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Former Lime exec launches Cabana, a company that merges #vanlife and hotels

By Jonathan Shieber

Is it glamping on wheels? Hotel #vanlife?

It’s Cabana, a new startup from a former Lime executive that’s bringing tricked-out vans with all the amenities of a Holiday Inn hotel room to cities on the West Coast, starting in Seattle.

Because of Lime I spent 54 consecutive weeks on the road staying at hotels,” recalls Scott Kubly, the co-founder and chief executive of Cabana. “I got this bug that there needed to be a better way.”

So with the benefit of a few years of startup salary in the bank, Kubly launched Cabana. “The way I would describe it is vanlife meets car sharing meets a boutique hotel. It’s a hotel room packed into the back of a van.”

The vans come with showers, toilets, a slide out two-range stovetop that can serve as a kitchen and the freedom to hit the road after a customer crushes that last sales meeting, conference appearance, convention, or just needs to travel and experience the outdoors.

The vans cost $200 per-night plus tax to rent and there’s a fleet of several vans already available in Seattle. Booking a van is simple through the company’s app and everything is contactless — an important feature in the COVID-19 era.

[gallery ids="1995050,1995048,1995047"]

Kubly estimates there’s around $15 billion spent on travel that he thinks he can unlock with Cabana, and the company is definitely tapping into a small, but not insignificant trend of glamping, vanlife and luxury experiences that investors are already backing.

Companies like Tentrr, HipCamp and even Airbnb have gotten in on the vanlife movement, and Cabana’s founder definitely thinks he can ride the wave.

Cabana has already raised $3.5 million from investors, led by Craft Ventures — the investment firm founded by David Sacks. Other investors include Goldcrest Capital, Travis VanderZanden (the chief executive and founder of Bird), and Sunny Madra, vice president of Ford X at Ford Motor Company.

“Cabana gives people an ideal combination of freedom, comfort, and convenience,” said David Sacks, co-founder and general partner of Craft, in a statement. “Despite the societal upheaval of the last few months, the human desire to travel and explore remains unchanged. Why shelter in place when you can shelter in paradise?”

Sacks may be on to something. According to Kubly, the RV rental business has exploded and is up 650% year-on-year. “People are going a little stir crazy,” he said.

Back in 2019 when Kubly and his co-founder Jonathan Savage, a former nuclear engineer for the Navy and the bassist in the Red Not Chili Peppers (a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band), launched the company, they weren’t expecting to have to deal with running a hospitality business during a pandemic, but they’ve adapted.

Image credit: Cabana

Cabana’s fleet of vans are cleaned and then irradiated with UVC light (the same treatment the president suggested, wrongly, for people) and then left to stand for six-to-eight hours between rentals.

The hardest part of the business hasn’t been handling the vans or disinfecting them for customers concerned about the novel coronavirus, but the more mundane task of cleaning out the toilets.

“There is a toilet and a toilet tank,” said Kubly. “At the end of every trip we swap that out. Just like scooters have swappable batteries we have swappable toilet tanks. It is the big downside of the business.”

He should know. He spent the first six months that the company was in business cleaning out the tanks himself on the retrofitted van that he and Savage bought to test the business idea.

“Ideas that utilize existing infrastructure and satisfy a previously unseen or emerging consumer need are often the genesis of companies that can establish and lead a new industry,” said VanderZanden in a statement. “Cabana fits squarely within this theory and provides travelers a new way to experience and explore destinations that might not otherwise have been available to them while also avoiding carbon-emitting flights.” 

As fashion has its metaverse moment, one app looks to bridge real and virtual worlds for sneakerheads

By Jonathan Shieber

Fashion is having its moment in the metaverse.

A riot of luxury labels, music, and games are vying for attention in the virtual world. And as physical events and the entertainment industry that depends on them shuts down, virtual things have come to epitomize the popular culture of the pandemic.

It’s creating an environment where imagination and technical ability, not wealth, are the only barriers to accumulating the status symbols that only money and fame could buy.

Whether it’s famous designers like Marc Jacobs, Sandy Liang, or Valentino dropping styles in Nintendo’s breakout hit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons; HypeBae’s plans to host a fashion show later this month in the game; or various crossovers between Epic Games’ Fortnite and brands like Supreme (which pre-date the pandemic), fashion is tapping into gaming culture to maintain its relevance.

