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Main article: Lux capital

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Where top VCs are investing in manufacturing and warehouse robotics

17:00 | 21 February

Robotics and automation tools are now foundational parts of warehouses and manufacturing facilities around the world. Unlike many other robotics and AI use cases, the technology has moved well beyond the theoretical into practice and is used by small suppliers and large companies like Amazon and Walmart.

There’s no doubt that automation will transform every step of the supply chain, from manufacturing to fulfillment to shipping and logistics. The only question is how long such a revolution will take.

There’s still plenty of market left to transform and lots of room for new players to redefine different verticals, even with many of the existing leaders having already staked their claim. Naturally, VCs are plenty eager to invest millions in the technology. In 2019 alone, manufacturing, machinery and automation saw roughly 800-900 venture-backed fundraising rounds, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, close to two-thirds of which were still early-stage (pre-seed to Series B) investments.

With our 2020 Robotics+AI sessions event less than two weeks away, we’ve decided to perform temperature checks across some of the hottest robotics sub-verticals to see which trends are coming down the pipe and where checks are actually being written. Just as we did with construction robotics last week, this time, we asked six leading VCs who actively invest in manufacturing automation robotics to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunities in the sector:

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

Which trends are you most excited about in manufacturing/warehouse automation robotics from an investing perspective?

 


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Gift Guide: Leading VCs recommend their favorite reads from 2019

21:45 | 18 December

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

As we reach the end of 2019 and approach crunch time for everyone who has procrastinated holiday gift buying, we wanted to highlight a few more great reads that might add value to your life or are just plain old fun.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve asked Extra Crunch members and the TechCrunch editorial staff for their favorite books of the year. Responses covered a huge mix of genres, narrative structures and formats, with titles that would fit the interests of anyone from your techno-nerd co-founder to your craziest second-cousin that you only see around the holidays.

For our last round of book recommendations, we decided to ask the investors who control the capital in Silicon Valley, help catalyze the industry’s biggest winners and ultimately influence what our future will look like. We surveyed a select group of five leading VCs on their top book recommendations for 2019 with the only criteria being that the respondents personally read the title this year and thought it was meaningful. Among our correspondents:

The books could cover any topic, be fiction or non-fiction, and could be old, new or anything in between. Here are the six books that resonated with our panel of investors, all of which they would recommend to you, a friend or a family member looking for a great holiday gift. 

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Knopf / 368 pages / May 2019

This year for me it was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”. The gap between sci-fi and sci-fact keeps shrinking. I contend either our authors are becoming less creative or our scientists more creative. Chiang disproves the former. One of the most provocative stories in this collection is The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling which parallels two protagonists set in the near future and the not-too-distant past. One sub-story centers on a Black Mirror-esque technology that gives high-fidelity perfect recall and recordings of prior experience. The other story is of a tribe that lives by oral tradition has one member encounter an outsider with the technology of writing. Together they make a provocative poignant point on the distinction between being precise and being right—and the meaning in our lives between them.

Summary: “Exhalation” is the latest composition by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, whose short story titled “Story of Your Life” famously acted as the inspiration for the oscar-nominated film “Arrival.” Chiang’s newest work is a collection of science fiction short stories and novelettes that stray away from the speculative dystopian side of the genre. Using common sci-fi motifs such as aliens and A.I. proliferation, the selected writings instead dial-in on the characters living in these imagined universes as they examine how societal and technological evolutions impact the ethical, philosophical and cognitive aspects of the human psyche and existence. 

Price: $16 on Amazon

Theresia Guow, aCrew Capital

Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, by Julian Guthrie

Currency / 304 pages / April 2019

The most interesting book to come out in 2019 that tells the story of tech and venture is “Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime”, by Julian Guthrie. I find it a fascinating read (even if I weren’t included) – with stories that speak to both men and women, to the deals won and lost (Skype, Imperva, F5, Trulia, Facebook, Salesforce and more) and to the history of Silicon Valley through the lens of four outsiders. Despite having to pave their own path, the women jumped in headfirst in the pursuit of their dreams. You will walk away with a different view of how it is to be a woman in this male-dominated industry, and you will get a sense of the important role of male allies. “Alpha Girls” shows that women have long been “hidden figures” behind big companies and key deals. Finally, their stories are being told.

