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Hey, folks! Me again. As I’m sure it had you on the edge of your seat, I’m pleased to report that the team wasn’t completely dissatisfied with my inaugural work (it’s here in case you missed it), and so they’ve agreed to let me have another go. In other uplifting news, it’s nearly the end of the week. And if you’re staring outside at the same New York City skyline I am, the weather’s beautiful. Get that vitamin D in when you’re able.
Anywho, if you’re not NYC bound and happen to be within spitting distance of Menlo Park today, grab a ticket to the TechCrunch Summer Party. I checked, and there’s just a few left — the festivities start at 6 p.m PT. Also, don’t forget to mark your calendar for the upcoming TC Sessions: Robotics event, which will feature such guests as Amazon’s VP of global robotics and the director of Carnegie Mellon’s robotics institute. It won’t be one to miss. — Kyle
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Put that in a pipe and smoke it: Connie reported early this morning that Juul, the e-cigarette maker started at Stanford, would be served a “marketing denial order” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), preventing the company from selling its products in the U.S. Indeed, the FDA later today ordered Juul to remove all of its products from sale, marking the culmination of the agency’s 2-year investigation into whether Juul’s products are harmful to children. Juul has the option of pursuing an appeal through the FDA, challenging the decision in court or filing a revised application for its products.
Cloud kitchens dissipate: Annie writes that Kune Food, a promising Kenya-based startup renting out kitchens to prepare ready-to-eat affordable meals, will shut down operations and lay off its roughly 90-person workforce. Citing “economic downturn and investment markets tightening up,” CEO Robin Reecht said that the company failed to procure the necessary funding and struggled to scale its business model, which relied on selling meals to individual and corporate customers at $3 a head.
To sum it up: Remember SumUp? A decade ago, the company made waves by turning basic smartphones into card payment terminals. Now, Ingrid reports, the startup has raised $624 million at an $8.5 billion valuation, reflecting its sustained growth. SumUp claims that more than 4 million small- and medium-sized businesses are using its platform. The new cash will be put toward acquisitions, more hiring and product development.
Startups and VC
During the pandemic, companies with digital products did well. That’s no surprise. With folks and workers stuck at home, digital became the only way to collaborate, stay current and find a modicum of escape. One digital subsegment that enjoyed particular growth was e-learning. Recall that Udemy raised tens of millions in 2020. But the tide appears to be turning. MasterClass, the platform that sells subscriptions to celebrity-led classes, cut 20% of its team — roughly 120 people — to “get to self-sustainability faster.” As Natasha points out, it’s the latest edtech startup to scale back after Eruditus, upskilling startup Section4, Unacademy and Vedantu. Meanwhile, Duolingo and Coursera have seen their stock values slashed.
Micromobility ain’t looking so hot these days, either, unfortunately. Shortly after Lime exited South Korea and Bird laid off 23% of its staff, e-scooter startup Superpedestrian announced that it will reduce its headcount by 35 employees. Voi followed suit with layoffs at its HQ, letting go of 35 full-time workers. Rebecca notes that the industry’s economics have always been tricky, but it surely doesn’t help that investors are becoming increasingly wary of startups with high costs and long paths to profitability.
In brighter news:
Hardwood reboot: Tim writes about a fascinating startup, Vibrant Planet, that’s developing what it calls an “operating system for forest restoration.” How on Earth (pun intended) does that work? Well, Vibrant Planet’s software, which is aimed at land managers, can prioritize objectives like fire risk using a combination of satellite imagery and AI tools. It can also run analyses to determine how different landscape treatments will affect these objectives, revealing the real-time effects. Pretty neat.
Get your steps in — and your slaloms: A Fitbit-like tracker for skiing? That’s different — and piqued my interest, I must say, as a lover of snow sports. Haje‘s piece on Carv details the startup’s ski-tracking insert for ski boots, which measures and analyzes technique and beams the data to an app where a virtual coach can give feedback. Carv, which came to venture capital by way of Kickstarter, claims its product can be retrofitted to any boot.
Keep Austin weird — and subterranean: With a tunnel or two under its belt, Elon Musk’s The Boring Company plans to build a corridor under Tesla’s Gigafactory Texas in Austin. Mum’s the word on the purpose, but, as Rebecca hints, perhaps Musk wants a secret road to enter his giant factory. Presumably, he won’t have to contend with the traffic issues that plague The Boring Company’s Las Vegas project.
