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June 25, 2019
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Daily Crunch: The end of Anki

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The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Cozmo maker Anki is shutting its doors

No one ever said consumer robots were easy. But Anki’s actually made a pretty strong go of it, all things considered.

“We’ve shipped millions of units of product and left customers happy all over the world while building some of the most incredible technologies pointed toward a future with diverse AI and robotics driven applications,” the company said. “But without significant funding to support a hardware and software business and bridge to our long-term product roadmap, it is simply not feasible at this time.”

2. Alphabet misses on Q1 revenues of $36.3B; EPS of $9.50 weighed down by the $1.7B European fine

Overall, it was a tough quarter for the company, indicating struggles with its growth.

3. Why did last night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ look so bad? Here comes the science!

For what it’s worth, I didn’t have any trouble watching Sunday’s climactic battle episode of “Game of Thrones” — but it seems plenty of other viewers did.

4. Samsung sees Q1 profit plummet 60 percent

Samsung said that sales of its new Galaxy S10 smartphone were “solid,” but it admitted that its memory chip and display businesses — so often the most lucrative units for the company — didn’t perform well.

5. Utah’s Divvy raises $200M to eliminate expense reports

Divvy only launched its platform, which allows customers to send and request funds, create virtual credit cards, manage team spending and more, in January 2018. Its valuation has grown 1,000 percent since then, across three rounds of equity funding.

6. Twitter announces new content deals with Univision, The Wall Street Journal and others

The spotlight has moved on from Twitter’s video strategy, but the company is still making deals.

7. What we want to know in the We Company (WeWork) S-1

With news that the We Company (formerly known as WeWork) has officially filed to go public, there’s a big question on everyone’s mind: Is this the next massive startup win or a house of cards waiting to be toppled by the glare of the public markets? (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Cozmo maker Anki is shutting its doors

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No one ever said consumer robots were easy. But Anki’s actually made a pretty strong go of it, all things considered. After wowing the world at Apple’s 2013 WWDC keynote with its Drive cars, the company went all in on robotics, first with Cozmo, then Vector.

After earlier reports of an understandably emotion Monday morning staff meeting lead by CEO Boris Sofman, the company has confirmed with TechCrunch that it will be letting go of its staff, effective later this week. Here’s the full statement,

It is with a heavy heart to announce that Anki will be letting go of our employees, effective Wednesday. We’ve shipped millions of units of product and left customers happy all over the world while building some of the most incredible technologies pointed toward a future with diverse AI and robotics driven applications. But without significant funding to support a hardware and software business and bridge to our long-term product roadmap, it is simply not feasible at this time.

Despite our past successes, we pursued every financial avenue to fund our future product development and expand on our platforms. A significant financial deal at a late stage fell through with a strategic investor and we were not able to reach an agreement. We’re doing our best to take care of every single employee and their families, and our management team continues to explore all options available.

We’ve reached out for further specifics regarding what, if any, future there is the company. Anki built several compelling products, most notably Cozmo, which turned into a big holiday hit. As of last August, the Bay Area-based startup told us that it had sold 1.5 million robots since its inception, including “hundreds of thousands” of Cozmo models.

Over the course of its life, the company raised $182 million, according to Crunchbase. It was clearly spending quite a bit as well, having hired composers and former Pixar and Dreamworks animators to more fully realize the personality of Cozmo and its more adult-focused followup, Vector.

The final details closely echo the story of recently shuttered industrial robotics company Rethink, along with fellow home robot, Kuri, both of which ultimately failed to find either an investor or buy to keep the dream alive. Sadly, it’s become a fairly familiar story in the world of robotics startups. Sphero, too, took a similar path, though the Boulder-based startup was ultimately able to pivot to a more lucrative model by targeting education.

Kiwi’s food delivery bots are rolling out to 12 more colleges

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If you’re a student at UC Berkeley, the diminutive rolling robots from Kiwi are probably a familiar sight by now, trundling along with a burrito inside to deliver to a dorm or apartment building. Now students at a dozen more campuses will be able to join this great, lazy future of robotic delivery as Kiwi expands to them with a clever student-run model.

Speaking recently at TechCrunch’s Robotics + AI Session at the Berkeley campus, Kiwi’s Felipe Chavez and Sasha Iatsenia discussed the success of their burgeoning business and the way they planned to take it national.

In case you’re not aware of the Kiwi model, it’s basically this: When you place an order online with a participating restaurant, you have the option of delivery via Kiwi. If you so choose, one of the company’s fleet of knee-high robots with insulated, locking storage compartments will swing by the place, your order is put within, and it brings it to your front door (or as close as it can reasonably get). You can even watch the last bit live from the robot’s perspective as it rolls up to your place.

