LastPad is a reusable menstrual pad that does away with disposable towels

Direct to consumer online sales have helped a number of female-focused startups get products to market in recent years — often pitching better designed and generally more thoughtful feminine hygiene products than mainstream staples.

The lack of innovation in the mainstream market for feminine hygiene has certainly created a gap for startups to address. Examples in recent years include companies like Thinx (absorbent panties for menstruation) and Flex (a disc-shaped tampon alternative for wearing during sex). Or Daye — which makes CBD tampons for simultaneously treating period cramps.

Even so, there still hasn’t been a critical mass of product innovation in the category — to the point where alternatives can trickle down (no pun intended) and influence the trajectory of the mainstream market. The core products on shelves are, all too often, depressingly familiar — disposable pads and tampons — even if they may (sometimes) now be made of organic cotton or have some other mild design tweaks.

The most notable change to the available product mix is probably period pants — which have recently started to appear on mainstream shop shelves and seem to be selling well in markets like the UK, as the Guardian reported recently.

In the average drug store, the other non-disposable alternative you’ll most likely see is the menstrual cup. Which is not at all new — but has finally got traction beyond its original (very) niche community of users, which is another signal that consumers are more open to trying different solutions to deal with their monthly bleeding vs the same old throwaway wadding.

While free bleeding — an old movement which has also seen a bit of wider pick up in recent years — can also be seen, at least in part, as a protest against the poor quality of mainstream products for periods.

All of which makes this forthcoming product launch rather interesting: Meet LastPad, a reusable (rather than disposable) sanitary towel.

Image credits: LastPad

The first thing you’ll likely notice is that the pad is black in color — which certainly rings the changes vs the usual white stick-on fodder. The company behind LastPad says it worked with an unnamed “luxury lingerie manufacture” on look and feel — and, well, judging by the product shots alone it shows.

The bigger behind-the-scenes change is that it’s been designed for sustained, repeat usage. So each LastPad comes with its own fabric pouch (in a range of colors) for folding up and storing after use (and until you get a chance to pop it in the wash). The pad can also stay in its pouch for washing so there’s no need for additional handling until you’re getting it out of the washing machine to dry.

LastPad is the brainchild of Danish designer and entrepreneur Isabel Aagaard whose company, LastObject, has — for the past three years — been taking aim at the wastefulness of single use hygiene and beauty products, designing reusable alternatives for what are unlovely but practical items — like Q-Tips and tissues*.

In total, LastObject has sold around 1.5M products so far — across its existing range of beauty, hygiene and travel-focused items. But LastPad marks its first push into a really female-focused product category.

A reusable (washable) sanitary pad is clearly a big step up on the design challenge front vs making reusable (silicone) Q-Tips or (cotton) tissues or makeup rounds — because of the complexity involved with designing a wearable, intimate hygiene product that can handle the variable and often messy nature of periods, and keep doing so, use after use.

It needs to be both comfortable and reliable — as so many disposable pads actually aren’t.

So it’s not too surprising that, per Aagaard, the company has been working on designing and prototyping LastPad for two years. Now they’re finally ready to bring it to market — launching the LastPad on Kickstarter today — with a goal of shipping to early backers next February.

“We’re seeing amazing conversions [for the LastPad pre-campaign],” she says, discussing how much demand they’re expecting. “This is our sixth [crowdfunder] campaign — and it’s looking really good. So I think the demand is bigger than I actually imagined. Because this is also the first product that is only women. And we were very much in doubt that we should put it on Kickstarter because it’s a very male-dominated platform but it’s looking really positive.”

“We already started working on this two years ago so it’s really been a process. And also because we wanted it to be really innovative. Because right now you can see on the market there’ll be pads that are more like home sewn or do it yourself — and we wanted to really make an exclusive, very, very innovative version of that — that has a lot of the benefits that the single use version has.”

Image credits: LastPad

Each LastPad is made up of three layers: A woven top to help keep the pad feeling dry against the skin by quickly funnelling menstrual fluids down into — layer two — a central absorbent section (made of bamboo) — which sits above a TPU base to ensure no risk of leaks.

“The first layer is a woven material that is really, really fine — it has a little bit of silver in it so that the odours will disappear. It’s also woven with small funnels so that the blood disappears very quickly into the middle layer — because it’s so important that you’re not like wet. Because that’s awful. So it dries quite quickly when you’re wearing it,” explains Aagaard. “And then the middle layer is 100% bamboo — it’s absorbent like crazy; 40% more absorbent than, for example, cotton. And it also has anti-bacterial properties. And then the bottom layer is a TPU [Thermoplastic Polyurethane] — which is just a leak proof cover; it’s comfortable, it’s not like a plastic bag but it does make sure that you cannot bleed through it.”

While disposable sanitary towels rely on an adhesive layer to enable the consumer fix the pad to their panties, LastPad has to do that a bit differently too given it’ll be going through the wash. So the pads have wings — which wrap around the gusset of the panties and fix together underneath with a (soft) velcro fastening.

That’s not all: There’s a (sticky) silicone strip running around the back side of the pad which helps prevent it from moving around — and, per Aagaard, will happily survive repeat washing (in fact if it’s not used for a time, she says dust may temporarily reduce the stickiness — but says that immediately resolves just by wetting it again).

“Where I felt that we really made a huge difference is that on the back side of the pad — it has wings [with] a velcro [fastener] that’s completely soft and you don’t feel it; even if you’re biking — that was like the big test — and then it has a silicone strip in the back and at the bottom, like a sticky silicone… so it doesn’t move around in your pants.”

Practically speaking, it won’t be possible for a LastPad user to use just one LastPad to see them through their period — given the need to wash and dry them between uses. So a pack of several reusable pads will be necessary to entirely replace disposable pads and ensure there’s always a clean towel available to swap out the used pad.

But LastObject’s idea is, much like you own several pairs of socks and briefs, you’ll have a set of LastPads to see you through until after laundry day.

The product comes in three different sizes and thicknesses to cater to different flow levels, too. So the consumer may end up owning a range of reusable LastPads — from a panty liner option to a day flow and heavier duty night pads.

Image credits: LastPad

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought it was going to be — but that’s also because you have to understand the viscoses of blood, for example, compared to water,” Aagaard tells TechCrunch. “And also a flow — it’s not just blood. There’s a lot of other stuff that come out. So it’s taking all of these things into consideration.”

“We’ve been testing it for so long,” she goes on. “That was our main thing with this product. A lot of the other [LastObject products] were very much about printing it, looking at it. Using it of course — but it took us long before we had it in actually a silicone form. Because that is also expensive. Whereas [LastPad] we could sew quite quickly just here at the office and [test it]… So we’ve just been testing it constantly — how’s the feeling? Getting it out to a lot of different women that wear different panties that have different cycles. So it’s really been about testing.”

Pricing for LastPad will be around $60 for three pads — so around $20 per pad. Which is obviously a lot more expensive than the per unit cost of disposable towels. But LastObject says it will offer packs so if a consumer buys more pads it should shrink the per pad cost a little.

Aagaard says the product has been tested to withstand at least 240 washes — which she suggests will mean it’s able to last at least a couple of years, saving likely hundreds of disposable pads from being consumed in its stead.

Although it’s maybe less likely to save consumers money — depending on which disposable pads you’d buy and how many you’d used per cycle (basic disposable pads can cost as little as ~20c each) — as LastObject recommends owning nine of its LastPads which could cost around $80 or more). But the target user is evidently someone with enough disposable income to be able to pay a premium for an eco alternative.

Given the price-point, it does also look more expensive than the menstrual cup — an existing and highly practical alternative to disposable menstrual products — which can cost around $30 (for one reusable cup; and you can get away with owning just one) and, typically, a cup will also last for years as it’s made of silicone.

However the menstrual cup won’t suit every woman — and does require access to clean water to rinse and sanitize — so having more non-disposable alternatives for periods is great.

Aagaard says she’s a fan of the menstrual cup but suggests LastPad can still be useful for its users as a back-up to catch any leaks and/or provide an added layer of reassurance.

While, with period pants, she says the issue she finds unpleasant is the feeling of wetness when wearing them.

On LastPad’s environmental credentials, the washing process required to keep reusing the pad does obviously require some resources (water, soap etc) but — as is the case with other LastObject products — the company’s claim is that it’s still substantially greener to wash and reuse its non-disposable products vs consuming and binning single use items that have to be continually produced and shipped out (generating ongoing CO2). Such products can also pollute the environment after they’ve been thrown away — and plastic waste is of course a huge global problem (including from thrown away sanitary products).

LastObject will be publishing a third party LCA (lifecycle assessment) for LastPad to back up its eco claims for the reusable product — comparing it to using disposable sanitary pads. But Aagaard is confident it will be substantially better when compared against most disposable alternatives.

“You’ll be putting a wash on anyway; [LastPads] don’t take up that much space; you’re not going to wash them just them; it is with your other laundry; and if you wash them at a cold wash I think that the LCA report will look really good,” she suggests when we ask about the eco credentials.

“We’re doing this with all our products where we’re taking them through a third party who’s testing everything and putting them up against [alternatives] and having these considerations with CO2, with water, with chemicals — with the whole pack… So we’ll be doing that more specifically; right now… the alternative of a [disposable] pad — they are so differently produced. It’s crazy. So I could say the worst [for comparative purposes] or I could say the best — and ours is about 12x better than that.”

“When we got the LCA report for the LastTissue and LastSwab they were so much better than I have imagined,” she adds.

From this year the European Union has started banning the sale of some single use plastic items (such as Q-tips and disposable cutlery) as reducing plastic waste is one of the goals for regional lawmakers. And — globally — regulators are increasingly looking for quick wins to shrink the environmental impact of the fast moving consumer goods market’s long standing love affair with plastic.

But some disposable product categories are simply more essential than others — which makes it hard for lawmakers to just ban plenty of wasteful, polluting products. So developing innovative, reusable alternatives is one way to help lighten the usage load.

“The most sustainable pad that you can ever have is actually the one that you don’t produce but that would just be free bleeding — and I think that 99% of women are not ready for that,” adds Aagaard. “So can we make some solutions on some of the things that we actually have to take care of?”

While LastObject is sticking with Kickstarter to get LastPad to market, Aagaard confirms that once they see how much early adopter demand it’s getting they plan to produce enough to also sell via some of the other outlets where they currently sell their products — such as ecommerce sites like Amazon and of course their own web shop.

