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Consumer Robotics Show

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CES has always been a weird show for robotics. That’s not an indictment of the show itself, so much as a comment on the state of robotics generally. It’s true the organization behind the show dropped the name “Consumer Electronics Show” some number of years ago (a fact it continues to be very insistent about in its press materials), but at its heart the show is still very much about consumer technologies.

For robotics, consumer has been an exceedingly difficult nut to crack, for reasons of pricing, scalability and the general unpredictability of operating in uncontrolled environments. In much the same way that the robotic vacuum has long been the main exception to that rule, robotic vacuums have been the one consistent feature at the show over the past decade-plus.

Back in 2020 (the last time TechCrunch attended the show in person), I wrote a piece titled, “Companies take baby steps toward home robots at CES.” Fittingly (for reasons that will be made clear below), the first person I quoted in the piece was Labrador Systems co-founder/CEO Mike Dooley, who told me, “I think there are fewer fake robots this year.”

“Fake” is, obviously, a loaded word in this — and just about any — context. But it’s also not wrong. CES has been — and will continue to be for the foreseeable future — a platform for fake robotics. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is simple: robots are an easy way of visualizing sci-fi stuff. Robots, flying cars, space and now the metaverse. If you want a shorthand way of telling the world that your company has its head in the clouds in the most pragmatic way, you wheel out (or walk out) a robot.

They’ve been a common fixture over the years at press conferences from companies with an arguably limited investment in real robotics R&D. And there’s a big, gaping hole between science fiction and that year’s umpteenth robot vacuum. What we’ve started to see is companies begin to fill in that gap. Startups have played an important role in this. But just as important is the role played by automotive companies.

In the lead up to CES, I wrote a 10-year piece reflecting on the biggest trends of CES 2012. One of the things that struck me is the shift the show has made away from things like handsets (Mobile World Congress has taken a lot of wind out of those sails) and toward other industries — mobility in particular. Carmakers have a big role to play in all of this, both in terms of how they use robotics in the manufacturing process and also the role these technologies play in the future of the companies — starting with autonomous driving and moving well beyond.

Image Credits: Hyundai

For those reasons, I’m likely not surprising anyone by saying that the combined Hyundai/Boston Dynamics press conference grabbed the biggest headlines from the robotics world. Tuesday night’s show rode the line in an interesting way. As a company, Boston Dynamics has always taken a pragmatic approach to robotics. Sure, they look like the stuff of science fiction to many, but the products the company showcases are very real.

It was a contrast from the sorts of fantastical concepts Hyundai put center stage. Watching a video of Spot hanging out on Mars to serve as a real-world avatar for a family cruising through the metaverse was, in a word, strange. Boston Dynamics has suggested many potential jobs for its quadrupedal robot over the years, but somehow, to the best of my knowledge, Martian avatar hadn’t come up. I had the opportunity to ask founder Marc Raibert a couple of questions, and opened with that, asking how the Hyundai acquisition will impact what has been an aggressive — but practical — approach to making robots.

Last night’s presentation was a bit on the fantastical side.There was a sci-fi projection out into the future. How profound an impact will the Hyundai acquisition have on Boston Dynamics’ roadmap going forward?

It’s early days, six months. I would say that, on the one hand, there seems to be a commitment at Hyundai for us to keep doing what we’re doing. I think you’re going see all the things we’re doing, really in an enhanced state, continue to go on. We’re going to do [Atlas, Stretch and Spot]. There’s more investment going into there. Productization and research, in the case of Atlas. We’ll add additional robots onto what I’ll call the Boston Dynamics side. While that’s going on, we’re also building connections with Hyundai, and starting some projects […]

Hyundai is a big company. There are a lot of different sub-companies, but we’re talking to all of them. We’re not exactly sure who all of the interaction partners will be, but we’re planning to have a robust set of interactions. I don’t have any sense that Hyundai is going to come in and say, ‘Stop being who you are. Be something different.’ To the contrary, if anything, they’ve been very enthusiastic about us continuing. Although we’ve been making products, we’ve also been an R&D company for a long time. I think they see value in that and they will continue investing in that, so we can continue the legacy, as well as the commercial side of things.

During the event, he was clearly enjoying himself. It is, in a lot of ways, an ideal position for a lifelong roboticist: suddenly seeing a whole influx of resources from new corporate owners looking to deliver the moon and stars — or, at the very least, Mars. I do appreciate Raibert’s off-handed mention that Mars is still a ways off for Spot.

