Helium launches $51M-funded “LongFi” IoT alternative to cellular

With 200X the range of WiFi at 1/1000th of the cost of a cellular modem, Helium’s “LongFi” wireless network debuts today. Its transmitters can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars, and collect data from infrastructure sensors. The catch is that Helium’s tiny, extremely low-power, low-data transmission chips rely on connecting to P2P Helium Hotspots people can now buy for $495. Operating those hotspots earns owners a cryptocurrency token Helium promises will be valuable in the future…

The potential of a new wireless standard has allowed Helium to raise $51 million over the past few years from GV, Khosla Ventures, and Marc Benioff including a new $15 million round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Multicoin Capital. That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventer Shawn Fanning. Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like WiFi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.

Helium already has some big partners lined up including Lime, which will test it for tracking its lost and stolen scooters and bikes when they’re brought indoors obscuring other connectivity or their battery is pulled out deactivating GPS. “It’s an ultra low-cost version of a LoJack” Helium CEO Amir Haleem says.

InvisiLeash will partner with it to build more trackable pet collars. Agulus will pull data from irrigation valves and pumps for its agriculture tech business, Nestle will track when its time to refill water in its ReadyRefresh coolers at offices, and Stay Alfred will use it to track occupancy status and air quality in buildings. Haleem also imagines the tech being useful for tracking wildfires or radiation.

Haleem met Fanning playing video games in the 2000s. They teamed up with Fanning and Sproutling baby monitor (sold to Mattel) founder Chris Bruce in 2013 to start work on Helium. They foresaw a version of Tile’s trackers that could function anywhere while replacing expensive cell connections for devices that don’t need high-bandwith. Helium will compete with SigFox, another lower-power IoT protocol, though Haleem claims its more centralized infrastructure costs are prohibitive. Lucky for Helium, on-demand rental bikes and scooters that are perfect for its network have reached mainstream popularity just as Helium launches six years after its start.

Helium says its already pre-sold 80% of its Helium Hotspots for its first market in Austin, Texas. People connect them to their Wifi and put in their window so thee devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices. The Helium Hotspots only require as much energy as a 12-watt LED lightbulb to run, but that $495 price tag is steep. The lack of a concrete return on investment could deter later adopters from buying the expensive device.

Only 150-200 hotspots are necessary to blanket a city in connectivity, Haleem tells me. But since they need to be distributed across the landscape so a client can’t just fill their warehouse with the hotspots and the upfront price is expensive for individuals, Helium might need to sign up some retail chains as partners for deployment. Haleem admits “The hard part is the education”. Making hotspot buyers understand the potential (and risks) while demonstrating the opportunities for clients will require a ton of outreach and slick marketing.

Without enough Helium Hotspots, the Helium network won’t function. That means this startup will have to simultaneously win at telecom technology, enterprise sales, and cryptocurrency for the network to pan out. As if one of those wasn’t hard enough.


By Josh Constine

Uber envisions Uber Air will one day be cheaper than owning a car

Uber has big dreams for Uber Air, the flying taxi service it’s wanting to launch in 2023. At the third annual Uber Elevate, head of Elevate Eric Allison said the company expects Uber Air to be cheaper than driving a car. It surely won’t be that way on day one, but once Uber deploys fully electric, autonomous shared vehicles, Allison said it will be more economical than driving a car.

“Our vision is that on a daily basis it’ll be more economically rational for you to fly than for you to drive,” he said.

At launch, Uber Air will be cheaper than a helicopter ride. This is a worthy comparison, given Uber unveiled its costly Uber Copter service last week as phase one of Uber Air. In the near term, Uber predicts Air will be comparable to the cost of Uber X and Uber Pool. Long term, which is probably at least more than five years from now, Uber Air will be more economical than owning a car, Allison said.

This, of course, is Uber’s best-case scenario for Air. In order for Uber Air to become a reality, it needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the cities where it wants to land its electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, help from real estate developers, customer trust and so much more. If all goes according to Uber’s plan, it will start testing this service next year and deploy it to the public in 2023.


By Megan Rose Dickey

Uber and AT&T team up for always-on connectivity for Uber Copter and Uber Air

Uber is partnering with mobile network operator AT&T on the always-on connectivity it’ll require for its aerial transportation service network. The on-demand mobility company announced the team-up at its annual Elevate Summit, which brings together a number of key players working toward making affordable, accessible in-city aerial transit a reality.

Uber said that it’s already working with AT&T on the network it’ll use for Uber Copter, the Manhattan-to-JFK helicopter-based service that it’s launching in New York in July. The service is promising connection with ground transportation at both ends, and it’s also anticipating travel times and working backwards to provide transportation on-demand as needed to get passengers to their destination at the time they request. So, for instance, Uber Copter customers could say they need to be at JFK by 5 PM and the app will figure out when they need to get a car to get to the heliport to make that work.

