Startups are transforming global trade in the COVID-19 era

Global trade watchers breathed a sigh of relief on January 15, 2020.

After two years of threats, tariffs and tweets, there was finally a truce in the trade war between the U.S. and China. The agreement signed by President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office didn’t resolve all trade tensions and maintained most of the $360 billion in tariffs the administration had put on Chinese goods. But for the first time in months, it looked like manufacturers, importers and shippers could start to put two difficult years behind them.

Then came COVID-19, at first a local disruption in Wuhan, China. Then it spread throughout Hubei province, causing havoc in a concentric circle that eventually engulfed the rest of China, where industrial production fell by more than 13.5% in the first two months of the year. When the virus spread everywhere, chaos ensued: Factories shuttered. Borders closed. Supply chains crumbled.

“It has had a cascading effect through the entire world’s economy,” says Anja Manuel, co-founder and managing partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

The crisis has caused a drastic contraction in global trade; the World Trade Organization estimates trade volumes will fall 13-20% in 2020. And spinning activity back up could be tricky: Even as China starts to get back online, the slowdown there could reduce worldwide exports by $50 billion this year. When factories do reopen, there’s no guarantee whether they will have parts available or empty warehouses, says Manuel, who also serves on the advisory board of Flexport, a shipping logistics startup. “Our supply chains are so tightly-knit and so just-in-time that throw a few wrenches in it like we’ve just done, and it’s going to be really hard to stand it back up again. The idea that we go back to normal the moment we lift restrictions is unlikely, fanciful, even.”

Getting to that new normal, though, is a job that a number of logistics startups are embracing. Already on the rise, companies like Flexport, Haven and Factiv see a global trade crisis as a setback, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of their digital platforms in a very much analog industry.

Information is king

As companies along the global supply chain reel from these fast-moving events, they are increasingly turning to firms that can offer them information — and the options that come with it.

“In moments of lots of volatility, you want to make sure the data you’re looking at is real,” says Sanne Manders, Flexport’s COO. “Where before you could get away with a weekly supply chain update, now you need accurate and timely data every minute. If you don’t, you’re not agile to make decisions.”


By Walter Thompson

SkyCell raises $62M for smart containers and analytics to transport pharmaceuticals

While human travel has become severely restricted in recent months, the movement of goods has remained a constant priority — and in some cases, has become even more urgent. Today, a startup out of Switzerland that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport one item in particular — pharmaceuticals — is announcing a significant round to fuel its growth.

SkyCell — a designer of “smart containters” powered by software to maintain constant conditions for drugs that need to be kept at strict temperatures, humidity levels, and levels of vibration, which are in turn used to transport pharmaceuticals around the globe on behalf of drug companies — is today announcing. that it has raised $62 million in growth funding.

This latest round is being led by healthcare investor MVM Partners, with participation also from family offices, a Swiss insurance company that declined to be named, as well as previous investors the Swiss Entrepreneurs Fund (managed by Credit Suisse and UBS), and the BCGE Bank’s growth fund.

The company was founded in 2012 Switzerland when Richard Ettl and Nico Ros were tasked to design a storage facility for one of the big Swiss pharma giants. The exec charged with overseeing the project brainstormed that the work they were putting in could potentially be applied to transportation containers, and thus SkyCell was born.

Today, Ettl (who is the CEO, while Ros is the CTO), said in an interview that the company now works with eight of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies and has been in validation trials with a further seven. These use SkyCell’s network of some 22,000 air freight pallets to move their products around the world.

The new capital will be used to expand that reach further, specifically in the U.S. and Asia, and to double its fleet to become the biggest pharmaceutical transportation company globally. With 30 of the 50 biggest-selling drugs in the world being temperature sensitive (and some generics for one of the biggest-selling, the arthritis medication Humira, now also coming out), this makes for a huge opportunity.

And unsurprisingly, several of SkyCell’s customers are working on COVID-19 medications, Ettl said, either to help ease symptoms or potentially to vaccinate or eradicate the virus, and so it’s standing at the ready to play a role in getting drugs to where they need to be.

