The US plans to reduce roadway deaths with smarter road design

The intersection of Interstates 10 and 610 in Houston, Texas, during evening rush hour.

Enlarge / The intersection of Interstates 10 and 610 in Houston, Texas, during evening rush hour. (credit: Getty Images)

Statistics help tell stories, and one often touted by technologists and engineers and police officers and even the federal government told a tale. The statistic: 94 percent of US traffic crashes are the result of human error. The number felt right. It also appealed to a very American idea: that individuals are in charge of their own destinies. Rather than place the burden of road safety on systems—the way roads are built, the way cars are designed, the way streets are governed—it placed it on the driver, or the walker, or the cyclist.

The statistic was based on a misunderstanding of a 2015 report from the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is in charge of US road safety. The report studied crashes between 2005 and 2007 and determined that the driver was the “critical reason” behind the vast majority of crashes. But a driver’s actions were typically the last in a long chain of events. The driver’s fiddly movement of the wheel, in other words, was the final thing to go wrong—a process that started with, perhaps, the surveying of the highway, or the road design laid out on the desk of an engineer, or the policy crafted by lobbyists decades ago that made it impossible for anyone to get across town without a car.

Earlier this month, after pleas from researchers, advocates, and another Biden administration official, the US DOT nixed that 94 percent statistic from its website. And on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg began to tell a very different story about US road deaths. “Human fallibility should not lead to human fatalities,” he said during a press conference in Washington, DC. His goal, he said, is zero road deaths.

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#cars, #department-of-transportation, #fha, #safety

Please stop adding more lanes to busy highways—it doesn’t help

The intersection of Interstates 10 and 610 in Houston, Texas, during evening rush hour.

Enlarge / The intersection of Interstates 10 and 610 in Houston, Texas, during evening rush hour. (credit: Getty Images)

You often hear people say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I bring this up because of an interesting—if infuriating—thread I read this morning about Texas’ plan to widen I-35 as it cuts through the heart of Austin.

Unsurprisingly, the state wants to build more lanes, which it thinks will ease congestion. At some points, this could leave I-35 as much as 20 lanes wide; this will require bulldozing dozens of businesses along the way. An alternative that would have buried 12 lanes of the highway in two levels of underground tunnels was apparently considered too costly.

But it would be wrong to single out this 8-mile proposal as an outlier. In Houston, the state plans to widen I-45 despite plenty of opposition, including from the Federal Highway Administration. And you don’t have to look far to see other state governments wanting to build new roads to reduce congestion.

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#atlanta, #austin, #cars, #chicago, #department-of-transportation, #georgia, #highway-planning, #houston, #i-270, #i-35, #i-45, #i-495, #illinois, #induced-demand, #maryland, #texas, #traffic

US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is coming to Disrupt

The myriad emerging and longer-term transportation technologies promise to change how people and packages move about the world or within their own neighborhoods. They also present myriad regulatory and policy hurdles that lawmakers, advocates and even investors and industry executives are attempting to navigate.

At the center — at least in the United States — sits Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The small-town mayor in Indiana turned presidential candidate and now cabinet member under the Biden administration oversees public transport, highway safety and nascent technologies like autonomous vehicles. The Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and former U.S. Navy officer is in a position to bring complexity or clarity to the future of transportation.

At Disrupt 2021, Secretary Buttigieg will join us for a fireside chat where we’ll dig into some of the thorniest questions around transportation and how to ensure that moving from Point A to Point B is a universal right, not a privilege. We’ll ask Buttigieg about micromobility and public transit, President Biden’s push for the federal government to use electric vehicles, autonomous vehicle guidance and new regulatory requirements around reporting vehicle crashes when an advanced driver assistance and automated driving system is engaged — a move that could spur a new wave of startups and benefit some in-car technologies.

The upshot: If it involves technology that moves people and packages, we aim to talk about it.

