FedEx robot sent packing by NYC

FedEx’s autonomous delivery bot got a cold reception from New York City officials.

After the company’s SameDay Bots — named Roxo — popped up on New York City streets last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio and transportation officials delivered a sharp response: Get out.

FedEx told TechCrunch that the bots were there for a preview party for its Small Business Saturday event and are not testing in New York. Even this promotional event was too much for city officials concerned with congestion and bots taking jobs from humans.

After reports of the bot sightings, the mayor tweeted that FedEx didn’t receive permission to deploy the robots; he also criticized the company for using a bot to perform a task that a New Yorker could do. The New York Department of Transportation has sent FedEx a cease-and-desist order to stop operations the bots,  which TechCrunch has viewed.

The letter informs FedEx that its bots violate several vehicle and traffic laws, including that motor vehicles are prohibited on sidewalks. Vehicles that receive approval to operate on sidewalks must receive a special exemption and be registered. 

FedEx has been experimenting with autonomous delivery bots. Postmates and Amazon also have been testing autonomous delivery robots.

FedEx first unveiled its SameDay Bot in February 2019. The company said at the time it planned to work with AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut,  Target, Walgreens and Walmart to figure out how autonomous robots might fit into its delivery business. The idea was for FedEx to provide a way for retailers to accept orders from nearby customers and deliver them by bot directly to customers’ homes or businesses the same day.

FedEx said its initials test would involve deliveries between selected FedEx Office locations. Ultimately, the FedEx bot will complement the FedEx SameDay City service, which operates in 32 markets and 1,900 cities.

The company has tested the bots in Memphis, Tennessee as well as Plano and Frisco, Texas and Manchester, New Hampshire, according to a spokesperson.

The underlying roots of the SameDay Bot is the iBot. The FedEx bot was developed in collaboration with DEKA Development & Research Corp. and its founder Dean Kamen who invented the Segway  and iBot wheelchair.

DEKA built upon the power base of the iBot, an FDA-approved mobility device for the disabled population, to develop FedEx’s product.

The FedEx bot is equipped with sensing technology such as LiDAR and multiple cameras, which when combined with machine learning algorithms should allow the device to detect and avoid obstacles and plot a safe path, all while following the rules of the road (or sidewalk).

Plant-based dairy replacements are coming to ice cream pints in San Francisco and New York

Plant-based replacements are so hot right now, they’re even hitting the coolest thing in food — ice cream.

The new plant-based dairy replacement maker, Eclipse Foods, has just signed a deal with hipster ice cream brands Humphry Slocombe and Oddfellows to put its dairy replacements into their mixes.

Unlike other plant-based products which provide an alternative to dairy without mimicking its texture and taste, the folks at Eclipse Foods say their product is indistinguishable from milk from animals — and made using allergen-free ingredients.

Starting on Saturday, store shelves in New York and San Francisco will be stocked with the OddFellows and Humphry Slocombe artisanal ice cream brands made from plants.

The company has raised $3.5 million from investors including Alexis Ohanian and his Initialized Capital investment firm, Gmail creator Paul Buchheit and the former chairman of Daiya Foods, Eric Patel.

“I’m excited to be investing in more plant-based foods,” said Ohanian, in a statement. “Aylon and Thomas were immediately impressive as accomplished experts in food science and the quality of the ice cream is already near indistinguishable from its dairy counterpart and it’s only going to get better. This is filling a need in the surging plant-based food space that is competitively priced, sustainably produced, and — most importantly –delicious.”

Compared to some of its competitors, the Eclipse Foods path to market is relatively straightforward — since it’s not using any genetically modified ingredients to make its dairy replacements. It’s more like the Beyond Meat than the Impossible Foods of the dairy industry.

“We’re not using any expensive biotech to get to where we’re going,” says Aylon Steinhart, the company’s chief executive. “We take plants and we use our world class expertise in functional plant proteins and how they work to blend plants together in a quite simple way.”

Founded by Steinhart a former expert at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit focused on plant-based food innovation, and Thomas Bowman, the former director of product development at JUST, Eclipse Foods launched from Y Combinator’s famed accelerator in March of this year.

