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The Station: Zoox’s six-year ride, Aurora makes its Uber ATG employee picks and NHTSA takes a new position on AVs

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

I asked you last week to share your picks for the biggest stories of the year. While there was a mix, two startup-focused themes emerged: COVID-19 and the pressure it put on companies as well as the unexpected flurry of deals that occurred despite the pandemic.

SPACs, Tesla’s skyrocketing share price, Waymo’s driverless ride-hailing service opening up to the public in the Phoenix area, Uber’s 2020 evolution (which I addressed last weekend) and Amazon’s acquisition of Zoox also made the list.

Speaking of Zoox, I posted an article last week of my interview with Jesse Levinson, the co-founder and CTO of Zoox. Access to the article requires an EC subscription, so I’ll offer a nugget here that I thought was new and interesting.

I asked Levinson what his hope was at the federal level? Specifically, if he sees real guidelines being formalized? Here’s the exchange.

LEVINSON: Well, we’re actually in good shape from a federal perspective. We have designed our vehicle to comply with the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) and we are crash testing our vehicle to all of those standards. We’ve actually attempted most of them and passed every one that we’ve attempted, so you know, really we’re not actually blocked on the federal level.

We’ll see what happens with the new administration and what the future of regulations brings but at this point we’re actually good to go.

YOURS TRULY: Then you don’t need an exemption (federally)? You don’t have a steering wheel.

LEVINSON: Yeah, we’ve designed our vehicle to be compliant with the FMVSS. And so we were not looking for an exemption approach.

ME AGAIN: Is it because you’re going to be under 25 miles an hour? My understanding was that if you didn’t have a steering wheel that the vehicle wouldn’t comply. So how does that work?

LEVINSON: I would just say that’s not our interpretation of the standards.

Readers: read the last item in the newsletter for the punch line. 

Email me anytime at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Deal of the week

money the station

The end of 2020 has produced a string of acquisitions, mergers and fundraising rounds that seemed unlikely this spring as the COVID-19 pandemic spread volatility and uncertainty.

One of the bright spots in 2020 was delivery. Startups focused on delivery — whether it is via trucking, autonomous bots or airborne devices like drones — managed to secure new funding while others struggled.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic didn’t delay or create obstacles for delivery startups. Take Indian food delivery company Zomato, for example.

The 12-year-old company did raise $660 million in a Series J round this month. Tiger Global, Kora, Luxor, Fidelity (FMR), D1 Capital, Baillie Gifford, Mirae and Steadview participated in the round. Zomato now has post-money valuation of $3.9 billion.

However, Zomato originally anticipated to close the round 11 months ago. Several obstacles, including the current pandemic, delayed the fundraise effort. Ant Financial, which had originally committed to invest $150 million in this round, only delivered a third of it.

More money appears to be headed toward Zomato, which is preparing to go public in 2021. Zomato co-founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal said the company is also in the process of closing a $140 million secondary transaction.

Zomato, which acquired Uber’s Indian-based food delivery business early this year, has good reason to stack its coffers. The company faces a fight for market share with rival Swiggy and a new emerging threat of Amazon.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

AutoLeap, a six-month-old, Toronto-based startup, revealed that it raised $5 million in seed funding in September led by Threshold Ventures. The round also included individual investors Shift co-founder George Arison, former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and former senior Bridgestone exec Ned Aguilar.

Bolt, the Estonian startup that’s building an on-demand network to move food and people around in cars, on scooters and on bikes, raised €150 million ($182 million at current rates) in an equity round. CEO and co-founder Markus Villig has growth on the brain. He told TechCrunch that Bolt, which already covers 200 cities in 40 countries, will use the new funds to expand geographically with an aim to become the biggest provider of electric scooters in Europe.

Boom Supersonic raised $50 million in new funding led by WRVI Capital for a post-money valuation of more than $1 billion, Bloomberg reported.

Cargo.one, the air cargo booking platform, raised $42 million in a Series B funding round that was led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Existing investors Creandum, Index Ventures, Next47 and Point Nine also participated in the round. The company raised $18 million in a Series A round earlier this year.

CarGurus, the online automotive marketplace, agreed to acquire a 51% interest in Plano, Texas-based CarOffer at an enterprise valuation of $275 million. Under the deal, CarGurus has the option to buy the remaining equity interest in the company over the next three years. CarOffer is an automated instant vehicle trade platform that offers an alternative to the traditional wholesale auction model.

GoFor Industries, a Canadian delivery company, raised CA$20 million in a Series A round that will be used to drive its expansion into the United States, Freightwaves reported.

Motorq, the connected car API company, raised $7 million in a Series A round of funding led by Story Ventures with participation from existing investors FM Capital and Monta Vista Capital. A new strategic investor, Avanta Ventures, the investment arm of CSAA, also joined the round.

Motorq developed a cloud-based system that captures and then monitors embedded data from a vehicle’s onboard computers and then run analytics and machine learning models on the data. Motorq says the system can help put those analytics into context, which can be combined with other information, and then sent to customers via application programming interfaces (APIs) and other tools. Datapoints include vehicle location, charge/fuel use, driver behavior, safety warnings, maintenance alerts and certain remote commands.