So far, the US has been the main market for LastObject’s reusable wares, per Aagaard — which she attributes to mostly using Kickstarter to build a community of users. But she adds that the company is starting to see more traction in Europe as it’s increased the number of regional distributors it works with.

So what’s next for the company after LastPad? The product direction they’ll take is an active discussion, she says.

“We can keep going the beauty way, we can go more personal care but we have to also [not] go in too many directions. I personally have a lot of fun things I want to do in the bathroom still, because I feel like it’s a space where not a lot of designers have actually really been investigating some of the products that we’re using. Both in beauty but also in personal care. Like in the floss and toothbrush but also in diapers and wipes and all of that. So I think that there’s some innovation that could be really fun. But… this one took two years and I’m so happy about the result and I couldn’t have spent two months less on it. Then we wouldn’t have had the solutions that we’ve gotten to. So that feels very important.”

Image credits: LastPad

*Washable tissues are also of course not new. Indeed, Wikipedia credits the invention of pocket squares to wipe the nose to King Richard II of England who reigned in the 14th century. But the traditional (fabric) handkerchief — which was used, laundered and reused — became yet another casualty of the switch to single-use, disposable, cheap consumer goods that’s since been shown to have such high environmental costs. So perhaps reversing this damaging default will bring more ‘historical product innovation’ back into fashion as societies look to apply a modern ‘circular economy’ lens

 

#europe, #femtech, #greentech, #hygiene, #kickstarter, #lastobject, #lastpad, #menstrual-cup, #menstruation, #sanitary-pad, #tampon, #tc, #thinx

Extra Crunch roundup: Influencer marketing, China’s tech clampdown, drafting growth teams

Before you hire a marketing consultant who doesn’t understand your products or commit to a CMO who has several years of experience — but none in your sector — consider influencer marketing.

If the phrase evokes images of celebrities hawking hard seltzer, think again: An influencer can be as humble as an enthusiastic Reddit user who manages your Telegram channel.

According to Uber growth marketing manager Jonathan Martinez:

“ … You don’t need to find influencers with millions of followers. Instead, lean toward microinfluencers for testing, which will bring cost efficiency and the ability to sponsor a diverse range of people.”

If your startup has a clear brand pitch, “an enticing offer” and “clear next steps,” you’re ready to reach out to influencers, he says.

In a guest post, Martinez explains how to structure offers that will maximize conversions and keep your representatives motivated to promote your products and services.


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An illustration of Julian Shapiro

Image Credits: Julian Shapiro

This morning, we published an interview with growth expert Julian Shapiro, a founder and angel investor who also advises startups on the best way to present themselves.

Marketing is data-driven, but good storytelling is an art, says Shapiro.

To connect with consumers on an emotional level, “you need a mix of goodwill, what-we-stand-for ideology, social prestige and customer delight — among other affinity-building ingredients.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week!

Walter Thompson

Senior Editor, TechCrunch

@yourprotagonist

Everyone wants to fund the next Coinbase

“In celebration of Coinbase’s earnings report today, investors poured a mountain of cash into one of the company’s global competitors,” Alex Wilhelm writes in The Exchange.

Rolling up his sleeves, he dug into numbers from Coinbase, FalconX and FTX to give readers some perspective on the state of cryptocurrency exchanges.

How to hire and structure a growth team

colorful blocks with people icons over wooden table

Image Credits: tomertu (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Companies that have reached $5 million to $10 million in annual revenue are more likely to assemble growth teams; it’s a smart investment for any startup that’s achieved product-market fit.

It can also be potentially disruptive: Early marketing and product managers may feel sidelined by new cross-functional teams that suddenly take a leadership role.

In a detailed walkthrough, senior director of growth at OpenView Sam Richard explains the core players needed to build a growth team and how to integrate them into the organization smoothly, and shares some useful experiments to run.

“Don’t expect a single hire to scratch the growth itch for you,” Richard warns.

“A brilliant hire is going to come up with ideas, but will absolutely need a team to support them, turn them into experiments and then make them a reality.”

Indiegogo’s CEO on how crowdfunding navigated the pandemic

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

In an interview with Brian Heater, Indiegogo CEO Andy Yang spoke about how the pandemic has impacted the crowdfunding platform, the challenges of stepping into the role after the previous CEO departed, and how the company reached profitability.

The company wasn’t profitable when you joined?

We weren’t profitable. I joined and then we cut to profitability, or at least kind of a neutral state, and with any kind of change in leadership, some tenured folks opted out, and we basically became a new team overnight to kind of re-found the company, and we’ve been slowly adding people over the last couple years, but always with that eye on profitability and controlling our own destiny.

Kickstarter’s CEO on the future of crowdfunding

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Last week, Kickstarter announced that people have backed more than 200,000 projects with $6 billion in pledges since the company launched in 2009. Just 15 months ago, it crossed the $5 billion threshold.

Brian Heater spoke to CEO Aziz Hasan, who took over in 2019, about last year’s substantial of layoffs, the pandemic’s long-term impact on crowdfunding, and how he’s working to build a more resilient company:

I think for us some of the most important things are to really just understand how we’re operating the business, making sure that we are sufficient in the buffer that we have for the business to make sure that we’re operating in a way that we can feel confident that the team is going to have some stability, that they’re going to have this resilience.

Craft your pitch deck around ‘that one thing that can really hook an investor’

We frequently run articles with advice for founders who are working on pitch decks. It’s a fundamental step in every startup’s journey, and there are myriad ways to approach the task.

Michelle Davey of telehealth staffing and services company Wheel and Jordan Nof of Tusk Venture Partners appeared on Extra Crunch Live recently to analyze Wheel’s Series A pitch.

Nof said entrepreneurs should candidly explain to potential investors what they’ll need to believe to back their startup.

” … It takes a lot of guesswork out of the equation for the investor and it reorients them to focus on the right problem set that you’re solving,” he said.

“You get this one shot to kind of influence what they think they need to believe to get an investment here … if you don’t do that … we could get pretty off base.”

Online retailers: Stop trying to beat Amazon

Image of a shop owner taking a photograph of a pair of shoes before mailing to represent how small businesses can compete with Amazon.

Image Credits: TravelCouples (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Going up against global e-commerce behemoth Amazon might seem futile, but smaller players can leverage value adds that give them a leg up when it comes to ensuring a loyal customer base, says Kenny Small, vice president SAP and Enterprise at Qualitest Group.

“The reality is that Amazon’s true unique selling proposition is its distribution network,” he writes in a guest post. “Online retailers will not be able to compete on this point because Amazon’s distribution network is so fast.

“Instead, it’s important to focus on areas where they can excel — without having to become a third-party seller on Amazon’s platform.”

The China tech crackdown continues

Edtech and fintech have been in the Chinese Communist Party crosshairs in recent weeks — now, chat apps and gaming are among the targets.

Beijing filed a civil suit against Tencent over claims that its WeChat Youth Mode flouts laws protecting minors, and state media criticized the gaming industry as the digital equivalent of passing out drugs to kids, Alex Wilhelm writes in The Exchange.

He writes that the “news appears to indicate that we should expect more of the same as we’ve seen in recent months from the Chinese government: More complaints about the impact of ‘excessive’ capital in its industries, more tumbling share prices and more held IPOs.”

5 ways AI can help mitigate the global shipping crisis

Robot arm holding a cardboard box

Image Credits: Yuichiro Chino (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In an increasingly on-demand world, shipping delays and disruptions are a major roadblock to customer happiness.

AI can help, says Ahmer Inam, chief artificial intelligence officer at Pactera EDGE, who offers five strategies for using AI that can help startups understand supply chain disruptions and prepare for a Plan B.

“While AI won’t protect startups, manufacturers and retailers from these types of disruptions in the future, it can help them sense, anticipate, reroute and respond to them more effectively.”

#amazon, #artificial-intelligence, #coinbase, #crowdfunding, #ec-roundup, #extra-crunch-roundup, #indiegogo, #influencer-marketing, #kickstarter, #startups, #tc, #uber

Indiegogo’s CEO on how crowdfunding navigated the pandemic

Andy Yang joined Indiegogo at a turbulent time. As the crowdfunding platform’s then-CEO stepped aside for personal reasons, the service also reportedly grappled with layoffs. Coming on board after a stretch with Reddit, the new CEO would have less than a year at the helm before COVID-19 turned the globe upside down.

Now 13 years old, the San Francisco-based site matured alongside the world of online crowdfunding. And, certainly, Indiegogo had a front-row seat for all of the ups and downs. Indiegogo introduced several million-dollar campaigns, but the platform has often suffered from comparisons to Kickstarter, a service that has become synonymous with the category for many.

Yang sat down to discuss how Indiegogo has changed under his tenure, how crowdfunding has evolved and what both will look like in a post-pandemic world.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What was your primary objective coming on as CEO?

I was at Reddit doing core product, and when Indiegogo’s board and founders reached out, it was really around, “Hey, we would love somebody with product experience, a background in community.” What was going on in Indiegogo was really an evaluation of, “What’s our core values?” When I took the saddle and the reigns, it was really focusing on that core of who we are, what segments do we want to go after, and where do we want to focus. Where do we want to focus our product?

“We’ve had our number of failures on our site, of campaigns that haven’t fulfilled or just, the campaigns have ghosted their backers, and we own up to that.”

From that perspective, we’ve been really heads-down for the last two years, just working on ourselves, internally, and focusing on the core — what we’re terming “bringing the crowd back in crowdfunding.” I think a lot of the platforms have been very transactional in nature, and so I think backers and consumers and users have been trained by Amazon to click a button and get things two hours later. The premise of crowdfunding is very different.

You may or may not get this perk delivered in the time frame that you’re expecting, and to help educate backers and the community around that is really core to who we are. We’ve been through the last two years with COVID, but we’ve been profitable since I’ve joined, which is huge. We can control our own destiny and really take the time to do things right and invest in areas like trust and safety, like community, that we really wanted to.

The company wasn’t profitable when you joined?

We weren’t profitable. I enjoyed and then we cut to profitability, or at least kind of a neutral state, and with any kind of change in leadership, some tenured folks opted out, and we basically became a new team overnight to kind of re-found the company, and we’ve been slowly adding people over the last couple years, but always with that eye on profitability and controlling our own destiny.

Beyond people changing roles, what had to happen in order for the company to become profitable?

