The Nuro EC-1

Six years ago, I sat in the Google self-driving project’s Firefly vehicle — which I described, at the time, as a “little gumdrop on wheels” — and let it ferry me around a closed course in Mountain View, California.

Little did I know that two of the people behind Firefly’s ability to see and perceive the world around it and react to that information would soon leave to start and steer an autonomous vehicle company of their very own.

Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far.

Yet, Nuro has remained largely in the shadows of other autonomous vehicle companies. Perhaps it’s because Nuro’s focus on autonomous delivery hasn’t captured the imagination of a general public that envisions themselves being whisked away in a robotaxi. Or it might be that they’re quieter.

Those quiet days might be coming to an end soon.

This series aims to look under Nuro’s hood, so to speak, from its earliest days as a startup to where it might be headed next — and with whom.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Mark Harris, a freelance reporter known for investigative and long-form articles on science and technology. Our resident scoop machine, Harris is based in Seattle and also writes for Wired, The Guardian, The Economist, MIT Technology Review and Scientific American. He has broken stories about self-driving vehicles, giant airships, AI body scanners, faulty defibrillators and monkey-powered robots. In 2014, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.

The lead editor of this EC-1 was Kirsten Korosec, transportation editor at TechCrunch (that’s me), who has been writing about autonomous vehicles and the people behind them since 2014; OK maybe earlier. The assistant editor for this series was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman. The EC-1 series editor is Danny Crichton.

Nuro had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Harris nor Korosec have any financial ties to Nuro.

The Nuro EC-1 comprises four articles numbering 10,600 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Here are the topics we’ll be dialing into:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#automation, #automotive, #california, #cvs, #dave-ferguson, #dominos-pizza, #dominos, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-1, #electric-vehicles, #emerging-technologies, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #fedex, #google, #kroger, #mit, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #seattle, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #technology, #transportation, #walmart

Inkbit raises $30M for its self-correcting 3D printing technology

MIT CSAIL spinout Inkbit this week announced that it has raised $30 million. The Series B, led by Phoenix Venture Partners LLC, brings the firm’s total funding up to $45 million. PVP joins existing partners like industrial 3D printing giant Stratasys, DSM Venturing, Ocado, 3M, IMA and Saint-Gobain.

Inkbit was founded in 2017, building on technology developed with a financial assist from DARPA. The company currently holds the exclusive licensing rights to that technology. Its primary differentiator from the slew of existing 3D printers is a vision and AI system designed to identify and correct mistakes during the printing process.

Mistakes can be quite frequent — and costly — in additive manufacturing. Inkbit’s technology uses imaging to scan each printed layer, compare it against the original plan and then adjust accordingly to correct errors on the fly. The latest round of funding follows the February release of the company’s Vista printer, which builds on Inkbit’s Vision-Controlled Jetting (VCJ) closed-loop feedback technology.

“Inkbit is currently experiencing significant growth and we are excited to have the opportunity to continue to build our talented team and scale the company to meet customer demand,” co-founder and CEO Davide Marini said in a statement. “The opportunities for additive manufacturing are growing as adoption of 3D printing for full-scale production increases. We look forward to using our raised capital to continue evolving and innovating within this dynamic industry.”

The round will be used to expand the sales reach of its new printer, both in the U.S. and into additional markets, including Asia and Europe/Middle East/Africa.

#3d-printing, #additive-manufacturing, #csail, #funding, #hardware, #inkbit, #mit, #phoenix-venture-partners

The road to a cheaper prosthetic hand

Alt-Bionics made waves back in late 2019 when the brand new startup competed at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Tech Symposium. The company finished second to 3BM’s infrared paint-curing system, but Alt went on to capture national and international headlines on the strength of promising technology and a great story.

A writeup on the school’s site noted that, at $700, its prosthetic hand cost a mere fraction of the cost of standard systems. Most of the subsequent coverage has focused on the story of the team’s journey from good idea to marketable product, with CEO/co-founder (and USTA engineering grad) Ryan Saavedra noting that these sorts of products can range from $10,000-$150,000 a pop. The company is working to a price point around $3,500.

In the meantime, the Alt-Bionics team has been chronicling product development on social media. Before we get this roundup stared in earnest, we wanted to check in with Saavedra about how the past three years have gone and what the future holds for the company. And bonus: We’ve got a couple of unreleased renderings that Alt notes are “not indicative of our final product. Just merely a celebratory rendering our team put together to announce the completion of our patent” — so take that as you will.

Image Credits: Alt-Bionics

TechCrunch: Why are prosthetics prohibitively expensive?

I’ll start by saying that they aren’t expensive to manufacture and they do not need to be so expensive to the user. At all. There is no one answer for this, but I will do my best to summarize the multiple reasons behind the exorbitant prices surrounding bionic hands. We have found that there are two parts to the end price/cost of prosthetic devices. A third (but secondary reason) will also be discussed.

The manufacturer. The manufacturer develops and creates these bionic devices and then sells them to prosthetic and orthotic clinics (one of the few places you can be fitted for and purchase these devices). The most affordable bionic prosthetic hand sold to P&O clinics starts at about $10,000 and can go up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oddly enough, this cost doesn’t always reflect the functionality or performance of the devices. These manufacturers ultimately determine the prices of their devices. The larger among them cite overhead costs as the primary reason they cannot lower their price tags.

The prosthetic & orthotic clinic. We are still learning more about the specifics, but these clinics handle the medical insurance side of things. This means that they submit LCodes (insurance codes for bionic hands, suggested by the manufacturer) to the medical insurance company for reimbursement. These LCodes have floor and ceiling reimbursement amounts that the prosthetist can select. The reimbursement amount is commonly more than what they paid for the hand, and covers the time and effort the clinic and clinician put into procurement, fitting, testing, assembly and patient care. While normally a reasonable margin is obtained (through reimbursement amounts closer to the floor), we have seen reimbursement amounts exceed $124,000 for a $10,000 hand (from a 2018 patient receipt).

Technological stagnation. The technology for bionic hands has been stagnant for almost 15 years, with companies only just now emerging as competitors in this space. Larger companies in this space are tackling more than the one area of transradial (below elbow) bionic prosthetic devices. This means that their attention is not solely focused on the development and affordability aspects of upper extremity prostheses. The stagnation has meant that there are no external factors or forces being pressed on the existing devices and their manufacturers. Essentially, they have no reason to lower the prices, so they remain the same. This is more of an affirmation that reason No. 1 is a larger problem.

TechCrunch: How has the reception been from the broader medical community?

Wonderful! Clinics, clinicians, patients, potential users and other competing companies have all been incredibly supportive of our mission. The space and companies, while competitive, are all aiming for the same thing: using technological advancements to give people a better quality of life.

There is obviously some skepticism at first at how we are able to achieve our much lower price point ($3,500), but it is quickly assuaged when we talk with them about our technologies and processes. We are currently discussing partnerships with prosthetic and orthotic clinics to help develop devices that not only help patients, but also lessen the burden of prosthetists in the repair and maintenance of these devices.

TechCrunch: How far along is the project? What’s the current timeline for bringing it to market?

The project is just emerging from its infancy and is about 42% complete. Some notable achievements are as follows:

  • Successful proof of concept with Army Ranger, Ryan Davis. December, 2019.
  • Alt-Bionics was formed. May 2020.
  • $42,000 SolidWorks grant from D’Assault Systems. July, 2020.
  • Provisional patent filed. June, 2021.
  • $50,000 investment from the city of San Antonio’s SAMMI Fund. July 2021.

The current timeline to bring our device to market is one year from the closing of our seed round of financing. We have, to date, raised $142,000 of our $200,000 goal and are looking to close out this round by September.

TechCrunch: What have the biggest challenges been so far?

Navigating the FDA regulatory space and raising capital. It is no secret that the FDA regulatory process is a fearsome beast. There are even companies dedicated to assisting those looking to bring medical devices to market, navigate the process and all its intricacies. Alt-Bionics was recently accepted into a biomedical accelerator program based out of San Antonio, Texas, and will be working with regulatory experts to ensure we have a smooth rest of the ride to market. While our mission is noble and our business plan sound, COVID has brought about many worries and fears from investors. The inability to pitch to a live audience has hindered us from being able to appear in front of investors and has made raising capital a little more difficult than it normally is for a company like ours.

TechCrunch: What is your funding status? How much have you raised thus far and are you looking to raise more?

To date, Alt-Bionics has raised a total of $142,000 from a handful of investors and has received a $50,000 investment from the city of San Antonio’s SAMMI fund. We are looking for an additional $58,000 from accredited investors to help fill out our seed round. From there our timeline of one year to market begins (though we have a hefty head start) and Alt-Bionics will push into its Series A, which will allow us to bring on additional engineers, develop the technology further and expand into international markets.

TechCrunch: Are developing markets going to be a key target? 

Developing countries will be a key market for Alt-Bionics, particularly through NGOs, and will play an important part in our international expansion. We see a large opportunity to provide our medical devices to these markets. Affordability is critical to our mission to provide access to these devices and therefore we believe we will be successful with this expansion.

And now back to your regularly scheduled roundup.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

I’ll cop to the fact that when Berkshire Grey announced a “$23+” million deal for grocery picking robots, I had one name in mind: Walmart. After talking a bit about Walmart’s mixed robotics play in this panel a couple of weeks back, I’d heard rumblings the company was getting set for a big new play in the category.

