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The consequences of scaling up sneaker culture

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StockX’s mission is “to provide access to the world’s most coveted items in the smartest way possible.” It says it right on the website, and it’s incontestable that the infinite data StockX makes transparent to anyone for free allows for smart participation in the business of sneakers.

But, smartest participation by whom?

As the business of sneakers commoditized alongside the boom of social media, plenty of the culture’s stories went largely overlooked by hype-pedaling media outlets and social media algorithms in addition to the influx of people with little familiarity or exposure to sneaker culture.

We often see “access” leveraged as marketing jargon, or the concept of democratization applied to opening up once exclusive spaces, which have often excluded marginalized communities. It’s become trendy to advertise the concepts of representation and inclusivity without actually doing the work internally: Adidas’ campaign imagery featuring a diverse set of models was released at the same time the company was under fire for overt racism and discriminatory hiring practices.

“Smartest” could be exchanged for “simplest” or at least used in tandem for a more accurate description. There’s no need to be educated on the shoes’ functionality, what replicas may look like, or even the story behind them or their history of releases and rereleases. StockX’s data offers education on the market. Access is granted to any person to easily make a financially smart purchase as long as they have an internet connection and the funds.

While StockX’s idea of access does circumvent gatekeeping and the backdoor deals of the past to an extent, it has come at the cost of having access taken from vibrant regions, brick-and-mortar stores and small businesses to those with more capital. In short, the access afforded to the most coveted items is a premium pass rather than democratization.

Users’ love/hate relationship with StockX

Andrew Zachary decided to sell off his sneaker collection around 2011 while he was in college. At the time, eBay was the best option, and he had to do quite a bit of legwork to price his pairs without any centralized data on the secondary sneaker market.

“I would have to go research the shoe on eBay to see how much people wanted for it and see what the shoe sold for by going through all of the closed auctions, and that’s how I generated the price. StockX definitely makes it a lot easier.”

The now 27-year-old, Chicago-based reseller still primarily operates on eBay because of the years he put into building his seller reputation on the platform. “If I’m looking to sell something on eBay, I go over to StockX, check the market price and list mine within that range.”

Although he never buys on StockX — he doesn’t want to pay retail nor depend on the company’s authentication services — Zachary recognizes the value the platform offers him. “Before [StockX], sneaker reselling was really like the Wild West. People would charge whatever they want and there was no reference point.” Looking back, he says, “If I was negotiating with someone and looking to buy a pair of shoes that they wanted $450 for, back in the day I couldn’t go to StockX and say, ‘Well, they have it for $350.’”

On the other hand, he has used StockX to sell on occasion. When he wants to offload a pair of shoes quickly, StockX’s model of users listing their bids (buyers) and their asks (sellers) enables speed. The buyers are essentially there waiting to be chosen. “It’s one click and right out the door.”

StockX’s interface allows for extremely easy one-click buying and selling of sneakers, such as this Jordan 12 Retro Low Easter (2021).

Despite recognizing the obvious opportunities the growth of the business of sneakers has afforded him, Zachary, like many other enthusiasts who have been into sneakers well before StockX, expressed the negative implications of its dominance in the market. “Because StockX made it so easy to resell shoes, anyone can do it. You don’t have to have any interest in sneakers. You can look up that shoe on StockX, see its resale value [and] go after that shoe on release day. You could have no idea what it really is or anything about it,” he laments.

The option to buy or sell in one click plus the combination of authentication, real-time pricing, data transparency as well as transaction anonymity affords a low-risk, easy entry point into the secondary sneaker market that did not exist pre-StockX. Yet, popularizing the sneaker space and enabling little to no effort for access also dilutes the culture of sneakers.

Sneaker culture, gentrified

In 2019, Business Insider profiled a 15-year-old who financed his sneaker-selling business with the money he made doing yard work. He’s since quit playing sports to focus on school and building his business. He raked in six figures last year.

In the story, he said, “Everyone wants shoes, and there’s always someone who will spend an absurd amount, so it’s just about getting those pairs and building the right connections and understanding the market.” He plans on netting enough savings to eventually transfer his network and financial skills to real estate.

