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The Station: TuSimple loses the driver, Nikola settles and transpo predictions for 2022

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

Your usual host, Kirsten Korosec, is taking a much-deserved holiday out in nature, so I’ll be taking over this week to give you the news and wish you both a Happy New Year and a swift hangover recovery.

It’s officially 2022, but let’s take a quick look over the past year. To quickly sum up — everyone bought e-bikes; robotaxis and autonomous trucks are getting closer to commercialization; teleoperated sidewalk delivery robots are becoming a thing; the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association is keeping an eye on the likes of Tesla and Chevy; pretty much every OEM is investing serious cash into electrifying, and that includes battery joint ventures; and eVTOLs got a huge amount of investment.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into that last. My colleague Aria Alamalhodaei wrote a two-part series on the trends shaping the eVTOL space. The first part looked back at 2021, highlighting such trends as:

  • SPACs have been taking off and helping fuel a stupid amount of money into the industry, with companies like Archer Aviation, Joby Aviation, Lilium and Vertical Aerospace all merging with blank check companies.
  • On-the-ground infrastructure, like vertiports and chargers, is turning into its own business unit, and companies like ArcherHyundai and Volocopter are exploring ways to integrate air mobility into a city’s existing transport networks.
  • There have been increased orders for eVTOL aircraft, starting with United Airline’s $1 billion order with Archer.
  • Automakers — like Hyundai, Honda and Xpeng — are investing resources into building their own flying cars.

All of this movement is setting the stage for what’s to come in 2022. Some of Aria’s predictions are:

  • “The main story of 2022, it’s definitely going to be certification,” Sergio Cecutta, founder and partner at SMG Consulting, said. “It’s the year of put up or shut up.”
  • More automakers will start getting involved in the space. That much is clear from major investments from Toyota and Stellantis into Joby and a manufacturing deal with Archer, respectively.
  • More SPAC deals. Aria writes that it’s not a given, “but the high capital demands of aviation could mean more startups are still looking for a huge injection of cash via the public markets.”

If you have any thoughts, criticisms, tips or opinions you’d like to share, you can email me at rebecca.techcrunch@gmail.com.

Micromobbin’

Since we’re making predictions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some thoughts about what 2022 may hold for the world of micromobility. I spoke to a few experts and came up with some interesting, and even wacky, responses.

Crystal ball says…

  • More e-bikes will hit the shared micromobility space.
  • Fresh VC money is drying up and there aren’t likely to be more new entrants into the space. Those who have made it this far are likely here to stay, and they’re becoming more mature and more efficient.
  • That said, the ride-hail companies (aka Uber and Lyft) might be coming back to play, says Segway’s Tony Ho, based on orders and inquiries for vehicles he’s seeing come in.
  • All that scooter ADAS we started to see last year? Yeah, it’s here to stay, and will only increase. But that’s not all! Buckle up for smarter vehicles that will not only affect the way you ride, but will also provide operators with more monetization opportunities. Data. Is. Everything. Operators will be looking for ways to sell sensor data.
  • Horace Dediu, industry analyst and co-host of the Micromobility Podcast, reckons there’ll be far more integration of micromobiilty options with transit planning apps like Google Maps.
  • He also said we can expect a marriage between micromobility and the metaverse. The f&%!, you might be thinking. Wait for it. Imagine a smart helmet with an augmented reality-enabled visor, pointing out directions for you or enticing you into the nearest coffee shop with a floating coupon!
  • New, heavier, form factors. Personally, I wanna see a tiny vehicle with a roof, already! We don’t all love getting caught in the rain.
  • Better integration of micromobility offerings with public transit.

In other news…

Voi just raised a $115 million Series D in what it describes as an oversubscribed funding round that will help it expand into new markets. As scooter companies consolidate their power, such a big raise this late in the game is definitely significant.

Wind Mobility, which has sold off Italian and Israeli operations in recent months, is now upgrading its e-scooter fleet in Nottingham and Derby in the U.K. with LINK e-scooters from Superpedestrian. Users will now need to download the LINK app to continue using Wind’s service… so is it really Wind’s service anymore?

Superpedestrian also launched 150 seated scooters in Baltimore to provide a safer and more comfortable transportation option to people with disabilities and older riders.

Deal of the week

 

What with the holidays, there haven’t been too many deals, but I did notice AI chip maker Kneron’s $25 million raise. The Chinese startup will use the funding to start making chips for autonomous driving applications. This move comes as the company possibly prepares to go public in the U.S. in the next few years, and with an increased number of AV companies aiming to scale over the same time frame, Kneron might be one to watch.