Volcon ePowersports raised $2.5 million in public funding through the WeFunder platform. The company said it has raised more than $4.5 million since September through a seed round of funding and through WeFunder. The capital will be used to continue the build-out of Volcon’s production facilities and assembly lines. For the unfamiliar, Volcon is aiming to build and start deliveries of an all-electric off-road motorcycle called the Grunt in Spring 2021.

Vroom, the online used-car company, has agreed to acquire Vast Holdings Inc., which includes Austin-based vehicle listings platform CarStory, for $120 million, reported Automotive News.

Uber ATG-Aurora integration

Autonomous vehicle company Aurora Innovation isn’t wasting any time integrating with Uber Advanced Technologies Group. As you might recall, just a week or so ago, Aurora announced that it was acquiring Uber’s self-driving subsidiary in a complex deal that will give the combined company a valuation of $10 billion.

Aurora CEO Chris Urmson sent offers via email Thursday to more than 75% of employees at Uber ATG, according to a source familiar with the post-acquisition integration process. That’s more than 850 employees. If every employee accepts, Aurora will more than double in size overnight.

Uber ATG Toronto, which employs about 50 people where the subsidiary conducted its research and development work, did not make the cut, according to a source. Nor has Uber ATG’s chief scientist Raquel Urtasun, who led the Uber ATG R&D team. Urtasun, who is considered a leading expert in machine perception for self-driving cars, is also a University of Toronto professor and the Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning and Computer Vision as well as the co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.

News of the Toronto closure prompted a few venture capitalists and founders to share their surprise that Aurora wouldn’t have pinpointed Urtasun and the rest of the R&D as some of the most desirable candidates to join the newly combined company. We don’t know if they did. Here’s what I can predict. If the texts and emails I received are any indication, Urtasun is already fielding offers from several other AV companies.

One more policy thing

the station autonomous vehicles1

A curious item popped up this week that certainly must have captured the attention of policy folks at any autonomous vehicle company planning to operate in the United States.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a notice this week that offers a clarification to AV policy. Before I dig in, let me provide a brief overview of the law.

Today, a motor vehicle must comply with all federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS), which set a minimum threshold of performance that a vehicle must meet. But once you determine that the “driver” can be system of hardware and software (a simplification I know) and not a human, it raises questions about whether a vehicle really needs the physical steering wheel and other traditional controls a robot simply has no use for.

This notice reverses prior statements that NHTSA made, most notably a letter of interpretation that the agency sent in 2016 to Chris Urmson, who at the time was heading up Google self-driving project.

The 2016 interpretation created a Catch-22 scenario for AV companies that wanted to use vehicles with novel designs like those that lacked a steering wheel or pedals. NHTSA said, at the time, that manufacturers had certify that a motor vehicle complied with requirements of all applicable FMVSS and to design the vehicle in such a way that NHTSA would be able to conduct each element of each test procedure specified within each applicable regulation. But that was impossible because certain test conditions or procedures could not be conducted on the vehicle as specified in the FMVSS

The only real path forward was for a company to ask for exemptions.

This notice not only acknowledges that the 2016 interpretation was too restrictive, it seems to have removed a major obstacle that will allow robotaxis to get on the road sooner.

And now suddenly, Levinson’s comments (yeah way back up at the top of this newsletter) make more sense. Here’s a link to the notice.

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

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Flourish, a startup that aims to help banks engage and retain customers, raises $1.5M

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It’s not uncommon these days to hear of U.S.-based investors backing Latin American startups.

But it’s not every day that we hear of Latin American VCs investing in U.S.-based startups.

Berkeley-based fintech Flourish has raised $1.5 million in a funding round led by Brazilian venture capital firm Canary. Founded by Pedro Moura and Jessica Eting, the startup offers an “engagement and financial wellness” solution for banks, fintechs and credit unions with the goal of helping them engage and retain clients.

Also participating in the round were Xochi Ventures, First Check Ventures, Magma Capital and GV Angels as well as strategic angels including Rodrigo Xavier (former Bank of America CEO in Brazil), Beth Stelluto (formerly of Schwab),  Gustavo Lasala (president and CEO of The People Fund) and Brian Requarth (Founder of Viva Real). 

With clients in the U.S., Bolivia and Brazil, Flourish has developed a solution that features three main modules: 

  • A rewards engine designed to incentivize users to save or invest money
  • An intelligent and automated micro-savings feature where users can create personalized rules (such as transferring $15 into a rainy day fund every time their favorite sports team wins)
  • A financial knowledge module, where personal financial transactions and spending patterns are turned into a question and answer game. 

In the U.S., Flourish began by testing end-user mechanics with organizations such as CommonWealth and OpportunityFund. In 2019, it released a B2C version of the Flourish app (called the Flourish Savings App)  as a pilot for its banking platform, which can integrate with banks through a SDK or an API.  It is also now licensing its engagement technology to banks, retailers and fintechs across the Americas. Flourish has piloted or licensed its solution to US-based credit unions, Sicoob (Brazil’s largest credit union) and BancoSol in Bolivia. 

