Fable Studio founder Edward Saatchi on designing virtual beings

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 3 of 3: designing virtual companions

In this discussion, Fable CEO Edward Saatchi addresses the technical and artistic dynamics of virtual companions: AIs created to establish one-to-one relationships with consumers. After mobile, Saatchi says he believes such virtual beings will act as the next paradigm for human-computer interaction.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including which floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than three meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information, such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

MicroEJ is taking over IoT on Earth and beyond

The internet of things (IoT) market is expanding at a rate where distinguishing it as a separate category is beginning to seem a bit absurd. Increasingly, new products — and updates of existing ones — are smart and/or connected. One company is changing the fundamental calculus behind this shift by lowering the barrier considerably when it comes to what it costs to make something ‘smart,’ both in terms of the upfront bill of materials, along with subsequent support and development costs.

MicroEJ CEO Fred Rivard took me through his company’s history from its founding in 2004 until now. Much of those earlier years were spent in development, but since around 2012 or so, the French company has been deploying for IoT devices what Android is to smartphones — a flexible, extensible platform that can operate on a wide range of hardware profiles while being relatively easy to target for application and feature developers. MicroEJ takes the ‘code once, deploy anywhere’ maxim to the extreme, since its platform is designed from the ground up to be incredibly conservative when it comes to resource consumption, meaning it can run on hardware with as little as one-tenth or more the bill of materials cost of running more complex operating platforms — like Android Things, for instance.

“We take category of device where currently, Android is too big,” Rivard said. “So it doesn’t fit, even though you would like to have the capability to add software easily devices, but you can’t because Android is too big. The cost of entry is roughly $10 to $15 per unit in hardware and bill of material — that’s the cost of Android […] So it would be great to be able to run an Android layer, but you can’t just because of the cost. So we managed to reduce that cost, and to basically design a very small layer that’s1000 times smarter than Android.”

2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated during Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress. 

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa. 

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch. 

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.Nigeria naira

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and outward expansion in Africa.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operate in the West African country. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared for fintech specific investment over the last year.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated CcHub’s Bosun Tijani standing across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries (by production volume) in the world. Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of internet provider Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The year 2019 saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop helped spearhead Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund and made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to offer their products in other regions.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt dynamics around politics, power, and philanthropy in Africa —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

China nears completion of its GPS competitor, increasing the potential for Internet balkanization

On Friday, China announced that it would complete its competitor to the U.S.-operated global positioning system network by the first half of next year, increasing the pace of its decoupling from U.S. technologies.

China’s Beidou network of satellites — named after the “Big Dipper” constellation — will be the first service to compete with the U.S. Air Force’s global positioning system and already has a potentially massive user base since over 70% of Chinese smartphones are now ready to use its positioning services, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Beidou network is integral to China’s longterm plans to dominate the next generation of telecommunications services and — coupled with China’s advances in fifth-generation wireless communications technology — represents as significant challenge to the U.S. hegemony over telecommunications infrastructure.

China plans to launch the final two satellites needed to make the Beidou system operational by June 2020, according to a statement from the project’s director, Ran Chengqi quoted by The Associated Press.

Envisioning a system where China’s global positioning system and fifth generation wireless networking technologies work in tandem, China could command a lion’s share of the market for new telecommunications services.

A test of how these technologies could work in tandem is being developed in Wuhan, where both 5G and Beidou’s mapping technologies will be used to create an autonomous vehicle testbed on a 28 kilometer stretch of road.

Beidou already has 120 partners signed up to work with the service — all linked to agreements made under China’s expanding Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, according to Nikkei.

Chinese smartphone manufacturers accounted for over 40% of sales worldwide as of the second quarter of 2019, the latest data from Counterpoint Research shows.

China’s GPS href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-45471959"> rolled out in phases beginning with a domestic service launched in 2000 and a regional service for Asia Pacific coming online in 2012.

By 2020 the nation’s network of 35 satellites will exceed the U.S. system that’s currently in place.

“There is certainly an aspect of this that is about expanding influence, but part of it is likely also about economic security,” Alexandra Stickings, from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, told the BBC last year. “The main advantage of having your own system is security of access, in the sense that you are not relying on another country to provide it. The US could deny users access over certain areas, for example in times of conflict.”

