Daily Crunch: Android phones become earthquake detectors

Google is using accelerometers in an interesting new way, Twitter allows everyone to limit tweet replies and Mozilla announces major layoffs. This is your Daily Crunch for August 11, 2020.

The big story: Android phones become earthquake detectors

Google said that smartphone accelerometers are sensitive enough to detect P-waves, which are the first waves to arrive during an earthquake. So if your Android phone thinks it has detected an earthquake, it will communicate with a central server to confirm.

In California, Google is also partnering with the United States Geological Survey and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to provide earthquake alerts. For everyone else, you’ll only see this earthquake data if you search for “earthquake” or a similar term.

This is part of a broader set of Android-related announcements today, including updates to Android Auto and Android’s emergency location service, new accessibility features and better sleep through the Android Clock app.

The tech giants

Twitter now lets everyone limit replies to their tweets — A small globe icon will start to appear at the bottom of your tweets, and if you tap it, you can limit replies just to those who follow you, or just to those who you tag in the tweet itself.

Dell’s latest Chromebook blends enterprise security with premium specs — Once relegated to consumer or education use, Chromebooks are gaining traction in enterprise environments.

Tencent and Universal Music to take Chinese artists global under joint label — Tencent Music Entertainment, which spun off from Tencent, commands the lion’s share of China’s music streaming industry.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Google, Nokia, Qualcomm are investors in $230M Series A2 for Finnish phone maker, HMD Global — Since late 2016, the startup has exclusively licensed Nokia’s brand for mobile devices, going on to ship some 240 million devices to date.

Atomwise’s machine learning-based drug discovery service raises $123 millionAtomwise has already signed contracts with corporate partners that include Eli Lilly & Co., Bayer, Hansoh Pharmaceuticals and Bridge Biotherapeutics.

Scribd acquires presentation-sharing service SlideShare from LinkedIn — According to LinkedIn, Scribd will take over operation of the SlideShare business on September 24.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How Moovit went from opportunity to a $900M exit in 8 years — Private investor (and former Moovit president) Omar Téllez shares the inside story.

No pen required: The digital future of real estate closings — One potential silver lining of the pandemic, at least for the real estate world, may be a forced reckoning with the mortgage closing process.

Emergence’s Jason Green still sees plenty of opportunities for enterprise SaaS startups — One consistent thread runs through Emergence’s portfolio: They focus on the cloud and enterprise, a thesis that has paid off big time.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Mozilla lays off 250 — This move comes after the organization already laid off about 70 employees earlier this year.

EU-US Privacy Shield is dead. Long live Privacy Shield — The EU’s executive body and the US Department of Commerce have begun talks toward fashioning a new “Privacy Shield.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Google’s Lookout app for vision-impaired now scans food labels and long documents

Google has updated its Lookout app, an AI toolkit for people with impaired vision, with two helpful new capabilities: scanning long documents and reading out food labels. Paper forms and similarly shaped products at the store present a challenge for blind folks and this ought to make things easier.

Food labels, if you think about it, are actually a pretty difficult problem for a computer vision system to solve. They’re designed to be attention-grabbing and distinctive, but not necessarily highly readable or informative. If a sighted person can accidentally buy the wrong kind of peanut butter, what chance does someone who can’t read the label themselves have?

GIF of Google's Lookout app showing it identifying a jar of mustard.

Image Credits: Google

The new food label mode, then, is less about reading text and more about recognizing exactly what product it’s looking at. If the user needs to turn the can or bottle to give the camera a good look, the app will tell them so. It compares what it sees to a database of product images, and when it gets a match it reads off the relevant information: brand, product, flavor, other relevant information. If there’s a problem, the app can always scan the barcode as well.

Document scanning isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s good to have the option built in a straightforward way into a general-purpose artificial vision app. It works as you’d expect: Point your phone at the document (the app will help you get the whole thing in view) and it scans it for your screen reader to read out.

The “quick read” mode that the app debuted with last year, which watches for text in the camera view and reads it out loud, has gotten some speed improvements.

The update brings a few other conveniences to the app, which should run on any Android phone with 2 gigs of RAM and running version 6.0 or higher. It’s also now available in Spanish, German, French and Italian.

Google is turning Android Phones into seismometers

Google is launching a handful of new Android features today that don’t really have a lot in common but that are all interesting in their own right. There are updates to Android Auto and Android’s emergency location service, new accessibility features thanks to an updated Lookout app and the promise of better sleep thanks to the bedtime tools in the Android Clock app now rolling out to all Android devices running version 6.0 or later (this was a Pixel-only feature before).

But the highlight of today’s release is surely Google’s new worldwide earthquake detection system and the new earthquake alerting feature it is launching for California. With this, Google is essentially turning your Android phone into a seismometer to create what the company says is “the world’s largest earthquake detection network.”

Image Credits: Google

The company argues that smartphone accelerometers are sensitive enough to measure the P-waves that are the first waves to arrive after an earthquake. Whenever the phone thinks it has detected an earthquake, it will send that info to a central server, which then determines whether this was really an earthquake. For now, Google will only use this data to show information when somebody then searches for “earthquake” or a similar keyword. Over time, though, it expects to be able to send out alerts based on these phone-based systems.