One entrepreneur who’s spent time on both sides of the business as a startup founder and an employee for one of the biggest brands in athletic wear has launched a new app to try build a bridge between the physical and virtual fashion worlds.

Its goal is to give hypebeasts a chance to collect virtual versions of their physical objects of desire and win points to maybe buy the gear they crave, while also providing a showcase where brands can discover new design talent to make the next generation of cult collaborations and launch careers.

Aglet’s Phase 1

The app, called Aglet, was created by Ryan Mullins, the former head of digital innovation strategy for Adidas, and it’s offering a way to collect virtual versions of limited edition sneakers and, eventually, design tools so all the would-be Virgil Ablohs and Kanye Wests of the world can make their own shoes for the metaverse.

When TechCrunch spoke with Mullins last month, he was still stuck in Germany. His plans for the company’s launch, along with his own planned relocation to Los Angeles, had changed dramatically since travel was put on hold and nations entered lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Initially, the app was intended to be a Pokemon Go for sneakerheads. Limited edition “drops” of virtual sneakers would happen at locations around a city and players could go to those spots and add the virtual sneakers to their collection. Players earned points for traveling to various spots, and those points could be redeemed for in-app purchases or discounts at stores.

We’re converting your physical activity into a virtual currency that you can spend in stores to buy new brands,” Mulins said. “Brands can have challenges and you have to complete two or three challenges in your city as you compete on that challenge the winner will get prizes.”

Aglet determines how many points a player earns based on the virtual shoes they choose to wear on their expeditions. The app offers a range of virtual sneakers from Air Force 1s to Yeezys and the more expensive or rare the shoe, the more points a player earns for “stepping out” in it. Over time, shoes will wear out and need to replaced — ideally driving more stickiness for the app.

Currency for in-app purchases can be bought for anywhere from $1 (for 5 “Aglets”) to $80 (for 1,000 “Aglets”). As players collect shoes they can display them on their in-app virtual shelves and potentially trade them with other players.

When the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders came through, Mullins and his designers quickly shifted to create the “pandemic mode” for the game, where users can go anywhere on a map and simulate the game.

“Our plan was to have an LA specific release and do a competition, but that was obviously thrown off,” Mullins said.

The app has antecedents like Nike’s SNKRS, which offered limited edition drops to users and geo-located places where folks could find shoes from its various collaborations, as Input noted when it covered Aglet’s April launch.

While Mullins’ vision for Aglet’s current incarnation is an interesting attempt to weave the threads of gaming and sneaker culture into a new kind of augmented reality-enabled shopping experience, there’s a step beyond the game universes that Mullins wants to create.

Image Credits: Adidas (opens in a new window)

The future of fashion discovery could be in the metaverse

“My proudest initiative [at Adidas] was one called MakerLab,” said Mullins.

MakerLab linked Adidas up with young, up-and-coming designers and let them create limited edition designs for the shoe company based on one of its classic shoe silhouettes. Mullins thinks that those types of collaborations point the way to a potential future for the industry that could be incredibly compelling.

“The real vision for me is that I believe that the next Nike is an inverted Nike,” Mullins said. “I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have young kids on Roblox designing stuff in the virtual environments and it’ll pop there and you’ll have Nike or Adidas manufacture it.”

From that perspective, the Aglet app is more of a Trojan Horse for the big idea that Mullins wants to pursue. That’s to create a design studio to showcase the best virtual designs and bring them to the real world.

Mullins calls it the “Smart Aglet Sneaker Studio”. “[It’s] where you can design your own sneakers in the standard design style and we’ll put those in the game. We’ll let you design your own hoodies and then [Aglet] does become a YouTube for fashion design.”

The YouTube example comes from the starmaking power the platform has enabled for everyone from makeup artists to musicians like Justin Bieber, who was discovered on the social media streaming service.

