Lessons from SpaceX: How to build the next Toyota Camry for space

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In case you missed it, space is being democratized — and quickly.

Last November, from a sheep farm in New Zealand, California-based Rocket Lab launched six payloads via their “It’s Business Time” small Electron rocket.

The successful launch brings Rocket Lab one step closer to their goal of “super-frequent small payload deliveries.”

Indeed, one of the satellites on board was built by high school students from Irvine, Calif.’s CubeSat STEM program.

But it’s not just students and hobbyists in their garages toying with Estes model rockets anymore. The new space economy is here, and it’s here because of very recent advances in launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite technologies. This renewed “Right Stuff” dynamism has startups chasing the next Cream Soda computer, which just might become an Apple Inc. space equivalent.

The visionary future for the space economy will be driven by new mass-market technologies and manufactured on a large scale.

Most people would agree that it was largely SpaceX that paved the way for this new era. But what did SpaceX get right, and what are some of the unmet opportunities other ventures are beginning to address?

SpaceX and the blueprint

As one would imagine, there are substantial expenses and manufacturing constraints behind the scenes of large rocket launches.

According to Forbes, each SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs $50 million. Compare that now to the Electron that Rocket Lab just launched, which costs $5.7 million.

For a short time with the Falcon 1, the company delved into developing smaller rockets that could lift up to 1,500 pounds. The opportunity to corner the market was there a decade ago, but SpaceX abandoned that program in favor of rockets with heavier payloads.

One of the companies picking up where SpaceX leaves off is Vector, whose CEO Jim Cantrell worked with Musk in the early days of the company. However, Cantrell acknowledges that “Elon and SpaceX have lowered the cost of building these rockets by at least 50 times what the government’s done.”

In SpaceX’s current state, the sheer number of different components and extensive design iterations make their large rocket development much too complex to be mass manufactured.

Additionally, there is an extremely large footprint required. For example, this year, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a 19-acre facility for SpaceX to develop its BFR rocket and spaceship system on a large parcel at the Port of Los Angeles. But don’t knock the hustle — after all, the goal of the BFR rocket is to literally colonize Mars.

The challenge is that SpaceX’s facility size, operational requirements and lack of portability don’t address the automation needed for the emerging smallsat and renewable propulsion market, whose leaders envision the equivalent of a food truck being stationed at a customer’s headquarters, cranking out spacetech products in real time.

NASA defines smallsats as satellites of low mass that can vary in shape and size and are less than 180 kilograms, which is about the size of a large refrigerator. By comparison, the satellites designed for megaconstellations and currently being used by constellation explorers OneWeb and SpaceX have been reported to vary from 110 kilograms up to 6 metric tons, the size of a city bus.

Automation is mainly about improving process [repetition], avoiding human error and making manufacturing easy and fast, so you have the right take time. — Eric de Saintignon, COO, OneWeb, in reference to time between production starts.

In order to achieve their larger goal of making interplanetary space travel more affordable, SpaceX had to embark upon the design, manufacturing and assembly of a next-gen rocket. With decades-old Space Shuttle technologies still in use by NASA, this required an inordinate amount of R&D — in both engineering and manufacturing.

Beginning in 2002, SpaceX would go on to streamline the rocket manufacturing efficiency process, identify cost-saving strategies and trim the timeline for delivery. It got better every time, and that was the goal, as Elon Musk opined in 2014: “you’re really left with one key parameter against which technology improvements must be judged, and that’s cost.”

SpaceX also established component sourcing not reliant on third-party manufacturers. Between 80-90 percent of SpaceX rocket materials are manufactured in-house, a key move to reduce lead time. The use of a Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in the hangar of Cape Canaveral’s 39A launch pad assembles components manufactured at their Hawthorne, Calif. factory, minimizing unnecessary travel and ensuring quality control.

With their first re-flight occurring in 2017, another important area SpaceX innovated within was developing the first reusable launch system. The science behind these technologies is being simplified by smaller reusable and electric propulsion companies.

What’s in store next for satellite propulsion: the engine of the space economy

The latest figure circulated by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation was that the global space economy (both private industry revenues and government budgets) is upwards of $345 billion, and growing rapidly. Of this aggregation, more than 76 percent of the capital was the revenue generated by public and private companies.

The FCC also estimates that in the next five years, 8,811 satellites will be launched, of which 60 percent will be from the smallsat category.

Lowering the costs and manufacturing process of both constellations and propulsion technologies will bring a handful of new entrants into the fold. Their goals are concrete: simple, scalable and affordable new products, but high-performance nonetheless.

