Apr
08
2019
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Fleetsmith lands $30M Series B to grow Apple device management platform

Fleetsmith launched in 2016 with a mission to manage Apple devices in the cloud. It simplified an IT activity that had previously been complex, with help from Apple’s Device Enrollment Program. Over the last year, the startup has beefed up its offering considerably, and today it announced a $30 million Series B round led by Menlo Ventures.

Tiger Global Management, Upfront Ventures and Harrison Metal also participated. Under the terms of the deal, Naomi Pilosof Ionita, a partner at Menlo, will join the company board. Her colleague Matt Murphy will become a board observer. With today’s announcement, the startup has now raised more than $40 million, according to data supplied by the company.

Company co-founder and CEO Zack Blum says the original mission was about solving a pain point he and his co-founders were feeling around finding a modern approach to managing Apple devices. “From a customer perspective, they can ship devices directly to their employees. The employee unwraps it, connects to Wi-Fi and the device is enrolled automatically in Fleetsmith,” Blum explained.

He says that this automated approach, combined with the product’s security and intelligence capabilities, means that IT doesn’t have to worry about devices being registered and up-to-date, regardless of where an employee happens to be in the world.

It has moved from solving that problem for SMBs to having a broader mission for companies of all sizes, especially those with distributed work forces, which can benefit from enrolling in this automated fashion from anywhere. Once enrolled, companies can push security updates to all of the company’s employees and force updates if desired (or at least send strong reminders to avoid updating in the middle of a client meeting).

Over the last year, the company developed a dashboard for IT to monitor all of the devices under its management, including providing an overall health score with any potential problems it has found. For example, there may be a number of MacBook Pros without disk encryption enabled.

The dashboard ties into the identity management component of Office 365 and G Suite. IT can import the employee directory into the dashboard from either tool, and employees can sign into Fleetsmith with either set of credentials, providing a quick way to manage all employees in an organization.

Screenshot: Fleetsmith

Fleetsmith has also set up a partner program with Managed Service Providers (MSPs) to expand its reach further. MSPs manage IT for SMBs, and building a relationship with these types of companies can help it expand much more quickly.

The approach seems to be working, as the company has 30 employees and 1,500 customers. With the new cash in pocket, it intends to hire more people and continue building out the product’s capabilities, while expanding beyond the U.S. to markets overseas.

Mar
27
2019
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Enterprise drone service Kespry raises new funding from Salesforce Ventures

Kespry, a company that offers industrial users a subscription-based drone service, today announced that it has raised funding from Salesforce Ventures, marking that firm’s first hardware investment. With this, Salesforce and Kespry are also partnering around bringing Kespry’s drone services for the insurance industry to Salesforce’s own tools for this vertical. Sadly, the companies did not disclose the actual funding amount, but our understanding is that it’s a substantial amount that’s comparable to other Salesforce Ventures investments.

With its focus on industrial use cases, the company, which was founded in 2013, has developed a strong foothold in the mining and aggregates space, where it offers tools for doing volumetric measurements of stockpiles based on the imagery it captures from its drones, for example. In addition, though, the company also focuses on the construction, insurance and — most recently — energy sector.

Today, Kespry has more than 300 customers, the company’s CEO George Mathew tells me. More than 200 of those are in the mining and aggregates business and more than 40 of these signed up for the company’s services in the last 12 months alone.

So while drones may not be at the top of the hype cycle right now, those companies that found their niche early on are clearly thriving. “Drones are very much a vibrant and moving landscape in terms of how much activity has gone on,” he said. “For us, we’ve been largely and continuously focused on the commercial aspects of the market that we can solve for really difficult industrial challenges. […] But I think others have had some challenges because it’s not the most straightforward thing to figure out a viable business model for scale in the drone space.”

Mathew argues that Kespry’s subscription model and the fact that it offers an end-to-end hardware and software solution is one of the reasons the company is thriving today.

The Salesforce investment came about thanks to a chance encounter with that company’s CEO, Marc Benioff, at an industry event. As Salesforce was looking to offer more vertically oriented applications for the insurance industry, there was clearly a role for Kespry in this business. “We saw a lot of need in the insurance space to get a claim processed when it comes to physical damage that may have occurred after a catastrophic event,” Mathew said. In those cases, Salesforce’s tools may be used to dispatch adjudicators already and these claims adjusters often also use Kespry’s services to fly the drones to assess roof damage, for example.

