Is a $600 smart oven ever worth it?

Part of closely following tech is the often mistaken belief that newer, better technologies can help right some of the wrongs older ones caused in the first place. Behold the Wii and the Fitbit — two perfect examples of technologies designed to right some of technologies’ previous wrongs.

It’s tricky because, in some cases, these things do work. We’ve all read the success stories, and for many of us, that’s enough to keep us trying out new things. Some much ultimately relies on our own individual hang ups. If we’re lucky, the right piece of technology at the right time can be legitimately transformative of those things we’d like to change about ourselves.

With something like the June, the hope is two-fold. There’s all of the built-in features and the promise of better baking, coupled with the simple motivating factor of spending $599 on a glorified toaster oven. I’ll admit that test driving it only addresses only the first of those two key things, but my hopes were still pretty high that it could help wean me off of my takeout food dependency.

Thing is, I travel a lot for work. Couple that with a long time living in one of the world’s best and most diverse food cities, and that’s a recipe for picking up food nearly every night. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what that means for my wallet and waste line, not to mention the packing waste that tends to generate. Bad news all the way around.

Often life gets in the way, as it has with my own testing. This one’s been a little cursed. After a prolonged delay on review units (the second gen oven was announced 10 months ago), I was finally able to get started late last month. Well, after the company sent me a second unit when I discovered the hard way that the first had been damaged in shipping, sending up sparks during my first attempt to cook. I mention that only to say double-check the filaments when you take it out of the box. Perhaps some kind of automotive-like oven health check is in the cards for some future update.

One other thing worth mentioning here, at the risk of offering up TMI, is the fact that I rarely left my bed the week before last, over a particularly bad bout with the stomach flu. The nausea and everything else have been bad enough to put me off of the idea of handling raw meat for the intervening week — something that could hopefully be a boon for my longtime flirtations with vegetarianism.

As someone who’s never been especially enamored with cooking, the June did help fire up those synapsis in my brain a bit. There’s something in being able to cook something decent with minimal effort, and the June does a good job on that front. Locate a recipe with only a handful of ingredients and a stated five to 10 minute prep time, and that’s a solid baby step. Of course, you can only go outside of June’s suggested recipes, but coloring inside the lines is a probably the best place for a beginner to start.

Simplicity, coupled with data collection are where the June really shines. Between the constant heat monitoring, the camera and the inclusion of a meat thermometer, the oven is pulling a lot of data to assure you get the right cook. It’s not idiot-proof (sadly for this culinary dummy), and the first time I tried (the working oven), I’d stuck the thermometer too far in, touching the bottom pan and shortening the cooking time to a too brief five minutes (down from 22).

Make this so idiots like me can use it is probably my main feedback here. Also, though I fully understand why it’s as large as it is, it was still bigger than expected. Which may not mean much to you, if you don’t grapple with the size restrictions of a New York City apartment.

Another minor thing, which probably couldn’t be avoided is that plasticky smell that happens with the first several sessions. Based on the June FAQ, I expected it to go away a lot sooner, but was assured it was just a normal part of the baking process.

For what it’s worth, the simple dishes came out well, which only means a lot if you know how terrible I am at cooking. It’s a weird mental block, I realize. And I did enjoy the process enough to begin experimenting with things outside of the parameters of the June recipes.

Smartphone notifications are a nice feature, though I’m not sure any of the smart features are “necessary” per se. Like, take this time-lapse footage of me slightly overcooking chicken breasts:

[Above: bon appétit?]

Ditto for the image recognition. It does an impressive job mostly identifying the foodstuffs on the tray, but I can’t really foresee a scenario in which you, the chef, is not aware of what you’re cooking before you hit start.

It’s a tricky line to walk. You want to add enough features to justify the purchase of a smart oven, while not loading it up with so many that the price becomes unmanageable. June’s definitely taken a step in the right direction with the second gen oven, but for a majority of users, the balance still isn’t quite there.

How the (plant-based) sausage is about to be made

It’s been a big year for Impossible . The bay area based food startup kicked the year off with a new take on its titual burger, and just last week announced the closing of a $300 million round hot on the heels of its Burger King distribution.

What comes next for the company likely won’t come as much of a shock to anyone steeped in the world of plant-based meat replacements. Engadget got a bit of behind-the-scenes time at the startup’s Redwood City location, discovering that sausage is next up on the Impossible menu.

