Anthony Levandowski will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

Late last week, we announced the schedule for April 18’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event at U.C. Berkeley, including some heavy hitters like Marc Raibert, Melonee Wise and Ken Goldberg. At the time, we noted that still had some big names left to reveal — and we weren’t joking.

Today we’re excited to announce that we’ll be joined by autonomous vehicle pioneer, Anthony Levandowski.

Levandowski is the co-founder and CEO of Pronto, a new startup developing aftermarket kits for semi-trucks. The company is touting the safety potential of autonomous vehicle technologies for cross-country hauls. “We are not building technology that tells vehicles how to drive,” he wrote in a Medium post announcing Pronto’s launch. “Instead, our team of engineers is building tech that can learn how to drive the way people do.”

Before founding Pronto, Levandowski served as the head of Uber’s autonomous vehicle program and helped Google develop its own initiative that ultimately became Waymo. The engineer began his career by building the autonomous motorcycle Ghostrider for DARPA’s Grand Challenge.

Early bird ticket sale ends in less than 2 weeks. Grab your ticket for just $249 today and save $100. Student tickets are on sale for just $45 and can be purchased here.

Are you an early stage startup in robotics or AI? Grab a $1500 demo table at the event and get your company in front of 1000+ tech enthusiasts and investors.

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India’s Ola spins out a dedicated EV business — and it just raised $56M from investors

Ola, Uber’s key rival in India, is doubling down on electric vehicles after it span out a dedicated business, which has pulled in $56 million in early funding.

The unit is named Ola Electric Mobility and it is described as being an independent business that’s backed by Ola. TechCrunch understands Ola provided founding capital, and it has now been joined by a series of investors who have pumped Rs. 400 crore ($56 million) into Ola Electric. Notably, those backers include Tiger Global and Matrix India — two firms that were early investors in Ola itself.

While automotive companies and ride-hailing services in the U.S. are focused on bringing autonomous vehicles to the streets, India — like other parts of Asia — is more challenging thanks to diverse geographies, more sparse mapping and other factors. In India, companies have instead flocked to electric. The government had previously voiced its intention to make 30 percent of vehicles electric by 2030, but it has not formally introduced a policy to guide that initiative.

Ola has taken steps to electrify its fleet — it pledged last year to add 10,000 electric rickshaws to its fleet and has conducted other pilots with the goal of offering one million EVs by 2022 — but the challenge is such that it has spun out Ola Electric to go deeper into EVs.

That means that Ola Electric won’t just be concerned with vehicles, it has a far wider remit.

The new company has pledged to focus on areas that include charging solutions, EV batteries, and developing viable infrastructure that allows commercial EVs to operate at scale, according to an announcement. In other words, the challenge of developing electric vehicles goes beyond being a ‘ride-hailing problem’ and that is why Ola Electric has been formed and is being capitalized independently of Ola.

An electric rickshaw from Ola

Its leadership is also wholly separate.

Ola Electric is led by Ola executives Anand Shah and Ankit Jain — who led Ola’s connected car platform strategy — and the team includes former executives from carmakers such as BMW.

Already, it said it has partnered with “several” OEMs and battery makers and it “intends to work closely with the automotive industry to create seamless solutions for electric vehicle operations.” Indeed, that connected car play — Ola Play — likely already gives it warm leads to chase.

“At Ola Electric, our mission is to enable sustainable mobility for everyone. India can leapfrog problems of pollution and energy security by moving to electric mobility, create millions of new jobs and economic opportunity, and lead the world,” Ola CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal said in a statement.

“The first problem to solve in electric mobility is charging: users need a dependable, convenient, and affordable replacement for the petrol pump. By making electric easy for commercial vehicles that deliver a disproportionate share of kilometers traveled, we can jumpstart the electric vehicle revolution,” added Anand Shah, whose job title is listed as head of Ola Electric Mobility.

The new business spinout comes as Ola continues to raise new capital from investors.

Last month, Flipkart co-founder Sachin Bansal invested $92 million into the ongoing Series J round that is likely to exceed $1 billion and would value Ola at around $6 billion. Existing backer Steadview Capital earlier committed $75 million but there’s plenty more in development.

