Niantic buys a 3D mapping startup to enable 'planet-scale' AR

As much as Niantic might be focused on making its location-based games more playable at home, it's also thinking about its future. The developer has bought 3D mapping startup 6D.ai to help it develop "planet-scale" augmented reality. Th…
Source: Engadget | Niantic buys a 3D mapping startup to enable 'planet-scale' AR

On-demand shuttle startup Via hits $2.25 billion valuation on latest funding round led by Exor

On-demand shuttle startup Via has hit a $2.25 billion valuation following a Series E funding round led by Exor, the Agnelli family holding company that owns stakes in PartnerRe, Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The Series E funding round, which included other investors, totaled $400 million, according to a source familiar with the deal. Exor invested $200 million into Via as part of the round, both companies said in an announcement. Noam Ohana, who heads up Exor Seeds, the holding company’s early-stage investment arm, will join Via’s board.

New investors Macquarie Capital, Mori Building and Shell also participated in the round, as well as existing investors 83North, Broadscale Group, Ervington Investments, Hearst Ventures, Planven Ventures, Pitango and RiverPark Ventures.

Via, which employs about 700 people, plans to use most of these funds to expand its “partnerships,” the software services piece of its business. Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. But the core of its business is really its underlying software platform, which it sells to cities and transportation authorities to deploy their own shuttles.

When the company first launched in 2012, there was little interest from cities in the software platform, according to co-founder and CEO Daniel Ramot . The company started by focusing on its consumer-facing shuttles. Over time, and using the massive amounts of data it collected through these services, Via improved its dynamic, on-demand routing algorithm, which uses real-time data to route shuttles to where they’re needed most.

Via landed its first city partnership with Austin in late 2017, after providing the platform to the transit authority for free. It was enough to allow Via to develop case studies and convince other cities to buy into the service. In 2019, the partnerships side of the business “took off,” Ramot said in a recent interview, adding that the company was signing on two to three cities a week before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, the Via platform is used by more than 100 partners, including cities such as Los Angeles and Cupertino, Calif., and Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn company that uses it for a first and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

Raising funds in a pandemic

Via managed to close the funding round during an inauspicious time for startups that have found it increasingly difficult to lock in capital due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus, has upended markets, along with every industrial and business sector, from manufacturing and transportation to energy and real estate.

Via managed to raise a sizable fund, which just closed, despite the credit tightening and uncertainty. Ramot told TechCrunch that while he was worried the round might be delayed, he noted that Exor is a long-term and patient investor that shares the company’s “same vision of where transit is going.”

Even now, as nearly every category within transportation — including public transit, ride-hailing, shared micromobility and airlines — has seen ridership drop or dry up altogether, Ramot and Ohana see a promising future.

Ohana said that the market is starting to understand the limits of ride-hailing — hurdles such as poor unit economics and an uncertain path to profitability. “On the other hand, the size of the market for an on-demand dynamic shuttle service is large and underappreciated,” Ohana said. “When we look at public transit today, there is a significant opportunity for Via, which already has impressive experience working with municipal and public transit partners across the globe.”

That doesn’t mean Via is immune to the widespread tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Via’s consumer business has been negatively affected as ridership has dropped due to the spreading disease.

However, there has been some promise with its partnerships business, Ramot said.

Existing partners, a list that includes transit authorities in Berlin, Germany, Ohio and Malta, have worked with Via to convert or adapt the software to meet new needs during the pandemic. A city might dedicate its shuttle service to transporting goods or essential personnel. For instance, Berlin converted its 120-shuttle fleet transport to an overnight service that provides free transit to healthcare workers traveling to and from work.

“There has been a real interest in emergency services,” Ramot said, adding he expects to see more demand for the software platform and the flexibility it provides as the pandemic unfolds.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | On-demand shuttle startup Via hits .25 billion valuation on latest funding round led by Exor

[Postponed] Join the FirstMark Capital squad for a live Q&A on Zoom tomorrow at 9am PDT

Update: Unfortunately, we’re going to have to postpone this call. We’ll be in touch soon with the new dates. In the meantime, we have plenty of exciting calls slated and can’t wait to share them with you. Stay tuned!

