In Castle Rock’s Pinon Soleil, custom main-floor master offers outdoor living in a pine forest

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Despite Denver’s very-low-inventory market, Douglas County has numbers of luxury homes available now over $1.5 million—generally more dated ones from the 1980s and 1990s. But Castle Rock expert-agent Kay Watson with Metro Brokers will show you a contemporary European styled custom home with a near-ranch-type layout that’s only four years old, with that newer, wide-open look that buyers are wanting now.

Castle Rock’s Pinon Soleil neighborhood is wrapped in ponderosa forest a mile down Founders Parkway from I-25, making it one of the closest-in areas to Denver where you can find a naturally treed residential setting.  There are just two homes on the market in the enclave—2130 Avenida del Sol being the largest, almost 6,800 sq. feet finished, including a walkout level that opens to the one-acre site.  The main-floor master-suite plan offers another three bedrooms on the main, and a guest suite on the story-and-a-half level—lots of options, says Watson, for creating two very private home offices at a time when buyers are wanting that.

The price is $2,082,000, for five bedrooms, six baths, entertaining areas with forest views, a gourmet kitchen with alder cabinets and a double oven, a master with private deck and a heated marble bath floor, and lots of custom detailing.  There’s a 4-car finished garage; and the outdoor living spaces are exceptional, including a private courtyard with a fireplace and a vast wrap-around deck overlooking a piney gulch.

Watson raves about Pinon Soleil.  “It’s neighborly,” she says.  “Everybody is out walking.”

The news and editorial staffs of The Denver Post had no role in this post’s preparation.

Logistics and truck rental giant Ryder joins the businesses making the jump into venture capital in 2020

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While the launch of a $50 million venture capital fund by the shipping, logistics, and truck rental company Ryder System may have seemed like an odd strategic move, it’s actually the culmination of roughly three years of investment activity from the Florida-based company.

Ryder’s push to create its own venture fund is actually part of a broader trend among corporations who have used the COVID-19 epidemic in the US as an opportunity to start investing in startups — even as a large portion of the population struggles to find work.

And it’s one that is vital for a company like Ryder, which has seen investments into new technology in its once sleepy little industry top $6 billion, according to company executives. That’s a massive figure promoting new tech development in a business where Excel spreadsheets used to be considered state of the art.

Ryder’s not alone in recognizing the need to get in front of technological innovations before an upstart comes along and puts well-established businesses in the rearview mirror.

Over the first half of 2020, 368 corporations made their first investments into startup companies, according to data from the industry analytics provider, Global Corporate Venturing. It’s a broad shift from the last corporate investment boom and bust period twenty years ago where large corporations were some of the last investors in the tech industry and the first to pull their capital out.

And the amount of first time investors into corporate venturing is nearly double the previous surge in corporate backing in the third quarter of 2019, when 177 new companies made their first investments in venture capital.

Ryder has worked with the venture firms Autotech Ventures and the corporate innovation and accelerator Plug and Play as a limited partner, but the new $50 million fund is its first direct investment vehicle for venture.

“We had a strategic directive from our board of directors and our CEO to begin to look at the disruption confronting our industry and to understand better how to navigate those waters,” said Karen Jones, the executive vice president and head of new product development at the logistics company. “Everybody was reading all about blockchain and automation and electric vehicles ad autonomous vehicles and asset sharing.” 

Transportation and logistics historically didn’t cross paths much with the tech industry — but the advent of globally connected mobile devices; improved, miniaturized sensing technologies; increasing vehicular automation; and accelerating delivery demands from customers have pushed the “sleepy little industry” as Jones called into a period of hyper-adoption.

“There’s just been a ripe opportunity in our particular industry to disrupt it with the technology that’s available,” said Jones. “[And] if we’re going to be disrupted let’s get in front of it and turn it into an opportunity instead of a threat.”

At Ryder, the emphasis seems to be on creating an investment structure with as much flexibility as possible.

The venture firm doesn’t have a cap on its commitments to deals. The only real solid commitment is that it’s looking to spend $50 million over the next five years.

The company will likely invest in technologies like: last-mile deliveries, asset sharing, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and next generation data, analytics, and machine learning technologies, Jones said. But even there, Ryder doesn’t want to limit itself.