A filing — first noted by paper.vc — shows that India’s Competition Commission approved a request for a Temasek-affiliated investment vehicle’s proposed acquisition of seven percent of Ola. In addition, SoftBank offered a term sheet for a prospective $1 billion investment last month, TechCrunch understands from an industry source.

Ola is backed by the likes of SoftBank, Tencent, Sequoia India, Matrix, DST Global and Didi Chuxing. It has raised some $3.5 billion to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

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With $90 million in funding, the Ginkgo spinoff Motif joins the fight for the future of food

Continuing its quest to become the Amazon Web Services for biomanufacturing, href=”http://ginkgobioworks.com/”>Ginkgo Bioworks has launched a new spinoff called Motif Ingredients with $90 million in funding to develop proteins that can serve as meat and dairy replacements.

It’s the second spinout for Ginkgo since late 2017 when the company partnered with Bayer to launch Joyn Bio, a startup researching and developing bacteria that could improve crop yields.

Now, with Motif, Ginkgo is tackling the wild world of protein replacements for the food and beverage industry through the spinoff of Motif Ingredients.

It’s a move that’s likely going to send shockwaves through several of the alternative meat and dairy companies that were using Ginkgo as their manufacturing partner in their quest to reduce the demand for animal husbandry — a leading contributor to global warming — through the development of protein replacements.

“To help feed the world and meet consumers’ evolving food preferences, traditional and complementary nutritional sources need to co-exist. As a global dairy nutrition company, we see plant- and fermentation-produced nutrition as complementary to animal protein, and in particular cows’ milk,” said Judith Swales, the Chief Operating Officer, for the Global Consumer and Foodservice Business, of Fonterra, an investor in Ginkgo’s new spinout.

To ensure the success of its new endeavor Ginkgo has raised $90 million in financing from industry insiders like Fonterra and the global food processing and trading firm Louis Dreyfus Co., while also tapping the pool of deep-pocketed investors behind Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate focused investment fund financed by a global gaggle of billionaires including Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, John Doerr, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Neil Shen, Masayoshi Son, and Meg Whitman.

Leading Ginkgo’s latest spinout is a longtime veteran of the food and beverage industry, Jonathan McIntyre, the former head of research and development at another biotechnology startup focused on agriculture — Indigo Ag.

McIntyre, who left Indigo just two years after being named the company’s head of research and development, previously had stints at Monsanto, Nutrasweet, and PepsiCo (in both its beverage and snack divisions).

“There’s an opportunity to produce proteins,” says McIntyre. “Right now as population grows the protein supply is going to be challenged. Motif gives the ability to create proteins and make products from low cost available genetic material.”

Photo: paylessimages/iStock

Ginkgo, which will have a minority stake in the new company, will provide engineering and design work to Motif and provide some initial research and development work on roughly six to nine product lines.

That push, with the financing, and Ginkgo’s backing as the manufacturer of new proteins for Motif Ingredients should put the company in a comfortable position to achieve McIntyre’s goals of bringing his company’s first products into the market within the next two years. All Motif has to pay is cost plus slight overhead for the Ginkgo ingredients.

“We started putting Motif together around February or March of 2018,” says Ginkgo co-founder Jason Kelly of the company’s plans. “The germination of the business had its inception earlier though, from interacting with companies in the food and beverage scene. When we talked to these companies the strong sense we got was if there had been a trusted provider of outsourced protein development they would have loved to work with us.”

The demand from consumers for alternative sources of protein and dairy — that have the same flavor profiles as traditional dairy and meats — has reached an inflection point over the past few years. Certainly venture capital interest into the industry has soared along with the appetite from traditional protein purveyors like Danone, Tyson Foods, and others to take a bite out of the market.

Some industry insiders think it was Danone’s 2016 acquisition of WhiteWave in a $12.5 billion deal that was the signal which brought venture investors and food giants alike flocking to startups that were developing meat and dairy substitutes. The success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has only served to prove that a growing market exists for these substitutes.

At the same time, solving the problem of protein for a growing global population is critical if the world is going to reverse course on climate change. Agriculture and animal husbandry are huge contributors to the climate crisis and ones for which no solution has made it to market.

Investors think cultured proteins — fermented in tanks like brewing beer — could be an answer.

