GM details the motors that will power its electric Hummer and other EVs

General Motors has spent a lot of time recently talking up the capabilities of its upcoming Ultium battery technology but has said significantly less so about the motors those cells will power. That changed on Tuesday when the company detailed its new Ultium Drive motors. With today’s announcement, the series consists of three different models: a 180 kW front-drive model, a 255 kW rear- and front-drive variant and a 62 kW all-wheel drive assist motor. The first two models are permanent magnet motors GM designed in such a way so as to try and reduce its dependence on heavy rare metals.

The company didn’t speak to the specific torque and power density characters of each motor but claimed they should deliver “excellent” performance on those fronts. It also revealed the 2022 Hummer EV will feature three of the 255 kW models. GM claims they will enable the vehicle to produce a combined 11,500 ft/lb of torque and accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in approximately three seconds.

GM says its engineers designed the motors with scalability in mind. Each one can be made using similar tools and manufacturing techniques. It also found a way to integrate components like the power inverter directly into the motors, a feat the company said should reduce costs and simplify manufacturing.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

#column, #electric-vehicle, #ev, #gm, #hummer, #tc, #tceng, #transportation

Seth Rogen explains how Houseplant promotes cannabis without breaking the rules

I was annoying Seth Rogen. We had just started the interview, and while he politely answered my questions, he was growing tired of talking about his celebrity status. He was more interested in discussing how the company he co-founded is succeeding by overcoming countless regulatory hurdles. To him, that success has little to do with the Seth Rogen brand.

“It’s not like I’m a real celebrity. It’s not like Chris Evans is behind this,” Rogen said, laughing. “On the grand scale, celebrities are very low on the pecking order. I don’t even know if I am a celebrity since I haven’t been in a Marvel movie.”

I spoke with Rogen, CEO Mike Mohr and chief commerce officer Haneen Davies at TechCrunch Disrupt. Houseplant launched in March with two product categories: “House,” as in, home goods, and “Plant,” as in weed. One is highly regulated by the federal government and social media companies, and the other is not.

“We approached [building the brand] in a way that nobody else has,” Davies said. “I think the merger of house and plant is what’s going to help us establish a brand name that goes beyond the limiting restrictions you have to abide by to communicate cannabis.”

#cannabis, #houseplant, #seth-rogen, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021-impact

Facebook adds a battery-powered smart screen to the Portal line

The Portal line has always been a kind of odd duck in the world of smart screens. Facebook’s most significant contribution to the category is almost certainly Smart Camera, which uses AI to track a subject and pan and zoom accordingly to keep them in frame. It was the first big line to bring the clever feature to market, though Google, Amazon and even Apple have since offered their own takes on the category.

Portal’s other primary appeal (versus a Nest or Echo) is its integration with Facebook’s own software like Messenger and WhatsApp. Beyond that, the line has struggled to differentiate itself from Amazon and Google’s head start in the world of connected home hardware and smart assistants.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news brings an interesting new layer to the conversation, with the arrival of the Portal Go, a battery-powered portal smart screen. The 10-inch device sports a handle on the back for quick gripping and a battery that promises five hours of standard usage and up to 14 hours of music playback with the screen off (there’s currently no specific battery-saving mode).

It’s a clever addition to the line. We are, no doubt, pushing further into tablet territory here, but I’ve felt the impulse to pick up and bring my Nest Home into the other room more than once. Your mileage will vary.

Image Credits: Facebook

I haven’t seen the thing in person yet, but I do dig the design. It’s got rounded edges around some big black bezels and a fabric-covered backing that’s been all the rage in the smart home category for several years now. The Go is propped up in a wedged design, with two front-facing speakers and a rear-facing woofer.

It’s got an ultrawide front-facing 12-megapixel camera that does the aforementioned smart panning, along a with a physical lens cover for privacy. The screen can also be titled up and down for an optimized viewing angle. The system doesn’t currently support far-field technology for a multiple speaker setup, which could complicate things as you move it around the house.

There’s also a new version of the Portal+, which features the same camera setup, coupled with a thin 14-inch tiltable display that can view up to 25 people at a time on a Zoom call. The Portal Go runs $199, while the new Portal+ is $349. Both devices are available for preorder today and start shipping October 19.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news also finds Faceboook launching Portal for Business, aimed at positioning the smart screens as teleconferencing products. Per a release:

With Portal for Business, SMBs will be able to create and manage Facebook Work Accounts for their teams. This is a new account type that allows businesses to use their own company email addresses to set up Portal. These Work Accounts will also provide access to other popular Facebook work products in the coming year.

Using Portal Device Manger, IT departments can set up and remotely wipe employee machines. The system is available now as a closed beta.

#facebook, #facebook-portal, #hardware, #smart-display, #tc

For BioNTech, the COVID-19 vaccine was simply the opening act

BioNTech’s founding story dates back to the late 1990s, when CEO and co-founder Uğur Şahin, his wife and co-founder Özlem Türeci, and the rest of the seven-person founding team began their research.

Focused specifically on an area dubbed “New Technologies,” mRNA stood out as one area with tremendous potential to deliver the team’s ultimate goal: Developing treatments personalized to an individual and their specific ailments, rather than the traditional approach of finding a solution that happens to work generally at the population level.

Şahin, along with Mayfield venture partner Ursheet Parikh, joined us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, his long journey as a founder, what it takes to build a biotech platform company, and what’s coming next from BioNTech and the technologies it’s developing to help prevent other outbreaks and treat today’s deadliest diseases.

“At that time, mRNA was not potent enough,” Şahin recalled. “It was just a weak molecule. But the idea was great, so we invested many years in an academic setting to improve that. And in 2006, we realized ‘Wow, this is now working. Okay, it’s time to initiate a company’.”

#biontech, #biotech, #ec-digital-biotech, #health, #mayfield, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021-health, #ugur-sahin

Audi launches its newest EV, the 2022 Q4 e-tron SUV

Audi has launched the Q4 e-tron, the fifth electric vehicle in its growing portfolio, as part of the German automaker’s plan to bring more than 30 EVs and plug-in hybrids to market by 2025.

The Q4 e-tron is Audi’s entry electric SUV model and the price reflects that. The vehicle, which was first revealed as a concept at the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show, has a starting price of $44,995, including the $1,095 destination charge. It’s worth noting that the Q4 electric vehicle is about $1,000 cheaper than the gas-powered 2022 Q5 SUV.

The Q4 e-tron is more like a family of vehicles with three members. There is the Q4 50 e-tron and a Q4 Sportback 50 quattro, a variation that is all-wheel drive and powered by dual asynchronous motors. Both of these vehicles have an estimated EPA range of 241 miles.

Then there’s the Q4 40 e-tron, which is rear-wheel drive and powered by a single asynchronous electric motor. The EPA estimates for the Q4 40 e-tron has not been released.  Here’s a breakdown of some of the basic specs below.

Audi Q4 e-tron

Image Credits: Screenshot/Audi

The new Q4, as TechCrunch noted earlier this year, is packed with tech in its stout-looking package, notably the option to add an AR-enabled windshield.

The Q4 is a larger compact SUV with a short overhang and wheelbase of 9.1 feet. This makes the Q4 look compact from the outside. Inside though, there is combination there’s an interior of 6 feet in length, the kind of space found in a large full-size class SUV. The Q4 40 e-tron and Q4 50 e-tron models come standard with 19′-inch wheels equipped with all-season tires. The Sportback variant of the Q4 50 e-tron quattro receives larger standard 20-inch wheels with all-season tires, according to Audi.

Importantly, the Q4 also shares the same architecture with parent company VW’s modular electric drive toolkit chassis, or MEB platform. This flexible modular system, which was first introduced by VW in 2016, was developed to make it more efficient and cost-effective to produce a variety of EVs.

 

 

#audi, #automotive, #electric-vehicles, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

Rippling launches computer inventory management as more workers remain remote

Rippling, a startup building a platform to manage all aspects of employee data, from payroll and benefits through to device management, launched Rippling Inventory Management, what founder and CEO Parker Conrad is touting as the “world’s first cloud IT closet.”

The dashboard enables businesses to automatically store, ship and retrieve employee computers in a way that is remote and hands-free. Rippling stores and monitors company devices so they no longer need an “IT closet” on-site or utilize an employee’s home. Rippling also manages the logistics related to the devices, including wiping and assigning devices and issuing prepaid mailers for machines that need to be returned.

Customers pay a per employee, per month fee to use the dashboard to hire, or fire employees, and set up all of the apps (and access) that the employee will need on their computer. In addition, the user can see all of the outstanding shipments and where they are in the process of being delivered or returned.

The product launch is buoyed by a massive $145 million Series B round in 2020 that gave the company a valuation of $1.35 billion.

Rippling inventory management gif. Image Credits: Rippling

The inventory management platform stems from a problem Rippling saw as remote work became more prevalent over the past 18 months, Conrad told TechCrunch. The company itself used to have an IT closet, which he considers “the last physical part about managing employees.”

“What this does is kill the IT closet,” he added. “If you don’t work in an office and decide to leave, some companies don’t have a process on how to get the former employee’s device back. We had a situation ourselves where employees would ship computers back to one person, and she had them stacked up in her apartment.”

The leadership team spent a long time looking for an inventory management service, and also saw customers posting about it on social media. However, Conrad considers this a problem that didn’t really exist until March 2020.

He explained that with the exception of a few outlier companies, most were not remote and physically handed a computer to new employees or gathered them from the desk of someone who left. Once they were remote, it was difficult to keep track of who had which device and how to get them back if needed.

“Everyone can be done online now, and you don’t have to come into the office to sign paperwork,” Conrad said. “This is the last piece that companies need and works to solve the last-mile problem.”

 

#enterprise, #funding, #hiring, #it, #logistics, #mobile-device-management, #parker-conrad, #personnel, #rippling, #saas, #social-media, #startups, #tc, #telecommuting

The iPhone 13 Pro goes to Disneyland

This year’s iPhone review goes back to Disneyland for the first time in a couple of years for, uh, obvious reasons. I’m happy to report that the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 performed extremely well and the limited testing I was able to do on the iPhone mini and iPhone 13 Pro Max showed that for the first time you’re able to make a pretty easy choice based on size once you’ve decided you’re ok without telephoto.

One of the major reasons I keep bringing these iPhones back to Disneyland is that it’s pretty much the perfect place to test the improvements Apple claims it is making in an intense real-world setting. It’s typically hot, the network environment is atrocious, you have to use your phone for almost everything these days from pictures to ticket scanning to food ordering and you’re usually there as long as you can to get the most out of your buck. It’s the ideal stress test that doesn’t involve artificial battery rundowns or controlled photo environments. 

In my testing, most of Apple’s improvements actually had a visible impact on the quality of life of my trip, though in some cases not massive. Screen brightness, the longer telephoto and battery life were all bright spots.

Performance and battery

The battery of the iPhone 13 Pro hit just over the 13 hour mark in the parks for me running it right to the dregs. Since there was so much video testing this year, the camera app did stay on screen longer than usual at just over 1hr of active ‘on screen’ usage which does put a bit of a strain on the system. I’d say that in real-world standard use you’ll probably get a bit more than that out of it so I’m comfortable saying that Apple’s estimate of an hour or more longer video playback time from the iPhone 12 Pro is probably pretty accurate. 

Though it was hard to get the same level of stress on the iPhone 13 Pro Max during my tests, I’d say you can expect even more battery life out of it, given the surplus it still had when my iPhone 13 Pro needed charging. Bigger battery, more battery life, not a big shock.

If you’re using it in the parks and doing the rope drop I’d say I would plan on taking it off the charger at 6am or so and plan to have a charger handy by about 4pm so you don’t go dead. That’s not a bad run overall for an iPhone in challenging conditions and with heavy camera use. 

