food

Nectar’s sonar bottle caps could save $50B in stolen booze

Posted by | alcohol, Apps, Bars, bartender, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, hardware, Mobile, nectar, TC, ultrasound | No Comments

Bars lose 20% of their alcohol to overpours and “free” drinks for friends. That amounts to $50 billion per year in booze that mysteriously disappears, making life tough for every pub and restaurant. Nectar wants to solve that mystery with its ultrasound depth-sensing bottle caps that measure how much liquid is left in a bottle by measuring how long it takes a sonar pulse to bounce back. And now it’s bringing real-time pour tracking to beer with its gyroscopic taps. The result is that bar managers can determine who’s pouring too much or giving away drink, which promotions are working and when to reorder bottles without keeping too much stock on hand — and avoid wasting hours weighing or eyeballing the liquor level of their inventory.

Nectar’s solution to alcohol shrinkage has now attracted a $10 million Series A led by DragonCapital.vc and joined by former Campari chairman Gerry Ruvo, who will join the board. “Not a lot of technology has come to the bottle,” Nectar CEO Aayush Phumbhra says of ill-equipped bars and restaurants. “Liquor is their highest margin and highest cost item. If you don’t manage it efficiently, you go out of business.” Other solutions can look ugly to customers, forcibly restrict bartenders or take time and money to install and maintain. In contrast, Phumbhra tells me, “I care about solving deep problems by building a solution that doesn’t change behavior.”

Investors were eager to back the CEO, since he previously co-founded text book rental giant Chegg — another startup disrupting an aged market with tech. “I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family. No one in my family has ever worked for anyone else before,” Phumbhra says with a laugh. He saw an opportunity in the stunning revelation that the half-trillion-dollar on-premises alcohol business was plagued by missing booze and inconsistent ways to track it.

Typically at the end of a week or month, a bar manager will have staff painstakingly look at each bottle, try to guess what percent remains and mark it on a clipboard to be loaded into a spreadsheet later. While a little quicker, that’s very subjective and inaccurate. More advanced systems see every bottled weighed to see exactly how much is left. If they’re lucky, the scale connects to a computer, but they still have to punch in what brand of booze they’re sizing up. But the process can take many hours, which amounts to costly labor and infrequent data. None of these methods eliminate the manual measurement process or give real-time pour info.

So with $6 million in funding, Nectar launched in 2017 with its sonar bottle caps that look and operate like old-school pourers. When bars order them, they come pre-synced and labeled for certain bottle shapes like Patron or Jack Daniels. Their Bluetooth devices stay charged for a year and connect wirelessly to a base hub in the bar. With each pour, the sonar pulse determines how much is in the bottle and subtracts it from the previous measurement to record how much was doled out. And the startup’s new gyroscopic beer system is calibrated to deduce pour volume from the angle and time the tap is depressed without the need for a sensor to be installed (and repaired) inside the beer hose.

Bar managers can keep any eye on everything throughout the night with desktop, iOS and Android apps. They could instantly tell if a martini special is working based on how much gin across brands is being poured, ask bartenders to slow their pours if they’re creeping upwards in volume or give the green light to strong pours on weeknights to reward regular customers. “Some bars encourage overpours to get people to keep coming back,” says local San Francisco celebrity bartender Broke-Ass Stuart, who tells me pre-measured pourers can save owners money but cost servers tips.

Nectar now sells self-serve subscriptions to its hardware and software, with a 20-cap package costing $99 per month billed annually with free yearly replacements. It’s also got a free two-tap trial package, or a $399 per month enterprise subscription for 100 taps. Nectar is designed to complement bar point of sale systems. And if a bar just wants the software, Nectar just launched its PrecisionAudit app, where staff tap the current liquid level on a photo of each different bottle for more accurate eyeballing. It’s giving a discount rate of $29.99 per month on the first 1,000 orders.