This is just the first step in a broader-ranging partnership Uber Elevate Head of Product Nikhil Goel described that will eventually scale to cover all of its needs for Uber Air, the service it aims to provide that will provide on-demand short-distance air travel within cities, with a targeted launch time frame of 2023. Goel noted that this will also include leveraging AT&T’s 5G network as it rolls out, which should provide exactly the kind of high-bandwidth, always-on reliability needed for this kind of aerial and ground-based integrated transportation network.


By Darrell Etherington

Over 1,400 self-driving vehicles are now in testing by 80+ companies across the US

In a talk at the Uber Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., today, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao shared a total overall figure for ongoing testing of autonomous vehicles on U.S roads: More than 1,400 self-driving cars, trucks and other vehicles are currently in testing by more than 80 companies across 36 U.S. states, plus DC itself.

This puts some sense of overall scale to the work being done to test and develop self-driving car tech in the U.S. For context, note that California, one of the first states to have implemented AV testing on public roads, currently has 62 companies registered to perform testing — which represents a significant chunk of that 80-plus figure provided by Secretary Chao.

Chao also shared that there are more than 1.59 million registered drones currently in the U.S., of which more than 372,000 are classified as commercial, with more than 136,000 registered commercial drone operators also on the books. That represents a net new job category, Chao noted.

The secretary also later emphasized that the DoT over which she presides and the current administration aim to be “tech neutral, and not command and control” and that the department is not “in the business of picking winners and losers,” something she said the assembled audience of mostly private-sector attendants would be “so pleased to hear.”

Under Chao, the DoT has introduced and continues to overhaul guidelines, rules and programs that favor and unblock industry and commercial access to autonomous driving, drone operation and spacecraft launch capabilities. Recently, Chao has come under fire for potential conflict of interest related to use of her position.


By Darrell Etherington

72 hours left on early-bird savings for TC Sessions: Mobility 2019

We’re totally stoked to see all of you at TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 on July 10 in San Jose, Calif. That’s slightly less than a month away, and if you want to save on the price of admission, you need to play beat the clock. Early-bird pricing ends on Friday, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

That’s a hundred bucks, people. Why pay more? Buy your early-bird ticket now and save that Benjamin for a rainy day.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 is a day-long conference focusing on the current and future state of mobility and transportation. More than 1,000 members of these communities — founders, technologists, engineering students and investors — will gather to learn, share, demo and network.

TechCrunch editors will interview some of the best minds and makers in mobility and transportation — the people making it happen. They’ll look at the promises, expose the hype and address the complex challenges inherent in these revolutionary industries.

Autonomous vehicles are a hot topic, and you’ll hear a lot on that subject. We can’t wait to hear from Jesse Levinson, co-founder and CTO of Zoox. He oversees the company’s software, artificial intelligence, computing and sensing platforms. He’ll talk with us about the company’s deployment plans and the challenges ahead.

The jam-packed agenda includes some of the transportation industry’s biggest names. Folks like Seleta Reynolds of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington, Mobileye co-founder and CEO Amnon Shashua, Karl Iagnemma of Aptiv, Alisyn Malek with May Mobility and Dmitri Dolgov at Waymo.

What’s happening with mobility investment? We’ve got that covered, too. You’ll hear from Michael Granoff (Maniv Mobility), Ted Serbinski (Techstars) and Sarah Smith (Bain Capital).

Here’s another way to experience TC Sessions: Mobility 2019. Buy a demo table. You won’t find a better place to showcase your mobility startup to a more targeted, influential audience. We’re talking founders, investors, technologists and media. The price includes three attendee tickets for extra ROI.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 takes place July 10 in San Jose, Calif. It’s time to play beat the clock. Early-bird pricing ends in 72 hours on Friday, June 14 at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Buy your ticket today and save $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


By Emma Comeau

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

Lola.com raises $37M to take on SAP and others in the world of business travel

Business customers continue to be a huge target for the travel industry, and today a startup has raised a tidy sum to help it double down on the $1.7 trillion opportunity. Lola.com — a platform for business users to book and manage trips — has raised $37 million to continue building out its technology and hire more talent as it takes on incumbents like SAP targeting the corporate sector.

The Series C is led by General Catalyst and Accel, with participation from CRV, Tenaya Capital and GV. All are previous investors. We are asking about the valuation but it looks like prior to this, the company had raised just under $65 million, and its last post-money valuation, in 2017, was $100 million, according to PitchBook.

