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Baidu to operate fully driverless commercial robotaxi in Wuhan and Chongqing

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Chinese internet giant Baidu has secured permits to offer a fully driverless commercial robotaxi service, with no human driver present, in Chongqing and Wuhan via the company’s autonomous ride-hailing unit, Apollo Go.

Baidu’s wins in Wuhan and Chongqing come a few months after the company scored a permit to provide driverless ride-hailing services to the public on open roads in Beijing. The difference here is the service in Beijing is still not a commercial service — Baidu is offering free driverless rides in the name of R&D and public acceptance — and Beijing’s permit still requires a human operator in the front passenger seat of the vehicle.

When Baidu launches in Wuhan and Chongqing, it’ll be the first time an autonomous vehicle company is able to offer a fully driverless ride-hailing service in China, Baidu claimed. Meanwhile in the U.S., Cruise recently began offering a driverless commercial service in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering one in Arizona since 2020.

“This is a tremendous qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, vice president and chief safety operation officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, in a statement. “We believe these permits are a key milestone on the path to the inflection point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving services at scale.”

In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and cover a 13 square kilometer area in the city’s Economic and Technological Development zone, which is known as China’s ‘Auto City.’ Chongqing’s service will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in a 30 square kilometer area in Yongchuan District. Each city will have a fleet of five Apollo 5th generation robotaxis, according to Baidu.

The zones where Baidu will operate aren’t densely populated, and they feature many new, wide roads that make it easier to operate autonomous systems. Both cities provide favorable regulatory and technological environments for Baidu to kick off its first commercial driverless service. In Chongqing, the Yongchuan District has been a pilot zone for autonomous driving, in which 30 robotaxis have accumulated 1 million kilometers’ worth of test driving.

The zone in Wuhan where Apollo Go will operate has revamped 321 kilometers of roads for testing AVs since 2021, which includes 106 kilometers’ worth that are covered by 5G-powered vehicle-to-everything (V2X) infrastructure. AVs can rely on V2X technology to collect real time information about their surrounding environment and share those perceptions with other vehicles or infrastructure, essentially giving the robotaxis another form of sensor to fall back on, aside from onboard lidar, radar and cameras. V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu monitor vehicles remotely and pilot the vehicles if necessary.

Last month, Baidu revealed the designs for its sixth generation electric robotaxi, the Apollo RT6 EV, which is a cross between an SUV and a minivan that comes with a detachable steering wheel. The company said it was able to trim production costs by developing the battery electric architecture in house, bringing the per-vehicle cost to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu get to a point of small scale testing and deployment of the RT6 by next year, branching out to large scale in 2024.

Aside from its new service in Wuhan and Chongqing and its driverless service in Beijing, Apollo Go also has a presence in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changsha, Cangzhou, Yangquan and Wuzhen. Baidu said it plans to expand its ride-hailing service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. By the end of this year, Baidu expects to add another 300 Apollo 5th gen robotaxis to its existing fleet, the company said.

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Backed by Epic Games, distributed computing startup Hadean nabs $30M to power the metaverse

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Hadean, a U.K.-based distributed, spatial computing startup that’s setting out to build the infrastructure for the burgeoning metaverse, has closed a $30 million seres A round of funding from a high-profile cast of investors including Epic Games and Tencent.

Founded out of London in 2015, Hadean started out with a broad mission to put “supercomputer levels of processing power at the disposal of anyone,” TechCrunch wrote back in 2017 when the company was still operating in beta. In the intervening years, Hadean has iterated for different use-cases and has emerged as a major player in the gaming sphere in particular, where it powers major hits such as Minecraft.

At its core, Hadean is all about helping developers scale their codebase to support software that requires significant computing power, something that Minecraft demands particularly when it involves multiplayer engagement across the internet. Hadean’s spatial simulation library integrates with all the major gaming engines, and helps MMO (massively multiplayer online game) and other online game developers avoid having to put player limits in place, or use other forms of technical (but limited) trickery to circumvent the problems created by hundreds or more gamers participating at the same time. It’s all about keeping the dreaded “lag” at bay, while maintaining the depth, complexity, and realism of a single-player offline console game.

This is achieved through the magic of distributed computing, with Hadean’s platform eliminating “excessive middleware, orchestration, and overengineering,” as the company puts it, dynamically provisioning more or fewer resources as a game requires.

But the underlying technology can be used for just about any use-case, from resource-intensive enterprise applications through to web 3.0, blockchain, and the metaverse. Back in July, Hadean was awarded a contract with the British Army to build a simulated training environment for land warfare.