Secretary Buttigieg is just one of the many high-profile speakers who will be on our Disrupt Stage and the Extra Crunch Stage. During the three-day event, writer, director, actor and Houseplant co-founder Seth Rogen will be joined by Houseplant Chief Commercial Officer Haneen Davies and co-founder and CEO Michael Mohr to talk about the business of weed, Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn will discuss gamifying education and prepping for a public offering and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong will dig into the volatile world of cryptocurrency and his company’s massive direct listing earlier this year.

Other speakers include Twitter CISO Rinki Sethi, Calendly founder and CEO Tope Awotona, Mirror co-founder and CEO Brynn Putnam, Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson and Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Katie Haun.

Disrupt 2021 wouldn’t be complete without Startup Battlefield, the competition that launched some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Cloudflare and Dropbox. Join Secretary Buttigieg and over 10,000 of the startup world’s most influential people at Disrupt 2021 online this September 21-23Get your pass to attend now for under $99 for a limited time!

#automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #department-of-transportation, #electric-vehicles, #events, #pete-buttigieg, #tc-disrupt, #tc-disrupt-2021, #transportation

Lacuna raises $16 million in Series A to help cities manage mobility via digital twin

Lacuna Technologies, a startup that helps cities create and enforce transportation policies by building and managing open-source digital tools, has raised $16 million in a Series A round, bringing the company’s total investment to $33.5 million.

Since the startup was founded in 2018, Lacuna has invested in helping cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami build digital twins, or software models of real world cities – including all forms of mobility from delivery to rideshare to drones to regular traffic. City planners and transportation agencies can use these models to monitor the current environment and implement new regulations, as well as run simulations to provide a clearer picture of how certain policies could address congestion, pollution, accessibility and safety.

With the fresh cash, Lacuna CEO Hugh Martin says the company is focusing on expanding to new markets and building out the applications that can be placed on top of the digital twins, like adjusting freight or delivery curb parking rates to reflect demand or putting a cap on the number of drones allowed down a given street per day. That means first hiring new engineering teams to build digital twins and connect applications in order to help cities get revenue flowing.

“The federal government collects billions of dollars in gasoline taxes, which is largely used to fund departments of transportation at the federal, state and local levels, and that’s headed for zero,” Martin told TechCrunch. “What are we going to do? The gas tax has been a good proxy, but we need to find a new way to effectively monetize the public right of way, as well as get control of it. And I define the public right of way as not just 2D, but 3D. Where are the drones going to fly, where are the aerial taxis going to take off and land and how is the city going to communicate policy to those devices in real time?” 

While cities focus on real world public right of way, including all the street connections, speed limits and parking rules, Martin says new mobility companies like Uber or FedEx are building up digital models of cities and operating their businesses on top, and the city has no way of accessing them. 

“What would be super powerful is if instead of just having the physical world, the city has a digital copy of itself, with digital policies that could then be used by all operators,” said Martin.

Rather than using historical data to plan out cities, Martin says Lacuna’s services have a more operational focus. For example, Waze routes cars based on congestion using its own digital twin. This can cause hundreds of cars to go down a little side street when the highway is clogged up, which might annoy those who live there. If the city had a digital twin, it could assess the width of the street, whether it’s residential or commercial and the speed limit, and put a cap on the number of cars Waze can reroute down that street, thus preserving quality of life for those living on that street. 

“Our objective is to give cities the tools they need so that they can use their authority to make sure that the users of the public right away are compliant with whatever their policy is,” said Martin.

In Los Angeles, for example, Lacuna built a system to help LA manage its scooter fleets back in 2019.

“Venice Beach was a mess, there were scooters all over the boardwalk and the beach and being thrown in the water,” said Martin. “So we helped LA establish a geofence 200 feet off the boardwalk. LA gave scooter operators a two month grace period, but warned them if at the end of those two months, if riders cross that geofence, the city would start lowering the total number of units each operator could have on the streets.”

To ensure observance, the city council rewrote the regulatory language for getting a scooter permit, requiring operators to be compliant with the city’s mobility data specification program, meaning operators would have to transmit and receive information digitally.

