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Shine Bathroom raises $750K for a smart home add-on that flushes away your toilet doldrums

20:09 | 21 October

One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.

In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”

It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.

Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.

The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.

“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”

Intro

Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).

The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.

It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.

Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.

“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”

Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).

That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)

Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.

Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.

AlexaAskSam

The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.

Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.

The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.

On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.

The startup in its time raised more than $70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.

Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)

“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.  

Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.

“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.

 


0

The new iPhone is ugly

19:45 | 19 October

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to phones. Everyone scoffs at my iPhone SE, but the truth is it’s the best phone Apple ever made — a beautiful, well designed object in just about every way. But damn is the iPhone 11 Pro ugly. And so are the newest phones from Samsung and Google, while we’re at it.

Let’s just get right to why the new iPhones are ugly, front and back. And sideways. We can start with the notch. Obviously it’s not new, but I thought maybe this would be some kind of generational anomaly that we’d all look back and laugh at in a year or two. Apparently it’s sticking around.

I know a lot of people have justified the notch to themselves in various ways — it technically means more raw screen space, it accommodates the carrier and battery icons, it’s necessary for unlocking the phone with your face.

Yeah, but it’s ugly.

If they removed the notch, literally no one would want the version with the notch, because it’s so plainly and universally undesirable. If Apple’s engineers could figure out a way to have no notch, they’d have done it by now, but they can’t and I bet they are extremely frustrated by that. They try to hide it with the special notch-camouflaging wallpaper whenever they can, which is as much as saying, “hey, we hate looking at it too.”

nonotch

You can forget for a few seconds. But in the back of your mind you know it’s there. Everyone knows.

It’s a prominent, ugly compromise (among several) necessitated by a feature no one asked for and people can’t seem to figure out if they even like or not. Notches are horrible and any time you see one, it means a designer cried themselves to sleep. To be fair that probably happens quite a bit. I grew up around designers and they can be pretty sensitive, like me.

I’m not a big fan of the rounded screen corners for a couple reasons, but I’ll let that go because I envision a future where it doesn’t matter. You remember how in Battlestar Galactica the corners were clipped off all the paper? We’re on our way.

Having the screen extend to the very edge of the device on the other hand isn’t exactly ugly, but it’s ugly in spirit. The whole front of the phone is an interface now, which would be fine if it could tell when you were gripping the screen for leverage and not to do something with it. As it is, every side and corner has some kind of dedicated gesture that you have to be wary of activating. It’s so bad people have literally invented a thing that sticks out from the back of your phone so you can hold it that way. Popsockets wouldn’t be necessary if you could safely hold your phone the way you’d hold any other object that shape.

 

iphone 11 pro

The back is ugly now, too. Man, is that camera bump bad. Bump is really the wrong word. It looks like the iPhone design team took a field trip to a maritime history museum, saw the deep sea diving helmets, and thought, Boom. That’s what we need. Portholes. To make our phone look like it could descend to 4,000 fathoms. Those helmets are actually really cool looking when they’re big and made of strong, weathered brass. Not on a thin, fragile piece of electronics. Here it’s just a huge, chunky combination of soft squares and weirdly arranged circles — five of them! — that completely take over the otherwise featureless rear side of the phone.

The back of the SE is designed to mirror the front, with a corresponding top and bottom “bezel.” In the best looking SE (mine) the black top bezel almost completely hides the existence of the camera (unfortunately there’s a visible flash unit); it makes the object more like an unbroken solid, its picture-taking abilities more magical. The camera is completely flush with the surface of the back, which is itself completely flush except for texture changes.

The back of the iPhone 11 Pro has a broad plain, upon which sits the slightly higher plateau of the camera assembly. Above that rise the three different little camera volcanoes, and above each of those the little calderas of the lenses. And below them the sunken well of the microphone. Five different height levels, producing a dozen different heights and edges! Admittedly the elevations aren’t so high, but still.

hero gallery color story m6kjl7t4boqm large

If it was a dedicated camera or another device that by design needed and used peaks and valleys for grip or eyes-free navigation, that would be one thing. But the iPhone is meant to be smooth, beautiful, have a nice handfeel. With this topographic map of Hawaii on the back? Have fun cleaning out the grime from in between the volcanoes, then knocking the edge of the lens against a table as you slide the phone into your hand.

Plus it’s ugly.

The sides of the phones aren’t as bad as the front and back, but we’ve lost a lot since the days of the SE. The geometric simplicity of the + and – buttons, the hard chamfered edge that gave you a sure grip, the black belts that boldly divided the sides into two strips and two bows. And amazingly, due to being made of actual metal, the more drops an SE survives, the cooler it looks.

The sides of the new iPhones look like bumpers from cheap model cars. They look like elongated jelly beans, with smaller jelly beans stuck on that you’re supposed to touch. Gross.

That’s probably enough about Apple. They forgot about good design a long time ago, but the latest phones were too ugly not to call out.

Samsung has a lot of the same problems as Apple. Everyone has to have an “edge to edge” display now, and the Galaxy S10 is no exception. But it doesn’t really go to the edge, does it? There’s a little bezel on the top and bottom, but the bottom one is a little bigger. I suppose it reveals the depths of my neurosis to say so, but that would never stop bugging me if I had one. If it was a lot bigger, like HTC’s old “chins,” I’d take it as a deliberate design feature, but just a little bigger? That just means they couldn’t make one small enough.

sung 10

As for the display slipping over the edges, it’s cool looking in product photos, but I’ve never found it attractive in real life. What’s the point? And then from anywhere other than straight on, it makes it look more lopsided, or like you’re missing something on the far side.

Meanwhile it not only has bezels and sometime curves, but a hole punched out of the front. Oh my god!

Here’s the thing about a notch. When you realize as a phone designer that you’re going to have to take over a big piece of the front, you also look at what part of the screen it leaves untouched. In Apple’s case it’s the little horns on either side — great, you can at least put the status info there. There might have been a little bit left above the front camera and Face ID stuff, but what can you do with a handful of vertical pixels? Nothing. It’ll just be a distraction. Usually there was nothing interesting in the middle anyway. So you just cut it all out and go full notch.

