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Going out on a limb here and guessing you don’t need me to tell you why we wanted to chat with Amazon at our upcoming robotics event. Well before we were discussing how the pandemic has radically transformed automation, the retail giant had already begun to transform the category.

Amazon’s got hundreds of thousands of robots deployed in fulfillment centers across the country, with a push dating back to its 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems. Wherever you happen to land on conversations about labor and automation, there’s little question the company had begun putting ideas into practice while many were still speaking theoretically about how robots will eventually change work.

The company has continued pumping money into the category. In 2019, it acquired the Playground-backed autonomous cart startup, Canvas Technologies, and just the other week it detailed the first phase of its billion-dollar industrial fund, which includes investments in Agility, BionicHive and newcomer, Mantis Robotics. There’s a sense in which Amazon has jumpstarted warehouse robotics, as companies are looking toward robotics firms in a bid to compete with its dominance.

Amazon’s VP of Global Robotics, Joe Quinlivan, is going to be joining us onstage in July, alongside already announced guests Dean Kamen, Daniela Rus and Matthew Johnson-Roberson (not all on the same panel, of course — though, wouldn’t that be wild?). We’ll be talking about the company’s robotics journey thus far, recent investments and what future warehouse and logistics operations will look like (including the roles human workers will and won’t play).

Oh, and I also wanted to point out that we’ll be talking to AMP Robotics CEO Matanya Horowitz the month prior at our first major climate event at UC Berkeley. That’s part of a recycling panel that will also feature Novaloop’s Miranda Wang and Nth Cycle’s Megan O’Connor. I spoke to Horowitz at an online-only event last year about the fascinating role that robotics, computer vision and machine learning are already playing in the world of waste sorting.

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Speaking of the less glamourous side of things, Boston Dynamics dropped a pair of videos aimed at recontextualizing the firm’s offerings. “No Time to Dance” does what it says on the tin. The Hyundai-owned firm entered the public consciousness through a couple of decades’ worth of viral videos. As it has begun to commercialize products like Spot and Stretch, we’re going to see an attempt to walk the line between lighthearted YouTube videos (plus the occasional Super Bowl ad) and a bid to have its products taken seriously as tools for jobs like inspections and logistics.

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Along with the new videos comes a number of upgrades to Spot. Quoting from Boston Dynamics:

  • Stereo Cameras: Spot’s five stereo cameras now provide full color imagery along with existing depth information.
  • Tablet: Upgrades to the tablet include an eight-inch touchscreen, as well as digital joysticks to drive Spot and operate Spot Arm and record missions. The tablet weighs under one pound, with drop protection, weather-proofing, and around an eight hour battery life.
  • Battery: Spot now has a smarter and faster charger, bringing the robot’s newest battery models to full capacity in an hour or less.
  • 5G Connectivity: Added support for 5G connectivity with the Spot CORE I/O payload, which includes a built-in 5G modem. We’re also excited to welcome AT&T as our first 5G provider. Spot CORE I/O customers in the US will be able to use the payload to connect to AT&T’s network, and we will continue to add more 5G providers. Customers with AT&T’s private 5G networks will be able to teleoperate Spot immediately through this payload, and public 5G teleoperation will be made available in the near future.
  • New Payloads: Expanded payload and software ecosystem, with new payloads: Spot CORE I/O, a new high-efficiency computer payload, which enables Spot to process data in the field for tasks including computer vision-based site inspections, continuous data collection, and more. And, Rajant Kinetic Mesh® Radio Kit, which is designed to enable the robot to navigate sites effectively with full connectivity, whether in remote environments, underground, inside, or in areas confronted with physical obstructions or RF interference, offering coverage of up to 200,000 square feet.

Image Credits: SLAMcore

Earlier this week, London-based robotics vision firm SLAMcore announced a $16 million Series A. Led by ROBO Global Ventures and Presidio Ventures, the round follows a $5 million seed from early on in the pandemic. It’s clear the company is among those startups benefiting from increased automation, offering robotics systems a better way to naviate their environment. It also tossed in a reference to the metaverse for good measure. There are some interesting discussions to be had around robotic systems as real-world analogs there.

Says founder and CEO Owen Nicholson, “For far too long, robots have not been able to navigate physical spaces with the level of accuracy and efficiency that we know is possible. As they become more available to companies and consumers alike in years to come, SLAMcore is determined to ensure that as many designers as possible have access to the algorithms needed to optimize their products.”

VisionNav Robotics’ name certainly seems to imply that the company operates in a similar space as SLAMcore, though the Shenzhen-based firm specializes in autonomous forklifts and other logistics robotics. This week it announced a big $76 million round that put its valuation at half-a-billion. That money will go toward R&D and further commercialization.

