Alba Orbital’s mission to image the Earth every 15 minutes brings in $3.4M seed round

Orbital imagery is in demand, and if you think having daily images of everywhere on Earth is going to be enough in a few years, you need a lesson in ambition. Alba Orbital is here to provide it with its intention to provide Earth observation at intervals of 15 minutes rather than hours or days — and it just raised $3.4 million to get its next set of satellites into orbit.

Alba attracted our attention at Y Combinator’s latest demo day; I was impressed with the startup’s accomplishment of already having six satellites in orbit, which is more than most companies with space ambition ever get. But it’s only the start for the company, which will need hundreds more to begin to offer its planned high-frequency imagery.

The Scottish company has spent the last few years in prep and R&D, pursuing the goal, which some must have thought laughable, of creating a solar-powered Earth observation satellite that weighs in at less than one kilogram. The joke’s on the skeptics, however — Alba has launched a proof of concept and is ready to send the real thing up as well.

Little more than a flying camera with a minimum of storage, communication, power and movement, the sub-kilogram Unicorn-2 is about the size of a soda can, with paperback-size solar panel wings, and costs in the neighborhood of $10,000. It should be able to capture up to 10-meter resolution, good enough to see things like buildings, ships, crops, even planes.

A member of the Alba Orbital team holds a Unicorn-2 satellite.

Image Credits: Alba Orbital

“People thought we were idiots. Now they’re taking it seriously,” said Tom Walkinshaw, founder and CEO of Alba. “They can see it for what it is: a unique platform for capturing data sets.”

Indeed, although the idea of daily orbital imagery like Planet’s once seemed excessive, in some situations it’s quite clearly not enough.

“The California case is probably wildfires,” said Walkinshaw (and it always helps to have a California case). “Having an image once a day of a wildfire is a bit like having a chocolate teapot… not very useful. And natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding is a big one, transportation as well.”

Walkinshaw noted that they company was bootstrapped and profitable before taking on the task of launching dozens more satellites, something the seed round will enable.

“It gets these birds in the air, gets them finished and shipped out,” he said. “Then we just need to crank up the production rate.”

Alba Orbital founder Tom Walkinshaw next to a Y Combinator sign.

Image Credits: Alba Orbital

When I talked to Walkinshaw via video call, 10 or so completed satellites in their launch shells were sitting on a rack behind him in the clean room, and more are in the process of assembly. Aiding in the scaling effort is new investor James Park, founder and CEO of Fitbit — definitely someone who knows a little bit about bringing hardware to market.

Interestingly, the next batch to go to orbit (perhaps as soon as in a month or two, depending on the machinations of the launch provider) will be focusing on nighttime imagery, an area Walkinshaw suggested was undervalued. But as orbital thermal imaging startup Satellite Vu has shown, there’s immense appetite for things like energy and activity monitoring, and nighttime observation is a big part of that.

The seed round will get the next few rounds of satellites into space, and after that Alba will be working on scaling manufacturing to produce hundreds more. Once those start going up it can demonstrate the high-cadence imaging it is aiming to produce — for now it’s impossible to do so, though Alba already has customers lined up to buy the imagery it does get.

The round was led by Metaplanet Holdings, with participation by Y Combinator, Liquid2, Soma, Uncommon Denominator, Zillionize and numerous angels.

As for competition, Walkinshaw welcomes it, but feels secure that he and his company have more time and work invested in this class of satellite than anyone in the world — a major obstacle for anyone who wants to do battle. It’s more likely companies will, as Alba has done, pursue a distinct product complementary to those already or in the process of being offered.

“Space is a good place to be right now,” he concluded.

Sylvera grabs seed backing from Index to help close the accountability gap around carbon offsetting

UK-based startup Sylvera is using satellite, radar and lidar data-fuelled machine learning to bolster transparency around carbon offsetting projects in a bid to boost accountability and credibility — applying independent ratings to carbon offsetting projects.

The ratings are based on proprietary data sets it’s developed in conjunction with scientists from research organisations including UCLA, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and University College London.