Really doubling down on making sure that we understood our sales pipeline and making sure that, from a supply perspective, that we had a number of campaigns from across a number of categories. Obviously, our bread and butter is what we call tech and innovation, consumer electronics hardware, but also seeing what other categories that we can lean into. We’re definitely strong in comics, travel, outdoors, and what can we do from expanding our wedge and our categories in different areas that we’re seeing growth. I think a trend that we’re currently seeing is a lot of green tech. Just trying to understand what categories are growing, where our brand resonates with entrepreneurs and backers.

That’s what needed to happen — just making sure that we had adequate supply on the platform, and also just from the backer side, we had not traditionally focused on the backer side. We had heavily focused on the supply side, but really starting to, again, return back to the crowd in crowdfunding, leaning on my Reddit experience, just making sure that we can engage the community in new and interesting ways.

#andy-yang, #apps, #covid-19, #crowdfunding, #ec-consumer-applications, #funding, #indiegogo, #kickstarter, #tc

Kickstarter’s CEO on the future of crowdfunding

Kickstarter announced on Wednesday that backers have pledged $6 billion to more than 200,000 projects over the course of the crowdfunding site’s history. The milestone comes a little over a year after the platform hit the $5 billion mark.

A matter of weeks before the company hit that last massive round number, however, it revealed starker news. Kickstarter reduced its staff by 39%, through a combination of layoffs and buyouts, as newly minted CEO Aziz Hasan noted a 35% drop in new projects. The company wasn’t alone, certainly, in suffering major setbacks in the face of a pandemic, but that likely didn’t cushion the blow of a downturn with “no clear sign of rebound,” according to the executive.

With another $1 billion pledge in the intervening 15 months, however, it’s probably safe to say that predictions of crowdfunding’s demise were somewhat premature. Like most of the rest of us, the pandemic has spurred a reprioritization and recentering, and the service that has long been synonymous with the category looked to new methods of engagement.

After a dozen years of being the face of crowdfunding, plenty of question marks still remain. The past decade has seen something of a hype bubble for the process, and for some, the shine has worn off a bit, courtesy of undelivered gifts and unfinished campaigns. What will the next decade hold for crowdfunding’s biggest name? And will the pandemic fundamentally transform how people back projects on the internet?

We sat down with Hasan to discuss the past year, the company’s big milestone and the future of crowdfunding.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

When you took the role of CEO in 2019, what changes did you feel like you needed to implement?

I’d really like to touch on the connection that I’ve always felt with Kickstarter. It, for me personally, is a place where I feel like both my personal passion and what we do on a day-to-day basis came together really well. At one of the first all-hands when I got hired, I said what’s beautiful about the job that I get to do is that every evening I go home and I illustrate. And so I get to feel the hard pain, a lot of the insecurity and the uncertainty that comes with being a creator.

“I see crowdfunding as probably one of the best mechanisms to go independently and create the thing that you want and to find the support that you need and the resources that you need.”

I come in every morning and I say, “OK, how am I going to fix that? What can I do to make that process better, make that easier?” And so that for me was just this underlying motivation. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning. The thought to me was, “What are the ways in which we have the greatest strength in helping creators find the funding that they need?”

I think one of the greatest opportunities that I really see is that the backers are such an incredible part of this puzzle, and for us, for the longest time we really focused on the creator tools and really making sure that the creators have a way to share their project. What we’ve seen is that backers are such a tremendous part of this process and their ability to discover the joy, the fun, the curiosity that they feel through that process is such an important part of the experience as well. And so here’s a place where we can actually put some focus and some time and attention on what the backer experience looks like. And so that really has been a big mantra for me as we’ve been moving forward.

What does it mean to impact the backer experience? In the past two years, how has the backer experience changed?

One is just making it simpler and easier for backers to find projects that they would care about. And I think us being just a space where this stuff exists, I think just putting it out there as it is on a home page or through the creator that you know isn’t enough. And so there are a lot of channels that we’ve been using, particularly thinking about our emails and newsletters and these points of connection that we have with the backer over the course of their journey and actually introducing projects that they might like through that process. So we have a recommendation engine that we’ve been developing over the last few years that’s meant to help connect, make better connections based on either affinity, which you might like, or the way that you backed in the past or projects that you might’ve watched.

Early last year, Kickstarter went through a fairly large round of layoffs — 40%, according to reports. How did the company navigate the earliest days of the pandemic and what do you feel you’ve done to help right that ship?

What we saw in our platform was that creators just kind of off the bat had the same level of uncertainty everybody else was feeling. We saw a slowdown of projects and what we saw was about 40% of our pledge volume dipping. And as a result, there’s a lot of projects that fell off as a result of that. There were some very, very concerning times. The big thing that we thought about was, we need to make sure that our business is resilient for the future, make sure that we’re actually just set up operationally in a way that we can withstand uncertainty as it comes. Through that really tough time and then, kind of peeking out toward the end of 2020, the backers didn’t change their pattern of behavior. Even though creators were launching fewer projects during that really difficult time, what we saw was that the backers remained extremely eager to keep pushing forward and supporting creative work.

So things like our pledge rates and success rates remained quite high and that’s especially if you think about the games community, comics, publishing a number of these spaces where we’ve always seen strong engagement. That engagement actually continued through. About four or five months after that initial dip, we slowly started to see some of the creators come back online, because I think they also started to recognize that the backers are there. They haven’t changed their backing patterns. And so what that did for us is that started to give us a bit of understanding here that we should start to connect back to the creators and let them know that the backers are here.

#apps, #aziz-hasan, #crowdfunding, #ec-consumer-applications, #funding, #kickstarter, #tc

Extra Crunch roundup: RapidSOS EC-1, how to prep for an M&A exit, inside Genki Forest

According to one estimate, Americans call 911 about 240 million times every year.

Sending emergency services to the right location sounds straightforward, but each 911 call is routed through one of thousands of call centers known as public safety answering points (PSAPs).

“Every 911 center is very different and they are as diverse and unique as the communities that they serve,” said Karin Marquez, senior director of public safety at RapidSOS.

One PSAP that serves New York City is a 450,000-square-foot, blast-resistant cube set on nine acres, but you also have “agencies in rural America that have one person working 24/7 and they’re there to answer three calls a day,” Marquez noted.

Founded eight years ago, RapidSOS processes more than 150 million emergencies each year across approximately 5,000 PSAPs. The company’s technology helps call centers integrate requests from cell phones, landlines and IoT devices.

“Its technology is almost certainly integrated into the smartphone you’re carrying and many of the devices you have lying around,” Managing Editor Danny Crichton writes in a four-part series that studies the company’s origins and ensuing success:


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  • Part 1: The early years and why a consumer app company turned to govtech and integrated services for technology and device companies.
  • Part 2: How RapidSOS made its pivot and why its current business model has performed so well.
  • Part 3: To transform 911 services, RapidSOS established dozens of corporate and individual partnerships.
  • Part 4: Examines the future of 911 and RapidSOS in light of limited infrastructure funding.

“I’ve honestly never met a company like RapidSOS with so many signed partnerships,” says Danny, who initially wrote about the firm six years ago.

“It’s closed dozens of partnerships and business development deals, and with some of the biggest names in tech. How does it do it? This story is about how it built a successful BD engine.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How to prepare for M&A, your most likely exit avenue

M&A is the most likely exit avenue for startups

Image Credits: Reinhard Krull / EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The headlines might be littered with mega deals, IPOs and SPACs, but in all likelihood, you will exit your startup via a relatively smaller merger or acquisition, Ben Boissevain writes in a guest column.

“The IPO market is healthy again, but M&A still represents 88% of exits: So far this year, there were 503 IPOs and 5,203 deals,” writes Boissevain, founder of Ascento Capital.

“While it is good to strive for a billion-dollar-plus sale, a successful IPO or a SPAC deal, it is practical to prepare your startup for a smaller transaction.”

Duolingo boosts IPO price target in boon to edtech startups

U.S. edtech company Duolingo bumped up its IPO price range Monday morning, targeting $95 to $100 per share, up from previous guidance of $85 to $95 per share.

“The fact that Duolingo is raising its IPO price range indicates that we are more likely on the path for a strong offering than a weak one,” Alex Wilhelm notes.

Data-driven iteration helped China’s Genki Forest become a $6B beverage giant in 5 years

Bottles of tea made by Genki Forest

Image Credits: VCG (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Many Extra Crunch readers will not have heard of China’s fastest-growing bottled beverage company: Genki Forest is a direct-to-consumer startup that started selling its sodas, milk teas and other products just five years ago.

Today, its products are available in 40 countries and the company hopes to generate revenue of $1.2 billion in 2021. After closing its latest funding round, Genki Forest is valued at $6 billion.

Industry watchers frequently compare the upstart to giants like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, but founder Binsen Tang comes from a tech background, having funded ELEX Technology, a social gaming company that found success internationally.

“China doesn’t need any more good platforms,” Tang told his team in 2015, “but it does need good products.”

Leveraging China’s robust distribution network, lighting-fast manufacturing capabilities and a vast pool of data that enables holistic digitization, Genki Forest sells more than 30% of its products online.

“Everything feels right about the company,” said VC investor Anna Fang. “The space, the founder, the products and the back end … they exemplify the new Chinese consumer brand.“

Sequoia’s Mike Vernal outlines how to design feedback loops in the search for product-market fit

Sequoia’s Mike Vernal joined us on TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising to discuss how founders should approach product-market fit, with a specific focus on tempo.

It doesn’t mean fast in the kind of uncontrolled, reckless, crashing sense. It means fast in a sort of consistent, maniacal, get-a-little-bit-better-each-day kind of way. And it’s actually one of the top things that we look for, at least when evaluating a team: How consistently fast they move.

As China shakes up regulations, tech companies suffer

Alex Wilhelm spent the end of last week and the beginning of this one looking at Chinese regulations targeting its edtech sector, aiming to understand “precisely what is going on with the various regulatory changes.”

“For startups, the regulatory changes aren’t a death blow; indeed, many Chinese tech startups won’t be affected by what we’ve seen thus far,” he writes. “But on the whole, it feels like the risk profile of doing business in China has risen.”

Automakers have battery anxiety, so they’re taking control of the supply

04 Porsche Taycan 4S

Image Credits: Porsche AG

To ensure a steady supply of batteries, automakers are increasingly looking to joint ventures.

“Like if you’re VW, and you say, ‘We’re going to go 50% electric by whatever year,’ but then the batteries don’t show up, you’re bankrupt, you’re dead,” Sila Nano CEO Gene Berdichevsky said in a recent interview.

“Their scale is so big that even if their cell partners have promised them to deliver, automakers are scared that they won’t.”

