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January 18, 2019
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Startups

Whyd now helps companies create their custom voice assistant

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Y Combinator-backed startup Whyd is pivoting from hardware to software. The startup had been working on a connected speaker with a voice-control interface specifically designed for music. But a couple of years later, it’s clear that subsidized voice assistant devices from Google and Amazon have taken over the market.

Whyd is only keeping its own software platform and partnering with other companies. In other words, if you’re working on an app, a website or a skill for the Amazon Echo or Google Home, you can create your own voice assistant to interact with your content.

This way, your users get the same experience across all platforms and you don’t have to rely on Amazon’s or Google’s services.

“We let you integrate with a database of millions of items, create a custom agent and release it,” Whyd co-founder and CEO Gilles Poupardin told me. You can think about it as a sort of Algolia for voice queries. Instead of limiting yourself to basic queries (“play my favorite playlist”), you can handle complicated queries (“I want to dance on electronic music”).

In particular, Whyd focuses on the cloud infrastructure behind your voice assistant. The company doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and lets you use any speech-to-text SDK. But Whyd can then interpret your query and give you results in little time.

The startup has already worked with 8tracks on its voice assistant. You can now search for music playlists in the mobile app using a voice assistant now. Whyd has developed different models for other verticals. You can imagine a voice assistant for video on demand, e-commerce and other services.

This is what happens between your database and your front end when users interact with their voice:

News Source = techcrunch.com

Flash, the stealthy e-scooter and ‘micro-mobility’ startup from Delivery Hero founder, raises €55M Series A

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Flash, the stealthy mobility startup from Delivery Hero and Team Europe founder Lukasz Gadowski, is de-cloaking today, with news that the Berlin-based company has raised a whopping €55 million in Series A funding.

Despite rumours that multiple VC firms would be involved, the bulk of the new funding comes from Target Global via its mobility fund, which led this round and was already an existing backer of Flash. Others participating in Flash’s Series A include Idinvest Partners, Signals Venture Capital and a number of unnamed angel investors.

Notably, Gadowski is listed as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Target Global, and has been broadly working in the mobility space for the past two years. Rather quietly, he is also an investor in Grin, the Mexico City-based electric scooter company backed by Y Combinator.

In a call with Gadowski, he filled in many of the blanks relating to his new venture, including positioning Flash as a “micro-mobility” company that wants to solve the last-mile transportation problem. The startup is initially entering the e-scooter rental space, but this is just the beginning, he says. More broadly, the way he and his team think about Flash is that it is “unbundling” the car, with new forms of transport.

“In a few years time, micro-mobility will look very different from today,” says Gadowski, revealing that before founding Flash last year, he also took a hard look at new forms of aviation.

Even though it is still very early days for Flash, the startup already boasts a current team of more than 50 full-time employees, recruited from the likes of Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb. Alongside Gadowski, the other Flash co-founders are Carlos Bhola (Corp. Development) and Tim Rucquoi-Berger (Supply & Operations).

“This is not a scooter” – Flash branding in stealth mode

Notably — and definitely quietly — Flash is already operating in Switzerland and Portugal, with plans to launch into France, Italy and Spain in spring 2019, and in the rest of Europe in summer 2019.

The existing launches have been soft-launches, to say the least, with Flash e-scooters not initially carrying the company’s branding, instead sporting the label “This is not a scooter,” part in-house word play, part a statement of intent. Not just another scooter company might be an even more apt label if Gadowski’s longer-term ambitions are realised.

Perhaps more of a product-market-fit trial than anything else, Flash has initially used off-the-shelf e-scooters at launch, whilst simultaneously developing its own hardware and technology. The startup is headquartered in Berlin, but Gadowski tells me the team was first posted in China, establishing a supply chain and other partnerships that he believes can help give Flash the edge.

I put to him a common belief amongst some VCs that the e-scooter space in Europe is heading for a bloodbath that will continue to see a huge amount of venture capital pumped into the space, and subsequently many losers and a lot of money lost.

Recent raises by European e-scooter startups include Wind Mobility ($22 million), VOI ($50 million and Tier (€25 million). Meanwhile, Taxify has also announced its entrance into e-scooter rentals, and Bird and Lime have received substantial investment from three of Europe’s top venture capital firms. Index and Accel have backed Bird, and Atomico has backed Lime.

Gadowski appears for the most part unfazed by the swelling of competition coffers, although he does concede that the current “land grab” is forcing Flash to move slightly faster than it might have done otherwise. In some ways, he would have preferred to continue a more staggered, cautious roll-out, describing the startup as “product-first and multi-vehicle,” and says its customers are not just users of the service but local residents more broadly and the authorities with which it needs to coordinate. “Mistakes can be a lot more serious than at Delivery Hero, safety is involved,” he cautions.

