No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company, Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms which were created using flawed datasets mean that there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos, co-founder and CEO of Elektra Labs, in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop-shop for all of their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for FitBit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel, and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was . one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment.  Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

Why venture capital firms need culture experts

When Susan Fowler’s 2017 blog post shined a light on Uber’s raucous culture, outlining rampant harassment and sexism, a debate erupted. What role do the deep-pocketed investors behind the company, those who allowed it to scale to monstrous proportions, have in developing and nurturing its culture? Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists themselves wondered aloud, how involved should a venture fund be in early-stage recruiting processes and ensuring a safe environment for employees? If a culture is bad, unsafe, damaging, is it the VC’s fault?

Late-stage venture funds, for the most part, miss the opportunity to deeply impact their portfolio companies’ cultures. When they invest, typically large sums of capital in companies with hundreds of employees and multiple offices, the company’s culture is formed and, as Uber and others have proven, rebuilding culture a decade in is no easy challenge. Early-stage funds, however, the people that write the very first check in startups, have a front-row seat to decisions crucial to defining how a company operates and treats its employees in the long term. These people, if they care to, have the power to help determine key hires and establish company values, norms and behaviors from the get-go.

This week, San Francisco-based early-stage fund True Ventures hired its first-ever vice president of culture, a move that suggests VCs are taking concrete steps toward further involving themselves in the company-building process from a D&I and hiring perspective. Madeline Kolbe Saltzman joins the firm, which raised $635 million across two new funds last year, from Handshake, where she was the VP of people and talent.

“There’s a responsibility to guide the company and the founder to being the best they can be, and that involves paying attention to who you’re hiring and how people are being treated,” Saltzman tells TechCrunch. “If we can come in and establish inclusive norms, my hope is that our companies will scale inclusively as well.”

Most venture capitalists are in regular communication with active investments. Early-stage investors, particularly, are very involved with building businesses, facilitating hires and scaling. But as they seek to decrease cash-burn or find product-market fit, VCs are not often very concerned with issues of diversity and inclusion, something that’s became increasingly important as companies are finally being held accountable for the diversity of their workforces.

Lookiero closes $19M led by MMC Ventures to be the Stitch Fix for Europe

Lookiero, the online personal shopping service for clothes and accessories, has closed a $19 million funding round led by London-based VC MMC Ventures with support from existing investor All Iron Ventures, and new investors Bonsai Partners, 10x and Santander Smart. The company will use the backing to expand in its main markets of Spain, France and the UK. In June last year it closed a funding round of €4 million led by All Iron Ventures.

The startup applies algorithms to a database of personal stylists and customer profiles to thus provide a personalized online shopping experience to its customers. It then delivers a selection of five pieces of clothing or accessories curated by a personal shopper to fit the customer’s individual size, style, and preferences. Customers then decide which items to keep or return (at no additional cost), allowing Lookiero to learn more about the customer’s tase before starting the whole process again.

By generating look-a-like profiles and analyzing previous customer interactions with each item, Lookiero says it can predict how likely a user is going to keep a certain item from a range of more than 150 European brands from a warehousing system that will ship more than 3 million items of clothing this year to seven European countries.

It’s not unlike the well—worn Birchbox model. Lookiero’s main competitor is Stitch Fix (US), which has upwards of $1.5bn in annual revenues and IPO’d November 2017.

Founded in 2015 by Spanish entrepreneur Oier Urrutia, the company says it now has over 1 million registered users and has grown revenue by over 200% from 2017 to 2018.

In a statement Urrutia said: “This investment round provides us with the necessary capital to further increase the accuracy of our technology, which is really exciting. It will allow us to offer the best possible experience for our users and to continue expanding across Europe.”

Simon Menashy, Partner, MMC Ventures, said: “The migration of fashion brands online has improved consumers’ access to clothing, and there is now an almost overwhelming amount of choice. At the same time, it can still be really hard to find exactly what is right for you, especially with high street retail stores in decline. Lookiero provides the best of both worlds, giving every customer a hand-picked selection from their personal stylist.”

