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Apeel gets more cash to fight poverty and food insecurity in emerging markets with its food-preserving tech

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In the first real test of the potentially transformative power of its food-preserving technology, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Apeel Sciences is bringing its innovative food treatment and supply chain management services to distribution centers in select markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The goal is to alleviate food insecurity among farmers, who comprise one of the most susceptible populations to issues of malnutrition, according to Apeel’s chief executive James Rogers.

“The majority of fruits and vegetables grown on this planet are grown by small farmers and two thirds of the people who are food insecure are also farmers,” said Rogers. 

The reason why farmers are more at-risk than other populations stems from their inability to get the most value out of their crops, because of the threat of spoilage, Rogers said

By introducing its preservative technologies that deter spoilage and providing willing buyers among existing Apeel customers in markets like the U.S., Denmark, Germany and Switzerland Rogers said the company can have an outsized impact to improve the amount of money going into a farmer’s pocket.

“The program with the IFC is to build supply chains out,” he said. “The value is not just in the longer-lasting produce, it’s in the market access for that longer lasting produce.”

The initial markets will be in Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Vietnam where Appeal’s tech will treat avocados, pineapples, asparagus, and citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges.

In some ways it’s the culmination of the work that Appeal has been doing for the past several years, getting grocers around the world to buy into its approach to reducing waste.

The company has always put smallholder farmers at the center of its company mission — ever since Appeal was founded in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development. The intention was always to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables produced by farmers without access to the modern refrigerated supply chain. It’s just that for the past several years, the company had to refine its technology and build out a retail network.

To further that aim, Apeel has raised over $360 million, including a $250 million round of funding which closed earlier this year.

The fruition of Rogers’ plans will be as the company brings demand from international markets to these local growers through regional exporters.

Without access to a refrigerated supply chain, much of what small farmers produce can only reach local markets where supply exceeds demand. The perishability of crops creates market conditions where these fruits and vegetables can’t make it to export, creating market dynamics that exacerbate poverty and increase food loss and food waste among the people who make their living farming, Appeal said.

“With extra time we can link those small producers into the global food system and help them collect the economic value that’s intrinsic to that natural resource,” said Rogers. 

The introduction of new demand from international markets, which can be fulfilled if crops are treated with Appeal’s technology can create a virtuous cycle that will ideally increase prices for crops and bring bigger payouts to farmers. At least that’s the vision that Rogers has for the latest implementations of Appeal’s technology at regional distribution hubs.

There’s the potential that the middle men who’re distributing the produce to foreign buyers may collect most of the value from the introduction of Appeal’s technology, but Rogers dismisses that scenario.

“The work is to incorporate those small producers more directly into the supply chain of the exporter. Now that there’s familiarity with the technology you can utilize the tech to create cooperative value and use those cooperatives to unlock value for the very small producers,” he said. “By growing the demand for produce in those markets that supply has to come from somewhere. The exporters earn their cut on a volume basis. The way they increase their value is to grow their volume. They want to grow the volume that’s suitable for export and the demand. Then the challenge flips and it becomes not a demand challenge but a supply challenge. And they have to incentivize people to feed into that supply.” 

To finance this international rollout, Appeal has raised another $30 million in funding from investors including the International Finance Corp., Temasek and Astanor Ventures .

“Innovative technologies can change the course of development in emerging markets and save livelihoods, economies, and in this case, food,” said Stephanie von Friedeburg, interim Managing Director and Executive Vice President, and Chief Operating Officer, of IFC, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Apeel to invest in a game-changing technology that can limit food waste by half, enhance sustainability, and mitigate climate change.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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AutoX becomes China’s first to remove safety drivers from robotaxis

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Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads.

The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro.

It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure.

As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation.

“We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative.

The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities.

“[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue.

The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date.

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Google faces complaint from NLRB alleging surveillance of employees and other labor violations

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The National Labor Relations Board today issued a complaint against Google after investigating the firing of several employees last November. The complaint alleges Google violated parts of the National Labor Relations Act by surveilling employees, and generally interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB also alleges Google discouraged “its employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities,” the complaint states.

“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” Laurence Berland, one of the fired Google employees, said in a statement. “This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society. Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society.”

Ex-Googlers Berland and Kathryn Spiers previously filed a federal complaint with the NLRB arguing Google fired them for organizing, which is a protected activity. They had organized around a variety of topics, including Google’s treatment of its temporary, vendor and contractor workers, Google’s alleged retaliation against employees who organized, the company’s work with Customs and Border Protection and more.

Additionally, in November 2019, Google put Rebecca Rivers and Berland on leave for allegedly violating company policies. At the time, Google said one had searched for and shared confidential documents that were not pertinent to their job, and one had looked at the individual calendars of some staffers. Following a protest in support of the two, Rivers, Berland, Duke and Waldman were fired.

“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously. We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

This comes shortly after the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Google contractor HCL, alleging the company repeatedly violated the rights of unionized workers. Moving forward, Berland and Spiers are hoping the NLRB prosecutes the case against Google and seeks reinstatement and damages for them. But the next step is for the complaint to head to the desk of an administrative judge.

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Neuroglee gets $2.3 million to develop digital therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases

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There are now about 50 million people with dementia globally, a number the World Health Organization expects to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia and caregivers are often overwhelmed, without enough support.

Neuroglee, a Singapore-based health tech startup, wants to help with a digital therapeutic platform created to treat patients in the early stages of the disease. Founded this year to focus on neurodegenerative diseases, Neuroglee announced today it has raised $2.3 million in pre-seed funding.

The round was led by Eisai Co., one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder and chief executive officer of predictive healthcare startup Biofourmis.

Neuroglee’s prescription digital therapy software for Alzheimer’s, called NG-001, is its main product. The company plans to start clinical trials next year. NG-001 is meant to complement medication and other treatments, and once it is prescribed by a clinician, patients can access its cognitive exercises and tasks through a tablet.

Neuroglee founder and CEO Aniket Singh Rajput (brother of Kuldeep) told TechCrunch that its first target markets for NG-001 are the United States and Singapore, followed by Japan. NG-001 needs to gain regulatory approval in each country, and it will start by seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance.

Once it launches, clinicians will have two ways to prescribe NG-001, through their healthcare provider platform or an electronic prescription tool. A platform called Neuroglee Connect will give clinicians, caregivers and patients access to support and features for reimbursement and coverage.

The software tracks patients’ progress, such as the speed of their fingers and the time it takes to complete an exercise, and delivers personalized treatment programs. It also has features to address the mental health of patients, including one that shows images that can bring up positive memories, which in turn can help alleviate depression and anxiety when used in tandem with other cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

For caregivers and clinicians, NG-001 helps them track patient progress and their compliance with other treatments, like medications. This means that healthcare providers can work closely with patients even remotely, which is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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