All posts in “Startups”

Microsoft and Nintendo release Minecraft trailer focused on cross-play

In the world of gaming, cross-compatibility between platforms has always bene a bit of a white whale. While most players hope for it, console makers and game publishers haven’t always been so willing. Until recently.

Microsoft, Nintendo and PC game makers have started making games more cross-compatible. Most notably, the companies have made Fortnite Battle Royale, the biggest game of the year, cross-compatible on the Switch, Xbox, iOS, and PC. Yes, there is a big name missing from that list.

Sony has yet to budge, forcing PS4 players inside of a walled garden. Obviously, players have been outraged.

But today, Microsoft and Nintendo are seemingly putting salt in the wound with a new trailer for Minecraft.

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Rather than focusing on the game, the trailer’s entire thesis is centered around the fact that it offers cross-play between Xbox and the Switch. In the video, you can see a Switch player and an Xbox player gaming together in the wonderful world of Minecraft.

The tag line at the end reads “Better Together.”

Long story short, cross play is happening in the gaming world. Finally. Whether or not Sony chooses to catch up is anyone’s guess.

Urban Airship raises another $25M

Urban Airship has raised $25 million in Series F funding.

The company started out as a platform supporting push notifications, but has since expanded to include other marketing channels like email, SMS, mobile wallets and voice assistants. The goal is to be the platform managing messaging and unifying customer data across all these channels.

Altogether, Urban Airship said it’s now delivered more than two trillion messages, doubling the number from a year ago.

Recent product additions include voice notifications on Amazon Alexa (which is still in beta testing) and automated in-app messaging. The company has signed up new enterprise customers like AMC, Magazine Luiza and Royal Automobile Club.

This funding was led by Foundry Group (which previously led the company’s Series B), with participation from True Ventures, August Capital, Intel Capital, Verizon Ventures, QuestMark Partners and Franklin Park Associates.

Brett Caine, who joined as CEO in 2014, said Urban Airship is currently breaking even, and he described this as “the first time in the eight nine years of the company where we’re raising money when we didn’t need it.”

So then why raise again? Caine said he sees “a lot of opportunity to grow and continue to expand globally and certainly look at the broad set of channels emerging in the market.”

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve gotta go out and raise money,’ and it was, ‘Let’s raise money to go faster,’” he added.

In addition to the growth of new marketing channels, Caine said growing discussion and regulation around online privacy serve as “wind shifts” in the company’s favor — because Urban Airship is focused on helping marketers use their own data to communicate directly with customers who have opted in to hearing from them.

“We’ve been opt-in, first-party from day one,” Caine said. “All of digital channels that we want to power, they only use first-party data. We don’t do anything with third-party, we don’t do any advertising.”

Urban Airship has now raised more than $100 million in total funding, according to Crunchbase.

Taste test: Burger robot startup Creator opens first restaurant

Creator’s transparent burger robot doesn’t grind your brisket and chuck steak into a gourmet patty until you order it. That’s just one way this startup, formerly known as Momentum Machines, wants to serve the world’s freshest cheeseburger for just $6. On June 27th, after eight years in development, Creator unveils its first robot restaurant before opening to the public in September. We got a sneak peek…err…taste.

When I ask how a startup launching one eatery at a time could become a $10 billion company, Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas looks me dead in the eye and says, “the market is much bigger than that.”

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Here’s how Creator’s burger-cooking bot works at its 680 Folsom Street location in San Francisco. Once you order your burger style through a human concierge on a tablet, a compressed air tube pushes a baked-that-day bun into an elevator on the right. It’s sawed in half by a vibrating knife before being toasted and buttered as it’s lowered to conveyor belt. Sauces measured by the milliliter and spices by the gram are automatically squirted onto the bun. Whole pickles, tomatoes, onions and blocks of nice cheese get slices shaved off just a second before they’re dropped on top.

Meanwhile, the robot grinds hormone-free, pasture-raised brisket and chuck steak to order. But rather than mash them all up, the strands of meat hang vertically and are lightly pressed together. They form a loose but auto-griddleable patty that’s then plopped onto the bun before the whole package slides out of the machine after a total time of about five minutes. The idea is that when you bite into the burger, your teeth align with the vertical strands so instead of requiring harsh chewing it almost melts in your mouth.