Apple’s new ProMotion display was a nice upgrade as well, and I did notice the increased screen brightness. Typically the bump in brightness was only truly noticeable side-by-side with an iPhone 12 Pro with high-key content displayed on the screen. Popping open the Disneyland app for the barcode meant a bit better consistency in scanning (though that’s pretty hard to say for sure) and a visual increase in overall brightness in direct sun. Out of the Sun I’d say you’d be hard pressed to tell.

The variable refresh rate of the ProMotion screen cranking all the way up to 120hz while scrolling Safari is a really nice quality of life improvement. I’m unfortunately a bit jaded in this department because I’ve done a ton of my computing on the iPad Pro for the past couple of years, but it’s going to be an amazing bump for iPhone users that haven’t experienced it. Because Apple’s system is not locked at 120hz, it allows them to conserve battery life by slowing down the screen’s refresh rate when viewing static content like photos or text when not scrolling. I’m happy to say that I did not see any significant ramping while scrolling, so it’s really responsive and seamless in its handling of this variability.

The new A15 chip is, yes, more powerful than last year. Here’s some numbers if that’s your sort of thing:

Impressive as hell, especially for more battery life not less. The power-per-watt performance of Apple’s devices continues to be the (relatively) un-sung victory of its chips department. It’s not just that this year’s iPhones or the M1 laptops are crazy fast, it’s that they’re also actually usable for enormous amounts of time not connected to a charger. For those curious, the iPhone 12 Pro appears to have 6GB of RAM. 

Design

The design of the iPhone continues to be driven by the camera and radio. Whatever is necessary to support the sensors and lenses of the camera package and whatever is necessary to ensure that the antennas can accommodate 5G are in control of the wheel at this point in the iPhone’s life, and that’s pretty natural. 

The camera array on the back of the iPhone 13 Pro is bigger and taller in order to accommodate the three new cameras Apple has installed here. And I do mean bigger, like 40% bigger overall with taller arrays. Apple’s new cases now have a very noticeable raised ridge that exists to protect the lenses when you’re setting the case down on a surface. 

Everything else is sort of built around the camera and the need for wireless charging and radio performance. But Apple’s frosted glass and steel rim look retains its jewel-like quality this year and they’re still really good looking phones. I doubt the vast majority of people will see them long without a case but while you do they’re nice looking phones.

The front notch has been pared down slightly due to improvements in camera packaging, which leaves a tiny bit more screen real-estate for things like videos, but we’ll have to wait to see if developers find clever ways to use the extra pixels. 

Now, on to the cameras.

Cameras

It seems impossible that Apple continues to make year-over-year improvements that genuinely improve your optionality and quality of images that are enough to matter. And yet. The camera quality and features are a very real jump from the iPhone 11 Pro across the board and still a noticeable improvement from the iPhone 12 Pro for you early adopters. Anything older and you’re going to get a blast of quality right to the face that you’re going to love. 

The camera packaging and feature set is also more uniform across the lineup than ever before with Apple’s IBIS in camera sensor shift stabilization system appearing in every model — even the iPhone 13 mini which is a crazy achievement given the overall package size of this sensor array.

In my experience in the parks this year, Apple’s improvements to cameras made for a material difference no matter which lens I chose. From low light to long zoom, there’s something to love here for every avid photographer. Oh, and that Cinematic Mode, we’ll talk about that too. 

Telephoto

Of all of the lenses I expected improvement from, the telephoto was actually not that high on my list. But I was pleasantly surprised by the increased range and utility of this lens. I am an admitted telephoto addict, with some 60% of my photos on iPhone 12 Pro taken with the tele lens over the wide. I just prefer the ability to pick and choose my framing more closely without having to crop after the fact. 

Having Night Mode on the telephoto now means that it doesn’t fall back to the wide lens with crop in dark conditions as it used to. Now you get that native telephoto optics plus the Night Mode magic. This means much better black points and great overall exposure even hand held at zoom — something that felt just completely out of reach a couple of years ago.

With the higher zoom level, portraits are cropped tighter, with better organic non-portrait-mode bokeh which is lovely. With this new lens you’re going to be able to shoot better looking images of people, period.

If you’re a camera person, the 3x reminds me a lot of my favorite 105mm fixed portrait lens. It’s got the crop, it’s got the nice background separation and the optical quality is very, very good on this lens package. Apple knocked it out of the park on the tele this time around. 

The longer optical range was also very handy in a Disneyland world where performers are often kept separate from guests — sometimes for effect but mostly because of pandemic precautions. Being able to reach out and get that shot of Kylo Ren hyping up the crowd was a fun thing to be enabled to do.

Wide

Apple’s wide lens gets the biggest overall jump in sensor technology. A larger ƒ/1.5 aperture and new 1.9µm pixels roughly doubles the light gathering — and it shows. Images at night and inside ride buildings had a marked improvement in overall quality due to deeper blacks and better dynamic range. 

With Night Mode enabled, the deeper light gathering range and improved Smart HDR 4 makes for deeper blacks and a less washed out appearance. If I had to characterize it, it would be ‘more natural’ overall — a theme I’ve seen play out across the iPhone cameras this time around. 

Without Night Mode enabled, the raw improvement in image quality due to more light being captured is immediately evident. Though I think there are few situations where you need to turn off Night Mode any more, subjects in motion in low light are one of those and you’ll get a few inches extra of wiggle room with this new sensor and lens combo in those instances. 

Having sensor shift OIS come to the wide on the iPhone 13 across the range is a huge godsend to both still shots and video. Though I’m spoiled having been able to play with the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s stabilization, if you haven’t shot with it before you’re going to be incredibly happy with the additional levels of sharpness it brings.

Ultra Wide

Apple’s ultra wide camera has been in need of some love for a while. Though it offered a nice additional perspective, it has suffered from a lack of auto-focus and sub-par light gathering ability since its release. This time around it gets both a larger ƒ/1.8 aperture and autofocus. Apple claims 92% more light gathering and my testing in pretty rough lighting conditions shows a massive improvement across the board. 

Typically at Disneyland I like to shoot the wide in one of two ways: up close to create a fisheye-type perspective for portraits or to snag a vista when the lighting or scene setting is especially good. Having auto focus available improves the first a ton and the wider aperture gives the second a big boost too. 

Check out these shots of a moonlit Trader Sam’s, a snap that you might grab because the lighting and scenery are just right. The iPhone 12 Pro isn’t bad at all here but there is an actually quite clear difference between the two in exposure. Both of these were taken with Night Mode disabled in order to compare the raw improvement in aperture.

The delta is clear, and I’m pretty impressed in general with how much Apple keeps improving this ultra wide camera, though it seems clear at this point that we’re hitting the upper limits of what a 12MP sensor at this size can bring to a lens with such a wide POV. 

The new ISP also improves Night Mode shooting here too — and with a bit more raw range to work with given the wider aperture, your night mode shots lose even more of that bright candy-like look and get a deeper and more organic feeling. 

Macro photos and video

Another new shooting possibility presented by the iPhone 13 Pro is a pretty impressive macro mode that can shoot as close as 2cm. It’s really, really well done given that it’s being implemented in a super wide lens on a smartphone. 

I was able to shoot incredibly detailed snaps very, very close-up. We’re talking ‘the surface texture of objects’ close; ‘pollen hanging off a bee’s thorax’ close; dew…well you get the idea. It’s close, and it’s a nice tool to have without having to carry a macro attachment with you. 

I found the sharpness and clarity of the macro images I captured to be excellent within the rough 40% area that comprised the center of the capture area. Due to the fact that the macro mode is on the ultra wide, there is a significant amount of comatic aberration around the edges of the image. Basically, the lens is so curved you get a bit of separation between wavelengths of light coming in at oblique angles, leading to a rainbow effect. This is only truly visible at very close distances at the minimum of the focal range. If you’re a few cm away you’ll notice and you’ll probably crop it out or live with it. If you’re further away getting a ‘medium macro’ at 10cm or whatever you’ll likely not notice it much.

This is a separate factor from the extremely slim field-of-focus that is absolutely standard with all macro lenses. You’re going to have to be precise at maximum macro, basically, but that’s nothing new.

Given how large scale Disneyland is I actually had to actively seek out ways to use the macro, though I’d imagine it would be useful in more ways in other venues. But I still got cool shots of textures in the bottles in Radiator Springs and some faux fungi at Galaxy’s Edge. 

Macro video is similarly fun but requires extremely stable hands or a tripod to really take advantage of given that the slightest movement of your hands is going to move the camera a massive amount of distance proportional to the focal area. Basically, tiny hand moves, big camera moves in this mode. But it’s a super fun tool to add to your arsenal and I had fun chasing bugs around some flower petals in the garden of the Grand Californian hotel with it.

As a way to go from world scale down to fine detail it’s a great way to mix up your shots.

One interesting quirk of the ultra wide camera being the home of macro on iPhone 13 Pro is that there is a noticeable transition between the wide and ultra-wide cameras as you move into macro range. This presents as a quick-shift image transition where you can see one camera clicking off and the other one turning on — something that was pretty much never obvious in other scenarios even though the cameras switch all the time depending on lighting conditions and imaging judgement calls made by the iPhone’s camera stack. 

Users typically never notice this at all, but given that there is now an official macro camera available when you swoop in close to an object while you’re on 1x then it’s going to flip over to the .5x mode in order to let you shoot super close. This is all totally fine, by the way, but can result in a bit of flutter if you’re moving in and out of range with the cameras continuously switching as you enter and exit ‘macro distance’ (around 10-15cm). 

When I queried about this camera switching behavior, Apple said that “a new setting will be added in a software update this fall to turn off automatic camera switching when shooting at close distances for macro photography and video.”

This should solve this relatively small quirk for people who want to work specifically at the macro range. 

Photographic Styles and Smart HDR 4

One of the constant tensions with Apple’s approach to computational photography has been its general leaning towards the conservative when it comes to highly processed images. Simply put, Apple likes its images to look ‘natural’, where other similar systems from competitors like Google or Samsung have made different choices in order to differentiate and create ‘punchier’ and sometimes just generally brighter images. 

I did some comparisons of these approaches back when Apple introduced Night Mode two years ago.  

The general idea hasn’t changed much even with Apple’s new launches this year, they’re still hewing to nature as a guiding principle. But now they’ve introduced Photographic Styles in order to give you the option of cranking two controls they’re calling Tone and Warmth. These are basically vibrance and color temperature (but only generally). You can choose from 5 presets including no adjustments or you can adjust the two settings on any of the presets on a scale of -100 to +100. 

I would assume that long term people will play with these and recommendations will get passed around on how to get a certain look. My general favorite of these is vibrant because I like the open shadows and mid-tone pop. Though I would assume a lot of folks will gravitate towards Rich Contrast because more contrast is generally more pleasing to the human eye. 

In this shot of some kid-sized speeders, you can see the effects on the shadows and midtones as well as the overall color temperature. Rather than being a situational filter, I view this as a deep ‘camera setting’ feature, much like choosing the type of film that you wanted to roll with in a film camera. For more contrast you might choose a Kodak Ektachrome, for cooler-to-neutral colors perhaps a Fuji, for warm skin tones perhaps a Kodak Portra and for boosted color maybe an Ultramax. 

This setting gives you the option to set up your camera the way you want the color to sit in a similar way. The setting is then retained when you close camera.app. This way when you open it, it’s set to shoot the way you want it to. This goes for the vast majority of camera settings now under iOS 15, which is a nice quality of life improvement over the old days when the iPhone camera reset itself every time you opened it. 

It’s worth noting that these color settings are ‘imbedded’ in the image, which means they are not adjustable afterwards like Portrait Mode’s lighting scenarios. They are also not enabled during RAW — which makes sense.

Smart HDR4 also deserves a mention here because it’s now doing an additional bit of smart segmentation based on subjects in the frame. In a situation with a backlit group of people, for instance, the new ISP is going to segment out each of those subjects individually and apply color profiles, exposure, white balance and other adjustments to them — all in real time. This makes for a marked improvement in dark-to-light scenarios like shooting out of windows and shooting into the sun. 

I would not expect much improvement out of the selfie camera this year, it’s just much the same as normal. Though you can use Cinematic Mode on it which is fun if not that useful in selfie modes.