“Now, it’s night and day,” he said. “The scooters are all lined up 200 feet away from the boardwalk. And what was amazing for the city is that it was just 15 lines of code. They didn’t have to put a bunch of officers out, put signs up, write tickets.”

This round was led by Xplorer Capital Management, and includes Playground Global, the company’s founding investor. Along with the funding news Lacuna is announcing the addition of Keith Nilsson, MP and co-founder of Xplorer, to the company’s board. 

 

#department-of-transportation, #funding, #hugh-martin, #lacuna-technologies, #recent-funding, #simulation, #startups, #transportation, #transportation-policy

Utah DOT pilots Blyncsy’s AI-powered road maintenance technology

If you drive past potholes and faded lane dividers on your morning commute to work, chances are you’ll continue to see such road blemishes until someone alerts the local department of transportation to the problem by filing a complaint. Utah-based startup Blyncsy wants to help governments be a bit more preemptive than that.

The movement and data intelligence company is launching an AI-powered technology, called Payver, that will use crowd-sourced video data to give transport agencies up-to-date information on which roads require maintenance and improvements. Blyncsy is offering this service to governments at a reduced cost and with no long-term commitment.

Utah’s DOT will be the first to pilot the program beginning June 1, deploying Payver in the Salt Lake County region, which covers more than 350 road miles. Blyncsy will be announcing other pilots in different states over the next few weeks. 

Governments are typically a bit slower to adopt new technologies, and while the U.S. DOT has spent more than $250 million in public and private funds for smart city and advanced transportation options, much of the progress tends to revolve around making public transit in cities greener and more efficient. Blyncsy founder and CEO Mark Pittman argues inefficient road maintenance is not only unsafe, but it also causes higher carbon emissions. 

“The inspiration for Payver came in 2017 when the UDOT executive director set a goal that it would be the first department in the country to have real-time situational awareness on our roadways, and we’ve been working on solving that problem for them,” Pittman told TechCrunch. “They want to know what’s happening and when it’s happening automatically so the public doesn’t have to be involved. So if there’s roadside debris or stop signs missing or paint lines that need to be fixed, how does the department know without the public having to call and complain or without an accident occurring?”

Blyncsy’s Payver technology works by collecting any kind of HD images and videos from a variety of sources, such as Nexar dash cameras, and analyzing the data sets with machine vision to deliver output to customers. The insights are available to transit agencies in a dashboard format, but Payver also integrates into the maintenance management software that determines a rank order of repair jobs.  

For the UDOT pilot, Payver will initially focus on monitoring paint lines, which is the basic requirement to support an autonomous environment, but may expand into potholes, construction barrels, knocked over signs and whatever else can go wrong from daily wear. UDOT has a budget of about $90,000 for this pilot, according to Rob Miles, UDOT’s director of traffic and safety.

“Right now, we do a lidar scan of our roadways every two years, so we’re always out there collecting data of some sort, but it’s not at a high enough fidelity that we can manage our striping off of it,” Miles told TechCrunch. “We’re still really managing striping off of public complaints. We’re hoping with a different data collection system that we can move from that complaint-based system to something that has less opinion and more measurable data behind it.”

Pittman said optimizing active mobility forms by helping predict repairs needed for pedestrian crossings or safe locations for bike lanes will be a priority for Payver as the technology advances, which is important for maintaining equity and inclusion in mobility. Payver can also help bridge the racial and socioeconomic gap in road conditions, says Pittman, helping DOTs deliver equitable services to the entire public.

“Pete Buttigieg recently talked about how transportation as it is has helped support systemic racism at times and pigeonhole communities because of the way we build roads often with lower income populations being closer to freeways,” he said. 

“The same thing is also true when you think about roadway maintenance. Lower-income populations are much less likely to complain and higher-income populations are a lot more likely to complain, but the impact of a pothole in a low-income population means a broken axle, which can determine the viability of that family surviving. That’s not true in a high-income environment.”

