Announcing TechCrunch Early Stage, a new event series all about founders

TechCrunch covers a lot of bases in the tech startup world, but none is more important than supporting founders — especially early-stage founders. That’s what our new event series, TechCrunch Early Stage, is all about.

These single-day events debuting next year will be highly interactive opportunities for founders to tap experts in the core startup disciplines, starting with early-stage investors (lots of investors), legal whizzes, growth gurus, product-market fit wallahs, tech stack experts, recruiting aces and much more, including workshops on pitch breakdowns.

TechCrunch’s goal is to provide founders with insights and new relationships on par with what an accelerator experience provides, only in a single day, and with a much greater variety of experts and investors.

TC Early Stage is an outgrowth of Extra Crunch, TechCrunch’s subscription-based editorial offering that focuses on deep analysis and advice around the big topics facing founders. In October this year at Disrupt SF, we brought Extra Crunch to life on its own stage and featured experts on dozens of topics, including:

  • How to Raise My First Dollars (Russ Heddleston, DocSend, Charles Hudson, Precursor Ventures and Annie Kadavy, Redpoint Ventures)
  • How to Hire at Breakneck Speed (Scott Cutler, StockX, Harjeet Taggar, TripleByte and Liz Wessel, WayUp)
  • How to Evaluate Talent and Make Decisions (Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Capital)
  • How to Get into Y Combinator (Michael Siebel, Y Combinator)
  • How to Decide Between Bootstrapping and Raising Venture (Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp and Kathryn Petralia, Kabbage)

The sessions were mobbed. The TechCrunch team knows a winner when they see one, and the result is this new event series. The first of three TC Early Stage events next year will be in San Francisco on April 28, with one in Paris on October 28 and another in New York City (date TBA).

TC Early Stage is designed for founders who are in their early innings, anywhere from pre-seed through Series A, when entrepreneurs need all the guidance they can get. With that in mind, the event’s heart is dozens of breakout sessions run by experts and curated by TechCrunch editors. The breakouts will be long on attendee questions and conversation, and the event is structured so that attendees can easily get to six to eight different breakouts over the course of the day. In addition, TechCrunch editors will hold a handful of interviews on a main stage with notable founders and investors in time slots that will not conflict with the breakouts.

Here is a sampling of the types of breakout sessions TechCrunch Early Stage will feature:

  • Raising a first seed round
  • Landing a Series A
  • Raising early-stage investment for a SaaS company (also consumer and other major categories)
  • Considering your first term sheet
  • Growing users fast
  • Recruiting a fabulous team
  • Building a tech stack (you won’t regret)

Between sessions, attendees also can meet the experts running the breakout sessions, as well as each other, via CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s event networking platform that connects like-minded attendees and arranges a meeting time and place.

The TechCrunch team is already busy building an all-star lineup for experts for the breakout sessions and memorable interviews for the main stage. The response from the expert community around TechCrunch has been resoundingly clear. Everyone sees the need — the deeper education of early-stage founders — and they love the TC Early Stage format — a single day, highly interactive event that brings together early-stage founders with an unprecedented collection of experts from across the startup ecosystem.

Tickets for the San Francisco event are available now, so jump in and grab yours to secure your seat while they last.

Not an early-stage founder? That’s okay, too. Later-stage founders, investors or just general startup enthusiasts are welcome to attend. A limited number of “Innovator passes” are available for folks who are not early-stage founders.

Partners are also very welcome! The event has many sponsorship opportunities, including breakout sessions. Contact the sales team to learn more by filling out this form.

Could your startup earn the Wild Card at Disrupt Berlin 2019?

We’re just about one month away from opening the doors to infinite early-stage startup opportunity. We’re talking about Disrupt Berlin 2019, which takes place on 11-12 December. But today we’d like to highlight a specific opportunity you might not be familiar with — the Wild Card.

Why is this opportunity a big deal? The startup that earns the Wild Card designation gets to compete in Startup Battlefield, our epic pitch competition with a $50,000 prize. Ka-ching!