Cinematic Mode

This is an experimental mode that has been shipped live to the public. That’s the best way to set the scene for those folks looking to dive into it. Contrary to Apple’s general marketing, this won’t yet replace any real camera rack focus setup on a film set, but it does open up a huge toolset for budding filmmakers and casual users that was previously locked behind a lot of doors made up of cameras, lenses and equipment. 

Cinematic Mode uses the camera’s depth information, the accelerometer and other signals to craft a video that injects synthetic bokeh (blur) and tracks subjects in the frame to intelligently ‘rack’ focus between them depending on what it thinks you want. There is also some impressive focus tracking features built in that allow you to lock onto a subject and follow them in a ‘tracking shot’ which can keep them in focus through obstacles like crowds, railings and water. I found all of these depth-leveraging features that did tracking to be incredibly impressive in my early testing, but they were often let down a bit by the segmentation masking that struggled to define crisp, clear borders around subjects to separate them from the background. It turns out that doing what portrait mode does with a still image is just insanely hard to do 30 times a second with complex, confusing backgrounds. 

The feature is locked to 1080p/30fps which says a lot about its intended use. This is for family shots presented on the device, AirPlayed to your TV or posted on the web. I’d imagine that this will actually get huge uptake with the TikTok filmmaker crowd who will do cool stuff with the new storytelling tools of selective focus.

I did some test shooting with my kids walking through crowds and riding on carousels that was genuinely, shockingly good. It really does provide a filmic, dreamy quality to the video that I was previously only able to get with quick and continuous focus adjustments on an SLR shooting video with a manually focused lens. 

That, I think, is the major key to understanding Cinematic Mode. Despite the marketing, this mode is intended to unlock new creative possibilities for the vast majority of iPhone users who have no idea how to set focal distances, bend their knees to stabilize and crouch-walk-rack-focus their way to these kinds of tracking shots. It really does open up a big bucket that was just inaccessible before. And in many cases I think that those willing to experiment and deal with its near-term foibles will be rewarded with some great looking shots to add to their iPhone memories widget.

I’ll be writing more about this feature later this week so stay tuned. For now, what you need to know is that an average person can whip this out in bright light and get some pretty fun and impressive results, but it is not a serious professional tool, yet. And even if you miss focus on a particular subject you are able to adjust that in post with a quick tap of the edit button and a tap on a subject — as long as it’s within the focal range of the lens.

As a filmmaking tool for the run and gun generation it’s a pretty compelling concept. The fact is that it allows people to spend less time and less technical energy on the mechanics of filmmaking and more time on the storytelling part. Moviemaking has always been an art that is intertwined with technology — and one of the true exemplars of the ideal that artists are always the first to adopt new technology and push it to its early limits.

Just as Apple’s portrait mode has improved massively over the past 6 years, I expect Cinematic Mode to keep growing and improving. The relatively sketchy performance in low light and the locked zoom are high on my list to see bumps next year, as is improved segmentation. It’s an impressive technical feat that Apple is able to deliver this kind of slicing and adjustment not only in real-time preview but also in post-shooting editing modes, and I’m looking forward to seeing it evolve. 

Assessment

This is a great update that improves user experience in every way, even during an intense day-long Disneyland outing. The improved brightness and screen refresh means easier navigation of park systems and better visibility in daylight for directions and wait times and more. The better cameras mean you’re getting improved shots in dark-to-light situations like waiting in lines or shooting from under overhangs. The nice new telephoto lets you shoot close-up shots of cast members who are now often separated from the crowds by large distances, which is cool — and as a bonus acts as a really lovely portrait lens even while not in Portrait mode.

Overall this was one of the best experiences I’ve had testing a phone at the parks, with a continuous series of ‘wow’ moments with the cameras that sort of made me question my confirmation bias. I ended up with a lot of shots like the night mode wide angle and telephoto ones I shared above that impressed me so much I ended up doing a lot of gut checking asking other people in blind tests what they thought of the two images. Each time I did so the clear winner was the iPhone 13 — it really is just a clear cut improvement in image making across the board.

The rest of the package is pretty well turned out here too, with massive performance gains in the A15 Bionic with not only no discernable impact on battery life but a good extra hour to boot. The performance chart above may give the wow factor but that performance charted on the power usage of the chip across a day is what continues to be the most impressive feat of Apple’s chip teams. 

The iPhones 13 are an impressive field this year, providing a solid moat of image quality, battery life and now, thankfully, screen improvements that should serve Apple well over the next 12 months.

#apple, #apple-inc, #computing, #disneyland, #food, #google, #imaging, #ios, #ios-11, #ipad, #iphone, #iphone-7, #isp, #kodak, #mobile-phones, #ram, #sam, #samsung, #smartphone, #steel, #tc

Marvel shows are now available through Apple Podcast subscriptions

Marvel and SiriusXM have opened a new Apple Podcasts channel, which includes a paid tier. The free Marvel channel includes Marvel’s Wolverine: The Long Night and the sequel, Marvel’s Wolverine: The Lost Trail. You’ll be able to listen to Marvel/Method, in which Method Man interviews celebrities about Marvel, and This Week in Marvel, a weekly show about the latest news in the company’s ecosystem.

Other podcasts on the channel include Women of Marvel, Marvel’s Voices and Marvel’s Pull List. In addition, you can check out the first episode of the Marvel’s Wastelanders: Star-Lord podcast, which stars Timothy Busfield as Peter Quill, as well as Chris Elliott (Rocket), Danny Glover (Red) and Vanessa Williams (Emma Frost).

The paid tier, Marvel Podcasts Unlimited, offers early and exclusive access to a selection of shows. It features new scripted and unscripted podcast series, such as Marvel’s Wolverine: La Larga Noche, a Spanish-language version of Wolverine: The Long Night, which is available today. You’ll also be able to listen to exclusive programming, such as the documentary series Marvel’s Declassified, which delves into the history of Marvel Comics.

On October 4th, subscribers will get early access to the first two episodes of Marvel’s Wastelanders: Hawkeye, which features Stephen Lang as Hawkeye and Sasha Lane as his estranged 17-year-old daughter Ash. You’ll be able to listen to future installments of Marvel’s Wastelanders, including ones centered around Black Widow, Wolverine and Doctor Doom, before they’re available elsewhere. Other podcasts are on the way too.

The new channels build on the partnership Marvel and SiriusXM forged in 2019. They’ve released original podcasts on other platforms, such as Pandora, Stitcher and, of course, SiriusXM. The companies say they’ll share new episodes of podcasts elsewhere after they debut on Marvel Podcasts Unlimited.

The Marvel channel is available in more than 170 countries. You’ll be able to subscribe to Marvel Podcasts Unlimited through the channel. The service costs $4/month (which may vary by country) after a seven-day trial. Marvel and SiriusXM are launching the channel and subscription three months after Apple rolled out paid channels in the Podcasts app.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

#column, #marvel, #podcasts, #siriusxm, #tc, #tceng

What’s happening today at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021

And we’re off to the races! Welcome to the official start of TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. Over the next three days, we play giddy host to icons, trendsetters and emerging technologies — plus a veritable panoply of innovative startups and the brilliant people behind them.

Settle in and get ready to mine Disrupt for knowledge, trends, inspiration and opportunities to learn, build, scale and achieve your business goals. The issue is, of course, where to begin? Day one alone offers more than 36 sessions.

While we’re sure you can navigate a conference on your own, we’d like to call your attention to just a few of the sessions scheduled for today. Check the Disrupt agenda for exact times — it will automatically reflect whatever time zone you call home.

Late-comers always welcome: Buy your full access Disrupt 2021 pass here. Just looking for a taste of Disrupt – try out just the Expo and breakout sessions for free here.

Where to Cut and Where to Spend in First-Check Fundraising: Every time a founder raises financing, they usually have one goal: growth. But what does that actually mean? And how do you begin divvying up your new capital between your startup’s various goals? In this panel, which includes Harlem Capital’s Henri Pierre-Jacques, Equal Ventures’ Richard Kerby, and BBG Ventures’ Nisha Dua, you will learn how to spend your investment the best way, balancing runway with classic startup rigor.

Pot, Pottery and Beyond: Somehow, we live in world where alcohol is sold in grocery stores and weed is considered a gateway drug. But that is rapidly changing. The legalized cannabis industry is estimated to be worth more than $13 billion in 2021, and major players from big food, pharma, etc. all want a slice of the pie. Hear from actor and comedian Seth Rogen on his well-known passion for pot, and how it led him to start Houseplant. Rogen will also be joined by Houseplant chief commercial officer Haneen Davies and co-founder and CEO Michael Mohr.

Startup Pitch Feedback Sessions: Grab your note-taking method of choice and tune-in as startups exhibiting in Startup Alley pitch to, and receive feedback from, pitch-savvy TechCrunch staff. You’ll benefit from seeing how others present, and you might even pick up valuable advice to enhance your skills.

How to Cultivate a Community for your Company that Actually Lasts: There’s no doubt about it: the word of the year in startupland is “community.” In this panel, Community Fund’s Lolita Taub, Commsor’s Alex Angel, and Seven Seven Six’s Katelin Holloway will extract buzz from reality and help founders understand the growing importance of chief community officers in startup culture and, ultimately, financial success today.

There’s plenty more startup goodness awaiting you, and don’t worry about any schedule conflicts — your pass includes access to video-on-demand. Go forth, explore, connect and collaborate. In other words, make TechCrunch Disrupt your own!

#tc, #techcrunch-disrupt-2021

Niio announces $15M Series A following strategic partnership with Samsung Displays

Niio, a Tel Aviv-based digital art platform featuring work ranging from contemporary artists and galleries through to NFTs, announced today it has closed $15 million Series A funding in the wake of a strategic partnership with Samsung Displays, announced last week.

The round was co-led by L Catterton, a joint venture between LVMH and Catterton, Entrée Capital and Pico Venture Partners. Additional investors also joined, including Saga VC, as well as leading artists, art collectors, museums, gallerists and trustees at institutions such as MOMA and Guggenheim as well as Shalom McKenzie, an online gambling entrepreneur and investor who also invests in NFTs. Prior to the Series A round, Niio had raised $8 million, initially from strategic angels, followed by a seed round from institutions in 2017.

Niio will use its capital to grow its artist community and scale its app-enabled subscription and purchase platform, which is blockchainbased and will include a trading-enabled marketplace for NFTs and other digital art assets.

“Digital art has become an accepted, mainstream medium with the market accelerating largely due to the explosive growth of NFTs,” said Niio CEO and co-founder Rob Anders. “The transformation people are experiencing is the most significant and consequential moment for culture in decades, making new kinds of art accessible and experienced on screens in ways like never before.”

Niio’s technology enables users to stream digital artwork on any digital screen, bridging the gap between art and creating a platform similar to what music and entertainment streaming services have done for albums and movies.

Niio, founded by Rob Anders and Oren Moshe in 2014, combines an accessible streaming subscription service alongside the ability for people to purchase editioned NFT artwork directly from artists, galleries and content owners, through its public marketplace or via private transactions, Anders told TechCrunch.

Niio is launching its subscription service at the end of 2021 followed by its NFT marketplace — which makes Niio, backed by a global community of art professionals, the most comprehensive end-to-end solution for the digital art medium and ensuring that premium digital art is easily accessible by anyone on any screen, Anders continued.

By providing Niio’s tools to a global community of 6,000 galleries, institutions and artists, Niio’s platform and blockchain enables artists to distribute, manage, monetize and preserve their work.

Niio claims it will be free for all artists, forever, to respect and support the creative community and artists’ ability for publishing, managing and protecting their life’s work.

“We have realized our vision for a platform that first and foremost empowers artists and enables their work to be experienced digitally and available globally. We are gratified by the trust that more than 6,000 artists have placed in us — as we enable them to publish, manage protect and monetize their life’s work,” Niio co-founder Oren Moshe said.

