Critical mass

Greetings from…somewhere. As I mentioned the other week, I’m taking a few weeks off. It’s the first time off I’ve had this year and the most consecutive days I’ve taken off in 15+ years of being a tech journalist. It’s been a hard/weird last few years, and burnout has a way of sneaking up on you while you’re not looking.

I’m trying to ignore the creeping sense of guilt about not doing a couple of proper year-end newsletters this time out. I’ll be back right after the Christmas break, though, and we can debrief on 2022 then, just as we ease into full freak-out mode pre-CES (the level of real robotics news at what is ostensibly a consumer show always feels like a bit of a crapshoot).

I also have some passing thoughts about the need for more focused robotics journalism out there that I’ve been wanting to get down on paper. That’s not to say there aren’t good people out there doing good work. But there’s a lot more that needs to be done to mainstream coverage. Apologies for pasting some thoughts over from LinkedIn. If you read those posts, feel free to skip the next couple of grafs. Consider this a minor manifesto of sorts.

Quoting myself here (I know, I know):

If you run a robotics startup and want coverage, come ready to answer difficult questions. Categories like crypto have been done a disservice by some breathless coverage. It’s our job to ask some hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions.

A good investor will have already prepared you for some of them, like market fit and ROI. Even seemingly simple questions like “Why does this need to exist?” and “Why are you the right person/team to execute it?” can be difficult for many founders to answer.

They shouldn’t be. You should be asking yourself these questions every day. If you can’t find meaningful answers, you might not be the right person for the job. Accepting that and pivoting isn’t failure. Ignoring it and carrying on ultimately might be, however.

I’ve been genuinely surprised that more major publications aren’t investing in robotics coverage. Now is the time to starting building coverage of robotics/automation. The category has largely been done a disservice, as it’s been more of an afterthought. I got my start writing about gadgets (it’s still a big part of my role at TechCrunch), so I completely understand the impulse to fall back on Skynet and Black Mirror jokes, rather than having a nuanced conversation.

But questions about ethics, automation/labor and the like are important to bake into these conversations. Asking difficult questions isn’t combative. It’s not doing the industry a disservice (unless said industry can’t stand up to scrutiny). It’s an important part of growing. Otherwise one day you wake up and have a Theranos or FTX on your hands.

Sometimes these things are scams from the outset, but oftentimes it’s the product of someone who believed in their mission, but ultimately didn’t get enough pushback along the way and began believing their own lies.

Asking the right questions comes with being immersed in a topic. Knowing the lay of the land, talking to the right people and finely honing your BS detector. I’m not here to be anyone’s cheerleader, but I’m also not in the business of criticizing for criticism’s sake. Coverage should reflect the product and the people who make it — for better and worse.

All right, that’s enough bloviating from me for a while. For the next couple of weeks, I’m leaving you in some very capable hands. We’ve got some insight from some very smart folks in the space. Coming up over the next couple of weeks are PlayGround Global’s Peter Barrett and UC Berkeley’s Ken Goldberg.

Q&A with Joyce Sidopoulos

Image Credits: MassRobotics

Today we’re kicking things off with MassRobotics’ chief of operations, Joyce Sidopoulos, who was also a great help for my recent trip to Boston. See you on the other side.

TC: What was the biggest robotics story of 2022? 

JS: There are a number of stories that are changing the landscape of the robotics industry, such as Hyundai’s announcement of a $400 million AI and robotics institute powered by Boston Dynamics, but one of the most impactful stories is Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot.

What are your biggest robotics predictions for 2023?

The adoption of robotics will continue to grow at a rapid pace, in spite of, or possibly due to, the predicted economic downturn. The last few years have proven the worth of many robot systems, such as those used in warehouses.

How profound of an impact has the pandemic had on robotics?

Very. The pandemic highlighted the value that robotics can provide, and spurred on more development and commercialization. The pandemic led to the realization that domestic manufacturing needs help and our supply chain is broken, areas which robotics can help solve. Industries began to adopt collaborative robots to help with workforce shortfalls and that will continue.

