Conventional wisdom

If you’d told me five years ago that I would be flying to Chicago in March to attend a supply chain and logistics show, you would have been greeted by a momentary blank stare, followed by the image of a man attempting to determine in real time where his life went off-track. This is absolutely no criticism of supply chain and logistics shows generally — nor the people who attend them — but it’s a surprising destination, given where I envisioned my career heading.

Taking the elevator to the fourth-floor press center on Monday, I was struck by how (in a significantly more metaphorical sense) supply chain and logistics shows came to me. I’ve covered robotics off and on for around a decade now, but it was only in the past five or six years that it became a core component of my work. In that same time, the warehouse world has changed dramatically to the point where ProMat is more robotics than not.

The fourth floor of McCormick Place affords that kind of bird’s-eye view. The first thing you see looking out those windows is the giant Locus sign. Look beyond that in either direction, and you can spot virtually every one of the company’s competitors. This morning at my extremely unofficial office hours at a nearby cafe, a woman who works for U.K.-based Dexory described the inventory automation’s rough location on the show floor as being in the “robotics hall.” I countered that there’s no robotics hall if all the halls are robotics.

Locus Robotics Acquires Waypoint Robotics Image Credits: Locus Robotics

Walking down the physical margins of the show, you’ll see more traditional vendors. These are the people who make slip guards and plastic barriers. It’s easy enough to imagine five to ten years ago, when they set up shop closer to the show’s center, and those early robotics startups were the weirdos. Those more traditional products are, of course, still very much a necessary part of operating a warehouse or fulfillment center, but they’re suddenly out of the spotlight here, having been slowly pushed to the sides by tech companies flush with the VC cash necessary to build giant, garish two-story booths.

At a post-show happy hour last night, a VC asked me what the hardest part of learning the industry was. I told him that it wasn’t the robotics or AI. Sure, there’s a lot of extremely complex stuff happening under the hood that I — a creative writing major — will likely never fully grasp. But if you’re reasonably sharp, you can figure enough things out in broad strokes to carry on conversations and ask the right questions. The hardest part is learning everything that surrounds the robots. You have to learn the ins and outs of the industries these technologies effectively exist to serve, and the fact is that — in a reasonably short amount of time — it will include virtually ever industry out there. Logistics is, of course, the first step.

As you survey the show, things are thrown into a fascinating light when you recognize how much of the landscape was a direct result of Amazon’s 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems. The first direct result was that seemingly overnight every retailer is thrust into the world of same- and next-day deliveries. For better or worse (mostly worse, if I’m being honest), that’s what customers expect now, and if you’re unable to deliver it, there’s a reasonably good chance they’ll leave for the one company that absolutely can.

The other piece of that puzzle is that when Amazon buys a company like Kiva, it drops all of its customers. Suddenly, all of the people who relied on that technology are left out in the cold. Locus CEO Rick Faulk and I discussed how the company was born as a direct result of the acquisition. The 3PL company Quiet Logistics was suddenly cut off from Kiva access, so it went ahead and built its own. Locus was spun out three years later. A day later, 6 River Systems (now owned by Shopify) co-founder and co-CEO Jerome Dubois told me that he had served as Kiva’s director of global sales and worked directly with Faulk. Small worlds within small worlds.

6 River Systems flagship robot, Chuck, helps warehouse workers pick items faster. Image Credits: 6 River Systems

Not every company’s origin story directly parallels either of these, of course. Some big players in the logistics space built their own robotics divisions in-house, while Zebra-owned Fetch is a descendant of Willow Garage. But how that South Bay startup’s collapse launched its own micro-industry is a story for another day, friends.

While it’s been more than a decade since Amazon bought Kiva, there’s still a sense walking around these halls that we’re very much at the beginning of something. You can’t help but shake the feeling that something bigger is happening here. Even fierce competitors express a kind of mutual admiration, all while giving you a knowing glance that, actually, they have the real technology in the pipeline that will truly disrupt the industry.

Walk around for a few more minutes, and you’ll notice something also. Something like 80% to 90% (completely pulling this number out of my butt here) of the robots fit into one of two categories. First are those Kiva-style mobile robots (the big Roomba, if you will). There are differentiators, of course, but broadly, these are robots that drive around a warehouse floor — either autonomously or following around a human — carrying goods. That could be boxes, or it could be tools — whatever relatively small thing it is. They’re often, but not entirely, a departure from the Amazon systems, which are designed to move shelving units around.

robot pickers in warehouse

Image Credits: Getty Images / Teera Konakan

The other big robot archetype is one we all know and love: the robotic manipulator. The classics are classics for a reason. Here these things are generally used to pick up and place items in boxes. The exhibitors were a mix of arm manufacturers (Kuka, Fanuc, Yaskawa) and startups that utilize those arms (including Covariant, Ambi — competitors birthed out of neighboring UC Berkeley Labs).

Generative AI was somewhat top of mind (SVB, too, but for dramatically different reasons, of course). Hyped, yes, but I’m comforted by the fact that this space wasn’t all-in on the whole blockchain/crypto thing a few months back. Adopting new technologies is largely pragmatic here. Some see the category informing their work. Learnings from the space could prove useful in teaching robotics or in fleet management, for example. The responses to my questions were predictably measured in this room full of deeply practical people.

There are two key reasons companies buy robots beyond the above Amazon conversation. The first is smaller and more cynical: it’s good PR. This usually manifests itself in front of house deployments. A robot barista, for example, isn’t especially useful right now, but it certainly looks neat. Consumers are attracted to neat. I might shoot some vertical video for TechCrunch’s TikTok account, but I’m not going to write some 1,000-word article drilling down on its machinations, while telling that you’re looking at the future.

It’s also, frankly, important to show shareholders that yours is a forward-thinking business that is continually evolving to adapt to these ever-changing times. That’s where pilots come in, which is, in turn, why at lot of announcements you see around early trials ultimately don’t bear fruit.