Approximately 10,000 global business customers have been using the Niio platform for the past two to three years, Anders said. Clients range from art professionals, including galleries, museums, studios and art schools, to luxury brands, hotel chains and real estate developers, who subscribe and display curated art streams from the 15,000 premium works available on the platform, to millions of people across public spaces and places in over 30 countries, Anders said.

“There are over 1 billion smart TVs in the market and our partner Samsung has 30-40% of the market contributing to our ability to offer a ‘last mile’ proposition,” Anders said.

The digital art market is projected to be approximately $50 – $100 billion by 2025, according to Anders.

“Digital art has long been on our radar at L Catterton. We are very bullish on its future, and our ongoing evaluation of the sector brought us to Niio,” said Michael Farello, managing partner at L Catterton’s Growth Fund. “We are convinced that their platform approach including both subscription and an NFT offering combined with the reputation they have built in the critical artist community and the validation from their partnership with Samsung – will make them a market leader.”

#digital-art, #funding, #l-catterton, #nfts, #niio, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #virtual-reality

NEX raises $25M, launches Active Arcade to get people moving

There is a physical activity deficit in our world. Three fourths of adults say staying in shape is very important for health benefits. Yet, one in four adults and 81% of adolescents are insufficiently physically active, according to the World Health Organization. Even before COVID-19, less than 24% of children 6 to 17 years of age did 60 minutes of physical activity daily, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Working from home and staying at home during the pandemic exacerbated being physical inactivity. Most people opt for sedentary entertainment that involves minimal movement like watching movies or streaming live concerts, playing video games and throwing virtual parties.

To solve the global problem of inactivity by creating new ways to encourage active play for everyone, NEX, a San Jose and Hong Kong-based motion entertainment startup, is building motion entertainment – content that encourages physical movement. It is now announcing a $25 million Series B round to coincide with launch of Active Arcade, its new mobile AI interactive motion-tracking game.

The new funding was led by Blue Pool Capital, with participation from Samsung Ventures, SparkLabs and Susquehanna. This round also attracted influencers in sports, entertainment industries and business executives including Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), Albert Pujols (LA Dodgers), Thierry Henry (Arsenal Legend), Sabrina Ionescu (WNBA), tech CEOs and founders from YouTube, Dapper Labs, Alchemy, OpenDoor, WordPress and executives from Zendesk, Uber, MasterClass and Facebook.

This latest round comes after NEX raised an $8.5 million Series A in 2019 from the NBA, Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund, and the Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund. It also previously raised a $4 million seed round from Charmides Capital, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment Ventures and Mandra Capital, Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and Mark Cuban in 2018. Many other leaders in sports, media and technology have also baked NEX.

The Series B round brings NEX’s total raised so far to $40 million.

NEX was founded in 2018 by David Lee, Philip Lam and Reggie Chan, with a mission to transform passive activity into active play through apps like Active Arcade. Its first app, HomeCourt, has been played in more than 200 countries.

“A pandemic drew even more attention to the already huge and growing problem of more sedentary lifestyles across the world,” said Dave Lee, CEO and co-founder of NEX. “Having fun while moving is one of the purest definitions of play. But unlike the old days, the standard of engagement for active play must be on par with the best video games. It was apparent to us that accessible motion-based entertainment was the answer to a global need for more physical activity.”

Some people say that they don’t have enough time for physical activity, but the real problem is the idea that leisure time is supposed to be spent doing things that are fun and easy while getting active is perceived as expensive, time consuming and hard.

NEX’s newly launched Active Arcade, with a collection of motion games, helps both kids and adults move more by playing games. It is accessible to everyone, everywhere by any computing device with a camera, like smartphone, tablets, laptops and desktops.

Unlike other motion-based entertainment companies’ products that require expensive gear like a VR headset, connected hardware or game consoles, NEX develops motion-based entertainment apps without requiring special equipment, monitors, or a subscription.

Anyone can play Active Arcade using their body movement. Each game has different game play, style and depth, so there’s something for players of any age or level of activity.

“There are many high-tech exercise programs global companies developed in the motion-based entertainment industry, but most of them require expensive new equipment or a steep learning curve,” said Alex Wu, vice president of Strategy, MarComm and Partnerships at NEX.

With a proprietary combination of AI using mobile and vision technology, NEX merges the digital and physical worlds into a phone application that can create games like Active Arcade.

This summer, the company launched its limited test version of Active Arcade, Lee said.

NEX launched its first AI-based basketball training app HomeCourt in 2018, which was demoed on stage alongside Steve Nash at an Apple iPhone special event.

“I am constantly looking to invest in companies and products that I can stand behind and that are in line with my values. Nex’s approach to get kids and adults moving more and transforming activity into a play, is a mission I am wholeheartedly behind,” Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets Coach and 2x league MVP said.

“We continue to be proud of the team at NEX as they take this significant next step in transforming activity into play for people around the world,” said Chip Austin, General Partner of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment Ventures. “We embrace their important vision and are impressed by their leadership and technology.”

#asia, #california, #david-lee, #funding, #gaming, #hong-kong, #nex, #recent-funding, #sports, #startups, #tc

Ben Rubin, who founded Houseparty, Meerkat and Slashtalk, will peer into the future of social at Disrupt

Ben Rubin understands where social is going. In fact, he understands it so well, he’s always there early.

Rubin is the current CEO and co-founder of Slashtalk and an angel investor who scouts for Sequoia Capital. He previously founded Houseparty and Meerkat — apps that pioneered group video chat and mobile livestreaming, respectively — shaping massive social trends in their earliest stages.

In 2015, Meerkat took SXSW by storm. The app seemed to have captured lightning in a bottle, and entrenched players in social noticed. Twitter was early to the trend too, having bought Periscope earlier that year, and leveraged Meerkat’s momentum to attract people to its own product. Half a year later, Facebook vaulted into the space with Facebook Live.

Meerkat didn’t keep up, but it did transform. In 2016, the same team launched Houseparty, a group video chat app geared toward connecting established friends in casual virtual hangouts rather than streaming to the masses. Three years later, in a world not yet ravaged by the pandemic, it sold to Fortnite maker Epic Games.

With people driven indoors and away from IRL social interactions, Houseparty boomed. In a single month during the pandemic’s early phase, the app saw 50 million new signups and hit the top of the charts across the iOS App Store and Google Play. But Houseparty struggled to retain users, and by fall of 2021 Epic announced that it would unceremoniously wind down the project and pull Houseparty from app stores.

Only time will tell if Houseparty’s technology will play a role in Epic’s vision for the metaverse — an interconnected series of seamless virtual worlds for people to explore and socialize in. But regardless of the app’s eventual fate, Houseparty’s take on social spontaneity and casual group video was ahead of its time.

If anyone is well positioned to know where social networks are going in the near future, it’s probably Rubin. He’s now working on Slashtalk, “an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations.” Slashtalk’s ethos echoes both Meerkat and Houseparty’s belief in social serendipity, but this time Rubin is focused on the workplace rather than consumer social.

Rubin will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 to talk about his new company and the trends powering current upheavals in social networking, from decentralization and ownership to the future of a connected post-pandemic world.

#ben-rubin, #epic-games, #events, #facebook, #house-party, #houseparty, #ios-app-store, #meerkat, #periscope, #sequoia-capital, #slashtalk, #social, #social-networking, #social-networks, #tc, #tc-disrupt-2021

Business Canvas, a Korea-based document management SaaS company, closes $2.5M seed round

Business Canvas, a South Korean document management SaaS company behind Typed, announced today it has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by Mirae Asset Venture Investment, with participation from Kakao Ventures and Nextrans Inc.

The seed round will be used for accelerating product development and global launch of open beta for its AI-powered document management platform. The company opened an office in Santa Clara, California this year to spur its global expansion.

People are bombarded with information thanks to advances in technology that opens the doors to a wealth of information, but at the same time, too much information and a huge amount of data at one time leave the users confused and/or unable to make timely decisions.

Business Canvas, founded in July 2020 by CEO Woojin Kim, Brian Shin, Seungmin Lee, Dongjoon Shin and Clint Yoo, is hoping to solve the challenge that every knowledge worker and writer faces: spending more time on research and file organization than the actual content output they need to create.

“In fact, people commit over 30% of their working hours trying to search for that file we once saved in a folder that we just cannot find anymore,” Business Canvas CEO and co-founder Kim said.

Through a network that intelligently tracks and organizes files based on the user’s interactions, Typed brings all the knowledge from different websites and applications into one simple-to-use and quick-to-learn digital workspace.

Strictly keeping its users’ information and their confidential files uninterrupted, Typed does not access the content of users’ documents but utilize them as machine learning data in order to protect their information and data, Kim told TechCrunch. It simply collects users’ action driven data point and publicly available metadata of documents and resources under users’ permission, Kim added.

“Modern document writing has not changed since the 1980s,” Business Canvas co-founder Clint Yoo said. “While we have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before, we use the same rudimentary methods to organize and make sense of it. We want any writer – from lawyers and entrepreneurs to researchers and students – to focus on creating great content instead of wasting time organizing their source material. We achieved this by making knowledge management more like the way our brain operates.”

Since the launch of the closed beta test in February 2021, Typed saw significant user growth including more than 10,000 users on the waitlist, with 25,000 files uploaded and 350% month-over-month active user growth, the company said in its statement. Typed will be available through a freemium model and is currently accepting beta registrations on its website.

“When we’ve tested our closed beta, our metrics show top traction among students as well as journalists, writers and lawyers, who require heavy research and document work on a frequent basis. We opened up access earlier this month for the waitlists in over 50 countries. These are primarily B2C users,” Kim told TechCrunch. “As for B2B, we are currently in the process of proof-of-concept (POC) for one of the largest conglomerates in South Korea. Smaller teams like startups, boutique law, consulting firms, venture capitals and government institutions also have been adopting Typed as well.”

“While the company is still in its nascent stage in its development, Typed has the potential to fundamentally change how we work individually or as a team. If there is a business to take on our outdated way of writing content, it’s them [Typed],” Shina Chung, Kakao Ventures CEO said.

The global market size for social software and collaboration SaaS is estimated at $4.5 billion in 2021, increasing over 17% year on year, Kim said.

#artificial-intelligence, #asia, #funding, #fundings-exits, #machine-learning, #saas, #social-software, #south-korea, #tc

Battery Resourcers raises $70M to grow closed-loop battery supply chain

Battery Resourcers, a startup that’s developing a closed-loop approach to lithium-ion battery materials, has closed $70 million in mid-round funding to scale its commercial operations across two continents.

The company, which is based in Worcester, Massachusetts, doesn’t just recycle batteries. It’s also engineered a process to turn that recycled material back into critical battery materials – specifically, nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes and purified graphite, a material used in anodes. It intends to sell those materials right back to the battery manufacturer.

This latest round saw participation from new investor Hitachi Ventures, as well as existing investors Orbia Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures, Doral Energy, At One Ventures, TDK Ventures and Trumpf Ventures.

Battery Resources secured a $20 million Series B a little over five months ago. That funding was to accelerate the launch of the startup’s first commercial-scale facility, which will be able to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year. CEO Michael O’Kronley told TechCrunch in a recent interview that that plant will open in the first quarter of 2022, though the company has not yet announced where it will be located in the U.S.

With this new funding, the company will be opening two additional commercial-scale sites in Europe, which will be operational by the end of 2022. In all, Battery Resourcers aims to have 30,000 tons of recycling capacity by the end of next year across its three commercial-scale locations. Cathode material production will be added to these sites in the following year.

There are a number of reasons to look abroad, O’Kronley said, not least because Battery Resourcers anticipates Europe being an even larger market than the U.S.

“Europe has the same concerns the U.S. does about retaining critical battery materials in the supply chain,” he said, adding that European lawmakers currently mandate battery recycling on the part of OEMs, and will likely mandate the use of recycled materials in batteries. “Couple that with the amount and the number of gigafactories that have been announced in Europe, relative to the US, most people believe, including Battery Resourcers, we believe the European market will be larger than the North American market.”

