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Network with CrunchMatch at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

By Emma Comeau

Got your sights set on attending TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on May 14 in San Jose? Spend the day with 1,000 or more like-minded founders, makers and leaders across the startup ecosystem. It’s a day-long deep dive dedicated to current and evolving mobility and transportation tech. Think autonomous vehicles, micromobility, AI-based mobility applications, battery tech and so much more.

Hold up. Don’t have a ticket yet? Buy your early-bird pass right here and save $100.

In addition to taking in all the great speakers (we add more every week), presentations, workshops and demos, you’ll want to meet people and build the relationships that foster startup success, amirite? Get ready for a radical network experience with CrunchMatch. Our free business-matching platform makes finding and connecting with the right people easier than ever. It’s both curated and automated, a potent combination that makes networking simple and productive. Hey needle, kiss that haystack goodbye.

Here’s how it works.

When we launch the CrunchMatch platform, we’ll email all registered attendees. Simply create a profile, identify your role and list your specific criteria, goals and interests. Whomever you want to meet — investors, founders or engineers specializing in autonomous cars or ride-hailing apps. The CrunchMatch algorithm kicks into gear and suggests matches and, subject to your approval, proposes meeting times and sends meeting requests.

CrunchMatch benefits everyone — founders looking for developers, investors in search of hot prospects, founders looking for marketing help — the list is endless, and the tool is free.

You have one programming-packed day to soak up everything this conference offers. Start strategizing now to make the most of your valuable time. CrunchMatch will help you cut through the crowd and network efficiently so that you have time to learn about the latest tech innovations and still connect with people who can help you reach the next level.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 takes place on May 14 in San Jose, Calif. Join, meet and learn from the industry’s mightiest minds, makers, innovators and investors. And let CrunchMatch make your time there much easier and more productive. Buy your early-bird ticket, and we’ll see you in San Jose!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Richard Smith

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Autonomous yard trucking startup Outrider comes out of stealth with $53 million in funding

By Kirsten Korosec

The 400,000 distribution yards located in the U.S. are critical hubs for the supply chain. Now one startup is aiming to make the yard truck — the centerpiece of the distribution yard — more efficient, safer and cleaner, with an autonomous system.

Outrider, a Golden, Colo. startup previously known as Azevtec, came out of stealth Wednesday to announce that it has raised $53 million in seed and Series A funding rounds led by NEA and 8VC. Outrider is also backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, warehousing giant Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures and Goose Society of Texas.

Outrider CEO Andrew Smith said distribution yards are ideal environments to deploy autonomous technology because they’re well-defined areas that are also complex, often chaotic and with many manual tasks.

“This is why a systems approach is necessary to automate every major task in the yard,” Smith said.

Outrider has developed a system that includes an electric yard truck equipped with a full stack self-driving system with overlapping suite of sensor technology such as radar, lidar and cameras. The system automates the manual aspect of yard operations, including moving trailers around the yard as well as to and from loading docks. The system can also hitch and unhitch trailers, connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, and monitor trailer locations.

The company has two pilot programs with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies in designated sections of their distribution yards. Over time, Outrider will move from operating in specific areas of these yards to taking over the entire yards for these enterprise customers, according to Smith.

“Because we’re getting people out of these yard environments, where there’s 80,000 pound vehicles, we’re delivering increased efficiency,” Smith told TechCrunch in a recent interview. That efficiency is not just in moving the trailers around the yard, Smith added. It also helps move the Class 8 semi trailers used for hauling freight long distances through the system and back on the road quickly.

“We can actually reduce the amount of time the over-the-road guys are stuck sitting at a yard trying to do a pickup or drop-off,” Smith said.

Smith sees a big opportunity to demonstrate the responsible deployment of autonomy as well as clean up yards filled with diesel-powered yard trucks.

“If there was ever a location for near-term automation and electrification of the supply chain, it’s here,” he said. “Our customers and suppliers understand there’s a big opportunity for these autonomy systems to accelerate the deployment of 50,000 plus electric trucks in the market because they are a superior platform for automation.”

