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Xesto is a foot scanning app that simplifies shoe gifting

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You wait ages for foot scanning startups to help with the tricky fit issue that troubles online shoe shopping and then two come along at once: Launching today in time for Black Friday sprees is Xesto — which like Neatsy, which we wrote about earlier today, also makes use of the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera to generate individual 3D foot models for shoe size recommendations.

The Canadian startup hasn’t always been focused on feet. It has a long-standing research collaboration with the University of Toronto, alma mater of its CEO and co-founder Sophie Howe (its other co-founder and chief scientist, Afiny Akdemir, is also pursuing a Math PhD there) — and was actually founded back in 2015 to explore business ideas in human computer interaction.

But Howe tells us it moved into mobile sizing shortly after the 2017 launch of the iPhone X — which added a 3D depth camera to Apple’s smartphone. Since then Apple has added the sensor to additional iPhone models, pushing it within reach of a larger swathe of iOS users. So you can see why startups are spying a virtual fit opportunity here.

“This summer I had an aha! moment when my boyfriend saw a pair of fancy shoes on a deep discount online and thought they would be a great gift. He couldn’t remember my foot length at the time, and knew I didn’t own that brand so he couldn’t have gone through my closet to find my size,” says Howe. “I realized in that moment shoes as gifts are uncommon because they’re so hard to get correct because of size, and no one likes returning and exchanging gifts. When I’ve bought shoes for him in the past, I’ve had to ruin the surprise by calling him – and I’m not the only one. I realized in talking with friends this was a feature they all wanted without even knowing it… Shoes have such a cult status in wardrobes and it is time to unlock their gifting potential!”

Howe slid into this TechCrunch writer’s DMs with the eye-catching claim that Xesto’s foot-scanning technology is more accurate than Neatsy’s — sending a Xesto scan of her foot compared to Neatsy’s measure of it to back up the boast. (Aka: “We are under 1.5 mm accuracy. We compared against Neatsy right now and they are about 1.5 cm off of the true size of the app,” as she put it.)

Another big difference is Xesto isn’t selling any shoes itself. Nor is it interested in just sneakers; its shoe-type agnostic. If you can put it on your feet it wants to help you find the right fit, is the idea.

Right now the app is focused on the foot scanning process and the resulting 3D foot models — showing shoppers their feet in a 3D point cloud view, another photorealistic view as well as providing granular foot measurements.

There’s also a neat feature that lets you share your foot scans so, for example, a person who doesn’t have their own depth sensing iPhone could ask to borrow a friend’s to capture and takeaway scans of their own feet.

Helping people who want to be bought (correctly fitting) shoes as gifts is the main reason they’ve added foot scan sharing, per Howe — who notes shoppers can create and store multiple foot profiles on an account “for ease of group shopping”.

“Xesto is solving two problems: Buying shoes [online] for yourself, and buying shoes for someone else,” she tells TechCrunch. “Problem 1: When you buy shoes online, you might be unfamiliar with your size in the brand or model. If you’ve never bought from a brand before, it is very risky to make a purchase because there is very limited context in selecting your size. With many brands you translate your size yourself.

“Problem 2: People don’t only buy shoes for themselves. We enable gift and family purchasing (within a household or remote!) by sharing profiles.”

Xesto is doing its size predictions based on comparing a user’s (<1.5mm accurate) foot measurements to brands’ official sizing guidelines — with more than 150 shoe brands currently supported.

Howe says it plans to incorporate customer feedback into these predictions — including by analyzing online reviews where people tend to specify if a particular shoe sizes larger or smaller than expected. So it’s hoping to be able to keep honing the model’s accuracy.

“What we do is remove the uncertainty of finding your size by taking your 3D foot dimensions and correlate that to the brands sizes (or shoe model, if we have them),” she says. “We use the brands size guides and customer feedback to make the size recommendations. We have over 150 brands currently supported and are continuously adding more brands and models. We also recommend if you have extra wide feet you read reviews to see if you need to size up (until we have all that data robustly gathered).”

Asked about the competitive landscape, given all this foot scanning action, Howe admits there’s a number of approaches trying to help with virtual shoe fit — such as comparative brand sizing recommendations or even foot scanning with pieces of paper. But she argues Xesto has an edge because of the high level of detail of its 3D scans — and on account of its social sharing feature. Aka this is an app to make foot scans you can send your bestie for shopping keepsies.