After 2 million pours measured, the business is growing 200% quarter-over-quarter as bowling alley chains and stadiums sign up for pilots. The potential to change the booze business seduced investors like Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale and the founding family of the Modelo beer company. Next, Nectar is trying to invent a system for wine. That’s trickier, as its taps would need to be able to suck the air out of the bottles each night.

The big challenge will be convincing bars to change after tracking inventory the same way for decades. No one wants to deal with technical difficulties in a jam-packed bar. That’s partly why Nectar’s subscription doesn’t force owners to buy its hardware up front.

If Nectar can nail not only the tech but the bartender experience, it could pave a smoother path to hospitality entrepreneurship. Alcohol shrinkage is one factor leading to the rapid demise of many bars and restaurants. Plus, it could liberate bartenders from measuring bottles into the wee hours. As Phumbhra noted, “They’re coming in on weekends and working late. We want them to spend that time with their families and on customer service.”

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Leak reveals Uber’s $9.99 unlimited delivery Eats Pass

Posted by | Apps, food, food delivery, Mobile, payments, postmates unlimited, TC, Transportation, Uber, Uber Eats Pass | No Comments

What’s the cord-cutting equivalent to ditching your kitchen? Uber’s upcoming subscription to unlimited free food delivery. Uber is preparing to launch the $9.99 per month Uber Eats Pass, according to code hidden in Uber’s Android app.

The subscription would waive Uber’s service fee that’s typically 15% of your order cost. Given that’s often $5 or more, users stand to save a lot if they order in frequently. But Uber could still earn money on menu item markups, cover costs with a flat order fee that protects against someone ordering a single taco, and, most importantly, build loyalty and scale at a time of intense food delivery competition.

The Uber Eats Pass was first spotted by Jane Manchun Wong, the notorious reverse-engineering specialist who’s become a frequent TechCrunch tipster. She managed to generate screenshots from Uber’s Android app code that reveals a prototype of the feature. “Get free delivery, any restaurant, any time,” it says, showing the amount of money you could save or already saved.

An Uber spokesperson did not dispute the legitimacy of the findings and told TechCrunch, “We’re always thinking about new ways to enhance the Eats experience.” They declined to provide further details, which could hint that a launch is imminent but some details are still subject to change. For now we don’t know exactly which perks come with an Eats Pass or where it will be launching first.

At $9.99 per month, the Uber Eats Pass would cost the same and work similarly to Postmates Unlimited and DoorDash DashPass. If they all seem like good deals, you see why they’re less about immediate revenue and more about customer lock-in. You’re a lot less likely to order GrubHub or Caviar if you’ve already pre-paid to cover your Uber Eats delivery costs. And whichever apps emerge from this battle will have instituted the scale and steady behavior to raise prices or just enjoy large lifetime value from each subscriber.

Exploring new business opportunities could help perk up Uber’s share price, which closed at $41.50 today, two weeks after IPOing at an opening price of $42. There are fears that intense competition across both ridesharing and food delivery could make for an expensive road ahead for the newly public company. Any way it can gain an edge on its rivals’ users from straying to them is important. The logistics giant is already experimenting with allowing restaurants to offer discounts in exchange for promoted placement in the app, which is the first step to Uber becoming an ads company, where businesses pay for extra exposure.

If Uber combined Eats Pass with its car service subscription Ride Passes, you have the foundation for a sort of Uber Prime experience — one where you pay an upfront subscription fee that scores you perks and discounts but also makes you likely to spend a lot more on Uber. That bundle could be even more central to Uber than Amazon, which has few direct rivals in the west. People will need to eat and get around for the foreseeable future. Subsidizing loyalty now could be costly in the short-term, but poise Uber for years of lucrative business down the line.

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by | Apps, Asia, China, Cloud, Developer, Facebook, Finance, Flipkart, food, Foodpanda, Gaana, Gaming, grab, haptik, hike, india, MakeMyTrip, Media, Microsoft, microsoft garage, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, mx player, payments, Paytm, paytm mall, reliance jio, saavn, SnapDeal, Social, Startups, Tapzo, Tencent, Times Internet, Transportation, Truecaller, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, WeChat | No Comments

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own “app store” that hosts mini apps. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the moat. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

It remains unclear how users are responding to the new features on their favorite apps. Some signs suggest, however, that at least some users are embracing the additional features. Truecaller said it is seeing tens of thousands of users try the payment feature for the first time each day. It’s also being used to send 3 billion texts a month.