The low-cost inputs that the company says it uses, including corn and cassava, means that it won’t require as much capital to scale up, says Steinhart.

For now, the company is pursuing the roadmap laid out by Pat Brown’s Impossible Foods and replicated by dozens of other startups going after plant-based or lab-grown replacements to traditional proteins. That means partnering with famous chefs and artisanal brands whose products sell at a higher price point than your McDonalds or Burger King soft serve ice cream cones (or Wendys ultra-delicious Frosty).

Instead of plain vanilla, Eclipse Foods plant-based liquid ice cream base will be showing up in flavors like OddFellows‘ Miso Cherry and Olive Oil Plum ice creams or Humphry Slocombe‘s spiced Mexican Hot Chocolate.

Ultimately, the company has plans to go down market and sell into the same kinds of stores that are offering Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers and patties.

If every Burger King has an Impossible Whopper and every Carls Jr. has a Beyond Famous Star, then every restaurant should have a dairy-free ice cream offering,” says Bowman. “It’s got no allergens. No GMOs … no gums no gels and no stabilizers.”

Startups Weekly: Understanding Uber’s latest fintech play

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about how SoftBank is screwing up. Before that, I noted All Raise’s expansion, Uber the TV show and the unicorn from down under.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.


Uber Head of Payments Peter Hazlehurst addresses the audience during an Uber products launch event in San Francisco, California, on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP PACHECO/AFP/Getty Images)

The sheer number of startup players moving into banking services is staggering,” writes my Crunchbase News friends in a piece titled “Why Is Every Startup A Bank These Days.”

I’ve been asking myself the same question this year, as financial services business like Brex, Chime, Robinhood, Wealthfront, Betterment and more raise big rounds to build upstart digital banks. North of $13 billion venture capital dollars have been invested in U.S. fintech companies so far in 2019, up from $12 billion invested in 2018.

This week, one of the largest companies to ever emerge from the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, Uber, introduced its team focused on developing new financial products and technologies. In a vacuum, a multibillion-dollar public company with more than 22,000 employees launching one new team is not big news. Considering investment and innovation in fintech this year, Uber’s now well-documented struggles to reach profitability and the company’s hiring efforts in New York, a hotbed for financial aficionados, the “Uber Money” team could indicate much larger fintech ambitions for the ride-hailing giant.

As it stands, the Uber Money team will be focused on developing real-time earnings for drivers accessed through the Uber debit account and debit card, which will itself see new features, like 3% or more cash back on gas. Uber Wallet, a digital wallet where drivers can more easily track their earnings, will launch in the coming weeks too, writes Peter Hazlehurst, the head of Uber Money.

This is hardly Uber’s first major foray into financial services. The company’s greatest feature has always been its frictionless payments capabilities that encourage riders and eaters to make purchases without thinking. Uber’s even launched its own consumer credit card to get riders cash back on rides. It’s no secret the company has larger goals in the fintech sphere, and with 100 million “monthly active platform consumers” via Uber, Uber Eats and more, a dedicated path toward new and better financial products may not only lead to happier, more loyal drivers but a company that’s actually, one day, able to post a profit.


VC deals


Meet me in Berlin

The TechCrunch team is heading to Berlin again this year for our annual event, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe. We announced the agenda this week, with leading founders including Away’s Jen Rubio and UiPath’s Daniel Dines. Take a look at the full agenda.

I will be there to interview a bunch of venture capitalists, who will give tips on how to raise your first euros. Buy tickets to the event here.


Listen to Equity

This week on Equity, I was in studio while Alex was remote. We talked about a number of companies and deals, including a new startup taking on Slack, Wag’s woes and a small upstart disrupting the $8 billion nail services industry. Listen to the episode here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast and all the casts.

Hyundai is launching Botride, a robotaxi service in California with Pony.ai and Via

A fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers — equipped with a self-driving system from Chinese autonomous startup Pony .ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform, will start shuttling customers on public roads next week.