Kespry also signed on to Saleforce’s Pledge 1% program; as part of this, it contributes one percent of its employees’ time to corporate social responsibility and charitable endeavors.

Mar
19
2019
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The top 10 startups from Y Combinator W19 Demo Day 1

Electric-vehicle chargers, heads-up displays for soldiers and the Costco of weed were some of our favorites from prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 Demo Day 1. If you want to take the pulse of Silicon Valley, YC is the place to be. But with more than 200 startups presenting across two stages and two days, it’s tough to keep track.

You can check out our write-ups of all 85 startups that launched on Demo Day 1, and come back later for our full index and picks from Day 2. But now, based on feedback from top investors and TechCrunch’s team, here’s our selection of the top 10 companies from the first half of this Y Combinator batch, and why we picked each.

Ravn

Looking around corners is one of the most dangerous parts of war for infantry. Ravn builds heads-up displays that let soldiers and law enforcement see around corners thanks to cameras on their gun, drones or elsewhere. The ability to see the enemy while still being behind cover saves lives, and Ravn already has $490,000 in Navy and Air Force contracts. With a CEO who was a Navy Seal who went on to study computer science, plus experts in augmented reality and selling hardware to the Department of Defense, Ravn could deliver the inevitable future of soldier heads-up displays.

Why we picked Ravn: The AR battlefield is inevitable, but right now Microsoft’s HoloLens team is focused on providing mid-fight information, like how many bullets a soldier has in their clip and where their squad mates are. Ravn’s tech was built by a guy who watched the tragic consequences of getting into those shootouts. He wants to help soldiers avoid or win these battles before they get dangerous, and his team includes an expert in selling hardened tech to the U.S. government.

Middesk

It’s difficult to know if a business’ partners have paid their taxes, filed for bankruptcy or are involved in lawsuits. That leads businesses to write off $120 billion a year in uncollectable bad debt. Middesk does due diligence to sort out good businesses from the bad to provide assurance for B2B deals, loans, investments, acquisitions and more. By giving clients the confidence that they’ll be paid, Middesk could insert itself into a wide array of transactions.

Why we picked Middesk: It’s building the trust layer for the business world that could weave its way into practically every deal. More data means making fewer stupid decisions, and Middesk could put an end to putting faith in questionable partners.

Convictional

Convictional helps direct-to-consumer companies approach larger retailers more simply. It takes a lot of time for a supplier to build a relationship with a retailer and start selling their products. Convictional wants to speed things up by building a B2B self-service commerce platform that allows retailers to easily approach brands and make orders.

Why we picked Convictional: There’s been an explosion of D2C businesses selling everything from suitcases to shaving kits. But to drive exposure and scale, they need retail partners who’re eager not to be cut out of this growing commerce segment. Playing middleman could put Convictional in a lucrative position, while also making it a nexus of valuable shopping data.

Dyneti Technologies

Dyneti has invented a credit card scanner SDK that uses a smartphone’s camera to help prevent fraud by more than 50 percent and improve conversion for businesses by 5 percent. The business was started by a pair of former Uber employees, including CEO Julia Zheng, who launched the fraud analytics teams for Account Security and UberEATS. Dyneti’s service is powered by deep learning and works on any card format. In the two months since it launched, the company has signed contracts with Rappi, Gametime and others.

Why we picked Dyneti: Cybersecurity threats are growing and evolving, yet underequipped businesses are eager to do more business online. Dyneti is one of those fundamental B2B businesses that feels like Stripe — capable of bringing simplicity and trust to a complex problem so companies can focus on their product.

AmpUp

The “Airbnb for electric-vehicle chargers,” ampUp is preparing for a world in which the majority of us drive EVs — it operates a mobile app that connects a network of thousands of EV chargers and drivers. Using the app, an electric-vehicle owner can quickly identify an available and compatible charger, and EV charger owners can earn cash sharing their charger at their own price and their own schedule. The service is currently live in the Bay Area.

