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December 14, 2018
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Hardware

OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations

in africa/Delhi/funding/Gadgets/GreenTech/Hardware/India/Politics/Rwanda/solar/Solar Power/TC by

The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water to a small community. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as there they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15K to build, plus roughly another $10K to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from 80/20 favoring investors to 50/50) and it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10K of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6M was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Ceccini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: the company hopes to deploy as many as a thousand throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as a hundred boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as a hundred thousand more people.

News Source = techcrunch.com

On stock prices and Nvidia

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Yesterday’s analysis of Nvidia’s challneges triggered a surge of mail from readers. The company has lost about half of its value over the past two months, and has mostly blamed a “crypto hangover” for the problem. But as I pointed yesterday, it’s really the three Cs: “Crypto, customers, and China.” There are nuances here worth exploring though.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

Rapacious capitalists and short-termism

One major vein of reader feedback was around the remarkable short-termism of my analysis, which (mostly) looked at Nvidia over the past 60 days. As a reader named Stephen wrote to me:

By focusing on the peak price from this summer and its fall you ignore the fact that the stock price today is nearly the same as it was in June of 2017. Nvidia was on a huge run because of Bitcoin and the associated run on GPUs by miners. With the crypto currency market in decline so is the demand for advanced GPUs.

There is nothing Nvidia can do about that. They profited greatly from that blip and now they are returning to normal.

That’s entirely fair. After diving in the 2008 financial crisis along with the rest of the market, Nvidia’s market cap steadily gained value for nearly seven years, growing from around $3.6 billion in 2008 to around $15 billion at the end of 2015, far outpacing the S&P 500 or other standard benchmarks.

As the crypto craze took off in 2016 though, that fairly linear growth became exponential. The company hit a peak this past August, reaching $175 billion in value, only to slam back down to Earth with today’s $91.2 billion. So in about three full years — even with the last two month’s 50% drop — the company has managed to grow its market value roughly six times. That’s very strong growth for an established company, even in the technology sector.

The key question though is whether today’s market value is backed by the company’s positioning in the marketplace.

As much as Nvidia has blamed the collapse of crypto prices for its challenging position, that is hardly the whole story. New competition from startups and its own customers are challenging the company on its plan to dominate a series of new workload applications like machine learning and autonomous vehicles.

If Nvidia succeeds, its market cap makes a whole lot of sense. But if it fails to keep a market dominant position in these new applications, then it will have to revert back to its core gamer audience, and today’s market cap makes no sense given the limited size and growth of that market.

China / Nvidia

China remains a major site for manufacturing and assembly. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Another strain of readers asked for more analysis around China tariffs and their potential effect on Nvidia (you short sellers are a fascinating lot).

Let’s be clear on my position: I expect the trade conflict to get worse, not better. There is not a single issue for Trump that has better optics, political positioning, and broad support than improving the status quo around China trade. There is broad bipartisan agreement that the status quo is untenable, and while folks might disagree about specific approaches or tactics, no one thinks that China has played fair in trade for years. Trump can look like a fighter for the American worker while bringing (some) Democrats and most of his entire party on board. It’s a potent issue.

That places Nvidia in a real bind, because China is a critical end market for its products, and its manufacturing is heavily intertwined with Chinese supply chains. As just an example of this, just a few months ago, Nvidia chose TSMC over Samsung in a bidding competition to produce its large GPUs.

As Arman and I have talked with some supply chain folks about tariffs, the general consensus is that low tariffs won’t have much impact, but higher tariffs will force huge changes in the way supply chains are built to counteract those costs. That seems to be the conclusion of Debby Wu at Bloomberg as well within the iPhone supply chain world.

That said, as much as I think there should be caution on this front, Nvidia is in a relatively enviable position. Its contract manufacturers will have to deal with the tariffs directly, but Nvidia can move its manufacturing to wherever it needs to go — Korea, Vietnam, back to the U.S. or wherever. There is of course some time lag, but I would be much more worried about TSMC’s position long-term than Nvidia’s.