It’s just grabbed $5.8M in seed funding led by VC firm Index Ventures. All its existing institutional investors also participated — namely: Seedcamp, Speedinvest and Revent. It also has backing from leading angels, including the existing and former CEOs of NYSE, Thomson Reuters, Citibank and IHS Markit. (It confirms it has committed not to receive any investment from traditional carbon-intensive companies when as ask.) And it’s just snagged a $2M research contract from Innovate UK.

The problem it’s targeting is that the carbon offsetting market suffers from a lack of transparency.

This fuels concerns that many offsetting projects aren’t living up to their claims of a net reduction in carbon emissions — and that ‘creative’ carbon accountancy is rather being used to generate a lot of hot air: In the form of positive sounding PR which sums to meaningless greenwashing and more pollution as polluters get to keep on pumping out climate changing emissions.

Nonetheless the carbon offset markets are poised for huge growth — of at least 15x by 2030 — as large corporates accelerate their net zero commitments. And Sylvera’s bet is that that will drive demand for reliable, independent data — to stand up the claimed impact.

How exactly is Sylvera benchmarking carbon offsets? Co-founder Sam Gill says its technology platform draws on multiple layers of satellite data to capture project performance data at scale and at a high frequency.

It applies machine learning to analyze and visualize the data, while also conducting what it bills as “deep analytical work to assess the underlying project quality”. Via that process it creates a standardised rating for a project, so that market participants are able to transact according to their preferences.

It makes its ratings and analysis data available to its customers via a web application and an API (for which it charges a subscription).

“We assess two critical areas of a project — its carbon performance, and its ‘quality’,” Gill tells TechCrunch. “We score a project against these criteria, and give them ratings — much like a Moody’s rating on a bond.”

Carbon performance is assessed by gathering “multi-layered data” from multiple sources to understand what is going on on the ground of these projects — such as via multiple satellite sources such as multispectral image, Radar, and Lidar data.

“We collate this data over time, ingest it into our proprietary machine learning algorithms, and analyse how the project has performed against its stated aims,” Gill explains.

Quality is assessed by considering the technical aspects of the project. This includes what Gill calls “additionality”; aka “does the project have a strong claim to delivering a better outcome than would have occurred but for the existence of the offset revenue?”.

There is a known problem with some carbon offsets claimed against forests where the landowner had no intention of logging, for example. So if there wasn’t going to be any deforestation the carbon credit is essentially bogus.

He also says it looks at factors like permanence (“how long will the project’s impacts last?”); co-benefits (“how well has the project incorporated the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals?); and risks (“how well is the project mitigating risks, in particular those from humans and those from natural causes?”).

Clearly it’s not an exact science — and Gill acknowledges risks, for example, are often interlinked.

“It is critical to assess these performance and quality in tandem,” he tells TechCrunch. “It’s not enough to simply say a project is achieving the carbon goals set out in its plan.

“If the additionality of a project is low (e.g. it was actually unlikely the project would have been deforested without the project) then the achievement of the carbon goals set out in the project does not generate the anticipated carbon goals, and the underlying offsets are therefore weaker than appreciated.”

Commenting on the seed funding in a statement, Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, partner at Index Ventures, said: “This is a phenomenally strong team with the vision to build the first carbon offset rating benchmark, providing comprehensive insights around the quality of offsets, enabling purchase decisions as well as post-purchase monitoring and reporting. Sylvera is  putting in place the building blocks that will be required to address climate change.”

Framework’s repairable laptop is up for preorder, starting at $999

Repairability has been a big sticking point for consumer electronics over the past several years. As devices have gotten thinner — and companies have pushed to maintain control over proprietary systems — many devices have become near impossible for an every-day person to repair.

It’s an issue for a number of reasons — not the least of which is an inability to upgrade a system instead of scrapping it altogether. In a world where human impact on the environment is increasingly top of mind, forced obsolescence is an understandably important issue for many.

Framework is one of an increasing number of companies working to address these issues. It’s a list that also includes products like Fairphone on the mobile side. It’s a niche versus the overall market, to be sure, but it’s one that could well be growing. Announced in January, the Framework Laptop is up for preorder today. The 13.5-inch notebook starts at $999 and will start shipping at the end of July.

