Voyage raises $31 million to bring driverless taxis to communities – gpgmail


Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, announced Thursday it has raised $31 million in a round led by Franklin Templeton.

Khosla Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the round. The company, which operates a ride-hailing service in retirement communities using self-driving cars supported by human safety drivers, has raised a total of $52 million since launching in 2017. The new funding includes a $3 million convertible note.

Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron has big plans for the fresh injection of capital, including hiring and expanding its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which always have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the expanded G2 fleet and staff are just the means toward Cameron’s grander mission to turn Voyage into a truly driverless and profitable ride-hailing company.

“It’s not just about solving self-driving technology,” Cameron told gpgmail in a recent interview, explaining that a cost-effective vehicle designed to be driverless is the essential piece required to make this a profitable business.

The company is in the midst of a hiring campaign that Cameron hopes will take its 55-person staff to more than 150 over the next year. Voyage has had some success attracting high-profile people to fill executive-level positions, including CTO Drew Gray, who previously worked at Uber ATG, Otto, Cruise and Tesla, as well as former NIO and Tesla employee Davide Bacchet as director of autonomy.

Funds will also be used to increase its fleet of second-generation self-driving cars (called G2) that are currently being used in a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida. Voyage’s G2 fleet has 12 vehicles. Cameron didn’t provide details on how many vehicles it will add to its G2 fleet, only describing it as a “nice jump that will allow us to serve consumers.”

Voyage used the G2 vehicles to create a template of sorts for its eventual driverless vehicle. This driverless product — a term Cameron has used in a previous post on Medium — will initially be limited to 25 miles per hour, which is the driving speed within the two retirement communities in which Voyage currently tests and operates. The vehicle might operate at a low speed, but they are capable of handling complex traffic interactions, he wrote.

“It won’t be the most cost-effective vehicle ever made because the industry still is in its infancy, but it will be a huge, huge, huge improvement over our G2 vehicle in terms of being be able to scale out a commercial service and make money on each ride,” Cameron said. 

Voyage initially used modified Ford Fusion vehicles to test its autonomous vehicle technology, then introduced in July 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, its second generation of autonomous vehicles. But the end goal has always been a driverless product.

gpgmail previously reported that the company has partnered with an automaker to provide this next-generation vehicle that has been designed specifically for autonomous driving. Cameron wouldn’t name the automaker. The vehicle will be electric and it won’t be a retrofit like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vehicles Voyage currently uses or its first-generation vehicle, a Ford Fusion.

Most importantly, and a detail Cameron did share with gpgmail, is that the vehicle it uses for its driverless service will have redundancies and safety-critical applications built into it.

Voyage also has deals in place with Enterprise rental cars and Intact insurance company to help it scale.

“You can imagine leasing is much more optimal than purchasing and owning vehicles on your balance sheet,” Cameron said. “We have those deals in place that will allow us to not only get the vehicle costs down, but other aspects of the vehicle into the right place as well.”


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Shape Security hits $1B valuation with $51M Series F – gpgmail


Anti-fraud startup Shape Security has tipped over the $1 billion valuation mark following its latest Series F round of $51 million.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced the fundraise Thursday, bringing the total amount of outside investment to $183 million since the company debuted in 2011.

C5 Capital led the round, along with several other new and returning investors, including Kleiner Perkins, HPE Growth and Norwest Ventures Partners.

Shape Security protects companies against automated and imitation attacks, which often employ bots to break into networks using stolen or reused credentials. Shape uses artificial intelligence to discern bots from ordinary users by comparing known information such as a user’s location, and collected data, like mouse movements, to shut down attempted automated logins in real time.

The company said it now protects against two billion fraudulent logins daily.

C5 managing partner André Pienaar said he believes Shape will become the “definitive” anti-fraud platform for the world’s largest companies.

“While we expect a strong financial return, we also believe that we can bring Shape’s platform into many of the leading companies in Europe who look to us for strategic ideas that benefit the entire value-chain where B2C applications are used,” Pienaar told gpgmail.

Shape’s chief executive Derek Smith said the $51 million injection will go toward the company’s international expansion and product development — particularly the capabilities of its AI system.

