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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

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

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

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

Can a combined Google/Fitbit take on the Apple Watch?

In January 2014, Google announced plans to acquire Nest for $3.2 billion; the acquisition was completed the following day, but since then, Nest’s integration has been a controlled burn. Initially, the company existed as a subsidiary of the newly-formed Alphabet Inc., but in early 2018, Google tightened its grip and integrated it directly into its hardware division.

Over the next year and a half, Nest became the face and name of Google’s smart home offering, a division that’s grown quickly as Google Home/Google Nest has become one of the top two players in the U.S. smart home category, rivaled only by Amazon’s Alexa/Echo offerings.

All the while, wearables have been an also-ran: Google has clearly had an interest in the category, launching Android Wear in 2014. The company partnered with some of consumer hardware’s biggest names, including Motorola, Asus, Sony, Huawei and LG, but to little fanfare. A year ahead the release of Android Wear (now Wear OS), Apple brought its own smartwatch to market, effectively leaving the competition in the dust.

The Apple Watch would soon eclipse the rest of the wearable industry; numbers from Canalys in August 2019 show Apple at 37.9 percent of the total North American wearable band market. Fossil, the only Wear OS partner to crack the top five, is in a distant fifth, with 4.1%.

Samsung and Garmin have found success with their own offerings, but both are far behind Fitbit at second place. Founded in 2007, Fitbit would eventually become synonymous with fitness trackers. A humble startup when it showcased its first product (an eponymous 3D pedometer) on stage at our TC50 event in 2008, Fitbit’s rise has been an unqualified success.

Fitbit predicted and eventually came to define the wearable zeitgeist, finding itself at the forefront of the next big wave in consumer electronics after the smartphone. As the mobile category has plateaued, wearables continue to grow at an impressive pace. Let’s take a moment to appreciate what has been an impressive run.

The last few years, however, have been far rockier as Fitbit stumbled and sputtered. By CEO James Park’s own admission, the company failed to embrace smartwatches quickly and fully enough, and as it has so many times in the past, Apple entered and dominated the space, leaving Fitbit reeling with an uncertain future.

Google’s Fitbit purchase could reshape its healthcare ambitions

Google has reached into parent company Alphabet’s $121 billion cash reserves to spend $2.1 billion on Fitbit, a move into the key consumer health market that places them in more direct competition with rival Apple.

For more than a year, Ftibit and Google have partnered on healthcare applications; last April, Fitbit announced that it would work with Google’s application programming interface to connect data with electronic medical records via Google’s Cloud Healthcare API. That move followed Fitbit’s February 2018 acquisition of Twine Health, which gave the wearables company a consumer health platform which complied with existing federal regulations.

“Working with Google gives us an opportunity to transform how we scale our business, allowing us to reach more people around the world faster, while also enhancing the experience we offer to our users and the healthcare system,” said Fitbit CEO and co-founder James Park at the time of the 2018 Google partnership.

Companies throughout the healthcare industry are pushing to get closer to patients, and wearables have opened a new window into their health. Additionally, the technology can potentially encourage patients to pursue preventive healthcare measures, rather than seeking care after they’re ill.

“All of us… we’re pursuing the same thing,” said a prominent healthcare executive at a multinational medical device manufacturer. “We see a healthcare system that’s highly inefficient with a lot of waste that is very much episode-related, where we all know health is dynamic and continuous.” Gaining “better insight into health and disease drivers and interventions at the right place and the right time is the holy grail.”

Privacy concerns abound

The biggest challenge for Alphabet and Google with this acquisition is privacy; the company has already faced massive criticism for its push into healthcare in the U.K. regarding concerns about how it would handle sensitive health information. The technology industry’s habit of releasing minimum viable products doesn’t work in an industry where complications can literally become a matter of life and death.

Sensing inevitable concern around Google’s upcoming access to a bevy of health data, Rick Osterloh, Google’s SVP for devices and services, offered that the company will not use user information for advertising. “We will never sell personal information to anyone,” he wrote. “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

Competition with Apple

Those privacy concerns stand in direct contrast to the obvious competitor driving this acquisition forward — Apple. The Cupertino-based king of consumer hardware has set itself apart from other consumer tech companies through its professed emphasis on privacy, a position that Apple will likely leverage further as it continues to make deeper forays into health.

