sernia said. “In farming, Endua’s solution could be used to power equipment such as a bore or irrigation pumps.” The power banks can plug into existing renewable energy systems, including solar and wind, to make the switch economical for users, he added. Water is part of the electrolysis process, but only a small amount is needed.

“Batteries are a great way to deliver dispatchable power in small increments and are a complementary part of the overall transition plan, but we’re focusing on delivering renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, for large periods of time, so communities and remote infrastructure can access reliable, renewable energy at any time of day,” Sernia told TechCrunch.

Ampol is working with Endua as part of its Future Energy and Decarbonisation Strategy. It will test and commercialize Endua’s tech to reach its 80,000 B2B customers, focusing first on the off-grid diesel generator market, which the company said generates 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

In press statement, Ampol managing director and CEO Matthew Halliday said, “We are excited to be involved with Endua, which is part of our commitment to extending our customer value proposition by finding and developing new energy solutions that will assist with their energy transition.”

The Station: Aurora gets closer to a SPAC deal, Spin’s new strategy and Waymo One app numbers

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

We are days away from TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a one-day virtual event scheduled for June 9 that is bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in transportation. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you want to check things out but are short on cash, register and type in “station” for a free pass to the expo and breakout sessions. If you want access to the main stage — where folks like Mate Rimac, Chris Urmson and GM’s Pam Fletcher will be interviewed — then type in “Station50” to buy a full access pass for a 50% discount. Tickets can be accessed here.

Buying a ticket will also give you a months-free subscription to Extra Crunch and access to all the videos of the conference. We have a star-studded group of folks coming from Aurora, AutoX, Gatik, GM, Hyundai, Joby Aviation, Motional, Nuro, Rimac Automobili, Scale AI, Starship Technologies, Toyota Research Institute, WeRide, and Zoox. (to name a handful).

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

The big micromobility news of the week revolves around Spin, and it’s not about whether or not Ford is spinning out the company; they kept a pretty tight lip on that, but clearly big changes are happening. Co-founder Derrick Ko is stepping down as CEO and moving into an advisory role, along with his other two co-founders Zaizhuang Cheng and Euwyn Poon. In Ko’s place is Ben Bear, who previously served as CBO of Spin.

Along with this news came a flurry of other announcements, but it makes sense to start with Spin’s latest public strategy for winning the e-scooter business. Spin is actively seeking out limited vendor permits with cities. In other words, the company doesn’t want to see its cities messing around with other operators. Spin is seeking exclusive partnerships and is prepared to better itself to get them. It’s positioning itself as the most desirable for cities as it shares even more news…

If Spin wants to have a kind of deal that Lyft-owned CitiBike has with NYC, then it needs to bring more to the table. It’s starting with e-bikes. 5,000 of them, to be specific, in the coming months, starting with Providence, RI in June and spreading outward into a few other mid-tier cities over the summer.

Spin is also flexing its tech that will help make its scooters safe and reliable — just what a city wants in a long-term commitment. This week, it brought its Drover AI-equipped scooters to Milwaukee (with plans to launch in Miami, Seattle and Santa Monica, as well) that are equipped to detect sidewalk and bike lane riding and validate parking. Seattle, Santa Monica and Boise, Idaho will soon be graced by Spin’s new S-200, a three-wheeled adaptive scooter built with Tortoise’s repositioning software that allows a remote operator to move scooters out of gutters or into more dense urban areas.

Tier gets some more money

Berlin-based Tier Mobility, which recently won a London permit, has raised $60 million so it can expand its fleet of vehicles and battery charging networks. Technically, it’s a loan. The asset-backed financing comes from Goldman Sachs.

Let’s talk about bikes

Lyft has got a new e-bike piloting this month, starting in San Francisco, then Chicago and New York. It’ll be dropping the sleek, white bikes with soft purple LEDs at random around the city for people to test out. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater gave it a spin, and his general consensus was, Yeah, it’s a good bike. Can’t complain.

While Lyft may have anti-theft protection on its e-bikes, the rest of us are not so lucky. According to market research company NPD Group, we saw a 63% YOY growth for bike sales in June. Bike Index, a national bike registry group, tells us that the number of bikes stolen has seen similar increases. The number of bikes reported stolen to the service was a little over 10,000 between April and September, compared to nearly 6,000 during the same period in the previous year. That’s an uptick of nearly 68%. So, when are apartment complexes going to be forced to build bike storage rather than car parks?

Best cities for biking

If you are going to risk theft and bike around, you’ll want to do it in one of the cities PeopleForBikes just announced are the best for biking.

“Topping this year’s ratings in the United States are Brooklyn, NY; Berkeley, CA and Provincetown, MA (each ranking first in the large, medium and small U.S. city categories, respectively). Top international performers include Canberra and Alice Springs in Australia; Utrecht and Groningen in the Netherlands and Gatineau, Longueuil and Montreal in Canada, all located in the province of Quebec.”