Pro tips from the team behind Kickstarter’s most funded app

Image Credits: AndreyPopov / Getty Images

The team at memoryOS “spent countless hours researching down the rabbit hole of crowdfunding tips and tricks” before it successfully became the most-funded app on Kickstarter, the company’s CEO, Alex Ruzh, writes in a guest column.

“We’re sharing our approach (and secrets) to building a successful crowdfunding campaign because we know just how tough it can be to launch your own product,” he writes.

SOSV partners explain how deep tech startups can fundraise successfully

Startups developing so-called deep tech often find it challenging to raise capital for various reasons.

At TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising, two experienced investors, SOSV partners Pae Wu and Garrett Winther, spoke on the subject and advised startups facing a challenging fundraising path.

Checkout is the key to frictionless B2B e-commerce

Processing payments, credit and authorizations for B2B purchases is all handled electronically, but that’s not a panacea.

For example, volume sellers prefer to work through traditional accounts payable systems instead of paying the service fees smaller companies accept as the cost of doing business.

However, the combination of fraud and identity protection with credit handling and digital payments “creates a powerful network, the type that can not only build trust but enable one-click transactions at scale,” says Andrew Steele, an investor at Activant Capital.

 

Cowboy Ventures’ Ted Wang: CEO coaching is ‘about having a second set of eyes’

At TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising, Cowboy Ventures’ Ted Wang spoke about why he encourages founders in his portfolio to work with executive coaches.

I don’t think you need to limit advice from people who are “been there, done that.” I think it is really important to get input from those people, but in terms of personal development, I think you want insight from people who understand how human beings listen and learn and grow.

#andrew-steele, #china, #cowboy-ventures, #crowdsourcing, #duolingo, #ec-roundup, #extra-crunch-roundup, #kickstarter, #mike-vernal, #startups, #tc, #ted-wang, #venture-capital

Smoking pizza ovens and pilfered dollar bills, or the early story of RapidSOS

The irony of 911 is that it’s a number that everyone knows (at least in the United States), and yet, no one really thinks about it. Few of us will dial 911 more than a handful of times in our lives, and even when we do, we will meet the police officers and paramedics who respond, never the 911 call taker who handled the dispatch. These systems and the people behind them garner meager attention, whether from Congress, state legislatures, the public or anyone else outside the emergency response community.

Except, that is, for Michael Martin.

RapidSOS’ story is one of a mission, a community, a team and a dream that every emergency should have the best chance to be resolved as positively as possible.

He, along with Nick Horelik and Matt Bozik very early on, became fascinated by the complexity and lack of innovation in the sector. “Uber had just come out. I could press a button and get a car. Why can’t I just press a button and get an ambulance? And then it sparks this curiosity,” Martin said. He sought knowledge, but for such a critical system, information was sparse. “The Wikipedia article on George Clooney is way longer than the one on 911,” he noted.

So began a nearly decade-long journey with RapidSOS that would see Martin and his team first attempt to build a consumer-safety app called Haven before pivoting exclusively to helping dozens of tech companies, including Apple and Google and device companies like SiriusXM, connect to a myriad of 911 software vendors. Along the way, they experienced the full vagaries of startup life, frenetically pivoting from product to product as they tried to get consumers to even care about emergencies.

It wasn’t easy, and it took years before the company finally hit its stride. But RapidSOS’s story is one of a mission, a community, a team and a dream that every emergency should have the best chance to be resolved as positively as possible.

Indiana: The callroads of America

Martin grew up outside the rural town of Rockport, Indiana, population about 2,500 today. His mother was the local doctor, and he and his brother habituated to the openness and ennui of rural farming life. “We grew up on 35 acres of land; we had an enormous garden and a little hobby orchard and stuff like that,” he said. “We had ‘Drive-Your-Tractor-To-School Day.’”

#911, #api, #apple, #braemar-energy-ventures, #ec-1, #emergency-response, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #federal-communications-commission, #finance, #google, #government, #harvard, #highland-capital, #indiana, #kickstarter, #michael-martin, #motorola-solutions, #nashville, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #startups, #tc, #telecommunications, #teller, #uber, #venture-capital

Pro tips from the team behind Kickstarter’s most funded app

Here at memoryOS, we have a saying we repeat often: “Most of the Kickstarter happens before the actual Kickstarter.”

Preparation is the key. But even if you understand that most of the work is done in advance, you should still prepare yourself for some sleepless nights after the launch date. The usual startup mantra will apply to your crowdfunding campaign just as well: Measure, analyze and adjust along the way.

As you may know, crowdfunding fits some B2C products better than it does others. So to give you our product context here, memoryOS is a gamified app that teaches memorization skills with the help of virtual mind palaces and interactive microlessons taught by our co-founder, two-time World Memory Champion, Jonas von Essen.

Before becoming the most funded app on Kickstarter and getting it 6,400% funded (and carrying it further to the Indiegogo platform right after), we spent countless hours researching down the rabbit hole of crowdfunding tips and tricks. We also had calls with several top-tier crowdfunding project creators who were kind enough to answer our questions and share bits of knowledge from their experience.

We’re sharing our approach (and secrets) to building a successful crowdfunding campaign because we know just how tough it can be to launch your own product. So here is a complete 10-step guide:

Find a unique idea

You should have a unique idea for a product that would solve at least one problem for your target audience. The proven approach is to set two major hypotheses right at the start and then work on getting them tested:

  1. Does your product work and solve the problem as intended, and is it better than what’s out there? This is usually referred to as the “proof of concept” stage.
  2. Are there enough people who are willing to pay for your product for you to build a sustainable business?

You will need to build a base prototype to test the first hypothesis and, if it works, you can then work on turning it into an MVP or a short demo version for your future commercial product. You can then get people to test it for free and prepay for the full version.

Getting people to actually back their interest with their wallet means you already have customers, not merely enthusiasts, and it significantly increases the chances of a successful project.

Yes, it’s important that you get people to pay a minimum reservation deposit at this point and receive their commitment to pay the remaining amount for the full product later on. Getting people to actually back their interest with their wallet means you already have customers, not merely enthusiasts, and it significantly increases the chances of a successful project.

Get user feedback

As soon as you have something to test, conduct short surveys to better understand your customers by gathering and analyzing the reasons why and for what purpose(s) they would want your product.

Here at memoryOS, we called the first couple thousand of our leads and had many insightful conversations to help us connect to our audience on a more personal and emotional level.

Once you have a demo or prototype for the users to test, make sure to add a feedback form right at the end of their experience (or gather feedback using Google Forms for surveys, or via email inquiries).

#apps, #column, #crowdfunding, #ec-column, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-how-to, #funding, #gaming, #indiegogo, #kickstarter, #memoryos, #startups, #tc

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

#amazon, #asia, #brooklyn, #california, #china, #crowdfunding, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #indiegogo, #kickstarter, #philanthropy, #shenzhen, #tc

The rise of the tech workers union and what comes next

While not entirely non-existent, the union has been an elusive phenomenon in Silicon Valley. More recently, however, big names like Google and Kickstarter have taken key steps toward forming unions, as have smaller startups like Glitch, which made history this week by signing a collective bargaining agreement – the first team of software engineers to do so. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, meanwhile, are currently on the cusp of forming their own historic union. In this panel from TC Sessions: Justice, we discuss how we got here, what comes next and steps tech employees can take.


On Why Now?

As has been the case with management throughout history, tech companies have long fought tooth and nail against labor organizing. Over the course of the last couple of years, however, we may have seen something of a critical mass that could represent the beginnings of a sea change for the industry.

Redwine: It seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on, and also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. I think it’s sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. (Timestamp: 1:08)

Parul Koul (Google):

Koul: A variety of tactics and strategies have been tried, and we’ve been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we’ve developed enough institutional and organizational knowledge to try something new and – in some ways – more complex. (Timestamp: 3:25)


On Whether The Pandemic Will Spur More Organizing

Covid-19 has radically transformed where – and how – we work. It’s upended many industries and cause millions to lose jobs. Could the pandemic prove to be yet another inflection point for a growing movement.

Koul: In our case, what we saw was companies moving to work from home and then, in certain categories of employees, not really receiving the same benefits […] whether it’s a stipend to buy equipment or even having the benefit from working from home […] We also saw a mass movement and social and political protests against police brutality erupt right in the middle of the pandemic. For me, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to do something and respond to that in the streets and in our own way. (Timestamp: 6:56)


On How – or if – Unions Can Protect Against Layoffs

For many industries, layoffs have become all but an inevitability during the pandemic. In a number of the aforementioned cases, they’ve continued even in the wake of employee unionizing. Ultimately, how much protection does a union give workers against layoffs?

Reckers: Kickstarter won its union on February 18, 2020. The pandemic hit in mid-March. The company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early-April. That was a very difficult time. We looked at the numbers and did see that a number of the people they were proposing to layoff were advocates for the union or union members. That was very hard to stomach. What happens, though – and where the union comes into play – is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that. Especially under the terms that they wanted to impose unilaterally, without any consultation with staff. The difference was that when the company proposed these layoffs, because there was already a union in place, Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees about the terms of that layoff. (Timestamp: 9:10)


On How to Get Started

First steps toward unionization are often difficult in an environment where organizing is frowned upon management. Many early conversations happen after hours and off-the-clock for fear of repercussion. This can be doubly difficult in an environments like white collar workers tech company, where some employees don’t tacitly understand the benefits of organizing.

Reckers: You can best support each other by getting into conversations with your coworkers and understanding what’s been going on with them. The first question I often get from people is how to first start having conversations. I think that’s a challenge, especially since we’re not taught how to do that. But starting a conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or company, how long they’ve been there, how has there changed? What did they want to see when they were hired? What sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? (Timestamp: 24:04)


On Whether Expressions of Support From Management Are Always Positive

Management often adopts the narrative that they support unions following hard fought battles. In the wake of support from certain tech executives and political leaders like Joe Biden, the question arises about whether such sentiments can ultimately have negative repercussions for organizing.

Redwine: First and foremost, it’s really important to remember that the things that people in power say do not matter. All of the power that you have doesn’t come from people at the top giving it to you. It comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. (Timestamp: 28:27)

You can read the entire transcript here.

#alphabet, #amazon, #event-recap, #glitch, #google, #kickstarter, #labor, #tc, #tcjustice, #union

Satellite constellation operator Spire Global to go public via $1.6 billion SPAC

Monday brings with it not one, but two space SPACS – there’s Rocket Lab, and there’s Spire Global, a satellite operator that bills itself primarily as a SaaS company focused on delivering data and analytics made possible by its 100-plus spacecraft constellation. SPACs have essentially proven a pressure-release valve for the space startup market, which has been waiting on high-profile exits to basically prove out the math of its venture-backability.