“I want to build a virtual design platform where kids can build their own brands for virtual fashion brands and put them into this game environment that I’m building in the first phase,” said Mullins. “Once Bieber was discovered, YouTube meant he was being able to access an entire infrastructure to become a star. What Nike and Adidas are doing is something similar where they’re finding this talent out there and giving that designer access to their infrastructure and maybe could jumpstart a young kid’s career.”

Despite COVID-19, optimism reigns in the Midwest’s startup scene

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Startups in the Midwest are optimistic despite the fact that a fair number of companies in the region are suffering from economic impacts stemming from COVID-19, recently collected data shows.

The global pandemic has shaken the U.S. economy, but it hasn’t affected each area in the same way. States have seen differing levels of infection, paces of response, qualities of medical infrastructure and so on. What happens to Silicon Valley startups in the COVID-19 era, therefore, might not be exactly the same as what happens to Boston’s or Utah’s startup ecosystems (more on Boston here, Utah here).

A report out this month from Sandalphon Capital that digs into the reality, reaction and sentiment of the Midwest’s startup scene paints an interesting picture. While data collected from 197 startup CEOs from the region includes worrisome responses regarding fundraising and cash runways, it also reflects more optimism and green shoots than we anticipated.

This morning, let’s study a few key data points from the Chicago-based, early stage venture capital firm’s survey to better understand one of America’s most interesting, if least-covered, startup scenes.

Chin up

The full survey — you can find Sandalphon’s summation and the link here — contains a wealth of data, but today we’re focusing on three things:

  • COVID-19’s direct impacts
  • runway and fundraising situations
  • CEO optimism

Impact

NWU researchers develop a throat-worn wearable that could offer early warnings for COVID-19 patients

By Darrell Etherington

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in big shifts across industries, but the development of more long-term solutions that address a future in which what we need to do is mitigate the impact of the new coronavirus seems like a worthwhile place to invest time and effort. Projects like a new one from Northwestern University researchers working with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago that resulted in a wearable to potentially provide early warnings to COVID-19 patients are a prime example of that kind of work.

The wearable is designed to be worn on the throat, and it’s already in use by around 25 individuals, who are providing early data about its effectiveness via at-home and in-clinic monitoring. The hardware involved monitors coughs and respiratory activity, and then feeds that into a set of algorithms developed by the research team that can identify what might be early symptoms of COVID-19, and potential signs that the infection is progressing in a dangerous way that could require more advanced care.

The gadget is designed to be worn around the clock, and provides a continuous data stream. This has the advantage of providing insight as it becomes available, instantly, instead of relying on regular check-ins, or waiting for when symptoms are clearly bad enough that someone needs additional help, at which point it’s usually past the stage of early intervention. The wearable essentially looks like a thin bandage the size of a postage stamp, and it can monitor not only cough sounds and frequency, but also chest movements, heart rate, body temperature and respiratory rate.

It’s tuned specifically to what health experts have generally tagged as the most common early symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, coughing and problem breathing. The “suprasternal notch,” which is the technical name for the site on the throat where the wearable rests, is “where airflow occurs near the surface of the skin” through the respiratory pathways of the body, according to Northwestern researcher John A. Rogers who led the device’s development team.

This hardware can potentially be useful in a number of ways: First, it’s a valuable tool for front-line healthcare workers, offering them what will hopefully be an early warning sign of any oncoming illness, so they can avoid infecting their colleagues and get the treatment they need as efficiently as possible. Second, it could be used by those already diagnosed with COVID-19, to potentially provide valuable insight into the course of the infection, and when it might be getting worse. Third, it could eventually also be used to tell scientists working on therapies what is working, how and how well, with live information from test subjects both in-clinic and at home.

The device is also relatively easy to produce, with the team saying they can do so at a rate of around hundreds per week, without even needing to lean very heavily on outside suppliers. That’s a considerable advantage for any hardware that might need to be leveraged in volume to address the crisis. Plus, people can wear it almost unnoticed, and it’s very easy to use both for clinicians and patients.

There are other projects in the works to see how devices that monitor biometrics, including the Oura ring, and the Kinsa thermometer, can help contain the epidemic. The researchers behind this wearable have spun up an engineering company called Sonica to manage their device’s development, and will now be working with various agencies (including through funding by BARDA) to deploy it in more places, and see about potentially productizing the wearable for wide-scale use.