In California, the company is already going a step further, though. Working with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), Google is using the ShakeAlert network — which itself uses data from 700 seismometers from across the state — to provide earthquake alerts. “A few seconds of warning can make a difference in giving you time to drop, cover, and hold on before the shaking arrives,” Google argues.

Image Credits: Google

 

Power electronics and wireless charging startup Eggtronic raises $10M Series A

Eggtronic, the Italy-founded startup developing power electronics, wireless charging and data over power technology and products, has closed around $10 million in Series A funding.

Backing the company is Rinkelberg Capital — the investment fund from the founders of TomTom — and funds managed by an unnamed investment bank in Milan. It brings the total raised by Eggtronic since 2012 to $17 million.

Eggtronic says the capital will be used to develop a new integrated circuits division at the Eggtronic research laboratories as it continues along its roadmap of more efficient power transformers. Eventually, the company hopes its “capacitive” wireless charging technology will be adopted universally as a new industry standard.

Founded by CEO Igor Spinella out of Italy’s Modena — famous for its balsamic vinegar, opera heritage and Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars — and now with offices and production facilities in the U.S., Italy and China, Eggtronic is best-known for its sleek laptop charger and stone-shaped wireless chargers.

However, it also makes various power electronics for other brands, and it is B2B, including producing ICs that other manufacturers can use in their own devices, that is the company’s longer-term and “scalable” future.

Spinella tells me that Eggtronic’s consumer and white-labeled products serve as a direct way of signalling to the market what Eggtronic is capable of and brings in revenue that can be reinvested into R&D to get to a better wireless charging future.

“We were not in California, and working in a capital-intensive field almost unknown by Italian investors, we created a pipeline able to validate us as a manufacturing and design company, invest in R&D — [including] being able to create some incredible demos of our most innovating technologies — and scale internationally,” explains Spinella.

Those demos included a capacitive wireless surface able to charge a smartphone in 2015, a TV in 2017 and two laptops connected and charging via data over power in 2020.

“These R&D demos were extremely important milestones to validate our own idea of wireless power and data,” says Spinella. [This includes] total position freedom: You can literally put every device on the desk randomly, charging and connecting them all.”

In addition, the company has been able to demonstrate high-power use-cases, and data over power that it claims can hit the same speed of a USB 3 cable but wirelessly.

“This technology has already some industrial customers, the next steps are the creation of ICs and the first retails products based on these ICs, then we can work on the adoption by a leading company,” adds the Eggtronic founder.

In the interim, the company is applying some of the same capacitive technology to power conversion for existing applications, such as Eggtronic’s laptop chargers and power bricks.

“We filed several patents in this area, starting from our capacitive power converters able to remove the transformer, increasing efficiency and reducing size,” says Spinella. “Today we have several architectures that we invented, able to cover most of the typical applications, from some tens of Watts to kW, with our own resonant architectures (capacitive, inductive and hybrid), with several proprietary control algorithms, our own ‘Power Factor Correction’ circuits, several proprietary ways to shrink the size of the components, to reduce the number of stages in series and so on.”

Meanwhile, Spinella is being advised by consumer electronics veteran Mark Gretton, who is the former CTO of TomTom and helped pioneer mobile computing at Psion. He was introduced to Eggtronic via Rinkelberg Capital, before deciding to invest and join as an advisor.

“I decided to get involved because firstly I liked and respected Igor, but also because unlike so many technology companies that come my way, the Eggtronic proposition was refreshingly simple,” Gretton tells me. “We are going to make something that is an integral part of everyone’s lives better through applying technology. There was no change of behaviour, complex business model, or solution to a problem nobody knew they had. Just designing better power electronics for everyone.”

LivingPackets hopes to nurture a circular economy with its smart parcels

More than ever before, people are getting life’s essentials delivered — good news for Amazon, but bad news for the environment, which must bear the consequences of the resulting waste. LivingPackets is a Berlin-based startup that aims to replace the familiar cardboard box with an alternative that’s smarter, more secure and possibly the building block of a new circular economy.

The primary product created by LivingPackets is called The Box, and it’s just that: a box. But not just any box. This one is reusable, durable, digitally locked and monitored, with a smartphone’s worth of sensors and gadgets that make it trackable and versatile, and an E-Ink screen so its destination or contents can be updated at will. A prototype shown at CES and a few other locations attracted some interest, but the company is now well into producing V2 of The Box, improved in many ways and ready to be deployed at the scale of hundreds of thousands.

Sure, it costs a lot more than a cardboard box. But once a LivingPackets Box has been used a couple hundred times for returns and local distribution purposes, it breaks even with its paper-based predecessor. Cardboard is cheap to make new, but it doesn’t last long — and that’s not its only problem.

