EV startups Alta, Energica, and Zero could reboot the motorcycle industry

Three e-mobility startups are accelerating into the U.S. motorcycle market.

Italy’s Energica and California based Alta Motors and Zero Motorcycles have revved up promotion, distribution, and sales.

You may see their machines zip by on American roads before the big two-wheel gas powered companies get EVs to showroom floors.

These startups could reboot U.S. motorcycle sales while shifting the global motorcycle industry toward electric.

The market

Since the recession, America’s motorcycle sector has been in the doldrums. New bike sales have dropped roughly 50 percent since 2008—with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40. [Chart: MOTOSALES] Most of the market is now aging baby-boomers, whose “Live to Ride” days are winding down.

Two bright spots in the space are women and resales. Females are one of the few growing U.S. ownership market segments. And per an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study, total motorcycles on the road actually increased from 2008 to 2017, though nearly 75 percent of registrations are for bikes over 7 years old.

So Americans are buying motorcycles, but for some reason not choosing new ones.

On the e-moto front, two-wheel gas manufacturers have mostly stagnated around EV concepts. None of the big names—Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, BMW—offer a production electric street motorcycle in the U.S.

Harley Davidson jolted the industry in February by committing to produce an EV for sale by August 2019.

On U.S. e-motorcycle sales, Global Market Insights (GMI) recently tallied 2017 combined American e-scooter and moto sales at 245K units worth $155M. Following worldwide trends, GMI projects that to grow to 598K and $304M by 2024, with the share of U.S. e-motorcycles to scooters increasing.

The startups and motorcycles

Alta, Energica, and Zero have niche markets for their unique tech and design.

Italy’s Energica is targeting the high performance, higher priced superbike segment. On disrupting existing market leaders such as Ducati or Kawasaki, “Of course we want to do that,” CEO Livia Cevolini told me.

Energica offers three models in the U.S.: the EVA ($26,240), EVA ESSEESSE9 ($24,940) and top line 145 horsepower, 150mph EGO ($26,460).

All three share innovative features, including a patented cooling system to optimize performance of their motors and high energy lithium polymer batteries.

08-01-2017 Torino, calcio campionato serie a Tim, gara Juventus-Bologna, nella foto: .photo damiano fiorntini

Energica’s proprietary Vehicle Control Unit syncs to a digital dash and MYEnergica app. The VCU regulates everything from power output and preset riding modes to ABS and regenerative braking.

As a member of the ChargePoint EV network, Energica integrates the group’s 20 minute DC Fast Charging tech “because if want to ride Saturday with your sport bike friends nobody is going to wait 2 hours for you to charge,” said U.S. CEO Stefano Benatti.

He explained the company is expanding its American dealer network from San Francisco, to Chicago, Florida, and New York. Energica is also entering racing. Its EGO motorcycle was named the class bike for FIM’s 2019 Moto-e World Cup.

Brisbane, California based Alta Motors focuses primarily on producing electric powered off-road machines. Four of Alta’s five models—including the three that are street legal—are specialized for dirt riding. The MX and Redshift MXR motorcycles are full on motocross racers.

The startup has raised $45M and counts Tesla co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard among its investors.

From a design perspective Alta’s two-wheelers are distinctly minimalist and produce significant power to weight. “We pioneered a new approach to building 18650 based packs,” Chief Product Officer Marc Fenigstein told TechCrunch—referring to the lithium-ion battery cells used by Tesla.

Alta recently launched its second generation—waterproof, 350 volt, 66 pound—battery. “That pack gives us unique…range per pound­­ for a battery pack and unique economics, not just for the world of electric motorcycles…but pretty much everything smaller than a passenger car,” he said.

Fenigstein estimated “the premium off-road motorcycle market is bigger than people think, at [roughly] $2BN.” He would not divulge Alta Motors revenue or sales figures.

Shortly after their EV commitment, Harley Davidson took an (undisclosed) equity stake in Alta, along with a board seat, and entered into a co-development partnership.

Alta’s CEO revealed Harley’s recent EV announcement “isn’t the program we’re working on”, but confirmed the Alta-HD partnership “should result in a motorcycle.”

Of the three startups, Scotts Valley, California based Zero Motorcycles has the widest market and model breadth. The company has six base models, three with dual sport capabilities, distribution in 30 countries, and had sales of $90M in 2017 (according to GMI—Zero wouldn’t confirm revenue data).

“We’re the number one full sized electric motorcycle manufacturer in the world. We sell more every year than all our competitors combined,” CEO Sam Pascheltold TechCrunch—though Zero did not provide exact figures.

Like Alta, Zero manufactures its EVs in the USA. The startup’s ZForce battery connects to an internal magnet driven motor. Both are governed by a proprietary Main Bike Board (MBB) processor “the brain…that houses all of our algorithms,” said Zero’s VP for Product Development Brian Wisman.