How do you qualify? Every early-stage startup that exhibits in Startup Alley, our expo floor and the heart of every Disrupt — has a shot at the Wild Card. And we mean every startup — Startup Alley Exhibitor Package holders, our recently announced TC Top Picks, members of a Country Pavilion — no matter how you come to exhibit in Startup Alley, you’re eligible.

Here’s how it all works. The day before Disrupt Berlin 2019 opens, TechCrunch editors will review the exhibiting startups and select one standout to join the cadre of Startup Battlefield competitors. The Wild Card team receives roughly 24 hours’ notice before they step out onto the Main Stage to pitch their product and company in front of a live audience — and a panel of expert VCs and technologists waiting to be impressed.

Talk about pressure. But startuppers don’t back away from a potentially life-changing opportunity — they rise to the occasion, amirite? Case in point: the little startup that could. Legacy earned the Wild Card at Disrupt Berlin 2018 and went on to win Startup Battlefield, beau coup love and attention from investors and media — not to mention that $50,000 equity-free cash infusion.

Here’s the good news: There’s still time for you to be an exhibitor at Disrupt Berlin 2019 — and have a shot at competing in Startup Battlefield. Simply buy a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and you’re good to go.

Here’s even better news. Exhibiting in Startup Alley holds tremendous potential to move your business forward — whether you get the Wild Card or not.

This is how David Hall, co-founder of Park & Diamond, describes his experience in Startup Alley.

“Exhibiting in Startup Alley was a game-changer for us. We received insight on our product development process, and we got to engage with media and potential investors. The chance to have those discussions and to potentially form relationships was invaluable.”

The opportunity that is Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. Make the most of that opportunity — exhibit in Startup Alley and take your shot at the Wild Card and Startup Battlefield. We’ll see you in Berlin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Extension on early-bird sale to Disrupt Berlin 2019

We won’t bury the lead on this news, startup fans. We’re giving all you professional procrastinators and time-delayed decision makers an extra week to pull yourselves together and score early-bird savings on passes to Disrupt Berlin 2019 (11-12 December).

Early-bird pricing remains in play until 15 November at 11:59 p.m. (CEST). Don’t let this last-chance clock run out. Beat the deadline, buy an early-bird pass to Disrupt Berlin and keep up to €500 in your wallet.

One of the many awesome aspects of Disrupt is the opportunity to learn from a range of experts in the startup community. Here are just three examples of the knowledge you can absorb at Disrupt. Want more? Check out the full event agenda.

Series A financing is a tricky beast and one of the hardest deals to close. If this hot topic speaks to you, don’t miss this panel discussion going down on the Extra Crunch Stage.

What does it take to raise a Series A with Jessica Holzbach (founder, Penta) and Louise Samet (partner, Blossom Capital). Venture capital funds have boomed this decade, but raising money is still hard for young companies. What are investors today looking for in teams, metrics and products?

Climate change is arguably the biggest issue of our time. Learn how one founder turned sustainability into her business.

How to build sustainability as a business with Benjamina Bollag (founder/CEO, Higher Steaks). As climate change and the impacts of a warming world become more important for the consumers who are exposed to it, hear from a developer of lab-grown meat and others on how to build sustainability as a business.

Who wouldn’t love a crystal ball to divine investment trends for the coming year? We have the next best thing — minus the hocus pocus.

Investing in 2020 with Carolina Brochado (investment director, SoftBank Vision Fund) and Tom Hulme (general partner, GV). Nothing changes quite as rapidly as investment trends. Brochado and Hulme will offer perspectives from their experience both on the ground in Europe and from 50,000 feet to talk about what 2020 has in store for startups.

There’s plenty more knowledge and opportunity packed into two short days. Don’t miss the Startup Battlefield pitch competition. Be there as 15-20 stellar startups vie for the Disrupt Cup, investor love, media attention and the $50,000 prize.

Looking for skilled coders to help bring your vision to life? Head to the Extra Crunch Stage and watch the Hackathon finalists pitch working products they designed and built in 24 pressure-filled hours. Who will win the $5,000 prize for best overall hack?