Why we picked ampUp: Electric vehicles are inevitable, but reliable charging is one of the leading fears dissuading people from buying. Rather than build out some massive owned network of chargers that will never match the distributed gas station network, ampUp could put an EV charger anywhere there’s someone looking to make a few bucks.

Flockjay

Flockjay operates an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales. The 12-week bootcamp offers trainees coaching and mentorship. The company has launched its debut cohort with 17 students, 100 percent of whom are already in job interviews and 40 percent of whom have already secured new careers in the tech industry.

Why we picked Flockjay: Unlike coding bootcamps that can require intense prerequisites, killer salespeople can be molded from anyone with hustle. Those from underrepresented backgrounds already know how to expertly sell themselves to attain opportunities others take for granted. Flockjay could provide economic mobility at a crucial juncture when job security is shaky.

Deel

Twenty million international contractors work with U.S. companies, but it’s difficult to onboard and train them. Deel handles the contracts, payments and taxes in one interface to eliminate paperwork and wasted time. Deel charges businesses $10 per contractor per month and a 1 percent fee on payouts, which earns it an average of $560 per contractor per year.

Why we picked Deel: The destigmatization of remote work is opening new recruiting opportunities abroad for U.S. businesses. But unless teams can properly integrate these distant staffers, the cost savings of hiring overseas are negated. As the globalization megatrend continues, businesses will need better HR tools.

Glide

There has been a pretty major trend toward services that make it easier to build web pages or mobile apps. Glide lets customers easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages. This not only makes it easy to build the pages, but simplifies the skills needed to keep information updated on the site.

Why we picked Glide: While desktop website makers is a brutally competitive market, it’s still not easy to make a mobile site if you’re not a coder. Rather than starting from a visual layout tool with which many people would still be unfamiliar, Glide starts with a spreadsheet that almost everyone has used. And as the web begins to feel less personal with all the brands and influencers, Glide could help people make bespoke apps that put intimacy and personality first.

Docucharm

The platform, co-founded by former Uber product manager Minh Tri Pham, turns documents into structured data a computer can understand to accurately automate document processing workflows and take away the need for human data entry. Docucharm’s API can understand various forms of documents (like paystubs, for example) and will extract the necessary information without error. Its customers include tax prep company Tributi and lending business Aspire.

Why we picked Docucharm: Paying high-priced, high-skilled workers to do data entry is a huge waste. And optical character recognition like Docucharm’s will unlock new types of businesses based on data extraction. This startup could be the AI layer underneath it all.

Flower Co

Flower Co provides memberships for cheaper weed sales and delivery. Most dispensaries cater to high-end customers and newbies that want expensive products and tons of hand-holding. In contrast, Flower Co caters to long-time marijuana enthusiasts who want huge quantities at low prices. They’re currently selling $200.000 in marijuana per month to 700 members. They charge $100 a year for membership, and take 10 percent on product sales.

Why we picked Flower Co: Marijuana is the next gold rush, a once-in-a-generation land-grab opportunity. Yet most marijuana merchants have focused on hyper-discerning high-end customers despite the long-standing popularity of smoking big blunts of cheap weed with a bunch of friends. For those who want to make cannabis consumption a lifestyle, and there will be plenty, Flower Co could become their wholesaler.

Honorable Mentions

Atomic Alchemy – Filling the shortage of nuclear medicine

Yourchoice – Omni-gender non-hormonal birth control

Prometheus – Turning CO2 into gas

Lumos – Medical search engine for doctors

Heart Aerospace – Regional electric planes

Boundary Layer Technologies – Super-fast container ships

Additional reporting by Kate Clark, Greg Kumparak and Lucas Matney

Feb
24
2019
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Microsoft announces an Azure-powered Kinect camera for enterprise

Today’s Mobile World Congress kickoff event was all about the next Hololens, but Microsoft still had some surprises up its sleeve. One of the more interesting additions is the Azure Kinect, a new enterprise camera system that leverages the company’s perennially 3D imaging technology to create a 3D camera for enterprises.

The device is actually a kind of companion hardware piece for Hololens in the enterprise, giving business a way to capture depth sensing and leverage its Azure solutions to collect that data.