Granted, the Symbotic deal doesn’t necessarily mean BG isn’t teaming with Walmart on this one, but it’s worth noting that the mega-retailer loves talking about its big spending on automation. From the outside, looking in, at least, it seems like these deals are often as much about the PR of looking like it’s ready to compete with Amazon as they are about actually competing with Amazon (win-win, I guess).

Image Credits: Walmart

The deal will bring Symbotic’s tech to 25 additional Walmart distribution centers (the two have been running pilots since 2017) in a rollout that will take “several years,” per Walmart. I’ve speculated before (and will happily continue to do so) that one or several of these robotic fulfillment companies are a no-brainer acquisition for Walmart, though Symbotic is probably a bit tougher, given existing ties with competitors like Target.

Berkshire Grey, meanwhile, continues to go the public route. Revolution Acceleration Acquisition Corp. (RAAC) shareholders are set to vote on the SPAC deal on July 20. Newly soon to be acquired Fetch, meanwhile, announced a deal with supply chain logistics company Korber for a new pallet robot designed to replace forklifts.

Footage of the robot not falling as it traverses various tough surfaces.

Image Credits: Facebook AI

A pair of cool research projects this week. Devin wrote about a team from Facebook AI, UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University that is exploring Rapid Motor Adaptation, a method that allows quadrupedal robots to adapt to uneven terrain on the fly. This quote from one of the Berkley researchers gets to the heart of the matter: “We do not learn about sand, we learn about feet sinking.”

Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

Meanwhile, I wrote about research at MIT’s CSAIL that involves using robotic arms to get people dressed. It’s a promising bit of functionality for eldercare robotics and technology that could assist people with mobility issues.

#berkshire-grey, #cmu, #csail, #facebook-ai, #mit, #robotics, #robotics-roundup, #symbotics, #tc, #walmart

Programming robots to put jackets on people is harder than it looks

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from some of our favorite YouTube shitty robots, it’s that human-robot interaction can be a tricky business. Developing methods to get rigid robotic arms to perform delicate tasks around soft human bodies is easier said than done.

This week, a team at MIT’s CSAIL department is showcasing its work using robotic arms to help people get dressed. The promise of such technology is clear: helping people with mobility issues perform tasks that many of us take for granted.

Among the biggest hurdles is creating algorithms that are able to navigate around the human form efficiently, without hurting the person it’s trying to help. Preprogrammed modes can run into all sorts of variables, including shapes and human reactions. Overreacting to variables, on the other hand, can effectively freeze the robot, unsure of the best route to take.

So, the team set out to develop a system that could adapt to different scenarios and learn as it goes.

Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

“To provide a theoretical guarantee of human safety, the team’s algorithm reasons about the uncertainty in the human model. Instead of having a single, default model where the robot only understands one potential reaction, the team gave the machine an understanding of many possible models, to more closely mimic how a human can understand other humans,” MIT writes in a blog post. As the robot gathers more data, it will reduce uncertainty and refine those models.”

The team says it will also be researching how human subjects react to these sorts of tasks.

#csail, #mit, #mit-csail, #robotics

Firat Ileri becomes Hummingbird VC’s new Managing Partner, as the firm looks to expand

Seed investment firm Hummingbird VC, which previously invested in Deliveroo, Peak Games, MarkaVIP, and Kraken has a new Managing Partner. Firat Ileri, previously a Partner – who at 28 became one of Europe’s youngest VCs when he joined in 2012 – takes over from Founding Partner Barend Van den Brande, who will now take on a more strategic role at the firm.

Ileri grew up in Cyprus and went on to study electrical engineering, computer science, and operations research at MIT. At Hummingbird he has lead the firm’s first investments in Latin America and in South East Asia.

Ileri initially introduced the cofounders of Gram Games, led their first investment, and helped exit the company to Zynga for half a billion. He also led the sale process of Peak Games in 2020, which exited at $1.8Bn, making history as Turkey’s largest tech exit to date.

Founded in 2010, Hummingbird is currently on its fourth fund of $200M, raised in Q4 2020, and says it invests from Europe to India, SEA, LATAM, Turkey and more recently in the US.
 
Firat most recently led Hummingbird’s first investments in engineering biology, investing in Billiontoone, the SF-based precision diagnostics company in the prenatal and liquid biopsy space, which has raised a $55M Series B round. It’s also invested in Kernal Biologics, an mRNA 2.0 therapeutics company focused on oncology.

Van den Brande said: “From the moment Firat joined us in the very early days of Hummingbird, he hit the ground running. His eye for unique and ambitious founding teams, and unparalleled expertise in Seed investing, persistence and really understanding what Early Stage companies need has made him an invaluable asset to Hummingbird and all of the founders we work with. I’m only pleased to have Firat take on the role and lead the Hummingbird family and portfolio for years to come.”

Ileri said the firm’s thesis was to invest in stand-out founders: “We’re spending much more time trying to understand who these people are and what makes them special. In a way, we’re looking for anomalies in people, and we believe that the best companies are created with nonlinear backgrounds. So, this is the thesis.”

He said the team has expanded to drive this vision: “We used to be a boutique fund, but we have the ambition to be more and especially to look for founders who have an independent mind and huge ambitions. To be able to find more companies we’ve gone more global, in order to have a better chance of finding these special stories.”

#corporate-finance, #cyprus, #deliveroo, #europe, #finance, #hummingbird, #india, #investment, #latin-america, #managing-partner, #mit, #money, #online-food-ordering, #seed-money, #south-east-asia, #tc, #turkey, #united-states, #van, #venture-capital, #zynga

2U set to acquire non-profit edX for deal north of $600M

2U, a SaaS platform that helps non-profits and colleges run online universities, plans to acquire all the assets of Harvard and MIT-founded edX for a deal north of $600 million, according to multiple sources. 2U did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and its unclear if this is an all-cash deal. The combined forces of edX and 2U could reach over 50 million learners.

Update: 2U confirmed the deal, expected to close within 120 days subject to regulatory and governmental approvals, in a press release post-publication. It also confirmed that the price of the acquisition which will be an $800 million all-cash deal. 

The deal gives 2U, a company that filed to go public in 2014 and continues to be one of the rare U.S. edtech companies listed on the stock market, a new wave of collaboratively-built content to its software. Plus, 2U just acquired with stronger name recognition thanks to its Ivy League backers, which some see as a branding move that could help the public company with its own chunk of the market. The company’s last big acquisition was in 2019, when it paid $750 million to acquire Trilogy education, a company that builds in-person and online bootcamps in collaboration with universities.

EdX was founded in 2012 amid a crop of massive open online course (MOOC) offerings, including Udacity and Coursera. The company, set up as a non-profit, had an alluring promise upon launch: it would help anyone in the world take a Harvard or MIT class, for free. The institutions, of course, have thrown in a cumulative $80 million in donations into edX to keep the operation free. Its own launch came weeks after Coursera announced that Princeton, Stanford, UPenn, and the University of Michigan would host courses on its own online learning platform. Now, edX’s acquisition comes months after Coursera went public.

Today, edX, led by president and professor Anant Agarwal, hosts over 3,000 courses led by 15,000 instructors and used by 35 million users. Open edX, the platform’s open source platform, is used by 2,400 learning sites worldwide, according to the organization’s website.

EdX will turn into a public benefit corporation as part of this transaction. Per sources, proceeds from the transaction will go into another non-profit managed by Harvard and MIT, and the institutions will not profit off of the transaction. That said, an MIT statement reveals. that edX took a line of credit from MIT and Harvard, and those funds will be returned to both institutions.

“Because edX is a public charity, the proceeds from its sale can only be distributed for a purpose consistent with edX’s mission, not to compensate those who contributed to the nonprofit,” the statement reads. 

Part of this transaction, which has been in the works since February 2021, is colored by the fact that edX has been transparent with its own financial woes and journey to becoming a self-sustaining business. MIT Provost Rafael Reif had hinted at eventual revenue generation the program first launched, saying in 2012 that “the drive is not to make money..that said, we intend to find a way to support those activities. There are several approaches we are considering, and we don’t want this project to become a drain on the budgets of MIT or Harvard.”

In 2018, the same fiscal year it had $37 million in revenue, edX introduced a support fee, alongside its ongoing offering that asks students to pay for a verified certification upon course completion. In announcement, the company wrote that “we believe that we need to move toward a financial model that allows edX and our partners to achieve sustainability and we acknowledge that means moving away from our current model of offering virtually everything for free.” The edX board also considered other options, MIT. said, but decided those were “not as beneficial to edX, its learners, or its partner institutions as the transaction with 2U.”

The new transaction and edX’s choice to turn into a public benefit corporation might become the financial model that it itself was looking for, indicating just how. hard it may be to monetize a MOOC. While 2U has committed to continuing edX’s free coursework for at least five years, as well as seeding a new non-profit, edX as it currently stands – a massive education non-profit – will no longer function as it currently does in the future.

#2u, #edx, #harvard, #mit, #saas, #tc

Nanofabricated ‘tetrakaidecahedrons’ could out-bulletproof kevlar

Researchers at MIT and Caltech have created a nano-engineered material that could be tougher than the likes of kevlar or steel. Made of interconnected carbon “tetrakaidecahedrons,” the material absorbed the impact of microscopic bullets in spectacular fashion.