Image Credits: Hyundai

I had a follow-up question with Hyundai’s VP and head of Robotics Lab, Dong Jin Hyun, who said, similarly, that the Personal Mobility PnD plug and drive plaftform is also very much a “proposal/concept,” adding that the company would “show the real applications of PnD soon.” For now, at least, we’re stuck with some far out videos.

Before we move on from Boston Dynamics completely for the week, a fun aside from Raibert. In the company’s past flirations with the home/consumer market, “we even worked for years with Sony Aibo, making ones you’ve never seen, but were more capable.” The latest Aibo was a very cool piece of machinery, but you’ve got to wonder how a pet Boston Dynamics dog would have looked. Less cute and more technologically impressive, if I had to guess. Hopefully it never got as far as figuring out how to open doors.

As I mentioned last week, the big thing trendwise on the robotics front at CES are UV-C disinfecting robots. This makes a lot of sense on the face of it. It’s a way to leverage existing indoor mapping/navigation technologies with a major hot button topic during the pandemic. The list includes:

Image Credits: UBTech

  • ADIBOT, which comes in S (stationary) and A (autonomous) models. Of the latter, the company says, “ADIBOT-A is the fully-loaded autonomous disinfection solution that can be programmed and mapped to independently navigate one or multiple floor plans. ADIBOT-S provides 360-degree radiant light coverage, powerful UV-C disinfection, autonomous movement using U-SLAM mapping, secured app, dedicated server and cloud-based connectivity, automatic recharging, and intelligent safety features including the use of ‘risk mitigation’ cameras, PIR sensors.”
  • LG technically announced the excitingly named Autonomous Robot With Disinfecting Light late last year. “This autonomous UV robot comes at a time when hygiene is of the highest priority for hotel guests, students and restaurant customers,” Robotics VP Roh Kyu-chan said in a statement. “Consumers can have the peace of mind that the LG UV robot will help reduce their exposure to potentially harmful germs.”

John Deere acquires Bear Flag Robotics to accelerate autonomous technology on the farm. Image Credits: Bear Flag Robotics

John Deere also made headlines this week with the long-awaited arrival of its fully autonomous 8R tractor. The system, which features six pairs of stereo cameras, a pair of Nvidia Jetson modules and a GPS guidance for fully automated operation, will be available in select parts of the U.S. starting this fall.

“This precise location-sensing technology (already) enables farmers to place seeds, spread nutrients and harvest their crops without having to touch the steering wheel,” CTO Jahmy Hindman said in a release. “Without this self-driving technology, farming is incredibly exhausting mentally and physically. GPS technology allows farmers to spend their time in the cab of a tractor looking at the real-time data they are collecting during the job they are doing and making adjustments.”

Image Credits: Labrador Systems

Getting back to Mike Dooley, Labrador finally showed off a production version of its assistance robot, Retriever. It’s one of the more compelling home robots I’ve seen in some time — namely because it deals with the very real issue of helping older and mobility impaired people live on their own. At its heart, it’s a robotic shelf, but one that can potentially offer a lot of assistance to people who want to keep living independently.

Labrador also used the opportunity to announce a $3.1 million seed, co-led by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures.

I’m still crawling through the virtual halls for more interesting robotics co’s this week, and expect a few more to trickle into next week’s newsletter. In the meantime, a lightning round/stray thoughts.

Image Credits: Yukai Engineering

  1. After being a mainstay for the last several CESes, there are no robots at the Samsung press conference; the company appears to have pivoted entirely to talking about sustainability. I’m all for sustainability talk, obviously, but I do wonder what this means for the company’s robotics ambitions. Frankly, I’ve never been entirely sure how far the extends/extended beyond showing off some cool demos.
  2. French (where else) robotics firm Naïo showed off its vineyard robot, TED, which its aiming to deploy in California fields. “Labor issues and the need to reduce the use of pesticides are global challenges,” COO Ingrid Sarlandie said. “With its autonomous agricultural robots Oz, Dino and Ted, Naïo addresses these issues to ensure a sustainable agricultural production in phase with people and the environment.”
  3. Doosan announced that it has sold 1,000 cobots and raised $33.7 million, as it showed off its new robotic camera system. “We’re looking forward to expediting the growth of our business with the recent funds raised,” said CEO Junghoon Ryu, CEO at Doosan Robotics. “We will further enhance the competitiveness of new products and software that are mounted with our proprietary technology and strive to attain the position as number one market share holder in the global cobot market.”
  4. And, of course, I would be remise if I didn’t mention Amagami Ham Ham, the latest robot from Qoobo maker, Yukai Engineering. I will let this quote about the finger-nibbling cat robot speak for itself. The robot uses a special algorithm, “HAMgorithm,” to randomly select from two dozen “nibbling patterns” to keep users interested. The company is launching a crowdfunding campaign for the robot this spring.

