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Corporate venture investment climbs higher throughout 2018

21:00 | 22 September

Jason Rowley Contributor
Jason Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter for Crunchbase News.

Many corporations are pinning their futures on their venture investment portfolios. If you can’t beat startups at the innovation game, go into business with them as financial partners.

Though many technology companies have robust venture investment initiatives—Alphabet’s venture funding universe and Intel Capital’s prolific approach to startup investment come to mind—other corporations are just now doubling down on venture investments.

Over the past several months, several big corporations committed additional capital to corporate investments. For example, defense firm Lockheed Martin added an additional $200 million to its in-house venture group back in June. Duck-represented insurance firm Aflac just bumped its corporate venture fund from $100 million to $250 million, and Cigna lust launched a $250 million fund of its own. This is to say nothing of financial vehicles like SoftBank’s truly enormous Vision Fund, into which the Japanese telecom giant invested $28 billion of its own capital.

And 2018 is on track to set a record for U.S. corporate involvement in venture deals. We come to this conclusion after analyzing corporate venture investment patterns of the top 100 publicly traded, U.S.-based companies (as ranked by market capitalizations at time of writing). The chart below shows that investing activity, broken out by stage, for each year since 2007.

A few things stick out in this chart.

The number of rounds these big corporations invest in is on track to set a new record in 2018. Keep in mind that there’s a little over one full quarter left in the year. And although the holidays tend to bring a modest slowdown in venture activity over time, there’s probably sufficient momentum to break prior records.

The other thing to note is that our subset of corporate investors have, over time, made more investments in seed and early-stage companies. In 2018 to date, seed and early-stage rounds account for over 60 percent of corporate venture deal flow, which may creep up as more rounds get reported. (There’s a documented reporting lag in angel, seed, and Series A deals in particular.) This is in line with the past couple of years.

Finally, we can view this chart as a kind of microcosm for blue-chip corporate risk attitudes over the past decade. It’s possible to see the fear and uncertainty of the 2008 financial crisis causing a pullback in risk capital investment.

Even though the crisis started in 2008, the stock market didn’t bottom out until 2009. You can see that bottom reflected in the low point of corporate venture investment activity. The economic recovery that followed, bolstered by cheap interest rates that ultimately yielded the slightly bloated and strung-out market for both public and private investors? We’re in the thick of it now.

Whereas most traditional venture firms are beholden to their limited partners, that investor base is often spread rather thinly between different pension funds, endowments, funds-of-funds, and high-net-worth family offices. With rare exception, corporate venture firms have just one investor: the corporation itself.

More often than not, that results in corporate venture investments being directionally aligned with corporate strategy. But corporations also invest in startups for the same reason garden-variety venture capitalists and angels do: to own a piece of the future.

A note on data

Our goal here was to develop as full a picture as possible of a corporation’s investing activity, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

We started with a somewhat constrained dataset: the top 100 U.S.-based publicly traded companies, ranked by market capitalization at time of writing. We then traversed through each corporation’s network of sub-organizations as represented in Crunchbase data. This allowed us to collect not just the direct investments made by a given corporation, but investments made by its in-house venture funds and other subsidiaries as well.

It’s a similar method to what we did when investigating Alphabet’s investing universe. Using Alphabet as an example, we were able to capture its direct investments, plus the investments associated with its sub-organizations, and their sub-organizations in turn. Except instead of doing that for just one company, we did it for a list of 100.

This is by no means a perfect approach. It’s possible that corporations have venture arms listed in Crunchbase, but for one reason or another, the venture arm isn’t listed as a sub-organization of its corporate parent. Additionally, since most of the corporations on this list have a global presence despite being based in the United States, it’s likely that some of them make investments in foreign markets that don’t get reported.

 


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Polestar unveils first production EV with aim to overtake Tesla

21:58 | 21 September

Polestar debuted its first production EV and previewed its electric car line in New York with the CEO squarely taking aim at Tesla.

The Volvo subsidiary pulled the cover off its Polestar 1, which it positioned less as a hybrid and more as a fully electric (gas optional) car to attract fence sitters to EVs.

The $155,000 auto—that will hit streets in 2019—has 3 electrical motors powered by twin 34kWh battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas V4 up front (more details here).

All electric range is up to 100 miles—which the company claims gives the Polestar 1 the longest all electric range of any production hybrid.

Polestar drivetrain

The Polestar 1 brings 600 horsepower and 738 ft-lbs of torque. It is the first in a series, with an all electric Polestar 2 to debut in 2019 and a Polestar 3 SUV after that.

“Polestar 2 will be a direct competitor to the Tesla Model 3…” CEO Thomas Ingenlath said on the launch stage.

He told TechCrunch the company will focus more on creating converts to EVs than pulling away Tesla’s existing market share.

Thomas Ingenlath, chief executive officer, Polestar

One advantage Ingenlath described was using Polestar 1 as a gateway car for getting laggards to go all electric. “There are many people out there who still think a car has to have a combustion engine,” he said. “Polestar 1 is an extremely good vehicle to get people across that line and once they drive it…understand what an amazing experience an electric car is.”

Polestar converts shouldn’t get too attached to that gasoline/voltage combo, however.

Polestar 1 will be the company’s first and last electric and gas vehicle, according to Ingenlath. “The future is electric. We will not do a hybrid car again,” he told TechCrunch.

At their New York Polestar 1 debut, the company devoted about as much time to the Polestar sales and service experience as the actual car. It will be multi-channel—from app to physical—leveraging parts of Volvo’s dealer network for certain things and staying completely separate for others. For one, Polestar will not have dealers or use Volvo dealers to showcase their cars, according to Ingenlath.

