AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

You’ll need to prick up your ears up for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

 

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

BrandProject expands beyond the studio model with a new $43M fund

BrandProject —a firm that’s backed successful direct-to-consumer commerce startups like Freshly (acquired by Nestlé), Persona (also acquired by Nestlé) and Chef’s Plate (acquired by Hello Fresh) — is announcing that it has raised $43 million for what it says is its first traditional venture fund.

Founded Andrew Black, who previously co-founded Virgin Mobile Canada and served as president of LEGO Americas, BrandProject previously invested from a $12 million fund tied BrandProject Studio, where the money is just a small part of what’s being offered — apparently six of the firm’s eight team members are entirely focused on supporting startups, often serving as de facto CTOs, CFOs and CMOs.

With the new BrandProject Capital fund, the firm will be able to make larger investments in (somewhat) more mature companies. Black estimated that the new fund will be writing checks of between $1 million and $3 million; the goal is for half of the deals to be new investments, while the other half consists of follow-on investments in startups from BrandProject Studio.

“We’re going to be supporting the same type of businesses out of Studio or Capital, but with Studio, nothing’s too early for us — we’re all about team, team, team,” said Partner Hayden Williams. “But if it’s a Capital deal, we’re going to look for some evidence that something working, even if it’s a small scale.”

The focus will continue to be direct-to-consumer brands, and although the pandemic has led to tremendous e-commerce growth, Black said it hasn’t changed the BrandProject strategy.

BrandProject Team

Image Credits: BrandProject

“We haven’t adjusted our investment focus at all because of COVID,” he said. “We’ve always invested behind categories, brands and segments that we just think the world needs.”

One of the limited partners who invested in the new fund is probably BrandProject’s biggest success story — Freshly co-founder and CEO Michael Wystrach, who sold his healthy meal startup to Nestlé for $1.5 billion. Wystrach recalled reading about BrandProject in TechCrunch and, after looking the firm up, sending unsolicited meals to Partner Jay Bhatti in New York.

At that point, Freshly had only raised friends-and-family funding, and Wystrach admitted, “We would have taken a check from anyone.” But he said he was lucky that Bhatti liked the food and the firm decided to invest, with Black becoming an interim co-CEO, Bhatti serving as interim CTO and Partner Andrew Bridge serving as an interim CMO.

“What I loved about BrandProject is that they never came in and told us what kind of business we’re building,” he continued. “It was never a case where they said, ‘You need to do this.’ It was our business, and they were team members in helping us build the business.”

To illustrate the idea behind the new fund, Wystrach compared the investment ecosystem to the U.S. schools: “Where Andrew and the team come in, they’re K through 8 or maybe K through 6, they’re very hands on … With the new fund, maybe they’re moving to middle school.”

Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy

Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.

When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.

In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.

Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.

“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.

Soona

Image Credits: Soona

Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”

The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.

Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next stage of development of that business: the company is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop autonomous systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — likely in closed environments like warehouses rather than open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners’ CFC [customer fulfillment centers] and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in a statement.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round. Walmart owns one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado recently made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s delivery. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year, with earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the U.K. (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the U.S. seeing record demand, but also a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products).

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, they include Oda (formerly Kolonial), Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these players will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic. Now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

That may well tighten the competitive landscape, and could be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services, one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

Logistics account for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidised services that are flying about right now where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost. So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado continues to seek further investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

 

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

More to come.

E-commerce investor Upper90 raises $55M for equity investments

It might be strange to hear this from a firm that just raised a $55 million equity fund, but the team at Upper90 would like to remind you that equity isn’t the only funding that’s available.

Upper90 is led by CEO Billy Libby (former head of quantitative education sales at Goldman Sachs) and Chairman Jason Finger (co-founder of Seamless), and it was the first investor in both Thrasio and Clearbanc. The firm offers debt and equity funding, and it just closed a $195 million fund in December — but the fund announced today is Upper90’s first to be devoted purely to equity financing.

Finger said he and Libby have taken this combined approach because there are often predictable parts of an online business, where (for example) “if I’m doing some marketing, I know that $1 on Facebook will generate $8 of revenue.” In those cases, “equity is the most expensive way you can finance growth,” and he said it “really fundamentally bothered me that the founders and early investors who took a lot of the risks, dedicating their life on a 24/7 basis” would often end up owning a small percentage of the company.

That doesn’t mean debt is the only solution, but in Finger’s words, founders should stop seeing big equity rounds as “a badge of honor.” Instead, they can work with Upper90 to find the “optimal capital structure” combining both elements.

