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Could eyelash extensions become a huge market? This robotics startup thinks so

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Eyelash extensions have taken off in recent years — particularly in Asia —  but the audience is only so broad. Getting extensions — semi-permanent fibers that are attached to one’s natural eyelashes — can require hundreds dollars and hours in the seat of a lash stylist. There’s always the risk, too, of irritation or worse. Little wonder that, even accounting for low-budget lashes that can be applied at home, the market stands at around $2 billion, which is too small a market to capture the attention of most venture capitalists.

Luum, a four-year-old, 15-person, Berkeley, Ca.-based robotics company, thinks it can change the math — and attract investment —  by “exponentially” expanding the market, says its CEO, Philippe Sanchez, who has overseen large chain businesses, including as a managing director for Starbucks in France.

The way forward, he says, is through robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, which Luum says it’s using to ultimately create a robot that that can apply lashes in 20 minutes and, if all goes as planned, will be widely available in beauty shops. More, because lash extensions need to be replaced every two to four weeks as the lashes fall, customers will come back again and again.

Right now, there’s a bit of magical thinking involved, admits Sanchez. The tech currently relies on Epson industrial robots to which a variety of arms and sensors are attached, making it look a little like something you might see in the dentist’s office. The procedure of applying lashes has been tried out 100 times on 25 brave souls alone. The process currently takes as long as it would to apply lashes by hand, too, meaning a couple of hours.

Still, Luum, which has raised $10 million to date from Foundation Capital and others and is about to begin talking with investors about a Series A round, is convinced it has the right team to chase and grow what it sees as a big and underserved opportunity in the beauty space.

We talked with Sanchez yesterday afternoon about the company and its next steps. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: So you are targeting this popular treatment in what seems like a very fragmented industry.

PS: It’s very popular and yet a little bit undiscovered and yes, it’s very fragmented. There are 34,000 lash extension services being offered right now in the U.S. alone, where you’ve got an artist coming over to you and selecting one lash extension at a time, dipping it in an adhesive, and gluing it to an existing lash, then waiting a few seconds to get the next one and the next one, and two hours later, you have amazing lashes that look extremely natural.

But these are individual lash artists. And we see this as a great opportunity to reinvent the category and take a service that’s already popular and make it even more popular with high-level execution and a new world-class brand.

TC: So the idea is that you create a brand and develop a chain of walk-in centers around the country and world where these eyelashes will be robotically attached?

PS: Correct. We want to leverage our technology to build our brand and launch a chain of studios, as well as to license the technology to people who already sell beauty services and products and and offer them a chance to either be much better at what they do if they are lash artists or, if you know, they have a hair salon or a large cosmetic retailer, they can [add lashes as an ancillary business]. They love the idea of returning customers having to come back every month for services, and lash extensions bring them back into their stores.

TC: This obviously requires the same or better precision than human fingers, along with high safety requirements given this hardware is so near to someone’s eyes. How does the robot work right now?

PS: The machine is pretty large and pretty soft and very advanced. There is a bed just like you would have in a first-class business flight. And the machine nearby that is about the size of a human, and so you lay in the bed and the machine work overs your face — you have a mask, just like if you were to do a manual extension — and it has a little robotic arm that does the job of a person but is much faster and more precise than any manual application. And it’s very safe. It’s got little prongs in the plastic at the end of these arms that are very light held by very light magnets because you need only a few grams of force to manipulate the lash.

TC: So if there was any type of external event — an earthquake or something . . .

PS:  . . . the arms literally fall because they’re held by these little very light magnets. If you you shake the machine or somebody sneezes, the arms will fall. It creates an environment that simply cannot hurt you, which is critical to the service itself.

TC: Are you licensing anyone else’s tech or building everything in-house eventually?

PS: It’s all built in house. We’re leveraging advanced robots from Epson that are very good at doing precise manipulation and that are fast. But [as for] IP in the beauty space, there was essentially no prior art, so we have secured a patent already in the U.S and Korea and Australia and [have] 25 patent cases around the world that are very broad and provide us with a moat and protection for the company at large.

TC: How much will these robots cost?

PS: They will cost about $125,000 or so, but this one-time capital expense can boost productivity of labor by four or six times, so you’ve essentially increased the throughput of one bed, one lash artist, by six. And the machine lasts four to five years.

TC: Plus other costs.

PS: You will have maintenance costs, but it’s essentially pure margin. For most of those consumer service business, most of the cost goes goes into the labor. That was for my experience at Starbucks.

TC: How far away are you from realizing this vision?

PS: COVID [slowed us down], though we can conduct consumer tests again right now [as California reopens slightly], so we’re testing the machine, which is already able to deliver a simple style at about the speed of a human. And as we continue to develop and work over the next few months and get closer to opening our first studio,  the performance of the machines will increase to twice the speed and three times the speed and four times the speed of a human application.

TC: You need more capital toward that end. How much are you looking to raise?

PS: A $15 million Series A. That will allow us to open our first studio and validate the unit economic model, as well as to build our third-generation machine. The capital will also be deployed to start to build the foundation of a world class beauty brand.

TC: Who should investors know is on your team?

PS: The company was founded by Nathan Harding, who also founded the [robotic exoskeleton pioneer] Ekso Bionics, and Kurt Amundson [who worked with Harding at Ekso Bionics for a decade]. They’ve got tremendous experience and expertise already in the world of advanced robotics, and also computer vision on the computer vision side.

TC: What’s to keep a company like Dyson from jumping into this market if you’re able to prove there is one?

PS: Some folks will realize that this is an attractive space and it’s worth looking at, but we’ve got a couple of years on them already.