He added that Shape was preparing for an IPO.

Correction: A draft of the company’s funding news said Shape had raised $173 million to date. The company said this was a typo and has in fact raised $183 million.


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Sidewalk Labs spins out urban data-gathering tool Replica into a company – gpgmail


Replica, the data-gathering tool created within Sidewalk Labs that maps the movement of people in cities, is now a company.

The newly formed company, which is headed by Nick Bowden, also announced Thursday it has raised $11 million in a Series A funding round from investors Innovation Endeavors, Firebrand Ventures and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. The capital will be used to accelerate Replica’s growth through new hires beyond its existing 13-person staff, expansion to new cities and investment in its technology.

Replica will remain connected to Sidewalk Labs, the smart city technology firm owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet. Both Sidewalk Labs and Innovation Endeavors will be on the company’s board.

Replica, which is headquartered in Kansas City, with an engineering office in San Francisco, plans to launch in several new regions. Replica is already working with Kansas City, Portland, Chicago and Sacramento, with more cities to come this year.

The Replica tool, which has drawn the ire of some privacy advocates, grew out of Model Lab, a project  started two years ago to investigate modeling as a way to address urban problems. Early work focused on meeting with public agencies throughout the world to learn more about the data, processes and other tools they used.

The Replica planning tool was born out what they discovered: Public agencies don’t have all the information needed to understand the link and interdependence between transportation and land use. The upshot is an incomplete picture of how people move within cities, leaving public agencies ill-equipped to make decisions about how land is used and what transportation is needed and where, the company says.

“Answering questions like who uses the street, in which way and why, are critical for city planners as they work to make transit and land use more efficient and sustainable,” Bowden wrote. “But current resources available to city planners to analyze people’s travel in urban areas are less than satisfactory.”

The Replica modeling tool uses de-identified mobile location data to give public agencies a comprehensive portrait of how, when and why people travel. Movement models are matched to a synthetic population, which has been created using samples of census demographic data to create a broad new data set that is statistically representative of the actual population. The result, Bowden says, is a model that is both privacy-sensitive and extremely useful for public agencies.

Bowden tried to quell privacy worries Thursday in a blog post, emphasizing that the data has been “de-identified,” meaning that an individual’s location data would be identifiable. The company says it’s not interested in the movement of individuals. Instead, the modeling tool is used to see and understand patterns of movement.

“For this reason, we only start with data that has been de-identified,” Bowden wrote Thursday. “This data is then used to train a travel behavior model — basically, a set of rules to represent the movement in a particular place.”


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The direct to consumer department store Neighborhood Goods has raised $11 million – gpgmail


Neighborhood Goods, the direct to consumer department store hawking brands like Rothy’s, Dollar Shave Club, Buck Mason, Draper James and Stadium Goods, has new cash to expand its storefront for e-commerce juggernauts.

The company has raised $11 million in a new round of financing led by Global Founders Capital, with participation from previous investors Forerunner Ventures, Serena Ventures, NextGen Venture Partners, Allen Exploration, Capital Factory and others.

The Dallas-based startup has raised $25.5 million to date and is expanding into a new location in Austin to complement its stores in Plano, Texas and a location in New York, opening soon, according to the company’s chief executive and co-founder Matt Alexander.

The Neighborhood Goods concept, providing a brick and mortar outlet for online brands, is one that dovetails nicely with backers like Global Founders Capital and Forerunner Ventures, which are both longtime investors in direct to consumer startups.

“As we expand our network of brands, we’re so thrilled to have Neighborhood Goods as a core element of our portfolio for them to test, assess, explore and learn about the impact of physical retail as they grow,” said Global Founders Capital investor Don Stalter.

As the company expands its geographic footprint, it’s also experimenting with different online features, like online browsing of in-store collections and the option for physical, in-store pickup of digital orders. Neighborhood Goods also said it will begin offering an analytics back-end for brand partners to provide data on activations and branded events at the company’s stores.


