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$75M weed giant Caliva ditches Eaze, launches delivery

It’s a brutal time for marijuana startups. I’m hearing some are raising at 1/5th of their 2019 valuation amidst rampant competition, tall taxes, and slow legalization. The struggles for marijuana’s best-known startup, delivery service Eaze, continue as today it’s losing one of its top partners. $75 million-funded weed brand empire Caliva has dropped Eaze in favor of launching its own delivery system.

By partnering with Hypur banking to solve the marijuana payments legality issue, Caliva will be able to accept contactless mobile payments unlike Eaze that usually requires customers pay in cash. Caliva buyers won’t have to worry about trips to the ATM, especially now during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, which the startup expects will boost their average order volume. Combined with verticalizing delivery in-house plus its retail and wholesale operations, Caliva hopes it can grow its margins and survive this long winter for weed startups.

“Our mission at Caliva has always been to provide safe and easy access to plant-based solutions for health, happiness and healing,” said Caliva CEO Dennis O’Malley. “Together with Hypur, we are proud to offer our customers safe, compliant and convenient cashless payment options to improve and modernize their purchasing experience.” It hasn’t been so easy for Eaze, though.

Back in January, we reported that Eaze was in trouble, having suffered unannounced layoffs and executive departures. It burned cash on billboards, and never launched the services of a startup it acquired. There were questions about data security, and weed brands dropped Eaze due to delayed payments. It was almost out of money and in danger of vaporizing. It luckily managed to secure a $15 million bridge round to keep it alive plus a $20 million Series D in February just before the COVID hit the fan, though I dread to think of the terms of that funding.

The plan for Eaze was to verticalize, buying and developing brands that it could sell through its existing delivery service to up its margins. Now it’s seeing former partner Caliva do the reverse, launching a delivery service to sell its own Fun Uncle, Deli, and Caliva brands as well as distribute other vape, edible, and flower brands like Dosist and Kiva. Its menu breadth to attract customers and in-house brands to drive profits could be a winning combo. After limited pilots in SoCal, Caliva delivery is launching in LA and the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, traditional payment processors usually refuse to work with marijuana companies for fear of legal repercussions. That’s why most delivery services can’t accept credit or debit cards, or do so through sketchy legal workarounds that have led payment providers to be sued. Others like CanPay only offer ACH transfers, while Square only works with CBD sellers. “We spent time researching and evaluating all platforms that accept cannabis payments in the U.S., and found that Hypur has the best security, compliance and consumer experience” O’Malley tells me.

400-person Caliva is now trying to raise a Series B, but may experience tough headwinds with shelter-in-place orders in effect in states where marijuana is legal. Stiff taxes on marijuana have meanwhile helped the black market continue to thrive, as California’s $3.1 billion in legal 2019 sales were overshadowed by an estimated $8.7 billion in illegal sales. Faster delivery and simpler payments could help. But enthusiasm for the industry has dwindled following the initial flood of entrants sought to exploit the end of prohibition. Is the Green Rush over?

Free tool helps manufacturers map where COVID-19 impacts supply chain

Assent Compliance, a company that helps large manufacturers like GE and Rolls Royce manage complex supply chains through an online data exchange, announced a new tool this week that lets any company, whether they’re a customer or not, upload bills of materials and see on a map where COVID-19 is having an impact on their supply chain.

Company co-founder Matt Whitteker, says the Ottawa startup focuses on supply chain data management, which means it has the data and the tooling to develop a data-driven supply chain map based on WHO data identifying COVID hotspots. He believes that his is the only company to have done this.

“We’re the only ones that have taken supply chain data and applied it to this particular pandemic. And it’s something that’s really native to our platform. We have all that data on hand — we have location data for suppliers. So it’s just a matter of applying that with third party data sources (like the WHO data), and then extracting valuable business intelligence from it,” he said.

If you want to participate, you simply go to the company website and fill out a form. A customer success employee will contact you and walk you through the process of uploading your data to the platform. Once they have your data, they generate a map showing the parts of the world where your supply chain is most likely to be disrupted, identifying the level of risk based on your individual data.

The company captures supply chain data as part of the act of doing business with 1000 customers and 500,000 suppliers currently on their platform. “When companies are manufacturing products they have what’s called a bill of materials, kind of like a recipe. And companies upload their bill of materials that basically outlines all their parts, components and commodities, and who they get them from, which basically represents their supply chain,” Whitteker explained.

After the company uploads the bill of materials, Assent opens a portal for the companies to exchange data, which might be tax forms, proof of sourcing or any kind of information and documentation the manufacturer needs to comply with legal and regulatory rules around procurement of a given part.

They decided to start building the COVID-19 map application when they recognized that this was going to have the biggest supply chain disruption the world has seen since World War II. It took about a month to build it. It went into Beta last week with customers and over 350 signed up in the first two hours. This week, they made the tool generally available to anyone, even non-customers, for free.

The company was founded in 2016 and raised $220 million, according to Whitteker.

Seeqc raises $5M to help make quantum computing commercially viable

Seeqc, a startup that is part of a relatively new class of quantum computing companies that is looking at how to best use classical computing to manage quantum processors, today announced that it has raised $5 million from M Ventures, the strategic corporate venture capital arm of Merck, the German pharmaceutical giant. Merck will be a strategic partner for Seeqc and will help it to develop its R&D efforts to develop useful application-specific quantum computers.

With this, New York state-based Seeqc has now raised a total of $11 million, including a recent $6.8 million seed round that included BlueYard Capital, Cambium, NewLab and the Partnership Fund for New York City.

Since developing new pharmaceuticals is an obvious use case for quantum computing, it makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are trying to get ahead of their competitors by making strategic investments in companies like Seeqc.

The company is a spin-out of Hypres, a company that specializes in building superconductor-integrated circuits. Hypres itself had raised about $100 million in total and notes that much of the work it did on building its solutions are now part of Seeqc.

As a company spokesperson told me, the idea behind Seeqc is to bring today’s room-sized quantum computers down to a more manageable scale. It’s doing so by combining its (and Hypres’) expertise in building superconductors with a hybrid approach to combine analog and digital. This includes digital qubit control and readout, together with the company’s own proprietary chip technology that integrates classical and quantum circuits into a hybrid system (and by default, quantum computers are hybrid systems that need a classical computer to control them).

The company argues that co-locating the classical compute with the quantum processor is critical to achieving the best performance. And since it owns and operates its own fab to build these chips, Seeqc also believes that it is one of the few companies that has the right infrastructure and expertise in place to design, test and build these superconductors.

“The ‘brute force’ or labware approach to quantum computing contemplates building machines with thousands or even millions of qubits requiring multiple analog cables and, in some cases, complex CMOS readout/control for each qubit, but that doesn’t scale effectively as the industry strives to deliver business-applicable solutions,” said John Levy, co-chief executive officer at Seeqc. “With Seeqc’s hybrid approach, we utilize the power of quantum computers in a digital system-on-a-chip environment, offering greater control, cost reduction and with a massive reduction in energy, introducing a more viable path to commercial scalability.”

The company believes that its approach can cut the cost of today’s large-scale quantum computers to 1/400th. All of this, of course, is still a while out and, for now, the company will use the new funding to build a small-scale version of its system.

“We’re excited to be working with a world-leading team and fab on one of the most pressing issues in modern quantum computing,” says Owen Lozman, vice president at M Ventures . “We recognize that scaling the current generations of superconducting quantum computers beyond the noisy intermediate-scale quantum era will require fundamental changes in qubit control and wiring. Building on deep expertise in single flux quantum technologies, Seeqc has a clear, and importantly cost-efficient, pathway towards addressing existing challenges and disrupting analog, microwave-controlled architectures.”

Seeqc is, of course, not the only startup working on more efficient quantum control schemes. Quantum Machines, for example, also recently raised quite a bit of venture capital for its hardware/software quantum orchestration platform that also includes a custom processor, though that company’s overall approach is quite different from Seeqc’s.

I had COVID-19, but my tech guilt is worse

I’ve been infected with the novel coronavirus for at least three weeks.

It started with my partner coughing and feeling very tired. A couple of days later, I started showing the same symptoms.

As a medical professional, he was required to get tested and I followed suit within days. We both tested positive and have been recovering at home since.

The symptoms have been up and down over the past two weeks. After the first few days, the mild cough gave way to an unrelenting one and the feeling of being tired gave way to being completely drained at all hours. My partner completely lost his sense of smell.

A week into having COVID-19, we thought we’d turned a corner, only for more symptoms to manifest. The virus had made its way to my GI tract, adding nausea and an inability to keep my head up without throwing up. Today, two weeks after the first bouts of coughing, we both feel significantly better, but continue to self-isolate as instructed.

Luckily for both of us, we have now been symptom-free for 72 hours, and the symptoms we did have were relatively mild throughout. The experience of getting tested — mandated for my partner to be able to go back to working at the hospital — could not have been easier. I showed up at the hospital and was greeted by a doctor and two nurses. They took a sample and advised me on how best to self-isolate for the next few weeks. The whole thing took less than 15 minutes, and it was only 24 hours later that I got the call confirming that I had tested positive.

My employer has been supportive throughout. They’ve connected me to support services, offered a number of leave options if I were to take time off to deal with the virus, constantly checked in on my prognosis and even sent a work-from-home toolkit complete with a giant monitor, keyboard and mouse. Throughout the self-isolation period, I have been able to work from home — a relatively seamless transition given that my job has long enabled me to work from home when needed. If I needed further healthcare, I can count on the many telehealth options available through my insurance.

What all this cemented is how incredibly fortunate I am, unlike the millions of Americans now losing their jobs. While others have been unable to get tested, my entire testing experience was painless. I have the luxury of being able to work from home. I’m quarantined with my partner and my puppy, so I haven’t gotten lonely. Because I’m still getting my paycheck, I don’t have to worry about making the next rent payment. I’m able to have grocery and takeout deliveries left at my doorstep. If I were to take a turn for the worse, a major hospital is just down the street.

This epidemic has laid bare the incredible differences in privilege within our society, including within tech. Long celebrated as representing the future of work, today thousands of gig workers have lost their main source of income, with no paycheck to count on and no option to work from home. Others, from delivery to warehouse workers, have no choice but to work, even at increased risk of contracting the disease themselves. Thousands in the Bay Area who live alone now risk being completely socially isolated as we continue to be on lockdown, while others with kids and large families now worry about taking care of their children while also working full-time jobs.

Not to mention that the homeless of our cities have no way to self-isolate even if they wanted to. Crowded homeless shelters — to the extent they were available — are no longer an option.

This is a moment where all of us in tech have to come together to help even the scales. Thousands of tech workers are already donating their time and resources, but more can be done:

  • Now is the time to max out our employee match programs to make every dollar we give count more.
  • Donations are needed by Frontline Foods, an effort that started in the Bay Area to provide front-line workers with food and is now scaling globally. More generally food banks are seeing an exponential rise in the demand for their services, with Second Harvest being one to flag in the Bay Area.
  • If you know a co-worker with kids, offer to babysit over video for an hour or two. This can be as simple as playing a game on Houseparty together if they’re 12 or older, or helping them with a lesson their parents have found particularly hard to get through.
  • A lot of us are anxious about getting the virus, so you can only imagine how the elderly and those with underlying health conditions feel. Give your grandparent a call, or donate your time and resources to organizations like Meals on Wheels to make sure they’re getting the nutrition they need to get through this.
  • Many local businesses may close because of the pandemic. Support them by ordering takeout and other delivery services. If you prefer to donate directly, many cities have created funds to provide relief to impacted small businesses, like the Silicon Valley Strong Fund in San Jose.

For the foreseeable future, my only visits to the outside world will be — with mask and gloves on — to walk my dog around the corner. I’ll have plenty of time to reflect on how lucky I am, and the privilege guilt will follow. I’m guessing I’m not alone. Let’s channel our guilt into something good.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of his employer.

Facebook to supply free Portals to some care home residents under NHS scheme

The UK government is pulling in tech firms to connect isolated residents and patients in care with family and friends via video call devices and services during the COVID-19 crisis. First to join is Facebook, which is supplying up to 2,050 of its Portal video-calling devices for free to hospitals, care homes and other settings including hospices, in-patient learning disability and autism units. The logistical rollout will be supported Accenture.

Fifty of the devices have already been deployed to pilot sites in Surrey with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow,

Iain O’Neilm, NHSX Digital Transformation Director, said in a statement: “Technology companies big and small continue to pledge their resources and expertise to support our NHS and social care system in these unprecedented times. We are working hard to find and develop services that meet people’s equally unprecedented needs. Technology has never been so important to providing one of life’s most essential things – the ability to communicate with the people we love regardless of where they are.”

The NHSX said it is working with “a range of technology companies to support the NHS and social care system.”.

Freddy Abnousi, MD, Head of Health Technology, Facebook said in s statement: “We designed Portal to give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones…That’s why we are piloting a program with NHSX to provide Portal devices in hospitals and other care settings to support patients and help reduce social isolation.”

Additional solutions to be deployed under the scheme include enabling health and care staff to work remotely if needed; improving communication between clinical and care teams; shifting hospital outpatients to virtual appointments; and accelerating the use of online and video consultations within GP and primary care services.

Commenting, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is great to see Facebook giving care home residents and patients the devices they need to connect with their family and friends at such a challenging time. The technology sector is rising to the challenge at this moment of national emergency and we in government are working closely with them to help people stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Facebook and NHSX have agreed that the care homes and care settings involved in the pilot will be able to keep the devices free of charge, and use as they see fit, following the pilot phase.

Where the Portal devices go will be chosen on the basis of their wifi connectivity and ability to run devices in residents’ rooms or another private location.

At the same time, NHSX said it is exploring connectivity options for care homes without wifi, including the use of 4G hotspots or data-enabled tablets.

The venues for the portals will be advised on how to set them up by the NHSX, as well as infection control and data protection. Concerns about privacy will be addressed by completing a factory reset on the portal before passing the device to a new user.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Residents/patients will be supported by care staff to initiate calls to family/friends. Each care home/care setting will be free to make their own decisions on how best to manage this; for example, whether to pre-arrange specific call times with families in advance. Staff will be supported with easy-to-use setup guidance, device instructions and guidance on infection control. Care homes will also be asked to assist residents who do not wish to use their own personal accounts by setting up a new, generic personal account to be used instead. Where residents or patients wish to use a personal account, the care home will complete a factory reset before passing the device to a new user.

NASA seeks miniature scientific payload concepts for robotic Moon rover scouts

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is seeking ideas from the public around what kind of scientific equipment they could use to outfit tiny lunar rovers to help with Artemis and other Moon missions. The call, issued via crowdsourcing platform HeroX and called ‘Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload’ in a very contemporary nod to a movie that came out 31 years ago, seeks payloads with maximum dimensions of no more than 4″ x 2″, or “similar in size to a new bar of soap.”

Why the need for instruments so small? NASA wants to be able to perform the kind of science that has, in the past, required large launch vehicles, large orbiters and large launch vehicles, but with much greater frequency and at much lower costs than has been possible before. In order to pave the way for long-term lunar human presence and eventual habitation, NASA says it needs “practical and affordable ways to use lunar resources,” in order to defray the costs of resupply missions – already an expensive undertaking when just traveling to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, and astronomically more so when going as far afield as the Moon .

The goal is for these to be pretty much immediately available for service, with the hope that they can be shipped out to the Moon over the course of the next one to four years. JPL is looking to tap the expertise and experience of the global community to see what’s possible with existing materials and technologies, and while this idea challenge is primarily about concept phase designs (with $160,000 in prize money payouts available), the longer-term goal is to use it as a jumping off point for a pipeline of actual tech that will be incorporated into future rovers and sent on lunar missions.

Taking part in the challenge is fairly easy, and you actually retain all rights to anything you submit in terms of IP, with the proviso that if you make it to the finals, you have to sign a new agreement in which you also grant the U.S. government essentially a perpetual, royalty-free license to use your creation in whatever way they deem appropriate.

If you think you’ve got an idea about how to miniaturize environmental sensors and data gathering equipment for use on what amounts to a space Roomba, there’s probably no better opportunity to contribute to NASA’s deep space exploration efforts – short of landing a JPL gig, which might happen if your idea is good enough.

Report: Apple’s iOS 14 contains code that would let you sample apps before download

Apple has under development a feature that would allow iOS users to interact with a third-party app, even if the app wasn’t yet installed on your device, according to a report from 9to5Mac. The report is based on information discovered in the iOS 14 code, which is not necessarily an indication of launch plans on Apple’s part — but rather an insight into some of Apple’s work in progress.

The feature is referenced internally as the “Clips” API — not to be confused with Apple’s video editing app of the same name. Based on 9to5Mac’s analysis, the new API works in conjunction with the QR Code reader, allowing a user to scan a code linked to an app, then interact with that app from a card that appears on their screen.

Described like this, the feature sounds like a marketing tool for app publishers as it would offer a way for users to try out new apps before they download them to get a better feel for the experience than a banner ad would allow. In addition to offering some interactivity with an app before it’s downloaded, the card could also be used to redirect users to the App Store if they choose to download the full version. The card could also be used to open the app directly to the content, in the case of apps the user already had installed.

Google’s Android, the report noted, offers a similar feature called “Slices,” launched in 2018. While Google had already introduced a way to interact with small pieces of an app in an experience called Instant Apps, the newer Slices feature was meant to drive usage of apps — like booking a ride or hotel room, for example, without having to first locate the app and launch it. On iOS, perhaps, these app “clips” could be pulled up by Siri or in Spotlight search — but that functionality wasn’t demonstrated by the code the report referenced today.

It’s unclear what Apple intentions are with the Clips API or how experimental its efforts are at this time.

However, the report found the feature was being tested with OpenTable, Yelp, DoorDash, Sony (the PS4 Second Screen app), and YouTube. This could indicate a plan to demo examples of the app’s functionality in a future reveal to developers.

On the heels of its NTWRK investment, FaZe Clan looks at global expansion despite pandemic

FaZe Clan, the esports mega-franchise worth more than $240 million, is still planning on moving forward with its international expansion this year on the heels of a multi-million-dollar funding round backed by investors including Jimmy Iovine and the startup shopping network, NTWRK.

Backed by Drake, Live Nation and Iovine, NTWRK is not just an investor in FaZe Clan, the startup will also be the home for the esports entertainment hub’s future merchandising efforts.

Part of the capital could go toward planned international expansion efforts, which would see FaZe Clan set up a global network of FaZe houses for its entertainers. Already a cornerstone of the culture that’s sprung up around online gaming and streaming entertainment, FaZe is doubling down on its production and distribution, according to chief executive Lee Trink.

While ad dollars and spending are plummeting across the entertainment world, demand for placement on FaZe Clan’s streams continues to grow, said Trink.

“We’re not experiencing that [decline] right now (not as far as our sponsorship and brand deals),” Trink said. “There’s been a massive constriction for that capital around advertising, but there’s been greater restriction around avenues to deploy that capital.”

Lee Trink, chief executive of FaZe Clan (Photo courtesy of FaZe Clan)

FaZe remains unfazed by those constraints because there’s no entertainment that’s more epidemic-proof than watching a bunch of folks play video games alone (or in a socially distant group) in a house. It’s the perfect entertainment for pandemic times.

TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon inked a deal with the FaZe Clan team to promote a tournament, and the company’s Fight 2 Fund raised money for organizations working to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re one of the last shows in show-business that are still going on,” says Trink. 

Trink’s statement is a simple fact. Interest in streaming is skyrocketing and even traditional celebrities are embracing the FaZe Clan’s work-from-home aesthetic (pioneered by the original YouTube streamers who paved the way for vlogging as entertainment).

The company’s roster of talent is showcased on the newly launched subscription service, Quibi, and has partnered with NTWRK to create promotions in the past.

And the company is still looking for new capital to fund its activities. On the heels of the Series A close, which Trink said happened in December and included a slew of celebrities on top of Iovine and NTWRK, the company will be going back out to market this year to raise another $10 million to $15 million.  

Some of that cash would likely be used to fund the expansion that Trink says is a part of FaZe Clan’s future growth plans — despite the pandemic.

“We’re looking to do a lot of interesting moves regarding houses,” said Trink. “There are some exciting conversations going on around international expansion during this time. The chances of there being FaZe houses around the world is likely.”

Android gets a built-in Braille keyboard

Android has received a wealth of accessibility features over the last couple of years, but one that has been left to third-party developers is a way for blind users to type using braille. That changes today with Android’s new built-in braille keyboard, which should soon be available as an option on all phones running version 5 and up of the OS.

Braille is a complex topic in the accessibility community, as in many ways it has been supplanted by voice recognition, screen readers and other tools. But many people are already familiar with it and use it regularly — and after all, one can’t always chat out loud.

Third-party braille keyboards are available, but some cost money or are no longer in development. And because the keyboard essentially has access to everything you type, there are security considerations as well. So it’s best for the keyboard you use to be an official one from a reputable company. Google will have to do!

The new keyboard, the company writes in a blog post, was created as a collaboration with various users and developers of braille software, and should be familiar to anyone who’s used something like it in the past.

The user holds the phone in landscape mode, with the screen facing away from them, and taps the regions corresponding to each of the six dots that form letters in the braille alphabet. It works with Android’s TalkBack function, which reads off words the user types or selects, so like any other writing method errors can be quickly detected and corrected. There are also some built-in gestures for quickly deleting letters and words or sending the text to the recipient or selected field.

Instructions for activating the braille keyboard are here. Right now it’s only available in English, but more languages will likely be added in the near future.

Double emerges from stealth with $6M to pair CEOs with remote assistants

CEOs often rely on executive assistants to handle the less glamorous logistics of their day so they can focus on managing a company, but hiring a full-time assistant isn’t always easy to justify, especially at a budding startup.

Double is aiming to cater to busy C-suite execs who probably don’t need a full-time assistant but could still use some help managing their email, arranging travel, scheduling meetings and balancing their endless work with a personal life. They’re pitching a service to startup CEOs and investors that matches them up with contracted remote assistants to help free up their schedules.

“At the end of the day, these people are spending hours a day doing the things they aren’t best at,” CEO Alice Default told TechCrunch in an interview.

Double’s contracted assistants are all based in the US and have years of previous experiences as EAs, Double says. When an exec signs up for the service, they are guided through an onboarding call where they can share some of their needs before being paired up with a dedicated assistant. Double says its assistants are generally working with about 4-5 clients at a time and in some cases are assisting multiple execs at the same company.

The New York startup has been building their product under wraps and has raised some $6 million in funding from VCs including Index Ventures and Paris-based Daphni. The team previously helped build the popular Sunrise calendar app, which Microsoft bought in 2015 only to later discontinue.

One of Double’s big initiatives is honing the effectiveness of combining human efforts and software automation. The team hasn’t pushed too heavily on the latter, but Default says that they see plenty of room to augment how assistants handle tasks by letting automation get the ball rolling.

“We are thinking about automation quite a bit, for us this relationship with [human labor] can be much better,” Default says.

Double has spent the last couple years developing software to facilitate the connection between assistants and executives. The team now offers desktop and mobile apps as well as a Chrome extension that can allow execs to push updates to their assistants with ease.

“What we realized pretty early on is that one of the things that’s hard about delegating is giving the proper context,” Default says.

The service charges hourly rates with a minimum rate of $250 per month for 5 hours of assistant work. Default says early CEOs that have been onboarded to the service in beta pay on average about $800 month for a bit less than an hour of assistance per day.

Launching a premium service for executives in the midst of a pandemic crisis where a good deal of startups are thinking about layoffs is far from perfect launch timing for Double, but Default believes the service can provide a lot of value to busy executives scrambling to adapt their businesses. Default says the service has already seen some early users pause their subscriptions but notes that the month-to-month structure is flexible by design and makes it easy for users to pick things back up when their firms (hopefully) emerge from crisis mode.

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