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Tortoise co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko is bringing autonomous scooters to TC Sessions: Mobility

20:00 | 19 February

TechCrunch Sessions Mobility is gearing up to be a lit event. The one-day event, taking place May 14 in San Jose, has just added Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder and president of an automatic repositioning startup for micromobility vehicles. Yes, that means we’ll be having autonomous scooters rolling around on stage. #2020

Tortoise, which recently received approval to deploy its tech in San Jose, is looking to become an operating system of sorts for micromobility vehicles. Just how Android is the operating system for a number of mobile phones, Tortoise wants to be the operating system for micromobility vehicles.

Given the volume of micromobility operators in the space today, Tortoise aims to make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed. Using autonomous technology in tandem with remote human intervention, Tortoise’s software enables operators to remotely relocate their scooters and bikes to places where riders need them, or, where operators need them to be recharged. On an empty sidewalk, Tortoise may employ autonomous technologies while it may rely on humans to remotely control the vehicle on a highly trafficked city block.

Before co-founding Tortoise, Shevelenko served as Uber’s director of business development. While at Uber, Shevelenko helped the company expand into new mobility and led the acquisition of JUMP Bikes . Needless to say, Shevelenko is well-versed to talk about the next opportunities in micromobility.

Other speakers at TC Sessions Mobility include Waymo COO Tekedra Mawakana, Uber Director of Policy, Cities & Transportation Shin-pei Tsay and Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky.

Tickets are on sale right now for $250 (early bird status). After April 9, tickets go up so be sure to get yours before that deadline. If you’re a student, tickets cost just $50.

Early-stage startups in the mobility space can book an exhibitor package for $2000 and get 4 tickets and a demo table. Packages allow you to get in front of some of the biggest names in the industry and meet new customers. Book your tickets here.



India’s Swiggy raises $113M led by Prosus

18:57 | 19 February

Weeks after Zomato acquired Uber’s Eats business in India, its chief local rival is bulking up some ammunition of its own.

Swiggy, India’s largest food delivery startup, announced on Wednesday it has raised $113 million as part of its Series I financing round. Prosus Ventures, the biggest venture capital for food delivery startups, led the round.

Meituan Dianping and Wellington Management Company also participated. The new round values Swiggy at about $3.3 billion, same as its previous round, according to an analysis of its regulatory filing.

Sriharsha Majety, co-founder and chief executive of Swiggy, said the startup will use the fresh capital to invest in “new lines of business” such as cloud kitchen and delivery beyond food items, and get on a “sustainable path to profitability.”

Prosus Ventures, formerly known as Naspers Ventures and Food, first wrote a check to Swiggy three years ago. Since then, it has become its biggest investor — having pumped in more than $700 million alone in the startup’s $1 billion financing round in December 2018.

“Swiggy continues to exhibit strong execution and a steadfast commitment to delivering the best service to consumers and has one of the best operational teams in food delivery globally. We are confident Swiggy will continue on a path to earn a significant place in the daily lives of Indians,” said Larry Illg, chief executive of Prosus Ventures and Food, in a statement.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm, which is operational in 520 cities, said it has witnessed a 2.5x growth in the volume of transactions in the past year. Its restaurant partners base has also grown to 160,000 and more than 10,000 are joining the platform each month.

Some analysts say that it will be very challenging for Swiggy and Zomato, both of which are spending over $20 million a month to win customers, to reach profitability.

More to follow…



Uber’s first-ever head of diversity has left the company

18:00 | 13 February

Bernard Coleman, Uber’s first-ever head of diversity, has left the company, TechCrunch has learned. His last day was Friday, January 17.

“Bernard’s contributions over the years helped make Uber a more inclusive and diverse company and we wish him all the best,” an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Coleman’s next stop is payroll startup Gusto, where he is leading the employee engagement team within the People Operations organization. Coleman wasn’t necessarily looking for a new job, but the opportunity simply presented itself, he told TechCrunch.

“It’s the place I wanted to go that I didn’t yet know,” he said.

