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Main article: Battlefield

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Construction startup Scaled Robotics raises a €2M seed round

18:13 | 3 February

Industrial robots are expensive. But, then, so are construction mistakes. Being off by an inch here or there adds up quickly, and too often crews need to correctly costly errors. There’s a reason construction has become the next great target of the robotics and automation industries, with a number of startups vying to create solutions that can constantly monitor sites to detect mistakes before it’s too late.

TechCrunch’s Disrupt Berlin Berlin Battlefield winner Scaled Robotics this week is among the early stage startups tackling the problem. This morning, the small Barcelona-based construction startup announced that it has raised a €2 million seed investment, led by European firms Norwegian Construct Venture and PropTech Fund Surplus. The funding follows a €1 million pre-seed.

Construction has become one of the key focuses of robotics investments in recent years, with names like Built, Toggle and Dusty raising rounds in the last year or so. Even Boston Dynamics is looking to get into the act, mounting LIDAR sensors to the top of its Spot robots, with construction listed as one of the primary case uses for the commercialized version of the product.

Scaled’s robot is low to the ground, with four-wheels. Mounted up top are lasers and cameras that use SLAM technology to essentially build a 3D point map of a space. The map is then compared to a construction model of the space, and differences can be noted down to the centimeter. The robot’s mobility saves construction workers from having to lug around a tripod, as is the case with standard stationary laser scanners. 

“The tools being developed by Scaled Robotics not only provide a detailed analysis of the state of a construction project but also provide a centralized repository for all information relating to project quality and progress,” cofounder and CEO Stuart Maggs said in a release tied to the funding. “We envision that our products will allow this global $13 trillion industry, manage risk and uncertainty in ways that were previously impossible. We are very pleased to have Surplus Invest and Construct Venture on the team, both investors who share our vision of changing the industry through a combination of robotics and artificial intelligence.”

 


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Here are the five Startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt Berlin

23:30 | 11 December

Fourteen startups presented on-stage today at Disrupt Berlin, giving live demos and rapid-fire presentations on their origin stories and business models, then answering questions from our expert judges.

Now, with the help of those judges, we’ve narrowed the group down to five startups working on everything from productivity to air pollution.

These finalists will be presenting again tomorrow (at 2pm Berlin time, viewable on the TechCrunch website or in-person at Disrupt) in front of a new set of judges. The winner will receive $50,000 and custody of the storied Disrupt Cup.

Here are the finalists:

Gmelius

Gmelius is building a workspace platform that lives inside Gmail, allowing teams to get more bespoke tools without adding yet another piece of software to their repertoire. It slots into the Gmail workspace, adding a host of features like shared inboxes, a help desk, an account-management solution and automation tools.

Read more about Gmelius here.

Hawa Dawa

Hawa Dawa combines data sources like satellites and dedicated air monitoring stations to build a granular heat map of air pollutants, selling this map to cities and companies as a subscription API. While the company notes it’s hardware agnostic, it does build its own IoT sensors for companies and cities that might not have existing air quality sensors in place.

Read more about Hawa Dawa here.

Inovat

Inovat makes it much easier for travelers to get reimbursed for the value-added tax, through an app that employs optical character recognition and machine learning to interpret receipts, determine how much VAT you should be owed for your purchase, and prepare the requisite forms for submission online or to a customs officer.

Read more about Inovat here.

Scaled Robotics

Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can produce 3D progress maps of construction sites in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off. Supervisors can then use the software to check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances, or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas.

Read more about Scaled Robotics here.

Stable

Stable offers a solution as simple as car insurance, designed to protect farmers around the world from pricing volatility. Through the startup, food buyers ranging from owners of a small smoothie shop to Coca-Cola employees can insure thousands of agricultural commodities, as well as packaging and energy products.

Read more about Stable here.

 


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Arcona uses machine learning to compose adaptive soundtracks in real time

19:15 | 11 December

Arcona Music took to the stage at Disrupt Berlin today to showcase its adaptive music service. The local startup utilizes machine learning to create musical beds capable of adapting to different contexts in real-time. The user simply needs to input a handful of parameters, and the service will adjust accordingly.

“Give it a style, an emotion and a musical theme, and you can say, ‘play this,’ and the engine will take that blueprint and realize it,” service cofounder Ryan Groves explained, in a conversation with TechCrunch. “If, at any point, the emotion or style changes, it will adapt to that and create this essentially infinite stream of music. You can play a particular song blueprint for as long as is necessary in any dynamic environment.”

The service is still in its infancy, at the moment. Its two founders are its only two full-time employees, along with a part-time developer. Groves and co-founder Amélie Anglade bootstrapped the scrappy startup, which has yet to seek funding.