The second is purely economic. It’s obvious on the face of it, but companies buy products that save time and money. If the technologies fail to do so, they will likely be abandoned. I won’t bore you with my spiel about the potential for human collateral — I’ve had my fill of, let’s say, spirited discussions on the subject this week, and I will likely remain skeptical, because someone has to. But the question of how many humans and robots to staff a warehouse with is governed by the bottom line. The novelty of these robots wears off extremely fast. If they’re not living up to their promise, it’s time for a new approach.

While there are some technologies here that can outperform human labor, I’ve found that, by and large, human speed is currently the gold stand. Take palletizing. It’s an impressive and complex feat with a lot of variables (though truck loading has an added layer of complexity and is therefore still aspirational for many solutions), and doing it at the same speed as a person is the current target for many. But charging units excepted, robots don’t take breaks and can work through the night as needed – and are therefore an appealing option for many companies.

As I see it, there are presently two magic bullets for the industry. The first exists in that liminal space between the aforementioned robotic form factors. If I were a VC in the robotics space right now, in addition to making a lot more money, I would be hyperfocused on precisely this. Whoever develops a truly mobile robot capable of maneuvering down factory aisles (i.e., around the size of a 6 River/Locus/Fetch robot) mounted with a mobile manipulator capable of picking things off the shelf at a decent clip and a variety of speeds should clear out room in their driveway for the Brinks truck delivery.

It’s hard to overstate how much this will crack things wide open, and many of the aforementioned companies are less interested in going back to the drawing board than addressing the current massive market of factories looking to take the first steps toward automation.

Image Credits: SVT Robotics

That brings me to magic bullet two: interoperability. An important thing to remember: While we’re not quite at the point of lights-out fulfillment centers (manufacturing is a different story), getting close requires a lot of different solutions from a lot of different companies. There’s a reason Amazon has made a bunch of subsequent acquisitions — these are, for the most part, single-purpose systems. Beyond this, a lot of larger companies have opted to diversify so as to not get left in a lurch similar to what Staples, Gap and Office Depot experienced post-acquisition.

Putting all your eggs in a single basket leaves you in an extremely uncomfortable position when the competition buys and discontinues support for the technology into which you’ve poured countless time and money. The broader question here is how a warehouse operator gets all of these heterogenous systems to play nicely with each other. That requires fleet management, data exchange and complementary components among others.

Everyone’s got their own systems with their own technologies and APIs, and so far there’s no approach here akin to the Matter Alliance that was co-created by all of the biggest names in the smart home space. (I write about a lot of consumer electronics. These are analogies my brain can make sense of). A lot of companies have built their own in-house fleet management software, with varying degrees of interoperability (very much trending to the low end). A number of solutions are currently looking to be that truly hardware-agnostic platform for deployment and control. I had a nice chat this afternoon with SVT Robotics out of Virginia, which is one of the more compelling operators in the space and has partnerships with all of the big hardware players.

MassRobotics’ push to create interoperability standards is absolutely in the conversation as well. Founded in 2020, the org describes its plan thusly,

The group’s mission is to develop standards that will allow organizations to deploy autonomous mobile robots AMRs from multiple vendors and have them work together in the same environment, better realizing the promise of warehouse and factory automation. These standards will allow autonomous vehicles of different types to share information about their location, speed, direction, health, tasking/availability, and other performance characteristics with similar vehicles so they can better coexist on a warehouse or factory floor.

Pickle Robot unloading a Container at UEC-min

Image Credits: Pickle Robot

As to more immediate issues, truck unloading (and eventual truck loading) was a big deal this year. This is among the crappiest warehouse jobs you can assign to a human. In addition to being incredibly rough on the body, the shipping containers mostly sit outside of a warehouse, exposing them to the elements, which makes them unbearably hot or cold. “We thought that was the hardest problem, and it hadn’t been solved yet,” Pickle CEO Andrew Meyer told me.

There’s a reason Boston Dynamics’ first purpose-built commercially available robot is focused on this category. The company’s head of warehouse, Kevin Blankespoor, told me how their own Stretch could be the first step to a bigger world, including magic bullet number one mentioned above. “I think there are versions of something that looks like Stretch, or even a combination of Stretch and Atlas,” he said, “where it’s a smaller footprint that works in a tighter space. We’re excited about all of these things.”

It’s also, frankly, not difficult to imagine breakthroughs made here that inform future robots in different categories, much like the way autonomous driving gave a huge boost to warehouse robotics. Systems designed for agriculture, construction and the home will almost certainly take cues from what continues to be the hottest robotics category.

Image Credits: Agility Robotics

Certainly Agility’s Digit feels like a peek at a broader world. Warehouse is really the tip of the spear as far as applications for legged robots — it’s simply the task that makes the most sense right now from the standpoint of market need. General-purpose humanoid robots continue to be a hot topic now, but efficacy is a huge question mark. I believe that also applies to drone inventory systems like Corvus, Gather AI and Verity, which were all clustered in the back of the hall, in a sport reserved for smaller startups. I love the idea of finding more practical uses for drones, and hope someone cracks this.

Walk around the floor long enough, and you’ll overhear dozens of conversations about RaaS (robotics as a service). All the cool kids are monetizing with it. Certainly some manner of subscription model makes sense in most instances. These systems cost a lot up front — money many in the mid-market and below don’t have on-hand. A monthly fee also affords opportunities to issue software improvements and support.

Another happy side effect of the model is a sustainability angle. As Faulk pointed out, the raas approach affords Locus the ability to keep devices in circulation. If something stops working, you ship it back, they fix it out and send it back out to you or someone else. Ditto if the customer is simply done with the service — do some repairs, rebadge it and send it to a new client.

Faulk told me that of all the Locus units deployed in the world, only a handful or two (unclear if it’s a metric or imperial handful) have been scrapped. As for what took those robots out of circulation? He had a simple response: forklifts. Crushing the robot from above with a couple of big metal prongs is apparently the one surefire way to take a LocusBot out of circulation — information you’ll hopefully never need to put into practice.

