Crowdfunded hardware startups are breathing fresh life into music making

I love music. Seriously, it’s one of the few things that brings solace in this cold, lonely world. Want to go deep on Joni Mitchell, William Onyeabor or Pablo Casals? I’m game. Yes, I worked at multiple record stores years before TechCrunch. Yes, I will always be that guy. What I will never be, however, is a musician, professional or otherwise.

I’m resolved to this fact at this point in my life. I’ll never be a rock star like I’ll never be a professional baseball player — both facts I’ve mostly made peace with. We don’t need to go into the two years of junior high when I played the trombone, or the decade and a half I attempted to master the guitar. All you need to know is I had absolutely zero aptitude for either.

It’s not for lack of desire to make music. It’s just a straight-up, good-old-fashioned lack of talent. For precisely this reason, I view any new piece of musical equipment with great interest. There’s a ton of money to be made for the startup that can truly unlock the potential of music making for those lacking the basic skills to do so.

Roli has long been of interest to me for this reason. I was one of the first people to cover the Seaboard when it debuted at SXSW a number of years ago. It’s a fascinating instrument, letting users bend notes courtesy of a soft material makeup, but mastering it — or, really, making any music at all — requires some ability to play piano.The company’s modular block system, announced a few years ago, was even more compelling, but similarly failed to scratch that itch.

Last week at CES, the fine folks at Kickstarter introduced me to the founders of a trio of crowdfunding companies that fit the bill to some degree. French startup Joué actually went on to win top prize at our CES pitch-off this year, with its modular MIDI controller of the same name.

The device operates on a similar principle as the Sensel Morph we’ve covered before, with silicone skins that overlay atop a touch surface to offer a variety of different controllers. Joué’s take is more music-focused than Sensel’s ever was. And besides, based on a conversation with Sensel at the show, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the company is turning most of its focus away from that device, in favor of compelling touch components it’s working to build into third-party handsets.

The Kickstarter project is an impressive one, as evidenced by the brief demo. It’s extremely versatile, requiring just a new skin and sound pack for the system to take on completely different aural qualities. The company also discussed the potential for customized sound packs. Joué brought NWA founder Arabian Prince in to perform at its both all week. An odd fit for CES, to be sure, but an interesting example of the kinds of artists such a product might be able to draw. It’s easy to see musicians expressing interest in a customized pad.

That said, while the company seems to be positioning the product as perfect for beginners, I do expect there’s a reasonably large learning curve here. That seems removed somewhat from Rhythmo. The Austin-based startup’s project combines music making with a guided dip into the maker world.

It’s a MIDI controller drum kit that you make out of a cardboard box. It ships with all of the pieces, and putting it together offers a nice connection into the process of creating a musical instrument. Founder Ethan Jin let me take a constructed model for a spin on the CES floor. The demo was a little glitchy for various reasons, but it was fun. The kit features large arcade buttons that can be mapped to a variety of sounds. You can use the Rhythmo app or interface with your music software of choice in iPad, desktop, etc. It’s a fun entry into that world.

Artiphon, however, is probably closest to fulfilling my very specific desires. The company is best known for its massively successful Kickstarter project, Instrument 1. That racked in a mind-boggling $1.3 million with the promise of delivering a guitar, violin, piano and drum machine all in a single device.

The newer Orba ($1.4 million this time), however, really caught my eye. The puck-shaped device is a pocket synthesizer/looper/MIDI controller that requires little if any musical knowledge to get up and running. After a conversation with founder Mike Butera, I’ve come to regard it at a very base-level as a sort of musical fidget spinner.

That is to say, it’s simple enough that you can use it absentmindedly to make music while you pace around your apartment, trying to come up with a half-decent headline for the story of crowdfunded music projects at CES you’ve been writing (a purely hypothetical example that in no way reflects my life).

Of the three, that’s the one I’m most key to review, in hopes of finally scratching that musical itch.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Companies take baby steps toward home robots at CES

“I think there are fewer fake robots this year.” I spoke to a lot of roboticists and robot-adjacent folks at this year’s CES, but that comment from Labrador Systems co-funder/CEO Mike Dooley summed up the situation nicely. The show is slowly, but steadily, starting to take robotics more seriously.

