Biden will nominate Big Tech critic and antitrust star Lina Khan to the FTC

Biden didn’t campaign on getting tough against Big Tech, but his early actions are speaking louder than his words.

The White House confirmed its intentions to nominate Lina Khan to the FTC Monday, sending a clear signal that his administration will break from the Silicon Valley-friendly precedents of the Obama era. Politico first reported Biden’s planned nomination of Khan, which will be subject to Senate confirmation, earlier this month.

Lina Khan is a star of the antitrust movement, insofar as a topic like regulating big business can produce one. Khan is best known for a paper she published as a law student in 2017 called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” The paper argues that thinking about what qualifies as monopolistic behavior hasn’t kept pace with how modern businesses operate, particularly within the tech sector.

She believes that a modernized approach to antitrust must look at market forces in a big picture way instead of only examining traditional measures like price and output:

“My argument is that gauging real competition in the 21st century marketplace — especially in the case of online platforms — requires analyzing the underlying structure and dynamics of markets. Rather than pegging competition to a narrow set of outcomes, this approach would examine the competitive process itself. Animating this framework is the idea that a company’s power and the potential anticompetitive nature of that power cannot be fully understood without looking to the structure of a business and the structural role it plays in markets. Applying this idea involves, for example, assessing whether a company’s structure creates certain anticompetitive conflicts of interest; whether it can cross-leverage market advantages across distinct lines of business; and whether the structure of the market incentivizes and permits predatory conduct.”

As associate law professor at Columbia, Khan also contributed to a comprehensive report from the House’s antitrust subcommittee last year that set the stage for major antitrust reform that could trim back Big Tech’s considerable overgrowth.

Khan isn’t the only high-profile tech antitrust crusader in the Biden administration’s orbit. In early March, Biden named Columbia law’s Tim Wu to shape technology and competition policy at the National Economic Council. Wu came up with the term “net neutrality” and is well known as an advocate for an open internet. In 2018, Wu authored “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” a treatise calling out corporate consolidation in tech as a looming political and economic threat.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is leading tech-focused antitrust reform efforts through the Senate’s own antitrust subcommittee, praised Khan’s nomination. “We need all hands on deck as we work to take on some of the biggest monopolies in the world, and President Biden is making his commitment to competition policy clear,” Klobuchar said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

“Lina’s experience working both in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission and as an advocate for competitive markets will be vital as we advance efforts to strengthen enforcement and protect consumers.”

Biden’s infrastructure plans could boost startups

New antitrust reform bill charts one possible path for regulating big tech

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Accel’s Dan Levine and Scale’s Alexandr Wang will chat about how to create a category on Extra Crunch Live

Alexandr Wang has spent the last five years looking to accelerate the development of AI and machine learning algorithms with Scale AI. The company has raised upward of $270 million since inception and doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

That’s why we’re thrilled to hang out with Wang and Scale AI investor Dan Levine (Accel) on Wednesday, April 7 on Extra Crunch Live.

Extra Crunch Live is free to everyone and focuses on the relationships between founders and investors that have led to successful business building. We talk about what made them choose each other, hear about the initial pitch meetings and learn about how they make decisions about the future together.

ECL also features the Pitch Deck Teardown, wherein our esteemed guests give their live feedback on decks submitted by the audience. If you’d like to send us your deck to be featured on a future episode of Extra Crunch Live, hit up this link.

Dan Levine worked on the platform team at Dropbox before getting into venture, and before that was an entrepreneur himself, founding YC-backed Chartio. His current portfolio includes Gem, Mux, Numeracy (acquired by Snowflake), ReadMe, Scale, Searchlight, Sentry and Vercel.

Wang, for his part, was a technical lead at Quora before founding Scale. He also worked as an algorithm developer at Hudson River Trading and as a software engineer at Addepar after attending, and ultimately dropping out from, MIT, where he studied artificial intelligence.

Between the two of them, these speakers have plenty of wisdom to impart about how to ideate, fund and scale (ha!) businesses.

The episode goes down on April 7 at 12 p.m. PDT/3 p.m. EDT and is free to attend live. Only Extra Crunch members will have access to the episode on demand so be sure to register now and hang out with us.

Early Stage is the premier “how-to” event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product-market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built in — there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion. Use code “TCARTICLE” at checkout to get 20% off tickets right here.

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Fired GitHub employee reaches ‘amicable resolution’ with company

GitHub has reached an “amicable resolution” with the person the company fired in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, the former employee told TechCrunch.

On the day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, a worried GitHub employee warned his co-workers in the D.C. area to be safe. After making a comment in Slack saying, “stay safe homies, Nazis are about,” a fellow employee took offense, saying that type of rhetoric wasn’t good for work, the former employee previously told me. Two days later, he was fired, with a human relations representative citing a “pattern of behavior that is not conducive to company policy” as the rationale for his termination, he previously told me.

Later that month, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said the company’s head of HR took full responsibility for what happened and resigned from the company. GitHub did not disclose the name of the person who resigned, but it’s widely known that Carrie Olesen was the chief human resources officer at GitHub. At that time, GitHub said it also “reversed the decision to separate with the employee” and was talking to his representative.

