This happy robot helps kids with autism

A little bot named QTrobot from LuxAI could be the link between therapists, parents, and autistic children. The robot, which features an LCD face and robotic arms, allows kids who are overwhelmed by human contact to become more comfortable in a therapeutic setting.

The project comes from LuxAI, a spin-off of the University of Luxembourg. They will present their findings at the RO-MAN 2018 conference at the end of this month.

“The robot has the ability to create a triangular interaction between the human therapist, the robot, and the child,” co-founder Aida Nazarikhorram told IEEE. “Immediately the child starts interacting with the educator or therapist to ask questions about the robot or give feedback about its behavior.”

The robot reduces anxiety in autistic children and the researchers saw many behaviors – hand flapping, for example – slow down with the robot in the mix.

Interestingly the robot is a better choice for children than an app or tablet. Because the robot is “embodied,” the researchers found that it that draws attention and improves learning, especially when compared to a standard iPad/educational app pairing. In other words children play with tablets and work with robots.

The robot is entirely self-contained and easily programmable. It can run for hours at a time and includes a 3D camera and full processor.

The researchers found that the robot doesn’t become the focus of the therapy but instead helps the therapist connect with the patient. This, obviously, is an excellent outcome for an excellent (and cute) little piece of technology.

Sequoia India and Accel back on-demand scooter startup in $12.2M deal

Two of India’s most prominent VCs are backing a motorbike on-demand service after Sequoia India and Accel led a $12.2 million investment in Metro Bikes. Sequoia India and Accel were joined in the round by Raghunandan G, who founded TaxiForSure which sold to Ola, among other investors.

Metro Bikes started out as a luxury bike rental service in 2014 — initially as “Wicked Rides” — and it launched scooters (motorbikes) and other two-wheel rentals in 2016. Now, the company is rebranding to Bounce and refocusing its business to on-demand scooter (that’s motorbike in U.S. parlance) rentals for first and last mile transportation. The idea is to appeal to commuters, who can pick up a bike at their nearest location and later leave it at an endzone. The cost is based on distance and time spent.

Bounce is currently present in Bangalore, where it has 2,000 scooters currently, and Hyderabad, where it has around 500. The plan is to increase those numbers but the company is waiting on a permit to operate electric scooters, once it gets that it will only deploy electric, CEO Vivekananda Hallekere told TechCrunch in an interview. Its current mix of vehicles also includes bicycles, electric bicycles and kick scooters available.

The startup is going to hone its focus on Bangalore and Hyderabad for now, with no new expansions for 6-10 months, he added. Looking further forward, Bounce is aiming to be nationwide by 2020, while Hallekere said he sees the potential for deployment in Southeast Asia in the future.

Bounce claims that it is currently seeing around four rides per vehicle per day on its on-demand platform, the company is targeting seven to twelve rides which it believes will bring it to a good level of revenue. Although Hallekere did stress that the core business is anchored in sustainability.

That’s down to the funding of the fleet, which the CEO said is financed by institutional investors who purchase the assets in exchange for a cut of revenue. That helps cover a significant portion of operating expenses, while in other cases Bounce works with OEMs who provide vehicles under similar terms.

Bounce’s founding team (left to right): Vivekananda H R, CEO; Varun Agni, CTO; Anil Giri Raju, COO

Bounce is entering a fairly congested market in India, with other startups include Wheelstreet — which TechCrunch wrote about earlier this year — ZipHop also competing with similar services. Hallekere, the Bounce CEO, said that the company’s history in the business and its technology can help it stand out.

Added to that, Bounce said it is working closely with authorities to help ease last mile congestion. For example, the company is one of a number to have a struck a deal with Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (BMRCL) to put rental bikes at 36 metro stations. It also landed a deal with corporate to enable parking across the city. The company said it plans to pursue similar arrangements with metro operators in Hyderabad and other cities when it expands.

“The first mile and last mile are essential to having public transport work in India,” Hallekere said. “It’s very natural for Indians to go on scooters and we started with metro bikes keeping this in mind. We want to make an impact and enable people to ditch cars.”

Bounce is also looking to introduce a pooling service that would enable scooter owners to add their vehicles to the company’s fleet and make money when they are used.

AI giant SenseTime leads $199M investment in Chinese video tech startup

SenseTime may be best known as the world’s highest-valued AI company — having raised $620 million at a valuation of over $4.5 billion — but it is also an investor, too. The Chinese firm this week led a 1.36 billion RMB ($199 million) Series D funding round for Moviebook, a Beijing-based startup that develops technology to support online video services.

Moviebook previously raised a 500 million RMB Series C in 2017, worth around $75 million. SB China Venture Capital (SBCVC) also took part in this new round alongside Qianhai Wutong, PAC Partners, Oriental Pearl, and Lang Sheng Investment.