“What we do that is unique is only use 3D depth data and computer vision to create a 3D scan of the foot with under 1.5mm accuracy (unmatched as far as we’ve seen) in only a few minutes,” she argues. “We don’t ask you any information about your feet, or to use a reference object. We make size recommendations based on your feet alone, then let you share them seamlessly with loved ones. Size sharing is a unique feature we haven’t seen in the sizing space that we’re incredibly excited about (not only because we will get more shoes as gifts :D).”

Xesto’s iOS app is free for shoppers to download. It’s also entirely free to create and share your foot scan in glorious 3D point cloud — and will remain so according to Howe. The team’s monetization plan is focused on building out partnerships with retailers, which is on the slate for 2021.

“Right now we’re not taking any revenue but next year we will be announcing partnerships where we work directly within brands ecosystems,” she says, adding: “[We wanted to offer] the app to customers in time for Black Friday and the holiday shopping season. In 2021, we are launching some exciting initiatives in partnership with brands. But the app will always be free for shoppers!”

Since being founded around five years ago, Howe says Xesto has raised a pre-seed round from angel investors and secured national advanced research grants, as well as taking in some revenue over its lifetime. The team has one patent granted and one pending for their technologies, she adds.

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YC-backed LemonBox raises $2.5M bringing vitamins to Chinese millennials

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Like many overseas Chinese, Derek Weng gets shopping requests from his family and friends whenever he returns to China. Some of the most wanted imported products are maternity items, cosmetics, and vitamin supplements. Many in China still uphold the belief that “imported products are better.”

The demand gave Weng a business idea. In 2018, he founded LemonBox to sell American health supplements to Chinese millennials like himself via online channels. The company soon attracted seed funding from Y Combinator and just this week, it announced the completion of a pre-A round of $2.5 million led by Panda Capital and followed by Y Combinator .

LemonBox tries to differentiate itself from other import businesses on two levels — affordability and personalization. Weng, who previously worked at Walmart where he was involved in the retail giant’s China import business, told TechCrunch that he’s acquainted with a lot of American supplement manufacturers and is thus able to cut middleman costs.

“In China, most supplements are sold at a big markup through pharmacies or multi-level marketing companies like Amway,” Weng said. “But vitamins aren’t that expensive to produce. Amway and the likes spend a lot on marketing and sales.”

Inside LemonBox’s fulfillment center

LemonBox designed a WeChat-based lite app, where users receive product recommendations after taking a questionnaire about their health conditions. Instead of selling by the bottle, the company customizes user needs by offering daily packs of various supplements.

“If you are a vegetarian and travel a lot, and the other person smokes a lot, [your demands] are going to be very different. I wanted to customize user prescriptions using big data,” explained Weng, who studied artificial intelligence in business school.

A monthly basket of 30 B-complex tablets, for instance, costs 35 yuan ($5) on LemonBox. Amway’s counterpart product, a bottle of 120 tablets, asks for 229 yuan on JD.com. That’s about 57 yuan ($9) for 30 tablets.

Selling cheaper vitamins is just a means for LemonBox to attract consumers and gather health insights into Chinese millennials, with which the company hopes to widen its product range. Weng declined to disclose the company’s customer size, but claimed that its user conversion rate is “higher than most e-commerce sites.”

With the new proceeds, LemonBox is opening a second fulfillment center in the Shenzhen free trade zone after its Silicon Valley-based one. That’s to provide more stability to its supply chain as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts international flights and cross-border trade. Moreover, the startup will spend the money on securing health-related certificates and adding Japan to its sourcing regions.

Returnees adapt

Screenshot of Lemonbox’s WeChat-based store

In the decade or so when Weng was living in the U.S., the Chinese internet saw drastic changes and gave rise to an industry largely in the grip of Alibaba and Tencent. Weng realized he couldn’t simply replicate America’s direct-to-customer playbook in China.

“In the U.S., you might build a website and maybe an app. You will embed your service into Google, Facebook, or Instagram to market your products. Every continent is connected with one other,” said Weng.

“In China, it’s pretty significantly different. First off, not a lot of people use web browsers, but everyone is on mobile phones. Baidu is not as popular as Google, but everybody is using WeChat, and WeChat is isolated from other major traffic platforms.”

As such, LemonBox is looking to diversify beyond its WeChat store by launching a web version as well as a store through Alibaba’s Tmall marketplace.

“There’s a lot of learning to be done. It’s a very humbling experience,” said Weng.

