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How Verge Aero’s drones pulled off an Election Day win as big as Biden’s

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2020 has felt excessively long, and Election Day was no different. A drawn-out, five-day statistics exam for the nation, the process of naming our 46th president was met with exhaustion and, for many, elation when Joe Biden finally took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver his acceptance speech. The speech would have been the most noteworthy moment of the evening if only there hadn’t been that drone show, wowing both America and Biden himself, whose wide-eyed look of awe was immediately meme-ified.

The patriotic display was the work of Verge Aero, a small Philadelphia-based startup with six employees that’s pulled in pretty big clients, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Microsoft and, now, the crowning achievement for President-elect Biden’s campaign. With software and drones designed in-house specifically for light-show entertainment purposes, Verge Aero not only cornered the market on making impressive displays more accessible, but gave many who watched at home their first look at the precision of modern aerial imagery.

Verge Aero CEO Nils Thorjussen, an industry leader with a background in developing lighting solutions, led his team on three years of research and development to simplify and perfect the drone light show process. By building everything in-house, the company emerged with a fully integrated system, allowing the ease and execution befitting of large-scale events. When used in tandem, the design software and customized drones make producing an aerial display safer, easier and more cost-effective, not to mention extremely nimble.

Light drone show displays the number 46 on the evening of Election Day

Image Credits: Strictly FX

Given only two weeks to put Biden’s victory show together, Verge Aero collaborated with Strictly FX on a fireworks-laden display of 200 drones spelling out Biden’s campaign logo, “President Elect” and a map outline of the United States. Verge Aero’s Design Studio was created specifically for challenges like these, simplifying the entire process to build last-minute, large-scale shows with ease.

By eliminating hand-off from one platform to another, which can increase error risk, the all-in-one software suite automatically handles anti-collision calculations and flags issues and fixes for human error. Because of this, Verge Aero’s software application guarantees flight paths will not intersect. Simply put, their drones will not collide — and if you’re going to fly a swarm of drones near the president-elect, this is probably who you want doing it.

Gaining security clearances and governmental approvals may have been arduous, but the election night presentation was precisely what Verge Aero was created for: high adaptability that is executed flawlessly. (Thorjussen was unable to speak candidly about the process of Biden’s drone show when we talked, but further details about Verge Aero’s involvement have since been made public.)

Reticent to divulge specifics of how one pulls off a show of this kind, it’s easy to see the challenges involved in gaining clearance to fly hundreds of tiny robots within striking distance of the future leader of the free world. Not only was there pressure of a high-security, high-profile drone show, but one that had no guaranteed launch date. “A lot of our work is in highly unstructured changing environments, so we’re kind of used to rolling with the punches,” says Thorjussen; for the Biden display, their special effects team was on standby for nearly a week, from Tuesday through Saturday night.

Still, with an average Verge Aero drone show taking two people 45 minutes to set up 100 drones, it’s likely that prep time for Biden’s light display was less than two hours. Tight software-hardware integration removes the need for individualized flight paths and starting locations, a seamless change that allows show setup to be enacted more quickly.

Each drone also has a full copy of the show, not just their individualized flight pattern, and can be placed at any start position while software automatically checks placement and readiness.

“The reason it took us so long to get to where we are today, just in terms of development, is we wanted to create this toolkit for the designers that I’m used to working with so that they can operate the way they want to,” Thorjussen says. “One piece of that is being able to deploy quickly and to make changes quickly and on the fly, so that you can match the needs of the production as they evolve.”

Drone light show displaying US map on the evening of Election Day

Image Credits: Strictly FX

The first and only time Verge Aero flew the Biden drone show was the night of the acceptance speech. There was no need for a dress rehearsal, because there rarely is. Thorjussen stresses that Verge Aero’s pre-show renderings are pretty much identical to what you’d see in real life — a WYSIWYG ethos baked into their unique design.

“[I said] we’re gonna get this right from the beginning, do it from first principles, and actually create a proper infrastructure to do everything that we want to do — or anticipate wanting to do — so that we don’t get started and hit a roadblock because we can’t support what our designers want to do,” says Thorjussen.

Like their custom software, Verge Aero also developed their own drones, but not necessarily by choice. “It’s simply because we couldn’t go out and buy what we needed,” he says. “We’ve invested in some of the technology to make it super reliable, particularly with regards to communication, so that necessitated us making our own drone.”

Verge Aero worked toward developing a workhorse that could do a lot of tasks reliably, providing the clearly identifiable designs on display at Biden’s acceptance speech.

“We made two significant design decisions up front,” explains Thorjussen. “We focused on high accuracy in terms of positioning and… having a lot of light output. And when you have those two things, then you can do shows with fewer drones, because you have more precision.

Intel may be the household name, but Verge Aero is hot on its heels with a product that’s more nimble, easier to execute and much more dynamic. Like their in-house software, Verge Aero’s X1 drones are specifically created for light shows — no cameras, a “blindingly bright” LED light source — with top speed, show duration and wind tolerance nearly double that of the Intel Shooting Star.

Developed to be a workhorse specifically used in lighting displays, the X1 is heavier than the Shooting Star but a better and safer fit for entertainment purposes than Intel’s drones, and not just because theirs once fell on a TechCrunch writer’s head.

Still, it’s their multidisciplinary collaboration with Strictly FX that made this month’s rousing display so memorable — a testament for where Verge Aero’s leader sees their work heading in the future.

“Just doing drones, ultimately, will be boring,” says Thorjussen. “If you just do what I call ‘marching band content’ — you do Logo A to Logo B to Logo C — it’s not so interesting over time. Drones are just one tool in the arsenal of people putting on productions…the more elements, the more compelling a show will be.”

