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January 18, 2019
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Startups Weekly: Will Trump ruin the unicorn IPOs of our dreams?

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The government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, upping concerns of potentially long-lasting impacts on the U.S. stock market. Private market investors around the country applauded when Uber finally filed documents with the SEC to go public. Others were giddy to hear Lyft, Pinterest, Postmates and Slack (via a direct listing, according to the latest reports) were likely to IPO in 2019, too.

Unfortunately, floats that seemed imminent may not actually surface until the second half of 2019 — that is unless President Donald Trump and other political leaders are able to reach an agreement on the federal budget ASAP.  This week, we explored the government’s shutdown’s connection to tech IPOs, recounted the demise of a well-funded AR project and introduced readers to an AI-enabled self-checkout shopping cart.

1. Postmates gets pre-IPO cash

The company, an early entrant to the billion-dollar food delivery wars, raised what will likely be its last round of private capital. The $100 million cash infusion was led by BlackRock and valued Postmates at $1.85 billion, up from the $1.2 billion valuation it garnered with its unicorn round in 2018.

2. Uber’s IPO may not be as eye-popping as we expected

To be fair, I don’t think many of us really believed the ride-hailing giant could debut with a $120 billion initial market cap. And can speculate on Uber’s valuation for days (the latest reports estimate a $90 billion IPO), but ultimately Wall Street will determine just how high Uber will fly. For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the company to relinquish its S-1 to the masses.

3. Deal of the week

N26, a German fintech startup, raised $300 million in a round led by Insight Venture Partners at a $2.7 billion valuation. TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet spoke with co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf about the company’s global investors, financials and what the future holds for N26.

4. On the market

Bird is in the process of raising an additional $300 million on a flat pre-money valuation of $2 billion. The e-scooter startup has already raised a ton of capital in a very short time and a fresh financing would come at a time when many investors are losing faith in scooter startups’ claims to be the solution to the problem of last-mile transportation, as companies in the space display poor unit economics, faulty batteries and a general air of undependability. Plus, Aurora, the developer of a full-stack self-driving software system for automobile manufacturers, is raising at least $500 million in equity funding at more than a $2 billion valuation in a round expected to be led by new investor Sequoia Capital.


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5. A unicorn’s deal downsizes

WeWork, a co-working giant backed with billions, had planned on securing a $16 billion investment from existing backer SoftBank . Well, that’s not exactly what happened. And, oh yeah, they rebranded.

6. A startup collapses

After 20 long years, augmented reality glasses pioneer ODG has been left with just a skeleton crew after acquisition deals from Facebook and Magic Leap fell through. Here’s a story of a startup with $58 million in venture capital backing that failed to deliver on its promises.

7. Data point

Seed activity for U.S. startups has declined for the fourth straight year, as median deal sizes increased at every stage of venture capital.

8. Meanwhile, in startup land…

This week edtech startup Emeritus, a U.S.-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India. Badi, which uses an algorithm to help millennials find roommates, brought in a $30 million Series B led by Goodwater Capital. And Mr Jeff, an on-demand laundry service startup, bagged a $12 million Series A.

9. Finally, Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The startup, which makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, has revealed a total of $3 million, including a $2.15 million seed round led by First Round Capital .

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News Source = techcrunch.com

An AR glasses pioneer collapses

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In the first days of 2017, Osterhout Design Group arrived up at CES with a two-story booth and huge promises. The startup’s founder, Ralph Osterhout, wanted to take the small San Francisco-based company even further past its military contractor roots in AR, building out major enterprise and consumer businesses with flashy new product lines. The company had just raised $58 million, and the Las Vegas electronics show served as its launchpad for its R-8 and R-9 augmented reality glasses lines that Osterhout hoped would bring “glasses to the masses.”