From the sound of things, the breakfast food will mostly be made up of the same stuff as the company’s burger patties, right down to the imitation blood. Instead, the amounts of the ingredients will be mixed up in different proportions, with potato protein removed completely. In fact, the company’s got a lot of different recipes in the work that are largely reconfigurations of its “platform” product. Imagine it as a modular menu, if you will. Heck, rotating the same few core ingredients has worked pretty well for chains like Taco Bell over the years, so why not health foodstuffs?

Timing and all that other good stuff is still TBD.

MP Tom Watson wants UK competition authority to investigate Amazon’s Deliveroo stake

European restaurant delivery giant Deliveroo this morning announced that Amazon would be gobbling up a share in the company, by leading a new $575 million round of funding in it. But it looks like the e-commerce giant may be facing a little indigestion ahead.

Tom Watson, MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party, today announced that he will be asking the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate the investment, opening the door to either imposing stronger conditions on the deal, or blocking it outright.

“It’s called surveillance capitalism,” he said today of Amazon’s approach to how it uses data from customers to build and sell products. “It’s a digital dystopia, and I shall be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority demanding they launch an investigation into this ‘investment.'”

We have contacted Watson directly to elaborate on which violation(s) he would cite in the referral and we will update as and when we hear back. Areas that the CMA might investigate could involve whether the deal would result in unfair competition, or a misuse of data.

Watson’s announcement came via a series of tweets on Twitter, in which he laid out his concerns in more detail. His words are a concise take on the key to Amazon’s business model: its focus on Deliveroo is not just to invest in new services to expand its e-commerce and logistics business, but to leverage the data generated in one operation to grow other parts of its business, too.

“Deliveroo’s CEO Will Shu welcomes a land grab by Amazon because ‘it is such a customer-obsessed organisation,'” he said, citing an interview Shu gave to the BBC about the investment. “He’s right, Amazon is obsessed. Obsessed with tracking tools, micro-targeted ads, extracting billions through monetising our personal data.

“They don’t want to get their mighty claws on a food delivery system. They want Deliveroo’s tech and data. They don’t just want to know how you eat, what you eat, when you eat. They want to know how best to extract your cash throughout your waking and sleeping hours.”

The CMA — and regulators in general — have had a mixed record when it comes to putting the foot down on large deals. On one hand, in the past European reguators approved major takeovers by Facebook of Instagram and Whatsapp — takeovers that now many are now questioning. On the other, it recently moved to block a $10 billion acquisition of Walmart’s ASDA by Sainsbury’s — effectively kicking the deal into touch.

The difference between these past cases and Amazon/Deliveroo is that the latter is an investment rather than an outright acquisition. However, there is an argument to be made that one can lead to the other, specifically in this case.

In September 2018, it was reported that Amazon had made at least two attempts to acquire Deliveroo, around the same time that Uber was also considering a bid for the company to bolster its Uber Eats business. (Deliveroo and Uber Eats have been in protracted competition to dominate higher-end, app-based food delivery services in key cities like London.)

At the time, Deliveroo was valued at around $2 billion; its valuation now is likely to be closer to $3 billion.

It’s worth pointing out too that another major acquisition that Amazon has made in Europe, of LoveFilm (to build eventually its Netflix competitor Amazon Prime Video), also started with an investment.

Amazon has had mixed success so far when it comes to food in London: it launched Amazon Restaurants in 2016 as one of the first markets for its move into food delivery, but closed it in 2018 (this is reportedly around the time that it first started to take an interest in Deliveroo).

Amazon has meanwhile been gradually expanding Amazon Fresh, Amazon Pantry and other grocery delivery in the UK, but has yet to really utilise its relatively recent ownership of Whole Foods to expand that business beyond a few retail locations in London.

In the UK, there have also been rumors that Amazon has considered snapping up real estate from failing brick-and-mortar superstores, although so far nothing has materialised.

In that context, a stake in Deliveroo could well be one development in what is a very long-term play for Amazon, a company known for pulling off tenacious, long-term plays. Whether the CMA chooses to investigate both the deal as well as that wider context will be an interesting one to chew on.

Online grocery startup Grofers lands $200M led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Hot on the heels of Indian delivery startup BigBasket raising $150 million — at a unicorn valuation, no less — so its close rival Grofers has also pulled in capital after it announced a $200 million raise to battle its local competition and international giants Amazon and Walmart.