CEO Michael O’Kronley Image Credits: Battery Resourcers (opens in a new window)

The lion’s share of critical battery materials are currently produced in Asia, but O’Kronley said the industry is shifting from being highly concentrated in specific locations to a more global operation.

“Whether it’s the Asian company that is moving to Europe or North America, or new entrants that are coming in and supplying Europe and North America – we’re a new entrant coming in supplying these regions – the battery material supply chain will absolutely have to be localized,” he said. “We’re part of that.”

O’Kronley added that the company has been in talks with a number of OEMs and consumer electronics companies, but declined to specify any details. However, he did say that vehicle OEMs and battery manufacturers have already taken the company’s cathode material and built it into batteries for testing and to compare it to “virgin” cathodes.

“It’s Battery Resourcers’ belief that long term, you need a vertically integrated supply chain, and to be able to extract the highest amount of value out of these spent batteries,” O’Kronley said. “We’re moving upstream in making these engineering materials that go right back into a new battery.”

#automotive, #battery-recycling, #battery-resourcers, #electric-vehicle-batteries, #tc, #transportation

Bilt Rewards banks $60M growth on a $350M valuation to advance credit card benefits for renters

Bilt Rewards, a loyalty program for property renters to earn points on rent with no fees and build a path toward homeownership, announced Tuesday a round of $60 million in growth funding that values the company at $350 million.

The investment comes from Wells Fargo and Mastercard and a group of the nation’s largest real estate owners, including The Blackstone Group, AvalonBay Communities, Douglas Elliman, Equity Residential, GID-Windsor Communities, LENx, The Moinian Group, Morgan Properties, Starwood Capital Group and Related.

Bilt launched back in June out of Kairos, the startup studio led by Ankur Jain, focused on enabling over 109 million renters in the U.S. to earn points from paying their rent every month — typically someone’s largest monthly expense. Since then, the program was rolled out across over 2 million rental units, Jain told TechCrunch.

“We are the first and only alliance of the major property owners to create this kind of program and already have 15 of the top 20 owners involved,” he added. “We are also the only co-branded card to offer points on rent.”

Greg Bates, GID president and CEO, said his company has 130 assets spread across the top 20 markets and manages 40,000 apartment units. He learned about Bilt from a colleague who attended a proptech conference where Jain demoed the Bilt card.

For as long as Bates has been in the real estate industry, about 20 years or so, renters have wanted to pay rent with a credit card for convenience and to earn loyalty points. However, that was cost-prohibitive in terms of the surcharges needed to be added to the rental rate — until Bilt, he said. The card “is incredibly easy to use” and integrates into property owners’ online payment systems.

“Bilt has transformed the value proposition for residents that want to use a credit card and for landlords that want to accept them,” Bates added. “There will always be barriers to entry for products like this, but Bilt spent time with Mastercard and Wells Fargo to develop this unique product which will be a competition differentiator for a few years to come.”

In addition to the new funding, Bilt is also announcing new benefits for its loyalty members and upgraded offerings for the Bilt Mastercard, including the ability to earn up to 50,000 points on rent per year and unlimited points using the credit card.

For members, Bilt will pay interest in the form of points for a member’s account each month based on their average daily points balance over the 30-day period, and offer a concierge service for members choosing to redeem their Bilt points toward a home down payment. In addition, members can earn bonus points on top of points used by landlords on new leases and renewals.

Bilt worked with regulators, as well as Fannie Mae and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to gain approval for using rewards points toward a mortgage. Members can also report their rent payments to the credit bureaus at no cost, which can help build credit history for millions of young renters.

Meanwhile, the company’s new “0-1-2-3” point earning structure for Bilt Mastercard holders provides no annual fee, 1x points on rent payments, 2x points on travel, 3x points on dining and 1x points on all other purchases.

This is the company’s first major external financing round and will be used to expand its real estate and loyalty partner network, grow its distribution channels and make its platform credit card more widely available to the public. Jain estimates Bilt is seeing 20% enrollment across residents.

As more renters move to homeownership over time, Bilt has plans to leverage this potential larger business to eventually become a mortgage provider for them.

“Renting is something people do for a while, and the core business has a massive scale opportunity, especially in the demographic under 35 years old, who tend to be up-and-coming professionals,” Jain added. “This is a unique target market, and Bilt will grow with them as they build their path to homeownership.”

 

#ankur-jain, #avalonbay-communities, #bilt, #credit-cards, #enterprise, #funding, #gid-windsor-communities, #greg-bates, #landlord, #loyalty-program, #mastercard, #money, #ownership, #payments, #property-technology, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #the-blackstone-group, #wells-fargo

Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Shaun White, Shawn Mendes get behind Shelf Engine

Shelf Engine’s mission to eliminate food waste in grocery retailers now has some additional celebrity backers. The company brought in a $2 million extension to its $41 million Series B announced in March.

Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Shaun White and Shawn Mendes are the new backers, who came in through a strategic round of funding alongside PLUS Capital to bring the Seattle-based company’s total funding to $60 million since the company’s inception in 2016. This includes a $12 million Series A from 2020.

Shelf Engine’s grocery order automation technology applies advanced statistical models and artificial intelligence to deliver accurate food order volume so that customers can reduce their food waste by as much as 32% while increasing gross margins and sales of more than 50%. The company has already helped retailers divert 1 million pounds of food waste from landfills, Stefan Kalb, co-founder and CEO of Shelf Engine, told TechCrunch.

“We’ve had phenomenal growth last year, some of it from our mid-market customers, but mostly from customers like Target and Kroger,” Kalb said. “Our other big news is that we hired a president (Kane McCord) in the past six weeks, which is cool to have the reinforcement on the leadership side.”

Over the past 12 months, the company, which works with retailers like Kroger, Whole Foods and Compass Group, saw over 540% revenue growth. At the same time, it grew its employees to 200 from 23, Kalb said. He expects to more than double Shelf Engine’s headcount over the next 12 months.

As a result, the new funding will be used to scale with current customers and accelerate further investment in R&D of its AI systems and automation capabilities.

Meanwhile, Amanda Groves, partner at PLUS Capital, said her firm works with about 65 individuals who are in film, television, sports and culture, including the four new investors in Shelf Engine.

She says many of her clients are looking to participate in business as an investor or with sweat equity. Her firm works with them to determine interests and will then source opportunities and invest alongside them.

Shelf Engine fits into one of PLUS Capital’s core investment areas of sustainability. The firm looks across different sectors like food, energy, apparel, packaging and recycling. Shelf Engine’s approach of leveraging technology to aid in sustainability efforts was attractive to all of the investors, as was their method of scaling within grocery clients without affecting consumer behavior.

“When Shelf Engine is installed in the grocery store, they can reduce spoilage by 10% right off the bat — that immediacy of the impact was what got our clients excited,” Groves added.

One of Shelf Engine’s first celebrity investors was Joe Montana, and Kalb said partnering with celebrities enables the company’s mission to eliminate food waste and address the climate crisis to be made more aware.

“B2B software is not as glamorous, but the climate has become a big issue and something many celebrities care about,” he added. “Shawn Mendes has over 60 million followers, so for him to share about this issue is extremely meaningful. Where he invests will lead to his followers knocking on the doors of stores and saying ‘this matters to me.’ That is the strategy shift from B2B to a movement for our community.”

The company is not alone in tackling food waste, which globally each year amounts to $1.3 trillion. For example, Apeel, OLIO, Imperfect Foods, Mori and Phood Solutions are all working to improve the food supply chain and have attracted venture dollars in the past year to go after that mission.

Shelf Engine is already in over 3,000 stores nationwide in the areas of grocery, food service and convenience stores, which “is a large lift from 18 months ago,” Kalb said. Next up, the company is progressing to open new categories and managing more projects. He is specifically looking at what the company can manage in the store and manage for the customer.

“We are getting to the point where we can manage more of the store in complex categories like meat, seafood and deli that are mainly custom,” he added.

#artificial-intelligence, #b2b-software, #compass-group, #ellen-degeneres, #enterprise, #food, #food-service, #food-supply-chain, #food-waste, #funding, #greentech, #grocery-store, #joe-montana, #kroger, #plus-capital, #portia-de-rossi, #recent-funding, #retailers, #shaun-white, #shawn-mendes, #shelf-engine, #startups, #stefan-kalb, #target, #tc, #whole-foods

Slack releases Clips video tool, announces 16 Salesforce integrations

Slack has been talking about expanding beyond text-based messaging for some time. Today at Dreamforce, the Salesforce customer conference taking place this week, it announced Clips, a way to leave short video messages that people can watch at their leisure.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield sees Clips as a way to communicate with colleagues when a full 30 minutes meeting isn’t really required. Instead, you can let people know what’s going on through a brief video. “Clips are a way to record yourself on your screen. And the idea is that a lot of the meetings shouldn’t require us to be together in real time,” Butterfield said at a Dreamforce press event yesterday.

He added that these video clips provide more value because you can still get the point that would have been delivered in a full meeting without having to actually attend to get access to that information. What’s more, he says the videos create an audit trail of activity for archival purposes.

“It’s easily shareable with people who weren’t in attendance, but [still] get the update. It’s available in the archive, so you can go back and find the answers to questions you have or trace back the roots of a decision,” he said. It’s worth noting that Slack first introduced this idea last October, and announced an early customer beta last March, at which point they hadn’t even named it yet.

He admitted that this may require people to rethink how they work, and depending on the organization that may be harder in some places than others, but he believes that value proposition of freeing up employees to meet less and work more will eventually drive people and organizations to try it and then incorporate into the way that they work.

Clips builds on the Huddles tool released earlier this year, which is a way via audio to have serendipitous water cooler kinds of conversations, again as a way to reduce the need for a full-fledged meeting when people can get together for a few minutes, resolve an issue and get back to work. Butterfield says that Huddles has had the fastest adoption of any new capability since he first launched Slack.

In March, in a Clubhouse interview with SignalFire investor Josh Constine (who is also a former TechCrunch reporter), Butterfield said that the company was also working on a Clubhouse tool for business. The company did not announce any similar tool this week though.

The company also announced 16 integrations with Salesforce that span the entire Salesforce platform. These include the sales-focussed deal room and the customer support incident response called swarms announced earlier this month, as well as new connections to other tools in the Salesforce family of product including Mulesoft and Tableau and industry-specific integrations for banking, life sciences and philanthropy.

In case you had forgotten, Salesforce bought Slack at the end of last year in a mega deal worth almost $28 billion. Today, as part of the CRM giant, the company continues to build on the platform and product roadmap it had in place prior to the acquisition, while building in integrations all across the Salesforce platform.

#bret-taylor, #cloud, #collaboration, #enterprise, #ma, #messaging, #saas, #salesforce, #slack, #stewart-buttefield, #tc

PayPal launches its ‘super app’ combining payments, savings, bill pay, crypto, shopping and more

PayPal has been talking about its “super app” plans for some time, having recently told investors its upcoming digital wallet and payments app had been given a go for launch. Today, the first version of that app is officially being introduced, offering a combination of financial tools including direct deposit, bill pay, a digital wallet, peer-to-peer payments, shopping tools, crypto capabilities and more. The company is also announcing its partnership with Synchrony Bank for its new high-yield savings account, PayPal Savings.

These changes shift PayPal from being largely a payments utility that’s tacked on other offerings here and there, to being a more fully fleshed out finance app. Though PayPal itself doesn’t aim to be a “bank,” the new app offers a range of competitive features for those considering shifting their finances to neobanks, like Chime or Varo, as it will now also include support for paycheck Direct Deposits through PayPal’s bank partners, bill pay and more.

By enabling direct deposit, PayPal users can get paid up to two days earlier, which is one of the bigger draws among those considering digital banking apps over traditional banks.

In addition to shifting their paychecks to Payal, customers’ PayPal funds can then be used for things that are a part of daily life, like paying their bills, saving or shopping, for example.