That’s precisely the model companies want when dealing with unproven startups. You certainly don’t want to be in a position of spending a bunch of money upfront on a product that folds the next day. Bigger companies with established partners, on the other hand, may find more value in just buying a solution out right. The consensus answer here is to figure out want clients want and work it out for them. Offer both solutions and, perhaps, a hybrid. Don’t add obstacles where the aren’t necessary.

It’s been a productive few days for me, and I may end up becoming a regular on the supply chain and logistics circuit as a result. There’s so much I just managed to scratch the surface of. I had some productive chats about things like packing tracking software I’m looking forward to digging into (cue the press releases). Vision systems are extremely impressive and only getting better. Fun nugget from speaking with startups like SLAMCore and Covariant: Lidar is really out of vogue here. Stereoscopic cameras already do something better (e.g., reflective surfaces) and are catching up on the rest. That’s why there are Intel RealSense and competitors in most of the new robots you’ll see.

I’ve got to hop. There’s one more VC happy hour I need to get to. If you told me five years ago that I would be saying that, I would have probably smugly replied, “Yeah, obviously.” I’m working on that part of my personality. Listen, it’s a process. I’m going to leave you with a chunk of my conversation with Boston Dynamics’ Kevin Blankespoor because I think it’s super interesting and hopefully you will, too. Lots more to start transcribing on the way home. See you next year in Atlanta, probably.

Meantime, I still have a handful of interviews from the event I need to post, so look for those on the site and in next week’s newsletter.

Q&A with Boston Dynamics’ Kevin Blankespoor

boxes on a conveyor line

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

TC: Boston Dynamics didn’t have a focus on commercializing for a long time. It really happened under SoftBank.

KB: Google a little bit, but SoftBank was the big push, for sure.

Atlas’ ability to move around boxes was more of an edge case. There was interest from potential clients, but there was never a plan to commercialize.

Yeah. [Atlas] is a general-purpose robot, so if you want to go explore an application, it can do the vast majority of them, just like a person can. It may not be the right optimization when you’re said and done, but it’s how you understand the application and you can peel off and do a derivation of Atlas, basically, and go make that into a product. With Atlas and case handling, we found that to be an attractive match, and I peeled off a big part of the Atlas team to do Handle, the two-wheeled robot. That was a foray into combining wheels and legs, which we always wanted to do, but also it was a little more simple and could handle cases in a warehouse.

We actually did a few experiments with customers there and then we went to Stretch. But it all really started with Atlas. A lot of the hardware tidbits from Atlas and Spot are on Stretch. It’s totally different, but under the hood, there are similarities.

What’s an example?

If you look at the hip actuators on Spot, they’re basically the same as the wrist actuators on Stretch, but Stretch is a lot bigger. The vision system across Atlas, Stretch and Spot all use a lot of shared software. We really don’t have to start from scratch when we bite off a new product. We have a big war chest of technological building blocks.

Was Kinema a part of that?

On the box detection side, absolutely. Kinema has the best box detection machine learning pipeline out there. We’ve expanded it a lot on Stretch, but that’s absolutely what it’s running now.

Discussing truck unloading has been eye-opening. Not only is it extremely physically taxing on workers, but those trailers are also exposed to the outdoors, making it extremely hot or cold inside.

It can be dangerously hot. Sometimes I’m shocked to see that they let people go in when it’s 110 degrees in there. And it gets super cold in the winter.

Is hot or cold harder?

Cold is generally a challenge. We did bigger temperature extremes in our DARPA days. When you go out in the snow, and nobody’s laptop will boot up, but your robot still does. But once you’re up and running, robots generate their own heat. That’s why there’s cooling vents all over it. The computers heat up, the actuators heat up. That works against you in hot environments.

Everyone is talking about humanoids right now. After so many years and so much money in R&D, you had a lot of potential customers expressing interest. Did you explore the humanoid form factor for what ultimately became Stretch?

We didn’t explore the route because we thought it would be somewhat more expensive and complex than it needs to be. Keep in mind, that was about seven years ago. It’s amazing that we’re able to sit here and talk about maybe four or five different companies that are going after real products with humanoid robots. That’s fantastic.

Even Agility has something humanlike.

They’re definitely in that conversation. I’m just excited that if you had asked me that five or 10 years ago, I’d so, “Oh, that’s way too expensive. That’s way too complicated.” And now you’re finding multiple companies are looking at this and saying, “We think there can be a real business here.”

But for you, the move was focusing on the best robot for a single, specific task. That’s how we ended up with Stretch. It is a multipurpose robot in that the hardware is capable of doing lots of different jobs in warehouses. We’re starting off unloading trucks as our first application. That’s our first focus, but we are also in time going to be able to do things like build pallets and load trucks. In the future, a day in the life of Stretch might be spending the morning on the in-bound side and unloading boxes from containers. And spend the afternoon in the warehouse building pallets and it might move in the evenings to the outbound side loading boxes back into trucks. It really is going to be a single robot that you can do for multiple jobs.

It sounds like that’s far off.

We’re rolling out new applications every couple of years. We’re focused on getting it out of the gate.

Why didn’t Handle work out? The counterweight system was very cool, but was it ultimately more robot than was needed for the situation?

We actually found that Handle wasn’t fast enough. We took Handle out for a couple of different trial runs in warehouses. The first application was pallet loading, which looked pretty good. The second was truck unloading. What we found with Handle in the back of a truck is it had to do a fair amount of maneuvering in the space to move a single box […] It would take about 25 seconds per box. People can move a box in maybe five seconds. We knew we needed to hit that kind of number for a return on investment. Stretch can do that. It uses the arm more completely and only moves the base when it needs to.

We were talking about Stretch moving from Point A to Point B in a warehouse. But when it’s working on a shelving system, it’s able to move along the shelves [for picking]?