The buyer experience will start on the company’s app, then move into what it refers to as a network of “Polestar Spaces” across the U.S., Europe, and China where buyers can view and test cars. Purchased cars can be delivered to one’s home and service coordinated by app and home pickup—though Polestar will use Volvo dealers (not their spaces) on the service end.

“We will become a company that produces around a 100,000 cars a year and this will definitely scale-up,” said Ingenlath. “We’ll never become a Volvo, but we certainly need a certain scale to come in to a profitable range.”

The company oversubscribed orders for the Polestar 1 with 200 cars coming to North American buyers.

While Polestar’s HQ is in Gothenburg, Sweden, it will manufacture cars at a plant in Chengdu China.

The company’s EV debut comes as Tesla’s $49,000 to $64,000 Model 3 earned the NHTSA’s top safety rating and Audi introduced it $74,800 all electric e-tron SUV (covered here at TechCrunch)

In the U.S. market Tesla still dominates plugin sales by make and model and its Model 3 is expected to boost that lead, according to EV Volumes.

 


+1

As tasks wane, skills rise

23:00 | 20 September

Camille J. Moore Contributor
Camille J. Moore is a former Fellow with the Center for City Solutions and currently an Energy Fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

It’s a common scene: A truck driver pulls up to a highway truck stop for fuel and lunch. She orders a burger and fries from the waiter standing at the counter. Then, she makes her way to the store next door to pick up a coffee to go.

In a matter of years, these kinds of simple, daily interactions will likely become a thing of the past as the tasks of truck drivers, waiters and clerks are increasingly done by machines.

Even if measurement techniques vary, the numbers don’t lie: Ultimately, large swaths of people will be displaced by machines. Depending on whether we’re using estimates from Oxford UniversityMcKinsey Global or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it’s safe to assume that anywhere from 9 to 47 percent of the American workforce will likely be displaced by automation in the coming decades. Even the lowest estimates place millions of Americans out of work.

The way we work is changing. People possess the innate ability to innovate and evolve in the jobs they do, and new technologies — from the wheel to steam power and artificial intelligence — have drastically improved and impacted work throughout history. So many jobs of the future have yet to be created, but the trends show that machines and workplace technologies will shoulder the burden of intense physical labor and leave us more room for ideation and supervision.

As we all transition to a more integrated workplace it is imperative that we remember who operates the machines. Pragmatic and strategic policies can help us usher in a brighter future for hardworking American families and cities.

In our latest National League of Cities research, Assessing the Future of Our Work, we analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found that by 2030 the fastest growing jobs will require advanced soft skills like time management, active listening, coordination and judgement and decision making. But ultimately, no industry, job or task is safe from automation, and the new kinds of jobs that will arise in their place remain in some sense unknown. However, the most effective and tested defenses against these widely predicted disruptions are the original incubators — our American cities.

Cities serve as the places where movements and ideas are found, focused and filtered into broader society.

The report also recommends logical career pathways toward better opportunities that will be more sustainable in the face of automation and changing local economies. For instance, high-touch roles in the caring professions, like nursing and home healthcare, will grow and continue to be in demand. Meanwhile, cashiers — which will be one of the groups most threatened by automation — can transition to sales representatives. And in the construction industry, technologies like the Semi-Automated Mason (SAM100) will shift workers out of tedious manual labor roles and open up additional jobs for those with supervisory and technical skills.

Now more than ever we are in desperate need of the unique advantage each American city holds to build a different future. Each local economy is as strong as the talent pool it supports. Equipped with a clear understanding of the talent they possess, city leaders are uniquely positioned to construct the talent pipelines desperately needed to equip workers with those promising skill sets that will be in demand in the near future.

Our report found that three cities — Boston, Richmond and Minneapolis — have done an especially effective job of preparing for the future of work in a way that is accessible, equal and sustainable.

Boston’s workforce mix has been identified as being 38 percent susceptible to automation, meaning it is at low risk of automation. The city is at low risk because the local government is taking strategic steps to better support workers by offering adult literacy programs, apprenticeship opportunities and demand-focused credentialing programs for local growth industries.

Richmond has long been at the crossroads of critical economic, political and commercial power. Richmond’s existing labor force has been assessed as 41 percent susceptible to automation, meaning it is also at low risk of job losses due to automation. Richmond stays ahead of the curve by instituting programs like PluggedIn VA, which teaches important business skills like interviewing, shadowing and in-demand technical skills.

Minneapolis is the second largest economic center in the midwestern United States. With its robust university system, Minneapolis has proven its ability to connect its specialized workforce with in-demand careers. Hennepin Pathways, in particular, has proven effective in matching available talent with locally sustainable jobs.

As natural epicenters of talent, cities serve as the places where movements and ideas are found, focused and filtered into broader society. With a conglomeration of individuals in urban places and the density of people from all walks of life, cultures and creeds, cities have a dynamism that productively pushes our country forward.

Our future requires a new level of personalization and flexibility in a very traditional space — work. Technology can be compulsive, invasive and glitchy, but our greatest advantage moving forward will be our resilience.

 


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Liquid Telecom goes long on Africa’s startups as future clients

10:30 | 20 September

Digital infrastructure company Liquid Telecom is betting big on African startups  by rolling out multiple sponsorships and free internet across key access points to the continent’s tech entrepreneurs.

The Econet Wireless subsidiary also is partnering with local and global players like Afrilabs and Microsoft­­ to create a cross-border commercial network for the continent’s startup community.

“We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch.

With 13 offices on the continent, Liquid Telecom’s core business is building the infrastructure for all things digital in Africa.