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Nigerian online-only bank startup Kuda raises $1.6M – gpgmail


Nigerian fintech startup Kuda — a digital-only retail bank — has raised $1.6 million in pre-seed funding.

The Lagos and London-based company recently launched the beta version of its online mobile finance platform. Kuda also received its banking license from the Nigerian Central Bank, giving it a distinction compared to other fintech startups.

“Kuda is the first digital-only bank in Nigeria with a standalone license. We’re not a mobile wallet or simply a mobile app piggybacking on an existing bank,” Kuda bank founder Babs Ogundeyi told gpgmail.

“We have built our own full-stack banking software from scratch. We can also take deposits and connect directly to the switch,” Ogundeyi added, referring to the Nigeria’s Central Switch — a SWIFT-like system that facilitates bank communication and settlements.

A representative for the Central Bank of Nigeria (speaking on background) confirmed Kuda’s banking license and status, telling gpgmail, “As far as I’m aware there is no other digital bank [in Nigeria] that has a micro-finance license.”

 

Kuda offers checking accounts with no monthly-fees, a free debit card, and plans to offer consumer savings and P2P payments options on its platform in coming months.

“You can open a bank account within five minutes, do all the KYC in the app, and you get issued a new bank account number,” according to Ogundeyi. Kuda bank Founder CEO Babs OgundeyiOgundeyi — a repeat founder who exited classifieds site Motortradertrader.ng and worked in a finance advisory role to the Nigerian government — co-founded Kuda in 2018 with former Stanbic Bank software developer Musty Mustapha.

The two convinced investor Haresh Aswani to lead the $1.6 million pre-seed funding, along with Ragnar Meitern and other angel investors. Aswani confirmed his investment to gpgmail and that he will take a position on Kuda’s board.

Kuda plans to use its seed funds to go from beta to live launch in Nigeria by fourth-quarter 2019. The startup will also build out the tech of its banking platform, including support for its developer team located in Lagos and Cape Town, according to Ogundeyi.

Kuda also intends to expand in the near future. “It’s Nigeria for right now, but the plan is build a Pan-African digital-only bank,” he said.

As of 2014, Nigeria has held the dual distinction as Africa’s largest economy and most populous country (with 190 million people).

To scale there, and add some physical infrastructure to its online model, Kuda has correspondent relationships with three of Nigeria’s largest financial institutions: GTBank, Access Bank and Zenith Bank.

He clarified the banks are partners and not investors. Kuda customers can use these banks’ branches and ATMs to put money into bank accounts or withdraw funds without a fee.

“Even though we don’t own a single branch, we actually have the largest branch network in the country,” Ogundeyi claimed.

Kuda’s plans to generate revenues focus largely around leveraging its bank balances. “We plan to match different liability classes to the different asset classes that we create. That’s how we make money, that’s how we get efficiency in terms of income,” Ogundeyi said.

In Nigeria, Kuda enters a potentially revenue-rich market, but its one that already hosts a crowded fintech field — as the country becomes ground zero for payments startups and tech investment in Africa.

Briter Bridges Lagos Nigeria Fintech MapIn both raw and per capita numbers, Nigeria has been slower to convert to digital payments than leading African countries, such as Kenya, according to joint McKinsey Company and Gates Foundation analysis done several years ago. The same study estimated there could be nearly $1.3 billion in revenue up for grabs if Nigeria could reach the same digital-payments penetration as Kenya.

A number of startups — established and new — are going after that prize in the West African country — several with a strategy to scale in Nigeria first before expanding outward on the continent and globally.

San Francisco-based, no-fee payment venture Chipper Cash entered Nigeria this month.

Series B-stage Nigerian payments company Paga raised $10 million in 2018 to further grow its customer base (that now tallies 13 million) and expand to Asia and Latin America.

Kuda CEO Babs Ogundeyi believes the startup can scale and compete in Nigeria on a number of factors, one being financial safety. He names the company’s official bank status and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation security that brings as something that can attract cash-comfortable bank clients to digital finance.

Ogundeyi also points to offerings and price.”We look to be the next generation bank where you can do everything— savings, payments and transfers — and also the one that’s least expensive,” he said.