 

Groves is a composer and musical theorist who formerly worked at popular AI-based music composition service, Ditty. Anglade is a music information retrieval specialist who worked at SoundCloud.

Rhythm gaming is the first clear application for the service. The popular gaming genre is built around a changing soundtrack and could potentially benefit from music that requires minimal pre-programing. Moving forward, the potential for such a service is far broader.

“In the very long term,” Groves said, “we should see this being almost your own personal orchestra, leveraging augmented reality, GPS and all that stuff, and just responding to your environment as you’re listening.

 


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Wotch is building a creator-friendly video platform

18:51 | 11 December

The team at Wotch has created a new social video platform — but wait, don’t roll your eyes quite yet.

“Obviously, we’re very used to someone creating a new internet video-sharing platform,” said co-CEO Scott Willson. “It must be very irritating for everyone to hear that.”

And yet Willson and his co-founder/co-CEO James Sadler have attempted it anyway, and they’re competing today as part of the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin. They’re only 22 years old, but Sadler said they’ve been working together for the past few years, with past projects including the development of e-learning platforms.

They were inspired to create Wotch because of YouTube’s recent problems around issues like demonetization, where many YouTubers lost the ability to monetize their videos through advertising, and other controversies like an attempted overhaul of its verification system.

Willson said YouTube has been “leaving out creators in terms of communications,” and as the controversies grew, the pair thought, “There has to be a better way of doing this.”

The key, Sadler added, is giving video creators a bigger say in the process: “We’re very hands-on with these creators. We’re not just sending them an automated email.”

In fact, they’re giving creators an opportunity to buy equity in Wotch to get a stake in the company’s success. They’re also appointing a creator board that will be consulted on company policy.

Wotch creators will be able to make money by selling subscriptions, merchandise and ads — not the standard pre-roll or mid-roll ads (which Willson described as “irritants”), but instead partnerships where they incorporate brand products and messages in their videos.

Asked whether this might create the same tension between advertisers and creators that YouTube has been struggling with, Willson argued, “What it comes down to is correctly matching advertisers with creators.” Some advertisers don’t mind working with video-makers who are “pushing the boundaries” — they just need to know what they’re getting into.

Sadler also said that Wotch will be providing creators with more data about their viewers, like identifying their most loyal fans, their most engaged fans and their first “wotchers.”

And the site will take a different approach to content moderation, using technologies like video frame analysis to identify “risky” content, as well as relying more on community moderation. Sadler said it will be a “consensus” approach, rather than the “dictatorship” of other platforms.

“We’re rewarding users for helping to cleanse these platforms,” he added.

Wotch isn’t identifying any of the big creators who he says have signed on, but Sadler told me that the company is largely focused on emerging markets and has already recruited 25 of the top creators in Brazil (where YouTube has an enormous audience, to sometimes detrimental effect) and throughout South America. Those creators won’t be posting on Wotch alone, but they will be creating exclusive videos for the service.

Sadler said it’s those creators who will draw the viewers: “Consumers are loyal to the creators and not the platforms.” And once they’re drawn in, they’ll also experience “a more social platform — see the things your friends are ‘wotching,’ see the things that your favorite creators are ‘wotching.'”

The startup has raised funding from Dominic Smales, the CEO of influencer marketing company Gleam Futures; Bidstack co-founder Simon Mitchell; and Melody VR founder and COO Steve Hancock. Smales is also leading the creator board.

While a beta version of Wotch is already live, Sadler and Willson plan to launch a revamped version of the service early next year. You can get an early preview of the changes by using the promotional code “TECHCRUNCH.”

 


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Gmelius wants to fit all of your startup’s software needs right into Gmail

17:36 | 11 December

Few spaces are hotter right now than enterprise SaaS and tools that streamline communications in the workplace have been some of the more popular investments for savvy VCs.

The workplace email inbox is a nightmare, but there are plenty of wrong ways to kill it. Gmelius is building a workspace platform that lives inside Gmail, allowing teams to get more bespoke tools without adding yet another piece of software to their repertoire.

Gmelius slots into the Gmail workspace, adding a host of features like shared inboxes, a help desk, an account-management solution and automation tools. This integration fits into the existing interface while hiding heavier tools including Trello-like Kanban boards inside Gmail. It can understandably feel like an awful lot of functionality to fit into one app.

Gmelius has been around for a long time as a Chrome plugin, but the company has made significant strides this year to revamp their product as a premium tool for startups looking to supercharge their email and collaborate internally inside Gmail. The company still offers a free tier with limited functionality, but now has several professional tiers scaling up to a $49 per user enterprise plan.

