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With new cash and a former Apple exec now at the helm, Connect Homes is ready to reconstruct homebuilding

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Greg Leung had worked at Apple for years and was coming off of a stint at the smart lock company Otto, when he got the call to interview with Connect Homes.

The pitch — building a starter home for a much lower cost than other prefabricated houses on the market, and one that could be dropped in to locations in the urban core of most cities — was too good to pass up.

“Basically, it’s a beautiful product, but done in a way that disrupts and transforms the way homes are built,” said Leung.

The homes come in 14 standardized configurations and can scale from 460 square foot up to 3200 square feet. What differentiates the company from its competitors, says Leung, is the speed with which Connect Homes can build a house, putting up a full house in six days.

Not only that, but the homes are able to use standard shipping networks and rail transit to bring their homes anywhere in the country. “We build modules the size of a shipping container, so we can connect to the regular intermodal shipping network,” Leung said.

Interior view of a Connect Homes pre-fabricated home. Image Credit: Connect Homes

The company’s smaller homes run around $174,000 all-in, while a 3200 square foot home costs around $825,000. That’s about half of the cost for a custom home today, Leung said.

“What we’re doing is providing a beautiful, modern, product for half the price of a traditional custom homebuilder,” he said.

Currently, Leung said, there are three types of new construction getting build — new tract homes; multi-family housing units, and high rises. But, there’s an opportunity to infill housing. “70% of the Bay Area and LA were built in the 70s. That means there are millions of homes that are too small and out of date and energy inefficient,” Leung said. “It costs $1 million to $1.5 million to build a home… No one is addressing the urban infill market except for us.”

And Leung’s interest extended beyond the 88 projects that the company has completed for new homeowners. From its Los Angeles headquarters with a factory in San Bernadino, Calif., the company is also looking to change how municipalities and governments think about temporary shelters and living spaces for the unhoused.

Founded by Jared Levy and Gordon Stoddard, two architects who worked in the pre-fabricated building division of the firm Marmol Radziner, Connect Homes had raised $27 million to build out a vision of pre-fab future.

That capital includes a recent $5 million round that served to reboot the company and refocus it around its manufacturing technology that can create deployable shelters alongside its housing work. That was another draw for Leung, whose experience in Northern California made him acutely aware of the housing problem the nation faces.

The single module shelter that the company has developed can be transported and put on site in one day. Adding a generator to the 40 foot by eight foot module the company is building means that the shelter has the flexibility of a trailer, but can be ready for habitation in 24 hours.

“We designed this to sell to municipalities and third party service provider to house people,” Leung said. 

Customers for the new product include the Thatcher School in Ojai and a project in Mountain View, Calif. done in partnership with Life Moves.

Prices for the shelters range between $20,000 and $30,000 per-bed, or $80,000 per module. Those prices compare incredibly favorably to the $500,000 to $1 million communities pay for a bed in permanent supportive housing, said Leung.

Still, the company’s fancy replacements for tent cities don’t do anything to address the underlying housing crisis that cities across the country.

“We’re trying to be the opposite of bespoke housing that we see as part of the problem. The shelters was a reaction to an urgent need. We had the ability to do something innovative to solve the problem,” said Leung. “I don’t see the amazing talent and innovation being applied to this problem. And it’s affecting the well-being and health of millions and millions of people… This is something that will last for possibly lifetimes.”

View of a Connect Homes house being installed. Image Credit: Connect Homes

The attempt to create a new fable for the reconstruction of the building industry is what drew Brick & Mortar Ventures back to the table to recapitalize the company with the new $5 million in cash the company recently secured, according to Darren Bechtel, the founder and managing director of the firm.

A scion of the Bechtel engineering and construction family, Bechtel has a deep knowledge of the industry and sees Connect Homes as one of the best bets to disrupt traditional construction.

“You cannot construct today cheaper than existing assets,” Bechtel said. But, the opportunity to rethink construction as manufacturing is creating an environment that can drive down costs more effectively, he said.

“It’s been a primitive form of manufacturing for some time,” Bechtel said of the housing industry. “The difference from traditional manufacturing and even automobiles, is that when you get to the scale of a house, you exceed the ability to transport that product efficiently from the manufacturing site to the end delivery site.”

That’s the key problem that Bechtel saw Connect Homes solving. “You have to standardize around intermodal shipping or you have to get permits. You are limited on which roads you use,” he said. “If you’re doing a true kit of parts, you’re requiring craft workers to do the finished work on site.”