Intuition Robotics raises $36M for its empathetic digital companion

By Frederic Lardinois

Intuition Robotics, the company best known for its ElliQ robot, a digital home companion for the elderly, today announced that it has raised a $36 million Series B round co-led by SPARX Group and OurCrowd. Toyota AI Ventures, Sompo Holdings, iRobot, Union Tech Ventures, Happiness Capital, Samsung Next, Capital Point and Bloomberg Beta also participated in this round. This brings the total funding for the company, which was founded in 2016, to $58 million.

As the company, which sees it as its mission to build digital assistants that can create emotional bonds between humans and machines, also disclosed today, it is working with Toyota to bring its technology to the automaker’s LQ concept. Toyota previously said that it wanted to bring an empathetic AI assistant to the LQ that could create a bond between driver and car. This assistant, dubbed “Yui,” is powered by Intuition Robotics’ Q platform.

Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler

Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler tells me that the company spent the last two years gathering data through ElliQ. In the process, the company spent more than 10,000 days in the homes of early users to gather data. The youngest of those users were 78 and the oldest 97.

On average, users interacted with ElliQ eight times per day and spent about six minutes on those interactions. When ElliQ made proactive suggestions, users accepted those about half the time.

“We believe that we have been able to prove that she can create an enduring relationship between humans and machines that actually influences people’s feelings and behaviors,” Skuler told me. “That she’s able to create empathy and trust — and anticipate the needs of the users. And that, to us, is the real vision behind the company.”

While Intuition Robotics is most closely identified with ElliQ, though, that’s only one area the company is focusing on. The other is automotive — and as Skuler stressed, as a small startup, focus is key, even as there are some other obvious verticals it could try to get into.

In the car, the empathetic AI assistant will adapt to the individual user and, for example, provide personalized suggestions for trying out new features in the car, or suggest that you open the window and get some fresh air into the car when it senses you are getting tired. As Skuler stressed, the car is actually a great environment for a digital assistant, as it already has plenty of built-in sensors.

“The agent gets the data feed, builds context, looks at the goals and answers three questions: Should I be proactive? Which activity should I promote? And which version to be most effective? And then it controls the outcomes,” Skuler explained. That’s the same process in the car as it would be in ElliQ — and indeed, the same code runs in both.

The Intuition team decided that in order to allow third-parties to build these interactions, it needed to develop specialized tools and a new language that would help designers — not programmers — create the outlines of these interactions for the platform.

Unlike ElliQ, though, the assistant in the car doesn’t move, of course. In Toyota’s example, the car uses lights and a small screen to provide additional interactions with the driver. As Skuler also told me, the company is already working with another automotive company to bring its Q platform to more cars, though he wasn’t ready to disclose this second automotive partner.

“Intuition Robotics is creating disruptive technology that will inspire companies to re-imagine how machines might amplify the human experience,” said Jim Adler, founding managing partner at Toyota AI Ventures, who will also join the company’s board of directors.

Intuition Robotics’ team doubled over the course of the last year and the company now has 85 employees, most of whom are engineers. The company has offices in Israel and San Francisco.

Unsurprisingly, the plans for the new funding focus on building out its assistant’s capabilities. “We’re the only company in the world that can create these context-based, nonlinear personalized interactions that we call a digital companion,” Skuler told me. “We assume people will start doing similar things. There’s a lot more work to do. […] A big part of the work is to increase our research activities and increase the tools and the performance of the runtime engine for the agent.” He also told me that the team continues to gather data about ElliQ so it can prove that it improves the quality of life of its users. And in addition to this, the company obviously also will continue to build out its work around cars.

“We cracked something nobody’s cracked before,” Skuler said. “And now we’re on the verge of getting value out of it. And it will be hard work because this is not an app. It’s really hard work but we want to capture that value.”

Blue Canyon Technologies chosen by Made In Space for orbital manufacturing demo mission

By Darrell Etherington

On-orbit manufacturing startup Made In Space has tapped Colorado’s Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT) to help support its Archinaut One demonstration mission contracted by NASA, which is currently set to take place in 2022. The mission will see Made In Space show off the assembly of two 10-meter solar arrays on orbit, which will then be used to power an ESPA-class satellite, providing up to five times more power than is available via power sources used for those satellites not assembled on orbit.