 


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These brothers just raised $15 million for their startup, Dutchie, a kind of Shopify for cannabis dispensaries – gpgmail


Ross Lipson comes from an entrepreneurial family, so perhaps it’s no wonder that as a college student, he dropped out of school to jump into the online food space, including cofounding, then selling, one of Canada’s first online food ordering service startups.

It’s even less surprising that having gone through that experience, Lipson would use what he learned in the service of another startup: Dutchie, a two-year-old, 36-person, Bend, Ore.-based startup whose software is used by a growing number of cannabis dispensaries that pay the startup a monthly subscription fee to create and maintain their websites, as well as to accept orders and track what needs to be ready for pickup.

The decision is looking like a smart one right now. Dutchie says it’s now being used by 450 dispensaries across 18 states and that it’s seeing $140 million in gross merchandise volume. The company also just locked down $15 million in Series A funding led by Gron Ventures, a new cannabis-focused venture fund with at least $117 million to invest. Other participants in the round include earlier backers Casa Verde Capital, Thirty Five Ventures (founded by NBA star Kevin Durant and sports agent Rich Kleiman), Sinai Ventures and individual investors, including Shutterstock founder and CEO Jon Oringer.

Altogether, Dutchie (named after the song), has now raised $18 million. We talked earlier today with Lipson about the company, its challenges, and working with his big brother Zach, himself a serial entrepreneur who cofounded Dutchie and today serves as its chief product officer while Ross serves as CEO.

TC: It’s always interesting when siblings team up. Did you always get along with your brother?

RL: We complement each other strongly. I’m energy, I’m sales and business development. I’m fast-moving by nature and the guy who wants to drive the car as fast as possible. Zach is the one who wants to make sure that we’re doing everything right. He’s the methodical one. We really do understand each other quite well and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which enables us to meet in the middle on a lot of things.

TC: It’s also interesting that you’ve both been founders beginning around the time you were in college. Were your parents entrepreneurs?

RL: Our father is a founder and has run his own business for the last 35 years. Our parents also always pitched us that anything is possible and encouraged us to go for it. He was the dreamer and our mom was the cheerleader, which is a pretty nice combination.

TC: You started Dutchie a couple of years ago. Is running this startup more or less challenging than your experience in the food delivery business?

RL:  It’s our second year in business, and we’ve seen some explosive, unprecedented growth. As for whether it’s harder or easier than food, we’re very product and user centric, and by that we mean consumers but also dispensaries. We’re focused on the customer all day, every day, with a team that ensures that they have support, that they receive their orders, that the orders are out the door quickly or at least, ready for pickup. We make sure the photos work, that different potencies are marked. Our system is kind of like a Shopify of the cannabis space maybe meets DoorDash.

TC: You don’t deliver, though.

RL: No. We don’t do delivery for legal reasons; the dispensaries [handle this piece].

TC: You’re charging like other software-as-service businesses. Do you also take a cut of each sale?

RL: We don’t charge on transaction volume.

TC: You’re working with 450 dispensaries. Is there any way to know what percentage of the overall market that is, and how much is left for you to chase after?

RL: First, there are more than 30 states where cannabis is either medically legal or that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and we operate in both types of markets. It’s hard to know the actual count [of dispensaries], because they are always being formed, getting acquired, or going out of business, but counting registered dispensaries, we work with more than 15 percent of them right now.

TC: Who are you biggest competitors? Eaze? Leafly? They also help consumers find cannabis and, in Eaze’s case, deliver it, too.

RL: Eaze is more focused on delivery where we’re more focused on pickup. It’s also only avaiable in California and Oregon, whereas we’re in 18 states. They educate the consumer about online ordering, which is great, but they also own the consumer experience, where we’re really powering the dispensary.

Leafly and Weedmaps are really different types of platforms; they’re mostly known for their dispensary and strain reviews, where we’re strictly an online ordering service.

TC: You’ve raised a big Series A for a company in the cannabis space. Do you have concerns about there being later-stage funding available when you need it?