And Reliance Jio, of course

Regardless, the race is still on, and there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

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How-to video maker Jumprope launches to leapfrog YouTube

Posted by | Apps, DIY, eCommerce, Education, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, How To, instagram, Instructables, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, Thumbtack, Video, YouTube | No Comments

Sick of pausing and rewinding YouTube tutorials to replay that tricky part? Jumprope is a new instructional social network offering a powerful how-to video slideshow creation tool. Jumprope helps people make step-by-step guides to cooking, beauty, crafts, parenting and more using voice-overed looping GIFs for each phase. And creators can export their whole lesson for sharing on Instagram, YouTube or wherever.

Jumprope officially launches its iOS app today with plenty of how-tos for making chocolate chip bars, Easter eggs, flower boxes or fierce eyebrows. “By switching from free-form linear video to something much more structured, we can make it much easier for people to share their knowledge and hacks,” says Jumprope co-founder and CEO Jake Poses.

The rise of Snapchat Stories and Pinterest have made people comfortable jumping on camera and showing off their niche interests. By building a new medium, Jumprope could become the home for rapid-fire learning. And because viewers will have tons of purchase intent for the makeup, art supplies or equipment they’ll need to follow along, Jumprope could make serious cash off ads or affiliate commerce.

The opportunity to bring instruction manuals into the mobile video era has attracted a $4.5 million seed round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and joined by strategic angels like Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky and Thumbtack co-founders Marco Zappacosta and Jonathan Swanson. People are already devouring casual education content on HGTV and the Food Network, but Jumprope democratizes its creation.

Jumprope co-founders (from left): CTO Travis Johnson and CEO Jake Poses

The idea came from a deeply personal place for Poses. “My brother has pretty severe learning differences, and so growing up with him gave me this appreciation for figuring out how to break things down and explain them to people,” Poses reveals. “I think that attached me to this problem of ‘how do you organize information so it’s simple and easy to understand?’ Lots and lots of people have this information trapped in their heads because there isn’t a way to easily share that.”

Poses was formerly the VP of Product at Thumbtack where he helped grow the company from 8 to 500 people and a $1.25 billion valuation. He teamed up with AppNexus’ VP of engineering Travis Johnson, who’d been leading a 50-person team of coders. “The product takes people who have knowledge and passion but not the skill to make video [and gives them] guard rails that make it easy to communicate,” Poses explains.

Disrupting incumbents like YouTube’s grip on viewers might take years, but Jumprope sees its guide creation and export tool as a way to infiltrate and steal their users. That strategy mirrors how TikTok’s watermarked exports colonized the web.

How to make a Jumprope

Jumprope lays out everything you’ll need to upload, including a cover image, introduction video, supplies list and all your steps. For each, you’ll record a video that you can then enhance with voice-over, increased speed, music and filters.

Creators are free to suggest their own products or enter affiliate links to monetize their videos. Once it has enough viewers, Jumprope plans to introduce advertising, but it could also add tipping, subscriptions, paid how-tos or brand sponsorship options down the line. Creators can export their lessons with five different border themes and seven different aspect ratios for posting to Instagram’s feed, IGTV, Snapchat Stories, YouTube or embedding on their blog.

“Like with Stories, you basically tap through at your own pace,” Poses says of the viewing experience. Jumprope offers some rudimentary discovery through categories, themed collections or what’s new and popular. The startup has done extensive legwork to sign up featured creators in all its top categories. That means Jumprope’s catalog is already extensive, with food guides ranging from cinnabuns to pot roasts to how to perfectly chop an onion. 

