Month: May 2020

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable and remains challenging. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before shutting down in 2018.

By then, Conrad had already moved on — though not from his love of hardware. He instead decided in late 2017 that a nascent team that was camping out at Lemnos was onto a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate or, at the time, a burning passion for the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information.

Here’s how it works: using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes at construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity.

“We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered.

Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer on the 50th floor of the skyscraper that he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are highly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them. Quartz is meanwhile charging just $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.

It’s a big enough opportunity that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening below. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having launched a venture firm and spent years as an investor may also serve him well. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he even says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”

4 views on the future of retail and the shopping experience

The global spread of COVID-19 and resulting orders to shelter in place have hit retailers hard.

As the pandemic drags on, temporary halts are becoming permanent closures, whether it’s the coffee shop next door, a historic bar or a well-known lifestyle brand.

But while the present is largely bleak, preparing for the future has retailers adopting technologies faster than ever. Their resilience and innovation means retail will look and fee different when the world reopens.

We gathered four views on the future of retail from the TechCrunch team:

  • Natasha Mascarenhas says retailers will need to find new ways to sell aspirational products — and what was once cringe-worthy might now be considered innovative.
  • Devin Coldewey sees businesses adopting a slew of creative digital services to prepare for the future and empower them without Amazon’s platform.
  • Greg Kumparak thinks the delivery and curbside pickup trends will move from pandemic-essentials to everyday occurrences. He thinks that retailers will need to find new ways to appeal to consumers in a “shopping-by-proxy” world.
  • Lucas Matney views a revitalized interest in technology around the checkout process, as retailers look for ways to make the purchasing experience more seamless (and less high-touch).

Alexa, how do I look?

Natasha Mascarenhas

SpaceX’s Starship SN4 launch vehicle prototype explodes after static engine fire test

SpaceX had just conducted yet another static fire test of the Raptor engine in its Starship SN4 prototype launch vehicle on Friday when the test vehicle exploded on the test stand. This was the fourth static fire test of this engine on this prototype, so it’s unclear what went wrong vs. other static fire attempts.

This was a test in the development of Starship, a new spacecraft that SpaceX has been developing in Boca Chica, Florida. Eventually, the company hopes to use it to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket, but Starship is still very early in its development phase, whereas those vehicles are flight-proven, multiple times over.

SpaceX had just secured FAA approval to fly its Starship prototype for short, suborbital test flights earlier this week. The goal was to fly this SN4 prototype for short distances following static fire testing, but that clearly won’t be possible now, as the vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed in the explosion following Friday’s test, as you can see below in the stream from NASASpaceflight.com.

The explosion occurred around 1:49 PM local time in Texas, roughly two minutes after it had completed its engine test fire. We’ve reached out to SpaceX to find out more about the cause of today’s incident, and whether anyone was potentially hurt in the explosion. SpaceX typically takes plenty of safety precautions when running these tests, including ensuring the area is well clear of any personnel or other individuals.

This isn’t the first time one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes has met a catastrophic end; a couple of previous test vehicles succumbed to pressure testing while being put through their paces. This is why space companies test frequently and stress test vehicles during development – to ensure that the final operational vehicles are incredibly safe and reliable when they need to be.

SpaceX is already working on additional prototypes, including assembling SN5 nearby in Boa Chica, so it’s likely to resume its testing program quickly once it can clear the test stand and move in the newest prototype. This is a completely separate endeavor from SpaceX’s work on the Commercial Crew program, so that historic first test launch with astronauts on board should proceed either Saturday or Sunday as planned, depending on weather.

YouTube and Tribeca’s global online film festival starts today

Today, the online film festival We Are One is kicking off 10 days of films, talks, musical performances and VR experiences.

The event is a collaboration between Tribeca Enterprises (the organization behind the Tribeca Film Festival) and YouTube, with help from 21 film festivals from around the world.

Think of it as an attempt to recreate a little bit of the excitement of this year’s canceled festivals, and to showcase some of the films that would have screen there. Partner festivals include the Berlin International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.

YouTube Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl credited Tribeca for doing the “heavy lifting” of bringing all the festivals on-board and curating the lineup. He said that when the organization’s co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal first approached YouTube with the idea, “It sounded great to us, but it seemed impossible to actually execute — to get all of these important people around the world to agree to this one thing.”

However, Rosenthal and her team were able to pull it everything together in a short period of time, so YouTube is doing its part by giving the festival its online home. There will be more than 100 films screening on a schedule, just like a regular festival — although after many of the movies premiere, they will be available on-demand for the duration of the event.

And again, it’s not just films, but the other festival programming too, like Tribeca Talks with directors like Guillermo del Toro and Francis Ford Coppola. YouTube channels like Lessons from the Screenplay, CineFix, Now You See It and La Blogotheque have also gotten involved by creating new content for the event.

All the content is available for free, and Kyncl said that neither YouTube nor Tribeca are monetizing the event. Instead, they’re directing viewers to donate to COVID-19 relief efforts, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation and Give2Asia.