A full-time VC & part-time ER doctor shares his thoughts on COVID-19

By Natasha Mascarenhas

An emergency room physician for the past 12 years, Dr. Robert Mittendorff joined Norwest Venture Partners eight years ago as a healthcare investor; the firm invests in a number of healthcare startups, including Talkspace, which raised a $50 million Series D last year, and TigerConnect.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, Mittendorff is spending his weekdays with portfolio companies and weekends working with Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. While he notes that his medical colleagues are “bearing the brunt” of the pandemic by working full time, we wanted to hear from someone who has a foot in both the investing and the healthcare world right now.

In this interview, he discusses what he’s learned from both roles, how it has influenced his healthcare investments, and offers his predictions regarding which companies will fare the best in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: How did you get to where you are today?

Dr. Robert Mittendorff: So, my journey to being a venture capitalist at Norwest and investing in healthcare companies as well as an emergency physician was really a parallel set of paths that overlapped and that cross every once in a while and now usually on a daily basis.

I started off life as a biomedical engineer really focused on wanting to be on the side of innovation and on the development of technologies to help human health. I knew early on that I wanted to be on the business side [of that], but it was important for me to understand and really be deeply in touch with what it was like to be a provider.

The journey started out going to engineering school, medical school, and then business school in the middle of medical school. I trained at Stanford, which really exposed me to county hospitals, which are probably going to be the more challenging situations as the weeks go on here, and then to Kaiser Permanente. And then, of course, Stanford, I was exposed to San Francisco General and then the Santa Clara Valley Hospital. I always practice part-time following up so it’s been 12 years as an attending, practicing part-time as an emergency physician.

In the venture space I saw an opportunity to really help select entrepreneurs and markets to grow them to a higher impact state.

Clever Care Health Plan launches with a holistic healing spin on Medicare Advantage programs

By Jonathan Shieber

Angling for a slice of the multi-billion dollar Medicare Advantage market with a pitch to integrate holistic medical practitioners into its network of service providers has netted Clever Care Health Plan some big backers and a huge market opportunity, the company says.

The company has raised $23 million in a new round of funding from investors led by Norwest Partners for its unique take on how to create a new network of healthcare providers for potential Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.

Several healthcare startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the Medicare Advantage opportunity. These include companies like Bright Health, Clover Health, Devoted Health, and Oscar, but, to-date, none have tried to put an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and holistic healing that chief operating officer Myong Lee and his co-founders settled on.

Joining Lee in the launch of Clever Care’s services are chief executive David Firdaus and chief financial officer Hiep Pham. The three have a long history of working together at other health plans. 

We’re looking to have a really unique supplemental benefit on the Eastern Medicine side,” said Lee of the company’s pitch.

Of course, there’s one hitch. Whether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will approve the treatments for coverage. ““All of this is predicated on CMS approval,” Lee acknowledged.

Already, CMS has identified some holistic medical treatments — notably acupuncture — as eligible for coverage, and Lee and his team are hoping that more approvals could be forthcoming. 

Lee said that the problem was particularly acute for California’s aging immigrant population, which does not necessarily feel comfortable accessing the current healthcare system. Often, these populations are comprised of people who don’t speak English very well and whose needs are going unmet by current providers.

Using his own parents as an example, he said, “There wasn’t anything from their perspective. Nothing that spoke to them from an Eastern Medicine perspective.”

As Norwest general partner Casper de Clerq noted, Medicare Advantage has grown to encompass roughly 35% of all Medicare recipients. “There are 64 million Medicare members and 22 million are on Medicare Advnatage,” de Clerq said. “As this market matures it’s going to become more and more specialized and more niche with different populations that are not properly served. This hyperlocal phenomenon will be more and more important.”

The company said it would use the capital to establish its California Medicare Advantage health plan and hire staff for its two offices in Little Saigon in Orange County and Arcadia in Los Angeles County. 

“Medicare spending was 15 percent of total federal spending in 2018 and is projected to nearly double due to the retirement of the Baby Boom Generation and the rapid growth of per capita healthcare costs,” said Sean Doolan, healthcare partner at Global Founders Capital, which joined the round alongside Norwest. “We are excited to partner with the Clever Care Health Plan team and fully believe in their bold vision to create a progressive and affordable Medicare Advantage plan that will dramatically expand access to high quality care for diverse communities.”

