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Remember all the way back to December 2020. Where were you? What were your plans? What did you expect and hope the new year would bring? I suspect I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve spent much of the past year on a hamster wheel, with better days just over the horizon. Truth is, few of us reasonably expected the pandemic to stretch on for this long. And our expectations of “normal” have adjusted accordingly.

As we reflect on how the last year has played out for robotics — and the way things look, going forward — the pandemic is, once again, the primary force guiding practically every facet of the industry. As I mentioned last week, we’re going to spend these next few weeks wrapping up the year here on Actuator. This week, I want to talk about delivery robotics, a category that’s seen some of the biggest investment this past year.

But first, we’ll be asking some of the industry’s leading names to reflect on the year that was — and help us forecast how 2022 might look for robotics and automation.

Image Credits: CMU/Boston Dynamics

First up is Matthew Johnson-Roberson, who recently became the director of CMU’s Robotics’ Institute. Johnson-Roberson served as co-director for the University of Michigan’s Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles and co-founder of Refraction AI — which is to say, it’s not surprising that he offers some insight into how things will look for the autonomous driving industry.

What was the defining robotics/AI/automation trend of 2021? I’m seeing increasing trends in application-specific AI companies (computer vision tasks, robotics devices to solve a problem, chat bots for x, etc.). Those seem poised to continue as the market looks for good fits for increasingly powerful algorithms.

What will 2022 bring for these categories? In the coming year, I expect more of the large self-driving companies to continue their consolidation and more to go public as they prepare to burn capital attempting to expand and serve customers.

This week we also spoke to Rob Playter, the longtime Boston Dynamics executive who was appointed CEO early last year.

What was the defining robotics/AI/automation trend of 2021? Legged robots coming of age. 2021 saw the introduction of multiple legged robots to the market. Quadrupeds are leaving the lab and entering the workplace, and the ongoing labor shortages plaguing many industries has only intensified the need. We’ve seen strong interest for Spot around industrial use cases where mobile robots can navigate worksites that include stairs, doors and other obstacles that would foil wheeled or tracked robots. Our customers are using Spot as a dynamic sensing platform to collect reliable, repeatable data around their sites for tasks like thermal anomaly detection in industrial manufacturing, radiation mapping in nuclear facilities and digital twin modeling on construction sites. Products like Spot are proving they can add real value in the real world.

What will 2022 bring for these categories? Operational adoption. In 2022 customers will begin deploying mobile robots like Spot at greater scale across their enterprises. We’ve seen tremendous uptake by industrial innovation teams exploring mobile robots for a wide variety of applications, and next year we expect to see customers integrating more robots into their asset management programs and day-to-day operations. But for industrial mobile robots to expand rapidly at enterprise scale, we also need to see greater reliability from the industry as a whole. We’ve seen a lot of products announced that are conceptual-only or that have only been deployed in small proof-of-concept exercises. As more and more businesses look to invest in real-world technology, the most reliable, robust and accessible products will prevail.

Image Credits: Nuro

Few segments of this industry gained more traction over these past two years than delivery. Prior to the pandemic, much of the conversation around autonomous delivery centered around regulation and questions of demand. After the first several months of the pandemic brought much of the world to a standstill, leaving many afraid to venture outside the safety of their own homes, delivery services like Seamless and Uber Eats saw a sharp uptick in usage.

While stay-at-home orders have loosened in much of the world throughout 2021, myriad issues have continued to plague industries, leaving sharp demand for automation. These include widespread staffing shortages for food service and other blue-collar jobs, as well as global supply chain and shipping issues. That is to say that delivery issues aren’t just a matter of last- or middle-mile — it’s every segment here.

For those reasons (for starters, at least), it’s unsurprising that so much of this has been met with a massive uptick in investments across the board. As with so much of robotics, problems analysts expected companies would be tackling five or 10 years down the road are suddenly impossible to ignore.

