Cryptocurrency wallet and blockchain tech startup imToken raises $30 million Series B

imToken, the blockchain tech startup and crypto wallet developer, announced today it has raised $30 million in Series B funding led by Qiming Venture Partners. Participants included returning investor IDG Capital, and new backers Breyer Capital, HashKey, Signum Capital, Longling Capital, SNZ and Liang Xinjun, the co-founder of Fosun International.

Founded in 2016, the startup’s last funding announcement was for its $10 million Series A, led by IDG, in May 2018. imToken says its wallet for Ethereum, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies now has 12 million users and over $50 billion in assets are currently stored on its platform, with total transaction value exceeding $500 billion.

The company was launched in Hangzhou, China, before moving to it current headquarters to Singapore, and about 70% of its users are in mainland China, followed by markets including South Korea, the United States and Southeast Asia.

imToken will use its latest funding to build features for “imToken 3.0.” This will include keyless accounts, account recovery and and a suite of decentralized finance services. It also plans to expand its research arm for blockchain technology, called imToken Labs and open offices in more countries. It currently has a team of 78 people, based in mainland China, the United States and Singapore, and expects to increase its headcount to 100 this year.

In a press statement, Qiming Venture Partners founding managing partner Duane Kuang said, “In the next ten to twenty years, blockchain will revolutionize the financial industry on a global scale. We believe that imToken is riding this trend, and has strongly positioned itself in the market.”

Google’s Area 120 launches Stack, an app that digitizes personal docs and extracts key information

Google’s in-house incubator, Area 120, is today releasing its latest project called Stack, an app that will help you digitize your documents, receipts and other papers you have lying around the house, and then automatically save them to Google Drive. The app will also helpfully suggest a name for your scans and the right category — or “stack,” as it’s called.

At launch, Stack can handle scanning a range of differently sized documents — like bills, shopping receipts or even IDs — which are then turned into PDFs and organized, while important information from within the file is detailed using AI technology.

The idea for Stack comes from Christopher Pedregal, who previously co-founded the edtech startup Socratic, which was acquired by Google back in 2018. 

Pedregal notes that, at Socratic, they had taken advantage of Google’s computer vision and language understanding technologies to make learning easier for high school students. While at Google, he began to think about how those same technologies could be put to work for better organizing documents. To experiment with the idea, he teamed up with Matthew Cowan. The two first worked together on DocAI, a team in Google Cloud that was developing AI technology that could analyze billions of documents.

They realized that they could also apply DocAI’s enterprise technology to users’ personal documents, which led to the creation of Stack.

With the Stack app, initially available for Android, users can take a photo of a document and the app will automatically name it and “stack” it into the correct category — like Bills, Banking, House, IDs, Immigration, Insurance, Legal, Medical, Pet, Receipts, Tax, Travel, Vehicles and Work.

Users can add multiple pages when scanning a document, and Stack will OCR all the pages in a document, so that the full text of the document is searchable. Users can also star their most important scans for quicker access.

While the ability to quickly digitize documents by photographing them isn’t new — Microsoft has offered Office Lens for years, for example —  Stack will also be able to identify key information from within the documents, like the “due date” on a bill, the “total amount due” or “account number.” It can then pull that info out to make it easier to find later on.

The app additionally allows users to search through the full text of the documents, not just the title, to find information they need. To keep the items protected, Stack’s documents can be secured by either your fingerprint or face scan, similar to how Google Drive works today. And Drive users can have all their scans automatically synced over to Google Drive.

Google says the app is currently available on Android, as a free download with no in-app purchases. Based on user feedback, Google will decide whether to bring Stack to more platforms, like iOS.

Google promises better 3D maps

Google is announcing a handful of major updates to Google Maps today that range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, but the most tantalizing news — which in typical Google fashion doesn’t have an ETA just yet — is that Google plans to bring a vastly improved 3D layer to Google maps.

Using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement. He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualize all its data in new and interesting ways.

