First EV mass transit bus by Swedish-Kenyan startup Opibus begins operation amidst plans for regional launch by 2023

The first electric bus by Swedish-Kenyan EV startup, Opibus, has hit Kenya’s roads marking the beginning of the company’s venture into the mass transit industry. Opibus first announced plans to roll out electric public transport buses last year when it raised $7.5 million in a pre-Series A round.

The startup is now running a pilot in readiness for the commercial launch of EV buses in Kenya later this year, and across Africa by the end of 2023.

Opibus has over the last five years been in the business of future-proofing existing gasoline and diesel vehicles by converting them to electric. EVs come with a range of benefits including a reduced cost of transport and no carbon emissions. The startup, which was founded in 2017 by Gardler, Filip Lövström and Mikael Gånge, has so far converted over 170 vehicles for different clients including mining companies and tour firms.

The company is now slowly pivoting to the building of EVs and supportive infrastructure like public charging stations. Brand new Opibus electric buses will cost $100,000 and $60,000 for conversions (which the startup is using in the pilot program).

“This first year, we will be testing 10 buses commercially in Nairobi to ensure that the product fits and is optimized for the usage patterns. Once we get this valuable feedback, we will make the required changes and get all our production partners lined up to scale the roll out as rapidly as possible,” Opibus chief strategy and marketing officer, Albin Wilson, told TechCrunch.

Opibus specializes in making electric buses and motorcycles.  Image Credits: Opibus

Opibus says its vehicles are designed and built locally, giving them a competitive advantage in terms of a lower price by the time they reach the market. Additionally, local production means that the output can be tailored for local market needs.

“Our strategy is to design and develop a bus that is viable in price, durable and accessible for this region…We are building a product that allows for a rapid scale up, that can leverage global and local manufacturers. Meaning our design is easily implemented across the African continent, as it is a product tailored for the use case, and very cost effective,” said Wilson.

The startup is now eyeing the rest of Africa through partnerships that will drive the adoption of EVs across the continent..

Uber’s partnership with Opibus, which was announced last month, for example, will see the deployment of up to 3,000 electric motorcycles, manufactured by the startup, across Africa by 2022. Motorcycles under Uber are used as taxis and for deliveries in its different markets.

The EV sector in Kenya is budding and has over the recent years attracted new players including BasiGo, which made its debut in Kenya in November last year. BasiGO, which recently imported two EV mass transport buses for its pilot, plans to sell locally-assembled electric buses using parts from China’s EV maker BYD Automotive. The BasiGo buses come in 25 and 36-seater capacities, with a range of about 250 kilometers while those by Opibus come in 51-seater capacity with a range of 120 kilometers.

Toyota Ventures backs seed extension into Agtonomy, turning tractors into autonomous vehicles

Agtonomy co-founder and CEO Tim Bucher was born and raised on a farm and was deep into his own farming business when he took a computer course while at UC Davis and got hooked.

It was that parallel agriculture/technology career that led him to start Agtonomy, a hybrid autonomy and tele-assist service startup that turns tractors and other equipment into autonomous machines to provide a low-cost, technology-enabled labor force for local farms to manage such equipment.

It came out of stealth mode last September with $4 million in seed funding from a group of backers that included Grit Ventures, GV and Village Global.

Grit and GV came back again to invest in the South San Francisco-based company and were part of a $5 million seed extension that includes backers like Toyota Ventures, Flybridge, Hampton VC, E²JDJ and Momenta Ventures. The latest funding gives Agtonomy $9 million in total funding to date.

Having just raised funding, Bucher wasn’t expecting to raise again so soon, but when he saw the outlook for 2022 that agtech was going to be the No. 1 “hot area” for the year and beyond, he decided to take the additional funding.

“Five years ago, it was hard to get any VC attention related to agtech, but there has just been overwhelming interest from investors, and though we are just starting out, local agriculture needs help now,” he added. “The funding will accelerate our trials and additional partners and essentially turbo-charge our activities and ability to double down at the speed in which we are moving, which includes expanding the team.”

Bucher anticipates having 50 trials going and to double the company’s 20-person headcount in the next few months.

Agtonomy is as simple as calling an Uber driver, he said. Using a mobile phone app, a farmer can assign a job to one of the tractors, like mowing the field. He believes self-driving technology like this, and what other companies like John Deere are doing, will help to alleviate the decades of labor shortages in farms around the world.

The company has a small fleet of what he called “proof of concept” electric vehicles that have been operating for a year at Bucher’s Trattore Farms. He says the farm work on his farm is almost entirely done with these vehicles.