BCT will be providing development of the spacecraft platform (along with Northrop Grumman) that Made In Space will use to delver its Archinaut manufacturing platform, which employs additive manufacturing and robotic assembly to be able to build structures while on orbit. The Colorado company, founded in 2008, has developed a number of spacecraft for a variety of projects, including JPL’s first-ever operational CubeSat project, the Asteria space telescope.

I spoke to BCT systems engineer Brian Crum about the Made In Space project, and he said that it’s representative of the kind of work they’ve been doing, which mainly concentrates around interesting demonstration missions and initial operations of novel space technologies that could have tremendous impact on how work is done in space.

“Given the size of spacecraft that we develop and specialize in, and at that price point, it really lends itself to these Demonstration Missions that are follow-on to operational concepts,” he said. “We are a good solution for testing out concepts, and we get approached quite a bit for that […] we get a lot of interesting ideas of people wanting to try things, and this is definitely one of them.”

BCT is actually in the process of building more than 60 spacecraft, and it doubled in size over the past year. Next, the company plans to open a new combined headquarters and production facility that spans more than 80,000 acres, which should be opening sometime later this year. That growth is directly driven by an uptick in business — something Crum says is the result of a boom in experimentation and technology demonstrations coming from all vectors, including government and private industry.

“There are definitely more people that have more appetite for risk,” he said. “We we are growing because the demand for the spacecraft is growing, that’s the simple answer. We’re hiring the right people to support these programs, and the number of programs is greatly increasing. Along with that, as we grow larger in size, and the spacecraft grow larger and size, they become more complex, which means they need a little bit more effort. So there’s there’s a little bit more engineering that goes into them as well.”

Advocating reform, activist investor Elliott Management takes a $2.5B stake in SoftBank

By Jonathan Shieber

The activist investment firm Elliott Management has steadily amassed a $2.5 billion stake in the headline-grabbing, Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank even as a series of missteps battered the company’s share price.

Famous for its investments in companies like Slack and Uber and infamous for betting billions on the co-working real estate marketplace and development company, WeWork, SoftBank presented an enticing target for Elliott’s brand of financial speculation, according to an initial report in The Wall Street Journal.

Last November, SoftBank Group reported a $6.5 billion loss thanks in part to its efforts to bail out its investment in WeWork — a company once valued in private markets at $47 billion.

Those losses sent the stock price tumbling, but despite its troubles, SoftBank still holds a vast stable of portfolio companies. It’s those assets that Elliott Management thinks are appealing enough to carve out some of its $34 billion in assets under management for a minority stake.

Elliott’s substantial investment in SoftBank Group reflects its strong conviction that the market significantly undervalues SoftBank’s portfolio of assets,” a spokesperson for the firm wrote in an email. “Elliott has engaged privately with SoftBank’s leadership and is working constructively on solutions to help SoftBank materially and sustainably reduce its discount to intrinsic value.”

SoftBank made waves in the technology investment world with its massive $100 billion Vision fund, which was designed to take stakes in emerging technology companies that required lots of cash, but could potentially transform various industries.

The audacious investment strategy was financed by working with sovereign wealth funds like the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (whose principals are linked to a leadership known for ordering the assassination of journalists) and companies like Apple and Microsoft.

Through its limited partners and with its own cash, SoftBank was able to take large equity stakes in companies across a range of different industries. However, it now appears that those large equity stakes will be difficult to maintain or justify.

Over the last year, several of SoftBank’s portfolio companies have run into trouble, and it’s an open question whether any changes Elliott might be able to effect at the top of the organization would have an impact on the performance of the underlying portfolio.

Indeed, given SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s 22% ownership stake in the business, any corporate activism that Elliott may initiate or advocate for could have limited results.

There are good businesses in the SoftBank portfolio, and public investors have rushed in to buy the company’s stock on the back of the disclosure of Elliott Management’s investment.

However, the flood of capital that came into the venture market in 2018 seems to have crested, which could leave SoftBank and its new investors soaked.