Ander Michelena, co-founding partner of All Iron Ventures, said: “Even if what Oier and his team have achieved to date is remarkable, we believe that Lookiero still has great potential to continue expanding internationally and to become a player of reference in a market segment where there is still a lot to do in terms of innovation and user satisfaction”.

Remagine secures $35M fund backed by media giants to focus on entertainment and media tech

Remagine Ventures is a relatively new European VC fund which focuses on investments in entertainment tech, including AI, gaming, sports & eSports, AR/VR, consumer and commerce. It’s now completed $35 million in funding from a number of entertainment and media corporations, including Axel Springer and ProsiebenSat1, Japanese Adways and American Liontree LLC. Last year global media group Sky put $4 million into the fund as part of the launch of its new innovation office in Berlin.

To date, the fund has invested in six entertainment start-ups, including: Minute Media, a user-generated content platform for sports, Syte.ai a visual search startup, Novos, a gamer training platform, HourOne, which operates in the world of synthetic media, Vault-ai.com, predictive analytics for film and television and Madskil, an eSports company in stealth.

Started by investor/entrepreneurs Kevin Baxpehler and Eze Vidra, Remagine focuses on early-stage (seed and pre-seed) investments in Israel and UK, with synergies between the two territories.
Traditionally, Israel has been better know for it’s ‘deep tech’capabilities but there’s a growing ecosystem of entertainment tech and consumer startups looking to disrupt traditional traditional industries.

Vidra established Campus London, Google’s first physical hubs for startups and later expanded the Campus model internationally. He was also a general partner Google Ventures (GV), the company’s investment arm in Europe.

Baxpehler, is a former entrepreneur and investment banker from in Germany. He most recently led the investment activity of German entertainment giant ProSiebenSat.1 in Israel, investing in Dynamic Yield (which recently sold for $300 million to McDonalds) and Magisto, which was acquired by Vimeo for $200 million.

Vidra said: “We operate in a relatively new market in the Israeli ecosystem. The Entertainment-tech sector has tremendous momentum, and Israeli founders are expanding at a rapid pace in this world and we recognize huge potential in it.” Baxpehler added: “Eze and I have experience in the investment world, the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world. We want to meet startups very early, to accompany and guide them even before investing.”

African incubator MEST has a new MD and 11 fresh startup investments

Pan-African incubator MEST announced investments in 11 startups from its 2019 cohort that will each receive $100,000 in financing.

The $1.1 million backing for a graduating class is the largest to date for the Accra-based organization — which operates as a training program and seed fund for African innovators to build successful commercial tech companies.

By country presence and membership, MEST is one of Africa’s largest tech hubs, and has a new managing director — Ashwin Ravichandran — who succeeded Aaron Fu in July.

This year’s investment recipients come from four countries: Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. The startups offer goods and services across diverse sectors, from agtech to fintech to beauty and entertainment (see full list below).

Ghanaian fintech startup Bezo Money will use the funding from MEST to launch its app aimed at formalizing and digitizing West Africa’s traditional savings groups, founder Mubarak Sumaila told TechCrunch on a call from MEST’s Accra offices.

MEST 2019 cohort graduate and investment recipient Zuri has created a platform to organize, review and connect beauty services and professionals to clients online. “The global beauty services industry is worth over $100 billion and the African market is worth over $30 billion,” said Zuri founder Onyinye Nnedolisa. The company will use its investment funds on product development and business development.

Zuri Mest Startup Africa

MEST takes equity in its portfolio startups, which have 18 months of incubation support from the organization, including the option to work out of MEST incubators in multiple African markets, MEST’s new MD Ashwin Ravichandran told TechCrunch.

On future focus, MEST is looking to expand to additional countries. It currently has incubator spaces in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya and has a strong eye on setting up shop in Cote d’Ivoire, according to Ravichandran.

MEST will continue its entrepreneurial training programs, aimed at shaping founders who can launch companies, and maintain a strong focus on developing and investing in Africa’s early-stage startups.