“You’re not constantly dealing with the frustration of cooking something and trying to start and stop the video with greasy hands. And if you don’t want all the details, you can tap through it much faster” than trying to skim a YouTube video or blog post, Poses tells me. Next the company wants to build a commenting feature where you can leave notes, substitution suggestions and more on each step of a guide.

Poses claims there’s no one building a direct competitor to its mobile video how-to editor. But he admits it will be an uphill climb to displace viewership on Instagram and YouTube. One challenge facing Jumprope is that most people aren’t hunting down how-to videos every day. The app will have to work to remind users it exists and that they shouldn’t just go with the lazy default of letting Google recommend the videos it hosts.

The internet has gathered communities around every conceivable interest. But greater access to creation and consumption necessitates better tools for production and curation. As we move from a material to an experiential culture, people crave skills that will help them forge memories and contribute to the world around them. Jumprope makes it a lot less work to leap into the life of a guru.

You can watch my first Jumprope here or below to learn how to tie up headphones without knots:

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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MIT’s ‘cyber-agriculture’ optimizes basil flavors

Posted by | agriculture, artificial intelligence, food, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, hydroponics, machine learning, MIT, science | No Comments

The days when you could simply grow a basil plant from a seed by placing it on your windowsill and watering it regularly are gone — there’s no point now that machine learning-optimized hydroponic “cyber-agriculture” has produced a superior plant with more robust flavors. The future of pesto is here.

This research didn’t come out of a desire to improve sauces, however. It’s a study from MIT’s Media Lab and the University of Texas at Austin aimed at understanding how to both improve and automate farming.

In the study, published today in PLOS ONE, the question being asked was whether a growing environment could find and execute a growing strategy that resulted in a given goal — in this case, basil with stronger flavors.

Such a task is one with numerous variables to modify — soil type, plant characteristics, watering frequency and volume, lighting and so on — and a measurable outcome: concentration of flavor-producing molecules. That means it’s a natural fit for a machine learning model, which from that variety of inputs can make a prediction as to which will produce the best output.

“We’re really interested in building networked tools that can take a plant’s experience, its phenotype, the set of stresses it encounters, and its genetics, and digitize that to allow us to understand the plant-environment interaction,” explained MIT’s Caleb Harper in a news release. The better you understand those interactions, the better you can design the plant’s lifecycle, perhaps increasing yield, improving flavor or reducing waste.

In this case the team limited the machine learning model to analyzing and switching up the type and duration of light experienced by the plants, with the goal of increasing flavor concentration.

A first round of nine plants had light regimens designed by hand based on prior knowledge of what basil generally likes. The plants were harvested and analyzed. Then a simple model was used to make similar but slightly tweaked regimens that took the results of the first round into account. Then a third, more sophisticated model was created from the data and given significantly more leeway in its ability to recommend changes to the environment.

To the researchers’ surprise, the model recommended a highly extreme measure: Keep the plant’s UV lights on 24/7.

Naturally this isn’t how basil grows in the wild, since, as you may know, there are few places where the sun shines all day long and all night strong. And the arctic and antarctic, while fascinating ecosystems, aren’t known for their flavorful herbs and spices.

Nevertheless, the “recipe” of keeping the lights on was followed (it was an experiment, after all), and incredibly, this produced a massive increase in flavor molecules, doubling the amount found in control plants.

“You couldn’t have discovered this any other way,” said co-author John de la Parra. “Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world. You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”

But while a more flavorful basil is a welcome result, it’s not really the point. The team is more happy that the method yielded good data, validating the platform and software they used.

“You can see this paper as the opening shot for many different things that can be applied, and it’s an exhibition of the power of the tools that we’ve built so far,” said de la Parra. “With systems like ours, we can vastly increase the amount of knowledge that can be gained much more quickly.”

If we’re going to feed the world, it’s not going to be done with amber waves of grain, i.e. with traditional farming methods. Vertical, hydroponic, computer-optimized — we’ll need all these advances and more to bring food production into the 21st century.