Watch OneWeb launch 34 satellites for its broadband constellation live

By Darrell Etherington

One of the various companies looking to deploy a globe-spanning broadband internet satellite constellation is adding 34 more satellites to its existing operations in space. OneWeb will launch that many satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan with a liftoff time set for 4:42 PM EST (1:32 PM PST) today. The new satellites will join OneWeb’s six already in orbit, which launched last February.

In total, OneWeb hopes to eventually operate at least 650 satellites in low-Earth orbit, the combined network of which will be used to provide internet service to customers on the ground. Launch provider Arianespace will be flying as many as 19 more missions on behalf of OneWeb to fill out its constellation goals between now and the end of 2021, and will look to begin offering connectivity in a pilot testing capacity by sometime later this year, with full commercial service coming online next year, too.

OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in funding last year, raising its total overall funding to $3.4 billion, to help cover the cost of their mass manufacturing and deployment phase, and a significant portion of its funding has come from SoftBank. This launch will put it in good stead to begin its first tests later this year, but the competition for constellation-based broadband internet service is intensifying, with SpaceX already having put up 240 satellites for its own Starlink project, with a lot more launches of 60 satellites each set for this year. SpaceX, of course, is also its own launch provider which simplifies delivery.

Meanwhile, Amazon is undertaking a similar project, currently codenamed ‘Kuiper,’ but it has yet to begin putting any hardware in orbit for its endeavor. OneWeb is targeting maritime, aviation, enterprise and government customers – as are other smaller startup companies, like Swarm Technologies and Kepler. Speed to market is definitely a factor as these operators begin to come online, but the potential market is massive and spans multiple industries, so there will likely be more than one winner when this ultimately shakes out.

OneWeb’s launch will be available via the YouTube stream above closer to launch time, so check back for updates.

 

Alphabet’s Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile turn solar-powered drones into flying cell towers

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company that had been focused on delivering internet communications to remote areas via stratospheric balloons, has completed development work on a new payload for partner HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank that’s building high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed aircraft. The two companies jointly adapted the communications technology that enables Loon’s balloons to beam communications networks to Earth for use on HAPSMobile’s drones, effectively turning them into high-flying mobile cell towers.

This is the result of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced back in April of last year, but an important step because it means that Loon’s technology will get its first functional tests on vehicles other than its ballon-based platform. The HAWK30 aircraft that HAPSMobile developed is a solar-powered electric aircraft that flies at speeds of over 100 km/h (around 60 mph) in the stratosphere (with an operating altitude or around 65,000 feet) which is much faster than Loon’s balloons, which meant adapting the payload to perform at these speeds. Part of that customization included making the antenna used to beam the LTE connectivity to devices on the ground much more responsive, allowing them to rotate quickly to maintain the best possible connection.

Loon and HAPSMobile say the their communications technology can provide connections between devices as far as 700 km (435 miles) apart, with data transfer speeds reaching as high as 1Gpbs. HAPSMobile’s goal with the HAWK30 project is to expand the scope of coverage vs. terrestrial cell towers, since their high-altitude position can cover a much larger surface area vs. even the tallest cell towers. In fact, the company notes that just 40 of its aircraft could provide coverage to the entirety of Japan, vs. “tens of thousands of existing terrestrial base stations.” Plus, fewer areas would be considered out-of-range as a result of inhospitable terrain or difficult to reach areas in terms of infrastructure installation.

For Loon, this is a signifiant expansion of their current operating model, providing another path to revenue that includes adapting their communications technology for use on different types of aircraft and delivery models. It’s yet another example of the type of commercial partnerships available to the company, even as it ramps up its existing balloon-based deployment plans with partners including Telefonica and others.

Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 1 of 2)

By Arman Tabatabai

The once-polarizing world of open-source software has recently become one of the hotter destinations for VCs.

As the popularity of open source increases among organizations and developers, startups in the space have reached new heights and monstrous valuations.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen surging open-source companies like Databricks reach unicorn status, as well as VCs who cashed out behind a serious number of exits involving open-source and dev tool companies, deals like IBM’s Red Hat acquisition or Elastic’s late-2018 IPO. Last year, the exit spree continued with transactions like F5 Networks’ acquisition of NGINX and a number of high-profile acquisitions from mainstays like Microsoft and GitHub.