Samsung on the other hand decided to put the camera in the top right, and keep a worthless little rind of screen all around it. What good is that part of the display now? It’s too small to show anything useful, yet the hole is too big to ignore while you’re watching full-screen content. If their aim was to make something smaller and yet even more disruptive than a notch, mission accomplished. It’s ugly on all the S10s, but the big wide notch-hole combo on the S10 5G 6.7″ phablet is the ugliest.

galaxy s10 camera

The decision to put all the rear cameras in a long window, like the press box at a hockey game, is a bold one. There’s really not much you can do to hide 3 giant lenses, a flash, and that other thing. Might as well put them front and center, set off with a black background and chrome rim straight out of 2009. Looks like something you’d get pointed at you at the airport. At least the scale matches the big wide “SAMSUNG” on the back. Bold — but ugly.

Google’s Pixel 4 isn’t as bad, but it’s got its share of ugly. I don’t need to spend too much time on it, though, because it’s a lot of the same, except in pumpkin orange for Halloween season. I like the color orange generally, but I’m not sure about this one. Looks like a seasonal special phone you pick up in a blister pack from the clearance shelf at Target, the week before Black Friday — two for $99, on some cut-rate MVNO. Maybe it’s better in person, but I’d be afraid some kid would take a bite out of my phone thinking it’s a creamsicle.

pixel 4

The lopsided bezels on the front are worse than the Samsung’s, but at least it looks deliberate. Like they wanted to imply their phone is smart so they gave it a really prominent forehead.

 

I will say that of the huge, ugly camera assemblies, the Pixel’s is the best. It’s more subtle, like being slapped in the face instead of kicked in the shins so hard you die. And the diamond pattern is more attractive for sure. Given the square (ish) base, I’m surprised someone on the team at Google had the rather unorthodox idea to rotate the cameras 45 degrees. Technically it produces more wasted space, but it looks better than four circles making a square inside a bigger, round square.

And it looks a hell of a lot better than three circles in a triangle, with two smaller circles just kind of hanging out there, inside a bigger, round square. That iPhone is ugly!

 


0

VR/AR startup valuations reach $45 billion (on paper)

00:09 | 19 October

Despite early-stage virtual reality market and augmented reality market valuations softening in a transitional period, total global AR/VR startup valuations are now at $45 billion globally — include non-pure play AR/VR startups discussed below, and that amount exceeds $67 billion. More than $8 billion has been returned to investors through M&A already, with the remaining augmented and virtual reality startups carrying more than $36 billion valuations on paper. Only time will tell how much of this value gets realized for investors.

(Note: this analysis is of AR/VR startup valuations only, excluding internal investment by large corporates like Facebook . Again, this analysis is of valuation, not revenue.)

Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

Selected AR/VR companies that have raised funding or generated significant revenue, plus selected corporates as of September 2019.

There is significant value concentration, with just 18 AR/VR pure plays accounting for half of the $45 billion global figure. Some of the large valuations are for Magic Leap (well over $6 billion), Niantic (nearly $4 billion), Oculus ($3 billion from exit to Facebook), Beijing Moviebook Technology ($1 billion+) and Lightricks ($1 billion). While there are unicorns, the market hasn’t seen an AR/VR decacorn yet.

Across all industries — not just AR/VR — around 60% of VC-backed startups fail, not 90% as often quoted. That doesn’t mean this many startups crash and burn, but that 60% of startups deliver less than 1x return on investment (ROI) to investors (i.e. investors get less back than they put in). To better understand what’s happening in AR/VR, let’s analyze the thousands of startup valuations in Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform to see where the smart money is by sector, stage and country.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are

Digi Capital AR VR Valuation Sectors Q4 2019

Free charts do not include numbers, axes and data from subscriber version, with underlying hard data sourced directly from companies and reliable secondary sources. Methodology in Digi-Capital’s companion Augmented/Virtual Reality Report Q4 2019

A rising tide lifts all boats, while an ebb tide reveals the rocks beneath the waves. Similarly, the AR/VR industry sectors in which startups operate have a big impact on how they deliver value. Across the 30+ AR/VR sectors that Digi-Capital tracks, some sectors appear to be more equal than others.

Core AR/VR tech startups have delivered the most value to date, with “picks and shovels” businesses supporting the entire market while avoiding customer risk in any one sector. The largest valuations are for core tech companies that operate across either augmented reality and computer vision markets (particularly in China), or games and AR/VR markets. These startups are not AR/VR pure plays, showing how revenue diversification can be highly valuable in early stage markets.

Smartglasses make up the next AR/VR sector in terms of valuation, with around two-thirds of that locked up in smartglasses platform company Magic Leap (again, this analysis is of startups only, excluding internal corporate investment like Microsoft mixed reality).

VR headsets come in at number three, due to Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014. While that deal was arguably the catalyst for the current wave of AR/VR, other VR headset startups haven’t delivered similar levels of value to investors yet.

AR/VR games follow, with startup valuations dominated by Pokémon Go developer Niantic and smaller exits like Osmo. AR/VR photo/video is next, with a large chunk of that value having been realized for investors through exits such as Shenzhen Lianmeng Technology, Replay Technology and Magic Pony Technology. There are also ongoing startups like Goldman Sachs-backed Lightricks.

The long tail of 25 other AR/VR market sectors each make up a decreasing proportion of remaining startup valuations today. There are individual later-stage startups such as Beijing Moviebook Technology in AR/VR categories like social, but these are in the minority today (Note: this does not mean there isn’t significant value across remaining sectors or companies within them, but that value has not been quantified by exit value or investment round valuations yet).

All the world’s a stage

Digi Capital AR VR Valuation Stages Q4 2019

Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

The highest valuations on paper tend to be in later-stage startups for most tech markets, so it’s no surprise that companies at Series D and Series C stage in China and the USA make up around 45% of valuations in today’s AR/VR market. In terms of realized returns to investors, M&A has delivered over 12% of total global value. While the $3 billion Oculus exit to Facebook back in 2014 stands out, there have been a significant number of exits over the $100 million mark since that time.

When looking at all the different investment stages from Angel through to Series F, their valuation order is slightly jumbled. Series B, A, E and F (in that order) are a similar order of magnitude, followed by Seed, Pre-Seed, Angel and Accelerator at a much lower level. This is a product of the number and valuation of individual startups in each of these stages.