We want to entertain other thoughts. Maybe we haven’t thought of everything,” Jones said. 

There are four people on the company’s investment team working alongside Jones: Rich Mohr, the chief technology officer for fleet management; Kendra Philips, the chief technology officer for the company’s supply chain business; Bob Brunn, the vice president of investor relations and corporate strategy; and Mike Plasencia, the director of finance for the company.

They’ll report up to the CEO and CFO and confer with presidents of different business units on potential portfolio investments, Jones said.

Companies in the portfolio will be judged both on their potential strategic value to the company and on their potential for economic returns, said Jones.

For startups, that potentially means access to Ryder’s 50,000 customers. “The ability to help a startup test out and prove their technology and help us improve efficiencies is a great benefit to both sides,” Jones said. 

 

Facebook is limiting distribution of ‘save our children’ hashtag over QAnon ties

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Facebook today confirmed that it will be limiting the distribution of the hashtag “save our children.” Over the past several months, the phrase — and ones like it — have become associated with QAnon. As a popular splinter group, these terms have served to provide a kind of innocuous cover for the popular online conspiracy theory.

A spokesperson for the social network confirmed the move today, noting that child safety resources will be prioritized in search above those potentially tied to QAnon.

“Earlier this week, we stepped up how we enforce our rules against QAnon on pages, events, and groups,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Starting today, we’re limiting the distribution of the ‘save our children’ hashtag given we’ve found that content tied to it is now associated with QAnon. When people search for it, they will now see the credible child safety resources.”

The company finally took action to remove the constellation of dangerous conspiracy theories with a ban on QAnon content across both Facebook and Instagram. It  had previously announced a ban on QAnon groups that “discussed potential violence” but the expanded ban evinced a deeper understanding of how conspiracies draw in and radicalize regular users. The ban has actually proven quite successful so far, making it more more difficult for QAnon-related posts and accounts to be discovered and amplified.

Over the summer, the service began to crack down on QAnon-adjacent hashtags like SaveTheChildren. It even went so far as temporarily blocking the phrase, which, for around a century, has been associated with nonprofit youth organizations. “We temporarily blocked the hashtag as it was surfacing low-quality content,” Facebook told the press at the time. “The hashtag has since been restored, and we will continue to monitor for content that violates our community standards.”

By then, however, the movement had already gained life beyond social media, with several well-attended rallies being held across the U.S. and in different locations across the globe. Organizers have broadly purported to be protesting child exploitation, ranging from accusations of pedophilia among the Hollywood elite to outrage over the Netflix film “Cuties.”

In August, the U.S.-based Save the Children Federation, Inc. released a statement seeking to clarify and distance itself from the trend. “Our name in hashtag form has been experiencing unusually high volumes and causing confusion among our supporters and the general public,” the org wrote. “In the United States, Save the Children is the sole owner of the registered trademark ‘Save the Children.’ While people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.”

Facebook’s crackdown on QAnon and adjacent #SaveTheChildren content come after the company allowed the dangerous conspiracy theory group to thrive on its platform for years, moving from the fringes of online life into its center. While President Trump and a handful of QAnon-friendly Republican political figures have given the conspiracies a boost, mainstream social networks allowed adherents to ferry the revelations of so-called “Q drops” from the obscure and often extreme message board 8chan into the center of American political life.

Some users happen upon conspiracy content organically, but algorithmic recommendations on platforms like Facebook and YouTube are known to usher users from the edges of conspiracies like QAnon into their often more extreme core ideas. Dedicated QAnon believers are responsible for a number of real-world violent actions, including an armed occupation of the Hoover Dam. Matthew Wright, the man who pled guilty to a terrorism charge for blocking the bridge, explained in a video that his agitation stemmed from President Trump’s failure to arrest his political enemies, which disappointed QAnon believers. Last year, a 29-year-old QAnon adherent shot and killed a mob boss who he believed was part of the “deep state” — a frequent preoccupation of Q followers.

Cocktail Chattables

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Steve Blank
Provided by LIV Sotheby’s International Realty

Steve Blank

The housing market continues to experience very strong demand for homes of virtually all styles and sizes. By now, everyone is aware of the potential for bidding wars, particularly in the mid and lower price ranges, virtually everywhere across the country. Ridiculously low-interest rates have proven to enhance or magnify buyers’ ability to purchase a better home than even a year or two ago, and that is with the appreciated value over the course of that timeframe.