Stuck at home?

JK! I know you are! You’re not alone.

FirstMark Capital partners Rick Heitzmann, Amish Jani, Matt Turck, Beth Ferreira, and Adam Nelson are also working from home. But neither distance nor virus can truly keep us all apart.

That’s why I’m thrilled to announce that tomorrow at 12pm EDT/9am PDT, we will be joined by these wonderful FirstMark partners for a live Zoom chat.

We’ll ask how they’re advising their portfolio companies during these challenging times, how COVID-19 has changed their investment thesis (if at all) and what trends are exciting to them. More importantly, guests of the Zoom will also be able to ask questions and have them answered live on the call.

FirstMark has an impressive portfolio that includes Shopify, Airbnb, InVision, Pinterest, DraftKings, Discord and many, many more. The NYC-based firm is on its fourth early-stage fund and second growth-stage fund, with $480 million between the pair. (TechCrunch covered FirstMark’s latest funds here.)

I’m amped to talk to Heitzmann, Jani, Turck, Ferreira and Nelson and hope you’ll join us. Interested? Hit up this Zoom link at 12pm EDT/9am PDT to take part! (Please observe normal human manners: Wear clothes, don’t screenshare, generally be polite.)

We’ll publish a lightly edited audio recording and transcript to Extra Crunch on Thursday for folks who miss out! But for everyone who can make it, we’ll see you tomorrow at noon Eastern. West Coast folks can dial in over breakfast.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | [Postponed] Join the FirstMark Capital squad for a live Q&A on Zoom tomorrow at 9am PDT

EPA weakens annual fuel economy standard increase to 1.5 percent

While coverage of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate headlines, the Trump administration has quietly weakened the country's fuel economy standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental P…
Source: Engadget | EPA weakens annual fuel economy standard increase to 1.5 percent

How to value a startup in a downturn

The value of technology companies has fallen as the broader public markets have repriced themselves in light of COVID-19-related market and economic disruptions.

And as the public markets sort out the new value of a huge piece of global business, private companies are being shaken as well.

What happens in the public markets trickles into the private markets, so if we’re seeing the value of public tech companies fall, startups are going to take a hit. To understand that dynamic, we spoke with Mary D’Onofrio, an investor with Bessemer Venture Partners. She’s the right person to chat with about the links between private valuations and public share prices as she not only helps put capital into growing startups, she also helps run the Bessemer cloud index (now a partnership with Nasdaq, and trackable on a day-to-day basis).

As she’s versed on both sides of the public-private divide, we asked her how she values startups in normal market conditions and in more turbulent times like today. We also dug into how founders are reacting to the changing world that may no longer be as amenable to their business plans. Pulling from our conversation, D’Onofrio told TechCrunch that startups want to be valued like companies were a few months ago, while investors want to pay today’s market prices.

But enough introduction, let’s get to the conversation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity; thanks to Holden Page and Walter Thompson for help with the transcription.

TechCrunch: During our last conversation, we discussed how to value startups. You explained a method in which you consider the future value of cash flows. How do you value startups today versus how much you think they’ll be worth down the road?

Mary D’Onofrio: I think what’s important to know is that outside of a market disruption, which I think was the the nature of the question to begin with, cloud software tends to trade on revenue and revenue growth. Companies should fundamentally be valued on the present value of their future free cash flows. But I think with cloud software, in particular, there’s a prioritization of taking [market]share, and then applying a very long term healthy margin structure on a very massive revenue base once you get there, and generating cash then.