“Azure Kinect is an intelligent edge device that doesn’t just see and hear but understands the people, the environment, the objects and their actions,” Azure VP Julia White said at the kick off of today’s event. “The level of accuracy you can achieve is unprecedented.”

What started as a gesture-based gaming peripheral for the Xbox 360 has since grown to be an incredibly useful tool across a variety of different fields, so it tracks that the company would seek to develop a product for business. And unlike some of the more far off Hololens applications, the Azure Kinect is the sort of product that could be instantly useful, right off the the shelf.

A number of enterprise partners have already begun testing the technology, including Datamesh, Ocuvera and Ava, representing an interesting cross-section of companies. The system goes up for pre-order today, priced at $399. 

Feb
24
2019
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Say hello to Microsoft’s new $3,500 HoloLens with twice the field of view

Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its HoloLens ‘mixed reality’ headset at MWC Barcelona today. The new HoloLens 2 features a significantly larger field of view, higher resolution and a device that’s more comfortable to wear. Indeed, Microsoft says the device is three times as comfortable to wear (though it’s unclear how Microsoft measured this).

Later this year, HoloLens 2 will be available in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand for $3,500.

One of the knocks against the original HoloLens was its limited field of view. When whatever you wanted to look at was small and straight ahead of you, the effect was striking. But when you moved your head a little bit or looked at a larger object, it suddenly felt like you were looking through a stamp-sized screen. HoloLens 2 features a field of view that’s twice as large as the original.

“Kinect was the first intelligent device to enter our homes,” HoloLens chief Alex Kipman said in today’s keynote, looking back the the device’s history. “It drove us to create Microsoft HoloLens. […] Over the last few years, individual developers, large enterprises, brand new startup have been dreaming up beautiful things, helpful things.”

The HoloLens was always just as much about the software as the hardware, though. For HoloLens, Microsoft developed a special version of Windows, together with a new way of interacting with the AR objects through gestures like air tap and bloom. In this new version, the interaction is far more natural and lets you tap objects. The device also tracks your gaze more accurately to allow the software to adjust to where you are looking.

“HoloLens 2 adapts to you,” Kipman stressed. “HoloLens 2 evolves the interaction model by significantly advancing how people engage with holograms.”

In its demos, the company clearly emphasized how much faster and fluid the interaction with HoloLens applications becomes when you can use slides, for example, by simply grabbing the slider and moving it, or by tapping on a button with either a finger or two or with your full hand. Microsoft event built a virtual piano that you can play with ten fingers to show off how well the HoloLens can track movement. The company calls this ‘instinctual interaction.’

Microsoft first unveiled the HoloLens concept at a surprise event on its Redmond campus back in 2015. After a limited, invite-only release that started days after the end of MWC 2016, the device went on sale to everybody in August  2016. Four years is a long time between hardware releases, but the company clearly wanted to seed the market and give developer a chance to build the first set of HoloLens applications on a stable platform.

To support developers, Microsoft is also launching a number of Azure services for HoloLens today. These include spatial anchors and remote rendering to help developers stream high-polygon content to HoloLens.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft never positioned the device as consumer hardware. I may have shown off the occasional game, but its focus was always on business applications, with a bit of educational applications thrown in, too. That trend continued today. Microsoft showed off the ability to have multiple people collaborate around a single hologram, for example. That’s not new, of course, but goes to show how Microsoft is positioning this technology.

For these enterprises, Microsoft will also offer the ability to customize the device.

“When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, repeating a line from the company’s first HoloLens announcement four years ago. He noted that he believes that connecting the physical world with the virtual world will transform the way we will work.

Feb
20
2019
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Arm expands its push into the cloud and edge with the Neoverse N1 and E1

For the longest time, Arm was basically synonymous with chip designs for smartphones and very low-end devices. But more recently, the company launched solutions for laptops, cars, high-powered IoT devices and even servers. Today, ahead of MWC 2019, the company is officially launching two new products for cloud and edge applications, the Neoverse N1 and E1. Arm unveiled the Neoverse brand a few months ago, but it’s only now that it is taking concrete form with the launch of these new products.

“We’ve always been anticipating that this market is going to shift as we move more towards this world of lots of really smart devices out at the endpoint — moving beyond even just what smartphones are capable of doing,” Drew Henry, Arms’ SVP and GM for Infrastructure, told me in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “And when you start anticipating that, you realize that those devices out of those endpoints are going to start creating an awful lot of data and need an awful lot of compute to support that.”