The robotaxi service called BotRide will operate on public roads in Irvine, California, beginning November 4. This isn’t a driverless service; there will be a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. But it is one of the few ride-hailing pilots on California roads. Only four companies, AutoX, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox have permission to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles in the state of the California.

Customers will be able to order rides through a smartphone app, which will direct passengers to nearby stops for pick up and drop off. Via’s expertise is on shared rides, and this platform aims for the same multiple rider goal. Via’s platform handles the on-demand ride-hailing features such as booking, passenger and vehicle assignment and vehicle identification (QR code). Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. It also partners with cities and transportation authorities — and now automakers launching robotaxi services — giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles.

Hyundai said BotRide is “validating its user experience in preparation for a fully driverless future.” Hyundai didn’t explain when this driverless future might arrive. Whatever this driverless future ends up looking like, Hyundai sees this pilot as a critical marker along the way.

Coverage area of Hyundai robotaxi pilot

Hyundai said it is using BotRide to study consumer behavior in an autonomous ride-sharing environment, according to Christopher Chang, head of business development, strategy and technology division, Hyundai Motor Company .

“The BotRide pilot represents an important step in the deployment and eventual commercialization of a growing new mobility business,” said Daniel Han, manager, Advanced Product Strategy, Hyundai Motor America.

Hyundai might be the household name behind BotRide, but Pony.ai and Via are doing much of the heavy lifting. Pony.ai is a relative newcomer to the AV world, but it has already raised $300 million on a $1.7 billion valuation and locked in partnerships with Toyota and Hyundai.

The company, which has operations in China and California and about 500 employees globally, was founded in late 2016 with backing from Sequoia Capital China, IDG Capital and Legend Capital.

It’s also one of the few autonomous vehicle companies to have both a permit with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test AVs on public roads and permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to use these vehicles in a ride-hailing service. Under rules established by the CPUC, Pony.ai cannot charge for rides.

HuffPost is reportedly on the auction block

Late last night the Financial Times reported that HuffPost, arguably one of the crown jewels of Verizon Media Group’s remaining network of media properties (which includes TechCrunch), is up for sale.

Verizon has been shedding media properties in a retreat from the strategy that it had begun to execute with the acquisition of AOL for $4.4 billion back in 2015. Through the AOL deal, then-chief executive Tim Armstrong became the architect of the telecommunications company’s media and advertising strategy.

Armstrong’s vision was to roll up as much online real estate as he could while creating a high technology advertising architecture on the back-end that could better target consumers based on their media consumption (which the telecom company would also own).

The idea was to provide a broad-based competitor to the reach of ad platforms on Google and Facebook which were also targeting users based on their browsing history and interests. The benefit that Google and Facebook had was that they had a more holistic view of what consumers did online and they positioned themselves as a distribution channel between media companies and users — essentially redistributing their articles and videos and hoovering up the ad dollars that had previously gone to those media companies.

The multi-billion dollar land grab continued when Verizon paid $4.5 billion for Yahoo in 2017.

Now it appears that Verizon has a multi-billion dollar case of buyer’s remorse. Part of the billions that Verizon spent on Yahoo was for the early social network Tumblr, which Yahoo had acquired for $1.1 billion back in 2013.

Earlier this year Verizon unloaded Tumblr for the cost of a luxury Manhattan apartment. That $3 million sale was presaged by the significant fall from grace of other former high-flying media and tech properties.

Vice was once worth $5.7 billion at the height of the media investment bubble, but earlier this year Disney wrote down its stake in the company to virtually nothing.

At least Vice is emerging as a survivor. the company has rolled up Refinery29. Vox Media is also doing well in the new world of media. It bought Recode back in 2015 and recently acquired the publisher behind New York Magazine to expand its purview into paper publications and get its hands on the popular New York websites Intelligencer, The Cut, Vulture, and Grub Street.

Other publications like Hello Giggles, which was founded by the actress Zooey Deschanel, were sold to Time Magazine. High-fliers like Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Vice and Vox have all had to lay off staff in recent months.

It’s been a wild ride for HuffPost, which began in 2005 as a collection of celebrity bloggers brought together under the auspices of Arianna Huffington, from whom the site took its name.

