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You can help a Mars Rover’s AI learn to tell rocks from dirt



Mars Rover Curiosity has been on the Red Planet for going on eight years, but its journey is nowhere near finished — and it’s still getting upgrades. You can help it out by spending a few minutes labeling raw data to feed to its terrain-scanning AI.

Curiosity doesn’t navigate on its own; there’s a whole team of people on Earth who analyze the imagery coming back from Mars and plot a path forward for the mobile science laboratory. In order to do so, however, they need to examine the imagery carefully to understand exactly where rocks, soil, sand and other features are.

This is exactly the type of task that machine learning systems are good at: You give them a lot of images with the salient features on them labeled clearly, and they learn to find similar features in unlabeled images.

The problem is that while there are lots of ready-made data sets of images with faces, cats and cars labeled, there aren’t many of the Martian surface annotated with different terrain types.

“Typically, hundreds of thousands of examples are needed to train a deep learning algorithm. Algorithms for self-driving cars, for example, are trained with numerous images of roads, signs, traffic lights, pedestrians and other vehicles. Other public datasets for deep learning contain people, animals and buildings — but no Martian landscapes,” said NASA/JPL AI researcher Hiro Ono in a news release.

So NASA is making one, and you can help.

Image Credits: NASA / JPL

To be precise, they already have an algorithm, called Soil Property and Object Classification, or SPOC, but are asking for assistance in improving it.

The agency has uploaded to Zooniverse thousands of images from Mars, and anyone can take a few minutes to annotate them — after reading through the tutorial, of course. It may not sound that difficult to draw shapes around rocks, sandy stretches and so on, but you may, as I did, immediately run into trouble. Is that a “big rock” or “bedrock”? Is it more than 50 centimeters wide? How tall is it?

So far the project has labeled about half of the nearly 9,000 images it wants to get done (with more perhaps to come), and you can help them along to that goal if you have a few minutes to spare — no commitment required. The site is available in English now, with Spanish, Hindi, Japanese and other translations on the way.

Improvements to the AI might let the rover tell not just where it can drive, but the likelihood of losing traction and other factors that could influence individual wheel placement. It also makes things easier for the team planning Curiosity’s movements, since if they’re confident in SPOC’s classifications they don’t have to spend as much time poring over the imagery to double check them.

Keep an eye on Curiosity’s progress at the mission’s webpage.



Merlyn Mind emerges from stealth with $29M and a hardware and software solution to help teachers with tech



We’ve chronicled, in great detail, the many layers of technology, services and solutions, that have been wrapped around the world of education in recent years — and especially in the last year, which became a high watermark for digital learning tools because of Covid-19. Today, a startup called Merlyn Mind is coming out of stealth with a proposition that it believes helps tie a lot of this together in the K-12 classroom — a “digital assistant” that comes in the form of a piece of custom hardware and software to “read” natural voice and remote control commands from a teacher to control multimedia apps on a screen of choice. Along with this, Merlyn Mind is announcing $29 million in initial funding to build out its vision.

The funding is being led by specialist edtech investor Learn Capital, with other unnamed investors participating. It comes after Merlyn Mind spent about three years quietly building its first release and more recently piloting the service in 50+ classrooms in more than 20 schools.

Co-founded by longtime IBM scientists Satya Nitta (the CEO), Ravi Kokku, and Sharad Sundararajan — all of whom spent several years leading education efforts in IBM’s Watson AI research division — Merlyn Mind is coming to the market with a patented, vertically integrated solution to solve what Nitta told me in an interview he believes and has seen first-hand to be a fundamental pain point in the world of edtech.

In effect, education and technology may have now been merged into a single term as far as the tech world is concerned, but in terms of practical, on-the-ground application, many teachers are not making the most of the tools they have in the classroom. The majority are, he believes, facing “cognitive overload” (which is not to mention the kids, who themselves probably are facing the same: a problem for it to tackle down the road, I hope), and they need help.

To be fair, this problem existed before the pandemic, with research from McKinsey & Co. published in 2020 (and gathered earlier) finding that teachers were already spending more than half of their time on administrative tasks, not teaching or thinking about how and what to teach or what help specific students might need. Other research from Learn Platform found that teachers potentially have as many as 900 different applications that they can use in a classroom (in practice, Nitta told me a teacher will typically use between 20 and 30 applications, sites and tech services in a day, although even that is a huge amount).

Post-Covid-19, there are other kinds of new complications to grapple with on top of all that. Not only are many educators now playing catch-up because of the months spent learning at home (it’s been widely documented that in many cases, students have fallen behind), but overall, education is coming away from our year+ of remote learning with a much stronger mandate to use more tech from now on, not less.

The help that Merlyn Mind is proposing comes in the form of what the startup describes as an “AI hub.” This includes a personal assistant called Symphony Classroom, a kind of Alexa-style voice interface tailored to the educational environment and built on a fork of Android; a smart speaker that looks a bit like a soundbar; and a consumer-style remote that can be used also for navigation and commands.