“Before, we were mostly providing indoor solutions. Now that we are expanding to unmanned truck loading, which is often semi-outdoors, it’s inevitable we will be operating in strong light,” VP Don Dong told Rita. “That’s why we are adapting a combination of vision and radar technologies to navigate our robots.”

Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

Some extremely fun research out of MIT this week. I give you Banana Fingers. CSAIL has developed a system for autonomously knitting soft, touch-sensitive wearable robotics. Applications included everything from assistive gloves to soft exoskeletons.

“Using digital machine knitting, which is a very common manufacturing method in today’s textile industry, enables ‘printing’ a design in one go, which makes it much more scalable,” the paper’s lead, Yiyue Luo said in a release. “Soft pneumatic actuators are intrinsically compliant and flexible, and combined with intelligent materials, have become the backbone of many robots and assistive technologies — and rapid fabrication with our design tool can hopefully increase ease and ubiquity.”

It’s also worth highlighting the U.S. Alliance of Robotics Clusters, which brings together MassRobotics, Pittsburgh Robotics Network and Silicon Valley Robotics to help bolster startups, collaboration and just generally advocate for the industry.

“The role of robotics cluster organizations must grow to keep pace with rapid expansion of robotics in the U.S. Our organizations have always worked together informally but are now collaborating strategically to increase U.S. economic productivity and sustainability,” Silicon Valley Robotics’ says in a release. “The United States is the global thought leader in robotics, automation and AI, and we are applying these technologies for both the greater good and to meet global challenges.”

Don’t you love it when a cluster comes together?

Image Credits: Cybernetix Ventures

Some more big news for early-stage robotics came with Tuesday’s launch of investment firm Cybernetix Ventures. MassRobotics’ co-founder Fady Saad is serving as a general partner, and the advisory board includes some big names like Helen Greiner, Steve Ricci, Rick Faulk, Peter Wurman and Elaine Chen. The firm will be investing $50 milion in robotics, AI and automation companies.

Says Saad:

With the launch of Cybernetix, robotics startups will have access to a one-of-a-kind fund from the robotics community, led by robotics leaders, for robotics. It’s clear to us that robotics is a distinct investment class, separate from established categories like software and biotech, with its own investment models, metrics and portfolio engagement. The majority of investors are just starting to figure out the true value of innovative, early-stage robotics opportunities. With the establishment of this fund, we’re here to influence what will have the greatest long-term impacts, and share the full extent of our expertise and networks with the companies we believe in.

Image Credits: Bear Robotics

From the “Things I Missed” department comes news that Bear Robotics’ Rita robot is rolling out to an additional 51 Chili’s restaurants, adding to the existing 10. The company tells TechCrunch that this is the largest deployment of Bear’s robots in the U.S. We’ve written a bunch of Bear and other serving robots in the past, but the gist is that the systems are more about augmenting – than outright replacing – wait staff. Rather than being able to serve customers directly, they essentially operate an extra set of arms.

Thank you, and May the Cinco de Mayo be with you.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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A network of knockoff apparel stores exposed 330,000 customer credit cards

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If you recently made a purchase from an overseas online store selling knockoff clothes and goods, there’s a chance your credit card number and personal information were exposed.

Since January 6, a database containing hundreds of thousands of unencrypted credit card numbers and corresponding cardholders’ information was spilling onto the open web. At the time it was pulled offline on Tuesday, the database had about 330,000 credit card numbers, cardholder names, and full billing addresses — and rising in real-time as customers placed new orders. The data contained all the information that a criminal would need to make fraudulent transactions and purchases using a cardholder’s information.

The credit card numbers belong to customers who made purchases through a network of near-identical online stores claiming to sell designer goods and apparel. But the stores had the same security problem in common: any time a customer made a purchase, their credit card data and billing information was saved in a database, which was left exposed to the internet without a password. Anyone who knew the IP address of the database could access reams of unencrypted financial data.

Anurag Sen, a good-faith security researcher, found the exposed credit card records and asked TechCrunch for help in reporting it to its owner. Sen has a respectable track record of scanning the internet looking for exposed servers and inadvertently published data, and reporting it to companies to get their systems secured.

But in this case, Sen wasn’t the first person to discover the spilling data. According to a ransom note left behind on the exposed database, someone else had found the spilling data and, instead of trying to identify the owner and responsibly reporting the spill, the unnamed person instead claimed to have taken a copy of the entire database’s contents of credit card data and would return it in exchange for a small sum of cryptocurrency.

A review of the data by TechCrunch shows most of the credit card numbers are owned by cardholders in the United States. Several people we contacted confirmed that their exposed credit card data was accurate.