The enhanced bill pay feature lets customers track, view and pay bills from thousands of companies, including utilities, TV and internet, insurance, credit cards, phone and more, PayPal says. When bill pay first arrived earlier this year, it offered access to (single-digit) thousands of billers. Now, it will support around 17,000 billers. Customers can also discover billers through an improved, intelligent search feature, set reminders to be notified of upcoming bills and schedule automatic payments for bills they have to pay on a regular basis. The bills don’t have to only be paid from funds currently in the PayPal account, but can be paid through any eligible funding source that’s already linked to their PayPal account.

Via a Synchrony Bank partnership, PayPal Savings will offer a high-yield savings account with a 0.40% Annual Percentage Yield (APY), which is more than six times the national average of 0.06%, the company says. However, that’s lower than top rivals in the digital banking market offer, like Chime (0.50%), Varo (starts at 0.20%, but users can qualify to get 3.00% APY), Marcus (0.50%), Ally (0.50%), ONE (1.00% or 3.00% on Auto-Save transactions), and others. However, the rate may appeal to those who are switching from a traditional bank, where rates tend to be lower.

PayPal believes its high-yield offering will be able to compete not based on the APY alone, but on the strength of its combined offerings.

Image Credits: PayPal

“We know that about half of customers in the United States don’t even have a savings account, much less one with a very competitive rate,” notes PayPal SVP of Consumer, Julian King. “So all in all, we think that by bringing together the full set of solutions on the platform, it’s a really competitive offering for an individual.”

The app has also been reorganized to accommodate the new features and those yet to come.

It now features a personalized dashboard offering an overview of the customer’s account. The wallet tab lets users manage Direct Deposits and connect funding sources like bank accounts and debit and credit cards alongside the ability to enroll in PayPal’s own debit, credit and cash cards. And a finance tab provides access to the high-yield savings and the previously available crypto capabilities, which allows users to buy, hold and sell Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin.

The payments tab, meanwhile, will hold much of PayPal’s traditional feature set, including peer-to-peer payments, international remittances, charitable and nonprofit giving, plus now bill pay and a two-way messaging feature that allows users to request payments or say thank you after receiving a payment — whether that’s between friends and family or between merchants and customers. This addition could bring PayPal more in line with PayPal-owned Venmo, which already offers the ability to add notes to payments and make comments.

Messaging also ties into PayPal’s new Shopping hub, which is where the company is finally putting to good use its 2019 $4 billion Honey acquisition. Honey’s core features are now becoming a part of the PayPal mobile experience, including personalized deals and exclusive rewards.

Image Credits: PayPal

PayPal users will be able to browse the discounts and offers inside the app, then shop and transact through the in-app browser. The deals can be saved to the wallet for future use, so they can be applied if shopping later in the app or online. Customers will also be able to join a loyalty program, where they can earn cashback and PayPal shopping credit on their purchases. The company says these personalized deals will improve over time.

“We’ll use AI and [machine learning] capabilities to understand what kind of shopping deals are most interesting to customers and continue to develop that over time. They’ll just get smarter and smarter as the product gets more usage,” notes King. This will include using the data about the deals a customer likes, then bringing similar deals to them in the future.

Also new in the updated mobile app is the addition of PayPal’s crowdsourced fundraising platform, the Generosity Network, first launched late last year. The network is PayPal’s answer to GoFundMe or Facebook Fundraisers, by offering tools that allow individuals to raise money for themselves, others in need, or organizations like small businesses or charities. The network is also now expanding to international markets with Germany and the U.K. to start, with more countries to come.

As PayPal has said, the new app is laying the groundwork for other new products in the quarters to come. The biggest initiative on its roadmap is a plan to enter the investment space, to rival other mobile investing apps, like Robinhood. When this arrives, it will support the ability to buy stocks, fractional stocks and ETFs, PayPal says.

It will also later add support for paying with QR codes, like Venmo, and tools for using PayPal to save while in stores.

The updated app is rolling out starting today in the U.S. as a staggered release that will complete in the weeks ahead. However, PayPal Savings won’t be available immediately — it will arrive in the U.S. in the “coming months,” as will some of the shopping and rewards tools.

 

#apps, #finance, #mobile, #payments, #paypal, #tc

EarthOptics helps farmers look deep into the soil for big data insights

Farming sustainably and efficiently has gone from a big tractor problem to a big data problem over the last few decades, and startup EarthOptics believes the next frontier of precision agriculture lies deep in the soil. Using high-tech imaging techniques, the company claims to map the physical and chemical composition of fields faster, better, and more cheaply than traditional techniques, and has raised $10M to scale its solution.

“Most of the ways we monitor soil haven’t changed in 50 years,” EarthOptics founder and CEO Lars Dyrud told TechCrunch. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress around precision data and using modern data methods in agriculture – but a lot of that has focused on the plants and in-season activity — there’s been comparatively little investment in soil.”

While you might think it’s obvious to look deeper into the stuff the plants are growing from, the simple fact is it’s difficult to do. Aerial and satellite imagery and IoT-infused sensors for things like moisture and nitrogen have made surface-level data for fields far richer, but past the first foot or so things get tricky.

Different parts of a field may have very different levels of physical characteristics like soil compaction, which can greatly affect crop outcomes, and chemical characteristics like dissolved nutrients and the microbiome. The best way to check these things, however, involves “putting a really expensive stick in the ground,” said Dyrud. The lab results from these samples affects the decision of which parts of a field need to be tilled and fertilized.

It’s still important, so farms get it done, but having soil sampled every few acres once or twice a year adds up fast when you have 10,000 acres to keep track of. So many just till and fertilize everything for lack of data, sinking a lot of money (Dyrud estimated the U.S. does about $1B in unnecessary tilling) into processes that might have no benefit and in fact might be harmful — it can release tons of carbon that was safely sequestered underground.

EarthOptics aims to make the data collection process better essentially by minimizing the “expensive stick” part. It has built an imaging suite that relies on ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction to produce a deep map of the soil that’s easier, cheaper, and more precise than extrapolating acres of data from a single sample.

Machine learning is at the heart of the company’s pair of tools, GroundOwl and C-Mapper (C as in carbon). The team trained a model that reconciles the no-contact data with traditional samples taken at a much lower rate, learning to predict soil characteristics accurately at level of precision far beyond what has traditionally been possible. The imaging hardware can be mounted on ordinary tractors or trucks, and pulls in readings every few feet. Physical sampling still happens, but dozens rather than hundreds of times.

With today’s methods, you might divide your thousands of acres into 50-acre chunks: this one needs more nitrogen, this one needs tilling, this one needs this or that treatment. EarthOptics brings that down to the scale of meters, and the data can be fed directly into roboticized field machinery like a variable depth smart tiller.

Drive it along the fields and it goes only as deep as it needs to. Of course not everyone has a state of the art equipment, so the data can also be put out as a more ordinary map telling the driver in a more general sense when to till or perform other tasks.

If this approach takes off, it could mean major savings for farmers looking to tighten belts, or improved productivity per acre and dollar for those looking to scale up. And ultimately the goal is to enable automated and robotic farming as well. That transition is in an early stage as equipment and practices get hammered out, but one thing they will all need is good data.

Dyrud said he hopes to see the EarthOptics sensor suite on robotic tractors, tillers, and other farm equipment, but that their product is very much the data and the machine learning model they’ve trained up with tens of thousands of ground truth measurements.

The $10.3M A round was led by Leaps by Bayer (the conglomerate’s impact arm), with participation from S2G Ventures, FHB Ventures, Middleland Capital’s VTC Ventures and Route 66 Ventures. The plan for the money is to scale up the two existing products and get to work on the next one: moisture mapping, obviously a major consideration for any farm.

#artificial-intelligence, #food, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tc

Google’s updated iOS 15 apps support Focus Mode and iPad widgets

With iOS 15 now available to download, developers both big and small have started updating their apps to take advantage of the operating system’s marquee features. One of those is Google, which detailed today the iOS 15-related enhancements you can expect from its apps.

The biggest change involves how Gmail, Meet, Tasks, Maps, Home and many of Google’s other applications will handle notifications. Should you have iOS 15’s new Focus Mode enabled, Google says prompts that don’t require your immediate attention will go to the Notifications Center where you can deal with them later. More timely reminders, such as those Google Maps sends you when you’re trying to navigate somewhere, won’t be silenced, and you’ll see them as they’re sent to you. Google says its goal was to make notifications “as relevant and timely as possible.” You’ll see these roll out to the company’s apps in the “coming weeks.”

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Meanwhile, if you own an iPad you can look forward to new Google Photos and YouTube Music widgets that take advantage of the extra screen space Apple’s tablets offer. The company says it will roll these out in the coming weeks as well. Lastly, Google Drive and YouTube Music feature new Spotlight integrations. You can use the tool to search for specific files and to play a song directly in Google’s music streaming service. Those enhancements are available today — though you’ll probably wish more apps worked with Spotlight in this way.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

#column, #google, #google-photos, #ios-15, #tc, #tceng

Blue Bear Capital raises $150M to fund climate, energy and infrastructure tech

Blue Bear Capital has raised a new $150 million fund that will be used to find and invest in startups developing technology aimed at speeding up the adoption and industrialization of renewable energy.

This is the venture firm’s second fund, which it says is oversubscribed. Blue Bear has already backed nine new companies since 2020. The firm said the fresh cash will be used to fund digital technologies “making an outsized impact” in markets including wind, solar, the electric grid, EV infrastructure, transportation and energy-intensive industries.

“Trillions of dollars will be spent to scale renewable energy, modernize infrastructure and secure sustainable supply chains,” Blue Bear partner Ernst Sack said in a statement. “Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is redefining how data is captured, decisions are mad and relationships are built all around us. Where these two forces converge — applying the power of AI-enabled technologies to the immense challenges of the energy transition — is where Blue Bear sees the greatest investment and impact opportunity of our lifetimes.”

Blue Bear has a two-fold investment strategy. The firm’s investors look for those that “nail a vertical,” which is code for startups that have developed Software as a Service solutions that help industries address operational bottlenecks and handle niche use cases. Blue Bear also looks for startups that have developed software that can scale horizontally across many markets.

The portfolio companies in Blue Bear’s “nail a vertical” bucket include FreeWire Technologies, which developed a suite of mobile EV charging products and Omnidian, a distributed solar asset management company. Horizontal scale companies that BlueBear has backed include Urbint, which is focused on infrastructure safety and Demex, a climate and weather risk management company.

As with Blue Bear’s first fund, this one is aimed at helping early-stage companies scale — and not just by investing capital. The VC touts the expertise of its partners, who have decades of experience in sustainable investments and hands-on work in climate, policy, corporate venture, cloud computing and other related technologies.

“As specialists we believe in a high conviction and relatively concentrated approach to portfolio construction,” said Blue Bear partner Vaughn Blake in a statement, adding that the firm select companies with long-term partnership in mind. Blake also said the firm avoids the high-volume approach to venture, where a handful of companies are expected to make up a fund’s returns while the bulk are left to fall away.”

Investors in Blue Bear’s fund include AIMS Imprint of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the McKnight Foundation, as well as leadership from other private equity firms and energy companies. Advisory Board members include First Reserve President Alex Krueger, former NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, and former BP Chairman and CEO Lord John Browne.  

#artificial-intelligence, #blue-bear-capital, #climate-tech, #greentech, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital

Alan acquires Jour and launches mental health service Alan Mind

French startup Alan is better known for its health insurance products — they now insure 200,000 people. But it has been slowly building a superapp for your health and expanding with new services. Today, the company announced its first acquisition ever with the acquisition of Jour for $20 million. This is going to be the foundation for a new service called Alan Mind.

“More than 13 million people in France are facing a mental health issue. If you look at people under 35, it’s 3 out of 4 people — so it’s basically everybody,” co-founder an CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve said in a press conference earlier today.

And if you look at the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on mental health. Depressive moods and anxiety issues have basically doubled. 66% of people are dealing with sleep disorders.