Less than a year later, however, the company had burned through its funding and couldn’t pay employees. By early 2018, ODG had lost half of its workforce as it sought loans to pay back employees. Today, a skeleton crew awaits a patent sale less than a week away after acquisitions from several large tech companies, including Facebook and Magic Leap, fell through, multiple sources tell TechCrunch.

ODG founder and CEO Ralph Osterhout

Ralph Osterhout, 73, founded ODG 20 years ago as a high-tech toy company, built after his previous venture, Machina, collapsed in what a Wired report at the time called “a spectacular bankruptcy.” After underwriting ODG with $14,000 of his own cash, Osterhout kept the startup plugging along on its own merits before he decided that it was time to reach for outside funding to turn his company into a powerhouse in the burgeoning augmented reality industry. At the end of 2016, the company raised a $58 million round led by 21st Century Fox.

ODG was already getting thousands of orders for its R-7 glasses, an enterprise-focused product that it billed as a head-worn Android tablet that could help workers go through checklists, review documents and share live video feeds hands-free. Osterhout wanted to get AR glasses into the hands of consumers and take advantage of new tech advances, even as Magic Leap was teasing the release of its own heavily hyped consumer product.

“I hope Magic Leap is a huge success. I want everyone in AR to be a huge success,” Osterhout said in an interview with TechCrunch in 2017. “[Augmented reality] is going to be transformative.”

Months later, a large Chinese firm approached ODG with an offer north of the company’s $258 million Series A valuation, a source tells TechCrunch. Talks fell through, but ODG’s leadership was at their most ambitious and felt like they couldn’t be stopped.

At the same time, following the CES 2017 product unveil, some employees wondered whether having three distinct product lines under development aimed at roughly the same customer was the right direction for the company with around 100 employees. Ralph Osterhout’s strong internal popularity kept these concerns at bay even as the company faced double-digit return rates from customers of its current-generation R-7 glasses due to manufacturing issues.

“That’s a little bit the story of ODG and Ralph, in general: everything is a prototype, nothing is finished, and before one thing is 60 percent done, you’re already onto the next one,” a former employee tells TechCrunch. “I think the heart of ODG’s downfall was its lack of focus.”

The company never ended up shipping the R-9 or the R-8 or even fulfilling all of its R-7 orders. It blew through its funding before the fall of 2017, and it wasn’t long before employees were on half-pay and soon stopped getting paid at all. ODG sought backing from Chinese firms, but sources say that a negative trade environment hampered those efforts. In 2018, it received an $8 million loan from a Chinese firm used to pay back employees as Osterhout began trying to scrounge together an exit strategy, seeking out buyers for the company that bore his name.

Suitors for the company included Magic Leap, Facebook, Razer and Lenovo, sources tell TechCrunch. In each case talks fell through, as Osterhout was convinced that his company was being undervalued by the prospective acquirers.

ODG’s San Francisco offices in 2016

Sources say that Magic Leap continued to bump up its offer, eventually signing a letter of intent in the final months of 2018 to purchase the startup. The final proposed purchase price ended up at $35 million, still a far cry from its 2016 valuation, a source familiar with the deal tells TechCrunch.

This offer came with stipulations for the types of engineers Magic Leap wanted to bring aboard, leading ODG to shrink its staff to just a couple dozen employees. As the startup whittled itself down to prepare for a disappointing, yet relatively dignified, sign-off, Magic Leap began to grow cagey about finalizing the acquisition, sources say. As the deal started to fall through, some in ODG’s leadership began to wonder aloud whether Magic Leap was “acting in poor faith” and was only looking to starve the company before purchasing assets at a discount in a patent sale.

“Ralph turned around and he didn’t have a company or team anymore, and then Magic Leap goes, you know what, we’re just going to buy the IP, we don’t want the company, you don’t have a company anymore,” one source said.

Magic Leap did not respond to a request for comment.

With the deal shot and the indebted company in shambles, the team dwindled down further to a skeleton crew — essentially a deals team — as company assets were put up for sale by IP advisory firm Hillco Streambank. The company’s patent portfolio up for sale next week includes 107 issued patents and 83 pending applications.