Similarly, venture investment in new startups in the space has continued to swell. More investors are taking shots at finding the next big payout, with annual invested capital in open-source and dev tool startups increasing at a roughly 10% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the last five years, according to data from Crunchbase. Furthermore, attractive returns in the space seem to be adding more fuel to the fire, as open-source and dev tool startups saw more than $2 billion invested in the space in 2019 alone, per Crunchbase data.

As we close out another strong year for innovation and venture investing in the sector, we asked 18 of the top open-source-focused VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunities. For purposes of length and clarity, responses have been edited and split (in no particular order) into part one and part two of this survey. In part one of our survey, we hear from:

CrunchMatch simplifies networking @ TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

By Emma Comeau

With just about one month until go-time, TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 (March 3 in Berkeley, Calif.) is going to be a true powerhouse event. Prepare to spend the day engaging with the leading innovators, makers and investors bent on shaping the future of these two game-changing technologies.

Don’t have a ticket yet? Beat the price hike at the door and book your ticket now.

Last year 1,500 attendees packed the house, and we’re on track to surpass that number come March. Talk about an opportunity for focused networking. Here’s more great news. CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s free business match-making tool, will be available to all attendees.

What can CrunchMatch do for you? Excellent question. It’s a curated, automated networking platform that helps you connect with people based on your criteria, goals and interests. No more time spent chatting up the wrong people. No matter who you’re hoping to meet with — founders, investors, technologists, researchers or engineering students — CrunchMatch makes networking a crowd as efficient and painless as possible.

Here’s how it works. When CrunchMatch opens, you’ll get an email to sign-up. Fill out your profile listing your role (technologist, founder, investor, etc.) and the type of connections you want to make at the event. The CrunchMatch algorithm will get to work and suggest people to meet and even set appointments, which you can approve or decline.

You never know who you’ll meet at a TechCrunch event or where that connection might lead. Wet your networking whistle with a look at some of the companies attending TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020:

  • ABB Technology Ventures
  • Amazon
  • Ceres Robotics Inc
  • Deloitte
  • Facebook
  • Google X
  • Hyundai CRADLE
  • John Deere
  • LG Electronics
  • Misty Robotics
  • Silicon Valley Bank
  • Stanford
  • Toyota AI Ventures
  • UC Berkeley
  • Waymo

While you’re at it, check out our program agenda for more than 17 presentations, including live robot demos, panel discussions, interviews and Q&As — where the audience gets to ask speakers their most burning questions.

Oh, and one more game-changer. We’ve added Pitch Night — a mini pitch-off competition that takes place the night before the conference starts.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3, and with CrunchMatch at your side, you’ll network better than ever before. Don’t miss this opportunity to spend a full day connecting and engaging with your community of movers, makers and influencers. Buy your ticket today!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Uber issued permit to test self-driving vehicles on California public roads

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Advanced Technologies Group has been issued a permit that would allow the company to put its autonomous vehicles back on public roads in California nearly two years after the company scaled back its testing program following a fatal crash in Arizona that killed a pedestrian.

Uber doesn’t have immediate plans to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads in San Francisco, where it was previously testing. The company says it will notify key local, state and federal stakeholders before it returns to the city.

“San Francisco is a great city to gather key learnings for self-driving technology given its complex and ever-changing environment. While we do not have an update as to exactly when we’ll resume autonomous testing, receiving our testing permit through the California DMV is a critical step towards that end in Uber’s home city,” an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The permit, which is issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, is the latest step by Uber’s self-driving unit to ramp up a program that appeared destined to end just 18 months ago.

Uber ATG ended all testing on public roads after one of its vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Uber ATG was testing its self-driving vehicles in the Phoenix area, Toronto, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. At the time, the company let go all 100 of its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco and rumors circulated that the company wanted to sell its self-driving unit.

Uber ATG resumed in December 2018 on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Uber has also started mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year. Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data also will be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.

Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.