“We are well positioned in case there is a vaccine developed. Out of the six pharma companies developing these right now, four of them are our customers, so there is a high likelihood we would transport something,” Ettl said.

For now, he said SkyCell has been involved in helping to transport “supportive” medications related to the outbreak, such as flu shots to make sure people are not falling ill with other viral infections at the same time.

SkyCell is not disclosing its valuation but we understand that it’s in the many hundreds of millions of dollars. The company had raised some $36 million in equity and debt before this, bringing the total outside funding now to $98 million.

In a market that’s estimated to be worth some $2.8 billion annually and growing at a rate of between 15% and 20% each year, there are a number of freight businesses that focus on the transportation of pharmaceuticals. They include not only freight companies but airlines themselves, which often buy in containers from third parties. (And for some more context, one of its competitors, Envirotainer, was acquired for over $1 billion in 2918; while another, CSafe, has raised significantly more funding.)

But there was virtually no innovation in the market, and most pharmaceutical companies factored in failure rates of between 4% and 12% depending on where the drugs were headed.

One key differentiator with SkyCell has been its containers, which are able to withstand temperatures as high as 60 degrees Celsius or as low as negative 10 degrees Celsius, and have tracking on them to better monitor their movements from A to B.

These came to the market at a time when incumbents were only able to (and some still are only able to) guarantee insulation for temperatures as high as 40 degrees, which was not as pressing an issue in the past as it is today, in part because of rising temperatures around the globe, and in part because of the growing sophistication of pharmaceuticals.

“We’ve found that the number of days where [one has to consider] temperature extremes has been going up,” Ettl said. “Last year, we had 30 days where it was warmer than 40 degrees Celsius across our network of countries.”

On top of the containers themselves, SkyCell has built a software platform that taps into the kind of big data analytics that are now part and parcel of how modern companies in the logistics industry work today, in order to optimise movement and best routing for packages.

The conditions it considers include not only the obvious ones around temperature, humidity and vibration, but distance and time of travel, as well as overall carbon emissions. SkyCell claims that its failure rate comes out at less than 0.1%, with CO2 emissions reduced by almost half on a typical shipment.

Together, the hardware and software are covered by some 100 patents, the company says.


By Ingrid Lunden

Why Flexport built a slick Slack SaaS for shipping

“Make their metrics your metrics” is one of Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen’s mantras. Sometimes that means building free software for your clients. It can be frustrating aligning your fates with a fellow business if they operate on email, phone and fax like much of the freight-forwarding industry that gets pallets of goods across the world from factories to retailer’s floors. So today, the new Flexport Platform launches, allowing brand clients, their factories and their Flexport logistics reps to all team up to get stuff where it belongs on time.

The software could further stoke Flexport‘s growth by locking in customers to work with the shipping startup that was valued at $3.2 billion after raising $1 billion from SoftBank in February (to bring it to $1.3 billion in funding). Flexport’s revenue was up 95%, to $441 million in 2018, Forbes’s Alex Konrad reported. Yet there’s plenty of green field to conquer given even Flexport’s largest competitor Kuehne & Nagel only holds 2.5% market share while the whole freight-forwarding industry grows 4% per year.

Flexport Dashboard

The Flexboard Platform dashboard offers maps, notifications, task lists, and chat for Flexport clients and their factory suppliers.

The Flexport Platform lets 10,000 clients, like Bombas socks, invite their suppliers to collaborate on managing shipments together. An integrated calendar makes shipping timelines clear. A map gives clients a god-view of their freight criss-crossing the globe. Pre-filled forms expedite compliance. Tagging lets users group shipments and filter or search their dashboards, and flag something for extra care — like a pallet of goods critical for a marketing launch event. Collaborators also can sync up via a Facebook Wall-style feature, or direct message the team with threaded conversations, much like Slack.

Ryan Petersen Flexport

Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen

“There’s infinite demand for a job well done,” Petersen says about his industry.The hard part has always been doing a good job.” Taking the confusion out communication scattered across email chains means clients get shipping documentation filled out 50% faster with 4X more accurate data. Flexport is on the tip of the tongue as software eats the world, with antiquated sectors suddenly leveling up.