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. This is it — one extra week. You have until 15 November at 11:59 (CEST) — an extra week to buy an early-bird pass to Disrupt Berlin. Get ‘er done!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Last few hours to apply: TC Top Picks @ Disrupt Berlin 2019

This is it, startup founders. Today, October 18, is the last day and your final opportunity to be chosen as a TC Top Pick, to score a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and to shine a bright spotlight on your company at Disrupt Berlin 2019 on 11-12 December.

You have only a few hours left to beat today’s 12 p.m. (PT) deadline. It’s quick, it’s painless and it’s free. What are you waiting for? Apply to be a TC Top Pick while you still can.

Every early-stage startup needs exposure to survive and thrive. Exposure to potential customers, to accredited media and to investors with the backing to make dreams come true. Our TC Top Picks provides exposure to possibility.

If your startup falls into one of the categories listed below, we want you. TechCrunch editors will vet the applications and choose up to five startups that represent the best of each category: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, CRM/Enterprise and Education.

If you earn a TC Top Pick designation, you receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and a VIP experience. Your package includes one full day exhibiting in Startup Alley (the Disrupt expo floor), three Founder passes, press lists and invitations to networking parties, to name just a few perks.

Our Top Picks cohort generates a lot of curiosity, and Disrupt attendees flock to Startup Alley to meet and greet. It’s networking nirvana, where you can connect with potential customers, investors, mentors, collaborators — think infinite opportunity.

And yet another great opportunity awaits. TechCrunch editors interview each Top Pick startup live on the Showcase Stage. While we promote the interview video across our social media platforms, you can use it to drive traffic to your website and as a long-term marketing tool for pitching investors and customers.

And then there’s the Wild Card. TechCrunch editors will pick one early-stage startup exhibiting in the Alley to be the Wild Card, and that startup will compete in Startup Battlefield, our epic pitch competition. It’s a chance to win even more investor and media love along with the $50,000 prize. Last year, Legacy earned the Wild Card slot, and then went on to win the Startup Battlefield competition.

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. So much opportunity, so little time left to take advantage of it. The TC Top Picks opportunity is free, and the benefits are priceless. Don’t miss your chance — apply to be a TC Top Pick before 12 p.m. (PT) today, 18 October.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

LinkedIn gets physical, debuts Events hub for people to plan in-person networking events

LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social network for the working world with around 650 million users, is known best as a place where people connect with each other online either to build work connections, for recruitment, or for professional development. Now, the company is taking a step to bring its networking features into the physical world: the company is launching a new feature called Events, a (currently free) tool for people to plan, announce and invite people to meetups and other get-togethers, in the physical world.

The feature — which will appear as a menu item in LinkedIn’s website and mobile app — is rolling out first in English-speaking countries starting October 17, with the aim to expand it to further non-English markets soon after that.

Ajay Datta, the head of product for LinkedIn India (where the app was developed; more on that below), believes that there is a clear gap in the market for a feature like this, much like you could argue Facebook’s events feature has served a role in the out-of-work world to plan casual events.

“I think there is a massive whitespace for events today,” he said. “People don’t have a single place to organise [work-related] offline meetups specific to an industry or a neighborhood. People want to find other people.”

You may recall a limited trial of the Events feature about a year ago in New York and San Francisco: the kinds of events that LinkedIn said were created with the pilot included meetups, training sessions, offsites, sales events and happy hours, so expect to see these popping up in the live product, too.

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.26.01

Events is also important because it is the first major, global feature to be built out of the company’s R&D office in Bangalore, India — a significant milestone for the team of engineers and others that are based there. Up to now, much of the work that they have done has been focused on regional tools or those specifically targeting emerging markets.

LinkedIn Lite, the company’s pared-down Android app for users in bandwidth-constrained markets, has probably been the  Bangalore office’s biggest win so far: it has now passed 10 million downloads in the 70+ countries where it is available.

To be clear, right now, Events is free to use and is fairly limited in its first iteration. You can create an announcement and invite first-person contacts, but you have no way to promote the event beyond your own organic reach on the platform (and wherever you might want to share the link outside it).

“Targeting is not the focus right now,” said Ajay Datta, the head of product at LinkedIn India. “Organic adoption is what we are looking for first before we look at anything else.”