NASA sets 2022 launch for air quality sensor that will provide hourly updates across North America

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is sending to orbit aboard a Maxar 1300-class satellite (whose primary mission is to provide commercial satellite communications for Intelsat customers) a payload that could help improve air quality forecasting, the agency announced today. NASA’s new air quality measurement tool is called “TEMPO,” which stands for Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, and it’ll provide hourly measurements of the levels of gases in the atmosphere over North America, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide and aerosols. That’ll paint a picture of the relative air quality, and that info will be available publicly so that weather monitoring agencies and others can provide more accurate and up-to-date air quality information to people as part of their forecasts.

The TEMPO tool won’t launch until 2022, however, which is when the Maxar satellite, called Intelsat 40e, is set to be delivered to geostationary orbit. It’s not uncommon for NASA to host its scientific payloads on commercial communications satellites, providing an opportunity for NASA to effectively hitch a ride on a large geostationary satellite that’ll cover the territory it wants to cover, while offering significant cost savings versus putting up a dedicated spacecraft.

Ball Aerospace developed the TEMPO instrument for NASA, and it’ll be transported to Maxar’s Palo Alto-based satellite manufacturing facility for incorporation into the Intelsat 40e vehicle ahead of its scheduled launch. The instrument will also be used alongside other tools, including one from the European Space Agency, and South Korea’s Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer, which will all combine to provide a more comprehensive and detailed picture of air quality across the northern hemisphere.

NASA has already contributed to improved air quality index (AQI) information, boosting accuracy of the EPA’s daily AQI by as much as 38%, according to tests conducted in August after satellite data refreshed every three hours was incorporated into that index’s calculation. Continuing to improve the quality and accuracy of these and other measures of air quality could potentially have tremendous impact on the lives of us here on Earth as air quality worsens due to the impact people have on the environment and airborne pollutants.

TechCrunch is hosting its first-ever dedicated space event in 2020 — TechCrunch Sessions: Space, happening June 25 in LA. Get your tickets now!

Early-bird savings end next Friday on tickets to Robotics+AI 2020

By Emma Comeau

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 is gearing up to be one amazing show. This annual day-long event draws the brightest minds and makers from these two industries — 1,500 attendees last year alone. And if you really want to make 2020 a game-changing year, grab yourself an early-bird ticket and save $150 on tickets before prices go up after January 31.

Not convinced yet? Check out some agenda highlights featuring some of today’s leading robotics and AI leaders:

  • Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)
    The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
  • Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)
    Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space.
  • Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)
    Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.
  • Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)
    Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

See the full agenda here.

If you’re a startup, nab one of the five demo tables left and showcase your company to new customers, press, and potential investors. Demo tables run $2,200 and come with four attendee tickets so you can divide and conquer the networking scene at the conference.

Students, get your super-reduced $50 ticket here and learn from some of the biggest names in the biz and meet your future employer or internship opportunity.

Don’t forget, the early-bird ticket sale ends on January 31. After that, prices go up by $150. Purchase your tickets here and save an additional 18% when you book a group of four or more.

Aki acquires Eyeview’s ad personalization tech

By Anthony Ha

Video advertising company Eyeview shut down in December, but its technology will live on thanks to an acquisition by Aki Technologies.

Aki CEO Scott Swanson told me that he’s anticipating serious growth in the demand for ad personalization, particularly as consumers see personalization everywhere else online.

Swanson argued that Eyeview’s technology is particularly strong thanks to its focus on video, with “the ability to generate millions of permutations of a video creative and store them in the cloud.” It offers even more opportunities when combined with Aki’s existing technology, which delivers ads targeted for specific “mobile moments,” like whether the viewer is relaxing at home or out running errands.

Plus, the acquisition allows Aki to expand beyond mobile advertising to desktop and connected TV.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Swanson said that in addition to acquiring the technology, he’s also working to bring on old Eyeview clients and hire Eyeview team members (he estimated that he’s hired nearly 15 so far and is aiming for around 20). At the same time, he acknowledged that there are challenges in resurrecting a business that had been shut down.

“The technology itself was decommissioned, it was taken down, it was backed up in the cloud,” Swanson said. “As the acquisition proceeds, we’ll literally be taking the code base and relaunching it in the cloud … Hiring the people was super important, and then because it’s not a traditional acquisition where we get customers and stuff, we have to go call up all the customers one-by-one, just as we have to hire people one-by-one.”

