Tech can help solve US cities’ affordability crisis

U.S. cities are in the midst of an affordability crisis. Just between May 2020 and May 2021, home prices saw their biggest annual increase in more than two decades and construction material prices increased by 24%. The cost of renting has risen faster than renters’ incomes for 20 years. Construction needs to play a critical role in fixing these pressing issues, but is the industry ready?

Construction is a $10 trillion global industry that employs more than 200 million people worldwide. But despite its size and importance, the industry’s annual labor productivity has only increased by 0.1% per year since 1947.

Since 1947, we’ve witnessed amazing advances in technology and science. Industries like agriculture, manufacturing and retail have achieved quantum leaps in productivity with improved bioengineering increasing yields and the introduction of cutting-edge logistics bringing affordable consumer goods to the mass market. Labor productivity in these industries increased by over 8x between 1947-2010, compared with 1x in construction.

Why, amid all this progress and innovation, do millions of construction workers in the U.S. still have to rely on manual, pen-and-paper processes for critical parts of their work?

We’ve heavily underinvested in the technology that can help save us from the crisis we face. Historically, entrepreneurs, technologists and investors haven’t spent the time to understand the specific needs and workflows of the construction industry.

Today, more than $800 billion a year is spent on commercial construction, but just a tiny fraction of that goes toward construction technology. In recent years, construction ranked lowest of all industries for technology spending as a percentage of revenue — coming in at just 1.5% — far below the all-industry average of 3.3%, let alone industries like banking, which came in at 7.2%.

A massive chunk of that annual spending — more than $250 billion a year — is spent on construction materials. And they’re only getting more expensive. Materials represent roughly a third of a project’s cost, yet most contractors have to rely on manual workarounds created long before the invention of smartphones to order materials.

This results in both workers on the job site and in the office being overburdened and spending far too much valuable time on paperwork, chasing down materials and fixing errors.

Office teams receive hundreds, if not thousands, of materials requests from the field, all in different formats — including requisitions written with a marker on pizza boxes. They have to manually convert handwritten requisitions into purchase orders sent to suppliers via email, spreadsheets and PDFs, retype order information into their accounting systems, and play phone tag with their suppliers and field teams to keep tabs on order statuses.

Unfortunately, all of that chaos often leads to mistakes, missed opportunities to buy at the best price and project delays.

The mayhem continues for accounting teams, who have no easy way to reconcile their invoices or know if they’re paying the right amount, let alone track rebates and payment terms across different vendors.

Meanwhile, foremen — whose time is more valuable than ever in the current labor squeeze — are often spending less than 30% of their time doing what they do best: building. Without an easy way to select the exact materials they need and track them to delivery, cases of the wrong materials showing up at the wrong time are too common, throwing project timelines off track and creating a huge amount of waste.

Technology can make ordering and managing materials much easier, allowing workers on site and in the office to focus on other critical tasks. It can also help contractors catch common errors before they derail a project and help us build in a more environmentally sustainable way.

Buildings are more than bricks and mortar; they’re hospitals, schools, homes and small businesses. The buildings that surround us quite literally shape our lives. Our communities need them — we need places to meet, learn, play and heal. Imagine if the things that we rely on to create vibrant communities were cheaper to fix — or faster to build?

A new generation of workers who grew up with phones in their pockets are now joining the construction industry and expecting change. By fixing the broken supply chain, we can make construction faster, cheaper and more efficient.

We can move forward and solve our most urgent needs as a society — from building affordable housing to fixing our nation’s infrastructure — and make our cities more affordable and accessible to all.

#column, #economy, #manufacturing, #opinion, #real-estate, #sustainability, #tc, #united-states

Fractory raises $9M to rethink the manufacturing supply chain for metalworks

The manufacturing industry took a hard hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are signs of how it is slowly starting to come back into shape — helped in part by new efforts to make factories more responsive to the fluctuations in demand that come with the ups and downs of grappling with the shifting economy, virus outbreaks and more. Today, a businesses that is positioning itself as part of that new guard of flexible custom manufacturing — a startup called Fractory — is announcing a Series A of $9 million (€7.7 million) that underscores the trend.

The funding is being led by OTB Ventures, a leading European investor focussed on early growth, post-product, high-tech start-ups, with existing investors Trind VenturesSuperhero CapitalUnited Angels VCStartup Wise Guys and Verve Ventures also participating.

Founded in Estonia but now based in Manchester, England — historically a strong hub for manufacturing in the country, and close to Fractory’s customers — Fractory has built a platform to make it easier for those that need to get custom metalwork to upload and order it, and for factories to pick up new customers and jobs based on those requests.

Fractory’s Series A will be used to continue expanding its technology, and to bring more partners into its ecosystem.

To date, the company has worked with more than 24,000 customers and hundreds of manufacturers and metal companies, and altogether it has helped crank out more than 2.5 million metal parts.

To be clear, Fractory isn’t a manufacturer itself, nor does it have no plans to get involved in that part of the process. Rather, it is in the business of enterprise software, with a marketplace for those who are able to carry out manufacturing jobs — currently in the area of metalwork — to engage with companies that need metal parts made for them, using intelligent tools to identify what needs to be made and connecting that potential job to the specialist manufacturers that can make it.

The challenge that Fractory is solving is not unlike that faced in a lot of industries that have variable supply and demand, a lot of fragmentation, and generally an inefficient way of sourcing work.

As Martin Vares, Fractory’s founder and MD, described it to me, companies who need metal parts made might have one factory they regularly work with. But if there are any circumstances that might mean that this factory cannot carry out a job, then the customer needs to shop around and find others to do it instead. This can be a time-consuming, and costly process.

“It’s a very fragmented market and there are so many ways to manufacture products, and the connection between those two is complicated,” he said. “In the past, if you wanted to outsource something, it would mean multiple emails to multiple places. But you can’t go to 30 different suppliers like that individually. We make it into a one-stop shop.”

On the other side, factories are always looking for better ways to fill out their roster of work so there is little downtime — factories want to avoid having people paid to work with no work coming in, or machinery that is not being used.

“The average uptime capacity is 50%,” Vares said of the metalwork plants on Fractory’s platform (and in the industry in general). “We have a lot more machines out there than are being used. We really want to solve the issue of leftover capacity and make the market function better and reduce waste. We want to make their factories more efficient and thus sustainable.”

The Fractory approach involves customers — today those customers are typically in construction, or other heavy machinery industries like ship building, aerospace and automotive — uploading CAD files specifying what they need made. These then get sent out to a network of manufacturers to bid for and take on as jobs — a little like a freelance marketplace, but for manufacturing jobs. About 30% of those jobs are then fully automated, while the other 70% might include some involvement from Fractory to help advise customers on their approach, including in the quoting of the work, manufacturing, delivery and more. The plan is to build in more technology to improve the proportion that can be automated, Vares said. That would include further investment in RPA, but also computer vision to better understand what a customer is looking to do, and how best to execute it.

Currently Fractory’s platform can help fill orders for laser cutting and metal folding services, including work like CNC machining, and it’s next looking at industrial additive 3D printing. It will also be looking at other materials like stonework and chip making.

Manufacturing is one of those industries that has in some ways been very slow to modernize, which in a way is not a huge surprise: equipment is heavy and expensive, and generally the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies in this world. That’s why companies that are building more intelligent software to at least run that legacy equipment more efficiently are finding some footing. Xometry, a bigger company out of the U.S. that also has built a bridge between manufacturers and companies that need things custom made, went public earlier this year and now has a market cap of over $3 billion. Others in the same space include Hubs (which is now part of Protolabs) and Qimtek, among others.

One selling point that Fractory has been pushing is that it generally aims to keep manufacturing local to the customer to reduce the logistics component of the work to reduce carbon emissions, although as the company grows it will be interesting to see how and if it adheres to that commitment.

In the meantime, investors believe that Fractory’s approach and fast growth are strong signs that it’s here to stay and make an impact in the industry.

“Fractory has created an enterprise software platform like no other in the manufacturing setting. Its rapid customer adoption is clear demonstrable feedback of the value that Fractory brings to manufacturing supply chains with technology to automate and digitise an ecosystem poised for innovation,” said Marcin Hejka in a statement. “We have invested in a great product and a talented group of software engineers, committed to developing a product and continuing with their formidable track record of rapid international growth

#3d-printing, #aerospace, #articles, #business, #cad, #economy, #emerging-technologies, #enterprise, #entrepreneurship, #estonia, #europe, #fractory, #funding, #hardware, #industrial-design, #laser, #manchester, #manufacturing, #maryland, #metal, #outsourcing, #series-a, #startup-company, #startup-wise-guys, #tc, #telecommuting, #united-angels-vc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #xometry

AON3D closes $11.5M Series A, partners with Astrobotic to send 3D printed parts to the moon

3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.

3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.

The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.

“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”

By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.

The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.

They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.

Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.

The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.

That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.

Image Credits: Astrobotic

“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.

Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.

#3d-printer, #3d-printing, #additive-manufacturing, #astrobotic-technology, #manufacturing, #polymer, #space, #tc

Rocket Lab boosts its space systems divison in quest to become an “end-to-end space company”

Peter Beck hasn’t been shy about his intention to grow Rocket Lab into more than just a launch provider, but a fully vertically integrated space company that makes spacecraft in addition to sending them to orbit. The company, which he founded in 2006, has taken yet another major stride toward that goal with the news Wednesday that it will open a new production facility to manufacture satellite components at a larger scale than ever before.

The facility will manufacture reaction wheels, critical attitude and stability control systems on satellites. Rocket Lab says the facility, which will be operational in the fourth quarter of this year, will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually. Given that spacecraft generally have between 3 and 4 reaction wheels, it’s safe to assume that Rocket Lab customers likely have around 500 individual satellites ready in the pipeline to accept these components. “These are these are large volumes of supply across multiple constellations,” Rocket Lab CEO Beck said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.

The news is a marked expansion for Rocket Lab’s space systems business, which is already kept busy by the in-house Photon spacecraft and was boosted last year when the company acquired major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary. Rocket Lab also offers bespoke Photons for individual use cases – it will be designing the vehicles for forthcoming launches with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries and two Photons that will be sent to Mars on an upcoming science mission.