The Box, pictured here with standard cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, is meant to be compatible with lots of existing intrastructure. Image Credits: LivingPackets

“If you think about it, online transactions are still risky,” said co-founder Fabian Kliem. “The physical transaction and financial transaction don’t happen in parallel: You pay up front, and the seller sends something into the void. You may not receive it, or maybe you do and you say you didn’t, so the company has to claim it with insurers.”

“The logistics system is over-capacity; there’s frustration with DHL and other carriers,” he said. “People in e-commerce and logistics know what they’re missing, what their problems are. Demand has grown, but there’s no innovation.”

And indeed, it does seem strange that although delivery has become much more important to practically everyone over the last decade and especially in recent months, it’s pretty much done the same way it’s been done for a century — except you might get an email when the package arrives. LivingPackets aims to upend this by completely reinventing the package, leaving things like theft, damage and missed connections in the past.

Apps let users track the location and status of their box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

“You’re in full control of everything involved,” he explained. “You know where the parcel is, what’s happening to it. You can look inside. You can say, I’m not at the location for delivery right now, I’m at my office, and just update the address. You don’t need filling material, you don’t need a paper label. You can tell when the seal is broken, when the item is removed.”

It all sounds great, but cardboard is simple and, while limited, proven. Why should anyone switch over to such a fancy device? The business model has to account for this, so it does — and then some.

To begin with, LivingPackets doesn’t actually sell The Box. It provides it to customers and charges per use — “packaging as a service,” as they call it. This prevents the possibility of a business balking at the upfront cost of a few thousand of these.

As a service, it simplifies a lot of existing pain points for merchants, consumers and logistics companies.

For merchants, among other things, tracking and insurance are much simpler. As co-founder Alexander Cotte explained, and as surely many reading this have experienced, it’s practically impossible to know what happened to a missing package, even if it’s something large or expensive. With better tracking, lossage can be mitigated to start, and the question of who’s responsible, where it was taken, and so on can be determined in a straightforward way.

For packaging and delivery companies, the standard form factor with adjustable interior makes these boxes easy to pack and difficult to meddle with or damage — tests with European online retail showed that handling time and costs can be reduced by more than half. LivingPackets also pays for pickup, so delivery companies can recoup costs without changing routes. And generally speaking, more data, more traceability, is a good thing.

For consumers, the most obvious improvement is returns; no need to print a label or for the company to pre-package one, just notify them and the return address appears on the box automatically. In addition there are opportunities once an essentially pre-paid box is in a consumer’s house: for instance, selling or donating an old phone or laptop. LivingPackets will be operating partnerships whereby you can just toss your old gear in the box and it will make its way to the right locations. Or a consumer can hang onto the box until the item they’re selling on eBay is bought and send it that way. Or a neighbor can — and yes, they’re working on the public health side of that, with antibiotic coatings and other protections against spreading COVID-19.

The Box locks securely but also folds down for storage when empty. Image Credits: LivingPackets

The idea underpinning all this, and which was wrapped up in this company from the start, is that of creating a real circular economy, building decentralized value and reducing waste. Even The Box itself is made of materials that can be reused, should it be damaged, in the creation of its replacement. In addition to the market efficiencies added by turning parcels into traveling IoT devices, reusing the boxes could reduce waste and carbon emissions — once you get past the first hundred uses or so, The Box pays for itself in more ways than one. Early pilots with carriers and retailers in France and Germany have borne this out.

That philosophy is embodied in LivingPackets’ unusual form of funding itself: a combination of bootstrapping and crowdsourced equity.

Cotte and his father founded holding company the Cotte Group, which provided a good starting point for said bootstrapping, but he noted that every employee is taking a less than competitive wage with the hope that the company’s profit-sharing plan will pan out. Even so, with 95 employees, that amounts to several million a year even by the most conservative estimate — this is no small operation.

CEO Alex Cotte sits with V1 of The Box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

Part of keeping the lights on, then, is the ongoing crowdfunding campaign, which has pulled in somewhere north of €6 million, from individuals contributing as little as €50 or as much as €20,000. This, Cotte said, is largely to finance the cost of production, while he and the founding team essentially funded the R&D period. Half of future profits are earmarked for paying back these contributors multiple times their investment — not exactly the sort of business model you see in Silicon Valley. But that’s kind of the point, they explained.

“Obviously all the people working for us believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Cotte said. “They’re willing to take a step back now to create value together and not just take value out of an existing system. And you need to share the value you create with the people who helped you create it.”

It’s hard to imagine a future where these newfangled boxes replace even a noticeable proportion of the truly astronomical number of cardboard boxes being used every day. But even so, getting them into a few key distribution channels could prove they work as intended — and improvements to the well-oiled machines (and deeply rutted paths) of logistics can spread like wildfire once the innumerable companies the industry touches see there’s a better way.

The aims and means of LivingPackets may be rather utopian, but that could be the moonshot thinking that’s necessary to dislodge the logistics business from its current, decidedly last-century methods.

(Update: Poor notetaking on my part led to my referring to co-founder Fabian Kliem as his colleague in marketing, Sebastian Rumberg, earlier in this article; This has now been corrected.)