Petersen saw the inefficiency first-hand growing up running his own import/export and customs business. He is part of a wave of entrepreneurs attacking unsexy businesses that the typical Silicon Valley enterprise exec might never stumble across. But three years after we profiled his scrappy company, when it had raised just $26 million in funding and had 700 clients, Petersen tells me “We’re trying to retire the word ‘startup.’ ”

It turns out top global brands like Sonos and Klean Kanteen don’t like the second half of “move fast and break things” when those things are boats and planes full of their products. “They want a company that will help them grow, not the fly-by-night startup,” Petersen explains. But with competitors trying to chase it and incumbents trying to adopt similar technologies, Flexport must maintain its agility to avoid being subsumed by the pack.

As his company has grown to 1,700 employees, he’s dedicated a ton of his time to keeping its culture in check — especially after a certain other logistics giant startup had some uber-painful troubles with workplace toxicity. “You either have too much bureaucracy or not enough process, and no one knows what to do. The English language lacks a positive word for bureaucracy — just the right amount of process so people can move quickly.”

That’s what Flexport wanted to give clients with the new platform. From a dedicated tasks queue to a notifications pane, it’s built to take the guesswork out of what to do next while being as approachable as consumer software for new users. That also why it’s free. It’s not supposed to be some chore you’re forced to complete, product lead Frank te Pas tells me. “As you move your first shipment you get onboarded onto this system” says te Pas. “It’s our way of helping.”

Flexport Warehouse

That’s meant a ton of personal growth, too. Petersen is still enthusiastic, curious and charmingly rough around the edges, but he carries it all with more dignity and gravity than a few years back. “The only way I get to stay in this role is if I learn faster than anybody else. Being the CEO of a 1,700-person company is not something I knew how to do four to five years ago, or even last year,” he tells me. “I’ve changed and become more self-aware. It’s been really important to take care of myself — sleeping a lot, I quit drinking alcohol, I lost 30 pounds. I feel great.”

With plenty of cash in the bank, industry talent taking it seriously and new businesses like Flexport Capital freight financing and its cargo insurance offered in partnership with Marsh, the company might not be a startup for long. It looks like a hot candidate for a coming season of IPOs. And while this company has its own plane (the leading entry for the naming contest is “Weird Flex But OK”), it’s actually part of its shipping fleet.


By Josh Constine

Calling all hardware startups! Apply to Hardware Battlefield @ TC Shenzhen

Got hardware? Well then, listen up, because our search continues for boundary-pushing, early-stage hardware startups to join us in Shenzhen, China for an epic opportunity; launch your startup on a global stage and compete in Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12.

Apply here to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019. Why? It’s your chance to demo your product to the top investors and technologists in the world. Hardware Battlefield, cousin to Startup Battlefield, focuses exclusively on innovative hardware because, let’s face it, it’s the backbone of technology. From enterprise solutions to agtech advancements, medical devices to consumer product goods — hardware startups are in the international spotlight.

If you make the cut, you’ll compete against 15 of the world’s most innovative hardware makers for bragging rights, plenty of investor love, media exposure and $25,000 in equity-free cash. Just participating in a Battlefield can change the whole trajectory of your business in the best way possible.

We chose to bring our fifth Hardware Battlefield to Shenzhen because of its outstanding track record of supporting hardware startups. The city achieves this through a combination of accelerators, rapid prototyping and world-class manufacturing. What’s more, TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 takes place as part of the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen that runs November 9-12.

Creativity and innovation no know boundaries, and that’s why we’re opening this competition to any early-stage hardware startup from any country. While we’ve seen amazing hardware in previous Battlefields — like robotic armsfood testing devicesmalaria diagnostic tools, smart socks for diabetics and e-motorcycles, we can’t wait to see the next generation of hardware, so bring it on!