Spire Global debuted in 2012, and has raised over $220 million to date. It will merge with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called NavSight Holdings, in order to make a debut on the NYSE under the ticker ‘SPIR.’ The combined company will have a pro forma enterprise value of $1.6 billion upon transaction close, which is targeted for this summer.

The deal will provide $475 in funds for the company, including via a PIPE that includes Tiger Global, BlackRock and Hedosophia. Existing Spire stockholders will wind up with around 67% of the company after the businesses combine.

Spire’s network of satellites is designed to provide customers with a ‘space-as-a-service’ model, allowing them to operate their own payloads, and access data collected via an API their developers can integrate into their own software. The model is subscription-based, and is designed to get customers up and running with their own space-based data feed in less than a year from deal designs and commitment.

Existing investors in Spire Global include RRE Ventures, Promus Ventures, Seraphim Capital, Mitsui Global Investment and more, with its most recent round being a raised of debt financing. The company has launched satellites via Rocket Lab, its companion in the Monday SPAC news rush. The satellites it operates are small cube satellites, and it has launches on a wide range of launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Russian Soyuz, ISRO’s PSLV, Japan’s H-2B, ULA rockets, Northrop Grumman’s Antares and even the International Space Station.

Spire got its start from very humble origins indeed – tracing all the way back to a Kickstarter campaign that was successful with just over $100,000 raised from backers.

#aerospace, #api, #blackrock, #corporate-finance, #falcon, #international-space-station, #japan, #kickstarter, #mitsui, #northrop-grumman, #outer-space, #private-equity, #promus-ventures, #rocket-lab, #rre-ventures, #satellite, #seraphim-capital, #spac, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #special-purpose-acquisition-company, #spire-global, #tc, #tiger-global, #transport

This $99 gadget helps you make music, no skill required

At CES back in January, I met with a handful of founders who were/are crowdfunding musical instruments. It’s a fascinating category and one to watch if you have a passing interest in either music or technology. Like a vast majority of hardware startups, most companies in the space will build one product if they’re lucky — and even that can feel like something of a long shot.

Coupling the Hail Mary pursuits of hardware development with an earnest attempt to reinvent the musical wheel feels like an act of futility. And honestly, it is. But every so often, something breaks through in an exciting way. Roli is probably one of the best examples of the phenomenon in recent years. The company’s Seaboard was a clever take on the synth — and the U.K. company has continued to release clever music products.

Nashville-based Artiphon managed to capture the imagination of online music lovers as well, with the simply named Instrument 1. The hybrid guitar/piano-style device pulled in a wildly impressive $1.3 million on Kickstarter back in 2015. I spoke to the company’s founders about the project at CES this year, but it was their second device that really interested me.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Last year’s Kickstarter campaign for the Orba bested its predecessor, raising $1.4 million. And it’s easy to see why. The company describes it thusly on its campaign page:

Hold out your hands and meet Orba, a new kind of musical instrument. It’s a synth, looper, and MIDI controller that lets anyone make music immediately. Orba’s minimalist design resembles a cross between a gaming controller and a half a grapefruit, and its feather-touch sensitivity translates gestures from your fingers and hands directly into sound. Orba introduces a new and fun way to make music anywhere, even if you’ve never played an instrument before.

It’s that last bit in particularl that caught my attention. The thing that united most of the devices I looked at in January is some kind of base-level requirement of musical skill. Which, understandable. But as an overzealous music fan with — let’s just say limited — ability, I’ve been looking for something that might scratch that musical itch. Honestly, I was pretty hopeful for Roli’s Blocks, but ultimately found their appeal for novices to be overstated.

I’ve been asking after the Orba since January. I doubled down in March/April when the COVID-19 shutdown really hit us in earnest here in New York, thinking it would be a good way to pass some of the time that didn’t involve rewatching Tiger King. Initially planned for an April delivery, founder/CEO Mike Butera notes that things like COVID-19 and the ongoing trade war put a damper on those plans.

“Despite that, we started shipping to our 12,000+ Kickstarter backers first this summer, and we’re now 95% shipped globally (100% in the countries where we’ve opened sales),” he says. “All remaining backers are already in logistics.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It took a while for the device to finally come through, but I finally got my hands (well, hand, really) on it — and so far I’m pretty into the thing. I can’t promise my attention span is going to hold up beyond a week or two, but I’m really digging it right now. As you’d expect, having some musical skill is certainly helpful, but it’s not a prerequisite. The learning curve is surprisingly small, and the thing, quite literally, works out of the box. Hooking it up to a computer (via USB-C) or smartphone (Bluetooth) enhances the experience, sure, but it’s not necessary.

The easiest way to think about the peculiar little object is as a kind of compact, pre-programmed MIDI controller you can use to build songs by layering loops on the fly. The “grapefruit” comparison is pretty apt (especially if you get the citrusy silicon cover), with each of the “slices” representing a different element of an instrument. In “lead” or “chord” mode, they generally represent different notes. With “drums” they’re different pieces in a kit or other percussion instruments.

Holding down the big “A” lets you switch between instruments, adjust the BPM (tempo), record a track or play it back. I’ve found the easiest way to approach it is laying down a rhythm track with the drums (to the built-in metronome) and then layering chords over that. Here’s a Day One attempt. It’s not Bach or Wendy Carlos, but you get the picture:


I should add the software doesn’t currently support saving/exporting songs, which is a big bummer. The above recording was jury rigged in a very lo-fi way by holding the instrument up to a mic during playback. There are other methods, including using the headphone jack as audio out, but the above was honestly just the easiest method at the time. The feature is included in the instructions, but not the app. Butera has since confirmed with me recording/sharing is, indeed, coming soon.

For the time being, the app is mostly good for switching sounds. There are about 10 sound packs per instrument (with considerable overlap between them). It’s a pretty good start, though most tend toward the electronic and ambient, with drum sounds that more closely approximate an 808 than a proper analog drum kit. It makes sense. Again, this thing is a MIDI controller at its heart and will never be able to sufficiently approximate a chamber orchestra.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The chords/leads are in a scale, so it’s impossible — or at least difficult — to hit a wrong note. Artiphon is working to expand the library of sounds. There are no plans to let users contribute to the library, though they can alter the sounds themselves by using the system as a MIDI controller.

The current level of customization leaves a little to be desired. Though that’s certainly to be expected from a first-gen product from a small startup. And, honestly, there’s something to be said for keeping things relatively simple when it comes to appealing to beginnings. It also warrants mention that the little hunk of plastic is surprisingly versatile when it comes physical interaction. The “keys” don’t have give, but the company has added a number of clever ways to alter the input. It takes some getting used to and can sometimes lead you to trigger an accidental result, but over all, it’s a nice feature.

Stealing the graphic from the Kickstarter page:

Image Credits: Artiphon

I’m not ready to classify the Orba as a serious musical instrument — and honestly, I don’t think that’s really the point. I have no illusions of becoming the next Flying Lotus or Dan Deacon here, but damn if the $99 gadget isn’t fun to have lying around to blow off steam, kill some time and keep myself occupied during boring conference calls — on mute, of course.

#artiphon, #gadgets, #hardware, #kickstarter, #orba

Financial institutions can support COVID-19 crowdfunding campaigns

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected the financial outlook for millions of people, and continues to cause significant fiscal distress to millions more, but such challenging times have also wrought a more resilient and resourceful financial system.

With the ingenuity of crowdfunding, considered to be one of the last decade’s greatest “success stories,” and such desperate times calling for bold new ways to finance a wide variety of COVID-19 relief efforts, we are now seeing an excellent opportunity for banks and other financial institutions to partner with crowdfunding platforms and campaigns, bolstering their efforts and impact.

COVID-19 crowdfunding: A world of possibilities to help others

Before considering how financial institutions can assist with crowdfunding campaigns, we must first look at the diverse array of impressive results from this financing option during the pandemic. As people choose between paying the rent or buying groceries, and countless other despairing circumstances, we must look to some of the more inventive ways businesses, entrepreneurs and people in general are using crowdfunding to provide the COVID-19 relief that cash-strapped consumers with maxed-out or poor credit do not have access to or the government has not provided.

Some great examples of COVID-19 crowdfunding at its best include the following:

The possibilities presented by crowdfunding in this age of the coronavirus are endless, and financial institutions can certainly lend their assistance. Here is how.

1. Acknowledge that crowdfunding is not a trend

Crowdfunding is a substantial and ever-so relevant means of financing all sorts of businesses, people and products. Denying its substantive contribution to the economy, especially in digital finance during this pandemic, is akin to wearing a monocle when you actually need glasses for both of your eyes. Do not be shortsighted on this. Crowdfunding is here to stay. In fact, countless crowdfunding businesses and platforms continue to make major moves within the markets globally. For example, Parpera from Australia, in coordination with the equity-crowdfunding platforms, hopes to rival the likes of GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

2. Be willing to invest in crowdfunded campaigns

This might seem contrary to the original purpose of these campaigns, but the right amount of seed-cash infusions to campaigns that are aligned with your goals as a company is a win-win for both you and the entrepreneurs or causes, especially now in such desperate times of need.

3. Get involved in the community and its crowdfunding efforts

This means that small businesses and medium-sized businesses within your institution’s community could use your help. Consider investing in crowdfunding campaigns similar to the ones mentioned earlier. Better yet, bridge the gaps between financial institutions and crowdfunding platforms and campaigns so that smaller businesses get the opportunities they need to survive through these difficult times.

4. Enable sustainable development goals (SDG)

Last month, the United Nations Development Program released a report proclaiming that digital finance is now allowing people from all over the world to customize and personalize their money-management experiences such that their financial needs have the potential to be more readily and sufficiently met. Financial institutions willing to work as a partner with crowdfunding platforms and campaigns will further these goals and set society up for a more robust rebound from any possible detrimental effects of the COVID-19 recession.

5. Lend your regulatory expertise to this relatively new industry

Other countries are already beginning to figure out better ways to regulate the crowdfunding financing industry, such as the recent updates to the European Union’s handling of crowdfunding regulations, set to take effect this fall. Well-established financial institutions can lend their support in defining the policies and standard operating procedures for crowdfunding even during such a chaotic time as the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so will ensure fair and equitable financing for all, at least, in theory.

