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Walking with Dolly

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A walk is, more often than not, a solitary experience. As far as the age of COVID-19 is concerned, that’s probably more bug than feature. It’s a way to escape the confines of a shutdown for a few glorious moments, to get some air and, for better or worse, reflect on the day that’s passed or the one to come.

It can, like many things these days, however, be isolating.

For me, long weekend walks have been a sort of lifesaver throughout this bizarre year. Following two months of being completely sidelined over (non-COVID) health issues, I began walking more per week than I ever have. It was a slow process at first — frankly, never leaving my one-bedroom apartment for April and May made it so it was physically painful to walk around the block when I finally felt comfortable going outside.

These days, I walk every morning, regularly crossing the bridge into Brooklyn and Manhattan. Until I started using Apple’s new Fitness+ service a few times a day, it was easily my main source of exercise. In November, however, my Apple Watch Activity bars swapped the more generic gray for the Fitness+ yellow. But even as I’ve made a point to do a couple of indoor exercises a day, I still start each day with a walk. Rain, snow, this weekend’s sub-freezing weather — skipping a day would feel like breaking a promise to myself.

My actual bars (not sure what happened in September — maybe testing a competitor’s device)

This morning Apple dropped the first five installments (episodes?) of Time to Walk. The feature is an attempt to expand the Fitness+ experience beyond the confines of its titular iOS app. A largely Watch-based experience, the feature leverages much of the wearable’s existing features (and Apple’s growing software ecosystem) to offer a more tailored and multimedia experience than you would get listening to a podcast or music alone.

As with the canny arrival of Fitness+ (December) and handwashing for watchOS (September), Apple says the timing was something of a happy coincidence. The company had been working on the feature well before COVID-19 entered the picture.

“Everything from Time to Walk and our launch of Fitness+ was something we had been working on well before COVID,” the company’s senior director of Fitness Technologies Jay Blahnik tells TechCrunch. “From the very beginning, we thought of Fitness+ as a place where everyone was welcome. We wanted it to feel like a place where, whether you’re new to fitness or very fit, there was something for everyone.”

For many, a walk (or push, in the case of those who use a wheelchair for mobility) is square one when it comes to daily workouts. For my part, I was certainly far more comfortable taking quick strolls around the neighborhood. With limits on space and no real exercise equipment to speak of beyond a kettlebell and yoga mat, attempting to approximate the gym experience at home has seemed a fool’s errand.

April found me trying some YouTube yoga classes with limited efficacy. Like most attempts to exercise, it didn’t stick. Walking every day was the only thing that did. And for the first time in my life, COVID-19 found me walking without any particular destination in mind. That old cliché about it being about the journey not the destination is fine when you don’t mind constantly being late to meetings. Walking for the sake of itself, however, changes the dynamic significantly. I speak to artists, writers and musicians on a regular basis for my podcast. The common sentiment is a familiar one: You simply can’t force creativity. But for those who make a point to regularly walk and run, it’s perhaps the most surefire way to kickstart the process.

Time to Walk is Apple’s attempt to capture some of that lightning in a bottle — to follow a rotating cast of big names as they walk through locations that mean something to them. The company says it’s been making an effort to meet guests where they are and essentially coach them through the process. The ability to do so is, of course, depends on their given location — especially with all of the sorts of travel restrictions that have been in place since early last year.

Ultimately, Apple says, the decisions of where to record are made by the guests. “Some guests said, ‘this is where I want to go,’ ” says Blahnik. “And some guests were like, ‘no, I want to to do the walk I normally do.’ For us, it’s not about Shawn Mendes in the Grand Canyon, it’s about where they want to go. Sometimes that’s limited by COVID, but what we found delightful was for many people, they loved to take the walk they loved to take.”

The first four guests — Mendes, Dolly Parton, Draymond Green and Uzo Aduba — run the gamut on approaches. “We think about the stories, we think about the diverse guest,” says Blahnik. We think about all of the ways you’d like the conversations to go. But what was important to us was that the idea resonated with them. The idea of going out for a walk, having a lovely conversation and hearing stories that could give you a different perspective.”

Parton, who turned 75 earlier this month, recorded her session in a studio — in contrast to the other three names. She relates a handful of stories largely revolving around her upbringing in Sevier County (pronounced “severe”), Tennessee. There’s a story about a Christmas tree and one about opening a literacy center with the help of her father (who struggled with his own ability to read and write).

She somewhat self-effacingly relates a story about the time her hometown erected a statue of her. “So I went home, and I said, ‘Daddy, did you know they’re putting a statue of me? Do you know about the statue down at the courthouse?’ ” Parton explains. “And Daddy said, ‘Well, yeah, I heard about that.’ He said, ‘Now, to your fans out there, you might be some sort of an idol. But to them pigeons, you ain’t nothing but another outhouse.’ ”

According to Parton, her father would visit the statue at night with a bucket of soap and water to clean the pigeons’ mess off his daughter’s likeness. Her segment culminates with something approaching a behind the music-style segment, describing stories behind three of her own songs: “Coat of Many Colors,” “Circle of Love” and “9 to 5.” The latter is the real gem of the bunch, contrasting her morning routines to costars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, while describing the role her acrylic nails played in the songwriting and recording process.

Image Credits: Apple

Green’s stories are more emblematic of the rest. On a walk around Malibu, the Warriors power forward discusses some inspiration stories on and off the court, from being told he would never be a star to a time he tried and failed to cheat on a test in school. The stories are purposefully personal. Aduba relates some of her own struggles to break into acting, as she walks her amusingly named dog Fenway Bark through Fort Green Park in Brooklyn.

The guests share images relating to their stories or snapshots of where they go on their walks, which are delivered to the wrist with a haptic buzz. At they end of the journey, they share three handpicked songs that can be saved to a playlist on Apple Music, similar to what the company has done for its Fitness+ workouts.