Historically, spacecraft components have generally been produced on the scale of tens or hundreds, because the barriers to get to orbit were so high. But as the cost of launch has declined (thanks in part to innovations from companies like Rocket Lab) more and more entities are able to send projects to space. That means more satellites, and more reaction wheels. Even today, there are around 200 Rocket Lab-made reaction wheels in orbit, so 2,000 in a single year is a huge jump in scale.

It’s all part of Rocket Lab’s goal of being a fully-integrated space services company. A major benefit from the vertical integration for customers, Rocket Lab says, is slashed manufacturing lead times. Beck said that when the company first started producing Photons, they quickly encountered months-long delivery times for reaction wheels, which effectively pushed back their timeline for launching one to orbit.

“If the space economy is to grow in the way that it’s predicted, then this has to be solved,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that has to be solved. The whole space supply chain is characterized by small scale operations that really lack the ability to produce volume in any scale.”

Rocket Lab will be hiring more than 16 roles to support the space systems division and the new production facility, which will otherwise be highly automated; the company said in a statement that the production tools and environmental testing workstations will all be automated, and the metal machining is optimized to operate unattended. Beck said these techniques are very much in line with Rocket Lab’s other manufacturing processes – he pointed to Rosie the Robot as a cornerstone of the company’s capacity to use automation to rapidly scale its products.

Beck stayed mum about whether the company is planning on scaling the production of other spacecraft components, like the star trackers navigation tool, which Rocket Lab also manufacturers. However, he did say that the company plans on introducing new products – what those will be will, he declined to specify. But Beck’s stated aim when he started the space systems division is that “everything that goes to space should have a Rocket Lab logo on it.”

That aim goes to Rocket Lab’s larger vision, which is becoming an end-to-end space company: combining launch services with spacecraft manufacturing to be able to build in-orbit infrastructure.

“When you combine those things together, you have an immensely powerful platform that you can use to develop infrastructure in orbit and ultimately provide services,” he said.

But when asked what kinds of services he was thinking of, Beck played it close to the chest, instead choosing to give a well-known example from a competitor: SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite project, which it builds and launches itself. He stayed mum on what kinds of ventures Rocket Lab might pursue, just saying that the vertical integration gives the company the ability to try new business models.

“The marginal cost for us to experiment is very, very low.”

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #manufacturing, #peter-beck, #rocket-lab, #satellites, #space

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

Startups are hard work, but the complexities of global supply chains can make running hardware companies especially difficult. Instead of existing within a codebase behind a screen, the key components of your hardware product can be scattered around the world, subject to the volatility of the global economy.

I’ve spent most of my career establishing global supply chains, setting up manufacturing lines for 3D printers, electric bicycles and home fitness equipment on the ground in Mexico, Hungary, Taiwan and China. I’ve learned the hard way that Murphy’s law is a constant companion in the hardware business.

But after more than a decade of work on three different continents, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes.

Expect cost fluctuations, especially in currency and shipping

Shipping physical products is quite different from “shipping” code — you have to pay a considerable amount of money to transport products around the world. Of course, shipping costs become a line item like any other as they get baked into the overall business plan. The issue is that those costs can change monthly — sometimes drastically.

At this time last year, a shipping container from China cost $3,300. Today, it’s almost $18,000 — a more than fivefold increase in 12 months. It’s safe to assume that most 2020 business plans did not account for such a cost increase for a key line item.

Shipping a buggy hardware product can be exponentially costlier than shipping buggy software. Recalls, angry customers, return shipping and other issues can become existential problems.

Similar issues also arise with currency exchange rates. Contract manufacturers often allow you to maintain cost agreements for any fluctuations below 5%, but the dollar has dropped much more than 5% against the yuan compared to a year ago, and hardware companies have been forced to renegotiate their manufacturing contracts.

As exchange rates become less favorable and shipping costs increase, you have two options: Operate with lower margins, or pass along the cost to the end customer. Neither choice is ideal, but both are better than going bankrupt.

The takeaway is that when you set up your business, you need to prepare for these possibilities. That means operating with enough margin to handle increased costs, or with the confidence that your end customer will be able to handle a higher price.

Overorder critical parts

Over the past year, many businesses have lost billions of dollars in market value because they didn’t order enough semiconductors. As the owner of a hardware company, you will encounter similar risks.

The supply for certain components, like computer chips, can be limited, and shortages can arise quickly if demand increases or supply chains get disrupted. It’s your job to analyze potential choke points in your supply chain and create redundancies around them.

#column, #ec-column, #ec-hardware, #ec-how-to, #ec-manufacturing-and-supply-chain, #hardware, #logistics, #manufacturing, #semiconductors, #startups, #supply-chain, #supply-chain-management

Japan’s B2B ordering and supply platform CADDi raises $73 million Series B funding

With COVID-19 disrupting the entire manufacturing supply chain including semiconductor shortages, companies across multiple industries have been struggling to seek a procurement solution that can rebalance the gap between supply and demand.

CADDi, a Tokyo-based B2B ordering and supply platform in the manufacturing and procurement industry, helps both procurement (demand side) and manufacturing facilities (supply side) by aggregating and rebalancing supply and demand via its automated calculation system for manufacturing costs and databases of fabrication facilities across Japan.

The company announced this morning a $73 million Series B round co-led by Globis Capital Partners and World Innovation Lab (WiL), with participation from existing investors DCM and Global Brain. Six new investors also have joined the round including Arena Holdings, DST Global, Minerva Growth Partners, Tybourne Capital Management, JAFCO Group and SBI Investment.

CADDi was founded by CEO Yushiro Kato and CTO Aki Kobashi in November 2017.

The post-money valuation is estimated at $450 million, according to sources close to the deal.

The new funding brings CADDi’s total raised so far to $90.5 million. In December 2018, the company closed a $9 million Series A round led by DCM and followed by Globis Capital Partners and WiL and Global Brain.

The funding proceeds will be used for accelerating digital transformation of the platform, hiring and expanding to global markets.

“We enable integrated production of complete sets of equipment consisting of custom-made parts such as sheet metal, machined parts and structural frames. Using an automatic quotation system based on a proprietary cost calculation algorithm, we select the processing company that best matches the quality, delivery date and price of the order and build an optimal supply chain,” CEO and co-founder Yushiro Kato said.

The goal of CADDi’s ordering platform is to transform the manufacturing industry from a multiple subcontractor pyramid structure to a flat, connected structure based on each manufacturers’ individual strengths, thus creating a world where those on the front lines of manufacturing can spend more time on essential and creative work, Kato said.

CADDi’s ordering platform, backed by its unique technology including automatic cost calculation system, optimal ordering and production management system, and drawing management system, offers a 10%-15% cost reduction, stable capacity and balanced order placement to its more than 600 Japanese supply partners spanning a multitude of industries.

“The demand for CADDi’s services has seen significant acceleration. Our business has been growing very fast, and our latest orders have grown more than six times compared to the previous year, leading to the company’s expanded presence into both eastern and western Japan in order to meet this increase in demand,” Kato said.

“Going forward, in addition to continuously expanding our ordering platform, we will also start to provide purchases (manufacturers) and supply partners with our technology directly to promote digital transformation of their operations, for example, the production management system and drawing management system,” Kato continued.

“As a start point, in the near future, we are thinking about selling ‘Drawing Management SaaS,’” which has been used internally for CADDi’s ordering operation, to help customers solve operational pains in handling piles of drawings. “Our ‘Drawing Management SaaS’ technology will not only help manage drawings as documents properly but also allow utilization of data of drawings in a practical way for future decision-making and action in their procurement process.”

CADDi’s next axis of growth will be other growing markets, especially in Southeast Asia, Kato pointed out. “Many of our Japanese customers have subsidiaries and branches in these countries, so it’s a natural expansion opportunity for us to strengthen our value proposition and provide more continuity and seamless service to our customers,” Kato added.

Kato also said it wants to continue investing in hiring, especially engineers, to further the development of its platform CADDi and new business. It plans to hire 1,000 employees in the next three years. CADDi had 102 employees as of March 2021.

The company aims to become a global platform with sales of USD 9.1 billion (that is 1 trillion YEN) by 2030, Kato said.

COVID-19 had a different impact on different industries in the procurement and manufacturing sector, with “the automobile and machine tool industries were negatively affected by the pandemic and experienced an up to 90% temporary drop in sales, while other industries such as the medical and semiconductor industries have experienced explosive growth in demand. The overall result of COVID-19 is that the company has captured more demand because CADDi’s system rebalances receipts across multiple industries,” according to Kato.

Masaya Kubota, partner at World Innovation Lab, told TechCrunch, “CADDi’s solution of aggregating and rebalancing supply and demand has once again proven to be indispensable to both purchasers and manufacturers, with the pandemic disrupting the entire supply chain in manufacturing. We first invested in CADDi in 2018, because we strongly believed in their mission of digitally transforming one of the most analog industries, the $1 trillion procurement market.”

Another investor principal at DCM, Kenichiro Hara, also said in an email interview with TechCrunch, “The pandemic made the manufacturing industry’s supply chain vulnerabilities quite clear early on. For example, if a country is on lockdown or a factory stalls the operations, their customers cannot procure necessary parts to produce their products. This impact amplifies, and the entire supply chain is affected. Therefore, the demand for finding new, available and accessible suppliers in a timely manner increased in importance, which is CADDi’s primary value-add.”

#asia, #automation, #b2b, #caddi, #funding, #japan, #manufacturing, #recent-funding, #saas, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

Rapid Robotics raises another $36.7M

Rapid Robotics announced a $12 million Series A all the way back in April 2021. Four months later, the Bay Area-based robotic manufacturing firm is back with a $36.7 million Series B, led by Kleiner Perkins and Tiger Global. The round, which also features existing investors NEA, Greycroft, Bee Partners and 468 Capital, brings the company’s total funding up to $54.2 million.

The funding values the startup at $192.5 million — an impressive figure for a firm that was raising its seed in 2020. The Series B is Rapid’s third (!) in less than a year, no doubt spurred on by the immense interest in robotics and automation being fueled by a seemingly endless global pandemic.

As companies look for alternatives to “non-essential” workers, investments in these technologies have only accelerated. Manufacturing bottlenecks throughout the pandemic have also brought into sharp focus the need for flexible and global production.