It’s a small world after all

Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

The geographic distribution of value in AR/VR is extreme, with the USA and China accounting for more than 80% of all AR/VR startup valuations worldwide. These are followed at a much lower level by the UK, Israel, Switzerland and Canada, with a long tail of around 50 other countries. At the regional level, the running order is North America, Asia and Europe, with Latin America and MEA making up the balance. It’s worth noting that while a lot of stored valuation has been in US startups historically, Chinese AR/VR startups have raised far more money in recent years. However, Chinese VC investment dropped dramatically this year across sectors — not AR/VR specifically.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality (XR) remain early stage, with both consumer and enterprise markets looking for an inflection point to help them truly scale. During a transitional period with many VC and corporate investors taking a wait-and-see approach, startups might need to focus on generating revenue and controlling costs rather than seeing VC funding rounds and exits delivering valuation/value increases. This could end up being a good thing in the long run, as the strongest AR/VR startups rise to the top. For those that do, there’s a lot more value to come.

Tim Merel is Managing Director of AR/VR adviser Digi-Capital, and is a software engineer, investment banker, lawyer and founder.

 


0

Every state but Alaska has reported vape lung victims, now numbering 1,479 nationwide

02:10 | 18 October

A lung condition apparently caused by vaping has been reported in every state but Alaska, the CDC has announced. The total number of suspected and confirmed cases has risen to 1,479, and at least 33 people have died as a result of the affliction.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updates these numbers regularly and provides news on its progress in characterizing the condition, in which the only reliable shared factor is using vaping devices. More victims report using THC products than nicotine, but no specific chemical or mechanism has been proposed as the cause.

At the outset it appeared that the problem might have been rooted in a bad batch of unofficial vape cartridges tinged with some toxic chemical — and indeed the CDC has warned against buying vaping materials from any untrustworthy sources. But the scale of the problem has continuously grown and is now clearly nationwide, not local.

The demographics skew male (70 percent of victims) and younger: 79 percent are under 35, with a median of 23 (though for deaths the median is 44). 78 percent reported using THC products, while only 10 percent reported only using nicotine.

Reported victims are concentrated in Illinois and California, in both of which over a hundred cases have been reported, but that should not be taken as an indicator that states with fewer cases, like Kentucky and Oregon, are immune — they may simply be late to report. Likewise for U.S. territories, where only the Virgin Islands have reported cases — Puerto Rico and others are likely to be equally at risk.

lung cases oct15

If you use a vaping device and are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain (though other symptoms are also associated), you should probably check with your doctor. In the meantime the CDC has recommended ceasing all use of vaping products, though as many have pointed out that may end up pushing some users back to cigarettes. Angry about that? Direct it at the vaping companies, which promoted their products as smoking cessation tools without adequate testing.

The CDC and FDA, along with state and municipal health authorities and partners, are working on determining the cause and any potential treatments of the “lung injury associated with e-cigarette use,” as they call it. Tests and sampling efforts are underway — efforts that probably should have been done before these products were allowed on the market.

You can keep up with the latest stats at the CDC’s dedicated page.

 


0

New NVIDIA Shield Android TV streaming device leaks via Amazon listing

22:08 | 17 October

The fact that NVIDIA is updating its Shield TV hardware has already been telegraphed via FCC filing, but a leak earlier today paints much more of a detailed picture. An Amazon listing for a new NVIDIA Shield Pro set-top streaming device went live briefly before being taken down, showing a familiar hardware design, a new remote control, and listing some of the forthcoming feature updates new to this generation of hardware.

The listing, captured by the eagle-eyed Android TV Rumors and shared via Twitter, includes a $199.99 price point, specs that include 3GB of RAM, 2x USB ports, a new Nvidia Tegra X1+ chip and 16GB of onboard storage. In addition to the price, the Amazon listing had a release date for the new hardware of October 28.

If this Amazon page is accurate (and it looks indeed like an official product page that one would expect from NVIDIA), the new Shield TV’s processor will be “up to 25% faster than the previous generation,” and will offer “next-generation AI upscaling” for improving the quality of HD video on 4K-capable displays.

It’ll offer support for Dolby Vision HDR, plus surround sound with Dolby Atmos support, and provide “the most 4K HDR content of any streaming media player.” There’s also built-in Google Assistant support, which was offered on the existing hardware, and it’ll work with Alexa for hands-free control.

The feature photos for the listing show a new remote control, which has a pyramid-like design, as well as a lot more dedicated buttons on the face. There’s backlighting, and an IR blaster for TV control, as well as a “built-in lost remote locator” according to the now-removed Amazon page.

This Amazon page certainly paints a comprehensive picture of what to expect, and it looks like a compelling update to be sure. The listing is gone now, however, so stay tuned to find out if this is indeed the real thing, and if this updated streamer will indeed be available soon.

 


0

Logitech’s MX Master 3 mouse and MX Keys keyboard should be your setup of choice

17:55 | 17 October

Logitech recently introduced a new mouse and keyboard, the MX Master 3 ($99.99) and MX Keys ($99.99) respectively. Both devices borrow a lot from other, older hardware in Logitech’s lineup – but they build on what the company has gotten really right with input devices, and add some great new features to make these easily the best option out there when it comes to this category of peripherals.

Logitech MX Keys

This new keyboard from Logitech inherits a lot from the company’s previous top-of-the-line keyboard aimed at creatives, the Logitech Craft keyboard. It looks and feels a lot like the premium Craft – minus the dial that Logitech placed at the top of that keyboard, which worked with companion software to offer a variety of different controls for a number of different applications.

The Craft’s dial was always a bit of a curiosity, and while probably extremely useful for certain creative workflows where having a tactile dial control makes a lot of sense (for scrubbing a video timeline during editing, for instance), in general the average user probably isn’t going to need or use it much.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 5The MX Keys doesn’t have the Craft’s dial, and it takes up less space on your desk as a result. It also costs $70 less than the Craft, which is probably something most people would rather have than the unique controller. The MX Keys still have excellent key travel and typing feel, like its bigger sibling, and it also has smart backlighting that turns on automatically when your hand approaches the keys – and which you can adjust or turn off to suit your preference, and extend battery life.

MX Keys has a built-in battery that chargers via USB-C, and provides up to 10 days of use on a full charge when using the backlight, or for up to 5 months if you disable the backlight entirely. For connectivity, you get both Bluetooth and Logitech’s USB receiver, which can also connect to other Logitech devices like the MX Master series of mice.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 3The keyboard can connect to up to three devices at once, with dedicated buttons to switch between them. It supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS out of the box, and has multi-marked keys to make it easier to transition between operating systems. Plus, when you’re using the MX Keys in tandem with the MX Master 3 or other Logitech mice that support its Flow software, you can transition seamlessly between computers and even operating systems, for doing things like copying and pasting files.