The startup makes money through a partnership model that focuses on user activation and engagement. 

Both immigrants, Moura and Eting met while in the MBA program at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Moura emigrated to the U.S. from Brazil as a teen while Eting is the daughter of a Filiponio father and mother of Mexican descent.

The pair bonded on their joint mission of building a business that empowered people to create positive money habits and understand their finances.

Currently, the 11- person team works out of the U.S., Mexico and Brazil. It plans to use its new capital to increase its number of customers in LatAm, do more hiring and develop new functionalities for the Flourish platform. 

In particular, it plans to next focus on the Brazilian market, and will scale in a few select countries in the Americas. 

“There are three things that make Latin America, and more specifically Brazil, attractive to us at this moment,” Moura said. “Currently, the B2B financial technology market is still in its nascency. This combined with open banking regulation and the need for more responsible products provides Flourish a unique opportunity in Brazil.”

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Inside Workvivo’s plans to take on Microsoft in the employee experience space

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Maintaining company culture when the majority of staff is working remotely is a challenge for every organization — big and small.

This was an issue, even before COVID. But it’s become an even bigger problem with so many employees working from home. Employers have to be careful that workers don’t feel disconnected and isolated from the rest of the company and that morale stays high.

Enter Workvivo, a Cork, Ireland-based employee experience startup that is backed by Zoom founder Eric Yuan and Tiger Global that has steadily grown over 200% over the past year.

The company works with organizations ranging in size from 100 employees to over 100,000 and boasts more than 500,000 users. According to CEO and co-founder John Goulding, it’s had 100% retention since it launched. Customers include Telus International, Kentech, A+E Networks and Seneca Gaming Corp., among others.

Founded by Goulding and Joe Lennon in 2017, Workvivo launched its employee communication platform in mid-2018 with the goal of helping companies create “an engaging virtual workplace” and replace the outdated intranet.

“We’re not about real time, we’re more asynchronous communication,” Goulding explained. “We have a lot of transactional tools, and typically carry the bigger message about what’s going on in a company and what positive things are happening. We’re more focused on human connection.”

Using Workvivo, companies can provide information like CEO updates, recognition for employees via a social style — “more things that shape the culture so workers can get a real sense of what’s happening in an organization.” It launched podcasts in the second quarter and livestreaming in Q4.

In 2019, Workvivo showed its product to Zoom’s Yuan, who ended up becoming one of the company’s first investors. Then in May of 2020, the company raised $16 million in a Series A funding led by Tiger Global, which is best known for large growth-oriented rounds.

Workvivo, which was built out long before the COVID-19 pandemic, found itself in an opportune place last year. And demand for its offering has reflected that. 

“Since COVID hit, growth has accelerated,” Goulding told TechCrunch. “We grew three times in size over where we were before the pandemic started, in terms of revenue, users, customers and employees.”

The SaaS operator’s deals range from $50,000 to close to $1 million a year, he said. Workvivo is Europe-based and operates in 82 countries. But the majority of its customers are located in the U.S. with 80% of its growth coming from the country.

The startup opened an office in San Francisco in early 2020, which it is expanding. Thirty percent of its 65-person team is currently U.S.-based, with some working remotely from other states.

While Workvivo would not reveal hard revenue figures, Goulding only said it’s not seeking additional funding anytime soon considering the company is “in a very strong capital position.”

To tackle the same problem, Microsoft last month launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform,” or, in non-marketing terms, its new take on the intranet sites most large companies tend to offer their employees. With the move, Microsoft is taking on the likes of Facebook’s Workplace platform and Jive in addition to Workvivo.

Despite the increasingly crowded space, Workvivo believes it has an advantage over competitors in that it integrates well with Slack and Zoom.

“We’re sitting alongside Slack and Zoom in the ecosystem,” Goulding said. “There’s Zoom, Slack and us.”

Slack is real-time messaging and what’s happening in the immediate future, and Zoom is real-time video and “about the moment,” he said.

To Goulding, Microsoft’s new offering is unproven yet and a reactionary move.

“It’s obvious there’s a battle to be won for the center of the digital workplace,” he said. “We’re here to capture the heartbeat of an organization, not pulses.”

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Bitflips when PCs try to reach windows.com: What could possibly go wrong?

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Stock photo of ones and zeros displayed across a computer screen.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Bitflips are events that cause individual bits stored in an electronic device to flip, turning a 0 to a 1 or vice versa. Cosmic radiation and fluctuations in power or temperature are the most common naturally occurring causes. Research from 2010 estimated that a computer with 4GB of commodity RAM has a 96 percent chance of experiencing a bitflip within three days.

An independent researcher recently demonstrated how bitflips can come back to bite Windows users when their PCs reach out to Microsoft’s windows.com domain. Windows devices do this regularly to perform actions like making sure the time shown in the computer clock is accurate, connecting to Microsoft’s cloud-based services, and recovering from crashes.

Remy, as the researcher asked to be referred to, mapped the 32 valid domain names that were one bitflip away from windows.com. He provided the following to help readers understand how these flips can cause the domain to change to whndows.com:

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