What attracted him to Gusto is the service-oriented nature of the company. Gusto is designed to help small businesses with everything from payroll to benefits to human resources to time-tracking tools.

“This ties back to my campaign days of serving underserved populations,” Coleman, who led Hillary for America’s diversity and human resources initiatives, said. “To have the opportunity to serve them and the opportunity to do it right has a personal alignment to me,”

Coleman should be in good company, as Gusto is the startup Google’s now-former Chief Diversity Officer Danielle Brown joined in April 2019.

“Danielle was a big draw,” Coleman said. “I always wanted to work with her and I’m excited to have this opportunity.”

Coleman joined Uber in January 2017, just a little before former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published her blog post detailing issues of sexual harassment and other workplace issues. A couple of months after joining, Uber released its first diversity report.

Uber, like many other tech companies, is predominantly white (44.7%) and Asian (33%), according to its most recent diversity report. In 2019, Uber was 9.3% black and 8.3% Latinx compared to just 8.1% black and 6.1% Latinx in 2018. Gusto, on the other hand, has not publicly released a diversity report.

When Uber hired Bo Young Lee to serve as its chief diversity officer, it came as a bit of a surprise, since former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm recommended Uber promote Coleman to CDO in light of its sexual harassment investigation. Coleman declined to comment on that specifically but said there are lessons learned from Uber that he can apply to Gusto.

“I think everything is instructive for what you’re trying to do,” he said. “When you compare Uber to Gusto, [Gusto] is much smaller comparatively. I can think about where to plug in and be more impactful at this growth stage. We have the right elements to really do it in a way that has not been done in tech.”



Dial-an-Uber lets users talk to an actual human to hail a ride

17:36 | 13 February

Uber is piloting a new feature aimed at older adults that will let customers dial a 1-800 number and speak to an actual human being to hail a ride. The move isn’t just a departure from its app roots. It’s another sign that Uber is trying to transform into a transportation company that serves a larger customer base.

The dial-an-Uber feature was “designed with older adults in mind” though anyone preferring conversational support will benefit from this pilot, the company said. The feature was built based on feedback from older adults who told the company that “live conversations, and simplicity of experience can make a difference for their transportation needs,” according to the ride-hailing company.

After dialing 1-833-USE-UBER, the customer will be paired with a live team member that confirms their trip request, provides an upfront price quote.

There are some important caveats to this feature that could shut out folks who don’t own a cellular phone.

Customers still must have a phone that can receive SMS or text-based mobile phone to receive important messages about the ETA of the ride, driver’s license plate details, and the driver’s name. Users will continue to receive messages before and during your trip, and once it concludes, they’ll receive a trip receipt.

The company will initially launch the phone number 1-833-USE-UBER in Arizona. There is no extra charge for using this service, though Uber noted that carrier message and data rates may apply. Anyone in the state can call the phone number to hail an Uber in the cities where the service is currently available. Users can also ask for specific Uber options such as UberX, Uber Comfort, Uber Black, Black SUV, as well as Uber Assist and WAV, where available.

Uber said it will expand the dial-an-Uber to more states in the coming months.

Uber was also explicit that the 1-800 number is not meant for general customer support inquiries, although certainly it will be used for that purpose.



European founders look to new markets, aim for profitability

09:47 | 12 February

To get a better sense of what lies ahead for the European startup ecosystem, we spoke to several investors and entrepreneurs in the region about their impressions and lessons learned from 2019, along with their predictions for 2020.

We asked for blunt responses — and we weren’t disappointed.

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Kenny Ewan, founder/CEO, Wefarm (London)

I’ve often been faced with questions around how we can generate revenue in markets like Africa. There has historically been a view that you can do something good, or you can generate revenue — and companies that talk about developing markets usually get squarely lumped into the former. While mission-led companies achieving tremendous growth has been talked about for a while, 2019 has been a year I have felt conversations with investors and others really begin to shift to the reality of that and it’s thanks to more and more proof points being delivered by startups across the board.

