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Main article: Softbank

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Karius raises $165 million for its liquid biopsy technology identifying diseases in a drop of blood

16:05 | 24 February

“What Karius is good at is identifying those novel microbes before they become an outbreak like coronavirus,” says Mickey Kertesz, a chief executive whose life sciences startup just hauled in $165 million in new funding.

While the new money may have been raised under the looming threat of Covid 19, the company’s technology is already being used to test for infection-causing pathogens in immunocompromised pediatric patients, and for potential causes of complex pneumonia, fungal infections and endocarditis, according to a statement from the company. 

Liquid biopsy technology has been widely embraced in cancer treatments as a way to identify which therapies may work best for patients based on the presence of trace amounts of genetic material in a patient’s bloodstream that are shed by cancer cells.

Karius applies the same principles to the detection of pathogens in the blood — developing hardware and software that applies computer vision and machine learning techniques to identify the genetic material that’s present in a blood sample.

As the company explains, microbes infecting the human body leave traces of their DNA in blood, which are called microbial cell-free DNA (mcfDNA). The company’s test can measure the that cell free DNA of more than 1,000 clinically relevant samples from things like bacteria, DNA viruses, fungi, and parasites. These tests indicate the types of quantities of those pathogens that are likely affecting a patient. 

“We’re through the early stages of adoption and clinical studies show that the technology literally saves lives,” says Kertesz.

Its early successes were enough to attract the attention of SoftBank, which is backing the company through capital raised for its second Vision Fund.

While SoftBank has been roundly criticized for investing too much too soon (or too late) into consumer startups which have not lived up to their promise (notably with implosions at Brandless, Zume, and the potential catastrophe known as WeWork), its life sciences investing team has an impressive track record. “They have the experience and the expertise and the network that’s very relevant to us,” Kertesz said of the decision to take SoftBank’s money. “That’s the team that was on the board of Guardant Health [and] 10X Genomics.”

Both of those companies have proven to be successful in public markets and with validated technology. That’s a feature which Karius shares. The company’s published an analytical and clinical validation of its test in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Microbiology showing that its test identified the likely pathogens causing an infection when compared to standard methods more quickly and more accurately. 

With initial validation behind it, the company raised its new cash to pursue rapid commercial adoption for its tests and to continue validating applications of its technology while exploring new ones.

Among the primary areas of exploration is the identification of new biomarkers, which could serve as indicators for new diseases (like Covid 19).

“As humanity we haven’t figured out infectious diseases yet,” said Kertesz. “Specifically at the stage where the pathogen is identified.” Karius has the technology to do that — although it doesn’t yet have the capability to screen for RNA viruses (which are types of diseases like SARS and the coronavirus), Kertesz said. “It’s the only type of virus that the platform is unable to detect… [We’re] adding that detection capability.” 

Karius works by digitizing the microbial information in a blood sample and uses machine learning and computer vision to recognize the microbial signatures. The company uses public databases which have records of over 300,000 pathogens. For the ones that the company can’t identify, it creates a identifier for those as well. “One of the biggest challeges we have here is to know what we don’t know,” said Kertesz.

At $2,000 per test, Karius’ biopsies aren’t cheap, but they’re safer and more cost effective than surgeries, according to Kartesz. It’s obviating the need to dig into a patient for a piece of tissue and the technology is already being used in over 100 hospitals and health systems, the company said.

With that kind of reach new investors including General Catalyst and HBM Healthcare Investments were willing to sign on with SoftBank’s Vision Fund and previous investors like Khosla Ventures and LightSpeed Venture Partners to participate in the latest round.

“Infectious diseases are the second leading cause of deaths worldwide. Karius’ innovative mcfDNA technology accurately diagnoses infections that cannot be determined by other existing technologies,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.

 

 


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Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

01:07 | 22 February

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures, and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix, and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures Partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels  with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently accelerating the economy”, says Declan Ryan, Managing Partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have over 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. With rooms listing at $20 per-night including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

 


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Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile team with Airbus, China Telecom and more on stratospheric cell networks

15:55 | 21 February

A new industry alliance led by Alphabet’s Loon high-altitude balloon technology company and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile stratospheric glider subsidiary aims to work together on standards and tech related to deploying network connectivity using high-altitude delivery mechanisms.

This extends the existing partnership between HAPSMobile and Loon, which began with a strategic alliance between the two announced last April, and which recently resulted in Loon adapting the network hardware it uses on its stratospheric balloons to work with the HAPSMobile stratospheric long-winged drone. Now, they two are welcoming more members, including AeroVironment, Airbus Defence and Space, Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Intelsat, Nokia, HAPSMobile parent SoftBank and Telefonica.

