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The year of living autonomously

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Even in the era of the virtual event, it tends to take me a few days to recover from the whirlwind of CES. Frontloading the year’s big hardware news is a bit less than ideal, but perhaps the changing nature of the big tech event will bring adjustments to the news cycle, as well. For this reason, I’m frankly a bit relieved that it has been a slow week on the robotics news front — even if that means this is going to be a shorter newsletter.

Having nearly a week’s distance from the show does, however, bring some added perspective on its emerging trends. From where I sit, here are the key things the robotics world can take away from CES 2022.

Automotive is going to continue to be a key driver. What started as interest in manufacturing has grown into the world of autonomous vehicles — and beyond. Hyundai had, by far, the biggest headline-grabbing news, though the carmakers’ announcements were a little all over the place. The company’s PnD (Plug and Drive Module) continued the broad concepts around autonomous mobility, which could eventually reach into the world of mass transit.

Its concepts for Boston Dynamics’ Spot system, on the other hand, ran the gamut from the practical to shooting the robot into space, so Earthlings can interact with the metaverse on the actual surface of Mars. That sounds fine, but there’s still plenty of practical work to be done in the meantime, and I go back and forth on how useful these big conceptual pitches are — particularly in an age where we’re actually seeing a lot of robots work alongside us.

Image Credits: LG

By and large, I think consumer electronics firms were less reliant on robotics as a kind of shorthand way of demonstrating that they’re thinking about the future. The big caveat to this is LG, which announced UL certification for its CLOi ServeBot. The differentiator here is that LG does, in fact, appear to be taking robotics more seriously than others. That means, in part, focusing on near-term practical applications, rather than showcasing videos about how the homes of 2050 might look with their robots around.

We touched on UV disinfecting robots last week (including one from LG) as an easy and practical near-term use for indoor-navigating robots. It’s something people are increasingly concerned with a few years into this pandemic and ultimately it makes a lot of sense. ServeBot, as the name implies, is looking to take on systems like those by Bear Robotics — offering, in effect, a second set of arms for servers. Like Bear, restaurants are on the list of clients, along with hotels and stores.

The system is capable of carrying around up to 66 pounds for up to 11 hours on a charge. LG’s Jeffrey Weiland says, “As the first commercial service robot to receive UL certification for safe operation in consumer environments, the CLOi ServeBot’s semi-autonomous operation offers businesses an effective means to provide enhanced service, while freeing staff to focus on customer relations and build relationships that encourage repeat visits.” No firm date, but the system will roll out to select clients before being offered nationwide.

Image Credits: Naïo

Agtech continues to be one of the major categories to watch here. John Deere made the biggest waves with its fully autonomous tractor. Naïo’s vineyard robot got a little bit of love, as well. Ultimately, CES is decidedly not an agricultural show, but it’s pretty clear we’re merely scratching the surface here, in terms of how these robots can help out on the farm.

More babysteps for home robotics. Observers have been waiting around for the next Roomba for a number of years now, but thus far it’s been largely fruitless trying to find the right balance between pricing and functionality for a home setting. Contrast Amazon’s Astro robot with Labrador’s Retriever. The first is currently firmly in the category of solutions looking for problems, while the latter is addressing the very real desire for those who need assistance to continue living on their own. It’s not a mainstream product exactly, and the market, sizing and pricing will likely keep it there. But eldercare is a very real concern, and robotics have some immediately available solutions.

Speaking of assisted living, a cool project out of Cornell just earned a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative. Assistant professor Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee says he’s ready to take his team’s research to the next level, stating, “I started chatting a lot with the stakeholders — people with mobility limitations, the caregivers who are helping them, and occupational therapists — and I felt like robotics can truly make a difference in their lives, when it’s ready to be deployed.”

As always, some news out of the last-mile delivery side of things. Magna this week announced that it has bought up IP and assets from Boston-based Optimus Ride, along with 120 of its employees.

Here’s Magna’s president, John O’Hara on the matter:

Growing our engineering bench strength in sensing hardware and software helps accelerate our path forward in a rapidly growing ADAS market. As advancements in autonomy continue, we saw an opportunity to bring in additional expertise to support current programs as well as future customer needs. We are happy to welcome the Optimus Ride employees to the Magna family.

Image Credits: Nuro

Extremely well-funded Nuro, meanwhile, showed off its new road-ready ‘bot. The system doubles its predecessor’s cargo, has a slew of new safety sensors and features and has its own exterior airbag, which deploys on contact with a person or object. No word yet on when it plans to actually deploy the systems in the street.

Shenzhen-based Hai Robotics, which announced a $200 million raise back in September, has broken ground on a “demo center” in the SF Bay Area — specifically my hometown of Fremont. The area will be primarily devoted to showcasing the company’s warehouse automation, as it looks to further expand its reach within the U.S. market.

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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