“The question we asked ourselves is: How did we get there?” Samuelian-Werve said. “We see two important topics. First, there has been a chronic lack of prevention that is quite obvious. Mental health has been neglected by public health policies.”

“The second pillar that led us where we are is poor care. There are disparities between regions that are very high. In Paris, it can take up to 8 months in some hospitals if you want to see a therapist. In the Rhône-Alpes area, it takes 67 days on average to book an appointment,” he added.

And even if you can find the right person, you’ll often end up spending a lot of money. France’s national healthcare system doesn’t cover mental health that well.

With Alan Mind, the startup wants to work on these two areas of improvement. It’s a B2B service, so the company is selling access to Alan Mind to its B2B clients, who can then recommend Alan Mind to their employees.

“Do companies have a role to play in mental health? We believe that they do. Companies are responsible for protecting their employees’ health,” Samuelian-Werve said. In particular, they reached that conclusion when they realized that lockdowns have affected work-life balance. It’s hard to say when your work day ends and your personal time starts.

Image Credits: Alan

By acquiring Jour, Alan is betting on cognitive behavioral therapy. Employees can install an app and start answering questions to evaluate their current state of mind. They can find content in the app, put words on their feelings and work on themselves. There are videos, a dashboard feature, breathing exercises, etc.

If employees feel like that’s not enough, they can start an individual therapy with a health professional. Alan Mind lets you book a telehealth appointment. The company has hired a handful of psychologists so that you can get an appointment in just a few days.

Of course, companies never know that someone in the team has used Alan Mind. But HR teams receive an anonymized report every month. It’s not about spying on employees, but more about identifying common issues and providing ideas for prevention workshops.

Alan Mind is just getting started as the company only has five clients for this service — BioSerenity, Brut, Joone, Opal and Talk. Companies pay €5 per month per employee if they’re already Alan customers, or a bit more if they just want Alan Mind.

As for Jour, the B2C app will remain available in the App Store. The startup has attracted 2 million downloads before its acquisition. It has a slightly different positioning and it’s going to be useful to identify areas of improvement for Alan Mind.

Screenshots of Jour. Image Credits: Alan

#alan, #alan-mind, #apps, #europe, #france-newsletter, #jour, #mental-health, #startups, #tc

Post-pandemic shifts means Patch will take co-working to UK small towns and suburbs

It would be fair to say the pandemic has had enormous effects on the world of work, but it has come at a time when other factors were already ongoing. The decline of main-street shopping due to e-commerce has only been hastened. The shift to remote working has sky-rocketed. And people no longer want to commute 8am-6pm anymore. But we’ve also found that working from home isn’t all its cracked up to be. Plus, they don’t see the point of commuting into a big city, only to have to co-work in something like a WeWork, when they could just as easily have gone to something local. The problem is, there is rarely a local co-working space, especially in the suburbs or smaller towns.

If, instead, you could bring work nearer to home (rather than working from home) then, the theory goes, you’d get a more balanced lifestyle, but also get that separation between work and home so many people, especially families, still desire.

Now, a new UK startup has come top with a ‘decentralized workspace’ idea which it plans to roll out across the UK.

Patch will take empty local high street shops and turn them into “collaborative cultural spaces” with its ‘Work Near Home’ proposition aimed at traditional commuters. There are an estimated 6 million knowledge work commuters in the UK, and Patch will run on monthly subscriptions from these kinds of members.

It’s now raised a $1.1M Seed funding round from a number of leading UK angel investors including Robin Klein (cofounder of LocalGlobe), Matt Clifford (Cofounder of Entrepreneur First), alongside Charlie Songhurst, Simon Murdoch (Episode 1), Wendy Becker (former CEO Jack Wills and NED at Great Portland Estates), Camilla Dolan (founding partner of sustainable investor Eka Ventures), Zoe Jervier (talent Director for US investment firm Sequoia), and Will Neale (founder of Grabyo and early-stage investor).

Patch says its ‘Work Near Home’ idea is geared to the Post-Covid ‘hybrid working’ movement and it plans to create public venues, “with a focus of entrepreneurship, technology, and cultural programming.”

Each Patch location will offer a range of private offices, co-working studios, “accessible low-cost options” and free scholarship places.

Patch’s first site will open in Chelmsford, Essex in early November, and the startup says several more sites are planned for 2022. It says it has received requests from people in Chester, St Albans, Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Yeovil, Bury, and Kingston upon Thames.

Patch’s founder Freddie Fforde said: “Where we work and where we live have traditionally be seen as distinct environments. This has led to the hollowing out of many high streets during the working week, and equally redundant office districts. We think that technology fundamentally changes this, allowing people to work near home and creating a new mixed environment of professional, civic, and cultural exchange.”

Fforde is a former Entrepreneur First founder and employee who has held various roles in early-stage tech companies in London and San Francisco. The head of product will be Paloma Strelitz, formerly cofounder of Assemble, a design studio that won the 2015 Turner Prize.

Commenting, Matt Clifford, Entrepreneur First and Code First Girls, said: “Technology has always changed the way we organize and work together. Patch will unlock opportunities for talented people based on who they are, unconstrained by where they live. We want to be a country where high-skilled jobs are available everywhere and Patch is a key part of that puzzle.”

Targeting towns and smaller cities, in residential areas, not the major city centres, Patch says it will look for under-utilised landmark buildings in the center of towns. In Chelmsford, their first space will be a Victorian brewery, for instance.

Grays Yard

Grays Yard

Chelmsford Councillor Simon Goldman, Deputy Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Small Business and representative for the BID board, said: “The introduction of a new co-working space in Gray’s Yard is a really positive scheme for the city. Providing local options for residents to work from will help them to have less of a commute which will hopefully allow a better work/life balance. Working closer to home brings many benefits for both individuals and their families, but also for the environment and the local economy.”

Patch says it will also operate a model of ‘giving back’, with 20% of peak event space hours donated to local and national providers of community services “that support the common good”. Early national partners include tech skills providers Code First Girls, and with Coder Dojo, a Raspberry Pi Foundation initiative.

#ceo, #cofounder, #commuting, #coworking, #e-commerce, #eka-ventures, #entrepreneur, #europe, #founder, #grabyo, #kingston, #localglobe, #london, #matt-clifford, #partner, #patch, #raspberry-pi-foundation, #robin-klein, #san-francisco, #sequoia, #simon-murdoch, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #wework

Blackbird.AI grabs $10M to help brands counter disinformation

New York-based Blackbird.AI has closed a $10 million Series A as it prepares to launched the next version of its disinformation intelligence platform this fall.

The Series A is led by Dorilton Ventures, along with new investors including Generation Ventures, Trousdale Ventures, StartFast Ventures and Richard Clarke, former chief counter-terrorism advisor for the National Security Council. Existing investor NetX also participated.

Blackbird says it’ll be used to scale up to meet demand in new and existing markets, including by expanding its team and spending more on product dev.

The 2017-founded startup sells software as a service targeted at brands and enterprises managing risks related to malicious and manipulative information — touting the notion of defending the “authenticity” of corporate marketing.

It’s applying a range of AI technologies to tackle the challenge of filtering and interpreting emergent narratives from across the Internet to identify disinformation risks targeting its customers. (And, for the record, this Blackbird is no relation to an earlier NLP startup, called Blackbird, which was acquired by Etsy back in 2016.)

Blackbird AI is focused on applying automation technologies to detect malicious/manipulative narratives — so the service aims to surface emerging disinformation threats for its clients, rather than delving into the tricky task of attribution. On that front it’s only looking at what it calls “cohorts” (or “tribes”) of online users — who may be manipulating information collectively, for a shared interest or common goal (talking in terms of groups like antivaxxers or “bitcoin bros”). 

Blackbird CEO and co-founder Wasim Khaled says the team has chalked up five years of R&D and “granular model development” to get the product to where it is now. 

“In terms of technology the way we think about the company today is an AI-driven disinformation and narrative intelligence platform,” he tells TechCrunch. “This is essentially the efforts of five years of very in-depth, ears to the ground research and development that has really spanned people everywhere from the comms industry to national security to enterprise and Fortune 500,  psychologists, journalists.

“We’ve just been non-stop talking to the stakeholders, the people in the trenches — to understand where their problem sets really are. And, from a scientific empirical method, how do you break those down into its discrete parts? Automate pieces of it, empower and enable the individuals that are trying to make decisions out of all of the information disorder that we see happening.”

The first version of Blackbird’s SaaS was released in November 2020 but the startup isn’t disclosing customer numbers as yet. v2 of the platform will be launched this November, per Khaled. 

Also today it’s announcing a partnership with PR firm, Weber Shandwick, to provide support to customers on how to respond to specific malicious messaging that could impact their businesses and which its platform has flagged up as an emerging risk.

Disinformation has of course become a much labelled and discussed feature of online life in recent years, although it’s hardly a new (human) phenomenon. (See, for example, the orchestrated airbourne leaflet propaganda drops used during war to spread unease among enemy combatants and populations). However it’s fair to say that the Internet has supercharged the ability of intentionally bad/bogus content to spread and cause reputational and other types of harms.

Studies show the speed of online travel of ‘fake news’ (as this stuff is sometimes also called) is far greater than truthful information. And there the ad-funded business models of mainstream social media platforms are implicated since their commercial content-sorting algorithms are incentivized to amplify stuff that’s more engaging to eyeballs, which isn’t usually the grey and nuanced truth.

Stock and crypto trading is another growing incentive for spreading disinformation — just look at the recent example of Walmart targeted with a fake press release suggesting the retailer was about to accept litecoin.

All of which makes countering disinformation look like a growing business opportunity.

Earlier this summer, for example, another stealthy startup in this area, ActiveFence, uncloaked to announce a $100M funding round. Others in the space include Primer and Yonder (previously New Knowledge), to name a few.

 

While some other earlier players in the space got acquired by some of the tech giants wrestling with how to clean up their own disinformation-ridden platforms — such as UK-based Fabula AI, which was bought by Twitter in 2019.

Another — Bloomsbury AI — was acquired by Facebook. And the tech giant now routinely tries to put its own spin on its disinformation problem by publishing reports that contain a snapshot of what it dubs “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that it’s found happening on its platforms (although Facebook’s selective transparency often raises more questions than it answers.)

The problems created by bogus online narratives ripple far beyond key host and spreader platforms like Facebook — with the potential to impact scores of companies and organizations, as well as democratic processes.

But while disinformation is a problem that can now scale everywhere online and affect almost anything and anyone, Blackbird is concentrating on selling its counter tech to brands and enterprises — targeting entities with the resources to pay to shrink reputational risks posed by targeted disinformation.

Per Khaled, Blackbird’s product — which consists of an enterprise dashboard and an underlying data processing engine — is not just doing data aggregation, either; the startup is in the business of intelligently structuring the threat data its engine gathers, he says, arguing too that it goes further than some rival offerings that are doing NLP (natural language processing) plus maybe some “light sentiment analysis”, as he puts it.

Although NLP is also key area of focus for Blackbird, along with network analysis — and doing things like looking at the structure of botnets.

But the suggestion is Blackbird goes further than the competition by merit of considering a wider range of factors to help identify threats to the “integrity” of corporate messaging. (Or, at least, that’s its marketing pitch.)

Khaled says the platform focuses on five “signals” to help it deconstruct the flow of online chatter related to a particular client and their interests — which he breaks down thusly: Narratives, networks, cohorts, manipulation and deception. And for each area of focus Blackbird is applying a cluster of AI technologies, according to Khaled.

But while the aim is to leverage the power of automation to tackle the scale of the disinformation challenge that businesses now face, Blackbird isn’t able to do this purely with AI alone; expert human analysis remains a component of the service — and Khaled notes that, for example, it can offer customers (human) disinformation analysts to help them drill further into their disinformation threat landscape.

“What really differentiates our platform is we process all five of these signals in tandem and in near real-time to generate what you can think of almost as a composite risk index that our clients can weigh, based on what might be most important to them, to rank the most important action-oriented information for their organization,” he says.