The SF-based company had initially targeted spring shipping, but ongoing chip supply problems have delayed the product. The system actually doesn’t look half-bad for a product and company that are clearly repair/upgrade-first.

There are three basic configurations — Base, Performance and Professional, ranging from $999 to $1,999, upgrading from an Intel Core i5, 8GB of Ram and 256GB of storage to a Core i7 and 32GB/1TB. Windows also gets upgraded from Home to Pro at the top level. At $749, the company offers a barebones shell, where users can plug in their own internals.

Image Credits: Framework

Other upgrades include:

On top of that, the Framework Laptop is deeply customizable in unique ways. Our Expansion Card system lets you choose the ports you want and which side you want them on, selecting from four at a time of USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD, ultra-fast 250GB and 1TB storage, and more. Magnetic-attach bezels are color-customizable to match your style, and the keyboard language can be swapped too.

 

Google hit with $123M antitrust fine in Italy over Android Auto

Google has been fined just over €100 million (~$123M) by Italy’s antitrust watchdog for abuse of a dominant market position.

The case relates to Android Auto, a modified version of Google’s mobile OS intended for in-car use, and specifically to how Google restricted access to the platform to an electric car charging app, called JuicePass, made by energy company Enel X Italia.

Android Auto lets motorists directly access a selection of relevant apps (like maps and music streaming services) via a dash-mounted screen. But Enel X Italia’s JuicePass app was not one of the third party apps Google granted access to.

The app is accessible via the smartphone version of the Android platform — but of course a driver shouldn’t be reaching for their phone when at the wheel. So barring access through Android Auto puts a significant blocker on relevant usage.

Google’s market restriction of JuicePass has drawn the attention — and now the ire — of Italy’s competition watchdog.

The AGCM said today that Google has violated Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union — and has ordered it to make the JuicePass available via the platform.

It also says Google must to provide the same interoperability with Android Auto to other third party app developers.

The authority points out that the Google Maps app, which offers some basic services for electric vehicle charging (such as finding and getting directions to charging points), is available via Android Auto — and could, in future, incorporate directly competitive features like payments.

“According to the Authority’s findings, Google did not allow Enel X Italia to develop a version of its JuicePass app compatible with Android Auto, a specific Android feature that allows apps to be used while the user is driving in compliance with safety, as well as distraction reduction, requirements,” the AGCM writes in a press release announcing the sanction [translated to English using Google Translate]. “JuicePass enables a wide range of services for recharging electric vehicles, ranging from finding a charging station to managing the charging session and reserving a place at the station; this latter function guarantees the actual availability of the infrastructure once the user reaches it.

“By refusing Enel X Italia interoperability with Android Auto, Google has unfairly limited the possibilities for end users to avail themselves of the Enel X Italia app when driving and recharging an electric vehicle. Google has consequently favored its own Google Maps app, which runs on Android Auto and enables functional services for electric vehicle charging, currently limited to finding and getting directions to reach charging points, but which in the future could include other functionalities such as reservation and payment.”

Google denies any wrongdoing and says it disagrees with the order. But it did not confirm whether or not it intends to appeal.

The tech giant claims the restrictions it places on apps’ access to Android Auto are necessary to ensure drivers are not distracted. It also told us that it has been opening up the platform to more apps over time — with “thousands” now compatible.

It added that its intention is to keep expanding availability.

Google did not comment on why Enel X Italia’s app for recharging electric vehicles was not among the “thousands” it has already granted access to, however.

Per the AGCM, Enel X Italia’s app has been excluded from Android Auto for more than two years.

Here’s Google’s statement:

“The number one priority for Android Auto is to ensure apps can be used safely while driving. That’s why we have strict guidelines on the types of apps which are currently supported and these are based on driver-distraction tests and regulatory and industry standards. Thousands of applications are already compatible with Android Auto, and our goal is to allow even more developers to make their apps available over time. For example, we have introduced templates for navigation, charging, and parking apps, open for any developer to use. We disagree with the Authority’s decision and we will review our options.”