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How Jyve secretly raised $35M & built a $400M retail gig economy

Posted by | Apps, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, gig economy, Grocery store, Instacart, Jyve, Logistics, Mobile, on-demand economy, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, Transportation | No Comments

What if instead of just accepting Uber rides, gig workers could pick from higher-paying skilled tasks around town like stocking shelves, checking inventory or driving a forklift at a local grocer? When they work quickly and accurately or learn new trades, they get to choose between more complex jobs. That’s the idea that’s racked up $400 million in staffing contracts for Jyve, an on-demand labor platform that’s coming out of stealth today after 3.5 years. It already has 6,000 workers doing tasks for 4,000 stores across the country.

“I believe the skill economy is way bigger than the gig economy,” says Jyve CEO and founder Brad Oberwager. He sees Uber driving as just the low-expertise beginning of a massive new job type where people with specializations or experience are efficiently matched to retail work. Jyve’s secret sauce is the work quality review system built into its app for managers and stores that lets it know who got the job done right and deserves even better opportunities.

Jyve’s potential to become the skilled labor marketplace has quietly attracted $35 million in funding across a seed and Series A round raised over the past few years, led by SignalFire and joined by Crosscut Ventures and Ridge Ventures. “Jyve is one of the fastest-growing companies we’ve seen, having already reached $400 million in bookings in three short years,” writes Chris Farmer, CEO of SignalFire. “They are creating a new economic class.”

It’s all because Safeway hasn’t touched a bag of Doritos in 50 years, Oberwager tells me. Grocery stores have long outsourced the shelving and arrangement of products to the big brands that make them, which is why the retail consumer packaged good industry employs 10 million people in the U.S., or more than 10 percent of the country’s workforce. But instead of relying on one person to drive goods to the store, load them in and shelve them, Jyve can cut costs and divide those tasks and match them to nearby people with sufficient skills.

“Retail isn’t dying, it’s changing, and brands that are thriving are the ones investing in their in-store experience as well as owning their e-commerce initiatives,” observed Oberwager. “The question we must ask then is how do we fill this labor shortage and also enable people to refine special skills that are multi-dimensional and rewarding.”

Oberwager knows the tribulations of grocery shelving well. He built online drugstore More.com before the dot-com boom, then started making his own food products. He created True Fruit Cups, one of the country’s largest importer of grapefruit, and founded and sold his Bare apple chips company. Competing for shelf space with big brands paying workers to set up elaborate displays in grocery stores, he saw a chance to reimagine retail labor.

But it was when his daughter got sick and he realized the surgeon who performed the operation was essentially a high-skilled mercenary that he seized on the opportunity beyond grocers. “He walks in, does the surgery, walks out. He’s a gig worker, but it’s a skill I’m willing to pay a lot for,” says Oberwager.

He created Jyve to aggregate the demand from different stores and the skills from different workers. When someone signs up for Jyve, they start with easier tasks like moving boxes in the backroom. If they do that well, they could unlock higher-paying shelf stocking and display arrangement, then product ordering and brand ambassadorship. At each step, they take photos and leave comments about their work that are reviewed by a combination of store and brand managers, as well as Jyve’s machine vision algorithms and human quality-control team. It can quickly tell if someone puts the Cheerios box on the shelf the wrong way, and won’t give them public-facing tasks if they don’t improve

“Seventy percent of our market managers were originally drivers, and they become W-2 workers,” Oberwager says proudly. Jyve even makes it easy for brands and retailers to hire its top giggers for full-time jobs. Why would the startup allow that? “I want to put it on a billboard, ‘Work hard, get promoted,’ ” he tells me. The fact that Oberwager’s last name could be interpreted as “higher wages” in German makes Jyve seem like his destiny.

But to fulfill that prophecy, Jyve will have to out-tech old-school staffing firms like Acosta, Advantage and Crossmark. It’s also hoping to ween grocers off of Instacart by bringing shopping for online orders back to stores’ in-house staff — provided by Jyve. A worker could be stocking shelves, then use that knowledge to quickly pick up all the items for an online order and give them to a curbside driver, then return to their task.