Daily Crunch: Google is buying Fitbit

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

1. Google is acquiring Fitbit for $2.1 billion

Google will pay $7.35 per share for the wearables company — an all-cash deal that values Fitbit at $2.1 billion.

While Google has invested plenty in its own in-house development, buying Fitbit represents a step-change, and the opportunity to take advantage of years of effort focused specifically on the wearables category.

2. Apple TV+ now live, with one year free for new iOS, Apple TV and Mac purchases

At launch, you’ll find “The Morning Show,” “See,” “For All Mankind,” “Dickinson,” “Snoopy in Space,” “Ghostwriter” and “Helpsters,” as well as the documentary feature “The Elephant Queen” and the talk show “Oprah’s Book Club.” Some of these offer the first three episodes at launch, while others include the full season.

3. Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet’s grand experiment in smart cities) will move forward with Toronto project

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto (the regulatory body overseeing the project) have come to an agreement that will limit the scope of the Sidewalk development — intended as a proving ground for the latest thinking in sustainable design — and make the company work more closely with oversight agencies on the construction of the 12-acre parcel.

4. Altria writes down $4.5 billion from its investment in Juul

That’s roughly one-third of the $12.8 billion that the tobacco giant had invested into Juul a little less than one year ago.

5. EHang, maker of autonomous flying shuttles, files for $100 million IPO

The company, which has been flying demonstration flights with passengers on board for a while now, is gearing up to launch its first commercial service in Guangzhou after getting approval from local and national regulators to deploy its drones in the area.

6. Japanese instant-credit provider Paidy raises $143 million from investors, including PayPal Ventures

This is the largest investment to date in the Japanese financial tech industry, according to data cited by Paidy, and brings the total investment the company has raised so far to $163 million.

7. Announcing TechCrunch’s new commenting system

There are a bunch of new features that you can read about in the post, but what I’m really hoping is that this makes a big dent in the spam.

Google is acquiring Fitbit for $2.1 billion

Just days after it was reported that Google was close to buying Fitbit, Google and Fitbit today confirmed the purchase: Google will pay $7.35 per share for the wearables company in an all-cash deal that values Fitbit at $2.1 billion.

Relatively speaking, this is a great landing for Fitbit . The company’s price has fluctuated significantly as it worked to adjust to a changing market and fumbled on some of its more recent launches. In summer 2015, it hit an all-time high of $51.90, but this August it went as low as $2.81 after more than two years hovering below $7 — a pattern that changed dramatically after the first reports of Google’s interest began to surface in September.

The match could ultimately prove beneficial for both parties.

Google has struggled to make much of a dent in the wearables category. But wearables is still a young market, and at a time when Apple has been seeing its strongest category growth in the division that houses its own wearables effort, the Apple Watch, Google has never bowed out. In January of this year, the Android giant purchased a large chunk of IP from watchmaker Fossil for $40 million — a move that in retrospect looks like a setting of the stage for what was to come today.

While Google has also invested in a lot of its own in-house development, buying Fitbit represents a step-change and a bolt-on of years of effort focused specifically on the wearables category.

“Over the years, Google has made progress with partners in this space with Wear OS and Google Fit, but we see an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market,” Google device SVP Rick Osterloh wrote in his blog post announcing the deal. “Fitbit has been a true pioneer in the industry and has created engaging products, experiences and a vibrant community of users. By working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together the best AI, software and hardware, we can help spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.”

Sensing inevitable concern around Google’s upcoming access to a bevy of health data, Osterloh looked to temper criticism with reassurance that it will not be using the information for advertising. “We will never sell personal information to anyone,” the executive wrote. “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

Fitbit, meanwhile, has had issues maintaining growth in recent years. The company first pioneered and then dominated the wrist-worn tracker space, but in more recent years it has struggled as the smartwatches category has grown and encroached and taken over Fitbit’s tracker territory. The company has had luck with the Versa watch, the result of its own acquisition of Pebble, Vector and Coin, while working to pivot much of its focus into healthcare.

