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At CES 2020, one of the more well-represented gadget categories was definitely consumer robots – but none was more adorable than MarsCat, a new robo-pet from industrial robot startup Elephant Robotics. This robot pet is a fully autonomous companion that can respond to touch, voice and even play with toys, and it’s hard not to love the thing after spending even just a brief amount of time with it.

MarsCat’s pedigree is a bit unusual, since Elephant Robotics is focused on building what’s known as ‘cobots,’ or industrial robots that are designed to work alongside humans in settings like factories or assembly plants. Elephant, which was founded in 2016, already produces three lines of these collaborative robots and has sold them to client companies around the world, including in Korea, the U.S., Germany and more.

This new product is designed for the home, however, not the factory or the lab. MarsCat is the startup’s first consumer product, but it obviously benefits immensely from the company’s expertise and experience in their industrial robotics business. With its highly articulated legs, tail and head, it can sit up, walk play and watch your movements, all working autonomously without any additional input required.

While MarsCat provides that kind of functionality out of the box, it’s also customizable and programmable by the user. Inside, it’s powered by a Raspberry Pi, and it ships with MarsCat SDK, which is an open software development library that allows you to fully control and program all of the robots functions. This makes it an interesting gadget for STEM education and research, too.

MarsCat is currently up for crowdfunding on Kickstarter, with Elephant having already surpassed its goal of $ 20,000 and on track to raise at least $ 100,000 more than that target. Elephant Robotics CEO and co-founder Joey Song told me that it actually plans to ship its first batch of production MarsCats to users in March, too, so backers shouldn’t have to wait long to enjoy their new robotic pet.

There are other robotic pets available on the market, but Song thinks that MarsCat has a unique blend of advanced features at a price point that’s currently unmatched by existing options. The robot can respond to a range of voice commands, and will also evolve its personality over time based on how you interact with it: Talk to it a lot, and it’ll also become ‘chatty;’ play with it frequently and it’ll be a playful kitty. That, combined with the open platform, is a lot to offer for the asking backer price of just $ 699 to start.

Sony’s Aibo, the canine equivalent of MarsCat, retails for $ 2,899 in the U.S., so it’s a bargain when considered in that light. And unlike the real thing, MarsCat definitely doesn’t shed, so it’s got that going for it, too.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch


TechCrunch

Lily AI, a startup focused on using deep learning to help brands better convert customers through emotionally tailored recommendations, announced this morning that it has raised a $ 12.5 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Prior investors NEA, Unshackled and Fernbrook Capital also took part in the funding event.

Prior to its Series A, Lily had raised just a few million, according to Crunchbase data.

The round caught our eye for a few reasons. First, the investor leading the round — Maha Ibrahim — also led The RealReal’s Series C back in 2014. That company, which also sports a focus on the sartorial, went public in 2019. (Ibrahim has also dropped by TechCrunch from time to time, including here.) To see the investor lead an early round in a company operating in a related space was notable.

And the technology that co-founders Purva Gupta (formerly Eko India and UNICEF) Sowmiya Chocka Narayanan (formerly of Box) have built is neat.

TechCrunch first covered Lily back in 2017 when it raised $ 2 million from NEA. At the time it had an iOS application, along with a web app and API designed to help retailers “better understand a woman’s personal preferences around fashion” in their “own catalogs and digital storefronts.”

In a phone call with TechCrunch, Gupta said that she and Narayanan decided that “from a business model perspective” their technology was “better for an enterprise product.” The iOS app was eventually deprioritized (in “less than a year” after launch according to the CEO), with the company making a formal move to focus on enterprise offerings in early 2018.

So what does Lily AI do and what is it selling to large retailers? An e-commerce power-up.

How it works

Lily’s founding hypothesis came from Gupta’s time exploring fashion in New York, asking hundreds of women about what they had bought recently (more on the company’s founding story here). What came out of that exercise was the idea that every customer is “roaming around with [their own] emotional context,” how “they think about their body” and “how they react to different types of details and items.”

The CEO thought that if you could get that context into an online shop, it would probably help consumers find what they want, and help the store sell more at the same time. That’s the hypothesis behind Lily AI, according to Gupta, who wants to know the “individual emotional context” of “each customer” when they shop online.

It’s that idea that helped the company raise $ 12.5 million in its A, more capital by far than it had raised before in total.

The service works in three steps, starting with tech that can pull out myriad more attributes from items in a catalog; the more variables you have the more you can know about any particular product. Gupta told TechCrunch in an email that her company’s “approach captures significantly more detail on each product based on the traits customers look for when buying apparel,” including “style, fit, occasion” and the like.

Then, Lily uses “hashed customer data” that brands already collect, married to its item attribute data to “create a high-confidence prediction of each customer’s affinity to every attribute of every product in the catalog,” she continued. From there it’s a recommendation game.