The study, led by MIT’s Carlos Portela, aimed to find out whether nanoarchitected materials — that is, designed and fabricated at the scale of nanometers — could be a viable path towards ultra-tough blast shields, body armor, and other protective surfaces.

The idea of tetrakaidecahedron-based materials, however, isn’t a new one. The complex 14-sided class of polyhedron (there are about 1.5 billion possible variations) was proposed by Lord Kelvin in the 19th century as theoretically one of the most efficient possible for filling space with duplicates of itself.

If many such polyhedra can be packed into a small space and interconnected, Portela and his colleagues wondered, would they act as an efficient shock absorber? Such materials had been tested with slow deformations but not powerful impacts like you would expect from a bullet or micrometeoroid.

To find out, they assembled blocks of the material by means of nanolithography techniques, baking the resulting structure until it was pure carbon. Then they shot these carbon structures with 14-micron-wide silicon oxide bullets traveling well above the speed of sound (though at these scales, the comparison is a bit quaint).

Close-up of silicon oxide 'bullet' embedded in the carbon material

Image Credits: MIT/Caltech

The carbon structures, especially denser ones, absorbed the impact extremely well, stopping the particle dead — and crucially, deforming but not shattering.

“We show the material can absorb a lot of energy because of this shock compaction mechanism of struts at the nanoscale versus something that’s fully dense and monolithic, not nano-architected,” said Portela in a news release describing the discovery. “The same amount of mass of our material would be much more efficient at stopping a projectile than the same amount of mass of Kevlar.”

Interestingly, the researchers found they were able to model the impact and damage best by using methods generally used to describe meteors impacting a planet’s surface.

This is just an initial lab result, so soldiers won’t be wearing tetrakaidecahedronal flak jackets any time soon, but the experiment definitely shows the promise of this approach. If the team is able to find a way to manufacture the material at scale, it could be useful in all kinds of industries.

The study was published in the journal Nature Materials.

#caltech, #mit, #nanotechnology, #tc

Between a rock and a farm raise

Something I think that gets lost in the conversation around robotics is just how many different tasks can — and at some point will — be automated. Here I’m talking specifically about agtech. We’ve seen a ton of agricultural robotics come across our desk in recent years, and one of the more remarkable things about it all is just how broad the applications are.

There are all of the usual automated tasks you’d expect: produce picking, payload carting, weed pulling. All necessary farming tasks that seem to be well served by the industry. But what of rocks? Honestly, it’s something that hadn’t really occurred to me, having not spent any time on farms, aside from the occasional elementary school field trip.

TerraClear first entered our radar in 2018, mostly due to the founder’s former company (Smartsheet). Rocks are, quite literally, a big problem for farmers and farming equipment, so the company built a tractor/robot designed to pick them up. The system, which ships next year, will be able to grab up to 400 rocks an hour — individual rocks weighing up to 300 pounds.

The company just announced a $25 million Series A, which brings its total funding up to $36 million, says founder and CEO Brent Frei.

“There are more than 400 million arable acres worldwide that have been waiting for a cost-effective and productive solution to this problem,” said Frei. “Repetitive tasks like this are optimal targets for automation, and the technologies we are bringing to the field dramatically reduce the labor and time needed to prep fields for planting.”

Image Credits: Bowery Farming

Since we’re talking about farms and robots, Bowery Farming deserves a mention for a massive $300 million round. That puts the NYC-based company’s value at a beefy $2.3 billion. Robots, sensors and AI are a big part of Bowery’s vertical farming approach. The company’s already sending its produce to 850 grocery stores, along with a deal with Amazon Fresh.

It’s probably safe to say that indoor farming has a future for all sorts of reasons having to do with land use, climate and beyond.

Image Credits: MIT

Of course today’s research is tomorrow’s unicorns (this is not actually a saying…yet), and there are a couple of projects worth noting this week. Leading off the bunch is MIT, which is giving robotic inspection the finger. The oddly (but not inaccurately) named Digger Finger is capable of sensing and identifying objects underground. It’s a useful skill that could someday be deployed for landmines, finding underground cables and a variety of other tasks.

And here’s a nice feel-good story, as it were. A new paper published in Science from University of Pittsburgh engineers highlights the value of adding tactile feedback for prosthetic arms. This delivers some clear advantages over traditional vision sensing. Per the paper:

Flesher et al. added an afferent channel to the brain-computer interface to mimic sensory input from the skin of a hand (see the Perspective by Faisal). The improvements achieved by adding the afferent input were substantial in a battery of motor tasks tested in a human subject.

#bowery-farming, #mit, #robotics, #robotics-roundup, #terraclear

Autonomous vehicle pioneers Karl Iagnemma and Chris Urmson are coming to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Long before the multi-million-dollar acquisitions and funding rounds pushed autonomous vehicles to the top of the hype cycle, Karl Iagnemma and Chris Urmson were researching and, later, developing the foundations of the technology.

These pioneers, Iagnemma coming from MIT, Urmson from Carnegie Mellon University — would eventually go on to launch their own autonomous vehicle startups in an aim to finally bring years of R&D to the public.

That task isn’t over quite yet. Urmson, who is co-founder and CEO of Aurora, and Iagnemma, who is president and CEO of Motional, are still working on unlocking the technical and business problems that stand in the way of commercialization.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Urmson and Iagnemma will be joining us on the virtual stage of TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. The one-day event, scheduled for June 9, is bringing together engineers and founders, investors and CEOs who are working on all the present and future ways people and packages will get from Point A to Point B. Iagnemma and Urmson will come to discuss the past, the present challenges and what both aim to do in the future. We’ll tackle questions about the technical problems that remain to be solved, the war over talent, the best business models and applications of autonomous vehicles and maybe even hear a few stories from the early days of testing and launching a startup.

Both guests have a long list of accolades and accomplishments — and too many, to cover them all here.

Urmson has been working on AVs for more than 15 years. He earned his Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and his BSc in computer engineering from the University of Manitoba in 1998. He was a faculty member of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University where he worked with house-sized trucks, drove robots in the desert, and was the technical director of the DARPA Urban and Grand Challenge teams. Urmson has authored more than 60 patents and 50 publications.

He left CMU and was one of the founding members of Google’s self-driving program, serving as its CTO. In 2017, Urmson co-founded Aurora with Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell.

Iagnemma is also considered an authority on robotics and driverless vehicles. He was the director of the Robotic Mobility Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his research resulted in more than 150 technical publications, 50 issued or filed patents, and numerous edited volumes, including books on the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle competitions. He holds MS and PhD degrees from MIT, where he was a National Science Foundation fellow, and a BS from the University of Michigan, where he graduated first in his class.

In 2013, Iagnemma co-founded autonomous vehicle startup nuTonomy, one of the first to launch ride-hailing pilots. The company was acquired by Aptiv in late 2017. Aptiv and Hyundai formed the joint venture, which he now heads, in 2020. 

Iagnemma and Urmson are two of the many of the best and brightest minds in transportation who will be joining us on our virtual stage in June. Among the growing list of speakers is GM’s vp of global innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event. Early Bird sales ends tonight, May 7 at 11:59 pm PT. Be sure to book your tickets ASAP and save $100.

#alexandr-wang, #aptiv, #aurora, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #autotech-ventures, #b, #carnegie-mellon-university, #ceo, #chris-urmson, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #cto, #director, #electric-vehicles, #frank-reig, #grand-challenge, #hyundai, #jesse-levinson, #joeben-bevirt, #karl-iagnemma, #linkedin, #massachusetts-institute-of-technology, #michigan, #mit, #mobility, #motional, #national-science-foundation, #nutonomy, #pam-fletcher, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #revel, #robotics-institute, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-cars, #starship-technologies, #sterling-anderson, #tamika-l-butler, #technology, #tiffany-chu, #transportation, #uber-atg, #university-of-michigan, #urban-innovation-fund, #zoox

Look out Amazon Go — A Lisbon startup plans to offer autonomous stores to other retailers

Look out Amazon Go. A Lisbon startup plans to offer the same autonomous store technology to other retailers. Lisbon-based Sensei, a computer vision startup that allows convenience stores to offer check-out-free purchasing has secured a seed round of $6.5 million (€5.4M). The funding was led by Seaya Ventures and Iberis Capital, with participation from 200M Fund.

The startup will now scale its R&D and launch new stores. Its proprietary platform uses a blend of cameras, sensors, and AI to automate stores, both new and existing. The platform means retailers can manage inventory in real-time and also access insights into the way the stores are used.

Vasco Portugal, Sensei’s CEO and Co-founder said: “Sensei’s technology will help level the playing field for retailers to compete against digital giants such as Amazon. We aim to enhance the familiar and enjoyable customer shopping experience, making it seamless, convenient, and safe.”

Sensei is designed to work mainly with grab-and-go stores, forecourts, and similar retail formats. Competitors include Trigo which has raised $89 million.

The advantages of automated stores in a pandemic are obvious: customers no longer have to queue. Plus retailers can avoid stock-outs and staff turn into customer support.

“We are delighted to invest in a business that is part of the digitalization of commerce, a trend that is currently clearly being accelerated,” said Aris Xenofontos, Principal at Seaya Ventures.