The 20-year-old company has already seen its early work in foundational AR patents pay off for it. In 2014, Microsoft paid around $150 million to acquire a trove of ODG patents after deciding not to buy the company outright. In documents reviewed by TechCrunch, ODG highlights a number of AR patents in its collection that it believes existing products from companies like Magic Leap, Google and Facebook infringe on, specifically pointing to diagrams of systems like the Magic Leap One and Oculus Quest that they claim conflict with its prior art.

With a patent sale (spotted first by UploadVR), ODG’s leadership is looking to recoup enough to pay back the company’s debts, as well as the employees who worked for months on partial salaries.

Whether or not ODG’s downfall was largely a cause of mismanagement, the disparity between acquisition offers and its 2016 valuation showcases a broader cool down in the augmented reality industry, as capital-intensive efforts in enterprise and hardware have proven to be a more difficult sell for investors heading into 2019.

Last month, Blippar, an enterprise-focused AR startup that raised more than $130 million, collapsed after failing to secure an emergency influx of cash. Just yesterday, it was reported that Meta, an AR hardware startup with $73 million in funding from Y Combinator, Tencent and Comcast, had fallen into insolvency. Magic Leap itself has had issues breaking into broader markets: In November the startup lost out to Microsoft on a $480 million military contract.

Asked whether they would pin the company’s failures on the broader industry slowdown, a former employee said, “From an internal standpoint, all I saw was, we are fucking it up.”

Ralph Osterhout did not respond to a request for comment.

News Source = techcrunch.com

China’s Nreal raises $15M to shrink augmented headsets to size of sunglasses

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A former Magic Leap engineer believes the problem with most consumer-facing augmented headsets on the market is their bulky size.

“You wouldn’t want to wear them for more than one hour,” Xu Chi, founder and chief executive officer of Nreal told me as he put on a bright orange headgear that looked just like plastic Ray-Ban shades. Called Light and powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor, Nreal’s first-generation mixed reality glasses officially launched at Las Vegas’ tech trade show CES this week.

With a light-weight play, the two-year-old Chinese startup managed to bring in some big-name investors. Aside from debuting Light, Nreal also announced this week that it has raised $15 million in total funding to date. The proceeds include a Series A from Shunwei, the venture fund that Xiaomi founder set up, Baidu’s video streaming unit iQiyi, investment firm China Growth Capital, and others. According to Xu, R&D is his company’s biggest expense at this stage.

The financial injection bears strategic significance to Xiaomi and iQIYI. The former is best known for its budget smartphones but its bigger ambition lies in an Apple Home-like ecosystem that surely welcomes portable MR headsets. IQiyi, on the other hand, already has a channel dedicated to virtual reality, which is meant to immerse the end user in a completely digital environment. MR content may just be around the corner to provide an interactive experience of the real world.

Taking money from Shunwei rather than straight from Xiaomi is a thought-through choice. Xiaomi has backed hundreds of manufacturers to gain control over supply chains. Its portfolio companies, in turn, get access to Xiaomi’s retail channels, but they make comprises on various fronts such as product design and pricing.

Xu doesn’t want his freshly minted business to lose independence. “We don’t want to pick sides. We want to be able to work with Oppo and a whole lot of other brands. We want to be compatible with a wide range of devices — smartphones, laptops, PCs, and so on,” said the founder.

Founder and CEO Xu Chi holding Nreal Light’s glasses and chipset. Photo: Nreal

In early 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur started Nreal with his cofounder Xiao Bing, an optical engineer. The brand “Nreal” conveys the partners’ vision to bring users to spaces that fall between the real and unreal. Xu, who spent years working and studying in the US, decided to pursue his ideas back on his homeland for easier access to supply chains.

“We are combining our technological know-how from overseas with great resources in China’s manufacturing industry,” the founder said of his firm’s edge.

