Fulfillment has arguably been the hottest robotics category over the past two years, as companies have looked to stay competitive with Amazon, even amid ongoing labor shortages. Still, one of the most important links in the chain remains one of the least addressed. Truck unloading isn’t a particularly easy problem to solve, but Pickle Robot Company is single-mindedly focused on it.
When I paid a trip to the company’s offices on my trip to Boston last week, Pickle pointed out precisely how large of a problem this has become. Warehouse jobs are tough enough to fill these days, but unloading pallets and trucks bring their own spate of issues, including repetitive heavy lifting and wildly fluctuating temperatures. Imagine stepping foot inside a shipping container that’s been sitting in direct sunlight all day.
Traditional heavy equipment like forklifts come with their own issues. The company describes their offering thusly, “Pickle is founded by a cast of MIT alumni. We are teaching off-the-shelf robot arms how to pick up boxes and play Tetris.” The company notes that it has “unload[ed] tens-of-thousands of packages per month at customer sites,” primarily in Southern California. The work thus far has been part of a pilot with United Exchange Corporation, which has deployed the system in a distribution center.
Today Pickle is announcing a $26 million Series A raise led by Ranpak, JS Capital, Schusterman Family Investments, Soros Capital and Catapult Ventures.
“Customer interest in Pickle unload systems has been incredibly strong, and now that we have our initial unload systems out of the lab and into customer operations we have a clear path to broad commercialization,” said founder and CEO AJ Meyer. “The early customer deployments, financing and leadership additions set the stage for us to accelerate customer acquisition and build the company infrastructure we need to deliver more systems to more customers in the coming months.”
That last bit is especially important. As you’re most likely aware, now is not a great time to be raising — even in a booming category like warehouse automation. But given the size and breadth of Pickle’s testing, putting funding off in hopes of better economic conditions isn’t necessarily an option when you’ve got product to deliver.
And besides, Pickle’s not the only game in town either, figuratively or literally. Boston Dynamics notably chose truck unlocking as the focus for its second commercialized robot, Stretch. Unlike that solution, however, Pickle’s is tethered. Agility has also explored truck unloading for its Digit robot. Even with that added competition, we’re talking about a huge total addressable market, with room for more than one player.
Mozilla acquires the team behind Pulse, an automated status updater for Slack
Firefox developer Mozilla is making a rare foray into the world of mergers and acquisitions, with news that it has snapped up recently-shuttered California-based productivity startup Pulse.
Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed, but the deal is tantamount to an “acqui-hire,” with Mozilla looking to deploy the Pulse team across an array of machine learning (ML) projects.
“We’re acquiring Pulse for the incredible team they have built,” Mozilla chief product officer Steve Teixeira told TechCrunch. “As we look to continue to improve user experiences across all of our products, ML will be a core part of that.”
Feel the pulse
Founded out of Menlo Park in 2019, Pulse in its initial guise was a “virtual office” platform called Loop Team, but after honing the idea for a couple of years it pivoted and rebranded last November. Pulse, essentially, was an automated status-updating tool that used signals based on pre-configured integrations and preferences set by the user.
For example, users could synchronize Pulse with their calendar and Slack, setting rules to stipulate what their status and corresponding emoji should be based on keywords in their calendar event title. If their schedule for a particular time says “hair appointment” from 12-1pm, then the person’s Slack status update might display a scissors emoji alongside the word “haircut.” Or, it might say “birthday” alongside a cake emoji if that’s what is in their calendar.
But Pulse sported myriad integrations with business tools that brought similar functionality. For example, users could link Pulse with Zoom, so that whenever they start a video meeting, a telephone emoji automatically displays in their Slack status to tell people they are unavailable.
Pulse had flown largely under the radar since it started rolling out to a small group of users last December, but the company had apparently garnered some fairly big-name customers, including Netflix and 1Password, with monthly premium plans starting at around $3 per user.
The company was among TechCrunch’s Battlefield 200 startups at TC Disrupt in October, and TechCrunch interviewed Pulse cofounder and CEO Raj Singh at the event for a potential future startup profile piece. Singh said at the time that it was planning to raise a seed round of funding early in the new year, something that obviously won’t be happening now. When quizzed on whether Pulse was more like a feature that the big tech platforms could just build themselves, rather than a sustainable business in its own right, Singh was adamant that Pulse could thrive as a standalone product. While he acknowledged that companies such as Microsoft or Google might well want to develop a similar automated status update tool for their own products, they were less incentivised to make it work well as an integrated feature that plays ball with various third-party tools.
Pulse was all about communicating things to colleagues around the world passively, regardless of what tools they were using or what timezone they’re in. This is particularly important with remote work becoming the norm, and Pulse was looking to find its niche at a time when workplace culture is rapidly changing.
“A lot of people actually want to update their status, but it’s tedious,” Singh told TechCrunch in October. “But there’s hundreds of signals, and the thing we realised was status is not just ‘availability’, it’s actually a way to communicate empathy.”
While Pulse did have plans to expand beyond Slack into other workplace communication tools including Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace, the company abruptly announced in late October that it was shutting down. In an email distributed to customers at the time, the company attributed this to “market conditions,” noting that it was finding it difficult to raise fresh capital — but it did confirm that it had found a buyer, the identity of which was unknown until today. Singh also said in the email that there was a chance that the buyer could resurrect Pulse in some form, but there is little indication that Mozilla has such a plan on its radar.
To the casual observer, Slack was probably the obvious contender to acquire Pulse. For starters, there is the fact that Pulse had been focused exclusively on Slack status updates. But on top of that, Singh had previously founded a smart calendar app called Tempo AI which he sold to Salesforce for an undisclosed sum in 2015.