The round is the largest in India’s online grocery sector to date, and it was led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which continues to make major bets on the nation’s growing internet economy. KTB, and existing investors Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital also took part.

Five-year-old Grofers works with more than 5,000 stores in 13 cities in India. In an interview with TechCrunch, Albinder Dhindsa, cofounder and CEO of Grofers, said the startup will use the fresh capital to expand to new markets and bring its service to “hundreds of millions of Indian consumers,” although he didn’t specify exact launch cities.

Dhindsa said that Grofers does not want to expand to new cities for the heck of it. Instead the startup focused on entering a city and growing its business profitable there. Grofers is already profitable in Delhi and will soon be profitable in Kolkata, he said. In Southern Indian markets such as Bengaluru, the startup is working to gain foothold.

The startup is rivaled by a number of players, including BigBasket, which raised its round earlier this month from Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund, the U.K.’s CDC Group and Alibaba. The duo also faces competition from hyperlocal player Dunzo, and delivery startup Swiggy, which recently entered this grocery delivery space.

However, more concerning for them is the growing ambitions of Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart, both of which are quickly expanding their businesses in India. Amazon’s Pantry and Prime Now services jointly have a presence in more than 100 cities, while Flipkart Group CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy has publicly expressed an intention to pilot a fresh foods business in the nation. Dhindsa argued that these players are not really a significant competitor to Grofers yet.

The foods and grocery market is growing in India. According to some estimates, it will reach $869 billion in sales in 2023 with digital-based services seen as an important vector for growth. This is likely only the start now that SoftBank’s Vision Fund has entered the space through this deal with Grofers.

Other investments in India from the near-$100 billion fund include budget hotel startup OYO, which has now ventured into Europe, Flipkart — although the fund exited after the Walmart sale — Paytm, and PolicyBazaar. With reports suggesting the fund will open a dedicated office in India, you can bet that there’s a lot more to come.

India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars in the nation.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own app store that hosts mini apps and lets users tip authors. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the mote. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

And Reliance Jio, of course

For the rest, the race is still on, but there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

Singapore’s Grain, a profitable food delivery startup, pulls in $10M for expansion

Cloud kitchens are the big thing in food delivery, with ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s new business one contender in that space, with Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, a major focus. Despite the newcomers, a more established startup from Singapore has raised a large bowl of cash to go after regional expansion.

Founded in 2014, Grain specializes in clean food while it takes a different approach to Kalanick’s CloudKitchens or food delivery services like Deliveroo, FoodPanda or GrabFood.

It adopted a cloud kitchen model — utilizing unwanted real estate as kitchens, with delivery services for output — but used it for its own operations. So while CloudKitchens and others rent their space to F&B companies as a cheaper way to make food for their on-demand delivery customers, Grain works with its own chefs, menu and delivery team. A so-called ‘full stack’ model if you can stand the cliched tech phrase.

Finally, Grain is also profitable. The new round has it shooting for growth — more on that below — but the startup was profitable last year, CEO and co-founder Yi Sung Yong told TechCrunch.

Now it is reaping the rewards of a model that keeps it in control of its product, unlike others that are complicated by a chain that includes the restaurant and a delivery person.

We previously wrote about Grain when it raised a $1.7 million Series A back in 2016 and today it announced a $10 million Series B which is led by Thailand’s Singha Ventures, the VC arm of the beer brand. A bevy of other investors took part, including Genesis Alternative Ventures, Sass Corp, K2 Global — run by serial investor Ozi Amanat who has backed Impossible Foods, Spotify and Uber among others — FoodXervices and Majuven. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, Raging Bull — from Thai Express founder Ivan Lee — and Cento Ventures participated.

The round includes venture debt, as well as equity, and it is worth noting that the family office of the owners of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — Sassoon Investment Corporation — was involved.

Grain covers individual food as well as buffets in Singapore

Three years is a long gap between the two deals — Openspace and Cento have even rebranded during the intervening period — and the ride has been an eventful one. During those years, Sung said the business had come close to running out of capital before it doubled down on the fundamentals before the precarious runway capital ran out.

In fact, he said, the company — which now has over 100 staff — was fully prepared to self-sustain.

“We didn’t think of raising a Series B,” he explained in an interview. “Instead, we focused on the business and getting profitable… we thought that we can’t depend entirely on investors.”

And, ladies and gentleman, the irony of that is that VCs very much like a business that can self-sustain — it shows a model is proven — and investing in a startup that doesn’t need capital can be attractive.

