Toyota Research Institute’s robots leave home
“I think I’m probably just as guilty as everybody else,” Toyota Research Institute’s (TRI) senior vice president of robotics, Max Bajracharya, admits. “It’s like, now our GPUs are better. Oh, we got machine learning and now you know we can do this. Oh, okay, maybe that was harder than we thought.”
Ambition is, of course, an important aspect of this work. But there’s also a grand, inevitable tradition of relearning mistakes. The smartest people in the room can tell you a million times over why a specific issue hasn’t been solved, but it’s still easy to convince yourself that this time — with the right people and the right tools — things will just be different.
In the case of TRI’s in-house robotics team, the impossible task is the home. The lack of success in the category hasn’t been for lack of trying. Generations of roboticists have agreed that there are plenty of problems waiting to be automated, but thus far, successes have been limited. Beyond the robotic vacuum, there’s been little in the way of breakthrough.
TRI’s robotics team has long made the home a primary focus. That’s driven, in no small part, by it choosing eldercare as a “north star” for the same reason that Japanese firms are so far ahead of the rest of the world in the category. Japan has the world’s highest proportion of citizens over the age of 65 — trailing only Monaco, a microstate in Western Europe with a population of fewer than 40,000.
In a world where our health and wellness are so closely tied to our ability to work, it’s an issue bordering on crisis. It’s the kind of thing that gets Yale assistant professors New York Times headlines for suggesting mass suicide. That’s obviously the most sensationalistic of “solutions,” but it’s still an issue in search of meaningful solution. As such, many Japanese roboticists have turned to robotics and automation to address issues like at-home healthcare, food preparation and even loneliness.
Early, professionally produced videos showcased robotics in the home, executing complex tasks, like cooking and cleaning a broad range of surfaces. When TRI opened the doors of its South Bay labs to select press this week to show off a range of its different projects, the home element was notably lacking. Bajracharya showcased a pair of robots. The first was a modified off-the-shelf arm that moved boxes from a pile onto nearby conveyer belts, in a demo designed for unloading trucks — one of the more difficult tasks to automate in an industrial warehouse setting.
The second was a wheel robot that goes shopping. Unlike the warehouse example, which had standard parts with a modified gripper, this system was largely designed in-house out of necessity. The robot is sent out to retrieve different products on the shelf based on bar codes and general location. The system is able to extend to the top shelf to find items, before determining the best method for grasping the broad range of different objects and dropping them into its basket. The system is an outgrowth of the team’s pivot away from home-specific robots.
To the side of both robots is a mock kitchen, with a gantry system configured to the top of its walls. A quasi-humanoid robot hangs down, immobile and lifeless. It goes unacknowledged for the duration of the demos, but the system will look familiar to anyone who has watched the team’s early concept videos.
“The home is so hard,” says Bajracharya. “We pick challenge tasks because they are hard. The problem with the home is not that it was too hard. It was that it was too hard to measure the progress we were making. We tried a lot of things. We tried procedurally making a mess. We would put flour and rice on the tables and we would try to wipe them up. We would put things throughout the house to make the robot tidy. We were deploying into Airbnbs to see how well we were doing, but the problem is we couldn’t get the same home every time. But if we did, we would overfit to that home.”
Moving into the supermarket was an effort to address a more structured environment while still tackling a pressing issue for the elderly community. In testing the product, the team has moved from Airbnbs to a local mom-and-pop grocery store.
“To be totally honest, the challenge problem kind of doesn’t matter,” Bajracharya explains. “The DARPA Robotics Challenges, those were just made up tasks that were hard. That’s true of our challenge tasks, too. We like the home because it is representative of where we eventually want to be helping people in the home. But it doesn’t have to be the home. The grocery market is a very good representation because it has that huge diversity.”
In this instance, some of the learnings presented in this setting do translate to Toyota’s broader needs.