Polestar’s first all-electric vehicle will start at $59,900 in the US

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar, the electric performance brand spun out of Volvo, said the base price of its first all-electric vehicle will be $59,900 in the United States, lower than originally targeted.

The 2021 Polestar 2, an electric performance fastback, is the first EV to come out of a brand that was relaunched three years ago. Polestar, once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars, was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017. The aim was to produce exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since.

The company believes the vehicle is well-positioned for a successful entry into the U.S. market thanks to its lower pricing, tax incentives and the ability for customers to buy it online, said Gregor Hembrough, who heads up Polestar USA. The U.S. prices are also below incentive thresholds in a few critical markets such as California and New York.

Polestar has been trickling out announcements around the upcoming Polestar 2 for months now, including pricing for Europe, which starts at €58,800. On Thursday, the company revealed a few more pricing details for the various options customers can buy, including a $5,000 performance pack, a $4,000 upgrade of Nappa leather interior and $1,200 for 20-inch alloy wheels.

The Polestar 2 will likely be held up as a possible competitor to the Tesla Model 3. The pricing on the two vehicles don’t quite match up unless the $7,500 federal tax incentive, for which Polestar still qualifies, is considered. Tesla no longer qualifies for the federal tax credit because it has sold more than 200,000 electric vehicles.

Stripping out the incentives, the base price of the Polestar 2 is slightly more expensive than the performance version of the Model 3, which starts at $56,990.

Until the automaker begins delivery to the U.S., which is expected this summer, it won’t be clear how it stacks up against the Model 3.

Polestar is aiming to attract customers with tech and the performance specs of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP. Polestar hasn’t released the EPA estimates for the Polestar 2.

The interior of the Polestar 2, which features Google’s Android Automotive operating system.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, plans to open physical retail showrooms called Polestar Spaces once stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. The first of these locations will open on the West Coast of the United States and New
York in late summer 2020, the company said. The Polestar 2 will be available in all 50 states to buy or lease.

Impossible Foods rolls out to nearly 1,000 new grocery stores and supermarkets

By Jonathan Shieber

Starting tomorrow, 777 supermarkets in California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nevada will begin stocking the Impossible Foods plant-based meat substitute.

Fueling the increased distribution and a push to expand its product suite and geographic footprint domestically and internationally is a $500 million round of funding the company closed in March.

Some of that money is supporting the company’s debut at stores like Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, Pavilions, Safeway and Vons.

In all, the company said it would be in nearly 1,000 grocery stores by tomorrow. That includes all Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Gelson’s Markets in Southern California; all Safeway stores in Northern California and Nevada; Jewel-Osco stores in Chicago, eastern Iowa and northwest Indiana; Wegmans stores on the East Coast and Fairway markets in and around New York.

Since its debut in September, the company said it was the number one item sold at the locations it was available on the East and West coasts.

The company’s 12-ounce packages are sold for somewhere between $8.99 and $9.99 and it plans to soon introduce the Impossible Burger at even more stores nationwide.

“We’ve always planned on a dramatic surge in retail for 2020 — but with more and more Americans’ eating at home, we’ve received requests from retailers and consumers alike,” said Impossible Foods’ president Dennis Woodside, in a statement. “Our existing retail partners have achieved record sales of Impossible Burger in recent weeks, and we are moving as quickly as possible to expand with retailers nationwide.”

Even as the company announced its expansion, it made moves to assuage any consumer concerns over the processes in place at its manufacturing facilities.

Impossible Foods said it had instituted mandatory work from home policies for all of its employees who can telecommute; restricted visitors to its facilities and those operated by co-manufacturers; banned all work-related travel; and implemented new sanitizing and disinfection procedures at its workplaces.

“Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our employees, customers and consumers,” Woodside said. “And we recognize our responsibility for the welfare of our community, including the entire San Francisco Bay Area, our global supplier and customer network, millions of customers, and billions of people who are relying on food manufacturers to produce supplies in times of need.”