Interoperability is the big topic of conversation this week. What is Boston Dynamics’ approach to this? If you want close to a fully autonomous robot at this point, you’re going to have to work with a lot of different robots from a lot of different companies.

Absolutely. It’s a hot topic. Both heterogenous fleet management. We’re seeing a lot of different companies take that on. We have prototyped our own fleet manager to understand what the hard parts are. Spot has Scout, which is its own web client for teleoperation, industrial inspection and autonomy. So we have a version of a fleet manager now. I think we have yet to see how that’s going to shake out.

Developing your own fleet manager is a resource-intensive way to understand the problem.

Yeah. I mean, part of it was that, to do the things we wanted to do, there wasn’t a fleet manager you could buy. One of the things we want to do as a future application is case pick. That’s where the robot is in the aisle and it’s building up pallets of different boxes. It’s a really big application. We’ve played with different ways to do that. One is with autonomous forklifts. It moves the pallet through the facility back and forth down the aisles and Stretch rendezvous at each point location and the pallet wrap. We’ve prototyped that. We’ve done it with a couple of different partners. We’ve done it with Stretch on its own, where it’s dragging its own pallet, just to get a feel for where the hard parts are.

But you’ve decided not to go further with that?

No, we will. We basically decided to focus on application number one right now. We want to get it to the performance, reliability and robustness that customers are happy with. That’s all hands on deck. But we’ve still got a lot of the software and knowledge from when we did the picking thing I described, and that will pick up in the not too distant future.

So we can expect to see fleet management software from Boston Dynamics?

Maybe. To be determined. We’ll definitely have that for our robots. Will we have a heterogeneous manager that will work with other robots? I don’t know.

You survey the landscape, and if someone is already doing it well, you focus your attention elsewhere.

Exactly. We don’t want to do that as a primary business. If we can buy something that really works, that would be really interesting.

You mentioned the mobile picking robot. I think that’s a magic bullet. If you’ve cracked that, you’ve cracked warehouses.

Yeah. And even more generally, the thing I’m excited about is mobile manipulation. If you move around these types of shows, you’ll see a lot of mobility. There are a lot of autonomous mobile robots and forklifts. You’ll see a lot of people doing just manipulation — everything from cobots to industrial arms. But there really is nothing out there at scale that does mobility and manipulation together.

I spoke with the CEOs of Locus and 6 River Systems. They’re really just operating in that mobility segment and having a lot of success. But successfully mounting an arm to one of those robots in a way that works is going to be huge for this industry.

I don’t know that they have the motivation to tackle something even more complicated. They have so much market penetration to go with the existing product. But for us, it’s core to what we do. Stretch is a mobile manipulation robot. It’s in the warehouse now. I think we’re going to grow in the warehouse for a long time. It’s going to go beyond the warehouse in time. Spot with an arm is a very capable mobile manipulation robot. Atlas as well, we’re starting to get more into manipulation. For Boston Dynamics, that really is the evolution, to go into mobile manipulation.

What is the upper weight threshold for Stretch’s picks?

Fifty pounds.

What are the constraints, in terms of weight?

A couple. Grasping is one. Suction is amazing. People are always amazed by how much it can pick up. But, when you start getting into imperfections like a damaged box — those top boxes, you can’t fit the gripper above it. You have to get the front face. That’s where some of the limitations come in.

If we’re talking about a mobile system that can pick, in order to compete with companies like Zebra, Locus and 6 River Systems, you’re going to have to scale down. Does that make sense for Stretch?

Yeah, absolutely. I think there are versions of something that looks like Stretch, or even a combination of Stretch and Atlas, where it’s a smaller footprint that works in a tighter space. We’re excited about all of these things.

Repeatability has to be one of the biggest issues entering the commercial space.

Yeah. Making a cool demo video is great, and I love it. I’ve done a lot of them. The difference between that and a product that works for a customer all day, every day, has sufficient hardware reliability and software robustness so it can handle all of the surprises you get — that’s an order of magnitude more work. That’s what we’ve done with Stretch. Stretch is never going to be a highlight reel, but Stretch works.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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Conventional wisdom by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok CEO says it wasn’t ‘spying’ when ByteDance employees surveilled journalists

Read more about the TikTok hearing on TechCrunch

At Thursday’s House hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced a barrage of questions over concerns that data collected on U.S. users might be vulnerable to surveillance by China.

Chew’s response to one of those questions in particular likely dug the company’s hole even deeper when it comes to building trust with Washington.

Citing reporting from Forbes, later confirmed by the company itself, Florida Rep. Neal Dunn asked Chew if TikTok parent company ByteDance has spied on American citizens. Chew responded “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

In December, TikTok admitted that ByteDance employees used the app to track the location of journalists reporting critically on the company through their IP addresses. Four ByteDance employees, both U.S. and China-based, were fired for accessing the data in an apparent effort to identify sources leaking internal company information to reporters.

“The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals,” ByteDance’s chief executive Liang Rubo said in an internal email published by Emily Baker-White, one of the surveilled reporters. “I believe this situation will serve as a lesson to us all.”


The short exchange is likely to be one moment among many that further undermines trust in TikTok in spite of the company’s sweeping campaign to portray itself as transparent and accountable. That effort, known as Project Texas, is a massive $1.5 billion corporate reorganization that will ultimately move U.S. user data to domestic servers overseen by American software giant Oracle by the end of the year.

TikTok is also waging a parallel public relations campaign, recruiting influencers, courting journalists and spreading its message through its own app in the run up to Thursday’s hearing.

Whether those measures will have any impact on TikTok’s strained relationship with the U.S. government remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look likely. Now, with the FBI and DOJ reportedly investigating the incident of ByteDance surveilling American journalists, the company is in for an even steeper climb to improve its image.