The other deal that caught my eye is South Africa’s Planet42, a car subscription company that buys used cars from dealerships and rents to customers, which just raised $30 million in equity and debt. The round is a bridge round, a precursor to a Series A, and it will help the company expand into the Mexican market.

Planet42 has an interesting business model that it calls “socially inclusive.” As a company that provides services in emerging markets, it helps people who perhaps have unstable incomes or unimpressive credit scores access vehicles that could potentially change their lives.

Notable news and other tidbits

Autonomous vehicles

Waymo is partnering with Chinese automaker Geely to build an all-electric, self-driving ride-hailing vehicle. The companies will integrate Waymo Driver, Waymo’s AV system, into Geely’s Zeekr vehicles for use in U.S. markets “in the years to come.”

TuSimple has completed its first autonomous truck run on open public roads without a human in the vehicle or any human intervention. Its autonomous driving system fully navigated an 80-mile run along surface streets and highways between Tuscon, Arizona and Phoenix, marking a milestone for the company that aims to scale its technology into purpose-built trucks by 2024, says president and CEO Cheng Lu.

Iveco joined Plus to launch a pilot in Europe and China that aims to start validating and integrating Plus’s autonomous trucking technology with Iveco’s latest gen S-Way heavy-duty truck.

AutoX built a Level 4 robotaxi production facility in China to manufacture its gen 5 vehicles, which it says can operate without safety drivers in the vehicle.

Electric vehicles

FedEx has received its first five GM-built Brightdrop electric delivery vans out of an order of 500. The move represents an important landmark for FedEx in its stated goal to have an all-electric delivery fleet and be carbon neutral around the world by 2040.

Gravity launched a fleet of all-electric NYC yellow taxis, which includes Ford Mustang Mach-E cabs.

Nikola has come to a resolution with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissio, agreeing to pay $125 million to settle charges that it defrauded investors by misleading them about its products, technical advancements and commercial prospects.

Arrival has begun trialing its Arrival Bus at a testing facility in the U.K., where it will perform rigorous testing so that it can gain certification to operate on public roads.

Miscellaneous

Israeli driver monitoring system (DMS) company Cipia will be integrating its tech into Chinese automaker SAIC’s Roewe RX5 MAX car to detect when a driver is distracted or drowsy.

Reporter Rita Liao wrote a deep dive on Chinese internet giant Meituan’s dominance of the drone delivery space in Shenzhen. Over the past two years, the company has flown 19,000 meals to 8,000 customers across seven neighborhoods in the city. Now, the company is gearing up to double down on its aerial delivery ambitions. Meituan recently applied for a permit to operate a commercial drone delivery service across all of Shenzhen, which is expected to receive approval in 2022. Meituan’s competition, Alibaba-backed Ele.me and e-commerce powerhouse JD.com, have also invested in similar drone delivery services in recent years.

Source: Tech

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Spendesk is the fifth French startup to reach unicorn status this month

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Fintech startup Spendesk is announcing that it has raised an extension to its Series C round. Tiger Global is investing $114 million (€100 million) in the startup. Following today’s funding round, the company says that is has reached a valuation of more than $1.14 billion (more than €1 billion).

In other words, Spendesk is a new unicorn in the French tech ecosystem. Funding news has been accelerating over the last few months in France. In January alone, five startups announced that they have crossed the threshold to reach unicorn status — PayFit, Ankorstore, Qonto, Exotec and Spendesk.

Back Market, an e-commerce marketplace focused on refurbished smartphones and electronics devices, has also raised a mega round and reached a $5.7 billion valuation.

Let’s go back to Spendesk. The startup offers an all-in-one corporate spend management platform for medium companies in Europe. Originally focused on virtual cards for online payments, the company has expanded its product offering to tackle everything related to corporate spending.

Spendesk customers can order physical cards for employees, team members can use the platform to pay outstanding invoices, file expense reports, manage budgets and generate spending reports. By offering everything in a single service, Spendesk wants to simplify accounting and approvals in general so that money moves more freely.

The startup defines its platform as a “7-in-1 spend management solution”, meaning that Spendesk is no longer just a product that lets you order debit cards for your employees.

“We have had this goal since the beginning — we really want to become this platform, this operational system to manage your spending,” co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “When we started working on the product, we looked at each use case and designed the right workflow for that.”

In particular, Spendesk helps you formalize your internal processes. You can define team budgets, set up complicated approval workflows for expensive payments, automate some pesky tasks, such as VAT extraction.

