Robots are no longer the high-tech tools reserved for university labs, e-commerce giants and buzzy Silicon Valley startups. The local grocer now has access too.
Tortoise, the one-year-old Silicon Valley startup known for its remote repositioning electric scooters, has taken its tech and adapted it to delivery carts. The company recently partnered with online grocery platform Self Point to provide neighborhood stores and specialty brand shops with electric carts that — with help from remote teleoperators — deliver goods to local consumers.
The companies have launched the product offering in Los Angeles with three customers. Each customer, which includes Kosher Express, has two to three carts that can be used to make deliveries up to a three-mile radius from the store. Unlike the network models used by some autonomous sidewalk delivery companies, grocery stores lease the delivery carts and are responsible for storage, charging and packing it up with goods that their customers have ordered.
The initial Self Point/Tortoise launch is small. But it has the makings of expanding far beyond Los Angeles. More importantly for Tortoise, it’s a validation of the company’s larger vision to make remote repositioning a horizontal business with numerous applications.
Tortoise started by equipping electric scooters with cameras, electronics and firmware that allow teleoperators in distant locales to drive the micromobility devices to a rider or deliver it back to its proper parking spot. Now, it has taken that same hardware and software and used it to build its own delivery cart.
Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko has said the company’s remote repositioning kit can be used for security and cleaning bots as well as electric wheelchairs and other accessibility devices. He’s even fielded inquiries from farmers interested in using remote repositioning scooters to monitor crops.
“From a practical point of view we’re not trying to not be everywhere overnight, but there’s really no technological constraint for us,” Shevelenko said in a recent interview.
The emergence of COVID-19 and its effects on consumer behavior prompted Tortoise to home in on delivery carts as its second act.
“We kind of quickly realized that we’re living in a once-in-a-generation change in consumer behavior where now everything is online and people are expecting it to be delivered same day,” Shevelenko said. Tortoise was able to go from the first renderings in May to a delivery cart launch by the fourth quarter because of its ability to repurpose its hardware, software and workforce.
The company still remains bullish on its initial application in micromobility. Earlier this year, Tortoise, GoX and and tech incubator Curiosity Labs launched a six-month pilot in Peachtree Corners, Georgia that allows riders to use an app to hail a scooter. The scooters are outfitted with Tortoise’s tech. Once riders hail the scooter, a Tortoise employee hundreds of miles away remote controls the scooter to the user. After riders complete trips, the scooters drive themselves back to a safe parking spot. From there, GoX employees charge and sanitize the scooters and then mark them with a sticker that indicates they have been properly cleaned.
While partnership with Self Point is Tortoise’s next big project, Shevelenko was quick to note that the company is only focused on one slice of the on-demand delivery pie.
“Low speeds and hot foods don’t work too well,” he said. Startups such as Kiwibot and Starship have smaller robots that focus on that market, Shevelenko added. Tortoise’s delivery carts were designed specifically to hold large amounts of groceries, alcohol and other goods.
“We saw kind of a big opening in grocery,” he said, adding that relying on remote operators and its kit is a low-cost combination that can be used today while automated technology continues to develop. “We’re doing for last-mile delivery what globalized call centers did for customer support.”
SpaceX gears up for Record-breaking Satellite Launch – Top Tech News
Here are the top trending news from the world of technology..
SpaceX gears up for Record-breaking Satellite Launch
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Pinterest launches new AR feature for eye shadow styling
Pinterest is ramping up its virtual makeup try-on capabilities by rolling out a new augmented reality feature that will allow online shoppers to virtually try out new eye-shadow linear. As of now, customers can try 4,000 shades offered by brands like Lancome, YSL, Urban Decay and NYX cosmetics.
World gets to experience first-ever virtual reality premier with Baba Yaga
Last week, the world got the novel experience of witnessing one of its kind Hollywood movie premiers. Nothing was unusual about last week’s Baba Yaga’s premier except for the fact that it was all virtual and not real. In the post-pandemic era, the creator of short film Baba Yaga thought of giving a VR touch to its movie premier, which allowed everyone to enjoy the premier in the comfort of their home. Of course, they all needed a VR headset to enjoy the movie premier.