But following the disappointing performance of the stripped-down Versa Lite smartwatch, Fitbit announced a premium service earlier this year, set to offer users more insights into the information its products collect. Fitbit has also worked to be recognized as a serious health product, in the wake of the Apple Watch’s successes. The company has announced several partnerships with healthcare companies.

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“More than 12 years ago, we set an audacious company vision – to make everyone in the world healthier,” Fitbit CEO and co-founder James Park said in a statement. “Today, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved towards reaching that goal. We have built a trusted brand that supports more than 28 million active users around the globe who rely on our products to live a healthier, more active life. Google is an ideal partner to advance our mission. With Google’s resources and global platform, Fitbit will be able to accelerate innovation in the wearables category, scale faster, and make health even more accessible to everyone. I could not be more excited for what lies ahead.”

 

 

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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 04: (L-R) Fitbit co-founder/president & CEO James Park and Fitbit co-founder & CTO Eric Friedman speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 04, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

No immediate word on how the deal will impact either company, but if Google’s Nest acquisition is any indication, the acquisition could be a gradual one, as Fitbit continues to release products in its pipeline. Fitbit notably partnered with Amazon to bring Alexa to the recently released Versa 2 — a first for a wearable. With Google in charge of one of Alexa’s chief competitors, however, one expects future versions of the device will ship with Assistant on-board.

Beyond that, the arrival of Fitbit’s IP coupled with Fossil’s IP could finally be the shot to the arm Wear OS needs. One need look no further than Google’s acquisition of a chunk of HTC’s mobile division to build out its Pixel devices as an example of how the deal could ultimately shape its hardware, moving forward. The arrival of a Pixel Watch seems inevitable, as Google looks to build a Wear OS division as robust as its home and mobile offerings.

Notably, all have been as much the result of acquisitions (Nest and HTC, respectively) as organic, in-house growth.

The deal is expected to close at some point next year, pending the standard regulatory and stockholder approval.

Google reportedly in talks to acquire Fitbit

According to Reuters, Google parent Alphabet is looking to acquire publicly traded wearables company Fitbit.

Reuters says the deal is still being negotiated and could still fall apart, but if it came together, it would surely strengthen Google’s position in the wearables space, an area where it has struggled despite its efforts around smartwatches and Wear OS.

With Wear OS, Google only focused on the smartwatch market, though, and while many of these devices have fitness tracking built-in, either through third-party apps or Google’s own Fit app, there’s still a large market for dedicated (and cheaper) fitness trackers. Fitbit, meanwhile, has been stepping up its smartwatch features with its Versa line, which does not use Wear OS.

Acquiring Fitbit would also fit into Google’s overall hardware strategy, now that it is building its own phones and other devices. In early 2018, it also closed its acquisition of large parts of HTC’s design division. We’ve also seen numerous rumors about Google building a Pixel smartwatch over the years. So far, it has not released its own first-party watch, though.

Fitbits’ stock shot up almost 30 percent after the first rumors surfaced. In recent months, the company’s stock often traded below $3, down from close to $48 shortly after its IPO in 2015. Today, after the announcement, it went up to around $5.20.

The Station: A new self-driving car startup, Inside Tesla’s V10 software, Lilium’s big round

If you haven’t heard, TechCrunch has officially launched a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future — whether it’s by bike, bus, scooter, car, train, truck, flying car, robotaxi or rocket. Heck, maybe even via hyperloop.