The fired employee, however, did not take his job back.

“We offered the employee his job back immediately after reviewing the investigation findings, and he declined,” a GitHub spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Instead, he told me, “Me and the company reached an amicable resolution. I appreciate that they have denounced white supremacy and the dangers it poses to everybody.”

He did not specify the terms of the resolution, but he previously told me he was seeking damages or some other form of reconciliation.

Below is his full statement, which he requested we publish in full:

Me and the company reached an amicable resolution. I appreciate that they have denounced white supremacy and the dangers it poses to everybody.

We all saw on January 6 that the greatest threat to the USA is not Islam, Black Lives, or defunding police.

White supremacy has us all held hostage using feigned civility, bad-faith arguments/negotiations, and amtssprache*, and it does not stop until we are all dead or subjugated. I am glad that the nazi coup was a failure, and we avoided a successful Reichstag fire. That said, nazis do not give up easily.

Keep your families and communities safe. Connect with your neighbors and local stores. Fascism and nazism succeed when we are divided. They demand that you abandon reason, that you acquiesce to power and hierarchy, and that you shun altruism. Love yourself. Support, join or create local unions. Build community. Don’t entertain nazis.

I appreciate those who have supported me and my family. I wish you safety and wellness.

Black Lives Matter & Black Power ✊


Enjoyment & learning for these times

Graphic novels:
Y the Last Man
Sweet Tooth

“Algorhythm” by Childish Gambino
“Plegaria a un Labrador” by Victor Jara
“Tweakin” by Vince Staples
“Operation: Mindcrime” by Queensrÿche

Avatar Last Airbender & Legend of Korra
Attack on Titan
The Wire

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
People & Permaculture by Looby Macnamara
The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy

Inglorious Basterds
Attack the Block
Shawshank Redemption

Black gig workers speak out, Uber’s commitment to being anti-racist and Facebook’s diversity report

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Black Tech Nation Ventures is a new fund for Black entrepreneurs

Kelauni Jasmyn, general partner at the new Black Tech Nation Ventures, can explain her aims for the new firm quite succinctly: “The goal is to get more Black people funded.”

That’s something Jasmyn has been working on already with Black Tech Nation, a Pittsburgh-based organization that supports Black entrepreneurs with education, content, community and more. Now she’s tackling the funding size of the equation more directly by raising a $50 million first fund with her fellow GPs Sean Sebastian and David Motley.

“We’re really at the beginning of something brand new, that I think will be historic and offer a literal economic shift for the Black community in building generational wealth,” Jasmyn said. “We get to be the ones who mold the foundation of that.”

Sebastian is a partner at Birchmere Ventures, a seed fund also based in Pittsburgh, while Motley is co-founder of BlueTree Venture Fund and African American Directors Forum. Sebastian also suggested that he and Motley are involved partly to enable a “transfer of knowledge” that will empower a new generation of Black investors, starting with Jasmyn.

Motley, meanwhile, suggested that this is an effort to take “take the Black Tech Nation platform and combine it with the Birchmere platform.” He recalled speaking to Jasmyn for the first time at Sebastian’s urging and immediately responding, “Sean, this is the real deal.”

All three of BTNV’s partners emphasized that while the fund has a social mission, they’re also focused on financial returns. 

Investors are missing out on Black founders

“We are no different than any other fund just because you put a specific community around it,” Jasmyn said. “You shouldn’t expect any less valuable returns. We just happen to have the advantage of untapped potential.”

The fund will make seed and Series A investments, and Motley said they’re focused on software startups — which could be software as a service, B2B or B2B2C. These ideas can be pre-revenue and even pre-product, but they need to be “scalable and lend themselves to significant value creation.”

Sebastian added that although BTVN is based in Pittsburgh, they’ll look at investments across the country, particularly entrepreneurs that come from outside Silicon Valley.

I wondered whether the fund’s financial goals could, at times, conflict with the more inclusive approach of Black Tech Nation, but the partners countered that the for-profit fund and nonprofit organization can actually complement each other. Motley said that Black Tech Nation “gives us more opportunities to say yes,” while Jasmyn suggested that if the venture fund has to turn someone down, she can still tell them, “Scoot over across the street [to Black Tech Nation] and maybe we can revisit this another time.”

On the diversity front, 2020 may prove a tipping point

Black Founders Matter, a fund focused on Black entrepreneurs, makes first investment

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Stripe closes $600M round at a $95B valuation

On the heels of reports that Stripe was raising yet more money, the payments giant has now confirmed the details. The company has closed in on another $600 million, at a valuation of $95 billion.

Stripe said it will use the funding to expand its business in Europe, with a focus on its European HQ, and also to beef up its global payments and treasury network.

“We’re investing a ton more in Europe this year, particularly in Ireland,” said John Collison, President and co-founder of Stripe, in a statement. “Whether in fintech, mobility, retail or SaaS, the growth opportunity for the European digital economy is immense.”

Stripe said the financing included backing from two major insurance players. Allianz, via its Allianz X fund, and Axa are in the round, along with Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Sequoia Capital, and an investor from the founders’ home country, Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA).