After Timnit Gebru, Google suspends Ethical AI Team Lead Margaret Mitchell
Google has reportedly revoked the privileges of its ethical AI team leader Margaret Mitchell and has put her under investigation for her alleged controversial activities. If Google does fire Mitchell then she will be the second outspoken critic in Google’s Ai team to be sidelined in a month.
How fintech and serial founders drove African pre-seed investing to new heights in 2020
When Stripe-subsidiary Paystack raised its seed round of $1.3 million in 2016, it was one of the largest disclosed rounds at that stage in Nigeria.
At the time, seven-figure seed investments in African startups were a rarity. But over the years, those same seed-stage rounds have become more common, with some very early-stage startups even raising eight-figure sums. Nigerian fintech startup, Kuda, which bagged $10 million last year, comes to mind, for example.
Also notable amidst the growth in seven and eight-figure African seed deals have been gains in pre-seed fundraising. Typically, pre-seed rounds are raised when the startup is still in the product development phase, yet to make revenue or discover product-market fit. These investments are usually made by third-party investors (friends and family), and range between $25,000-$150,000.
But the narrative as to how much an early-stage African startup can raise as pre-seed has changed.
Last year, African VCs who usually fund seed and Series A rounds began partaking in pre-seed rounds, and they don’t seem to be slowing down. Just a month into 2021, Egyptian fintech startup Cassbana raised a $1 million pre-seed investment led by VC firm Disruptech in a bid to drive expansion within the country.
So why the sudden change in appetite from investors?
Andreata Muforo is a partner at TLcom Capital, a pan-African early-stage VC firm. She told TechCrunch that last year’s run of 23 pre-seed rounds (10 of which were $150,000+ deals) per Briter Bridges data, was due to the confidence investors had in the market, especially fintech.
Startups building financial infrastructure got noticed
While most African pre-seed investments in 2020 went to fintech, there were exceptions, including Egyptian edtech startup Zedny, which raised $1.2 million; Nigerian automotive tech startup Autochek Africa, which raised $3.4 million; and Nigerian talent startup TalentQL, which raised $300,000.
Just as Paystack and Flutterwave built payment infrastructure for thousands of African businesses, these fintech startups are trying to make their mark in the sweet spots of credit and banking.
“Fintech is compelling. But while most fintech startups play around the commodities side of fintech, it’s the companies building infrastructure around the market that got most of the pre-seed validation last year,” Muforo said. Her firm, TLcom, led the $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra.
Okra is an API fintech startup. So are Mono, OnePipe and Pngme. They are building Africa’s API infrastructure that connects bank accounts with financial institutions and third-party companies for different purposes. Within the past 18 months, Mono and Pngme raised $500,000, while OnePipe raised $950,000 in pre-seed.
It is noteworthy that while these startups are clamoring to solve Africa’s open API banking issues, three of the four deals came after Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid last year in January.
Although the Visa-Plaid acquisition has now been called off, it is safe to say some African investors developed FOMO, handing out sizable checks to fund “Africa’s Plaid” in the process.
Digital lenders remain one of their most important customers for fintech API startups. They can access customers’ financial accounts to understand their spending patterns and know who to loan to.
Egypt’s Shahry and Nigeria’s Evolve Credit are fintech startups building credit infrastructure for their markets. Evolve Credit connects digital lenders to those who need loan services in Nigeria via its online loan marketplace. Shahry, on the other hand, employs an AI-based credit scoring engine so users in Egypt can apply for credit. The pair also secured impressive pre-seed funding — Evolve Credit, $325,000, and Shahry, $650,000.
A recurring theme: Serial founders
Muforo points out that aside from startups building fintech infrastructure, the caliber of founders was another reason pre-seed funding peaked last year.
Adewale Yusuf, co-founder and CEO of TalentQL, a startup that hires, manages and outsources talent for Nigerian and global companies, seemed to agree. He told TechCrunch that trust between the VCs and founders involved played a major role in most pre-seed rounds last year.
“It wasn’t surprising that a lot of investors put money in pre-seed rounds. I say this because we also saw existing founders and serial entrepreneurs coming back to the market. To me, these founders’ credibility was a major part of why those rounds were large,” he said.