Summary: Silicon Valley’s massive gender gap is no secret, particularly in the notorious ‘boys and bros’ club that is the venture capital industry. In “Alpha Girls” The Women Upstarts Who Took on Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime”, esteemed business journalist, international best-selling author and multi-time Pulitzer nominee Julian Guthrie details the career paths of four leading female VCs (disclosure: our respondent Theresia Guow is one of them) that have played major roles in shaping today’s tech and startup landscape.

Through first-hand accounts, Guthrie explores how Theresia, Magdalena Yesil (Broadway Angels, Salesforce, US Venture Partners), Mary Jane Elmore (Broadway Angels, Institutional Venture Partners (IVP)), and Sonja Hoel Perkins (Broadway Angels, Menlo Ventures) first found there way to the male-dominated world of venture capital, the strategies they used to find recurring success, and how they navigated the structural disadvantages of an industry built for others.

“Alpha Girls” offers tremendous, difficult-to-find depth around the professional, personal, and familial scenarios underrepresented groups in VC encounter as they look to challenge the status quo, find personal success and redefine an entire industry.

Price: $14 on Amazon

Mamoon Hamid, Kleiner Perkins

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Hadit

Penguin Press / 352 pages / September 2018

Our world is rapidly shifting around us – from evolving social norms, to the external stimuli that impact our well-being. It’s a new pace that is acutely felt in how we are raising and educating our kids and young adults. This book deeply explores the societal ramifications, and offers perspective about how we may be doing it all wrong.

Summary: “The Coddling of the American Mind” is a provocative sociological dive into how commonly-accepted modern social and parenting practices have led to increased agitation and tension in today’s youth. Written by attorney, public advocate, and First Amendment specialist Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist and NYU professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind” introduces its thesis by examining issues of censorship and free speech on college campuses, which are occurring at a more frequent clip than ever before.

As the authors debate the potential negative impacts that an overly partisan culture of “safety-ism” might have on mental health and development, they retrace the historical social trends and cultural transformations that led to today’s conditions. 

Price: $17 on Amazon

Maha Ibrahim, Canaan

The Back Channel by William Burns

Random House / 512 pages / March 2019

For the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a Trustee for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where Bill Burns serves as President. Bill is the consummate statesman and has been a central figure in international diplomacy for decades. The depth of his knowledge is a testament to his commitment to international order and peace. “The Back Channel” provides readers with an inside look into his career in foreign service, from the Cold War and Middle East affairs to modern-day Russia. My respect for Bill was immense before I read the book and it only grew bigger with every chapter.

Summary: Throughout his illustrious, nearly thirty-year career in foreign service, William Burns has held titles that include the US ambassador to Russia and the Deputy Secretary of State. Burns’ memoirs, “The Back Channel,” focuses on the biggest policy decisions of Burns’ tenure.

Burns uses his own notes, declassified State Department documents and primary-source, first-hand analysis to offer up some inside baseball and help readers understand the strategic rationale and key considerations behind some of the most important U.S. foreign policy decisions that have shaped the global geopolitical landscape over the last two decades.

Price: $13 on Amazon

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Dey Street Books / 592 pages / September 2019

Ambassador Power is an icon of courage, compassion and resolve. During her recent book tour, I was fortunate enough to interview her and was struck by her humanity. The stories she writes about her impressive career are both powerful and personal. Ambassador Power immigrated to the US as a child and has since dedicated her life to human rights and equality. She is my age and has accomplished so much in her life, most recently as US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama. I don’t know anyone who, at 22, would voluntarily become a war correspondent (in Bosnia). I suspect she will one day run for political office and I will be a big supporter.

Summary: “Education of an Idealist” is the memoir of former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Pulitzer-award-winning author Samantha Power, detailing her journey from a child in Ireland, to an immigrant growing up in the US, through her Ivy League undergrad and legal education, all the way through her careers in journalism and public advocacy and her time working as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama. Even from a purely narrative perspective, Power’s lengthy journey, which brought her across the globe through warzones and revolutions long before her career in politics, is incredibly compelling on its own.

But Ambassador Power’s reflection offers even more value as she recounts how she overcame personal, professional and internal struggles as she traversed different geographies, environments and stages of her career and life.