Image Credits: Google

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualize a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness — there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

Image Credits: Google

As for the more immediate future, Google announced a handful of new features today that are all going to roll out in the coming months. Indoor Live View is the flashiest of these. Google’s existing AR Live View walking directions currently only work outdoors, but thanks to some advances in its technology to recognize where exactly you are (even without a good GPS signal), the company is now able to bring this indoors. This feature is already live in some malls in the U.S. in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle, but in the coming months, it’ll come to select airports, malls and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich as well (just in time for vaccines to arrive and travel to — maybe — rebound). Because Google is able to locate you by comparing the images around you to its database, it can also tell what floor you are on and hence guide you to your gate at the Zurich airport, for example (though in my experience, there are few places with better signage than airports…).

Also new are layers for weather data (but not weather radar) and air quality in Google Maps. The weather layer will be available globally on Android and iOS in the coming months, with the air quality layer only launching for Australia, India and the U.S. at first.

Image Credits: Google

Talking about air quality, Google Maps will also get a new eco-friendly routing option that lets you pick the driving route that produces the least CO2 (coming to Android and iOS later this year), and it will finally feature support for low emission zones, a feature of many a European City. Low emission zones on Google Maps will launch in June in Germany, France, Spain and the UK on Android and iOS. More countries will follow later.

And to bring this all together, Google will update its directions interface to show you all of the possible modes of transportations and routing options, prioritized based on your own preferences, as well as based on what’s popular in the city you are in (think he subway in NYC or bike-sharing in Portland).

Also new are more integrated options for curbside grocery pickups in partnership with Instacart and Albertsons, if that’s your thing.

And there you have it. As is so often the case with Google’s announcement, the most exciting new features the company showed off don’t have an ETA and may never launch, but until then you can hold yourself over by getting your weather forecasts on Google Maps.

Recycling startup Redwood Materials is partnering with Proterra to supply EV battery materials sustainably

A growing number of companies have emerged over the last few years determined to reduce waste in the electric vehicle battery market. Chief among these is recycling firm Redwood Materials, which has quickly expanded since its launch in 2017 by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel to become the largest lithium-ion battery recycler in North America. Now the firm is teaming up with electric commercial vehicle manufacturer Proterra in a deal that may help boost the domestic battery supply chain.

This is the first publicly announced partnership between Redwood and an automaker.

Under the agreement, all Proterra batteries will be sent to Redwood’s facilities for recycling in Carson City, Nevada. The two companies entered the agreement in January, but have been in discussion since last summer, when Proterra reached out to learn more about Redwood’s recycling process. That led to a trip out to Redwood’s facilities in Nevada to see if the recycler could process Proterra battery packs.

“That went really well,” Proterra CTO Dustin Grace told TechCrunch. Grace worked for Straubel for around nine years at Tesla. “We were super excited to see their operation. From there, we started work on our master supply agreement.”

Proterra has sent around 26,000 pounds of battery material to Nevada for recycling since entering the partnership, though this does not represent the pace of future deliveries. Overall, Redwood receives 60 tons per day, or 20,000 tons of batteries per year.

The batteries that power Proterra’s fleets are designed to last the lifespan of the vehicle, but the company offers a battery leasing program that guarantees replacement after six years — which means plenty of useful life will remain in the battery, as much as 80-90% charging capacity. To exploit the remainder of this capacity, Proterra has plans to reuse the batteries in second-life applications — such as in stationary storage systems hooked up to Proterra charging hardware — before they head to Nevada.

“First the grading of the battery will occur at Proterra by our remanufacturing engineering team. If the battery is deemed ready for second-life, it will go into one of those applications; if it’s not, it gets recycled,” Grace said.

Only once all this useful life is exhausted will the batteries be sent to Redwood, where the waste will be reprocessed into valuable raw material. And with the transit EV market poised to reach 50% of all annual sales by 2025, there will be plenty of batteries that will need reprocessing.