Luis Quaresma, Partner at Iberis Capital, added: “Sensei brings tremendous efficiencies and cost-savings to the retail industry, while providing a much needed seamless checkout experience for consumers.”

Sensei was founded by Vasco Portugal (CEO, ex-MIT), Joana Rafael (COO),Nuno Moutinho (CTO) and Paulo Carreira (CSO).

#amazon, #ceo, #coo, #cto, #europe, #lisbon, #marketing, #merchandising, #mit, #online-shopping, #partner, #portugal, #retail, #retailers, #seaya-ventures, #sensei, #tc, #trigo

Crusoe Energy is tackling energy use for cryptocurrencies and data centers and greenhouse gas emissions

The two founders of Crusoe Energy think they may have a solution to two of the largest problems facing the planet today — the increasing energy footprint of the tech industry and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the natural gas industry.

Crusoe, which uses excess natural gas from energy operations to power data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations, has just raised $128 million in new financing from some of the top names in the venture capital industry to build out its operations — and the timing couldn’t be better.

Methane emissions are emerging as a new area of focus for researchers and policymakers focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming within the 1.5 degree targets set under the Paris Agreement. And those emissions are just what Crusoe Energy is capturing to power its data centers and bitcoin mining operations.

The reason why addressing methane emissions is so critical in the short term is because these greenhouse gases trap more heat than their carbon dioxide counterparts and also dissipate more quickly. So dramatic reductions in methane emissions can do more in the short term to alleviate the global warming pressures that human industry is putting on the environment.

And the biggest source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. In the U.S. alone roughly 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas is flared daily, said Chase Lochmiller, a co-founder of Crusoe Energy. About two thirds of that is flared in Texas with another 500 million cubic feet flared in North Dakota, where Crusoe has focused its operations to date.

For Lochmiller, a former quant trader at some of the top American financial services institutions, and Cully Cavmess, a third generation oil and gas scion, the ability to capture natural gas and harness it for computing operations is a natural combination of the two men’s interests in financial engineering and environmental preservation.

NEW TOWN, ND – AUGUST 13: View of three oil wells and flaring of natural gas on The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, ND on August 13, 2014. About 100 million dollars worth of natural gas burns off per month because a pipeline system isn’t in place yet to capture and safely transport it . The Three Affiliated Tribes on Fort Berthold represent Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. It’s also at the epicenter of the fracking and oil boom that has brought oil royalties to a large number of native americans living there. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The two Denver natives met in prep-school and remained friends. When Lochmiller left for MIT and Cavness headed off to Middlebury they didn’t know that they’d eventually be launching a business together. But through Lochmiller’s exposure to large scale computing and the financial services industry, and Cavness assumption of the family business they came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to address the massive waste associated with natural gas.

Conversation around Crusoe Energy began in 2018 when Lochmiller and Cavness went climbing in the Rockies to talk about Lochmiller’s trip to Mt. Everest.

When the two men started building their business, the initial focus was on finding an environmentally friendly way to deal with the energy footprint of bitcoin mining operations. It was this pitch that brought the company to the attention of investors at Polychain, the investment firm started by Olaf Carlson-Wee (and Lochmiller’s former employer), and investors like Bain Capital Ventures and new investor Valor Equity Partners.

(This was also the pitch that Lochmiller made to me to cover the company’s seed round. At the time I was skeptical of the company’s premise and was worried that the business would just be another way to prolong the use of hydrocarbons while propping up a cryptocurrency that had limited actual utility beyond a speculative hedge against governmental collapse. I was wrong on at least one of those assessments.)

“Regarding questions about sustainability, Crusoe has a clear standard of only pursuing projects that are net reducers of emissions. Generally the wells that Crusoe works with are already flaring and would continue to do so in the absence of Crusoe’s solution. The company has turned down numerous projects where they would be a buyer of low cost gas from a traditional pipeline because they explicitly do not want to be net adders of demand and emissions,” wrote a spokesman for Valor Equity in an email. “In addition, mining is increasingly moving to renewables and Crusoe’s approach to stranded energy can enable better economics for stranded or marginalized renewables, ultimately bringing more renewables into the mix. Mining can provide an interruptible base load demand that can be cut back when grid demand increases, so overall the effect to incentivize the addition of more renewable energy sources to the grid.”

Other investors have since piled on including: Lowercarbon Capital, DRW Ventures, Founders Fund, Coinbase Ventures, KCK Group, Upper90, Winklevoss Capital, Zigg Capital and Tesla co-founder JB Straubel.

The company now operate 40 modular data centers powered by otherwise wasted and flared natural gas throughout North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Next year that number should expand to 100 units as Crusoe enters new markets such as Texas and New Mexico. Since launching in 2018, Crusoe has emerged as a scalable solution to reduce flaring through energy intensive computing such as bitcoin mining, graphical rendering, artificial intelligence model training and even protein folding simulations for COVID-19 therapeutic research.

Crusoe boasts 99.9% combustion efficiency for its methane, and is also bringing additional benefits in the form of new networking buildout at its data center and mining sites. Eventually, this networking capacity could lead to increased connectivity for rural communities surrounding the Crusoe sites.

Currently, 80% of the company’s operations are being used for bitcoin mining, but there’s increasing demand for use in data center operations and some universities, including Lochmiller’s alma mater of MIT are looking at the company’s offerings for their own computing needs.

“That’s very much in an incubated phase right now,” said Lochmiller. “A private alpha where we have a few test customers… we’ll make that available for public use later this year.”

Crusoe Energy Systems should have the lowest data center operating costs in the world, according to Lochmiller and while the company will spend money to support the infrastructure buildout necessary to get the data to customers, those costs are negligible when compared to energy consumption, Lochmiller said.

The same holds true for bitcoin mining, where the company can offer an alternative to coal powered mining operations in China and the construction of new renewable capacity that wouldn’t be used to service the grid. As cryptocurrencies look for a way to blunt criticism about the energy usage involved in their creation and distribution, Crusoe becomes an elegant solution.

Institutional and regulatory tailwinds are also propelling the company forward. Recently New Mexico passed new laws limiting flaring and venting to no more than 2 percent of an operator’s production by April of next year and North Dakota is pushing for incentives to support on-site flare capture systems while Wyoming signed a law creating incentives for flare gas reduction applied to bitcoin mining. The world’s largest financial services firms are also taking a stand against flare gas with BlackRock calling for an end to routine flaring by 2025.

“Where we view our power consumption, we draw a very clear line in our project evaluation stage where we’re reducing emissions for an oil and gas projects,” Lochmiller said. 

#air-pollution, #alpha, #artificial-intelligence, #bain-capital-ventures, #bitcoin, #bitcoin-mining, #blackrock, #china, #co-founder, #coinbase-ventures, #colorado, #computing, #cryptocurrency, #cryptography, #denver, #energy, #energy-consumption, #energy-efficiency, #everest, #founders-fund, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #jb-straubel, #lowercarbon-capital, #methane, #mining, #mit, #montana, #natural-gas, #new-mexico, #north-dakota, #tc, #tesla, #texas, #trader, #united-states, #upper90, #valor-equity-partners, #winklevoss-capital, #world-bank, #wyoming

Remote hiring startup Deel raises $156M at a $1.25B valuation after 20x growth in 2020

Many of the world’s organizations shifted to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even as more people are vaccinated and offices are planning re-openings, it’s clear that for some organizations, remote work is here to stay. 

Deel, a startup which provides payroll, compliance tools and other services to help businesses hire remotely, has seen increased demand in the wake of this shift.

And today, the San Francisco company has announced that it has raised $156 million in Series C funding led by the YC Continuity Fund and existing backers Andreessen Horowitz and Spark Capital. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, former Stripe payments guru Lachy Groom, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jeff Wilke, and Anthony Schiller also participated in the round, among others. 

The raise is notable for a few reasons. For one, it comes just over seven months after Deel raised a $30 million Series B financing. So it is essentially more than 5x the size of that round. It’s also a big deal because it propels Deel, a 3 year-old company, to unicorn status with a $1.25 billion valuation. The raise also comes after a massive year of growth for Deel, which says it saw a “20x” increase in revenue in 2020 with over 1,800 business clients. That’s up from 500 at the time of its September raise.

Co-founded by MIT alumni Alex Bouaziz and Shuo Wan, Deel aims to allow businesses “to hire anyone, anywhere, in a compliant manner.” It claims that by using its services, businesses can hire and onboard international employees or contractors in under 5 minutes, with no local entity required and that “paying them in 120+ currencies takes just a click.”

Deel plans to use its new capital to continue an international expansion and set up 80 new Deel-owned entities across the world in 2021. Deel also plans to do some hiring itself, and grow its product offerings. The company’s own team is entirely remote, and has grown from 7 employees to over 120 across 26 countries since January 2020. CB Insights projects the industry for virtual HR software will grow to $43 billion by 2026 as technology platforms like Deel help businesses make the transition to remote-first work.

YC Continuity’s Ali Rowghani, who has joined Deel’s board as part of the funding, believes Deel was already at the forefront of remote work pre-pandemic and that “it will be long after.”

“The way people work is fundamentally changing… the [Deel] team is uniquely equipped to remove the obstacles of remote work so companies hire the best talent in the world, instead of only those nearest to them,” he said in a written statement.