With the investment, SenseTime said it also inked a partnership with Moviebook which will see the two companies collaborate on a range of AI technologies, including augmented reality, with a view to increasing the use of AI in the entertainment industry.

The object detection and tracking technology developed by SenseTime Group Ltd. is displayed on a screen at the Artificial Intelligence Exhibition & Conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. The AI Expo will run through April 6. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

In a statement in Chinese, SenseTime co-founder Xu Bing said the companies plan to use the vast amounts of video data from broadcasting, TV and internet streams to help unlock commercial opportunities in the future. He also stressed the potential to bring AI and new technologies to the entertainment industry.

This isn’t SenseTime’s first strategic investment, but it is likely to be its most significant to date. The company has previously backed startups that include 51VR, Helian Health and Suning Sports, the spinout from retail giant Suning.

SenseTime itself has raised over $1.6 billion from investors, which include Alibaba, Tiger Global, Qualcomm, IDG Capital, Temasek and Silver Lake Partners.

LemonBox brings US vitamins and health products to consumers in China

China is rising in many ways — the economy, consumer spending and technology — but still many of its population looks overseas, and particularly to the West, for cues on lifestyle and health. That’s a theme that’s being seized by LemonBox, a China-U.S. startup that lets Chinese consumers buy U.S. health products at affordable prices.

Indeed, the recent scare around Chinese vaccinations, which saw faulty inoculations given to babies and toddlers in a number of provinces, has only fueled demand for overseas health products which LemonBox founder Derek Weng discovered himself when his father was diagnosed as having high blood sugar levels. Weng, then working in the U.S. for Walmart, was able to look up and buy the right medicine pills for his father and bring them back to China himself. He realized, however, that others are not so fortunate.

After polling friends and family, he set up an experimental WeChat app in 2016 that dispensed health information such as articles and information. Within a year, it had racked up 30,000 subscribers and given him the confidence to jump into the business fully.

Today, LemonBox allows Chinese consumers to buy its own-branded daily vitamin packs from the U.S.. Further down the line, the goal is to expand into more specific verticals, including mother and baby, beauty and daily supplements, according to Weng, who believes that the timing is good.

“For the first time in China, people are taking a major interest in health and are working out, while society is becoming more developed,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. “We estimate that Chinese consumers are investing 30 percent of their income in health.”

The LemonBox daily pack of vitamins.

Since its full launch three weeks ago, LemonBox has pulled in 700 customers with 40 percent purchasing a three-month bundle package and the remainder a monthly order, Weng said. Typical basket size is around 300 RMB, or nearly $45.

To get the business off the ground, Weng needed expert support and his co-founder Hang Xu — who is also LemonBox’s “Chief Nutrition Scientist” — has spent 10 years in the field of nutrition science. Xu holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, is a U.S.-registered dietitian and has published over 10 research papers. The startup’s third co-founder, Eddy Meng (CMO), is a graduate of Chinese app store startup Wandoujia which sold to Alibaba two years ago.

Right now, LemonBox has offices in the U.S. and China and it is squarely focused on e-commerce but Weng said the company is looking to introduce other kinds of health services. That could include consultations with dietary experts and specific offerings for patients leaving a hospital or in other long-term care situations, as well as potentially own-label products.

“We look at Stitch Fix for inspiration,” Weng said. “Right now, it leverages data to develop its own in-house private label products that improve on margin and the accuracy of recommendations. This kind of data and further services will be the next stage for us.”

LemonBox raised a seed round in March, which included participation from Y Combinator, and as part of Y Combinator’s current program, it’ll present to prospective investors at the program’s demo day. Already, though, Weng said there’s been interest from investors which the company is thinking over.

Interestingly, it was forth time lucky entering YC for Weng, who had before applied with previous startups unsuccessfully. This time it was entirely circumstantial. He applied to be in the audience for Y Combinator’s ‘Startup School’ event that took place in Beijing in May.

Unbeknownst to him, YC picked out a handful of attendees whose companies were of interest, and, after an interview that Weng didn’t realize was an audition, LemonBox was selected and fast-tracked into the organization’s latest program. In addition, YC joined the startup’s seed funding round which had initially closed in March.

That anecdotal evidence says much of YC’s effort to grab a larger slice of China’s startup ecosystem.

The organization has aggressively recruited companies from under-represented regions such as India, Southeast Asia and Africa, but China remains a tough spot. According to YC’s own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors. That’s low considering that the organization counts over 1,400 graduates.

With events like the one in May, which helped snare LemonBox, and a new China-centric role for partner Eric Migicovsky, who founded Pebble, YC is trying harder than ever.

Short video service Musical.ly is merging into sister app TikTok

Musical.ly, the short video app that’s popular among teens and young people, is going away. Kinda.