MEST is funded primarily by Norwegian entrepreneur and philanthropist Jorn Lyseggen’s Meltwater Foundation. For several years, the incubator has discussed forming a full on VC fund.

That could be imminent. “We have all the pieces in place right now, I think Jorn’s just figuring out the last steps before announcing it,” said Ashwin. The VC fund would have more capital and go beyond MEST’s seed-stage investments to consider Series stage rounds to African startups.

Africa has seen a boom in tech hubs over the last decade that have become focal points for startup formation, digital skills building, events and IT activity.

A joint GSMA, Briter Bridges report tallied 618 tech hubs across the continent. Like MEST, many of the hubs got their start from grant funding, and there’s an ongoing conversation about viability and sustainability for these spaces going forward.

TechHubsinAfricain2019 Briter BridgesIncreasingly, some of the largest African hubs — such as MEST, Nigeria’s CcHub and Kenya’s iHub — have moved toward more fee-based services and investment activities to generate greater operating revenue. On whether this is a future model for Africa’s tech hubs, “Yes, it definitely is,” Ravichandran said.

Startups interested in joining MEST’s 2020 cohort, and potentially gaining investment upon graduation, can get recruitment updates online.

Here’s MEST’s list and description of the 11 ventures from its 2019 class that earned $100K seed rounds:

  • Massira: a social support network and healthcare service aggregator for women,
    launching in Ghana
  • BezoMoney: a digital savings platform for traditional savings groups, launching in Ghana
  • Farmula: a web and USSD platform to create a direct connection between farmers and businesses using an automated process to increase order efficiency, launching in Kenya
  • CoFundie: a platform for crowd-sourcing funds for the development of buildings using cost efficient and time-saving techniques, launching in Nigeria
  • Niqao: a financing platform that connects merchants and lenders to enable them to offer customers the option of paying in installments, launching in Ghana
  • Saada: a messaging and mobile money ticketing services for increasing digital sales and data collection, launching in Kenya
  • Nadia: a personalized automated health companion that provides quick medical attention and prescriptions, launching in Kenya
  • Kweza: a service that enables informal retailers to order products at the best price and receive deliveries directly to their stores, launching in South Africa
  • CoVibes: a platform that pairs verified studios and producers, allowing them to list their profiles and manage bookings while enabling artists to find and collaborate with them and each other, launching in Nigeria
  • Adi+Bolga: a platform using the power of technology and community to gather data and create conversations around the black skin and black skincare, launching in Ghana
  • Zuri: a platform that helps beauty professionals manage their customers and provides an easy way for people to find and book beauty services, launching in Nigeria

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

With Y Combinator’s seal of approval, MyPetrolPump raises $1.6 million for its car refueling business

Before even pitching on stage at Y Combinator, href="https://mypetrolpump.com/"> MyPetrolPump, the Indian startup with a car refueling business has managed to snag $1.6 million in its seed financing.

The business, which is similar to startups in the U.S. like Filld, Yoshi, and Booster Fuels, took ten months to design and receive approvals for its proprietary refueling trucks that can withstand the unique stresses of providing logistics services in India.

Together with co-founder Nabin Roy, a serial startup entrepreneur, MyPetrolPump co-founder and chief executive Ashish Gupta pooled together $150,000 to build the company’s first two refuelers and launch the business.

MyPetrolPump began operating out of Bangalore in 2017 working with a manufacturing partner to make the 20-30 refuelers that the company expects it will need to roll out its initial services. However, demand is far outstripping supply, according to Gupta.

“We would need hundreds of them to fulfill the demand,” Gupta says. In fact the company is already developing a licensing strategy that would see it franchise out the construction of the refueling vehicles and regional management of the business across multiple geographies. 

Bootstrapped until this $1.6 million financing, MyPetrolPump already has five refueling vehicles in its fleet and counts 2,000 customers already on its ledger.

These are companies like Amazon and Zoomcar, which both have massive fleets of vehicles that need refueling. Already the company has delivered 5 million liters of fuel with drivers working 12-hour-per-day shifts, Gupta says.