This is also a time when sellers are enjoying the best market in which to sell a home that we’ve seen over at least the past three decades.

There are some very interesting facts and statistics coming out of this COVID-19-influenced market which is also driven by record low-interest rates that may never be seen again in our lifetimes. Research unveiled by Megan Aller of First American Title clearly demonstrates the incredible market benefits for buyers and sellers while recognizing different challenges apparent to this temporary (1-2 year) new norm. Some of the new factors to consider include:

•The number of listings (YTD) are down a noticeable 37%, compared with 2019 YTD (3,278 vs. 5,266 listings on the market).
•With that number of fewer available listings, the number of YTD homes closed was nearly the same, down just .07%.
•YTD “Days on Market” before selling dropped from 32 days in September of 2019 to 26 days in September of 2020.
•Home values (detached homes) are increasing YTD in 2020, at a rate of 13.3%. This compares to an overall average appreciation rate (YTD) of about 8% annually between 2013 and 2019.
•The current market is beginning to slow down due to rising COVID-19 numbers, weather, and the holidays.

Weather and the holiday season are typical factors for this time of the year. Outside of that norm, COVID-19 has essentially changed any usual seasonal trends of the past. In fact, I would dare say that until 2022, seasonal changes will only have to do with the actual weather. So, in 2020, our typical early spring market, which usually got going in February, was delayed until May. And there is no evidence of any fall market slowdown through October.

Historical data is often interesting, however, I would suggest focusing on the current market since trends do not necessarily follow COVID-19 dynamics. It is amazing that in the midst of a pandemic and high unemployment, home values continue to improve – again demonstrating the benefits of great interest rates that support buyer demand. Even while Denver was under the stay-at-home order, internet home searches rose several hundred percent, which is a good possibility in the near future.

Even after the pandemic is behind us, it is likely many people will continue working from home as a large number of employers are making working remotely the standard. Please remember that although we are also in a recession, it was not created by structural weakness in the economy. This recession was created by public health-mandated shutdowns.

We now realize that homeowners are spending a majority of time in their houses and condos. Whether these are professionals working remotely, home-schooling parents, or a variety of other possibilities, millions of people are exploring how to support and improve this new lifestyle. Over the last few years, we saw a trend in which buyers wanted more condensed manageable spaces. Now, buyers are looking for more square footage, with finished lower levels and greater outdoor and patio living spaces. Built-in outdoor kitchen/BBQ areas are becoming quite popular as well.

Space for exercise has become essential, even in condos – whether it’s for a yoga mat, a set of weights, a bike, or a treadmill. Condo amenities are wonderful … when they can become available again. Most home-office areas are built for one, although that may be inadequate with two partners and/or homeschooling, or for high school and college students. Every secluded nook is now being evaluated as a workspace. Extra-large closets can become a phone booth with a computer table and dining rooms have potential to be office spaces, play areas, or even exercise space.

At whatever point over the next year or two that a current homeowner may choose to improve their current living situation, they will be delighted with the ultimate sales price. I would encourage finding a real estate professional who can potentially provide expert counsel on both processes of buying and selling. There is too much money on the table to not to feel great about the choice of a professional.

Learn more about the real estate market in Denver Metro or contact one of LIV Sotheby’s International Realty’s knowledgeable brokers by calling 303.893.3200 or visiting livsothebysrealty.com.

The news and editorial staffs of The Denver Post had no role in this post’s preparation.

New GV partner Terri Burns has a simple investment thesis: Gen Z

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In 2015, then-Twitter product manager Terri Burns penned a piece about staying optimistic despite the sexism and racism that exists expansively within tech. “America has broke my heart countless times, but I believe that technology can be a tool to mend some of the woes of the world and produce tools to better humanity,” she wrote.

“It’s hard to continue to believe this when the industry holding this power takes so little interest in the basic rights of women and people of color. I actively choose to remain hopeful under the belief that myself and many of the incredible people also working toward equality and justice in technology and in America will make a difference.”