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

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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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New clinical trial data from Locus Biosciences shows promise in CRISPR-Cas3 technology

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Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest potential threats to global health today. But Locus Biosciences is hoping that their crPhage technology might provide a new solution.

Based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the startup recently announced promising phase 1b clinical trial results for their use of CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced bacteriophages as a treatment for urinary tract infections caused by escherichia coli. Led in part by former Patheon executive and current Locus CEO Paul Garofolo, the startup launched in 2015 with the goal of using a less popular application of CRISPR technology to address growing antimicrobial resistance.

CRISPR-Cas3 technology has notably different mechanisms from its more well-known CRISPR-Cas9 counterpart. Where the Cas9 enzyme has the ability to cleanly cut through a piece of DNA like a pair of scissors, Garofolo describes Cas3 more like a Pac-Man, shredding the DNA as it moves along a strand.

“You wouldn’t be able to use it for most of the editing platforms people were after,” he said, noting that meant there wouldn’t be as much competition around Cas3. “So I knew it would be protected for some time, and that we could keep it quiet.”

Garofolo and his team wanted to use CRISPR-Cas3 not to edit harmful bacteria found in the body, but to destroy it. To do this, they took the DNA-shredding mechanism of Cas3 and used it to enhance bacteriophages—viruses that can attack and kill different species of bacteria. Together, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Dave Ousterout—who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke—thinks this technology offers an extremely direct and targeted way of killing bacteria.

“We armed the phages with this Cas3 system that attacks E. coli, and that sort of dual mechanism of action is what comes together, essentially, as a really potent way to remove just E. coli,” he said in an interview.

That specificity is something that antibiotics lack. Rather than targeting only harmful bacteria in the body, antibiotics typically wipe out all bacteria they come across. “Every time we take antibiotics, we’re not thinking about all the other parts of us that are impacted by the bacteria that do good things,” said Garofolo. But the precision of Locus Biosciences’ crPhage technology means that only the targeted bacteria would be wiped out, leaving those necessary to the body’s normal function intact.

Beyond offering this more specific approach to treatment of pathogens, or any bacteria-based disease, Garofolo and his team also suspect that their approach will also be extremely safe. Though deadly to bacteria, bacteriophages are typically harmless to humans. The safety of CRISPR in humans is well-established, too.

“That’s our secret sauce,” said Garofolo. “We can build drugs that are more powerful than the antibiotics they’re trying to replace, and they use phage, which is probably one of the world’s safest ways to deliver something into the human body.”

While this new technology could certainly help treat pathogens and infectious diseases, Garofolo hopes that indications in immunology, oncology, and neurology might benefit from it too. “We’re starting to figure out that some bacteria might promote cancer, or inflammation in your gut,” he said. If researchers can identify the bacteria at the root cause of those conditions, Garofolo and Ousterout think the crPhage technology might prove to be an effective treatment.

“If we’re right about that, it’s not just about infections or antimicrobial resistance, but helping people overcome cancer or delay the onset of dementia,” Garofolo said. “It’s changing the way we think about how bacteria really help us live.”


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Amazon expands its food delivery service across Bangalore

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Amazon said on Monday it has expanded its food delivery service, called Amazon Food, across 62 zip codes in Bangalore, in what is the first public update since entering the new category in India last May.

The American e-commerce group said Amazon Food now reaches key localities in Bangalore such as Whitefield, HSR, Sarjapur, Koramangala, Indiranagar, MG Road, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Frazer Town, Malleshwaram, Rajajinagar, and Vijayanaga.

At the time of the launch in May last year, Amazon Food was available in just four zip codes in Bangalore.

Even as Amazon Food remains limited to one key market in India, the company is aggressively trying to undercut the competition — heavily funded startups Zomato and Swiggy — in the city.

Food delivery is free to Prime members, while others have to pay a fee of 19 Indian rupees (26 cents) — cheaper than fees levied by Swiggy and Zomato.

The company, which has committed to investing $6.5 billion in its India operations, said it has amassed 2,5000 restaurants and cloud kitchens in Bangalore — also referred as Bengaluru. Amazon Food customers can enjoy “offers” from these restaurants as well as cashbacks from Amazon, the company said.

It, however, did not share why it has been uncharacteristically so slow with the expansion of Amazon Food in the country.

(Well, I mean, there is a global pandemic — but Amazon also makes a number of what its employees say “one-way door” and “two-way door” bets. Two-way door bets are those that the company has not fully committed to and is just attempting to test the waters before making a concrete decision. Think of Amazon Prime as a one-way door bet. So it’s not clear from day 1 how committed Amazon is to any new service.)

“With the expansion of Amazon Food in Bengaluru, we continue in our endeavor to offer unmatched convenience and value while being a part of their everyday lives. Amazon Food brings some of the city’s top restaurants including national outlets and as well as local favorites which are popular and follow strict delivery and safety protocols,” said Sameer Khetarpal, Director of Category Management at Amazon India, in a statement.

Ant Financial-backed Zomato and Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy have established duopoly in the food delivery market in India, with analysts at Bank of America estimating their combined market share to be over 90%. (Uber exited the Indian food delivery market early last year after selling its local food business to Zomato.)

The expansion of Amazon Food also comes at a time when Zomato, which according to analysts leads the market, is preparing to file for an IPO.

India’s food delivery market is especially tough to crack because of local conditions. Unlike in the developed markets such as the U.S., where the value of each delivery item is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $4, according to research firms. Both Zomato and Swiggy have significantly improved their unit economics in the past year.

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