You can lay out your plans, but there are no links to services to find and book out available spaces. You can’t create any ticketing or other limitations on attendance numbers, but you can include links to places where you might be able to manage such things, such as Eventbrite or any of its many competitors.

But if this starts to see traction — and I suspect that it will, because of its natural proximity to the social network to amplify an event, and the fact that most of the people who are hanging out on LinkedIn are likely to already be predisposed to engaging on it — you could imagine how LinkedIn might start to add on all of the above, and more. It says that other areas where it’s continuing to experiment to facilitate better in-person connections using include QR codes, business cards, and proximity-based beacons.

This could help LinkedIn create another revenue stream in its business — or at least provide another way to boost existing revenue streams such as premium memberships (access to a wider circle of people to invite), advertising and recruitment solutions. Potentially, this could help pave the way to positioning LinkedIn (and by association, Microsoft) as an Eventbrite competitor.

From the Events menu bar, you will be able to create events yourself and also invite others. It looks like it’s already live on my own account, so here is how it looks from there:

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.43.00

And here’s how the event-creation window looks. As you can see, you post links through to other sites for ticketing, and potentially further details about agendas and more. Each box has a limit on

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.42.15

LinkedIn is also being cognisant of its reputation for how the platform can be used for over-aggressive contacting, and so it’s also including security features for people to report and block suspicious events or conversations related to them. It’s also applying AI algorithms to the events that do get listed to screen them for bad actors and bogus content, which then get assessed by human reviewers for further action.

The move into Events is one of the bigger moves that LinkedIn has made over the last several years — another big one has been its efforts in educational content — to open itself up to a new area of business by leveraging how it uses the professional graph that it has built up over time. It sometimes feels to me that under Microsoft (which bought the company for $26 billion in 2016) the company has been less productive in terms of launching new services and generally making noise, so this move is interesting in that sense too.

Still, the synergy between online networking and physical networking is so close that it’s a surprise that the company hadn’t launched an Events feature before now. All the more because Linked has dabbled in building tools to help people make better connections with each other when they are in the same physical space before.

Years ago it launched a Connected app to help people maximise the kinds of connections they make in the physical world. It has since been sunset and integrated into the main LinkedIn app, which has a “find nearby” feature that you can use to see if people who are your connections are, say, at the same conference as you are, or if you’re meeting a contact for coffee and don’t know what the person looks like.

It’s also been over the last three months seeding the idea of associating actual events with LinkedIn the platform by encouraging the organising of “LinkedIn Local” events, which apparently have created more feedback from users to build an Events too, too.

It’s not clear why it’s taken so long — LinkedIn sometimes does take its time, as it did with video — but in this period when some of us are beginning to pause and ponder what being online too much does for our ability to relate to each other, collaborate and progress not just in the working world, but in the wider world, it’s an interesting moment to choose to launch Events. We’ll see if LinkedInners agree.

Miss out on Startup Battlefield? Apply to TC Top Picks at Disrupt Berlin 2019

Did you miss the deadline to apply for Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Well don’t despair, founders. There’s more than one way to place your early-stage startup in front of thousands of influential technologists, investors and global media. Apply to be considered for our TC Top Picks program and the opportunity to exhibit in Startup Alley for free.

Deadline alert: You must apply to be a TC Top Pick by 18 October at 12 p.m. (PT). It’s simple to do and it’s free. Don’t let this opportunity slip through your time-strapped fingers.

TC Top Picks is a pre-conference competition. To be considered, your early-stage startup must fall within one of the following categories: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, CRM/Enterprise and Education.

Our TechCrunch editors — always on the hunt for the best early-stage startups — will vet each application and select up to five startups in each category. If you’re named a TC Top Pick, you’ll receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and a VIP experience at Disrupt Berlin.

What sort of startup catches TechCrunch’s discerning editorial eyes? Great question. Take a look at the list of TC Top Picks from Disrupt Berlin 2018.

The exclusive TC Top Pick cadre will exhibit in a prime location within Startup Alley and — thanks to plenty of pre-conference marketing — be on the receiving end of intense investor and media interest. One of the best perks is the live Showcase Stage interview. TechCrunch editors interview each Top Pick to showcase their company and product. We record the interview and promote the video across our social media platforms.