Space is an area of strategic importance for the Chinese government. The country has already achieved significant milestones including quantum communications powered by its space capabilities and the first human exploration of the far side of the moon. And current plans are in place for China to send a probe to Mars in 2020 as it prepares to complete a space station by 2022.

It’s against this backdrop of increasing activity in space — even as tensions mount terrestrially — that the U.S. created the latest branch of its armed forces under the moniker of the Space Force.

Citing Chinese state media, the Nikkei Times reported that the value of goods and services tied to Beidou will reach $57 billion by 2020. The figure itself is nebulous, but points to the kind of economic power Beijing hopes to yield through the new satellite positioning service.

The development of these alternative internet realities matters a great deal.

As Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive officer of Google — and no stranger to the operations of Chinese technology companies —  noted last year at a private dinner (first reported by CNBC):

“[The] Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number. If you think of China as like ‘Oh yeah, they’re good with the Internet,’ you’re missing the point. Globalization means that they get to play too. I think you’re going to see fantastic leadership in products and services from China. There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc. Look at the way BRI works – their Belt and Road Initiative, which involves 60-ish countries – it’s perfectly possible those countries will begin to take on the infrastructure that China has with some loss of freedom.”

 

Max Q: Launches from SpaceX, Boeing and the ESA

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Typically, the holiday season is a slow one in the tech industry — but space tech is different, and this past week saw a flurry of activity, including one of the most important rocket launches of the year.

Just about every significant new space company got in on the action during the past seven days, either with actual spacecraft launches, or with big announcements. And everything that went down sets up 2020 to be even crazier.

Boeing’s big year-end mission doesn’t go as planned

Boeing managed to get a crucial test launch in for its commercial crew program — which is NASA’s effort to get U.S. astronauts launching from U.S. soil once again. Boeing launched its “orbital flight test” or OFT on Friday, and the actual rocket launch part of the flight went exactly as intended.

Unfortunately, what came next didn’t match up with what was supposed to happen: The Starliner spacecraft (which wasn’t actually carrying anyone for this test) ran into an error with its onboard mission clock that led to it expending more fuel more quickly than it should have, leaving it with not enough fuel to make its planned rendezvous with the ISS.

… but at least it stuck the landing

The Starliner capsule didn’t dock with the Space Station, but it still completed a number of key objectives, like demonstrating that its docking arm extended properly. Maybe most importantly, it also landed back on Earth on time and on target, per the revised mission plan that Boeing and NASA hammered out once they determined they couldn’t reach the station as planned. In space as in startups, even failures are successes of a kind.

SpaceX launches Falcon 9 but misses the fairing catch

SpaceX’s latest launch took place on Monday, and it was a success in just about every regard — except in terms of one of its secondary missions, which was an attempt to catch the two fairing halves that together cover the payload as the rocket ascends to space. SpaceX has been trying to catch these with ships at sea equipped with large nets, and it caught one previously. It’ll keep trying, just like it did with rocket booster landings, and could save up to $6 million per launch once it gets the process right.

Europe launched a planet-watcher

The European Space Agency also launched a rocket this week — a Soyuz carrying a new satellite that will observe exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) from orbit. It’ll be able to assess their density from that vantage point, giving us valuable new info about the potential habitability of distant heavenly bodies.

Apple might enter the satellite constellation game

Smartphone iPhone XS mockup. Design template for graphic design, motion graphics, digital marketing.

Apple apparently has its own team internally working on satellite communication technologies. This effort may or may not involve the iPhone-maker actually developing its own spacecraft, but it seems like the overall goal is to develop its own direct wireless communication network to work with iPhones and other Apple hardware.

Amazon is opening a dedicated HQ for its satellite business

Meanwhile, Amazon’s own satellite business is a known quantity called “Project Kuiper,” and the company is going to double down on its investment next year with a new dedicated space for Kuiper’s R&D and prototype manufacturing. Eventually, Kuiper will be a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites providing broadband to underserved and unserved areas of the globe.