The startup is rebelling against an overwhelming trend of service unbundling which has led startups to pay for more SaaS products than ever. Gmelius is taking on competitors like Front and others that have built out their own distinct platforms.

Gmelius recently graduated from Y Combinator and is in the midst of raising new funding to scale its team to take on more customers. They are competing in TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield.

 


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Scaled Robotics keeps an autonomous eye on busy construction sites

16:16 | 11 December

Buildings under construction are a maze of half-completed structures, gantries, stacked materials, and busy workers — tracking what’s going on can be a nightmare. Scaled Robotics has designed a robot that can navigate this chaos and produce 3D progress maps in minutes, precise enough to detect that a beam is just a centimeter or two off.

Bottlenecks in construction aren’t limited to manpower and materials. Understanding exactly what’s been done and what needs doing is a critical part of completing a project in good time, but it’s the kind of painstaking work that requires special training and equipment. Or, as Scaled Robotics showed today at TC Disrupt Berlin 2019, specially trained equipment.

The team has created a robot that trundles autonomously around construction sites, using a 360-degree camera and custom lidar system to systematically document its surroundings. An object recognition system allows it to tell the difference between a constructed wall and a piece of sheet rock leaned against it, between a staircase and temporary stairs for electric work, and so on.

By comparing this to a source CAD model of the building, it can paint a very precise picture of the progress being made. They’ve built a special computer vision model that’s suited to the task of sorting obstructions from the constructions and identifying everything in between.

All this information goes into a software backend where the supervisors can check things like which pieces are in place on which floor, whether they have been placed within the required tolerances, or if there are safety issues like too much detritus on the ground in work areas. But it’s not all about making the suits happy.

“It’s not just about getting management to buy in, you need the guy who’s going to use it every day to buy in. So we’ve made a conscious effort to fit seamlessly into what they do, and they love that aspect of it,” explained co-founder Bharath Sankaran. “You don’t need a computer scientist in the room. Issues get flagged in the morning, and that’s a coffee conversation – here’s the problem, bam, let’s go take a look at it.”

Scaled Robotics

The robot can make its rounds faster than a couple humans with measuring tapes and clipboards, certainly, but also someone equipped with a stationary laser ranging device that they carry from room to room. An advantage of simultaneous location and ranging (SLAM) tech is that it measures from multiple points of view over time, building a highly accurate and rich model of the environment.

The data is assembled automatically but the robot can be either autonomous or manually controlled — in developing it, they’ve brought the weight down from about 70 kilograms to 20, meaning it can be carried easily from floor to floor if necessary (or take the elevator); and simple joystick controls mean anyone can drive it.

A trio of pilot projects concluded this year and have resulted in paid pilots next year, which is of course a promising development.

Interestingly, the team found that construction companies were using outdated information and often more or less assumed they had done everything in the meantime correctly.

“Right now decisions are being made on data that’s maybe a month old,” said co-founder Stuart Maggs. “We can probably cover 2000 square meters in 40 minutes. One of the first times we took data on a site, they were completely convinced everything they’d done was perfect. We put the data in front of them and they found out there was a structural wall just missing, and it had been missing for 4 weeks.”

The company uses a service-based business model, providing the robot and software on a monthly basis, with prices rising with square footage. That saves the construction company the trouble of actually buying, certifying, and maintaining an unfamiliar new robotic system.

Scaled Robotics

But the founders emphasized that tracking progress is only the first hint of what can be done with this kind of accurate, timely data.

“The big picture version of where this is going is that this is the visual wiki for everything related to your construction site. You just click and you see everything that’s relevant,” said Sankaran. “Then you can provide other ancillary products, like health and safety stuff, where is storage space on site, predicting whether the project is on schedule.”

“At the moment, what you’re seeing is about looking at one moment in time and diagnosing it as quickly as possible,” said Maggs. “But it will also be about tracking that over time: We can find patterns within that construction process. That data feeds that back into their processes, so it goes from a reactive workflow to a proactive one.”

“As the product evolves you start unwrapping, like an onion, the different layers of functionality,” said Sankaran.

The company has come this far on $1 million of seed funding, but is hot on the track of more. Perhaps more importantly, its partnerships with construction giant PERI and Autodesk, which has helped push digital construction tools, may make it a familiar presence at building sites around the world soon.

 


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BeBlocky is using gaming to educate a new generation of African programmers

16:12 | 11 December

Nathan Damtew, the founder of new Ethiopian education technology and gaming company BeBlocky, has always been interested in games.

An avid Call of Duty player, the young entrepreneur, who founded BeBlocky in his senior year of college, was always struck by the disconnection between how adept his generation was at playing games and how little they knew about how those games were built.