Keeping work quality up to snuff will be a challenge, but by dangling higher wages, Jyve aligns its incentives with its workers. The bigger hurdle may be convincing big brands and retail institutions to change the way they’ve done staffing forever. Oberwager professes that it takes a long time to onboard, but also a long time to offboard, so it could build a solid moat if it’s the first to win this market. Jyve is now in more than 1,200 cities across the U.S.., and a real-time map showed a plethora of gigs available around San Francisco during the demo.

Oberwager admits the unskilled gig economy is “a little dehumanizing. It makes people a cog in a machine.” But he hopes each “Jyver,” as he calls them, can become more like a circuit — a complex machine of its own that powers something bigger.

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Uber Eats test lets restaurants trade discounts for ranking boost

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, eCommerce, food, food delivery, Logistics, Mobile, payments, Startups, TC, Uber, Uber Eats | No Comments

Uber Eats has effectively invented its own native ad unit. Uber confirmed to TechCrunch that a test quietly running in markets around India allows restaurants to bundle several food items together and sell them at a discounted price in exchange for promoted placement by Uber Eats in a featured section of local “Specials.” In some cases, restaurants foot the cost of the discount, while in others Uber pays for the discounts.

The Uber Specials feature demonstrates the massive leverage awarded to food delivery apps that aggregate restaurants. Users often come to Uber Eats and its competitors without a specific restaurant in mind. Uber can then point those customers to whichever food supplier it prefers. The suppliers in turn will increasingly compete for the favor of the aggregators — not just in terms of food quality, speed and review scores, but also in terms of discounts. The aggregators will win users if they offer the best deals; creating a network effect makes restaurants more keen to play ball.

TechCrunch first learned of Uber’s ambitions in the space from a mock-up of the Promoted Items Value Section feature spotted in its app by mobile researcher and frequent TC tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The fictional food items included “Best Beer” that “is made from only the finest gutter swill” and “Weird Fries” that “will so utterly decimate your sense of good food that you will be permanently reduced to a whimpering shell of your former self!” This jokey text that seemingly was never meant for public viewing also noted that the fries are so good you should “throw all your other food in the garbage right now!” Uber assured us these weren’t real.

But what it did confirm is that the discounts for promoted placement test is live in India. “We’re always experimenting with ways to make it easier to find your favorite foods on Uber Eats,, according to a statement provided by an Uber spokesperson.

The feature allows restaurants to create a bundled meal at a certain price point, such as a chicken sandwich, french fries and a drink at a price that’s less than the sum of its parts. The company tells me the goal is to take the friction out of ordering by giving people pre-set meals at a better price prominently available in the app. Attracting more customers that have plenty of other options could offset the discount. Businesses could also use it to bundle high-margin items, like soft drinks, with meals, or to get rid of overstock.

Ben Thompson’s aggregation theory describes how power accrues to aggregators that match supply with demand

It’s already common for restaurants to make “specials” out of food they have too much of. That butternut squash ravioli might only be featured because they can’t get rid of it. In that sense, you could think of Uber Specials as the inverse of surge pricing. When supply is too high, restaurants can offer discounts to gain more demand. It’s also not far off from Google Search’s keyword ads where business pay for more visibility.

Uber wouldn’t discuss whether it plans to bring the strategy to other markets, but it makes sense to assume it’s considering expansion. Done wrong, it could look a bit like Uber Eats is pressuring restaurants to surrender discounts if they want to be discoverable inside its app. If restaurants within Uber Eats get into heated competition to offer discounts, it could drive down their profits. But done right, Specials could look like a triple-win. Restaurants can offload surplus and bundle in high-margin items while scoring new customers from enhanced placement, customers get cheaper food options and Uber Eats becomes people’s go-to app for easy-to-order discounted meals.

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This unique vacuum-extraction coffee maker is Colombia’s own

Posted by | Coffee, Crowdfunding, design, food, Gadgets, hardware, TC | No Comments

If you had a cup of delicious coffee this morning, there’s a good chance those beans came from Colombia, which has famously been growing and selling them for centuries. But the country hasn’t produced any coffee makers — until now, anyway. The FrankOne is a clever device that puts a versatile vacuum-extraction technique in a compact, single-cup form factor.