The news comes just weeks after Redwood announced it was teaming up with e-bike manufacturer Specialized to recycle its batteries. Redwood already has arrangements to process scrap from Panasonic’s battery cell production at the Nevada Tesla Gigafactory, and with Amazon to recycle EV batteries and other waste. Through these business-to-business partnerships Redwood aims to develop a circular battery supply chain, supplying the raw materials back to the manufacturer. The company also accepts electronics and batteries from everyday consumers, which can be mailed to Redwood via a mailing address posted on its website.  

The partnership is a sign that both companies are thinking large-scale and long-term. A spokesperson for Redwood said in a statement to TechCrunch that the recycler is focused on “developing the solution for a fully closed-loop recycling for EV batteries.” That means finding truly sustainable, long-term sources of materials like cobalt, lithium and copper to eventually move beyond terrestrial mining. And Straubel has been vocal in the past about his ambition to grow Redwood into one of the world’s largest battery materials companies.

As more battery-grade raw materials become available in the United States, Proterra sees an opportunity to eventually expand into domestic battery-cell manufacturing.

“It’s still early days but we’re trying to set ourselves up for the future state of this market at scale. That’s really the primary benefit of this partnership existing today,” Grace said. “The way we see it, domestic cell production for Proterra is a very, very important part of our roadmap here in the coming years. The idea of generating more battery-grade raw materials on North American soil directly supports the expansion of that battery manufacturing concept within the U.S. So I think this starting now absolutely aids our plans for domestic cell manufacturing in the near future.”

Will the pandemic spur a smart rebirth for cities?

Cities traditionally have been bustling hubs where people live, work and play. When the pandemic hit, some people fled major metropolitan markets for smaller towns — raising questions about the future validity of cities. It’s true that we’re still months away from broader reopenings and herd immunity via current vaccination efforts.

However, those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.

Those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.

U.N. forecasts show that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, communities that are the epicenters of culture, innovation, wealth, education and tourism, to mention just a few benefits. They are not only worth saving — they’re also ripe for rebirth, precisely why many municipal leaders in the U.S. anticipate the Biden administration will allocate substantial monetary resources to rebuilding legacy infrastructure (and doing so in a way that prioritizes equitable access). 

With this emphasis on inclusivity and social innovation, the tech community has the ability to address a range of lifestyle and well-being issues: infrastructure, transportation and mobility, law enforcement, environmental monitoring and energy allocation.

In this time of reset for cities, what smart city technologies will transform how we live our lives? What kinds of technology will make the biggest impact on cities in the next 12 months? Which smart cities are ahead of the curve? 

To unpack these questions and more, we conducted the SmartCityX Survey of industry experts — including smart city investors, corporate and municipal thought leaders, members of academia and startups on the front lines of urban innovation — to help provide valuable insights into where we’re heading. Below you’ll find some key takeaways:

Infrastructure is the most crucial issue for cities

Critical infrastructure topped the list of most prominent issues facing today’s cities, followed closely by traffic and transportation. Cisco may have left the party too soon, but others, including countless startups, are lining up and capitalizing on future growth opportunities in the space. A couple of recent data points that support this trend — particularly as it relates to infrastructure rebuilding, IoT and open toolkits to connect fragmented technologies — include the following:  

Smart Infrastructure is paramount to Smart City success. It’s crucial that this infrastructure be “architected” as opposed to just connected. This is the only way to truly achieve seamless interoperability while ensuring scalability, reliability, security and privacy. Technology companies that offer robust architectural components and/or platforms stand to deliver tremendous stakeholder value and outsized returns to investors.Sue Stash, general partner, Pandemic Impact Fund

What’s driving change in cities?

When asked what will accelerate innovation and change in cities, an overwhelming majority cited COVID-19 as the primary factor, followed by remote work, which has accelerated the adoption of online collaboration tools and forced legacy companies to complete multiyear digital transformation projects in a matter of months. The biggest opportunity is to build cities back better and smarter, focusing on new infrastructures that do more with less, and for most of us, that begins and ends at home.