The insurance angle may point to which direction the company is looking to go next. After all, fintech and insurance are closely aligned.

“Stripe is an accelerator of global economic growth and a leader in sustainable finance. We are convinced that, despite making great progress over the last 10 years, most of Stripe’s success is yet to come” said Conor O’Kelly, CEO of NTMA in a statement. “We’re delighted to back Ireland’s and Europe’s most prominent success story, and, in doing so, to help millions of other ambitious companies become more competitive in the global economy.”

The big round, rising valuation, and growing cap table will inevitably lead to questions around where the company is standing with regards to its next steps, and whether that will include a public listing. Stripe has long kept its cards to its chest when it comes to user numbers, revenues, and profit and those details, once again, are not being disclosed with the news today, and nor has it made any comments on IPO plans.

Notably, the confirmation of the news today is at a lower valuation than the valuation Stripe was reportedly trading at on the secondary market, which was $115 billion; and the round that closed at a $95 billion valuation was also rumored to be coming in at a higher number, over $100 billion.

It’s not clear whether those numbers were never accurate, or if Covid had an impact on pricing, or if European investors simply drove a hard bargain.

The focus on growing in Europe also puts the hiring of Peter Barron — the former EMEA VP of communications for Google and a former journalist — into some context.

Founded in 2010 by John and his brother Patrick Collison (the CEO), Stripe is one of a wave of commerce startups that saw the value of building a simple way for developers to integrate payments into any app or site by way of a few lines of code, at a time when digital and specifically online payments were starting to take off.

Behind that code, the company had done all the hard work of integrating all the different and complex pieces needed to make payments work both in countries and across borders.Over the years, the company has built out a bigger platform around that, a suite of services to position itself as a one-stop shop not just for helping businesses run all of the commercial aspects of their operations, including incorporation, managing fraud, managing cashflow and more.

Within that, Stripe has built out a decent footprint in Europe, with the region accounting for 31 of the 42 countries where it has customers today. While Stripe may have had its start and early traction providing payments infrastructure for startups (and especially small, new startups), today that list includes a lot of big names, too. In Europe, customers include Axel Springer, Jaguar Land Rover, Maersk, Metro, Mountain Warehouse and Waitrose, alongside Deliveroo (UK), Doctolib (France), Glofox (Ireland), Klarna (Sweden), ManoMano (France), N26 (Germany), UiPath (Romania) and Vinted (Lithuania).

Even with heavy competition in payments and adjacent services, there is a huge opportunity for more growth. Stripe says that in the wake of Covid and the rise of people shopping considerably more across the web and apps rather than in person, currently some 14% of commerce happens online, a big shift considering that just a year ago it was about 10%.

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Singapore-based M Capital Management closes $30.85M debut fund to invest in Southeast Asian startups

M Capital Management founding partners Joachim Ackermann (left) and Mayank Parekh (right)

M Capital Management founding partners Joachim Ackermann (left) and Mayank Parekh (right)

M Capital Management, a Singapore-based venture capital firm, announced today it has closed its debut fund, M Venture Partners (MVP), totaling $30.85 million USD. It plans to invest in 40 early-stage startups, primarily seed and pre-Series A, with an average initial check size of about $500,000.

M Capital Management was founded by Mayank Parekh, whose investment experience includes launching Grange Partners and leadership positions at Southern Capital Group and McKinsey & Company, and Joachim Ackermann, former managing director of Google Asia Pacific. Other senior team members include Dr. Tanuja Rajah, previously Entrepreneur First’s launch manager, and Chethana Ellepola, former research director at Acquity Stockbrokers.

MVP, a sector-agnostic fund, has already invested in 11 companies, including one, 3D Metal Forge, that recently went public on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Other portfolio companies include behavioral health coaching startup Naluri; AI-enabled lending and credit-as-a-service company Impact Credit Solutions; alternative investment fund aggregator XEN Capital; and Cipher Cancer Clinics, which is focused on making oncological care more affordable and accessible in India.

Parekh told TechCrunch that M Capital Management was launched because “we believe that the early-stage investing space in our region has substantial room for growth. A decade ago there were very few unicorns. This has changed substantially more recently, not only because of obvious advancements bringing online previously underserved or untapped populations, but also because they venture system has developed nicely in Singapore and, for that matter, across the region with support from institutional VCs at various stages of funding need, government agency support, the advent of local accelerators and rapidly growing network of angel investing bodies.”

Parekh added that he expects to see more unicorns and “soonicorns” (or companies expected to hit unicorn valuation in the near future) emerge.

The roadmap to startup consolidation in Southeast Asia is becoming clearer

As early-stage, sector-agnostic investors, Parekh said MVP’s focus is on founders, specifically those who have “pedigree professional experience and strong academic backgrounds.” For example, Naluri chief executive officer Azran Osman-Rani was previously founder of AirAsiaX, guiding it from launch to its 2013 initial public offering in six years.

MVP will focus mostly on Singapore-based startups because it invests primarily in B2B or B2B2C companies. “We need a fertile ground for our chosen startups to launch their business models with leading corporate or business partners,” said Parekh. “Singapore provides just that. It’s the hub for market leading institutions and it’s not uncommon to see them creating opportunities for new technology or disruptive ideas.”