Additionally, Power’s writing also offers up valuable lessons for those in the startup world. Power’s move from an external public advocate to a government policymaker, in a roundabout way (or at least in the eyes of startup nerds like us), provides a unique look into the transition, differences and challenges one may come across when moving from an externally focused role to an operational one.

Price: $18 on Amazon 

Jennifer Fonstad, Owl Capital

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich

Simon & Schuster / 416 pages / February 2017

As I read about impeachment proceedings, presidential elections, and racial tensions in today’s political climate, it begged the question – how did we get here?

While not knowing exactly what I was undertaking, I recently read the book, “The First Congress.” The book was a remarkable story about how both ordinary and extraordinary people took the ‘startup’ that was the United States in 1789 and launched us on a remarkable ride.

The book takes us through the critical decisions made by the country’s very first Congress, 1789-1791. This includes establishing the Supreme Court, passing the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution (later called the Bill of Rights), establishing the country’s first revenue ‘stream,’ and picking the location of the nation’s capital (putting our country’s hero – George Washington, in a different light).

It’s hard to fathom our nation as a startup. The country was fresh off of its failure as a Confederation of States, deeply in debt, with no source of revenue yet established. Two of the states had not yet ‘signed on’ to the whole enterprise. And while the Constitution put forth certain operating principles, it fell to this group of men (yes, all men and all white) to put many of the mechanisms in place that still guide and define us today. As one always trying to do what I do better and learn from the past, this was a terrific lesson in both getting this startup off the ground as well as the intended and unintended consequences of those decisions.

Summary: Writer and historian Fergus Bordewich’s “The First Congress” puts us in the room for the First Congress in our country’s history, which saw the admission of several states into the union, the passing of the Bill of Rights and several other of the biggest decisions that shaped the United States.

The book details how the founding fathers debated the United States’ structural and operational systems including the American legal system and national banking system. Additionally, “The First Congress” highlights an interesting yet often overlooked period of US history, where the country was essentially functioning like a startup, grinding and building from scratch, having to create mission statements, organizational hierarchies, operational systems, or otherwise for the very first time.

Price: $12 on Amazon

 


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Where top VCs are investing in digital health

23:31 | 16 December

The world of healthcare has notoriously been described as “broken” — plagued with high-friction workflows, sky-high costs and convoluted business models.

Over the past several years, a long list of innovative startups and salivating venture investors have pinned their focus on repairing the healthcare industry, but its digital transformation still appears to be in the very early innings. After a record-setting 2018, however, digital health investing continued to reach meteoric heights in 2019.

Mammoth pools of capital have flooded into various sub-verticals and business models, backing collections of new B2B and B2C companies focused on optimizing healthcare workflows, improving healthcare access and offering lower-cost distribution models. Over the past two years, digital health startups have raised well over $10 billion in funding across nearly 1,000 deals, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase.

As we close out another strong year for innovation and venture investing in the sector, we asked nine leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in the sector:

Participants discuss trends in digital therapeutics, telehealth, mental health and the latest in biotech and medical devices, while also diving into startups improving medical practitioner efficiency, evaluating the evolving regulatory environment and debating valuations and offering a ‘temp check’ on the market for digital health startups leveraging ML.

Annie Case, Kleiner Perkins

Although Kleiner Perkins has a long history of investing in iconic health companies, we believe it is still the early innings of digital health as a category today.

When I evaluate new opportunities in the space, I often start by thinking through how the company will move the needle on cost, quality, and access to care — the “iron triangle” of health care systems. Conventional wisdom has been that it’s impossible to improve all three dimensions simultaneously, but we are seeing companies leverage technology to shift this paradigm in meaningful ways.

It’s no longer just a promise. For example, Viz.ai is using artificial intelligence to detect and alert stroke teams to suspected large vessel occlusion strokes, enabling patients to get treatment faster. Their workflows improve access to life-saving care, deliver higher quality through reduced time to treatment (every minute counts as ‘time is brain’ in stroke care), and dramatically reduce the costs associated with long-term disability.

We are also seeing companies provide this type of tech-enabled care outside of the hospital setting. Modern Health is a mental health benefits platform that employers are making available to their employees. The platform triages individual employees to the right level of care, providing clinical care to those with diagnosable depression or anxiety, and making self-guided or preventative care available to everyone else. Their solution improves quality and access by offering mental health services to every employee and reduces the cost associated with untreated mental illness, lost productivity, or employee churn.

