Transportation weekly: Nuro dreams of autonomous lattes, what is a metamaterial, Volvo takes the wheel

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Read the first edition hereAs I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. An email subscription is coming!

This week, we’re shoving as much transportation news, tidbits and insights in here as possible in hopes that it will satiate you through the end of the month. That’s right, TechCrunch’s mobility team is on vacation next week.

You can expect to learn about metamaterials, how traffic is creating genetic peril, the rise of scooter docks in a dockless world, new details on autonomous delivery startup Nuro and a look back at the first self-driving car fatality.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

nuro-scout-coffee

Mark Harris is here again with an insider look into autonomous vehicle delivery bot startup Nuro. The 3-year-old company recently announced that it raised $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Harris, during his typical gumshoeing, uncovers what Nuro might do with all that capital. It’s more than just “scaling up” and “hiring talent” — the go-to declarations from startups flush with venture funding. No, Nuro’s founders have some grand ideas from automated kitchens and autonomous latte delivery to smaller robots that can cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. Nuro recently told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it wants introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years.

The company’s origin story and how it’s tied to autonomous trucking startup Ike is just as notable as its “big ideas.”

Come for the autonomous lattes; stay for the story … How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s money


Dig In

What do metamaterials and Volvo have in common? Absolutely nothing. Except they’re both worth higlighting this week.

First up, is an article by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey on a company called Lumotive that has backing from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. The names Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures aren’t the most interesting components of the story. Nope, it’s metamaterials.

Let us explain. Most autonomous vehicles, robots and drones use lidar (or light detection and ranging radar) to sense their surroundings. Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; in short, lidar helps create a 3D map of the world. (Here’s a complete primer on WTF is Lidar).

However, there are limitations to lidar sensors, which rely on mechanical platforms to move the laser emitter or mirror. That’s where metamaterials come in. In simple terms, metamaterials are specially engineered surfaces that have embedded microscopic structures and work as a single device. Metamaterials remove the mechanical piece of the problem, and allow lidar to scan when and where it wants within its field of view.

Metamaterials delivers the whole package: they’re durable and compact, solve problems with existing lidar systems, and are not prohibitively expensive.

If they’re so great why isn’t everyone using them? For one, it’s a new and emerging technology. Lumotive’s product is just a prototype. And Intellectual Ventures (IV) holds the patents for known techniques, Coldewey recently explained to me. IV is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech — something it has done with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out.

Shifting gears to Volvo

Automakers are rolling out increasingly robust advanced driver assistance systems in production cars. These new levels of automation are creating a conflict of sorts. One on hand, features like adaptive cruise control and lane steering can make commutes less stressful and arguably safer. And yet, they can also cause overconfidence in the system and complacency among drivers. (Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that complacency is a problem among owners using its advanced ADAS feature called Autopilot). (And yes, I wrote advanced ADAS; it sounds repetitive, but it’s meant to express higher levels of automation and a term I recently encountered from two respected sources)

Some argue that automakers shouldn’t deploy these kinds of automated features unless vehicles are equipped with driver-monitoring systems (DMS are essentially an in-car camera and accompanying software) that can ensure drivers are paying attention. Volvo is taking that a step further.

Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle

The company announced this week that it will integrate DMS into its next-gen, SPA2-based vehicles beginning in the early 2020s and more importantly, enable its system to take action if the driver is distracted or intoxicated. The camera and other sensors will monitor the driver and will intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death. Under this scenario, Volvo could limit the car’s speed, call the Volvo on Call service on behalf of the driver or cause the vehicle to slow down and park itself on the roadside.

Volvo’s plans raise all kinds of questions, including privacy concerns and liability. The intent is to add a layer of safety. But it also adds complexity, which could compromise Volvo’s mission. The Autonocast, a podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, talk about Volvo’s plans in our latest episode. Check it out.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

Remember two weeks ago when we dug into Waymo’s laser bears and wondered whether we had reached “peak” LiDAR? (Last year, there were 28 VC deals in LiDAR technology valued at $650 million. The number of deals was slightly lower than in 2017, but the values jumped by nearly 34 percent.)

It doesn’t look like we have. We’re hearing about several funding deals in the works or recently closed, a revelation that shows investors still see opportunity in startups trying to bring the next generation of light ranging and detection sensors to market.

Spotted …. Former Zoox CEO and co-founder Tim Kentley Klay was spotted at the Self-Racing Car event at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, Calif., this weekend.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering and announced it will kick off the roadshow for its IPO. That means the initial public offering will likely occur in the next two weeks. Here’s the S-1 that Lyft filed in early March. This latest announcement also revealed new details, including that its ticker symbol will be  “LYFT” — as one might expect — and that the IPO range is set for between $62 and $68 per share to sell 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock. Lyft could raise up to $2.1 billion at the higher end of that range, or $1.9 billion at the lower end.

The Lyft news was big — and it’s a story we’ll be following for awhile. However, we wanted to highlight another one of Ingrid Lunden’s articles because it underscores a point I’ve been pushing for awhile: not every important move in the world of autonomous vehicles occurs in the big three of Detroit, Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley.

This week, Yandex, the Russian search giant that has been working on self-driving car technology, inked a partnership with Hyundai to develop software and hardware for autonomous car systems. This is Yandex’s first partnership with an OEM. But it’s not Hyundai’s first collaboration with an autonomous vehicle startup. (Hyundai has a partnership with Aurora too)

Yandex will work with Hyundai Mobis, the car giant’s OEM parts and service division, “to create a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet” that will cover both a prototype as well as parts for other car-makers.

Other deals:


Snapshot

uber-bike-crash

One year ago, I parked on a small rise overlooking Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. The mostly dirt knoll, dotted with some trees and a handful of structures known out here as ramadas, was hardly remarkable. Just one other car sat in the disintegrating asphalt parking lot, the result of so many sun-baked days. A group of homeless people had set up at the picnic tables under a few of the structures, their dogs lolling nearby.

And yet, it was here, or specifically on the gleaming road below, that something extraordinary had indeed happened. Just days before, Elaine Herzberg was crossing Mill Avenue south of Curry Road when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed her. The vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a human test driver behind the wheel.

I had been in the Phoenix area, a hub for testing autonomous vehicle technology, to moderate a panel on that very subject. But the panel had been hastily canceled by organizers worried about the optics of such a discussion. And so I picked up Starsky Robotics CEO Stefan Seltz Axmacher who was also in town for this now-canceled panel, and we drove to site where Herzberg had died.