To address these two problems, Arm decided to launch two products: one that focuses on compute speed and one that is all about throughput, especially in the context of 5G.

ARM NEOVERSE N1

The Neoverse N1 platform is meant for infrastructure-class solutions that focus on raw compute speed. The chips should perform significantly better than previous Arm CPU generations meant for the data center and the company says that it saw speedups of 2.5x for Nginx and MemcacheD, for example. Chip manufacturers can optimize the 7nm platform for their needs, with core counts that can reach up to 128 cores (or as few as 4).

“This technology platform is designed for a lot of compute power that you could either put in the data center or stick out at the edge,” said Henry. “It’s very configurable for our customers so they can design how big or small they want those devices to be.”

The E1 is also a 7nm platform, but with a stronger focus on edge computing use cases where you also need some compute power to maybe filter out data as it is generated, but where the focus is on moving that data quickly and efficiently. “The E1 is very highly efficient in terms of its ability to be able to move data through it while doing the right amount of compute as you move that data through,” explained Henry, who also stressed that the company made the decision to launch these two different platforms based on customer feedback.

There’s no point in launching these platforms without software support, though. A few years ago, that would have been a challenge because few commercial vendors supported their data center products on the Arm architecture. Today, many of the biggest open-source and proprietary projects and distributions run on Arm chips, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Ubuntu, Suse, VMware, MySQL, OpenStack, Docker, Microsoft .Net, DOK and OPNFV. “We have lots of support across the space,” said Henry. “And then as you go down to that tier of languages and libraries and compilers, that’s a very large investment area for us at Arm. One of our largest investments in engineering is in software and working with the software communities.”

And as Henry noted, AWS also recently launched its Arm-based servers — and that surely gave the industry a lot more confidence in the platform, given that the biggest cloud supplier is now backing it, too.

Jan
10
2019
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Daily Crunch: How the government shutdown is damaging cybersecurity and future IPOs

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. How Trump’s government shutdown is harming cyber and national security
The government has been shut down for nearly three weeks, and there’s no end in sight. While most of the core government departments — State, Treasury, Justice and Defense — are still operational, others like Homeland Security, which takes the bulk of the government’s cybersecurity responsibilities, are suffering the most.

2. With SEC workers offline, the government shutdown could screw IPO-ready companies
The SEC has been shut down since December 27 and only has 285 of its 4,436 employees on the clock for emergency situations. While tech’s most buzz-worthy unicorns like Uber and Lyft won’t suffer too much from the shutdown, smaller businesses, particularly those in need of an infusion of capital to continue operating, will bear the brunt of any IPO delays.

3. The state of seed 

In 2018, seed activity as a percentage of all deals shrank from 31 percent to 25 percent — a decade low — while the share and size of late-stage deals swelled to record highs.

4. Banking startup N26 raises $300 million at $2.7 billion valuation

N26 is building a retail bank from scratch. The company prides itself on the speed and simplicity of setting up an account and managing assets. In the past year, N26’s valuation has exploded as its user base has tripled, with nearly a third of customers paying for a premium account.

5. E-scooter startup Bird is raising another $300M 

Bird is reportedly nearing a deal to extend its Series C round with a $300 million infusion led by Fidelity. The funding, however, comes at a time when scooter companies are losing steam and struggling to prove that its product is the clear solution to last-mile transportation.

6. AWS gives open source the middle finger 

It’s no secret that AWS has long been accused of taking the best open-source projects and re-using and re-branding them without always giving back to those communities.

7. The Galaxy S10 is coming on February 20 

Looks like Samsung is giving Mobile World Congress the cold shoulder and has decided to announce its latest flagship phone a week earlier in San Francisco.

Jan
08
2019
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IBM unveils its first commercial quantum computer

At CES, IBM today announced its first commercial quantum computer for use outside of the lab. The 20-qubit system combines into a single package the quantum and classical computing parts it takes to use a machine like this for research and business applications. That package, the IBM Q system, is still huge, of course, but it includes everything a company would need to get started with its quantum computing experiments, including all the machinery necessary to cool the quantum computing hardware.