These then work with whatever screen the teacher opts to use, whether it is a TV, or an interactive whiteboard, or something else; along with any other connected devices that are used in the classroom, to open and navigate through different apps, including various Google apps, NearPod, Newsela, and so on. (That could potentially also include kids’ individual screens if they are being used.)

The idea is that if a teacher is in the middle of a lesson on a specific topic and a question comes up that can best be answered by illustrating a concept through another app, a teacher can trigger the system to navigate to a new screen to find that information and instantly show it to the students. The system can also be used to find a teacher’s own materials on file. The demo I saw worked well enough, although I would love to see how an ordinary teacher — the kind they’re hoping will use this — would fare.

Everyone knows the expression “hardware is hard,” so it’s interesting to see Merlyn addressing its problem with a hardware-forward approach.

Nitta was very ready with his defense for this one:

“I’ll tell you why we built our own hardware,” he told me. “There’s a bunch of AI processing that’s happening on the device, for various reasons, including latency and security. So it’s kind of an edge AI appliance. And the second thing is the microphones. They are designed for the classroom environment, and we wanted to have complete control over the tooling of these microphones for the processing, for the environment, and that is very hard to do. If you are taking a third-party microphone array off the shelf, it’s impossible, actually, you simply cannot.”

The startup’s early team is rounded out with alums from the likes of HP Education, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Broadcom and Roku to help build all of this, knowing the challenges they were tackling, but also the payoff once it would be finished if it all works.

“We have a very, very talented team, and we basically said, right, this is going to be a lot of hard work that will take us three and a half years. We have to build our own piece of hardware… and we ended up building the entire voice stack from from scratch ourselves, too,” Nitta continued. “It means we have end to end control of everything from the hardware all the way to the language models.”

He did point out though that over time, there will be some elements that will be usable without all the hardware, in particular when a teacher may suddenly have to teach outside the classroom again in a remote learning environment.

It’s a very ambitious concept, but where would education and learning be if not for taking leaps once in a while? That’s where investors stand on the startup, too.

“Just as we saw with the breakthrough edtech company Coursera which reached IPO this year and was started a decade ago by two machine learning professors, in today’s hypercompetitive market the best edtech companies need to start with an advanced technological core,” said Rob Hutter, founder and managing partner of Learn Capital. “Merlyn is one of the first companies to focus on the enhancement of live teaching in classrooms, and it is developing a solution that is so intuitive it allows teachers to leverage technology with mastery while using minimal effort.  This is a very promising platform.”

The proof will be in how it gets adopted when it finally launches commercially later this year, with pricing to be announced later.

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How much to pay yourself as a SaaS founder



“If you’re the founder of a seed-stage [company and] you’re worried about your electricity staying on this month, then your salary is too low. If you’re saving $10,000/mo, then your salary is probably higher than necessary,” investor Leo Polovets wrote in a Twitter thread.

Ultimately, a good test is to ask how you’ll feel if your startup fails: Will you wonder if your salary contributed to its fall? Or will you regret sacrificing more than you can recover?

This tweet is just one of many in a now burgeoning conversation about how founder pay needs to change. The startup and investor communities are beginning to realize that many founders can’t go without pay for months.

Founders of SaaS startups are at an advantage in this scenario as the sector now has many companies generating revenue almost from day one, sometimes without needing to raise any funding at all.

However, the success still doesn’t tell founders how much to pay themselves, or what others are doing. To help with this, we’ve gathered insights from founders and VCs and narrowed down the most important factors and benchmarks to guide your decision.

A framework for compensation

Founder compensation is often referred to as a “founder salary,” but anchoring the conversation around the salary framework can create the wrong expectation. For example, you could try to establish a correlation between what you plan to pay yourself and your past or current value on the job market. Instead, the data we gathered indicates that founders typically take a pay cut from their previous salaries.

Chris Sosnowski is an interesting example: Before he “took the plunge” at the beginning of 2020 to work full time on his water data management startup Waterly, he used to earn “well over” $100,000. But he says his previous salary wasn’t a key factor when he set his compensation. “I decided to pay myself based on what I thought it would take to keep the company running,” he wrote to TechCrunch.

That brings to mind deferred compensation, which will be familiar to anyone who owns equity. Having put his own money into the company and owning the majority of it, Sosnowski is set to be compensated for his efforts if all goes well. “For the record, I do hope to pay myself back [a] salary for the year or so [it is] reduced like this,” he said.

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Firm creates open framework to help VCs and founders address racial inequity



In 2017, Paul Hawken published a book compiling a set of concrete actions people could take to combat climate change called The Climate Drawdown. Inspired by this, Seth Bannon, founding partner at Fifty Years, a firm that provides seed funding for companies aiming to make the world a better place, decided to do something similar to address systemic racism, and the Racial Inequity Drawdown was born.