A virtual world as illustrated by Hadean Image Credits: Hadean

Epic investment

And it’s against that backdrop that Hadean has now secured a slew of illustrious backers eager to get in at an early stage, while the metaverse is still in its fledgling years.

As the Telegraph newspaper first reported last month [paywalled], Hadean initially secured around $18 million in funding from investors including Chinese technology titan Tencent and InQTel, a CIA-backed not-for-profit venture capital firm based in Virginia, U.S. As it transpired, this initial reveal came somewhat prematurely, as Hadean was still in the process of closing the round of funding, which is what it’s announcing today.

The full list of (known) backers include lead investor Molten Ventures (formerly Draper Esprit), Tencent, 2050 Capital, Alumni Ventures, Aster Capital, Entrepreneur First, InQtel, and the mighty Epic Games, which also happens to be a Hadean customer. In fact, Epic Games previously doled out funding to Hadean in the form of a MegaGrant, which are basically grants to support companies working on projects to help support its Unreal Engine.

In an email to TechCrunch, Hadean CEO Craig Beddis said Epic Games arrived late to the series A round and so had to invested via a convertible note, which basically means it’s a short-term debt that will convert into equity.

It’s also worth noting that Epic Games recently raised around $2 billion to build what it’s touting as a kid-friendly metaverse, and this gives a further clue as to why it’s now investing directly in Hadean.

“Hadean’s computing power will provide the infrastructure that’s needed as we work to create a scalable metaverse,” said Marc Petit, who serves as VP of Epic’s Unreal Engine Ecosystem, in a statement. “The company’s technology complements Epic’s Unreal Engine by enabling massive amounts of concurrent users and unlocking new tools for creators and developers.”

Tencent’s involvement is also notable, given current geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. Beddis explained that Hadean ended up taking less money than what was on offer from Tencent so that it could remain CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) compliant, and avoid a national security review.

With another $30 million in the bank, in addition to its previously raised seed rounds amounting to around $16.5 million, Hadean is well-financed to double-down on its existing traction across the gaming, government, and enterprise realms, and power all manner of web 3.0 and metaverse applications.

“Hadean’s mission is to bridge physical and virtual worlds — to help us make better decisions and ultimately improve the quality of our lives in the physical world,” Beddis said. “Today’s virtual worlds are a limited experience – small scale, siloed, and insecure. Hence why these are the technical challenges we’re tackling today. But we believe the true success and mass adoption of the metaverse will rely on the ease by which creators will be able to build their own experiences at scale, leveraging open and robust metaverse-as-a-service technologies.”

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Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

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Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

Co-founder of Planyard with a background in B2B software and cyber security. Now tackling profitability forecasting in larger construction companies to make sure they don’t go out of business due to insufficient visibility.

He was born right when Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 90s. This experience has been invaluable as he saw the rapid development and life quality improvement this new way provided.

When growing up, everything in his life was digitalized – the communication, the school work, government and medical services. This meant that that was since childhood the normal. He couldn’t really expect less than excellent and user-friendliness from any service. This part is probably normal for 99% of Estonians though.

He studied computer systems in his university studies and found entrepreneurship interesting from early on. He worked in various startups during studies and attended various startup events and competitions. Some of these competitions were also where the first attempts (and failures) at personal startups took place.

He also tried Amazon FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) product selling which failed quite miserably as the product was completely custom designed and was just a one-time thing. The product was also partially a safety device so Amazon deciding to now allowing to sell the product was a good learning point. Never give too much decision power to someone else. Also, don’t make safety products without having great suppliers. 🙂

After a short stint in a cyber security company, he was invited by acquaintances to work on Planyard. This has been the main focus for the past few years.

Where did the idea for Planyard come from?

The idea for Planyard came from our acquaintances working in the construction field. Many of them work as project managers and complained that they don’t have good tools that help them do financial tasks efficiently.

They often need to use multiple unlinked spreadsheets with duplicate data where the processing and data copying takes way too long. So when one of our founders had multiple discussions with these PMs, he was able to identify key issues that we started to work on once the mockups were confirmed.

So now we are providing a cloud-based software tool for construction companies to automate much of the annoying manual work they have to do anyway. This can save up to 5 days for each project manager per month. Additionally, colleagues and managers can also easily see what the status is if the company prefers to share the access inside the company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Since we are a small bootstrapped team, the day consists of various tasks that have to be done – often some development work, marketing actions if we have some content planned, calls with customers and representatives from tools that we integrate with.