As more and more businesses begin to realize they don’t need to wait for the internet to descend from the sky for these markets to become hubs of commerce and innovation — and see that it’s already happening — I believe 2020 will continue to witness more and more historic tech companies shifting their focus to markets like Africa and that there will be more coverage and discussion as a result.



Profitability expectations ding Lyft despite better-than-expected growth

03:05 | 12 February

Hello and welcome back to our regular look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

This afternoon we’re digging into Lyft’s earnings results, unpacking the company’s performance, the market’s expectations and why shares in the American ride-hailing giant are off in after-hours trading.

Lyft’s earnings — following Uber’s own results that promised investors a quicker-than-anticipated path to (adjusted) profits — and the market’s reaction to its performance, provide a good frame for evaluating investors’ appetite for profits against growth. It’s a topic that’s important for startup founders and private-market investors alike.

Our investigation today is contentedly straightforward. We’ll start with the big numbers, drill into comparative performance and then weigh what the market is telling us.

Lyft’s key Q4 2019 results

In the fourth quarter of 2019, Lyft’s revenue came in at $1.017 billion, a gain of 52% compared to its year-ago result of $669.5 million. Sticking to the growth side of things, the company’s “active rider” count rose from 18.59 million to 22.91 million from Q4 2018 to Q4 2019, a gain of 23%. Lyft’s active riders also spent 23% more year-over-year, reaching $44.40 in the final quarter of last year.

Turning to losses, Lyft’s net loss (a metric that includes all costs) was $356.0 million in the quarter, a sharply worse result than its $248.9 million net loss in Q4 2018. The company’s adjusted net loss, however, was $121.4 million, an improvement from its year-ago $238.5 million adjusted net loss.

Turning to adjusted EBITDA, a heavily adjusted profit metric, Lyft lost $130.7 million in Q4 2019, an improvement on its Q4 2018 adjusted EBITDA loss of $251.1 million.

Investors had expected Lyft to report just $985.8 million in revenue and an adjusted EBITDA loss of $163.2 million. The street had also anticipated 100,000 fewer active riders and slightly slimmer revenue per active rider. So, Lyft beat expectations regarding growth, user count and health and for adjusted losses.

And yet Lyft’s shares are off over 4% in after-hours trading. While Lyft’s stock has recovered from lows set in October, 2019, the company’s equity is now more than $20 down from its IPO price, taking into account its post-earnings movement.

Why Lyft’s stock should fall after beating expectations and not changing its profit forecast might appear a bit confusing. It’s not.

Damn you, Uber



The engineers behind Google’s Bookbot have launched a delivery robot startup

20:59 | 11 February

The engineers behind Google’s short-lived Bookbot — a robot created within the company’s Area 120 incubator for experimental products — have launched their own startup to bring the sidewalk delivery bot back to life.

The secretive startup called Cartken was formed in fall 2019 after Google shuttered an internal program to develop a delivery robot — a move that was prompted by the tech giant’s decision to scale back efforts to compete with Amazon in shopping.

Unlike Amazon, which acquired robot maker Dispatch to help build its Scout delivery device, Google harnessed the talent of its own engineers and logistics experts to develop a sidewalk robot within the walls of Google’s Area 120 incubator. But the project faltered after just a few months, as Google pulled back from retail delivery.

Cartken was founded by engineers of the Bookbot program as well as a logistics expert who was once in charge of operations at Google Express, the service integrated last year into Google Shopping.

Area 120 is a low-key version of Google’s famous X moonshot factory, a place where small teams rapidly build new products that they have a personal interest in. Since 2016, Area 120 has produced around a dozen apps and services, including a crowdsourced transit app, an educational video platform, a virtual customer service agent for small businesses, and an emoji-based guessing game.

BookBot stood out as Area 120’s first publicly announced hardware project. The Google project incubator formed a group in early 2018 to explore autonomous robots. Around the same time, the city of Mountain View decided to allow pilot programs for personal delivery devices (PDDs).

Discussions between Area 120 and Mountain View began in the summer of 2018 and by late February 2019, the BookBot began operating one day a week for the city’s library system.