I wrote at the time, that “March 18 changed everything—and nothing—in the frenzied and nascent world of autonomous vehicles.” One year later, those words are still correct. The incident dumped a bucket of ice water over the figurative heads of autonomous vehicle developers. Everyone it seemed, had sobered up. Testing was paused, dozens of companies assessed their own safety protocols. Earnest blogs were written. Lawsuits were filed.

And yet, the cogs on the AV machine haven’t stopped turning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Innovation can sometimes “make the world a better place.” But it’s rarely delivered in a neat little package, no strings attached.

I’m hardly the first to reflect or write about this one-year anniversary. There are many takes, some of them hot, others not so much. And there are a few insightful ones; Autonocast co-host Niedermeyer has one entitled 10 Lessons from Uber’s Fatal Self-Driving Car Crash that’s worth reading.

Right now, I’m more interested in those lessons that haven’t been learned yet. It’s partly what prompted us to launch this newsletter, a weekly post that aims to be more than a historical record or a medium to evangelize AV technology.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again. Data is queen. This past week, mobility management startup Passport partnered with Charlotte, N.C., Detroit, Mich. and Omaha, Neb. and Lime to create a framework to apply parking principles, data analysis and more to the plethora of shared micromobility services.

And, in case you missed it, Bird had to let some people go late last week. We’ve learned a few more details since the news broke. That came out to about 40 people out of the ~900-person company. The layoffs were part of Bird’s annual performance review process and only affected U.S.-based employees, TechCrunch learned. Those laid off are eligible for severance, including health and medical benefits. Despite the layoffs, Bird is actively looking to hire for more than 100 positions throughout the company.

Meanwhile, Ford-owned Spin partnered with mobility startup Zagster to deploy scooters in 100+ new cities and campuses by the end of this year.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Traffic affects more than people. Take a look at the map pictured above. See the red line? That’s Interstate 15 in southern California. To the east, are inland communities and eventually the San Bernardino National Forest and San Jacinto Mountains.

To the west, are the Santa Ana Mountains and an increasingly isolated family of 20 cougars, the Los Angeles Times reports this week. The 15 and the heavy traffic on it is putting pressure on the gene pool. In the past 15 years, at least seven cougars have crossed the 15. Just one sired 11 kittens. This lack of genetic diversity — the lower documented for the species outside of the endangered Florida panther — could have devastating effects on mountain lions here. A study published in the journal Ecological Applications predicts extinction probabilities of 16 percent to 28 percent over the next 50 years for these lions.

In this specific case, the last natural wildlife corridor in the area — and perhaps the difference between survival and extinction —  is little Temecula Creek.

This phenomenon is happening in other areas as well, causing communities to toy with possible solutions. One option: shuttling the lions over the other side, a move that could cause all sorts of problems. In other places, such as an area near the Santa Monica Mountains, a wildlife overpass has been proposed.

Transit pain points

Meanwhile, digital and mobile ticketing and payment company CellPoint Mobile released a report this week that examines the rising cost of acquiring new riders, mobile technology limitations and outdated procurement processes. The titillatingly named report — Challenges Facing Municipal, Regional and National Transit Agencies in the United States — surveyed 103 ground and mass transit operators in the United States.

Some takeaways and key findings:

  • 30 percent of mass transit providers collect fares through a mobile app; only 39 percent have an app at all
  • 26 percent of transit operators say costs are their biggest challenges. Among metro mass transit agencies, that concern jumps to 40 percent
  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of national operators and 24 percent of large transit agencies (1,000  to 10,000 employees) say that implementing mobile technology is their single biggest challenge.
  • Customer acquisition is the second-most common challenge in US transportation, cited by 23 percent national, 33 percent regional, and 17 percent of private operators.

Other items of note:


Testing and deployments

Lyft Scooters docks

Dockless scooters have been all the rage; now it seems that cities and scooters startups are considering whether free-floating micromobility might need to be reined in a skosh.

Lyft, which has scooters in 13 cities, recently experimented with parking racks. These parking racks or docks are designed specifically for scooters. The company set up these docking stations in Austin during SXSW and released a handy Guide to Good Scootiquette to encourage better and safer rider behavior.

Meanwhile, an industry around scooter management is emerging. Swiftmile, a startup that developed light electric vehicle charging systems for bike share, has new solar-powered charging platforms for scooters. TechCrunch met Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche in Austin earlier this month and learned that a number of cities are interested in deploying these systems. Swiftmile’s system not only charges the scooters, it also can provide scooter companies with diagnostics and keep the device locked in the dock if it’s malfunctioning. The docks can be programmed to lock the scooters up during certain hours — bar closing time would seem like an optimal time — to keep them from being misused. Systems like these could help scooter companies like Bird and Lime extend the life of their scooters and keep local officials happy.

Autonomous street sweepers

ENWAY and Nanyang Technological University are deploying autonomous street sweepers in the inner city of Singapore as part of a project with National Environmental Agency Singapore. The project began this month and will run into September 2020.

Under the pilot, ENWAY’s autonomous sweeper will clean an area of more than 12 kilometers of roads every day. The sweeper is equipped with numerous sensors, including 2D and 3D lidars, 3D cameras, GNSS. The base vehicle is a retrofitted all-electric compact road sweeper from Swiss manufacturer Bucher Municipal.

The company aims to commercialize autonomous cleaning on public ground in Singapore and abroad.

A demo of the sweeper is in the video below.

Silvercar scales up

On the other end of the transportation spectrum, Silvercar by Audi has rolled out a delivery and pick up service in downtown locations in New York and San Francisco. Silvercar customers can request their rental be dropped off and picked up at home or a location of their choosing for an additional fee. Silvercar also announced plans to bring its premium rental experience to Boston at Logan International Airport on April 15.

If you’ve never heard of Silvercar, you’re forgiven. It’s not exactly widespread. The company aims to remove the headache of traditional car rental. I recently tried it out in Austin during SXSW and found that it is convenient, and works pretty well, but doesn’t remove some of the annoying pinch points of car rentals. Yes, there are no lines. When I got off the plane in Austin, I received a message that my car was ready and to hail my driver who picked me up curbside, drove me to the Silvercar operation, and brought me to my Audi. I used the app to unlock the vehicle.

That’s cool. What would be even better is skipping all those steps and being able to access the vehicle right there in the airport without interacting with anyone. (Granted, not everyone wants that) This new delivery and pickup service in New York and San Francisco gets closer to that sweet spot.

Other stuff:


On our radar

New York Auto Show is coming up and I’ll be in the city right before the show. But then it’s back to the west coast for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, a one-day event held April 18 at UC Berkeley. I’ll be interviewing Anthony Levandowski on stage and moderating a panel with Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson and Uber ATG Toronto chief Raquel Urtasun to talk about building the self-driving stack and how AI is used to help vehicles understand and predict what’s happening in the world around them and make the right decisions.