Such seemingly feel-good tales of young entrepreneurship — the new paper route, if you will — are rife and have also fueled scandal in the industry. Nineteen-year-old Joe Hebert built a $200,000-monthly-revenue sneaker-reselling business, even hitting sales of $600,000 in May of 2020, as described in a profile by Bloomberg Businessweek. All of the math in the Bloomberg story was impressive until it was revealed Hebert was leveraging access to discounted shoes via his mother Ann Hebert, who had a 25-year tenure with Nike and was most recently vice president and general manager of Nike North America. Industry critics also questioned whether her senior position offered her son easier access to limited-edition products, and her Nike affiliation went largely without consequence until the story was published. She stepped down from her position in the resulting furor.

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

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Vietnamese electric motorbike startup Dat Bike raises $2.6M led by Jungle Ventures

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Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike on one of the startup's motorbikes

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike

Dat Bike, a Vietnamese startup with ambitions to become the top electric motorbike company in Southeast Asia, has raised $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding led by Jungle Ventures. Made in Vietnam with mostly domestic parts, Dat Bike’s selling point is its ability to compete with gas motorbikes in terms of pricing and performance. Its new funding is the first time Jungle Ventures has invested in the mobility sector and included participation from Wavemaker Partners, Hustle Fund and iSeed Ventures.

Founder and chief executive officer Son Nguyen began learning how to build bikes from scrap parts while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In 2018, he moved back to Vietnam and launched Dat Bike. More than 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own two-wheeled vehicles, but the majority are fueled by gas. Nguyen told TechCrunch that many people want to switch to electric motorbikes, but a major obstacle is performance.

Nguyen said that Dat Bike offers three times the performance (5 kW versus 1.5 kW) and 2 times the range (100 km versus 50 km) of most electric motorbikes in the market, at the same price point. The company’s flagship motorbike, called Weaver, was created to compete against gas motorbikes. It seats two people, which Nguyen noted is an important selling point in Southeast Asian countries, and has a 5000W motor that accelerates from 0 to 50 km per hour in three seconds. The Weaver can be fully charged at a standard electric outlet in about three hours, and reach up to 100 km on one charge (the motorbike’s next iteration will go up to 200 km on one charge).

Dat Bike’s opened its first physical store in Ho Chi Minh City last December. Nguyen said the company “has shipped a few hundred motorbikes so far and still have a backlog of orders.” He added that it saw a 35% month-over-month growth in new orders after the Ho Chi Minh City store opened.

At 39.9 million dong, or about $1,700 USD, Weaver’s pricing is also comparable to the median price of gas motorbikes. Dat Bike partners with banks and financial institutions to offer consumers twelve-month payment plans with no interest.

“These guys are competing with each other to put the emerging middle class of Vietnam on the digital financial market for the first time ever and as a result, we get a very favorable rate,” he said.

While Vietnam’s government hasn’t implemented subsidies for electric motorbikes yet, the Ministry of Transportation has proposed new regulations mandating electric infrastructure at parking lots and bike stations, which Nguyen said will increase the adoption of electric vehicles. Other Vietnamese companies making electric two-wheeled vehicles include VinFast and PEGA.

One of Dat Bike’s advantages is that its bikes are developed in house, with locally-sourced parts. Nguyen said the benefits of manufacturing in Vietnam, instead of sourcing from China and other countries, include streamlined logistics and a more efficient supply chain, since most of Dat Bike’s suppliers are also domestic.

“There are also huge tax advantages for being local, as import tax for bikes is 45% and for bike parts ranging from 15% to 30%,” said Nguyen. “Trade within Southeast Asia is tariff-free though, which means that we have a competitive advantage to expand to the region, compare to foreign imported bikes.”

Dat Bike plans to expand by building its supply chain in Southeast Asia over the next two to three years, with the help of investors like Jungle Ventures.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures founding partner Amit Anand said, “The $25 billion two-wheeler industry in Southeast Asia in particular is ripe for reaping benefits of new developments in electric vehicles and automation. We believe that Dat Bike will lead this charge and create a new benchmark not just in the region but potentially globally for what the next generation of two-wheeler electric vehicles will look and perform like.”

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Binance Labs leads $1.6M seed round in DeFi startup MOUND, the developer of Pancake Bunny

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Decentralized finance startup MOUND, known for its yield farming aggregator Pancake Bunny, has raised $1.6 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs. Other participants included IDEO CoLab, SparkLabs Korea and Handshake co-founder Andrew Lee.

Built on Binance Smart Chain, a blockchain for developing high-performance DeFi apps, MOUND says Pancake Bunny now has over 30,000 daily average users, and has accumulated more than $2.1 billion in total value locked (TVL) since its launch in December 2020.