The company provides voice, high-speed internet, and IP services at the carrier, enterprise, and retail level across Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa.  It operates data centers in Nairobi and Johannesburg with 6,800 square meters of rack space.

Liquid Telecom has built a 50,000 kilometer fiber network, from Cape Town to Nairobi and this year switched on the Cape to Cairo initiative—a land based fiber link from South Africa to Egypt.

In 2017, the company generated 39 percent of its $680 million annual revenues on connectivity services to enterprise clients, 32 percent from wholesale data services, and 22 percent on wholesale voice products to mobile carriers.Liquid Telecom clients include MTN, Vodacom, China Mobile, Barclays Bank, and Google.

Though startups don’t provide an immediate revenue windfall, the company is betting they will as future enterprise clients.

Reliable estimates are sparse on how fast they’ve grown, but there are now 1000s of startups in Africa expanding across multiple sectors; from fintech and e-commerce to agtech and logistics.

While performance events are still a bit light, the continent minted its first unicorn, Jumia, in 2016 and has produced a handful of exits.

The round size and overall value of funding to African startups has picked up considerably over the last year. Kenyan based fintech company Cellulant raised $47.5 million in May and just this week, South African lending venture Jumo raised a $52 million round led by Goldman Sachs.

African man holding Nigerian 10 naira bill.

“Step one…in supporting startups has been….supporting co-working spaces and events with sponsorships and free internet,” Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts told TechCrunch. “Step two is helping startups to adopt…business services.”

For that first step, the company has tapped into Africa’s tech hubs—now estimated at 442 by GSMA—which have become a focal point for startup activity.

Liquid Telecom provides free internet to 30 hubs in seven countries and is active sponsoring startup related events.

On the infrastructure side, it’s developing commercial services for startups to plug into.

“At the early stage and middle stage, we’re offering startups connectivity, skills development, and access to capital through the hubs,” said Liquid Telecom’s Oswald Jumira.

“When they reach the more mature level, we’re focused on how we can scale them up…and be a go to market partner for them. To do that they’ll need to leverage…cloud services.”

Microsoft and Liquid Telecom announced a partnership in 2017 to offer cloud services such as Microsoft’s Azure, Dynamics 365, and Office 365 to select startups through free credits—and connected to comp packages of Liquid Telecom product offerings.

“We’re working with Liquid on the continent to reach 100 hubs in Africa,” said Chris Lwanga, Microsoft’s Senior Director for Cloud Communities. “There’s many other areas we’re thinking about, but that will come out later,” he said.

On the venture side, Liquid Telecom doesn’t have a fund but that could be in the cards. “We haven’t yet started investing in startups, but I’d like to see that we do,” said chief technology officer Ben Roberts. “That can be the next move onwards… from having successful business partnerships.”

 


0

Entrepreneurs: It’s time to put corporate VCs back on your short list

00:00 | 20 September

Gil Beyda Contributor
Gil Beyda is a partner at Comcast Ventures.

The startup media is awash with stories of corporate venture capital prioritizing their own interests over those of their portfolio. While acknowledging that some of these stories may have a basis in truth, it’s critical to recognize there is much more to the story.

It’s time the whole story is told.

The truth is that not all corporate venture capital firms are the same. And in fact, some have a strategic advantage because they have access to proprietary insights from dozens of markets and technologies that are simply unavailable to other venture capital firms. Further, corporate venture capital firms can create synergies between portfolio companies and their parent companies to help accelerate business, an opportunity unavailable to most venture capital firms.

Choosing between strategically focused and financially focused corporate venture capital

There are two types of corporate venture capital, and it’s essential to understand the difference between them. The first type, strategically focused corporate venture capital, provides significant benefits to all parties if done well. These firms can help accelerate portfolio companies with revenue, market/customer insights and technology/roadmap development.

The second type is financially focused corporate venture capital. These firms are run like typical venture firms and are primarily driven to maximize financial returns, and the firm’s partners are rewarded for making profitable investments. These firms make investment decisions just like every other non-corporate venture firm, based on team, market, competition, product, traction, capital efficiency, exit potential, etc.

Once an investment is made, financially focused corporate venture capital firms often take board seats and work to add value in all the same ways other venture firms do, with strategy, product, go-to-market, hiring, financials, etc. Because the financially focused corporate venture partners are financially aligned with their portfolio companies, they are just as motivated as any other venture firm.

Not all corporate venture capital firms are the same.

Now, the upshot. In many cases, a financially focused corporate venture capital firm can be a better partner for some companies. Not only does the firm provide all the typical value-add of a typical venture firm — smart partners, large networks, etc. — they also provide something that other firms can’t provide: proprietary insights.

Financially focused corporate venture firms have a close working relationship with their corporate parent, which allows them access to technology, industry operators and visionaries, giving them proprietary insights to which normal venture firms simply don’t have access. These proprietary insights give financially focused corporate venture capital partners the ability to see the market and technology landscape in a different, more informed, way.

The bottom line is that financially focused corporate venture capital firms have all the benefits of a typical venture firm plus exclusive proprietary insights — without the potential downside of strategically driven corporate venture capital firms.

The truth about corporate venture capital and competition with the parent company

One obvious objection to corporate venture capital is that these firms are unlikely to invest in companies that compete with its parent or may put it out of business. These cases are so rare that it is barely worth mentioning, but I will explore them here. Comcast and NBCUniversal are large companies doing business across a wide variety of sectors. It is unlikely that any one startup would put them out of business. In my 10 years in venture, I haven’t found one yet.