Meet the minimum requirements listed below, and we’ll consider your startup:

Here’s how Hardware Battlefield works. TechCrunch editors vet every qualified application and pick 15 startups to compete. Those startups receive six rigorous weeks of free coaching. Forget stage fright. You’ll be prepped and ready to step into the spotlight.

Teams have six minutes to pitch and demo their products, which is immediately followed by an in-depth Q&A with the judges. If you make it to the final round, you’ll repeat the process in front of a new set of judges.

The judges will name one outstanding startup the Hardware Battlefield champion. Hoist the Battlefield Cup, claim those bragging rights and the $25,000. This nerve-wracking thrill-ride takes place in front of a live audience, and we capture the entire event on video and post it to our global audience on TechCrunch.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12. Don’t hide your hardware or miss your chance to show us — and the entire tech world — your startup magic. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019, and join us in Shenzhen!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


By Neesha A. Tambe

Anvyl, looking to help D2C brands manage their supply chain, raises $9.3M

Growing D2C brands face an interesting challenge. While they’ve eliminated much of the hassle of a physical storefront, they must still deal with all the complications involved in managing inventory and manufacturing and shipping a physical product to suppliers.

Anvyl, with a fresh $9.3 million in Series A funding, is looking to jump in and make a difference for those brands. The company, co-founded by chief executive Rodney Manzo, is today announcing the raise, led by Redpoint Ventures, with participation from existing investors First Round Capital and Company Ventures. Angel investors Kevin Ryan (MongoDB and DoubleClick), Ben Kaufman (Quirky and Camp) and Dan Rose (Facebook) also participated in the round.

Manzo hails from Apple, where with $300 million in spend to manage logistics and supply chain he was still operating in an Excel spreadsheet. He then went to Harry’s, where he shaved $10 million in cash burn in his first month. He says himself that sourcing, procurement and logistics are in his DNA.

Which brings us to Anvyl. Anvyl looks at every step in the logistics process, from manufacture to arrival at the supplier, and visualizes that migration in an easy-to-understand UI.

The difference between Anvyl and other supply chain logistics companies, such as Flexport, is that Anvyl goes all the way to the very beginning of the supply chain: the factories. The company partners with factories to set up cameras and sensors that let brands see their product actually being built.

“When I was at Apple, I traveled for two years at least once a month to China and Japan just to oversee production,” said Manzo. “To oversee production, you essentially have to be boots on the ground and eyes in the factory. None of our brands have traveled to a factory.”

On the other end of the supply chain, Anvyl lets brands manage suppliers, find new suppliers, submit RFQs, see cost breakdowns and accept quotes.

The company also looks at each step in between, including trucks, trains, boats and planes so that brands can see, in real time, their products go from being manufactured to delivery.

Anvyl charges brands a monthly fee using a typical SaaS model. On the other end, Anvyl takes a “tiny percentage” of goods being produced within the Anvyl marketplace. The company declined to share actual numbers around pricing.

This latest round brings Anvyl’s total funding to $11.8 million. The company plans to use the funding toward hiring in engineering and marketing, and grow its consumer goods customer base.


By Jordan Crook

Beyond costs, what else can we do to make housing affordable?

This week on Extra Crunch, I am exploring innovations in inclusive housing, looking at how 200+ companies are creating more access and affordability. Yesterday, I focused on startups trying to lower the costs of housing, from property acquisition to management and operations.

Today, I want to focus on innovations that improve housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation, and mental rehabilitation. These include social impact-focused interventions, interventions that increase income and mobility, and ecosystem-builders in housing innovation.

Nonprofits and social enterprises lead many of these innovations. Yet because these areas are perceived to be not as lucrative, fewer technologists and other professionals have entered them. New business models and technologies have the opportunity to scale many of these alternative institutions — and create tremendous social value. Social impact is increasingly important to millennials, with brands like Patagonia having created loyal fan bases through purpose-driven leadership.

While each of these sections could be their own market map, this overall market map serves as an initial guide to each of these spaces.

Social impact innovations

These innovations address:


By Arman Tabatabai

Innovations in inclusive housing

Housing is big money. The industry has trillions under management and hundreds of billions under development.