#artificial-intelligence, #blyncsy, #department-of-transportation, #road-maintenance, #tc, #transportation, #utah-dot

Startups have about $1 trillion worth of reasons to love the Biden infrastructure plan

The sweeping infrastructure package put forward today by President Joe Biden comes with a price tag of roughly $2 trillion (and hefty tax hikes) but gives startups and the broader tech industry about $1 trillion worth of reasons to support it.

Tech companies have spent the past decade or more developing innovations that can be applied to old-world industries like agriculture, construction, energy, education, manufacturing and transportation and logistics. These are industries where structural impediments to technology adoption have only recently been broken down by the advent of incredibly powerful mobile devices.

Now, these industries are at the heart of the President’s plan to build back better, and the hundreds of billions of dollars that are earmarked to make America great again will, either directly or indirectly, be a huge boost to a number of startups and large tech companies whose hardware and software services will enable much of the work the Biden administration wants done.

“The climate-oriented investment in Biden’s new plan would be roughly ten times what came through ARRA,” wrote Shayle Kann, a partner with the investment firm, Energy Impact Partners. “It would present a huge opportunity for a variety of climate tech sectors, ranging from clean electricity to carbon management to vehicle electrification.”

Much of this will look and feel like a Green New Deal, but sold under a package of infrastructure modernization and service upgrades that the country desperately needs.  Indeed, it’s hard to invest in infrastructure without supporting the kind of energy efficiency and renewable development plans that are at the core of the Green New Deal, since efficiency upgrades are just a part of the new way of building and making things.

Over $700 billion of the proposed budget will go to improving resiliency against natural disasters; upgrading critical water, power, and internet infrastructure; and rehabilitating and improving public housing, federal buildings, and aging commercial and residential real estate.

Additionally there’s another roughly $400 billion in spending earmarked for boosting domestic manufacturing of critical components like semiconductors; protecting against future pandemics; and creating regional innovation hubs to promote venture capital investment and startup development intended to “support the growth of entrepreneurship in communities of color and underserved communities.”

Climate resiliency 

Given the steady drumbeat of climate disasters that hit the U.S. over the course of 2020 (and their combined estimated price tag of nearly $100 billion), it’s not surprising that the Biden plan begins with a focus on resiliency.

The first big outlay of cash outlined in the Biden plan would call for $50 billion in financing to improve, protect and invest in underserved communities most at risk from climate disasters through programs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and new initiatives from the Department of Transportation. Most relevant to startups is the push to fund initiatives and technologies that can help prevent or protect against extreme wildfires; rising sea levels and hurricanes; new agriculture resource management; and “climate-smart” technologies.

As with most of Biden’s big infrastructure initiatives, there are startups tackling these issues. Companies like Cornea, Emergency Reporting, Zonehaven are trying to solve different facets of the fire problem; while flood prediction and weather monitoring startups are floating up their services too. Big data analytics, monitoring and sensing tools, and robotics are also becoming fixtures on the farm. For the President’s water efficiency and recycling programs, companies like Epic CleanTec, which has developed wastewater recycling technologies for residential and commercial buildings.

Fables of the reconstruction

Energy efficiency and building upgrades represent by far the biggest chunk of the Biden infrastructure package — totaling a whopping $400 billion of the spending package and all devoted to upgrading homes, offices, schools, veteran’s hospitals and federal buildings.

It gives extra credence to the thesis behind new climate-focused funds from Greensoil Proptech Ventures and Fifth Wall Ventures, which is raising a $200 million investment vehicle to focus on energy efficiency and climate tech solutions.

As Fifth Wall’s newest partner Greg Smithies noted last year, there’s a massive opportunity in building retrofits and startup technologies to improve efficiency.

“What excites me about this space is that there’s so much low-hanging fruit. And there’s $260 trillion worth of buildings,” Smithies said last year. “The vast majority of those are nowhere up to modern codes. We’re going to have a much bigger opportunity by focusing on some not-so-sexy stuff.”