Biking is not all about fun and commuting. For some of us, it’s work. URB-E, the compact container delivery network that wants to replace trucks with small electric bikes, has announced PackItFresh as its final-mile refrigeration provider. PackItFresh’s totes can keep food at safe temperatures for up to 24 hours, yet another reason supermarkets need to be nixing the delivery trucks in favor of these more sustainable alternatives.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

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I hesitate to put this one under deal of the week, because, well, the deal ain’t done. But it is interesting, and this is my show, so here we are. I’m talking about Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company, and a potential merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Here’s the tl;dr for those who didn’t catch my Friday story. Several sources within the financial sector told me that Aurora is close to finalizing a deal to merge with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the newest special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson. It appears the valuation is going to be somewhere in the $12 billion neighborhood. The deal is expected to be announced as early as next week. I should add that both Aurora and Reinivent declined to comment.

The Hoffman, Pincus, Thompson trio, who are bullish on a concept that they call “venture capital at scale,” have formed three SPACs, or blank-check companies. Two of those SPACs have announced mergers with private companies. Reinvent Technology Partners announced a deal in February to merge with the electric vertical take off and landing company Joby Aviation, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Reinvent Technology Partners Z merged with home insurance startup Hippo.

Is it possible that the deal could fall apart? Sure. But my sources tell me that it has progressed far enough that it would take a significant issue to derail the agreement. One more note: there is the tricky issue of Hoffman and Reinvent’s existing relationship with Aurora. Hoffman is a board member of Aurora and Reinvent is an investor. While Hoffman and Reinvent showing up on two sides of a SPAC deal would be unusual, it is not unprecedented. Connie Loizos’s accompanying article digs into the increasing cases of conflicts of interest popping up in SPAC deals.

Other deals that got my attention …

Getir, the Istanbul-based grocery delivery app, raised $550m in new funding. This latest injection of capital, which tripled its valuation to $7.5 billion, came just three months after its last financing, the Financial Times reported. The company, which just started to expand outside of Turkey in early 2021, is now planning a U.S. launch this year.

Faction Technology, the Silicon Valley-based startup building three-wheeled electric vehicles for autonomous delivery or human driven jaunts around town, raised $4.3 million in seed funding led by Trucks VC and Fifty Years.

Flink, a Berlin-based on-demand “instant” grocery delivery service built around self-operated dark stores and a smaller assortment (2,400 items) that it says it will deliver in 10 minutes or less, has raised $240 million to expand its business into more cities, and more countries.

FlixMobility, the parent company of the FlixBus coach network and the FlixTrain rail service, has closed more than $650 million in a Series G round of funding that values the Munich-based company at over $3 billion. Jochen Engert, who co-founded and co-leads the company with André Schwämmlein, described the round in a press call that TechCrunch participated in as a “balanced” mix of equity and debt, and said that the plan will be to use the funds to both expand its network in the U.S. market as well as across Europe.

Locus, a startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, raised $50 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its presence. The new round, a Series C, was led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. Qualcomm Ventures and existing investors Tiger Global Management and Falcon Edge also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $79 million. The new round valued the startup, which was founded in India, at about $300 million, said a person familiar with the matter.

Realtime Robotics announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.

Roadster, the Palo Alto-based digital platform that gives dealers tools to sell new and used vehicles online has been acquired for $360 million by retail automotive technology company CDK Global Inc. As part of the all-cash deal, Roadster is now a wholly owned subsidiary.

Sennder, a digital freight forwarder that focuses on moving cargo around Europe (and specifically focusing on trucks and “full truck load”, FTL, freight forwarding), has raised $80 million in funding, at a valuation the company confirms is now over $1 billion.

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, dropped the “AI” and has been reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The firm is commemorating its new identity with a new $300 million fund that will focus on emerging technologies and carbon neutrality. The capital is split into two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. The introduction of these two new funds brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million.

Trellis Technologies, the insurance technology platform, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by QED Investors with participation from existing investors NYCA Partners and General Catalyst.

VTB, Russia’s second-largest lender, has bought a $75 million minority stake in car-sharing provider Delimobil, Reuters reported.

Waymo: by the numbers

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Waymo has been on my mind lately — and not because of the executive departures that I wrote about last month. No, I’ve been thinking about Waymo and how, or if, it’s been scaling up its Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service, which operates in several Phoenix suburbs. The latest example is that Waymo One can now be accessed and booked through Google Maps.

But what about ridership? The folks at Sensor Tower, the mobile app market intelligence firm, recently shared some numbers that give the tiniest of glimpses into who is at least interested in trying the service.

First, a bit of history. Waymo started an early rider program in April 2017, which allowed vetted members of the public, all of whom signed NDAs, to hail an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. All of these Waymo-branded vans had human safety operators behind the wheel.

In December 2018, the company launched Waymo One, the self-driving car service and accompanying app. Waymo-trained test drivers were still behind the wheel when the ride-hailing service began. Early rider program members were the first to be invited to the service. As these folks were shifted over to the Waymo One service, the NDA was lifted.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up in fall 2019. TechCrunch contributor Ed Niedermeyer was among the first (media) to hail a driverless ride. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit.