Also, the PAVE Coalition is hosting its first public demonstration event April 5-7 at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. The public will have an opportunity to ride in a self-driving car, and interactive displays will help visitors understand the technology behind self-driving cars and their potential benefits.

Finally, one electric vehicle thing we’ve been following. Columbus, Ohio won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge and we’ve been tracking the city’s progress and its efforts to increase electric vehicle adoption.

One of the organizers told TechCrunch that since the beginning of 2017, the cumulative new EV registrations in the Columbus metropolitan area have increased by 121 percent. New EV registrations over this period outpaced the 82 percent expansion in the Midwest region and the 94 percent growth seen across the U.S. over the same time period.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos en dos semanas.

How Nuro plans to spend Softbank’s $940 million

Autonomous delivery startup Nuro is bursting with ideas since SoftBank invested nearly $1 billion in February, new filings reveal.

A recent patent application details how its R1 self-driving vehicle could carry smaller robots to cross lawns or climb stairs to drop off packages. The company has even taken the step of trademarking the name “Fido” for delivery services.

“We think there’s something neat about that name,” Nuro founder Dave Ferguson told TechCrunch. “It’s friendly, neighborly and embodies the spirit of a helper that brings you things. It wasn’t intended to extend towards literal robot dogs, although some of the legged platforms that others are building could be very interesting for this last 10-foot problem.”

Another section of Nuro’s patent shows the R1 delivering piping hot pizza and beverages, prepared en route in automated kitchens.

“We tried to build a lot of flexibility into the R1’s compartment so we could serve all the applications that people will be able to think of,” Ferguson said. “A coffee machine is actually a pretty good one. If you go to your local barista, those machines are incredibly expensive. Amortizing them over an entire neighborhood makes sense.”

As automated technologies mature, companies are focusing less on simply getting around and more on how services will connect with actual customers. Delivering goods instead of passengers also means fewer regulations to navigate.

That opportunity has prompted a number of companies, including e-commerce and logistics giant Amazon, FedEx, and numerous startups to explore autonomous delivery.  At CES this year, Continental unveiled a prototype dog-shaped robot for last-yard deliveries, while Amazon has unveiled a sidewalk robot called Scout that is already delivering packages to homes.

The first company to scale automated driving and delivery could start building revenue while those aiming for autonomous taxis are stuck in a maze of laws, safety concerns and consumer skepticism.

Origin story

Softbank’s capital allows Nuro’s founders to run with its many ideas. But even in its earliest days, they benefited from an early injection of cash.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by Ferguson and another former Google engineer, Jiajun Zhu, after they received multi-million dollar payouts from the company’s infamous Chauffeur bonus plan. Chauffeur bonuses were intended to incentivize engineers who stuck with Google’s self-driving car project. However, the plan’s structure meant that anyone who left after the first payout in 2015 would also receive a large lump sum.

Lead engineer Anthony Levandowski appears to have earned over $125 million from the plan. He used some of the money to start Otto, a self-driving truck company that was acquired by Uber and subsequently became the focus of an epic patent and trade secrets theft lawsuit.

Court filings from that case suggest that Ferguson and Zhu received around $40 million each, although Ferguson would not confirm this. (Another Chauffeur alum, Russell Smith, got a smaller payout and quickly joined Nuro as its hardware lead).

Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China just three months later, in a previously unreported deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. Ding was China’s first Internet and gaming billionaire, and was reportedly once the wealthiest person in China. However, his business empire, which spans e-commerce, education and pig farming, recently laid off large numbers of staff.

“William has been a board member and a strong supporter from the very start. But he’s not directing company decisions,” says Ferguson.

A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million.

A Nuro spinout

Nuro started pilot grocery deliveries last summer with a Kroger supermarket affiliate in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. The pilot initially used modified Toyota Prius sedans and transitioned in December to its R1 vehicle. “We’re super excited about the application area,” says Ferguson. “87 percent of commerce is still local and 43 percent of all personal vehicle trips in the U.S. are for shopping and running errands.”

Meanwhile, Uber’s self-driving truck program, which had begun with the acquisition of Otto, was on its last legs. Although the program was not publicly canned until July 2018, many of its key personnel left in May. The LinkedIn profiles of engineers Jur van den Berg, Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow show them going straight from Uber to found Ike, another self-driving truck startup, the same month.

When Ike came out of stealth mode in October, Nuro characterized its relationship with the new company as a partnership, where “we gave Ike a copy of our autonomy and infrastructure software and, in exchange, Nuro got an equity stake in Ike.”

In reality, Ike was more of a spinout. California and Delaware business records show that Ike was not incorporated until July, and shared office space with Nuro until at least the beginning of September. Ike’s founding engineers actually worked at Nuro after leaving Uber. Van den Berg can even be seen in a Nuro team photo that was shot in June and reproduced in Nuro’s Safety Report, wearing a Nuro T-shirt.

Ferguson confirmed that all three Ike founders had worked at Nuro before starting Ike.

“We are always looking for opportunities where the tech that we’ve built could help,” Ferguson said. “Trucking was a really good example, but we recognized that as a company, we couldn’t spread ourselves too thin. It made sense for both sides for the Ike co-founders to build their own independent company.”

Ike CEO Woodrow told TechCrunch recently that it’s using Nuro’s hardware designs and autonomous software, as well as data logging, maps and simulation systems. It raised $52 million in its own Series A in February.

Not to be outdone, Nuro quickly followed with an announcement of a $940 million investment by the SoftBank Vision Fund, in exchange for what Ferguson calls a “very, very significant ownership stake.” Nuro had been introduced to SoftBank after talks with Cruise fell through.

Thousands of bots

Apart from robotic dogs, what does the future hold for a newly cash-rich Nuro?

“We’re very excited about the Scottsdale pilot, but it’s basically one grocery store in one ZIP code,” says Ferguson. Shortly after our interview, Nuro announced that it would be expanding its delivery service to four more ZIP codes in Houston, Texas.

“Next year and onwards, we want to start to realize the potential of what we’re building to eventually service millions of people” Ferguson said. We’re aggressively expanding the number of partners we’re working with and we’re working on how we manufacture a vehicle at a large scale.”

Nuro will likely to partner with an established auto OEM to build a fleet of what Ferguson hopes will become tens or hundreds of thousands of driverless vehicles. Last week, it petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for exemptions to safety standards that do not make sense for a driverless vehicle – like having to install a windshield or rearview mirrors.