“The specific energy that’s achieved on Zero’s lithium ion batteries is far greater than anything achieved by automotive EVs right now,” he said.

Zero motorcycles connect via Bluetooth to an app that allows riders to monitor and adjust performance from devices. The company’s EV’s can be fast charged from charging stations or by plugging into the same home outlet that powers your toaster.

In addition to citizen motorcyclists, Zero has started specialized fleet sales to the U.S. military and police departments.

The ride

I got a chance to test models from all three companies. The most significant distinctions between their e-motos and gas two-wheelers are power delivery and no shifting.

Zero, Alta, and Energica’s machines are fully automatic—no clutch or gears.

Simply flick the on switch and twist the throttle to go. When you do an immediate and uninterrupted stream of voltage powered torque launches you forward. The wind is louder than the motor—though each e-motorcycle has a distinct sound—and when you stop there’s silence.

Energica’s big battery acceleration is akin to striking a lightning bolt to the pavement. Alta’s lightweight RedShift MXR is quick, nimble, and flight capable on a motocross track. And Zero’s SR feels distinctly balanced across power, performance, and rideability. I didn’t find myself misting gas motorcycles at any point of the tests.

The biz play

Energica, Alta, and Zero face their own steep climbs to profitability—and the e-moto space has already seen two flops in Mission Motorcycles’ collapse and Brammo sputtering out.

“We do have a burn rate. Like any sub-scale EV manufacturer such as Tesla, we are pre-profit,” said Zero CEO Sam Paschel. “The way to win is scale.”

And while these electric startups probably can’t revive new U.S. motorcycles sales to seven-figures annually—that would take 12 years of five percent growth—they could play a role in transforming the global motorcycle industry.

As their models close gaps on price, performance, weight, recharge times, and ride distance—Zero, Alta, and Energica could shift the market from gas to electric.

Their tech appeal and simplicity to ride could bring more first-time and younger riders into motorcycling, including women.

This — and Harley’s EV production commitment — could pressure the likes of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati to produce electric motorcycles sooner.

These factors (and regulatory tailwinds) could thrust Alta, Zero, and Energica into an active space for partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions. Their compact, lightweight technology has application for other non-auto, non-motorcycle e-mobility solutions.

Growing competitive pressure and a shift in two-wheel consumer preferences could also make Energica, Zero, and Alta acquisition targets for mainline motorcycle manufacturers.

That’s a lot of speculation, but the big gas manufacturers are apparently watching. “Since Harley’s EV announcement, three of the big motorcycle companies bought one of our bikes,” an exec from one of the startups told me on background.

“We’d like to think they’re just curious to ride our e-motos, but more than likely it’s to break them down and study the tech,” the exec said.

In Q2 2018, late-stage deals led the world’s venture capital market

Here is what you should take away from the state of the global venture capital market: late-stage deals dominated Q2.

Using projected data provided by Crunchbase, Crunchbase News reported that Q2 2018 marks new post-dot com highs for both VC deal and dollar volume around the world, the latter of which was propelled by a surge in late-stage deals (Series C and above).

The chart below plots growth in projected late-stage deal and dollar volume over time.

This remarkable growth in dollar volume — more than doubling since the same period in 2017 — has led to the late-stage deal market looming large over the venture landscape. For perspective, late-stage rounds accounted for about 42 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2017, but it made up 64 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2018.

To be clear, this isn’t a rising tide raising all ships. Worldwide, late-stage venture activity is intensifying at a more rapid clip than other venture funding stages, squeezing other stages toward the margins. We can see this happening in the chart below:

Two things are happening at once here: On one side, private equity deals with previously venture-backed companies — what we call “Tech Growth” — account for less of the action; on the other side of the spectrum, angels, seed investors and writers of Series A and Series B checks account for less of the total dollar volume over time.

As it happens, in Q2 seed and early-stage venture — despite reaching post-dot com highs in absolute terms — make up for a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last records we had readily available.

In the second quarter, seed and early-stage venture lost ground in relative terms, making up a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last for which records were available.

Private equity, on the other hand, is getting squeezed out because a certain class of venture capital firms are able to invest more capital into late-stage venture deals.

Venture capital shops — especially the well-established — are raising ever-larger funds at an increasing pace. Just as an example, three VC firms recently (Scale Venture PartnersIndex Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners) announced $4 billion in fresh powder across six new funds.

In part, this pivot to larger funds is a strategic countermeasure against SoftBank and its behemoth $100 billion Vision Fund. The fund routinely leads (sometimes as the sole investor) late-stage venture capital rounds sized in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In order to compete with SoftBank for the best deals, many VC firms are raising big new funds. Capital pools earmarked for late-stage deals are growing deeper. Sequoia Capital’s third Global Growth Fund is expected to top out at $8 billion, whereas its second (announced in June 2017) was a comparatively paltry $2 billion.