The problem, Damtew thought, was especially acute across Africa, where most students are introduced to programming in high school — if they’re able to get those classes at all.

BeBlocky is his attempt to change that.

The company’s initial product is a programming learning platform for kids. It uses animated programming lessons as a traditional app and through augmented reality to teach children the basics of computer programming using a modified curriculum based off of lessons from Code.org.

BeBlocky launched a mere five months ago and already has 6,000 users on its app. In Ethiopia, it has grown through its partnership with the local Addis Ababa-based organization Yenetta Code, which teaches Ethiopian students in the nation’s capital coding skills.

The company has also scored early partnerships with national celebrities to attract kids to the platform. BeBlocky uses avatars from pop culture icons like Rophnan, a popular Ethiopian musician, and Jember and Hawi, two characters from a popular Ethiopian comic book.

It’s an indicator of how BeBlocky expects to make money. Damtew says that sponsorship opportunities will exist for companies that want to advertise in the app. And, there’s an opportunity for in-app purchases, he says.

“These characters… kids love them… we want to have the characters as toys that can have a bar code so kids can take a picture and then engage with the game characters in the app,” says Damtew.

The merchandising component also informs the company’s move to develop an augmented reality application as well, which the company developed after seeing the success of Pokemon Go. 

“We thought it would be a very cool thing to integrate the education system with the Augmented Reality,” says Damtew.

Gameplay in the app is designed to encourage users to roam free in the environment once they complete lessons peppered through five different levels of the game, so they can build out their own worlds.

Going forward, Damtew envisions a fully realized merchandising and storytelling platform that includes tech-enabled toys and games and user generated content built with BeBlocky’s assets.

“One of the things that makes us different is that education and coding in Africa has been overlooked and we’re making characters that are relevant to African people around the world,” says Damtew.

To date, the company has raised a small, pre-seed investment from the Baobab Network, after participating in the impact investor’s two-year technology accelerator program and is currently in the process of raising its seed round, with an eye toward expanding the marketing and development of the app across theAfrican continent.

 


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Price insurance platform Stable protects farmers from price volatility

15:56 | 11 December

From a Southwest England farmer’s son comes a risk management platform, Stable, a solution as simple as car insurance designed to protect farmers around the world from pricing volatility.

Using Stable, food buyers ranging from owners of a small smoothie shop to Coca-Cola employees can insure thousands of agricultural commodities, packaging and energy products. Led by founder and CEO Richard Counsell, London-based Stable has raised a $6 million seed round from Anthemis Group, agricultural company Sygenta and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

“I knew instinctively what a huge problem and how much damage volatile pricing does,” Counsell, who comes from a long line of farmers in Somerset, England, tells TechCrunch. “You could say it was in my blood. It’s not often you get the chance to bring two sides of your world together.”

After four years of research and development, Stable is launching on stage today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. For the former currency trader and farmer-turned-CEO, building the data-rich risk management platform was no easy task. To adequately protect farmers, Stable’s team of data scientists, analysts and developers collected 3,000 niche and un-traded indexes from 40 countries, allowing customers to match their risk to a local index.

“We make it simple and precise for businesses of every size and every sector to protect their business from volatile prices,” Counsell said. “Everything from fish to timber to food and then the packaging as well energy, whether that be fuel or electricity.”

Counsell said the business plans to set up shop in Chicago, the global epicenter for commodities risk management, and Sydney, a massive commodity producer, as soon as next year. For the foreseeable future, Stable will focus solely on the agri-food industry, worth more than $4 trillion, according to Stable’s statistics. Eventually, Counsell says Stable will expand to include other sectors like metals or construction.

“Almost every business on the planet is exposed to one commodity,” Counsell said, alluding to the company’s grand ambitions.

 


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Clideo promises an easy way to make shoppable videos

15:38 | 11 December

Clideo says it can help marketers reach consumers in a smarter way, by making videos shoppable via an “interactive overlay.”

CEO Michele Mazzaro (who previously worked as an executive at Ki Group and in mergers and acquisitions at KPMG Italy) said these videos are meant to address a larger issue: “Businesses are failing in communicating on digital media. I don’t remember the last time I clicked on a banner, pre-roll or mid-roll ad. I hate it as a consumer.”

To address this, Mazzaro and his co-founders Nitzan Mayer-Wolf and Andrea Iriondo have created what Mazzaro described as a way to “turn any video into a discovery experience.” They’re presenting the product today at Disrupt Berlin as part of our Startup Battlefield.