RL: It’s true the most investors still haven’t touched cannabis, though you are seeing bigger deals. Thrive Capital led that [$35 million] round in [the online cannabis inventory and ordering platform] LeafLink [last month]. You saw Tiger Global [lead a $17 million round ] in [the software platform for cannabis dispensaries] Green Bits last summer. It’s a big advantage to the funds that can right now invest because there are these barriers to entry; they’re finding deals that are promising and they can get in early and without competition.

Pictured, left to right, above: Ross and Zach Lipson


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JobTeaser scores £45M for its graduate recruitment platform – gpgmail


JobTeaser, the graduate recruitment and career guidance platform, has raised £45 million in new funding to help it expand its careers service to more students across the U.K. and Europe.

The investment is led by Highland Europe, with continued backing from existing investors Alven, Idinvest Partners, Seventure Partners and Korelya Capital. It brings the total amount raised to £61 million since the company was founded all the way back in 2008.

JobTeaser says the funding will be used to expand JobTeaser’s partner network of schools and universities across the U.K. and Ireland.

That company’s aim is to become the official careers website for its education partners. The promise is that it can connect more students and graduates to the careers they seek and in turn help corporates and organisations plug gaps in the talent and skills they need.

“We believe the transition between University and the professional world is very difficult for young talent,” Adrien Ledoux, co-founder of JobTeaser, tells me. “A lot of young talent feel lost when it comes to choosing their career; in the survey that we conducted with WISE this year, we discovered that 9 out of 10 young people in Europe want better support to define their career choices.”

Ledoux says JobTeaser’s goal is to transform the way students and recent graduates find work by helping them choose a career path that fits with their aspirations and ambitions. “We are convinced that if each young talent puts their energy into the right job, all of society benefits from it,” he says

To achieve this mission, JobTeaser has built a platform that combines bespoke career guidance with internships, job opportunities and ongoing career and interview support.

In order to reach the largest number of students and recent graduates, JobTeaser provides its “Career Centre by JobTeaser” platform free of charge to universities. It then charges businesses a fee to advertise jobs to that captive audience.

“Businesses can access talent at the right place (the university) and at the right time (when they are looking for their first job),” explains Ledoux. “Our platform allows businesses to pay once to multi-post their job ads and employer-branded content in a single click, which then goes out to all of JobTeaser’s partner higher education institutions.”

It’s this business model that allows JobTeaser to reach businesses, universities and prospective young jobseekers across 19 European countries, says the JobTeaser co-founder.

Since its launch, JobTeaser says it has served 2.5 million students and recent graduates. The company works with more than 70,000 businesses, including Amazon, PWC, Deutsche Bank, Blackrock, L’Oréal and LVMH.


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Syte snaps up $21.5M for its smartphone-based visual search engine for e-commerce – gpgmail


Visual search has become a key component for how people discover products when buying online: if a person don’t know the exact name of what he or she wants, or what they want is not available, it can be an indispensable tool for connecting them with things they might want to buy.

Now, one of the companies building technology to do this has raised a round of funding to expand its business further into the US, and not just across digital platforms, but to tap further into the opportunities of bringing visual search into the world of physical commerce, too, by way of smart mirrors and apps for store assistants to better help customers.

Syte, a Tel Aviv startup that works with fashion retailers like Farfetch and River Island as well as those who sell a wider variety of goods like Argos, Sainsbury’s and Kohl’s, has raised $21.5 million in funding. The Series B was led by Viola Ventures, with participation also from Storm Ventures, Commerce Ventures, and Axess Ventures. Syte has now raised $32 million including a previous round in 2017; it’s not disclosing its valuation but is projecting 300 percent revenue growth this year.

The use of visual search — using computer vision to “read” a picture, match it up with its metadata, and then find pictures of products that are similar to it — has become commonplace in e-commerce in recent years.

Among the many other companies that have this kind of tech — including visual search platforms like Pinterest and social media platforms themselves — Syte’s approach is notable in how it engages shoppers in the process of the search. Users can snap pictures of items that they like the look of, which can then be used to on a retailer’s site to find compatible lookalikes. Retailers, meanwhile, can quickly integrate Syte’s technology into their own platforms by way of an API.