A second-time founder himself, Yusuf is the co-founder of Nigerian tech media publication Techpoint Africa. His partner at TalentQL, Opeyemi Awoyemi, is also a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Ringier One Africa Media-owned Jobberman, one of Africa’s most popular recruitment platforms.
According to Adedayo Amzat, founder of Zedcrest Capital, which is the lead investor in TalentQL’s round, the founders’ experience proved vital in closing the deal.
He says investors are more comfortable backing experienced founders in pre-seed rounds because they have a more mature understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. So, in essence, they tend to raise more capital.
“If you look at pre-seed sizes, experienced founders can demand a significant premium over first-time founders,” Amzat said. “Pre-seed valuation cap for first-time founders will typically be between 400K to $1 million while we frequently see up to $5 million for experienced founders.”
It was a recurring theme last year. Yele Bademosi, who runs Microtraction, a West African early-stage VC firm, is the CEO of Bundle Africa, a Nigerian-based crypto-exchange startup that raised $450,000 in April 2020.
Shahry co-founders Sherif ElRakabawy and Mohamed Ewis also run Egypt’s largest shopping engine and price comparison website, Yaoota.
Mono co-founder and CEO Abdulhamid Hassan was the co-founder of Nigerian fintech startup OyaPay and data science startup Voyance. Also, Etop Ikpe, the co-founder and CEO of Autochek Africa, was CEO of DealDey and Cars45.
That said, Fara Ashiru Jituboh of Okra and Akan Nelson of Evolve Credit as first-time founders got investments that most of their counterparts would only dream of. For Jituboh, her solid tech background spoke for her — boasting a senior software engineering job at Pexels and engineering consultant role at Canva before founding Okra.
“We backed Fara because she’s a strong tech founder. When you look at the core of what Okra does as a tech-heavy company, you see how important it was to make the decision,” Muforo said about backing Okra’s CEO and CTO.
Nelson also told TechCrunch that his finance background helped Evolve Credit raise its six-figure sum. The team’s bullishness on finding product-market fit and the potential of Africa’s loan marketplace was also enough to bring foreign and local VCs like Samurai Incubate, Future Africa, Ingressive Capital and Microtraction on board.
While early-stage investments in African startups haven’t reached full speed, the explosion in the number of angel investors has lowered entry barriers into early-stage investing.
Now investors are beginning to show readiness toward African startups that have promise as they continue to search for the next Paystack.
“More people are willing to take risks now in the market, especially angel investors. They can easily let go of $10K-$50K because of success stories like Paystack,” Yusuf said about the $200 million acquisition by U.S. payments startup Stripe.
For all of its significance to the African tech ecosystem, what particularly stands out about Paystack’s exit is the return on investment made for early investors.
By the time it exited in October 2020, some angel investors had an ROI of more than 1,400% according to Jason Njoku in his blog post. Njoku, who took part in the round as an angel investor, is the CEO of IROKO, a Nigerian VOD internet company.
For Muforo, witnessing more early-stage investments is a big deal, one the African tech ecosystem should savor regardless of the round in question.
“Pre-seed or seed are just names investors and founders give,” she said. “What I think is most important is the fact that we’re getting more early-stage capital into Africa, and startups are getting more attention from investors, which is fantastic.”
AI Tech Company Uniphore Acquires Spain-based Emotion Research Lab
- With this acquisition, Emotion Research Lab employees’ will be joining the Uniphore team to create voice and video combined AI products.
- The acquisition will also help Uniphore tap and expand its presence in the European market.
- Emotion Research Labs uses AI and ML-driven technology to identify emotion and engagement in a live video interaction.
Palo Alto-based AI technology company Uniphore, on January 21, announced that it has acquired Valencia-based Emotion Research Lab for an undisclosed amount.
With this acquisition, Emotion Research Lab employees’ will be joining the Uniphore tech team to create voice and video combined artificial intelligence products for the enterprise, which will be released in the second half of 2021.
Further, The acquisition will also help Uniphore tap into the European market and expand its presence in the European countries by the FY22.
Founded in 2014 by Alicia Mora and María Pocoví, Spain-based Emotion Research Labs uses facial recognition and eye-tracking technology to identify emotion and engagement in a live video interaction.
The company offers its services to various business segments such as Clinical Research, Psychology, Marketing, Robotics, Security, etc.