Eyeview had raised nearly $80 million in funding before running out of cash and laying off a team of around 100 employees. (Aki, meanwhile, has raised only a seed round of $3.75 million back in 2016; Swanson said the company has grown organically since then.) The news came only a few months after digital media veteran Rob Deichert took over as CEO.

“While it was disappointing to have to shut down the Eyeview business, I’m very happy that the technology assets have found a home with Aki,” Deichert told me via email. “Their business is a logical fit for the technology.”

And despite Eyeview’s misfortunes, Swanson said he’s confident that the company still works as a standalone business: “Look, these guys have been running a business that was full of really happy customers who were seeing good results and seem to have been disappointed when they shut down.”

The bigger issue, he suggested, is the adtech industry as a whole, with advertisers feeling fatigued “with having too many options,” along with a lack of “appetite on the large exit side.”

“The broader trend here is for companies that operate profitably and can support themselves effectively to become a little bit more tech-enabled managed services business,” Swanson said.

Uber’s self-driving unit starts mapping Washington, D.C. ahead of testing

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.

Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.

Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.

At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington, D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.

Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.

Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.

Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington, D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.

Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

Memphis Meats raised $161 million from SoftBank Group, Norwest and Temasek

By Jonathan Shieber

Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.

The investment brings the company’s total financing to $180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.

Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.

Innovations in computational biology, bio-engineering and materials science are creating new opportunities for companies to develop and commercialize technologies that could replace traditional farming with new ways to produce foods that have a much lower carbon footprint and bring about an age of superabundance, according to investors.

The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.

“For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. “This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it’s important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”

Boeing partners with Tactical Robotics to develop VTOL tech

By Darrell Etherington

Boeing has signed a new agreement with Israel-based Tactical Robotics, an exploratory deal that will see the two companies work together jointly on “developing, producing and marketing” aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities based on Tactical Robotics’ “Fancraft” enclosed rotor technology.

Already, the Urban Aeronautics-owned Tactical Robotics has developed “Cormorant,” an autonomous flying car vehicle that has the footprint of roughly a Humvee, but that can take off and land vertically thanks to its Fancraft rotors. Unlike open rotors, these are placed inside ducts, which provide advantages both in terms of directing airflow and providing enhanced safety for anyone around the vehicle because they’re mostly covered. This new arrangement between the two companies will begin with exploring options for Cormorant in terms of production and deployment for potential applications, including disaster response.

The overall deal between Boeing and Tactical Robotics could be much broader-reaching, however, and includes development and exploration of both piloted and autonomous VTOL aircraft. This is yet another example of how the VTOL industry is heating up in terms of partnership, investments and productization.

Save over $200 with discounted student tickets to Robotics + AI 2020

By Emma Comeau

If you’re a current student and you love robots — and the AI that drives them — you do not want to miss out on TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. Our day-long deep dive into these two life-altering technologies takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley and features the best and brightest minds, makers and influencers.

We’ve set aside a limited number of deeply discounted tickets for students because, let’s face it, the future of robotics and AI can’t happen without cultivating the next generation. Tickets cost $50, which means you save more than $200. Reserve your student ticket now.

Not a student? No problem, we have a savings deal for you, too. If you register now, you’ll save $150 when you book an early-bird ticket by February 14.

More than 1,000 robotics and AI enthusiasts, experts and visionaries attended last year’s event, and we expect even more this year. Talk about a targeted audience and the perfect place for students to network for an internship, employment or even a future co-founder.

What can you expect this year? For starters, we have an outstanding lineup of speaker and demos — more than 20 presentations — on tap. Let’s take a quick look at just some of the offerings you don’t want to miss:

  • Saving Humanity from AI: Stuart Russell, UC Berkeley professor and AI authority, argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
  • Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI: Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI International will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.
  • Engineering for the Red Planet: Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades and is about to send its fifth robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian, general manager of robotics at Maxar, will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

That’s just a sample — take a gander at the event agenda to help you plan your time accordingly. We’ll add even more speakers in the coming weeks, so keep checking back.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley. It’s a full day focused on exploring the future of robotics and a great opportunity for students to connect with leading technologists, founders, researchers and investors. Join us in Berkeley. Buy your student ticket today and get ready to build the future.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Maxar is selling space robotics company MDA for around $765 million

By Darrell Etherington

Satellite industry giant Maxar is selling MDA, its subsidiary focused on space robotics, for $1 billion CAD (around $765.23 million USD), Reuter reports. The purchasing entity is a consortium of companies led by private investment firm Northern Private Capital, which will acquire the entirety of MDA’s Canadian operations, which is responsible for the development of the Canadarm and Canadarm2 robotic manipulators used on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, respectively.