Of course, it’ll have to hit its Kickstarter goal first. Eduardo Umaña, the designer of the FrankOne, explained that he encountered the idea one day when chatting with a Colombian roaster.

“He was making coffee then by using the ‘reverse french press’ method and I thought I could improve on that,” Umaña told me in an email. “Some time after, I got very curious to test what high vacuum brewed coffee would taste like. I did some simple experiments and was very surprised by the rich and sweet flavor. One thing led to another and I ended up designing a new product.”

The FrankOne is closest in operation to the big glass vacuum drippers you might have seen in fancy coffee shops. This interesting and quite old method uses the gas pressure created by the boiling action to force the water upwards through a tube into the grounds, and then as it cools, the brewed coffee is pulled back down through a filter by the changes in air pressure. The siphons you’ve seen are elegant but not exactly convenient.

“They implement a similar principle in a very different way,” Umaña said. His device doesn’t require this dance of hot and cool; you put the cylindrical device, about the size of “a big burger,” on the included carafe and add the ground coffee. Pour in the hot water, put the lid on and wait a bit for the oils and such to extract. Then hit the button on top and let it do its thing.

A pump extracts air from the carafe, drawing the coffee down through the metal filter. In a minute or so the process is done, leaving what Umaña says is the bitter crema up in the grounds. The result is a sweet and clear cup of coffee. Its taste (I haven’t tried) is likely closest to AeroPress, as opposed to drip, due to the active force pushing (pulling, actually) the water through the grounds.

The device will accept various grinds and amounts of coffee, producing a different cup — not a possibility with French press and not advised with pourover or espresso. And it’s definitely a lot smaller than an AeroPress.

It does run on a battery, but with 150 cups per charge, you probably won’t have to worry much about it. And there’s no bait and switch with custom filters or something — you just wash the thing and it’s ready to go again.

Incidentally, I had to double-check with Umaña that no one from Colombia had gone on to create a coffee maker. The industry is so old and so important there that it seemed impossible.

“Unbelievable, right?” he wrote. “It was also very meaningful to me as Colombian to work on the first Colombian designed coffee brewer. Perhaps through this project we can bring some much needed economic development to the country by innovating in coffee; it grows right in our backyard and we can do so much more than we are currently doing!”

Umaña and his company, Frank de Paula (after the second president of Colombia, who started the coffee export business there in the 19th century), are looking for $120,000 to finance the device. At $50 for the early birds it’s likely a steal, at least if you’re a coffee brewing fiend like me — I collect stuff like this. Everyone needs a hobby, right? It’ll cost a bill when it comes out in retail, so if you like the idea, save yourself a couple bucks and support good design with a pledge.

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Autonomous retail startup Inokyo’s first store feels like stealing

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, eCommerce, food, hardware, Inokyo, Mobile, robotics, Startups, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

Inokyo wants to be the indie Amazon Go. It’s just launched its prototype cashierless autonomous retail store. Cameras track what you grab from shelves, and with a single QR scan of its app on your way in and out of the store, you’re charged for what you got.

Inokyo‘s first store is now open on Mountain View’s Castro Street selling an array of bougie kombuchas, snacks, protein powders and bath products. It’s sparse and a bit confusing, but offers a glimpse of what might be a commonplace shopping experience five years from now. You can get a glimpse yourself in our demo video below:

“Cashierless stores will have the same level of impact on retail as self-driving cars will have on transportation,” Inokyo co-founder Tony Francis tells me. “This is the future of retail. It’s inevitable that stores will become increasingly autonomous.”

Inokyo (rhymes with Tokyo) is now accepting signups for beta customers who want early access to its Mountain View store. The goal is to collect enough data to dictate the future product array and business model. Inokyo is deciding whether it wants to sell its technology as a service to other retail stores, run its own stores or work with brands to improve their product’s positioning based on in-store sensor data on custom behavior.