If you’re still kicking yourself for missing the Startup Battlefield deadline, here’s more good news. There’s always the possibility that you’ll compete as a Wild Card. Say what, now?

Out of all the startups exhibiting in Startup Alley, TechCrunch editors will choose one — the Wild Card — to compete in the Startup Battlefield. At Disrupt Berlin 2018, TC editors chose Legacy, and the feisty startup went on to win the Startup Battlefield and the $50,000 prize.

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December, and TC Top Picks is your chance to place your extraordinary startup in front of the people who can move your business forward. If you want to exhibit in Startup Alley for free, do not miss this deadline. Apply to be a TC Top Pick before 18 October at 12 p.m. (PT). We’ll see you in Berlin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Civic Champs app gives nonprofits the tech tools to manage volunteers

Nonprofits employ 10% of the U.S. workforce and generate some $2 trillion in revenue each year and yet, many charitable organizations are still using pen and paper to track their volunteers.

Civic Champs, a startup that presented onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, has developed a platform that aims to give non-profits the tech tools they need to better manage volunteers.

“The nonprofit market is underserved by technology companies,” co-founder and CTO Mike Jeffery told TechCrunch.

Civic Champs is initially focusing on volunteer management. However, the mobile app, which was built with React Native for Android and iOS, can be broadened over time.

For instance, the company recently launched a micro-donations feature that automatically converts volunteers to donors. The feature will integrate a number of payment options, including Stripe, Apple Pay, and Plaid/Dwolla for ACH donations.

The Civic Champs platform uses geolocation and geofences to automate volunteer-hour tracking. The seemingly simple task of checking volunteers into events and tracking their time can take a small nonprofit 10 hours per month to manage, according to the company. Civic Champs co-founder and CEO Geng Wang says their platform can slash that task down to an hour per month.

Civic Champs designed a mobile-first platform. However, the company’s co-founders say they understood that not all volunteers will have smartphones or want to use the app. So they developed three ways to use the platform.

Volunteers can use the Civic Champs mobile app to check in at events and track their hours. The platform has also been adapted to web-based kiosks, which nonprofits can use to make it easier for tech-averse volunteers to check in. A volunteer’s hours can also be tracked through a nonprofit’s administrative features on both the app and the web. All three tracking methods — mobile, web kiosk, or by administrator — synchronize volunteer tracking across platforms and between users and potentially multiple organizations.

With the launch of Civic Champs, Wang, who co-founded the startup with Jeffery and Ryan Underdahl, is now solidly in serial entrepreneur territory. Wang’s first startup, RentJungle, was an apartment search engine, which was acquired in 2014 by The Rainmaker Group. Wang’s second startup, a social media marketing firm called Community Elf that has since been rebranded as Cosmitto, was acquired in 2017 by private equity firm Topanga Partners.

For his third go around, Wang told TechCrunch he wanted to do something more mission-driven. The original idea was to create a mobile game for volunteering. This “Pokemon Go” of volunteering would let users contribute in small ways — like helping cities collect data on physical assets, such as traffic lights and fire hydrants using GPS and photo uploads.

But that idea quickly morphed into something larger when Geng started talking to volunteer organizations and learned the challenges were far more basic and widespread.

“Essentially, nine out of the 10 organizations we talked to still track their volunteers on pen and paper forms,” Geng said. “As a former consultant, I thought well that’s sort of crazy. That’s a lot of time that you’re spending on paperwork that you could direct back to the community and in certain, more impactful ways.”

The co-founders pivoted away from gamification and started developing a mobile platform that nonprofits can use to track volunteers. The company officially launched in January 2019.

Civic Champs has raised $312,000 in a pre-seed round and also received $29,000 in non-dilutive grants through the Indiana University CLAPP competition and the Indiana Technical Assistance Program.

The company is still figuring out its pricing structure. Civic Champs does have 34 customers, 24 of which are paid clients. The remaining 10 are pilots. The business model, which is set up like a Software-as-a-Service product, charges between $25 a month for its smallest customer up to $450 a month for its largest client.

The Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity and The Audubon Society are among its customers.

Molecule.one uses machine learning to make synthesizing new drugs a snap

Say you’re a pharmaceutical company. You’ve figured out that a novel molecule could be effective in treating an illness — but that molecule only exists in a simulation. How do you actually make it, and enough of it, to test in the real world? Molecule.one is a computational chemistry platform that helps bring theoretical substances to life, and it is debuting its product onstage at Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield.

Computational chemistry is, believe it or not, something of a hot ticket right now. The explosion in computing resources over the last decade has made it possible for the extremely complex systems of molecular biology to be simulated in high enough fidelity to produce new drugs and other important substances.

For example, say a company knows that a condition is caused by overproduction of a given protein. By simulating that protein in the soup of the cell environment, computational chemists can also introduce and virtually observe the behavior of thousands or millions of molecules that don’t occur naturally but might, say, lock down those excess proteins and tag them for removal by the cell.

This process of drug discovery has been productive, but unlike in the real world, in a simulation you don’t actually have to make that magical molecule. It’s just a bunch of numbers interacting with other numbers. How can a pharmaceutical company, which may have paid a lot of money for those numbers, turn them into actual molecules? That’s where Molecule.one steps in.

1.4.0 Molecule Dashboard Reaction tree

Essentially, the company has created a software platform that automates the process of getting from chemicals A, B, and C to chemical Z, with the many steps in between accounted for and documented. It’s based on a machine learning system that has ingested millions of patents and known chemical processes, allowing it to connect the dots and propose a method for creating pretty much any complex organic molecule. In other words, once a drug company has the “what” — a molecule or compound that may fight Alzheimer’s — Molecule.one provides the “how.”

Piotr Byrski met co-founder Paweł Włodarczyk-Pruszyński (who goes by Maxus to avoid confusion with COO Paweł Łaskarzewski) while in college, where they studied and did research together, eventually both earning MDs. They discovered a shared aversion to the grunt work of chemistry — beakers, distillates, titration, and so on.

molecule one header

 

“We found out we shared a similar analytical approach to chemistry. A lot of chemists really like the cooking process involved with organic synthesis,” Byrski told me. “I have to say… I never liked it very much. That made me think that there are many things in the everyday life of a chemist that can be automated, and need to be automated.”

“Automating organic synthesis seems like just another difficult automation problem, but it’s one with real effects. Real people are suffering because drugs are coming to the market,” he said. “We thought we could help. So we did some research, and we found that the field is so under-developed —  the direction research is going is completely unsatisfactory. We began market research — we were both first timers so it was pretty new to us at the time — and we found out there was a big market need for this. It wasn’t a scientific discovery that would sit on a shelf, it could be applied today to help multiple industries.”

By the time they were working on this, companies were already applying simulation, and statistical techniques (machine learning is essentially weapon-grade statistical analysis) were already popping up. BenevolentAI started in 2013, Recursion in 2014, Atomwise in 2015; clearly the field was growing, and is still adding new companies, like ReviveMed. But these are mainly focused on the question of new drugs based on simulations.

“They provide a list of maybe tens of thousands of structures to a pharmaceutical company, but the company then needs to actually verify whether the predictions have any real-life backing. For that you need physical access to these molecules — just knowing the structure doesn’t cut it,” said Byrski.

Molecule.one’s system tells them how to manifest these structures.

1.1.1 Molecule Dashboard Compounds

“We are making the whole synthesis pathway, so going from compounds that are available to ones that you want,” said Włodarczyk-Pruszyński. “Along the way we need to solve many problems — there are many reasons why a reaction could fail. We want to tell users how to make compounds with the process with the highest chance of success.”

And succeed they have: “Our system works for structures that have never been seen before by any chemist,” Byrski said.

The obvious question is why these huge pharma companies, with their bottomless pockets and technical expertise, don’t put together their own synthesis platforms. It comes down to people.