If you want to be the first to try it, Creator is selling early access tickets at 10am Pacific today. Otherwise it will be open for lunch Wednesdays and Thursdays until the public launch. Eventually, an app will let people customize the exact ratios of all the ingredients, unlocking near infinite permutations.

For now, the startup’s initial pre-set burger options include the classic-style Creator vs. The World with a mole Thousand Island special sauce, the oyster aioli Tumami Burger designed by Chef Tu of Top Chef, The Smoky with charred onion jam and the sunflower seed tahini Dad Burger from Chef Nick Balla of Bar Tartine.

The taste of each is pretty remarkable. The flavor pops out of all the fresh-cut and ground ingredients that lack the preservatives of pre-sliced stuff. The patties hold together as you munch despite being exceedingly tender. And afterwards I felt less of the greasy, gut-bomb, food coma vibe that typically accompanies scarfing down a cheeseburger.

“This is the kind of burger you would get for $12 to $18 [at an upscale restaurant], and it’s $6,” says Vardakostas. It might not be the best burger I’ve had in my life, but it’s certainly the best at that price. A lot of that comes from the savings on labor and kitchen space afforded by a robot cook. “We spend more on our ingredients than any other burger restaurant.”

The CEO wouldn’t reveal how much Creator has raised, but says it’s backed by Google’s GV, frequent food startup investor Khosla Ventures and hardware-focused Root Ventures. However, SEC filings attained by TechCrunch show the startup raised at least $18.3 million in 2017, and sought $6 million more back in 2013.

It’s understandable why. “McDonald’s is a $140 billion company. It’s bigger than GM and Tesla combined. McDonald’s has 40,000 restaurants. Food is one to the top three biggest markets,” Vardakostas rattles off. “But we have a lot of advantages. The average restaurant is 50 percent bigger in terms of square footage.” Then he motions to his big robot that’s a lot smaller than the backside of most fast-food restaurants, and with a smile says, “That’s our kitchen. You roll it in and plug it in.”

From flipping patties to studying physics

Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas

What you want in a founder is a superhero origin story. Some formative moment in their life that makes them hellbent on solving a problem. Vardakostas has a pretty convincing tale. “My parents have a burger joint,” he reveals. “My job was to make several hundred of the same burger every day. You realize there’s so much opportunity not taken because you don’t have the right tools, and it’s hard work.”

Robots and engineering weren’t even on his radar growing up in the restaurant in southern California. Then, “when I was 15 my dad took me to a book store for the first time. I started reading about physics and realizing that this could be a possibility.” He went on to study physics at UC Santa Barbara, got to work in the garage, and finally drove up to Silicon Valley to machine the first robot prototype’s parts at the famous Silicon Valley TechShop.

That’s when he met his co-founder and COO Steve Frehn. “Steve told me he was from Stanford and I was super intimidated,” Vardakostas recalls. But the two had a great working rapport, and a knack for recruiting budding mechanical engineers from the college. Momentum Machines started in 2009, was a full-time garage project by 2010, incorporated and joined Lemnos Labs in 2012 and the startup began to make serious progress by 2014.

In the meantime, other entrepreneurs have tried to find a business in food robots. There was the now-defunct Y Combinator startup Bistrobot that haphazardly spurted liquid peanut butter and Nutella on white bread and called it a sandwich. More recently, Miso Robotics’ burger-flipping arm named Flippy made headlines, even though all it does is flip and cook patties on a traditional griddle. “We have an arm that pulls out the burgers, but that’s probably 5 percent of the complexity” of the full Creator robot run by 350 sensors, 50 actuators and 20 computers, Vardakostas scoffs.

Breaking burger behavior

The CEO’s past in the kitchen keeps Creator in touch with the human element. He tells me he thinks the idea of a staff-less restaurant where you order on a computer sounds “dystopian.” In fact, he wants to give his food service employees access to new careers. Vardakostas says with a sigh that “people look at restaurant work as a charity case, but man, we just need a chance.” Referring to the old Google policy of letting employees try out side projects, he explains how “Tech companies get 10 percent time but no one does that for restaurant workers.”

“Something we got really excited about in 2012 and we’re just starting to execute on is reinventing the job of working in a store like this, where the machine it taking care of the dirty and dangerous work,” his co-founder Frehn explains. “We’re playing around with education programs for the staff. Five percent of the time they’re paid just to read. We’re already doing that. There’s a book budget. We’re paying $16 an hour. As opportunities come up to fix the machine, there’s a path we’re going to offer people as repair or maintenance people to get paid even more.”