Heading into 2020, we’re eager to back digital health companies in new areas that leverage technology to impact cost, quality, and access. A few spaces that I’m excited about are behavioral health (mental health, substance abuse, addiction, etc), care navigation, digital therapeutics, and new models integrating telehealth, remote care and AI to better leverage medical professionals’ time.

Zavain Dar and Adam Goulburn, Lux Capital

Below are some thoughts and coming predictions on health tech broadly:

  1. Digital therapeutics continue to pick up steam — on the back of Pear and Akili, more companies push to FDA and enter the market. In addition, broader consumer platforms like Calm and Headspace look to broaden their offerings by investigating clinical approvals.
  2. At least one major pharma looks to expand its consumer surface area by acquiring one of the new digital, consumer-facing generics platform (ex Hims, Ro, NuRx).
  3. Venture funding for biotech continues to boom with at least three Series A’s of $100M or more in size.
  4. Drug discovery for neurodegeneration sees a renaissance. High-profile failings of Biogen and the beta-amyloid hypothesis sees a shift of innovation to early-stage biotech and venture creation.
  5. Big pharma has its DeepMind moment acquiring at least one machine-learning (AI) enabled drug discovery company.
  6. Clinical trial tech investments heat up; new companies and technologies emerge to make trials patients first and systems get smarter at finding the right patients at their point of care; large incumbents like IQVIA, LabCorp and PPD get acquisitive.
  7. At least three traditional Sand Hill Road tech venture firms open life science practices or raise dedicated funds.
  8. Machine learning targets chemistry driven by large advancements in transformer (NLP) models; has the time for computational chemistry finally come?
  9. HCIT sees a renaissance driven by increased CIO responsibility towards data interoperability. Companies either working on federated ML to allow systems to speak to each other or lightweight edge applications enabling rapid clinical deployment will see quick uptake and traction, until now impossible in HC.

Kristin Baker Spohn, Charles River Ventures (CRV)

In the last 10 years, digital health has exploded. Over $16B has been invested in the sector by VCs and we’ve seen IPOs from Livongo, Progyny and Health Catalyst, just in the last year alone. That said, there’s still a lot that mystifies people about the sector — there are spots that are overheated and models that will struggle to deliver venture scale outcomes. I’ve seen digital health evolve first hand as both an operator and investor, and I’m more excited than ever about the future of the space.

A few areas and trends that I’ve been following recently include:

 


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These new data sources are creating high-impact tools for investors

22:39 | 4 December

David Teten Contributor
David Teten is an advisor to emerging investment managers and a Venture Partner with HOF Capital. He was previously a partner for 8 years with HOF Capital and ff Venture Capital. David writes regularly at teten.com and @dteten.

Venture capitalists tout themselves as frontier technology investors, but most of us are using the same infrastructure tools we’ve used for the past 20+ years — Excel and recent college grads searching Google .

We’ve seen some modest progress in people upgrading from Excel to Google Sheets, along with the use of CRM and cloud-based storage services, but according to Sebastian Soler, who oversees data science at Lux Capital, less than 5% of American VCs have a full-time team member who’s focused on technology.

“While the arguments for adopting the latest technology are now too compelling to ignore, finding the required budget for specialized tools can often prove to be a major challenge, especially for smaller managers,” said Tim Friedman, founder of PEStack. “Comprehensive market data can cost upwards of $25k for a leading service, portfolio monitoring can be double that, add in front office tools and you’re quickly into six-figure sums. My advice is: there are now more products than ever which focus on quick implementation and offer a lot of functionality at a fraction of the cost of some of the larger legacy providers.

TotemVC* is one example of a high-quality solution that offers a powerful platform with a transparent, affordable monthly rate. One piece of advice would be to use a service like [PEStack’s] free Vendor Profiles platform to identify viable providers and build up a shortlist. We also track sample clients so that our users can see what their peers are using. I would always advise managers to talk to other professionals to get the real inside scoop on which products work well, how painful the implementation was, and how good the ongoing support is.”