Connect Homes, said Bechtel, is taking a different approach from the homebuilders that are looking to be mostly vertically integrated. He said Connect Homes was taking a more Apple-like approach where they oversee the product lifecycle and the customer experience. “That’s how you reach global scale and create the VW and Audi of housing,” he said. “A house is the most expensive purchase. The fact that this is still a bespoke product in the vast majority of scenarios doesn’t make sense.”

Bechtel also drew a distinction between the companies that are primarily targeting the accessory dwelling unit market in California and Connect Homes, which has broader aspirations.

“A lot of people who are buying and selling ADUs are getting an extra guest house. They want more space for themselves,” he said. “At a much larger scale if you can take existing housing stocks that are in medium or high density areas that are old properties with larger footprints and you can create two or three housing units in the same spot with new inventory, you’re drastically improving both the quality and the quantity of housing stock.”

That’s the ultimate goal, for Connect Homes, Bechtel said. And it’s going to be returning to market just as that market could be poised to rebound, said Bechtel.

“We believe you’re going to see a massive rebound in the need for housing,” said Bechtel. “The single family housing market will return.” And when it does, Connect Homes will be working on scaling up to meet the new demand.

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

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A leading AI ethics researcher says she’s been fired from Google

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On December 2, the AI research community was shocked to learn that Timnit Gebru had been fired from her post at Google. Gebru, one of the leading voices in responsible AI research, is known among other things for her groundbreaking work in revealing the discriminatory nature of facial recognition, cofounding the Black in AI affinity group, and relentlessly advocating for diversity in the tech industry.

But on Wednesday evening, she announced on Twitter that she had been terminated from her position as Google’s ethical AI co-lead. “Apparently my manager’s manager sent an email [to] my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn’t resigned,” she said.

In an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday, Gebru said that the firing happened after a protracted fight with her superiors over the publication of an AI ethics research paper. One of Gebru’s tweets and a later internal email from Jeff Dean, head of Google AI, suggest that the paper was critical of the environmental costs and embedded biases of large language models.

Gebru, who had written the paper with four Google colleagues and two external collaborators, had submitted it to a research conference being held next year. After an internal review, she was asked to retract the paper or remove the names of the Google employees. She responded that she would do so if her superiors met a series of conditions. If they could not, she would “work on a last date,” she said.

She also sent a frustrated email to an internal listserv, Google Brain Women and Allies, detailing the repeated hardships she’d experienced as a Black female researcher. “We just had a Black research all hands with such an emotional show of exasperation,” she wrote. “Do you know what happened since? Silencing in the most fundamental way possible.”

Gebru then went on a vacation and received a termination email from Megan Kacholia, the VP of engineering at Google Research, before her return. “Thanks for making your conditions clear,” the email stated, as tweeted by Gebru. “We cannot agree to #1 and #2 as you are requesting. We respect your decision to leave Google as a result, and we are accepting your resignation.” Her email to the listserv was “inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager,” it continued. “As a result, we are accepting your resignation immediately, effective today.”

On Thursday morning, after an outpouring of support for Gebru on social media, Dean sent an internal email to Google’s AI group with his account of the situation. He said that Gebru’s paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication” because “it ignored too much relevant research.” He also said that Gebru’s conditions included “revealing the identities of every person who Megan and I had spoken to and consulted as part of the review of the paper and the exact feedback.”

“Given Timnit’s role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we’re doing,” he wrote. “I know we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive.”

Neither Gebru, Dean, nor Google communications responded to requests for comment, and many details surrounding the exact progression of events, or cause of termination, remain unclear. As they continue to emerge, many have brought renewed attention to a November 30 tweet that Gebru pinned to the top of her profile. “Is there anyone working on regulation protecting Ethical AI researchers, similar to whistleblower protection?” it reads. “Because with the amount of censorship & intimidation that goes on towards people in specific groups, how does anyone trust any real research in this area can take place?”

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Gift Guide: Games on every platform to get you through the long, COVID winter

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

It’s a great time to be a gamer — I mean, what else is there to do? And with the prospect of a long winter and lonely holiday season ahead of us, here’s a list of games on all the major platforms that you can really sink your teeth — and a few dozen hours — into.