The 85-gram (about 3-ounce) Nreal Light isn’t as featherweight as regular glasses but it’s a significant improvement from the biggies it’s going after — Magic Leap One and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Nreal was able to shrink its gadget size because it uses a display solution that requires fewer cameras and sensors than its peers, Xu explained.

Furthermore, Nreal is fixated on the consumer market from the outset, unlike its bigger rivals which, in Xu’s words, are “building gadgets for the next five or even ten years.”

“They want to disrupt everything from cell phones, computers to televisions. They are not necessarily oriented towards consumers,” Xu added.

Nreal Lights

The smart glasses come in a variety of colors. Photo: Nreal

When it comes to performance, Light claims its display has a 52-degree field of view and a 1080p resolution, which my human eyes weren’t able to verify when I wore it to play an interactive shooting game. That said, I did experience minimum dizziness and latency on Light, as the company promised.

The only irritating part was I started to feel the weight of the specs on my nose bridge a few minutes into my session. Xu assured me that what I tried on was a prototype and that an assortment of nose pads and lenses for different facial features will be available. The glasses also come in a variety of flashy coral colors.

Nreal Light won’t be shipping until Q2 this year and mass production won’t arrive until Q3. Xu hasn’t priced his brainchild but said it will probably hover around $1,000. By comparison, HoloLens charges $3,000 and Magic Leap One costs $2,300.

Where does that price tag leave Nreal in terms of profitability? It’s a matter of what kind of consumer hardware Nreal wants to become. “Do we want to be Apple or Xiaomi?” The founder asked himself rhetorically. He’s sure of one thing: As the MR industry matures in China, production costs will also come down. The company is already mulling its own factory so as to beef up supply chains and reduce costs, according to Xu.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Magic Leap and other AR startups have a rough 2019 ahead of them

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Very rarely does an early technology garner such an air of inevitability like AR has in the past few years.

2018 was supposed to be a year where the foundational tech for augmented reality was built out a bit and the industry took a couple big leaps. Things started off well-enough but momentum really doesn’t seem be on the side of some of the industry’s heaviest hitters heading into 2019, suggesting that life for earlier stage startups may not be much easier.

There are plenty of reasons to be long-term bullish on AR, but the time horizons some have espoused seems to be bogus and pitch decks organized around a near-term spike in phone-based or glasses-based users are going to have a tougher time being taken seriously in 2019.

The ghost with the most

For all of the AR advances made this year, the company most emblematic story of AR’s numerous challenges was clearly Magic Leap .

The company spent the past few years trashing industry standards and lauding their own approaches with braggadocio but ended up releasing a product that largely iterated on its competitors. With the release of their “developer kit” this year, a product that clearly seems to have stopped being a first-gen product only when the reality of the climate availed itself, the startup seems to be finding that optics and infra progress is going to come more slowly than foretold.

I’ve talked to more than a few people who think Magic Leap hindered progress in the AR industry by siphoning investor attention and discouraging other hardware startups from joining the fray in the face of a billions-backed unknown. But in 2019, there are fewer available plays for the funding juggernaut. They spent years trying to distinguish themselves from the corporate mission of Microsoft and their HoloLens headset, now it seems they’ve begun to see that the only hopes of justifying their sitting valuation in the next few years is enlisting support from the big customers that MSFT is chasing, as opposed to single-handedly birthing a consumer market. Magic Leap recently lost a bid to Microsoft for a $480 million military contract to outfit troops with AR headsets, and as Microsoft prepares to release a second-generation HoloLens with the enterprise in full concentration, it seems like Magic Leap is going to reshuffle its deck.

Dead-on-arrival content plays

Magic Leap’s struggles are well-documented but what plagues the overall AR industry seems less discussed.