“Really it’s this tandem processing — quantifying the attack on human perception that we see happening; what we think of as a cyber attack on human perception — how do you understand when someone is trying to shift the public’s perception? About a topic, a person, an idea. Or when we look at corporate risk, more and more, we see when is a group or an organization or a set of accounts trying to drive public scrutiny against a company for a particular topic.

“Sometimes those topics are already in the news but the property that we want our customers or anybody to understand is when is something being driven in a manipulative manner? Because that means there’s an incentive, a motive, or an unnatural set of forces… acting upon the narrative being spread far and fast.”

“We’ve been working on this, and only this, and early on decided to do a purpose-built system to look at this problem. And that’s one of the things that really set us apart,” he also suggests, adding: “There are a handful of companies that are in what is shaping up to be a new space — but often some of them were in some other line of work, like marketing or social and they’ve tried to build some models on top of it.

“For bots — and for all of the signals we talked about — I think the biggest challenge for many organizations if they haven’t completely purpose built from scratch like we have… you end up against certain problems down the road that prevent you from being scalable. Speed becomes one of the biggest issues.

“Some of the largest organizations we’ve talked to could in theory product the signals — some of the signals that I talked about before — but the lift might take them ten to 12 days. Which makes it really unsuited for anything but the most forensic reporting, after things have kinda gone south… What you really need it in is two minutes or two seconds. And that’s where — from day one — we’ve been looking to get.”

As well as brands and enterprises with reputational concerns — such as those whose activity intersects with the ESG space; aka ‘environmental, social and governance’ — Khaled claims investors are also interested in using the tool for decision support, adding: “They want to get the full picture and make sure they’re not being manipulated.”

At present, Blackbird’s analysis focuses on emergent disinformation threats — aka “nowcasting” — but the goal is also to push into disinformation threat predictive — to help prepare clients for information-related manipulation problems before they occur. Albeit there’s no timeframe for launching that component yet.

“In terms of counter measurement/mitigation, today we are by and large a detection platform, starting to bridge into predictive detection as well,” says Khaled, adding: “We don’t take the word predictive lightly. We don’t just throw it around so we’re slowly launching the pieces that really are going to be helpful as predictive.

“Our AI engine trying to tell [customers] where things are headed, rather than just telling them the moment it happens… based on — at least from our platform’s perspective — having ingested billions of posts and events and instances to then pattern match to something similar to that that might happen in the future.”

“A lot of people just plot a path based on timestamps — based on how quickly something is picking up. That’s not prediction for Blackbird,” he also argues. “We’ve seen other organizations call that predictive; we’re not going to call that predictive.”

In the nearer term, Blackbird has some “interesting” counter measurement tech to assist teams in its pipeline, coming in Q1 and Q2 of 2022, Khaled adds.

#artificial-intelligence, #blackbird-ai, #deception, #disinformation, #enterprise, #fabula-ai, #fake-news, #national-security-council, #natural-language-processing, #new-york, #pr, #saas, #tc

Alternative financing startup Pipe snaps up Stripe and HubSpot execs, expands to UK

Pipe, a two-year-old startup that aims to be the “Nasdaq for revenue,” announced today it has snagged former Stripe EIC Sid Orlando and HubSpot’s ex-Chief Strategy Officer Brad Coffey to serve on its executive team.

The Miami-based fintech also revealed today its first expansion outside of the United States with its entry into the U.K. market.

It’s been a good year for Pipe. The buzzy startup has raised $300 million in equity financing this year from a slew of investors, such as Shopify, Slack, Okta, HubSpot, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six, Chamath Palihapitiya, MaC Ventures, Fin VC, Greenspring Associates and Counterpoint Global (Morgan Stanley), among others.

Since its public launch in June 2020, over 8,000 companies have signed up on the Pipe trading platform. That’s double from the reported “over 4,000” that had signed up at the time of the company’s last raise in May — a $250 million round that valued the company at $2 billion.

Orlando has left her role as editor-in-chief of fintech giant Stripe, where she has worked for over four years, to head up content for Pipe. She was also previously manager of curation and content at Kickstarter. Coffey left HubSpot — where he worked for over 13 years and most recently served as chief strategy officer for nearly 5 — to serve as Pipe’s chief customer officer, where he will be responsible for driving continued growth and expansion of verticals beyond Pipe’s initial launch market of SaaS. Coffey was one of HubSpot’s first employees and witnessed the progression of the company from a startup with $1 million in ARR to a publicly traded company with $1 billion in annual recurring revenue. 

CEO Harry Hurst, Josh Mangel and Zain Allarakhia founded Pipe in September 2019 with the mission of giving SaaS companies a way to get their revenue upfront, by pairing them with investors on a marketplace that pays a discounted rate for the annual value of those contracts. (Pipe describes its buy-side participants as “a vetted group of financial institutions and banks.”)

The goal of the platform is to offer companies with recurring revenue streams access to capital so they don’t dilute their ownership by accepting external capital or get forced to take out loans.

Pipe’s platform has evolved to offer non-dilutive capital to non-SaaS companies as well. In fact, today over 50% of the companies using its platform are non-SaaS companies, compared to 25% in May.

Notably, Coffey led HubSpot’s investment into Pipe last spring and that’s how he first became familiar with the company.

“When I first came across Pipe, I realized they had the opportunity to be a company that not only transforms but also helps a generation of founders get access to the growth capital they’ve never had access to at scale before,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “This was even more obvious when I led HubSpot’s investment in Pipe…where HubSpot provides the software and education, and Pipe can provide the capital. As I got to know the founders and the team through that process, I realized it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss and had to be a part of.”

Orlando expressed similar sentiments around her decision to join the company.

“Pipe has such an intriguing opportunity to recontour aspects of the funding landscape, providing alternative financing option to founders looking to grow and scale companies on their own terms,” she wrote via email. “Being a part of the early team to build such an impactful product in the market was no doubt a compelling mandate! I’m also struck by Pipe’s team and mission, of pursuing the ambitious vision for leveraging a new asset class with both humility and immense motivation, in service of greater flexibility, agency, equitability and growth opportunities for founders and their teams.”

For Pipe’s Hurst, the new hires signal a new chapter for the company, which continues to grow at a rapid rate.

“There are lots of days on Pipe where tens of millions [of dollars] are traded in a single day. Tens of millions of dollars were being traded every month last time we spoke [in May], he told TechCrunch. “And it’s across a diversified set of customers and different verticals. We are even increasingly helping finance M&As. Growth has been explosive.” 

Tradable annual recurring revenue (ARR) on the Pipe platform is in excess of $2 billion and trending toward $3 billion, according to Hurst.

The company’s expansion into the United Kingdom is significant because while the region has a growing venture ecosystem, capital is not nearly as available to founders as it is in the U.S. Pipe’s availability in the region will give those founders an alternative means of financing, Hurst believes.

“There are a lot of fundamentally healthy companies that don’t have access to financing, period,” he told TechCrunch. “So we believe in the U.K., Pipe will be incredibly impactful and that is evidenced from what we’ve seen already.”

The move also represents a return to the CEO’s roots. 

“I left the U.K. for the United States seven years ago as it provided the best funding environment to build my first technology company, and it is enormously gratifying to bring those same opportunities to the burgeoning ecosystem of technology companies in the U.K.,” he said. “If Pipe existed a decade ago and offered company friendly financing options, I might never have left the U.K. … Now, I’m bringing it home and really excited to be launching in the U.K.” 

With the move, Pipe has opened a microhub in London and 10% of its 55-person team will be based there.

#brad-coffey, #finance, #personnel, #pipe, #saas, #sid-orlando, #startups, #tc

Cartona gets $4.5M pre-Series A to connect retailers with suppliers in Egypt

Year-old startup Capiter announced last week that it raised a $33 million Series A to digitize Egypt’s traditional offline retail market.

It’s looking to take a large pie in the budding e-commerce and retail play, where multiple startups are pulling their weight including Cartona, also a year-old startup out of Egypt.

Today, Cartona is announcing that it has raised a $4.5 million pre-Series A funding round to connect retailers and manufacturers via an application.

The company confirmed that Dubai-based venture capital firm Global Ventures led the round, with Pan-African firm Kepple Africa, T5 Capital and angel investors also participating.

Cairo-based Cartona, founded in August 2020, focuses on solving the supply-chain and operational challenges of players in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry by helping buyers access products from sellers on a single platform.

Buyers, in this case, are retailers, while sellers are FMCG companies, distributors and wholesalers.

The problem retailers in Egypt and most of Africa face mainly revolves around limited access to suppliers. There are also issues around transparency in market prices, which are dependent on traditional logistical capabilities.

For suppliers, the lack of data and inability to make data-backed decisions to improve margins and aid growth add up to unoptimized warehouses. 

“The trade market is completely inefficient and it’s not good for the supplier nor the manufacturers, and it’s definitely not good for retailers,” CEO Mahmoud Talaat told TechCrunch in an interview. “So we came up with the idea of Cartona, which is basically a fully light-asset model that connects manufacturers and wholesalers to retailers.”

Talaat founded the company alongside Mahmoud Abdel-Fattah. Before Cartona, Abdel-Fattah founded Speakol, a MENA-focused adtech platform serving 60 million monthly users, while Talaat was the chief commercial officer of agriculture company Lamar Egypt.

Cartona works as an asset-light marketplace. On the platform, grocery retailers can get orders from a curated network of sellers. The company says this way, it can provide visibility through real-time price comparisons and clarity on delivery times.

Also, FMCGs and suppliers can optimize their go-to-market execution through the use of data and analytics. Cartona tops it off by providing embedded finance and access to credit to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona makes money through all these processes. It takes a commission on orders made, charges suppliers for running advertising to merchants (since they compete for the latter’s attention), and provides market insights on buyer behavior, price competition and market share.

“It is time to capitalize on technology beyond warehouses and trucks. Data and technology will transform traditional retail to a digitally native one, which in return will drastically improve the supply chain efficiency,” Abdel-Fattah said about how the company sells information to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona has over 30,000 merchants on its platform. Together, they have processed more than 400,000 orders with an annualized gross merchandise value of EGP 1 billion (~$64 million). Cartona also works with more than 1,000 distributors, wholesalers and 100 FMCG companies, offering consumers more than 10,000 products, including dry, fresh and frozen food.

The company’s business and revenue model is similar to other companies in this space, but the main difference lies in whether they own assets or not.

Taking a look at the players in Egypt, for instance, MaxAB operates its warehouses and fleets; Capiter uses a hybrid model in which it rents these assets and owns inventory when dealing with high-turnover products. But Cartona solely manages an asset-light model.

The CEO tells me that he thinks this model works best for all the stakeholders involved in the retail market. He argues that not owning assets and leasing the ones on the ground shows that the company is trying to improve the operations of existing suppliers and merchants instead of displacing them.

I believe that the infrastructure already exists. We already have many warehouses, many small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, and wholesalers and distributors and companies that have a lot of assets. If you want to fix the problem, we think one should enable the people who are strategically located in small streets all over Egypt and have the infrastructure but don’t have the technology needed to optimize their warehouses and carts.”

The current margins for suppliers with warehouses are slim, and Cartona provides the technology — an inventory and ordering system — to provide efficiency in its supply chain.

The general partner at lead investor Global Ventures, Basil Moftah, said in a statement that Cartona’s technology and not owning inventory proved critical in the firm’s decision to back the company.

“The trade market is one of the most sophisticated, yet [it is] characterized by multiple critical inefficiencies across the value chain,” he said.Cartona’s asset-light approach tackles those inefficiencies by optimizing the trade process in unique ways and does so with minimal capital spent.”

Proceeds of the investment focus on improving this technology, Talaat said. In addition, Cartona is expanding its team and operations beyond two cities in Egypt — Cairo and Alexandria — to other parts.

A longer-term plan might include horizontal and vertical product expansion into pharmaceuticals, electronics and fashion.

#africa, #b2b-e-commerce-retail, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #egypt, #funding, #global-ventures, #recent-funding, #retail, #startups, #supply-chain, #tc