Rapid’s value prop is a Rapid Machine Operator (RMO) robot that can be deployed in a manufacturing setting in a matter of hours, without the need for programming and other robotics knowledge. The system is available under the RaaS (robotics as a service) model for $25,000 a year. The system is flexible and can be assigned various tasks — a nice feature for companies that can’t afford devoted systems.

“We hear a lot about the semiconductor shortage, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Contract manufacturers can’t produce gaskets, vials, labels — you name it,” CEO Jordan Kretchmer said in a release tied to the news. “I’ve seen cases where the inability to produce a single piece of U-shaped black plastic brought an entire auto line to a halt.”

Automotive is a target for Rapid, though the company notes that Bay Area-based health company TruePill is now employing its systems to fill and label prescription bottles.

#kleiner-perkins, #manufacturing, #rapid-robotics, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tiger-global

Industrial cybersecurity startup Nozomi Networks secures $100M in pre-IPO funding

Nozomi Networks, an industry cybersecurity startup that aims to shield critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, has raised $100 million in pre-IPO funding. 

The Series D funding round was led by Triangle Peak Partners, and also includes investment from a number of equipment, security, service provider and go-to-market companies including Honeywell Ventures, Keysight Technologies and Porsche Digital. 

This funding comes at a critical time for the company. Cyberattacks on industrial control systems (ICS) — the devices necessary for the continued running of power plants, water supplies, and other critical infrastructure — increased both in frequency and severity during the pandemic. Look no further than May and June, which saw ransomware attacks target the IT networks of Colonial Pipeline and meat manufacturing giant JBS, forcing the companies to shut down their industrial operations.

Nozomi Networks, which competes with Dragos and Claroty, claims its industrial cybersecurity solution, which works to secure ICS devices by detecting threats before they hit, aims to prevent such attacks from happening. It provides real-time visibility to help organizations manage cyber risk and improve resilience for industrial operations.

The technology currently supports more than a quarter of a million devices in sectors such as critical infrastructure, energy, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and utilities, with Nozomi Networks doubling its customer base in 2020 and seeing a 5,000% increase in the number of devices its solutions monitor. 

The company will use its latest investment, which comes less than two years after it secured $30 million in Series C funding, to scale product development efforts as well as its go-to-market approach globally. 

Specifically, Nozomi Networks said it plans to grow its sales, marketing, and partner enablement efforts, and upgrade its products to address new challenges in both the OT and IoT visibility and security markets. 

#articles, #australia, #canada, #colonial-pipeline, #computer-security, #computing, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #energy, #funding, #internet-of-things, #malware, #manufacturing, #mining, #nozomi-networks, #porsche, #security, #technology, #united-states

China roundup: Keep down internet upstarts, cultivate hard tech

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The tech industry in China has had quite a turbulent week. The government is upending its $100 billion private education sector, wiping billions from the market cap of the industry’s most lucrative players. Meanwhile, the assault on Chinese internet giants continued. Tech stocks tumbled after Tencent suspended user registration, sparking fears over who will be the next target of Beijing’s wrath.

Incisive observers point out that the new wave of stringent regulations against China’s internet and education firms has long been on Beijing’s agenda and there’s nothing surprising. Indeed, the central government has been unabashed about its desires to boost manufacturing and contain the unchecked powers of its service industry, which can include everything from internet platforms, film studios to after-school centers.

A few weeks ago I had an informative conversation with a Chinese venture capitalist who has been investing in industrial robots for over a decade, so I’m including it in this issue as it provides useful context for what’s going on in the consumer tech industry this week.

Automate the factories

China is putting robots into factories at an aggressive pace. Huang He, a partner at Northern Light Venture Capital, sees three forces spurring the demand for industrial robots — particularly ones that are made in China.

Over the years, Beijing has advocated for “localization” in a broad range of technology sectors, from enterprise software to production line automation. One may start to see Chinese robots that can rival those of Schneider and Panasonic a few years down the road. CRP, an NLVC-backed industrial robot maker, is already selling across Southeast Asia, Russia and East Europe.

On top of tech localization, it’s also well acknowledged that China is facing a severe demographic crisis. The labor shortage in its manufacturing sector is further compounded by the reluctance of young people to do menial factory work. Factory robots could offer a hand.

“Youngsters these days would rather become food delivery riders than work in a factory. The work that robots replace is the low-skilled type, and those that still can’t be taken up by robots pay well and come with great benefits,” Huang observed.

Large corporations in China still lean toward imported robots due to the products’ proven stability. The problem is that imported robots are not only expensive but also selective about their users.

“Companies need to have deep technical capabilities to be able to operate these [Western] robots, but such companies are rare in China,” said Huang, adding that the overwhelming majority of Chinese enterprises are small and medium size.

With the exceptions of the automotive and semiconductor industries, which still largely rely on sophisticated, imported robots, affordable, easy-to-use Chinese robots can already meet most of the local demand for industrial automation, Huang said.

China currently uses nearly one million six-axis robots a year but only manufactures 20% of them itself. The gap, coupled with a national plan for localization, has led to a frenzy of investments in industrial robotics startups.

The rush isn’t necessarily a good thing, said Huang. “There’s this bizarre phenomenon in China, where the most funded and valuable industrial robotic firms are generating less than 30 million yuan in annual revenue and not really heard of by real users in the industry.”

“This isn’t an industry where giants can be created by burning through cash. It’s not the internet sector.”

Small-and-medium-size businesses are happily welcoming robots onto factory floors. Take welding for example. An average welder costs about 150,000 yuan ($23,200) a year. A typical welding robot, which is sold for 120,000 yuan, can replace up to three workers a year and “doesn’t complain at work,” said the investor. A quality robot can work continuously for six to eight years, so the financial incentive to automate is obvious.

Advanced manufacturing is not just helping local bosses. It will eventually increase foreign enterprises’ dependence on China for its efficiency, making it hard to cut off Chinese supply chains despite efforts to avoid the geopolitical risks of manufacturing in China.

“In electronics, for example, most of the supply chains are in China, so factories outside China end up spending more on logistics to move parts around. Much of the 3C manufacturing is already highly automated, which relies heavily on electricity, but in most emerging economies, the power supply is still quite unstable, which disrupts production,” said Huang.

War on internet titans

The shock of antitrust regulations against Alibaba from last year is still reverberating, but another wave of scrutiny has already begun. Shortly after Didi’s blockbuster IPO in New York, the ride-hailing giant was asked to cease user registration and work on protecting user information critical to national security.

On Tuesday, Tencent stocks fell the most in a decade after it halted user signups on its WeChat messenger as it “upgrades” its security technology to align with relevant laws and regulations. The gaming and social media giant is just the latest in a growing list of companies hit by Beijing’s tightening grip on the internet sector, which had been flourishing for two decades under laissez-faire policies.

Underlying the clampdowns is Beijing’s growing unease with the service industry’s unscrutinized accumulation of wealth and power. China is unequivocally determined to advance its tech sector, but the types of tech that Beijing wants are not so much the video games that bring myopia to children and algorithms that get adults hooked to their screens. China makes it clear in its five-year plan, a series of social and economic initiatives, that it will go all-in on “hard tech” like semiconductors, renewable energy, agritech, biotech and industrial automation like factory robotics.

China has also vowed to fight inequality in education and wealth. In the authorities’ eyes, expensive, for-profit after-schools dotting big cities are hindering education attainment for children from poorer areas, which eventually exacerbates the wealth gap. The new regulatory measures have restricted the hours, content, profits and financing of private tutoring institutions, tanking stocks of the industry’s top companies. Again, there have been clear indications from President Xi Jinping’s writings to bring off-campus tutoring “back on the educational track.” All China-focused investors and analysts are now poring over Xi’s thoughts and directives.

#asia, #beijing, #china, #china-roundup, #enterprise-software, #government, #hardware, #industrial-robot, #made-in-china, #manufacturing, #northern-light-venture-capital, #robot, #semiconductor, #semiconductors, #southeast-asia, #tc, #tencent, #xi-jinping

Construct Capital’s Dayna Grayson will be a Startup Battlefield Judge at Disrupt 2021

Dayna Grayson has been in venture capital for more than a decade and was one of the first VCs to build a portfolio around the transformation of industrial sectors of our economy.

At NEA, where she was a partner for eight years, she led investments in and sat on the boards of companies including Desktop Metal, Onshape, Framebridge, Tulip, Formlabs and Guideline. She left NEA to start her own fund, Construct Capital, that focuses exclusively on early-stage startups, with a portfolio that includes Copia, ChargeLab, Tradeswell and Hadrian.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we’re absolutely thrilled to have Grayson join us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 in September.

Grayson has more than proven that she has a keen eye for transformational technology. Desktop Metal went public in 2020 — she still sits on the board as chair of the compensation committee. Onshape, another NEA-era investment, was acquired by PTC in 2019 for a whopping $525 million. Framebridge was also acquired by Graham Holdings in 2020.

Grayson saw an opportunity to develop a venture brand more hyperfocused on the types of deals she was doing at NEA, which centered around manufacturing and digitizing industrial verticals. That’s where Construct Capital came in. It’s a $140 million fund helmed by Grayson and former Uber exec Rachel Holt.

At Disrupt, Grayson will serve as a Startup Battlefield judge. The Battlefield is one of the world’s most prestigious and exciting startup competitions. Twenty+ early-stage startups hop on our stage and present their wares to a panel of expert VC judges, who then grill the founders on everything about the business, from the revenue model to the go-to-market strategy to the team to the technology itself.

The winner walks away with $100,000 in prize money and the glory of being a Battlefield winner. Households names in tech have gotten their start in the Battlefield, from Dropbox to Mint.

Grayson joins plenty of other seasoned investors on the Battlefield stage, including Camille Samuels, Deena Shakir, Terri Burns, Shauntel Garvey and Alexa Von Tobel.

Disrupt 2021 goes down from September 21 to 23 and is virtual. Snag a ticket here starting under $100 for a limited time!

#alexa-von-tobel, #camille-samuels, #dayna-grayson, #deena-shakir, #desktop-metal, #finance, #formlabs, #framebridge, #graham-holdings, #guideline, #investment, #manufacturing, #money, #onshape, #ptc, #rachel-holt, #shauntel-garvey, #startup-battlefield, #startup-company, #startups, #tc, #tc-disrupt-2021, #terri-burns, #tulip, #uber, #venture-capital

Cutting out carbon emitters with bioengineering at XTC Global Finals on July 22

Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. Utilizing natural and engineered biological process has led to low-carbon textiles from Algiknit, cell-cultured premium meats from Orbillion, and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech — and leaders from those companies will be joining us on stage for the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22.