It’s true that words like “fake” and “seriously” are quite subjective; surely all of those classified by one of us as the former would take great issue with the tag. It’s also true that there are still many devices that fit firmly within the realm of novelty and hypothetical, both on the show floor and in press conferences, but after a week at CES — including several behind-the-scenes conversations with investors and startups — the consensus seems to be that the show is slowly embracing the more series side of robotics.

I believe the reason for this shift is two-fold. First, the world of consumer robotics hasn’t caught on as quickly as many had planned/hoped. Second, enterprise and industrial robotics actually have. Let’s tackle those points in order.

As my colleague Darrell pointed out in a recent piece, consumer robotics were showing signs of life at this year’s event. However, those who predicted a watershed for the industry after the Roomba’s arrival on the scene some 18 years ago have no doubt been largely disappointed with the ensuing decades.

Joby Aviation raises $590 million led by Toyota to launch an electric air taxi service

Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.

This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.

Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”

These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.

The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.

“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”

Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.

Apple buys edge-based AI startup Xnor.ai for a reported $200M

Xnor.ai, spun off in 2017 from the nonprofit Allen Institute for AI (AI2), has been acquired by Apple for about $200 million. A source close to the company corroborated a report this morning from GeekWire to that effect.

Apple confirmed the reports with its standard statement for this sort of quiet acquisition: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” (I’ve asked for clarification just in case.)

Xnor.ai began as a process for making machine learning algorithms highly efficient — so efficient that they could run on even the lowest tier of hardware out there, things like embedded electronics in security cameras that use only a modicum of power. Yet using Xnor’s algorithms they could accomplish tasks like object recognition, which in other circumstances might require a powerful processor or connection to the cloud.

CEO Ali Farhadi and his founding team put the company together at AI2 and spun it out just before the organization formally launched its incubator program. It raised $2.7M in early 2017 and $12M in 2018, both rounds led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, and has steadily grown its local operations and areas of business.

The $200M acquisition price is only approximate, the source indicated, but even if the final number were less by half that would be a big return for Madrona and other investors.

The company will likely move to Apple’s Seattle offices; GeekWire, visiting the Xnor.ai offices (in inclement weather, no less), reported that a move was clearly underway. AI2 confirmed that Farhadi is no longer working there, but he will retain his faculty position at the University of Washington.

An acquisition by Apple makes perfect sense when one thinks of how that company has been directing its efforts towards edge computing. With a chip dedicated to executing machine learning workflows in a variety of situations, Apple clearly intends for its devices to operate independent of the cloud for such tasks as facial recognition, natural language processing, and augmented reality. It’s as much for performance as privacy purposes.

Its camera software especially makes extensive use of machine learning algorithms for both capturing and processing images, a compute-heavy task that could potentially be made much lighter with the inclusion of Xnor’s economizing techniques. The future of photography is code, after all — so the more of it you can execute, and the less time and power it takes to do so, the better.

 

It could also indicate new forays in the smart home, toward which with HomePod Apple has made some tentative steps. But Xnor’s technology is highly adaptable and as such rather difficult to predict as far as what it enables for such a vast company as Apple.

Save over $200 with discounted student tickets to Robotics + AI 2020

If you’re a current student and you love robots — and the AI that drives them — you do not want to miss out on TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. Our day-long deep dive into these two life-altering technologies takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley and features the best and brightest minds, makers and influencers.

We’ve set aside a limited number of deeply discounted tickets for students because, let’s face it, the future of robotics and AI can’t happen without cultivating the next generation. Tickets cost $50, which means you save more than $200. Reserve your student ticket now.

Not a student? No problem, we have a savings deal for you, too. If you register now, you’ll save $150 when you book an early-bird ticket by February 14.

More than 1,000 robotics and AI enthusiasts, experts and visionaries attended last year’s event, and we expect even more this year. Talk about a targeted audience and the perfect place for students to network for an internship, employment or even a future co-founder.