And investors have noticed the potential. Opendoor raised nearly $1.3 billion to help homeowners buy and sell houses more quickly. Katerra raised $1.2 billion to optimize building development and construction, and Compass raised the same amount to help brokers sell real estate better. Even Amazon and Airbnb have entered the fray with high-profile investments.

Amidst this frenetic growth is the seed of the next wave of innovation in the sector. The housing industry — and its affordability problem — is only likely to balloon. By 2030, 84% of the population of developed countries will live in cities.

Yet innovation in housing lags compared to those of other industries. In construction, a major aspect of housing development, players spend less than 1% of their revenues on research and development. Technology companies, like the Amazons of the world, spend nearly 10% on average.

Innovations in older, highly-regulated industries, like housing and real estate, are part of what Steve Case calls the “third wave” of technology. VCs like Case’s Revolution Fund and the SoftBank Vision Fund are investing billions into what they believe is the future.

These innovations are far from silver bullets, especially if they lack involvement from underrepresented communities, avoid policy, and ignore distributive questions about who gets to benefit from more housing.

Yet there are hundreds of interventions reworking housing that cannot be ignored. To help entrepreneurs, investors, and job seekers interested in creating better housing, I mapped these innovations in this package of articles.

To make sense of this broad field, I categorize innovations into two main groups, which I detail in two separate pieces on Extra Crunch. The first (Part 1) identifies the key phases of developing and managing housing. The second (Part 2) section identifies interventions that contribute to housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation, and mental rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, many of these tools don’t guarantee more affordability. Lowering acquisition costs, for instance, doesn’t mean that renters or homeowners will necessarily benefit from those savings. As a result, some tools likely need to be paired with others to ensure cost savings that benefit end users — and promote long-term affordability. I detail efforts here so that mission-driven advocates as well as startup founders can adopt them for their own efforts.


Topics We Explore

Today:

Coming Tomorrow:

  • Part 2. Other contributions to housing affordability
    • Social Impact Innovations
    • Landlord-Tenant Tools
    • Innovations that Increase Income
    • Innovations that Increase Transit Accessibility and Reduce Parking
    • Innovations that Improve the Ability to Regulate Housing
    • Organizations that Support the Housing Innovation Ecosystem
  • This is Just the Beginning
  • I’m Personally Closely Watching the Following Initiatives.
  • The Limitations of Technology
  • Move Fast and Protect People


Please feel free to let me know what else is exciting by adding a note to your LinkedIn invite here.

If you’re excited about this topic, feel free to subscribe to my future of inclusive housing newsletter by viewing a past issue here.


By Arman Tabatabai

Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.


By Arman Tabatabai

India’s Locus raises $22 million to expand its logistics management business

Locus, an Indian startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, has raised $22 million in Series B funding to expand its operations in international markets.

The financing round for the four-year-old startup was led by Falcon Edge Capital and Tiger Global Management . Existing investors Exfinity Venture Partners and Blume Ventures also participated in the round. The startup has raised $29 million to date, Nishith Rastogi, co-founder and CEO of Locus, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Locus works with companies that operate in FMCG, logistics, and e-commerce spaces. Some of its clients include Tata Group companies, Myntra, BigBasket, Lenskart, and Bluedart. It helps these clients automate their logistics workload — tasks such as planning, organizing, transporting and tracking of inventories, and finding the best path to reach a destination — that have traditionally required intensive human labor.

“Say a Lenskart representative is visiting a house or an office to offer an eye checkup, and suddenly two more people there are interested in getting their eyes checked. The representative could attend these two new potential clients, or wrap things up with the first client and take care of his or her next appointment,” said Rastogi.

Locus looks at a client’s past data, identifies patterns, and automates these kind of decisions on a large scale. In an example shared earlier with TechCrunch, Rastogi talked about how Locus had built a scanner for ecommerce companies for measuring products.

Rastogi said he will use the fresh capital to develop products and expand Locus in Southeast Asian and North American markets. The startup says half of its 110 people workforce is outside of India. Half of the IP it has built and the revenue it generates comes from its team outside of India.