Through its AI-driven technology, It can also detect attention span, engagement, and other essential demographics, the company said in a press release.
Commenting on the acquisition, Maria Pocovi, CEO & Co-founder, Emotion Research Lab said, “We are looking forward to this unique opportunity to join such an innovative company and work together alongside a world-class team to scale our technology for customer service.”
Combining Uniphore’s Conversational Service Automation (CSA) solutions, which understands, analyzes, and automates voice conversations in real-time, Emotion Research Lab’s extensive video-focused AI capabilities will deliver entirely new applications and experiences across the enterprise, the statement said.
Combining voice and video AI with automation and machine learning will open up new use cases, including customer experience, sales, marketing, HR and other critical areas of business, the statement added.
“Today we welcome the Emotion Research Lab family to Uniphore and celebrate the addition of not only cutting-edge technology to our portfolio but a very talented team of professionals who will add high voltage charges to the Uniphore innovation engine. This current pandemic has reshaped traditional customer service and has universally increased the use of video across a range of applications,” said Umesh Sachdev, CEO & Co-founder of Uniphore.
“I am very excited to have Maria, Alicia and the rest of the Emotion Research Lab team join us as we work together and bring our customers the next generation of innovations in AI and automation,” he added.
This is Uniphore’s second technology acquisition after it acquired Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology from NTT DATA in October 2020.
Brightly raises $1M for eco-friendly e-commerce and content platform, following the Goop playbook
The entrepreneurs are co-founders of Brightly, a Seattle startup that just reeled in $1 million to fuel its momentum.
They launched their Good Together podcast in 2019, partly as a way to see if their branding and voice around eco-conscious product recommendations and general life tips would resonate with “conscious customers” — and it did, quickly rising up the podcast charts.
The podcast also caught the attention of Snapchat, which accepted Wittig and Moiseeva into its Yellow Accelerator program this past February.
Brightly then took shape, building off the podcast and creating more content geared toward sustainable living. The company figured out a way to earn revenue by partnering with brands and featuring their products. Brightly also participated in the Seattle-based Female Founders Alliance accelerator, which opened up conversations with investors.
Its community grew rapidly last year, with millions of new followers across TikTok and Instagram channels. The company now reaches more than 250,000 women daily and has an ambassador program of more than 10,000 members who share ideas and recommendations on Brightly’s apps.
Now the startup is ready to step on the gas, with plans to grow its 5-person team and add an e-commerce arm later this year.
“Our main goal is to empower billions of conscious consumers to change the world through simple, everyday steps,” Wittig said.
In some ways, Brightly is following the blueprint laid out by Goop, the wellness and lifestyle brand founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow that started as a weekly newsletter. Another similar example is Glossier co-founder Emily Weiss, whose cosmetics company originally started as a blog called Into the Goss.
“It’s a combination of community and content to drive commerce,” Wittig said. “This is the future of how companies are going to be built. Rather than chasing customers to come in your door, you can establish relationships before you even ask them to pull out their wallet.”
Wittig said the pandemic has made people think more deeply about what they buy and who they buy from, whether it’s the local restaurant down the street or an eco-friendly product manufacturer.
Brightly differentiates itself from other marketplaces or e-commerce giants such as Amazon with its curation and vetting process, Wittig said.
“It’s truly allowing people to see the story behind products and forming an emotional relationship with the product,” she noted.
Wittig previously worked at Amazon, Adobe, Sephora, and Google, where she helped lead a social impact program. Moiseeva was a co-founder and exec at GlobeIn, which sold a fair trade subscription box.
Wittig is based in Seattle while Moiseeva is in the Bay Area. Brightly will have a presence in Seattle but is “remote-first,” following a pandemic-driven trend of startups not tying themselves down to one physical location.
Investors in the round include Tacoma Venture Fund; Keeler Investments; and the Female Founders Alliance. Odile Roujol, the former Lancôme CEO, also invested through her firm FAB Ventures.
“I founded FAB Ventures to back purpose-driven entrepreneurs,” Roujol said in a statement. “I’m excited to put this capital to work backing Brightly’s female founders, building a vibrant community of GenZ and Millennials, and scaling conscious consumerism. We can all make a difference.”
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