Decarbonizing real estate can also make a huge difference in the fight against global climate change in addition to the its ability to improve quality of life and happiness for residents. “Real estate consumes 40% of all energy. The global economy happens indoors,” said Fifth Wall co-founder Brendan Wallace, in a statement. “Real estate will be the biggest spender on climate tech for no other reason than its contribution to the carbon problem.”

The Biden plan calls on Congress to enact new grant programs that award flexible funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate barriers to produce affordable housing. Part of that will include $40 billion to improve the infrastructure of the public housing in America.

It’s a project that startups like BlocPower are already deeply involved in supporting.

“Get the superhero masks and capes out. The Biden Harris Climate announcement is literally a plan to save the American economy and save the planet. This is Avengers Endgame in real life. We can’t undo the last five years… but we can make smart, massive investments in the climate infrastructure of the future,” wrote Donnel Baird, the chief executive and founder of BlocPower. “Committing to electrify 2 million American buildings, moving them entirely off of fossil fuels is exactly that — an investment in America leading theway towards creating a new industry creating American jobs that cannot be outsourced, and beginning to reduce the 30% of greenhouse gas emissiosn that come from buildings.”

As part of the package that directly impacts startups, there’s a proposal for a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to mobilize private investment, according to the White House. The focus will be on distributed energy resources, retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings; and clean transportation. A focus there will be on disadvantaged communities that haven’t had access to clean energy investments.

Financing the future startup nation

“From the invention of the semiconductor to the creation of the Internet, new engines of economic growth have emerged due to public investments that support research, commercialization, and strong supply chains,” the White House wrote. “President Biden is calling on Congress to make smart investments in research and development, manufacturing and regional economic development, and in workforce development to give our workers and companies the tools and training they need to compete on the global stage.”

To enable that, Biden is proposing another $480 billion in spending to boost research and development — including $50 billion for the National Science Foundation to focus on semiconductors and advanced communications technologies, energ technologies and biotechnology. Another $30 billion is designed to be targeted toward rural development; and finally the $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure.

There’s also an initiative to create ARPA-C, a climate focused Advanced Research Projects Agency modeled on the DARPA program that gave birth to the Internet. There’s $20 billion heading toward funding climate-focused research and demonstration projects for energy storage, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, advanced nuclear and rare earth  element separations, floating off shore wind, biofuel/bioproducts, quantum computing and electric vehicles.

The bulk of Biden’s efforts to pour money into manufacturing represents another $300 billion in potential government funding. That’s $30 billion tickets for biopreparedness and pandemic preparedness; another $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research; $46 billion for federal buying power for new advanced nuclear reactors and fuel, cars, ports, pumps and clean materials.

Included in all of this is an emphasis on developing economies fairly and equally across the country — that means $20 billion in regional innovation hubs and a Community Revitalization Fund, which is designed to support innovative, community-led redevelopment efforts and $52 billion in investing in domestic manufacturers — promoting rural manufacturing and clean energy.

Finally for startups there’s a $31 billion available for programs that give small businesses access to credit, venture capital, and R&D dollars. Specifically, the proposal calls for funding for community-based small business incubators and innovation hubs to support growth in communities of color and underserved communites.

Water and power infrastructure 

America’s C- grade infrastructure has problems extending across the length and breadth of the country. It encompasses everything from crumbling roads and bridges to a lack of clean drinking water, failing sewage systems, inadequate recycling facilities, and increasing demands on power generation, transmission and distribution assets that the nation’s electricity grid is unable to meet.

“Across the country, pipes and treatment plants are aging and polluted drinking water is endangering public health. An estimated six to ten million homes still receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines,” the White House wrote in a statement.

To address this issue, Biden’s calling for an infusion of $45 billion into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. While that kind of rip and replace project may not directly impact startups, another $66 billion earmarked for upgrades to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and monitoring and managing the presence of contaminants in water will be a huge boon for the vast array of water sensing and filtration startups that have flooded the market in the past decade or more (there’s even an entire incubator dedicated to just water technologies).

The sad fact is that water infrastructure in America has largely failed to keep up in large swaths of the country, necessitating this kind of massive capital infusion.