While originally born out of either philanthropy or early-adopting innovation, depending on the situation, person or product, crowdfunding has become an increasingly reliable means of providing COVID-19 economic relief when other organizations, including the government and some banks, cannot provide sufficient assistance. Financial institutions must lend their vast expertise, knowledge and resources to these worthy causes; after all, we are all in this together.

#banking, #blockchain, #column, #covid-19, #crowdfunding, #entrepreneurship, #finance, #fintech, #gofundme, #indiegogo, #kickstarter, #philanthropy, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

Mobile by Peak Design is a new, complete mobile mounting solution for everyday convenience

After a steady stream of successful product launches and Kickstarter campaigns, Peak Design is back with a new one – Mobile by Peak Design. The startup that created a rich ecosystem of photography and packing gear is tackling mobile devices next, and has devices a clever interconnect system that seems to have anticipated Apple’s new MagSafe magnetic phone accessory scheme – but that’s designed for all smartphones and mobile devices.

Similar to Peak Design’s Capture, Anchor and mounting plate system, Mobile by Peak Design offers a way to connect smartphones to all kinds of accessories, including tripods, car mounts, charging stands, bike handlebars and much more. The system is entered around what Peak calls its “SlimLink” connector, which is a clever combo magnetic and physical mounting receiver that you can attach to your phone either with dedicated cases, or a universal sticky-backed accessory. SlimLink then works with both soft-lock and hard-lock accessories, which use either magnets alone (soft) or magnets combined with physical catchments (hard) for varying degrees of stable connection with a line of mounts.

Peak Design is launching on Kickstarter with a crowdfunding campaign, but the product is already designed and produced to a high level of quality. It sent out media samples of a range of products in the Mobile lineup, including a SlimLink universal phone mount, a handlebar mount, the folding tripod, two magnetic/stick-backed universal mounting pads, and an in-car dashboard mount.

I’ve been using these for the past couple of weeks and have found them to be incredibly versatile and convenient. Peak also supplied an iPhone 11 Pro case, but since I’m using an iPhone 11 Pro Max, I just affixed the 3M-backed universal plate directly to my phone using the included sizing and alignment guide. The attachment is incredibly secure, and doesn’t add very much thickness to your phone at all (it basically provides just enough clearance that the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera bump barely clears table surfaces).

The magnetic connection between it and the ‘soft-lock’ mounts is strong enough that I’m never worried about them coming loose – I’ve used the general purpose magnetic mounts on my fridge often, and the phone hasn’t moved. The bike mount, with its additional physical prongs, is rock solid while actually biking around, and the arm on the mount puts the phone is a great position for acting as a navigation device while biking around, in both portrait and landscape orientations.

Peak has really outdone itself with the design of this system, but that is maybe most true when it comes to the tripod. The clever, three-legged folding design is tiny – smaller overall footprint than a credit card, though a bit thicker – and it’s amazing to be able to carry this everywhere in a pocket and have a stable platform for taking time-lapse photos. You can adjust its stability using the included Allen key, too.

The car mount has an adhesive backing for sticking to your dashboard, and fits in the recessed SlimLink slot on the phone mount/case without physically catching. It’s stable and secure in testing, and best of all, Peak has made the adjustable ball that lets you orient your phone just the right amount of stiff that you can move it but it doesn’t require any additional tightening. My one complaint thus far with the universal mount has been that it isn’t compatible with my Nomad Base Station Pro charger, though Peak says it’s testing the accessory with wireless chargers and will advise as to compatibility in future. The Peak Everyday phone case, meanwhile, is compatible with many Qi chargers.

Peak says these designs are subject to change, and of course, MagSafe was a surprise to the company just as it was to the rest of the world. Peak still plans to create iPhone 12 cases for the range, and says that all of its soft-locking accessories will also work with both Apple MagSafe phones, as well as MagSafe cases. Apple MagSafe accessories, like the wallet, will also likewise attach to MagSafe phones.

This could’ve been one of those moments where Apple announces something that renders a competing product obsolete before it even gets to market, but Peak’s Mobile system design actually makes them complimentary – and provides very similar benefits to phones and devices that otherwise would’ve have been able to take advantage of what MagSafe offers.

The Kickstarter campaign launches today, and Peak believes it will be able to ship the Mobile system cases and accessories starting in Spring 2021.

#apple, #gadgets, #hardware, #ios, #iphone, #iphone-6, #ipod, #kickstarter, #magsafe, #mobile-devices, #mobile-phones, #reviews, #smartphone, #smartphones, #tc, #wireless-chargers

Human Capital: Uber engineer explains why he spoke out against Prop 22

Welcome back to Human Capital where we discuss the latest in labor, and diversity and inclusion in tech.

This week’s eyebrow-raising moment came Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Labor essentially accused Microsoft of reverse racism (not a real thing) for committing to hire more Black people at its predominantly white company.

And that wasn’t even the most notable news items of the week. Instead that award goes to Uber engineer Kurt Nelson and his decision to speak out against his employer and urge folks to vote no on the Uber-sponsored ballot measure in California that aims to keep drivers classified as independent contractors. I caught up with Nelson to hear more about what brought him to the point of speaking out. You can read what he had to say further down in this newsletter.

But first, I have some of my own news to share —  Human Capital is launching in newsletter form on Friday, Oct. 23. Sign up here so you don’t miss out.

Now, to the tea.


Stay Woke


Coinbase loses about 5% of workforce for its stance on social issues

Remember how Coinbase provided an out to employees who no longer wanted to work at the cryptocurrency company as a result of its stance on social issues? Well, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said this week that about 5% of employees (60 people) have decided to take the exit package, but that there will likely be more since “a handful of other conversations” are still happening.

Armstrong noted how some people worried his stance would push out people of color and other underrepresented minorities. But in his blog post, Armstrong said those folks “have not taken the exit package in numbers disproportionate to the overall population.”

Trump’s DOL goes after Microsoft for committing to hire more Black people

Microsoft disclosed this week that the U.S Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs regarding its racial justice and diversity commitments made in June. Microsoft had committed to double the number of Black people managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders in its U.S. workforce by 2025. Now, however, the OFCCP says that could be considered as unlawful discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That’s because, according to the letter, Microsoft’s commitment “appears to imply that employment action may be taken based on race.”

“We are clear that the law prohibits us from discriminating on the basis of race,” Microsoft wrote in a blog post. “We also have affirmative obligations as a company that serves the federal government to continue to increase the diversity of our workforce, and we take those obligations very seriously. We have decades of experience and know full well how to appropriately create opportunities for people without taking away opportunities from others. Furthermore, we know that we need to focus on creating more opportunity, including through specific programs designed to cast a wide net for talent for whom we can provide careers with Microsoft.”

This comes shortly after the Trump administration expanded its ban on diversity and anti-racism training to include federal contractors. While this does not fall into the scope of that ban, it’s alarming to see the DOL going after tech company for trying to increase diversity. However, it does seem that the effects of the ban are making its way into the tech industry.

Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of diversity training service Paradigm, says she lost her first client as a result of the executive order. While it’s not clear which client it was, many of Paradigm’s clients are tech companies.

Crunchbase report sheds light on VC funding to Black and Latinx founders

It’s widely understood that Black and Latinx founders receive not nearly as much funding as their white counterparts. Now, Crunchbase has shed some additional light on the situation. Here are some highlights from its 2020 Diversity Spotlight report.

Image Credits: Crunchbase

  • Since 2015, Black and Latinx founders have raised more than $15 billion, which represents just 2.4% of the total venture capital raised 
  • In 2020, Black and Latinx founders have raised $2.3 billion, which represents 2.6% of all VC funding through August 31, 2020.
  • Since 2015, the top 10 leading VC firms in the U.S. have invested in around 70 startups founded by Black or Latinx people.
  • Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund are the two firms with the highest count of new investments in Black or Latinx-founded companies since 2015.

Gig Work


Uber engineer encourages people to vote no on Uber-backed Prop 22

Going against his employer, Uber engineer Kurt Nelson penned an op-ed on TechCrunch about why he’s voting against Prop 22. Prop 22 is a ballot measure in California that seeks to keep rideshare drivers and delivery workers classified as independent contractors. I caught up with Nelson after he published his op-ed to learn more about what brought him to the point of speaking out against Prop 22. 

“It was a combination of COVID affecting unemployment and health insurance for a bunch of people, getting close to the election and not having seen anyone who is really former Uber or Uber or former any gig companies saying anything,” Nelson told me. 

Plus, Nelson is on his way out from Uber — something that he’s been forthcoming about with his manager. He had already been feeling frustrated about the way Uber handled its rounds of layoffs this year, but the company’s push for Prop 22 was “the final nail in the coffin.”

Uber’s big arguments around why drivers should remain independent contractors is that it’s what drivers want and that it’d be costly to make them employees. Uber has said it also doesn’t see a way to offer flexibility to drivers while also employing them.

“I think it’d be really challenging,” Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay told me at TC Sessions: Mobility this week. “We would have to start to ensure that there’s coverage to ensure that there’s the necessary number of drivers to meet demand. That would be this forecasting that needs to happen. We would only be able to offer a certain number of jobs to meet that demand because people will be working in set amounts of time. I think there would be quite fewer work opportunities, especially the ones that people really have said that they like.”

But, as Nelson notes, Silicon Valley prides itself on tackling difficult problems. 

“We’re a tech company and we solve hard problems — that’s what we do,” he said.

In response to his op-ed, Nelson said some of his co-workers have reached out to him — some thanking him for saying something. Even prior to his op-ed, Nelson said he was one of the only people who would talk about Prop 22 in any negative way in Uber’s internal Slack channels. And it’s no wonder why, given the atmosphere Uber has created around Prop 22. 

During all-hands meetings, Nelson described how the executive team wears Yes on 22 shirts or has a Yes on 22 Zoom background. Uber has also offered employees free Yes on 22 car decals and shirts, Nelson said.

As for Nelson’s next job, he knows he doesn’t “want to touch the gig economy ever again,” he said. “I know that for a fact. I’m done with the gig economy.”


Union Life


Kickstarter settles with NLRB over firing of union organizer

Kickstarter agreed to pay $36,598.63 in backpay to Taylor Moore, a former Kickstarter employee who was fired last year, Vice reported. Moore was active in organizing the company’s union, which was officially recognized earlier this year. As part of the settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Kickstarter also agreed to post a notice to employees about the settlement on its intranet and at its physical office whenever they reopen. 

In September 2019, Kickstarter fired two people who were actively organizing a union. About a year later, the Labor Board found merit that Kickstarter unlawfully fired a union organizer.