There are signs that the valuation will have had a bump in this round. The company said in 2018, its bookings have gone up by 423 percent, with revenues up 786 percent, although it’s not disclosing what the actual figures are for either.

“As business travelers have become increasingly mobile, Lola.com’s mission is to completely transform the landscape of corporate travel management,” said Mike Volpe, CEO of Lola.com, who took the top role at the company last year. “The continued support of our investors underscores the market potential, which is leading us to expand our partner ecosystem and double our headcount across engineering, sales and marketing. At the core, we continue to invest in building the best, simplest corporate travel management platform in the industry.”

Co-founded by Paul English and Bill O’Donnell — respectively, the former CTO/co-founder and chief architect of the wildly successful consumer travel booking platform Kayak — Lola originally tried to fix the very thing that Kayak and others like it had disrupted: it was designed as a platform for people to connect to live agents to help them organise their travel. That larger cruise ship might have already said, however (so to speak), and so the company later made a pivot to cater to a more specific demographic in the market that often needs and expects the human touch when arranging logistics: the business user.

Its unique selling point has not been just to provide a pain-free “agile” platform to make bookings, but for the platform’s human agents to be proactively pinging business users when there are modifications to a booking (for example because of flight delays), and offering help when needed to sort out the many aspects of modern travel that can be painful and time consuming for busy working people, such as technical issues around a frequent flyer program.

Lola.com is not the only one to spot the opportunity there. To further diversify its business and to move into higher-margin, bigger-ticket offerings, Airbnb has also been slowly building out its own travel platform targeting business customers by adding in hotels and room bookings.

There are others that are either hoping to bypass or complement existing services with their own takes on how to improve business travel such as TravelPerk (most recent raise: $44 million), Travelstop (an Asia-focused spin), and TripActions (most recently valued at $1 billion), to name a few. That speaks to an increasingly crowded market of players that are competing against incumbents like SAP, which owns Concur, Hipmunk and a plethora of other older services.

Lola.com has made some interesting headway in its own approach to the market, by partnering with one of the names most synonymous with corporate spending, American Express, and specifically a JV it is involved in called American Express Global Business Travel.

“Lola.com offers an incredibly simple solution to corporate travel management, which enables American Express Global Business Travel to take our value proposition to even more companies across the middle market,” said Evan Konwiser, VP of Product Strategy and Marketing for American Express GBT, in a statement.


By Ingrid Lunden

DeepMap, a maker of HD maps for self-driving, raised at least $60M at a $450M valuation

As car and tech companies continue to make inroads on vehicles and services to build autonomous driving systems, a startup that is creating high-definition maps to help these vehicles move around has quietly picked up a significant round of funding.

DeepMap — a Palo Alto startup co-founded by James Wu and Mark Wheeler, who previously helped build maps and more at Google, Apple and Baidu — has raised a significant round of growth funding at a valuation of at least $475 million to expand its technology stack and its reach into more markets beyond its current footprint of the US and China.

Founded in 2016, DeepMap has been relatively quiet since raising $25 million in 2017, but news about this round has been trickling out for the last few months. In July, the company filed papers for a $60 million Series B round. In August, it noted that Nvidia had joined the round, which by that point was “oversubscribed” but still not closed.

And today, Generation Investment Management — the VC firm that counts former Vice President Al Gore and others among its co-founders — also confirmed that it is part of that Series B, along with previous investors Andreessen Horowitz, Accel Partners, and GSR Ventures, and new investor Robert Bosch Venture Capital. PitchBook notes that the round puts the valuation of DeepMap at $450 million post-money. However, with Generation added to the mix, both the size of the Series B and the valuation might both be higher.

We’ve asked and Generation and DeepMap are not disclosing those details, but they have said that the investment is being made because the interests of the startup are in line with that of the VC.

“DeepMap and Generation share the deeply-held belief that autonomous vehicles will lead to environmental and social benefits,” said Wu, who is the CEO of DeepMap (Wheeler is the CTO), in a statement. “We are delighted to work with the talented team at Generation. We consider Generation to be a value-added investor, whose insights and mission-aligned network will be of great advantage as we scale, especially in Europe.”

DeepMap is not exactly in stealth mode, but it also doesn’t disclose much about what it is working on specifically, nor how the funding will be used. (But it is hiring, mostly in engineering roles, in Palo Alto and Beijing.)

Companies like Waymo are expanding their autonomous driving tests, Lyft is buying companies to help ingest more driving data more easily, and just this week Baidu announced new car plans with Volvo and Ford, but there are still some crucial pieces that need to be put in place for self-driving to become a wide-scale reality, and one of them is building systems that have an accurate reading of the roads that they are driving on.