And yes, utilizing these Toyota Camry-type efficiencies will mean significant ROI for launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite manufacturing companies and investors.

By continually resourcing best practices from wholesale industries like automotive, medical and consumer electronics, these new private entrants will create low-cost and scalable technologies that will be the catalysts for humanity’s future in space.

To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

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Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the US.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“UbiquitiLink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.

Get ready for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI with highlights from last year’s event

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As we get ready for TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI on April 18 at UC Berkeley, we can’t help but look back at last year’s robotics event. With more than 1,000 attendees, thought-provoking panels and cutting-edge demos, 2018’s TC Sessions: Robotics was pretty great.

We’ve compiled some highlights of some of our favorite moments from last year to whet your appetite for 2019’s current speaker lineup. Check out the highlights below and be sure to grab your Early-Bird ticket for this April’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

The Best Robots on Four Legs

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced onstage that the company’s 66-pound SpotMini robot will be available for purchase by the normals in 2019. Yes, one day you, too, will be able to have a dog robot perform services for you at the office or home.

Getting a Grip on Reality: Deep Learning and Robot Grasping

It turns out grasping objects is really hard for a robot. According to Ken Goldberg, professor and chair of the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department, it’s about forces and torques. He and TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino also discussed what Goldberg calls “fog robotics.” Goldberg differentiates it from “cloud robotics” in that “you don’t want to do everything in the cloud because of latency issues and bandwidth limitations, quality of service — and there are also very interesting issues about privacy and security with robotics.”

Teaching Intelligent Machines

Nvidia is working to help developers create robots and artificial intelligent systems. Vice president of Engineering Claire Delaunay discussed how the company is creating the tools to help democratize the creation of future robotics.

The Future of the Robot Operating System

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise joined fellow Willow Garage ex-pats Brian Gerkey and Morgan Quigley to discuss Open Robotics’ Robot Operating System (ROS) efforts. The team is working to design and maintain an open and consistent framework for a broad range of different robotic systems.

Eyes, Ears and Data: Robot Sensors and GPUs

Nvidia vice president Deepu Talla discussed how the chipmaker is making a central play in the AI and deep learning technologies that will drive robots, drones and autonomous vehicles of the future.

Teaching Robots New Tricks with AI

Pieter Abbeel is the director of the UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab and co-founder of AI software company, covariant.ai. In a broad ranging discussion, Abbeel described the techniques his lab is using to teach robots how to better interact in human settings through repetition, simulation and learning from their own trial and error.

Venture Investing in Robotics

Renata Quintini of Lux Capital, Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures and Chris Evdemon of Sinovation Ventures all discussed the excitement around startups venturing into the robotics industry, but were also quite candid about the difficulty faced by robotics founders who are unfamiliar with a particular industry that they hope could reshape their innovation.

Agility Robotics demonstration of Cassie

Agility Robotics’ bipedal humanoid robot was designed with bird legs in mind. But it wasn’t yet designed with arms. The company’s CTO Jonathan Hurst says those are to come. It’ll cost you $35,000 when it’s in full production mode. Custom deliveries started in August 2017 to a select few universities — University of Michigan, Harvard, Caltech and Berkeley. Although we didn’t see an example of this application, Cassie can apparently hold the body weight of a reasonably sized human.

The Future of Transportation

Chris Urmson has been in the self-driving car game for a long time. He joined Google’s self-driving car team in 2009, becoming head of the project four years later. These days, he’s the CEO of Aurora, a startup that has logged a lot of hours testing its own self-driving tech on the roads. Urmson discussed the safety concerns around the technology and how far out we are from self-driving ubiquity.

Building Stronger Humans

The BackX, LegX and ShoulderX from SuitX serve to minimize the stress we humans tend to place on our joints. We saw the application of these modules onstage. But infinitely more impressive during the conversation with company co-founder Homayoon Kazerooni was the application the audience saw of the company’s exoskeleton. Arash Bayatmakou fell from a balcony in 2012, which resulted in paralysis. He was told he would never walk again. Five years later, Arash connected with SuitX, and he has been working with a physical therapist to use the device to perform four functions: stand, sit and walk forward and backward. You can follow his recovery here.

Grab your Early-Bird Tickets to TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI today before prices increase, and check out the latest news about this year’s event here.