Nuro led the way with one of the biggest robotics raises in recent memory, led by (who else?) Tiger Global. The $600 million Series D, announced early last month, increased the company’s valuation north of 70%, to $8.6 billion. Integral to the deal is a new partnership with Google Cloud, which finds both parties pushing the service toward commercialization, as they “explore opportunities together to strengthen and transform local commerce.”

If you’ve spent any time near college campuses, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen delivery robots like Kiwibot out in the world. And while funding — and, in Nuro’s case, production — is ramping up, you’re almost certainly getting a majority of packages delivered to you by human beings at this point.

Image Credits: Coco

Speaking of campuses, UCLA spinout Coco saw a decent size round early this year with a $36 million raise, bringing the company’s funding up to $43 million. Co-founder and CEO Zach Rash insisted that the time is now for such delivery technologies, noting in a release, “I strongly believe the delivery service industry in its current state is massively under-serving merchants. We have an enormous opportunity to create a better experience for hundreds of thousands of merchants and their customers, today. This is not a research program experimenting with technology to be productized at some unknown point in the future.”

The firm, formerly known as Cyan Robotics, doesn’t have a high-profile partner like Nuro’s Domino’s deal, thought it does list 18 partners, largely in the Los Angeles area. It’s currently operating deliveries in Santa Monica and five other LA areas. So, while it’s true that robotic deliveries are currently more the exception than the rule, if you order food in the right place at the right time, it just might be a robot on the other end.

This week, the company also announced a manufacturing deal with Segway. The latter’s VP of global business development, Tony Ho, tells TechCrunch:

This is just the beginning of our partnership. We will stay on the product side of things, and Coco will be the operators. So it’s a bit similar to the micromobility space where we provide the vehicles and hardware and they provide the relationship with the city and the staff and the whole operation behind it. Right now, we’re seeing this almost like it was with scooters in 2017, where the whole industry is booming. It’s a land grab.

Starship delivery robots at UCLA campus on January 15th, 2021. Image Credits: Starship/Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA

Starship, meanwhile, kicked off the year with a healthy $17 million raise. The company is among those robotic delivery services focused on getting food to campuses, announcing plans to expand from 15 universities to 100.

Autonomous trucking had a great year, as well, citing similar concerns around staffing shortages. Kodiak Robotics raised a $125 million Series B, with plans to double its headcount, while Swedish firm Einride drummed up $110 million, with plans to expand into the U.S.

Image Credits: Serve Robotics

And as we transition into the robotics news of the week, here’s yet another delivery raise. The $13 million Series A comes courtesy of Serve Robotics, which spun out from Uber’s Postmates earlier this year. “Our goal is to put robots in every major U.S. city in the next two to three years,” co-founder Ali Kashani said of the company’s grand ambitions.

7-Eleven’s investment wing, 7-Ventures, was involved in the round. The convenience store giant is especially bullish about robotics deliveries these days, having piloted with Nuro, among others. Delivery Hero, which also participated in the round, has worked with Starship previously.

Image Credits: Petra

Next, we move underground, as Petra emerges from stealth to announce a $30 million Series A. The company uses thermal technology to bore tunnels into some of the strongest rock on Earth. To demonstrate this feat, the startup also announced that its robot, Swifty, successfully bored a 20-foot tunnel through Sioux Quartzite at a rate of one-inch-per-minute.

Co-founder and CEO Kim Abrams says:

We’ve invented a completely new way to excavate rock and this will have profound implications on the future of tunneling. By delivering a boring solution that affordably undergrounds utilities through high-grade rock, we can finally protect communities from exposure to wildfires and ensure the safety of critical infrastructure in disaster-prone areas, especially in places like the Sierra Nevada mountains, Rocky Mountains, and coastal regions.

Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

A fun bit of research from MIT CSAIL to close us out this week. The lab unveiled “Evolution Gym,” a testing simulator for soft robotic designs. It’s still a simulation, of course, but it offers some interesting insights into how compliant robots can adapt to different environmental challenges.

CSAIL notes, “The result looks like a little robot Olympics. In addition to standard tasks like walking and jumping, the researchers also included some unique tasks, like climbing, flipping, balancing, and stair-climbing.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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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

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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.

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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.

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