Burns left Twitter in 2017 to join GV, formerly known as Google Ventures. Her hope has now been met with recognition. GV has promoted Terri Burns to partner, making her the first Black woman to hold that role — and the youngest ever. Making history comes with its own set of pressures and spotlight, but Burns seems focused on simply finding a new place to put her optimism and hope: Gen Z.

Read on for a Q&A with Burns about her investment thesis, role change and plans as partner.

TechCrunch: Before you were in venture, you held product roles at Venmo and Twitter. When did you know that computer science was the right field for you? 

Terri Burns: I grew up in Southern California, in Long Beach. And I think I’ve always just been a really curious kid. For me, I always spent a ton of time just asking questions and I always liked science. But, I actually did not have any interest in computer science until college.

I went to NYU and I remember thinking my freshman year, major-wise, that I’m not entirely sure what it is that I want to do. By chance, I happened to apply to this program called Google BOLD. It was a week-long program for people that are a little bit too young for a full-time internship. There we just talked about all the opportunities at Google that were not engineering.

It’s funny, I grew up in California, but growing in Long Beach, I didn’t know anything about Silicon Valley whatsoever. College was really the first time I had an introduction to Silicon Valley, to technology, to entrepreneurship, to Google. Even though [Google BOLD] was a nontechnical program, I was “I want to know what this coding thing is about.” So my sophomore year, when I went back to campus, I took my first computer science class. And that was the beginning.

What’s the most effective way to get on your radar without knowing you prior? Any anecdotes for how out of network founders grabbed your attention?

Yes! In fact, I met Suraya Shivji, the CEO of HAGS, through Twitter. I knew people who were buzzing about the company on Twitter, and I proactively reached out to her to do a virtual coffee. Social media, networking events and warm intros are pretty good paths. For what it’s worth, I read every cold email I receive as well; I’m just not able to respond to all of them!

What kind of companies will you always take a meeting with?

Mobile consumer and consumer in general is definitely what my background is in, and so I’ll always have a natural inclination
in consumer. I recognize that that’s broad, but I think software consumer companies are ones that I know and I understand. So that’s something I’m always going to lean into. One of the things that I really love about GV is that we are a generalist firm, which has also been a theme for me personally and something that I definitely want to uphold as an investor. Some other things that I’m interested in [are] fintech on the enterprise side and [ … ] enterprise collaboration tools.

AI to help world’s first removal of space debris

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Space is a messy place. An estimated 34,000 pieces of junk over 10 cm in diameter are currently orbiting Earth at around 10 times the speed of a bullet. If one of them hits a spacecraft, the damage could be disastrous. In September, the International Space Station had to dodge an unknown piece of debris. With the volume of space trash rapidly growing, the chances of a collision are increasing. The European Space Agency (ESA) wants to clean up some of the mess — with the help of AI. In 2025, it plans to launch the world’s first debris-removing space mission: ClearSpace-1. The technology is being developed…

This story continues at The Next Web

Teachers are leaving schools. Will they come to startups next?

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It wasn’t the lingering exhaustion that made Christine Huang, a New York public school teacher, leave the profession. Or the low pay. Or the fact that she rarely had time to spend with her kids after the school day due to workload demands.

Instead, Huang left teaching after seven years because of how New York City handled the coronavirus pandemic in schools.

“Honestly, I have no confidence in the city,” she says. Tensions between educators and NYC officials grew over the past few weeks, as school openings were delayed twice and staffing shortages continue. In late September, the union representing NYC’s principals called on the state to take control of the situation, slamming Mayor de Blasio for his inability to offer clear guidance.

Now, schools are open and the number of positive coronavirus cases are surprisingly low. Still, Huang says there’s a lack of grace given to teachers in this time.

Huang wanted the flexibility to work from home to take care of her kids who could no longer get daycare. But her school said that, while kids have the choice on whether or not to come into class, teachers do not. She gave her notice days later.

There are more than 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Over the years, thousands have left the system due to low pay and rigid hours. But the coronavirus is a different kind of stress test. As schools seesaw between open and closed, some teachers are left without direction, feeling undervalued and underutilized. The confusion could usher numbers of other teachers out of the field, and massively change the teacher economy as we know it.