And what’s true for water is also true increasingly true for power. Outages cost the U.S. economy upwards of $70 billion per year, according to the White House. So when analysts compare those economic losses to a potential $100 billion outlay, the math should be clear. For startups that math equals dollar signs.

Calls to build a more resilient transmission system should be music to the ears of companies like Veir, which is developing a novel technology for improving capacity on transmission lines (a project that the Biden administration explicitly calls out in its plan).

The Biden plan also includes more than money, calling for the creation of a new Grid Deployment Authority within the Department of Energy to better leverage rights-of-way along roads and railways and will support financing tools to develop new high-voltage transmission lines, the White House said.

The administration doesn’t stop there. Energy storage and renewable technologies are going to get a boost through a clutch of tax credits designed to accelerate their deployment. That includes a ten-year extension and phase down of direct-pay investment tax credits and production tax credits. The plan aslo calls for clean energy block grants and calls for the government to purchase nothing but renewable energy all day for federal buildings.

Complimenting this push for clean power and storage will be a surge in funding for waste remediation and cleanup, which is getting a $21 billion boost under Biden.

Companies like Renewell Energy, or various non-profits that are trying to plug abandoned oil wells, can play a role here. There’s also the potential to recover other mineral deposits or reuse the wastewater that comes from these wells. And here, too, investors can find early stage businesses looking for an angle. Part of the money frm the Biden plan will aim to redevelop brownfields and turn them into more sustainable businesses.

That’s where some of the indoor agriculture companies, like Plenty, Bowery Farms, AppHarvest could find additional pots of money to turn unused factory and warehouse space into working farms. Idled factories could also be transformed into hubs for energy storage and community based power generation and distribution facilities, given their position on the grid.

“President Biden’s plan also will spur targeted sustainable, economic development efforts through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER grant program, Department of Energy retooling grants for idled factories (through the Section 132 program), and dedicated funding to support community-driven environmental justice efforts – such as capacity and project grants to address legacy pollution and the cumulative impacts experienced by frontline and fenceline communities,” the White House wrote.

Key to these redevelopment efforts will be the establishment of pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities. But if the Biden Administration wanted to, its departments could go a step further to support lower emission manufacturing technologies like the kind companies including Heliogen, which is using solar power to generate energy for a massive mining operation, or Boston Metal, which is partnering with BMW on developing a lower emission manufacturing process for steel production.

Critical to ensuring that this money gets spent is a $25 billion commitment to finance pre-development activities, that could help smaller project developers, as Rob Day writes in Forbes.

“As I’ve written about elsewhere, local project developers are key to getting sustainability projects built where they will actually do the most good — in the communities hit hardest by both local pollution and climate change impacts. These smaller project developers have lots of expenses they must pay just to get to the point where private-sector infrastructure construction investments can come in,” Day wrote. “Everyone in sustainability policy talks about supporting entrepreneurs, but in reality much of the support is aimed at technology innovators and not these smaller project developers who would be the ones to actually roll out those technology innovations. Infrastructure investors are typically much more reticent to provide capital before projects are construction-ready.”

Building a better Internet

“Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected,” the White House wrote. “Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access. And, in part because the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries, millions of Americans can’t use broadband internet even if the infrastructure exists where they live.”

The $100 billion that the Biden Administration is earmarking for broadband infrastructure includes goals to meet 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage and prioritizes support for networks owned, operated, or faffiliated with local governments, non-profits and cooperatives.

Attendant with the new cash is a shift in regulatory policy that would open up opportunities for municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing with prive providers and requiring internet providers to be more transparent about their pricing. This increased competition is good for hardware vendors and ultimately could create new businesses for entrepreneurs who want to become ISPs of their own.

Wander is one-such service providing high speed wireless internet in Los Angeles.

“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money,” the White House wrote.

 

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Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap an online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the non-profit’s medical center in Huntersville — where frontline healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: the capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo,  Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which has supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya,  South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from min-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

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Zipline begins US medical delivery with UAV program honed in Africa

Drones are being deployed in the fight to curb COVID-19 in the U.S.