While services like MyPetrolPump have cropped up in the U.S. as a matter of convenience, in the Indian context, the company’s offering are more of a necessity, says Gupta.

“In the Indian context, there’s pilferage of fuel,” says Gupta. Bus drivers collude with gas station operators to skim money off the top of the order, charging for fifty liters of fuel but only getting 40 liters pumped in. Another problem that Gupta says is common is the adulteration of fuel with additives that can degrade the engine of a vehicle.

There’s also the environmental benefit of not having to go all over to refill a vehicle, saving fuel costs by filling up multiple vehicles with a .  single trip from a refueling vehicle out to a location with a fleet of existing vehicles.

The company estimates it can offset 1 million tons of carbon in a year — and provide over 300 billion liters of fuel. The model has taken off in other geographies as well. There’s Toplivo v Bak in Russia (which was acquired by Yandex), Gaston in Paris and Indonesia’s everything mobility company, Gojek, whose offerings also include refueling services.

And Gupta is preparing for the future as well. If the world moves to electrification and electric vehicles, the entrepreneur says his company can handle that transition as well.

We are delivering a last mile fuel delivery system,” says Gupta. “If tomorrow hydrogen becomes the dominant fuel we will do that… If there is electricity we will do that. What we are building is the convenience of last mile delivery to energy at the doorstep.”

SpaceX aims to provide commercial Starship launches by 2021

SpaceX is only getting started launching Falcon Heavy commercial missions, but it already has its eyes on the next prize – launching Starship. Now, we know that it’s hoping to start commercial service for this next-generation, fully reusable rocket by 2021, according to SpaceX Vice President of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller.

Hofeller was speaking at a conference in Indonesia (via SpaceNews), and noted that the private space launch company is currently talking to three different telecom companies about selecting which will be the first mission aboard the new spacecraft. Starship, formerly knowns as ‘BFR’ or ‘Big Falcon Rocket’) is currently in development at two separate SpaceX facilities, one in Texas and one in Florida, in what amounts to an internal company ‘bake-off’ to see which team can delivery the better solution faster. An engineering show-down of this kind is not uncommon among tech companies, and often produces results from both efforts that complement or enhance whatever the final product ends up being, rather than being a ‘winner take all’ scenario.

Starship, once complete, will include a launch system propelled to orbit by a ‘Super Heavy’ booster, with even more lift capacity than the existing Falcon Heavy rocket. It’ll be able to delivery as many as 20 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit, or over 100 tons to low-Earth orbit. It’s also intended to be the spacecraft that enables SpaceX to achieve its goal of running crewed missions to Mars.

Previously stated target dates for Starship milestones include achieving orbital launches by 2020, though based on this new info those will be test or demonstration missions rather than for paying customers. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also previously said that the company is looking at 2023 as the earliest target date for providing a Moon circuit space trip to his first paying tourist customer, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa.

Creative Destruction Lab’s second Super Session is an intense two-day startup testbed

Canadian startup program Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) escapes succinct description in some ways – it’s an accelerator, to be sure, and an incubator. Startups show up and present to a combined audience of investors, mentors, industry players (some of whom, like former astronaut Chris Hadfield, verge on celebrity status) – but it’s not a demo day, per se, and presentations happen in focused rooms with key, vertically aligned audience members who can provide much more than just funding to the startups who participate.

North founder Stephen Lake on stage at CDL’s Super Session 2019.

Seven years into its existence, CDL really puts on a show for its cornerstone annual event (itself only two years old) clearly shows the extent to which the program has scaled. From an inaugural cohort of just 25 startups with a focus on science, CDL has grown to the point where it’s graduating 150 startups spanning cohorts across six cities associated with multiple academic institutions. It has consistently added new areas of focus, including a space track this year, for which Hadfield is a key mentor, as is Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space tourist to pay her own way to the International Space Station and the co-founder and CEO of Prodea Systems.

The ‘Super’ in Super Session

This is the second so-called ‘Super Session’ after the event’s debut in 2017. It includes roughly 850 attendees, made up of investors, mentors, industry sponsors and the graduating startups themselves. As CDL Fellow Chen Fong put it in his welcoming remarks, CDL’s Super Session is an opportune moment for networking, mentorship and demonstration of the companies the program has helped foster and grow.