Ultimately, though, profitability is seen as sexy today — particularly in the meal space where countless U.S. startups has shuttered including Munchery and Sprig — but the focus meant that Grain had to shelve its expansion plans. It then went through soul-searching times in 2017 when a spoilt curry saw 20 customers get food poisoning.

Sung declined to comment directly on that incident, but he said that company today has developed the “infrastructure” to scale its business across the board, and that very much includes quality control.

Grain co-founder and CEO Yi Sung Yong [Image via LinkedIn]

Grain currently delivers “thousands” of meals per day in Singapore, its sole market, with eight-figures in sales per year, he said. Last year, growth was 200 percent, Sung continued, and now is the time to look overseas. With Singha, the Grain CEO said the company has “everything we need to launch in Bangkok.”

Thailand — which Malaysia-based rival Dahamakan picked for its first expansion — is the only new launch on the table, but Sung said that could change.

“If things move faster, we’ll expand to more cities, maybe one per year,” he said. “But we need to get our brand, our food and our service right first.”

One part of that may be securing better deals for raw ingredients and food from suppliers. Grain is expanding its ‘hub’ kitchens — outposts placed strategically around town to serve customers faster — and growing its fleet of trucks, which are retrofitted with warmers and chillers for deliveries to customers.

Grain’s journey is proof that startups in the region will go through trials and tribulations, but being able to bolt down the fundamentals and reduce burn rate is crucial in the event that things go awry. Just look to grocery startup Honestbee, also based in Singapore, for evidence of what happens when costs are allowed to pile up.

Meet ‘The Prepared,’ the media company pitching disaster preparedness for everyone

A little over two years ago, The New Yorker ran a story about the survivalism craze sweeping Silicon Valley. The moneyed elite behind the tools of convenience that make modern life were, it turned out, making detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the civilization they’d help architect.

Now, there’s a media company for that.

The Prepared, a new site launched a little over a year ago by three men — two who have their own ties to the tech world — is aiming to make the world of survivalism more approachable to a wide audience.

Taking away the stigma or stereotype of lone wolves hoarding caches of weapons and food and waiting for the zombie apocalypse, The Prepared bills itself as a sort of scouting class for adults — if the Scouts BSA and Girl Scouts posed the question, “Should You Worry About EMPs?

As John Ramey, The Prepared founder and a serial entrepreneur, puts it, “I’ve been a prepper my whole adult life.”

The company operates a web site offering columns and “how to” videos; it has a YouTube channel and also runs disaster preparedness-focused events.

Ramey thinks he was one of the first “outed preppers” in Silicon Valley. It all started with a coffee meeting between Ramey and a prominent investor at a venture capital fund around 2010. The investor saw Ramey’s “get-home” bag in his car and began asking questions.

The questions didn’t stop. “A bunch of people started reaching out to me,” Ramey said.

Survivalism in left and right

For John Stokes, who co-founded Ars Technica and is the deputy editor of The Prepared, it was the financial crisis of 2008 that prompted his interest in disaster preparedness:

“I got hit up by private wealth managers after they read about the sale [of Ars] on TechCrunch. In May of 2008 some guys from Lehman came to the house when I was in Chicago. I still hadn’t signed on with any private bankers and then the week before TARP passed I met with a private wealth manager at Credit Suisse and he said if it doesn’t pass everything stops,” Stokes recalled. “It was this ‘shit-hits-the-fan’ scenario, where there’s no money in ATMs and people don’t go to work and there’re rats in the streets… This guy is telling me the world is going to end next week… and that’s when I got serious about this preparedness stuff.”

He wasn’t alone. The 2008 financial crisis, its political aftermath, and the ensuing eight years of the Obama administration gave birth to an image of a certain kind of survivalist. It’s one that Stokes and Ramey actually think marginalized what would be a mainstream movement if not for its early associations with a radical fringe.

“As a rational person I was frustrated by the way the prepping business market worked,” says Ramey. “In the 2008 to 2016 time period was when the stereotype of preppers was developed. It went down the wrong path and a very vocal minority took over that industry… The vast majority was amateur, cuckoo, fringe-type stuff.”

John Ramey, former Innovation Advisor to the Obama White House and founder of The Prepared

In some ways, Steve Huffman, the Reddit chief executive and co-founder interviewed by The New Yorker, embodies the particularly Silicon Valley-style of survivalist that Ramey and Stokes think is more representative of a broad swathe of American thinking.

