All posts in “Startups”

North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, and then return once they’re ready for a pick-up and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later – essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

FarmWise and its weed-pulling agribot harvest $14.5M in funding

Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.

Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.

“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”

Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.

Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.

The company previously took in about $5.7 million in a seed round, following its debut on Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day back in 2017. Robots are expensive!

Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.

Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.

“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.

With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?

Pax Labs’ Bharat Vasan is out as CEO

Bharat Vasan is no longer the Chief Executive Officer at Pax Labs, the consumer tech company that makes cannabis vaporizers. A source familiar with the situation said that the board of directors made the decision to remove Vasan from the CEO role. His last day was Friday.

We’ve reached out to Vasan for comment. Pax is declining to elaborate on what drove its decision.

Certainly, it’s a surprising move, given that Vasan was appointed the CEO of Pax not so long ago —  in February of 2018. Before that, he served as President and COO of August Home, which was acquired by Swedish lock maker Assa Abloy in 2017. Previous to that, Vasan was the cofounder of Basis, a fitness-based wearable company that was acquired by Intel in 2014 for $100 million.

Vasan also led the company in its most recent round this past April, in which it secured $420 million from Tiger Global Management, Tao Capital, and Prescott General Partners, among others. The post-money valuation for the company at the time was $1.7 billion.

Vasan is a veteran of consumer electronics, but Pax may be looking for a CEO that has more operational experience in cannabis.

After all, Pax is at an interesting intersection in its path, navigating an oft-changing regulatory landscape around cannabis. Moreover, the entire cannabis industry — and vaporizer industry —  is under a microscope in the wake of hundreds of reports of vape-related lung illness. The CDC says that there have been 380 cases of lung illness reported across 36 states, with six deaths. Most patients reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC.

Pax is currently on the hunt for a new chief executive. In the meantime, its general counsel, Lisa Sergi, who joined the company at the end of July, will be its interim CEO and president.

Sergi had this to say in a prepared statement:

PAX is uniquely positioned as a leader in the burgeoning cannabis industry, with a talented team, an iconic brand, quality products and the balance sheet to achieve our ambitious goals and continued growth trajectory. I am extremely excited and honored to have been entrusted to lead this extraordinary company.

In a social media world, here’s what you need to know about UGC and privacy

In today’s brand landscape, consumers are rejecting traditional advertising in favor of transparent, personalized and most importantly, authentic communications. In fact, 86% of consumers say that authenticity is important when deciding which brands they support. Driven by this growing emphasis on brand sincerity, marketers are increasingly leveraging user-generated content (UGC) in their marketing and e-commerce strategies.

Correlated with the rise in the use of UGC is an increase in privacy-focused regulation such as the European Union’s industry-defining General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the along with others that will go into effect in the coming years, like the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), and several other state-specific laws. Quite naturally, brands are asking themselves two questions:

  • Is it worth the effort to incorporate UGC into our marketing strategy?
  • And if so, how do we do it within the rules, and more importantly, in adherence with the expectations of consumers?

Consumers seek to be active participants in their favorite companies’ brand identity journey, rather than passive recipients of brand-created messages. Consumers trust images by other consumers on social media seven times more than advertising.

Additionally, 56% are more likely to buy a product after seeing it featured in a positive or relatable user-generated image. The research and results clearly show that the average consumer perceives content from a peer to be more trustworthy than brand-driven content.

With that in mind, we must help brands leverage UGC with approaches that comply with privacy regulations while also engaging customers in an authentic way.

Influencer vs user: Navigating privacy considerations in an online world

The team behind Codementor launches Arc to help companies hire talented developers around the world

Arc, a platform that wants to simplify the process of hiring developers who work remotely, is launching officially today. The new company grew out of Techstars-backed Codementor, an online education platform for software developers. Codementor will continue to operate as a standalone product under Arc.

While there are already many freelancing platforms, Weiting Liu, the founder and CEO of Arc and Codementor, said Arc is more focused on long-term contractor and full-time employee positions instead of short-term gigs. To make the recruitment process easier for tech companies, all developers on its platform are vetted by Arc in a process modeled on the hiring assessments used by tech companies in Silicon Valley. Arc’s clients have already included Spotify, Chegg, Hims, Fivestars and AppLovin.

Codementor launched in 2014 to connect developers with instructors around the world for coding education. Arc has the same mission of helping boost the careers of engineers who live outside of major tech hubs.

“I think Arc is a natural evolution. Codementor had hundreds of thousands of developers in the community already and that created a very strong and inclusive community to help developers worldwide continuously improve their skills,” says Liu. “We definitely see Codementor and its network creating a strong funnel of talented developers who want to work remotely.”

Remote hiring has benefits like increasing the talent pool for tech companies while helping employees maintain work-life balance or avoid moving to high cost-of-living areas. But despite the increase in remote hiring (for example, Stripe recently described its remote engineers as the company’s “fifth engineering hub”), there are still many hurdles to overcome.

The team of Liu’s first startup, Y Combinator alum SocialPicks, were based in different cities. In 2006, that meant everyone had to find a way to work together even though collaboration tools like Slack and Trello didn’t exist yet. But while it has become much more easier to work remotely over the past decade, hiring people who live far away still presents a lot of friction for companies. “From an employers’ perspective, there are a lot of fears and unknowns for hiring strangers online for a permanent, full-time role, but I think things are changing,” says Liu.

He adds that Arc is different from other hiring platforms like AngelList or We Work Remotely because of its vetting process, designed to identify developers who can stay with a company for a long time.

“People can still hire remote developers for short-term contracts, but we want to enable more companies to hire long-term, full-time regular employees who are not based in their ZIP code, but should be treated no differently than their Bay Area counterparts because they are as good, if not better, than Silicon Valley developers,” Liu says.

Arc pre-screens engineers and teams using what it describes as “Silicon Valley-caliber technical and behavioral assessments.” Candidates go through behavioral and technical interviews conducted by senior developers and technical recruiters who have worked for Google, Facebook and other big tech companies. In order to judge how well they will work with a team in another location, Arc also asks developers to prepare programming during the interview process to simulate the process of collaborating remotely.

As Arc grows larger, Liu says it will build tools that will help them gauge developers at scale, as well as features to companies manage remote workers.

California recently passed a significant new bill that, if signed into law, would dramatically change the gig economy by requiring companies to give independent contractors who do the work of employees minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits. Liu hopes this signifies a shift in how remote workers are viewed.

“There are a lot of first-generation online platforms for ‘remote work,’ but most are freelancing work. Platforms like Fiverr and Upwork are pioneers of this space, so they are the first generation of online freelancing platforms,” Liu says. “They came into a world where people felt comfortable working together in very short-term freelancing gigs. I think the second phase means there is increasingly higher trust and better infrastructure to enable long-term, permanent full-time work to be made possible remotely, and we want to be the main facilitator of that.”