The size of recent funding rounds in the space has also surprised him. However, he doesn’t think this is a “Facebook scenario,” where there will only be a single winner. Several micro-mobility companies can happily co-exist, he says, and the early movers are helping to pave the way for others, including Flash.

I suggest that the e-scooter land grab at its current pace also has a high chance of provoking a backlash amongst consumers and/or authorities, perhaps after a more serious safety accident or other source of reputational damage. Gadowski concedes this is definitely a “short-term” risk, but says there is so much determination by governments and local authorities to solve congestion and the last-mile problem, he doesn’t believe it will be a long-term one.

Finally, I asked Gadowski if he is considering acquiring smaller e-scooter startups in Europe (or perhaps elsewhere), as part of a roll-up strategy that would help the company leapfrog competitors. He declined to rule out acquisitions entirely — Delivery Hero was very effective in this regard — but said it doesn’t make much sense right now as hype in the space has pushed valuations way up. A more likely scenario, he says, is investing in or acquiring startups that can help with other aspects of the business, such as in the supply chain.

News Source = techcrunch.com

SeeTree raises $11.5M to help farmers manage their orchards

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SeeTree, a Tel Aviv-based startup that uses drones and artificial intelligence to bring precision agriculture to their groves, today announced that it has raised an $11.5 million Series A funding round led by Hanaco Ventures, with participation from previous investors Canaan Partners Israel, Uri Levine and his investors group, iAngel and Mindset. This brings the company’s total funding to $15 million.

The idea behind the company, which also has offices in California and Brazil, is that in the past, drone-based precision agriculture hasn’t really lived up to its promise and didn’t work all that well for permanent crops like fruit trees. “In the past two decades, since the concept was born, the application of it, as well as measuring techniques, has seen limited success — especially in the permanent-crop sector,” said SeeTree CEO Israel Talpaz. “They failed to reach the full potential of precision agriculture as it is meant to be.”

He argues that the future of precision agriculture has to take a more holistic view of the entire farm. He also believes that past efforts didn’t quite offer the quality of data necessary to give permanent crop farmers the actionable recommendations they need to manage their groves.

SeeTree is obviously trying to tackle these issues and it does so by offering granular per-tree data based on the imagery gathered from drones and the company’s machine learning algorithms that then analyze this imagery. Using this data, farmers can then decide to replace trees that underperform, for example, or map out a plan to selectively harvest based on the size of a tree’s fruits and its development stages. They can then also correlate all of this data with their irrigation and fertilization infrastructure to determine the ROI of those efforts.

“Traditionally, farmers made large-scale business decisions based on intuitions that would come from limited (and often unreliable) small-scale testing done by the naked eye,” said Talpaz. “With SeeTree, farmers can now make critical decisions based on accurate and consistent small and large-scale data, connecting their actions to actual results in the field.”

SeeTree was founded by Talpaz, who like so many Israeli entrepreneurs previously worked for the country’s intelligence services, as well as Barak Hachamov (who you may remember from his early personalized news startup my6sense) and Guy Morgenstern, who has extensive experience as an R&D executive with a background in image processing and communications systems.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Dreaming of Mars, the startup Relativity Space gets its first launch site on Earth

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3D-printing the first rocket on Mars.

That’s the goal Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone set for themselves when they founded Los Angeles-based Relativity Space in 2015.

At the time they were working from a WeWork in Seattle, during the darkest winter in Seattle history, where Ellis was wrapping up a stint at Blue Origin . The two had met in college at USC in their jet propulsion lab. Noone had gone on to take a job at SpaceX and Ellis at Blue Origin, but the two remained in touch and had an idea for building rockets quickly and cheaply — with the vision that they wanted to eventually build these rockets on Mars.

Now, more than $35 million dollars later, the company has been awarded a multi-year contract to build and operate its own rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

That contract, awarded by The 45th Space Wing of the Air Force, is the first direct agreement the U.S. Air Force has completed with a venture-backed orbital launch company that wasn’t also being subsidized by billionaire owner-operators.

By comparison, Relativity’s neighbors at Cape Canaveral are Blue Origin (which Jeff Bezos has been financing by reportedly selling $1 billion in shares of Amazon stock since 2017); SpaceX (which has raised roughly $2.5 billion since its founding and initial capitalization by Elon Musk); and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between the defense contracting giants Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense.