So is there an end in sight for all this late-stage largesse? For the time being, not really.

3D printed guns are now legal… What’s next?

On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.

At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.

LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.

The legacy machine

Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.

Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.

The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)

LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.

Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.

The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.

All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.

The author with LMT Defense hardware.

Guns, drugs, and a million Karl Lewises

This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.

Except this isn’t what will happen.

Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.

The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.

In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.

Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.

Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.

Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.

In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.

This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.

Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm

First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.

The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.

Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.

As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.

Furniture startups skip the showroom and go straight to your door

Startups making delivery and transport easier than ever are a hit with venture capitalists, so it’s not a surprise that young tech companies delivering home staples — living room sets, dining room tables, couches and more — are raising big dollars.

From 2010 through 2017, venture investors have outfitted U.S.-based furniture startups with a little over $1.1 billion in funding across 96 known rounds. But that funding has not been spread equally over time, as the following chart shows:

Total dollars funneled into U.S.-based furniture startups, according to Crunchbase, hit an all-time high of $432.7 million across 12 rounds in 2011. Wayfair, an e-commerce site dedicated to selling furniture, raised a significant $165 million Series A that year, accounting for more than a third of the total deal volume.

But while funding hasn’t surpassed 2011 levels, from that year through 2015, round counts steadily climbed. During this period, investments into seed and early-stage startups made up more than 70 percent of known deals.

Whether or not this cohort of seed and early-stage startups will act as fodder for late-stage investors is not yet clear. Before that happens, Stephen Kuhl thinks that there’s more work to be done.

Kuhl, the CEO of Burrow, a company that sells furniture over the internet, told Crunchbase News that “selling traditional furniture made in China or Mexico isn’t innovative, and as such we wouldn’t expect to see a lot of venture funding.” But that doesn’t mean that venture interest in the sector is doomed. Kuhl added that “a new company has to offer a unique product, experience and brand that is altogether [10 times] better than traditional offerings. Expect the money to follow the new brands that truly shake up the status quo.”

That may bear out. The funding data we examined tells one particular story: venture money has shown a preference for delivery and a consumer that doesn’t easily call the place they live in “home.”

Deliver, don’t move, furniture

For city dwellers, modular, utilitarian couches are taking hold. And it’s increasingly clear you don’t have to leave your couch to purchase one.

Let’s return to Burrow, which has raised a total of $19.2 million, according to Crunchbase. The startup has created a modular couch built for those who live in dense urban environments and may move often.

“Our customers are reflective of larger trends in the market. They’re more likely to be renters rather than homeowners,” Kuhl explained. “They’re likely to move multiple times over the course of a few years, and they crave thoughtful, high-quality goods.”

To account for this new type of customer, Burrow delivers each section of the couch in distinct packages. Burrow claims on its website that its direct to consumer business model and its ability to ship parts of couches, rather than one whole couch, removes “over 70 [percent] of standard shipping costs.” The couch also includes modern amenities such as a USB charger, and Burrow has also “launched an AR app that helps customers visualize a Burrow in their home,” according to Kuhl.

However, Burrow isn’t completely eschewing the showroom as part of its selling strategy. In a podcast interview with TotalRetail, Kuhl noted that the startup has “partner showrooms” in co-working spaces and other retail locations in more than 20 cities.

Of course, while modular design is helpful for city dwellers, there are those who enjoy a bit more of a personal twist. Interior Define, a Chicago-based startup, has raised $27.2 million to offer direct to consumer couches and dining room sets. And, according to Interior Define’s founder Rob Royer, its appeal is being driven by a new breed of consumers who are interested in brands that have “an authentic mission, deliver on a promised experience, and offer a real value proposition (not just a lower price).”

That said, both of these options still require that the furniture be owned — an unnecessary burden if you move often or just like fresh looks without the commitment. Through Feather, customers can subscribe to a whole living room, bedroom or dining room for as low as $35 a month. According to Crunchbase, the New York-based startup has raised $3.5 million from established venture firms such as Y Combinator and Kleiner Perkins.

There are also startups looking to simply help brands sell more furniture by using artificial intelligence and augmented reality. One such startup, Grokstyle, has raised $2.5 million for an app that identifies furniture by image as well as style and pricing preferences.

In general, streets, kitchens and even front doors are being claimed by venture-backed startups. What you sit on might as well be paid for, in part, by venture capitalists, too.