Maxar’s goal in selling the business is to help alleviate some of its considerable debt, which stood at $3.1 billion as of this past September. The company was already known to be seeking potential buyers for MDA, so it’s not much of a surprise. MDA will continue to operate as its own company under the terms of the new ownership, which should mean that its current plans and contracts will continue.

MDA is working on a number of projects for various clients, including developing wildfire-monitoring satellites, navigation antennas for use on other company’s satellites and to develop Canadarm3, the next version of its robotic appendage, for use on the NASA Lunar Gateway that will be a research and staging station orbiting the Moon as part of the U.S. space agency’s Artemis mission series.

The four corners of the new space economy

By Devin Coldewey

It’s gotten to the point now where a handful of angel investors can put a space company on the map. But the same changes that have made the industry accessible have made it increasingly complex to track its trends. By default, all space startups are exciting, but companies vary widely in risk, capital intensity and maturity. Here’s what you need to know about the four main areas of the new space economy.

Launch: playground of billionaires and forward thinkers

Perhaps simply the most exciting industry to be a part of today, orbital launch service has gone from a government-funded niche dominated by a handful of primes to a vibrant, growing community serving insatiable demand.

There’s a good reason why it was dominated for so long by the likes of ULA, whose Delta rockets took up a huge majority of missions for decades. The barrier to entry for launch is huge.

As such there are three ways to enter the sector: brute force, stealth, and novelty.

Brute force is how SpaceX and Blue Origin have managed to accomplish what they have. With billions in investment from people who don’t actually care whether money is made in the short term (or with Bezos, even in the long term), they can perform the research and engineering necessary to make a full-scale launch platform. Few of these can ever really exist, and participation is limited when they do. Fortunately we all reap the benefits when billionaires compete for space superiority.

Stealth, perhaps better described as smart positioning, is where you’ll find Rocket Lab. This New Zealand-based company didn’t appear out of nowhere — look at its timeline and you’ll see scaled-down tests being conducted more than a decade ago. But what founder Peter Beck and his crew did was anticipate the market and work doggedly towards a specific solution.

Rocket Lab is focused on small payloads, delivered with short turnaround time. This avoids the trouble of competing against billionaires and decades-old space dynasties because, really, this market didn’t exist until very recently.

“Responsive space, or launch on demand, is going to be increasingly important,” Beck said. “All satellites are vulnerable, be it from natural, accidental, or deliberate actions. As we see the growth and aging of small sat constellations, the need for replenishment will increase, leading to demand for single spacecraft to unique orbits. The ability to deploy new satellites to precise orbits in a matter of hours, not months or years, is critical to government and commercial satellite operators alike.”

Rocket Lab’s tenth launch, nicknamed “Running Out of Fingers.”

Investing in Rocket Lab early on would have seemed unexciting as for year after year they made measured progress but took on no cargo and made no money. Patience is the primary virtue here. But investors with foresight are looking back now on the company’s many successful launches and bright future and marveling that they ever doubted it.

The third category of launch is novelty: entirely new launch techniques like SpinLaunch or Leo Aerospace. The term may not inspire confidence, and that’s deliberate. Companies taking this approach are high-risk, high-reward propositions that often need serious funding before they can even prove the basic physical possibility of their launch technique. That’s not an investment everyone is comfortable making.

On the other hand, these are companies that, should they prove viable, may upend and collect a significant portion of the new and growing launch market. Here patience is not so much required as extra diligence and outside expertise to help separate the wheat from the chaff. Something like SpinLaunch may sound outlandish at first, but the Saturn V rocket still seems outlandish now, decades after it was built. Leaving the confines of established methods is how we move forward — but investors should be careful they don’t end up just blasting their cash into orbit.

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