TikTok CEO says it wasn’t ‘spying’ when ByteDance employees surveilled journalists by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

Pragma Bio is searching for cancer treatments hidden in our microbiome

The natural world has produced many of our most important medicines, but instead of looking under a leaf or rock for the next big cancer drug, Pragma Bio is searching within the human body — its swarm of resident microbes, to be precise. With its novel approach and a fresh $10 million in funding, the startup hopes to embark on the first part of a ten-year plan.

The company is also assuming a new identity — it formerly raised a $4.5 million seed in 2020 as VastBiome, in case the tech sounds familiar.

In case you’re not aware, the human body is a total zoo. Countless bacteria and other microfauna pervade us, covering every surface inside and out. Most are benign, a handful malign, but many are beneficial in ways we don’t completely understand. For whatever reason, certain microbes being present in the body can correlate with better outcomes in a number of illnesses, including cancers.

“It’s just a good source for interesting molecules,” said Kareem Barghouti, CEO and co-founder of Pragma Bio. “It’s just like soil and plants, like where other products come from, we’re just looking at the body. And toxicity? Probably not, it’s already in there.”

There are two core components of Pragma’s approach to “mining” this gut biome. First is a huge map of the microbes, their genes, the proteins and enzymes and other molecules they produce, and how all those things may relate to disease pathology.

For instance, perhaps you find that in people suffering from a certain cancer, those who respond well to therapy A almost always have a similar microbiome profile: lots of microbe B, which you know produces a lot of molecule C. Might be a good idea to isolate molecule C and see if it can be used to help others use therapy A, right?

It’s rarely so simple, but Pragma is building a gigantic statistical model (with machine learning mixed in, of course) of all these things to identify likely candidates for investigation. The first domain they’re looking at augmenting is immunotherapy in oncology, which seems to have a particularly close relationship with the microbiome.

“We’re building a biological map of immune cells tied to bacteria found in body. But pharma companies don’t want a microbe, they want a molecule — they don’t know how to commercialize a bacterium,” said Barghouti. “The biology tells us, ‘hey, go look in there.’ Then we can start picking and choosing a molecule that might be therapeutic, especially if you fine tune it.”

Image Credits: Pragma Bio

That’s where Pragma brings its other core component, a much faster method of sequencing and testing the organisms and substances in question. Ordinarily you would identify the microbe you like and then fire up a bioreactor and breed a couple billion of them, then isolate the molecule they produce. This works but is a time-consuming and potentially fragile process.

Pragma Bio’s “self-read” system skips over the billions-of-microbes part, going straight from DNA sequence to expression and a small supply of the desired molecule in a few days. This helps when the pool of molecules to choose from is so large — and the agility makes them a good partner for pharmaceutical companies willing to pay for leads.

These partnerships are needful on Pragma’s side as well, since the next step is where things start getting expensive. Synthesizing enough of a novel molecule more or less unknown to science and testing its effects in vivo isn’t cheap or simple. Fortunately pharma companies do it every day and are happy to trade this resource for a potentially beneficial (and profitable) drug candidate.

“We do have the capital to scale up production, but not for many molecules at the same time,” Barghouti explained. He said they didn’t deem it wise to blow all their operating cash on their first leads, which like any others may lead nowhere — it’s always a gamble in drug development and all you can do is stack the deck in your favor as best you can.

All the same, the new funding will be used for this and other scaling efforts; the $10 million isn’t the end of this fundraise, but it is a nice round number that the company felt was good to get out there along with its new name. That change, by the way, came with a realignment of the company around putting already beneficial molecules to work (it’s a pragmatic approach); the old name suggested more of a gut health kind of thing, so they rebranded.

The investment so far was led by The Venture Collective, joined by Viking Global Investors, Merck Global Health Innovation Fund and CJ Investments in Korea.

Pragma Bio is searching for cancer treatments hidden in our microbiome by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Plural lures mRNA vaccine and AI pioneer to become its newest partner

Some say the European tech startup ecosystem lacks investors who have been “operators,” as in former entrepreneurs. And indeed, that has been the case for many years. However, it’s good to see that this has been changing, even if the pace has been slow.

One of the newest VC funds to wear it’s “former operators” badge on its sleeve is Plural, a VC we covered last year on its launch of a €250 million early-stage venture fund. To date, it has consisted of Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of Wise), Sten Tamkivi (co-founder of Teleport), Ian Hogarth (formerly Songkick) and Khaled Helioui (a former tech CEO).

That changes today with the addition of another former operator to its list of “peers” (their in-house term for what everyone else in VC-land calls General Partners) in the shape of Carina Namih, a pioneer in mRNA technology and former CEO of HelixNano.

HelixNano is an AI-driven biotech company that develops mRNA vaccine technology, and which, among other things, tackled the fight against Covid and cancer.

HelixNano started in San Francisco in 2013. She later left the Y-Combinator company, moving to a board role, which she will be maintaining and between 2018 and until Summer 2022, worked with UK fund Episode One doing B2B seed stage investing as a General Partner.

A trustee of the Alan Turing Institute, Namih says she is joining Plural because of the collective operational experience and the ‘scar tissue’ of the founders.

“Since leaving HelixNano, I’ve been in the UK for a few years, investing in different founders. When I met the guys at Plural we realised we’d been in similar businesses, investing in similar founders. When they started talking to me about the idea of joining Plural, I felt that it was really unique and really needed in Europe. Having a place where a group of genuinely experienced founders with real scar tissue coming together as peers and backing the next generation of epic European businesses is just something that, until now, been really lacking in Europe.”

“I think ex-operators understand businesses in a way that VCs often can’t. When we started HelixNano, it was visionary founders and operators, people like Eric Schmidt and Sam Altman, who gave us our first go. It was not the VCs,” she explained to me over a call.

She added: “I like finding really talented contrarian founders who can see a structural shift coming, whether it’s technical or behaviour change before others, and that’s really what we did with HelixNano, you know. We were applying AI and computational approach to mRNA long before that became clearer to the wider world.”