“We just see this as an immediate response with no commercial intent on our side,” he said.

And while We Are One was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyncl sounds hopeful that YouTube could help to create similar online festivals in the future — though he hastened to add that online experiences will never fully replace the “human connection” of an in-person festival.

“The role that youTube can play for all the festivals in the future is, we can extend their reach … whether it’s creators who may be participants in their film festivals in the future, or just audiences who are absolutely participating, but I think we can expand their universe in any way they wish,” Kyncl said. At the same time, he added, “We’ve given zero thought given to it thus far. We’re all focused on making sure we can pull this off in a short amount of time.”

Aaron Levie: ‘We have way too many manual processes in businesses’

Box CEO Aaron Levie has been working to change the software world for 15 years, but the pandemic has accelerated the move to cloud services much faster than anyone imagined. As he pointed out yesterday in an Extra Crunch Live interview, who would have thought three months ago that businesses like yoga and cooking classes would have moved online — but here we are.

Levie says we are just beginning to see the range of what’s possible because circumstances are forcing us to move to the cloud much faster than most businesses probably would have without the pandemic acting as a change agent.

“Overall, what we’re going to see is that anything that can become digital probably will be in a much more accelerated way than we’ve ever seen before,” Levie said.

Fellow TechCrunch reporter Jon Shieber and I spent an hour chatting with Levie about how digital transformation is accelerating in general, how Box is coping with that internally and externally, his advice for founders in an economic crisis and what life might be like when we return to our offices.

Our interview was broadcast on YouTube and we have included the embed below.


Just a note that Extra Crunch Live is our new virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members. Folks can ask their own questions live during the chat, with past and future guests like Alexis Ohanian, Garry Tan, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and many, many more. You can check out the schedule here. If you’d like to submit a question during a live chat, please join Extra Crunch.


On digital transformation

The way that we think about digital transformation is that much of the world has a whole bunch of processes and ways of working — ways of communicating and ways of collaborating where if those business processes or that way we worked were able to be done in digital forms or in the cloud, you’d actually be more productive, more secure and you’d be able to serve your customers better. You’d be able to automate more business processes.

We think we’re [in] an environment that anything that can be digitized probably will be. Certainly as this pandemic has reinforced, we have way too many manual processes in businesses. We have way too slow ways of working together and collaborating. And we know that we’re going to move more and more of that to digital platforms.

In some cases, it’s simple, like moving to being able to do video conferences and being able to collaborate virtually. Some of it will become more advanced. How do I begin to automate things like client onboarding processes or doing research in a life sciences organization or delivering telemedicine digitally, but overall, what we’re going to see is that anything that can become digital probably will be in a much more accelerated way than we’ve ever seen before.

How the pandemic is driving change faster

Salesforce stock is taking a hit today after lighter guidance in yesterday’s earning’s report

In spite of a positive quarter with record revenue that beat analysts’ estimates, Salesforce stock was taking a hit today because of lighter guidance. Wall Street is a tough audience.

The stock was down $8.29/share, or 4.58%, as of 2:15 pm ET.

The guidance, which was a projection for next quarter’s earnings, was lighter than what the analysts on Wall Street expected. While Salesforce was projecting revenue for next quarter in the range of $4.89 to $4.90 billion, according to CNBC, analysts had expected $5.03 billion.

When analysts see a future that is a bit worse than what they expected, it usually results in a lower stock price, and that’s what we are seeing today. It’s worth noting that Salesforce is operating in the same economy as everyone else, and being a bit lighter on your projections in the middle of a pandemic seems entirely understandable.

In yesterday’s report, CEO Marc Benioff indicated that the company has been offering some customers some flexibility around payment as they navigate the economic fallout of COVID-19, and the company’s operating cash took a bit of a hit because of this.

“Operating cash flow was $1.86 billion, which was largely impacted by delayed payments from customers while sheltering in place and some temporary financial flexibility that we granted to certain customers that were most affected by the COVID pandemic,” president and CFO Mark Hawkins explained in the analyst call.

Still, the company reported revenue of $4.87 billion for the quarter, putting it on a run rate of $19.48 billion.

In a statement, David Hynes, Jr. of Canaccord Genuity remained high on Salesforce. “If you step back and think about what Salesforce is actually providing, tools that help businesses get closer to their customers are perhaps more important than ever in a slower-growth, socially distanced world. We have long reserved a spot for CRM among our top names in large cap, and we feel no differently about that view after what we heard last night. This is a high-quality firm with many levers to growth, and as such, we believe CRM is a good way to get a bit of defensive exposure to the favorable trends at play in software.”

The company is, after all, still firmly on the path to $20 billion in revenue. As Hynes points out, overall the kinds of tools that Salesforce offers should remain in demand as companies look for ways to digitally transform much more rapidly in our current situation, and look to companies like Salesforce for help.