“I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work,” Huffman (echoing Stokes) told The New Yorker. “While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.”

Huffman was one of a number of Valley voices to share their concerns about the fragility of modern American political society — while also being concerned about the possibility of some sort of environmental catastrophe.

It’s possible — likely even — that this embrace of survivalism by certain corners of Silicon Valley is an equal and opposite reaction to the political climate that saw more politically conservative Americans reach for their revolvers under the Obama administration. (It’s well-documented that gun sales go up under Democratic administrations when gun owners perceive that there’s a greater threat to their Second Amendment right to bear arms.)

John Stokes, co-founder of “Ars Technica” deputy editor of “The Prepared”

“I’ve seen this decline in this space,” says Stokes. “A part of the opportunity and the story of the opportunity of this website is that the first zombie wave and the Alex Jones kind of stuff… is dead… What’s left is the more traditional emergency defense stuff… and a new group of people worried about climate change and political instability.”

Indeed, the advent of the Trump administration caused the collapse of media properties and entities that had thrived during the Obama years — a (maybe not-so-curious) consequence of shifting politics and a greater sense of security among Americans who feared greater government intervention into their lives.

“There were 1 million of those people — and that market had basically collapsed,” says Ramey. “Those million people are, by and large, gone. But there are millions more people who ask, ‘What are reasonable steps to protect my home?’ ”

Guns, germs and steel

HOUSTON, TX – AUGUST 28: People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If there’s a through-line that connects Ramey and Stokes and their other collaborator, Tom Rader, a Navy corpsman who previously worked as the editor-in-chief of “The Firearm Blog,” it’s guns. 

All three are longtime gun owners, and Stokes has written about guns for this site, and several others, with a focus on hunting, the outdoors and smart guns.

“[Rader] came at it from the firearm side. Stokes came at it from the outdoors side,” says Ramey. “All of us saw the core point that the audience [for survivalism] was changing. This fat middle was growing and they were closeted and underserved.”

Tom Rader, managing editor at The Prepared and editor-in-chief of The Firearm Blog

So the material on The Prepared runs more in the scouting-for-adults vein rather than toward stockpiling for the zombie apocalypse

“So much of prepping is about more of the ‘Eagle Scout’ stuff,” says Ramey. “Not the, ‘I’m going to have four machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammo.’ I would say half of our audience doesn’t have a gun.”

Besides, the audience for doomsday preppers is already well served by, well, “Doomsday Preppers.”

Even the kind of stories that Stokes, Ramey and Rader are pushing out has antecedents in television programs like “Man vs. Wild” or “Naked and Afraid.”

The litany of threats that could cause civilizational collapse has not necessarily changed, but the nature of the current administration and its ability to respond effectively to climate-related natural disasters, civil disobedience and revolution, disease outbreaks, nuclear strikes or any other of the potential calamities that could ring the death knell of society as we know it has unified Americans in a belief in the overall incompetence of government to achieve anything.

In the 2016 election there was this pendulum swung in the opposite direction,” says Ramey. “Tens of millions of Americans are into this… they had to be closeted for a while.”

Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Prepping for the “woke” survivalist

What The Prepared gives these folks is a modern-looking website that doesn’t traffic in terror or predictions of the apocalypse in a sensational way. The concerns, as presented, are more matter of fact, with tutorials on how to prepare a “bug out bag” or a “get home” bag (the essential supplies for 72 hours of survival in the event of a catastrophe), or tie a tourniquet.

“To be a prepper means to think about those things and to be a more responsible adult,” says Stokes. 

For the first months of its existence, the site was self-funded, but as it has grown, The Prepared has managed to attract some backers in the beginning of the year.

The financing path that Ramey, a former innovation advisor to the Obama administration, decided to pursue was novel. The company did a priced round (Ramey would not disclose the size) with a small group of angel investors. Uniquely, the co-founders built the structure of the round around cash-flow and has committed to regular distributions to investors whenever the company makes a profit.

“Any year we have a profit we distribute 35% of that profit,” says Ramey. “We do it to cover people’s tax liability and I have the discretion to either give it as dividends or keep in the business to reinvest.”

The site is running on affiliate marketing for much of its revenues, something that makes sense, given that its how-to sections would naturally include reviews of tourniquets. Other revenue could come from live events that would potentially operate like training sessions from scout camp.