What, precisely, constitutes progress for a team of this nature is a difficult question to answer. It’s certainly one that’s top of mind, however, as large corporations have begun cutting roles in longtail research projects that have yet to deliver tangible, monetizable results. When I put the question to Gill Pratt yesterday, the TRI boss told me:
Toyota is a company that has tried very hard not to have employment follow business cycle. The car business is one that has booms and busts all the time. You may know that the history of Toyota is to try not to lay people off when times are tough, but instead go through a couple of things. One is shared sacrifice, where people take up the cause. The second is to use those times to invest in maintenance, plans and education to help people get trained.
Toyota is well-known in the industry for its “no layoffs” policy. It’s an admirable goal, certainly, especially as companies like Google and Amazon are in the midst of layoffs numbering in the tens of thousands. But when goals are more abstract, as is the case with TRI and fellow research wings, how does a company measure relevant milestones?
“We were making progress on the home but not as fast and not as clearly as when we move to the grocery store,” the executive explains. “When we move to the grocery store, it really becomes very evident how well you’re doing and what the real problems are in your system. And then you can really focus on solving those problems. When we toured both logistics and manufacturing facilities of Toyota, we saw all of these opportunities where they’re basically the grocery shopping challenge, except a little bit different. Now, instead of the parts being grocery items, the parts are all the parts in a distribution center.”
As is the nature of research projects, Bajracharya adds, sometimes the beneficial outcomes are unexpected: “The projects are still looking at how we ultimately amplify people in their homes. But over time, as we pick these challenge tasks, if things trickle out that are applicable to these other areas, that’s where we’re using these short-term milestones to show the progress in the research that we’re making.”
The path toward productizing such breakthroughs can also be fuzzy sometimes.
“I believe we kind of understand the landscape now,” Bajracharya. “Maybe I was naive in the beginning thinking that, okay, we just need to find this person that we’re going to throw the technology over to a third party or somebody inside of Toyota. But I think what we’ve learned is that, whatever it is — whether it’s a business unit, or a company, or like a startup or a unit inside of Toyota — they don’t seem to exist.”
Spinning out startups — akin to what Alphabet has done with its X labs — is certainly on the table, even though it isn’t likely to be the primary path toward productization. What form that path will ultimately take, however, remains unclear. Though robotics as a category is currently far more viable than it was when TRI was founded in 2017.
“Over the last five years, I feel like we’ve made enough progress in that very challenging problem that we are now starting to see it turn into these real-world applications,” says Bajracharya. “We have consciously shifted. We’re still 80% pushing the state of the art with research, but we’ve now allocated maybe 20% of our resources to figuring out if that research is maybe as good as we think it is and if it can be applied to real-world applications. We might fail. We might realize we thought we made some interesting breakthroughs, but it’s not anywhere near reliable or fast enough. But we’re putting 20% of our effort toward trying.”
Tesla brings back European referral program as end of Q1 nears
Tesla is bringing back its referral program to Europe, a strategy that taps into the brand loyalty of customers as it seeks to preserve market share and boost sales before the first quarter of 2023 closes.
The referral program follows Tesla’s move to reduce prices in a variety of markets, including Europe, China and North America.
Starting Tuesday in Europe, new Tesla buyers can receive 100 so-called “Loot Box Credits” when referred by a current Tesla owner, who will get 2,000 credits for the referral. If the referred customer takes delivery before March 31, 2023, they’ll get a bonus of 5,000 free Supercharging kilometres, and the referrer will get 10,000 credits. Those credits can be redeemed for software upgrades, up to 10,000 kilometers of free Supercharging “and more.”
Tesla has never used traditional advertising, so the company has historically used its referral program to get its loyal customer base to promote vehicles. Those rewards have changed over the last few years. At certain points, owners could win rewards like having a photo of their choosing launched into deep space orbit, an invite to an upcoming Tesla event, or even free new Roadsters to owners who accumulated enough referrals.
Tesla realized such extravagant rewards were starting to eat into profits, so in 2019 the automaker paused the program and came back with a more reasonable one that gives the referral giver and receiver 1,000 miles of free Supercharging each.
Last November, Tesla launched a revamped referral program in the U.S., which gives out credits that can be put towards the purchase of Tesla solar products, like the Solar Roof and Solar Panels. Tesla also launched a program in China called Treasure Box, where owners get credits that can be used towards the purchase of accessories like vehicle chargers, t-shirts or shot glasses.