Source: Tech

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Dashworks is a search engine for your company’s sprawling internal knowledge

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As a company grows, the amount of important information employees need to keep track of inevitably grows right along with it. And, as your tech stack gets more complicated, that information ends up split up across more places — buried in Slack threads, tucked into Jira tickets, pushed as files on Dropbox, etc.

Dashworks is a startup aiming to be the go-to place for all of that internal knowledge. Part landing page and part search engine, it hooks into dozens of different enterprise services and gives you one hub to find what you need.

On the landing page front, Dashworks is built to be your work laptop’s homepage. It’s got support for broadcasting company wide announcements, building out FAQs, and sharing bookmarks for the things you often need and can never find — your handbooks, your OKRs, your org charts, etc.

More impressive, though, is its cross-tool search. With backgrounds in natural language processing at companies like Facebook and Cresta, co-founders Prasad Kawthekar and Praty Sharma are building a tool that allow you to ask Dashworks questions and have them answered from the knowledge it’s gathered across all of those aforementioned Slack threads, or Jira tickets, or Dropbox files. It’ll give you a search results page of relevant files across the services you’ve hooked in — but if it thinks it knows the answer to your question, it’ll just bubble that answer right to the top of the page, Google Snippets style.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Right now Dashworks can hook into over 30 different popular services, including Airtable, Asana, Confluence, Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, Intercom, Jira, Notion, Slack, Salesforce, Trello, and a whole bunch more — with more on the way, prioritized by demand.

Giving another company access to all of those services and the knowledge within might be unsettling — something the Dashworks team seems quite aware of. Kawthekar tells me that their product is SOC-2 certified, that all respective data is wiped from their servers if you choose to disconnect a service, and that, for teams that are equipped to host the tool themselves, they offer a fully on-prem version.

This week Dashworks is announcing that it raised a $4M round led by Point72 ventures, backed by South Park Commons, Combine Fund, Garuda Ventures, GOAT Capital, Unpopular Ventures, and Starling Ventures. Also backing the round is a number of angels, including Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear and Gusto co-founders Josh Reeves and Tomer London. The company was also a part of Y Combinator’s W20 class.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Source: Tech

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Daily Crunch: Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

Image Credits: Bet_Noire (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

TechCrunch Experts

Image Credits: SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

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3 experiments for early-stage founders seeking product-market fit

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At Human Ventures, we have a fund for pre-seed and seed-stage investments, a venture studio and an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program.

Through this work, we’ve discovered a lot about how different founders fulfill their journey of customer discovery and product-market fit. One of the largest challenges for pre-seed and seed stage founders is determining where to start: There are a million things to do. What should you do at each stage?

We interviewed three founders from our portfolio, all of whom ran discovery experiments to find their product-market fit at different stages of their company’s development.

Here’s what they had to share:

Pre-MVP/customer discovery phase: Tiny Organics

Tiny Organics is a plant-based baby and toddler food company on a mission to shape childrens’ palates so they’ll choose and love vegetables from their earliest days. The company raised $11 million in their Series A in 2021 and is growing at over 500% annually.

Founders Sofia Laurell and Betsy Fore joined our venture studio as EIRs and went through a six-week discovery sprint. As Sofia explains, they knew they wanted to build something to make parents’ lives easier and threw a lot of initial ideas at the wall from the Finnish baby box 2.0 (Sofia is Finnish) to an easier way to create Instagrammable baby pictures.

They went through multiple exercises to test the viability of new parents’ most pressing and urgent needs:

  • Conduct a “Start with Why” exercise
  • Define the “Jobs to be Done”
  • Create a lean canvas for each (viable) concept
  • Define the user journeys
  • Conduct user surveys using platforms like pollfish.com and 1Q (instant survey tool)
  • Identify and define their customer personas
  • Conduct customer interviews and synthesize them
  • Construct concept prototypes

They also met prospective customers, conducting a focus group of 10-15 moms. When the founders asked them to text them what they were feeding their children along with pictures for a week, they realized the lack of healthy finger foods in the market, thus sparking the idea for Tiny Organics.

Source: Tech

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