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June 25, 2019
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In Ford’s future, two-legged robots and self-driving cars could team up on deliveries

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Autonomous vehicles might someday be able to navigate bustling city streets to deliver groceries, pizzas, and other packages without a human behind the wheel. But that doesn’t solve what Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington describes as the last 50-foot problem.

Ford and startup Agility Robotics are partnering in a research project that will test how two-legged robots and self-driving vehicles can work together to solve that curb-to-door problem. Agility’s Digit, a two-legged robot that has a lidar where its head should be, will be used in the project. The robot, which is capable of lifting 40 pounds, can ride along in a self-driving vehicle and be deployed when needed to delivery packages.

“We’re looking at the opportunity of autonomous vehicles through the lens of the consumer and we know from some early experimentation that there are challenges with the last 50 feet,” Washington told TechCrunch in a recent interview. Finding a solution could be an important differentiator for Ford’s commercial robotaxi service, which it plans to launch in 2021.

The communication between Digit and a Ford autonomous vehicle is perhaps the most compelling piece of this research project. As the GIF below shows, the AV arrives at its destination, the hatch of the Ford Transit van opens and Digit unfolds itself, then grabs the package and walks to the door.

Digit is equipped with lidar and stereo cameras, just enough sensors for basic navigation.

But there’s more to the story. The autonomous vehicle — equipped with a robust suite of sensors and computing power that allows for more complex decision making — is sharing its data with Digit long before it is deployed. When Digit “wakes up” it already knows where it is in the world. And if Digit runs into trouble, it can communicate with the idling AV for that extra perception and decision-making prowess.

This solves what Agility CEO Damion Shelton describes as a “classic robotics problem,” of helping the robot know where it is when it wakes up from its sleep state.

“If you know you’re riding around in the vehicle with a clear view of your entire surroundings, it’s a lot easier to get up and move around,” Shelton explained. “That’s really how we’re viewing the primary purpose of this beta exchange; to help the robot be aware of its surroundings, so that you don’t go through this sort of boot up process where the robot gets out of the car and is confused for the first 30 seconds it’s turned on.”

Agility’s Digit robot isn’t the only option Ford is experimenting with to solve that vehicle-to-doorstep problem, Washington said. However, Washington did note that the two-legged robots do have certain advantages, like the ability to step over cracks in the sidewalk and walk up stairs, that can be problematic for wheeled robots.

Ford and Agility’s agreement is categorized as a research project, for now. Ford has not taken an equity stake in Agility, Washington said, although he quickly added “that doesn’t mean we’re not open to it at some point.” 

For Agility, this project is a turning point — or certainly an acceleration — of its very new business. The robotics startup spun out of Oregon State University in late 2015 with an aim to commercialize research from the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory on bipedal locomotion. The company introduced its ostrich-inspired Cassie robot in 2017 as a bipedal research platform. Digit, which added an upper torso, arms, sensors, and additional computing power to the Cassie design, was introduced in February 2019.

Agility has 20 employees, about half of whom support the construction of the robots. The company has raised nearly $8.8 million in capital from a seed and Series A round. And now, with this latest partnership, Agility is prepping to raise another round to help it scale.

Agility has made two first-generation Digit robots. The company, which has offices in Albany, Oregon and Pittsburgh, plans to unveil the second-generation Digit in early summer. A third version of Digit — marking the final design of this bipedal robot — will likely come out in summer or early fall, Shelton said.

Agility will produce about six of these final versions of Digit. From here, Shelton estimated the company will have a steady state production of about two Digits a month. Ultimately, Agility is on pace to make between 50 and 100 by 2021.

All of this research and experimentation is part of the Ford’s eventual goal to launch a commercial robotaxi service. And that last 50-feet will be one of the critical hurdles it will need overcome if it hopes to make self-driving vehicles a profitable enterprise. To prepare, the automaker is pursuing two parallels tracks — testing and honing in on how an AV business might operate, while separately developing autonomous vehicle technology through its subsidiary Argo AI .

Argo AI,  the Pittsburgh-based company into which Ford invested $1 billion in 2017, is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is testing its go-to-market strategy through pilot programs with local businesses as well as large corporate partners like Walmart, Domino’s and Postmates.

Ford plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 under an LLC that’s dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. The $4 billion spending plan includes a $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI.

Ford is testing in Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. and is poised to expand into Austin.