Buying for a gamer and have no idea what’s worthwhile? Once you’ve figured out which gaming system is their platform of choice, any of these should be guaranteed wins.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

All major platforms:

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Screenshot of Assassin's creed valhalla showing a viking on a british landscape

Image Credits: Ubisoft

I genuinely enjoyed AC: Odyssey’s gorgeous landscapes and main characters, but the game systems felt disconnected and arbitrary. That’s much less the case with AC: Valhalla, which tells a similarly sprawling tale of vikings in England but works a little harder to put it together into a cohesive whole. It’s still very much “Ubisoft Game, but with Vikings” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Price: $50 from Amazon

Minecraft Dungeons

I thought this game was a bit limited when it first came out, but since then it has gotten several new areas and cross-platform multiplayer. Between that and its simplified systems and PG-level violence, Minecraft: Dungeons is a great option for families that want to fight monsters together.

Price: $20-30 (depending on platform) from Mojang

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

Reviewers agree: the new CODBLOPS is definitely more CODBLOPS. The latest in the gritty military series is the one everyone will be playing for the next year, so it’s definitely a must-have for quite a few people.

Price: $50-60 (depending on platform) from Amazon

Cyberpunk 2077

Image Credits: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077, the futuristic RPG from the creators of the Witcher, isn’t out yet, but it’s one of the most anticipated titles in recent years and your special someone might like the idea that they’re getting it day one. Of course if it’s anything like The Witcher 3, they’re probably going to want to wait a few months for the bugs to get ironed out. But hey, it’s an option.

Price: $50 from Amazon

PS4 and PS5

Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Image Credits: Sony

This semi-sequel to the much-lauded 2018 Spider-Man is smaller in scale but plays even better. Plus it has a wonderfully inclusive cast and tone and feels authentic where the original, for all its strengths, had a pretty flat take on New York. Bonus: If you buy the PS5 version of Miles Morales, you get the remastered 2018 game for free. I’d argue you’re simply not going to find a better bang for your buck right now with any other new game.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Demon’s Souls

Image Credits: Sony

The only “true” next-generation game out there right now is a remake of a PlayStation 3 game, and in many ways it feels like it. But in other ways, it’s the most amazing game on the market right now. If your loved one has enjoyed Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and other incredibly hard games, this is the one to get.

Price: $70 on Amazon

Ghost of Tsushima

Between Nioh 2, Sekiro, and Ghost of Tsushima, there’s a real bumper crop of samurai and ninja action to be had. But Ghost is the broadest and most beautiful of them all — if not necessarily the deepest.

What it lacks in challenge… first of all, is more than made up by the difficulty of those other two games I mentioned, give me a break. But Ghost’s draw is in the unity and beauty of its game world and systems. For example, instead of a quest marker or arrow pointing towards your objective, the wind is just always blowing in that direction. Amazing, right? The single player campaign is remarkably well acted, and a free update has brought a surprisingly extensive multiplayer co-op mode as well. This is truly a game you can lose yourself in. Just don’t start trying to collect everything or you’ll never leave the first area.

Price: $40 on Amazon

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Image Credits: Vanillaware

This totally unique game came out of left field and obsessed me for two solid weeks. A combination of adventure game, visual novel, and tactical action game, 13 Sentinels puts you in charge of a bunch of high school kids piloting giant robots to save the world from alien invaders. (In case you can’t tell, it’s a Japanese production.)

Sound familiar? That’s the idea — and then it starts pulling rugs out from under you and doesn’t stop until the last few minutes. The labyrinthine story, which progresses simultaneously through 13 interwoven narratives, is the very best kind of sci-fi mind-boggler and a pleasure to unravel from start to finish. The combat is also compelling and satisfying, if not particularly deep or challenging. There’s simply nothing else like this out there.

Price: Currently $30 from GameStop

Xbox One and Series X

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Image of Master Chief from halo

Image Credits: Microsoft

If your loved one is a Halo fan, they’re likely very sad since Halo: Infinite, once a launch title for the new console, won’t be coming out until next year. But it can’t hurt to have the original games all updated and beautified to play through as an appetizer. Plus there’s the famous Halo multiplayer to get everyone through the winter.

Price: $30 from Amazon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Image Credits: Sega

The latest in the long-running and beloved Yakuza series of character-driven adventures of Japanese gangsters set in a fictional Tokyo neighborhood, this one changes up the style with a turn-based combat system and new protagonist — but some are calling it the best yet.

Price: $35 from Amazon

Gears Tactics

Image Credits: Microsoft

No one really expected that the Gears of War series would lend itself to a tactics game in the style of XCOM — let alone that it would leapfrog others in the genre and become one of the best you can get, period. Naturally it isn’t quite the urgent, visceral experience that Gears normally is, but this is a surprisingly deep and engrossing game.