AT $99.99, the MX Keys feels like an incredible value, since it offers very premium-feeling hardware in an attractive package, with a suite of features that’s hard to match in a keyboard from anyone else – including first-party peripherals from Microsoft and Apple .

Logitech MX Master 3

When it comes to mice, there are few companies that can match Logitech’s reputation or record. The MX Master series in particular has won plenty of fans – and for good reason.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 9The MX Master 3 doesn’t re-invent the wheel – except that it literally does, in the case of the scroll wheel. Logitech has introduced a new school wheel with ‘MagSpeed’ technology, that switches automatically between fluid scrolling and more fine-grained, pixel-precise control. The company claims the new design is 90 percent faster and 87 percent more precise than its previous scroll wheel, which is pretty much an impossible claim to verify through standard use. That said, it does feel like a better overall scrolling experience, and the claim that it’s now ‘ultra quiet’ is easy to confirm.

Logitech has also tweaked the shape of the mouse, with a new silhouette it says is better suited to matching the shape of your palm. That new shape is complimented with a new thumb scroll wheel, which has always been a stellar feature of the Master series and which again, does feel better in actual use though it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Regardless, it feels better than the Master 2S, and that’s all that really matters.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 10In terms of tracking, Logitech’s Darkfield technology is here to provide effective tracking on virtually all surfaces. It tracks at 4,000 DPI, which is industry-leading for accuracy, and you can adjust sensitivity, scroll direction and other features in Logitech’s desktop software. The MX Master 3 also supports up to three devices at once, and works with Flow to copy and past between different operating systems.

One of the most noteworthy changes on the MX Master 3 is that it gains USB-C for charging, replacing Micro USB, which is fantastic news for owners of modern Macs who want to simplify their cable lives and just stick with one standard where possible. Since that matches up with the USB-C used on the MX Keys, that means you can just use one cable for charging both when needed. The MX Master 3 gets up to 70 days on a full charge, and you can gain 3 hours of use from a fully exhausted battery with just one minute of charging.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 7Bottom line

Logitech has long been a leader in keyboard and mice for very good reason, and the company’s ability to iterate on its existing successes with improvements that are smart and make sense is impressive. The MX Keys is probably the best keyboard within its price range that you can get right now – and better than a lot of more premium-priced hardware. The MX Master 3 is without a doubt the only mouse I’d recommend for most people, especially now that it offers USB-C charging alongside its terrific feature set. Combined, they’re a powerful desktop pair for work, creative and general use.

 


0

Sentons launches SurfaceWave, a processor and tech to create software-defined surfaces that supercharge touch and gesture

17:00 | 17 October

As handset makers continue to work on ways of making smartphones more streamlined and sleek, while at the same time introducing new features that will get people buying more devices, a startup that is pioneering something called “software-defined” surfaces — essentially, using ultrasound and AI to turn any kind of material, and any kind of surface, into one that will respond to gestures, touch and other forces — is setting out its stall to help them and other hardware makers change up the game.

Sentons, the startup out of Silicon Valley that is building software-defined surface technology, is today announcing the launch of SurfaceWave, a processor and accompanying gesture engine that can be used in smartphones and other hardware to create virtual wheels and buttons to control and navigate apps and features on the devices themselves. The SurfaceWave processor and engine are available to “any mobile manufacturer.”

Before this, Sentons had actually already inked direct deals to test out market interest in its technology. There were actually already three smartphones released — two of which were only sold in Asia (models and customer names undisclosed by Sentons) and one of which is made by Asus in partnership with Tencent, the Republic of Gamers phone (the Air Triggers are powered by Sentons). Jess Lee, the company’s CEO, told me in an interview that there are another 10-12 devices “in process” right now due to be released in coming cycles. He would not comment on whether his former employer is one of them.

Sentons has actually been around since 2011 but very much under the radar until this year, when it announced that Lee — who had been at Apple, after his previous company, the cutting-edge imaging startup InVisage, was acquired by the iPhone maker — was coming on as CEO.

The company has quietly raised about $35 million from two investors, NEA and Lee confirmed to me that it’s currently raising another, probably larger, round. (Given the company’s partnership with Tencent and Asus, those are two companies I would think are candidates as strategic investors.)

The sound of silence

Sentons’ core idea is focused around sound — specifically ultra sound.

posterImage 4813Its system is based around a processor that emits ultrasonic “pings” (similar to sonar array, the company says, which is used for example on submarines to navigate and communicate) to detect physical movement and force on the surface of an object. The company says that this technique is much more sophisticated than capacitive touch that has been used on smartphones up to now, since combined with Sentons’ algorithms it can measure force and intent as well as touch.

Combined with the processor that emits the pings and houses the gesture engine, Sentons also uses “sensor modules” around the perimeter of a device to detect when those pings are interrupted. The system trains itself and can adjust both to temporal “buttons” and also other unintended things like when a screen cracks and your gestures move over to a different area of the phone.

Asus ROG 350x176Gaming — the main use case for Asus’s ROG phone — is an obvious category ripe for software-defined surfaces. The medium always strives for more immersive experiences, and as more games are either natively made for phones, or ported there because of the popularity of mobile gaming, handset makers and publishers are always trying to come up with ways to enhance what is, ultimately, very limited real estate (even with larger screens). Using any and all parts of a device to experience motion and other physical responses, and to control the game, is a natural fit for what Sentons has built.

But the bigger picture and longer term goal is to apply Sentons’ technology for other uses on devices — photography and building enhanced camera tools is one obvious example — and on other “hardware,” like connected cars, clothes and even the human body, since Sentons’ technology can also work on and through human tissue.

“Every surface is an opportunity,” Lee said, noting that conversations around health and medical technology are still very early, while other areas like wearables and automotive are seeing “engagement” already. “In the cabin of a vehicle, you have a wealth of tactile materials, whether it’s leather dashboards or metal buttons, and all of those are extremely interesting to us,” he added.

At the same time, the more immediate opportunity for Sentons is the mobile industry.