A private equity bet in Latin America proves the strength of fintech investments there

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Latin America is getting another fintech unicorn thanks to Advent International’s acquisition of a 51 percent stake of Prisma Medios de Pago, an Argentine payments company formed as a joint venture between Visa International and local banks.

The deal, which values Prisma at $1.42 billion, is yet another sign of Latin America’s growing prominence for global investment and the central role that fintech plays in the development of an innovation economy in the region.

Prisma Medios de Pago is the leading payments company in Argentina, and one of the largest in Latin America, with a full suite of services including point-of-sale hardware rental, e-commerce gateways, transaction processing, payments processing and electronic bill pay.

Its newest business line, TodoPago, offers peer-to-peer payments, mobile wallets, point of sale offerings, QR code payments and e-commerce payments to merchants.

Across Latin America, fintech startups have hit billion-dollar valuations and raised hundreds of millions as investors vie for a piece of the region’s growing e-commerce and financial services markets.

Brazil’s StoneCo Ltd., a provider of payment technology and services, is worth more than $6 billion after its October 2019 initial public offering. It’s a decline from the $9 billion pop the company had back when it debuted on the Nasdaq, but still represents a healthy valuation for the Latin American technology company.

Waiting in the wings are companies like Brazil’s NuBank, which reached a $4 billion valuation last year on the strength of a significant investment from the Chinese technology giant, Tencent.

At the time, company co-founders Cristina Junqueira and David Velez said the opportunity for financial services startups to achieve significant scale was far higher in emerging markets like Brazil than in developed markets, because the barriers to banking are so much higher.

Financial services, Velez said, has been controlled by massive oligopolies that have erected unfair obstacles to wealth creation for the masses. Nubank and other companies like it are working to change that.

An article from Fintech Futures last year outlined just how large the opportunity was for Latin America. In 2018, roughly half the population of Latin America was unbanked. In Brazil, about 40 percent of the country have no access to traditional banking services and its small businesses face a credit gap of $237 billion, according to a McKinsey study cited by Fintech Futures.

Investment in fintech has soared alongside the opportunity. Two years ago, fintech investment on the continent nearly hit $600 million, and public offerings like Stone and PagSeguro point to public market appetite for the sector.

Report: Zynga founder Mark Pincus is raising up to $700 million for an investment fund

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Zynga founder Mark Pincus is raising up to $700 million for a new investment fund that will focus on publicly traded tech companies in need of strategic restructuring, according to a new report in Axios. It says his new firm is called Reinvent Capital and that Pincus is founding the outfit with hedge fund manager Michael Thompson, who has been steering his own New York-based firm, BHR Capital, for the last nine years.

Reinvest’s plans, says Axios, involve investing in up to 15 internet, software, and media companies, adding that the firm will be “size agnostic,” working with small, medium, and large-cap companies.

Pincus has been a founder and operator since graduating from Harvard Business School in the early ’90s, cofounding an early internet company called FreeLoader, a web-based push technology services that sold a couple of years later to a now-defunct public company. Pincus went on to cofound SupportSoft, a pioneer in tech support and cloud services, then an early social network called Tribe.net, before founding the social gaming company Zynga in the spring of 2007.

The company went public in 2011 at a $7 billion valuation. Seen as vulnerable to competition and to the whims of Facebook, whose rules had already changed in ways that hurt Zynga leading into its IPO, its shares began slipping almost immediately. Today, the market cap of the company —  where Pincus remains non-executive chairman after twice stepping into and out of top management roles — is $3.7 billion

That Pincus would become a full-time investor is less surprising than the stage of companies he will reportedly be targeting. Pincus has long been an active investor, though typically (as far as we know) taking very early stakes in companies. Among his most recent seed-stage bets, for example, is Spatial, a roughly year-old, Emeryville, Ca.-based cross-reality collaboration platform that turns rooms into 3D workspaces and that raised raised $8 million in seed funding last fall, including from Pincus, along with numerous other individual investors and early-stage venture firms.

Another is Invisible, a New York-based company that says it can customers to outsource their work (professional and personal) to real humans via AI, and which raised $2.6 million in seed funding last fall.

A third recent and slightly later-stage bet centers on Cargo Systems, a 2.5-year-old, New York-based startup that helps ride-sharing drivers earn money by bringing the convenience store into their vehicles and that raised $22 million in Series A funding led by Founders Fund back in September.