MallforAfrica and DHL launch MarketPlace Africa global e-commerce site

MallforAfrica and DHL are giving African merchants a global stage. This week the online retailer and delivery giant launch MarketPlaceAfrica.com: an e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items—clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear, and personal care—and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made in Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” said Folayan.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

MallforAfrica’s payment and delivery system serves as a digital broker and logistics manager for U.S. retailers, who partner with MFA to sell their goods online to African consumers.

The venture has backing from UK private equity firm Helios Investment Partners and alliances with companies such as consumer electronics chain Best Buy and department store Macy’s.

In 2016 MallforAfrica partnered with eBay to launch the eBay Powered by MallforAfrica platform allowing U.S. vendors to sell in Africa. In 2017 eBay opened its U.S. platform to select sales from African vendors through MallforAfrica’s website.

Africa’s e-commerce space—expected to exceed $75 billion in revenue by 2025—has been one of the continent’s most active, with a number of well-funded startups focused on mastering mega-market Nigeria before expanding outward.

E-commerce minted the continent’s first unicorn in 2016, when Rocket Internet backed Jumia achieved a $1BN valuation after a $326M funding round that included Goldman Sachs.

Africa’s digital retail race produced one of the continent’s notable tech exits when Ringier acquired Nigerian startup DealDey in 2016.

E-commerce shops in Africa have also struggled to reach profitability—though after years of losses Jumia’s apparently getting closer. And digital retail on the continent has seen some big fails, namely the folding of South Africa’s Khalahari.com in 2015 and the distressed acquisition of Konga.com earlier this year.

MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan said his company does not release financial performance figures, but noted it now ships to 17 countries, averages a ton a day of goods shipped to Africa, and plans to grow by 3-4 times this year over 2017.

With MarketPlace Africa, Folayan sees an opportunity to open the sales channels both ways. “Our MallforAfrica platform is really about helping people in Africa buy products from places like the U.S., this is the return ticket for Africa’s products,” he said.

A new hope: AI for news media

To put it mildly, news media has been on the sidelines in AI development. As a consequence, in the age of AI-powered personalized interfaces, the news organizations don’t anymore get to define what’s real news, or, even more importantly, what’s truthful or trustworthy. Today, social media platforms, search engines and content aggregators control user flows to the media content and affect directly what kind of news content is created. As a result, the future of news media isn’t anymore in its own hands. Case closed?

The (Death) Valley of news digitalization

There’s a history: News media hasn’t been quick or innovative enough to become a change maker in the digital world. Historically, news used to be the signal that attracted and guided people (and advertisers) in its own right. The internet and the exponential explosion of available information online changed that for good.

In the early internet, the portals channeled people to the content in which they were interested. Remember Yahoo? As the amount of information increased, the search engine(s) took over, changing the way people found relevant information and news content online. As the mobile technologies and interfaces started to get more prominent, social media with News Feed and tweets took over, changing again the way people discovered media content, now emphasizing the role of our social networks.

Significantly, news media didn’t play an active role in any of these key developments. Quite the opposite, it was late in utilizing the rise of the internet, search engines, content aggregators, mobile experience, social media and other new digital solutions to its own benefit.

The ad business followed suit. First news organizations let Google handle searches on their websites and the upcoming search champion got a unique chance to index media content. With the rise of social media, news organizations, especially in the U.S., turned to Facebook and Twitter to break the news rather than focusing on their own breaking news features. As a consequence, news media lost its core business to the rising giants of the new digital economy.

To put it very strongly, news media hasn’t ever been fully digital in its approach to user experience, business logic or content creation. Think paywalls and e-newspapers for the iPad! The internet and digitalization forced the news media to change, but the change was reactive, not proactive. The old, partly obsolete, paradigms of content creation, audience understanding, user experience and content distribution still actively affect the way news content is created and distributed today (and to be 110 percent clear — this is not about the storytelling and the unbelievable creativity and hard work done by ingenious journalists all around the globe).

Due to these developments, today’s algorithmic gatekeepers like Google and Facebook dominate the information flows and the ad business previously dominated by the news media. Significantly, personalization and the ad-driven business logic of today’s internet behemoths isn’t designed to let the news media flourish on its own terms ever again.

From observers to change makers

News media have been reporting the rise of the new algorithmic world order as an outside observer. And the reporting has been thorough, veracious and enlightening — the stories told by the news media have had a concrete effect on how people perceive our continuously evolving digital realities.

However, as the information flows have moved into the algorithmic black boxes controlled by the internet giants, it has become obvious that it’s very difficult or close to impossible for an outside observer to understand the dynamics that affect how or why a certain piece of information becomes newsworthy and widely spread. For the mainstream news media, Trump’s rise to the presidency came as a “surprise,” and this is but one example of the new dynamics of today’s digital reality.

And here’s a paradox. As the information moves closer to us, to the mobile lock screen and other surfaces that are available and accessible for us all the time, its origins and background motives become more ambiguous than ever.