Meet the 19 startups in AngelPad’s 12th batch

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AngelPad just wrapped the 12th run of its months-long New York City startup accelerator. For the second time, the program didn’t culminate in a demo day; rather, the 19 participating startups were given pre-arranged one-on-one meetings with venture capital investors late last week.

AngelPad co-founders Thomas Korte and Carine Magescas did away with the demo day tradition last year after nearly a decade operating AngelPad, which is responsible for mentoring startups including Postmates, Twitter-acquired Mopub, Pipedrive, Periscope Data, Zum and DroneDeploy.

“Demo days are great ways for accelerators to expose a large number of companies to a lot of investors, but we don’t think it is the most productive way,” Korte told TechCrunch last year. Competing accelerator Y Combinator has purportedly considered their eliminating demo day as well, though sources close to YC deny this. The firm cut its investor day, a similar opportunity for investors to schedule meetings with individual startups, “after analyzing its effectiveness” last year.

Feedback to AngelPad’s choice to forego demo day has been positive, Korte tells TechCrunch, with startup CEOs breathing a sigh of relief they aren’t forced to pitch to a large crowd with no promise of investment.

AngelPad invests $120,000 in each of its companies. Here’s a closer look at its latest batch:

LotSpot is a parking management tool for universities, parks and malls. The company installs cameras at the entrances and exits of customer parking lots and autonomously tracks lot occupancy as cars enter and exit. The LotSpot founders are Stanford University Innovation Fellows with backgrounds in engineering and sales.

Twic is a discretionary benefits management platform that helps businesses offer wellness benefits at a lower cost. The tool assists human resources professionals in selecting vendors, monitoring benefits usage and managing reimbursements with a digital wallet. Twic customers include Twitch and Oscar. The company’s current ARR is $265,000.

Zeal is an enterprise contract automation platform that helps sales teams manage custom routine agreements, like NDAs, independently and efficiently. The startup is currently working on test implementations with Amazon, Citi and Cvent. The founders are attorneys and management consultants who previously led sales and legal strategy at AXIOM.

ChargingLedger works with energy grid operators to optimize electric grid usage with smart charging technology for electric vehicles. The company’s paid pilot program is launching this month.

Piio, focused on SEO, helps companies boost their web presence with technology that optimizes website speed and performance based on user behavior, location, device, platform and connection speed. Currently, Piio is working with JomaShop and e-commerce retailers. Its ARR is $90,000.

Duality.ai is a QA platform for autonomous vehicles. It leverages human testers and simulation environments to accelerate time-to-market for AV sidewalk, cars and trucks. Its founders include engineers and designers from Caterpillar, Pixar and Apple. Its two first beta customers generated an ARR of $100,000.

COMUNITYmade partners with local manufacturers to sell their own brand of premium sneakers made in Los Angeles. The company has attracted brands, including Adidas, for collaborations. The founders are alums of Asics and Toms.

Spacey is a millennial-focused art-buying platform. The company sells limited-edition collections of fine-art prints at affordable prices and offers offline membership experiences, as well as a program for brand ambassadors with large social followings.

LegalPassage saves lawyers time with business process automation software for law firms. The company focuses on litigation, specifically class action and personal injury. The founder is a litigation attorney, former adjunct professor of law at UC Hastings and a past chair of the Family Law Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Revetize helps local businesses boost revenue by managing reputation, encouraging referrals and increasing repeat business. The startup, headquartered in Utah, has an ARR of $220,000.

House of gigs helps people find short-term work near them, offering “employee-like” services and benefits to those freelancers and gig workers. The startup has 90,000 members. The San Francisco and Berlin-based founders previously worked together at a VC-backed HR startup.

MetaRouter provides fast, flexible and secure data routing. The cloud-based on-prem platform has reached an ARR of $250,000, with customers like HomeDepot and Sephora already signed on.

RamenHero offers a meal kit service for authentic gourmet ramen

RamenHero offers a meal kit for authentic gourmet ramen. The startup launched in 2018 and has roughly 1,700 customers and $125,000 in revenue. The startup’s founder, a serial entrepreneur, graduated from a culinary ramen school in Japan.

ByteRyde is insurance for autonomous vehicles, specifically Tesla Model 3s, taking into account the safety feature of self-driving cars.

Foresite.ai provides commercial real estate investors a real-time platform for data analysis and visualization of location-based trends.

PieSlice is a blockchain-based equity issuance and management platform that helps create fully compliant digital tokens that represent equity in a company. The founder is a former trader and stockbroker turned professional poker player.

Aitivity is a security hardware company that is developing a scalable blockchain algorithm for enterprises, specifically for IoT usage.