In October 2020, the company announced that members of Waymo One — remember this is the sans NDA service — would be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members were given first access to the driverless rides. The company started to welcome more people directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides would be fully driverless, which it has maintained. Today, anyone can download the app and hail a driverless ride.

OK, back to the numbers. Sensor Tower shared monthly estimates for Waymo’s installs from the U.S. App Store and Google Play. The company said that most of the installs are on iOS, as it looks like the Waymo app only became available on Android in April 2021. This isn’t a ridership number. It does show how interest has grown, and picked up since February 2021.

Waymo one app data

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Policy corner

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Hi folks, welcome back to Policy Corner.

Another infrastructure bill was proposed in Washington this week. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure introduced a new bill that would invest $547 billion over the next five years on surface transport. While much of those funds would go toward improving America’s roads, bridges, and passenger rail, the INVEST in America Act would dedicate around $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and around $4 billion to invest in zero-emission transit vehicles.


And that’s in addition to major infrastructure bills already proposed by President Joe Biden and House Democrats. It’s likely that this bill, should it pass, would be significantly scaled back — just as Congressional Republicans are attempting to do with Biden’s infrastructure plan. You can read more about the bill here.

President Biden has set his sights on battery manufacturing as a way to recover and reuse critical minerals in the EV supply chain. This is after it was reported that he walked back earlier signals that he might support domestic mining for these minerals, like lithium. Instead, it looks like his plan is to push for continued importing of the metals from foreign countries and then to recycle and reuse them at the end of a battery’s life.

This news is a blow to America’s mining industry but sure to be a boost for metal recyclers, like Redwood Materials in Nevada and Canadian company Li-Cycle, which is expanding its operations in the States.

Some of the biggest pushback against mining has come from environmental and conservation groups. A good example is the situation currently unfolding out in Nevada, where a proposed lithium mine may be halted due to the presence of a rare wildflower. Conservation groups want to get protected status for the flower. If they succeed? No more mine.

The final piece of news this week is a recent survey from Pew Research Center which found that 51% of Americans oppose phasing out the production of gas-powered cars and trucks. The report also found that those reported hearing “a lot” about EVs were more likely to seriously consider one for their next vehicle purchase. Also, while Americans are roughly in agreement that EVs are better for the environment, they’re equally in agreement that they’re more costly.

The upshot is that more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of EVs and the question of their benefits (on the environment, for example) is pretty well understood. But policymakers and OEMs clearly still have a ways to go in convincing a huge swathe of Americans to get on board.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

A few more notes

 

I won’t be providing the looooonnnnggggg roundup of news this week, but here are a few little bits including some hires and other tidbits.

7-Eleven said it plans to install 500 direct-current fast charging ports at 250 locations across North America by the end of 2022. These charging ports will be owned and operated by 7-Eleven, as opposed to fuel at its filling stations, which must be purchased from suppliers.

Baraja, the lidar startup, appointed former Magna and DaimlerChrysler veterans to its executive team, including Paul Eichenberg as chief strategy officer and Jim Kane as vp of automotive engineering.

Brian Heater, hardware editor here at TechCrunch, covered a recent gathering of ride-hailing drivers in Long Island City, Queens. The group protested outside of Uber’s offices ahead of a proposed state bill. The drivers support the proposed bill that would make it easy for gig economy workers in the state to unionize.

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has secured a permit that will allow the company to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The permit, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its driverless pilot program, is one of several regulatory requirements autonomous vehicle companies must meet before they can deploy commercially. This permit is important — and Cruise is the first to land this particular one — but it does not allow the company to charge passengers for any rides in test AVs.

DeepMap has developed a crowdsourced mapping service called RoadMemory that lets automakers turn data collected from their own fleets of passenger vehicles and trucks into maps. The company says the tool is designed to expand geographic coverage more quickly and support hands-off autonomous driving features everywhere.

Joby Aviation is partnering with REEF Technology, one of the country’s largest parking garage operators, and a real estate acquisition company Neighborhood Property Group to build out its network of vertiports, with an initial focus on Los Angeles, Miami, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Populus, the platform that helps cities manage shared mobility services, streets and curbs, launched a new digital car-sharing parking feature in Oakland. The gist is that this feature helps cities collect data on car-sharing and deploy curbside paying payments. The company launched this particular product in 2018 and has been expanding to different cities.

Starship Technologies, the autonomous sidewalk delivery startup, has hired a new CEO. The company tapped Alastair Westgarth, the former CEO of Alphabet’s Loon, to lead the company as it looks to expand its robotics delivery service. Loon, Alphabet’s experiment to deliver broadband via high-altitude balloons, was shut down for good at the beginning of this year. Prior to working at Loon, Westgarth headed the wireless antennae company Quintel Solutions, was a vice president at telecommunications company Nortel and director of engineering at Bell Mobility.

Yuri Suzuki, a partner at design consultancy firm Pentagram, recently conducted a research project into the crucial role electric car sound has on a user’s safety, enjoyability, communication and brand recognition, out of which he developed a range of car sounds.

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