AOL acquired The Huffington Post back in 2011 in a deal that was valued at $315 million less than a year after picking up TechCrunch for $25 million.

Verizon announced layoffs across its media properties at the beginning of the year. It cut roughly 7 percent of its staff — or around 800 jobs — including some at HuffPost.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Verizon said that it would not comment on rumors and speculation.

Neither Verizon Media nor HuffPost responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Sahara Reporters founder Sowore remains detained in Nigeria

The founder of African investigative digital media site Sahara Reporters Omoyele Sowore remains detained in Nigeria on charges including treason, his wife Opeyemi Sowore told TechCrunch.

Her husband founded Sahara Reporters to create and aggregate news content, social media tips, and self-digital reporting toward exposing corruption in Africa and his home country of Nigeria.

After being jailed and beaten several times for his journalistic work in Nigeria, Sowore re-located to New York City and formed Sahara Reporters in Manhattan in 2006 to report under U.S. legal protections.

Several outlets, including Reuters, reported his arrest in August 2019. According to Opeyemi Sowore — who lives in New Jersey — her husband was detained in Lagos on August 4th while at a protest. He was then transferred to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

Per social media and press reporting, Omoyele Sowore (who goes by Sowore), was participating in #RevolutionNow movement of peaceful demonstration against bad governance in Nigeria. 

After several hearings, he is still being held in Abuja, his wife said.

Sowore CourtAccording to a copy of his court charging document obtained by TechCrunch, Sowore is charged with two counts of conspiring to stage a revolution and to remove Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, from office “otherwise than by constitutional means.”

Sowore is also charged with cybercrimes for “knowingly send[ing] messages by means of a press interview granted on Arise Television…for the purpose of causing insult…and ill-will on the…President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” and for money laundering based on a transfer of $19,975 from a Nigerian bank account to a Sahara Reporters held account in New York.

Sowore pleaded not guilty to the charges and rejected an offer of bail for roughly $800,000, according to press reports and his wife.

As for the veracity of the charges, Sowore’s wife Opeyemi believes they are a cover to go after her husband for his activism and work with Sahara Reporters.

Sowore has never been an advocate of violence or insurrection, according to his wife. 

“If you look at his history he is the most peaceful person. He does what he does so Nigeria can work for all Nigerians…be inclusive of all ethnic groups, all socio-economic backgrounds, and religions,” Opeyemi Sowore said.

“I think the charges are about silencing a critical voice that’s shining light on corruption,” she added.

Not everyone is a fan of Sowore and Sahara Reporters’ work, particularly in Nigeria. The country has  has made strides in improving infrastructure and governance and has one of Africa’s strongest economies and tech scenes.

But Nigeria is still plagued by corruption, particularly around its oil-resources, and has a steady-stream of multi-billion dollar scandals yes billions in state related funds being stolen or simply going missing.

Sahara Reporters has made a practice of reporting on such corruption. The site, which has a tips line and small TV station, has exposed improprieties of many public officials and forced a number of resignations in Nigeria’s government.

Sahara Reporters

In the previous administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, Sahara Reporters played a role in exposing the theft of an estimated $20 billion in public funds by Petroleum Minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke, who was forced to resign and eventually arrested.

The internet, mobile, and digital media play a central role in the work of Sahara Reporters. In an interview in 2014, Sowore explained to me how these mediums often do much of the investigative work.

“In many cases, there’s less investigation to breaking these stories than you’d think. The corruption and who’s perpetrating it is generally well-known and the evidence easy to distribute through social media and devices. We just need a safe place to report it from, and the rest often takes care of itself,” Sowore said.

Ironically, Sowre’s own thesis of using digital and social media for advocacy may be tested on his getting out of jail.

Sowore’s wife is working on a campaign of global supporters — including Amnesty International — to shine a light on her husband’s charges, innocence, and press for his release.

Away from the activism and politics, “I want Yele to come home safely. I’m worried about his safety and we have two small children and they miss their father dearly,” Opeyemi Sowore said.