TechCrunch has identified several online stores whose customers’ information was exposed by the leaky database. Many of the stores claim to operate out of Hong Kong. Some of the stores are designed to sound similar to big-name brands, like Sprayground, but whose websites have no discernible contact information, typos and spelling mistakes, and a conspicuous lack of customer reviews. Internet records also show the websites were set up in the past few weeks.

Some of these websites include:

  • spraygroundusa.com
  • ihuahebuy.com
  • igoodlinks.com
  • ibuysbuy.com
  • lichengshop.com
  • hzoushop.com
  • goldlyshop.com
  • haohangshop.com
  • twinklebubble.store
  • spendidbuy.com

If you bought something from one of those sites in the past few weeks, you might want to consider your banking card compromised and contact your bank or card provider.

It’s not clear who is responsible for this network of knockoff stores. TechCrunch contacted a person via WhatsApp whose Singapore-registered phone number was listed as the point of contact on several of the online stores. It’s not clear if the contact number listed is even involved with the stores, given one of the websites listed its location as a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Houston, Texas.

Internet records showed that the database was operated by a customer of Tencent, whose cloud services were used to host the database. TechCrunch contacted Tencent about its customer’s database leaking credit card information, and the company responded quickly. The customer’s database went offline a short time later.

“When we learned of the incident, we immediately contacted the customer who operates the database and it was shut down immediately. Data privacy and security are top priorities at Tencent. We will continue to work with our customers to ensure they maintain their databases in a safe and secure manner,” said Carrie Fan, global communications director at Tencent.

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All Raise CEO steps down again

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Less than a year after assuming the role, All Raise CEO Mandela SH Dixon has stepped down from her position at the nonprofit. The entrepreneur, who previously ran Founder Gym, an online training center for underrepresented founders, said in a blog post that the decision was made after she realized “being in the field working directly with entrepreneurs everyday” is her passion. Dixon said that she will be exploring new opportunities in alignment with that.

Her resignation is effective starting February 1st, 2023. She will remain an advisor to the Bay Area-based nonprofit.

This is the second chief executive to leave All Raise since it was first founded in 2017. In 2021, Pam Kostka resigned as the helm of the nonprofit to rejoin the startup world as well; Kostka is now an operator in residence and limited partner at Operator Collective, according to her LinkedIn. With Dixon gone, Paige Hendrix Buckner, who joined the outfit as chief of staff nine months ago, will step in as interim CEO. In the same blog post, Buckner wrote that “Mandela leaves All Raise in a strong position, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue the hard work of diversifying the VC backed ecosystem.”

Dixon did not immediately respond to comment on the record. It is unclear if All Raise is immediately kicking off a permanent CEO search.

The nonprofit has historically defined its goals in two ways: first, it wants to increase the amount of seed funding that goes to female founders from 11% to 23% by 2030, and, second, it wants to double the percentage of female decision-makers at U.S. firms by 2028.

In previous interviews, Dixon said that the company will work on creating explicit goals around what impact it wants to have for historically overlooked individuals. The data underscores the challenge ahead. Black and LatinX women receive disproportionately less venture capital money than white women; non-binary founders can also face higher hurdles when seeking funding, as All Raise board member Aileen Lee noted in the blog post.  The nonprofit has created specific programs for Black and Latinx founders but has not disclosed a specific goal for the cohort yet. These disconnects can be lost if not tracked. All Raise’s last impact report was published in 2020 and they’re working on bringing that analysis back, Lee tells TechCrunch in an interview.

“All Raise is in great hands with Paige as interim leader and we’ve got a lot of exciting things that we’re shaping and scaling,” Lee said. “We have to all continue to link arms to try and continue to make improvements for our industry…we’ve made good progress that we can’t let up.”

Since launch, the nonprofit has raised $11 million in funding, and opened regional chapters in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC and, soon, Miami.

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Shopping app Temu is using TikTok’s strategy to keep its No. 1 spot on App Store

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Temu, a shopping app from Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, is having quite the run as the No. 1 app on the U.S. app stores. The mobile shopping app hit the top spot on the U.S. App Store in September and has continued to hold a highly-ranked position in the months that followed, including as the No. 1 free app on Google Play since December 29, 2022. More recently, Temu again snagged the No. 1 position again on the iOS App Store on January 3 and hasn’t dropped since — even outpacing competitor Shein’s daily installs in the U.S.

Offering cheap factory-to-consumer goods, Temu provides access to a wide range of products, including fast fashion, and pushes users to share the app with friends in exchange for free products, which may account for some of its growth. However, the large majority of its new installs come from Temu’s marketing spend, it seems.

When TechCrunch covered Temu’s rise in November, the app had then seen a little more than 5 million installs in the U.S., according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, making the U.S. its largest market. Now, the firm says the app has seen 5 million U.S. installs this January alone, up 19% from 4.2 million in the prior 22 days from December 10 through December 31.