What can you expect this year? For starters, we have an outstanding lineup of speaker and demos — more than 20 presentations — on tap. Let’s take a quick look at just some of the offerings you don’t want to miss:

  • Saving Humanity from AI: Stuart Russell, UC Berkeley professor and AI authority, argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
  • Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI: Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI International will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.
  • Engineering for the Red Planet: Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades and is about to send its fifth robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian, general manager of robotics at Maxar, will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

That’s just a sample — take a gander at the event agenda to help you plan your time accordingly. We’ll add even more speakers in the coming weeks, so keep checking back.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3 at UC Berkeley. It’s a full day focused on exploring the future of robotics and a great opportunity for students to connect with leading technologists, founders, researchers and investors. Join us in Berkeley. Buy your student ticket today and get ready to build the future.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

The US government should stop demanding tech companies compromise on encryption

In a tweet late Tuesday, President Trump criticized Apple for refusing “to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” Trump was specifically referring to a locked iPhone that belonged to a Saudi airman who killed three U.S sailors in an attack on a Florida base in December.

It’s only the latest example of the government trying to gain access to a terror suspect’s device it claims it can’t access because of the encryption that scrambles the device’s data without the owner’s passcode.

The government spent the past week bartering for Apple’s help. Apple said it had given to investigators “gigabytes of information,” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” In every instance it received a legal demand, Apple said it “responded with all of the information” it had. But U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not giving investigators “any substantive assistance” in unlocking the phone.

23andMe co-founder’s new startup, Precise.ly, brings genomics to India through Narayana partnership

Precise.ly, the new genomics startup launched by 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey and Aneil Mallavarapu, is taking its spin on direct to consumer personalized genomics to India through a partnership with Naryana Health, one of India’s leading specialty hospital networks.

Narayana, a company that operates a network of 24 hospitals serving 2.5 million patients, is one of the most fascinating stories in healthcare. By emphasizing efficiencies and cost savings, the hospital network has managed to bring costs down dramatically for many procedures — including providing cancer surgeries for as little as $700 and heart bypass surgeries for $3,000 (as this fascinating article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek illustrates).

Precise.ly’s mission — to collect and analyze genetic data from populations that typically haven’t had access to the services — is one that resonates in a world where the majority of research has been conducted on wealthier populations in wealthy countries. Other startups, like 54Gene, are trying to bring a similar message to the African continent.

“To date, most human genetics research has focused on European populations. But genetic insights need to be tuned to the rest of the world,” said Mallavarapu, in a statement. “We’ve assembled a team of experts who are pioneering advances in genetic analysis and its application to the huge populations of people in south Asia and beyond.” 

Some of that work is being done in concert with Narayana health, the hospital network founded by Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty nearly twenty years ago. Dr. Shetty is initially hoping that Precise.ly’s genetic database will be able to help his hospitals build out a stem cell donor registry that could help hundreds of thousands of Indians who need transplants.

“Personal genetic testing is recognized by the U.S. FDA to test genetic risk for Parkinsonism, late onset Alzheimer’s disease and celiac disease. It is only a matter of time before most diseases get added to the list,” Dr. Shetty said in a statement. “Because of the simplicity of genetic testing from saliva samples, it’s possible to conduct large-scale population screening at a reasonable cost. We are working with Precise.ly’s team of researchers to add HLA typing, which has the potential to transform cancer and other disease treatments in India.”

The path to entering the Indian market was slightly circuitous for Precise.ly. When Avey first left 23andMe, she went to RockHealth (an investor in the company’s $1 million seed round), and began exploring ways to organize and store more of a patient’s quantified health data.

As that company failed to gain traction, Avey took another look at the genetics market and found that there were significant opportunities in underserved markets — and that India, with its rising middle class and burgeoning healthcare industry would be a good target.

“We decided we would build on this Helix platform all kinds of apps for people who had specific diagnosis,” says Avey. But the market was already chock full of startups (including 23andMe), so an early investor in the company from, Civilization Ventures, and its founder Shahram Seyedin-Noor suggested that they begin to look globally for growth.