The app and all user data and accounts is being merged with Toktok, a sister app that’s owned by ByteDance, the Chinese company that acquired Musical.ly for around $1 billion last year.

The switch-over happens today (Thursday) and it should be relatively seamless. Users of Musical.ly will see their app switch to TikTok once they update the app, and they should find their account, videos and personal settings inside the new app as per usual.

One notable new addition is a setting that alerts a user when they have been active in the app for two hours that day. Its addition comes just a day after Facebook added similar ‘well-being’ features to its core social network and Instagram.

ByteDance is making the move to consolidate its audiences on both apps. Four-year-old Musical.ly, which is particularly popular in the U.S., has around 100 million users while TikTok, which was created in 2016 and operates worldwide minus China, claims 500 million monthly active users. In China, the sister product is Douyin, while the company also offers news apps Toutiao in China and TopBuzz across the rest of the world.

“TikTok, the sound of a ticking clock, represents the short nature of the video platform. We want to capture the world’s creativity and knowledge under this new name and remind everyone to treasure every precious life moment. Combining musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences,” said Alex Zhu, co-founder of Musical.ly and Senior Vice President of TikTok, in a statement.

The app merger follows the closure of Musical.ly’s standalone live-streaming app Live.ly in June. That was part of the deal agreed to for the Musical.ly acquisition, and the company directed its users to Live.me, an app that counts ByteDance among its investors.

It makes sense that ByteDance is consolidating its sibling apps since Facebook is stalking out the short video space. The social network giant has tested a Musical.ly style app and just this week we found hints that it is planning to launch “Talent Show,” which would allow users to compete by singing popular songs then submitting their audition for review.

There’s also the revenue side. A global platform plays better for advertisers rather than forcing them to pick either Musical.ly or TikTok, or going through the added rigmarole of working on both.

Golden Gate Ventures hits first close on new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

One of the fascinating things about watching an emerging startup ecosystem is that it isn’t just companies that are scaling, the very VC firms that feed them are growing themselves, too. That’s perhaps best embodied by Golden Gate Ventures, a Singapore-based firm founded by three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 2011 which is about to close a huge new fund for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate started out with a small seed investment fund before raising a second worth $60 million in 2015. Now it is in the closes stages of finalizing a new $100 million fund, which has completed a first close of over $65 million in commitments, a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch.

A filing lodged with the SEC in June first showed the firm’s intent to raise $100 million. The source told TechCrunch that a number of LPs from Golden Gate’s previous funds have already signed up, including Naver, while Mistletoe, the firm run by SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son’s brother Taizo, is among the new backers joining.

Golden Gate’s existing LP base also includes Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and South Korea’s Hanwha.

A full close for the fund is expected before the end of the year.

The firm has made over 40 investments to date and its portfolio includes mobile classifieds service Carousell, automotive sales startup Carro, real estate site 99.co, and payment gateway Omise. TechCrunch understands that the firm’s investment thesis will remain the same with this new fund. When it raised its second fund, founding partner Vinnie Lauria told us that Golden Gate had found its match at early-stage investing and it will remain lean and nimble like the companies it backs.

One significant change internally, however, sees Justin Hall promoted to partner at the fund. He joins Lauria, fellow founding partner Jeffrey Paine, and Michael Lints at partner level.

Hall first joined Golden Gate in 2012 as an intern while still a student, before signing on full-time in 2013. His rise through the ranks exemplifies the growth and development within Southeast Asia’s startup scene over that period — it isn’t just limited to startups themselves.

The Golden Gate Ventures team circa 2016 — it has since added new members

With the advent of unicorns such as ride-sharing firms Grab and Go-Jek, travel startup Traveloka, and e-commerce companies like Tokopedia, Southeast Asia has begun to show potential for homegrown tech companies in a market that includes over 650 million consumers and more than 300 million internet users. The emergence of these companies has spiked investor interest, which provides the capital that is the lifeblood for VCs and their funds.

Golden Gate is the only one raising big. Openspace, formerly NSI Ventures, is raising $125 million for its second fund, Jungle Ventures is said to be planning a $150 million fund, and Singapore’s Golden Equator and Korea Investment Partners have a joint $88 million fund, while Temasek-linked Vertex closed a record $210 million fund last year.

Growth potential is leading the charge but at the same time funds are beginning to focus on realizing returns for LPs through exits, which is challenging since there have been few acquisitions of meaningful size or public listings out of Southeast Asia so far. But, for smaller funds, the results are already promising.

Data from Prequin, which tracks investment money worldwide, shows that Golden Gate’s first fund has already returned a multiple of over 4X, while its second is at 1.3 despite a final close in 2016.

Beyond any secondary sales — it is not uncommon for early-stage backers to sell a minority portion of equity as more investment capital pours in — Golden Gate’s exits have included the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of Woomoo, Line’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek.