As TechCrunch previously reported, Deel today already provides various tools to employees and the organizations that they work for, such as payroll services, tax compliance information, assistance on building contracts, invoicing services and a range of insurance options covering health and other areas related to working life.

Now the plan is to continue building out that stack with more services aimed at both the workers and their employers. That includes loans based on salary for workers, more insurance and benefits options and other offerings.

#alex-bouaziz, #ali-rowghani, #andreessen-horowitz, #anthony-schiller, #ceo, #dara-khosrowshahi, #deel, #funding, #fundings-exits, #hiring, #jeffrey-katzenberg, #lachy-groom, #mit, #recent-funding, #remote-work, #san-francisco, #spark-capital, #startups, #uber, #venture-capital

Scale AI founder and CEO Alexandr Wang will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9

Last week, Scale AI announced a massive $325 million Series E. Led by Dragoneer, Greenoaks Capital and Tiger Global, the raise gives the San Francisco data labeling startup a $7 billion valuation.

Alexandr Wang founded the company back in 2016, while still at MIT. A veteran of Quora and Addepar, Wang built the startup to curate information for AI applications. The company is now a break-even business, with a wide range of top-notch clients, including General Motors, NVIDIA, Nuro and Zoox.

Backed by a ton of venture capital, the company plans a large-scale increase in its headcount, as it builds out new products and expands into additional markets. “One thing that we saw, especially in the course of the past year, was that AI is going to be used for so many different things,” Wang told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “It’s like we’re just sort of really at the beginning of this and we want to be prepared for that as it happens.”

The executive will join us on stage at TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9 to discuss how the company has made a major impact on the industry in its short four years of existence, the role AI is playing in the world of transportation and what the future looks like for Scale AI.

In addition to Wang, TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 will feature an incredible lineup of speakers, presentations, fireside chats and breakouts all focused on the current and future state of mobility — like EVs, micromobility and smart cities for starters — and the investment trends that influence them all.

Investors like Clara Brenner (Urban Innovation Fund), Quin Garcia (Autotech Ventures) and Rachel Holt (Construct Capital) — all of whom will grace our virtual stage. They’ll have plenty of insight and advice to share, including the challenges that startup founders will face as they break into the transportation arena.

You’ll hear from CEOs like Starship Technologies’ Ahti Heinla. The company’s been busy testing delivery robots in real-world markets. Don’t miss his discussion touching on challenges ranging from technology to red tape and what it might take to make last-mile robotic delivery a mainstream reality.

Grab your early bird pass today and save $100 on tickets before prices go up in less than a month.

#addepar, #alexandr-wang, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #autotech-ventures, #clara-brenner, #deliv, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #executive, #general-motors, #greenoaks-capital, #micromobility, #mit, #nuro, #nvidia, #quora, #rachel-holt, #san-francisco, #scale-ai, #starship-technologies, #startup-company, #tc-sessions-mobility, #technology, #tiger-global, #transportation, #urban-innovation-fund, #venture-capital, #wang

Tamika Butler, Remix’s Tiffany Chu and Revel’s Frank Reig to discuss how to balance equitability and profitability at TC Sessions Mobility

The race among mobility startups to become profitable by controlling market share has produced a string of bad results for cities and the people living in the them.

City officials and agencies learned from those early deployments of ride-hailing and shared scooter services and have since pushed back with new rules and tighter control over which companies can operate. This correction has prompted established companies to change how they do business and fueled a new crop of startups, all promising a different approach.

But can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? And how?

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a virtual event scheduled for June 9, aims to dig into those questions. Luckily, we have three guests who are at the center of cities, equity and shared mobility: community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Butler, a lawyer and founder and principal of her own consulting company, is well known for work in diversity and inclusion, equity, the built environment, community organizing and leading nonprofits. She was most recently the director of planning in California and the director of equity and inclusion at Toole Design. She previously served as the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler also sits on the board of Lacuna Technologies.

Chu is the CEO and co-founder of Remix, a startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design. Remix was recently acquired by Via for $100 million and will continue to operate as a subsidiary of the company. Remix, which was backed by Sequoia Capital, Energy Impact Partners, Y Combinator, and Elemental Excelerator has been recognized as both a 2020 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and BloombergNEF Pioneer for its work in empowering cities to make transportation decisions with sustainability and equity at the forefront. Chu currently serves as Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and sits on the city’s Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. Previously, Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, the first UX hire at Zipcar and is an alum of Y Combinator. Tiffany has a background in architecture and urban planning from MIT.

Early Bird tickets to the show are now available — book today and save $100 before prices go up.

Reig is the co-founder and CEO of Revel, a transportation company that got its start launching a shared electric moped service in Brooklyn. The company, which launched in 2018, has since expanded its moped service to Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Miami, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. The company has since expanded its focus beyond moped and has started to build fast-charging EV Superhubs across New York City and launched an eBike subscription service in four NYC boroughs. Prior to Revel, Reig held senior roles in the energy and corporate sustainability sectors.

The trio will join other speakers TechCrunch has announced, a list that so far includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JonBen Bevirt, investor and Linked founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, as well as investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital and Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event.

#america, #automotive, #autotech-ventures, #brands, #butler, #california, #ceo, #cities, #clara-brenner, #companies, #construct-capital, #energy, #energy-impact-partners, #frank-reig, #joby-aviation, #miami, #mit, #new-york-city, #oakland, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #remix, #revel, #san-francisco, #sequoia-capital, #starship-technologies, #startup-company, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility, #techcrunch, #tiffany-chu, #transportation, #urban-innovation-fund, #washington-d-c, #world-economic-forum, #y-combinator, #zipcar

MIT startup Pickle raises $5.75M for its package-picking robot

There’s no doubt this past year has been a major watershed moment for the robotics industry. Warehouse and logistics have been a particular target for an automation push, as companies have worked to keep the lights on amidst stay at home orders and other labor shortages.

MIT spinoff Pickle is one of the latest startups to enter the fray. The company launched with limited funding and a small team, though it’s recently changed one of these, telling TechCrunch this week that it has raised $5.57 million in funding during this hot investment streak. The seed round was led by Hyperplane and featured Third Kind Venture Capital, Box Group and Version One Ventures, among others.

The company’s making some pretty big claims around the efficacy of its first robot named, get this, “Dill” (the company clearly can’t avoid a clever name). It says the robot is capable of 1,600 picks per hour from the back of a trailer, a figure it claims is “double the speed of any competitors.”

CEO Andrew Meyer says collaboration is a key to the company’s play. “We designed people into the system from the get-go and focused on a specific problem: package handling in the loading dock. We got out of the lab and put robots to work in real warehouses. We resisted the fool’s errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised or solve every robotics problem out there.”

Orders for the first product targeted at trailer unloading will open in June, with an expected ship date of early 2022.

#funding, #hyperplane, #mit, #pickle, #recent-funding, #robot, #robotics, #startups

How Pilot charted a course of not raising too much money

A few weeks ago, we wrote about fintech Pilot raising a $100 million Series C that doubled the company’s valuation to $1.2 billion.

Bezos Expeditions — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ personal investment fund — and Whale Rock Capital joined the round, adding $40 million to a $60 million raise led by Sequoia about one month prior.

That raise came after a $40 million Series B in April 2019 co-led by Stripe and Index Ventures that valued the company at $355 million.

Both raises were notable and warranted coverage. But sometimes it’s fun to take a peek at the stories behind the raises and dig deeper into the numbers.

So here we go.

First off, San Francisco-based Pilot — which has a mission of affordably providing back-office services such as bookkeeping to startups and SMBs — apparently had term sheets that offered “2x the $40M” raised in its Series B. But it chose not to raise so much capital. 

I also heard that the same investor that ended up leading a now defunct competitor’s $60 million raise first asked to invest $60 million in Pilot as a follow-on to that Series B prior to making the other investment. While I don’t know for sure, I can only presume that what is being referred to is ScaleFactor’s $60 million Series C raise in August 2019 that was led by Coatue Management. (ScaleFactor crashed and burned last year.)

According to CFO Paul Jun: “There were many periods when Pilot turned away new customers and growth capital instead of absolutely maximizing short-term growth…Pilot prioritized building the foundational investments needed for scalability, reliability and high velocity. When it was presented with the opportunity for additional funding towards further growth in 2019, it declined to do so.”

Co-founder and CEO Waseem Daher elaborates, pointing out that the first company that Pilot’s founding team ran, Ksplice, was bootstrapped before getting acquired by Oracle in 2011. (It’s also worth noting that the founding team are all MIT computer scientists.)

“Ultimately, the reason to raise money is you believe that you can deploy the capital, to grow the company or to basically cause the company to grow at the rate you’d like to grow. And it doesn’t make sense to raise money if you don’t need it, or don’t have a good plan for what to do with it,” Daher told TechCrunch. “Too much capital can be bad because it sort of leads you to bad habits…When you have the money, you spend the money.”

So despite what he describes as “a great deal of institutional interest” in 2019, Pilot opted to raise just $40 million, instead of $80 million to $100 million, because it was the amount of capital the company had confidence that it could deploy successfully.

Also, Jun shared some numbers beyond the recent raise amount and valuation.