It seems to have been proven true — not just by the more than 35 million households watching at home but also President-elect Biden’s gleeful reaction to seeing it overhead. “I think that’s part of what made that a special moment,” says Thorjussen. “Needless to say, my phone exploded [when the] show was over.

 

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

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Smart lock maker Latch teams with real estate firm to go public via SPAC

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This week, Latch becomes the latest company to join the SPAC parade. Founded in 2014, the New York-based company came out of stealth two years later, launching a smart lock system. Though, like many companies primarily known for hardware solutions, Latch says it’s more, offering a connected security software platform for owners of apartment buildings.

The company is set to go public courtesy of a merger with blank check company TS Innovation Acquisitions Corp. As far as partners go, Tishman Speyer Properties makes strategic sense here. The New York-based commercial real estate firm is a logical partner for a company whose technology is currently deployed exclusively in residential apartment buildings.

“With a standard IPO, you have all of the banks take you out to all of the big investors,” Latch founder and CEO Luke Schoenfelder tells TechCrunch. “We felt like there was an opportunity here to have an extra level of strategic partnership and an extra level of product expansion that came as part of the process. Our ability to go into Europe and commercial offices is now accelerated meaningfully because of this partnership.

The number of SPAC deals has increased substantially over the past several months, including recent examples like Taboola. According to Crunchbase, Latch has raised $152 million, to date. And the company has seen solid growth over the past year — not something every hardware or hardware adjacent company can say about the pandemic.

As my colleague Alex noted on Extra Crunch today, “Doing some quick match, Latch grew booked revenues 50.5% from 2019 to 2020. Its booked software revenues grew 37.1%, while its booked hardware top line expanded over 70% during the same period.”

“We’ve been a customer and investor in Latch for years,” Tishman Speyer President and CEO Rob Speyer tells TechCrunch. “Our customers — the people who live in our buildings — love the Latch product. So we’ve rolled it out across our residential portfolio […] I hope we can act as both a thought partner and product incubator for them.”

While the company plans to expand to commercial offices, apartment buildings have been a nice vertical thus far — meaning the company doesn’t have to compete as directly in the crowded smart home lock category. Among other things, it’s probably a net positive if you’re going head to head against, say Amazon. That the company has built in partners in real estate firms like Tishman Speyer is also a net positive.

Schoenfelder says the company is looking toward such partnerships as test beds for its technology. “Our products have been in the field for many years in multifamily. The usage patterns are going to be slightly different in commercial offices. We think we know how they’re going to be different, but being able to get them up and running and observe the interaction with products in the wild is going to be really important.”

The deal values Latch at $1.56 billion and is expected to close in Q2.

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AT&T may keep majority ownership of DirecTV as it closes in on final deal

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A DirecTV satellite dish mounted to the outside of a building.

Enlarge / A DirecTV satellite dish seen outside a bar in Portland, Oregon, in October 2019. (credit: Getty Images | hapabapa)

AT&T is reportedly closing in on a deal to sell a stake in DirecTV to TPG, a private-equity firm.

Unfortunately for customers hoping that AT&T will relinquish control of DirecTV, a Reuters report on Friday said the pending deal would give TPG a “minority stake” in AT&T’s satellite-TV subsidiary. On the other hand, a private-equity firm looking to wring value out of a declining business wouldn’t necessarily be better for DirecTV customers than AT&T is.

It’s also possible that AT&T could cede operational control of DirecTV even if it remains the majority owner. CNBC in November reported on one proposed deal in which “AT&T would retain majority economic ownership of the [DirecTV and U-verse TV] businesses, and would maintain ownership of U-verse infrastructure, including plants and fiber,” while the buyer of a DirecTV stake “would control the pay-TV distribution operations and consolidate the business on its books.”

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Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021

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Three years ago, we released the first edition of the Matrix Fintech Index. We believed then, as we do now, that fintech represents one of the most exciting major innovation cycles of this decade. In 2020, all the long-term trends forcing change in this sector continued and even accelerated.

The broad movement away from credit toward debit, particularly among younger consumers, represents one such macro shift. However, the pandemic also created new, unforeseen drivers. Among them, millennials decamped from their rentals in crowded cities to accelerate their first home purchase, to the benefit of proptech companies and challenger mortgage players alike.

E-commerce saw an enormous acceleration in growth rates, furthering adoption of online payments platforms. Lastly, low interest rates and looming inflation helped pave the way for the price of Bitcoin to charge toward $30,000. In short, multiple tailwinds combined to produce a blockbuster year for the category.

In this year’s refresh of the Matrix Fintech Index, we’ll divide our attention into three parts. First, a look at the public stocks’ performance. Second, liquidity. Third, we highlight one major trend in the sector: Buy Now Pay Later, or BNPL.

Public fintech stocks rose 97% in 2020

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index. While the underlying performance of these companies was strong, the pandemic further bolstered results as consumers avoided appearing in-person for both shopping and banking. Instead, they sought — and found — digital alternatives.

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index.

Our own representation of the public fintechs’ performance is the Matrix Fintech Index — a market cap-weighted index that tracks the progress of a portfolio of 25 leading public fintech companies. The Matrix fintech Index rose 97% in 2020, compared to a 14% rise in the S&P 500 and a 10% drop for the incumbent financial service companies over the same time period.

 

2020 performance of individual fintech companies vs. SPX

2020 performance of individual fintech companies versus S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

 

Fintech incumbents and new entrants vs. the S&P 500

Fintech incumbents and new entrants versus the S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

E-commerce undoubtedly stood out as a major driver. As a category, retail e-commerce grew 35% YoY as of Q3, propelling PayPal and Shopify to add over $160 billion of market capitalization over the year. For its part, PayPal in the third quarter signed up 15 million net new active accounts (its highest ever).

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