The brains behind one of marketing’s biggest hits are out to reshape the industry again… with direct mail

Postie, a new Los Angeles-based startup, has a vision for the future of advertising and marketing — and it’s direct mail.

Founded by some of the men responsible for the biggest hits in online marketing (like the Dollar Shave Club commercial that launched what became a billion-dollar acquisition) think that it’s time to take technology where it’s never gone before — into targeted, direct mail campaigns using the best ad-targeting that money can buy.

Postie uses a combination of online data collection and an on-demand print and mail technology to give its customers turnaround times on print orders in as little as 24 hours, and what the company boasts is the equivalent of online ad-targeting.

Using the service, customers can access demographic, interest and behavioral data of more than 320 million people; can use retargeting to provide direct mail campaigns; and integrate with existing customer relationship management tools.

The company was founded by Dave Fink and Jonathan Neddenriep, two former principals at the startup studio and early-stage investor, Science. At the early-stage investment firm, Fink said he was responsible for marketing activities for companies including Dollar Shave Club, DogVacay, SpringRole, Wishbone and Hello Society over the six years he worked at the company. Neddenriep served as the chief technology officer for Science — a role he’s continuing at Postie.

Where once Fink focused on reaching the widest possible audience with a viral message that could cut through the noise of online advertising, the scale of his messaging is now much smaller, even if the scope of the market he’s trying to capture remains just as vast.

“A highly targeted physical piece of mail, especially in today’s ephemeral world, elicits an emotional response that goes above and beyond what is possible online,” says Fink, in a statement. “It’s now possible to open up a whole new scalable media channel by leveraging the same data driven insights and quantitative approach as digital.”

According to study from the Direct Marketing Association, direct mail campaigns rang up $46 billion from advertisers and companies in 2014, and Fink and his co-founder are hoping that number will climb.

They aren’t the only ones. Postie has raised $3.5 million in seed funding from the Los Angeles-based firms Bonfire Ventures and Crosscut Ventures to expand its business (maybe through direct marketing?).

 

Implantable 3D-printed organs could be coming sooner than you think

At MBC Biolabs, an incubator for biotech startups in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, a team of scientists and interns working for the small startup Prellis Biologics have just taken a big step on the path toward developing viable 3D-printed organs for humans.

The company, which was founded in 2016 by research scientists Melanie Matheu and Noelle Mullin, staked its future (and a small $3 million investment) on a new technology to manufacture capillaries, the one-cell-thick blood vessels that are the pathways which oxygen and nutrients move through to nourish tissues in the body.

Without functioning capillary structures, it is impossible to make organs, according to Matheu. They’re the most vital piece of the puzzle in the quest to print viable hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs, she said.

“Microvasculature is the fundamental architectural unit that supports advanced multicellular life and it therefore represents a crucial target for bottom-up human tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” said Jordan Miller, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University and an expert in 3D-printed implantable biomaterial structures, in a statement.

This real-time video shows tiny fluorescent particles – 5 microns in diameter (the same size as a red blood cell) – moving through an array of 105 capillaries printed in parallel, inside a 700 micron diameter tube. Each capillary is 250 microns long.

Now, Prellis has published findings indicating that it can manufacture those capillaries at a size and speed that would deliver 3D-printed organs to the market within the next five years. 

Prellis uses holographic printing technology that creates three-dimensional layers deposited by a light-induced chemical reaction that happens in five milliseconds.

This feature, according to the company, is critical for building tissues like kidneys or lungs. Prellis achieves this by combining a light-sensitive photo-initiator with traditional bioinks that allows the cellular material to undergo a reaction when blasted with infrared light, which catalyzes the polymerization of the bioink.

Prellis didn’t invent holographic printing technology. Several researchers are looking to apply this new approach to 3D printing across a number of industries, but the company is applying the technology to biofabrication in a way that seems promising.

The speed is important because it means that cell death doesn’t occur and the tissue being printed remains viable, while the ability to print within structures means that Prellis’ technology can generate the internal scaffolding to support and sustain the organic material that surrounds it, according to the company.

The video above, courtesy of Prellis Biologics, shows real-time printing of a cell encapsulation device that is useful for producing small human cells containing organoids. The structure is designed to be permeable and the size is 200 microns in diameter and can contain up to 2000 cells.

Prellis isn’t the first company to develop three-dimensional organ printing. There have been decades of research into the technology, and companies like BioBots (which made its debut on the TechCrunch stage) are already driving down the cost of printing living tissue.

Now called Allevi, the company formerly known as BioBots has seen its founders part ways and its business  strategy shift (it’s now focusing on developing software to make its bioprinters easier to use), according to a report in Inc. Allevi has slashed the cost of bioprinting with devices that sell for less than $10,000, but Prellis contends that the limitations of extrusion printing mean that technology is too low resolution and too slow to create capillaries and keep cells alive.