“Life isn’t binary,” he added. “Part of the reason we launched an equity fund in the [e-commerce] rollup sector is that equity is an important piece for you to get the highest quality lender — they’re going to want to know that there’s equity protection underneath their credit facility.”

He also suggested that making an equity investment turns Upper90 into a “long-term partner” for the companies it backs, freeing the team from being “purely focused on the returns related to our credit.”

As alluded to earlier, Libby and Finger see the e-commerce aggregation market as one that’s particularly well-suited to their approach. (Thrasio is perhaps the best-known startup rolling up Amazon sellers, while Clearbanc offers its own revenue-based financing to e-commerce and SaaS companies.)

“I always say: What’s new is old,” Libby told me. “If we had this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about rolling up gyms and dry cleaners and smoothie shops […] The infrastructure that Amazon has developed allows people to be entrepreneurs in a week, so I think that we’re still extremely early in this trend. There are going to be so many more people starting their own store on Amazon.”

And eventually, he suggested Upper90 could take a similar approach in other industries: “A content creator who starts a YouTube channel is not that different than the Amazon store owner. Five years from now, we could be talk about, what’s the value of a subscriber on YouTube, what’s the value of an influencer’s following on Instagram, how can we bring some of that revenue forward?”

E-commerce investor Upper90 raises $55M for equity investments

It might be strange to hear this from a firm that just raised a $55 million equity fund, but the team at Upper90 would like to remind you that equity isn’t the only funding that’s available.

Upper90 is led by CEO Billy Libby (former head of quantitative education sales at Goldman Sachs) and Chairman Jason Finger (co-founder of Seamless), and it was the first investor in both Thrasio and Clearbanc. The firm offers debt and equity funding, and it just closed a $195 million fund in December — but the fund announced today is Upper90’s first to be devoted purely to equity financing.

Finger said he and Libby have taken this combined approach because there are often predictable parts of an online business, where (for example) “if I’m doing some marketing, I know that $1 on Facebook will generate $8 of revenue.” In those cases, “equity is the most expensive way you can finance growth,” and he said it “really fundamentally bothered me that the founders and early investors who took a lot of the risks, dedicating their life on a 24/7 basis” would often end up owning a small percentage of the company.

That doesn’t mean debt is the only solution, but in Finger’s words, founders should stop seeing big equity rounds as “a badge of honor.” Instead, they can work with Upper90 to find the “optimal capital structure” combining both elements.

“Life isn’t binary,” he added. “Part of the reason we launched an equity fund in the [e-commerce] rollup sector is that equity is an important piece for you to get the highest quality lender — they’re going to want to know that there’s equity protection underneath their credit facility.”

He also suggested that making an equity investment turns Upper90 into a “long-term partner” for the companies it backs, freeing the team from being “purely focused on the returns related to our credit.”

As alluded to earlier, Libby and Finger see the e-commerce aggregation market as one that’s particularly well-suited to their approach. (Thrasio is perhaps the best-known startup rolling up Amazon sellers, while Clearbanc offers its own revenue-based financing to e-commerce and SaaS companies.)

“I always say: What’s new is old,” Libby told me. “If we had this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about rolling up gyms and dry cleaners and smoothie shops […] The infrastructure that Amazon has developed allows people to be entrepreneurs in a week, so I think that we’re still extremely early in this trend. There are going to be so many more people starting their own store on Amazon.”

And eventually, he suggested Upper90 could take a similar approach in other industries: “A content creator who starts a YouTube channel is not that different than the Amazon store owner. Five years from now, we could be talk about, what’s the value of a subscriber on YouTube, what’s the value of an influencer’s following on Instagram, how can we bring some of that revenue forward?”

Amazon announces $250 million venture fund for Indian startups

Amazon on Thursday announced a $250 million venture fund to invest in startups and entrepreneurs focusing on digitization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

The announcement comes at a time when the American e-commerce group, which has previously invested over $6.5 billion in its India business, faces heat from government bodies, and the small and medium-sized businesses that it purports to serve.

Through the new venture fund, called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund, Amazon said it wants to invest in startups that focus on helping small businesses come online, sell online, automate and digitize their operations, and expand to customers worldwide.

Agriculture and healthcare are two additional areas Amazon is focusing on with its new venture fund, but it said it is open to looking at tech startups from other sectors if their work intersects with SMBs.

In the agri-tech sector, Amazon is looking to invest in Indian startups that are using technology to make agri-inputs more accessible to farmers, provide credit and insurance to farmers, reduce food wastage, and improve the quality of produce to consumers. In the healthcare sector, Amazon said it will invest in startups that are enabling healthcare providers to leverage telemedicine, e-diagnosis, AI powered treatment recommendations.

The announcement was made at Amazon’s annual event, called Sambhav, that focuses on India-based SMBs. At the virtual event, Amazon also unveiled ‘Spotlight North East’, an initiative to bring 50,000 artisans, weavers and small businesses online from the eight states in the North East region of India by 2025 and to boost exports of key commodities like tea, spices and honey from the region.

In the first edition of Sambhav last year, Amazon announced it would be investing $1 billion to help digitize 10 million small and medium sized businesses. Amazon said earlier this month that it had created 300,000 jobs in India since January 2020, and enabled exports for Indian-made goods worth $3 billion.

The company said more than 50,000 offline retailers and neighborhood stores — called kirana locally — are using Amazon marketplace and about 250,000 new sellers have also joined the platform. The company said today it aims to onboard 1 million offline retailers and neighbourhood stores by 2025 through the Local Shops on Amazon program.

Not far from Sambhav’s first event last year, which was attended by Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the street and expressed their concerns about what they alleged was unfair practices employed by Amazon to crush them.

A similar protest was seen today. You can hear some of their stories here. It’s an ongoing challenge for Amazon, which has long struggled to stay out of controversy in India.

An influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country in February this year after a report claimed that the American e-commerce group had given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers in India, publicly misrepresented its ties with those sellers and used them to circumvent foreign investment rules in the country.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) “demanded” serious action from the Indian government against Amazon following revelations made in a Reuters story. “For years, CAIT has been maintaining that Amazon has been circumventing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] laws of India to conduct unfair and unethical trade,” it said.

Several international technology giants including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in Indian startups in recent years. Amazon, too, has backed a number of firms including ride-hailing startup Shuttl, and consumer brand MyGlamm. Last month, it acquired retail startup Perpule for about $20 million.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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Kroger launches its first Ocado-powered ‘shed’, a massive, robot-filled fulfillment center in Ohio

After inking a deal to work together almost three years ago, U.S. supermarket chain Kroger and U.K. online grocer Ocado today took the wraps off the first major product of that deal. Kroger has launched a new Ocado-powered customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, a gigantic warehouse covering 375,000 square feet and thousands of products for packing and delivering Kroger orders from online shoppers.

Built with a giant grid along the floor, “the shed”, as Ocado calls its warehouses, will feature some 1,000 robots alongside 400 human employees to pick, sort and move around items. It is expected to process as much as $700 million in sales annually, the sales of 20 brick-and-mortar stores.

Those orders, in turn, will be delivered in temperature-controlled Kroger Delivery vans, built on the model of Ocado’s vans in the US and able to store up to 20 orders. These will also be run using Ocado software, mapping algorithms to optimize deliveries along the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes.

The partnership was a long time in the making but the focus on what has come out of it is probably at its keenest right now, given the huge boost online shopping has had in the past year. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting push for more social distancing, has driven a lot of people to the internet to shop, opting for deliveries over physical store visits for some or all of their food and other weekly essentials.

In call today with journalists, Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, said that delivery had grown 150% for Kroger last year. While some of that may well melt back into physical shopping as and when Covid-19 cases wane (fingers crossed), many in the industry believe that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak: many consumers introduced to shopping online will stay, at least in part, and so this is about building infrastructure to meet that new demand.

(And there is some data that backs that up: Ocado CEO and co-founder Tim Steiner noted that at Ocado, pre-pandemic the average order value for the company was £105 ($144). That grew to £180 last year, and are at £120.)

Kroger, like many brick-and-mortar players, has been building out multiple fronts in its digital strategy. Alongside Ocado, the company has also been investing in technology to boost the efficiency of its in-store operations (for example by working with companies like Shelf Engine), and it has a grocery delivery partnership with Instacart.

That partnership with Instacart will remain in place, not least because it covers a much wider geography than the Ocado approach, which is live now in Cincinnati, and sounds like it will also expand to Florida. While Kroger today said that CFCs will vary in size and be built on the concept of “modules” (the Monroe facility is built on seven modules), this is still a capital intensive approach compared to the Instacart model, so might overall face a slower rollout and perhaps only make sense in Kroger’s denser markets.

“The two partnerships are critical to Kroger and our customers,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s CIO, in the call today. “We expect to work very closely in strategic partnership with Instacart and with Ocado.”

Ocado, an early player that started out in the UK back in 2000, is seen by many as the industry standard for how to build and run an online-only grocery business.

The company has been expanding its reach by way of taking the technology that it has built for itself and turning it into a product — a process that is still very much in development, with the company working now on robotic pickers and other autonomous systems, along with other technology to power and make its delivery service more efficient.

Ocado’s “AWS” strategy of turning tech that it has built for itself into a product to sell to others has born fruit: it now has partnerships to power online grocery services, and specifically fulfillment centers, in Japan (with Aeon), France (with Casino) and Canada (with Sobeys). That means the Kroger rollout is now a tested model, but it’s still a very notable move for the company to break into the U.S. while at the same time giving Kroger a much-needed bit of infrastructure to better compete with bigger players in the country like Walmart and Amazon.

In that regard, it will be interesting to see how and if Kroger leverages its much bigger Ocado-powered infrastructure for its other projects. The company is working with Mirakl to develop its own marketplace for third-party retailers, going head to head with similar offerings from — yes — Amazon and Walmart.

Sunday raises $24 million seed round to build a fast restaurant checkout flow

Meet Sunday, a new startup that is going to attract some headlines as it has raised a $24 million seed round at a $140 million post-money valuation. That’s a lot of money for a company that started just a few months ago but that’s because Sunday wants to move quickly.

Sunday is getting noticed because it is founded by Victor Lugger, Tigrane Seydoux and Christine de Wendel — Lugger and Tigrane have been working together for several years as they’re the founders of Big Mamma. Christine de Wendel headed Zalando in France before joining ManoMano as COO.

If you’re not familiar with Big Mamma, they’ve launched a dozen Italian restaurants in France. They also manage La Felicità, the food court at Station F.

Some people love those restaurants because the food is good and it’s relatively affordable. Some people hate it because Big Mamma is also particularly well known for its long queues and the fact that you always feel like you have to eat quickly for the next group. But it’s clear that it’s been working well for the past few years.

Managing Big Mamma during a pandemic led to Sunday, a spin-off company incorporated in the U.S. The restaurant company wanted to offer a way to check the menu and pay without touching anything. Like many restaurants, they put QR codes on the tables to that customers can scan them with their phones and load a website.

But Sunday didn’t stop at the menu as it also connects directly to the cash register system. Sunday supports Oracle Micros, Brinks, Tiller, Zelty, Revo, CashPad, etc. This way, clients can also scan the QR code, check their tab and pay directly from their phone. When they’re done eating, they can pay by themselves, stand up and leave.

After trying Sunday in Big Mamma restaurants, the company saw some encouraging results. 80% of customers chose to pay using the QR code, which means that restaurants saved 15 minutes in wait time on average leading to a better table turnover rate.

And this is key to understanding Sunday. It’s easy to sell a new payment system to a restaurant if it leads to more revenue. Popular restaurants that feel like they’re always looking for empty tables could greatly benefit from Sunday.

It also opens up some new possibilities. For instance, guests can split the bill directly at the table — everyone loads up Sunday and pay. Sunday is based on QR codes right now, but the company isn’t attached to QR codes specifically. You could imagine loading your bill using RFID chips, a tablet, etc.

The vision is clear — Sunday wants to build the Fast Checkout of restaurants. The startup thinks online checkout is going to merge with offline, brick-and-mortar checkout.

Sunday customers don’t pay any monthly subscription fee or setup fee. You only pay processing fees based on usage. And those fees tend to be lower than the card machine you’re currently using.

The startup’s seed round was led by Coatue with New Wave participating. New Wave is a new European seed fund led by Pia d’Iribarne and backed by Xavier Niel. Multiple hospitality and tech investors are also participating.

The idea is to raise a lot of money, sign up a lot of restaurants and take over the market right now while there’s an opportunity during the pandemic. They have hired 40 people already and they’re signing deals with restaurants even though most of them are still closed in Europe.

Sunday isn’t a tech achievement per se — it’s an execution play. The company that can roll out this kind of checkout experience faster than the others is going to take over the market.

When restaurants are going to be open again, you may notice Sunday QR codes in France at Eataly, PNY, Paris Society, Eric Frechon, Groupe Bertrand’s restaurants (Burger King France, Hippopotamus, Groupe Flo…). Similarly, in the U.K., Sunday is partnering with JKS Group (Hoppers, Brigadiers, Gymkhana…), Corbin & King and others. Sunday is also talking with companies in the U.S. and Spain.

Overall, there are more than a thousand restaurants currently adopting Sunday.

“We follow the same model as the one we used when launching restaurants with Big Mamma. Seven years ago, we invested three times more than the others to compress fixed costs and deliver a better product,” Sunday co-founder and CEO Victor Lugger told me.

The startup already has an ambitious product roadmap. Eventually, you could imagine having your own Sunday account that remembers your past bills, tracks your allergies, saves your favorite payment method, etc. Once again, it’ll come down to execution.