SmartAlto, a SaaS platform with $190,000 ARR, nurtures real estate leads. The company pairs agents with digital assistants to help the agents show more homes.

FunnelFox works with sales teams to help them spend less time on customer research, pipeline management and reporting. The AI-enabled platform has reached an ARR of $75,000 with customers including Botify and Paddle.

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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In emerging markets there are no copycats, just budding entrepreneurs

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Every year I teach an MBA course at Stanford about the exciting opportunities for tech investors and entrepreneurs in developing economies. When we designed the syllabus back in 2013, Rocket Internet was still firing on all cylinders in four continents. The unapologetic machine built to copy big Internet American companies created billions of dollars for the Samwer brothers and its backers. During Rocket’s golden years, the best startups in the developing economies seemed to inevitably have an original reference in Silicon Valley.

Accordingly, we added a class about the opportunity of replicating business models to seize this information arbitrage. Call it the second-mover advantage.

Despite my conviction about the model, the copycat word  —  short for replicating startups and attached to these ventures  —  annoyed me from the start. More than a term to describe a straightforward recipe to launch, I see it as an unconscious way to belittle an entire group of hard-charging founders and investors.

Indeed, while in foreign eyes, we have been building a Mexican Kickstarter, a Middle Eastern Uber, an Indian Amazon, or a Colombian Postmates, I argue visionary founders are taking a simple idea that already exists and creating new worlds.

On the Internet, there are Einsteins and there are Bob the Builders. I’m Bob the Builder’, Oliver Samwer, Founder of Rocket Internet

Gateway to entrepreneurship

While impact is the final goal, founders can approach the journey in different ways. The most common approach in the startup world is to use the business method or more pompously, the design thinking methodology. “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution,” mentors keep telling a succession of startups clusters in acceleration programs. The best and “leanest” way to product market fit is by starting small then keep iterating the solution until you nail it.

A second way to start is favored by engineers and scientists: take a new promising technology or a forgotten molecule, then find a big problem. Keep iterating until you find a problem worth solving, like a hammer looking for a nail.

A third way is starting like painters create, building skills by copying classics, or like a new chef cooks by starting with iconic recipes: replicate a proven idea and iterate until you find traction.

Until a few years ago it was ostensibly the only way to scale in developing economies. The model helped raise local capital from risk-averse investors who needed reassurance. The playbook to scale was unfolding a couple of years ahead and served as a guide to founders without previous startup experience and no local role models. The potential acquirer was identified and sometimes contacted in advance. Founders weren’t crazy and investors weren’t dumb.

Replicating a business model has served in emerging ecosystems as the gateway to entrepreneurship and venture investing.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/A_Marga

Riding the next wave

According to conventional wisdom, new ecosystems around the world grow through the following three stages, be them in developing economies or more developed countries. First, local and foreign entrepreneurs replicate successful models focused on local markets. Then as the ecosystem evolves, founders start applying existing technologies to solve local problems. Finally, as the tech space matures new technologies begin to flourish.

In my opinion, those stages never happen sequentially as stated by ecosystem observers. Successful startups that started with a foreign inspiration can outgrow the master. If they are not bought into submission by the first mover, some of the most famous copycats reinvented the original and made it better: Mercado Libre is much more relevant in the eCommerce space than eBay . Flipkart is hardly an Amazon, not to mention WeChat. These companies are in turn some of the most prolific tech innovators on the globe. Truly ecosystems evolve organically in unique ways reflecting their history, geopolitical environment, economic structure and cultural features.

Two ways to defend the status quo: “It’s been done before” and “It’s never been done before.” — Thibault @Kpaxs

In defense of talent

Recently, it’s hard to hear American observers use the word copycat to describe any American company. After all, Guilt replicated VentesPrivees and Lime, Chinese dockless bike sharing and many more examples. All American startups are treated as innovators while the rest as mere followers.

Recently, Chinese or Indian startups seem to be given the benefit of the doubt regarding their originality. Is it because these regions have become more innovative? Maybe. But it’s also because these ecosystems have gained the respect of Silicon Valley. Indeed, Chinese consumer tech surpassed decisively the US as the most important country in terms of investments.

So here’s my humble suggestion to our wealthier and more accomplished colleagues: stop using the c-word with founders. It’s offensive. Most probably, these founders are facing more challenges to build their companies and lower odds for success that the first mover. If anything, they have more merit than the originals.