The robots are what Kiwi calls “semi-autonomous.” This means that although they can navigate most sidewalks and avoid pedestrians, each has a human monitoring it and setting waypoints for it to follow, on average every five seconds. Iatsenia told me that they’d tried going full autonomous and that it worked… most of the time. But most of the time isn’t good enough for a commercial service, so they’ve got humans in the loop. They’re working on improving autonomy, but for now this is how it is.

That the robots are being controlled in some fashion by a team of people in Colombia (from where the co-founders hail) does take a considerable amount of the futurism out of this endeavor, but on reflection it’s kind of a natural evolution of the existing delivery infrastructure. After all, someone has to drive the car that brings you your food, as well. And in reality, most AI is operated or informed directly or indirectly by actual people.

That those drivers are in South America operating multiple vehicles at a time is a technological advance over your average delivery vehicle — though it must be said that there is an unsavory air of offshoring labor to save money on wages. That said, few people shed tears over the wages earned by the Chinese assemblers who put together our smartphones and laptops, or the garbage pickers who separate your poorly sorted recycling. The global labor economy is a complicated one, and the company is making jobs in the place it was at least partly born.

Whatever the method, Kiwi has traction: it’s done more than 35,000 deliveries at an increasing rate since it started two years ago (now up to over 10,000 per month) and the model seems to have proven itself. Customers are happy, they get stuff delivered more than ever once they get the app and there are fewer and fewer incidents where a robot is kicked over or, you know, catches on fire. Notably, the founders said onstage, the community has really adopted the little vehicles, and should one overturn or be otherwise interfered with, it’s often set on its way soon after by a passerby.

Iatsenia and Chavez think the model is ready to push out to other campuses, where a similar effort will have to take place — but rather than do it themselves by raising millions and hiring staff all over the country, they’re trusting the robotics-loving student groups at other universities to help out.

For a small and low-cash startup like Kiwi, it would be risky to overextend by taking on a major round and using that to scale up. They started as robotics enthusiasts looking to bring something like this to their campus, so why can’t they help others do the same?

So the team looked at dozens of universities, narrowing them down by factors important to robotic delivery: layout, density, commercial corridors, demographics and so on. Ultimately they arrived at the following list:

  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Purdue University
  • Texas A&M
  • Parsons
  • Cornell
  • East Tennessee State University
  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • NYU
  • Rutgers

What they’re doing is reaching out to robotics clubs and student groups at those colleges to see who wants to take partial ownership of Kiwi administration out there. Maintenance and deployment would still be handled by Berkeley students, but the student clubs would go through a certification process and then do the local work, like a capsized bot and on-site issues with customers and restaurants.

“We are exploring several options to work with students down the road, including rev share,” Iatsenia told me. “It depends on the campus.”

So far they’ve sent 40 robots to the 12 campuses listed and will be rolling out operations as the programs move forward on their own time. If you’re not one of the unis listed, don’t worry — if this goes the way Kiwi plans, it sounds like you can expect further expansion soon.

How to avoid PR disasters, the new web, and who owns Huawei?

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Soon: Live conference call with Anthony Ha on TED

At 2pm EST / 11am PST, we will have TechCrunch writer Anthony Ha talking live with Extra Crunch readers about all things TED conference, which was last week in Vancouver. Come armed with your questions, or send us an email if you want us to ask on your behalf. Arman is fielding them at arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com. Call details will be sent to subscribers an hour before the call.

How to pitch to a (tech) journalist

I wrote a two-set piece yesterday about how to work with journalists. While written with founders and startups in mind, the lessons apply to pretty much anyone who works with the media or wants to.

The key — as with everything in life — is building relationships. You want to know the people who cover your company. You want them to know you too. That doesn’t mean you have to chat with them every day, but it does mean that making a quality human connection will take you far.

Digging into key takeaways from our 2019 Robotics+AI Sessions Event

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Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Brian Heater and Lucas Matney shared their key takeaways from our Robotics+AI Sessions event at UC Berkeley last week.

The event was filled with panels, demos and intimate discussions with key robotics and deep learning founders, executives and technologists. Brian and Lucas discuss which companies excited them most, as well as which verticals have the most exciting growth prospects in the robotics world.

“This is the second [robotics event] in a row that was done at Berkeley where people really know the events; they respect it, they trust it and we’re able to get really, I would say far and away the top names in robotics. It was honestly a room full of all-stars.

I think our Disrupt events are definitely skewed towards investors and entrepreneurs that may be fresh off getting some seed or Series A cash so they can drop some money on a big ticket item. But here it’s cool because there are so many students. robotics founders and a lot of wide-eyed people wandering from the student union grabbing a pass and coming in. So it’s a cool different level of energy that I think we’re used to.

And I’ll say that this is the key way in which we’ve been able to recruit some of the really big people like why we keep getting Boston Dynamics back to the event, who generally are very secretive.”

Brian and Lucas dive deeper into how several of the major robotics companies and technologies have evolved over time, and also dig into the key patterns and best practices seen in successful robotics startups.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

 

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