Jonathan Balkin, founder of Lionpoint Group, observed that the highest-impact technology initiative for a new PE/VC fund is typically to configure and enforce usage of a CRM system. The next most impactful initiative is usually to create an easy-to-use LP portal.

 


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Louis Bacon’s sunset ride may foretell ‘mechanized future’ of data-driven investing

17:35 | 27 November

Kevin Walkup Contributor
Kevin Walkup is President and COO of Harmonate, a data services firm serving private funds.

The legendary Moore Capital is closing. Its founder, Louis Bacon, is reported to be riding off into the sunset.

His name was often mentioned in the same breath as George Soros, Stan Druckenmiller and Paul Tudor Jones. Like them, over his three-decade career he helped build hedge funds’ reputation for placing big bets on big world events — profiting from predictions of war and economic meltdown. He has been described as one of the best foreign exchange traders ever. Bacon earned outsized returns from bets that stocks would plummet and oil would spike if Iraq invaded Kuwait and pulled the U.S. into war in the 1990s, which they did. He was managing $14 billion at his height, but his returns haven’t had the shine they used to.

It’s the latest in series of money manager giants taking their leave, including Leon Cooperman and Jeffrey Vinik. One imagines them joining Tom Cruise in the 2003 movie “The Last Samurai,” galloping at full tilt, swords drawn, representing the last vestige of their chivalrous time crashing against the mechanized future. 

In the movie, the mechanized future was represented by Gatling guns mowing down the warriors of old. On Wall Street, it’s quants, their data operations and passive management versus active. Think Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies taking all emotion out of investing, dismissing “stories” about a stock as distraction, and becoming known as one of the greatest investor of all time.

The truth of what’s going on is something different.

 


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Leading robotics VCs talk about where they’re investing

20:50 | 26 November

The Valley’s affinity for robotics shows no signs of cooling. Technical enhancements through innovations like AI/ML, compute power and big data utilization continue to drive new performance milestones, efficiencies and use cases.

Despite the old saying, “hardware is hard,” investment in the robotics space continues to expand. Money is pouring in across robotics’ billion-dollar sub verticals, including industrial and labor automation, drone delivery, machine vision and a wide range of others.

According to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, 2018 saw new highs for the number of venture deals and total invested capital in the space, with roughly $5 billion in investment coming from nearly 400 deals. With robotics well on its way to again set new investment peaks in 2019, we asked 13 leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in the sector:

Participants discuss the compelling business models for robotics startups (such as “Robots as a Service”), current valuations, growth tactics and key robotics KPIs, while also diving into key trends in industrial automation, human replacement, transportation, climate change, and the evolving regulatory environment.

Shahin Farshchi, Lux Capital

Which trends are you most excited in robotics from an investing perspective?

The opportunity to unlock human superpowers:

  • Increase productivity to enhance creativity leading to new products and businesses.
  • Automating dangerous tasks and eliminating undesirable, dangerous jobs in mining, manufacturing, and shipping/logistics.
  • Making the most deadly mode of transport: driving, 100% safe.

How much time are you spending on robotics right now? Is the market under-heated, overheated, or just right?

  • Three-quarters of the new opportunities I look at involve some sort of automation.
  • The market for robot startups attempting direct human labor replacement, floor-sweeping, and dumb-waiter robots, and robotic lawnmowers and vacuums is OVER heated (too many startups).
  • The market for robot startups that assist human workers, increase human productivity, and automate undesirable human tasks is UNDER heated (not enough startups).

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers.

I want to see more founders that are building robotics startups that:

  • Solve LATENT pain points in specific, well-understood industries (vs. building a cool robot that can do cool things).
  • Focus on increasing HUMAN productivity (vs. trying to replace humans).
  • Are solving for building interesting BUSINESSES (vs. emphasizing cool robots).

Kelly Chen, DCVC

Three years ago, the most compelling companies to us in the industrial space were in software. We now spend significantly more time in verticalized AI and hardware. Robotic companies we find most exciting today are addressing key driver areas of (1) high labor turnover and shortage and (2) new research around generalization on the software side. For many years, we have seen some pretty impressive science projects out of labs, but once you take these into the real world, they fail. In these changing environmental conditions, it’s crucial that robots work effectively in-the-wild at speeds and economics that make sense. This is an extremely difficult combination of problems, and we’re now finally seeing it happen. A few verticals we believe will experience a significant overhaul in the next 5 years include logistics, waste, micro-fulfillment, and construction.