It is important to list and then prioritize all of the things that need to be done in the day to make sure that you can really focus on the important tasks. Depending on the task, we have different Trello boards to track them or for stuff only specific to me, I also use Gmail snoozing to not lose anything.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We often hear about problems that our customers are having. When we hear these brought out, we have to validate that many or most of our customers face similar issues. When we validate that indeed this is a relevant issue for many people, we then start work on solution proposals.

We then make very low-quality mockups that we can validate with all of the parties and often do multiple rounds of these discussions to tweak the solution before we start implementing it.

This means that we can be very sure of the technical solution before we do anything. We might make small adjustments to the design or the process later on, but the fundamental assumptions are correct, thus reducing the amount of rework we have to do.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Young and/or tech-savvy people who are becoming decision makers in (construction) companies. They have grown up with productivity tools and user-friendly tools and expect that when they try to find a solution. Also, a more bottom-up management style is nice since everyone’s’ opinion matters and the boss doesn’t decide alone.

This means that our potential customers are more open to embracing technical solutions that will make their life easier. Additionally, when looking for solutions, they are very selfishly trying to find a great experience. That differs from the “old school“ enterprise sales where the management would just decide for something and the end users would not really benefit from it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

If you don’t get it 100% clearly, just ask again. I think I need to fully understand the problem and why it is a problem to be able to solve it for the customer.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Ask more questions before rushing to propose solutions. You probably didn’t fully get it yet.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Probably not that unpopular, but raising money is not everything. Raising money too soon can hurt or end your business.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Blocking out time for deep focus time. This is probably more a techy thing to do, but having the freedom of no distractions for some part of your day really lets you achieve a lot.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We still need to do a lot of work on our online presence and messaging, but we for sure are already seeing successes from our SEO efforts however limited the time is that we put in there.

In short, it’s better to be where the customers are searching for you instead of cold calling and reaching out to them yourself.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A few years ago, I tried doing Amazon FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) as a business. We developed our own product from scratch for just a one-time event.

The production delays and strict Amazon restrictions meant that we actually could almost not sell any products to our customers before the date. We lost a lot of time and money doing this, but I learned to value my own control over the process more. In that case, we did make a lot of mistakes on our own as well. But giving so much power to someone else can be risky as they can just shut you down when they decide to do so.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I recently heard of an idea for an app to order food in the restaurant. So basically Uber Eats to eat in – no waiting for the waiter, no payment struggles, and the possibility for the company to do dynamic pricing.

I’m not sure if it is a great idea, but it’s an idea.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Trello. Keeping track of what you need to do, what you did, and to prioritize what needs to be done. Without structure, you just do whatever you want to in the morning and that probably won’t take you too far.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

What is your favorite quote?

Change in all things is sweet – Aristotle

Originally published on IdeaMensch.
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Berlin’s Visionaries Club VC boosts its funds with €350M worth of fresh capital for B2B investments

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It was back in 2019 that we reported on Visionaries Club, a new, Berlin-based, European VC focusing on B2B, founded by Sebastian Pollok and Robert Lacher. At the time, Visionaries Club had launched two new €40M micro funds for seed and growth-stage B2B.

Pollok was previously a VC at e.ventures in San Francisco and also founded Amorelie, which exited to Pro7Sat.1 Media Group. Lacher was previously a founding partner of La Famiglia, an early investor in FreightHub, Coya, Asana Rebel, OnTruck and Personio.

Visionaries Club has now announced a second B2B-focused fund, with a new €150m Seed Fund and €200m ‘Early Growth Fund. It’s so far invested in companies such as Personio, Miro, Choco, Xentral, Truelayer, Vay, Taxdoo, Yokoy, Pigment, Leapsome and Gtmhub, alongside VCs such as Sequoia, Accel, Index, Lightspeed or Bessemer.  

In a statement, Lacher said: “We are extremely proud and humbled that more than 20 of our founder LPs are founders we have backed in the past, that now reinvest their private money into our funds such as Hanno Renner (Personio), Jenny Podewills (Leapsome), Daniel Khachab (Choco), Christian Reber (Pitch / Superlist) or the founders of Taxdoo and Insify.”

The fund essentially operates as a micro-VC fund, which means it can lead, and co-lead Seed investment deals, co-investing alongside larger, multistage VC funds in Early Growth stage (Series B) deals.

It’s also launching the Visionaries Club science-driven ‘Tomorrow Fund’ to back science-driven startups at the Pre-Seed and Seed stage.

Additionally, Sahar Meghani and Marton Sarkadi Nagy have been promoted to Partners.

London-based Meghani will take a lead role in managing the new Growth Fund, while Sarkadi Nagy will take a lead on the seed fund activities.

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