“The most important factor is that it’s hard for a pharmaceutical company to hire machine learning specialists who have a deep background in chemistry. Over 90 percent of the people I know that work on this in the pharmaceutical business are chemists who have some training in machine learning. This is a difficult problem that requires coming at it from the opposite direction,” Byrski explained. “Our head of machine learning [Stanislaw Jastrzębski] is a PhD from the computational side, who would normally go to Google, Facebook or Microsoft. We’ve built a team that is unique in how it bridges the computational technology and chemistry.”

The databases used by Molecule.one’s systems, surprisingly, are mostly public. The U.S. Patent office has tons of patents involving chemical processes — some important, some small, some obscure, some obvious, but all verified and presented formally. This was a gold mine sitting in plain sight, Byrski said. Or perhaps a box full of Lego pieces just waiting to be assembled into the right machine.

The main “proprietary” information they used was a private listing of commercially available chemicals and their prices. A molecule may have more than one pathway to reach it, after all, or perhaps thousands, and one might be cheaper than the others or involve fewer toxic reagents.

With strong results from public databases, they have a better chance of getting pharma companies to share their internal databases when signing up for the service.

The actual business is conducted SaaS-wise, naturally, and all the work takes place in the cloud. There’s also an enterprise tier that allows for on-premises operation, for companies that would rather not have their trade secrets anywhere but on company-owned infrastructure.

So far the company has bootstrapped, and currently has about $400K in the bank, which Byrski said should last them well into next year. “The biggest cost is people,” he said. “Developers, designers, chemists. We’re a software business so we don’t have a lot of other costs — we don’t have to hire a lab, for example.” So they are looking for funding to help hire and scale.

It’s not common in Poland to segue directly from medical school into a startup, Byrski admitted. But he and Włodarczyk-Pruszyński felt that this was too significant an opportunity to do good to pass up. With luck their platform will prove as popular as the drug discovery startups that helped make it necessary to invent.

Leo Aerospace provides bespoke rocket launches — from a hot air balloon

The demand for orbital launches is increasing steadily, and the industry is nowhere near keeping up. Leo Aerospace thinks it can help with a launch technique that’s more efficient and requires far less infrastructure than an ordinary rocket: a hot air balloon. With a rocket attached to it, of course. It sounds wacky at first, but it could prove to be an economical and flexible way of getting to orbit.

Leo is originally out of Purdue, one of two such teams on stage this week at Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield. Co-founder and CEO Dane Rudy said they were looking into new and better ways to achieve orbit besides the traditional surface-based rocket approach.

leo j“We found this really elegant solution that was actually tested in a rudimentary way in the 50s by the Air Force, which is launching rockets from an aerostat — a balloon,” he said.

Perhaps used to countering narrowed eyes and barely disguised incredulity at this point, he hastened to follow up.

“It actually worked really well for what it was designed for. The issue they ran into was that the U.S. shifted toward sending people to the Moon — so there just wasn’t a need for that technology in the Apollo program. But the rise in small satellites has created a huge demand tailored to these capabilities,” he said.

It turns out using a balloon has big benefits. A large amount of a rocket’s fuel and engineering is dedicated to pushing it from the ground, where the atmosphere is heaviest, to the thinner upper atmosphere, where drag and other issues are much less of a worry. By going the first few miles straight up in a balloon, much less rocket is needed to get into orbit, since you’re skipping one of the hardest parts.

The technique is more or less exactly what you’d imagine: A large balloon inflates and lifts the payload, a small rocket, to a designated altitude. Once there it aligns itself and… well, lifts off is perhaps the wrong term. But it ignites and exits the atmosphere at a planned trajectory and inserts the payload into orbit.

There are already air-launch systems out there that use planes rather than balloons, presenting their own challenges and advantages. Leo Aerospace’s main draws are flexibility and cost.

“Our system is fully mobile — it doesn’t require any ground infrastructure,” said Rudy. “The whole thing fits into a regular shipping container.”

That means it can take off wherever and, perhaps more importantly, whenever the client chooses.

 

shipping

Right now the launch industry is expanding like crazy, both because of an increase in total launches and the rise of “ride-sharing,” where dozens of payloads share the cost of a single rocket. The cost goes down, but there are serious inconveniences.