With this shift in robotic capability, we’re also seeing a shift in customer sentiment. Companies who are used to buying outright machines are now more willing to explore RaaS (Robot as a Service) models for compelling robotic solutions – and that repeat revenue model has opened the door for some formerly enterprise software-only investors. On the other hand, companies exploring robotics in place of tasks with high labor shortages, such as trucking or agriculture, are more willing to explore per hour or per unit pick models.

Adoption won’t be overnight, but in the medium term, we are very enthusiastic about the ways robotics will transform industries. We do believe investing in this space requires the right technical know-how and network to evaluate and support companies, so momentum investors looking to dip their hand into a hot space may be disappointed.

Rob Coneybeer, Shasta Ventures

We’re entering the early stages of the golden age of robotics. Robotics is already a huge, multibillion-dollar market – but today that market is dominated by industrial robotics, such as welding and assembly robots found on automotive assembly lines around the world. These robots repeat basic tasks, over and over, and are usually separated by caged walls from humans for safety. However, this is rapidly changing. Advances in perception, driven by deep learning, machine vision and inexpensive, high-performance cameras allow robots to safely navigate the real world, escape the manufacturing cages, and closely interact with humans.

I think the biggest opportunities in robotics are those which attack enormous markets where it’s difficult to hire and retain labor. One great example is long-haul trucking. Highway driving represents one of the easiest problems for autonomous vehicles, since the lanes tend to be well-marked, the roads have gentle curves, and all traffic runs in the same direction. In the United States alone, long haul trucking is a multi-hundred billion dollar market every year. The customer set is remarkably scalable with standard trailer sizes and requirements for shipping freight. Yet at the same time, trucking companies have trouble hiring and retaining drivers. It’s the perfect recipe for robotic opportunity.

I’m intrigued by agricultural robots. I’ve seen dozens of companies attacking every part of the farming equation – from field clearing and preparation, to seeding, to weeding, applying fertilizer, and eventually harvesting. I think there’s a lot of value to be “harvested” here by robots, especially since seasonal field labor is becoming harder to find and increasingly expensive. One enormous challenge in this market, however, is that growing seasons mean that the robotic machinery has a lot of downtime and the cost of equipment isn’t as easily amortized in other markets with higher utilization. The other big challenge is that fields are very, very tough on hardware and electronics due to environmental conditions like rain, dust and mud.

There are a ton of important problems to be solved in robotics. The biggest open challenges in my mind are locomotion and grasping. Specifically, I think that for in-building applications, robots need to be able to do all the thing which humans can do – specifically opening and closing doors, climbing stairs, and picking items off of shelves and putting them down gently. Plenty of startups have tackled subsets of these problems, but to date no one has built a generalized solution. To be fair, to get to parity with humans on generalized locomotion and grasping, it’s probably going to take another several decades.

Overall, I feel like the funding environment for robotics is about right, with a handful of overfunded areas (like autonomous passenger vehicles). I think that the most overlooked near-term opportunity in robotics is teleoperation. Specifically, pairing fully automated robotic operations with occasional human remote operation of individual robots. Starship Technologies is a perfect example of this. Starship is actively deploying local delivery robots around the world today. Their first major deployment is at George Mason University in Virginia. They have nearly 50 active robots delivering food around the campus. They’re autonomous most of the time, but when they encounter a problem or obstacle they can’t solve, a human operator in a teleoperation center manually controls the robot remotely. At the same time. Starship tracks and prioritizes these problems for engineers to solve, and slowly incrementally reduces the number of problems the robots can’t solve on their own. I think people view robotics as a “zero or one” solution when in fact there’s a world where humans and robots work together for a long time.

 


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No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

17:28 | 12 November

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company, Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms which were created using flawed datasets mean that there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos, co-founder and CEO of Elektra Labs, in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop-shop for all of their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for FitBit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel, and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was . one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment.  Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

 


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Y Combinator Demo Day, revenue-based VC funding, Pivotal, Dell, Tumblr, WeWork, and more

21:36 | 24 August

Editor’s note

Due to bad travel logistics (thanks SFO), I wasn’t able to get the mid-week edition of the Extra Crunch roundup newsletter out. Sorry about that. Instead, here is everything we published this week on Extra Crunch in one fell swoop — and my, we covered a lot of ground. Hope you enjoy some great weekend reading.