Google has a dominant position in the market via the Android smartphone platform, with a marketshare in Italy of around three-quarters according to the competition watchdog.

Under European Union law, a finding of market dominance in one market puts a responsibility on a company not to restrict competition in any other markets where it operates — and the EU already found Google to be a dominant company in general Internet search in every market in the European Economic Area back in 2017.

The AGCM said it’s concerned about the impact of Google’s restrictions on app access to Android Auto on the growth of the electric mobility market.

“If it were to continue, [it] could permanently jeopardise Enel X Italia’s chances of building a solid user base at a time of significant growth in sales of electric vehicles,” it wrote, adding that Google’s action in excluding the JuicePass app meant it did not appear in the list of applications used by users — thereby reducing consumer choice and creating a barrier to innovation.

The authority suggests Google’s conduct could influence the development of electric mobility during a crucial phase — as recharging infrastructures for electric cars are being built out and can help fuel growth and demand for recharging services.

“Consequently, possible negative effects could occur to the diffusion of electric vehicles, to the use of ‘clean’ energy and to the transition towards a more environmentally sustainable mobility,” it warned, linking anti-competitive behavior to negative consequences for the environment.

The AGCM added that it will monitor Google’s compliance with its order to ensure it effectively and correctly implements the obligations to provide third party app developers with access to Android Auto.

The authority’s action could be a taster of what’s coming down the pipe for gatekeeper players like Google in Europe under the incoming Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The flagship legislative proposal is intended to supplement ex post competition law enforcement with ex ante rules on how dominant platforms which intermediate others’ market access can behave — including by imposing up front requirements that they support interoperability.

The idea with the DMA is to supplement the slow and painstaking work needed to bring competition investigations to fruition with proactive measures slapped on tech giants to prevent certain types of known market abuse in the first place. Although the regulation is likely years out from being adopted and applied across the EU.

In the meanwhile competition probes of big tech continue.

Italy’s AGCM opened one into Google’s ad display business last October, for example.

Google has already faced a number of EU antitrust decision in recent years — including a $5BN penalty over how it operates Android. Although search rivals continue to complain that the remedy Google devised for that 2018 decision still does not sum to fair competition.

Xbox teams up with Tencent’s Honor of Kings maker TiMi Studios

TiMi Studios, one of the world’s most lucrative game makers and is part of Tencent’s gargantuan digital entertainment empire, said Thursday that it has struck a strategic partnership with Xbox.

The succinct announcement did not mention whether the tie-up is for content development or Xbox’s console distribution in China but said more details will be unveiled for the “deep partnership” by the end of this year.

Established in 2008 within Tencent, TiMi is behind popular mobile titles such as Honor of Kings and Call of Duty Mobile. In 2020, Honor of Kings alone generated close to $2.5 billion in player spending, according to market research company SensorTower. In all, TiMi pocketed $10 billion in revenue last year, according to a report from Reuters citing people with knowledge.

The partnership could help TiMi build a name globally by converting its mobile titles into console plays for Microsoft’s Xbox. TiMi has been trying to strengthen its own brand and distinguish itself from other Tencent gaming clusters, such as its internal rival LightSpeed & Quantum Studio, which is known for PUBG Mobile.

TiMi operates a branch in Los Angeles and said in January 2020 that it planned to “triple” its headcount in North America, adding that building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games was core to its global strategy. There are clues in a recruitment notice posted recently by a TiMi employee: The unit is hiring developers for an upcoming AAA title that is benchmarked against the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online game that evolves into a virtual society in the fiction and film Ready Player One. Oasis is played via a virtual reality headset.

Xbox’s latest Series X and Series S are to debut in China imminently, though the launch doesn’t appear to be linked to the Tencent deal. Sony’s Playstation 5 just hit the shelves in China in late April. Nintendo Switch distributes in China through a partnership with Tencent sealed in 2019.

Chinese console players often resort to grey markets for foreign editions because the list of Chinese titles approved by local authorities is tiny compared to what’s available outside the country. But these grey markets, both online and offline, are susceptible to ongoing clampdown. Most recently in March, product listings by multiple top sellers of imported console games vanished from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.