“We target mid-market clients. Those are customers with 50 to 1,000 employees. We have a few clients that are bigger than that and a few clients that are smaller than that,” Ardant said.

And the company currently has 3,500 clients — around half of them are based in France while other clients are mostly based in Germany and the U.K. Clients have spent €3 billion through Spendesk in 2021 alone.

With its central positioning in the financial stack, Spendesk needs to interface perfectly with other financial tools — banks on one side and ERP products on the other side.

The startup currently supports many of the popular accounting tools used by European companies, such as Xero and Datev. Spendesk customers can also export transaction batches and import them into Sage, Cegid and other accounting software solutions.

Spendesk is also working on automating the integrations with your bank accounts, which could be particularly useful for companies with multiple bank accounts. For instance, you could imagine setting up a rule that automatically triggers a transfer between your German bank account and your Spendesk account when you want to pay a German supplier.

Image Credits: Spendesk

Spend management in Europe

Spendesk isn’t the only spend management solution in Europe. There are some competitors, such as Pleo, which recently reached a $4.7 billion valuation, and Soldo — another well-funded competitor as it has raised $180 million last year.

In the U.S. as well, companies like Brex and Ramp have reached sky-high valuations. And yet, Spendesk doesn’t think it has the same positioning as American startups.

“On the American market, it shouldn’t be called the spend management industry — it’s the corporate card industry. Players like Brex and Ramp position themselves as a payment method,” Spendesk co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “Europe’s corporate culture is a culture of debit — not credit. We don’t provide payment methods, we provide a process.”

It’s a slight difference in product positioning, so it’s going to be interesting to see if a European spend management startup can successfully enter the U.S. and vice versa.

When it comes to business model as well, Spendesk considers itself as a software-as-a-service company with recurring subscriptions. The startup didn’t want to share any hard numbers for its revenue. Its CEO just said that Spendesk’s revenue “more than doubles every year.”

With today’s funding round, Spendesk plans to triple the size of its team over the next two years. The company plans to have 1,000 employees by the end of 2023.

Source: Tech

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Crypto.com expands venture arm to $500 million to back early-stage web3 startups

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Crypto.com, a popular cryptocurrency exchange, has extended its venture arm’s fund size to $500 million as it looks to more aggressively back early-stage startups to help the nascent ecosystem grow, following similar moves by rivals Binance, Coinbase and FTX.

The broadening of Crypto.com Capital comes less than a year after the Singapore-headquartered firm unveiled its maiden fund of $200 million. The fund, unlike those of many of its rivals, has no LPs (meaning, it’s fully financed by the firm’s balance sheet.)

The maiden fund, whose individual checks run up to $10 million in size, has been so far deployed to back about 20 startups including YGG SEA, multi-chain crypto portfolio tracker DeBank, cross-chain token infrastructure Efinity and Ethereum scaling solution Matter Labs.

Crypto.com will continue to focus on backing early-stage startups, said Jon Russell, who joined the firm as a general partner this month, in an interview with TechCrunch.

With the fund, Crypto.com is broadly focusing on gaming, decentralized-finance and startups innovating on cross-chain solutions. But he cautioned that the industry could change and expand, as it has in recent years, to areas “we don’t know about,” hence the firm is keeping an eye out on everything.

Tuesday’s announcement also further illustrates the growing involvement of cryptocurrency exchanges in being the rainmaker – and beneficiary – of the ecosystem which encompasses the industry in which they operate.

FTX, which has backed over 15 startups, last week announced a $2 billion crypto fund. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, also owns Alameda Research, a venture firm that has backed close to 100 web3 startups.

Coinbase Ventures, the investment arm of the only crypto exchange that is publicly traded, and Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume, are also among the most prolific investors in the web3 space.

Venture investment in crypto / web3 in 2021 by category (Image credits: Galaxy Digital)

The funding activity in the space, even as most of the aforementioned names often co-invest in startups, is at an all-time high. VCs invested more than $33 billion in crypto/web3 startups in 2021, more than all prior years combined, Galaxy Digital, another prolific investor in the space, wrote in a recent report.

“Valuations in the crypto/blockchain space were 141% higher than the rest of the venture capital space in Q4, highlighting a founder-friendly environment and the intense competition among investors for deal allocations,” the report added.

Scores of venture capital firms have also raised new funds for their crypto investments. Just last year, Andreessen Horowitz added a $2.2 billion crypto fund, Paradigm unveiled a $2.5 billion fund, and Hivemind Capital Partners announced a $1.5 billion fund. Katie Haun, who co-led a16z’s $2.2 billion crypto fund, has left the firm to launch her own crypto-focused fund.

