COVID-19 crisis spurs triple-digit growth for refurbishing startup Back Market

While a number of startups have been hard hit by efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, refurbishing firm Back Market is showing increased growth globally.

The Paris -based startup encourages customers to send in their old devices so they can be refurbished and resold into the e-commerce secondhand market. The growth achieved in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is partly due to increased laptop sales as people seek better devices to work remotely.

For people who are unsure whether refurbished products are reliable, Back Market permits customers to send in old devices, exchange them for newer versions and pay the difference. CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze said this payback service is currently possible only in France, but starting in Q2, it will be available in other markets.

Founded in 2014, Back Market has raised a total of €48 million in funding over two rounds, most recently a Series B in June 2018. The company is profitable and reportedly still has money to spend from its last funding round.

“We don’t release the gross merchandise volume, but it’s a three-digit growth rate,” Hug de Larauze told TechCrunch. “We saw an increase in demand for laptops, printers and other devices needed for working at home. Demand for refurbished phones is going down as people seek to get the first necessity items, like food for their situation.”

Over the past two weeks, Back Market saw skyrocketing demand from Italy, a nation with a high coronavirus death toll where citizens were warned they would be confined to their homes for four weeks.

Another factor that helped the platform’s growth: Smartphone brands like Apple and Samsung closed their retail stores, a move that turned Back Market into a major supply channel. While offline retailers and carriers are shut down in Europe, Hug de Larauze says Chinese offline retailers and refurbishing factories are starting to get back to work.

Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

Amazon rolls out Alexa-powered voice shopping experience in India

Amazon today rolled out an Alexa-enabled voice-powered shopping feature in India as the e-commerce giant looks for new ways to engage with customers in one of its key overseas markets.

The American giant said the feature, currently rolling out to Android users, is available “primarily in English,” though it understands proper nouns and regional words across various languages.

“As we brought this functionality to Indian customers, we built custom functionality to cater to India’s unique requirements. We built this keeping the Indian customer at the center, optimizing for myriad accents and products relevant to the Indian customer,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

This is the first time Amazon is bringing this feature outside of the U.S., the spokesperson said.

Customers will be able to use Alexa to search for items on the e-commerce platform, add them to the cart and proceed to checkout — by saying commands such as “Alexa, show me sarees,” “Alexa, add saree to my cart” and “Alexa, go to checkout.”

Once the order has been placed, users can check the whereabouts of the order through voice as well, by asking “Alexa, where is my delivery?”

Amazon has claimed in the past that its voice-enabled shopping feature is gaining traction, but according to one 2018 report, most users were not showing great appetite for this experience.

But India, where the company has vast presence and has invested over $5.5 billion in local businesses, may provide the company with some breakthrough.

As hundreds of Indians came online in the last decade, many have gravitated toward voice to engage with apps and internet services and make searches, as they are not comfortable with typing in English. Last year, Google reported that voice queries had grown by 270% over a year in India.

“Recognizing the opportunities, several well-known brands have enabled voice-activated search, including ride sharing apps, e-commerce sites, telcos, and car brands, to name a few,” it wrote in a blog post.

Spatial raises $14M more for a holographic 3D workspace app, a VR/AR version of Zoom or Hangouts

The worlds of virtual and augmented reality have yet to land on the applications and hardware to truly spark mass-market, consumer interest in the space, but in the meantime, a startup building mixed reality services for business users has raised a round of funding, underscoring the opportunity in enterprise.

Spatial, which has developed a “holographic” collaboration platform that people use to speak and work together in virtual rooms through the use of strikingly effective avatars — think of a supercharged, virtual reality version of Zoom or a Google Hangout — is today announcing that it has raised $14 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue building out the functionality of its application and its interoperability with a wider range of hardware, as well as to start looking at how it can turn its tech into a platform that could be used by others, for example by way of an SDK.

The funding is being led by White Star Capital, iNovia and Kakao Ventures, with participation from Baidu and individual investors, Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger and Zynga’s Mark Pincus, also participating. Together with Spatial’s last round, $8 million in October 2018, the company has now raised $22 million. It’s not disclosing valuation at this stage, Anand Agarawala, the CEO who co-founded the company with Jinha Lee (CPO), said in an interview.

Other investors include Expa, Lerer Hippeau, Leaders Fund, Samsung NEXT and Andy Hertzfeld (of Macintosh fame).

Spatial’s funding comes at a time when VR and AR startups have certainly seen their share of funding (Magic Leap alone has raised over $3 billion), high valuations, some extremely notable exits, and definitely the release of a number of head sets and apps — but at the end of the day, it’s estimated that there were only 6 million VR headsets sold last year, speaking to how the space has remained niche at best.

Niche in consumer, however, can speak to major opportunity in enterprise, and that is where Spatial is operating, with technology that it has built to be interoperable with any headset or AR glasses — currently including Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Quest, Magic Leap One, Qualcomm XR2 or an Android/iPhone mobile device — or even a basic PC, if that’s all a person has to use, to let companies build out what might best be described as videoconferencing on steroids: placing people into virtual rooms where they can speak to each other, or look at and manipulate holographic models together, and more.

Spatial itself has seen its business take off in the last year, Agarawala said, with inbound interest from 25% of the Fortune 1,000 bracket of businesses, and its first publicly-named customers, which include very non-tech names like Mattel, Purina/Nestle and BNP Paribas. That in itself is also a sign of how immersive, three-dimensional media is possibly, finally approaching a breakout moment.

That will also be buffered by a raft of new hardware, Agarawala said. He declined to say which companies are likely to roll out new devices but as a developer of key services that spur purchasing, Spatial gets a heads-up (no pun intended) on what is coming around the corner, and Agarawala said the picture is bright and that we might finally be exiting what he described as a “VR winter”.

“It feels like the industry is accelerating this year,” he said. “The industry is firing up 5G and that will also be a big push.” He also pointed out the development over at Amazon, where last month the company announced AWS Wavelength for ultra-low latency 5G computing at the edge, something that will have a direct impact on using and building the next generation of AR and VR headgear.

Given its position with developers, if Amazon is getting into the mix, you know something is up, he added.

The idea of taking what Spatial has built to produce its own applications for customers, and turning that into a platform that others could use, too, is something that the company had always planned to do — platforms are front and centre in Agarawala’s mind, given his pedigree of years working at Google, which acquired his previous startup, BumpTop, in 2010. But that too appears to be getting bumped up, so to speak, because of the positive outlook. 

“We have always wanted to open up our platform to let others build applications on our framework, using our avatars, leveraging our cross-platform nature, finding new applications for our hand gestures,” Agarawala said. “We wanted to open that up, but we thought that it would be years out before we did, since it doesn’t make sense for an AR/VR platform to do something like that until there is actual market demand. But there has been so much heat that we might consider doing it this year.”

Krieger’s interest in Spatial comes in the context of him investing in a number of other work-focused collaboration platforms, including Loom, Figma, and Pitch, and that’s key to what makes Spatial interesting: it’s not just tapping the VR/AR space but another very interesting area that has seen a lot of growth with the rapid rise of products like Slack, and will continue to evolve.

“Spatial’s mixed-reality solution will be a key part of the future of work,” said Krieger in a statement. “They’re taking us beyond everyday tools like Zoom and Slack and pointing the way towards what conferencing and collaboration can be like if they were invented today and I’m excited to support the journey.”

To see more on how it works, here’s a little video I did with Spatial earlier this month during CES.