Singh then joined Salesforce to help with the initial transition of Tempo AI’s technology into Salesforce’s Inbox app. And as we now know, Salesforce went on to acquire Slack in 2020, so with Singh’s connections to Salesforce and his product’s close alignment with Slack, there seemed like only one possible suitor here.
Alas, Slack hasn’t acquired Pulse — the Mozilla Corporation has. It is something of a surprise, if for no other reason than Mozilla isn’t renowned for its M&A endeavors, though it is starting to ramp up its investment efforts after launching its first venture capital fund last month. But its only known acquisition to date was back in 2017, when it snapped up Pocket, a popular read-it-later web-clipping service that Mozilla had already integrated into its Firefox browser two years previous.
As a side point, Pulse itself had been on something of an acquisition spree this year, buying rival status updating service Holopod back in January, followed by audio-based communications platform Commons in March. Then in May, news emerged that Pulse had acquired team communication startup Lounge.
“Our strategy [with M&A] is pretty straightforward — we look for opportunities to bring on talent and technology that helps us improve experiences for our customers,” Teixeira said. “With Pulse, this is about supplementing the skillsets we have here already as a way to speed up our development efforts. We have a high bar for any acquisition, but if we find teams and technologies with incredible talent that share our mission and vision for the future of the internet, we are absolutely open to pursuing a transaction.”
As it happens, Pocket may be an early beneficiary of the Pulse acquisition. While Mozilla ultimately plans to deploy the Pulse team across various projects, Teixeira says that an early focus will be on using ML to improve personalization in Pocket, which presumably means in the form of content recommendations.
It’s worth noting that Mozilla has dabbled with ML a fair bit in the past, including experimental projects inside Firefox that recommend content to users, as well as tracking prices across myriad online stores. The company is also leveraging ML across various voice and speech projects.
“We see opportunity to use ML in virtually all of our products, including Firefox, as a foundation for improving the experience for all of our customers,” Teixeira said.
Mozilla hasn’t revealed how much it’s doling out for the startup, but Pulse had only raised around $4.7 million in pre-seed funding according to Crunchbase data, and given its difficulties in raising fresh capital, it’s safe to assume that Mozilla hasn’t broken the bank here.
What Mozilla is getting for its money is six people, including Pulse’s three founders Raj Singh, Jag Srawan, and Rolf Rando, each bringing significant engineering, ML, and product execution experience to Mozilla’s ML efforts. Singh actually created his previous startup Tempo AI as a project inside SRI International, the Stanford research institute responsible for Siri. He rejoined SRI as executive in residence (EIR) after leaving Salesforce, remaining there until founding Pulse (then Loop Team) nearly four years ago.
“In building Pulse, we enabled a variety of machine learning experiences to make distributed teams feel more connected,” Singh noted. “Finding ways to use AI and machine learning to simplify tasks for users is our passion.”
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An entrepreneurial bootcamp experience, TC Early Stage connects people in the beginning or early stages of their startup journey with top industry experts for hands-on training. Presenting at this event is an opportunity to align yourself with TechCrunch and position yourself as a thought leader for hundreds of early-stage entrepreneurs. Apply here now.
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Amplio helps companies find components when supply chain breaks down
When Covid shut down much of the world down in 2020, it ended up wreaking havoc on the supply chain. Suddenly companies built for just-in-time production couldn’t find parts they needed to build their products.
Even as Covid subsided, the supply chain woes continued. Veterans of supply management like the founder of startup Amplio watched, and figured there had to be a better way to guard against these kinds of disruptions in the future using software to find parts wherever they were.
Amplio launched last year with that goal in mind, and today the startup announced a $6 million seed to build a system to help track parts shortages. Trey Closson, CEO and co-founder at Amplio says his company’s goal is to build more resilience into the electronic components supply chain.
“We help our customers understand the components that are at highest risk of leading to material shortages, and then we connect our customers to alternative sources of supply to mitigate those shortages,” Closson told TechCrunch.
He knows what he’s talking about. He spent his entire career in supply chain management, and he’s seen firsthand how disruptions can have a negative impact on a business’s ability to function. He blames “Just-in-time production” techniques for the problems we are seeing today.
“The supply chains have been designed for 30 or 40 years to optimize for cost and for the best case scenario, but the reality is that we don’t live in a world of best case scenarios. We live in a world of constant disruptions,” he said.
“The way that our platform works is that we’re connected to our customers’ systems of record or their ERP solutions, and we take in in their bill of materials and their operational data, and then combine that with external datasets to be able to show the customer their ability to source their particular components over the next six to 18 months,” he said.
What’s more, in cases where the customer isn’t able to source the components, customers can go to the Amplio marketplace to find suppliers or other manufacturers who might have surplus inventory they are trying to sell.
Closson’s most recent job was working at Koch Industries, leading international supply chain for Georgia Pacific, where he was on the front line of the Covid-induced toilet paper shortages. But he decided to focus his startup on electronic components.
“So while supply chain resilience is really critical across the market, we want to focus on the electronics industry, because it has such a tremendous impact on the global economy,” he said. He conceived of and incubated the company as part of a program run by Koch and High Alpha Innovation, the program launched by former Exact Target execs to help startups with enterprise-focused ideas.
The company currently has 6 employees, but plans to expand with the funding (which closed in May). He says as he grows the company, diversity and inclusion is a core building block. “Diversity is one of the core principles for our hiring and in decision making processes. So just from a selfish standpoint, diverse organizations make better decisions and have more creative ideas, and are ultimately more successful,” he said.
Today’s round was led by Construct Capital with participation from Slow Ventures, High Alpha Capital, Flexport Ventures, Alpaca Venture Capital and various industry angels.
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