Quick Bites

Short summaries and analysis of important news stories, outside our main analysis

SBI Says It Made An Error Allocating Shares in SoftBank IPO – one of the underwriters for SoftBank’s IPO accidentally sent lower share numbers to some buyers, leading to speculation that the company was dealing with a mass selloff. Things seem to be righted, and blockchain enthusiasts will once again get to scream “BLOCKCHAIN” at another financial markets screwup.

The North Face – Cory Arcangel does a great job of decomposing the modern EDM “product” and placing it into today’s context — with some nice connections to our discussion above about Nvidia. “EDM is the perfect reflection of 2018. It is intense, adrenaline-fueled, all-night music made by hyper efficient, work-a-holic, laptop bureaucrats.” Talking about Steve Angello and his rapid series of engagements on the EDM circuit: “Instead, he—his literal, physical self—was being shipped around, with minutes to spare, as part of an intricate just-in-time supply chain. Like Apple’s, this supply chain is also exceedingly light—Angello is the only asset required.” Hat tip to Robert Cottrell at The Browser for this one.

Semiconductor equipment sales forecast: $62B in 2018 a new record – More uplift for 2018, if some challenges in 2019 forecasted. “In 2018, South Korea will remain the largest equipment market for the second year in a row. China will rise in the rankings to claim the second spot for the first time, dislodging Taiwan, which will fall to the third position.” It will be interesting to see how tariffs affect these numbers next year.

What’s next

More semiconductors probably. And Arman and I are side glancing at Yelp these days. Any thoughts? Email me at danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

News Source = techcrunch.com

Samsung refreshes its S Pen-packing convertible PC

in Delhi/Hardware/India/Politics/Samsung/Windows by

Welcome, friends, to the consumer electronics dead zone. It’s that increasingly brief window between the last of the pre-holiday releases and the CES deluge. It’s rarely home to genuinely exciting announcements, but when you’re a company like Samsung, you’ve got to find somewhere on the roadmap to portion out all of those gadgets.

Say hello to the new Notebook 9 Pen. It’s a convertible Windows laptop aimed at creatives. It’s a very Samsungy answer to the Surface line, right down to the inclusion of the S Pen. The PC sports a swiveling 13 or 15 inch screen encased in an all-metal frame.

It’s an update to he admittedly somewhat confusingly named line, still sporting an 8th-gen Intel Core i7 and a hearty 15 hours of battery life by Samsung’s estimation. On-board audio has been improved, courtesy of the company’s AKG arm. The S Pen also gets some upgrades here, with improved latency and three swappable tips.

Today’s news is the latest in what’s been an uncharacteristically noisy holiday season for Samsung, including the recent partial announcement of two 5G phones due out next year. A spate of new rumors also have the company announcing the Galaxy S10 around MWC in Feb/March. And then, of course, there’s that folding phone. Should be a packed 2019 for the company, all around.

The new Notebook 9 Pen, meanwhile, is due out in the States early next year.

News Source = techcrunch.com

After losing half its value, Nvidia faces reckoning

in Amazon/Apple/Artificial Intelligence/Asia/Baidu/Bitmain/blockchain/cryptocurrency/Delhi/Facebook/Google/Government/GPU/Hardware/India/nvidia/Politics by

Nvidia is a company that has reached the highest highs and the lowest lows, all in the span of a couple of weeks.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

Over the past two months, Nvidia’s stock has dropped from a closing price of $289.36 on Oct. 1 to today’s opening of $148.42, a decline of 48.8%.

It takes a lot for a company to lose nearly half its value in such a short period of time, but Nvidia is proving that an otherwise strong technology business can disappear in a blink of an eye. The company faces an almost perfect barrage of headwinds to its core products that is stalling its plans for long-term chip domination.

To step back a bit first though, Nvidia has traditionally made graphical processing units (GPUs) that are excellent at the kinds of parallel computation required for gaming and applications like computer-assisted design (CAD). It’s a durable and repeatable business, and one that Nvidia has a commanding market share in.

Yet, these markets are also fairly narrow, and so Nvidia has endeavored over the past few years to expand its product offerings to encompass new applications like artificial intelligence / machine learning, autonomous automotive, and crypto hashing. These applications all need strong parallelized processing, which Nvidia specializes in.