As an Angel or VC Namih has so far invested in Omnipresent, the remote work platform, Phasecraft, the quantum software company spun out of UCL, Robin AI, a generative AI company for the legal sector and AtlasML, tools for the machine learning community, acquired by Meta AI.

In a statement, Ian Hogarth, Plural Unemployable, added: “With her scar tissue from HelixNano and experience as an investor, Carina brings great wisdom and impeccable judgment to our group. She knows, firsthand, how to hire exceptional talent, how to find product-market-fit in a monopolistic and opaque industry with entrenched incumbents and how to commercialize a general purpose technology. Carina can empower founders to achieve their ambitions and we’re thrilled she is a part of Plural.”

Plural has also appointed four legal, IR and operations professionals to scale its offering: Daniel Tarver, Head of Investor Relations, Kate Connolly Chief of Staff, Tamsin Ashworth Reeves General Counsel and Verner Uibo, Head of Finance.

Plural lures mRNA vaccine and AI pioneer to become its newest partner by Mike Butcher originally published on TechCrunch

Snap is offering its AR tools to enterprise customers

Snap users are already quite familiar with the company’s expertise in AR thanks to Lenses and Filters. Now, the social media company is unveiling AR Enterprise Services (ARES) to offer those tools to businesses. As part of the launch, Snap is offering a “Shopping Suite” to brands that can help them get more customers.

The company said that more than 250 million people engage with AR on the platform every day. For comparison, Snapchat has 375 million daily active users. Last year, it claimed that since January 2021 users have tried shopping-related AR lenses more than 5 billion times. The company didn’t provide an updated figure.

The company’s partners use AR Lenses to let people try on different apparel and accessories. They include Amazon and Walmart-owned Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart.

Snap’s new Shopping Suite SaaS product offers four features: AR try-on to virtually try new styles of clothing, footwear, and accessories. Users can also upload an image of themselves and see how these items might look on them; 3D viewer to look at a product from all angles; fit and sizing recommendation tech based on the users’ body shapes; enterprise manager to host and manage all digital assets, create AR experiences using Snap’s SDK, and look at performance analytics; and help from the Snap’s team to customize client’s solutions.

Companies can integrate these features directly into their apps or websites, so customers can engage with them while checking out products.

Image Credits: Snap

The social media platform has been building up to this for a while. In 2021, it acquired Fit Analytics, a start-up that helped customers find the right size of apparel and footwear from online retailers. The same year, it added commerce-related features to its AR Lens creator studio. In April 2022, Snap introduced tools for virtual try-on and converting images into 3D assets. These were made possible by Snap’s acquisitions of Forma and Vertebrae. It also launched the Lens Cloud back-end service for lens developers. Now, the company is combining all this into a package for enterprise customers.

“Over the last decade, we’ve been hard at work bringing fun and personal AR experiences to Snapchatters. In the next decade, we’re excited to take our world-class AR technology to business’ websites and apps. We look forward to making the shopping experience more delightful for consumers and transforming businesses around the world with AR Enterprise Services,” Jill Popelka, Head of AR Enterprise Services at Snap, said in a statement.

Image Credits: Snap

Snap has been testing the SaaS offering with some customers already. These include sunglasses seller Goodr, clothing company Princess Polly, and Mongolian manufacturer Gobi Cashmere. Snap claimed that these retailers have seen higher conversion rates, better engagement with products, and lower return rates.

The company’s results for Q4 2022 showed that revenue was flat year-over-year and it registered a net loss as compared to a profitable quarter in Q4 2021. The company has been taking steps to return to a cash flow-positive state with different monetization strategies. Last June, it launched the Snapchat+ subscription plan, which now has more than 2 million paid users.

Snap is buoyant about its enterprise offerings. The company quoted a survey saying 92% of Gen Z users are comfortable using AR shopping features. A combined study from Publics media and Snap suggests that the AR Retail market will have a project value of $1.2 trillion by 2030.

Snap is offering its AR tools to enterprise customers by Ivan Mehta originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok’s hearing in Congress is a reminder of Chinese startups’ identity crisis

TikTok, which now boasts more than 150 million monthly active users in the U.S., is set to testify before Congress on Thursday morning. Over in China, home to TikTok’s parent ByteDance, many startup founders and investors are preparing to stay up and watch the app’s CEO Shou Zi Chew take thorny questions over China’s potential influence on the short video giant.

To an extent, what happens to TikTok foreshadows the future of any Chinese tech company that will make it big in the U.S. As tensions between the two superpowers rise, Chinese startups expanding in the West find themselves increasingly caught in between. At home, they face heightened restrictions over how their data flows out of China; in the U.S., their Chinese root is a constant source of national security concerns.

No other Chinese internet service is anywhere near TikTok’s global influence today, but even early-stage startups are thinking of ways to play down their Chinese identity to avoid being targeted by Western lawmakers down the road.

The most basic steps are to move their parent firm out of China to a more “neutral” country, such as Singapore, and store user data in the jurisdiction where they operate. The more resourceful and determined founders are going out of their way to emigrate abroad, build a substantial team on the ground and raise from American investors to show that their interests align with the citizens of their target market.

ByteDance has tried some of these tactics to localize TikTok’s operations, but its efforts didn’t seem to do much to placate U.S. regulators so long as the app is still owned by a Chinese firm. Watching TikTok’s troubles start in the Trump administration and continue into the Biden era, venture capital firms that bet on China are getting angsty. Some of them are now advising their portfolio founders on how to obscure their Chinese origin and even seek a foreign passport.

Whether TikTok gets banned or not, its ordeal in the U.S. already sounds an alarm to Chinese founders with Western ambitions — start thinking about the identity of your company from day one and be prepared for an increasingly hostile geopolitical environment.

(I have written about this topic more extensively in the past, including why Chinese founders are seeking overseas growth, what sort of challenges they encounter abroad, and why China’s web3 entrepreneurs are having a particularly difficult time.)