Today, the company is revealing this document to the world and “open sourcing” it with the goal of making the framework part of the conversation to address racial inequity in startup investing and in the broader world.

Bannon, like many people, was looking for ways to better understand the impact of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year. He began to think about it, much like climate change, as a huge, multi-dimensional set of problems. He wanted to understand the scope of these problems to use his investment capital to help address some of these issues.

“So we incubated the Racial Inequity Drawdown at 50 years and the reason we did is because we got excited about finding and funding companies that addressed racial inequity in the same way we do the climate crisis or disease or all these other things — and it’s really hard because it’s such a multi-dimensional issue,” he said.

As a starting point, he decided to create a document similar to the Climate Drawdown that looked at these issues in a single place to help him and his firm understand the scope of the problem, and to help them look at their investments through a racial equity lens.

“We started to pull together resources just for ourselves, so that we could have racial equity be a lens that we use for our own investing and we were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a lot here.’”

That led to one of the company’s fellows taking ownership of the project with the goal of fleshing out a comprehensive document. The resulting framework is built on three pillars or broad sets of categories including Health & Wellbeing, Equality of Opportunity and Sustainable Systems with each pillar including different elements of the racial inequity problem that need to be addressed. And each sub-category includes a detailed definition of the problem, key terms, a set of companies and organizations currently working on the issue and what still needs to be done (perhaps openings for startup ideas).

Three broad pillars of Racial Inequity Drawdown Document

Image Credits: 50 Years

To make it more than a document created in-house, Bannon and his team wanted to take it a step further, so he brought in a group of college students to begin reaching out to communities of color to participate in this initiative and bring it to life.

One of those students is Elizabeth Poku, a rising Sophomore at Princeton, who said she was drawn to the project as a way to flip the script on racism. “What I hope to do in the future is really hijack existing systems and structures that used to put down and oppress people and make sure we’re changing those narratives, changing those systems to really work for those that they were putting down,” she explained.

She saw the Racial inequity Drawdown as a way to help to do this and joined the team, helping to write some sections of the document including the one on the impact of lack of access to healthcare on people of color. She says that the team then reached out to communities working on the problem and began to compile resources into a database including startups that have been working to solve the different elements documented in the framework.

Bannon says that investors, who want to build racial equity as a lens into their investment process can use this document as a guide, and it also acts as a signal that a firm cares about this as it allocates resources to different startups, certainly that’s the case for Fifty Years.

“Part of this for us was just defining what that means, and now we have a really great start here. And then second is letting entrepreneurs know that we care about racial equity as a lens, and that if you are addressing racial equity, that’s going to be a big plus in our book.”

He added, “Obviously, that doesn’t mean we’re definitely going to be able to fund you, but that’s going to be a big plus, and we’re excited about that and attacking racial inequity through technology and entrepreneurship.”

The firm sees today’s launch as a starting point, one that others can build on and add to the conversation, and build on this initial framework. At the same time, it gives members of the startup ecosystem, whether that’s entrepreneurs or investors, a way to start looking at their investments or projects through this racial equity lens.

Ways to get involved with the Racial Inequity Drawdown project

Image Credits: Fifty Years

“We really want to make this drawdown start the conversation and make sure this is at the forefront of people’s minds. That’s our main goal. So yes, if that includes helping community members really find out how they can [help] these startups get into the tech world, that’s definitely part of our mission,” Poku explained.

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Australian fintech Zeller lands $50M AUD led by Spark Capital at a $400M AUD valuation



Zeller, a Melbourne-based fintech founded by former Square executives to serve small- to mid-sized businesses, has raised $50 million AUD (about $37.5 million USD) led by Spark Capital, the investment firm whose portfolio also includes Twitter, Slack and Coinbase. Zeller’s valuation is now $400 million AUD (about $301 million USD).

The funding included participation from returning investors Square Peg, Apex Capital Partners and Addition, and brings Zeller’s total raised in under a year to $81 million AUD. This amount includes a pre-launch Series A led by Addition, the investment firm started by Lee Fixel, and seed funding.

Zeller was founded last year by Ben Pfisterer, Square’s former Asia Pacific and Australia head, and Dominic Yap, the fintech’s former strategy and growth lead. The company launched its first products for small businesses on May 4, including EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale) terminals, business accounts and cards.

The company says more than 1,500 Australian businesses signed up in the month after its launch, and weekly payment volume has been growing 200%. About 80% of businesses who started using Zeller switched from Australia’s four biggest banks, citing their desire for lower fees and better customer support.

Zeller’s new funding will be used to grow its research and engineering hub, including filling 18 new engineering roles that will support Zeller’s plan to become a fully-regulated business bank.

In a press statement, Spark Capital investor James Kuklinski said, “From our first meeting with Ben, we knew we wanted to be a part of Zeller. Australia’s business banking landscape is dominated by a small group of incumbents, and is ripe for disruption through simpler, more transparent pricing, best-in-class technology and better customer service.”

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