The move in Europe suggests that Tesla is trying to hold onto, or even grow, its market share dominance. Tesla was the most popular EV brand in Europe last year, with the Model Y and Model 3 topping the ranks at 138,373 and 91,257 sales, respectively. Following behind were the Volkswagen ID.4 with 68,409 unit sales, the Fiat 500 electric with 66,732, and the Ford Kuga plug-in hybrid EV with 55,018 sales, according to Inside EVs.
While Tesla was the most popular EV brand in Europe last year, it actually falls behind the large multi-brand OEMs. Volkswagen Group, which includes brands like Audi and VW, actually has the largest market share of plug-in EVs with 20.6%. Stellantis, BMW Group and Hyundai follow with 14.6%, 10.5% and 10.1%, respectively. Mercedes and Tesla are tied at around 9% share.
As of this week, Tesla has finally hit production capacity of 5,000 vehicles per week at its Berlin gigafactory — a milestone CEO Elon Musk had originally promised for the end of 2022. While production numbers don’t equal sales, it’s possible that the increased production in Europe could help the automaker maintain its position and gain even more market share in the future.
The referral program isn’t the only move Tesla has made to boost sales, particularly before it reports quarterly earnings. In January, Tesla cut prices for Model 3 and Model Y vehicles in the U.S. and Europe by 20%. Earlier this month, the automaker slashed Model S and Model X prices in the U.S. as well.
In December 2022, Tesla also provided up to $7,500 discounts for vehicles purchased and delivered before the end of the year in the hopes of attracting buyers who might otherwise wait for the new year when Inflation Reduction Act incentives would kick in.
Pinterest brings shopping capabilities to Shuffles, its collage-making app
Pinterest announced today that it’s testing ways to integrate Shuffles collage content into Pinterest, starting with shopping. Shuffles, which is Pinterest’s collage-making app, launched to general public last November. To use Shuffles, users build collages using Pinterest’s own photo library or by snapping photos of objects they want to include with their iPhone’s camera. The iOS-only app is available in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Shuffles will now have all of the shopping capabilities as regular pins. Users will be able to tap individual cutouts used in collages, see the brand, price, and other product metadata along with similar products to shop.
“Unlike typical product exploration, Shuffles bring an interactivity that makes the experience inspirational and fun,” the company said in a blog post. “Gen-Z is curating fresh, relevant content alongside their peers, which is quickly making for a marketplace of trendy, shoppable ideas. The high density nature of Shuffles, which can include layers of product cutouts from multiple Pins, allows consumers to dig deeper and also connect to other Shuffles that include the same Pins. As we look ahead to how consumer behavior is evolving, we’re testing ways of integrating Shuffles collage content into Pinterest, starting with shopping.”
Although Shuffles surged to become the No. 1 Lifestyle app on the U.S. App Store in August when it was invite-only, the app’s popularity has since declined. By bringing shopping capabilities to Shuffles, Pinterest is likely looking for ways to retain users on the standalone app.
Pinterest also announced that it’s exploring a new takeover feature for advertisers called “Pinterest Premiere Spotlight” that prominently showcases a brand on search. The company says the feature is designed give advertisers a new way to reach users on Pinterest.
The company says 97% of top searches on Pinterest are unbranded, which means users typically don’t type a brand name into their searches on the platform. This gives brands the opportunity to be discovered as they help consumers go from discovery to decision to purchase, Pinterest says. In the coming months, the company planes to offer additional ways to help brands connect with shoppers.
Pinterest also shared some new stats about its Catalogs offering, which lets brands upload their full catalog to the platform and turn their products into dynamic Product Pins. The company says it has seen a 66% increase in retailers setting up shop by uploading or integrating their digital catalogs on its platform, along with 70% growth in active shopping feeds year over year globally.
As part of its most recent earnings release, Pinterest revealed that its platform now has 450 million monthly active users globally, a 4% jump year-on-year. Pinterest has been focused on enhancing the shopping experience on its platform over the past few years, and said during its earnings call that it wants to make every pin shoppable, including videos.