How much of an impact has the macroeconomic environment had on robotics investing?

We are definitely seeing that it is taking startups longer to raise rounds, but so far there are funds still available. MassRobotics recently held an investor demo day for about 30 of our startups and we had a great turnout of interested investors.

What underaddressed category deserves more focus from robotics startups and investors?

Climate change and sustainability. We will need to make significant strides in using technology to impact some of our global challenges, and we believe robotics can play a growing role, from wind turbine inspection to automated recycling.

How will automation impact the workforce of the future?

The best applications for robots today are where robots work in conjunction with human workers. Companies that have been successful in deploying robots have increased their workforce. Robots will replace dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Those are the undesirable jobs that are not easily filled.

Are home robotics finally having their moment?

We are watching Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot closely. We believe there are plenty of opportunities for robots in the home in the future.

What more can/should the U.S. do to foster innovation in the category?

Increase the support for the startup community by investing in innovation centers (like MassRobotics) and create incentives for small and midsized firms to adopt robotics to allow them to be competitive on the world stage.

Critical mass by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Report indicates friction prior to Bret Taylor’s resignation from Salesforce

It seems that maybe Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff was protesting a bit too much when he gave what seemed like a genuinely heartfelt goodbye to his protégé, Bret Taylor, last week, insisting to anyone who would listen that he was heartbroken to lose his friend and mentee.

That might not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that there was tension between the two executives over Taylor’s role as co-CEO and his other job as Twitter board chair, a role he held until the end of October, when Elon Musk took over as owner and dissolved the board.

Certainly, the oddest part of the report was that people told the WSJ that Benioff was upset that Taylor wasn’t spending enough time on engineering and too much time with other CEOs and customers, a role that you would think Benioff would want his co-CEO to take on.

This was precisely the kind of thing that former co-CEO Keith Block brought to the job before he left the company in 2020. One would think that if the reason for Taylor’s departure was frustration at being unable to build something, engineering would be where he’d be spending the majority of his time.

The report went on to suggest that people were confused about which co-CEO to report to, which throws into focus the whole idea of the co-CEO role. As former Salesforce executive and current founder and CEO of Skyflow, Anshu Sharma, told TechCrunch earlier this week, it’s not really a role at all.

“What the fuck is a co-CEO and why do you need one? Well, I mean, you have a CEO and four other CXOs. What does a co-CEO wake up in the morning and do that’s not already being done by a CEO?” he asked.

It’s a fair question, and if the WSJ report is accurate, it seems that people inside Salesforce, including Benioff himself, had trouble figuring it out.

It also begs the question of whether those were just crocodile tears from Benioff at the announcement last week. It sure sounds like Taylor’s decision to leave wasn’t just because he had a hankering to return to building, as we had been led to believe.

We sought comment from Salesforce, but the company did not respond to our request by the time of publication. Should that change, we will update the post.

Report indicates friction prior to Bret Taylor’s resignation from Salesforce by Ron Miller originally published on TechCrunch

Cinder’s content moderation software is custom-built for trust and safety teams

A startup from former Meta employees aims to streamline the content moderation process for companies grappling with some of the internet’s most complex, dangerous challenges.

Cinder, which likes to describe itself as an “operating system for trust and safety,” boasts years of combined experience in security and content policy work. That includes CEO and co-founder Glen Wise, a former red team engineer at Meta, Philip Brennan and Declan Cummings, who worked on threat intelligence at Meta, and Brian Fishman, the former director of Facebook’s counterterrorism and dangerous organizations team.

Cinder is backed by venture firm Accel, which led a $4 million seed round in May and a $10 million Series A this month, with participation from Y Combinator. The company was created in January of this year and has raised a total of $14 million to date.

Speaking with TechCrunch, Wise likened Cinder to business software platforms like Salesforce and Zendesk that can pull scattered sets of data together into a single user interface. But with Cinder, instead of sales or customer service teams tracking and sifting data, content moderators and other members of a company’s trust and safety teams can centralize a sensitive workflow into one purpose-built tool.

