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Alex Mike

Connected Cannabis Co. was founded in 2009 and has since grown to become a leading cultivator of designer cannabis strains. Today, the company announced $30 million in debt and equity financing. This comes after the company raised a $25 million Series A in 2019. The new round was led by existing investors including Navy Capital and One Tower Group. Emerald Park Capital, an affiliate of Bryant Park Capital, and Presidio View Capital also participated.

Currently, Connected Cannabis Co. operates cultivation and retail facilities in California and Arizona. With the additional financing, it intends to expand elsewhere. The company says it plans on focusing on states with robust cannabis cultures and promising outlook for growth such as Nevada and Michigan.

“We’re thrilled to bring Emerald Park Capital and Presidio into the Connected family and welcome back our long-term partners that have supported our company’s mission from the very beginning,” said Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected. “We are steadfast in our development of new, best-in-class genetics and our production of top-quality flower that has resulted in impressive growth and unwavering customer loyalty. That same commitment and quality that we’ve prided ourselves on from day one will stay with us as we enter additional states. We look forward to bringing our true product and brand to consumers in new markets – that is our highest priority every time we look at expansion.”

Connected Cannabis is among a growing number of cannabis-focused companies amassing a war chest ahead of expanding outside of select regions. As more states in the United States legalize cannabis, more companies are exploring expansion options. Strict federal regulations often slow the process and make it cumbersome for cultivators like Connected to operate in different states, which often have different regulations and federal law prohibits interstate commerce.

Growing cannabis is easy. The plant is hardy is hearty and forgiving. Growing cannabis at scale is anything but hearty and forgiving, which is why Connected turned to additional funding to fuel its national growth.

Alex Mike

Offering a respite from processed foods for the richest 20% of Americans, Simple Feast has landed on U.S. shores with a mission to expand its presence on the back of $45 million in financing from investors.

The European startup is looking to take a page from the shouty LIVEKINDLY Collective playbook and take on the U.S. market with gourmet prepared meals that come with a gourmet price tag and a mission to make Americans eat less meat by proffering more tasty and delicious vegetarian options.

It’s a strategy that netted LIVEKINDLY Collective’s business $335 million in a recent round of funding, making it one of the most well capitalized new entrants in the vegetarian food brand category.

“There’s a general health problem that’s coming mostly from what we put in our mouth,” said Jakob Jønck, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

For folks in the U.S. who can afford it, Simple Feast is offering packaged meal kits with menus developed by chefs from some of the world’s highest end restaurants — place like French Laundry in California or Noma in Norway, where meals can run roughly $350 per-person.

A selection of three prepared meals for two-to-three people will run customers around $98 per-week and for a family of four or five that number jumps to $159 per-week.

Simple Feast’s foray into the US market represents just a small portion of the company’s total offerings. In the Nordic region the company offers about 30 different products all targeting people who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat.

Investors certainly love the company’s offering, because, as Jønck says, the products probably represent the highest margin in the meal kit category.

Those financiers include firms like the European venture capitalists Balderton Capital and Kinnevik, and New York-based 14W.

As for the company’s customers, they’re mostly moms with kids whose income puts them in the top 20% of the population. While they may be far more wealthy than the hoi polloi, Jønck said they still suffer from exposure to the worst aspects of America’s industrial food machine — highly processed foods that are causing an explosion in chronic health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Data from places like the Rand Institute indicate that in America, the burden of insufficient nutrition and the chronic conditions that stem from that are disproportionately affecting low income and middle income families.

Health is a problem in the U.S. with $794 billion per year estimated to be lost in productivity between 2016 and 2030. An article from HealthAffairs cited research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimates stating that health inequities and premature death cost the US economy $309.3 billion a year.

However, these costs are primarily born by the poorest Americans, particularly minorities. “People of color face higher rates of diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and cancer than whites,” the HealthAffairs article says.

Simple Feast is working to correct that, says Jønck. The company’s European packaged prepared meals available in retail stores cost around $15, he said, and the company will offer salaries far above the minimum wage in the U.S. to do its part in ameliorating some of the wealth disparity in the country.

