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BadVR is using government grants to build a business that’s independent of venture capital

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When the Los Angeles-based extended reality data visualization company, BadVR, first heard that one of its earliest benefactors, Magic Leap, was about to shed 1,000 jobs and was fighting for its life, the young startup was unfazed.

Despite the very public ties that BadVR had to Magic Leap, as one of the enterprise applications on the platform, the startup was more insulated than other businesses from the pivot away from consumer-focused apps.

The first step was finding money from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program to get more capital coming in and maintaining its headcount. Eventually, the company managed to land additional financing in the form of a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

It’s the second grant that the company has taken from the NSF and is an example of how startups can turn to government funding for capital and avoid some of the pitfalls of fundraising from venture capital.

To be sure, even Magic Leap’s trip to the brink of collapse wouldn’t have been that bad for BadVR, which makes enterprise applications for extended reality devices.

What the Magic Leap story shows is that companies don’t need to take venture capital to make it. Indeed, as costs come down for equipment and remote work democratizes access to a country that’s still teeming with engineering talent, thrifty startups can get the capital they need from government sources and corporate innovation grants.

That’s how BadVR got most of its $3.5 million in financing. Some money came from a grant from BadVR, while at least $1.25 million has come from the government in the form of two National Science Foundation cooperative agreements through the Small Business Innovation Research financing mechanisms.

A headset capture of BadVR’s climate change application, built for the Magic Leap One headset. Image Credit: BadVR

BadVR uses virtual and augmented reality tools to visualize geospatial data for a range of government and commercial applications. The startup’s tech is already being used by big telecom companies to accelerate the planning and deployment of 5G networks. And, within the public safety sector, the company’s tech is used to improve situational awareness for first responders and to reduce training, staffing, and operational costs.

“Society has become aware of the power of data and the impact it has on our daily lives.  It’s critically important that we make the access of data easy to every organization, regardless of technical skill level or background,” said Suzanne Borders, the chief executive and founder of BadVR, in a statement. 

For Borders, the key to tapping government funding is all about proper advance planning. “Those take a long time,” Borders said. “When you get awarded them, you’re looking at a year’s worth of effort. [Our grant] was a testament to us planning for that about a year ago.”

These grants are typically milestone-based, so as long as BadVR was hitting its targets, it could be fairly assured that the money would be there.

“NSF is proud to support the technology of the future by thinking beyond incremental  developments and funding the most creative, impactful ideas across all markets and  areas of science and engineering,” said Andrea Belz, Division Director of the Division of  Industrial Innovation and Partnerships at NSF. “With the support of our research funds,  any deep technology startup or small business can guide basic science into meaningful  solutions that address tremendous needs.”  

Other government competitions are providing the company with additional non-dilutive cash and a chance to kcik the tires on new capabilities.

A capture from BadVR’s augmented reality geospatial data environment, which allows users to visualize multiple live and historical datasets via overlays relevant to their environment. Image Credit: BadVR

That has translated into traction for the company’s Augmented Reality Operations Center. The AROC is a new offering for the product that visualizes data for first responders. Through a challenge hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, BadVR was able to work with the Eureka, Mo. Fire Department to develop a prototype for a specific emergency situation.

It’s an evolution of an early product the company had developed where enterprises can create digital twins of their factories or stores in virtual reality and do a walk-through to examine different conditions.

The visualization work that BadVR does isn’t necessarily all geo-spatial. The company can take all kinds of data and integrate that into an environment that makes the data easier to see. Borders sees the company’s services extending into creating all kinds of collaborative environments for companies.

“The system highlights things that are important to look at,” Borders said. “It’s virtualizing the data visualization experience and bringing it into an immersive environment — and building a more collaborative aspect to that experience.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses across the country to operate virtually, Borders said the demand for the kinds of. products her company is building — with the government’s help — has only increased.

“That’s been due to increased demand for remote collaboration tools,” Borders said. “We’ve had increased interest in people across the board — but tools that have remote collaboration capabilities — and bring people together to one immersive data experience… those are taking off.”

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

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The rise of the tech workers union and what comes next

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While not entirely non-existent, the union has been an elusive phenomenon in Silicon Valley. More recently, however, big names like Google and Kickstarter have taken key steps toward forming unions, as have smaller startups like Glitch, which made history this week by signing a collective bargaining agreement – the first team of software engineers to do so. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, meanwhile, are currently on the cusp of forming their own historic union. In this panel from TC Sessions: Justice, we discuss how we got here, what comes next and steps tech employees can take.


On Why Now?

As has been the case with management throughout history, tech companies have long fought tooth and nail against labor organizing. Over the course of the last couple of years, however, we may have seen something of a critical mass that could represent the beginnings of a sea change for the industry.

Redwine: It seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on, and also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. I think it’s sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. (Timestamp: 1:08)

Parul Koul (Google):

Koul: A variety of tactics and strategies have been tried, and we’ve been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we’ve developed enough institutional and organizational knowledge to try something new and – in some ways – more complex. (Timestamp: 3:25)


On Whether The Pandemic Will Spur More Organizing

Covid-19 has radically transformed where – and how – we work. It’s upended many industries and cause millions to lose jobs. Could the pandemic prove to be yet another inflection point for a growing movement.

Koul: In our case, what we saw was companies moving to work from home and then, in certain categories of employees, not really receiving the same benefits […] whether it’s a stipend to buy equipment or even having the benefit from working from home […] We also saw a mass movement and social and political protests against police brutality erupt right in the middle of the pandemic. For me, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to do something and respond to that in the streets and in our own way. (Timestamp: 6:56)


On How – or if – Unions Can Protect Against Layoffs

For many industries, layoffs have become all but an inevitability during the pandemic. In a number of the aforementioned cases, they’ve continued even in the wake of employee unionizing. Ultimately, how much protection does a union give workers against layoffs?