But what about startups that are competitive with Comcast or NBCUniversal? I have seen thousands of startups over the years and have only come across a handful that are competitive with Comcast or NBCUniversal. In those cases, even though I would not have ever communicated confidential information to my parent, I quickly passed so as not to give even the smallest impression of impropriety. In some cases, the competitive startup and our parent see a benefit to making the investment and learning from and partnering with each other, but this is done transparently.

By the way, most venture capital firms restrict themselves from investing in companies that are competitive with their portfolio. However, there are some venture capital firms that take a more “survival of the fittest” approach and encourage making many investments in a hot space without concern for competition.

Corporate venture capital at work in the real world

To illustrate the advantages of working with a financially focused corporate venture capital firm, let’s look at a real example — my investment in blockchain. Comcast is looking at using blockchain technology to allow users to create a unique digital identity and associate it with IoT devices in the home to control access to those devices. Given my affiliation and close working relationship with Comcast Corporation and NBCUniversal, I was afforded a front-row seat to the potential advantages and disadvantages of leveraging cutting-edge blockchain technology to solve real-world problems.

No other venture capital firm has this level of access to early use cases. Here’s what that looked like: I met with the team developing this technology before it was made public. I spoke with the engineers to understand how they were using blockchain, why they chose it and how it helped their efforts. I saw a demo and got to play with it. This hands-on experience was invaluable to blockchain executives — and it was only afforded to “members of the Comcast family.” Further, the insight also helped inform my investment thesis around blockchain, so I could better serve their business interests.

It comes down to real-world problems, being solved by real-world practitioners.

There are many applications of blockchain technology. Another group within Comcast is looking at how blockchain could be used in advertising. Beyond that, Comcast and NBCUniversal are looking at blockchain technology and how it relates to identity, rewards and loyalty, security and IoT, to name a few.

It comes down to real-world problems, being solved by real-world practitioners, who are experimenting with blockchain. These proprietary insights have been helping drive our investment strategy in blockchain technologies and token-based economies. We have already made a number of investments in the space and continue to believe there are investment opportunities at the protocol, platform, infrastructure and application levels.

Outside of blockchain, there are a number of examples within Comcast Ventures that also show advantages of leveraging resources at a corporate venture capital firm: EdgeConneX successfully pivoted its business model with the help of Comcast; Brightside was incubated and spun out, securing Comcast as its first customer; Zola developed partnership opportunities with NBCU; Comcast became one of DocuSign’s largest customers; and Icontrol was acquired by Comcast.

Setting the record straight

Financially focused corporate venture firms have super-talented partners in the firm who can help entrepreneurs build great companies. Just like other venture capital firms, we are financially incented to find the next billion-dollar company, and we invest in your strategy, not ours.

But unlike other venture capital firms, we have exclusive proprietary insights into dozens of markets and technologies. And, we also can create synergies between portfolio companies and Comcast and NBCUniversal to help accelerate growth if there is mutual interest and benefit. Finally, we are measured on financial returns, so we win only if you win!

Disclaimer: Gil Beyda is a partner at Comcast Ventures, a financially focused corporate venture capital firm which is the venture arm of Comcast and NBCUniversal.

 


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Product Hunt Radio: Online communities and the dark side of the web

16:00 | 19 September

Ryan Hoover Contributor
Ryan Hoover is the founder of Product Hunt and host of Product Hunt Radio.

In the second episode of the new Product Hunt Radio, I’m joined by two amazing community-builders based in New York, Anil Dash and Allison Esposito.

Anil is the CEO of Glitch, a friendly community where developers build the app of their dreams. You’ll find everything from AI-powered musical spinners to a multiplayer drawing game created on the platform. He’s also an adviser to Medium, DonorsChoose, Project Include and Stack Overflow.

Allison is formerly of Oyster, the Netflix for books, which was acquired by Google in 2015. Afterward she founded Tech Ladies, a community that connects women with the best jobs in tech.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The good ol’ days of IRC, Friendster, AIM and MySpace. A lot has changed since then, yet they continue to exhibit some of the same dynamics and challenges of today’s massive social networks.
  • The challenges of building a healthy community on the internet in a time when careers and reputations can be destroyed in an instant.
  • How online communities mirror offline interactions. Opening up an app has many parallels to walking into a social gathering in real life.
  • Some of the common misconceptions people have about creating communities online and what a founder’s goal should really be in starting a community.

Of course, we also cover some of our favorite products that you might not know about.

We’ll be back next week so be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, Overcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

 


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Solving the mystery of sleep

04:45 | 19 September

Alice Lloyd George Contributor
Alice Lloyd George is an investor at RRE Ventures and the host of Flux, a series of podcast conversations with leaders in frontier technology.

Below are excerpts from the most recent episode of the Flux podcast hosted by RRE Ventures principal Alice Lloyd George. 

AMLG: Welcome back to the pod. I’m excited to be here with Dr. Assaf Glazer. He is the co-founder and CEO of Nanit a leading human analytics company that uses computer vision to help parents navigate their child’s sleep.

Essentially it’s a baby data collector that every sleep-deprived geek parent has dreamed of. A little background on Assaf: He got his Ph.D. at the Technion in Israel and was previously at Applied Materials as well as Wales where he worked on solutions for missile defense systems. Nanit was born here in New York at Cornell Tech [disclosure — RRE is a long-standing investor in the company.] Welcome Assaf it’s great to have you. 

AG: Thank you for having me.

AMLG: I’ve got a stat here, that on average parents lose 44 days of sleep during the first year of their baby’s life and nearly 3 in 10 babies have problems sleeping at night. Those numbers sum up the nature of what you’re trying to solve, but can you lay out how you identified this problem and started the company?

