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.”

The ClockworkPi GameShell is a super fun DIY spin on portable gaming

Portable consoles are hardly new, and thanks to the Switch, they’re basically the most popular gaming devices in the world. But ClockworkPi’s GameShell is something totally unique, and entirely refreshing when it comes to gaming on the go. This clever DIY console kit provides everything you need to assemble your own pocket gaming machine at home, running Linux-based open-source software and using an open-source hardware design that welcomes future customization.

The GameShell is the result of a successfully Kickstarter campaign, which began shipping to its backers last year and is now available to buy either direct from the company, or from Amazon. The $159.99 ($139.99 as of this writing on sale) includes everything you need to build the console, like the Clockwork Pi quad-core Cortex A7 motherboard with integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 1GB of DDR3 RAM, but it comes unassembled.

GameShell Clockwork Pi 3

You won’t have to get out the soldering iron – the circuit boards come with all components attached. But you will be assembling screen, keypad, CPU, battery and speaker modules, connecting them with included cables, and then installing them in the slick, GameBoy-esque plastic shell. This might seem like an intimidating task, depending on your level of technical expertise: I know I found myself a bit apprehensive when I opened the various boxes and laid out all the parts in front of me.

But the included instructions, which are just illustrations, like those provided by Lego or Ikea, are super easy to follow and break down the task into very manageable tasks for people of all skill levels. All told, I had mine put together in under an hour, and even though I did get in there with my teeth at one point (to remove a bit of plastic nubbin when assembling the optional Lightkey component, which adds extra function keys to the console), I never once felt overwhelmed or defeated. The time-lapse below chronicles my enter assembly process, start to finish.

What you get when you’re done is a fully functional portable gaming device, which runs Clockwork OS, a Linux-based open-source OS developed by the company. It includes Cave Storyone of the most celebrated indie games of the past couple of decades, and a number of built-in emulators (use of emulators is ethically and legally questionable, but it does provide an easy way to play some of those NES and SNES games you already own with more portability).

There’s a very active community around the GameShell that includes a number of indie games to play on the console, and tips and tricks for modifications and optimal use. It’s also designed to be a STEM educational resource, providing a great way for kids to see what’s actually happening behind the faceplate of the electronics they use everyday, and even getting started coding themselves to build software to run on the console. Loading software is easy, thanks to an included microSD storage card and the ability to easily connect via WiFi to move over software from Windows and Mac computers.

[gallery ids="1868132,1868139,1868138,1868137,1868136,1868135,1868133"]

Everything about the GameShell is programable, and it features micro HDMI out, a built-in music player and Bluetooth support for headphone connection. It’s at once instantly accessible for people with very limited tech chops, and infinitely expandable and hackable for those who do want to go deeper and dig around with what else it has to offer.

Swappable face and backplates, plus open 3D models of each hardware component, mean that community-developed hardware add-ons and modifications are totally possible, too. The modular nature of the device means it can probably get even more powerful in future too, with higher capacity battery modules and improved development boards.

I’ve definitely seen and used devices like the GameShell before, but few manage to be as accessible, powerful and customizable all at once. The GameShell is also fast, has great sound and an excellent display, and it seems to be very durable with decent battery life of around three hours or slightly ore of continuous use depending on things like whether you’re using WiFi and screen brightness.

London edtech startup Pi-Top sees layoffs after major contract loss

London-based edtech startup Pi-Top has cut a number of staff, TechCrunch has learned.

According to our sources the company has reduced its headcount in recent weeks, with staff being told cuts are a result of restructuring as it seeks to implement a new strategy.

One source told us Pi-Top recently lost out on a large education contract.

Another source said sales at Pi-Top have been much lower than predicted — with all major bids being lost.

Pi-Top confirmed to TechCrunch that it has let staff go, saying it has reduced headcount from 72 to 60 people across its offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Our sources suggest the total number of layoffs could be up to a third. 

In a statement, Pi-Top told us:

pi-top has become one of the fastest growing ed-tech companies in the market in 4.5 years.  We have a unique vision to increase access to coding and technical education through project based learning to inspire a new generation of makers.

As part of this vision we built up our global team with a view to winning a particularly exciting national project in a developing nation, where we had a previous large scale successful implementation. We were disappointed this tender ultimately fell through due to economic factors in the region and have subsequently made the unfortunate but unavoidable decision to reduce our team size from 72 to 60 people across our offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Moving forward we are focusing on our growth within the USA where we continue to enjoy widespread success. We are rolling out our new learning platform pi-top Further which will enable schools everywhere to access a world of content enhanced by practical hands-on project based learning outcomes. We have recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign and we look forward to releasing our newest product pi-top [4].

We are also proud to have appointed Stanley Buchesky as our new Executive Chairman. Stanley brings a wealth of experience in the ed-tech sector and will be a great asset to our strategy going forward.

Pi-Top sells hardware and software designed for educational use in schools. It’s one of a large number of edtech startups that have sought to tap into the popularity of the ‘learn to code’ movement by piggybacking atop the (also British) low cost Raspberry Pi microprocessor — which provides the computing power for all Pi-Top’s products.