“This is a general play on an industry that needs to change for the ground up. This system needs to change,” Jønck said. 

 

Alex Mike

Wire, the end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service, has raised a $21 million Series B funding round led by UVC Partners. As the company said a couple of years ago, the company is focusing on the enterprise market more than ever.

While Wire started as a consumer app, it never managed to attract hundreds of millions of customers like other messaging apps. That doesn’t mean that Wire is a bad product.

The app lets you securely talk with other people using text messages, photos, videos and voice messages. You can also start a video call and send files with other users. Wire supports both one-to-one conversations as well as rooms.

Everything is end-to-end encrypted by default, which means that the company can’t decrypt your conversations, can’t hand them over to a court or can’t expose your conversations to a potential hacker. You can also view the source code on GitHub.

In 2019, the company told TechCrunch that it would open a holding company in the U.S. to raise some funding. The idea was to double down on enterprise customers to find a clear path toward profitability. And this focus hasn’t changed since then.

“If I think back on the evolution of the business – three years ago we had zero revenue and zero customers – whereas today we’re announcing a B round and we have clearly established a well-recognised enterprise brand amongst the likes of Gartner, which is one of the things I am extremely proud of,” Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger told me.

“I also think that with the focus on a revenue-generating, enterprise business, we avoid situations like WhatsApp, where the only model you can ultimately turn to is monetising data,” he added.

And it seems to be working well when it comes to revenue growth. Right now, Wire has 1,800 customers. The number of customers has increased by almost 50% over the past year.

The company focuses on large customers, such as big corporations and government customers with a ton of potential users. Five G7 governments are currently using Wire. Overall, revenue has tripled in 2020.

In addition to working on Messaging Layer Security (MLS), Wire has been focused on improving conference calls and real-time interactions. The company believes messaging apps and real-time collaboration apps are slowly converging. And the startup wants to offer a service that works well across various scenarios.

You can also expect more end-to-end encrypted services in the collaboration space. Wire is still relatively small with 90 employees, which means it has room to grow and iterate.

Alex Mike

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

Alex Mike

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Docosan helps patients avoid long waits by letting them search and book doctors through its app. The company announced today it has raised more than $1 million in seed funding, which is claims is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a Vietnamese healthtech startup. The investment was led by AppWorks, the Taiwan-based early-stage investor and accelerator program, with participation from David Ma and Huat Ventures.

Founded in 2020, the app has been used by about 50,000 patients for bookings and now has more than 300 individual healthcare providers, ranging from small family pediatric clinics to neurosurgeons at large private hospitals, co-founder and chief executive officer Beth Ann Lopez told TechCrunch. Providers are vetted before being added to the platform and have on average 18 years of clinical experience.

Lopez said advance doctor bookings aren’t the norm in Vietnam. Instead, people who use private healthcare providers have to “choose between over 30,000 private hospitals and clinics spread across the hospital with huge variations in price and quality. This is why people use word of mouth recommendations from their family and friends to choose a healthcare provider. Then they show up at a hospital or clinic and wait in line, sometimes for hours.”

Docosan’s users can filter providers with criteria like location and specialty, and see pricing information and verified customer reviews. It recently added online payment features and insurance integrations. The company, which took part in Harvard’s Launch Lab X plans to launch telehealth and pharmacy services as well.

For healthcare providers on the app, Docosan provides software to manage bookings and ease wait times, a key selling point during the COVID-19 pandemic because many people are reluctant to sit in crowded waiting rooms. Lopez said another benefit is reducing the number of marketing and adminstrative tasks doctors have to do, allowing them to spend more time with patients.

The startup plans to expand into other countries. “Docosan is a solution that works well anywhere with a large, fragmented private healthcare system,” said Lopez. “We would all benefit from a world in which it’s as easy to find a great doctor as it is a book a Grab taxi.”

In press statement, AppWorks partner Andy Tsai said, “We noticed Docosan’s potential early on because of its participation in the AppWorks Accelerator. Docosan’s founders demonstrated strong experience and dedication to the healthcare issues in the region. We are proud to be supporting Docosan’s vision of better healthcare access for all.”

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