He said the startup has spent the recent quarters studying these international markets, and has secured some anchor clients to expand the business. Locus is operationally profitable already and any additional capital goes into expanding its business, he added.

The logistics market in India has long been riddled with challenges. A growing number of startups, including BlackBuck — which raised $150 million last week — have emerged in recent years to tackle these problems.

The new funding also illustrates Tiger Global Management’s new strategy for the Indian market. The VC fund, which has invested in B2C businesses Flipkart and Ola in India, has made a number of investments in B2B startups in recent months. Last month, it invested $90 million in agri-tech supply chain startup Ninjacart, and weeks later, it gave cloud-based solutions provider Zenoti $50 million.


By Manish Singh

Logistics startup Zencargo raises $20M to take on the antiquated business of freight forwarding

Move over, Flexport. There is another player looking to make waves in the huge and messy business of freight logistics. Zencargo — a London startup that has built a platform that uses machine learning and other new technology to rethink how large shipping companies and their customers manage and move cargo, or freight forwarding as it’s known in the industry — has closed a Series A round of funding of about $19 million.

Zencargo’s cofounder and head of growth Richard Fattal said in an interview that the new funds will be used to continue building its software, specifically to develop more tools for the manufacturers and others who use its platform to predict and manage how cargo is moved around the world.

The Series A brings the total raised by Zencargo to $20 million. This latest round was led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures. Tom Stafford, managing partner at DST Global; Pentland Ventures; and previous investors Samos, LocalGlobe and Picus Capital, all also participated in the round.

Zencargo is not disclosing its valuation, nor its current revenues, but Fattal said that in the last 12 months it has seen its growth grow six times over. The company (for now) also does not explicitly name clients but Fattal notes that they include large e-commerce companies, retailers and manufacturers, including several of the largest businesses in Europe. (One of them at least appears to be Amazon: Zencargo provides integrated services to ship goods to Amazon fulfilment centers.)

Shipping — be by land, air or sea — is one of the cornerstones of the global economy. While we are increasingly hearing a mantra to “buy local”, the reality of how the mass-market world of trade works, is that components for things are not often made in the same place where the ultimate item is assembled, and our on-demand digital culture has created an expectation and competitive market for more than what we can source in our backyards.

For companies like Zencargo, that creates a two-fold opportunity: to ship finished goods — be it clothes, food or anything — to meet those consumer demands wherever they are; and to ship components for those goods — be it electronics, textiles or flour — to produce those goods elsewhere, wherever that business happens to be.

Ironically, while we have seen a lot of technology applied to other aspects of the economics equation — we can browse an app anytime and anywhere to buy something, for example — the logistics of getting the basics to the right place are now only just catching up.

Alex Hersham, another of Zencargo’s co-founders who is also the CEO (the third is Jan Riethmayer, the CTO), estimates that there is some $1.1 trillion “left on the table” from all of the inefficiencies in the supply chain related to things not being in stock when needed, or overstocked, and other inventory mistakes.

Fattal notes that a lot of what Zencargo is not only trying to replace things like physical paperwork, faxes, and silos of information variously held by shipping companies and the businesses that use them — but the whole understanding and efficiency (or lack thereof) that underlies how everything moves, and in turn the kinds of businesses that can be built as a result.

“Global trade is an enormous market, one of the last to be disrupted by technology,” Fattal said. “We want not just to be a better freight forwarder but we want people to think differently about commerce. Given a choice, where is it best to situate a supplier? Or how much stock do I order? How do I move this cargo from one place to another? When you have a lot of variability in the supply chain, these are difficult tasks to manage, but by unlocking the data in the supply chain you can really change the whole decision making process.”

Zencargo is just getting started on that. Flexport, one of its biggest startup competitors, in February raised $1 billion at a $3.2 billion valuation led by Softbank to double down on its own freight forwarding business, platform and operations. But as Christian Saller, a partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures describes it, there is still a lot of opportunity out there and room for more than one disruptor.