We’re co-hosting the event, with panels like this one all day and a pitch-off that will feature a number of innovative startups with a sustainability angle.

I’ll be moderating a panel on using bioengineering to create change directly in industries with large carbon footprints: textiles, meat production, and manufacturing.

Algiknit is a startup that is sourcing raw material for fabric from kelp, which is an eco-friendly alternative to textile crop monocultures and artificial materials like acrylic. CEO Aaron Nessa will speak to the challenge of breaking into this established industry and overcoming preconceived notions of what an algae-derived fabric might be like (spoiler: it’s like any other fabric).

Orbillion Bio is one of the new crop of alternative protein companies offering cell-cultured meats (just don’t call them “lab” or “vat” grown) to offset the incredibly wasteful livestock industry. But it’s more than just growing a steak — there are regulatory and market barriers aplenty that CEO Patricia Bubner can speak to as well as the technical challenge.

LanzaTech works with factories to capture emissions as they’re emitted, collecting the useful particles that would otherwise clutter the atmosphere and repurposing them in the form of premium fuels. This is a delicate and complex process that needs to be a partnership, not just a retrofitting operation, so CEO Jennifer Holmgren will speak to their approach convincing the industry to work with them at the ground floor.

It should be a very interesting conversation, so tune in on July 22 to hear these and other industry leaders focused on sustainability discuss how innovation at the startup level can contribute to the fight against climate change. Plus it’s free!

#algiknit, #alternative-protein, #articles, #bioengineering, #biotechnology, #carbon-footprint, #ceo, #cultured-meat, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #jennifer-holmgren, #lanzatech, #manufacturing, #meat, #orbillion-bio, #tc

Is the US labor shortage the big break AI needs?

The tectonic shifts to American culture and society due to the pandemic are far from over. One of the more glaring ones is that the U.S. labor market is going absolutely haywire.

Millions are unemployed, yet companies — from retail to customer service to airlines — can’t find enough workers. This perplexing paradox behind Uber price surges and waiting on an endless hold because your flight was canceled isn’t just inconvenient — it’s a loud and clear message from the post-pandemic American workforce. Many are underpaid, undervalued and underwhelmed in their current jobs, and are willing to change careers or walk away from certain types of work for good.

It’s worth noting that low-wage workers aren’t the only ones putting their foot down; white-collar quits are also at an all-time high. Extended unemployment benefits implemented during the pandemic may be keeping some workers on the sidelines, but employee burnout and job dissatisfaction are also primary culprits.

We have a wage problem and an employee satisfaction problem, and Congress has a long summer ahead of it to attempt to find a solution. But what are companies supposed to do in the meantime?

Adopting AI in manufacturing accelerated during the pandemic to deal with volatility in the supply chain, but now it must move from “pilot purgatory” to widespread implementation.

At this particular moment, businesses need a stopgap solution either until September, when COVID-19 relief and unemployment benefits are earmarked to expire, or something longer term and more durable that not only keeps the engine running but propels the ship forward. Adopting AI can be the key to both.

Declaring that we’re on the precipice of an AI awakening is probably nowhere near the most shocking thing you’ve read this year. But just a few short years ago, it would have frightened a vast number of people, as advances in automation and AI began to transform from a distant idea into a very personal reality. People were (and some holdouts remain) genuinely worried about losing their job, their lifeline, with visions of robots and virtual agents taking over.

But does this “AI takes jobs” storyline hold up in the cultural and economic moment we’re in?

Is AI really taking jobs if no one actually likes those jobs?

If this “labor shortage” unveils any silver lining, it’s our real-world version of the Sorting Hat. When you take money out of the equation on the question of employment, it’s opening our eyes to what work people find desirable and, more evidently, what’s not. Specifically, the manufacturing, retail and service industries are taking the hardest labor hits, underscoring that tasks associated with those jobs — repetitive duties, unrewarding customer service tasks and physical labor — are driving more and more potential workers away.

Adopting AI in manufacturing accelerated during the pandemic to deal with volatility in the supply chain, but now it must move from “pilot purgatory” to widespread implementation. The best use cases for AI in this industry are ones that help with supply chain optimization, including quality inspection, general supply chain management and risk/inventory management.

Most critically, AI can predict when equipment might fail or break, reducing costs and downtime to almost zero. Industry leaders believe that AI is not only beneficial for business continuity but that it can augment the work and efficiency of existing employees rather than displace them. AI can assist employees by providing real-time guidance and training, flagging safety hazards, and freeing them up to do less repetitive, low-skilled work by taking on such tasks itself, such as detecting potential assembly line defects.

In the manufacturing industry, this current labor shortage is not a new phenomenon. The industry has been facing a perception problem in the U.S. for a long time, mainly because young workers think manufacturers are “low tech” and low paying. AI can make existing jobs more attractive and directly lead to a better bottom line while also creating new roles for companies that attract subject-matter talent and expertise.

In the retail and service industries, arduous customer service tasks and low pay are leading many employees to walk out the door. Those that are still sticking it out have their hands tied because of their benefits, even though they are unhappy with the work. Conversational AI, which is AI that can interact with people in a human-like manner by leveraging natural language processing and machine learning, can relieve employees of many of the more monotonous customer experience interactions so they can take on roles focused on elevating retail and service brands with more cerebral, thoughtful human input.

Many retail and service companies adopted scripted chatbots during the pandemic to help with the large online volumes only to realize that chatbots operate on a fixed decision tree — meaning if you ask something out of context, the whole customer service process breaks down. Advanced conversational AI technologies are modeled on the human brain. They even learn as they go, getting more skilled over time, presenting a solution that saves retail and service employees from the mundane while boosting customer satisfaction and revenue.

Hesitancy and misconceptions about AI in the workplace have long been a barrier to widespread adoption — but companies experiencing labor shortages should consider where it can make their employees’ lives better and easier, which can only be a benefit for bottom-line growth. And it might just be the big break that AI needs.

#artificial-intelligence, #column, #employment, #labor, #machine-learning, #manufacturing, #natural-language-processing, #opinion, #retail, #supply-chain, #unemployment

Despite the hype, construction tech will be hard to disrupt

From the outside looking in, the construction industry appears ripe for tech innovation. The industry represents 6.3% of the U.S. GDP. There are close to 1 million general contractors (GCs) in the country, and anywhere between 3 million and 5 million workers on job sites every day.

Meanwhile, there’s a common (if somewhat justified) belief that construction firms are slow to adopt technology and are behind the digital curve.

Success in construction tech will come down to proving the need for the technology, delivering immediate ROI, and ensuring workers know how to use it on the first try.

But not every construction company is a technology laggard. While GCs are historically slower to adopt new technologies, this doesn’t necessarily make them behind the times. About 60% of construction companies have R&D departments for new technology, and the largest construction firms have substantial R&D budgets. Yet 35.9% of employees are hesitant to try new technology, according to JB Knowledge.

One way to interpret this is that there is a strong interest and need to take advantage of newer construction-centric technologies, but only if they’re easy to use, easy to deploy or access while on a job site, and improve productivity almost immediately.

These factors have made construction tech appealing to investors, who have poured at least $3 billion into the sector. Is construction tech the “it” place right now? Is it ripe for disruption, the way VC investors find attractive? If that’s true, what went wrong at Katerra? Is Procore justified in losing $1 for every $4 in revenue? And why does so little investment go into improving productivity at the job site where GC money is made — or lost — compared to back-office operations?

My experience to date says that construction is different from other sectors because of the significant variation among projects that originates in the way projects are financed, how risks are managed and the factors that drive variation among projects. Construction’s differences are not easily mitigated via data processing, as compared to fintech, for example, where all money is data-amenable to software processing. Addressing project variations will be key to succeeding in construction tech beyond the back office. Here are the critical factors to consider.

Project financing makes capital investment more difficult. While the Commerce Department reported that construction spending in the U.S. reached a record high of $1.459 trillion in November 2020, this doesn’t mean there are unlimited opportunities for construction tech. The reality is that GCs make few capital investments because they must fund investments in technology out of operating cash flow.

Construction projects are typically funded incrementally in phases as the project demonstrates progress. Delays or accidents can have a huge effect on cash flow. Overhead and G&A cost burdens are hated. Asking a GC to license technology as a capital purchase doesn’t always make sense.

GC ownership and business structure also make large capital investment more difficult. Most GC firms were founded by tradespeople and either started as, or remain, family-owned firms. Borrowing what’s considered the “family’s money” is a much more risk-averse decision compared to the way larger corporations evaluate productivity investments and put assets at risk.

#column, #construction, #construction-manufacturing, #construction-software, #ec-column, #ec-real-estate-and-proptech, #katerra, #manufacturing, #procore, #project-management, #research-and-development, #tc

Why former Alibaba scientist wants to back founders outside the Ivory Tower

Min Wanli had a career path much coveted by those pursuing a career in computer science. A prodigy, Min was accepted to a top research university in China at the age of 14. He subsequently obtained Ph.D. degrees in physics and statistics from the University of Chicago before spending nearly a combined decade at IBM and Google.

Like many young, aspiring Chinese scientists working in the United States, Min returned to China when the country’s internet boom was underway in the early 2010s. He joined Alibaba’s fledgling cloud arm and was at the forefront of applying its tech to industrial scenarios, like using visual identification to mitigate highway traffic and computing power to improve factory efficiency.

Then in July 2019, Min took a leap. He resigned from Alibaba Cloud, which had become a major growth driver for the e-commerce goliath and at the time China’s largest public cloud infrastructure provider (it still is). With no experience in investment, he started a new venture capital firm called North Summit Capital.

“A lot of enterprises were quite skeptical of ‘digital transformation’ around 2016 and 2017. But by 2019, after they had seen success cases [from Alibaba Cloud], they no longer questioned its viability,” said Min in his office overlooking a cluster of urban villages and highrise offices in Shenzhen. Clad in a well-ironed light blue shirt, he talked with a childlike, earnest smile.

“Suddenly, everyone wanted to go digital. But how am I supposed to meet their needs with a team of just 400-500 people?”