Smartphone sales have slowed down, and for some vendors declined, in recent years; and while some of that might have to do with premium device prices continuing to climb, and much higher smartphone penetration globally, some have laid the blame in part on a lack of innovation. Specifically, newer phones are just not providing enough “must have” new features to merit making a purchase of a new device if you already have one.

You could argue that making a technology like this widely available and open to all comers might make those who are trying to make their devices stand out with special features less inclined to jump on the bandwagon.

“Yes, you could say there is more value in scarcity, an approach we took in the last company,” Lee said, referring to InVisage and how very under the radar it was before being snapped up by Apple.

However, he thinks a different approach is needed here. “Whether we launched this platform to everyone or not, the gates have opened, the piñata has broken, and we see a lot more opportunities and want to go for them,” he said.

“You can call it a multi-pronged approach,” he continued, “but ensuring the adoption of software-defined interactions [by trying to work with as many companies as possible] gets the technology or use out there quickly.” He noted that when a new gesture is introduced on devices, it can take time for the world to absorb it, “and we are positive there will be followers, perhaps with different technology, that will compete with us, so a broad launch is what we are going for.”

 


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Microsoft accessibility grants go out to companies aiming to improve tech for the disabled

16:01 | 17 October

The tech world has a lot to offer those with disabilities, but it can be hard to get investors excited about the accessibility space. That’s why Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants are so welcome: equity-free Azure credits and cash for companies looking to adapt AI to the needs of those with disabilities. The company just announced ten more, including education for the blind startup ObjectiveEd.

The grant program was started a while back with a $5 million, 5-year mission to pump a little money into deserving startups and projects — and get them familiar with Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure, of course.

Applications are perennially accepted, and “anybody who wants to explore the value of AI and machine learning for people with disabilities is welcome to apply,” said Microsoft’s Mary Bellard. As long as they have “great ideas and roots in the disability community.”

Among the grantees this time around is ObjectiveEd, which I wrote about earlier this year. The company is working on an iPad-based elementary school curriculum for blind and low-vision students that’s also accessible to sighted kids and easy for teachers to deploy.

Part of that, as you might guess, is braille. But there aren’t nearly enough teachers capable of teaching braille as students who need to learn it, and the most common technique is very hands-on: a student reads braille (on a hardware braille display) out loud and a teacher corrects them. Depending on whether a student has access to the expensive braille display and a suitable tutor at home, that can mean as little as an hour a week dedicated to these crucial lessons.

ObjectiveEd 2

A refreshable braille display for use with apps like ObjectiveEd’s.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could send a sentence to the braille display, have the student speak the words out loud, then have Microsoft’s Azure Services translate that to text and compare that to the braille display, then correct the student if necessary and move on. All within the context of a game, to make it fun,” said ObjectiveEd founder Marty Schultz.

And that’s just what the company’s next app does. Speech-to-text accuracy is high enough now that it can be used for a variety of educational and accessibility purposes, so all it will take for a student to get some extra time in on their braille lessons is an iPad and braille display — admittedly more than a thousand dollars worth of hardware, but no ever one said being blind was cheap.

Braille literacy is dropping, and, I suggested, no surprise there: With pervasive and effective audio interfaces, audio books, and screen readers, there are fewer times when blind and low-vision people truly need braille. But as Schulz and Bellard both pointed out, it’s great to be able to rely on audio for media consumption, but for serious engagement with the written word and many educational purposes, braille is either necessary or a very useful alternative to speech.

Both Schultz and Bellard noted that they are not trying to replace teachers at all — “Teachers teach, we help kids practice,” Schultz said. “We’re not experts in teaching, but we can follow their advice to make these tools useful to students.”

There are ten other grantees in this round of Microsoft’s program, covering a wide variety of approaches and technologies. I like the SmartEar, for instance, which listens for things like doorbells or alarms and alerts deaf people of them via their smartphone.

And City University of London has a great idea in personalizing object recognition. It’s pretty straightforward for a computer vision system to recognize a mug or keychain on a table. But for a blind person it’s more useful if a system can identify their mug or keychain, and then perhaps say, it’s on the brown table left of the door, or what have you.

Here are the ten grantees besides ObjectiveEd (descriptions provided by Microsoft, as I wasn’t able to investigate each one, but may in the future):

  • AbiliTrek : A platform for the disability community to rate and review the accessibility of any establishment, with the ability to tailor search results to the specific needs of any individual.
  • Azur Tech Concept – SmartEar : A service that actively listens for environmental sounds (i.e. doorbell, fire alarm, phone call) and retransmits them in colored flashes on small portable boxes or a smart phone to support the deaf community.
  • Balance for Autism – Financial Accessibility: An interactive program which provides information and activities designed to better match people with programs and services
  • City University of London – The ORBIT : Developing a data set to train AI systems for personalizing object recognition, which is becoming increasingly important for tools used by the blind community.
  • Communote – BeatCaps : A new form of transcription that uses beat tracking to generate subtitles that visualize the rhythm of music. These visualizations allow the hard of hearing to experience music.
  • Filmgsindl GmbH – EVE: A system that recognizes speech and generates automatic live subtitles for people with a hearing disability.
  • Humanistic Co-Design : A cooperative of individuals, organizations and institutions working together to increase awareness about how designers, makers, and engineers can apply their skills in collaboration with people who have disabilities.
  • iMerciv –  MapinHood : A Toronto-based startup developing a navigation app for pedestrians who are blind or have low vision and want to choose the routes they take if they’re walking to work, or to any other destination.
  • inABLE and I-Stem – I-Assistant: A serves that uses text-to-speech, speech recognition, and AI to give students a more interactive and conversational alternative to in-person testing in the classroom.
  • Open University – ADMINS : A chatbot that provides administrative support for people with disabilities who have difficulty filling out online academic forms.

The grants will take the form of Azure credits and/or cash for immediate needs like user studies and keeping the lights on. If you’re working on something you think might be a good match for this program, you can apply for it right here.

 


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The FrankOne is a simple and portable coffee brewing gadget

00:07 | 17 October

The FrankOne coffee maker, fresh off a successful crowdfunding campaign, is now available for purchase, and I got a chance to test out one of the first run of these funky little gadgets. While it won’t replace my normal pourover or a larger coffee machine, it’s a clever, quick, and portable way to make a cup.