Earlier this year, we piloted a weekly transportation newsletter. Now, we’re back with a new name and a format that will be delivered into your inbox every Saturday morning. We’re calling it The Station, your hub of all things transportation. I’m your host, senior transportation reporter Kirsten Korosec.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This isn’t a solo effort. Expect analysis and insight from senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, who has been covering micromobility. TechCrunch reporter Jake Bright will occasionally provide insight into electric motorcycles, racing and the startup scene in Africa. And then of course, there are other TechCrunch staffers who will weigh in from their stations in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming. Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

A new autonomous vehicle company on the scene

the station autonomous vehicles1

Deeproute.ai is the newest company to receive a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Here is what we know so far. The Chinese startup just raised $50 million in a pre-Series A funding round led by Fozun RZ Capital, the Beijing-based venture capital arm of Chinese conglomerate Fosun International. The company has research centers in Shenzhen, Beijing and Silicon Valley and is aiming to build a full self-driving stack that can handle Level 4 automation, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

Deeproute.ai is also a supplier for China’s second-largest automaker Dongfeng Motor, according to TechNode. The startup plans to offer robotaxi services in partnership with Dongfeng Motor for the Military World Games in the city of Wuhan next month.

Snapshot: Tesla Smart Summon

the station electric vehicles1Remember way back in September when Tesla started rolling out its V10 software update? The software release was highly anticipated in large part because it included Smart Summon, an autonomous parking feature that allows owners to use their app to summon their vehicles from a parking space.

We have some insight into the rollout, courtesy of TezLab, a Brooklyn-based startup that developed a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle. Tesla owners who download the app can track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors, and heating and air conditioning. TezLab, which has 20,000 active users and logs more than 1 million events a day, has become a massive repository of Tesla data.

TezLab shared the data set below that shows the ebb and flow of Tesla’s software updates. The X axis shows the date (of every other bar) and a timestamp of midnight. (Because this is a screenshot, you can’t toggle over it to see the time.)

Screen Shot 2019 10 11 at 3.52.53 PM

This data shows when Tesla started pushing out the V10 software as well as when it held it back. The upshot? Notice the pop on September 27. That’s when the public rollout began in earnest, then dipped, then spiked again on October 3 and then dropped for almost a week. That lull followed a slew of social media postings demonstrating and complaining about the Smart Summon feature, suggesting that Tesla slowed the software release.

A geofencing bright spot

Speaking of Smart Summon, you might have seen the Consumer Reports review of the feature. In short, the consumer advocacy group called it “glitchy” and wondered if it offered any benefits to customers. I spoke to CR and learned a bit more. CR notes that Tesla is clear in its manual about the limitations of this beta product. The organization’s criticism is that people don’t have insight into these limitations when they buy the “Full Self-Driving” feature, which costs thousands of dollars. (CEO Elon Musk just announced the price will go up another $1,000 on November 1.)

One encouraging sign is that CR determined that the Smart Summon feature was able (most of the time) to recognize when it was on a public road. Smart Summon is only supposed to be used in private areas. “This is the first we’ve seen Tesla geofence this technology and that is a bright spot,” CR told me.

Deal of the week

money the station

There were plenty of deals in the past week, but the one that stood out — for a variety of reasons — involved German urban air mobility startup Lilium . Editor Ingrid Lunden had the scoop that Lilium has been talking to investors to raise between $400 million and $500 million. The size of this yet-to-be-closed round and who might be investing is what got our attention.

Lilium has already raised more than $100 million in financing from investors, including WeChat owner and Chinese internet giant Tencent, Atomico, which was founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, and Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams. International private banking and asset management group LGT and Freigeist (formerly called e42) are also investors.

TechCrunch is still hunting down details about who might be investing, as well as Lilium’s valuation. (You can always reach out with a tip.)

Lunden was able to ferret out a few important nuggets from sources, including that Tencent is apparently in this latest round and the startup has been pitching new investors since at least this spring. The round has yet to close. Lilium isn’t the only urban air mobility — aka flying cars — startup that been shaking the investor trees for money the past six months. Lilium’s challenge is attempting to raise a bigger round than others in an unproven market.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. For the unfamiliar, a little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip. Sometimes, like this week, we’re just helping to connect the dots to determine where a company is headed.

Aurora, an autonomous vehicle startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, published a blog post that lay outs its plans to integrate its self-driving stack into multiple vehicle platforms. Those plans now include long-haul trucks.