Min’s solution was not to serve the old-school factories and corporations himself but to finance and support a raft of companies to do so. Soon he closed the first fund for North Summit with “several hundreds of millions of dollars” from an undisclosed high-net-worth individual from the United Arab Emirates, whom Min had met when he represented Alibaba at a Duhai tech conference in 2018.

“Venture capital is like a magnifier through which I can connect with a lot of tech companies and share my lessons from the past, so they can quickly and effectively work with their clients from traditional industries,” Min said.

“For example, I’d discuss with my portfolio firms whether they should focus on selling hardware pieces or software first, or give them equal weight.”

Min strives to be deeply involved in the companies he backs. North Summit invests early, with check sizes so far ranging from roughly $5 million to $25 million. Min also started a technology service company called Quadtalent to provide post-investment support to his portfolio.

Photo: North Summit Capital’s office in Shenzhen

The notion of digital transformation is both buzzy and daunting for many investors due to the highly complex and segmented nature of traditional industries. But Min has a list of criteria to help narrow down his targets.

First, an investable area should be data-intensive. Subway tracks, for example, could benefit from implementing large amounts of sensors that monitor the rail system’s stauts. Second, an area’s manufacturing or business process should be capital-intensive, such as production lines that use exorbitant equipment. And lastly, the industry should be highly dependent on repetitive human experience, like police directing traffic.

Solving industrial problems require not just founders’ computing ingenuity but more critically, their experience in a traditional sector. As such, Min goes beyond the “Ivory Tower” of computer science wizards when he looks for entrepreneurs.

“What we need today is a type of inter-disciplinary talent who can do ‘compound algorithms.’ That means understanding sensor signals, business rationales, manufacturing, as well as computer algorithms. Applying neural network through an algorithmic black box without the other factors is simply futile.”

Min faces ample competition as investors hunt down the next ABB, Schneider, or Siemens of China. The country is driving towards technological independence in all facets of the economy and the national mandate takes on new urgency as COVID-19 disrupts global supply chains. The result is skyrocketing valuations for startups touting “industrial upgrade” solutions, Min noted.

But factory bosses don’t care whether their automation solution providers are unerdogs or startup unicorns. “At the end of the day, the factory CFO will only ask, ‘how much more money does this piece of software or equipment help us save or make?’”

The investor is cautious about deploying his maiden fund. Two years into operation, North Summit has closed four deals: TopScore, a 17-year-old footwear manufacturer embracing automation; Lingumi, a London-based English learning app targeting Chinese pre-school kids; Aerodyne, a Malaysian drone service provider; and Extreme Vision, a marketplace connecting small-and-medium enterprises to affordable AI vision solutions. 

This year, North Summit aims to invest close to $100 million in companies inside and outside China. Optical storage and robotic process automation (RPA) are just two areas that have been on Min’s radar in recent days.

#abb, #alibaba, #alibaba-cloud, #alibaba-group, #asia, #china, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #dubai, #funding, #ibm, #manufacturing, #siemens, #tc, #united-arab-emirates, #university-of-chicago, #venture-capital

Nodes & Links raises $11M to — maybe — save billions on the big projects the world needs now

Nodes & Links is a scheduling platform for large-scale infrastructure projects which works out when the nuts and bolts for the bridge (for example) should be delivered, and in what order. Unsurprisingly, complex infrastructure projects often get this wrong. The company has now raised an $11 million Series A funding round led by urban sustainability-focused fund 2150, alongside Zigg Capital and Westerly Winds, with participation from existing investors Entrepreneur First, ADV and Seedcamp.

Launched in 2018, the company’s Aegis platform is used by Balfour Beatty, Costain and BAM Nuttal, and claims to have delivered millions in cost savings on infrastructure projects, because the building materials and assembly ends up being organized in the right order. Given that most major projects run significantly over time and over budget, scheduling correctly can make a huge difference to costs, as well as the impact on the environment.

The company quotes a survey by Oxford University that found that only 8% of infrastructure projects get delivered on time and on budget.

“Complex projects account for over 4% of the world’s GDP, yet only 8% of them complete on budget and on time,” Nodes and Links CEO Greg Lawton said. “This is largely because humans are responsible for all tasks within projects, even the repetitive and complex ones they’re unsuited to, instead of the high-value, creative activities people are uniquely qualified for. By expanding our workforce to include machines, better decisions will be made and better projects delivered. We firmly believe that the work we’re doing is going to have the same impact as automation did in manufacturing and this new investment will help us accelerate its adoption for the common good.”

Nodes & Links competes with large infrastructure software such as Oracle Primavera, as well as plain old Excel spreadsheets, for obvious reasons.

“The world is accelerating its investment into linear infrastructure, much of it with a focus on sustainability and resilience,” Christian Hernandez, Partner at 2150 said. “Time is the biggest lever available to ensure that trillions of dollars of projects starts delivering benefits to our planet and Nodes & Links has proven that they can help large and complex engineering projects deliver on that.”

 

#articles, #christian-hernandez, #construction, #europe, #infrastructure, #manufacturing, #nodes-links, #oxford-university, #tc

Apple and Snap partner JigSpace, the ‘Canva for 3D,’ raises a $4.7M Series A

When former Art Director Zac Duff started teaching a game development course online in 2015, he faced the same challenges that teachers around the globe have become all too familiar with after a pandemic-induced lockdown. So, he used his experience in 3D design to build a virtual reality classroom to make remote learning more engaging for his students. Instead of entering yet another Zoom lecture, the school gave students VR headsets to transport themselves to the Ancient Greek-inspired classroom that Duff built.

Still, Duff knew that this learning model couldn’t be easily scaled — most schools don’t have VR headsets to send out, and most teachers don’t have over a decade of game design experience to whip up a classroom with green fields and butterflies (yes, Duff made that). But he saw that there was potential for a user-friendly program that lets anyone create 3D presentations and share information in AR.

“Right at the center of it is knowledge transfer. It’s about one person giving knowledge to another person in a really effective way,” Duff told TechCrunch. He referenced products like Microsoft Powerpoint and Canva, which make it easy for the average user to create presentations and graphics that communicate their ideas. “We have those systems in 2D, but in 3D, we just didn’t have it, and it was a really complex, expensive technical process that you had to go through to build anything, and that stuck with me.”

Image Credits: JigSpace

Soon after, Duff took a Friday off from work to outline the company that would become JigSpace, which is poised to set the standard for knowledge-sharing in 3D. After launching in 2017, the JigSpace platform now has over 4 million users with a 4.8 average rating on the App Store. When you download the JigSpace app, you can interact in AR with 3D models that show how to fix a leaky sink, repair a dry wall, or even build a Lego Star Wars spacecraft. There are also educational models, or Jigs, that show how a piano works, the anatomy of the human eye, and even how the coronavirus spreads. The potential use cases for JigSpace are expansive — Duff says he hopes to work with manufacturing companies to have them make Jigs of their products. That way, let’s say you want to replace your AC filter, you can look at a 3D model in AR, rather than a black and white 2D drawing in an instruction booklet.

Today, JigSpace announced that it raised $4.7 million in Series A funding led by Rampersand, with Investible and new investors including Vulpes, and Roger Allen AM, also participating. The JigSpace app is free to use, and anyone can combine presets and templates of 3D modeled objects to create their own Jigs — the more tech savvy among us can upload up to 30 MB of files to make more customized Jigs on the free version. But the money-maker for Jigspace is its Jig Pro platform, which is designed for commercial businesses and manufacturers. Jig Pro‘s subscription for individuals is $49 per month, while the price of the enterprise offering isn’t listed online.

Image Credits: JigSpace

“The best area for us has been in durable manufacturing, because almost all manufacturing products have CAD files, so the 3D already exists,” said Duff. “Then, we’re able to work with those companies to give them the tools to create knowledge material around their products.”

Right after JigSpace launched its Pro version, it was featured in Apple’s iPhone 12 Keynote, demonstrating how the iPhone 12’s LiDAR scanner and 5G capabilities could be used to save time and money in manufacturing. JigSpace also partnered with Snapchat to create a Lens that allows you to scan kitchen items to reveal 3D Jigs that show how stuff works, from your microwave to your coffee maker.

Jig Pro’s customer base has grown 40% month-on-month since it launched in mid-2020, with the average user logging into the app at least once per day. Companies like Verizon, Volkswagen, Medtronic, and Thermo Fisher Scientific use JigSpace to develop 3D models to present to stakeholders, customers, and remote colleagues. Especially as products like Apple’s Capture emerge, it will become even easier for people to import their own 3D models into JigSpace.

Despite its commercial potential, it’s important to Duff that JigSpace always retains a free version that makes learning through AR easy.

“We want to make sure that all of the people with information they want to share, those are the people we serve, not just the technical people at the top,” Duff says. “From the beginning, my co-founder Numa Bertron and I always wanted to have a free version. Knowledge should be accessible to people in the best way possible, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.”

#3d-imaging, #3d-modeling, #app-store, #apple-inc, #apps, #arkansas, #augmented-reality, #cad, #canva, #co-founder, #coffee-maker, #computing, #director, #funding, #iphone, #itunes, #jig, #manufacturing, #medtronic, #microwave, #smartphones, #snapchat, #technology, #thermo-fisher-scientific, #tools, #verizon, #virtual-reality, #volkswagen

Chinese sellers on Amazon in hot demand by VCs and e-commerce roll-ups

Chinese merchants selling on Amazon are having a moment. The scruffy exporters are used to roaming about suburban factory areas and dealing with constant cash flow strain, but suddenly they find themselves having coffee with top Chinese venture capital firms and investment representatives from internet giants, who come with big checks to hunt down the next Shein or Anker. While VCs can provide the money for them to scale quickly, many lack the expertise to help on the strategic side.

This is where brand aggregators can put their retail know-how to work. Also called roll-ups, these companies go around acquiring promising e-commmerce brands for operational synergies. After taking off in the United States, Europe, and lately Southeast Asia, it has also quietly landed in China, where traditional white-label manufacturers are trying to move up the value chain and establish their own brand presence.

The latest roll-up to enter China is Berlin Brands Group (BBG), which aims to buy “dozens of” brands in the country over the next few years, its founder and CEO Peter Chaljawski told TechCrunch. This will significantly boost the German company’s existing portfolio of 14 brands.