Nuro told NHTSA that it wants to introduce up to 5,000 upgraded vehicles called the R2X, over the next two years. The electric vehicles would have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and appear very similar to the R1 prototype operating in Arizona and Texas today. The R2X will have 12 high-def cameras, radars, and a top-mounted LiDar sensor. Nuro said it would not sell the vehicle but “own and centrally operate the entire fleet of R2Xs through partnerships with local businesses.”

“Providing services is also very expensive,” Ferguson explained. “Look at Uber or Lyft. As we scale up to the population we’re trying to serve and the number of verticals we’re looking at, it requires capital to operate until we’re profitable, which will not happen this year.”

Startups Weekly: A much-needed unicorn IPO update

As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, female-founded businesses receive just over 2 percent of venture capital on an annual basis. Most of those checks are written to early-stage startups. It’s extremely difficult for female founders to garner late-stage support, let alone cash $100 million checks.

Maybe that’s finally changing. This week, not one but two female-founded and led companies, Glossier and Rent The Runway, raised nine-figure rounds and cemented their status as unicorn companies. According to PitchBook data from 2018, there are only about 15 unicorn startups with female founders. Though I’m sure that number has increased in the last year, you get the point: There are hundreds of privately held billion-dollar companies and shockingly few of those have women founders (even fewer have female CEOs)…

Moving on…

YC Demo Days

I spent a good part of the week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 in a room full of vest-wearing investors. We listened to some 200 YC companies make their 120-second pitch and though it was a bit of a whirlwind, there were definitely some standouts. ICYMI: We wrote about each and every company that pitched on day 1 and day 2. If you’re looking for the inside scoop on the companies that forwent demo day and raised rounds, or were acquired, before hitting the stage, we’ve got that too.

IPO corner

Lyft: This week, Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering, expected to be completed next week. The company will charge between $62 and $68 per share, raising more than $2 billion at a valuation of ~$23 billion. We previously reported its initial market cap would be around $18.5 billion, but that was before we knew that Lyft’s IPO was already oversubscribed. Here’s a little more background on the Lyft IPO for those interested.

Uber: The global ride-hailing business flew a little more under the radar this week than last week, but still managed to grab a few headlines. The company has decided to sell its stock on the New York Stock Exchange, which is the least surprising IPO development of 2019, considering its key U.S. competitor, Lyft, has been working with the Nasdaq on its IPO. Uber is expected to unveil its S-1 in April.

Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO of Pinterest, at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017.

Pinterest: Pinterest, the nearly decade-old visual search engine, unveiled its S-1 on Friday, one of the final steps ahead of its NYSE IPO, expected in April. The $12.3 billion company, which will trade under the ticker symbol “PINS,” posted revenue of $755.9 million in the year ending December 31, 2018, up from $472.8 million in 2017. It has roughly doubled its monthly active user count since early 2016, hitting 265 million last year. The company’s net loss, meanwhile, shrank to $62.9 million in 2018 from $130 million in 2017.

Zoom: Not necessarily the buzziest of companies, but its S-1 filing, published Friday, stands out for one important reason: Zoom is profitable! I know, what insanity! Anyway, the startup is going public on the Nasdaq as soon as next month after raising about $150 million in venture capital funding. The full deets are here.

Seed money

General Catalyst, a well-known venture capital firm, is diving more seriously into the business of funding seed-stage business. The firm, which has investments in Warby Parker, Oscar and Stripe, announced earlier this week its plan to invest at least $25 million each year in nascent teams.

Deal of the week

Earlier this week, Opendoor, the SoftBank -backed real estate startup, filed paperwork to raise even more money. According to TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden, the business is planning to raise up to $200 million at a valuation of roughly $3.7 billion. It’s possible this is a Series E extension; after all, the company raised its $400 million Series E only six months ago. Backers of OpenDoor include the usual suspects: Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, General Atlantic, GV, Initialized Capital, Khosla Ventures, NEA and Norwest Venture Partners.

Startup capital

Backstage Capital founder and managing partner Arlan Hamilton, center.

Debate

Axios’ Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva published a report this week revealing Backstage Capital hadn’t raised its debut fund in total. Backstage founder Arlan Hamilton was quick to point out that she had been honest about the challenges of fundraising during various speaking engagements, and even on the Gimlet “Startup” podcast, which featured her in its latest season. A Twitter debate ensued and later, Hamilton announced she was stepping down as CEO of Backstage Studio, the operations arm of the venture fund, to focus on raising capital and amplifying founders. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has the full story.

Pro rata rights

This week, TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos revisited a long-held debate: Pro rata rights, or the right of an earlier investor in a company to maintain the percentage that he or she (or their venture firm) owns as that company matures and takes on more funding. Here’s why pro rata rights matter (at least, to VCs).

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I chat about Glossier, Rent The Runway and YC Demo Days. Then, in a special Equity Shot, we unpack the numbers behind the Pinterest and Zoom IPO filings.

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Indonesia’s Kargo comes out of stealth with $7.6M from Travis Kalanick, Sequoia and others

Travis Kalanick may be busy cooking up a cloud kitchen business, but that hasn’t stopped the former Uber CEO’s VC fund from making its first investment in Southeast Asia. 10100, the firm that Kalanick launched last year for investments in Asia, just took part in a $7.6 million seed round for Kargo, an early-stage ‘Uber for trucks’ startup that is based in Indonesia and — you guessed it — founded by a former Uber Asia executive.

Kargo takes some of the concepts behind Uber and applies them to trucking and logistics. That’s to say that business customers order trucks using a mobile app or website but the scope is wider, Kargo CEO and co-founder Tiger Fang told TechCrunch.

The goal is to remove middlemen who broker logistics and trucking deals to provide greater transparency, better quality service and improved financials for clients and those operating the services — so cheaper pricing for companies and a larger share of the revenue for those actually out driving. So rather than being subject to closed discussions and chains of brokers, each taking their cut, Kargo wants to offer a direct connection.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Fang said in an interview. “We’ve been looking at what types of problems we can go and solve [since the Uber-Grab deal]… starting another e-commerce startup was probably not the best idea.

“We hope we can lower the price for shippers and raise the earnings from shippers and transporters,” he added. “We think there are hundreds of thousands of smaller companies who all get their hobs from agents and middleman.”

Fang — whose stint at Uber included time in the U.S, launches across Southeast Asia and managing its business in Chengdu, once the company’s busiest city on the planet based on daily trip volume — started Kargo late last year with Yodi Aditya, its CTO, following “months” of research after Uber sold its local business to Grab . They went on to close the financing deal before the end of 2018 and launch in beta early this year.