Wise says that companies without robust workflows in place for trust and safety right now awkwardly rely on systems that were built for different use cases, like bug tracking.

“I started talking to a lot of heads of trust and safety [and] a lot of other large internet companies, honestly a lot outside of social media as well, and they were struggling with operationally how to solve a lot of this, Wise told TechCrunch. “They would hire really smart people but they’d be stuck in spreadsheets, they’d be stuck in SQL statements and be stuck in this kind of world of the past, because they had no tools custom built for this.”

If a content moderator using one of those systems wants to review a social media post, for example, they’d have to leave that environment and follow a URL to view the content in question before coming back into the bug tracking tool to view any relevant context and provide their input.

“Then like an hour and a half later, they can actually make a decision, Wise said. “And so we want to do all of that out of the box.” Wise says that so far Cinder mostly appeals to large companies that have established trust and safety operations or ones in the process of figuring out what those workflows should look like.

For social networks and other companies hosting user-generated content, the threats that trust and safety teams face are as complex as they are varied. Companies building out trust and safety must weave together expertise on everything from targeted harassment and hate groups to child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and state-sponsored influence operations.

Making moderation decisions in those areas can be as simple as flagging a single text post that uses a racial slur — a decision that might only take a few seconds — or as nuanced as linking together hundreds of accounts operating a covert government-sponsored influence campaign over the course of many months.

While some content is outright illegal, with official detection and reporting workflows to reflect that, most enforcement decisions fall to private companies to sort out. And as we’ve seen time and time again in recent years, the rules that define what content is allowed online and what content isn’t are living documents that respond, double back and evolve in real-time.

Cinder aims to centralize those policies and the necessary context, enabling straightforward decision making at scale while still facilitating “dynamic investigations” — the kind of work that a disinformation campaign or a coordinated effort to undermine an election might require. The platform doesn’t do any detection itself and it doesn’t set the rules, that’s all up to the companies that license its software. (For now, Cinder isn’t naming any of its clients.)

Wise also notes that because Cinder was designed for the content review process, the company has been able to accommodate the human element of some of the web’s most emotionally demanding work, building for those needs “from the ground up.” That includes emerging industry-standard practices like blurring and grayscaling or prompting moderators to take a break after viewing something particularly challenging. Those interventions and others can mitigate what might otherwise be lasting harm to content reviewers.

“I think a lot of people understand how hard of a job it is to be a moderator and to look at a lot of this content,” Wise told TechCrunch. “What’s been really rewarding about this is that companies are really trying to invest in safety measures and are looking to a third party to help provide them.”

Beyond moderator safety concerns, Wise says Cinder is built with security and privacy considered at every level, which comes naturally to a team with a strong security pedigree. He describes a “robust” permissioning system within the software that makes it possible to obscure sensitive identifying information or other data easily, allowing different levels of access to pre-defined groups.

“We have a few customers on board and using the product and they’re really happy about it,” Wise said. “People never really had the tools built for this… and people are really excited to see that, okay, there’s a company of people who’ve done this before, who can help build for the exact use case, which has been really great.”

Cinder’s content moderation software is custom-built for trust and safety teams by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

NFT-focused startup Metagood raises $5 million to grow ‘social good’ impact

Metagood, a for-profit social impact NFT startup, has raised $5 million in its pre-seed round, the team exclusively told TechCrunch.

“We launched the company on the concept of using NFTs as an expression where everyone does good things for each other and the good stuff is tokenized and exchangeable,” Bill Tai, co-founder and chairman of Metagood, said to TechCrunch.

The company launched its flagship NFT collection OnChainMonkey to create tokenized value for community members. It also aims to give members the chance to promote and fund social good projects through its DAO, which raised 2,000 ETH in just one year, he added.

Its DAO distributed 55 ETH, or $68,500 at current prices, to 28 projects across 10 weeks in its “Season 1,” Amanda Terry, co-founder of Metagood, said to TechCrunch. Some of its projects include funding the rehabilitation of a skate park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with art from OnChainMonkey and helping Afghan refugees evacuate to Italy.