The current course won’t be changed by commenting on or criticizing the actions of the ruling algorithmic platforms.

The social media combined with self-realizing feedback loops utilizing the latest machine learning methods, simultaneously being vulnerable for malicious or unintended gaming, has led us to the world of “alternative facts” and fake news. In this era of automated troll-hordes and algorithmic manipulation, the ideals of news media sound vitally important and relevant: Distribution of truthful and relevant information; nurturing the freedom of speech; giving the voice to the unheard; widening and enriching people’s worldview; supporting democracy.

But, the driving values of news media won’t ever be fully realized in the algorithmic reality if the news media itself isn’t actively developing solutions that shape the algorithmic reality.

The current course won’t be changed by commenting on or criticizing the actions of the ruling algorithmic platforms. #ChangeFacebook is not on the table for news media. New AI-powered Google News is controlled and developed by Google, based on its company culture and values, and thus can’t be directly affected by the news organizations.

After the rise of the internet and today’s algorithmic rule, we are again on the verge of a significant paradigm shift. Machine learning-powered AI solutions will have an increasingly significant impact on our digital and physical realities. This is again a time to affect the power balance, to affect the direction of digital development and to change the way we think when we think about news — a time for news media to transform from an outside observer into a change maker.

AI solutions for news media

If the news media wants to affect how news content is created, developed, presented and delivered to us in the future, they need to take an active role in AI development. If news organizations want to understand the way data and information are constantly affected and manipulated in digital environments, they need to start embracing the possibilities of machine learning.

But how can news media ever compete with today’s AI leaders?

News organisations have one thing that Google, Facebook and other big internet players don’t yet have: news organizations own the content creation process and thus have a deep and detailed content understanding. By focusing on appropriate AI solutions, they can combine the data related to the content creation and content consumption in a unique and powerful way.

News organizations need to use AI to augment you and me. And they need to augment journalists and the newsroom. What does this mean?

Augment the user-citizen

Personalization has been around for a while, but has it ever been designed and developed in the terms of news media itself? The goal for news media is to combine great content and personalized user experience to build a seamless and meaningful news experience that is in line with journalistic principles and values.

For news, the upcoming real-time machine learning methods, such as online learning, offer new possibilities to understand the user’s preferences in their real-life context. These technologies provide new tools to break news and tell stories directly on your lock screen.

An intelligent notification system sending personalized news notifications could be used to optimize content and content distribution on the fly by understanding the impact of news content in real time on the lock screens of people’s mobile devices. The system could personalize the way the content is presented, whether serving voice, video, photos, augmented reality material or visualizations, based on users’ preferences and context.

Significantly, machine learning can be utilized to create new forms of interaction between people, journalists and the newsroom. Automatically moderated commenting is just one example already in use today. Think if it would be possible to build interactions directly on the lock screen that let the journalists better understand the way content is consumed, simultaneously capturing in real time the emotions conveyed by the story.

By opening up the algorithms and data usage through data visualizations and in-depth articles, the news media could create a new, truly human-centered form of personalization that lets the user know how personalization is done and how it’s used to affect the news experience.

And let’s stop blaming algorithms when it comes to filter bubbles. Algorithms can be used to diversify your news experience. By understanding what you see, it’s also possible to understand what you haven’t seen before. By turning some of the personalization logic upside down, news organizations could create a machine learning-powered recommendation engine that amplifies diversity.

Augment the journalist

In the domain of abstracting and contextualizing new information and unpredictable (news) events, human intelligence is still invincible.

The deep content understanding of journalists can be used to teach an AI-powered news assistant system that would become better over time by learning directly from the journalists using it, simultaneously taking into account the data that flows from the content consumption.

A smart news assistant could point out what kinds of content are connected implicitly and explicitly, for example based on their topic, tone of voice or other meta-data such as author or location. Such an intelligent news assistant could help the journalist understand their content even better by showing which previous content is related to the now-trending topic or breaking news. The stories could be anchored into a meaningful context faster and more accurately.

Innovation and digitalization doesn’t change the culture of news media if it’s not brought into the very core of the news business.

AI solutions could be used to help journalists gather and understand data and information faster and more thoroughly. An intelligent news assistant can remind the journalist if there’s something important that should be covered next week or coming holiday season, for example by recognizing trends in social media or search queries or highlighting patterns in historic coverage. Simultaneously, AI solutions will become increasingly essential for fact-checking and in detecting content manipulation, e.g. recognizing faked images and videos.

An automated content production system can create and annotate content automatically or semi-automatically, for example by creating draft versions based on an audio interview, that are then finished by human journalists. Such a system could be developed further to create news compilations from different content pieces and formats (text, audio, video, image, visualization, AR experiences and external annotations) or to create hyper-personalized atomized news content such as personalized notifications.