“Precise.ly’s mission is to deliver validated genetic insights to the billions of people living outside the western world. We’re initially focused on India where there are urgent health issues readily addressable through access to personal genomic data,” said Avey, the chief executive officer of Precise.ly, in a statement. “Our partnership with Narayana is vital to delivering on the promise of precise, data-driven health.” 

Mobileye takes aim at Waymo

Mobileye has built a multi-billion-dollar business supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems. It’s a business that last year generated nearly $1 billion in sales for the company. Today, 54 million vehicles on the road are using Mobileye’s computer vision technology.

In 2018, the company made what many considered a bold and risky move when it expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier to becoming a robotaxi operator. The upshot: Mobileye wants to compete directly with the likes of Waymo and other big players aiming to deploy commercial robotaxi services.

TechCrunch sat down with Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, to find out why and how — yep, acquisitions are in the future — the company will hit its mark.

Accel-backed Clockwise launches an AI assistant for Google Calendar

Startups are paying for more subscription services than ever to drive collaboration during working hours, but — whether or not the Slack-lash is indeed a real thing — the truth is that filling your day with meetings can sometimes be detrimental to actually… working.

Time management software and daily planners put the accountability on the individual, but when you’re in several hours of meetings per day, there’s a lot that’s out of your control. I recently met with Matt Martin, the CEO of Accel-backed Clockwise. His startup has a really interesting pitch for taking a look at individual employee schedules through the lens of the entire team and moving meetings around to maximize “focus time,” which Martin defines as blocks of at least two uninterrupted hours during your day.

Clockwise’s customers already include Lyft, Asana, Strava and Twitter; they’ve been aiming to build out a wide footprint of customers by offering their product for free at first. They’ve raised more than $13 million over two rounds from investors including Accel, Greylock and Slack Fund.

The startup’s software, which integrates with Google Calendar, has been bringing people into the fold for shifting these meetings around, but their latest update aims to give teams the option to let its Clockwise Calendar Assistant do some of the heavy lifting automatically.

Managing calendars en masse obviously has the potential to piss people off. Clockwise has tried to build in certain accommodations to keep friction low, and they’ve gotten good feedback from early testers.

Certain employees, like engineers, likely benefit from more uninterrupted time to work, so Clockwise gave employees a way to designate how much “focus time” they generally need per week. They’ve also added the ability to bring personal calendars into the mix so that users can designate time when they have unmovable personal conflicts. Not every meeting is in your office; when there are locations in the invites, Clockwise will account for travel between the two addresses inside your calendar.

Some meetings can’t be moved, others rely on off-site folks in different time zones, sometimes a high-level exec needs to be in a meeting and their schedule is all that matters. Not all meetings need to be flexible, but Clockwise hopes that by automatically resolving conflicts for team meetings, they can leave employees with fewer useless half-hour chunks of time during their day.

Alongside today’s Assistant update, Clockwise is also boosting its compatibility with Slack. Users have the ability to let Clockwise turn on do-not-disturb automatically during designated “focus time” and can let the app populate their Slack status with the current meeting they’re in.

When you think about how much energy has been spent by startups looking to reinvent email or chat, it’s fascinating that there hasn’t been more energy fixed on the humble calendar. Anecdotally, there seems to be plenty of demand for a “luxury” Google Calendar, and yet there hasn’t seemed to be a proportional amount of action. Clockwise has one of the more interesting offerings, though I’m sure more will be popping up alongside it soon.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including which floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than three meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information, such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

Collaborative Fund just hired a former top Goldman Sachs investor to do later-stage deals

Collaborative Fund emerged on the scene nearly 10 years ago to fund seed-stage and, as time passed, early-stage startups, many of them in New York, where the firm is based.

Apparently, the firm has ambitions to do more later-stage investing, too. It just brought aboard Ian Friedman, former co-head of Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, Venture Capital & Growth Equity, as a general partner.

We spoke yesterday with Friedman, a Canadian who graduated from the University of Western Ontario before heading to sunny LA to work for the Boston Consulting Group. After that, he moved to Bain Capital in Boston, followed by a stint at Stanford to get his MBA, where he was recruited by Goldman to work in New York, where he still lives.