“It’s such a big market that is so broken,” he said. “Right now it’s not about winner-take-all.”


By Ingrid Lunden

The limits of coworking

It feels like there’s a WeWork on every street nowadays. Take a walk through midtown Manhattan (please don’t actually) and it might even seem like there are more WeWorks than office buildings.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @[email protected].

Co-working has permeated cities around the world at an astronomical rate. The rise has been so remarkable that even the headline-dominating SoftBank seems willing to bet the success of its colossal Vision Fund on the shift continuing, having poured billions into WeWork – including a recent $4.4 billion top-up that saw the co-working king’s valuation spike to $45 billion.

And there are no signs of the trend slowing down. With growing frequency, new startups are popping up across cities looking to turn under-utilized brick-and-mortar or commercial space into low-cost co-working options.

It’s a strategy spreading through every type of business from retail – where companies like Workbar have helped retailers offer up portions of their stores – to more niche verticals like parking lots – where companies like Campsyte are transforming empty lots into spaces for outdoor co-working and corporate off-sites. Restaurants and bars might even prove most popular for co-working, with startups like Spacious and KettleSpace turning restaurants that are closed during the day into private co-working space during their off-hours.

Before you know it, a startup will be strapping an Aeron chair to the top of a telephone pole and calling it “WirelessWorking”.

But is there a limit to how far co-working can go? Are all of the storefronts, restaurants and open spaces that line city streets going to be filled with MacBooks, cappuccinos and Moleskine notebooks? That might be too tall a task, even for the movement taking over skyscrapers.

The co-working of everything

Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov / iStock via Getty Images

So why is everyone trying to turn your favorite neighborhood dinner spot into a part-time WeWork in the first place? Co-working offers a particularly compelling use case for under-utilized space.

First, co-working falls under the same general commercial zoning categories as most independent businesses and very little additional infrastructure – outside of a few extra power outlets and some decent WiFi – is required to turn a space into an effective replacement for the often crowded and distracting coffee shops used by price-sensitive, lean, remote, or nomadic workers that make up a growing portion of the workforce.

Thus, businesses can list their space at little-to-no cost, without having to deal with structural layout changes that are more likely to arise when dealing with pop-up solutions or event rentals.

On the supply side, these co-working networks don’t have to purchase leases or make capital improvements to convert each space, and so they’re able to offer more square footage per member at a much lower rate than traditional co-working spaces. Spacious, for example, charges a monthly membership fee of $99-$129 dollars for access to its network of vetted restaurants, which is cheap compared to a WeWork desk, which can cost anywhere from $300-$800 per month in New York City.

Customers realize more affordable co-working alternatives, while tight-margin businesses facing increasing rents for under-utilized property are able to pool resources into a network and access a completely new revenue stream at very little cost. The value proposition is proving to be seriously convincing in initial cities – Spacious told the New York Times, that so many restaurants were applying to join the network on their own volition that only five percent of total applicants were ultimately getting accepted.

Basically, the business model here checks a lot of the boxes for successful marketplaces: Acquisition and transaction friction is low for both customers and suppliers, with both seeing real value that didn’t exist previously. Unit economics seem strong, and vetting on both sides of the market creates trust and community. Finally, there’s an observable network effect whereby suppliers benefit from higher occupancy as more customers join the network, while customers benefit from added flexibility as more locations join the network.

… Or just the co-working of some things

Photo: Caiaimage / Robert Daly via Getty Images

So is this the way of the future? The strategy is really compelling, with a creative solution that offers tremendous value to businesses and workers in major cities. But concerns around the scalability of demand make it difficult to picture this phenomenon becoming ubiquitous across cities or something that reaches the scale of a WeWork or large conventional co-working player.

All these companies seem to be competing for a similar demographic, not only with one another, but also with coffee shops, free workspaces, and other flexible co-working options like Croissant, which provides members with access to unused desks and offices in traditional co-working spaces. Like Spacious and KettleSpace, the spaces on Croissant own the property leases and are already built for co-working, so Croissant can still offer comparatively attractive rates.