The company said it was proceeding with its research and development initiatives; accelerating the ramp of its production facilities; and moving to broadly commercialize its Impossible Sausage and Impossible Pork products.

Impossible Foods has raised $1.3 billion from investors, including Mirae Asset Global Investments, Khosla Ventures, Horizons Ventures and Temasek.

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Venture debt’s new reality: ‘The last thing we want is management walking away from a company’

By Connie Loizos

Maurice Werdegar is the longtime CEO of venture debt shop Western Technology Investment, one of the most active venture debt lenders in the U.S.

It’s also one of the older firms, having loaned out money for roughly 40 years to startups that needed to achieve certain milestones, reach profitability or wanted additional runway and didn’t necessarily want to raise a new round (especially if that next round might be at a lower valuation).

It’s a needed service and a boon for startups in good times. But when the market turns, debt can prove much trickier.

Indeed, though Werdergar understands founders well — he was once the CEO of a venture-backed restaurant chain that did really well, until they didn’t — he also has to make certain that when the market shifts, things don’t go south for WTI, as well. That can mean long, hard conversations with founders who need to renegotiate their debt payments.

Because COVID-19 is wreaking widespread economic havoc, we talked with Werdegar last week to learn what’s happening in his world and what WTI can do for clients who are now in a bind. Our chat has been edited for length.

TechCrunch: There are other venture debt players out there. How do you differ from your competitors?

Maurice Werdegar: One is we’re not publicly traded; we’re a private BDC [business development company], so we get our money from institutional investors, university endowments, nonprofits, sovereign wealth funds and groups like that. We’re a team that’s comprised primarily of former entrepreneurs; all of us have started and run our own businesses and work closely in the entrepreneurial environments. And we don’t use financial covenants, nor do we use subjective defaults.

Private tech companies mobilize to address shortages for medical supplies, masks and sanitizer

By Jonathan Shieber

Startups across the nation and around the world are looking for ways to relieve shortages of much-needed personal protective equipment and sanitizers used to halt the spread of COVID-19.

While some of the largest privately held technology companies, like SpaceX and Tesla, have shifted to manufacturing ventilators, smaller companies are also trying to pitch in and relieve scarcity locally.

Supplies have been difficult to come by in some of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the shortfalls have been made worse by a lack of coordination from the federal government. In some instances local governments have been bidding for supplies against each other and the federal government to acquire needed personal protective equipment.

On Sunday, New York’s governor Mario Cuomo pleaded with local governments to not engage in a bidding war. In fact, Kentucky was outbid by the Federal government for personal protective equipment.

“FEMA came out and bought it all out from under us,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear told a local newspaper. “It is a challenge that the federal government says, ‘States, you need to go and find your supply chain,’ and then the federal government ends up buying from that supply chain.”

Against this backdrop local startups and maker spaces are stepping up to do what they can to fill the gap.

Alcohol brands are turning their attention to making hand sanitizer to distribute in communities experiencing shortages. 3D printing companies are working on new ways to manufacture personal protective equipment and swabs for COVID-19 testing. And one fast fashion retail startup is teaching its tailors and seamstresses how to make cloth masks for consumer protection.

AirCo, a New York-based startup that developed a process to use captured carbon dioxide to make liquor, shifted its efforts to making hand sanitizer for donations in communities in New York City.

Now, new alcohol brands Bev and Endless West are joining the manufacturing push.

Endless West announced this morning that it would shift production away from its distillery to begin making hand sanitizers. The World Health Organization approved their sanitizers, which the company will produce in its warehouse in San Francisco.

The 2-ounce bottles will be donated to local restaurants and bars that remain open for delivery, so that employees can use them and distribute them to customers. Bulk quantities will be distributed to healthcare organizations and facilities that need them.

Endless West also put out a call for other companies to provide supplies to hospitals and health organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We felt it was imperative to do our part and dedicate what resources we have to assist with shortages in the healthcare and food & beverage industries who keep the engine running and provide such important functions in this time of immense need throughout the community.” said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West, in a statement.

Los Angeles-based Bev is no different.