Teacher departures are a loss for public schools, but an opportunity for startups racing to win a share of the changing teacher economy. Companies don’t have the same pressures as entire school districts, and thus are able to give teachers a way to teach on more flexible hours. As for salaries, edtech benefits from going directly to consumers, making money less of a budget challenge and more of a sell to parents’ wallets.

There’s Outschool, which allows teachers to lead small-group classes on subjects such as algebra, beginner reading or even mindfulness for kids; Varsity Tutor, which connects educators to K-12 students in need of extra help; and companies such as Swing and Prisma that focus on pod-based learning taught by teachers.

The startups all have different versions of the same pitch: they can offer teachers more money, and flexibility, than the status quo.

Underpaid and overworked teachers

There’s a large geographic discrepancy in pay among teachers. Salaries are decided on a state-by-state and district-by-district level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a teacher who works in Mississippi makes an average of $45,574 annually, while a teacher in New York makes an average of $82,282 annually.

Although cost of living factors impacts teacher salaries like any other profession, data shows that teachers are underpaid as a profession. According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, teachers earn 19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals. A 2018 study by the Department of Education shows that full-time public school teachers are earning less on average, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they earned in 1990.

The variance of salaries among teachers means that there’s room, and a need, for rebalancing. Startups, looking to get a slice of the teacher economy, suddenly can form an entire pitch around these discrepancies. What if a company can help a Mississippi teacher make a wage similar to a New York teacher?

light bulb flickering on and off

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Reach Capital is a venture capital firm whose partners invest in education technology companies. Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of the firm, who also worked in the Chicago Public School system for years, sees coronavirus as an accelerator, not a trigger, for the departure of teachers.

“We have a system and education system where teachers are underpaid, overworked, and you don’t have the flexibility that has become so important for workers now,” she said. “All these things have caused teachers to seek opportunity outside of the traditional schooling system.”

Carolan, who penned an op-ed about teachers leaving the public school system, says that new pathways for teachers are emerging out of the homeschooling tech sector. One of her investments, Outschool, has helped teachers earn tens of millions this year alone, as the total addressable market for what it means to be “homeschooled” changed overnight.

Gig economy powered by startups

Education technology services have created a teacher gig economy over the past few years. Learning platforms, with unprecedented demand, must attract teachers to their service with one of two deal sweeteners: higher wages or more flexible hours.

Outschool is a platform that sells small-group classes led by teachers on a large expanse of topics, from Taylor Swift Spanish class to engineering lessons through Lego challenges. In the past year, teachers on Outschool have made more than $40 million in aggregate, up from $4 million in total earnings the year prior.

CEO Amir Nathoo estimates that teachers are able to make between $40 to $60 per hour, up from an average of $30 per hour in earnings in traditional public schools. Outschool itself has surged over 2,000% in new bookings, and recently turned its first profit.

Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

The company has added 10,000 vetted teachers to its platform, up from 1,000 in March.

Outschool competitor Varsity Tutors is taking a different approach entirely, focusing less on hyperscaling its teacher base and more on slow, gradual growth. In August, Varsity Tutors launched a homeschooling offering meant to replace traditional school. It onboarded 120 full-time educators, who came from public schools and charter schools, with competitive salaries. It has no specific plans to hire more full-time teachers.

Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, said that teachers came seeking more flexibility in hours. On the platform, teachers instruct for five to six hours per day, in blocks that they choose, and can build schedules around caregiver obligations or other jobs.

Varsity Tutors’ strategy is one version of pod-based learning, which gained traction a few months ago as an alternative to traditional schooling. Swing Education, a startup that used to help schools hire substitute teachers, pivoted to help connect those same teachers to full-time pod gigs. Prisma is another alternative school that trains former educators, from public and private schools, to become learning coaches.

Pod-based learning, which can in some cases cost thousands a week, was popular among wealthy families and even led to bidding wars for best teacher talent. It also was met with criticism, suggesting the product wasn’t built with most students in mind.

The reality of next job

A tech-savvy future where students can learn through the touch of a button, and where teachers can rack in higher earnings, is edtech’s goal. But that path is not accessible for all.

Some tutoring startups could create a digital divide among students who can pay for software and those who can’t. If teachers leave public schools, low-income students are left behind and high-income students are able to pay their way into supplemental learning.