The move came on the back of BBG’s $240 million funding raised from debt and its announcement to commit $300 million on its balance sheet to buying up companies. The firm opted for debt in part because it has been profitable since its inception. The recent funding won’t be its last round and it may use other financial instruments in the future, said the founder.

Chaljawski doesn’t see VC and corporate investors as direct competitors in the hunt for brands. “There are tens of thousands of sellers in China that generate significant revenue on Amazon. I think the VC money applies to some of them, and the roll-up model applies also to only some of them. But ‘some’ is a very, very big number.”

BBG is no stranger to China. The 15-year-old company has been relying on Chinese manufacturers to make its kitchenware, gardening tools, sports gear and other home appliances, with 90% of its products still made in the country today. For the new brand buy-out initiative, it’s hiring dozens of staff in Shenzhen, which Chalijawski dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Amazon,” referring to the southern city’s key role in global export, manufacturing, and increasingly, design.

Amazon alternative

BBG hopes to offer a new way for Chinese consumer products to scale in Europe and the U.S. beyond being an anonymous brand on Amazon. Sellers may want to break free of the American behemoth to seize more control over consumer data, but building a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand is no small feat.

Many merchants that are good at operating Amazon third-party businesses lack the infrastructure to go beyond Amazon, like an in-house logistics system, said the founder. In Europe, BBG manages 120,000 square meters of fulfillment centers, allowing it to shed dependence on Amazon.

Chinese brands may also want to find Amazon alternatives in Europe, where the e-commerce landscape is a lot more fragmented than that in the U.S, noted Chaljawski.

“If you look at the U.S., Amazon is dominant. If you look at Europe, Amazon only has 10% of the market share of online retail. So 90% is beyond Amazon. In the Netherlands, you have platforms like Bol. In Poland, you have Allegro, and in France, you have other dominant players.”

To bridge the gap for international brands targeting Europe, BBG operates close to 20 D2C web stores in major European countries, aside from selling on Amazon. Its sales growth in the U.S. has also been in full steam. Currently, over 60% of the firm’s revenues come from non-Amazon channels.

BBG is already in advanced negotiations with “some brands” in China but cannot disclose their names at this stage.

#amazon, #asia, #berlin-brands-group, #brand, #china, #consumer-products, #e-commerce, #e-commerce-aggregator, #ecommerce, #europe, #manufacturing, #online-retail, #online-shopping, #retailers, #roll-ups, #shenzhen, #tc

Deep reinforcement learning will transform manufacturing as we know it

If you walk down the street shouting out the names of every object you see — garbage truck! bicyclist! sycamore tree! — most people would not conclude you are smart. But if you go through an obstacle course, and you show them how to navigate a series of challenges to get to the end unscathed, they would.

Most machine learning algorithms are shouting names in the street. They perform perceptive tasks that a person can do in under a second. But another kind of AI — deep reinforcement learning — is strategic. It learns how to take a series of actions in order to reach a goal. That’s powerful and smart — and it’s going to change a lot of industries.

Two industries on the cusp of AI transformations are manufacturing and supply chain. The ways we make and ship stuff are heavily dependent on groups of machines working together, and the efficiency and resiliency of those machines are the foundation of our economy and society. Without them, we can’t buy the basics we need to live and work.

Startups like Covariant, Ocado’s Kindred and Bright Machines are using machine learning and reinforcement learning to change how machines are controlled in factories and warehouses, solving inordinately difficult challenges such as getting robots to detect and pick up objects of various sizes and shapes out of bins, among others. They are attacking enormous markets: The industrial control and automation market was worth $152 billion last year, while logistics automation was valued at more than $50 billion.

Deep reinforcement learning consistently produces results that other machine learning and optimization tools are incapable of.

As a technologist, you need a lot of things to make deep reinforcement learning work. The first piece to think about is how you will get your deep reinforcement learning agent to practice the skills you want it to acquire. There are only two ways — with real data or through simulations. Each approach has its own challenge: Data must be collected and cleaned, while simulations must be built and validated.

Some examples will illustrate what this means. In 2016, GoogleX advertised its robotic “arm farms” — spaces filled with robot arms that were learning to grasp items and teach others how to do the same — which was one early way for a reinforcement learning algorithm to practice its moves in a real environment and measure the success of its actions. That feedback loop is necessary for a goal-oriented algorithm to learn: It must make sequential decisions and see where they lead.

In many situations, it is not feasible to build the physical environment where a reinforcement learning algorithm can learn. Let’s say you want to test different strategies for routing a fleet of thousands of trucks moving goods from many factories to many retail outlets. It would be very expensive to test all possible strategies, and those tests would not just cost money to run, but the failed runs would lead to many unhappy customers.

For many large systems, the only possible way to find the best action path is with simulation. In those situations, you must create a digital model of the physical system you want to understand in order to generate the data reinforcement learning needs. These models are called, alternately, digital twins, simulations and reinforcement-learning environments. They all essentially mean the same thing in manufacturing and supply chain applications.

Recreating any physical system requires domain experts who understand how the system works. This can be a problem for systems as small as a single fulfillment center for the simple reason that the people who built those systems may have left or died, and their successors have learned how to operate but not reconstruct them.

Many simulation software tools offer low-code interfaces that enable domain experts to create digital models of those physical systems. This is important, because domain expertise and software engineering skills often cannot be found in the same person.

Why would you go through all this trouble for a single algorithm? Because deep reinforcement learning consistently produces results that other machine learning and optimization tools are incapable of. DeepMind used it, of course, to beat the world champion of the board game of Go. Reinforcement learning was part of the algorithms that were integral to achieving breakthrough results with chess, protein folding and Atari games. Likewise, OpenAI trained deep reinforcement learning to beat the best human teams at Dota 2.

Just like deep artificial neural networks began to find business applications in the mid-2010s, after Geoffrey Hinton was hired by Google and Yann LeCun by Facebook, so too, deep reinforcement learning will have an increasing impact on industries. It will lead to quantum improvements in robotic automation and system control on the same order as we saw with Go. It will be the best we have, and by a long shot.

The consequence of those gains will be immense increases in efficiency and cost savings in manufacturing products and operating supply chains, leading to decreases in carbon emissions and worksite accidents. And, to be clear, the chokepoints and challenges of the physical world are all around us. Just in the last year, our societies have been hit by multiple supply chain disruptions due to COVID, lockdowns, the Suez Canal debacle and extreme weather events.

Zooming in on COVID, even after the vaccine was developed and approved, many countries have had trouble producing it and distributing it quickly. These are manufacturing and supply chain problems that involve situations we could not prepare for with historical data. They required simulations to predict what would happen, as well as how we could best address crises when they do occur, as Michael Lewis illustrated in his recent book “The Premonition.”

It is precisely this combination of constraints and novel challenges that take place in factories and supply chains that reinforcement learning and simulation can help us solve more quickly. And we are sure to face more of them in the future.

#artificial-intelligence, #column, #machine-learning, #manufacturing, #opinion, #reinforcement-learning, #simulation, #supply-chain, #tc

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

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

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

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

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

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders

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

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

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

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

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

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

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #boston, #central-europe, #ceo, #co-founder, #croatia, #db-schenker, #director, #eastern-europe, #europe, #european-union, #fetch-robotics, #geek, #germany, #gideon-brothers, #hardware-club, #koch-disruptive-technologies, #manufacturing, #massachusetts, #munich, #otto-motors, #robot, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #software-platform, #taavet-hinrikus, #tc, #teradyne, #transferwise, #united-states, #zagreb

Goldman Sachs leads $202M investment in project44, doubling its valuation to $1.2B in a matter of months

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a lot in the world, and supply chains are no exception. 

A number of applications that aim to solve workflow challenges across the supply chain exist. But getting real-time access to information from transportation providers has remained somewhat elusive for shippers and logistics companies alike. 

Enter Project44. The 7-year-old Chicago-based company has built an API-based platform that it  says acts as “the connective tissue” between transportation providers, third-party logistics companies, shippers and the systems. Using predictive analytics, the platform provides crucial real-time information such as estimated time of arrivals (ETAs).

“Supply chains have undergone an incredible amount of change – there has never been a greater need for agility, resiliency, and the ability to rapidly respond to changes across the supply chain,” said Jason Duboe, the company’s Chief Growth Officer.

And now, project44 announced it has raised $202 million in a Series E funding round led by Goldman Sachs Asset Management and Emergence Capital. Girteka and Lineage Logistics also participated in the financing, which gives project44 a post-money valuation of $1.2 billion. That doubles the company’s valuation at the time of its Insight Partners-led $100 million Series D in December.

The raise is quite possibly the largest investment in the supply chain visibility space to date.

Project44 is one of those refreshingly transparent private companies that gives insight into its financials. This month, the company says it crossed $50 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR), which is up 100% year over year. It has more than 600 customers including some of the world’s largest brands such as Amazon, Walmart, Nestle, Starbucks, Unilever, Lenovo and P&G. Customers hail from a variety of industries including CPG, retail, e-commerce, manufacturing, pharma, and chemical.

Over the last year, the pandemic created a number of supply chain disruptions, underscoring the importance of technologies that help provide visibility into supply chain operations. Project44 said it worked hard to help customers to mitigate “relentless volatility, bottlenecks, and logistics breakdowns,” including during the Suez Canal incident where a cargo ship got stuck for days.

Looking ahead, Project44 plans to use its new capital in part to continue its global expansion. Project44 recently announced its expansion into China and has plans to grow in the Asia-Pacific, Australia/New Zealand and Latin American markets, according to Duboe.

We are also going to continue to invest heavily in our carrier products to enable more participation and engagement from the transportation community that desires a stronger digital experience to improve efficiency and experience for their customers,” he told TechCrunch. The company also aims to expand its artificial intelligence (AI) and data science capabilities and broaden sales and marketing reach globally.

Last week, project44 announced its acquisition of ClearMetal, a San Francisco-based supply chain planning software company that focuses on international freight visibility, predictive planning and overall customer experience. WIth the buy, Duboe said  project44 will now have two contracts with Amazon: road and ocean. 

“Project44 will power what they are chasing,” he added.

And in March, the company also acquired Ocean Insights to expand its ocean offerings.

Will Chen, a managing director of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, believes that project44 is unique in its scope of network coverage across geographies and modes of transport.  