“They don’t have much choice in when they launch or what orbit they’re going to. There’s also the complexity of having to ride with a bunch of other payloads on board — you have to compromise on timing and so on,” Rudy said.

While ride-sharing means many payloads will get to space that might not have a few years ago, it also means they might wait for years while the rest of the seats fill up and get ready to roll. With Leo it’s practically Domino’s for orbit.

That’s all great in theory, but the fact is no one has made a balloon-based commercial launch system. When the Air Force did it, it was pretty crude: The rocket was carried in a vertical position and shot right through the balloon when it went up. That kind of rules out reusing the balloon, but Leo’s entire business is founded on reusability, since that brings costs down immensely.

launch regulus

“That was one of the big problems we had to solve — the expense of the balloon itself; helium is expensive, and the envelope [i.e. the balloon material] is expensive and fragile,” said Rudy. “How do we make that zero stage, as we call it, reusable?”

Amazingly, they determined that tough, ripstop nylon and hot air were actually the best solution. It’s remarkably close in principle to an ordinary recreational hot-air balloon, but with the slight difference that it has to fly up to 18 kilometers of altitude and carry a rocket with it.

“The difference is how do you control and command this sort of vehicle, integrate it into airspace, suspend the rocket beneath it and all that,” Rudy said. “All the stuff you have at Vandenberg Air Base for a launch — we have to make all that mobile.”

Mike Mojave Launch 11 of 25

A bit like going from an ordinary car to a self-driving one, Leo’s balloon may be similar to the recreational type in its basic form, but the technical advances are in how it is controlled and tracked. They can adjust for wind, control the yaw and rotation, rise to a very precise altitude, and so on — naturally, all remotely and with partial autonomy.

The rocket doesn’t shoot through its balloon as before, but fires off at a mission-determined angle. 18 km closer to space, with far less air resistance to worry about, the three-stage rocket (two solid, then one non-cryo liquid) can be much smaller and have far less mass — requiring less than half the fuel to lift a given mass to orbit. To be specific, the system is specced to send 33 gross kilograms, 25 kg of payload, to a 550 kilometer orbit — or about twice that to 300 kilometers.

December saw the company performing reduced-scale tests at altitude, an important stepping stone to regulatory approval. The plan is to make their first full-scale suborbital launch next year with their first customer’s payload on board. Orbital launches are planned for 2022.

Leo has gotten through December’s tests on a quite barebones budget for a space startup of about $520,000, through TechStars and a grant from the National Science Foundation. That’s great for a foundation, Rudy said, but full-scale tests and an eventual transition to commercial operations will take more than six figures.

An Air Force Small Business Innovation Research grant has opened the door to other government sources, and there’s been interest from that quarter in the non-orbital potential of the system, for instance high-altitude testing, mobile communications infrastructure, and so on. So already there are multiple eggs in multiple baskets — an attractive quality for investors.

“We’ve done all the foundational work,” said Rudy.  “Now it’s just about scaling up.”

CrunchMatch is open: Ready, set, vet and network at Disrupt SF 2019

Attention all current and future pass holders to Disrupt SF 2019! Our CrunchMatch platform is up, operational and ready for you to create your profile and get down to the business of connecting with the people who can move your business to new heights.

Hold up a sec’. If you don’t already have one, stop what you’re doing and buy your pass to Disrupt SF right now.

Okay, back to networking. More than 10,000 people will attend Disrupt SF and CruntchMatch is the most efficient way for you to zero in on the connections you want to make. Whether you’re a founder looking for developers, an investor looking to fatten your portfolio, technology service providers trolling for new customers or founders looking for marketing help, CrunchMatch will make connecting so much easier.

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Last year alone, the program facilitated more than 3,000 meetings. And Yoolox — makers of a portable wireless charger — says the connections it made through CrunchMatch helped Yoolox increase its distribution.

Make the most of your limited time at Disrupt San Francisco 2019 on October 2-4. CrunchMatch relieves you of the hassle and the guesswork associated with traditional conference networking. Buy your pass, go create your profile and get ready to meet the right movers and shakers for your business.

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