The news assistant also could recommend which article should be published next using an editorial push notification, simultaneously suggesting the best time for sending the push notification to the end users. And as a reminder, even though Google’s Duplex is quite a feat, natural language processing (NLP) is far from solved. Human and machine intelligence can be brought together in the very core of the content production and language understanding process. Augmenting the linguistic superpowers of journalists with AI solutions would empower NLP research and development in new ways.

Augment the newsroom

Innovation and digitalization doesn’t change the culture of news media if it’s not brought into the very core of the news business concretely in the daily practices of the newsroom and business development, such as audience understanding.

One could start thinking of the news organization as a system and platform that provides different personalized mini-products to different people and segments of people. Newsrooms could get deeper into relevant niche topics by utilizing automated or semi-automated content production. And the more topics covered and the deeper the reporting, the better the newsroom can produce personalized mini-products, such as personalized notifications or content compilations, to different people and segments.

In a world where it’s increasingly hard to distinguish a real thing from fake, building trust through self-reflection and transparency becomes more important than ever. AI solutions can be used to create tools and practices that enable the news organization and newsroom to understand its own activities and their effects more precisely than ever. At the same time, the same tools can be used to build trust by opening the newsroom and its activities to a wider audience.

Concretely, AI solutions could detect and analyze possible hidden biases in the reporting and storytelling. For example, are some groups of people over-presented in certain topics or materials? What has been the tone of voice or the angle related to challenging multi-faceted topics or widely covered news? Are most of the photos depicting people with a certain ethnic background? Are there important topics or voices that are not presented in the reporting at all? AI solutions also can be used to analyze and understand what kind of content works now and what has worked before, thus giving context-specific insights to create better content in the future.

AI solutions would help reflect the reporting and storytelling and their effects more thoroughly, also giving new tools for decision-making, e.g. to determine what should be covered and why.

Also, such data and information could be visualized to make the impact of reporting and content creation more tangible and accessible for the whole newsroom. Thus, the entire editorial and journalistic decision-making process can become more open and transparent, affecting the principles of news organizations from the daily routines to the wider strategical thinking and management.

Tomorrow’s news organizations will be part human and part machine. This transformation, augmenting human intelligence with machines, will be crucial for the future of news media. To maintain their integrity and trustworthiness, news organizations themselves need to able to define how their AI solutions are built and used. And the only way to fully realize this is for the news organizations to start building their own AI solutions. The sooner, the better — for us all.

Enterprise software investments may be tepid now, but they’re poised to engage

Have we reached “peak software”?

Just like the idea of “peak oil”—the hypothetical point at which global oil production could max out—you could say we’re approaching a saturation point for venture-capital investments in software companies.

Recent data from Pitchbook shows that venture investing in software companies has plateaued: The amount of VC money invested in these companies–$32 billion last year—remained roughly constant over the last four years. The actual number of venture-backed software investments, mostly for business-focused companies, has actually declined, from 4,068 in 2014 to 2,980 last year.

But software is not, in fact, a declining industry. As I explore with my colleague Neeraj Agrawal in a recent report called Software 2018, released last month, a closer look at the Pitchbook data shows that the falloff in software deal volumes is primarily in the Bay Area, where an overheated market has boosted valuations and caused some investors to temporarily pull back. Investment in other U.S. regions, and globally, is actually going up. Investment in software companies based in Europe, Canada and Australia/New Zealand, for example, was $5.4 billion in 2017, up nearly 69% from the previous year.

Perhaps more important, a number of broader, global mega trends continue to fuel software innovation today, promising more new companies and more new jobs. These trends include everything from the rise of artificial intelligence, which is pushing software into new fields like autonomous driving, to the recent corporate tax cuts in the U.S., which could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for big corporations to buy up software startups.

In Mary Meeker’s annual, consumer-focused Internet Trends report in late May. But some of the key trends we see shaping the global, mostly business-focused (or enterprise) software market may signal a rebirth.

 (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Softbank: Not just for consumer companies anymore

Softbank’s new, $100 billion Vision Fund has had a huge impact on the technology industry already, given the Japanese firm’s ability to essentially play kingmaker in a given technology market by making a huge investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in one company. This, obviously, makes it extremely difficult for competitors to keep up in terms of building market share. And if a company declines Softbank’s money, there’s the potentially lethal possibility that Softbank could fund a competitor, essentially snuffing out the first company.

What’s less noticed, however, is that Softbank is investing in many business-focused software companies, not just big consumer names like Uber, FlipKart and SoFi. In the last two weeks, Softbank put $2.25 billion into GM’s Cruise business unit for autonomous driving and $250 million into secondary storage vendor Cohesity*, for example and has backed other B2B players such as construction/building-software outfit Katerra; real-estate software company Compass; and workplace chat app Slack.