The offer seems most compelling for someone that is able to work without a stable location and without the amenities offered in traditional co-working or office spaces, and is also price sensitive enough where they would trade those benefits for a lower price. Yet at the same time, they can’t be too price sensitive, where they would prefer working out of free – or close to free – coffee shops instead of paying a monthly membership fee to avoid the frictions that can come with them.

And it seems unclear whether the problem or solution is as poignant outside of high-density cities – let alone outside of high-density areas of high-density cities.

Without density, is the competition for space or traffic in coffee shops and free workspaces still high enough where it’s worth paying a membership fee for? Would the desire for a private working environment, or for a working community, be enough to incentivize membership alone? And in less-dense and more-sprawl oriented cities, members could also face the risk of having to travel significant distances if space isn’t available in nearby locations.

While the emerging workforce is trending towards more remote, agile and nomadic workers that can do more with less, it’s less certain how many will actually fit the profile that opts out of both more costly but stable traditional workspaces, as well as potentially frustrating but free alternatives. And if the lack of density does prove to be an issue, how many of those workers will live in hyper-dense areas, especially if they are price-sensitive and can work and live anywhere?

To be clear, I’m not saying the companies won’t see significant growth – in fact, I think they will. But will the trend of monetizing unused space through co-working come to permeate cities everywhere and do so with meaningful occupancy? Maybe not. That said, there is still a sizable and growing demographic that need these solutions and the value proposition is significant in many major urban areas.

The companies are creating real value, creating more efficient use of wasted space, and fixing a supply-demand issue. And the cultural value of even modestly helping independent businesses keep the lights on seems to outweigh the cultural “damage” some may fear in turning them into part-time co-working spaces.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:


By Arman Tabatabai

Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @[email protected].

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:


By Arman Tabatabai

BlueCargo optimizes stacks of containers for maximum efficiency

Meet BlueCargo, a logistics startup focused on seaport terminals. The company was part of Y Combinator’s latest batch and recently raised a $3 million funding round from 1984 Ventures, Green Bay Ventures, Sound Ventures, Kima Ventures and others.

If you picture a terminal, chances are you see huge piles of containers. But current sorting methods are not efficient at all. Yard cranes end up moving a ton of containers just to reach a container sitting at the bottom of the pile.

BlueCargo wants to optimize those movements by helping you store containers at the right spot. The first container that is going to leave the terminal is going to be at the top of the pile.

“Terminals spend a lot of time making unproductive or undesired movements,” co-founder and CEO Alexandra Griffon told me. “And yet, terminals only generate revenue every time they unload or load a container.”

Right now, ERP-like solutions only manage containers according to a handful of business rules that don’t take into account the timeline of a container. Empty containers are all stored in one area, containers with dangerous goods are in another area, etc.

The startup leverages as much data as possible on each container — where it’s coming from, the type of container, if it’s full or empty, the cargo ship that carried it, the time of the year and more.

Every time BlueCargo works with a new terminal, the startup collects past data and processes it to create a model. The team can then predict how BlueCargo can optimize the terminal.

“At Saint-Nazaire, we could save 22 percent on container shifting,” Griffon told me.

The company will test its solution in Saint-Nazaire in December. It integrates directly with existing ERP solutions. Cranes already scan container identification numbers. BlueCargo could then instantly push relevant information to crane operators so that they know where to put down a container.

Saint-Nazaire is a relatively small port compared to the biggest European ports. But the company is already talking with terminals in Long Beach, one of the largest container ports in the U.S.

BlueCargo also knows that it needs to tread carefully — many companies already promised magical IT solutions in the past. But it hasn’t changed much in seaports.

That’s why the startup wants to be as seamless as possible. It only charges fees based on shifting savings — 30 percent of what it would have cost you with the old model. And it doesn’t want to alter workflows for people working at terminals — it’s like an invisible crane that helps you work faster.

There are six dominant players managing terminals around the world. If BlueCargo can convince those companies to work with the startup, it would represent a good business opportunity.


By Romain Dillet