Most of MVP’s portfolio companies have “regional or global aspirations, leveraging Singapore as the core launch platform,” he added. MVP has also already made investments in Malaysia and India, and is actively looking at companies in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Singapore is poised to become Asia’s Silicon Valley

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Regenerative agriculture is the next great ally in fight against climate change

Nancy Pfund

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Nancy Pfund is founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, a venture capital firm whose goal is to combine top-tier financial returns with meaningful social, environmental and economic returns in the regions and sectors in which it invests.

It seems that every week a new agribusiness, consumer packaged goods company, bank, technology corporation, celebrity or Facebook friend announces support for regenerative agriculture.

For those of us who have been working on climate and/or agriculture solutions for the last couple of decades, this is both exciting and worrisome.

With the rush to be a part of something so important, the details and hard work, the incremental advancements and wins, as well as the big, hairy problems that remain can be overlooked or forgotten. When so many are swinging for the fences, it’s easy to forget that singles and doubles usually win the game.

As a managing partner and founder of DBL Partners, I have specifically sought out companies to invest in that not only have winning business models but also solve the planet’s biggest problems. I believe that agriculture can be a leading climate solution while feeding a growing population.

At the same time, I want to temper the hype, refocus the conversation and use the example of agriculture to forge a productive template for all business sectors with carbon habits to fight climate change.

First, let’s define regenerative agriculture: It encompasses practices such as cover cropping and conservation tillage that, among other things, build soil health, enhance water retention, and sequester and abate carbon.

The broad excitement around regenerative agriculture is tied to its potential to mitigate climate impact at scale. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that soil sequestration has the potential to eliminate over 250 million metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to 5% of U.S. emissions.

It is important to remember that regenerative practices are not new. Conservationists have advocated for cover cropping and reduced tillage for decades, and farmers have led the charge.

The reason these practices are newly revered today is that, when executed at scale, with the heft of new technology and innovation, they have demonstrated agriculture’s potential to lead the fight against climate change.

So how do we empower farmers in this carbon fight?

Today, offset markets get the majority of the attention. Multiple private, voluntary markets for soil carbon have appeared in the last couple of years, mostly supported by corporations driven by carbon neutrality commitments to offset their carbon emissions with credit purchases.

Offset markets are a key step toward making agriculture a catalyst for a large-scale climate solution; organizations that support private carbon markets build capacity and the economic incentive to reduce emissions.

“Farming carbon” will drive demand for regenerative finance mechanisms, data analytics tools and new technology like nitrogen-fixing biologicals — all imperatives to maximize the adoption and impact of regenerative practices and spur innovation and entrepreneurship.

It’s these advancements, and not the carbon credit offsets themselves, that will permanently reduce agriculture emissions.

Offsets are a start, but they are only part of the solution. Whether generated by forestry, renewable energy, transportation or agriculture, offsets must be purchased by organizations year after year, and do not necessarily reduce a buyer’s footprint.

Inevitably, each business sector needs to decarbonize its footprint directly or create “insets” by lowering the emissions within its supply chain. The challenge is, this is not yet economically viable or logistically feasible for every organization.

For organizations that purchase and process agricultural products — from food companies to renewable fuel producers — soil carbon offsets can indirectly reduce emissions immediately while also funding strategies that directly reduce emissions permanently, starting at the farm.

DBL invests in ag companies that work on both sides of this coin: facilitating soil carbon offset generation and establishing a credit market while also building fundamentally more efficient and less carbon-intensive agribusiness supply chains.

This approach is a smart investment for agriculture players looking to reduce their climate impact. The business model also creates demand for environmental services from farmers with real staying power.

Way back in 2006, when DBL first invested in Tesla, we had no idea we would be helping to create a worldwide movement to unhinge transportation from fossil fuels.

Now, it’s agriculture’s turn. Backed by innovations in science, big data, financing and farmer networking, investing in regenerative agriculture promises to slash farming’s carbon footprint while rewarding farmers for their stewardship.

Future generations will reap the benefits of this transition, all the while asking, “What took so long?”

Corporate sustainability initiatives may open doors for carbon offset startups

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The 2021 Volkswagen ID. 4 ticks all the boxes, except one

Volkswagen, once a dabbler in electric vehicles, is now betting its future on the technology. And the new Volkswagen ID.4 — a five-passenger, fully electric crossover with a starting price of $33,995 (before federal or state incentives) — is its first global effort to make EVs a mainstream product and part of its larger goal to become carbon neutral by 2050.

The upshot: The VW ID.4 offers a balanced blend of technology, comfort and design for a more affordable price and seeks to capture some of the market left vacant by the lack of an affordable Tesla Model Y. The VW ID.4 offers solid technology without being so out of this world that your average crossover buyer will balk … with one exception. The lack of seamless charging makes finding and then connecting to a third-party charging station a clunky, even complex experience.

As Mark Gillies, senior manager of Product at VW said during our interview, “We want to be the company that builds electric cars for the millions, not just for the millionaires.”