Like the other launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Launch Complex 16, where Relativity expects to be launching its first rockets by 2020, has a storied history in the U.S. space and missile defense program. It was used for Titan missile launches, the Apollo and Gemini programs and Pershing missile launches.

From the site, Relativity will be able to launch its first designed rocket, the Terran 1, which is the only fully 3D-printed rocket in the world.

That rocket can carry a maximum payload of 1,250 kilograms to a low earth orbit of 185 kilometers above the Earth. Its nominal payload is 900 kilograms of a Sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers out, and it has a 700 kilogram high-altitude payload capacity to 1,200 kilometers in Sun-synchronous orbit. Relativity prices its dedicated missions at $10 million, and $11,000 per kilogram to achieve Sun-synchronous orbit.

If the company’s two founders are right, then all of this launch work Relativity is doing is just a prelude to what the company considers to be its real mission — the advancement of manufacturing rockets quickly and at scale as a test run for building out manufacturing capacity on Mars.

“Rockets are the business model now,” Ellis told me last year at the company’s offices at the time, a few hundred feet from SpaceX. “That’s why we created the printing tech. Rockets are the largest, lightest-weight, highest-cost item that you can make.”

It’s also a way for the company to prove out its technology. “It benefits the long-term mission,” Ellis continued. “Our vision is to create the intelligent automated factory on Mars… We want to help them to iterate and scale the society there.”

Ellis and Noone make some pretty remarkable claims about the proprietary 3D printer they’ve built and housed in their Inglewood offices. Called “Stargate,” the printer is the largest of its kind in the world and aims to go from raw materials to a flight-ready vehicle in just 60 days. The company claims that the speed with which it can manufacture new rockets should pare down launch timelines by somewhere between two and four years.

Another factor accelerating Relativity’s race to market is a long-term contract the company signed last year with NASA for access to testing facilities at the agency’s Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. It’s there, deep in the Mississippi delta swampland, that Relativity plans to develop and quality control as many as 36 complete rockets per year on its 25-acre space.

All of this activity helps the company in another segment of its business: licensing and selling the manufacturing technology it has developed.

“The 3D factory and automation is the other product, but really that’s a change in emphasis,” says Ellis. “It’s always been the case that we’re developing our own metal 3D printing technology. Not only can we make rockets. If the long-term mission is 3D printing on Mars, we should think of the factory as its own product tool.”

Not everyone agrees. At least one investor I talked to said that in many cases, the cost of 3D printing certain basic parts outweighs the benefits that printing provides.

Still, Relativity is undaunted.

But first, the company — and its competitors at Blue Origin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and the hundreds of other companies working on launching rockets into space again — need to get there. For Relativity, the Canaveral deal is one giant step for the company, and one great leap toward its ultimate goal.

“This is a giant step toward being a launch company,” says Ellis. “And it’s aligned with the long-term vision of one day printing on Mars.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Pro.com raises $33M for its home improvement platform

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Pro.com is basically a general contractor for the age of Uber and Prime Now. While the company started out as a marketplace for hiring home improvement professionals, it has now morphed into a general contractor and serves Denver, Phoenix San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle. Today, Pro.com announced that it has raised a $33 million Series B round led by WestRiver Group, Goldman Sach and Redfin. Previous investors DFJ, Madrona Venture Group, Maveron and Two Sigma Ventures also participated.

WestRiver founder Erik Anderson, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman and former Microsoft exec Charlotte Guyman are joining the Pro.com board.

“Many of Redfin’s customers struggle to get professional renovation services, so we know firsthand that Pro.com’s market opportunity is massive,” writes Redfin’s Kelman. “Pro.com and Redfin share a commitment to combining technology and local, direct services to best take care of customers.”

The company tells me that the round caps off a successful 2018, where Pro.com saw its job bookings grow by 275 percent over 2017, a number that was also driven by its expansion beyond the Seattle market (as well as the good economic climate that surely helped in driving homeowners to tackle more home improvement projects). The company now has 125 employees.

With this funding round, Pro.com has now raised a total of $60 million. It’ll use the funding to enter more markets, with Portland, Oregon being next on the list, and expand its team as it goes along.

It’s no secret that the home improvement market could use a bit of a jolt. The market is extremely local and fragmented — and finding the right contractor for any major project is a long and difficult process, where the outcome is never quite guaranteed. The process has enough vagueries that many people never get around to actually commissioning their projects. Pro.com wants to change that with a focus on transparency and technology. That’s a startup that’s harder to scale than the marketplace the company started out with, but it also gives the company a chance to establish itself as one of the few well-known brands in this space.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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