  • The company has tripled revenue every year since inception, except for 2020 when it doubled revenue.
  • Pilot claims to have had a cash burn of $800,000 per month in 2020 against a starting balance of $40 million.
  • The startup touts a 60% GAAP gross margin. Daher notes: “We feel really good about having long-term unit economics that will work for this business without resorting to offshoring or outsourcing in a way that could compromise quality and compromise relationships.”

Bottom line is companies don’t have to accept all the capital that’s offered to them. And maybe in some cases, they shouldn’t.

#bezos-expeditions, #bookkeeping, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #index-ventures, #jeff-bezos, #mit, #pilot, #recent-funding, #san-francisco, #startup, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #waseem-daher, #whale-rock-capital

Grasping at hidden objects

Happy Robotics Week, to those who celebrate. I know a lot of us are unable to be with our loved ones this year, which means no robotics tree, robotics baskets full of robot eggs and green robot beer. Still, the National Robotics Week organization is putting on a bunch of virtual events across 50 states through April 11.

There’s been a bit of financial news over the past week, also worth noting. On Tuesday, Sarcos joined the rarified air of robotic SPACs. While it’s true there’s been a flurry of activity on that front in the startup world, robotics companies have been slower to embrace the whole blank-check-reverse-merger deal. Berkshire-Grey is the one company that immediately springs to mind.

Image Credits: Sarcos Robotics

Sarcos builds robotics and robotic exoskeletons that look like they were designed for a James Cameron movie. The company has already raised a bunch of money, including a $40 million round, back in September, but is probably most notable to mainstream readers for being at the center of Delta’s recent high-tech push. The airline plans to use some of the company’s tech to help employees lift large payloads.

Image Credits: Rapid Robotics

San Francisco-based Rapid Robotics, meanwhile, announced a $12 million Series A. That brings the company’s funding to date up to $17.5 million, hot on the heels of a decent-sized seed round. The company’s objective is providing a kind of plug and play solution for robotics manufacturing, and essentially lowering the barrier of entry for manufacturing automation across a range of industries.

SoftBank, which continues to be quite bullish on the space, just acquired 40% of AutoStore for a cool $2.8 billion, putting the Norwegian company’s valuation at $7.7 billion. The company uses robotics to maximize warehouse storage, consolidating it into around a quarter of the space. It already has a sizable footprint, as well — 20,000 robots deployed at around 600 locations. Per SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son:

We view AutoStore as a foundational technology that enables rapid and cost-effective logistics for companies around the globe. We look forward to working with AutoStore to aggressively expand across end markets and geographies.

And because it can’t all be investment news (I mean, it can, but who wants that?), some cool research out of MIT. Researchers from the school, along with ones from Harvard and Georgia Tech, showcased a robot that uses radio waves to sense hidden objects. The tech allows RF-Grasp to pick up things that are covered up or otherwise out of its line of vision. MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib describes it as “superhuman perception.”

#mit, #rapid-robotics, #robotics, #robotics-roundup, #sarcos, #softbank

Education non-profit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

Edraak, an online education non-profit, exposed the private information of thousands of students after uploading student data to an unprotected cloud storage server, apparently by mistake.

The non-profit, founded by Jordan’s Queen Rania and headquartered in the kingdom’s capital, was set up in 2013 to promote education across the Arab region. The organization works with several partners, including the British Council and edX, a consortium set up by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

In February, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm TurgenSec found one of Edraak’s cloud storage servers containing at least tens of thousands of students’ data, including spreadsheets with students’ names, email addresses, gender, birth year, country of nationality, and some class grades.

TurgenSec, which runs Breaches.UK, a site for disclosing security incidents, alerted Edraak to the security lapse. A week later, their email was acknowledged by the organization but the data continued to spill. Emails seen by TechCrunch show the researchers tried to alert others who worked at the organization via LinkedIn requests, and its partners, including the British Council.

Two months passed and the server remained open. At its request, TechCrunch contacted Edraak, which closed the servers a few hours later.

In an email this week, Edraak chief executive Sherif Halawa told TechCrunch that the storage server was “meant to be publicly accessible, and to host public course content assets, such as course images, videos, and educational files,” but that “student data is never intentionally placed in this bucket.”

“Due to an unfortunate configuration bug, however, some academic data and student information exports were accidentally placed in the bucket,” Halawa confirmed.

“Unfortunately our initial scan did not locate the misplaced data that made it there accidentally. We attributed the elements in the Breaches.UK email to regular student uploads. We have now located these misplaced reports today and addressed the issue,” Halawa said.

The server is now closed off to public access.

It’s not clear why Edraak ignored the researchers’ initial email, which disclosed the location of the unprotected server, or why the organization’s response was not to ask for more details. When reached, British Council spokesperson Catherine Bowden said the organization received an email from TurgenSec but mistook it for a phishing email.

Edraak’s CEO Halawa said that the organization had already begun notifying affected students about the incident, and put out a blog post on Thursday.

Last year, TurgenSec found an unencrypted customer database belonging to U.K. internet provider Virgin Media that was left online by mistake, containing records linking some customers to adult and explicit websites.

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#articles, #british-council, #ceo, #computing, #cyberspace, #education, #edx, #email, #harvard, #jordan, #linkedin, #mit, #online-education, #phishing, #security, #server, #spamming, #spokesperson, #stanford, #united-kingdom, #virgin-media, #web-server

Fishing for solutions

One of the slower weeks for robotics investments I’ve seen since I started doing this roundup. This stuff ebbs and flows, though, and there’s always bound to be a bit of a flurry at the beginning of the year. This week, most of the top news revolves around research, which, let’s be honest, is where most of the really fun stuff happens, anyway.

The other week, I spent a couple of paragraphs talking about why soft robots are interesting and important, but of course, they have their limitations. Like everything else in tech, choosing one version has its plusses and minuses. In the pro column, you can have additional compliance and flexibility. But one of the trade-offs is conductivity.

Image Credits: Carnegie Mellon University

Some clever new research out of Carnegie Mellon University applies micrometer-sized silver flakes to soft materials like hydrogels, creating what the team likens to, “a second layer of nervous tissue over your skin.” Soft robotics created in this matter could eventually be used for medical purposes, including treatments for stroke patients and people suffering from tremors related to Parkinson’s.

Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems published its own soft robotics research this week, alongside Seoul National University and Harvard University. Like a lot of the work in the category, the team is focused on a model inspired by marine life. Here we’re looking at a robotic fish that adjusts its undulation based on the water around it. It’s some interesting insight into how fish move and could be useful in producing soft underwater robots, going forward.

Researchers at MIT, meanwhile, are exploring the proper placement of sensors on soft robotics to help give them a better picture of their environment. This points to another issue with soft robotics: their compliance means they often have a more difficult time determining moving based on their environment. So the team has devised a neural network that could optimize sensor placement.

There is still some robotics investment news this week. Fort Robotics made some waves with a $13 million raise. Unlike a lot of the recent rounds we’ve looked at, the Philadelphia company has a software focus. Specifically, it develops a layer for robotic systems designed to help keep companies safe from a wide range of different issues, from cybersecurity to system failure.

Pieter Abbeel, the director of UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab, has been onstage for a few of our annual TC Sessions: Robotics event. He reached out to let us know that he’s just launched an interview series about AI and robotics that will no doubt be a worthwhile listen, if you’re interested at all in the category.

#carnegie-mellon, #fort-robotics, #mit, #robotics, #robotics-roundup

Bill Gates wants Western countries to eat “synthetic meat”; Meatable has raised $47 million to make it

In a recent interview discussing Bill Gates’ recent book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster“, the Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy founder (and the world’s third wealthiest man) advocated for citizens of the richest countries in the world to switch to diets consisting entirely of what he called synthetic meat in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Gates’ call is being met by startups and public companies hailing from everywhere from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, London to Los Angeles, and Berkeley to… um… Chicago.

Indeed, two of the best funded companies in the lab-grown meat market hail from The Netherlands, where Mosa Meat is being challenged by a newer upstart, Meatable, which just announced $47 million in new financing.

The company aims to have its first product approved by European regulators by 2023 and notching commercial sales by 2025.

Meatable has a long road ahead of it, because, as Gates acknowledged in his interview with MIT Technology Review (ed. note: I’m available for a call, too, Bill), “the people like Memphis Meats who do it at a cellular level—I don’t know that that will ever be economical.”

Beyond the economics, there’s also the open question of whether consumers will be willing to make the switch to lab grown meat. Some companies, like the San Francisco-based Just Foods and Tel Aviv’s Supermeat are already selling chicken patties and nuggets made from cultured cells at select restaurants.

These products don’t get at the full potential for cellular technology according to Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technology officer. “We have seen the nugget and the chicken burger, but we’re working on whole muscle tissue,” Luining said.

The sheer number of entrants in the category — and the capital they’ve raised — points to the opportunity for several winners if companies can walk the tightrope balancing cost at scale and quality replacements for free range food.

“The mission of the company is to be a global leader in providing proteins for the planet. Pork and beef and regularly eaten cuts have on environmental and land management,” Luining said. “The technology that we are using allows us to go into different species. First we’re focused on the animals that have the biggest impact on climate change and planetary health.”

For Meatable right now, price remains an issue. The company is currently producing meat at roughly $10,000 per pound, but, unlike its competitors, the company said it is producing whole meat. That’s including the fat and connective tissue that makes meat… well… meat.