Prellis’ organs will also need to be placed in a bioreactor to sustain them before they’re transplanted into an animal, but the difference is that the company aims to produce complete organs rather than sample tissue or a small cell sample, according to a statement. The bioreactors can simulate the biomechanical pressures that ensure an organ functions properly, Matheu said.

“Vasculature is a key feature of complex tissues and is essential for engineering tissue with therapeutic value,” said Todd Huffman, the chief executive officer of 3Scan, an advanced digital tissue imaging and data analysis company (and a Prellis advisor). “Prellis’ advancement represents a key milestone in the quest to engineer organs.”

Matheu estimates that it will take two-and-a-half years and $15 million to bring implantable organs through their first animal trials. “That will get a test kidney into an animal,” she said.

The goal is to print a quarter-sized kidney that could be transplanted into rats. “We want something that would be able to handle a kidney that we would transplant into a human,” Matheu said.

One frame of a 3D map of animal tissue from 3Scan .

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Manchester href=”https://newatlas.com/working-kidney-cells-grown-mice/53354/”> grew functional human kidney tissue from stem cells for the first time. The scientists implanted small clusters of capillaries that filter waste products from the blood that had been grown in a Petri dish into genetically engineered mice. After 12 weeks, the capillaries had grown nephrons — the elements that make up a functional human kidney.

Ultimately, the vision is to export cells from patients by taking a skin graft or blood, stem cell or bone marrow harvest — and then use those samples to create the cellular material that will grow organs. “Tissue rejection was the first thing I was thinking about in how I was designing the process and how we could do it,” says Matheu.

While Prellis is spending its time working to perfect a technique for printing kidneys, the company is looking for partners to take its manufacturing technology and work on processes to develop other organs.

“We’ll be doing collaborative work with other groups,” Matheu said. “Our technology will come to market in many other ways prior to the full kidney.”

Last year, the company outlined a go-to-market strategy that included developing lab-grown tissues to produce antibodies for therapeutics and drug development. The company’s first targeted human tissue printed for clinical development were cells called “islets of Langerhans,” which are the units within a pancreas that produce insulin.

“Type 1 diabetics lose insulin-producing islets of Langerhans at a young age. If we can replace these, we can offer diabetes patients a life free of daily insulin shots and glucose monitoring,” said Matheu in a statement at the time.

Matheu sees the technology she and her co-founder developed as much about a fundamental shift in manufacturing biomaterials as a novel process to print kidneys, specifically.

“Imagine if you want to build a tumor for testing… In the lab it would take you five hours to print one… With our system it would take you three and a half seconds,” said Matheu. “That is our baseline optical system… The speed is such a shift in how you can build cells and fundamental structures we are going to be working to license this out.”

Meanwhile, the need for some solution to the shortage in organ donations keeps growing. Matheu said that one in seven adults in the U.S. have some sort of kidney ailment, and she estimates that 90 million people will need a kidney at some point in their lives.

Roughly 330 people die every day from organ failure, and if there were a fast way to manufacture those organs, there’s no reason for those fatalities, says Matheu. Prellis estimates that because of the need for human tissue and organ replacement alternatives, as well as human tissue for drug discovery and toxicology testing, the global tissue engineering market will reach $94 billion by 2024, up from $23 billion in 2015.

“We need to help people faster,” says Matheu. 

Verizon stealthily launched a startup offering $40-per-month unlimited data, messaging and minutes

Earlier this year, Verizon quietly launched a new startup called Visible, offering unlimited data, minutes, and messaging services for the low, low price of $40.

To subscribe for the service, users simply download the Visible app (currently available only on iOS) and register. Right now, subscriptions are invitation only and would-be subscribers have to get an invitation from someone who’s already a current Visible member.

Once registration is complete, Visible will send a sim card the next day, and, once installed, a user can access Verizon’s 4G LTE network to stream videos, send texts, and make calls as much as their heart desires.

Visible says there’s no throttling at the end of the month and subscribers can pay using internet-based payment services like PayPal and Venmo (which is owned by PayPal).

The service is only available on unlocked devices — and right now, pretty much only to iPhone users.

“This is something that’s been the seed of an idea for a year or so,” says Minjae Ormes, head of marketing at Visible. “There’s a core group of people from the strategy side. There’s a core group of five or ten people who came up with the idea.”

The company wouldn’t say how much Verizon gave to the business to get it off the ground, but the leadership team is comprised mostly of former employees, like Miguel Quiroga the company’s chief executive.

“The way I would think about it.. we are a phone service in the platform that enables everything that you do. The way we launched and the app messaging piece of it. You do everything else on your phone and a lot of time if you ask people your phone is your life,” said Ormes. The thinking was, “let’s give you a phone that you can activate right from your phone and get ready to go and see how it resonates.”