“Most competitors predominantly focus on over-the-road visibility and primarily serve one region, whereas project44 is a truly global business that provides end-to-end visibility across their customers’ entire supply chain,” he said.

Goldman Sachs Asset Management, noted project44 CEO and founder Jett McCandless, will help the company grow not only by providing capital but through its network and resources.

#amazon, #api, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #asia-pacific, #australia, #business, #chicago, #chief, #china, #clearmetal, #companies, #e-commerce, #emergence-capital, #funding, #fundings-exits, #goldman-sachs, #insight-partners, #lenovo, #logistics, #manufacturing, #nestle, #new-zealand, #officer, #pg, #recent-funding, #san-francisco, #starbucks, #startup, #startups, #supply-chain, #supply-chain-management, #transportation, #unilever, #venture-capital, #walmart

Experts from Toyota, Ford and Hyundai will discuss automotive robotics at TC Sessions: Mobility

The events of the past year have only served to accelerate interest in all things robotics and automation. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen across a broad range of categories, and automotive is certainly no different.

Of course, carmakers are no strangers to the world of robotics. Automation has long played a key role in manufacturing, and more recently, robotics have played another central role in the form of self-driving vehicles. For this panel, however, we’re going to look past those much-discussed categories. Of late, carmakers have been investing heavily to further fuel innovation in the category.

It’s a fascinating space – and one that covers a broad range of cross-sections, from TRI’s (Toyota) Woven City project to Ford’s recent creation of a research facility at U of M to Hyundai’s concept cars and acquisition of Boston Dynamics. At TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9, we will be joined by a trio of experts from those companies for what’s sure to be a lively discussion on the topic.

Max Bajracharya is Vice President of Robotics at Toyota Research Institute. Previously serving as its Director of Robotics, he leads TRI’s work in robotics. He previously served at Alphabet’s X, as part of the Google Robotics team.

Mario Santillo is a Technical Expert at Ford. Previously serving as a Research Engineer for the company, he’s charged with helping lead the company’s efforts at a recently announced $75 million research facility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The work includes both Ford’s own robotics work, as well as partnerships with startups like Agility.

Ernestine Fu is a director at Hyundai Motor Group. She heads development at the newly announced New Horizons Studio, a group tasked with creating Ultimate Mobility Vehicles (UMVs). She also serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, where she received a BS, MS, MBA and PhD.

Get ready to talk robots at TC Sessions: Mobility. Grab your passes right now for $125 and hear from today’s biggest mobility leaders before our prices go up at the door.

 

#alphabet, #boston-dynamics, #companies, #director, #engines, #ernestine-fu, #google, #hyundai-motor-group, #manufacturing, #max-bajracharya, #michigan, #new-horizons, #robot, #stanford-university, #tc, #toyota, #toyota-research-institute, #university-of-michigan

Shein overtakes Amazon as the most installed shopping app in US

Shein‘s quiet rise has reached a crescendo as the fast fashion e-commerce app takes the crown from Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app on iOS and Android in the United States, according to data from app tracking firms App Annie.

Its ascent is quiet because the startup, despite reportedly exceeding a $15 billion valuation, maintains an unusually low profile and doesn’t try to make itself known to the media. The app, dubbed the “TikTok for e-commerce” by China-focused internet analyst Matthew Brennan in this thorough piece on the startup, manufactures in China as many apparel retailers do.

The difference is Shein controls its own production chain, from design and prototype to procurement to manufacturing. Each step is highly digitized and integrated with another, which allows the company to churn out hundreds of new products tailored to different regions and user tastes at a daily rate. The strategy is not unlike TikTok matching content creators with users by using algorithms to understand their habits in real-time.

On May 11, Shein became the most installed shopping app on Android in the U.S., and six days later took the top spot on iOS as well.

The origin of Shein, which was previously named “She Inside,” is little understood. On its official website, it describes itself as an “international B2C fast fashion e-commerce platform” founded in 2008. There is no mention of its founder and CEO Chris Xu. In a 2018 corporate blog posted on WeChat, it wrote that it was headquartered in Nanjing, an eastern Chinese city home known for its historical heritages and home to Chinese appliance giant Suning. It also opened offices in other major Chinese cities as well as the U.S., Belgium and the United Arab Emirates.

Shein’s low profile is perhaps expected in times of geopolitical tensions and heightened regulatory scrutiny over China-related tech companies around the world. Shein owns its sales channel and user data, which distinguishes it from the swathe of generic consumer brands relying on Amazon for customer acquisition without meaningful access to user data.

As of May 17, Shein was the top iOS shopping app in 54 countries and ranked top in the category on Android devices across 13 countries.

Shein has not announced who its investors are, but Chinese media reports have listed Capital Nuts, JAFCO Asia, Greenwoods Asset Management, IDG Capital, Sequoia Capital China, Tiger Global, and Xiaomi founder’s Shunwei Capital among its backers.

We’ve reached out to Shein for comments on the story. Sequoia Capital China confirmed it’s an investor in Shein.

#amazon, #asia, #china, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #japan, #likee, #manufacturing, #nanjing, #sequoia-capital-china, #shein, #shunwei-capital, #tc, #tiger-global, #tiktok, #wechat, #xiaomi

SightCall raises $42M for its AR-based visual assistance platform

Long before Covid-19 precipitated “digital transformation” across the world of work, customer services and support was built to run online and virtually. Yet it too is undergoing an evolution supercharged by technology.

Today, a startup called SightCall, which has built an augmented reality platform to help field service teams, the companies they work for, and their customers carry out technical and mechanical maintenance or repairs more effectively, is announcing $42 million in funding, money that it plans to use to invest in its tech stack with more artificial intelligence tools and expanding its client base.

The core of its service, explained CEO and co-founder Thomas Cottereau, is AR technology (which comes embedded in their apps or the service apps its customers use, with integrations into other standard software used in customer service environments including Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce and ServiceNow). The augmented reality experience overlays additional information, pointers and other tools over the video stream.

This is used by, say, field service engineers coordinating with central offices when servicing equipment; or by manufacturers to provide better assistance to customers in emergencies or situations where something is not working but might be repaired quicker by the customers themselves rather than engineers that have to be called out; or indeed by call centers, aided by AI, to diagnose whatever the problem might be. It’s a big leap ahead for scenarios that previously relied on work orders, hastily drawn diagrams, instruction manuals, and voice-based descriptions to progress the work in question.

“We like to say that we break the barriers that exist between a field service organization and its customer,” Cottereau said.

The tech, meanwhile, is unique to SightCall, built over years and designed to be used by way of a basic smartphone, and over even a basic mobile network — essential in cases where reception is bad or the locations are remote. (More on how it works below.)

Originally founded in Paris, France before relocating to San Francisco, SightCall has already built up a sizable business across a pretty wide range of verticals, including insurance, telecoms, transportation, telehealth, manufacturing, utilities, and life sciences/medical devices.

SightCall has some 200 big-name enterprise customers on its books, including the likes of Kraft-Heinz, Allianz, GE Healthcare and Lincoln Motor Company, providing services on a B2B basis as well as for teams that are out in the field working for consumer customers, too. After seeing 100% year-over-year growth in annual recurring revenue in 2019 and 2020, SightCall’s CEO says it’s looking like it will hit that rate this year as well, with a goal of $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

The funding is being led by InfraVia, a European private equity firm, with Bpifrance also participating. The valuation of this round is not being disclosed, but I should point out that an investor told me that PitchBook’s estimate of $122 million post-money is not accurate (we’re still digging on this and will update as and when we learn more).

For some further context on this investment, InfraVia invests in a number of industrial businesses, alongside investments in tech companies building services related to them such as recent investments in Jobandtalent, so this is in part a strategic investment. SightCall has raised $67 million to date.

There has been an interesting wave of startups emerging in recent years building out the tech stack used by people working in the front lines and in the field, a shift after years of knowledge workers getting most of the attention from startups building a new generation of apps.

Workiz and Jobber are building platforms for small business tradespeople to book jobs and manage them once they’re on the books; BigChange helps manage bigger fleets; and Hover has built a platform for builders to be able to assess and estimate costs for work by using AI to analyze images captured by their or their would-be customers’ smartphone cameras.

And there is Streem, which I discovered is a close enough competitor to SightCall that they’ve acquired Adwords ads based on SightCall searches in Google. Just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic breaking wide open, General Catalyst-backed Streem was acquired by Frontdoor to help with the latter’s efforts to build out its home services business, another sign of how all of this is leaping ahead.

What’s interesting in part about SightCall and sets it apart is its technology. Co-founded in 2007 by Cottereau and Antoine Vervoort (currently SVP of product and engineering), the two are both long-time telecoms industry vets who had both worked on the technical side of building next-generation networks.

SightCall first started life as a company called Weemo that built video chat services that could run on WebRTC-based frameworks, which emerged at a time when we were seeing a wider effort to bring more rich media services into mobile web and SMS apps. For consumers and to a large extent businesses, mobile phone apps that work ‘over the top’ (distributed not by your mobile network carrier but the companies that run your phone’s operating system, and thus partly controlled by them) really took the lead and continue to dominate the market for messaging and innovations in messaging.

After a time, Weemo pivoted and renamed itself as SightCall, focusing on packaging the tech that it built into whichever app (native or mobile web) where one of its enterprise customers wanted the tech to live.

The key to how it works comes by way of how SightCall was built, Cottereau explained. The company has spent ten years building and optimizing a network across data centers close to where its customers are, which interconnects with Tier 1 telecoms carriers and has a lot of latency in the system to ensure uptime. “We work with companies where this connectivity is mission critical,” he said. “The video solution has to work.”

As he describes it, the hybrid system SightCall has built incorporates its own IP that works both with telecoms hardware and software, resulting in a video service that provides 10 different ways for streaming video and a system that automatically chooses the best in a particular environment, based on where you are, so that even if mobile data or broadband reception don’t work, video streaming will. “Telecoms and software are still very separate worlds,” Cottereau said. “They still don’t speak the same language, and so that is part of our secret sauce, a global roaming mechanism.”

The tech that the startup has built to date not only has given it a firm grounding against others who might be looking to build in this space, but has led to strong traction with customers. The next steps will be to continue building out that technology to tap deeper into the automation that is being adopted across the industries that already use SightCall’s technology.