In the meantime, Ramey and Stokes caution that the world is calling for greater preparedness.

“It’s extremely unlikely that we get to a Walking Dead level of collapse.. What’s more likely on the extreme end is climate collapse like forced migration, or extreme weather… You can describe that as collapse but it’s not going to be two people in a bunker,” says Ramey. “To get to that level of preparedness, homesteading is growing…. People are thinking more about tiny homes, a burner lifestyle, van life.”

Call them the “woke” end of the survivalist spectrum.

“I started with the 72 hours, and then two weeks because of the earthquake stuff, and now I’m up to four or five months for my family of five,” says Stokes of his own level of preparedness. “In Austin we just had two weeks without city water because of the flooding… I don’t prepare for a specific thing like a solar storm or nuclear war, I think of duration of time without access to basic services… how many weeks am I prepared to go if there’s no lights or no water?”

Stokes says this kind of thinking is just sensible.

“We’re all long on civilization,” says Stokes. “I am fully invested in civilization as an entrepreneur and as an owner of a stock portfolio. Almost all of my chips are on civilization, but I keep some of my chips as a hedge.”

New study shows human development is destroying the planet at an unprecedented rate

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

That’s the word from Sir Robert Watson, the chair of a massive multinational research effort to survey the impact of human development on the natural world.

In the most comprehensive effort undertaken to date, some 145 expert authors from 50 countries working with another 310 contributing authors spent the last three years compiling and assessing changes in global biodiversity over a 50-year period for a study conducted under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

They found there are now 1 million species that are threatened with extinction; that more than one-third of the world’s land surface and 75% of all freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production; that 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted globally every year; that land degradation has reduced the productivity of global land surface area by 23% and roughly $577 billion worth of crops are at risk from pollinator loss annually; and, finally, that up to 300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of the loss of coastal habitats.

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said Watson in a statement. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.”

Ultimately, Watson says that the world needs to adopt something akin to a Green New Deal to reverse course and protect the planet and its inhabitants from catastrophic destruction caused by humanity’s development.

“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” Watson said in a statement.

The report was culled from 15,000 scientific and government sources as well as indigenous and local knowledge, according to the study’s authors.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

The abundance of native species on land has fallen by 20%, with the losses coming in the last hundred years. Currently 40% of amphibians, 33% of coral and a third of all marine mammals are threatened with extinction, while 10% of insects and 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had gone extinct by 2016. Another 1,000 breeds of animals are currently threatened.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Settele, in a statement. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The main causes of these changes to plant and animal life are increased usage of land and sea for cultivation and food production; exploitation of animal life for human industry; climate change; pollution; and inter-species competition with a foreign species.

These findings on biodiversity have broad repercussions well beyond the threat of mass extinction of several species. They will also impact the ability for nations to alleviate problems of poverty, hunger, clean water access, urban development, climate change mitigation and sustainable land use, according to the report.

“To better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them,” said Prof. Brondízio. “Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability.”

Beyond Meat rockets in early trading on Nasdaq, reaching a valuation of over $3 billion

Meat alternatives are getting a big public market debut with the Beyond Meat public offering, as shares of the company rocketed above their initial list price.

The company’s shares surged up 135% in their market opener, valuing the company as high as $3.52 billion. Volatility was so high on the company’s stock that the Nasdaq had to pause trading of “BYND” shares.

The company’s first trade came in at $46 at 12:18 p.m. Eastern, according to a report in MarketWatch. That’s a whopping 76% above the initial price. Gains extended throughout the morning reaching an intraday high of $63.43 (or around 154% above its initial high) and the stock is now trading at around $55 per share.

The company priced its public offering at $25 per share last night — at the upper end of an already increased share price (likely in response to shareholder demand).

In all the company raised more than $240 million at just under a $1.5 billion valuation through the sale of at least 9.6 million shares when it priced yesterday.

Beyond Meat is a pioneer of the plant-based meat movement, and the listing is a remarkable and unprecedented move for the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the sustainable food industry research and watchdog group, the Good Food Institute. “While it’s the first company of its kind to go public, the move could pave a way forward for other plant-based meat makers who will be watching on.”

Investor appetite for the company comes despite its balance sheet problems. Beyond Meat reported a net loss of $29.9 million on $87.9 million in revenue for 2018.

What’s steeling investors’ stomachs for an investment in the company appears to be its gross margins, which came in at 25% for the first quarter and were at 20% for 2018 up from negative margins in the preceding year.