Lihi Pinto Fryman, Syte’s CMO who co-founded the company in London with husband Ofer Fryman, Idan Pinto and Dr Helge Voss, said in an interview that the company spent about three years developing its technology — spurred initially by her own surprise, when she was working as an investment banker, at not being able to find a particular dress she spotted in a magazine — and only launched a product about 18 months ago. Since then, she says the company has seen “super hyper” growth because of the gap the company is filling.

The crux of the problem goes something like this: Retailers both online and offline have found that a new generation of shoppers are less interested in visiting their storefronts.

They are instead shopping by browsing social media platforms like Instagram and buying from there, which essentially opens those retailers to whole new set of competitors, and potentially at a great disadvantage, since they are not as well equipped to speak to that audience or anticipate what interests them to trigger sales.

“Young people are on Instagram for hours each day,” Fryman said. Indeed, Instagram is one of the only big social networks that’s seeing usage rise at the moment. “Retailers need to find a way to compete with that and remain in the market, and they can’t just continue what they’ve always done.”

On the other hand, while there are a number of visual search tools out in the market, not all of them are useful enough. “If you are searching for a ruffled floral yellow dress but you get a blouse, it just doesn’t cut it,” she noted. “And if it takes seven seconds to get an answer, that’s also not good, because people will give up after 2 seconds. Millennials and Gen Z shoppers have a very short attention span, so you need to be accurate and fast.”

The idea is that a product like Syte’s addresses both of these issues, and then some. In addition to its camera-based search service, it provides a recommendation engine to retailers, plus tagging services for its back catalog to complete the service.

“Rarely do we find companies that have managed to solve a technological problem that tech giants have been working for years to solve without success,” says Ronen Nir, General Partner at Viola Ventures, in a statement. “The feedback from the market is clear and swift and the rate of adoption of Syte’s solution is unparalleled. We are excited to lead a significant funding round that would be able to take the company to the next level.”

Syte’s more recent foray into physical commerce is an interesting turn as well. Smart mirrors have been more of a wishlist item than something that has seen critical mass adoption so far in changing rooms.

If the idea does catch on, I wonder what kind of a digital divide it might create among retailers, since the cost of refurbishing changing rooms to include these, along with all the backend changes that would need to be made, will likely be only the kind of service that bigger or high-end boutiques will be able to shoulder. More interesting, perhaps, is the idea of app-based tools for assistants, many of whom already carry a smartphone and would likely be grateful for recommendations to help sell better to customers.

“We have a vision to transform product discovery, and thus the eCommerce experience, for both retailers and consumers.” said Ofer Fryman in a statement. “That vision is what has led us since we founded Syte, and it is what continues to lead us as we enter this stage.”


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Drivetime nabs $11M from Makers Fund, Amazon and Google to build voice-based games for drivers – gpgmail


Fully autonomous cars may (or may not) be just around the corner, but in the meantime, a startup that’s building in-car apps to help human drivers pass the time when behind the wheel has raised a round of funding.

Drivetime — which makes voice-based trivia quizzes, games and interactive stories that people can play while driving — has raised $11 million in funding led by Makers Fund (a prolific investor in gaming startups), with participation also from Amazon (via the Alexa Fund) and Google (via its Assistant investment program).

The startup today has eight “channels” on its platform consisting of games and stories that you can access either within a limited free-to-play tier or via a paid subscription ($9.99 a month or $99.99 a year). The plan is to use the funding to continue expanding that catalog, as well as investing in deeper integrations with its new big-name strategic investors, who themselves have longstanding and deep interests in bringing more voice services and content to the in-car experience.

Co-founder and CEO Niko Vuori told gpgmail that his ultimate ambition is for Drivetime to become “the Sirius XM of interactive content” for cars, with hundreds of different channels of content.

In keeping with those plans, along with the funding, Drivetime is today announcing a key content deal.

It has teamed up with the long-running, popular gameshow Jeopardy to build a trivia channel for the platform, which lets drivers test their own skills and also play against other drivers and people they know. The Jeopardy channel will source content from the TV show’s trove of IP and come with another familiar detail: it will be narrated by Alex Trebek, with a new quiz getting published every weekday for premium users.