The new HAPS Alliance, as it’s being called (HAPS just stands for ‘High Altitude Platform Station’) will be working together to promote use of the technology, as well as work with regulators in the markets where they operate on enabling its use. They’ll work towards developing a set of common industry standards for network interoperability, and also figure how to essentially carve up the or stake out the stratosphere so that participating industry players can work together without stepping on each other’s toes.

This new combined group is no slouch: It includes some of the most powerful network operators in the world, as well as key network infrastructure players and aerospace companies. Which could mean big things for stratospheric networks, which have the advantages of being closer to Earth than satellite-based internet offerings, but also avoid the disadvantages of ground-based cell towers like having to deal with difficult terrain or more limited range.

Is this the first step towards a future where our connected devices rely on high-flying, autonomous cell towers for connectivity? It’s too early to say how ubiquitous this will get, but this new group of heavyweights definitely lends more credence to the idea.

 


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Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

21:45 | 19 February

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

 


0

Join the Q&A with top speakers at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI (March 3)

00:00 | 19 February

Over the past four years, TechCrunch has brought together some of the biggest names in robotics: founders, CEOs, VCs and researchers for TC Sessions: Robotics+AI. The show has provided a unique opportunity to explore the future and present of robotics, AI and the automation technologies that will define our professional and personal lives.

While the panels have been curated and hosted by our editorial staff, we’ve also long been interested in providing show-goers and opportunity to engage with guests. For this reason, we introduced the Q&A stage, where some of the biggest names can more directly engage with attendees.

This year, we’ve got top names from Softbank, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more joining us on the stage to answer questions. Here’s the full agenda of this year’s Q&A stage.

11:30 – 12:00 Russell Book signing
Stuart Russell

12:15 – 1:00 Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions
Carlos Kocher (Qualcomm)
/> Kass Dawson (Softbank)
Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

1:15 – 2:00 Founders
Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise)
Noah Campbell-Ready (Built Robotics)

2:15 – 3:00 VC
Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners)
/> Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures)
Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

3:15 – 4:00 Building Robotics Platforms
Steven Macenski (Samsung)
Claire Delaunay (Nvidia)

$345 General admission tickets are still on sale – book yours here and join 1000+ of today’s leading minds in the business for networking and discovery. The earlier you book the better as prices go up at the door.

Students, save big with a $50 ticket and get full access to the show. Student tickets are available to current students only. Book yours here.

 


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SoftBank-backed Brandless shuts its doors for good

22:41 | 10 February

It was a roller coaster ride — a short one.

Brandless, a San Francisco-based e-commerce company that made and sold an assortment of “cruelty-free” products in beauty and personal care, household, baby and pet categories has shut its doors less than three years after officially opening them in July 2017.

In a statement provided to the news outlet Protocol, the company cited a “fiercely competitive” retail market. As part of its shut-down, company will reportedly lay off 70 employees, with 10 staying aboard to resolve outstanding orders and presumably figure out how to sell its remaining assets.

The company’s short run won’t come as a complete surprise to industry watchers. In July of 2018, Brandless announced that SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund had invested $240 million in the company in a deal that valued Brandless at a little over $500 million. It was a surprising development, given the company’s relatively nascent business.

As has happened across numerous companies backed by the Vision Fund, including Wag and more recently WeWork, it also meant an executive shake-up. Indeed, by March of last year,  CEO Tina Sharkey, who’d cofounded the company with Ido Leffler, resigned from her position, saying she was moving into a “more focused role” as the board’s co-chair.

At the time, Evan Price, Brandless’s then CFO, became the company’s interim CEO. In May, John Rittenhouse, the former COO of Walmart.com, took the job. His plan, according to Protocol, was to get more of Brandless’s products into brick-and-mortar stores, but by this past December, he’d quietly stepped down and left Brandless. (Sharkey meanwhile left the company’s board last fall.)

Impacts

Certainly, the development undermines SoftBank’s already shaky reputation for savvy deal-making. Though in fairness, Brandless did enter into an industry that has grown cluttered with new entrants, many of them with a good story about the quality of their products but also in heated competition with products that taste and perform similarly to many others on the market in similar price brands.

It’s also worth noting that of the $240 million in SoftBank dollars announced in 2018, only half that amount appears to have made it Brandless. According to a report last year in The Information, SoftBank, eager to see Brandless turn a profit, was providing some of its promised funding to Brandless via installments and was holding back a final $100 million until the company met certain financial targets.