AG: It started for me as a parent. You have your baby, you arrive home and you see that your life has changed. Pretty quickly you understand what your number one concern is — sleep. You’re tired, you’re sleep deprived. You wake up during the night and do everything necessary to go back to sleep. You’re going to Google and going to friends. This is where Nanit comes in. We are giving you the information that will allow you to make better decisions for your child. Six years ago I had my first child, Udi. He was born when I was at the Technion. I’m a computer vision guy. Before I was at the Technion I worked at Applied Materials in the semiconductor industry, on a camera that you put above the silicon slices, to see them from a bird’s eye perspective.

AMLG: So you were doing computer vision for chip manufacturing — on the assembly lines, you’d look for errors in the chips?

AG: Yes. And when my son was born I said, OK let’s do process control for my baby.

AMLG: As if the baby was on an assembly line like a chip, just run some computer vision on it. 

AG: Yeah. So I wrote a paper on background subtraction algorithms — how to find a foreground object differentiated from the background — and applied those algorithms to my baby. I went to my advisors at the Technion and told them, you know, I’ve found that my baby is moving 134 times on average at night. But what can you do with that? I was looking at this data and I said sleep, sleep is what we need to solve here. I went to sleeping labs to try to understand sleep science. Then I moved as a postdoc to Cornell University where I joined the Runway Program, which aims to commercialize science.

The Jacobs institute is a joint venture between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, operating as an independent entity within Cornell Tech. The Institute emphasizes a trans-disciplinary view of science and encourages translational research to serves the common good, through a set of industry-focused “hubs” that address contemporary needs.

AMLG: So you moved from Israel.

AG: I moved from Israel to where the customers are, which is New York.

AMLG: We also have the most anxious parents on the planet.

AG: Haha yes. I would say that New York is very inspiring. In terms of the culture, the diversity, it’s a great place to be.

AMLG: Tell me about the program at Cornell.

AG: It’s a joint venture for Cornell and Technion University. We were six postdocs that started in this program. They really helped me. Peretz Lavie the president of the Technion, he’s a sleep expert, a sleep guru I would say. He helped us reach out to experts around the world in sleep development and cognitive development. Then we developed Nanit with them.

Dr Peretz Lavie is a world-renowned sleep expert and has been President of the Technion since 2009. Watch his interview on sleep research here

AMLG: Sleep science — as you got into that field, what did you discover and what were you surprised by as you engaged with the science for the first time — I imagine people have focused more on adults than babies?

AG: The development of infant sleep is fascinating. How we move between stages. How to differentiate between awake, asleep, deep sleep, REM sleep.

AMLG: Do babies have deep sleep and REM sleep as well?

AG: When they are born it’s a bit of a mix. They have two states, awake and asleep. And over time —

AMLG: Like an on off switch.

AG: Haha it’s a bit more, but I’m not sure that we fully understand all the processes during the first few weeks. They dream much more than adults. And you see their architecture developing. One of the first experts that I worked with is Professor Avi Sadeh. I reached out to him through Peretz Lavie, as he developed the gold standard of how to measure sleep. The hypothesis is that movement is an indication of asleep and awake states, and with a camera you know much more. You draw the silhouette of the baby, you can detect the eyes. You can track the different parts of the body and you have better resolution. Today we measure sleep better than the state of the art medical devices. When you do it with a camera it’s powerful because you can capture a lot of things around the sleep architecture. You build a picture. In our case we track the parent. When you look at this behavior — sleep and parent intervention patterns — you can give tips and recommendations for parents on how to improve, how to teach their baby to sleep on its own.

AMLG: As your user base gets bigger you’re going to have a lot of anonymized metadata that will give you insights—such as the more times you interrupt the baby’s sleep or the more times you leave it alone, this is the effect. So is it the parent-child insights that you’re looking to get?

Meet Nanit [on Youtube]

AG: If you look at studies on sleep, we’re talking about hundreds top. With Nanit you are exposed to thousands of babies sleeping in their natural environment. By looking at their behavior over time we learn new things. Sleep training is awareness and education. You’re building awareness with the data and the videos. We give parents information about how their week was in comparison to other babies of that age. There are no secrets — if you have the data you can use triggers to give tips to parents. For instance, I saw that your baby is capable of putting himself back to sleep during the night. Why don’t you wait one or two minutes before you enter the room.

AMLG: On the hardware side, can you share the journey there. You used to do manufacturing in the U.S. and you’ve moved that to China. What have you learned — how have margins improved? How did you scale up volume? What are your learnings about manufacturing?

China continues to dominate U.S. electronics imports. Source: IHS Mark

AG: I’ll try to make it short. It’s really hard to build mass production lines in the U.S. for commodity consumer goods. From a labor perspective, prices in the U.S. are high. Over time it won’t exist in the U.S. as there is strong competition from China. But because it is a consumer product, having your designer, engineers and even the line close to you geographically is much more convenient. If you’re looking at the U.S. market, the engineers are also parents, which helps you explain the value proposition of your product. It’s important that even the engineer who designs the circuit board understands what it means to have an LED that is strong enough above the bed. In general every engineer needs to have the product in mind when he does the design. Once we reached a stage that we had a line in the right yield and capacity, we did the transition to China. But it is expensive to work in this way, to start in the U.S. then move to China. There is no one recipe. Nanit also has an R&D center in Israel. Which means that now I’m working in three time zones. It is crazy. Most of our R&D is on the software side and on the hardware side we try to outsource when possible. If I had to choose I would choose Israel and the U.S.

AMLG: How have you found pulling those resources together and acquiring talent. You’ve obviously got a strategic advantage with the connection to Israel, but any insights on how you attract and retain the top talent, especially in machine learning?