Self-driving trucks are so very hot right now. Aurora is banking on its recent acquisition of lidar company Blackmore to give it an edge. Aurora has integrated into a Class 8 truck its self-driving stack known as “Aurora Driver.” We hear that Aurora isn’t announcing any partnerships — at least not now — but it’s signaling a plan to push into this market.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Keep (self) truckin’

the station semi truck

Ike, the autonomous trucking startup founded by veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving truck program, has always cast itself as the cautious-we’ve-been-around-the-block-already company.

That hasn’t changed. Last week, Ike released a lengthy safety report and accompanying blog post. It’s beefy. But here are a few of the important takeaways. Ike is choosing not to test on public roads after a year of development, unlike most others in the space. Ike has a fleet of four Class 8 trucks outfitted with its self-driving stack as well as a Toyota Prius used for mapping and data collection. The trucks are driven manually, (a second engineer always in the passenger seat) on public roads. The automation system is then tested on a track.

There are strong incentives to demonstrate rapid progress with autonomous vehicle technology, and testing on public roads has been part of that playbook. And Ike’s founders are taking a different path; and we hear that the approach was embraced, not rejected, by investors. 

Screen Shot 2019 10 12 at 7.56.36 AM

In the next issue of the newsletter, check out snippets from an interview with Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at Ike. We dig into the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis (STPA) as the foundation for Ike’s product development.

In other AV truck-related news, Kodiak Robotics just hired Jamie Hoffacker as its head of hardware. Hoffacker came from Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving vehicle initiative and also worked on Google’s Street View vehicles. The company tells me that Hoffacker is key to its aim of building a product that can be manufactured, not just a prototype. Check out Hoffacker’s blog post to get his perspective.

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

Why venture capital firms need culture experts

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon might reveal fitness-tracking Alexa wireless earbuds, Echo with better sound this week

Amazon is building wireless earbuds that offer Alexa voice assistant access, and fitness tracking for use during activities, according to a new report from CNBC. These earbuds, combined with a new, larger Echo designed to provide more premium sound, could feature into Amazon’s hardware event taking place this Wednesday in Seattle, though the outlet is unclear on the release timeline for this gear based on its source.

These earbuds would be a major new product for Amazon, and would be the company’s first foray into personal health and fitness devices. While Amazon has either built or bought products in a wide range of connected gadget categories, including smart home and smart speakers in particular, so far it hasn’t seemed all that aggressive in personal health, even as Apple, Samsung and others have invested heavily in these areas.

CNBC’s report says that these new Alexa buds will have an accelerometer on board for measuring motion, and will be able to also provide distance tracking, calories burned and pace – in other words, all the things that you’d expect to track with a fitness wearable like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit.

Leaving aside their fitness features, earbuds would provide Amazon a way to deliver a more portable Alexa for people to take with them outside of the house. The company has partnered with other headphone makers on similar third-party Alexa integrations, and they’ve also experimented with bringing Alexa to the car, for instance, but it’s largely still a home-based assistant, successful as its been.

Helping the appeal of these reported new products, the buds are said to be retailing for under $100, which will put them at a big price advantage when compared to similar offerings from either dedicated audio companies and headphone makes, and to potential rivals like Apple’s AirPods. Though the report indicates that they’ll still rely on being connected to an iPhone or Android device for connectivity, as they won’t have their own data connection.

Amazon is also readying a bigger echo that has a built-in woofer and overall better sound than its existing lineup, according to CNBC . That mirrors a report from July from Bloomberg that also said Amazon was readying a high-end echo, with a planned launch for next year.

Some or all of these new hardware devices could make their debut at Wednesday’s event, but it seems likely a lot of what we’ll see will be a surprise.

Fitbit Versa 2 review

The Versa didn’t single-handedly save Fitbit, but it gave the struggling wearable company a way forward. The smartwatch demonstrated the potential for life beyond the fitness tracker. It also proved that Fitbit was finally ready to offer a product that could compete with the utterly dominant Apple Watch.