That social element of the Jeopardy game is not a coincidence. The San Francisco-based startup is founded by Zynga alums, with Vuori and his co-founders Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson also working together at another startup called Rocket Games since leaving the social games giant and exiting that as well, to gaming giant Penn National, for up to $170 million. That track record goes some way to explaining the strong list of investors in the new startup.

“Social and interactive formats are the next frontier in audio entertainment,” said Makers Fund Founding Partner Jay Chi, in a statement. “Niko, Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson, with a decade-long history of working together and a proven track record in building new platforms, is the best team to bring this idea to life.”

“Gaming and entertainment are among customers’ favorite use cases for Alexa, and we think those categories will only grow in popularity as Alexa is integrated into more vehicles,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon, in a separate statement. “Drivetime stands out for its focus on voice-first games in the car, and we’re excited to work with them to broaden the Alexa Auto experience and help customers make the most of their time behind the wheel.”

In addition to the three investors in this latest round, prior to this Drivetime had raised about $4 million from backers that include Felicis Ventures, Fuel Capital, Webb Investment Network (Maynard Webb’s fund) and Access Ventures.

Vuori declined to say how many installs or active users the app has today — although from the looks of it on AppAnnie, it’s seeing decent if not blockbuster success on iOS and Android so far.

Instead, the company prefers to focus on another stat, its addressable market, which it says is 110 million drivers in North America alone.

Meanwhile, adding a Jeopardy channel is building on what has worked best so far. The most popular category at the moment is trivia, with Tunetime (a “name that tune” game) coming in second with storytelling a third.

Drivetime’s premise is an interesting one. Drivers are a captive audience, but one that has up to now had a relatively limited amount of entertainment created for it, focusing mainly on music and spoken word.

However, the rise of voice-based interfaces and interactivity using natural language — spurred by the rise of personal assistant apps and in-home hubs like Amazon’s Echo — have opened a new opportunity, developing interactive, voice-based content for drivers to engage with more proactively.

You might think that this sounds like a recipe for a car accident. Won’t a driver get too distracted trying to remember the fourth President of the United States, or who was known as the Father of the Constitution? (Hint: it’s the same guy.)

Vuori claims it’s actually the reverse: having an interactive game that requires the driver to speak out loud can focus him or her and keep the driver more alert.

“We are double-dipping in safety,” he said. “On the one hand, we embody the safety aspects of Alertness Maintaining Tasks (AMTs). But we also act as a preventative, meaning that while players engage with Drivetime, they are not engaging with anything else.”

While the content today may serve as a way of keeping drivers from doing things they shouldn’t be doing while in a car, there is another obvious opportunity that might come as drivers become less necessary and themselves will need other things to occupy themselves.

Longer term, the Jeopardy deal could usher in other channels based on popular gameshows. Sony Pictures Television Games, which owns the rights to it, also owns Wheel of Fortune, and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

“We are thrilled to work with Sony Pictures Television Games to bring Jeopardy, the greatest game show on the planet, to an underserved audience that desperately needs interactive entertainment the most – the 110 million commuters in North America driving to and from work by themselves every day,” said Vuori said in a statement.

Interestingly, despite the growth of “skills” for Alexa or apps for Google Home and other home hubs, and the overall popularity of these as a way of interacting with apps and sourcing information, Vuori says that he hasn’t seen any competition emerge yet from other app developers to build voice-based entertainment for drivers in the way that Drivetime has.

That gives the company ample opportunity to continue picking up new users — and more details with publishers and content companies looking for more mileage (sorry) for their legacy IP and new business.

“Drivetime is one of the early pioneers in creating safe, stimulating entertainment for drivers in the car,” Ilya Gelfenbeyn, founding lead of the Google Assistant Investments Program, noted in a statement. “More and more people are using their voice to stay productive on the road, asking the Google Assistant on Android and iOS phones to help send text messages, make calls and access entertainment hands free. We share Drivetime’s vision, and look forward to working with their team to make the daily commute more enjoyable.”