The tide has shifted for solo GPs
Welcome to Startups Weekly, a nuanced take on this week’s startup news and trends by Senior Reporter and Equity co-host Natasha Mascarenhas. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.
It’s hard to be proactive after the tide has already shifted. However, that’s what we’re seeing happen in the solo GP world, where investors, hearing about institutional investor risk appetite changing, are extending fundraising timelines, cutting investment vehicle targets or planning to leave venture altogether. Some have learned it the hard way, while others, like Sahil Lavingia, are telling LPs to literally cancel their checks if they feel guilty about investing in venture capital while the market rocks and interest rates boom.
It’s a shift from the fund of fund mentality that felt commonplace last year, in which investment firms cut checks to early-stage, experimental investors to de-risk and even lead first checks into a generation of new startups. Now, the idea of backing just one, feels like a harder sell — depending on which institution you’re speaking to.
For my full take on this burgeoning tension within the venture world read my TC+ column: “Are solo GPs screwed?”
I know some of us are still reeling from the SVB mess, which is still very much unfolding. My hope with this piece is to offer nuance on how the market moves on from here for a very specific subset of check writers. In other words, yes, there’s a dreary dark cloud that is now more visible than before. But umbrellas exist. Somewhere.
In the rest of this newsletter we’re talking AI, icons and demo days. As always, you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram to continue the conversation. You can also send me tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at +1 925 271 0912. No pitches, please.
It’s never GM; it’s only AI
Now that I apparently live in Cerebral Valley, it’s quite easy to find investors, founders or my great friends in the middle of a passionate conversation about artificial intelligence. Heck, we even screencast ChatGPT trying to explain SVB during wine night, recently.
Despite the overactive news scene, thanks to ChatGPT plug-ins, Google’s entrance and Canva’s magic, the best piece I read all week came from our own Devin Coldeway. In this analysis, Coldeway published a head-to-head comparison of top generative AI tools — asking them to create everything from a phishing email to code.
Here’s what to know: In the AI world, the compounding effect is almost impossible to encapsulate. Tech keeps beating itself, and advancement is only to be celebrated with a grain of hopeful salt. But, see it yourself if you don’t believe me!
Overheard at Techstars’ demo day
I went to an in-person demo day for the first time since 2019 this week, courtesy of 500 Global. There was a special, earnest energy in the room, partially because, as 500’s CEO Christine Tsai said, the 19 companies are sharing their vision for the future “around one of the darkest backdrops of Silicon Valley.” More to come on specific learnings, but below I thought I’d bullet point some of the tidbits I overheard while at the accelerator’s pitch session.
- “I find it very insightful to compare your revenue growth with your team growth — I personally don’t like operations-heavy companies, I definitely want to see more investment in the R&D and product [teams],” Cindy BI, partner at CapitalX.
- “We’re officially teenagers,” Tsai said on the accelerator’s 13th birthday.
- “When you think of a brand, you probably think of something like Nike. But to Gen Z, some of the biggest brands are people,” Detoure founder and CEO Meghan Russell.
- “We know how to get exits done,” Peter Wachira, CEO of Tripitaca, later adding, “We know how to get shit done.”
One of venture’s most iconic duos wants to have a word with you
I published a podcast interview with Kapor Capital’s Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, the entrepreneurial investing couple behind the top-tier impact investing outfit. The duo published a book recently, so we talk about that, their choice to step away from investing and the legacy they’re continuing to build out.
Here’s one key moment from the podcast: “It’s also worth pointing out, in the early days, there were a couple of people, white men, who were thinking about working with us and decided we weren’t going to make enough money so they went elsewhere. So I hope they’re kicking themselves and I hope they’ve learned something,” said Kapor Klein.
- I was on comedian Alexis Gay’s podcast, Non-technical, earlier this month to talk about everything other than my day job. Come for the croissant hate; stay for the devil’s advocate advocacy.
- Also, listen to Found, a podcast about the stories behind the startups. This week, the team published an interview with the brains behind “a genetics startup that looks to bring extinct species back to life to help with environmental conservation efforts.” Jaw = dropped.
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