Y Combinator Demo Day Coverage-a-palooza

Much like the equinoxes that synchronize Earth’s calendar, Y Combinator’s biannual demo days are a key fixture of the Silicon Valley calendar. This year was no different, with 166 companies presenting from the summer batch (and occasionally from previous batches if they chose to delay their presentation).

We had a full squad on site not only covering the 84 companies from day one and 82 companies from day two, but our team also put their collective heads together to identify the top companies from each set exclusively for Extra Crunch members.

The 11 best startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 1

Read our favorite 11 startups from day one, which included:

PopSQL provides collaborative SQL query editing. You can store SQL queries you run regularly, grouping them into folders that can be kept private or shared amongst your team. Version history tracks changes so it can be reverted if/when something breaks. It currently has more than 100 paying companies, and is making $13K per month. It plans to build a marketplace for apps that run on top of your company’s database.

Why it’s one of our favorites: SQL database queries can be a nightmare, especially if they’re not something you’re used to dealing with every day. PopSQL lets you hammer on queries collaboratively until they’re working exactly as you want — then you can save them for future use and share them amongst your team members. And when you’ve spent the last 45 minutes trying to figure out why your query isn’t working only for a team mate to fix it in thirty seconds, you can use version control to see exactly what they changed. PopSQL says its product has already found customers in companies like Instacart, Redfin, and DoorDash.

Our 12 favorite startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 2

Read our favorite 12 startups from day two, which included:

Business Score is helping companies automate background checks on other businesses. The startup is looking to stamp out tired manual processes that largely mean picking up the phone and scouring documents. The single API taps data sources across the web to build out real-time profiles that can help customers scan businesses in an effort to prevent fraud, qualify leads and onboard new clients.

Why it’s one of our favorites: Though it’s yet another startup in the batch catering to other startups, we thought Business Score stood out. The company integrates with thousands of data providers to help companies verify other startups and enterprises they are considering doing business with, using a system they’ve dubbed “the business passport.” There’s an opportunity here to create a tool essential to company-building across industry.

YC is doubling down on these investment theses in its most recent batch

Finally, amidst all the zany craziness of watching 166 companies present over two days (there should be a YC company for unmelting your brain), our venture capital reporter Kate Clark stepped back to assess what all the various companies in the batch indicated about the accelerator’s strategy these days.

YC knows its sweet spot: enterprise SaaS. One might go as far as to say it’s transitioning into a full-on SaaS incubator. Why? Because one of the greatest advantages of going through YC is the network of alumni companies you can tap into. Many successful B2B companies have emerged from the program, raised boat loads of venture capital funding and rocketed to the moon (hello Stripe, Brex, Gusto and Atrium). With that in mind, YC is doubling down on its resources for startups that sell products to other startups, which brings us to our first piece of news.

YC chief executive officer Michael Seibel and president Geoff Ralston announced this week that the accelerator has implemented something called CTO and HR demo days. In short, CTO and HR demo days are an opportunity for B2B startups to pitch their products to YC alum companies’ CTO and/or head of HR. Seibel and Ralston said 60 CTOs attended the event, as well as 30 HR heads. In total, 42 startups presented and we’re guessing a bunch of those companies booked a few customers.

 


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Protein replacement startups are coming for food additives as Shiru launches from Y Combinator

15:41 | 16 August

Shiru, a new company that’s launching from the latest batch of Y Combinator-backed startups, is joining the ranks of the businesses angling for a spot at the vanguard of the new food technology revolution.

The company was founded by Jasmin Hume, the former director of food chemistry at Just (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek) and takes its name from a homophone of the Chinese shi rou (which Hume has roughly translated to an examination of meat). At Just, Hume was working with a team that was fractionating plants to look at their physical properties to identify what products could be made from the various proteins and chemicals researchers found in the plants.

Shiru, by contrast, is using computational biology to find the ideal proteins for specific applications in the food industry.

The company’s looking at what proteins are best for creating certain kinds of qualities that are used in food additives, things like viscosity building, solubility, foam stability, emulsification, and biding, according to Hume.