The company’s success could be a harbinger of things to come. There’s a crop of meat substitutes and alternative protein products on the market or coming to market — and they’ve met with enormous customer success.

Earlier this week, Burger King announced that it would begin a nationwide rollout of its Impossible Whopper, and companies like Memphis Meat, which develops lab-grown animal proteins, and Sustainable Bioproducts, another developer of protein replacements are waiting in the wings to bring their own products to market.

Beyond Meat’s public offering is the second-highest liquidity event for a company in the sustainable foods market. The largest was WhiteWave Foods acquisition for $12.5 billion by Danone in 2017 after a public listing five years earlier.

“Securing funds like this is a big deal for Beyond Meat and will allow it to ramp up its supply chain capabilities and make delicious plant-based meat accessible to all,” said Friedrich in a statement. “Investors recognize that this is not a niche but a mainstream movement and a huge business opportunity… Beyond Meat is on the frontier of food system transformation. Their success and the successes of other plant-based meat makers could help repair our food system and mitigate the many harms caused by conventional meat production.”

Inspection robots are climbing the walls to monitor safety conditions in hazardous locations

Down in Christchurch, New Zealand a team of roboticists at Invert Robotics has commercialized an inspection robot that uses tiny suction cups on a series of treads and a specialty chemical to create a technology that has robots literally climbing the walls.

Meanwhile, a world away in Pittsburgh, Gecko Robotics is tackling much the same problem with high-powered magnets and an inspection robot of its own.

Both companies have recently closed on new financing, with Invert raising $8.8 million from investors including Finistere Ventures and Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, and Gecko Robotics wrapping up a $9 million round, which began fundraising last June, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

For the food-focused investment fund, Finistere Ventures, the benefit of a wall-climbing robot is apparent in looking at supply chain issues, according to co-founder and partner Arama Kukutai .

“The immediate value of Invert Robotics across the global food supply chain – from ensuring food and beverages are stored and transported in safe, pathogen-free environments, to avoiding catastrophic failures in agrichemical-industry containers and plants – is undeniably impressive,” Kukutai said in a statement. “However, we see the potential applications as almost limitless.”

Plant inspections in the food, chemicals and aviation industry are dangerous endeavors, and automation can make a significant improvement in how companies address the critical function of quality assurance, according to investors and entrepreneurs.

“There has been virtually no innovation in industrial services technology for decades,” Founders Fund  partner Trae Stephens told TechCrunch in a statement. “Gecko’s robots massively reduce facility shutdown time while gathering critical performance data and preventing potentially fatal accidents. The demand for what they are building is huge.”

While Gecko uses powerful magnets to secure its robots to surfaces, Invert Robotics uses powerful suction to enable its robots to climb the walls.

“If you think of a plunger and how a plunger adheres to a surface… it creates a perfect seal with the surface, you find it very hard to lift the plunger off the surface,” said managing director, Neil Fletcher. “We’ve taken that concept and we’ve made it able to slide along the surface without losing the vacuum. It’s a fine balance between maintaining the vacuum that we’ve created and leaking enough air into the vacuum to allow the unit to slide along and we coat the suction cups with a special chemical that reduces the friction.”

Both agriculture and chemicals represent billion-dollar markets for non-destructive testing, Fletcher said, and the company is already working with companies like Dow Chemical and BASF to assess their processing assets and ensure that they’re fit for use.

Yamaha has a strategic interest in developing these types of robotics systems, which prompted the investment from the firm’s skunkworks and investment shop out of Silicon Valley.

“As part of Yamaha’s long-term vision supporting the development of advanced robots to improve workplace efficiency and safety, Invert Robotics’ technology and its value proposition made a positive impression on our investment committee,” added Craig Boshier, partner and general manager for Yamaha Motor Ventures in Australia and New Zealand. “Importantly, the robotic technology’s adaptability to different environments and industries is well supported by an engaged team. That combination, with proper capitalization, positions Invert Robotics for success in its global market expansion.”

Pittsburgh’s own Gecko Robotics has similar aspirations, and an investor base including Mark Cuban, Founders Fund, The Westly Group, Justin Kan and Y Combinator.

Since 2012, the company has been working on its technology using ultrasound transducers and a high-def camera to scan boiler walls as the company’s robot would scale them.

Given the billions of dollars in demand, and the potential life-saving applications, it’s no wonder investors are clambering to get a piece of the market.