It’s an interesting move from our corporate overlord (Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch), which is already the top dog in wireless services, with some 150 million subscribers compared with AT&T’s 141.6 million and a soon-to-be-combined Sprint and T-Mobile subscriber base of 126.2 million.

For Verizon, the new company is likely about holding off attrition. The company shed 24,000 postpaid phone connections in the last quarter, according to The Wall Street Journal, which put some pressure on its customer base (but not really all that much).

Mobile telecommunications remain at the core of Verizon’s business plans for the future, even as other carriers like AT&T look to dive deeper into content (while Go90 has been a flop, Verizon hasn’t given up on content plans entirely). The acquisition of Oath added about $1.2 billion in brand revenue (?) to Verizon for the last quarter, but it’s not anywhere near the kind of media juggernaut that AT&T would get through the TimeWarner acquisition.

Verizon seems to be looking to its other mobile services, through connected devices, industrial equipment, autonomous vehicles, and the development of its 5G network for future growth.

Every wireless carrier is pushing hard to develop 5G technologies, which should see nationwide rollout by the end of this year. Verizon recently completed its 11 city trial-run and is banking on expansion of the network’s capabilities to drive new services.

As the Motely Fool noted, all of this comes as Verizon adds new networking capabilities for industrial and commercial applications through its Verizon Connect division — formed in part from the $2.4 billion acquisition of Fleetmatics, that Verizon bought in 2016 along with Telogis, Sensity Systems, and LQD Wifi to beef up its mobile device connectivity services.

Meanwhile, upstart entrants to challenge big wireless carriers are coming from all quarters. In 2015, Google launched its own wireless service, Project Fi, to compete with traditional carriers and Business Insider just covered another would-be wireless warrior, Wing .

Founded by the team that created the media site Elite Daily, Wing uses Sprint cell-phone towers to deliver its service.

David Arabov and co-founder Jonathan Francis didn’t take long after taking a $26 million payout for their previous business before getting right back into the startup fray. Unlike Visible, Wing isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan and it’s a much more traditional MVNO. The company has a range of plans starting at $17 for a flip-phone and increasing to an unlimited plan at $27 per month, according to the company’s website.

As carriers continue to face complaints over service fees, locked in contracts, and terrible options, new options are bound to emerge. In this instance, it looks like Verizon is trying to make itself into one of those carriers.

How did Thumbtack win the on-demand services market?

Earlier today, the services marketplace Thumbtack held a small conference for 300 of its best gig economy workers at an event space in San Francisco.

For the nearly ten-year-old company the event was designed to introduce some new features and a redesign of its brand that had softly launched earlier in the week. On hand, in addition to the services professionals who’d paid their way from locations across the U.S. were the company’s top executives.

It’s the latest step in the long journey that Thumbtack took to become one of the last companies standing with a consumer facing marketplace for services.

Back in 2008, as the global financial crisis was only just beginning to tear at the fabric of the U.S. economy, entrepreneurs at companies like Thumbtack andTaskRabbit were already hard at work on potential patches.

This was the beginning of what’s now known as the gig economy. In addition to Thumbtack and TaskRabbit, young companies like Handy, Zaarly, and several others — all began by trying to build better marketplaces for buyers and sellers of services. Their timing, it turns out, was prescient.

In snowy Boston during the winter of 2008, Kevin Busque and his wife Leah were building RunMyErrand, the marketplace service that would become TaskRabbit, as a way to avoid schlepping through snow to pick up dog food .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Marco Zappacosta, a young entrepreneur whose parents were the founders of Logitech, and a crew of co-founders including were building Thumbtack, a professional services marketplace from a home office they shared.

As these entrepreneurs built their businesses in northern California (amid the early years of a technology renaissance fostered by patrons made rich from returns on investments in companies like Google and Salesforce.com), the rest of America was stumbling.

In the two years between 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate in America doubled, rising from 5% to 10%. Professional services workers were hit especially hard as banks, insurance companies, realtors, contractors, developers and retailers all retrenched — laying off staff as the economy collapsed under the weight of terrible loans and a speculative real estate market.

Things weren’t easy for Thumbtack’s founders at the outset in the days before its $1.3 billion valuation and last hundred plus million dollar round of funding. “One of the things that really struck us about the team, was just how lean they were. At the time they were operating out of a house, they were still cooking meals together,” said Cyan Banister, one of the company’s earliest investors and a partner at the multi-billion dollar venture firm, Founders Fund.

“The only thing they really ever spent money on, was food… It was one of these things where they weren’t extravagant, they were extremely purposeful about every dollar that they spent,” Banister said. “They basically slept at work, and were your typical startup story of being under the couch. Every time I met with them, the story was, in the very early stages was about the same for the first couple years, which was, we’re scraping Craigslist, we’re starting to get some traction.”