Investors in the recent funding round include Animoca Brands, Morgan Creek Capital founder and CEO Mark Yusko, and Virgin Group investment manager Freddie Andrewes, to name a few.

“We appeal to a certain kind of person that wants to have a positive impact on the world,” Tai said. “Many of our investors have experienced good success in their careers and want to use their influence to do other good things in the world.”

Previous investors include a number of high-profile celebrities or executives like actor Owen Wilson, Virgin Unite chair Holly Branson, and Rotten Tomatoes co-founders Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang, as well as crypto investments from Dapper Labs co-founder Roham Gharegozlou, Axie Infinity co-founder Jeffrey Zirlin and The Sandbox co-founder Sebastien Borget, among others.

“Holly Branson sees this as a vehicle to extend what she’s doing,” Tai said. “That’s the common theme here. Culturally, we attract good-hearted people that want to lead the world into better places.”

The capital will be used toward growing the company, hiring new talent, and building OnChainMonkey’s community and tools, Terry said. “We’ve been profitable off our pre-seed but we want to keep growing. We’re sitting on about 3,000 ETH from our public mint and other revenues.”

Metagood believes that web3 can be a positive force in creating an economy of good karma, where people are rewarded for doing good things, Tai said. The startup aims to combine rewards through charitable giving and the prices of the OnChainMonkey NFTs. “As the karma spreads, the economy grows.”

The DAO model allows for a maximum amount of funds to go toward projects— and fast, Tai said.

The skate park mentioned above is an example of a “micro charity grant that would be very hard to administer with a large organization, and we were able to pull that off within days,” Tai said.

“We want the rubber to meet the road between causes and giving, Tai said. “We can address things that large centralized charity organizations who have a lot of authorities can’t do. […] It wouldn’t surprise me if years from now we would be doing thousands of these a year.”

NFT-focused startup Metagood raises $5 million to grow ‘social good’ impact by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

Salesforce to expand Sustainability Cloud into full ESG reporting tool

Salesforce has always fashioned itself as a socially responsible company, and that includes working on a Net Zero carbon emissions goal. In fact, it launched Sustainability Cloud in 2019, a product for tracking customer Net Zero goals. This year, they are taking that idea a step further with a new product that incorporates not only the environmental pieces, but also social and governance goals, all of which fall under the ESG umbrella.

Ari Alexander, GM for Salesforce Net Zero Cloud and Net Zero Marketplace says that the idea is to take advantage of the range of Salesforce tooling from Mulesoft for connecting to data sources to Tableau for data visualization to help companies better understand their progress towards ESG goals.

“ESG is a broad and very important trend where our customers are looking for help, direction and solutions, and increasingly we started hearing that they needed help with reporting, both voluntary and regulatory,” he said.

The amount of information required to build such reports can be a daunting task for those charged with the reporting requirements. “The solution needed to reach across their business to bring in data from many different sources and streamline their reporting. And so we decided it was time to kind of bring the full power of Salesforce to that problem and extend our Net Zero Cloud to broaden into a full ESG solution.”

ESG reporting is challenging in its current state, particularly because there is no common regulatory reporting framework for all of this data, other than for greenhouse gas reporting. “Whereas the E part of ESG has the Greenhouse Gas Protocol to guide it, that’s a fairly well aligned as a global standard, when it comes to ESG reporting, that is very much still an alphabet soup of voluntary frameworks,” Alexander said.

What’s more, the regulatory bodies that are there are changing their requirements frequently, and it is expected that there will be in-country requirements in the not-too-distant future.

“So the specific kinds of data that we’re talking about whether it’s emissions data, whether it’s diversity, equity and inclusion data, whether it’s data about, suppliers and whether there are any kind of human rights flags or abuses anywhere deep in your supply chain, the kinds of things that companies are collecting or looking to put in one place and one single source of truth and report out on. There isn’t yet a clean and easy way to say this is good data or this is bad data on an unstructured data set [like this],” he said.