Rocket Lab is already working on its third launch pad

Rocket Lab will be opening a third launch pad, the company announced, just after declaring its second in Virginia this month. The third launch site will be at the same spot as its first — on the Mahia peninsula in northern New Zealand.

Whatever happened to the Next Big Things?

In tech, this was the smartphone decade. In 2009, Symbian was still the dominant ‘smartphone’ OS, but 2010 saw the launch of the iPhone 4, the Samsung Galaxy S, and the Nexus One, and today Android and iOS boast four billion combined active devices. Smartphones and their apps are a mature market, now, not a disruptive new platform. So what’s next?

The question presupposes that something has to be next, that this is a law of nature. It’s easy to see why it might seem that way. Over the last thirty-plus years we’ve lived through three massive, overlapping, world-changing technology platform shifts: computers, the Internet, and smartphones. It seems inevitable that a fourth must be on the horizon.

There have certainly been no shortage of nominees over the last few years. AR/VR; blockchains; chatbots; the Internet of Things; drones; self-driving cars. (Yes, self-driving cars would be a platform, in that whole new sub-industries would erupt around them.) And yet one can’t help but notice that every single one of those has fallen far short of optimistic predictions. What is going on?

You may recall that the growth of PCs, the Internet, and smartphones did not ever look wobbly or faltering. Here’s a list of Internet users over time: from 16 million in 1995 to 147 million in 1998. Here’s a list of smartphone sales since 2009: Android went from sub-1-million units to over 80 million in just three years. That’s what a major platform shift looks like.

Let’s compare each of the above, shall we? I don’t think it’s an unfair comparison. Each has had champions arguing it will, in fact, be That Big, and even people with more measured expectations have predicted growth will at least follow the trajectory of smartphones or the Internet, albeit maybe to a lesser peak. But in fact…

AR/VR: Way back in 2015 I spoke to a very well known VC who confidently predicted a floor of 10 million devices per year well before the end of this decade. What did we get? 3.7M to 4.7M to 6M, 2017 through 2019, while Oculus keeps getting reorg’ed. A 27% annual growth rate is OK, sure, but a consistent 27% growth rate is more than a little worrying for an alleged next big thing; it’s a long, long way from “10xing in three years.” Many people also predicted that by the end of this decade Magic Leap would look like something other than an utter shambles. Welp. As for other AR/VR startups, their state is best described as “sorry.”

Blockchains: I mean, Bitcoin’s doing just fine, sure, and is easily the weirdest and most interesting thing to have happened to tech in the 2010s; but the entire rest of the space? I’m broadly a believer in cryptocurrencies, but if you were to have suggested in mid-2017 to a true believer that, by the end of 2019, enterprise blockchains would essentially be dead, decentralized app usage would still be measured in the low thousands, and no real new use cases would have arisen other than collateralized lending for a tiny coterie — I mean, they would have been outraged. And yet, here we are.

Chatbots: No, seriously, chatbots were celebrated as the platform of the future not so long ago. (Alexa, about which more in a bit, is not a chatbot.) “The world is about to be re-written, and bots are going to be a big part of the future” was an actual quote. Facebook M was the future. It no longer exists. Microsoft’s Tay was the future. It really no longer exists. It was replaced by Zo. Did you know that? I didn’t. Zo also no longer exists.

The Internet of Things: let’s look at a few recent headlines, shall we? “Why IoT Has Consistently Fallen Short of Predictions.” “Is IoT Dead?” “IoT: Yesterday’s Predictions vs. Today’s Reality.” Spoiler: that last one does not discuss about how reality has blown previous predictions out of the water. Rather, “The reality turned out to be far less rosy.”

Drones: now, a lot of really cool things are happening in the drone space, I’ll be the first to aver. But we’re a long way away from physical packet-switched networks. Amazon teased Prime Air delivery way back in 2015 and made its first drone delivery way back in 2016, which is also when it patented its blimp mother ship. People expected great things. People still expect great things. But I think it’s fair to say they expected … a bit more … by now.

