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The Station: Argo AI plots its fundraising course and Waymo changes leadership

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hi there, new and returning readers. This is The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

There is a lot to get to, so let’s dive right in.

My email inbox is always open. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Rebecca Bellan is back with some micromobbin’ insights. Let’s dig in and take a look at this roundup of news.

It was a buzzy week for ebikes news, another indication that there is still demand — or at least the perception of demand — for this form of mobility.

Take Gocycle as just one example. The UK-based company released its fourth generation of folding electric bikes, which are claimed to be lighter and more powerful. The new line is made of three models — the G4 ($3,999), G4i ($4,999) and G4i+ ($5,999) — and they all have 20-inch wheels, a sealed chain drive with a 3-speed rear hub transmission, hydraulic disc brakes, a polymer reach shock and a 500-watt front motor. This is all to say, this bike can rip.

Ebike sharing also continues to be a busy market with startups making plans and governments making orders.

Smoove, a French mobility startup. is partnering with Zoov, another mobility startup that focuses on IoT and self-diagnosis features, to try to become leaders in the European e-bike sharing market. Smoove is already well-placed in major cities like Paris, Vancouver, Lima and Moscow, and now will be joining forces with Zoov’s high quality tech and compact docking stations.

China-based EZGO announced an order of e-bikes to the Ukraine worth 1 million RMB, or about $150,000. Ukraine is also purchasing EZGO’s “Dilang” brand of e-modes, as well as some electric tricycles. The company hopes to begin distribution within the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, in the land of policy …

A council committee has delayed votes to make changes to e-scooter and e-bike sharing schemes in Denver.

The deal they’re working out involves allowing the two micromobility companies to get free access to operating on the city’s streets. Usually, these companies would pay the city for the right to operate, but if the Denver City Council approves their licenses, Lyft and Lime will just be making profits. The upside is that it (hopefully) gets more people out of cars and into more sustainable modes of transport. This deal also doesn’t require Denverites to contribute to funding, unlike the deal Denver had with B-cycle, the city’s original bike share nonprofit.

 — Rebecca Bellan 

Deal of the week

money the station

Lilium became the latest electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft startup to seek capital by going public via a reverse merger with a “blank check” company. In this deal, Lilium announced a merger with special purpose acquisition company Qell Acquisition Corp, in a deal valuing the combined business at $3.3 billion.

(Side note: Qell Acquisition Corp. is a SPAC led by Barry Engle, a former president of General Motors North America.) Once the merger is complete, Lilium will trade on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol LILM.

The German-based startup designs and builds eVTOLs and has aspirations to launch commercial air taxi operations in 2024. Lilium plans to launch an air taxi network in Florida with up to 14 vertiport development sites, which the company says will be built and operated by its infrastructure partners.

Other deals that got my attention …

Cazoo, the UK-based used car sales platform, announced it too will merge with a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that values it at an eye-popping $7 billion. Bloomberg reported.

Chargerhelp!, an on-demand EV charger repair startup, has raised $2.75 million from investors Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. This round values the startup, which was founded in January 2020, at $11 million post-money. The startup is interesting to me because as far as my research has shown there isn’t a lot of competition; and there should be. They also have a progressive (dare I suggest sustainable approach) to hiring.

Glovo, a startup out of Spain with 10 million users that delivers restaurant takeout, groceries and other items in partnership with brick-and-mortar businesses, raised $528 million in a Series F round. The round is significant not just because of its size, but because of its proximity to Deliveroo’s raising more than $2 billion ahead of its debut on the London Stock Exchange this week.

To offset the thin (or even negative) margins that are typically associated with a lot of delivery startups, Glovo aims to become the market leader in the 20 markets in Europe where it is live today, in part by expanding its “q-commerce” service — the delivery of items to urban consumers in 30 minutes or less, TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden reported. It will be using the money to double down on that strategy, including hiring up to 200 more engineers to work in its headquarters in Barcelona, as well as hubs in Madrid and Warsaw, Poland to build out the technology to underpin it.

LGN, a UK-based startup focused on edge AI, raised $2 million in a round that included investors Trucks VC, Luminous Ventures, and Jaguar Land Rover.

The company, which was founded in 2018 by former Apple and BMW executive Daniel Warner, Oxbridge research fellow Dr Luke Robinson and Professor Vladimir Čeperić of MIT and the University of Zagreb, plans to use the funds to develop its product and hire more employees. Specifically, the company said it is working on low-latency inference technology that can process optical data on-chip orders faster than current technology allows, VentureBeat reported.

Wavesense, the Massachusetts-based startup that makes ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology for self-driving cars, raised $15 million in a round led by Rhapsody Venture Partners and Impossible Ventures.

Takeaways from Biden’s plans

What will it take to get Americans to choose an electric vehicle for their next car and to get American supply chains up to the task of manufacturing them in-house? According to President Joe Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan unveiled Wednesday, the answer is $174 billion.

The funds are just one part of the $2 trillion plan, which seeks to overhaul the lifelines that keep the country running, such as our transportation networks, electric grid and even broadband. In some ways, the plan is bipartisan genius: it combines Democrats’ concern over climate change with Republicans’ concern over Chinese dominance in manufacturing, and appeals to both parties in its promise to revitalize domestic jobs. But the plan still needs approval from Congress before it can move forward.

To spur Americans to buy electric, Biden has taken a two-pronged approach: make them cheaper (through tax credits and rebates) and make EV chargers more readily available (by building a staggeringly large network of 500,000 chargers by 2030). His administration hasn’t released details on the size of the incentives, so it’s unclear whether they will be larger than the $7,500 tax credit already available for EVs. It’s also unclear whether Tesla and GM will qualify, as the current credit isn’t available for manufacturers that have already sold more than 200,000 EVs.