TikTok’s hearing in Congress is a reminder of Chinese startups’ identity crisis by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

Britive, which helps secure public clouds, lands $20.5M investment

Proving that there’s still plenty of venture money in cybersecurity, cloud identity security platform Britive today announced that it raised $20.5 million in a Series B funding round. Led by Pelion Venture Partners with participation from Liberty Global Ventures, Crosslink Capital and One Way Ventures, the new brings Britive’s total raised to $36 million.

CEO Art Poghosyan says that it’ll be put toward expanding the company’s investments in customer successes, marketing and sales, as well as product development.

“Ironically, the pandemic affected Britive’s business more positively than not,” Poghosyan told TechCrunch in an email interview. “It accelerated the move to virtualizing work environments and transition from data center to cloud.”

There’s truth to that. According to a 2022 survey from Equinix, 71% of IT decision-makers plan to move more functions to the cloud over the next 12 months. The cloud has plenty of upsides, among them scalability and accessibility. But there are drawbacks, too — one being security (potentially). A poll from the Cloud Security Alliance reveals that close to one-third of businesses using a public cloud provider experienced security issues within the past two years, including unauthorized apps and poorly configured APIs.

Poghosyan says that Britive was built to address those cloud security concerns — particularly on the identity and access management (IAM) side. Founded in 2018, the startup’s platform generates access privileges — including tokens and keys — on demand for people and software accessing cloud services and apps.

“Our tech automatically expires and removes privileges when not in use to ensure the cloud keys and tokens are not exposed to attacks around the clock,” Poghosyan said. “Britive’s offering allows development teams to continue building at cloud speed while security teams maintain full visibility and control over cloud identities and privileges.

Britive is far from the only player in the vast and growing IAM market, though. There’s well-capitalized ventures like Saviynt, whose platform enables companies to secure apps, data and infrastructure in a single platform. Private equity firm Thoma Bravo paid billions to acquire identity access management startups SailPoint, Ping Identity and ForgeRock. On the less grandiose end of the spectrum, there are ventures like ConductorOne, which aims to bring automation to identity and access management.

Poghosyan asserts that Britive’s anomaly-spotting AI differentiates it from the others out there. Using AI, Britive analyzes cloud user activity logs in near-real time and attempts to identify behavioral patterns that could be dangerous or unauthorized. The platform then alerts the relevant security teams, giving them the option to quickly terminate any potentially problematic sessions.

TechCrunch can’t speak to Britive’s efficacy. But the company’s growth suggests there’s something there. Poghosyan says that annual recurring revenue is in the “millions” of dollars and growing 3x annually, and that Britive now has “dozens” of customers, including several Fortune 500 brands.

“Our platform manages thousands of daily active privileged identities who interact with critical business applications and infrastructure hosted on major cloud platforms,” Poghosyan added. “Even in a broader climate of economic slowdown, enterprise organizations continue to invest in future-proofing their cloud infrastructure and security solutions stack, which Britive is an essential part of.”

Britive, which currently has about 55 employees, expects to add 10 to 20 staffers by the end of the year, Poghosyan said.

Britive, which helps secure public clouds, lands $20.5M investment by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

DoorDash is adding three new retail partners and updating its shopping features

DoorDash is adding three new retail partners and updating its shopping features, the company announced on Thursday. Starting today, users can start placing orders for items at Lush Cosmetics, Victoria’s Secret and Party City. The announcement is part of DoorDash’s ongoing efforts to expand into new retail categories. The new partners join DoorDash’s current retail offerings across apparel, cosmetics, sporting goods, household essentials and more.

As for the new shopping features, DoorDash is optimizing the search and discovery experience on its platform to make it easier for users to search within a retail store to find specific items that they need. The new update brings more relevant in-stock options that users can quickly add to their cart.

The company is also making scheduling ahead options available to more consumers, and now with more options. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch in an email that some users will now see three options for delivery time windows, including “express” (typically under an hour), “standard” (or within two hours) and “schedule ahead” (up to 5 days in advance).

Last, DoorDash is making it easier for users to choose substitutions. In instances when the store is out of an item that a user ordered, the company has built in messaging automation to make communication between the customer and delivery person more seamless. When the delivery person marks an item as out-of-stock, the customer will receive a prompt in app to pick between other available options.

The delivery service has been working to develop its platform to become more than just a way to order meals from local restaurants. For instance, the company recently launched a way for DoorDash drivers to pick up consumers’ e-commerce returns and other packages for drop-off at UPS, FedEx or USPS locations.

Today’s announcement comes two days after DoorDash revealed that it will begin supporting the ability for customers to pay with cash for their online orders through a new feature for DoorDash’s white-label delivery solution for restaurants, DoorDash Drive, which allows restaurant owners to offer delivery from their own website or app while tapping into DoorDash’s courier network. The company says Chinese restaurants and pizza shops have been early adopters of the feature.

DoorDash is adding three new retail partners and updating its shopping features by Aisha Malik originally published on TechCrunch

First drive: The 2024 GMC Hummer EV SUV is the perfect vehicle for chaos

2024 GMC Hummer EV SUV

The Hummer is and always will be, a study in extravagance.

GM reviving a brand that was the target of the eco-conscious in an earlier life displays the type of hubris that usually comes from Tesla. Bravado aside, the GMC Hummer EV SUV can handle the world of dirt, mud, and asphalt. Plus, its shorter wheelbase and more responsive chassis make it a no-brainer choice in the decision between it and the GMC Hummer EV truck.

My time with the SUV version of the Hummer EV was a vast improvement — in nearly every aspect — over the pickup Hummer. Thanks to a shorter wheelbase, off-road capabilities, rear-wheel steering and the inclusion of the Super Cruise advanced driver assistance system, the very large SUV impressed with its ability to tackle the rain and mud-drenched roads of Napa during a recent storm as I navigated fallen trees and in one case, a trip off the side of a road that was doubling as a pond.