Bucher expects a commercial launch to happen in 2023, and the company will initially start with a few hundred tractors. In comparison, some 300,000 tractors are sold each year, he added. The tractors can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, with companies like John Deere typically going after big farms.

In contrast, Agronomy’s autonomous vehicles will cost around $50,000, which Bucher believes will encourage larger farms to purchase a swarm of smaller machines that can run 24 hours a day, be more environmentally friendly and not tear up the land.

Jim Adler, the founding managing director of Toyota Ventures, said in a written statement, “We see huge potential in agtech and are making investments accordingly. Fully autonomous vehicles will become a reality on farms where they are desperately needed.”

Similarly, Bucher believes that many of the autonomous vehicles today cater to more “convenience technologies,” while companies in the agtech space are building similar vehicles in what he calls “necessity technology.”

“It is kind of a perfect storm with consumer demand, climate change, electrification and labor shortage in farming,” he added. “We can solve these much sooner in agtech than having the other kinds of autonomous technology in our lives. With ours, it allows all of us to eat good food.”

Editor’s note, Jan. 18 at 9:05 a.m. reflects a change that Toyota Ventures did not lead the round.

Tado, the German smart home energy startup, plans to go public via a SPAC at a €450M valuation

Tado, the German smart home startup that specializes in thermostats and more recently moved into flexible “time of use” energy tariffs based on loadshifting technology, is today announcing the next step in its life as a business. It’s going public by way of a SPAC deal.

GFJ ESG Acquisition, a German SPAC entity focused specifically on sustainable technologies, said it will combine with tado and list the new company on the Frankfurt exchange. GFJ and tado are now working on the PIPE transaction, which when completed is expected to value tado at €450 million ($514 million at today’s rates). The new business will continue to trade as tado.

A spokesperson for tado said it is not disclosing how much it plans to raise in the listing, nor when the listing is expected to happen, except that it will likely be in the first half of 2022.

The move comes swiftly on the heels of two big developments for tado. Last week, tado acquired aWATTar (yes that is how the company styles its name…) to expand from energy consumption hardware inside the home, to software to better manage energy consumption and costs based both on how the customer uses energy, and how pricing varies depending on the fluctuations of that energy source (which can include renewable sources like solar and wind, as well as more traditional channels).

Also, in May, tado raised $46 million. At the time, the company said this would be its last round before a listing, and that’s what is playing out now. Altogether the company had raised just shy of $159 million, with an impressive list of investors, including Amazon, Siemens and Telefonica. Its valuation in those private rounds was considerably lower than the €450 million it expects to achieve with its market cap at listing: it was around $255 million according to PitchBook data.

The deal is notable because it will be one of the first big green tech startups in Europe to go public. Tado’s bigger goal is to build services to help manage energy use in and end-to-end system, starting at the power grid and terminating with consumers, in their homes. That business has taken two different turns so far. It first started as a maker of smart thermostats, and business that has now sold some 2 million devices. Then, tado diversified into energy tariff and managing use is catapulting the company into a wider business based on big data, predictive analytics and harnessing the wider and very fragmented markets of renewable energy and energy hardware systems.

The company today says that it has sold more than 2 million smart thermostats, and its energy-management technology connects some 400,000 buildings and households in 20 countries, with more than 7 gigawatts of energy capacity under management. Its works with some 18,000 systems from 900 OEMs, and claims that customers using its load-balancing technology save an average of 22% on heating costs annually.

As concerns about climate change continue to become ever-more urgent, and services for consumers to make choices to reduce greenhouse emissions become more readily available and affordable, a new window of opportunity has opened up for green tech and clean tech companies. This listing underscores how one of them feels now confident enough in that traction to make the leap into being publicly traded to grow further.

“The entire team at tado is extremely proud to partner up with GFJ,” said Toon Bouten, CEO of tado, in a statement. “We share the same convictions and the same passion for environmental technologies. And we are determined to jointly help our customers save money and reduce their ecological footprint. Together, we are in a great position to create a more sustainable energy future.”

When the deal is closed, Bouten will step down as the head of the company, with Oliver Kaltner (who lists his current role as President of office solutions provider Room) will be taking on a role as CEO, with Christian Deilmann as CPO and Johannes Schwarz as CTO. Emanuel Eibach will remain CFO. Gisbert Rühl shall become chairman of the supervisory board. Josef Brunner, Petr Míkovec, Toon Bouten and Maximilian Mayer shall also join the supervisory board.