Although the videos are described as interactive, the Clideo team isn’t trying to power the kind of branching narratives popularized by startups like Eko (not to mention Netflix’s “Black Mirror” special “Bandersnatch”), but rather taking a standard video and adding new capabilities around the products featured — the ability to buy something, save it to a wishlist or share it on social media.

Mazzaro argued that these features give marketers crucial data about which audiences are engaging with which products.

“Stop throwing your video budgets into the garbage and undersatnad why your consumers are engaging with you,” he said.

Clideo videos require their own video player, so they can’t be played directly on YouTube or social media. However, Mazzaro noted that they can be promoted on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere via links.

And despite this limitation, Madrid-based Clideo has already been tested by e-commerce websites, including Spain’s Modalia.com, with conversion rates as high as 33%.

Interactive and/or shoppable video isn’t a new idea, but Mazzaro said most existing solutions either come from creative agencies working with a limited number of luxury brands, or video marketing platforms that include very limited interactive capabilities.

Mazzaro contrasted this with Clideo, which he said is creating “the do-it-yourself solution without compromising creativity.” In fact, he said an interactive video can be created in as little as five minutes.

He also argued that Clideo is differentiated by its business model — where, in addition to a monthly subscription, customers pay an additional fee tied directly to Clideo’s results driving viewers to checkout pages.

“We’re the only ones to align our goals to our customers,” Mazzaro said.

Clideo has been bootstrapped thus far. Mazzaro said that the product is available globally, though early customers are likely to be based in Spain, Italy and Israel.

 


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Nodle crowdsources IoT connectivity

15:32 | 11 December

Nodle, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin Startup Battlefield this week, is based on a simple premise: What if you could crowdsource the connectivity of smart sensors by offloading it to smartphones? For most sensors, built-in cell connectivity is simply not a realistic option, given how much power it would take. A few years of battery life is quite realistic for a sensor that uses Bluetooth Low Energy.

Overall, that’s a pretty straightforward idea, but the trick is to convince smartphone users to install Nodle’s app. To solve this, the company, which was co-founded by Micha Benoliel (CEO) and Garrett Kinsman, is looking to cryptocurrency. With Nodle Cash, users automatically earn currency whenever their phones transmit a package to the network. That connection, it’s worth noting, is always encrypted, using Nodle’s Rendevouz protocol.

The company has already raised $3.5 million in seed funding, mostly from investors in the blockchain space: Blockchange, Work Play Ventures (Marc Pincus), Blockchain Ventures (Blockchain.com), Olymp Capital, Bootstraplabs and Blockhead.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t Benoliel’s first rodeo in this space. He also co-founded the mesh networking startup Open Garden, which used a somewhat similar approach a few years ago to crowdsource connectivity (and which made a bit of a splash with its FireChat offline chat app back in 2014). Open Garden, too, competed in our Startup Battlefield in 2012 and won our award for most innovative startup. Benoliel left his CEO position there in early 2016, but Nodle definitely feels like an iteration on the original idea of Open Garden.

“We define the category as crowd connectivity,” Benoliel told me. “We leverage crowdsourced connectivity for connecting things to the internet. We believe there are a lot of benefits to doing that.” He argues that there are a number of innovations converging right now that will allow the company to succeed: Chipsets are getting smaller, and an increasing number of sensors now uses Bluetooth Low Energy, all while batteries are getting smaller and more efficient and blockchain technology is maturing.

Given the fact that these sensors depend on somebody with a phone coming by, this is obviously not a solution for companies that need to get real-time data. There’s simply no way for Nodle to guarantee that, after all. But the company argues it is a great solution for smart cities that want to get regular readouts of road usage or companies that want to do asset tracking.

“We do not address real-time connectivity, which is what you can do with more traditional solutions,” Benoliel said. “But we believe IoT is so broad and there is so much utility in being able to collect data from time to time, that with out solution, we can connect almost anything to the internet.”

While some users may want to simply install the Nodle Cash app to, well, make some Nodle cash, the team is also betting on working with app developers who may want to use the platform to make some extra money from their apps by adding it to the Nodle network. For users, that obviously means they’ll burn some extra data, so developers have to clearly state that they are opting their users into this service.

[gallery ids="1922759,1922749,1922756"]

The team expects a normal user to see an extra 20 to 30 MB of traffic with Nodle installed, which isn’t really all that much (users of the standalone Nodle app also have the option to cache the data and postpone the transfer when they connect to Wi-Fi). Some app developers may use Nodle as an alternative to in-app payments, the team hopes.

The company is also already working with HTC and Cisco Meraki, and has a number of pilot projects in the works.

If you want to give it a try, you can install the Nodle Cash app for Android now.

 


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