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Volocopter raises $55M led by Volvo owner Geely, sets 3-year timeline for its flying taxi service – gpgmail


The promise of flying cars has become an idea more synonymous with the tech world’s shortcomings than its exciting potential, but today one of the startups that has been focused on actually trying to make small, airborne vehicles a reality is announcing a fundraise and says it’s on track for a commercial launch in two to three years.

Volocopter, which has been building drone-like autonomous electric flying taxis for its own (as-yet unlaunched) urban commercial passenger transportation service — the latest model is its two-passenger VoloCity announced earlier this summer — has closed €50 million ($55 million) in funding led by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd, the Chinese automotive company that owns Volvo, Lotus and a number of other car brands. There are also plans for another significant tranche of money underway, likely to be closed later this year.

In this latest round, Geely is investing alongside other unnamed new and existing investors in the Bruchsal, Germany-based company. Previous backers include Intel and Daimler, the German car giant that owns Mercedes and a number of other brands.

Rene Griemens, Volocopter’s CFO, said in an interview that the German company intends to use the funding to continue working on its taxi R&D; meeting safety and other regulatory requirements for its small taxi vessels (which seat two); working other upcoming models such as those that can transport cargo; and business development around commercial launches.

Indeed, part of this latest investment is paving the way for future business: Geely and Volocopter will be working on a joint venture to bring the Volocopter and its “Urban Air Mobility” concept to China.

While there is no commercial airtaxi or other “flying car” services in existence today in any urban area, the market for hopefuls is a crowded one, with the likes of Lilium, Kitty Hawk, eHang, Uber, and many others building completely new styles of aircraft and hoping to play a role in offering short-range flights as an affordable alternative to road-based transportation. (Blade, an airtaxi service of sorts, is offering more conventional helicopters and other vessels in its limited launch for executives.)

“Urban mobility needs to evolve in the next few years to meet rising demand,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, in a statement. “With our Volocopter air taxis, we are adding a whole new level of mobility in the skies.”

Among its many potential competitors, Volocopter has been one of the more prolific when it comes to building and testing its drone-like vehicles, most recently in Helsinki where it became the first autonomous VTOL — vertical take-off and landing — aircraft to operate in the same airspace as other commercial aircraft.

(You might also recall when Intel brought the Volocopter on stage at CES in Las Vegas in 2018 for a flight demonstration during its keynote, still the only time the Volocopter has been airborne in the US.)

Details on how Volocopter’s service would operate are still — pardon the expression — up in the air, but Griemens said that while Volocopter would own the aircraft, it would likely partner with local operators to help run the service. The average price of each aircraft, he noted, may be akin to a small helicopter, but operations would likely be one-fifth to one-quarter of the price. While initial rides would be expensive, between five and 10 years, they estimate the price would come down to the cost of a taxi ride on the ground.

“The goal was always to democratize flying,” he said.

Its first launch markets are likely to be Singapore, Dubai — where it has a partnership with the city — and an unspecified large European city. That could be somewhere in its home market of Germany, or Helsinki, but just as equally London, where the company has been engaging with city officials on what an airtaxi service could look like. (It’s also part of a new experimental ‘sandbox’ launched by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to test out technology related to air-based transportation and travel.)

But even with regulatory frameworks in place, delays can come in many forms. This isn’t even the first time that Volocopter has predicted commercial services in “two to three years.”

Nevertheless, startups like Volocopter represent a credible version of the future of transportation, so for companies like Geely, Daimler and Intel, which still have large legacy businesses, investing in and working with Volocopter gives them a shot at playing a key role (and having a financial stake) in that market.

“Geely is transitioning from being an automotive manufacturer to a mobility technology group, investing in and developing a wide range of next-generation technologies,” said Li Shufu, Geely’s chairman, in a statement. “Our joint venture with Volocopter underlines our confidence in Volocopter air taxis as the next ambitious step in our wider expansion in both electrification and new mobility services.”

Geely already works with Volocopter’s investor Daimler — which has been a prolific investor in next-generation transportation services — on ride-sharing services in the country.


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