He says, the data can be reported to third-party auditors, however, and the tool is set up to allow that. “There is increasingly pressure on companies to take the data they’re reporting out more seriously, to provide some of the kinds of audit trails, so the Big Four audit firms can come in and look at enterprise data and have a point of view on whether the data that’s being shown to them is up to a certain standard when it comes to workflows and processes, transparency and being able to explain how you get to the kinds of numbers you report out on,” he said.

The full ESG reporting product is expected to be publicly available in the next couple of months.

Salesforce to expand Sustainability Cloud into full ESG reporting tool by Ron Miller originally published on TechCrunch

Tesla Sales of Chinese-Made Cars Hit Record, as Nation’s Auto Market Shrinks

China’s overall November car sales slump is likened to that of 2008 financial crisis.

TripActions secures $400M in credit facilities from Goldman Sachs, SVB

Less than two months after announcing a new $9.2 billion valuation, TripActions said today it has secured $400 million in credit facilities from Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). 

Specifically, TripActions has secured a warehouse debt facility from Goldman Sachs with a $200 million commitment and the potential to “flex up” to $300 million if needed, noted EVP Michael Sindicich, head of TripActions Liquid. The company also has landed an asset-backed lending facility of $100 million led by Silicon Valley Bank. 

TripActions expanded from its core offering of travel expense management and accelerated the launch of its corporate card and general expense management offering, Liquid, in March 2020. Corporate travel had slid to a halt due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking the company’s revenue to zero. At that time, TripActions began underwriting businesses by funding their accounts with capital and giving them the opportunity to pay the company back at the end of their statement period, or billing cycle (typically a 30-day time frame).

Since that launch, the company’s Liquid offering has grown exponentially, with users such as payments giant Stripe, Canva, Carta, Toast, Patreon,, Lyft, venture firm and investor Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Loom, Databricks and VaynerMedia. By leaning full force into the spend management space, TripActions has been competing with the likes of Brex, Ramp and Airbase, among others.

“We continue to grow at a rapid pace,” Sindicich told TechCrunch in an interview. “The facilities give us more ammo and buying power to bring on, and fund, more businesses as we’ve been scaling.”

TripActions saw the spend volume on its platform increase by 400%, or 5x, in the third quarter, according to Sindicich. The company saw 4.2x year-over-year revenue growth in the third quarter from its Liquid offering in particular, he added. That revenue is derived from a mix of interchange and subscription fees.

There’s no doubt that such growth factored into TripActions’ ability to raise an “up” round — $154 million in equity and $150 million in a structured financing deal — in an environment where many startups are either raising down or flat rounds, if they are able to raise at all.

The majority of TripActions’ new customers are signing up for corporate travel and TripActions Liquid to do their expense management and travel payments, according to Sindicich.

“There’s tons of spend management companies that have been created in the last few years and I think our unique value proposition is being able to combine the travel the corporate card and the expense piece all together because so much of employee expenses have to do in some way, shape or form with a trip,” he told TechCrunch. 

In late September, TripActions was said to have filed confidentially to go public in the second quarter of next year at a $12 billion valuation. When asked about those plans this week, a company spokesperson said: “We are doing our part to be ready to go public when the conditions are right and the markets open up again but we can’t predict when that will be.”

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TripActions secures $400M in credit facilities from Goldman Sachs, SVB by Mary Ann Azevedo originally published on TechCrunch

Black Sheep Foods grabs $12.3M to craft tastier plant-based meats

Black Sheep Foods, a San Francisco–based food tech company that uses plants to create a similar flavor to animal meat, secured another funding round, this time $12.3 million in Series A capital.

The company is leaping over the traditional plant-based foods, like beef, chicken and pork, to focus on scaling production for its lamb-flavored product. The company’s patent-pending technology isolates flavor molecules that give animal meat its flavor, identifies the same molecules in plants and uses that to reconstruct the meat flavor, right down to mouthfeel and richness.

In January, we profiled Black Sheep Foods when it raised $5.25 million in seed funding. At that time, its lamb debuted in some San Francisco and Los Angeles restaurants late last year, including at Ettan, Black Sheep Foods co-founder and CEO Sunny Kumar told TechCrunch. Today that has grown to 44 restaurants.

