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Three different space launch companies – three very different approaches to solving for cost and efficiency

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Launch startup Astra had a monumental week, achieving their first spaceflight with a rocket test on Tuesday. Astra CEO Chris Kemp joined Relativity CEO Tim Ellis, and VOX Space President Mandy Vaughn at our TC Sessions: Space event on Wednesday, and with Relativity’s huge $500 million round earlier this year, and Virgin Orbit’s milestone test flight in May, it was a big year for all involved.

A significant portion of our discussion focused on the very different approaches that each of these launch companies is taking to solving what boils down to the same problem – improving cost and availability of launch. Kemp first described Astra’s approach, which boils down to rigorous and continuous process and cost optimization.

“Where we focus our software effort is in understanding where to make engineering optimizations,” Kemp said. “So by having an Astra operating system that is making it visible to all of our engineers, where your costs are, because you have a long lead time on this part, because there’s a lot of labor to assemble this part. […] We’re not throwing any specific technology solution at a problem, we’re trying to basically triage the trade-offs that you’re making between the performance of the rocket – you can always use a higher-cost material, and you can potentially also use a higher cost manufacturing process, like 3D printing, but it isn’t always the right approach.”

Kemp added that Astra is essentially technology-agnostic when it comes to their production stack, and flexible in terms of how to configure that based on available resources and end goal parameters.

“You want to optimize the overall economics of the business without regard to what technology you’re going to use,” he said. “So we pick the right technology to optimize the business based on the capital we have, and the production rate and the launch rate that we’re trying to target.”

Ellis, meanwhile, talked about Relativity’s use of 3D printing, and how it differs significantly from its use in the production stack of other existing rocket manufacturers.

“What we’re doing at Relativity is completely different than then what almost everyone else is doing with using 3d printing for bits and pieces of a rocket,” he said.” From Apollo and launching rockets to the Moon, how we fundamentally build and develop, and the tool sets we use to make rockets and aerospace products is more or less the same as what it was 60 years ago – you walk into a factory, and it’s full of giant, expensive, fixed tooling, very complicated supply chains building products one at a time by hand with hundreds of thousands, to even millions of parts, depending on whether it’s a rocket or commercial aircraft.”

Image Credits: Virgin Orbit, Astra, Relativity Space

By contrast, Ellis pointed out that it’s creating rockets with less than 1,000 total components by viewing 3D printing from a top-down angle, and using it for the vast majority of the production process, rather than for select components.

“Then we’re able to actually build each rocket and from raw material and fly it in 60 days, once our factories operational, and then 60 days later, we’ll do a better version and 60 days later, a better version than that,” he said. “So the compounding rate of progress that’s possible with an all-in 3d printing approach, I believe, is equivalent to going from on-premise servers to cloud, or from gas internal combustion engines to electric – it’s really actually an entirely different tech stack and value chain, it’s not just the rocket itself.”

Vaughn pointed out that while all the companies have different approaches, they all seek to change the accessibility and cost of getting payloads to orbit. She then pointed out that Virgin Orbit has identified launch location flexibility as one of the key levers to speed that change in the right direction.

“It’s not just about getting mass to orbit. It’s about how do we change what is that cost point to do, and how do we change the accessibility to do so,” she said. “Also, really unique from our perspective is, what is that just kind of inherent mobility to do – so how can we actually just fly the launch pad around, and really change the CONOPS [concept of operations] of what it takes to establish an infrastructure and leverage that infrastructure to have access to space.”

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is carried by a modified 747 passenger airplane, which takes off from and lands at a traditional runway. That not only means the rocket itself requires less fuel, and therefore less mass, to deliver its cargo to orbit, but also introduces a lot of launch site flexibility.

“By changing the discussion in terms of what is a launch, and what is the end game, it’s not just about mass to orbit, it’s about all of these other elements of how can we react quickly, how can we design and produce something quickly, as well as deploy that capability, maybe in a unique way from an unexpected location, and then get the on-space effects delivered uniquely and quickly,” Vaughn said.

All three panelists agreed that the market will likely support many providers when it comes to small launch vehicles, and their existing sold inventory queues reflects that. We also heard later in the day from Amazon SVP Dave Limp, who pointed out that they alone will require multiple launch providers contracted for multiple missions to get Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation in place on orbit.

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

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Calling Athens VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

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TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Athens, Greece will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Greece’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Greece, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

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India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy, expresses ‘grave concerns’

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India has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the planned change to its privacy policy, posing a new headache to Facebook-owned service that identifies the South Asian nation as its biggest market by users.

In an email to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, the nation’s IT ministry said WhatsApp’s planned update to its data-sharing policy raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens… Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes.”

The ministry also sought clarification from WhatsApp on its data-sharing agreement with Facebook and other commercial firms and has asked why users in the EU are exempt from the new privacy policy but their counterpoint in India have no choice but to comply.

“Such a differential treatment is prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern by the government,” the ministry wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by TechCrunch. “The government of India owes a sovereign responsibility to its citizens to ensure that their interests are not compromised and therefore it calls upon WhatsApp to respond to concerns raised in this letter.”

Through an in-app alert earlier this month, WhatsApp had asked users to agree to new terms of conditions that granted the app the consent to share with Facebook some personal data about them, such as their phone number and location. Users were initially provided until February 8 to comply with the new policy if they wished to continue using the service.

“This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach takes away any meaninful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security,” the ministry said in the email.

The notification from WhatsApp prompted a lot of confusion — and in some cases, anger and frustration — among its users, many of which have explored alternative messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal in recent weeks. WhatsApp, which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014, has been sharing some limited information about its users with the social giant since 2016 — and for a period allowed users to opt-out of this. Last week the Facebook-owned app, which serves more than 2 billion users worldwide, said it was deferring the enforcement of the planned policy to May 15.