NLRB files complaint against Google contractor HCL America

It’s been about a year since 80 Google contractors voted to form a union with US Steelworkers. But those contractors, who are officially employed by HCL America, have not been able to engage in collective bargaining, according to a new complaint from the National Labor Relations Board, obtained by Vice.

The complaint states HCL has failed to bargain with the union and has even transferred the work of members of the bargaining unit to non-union members based in Poland. The NLRB alleges HCL has done that “because employees formed, joined and assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.”


News bites


#coinbase, #diversity, #human-capital, #kickstarter, #labor, #microsoft, #prop-22, #tc, #unions

Roli’s light-up learning keyboard goes up for pre-order at $299

Roli is cool startup that makes fascinating music products. The Seaboard led the way, with a clever take on the keyboard that allowed players to bend notes like guitar strings. Blocks were even more fascinating — the modular light pads offered innovative control for electronic music makers.

As a music fan with no discernible skills when it comes to actually making it, I’ve mostly admired the London-based company’s music from afar. Lumi, however, finds Roli getting into musical education, with a small, portable keyboard whose keys illuminate to teach beginners what to play.

Available initially via Kickstarter, the kit is up for pre-order starting today and set to start shipping in November. The Lumi Keys 1 is currently available for $299, a price that includes a carrying case and access to the Lumi subscription service. That last bit, clearly, is the key to Roli’s plans to monetize the kit, moving forward, with a $10 a month fee. The library now includes more than 100 lessons and 400 songs, with a broad range of artists — “from Beyonce to Beethoven” as the company puts it in its press material.

Image Credits: Roli

The Lumi has been refined since the initial Kickstarter version, with a stronger (and heavier) build and better/more precise key response. Like Blocks, the system is modular — here that means specifically that you can connect multiple Lumis together and create a longer keyboard. As the company’s noted early, the keyboard also doubles as a MIDI controller, for those who graduate from the learning functionality.

#hardware, #kickstarter, #lumi, #midi, #roli

Comic Books Flourish on Crowdfunding Sites, Drawing Big Publishers

Prominent arrivals include Boom Studios, which is working with Keanu Reeves on a Kickstarter project. But critics are questioning whether projects from established publishers are crowding out others.

#book-trade-and-publishing, #boom-studios, #comic-books-and-strips, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #crowdfunding-internet, #image-comics-inc, #kickstarter, #mcfarlane-todd, #reeves-keanu

Quell’s resistance-based workout can get you in shape by boxing virtual enemies

Quell is positioning itself as a kind of low-cost take on Peloton (less than 1/10th the price, it notes). You might too, if you were in the London-based startup’s place. With the stationary bike-maker’s value skyrocketing amid COVID-19 lockdowns, fitness startups are all the rage — heck, just look at Lululemon’s recent Mirror acquisition.

A more apt comparison, however, is probably Ring Fit Adventure. The Switch-based peripheral is closer to Quell in terms of pricing, scale and experience. The startup is taking a similar game-based approach to the fitness experience.

At launch, it plans to offer a first-person boxing-style game that pits you against a series of monsters on the PC, Mac and iOS (with Android compatibility down the road). What sets Quell’s approach apart, however, is the wearable resistance system. It’s basically an adjustable system of resistance bands that both simulate impact and track the wearer’s movements through a series of on-board sensors, including a gyroscope and accelerometers.

Image Credits: Quell

It’s still pretty early stages here. In fact, today marks the launch of the product’s Kickstarter campaign, which will be seeking a bit over $30,000 in funding, with the system going for as low as ~$182 a pop. That’s down from around $200 for the final unit — and, more importantly, includes lifetime access to all of the product’s software updates for free. Future buyers may well be subjected to a $10 a month fee for premium content.

Like a lot about the system, the subscription model is still being hammered out. “There will be a narrative story mode and quick fight mode that you’ll have,” the company tells TechCrunch. “And the subscription fee will expand the possibilities to things like local and online multiplayer, along with new expansion content over time. And there will probably be cosmetic and other upgrades to your character.”

Image Credits: Quell

Down the road, the system will likely expand to further gaming experiences in order to keep it fresh. Quell is also exploring the possibility of opening things up to third-party developers to create their own content for the system.

A lot of this is still hypothetical, as Quell is still an extremely small team, with four people currently working out of one of the founders’ London flat. In fact, the team only really came together in earnest in February and went full-time two months back. In spite of those humble and recent beginnings, however, the company already has the backing of Y Combinator and $10,000 in pre-orders since launching its website last month. It’s amazing how much interest in home fitness something like COVID-19 can generate.

Quell expects to start shipping the product to backers in December. Perhaps by then people will have returned to the gym. But at this rate, who knows?

#fitness, #hardware, #health, #kickstarter, #wearables, #y-combinator

OpenCV AI Kit aims to do for computer vision what Raspberry Pi did for hobbyist hardware

A new gadget called the OpenCV AI Kit, or OAK, looks to replicate the success of Raspberry Pi and other minimal computing solutions, but for the growing fields of computer vision and 3D perception. Its new multi-camera PCBs pack a lot of capability into a small, open-source unit and are now seeking funding on Kickstarter.

The OAK devices use their cameras and onboard AI chip to perform a number of computer vision tasks, like identifying objects, counting people, finding distances to and between things in frame, and more. This info is sent out in polished, ready-to-use form.

Having a reliable, low cost, low power draw computer vision unit like this is a great boon for anyone looking to build a smart device or robot that might have otherwise required several and discrete cameras and other chips (not to mention quite a bit of fiddling with software).

Image Credits: Luxonis

Like the Raspberry Pi, which has grown to become the first choice for hobbyist programmers dabbling in hardware, pretty much everything about these devices is open source on the permissive MIT license. And it’s officially affiliated with OpenCV, a widespread set of libraries and standards used in the computer vision world.

The actual device and onboard AI were created by Luxonis, which previously created the CommuteGuardian, a sort of smart brake light for bikes that tracks objects in real time so it can warn the rider. The team couldn’t find any hardware that fit the bill so they made their own, and then collaborated with OpenCV to make the OAK series as a follow-up.

There are actually two versions: The extra-small OAK-1 and triple-camera OAK-D. They share many components, but the OAK-D’s multiple camera units mean it can do true stereoscopic 3D vision rather than relying on other cues in the plain RGB image — these techniques are better now than ever but true stereo is still a big advantage. (The human vision system uses both, in case you’re wondering.)

The two OAK devices, with the world’s ugliest quarter for scale.

The idea was to unitize the computer vision system so there’s no need to build or configure it, which could help get a lot of projects off the ground faster. You can use the baked-in object and depth detection out of the box, or pick and choose the metadata you want and use it to augment your own analysis of the 4K (plus two 720p) images that also come through.

A very low power draw helps, too. Computer vision tasks can be fairly demanding on processors and thus use a lot of power, which was why a device like XNOR’s ultra-efficient chip was so promising (and why that company got snapped up by Apple). The OAK devices don’t take things to XNOR extremes but with a maximum power draw of a handful of watts, they could run on normal-sized batteries for days or weeks on end depending on their task.

The specifics will no doubt be interesting to those who know the ins and outs of such things — ports and cables and GitHub repositories and so on — but I won’t duplicate them here, as they’re all listed in orderly fashion in the campaign copy. Here’s the quick version:

Image Credits: Luxonis

If this seems like something your project or lab could make use of, you might want to get in quick on the Kickstarter, as there are some deep discounts for early birds, and the price will double at retail. $79 for the OAK-1 and $129 for the OAK-D sound like bargains to me based on their stated capabilities (they’ll be $199 and 299 eventually). And Luxonis and OpenCV are hardly fly-by-night organizations hocking vaporware, so you can back the campaign with confidence. Also, they flew past their goal in like an hour, so no need to worry about that.

#artificial-intelligence, #computer-vision, #crowdfunding, #developer, #gadgets, #hardware, #kickstarter, #luxonis, #robotics, #tc

Can’t afford to fly to space? Settle for smelling like it

An astronaut performs a spacewalk with the Earth in the background.

Enlarge / “Listen—do you smell something?” (credit: QAI Publishing)

If you ask a US Navy submariner the most visceral part of the underwater and underway experience, you’ll get the same answer almost every time—it’s the smell. “Eau de Boat,” as we sailors called it, is a unique combination of diesel fuel, machine oil, laundry hamper, and flatulence. To the best of my knowledge, nobody’s ever attempted to bottle and sell Eau de Boat—but a Kickstarter campaign is trying to do the same thing for space travel.

But why, though?

In late June, the US National Space Council’s Executive Secretary Scott Pace expressed his desire to support companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin in developing minimal commercial space tourism—brief suborbital round trips which take a few people above the atmosphere, then return them to the same spot they started. Virgin Galactic even plans to send some NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, eventually.

But these are likely to be small and expensive affairs that very few people will get to experience, for several more decades at least. In the meantime, space enthusiasts can more accessibly and affordably experience the ISS to some degree in virtual reality. Even with six degrees of freedom, the experience is sharply limited.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#crowdfunding, #international-space-station, #iss, #kickstarter, #nasa, #space, #tech, #uncategorized

5 resources Black entrepreneurs can leverage to build and grow

Building a business is hard; about 50% of businesses fail in the first five years. The early years of an entrepreneur’s journey can be difficult and lonely. When starting my digital services firm Fearless, I convinced my wife to rent out our home and move in with my mother so we could have an extra income while I built Fearless in my mother’s basement.

That was 10 years ago — Fearless now has over 115 employees.

That story of struggling to build a tech company and working out of a basement or garage until you “make it” is pretty common, but the barriers facing Black entrepreneurs make it harder to find success and support.

Research by the University of California, Santa Cruz states that minority-owned startups have access to less capital than their white counterparts. The right investors can offer more than just funding to early-stage companies; the connections those in the venture capitalist world have can bring an entrepreneur the new business, mentorship and employees needed to grow.

Venture capital firms like Harlem Capital and Black Angel Tech Fund are focused on changing the faces of entrepreneurship by diversifying their portfolio, but traditional venture capitalist funding is not the only way to grow your business.

There are other avenues and opportunities to get the support, financial and otherwise, to help build a successful company:

Equity crowdfunding: Similar to crowdfunding campaigns like GoFundMe or Kickstarter, equity crowdfunding allows nontraditional investors to support businesses and receive equity. Enabled through Title III of the 2012 JOBS Act’s Regulation CF, equity crowdfunding allows all companies to sell securities, whether in the form of equity in the company, debt, revenue shares, convertible notes and more. Equity crowdfunding platforms include WeFunder and LocalStake.