AG: Finding the right talent for your company is a search problem. The world is big and in different parts of the world there are different types of talent. In Israel there is great talent for backend engineers and computer vision, and we hire those people in Israel. In the U.S. there’s great talent in marketing, sales, business development, brand development, human centric design — for those, New York is a great place to be. In China you find talent related to manufacturing and they are very good at it. In the past it was hard to build a company in this way. But the world changed. The world changed in the sense of how we communicate. The only thing that hasn’t been solved yet is time zones. If everyone slept at the same time that would help. But besides the time zones, technology today can solve a lot of problems. Nanit couldn’t exist a couple of years ago when we didn’t have this.

AMLG: Right you wouldn’t have been able to do it all in Israel or all in New York or all in China. What about on the machine learning side — what is going on on a more macro level there?

AG: Deep learning and convolutional neural networks are amazing tools that help us do things we weren’t able to do before. Thanks to deep learning, today I can tell you the baby’s position in the crib better than the human eye. But what happened is that it was so disruptive that many other parts of the computer vision field, you started seeing them less and less at conferences. Add to this the fact that it generates lots of value for companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft —

AMLG: So machine learning has become dominated by big platforms like Google and Apple, and perhaps research for research’s sake is a valuable thing and not just having it all steered towards revenue or commercial applications. You’re saying it’s important to have pure research?

AG: This is what research is about. It should be pure.

AMLG: Do you know Gary Marcus? He came on this podcast last year, and his point about these companies is that when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. When you have a ton of data — you’re Google or Facebook — everything looks like you should apply deep learning to it. But that’s their bias and perhaps it skews out other approaches to machine learning.

AG: Also I would say it becomes a commodity over time. I believe the next innovation will be around behavioral analysis, which is the next level of computer vision. We are working on research collaborations that study small twitches of a baby, which could be an indicator of neurological disorders. There is a next level of behavioral neuroscience, it’s a fascinating field that is going to develop over the next couple of years.

AMLG: So you have this background in Israeli defense where you worked on missile defense systems. Can you share anything about that or how it’s informed what you’re doing now? Working in that environment is quite different than having a startup in New York.

AG: I was in a foundational team in the Nineties for a new defense system. It took me a couple of years to understand that I was a beta tester. They used me to understand the human factor. How to communicate between operators, how to design the screens. I cannot explain how much this experience has helped me to go through the design phase for Nanit. How to do design sprints with parents, how to design the screens. The army is an amazing human resource filter that allocates hundreds of thousands of teenagers to specific positions and trains them in a short time and gives them practical experience. They are doing an amazing job. There are mistakes of course, but they took me and others and decided this is what you are going to do. They gave me tools for things that in the future were of great benefit to me.

AMLG: How does working on missile defense UX or chip manufacturing compare to baby monitoring?

AG: Ha well I continue to serve as a major in reserve. But in life I decided that I wanted to make a shift to deal with more human problems. What is nice about semiconductors is that they are designed by humans not by nature. Babies were designed by nature, which is more complex. When you have a blueprint you know exactly what you’re looking for, what kind of patterns. Then you can reach a level of analysis, of process control that is much higher. But the challenges with babies you know is —

AMLG: They’re more of a mystery.

AG: It’s a lot of mystery. But my philosophy is to build the scientific fundamentals, the building blocks, and on top of that you think about how to make it approachable for the consumer space and how to build a value proposition. You start with science not marketing statements. This is where you start.

AMLG: A world of more ambient data capture where you’re continually monitored. Which feeds into preventative medicine. Obviously there’s a lot of people that get nervous about that, though it’s the way the whole world is going, we’re going to more data and it’s going to serve us. But as you push that conversation forward, do you feel like there’s challenges in terms of getting people used to the idea?

AG: You need to do it in a responsible way. But we can live a much better life. We will have better parenting experiences, sleep better at night. Even know things about ourselves that we didn’t know before.

***

Further reading:

 


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African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

10:30 | 16 September

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

Countries across the continent are experimenting with this 21st century technology as a way to leapfrog decades of neglect of 20th century infrastructure.

Over the last two years, San Francisco-based startup Zipline launched a national UAV delivery program in East Africa; South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots; and Malawi even opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and its global partners. 

In Rwanda, the country’s government became one of the first adopters of performance-based regulations for all drones earlier this year. The country’s progressive UAV programs drew special attention from the White House and two U.S. Secretaries of Transportation.

Some experts believe Africa’s drone space could contribute to UAV development in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

“The fact that [global drone] companies can operate in Africa and showcase amazing use cases…is a big benefit,” said Lisa Ellsman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.

Test in Africa

It’s clear that the UAV programs in Malawi and Rwanda are getting attention from international drone companies.

Opened in 2017, Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor has been accepting global applications. The program is managed by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with UNICEF.

The primary purpose is to test UAV’s for humanitarian purposes, but the program “was designed to provide a controlled platform for… governments…and other partners…to explore how UAV’s can help deliver services,” according to Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone lead in Malawi.

That decision to include the private sector opened the launch pads for commercial drones. Swedish firm GLOBEHE has tested using the corridor and reps from Chinese e-commerce company JD have toured the site. Other companies to test in Malawi’s corridor include Belgian UAV air traffic systems company Unifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturer Vayu, according to Scheibenreif.

Though the government of Rwanda is most visible for its Zipline partnership, it shaping a national testing program for multiple drone actors. 

“We don’t want to limit ourselves with just one operator,” said Claudette Irere, Director General of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MiTEC).