Self-driving cars: We were promised so much more, and I’m not even talking about Elon Musk’s hyperbole. From 2016: “10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020.” “True self-driving cars will arrive in 5 years, says Ford“. We do technically have a few, running in a closed pilot project in Phoenix, courtesy of Waymo, but that’s not what Ford was talking about: “Self-driving Fords that have no steering wheels, brake or gas pedals will be in mass production within five years.” So, 18 months from now, then. 12 months left for that “10 million” prediction. You’ll forgive a certain skepticism on my part.

The above doesn’t mean we haven’t seen any successes, of course. A lot of new kinds of products have been interesting hits: AirPods, the Apple Watch, the Amazon Echo family. All three are more new interfaces than whole new major platforms, though; not so much a gold rush as a single vein of silver.

You may notice I left machine learning / AI off the list. This is in part because it definitely has seen real qualitative leaps, but a) there seems to be a general concern that we may have entered the flattening of an S-curve there, rather than continued hypergrowth, b) either way, it’s not a platform. Moreover, the wall that both drones and self-driving cars have hit is labelled General Purpose Autonomy … in other words, it is an AI wall. AI does many amazing things, but when people predicted 10M self-driving cars on the roads next year, it means they predicted AI would be good enough to drive them. In fact it’s getting there a lot slower than we expected.

Any one of these technologies could define the next decade. But another possibility, which we have to at least consider, is that none of them might. It is not an irrefutable law of nature that just as one major tech platform begins to mature another must inevitably start its rise. We may well see a lengthy gap before the next Next Big Thing. Then we may see two or three rise simultaneously. But if your avowed plan is that this time you’re totally going to get in on the ground floor — well, I’m here to warn you, you may have a long wait in store.

1-800 Contacts buys the at-home eye exam provider 6over6 Vision

New developments in sensor technologies, computer vision and machine learning technologies are combining to drive medical diagnostics further into the home and the latest company to make a move to push services deeper into the home is the online contact lens retailer, 1-800 Contacts.

The Utah-based company has acquired 6over6 Vision for an undisclosed amount.

Based in Israel, 6over6 Vision, previously raised $15 million to commercialize its in-home eye exams based on a combination of machine learning and sensors. The basic eye exams can be performed with nothing more than a smartphone or computer and camera.

Investors in 6over6 Vision included: Rimonci Capital, Alumot VC, the Indian online eyeglasses company Lenskart.com, and TriVentures.

Companies including Lenskart, NovaVision, Kede Optics, SmartBuyGlasses, EyeRim, Liingo, Magic Leap, and Glasses USA use the company’s technology to retrieve optical parameters from existing lenses and measuring pupillary distance. The idea is to let consumers renew their prescriptions without needing a follow-up exam or appointment.

“We have long admired the innovations 6over6 Vision has built and have been using their technologies to serve our customers. This acquisition allows us to continue our 25-year commitment to pursuing a better way in vision care,” said John Graham, CEO of 1-800 Contacts, in a statement. “People deserve simple and affordable eye care solutions and combining with 6over6 allows us to deliver this for our customers on an even larger scale.”

The companies expect to offer additional services, like virtual check-ups for new eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions.

“It has been our life’s mission to create ground-breaking technology that would allow consumers the ability to take control of their own vision care and reach communities around the globe without access,” commented Dr. Ofer Limon, co-founder of 6over6 Vision, in a statement. “1-800 Contacts shares our drive to change what is broken in this industry, and we know that this acquisition will bring our vision to life on a global scale that can make real change.”

Jiji raises $21M for its Africa online classifieds business

Pan-African digital classifieds company Jiji has raised $21 million in Series C and C-1 financing from six investors, led by Knuru Capital.

The Nigeria based venture, co-founded by Ukrainian entrepreneur Vladimir Mnogoletniy, has an East to West presence that includes Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Buyers and sellers in those markets use Jiji to transact purchases from real estate to car sales.

“We are the largest marketplace in Africa where people can sell pretty much anything…We are like a combination of eBay and Craigslist for Africa,” Mnogoletniy told TechCrunch on a call.

The classifieds site has two million listings on its Africa platforms and hit eight million unique monthly users in 2018, per company stats.