A keynote track included talks by Ansari and Hadfield, as well as from Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim, and a fireside chat with North founder and CEO Stephen Lake. Subjects ranged from the importance of the linkage between exploration and technology, to what Beim described as “probably the first CDL talk to include menstrual health, vibrators, incontinence, and menopause, all in the span of 15 minutes.” Lake meanwhile discussed the future of seamless human-computer interfaces, and Ansari discussed her work founding the XPRIZE program and the impetus behind the current moment and interest in private space innovation.

Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim speaking at the 2019 Creative Destruction Lab Super Session in Toronto.

The variety in the keynote speaker mix and topic selection is reflective of the eclectic and comprehensive nature of CDL’s modern program, which scouts globally for prospective startup participants. Its six hubs then enter into a matching process with startups signed on to take part, where each scores the other and that leads to placement.

How CDL works

CDL’s originating thesis is all about supplying the limiting resource in a startup ecosystem; the thing which the program’s organizers think is the missing ingredient that differentiates Silicon Valley from any other innovation hub in the world. Namely, CDL theorizes that this missing ingredient is what CDL Associate Director Kristjan Sigurdson calls “entrepreneurial judgement.”

Sigurdson explains that this basically boils down to the ability to know what are the most important things you need to do as an entrepreneur, and in what order. The missing piece, he says, isn’t ideas, funding availability or a lack of effort – instead it’s the kind of judgement that results from experience. CDL’s model, which emphasizes five sessions held periodically during which a panel of mentors helps startups set three clearly defined objectives they can accomplish within the next eight weeks.

After each of these sessions, some triage occurs – essentially CDL mentors gathered in closed door meetings and are asked if they’d work with any of the startups that presented during the session. If startups don’t receive sponsorship in these closed door meetings, then they’re not asked to participate in the next session, and effectively are out of the program. All told, the program graduates around 40-45 percent of the startups that enter the program, Sigurdson said.

Group session with small group mentoring on site at Creative Destruction Lab’s 2019 Super Session in Toronto.

CDL is also a bit out of the ordinary in that it takes no equity from the startups it works with – it’s fundamentally an academic program, started by the University of Toronto, and its designed to provide real-world business cases for the school’s MBA students to work on. But it’s become so much more – providing mentorship and guidance as described, and also connecting researchers who often enter into formal advisory roles with CDL companies.

Sigurdson also noted that CDL has actually seen “much higher investment levels” vs. the average for more traditional incubation or acceleration programs. “It’s a program that I think allows companies to raise money much more organically even though it’s an artificial program we created,” he said, referencing CDL’s own comparative research.

Lab-grown and forged in fire

True to its name, Creative Destruction Lab in practice feels like a generative cauldron of ideas, shared with peers and industry specialists for debate, discussion and reformation. Sessions are remarkable to witness – where else are you going to see brand new companies get direct feedback from astronauts and representatives of global space agencies, for instance.

Creative Destruction Lab opening keynote for its Super Session 2019 event.

The model is unique, but clearly effective, and able to scale – as evidenced from its growth to what it is today, from its starting point in 2012, when one founder described it as ‘7 people in a room.’ The room featuring presentations from space track companies alone featured around 50 people in attendance for instance – almost all of which were top-flight industry leaders and investors, including Hadfield, Ansari, CDL alumni Mina Mitry of Kepler Communications, and prominent Toronto angel investor Dan Debow. Startups presenting in the space track included Wyvern, a hyperspectral imaging company; Mission Control, a startup that wants to be the software layer for Moon rovers; and Atomos, which is building space tug for extra-atmospheric ‘last-mile’ transportation solutions.

It’s easy to see why this program results in solid investment pipeline, given the profile of the sponsors and mentors involved. And it’s another strong stake in the ground for the claim that Canada’s startup scene, with Toronto as its locus of gravity, is increasingly earning (and outperforming) its reputation as a global center of innovation.