“When we started with Zipline it was more of a pilot to see if this could work,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more interest and have grown the program…this gives us an opportunity to open up to other drone operators, and give space to our local UAV operators.”

Irere said Rwanda has been approached by 16 drone operators, “some of them big names”—but could not reveal them due to temporary NDAs. She also highlighted Charis UAS, a Rwandan drone company, that’s used the country’s test program, and is now operating commercially in and outside of Rwanda.

UAV Policy

Africa’s commercial drone history is largely compressed to a handful of projects and countries within the last 5-7 years. Several governments have jumped out ahead on UAV policy.

In 2016, South Africa passed drone legislation regulating the sector under the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The guidelines set training requirements for commercial drone pilots to receive Remote Pilot Licenses (RPLs) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. At the end of 2017 South Africa had registered 686 RPLs and 663 drone aircraft systems, according to a recent State of Drone Report.

Over the last year and a half Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives.  

In 2018, Rwanda extended its leadership role on drone policy when it adopted performance-based regulations for all drones—claiming to be the first country in the world to do so.

So what does this mean?

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it,” said Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds,’” she said.

This gives the drone operators flexibility to build drones around performance targets, vs. “prescriptively requiring a certain type of technology,” according to Ellsman.

Rwanda is still working out the implementation of its performance-based regulations, according to MiTEC’s Claudette Irere. They’ve entered a partnership with the World Economic Forum to further build out best practices. Rwanda will also soon release an online portal for global drone operators to apply to test there.

As for Rwanda being first to release performance-based regulations, that’s disputable. “Many States around the world have been developing and implementing performance-based regulations for unmanned aircraft,” said Leslie Cary, Program Manager for the International Civil Aviation Authority’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. “ICAO has not monitored all of these States to determine which was first,” she added.

Other governments have done bits and pieces of Rwanda’s drone policy, according to Timothy Reuter, the head of the civil drones project at the World Economic Forum. “But as currently written in Rwanda, it’s the broadest implementation of performance based regulations in the world.”

Commercial Use Cases

As the UAV programs across Africa mature, there are a handful of strong examples and several projects to watch.

With Zipline as the most robust and visible drone use case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the startup’s primary focus is delivery of critical medical supplies, execs repeatedly underscore that Zipline is a for-profit venture backed by $41 million in VC.

The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.

Zipline demonstration

The alliance also brought UPS and the UPS Foundation into the mix, who supports Zipline with financial and logistical support.

After several test rounds, Zipline went live with the program in October, becoming the world’s first national drone delivery program at scale.

“We’ve since completed over 6000 deliveries and logged 500,000 flight kilometers,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek told TechCrunch. “We’re planning to go live in Tanzania soon and talking to some other African countries.”  

In May Zipline was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.– to operate beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.    

In a non-delivery commercial use case, South Africa’s Rocketmine has built out a UAV survey business in 5 countries. The company looks to book $2 million in revenue in 2018 for its “aerial data solutions” services in mining, agriculture, forestry, and civil engineering.

“We have over 50 aircraft now, compared to 15 a couple years ago,” Rocketmine CEO Christopher Clark told TechCrunch. “We operate in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and moved into Mexico.”

Rocketmine doesn’t plan to enter delivery services, but is looking to expand into the surveillance and security market. “After the survey market that’s probably the biggest request we get from our customers,” said Clark.

More African use cases are likely to come from the Lake Victoria Challenge — a mission specific drone operator challenge set in Tanzania’s Mwanza testing corridor. WeRobotics has also opened FlyingLabs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Benin. And the government of Zambia is reportedly working with Sony’s Aerosense on a drone delivery pilot program.

Africa and Global UAV

With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. rapidly developing drone regulations and testing (or already operating) delivery programs (see JD.com in China), Africa may not take the sole position as the leader in global UAV development — but these pilot projects in the particularly challenging environments these geographies (and economies) represent will shape the development of the drone industry. 

The continent’s test programs — and Rwanda’s performance-based drone regulations in particular — could advance beyond visual line of sight UAV technology at a quicker pace. This could set the stage for faster development of automated drone fleets for remote internet access, commercial and medical delivery, and even give Africa a lead in testing flying autonomous taxis.

“With drones, Africa is willing to take more bold steps more quickly because the benefits are there and the countries have been willing to move in a more agile manner around regulation,” said the WEF’s Reuter.

“There’s an opportunity for Africa to maintain its leadership in this space,” he said. “But the countries need to be willing to take calculated risk to enable technology companies to deploy their solutions there.”

Reuter also underscored the potential for “drone companies that originate in Africa increasingly developing services.”

There’s a case to be made this is already happening with Zipline. Though founded in California, the startup honed its UAVs and delivery model in Rwanda.

“We’re absolutely leveraging our experience built in Africa as we now test through the UAS IPP program to deliver in the U.S.,” said Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek.

 


0

Everyday home gear made smart

21:00 | 15 September

Makula Dunbar Contributor
Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

If you only have one smart home device, it’s likely something simple and fun like a voice-controlled speaker or color-changing LED light bulb. As you expand your smart home setup, you can begin to swap out gear that isn’t as flashy but you still use everyday.

Switching to connected locks, power outlets and smoke alarms are all simple installs that can improve your safety and comfort in your own home. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite essentials made smart for anyone looking to upgrade.

Smart lock: Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen

The Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen is the most versatile smart lock that we’ve tested. Whether you prefer to use a wireless fob, smartphone app or key, you’ll be able to control the lock with all of them. When we compared it to similar models, the Kevo’s Bluetooth-activated tap-to-unlock mechanism was the easiest to use.