Jiji sees an addressable market of 400 million people across its operating countries, according to Mnogoletniy. The venture bought up one of its competitors in April this year, when it acquired the assets of Naspers owned online marketplace OLX in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Jiji’s top three categories for revenues and listings (in order) are vehicle sales, real estate, and electronics sales (namely mobile phones).

With the recent funding, the company’s total capital raised from 2014 to 2019 comes to $50 million. Knuru Capital CEO Alain Dib confirmed the Abu Dhabi based fund’s lead on Jiji’s most recent round.

Jiji plans to use the latest investment toward initiatives to increase the overall number of buyers, sellers and transactions on its site. The company will also upgrade the platform to create more listings and faster matching in the area of real-estate, according to Mnogoletniy.

For the moment, Jiji doesn’t have plans for country expansion or company purchases. “Maybe at some point we will consider more acquisitions, but for the time being we’d like to focus on those five markets,” Mnogoletniy said — referring to Jiji’s existing African country presence.

To ensure the quality of listings, particularly in real-estate, Jiji employs an automated and manual verification process. “We were able to eliminate a high-percentage of fraud listings and estimate fraud listings at less than 1%,” said Mnogoletniy.

He recognized the challenge of online scams originating in Nigeria. “We take data protection very seriously. We have a data-control officer just to do the data-protection verification.”

With the large consumer base and volume of transactional activity on its platform, Jiji could layer on services, such as finance and payments.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about adding segments other than our main business. We decided that for the next three to five years, we should be laser focused on our core business — to be the largest marketplace in Africa for buying and selling to over 400 million people,” Mnogoletniy said.

The company faces an improving commercial environment for its goals, with Africa registering some of the fastest growth in the world for smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Jiji also faces competitors in Africa’s growing online classifieds space.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia, which listed in April in an NYSE IPO, operates its Jumia Deals digtial marketplace site in multiple African countries.

Swiss owned Ringier Africa has classified services and business content sites in eight French and English speaking countries. On car sales, Nigerian startup Cars45 has created an online marketplace for pricing, rating, and selling used-autos. 

Adding to the trend of foreign backed ventures entering Africa’s internet business space, Chinese owned Opera launched an online buy/sell site, OList, last month connected its African payment app, OPay.

eBay operates a partnership with MallforAfrica for limited goods sales from Africa to the U.S., but hasn’t gone live yet on the continent.

On outpacing rival in its markets, Jiji’s co-founder Vladimir Mnogoletniy touts the company’s total focus on the classifieds business, market experience, and capital as advantages.

“We’ve spent five years and raised $50 million to build Jiji to where it is today. It would take $50 to $100 million for these others to have a chance at building a similar business,” he said.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is headed to Canada, with in-store pre-orders starting today

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is a very unique smartphone, in more ways than one. The most obvious differentiator is that it folds out to expose a large, continuous 7.3″ display, hiding the seam thanks to a flexible OLED screen. It’s also at the very top end of the smartphone market price-wise, which could explain why it only debuted in a few limited markets at launch. Samsung says that customer interest has helped expand that initial pool of availability, however, which is why it’s launching pre-orders in Canada today.

There’s going to be some sticker shock for Canadians, however: The Fold starts at $2,599.99 CAD in its newest market. That’s the price you’d pay for a well-specced computer, but it’s actually right in line with the price of the phone in the U.S. when you account for currency conversion. Pre-orders are also going to be exclusively in-store, at Samsung’s Eaton Center, Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale locations, all of which are in Toronto. Retail sales, also exclusive to Samsung’s own retail operations, are starting December 6 but pre-order customers will be able to ensure a day one pickup.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has had a bit of an uneven launch, with a first attempt cancelled in light of multiple reviewers experiencing issues with their devices. Samsung re-designed elements of the phone as a result, including adding caps to prevent dust entering the crucial hinge component that powers the folding actions, and embedding a necessary pre-installed protective screen covering under the phone’s bezels. Still, our own Brian Heater experienced a display hardware issue within a day with his redesigned review device.

Samsung is offering free “Fold Premiere Service” which includes discounted screen replacements and standard free repairs when an issue is not due to any misuse on a user’s part. Overall, the takeaway should be that this is a first-generation device, but also a totally unique piece of technology in today’s marketplace for those willing to risk it.