Designer Eduardo Umaña pitched me the device a little more than a year ago, and I was taken by the possibility of vacuum brewing — and the fact that, amazingly, until now no one from Colombia had made a coffee maker (it’s named after Frank de Paula Santander, who kicked off the coffee trade there). But would the thing actually work?

In a word, yes. I’ve tested the FrankOne a few times in my home and while I have a couple reservations, it’s a coffee making device that I can see myself actually using in a number of circumstances.

PA150003

The device works quite simply. Ground coffee goes in the top, and then you pour in the hot (not boiling!) water and stir it a bit. 30-50 seconds later, depending on how you like it, you hit the button and a pump draws the liquid down through a mesh filter and into the carafe below. It’s quick and almost impossible to mess up.

The resulting coffee is good — a little bit light, I’d say, but you can adjust the body with the size of the grounds and the steeping time. I tend to find a small amount of sediment at the bottom, but less than you’d get in a cup of French press.

Because it’s battery powered (it should last for ~200 cups and is easily recharged) and totally waterproof, cleaning it is a snap, especially if you have a garbage disposal. Just dump it and rinse it, give it a quick wipe and it’s good to go. It gets a bit more fussy if you don’t have a disposal, but what doesn’t?

PA150010

I can see this being a nice way to quickly and simply make coffee while camping — I usually do a French press, but sometimes drip, and both have their qualities and limitations. The FrankOne would be for making a single cup when I don’t want to have to stand by the pourover cone or deal with disassembling the French press for cleaning.

It’s also, I am told by Umaña, great for cold brew. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t really like cold brew, but I know many do, and Umaña promises the FrankOne works wonders in a very short time — four minutes rather than an hour. I haven’t tested that, since cold brew tastes like bitter chocolate milk to me, but I sincerely doubt he would mention it as many times as he did if it didn’t do what he said.

There are, I feel, three downsides. First, you’re pretty much stuck with using the included glass carafe, because the device has to create a seal around the edge with its silicone ring. It didn’t fit in my biggest mug, but you might find an alternative should the carafe (which I have no complaints about — it’s attractive and sturdy) crack or get lost.

PA150017

Second, it doesn’t produce a lot of coffee. The top line as indicated in the reservoir is probably about 10-12 ounces — about the size of a “tall” at a coffee shop. Usually that’s a perfect amount for me, but it definitely means this is a single-serving device, not for making a pot to share.

And third, for the amount of coffee it produces, I feel like it uses a lot of grounds. Not a crazy amount, but maybe 1.5-2x what goes into my little Kalita dripper — which is admittedly pretty economical. But it’s just something to be aware of. Maybe I’m using too much, though.

I reviewed the Geesaa a little while back, and while it’s a cool device, it was really complex and takes up a lot of space. If I wanted to give it to a friend I’d have to make them download the app, teach them about what I’d learned worked best, share my “recipes,” and so on. There was basically a whole social network attached to that thing.

This is much, much easier to use and compact to boot. It’s a good alternative to classic methods that doesn’t try to be more than a coffee maker. At $120 it’s a bit expensive, but hey, maybe you spend that on coffee in a month.

And by the way, you can use the discount code “TC” at checkout to get 10 percent off — this isn’t a paid post or anything, Umaña’s just a nice guy!

 


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In the Accelerator over the Sea

20:10 | 16 October

In our oceans the scale of disasters is measured in millions, billions, and trillions, while solutions amount to single digits: individuals or institutions working to impact a chosen issue with approaches often both brilliant and quixotic. Putting such individuals in close contact with both whales and billionaires is the strange alchemy being attempted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea.

I and a few other reporters were invited to observe said program, a five-day excursion in Alaska that put recent college graduates, aspiring entrepreneurs, legends of the sea, and soft-spoken financial titans on the same footing: spotting whales from Zodiacs in the morning, learning from one another in the afternoon, and drinking whiskey good and bad under the Northern lights in the pre-dawn dark.

The boat — no, not that big one, or that other big one… yes, that one.

In that time I got to know the dozen or so companies in the accelerator, the second batch from the SOA but the first to experience this oddly effective enterprise. And I also gathered from conversations among the group the many challenges facing conservation-focused startups.

(By way of disclosure, I should say that I was among four press offered a spot on the chartered boat; Those invited, from penniless students to deep-pocketed investors, could join provided they got themselves to Juneau for embarkation.)

The picture painted by just about everyone was one of impending doom from a multiplicity of interlinked trends, and as many different approaches to averting or mitigating that doom as people discussing it.

What’s the problem?

In Silicon Valley one grows so used to seeing enormous sums of money expended on things barely categorizable as irritations, let alone serious problems, that it is a bit bewildering to be presented with the opposite: existential problems being addressed on shoestring budgets by founders actually passionate about their domain.

Throughout the trip, the discussions had at almost every occasion, be it looking for bear prints in a tidal flat or visiting a local salmon hatchery, were about the imminent collapse of natural ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences thereof.

Overfishing, rising water temperatures, deforestation, pollution, strip mining, microplastics — everywhere we looked is a man-made threat that has been allowed to go too far. Not a single industry or species is unaffected.

It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and go home, which is in fact what some have advised. But the people on this boat are not them. They were selected for their dedication to conservation and ingenuity in pursuing solutions.

Of course, there’s no “solution” to the million of tons of plastic and oil in the oceans poisoning fish and creating enormous dead zones. There’s no “solution” to climate change. No one expects or promises a miracle cure for nature’s centuries of abuse at human hands.

But there are mitigations, choices we can make and technologies we can opt for where a small change can propagate meaningfully and, if not undo the damage we’ve done, reduce it going forward and make people aware of the difference they can make.

Small fish in a big, scary pond

The trip came right at the beginning of the accelerator, a choice that meant they were only getting started in the program and in fact had never met one another. It also meant in many cases their pitches and business models were less than polished. This is for the most part an early-stage program, and early in the program at that.

That said, the companies may be young but the ideas and technologies are sound. I expect to follow up with many as they perfect their hardware, raise money, and complete pilot projects, but I think it’s important to highlight each one of them, if only briefly. The accelerator’s demo day is actually today, and I wish I could attend to see how the companies and founders have evolved.

Some accelerators are so big and so general-purpose that it was refreshing to have a manageable number of companies all clustered around interlinked issues and united by a common concern. If young entrepreneurs trying to change the world isn’t TechCrunch business, I don’t know what is.