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Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170 million fund and expands into Asia

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OTV (formerly known as Olive Tree Ventures), an Israeli venture capital firm that focuses on digital health tech, announced it has closed a new fund totaling $170 million. The firm also launched a new office in Shanghai, China to spearhead its growth in the Asia Pacific region.

OTV currently has a total of 11 companies in its portfolio. This year, it led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health, and its other investments include genomic machine learning platform Emedgene; microscopy imaging startup Scopio; and at-home cardiac and pulmonary monitor Donisi Health. OTV has begun investing in more B and C rounds, with the goal of helping companies that already have validated products deal with regulations and other issues as they grow.

OTV focuses on digital health products that have the potential to work in different countries, make healthcare more affordable, and fill gaps in overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Jose Antonio Urrutia Rivas will serve as OTV’s Head of Asia Pacific, managing its Shanghai office and helping its portfolio companies expand in China and other Asian countries. This brings OTV’s offices to a total of four, with other locations in New York, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Before joining OTV, Rivas worked at financial firm LarrainVial as its Asian market director.

OTV was founded in 2015 by general partners Mayer Gniwisch, Amir Lahat and Alejandro Weinstein. OTV partner Manor Zemer, who has worked in Asian markets for over 15 years and spent the last five living in Beijing, told TechCrunch that the firm decided it was the right time to expand into Asia because “digital health is already highly well-developed in many Asia-Pacific countries, where digital health products complement in-person healthcare providers, making that region a natural fit for a venture capital firm specializing in the field.”

He added that OTV “wanted to capitalize on how the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the internationalized and interconnected nature of the world’s healthcare infrastructures into the limelight, even though digital health was a growth area long before the pandemic.”

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WH’s AI EO is BS

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An executive order was just issued from the White House regarding “the Use of Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence in Government.” Leaving aside the meritless presumption of the government’s own trustworthiness and that it is the software that has trust issues, the order is almost entirely hot air.

The EO is like others in that it is limited to what a president can peremptorily force federal agencies to do — and that really isn’t very much, practically speaking. This one “directs Federal agencies to be guided” by nine principles, which gives away the level of impact right there. Please, agencies — be guided!

And then, of course, all military and national security activities are excepted, which is where AI systems are at their most dangerous and oversight is most important. No one is worried about what NOAA is doing with AI — but they are very concerned with what three-letter agencies and the Pentagon are getting up to. (They have their own, self-imposed rules.)

The principles are something of a wish list. AI used by the feds must be:

lawful; purposeful and performance-driven; accurate, reliable, and effective; safe, secure, and resilient; understandable; responsible and traceable; regularly monitored; transparent; and accountable.

I would challenge anyone to find any significant deployment of AI that is all of these things, anywhere in the world. Any agency claims that an AI or machine learning system they use adheres to all these principles as they are detailed in the EO should be treated with extreme skepticism.

It’s not that the principles themselves are bad or pointless — it’s certainly important that an agency be able to quantify the risks when considering using AI for something, and that there is a process in place for monitoring their effects. But an executive order doesn’t accomplish this. Strong laws, likely starting at the city and state level, have already shown what it is to demand AI accountability, and though a federal law is unlikely to appear any time soon, this is not a replacement for a comprehensive bill. It’s just too hand-wavey on just about everything. Besides, many agencies already adopted “principles” like these years ago.

The one thing the EO does in fact do is compel each agency to produce a list of all the uses to which it is putting AI, however it may be defined. Of course, it’ll be more than a year before we see that.

Within 60 days of the order, the agencies will choose the format for this AI inventory; 180 days after that, the inventory must be completed; 120 days after that, the inventory must be completed and reviewed for consistency with the principles; plans to bring systems in line with them the agencies must “strive” to accomplish within 180 further days; meanwhile, within 60 days of the inventories having been completed they must be shared with other agencies; then, within 120 days of completion, they must be shared with the public (minus anything sensitive for law enforcement, national security, etc.).

In theory we might have those inventories in a month, but in practice we’re looking at about a year and a half, at which point we’ll have a snapshot of AI tools from the previous administration, with all the juicy bits taken out at their discretion. Still, it might make for interesting reading depending on what exactly goes into it.

This executive order is, like others of its ilk, an attempt by this White House to appear as an active leader on something that is almost entirely out of their hands. To develop and deploy AI should certainly be done according to common principles, but even if those principles could be established in a top-down fashion, this loose, lightly binding gesture that kind-of, sort-of makes some agencies have to pinky-swear to think real hard about them isn’t the way to do it.

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