With these investments and others, Softbank is accelerating the pace of growth in many key software markets and likely also dampening these companies’ IPO prospects, since companies receiving several hundred million dollars from the Japanese company face less of a financial need to go public. Softbank is essentially taking the place of an IPO.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

More software means less hardware, more robots

The continuing march of software innovation isn’t great for everyone—losers in this picture could include hardware vendors and people with jobs that can be automated by smart, software-powered robots. (Yes, even lawyers and doctors could be affected—it’s not just truck drivers.)

The implications of artificial intelligence on the job market, and the auto industry, have been widely discussed. Less noticed, though, are the shifting growth rates in cloud-based IT gear versus traditional IT hardware, the technology that powers large corporations and other organizations. IDC predicts that by 2020, corporate spending on cloud-infrastructure software will finally exceed spending on non-cloud IT infrastructure—meaning all those boxes inside corporate data centers from vendors like Dell, IBM, Cisco, H-P etc. Many of those companies are trying to figure out their cloud services approach to stay relevant. 

Lower taxes = more software M&A

Not everyone loves the Trump administration’s policies, but if you’re a software CEO, you might be a fan of the administration’s new tax bill. That’s because the 2017 bill could be a boon for software-industry M&A. Two key components of the new law—the reduced rate charged to companies to repatriate cash from overseas, and the lowering of the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35%–could leave many big tech acquirers with new war chests, analysts believe.

According to investment bank Qatalyst Partners, both changes could leave a group of the largest traditional tech-company acquirers with an additional $400 billion to spend, if they repatriate money from overseas. This would be enough to buy 50 leading software companies today, according to Qatalyst. We have already seen some this with the recent acquisitions of GitHub by Microsoft ($7.5B) and Adaptive Insight by Workday ($1.55B) and Q1 deals like MuleSoft by Salesforce ($6.5B) and CallidusCloud by SAP ($2.4B).

The traditional tech acquirers could be more receptive to acquisitions than ever these days, given that the easy, low-cost cloud business model has allowed a range of young tech upstarts to attack many parts of their businesses from all angles. Often, the easiest solution is for the big tech companies to buy the upstarts.

Niche is nice for software

As software transforms big, well-known corporate markets—like datacenter software, and technology for functions like human resources, sales and marketing—it is also making inroads into much more narrow industries and corporate functions. The low cost of the cloud makes it easy for every industry, from physical therapy to prison management to mortgage lending, to grow its own, customized software, usually deployed for tasks like operations and customer management. Often there are multiple firms vying for customers (and investor dollars) today in these specialized fields.

Similarly, software is fueling extremely specialized companies to serve business needs inside companies today. These include companies as varied as DocuSign, which has built a multi-billion dollar public company focusing exclusively on document signing, and Carta, which sells technology to help companies manage their financial cap tables.

Mary Meeker is right that consumer Internet trends like the rise of online wallets, subscription services for certain goods and increasing oversight of social media by regulators will have big economic implications in the years to come. But we humbly offer that business software is a pretty big economic driver too—you just have to work a little harder to figure out the implications for businesses and the markets.

Space tech has outpaced space law, and we’re at risk of killing innovation

“Disruption” is a term (over)used in the technology world to describe some development or product that is inherently good. The formal definition of the term, however, is at odds with its casual use: a disruption is a ‘disturbance or problem that interrupts an event, activity, or process.’ Right now, space tech is currently experiencing both flavors of disruption.

Reliable estimates indicate that, within the next 5-7 years, the inhabitants of the Earth will launch more satellites into space than have been launched in the history of our planet up until now. This is a disruption in the best sense, however, there’s a serious problem: we’re at a very real risk of crushing our own excitement and stalling our progress towards the stars. Space policy hasn’t been high on our government’s to-do list, and this unfortunate regulatory neglect means that today’s most innovative companies’ plans are being disrupted by stuffy, antiquated rules and regulations.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Existing space policy

For those who haven’t recently brushed up on existing space policy, a widely adopted international agreement called the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” was negotiated, signed, and drafted in 1967 by the United Nations. Commonly referred to as The Outer Space Treaty, the agreement dictates that each nation be responsible for all and any of the space activities originating from their nation — whether they’re conducted by citizens, companies, or the government itself. Each must also maintain full jurisdiction and control over all space objects originating from their country.