Now with 35 employees and new financing, the company is trying to shift from research and development into a food production company. Strategic investors like DSM, one of the largest food biotech companies in Europe should help. So should angel investors like Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, the executive chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; and Dr. Rick Klausner, the former executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a founder of Juno Therapeutics, GRAIL, and Mindstrong Health, after leaving Illumina where he served as chief medical officer.

Institutional investors in the company’s latest round include Google Ventures founder Bill Maris’ new fund, Section 32,  and existing investors like: BlueYard Capital, Agronomics, Humboldt, and Taavet Hinrikus. 

The company’s first commercial offering will likely be a lab-grown pork product, but with expanded facilities in Delft, the location of one of the top universities in The Netherlands, a beef product may not be far behind.

“[Meatable has] a great team and game-changing technology that can address the challenges around the global food insecurity issues our planet is facing,” said Klausner. “They have all the right ingredients to become the leading choice for sustainably and efficiently produced meat.”


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#amsterdam, #articles, #bill-gates, #bill-maris, #blueyard-capital, #cellular-agriculture, #chicago, #chief-technology-officer, #cultured-meat, #eat-just, #europe, #food-and-drink, #food-production, #founder, #google-ventures, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #illumina, #juno-therapeutics, #london, #los-angeles, #meat, #meatable, #memphis, #memphis-meats, #mit, #netherlands, #san-francisco, #tc, #tel-aviv

Will moving, ‘spacial video’ start to eat into square-box Zoom calls? SpatialChat thinks so

With most of us locked into a square video box on platforms like Zoom, the desire to break away and perhaps wander around a virtual space is strong. These new ways of presenting people – as small circles of videos placed in a virtual space where they can move around – has appeared in various forms, like ‘virtual bars’ for the last few months during global pandemic lockdowns. Hey, I even went to a few virtual bars myself! Although the drinks from my fridge could have been better…

The advantage of this spatial approach is it gives a lot more ‘agency’ to the user. You feel, at least, a bit more in control, as you can make a ‘physical’ choice as to where you go, even if it is only still a virtual experience.

Now SpatialChat, one of the first startups with that approach which launched on ProductHunt in April last year, is upping the game with a new design and the feature of persistent chats. The product debuted on ProductHunt on April 20, 2020, and rose to No. 3 app of the day. The web-based platform has been bootstrapped the founders with their own resources.

SpatialChat now adding a special tier and features for teams running town hall meetings and virtual offices, and says it now has more than 3,000 organizations as paying customers, with more than 200,000 total monthly active users.

The startup is part of a virtual networking space being populating by products such as
Teamflow, Gather, and Remo. Although it began as a online networking events service, its now trying to re-position as a forum for multi-group discussions, all the way up from simple stand-up meetings to online conferences.

SpatialChat uses a mix of ‘proximity’ video chats, screen sharing, and rooms for up to 50 people. It’s now putting in pricing plans for regular, weekly, and one-time use cases. It says it’s seen employees at Sony, Panasonic, Sega, LinkedIn, Salesforce, and McKinsey, as well as educators and staff at 108 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT, use the platform.

Almas Abulkhairov, CEO and Co-founder of SpatialChat says: “Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams represent a virtual office for many teams but most of our customers say these apps aren’t a good fit for that. They don’t provide the same serendipity of thought you get working shoulder to shoulder and “Zoom fatigue” became a term for a reason. We want to bring the best from offline work.”

Konstantin Krasov, CPO at DataSouls, who used the platform, said: “We had 2500 people in attendance during a 2-day event that we hosted for our community of 50,000 Data Scientists. SpatialChat enabled us to make a cool networking event, Q/A and AMA with thought leaders in data science.”

#computing, #europe, #harvard, #linkedin, #mckinsey, #microsoft, #microsoft-teams, #mit, #panasonic, #salesforce, #software, #sony, #stanford, #tc, #web-conferencing, #workplace, #yale, #zoom

Cables could help soft robots transform into harder structures

The sub-category of soft robotics has transformed the way many think about the field. Oft-influenced by natural phenomenon, the technology offers a dramatically different approach than the sort of rigid structures we traditionally think of when we discuss robots.

Soft designs offer a number of benefits, including compliance, which has already seen a number of real-world applications in manufacturing and fulfillment. But like their more rigid cousins, soft robots have their limitations. As such, designers generally choose between one or the other for a given job — or, best-case scenario, design swappable parts.

A team at MIT’s CSAIL lab is exploring a technology that could make choosing less of a trade-off. The project has been in the works since 2017, though it’s still in the somewhat early stages — still largely the realm of computer simulation, though the details have been outlined in a new paper.

“This is the first step in trying to see if we can get the best of both worlds,” CSAIL post-doc James Bern said in a release.

In the project (or the simulated version, at least), the robot is controlled by a series of cables. Pulling on them in the right combination turns the soft structure into a hard one. The team uses the analogy of a series of muscles controlling the human arm — if the right ones are flexed, you can effectively lock a position in place.

The team will present their findings at a conference next month. For the time being, they’re currently working on a prototype to showcase how it operates in a real-world setting. Combining the two fields could go a ways toward building safer collaborative robots for interacting with human workers.

#csail, #hardware, #mit, #mit-csail, #robotics, #soft-robotics

MIT’s insect-sized drones are built to survive collisions

Insects are a lot of things – but fragile they’re not. Sure, most can’t withstand the full force of a human foot, but for their size, they’re evolve to be extremely rugged and resilient. Insect-sized technology, on the other hand, is general another story.

That’s certainly been the historic case with scaled-down drones. The components, in particular, tend to become more fragile the more you shrunk them. In particular, motors both lose efficiency and weaken the smaller they get.

Earlier models from the MIT lab have relied on rigid ceramic-based materials. They did the job in terms of getting the robot airborne, but as the lab notes, “foraging bumblebees endure a collision about once every second.” In other words, if you’re going to build something this small, you need to ensure that it doesn’t break down the first time it comes into contact with something.

“The challenge of building small aerial robots is immense,” says MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen.

New drone models, which the lab describes as resembling, “a cassette tape with wings,” are built with soft actuators, made from carbon nanotube-coated rubber cylinders. The actuators elongate when electricity is applied at a rate up to 500 times a second. Doing this causes the wings to beat and the drones to take flight.

The drones are extremely light weight, as well, coming in at around 0.6 grams – basically as much as a big bumble bee. There are still limitations to these early models. Namely, the system currently requires them to be hardwired to deliver the necessary charge – as seen in the below gif. It can be a bit of a mess. Other modifications are being made, as well, including a more nature-inspired dragonfly shape being used for newer prototypes.

Image Credits: MIT

Should such the lab be able to to produce such a robot untethered with imaging capabilities and a decent sized battery, the potential applications are immense for the tiny drones. You’ve got everything from simple inspections currently being handled by larger models to pollination and search and rescue.

#drone, #hardware, #insects, #mit, #robotics

Immunai raises $60M as it expands from improving immune therapies to discovering new ones, too

Just three years after its founding, biotech startup Immunai has raised $60 million in Series A funding, bringing its total raised to over $80 million. Despite its youth, Immunai has already established the largest database in the world for single cell immunity characteristics, and it has already used its machine learning-powered immunity analysts platform to enhance the performance of existing immunotherapies, but aided by this new funding, it’s now ready to expand into the development of entirely new therapies based on the strength and breadth of its data and ML.

Immunai’s approach to developing new insights around the human immune system uses a ‘multi-omic’ approach – essentially layering analysis of different types of biological data, including a cell’s genome, microbiome, epigenome (a genome’s chemical instruction set) and more. The startup’s unique edge is in combining the largest and richest data set of its type available, formed in partnership with world-leading immunological research organizations, with its own machine learning technology to deliver analytics at unprecedented scale.

“I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but we don’t have the luxury to move more slowly,” explained Immunai co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon in an interview. “Because I think that we are in kind of a perfect storm, where a lot of advances in machine learning and compute computations have led us to the point where we can actually leverage those methods to mine important insights. You have a limit or ceiling to how fast you can go by the number of people that you have – so I think with the vision that we have, and thanks to our very think large network between MIT, and Cambridge to Stanford in the Bay Area, and Tel Aviv, we just moved very quickly to harness people to say, let’s solve this problem together.”

Solomon and his co-founder and CTO Luis Voloch both have extensive computer science and machine learning backgrounds, and they initially connected and identified a need for the application of this kind of technology in immunology. Scientific co-founder and SVP of Strategic Research Danny Wells then helped them refine their approach to focus on improving efficacy of immunotherapies designed to treat cancerous tumors.

Immunai has already demonstrated that its platform can help identify optimal targets for existing therapies, including in a partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine where it assisted with a cell therapy product for use in treating neuroblastoma (a type of cancer that develops from immune cells, often in the adrenal glands). The company is now also moving into new territory with therapies, using its machine learning platform and industry-leading cell database to new therapy discovery – not only identifying and validating targets for existing therapies, but helping to create entirely new ones.

“We’re moving from just observing cells, but actually to going and perturbing them, and seeing what the outcome is,” explained Voloch. This, from the computational side, later allows us to move from correlative assessments to actually causal assessments, which makes our models a lot more powerful. Both on the computational side and on the on the lab side, this is really bleeding edge technologies that I think we will be the first to really put together at any kind of real scale.”