The idea of powering a Craigslist replacement with more of a marketplace model was something that appealed to Thumbtack’s earliest investor and champion, the serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calcanis.

Thumbtack chief executive Marco Zappacosta

“I remember like it was yesterday when Marco showed me Thumbtack and I looked at this and I said, ‘So, why are you building this?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you go on Craigslist, you know, it’s like a crap shoot. You post, you don’t know. You read a post… you know… you don’t know how good the person is. There’re no reviews.’” Calcanis said. “He had made a directory. It wasn’t the current workflow you see in the app — that came in year three I think. But for the first three years, he built a directory. And he showed me the directory pages where he had a photo of the person, the services provided, the bio.”

The first three years were spent developing a list of vendors that the company had verified with a mailing address, a license, and a certificate of insurance for people who needed some kind of service. Those three features were all Calcanis needed to validate the deal and pull the trigger on an initial investment.

“That’s when I figured out my personal thesis of angel investing,” Calcanis said.

“Some people are market based; some people want to invest in certain demographics or psychographics; immigrant kids or Stanford kids, whatever. Mine is just, ‘Can you make a really interesting product and are your decisions about that product considered?’ And when we discuss those decisions, do I feel like you’re the person who should build this product for the world And it’s just like there’s a big sign above Marco’s head that just says ‘Winner! Winner! Winner!’”

Indeed, it looks like Zappacosta and his company are now running what may be their victory lap in their tenth year as a private company. Thumbtack will be profitable by 2019 and has rolled out a host of new products in the last six months.

Their thesis, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, was to build a product which offered listings of any service a potential customer could want in any geography across the U.S. Other companies like Handy and TaskRabbit focused on the home, but on Thumbtack (like any good community message board) users could see postings for anything from repairman to reiki lessons and magicians to musicians alongside the home repair services that now make up the bulk of its listings.

“It’s funny, we had business plans and documents that we wrote and if you look back, the vision that we outlined then, is very similar to the vision we have today. We honestly looked around and we said, ‘We want to solve a problem that impacts a huge number of people. The local services base is super inefficient. It’s really difficult for customers to find trustworthy, reliable people who are available for the right price,’” said Sander Daniels, a co-founder at the company. 

“For pros, their number one concern is, ‘Where do I put money in my pocket next? How do I put food on the table for my family next?’ We said, ‘There is a real human problem here. If we can connect these people to technology and then, look around, there are these global marketplace for products: Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, why can’t there be a global marketplace for services?’ It sounded crazy to say it at the time and it still sounds crazy to say, but that is what the dream was.”

Daniels acknowledges that the company changed the direction of its product, the ways it makes money, and pivoted to address issues as they arose, but the vision remained constant. 

Meanwhile, other startups in the market have shifted their focus. Indeed as Handy has shifted to more of a professional services model rather than working directly with consumers and TaskRabbit has been acquired by Ikea, Thumbtack has doubled down on its independence and upgrading its marketplace with automation tools to make matching service providers with customers that much easier.

Late last year the company launched an automated tool serving up job requests to its customers — the service providers that pay the company a fee for leads generated by people searching for services on the company’s app or website.

Thumbtack processes about $1 billion a year in business for its service providers in roughly 1,000 professional categories.

Now, the matching feature is getting an upgrade on the consumer side. Earlier this month the company unveiled Instant Results — a new look for its website and mobile app — that uses all of the data from its 200,000 services professionals to match with the 30 professionals that best correspond to a request for services. It’s among the highest number of professionals listed on any site, according to Zappacosta. The next largest competitor, Yelp, has around 115,000 listings a year. Thumbtack’s professionals are active in a 90 day period.

Filtering by price, location, tools and schedule, anyone in the U.S. can find a service professional for their needs. It’s the culmination of work processing nine years and 25 million requests for services from all of its different categories of jobs.

It’s a long way from the first version of Thumbtack, which had a “buy” tab and a “sell” tab; with the “buy” side to hire local services and the “sell” to offer them.

“From the very early days… the design was to iterate beyond the traditional model of business listing directors. In that, for the consumer to tell us what they were looking for and we would, then, find the right people to connect them to,” said Daniels. “That functionality, the request for quote functionality, was built in from v.1 of the product. If you tried to use it then, it wouldn’t work. There were no businesses on the platform to connect you with. I’m sure there were a million bugs, the UI and UX were a disaster, of course. That was the original version, what I remember of it at least.”

It may have been a disaster, but it was compelling enough to get the company its $1.2 million angel round — enough to barely develop the product. That million dollar investment had to last the company through the nuclear winter of America’s recession years, when venture capital — along with every other investment class — pulled back.

“We were pounding the pavement trying to find somebody to give us money for a Series A round,” Daniels said. “That was a very hard period of the company’s life when we almost went out of business, because nobody would give us money.”