As for founders, when they call you a me-too, remember all teams started somewhere, somehow. In fact, most started like Bob the Builder before turning into Einsteins. The truth is, it doesn’t matter where you start. You can start by applying a new technology or protocol. You can start with a problem you feel passionate about. You can start by replicating a business model. It doesn’t really matter if you take a big swing at the future and trust you will figure out how to make it happen. It doesn’t matter what label they use while you change the world for the better.

Robot couriers scoop up early-stage cash

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Much of the last couple of decades of innovation has centered around finding ways to get what we want without leaving the sofa.

So far, online ordering and on-demand delivery have allowed us to largely accomplish this goal. Just point, click and wait. But there’s one catch: Delivery people. We can never all lie around ordering pizzas if someone still has to deliver them.

Enter robots. In tech-futurist circles, it’s pretty commonplace to hear predictions about how some medley of autonomous vehicles and AI-enabled bots will take over doorstep deliveries in the coming years. They’ll bring us takeout, drop off our packages and displace lots of humans who currently make a living doing these things.

If this vision does become reality, there’s a strong chance it’ll largely be due to a handful of early-stage startups currently working to roboticize last-mile delivery. Below, we take a look at who they are, what they’re doing, who’s backing them and where they’re setting up shop.

The players

Crunchbase data unearthed at least eight companies in the robot delivery space with headquarters or operations in North America that have secured seed or early-stage funding in the past couple of years.

They range from heavily funded startups to lean seed-stage operations. Silicon Valley-based Nuro, an autonomous delivery startup founded by former engineers at Alphabet’s Waymo, is the most heavily funded, having raised $92 million to date. Others have raised a few million.

In the chart below, we look at key players, ranked by funding to date, along with their locations and key investors.

Who’s your backer?

While startups may be paving the way for robot delivery, they’re not doing so alone. One of the ways larger enterprises are keeping a toehold in the space is through backing and partnering with early-stage startups. They’re joining a long list of prominent seed and venture investors also eagerly eyeing the sector.

The list of larger corporate investors includes Germany’s Daimler, the lead investor in Starship Technologies. China’s Tencent, meanwhile, is backing San Francisco-based Marble, while Toyota AI Ventures has invested in Boxbot.

As for partnering, takeout food delivery services seem to be the most active users of robot couriers.

Starship, whose bot has been described as a slow-moving, medium-sized cooler on six wheels, is making particularly strong inroads in takeout. The San Francisco- and Estonia-based company, launched by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, is teaming up with DoorDash and Postmates in parts of California and Washington, DC. It’s also working with the Domino’s pizza chain in Germany and the Netherlands.

Robby Technologies, another maker of cute, six-wheeled bots, has also been partnering with Postmates in parts of Los Angeles. And Marble, which is branding its boxy bots as “your friendly neighborhood robot,” teamed up last year for a trial with Yelp in San Francisco.

San Francisco Bay Area dominates

While their visions of world domination are necessarily global, the robot delivery talent pool remains rather local.

Six of the eight seed- and early-stage startups tracked by Crunchbase are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the remaining two have some operations in the region.

Why is this? Partly, there’s a concentration of talent in the area, with key engineering staff coming from larger local companies like Uber, Tesla and Waymo . Plus, of course, there’s a ready supply of investor capital, which bot startups presumably will need as they scale.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco, known for scarce and astronomically expensive housing, are also geographies in which employers struggle to find people to deliver stuff at prevailing wages to the hordes of tech workers toiling at projects like designing robots to replace them.

That said, the region isn’t entirely friendly territory for slow-moving sidewalk robots. In San Francisco, already home to absurdly steep streets and sidewalks crowded with humans and discarded scooters, city legislators voted to ban delivery robots from most places and severely restrict them in areas where permitted.

The rise of the pizza delivery robot manager

But while San Francisco may be wary of a delivery robot invasion, other geographies, including nearby Berkeley, Calif., where startup Kiwi Campus operates, have been more welcoming.

In the process, they’re creating an interesting new set of robot overseer jobs that could shed some light on the future of last-mile delivery employment.

For some startups in early trial mode, robot wrangling jobs involve shadowing bots and making sure they carry out their assigned duties without travails.

Remote robot management is also a thing and will likely see the sharpest growth. Starship, for instance, relies on operators in Estonia to track and manage bots as they make their deliveries in faraway countries.

For now, it’s too early to tell whether monitoring and controlling hordes of delivery bots will provide better pay and working conditions than old-fashioned human delivery jobs.

At least, however, much of it could theoretically be done while lying on the sofa.

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