The result of all this work is that “100 percent” of Lily’s customers have seen a “step gain in metrics,” not “just incremental” improvements, according to Gupta. (The company’s website claims a “10x ROI” on customer spend on its products.)

Lily charges for its service on a volume basis.

And there should be lots of that. According to Canaan’s Ibrahim, e-commerce “will continue to grow between 15-20% annually and will represent ~20% of all retail spending in 2020 […] off of an enormous absolute number base of ~$ 4T of e-commerce spend.” That means Lily has a pretty big market to grow into, which is just what venture investors love to see.

One final thing. During our call, I asked Gupta about privacy. After all, her company is pairing consumer preferences with other information for the benefit of a brand. In our discussion about how her startup protects customer privacy, she said something interesting that I asked her to expand on. Here’s how she described how her firm is built around understanding the feelings of others, or what’s better known as empathy:

We started Lily AI with the goal of helping customers look and feel their best. And I’m so proud that we use ‘Empathy’ as the guiding principle for everything: building products, hiring, retaining talent and establishing company culture.

Not a bad place to build from.


TechCrunch

Nearly a year after China stopped accepting the world’s garbage, cities around the globe are wrestling with what to do with all of their waste. 

China’s new policy, which once accepted 70% of municipal solid waste generated around the world, means that cities like New York, London, and Paris need to find a new way to deal with their dumps. In Toronto, the municipal government is targeting a 70 percent reduction in the amount of recyclables and organics that are going into landfills or waste disposal by 2026.

The goal is made more difficult by one problem that cities have in common — multi-tenant residences (like apartments, condos, and coops) have a hard time organizing waste for recycling and landfills.

That’s why Sidewalk Labs and its portfolio company AMP Robotics are working on a pilot program that would provide residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits.

“Multi-family buildings are notoriously hard for sorting. Single family has 60 to 70 percent diversion rates,” says Emily Kildow, Associate Director of Sustainability at Sidewalk Labs.

Working with the building and a waste hauler, Sidewalk Labs would transport the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash will be sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics. Once the waste is categorized, sorted, and recorded Sidewalk will communicate with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

Sidewalk says that the tips will be communicated through email, an online portal, and signage throughout the building every two weeks over a three-month period.

For residents, it’s an opportunity to have a better handle on what they can and can’t recycle and Sidewalk Labs is betting that the information will help residents improve their habits. And for folks who don’t want their trash to be monitored and sorted, they can opt out of the program.

If that hypothesis is correct, it’s a technology that could potentially help other cities facing similar predicaments.

Sidewalk is also aware of the privacy concerns that could arise from having the trash monitored by its portfolio company, so in concert with the city, the company created a Responsible Data Use Assessment process and is assuring residents that any data collected will be de-identified and aggregated and only focus on the types of waste that’s being thrown out.

“The non-personal, aggregate data about the waste recorded by the materials recovery facility and AMP will be shared with Sidewalk Labs, residents in the buildings, and building owners,” the company said. “Once the pilot is complete, Sidewalk Labs will share a report to the public using the same aggregate and non-identifying data.”


TechCrunch

Twitter has been on a long-term mission to overhaul have people have conversations on its platform, both to make them easier to follow and more engaging without turning toxic. That strategy is taking another big step forward this year, starting in Q1 with a new way for people to control conversations, by giving them four options to “tailor” their replies: anyone can reply, only those who a user follows can reply, only those tagged can reply, or setting a tweet to get no replies at all. (Goodbye, needing to make space for “don’t @me.”)

The plans were unveiled just this morning during CES in Las Vegas, where Twitter has been holding an event for media led by Kayvon Beykpour, VP of product at the company.

“The primary motivation is control,” he said today. “We want to build on the theme of authors getting more control and we’ve thought… that there are many analogs of how people have communications in life.”

(Of course you are unable to silence people from replying to you in person, but that’s another matter.”

The plans were laid out in more detail by Suzanne Xie, head of conversations for the platform, who said the feature builds on something the company launched in 2019, where users can hide replies.

“We thought, well ,what if we could actually put more control into the author’s hands before the fact? Give them really a way to control the conversation space, as they’re actually composing a tweet? So there’s a new project that we’re working on,” she said. “The reason we’re doing this is, if we think about what conversation means on Twitter. Right now, public conversation on Twitter is you tweet something everyone in the world will see and everyone can reply, or you can have a very private conversation in a DM. So there’s an entire spectrum of conversations that we don’t see on Twitter yet.”

Other areas that Twitter discussed at the event included more focus on Topics, which will be expanded and taken global, and with that more work on how people can create and share lists. Its NBA isocam will be used again this year to let users vote on their favorite players, and a similar new version, called the “stancam” will be created on the same principle for entertainment events. On the marketing front it will be building out more analytics and expending Twitter Surveys globally, as well as building a new platform, Launch, for marketers roll out new products and services for advertisers.