While IBM describes it as the first fully integrated universal quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use, it’s worth stressing that a 20-qubit machine is nowhere near powerful enough for most of the commercial applications that people envision for a quantum computer with more qubits — and qubits that are useful for more than 100 microseconds. It’s no surprise then, that IBM stresses that this is a first attempt and that the systems are “designed to one day tackle problems that are currently seen as too complex and exponential in nature for classical systems to handle.” Right now, we’re not quite there yet, but the company also notes that these systems are upgradable (and easy to maintain).

“The IBM Q System One is a major step forward in the commercialization of quantum computing,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud and director of IBM Research. “This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science.”

More than anything, though, IBM seems to be proud of the design of the Q systems. In a move that harkens back to Cray’s supercomputers with its expensive couches, IBM worked with design studios Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio, as well Goppion, the company that has built, among other things, the display cases that house the U.K.’s crown jewels and the Mona Lisa. IBM clearly thinks of the Q system as a piece of art and, indeed, the final result is quite stunning. It’s a nine-foot-tall and nine-foot-wide airtight box, with the quantum computing chandelier hanging in the middle, with all of the parts neatly hidden away.

If you want to buy yourself a quantum computer, you’ll have to work with IBM, though. It won’t be available with free two-day shipping on Amazon anytime soon.

In related news, IBM also announced the IBM Q Network, a partnership with ExxonMobil and research labs like CERN and Fermilab that aims to build a community that brings together the business and research interests to explore use cases for quantum computing. The organizations that partner with IBM will get access to its quantum software and cloud-based quantum computing systems.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

Jan
07
2019
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Daily Crunch: Nvidia breaks with tradition at CES 2019

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Nvidia launches the $349 GeForce RTX 2060

Nvidia broke with tradition and put a new focus on gaming at CES. Last night the company unveiled the RTX 2060, a $349 low-end version of its new Turing-based desktop graphics cards. The RTX 2060 will be available on Jan. 15.

2. Elon Musk’s vision of spaceflight is gorgeous 

This spring SapceX intends to launch the next phase in its space exploration plans. The newly named Starship rocket, previously known as the BFR, intends to to be rocket to rule them all. And it’s going to look good doing it.

3. Apple’s increasingly tricky international trade-offs

Far from its troubles in emerging markets like China, Apple is starting to face backlash from a European population that’s crying foul over the company’s perceived hypocrisy on data privacy. It’s become clear that Apple’s biggest success is now its biggest challenge in Europe.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

4. Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR

In a recently recorded podcast Marc Andreesen gave some predictions on the future of the tech industry. Surprisingly, the all-start investor is continuing his support of the shaky VR industry saying that expanding the immersive world will require us to remove the head-mounted displays we’ve become accustomed to.

5. Fitness marketplace ClassPass acquires competitor GuavaPass

ClassPass, the five-year-old fitness marketplace, is in the midst of an expansion sprint. The company announced yesterday that it’s acquiring one it competitors, GuavaPass, for an undisclosed amount to expand into Asia. The move now puts ClassPass in more than 80 markets across the 11 countries, with plans to expand to 50 new cities in 2019.

6. Apple shows off new smart home products from HomeKit partners

Apple gave a snapshot of its future smart home ecosystem at CES. Looks like an array of smart light switches, door cameras, electrical outlets and more are on the way and will be configurable through the Home app and Siri.

7. Parcel Guard’s smart mailbox protects your packages from porch thieves

Danby is showing off its newly launched smart mailbox called Parcel Guard at CES, which allows deliveries to be left securely at customers’ doorsteps. Turns out you won’t need a farting glitter bomb to protect your packages after all. The Parcel Guard starts at $399 and pre-orders are will be available this week.

Dec
18
2018
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Ex-Googlers meld humans & machines at new cobotics startup Formant

Our distinct skill sets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot,” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies,” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent four years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data-driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20 or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web,” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A beautiful marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre,” Formant CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I would do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4,000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics, where he was COO, got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at,” Jules tells me.

Formant now has SaaS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with LiDAR, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human “foreman” that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop,” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it also can turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rock-star talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to the new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics, plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution,” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”

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