Apart from its book-collecting duties, the electric six-wheeled device worked in a similar way to the delivery robots made by Amazon, Starship Technologies and Marble. The 32-inch tall BookBot, which is pictured below, was equipped with a suite of sensors for autonomous operation and could be remote controlled by a human operator if needed. The robot was designed to carry up to 50 pounds of cargo, and traveled on sidewalks at a maximum speed of 4.5 miles per hour.

Bookbot image from website

The Google Bookbot. Photo from Google

Users could request a pick-up of books via the library’s website. The BookBot would then navigate to their home and text them when it had arrived. Once the user had deposited the books in the cargo compartment, the robot would return to the library, where workers would check in the materials.
Google team leader Christian Bersch told at the time that the pilot project would last nine months. “Right now, we just want to learn how this would work, how it operates and what kinds of problems we’d run into,” he said.

On its first run on city sidewalks, “people thought it was super cool, and were breaking out their cameras,” Tracy Gray, Mountain View’s Library Services Director told TechCrunch. “There were no accidents, no technical issues and no vandalism.”

The biggest problem wasn’t interest or operations. It was Google.

The BookBot fell far short of its nine-month pilot. The project quietly ended in June, after less than four months. The BookBot was actually operational in Mountain View for only 12 days, not including two days missed for rain. It covered a total of 60 miles, and served just 36 users, Gray said.

Gray does not know why Area 120 cancelled the BookBot. “It was definitely a benefit for library customers and a great project all around, but I believe Google’s Area 120 went in another direction,” she said.
Area 120 has never explained why it canceled BookBot. Google didn’t comment for this article.

However, BookBot’s demise coincided with a strategic shift within Google. In May, just a month before BookBot ended, Google merged its online shopping service Google Express into Google Shopping, essentially conceding that it could not compete with the retail giants of Amazon and Walmart. As its retail efforts faded, Google spun out its Project Wing drone delivery technology and suspended the BookBot’s development.

That wasn’t the end of the little robot. Bersch left Google in July, along with Jake Stelman, the co-founder of Area 120’s autonomous robotics group, according to LinkedIn profile data. In October, the engineers incorporated Cartken Inc., along with Ryan Quinlan, an operations manager who had worked at both Amazon and Google Express, and another software engineer from the BookBot team.

Cartken is still very much in stealth mode, and declined to comment on this story, as did Google. However, a Korean trade delegation to Silicon Valley in October was told the company had “developed a delivery robot that combines unmanned autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.”

Cartken’s website says that it will offer “low-cost delivery through automation,” with an earlier version specifying “low-cost last-mile delivery.” A semi-obscured product image appears to show a matte black variant of the BookBot with wheels, lid and head- and tail lights.

Neither Google nor Cartken would say whether the start-up uses any technologies developed at Area 120, nor whether Google was funding the young company.

Google has a tradition of spawning autonomous vehicle companies. The head of its self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, went on to form Aurora, now valued at more than $2.5 billion, while two other Google engineers formed Nuro, which unveiled a road-legal delivery robot last week. But the process of driving away from Google hasn’t always gone as smoothly.

In 2016, a group of engineers led by Anthony Levandowski left Google’s self-driving car program to form their own autonomous logistics company, Otto, that was quickly acquired by Uber. That led to an epic trade secrets battle that Levandowski is still fighting.



Middle East healthcare platform Vezeeta raises $40M Series D led by Gulf Capital

12:31 | 11 February

Vezeeta, a healthcare platform operating in the Middle East and Africa, has raised a $40 Million Series D funding round led by UAE-based Gulf Capital, alongside further investment from existing Riyadh-based investor Saudi Technology Ventures (STV), which previously led Vezeeta’s Series C round in September 2018. Vezeeta’s other investors include BECO Capital, Silicon Badia, Vostok New Ventures, Crescent Enterprises’ CE-Ventures and Endeavour Catalyst. Prior to this fund-raise, the company had raised $23M, so this latest news takes its total to $63M. Alvaro Abella, a director at Gulf Capital, joins the board.