Last year’s Versa Lite was, by all accounts, a misstep. The device was an attempt to capitalize on one of the Versa’s strongest selling points: price. It was a miscalculation, however. The discount wasn’t enough to justify the missing features, and Fitbit’s financials took a hit as things finally appeared to be heading in the right direction.

By that account, the Versa 2 arrives just in time to help offset soft smartwatch sales numbers, a year and a half after the first device arrived. The new device doesn’t represent a radical departure from the first version. Nor should it. After the disappointing Ionic, Fitbit got things pretty right with the original Versa.

The smartwatch offered a solid, fitness-focused alternative to the Apple Watch for Android users and those looking for something cheaper than that $400 wearable. At $200, it’s priced the same as its predecessor. And that feels just about right, given the design and feature set.

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Honestly, you can’t mention the design without invoking the Apple Watch. I’m sure Fitbit would rather have a conversation about the device that isn’t utterly dominated by Apple, but, well, the evolution of the Versa’s design is asking for it. Here’s what CEO James Park told me when the product launched:

“With phones, it’s like every phone starts to look the same. But for us, we try to blend a round design and the square design into what we call the squircle design that tries to capture both one that looks more like a traditional watch piece but still has a squareish form factor to display information. So we think we’ve struck the right balance. And I think whether it looks like an Apple Watch or not is kind of irrelevant. We’re trying to look at the customer experience and try to see what’s best for the user.”

There’s probably something to that, though to be fair, the default watch design is round, not square, and most non-Apple products have gone that route. That said, Fitbit did acquire the Pebble design team, and the argument can certainly be made that the new device shares some clear characteristics with the pioneering startup’s products.

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Moving beyond those superficial interests, the hardware is quite nice, particularly given the $200 price point. The display has been upgraded from LCD to AMOLED, though it’s still surrounded by a pretty massive black bezel on all sides. The casing is a nice brushed metal — a dark gray in the case of the one I chose. I also opted for the 44mm version. It’s the larger of the two models, but it fits great — it was even reasonably comfortable to sleep in, which can’t be said for most smartwatches.

Good on Fitbit for making a 40mm version available, as well. This was a major oversight on past devices from a company with such a larger female user base.

There’s a single button on the device, which doubles as power and an Alexa trigger. That’s one of the bigger additions here. After spending millions on acquisitions to build its own OS and ecosystem, a smart assistant is probably a bridge too far at this point. A deal with Amazon, however, is mutually beneficial to both parties. Fitbit gets access to a leading smart assistant with little to no investment and Amazon gets a leg up on wearables.

Interestingly, there’s no speaker on the device. Alexa can hear you via the built-in mic, but it can’t respond accordingly. That means the answers are displayed visually instead. It’s a novel way to interact with Alexa and in most cases probably easier than holding your watch up to your ear. That said, Alexa was always irritatingly slow, first listening, then thinking, then returning the result. I’m not sure if that’s an easy software fix for Fitbit but it’s less than ideal.

The app selection has thankfully improved since last time as well. Fitbit’s still got a long ways to go to compete with Apple, but the addition of Spotify feels like a pretty big win for the company. It’s a big step up from the Deezer integration the Ionic launched with.

FitbitOS is fairly simple, but that’s fine. It works well with the small screen size. A decade of experience means Fitbit’s got a solid selection of health software features. It will be interesting to see what the company adds to the device with its $10 a month Fitbit Premium service. I’ve got some doubts on that one, but I’m willing to hold off judgement until I try it. Unlike Apple, Fitbit has offered sleep tracking for some time (expected to come to the Watch with tomorrow’s update). There’s a new Sleep Score feature, as well, which distills your patterns into something a bit more easily digestible.

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The battery has been improved to five days, which was about right in my testing. That’s certainly a big plus over the Apple Watch, particularly for a device that’s meant to be worn regularly to bed. Obviously that number will fluctuate quite a bit depending on usage and whether you opt for the always-on display — another nice feature.

The Versa 2 is a nice update over the original. There’s not enough here to warrant an upgrade, but it should help maintain Fitbit’s spot as one of the few viable Apple Watch competitors. And that $200 price point certainly doesn’t hurt.