Still, some don’t think it’s the job of public school teachers, the vast majority of which are female, to work for a broken system. In fact, some say that the whole concept of villainizing public school teachers for leaving the system comes with ingrained sexism that women have to settle for less. In this framework, startups are both a bridge to a better future for teachers and a symptom of failures from the public educational systems.

Huang, now on the job hunt, says that the opportunities that edtech companies are creating aren’t built for traditional teachers, even though they’re billed as such. So far, she has applied to curriculum design jobs at educational content website BrainPop, digital learning platform Newsela, math program company Zearn and Q&A content host Mystery.org.

“What I’m finding is that a lot of edtech companies don’t seem to value our skills as teachers,” she said. “They’re not looking for teachers, they’re looking for coders.”

Edtech has been forced to meet increasing demand for services in a relatively short time. But the scalability could inherently clash with what teachers came to the profession to do. Suddenly, their work becomes optimized for venture-scale returns, not general education. Huang feels the tension in her job interviews, where she feels like recruiters don’t pay attention to creativity, knowledge and human skills needed for managing students. She has created 30 different versions of her resume.

The lack of suitable jobs made Huang decide to go on childcare leave instead of quitting the education system entirely, in case she needs to return to the traditional field. She hopes that is not the case, but isn’t optimistic just yet.

“I haven’t gotten a whole lot of interviews, because people see my resume; they see that I’m a teacher, and they automatically write me off,” she said.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin (opens in a new window)

Daimler invests in lidar company Luminar in push to bring autonomous trucks to highways

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Daimler’s trucks division has invested in lidar developer Luminar as part of a broader partnership to produce autonomous trucks capable of navigating highways without a human driver behind the wheel.

The deal, which comes just days after Daimler and Waymo announced plans to work together to build an autonomous version of the Freightliner Cascadia truck, is the latest action by the German manufacturer to move away from robotaxis and shared mobility and instead focus on how automated vehicle technology can be applied to freight.

The undisclosed investment by Daimler is in addition to the $170 million that Luminar raised as part of its merger with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos Inc. Luminar will become a publicly traded company through its merger with Gores, which is expected to close in late 2020.

Daimler is taking two tracks on its mission to commercialize autonomous trucks. The company has been working internally to develop a truck capable of Level 4 automation — an industry term that means the system can handle all aspects of driving without human intervention in certain conditions and environments such as highways. That work has accelerated since spring 2019 when Daimler took a majority stake in Torc Robotics, an autonomous trucking startup that had been working with Luminar the past two years. Lidar, the light detection and ranging radar that measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car, is considered a critical piece of hardware to deploy automated vehicle technology safely and at scale.

The plan is to integrate Torc’s self-driving system, along with Luminar’s sensors, into a Freightliner Cascadia truck as well as build out an operations and network center to run automated trucks. Daimler Trucks’ and Torc’s integrated self-driving product will be designed for on-highway hub-to-hub applications, especially for long-distance, monotonous transport between distribution centers, according to Daimler.

Meanwhile, Daimler Trucks is developing a customized Freightliner Cascadia truck chassis with redundant systems to allow Waymo to integrate its self-driving system. In this case, the software development stays in house at Waymo; Daimler is just concentrating on the chassis development.

This dual approach puts Daimler’s ambitions at center stage, which is to have series-production L4 trucks on highways globally. The deal also provides a clearer view of Luminar’s strategy of focusing on what its founder Austin Russell believes are the most likely and shortest paths to commercialized automated vehicles, and in turn, a profitable company.

“Our focus has really been always centered around highway autonomy use cases, which are specifically applicable to passenger vehicles as well as trucks,” Russell said in a recent interview, adding that the aim is to have a product that you can put into series production in a cost-effective capacity.

Luminar has already publicly announced one deal with an automaker to pursue the passenger vehicle use case. Volvo said in May it will start producing vehicles in 2022 that are equipped with lidar and a perception stack developed by Luminar that the automaker will use to deploy an automated driving system for highways. This deal with Daimler locks in the second use case.

“I absolutely do believe that autonomous trucking is an incredibly valuable business model that’s going to be larger than robotaxis and probably closer to being on par with consumer vehicles for the foreseeable future,” Russell said.