The trial for her husband Omoyele Sowore is scheduled for early November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Electric moped startup Revel raises $27.6 million as it eyes new markets

In less than two years, Revel has gone from an idea to a shared electric vehicle startup with more than 1,400 mopeds across Washington D.C., and Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Now, it’s ready to grow up — and beyond these three cities — with a fresh injection of $27.6 million in capital raised in a Series A round led by Ibex Investors.

The equity round included newcomer Toyota AI Ventures and further investments from Blue Collective, Launch Capital and Maniv Mobility.

The capital will, as it often does with startups, allow Revel to scale up. CEO and co-founder Frank Reig said this growth will extend to its fleet of scooters within the cities it currently operates as well as expand into new markets. Reig wouldn’t name where the New York-based startup will launch next, although he provided some hints. Large U.S. cities with the right population density and more temperate weather are at the top of the list.

Revel is targeting about 10 cities by mid-2020, Reig added.

How that growth occurs, and who is behind its operations, is what Reig believes differentiates Revel from other shared electric vehicle providers such as scooter startups that have had a record of deploying in cities before getting approval from local authorities.

Many startups in the shared industry, including Revel, talk up their focus on safety and desire to be responsible partners with cities. Revel’s choice of vehicle — along with a few other decisions — helps it stick to those promises.

“These mopeds are motor vehicles,” Reig noted. “This means there’s no regulatory gray area: you have to have a license plate. To get that license plate you have register each vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state and show third-party auto liability insurance. And then because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s clear that it rides in the street, so we’re completely off sidewalks.”

Revel caps the speed of its mopeds to 30 miles per hour. The company also provides two helmets — and single-use liners — on every ride and requires users to be licensed drivers aged, 21 or older who pass an initial safe driving history check. About one out of every 12 applicants does not make it past this screening, according to Revel.

Any concerns about users bypassing the protective headgear are largely erased because both New York and Washington D.C. have helmet laws, Reig said.

No giga workers

The company, unlike most on-demand mobility startups, does not have any gig economy workers either. Revel only has full-time employees, said Reig, adding that it’s decision he intends to stick with it even as his company grows.

“We don’t use gig economy in anything we do and I see a ton of value in that,” Reig said. “We need a well-trained workforce that is really committed and cares about the vehicles, because if not it’s something we’re going to be throwing out every 60 days.”

Revel’s shared mopeds have a 3-year asset life, Reig said based on their in-house estimates. To ensure the mopeds last, which has become a key factor in the unit economics of shared mobility businesses, they remain on street.

The mopeds are removed by employees for routine maintenance that occurs every four to six months. Otherwise, the mopeds aren’t loaded into vans by gig economy workers who make money by charging them up — a common practice with the small stand-up scooters that have inundated cities like San Diego and San Francisco. Instead, employees swap out the batteries on the mopeds, which have a range of about 50 miles.

20 months and 1,400 scooters

The idea for Revel was borne out of Reig’s travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he witnessed locals on every form of two-wheeled vehicle.

“A sort of light bulb went off my head, and I asked myself, ‘why is it not a thing in the U.S?,” Reig told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I came back to New York, started studying the market more and saw all these electric moped operators had been popping up in Europe over the last few years and just realized that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

The company started with a small pilot of 68 mopeds in a few neighborhoods within Brooklyn. In May, after a nine-month pilot, Revel pulled the original mopeds it used in its limited pilot and has replaced them with 1,000 new models built for two riders and equipped with kickstands for parking. With more mopeds in its fleet, Revel expanded the service to more than 20 neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In August, Revel launched its service in Washington D.C., where there are now more than 400 mopeds.

Revel rides cost $1 per person to start, followed by $0.25 per minute to ride and $0.10 per minute while parked. Revel says it will cut the cost by 40% for eligible riders — and give them a $25 credit — through its Revel Access program. Riders who use public assistance programs like SNAP or live in NYCHA housing are eligible for the program.

Report: WeWork expected to cut 500 tech roles

The WeWork saga continues this week with new reports the company may slash as many as 500 tech roles.

The co-working business, whose eccentric co-founder and chief executive officer Adam Neumann stepped down two weeks ago, is expected to let go of 350 employees within its corporate division, The Information reports. Initial cuts will be within the software engineering, product management and data science teams.