Write-ups of the Time to Walk have thus far compared it to podcasting — understandably so, given that it’s an on-demand, audio-first experience. Though the feature, which downloads directly onto the Watch when the new installment drops once a week, has its own flavor, according to Apple.

“Often podcasts are hosted,” Blahnik says, by way of distinction. “In our journey to build out this experience, we certainly considered if there should be a host walking with this person. What we realized is that, for what we were trying to create, the intimacy of having the singular guest talk to you felt a lot more like you were on a walk with them. The notion that it’s not happening in a studio (in almost all cases), that they’re walking someplace that inspires them. You’ll hear that with Draymond and Shawn — with Shawn he’s huffing and puffing up that hill and it’s kind of nice because you’re in that moment together.”

Time to Walk isn’t raw, exactly. It is an Apple production, after all. The company’s certainly not tossing out found audio here. But the content does seem more off-the-cuff than many of its productions, even as it’s packaged together with a slick intro and a trio of songs at the end. But it’s a nice change of pace for those looking for something that feels a little more personal than we’re accustom to from some of the names involved.

Your own mileage will vary, depending on, among other things, your interest in the guest. Though, there’s always a chance someone you’ve never been particularly interested in — or even heard of — will offer some unique tidbit or interesting way of looking at things. That’s one of the potential upsides of having Apple doing the curating here — there’s some interesting potential for discovery. And even in the case of artists you’re familiar with, there’s good potential to discover something new.

The weekly 20 to 45-minute audio supplement won’t make the actual act of walking any less solitary — but for a little while, at least, it’s nice to feel like someone’s along for the ride.

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

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Personal skin problems leads founder to launch skincare startup Nøie, raises $12M Series A

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Inspired by his own problems with skin ailments, tech founder Daniel Jensen decided there had to be a better way. So, using an in-house tech platform, his Copenhagen-based startup Nøie developed its own database of skin profiles, to better care for sensitive skin.

Nøie has now raised $12m in a Series A funding round led by Talis Capital, with participation from Inventure, as well as existing investors including Thomas Ryge Mikkelsen, former CMO of Pandora, and Kristian Schrøder Hart-Hansen, former CEO of LEO Pharma’s Innovation Lab.

Nøie’s customized skincare products target sensitive skin conditions including acne, psoriasis and eczema. Using its own R&D, Nøie says it screens thousands of skincare products on the market, selects what it thinks are the best, and uses an algorithm to assign customers to their ‘skin family’. Customers then get recommendations for customized products to suit their skin.

Skin+Me is probably the best-known perceived competitor, but this is a prescription provider. Noie is non-prescription.

Jensen said: “We firmly believe that the biggest competition is the broader skincare industry and the consumer behavior that comes with it. I truly believe that in 2030 we’ll be surprised that we ever went into a store and picked up a one-size-fits-all product to combat our skincare issues, based on what has the nicest packaging or the best marketing. In a sense, any new company that emerges in this space are peers to us: we’re all working together to intrinsically change how people choose skincare products. We’re all demonstrating to people that they can now receive highly-personalized products based on their own skin’s specific needs.”

Of his own problems to find the right skincare provider, he said: “It’s just extremely difficult to find something that works. When you look at technology, online, and all our apps and everything, we got so smart in so many areas, but not when it comes to consumer skin products. I believe that in five or 10 years down the line, you’ll be laughing that we really used to just go in and pick up products just off the shelf, without knowing what we’re supposed to be using. I think everything we will be using in the bathroom will be customized.”

Beatrice Aliprandi, principal at Talis Capital, said: “For too long have both the dermatology sector and the skincare industry relied on the outdated ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addressing chronic skin conditions. By instead taking a data-driven and community feedback approach, Nøie is building the next generation of skincare by providing complete personalization for its customers at a massive scale, pioneering the next revolution in skincare.”

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Comms expert and VC Caryn Marooney will detail how to get attention at TC Early Stage

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We’re thrilled to announce Caryn Marooney is speaking at our upcoming TechCrunch Early Stage virtual event in July. She spoke with us last year and we had to have her back.

Just look at her resume. She was the co-founder and CEO of The Outcast Agency, one of Silicon Valley’s best-regarded public relations firms. She left her company to serve as VP of Global Communication at Facebook, which she did for eight years, overseeing communication for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. In 2019 she joined Coatue Management as a general partner, where she went on to invest in Startburst, Supabase, Defined Networks and others.

Needless to say, Marooney is one of the Valley’s experts on getting people’s attention — a skill that’s critical when running a startup, nonprofit or school bake sale.

She said it best last year: “People just fundamentally aren’t walking around caring about this new startup — actually, nobody does.” So how do you get people to care? That’s the trick and why we’re having her back to speak on this evergreen topic.

Watch her presentation from 2020 here. It’s fantastic.

One of the great things about TC Early Stage is that the show is designed around breakout sessions, with each speaker leading a chat around a specific startup core competency (like fundraising, designing a brand, mastering the art of PR and more). Moreover, there is plenty of time for audience Q&A in each session.

Pick up your ticket for the event, which goes down July 8 and 9, right here. And if you do it today, you’ll save a cool $100 off of your registration.


 

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Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

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AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80M round the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11M to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning in a flash — literally. Instead of using charge, logic gates, and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects, and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

A rack of Lightmatter servers.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a ‘general purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal datacenter racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an NVIDIA A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15 percent of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in datacenters, where as much as 10 percent of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

A Lightmatter chip with its logo on the side.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple, or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. 5-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own datacenters and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support, and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11M A round, then GV hopping on with a $22M A-1, then this $80M.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger datacenters.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

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