HD mapping will play a key role in that regard, helping make systems more accurate with real-time localization features that respond to road types and driving conditions. DeepMap says that it provides centimeter-specific accuracy using “real-world data, not models” and the ability to incorporate 3D landmark features and full 3D environments using “true LiDAR intensity and RGB values data” for simulation tools.

While DeepMap does not detail its products on its site, one report describes its offering as including hardware tools, software solutions, field data collection services, and a service that is able to translate the self-driving fleet data that companies are now in the process of collecting “into their own personalized HD maps.” The same report claimed that DeepMap charges about $5,000 per kilometer for mapping services in the US.

DeepMap is also not the only company working on addressing this need for better and more accurate mapping: mapping startup Camera is also raising money to build its service; DeepMap’s investor NVIDIA is also working on this problem; and lvl5 is another name we’ve also seen mentioned in this context.

The funding, and these partnerships, will likely help DeepMap cement its position on the map, so to speak as all of these continue to grow.

“DeepMap is perfectly placed to address the imminent needs of autonomous vehicles. These vehicles will require HD maps and localization modules which are real-time, scalable, economically-viable, and machine-readable, something which DeepMap can deliver through its unique approach,” said Lilly Wollman, Co-Head of Generation’s Growth Equity team, in a statement. “We are very excited to partner with one of the most technically impressive and experienced teams in the industry.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Here’s Mary Meeker’s essential 2018 Internet Trends report

Want to understand all the most important tech stats and trends? Legendary venture capitalist Mary Meeker has just released the 2018 version of her famous Internet Trends report. It covers everything from mobile to commerce to the competition between tech giants. Check out the full report below, and we’ll add some highlights soon. Then come back for our slide-by-slide analysis of the most important parts of the 294 page report.

  • Internet adoption: As of 2018, half the world population, or about 3.6 billion people, will be on the internet. That’s thanks in large part to cheaper Android phones and Wifi becoming more available, though individual services will have a tougher time adding new users as the web hits saturation.
  • Mobile usage: While smartphone shipments are flat and internet user growth is slowing, U.S. adults are spending more time online thanks to mobile, clocking 5.9 hours per day in 2017 versus 5.6 hours in 2016.
  • Mobile ads: People are shifting their time to mobile faster than ad dollars are following, creating a $7 billion mobile ad opportunity, though platforms are increasingly responsible for providing safe content to host those ads.
  • Crypto: Interest in cryptocurrency is exploding as Coinbase’s user count has nearly quadrupled since January 2017
  • Voice: Voice technology is at an inflection point due to speech recognition hitting 95% accuracy and the sales explosion for Amazon Echo which went from over 10 million to over 30 million sold in total by the end of 2017.
  • Daily usage – Revenue gains for services like Facebook are tightly coupled with daily user growth, showing how profitable it is to become a regular habit.
  • Tech investment: We’re at an all-time high for public and private investment in technology, while the top six public R&D + capex spenders are all technology companies.

Mary Meeker, analyst with Morgan Stanley, speaks during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. This year’s conference, which runs through Nov. 17, is titled “Points of Control: The Battle for the Network Economy.” Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Ecommerce vs Brick & Mortar: Ecommerce growth quickens as now 13% of all retail purchases happen online and parcel shipments are rising swiftly, signaling big opportunities for new shopping apps.
  • Amazon: More people start product searches on Amazon than search engines now, but Jeff Bezos still relies on other surfaces like Facebook and YouTube to inspire people to want things.
  • Subscription services: They’re seeing massive adoption, with Netflix up 25%, The New York Times up 43%, and Spotify up 48% year-over-year in 2017. A free tier accelerates conversion rates.
  • Education: Employees seek retraining and education from YouTube and online courses to keep up with new job requirements and pay off skyrocketing student loan debt.
  • Freelancing: Employees crave scheduling and work-from-home flexibility, and internet discovery of freelance work led it to grow 3X faster than total workforce growth. The on-demand workforce grew 23% in 2017 driven by Uber, Airbnb, Etsy, Upwork, and Doordash.
  • Transportation: People are buying fewer cars, keeping them longer, and shifting transportation spend to rideshare, which saw rides double in 2017.
  • Enterprise: Consumerization of the enterprise through better interfaces is spurring growth for companies like Dropbox and Slack.
  • China: Alibaba is expanding beyond China with strong gross merchandise volume, though Amazon still rules in revenue.
  • Privacy: China has a big opportunity as users there are much more willing to trade their personal data for product benefits than U.S. users, and China is claiming more spots on the top 20 internet company list while making big investments in AI.
  • Immigration: It is critical to a strong economy, as 56% of top U.S. companies were founded by a first- or second-generation immigrant.


By Josh Constine