According to Sensor Tower estimates, Temu has managed to achieve a total of 19 million lifetime installs across the U.S. App Store and Google Play, more than 18 million of which came from the U.S.

The growth now sees Temu outpacing rival Shein in terms of daily installs. In October, Temu was averaging around 43,000 daily installs in the U.S., the firm said, while Shein averaged about 62,000. In November, Temu’s average daily installs grew to 185,000 while Shein’s climbed to 70,000 and last month, Temu averaged 187,000 installs while Shein saw about 62,000.

The shopping app’s fast rise recalls how the video entertainment platform TikTok grew to become the most downloaded app worldwide in 2021, after years of outsized growth. The video app topped 2 billion lifetime downloads by 2020, including sister app Douyin in China, Sensor Tower said. Combined, the TikTok apps have now reached 4.1 billion installs.

Like Temu, much of TikTok’s early growth was driven by marketing spend. The video app grew its footprint in the U.S. and abroad by heavily leveraging Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat’s own ad platforms to acquire its customers. TikTok was famously said to have spent $1 billion on ads in 2018, even becoming Snap’s biggest advertiser that year, for instance.

By investing in user acquisition upfront, TikTok was able to gain a following which then improved its ability to personalize its For You feed with recommendations. Over time, this algorithm became very good at recognizing what videos would attract the most interest thanks to this investment, turning TikTok into one of the most addictive apps in terms of time spent. As of 2020, kids and teens began spending more time watching TikTok than they did on YouTube. And earlier this month, Insider Intelligence data indicated all TikTok users in the U.S. were now spending an average of nearly 1 hour per day on the app (55.8 minutes), compared with just 47.5 minutes on YouTube, including YouTube TV.

While Temu is nowhere near TikTok’s sky-high figures, it appears to be leveraging a similar growth strategy. The company is heavily investing in advertising to acquire users, which it uses to personalize the shopping experience. One of Temu’s key features, in fact, is its own sort of For You page that encourages users to browse trending items “Selected for You.” In addition to gamification elements, Temu also puts heavy emphasis on recommending shops and products on its home page, which is informed by its user data.

But the app’s growth doesn’t seem to be driven by social media. While the Temu hashtag (#temu) on TikTok is nearing 250 million views, that’s not really a remarkable number for an app as big as TikTok where something like #dogs has 120.5 billion views. (Or, for a more direct comparison, #shein has 48.3 billion views.) That suggests Temu’s rise isn’t necessarily powered by viral videos among Gen Z users or influencer marketing, but rather more traditional digital advertising.

According to Meta’s ad library, for instance, Temu has run some 8,800 ads across Meta’s various platforms just this month. The ads promote Temu’s sales and its extremely discounted items, like $5 necklaces, $4 shirts, and $13 shoes, among other deals. These ads appear to be working to boost Temu’s installs, allowing the app to maintain its No. 1 slot on the App Store’s “Top Free” charts, which are heavily influenced by the number of downloads and download velocity, among other things.

Of course, having a high number of downloads doesn’t necessarily mean Temu’s app will maintain a high number of monthly active users. Nor does it mean those users won’t churn out of the app after their initial curiosity has been abated. Still, Temu’s download growth saw it ranking as the No. 1 “Breakout” shopping app by downloads in the U.S. for 2022, according to data.ai’s year-end “State of Mobile” report. (Data.ai calculates “Breakout” apps in terms of year-over-year growth across iOS and Google Play.)

Because Temu’s growth is more recent, the app did not earn a position on the Top 10 apps in 2022 in either the U.S. or globally in terms of downloads, consumer spend, or monthly active users, on this report. Instead, most of those spots still went to social media apps, streamers, and dating apps like Bumble and Tinder. The only retailer to find a spot on these lists was Amazon, which was the No. 7 app worldwide by active users and the No. 8 most downloaded in the U.S.

Temu’s marketing investment may not pay off as well as TikTok’s did, though, as other discount shopping apps saw similar growth only to later fail as consumers found that, actually, $2 shirts and jeans were deals that were too good to be true. Wish famously fumbled as consumers grew frustrated with long delivery times, fake listings, missing orders, poor customer service, and other things consumers expect from online retail in the age of Amazon.

Temu today holds a 4.7-star rating on the U.S. App Store, but those ratings have become less trustworthy over the years due to the ease with which companies can get away with fake reviews. Dig into the reviews further and you’ll find similar complaints to Wish, including scammy listings, damaged and delayed deliveries, incorrect orders and lack of customer service. Without addressing these issues, Temu seems more likely to go the way of Wish, not TikTok, no matter what it spends.

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