Charles Bililies, founder and CEO of Greek restaurant Souvla, rolled out the product at six of Souvla’s restaurant locations this year and said the restaurant had been “thoughtful when selecting a plant-based meat partner.” Since then, Black Sheep’s lamb has yielded an “overwhelmingly positive response from our many loyal guests,” he added.

Venture capital into the food tech sector has been waning recently. However, by making flavors and also using them, Kumar believes Black Sheep Foods’ new funding is the result of setting the company up for a vertical integration approach that puts it in a unique space done only by Impossible Foods thus far. He adds the new round was planned and follows progress on some of the key things the company has set out to do in 2022, including the rate of product adoption and R&D milestones on its flavors.

“We had these two approaches, and when we launched with our lamb, we began seeing really good traction and sales growth month over month of 22%,” he added. “It was just this realization that we needed to go a little bit faster on this.”

The new funding is led by Unovis and includes Bessemer Venture Partners, AgFunder, and KBW Ventures. It brings Black Sheep’s total funding to $18.05 million since its inception in 2019.

Kumar intends to deploy the capital into building up its product and R&D teams as well as sales and marketing.

Black Sheep was also limited at its production facility, where it was able to make only 5,000 pounds per month. Some of the capital will go to moving into a facility that will allow the company to make 16 million pounds per year. That increased production will likely start in the first quarter of 2023, he added.

Meanwhile, Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, founder of KBW Ventures, participated in the round after tasting Black Sheep’s lamb.

“Black Sheep Foods’ lamb is shockingly good; as someone who has grown up with this taste profile, I couldn’t believe the authentic mouthfeel and flavor,” Prince Khaled said in a written statement. “With taste being a vital aspect of customer adoption, Black Sheep Foods will easily dominate amongst plant-based meats. Additionally, game meats are still a wide open playing field. There’s a whole range of taste profiles that Black Sheep will be able to explore, especially with the company’s technology, allowing for an amplified flavor, excellent texture and a strong nutritional profile.”

Black Sheep Foods grabs $12.3M to craft tastier plant-based meats by Christine Hall originally published on TechCrunch

Tired of Spotify’s Algorithm? These 5 Apps Help You Discover Music in New Ways

Music streaming services like HotDrop, which has an interface like Tinder, and Amp, where you might catch Nicki Minaj hosting a radio show, will expose you to a wide range of unexpected tunes

To prepare for a downturn, build a three-case model

Many founders are reactive when business doesn’t go as planned. They may make knee-jerk reactions like: “If I lose 10% of revenue then I’ll just lay off five people.”

The problem with such approaches is that they don’t always solve the underlying business problem.

Take Peloton as an example: At the beginning of the pandemic, the at-home fitness company was riding high and nearly doubled its annual sales. The spike — largely driven by people turning to home fitness as gyms suddenly became untenable — would also be its downfall, unleashing a series of miscalculations that sent its stock diving.

What really happened with Peloton was that the unanticipated demand led to financial and planning mistakes. Peloton had banked on consumers changing their behavior and preferring to exercise at home. They were wrong.

What could Peloton have done to prepare for both the sudden upswing and downswing? They didn’t have a crystal ball, but luckily, we have something that comes close. It’s called a “Three-Case Model.”

Case scenarios are only effective when time, effort and thinking is invested in them.

What is a three-case model?

With case models, companies can proactively mitigate risk and forecast financial trajectories. The business climate, consumer preferences and competition can all send into motion sequences of events that nobody can predict with certainty. Thankfully, founders can still prepare for them.

Case models are a part of scenario analysis, which helps you visualize the mostly likely outcomes for a business. Through case models, founders can understand how shifts in the business climate could impact sales, cash flow, profits and more. They can also visualize the ramification of strategic decisions, such as what would happen if they make an acquisition, build a factory, raise prices or go after a new market.

To prepare for a downturn, build a three-case model by Ram Iyer originally published on TechCrunch