The upshot: It’s a brash machine that might not fit snugly into a parking space or sip gingerly at a charging station, but it fills a niche in a world where the tumultuous effects of man-made climate change are becoming more common.

Too much power

The 2024 Hummer EV SUV starts at $80,395 for the dual-motor EV2. I got a chance to spend the day with the pricier, no-holds-barred tri-motor Edition 1 version with a starting price of $105,595 in Northern California.

By opting for the third motor (one in front and two in the back) you unlock “Watts to Freedom.” GMC says it will propel the 9,000-pound machine from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds. This is thanks to the vehicle’s 830 horsepower and 1,200 lb-ft motor torque (11,500 lb-ft wheel torque).

Frankly, it’s too much power for a vehicle this size. It’s like putting a rocket on the back of a tank.

All the batteries

The Hummer EV SUV has a targeted range of 300 miles. It accomplishes this thanks to a 200kWh capacity Ultium battery pack. To put that in perspective, the Cadillac Lyriq — another GM Ultium vehicle — has a 100kWh capacity battery pack and is also targeting a range of 300 miles.

Fortunately, the Hummer EV SUV has an 800-volt architecture and supports DC fast charging at speeds up to 300kW. This is a must considering the size of the pack.

I was unable to conduct a true range test. However, during my time behind the wheel, I did clock 1.6 miles per kWH. That translates to roughly 320 miles of range. Keep in mind that only 15% of the test drive was on a freeway (a range killer).

(Sort of) extreme driving

Image Credits: Roberto Baldwin

Once you get past the weight, size, inefficiency and decision to make it far too quick, the Hummer EV SUV ended up being the perfect vehicle during the rain storm (aka the atmospheric river) that was pummeling Northern California.

The Hummer was a solid companion through all of this and had zero issues rolling over large swathes of earth that had slid onto the road. The all-wheel-steering, gives the illusion of driving a smaller vehicle and felt nimble for its size, was especially helpful as trees and branches had littered the roads in the hills. It. It also helps that the Hummer SUV’s wheelbase is 9 inches shorter than that of the Hummer truck. Overall, the Hummer SUV is 20 inches shorter than the truck.

The Hummer EV SUV drove better than the Hummer truck we took off-roading last year. It’s such an improvement that it should give pause to those who have ordered the pickup.

On the highway, GM’s Super Cruise displayed why it’s the best hands-off/eyes-on driver assistance system on the road right now. It held the SUV in the center of the lane and deftly switched lanes to overtake slower vehicles. Of course, as with all of these systems, the driver must always pay attention.


Image Credits: Roberto Baldwin

I also had an “incident.” While driving on a flooded road, an oncoming vehicle floated into my lane and I ended up driving off the shoulder to avoid them. The right side of the vehicle was now in about three feet of water and mud. I tossed the Hummer in off-road mode, locked the front differential (I could have locked the back as well) and drove the truck forward slowly before turning the wheel and crawling out of the situation with a bit of a hop.

This is the selling point of this vehicle, it’s ready to tackle insane conditions because it is also insane.

Too much animation

2024 GMC Hummer EV SUV

Image Credits: Roberto Baldwin

Inside the Hummer, the vehicle is outfitted with tons of little storage areas. For hauling large items, with the rear seats down, it has 81.8 cubic feet of cargo space. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and there’s plenty of head and leg room in the front and back seats even for drivers and passengers over six feet tall.

The 12.3-inch dash cluster is bright and easy to read. The 13.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system is also easy to navigate even with the pseudo-Tron design. GMC boasts that it’s using the Unreal engine for graphics, but switching between drive modes requires an animation to load. The latency between turning the mode dial and it actually showing the selected mode is far too long for a modern vehicle.

Fortunately, the use of Android Automotive means the voice assistant usually understands you and Google Maps is baked in. The system will also give you charging stations along a route. Something Tesla has been doing for years and other automakers have been slow to adopt.

CarpPlay and Android Auto are both supported.

The better option

Surprisingly, the Hummer EV SUV feels like it has a spot in the world that’s more than just being big for the sake of being big. It drives well (for its size), is capable of tackling most environments both on-road and off, and boasts one of the best driver assistance systems in the industry. It’s all-around better than the Hummer pickup.

Now if only GM could put all that into a smaller, more efficient package, it would have a mass-market winner instead of a niche halo vehicle that’s ready to tackle the end of the world.

First drive: The 2024 GMC Hummer EV SUV is the perfect vehicle for chaos by Roberto Baldwin originally published on TechCrunch

Bears abound, but none in sight at Denver’s crypto fest

It was hard to tell at first from EthDenver — the biggest Ethereum developer conference in the world — that we’re in a bear market. The conference earlier this month attracted some 20,000 attendees to Denver, where hundreds of side events and impromptu meetups crowded trendy bars and restaurants day and night.

The sector has certainly slowed down: In 2022, the crypto market lost as much as $2 trillion. But if you stopped to talk to any investor or founder, it became clear that many entrepreneurs and investors believe the market downturn is constructive to the long-term health of the web3 space. Projects are settling down into real value and foundation building rather than pump-and-dump schemes and hyped-up NFT sales.

My conversations with EthDenver attendees took place just before Bitcoin’s value surged to its highest since last June. Even with the cryptocurrency at over $28,000, the price is still way below its all-time high of $64,000.

Developers and founders I talked to celebrated the toned-down parties as a good thing because it meant that most of the speculators were gone. Even local Uber drivers noticed. Last year, they were shuttling people between much more extravagant parties. “You could just smell money in the air,” one of them told me. “And this year it felt more serious.”

Applying the brakes

The downsizing of events and parties went in tandem with shrinking investments for startups, which now face a harrowing time to attract financing. The amount of venture capital for web3 companies saw a sharp decline in Q4 2022, totaling $2.4 billion compared to $9.3 billion a year ago, according to Crunchbase. The number of web3 startups funded halved to 327 during the quarter.

Bears abound, but none in sight at Denver’s crypto fest by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch