News & Press

Porsche and Lucasfilm co-designed a new starfighter for the Star Wars universe

Porsche typically concerns itself with terrestrial vehicle designs, but for a new project it worked with Lucasfilm designers in collaboration on a new starfighter for the Star Wars universe.

The starfigher, called the Tri-Wing S-91x Pegasus, obviously doesn’t exist in full-scale flyable form, but it is being built out as a 5-foot long highly-detailed sub-scale model, which will be unveiled at the Rise of Skywalker premiere in LA this month.

Note that the S-91x won’t actually be in the movie – it’s more of a design exercise and promotional thing than something that is actually intended to feature in narrative Star Wars universe content. But the collaboration is interesting because it combines Porsche sensibilities and direct design inspiration from that company’s 911 and Taycan real-world vehicles, with authentic Lucasfilm touches like an astromech slot behind the cockpit and the somewhat ‘lived-in’ detailed industrial look of Star Wars universe technology.

Porsche designers even zeroed in on cockpit comfort and ergonomics with this spacious three-seater design, which is more than you can say for whoever created the cramped and pretty austere interior of the X-Wing, or the submarine-during-combat-maneuvers cabin lighting of the TIE Fighter cockpit.

No word on pricing, but a well-appointed model with the highest trim level is bound to set you back quite a few credits. More than used Corellian YT-1300 freighter that’s for sure.

Xbox Series X is Microsoft’s next-gen console, arriving late-2020

If you didn’t watch last night’s Game Awards, you may of missed it. But Xbox Series X is the company’s  next generation console, and will be arriving in late 2020. Thankfully, Microsoft has kindly catalogued all of the images, media and even a little information online. Oh, and we’ll almost certainly be hearing a LOT more about the Xbox Series X before it arrives holidays 2020.

Xbox Head Phil Spencer has a pretty long break down over on the the official blog. But let’s start with the obvious here. The Series X looks…different. Surely the meme makers are already working overtime on this one, but to my mind, it looks a more traditional PC or maybe even a router.

It’s tall (around three times as tall as its predecessor), it’s rectangular, it’s black. It’s fairly minimalist. A lot of people seem to be comparing it to a refrigerator, which, fine. Honestly, I think it’s got that working for it. Surely plenty of people are looking for something that more seamlessly blends in with its surroundings.

The last few generations have found consoles transforming from specialty items into catchall media players, and there’s something to be said for a product that can sit on your shelf, largely undetected. Notably, the blocky design means that the console can be oriented either vertically or horizontally, depending on your spacing needs.

The latest version of the Xbox Wireless Controller arrives alongside the new system, because, well, you’re going to need something to control it with. It’s a bit smaller than the previous version, “refined to accommodate an even wider range of people,” per Spencer.

The buttons are largely in tact, with the addition of a Share button for taking screenshots and game clips. The new controllers ship with the system and will be capable with both the Xbox One and Windows 10 systems.

Speaking of older systems, the Series X is set up to support backward compatibility for all older systems, along with Xbox One accessories. Per Spencer,

Building on our compatibility promise, with Xbox Series X we’re also investing in consumer-friendly pathways to game ownership across generations.

Leading the way with our first-party titles including Halo Infinite in 2020, we’re committed to ensuring that games from Xbox Game Studios support cross-generation entitlements and that your Achievements and game saves are shared across devices.

Spec information is still pretty light for this first pass, but Spencer promises 4K playback at 60FPS (with potentially up to 120FPS) and support for both Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and 8K capability.

Powered by our custom-designed processor leveraging the latest Zen 2 and next generation RDNA architecture from our partners at AMD, Xbox Series X will deliver hardware accelerated ray tracing and a new level of performance never before seen in a console. Additionally, our patented Variable Rate Shading (VRS) technology will allow developers to get even more out of the Xbox Series X GPU and our next-generation SSD will virtually eliminate load times and bring players into their gaming worlds faster than ever before.

The Series X will also, naturally, have an eye on cloud gaming, in addition to native hardware. Tonight’s unveil also featured a sneak preview of the upcoming Ninja Theory title, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II.

Bluespace.ai, a startup focused on AV technology for mass transit, gets $3.5 million in seed funding

Bluespace.ai, a new autonomous driving startup focused on mass transit, announced today that it has raised $3.5 million in seed funding led by Fusion Fund.

Other investors include YouTube co-founder Steve Chen; UMC, the Taiwanese semiconductor foundry; Kakao Ventures; GDP Ventures; Atinum; Wasabi Ventures; Blue Ivy Ventures; Plug n Play; and SLV Capital.

The startup develops software systems for autonomous mass transit fleets and is currently in meetings with cities and transit providers. Its founding team includes CEO Joel Pazhayampallil, previously co-founder of Drive.ai, which was acquired by Apple earlier this year, and president and COO Christine Moon, whose experience includes serving as head of partnerships for Google’s Nexus program.

Bluespace.ai’s team also has people who have worked at AV companies like Zoox, Lyft Level 5 and Voyage. Their combined experience includes launching AV fleets in Texas, California and Florida.

In an email, Moon told TechCrunch that Bluespace.ai’s software “enables verifiably safe AV operation without the millions of miles of testing needed by current generation AVs. This enables our mission of making urban mobility more equitable, accessible and sustainable through mass transit automation in the near term.”

Several major automakers, including Volvo and Toyota, and startups like May Mobility and Optimus Ride, are also working on AV solutions for mass transit.

Moon said Bluespace.ai’s specific focus is on “increas[ing] the overall ability and efficiency across trunk transit routes with higher rider capacity.” While other startups have primarily focused on first- and last-mile solutions for slow-speed vehicles that are part of main transit systems, Moon added that Bluespace.ai’s aim is to safely enable full-size vehicles that can travel on public roads at road speed, therefore serving more passengers at a time.

In a press statement, Fusion Fund managing partner Lu Zhang said “After looking at many investment opportunities in the AV space, we found that BlueSpace stood out with their revolutionary technology approach and providing near term market application. The founding team has an incredibly strong technology background and significant deployment experience, having launched AV services in Florida, Texas and California.”

Sleek raises $5M to help companies incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong

Sleek, a startup that is making it easier for other startups and companies to incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong, said today it has extended its seed financing round to raise $5 million.

The extended seed round for the two-year-old startup was led by private investors Pierre Lorinet and Fabio Blom, and MI8, an Asia-focused European backed private investment company.

Sleek also counts a number of high profile individuals including Martin Crawford, former Group CEO of corporate services giant Vistra, Olivier Gerhardt, founder of Wavecell, Eric Barbier, founder of TransferTo, and Olivier Legrand, MD Asia at Linkedin among its investors.

Sleek, founded by French entrepreneurs Julien Labruyere and Adrien Barthel, today helps more than 2,000 startups and companies in Singapore and Hong Kong, an additional market it extended to in mid-2019. Some of its clients include Yours Cosmetics (funded by Sequoia), Aspire Financials (which raised $30 million recently), Ematic Solutions, Devialet, and oil and gas giant Total.

As we wrote about them in June this year, Sleek not only helps startups and companies incorporate themselves in Singapore (and now, Hong Kong), but also takes care of their accounting, taxes, regulatory compliance and other administrative work.

Sleek founders Julien Labruyere (right) and Adrien Barthel (left)

Singapore and Hong Kong have emerged as epicenters for startups and tech worldwide. “Hong Kong is a historical Asian financial hub, with six times more operating companies than in Singapore and an amazing business ecosystem,” said Barthel, adding that despite the current situation in Hong Kong, the business is growing in the market.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong today offer a range of benefits including government-backed startup programs to attract businesses, but setting up shops there still require a lot of paperwork.

The traditional way of dealing with accounting and incorporation is a cumbersome task, and the last thing founders want to deal with, Barthel explained to TechCrunch in an interview. Plus, there’s no transparency in what the actual cost of doing these tasks would be, he said.

Sleek offers a subscription business, where it charges a fixed amount — about $600 — to its customers each year. Starting second year, it waives some of its fee, said Barthel. “We also offer a simple dashboard for our clients to quickly check the progress we have made on any front,” he added.

To make the deal even better, Sleek offers vouchers with subscription to AWS, Stripe, Google Cloud — that they are likely going to use in their businesses anyway — worth thousands of dollars. The startup also connects its partner entrepreneurs with financial institutions to help them access working capital.

Barthel said before signing up a client, Sleek does its own due diligence. “Singapore, for instance, has stringent on KYC (know your customer) processes. Among other things, we use a number of APIs that are tied with all the major global databases to ensure that our potential clients are not doing notorious business,” he said.

Sleek, which today employs 85 people, will use the fresh capital to expand its tech team, build new features for clients, and increase its operational capacity.

Reliance Industries acquires a majority stake in SaaS startup NowFloats for $20M

Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest industrial houses, has acquired a majority stake in NowFloats, an Indian startup that helps businesses and individuals build online presence without any web developing skills.

In a regulatory filing on Thursday, Reliance Strategic Business Ventures Limited said (PDF) it has acquired an 85% stake in NowFloats for 1.4 billion Indian rupees ($20 million).

Seven-and-a-half-year old, Hyderabad-headquartered NowFloats operates an eponymous platform that allows individuals and businesses to easily build an online presence. Using NowFloats’ services, a mom and pop store, for instance, can build a website, publish their catalog, as well as engage with their customers on WhatsApp.

The startup, which has raised about 12 million in equity financing prior to today’s announcement, claims to have helped over 300,000 participating retail partners. NowFloats counts Blume Ventures, Omidyar Network, Iron Pillar, IIFL Wealth Management, and Hyderabad Angels among its investors.

Last year, NowFloats acquired LookUp, an India-based chat service that connects consumers to local business — and is backed by Vinod Khosla’s personal fund Khosla Impact, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures and Global Founders Capital.

Reliance Strategic Business Ventures Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries, said that it would invest up to 750 million Indian rupees ($10.6 million) of additional capital into the startup, and raise its stake to about 89.66%, if NowFloats achieves certain unspecified goals by the end of next year.

In a statement, Reliance Industries said the investment will “further enable the group’s digital and new commerce initiatives.” NowFloats is the latest acquisition Reliance has made in the country this year. In August, the conglomerate said it was buying a majority stake in Google-backed Fynd for $42.3 million. In April, it bought a majority stake in Haptik in a deal worth $100 million.

There are about 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India. Like hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and cities, who have come online in recent years thanks to world’s cheapest mobile data plans and inexpensive Android smartphones, businesses are increasingly building online presence as well.

But vast majority of them are still offline, a fact that has created immense opportunities for startups — and VCs looking into this space — and major technology giants. New Delhi-based BharatPe, which helps merchants accept online payments and provides them with working capital, raised $50 million in August. Khatabook and OkCredit, two digital bookkeeping apps for merchants, have also raised significant amount of money this year.

In recent years, Google has also looked into the space. It has launched tools — and offered guidance — to help neighborhood stores establish some presence on the web. In September, the company announced that its Google Pay service, which is used by more than 67 million users in India, will now enable businesses to accept digital payments and reach their customers online.

Salesforce promotes Bret Taylor to president and COO

Salesforce announced today that it has named Bret Taylor as president and chief operating officer of the company. Prior to today’s promotion, Taylor held the position of president and chief product officer.

In his new position, Taylor will be responsible for a number of activities, including leading Salesforce’s global product vision, engineering, security, marketing and communications. That’s a big job, and as such he will report directly to chairman Marc Benioff.

Taylor has had increasing responsibilities over the last couple of years, taking the lead on many of Salesforce’s biggest announcements at Dreamforce, the company’s massive yearly customer conference. In fact, Benioff said in a statement that Taylor has already been responsible for product vision, development and go-to-market strategy prior to today’s promotion.

“His expanded portfolio of responsibilities will enable us to drive even greater customer success and innovation as we experience rapid growth at scale,” Benioff said in the statement.

Brent Leary, founder at CRM Essentials, who has been watching the company since its earliest days, says it feels like this could be part of a succession plan down the road. This promotion could be a signal that Taylor is being groomed to take over for Benioff and co-CEO Keith Block whenever they decide to move on.

“It’s been feeling like he’s being groomed for the big chair somewhere down the line. He’s a generation behind the current leadership, but his experiences at startups and creating iconic technologies at iconic companies uniquely positioned him for a move like this at a company like Salesforce,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, agrees, saying Taylor is a rising star at Salesforce. “As the guy who invented the Like button at Facebook, Google Maps and other innovations, he’s the Chosen One to take the technologies teams further,” Wang said.

Wang added that Taylor’s strengths are about quickly determining a pragmatic path to market for ideas, but also simplifying the complex. “It’s a good move for Salesforce, and shows the deep bench strength the team has,” he said.

Taylor came to Salesforce when the company purchased Quip in August 2016 for $750 million. He was promoted to president and chief product officer in November 2017. Prior to launching Quip he was chief technology officer at Facebook.

Why Bill.com didn’t pursue a direct listing

Bill.com went public today after pricing its shares higher than it initially expected. The B2B payments company sold nearly 10 million shares at $22 apiece, raising around $216 million in its IPO. Public investors felt that the company’s price was a deal, sending the value of its equity to $35.51 per share as of the time of writing.

That’s a gain of over 61%.

On the heels of its successful pricing run and raucous first day’s trading, TechCrunch caught up with Bill.com CEO René Lacerte to dig into his company’s debut. We wanted to know how pricing went, and whether the company (which possibly could have valued itself more richly during its IPO pricing, given its first-day pop) had considered a direct listing.

Lacerte detailed what resonated with investors while pricing Bill.com’s shares, and also did a good job outlining his perspective on what matters for companies that are going public. As a spoiler, he wasn’t super focused on the company’s first-day return.

For more on the Bill.com IPO’s nuts and bolts, head here. Let’s get into the interview.

René Lacerte

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Questions have been condensed.

TechCrunch: How did your IPO pricing feel, and what did you learn from the process?

Lacerte: I think the whole experience has been an incredible learning experience from a capitalism perspective; that’s probably a broader conversation. But you know, it really came down to how our story resonated with investors, and so there’s three components that we kind of really talked to folks about.

Carbon’s new CEO discusses local manufacturing, funding and a potential IPO

Last month, Carbon announced its first new CEO in the company’s history. With $260 million worth of investments and a $2.5 billion, it’s a big job. But Carbon’s 500-person headcount is small potatoes compared to Ellen Kullman’s last gig.

For six years, Kullman headed up DuPont, the culmination of a nearly 30-year career at the chemical giant. After leaving the role in 2016, she joined a number of different boards, including Goldman Sachs and Dell. It was, however, a three-year-old Bay Area-based 3D printing company that ultimately drew her interest.

After six years at the helm of the company, co-founder Joe DeSimone stepped aside in November and became Executive Chairman of the Board. His background as a chemist helped birth the startup, while Kullman’s experience leading a Fortune 500 clearly indicate a company looking to take the next steps.

As several substantial funding rounds can attest, there’s clearly massive interest in Carbon’s potential. Over the past few years, the company has formed partnerships with Adidas, Ford, Ridell and a number of other manufacturers. As its newly-minted CEO, Kullman’s job will be following through on those deals and proving the company’s potential as a key player in the future of manufacturing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When was it clear that your time [at DuPont] had kind of run its course?

It was a proxy contest, and we won the proxy contest, but the activists made it clear that he was going to keep coming after the company. I really was the lightning rod, right? It became personal to him that DuPont beat him, right? The only thing that was going to get that settled down, I decided, was me leaving. I’d been there 27 years. I’d run seven years as the CEO. I had a great track record on gross, and on TSR, versus the S&P and things like that.

It was just the right time to exit. Basically the decision came up in the middle of ’15 and you know, I stepped down in late October, I think it was. That was pretty quick for a transition and so that’s why I took a couple of years to figure out what I wanted to do. Actually the first thing I took on was agreed to come on Carbon’s board about four months after I left DuPont.

You’ve been on a number of boards. What attracted you to Carbon, specifically?

Being a mechanical engineer and running a company like DuPont with polymers, I understood injection molding pretty well. I understood how we at DuPont were helping customers try to optimize what they were doing with pure material science. What hit me when I came out here is that digitization, technology, had impacted everything we do. Supply chain, our ERP, our HR systems. Everything around the manufacturing have been touched except, manufacturing itself. Yeah, we might have smarter DCS systems that are running the lines and things like that, but injection molding hasn’t changed for hundreds… the fundamentals. And this has an opportunity to fundamentally change it at a scale and a cost that was relevant. My big thing at DuPont is we could do amazing things with creating new materials, new ecosystems for those materials.

As someone who is familiar with manufacturing and injection molding, you’ve surely known about 3D printing/additive manufacturing for a long time now. To your mind, what is Carbon’s differentiator?

Pandora launches interactive voice ads

Pandora has begun to test a new type of advertising format that allows listeners to respond to the ad by speaking aloud. In the new ads, listeners are prompted to say “yes” after the ad asks a question and a tone plays. The ads will then offer more information about the product or brand in question.

Debut advertisers testing the new format include Doritos, Ashley HomeStores, Unilever, Wendy’s, Turner Broadcasting, Comcast, and Nestle.

The ads begin by explaining what they are and how they’ll work. They then play a short and simple message followed by a question that listeners are supposed to respond to.

For example, the Wendy’s ad asks listeners if they’re hungry, and if they say “yes” the ad continues by offering a recommendation about what to eat. The DiGiorno’s pizza ad asks listeners to say “yes” to hear the punchline of a pizza-themed joke. The Ashely HomeStores ad engages listeners by offering tips on getting a better night’s sleep. And so on.

The new format capitalizes on Pandora’s underlying voice technology which also powers the app’s smart voice assistant, Voice Mode, launched earlier this year. While Voice Mode lets Pandora users control their music hands-free, the voice ads aim to get users to engage with the advertiser’s content hands-free, as opposed to tapping the on the screen or visiting a link to get more information.

The company believes these types of ads will be more meaningful as they force listeners to pay attention. For the brand advertisers, voice ads offer a way to more directly measure how many people an ad reached — something that’s not possible with traditional audio ads, which by their nature aren’t clickable.

Pandora announced its plans to test interactive voice ads back in April of this year, initially with San Francisco-based adtech company, Instreamatic. At the time, it said it would launch the new format into beta testing by Q4, as it now has.

The ad format arrives at a time when consumers have become more comfortable talking to digital voice assistants, like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. There’s also an increased expectation that services we interact with will support voice commands — like when we’re speaking to Fire TV or Apple TV to find something to watch or asking Pandora or Spotify to play our favorite music.

But consumers’ appetite for interactive voice advertisements is still largely untested. Even Amazon limited voice ads on its Alexa platform for fear of alienating users who would find them disruptive to the core experience.

In Pandora’s case, however, users don’t have to play along. The company says if the user doesn’t respond within a couple of seconds or if they say no, the music resumes playback.

Pandora says the ads will begin running for a small subset of listeners using its app starting today.

 

DataRobot is acquiring Paxata to add data prep to machine learning platform

DataRobot a company best known for creating automated machine learning models known as AutoML, announced today that it intends to acquire Paxata, a data prep platform startup. The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

Paxata raised a total of $90 million before today’s acquisition, according to the company.

Up until now DataRobot has concentrated mostly on the machine learning and data science aspect of the workflow — building and testing the model, then putting it into production. The data prep was left to other vendors like Paxata, but DataRobot, which raised $206 million in September, saw an opportunity to fill in a gap in their platform with Paxata.

“We’ve identified, because we’ve been focused on machine learning for so long, a number of key data prep capabilities that are required for machine learning to be successful. And so we see an opportunity to really build out a unique and compelling data prep for machine learning offering that’s powered by the Paxata product, but takes the knowledge and understanding and the integration with the machine learning platform from DataRobot,” Phil Gurbacki, SVP of product development and customer experience at DataRobot told TechCrunch.

Prakash Nanduri, CEO and co-founder at Paxata, says the two companies were a great fit and it made a lot of sense to come together. “DataRobot has got a significant number of customers, and every one of their customers have a data and information management problem. For us, the deal allows us to rapidly increase the number of customers that are able to go from data to value. By coming together, the value to the customer is increased at an exponential level,” he explained.

DataRobot is based in Boston, while Paxata is in Redwood City, California. The plan moving forward is to make Paxata a west coast office, and all of the company’s almost 100 employees will become part of DataRobot when the deal closes.

While the two companies are working together to integrate Paxata more fully into the DataRobot platform, the companies also plan to let Paxata continue to exist as a stand-alone product.

DataRobot has raised over $431 million, according to PitchBook data. It raised $206 million of that in its last round. At the time, the company indicated it would be looking for acquisition opportunities when it made sense.

This match-up seems particularly good, given how well the two companies capabilities compliment one another, and how much customer overlap they have. The deal is expected to close before the end of the year.

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