Reckers: Kickstarter won its union on February 18, 2020. The pandemic hit in mid-March. The company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early-April. That was a very difficult time. We looked at the numbers and did see that a number of the people they were proposing to layoff were advocates for the union or union members. That was very hard to stomach. What happens, though – and where the union comes into play – is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that. Especially under the terms that they wanted to impose unilaterally, without any consultation with staff. The difference was that when the company proposed these layoffs, because there was already a union in place, Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees about the terms of that layoff. (Timestamp: 9:10)


On How to Get Started

First steps toward unionization are often difficult in an environment where organizing is frowned upon management. Many early conversations happen after hours and off-the-clock for fear of repercussion. This can be doubly difficult in an environments like white collar workers tech company, where some employees don’t tacitly understand the benefits of organizing.

Reckers: You can best support each other by getting into conversations with your coworkers and understanding what’s been going on with them. The first question I often get from people is how to first start having conversations. I think that’s a challenge, especially since we’re not taught how to do that. But starting a conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or company, how long they’ve been there, how has there changed? What did they want to see when they were hired? What sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? (Timestamp: 24:04)


On Whether Expressions of Support From Management Are Always Positive

Management often adopts the narrative that they support unions following hard fought battles. In the wake of support from certain tech executives and political leaders like Joe Biden, the question arises about whether such sentiments can ultimately have negative repercussions for organizing.

Redwine: First and foremost, it’s really important to remember that the things that people in power say do not matter. All of the power that you have doesn’t come from people at the top giving it to you. It comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. (Timestamp: 28:27)

You can read the entire transcript here.

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PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency custody startup Curv

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PayPal has announced that it plans to acquire Curv, a cryptocurrency startup based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli newspaper Calcalist originally reported the move. And PayPal has now made an official announcement.

Curv is a cryptocurrency custody company, which means that it helps you store your crypto assets securely. The company operates a cloud-based service that lets you access your crypto wallets without any hardware device.

Curv also lets you set up sophisticated policies so that the new intern cannot withdraw crypto assets without some sort of approval chain. Similarly, you can create allow lists so that regular transactions can go through more easily.

Behind the scenes, Curv uses multi-party computation to handle private keys. When you create a wallet, cryptographic secrets are generated on your device and on Curv’s servers. Whenever you’re trying to initiate a transaction, multiple secrets are used to generate a full public and private key.

Secrets are rotated regularly and you can’t do anything with just one secret. If somebody steals an unsecured laptop, a hacker cannot access crypto funds with the information stored on this device alone.

As you can see, Curv isn’t a cryptocurrency wallet for end users. The company offers its services to exchanges, brokers and over-the-counter desks. If you’re running a fund and you plan on buying a large amount of cryptocurrencies, you could also consider using Curv.

Finally, financial institutions that are looking for a solution to store digital assets and diversify their balance sheet could also work with Curv.

PayPal says that the Curv team will join the cryptocurrency group within PayPal. The payment giant has been gradually rolling out cryptocurrency products. It has partnered with Paxos so that users in the U.S. can buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies from their PayPal account.

In the near future, PayPal also plans to let you buy and sell items using cryptocurrencies. During its most recent earnings release, the company also said that it plans to launch cryptocurrency products in other countries and in Venmo, the consumer fintech super app owned by PayPal.

Terms of the deal are undisclosed and the transaction should close at some point during the first half of 2021. Calcalist reported that PayPal was paying between $200 million and $300 million for the acquisition. A person close to the company says that the transaction was under $200 million. I guess we’ll find out what happened exactly in the next earnings release.

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Last-mile delivery robotics company Refraction AI raises $4.2M

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Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI announced today that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round. The startup, which debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage back in 2019, was founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors (Matthew Johnson-Roberson — now CTO — and Ram Vasudevan) seeking to solve a number of issues posed by many delivery robots.

With an initial prototype built on a bicycle foundation, the company’s REV-1 robot is designed to operate in bike lanes and roads, rather than the standard sidewalk ‘bot. The different approach allows the robot to travel at higher speeds (topping out at 15 miles per hour) and removes some of the messy pedestrian-dodging issues that come with sidewalk use (while introducing some new ones on that narrow sliver of asphalt shared by cyclists).

Refraction is currently testing a small fleet in its native Ann Arbor. The seed round, led by Pillar VC, will be used for R&D, expanding the company’s reach and recruiting more customers, with a focus on grocery store and restaurant deliveries. Other investors include, eLab Ventures, Osage Venture Partners, Trucks Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, Chad Laurans and Invest Michigan.

Another key differentiator is the use of cameras, versus LIDAR. The decision comes with some technological trade-offs, but benefits include a lower price point and the ability for the company to more quickly scale its fleet. The technology is also not easily districted by weather conditions encountered in the upper midwest, though it has limitations, too. As the company puts it, if you’re not comfortable walking out in it, the robot probably won’t be, either.

“Our platform uses technology that exists today in an innovative way, to get people the things they need, when they need them, where they live,” CEO Luke Schneider said in a release tied to the news. “And we’re doing so in a way that reduces business’ costs, makes roads less congested, and eliminates carbon emissions.”

With this new funding, the company plans to expand operations beyond its native Ann Arbor, though no additional test markets have been announced.

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