In fact, Pincus appears to have generated much of his wealth via one very early bet on Facebook. According to tech journalist David Kirkpatrick’s book, “The Facebook Effect,” Pincus, alongside his longtime friend Reid Hoffman, had written an early $40,000 check to the company. When Facebook went public, Pincus reportedly sold roughly one million shares, about a fifth of his stake at the time, for what was expected to be $35 million in pre-tax dollars.

Hoffman, who famously cofounded LinkedIn and is today a partner with the venture firm Greylock Partners, is reportedly advising Reinvent Capital. It’s just the latest effort on which the two are teaming up.

In the summer of 2017, Pincus and Hoffman announced an effort called Win the Future, or WTF, that aimed to be a “new movement and force within the Democratic Party,” Pincus had told the outlet Recode at the time. Designed to be equal parts platform and movement, it began life by allowing site visitors to vote on topics like whether or not engineering degrees should be free to all Americans.  The site no longer features much at all, other than a descriptor as a “non partisan project lab.”

Hoffman more recently landed in hot water after it was learned that he had indirectly contributed funding to a deceptive social media campaign aimed at helping Democratic candidate Doug Jones win Alabama’s state senate race in 2017. Jones won narrowly; Hoffman has said he had no knowledge of the project, did not endorse its tactics, and that he “categorically” disavows the use of misinformation to sway a campaign.

We reached out to Pincus earlier today to learn more. We hope to have more information for you soon.

Mozilla gets a new CFO

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Mozilla, the not-for-profit behind the Firefox browser and other open source projects, today announced that it has hired Roxi Wen, the former CFO of display manufacturer Elo Touch Solutions, as its new CFO. Wen will replace former Mozilla CFO Jim Cook, who departed almost a year ago after 14 years with the organization.

Wen joins Mozilla at a crucial time. In terms of its technology, Firefox is now a real competitor again. With that foundation in place, Mozilla is now in a position where it needs to look toward growth again, something that has eluded it for a while.

“As our CFO Roxi will become a key member of our senior executive team with responsibility for leading financial operations and strategy as we scale our mission impact with new and existing products, technology and business models to better serve our users and advance our agenda for a healthier internet,” writes Mozilla CEO Chris Beard in today’s announcement.

It’s interesting to note that Mozilla, which currently has about 1,000 employees, is looking at new business models, too. The organization remains heavily dependent on revenue from search partnerships, which obviously creates some friction as Mozilla continues to focus on privacy.

Prior to her CFO role at Elo, Wen held senior positions at FleetPride, GE Energy, Medtronic and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Microsoft’s Code Jumper makes programming physical for children with visual impairments

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Microsoft just unloaded a whole bunch of news in time for the BETT education show. The most interesting bit of the bunch, however, is probably Code Jumper. The tethered hardware device is design to teach children who are blind or have otherwise impaired vision how to code.

The device is a continuation of Project Torino, which the company announced back in early 2017. Microsoft’s Cambridge, U.K. lab designed a “physical programming language,” which tasks kids with building programs by connecting pods.

“The project came about after the team learned the most popular path to introducing young children to coding,” the company writes, “usually called block coding, was not accessible enough because it couldn’t be read easily, not even with assistive technology such as a screen reader or magnifier.”

Microsoft is transferring both the research and tech to the American Printing House for the Blind, which is expected to make the product available to Australia, Canada, India, the U.K. and the U.S. in 2019. Addition countries will get access in the coming years.

Uber said to be working on autonomous scooters and bikes for some reason

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Autonomous cars? Sure. But autonomous bikes and scooters? It sounds outlandish, but not outlandish enough for Uber.

The idea of dockless, electric bicycles and scooters that can ride themselves to a charging station or a more optimal pickup spot certainly sounds useful on the surface. But whether this is a technology that Uber is actually developing is still unclear. Over the weekend, a robotics expert outed the project before the ride-hailing company was ready to publicly discuss it.

Chris Anderson, chief executive of robotics firm 3D Robotics, tweeted that a representative from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, which oversees the…

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Announcing 5 new TNW2019 speakers: Dogecoin’s founder, Ford’s UX lead, and IBM’s Angel Diaz

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Our very own TNW Conference in May is an all-encompassing exploration of technology’s future. From machine learning to design, thought leaders will explain how we’ll live, work, and move in tomorrow’s world. It’s on May 9 and 10 – you should join! You can still get Earlybird tickets before prices rise. Sometimes it can be hard to gauge what you can take away from an event that covers so many topics. Rest assured, there’s something for everyone at TNW2019. So whether you’re a developer, marketer, or you just simply dig tech, we’ve organized talks that will appeal to your specific…

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