Gmail gets a new look, Instagram trips while trying to be TikTok and India blocks Battleground Mobile
Hello hello! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we do a quick rundown of the most-read TechCrunch stories from the past week. The idea: When you’ve had a busy few days, you should be able to skim Week in Review and still have a good idea of what’s up lately in tech. Want it in your inbox? Sign up here.
The most read story this week was about Battlegrounds Mobile India, a popular battle royale title that has found an audience of tens of millions in India. Players woke up to find the game suddenly blocked from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store by order of the Indian government. Why? That’s…not exactly clear yet, but Manish has the breakdown of everything we know so far.
New Gmail for all: Use Gmail? Don’t be surprised if it looks different soon. The company announced this week that the “Material You” interface overhaul it has been testing will roll out to all users in the coming weeks. Don’t like the new styling? For now, at least, you can find a toggle hidden in the settings menu to switch it back.
Instagram’s bad move(s): As best anyone can tell, TikTok seems to be eating Instagram’s lunch. Is the answer for Instagram to become more like TikTok? Recent updates — like a focus on full-screen video and more content from people you don’t follow — have made the Insta interface feel more and more TikTok-y…and, well, the complaints have been loud. Instagram is at least pretending to listen, though, and says it’ll be walking back many of said changes. Maybe.
Rivian layoffs: Rumors earlier this month suggested layoffs were looming at Rivian; sure enough, the company confirmed this week that it’s laying off around 6% of its workforce as part of a “restructuring plan.”
A penny for your prompts?: OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 can generate incredible art seemingly out of thin air, but sometimes getting the exact results you want can require some…finesse. This startup wants to “sell strings of words that net predictable results” on DALL-E 2 and other such systems. An interesting story made all the better by its oh-so-Seussian opening image, which I’ll note was created by an actual human (and a lovely one at that).
Meta shutters Tuned: Did you know Meta had a social app for couples? Probably not! Called Tuned, it was part of Meta’s New Product Experimentation efforts, and it seems this particular experiment is over. Meta announced this week that Tuned will go away on September 19. The app was meant to help couples communicate and “create a shared scrapbook” of photos/videos/etc. It doesn’t help that it was launched right at the beginning of the pandemic, when many couples probably had no trouble keeping in touch because they probably weren’t going anywhere anyway.
Is cutting your company’s internal valuation ever a good thing? Natasha and Anita focused on that question on Wednesday’s episode of Equity. Meanwhile, on Chain Reaction, Lucas and Anita chatted about Minecraft, saying, “No friggin’ thanks” to NFTs, and Lauren hopped on The TechCrunch Podcast to fill us in on why (as we learned last week) Netflix is bleeding customers.
If you’re a TechCrunch+ subscriber, (a) thanks! and (b) we’ve got good stuff for you this week. Such as:
3 views on Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical: Love it or hate it, Amazon is buying One Medical. Good thing? Bad thing? Alex Wilhelm, Walter Thompson and Miranda Halpern weigh in with their perspectives.
8 fintech VCs on how to pitch them: What are fintech investors looking for right now? Mary Ann Azevedo checked in with eight of the top investors in the space.
Could the CHIPS Act spark another U.S. startup renaissance?: The U.S. Senate clearly wants more semiconductor production happening stateside — but chip manufacturing is wildly expensive. Is this “potential cash injection” an opportunity for new startups to change the way it’s done? As Haje puts it: “Those weird theories you were studying as part of your PhD thesis? Now’s the time to dust ’em off.”
Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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