While that may be true, there are a few niggling concerns, like a somewhat laggy infotainment system, that should improve with updates coming soon, and the previously mentioned miss of seamless charging. If Volkswagen can address those problems, the VW ID.4 could take a solid bite out of the booming crossover market. But will the masses flock to a fully electric future that delivers a near-to-gasoline driving experience and become the “car for the millions?”

vw id 4 electric crossover

Image Credits: Volkswagen

The 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 crossover might be the first global, dedicated all-electric vehicle from the VW brand, but it’s not the first consumer-available electric vehicle from the VW Group as a whole. It launched the California-only Volkswagen e-Golf back in 2013 (discontinued last year), and the company’s luxury performance brand Porsche began sales of its all-electric Taycan in 2019.

When it launched, e-Golf represented more of a fringe case for the company. It was targeted specifically at the California market, where incentives for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, as well as environmental regulations, are more robust. The ID.4, in contrast, represents one of the “most important Volkswagen debuts since the Beetle,” and it will be available across the country.

The tech that stands out

volkswagen id 4 crossover electric

Image Credits: Volkswagen

Rather than try to fit a gasoline-shaped peg into an electric-shaped hole, Volkswagen appears to have taken a page from Tesla’s book in its approach to the dash layout and cabin feel in the ID.4.

The interior design of the ID.4 feels like a glimpse of a self-driving future as you could visualize a day when both the steering column and even the infotainment system could simply be deleted. Even the center console, complete with modular cupholders, cubbies and NFC charging pad could eventually be modified to create more passenger space, making the interior of the ID.4. feel even more open and airy than it already does.

The ID.4 launches with three trims: the Pro, Pro S and 1st Edition. The Pro comes with a 10-inch touchscreen. The Pro S and 1st Edition trims come with a 12-inch infotainment touchscreen mounted at the center of the dashboard.

Image Credits: Abigail Basset

As you reach toward the center screen, the icons respond thanks to an in-cabin camera that tracks hand motion toward the system. There are very few hard-touch buttons inside the ID.4, and those that do exist are more like medical-grade haptic buttons used to control everything from climate and audio to the opening and closing of the shade on the optional panoramic fixed-glass roof and even driving modes and driver assistance features. They take a little getting used to, but once familiar they tend to work like slider buttons, allowing you to adjust volume or temperature with slight pressure changes and small slides from left to right.

Hello I.D.

Instead of buttons, Volkswagen has decided to leverage hands-free voice control in the new ID.4, but during our time with the vehicle, the system felt like it was still in beta.

Both driver and passenger use the touchscreen or specific voice commands to access many of the common features and infotainment of the ID.4.  Say “Hello I.D.” and a light strip along the base of the windshield lights up based on which side of the vehicle the voice came from (passenger or driver), indicating that it’s ready to receive the command you say next.

Image Credits: Abigail Basset

Commands are rather limited at this time and must be initiated by either saying the key phrase (“Hello I.D.”) or pushing the voice control button located on the steering wheel. You can say basic things like navigation commands but you can also say things like “I’m cold,” or “Tell me a joke,” and the ID.4 system will respond by raising the temperature on that side of the car, or telling a seatbelt joke.

During the test drive, the response time from the system was very slow compared to other voice systems on the market, and it struggled to find connectivity to do things like change a Sirius XM channel, (repeatedly saying that it couldn’t find a specific channel number or name) even though my test drive didn’t stray beyond the bounds of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It also failed more often than naught, taking around 10 seconds or more to finally cancel out of the voice control systems when it either couldn’t understand the command or it couldn’t get connectivity.

Laggy nav

The navigation system in the ID.4 was also a bit laggy and imprecise, which meant I reverted to using Google maps and the wireless Android Auto system (included along with Apple CarPlay throughout the ID.4 lineup) to get directions. One neat feature of the ID.4’s on-board navigation system, however, is that the light strip along the windshield illuminates on either side of the vehicle as you approach a turn to indicate which direction you should go.

The infotainment screen looks just like your phone or tablet screen: Swipe through the pages of apps or various windows to get to the page you want. Unfortunately, the combination of a laggy connection to the network (despite having three to five bars of 4G connectivity according to the infotainment system), and a laggy load time, the screens would occasionally freeze while swiping between pages, showing half of one page while still loading the next.

As a caveat: I was lucky enough to get three separate opportunities to spend extended time in different ID.4s in the Los Angeles press fleet and only experienced the lag/freeze with one of the vehicles. Volkswagen PR says that the software in the test vehicles is not the final version that customers will receive and it will be updated before getting to owners, which should solve for the strange stuttering and voice command issues that I experienced.

Image Credits: Abigail Basset

The ID.4 will also get Alexa capability later this year through their Car-Net service, which includes an app that can help you monitor your vehicle from afar. The app is simple enough to use: Owners log in and can see the location, charge level and status of their ID.4.

VW made a multitude of interesting design choices inside the ID.4 including the placement of the main instrument panel and the transmission selector. Rather than attaching these items to the dash or center console like you’d find in a typical vehicle, they’re attached directly to the steering column. When you move the steering wheel, the instrument panel and transmission rocker move with it. Volkswagen uses a 5.3-inch screen attached to the steering wheel to provide information about everything from speed and direction of travel to range, trip and basic navigation information. You use a rhombus-shaped rocker at the right side of the steering wheel to toggle through driving modes rather than a standard button or shift lever.