The second generation of the Kevo improved on security and has all-metal internal components for better protection against forced break-in attempts. With the optional Kevo Plus upgrade, you’ll add the ability to control the lock remotely and receive status-monitoring updates.

Photo: Liam McCabe

Robot Vacuum: iRobot Roomba 960

If cleaning is neither your forte or preferred pastime, a robot vacuum will come in handy. Our upgrade pick, the iRobot Roomba 960, is one of the most powerful models that we tested. It can be controlled through the iRobot Home app and uses a bump-and-track navigation system that helps vacuum an entire floor without missing spots.

If its battery is running low during a session, it’ll return to its dock to power up before finishing the job. It’s easy to disassemble for maintenance and is equipped with repairable parts that make it worth its price over some of our less serviceable picks.

Photo: Rachel Cericola

Plug-in Smart Outlet: Belkin Wemo Mini

We tested 26 smart outlet models over more than 45 hours and chose the Belkin Wemo Mini Wi-Fi plug as our top pick. If you’ve ever thought it’d be nice to remotely turn on or off home essentials such as lamps, air conditioners and fans from your smartphone, plugging them into a smart outlet makes it possible.

The Wemo Mini has proven to be reliable throughout long-term testing, it doesn’t block other outlets on the same wall plate and it’s compatible with iOS and Android devices and assistants, including HomeKit/Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. The interface of the Wemo app is intuitive and easy to use. You can view all of your connected devices on one screen, set powering timers and from anywhere power on or off a device plugged into the Wemo outlet.

Photo: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

Smart Thermostat: Nest Thermostat E

For a smart thermostat that’s affordable and doesn’t require extensive programming, we recommend the Nest Thermostat E. After about a week, it creates a schedule after learning cooling and heating preferences that you’ve set. It isn’t compatible with as many HVAC systems as similar Nest models, but it’s easy to install and doesn’t lack any features we expect.

It does come with Eco Mode — an energy-saving geofencing feature that detects when your home is empty (or when your smartphone is nowhere near your house). The Nest app uses the same technology to set the thermostat to a preferred temperature when it senses you’re on your way home. If you don’t have your smartphone on hand, you can still operate the Thermostat E by turning its outer ring and pressing selections on its touchscreen.

Photo: Michael Hession

Smart Smoke Alarm: Nest Protect

A smoke alarm is one of the most relied-upon safety devices in every home. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget to do routine checks to ensure it’s in tip-top shape and functioning properly. With a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect, we found that its simple app, self-tests, monthly sound checks and consistent alerts are enough to keep fire safety worries at bay.

It isn’t difficult to install, has a sleek design and integrates with other smart home devices like the Nest Cam (which can record video of a fire) and the Nest Learning Thermostat (which shuts down HVAC systems that may be the cause of a fire). It’s sensitive to fast- and slow-burning fires, plus it monitors homes for both smoke and carbon monoxide.

These picks may have been updated by WirecutterWhen readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

 


0

In VC fund creation, have we passed the peak?

20:07 | 15 September

Jason Rowley Contributor
Jason Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter for Crunchbase News.

In venture capital, a variant on the Glengarry Glen Ross mandate is most fund managers’ modus operandi: Always. Be. Raising.

And it seems like VCs have picked up on that. In the last few months, even casual readers of the tech press would notice many, many stories about VCs raising big new funds. So are venture investors spinning up new funds as often as they did in the past?

VCs are certainly raising tons of money, and Crunchbase News reported earlier this week that these huge funds are bending the shape of the VC fundraising curve upward. But is that the full story? Even though 2018 has been a banner year so far for venture fund origination on the highest end of the assets-under-management spectrum, what about the market as a whole?

Aggregated venture capital and micro VC fundraising data from Crunchbase suggests that U.S.-based firms are spinning up fewer new funds than they did just a couple of years ago. In other words, the peak might be in.

Let’s take a look at the numbers, which we’ve segmented by U.S. Census region.

There are a few trends to glean from the chart above, and it comes down to pace and scale.

We’re able to see how the pace of venture fund creation varies by region. In the highly unlikely event you didn’t already know that the East and West coasts are responsible for the bulk of venture fund creation, the above chart makes that fact plainly obvious.

And at least when it comes to investors from Western and Eastern states, the difference is one of scale rather than direction. As the count of funds raised rises in the East, so it goes in the West.

Our data suggest that, in aggregate, new fund creation hit a local maximum in 2016. With more than 260 new funds announced that year, it’s a record that stretches back at least to the time of the first dot-com collapse — if it’s not an all-time record on its own.

Not all bad news

Even given historic patterns of when new funds are announced — which suggest fewer funds are announced in Q4 — matching 2017 levels of new fund creation is likely. Although nobody should hold their breath, it’s possible that 2018 will also break records for new fund creation and total capital raised.

To break the dollar volume record, VCs need to raise another $4.6 billion in new funds by the end of the year. Considering that approximately $40 billion has already been raised, this seems possible. But it’s important to remember that eighty percent of new funds are smaller than $250 million.

One of the things some might ignore about all the money currently going into venture capital funds (and, by proxy, into privately held tech startups) is that it is going to have to come back to limited partners with a hefty return.

The $45 billion U.S. VCs are on pace to raise in 2018 would have to net more than $135 billion in returns by 2028, presuming a 10-year term for the fund and a 3x realized multiple (the minimum threshold for venture scale returns).

That sounds unlikely, given that we are in the senescence of a bull cycle. But so long as public tech companies soar, SaaS booms and investors are so hungry for tech shares that middling Chinese firms can go public domestically twice in a week, there’s little reason to expect too much of a pullback in the short term.

Until the real correction comes, at which point we’ll see some far shorter bars added to our graph.

 


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