That was a pre-revenue period for the company, which experimented with four revenue streams before settling on the one that worked the best. In the beginning the service was free, and it slowly transitioned to a commission model. Then, eventually, the company moved to a subscription model where service providers would pay the company a certain amount for leads generated off of Thumbtack.

“We weren’t able to close the loop,” Daniels said. “To make commissions work, you have to know who does the job, when, for how much. There are a few possible ways to collect all that information, but the best one, I think, is probably by hosting payments through your platform. We actually built payments into the platform in 2011 or 2012. We had significant transaction volume going through it, but we then decided to rip it out 18 months later, 24 months later, because, I think we had kind of abandoned the hope of making commissions work at that time.”

While Thumbtack was struggling to make its bones, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest were raking in cash. The founders thought that they could also access markets in the same way, but investors weren’t interested in a consumer facing business that required transactions — not advertising — to work. User generated content and social media were the rage, but aside from Uber and Lyft the jury was still out on the marketplace model.

“For our company that was not a Facebook or a Twitter or Pinterest, at that time, at least, that we needed revenue to show that we’re going to be able to monetize this,” Daniels said. “We had figured out a way to sign up pros at enormous scale and consumers were coming online, too. That was showing real promise. We said, ‘Man, we’re a hot ticket, we’re going to be able to raise real money.’ Then, for many reasons, our inexperience, our lack of revenue model, probably a bunch of stuff, people were reluctant to give us money.”

The company didn’t focus on revenue models until the fall of 2011, according to Daniels. Then after receiving rejection after rejection the company’s founders began to worry. “We’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ November of 2009 we start running these tests, to start making money, because we might not be able to raise money here. We need to figure out how to raise cash to pay the bills, soon,” Daniels recalled. 

The experience of almost running into the wall put the fear of god into the company. They managed to scrape out an investment from Javelin, but the founders were convinced that they needed to find the right revenue number to make the business work with or without a capital infusion. After a bunch of deliberations, they finally settled on $350,000 as the magic number to remain a going concern.

“That was the metric that we were shooting towards,” said Daniels. “It was during that period that we iterated aggressively through these revenue models, and, ultimately, landed on a paper quote. At the end of that period then Sequoia invested, and suddenly, pros supply and consumer demand and revenue model all came together and like, ‘Oh shit.’”

Finding the right business model was one thing that saved the company from withering on the vine, but another choice was the one that seemed the least logical — the idea that the company should focus on more than just home repairs and services.

The company’s home category had lots of competition with companies who had mastered the art of listing for services on Google and getting results. According to Daniels, the company couldn’t compete at all in the home categories initially.

“It turned out, randomly … we had no idea about this … there was not a similarly well developed or mature events industry,” Daniels said. “We outperformed in events. It was this strategic decision, too, that, on all these 1,000 categories, but it was random, that over the last five years we are the, if not the, certainly one of the leading events service providers in the country. It just happened to be that we … I don’t want to say stumbled into it … but we found these pockets that were less competitive and we could compete in and build a business on.”

The focus on geographical and services breadth — rather than looking at building a business in a single category or in a single geography meant that Zappacosta and company took longer to get their legs under them, but that they had a much wider stance and a much bigger base to tap as they began to grow.

“Because of naivete and this dreamy ambition that we’re going to do it all. It was really nothing more strategic or complicated than that,” said Daniels. “When we chose to go broad, we were wandering the wilderness. We had never done anything like this before.”

From the company’s perspective, there were two things that the outside world (and potential investors) didn’t grasp about its approach. The first was that a perfect product may have been more competitive in a single category, but a good enough product was better than the terrible user experiences that were then on the market. “You can build a big company on this good enough product, which you can then refine over the course of time to be greater and greater,” said Daniels.

The second misunderstanding is that the breadth of the company let it scale the product that being in one category would have never allowed Thumbtack to do. Cross selling and upselling from carpet cleaners to moving services to house cleaners to bounce house rentals for parties — allowed for more repeat use.

More repeat use meant more jobs for services employees at a time when unemployment was still running historically high. Even in 2011, unemployment remained stubbornly high. It wasn’t until 2013 that the jobless numbers began their steady decline.

There’s a question about whether these gig economy jobs can keep up with the changing times. Now, as unemployment has returned to its pre-recession levels, will people want to continue working in roles that don’t offer health insurance or retirement benefits? The answer seems to be “yes” as the Thumbtack platform continues to grow and Uber and Lyft show no signs of slowing down.

“At the time, and it still remains one of my biggest passions, I was interested in how software could create new meaningful ways of working,” said Banister of the Thumbtack deal. “That’s the criteria I was looking for, which is, does this shift how people find work? Because I do believe that we can create jobs and we can create new types of jobs that never existed before with the platforms that we have today.”