The new funding will be used to expand Pancake Bunny and develop new products. MOUND recently launched Smart Vaults and plans to unveil Cross-Chain Collateralization in about a month, bringing the startup closer to its goal of covering a wide range of DeFi use cases, including farming, lending and swapping.

Smart Vaults are for farming single asset yields on leveraged lending products. It also automatically checks if the cost of leveraging may be more than anticipated returns and can actively lend assets for MOUND’s cross-chain farming.

Cross-Chain Collateralization is cross-chain yield farming that lets users keep original assets on their native blockchain instead of relying on a bridge token. The user’s original assets serve as collateral when the Bunny protocol borrows assets on the Binance Smart Chain for yield farming. This allows users to keep assets on native blockchains while giving them liquidity to generate returns on the Binance Smart Chain.

In statement, Wei Zhou, Binance chief financial officer, and head of Binance Labs and M&A’s, said “Pancake Bunny’s growth and MOUND’s commitent to execution are impressive. Team MOUND’s expertise in live product design and servie was a key factor in our decision to invest. We look forward to expanding the horizons of Defi together with MOUND.”

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Battery Resourcers raises $20M to commercialize its recycling-plus-manufacturing operations

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As a greater share of the transportation market becomes electrified, companies have started to grapple with how to dispose of the thousands of tons of used electric vehicle batteries that are expected to come off the roads by the end of the decade.

Battery Resourcers proposes a seemingly simple solution: recycle them. But the company doesn’t stop there. It’s engineered a “closed loop” process to turn that recycled material into nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes to sell back to battery manufacturers. It is also developing a process to recover and purify graphite, a material used in anodes, to battery-grade.

Battery Resourcers’ business model has attracted another round of investor attention, this time with a $20 million Series B equity round led by Orbia Ventures, with injections from At One Ventures, TDK Ventures, TRUMPF Venture, Doral Energy-Tech Ventures and InMotion Ventures. Battery Resourcers CEO Mike O’Kronley declined to disclose the company’s new valuation.

The cathode and anode, along with the electrolyzer, are major components of battery architecture, and O’Kronley told TechCrunch it is this recycling-plus-manufacturing process that distinguishes the company from other recyclers.

“When we say that we’re on the verge of revolutionizing this industry, what we are doing is we are making the cathode active material — we’re not just recovering the metals that are in the battery, which a lot of other recyclers are doing,” he said. “We’re recovering those materials, and formulating brand new cathode active material, and also recovering and purifying the graphite active material. So those two active materials will be sold to a battery manufacturer and go right back into the new battery.”

“Other recycling companies, they’re focused on recovering just the metals that are in [batteries]: there’s copper, there’s aluminum, there’s nickel, there’s cobalt. They’re focused on recovering those metals and selling them back as commodities into whatever industry needs those metals,” he added. “And they may or may not go back into a battery.”

The company says its approach could reduce the battery industry’s reliance on mined metals — a reliance that’s only anticipated to grow in the coming decades. A study published last December found that demand for cobalt could increase by a factor of 17 and nickel by a factor of 28, depending on the size of EV uptake and advances in battery chemistries.

Thus far, the company’s been operating a demonstration-scale facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, and has expanded into a facility in Novi, Michigan, where it does analytical testing and material characterization. Between the two sites, the company can make around 15 tons of cathode materials a year. This latest funding round will help facilitate the development of a commercial-scale facility, which Battery Resourcers said in a statement will boost its capacity to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year, or batteries from around 20,000 EVs.

Another major piece of its proprietary recycling process is the ability to take in both old and new EV batteries, process them and formulate the newest kind of cathodes used in today’s batteries. “So they can take in 10-year-old batteries from a Chevy Volt and reformulate the metals to make the high-Ni cathode active materials in use today,” a company spokesman explained to TechCrunch.

Battery Resourcers is already receiving inquiries from automakers and consumer electronics companies, O’Kronley said, though he did not provide additional details. But InMotion Ventures, the venture capital arm of Jaguar Land Rover, said in a statement its participation in the round as a “significant investment.”

“[Battery Resourcers’] proprietary end-to-end recycling process supports Jaguar Land Rover’s journey to become a net zero carbon business by 2039,” InMotion managing director Sebastian Peck said.

Battery Resourcers was founded in 2015 after being spun out from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The company has previously received support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaboration between General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

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