One tradition Creator couldn’t escape was French fries. Vardakostas says they’re basically the least healthy thing you can eat, noting they’re “worse than donuts because there’s more surface area exposed to the frier.” But chefs told him some people simply wouldn’t eat a burger without them. Creator’s compromise is that burgers are paired with hearty miniature farro or seasonal veggie salads by default, but you can still opt for a side of frites.

Creator’s fate won’t just be determined by the burger robot and the people who work alongside it. The startup will have to prove to fast food diners that it can be just as quick and cheap but a lot tastier, and that they’re welcome amongst the restaurant’s bougie Pottery Barn decor. At the same time, it must convince more affluent eaters that a cafeteria-style ordering counter and low price don’t mean low quality. Oh, and the name is a bit rich for a burger spot.

For now, Creator won’t be licensing out its bot or franchising its restaurant, though those could be lucrative. “I don’t want someone putting frozen beef in there or charging way more,” says Vardakostas. Instead, the goal is to methodically expand, and maybe take advantage of its petite footprint to move into airport terminals or bus stations. “We want to get out of San Francisco,” Frehn confidently concludes. “Our business model is pretty simple. We take a really good burger that people like and sell it for half the price.”

Lydia now supports Samsung Pay

While French banks are just catching up to Apple Pay, French startup Lydia is adding support for Samsung Pay. If you have a recent Samsung phone, you can now add a virtual card to Samsung Pay and pay using your phone in your favorite stores.

Lydia started as a peer-to-peer payment app. It works more or less like Venmo or Square Cash in the U.S. After signing up, you can add a debit card to your account and send and receive money for free. You can withdraw your balance to a traditional bank account whenever you want.

The company has been adding more features to turn Lydia into the only banking app you need. You can now connect Lydia to your bank accounts, view your balances, get an IBAN, initiate transfers, create Lydia sub-accounts with multiple people and get a physical MasterCard.

Some features are now part of a premium subscription for €2.99 per month ($3.47) or €3.99 per month with the physical card ($4.62). The company also expanded to the U.K., Ireland, Spain and Portugal. There are a million registered users on Lydia.

More interestingly, Lydia wants to go beyond peer-to-peer payments. You can use Lydia to pay in some grocery stores, such as Franprix stores. You can also pay online by receiving a push notification and confirming the transaction in the Lydia app — Cdiscount supports Lydia for instance.

And when you can’t pay with your Lydia account directly, the startup doesn’t want to play favorites. You can generate a virtual card and enter the card number on an e-commerce website. You can add this virtual card to Apple Pay or Samsung Pay. Let’s see if Google Pay is next.

This could be particularly interesting for users who can’t use those payment systems because their banks don’t support those features. Let’s be honest, you rarely change your bank. With Lydia, you can still use Apple Pay or Samsung Pay with your existing bank account.

Drip Capital helps exporters access working capital

Drip Capital is raising a $20 million funding round from Accel, Wing VC and Sequoia India. The company is helping small exporters in emerging markets access working capital in order to finance big orders.

The startup also participated in Y Combinator back in 2015. Many small companies in emerging markets have to turn down orders because they can’t finance big orders. Even if you found a client in the U.S. or Europe, chances are companies will end up paying for your order a month or two after signing a contract.

If you’re an importer or an exporter, capital is arguably your most valuable resource. You know where to source your products and how to ship many goods. But you still need to buy goods yourself.

And in many emerging markets, you have to pay right away. It creates a sort of capital gap.

At the same time, local banks are often too slow and reject too many credit applications. Drip Capital thinks there’s an opportunity for a tech platform that finances exporters in no time.

The startup is first focusing on India because it meets many of the criteria I listed. This could be particularly useful for small and medium businesses. Large companies don’t necessarily face the same issues as they can access capital more easily.

So far, Drip Capital has funded more than $100 million of trade. After signing up to the platform, you can submit invoices and open a credit line to finance your next orders. Family offices and institutional investors can also invest some money in Drip Capital’s fund and get returns on investment.

This isn’t the only platform that helps you get paid faster. But larger companies tend to do it all and optimize the supply chain for the biggest companies in the world. Drip Capital is focusing on a specific vertical.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to get more customers and expand to other countries.