Operationally, Fang said Kargo is currently piloting with “a couple of big FMG companies” while, on the supply side, it has access to “thousands” of trucks. The initial focus is strictly on FMCG, he added, because each industry and segment requires different types of trucks.

As those figures suggest, Kargo is in its early stages and that makes a $7.6 million seed round pretty notable. Yes, valuations and rounds have been ratcheted up in Southeast Asia, where investors and tech companies see potential as internet access grows among the region’s 600 million-plus consumers, but this is a large check for a venture that is literally just kicking off. But that’s not all, the caliber of the backers is also quite unlike your average seed deal.

Kalanick’s 10100 firm is participating, but the round is led by Sequoia India and Southeast Asia, which announced its new $695 million fund six months ago and has since added an early-stage accelerator program. Other names involved including China’s Zhenfund, Indonesia-focused Intudo Ventures, a personal investment from Patrick Walujo — co-founder of Indonesian hedge fund group North Star — ATM Capital, Innoven Capital and Agaeti Ventures from Indonesian businessman Pandu Sjahrir.

Kalanick is, in many ways, the headline investor given his profile and connections to Fang and others at Kargo. TechCrunch understands that Kalanick agreed to invest last year when he visited Southeast Asia on a trip that combined hiring for his CloudKitchens startup and more generally catching up with the Uber alumni in Asia.

Fang declined to comment on the circumstances, but he said Kalanick “has been a big mentor” to him.

Clearly, a lot of the interest in Kargo stems from the team’s credentials — Fang said a large chunk of Kargo’s 50 person team are ex-Uber Asia — but there are also promising examples of what Kargo is doing in other parts of the world.

China’s two trucking platform unicorns which merged to create Full Truck Alliance Group, a startup reportedly valued at $10 billion that counts Google and SoftBank among its investors, while in India, Blackbuck is reportedly raising at an $800 million valuation. It’s logical, then, that Indonesia — the world’s fourth largest population and Southeast Asia’s largest economy — would also come under the radar, and Fang believes that his team is ideally suited to go after the problem.

The focus is entirely on Indonesia for now, where Fang believes logistics accounts for close to one-quarter of the national $1 trillion GDP, but further down the line he anticipates that there will be expansions across Southeast Asia and potentially beyond.

“We definitely want to build a global company,” he said.

Uber had a tough run in Indonesia. Taxi drivers and those with interests in the industry staged often-violent demonstrations in protest at this ‘foreign’ entrant that posed a threat to their businesses and financial returns. Trucking feels a lot like that with decades of inefficiencies in place, and certain parties profiting from those extended chains of deal-making. Like taxis, those who are being disintermediated aren’t likely to take a threat lying down, so it remains to be seen if Fang, and his fellow ex-Uberites, will run into similar conflict in the future. But Kargo is certainly off to a bright start with plenty of money to go out and test its thesis.

Skymind raises $11.5M to bring deep learning to more enterprises

Skymind, a Y Combinator-incubated AI platform that aims to make deep learning more accessible to enterprises, today announced that it has raised an $11.5 million Series A round led by TransLink Capital, with participation from ServiceNow, Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures, UpHonest Capital and GovTech Fund. With this, the company has now raised a total of $17.9 million in funding.

The inclusion of TransLink Capital gives a hint as to how the company is planning to use the funding. One of TransLink’s specialties is helping entrepreneurs develop customers in Asia. Skymind believes that it has a major opportunity in that market, so having TransLink lead this round makes a lot of sense. Skymind also plans to use the round to build out its team in North America and fuel customer acquisition there.

“TransLink is the perfect lead for this round, because they know how to make connections between North America and Asia,” Skymind CEO Chris Nicholson told me. “That’s where the most growth is globally, and there are a lot of potential synergies. We’re also really excited to have strategic investors like ServiceNow and Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures backing us for the first time. We’re already collaborating with ServiceNow, and Skymind software will be part of some powerful new technologies they roll out.”

It’s no secret that enterprises know that they have to adapt AI in some form but are struggling with figuring out how to do so. Skymind’s tools, including its core SKIL framework, allow data scientists to create workflows that take them from ingesting the data to cleaning it up, training their models and putting them into production. The promise here is that Skymind’s tools eliminate the gap that often exists between the data scientists and IT.

“The two big opportunities with AI are better customer experiences and more efficiency, and both are based on making smarter decisions about data, which is what AI does,” said Nicholson. “The main types of data that matter to enterprises are text and time series data (think web logs or payments). So we see a lot of demand for natural-language processing and for predictions around streams of data, like logs.”

Current Skymind customers include the likes of ServiceNow and telco company Orange, while some of its technology partners that integrate its services into their portfolio include Cisco and SoftBank .

It’s worth noting that Skymind is also the company behind Deeplearning4j, one of the most popular open-source AI tools for Java. The company is also a major contributor to the Python-based Keras deep learning framework.

Transportation Weekly: Uber’s spending habits, Tesla Model Y, scooters and AVs in Austin

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up by reading the first edition here or check out last week’s edition, which offered the gamut of mobility news from Lyft and Bird to Waymo’s laser bears and cybersecurity.

As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. An email subscription is coming!

This week we’ll focus on the city of Austin, gain insight into Uber’s spending habits, do a little scooter number crunching, the Tesla Model Y, and the so-called “race” — an overused and inaccurate term — to develop autonomous vehicles.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.uber atg pittsburgh office

Mark Harris is back with new details on Uber’s autonomous vehicle technology program. The upshot: Uber was spending $20 million a month to develop self-driving technologies.

The new information, gleaned from recently unsealed court documents, provides new insight into the company’s past activities and what that might mean for its upcoming IPO.

Harris writes: “The figures, dating back to 2016, paint a picture of a company desperate to meet over-ambitious autonomy targets and one that is willing to spend freely, even recklessly, to get there. As Uber prepares for its IPO later this year, the new details could prove an embarrassing reminder that the company is still trailing in its efforts to develop technology that founder Travis Kalanick called “existential” to Uber’s future.”

This historical look at Uber and its self-driving tech unit, Uber ATG, should be considered alongside more recent news, including that it’s in negotiations with investors, including the SoftBank Vision Fund, to secure an investment as large as $1 billion for its autonomous vehicles unit.


Dig In

After five days in Austin for SXSW, I headed to Los Angeles, actually Hawthorne, for Tesla’s Model Y unveiling. In many ways, this was like all the other Tesla events I’ve attended: the pumpy music and mood lighting, the designed-to-inspire kick off video, the Tesla superfans (pictured below), and the long lines for a brief test ride.