Price: $38 from Amazon

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The sequel to the lauded “metroidvania” Ori and the Blind Forest is technically on several platforms, but the Series X seems to be the absolute best one on which to play it. With beautifully updated art and a silky-smooth framerate, this will look better on that new 4K HDR TV than many “real” next-generation games. But don’t let the beautiful yet cute art style make you think this is will be a cakewalk. Like the first in the series, you’ll need some serious dexterity to complete this platformer.

Price: $30 from Moon Studios

Risky move: Preorder Halo: Infinite

No one is quite sure whether the first Halo of the next generation is going to be as good as everyone hopes, and a delay to early next year didn’t allay anyone’s fears. That said, many a gamer will cherish the idea of playing the latest in this venerable series day one, so pre-ordering a copy is a possibility if none of the other games really ring their bell.

Price: $60 from Amazon

Switch

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Technically this is also a “toy,” because it’s real-life RC carts zooming around your home on an augmented-reality racetrack. We thought it was tons of fun, and it’s a great way to take video games off the TV and into real life… kind of. Just be aware that every player needs their own cart and their own Switch.

Price: $99 from Best Buy

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Don’t go into this game expecting a full-on new Zelda title, and you’ll do just fine. This is definitely an action game, and a big, rather mindless one at that. But it’s hard to resist the concept of playing as Link, Zelda, or any of the champions from Breath of the Wild and dispatching enemies by the hundreds.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Image Credits: Ninendo

Okay, I gave Nintendo some guff over the perfunctory nature of this collection of amazing games. I’ve wanted to replay Mario 64 for years and was waiting for Nintendo to touch it up just a bit — but it, and Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, are virtually unchanged in this retro package. Really, you couldn’t make it widescreen? But for most, the chance to play these games again (or for the first time) on the Switch is worth the price of admission, period.

Price: $60 from Amazon

PC

Spelunky 2 and/or Hades

The “roguelite” genre, with its randomly generated levels and complex interlocking systems, has grown in popularity and sophistication for years — and here we have two fine examples that take the genre in different directions.

Spelunky 2 is the most traditional, in a way. Sequel to one of the best games out there, this one adds more variety, more weirdness, and more challenge to the unforgiving platforming of the original. Like before, every death (and there will be a lot) is avoidable and while some runs may last only seconds, it’s hard to be deterred when you know that if you just paid a little more attention, or saved your bombs, or went over that other way… just one more game. (Pro tip: Buy a couple copies for friends and indulge in jolly cooperation.)

Hades combines the procedurally generated levels with an incredibly beautiful art style and an ingenious story and progression system. Escaping from the ever-shifting landscape of Hades, you’re going to die over and over, but as a young god that’s more inconvenience than obstacle. Meanwhile every death and every inch of progress moves you closer to the mystery of your birth in a clever modern take on Greek mythology. It’s honestly hard to imagine how Hades could be improved in almost any way.

Price: $20 for Spelunky 2 on Steam | $25 for Hades on Steam

Crusader Kings III

Image Credits: Paradox

This long-awaited strategy title puts you in the throne room of a European medieval dynasty, where you can do… pretty much anything to get ahead. Assassinations, proxy wars, brutal taxes, religious cannibalism, strategic marriages… it’s all on the table. This is a story-telling engine that’s remarkably robust and, once you get past the initial learning curve, very fun. It’s also very, very nerdy, and proud of it.

Price: $50 on Steam

Other options

Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros

Nintendo's Super Mario Bros handheld system

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

This little gadget has the original Super Mario Bros, its sequel (not the weird one — what we knew as “The Lost Levels”), and a remade LCD game all built in. It’s a charming device and the games play well, plus you can turn it off and resume progress later, making it that much easier to get through the whole game.

Price: $50 (but finding one in stock can be challenging.)

Backbone One for iPhone

Image Credits: Backbone

Got a friend who prefers to game on their phone? The Backbone is built for them. This snap-on controller brings buttons and analog triggers (and good ones, at that!) into the iOS gaming world, along with a surprisingly solid companion app that can do things like record your gameplay and help you edit and post your highlight reels. It only works with select iOS titles, but the library is growing. TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino reviewed it in October and gave it his stamp of approval with very little reservation.

Price: $99 from Backbone

 

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What about $30 billion under 30

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We’re back with not an Equity Shot or Dive of Monday, this is just the regular show! So, we got back to our roots by looking at a huge number of early stage rounds. And a few other things that we were just too excited about to not mention.

So from Chris and Danny and Natasha and I, here’s the rundown:

That was a lot, but how could we leave any of it out? We’re back Monday with more!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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