We knew that building this technology in a lab somewhere wouldn’t yield a successful product,” says Francis. “Our hypothesis here is that whoever ships first, learns in the real world and iterates the fastest on this technology will be the ones to make these stores ubiquitous.” Inokyo might never rise into a retail giant ready to compete with Amazon and Whole Foods. But its tech could even the playing field, equipping smaller businesses with the tools to keep tech giants from having a monopoly on autonomous shopping experiences.

It’s about what cashiers do instead

Amazon isn’t as ahead as we assumed,” Francis remarks. He and his co-founder Rameez Remsudeen took a trip to Seattle to see the Amazon Go store that first traded cashiers for cameras in the U.S. Still, they realized, “This experience can be magical.” The two met at Carnegie Mellon through machine learning classes before they went on to apply that knowledge at Instagram and Uber. The two decided that if they jumped into autonomous retail soon enough, they could still have a say in shaping its direction.

Next week, Inokyo will graduate from Y Combinator’s accelerator that provided its initial seed funding. In six weeks during the program, they found a retail space on Mountain View’s main drag, studied customer behaviors in traditional stores, built an initial product line and developed the technology to track what users are taking off the shelves.

Here’s how the Inokyo store works. You download its app and connect a payment method, and you get a QR code that you wave in front of a little sensor as you stroll into the shop. Overhead cameras will scan your body shape and clothing without facial recognition in order to track you as you move around the store. Meanwhile, on-shelf cameras track when products are picked up or put back. Combined, knowing who’s where and what’s grabbed lets it assign the items to your cart. You scan again on your way out, and later you get a receipt detailing the charges.

Originally, Inokyo actually didn’t make you scan on the way out, but it got the feedback that customers were scared they were actually stealing. The scan-out is more about peace of mind than engineering necessity. There is a subversive pleasure to feeling like, “well, if Inokyo didn’t catch all the stuff I chose, that’s not my problem.” And if you’re overcharged, there’s an in-app support button for getting a refund.

Inokyo co-founders (from left): Tony Francis and Rameez Remsudeen

Inokyo was accurate in what it charged me despite me doing a few switcharoos with products I nabbed. But there were only about three people in the room at the time. The real test for these kinds of systems are when a rush of customers floods in and cameras have to differentiate between multiple similar-looking people. Inokyo will likely need to be more than 99 percent accurate to be more of a help than a headache. An autonomous store that constantly over- or undercharges would be more trouble than it’s worth, and patrons would just go to the nearest classic shop.

Just because autonomous retail stores will be cashier-less doesn’t mean they’ll have no staff. To maximize cost-cutting, they could just trust that people won’t loot it. However, Inokyo plans to have someone minding the shop to make sure people scan in the first place and to answer questions about the process. But there’s also an opportunity in reassigning labor from being cashiers to concierges that can recommend the best products or find what’s the right fit for the customer. These stores will be judged by the convenience of the holistic experience, not just the tech. At the very least, a single employee might be able to handle restocking, customer support and store maintenance once freed from cashier duties.

The Amazon Go autonomous retail store in Seattle is equipped with tons of overhead cameras

While Amazon Go uses cameras in a similar way to Inokyo, it also relies on weight sensors to track items. There are plenty of other companies chasing the cashierless dream. China’s BingoBox has nearly $100 million in funding and has more than 300 stores, though they use less sophisticated RFID tags. Fellow Y Combinator startup Standard Cognition has raised $5 million to equip old-school stores with autonomous camera-tech. AiFi does the same, but touts that its cameras can detect abnormal behavior that might signal someone is a shoplifter.

The store of the future seems like more and more of a sure thing. The race’s winner will be determined by who builds the most accurate tracking software, easy-to-install hardware and pleasant overall shopping flow. If this modular technology can cut costs and lines without alienating customers, we could see our local brick-and-mortars adapt quickly. The bigger question than if or even when this future arrives is what it will mean for the millions of workers who make their living running the checkout lane.

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