Novant Health and California based UAV delivery startup Zipline have launched distribution of personal protective gear and medical equipment in North Carolina.

Novant is a non-profit healthcare provider with a network in the Southeastern United States.

Through the partnership, Zipline’s drones will make 32 mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis to the company’s medical center in Huntersville, North Carolina — where front line healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The program has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation — though the FAA offered TechCrunch nuanced guidance on how it classifies the undertaking.

This story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: the capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch and landing systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country.  Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

Zipline co-founder Keller Rinaudo (L) with Rwandan President Paul Kagame (Middle) in 2016

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19 related medication and lab samples.

Based on its Africa operations, Zipline was selected by regulators to participate in medical drone delivery testing in the U.S. in 2016, in coordination with the FAA.

The company’s Africa business also led to its pandemic response partnership with Novant Health. The North Carolina based company was in discussion with Zipline on UAV delivery before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., but the crisis spurred both parties to speed things up, according to Hank Capps, a Senior Vice President at Novant.

That included some improvisation. For its current launch site the operation is using space donated by a local NASCAR competition team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

According to Capps, the current collaboration using drones to deliver medical supplies from that site could grow beyond the 32 mile route Zipline and Novant began flights on last Friday.

“Right now we plan to expand it geographically within our footprint, which is fairly large within North Carolina, South Florida, and Virginia,” he told TechCrunch on a call.

That, of course, will depend on regulatory approval. The FAA granted Novant Health permission to operate the current program — which the FAA classifies as a distribution vs. delivery operation — through a 107 waiver. This rolls up into the evolving federal code on operation of unmanned aircraft in the U.S. and allows Novant and Zipline to operate “until Oct. 31, 2020, or until all COVID-related restrictions on travel, business and mass gatherings for North Carolina are lifted, whichever occurs first,” according to the FAA. The U.S. regulatory body also stipulated that “Part 107 is a waiver, not a drone licence.”

The FAA offered cautious confirmation that the Zipline, Novant partnership is the first approved long range unmanned delivery service in the United States.

“I am not aware of any that are flying routes as far as what they are doing in North Carolina, but I try to be careful when talking about firsts,” an FAA spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Last month UPS and CVS announced a shorter range drone delivery program of prescription drugs to a retirement village in Florida.

Image Credits: Novant Health

The arrangement between Zipline and Novant is not for financial gain — according to both parties — but still supports Zipline’s profitability thesis advanced by co-founder Keller Rinaudo.

“Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global industry, and it’s still only serving a golden billion on the planet,” he told me in a 2016 interview.

On a recent call, Rinaudo noted the startup is generating income on operations to serve that market, through the company doesn’t release financial data.

“At the distribution centers that have been operating for more than a year, Zipline is making money on the deliveries that we do,” he said.

Rinaudo pointed to the more favorable margins of autonomous delivery using small, electric powered UAVs versus large internal combustion vehicles.

“I think that these kinds of services are going to operate, much more profitably than traditional logistic services,” he said.

Zipline sold investors on that value proposition. The company has raised (a reported) $233 million in VC from backers including Andreeson Horowitz and Goldman Sachs. Zipline intends to expand its drone delivery business in the U.S. and anywhere in the world it finds demand, according to its CEO.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which has supported (and studied) the startup’s Africa operations back to 2016.

The Zipline, Novant launch of UAV delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. is a high-point for the thesis that Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has become a hotbed for VC and startups — can produce innovation with global application.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

Image Credits: HHP/Harold Hinson

For all the talk that COVID-19 may force an isolationist shift across countries, the Zipline, Novant Health partnership is very much a globally incubated solution — applied locally in the U.S. — to an international problem.

The program combines a medical drone delivery startup founded in San Francisco with a model tested in Africa to an American healthcare venture in North Carolina, with a little help from a NASCAR race team. This could reflect the unique application of tech and partnerships to come in the fight against COVID-19.

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