And so I think in bull markets, when capital is readily available, prioritizing growth makes a lot of sense because you want to capture as much share as you can. And then losses are also tolerable because the capital is available to fund that massive growth. And there are actual measurable metrics that validate that structure, with CLTV to CAC [customer lifetime value to customer acquisition costs] being one of them.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | How to value a startup in a downturn

Color is launching a high-capacity COVID-19 testing lab and will open-source its design and protocols

Genomics health technology startup Color is doing its part to address the global COVID-19 pandemic, and has detailed the steps it’s taking to support expansion of testing efforts in a new blog post and letter from CEO Othman Laraki on Tuesday. The efforts include development of a high-throughput lab that can process as many as 10,000 tests per day, with a turnaround time of within 24 hours for reporting results to physicians. In order to provide the most benefit possible from the effort of standing this lab up, Color will also make the design, protocols and specifics of this lab available open-source to anyone else looking to establish high-capacity lab testing.

Color’s lab is also already nearly ready to begin processing samples — it’s going live “in the coming week,” according to Laraki. The Color team worked in tandem with MIT’s Broad Institute, as well as Harvard and Weill Cornell Medicine to develop its process and testing techniques that can allow for higher bandwidth results output versus standard, in-use methods.

The focus of Color’s efforts in making this happen have been on using automation wherever possible, and seeking techniques that source parts and components, including reagents, that can come from different supply chains. That’s actually a crucial ingredient to being able to ramp efforts at scale nationally and globally, because if everyone is using the same lab processing methods, you’re going to run up against a bottleneck pretty quickly in terms of supplies. Being able to process tens of thousands of tests per day is great on paper, but it means nothing if one ingredient you need to make that happen is also required by every other testing lab in the country.

Color has also made efforts to address COVID-19 response in two other key areas: testing for front-line and essential workers, and post-test follow-up and processing. To address the need for testing for those workers who continue to operate in public-facing roles despite the risks, Color has redirected its enterprise employee base to providing, in tandem with governments and employers, onsite clinical test administration, lab transportation and results reporting with patient physicians.

For its post-test workflow, Color is working to address the challenges reported by other clinicians and health officials around how difficult it is to be consistent and effective in following up on the results of tests, as well as next steps. So the company is opening up their own platform for doing so, which they’ve re-tooled in response to their experience to date, and making that available to any other COVID-19 testing labs for free use. These resources include test result reporting, guidelines and instructions for patients, follow-up questionnaires around contact tracing and support for how to reach out to potentially exposed individuals tied to a patient who tests positive.

To date, Color says that it has been able to operate at cost, in part backed by support by philanthropic public and private donations. The company is encouraging direct outreach via its covid-response@color.com email in case anyone thinks they can contribute to or benefit from the project and the resources being made available.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | Color is launching a high-capacity COVID-19 testing lab and will open-source its design and protocols

VR workplace training startup Strivr lands $30 million Series B

Virtual reality has been two years away from mainstream adoption for the past six years. In that time, huge companies have made big VR bets only to walk away, countless VR startups have faded or flared out and investment has slowed significantly.

Building an attractive VR product for large enterprises to train employees remotely has remained one of the few major areas of opportunity, one that has been largely dominated by Strivr, which just locked down new funding, bringing their total raised to $51 million.

The VR training startup has closed a $30 million Series B round led by Georgian Partners, a Canadian firm that hasn’t been very active in the AR/VR space. CEO Derek Belch says the company ended up pitching a few dozen firms in this raise, and that while the feedback was “overwhelmingly positive,” there were certainly some skeptics.

“Everyone knows that VR has been slower to adopt and tougher to anticipate,” Belch told TechCrunch.

While AR/VR startups seemed to be raising money left and right in 2016 when Strivr closed its seed round, the market is much sparser in 2020 after years of missed estimates and a relentless parade of shutdowns.

While consumer VR startups have almost unilaterally struggled to get off the ground in recent months, there has still been movement among enterprise offerings. Earlier this month, a competing VR training platform, Talespin, closed $15 million in funding. In late January, enterprise AR/VR teleconferencing app Spatial locked down $14 million. HaptX, which makes a high-end VR glove for enterprise use cases, nabbed $12 million in December.

Landing post-Series A funding has remained a tough challenge for VR enterprise startups, where players are often positioning themselves to be judged in relation to their VR peers rather than to a Salesforce, Box or Atlassian.

“Nobody can get beyond a pilot program,” Belch said. “Investors want to know how real this market is and where the target is.”

Strivr emerged from Belch’s research at Stanford in 2014 as a VR application made to help football players train off the field. Belch had previously been a kicker for Stanford’s football team, and his co-founder Jeremy Bailenson led the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a leading research hub that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited while doing diligence on the Oculus deal.

As virtual reality gear was further commoditized and investment in the space grew hotter, Strivr soon pivoted from sports training toward workplace training, pitching their solution as a better way for companies to hand top-down instruction to employees. Their software offering is often a combination of interactive 360 videos and computer-generated scenarios that require more active participation from a trainee.

While other VR startups have pushed to integrate phone or tablet-based experiences, Belch says that he has pushed back on customer requests to move away from headset-only experiences toward phone-based 360-degree videos.

“Those are not our disruption, those are gimmicky and a cheap way to bring a new logo on,” Belch says.

The company’s customer base now includes FedEx, JetBlue, Verizon and BMW. Their biggest get was a deal with Walmart in 2017 that eventually grew into a company-wide rollout across all of their stores, a massive deal that Belch says has been a “blessing and a curse” due to the rollout’s scale.

“You have to be smart in terms of what you do that’s Walmart specific,” Belch told TechCrunch. “They’ll swallow you whole if you let them.”

Alongside the company’s funding news, the startup has announced that they’ve received a patent to use motion data to predict how effective users will be at the real-world task post-training. Strivr now has 22,000 VR headsets out in the wild, which Belch says have registered 1.6 million sessions. The hardware is all from Oculus.

Strivr is in the fortunate position of closing this deal ahead of the recent pandemic-related market uncertainty — a situation that has complicated their ability to meet with prospective customers and has raised issues with sanitation that Strivr says they have addressed. While Belch sees this Series B as a validation of the customer feedback he’s gotten, he also knows that the VR industry remains fraught with challenges.

“Thirty million doesn’t last very long if you’re stupid; we’re going to make sure we’re very smart about it,” Belch says.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | VR workplace training startup Strivr lands million Series B

Cue Health awarded $13 million government contract to develop portable, point-of-care COVID-19 test

Biotech startup Cue Health has secured a $13 million contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which will be used to speed the development and testing of a handheld molecular test that can detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Cue, which broke cover in 2014 with plans for a connected lab in a box for at-home testing and a $7.5 million funding round, is developing a product that pairs cartridge-like test kits with a compact and connected mini lab device that can transmit results to a personalized app-based health dashboard.

The startup received a previous $30 million contract from BARDA in 2018, which was earmarked for the development and validation of an over-the-counter diagnostic test for influenza and multiplex respiratory pathogens. This pre-existing relationship and work will be useful in helping jump-start the effort on developing COVID-19 testing, the company says.

“We have worked with the BARDA team for the past two years developing and testing a 20-minute, molecular influenza test designed for home and point-of-care use,” said Cue Health CEO Ayub Khattak in a statement. “Our connected platform could serve as a critical tool in identifying the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

The company also raised a $45 million Series B funding round the same year, which was designed to help it fund the first set of FDA clinical products used to validate its first products aimed at providing consumer diagnostics.

Cue’s proposed test solution would provide results in less than 25 minutes, using samples collected via nasal swab, with all testing done at point-of-care rather than requiring any round-trip shipping.

It’s far from the only rapid, point-of-care test either in development, in testing or already approved for use under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization, and there’s no specific timeline for this to become available. But the fact remains that the current testing gap needs to be addressed essentially by as many solutions as can be proven effective and viable — and this work should be useful long-term in addressing similar global crises and pandemics in the future.


Source: Tech Crunch Startups | Cue Health awarded million government contract to develop portable, point-of-care COVID-19 test