Photograph: David Parry/EPA

“Innovative or disruptive solutions are key to responding to changing consumer demand and to addressing the challenge of feeding a growing world population sustainably,” said Kristen Eshak Weldon, Head of Food Innovation & Downstream Strategy at Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), a leading merchant and processor of agricultural goods. “In this sense, we are excited to partner with Motif, convinced that its next-generation ingredients will play a vital role.”

Breakthrough Energy Ventures certainly thinks so.

The investment firm has been busy placing bets across a number of different biologically based solutions to reduce the emissions associated with agriculture and cultivation. Pivot Bio is a startup competing with Ginkgo’s own Joyn Bio to create nitrogen fixing techniques for agriculture. And earlier this month, the firm invested as part of a $33 million round for Sustainable Bioproducts, which is using a proprietary bacteria found in a remote corner of Yellowstone National Park to make its own protein substitute.

For all of these companies, the goal is nothing less than providing a commercially viable technology to combat some of the causes of climate change in a way that’s appealing to the average consumer.

“Sustainability and accessible nutrition are among the biggest challenges facing the food industry today. Consumers are demanding mindful food options, but there’s a reigning myth that healthy and plant-based foods must come at a higher price, or cannot taste or function like the animal-based foods they aim to replicate,” said McIntyre, in a statement. “Biotechnology and fermentation is our answer, and Motif will be key to propelling the next food revolution with affordable, sustainable and accessible ingredients that meet the standards of chefs, food developers, and visionary brands.”

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On-demand logistics startup Lalamove raises $300M for Asia growth and becomes a unicorn

Lalamove, a Hong Kong-based on-demand logistics startup, has closed a $300 million Series D round as it seeks expansion across Asia. In doing so, the company has officially entered the unicorn club.

Founded in 2013 by Stanford graduate Shing Chow, Lalamove provides logistics and delivery services in a similar style to ride-hailing apps like Uber but it is primarily focused on business and corporate customers. That gives it more favorable economics and a more loyal customer base than its consumer-focused peers, who face discount wars to woo fickle consumers.

This new round is split into two, Lalamove said, with Hillhouse Capital leading the ‘D1’ tranche and Sequoia China heading up the ‘D2’ portion. The company didn’t reveal the size of the two pieces of the round. Other investors that took part included new backers Eastern Bell Venture Capital and PV Capital and returning investors ShunWei Capital — the firm founded by Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun — Xiang He Capital and MindWorks Ventures .

The deal takes Lalamove to over $460 million raised to date, and it follows a $100 million Series C that closed in late 2017. Lalamove isn’t disclosing a valuation but Blake Larson, the company’s head of international, told TechCrunch that it has been “past unicorn mark for quite some time [but] we just don’t talk about it.” That figures given the size of the round and the fact that Lalamove was just shy of the $1 billion mark for that Series C.

The Lalamove business is anchored in Mainland China where it covers over 130 cities with a network of over two million drivers covering vans, cars and motorbikes.

Beyond China, Lalamove is present in its native Hong Kong — where Uber once briefly tried a similar service — Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore the Philippines and Thailand, where it works with popular chat app Line. All told, it covers 11 cities outside of China and this new capital will go towards expanding that figure with additional city launches in Southeast Asia and entry to India.

“If we do this well, then we are in countries that are more than half the world’s population,” Larson said in an interview, although he didn’t rule out the potential for Lalamove to expand beyond Asia in the future.

There are also plans to grow the business in China in terms of both geography and new services. Already, Lalamove has begun to offer driver services, starting with financing packages to help drivers with vehicle purchasing, and it is developing dedicated corporate offerings, too.

Lalamove CEO Shing Chow started Lalamove in late 2013, his past roles have included time with Bain & Company, a number of startup ventures — including a Hong Kong-based skin center — and a stint as a professional poker player

Overall, the business claims to have registered 3 million drivers to date and served more than 28 million users across all cities. With its headquarters in Hong Kong, it employs some 4,000 people across its business.

Rival GoGoVan exited through a merger with China-based 58 Suyun in 2017, at a claimed valuation of $1 billion, but Lalamove has remained independent and stuck to its guns. Larson said that already it is profitable in “a significant amount” of cities and typically, he said, the blueprint is to reach profitability within two years of opening a new location.