Audi launches high-tech car unit Artemis to fast track a ‘pioneering’ EV to market

Audi has created a new business unit called Artemis to bring electric vehicles equipped with highly automated driving systems and other tech to market faster — the latest bid by the German automaker to become more agile and competitive.

The traditional automotive industry, where the design to start of production cycle might take five to seven years, has been grappling with how to bring new and innovative products to market more quickly to meet consumers’ fickle demands. The model is more akin to how Tesla or a consumer electronics company operates.

The first project under Artemis will be to “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically,” Audi AG CEO Markus Duesmann said in a statement Friday. The unit is aiming to design and produce what Audi describes as a “highly efficient electric car” as early as 2024.

Artemis will be led by Alex Hitzinger, who was in charge of Audi’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched just in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group. AID was absorbed into the European headquarters of Argo AI, a move that was made after VW invested $2.6 billion in capital and assets into the self-driving startup.

Hitzinger, who takes the new position beginning June 1, will report directly to Duesmann. Artemis will be based at the company’s tech hub of its INCampus in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Artemis is under the Audi banner. However, the aim is for this group’s work to benefit brands under its parent company VW Group.  Hitzinger and the rest of his team will have access to resources and technologies within the entire Volkswagen Group . For instance, Car.Software, an independent business unit under the VW Group, will provide digital services to Artemis.  The upshot: to create a blueprint that will make VW Group a more agile automaker able to bring new and technologically advanced vehicles to market more quickly.

VW Group plans to produce and sell 75 electric vehicle models across its brands by 2029, a group that includes VW passenger cars and Audi. The creation of Artemis hasn’t changed Audi’s plans to produce 20 new all-electric vehicles and 10 new plug-in hybrids by 2025.

“The obvious question was how we could implement additional high-tech benchmarks without jeopardizing the manageability of existing projects, and at the same time utilize new opportunities in the markets,” Duesmann said.

Daily Crunch: Trump takes aim at social media companies

President Trump follows through on his threat to challenge the legal protections enjoyed by social media and internet companies, Magic Leap’s CEO is stepping down and China sees its biggest autonomous driving round yet.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for May 29, 2020.

1. Trump signs an executive order taking direct aim at social media companies

Yesterday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. Next, we’ll almost certainly see a court battle over whether the order is legal and enforceable.

While Trump and Attorney General William Barr have expressed interest in undermining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act before, this week’s action was prompted by Twitter’s decision to add a fact-checking link to the president’s tweet about voting by mail. That conflict isn’t going away either, with Twitter adding a “public interest notice” to another of Trump’s tweets for glorifying violence.

2. Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz is out

Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz announced that the company has secured a new bout of funding — but that Magic will be attempting a major turnaround without him at the helm.

3. SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortages in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field.

4. Cisco to acquire internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes

Cisco’s Todd Nightingale, writing in a blog post announcing the deal, said that the kind of data that ThousandEyes provides around internet user experience is more important than ever as internet connections have come under tremendous pressure.

5. Fintech regulations in Latin America could fuel growth or freeze out startups

Promoteo co-founder Ximena Aleman looks at what impact regulation has had so far in Latin America, and what needs to happen to strike a balance between sector growth and public trust. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Uber UK launches Work Hub for drivers to find other gig jobs during COVID-19

The ride-hailing giant rolled out a similar feature in the U.S. back in April, offering drivers the ability to respond to job postings from around a dozen other companies, as well as the ability to receive orders through other Uber units: Eats, Freight and Works.

7. Join us June 3 for a contact-tracing and exposure-notification app development and deployment forum

We’re working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host to their live-streamed discussion around contact-tracing and exposure-notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Echo Looks will cease functioning in July, as Amazon discontinues the camera

Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.

No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to completely shuttered in July.

Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch,

When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.

Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.

The best investment every digital brand can make during the COVID-19 pandemic

Intuitively, stores that sell online should be making a killing during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, everyone is stuck at home — and understandably more willing to shop online instead of at a traditional retailer to avoid putting themselves and others at medical risk. But the truth is, most smaller online stores have seen better days.

The primary challenge is that smaller shops often don’t have the logistics networks that companies like Amazon do. Consequently, they’re seeing substantially delayed delivery timelines, especially if they ship internationally. Customers obviously aren’t thrilled about that reality. And in many cases, they’re requesting refunds at a staggering rate.

I saw this play out firsthand in April. At that point, my stores were down 20% or in some cases even 30% in revenue. Needless to say, my team was freaking out. But there’s one thing we did that helped us increase our revenue over 200% since the pandemic, decrease refund requests and even strengthen our existing customer relationships.

We implemented a 24-hour live chat in all of our stores. Here’s why it worked for us and why every digital brand should be doing it too.

Avoid the common ‘unreachability’ frustration

When I started my first online store in 2006, challenges that bogged my team down often meant that my team’s first priority became resolving those challenges so that we could serve our customers faster. But admittedly, when these challenges came up, it became more difficult to balance communicating with our customers and resolving the issues that prevented us from fulfilling their orders quickly.

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