“As an alcoholic beverage company, Bev is very lucky in that we are licensed to purchase ethanol directly from our suppliers, who are doing their part by discounting the product to anyone licensed to purchase it,” said Bev chief executive, Alix Peabody. “Community underscores everything we do here at Bev, and as such, we will be producing hand sanitizer and distributing it free of charge to the homeless and elderly communities here in Venice, populations who largely have insufficient access to healthcare and essential goods like sanitizer.”

Hand sanitizer is one sorely needed item in short supply, but there are others — including face masks, surgical masks, face shields, swabs and ventilator equipment that other startups are now switching gears to produce.

(Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

In Canada, INKSmith, a startup that was making design and tech tools accessible for kids, has now moved to making face shields and is hiring up to 100 new employees to meet demand.

“I think in the short term, we’re going to scale up to meet the needs of the province soon. After that, we’re going to meet the demands of Canada,” INKSmith CEO Jeremy Hedges told the Canadian news outlet Global News.

3D printing companies like Massachusetts-based Markforged and Formlabs are both making personal protective equipment like face shields, as well as nasal swabs to use for COVID-19 testing.

Markforged is pushing ahead with a number of efforts to focus some of the benefits of 3D printing on the immediate problem of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers most exposed to COVID-19.

“We have about 20 people working on this pretty much as much as they can,” said Markforged chief executive, Gregory Mark. “We break it up into three different programs. The first stage is prototyping validation and getting first pass to doctors. The second is clinical trials and the third is production. We are in clinical trials with two. One is the nasal swab and two is the face shield.”

The ability to spin up manufacturing more quickly than traditional production lines using 3D printing means that both companies are in some ways better positioned to address a thousandfold increase in demand for supplies that no one anticipated.

“3D printing is the fastest way to make anything in the world up to a certain number of days, weeks, months or years,” says Mark. “As soon as we get the green light from hospitals, 10,000 printers around the world can be printing face shields and nose swabs.”

FormLabs, which already has a robust business supplying custom-printed surgical-grade healthcare products, is pushing to bring its swabs to market quickly.

“Not only can we help in the development of the swabs, but we can manufacture them ourselves,” says FormLabs chief product officer, David Lakatos.

Swabs for testing are in short supply in part because there are only a few manufacturers in the world who made them — and one of those primary manufacturers is in Italy, which means supplies and staff are in short supply. “There’s a shortage of them and nobody was expecting that we would need to test millions of people in short order,” says Lakatos.

FormLabs is also working on another piece of personal protective equipment — looking at converting snorkeling masks into respirators and face masks. “Our goal is to make one that is reusable,” says Lakatos. “A patient can use it as a respirator and you can put it in an autoclave and reuse it.”

In Brooklyn, Voodoo Manufacturing has repurposed its 5,000 square foot facility to mass-produce personal protective equipment. The company has set up a website, CombatingCovid.com, where organizations in need of supplies can place orders. Voodoo aims to print at least 2,500 protective face shields weekly and can scale to larger production volumes based on demand, the company said.

STAMFORD, CT – MARCH 23: Nurse Hannah Sutherland, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) awaits new patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station at Cummings Park on March 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Availability of protective clothing for medical workers has become a major issue as COVID-19 cases surge throughout the United States. The Stamford site is run by Murphy Medical Associates. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Finally, Resonance, the fast fashion startup launched by the founder of FirstMark Capital, Lawrence Lenihan, is using its factory in the Dominican Republic to make face masks for consumers on the island and beyond.

“To contribute to the Dominican health efforts, Resonance is acting to utilize their resources to manufacture safety masks for distribution to local hospitals, nursing homes, and other high-risk facilities as quickly as possible. They have provided user-friendly instructions and material and will pay their sewers who can to make these masks from the security of their homes,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Resonance is currently working to share this downloadable platform and simple instructions to their website, so anyone in the world can contribute to their own local communities.”

All of these efforts — and countless others too numerous to mention — point to the ways small companies are hoping to do something to help their communities stay safe and healthy in the midst of this global outbreak.

But many of these extreme measures may not have been necessary had governments around the world actively coordinated their response and engaged in better preparation before the situation became so dire.

There are a litany of errors that governments made — and are still making — in their efforts to respond to the pandemic, even as the private sector steps in and steps up to address them.

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