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June 25, 2019
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Startups Weekly: Will the Seattle tech scene ever reach its full potential?

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Greetings from Seattle, the land of Amazon, Microsoft, two of the world’s richest men and some startups.

I’m always surprised the Seattle startup ecosystem hasn’t grown to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley — or at least Boston and New York City — since the dot-com boom. Today, it’s the strongest it’s has been due to the successes of companies like the newly minted unicorn Outreach, trucking business Convoy and, of course, the dog walking startup Rover. But the city still lags behind, failing to adopt the culture of entrepreneurship that defines San Francisco.

I spent a lot of time wondering why it hasn’t reached its full potential. Is it because Microsoft and Amazon pay their employees so well they don’t have the same urge to build something from the ground up? Is it a lack of access to capital? Is the city not attracting top talent? If you have thoughts, send them my way.

“We think part of the issue is a lack of capital and a lack of help,” Rover and Pioneer Square Labs co-founder Greg Gottesman told TechCrunch earlier this year. “If we can provide a little bit of both of those things, we can really put Seattle where it deserves to be, should be and will be.”

Despite its shortcomings, there is still some action in the city I want to highlight this week. A same-day delivery business, Dolly, is on the rise. The startup told me on Thursday it had raised a $7.5 million round from Unlock Venture Partners, Maveron and Jeff Wilke, the chief executive officer of Amazon Worldwide Consumer. Maveron, if you remember, is the VC fund co-founded by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.

In other Seattle news, Madrona Venture Group, a well-regarded fund, raised an additional $100 million this week. Typically, Madrona focuses on companies based in the Pacific Northwest, but this fund will deploy capital throughout the entire U.S. Hmmm, that’s not necessarily a good sign for Seattle founders, but great progress for the ecosystem nonetheless.

If you’re interested in learning more about Seattle tech, I’ve covered it a bit because it’s my hometown! Start with this story, which dives deep into a Seattle accelerator that’s working hard to encourage entrepreneurship in the city. Alright, on to other news.

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IPO corner!

WeWork: The co-working giant now known as The We Company submitted confidential IPO documents to the SEC, the company confirmed in a press release Monday. Is this the next massive startup win or a house of cards waiting to be toppled by the glare of the public markets? TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton investigates.

Slack: The business is in its final steps toward a much-anticipated direct listing, with one source telling TechCrunch the listing will be complete within 45 days. The WSJ reported this week that Slack will make an online presentation to potential shareholders on May 13. This week, we dug deep into Slack’s S-1 and decided to evaluate just how well the tech press, us included, did in covering the company. For the most part, the tech press did decently well, except for one curious, $162 million gap.

Uber: Finally! That ride-hailing company is going public next week. That latest news? Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick won’t be ringing the opening bell. Uber would not be where it is today without Kalanick, but him being there would surely be a reminder of Uber’s rocky past.

Beyond Meat: Shares of the company surged up 135 percent in their market opener last week, valuing the company as high as $3.52 billion. Volatility was so high on the company’s stock that the Nasdaq had to pause trading of “BYND” shares.

Micro-mobility instability:

Ofo has run into its fair share of issues, laying off hundreds of workers, shutting down its international division and more. Now, you can buy a piece of the startup’s history.

In other micro-mobility news, Lyft’s head of scooter & bikes Liam O’Connor, who was hired to help transportation company Lyft build its bike and scooter operations, has left after seven months with the newly-public company. TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden has the scoop. Plus, Bird, the electric scooter unicorn doing its best to overcome regulatory barriers, has made its way back to San Francisco. Bird is using its business license in San Francisco to introduce monthly personal rentals in the city. The program enables people to rent a scooter for $24.99 a month with no cap on the number of rides. We’ll how that goes.

WTF?

For some reason, people are giving Magic Leap more money. The company has secured another $280 million in a deal with Japan’s largest mobile operator, Docomo. Do you know what that means? The developer fo AR/VR headsets has raised a total of $2.6 billion. We’re just as confused as you.

Brand new venture capital funds:

Unshackled Ventures raised $20 million. 

Jungle Ventures closed on $175 million.

And Toyota AI Ventures launched a $100 million fund.

Startup Capital

Uber investors exit

I have the inside story on Menlo Ventures early Uber stake and TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos goes deep with early Uber backer Bradley Tusk.

Extra Crunch!

This week, we offer TechCrunch Extra Crunch subscribers exclusive tips on building extraordinary teams. Plus, the final piece in TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak’s series on Niantic, the fast-growing developer of Pokemon Go. If you recall, we’ve captured much of Niantic’s ongoing story in the first three parts of our EC-1, from its beginnings as an “entrepreneurial lab” within Google, to its spin-out as an independent company and the launch of Pokémon GO, to its ongoing focus on becoming a platform for others to build augmented reality products upon.

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton chat about updates at the Vision Fund, Cheddar’s big exit and more of this week’s headlines.

Magic Leap’s headset will go on sale at a few AT&T stores next week

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While Magic Leap’s first augmented reality headset launch wasn’t the earth-shattering drop they had sort of pitched the world on, the company is about to see a major corporate partnership push their device in front of more consumers’ eyes. Next week, the $2,295 headset will be going up for sale at flagship AT&T stores in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.