Lightning in a bottle: Fusion could supply a nearly unlimited amount of power with minimal waste, which is why countless startups — not to mention governments — are pursuing it. Zap Energy is among these — fresh off a successful test of its prototype fusion reactor, the company has raised $160 million in a Series C round. Zap’s approach involves sending a plasma stream through a vacuum chamber and then electrifying it, strikingly similar to what happens in a thunderstorm, Tim reports.
Drone-compliance-as-a-service: Drone-compliance-as-a-service: Getting the necessary clearance from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones can be a challenge for small businesses — much less local governments. Airspace Link, which this week raised $23 million in new backing, promises to make it easier by tracking ground-based infrastructure like radar coverage, notable other flights and assets in a given area, Devin writes. Using Airspace’s platform, customers can show the FAA they’ve built the required safety infrastructure for drone operations — or so the sales pitch goes.
To drive more sales, use shopper-generated content to personalize emails
Consumer confidence takes a hit during an economic downturn, which is why e-commerce startups should start looking now for new ways to engage customers.
Cynthia Price, SVP of marketing at Litmus, shares several ways companies can turn customer purchasing data into content that improves brand experiences — and makes users more likely to buy.
For example, the most-viewed products on your site reflect your most active customers’ tastes and interests, which means it’s also useful information to showcase in outbound emails.
“You can even break down that data more granularly by layering shopper data,” writes Price. “This strategy sparks interest, attracts more subscribers to your site and improves the purchase potential of their products.”
(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
Big Tech Inc.
Are live events returning in full force, monkeypox be damned? Spotify appears to think so. The music giant this week revamped its in-app discovery feature with a new Live Events feed, which promises to allow users to better discover nearby events and concerts. Events integration isn’t new to Spotify. Sarah notes that the company first introduced it back in 2015, but the upgrade signals the platform’s confidence that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.
Sarah also reports that Spotify is developing a “Community” feature that would allow users to see what sort of music their friends are streaming in real time. This could feed into the company’s live events effort, too, perhaps by spurring folks to investigate live performances by artists they weren’t previously familiar with.
Elsewhere, in case you weren’t aware, this week was Amazon’s re:MARS — the company’s conference touching on various parts of its business. Frederic and Brian were on the ground in Las Vegas to report the latest, fighting both dodgy Wi-Fi and scorching temperatures. (Bless them.) Re:MARS’ highlights were perhaps a new Alexa feature that can mimic a voice given a brief recording, an AI-powered coding assistant called CodeWhisperer and a fully autonomous warehouse robot. No Robert Downey Jr. cameo this year, sadly.
In other news:
Write me a letter: Twitter has officially rolled out the long-form content “Notes” feature that Sarah reported on earlier this week. Aisha writes that Notes, which is currently limited to a small group of writers in the U.S., Canada, Ghana and the U.K., has the potential to change how people use Twitter. But will Elon Musk approve?
I ain’t getting any younger: In search of reliable ways to better engage with younger users, Meta-owned Instagram is testing a new set of features designed to verify ages when people say that they’re 18 and older. Through a combination of AI, video selfies, vouching from adult friends and ID cross-referencing, the idea is to keep young people away from material that might affect their mental health and subject them to unseemly accounts.
Governing the governors: The Oversight Board, the advisory group reviewing Facebook’s and Instagram’s content moderation decisions, issued its first annual report this week, Taylor writes. It received over 1 million appeals from Facebook and Instagram users in 2021 and issued decisions and explanations on only 20 cases. But tellingly, the board overturned parent company Meta’s initial determination in over two-thirds of cases — 70% — it reviewed.
Spam no more: Tired of junk messages? Good news, if you’re an iPhone user. Ivan reports that when iOS 16 rolls out, users will be able to report spam messages with a new “Report Junk” link inside the Messages app. The feature will be available only with select carriers, according to the iOS 16 release notes, but there’s no information about which might support it yet.
Inclusivity is the best policy: Just in time for Pride Month, Google now lets merchants add an “LGBTQ+ owned” label to their profiles on Maps and Search, Aisha reports. The new label — available to merchants in the U.S. with a verified business profile on Google — expands on the “LGBTQ+ friendly” and “transgender safespace” labels that are visible on business profiles across Search and Maps.