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Three-dimensional search engine Physna wants to be the Google of the physical world

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In June of 1999, Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins invested $25 million into an early-stage company developing a new search engine called Google, paving the way for a revolution in how knowledge online was organized and shared.

Now, Sequoia Capital is placing another bet on a different kind of search engine, one for physical objects in three dimensions, just as the introduction of three-dimensional sensing technologies on consumer phones are poised to create a revolution in spatial computing.

At least, that’s the bet that Sequoia Capital’s Shaun Maguire is making on the Cincinnati, Ohio-based startup Physna.

Maguire and Sequoia are leading a $20 million bet into the company alongside Drive Capital, the Columbus, Ohio-based venture firm founded by two former Sequoia partners, Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen.

“There’s been this open problem in mathematics, which is how you do three dimensional search. How do you define a metric that gives you other similar three dimensional objects. This has a long history in mathematics,” Maguire said. “When I first met [Physna founder] Paul Powers, he had already come up with a wildly novel distance metric to compare different three dimensional objects. If you have one distance metric, you can find other objects that are a distance away. His thinking underlying that is so unbelievably creative. If I were to put it in the language of modern mathematics… it just involves a lot of really advanced ideas that actually also works.”

Powers’ idea — and Physna’s technology — was a long time coming.

A lawyer by training and an entrepreneur at heart, Powers came to the problem of three dimensional search through his old day job as an intellectual property lawyer.

Powers chose IP law because he thought it was the most interesting way to operate at the intersection of technology and law — and would provide good grounding for whatever company the serial entrepreneur would eventually launch next. While practicing, Powers hit upon a big problem, while some intellectual property theft around software and services was easy to catch, it was harder to identify when actual products or parts were being stolen as trade secrets. “We were always able to find 2D intellectual property theft,” Powers said, but catching IP theft in three dimensions was elusive.

From its launch in 2015 through 2019, Powers worked with co-founder and chief technology officer Glenn Warner Jr. on developing the product, which was initially intended to protect product designs from theft. Tragically just as the company was getting ready to unveil its transformation into the three dimensional search engine it had become, Warner died.

Powers soldiered on, rebuilding the company and its executive team with the help of Dennis DeMeyere, who joined the company in 2020 after a stint in Google’s office of the chief technology officer and technical director for Google Cloud.

“When I moved, I jumped on a plane with two checked bags and moved into a hotel, until I could rent a fully furnished home,” DeMeyere told Protocol last year.

Other heavy hitters were also drawn to the Cincinnati-based company thanks in no small part to Olsen and Kvamme’s Silicon Valley connections. They include Github’s chief technology officer, Jason Warner, who has a seat on the company’s board of directors alongside Drive Capital’s co-founder Kvamme, who serves as the chairman.

In Physna, Kvamme, Maguire, and Warner see a combination of Github and Google — especially after the launch last year of the company’s consumer facing site, Thangs.

That site allows users to search for three dimensional objects by a description or by uploading a model or image. As Mike Murphy at Protocol noted, it’s a bit like Thingiverse, Yeggi or other sites used by 3D-printing hobbyists. What the site can also do is show users the collaborative history of each model and the model’s component parts — if it involves different objects.

Hence the GitHub and Google combination. And users can set up profiles to store their own models or collaborate and comment on public models.

What caught Maguire’s eye about the company was the way users were gravitating to the free site. “There were tens of thousands of people using it every day,” he said. It’s a replica of the way many successful companies try a freemium or professional consumer hybrid approach to selling products. “They have a free version and people are using it all the time and loving it. That is a foundation that they can build from,” said Maguire.

And Maguire thinks that the spatial computing wave is coming sooner than anyone may realize. “The new iPhone has LIDAR on it… This is the first consumer device that comes shipped with a 3D scanner with LIDAR and I think three dimensional is about to explode.”

Eventually, Physna could be a technology hub where users can scan three dimensional objects into their phones and have a representational model for reproduction either as a virtual object or as something that can be converted into a file for 3D printing.

Right now, hundreds of businesses have approached the company with different requests for how to apply its technology, according to Powers.

One new feature will allow you to take a picture of something and not only show you what that is or where it goes. Even if that is into a part of the assembly. We shatter a vase and with the vase shards we can show you how the pieces fit back together,” Powers said.

Typical contracts for the company’s software range from $25,000 to $50,000 for enterprise customers, but the software that powers Physna’s product is more than just a single application, according to Powers.

“We’re not just a product. We’re a fundamental technology,” said Powers. “There is a gap between the physical and the digital.”

For Sequoia and Drive Capital, Physna’s software is the technology to bridge that gap.

 

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

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Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law

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Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.

That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.

1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.

A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.

The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.

A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.

The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.

 

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AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

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AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Since the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes as well such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

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Free 30-day trial of Extra Crunch included with TC Sessions: Justice tickets

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TC Sessions: Justice is coming up on Wednesday, and we’ve decided to sweeten the deal for what’s included with your event pass. Buy your ticket now and you’ll get a free month of access to Extra Crunch, our membership program focused on founders and startup teams with exclusive articles published daily.

Extra Crunch unlocks access to our weekly investor surveys, private market analysis and in-depth interviews with experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other core startup topics. Get feedback on your pitch deck through Extra Crunch Live, and stay informed with our members-only Extra Crunch newsletter. Other benefits include an improved TechCrunch.com experience and savings on software services from AWS, Crunchbase and more.

Learn more about Extra Crunch benefits here, and buy your TC Sessions: Justice tickets here.  

What is TC Sessions: Justice? 

TC Sessions: Justice is a single-day virtual event that explores diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, the gig worker experience, the justice system and more. We’ll host a series of interviews with key figures in the tech community. 

The event will take place March 3, and we’d love to have you join. 

View the event agenda here, and purchase tickets here

Once you buy your TC Sessions: Justice pass, you will be emailed a link and unique code you can use to claim the free month of Extra Crunch.

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Existing pass holders will be emailed with information on how to claim the free month of Extra Crunch membership. All new ticket purchases will receive information over email immediately after the purchase is complete.

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