Having more channels of distribution than direct-to-consumer orders from the web is obviously good for Magic Leap, and distills some sort of bleeding-edge innovation marketing ethos for AT&T, but as the Magic Leap One appears to be exiting the dev kit phase of its life cycle, what relatively normal person out there is really going to be interested in buying this thing?

I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a great reason to own one of these as a consumer, aside from just exploring a new piece of technology that’s pretty interesting.

VR platforms from Oculus and Valve have built up far more robust storefronts, but that’s going to be a big challenge for Magic Leap to do on its own. The company has showcased plenty of brief demos, but there isn’t a huge amount of gaming content for the device, and Magic Leap doesn’t seem to have realized any substantial new consumer hits. At AT&T’s in-store demos, Magic Leap will be showing off a Game of Thrones experience they’ve built with HBO.

The enterprise market is perhaps the more realistic sell, and while it would seem like most customers would know whether they want something like this, having the opportunity to take it for a whirl, albeit with some GoT content, might be the added push they need.

Hands-on with Microsoft’s new HoloLens 2

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Earlier this week, Microsoft used its MWC press conference to announce the next version of its HoloLens mixed reality visor. When it demoed the first version back in 2015, quite a few pundits assumed that the company had somehow faked the demos because this kind of real-time tracking and gesture recognition, combined with a relatively high-res display and packaged as a standalone device, had never been done before.

The fact that Microsoft took its sweet time to release this next version clearly shows that it wanted to gather feedback from its first set of users and developers who wrote apps for it. Microsoft also wasn’t under a lot of pressure to release an update, given that it never had a real competitor, with maybe the exception of Magic Leap, which is still in its very early days.

If version 1 came as a major surprise, then version 2, which I’ve now had time to try at MWC, is in many ways the natural evolution of the original promise: it’s more comfortable to wear, the field of view is large enough to feel more natural and the interaction model has been tweaked to make using HoloLens apps faster and easier. The hardware, too, has obviously been brought up to modern specs.

The first thing you’ll notice when you try the new version is that the initial calibration process that measures the distance between your eyes is now automatic. You essentially play a little game where you track a light in front of you and the new gaze recognition system takes care of setting up the calibration. Once that’s done, a hummingbird appears and lands on your hand. That’s also when you realize how much bigger the field of view has become. The bird is big enough that I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have fit into the relatively small box that restricted the HoloLens 1’s field of view.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience is still not quite what Microsoft’s videos would have you believe. You are still very aware of the fact that there’s an abrupt end between where the AR images appear and where they end — but it’s far less jarring now that you have this bigger box. As far as the resolution goes, the specs are pretty much the same and there’s no practical difference that I noted.

The other thing you’ll notice right from the get-go is that Microsoft wasn’t kidding when it said that the new HoloLens would be far more comfortable to wear. The original felt clamped to your head (and for me, it had a tendency to slowly slide down my face) and you never quite forgot how heavy it was. The new one rests comfortably on your forehead, and, while you still essentially clamp it to your face by tightening a knob at the back, wearing it feels far more natural. The actual device is only a few grams lighter than the first edition, but with what I assume is a different weight distribution, it simply feels lighter. And if you wear glasses, then there’s no pressure on those anymore either because none of the weight rests on your nose.

Another major difference: The HoloLens 2 is now a real visor that you can flip open. So while you can obviously look through the lenses, you can now also easily move the HoloLens away from your face.

As you go through the process of trying the new HoloLens, you’ll sooner or later come across menus, buttons and sliders. In the first version, the hand and gesture tracking wasn’t quite there to let you interact with those naturally. You’d have to use special gestures for that. Now, you simply tap on them as if you were using a smartphone. And when there’s a slider, you grab it and move it. The new demo applications that Microsoft showed off at MWC make good use of all of these.

And there’s another difference: This time around, Microsoft is clearly stating that the HoloLens 2 is for business users, and all of the demos focused on those. Gone are the days of shooting aliens as they break through your walls or playing virtual Minecraft on a table in your living room. Indeed, as Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of Engineering, D365 Mixed Reality Apps at Microsoft told me, the company clearly encouraged a lot of experimentation when it launched the first version. By now, those use cases have become clear.

“When we first started with HoloLens, both internally and in the first wave when we talked about, that this was a completely wide open technology,” she said. “It’s like if you had asked 30 years ago, what could you do with a personal computer. We started by making a bunch of sample applications.” Those applications showed off what you could do in gaming, communications, commercial applications, etc.

“We started by saying that this could be and do anything,” she added. But as HoloLens 1 arrived in the hands of users, a couple of clusters emerged and it’s those that Microsoft wants to focus on for the best out-of-box experience. But it’s also worth noting that Microsoft has committed to keeping HoloLens an open ecosystem. So if game developers want to create games — or their own game stores — there’s nothing holding them back.

Even though it’s now a far more capable device, at $3,500, it’s not a consumer device, and I don’t expect we’ll see any AAA games ported to HoloLens 2 anytime soon.

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.


Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or @KateClarkTweets


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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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.

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