There’s a start/stop button located in a rather hidden spot on the right side of the column to start the ID.4, but it’s largely superfluous. When you unlock the vehicle and sit in the driver’s seat, the ID.4 powers on and is ready to drive. When you unlatch your seatbelt and climb out, the ID.4 powers down. That makes things a bit complicated if you have friends or family in the vehicle while you dash into a place to run an errand, but the ID.4 allows passengers to keep things like the AC and heat going for a short period of time by using controls that appear on the infotainment screen, even if the driver isn’t in the vehicle.

Image Credits: Abigail Basset

Converting drivers to EVs

Volkswagen says that its research has shown that roughly 30% of crossover owners would consider an electric crossover. There’s no denying that the ID.4 enters a crowded crossover market complete with extremely popular gasoline and hybrid competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Volkswagen says that, based on its research, consumers shouldn’t feel any range anxiety since most crossover owners drive around 60 miles per day and the battery system offers an EPA-estimated 250 miles of range. You can charge the ID.4 from 5% to 80% in 38 minutes at 125 kW.

A full charge at home is estimated to take around 7.5 hours but, if you’re out and about, Volkswagen is offering free, unlimited charging at DC fast chargers by Electrify America at no additional cost for the first three years of ID.4 ownership, which sounds great, but comes with some caveats. VW says that it expects most people to charge overnight on typical residential power, and it’s clear that the company doesn’t expect owners to use public chargers all that frequently because the process of locating an available charger is not seamless, at least not at the ID.4’s launch.

Image Credits: Volkswagen

Electrify America is a subsidiary of VW, yet they operate completely separately from Volkswagen. The company operates 550 charging stations and more than 2,400 DC fast chargers across the country. You can search for “charging stations,” through the on-board nav but the system brings up all charging stations in the vicinity and doesn’t show which are online and available. In order to find specific online and available Electrify America chargers, owners have to pull out their phones and open the Electrify America app. You can then send the location of a specific charger to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay to navigate. Unfortunately, at this point, the Electrify America app does not show up in Android Auto.

This process is rather clunky and would require owners to pull over and park to safely complete before heading to the charging station — at least at this point in time. Volkswagen says that an over-the-air update coming later this year will further integrate Electrify America stations into the on-board nav in a more seamless way.

The good news is that the EPA-estimated fuel economy equivalent for the Pro S and 1st Edition models is 104 MPGe for city driving, while highway driving is rated at 89 MPGe, for a combined city/highway rating of 97 MPGe.

One of the striking features of the ID.4 is how it drives. Transmission modes on the ID.4 include a B or brake mode — a common and exceedingly convenient setting that allows for one-pedal driving on electric vehicles. Take your foot off the brake and the ID.4 slows slightly, regenerating electricity and sending it back into the battery. It’s a great feature in stop-and-go traffic and Volkswagen intentionally tuned the one-pedal driving to be less aggressive than those in other electric vehicles, with the aim of making the feel more familiar for first-time electric vehicle owners.

On the road, the ID.4 feels well planted and not nearly as large as it looks. It’s nimble but not exactly quick off the line (VW has not released 0-60 mph times) though it doesn’t leave you sweating to make a short merge. It’s certainly no tire smoker or rocket ship, however.

Since it’s a rather bulbous shape, there is some very minor wind noise at speed on the road, but the ride is comfortable and confident. At speeds below 20 miles an hour (and when you put it into reverse), it does make that characteristic electric car sound to alert pedestrians. It’s not noticeable inside the cabin when the windows are raised, but pass a neighbor who is working on a car in their garage, and you’ll be sure to arrive home to a text asking if that was you driving around in the car that sounds like a spaceship.

ADAS form and function


Image Credits: Abigail Basset

VW’s Travel Assist is the branded name for the company’s Level 2 autonomous driving system, which works at speeds that range from 0-95 mph. Travel Assist uses both the adaptive cruise control and the lane-keeping systems to follow the road and other vehicles ahead. When a motorcycle suddenly hops into your lane, the instrument screen shows an image of a motorcycle directly in front of the vehicle. If said motorcycle decides to randomly slam on the brakes, the ID.4 responds and brakes automatically. If traffic comes to a stop ahead, the ID.4 Travel Assist waits until traffic moves again. It approximates a human response to traffic motion very well — neither waiting inordinately long and leaving huge gaps (which causes rubber banding in traffic) nor accelerating aggressively.

The system makes long stints in heinous traffic bearable. I spent an hour commuting on the dreaded 405 freeway in Los Angeles during rush hour and only had to keep my hands lightly on the capacitive steering wheel to keep the system engaged.

The skateboard powertrain

The VW ID.4 is built on a new skateboard architecture called MEB, or modular electric drive matrix, with an AC permanent-magnet synchronous motor that makes 201 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque mounted at the back of the vehicle, above the rear axle — much like the old Beetle. At launch, VW is only offering a rear-wheel-drive version, but an all-wheel-drive version will be available by the end of the year, offering 302 horsepower.