“The focus has always been on sustainable growth and we’re very strong on the cash flow front,” the former Rocket Internet executive added.

Larson and Lalamove have been very forthcoming in their desire to go public in Hong Kong, noting so publicly as early as 2017 at a TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen. That desire is still evident — “we’re very proud to be from Hong Kong and Hong Kong would be a good place for an IPO,” Larson said this week — but still the company said that it has no particular plan on the cards, despite its consumer-focused peers Uber and Lyft lining up IPOs in the U.S. this year.

“We don’t spend maybe even five minutes a year talking about it,” Larsen told TechCrunch. “The discussion is really ‘Let’s make sure we’re IPO ready’ because sometimes there are macroeconomic conditions you can’t control.”

Clearly, investors are bullish and it is notable that Lalamove’s new round comes at a time when many Chinese companies are downsizing their staff, with the likes of Didi, Meituan and JD.com announcing cuts and refocusing strategies in recent weeks.

“[Lalamove CEO and founder] Shing is a role model for Hong Kong’s new generation of innovative entrepreneurs,” said Sequoia China founder and managing partner Neil Shen. “Raised in Hong Kong and educated at Stanford University, Shing returned and plunged himself in the entrepreneurial wave of ‘Internet Plus,’ becoming a figure of entrepreneurial success.”

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Taali takes its popped water lily snacks from Y Combinator to the world

Aditya and Aarti Kochhar Kaji didn’t set out to start the snack food business Taali Foods when they were studying for their business degrees at Harvard.

The couple both hail from Mumbai and met at the University of Pennsylvania . They were married before starting at Harvard’s Business School and initially were interested in other areas — Aarti was exploring a career in venture capital and Aditya Kaji was looking at the food and beverage industry broadly in his classes at Harvard, Kochhar Kaji said.

Addicted to snack foods like chips and popcorn to fuel her Harvard study sessions, Kochhar Kaji started making popped water lily seeds as a snack — a food both she and her husband had grown up eating in India, she said.

The seeds, which are high in anti-oxidants, low in fat, have been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine — thank to their purported  anti-inflammatory properties and are a staple of Indian snacking traditions. Now, with American consumers on the hunt for healthier snacks, they’re becoming a big business in the U.S. as well.

Y Combinator is very on trend, with its decision to invest and accelerate Taali as part of its most recent cohort of startups. But in this instance you may call the accelerator a fast follower rather than a progenitor of this trend.

No less auspicious a food tastemaker than Whole Foods named water lily seeds as one of the top ten new food trends of 2019. With that attention competitors to Taali abound.

Bohana and AshaPops are just two new snack food companies floating on the popped water lily seed movement. Bohana even managed to nab the attention of PepsiCo’s Nutrition Greenhouse competitive accelerator.

It’s no secret that technology investors are investing more heavily in consumer businesses — everything from snack foods to period products and baby formula — and startups need only point to the success of Amazon as the everything store to show that there’s always money to be made in the category.

Indeed, at $1.47 trillion, the consumer packaged goods industry dwarfs technology as a share of the nation’s economy.

As Ryan Caldbeck, the head of the consumer-focused investment firm CircleUp noted last year.

The uptick in tech VC dollars going to the CPG market is partly because tech investing is brutally competitive and saturated, and largely because these VCs are awakening to the strong historical returns in CPG, especially with the trend leaning towards small brands stealing market share.

Consumer is a massive market – about 3x the size of tech, as seen below.

Despite the size of the market, the early-stage has historically been underserved by investors due to market inefficiencies like the geographic dispersion of brands and a lack of structured information sources (i.e. there is no Silicon Valley for consumer, and certainly no Crunchbase equivalents – yet).

Strong exits are already possible for consumer brands — and not necessarily from the big ticket, headline grabbing acquisitions like Dollar Shave Club. Last week This is L — the condom and period product retailer — sold for roughly $100 million after raising seed funding from investors including 500 Startups and Y Combinator.

Taali was similarly bootstrapped before it was accepted into Y Combinator . The company is already selling its snacks through Amazon and in retail locations like Fairway in New York and Central Market in Texas. The founders expect to be in stores in California in the next few months.

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