We’re going to be talking with the company later this morning and will update this news as we hear more.


TechCrunch

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $ 777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $ 4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch


TechCrunch

Mobileye announced Tuesday an agreement to test and eventually deploy a robotaxi service in Daegu City, South Korea, the latest example of the company’s strategy to expand beyond its traditional business of supplying automakers with computer vision technology that power advanced driver assistance systems.

Under the agreement, which was announced at CES 2020, Mobileye will integrate its self-driving system — a kit that includes visual perception, sensor fusion, its REM mapping system, software algorithms and its driving policy that will “drive” the cars — to enable a driverless mobility-as-a-service operation in South Korea. This system’s driving policy, or the decision-making of the car, is influenced by “Responsibility Sensitive Safety,” or RSS, a mathematical model introduced in 2017 by Mobileye in a white paper.

Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, has long dominated a specific niche in the automotive world as a developer of computer vision sensor systems that help prevent collisions. The company generated nearly $ 1 billion in sales from this business and its tech made it into 17.5 million new cars in 2019, Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

But in recent years, the company has also turned its attention and resources to mapping as well as developing the full self-driving stack to support higher levels of automated driving. Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into the millions of vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems.

In 2018, the company expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier and towards operating robotaxi services. Intel and Mobileye began testing self-driving cars in Jerusalem in May 2018. Since then, the company has racked up agreements, first with Volkswagen and Champion Motors. The companies formed a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel with a plan to  self-driving ride-hailing service there.

Mobileye then made an agreement with RATP in partnership with the city of Paris to bring robotaxis to France. The company also partnered with Chinese electric car startup Nio in late 2019 to develop autonomous vehicles that consumers can buy. Under the agreement, Nio will supply vehicles to Mobileye for China and other markets.

Mobileye also announced Tuesday that China’s SAIC will use its REM mapping technology to map China for Level 2+ — a newer industry term that is meant to cover higher levels of automated driving that still require a human driver to be in the loop. Level 2+ systems often cover highway autonomy, which means the system handles driving on highways in certain conditions but requires the human driver to take over.


TechCrunch

Microsoft’s GitHub, Mozilla, and Cloudflare have urged India to be transparent about the amendments it is making to an upcoming law that could affect swathes of companies and the way more than half a billion people access information online.

In December 2018, the Indian government proposed changes to its intermediary rules (PDF) that would require any service that facilitates communication between two or more users and had more than 5 million users in India to set up a local office and have a senior executive in the nation who could be held responsible for any legal issues.

The proposal also suggested that any of these services must be able to take down questionable content in within 24 hours and share the user data in within 72 hours of request.

Technology giants such as Facebook, Google have so far enjoyed what is known as “safe harbor” laws. The laws, currently applicable in the U.S. under the Communications Decency Act and India through its 2000 Information Technology Act, say that tech platforms won’t be held liable for the things their users share on the platform.

Several organizations have shared feedback and expressed concerned about the suggested changes in India’s intermediary rules. In an open letter addressed to India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday, GitHub, Mozilla, and Cloudflare requested the Indian government to be more transparent about the final amendments it has drafted for the upcoming law.

The Indian government has said previously that it would submit the final draft of the proposal to the nation’s apex Supreme Court by January 15. But one of the concerning issues with the proposal is that nobody — except for the government officials — knows what is in the final draft.

“We understand and respect the need to ensure the internet is a safe space where large platforms take appropriate responsibility. However, the last version of these amendments which were available in the public domain suggest that the rules will promote automated censorship, tilt the playing field in favour of large players, substantially increase surveillance, and prompt a fragmentation of the internet in India that would harm users while failing to empower Indians,” the organizations wrote.

The organizations argued that safe harbour liability protections have been fundamental to the growth of the internet in India — which has emerged as the last great growth market for internet companies globally. Imposing the obligations proposed in these new rules would “place a tremendous, and in many cases fatal, burden on many online intermediaries — especially new organizations and companies. A new community or a startup would be significantly challenged by the need to build expensive filtering infrastructure and hire an army of lawyers,” they said.

Critics say that last publicly known version of the draft also had an extremely broad definition of the term ‘intermediary’, which would likely lead to many unintended parties being impacted. Additionally, they have argued that proactively monitoring user content on the platform and bringing “traceability” for “all unlawful content” would lead to over censorship. The short timelines of 24 hours for content takedowns and 72 hours for the sharing of user data pose significant implementation and freedom of expression challenges, the organizations said today.

“Given your government’s commitment to the Supreme Court of India to notify these rules by January 15, 2020, it is vital that the public has the opportunity to see a final version of these amendments to help ensure that they assuage the concerns which have been voiced by a wide variety of stakeholders during the public consultation. We appeal for this increased transparency and we remain committed to working with you to achieve the broader objective of these amendments while allowing Indians to benefit from a global internet,” they added.

 


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