Pi-Top adds its own OS and additional education-focused software to the Pi, as well as proprietary cases — including a bright green laptop housing with a built in rail for breadboarding electronics.

Its most recent product, the Pi-Top 4, which was announced back in January, looks intended to move the company away from its first focus on educational desktop computing to more modular and embeddable hardware hacking which could be used by schools to power a wider variety of robotics and electronics projects.

Despite raising $16M in VC funding just over a year ago, Pi-Top opted to run a crowdfunding campaign for the Pi-Top 4 — going on to raise almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from 521 backers.

Pi-Top 4 backers have been told to expect the device to ship in November.

Lessons from the hardware capital of the world

A week is obviously not enough time to truly understand a market as massive and fascinating as China. Hell, it’s not really even enough time to adjust to the 12-hour time difference from New York. That said, each of the three visits I’ve taken to the country in the past two years has yielded some useful insights into my role as hardware editor here at TechCrunch.

Late last week, I got back from an eight-day trip to Shenzhen in the Guangdong Province of South China and nearby Hong Kong. In some respects, the cities are worlds apart, though a newly opened high-speed rail system has reduced the trip to 30 minutes. Customs issues aside, it’s the height of convenience. Though for political and cultural reasons I’ll not get into here, some have bemoaned the access it’s provided.

This particular visit was sort of a scouting trip. In November, TechCrunch will be hosting its first Hardware Battlefield event in a couple of years. Previous events had been held at CES for reasons of easy access to young startups. This time out, however, we’ve opted to go straight to the source.

The birthplace of hardware

How autonomous vehicles and hyperloop are scooting along

Two years ago, Lime was a great addition to guacamole, rather than a sidewalk. The market wasn’t sure about car sharing and whether it had long-term viability. Now, with the acquisition of Drivy, Getaround is the largest car-sharing platform with partnerships the likes of Uber and Toyota. Uber and Lyft were (and are) a phenomenon, but there were still pundits who weren’t sure if Uber would ever overcome the adversity of its culture.

At the same time, I wrote a series of four articles on the latest transport technologies, and the waves they would create with perspectives focused on the impact on retail, commercial real-estate, short-haul travel and hyperloop. Among those predictions was the impact hyperloop and autonomous vehicle technology would have on commuting, short-haul air travel and the retail industry.

Since then, these technologies have continued to develop and evolve, and it’s worthwhile to revisit assumptions and assertions. Some of the more optimistic expectations put upon them by their proponents have so far failed to be realized, and they are no closer to becoming a reality in our day-to-day lives.

This begs the question as to whether they will still become the industry disruptors many pundits, including me, suggested they would, or if expectations have become more tempered.

Both hyperloop and autonomous vehicle technology have had their ups and downs over the past two years, but they’re still set to change the way we (and the things we need) travel.

Delayed promotion to the back seat

When people think about transport innovation, we often think of self-driving cars or, maybe, flying cars.

Many believed that we’d be relegated (or promoted) to the back seat as soon as 2020. We would be sitting comfortably while fleets of autonomous cars chauffeured us along. Over the past two years the landscape has consolidated and the players are arguing what’s possible.

Driverless cars haven’t managed to achieve some of the targets that were being set for the technology two years ago. For instance, as we discussed, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed in 2015 that the company’s cars would be fully autonomous by 2017 — a prediction that, of course, didn’t and still hasn’t come to pass as of mid 2019. And in January this year, Nissan — one of the main proponents of autonomous vehicle technology — said “true autonomous cars will not happen within the next decade.”

But it would be overly pessimistic to suggest the technology isn’t coming at all. The progress has been incredible.

Disruptive leaps forward often result in a net gain in employment.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett said that “[w]e overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” at an April 2019 Detroit Economic Club event. Ford believes its fully driverless cars will be in commercial operation by 2021, and the technology has remained a major and consistent talking point in the media. At the annual WSJ conference, D.Live, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said that “autonomy will always have constraints,” to communicate his belief that fully autonomous Level 5 transport is not coming anytime soon.

Industry pundits like the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) would argue that Waymo is leading the pack on unlocking the promise of autonomous technology. Tesla’s founder and chief, Elon Musk, feels that Teslas will leapfrog Waymo with an upgrade in 2020 that will make more than a million cars fully autonomous. “By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware, feature complete, at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” My excitement is tempered by the fact that Musk said before that Teslas would be fully autonomous by 2017. That said, I wouldn’t slight him for being audacious, as I do believe he was just being overly optimistic rather than scamming the market.

We shouldn’t forget everyone’s favorite punching bag, Uber, which entered the race in 2015 when they first partnered, then acquired, an entire Carnegie Mellon autonomy lab. Their foray into self-driving abruptly stopped after a tragic accident that killed a pedestrian in Arizona. At this point, it would seem more likely they are going to use the technology rather than develop it themselves.

Driverless cars will create more jobs than they will destroy

In my piece titled “Transport’s coming upheaval,” published in the original series on TechCrunch, I suggested that new modes of transport, such as autonomous vehicles and hyperloop, would end up creating more jobs than they would eliminate. They, coupled with improvements in remote work technologies, should contribute to lowering the cost of human capital by allowing them to comfortably move outside of urban centers to lower-cost housing.

Job loss has been one of the common themes in the discussion around the innovative transport technologies. Some reports have suggested that autonomous vehicle technology could destroy 300,000 jobs a year, and that hyperloop would have a devastating effect on the trucking industry. But as I previously posited, history shows us that, more often than not, disruptive leaps forward often result in a net gain in employment.

Take, for instance, the introduction of the personal computer in the 1970s. It initially destroyed 3.5 million jobs in total, including those in typewriter manufacturing, secretarial work and bookkeeping. But it went on to help create 19.3 million jobs, in the U.S. alone, across a wide range of industries and occupations, according to McKinsey estimates.

New transport innovations will have a similar effect, creating many new jobs. Even though driverless cars aren’t yet available for commercial purchase, there have been developments with the technology that give us a better idea as to how it will likely affect global workforces.

Rather than be a disaster for the world of work, autonomous vehicles and hyperloop could be a boon for employees.

As a whole host of companies, including Waymo, Tesla, Cruise and Ford, strive to make a breakthrough with autonomous vehicle technology, more workers are required to make the driverless car dream a reality. According to the online talent platform ZipRecruiter, the number of job listings related to driverless cars increased 27% year over year in January 2018, and the amount of job postings in the autonomous vehicle sector rose by 250% from the second quarter in 2017 to the second quarter in 2018 due to a hiring spree at the beginning of the year. Indeed, a report from Boston Consulting Group and Detroit Mobility Lab released in January estimated that self-driving and electric cars would create more than 100,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next decade.

In fact, the trucking industry seems ripe for change, and not just because of the benefits that autonomous vehicle technology would bring. There is a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S., according to CNBC. The unemployment rate fell to 3.9% percent in July of last year, meaning companies are struggling to recruit for a job that has long, demanding hours.

Drivers for both trucking and autonomous taxis won’t be irrelevant for some time. For trucking, there is a need for a human to secure the cargo and manage the many checkpoints. For taxis, if Waymo’s CEO is correct, there will still be routes where the driver may be needed, especially in high traffic cities with variability in routes, road quality, construction and traffic conditions.

As the new transport technologies are slowly introduced, they will indeed eliminate existing jobs after, first, making them much more enjoyable for the workers. But evidence suggests that those jobs will be replaced by new ones that require different experiences and levels of education. Rather than be a disaster for the world of work, autonomous vehicles and hyperloop could be a boon for employees everywhere.

What happened to hyperloop?

Two years ago, there was a ton of buzz around what Elon Musk once deemed a “fifth mode of transport.” Hyperloop — a form of terrestrial travel where pod-like vehicles travel in near-vacuum tubes at more than 700 mph — was set to be up-and-running by 2020, with plans to create routes between San Francisco and LA, and Washington and New York.

The impact of this, as I discussed in my original transport series, would be huge for commuting and real estate, and would be a devastating disruptor for short-haul air travel and some trucking routes. Even though hyperloop isn’t being talked about in the same way it was, the promising global projects are far from dead. There are still plenty of developments that suggest hyperloop could be a major form of transport in the future.

Virgin Hyperloop One is now testing empty pods along its 1,640-foot-long, 11-foot-high tube just north of Las Vegas; and in October last year, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) unveiled its first full-scale capsules, which it believes will be passenger-ready by the end of 2019. However, many of the widely publicized Hyperloop routes — LA to San Francisco, and Washington to New York — have gone cold in recent years. As have plans to create a high-speed rail across California. In February, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that plans for the new track had been scaled back from the previous grand ambition to connect north to south, saying that, “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

Efficiency isn’t the only factor that would put self-driving in good stead against airline competitors.

The financial problems the California high-speed rail track has come up against could be an ominous sign for hyperloop technology in the U.S. These types of transport systems are often vastly expensive (the California high-speed rail project was set to cost $68 billion, if completed), and there’s no guarantee they’ll return the investment. Taiwan’s high-speed rail, for instance, suffered heavy losses due to depreciation charges, interest burdens and lower-than-expected demand. And while Elon Musk claimed the LA to SF hyperloop track would cost as little as $6 billion, the SpaceX founder’s estimates have been largely rebuked, with some critics claiming the track would actually cost closer to $100 billion.

Hyperloop is becoming a commercial reality as soon as 2021, just not in the United States. HTT will be building a 10 km track to connect Abu Dhabi to Al Ain and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The hope is to be operational by the universal exposition, Expo 2020, on October 20th, 2020.

Clearly, hyperloop still has a lot of questions to answer if it is to fulfill the expectations placed on it, but leaving the technology by the wayside without further testing would be foolish when taking into consideration the environmental and commuting benefits hyperloop would bring. If the technology proves to be cost efficient and as effective as its proponents have previously claimed, it will still have a huge impact on how we and our cargo travel.

A new way to travel and commute

I continue to believe that self-driving technology will disrupt short-haul air travel in a massive way. Why would you go through the hassle of airport security when a terrestrial mode of transport could get you to your destination even quicker?

Efficiency isn’t the only factor that would put self-driving in good stead against airline competitors. Commuting would be easier, too. In all likelihood, traveling by car would be more comfortable and spacious than air travel, but it would also be more amenable to good Wi-Fi connection. In the two years since writing the original series on innovations in transport, in-flight Wi-Fi has improved, but it’s often costly and leaves much to be desired.

Autonomous vehicles will be the next step in brick-and-mortar retail innovation.

Volvo, for instance, released an autonomous car concept in September last year of an electric vehicle that can double up as a living room, bedroom and office. The car, named the 360c, benefits from a larger interior thanks to its lack of a bulky combustion engine and steering wheel. The 360c can be configured in four different ways, with spacious seating, a table and a fold-away bed.

This type of travel would revolutionize how we commute. Workers traveling long distances would surely choose to spend more time in a spacious, work-friendly driverless car than by air travel, if it meant they could comfortably work en route. And it’s a vision that automotive companies with an eye to autonomous vehicle technology are considering seriously.

Mobile retail

As we’ve already seen, the claim that new transport innovations such as driverless cars and hyperloop will destroy more jobs than they’ll create is specious at best. But that doesn’t mean the technology won’t change certain roles in the sector.

Already, the role of driver in ridesharing companies is beginning to change and become more enterprising. In July last year, in-car commerce startup Cargo partnered with Uber. The deal allows drivers to sell passengers candy, cosmetics and electronics during the journey. And, according to Cargo’s estimates, drivers using its service can earn between $1,500 to $3,000 in extra income per year.

As cars become more autonomous and the form-factors evolve, it will allow the drivers to provide more services to passengers.

This type of new mobile retail could go on to sell far more than just a few select products in an Uber, though, and it may have a knock-on effect on the retail industry as a whole — an assertion I made in the original series.

Two years ago, retail was suffering badly and, in large part, that trend continues as many fail to adapt. Today, it’s still in a state of flux, with constant disruptions threatening the future of brick-and-mortar stores. Those stores that are surviving the onslaught are adapting and improving with the latest technology. For instance, many companies, such as Ikea, are using augmented and virtual reality to make the shopping experience more immersive.

The reality is that scooters, e-bikes and other modalities will continue to infiltrate our cities.

Autonomous vehicles will be the next step in brick-and-mortar retail innovation. The technology could allow fleets of stores on wheels to come to consumers on demand straight to their location. When I made the claim two years ago, it may have seemed a bit far-fetched, but since then, plenty of businesses have started utilizing the concept.

Walmart, Ford and Postmates are reportedly collaborating on a pilot program in Miami where goods will be delivered to consumers’ doors in a driverless vehicle. They aren’t the only ones exploring how to use the technology in retail. In mid-2017, Swedish company Wheelys launched Moby Mart — a fully autonomous, staffless supermarket on wheels. The service currently operates in Shanghai, China, and is available 24/7.

Consumers have shown an increasing appetite for on-demand food delivery services since I wrote the original series. Uber Eats is only three years old, but it’s already valued at $20 billion; and one of its main rival, Postmates, made more than 35 million deliveries in 2018. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes more widely adopted, more businesses will see the advantage in using it to deliver efficient services to a growing customer base.

New kids on the block

E-bikes have been a steadily growing market since the end of the 20th century, but with the help of on-demand bike sharing they’ve exploded in major cities. Meanwhile, another form of transport left the playground and moved mainstream. Scooters have long been a staple, but since 2017, they’ve changed the landscape of short city commutes.

According to a report released by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, riders took nearly 39 million trips on shared electric scooters in 2018. For the first time they surpassed e-bikes by nearly 10%.

The biggest names behind the scooter boom in the U.S. are Lime, Bird and Scoot. Ironically, their scooters are powered by inventor Dean Kamen’s technology that was at the heart of the Segway. It only took nearly two decades for his future to be realized with a slight design change.

Although I’m not clear that the scooter rental companies are as big a financial opportunity as their investors are hoping, I do believe they aren’t going anywhere. The reality is that scooters, e-bikes and other modalities will continue to infiltrate our cities as urban planners move away from designs centered around automobiles.

The future of innovation in transport

With the setbacks and failed predictions that have been made of autonomous vehicles and hyperloop technology, it would be easy to be skeptical if they will come at all. But, as is often the case with innovation and change, adoption can be slow, and there are often unforeseeable delays. However, with so many startups and major global businesses — from Waymo to Virgin — betting heavily on the future of hyperloop and autonomous vehicles, it’s surely a question of when rather than if they come to pass.

As we’ve seen, these technologies have made huge strides in the two years since I wrote the original series, and the applications of them are starting to be realized. And those applications go far beyond faster, more convenient travel. As more businesses sit up and take notice of the potential driverless cars and hyperloop have to offer, they will continue to shape the future of transport, retail, work and much more.

Cambridge Uni graphene spin-out bags $16M to get its first product to market

Cambridge, UK based graphene startup, Paragraf, has closed a £12.8 million (~$16M) Series A round of funding led by early stage VC  Parkwalk. Also investing this round: IQ Capital Partners, Amadeus Capital Partners and Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge, plus several unnamed angel investors. 

The funding will be used to bring the 2015-founded Cambridge University spin out’s first graphene-based electronics products to market — transitioning the startup into a commercial, revenue-generating phase.

When we covered Paragraf’s $3.9M seed raise just over a year ago CEO and co-founder Dr Simon Thomas told us it was looking to raise a Series A ahead of Q3 2019 so the business looks to be right on track at this stage.

During the seed phase Paragraf says it was able to deliver a manufacturing facility, graphene layer production and first device prototypes “significantly” ahead of plan.

It’s now switching focus to products — with strategic volume device production partners, and commercialisation of its first device: A super-high sensitivity magnetic field detector which it says operates over temperature, field and power ranges “that no other device can currently achieve”.

Commenting in a statement, Thomas added: “I am extremely proud of the young team at Paragraf who have collectively delivered the early strategy milestones with great skill. This next phase will allow Paragraf to make these truly game-changing technologies a reality. Paragraf is continually seeking like-minded collaborative development, production and commercial partners to accelerate the delivery of the many exciting electronics technology opportunities graphene has to offer.”

In terms of the touted benefits of graphene, the atom-layer-thick 2D material has long been exciting scientists as a potential replacement for silicon in computer chips — thanks to a raft of key properties including high conductivity, strength and flexibility and thermal integrity. Researchers suggest it could deliver a performance speed increase of up to 1000x, while reducing energy use by up to 50x.

But while excitement about how graphene could transform electronics has been plentiful in the more than a decade since it was discovered, those seeking to commercialize the wonder material have found it challenging to manufacture at commercial grade and scale.

This is where Paragraf aims to come in — claiming to be the first company to deliver IP-protected graphene technology using what it bills as “standard, mass production scale manufacturing approaches”.

It also says its first sensor products have demonstrated “order of magnitude operational improvements over today’s incumbents”.

Such claims of course remain to be tested in the wild but Paragraf isn’t dialling down the hype vis-a-vis the transformative potential of baking graphene into next-gen electronics.

“Achieving large-scale, graphene-based production technology will enable next generation electronics, including vastly increased computing speeds, significantly improved medical diagnostics and higher efficiency renewable energy generation as well as currently unachievable products such as instant charging batteries and very low power, flexible electronics,” it writes.

A year ago Thomas told us Paragraf expected high-tech applications of graphene in consumer technologies to appear in the general market within the next 2-3 years — a timeline that should now have shrunk to just a year or two out.

Now on Kickstarter, Tech DIY uses sewing to teach kids how to build electronics

Tech DIY takes a soft touch toward teaching electronics—literally. Now on Kickstarter, the kit uses sewing to teach kids and adult beginners about electronic and electric circuits by sewing dolls, soft figures and bracelets that light up, move and make noises.

Tech DIY was created by Ji Sun Lee and Jaymes Dec, the authors of “Tech DIY, Easy Electronics Projects for Parents and Kids,” published in 2016 by Maker Media. While working on her master’s thesis and thinking of ways to close the gender gap in technology, Lee began exploring the idea of using textile crafts to teach electronics for her master’s thesis.

Dec is a fab lab teacher at a girls’ private school, while Lee is a professor at a women’s college in Korea. “I also worked in the IT industry for many years, where it had very few women employees. Although both of us teach technology, we feel that the educational content created for female users is minimal and marginalized,” Lee said.

Lee and Dec decided to use sewing for their projects since many women and girls are already familiar with textile crafts. There are already kits that combine electronics with textiles, like Lily Pad and Adafruit’s Flora, which both use Arduino, but the programming required for their micro-controllers is too complicated for most novices, Lee said. Tech DIY’s kits are designed for elementary and middle school students, as well as adult beginners. They can be built with basic sewing skills and the projects increase in complexity, allowing new makers to level up.

Tech DIY's Nightlight Cat Bracelet project

Tech DIY’s Nightlight Cat Bracelet project

Two kits are available for Kickstarter backers. The Joy Kit contains five projects, including an embroidery sampler called My Happy House that teaches about electricity, circuits and basic electronic components, and the Purring Elephant, a pillow that uses a motor to move and vibrate. The Awesome Kit is for more experienced makers and includes components for projects like the Nightlight Cat Bracelet, which uses a light sensor and transistor to light up in the dark, and the Solar Sun Project, powered with solar panels instead of batteries. (If you want to see how the projects are put together, check out the instructions for A Silly Ghost, the Nightlight Cat Bracelet and Purring Elephant Bracelet, which are all available for free online.)

The kits include all necessary components for the projects, thick, high-quality felt and what Lee and Dec describe as the “best conductive thread on the planet.”

As of this post, the Kickstarter campaign has reached more than $18,300 of its $30,000 goal, with less than two days left. After the campaign, Lee and Dec plan to make kits available for sale through Etsy. While Maker Media, the publisher of “Tech DIY, Easy Electronics Projects for Parents and Kids,” recently paused operations due to financial issues, the book is still available for purchase as a PDF through Maker Shed or as a Kindle edition or paperback on Amazon.

Drones are making a difference in the world and regulatory agencies are helping

About two months ago, in the middle of the night, a small, specially designed unmanned aircraft system – a drone – carried a precious cargo at 300 feet altitude and 22 miles per hour from West Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown, a trip of about 5 minutes. They called it, “One small hop for a drone; one major leap for medicine.”

The cargo was a human kidney, and waiting for that kidney at the hospital was a patient whose life would be changed for the better.

“This whole thing is amazing,” the 44-year-old recipient later told the University of Maryland engineering and medical teams that designed the drone and the smart container. The angel flight followed more than two years of research, development and testing by the Maryland aerospace and medical teams and close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) .

There were many other ways the kidney could have been delivered to the hospital, but proving that it could be done by drone sets the stage for longer and longer flights that will ultimately lower the cost and speed up the time it takes to deliver an organ. And speed is life in this case – the experts say the length of time it takes to move an organ by traditional means is a major issue today.

This is one example of how small drones are already changing the landscape of our economy and society. Our job at the Department of Transportation (DOT), through the FAA, is to safely integrate these vehicles into the National Airspace System.

Time is of the essence. The Department has been registering drones for less than four years and already there are four times as many drones—1.5 million– on the books as manned aircraft. This week in Baltimore, more than 1,000 members of the drone community are coming together to discuss the latest issues in this fast-growing sector  as part of the fourth annual FAA UAS Symposium, which the Department co-hosts with the Association for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Along with public outreach, the Department is also involved in demonstration projects, including the Integration Pilot Program, or IPP. Created by this Administration in 2017, the IPP allows the FAA to work with state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. to get the experience needed to develop the regulations, policy and   guidance for safely integrating drones, including tackling tough topics like security and privacy. The experience gained and the data collected will help ensure the United States remains the global leader in safe UAS integration and fully realizes the economic and societal benefits of this technology.

A couple of IPP examples show the ingenuity of the drone community.

In San Diego, the Chula Vista police department and CAPE, a private UAS teleoperations company, are using drones as first responders to potentially save the lives of officers and make the department more efficient. Since October, they have launched drone first responders on more than 400 calls in which 59 arrests were made, and for half of those calls, the drone was first on the scene with an average on-scene response time of 100 seconds. Equally important is the 60 times that having the drone there first eliminated the need to send officers at all.

Recently as the result of an IPP project, the FAA granted the first airline certification to Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation, a commercial drone operator that will deliver packages in rural Blacksburg, Virginia.

What happens next is that the FAA will gradually implement new rules to expand when and how those operators can conduct their business safely and securely. To manage all the expected traffic, the FAA is working with NASA and industry on a highly automated UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, concept.

At the end of the day, drones will help communities like Baltimore — and others throughout the country — save lives and deliver new services. DOT and the FAA will help ensure it’s all done safely, and that public concerns about privacy and security are addressed.

A young entrepreneur is building the Amazon of Bangladesh

At just 26, Waiz Rahim is supposed to be involved in the family business, having returned home in 2016 with an engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Instead, the young entrepreneur is plotting to build the Amazon of Bangladesh.

Deligram, Rahim’s vision of what e-commerce looks like in Bangladesh, a country of nearly 180 million, is making progress, having taken inspiration from a range of established tech giants worldwide, including Amazon, Alibaba and Go-Jek in Indonesia.

It’s a far cry from the family business. That’s Rahimafrooz, a 55-year-old conglomerate that is one of the largest companies in Bangladesh. It started out focused on garment retail, but over the years its businesses have branched out to span power and energy and automotive products while it operates a retail superstore called Agora.

During his time at school in the U.S., Rahim worked for the company as a tech consultant whilst figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation. Little could he have imagined that, fast-forward to 2019, he’d be in charge of his own startup that has scaled to two cities and raised $3 million from investors, one of which is Rahimafrooz.

Deligram CEO Waiz Rahim [Image via Deligram]

“My options after college were to stay in U.S. and do product management or analyst roles,” Rahim told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “But I visited rural areas while back in Bangladesh and realized that when you live in a city, it’s easy to exist in a bubble.”

So rather than stay in America or go to the family business, Rahim decided to pursue his vision to build “a technology company on the wave of rising economic growth, digitization and a vibrant young population.”

The youngster’s ambition was shaped by a stint working for Amazon at its Carlsbad warehouse in California as part of the final year of his degree. That proved to be eye-opening, but it was actually a Kickstarter project with a friend that truly opened his mind to the potential of building a new venture.

Rahim assisted fellow USC classmate Sam Mazumdar with Y Athletics, which raised more than $600,000 from the crowdsourcing site to develop “odor-resistant” sports attire that used silver within the fabric to repel the smell of sweat. The business has since expanded to cover underwear and socks, and it put Rahim’s mind to work on what he could do by himself.

“It blew my mind that you can build a brand from scratch,” he said. “If you are good at product design and branding, you could connect to a manufacturer, raise money from backers and get it to market.”

On his return to Bangladesh, he got Deligram off the ground in January 2017, although it didn’t open its doors to retailers and consumers until March 2018.

E-commerce through local stores

Deligram is an effort to emulate the achievements of Amazon in the U.S. and Alibaba in China. Both companies pioneered online commerce and turned the internet into a major channel for sales, but the young Bangladeshi startup’s early approach is very different from the way those now hundred-billion-dollar companies got started.

Offline retail is the norm in Bangladesh and, with that, it’s the long chain of mom and pop stores that account for the majority of spending.

That’s particularly true outside of urban areas, where such local stores almost become community gathering points, where neighbors, friends and families run into each other and socialize.

Instead of disruption, working with what is part of the social fabric is more logical. Thus, Deligram has taken a hybrid approach that marries its regular e-commerce website and app with offline retail through mom and pop stores, which are known as “mudir dokan” in Bangladesh’s Bengali language.

A customer can order their product through the Deligram app on their phone and have it delivered to their home or office, but a more popular — and oftentimes logical — option is to have it sent to the local mudir dokan store, where it can be collected at any time. But beyond simply taking deliveries, mudir dokans can also operate as Deligram retailers by selling through an agent model.

That’s to say that they enable their customers to order products through Deligram even if they don’t have the app, or even a smartphone — although the latter is increasingly unlikely with smartphone ownership booming. Deligram is proactively recruiting mudir dokan partners to act as agents. It provides them with a tablet and a physical catalog that their customers can use to order via the e-commerce service. Delivery is then taken at the store, making it easy to pick up, and maintaining the local network.

“We’ll tell them: ‘Right now, you offer a few hundred products, now you have access to 15,000,’ ” the Deligram CEO said.

Indeed, Rahim sees this new digital storefront as a key driver of revenue for mudir dokan owners. For Deligram, it is potentially also a major customer acquisition channel, particularly among those who are new to the internet and the world of smartphone apps.

This offline-online model — known by the often-buzzy industry term “omnichannel” — isn’t new, but in a world where apps and messaging is prevalent, reaching and retaining users is challenging, particularly in emerging markets.

“It’s not easy to direct people to a website today, and the app-first approach has made it hard,” Rahim said. “We looked at how companies in Indonesia and India overcame these challenges.”

In particular, he studied the work of Go-Jek in Indonesia, which uses an agent model to push its services to nascent internet users, and Amazon India, which leans heavily on India’s local “kirana” stores for orders and deliveries.

In Deligram’s case, the mudir dokan picks up sales commission as well as money for every delivery that is sent to their store. Home deliveries are possible, but the lack of local infrastructure — “turn right at the blue house, left at the white one, and my place is third from the left,” is a common type of direction — makes finding exact locations difficult and inefficient, so an additional cost is charged for such requests.

E-commerce startups often struggle with last-mile because they rely on a clutch of logistics companies to fulfill orders. In a rare move for an early-stage company, Deligram has opted to run its entire logistics process in-house. That obviously necessitates cost and likely provides significant growing pains and stress, but, in the long term, Rahim is betting that a focus on quality control will pay out through higher customer service and repeat buyers.

A prospective Deligram customer flips through a hard copy of the company’s product brochure in a local store [Image via Deligram]

Startups on the rise in Bangladesh

Rahim’s timing is impeccable. He returned to Bangladesh just as technology was beginning to show the potential to impact daily life. Bangladesh has posted a 7% rise in GDP annually every year since 2016, and with an estimated 80 million internet users, it has the fifth-largest online population on the planet.

“We are riding on a lot of macro trends; we’re among the top five based on GDP growth and have the world’s eighth-largest population,” Rahim told TechCrunch. “There are 11 million people in middle income — that’s growing — and our country has 90 million people aged under 30.”

“An index to track the growth of young people would be [capital city] Dhaka… you can just see the vibrancy with young people using smartphones,” he added.

That’s an ideal storm for startups, and the country has seen a mix of overseas entrants and local ventures pick up speed. Alibaba last year acquired Daraz, the Rocket Internet-founded e-commerce service that covers Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal, while the Chinese giant also snapped up 20% of bKash, a fintech venture started from Brac Bank as part of the regional expansion of its Ant Financial affiliate.

Uber, too, is present, but it is up against tough local opposition, as is the norm in Asian markets.

That’s because Bangladesh’s most prominent local startups are in ride-hailing. Pathao raised more than $10 million in a funding round that closed last year and was led by Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-hailing firm valued at more than $9 billion that’s backed by the likes of Tencent and Google. Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia.

Pathao is one of two local companies that competes alongside Uber in Bangladesh [Image via Pathao]

Its chief rival is Shohoz, a startup that began in ticketing but expanded to rides and services on-demand. Shohoz raised $15 million in a round led by Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures, which was announced last year.

Deligram has also pulled in impressive funding numbers, too.

The startup announced a $2.5 million Series A raise at the end of March, which Rahim wrote came from “a network of institutional and angel investors;” such is the challenge of finding a large check for a tech play in Bangladesh. The investors involved included Skycatcher, Everblue Management and Microsoft executive Sonia Bashir Kabir. A delighted Rahim also won a check from Rahimafrooz, the family business.

That’s not a given, he said, admitting that his family did initially want him to go to work with their business rather than pursuing his own startup. In that context, contributing to the round is a major endorsement, he said.

Rahimafrooz could be a crucial ally in future fundraising, too. Despite an improving climate for tech companies, Bangladesh’s top startups are still finding it tough to raise money, especially with overseas investors that can write the larger checks that are required to scale.

“I think the biggest challenge is branding. Every time I speak with new investors, I have to start by explaining where Bangladesh is, or the national metrics, not even our business,” Pathao CEO Hussain Elius told TechCrunch.

“There’s a legacy issue. Bangladesh seems like a country which floods all the time and the garment sector going down — that’s a part of the story but not the full story. It’s also an incredible country that’s growing despite those challenges,” he added.

Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia. Elius didn’t address that directly, but he did admit that raising growth funding is a bigger challenge than seed-based financing, where the Bangladesh government helps with its own fund and entrepreneurial programs.

“It’s hard for us as we’re the first ones out there, but it’ll be easier for the ones who’ll follow on,” he explained.

Still, there are some optimistic overseas watchers.

“We remain enthusiastic about the rapidly expanding set of opportunities in Bangladesh,” said Hian Goh, founding partner of Singapore-based VC firm Openspace — which invested in Pathao.

“The country continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, underpinned by additional growth in its garments manufacturing sector. This has blossomed into an expanding middle class with very active consumption behavior,” Goh added.

Growth plans

With the pain of fundraising put to the side for now, the new money is being put to work growing the Deligram business and its network into more parts of Bangladesh, and the more challenging urban areas.

Geographically, the service is expanding its agent reach into five more cities to give it a total of seven locations nationwide. That necessitates an increase in logistics and operations to keep up with, and prepare for, that new demand.

Deligram workers in one of the company’s warehouses [Image via Deligram]

Rahim said the company had handled 12,000 orders to date as of the end of March, but that has now grown past 20,000 indicating that order volumes are rising. He declined to provide financial figures, but said that the company is on track to increase its monthly GMV volume by six-fold by the end of this year. Electronics, phones and accessories are among its most popular items, but Deligram also sells apparel, daily items and more.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter to assumptions, Deligram started in rural areas, where Rahim saw there was less competition but also potentially more to learn through a more early-adopter customer base. That’s obviously one major challenge when it comes to growth, and now the company is looking at urban expansion points.

On the product side, Deligram is in the early stages of piloting consumer financing using its local store agents as the interface, while Rahim teased “exciting IOT R&D projects” that he said are in the planning stage.

Ultimately, however, he concedes that the road is likely to be a long one.

“Over the last 18-20 years, modern retail hasn’t made much progress here,” Rahim said. “It accounts for around 2.5% of total retail, e-commerce is below 1% and the long tail local stores are the rest.”

“People will eventually shift, but I think it’ll take five to eight years, which is why we provide the convenience via mom and pop shops,” he added.

DroneBase raises capital and partners with FLIR Systems to train pilots on thermal imaging tech

Publicly traded sensor technology developer, FLIR Systems, is investing in a strategic round of funding for the outsourced drone imaging company, DroneBase.

The two companies are also partnering to provide FLIR’s thermal imaging technology and training services to DroneBase’s stable of pilots.

Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

“Our investment in DroneBase helps expand the adoption of FLIR thermal imaging technology by putting it in the hands of more pilots who fly drones every day,” said Jim Cannon, the president and chief executive of FLIR, in a statement. “DroneBase’s enterprise pilot network will receive training by professional thermographers, enabling DroneBase to offer specialized thermal inspection services for customers on a wider scale, and creating an opportunity for FLIR to incorporate additional service offerings through DroneBase in the future.”

Los Angeles-based DroneBase has contracted pilots to complete over 100,000 commercial missions in over 70 countries for residential and commercial real estate, insurance, telecommunications, construction and media companies, according to a statement.

Through FLIR’s Infrared Training Center, FLIR and DroneBase will develop a specialized training program that will be certified exclusively by DroneBase

“Through FLIR’s strategic investment in DroneBase, we are now able to offer scalable thermal solutions to enterprises of any size,” said Dan Burton, founder and chief executive of DroneBase, in a statement. “This access to valuable data will allow stakeholders to make better decisions about their most critical assets. Like myself, many DroneBase pilots relied on FLIR products when they served in the military. This integration will offer military veterans a chance to work with FLIR again and leverage their training in their civilian lives.”