An advertisement from WhatsApp is seen in a newspaper at a stall in New Delhi on January 13, 2021. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

WhatsApp also ran front-page ads on several newspapers in India, where it has amassed over 450 million users, last week to explain the changes and debunk some rumors.

New Delhi also said that it was reviewing the Personal Data Protection Bill, a monumental privacy bill that is meant to oversee how data of users are shared with the world. “Since the Parliament is seized of the issue, making such a momentous change for Indian users at this time puts the cart before the horse. Since the Personal Data Protection Bill strongly follows the principle of ‘purpose limitation,’ these changes may lead to significant implementational challenges for WhatsApp should the Bill become an Act,” the letter said.

On Tuesday, India’s IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Be it WhatsApp, be it Facebook, be it any digital platform. You are free to do business in India but do it in a manner without impinging upon the rights of Indians who operate there.”

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Spain’s Glovo inks real-estate tie-up to add more dark stores for speedy urban delivery

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Spain’s Glovo, an on-demand delivery app, has announced a strategic partnership with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg.

The deal will see the latter invest €100M in building and refurbishing “prime city real estate” in some of Glovo’s key markets as the delivery app works to build out its network of dark stores and sign up more retail partners for its urban delivery service, it said today.

The initial focus for the partnership will be on growing its dark stores network in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania, with additional countries slated as under review in Europe.

“These are the countries in which both Glovo and Stoneweg have a major presence, and therefore are able to move much quicker when it comes to setting up,” a Glovo spokeswoman told us. “However, the deal is not limited to these countries. Glovo’s aim is to grow and strengthen their Q-Commerce and dark kitchens infrastructure across Eastern Europe too.”

Glovo currently operates 18 dark stores globally — in cities including Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Milan — but said it’s now looking to open similar stores in Valencia, Rome, Porto and Bucharest, among others.

It wants to have 100 dark stores up and running by the end of 2021, it added.

Last September the startup announced the sale of its LatAm ops to food-delivery focused rival Delivery Hero for $272M — leaving it more fully focused on Southern and Eastern Europe.

Then in November it announced the launch of a dedicated business unit to support expansion of the sub-30 minute urban delivery service, which it calls ‘Q-Commerce’ (that’s ‘Q’ for quick) — saying it would accelerate development of a b2b offering to stock third parties’ products in its city center warehouses (and have them delivered to shoppers via the couriers doing gig work on its platform).

Glovo said today that the Stoneweg strategic partnership will help it step on the gas to grow the infrastructure and fulfilment centers it needs to underpin this b2b offering.

The ‘deliver anything’ app is spying an opportunity to capitalize on the coronavirus’ impact on traditional bricks-and-mortar retail — betting urban consumers will make a permanent shift to outsourcing grocery and other convenience/essential shops to an app which bundles high speed delivery, rather than making such trips in person.

Its dialled-up focus on Q-Commerce is a direct response to “changing consumer sentiment and demand for instant and same-day delivery”, it added.

To date, Glovo’s platform has delivered more than 12 million multi-category orders globally, while in 2020 it experienced a growth rate of more than 300% year-on-year.

As well as supermarkets such as Carrefour, Continente, and Kaufland, Glovo’s list of retail partners includes the likes of Unilever, Nestle and L’Oréal, and IKEA — so it’s by no means focused purely on groceries.

It has said it wants Q-Commerce to power delivery of a wide range of products — from toys, music, books, flowers and beauty products to pharmacy items and groceries. And even, in some markets, a curated selected of IKEA wares — i.e. stuff that’s small enough to fit in couriers’ backpacks.

Commenting on the Stoneweg strategic investment in a statement, Oscar Pierre, co-founder and CEO, said: “We believe that the third-generation of commerce is already upon us. Following the close of Stoneweg’s investment, we are consolidating our strategic commitment to Q-Commerce, which will allow us to better connect people with a wide variety of available products in their cities.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we believe that dark stores represent the future of post-pandemic retail, and I think we’ll see a permanent shift in consumer habits towards same-day and instant delivery. We’re excited to continue to expand our offering, so that all types of businesses, from local independent stores to multi-national chains, can reach more and more customers thanks to new technological solutions and highly efficient infrastructure.”

In another supporting statement, Stoneweg’s Joaquín Castellví, founding partner and head of acquisitions for Europe, added that the strategic investment represents “an opportunity to offer our clients to diversify into a new class of retail asset through consolidated cities where Glovo operates — in a segment with great growth potential, accelerated by the situation we are experiencing”.

Glovo’s push to take a margin on a broad range of urban retail comes at a time when consolidation is eating into the thin margin food delivery space.

It is also facing legal challenges to its business model in Europe over the classification of couriers as self-employed — losing a supreme court ruling in its home market last September.

Ministers in Spain are working on a new regulatory framework for delivery apps and Glovo has said it’s awaiting that reform before making any changes but a lot will be riding on the detail.

UK-based Deliveroo also recently lost a legal challenge in Spain over the classification of its couriers. A court in Barcelona found last week that the company had falsely defined 748 riders as self employed, following a 2018 workplace inspection.

The delivery platform which competes with Glovo in the on-demand food and grocery space, announced Sunday the closing of a Series H funding round — raising $180M+ from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners LP and Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, which it said valued the business at over $7BN.

The investment would enable Deliveroo to continue investing in “developing the best proposition for consumers, riders and restaurants”, it said, noting that it would be expanding in on-demand grocery following “rapid” growth over the last year.

Deliveroo added that the Series H investment comes ahead of a “potential” IPO — and said it “reflects strong demand from existing shareholders to invest in the company, given the significant growth potential in the online food delivery sector in which consumer adoption is accelerating”.

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