It is noteworthy that, at the time the treaty was signed, nobody could fathom that commercial companies might want anything to do with outer space, let alone launch their own satellites

Permits… and the FCC

OK, so the US government is responsible for our space activity and space objects, right? That means it somehow needs to know — and track — anyone and anything that goes up, and this is no small task. It’s not like we can perform mandatory vehicle inspections when satellites cross the Karman Line, marking the border between atmosphere and space. So how do we track them? By issuing permits before they launch. And while we’re talking about word definitions, ‘permit’ loosely translates to ‘huge government bureaucratic morass.’

The current system in place involves getting permission from the FCC, which is strange because when you think ‘satellites’, I highly doubt that the FCC comes to top-of-mind as the appropriate expert agency. The logic goes that if you’re planning to launch an object into space, then surely you’re planning to communicate with it somehow — whether by beaming up commands or beaming down data — and this requires the use of radio frequencies, which are coordinated by the FCC. If you’re going to be making a call to the FCC anyway, then this might be an appropriate place to conduct a ‘vehicle inspection’ and put a permit sticker on the back of your satellite.

The problem is that the FCC now becomes the gatekeeper for all things related to satellites, extending to many checkboxes that have nothing to do with radio frequencies. For instance, the FCC requires all permit applicants to prove that their satellite won’t cause injury or harm when/if it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. You may not be surprised to learn that such a calculation involves more than a couple of dubious assumptions and some fuzzy math, and perhaps another agency (ahem, NASA?) might be better suited to checking this.

Among the many checkboxes, the FCC also requires launch permit applicants to prove that their satellites will be ‘trackable’ in space so that they can be monitored ostensibly, to foresee potential collisions with other satellites. It was this requirement that disrupted satellite manufacturer Swarm Technologies, who applied for FCC permission to launch their tiny SpaceBee satellites to disrupt the Internet of Things from space (see what I did there with ‘disruption?’). Now, these satellites are smaller than pretty much anything ever put into orbit — an enviable innovation! — and so the FCC determined that they might not show up on the usual radars used to track satellites. Permit denied. Which is confusing, since smaller satellites have been permitted and launched by the same agency.

Consequences for startups

The logical path forward is to appear before the FCC with hat in hand and appeal for a legitimate permit. This is the way things have been done in the past, when it took 10 years for giant aerospace companies to build a satellite; there was plenty of time to wait for bureaucracy.  But put yourself in the seat of a disruptive startup who is building an entire small satellite in a few months: your company is consuming venture cash at a steady burn rate towards zero and you need to demonstrate your tech in space to get your next pile of cash. If you take a number in the FCC lobby and wait your turn, then the likely outcome is that your permit will be delivered to the address of a bankrupt company.

Faced with the prospect of this, there’s no doubt that ambitious and bold startups will be tempted to push the boundaries and see just how severe the penalties will be for operating sans permit (and in fact, that seems to be the path taken by the Swarm team). At this point, nobody really knows what the real consequences are. In the worst case, they will destroy the entire business of the startup that dares, but then bankruptcy might have been pretty much guaranteed anyway, based on the undetermined time of the FCC appeal process.  An interesting alternative exists: a company can try to export their satellite to another country and try their hand in that country’s space permitting process. Needless to say, federal regulations that encourage US companies to take their tech offshore are not how we want to do business, and oh-by-the-way satellite export laws are such a mess they make the launch-permitting process look like buying an entrance pass to a national park in comparison.

Archinaut, a robotic system developed by Made in Space, can manufacture, assemble and repair satellites, spacecraft or other large equipment in zero gravity.

Fixing a broken system for the new space era

How do we fix a broken system? You can bet we won’t alter international treaties any time soon, so it’s safe to assume we’re stuck with what’s set forth by The Outer Space Treaty. One foreseeable option by the government would be to put stronger teeth into existing policies and laws, so that devastating penalties are issued to any renegade companies. The effect of this would be predictable: emerging startups with exciting new ideas will be stifled, while the corporate giants of the space industry’s old guard will remain untouched. On the other hand, the government could choose to look the other way and merely slap wrists, but this could invite even more dangerous and egregious violations down the line that would prove hazardous to the responsible space actors.

Because of the Outer Space Treaty, the US will always be required to monitor and track all satellites from our nation. Concepts like the space-equivalent of the FAA have been proposed, as have mandatory radio-beacons on each satellite, self-identifying them like ships at sea.  So far, this is all just chatter and nothing has been enacted. In the meantime, the New Space renegades will continue to explore the boundaries by pushing them, while the old guard will express outrage over the insolence of the disrespectful youngsters. It may be that the only solution is for the new explorers to self-organize and self-police to bring order to the chaos.

In any case, we are in dire need of a forward-thinking approach to space policy and regulation that includes and goes beyond just Earth-orbiting satellites. If our government continues to ignore the need for comprehensive space policy that is expandable to pervasive commercial activity, it’s just a matter of time before a major civil, commercial, or international dispute occurs in space that could prove legally catastrophic.