“SightCall pioneered the market for AR-powered visual assistance, and they’re in the best position to drive the digital transformation of remote service,” said Alban Wyniecki, partner at InfraVia Capital Partners, in a statement. “As a global leader, they can now expand their capabilities, making their interactions more intelligent and also bringing more automation to help humans work at their best.”

“SightCall’s $42M Series B marks the largest funding round yet in this sector, and SightCall emerges as the undisputed leader in capital, R&D resources and partnerships with leading technology companies enabling its solutions to be embedded into complex enterprise IT,” added Antoine Izsak of Bpifrance. “Businesses are looking for solutions like SightCall to enable customer-centricity at a greater scale while augmenting technicians with knowledge and expertise that unlocks efficiencies and drives continuous performance and profit.”

Cottereau said that the company has had a number of acquisition offers over the years — not a surprise when you consider the foundational technology it has built for how to architect video networks across different carriers and data centers that work even in the most unreliable of network environments.

“We want to stay independent, though,” he said. “I see a huge market here, and I want us to continue the story and lead it. Plus, I can see a way where we can stay independent and continue to work with everyone.”

#ai, #ar, #artificial-intelligence, #augmented-reality, #customer-service, #enterprise, #europe, #field-service, #funding, #industrial, #manufacturing, #service-engineers, #sightcall, #tc, #weemo

Tesla supplier Delta Electronics invests $7M in AI chip startup Kneron

Despite a persistent semiconductor shortage that is disrupting the global automotive industry, investors remain bullish on the chips used to power next-generation vehicles.

Kneron, a startup that develops semiconductors to give devices artificial intelligence capabilities by using edge computing, just got funded by Delta Electronics, a Taiwanese supplier of power components for Apple and Tesla. The $7 million investment boosts the startup’s total financing to over $100 million to date.

As part of the deal, Kneron also agreed to buy Vatics, a part of Delta Electronics’ subsidiary Vivotek, for $10 million in cash. The new assets nicely complement Kneron’s business as the startup extends its footprint to the booming smart car industry.

Vatics, an image signal processing provider, has been selling system-on-a-chip (SoC) and intellectual property to manufacturers of surveillance, consumer, and automotive products for many years across the United States and China.

Headquartered in San Diego with a development force in Taipei, Kneron has emerged in recent years as a challenge to AI chip incumbents like Intel and Google. Its chips boast of low-power consumption and enable data processing directly on the chips using the startup’s proprietary software, a departure from solutions that require data to be computed through powerful cloud centers and sent back to devices.

The approach has won Kneron a list of heavyweight backers, including strategic investor Foxconn, Qualcomm, Sequoia Capital, Alibaba, and Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures.

Kneron has designed chips for scenarios ranging from manufacturing, smart homes, smartphones, robotics, surveillance and payments to autonomous driving. In the automotive field, it has struck partnerships with Foxconn and Otus, a supplier for Honda and Toyota.

Following the acquisition, Vatics executives will join Kneron to lead its surveillance and security camera division. The merged teams will jointly develop surveillance and automotive products for Kneron going forward. Image signal processors, coupled with neural processing units, are helpful in detecting objects and ensuring the safety of automated cars.

“This acquisition will allow us to offer full-stack AI solutions, along with our current class-leading NPUs [neural processing units], and will significantly speed up our go-to-market strategy,” said Kneron’s founder and CEO, Albert Liu.

#albert-liu, #alibaba, #apple, #apple-inc, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #automotive, #china, #computing, #foxconn, #honda, #horizons-ventures, #intel, #kneron, #li-ka-shing, #manufacturing, #qualcomm, #san-diego, #semiconductor, #sequoia-capital, #system-on-a-chip, #taipei, #tesla, #toyota

Investment in construction automation is essential to rebuilding US infrastructure

With the United States moving all-in on massive infrastructure investment, much of the discussion has focused on jobs and building new green industries for the 21st century. While the Biden administration’s plan will certainly expand the workforce, it also provides a massive opportunity for the adoption of automation technologies within the construction industry.

Despite the common narrative of automating away human jobs, the two are not nearly as much in conflict, especially with new investments creating space for new roles and work. In fact, one of the greatest problems facing the construction industry remains a lack of labor, making automation a necessity for moving forward with these ambitious projects.

In fact, one of the greatest problems facing the construction industry remains a lack of labor, making automation a necessity for moving forward with these ambitious projects.

The residential construction industry alone had some 223,000 and 332,000 unfilled construction job vacancies at the peak unemployment rate of 15% in 2020, but that’s actually about the same when unemployment was only at 4.1%. Between 1985 and 2015, the average age of construction workers increased from 36 to 42.5, while those aged 55 and older increased from 12% to over 20%. The 2018 Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that workers under 25 comprised just 9% of the construction industry, compared to 12.3% of the overall U.S. labor force.

Productivity in the construction industry has likewise remained static since 1995, primarily driven by the aging demographic of the existing labor force, the apprenticeship nature of the job, and difficulty in attracting and retaining new workers. In short, there is insufficient labor to do the job, while existing staff are becoming increasingly less productive as skilled workers that have accumulated decades of experience in their crafts are lost due to retirement.

Automation will need to be a key element of any major infrastructure push, especially if we hope to meet the ambitious goals of current proposals. That being said, not all areas of the construction industry are primed, or even viable, for this shift to automation.

The challenges of construction automation

Construction is one of the world’s largest industries but has two major challenges: market fragmentation and complex stakeholders.

The construction industry as a whole is nationally fragmented but occasionally locally concentrated. This differs depending on the segment and type of construction company, with each generally comprising less than 10 workers. The top 100 general contractors account for less than 20% of the total construction market. Subcontractors are even more fragmented, with top players accounting for less than 1% of the total market share. This makes sales processes and scaling very slow and highly inefficient.

#artificial-intelligence, #biden-administration, #business-process-management, #column, #construction, #ec-column, #ec-real-estate-and-proptech, #hardware, #manufacturing, #real-estate, #startups, #united-states

Vista Equity takes minority stake in Canada’s Vena with $242M investment

Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space, has raised $242 million in Series C funding from Vista Equity Partners.

As part of the financing, Vista Equity is taking a minority stake in the company. The round follows $25 million in financing from CIBC Innovation Banking last September, and brings Vena’s total raised since its 2011 inception to over $363 million.

Vena declined to provide any financial metrics or the valuation at which the new capital was raised, saying only that its “consistent growth and…strong customer retention and satisfaction metrics created real demand” as it considered raising its C round.

The company was originally founded as a B2B provider of planning, budgeting and forecasting software. Over time, it’s evolved into what it describes as a “fully cloud-native, corporate performance management platform” that aims to empower finance, operations and business leaders to “Plan to Growtheir businesses. Its customers hail from a variety of industries, including banking, SaaS, manufacturing, healthcare, insurance and higher education. Among its over 900 customers are the Kansas City Chiefs, Coca-Cola Consolidated, World Vision International and ELF Cosmetics.

Vena CEO Hunter Madeley told TechCrunch the latest raise is “mostly an acceleration story for Vena, rather than charting new paths.”

The company plans to use its new funds to build out and enable its go-to-market efforts as well as invest in its product development roadmap. It’s not really looking to enter new markets, considering it’s seeing what it describes as “tremendous demand” in the markets it currently serves directly and through its partner network.

“While we support customers across the globe, we’ll stay focused on growing our North American, U.K. and European business in the near term,” Madeley said.

Vena says it leverages the “flexibility and familiarity” of an Excel interface within its “secure” Complete Planning platform. That platform, it adds, brings people, processes and systems into a single source solution to help organizations automate and streamline finance-led processes, accelerate complex business processes and “connect the dots between departments and plan with the power of unified data.”            

Early backers JMI Equity and Centana Growth Partners will remain active, partnering with Vista “to help support Vena’s continued momentum,” the company said. As part of the raise, Vista Equity Managing Director Kim Eaton and Marc Teillon, senior managing director and co-head of Vista’s Foundation Fund, will join the company’s board.

“The pandemic has emphasized the need for agile financial planning processes as companies respond to quickly-changing market conditions, and Vena is uniquely positioned to help businesses address the challenges required to scale their processes through this pandemic and beyond,” said Eaton in a written statement. 

Vena currently has more than 450 employees across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., up from 393 last year at this time.

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Apple commits to 20,000 US jobs, new North Carolina campus

Apple this morning announced a sweeping plan to invest north of $430 billion over the next five years. The company says the deal involves “economic benefits” in all 50 states and would create, all told, 20,000 additional jobs in the United States over that time period.

The plan is an extension of one it announced in 2018, raising the original $350 billion goal by 20%. At the center of the announcement is the long anticipated creation of an additional campus in North Carolina. That involves a $1 billion investment in the Research Triangle, including 3,000 jobs that will focus on emerging fields like machine learning and AI.

“Innovation has long been North Carolina’s calling card and Apple’s decision to build this new campus in the Research Triangle showcases the importance of our state’s favorable business climate, world-class universities, our tech-ready workforce, and the welcoming and diverse communities that make so many people want to call North Carolina home,” state leaders said in a joint statement. “This announcement will benefit communities across our state and we are proud to work together to continue to grow our economy and bring transformational industries and good paying jobs to North Carolina.”

The company has also outlined a $100 million fund for community and schools in the surrounding Raleigh-Durham area, as well as a $110 million spend on infrastructure.

“At this moment of recovery and rebuilding, Apple is doubling down on our commitment to US innovation and manufacturing with a generational investment reaching communities across all 50 states,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to the news. “We’re creating jobs in cutting-edge fields — from 5G to silicon engineering to artificial intelligence — investing in the next generation of innovative new businesses, and in all our work, building toward a greener and more equitable future.”

Other US operation initiatives have been outlined for the company’s native California, as well as Colorado, Texas, Washington and Iowa. California gets the biggest initial boost here, with 5,000 more employees being added to its San Diego office and 3,000 more for Culver City. Indiana, Kentucky and Texas has already begun adding positions as part of the $5 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund the company launched in 2017.

The news comes a week after Wisconsin announced plans to dramatically scale back the creation of a Foxconn plant set to manufacture flatscreen TVs. During his presidency, Donald Trump had called the planned factory, “the eighth wonder of the world,” and central to his plans to return manufacturing to the U.S. while courting various high profile tech executives, including Cook.