Volkswagen is purchasing batteries from Panasonic for the ID.4 and assembling the 82-kWh, 12-module, 288-pouch-cell battery packs themselves at plants in China and Germany. There are plans to begin production in the U.S. soon. Volkswagen also builds its own electric motors.

Image Credits: Volkswagon

All in, the VW ID.4 makes electric vehicles more attainable for the crossover buying public who can’t afford the high price tags for the other luxury all-electric crossovers like a Jaguar I-Pace, Tesla Model Y, Polestar or Audi e-tron.

Yet it also competes well with popular gasoline-powered crossovers like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, especially when you add in the potential for as much as $7,500 in rebates. Where the VW ID.4 truly stands out is in its blending of advanced technology and affordability in a good-looking EV that won’t give you range anxiety. Will it be the “car for the millions?” We’ll have to wait and find out.

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Eye, robot

So, this is going to sound like a cop out (because, honestly, it kind of is), but the through line for the past week’s robotics investments is variety. That is to say that this week’s round of funding is all over the place in terms of verticals, which is probably an overall positive sign of the health of robotics investing in general. VCs seem to be pretty bullish about automation across a variety of different sectors.

Medical continues to be a biggie. What’s wild about surgical robots is how long they’ve actually been in practice. The earliest date back to the mid-80s, for things like orthopedic surgeries. As for more mainstream usage, Intuitive’s da Vinci has been around for more than 20 years. At last count, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 of these devices deployed worldwide.

Image Credits: ForSight Robotics

Fittingly, Intuitive co-founder Frederic Moll is among the new advisers for ForSight Robotics. The Israeli startup just raised $10 million in what it calls a “mega-seed round” for its eye surgery platform. Ophthalmological procedures, for what should be obvious reasons, have even less room for error than most surgeries.

The company says it can “democratize” the difficult procedure across different geographies – particularly those where access to professionals may be lacking. Per numbers from the British Journal of Ophthalmology, there are around 3.7 qualified surgeons per million citizens in developing countries. The hope is that getting machines like these in more medical facilities could help level the playing field to some degree.

RaniPill outlined in red, moving from the stomach to the intestines from the Feb. 2019 successful study without a drug.

Here’s an interesting piece on Rani Therapeutics. Robotic pills are an interesting idea that has been floating around research facilities for a long time (MIT, in particular, has been pretty big on it), and it’s great to see someone take steps toward commercializing the concept. Specifically, the company’s product is designed to deliver subcutaneous injections to the small intestine.

Speaking of bringing concepts into practice, one of the more interesting things about Nimble Robotics is the speed with which they’ve deployed into the real world. The company is earning that name – and, apparently, that $50 million Series A raise. It’s also enlisted big names like Fei-Fei Li and Sebastian Thrun as advisors. The company builds on the deep imitation learning concept to deliver adaptable pick-and-place fulfillment robots.

“We’re not the first robotic pick, place-and-pack company that’s out there. We’ve grown really fast and have a lot of robots deployed in production,” the CEO told me this week. “A lot of people have show robots in the corner of a warehouse. Right now, we have heaps of robots deployed, and we’re growing really quickly. These are robots that are in production and picking tens of thousands of real orders every single day for each of our customers.”

Image Credits: Bedrock

Bedrock Ocean Exploration’s $8 million raise isn’t huge by comparison, but there’s plenty of growth potential here. There’s a reason, after all, that Shell ran an underwater exploration XPrize not all that long ago. Launched by Nautilus Labs cofounder Anthony DiMare, the company is deploying advanced underwater robotics to survey the ocean floor for a variety of different applications, from wind farms to laying intercontinental cables.

Refraction autonomous delivery robot

Image Credits: Refraction

A couple of last-mile delivery robotics co’s warrant mention this week. I wrote about Refraction.AI, which debuted on our Mobility stage a few years back. The last-mile delivery company built its robot on a bicycle frame, making an ideal form factor for cruising around in bike lines. The Ann Arbor startup just raised $4.2 million and is planning to expand to additional markets.

Safeway Tortoise

Image Credits: Tortoise/Albertsons

Bay Area startup, Tortoise, meanwhile, just got a nice viability boost from Albertsons. The grocery mega-conglomerate plans to pilot the company’s robots in a couple of NorCal Safeway stores. If that goes well, the delivery carts will be arriving in even more West Coast locations.

On the other side of the food chain is Strawbot, another in a long list of agtech robotics that has been popping up in recent years. The company says it can offer farmers a labor cost savings of up to one-third by following pickers around. It’s a different take on strawberry crops that Traptic offers. And while it doesn’t actually do the picking, the company certainly wins the name game.

One quick mention of Anki — er, Digital Dream Labs, I guess — before we go. The Pittsburgh-based edtech company bought Anki’s IP after the well-funded startup imploded. This week, it announced plans to relaunch the popular Cozmo and Vector robotics toys. Per the piece:

Anki invested tremendous resources into bringing them to life, including the hiring of ex-Pixar and DreamWorks staff to make the robots more lifelike. A lot of thought went into giving the robots a distinct personality, whereas, for instance, Vector’s new owners are making the robot open-source. Cozmo, meanwhile, will have programmable functionality through the company’s app.