The problems may be multifarious, but I managed to group the startups under two general umbrellas: waste reduction and aquatic intelligence.

But before that I want to mention one that doesn’t fit into either category and for other reasons deserves a shout out.

coral vita

Coral Vita grows corals at many times their normal rate and implants them in dying reefs.

Coral Vita is working on a special method of fast-tracking coral growth and simultaneously selecting for organisms resistant to bleaching and other threats. The founder, Gator Halpern, impressed the importance of the coral systems on us over the trip, as did filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, who directed the harrowing documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. (He gave a workshop on storytelling — important when you’re pitching a film or a startup.)

Gator is using a special method to grow corals at 50 times normal rates and hopefully resuscitate reefs around the world, which is awesome, but I wanted to put Coral Vita first because of a horribly apropos coincidence: Hurricane Dorian, the latest in a historically long unbroken line of storms, struck his home and lab in the Bahamas while we were at sea.

It was literally battering the islands while he was supposed to pitch investors, and he used his time instead to ask us to help the victims of the storm. That’s heart. And it serves as a reminder that these are not armchair solutions to invented problems.

If you can spare a buck, you can support Coral Vita and victims of Dorian in the Bahamas here.

Waste reduction

The other companies were addressing problems equally as destructive, if not quite so immediately so.

Humans produce a lot of waste, and a lot of that waste ends up in the ocean, either as whole plastic bags scooping up fish, microplastics poisoning them, or heavier trash cluttering the sea floor. These startups focused on reducing humanity’s deleterious effects on ocean ecosystems.

Cruz Foam is looking to replace one of my least favorite substances, Styrofoam, which I see broken up and mixed in with beach soil and sand all the time. The company has created a process that uses an incredibly abundant and strong material called chitin to create a lightweight, biodegradable packing foam. Chitin is what a lot of invertebrates use to form their shells and exoskeletons, and there’s tons of it out there — but the company has been careful to find ethical sourcing for the volume it need.

Cruz Foam’s chitin-based product, left, and Biocellection’s plastic reduction process.

Biocellection is coming from the other direction, having created a process to break down polyethylenes (i.e. plastics) into smaller molecules that are useful in existing chemical processes. It’s actually upcycling waste plastic rather than repurposing it as a lower grade product.

Loliware was in SOA’s first batch, and creates single-use straws out of kelp material — a timely endeavor, as evidenced by the $6M round A they just pulled in, and backlog of millions of units ordered. Their challenge now is not finding a market but supplying it.

Dispatch Goods and Muuse are taking complementary approaches to reducing single-use items for take-out. Dispatch follows a model in use elsewhere in the world where durable containers are used rather than disposable ones for delivery items, then picked up, washed, and reused. Kind of obvious when you think about it, which is it’s common in other places.

Muuse (formerly Revolv) takes a more tech-centric approach, partnering with coffee shops to issue reusable cups rather than disposable ones. You can keep the cup if you want, or drop it off at a smart collection point and get a refund; RFID tags keep track of the items. Founder Forrest Carroll talked about early successes with this model on semi-closed environments like airports and college campuses.

repurpose screen

Repurpose is aiming to create a way to go “plastic neutral” the way people try to go “carbon neutral.” Companies and individuals can sponsor individual landfills where their plastics go, subsidizing the direct removal and handling costs of a given quantity of trash.

Finless Foods hopes to indirectly reduce the huge amount of cost and waste created by fishing (“sustainable” really isn’t) by creating lab-grown tuna tissue that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s a work in progress, but they’ve got a ton of money so you can probably count on it.

Intelligence and automation

The technology used in the maritime and fishing industries tends toward the “sturdy legacy” type rather than “cutting edge.” That’s changing as costs drop and the benefits of things like autonomous vehicles and IoT become evident.

Ellipsis represents perhaps the most advanced, yet direct, application of the latest tech. The company uses camera-equipped drones using computer vision to inspect rivers and bodies of water for plastics, helping cleanup and response crews characterize and prioritize them. This kind of low-level data is largely missing from cleanup efforts, which gave rise to the name, which refers to both the peripatetic founder Ellie and the symbol indicating missing or omitted information

ellipsis gif

Ellipsis uses computer vision to find plastic waste in water systems.

For larger-scale inspection, autonomous boats like Saildrone are an increasingly valuable tool — but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their own limitations.

EcoDrone is a lower-cost, smaller, customizable autonomous sailboat that costs more like $2,500. Plenty of missions would prefer to deploy a fleet of smaller, cheaper boats than put all their hopes into one vessel.

seaproven

Sea Proven is going the other direction, with a much larger autonomous ship: 20 meters long with a full ton of payload space. That opens up entirely new mission profiles that use sophisticated, large-scale equipment and require long-term presence at sea. The company has two ships now embarking on a mission to track whales in the Mediterranean.

Nets and traps are notoriously dumb, producing a huge amount of “bycatch,” animals caught up in them that aren’t what the fishing vessel was aiming (or licensed) to collect. Smart Catch equips these huge nets with a camera that tracks and characterizes the fish that enter, allowing the owner to watch and monitor them remotely and respond if necessary.

smartcatch

Meanwhile “dumb” traps can still be smarter in other ways. Stationary traps in stormy seas are often lost, dragged along the sea bed to an unknown location, there to sit attracting hapless crab and fish until they fall apart centuries from now. Blue Ocean Gear makes GPS-equipped buoys that can be tracked easily, reducing the risk of losing expensive fishing kit and line, and preventing “ghost fishing.”

Connectivity at sea can be problematic, with satellite often the only real option. Sure, Starlink and others are on their way, but why wait? A system of interconnected floating hubs from ONet could serve as hotspots for ships carrying valuable and voluminous data that would otherwise need to be processed at sea or uploaded at great cost.

screen dashboard cable 1

And integrating all that data with other datasets like those provided by universities, ports, municipalities, NGOs… good luck getting it all in one place. But that’s the goal of SINAY, which is assembling a huge ocean-centric meta-database where users can cross-reference without having to sort or process it locally. Clouds come from oceans, right? So why shouldn’t the ocean be in the cloud?