For now, Biden’s administration is withholding a lot of details — how will his plan help automakers “spur domestic supply chains from raw materials to parts” and “retool factories to compete globally”? — so we’ll keep an eye out for these details in the future.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Argo AI plots its fundraising course

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I dared to take some time off, which is all well and good until news breaks in the world of autonomous vehicles. A report from The Information said that Argo AI CEO and co-founder Bryan Salesky told employees in an all-hands meeting that the autonomous vehicle startup was planning for a public listing later this year.

I connected with some sources – vacation be damned — and have more context to share with you. Salesky did indeed mention the prospect of an IPO during the company’s regular weekly all-hands meeting. There is a bit more to the story though. The comments were made as the CEO discussed upcoming important milestones in 2021 that will lead to an IPO or a significant raise of some kind. The upshot: apparently all fundraising options are on the table, including a merger with a special acquisition company or SPAC.

Argo, as one source told me, is intent on scaling. Raising capital is a key part of that plan. The company also plans to expand testing beyond the six cities it currently is in — including into Europe. (Remember, Volkswagen is a backer and a customer. )

All of that takes money. Argo has raised $2 billion to date. That’s no small sum and yet far below the war chests of Cruise and Waymo.

The fundraising effort has not started in earnest. There is no roadshow, according to folks familiar. The broad plan is to secure investors, which could turn into the PIPE (private investment in public equity) for a SPAC or a “fairly substantial private round,” according to one insider.

Waymo’s changing of the guard

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced on Friday that he is stepping down from the leadership position he held for five years. The CEO position will now be held by two people: Tekedra Mawakana, who was COO and Dmitri Dolgov, who was part of the original Google self-driving project and was most recently CTO.

The idea is that the co-CEOs will take their respective expertise — business and engineering — and combine them to help Waymo scale up commercially. Co-CEO models are risky, so it will be interesting to see if the pair can work together, and importantly, get their employees to buy into the idea. Dolgov and Mawakana apparently brought the co-CEO idea to the board, one source told me. (Remember Waymo is an Alphabet company, and so its leaders ultimately answer to their parent.)

In a post on LinkedIn, Krafcik described his time at the company and hinted at a few of his plans, which for now seems to be focused on settling in Austin, Texas and regrouping with family and friends. He’s also now listed as an advisor to Waymo, a contractual position that doesn’t have a specific end date.

As you might suspect, I received lots of texts and email messages from sources within the industry wanting to weigh in or provide inside information (or speculate) why Krafcik left.

Here’s what I can tell you. Krafcik could be a polarizing figure within Waymo, particularly in the early days of his employment when it was still a “project” and had not yet become an independent company under Alphabet. That transition led to the departure of some of the Google self-driving project’s key engineers and leaders, including Chris Urmson, Bryan Salesky and Dave Ferguson, who went on to found AV startups Aurora, Argo AI and Nuro.

Krafcik’s tenure was also marked by extreme growth — in terms of number of employees — as well as an aggressive push to lock up OEM and supplier partners, the launch of a ride-hailing service in the suburbs of Phoenix, expanded testing and its first external investment round of $2.25 billion. That round was extended by another $750 million, bringing the total size of the financing to $3 billion.

Dolgov and Mawakana have some decisions to make on how they want to proceed and where to place their bets. My educated forecast? Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous delivery unit, will become a bigger priority along with a more visible push into complex urban environments like San Francisco.

Notable reads and other tidbits

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Here are a few other items worth mentioning.

It’s electric

Amazon Web Services is expanding its offerings and anticipating the inevitable spike in EVs by partnering with Swiss automation company ABB. The two are working on a single-view electric fleet management platform that can work with any charging infrastructure or EV.

“Not only do fleet managers have to contend with the speed of development in charging technology, but they also need real-time vehicle and charging status information, access to charging infrastructures and information for hands-on maintenance,” Frank Muehlon, president of ABB’s e-mobility division, told TechCrunch. “This new real-time EV fleet management solution will set new standards in the world of electric mobility for global fleet operators and help them realize improved operations.”

Autonomous vehicles

Cartken, the robotics startup founded by ex-Google employees, has partnered with REEF Technology to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami. REEF,  a startup that operates parking lots and tech-focused neighborhood hubs, to develop and deploy the robots. They are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius of its delivery hubs.’

Geodis, the global logistics company, has tapped startup Phantom Auto to help it deploy forklifts that can be controlled remotely by human operators located hundreds, and even thousands, of miles away. The aim is to use the technology to reduce operator fatigue — and the injuries that can occur as a result — as well as reduce the number of people physically inside warehouses, according to the Geodis.

Motional, which is partnering with Lyft for ride-hailing services, revealed this week that it would be integrating its tech with the Hyundai IONIQ5. Customers in certain markets will be able to book this vehicle starting in 2023.

Optimus Ride, an autonomous electric mobility company, announced a partnership with sports car manufacturer Polaris to commercialize a new breed of Polaris GEM low-speed vehicles. The vehicles will serve as microtransit for certain academic or corporate campuses, mixed-use developments and other geofenced, localized environments. Side note: 2023 seems to be a big year for upcoming electric, autonomous vehicles.

Delivery

Zipline, the drone delivery service startup, announced a partnership with Toyota Tsusho
Corporation that will focus on bringing medical and pharmaceutical supplies to healthcare facilities in Japan. Toyota Tsusho is already an investor in Zipline and so this is a deepening of that relationship.

The partnership also marks Zipline’s entrance into Japan. The company already delivers medical supplies in Ghana and Rwanda, and also operates in the United States.

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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