So, hello again, old friend.


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South Africa’s FlexClub adds $5M to seed round to scale its car subscription marketplace

The traditional process of buying, insuring and financing cars across emerging markets can be challenging, and it defeats the purpose of building an all-around car shopping experience. Today, FlexClub, a South African company, has been provided with $5 million to improve drivers’ experience in these markets.

FlexClub was founded in 2019 by Marlon Gallardo, Rudolf Vavruch and Tinashe Ruzane. The company is an online marketplace that connects customers looking for flexible access to long-term cars with its partners, offering car subscriptions.

That same year, the company closed a $1.2 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital. According to Ruzane, the company’s CEO, this $5 million (in equity and debt) is a seed extension round, bringing the total investment raised by FlexClub to over $6 million. The company says it will use the funding to improve its technology which protects and limit partners’ exposure to risk.

Across emerging markets in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, most ride-hailing drivers don’t have access to car financing. Typically, they rent their cars via social media, classified sites, or connect with a car owner willing to rent. That was the model FlexClub launched in South Africa, and after raising $1.2 million, it expanded to Mexico.

South Africa’s FlexClub raises $1.2M, partners with Uber Mexico

Partnering with Uber in both countries and helping their community of drivers subscribe for cars, FlexClub claims to have garnered traction but wouldn’t divulge numbers. These customers, including those who use the cars for deliveries, are called commercial members by FlexClub. In December last year, the company decided to open up its product to another set of customers who are called private members.

“When we first started, we were focused on phase one of our strategy, which came from our knowledge about ride-hailing drivers because of our careers at Uber,” Ruzane said to TechCrunch. “We wanted to help a community of ride-hailing drivers that had been excluded from accessing cars. But right now, we’ve built the product to work for anyone and not just ride-hailing drivers.”

In FlexClub’s marketplace, cars are subscribed for between a hybrid of short- and long-term lease. It means customers pay an all monthly inclusive fee, and at any time, they can cancel a subscription, switch cars or buy it.

But to buy a car from FlexClub, drivers are encouraged to drive safely and comply with FlexClub’s recommendations while using the car. Doing that earns them points that accumulate over time, making cars cheaper to buy if they choose to.

This, alongside the use of banking, credit bureau and identity data, lets FlexClub assess its members’ risk profile and reward them when need be. 

Image Credits: FlexClub

Ruzane says last year was challenging for the company because of what it meant for mobility. At the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, ride-hailing members had financial difficulties. Still, the company partnered with delivery platforms to allow ride-hailing drivers to use their cars to transport goods and packages.

During that period, FlexClub was also able to partner with large brands like U.S. car rental company Avis to offer car subscriptions on its marketplace. Aside from Avis, Ruzane says the company’s partners range from small fleet owners to multinational fleet operators.

The pandemic made it possible for FlexClub to think outside the box and enlist these partners on its platform. However, it didn’t come easy as FlexClub has had to earn trust by building credibility.

“One of the challenges we have faced was that we had to build a reputation to be trusted in the industry. It took us two years to get a brand like Avis to see the value in putting their subscription offers on FlexClub. But with that established, it’s now a lot easier for us to continue investing in driving this new distribution model.”

Image Credits: FlexClub

He likens the distribution model of the automotive industry to how the music industry was decades ago. Then, CDs dominated music revenue but has now given way to streaming.

“If you look at what the music industry looked like 10 years ago, over 50% of music revenue was CDs. Now over 80% is streaming. The industry successfully transitioned from product-led distribution to service-led distribution. I think that’s what we can expect in the automotive industry over the next decade,” Ruzane remarked. “We can be an ally to the automotive industry in driving that evolution because we’ve tested our product in a marketplace with the segment of the population that people thought wasn’t a good profile of customers to serve.”

South African startup Aerobotics raises $17M to scale its AI-for-agriculture platform

FlexClub’s expansion to Mexico instead of other African countries continues a series of global expansion that has become common for South African companies.

Two factors decided the move for FlexClub, according to the CEO. First, the founders are from both countries — Marlon Gallardo is Mexican while Rudolf Vavruch and Tinashe Ruzane are South Africans. Next, both markets have a lot of similarities in terms of how the automotive industry works.

South Africa and Mexico have large manufacturing bases and advanced secondary markets where brands can lease used cars. 

Kenya and Nigeria, on the other hand, have a different automotive value chain. Although there’s a growing manufacturing industry in both countries, it is still nascent as most vehicles are imported from countries like the U.S. and Japan.

That said, Tinashe says there’s an opportunity to take FlexClub to not only these regions but most emerging markets around the world. However, it is in no rush to do so.

FlexClub has been able to attract investors who are aligned with its mission of democratizing access to car financing and becoming a global mobility company.

Kindred Ventures, its lead investor, has backed mobility-first companies like Postmates, Uber and Virgin Hyperloop. Other VC investors include CRE Venture Capital and Endeavor. Angel investors like Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress; Federico Ranero, COO of KAVAK; Tariq Zaid, formerly of Shopify and Getaround; and Ron Pragides, formerly of Twitter and Salesforce, also took part in the round.

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