Tesla Model y unveiling

And yet, something was different. The Model Y unveil reminded me of other more traditional automaker reveals. There were mutterings at the event, and wild cries on Twitter, of disappointment (there were plenty of platitudes as well). Many expected something more exciting than this Model 3 doppelganger.

The Model Y is the kind of next act one might expect from an established and more cautious automaker. And while the market’s reaction was negative, there were folks who noted that the Model Y’s likeness to the 3 meant it was getting serious about selling vehicles.

And that’s not a bad thing — accept for two niggling details. First, the Model Y is so similar to the 3 that it could suffer from buyer malaise or cannibalization of one of the two vehicles. Secondly, even if everyone loved this vehicle and Tesla was poised to take advantage of these perceived efficiencies gained from sharing at least 75 percent of the parts with the Model 3, the Y isn’t coming until fall 2020.

That lengthy timeline raises a lot of questions that we’ll be (and surely others) digging into in the coming weeks and months. Where Tesla chooses to produce the Model Y is perhaps the most important, unanswered question.

Tesla Model Y prototype

 


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

Welp, we didn’t anticipate this happening. Two tips turned into stories this week: Ford expanding its autonomous vehicle program to Austin and GM Cruise ramping up its hiring machine with plans to hire at least 1,000 more engineers by the end of the year.

What else are we hearing? There’s a new autonomous trucking company coming out of stealth. We’ll share more soon.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

It’s not a done deal, yet. But it’s just an intriguing. Uber is in talks with Softbank Vision Fund and Toyota to raise $1 billion for its self-driving unit Uber ATG. This investment would give Uber ATG a valuation of between $5 billion and $10 billion, WSJ reported. The talks are fluid and could still fall apart, these people warned.

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes investment and partnership activity in the autonomous vehicle space these days. In short, these relationships are getting messy and hard to follow.

Let’s not forget that Softbank’s Vision Fund already has a nearly 20 percent stake in GM’s self-driving subsidiary GM Cruise following its $2.2 billion investment in 2018.

Then there’s Volkswagen AG, which is in continued talks with Ford to partner on self-driving car technologies. The framework of the agreement is expected to include VW making an investment into Ford-backed autonomous vehicle startup Argo AI.

VW already has other partnerships. VW Group, Intel’s  computer vision subsidiary Mobileye  and Champion Motors said in November they plan to deploy Israel’s first self-driving ride-hailing service in 2019 through a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel. VW also has a partnership with AV startup Aurora to integrate self-driving systems in custom-designed electric shuttles for VW’s new Moia brand.

Other deals:

  • Flight-hailing startup Blackbird raises $10 million
  • Drivezy, India’s vehicle-sharing startup is raising more than $100 million
  • BMW i Ventures invested in Bright Machines, a San Francisco-based company that has combined software and robotics to help automotive, computer and electronic brands improve product quality, throughput, and factory optimization.
  • Toyota Motor, DENSO Corporation, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation made a $15 million investment into connected vehicle services startup Airbiquity. The four parties will collaborate to accelerate the development and commercialization of an automotive grade over-the-air (OTA) system enabling remote vehicle software updates and management.

  • Freight railroad owner Genesee & Wyoming is considering a sale of all or part of itself, Bloomberg reported

Snapshot

I spent the week in Austin to participate in a number of SXSW-related events, including a couple of panels. As MRD notes in the micromobility section below, scooters were everywhere. And I used them a lot.

Here’s what many might not have considered as they zipped along the streets, and sidewalks of Austin. The new new new thing often kills off something else, or at least forces it to change.

Which brings me to pedicabs. The snapshot below is a long lineup of empty pedicabs in downtown Austin. I saw these pedicabs-sans-riders everywhere in Austin. I remember SXSW just one year ago and the pedicabs were full; I took them several times that week. But now, scooters and bike share are here, and the pedicabs seem to be the ones suffering the most. I hired a pedicab during my stay and the driver confirmed my observations: they’re waiting much longer for customers now.

Sometimes that disruption can hit the new new thing too. Take bike share. The Austin City Council on approved in February 2018 the creation of a “dockless” bike share pilot program. Some companies were already operating these services; this action created a regulatory framework. But then scooters came en masse.

City officials and one dockless mobility executive told me that scooters upended bike share, and prompted companies to take some of their bikes off the streets do to lack of demand.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

It seems like everyone is riding scooters now. Case in point, Austin during SXSW. MRD weighs in on what went down.

I wasn’t in Austin this week for SXSW. And it’s a good thing I wasn’t because there were reports of a tornado! Well, a tornado of scooters. According to The Verge, scooters and bikes were out and about, enabling the hundreds of thousands of conference goers to get from one bar to the next — and from one session to the other.

“Some of the astounding sights I’ve seen in the past few days include multiple vicious-looking wipeouts, a man cranking the accelerator and doing donuts in a crowded parking lot, and scooters littering the gutters of East 6th Street while throngs of people avoid tripping over them,” The Verge’s Nick Statt wrote. “At one point, I read that a man was found riding one down the shoulder of an Austin highway. Riders here are disregarding all manner of street signage and traffic lights; some people flagrantly speed the wrong way down streets.”

In other micromobility news

Micromobility data platform Populus raised some skrillz — $3.1 million, to be exact. That’s in part because, while cities are down for this new era of transportation and operators are down to share their data, cities still have to find out what to do with this data and how to extract learnings from it.

This is where Populus comes in. Populus raised the seed round from Precursor Ventures, Relay Ventures and others to help cities make sense of the influx of transportation data. This brings the startup’s total funding to $3.85 million.

And  … just because scooters are hot right now, doesn’t mean companies aren’t facing headwinds. The Information reported that Bird has laid off between 4 to 5 percent of its workforce.

Megan Rose Dickey


Notable reads

Navigant Research released its annual, and often controversial autonomous vehicle leaderboard report, by principal analyst Sam Abuelsamid. The Navigant Research Leaderboard examines the strategy and execution of 20 leading automated driving system companies and rates them based on 10 criteria, including vision; go-to market strategy; partners; production strategy; technology; sales, marketing, and distribution; product capability; product quality and reliability; product portfolio; and staying power.

The leaders, in Navigant’s view are:

  1. Waymo
  2. GM Cruise
  3. Ford autonomous vehicles
  4. Aptiv
  5. Intel-Mobileye
  6. Volkswagen Group
  7. Daimler-Bosch
  8. Baidu
  9. Toyota
  10. . Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance

Other quotable notables:

With the rise of autonomous delivery bots — or at least news of all the capital they’re raising — it’s worth revisiting a white paper that KPMG put out in November called Autonomy Delivers: An oncoming revolution in the movement of goods. The report notes how e-commerce is pushing this delivery phenomenon forward. Two forecasts worth noting:

  • expecting no acceleration in e-commerce adoption trends, KMPG estimates that by 2040 e-commerce will reduce shopping trips in the U.S. by 30 percent. It could be as high as 50 percent.
  • as a result, delivery vehicle miles traveled will skyrocket from 23 billion annual miles to more than 78 billion by 2040.