Seemingly, that didn’t happen, and according to Protocol, Brandless’s board, including Price, Leffler, SoftBank managing director Jeff Housenbold, Redpoint’s Jeff Brody and Colin Bryant of NEA, decided to close the company while still able to provide severance packages for employees.

 


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Arm focuses on AI with its new Cortex-M CPU and Ethos-U NPU

17:00 | 10 February

Arm today announced two new processors — or one and a half, depending on how you look at it. The company, which designs the chips that power the majority of the world’s cell phones and smart devices, launched both the newest Cortex-M processor (the M55) and the Arm Ethos-U55 micro neural processing unit (NPU).

Like its predecessors, the new Cortex-M55 is Arm’s processor for embedded  devices. By now, its partners have manufactured over 50 billion chips based on the Cortex-M design. This latest version is obviously faster and more power-efficient, but Arm is mostly putting the emphasis on the chip’s machine learning performance. It says the M55, which is the first CPU based on Arm’s Helium technology for speeding up vector calculation, can run ML models up to 15 times faster than the previous version.

For many use cases, the M55 is indeed fast enough, but if you need more ML power, the Ethos-U55 will often be able to give device manufacturers that without having to step up into the Cortex-A ecosystem.  Like Arm’s stand-alone Ethos NPUs, these chips are meant to speed up machine learning workloads. The U55, however, is a simpler design that only works in concert with recent Cortex-M processors like the M55, M33, M7 and M4. The combination of both designs can speed up machine learning performance by up to 480 times.


“When you look back at the most recent years, artificial intelligence has revolutionized how data analytics runs in the cloud and especially with the smartphones, it’s simply augmenting the user experience today,” Thomas Lorenser, Arm’s Director of Product Management, told me. “But the next thing or the next step is even more exciting to me: to get AI everywhere. And here we are talking about bringing the benefits of AI down to the IoT endpoints, including microcontrollers and therefore to a much larger scale of users and applications — literally billions more.”

That’s very much what this combination of Cortex-M and Ethos-U is all about. The idea here is to bring more power to the edge. For a lot of use cases, sending data to the cloud isn’t feasible, after all, and as Loresner stressed, oftentimes turning on the radio and sending the data to the cloud uses more energy than running an AI model locally.

“Although I think a lot of the early discussions in AI were dominated by very loud voices in the cloud space, what we’ve been seeing is the innovation, the actual implementation and deployment, in the IoT space is massive and some of the use cases are fantastic.,” Dennis Laudick, VP Commercial and Marketing for Machine Learning at Arm, added.

 


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Uber claims top spot in Indian ride-hailing market

13:17 | 8 February

Uber facilitated 14 million rides a week in India last year, the American ride-hailing firm said as it claimed the tentpole position in the key overseas market.

In a report (PDF) published on the sidelines of its quarterly earnings Thursday afternoon, Uber said that it commanded over 50% of the ride-hailing market in India — among some other regions — and was the category leader.

The publicly listed company cited its internal estimations for the claim, it said. In comparison, Uber handled 11 million rides a week in India in 2018, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The revelation is especially interesting, since both Uber and its chief local rival Ola have tended to avoid talks about the number of rides they serve in India.

In a 2018 blog post, Ola revealed that its platform “moves over two million people every day.” A spokesperson for the Indian startup, which like Uber counts SoftBank as an investor, declined to reveal the new figures, but issued a statement in which it identified itself as India’s “largest mobility platform.”

“As India’s largest mobility platform, Ola serves over 200 million customers through a network of 2.5 million driver-partners across a wide range of offerings including two, three and four-wheelers,” the spokesperson said, adding that the ride-hailing firm operates in 250 cities and towns in India.

Last month, Uber sold its food delivery Uber Eats’ India business to local rival Zomato for about $180 million in a move that some analysts said could help the ride-hailing firm better focus on its core business in the country.

An Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company plans to expand from about 50 Indian cities where it currently operates to 200 in the country by the end of the year. It will focus on onboarding two-wheelers and three-wheelers in many of these cities, the firm said.

Uber’s expansion in India comes as Ola is entering one of the American firm’s key territories. Last week, Ola said it will begin operation in London on February 10.

 


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As its fundraising lags, SoftBank’s second Vision Fund could be near-sighted

01:33 | 8 February

SoftBank, the technology conglomerate that transformed the venture capital industry and made waves in the technology world with its $100 billion Vision Fund, may not be able to repeat the performance or sustain its revolutionary approach to tech investing, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the Journal, SoftBank may only be able to raise half of the $108 billion target it had set for its sequel to the Vision Fund — with most of that money coming from the Japanese company itself.