Accelerator at Sea

The idea of commencing this accelerator program with a trip to southeast Alaska is a fanciful one, no doubt. But an influx of support for the accelerator’s parent organization, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, made it possible. The SOA raised millions from the mysterious Pine and not-so-mysterious Benioffs, but it also made a deep impression on the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, Sven Lindblad, who offered not just to host the event but to attend and speak at it.

He joined several other experts and interesting people in doing so: Former head of Google X Tom Chi, Value Act’s Jeff Ubben, Gigi Brisson and her Ocean Elders, including Captain (ret.) Don Walsh, the first man to reach the bottom of the Challenger Depths in the Marianas Trench. He’s hilarious, by the way.

I met SOA founder Daniela Fernandez at a TechCrunch event a few years ago when all this was just one of many twinkles in her twinkly eyes, and it’s been rewarding to watch her grow a community around these issues, which have passionate supporters around the globe if you’re willing to look for them and validate their purpose. It’s not a surprise to me at all that she has collected such an impressive group.

The boat, departing from Juneau, made a number of stops at local places of interest, where we would meet locals in the fishing industry, whale researchers, and others, or hear about the local economy ecology from one of the boat’s designated naturalists. In between these expeditions we did team-building exercises, honed pitches, and heard talks from the people mentioned above on hiring practices, investment trends, history.

These people weren’t just plucked from from the void — they are all part of the extended community that the SOA and Fernandez have built over the last few years. The organization was built with the idea of putting young, motivated people together with older, more experienced ones, and that’s just what was happening.

gator jeff workshop

In a way it was what you might expect out of an accelerator program: Connecting startups with industry veterans and investors (of which there were several present) and getting them the advice and exposure they need. There was a pitch competition — the “Otter Sanctuary” (you had to be there).

But there was something very different about doing it this way — on a boat, I mean. In Alaska. With bears, whales, and the northern lights present at every turn.

“For the first time ever, we brought together a community of ocean entrepreneurs from all around the world and allowed them to become fully immersed in the environment that they have been working so hard to protect,” said Craig Dudenhoffer, who runs the accelerator program. “It was amazing to see the entrepreneurs establishing lifelong relationships with each other and with members of the SOA community. It might seem counter-intuitive for a technology entrepreneur, but sometimes you have to disconnect from technology in order to reconnect with your mission.”

In a normal startup accelerator, and in fact for the remainder of this one, aspiring entrepreneurs are living on their own somewhere, coming into a shared office space, attending office hours, meeting VCs in their offices or at demo days. That’s just fine, and indeed what many a startup needs — a peer group, a focal point in space and time, goals and advice.

On the boat, however, these things were present, but secondary to the experience of, say, standing next to someone under the aurora. I’m aware of how that sounds — “it was an experience, man!” — but there’s something fundamentally different about it.

In an office in the Bay Area, there is an established power structure and hierarchy. Schedules are adjusted around meetings, priorities are split, time and attention are devoted in formal 15-minute increments. On the boat there was no hierarchy, or rather the artificial one to which we would cleave in the city was flattened by the scale of what we were learning and experiencing.

You’d be in a zodiac or pressed against the railing with your binoculars, talking about whales and the threat of microplastics with whoever’s next to you in a normal fashion, only to find out they’re a billionaire who you’d never be able to meet directly with at all, let alone on equal terms.

Sitting at breakfast one day the guy next to me started talking about hydrogen-powered trucking — I figured I’d indulge this harmless idealist. In fact it was Jeff Ubben and Value Act was investing millions in an ecosystem they fully expect to take over the west coast. This sort of encounter was happening constantly as people engaged naturally, acting outside the established hierarchies and power structures.

Part of that was the gravity of the issues the startups were facing, and which we were reminded of repeatedly by the impending hurricane, the hatchery warning of salmon apocalypse, the visibly collapsing ecosystems, and perhaps most poignantly by the changes seen personally by Don and Sven, who were been on the seas professionally long before I was even born.

“It’s like salmon eggs”

On the last night of the trip, I shared a glass of wine with Sven to talk about why he was supporting this endeavor, which was undoubtedly expensive and certainly unusual.

“From a business perspective, I depend on the ocean — but there’s a personal connection as well. I’m constantly looking for ways to protect what we depend on,” he began. “We have a fund that generates a couple million dollars a year, and we find different people that we believe in — that have an idea, a passion, intelligence. You meet someone like Daniela, you want to go to bat for them.”

Kristin Hettermann ALASKA SOA 39

“When you’re 21 or whatever, you have all these idealistic thoughts about making a difference in the world. They need support in a variety of ways — advice, finance, mentorship, all these things are part of the puzzle,” he said. “What SOA has done is recognize people that have a good idea. Left to their own devices most of them would probably fail. But we can provide some support, and it’s like with salmon eggs – maybe instead of one in a million surviving, maybe two, or five survive, you know?”

“Tech is a valuable tool, but it has to serve to support an idea. It isn’t the idea. Eliminating plastics and bycatch, making data more useful, putting sonar sensors on robotic boats, all very interesting. We need solutions, actions, ideas, as fast as we can, to accelerate the change in behavior as fast as we can.”

His earnest replies soon became emotional, however, as his core concern for the ocean and planet in general took over.

“We’re fucked,” he said simply. “We are literally destroying the next generation’s future. I’ve been with colleagues and we’ve wept over glasses of wine over what we’re doing.”

“I have two personalities,” he explained. “And most of my friends, associates, scientists have these dual personalities, too. One is when they look in the mirror and talk to themselves — that tends to be more pessimistic. But the other is the external personality, where being pessimistic is not helpful.”

“Something like this really activates that optimism,” he said. “At the end of the day young people have to grab their future, because we sure haven’t done a great job of it. They have to get out there, they have to vote, they have to take control. Because if the system really starts to collapse… I don’t think anyone even begins to understand the magnitude of it. It’s unfathomable.”

The Accelerator at Sea program was a fascinating experience and I’m glad to have taken part. I feel sure it was valuable for the startups as well, and not just because of the $25,000 they were each spontaneously awarded from the investors on board, who in closing remarks emphasized how important it is that startups like these and the people behind them are supported by gatekeepers like venture firms and press.

The combination of good times in nature, stimulating experts and talks, and a group of highly motivated young entrepreneurs was a powerful mixture, and unfortunately one that is difficult to describe even in 3,000 words. But I’m glad it exists and I look forward to following the progress of these companies and the people behind them. You can keep up with the SOA at its website.

 


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