Testing and deployments


Ford continues to expand its autonomous vehicle program. This time, the automaker is
setting up shop in Austin. During my week in Austin for SXSW, I had heard rumors that Ford was preparing to open an autonomous vehicle program there. A number of Ford executives were on the ground in Austin during SXSW to participate in panels and other events including one I moderated at the Smart Mobility Summit.

That chatter was confirmed by a new job listing for an autonomous vehicles “market specialist” based in Austin. Austin is the fifth city to join the automaker’s testing program, which already includes Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is getting ready for a widespread deployment of scooters. About seven companies already have permission to operate on a conditional basis, according to Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s general manager Seleta Reynolds. Now it’s about to get bigger.

The city recently launched a one-year dockless on-demand personal mobility program. As part of that program, the LADOT accepted applications from companies seeking one-year permits. Eleven companies applied for permission to operate about 38,000 dockless devices. The city is prepping for coming deluge by creating designated parking areas and other signage.

That sounds like a lot; and it is. But it could have been a much higher number. If these companies had maxed out the total number allowed under the permit, it could have meant 160,000 scooters in Los Angeles.

Why wouldn’t Bird, Lime, Spin and others max out the allowable 10,500 scooters per permit? Here’s one thought: cost and supply.

The annual permit application fee is a non-refundable $20,000. Companies also most pay $130 fee per vehicle annually if they’re operating in non-disadvantage communities (DAC). LADOT is allowing companies a maximum of 3,000 scooters in non-DAC areas, 5,000 in DACs in San Fernando Valley and up to 2,500 in DACs in outside of San Fernando Valley. Permits for scooters in DACs are $39 per vehicle, a 70 percent reduction in that fee.

That means if a company could max out and hit the 10,500 scooter limit, which includes DACs, it would be looking at more than $700,000 in permitting fees to operate for a year.

Two car things

  • Gridwise, a mobile app designed to increases rideshare drivers’ hourly earnings by helping them find more rides and track their performance, launched in a number of cities, including Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Gridwise app is already available in numberous U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.
  • And Citymobil, one of the largest Russian taxi aggregators, has teamed up with Gazprom to launch a taxi runs on natural gas. About 500 taxi cars that participate with Citymobil have already been converted to work on methane. By the end of the year, their number is expected to reach 10,000.

On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month.

Nvidia GTC

TechCrunch will be at Nvidia’s annual GPU Technology Conference from March 18 to 21 in San Jose.

The 4th annualADAS Sensors 2019 conference and expo held March 20 to 21 in Detroit Michigan. See the full conference agenda at: http://www.adassensors.com/agenda.html

Self Racing Cars

The annual Self Racing Car eventwill be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at [email protected].

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

Uber said to be raising $1B at a $10B valuation for its self-driving car unit

Uber is in negotiations with investors, including the SoftBank Vision Fund, to secure an investment as large as $1 billion for its autonomous vehicles unit. The deal would value the business at between $5 billion and $10 billion, according to a Tuesday report from The Wall Street Journal.

Uber declined to comment.

The news comes shortly after TechCrunch’s Mark Harris revealed the ridehailing firm was burning through $20 million a month on developing self-driving technologies, which means, according to our calculations, that Uber could have spent more than $900 million on automated vehicle research since early 2015.

According to the WSJ, the deal could close as soon as next month, shortly before Uber is expected to complete a highly-anticipated initial public offering. Uber, in December, filed the necessary paperwork with the US Securities and Exchange Commission to go public in 2019. The documents were submitted only hours after its competitor Lyft did the same; Lyft, for its part, unveiled its S-1 earlier this month and will debut on the Nasdaq shortly.

Uber, to date, has raised nearly $20 billion in a combination of debt and equity funding, reaching a valuation north of $70 billion. The business is said to be seeking funding for its self-driving business in order to tout the unit’s growth and valuation. After all, a $10 billion sticker price on its AV efforts may bandage its reputation, damaged by continued reports questioning its progress.

Alphabet-owned Waymo, meanwhile, is reportedly looking to raise capital, too. This would be the first infusion of outside funding for the autonomous vehicle business, rolled out of Alphabet’s Google X. According to The Information, which broke this news on Monday, Waymo would raise capital at a valuation “several times” that of Cruise, the AV company owned by General Motors.

Raising capital from outside investors would help limit costs and would allow Alphabet the opportunity to display Waymo’s valuation for the first time in several years. Alphabet, however, does not want to relinquish too much equity in the business, justifiably. Waymo, years ago, was valued at $4.5 billion, though analysts claim it could surpass a valuation as high as $175 billion based on future revenue estimates.

Waymo didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Other investors in Uber’s purported round include an “unnamed automaker,” per the WSJ. Uber’s existing backers include Toyota, SoftBank, T. Rowe Price, Fidelity and TPG Growth.

Uber’s net losses were up 32 percent quarter-over-quarter as of late last year to $939 million on a pro forma basis. On an EBITDA basis, Uber’s losses were $527 million, up about 21 percent. The company said revenue was up five percent QoQ sitting at $2.95 billion and up 38 percent year-over-year.

2 days left to save $100 on TC Sessions: Robotics + AI

For the love of robots, don’t miss your chance to save $100 on admission to TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI. Our annual, day-long event goes deep on all things related to robotics and artificial intelligence, and you’ll hear from the greatest tech and investment minds and makers. Danger, Will Robinson, danger! The early-bird price — and the $100 savings — disappears in only two days, so buy your ticket right now.

Last year, more than 1,000 people attended our robo-fest, which makes it a prime opportunity for networking. This year, we’re adding CrunchMatch — TechCrunch’s free business match-making service — into the mix. This handy tool simplifies the networking process by helping you find and connect with the right people based on specific mutual criteria, goals and interests.

We’ve prepared an outstanding lineup of interviews, panel discussions, demos and workshops, and we still have a few more surprises to add over the next few weeks. Check out the event agenda and keep checking back for updates. In the meantime, here’s a taste to wet your proverbial whistle.

Founders might wish they could read investors’ minds, but we have the next best thing. A TechCrunch editor will moderate an all-star robotics and AI investor panel with Peter Barrett (Playground Global), Helen Liang (FoundersX Ventures), Andy Wheeler (GV) and Hidetaka Aoki (Global Brain). Even better, the panel will take audience questions, too.