The consumer appetite for phone-based AR content is obviously lacking. Even Apple’s reality distortion field isn’t enough to convince people that its ARKit releases have led to anything other than some weird experimentation for iOS users. Few Android OEMs are boasting about compatibility with Google’s ARCore platform anymore, suggesting that approachable hardware standards for device makers wasn’t all that was missing from the failed Tango brand.

The most apparent mobile AR opportunities are probably in user-generated content, but there seems to be a disconnect between platforms and users in terms of how complex these AR experiences can and should become. At this point, selfie masks still seem to be at the edge of users’ comfort levels, leaving a lot of solved tech problems stuck in limbo waiting for a problem that makes them worthwhile.

Niantic is probably one of the most revenue-heavy startup dabbling in phone AR, even if it is a bit of a false idol for the industry. Nobody seems to think of Niantic as a capital-A augmented reality startup, but it’s clear that team behind Pokémon Go sees the technology as a not-fully-tapped reservoir of potential for future gaming experiences that feel more social and more immersive than any mobile RPG that’s sucking up the majority of your playtime today. The company’s new Harry Potter title still doesn’t have a release date, we haven’t seen any gameplay, but we do know that AR plays a part in the title in some capacity. We’ll see if they figure out things the rest of the industry hasn’t.

Platform tech opportunities

Part of this broader content pain is the fact that some known platform fundamentals are still getting tackled. In 2018, the startups in the AR that were raising the most buzz were so-called “AR cloud” startups, teams that were largely focused on solving more fundamental back-end problems around localization and mapping. It turns out “simple” problems like getting a bunch of users in a single session or keeping tracking of objects you’ve moved around between sessions are actually incredibly complex.

A big issue is that AR fundamentally relies on a level of spatial understanding that goes far beyond grasping geometry. For all the ground that has been traversed by computer vision researchers this year, issues like segmenting environments by objects and accurately identifying them are still in the earliest stages. When you think of AR tech as a subset of vision problems, you realize that products today are being approached in a kind of bizarre manner.

Google has been making worthwhile movements in proliferating their Lens computer vision engine across new apps and devices. In a very round about way the company seems to have come to the worthwhile perspective that mapping an environment spatially doesn’t really help you that much if you can’t parse the contextual nuances of what the camera is actually looking at as well.

A lot of the AR startups in this space have raised some cash on the backs of the smartphone AR trend and the hundreds of millions of potential users, but it still seems pretty dubious whether this market has legs. Fortunately, most of these solutions have wide applicability across future industries like robotics and autonomous vehicles as well, helping computers interface with the real world through visual and geographic cues, but their utility might not be as ripe as they’d hope.

This is an area where Magic Leap could be poised to find some relatively near-term success. The startup’s top brass spent a hefty amount of time at their developer conference talking about the “Magicverse,” basically their vision for bringing localized AR layers onto geographic spaces where users with Magic Leap glasses could observe the content. Without having taken a peek at the tech they’re working with, their biggest advantage seems to rely on their partnership with AT&T which is poised to start working more seriously with 5G in 2019.

The backend still remains a much more exciting market than hardware in 2019, but there may still be some interesting movement with devices this year. I don’t trust most of the predictive data that exists surrounding headset sales so I’m not even going to reference it but suffice to say that AR headset sales aren’t going to explode anytime soon.

North Focals

More conservative AR hardware

One trend that I am curious to see shake out is the more simplistic version of AR where the glasses basically just offer users a heads-up display for notifications and lightweight apps.

Companies like North and Vuzix have been talking a lot about their work here. Apple’s rumored AR glasses have been talked about for ages at this point, with 2020/2021 seeming to be the rumor mill sweet spot for a release timeframe and if that’s the case I’d bet it falls more into this design ethos than a HoloLens type device. The hardware just isn’t small enough yet but it is getting close and there could be some interesting early ground that the industry could gain by moving in more heavily on traditional wearable use cases though high component costs will be an early limiter as well.