“The next step is to say ‘Okay, now that we understand the human immune profile, can we develop new drugs?’,” said Solomon. “You can think about it like we’ve been building a Google Maps for the immune system of a few years – so we are mapping different roads and paths in the in the immune system. But at some point, we figured out that there are certain roads or bridges that haven’t been built yet. And we will be able to support building new roads and new and new bridges, and hopefully leading from current states of disease or cities of disease, to building cities of health.”

#artificial-intelligence, #biotech, #biotechnology, #cambridge, #cancer-immunotherapy, #funding, #health, #life-sciences, #machine-learning, #machine-learning-technology, #mit, #recent-funding, #science, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #tel-aviv

MIT is building a ‘one-stop shop’ for 3D-printing robots

Additive manufacturing has proven an ideal solution for certain tasks, but the technology still lacks more traditional methods in a number of categories. One of the biggest is the requirement for post-printing assembly. 3D printers can create extremely complex components, but an outside party (be it human or machine) is required to put them together.

MIT’s CSAIL department this week showcased “LaserFactory,” a new project that attempts to develop robotics, drones and other machines than can be fabricated as part of a “one-stop shop.” The system is comprised of a software kit and hardware platform designed to create structures and assemble circuitry and sensors for the machine.

A more fully realized version of the project will be showcased at an event in May, but the team is pulling back the curtain a bit to show what the concept looks like in practice. Here’s a breakdown from CSAIL’s page:

Let’s say a user has aspirations to create their own drone. They’d first design their device by placing components on it from a parts library, and then draw on circuit traces, which are the copper or aluminum lines on a printed circuit board that allow electricity to flow between electronic components. They’d then finalize the drone’s geometry in the 2D editor. In this case, they’d use propellers and batteries on the canvas, wire them up to make electrical connections, and draw the perimeter to define the quadcopter’s shape.

Printing circuit boards is certainly nothing new. What sets CSAIL’s machine apart here is the breadth of functionality that’s been jammed into the machine here. An accompanying video lays it out pretty well:

Of course, this is early days — we’re still months out from the official presentation. There are a lot of questions, and more to the point, a lot of potential points of failure for a complex machine like this — especially one that seems to have non-experts as a target audience.

“Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge,” PhD student and lead author Martin Nisser says in the release. “By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.”

The software appears to be a big piece of the puzzle — allowing users to view a version of the product before it’s printed. By then, of course, it’s too late.

#3d-printing, #csail, #drones, #hardware, #massachusetts-institute-of-technology, #mit, #mit-csail, #robotics

Battery companies are the latest SPAC target as EVs get a huge regulatory boost

Batteries are the latest landing pad for investors.

In the past week alone, two companies have announced plans to become publicly traded companies by merging with special purpose acquisition companies. European battery manufacturer FREYR said Friday it would become a publicly traded company through a special purpose acquisition vehicle with a valuation at $1.4 billion. Houston area startup Microvast announced Monday its own SPAC, at a $3 billion valuation.

A $4.4 billion combined valuation for two companies with a little over $100 million in revenue (FREYR has yet to manufacture a battery) would seem absurd were it not for the incredible demand for batteries that’s coming.

Legacy automakers like GM and Ford have committed billions of dollars to shifting their portfolios to electric models. GM said last year it will spend $27 billion over the next five years on the development of electric vehicles and automated technology. Meanwhile, a number of newer entrants are either preparing to begin production of their electric vehicles or scaling up. Rivian, for instance, will begin delivering its electric pickup truck this summer. The company has also been tapped by Amazon to build thousands of electric vans.

The U.S. government could end up driving some of that demand.  President Biden announced last week that the U.S. government would replace the entire federal fleet of cars, trucks and SUVs with electric vehicles manufactured in the U.S. That’s 645,047 vehicles. That’s going to mean a lot of new batteries need to be made to supply GM and Ford, but also U.S.-based upstarts like Fisker, Canoo, Rivian, Proterra, Lion Electric and Tesla.

Meanwhile, some of the largest cities in the world are planning their own electrification initiatives. Shanghai is hoping to have electric vehicles represent roughly half of all new vehicle purchases by 2025 and all public buses, taxis, delivery trucks, and government vehicles will be zero-emission by the same period, according to research from the Royal Bank of Canada.

The Chinese market for electric vehicles is one of the world’s largest and one where policy is significantly ahead of the rest of the world.

A potential windfall from China’s EV market is likely one reason for the significant investment into Microvast by investors including the Oshkosh Corp., a 100 year-old industrial vehicles manufacturer; the $8.67 trillion money management firm, BlackRock; Koch Strategic Platforms; and InterPrivate, a private equity fund manager. That’s because Microvast’s previous backers include CDH Investments and CITIC Securities, two of the most well-connected private equity and financial services firms in China.

So is the company’s focus on commercial and industrial vehicles. Microvast believes that the market for commercial electric vehicles could be $30 billion in the near term. Currently, commercial EV sales represent just 1.5% of the market, but that penetration is supposed to climb to 9% by 2025, according to the company.

“In 2008, we set out to power a mobility revolution by building disruptive battery technologies that would allow electric vehicles to compete with internal combustion engine vehicles,” said Microvast chief executive Yang Wu, in a statement. “Since that time we have launched three generations of battery technologies that have provided our customers with battery performance far superior to our competitors and that successfully satisfy, over many years of operation, the stringent requirements of commercial vehicle operators.”

Roughly 30,000 vehicles are using Microvast’s batteries and the investment in Microvast includes about $822 million in cash that will finance the expansion of its manufacturing capacity to hit 9 gigawatt hours by 2022. The money should help Microvast meet its contractual obligations which account for about $1.5 billion in total value, according to the company.

If Chinese investors stand to win big in the upcoming Microvast public offering, a clutch of American investors and one giant Japanese corporation are waiting expectantly for FREYR’s public offering. Northbridge Venture Partners, CRV, and Itochu Corp. are all going to see gains from FREYR’s exit — even if they’re not backers of the European company.

Those three firms, along with the International Finance Corp. are investors in 24m, the Boston-based startup licensing its technology to FREYR to make its batteries.

FREYR’s public offering will also be another win for Yet-Ming Chiang, a serial entrepreneur and professor who has a long and storied history of developing innovations in the battery and materials science industry.

The MIT professor has been working on sustainable technologies for the last two decades, first at the now-defunct battery startup A123 Systems and then with a slew of startups like the 3D printing company Desktop Metal; lithium-ion battery technology developer, 24m; the energy storage system designer, Form Energy; and Baseload Renewables, another early-stage energy storage startup.

Desktop Metal went public last year after it was acquired by a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, and now 24m is getting a potential boost from a big cash infusion into one of its European manufacturing partners, FREYR.

The Norwegian company, which has plans to build five modular battery manufacturing facilities around a site in its home country intends to develop up to 43 gigawatt hours of clean batteries over the next four years.

For FREYR chief executive Tom Jensen there were two main draws for the 24m technology. “It’s the production process itself,” said Jensen. “What they basically do is they mix the electrolyte with the active material, which allows them to make thicker electrodes and reduce the inactive materials in the battery. Beyond that, when you actually do that you remove the need fo a number of traditional production steps… Compared to conventional lithium battery production it reduces production from 15 steps to 5 steps.”

Those process efficiencies combined with the higher volumes of energy bearing material in the cell leads to a fundamental disruption in the battery production process.

Jensen said the company would need $2.5 billion to fully realize its plans, but that the float should get FREYR there. The company is merging with Alussa Energy Acquisition Corp. in a SPAC backed by investors including Koch Strategic Platforms, Glencore, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, Franklin Templeton, Sylebra Capital and Van Eck Associates.

All of these investments are necessary if the world is to meet targets for vehicle electrification on the timelines that have been established.

As the Royal Bank of Canada noted in a December report on the electric vehicle industry. “We estimate that globally, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will represent ~3% of 2020 global demand, while plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) will represent another ~1.3%,” according to RBC’s figures. “But we see robust growth off these low figures. By 2025, when growth is still primarily regulatory driven, we see ~11% BEV global penetration of new demand representing a ~40% CAGR from 2020’s levels and ~5% PHEV penetration representing a ~35% CAGR. By 2025, we see BEV penetration in Western Europe at ~20%, China at ~17.5%, and the US at 7%. Comparatively, we expect internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to grow (cyclically) at a 2% CAGR through 2025. On a pure unit basis, we see “peak ICE” in 2024.”

#3d-printing, #amazon, #automotive-industry, #biden, #blackrock, #boston, #cdh-investments, #china, #crv, #desktop-metal, #electric-vehicle, #electric-vehicles, #energy, #energy-storage, #ford, #franklin-templeton, #gm, #houston, #itochu-corp, #lithium-ion-battery, #mit, #northbridge-venture-partners, #plug-in-hybrid, #president, #proterra, #rivian, #royal-bank-of-canada, #shanghai, #sylebra-capital, #tc, #tesla, #u-s-government, #united-states

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called ‘robomorphic computing’ to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new – if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations – like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used an field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increase manufacturing speed and efficiency – though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

#artificial-intelligence, #computer-chips, #computer-graphics, #computer-hardware, #computing, #fpga, #hardware-acceleration, #iphone, #mit, #robotics, #science, #tc