Passion Capital backs UK fertility workplace benefits provider, Fertifa

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UK-based Fertifa has bagged a £1 million (~$1.3M) seed to plug into a fertility-focused workplace benefits platform. Passion Capital is investing in the round, along with some unnamed strategic angel investors.

The August 2019-founded startup sells bespoke reproductive health and fertility packages to UK employers to offer as workplace benefits to their staff — drawing on the use of technologies like telehealth to expand access to fertility support and cater to rising demand for reproductive health services.

Challenges conceiving can affect around one in seven couples, per the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

In recent years fertility startups have been getting more investor attention as VC firms cotton on to growing market. Employers have also responded, with tech industry workplaces among those offering fertility ‘perks’ to staff. Although the access-to-services issue can be more acute in the US — given substantial costs involved in obtaining treatments like IVF.

In the UK the picture is a little different, given that the country’s taxpayer funded NHS does fund some fertility treatments — meaning IVF can be free for couples to access. Although how much support couples get can depend on where in the country they live, with some NHS trusts funding more rounds of IVF than others. There can also be access restrictions based on factors such as a woman’s age and the length of time trying to conceive.

This means UK couples can run out of free fertility support before they’ve been able to conceive — pushing them towards paying for private treatment. Hence Fertifa spotting an opportunity for a workplace benefits model around reproductive health services.

It signed up its first employers this spring and summer, and says it now has a portfolio of corporate clients with an employee pool from a few hundreds to >10,000 — although it isn’t breaking out customer numbers. Rather it says its services are available to around 700,000 UK employees at this point.

“At Fertifa we want to make fertility services more widely accessible to people,” says founder and CEO Tony Chen. “Some levels of fertility services can be provided by the NHS but every single NHS trust is different with eligibility, requirements and resources, and so unfortunately it can too often be reduced to a ‘postcode lottery’.

“We believe that everyone should have easy access to information, resources, education and services relating to fertility — and that working with workplaces is one way to start. With our efforts and partnerships we hope to normalise the conversations about fertility at work, just as other forms of health are openly discussed and provided for.”

Passion Capital partner Eileen Burbidge — who is joining Fertifa’s board (along with Passion’s Malin Posern) — has been public about her own use of IVF and takes a very personal interest in the fertility space.

“The unfortunate fact that over recent years, even though success rates have increased and of course more and more patients are exploring the benefits of IVF, NHS funding has been declining and the number of patients using the NHS for their first cycle has also been decreasing,” she tells TechCrunch.

“This doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s brilliant what we get from the NHS here in the UK, but there’s clearly a lot more which can be done to further increase accessibility and affordability — given less and less funding for the NHS in the face of increasing demand of both the NHS and private routes.”

Fertifa says its model is to provide direct care and support to employees — rather than being a broker or acting as part of a referral system. So it has two in-house clinicians at this stage (out of a team of 10-15 people). Although it also says it “partners” with clinicians and clinics across the UK. So it’s not doing everything in-house.

It offers what it bills as a “full range” of fertility and gynaecology services — from assisted reproductive technology such as IVF, IUI and more; fertility planning such as egg, sperm and embryo freezing to donor-assisted and third-party reproduction such as donor eggs and sperm; as well as surrogacy and adoption.

Its doctors, nurses and “fertility advocates” are there to provide a one-to-one care service to support patients throughout the process.

“We use technology in a number of ways and are ambitious about how it will help us to maintain an advantage over others in the sector and provide the best customer experience,” says Chen, noting it’s developed “a full end-to-end” app for patients to guide them through the various stages of their fertility journey.

“On the employer side we have a full employer portal as well which provides educational resources, support options and access to services for HR/People teams to use and share with their workforces. Additionally, we use telehealth to enable more efficient, convenient (particularly in the age of COVID-19 restrictions) and immediate consultations with clinicians and nurses. Finally, we are refining our machine learning algorithms to help drive more informed decision making for patients and clinicians alike.”

It’s not currently applying AI but says that over time its in-house medical experts will use artificial intelligence to aid decision-making — with the aim of reducing clinic visits, enhancing the patient experience and yielding better clinical pregnancy rates.

Chen points to the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority having already made its data publicly available on more than 100,000 couples and their treatment and outcomes — suggesting such data-sets will underpin the development of new predictive models for fertility.