It now plans to roll out new products, such as an online pharmacy, as well as ‘tele-health’ services across its existing footprint and new markets.

This is one of the largest funding rounds of any tech startup in the Middle East and Africa to date. The startup has become something of a MENA success story by allowing patients to effectively see Uber -style ratings for healthcare providers, thus encouraging the providers to improve their services. It puts the power in the hands of patients (vs providers) by giving them the ability to search, book, rate, and review healthcare providers.

US-based ZocDoc, which has raised $223M, has done something similar, moving away from a B2B towards a B2C transactional-based model. Other competitors globally include Practo, Doctolib (which raised $266.7M) and Docplanner.

Launched initially in Cairo in 2012 as a sort of “Uber for Ambulances”, Vezeeta has gradually reversed into Middle Eastern healthcare systems to provide a free of charge medical search platform for end-users by integrating information about medical practices and doctors’ individual schedules. Currently operating in 50 cities across Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon, the platform generates 4 Million annual appointments, and claims to have tripled in size year over year.

In a statement, Amir Barsoum, founder and CEO of Vezeeta said: “Gulf Capital provides us the perfect synergy for our future plans to diversify and expand our product portfolio on a global scale… Leveraging our technology, we have helped patients tap into the power of choice, and the power of information, to access the kind of healthcare that our users deserve.” He said the company plans to use the cash to expand its product portfolio to several regional markets.
Dr Karim El Solh, Chief Executive Officer of Gulf Capital said: “Empowering patients and their families through technology to give them better access to healthcare services and more meaningful and manageable relationships with their healthcare providers has never been more important. We were impressed with the work that Amir and his team were doing and are excited to be working with Vezeeta on its next phase of growth.”

Ahmad AlNaimi, senior principal at STV said: “The progress the company has achieved since our investment, especially in Saudi, is incredible. We are thrilled to double down on our position and to welcome Gulf Capital to the table.”

Vezeeta reaches around 4 million patients across 4 countries, enabling them to search, book and review doctors and medical services. It also provides a SaaS solution to more than 30,000 healthcare providers.



Judge rejects Uber and Postmates’ request for an injunction against California’s gig worker law

10:50 | 11 February

A U.S District court judge has rejected Uber and Postmates’ request for a preliminary injunction against a California bill mandating how independent contractors are classified. The request was made as part of lawsuit filed by the companies, along with two ride-sharing drivers, at the end of December. The lawsuit is still in progress.

Assembly Bill 5 (known as AB5) went into effect at the beginning of the year and limits how companies can label workers as independent contractors. While meant to protect contractors, the legislation has been criticized by some freelancers who say it restricts their work opportunities and ability to earn money, as well as tech companies whose business models rely on gig workers.

In a decision issued on Monday, Judge Dolly Gee of the Central Court of California wrote that that the court “cannot second guess the Legislature’s choice to enact a law that seeks to uplift the conditions of the majority of non-exempt low-income workers rather than preserve the status quo for the smaller subset of workers who enjoy independent contractor status,” adding that “the balance of equities and the public interest weight in favor of permitting the State to enforce this legislation.”

Uber and Postmates’ lawsuit argue that AB5 violates several clauses in the U.S. and California constitutions, including equal protection because of how it classifies ride-sharing and on-demand delivery workers compared on exemptions granted to workers in more than twenty other industries.

Uber, Postmates and the lawsuit’s two other plaintiffs, Lydia Olson and Miguel Perez, have the option of appealing Gee’s decision.

In press statement, a Postmates’ spokesperson said “As witnessed by truckers, freelance journalists, and countless other occupations, AB5 is undercutting workers across the economy, and Postmates remains committed to the modernization of worker classification and worker protections and sees our ballot conversation with voters, our legal conversation with drivers, and our continued outreach to all stakeholders as critical pieces  to an enduring pro-worker, pro-innovation solution that preserves the flexibility and autonomy of California workers while adding meaningful benefits.”

An Uber spokesperson said “We are joining a growing group of companies and individuals suing to ensure that all workers are equally protected under the law and can freely choose the way they want to work.”



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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