This is probably a hardware space Snap has their eyes on; Spectacles jogged a lot of the current thinking on glasses-type wearables, but at this point, the company needs something that has wide appeal and can feed users back into its own app. The company isn’t in a position to hock something with razor-thin or non-existent margins and it doesn’t gain that much from a product that sells a few thousand units in terms of building its platform.

Bottom line

For the Facebooks and Apples of the world, immediate market conditions and user interest obviously hold a different weight. US investment firms with good track records spent a lot of time this year rejiggering their expectations for their first waves of investments. For the more ambitious privately-held AR startups of the world, there’s probably going to be an issue with raising capital this year as a lot of the top hardware companies have been seeking more free-flowing late stage cash from Chinese firms which have been growing harder to pin down as the trade climate worsens.  This is going to be a problem for hardware companies especially.

For the most part, the BS is going to continue to get easier to parse this year.

Platform plays are going to have to dial in their their target audience a bit more than “everyone with an AR-enabled phone”; more realistic expectations are something the industry should benefit from. ARKit and ARCore are going to level-up and game engine-makers are going to get better solutions for AR content creators. Backend vision challenges are going to get solved and enable things like more seamless multi-player, but there are plenty of reasons why these tech problem solutions won’t lead to big changes in user behavior. Users failing to take off in the second year of some of these big platforms probably won’t dissuade Apple, but it definitely will dissuade some investors from continuing to bet big on the near-term future of mobile AR.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The top 10 cities for $100M VC rounds in 2018 so far

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Crunchbase News recently profiled a selection of U.S. companies’ largest VC raised in 2018, and no surprise here: the 10 largest rounds all topped out well north of $100 million.

A major driver of global venture dollar growth is the relatively recent phenomenon of companies raising $100 million or more in a single venture round. We’ve called these nine and 10-figure deals, which shine brightly in the media and are hefty enough to bend the curve of VC fund sizes upwards, “supergiants” after their stellar counterparts.

And like stars, venture-backed companies tend to originate and co-exist in clusters, while the physical space between these groups is largely empty.

We noticed that many of the companies behind these supergiant rounds are headquartered in just a few metro areas around the United States. In this case, it’s mostly just the SF Bay Area, plus others scattered between Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego and one (Magic Leap) in the unfortunately named Plantation, Florida.

The San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps one of the best-known tech and startup hubs in the world. Places like Boston, NYC and Los Angeles, among others, are perhaps just as well-known. But how do these cities stack up as clusters for companies raising supergiant rounds?

Superclusters

That question got us wondering how these locales rank against other major metropolitan areas throughout the world. In the chart below, we’ve plotted the count of supergiant venture rounds1 topping out at $100 million or more through November 5. These numbers are based off of reported data in Crunchbase, exclude private equity rounds and do not account for deals that may have already been closed but haven’t been publicly announced yet.

Although U.S.-based companies have raised more supergiant rounds (168 year to date) than their Chinese counterparts (160 year to date), Chinese companies raise much bigger rounds, even at this supergiant size class.

How much more? U.S. companies have raised $38.4 billion, year to date, in nine and 10-figure venture rounds alone. Chinese companies have raised $69 billion across their 160 supergiant deals, which includes the largest-ever VC deal: a $14 billion Series C round raised by Ant Financial.

2018 in perspective

2018 is already a record year for venture funding worldwide. With more than $275 billion in projected total venture dollar volume so far, 2018’s year-to-date numbers have already eclipsed 2017’s full-year figures (a projected $220 billion, roughly) by more than $55 billion.2

And there’s still about eight weeks left to go before it’s New Year’s Eve.

  1. We use the same classification rules for what is and is not a “venture” round as we’ve used in our quarterly reports. Check out the methodology section of our most recent global VC report, from Q3 2018, to learn more about how Crunchbase News categorizes rounds.
  2. We’re referring to the same type of projected data we use in the quarterly reports. Check out the methodology section of our most recent global VC report, from Q3 2018, to learn more about how Crunchbase News uses projected and reported data.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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