At least part of that story has worked well. Nvidia’s chips were extremely popular in the crypto run-up over the past few years, causing widespread shortages of the chips (and annoying its core gaming fans in the process).

This was huge for Nvidia. The company had revenues of $1.05 billion for the quarter ending Oct 31, 2013, and $1.31 billion two years later in 2015 — a fairly slow rate of growth as would be expected for a dominant player in a mature market. As the company expanded its horizons though, Nvidia engorged on growth in new applications like crypto, growing to $3.2 billion in revenue in its last reported quarter. As can be expected, the stock soared.

Now, Nvidia’s growth story is being hammered on multiple fronts. First and foremost, the huge sales of its chips into the crypto space have dried up as crypto prices have crashed in recent months. This is a pattern we are seeing with other companies, namely Bitmain, which has made specialized crypto chips a major part of its business but has lost an enormous amount of its momentum in the crypto bust. It announced it was shuttering its Israel office this week.

That bust is obvious in Nvidia’s revenues this year: they are essentially flat for three quarters now, hovering between $3.1 and $3.2 billion. Some have called this Nvidia’s “crypto hangover.” But crypto is just one facet of the challenges that Nvidia faces.

When it comes to owning next-generation application workflows, Nvidia is facing robust competition from startups and established players who want access to this potentially gigantic market. Even its potential customers are competing with it. Facebook is reportedly designing its own chips, Apple has been doing so for years, Google has been in the game a while, and Amazon is getting into the game fast. Nvidia has the know-how to compete, but these companies also understand the nuances of their applications really, really well. It’s a tough market position to be in.

If the challenges around applications weren’t enough, geopolitical tensions are also causing Nvidia serious harm. As Dan Strumpf and Wenxin Fan wrote in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago in a deep dive, the company is emblematic of the challenge Silicon Valley firms face in the US / China trade standoff:

Nvidia executives are watching the trade fight with growing unease over whether it will curb its access to Chinese customers, according to a person familiar with the matter. Almost 20% of Nvidia’s $9.7 billion in revenue last year came from China. Many of its chips are used there for assembly into other products, and it has invested heavily to tap China’s burgeoning AI industries.

The company also is concerned that deteriorating relations between the world’s two biggest economies are causing Beijing to double down on efforts to reduce reliance on U.S. suppliers of key hardware such as chips by nurturing homegrown competitors, eating into Nvidia’s long-term business.

Crypto, customers, and China. That’s how you lose half your company’s value in two months.

Quick Bites

Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Andrea Schaffer via Flickr used under Creative Commons.

Google ‘studying steps’ to open headquarters in Vietnam in accordance with cybersecurity laws Following the testimony yesterday from Sundar Pichai on Capitol Hill, it’s interesting to see Google reportedly attempting to open this office in Vietnam, where it faces many of the same challenges as its expansion into China. Vietnam, like many other nations around the world, has recently passed a data sovereignty law that requires that local data be stored locally, forcing Google’s hand. China may be the bogeyman du jour, but the market access challenges posed by China are hardly unique.

Japan’s top 3 telcos to exclude Huawei, ZTE network equipment, according to Japanese news reports – Huawei’s bad news continues, this time with Japanese telcos supposedly vowing not to use the company’s equipment. This is something of a major development if it pans out — so far, the blocks on Huawei equipment have originated from the group of five nations known as the Five Eyes, who share intelligence information. Japan is not a member of that network, and could set the tone for other nations in Asia.

Baidu among 80 plus companies found faking corporate informationBaidu was censured for erroneous information in its Chinese corporate filings. That’s bad news for Baidu, which has hit rock bottom in its share price in the past few days, declining from a 52-week high of $284.22 to today’s opening of $180.50.

What’s next

Arman and I are still investigating the next-generation silicon space. Some good conversations the past few days with investors and supply-chain folks to learn more about this space. Nvidia’s analysis above is the tip of the iceberg. Have thoughts? Give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

News Source = techcrunch.com

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

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We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms or regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, takeoff and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to 6 engines down, has pontoons in case of a water landing, and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. CEO Matt Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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