“With additional insight and data sources could more accurately predict probability of success for a patient — or the best type of treatment for them,” he adds.

While Fertifa’s current focus is UK expansion — targeting workplaces of all sizes and scale — it’s also got its eye on scaling overseas down the line. Although it will of course face more competition at that point, with the likes of Y Combinator backed Carrot already offering global fertility benefits packages for employers.

“Fertility and reproductive health is important to people all over the world,” says Chen. “Globally one in four women experience a miscarriage, every LGBT+ individual requires support to become a parent, and everyone needs to be increasingly empowered to take control of their reproductive health through fertility preservation treatment.”

Space investors will see into the future at TechCrunch Sessions: Space

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If the projections are to be believed, the amount of money swirling around the space industry is poised to grow considerably over the next decade. Consider that the aviation giant Boeing estimates that the aerospace market will reach $3 trillion in market size between now and 2029.

It’s most certainly in Boeing’s best interest to produce a big number, but it’s also in line with other projections. Among the many areas of investment where Deloitte anticipates continued growth over the next decade, for example, is electric propulsion systems and aircraft, urban air mobility, and fully automated flight decks.

Some questions for investors center on how to make money off all this expected activity — and where. China has the fastest-growing aviation market globally. France and Germany have been boosting their defense budgets. Meanwhile, passenger traffic is rising in India, Japan, and the Middle East, which could create demand for all kinds of new aircraft.

Of course, many of these projects will require more time and money than make sense for some VCs, and even for those who lean in, there are challenges from supply-chain issues to profitability to potential capital constraints.

To dive into this vast space (ahem) and its promise, we’re thrilled to be talking with three savvy investors who think about little more and who will be sharing their researched perspectives on what’s coming — and what has been overhyped — at our TC Sessions: Space event coming up December 16-17.

If you want to understand which schools are producing some of the top talent, which regions of the world have the most advantages, and whether supersonic jets make any more sense this second time around (among many other things), you won’t want to miss this special conversation.

More from TC Sessions: Space

Joining us for this morning session on Wednesday, December 16, is Tess Hatch, a vice president at Bessemer Venture Partners who focuses largely on frontier technology and specifically on the commercialization of space, drones, autonomous vehicles, and the future of agriculture and food technology.

Hatch brings a lot of expertise to the table. She studied aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan before earning her Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics engineering from Stanford. She then continued on to Boeing, then SpaceX, where she worked with the government on integrating its payloads with the Falcon9 rocket.

We’ll also be joined by Mike Collett, the founder and managing partner of Promus Ventures, a venture firm with offices in Chicago, San Francisco and Luxembourg that invests in deep-tech software and hardware companies in the U.S., Europe and New Zealand.

Collett, a Vanderbilt grad, has been investing in software and hardware for more than 15 years, across areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, space, fintech, robotics, synthetic biology, computer vision and connected cars. Among Promus’s most recent investments is +Earth AI, a mineral exploration startup, and the spectrum mapping startup Aurora Insights.

Last but not least, Chris Boshuizen, an operating partner at the venture firm Data Collective (DCVC), will be joining us. Boshuizen previously co-founded and spent five years as the CTO of Planet Labs, a nearly 10-year-old company that was among the first of its kind to provide unprecedented daily, global mapping of Earth from space. He was also once a Space Mission Architect at NASA Ames Research Center,  and he co-created Phonesat, a spacecraft built solely out of a regular smartphone.

A native of Australia, Boshuizen has a PhD in physics from the University of Sydney and strong thoughts about what’s interesting out there right now. But we’re thrilled to welcome all three, and we’re excited to see you, too.

We’ve launched early-bird pricing, and $125 gets you access to all live sessions, plus video on demand. Don’t procrastinate. Buy your pass now before the early-bird reenters Earth’s atmosphere (and prices go up) on November 13 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

More ways to save: Go further together with early bird group tickets ($100) — bring four team members and get the fifth one free. We also offer discount passes for students ($50) and government, military and non-profits ($95). Looking for out-of-this-world exposure? An Early Stage Startup Exhibitor Package ($360) includes four tickets, digital exhibition space, a pitch session to attendees and the ability to generate leads. Bonus savings: Extra Crunch subscribers get an additional 20 percent discount.