Human-robot interaction has come a long way from Issac Asimov’s short story, “Robbie.” HRI incorporates just about every aspect of AI and robotics, and we’re thrilled to host a panel discussion on this challenging topic featuring Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley’s Interact Lab), Rana el Kaliouby(Affectiva) and Matt Willis (SoftBank Robotics). Learn where HRI stands today and where it will lead tomorrow.

Building a tech startup ain’t easy, as you well know. But building a robotics startup, well, let’s just say it’s not for the faint-hearted. We’ve tapped several brave hearts to share their lessons learned. You’ll hear from Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics (funds raised: $48 million), Manish Kothari, president of SRI Ventures and Nima Keivan, CTO and co-founder of Canvas Technology (funds raised: $15 million).

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI takes place April 18, at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. If you love saving money as much as you love robots, buy your early-bird ticket now. That bird disappears — along with your $100 — in just two days.

GM Cruise snags Dropbox HR head to hire at least 1,000 engineers by end of year

GM Cruise plans to hire hundreds of employees over the next nine months, doubling its engineering staff, TechCrunch has learned. It’s an aggressive move by the autonomous vehicle technology company to double its size as it pushes to deploy a robotaxi service by the end of the year. Arden Hoffman, who helped scale Dropbox, will leave the file-sharing and storage company to head up human resources at Cruise.

The GM subsidiary, which has more than 1,000 employees, is expanding its office space in San Francisco to accommodate the growth. GM Cruise will keep its headquarters at 1201 Bryant Street in San Francisco. The company will also take over Dropbox headquarters at 333 Brannan Street some time this year, a move that will triple Cruise’s office space in San Francisco.

“Arden has made a huge impact on Dropbox over the last four years. She helped build and scale our team and culture to the over 2300 person company we are today, and we‘ll miss her leadership, determination, and sense of humor. While we’re sorry to see her go, we’re excited for her and wish her all the best in this new opportunity to grow the team at Cruise,” a Dropbox spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

Prior to joining Dropbox, Hoffman was human resources director at Google for three years.

The planned expansion and hiring of Hoffman follows a recent executive reshuffling. GM president Dan Ammann left the automaker in December and became CEO of Cruise. Ammann had been president of GM since 2014, and he was a central figure in the automaker’s 2016 acquisition of Cruise and its integration with GM.

Kyle Vogt,  a Cruise co-founder who was CEO and also unofficially handled the chief technology officer position, is now president and CTO.

Cruise has grown from a small startup with 40 employees to more than 1,000 today at its San Francisco headquarters. It has expanded to Seattle, as well, in pursuit of talent. Cruise announced plans in November to open an office in Seattle and staff it with up to 200 engineers. And with the recent investments by SoftBank and Honda, which has pushed Cruise’s valuation to $14.6 billion, it has the runway to double its staff.

The hunt for qualified people with backgrounds in software engineering, robotics and AI has heated up as companies race to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles. There are more than 60 companies that have permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles in the state.

Competition over talent has led to generous, even outrageous, compensation packages and poaching of people with specific skills.

Cruise’s announcement puts more pressure on that ever-tightening pool of talent. Cruise has something that many other autonomous vehicle technology companies don’t — ready amounts of capital. In May, Cruise received a $2.25 billion investment by SoftBank’s vision fund. Honda also committed $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle.

As part of that agreement, Honda will invest $2 billion into the effort over the next 12 years. Honda also is making an immediate and direct equity investment of $750 million into Cruise.

Cruise will likely pursue a dual path of traditional recruitment and acquisitions to hit that 1,000-engineer mark. It’s a strategy Cruise is already pursuing. Last year, Cruise acquired Zippy.ai, which develops robots for last-mile grocery and package delivery, for an undisclosed amount of money. The deal was more of an acqui-hire and did not include any of Zippy’s product or intellectual property. Instead, it seems Cruise was more interested in the skill sets of the co-founders, Gabe Sibley, Alex Flint and Chris Broaddus, and their team.

In 2017, Cruise also acquired Strobe,  a LiDAR sensor maker. At the time, Cruise said Strobe would help it reduce by nearly 100 percent the cost of LiDAR on a per-vehicle basis.

With these numbers, it’s no surprise SoftBank is investing in Latin America

After SoftBank announced its plans to launch a $5 billion innovation fund in Latin America, we reached out to the good folks at the Latin American Venture Capital Association (LAVCA) for some context, and what they told me only validates the reasoning behind SoftBank’s interest in the region. (In 2017, we reported on the growing interest in Latin America.)

Let’s start with some numbers. Venture funding in Latin American startups is up — way up — from previous years. Specifically, LAVCA’s data shows that VC funding more than doubled in 2017 to $1.14 billion compared to $500 million in 2016. While 2018 numbers haven’t been finalized, LAVCA is projecting another record year with venture investments topping $1.5 billion.

If you combine private equity and venture investing, the numbers are even more impressive. LAVCA estimates that PE and VC fundraising together in Latin America in 2017 totaled $4.3 billion, up from $2.3 billion in 2016.1

Julie Ruvolo, director of venture capital for LAVCA, said all this “fits squarely in this larger momentum that’s been building over the last year or two.”

“We’ve been seeing the continued, and increased, entry of significant global players in the market,” she told Crunchbase News. “Plus, we’ve been seeing an uptick in $100 million-plus rounds, which was a relatively rare thing in Latin America.”

Also unsurprising is the breakdown of where the majority of venture dollars have gone in Latin America. Brazil led the region across all stages of VC investment, capturing 73 percent of VC investment dollars in 2017 and the first half of 2018 (201 startup investments totaling $1.4 billion). Mexico was the second most active market by number of deals (82 startup investments totaling $154 million), but Colombia saw more money invested ($188 million over 23 deals).

Here’s a quick rundown of just some of the bigger deals that took place during that same time frame:

It’s worth noting that fintech is the top sector of VC investment by dollars and number of deals in Latin America. The region also hosts a number of unicorns, including Brazilian ride-hailing startup 99; Colombian last-mile delivery service Rappi; Brazilian learning systems provider Arco Educação; and Brazilian fintech startup Stone Pagamentos.

With all this innovation and investing going on in Latin America, there is clearly large potential. And SoftBank is now poised to capitalize on that.

  1. The fundraising and investment data LAVCA collects is specific to fund managers that have raised capital from third-party institutional investors/limited partners and doesn’t account for other types of private capital investors, like a SoftBank fund or sovereign wealth fund, corporate, etc.