Another 150 roles may be dissolved as the company looks to sell several assets, including Managed by Q, Teem, SpaceIQ, Conductor and Meetup . New York-based WeWork has roughly 15,000 employees and expects to make as many as 2,000 layoffs, per reports, as the business attempts to cut costs and rewrite its narrative ahead of an eventual debut on the public markets.

WeWork unveiled its S-1 — littered with errors and sloppy work, per The Wall Street Journal — but decided to delay its initial public offering after Neumann stepped down and the company’s former vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and former president and chief operating officer Artie Minson stepped in to serve as co-CEOs.

Now expected to go public in 2020 at a valuation as low as $10 billion, WeWork is also in negotiations with JPMorgan for a last-minute cash infusion to replace the capital expected from the postponed IPO, per reports. The company, now a cautionary tale, has been working with bankers in recent weeks to reduce the sky-high costs of its money-losing operation. The reported layoffs are said to be a part of the bankers’ strategy.

WeWork was previously valued at $47 billion despite losses of nearly $1 billion in the six months ending June 30.

WeWork did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Startup says ‘Sober is the new black’

Maveron, Slow Ventures and Female Founders Fund have invested $10 million in a startup that claims it’s carving a new path to sobriety.

Tempest offers a $647 eight-week virtual “sobriety school” to help people, particularly women and “historically oppressed individuals,” get sober. The program is led by the company’s founder and chief executive officer Holly Whitaker, who conducts weekly video lectures and Q+As for participants. Offering their expertise as part of the package is marriage and family therapist Kim Kokoska; Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, the co-founder of Eight Step Recovery; and wellness coach Mary Vance, among others.

Tempest teaches the underlying causes of addiction and the “importance of purpose, meaning and creativity in breaking addiction,” as well as how to manage cravings, how to navigate social situations as a non-drinker, how to develop a mindfulness practice and more. At the end of the program, participants can pay a $127 fee for an annual membership to the Tempest online community, where one can communicate with others who’ve completed the program.

Tempest Syllabus
Week 1: Recovery Maps + Toolkits
Week 2: Addiction & The Brain
Week 3: Habit and Night Ritual
Week 4: Yoga, Meditation and Breath
Week 5: Nutrition & Lifestyle
Week 6: Relationships & Community
Week7: Trauma & Therapy
Week 8: Purpose & Creativity
Week 8+ Wrapping Up + Next Steps

Dashboard Week 2

A snapshot of Tempest’s weekly coursework.

A holistic approach

Founded in 2014, New York-based Tempest has raised about $14.3 million in total VC funding. Whitaker previously spent five years at One Medical, where she was the director of revenue cycle operations. Since founding Tempest, which has enrolled 4,000 participants to date, Whitaker received a two-book deal from Random House to document her methodologies and path to sobriety. Her first book, ‘Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol,’ will be released on December 31.

Today, her business has 28 employees and plans to build out its team, invest in marketing — where it’s historically had very low spend — and explore business opportunities within the enterprise using cash from the $10 million Series A.

“Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.” - Tempest

The company is careful to clarify it’s not a detox or 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is structured around the Twelve Steps to recovery. Rather, Tempest can be used in combination with other programs or therapies, or as a first step down the path to recovery. Whitaker explains Tempest isn’t only for the clinically addicted or those who consider themselves addicts or alcoholics. The company welcomes people who have rejected these labels or simply want to cut alcohol out of their life.

“Tempest grew out of my own experience,” Whitaker, who has previously struggled with alcoholism and an eating disorder, tells TechCrunch. “It was a response to the lack of desirable and accessible options to address problematic drinking, the lack of options available for people who don’t identify as alcoholics but struggle with alcohol and the lack of options that have been created for women and other individuals. Everything had been created for men.”