Mentor programs: Fearless was lucky enough to be accepted into the DoD Mentor-Protégé program early in our growth. As the oldest continuously operating federal mentor-protégé program in existence, the DoD program helped us establish and expand our footprint in the federal government contracting space. NewMe and Black Girl Ventures are two programs that specialize in mentorship for early-stage companies.

Become 8(a) certified: The federal government has a goal of awarding at least 5% of all federal contracting dollars to small, disadvantaged businesses each year. These businesses fall under the 8(a) classification. To qualify for the program, you must be a small business with 51% of ownership and control from U.S. citizens who are economically and socially disadvantaged and the owner’s adjusted gross income for three years is $250,000 or less.

The full definition of what counts as being economically and socially disadvantaged can be found in Title 13 Part 124 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Fearless has been classified as an 8(a) company for several years and we have been able to secure several contracts through the certification.

Tap into Small Business Administration resources: More than a million users visit SBA.gov to utilize tools like the SBA Business Guide and Lender Match site. By using the SBA website and reaching out to your local SBA office, you can make full use of the programs available and connect with business owners who can offer advice and mentorship.

Identify supportive bankers: Your business is your top priority and the people you engage with should view your company as a priority too. You need someone vested in your success who will advocate for you when you need them. If you meet with a banker and get a sense that you would be an account number instead of a person, then find another one. If you don’t have your banker’s personal cell phone number, and they aren’t willing to visit you at your business, then take a pass and find a true partner who supports you.

A call to action for business owners

I am putting the call out to business owners and entrepreneurs who are further along in their journey to mentor and invest in Black-owned businesses. Think back on the support you received, and be that model for someone else. Or be the mentor that you wished you had when you were starting out. Take time to invest in other Black-owned tech companies or fund the programs that do. Share your knowledge and experience with Black tech leaders.

If there isn’t a resource hub for Black entrepreneurs in your city, create one. Fearless is a small company and we have still managed to help 13 new companies get off the ground through our accelerator program, Hutch.

Hutch is an intensive 12-month program that gives entrepreneurs a blueprint for building successful digital service firms, by empowering them with the tools, mentorship and peer support they need to have a lasting impact. We think of this program kind of like a home base for our entrepreneurs, providing them with a foundation of support so they can grow without getting lost amongst bigger companies in the industry.

Help create the spaces in your community that will foster innovation and business growth.

#column, #crowdfunding, #diversity, #entrepreneur, #equity-crowdfunding, #funding, #government, #kickstarter, #mentorship, #opinion, #small-business, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

Joue targets novice musicians with its latest crowdfunded instrument

I wrote about Joue back in January, right before the company participated in (and won) our CES pitch-off. The company was one of a handful of crowdfunded musical instrument startups at the show that were really worth getting excited about.

This week, the French startup is launch the campaign for Play, a more user-friendly version of the company’s self-titled modular MIDI controller. As I noted in the earlier piece, the system operates similarly to Sensel’s Morph system, with silicone pads that slip on top of a touch interface to mimic a variety of different instruments, including a drum pad, piano, guitar and an electronic musical interface.

The new version of the instrument aims to lower the bar with a connected mobile app that works as follows:

  • The instruments are gathered in a circle in the middle
  • The timeline shows successive musical events simply and clearly
  • The mixer lets you adjust the volume of each instrument
  • Recording is accessible directly from the Pads, for maximum reactivity 

In addition to the companion iOS/Mac/Windows app, the Play is also more than $100 cheaper than its predecessor (at least it is currently on Joue’s Kickstarter page). That price includes the board and five different silicone pads.

It’s a clever product and one designed for a broader audience than the original — which went over fairly well in its own right. Sensel ultimately wasn’t able to ride the Morph beyond the initial wave of excitement, but Joue’s focus on music and the refinement of its hardware looks to be taking the company further.

Unfortunately, the device won’t be available while we’re all still cooped up inside. It’s currently projected to launch in October.

#crowdfunding, #hardware, #joue, #kickstarter

Ooni’s Koda 16 pizza oven is the rare kitchen gadget that delivers on its promise

Ooni (nee Uuni), has been around for a few years now, but its latest oven, the Koda 16, launched in March. Just like everyone else, I’ve been cooped up at home for weeks with nothing but all of the projects I would get around to one day.

At the top of my list was learning how to make decent pizza at home (we don’t have many decent pizzaiolo’s in my town). I’d been hearing about the Ooni oven for a while — mostly via Neven Mrgan’s great Instagram feed — so I spring for the Koda 13” and started firing some pies.

I was immediately enamored with the eye popping results. Chewy, crispy, well cooked Neopolitain-style pizza within 30 minutes of taking it out of the box. And I’m not exaggerating. After a couple of pizza launching disasters (this is not as easy as it looks, people), I was eating the product of my own hands and the Ooni’s 800+ degree baking surface. While not even an advanced amateur chef, I have always had somewhat of an aversion to single-use gadgets. Technique always wins, right?

The problem with that thinking is that it is really impossible to cook true Neopolitain pizza at home in the US because our ovens just don’t get hot enough. A ton of experimental dough situations have resulted in a few workable New York style pizza recipes for 500 degree ovens. But for thinner crusts there is zero substitute for that true 800-1000 degree cooking environment.

The Ooni delivers that in under 20 minutes attached to a bog standard propane tank. It’s brilliant.

Ooni co-founder Kristian Tapaninaho started messing around with building a decent pizza oven in 2010. He got into making home pies and realized that there was pretty much no way to do it other than building a large, expensive oven in his back yard. He began prototyping what became the company’s original oven in 2012, and he says that the original oven’s design stemmed from a super simple yet super obvious (in hindsight) design constraint: what could they ship affordably?

Due to shipping restrictions, it had to be under 10kg and had to fit in a certain footprint. Everything piece of design work on the first oven stemmed from those constraints. Why, for instance, does the Ooni oven have 3 legs? Because the 4th one would have put them over weight.

Within those constraints, the original oven took shape — delivering that super high-heat surface with a simple wood-fired unit that more than doubled its original funding goal on Kickstarter. Kristian and co-founder Darina Garland defined this high-heat, high results at-home outdoor pizza oven market at scale, along with other later entrants like Roccbox.

I had a bit of a chat with Kristian about how Ooni was doing lately, with the specter of coronavirus and the new business realities that have resulted.

“This COVID-19 situation began for us in mid January as our suppliers started informing us that they were delaying return to work from Chinese New Year,” Kristian said. “At the time the worry was if we’d have enough supply for the summer which is of course peak season for us. As our supply chain was restarting, it was clear that we’d have similar lockdowns in our main markets as well. Overall, however, we started the year at a strong inventory position which helped buffer any interruptions.”

He says that Ooni was lucky given that the initial production run of the Ooni 16 was already in warehouses by the time things got really hairy in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas. And the team was fairly ready for the new challenge of stay-at-home work.

“Much of our team comms already happened over Slack so the team’s been really quite well setup for working from home,” he told me. “We have great relationships with our 3rd party logistics providers and while they’ve been incredibly busy, they’ve been able to maintain a good level of service, at least in the grand scheme of things.”

In addition, Ooni has just launched the Fyra, an updated version of the original Ooni 3. It’s a wood pellet powered design that offers a similar “get up and go” quick pizza path. The wood brings an additional smoky flavor, of course. At 23 pounds, it’s a super portable wood version of the gas stoves I’ve been playing with.

Yeah, but how does it work?

Once Kristian saw that I was playing with my Ooni 13 he offered to send the newly launched 16″ model over to play with. I jumped at the chance to make a bigger pie.

My experiences with the Ooni ovens so far have been nothing short of revelatory. Though I’ve pondered indoor options like the Breville Smart Oven, I knew in my heart that I wanted that brilliant taste that comes from live fire and the high heat that would let me enjoy super thin crust pizzas. I’ve now fired over three dozen pizzas in the Ooni and am coming to know it a bit better. Its recovery time, rotation needs and cooking characteristics. I have never used a more enjoyable cooking utensil.

I’ve tried a few dough recipes, because I know I’ll get questions about it, but I’ve used two to good effect. Ooni’s own recommended dough (though I hydrate a bit more) and this Peter Reinhart recipe, recommended to me by Richie Nakano.

The pizzas that result are bursting with umami. The oven enables that potent combination of cheese, sauce and randomly distributed carbonization that combines into the perfect bite. Your pie goes in somewhat pedestrian — whitish dough, red sauce, hunks of fresh mozzarella — and you see it come to life right in front of your eyes.  Within 60-90 seconds, you’ve transmogrified the simple ingredients into a hot endocrine rush of savory, chewy flavor.

As I mentioned before, the setup is insanely simple. Flip out the legs, put it on an outdoor surface with some support and attach a propane tank. An instant of lighting knob work and you’re free to step away. Fifteen minutes later and you’ve got a cooking environment to die for. The flip down legs make the 13” model super great for taking camping or anywhere you want to go to create your own pizza party. Ooni even sells a carrying case.

The design of the oven’s upper shell means that all of the heat is redirected inwards, letting the baking surface reach 850 degrees easily in the center, up to 1000 degrees near the back. The Koda 16 has such an incredibly roomy cooking surface that it is easy to see to the sides and around your pizza a bit to tell how the crust is rising and how the leoparding is coming along. Spinning your pie mid-cook is such an important part of this kind of oven and the bigger mouth is smashing for this.

Heck I even cooked steak in it, to mouth watering results.

“Our core message has always been ‘great restaurant quality pizza at home’ and while the situation is what it is, more people spending more time at home looking for great home cooking options has been strong for our online sales,” Kristian said when I asked him about whether more people were discovering Ooni now. “Pizza making is a great way to have fun family time together. It’s about those shared experiences that bring people together.”

This mirrors my experiences so far. I’m not precisely ‘good’ at this yet, but I’m plugging away and the Ooni makes even my misses delicious. This weekend I was even confident enough to hold a socially distanced pizza pick-up party. Friends and family put in their orders and I fired a dozen pies of all kinds. Though I couldn’t hug them, I could safely hand them a freshly fired pizza and to most Italians like me, that’s probably better.

In my mind, the Ooni Koda pulls off a rare trifecta of kitchen gadgets: It retains the joy and energy of live flame, delivers completely on its core premise and still remains incredibly easy to use. Highly recommend.

 

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