In some ways, Hume’s approach looks similar to the early product roadmap for Geltor, a company backed by SOSV and IndieBio that was also looking to make functional proteins. The company, which has raised over $18 million to date, shifted its attention to proteins for the beauty industry and cosmetics instead of food — potentially leaving an opening for Shiru to exploit.

 Still in its early days, Shiru doesn’t have a product nailed down yet, but the company the science the company is exploring is increasingly well understood, and Hume says it’s looking at several different genetically engineered feedstocks — from yeasts to undisclosed strains of bacteria and fungi to make its proteins. 

“We use the power of molecular design and machine learning to identify protein structures that are more functional than existing alternatives,” says Hume. “The proteins that we are screening for are inspired by nature.”

Hume’s path to founding Shiru involves quite the pedigree. Before Just, she received her doctorate in materials chemistry from New York University, and she’d spent a stretch as a summer associate at the New York-based frontier technology-focused investment firm Lux Capital.

Hume expects to begin pilot production of initial proteins later this year and be producing small but repeatable quantities by the end of 2020.

The company hasn’t raised any outside capital before Y Combinator and is currently in the process of raising a round, Hume said.

 

 


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Statespace picks up $2.5M to help gamers train

17:05 | 8 August

Gaming continues to grow in popularity, with esports revenue growing 23 percent from last year to top $1 billion in 2019.

But the metrics by which talent is evaluated in gaming, and the methods by which gamers can train to better hone their craft, are varied and at times non-existent. That’s where StateSpace, and specifically the company’s gaming arm Klutch, come into play.

In 2017, Statespace launched out of stealth with their first product, Aim Lab. Aim Lab is meant to mimic the physical rules of a game to give gamers a practice space where they can improve their skills. Moreover, Aim Lab identifies weaknesses in a player’s gameplay — one person might struggle with their visual acuity in the top left quadrant of the screen, while another might have trouble spotting or aiming at targets on the bottom right side of the screen — and allows gamers to focus in on their weaknesses to get better.

Today, the company has announced a $2.5 million seed funding round led by FirstMark Capital, with participation from Expa, Lux Capital and WndrCo. This brings the company’s total funding to $4 million.

Alongside growing Aim Lab, which is on track to soon reach 1 million users, one of the company’s main goals is to create a standardized metric by which gamers’ skills can be measured. In football, college athletes and NFL coaches have the Scouting Combine to make decisions around recruiting. This doesn’t necessarily take into account stats like yardage or touchdowns, but rather the raw skills of a player such as 40-yard sprint speed.

In fact, Statespace has partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame for ‘The Cognitive Combine’, becoming the official integrative medicine program cognitive assessment partner of the organization. Statespace wants to create a similar ‘combine’ for gaming.

The hope is that the company can offer this metric to publishers, colleges and esports orgs, giving them the ability to not only evaluate talent, but to better serve casual users through improved matchmaking and cheat detection.

“We want to go a level beyond your kill:death ratio,” said cofounder and CEO Dr. Wayne Mackey. Those metrics greatly depend on factors like who you’re playing with. You won’t always be matched against players who are on an even keel with you. So we want to look at fundamental skills like hand eye coordination, visual acuity, spatial processing skills, and working memory capacity.”

[gallery ids="1866281,1866282,1866283"]

Klutch has partnered with the National Championship Series as the official FPS training partner for 2019. NCS has majors for both CS:Go and Overwatch, two of the biggest competitive FPS games in the world. The company is also partnering with top Twitch streamers and Masterclass to create The Academy.

Academy users will be able to get advanced tutorials from streamers like KingGeorge (Rainbox Six Siege), SypherPK (Fortnite), Valkia (Overwatch), Drift0r (CoD), and Launders (CS:GO).

Obviously, gaming is a major part of Statespace’s business model. But the skeleton of the technology has a number of different applications, particularly in medicine. Statespace is currently in the research phase of rolling out an Aim Lab product that is specifically focused on helping people who have had strokes recover and rehabilitate.

Statespace wants to use the funding to build out the team and expand the Klutch Aim Lab platform beyond Steam to mobile and eventually console, with Xbox prioritized over PlayStation, as well as launching the Academy.

 


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