Tempest is tailored to the needs of women and historically oppressed individuals, says Whitaker, though all genders are welcome to complete its course. Taking a holistic approach to recovery, participants are encouraged to address the factors that led them to drink in the first place, including “love lives, poor nutrition, stress, anxiety, crap friendships, consumerism, lack of purpose, unresolved family of origin issues, disenfranchisement, poverty, tight or unmanageable finances, lack of connection, fear, shitty jobs we hate, depression, unprocessed trauma, lack of meaning, unfulfilled dreams, never-ending to-do lists, never-measuring-upness,” the company writes.

TempestWebsite

Tempest’s website

But what about A.A.?

I had the same question.

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), the most popular and accessible approach to recovery, is free and open to anyone willing to acknowledge they have a drinking problem. A nonprofit organization, A.A. has more than 115,000 groups worldwide. The 84-year-old program is built on peer-support groups that gather regularly for discussion meetings. Over time, more seasoned members can become “sponsors,” helping newer entrants work through the Twelve Steps.

Tempest, alternatively, is taking a for-profit approach, charging for its tech-infused method. And where A.A. emphasizes in-person support groups, Tempest relies on video streams. Increasingly, telemedicine startups are enticing customers with convenient options for health and wellness care but whether people will truly pivot to telemedicine, tele-therapy or virtual sobriety schools is still up for debate. As for Tempest’s similarities to A.A., Whitaker says: “The only thing they have in common is that they are working to help people quit alcohol.”

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack.” - Tempest

In selling its sobriety school, Tempest evokes a sense of coolness, with phrases like “Sober is the new black” and “Your hangover goes away. Your social life doesn’t,” plastered on its website. In providing a priced and more exclusive route to sobriety, one might question Tempest’s ethics and motivations as it builds a business that capitalizes off of substance abuse. Whitaker, in defense, explains a virtual school fit for the historically powerless is a necessary addition to existing options: “Our program is centered on individuals who have been held out of power, who have been told to shut up and listen,” she said. “We aren’t looking at white, upper-class men. We are looking at a queer person from 2019.”

According to survey data published by Recovery.org, 89% of A.A. attendees are white, while 38% are female.

Refusing ‘alcogenic culture’

Tempest’s branding takes a cue from the D2C playbook. The company, led by women, has the opportunity to become the brand that represents sobriety, and it’s taking it. Tempest’s Series A, coupled with the influx of new-age non-alcoholic beverage brands backed by VCs, is representative of the perceived shift away from alcohol among the younger generations.

Millennials are drinking less alcohol and, according to the World Health Organization, there are 5% fewer alcohol drinkers in the world today than in 2000. Tempest’s school seems to cater more to the cohort of people who view ditching alcohol as a lifestyle perk, not those who stop drinking due to addiction.

Holly Whitaker

Tempest founder and CEO Holly Whitaker

Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, and India’s Coolberg Beverages, which makes non-alcoholic beer, recently raised VC to cater to a similar demographic. Meanwhile, CBD-infused beverage brands like Sweet Reason, Cann and Recess are trendy and raising venture money. None of these, of course, are solutions for someone struggling with alcohol. Capital flowing into these brands merely indicates venture capitalists’ belief that consumers are steering away from traditional liquor and toward new products fit for a generation that is drinking less alcohol.

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack and among good company,” Tempest writes on its website. “Remember: 70-80% of adults drink depending on where you live; drinking is basic. Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.”

Tempest says it has completed an efficacy study performed in consultation with researchers affiliated with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University. In several years’ time, we’ll know whether the countless think pieces claiming millennials are done with alcohol were indeed true and whether the VC money into these upstarts was wasted or pure genius. As for Tempest, even if just providing a designated place on the internet for discussions around the struggles or benefits of sobriety, it has the potential to make a big impact on those in recovery or those seeking a lifestyle change.

“Alcohol is very similar to cigarettes,” Whitaker said. “We are in a time that we think drinking alcohol is natural, that we are supposed to do it. I thought that would change because to me, alcohol is entirely toxic. We are approaching this tipping point of realizing how toxic and unnecessary it is.”

Tempest is also backed by AlleyCorp, Refactor and Green D Ventures. Maveron’s Anarghya Vardhana has joined the startup’s board of directors as part of the latest deal.

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via Cupertino Service Zone 1

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is used by Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in more than 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the U.K. in early 2019.