Russell – a former journalist who previously had stints at TechCrunch, The Next Web, and The Ken – said Crypto.com is backing startups to help the ecosystem grow.

“If you’re in the industry, it’s in your interest to help companies grow in the ecosystem and the ecosystem itself to grow,” he said. (Worth pointing out that Solana, Avalanche, Polkadot — as well as some of their major investors — are also aggressively backing startups that are building applications for the native blockchains.)

The startups Crypto.com backs are under no obligation to list their tokens on Crypto.com over any of its rivals or offer the exchange any other preferential treatment, he said. The exchange team similarly doesn’t have a soft spot for the investment arm’s portfolio firms, he added.

(What’s up with the career move? “I’ve been crypto curious for a number of years but I wasn’t gasping to dive in full-time. This project appeals to me because Crypto.com is ambitious but yet it does things the right way. There’s certainly a lot of hype and hot air in crypto and web3 right now, but it’s impossible to ignore the talent that’s pouring into the industry,” he said.)

Crypto.com, which started its life as a blog of professor Matt Blaze (who sold the domain to the crypto exchange), has aggressively expanded in the past year as it looks to court more users. The Singapore-headquartered firm last year agreed to pay more than $700 million for the naming rights of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The downtown Los Angeles complex has been rebranded as Crypto.com Arena for the next 20 years.

The firm, which bills itself as the “fastest-growing” crypto exchange, said at the time of the announcement that the move is positioned to make cryptocurrencies mainstream. Crypto.com, which processes trade volumes of over $2.5 billion every day, also teamed up with Hollywood star Matt Damon last year to promote the brand and cryptocurrencies.

The Damon-starring ad equated buying crypto tokens and NFTs to one of the greatest and boldest accomplishments in the history of humankind. Hyperbole, to be sure, but having the most mainstream American actor as Crypto.com’s celebrity sponsor has certainly helped bring the trading platform, and all that it sells, into the mainstream. The ad went viral and also attracted criticism for being cringeworthy.

Source: Tech

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Focused on smaller cities, Vietnamese social commerce startup Mio raises $8M Series A

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Mio, the Vietnamese social commerce platform, has raised an $8 million Series A, less than a year after announcing its seed round. The funding was led by Jungle Ventures, Patamar Capital and Oliver Jung, with participation from returning investors GGV, Venturra, Hustle Fund, iSEED SEA and Gokul Rajaram.

TechCrunch first covered Mio at the time of its $1 million seed funding in May 2021. Founded in 2020, Mio is a group buying platform that focuses on selling fresh produce and groceries in Tier 2 and 3 cities in Vietnam. The company is able to offer next day delivery because it built a logistics infrastructure that enables it to send produce directly from farms to customers.

The Series A brings Mio’s total raised to $9.1 million, and will be used to expand its logistics and fulfillment system, enter new areas in Vietnam and add new product categories like fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and household appliances.

Mio co-founder and chief executive officer Trung Huynh said that since TechCrunch first covered Mio seven months ago, it has achieved 10x gross merchandise value growth, a 10x increase in agents, or resellers, and grew its team from 60 people to 240. It now fulfills more than 10,000 pieces of fresh produce per day, operating in Ho Chi Minh, Thu Duc, Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An, with plans to expand into northern Vietnam.

The numbers “strengthened our conviction in this model and its potential,” he said. “We need fresh capital to accelerate hiring, product development and supply chain to keep up with the pace of growth as we deepen our presence in existing geographies and expand to new provinces.”

Mio is able to offer next day deliveries because its vertically integrated mayor layers of the value chain, including procurement, warehousing, order sorting and bulk delivery. The startup owns the majority of its logistics infrastructure and uses its own fleet of couriers. Its ability to delivery fresh produce directly from farms to customers in less than 16 hours contributed to higher customer retention and growth, Huynh said, and it will continue to shorten delivery times. .

Mio resellers are called Mio Partners. Huynh said one of the driving factors behind Mio is targeting the right people for the program, or “housewives and stay-home-moms in lower income regions who love sharing value-for-money products to their social circle of friends.”

They aggregate orders, usually from friends and family, and orders are delivered to them in batches for distribution. The startup claims Mio Partners can make up to $400 a month, including a 10% commission on each order and additional commissions based on the monthly performance of other resellers they referred to the program.

“There is a strong possibility” that Mio will expand beyond Vietnam, Huynh said, “but will only be considered at a more appropriate time after we successfully built our playbook for Vietnam.”

Source: Tech

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