Big backers like the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund (which helps support the financial stability of a regime responsible for assassinating journalists), and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Co. both balked at SoftBank’s attempts to set up Vision Fund II, telling SoftBank that it would have to use capital from the profits made off of previous investments to finance the second firm.

Those profits reportedly amount to roughly $10 billion.

While the Vision Fund launched with much fanfare and no small amount of jealous grumbling from investors, analysts and media amazed at the size of capital SoftBank’s founder and enigmatic chief executive Masayoshi Son was able to raise, the results have not managed to keep pace with the hype.

Part of the problem has been the disastrous investment SoftBank made in the co-working company WeWork. SoftBank wrote down its $4.4 billion investment in the company by roughly $3.5 billion.

WeWork’s woes may just be the tip of the iceberg for SoftBank, which has significantly curtailed its capital commitments to other portfolio companies. Those companies have recently slashed staff to reduce spending sending ripples through the broader tech industry and hinting at a potentially broader slowdown.

The Japanese conglomerate’s investment arm is also shedding staff. Earlier this week, the company lost one of its top managers, Michael Ronen, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs and was instrumental in SoftBank’s investments in companies like ParkJockey, Nuro and GM Cruise.

Ronen isn’t the only big departure. The company’s chief people officer, Michelle Horn and another U.S.-based managing director, David Thevenon, have also left the company in the past five months.

 


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Shrunken unicorn Fair cancels car leasing to Uber drivers

02:00 | 7 February

When Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October, CEO Scott Painter promised it wasn’t shuttering leasing services to on-demand fleets. But just a week later, Painter was removed and replaced in the interim with Adam Hieber, a CFA from Fair investor SoftBank. Today, according to two sources, Fair announced at an all-hands meeting that it would end its Fair Go program that helped Uber drivers lease cars. The program will cease in April. Uber now confirms the news to TechCrunch.

Formerly valued at $1.2 billion after raising over $2 billion in equity and debt financing from SoftBank and Lightspeed, Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October. It had bought Uber’s XChange leasing program in early 2018. The deal lets drivers lease an Uber eligible car with subscriptions to roadside assistance and maintenance for as low as $130 per week with a $500 start fee.

But Uber had sold the leasing program because it was unprofitable and adding to its losses at a tough time for the rideshare giant. As additional fees stacked up, Fair didn’t fare much better operating it.

A source tells us Fair Go was profitable. It was an important focus for the company as it retools its subscription services for traditional drivers. Another source says at one point Fair Go was adding about 250 to 300 car leases per day and had thousands of active leases. But Fair Go was facing higher insurance rates from carriers, which make sense since Uber drivers can be on the road far, far longer than traditional car owners.

Rather than trying to pass those fees along to drivers, many who are already cash-strapped, Fair told employees it would cease to lease to Uber drivers. That’s a respectable choice, since it could have pushed Uber drivers into debt if they didn’t fully comprehend what their total costs would be.

Attempts to reach Fair for comment were complicated by many of its in-house PR team being hit with October’s layoffs. An agency representative was asked for comment on the shut down but did not provide comment before press time.

However, an Uber spokesperson confirmed the shut down of Fair Go and their partnership, telling TechCrunch that “Unlocking options for vehicle access so drivers can earn with Uber remains a top priority. We’re thankful for Fair’s collaboration, and their contributions to our vehicle rental program. We’re  continuing to invest in rental partnerships, and building more flexibility beyond hourly, weekly, and monthly options available today.” 

Uber tells me it remains committed to offering leasing options to drivers through partnerships with Hertz, Avis, ZipCar and Getaround, and they may be able to work with Uber drivers formerly leasing from Fair.

The news is the latest low point for the SoftBank portfolio in the wake of the WeWork implosion. That’s caused potential repeat LPs for SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund to tighten their purse strings and other late stage investors to focus on sustainable unit economics. Late-stage startups have been left scrambling to cut their burn rates, often through layoffs.

SoftBank’s portfolio, which may have trouble raising on good terms after what many saw as inflated valuations propped up by the megafund, has been hit the hardest. This week TechCrunch broke the news that Flexport was laying off 3% of staff, or 50 employees. Other SoftBank-funded company layoffs include Zume Pizza (80% of staff laid off), Wag (80%), Getaround (25%), Rappi (6%), and Oyo (5%).

 


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