“Both GFJ and tado are determined to turn up the heat on fighting against climate change in a smart way. tado already is a market leader in the very spirit of a new wave of green tech companies,” added Gisbert Rühl, CEO of GFJ. “We are excited to bring in capital and expertise to help them grow even stronger and foster their technology development. Around 21% of energy consumption in the EU is used for heating and cooling private housing alone. If the EU and Germany want to fulfil their commitment to becoming the world’s first climate-neutral economy by 2050, there is no alternative to decarbonising the housing sector.”

tado, as a public business, will gain a new level of transparency to the market, which will be good for the wider green tech industry as a whole. For now, the company is projecting that it will be making more than €500 million in annual revenues in three years, by 2025.

Warehouse robotics system Exotec raises $335 million

French startup Exotec has raised a $335 million Series D round in a new round of funding led by Goldman Sachs’ Growth Equity business. Following today’s investment, the company has reached a valuation of $2 billion.

Exotec sells a complete end-to-end solution to turn a regular warehouse into a partially automated logistics platform. It’s a hardware and software solution that replaces some human tasks.

83North and Dell Technologies Capital also participated in the funding round. Previous Exotec investors include Bpifrance, Iris Capital, 360 Capital Partners and Breega.

Image Credits: Exotec

The key component of the Exotec system is called the Skypods. These low-profile robots roam the floor autonomously. When they’re next to the right rack, they can go up the rack to pick up a bin and then go down with the right bin. This is particularly useful to increase the storage density of a warehouse as you can store products a few meters above ground.

The Skypod then caries the bin to a picking station so that human operators can pick up the right product in the bin. The robot can then go back to the racks and put back the bin on a shelf.

In that scenario, humans don’t have to roam the warehouse anymore. They can focus on picking, packing and making sure products go in and out of the warehouse. When it comes to adding new products, new shelves and new Skypods, Exotec tries to be as flexible as possible.

If you want to add new racks, you can expand your infrastructure without starting from scratch again. Similarly, Exotec lets you add more Skypods in the system. And when you receive a delivery of products, Exotec relies once again on its Skypods to store products in the fulfillment center.

From Skypods to Skypickers

With its standardized bin system, Exotec can store several products in a single bin. There might be 18 products in that bin but customers want one, two or three products in that bin — most likely they don’t want the entire bin. That’s why Exotec can’t simply empty small bins in a bigger bin to put together an order.

The startup has created new robots to remove humans from one more step of the ordering process. Exotec customers can now use Skypickers to automatically pick goods from an inventory bin and put them in a ready-to-ship bin.

This is what it looks like:

“Following the most significant supply chain disruptions of the modern era, there’s only room left for innovation,” co-founder and CEO Romain Moulin said in a statement. “While the entire logistics sector is fraught with uncertainty, one of the most prevalent challenges is ongoing labor shortages. Exotec pioneers a new path: elegant collaboration between human and robot workers that delivers warehouse productivity in a lasting, far more sustainable way.”

Exotec has always positioned its product as a service that can’t replace humans altogether. An Exotec warehouse is run by a combination of humans and robots. With the Skypickers though, the startup is positioning itself as a logistics advantage in a tight labor market.

Following today’s funding round, the startup plans to hire 500 engineers by 2025 and continue its push in North America. It has recently signed eight large customers in the region, such as Gap and Geodis. Decathlon is also using Exotec in its Montreal fulfillment center.

The M11 is Leica’s new flagship rangefinder

Leica’s a strange one. It only puts out a handful of cameras every year, and most of them are remixes or minor iterations on previous models. Since 2017 its flagship has been the solid but still somewhat archaic M10, but now the company has revealed its successor: the even more solid and also still somewhat archaic M11.

Leica really defined the rangefinder style in cameras, and its film models are legendary. In the digital era they are known more for their prices than anything else. While the build and image quality of the M10, Q2 and other cameras was unimpeachable, you could get a lot more camera for considerably less money elsewhere. That won’t change with the M11, but at least the new model brings some much-needed modern features.

Perhaps the most important is the switch to a backside-illuminated sensor. This misleading term refers to putting the light-sensitive part of the sensor toward the aperture rather than letting it sit behind wiring and other components. BSI sensors usually outperform their traditional predecessors by quite a lot, and Leica generally has a good sensor game to begin with. Interestingly, they seem to have chosen a non-Bayer sub-pixel layout with an eye toward superior pixel binning.

The new full-frame, 60-megapixel BSI sensor can be shot at full resolution, of course, but hardly anyone needs that these days. The 36MP and 18MP options sample the entire sensor rather than just lines or regions, reducing noise and artifacts. If I got one of these I’d switch it to 36MP and never look back. There are also 1.3x and 1.8x crop modes for those who enjoy them.

A Leica M11 on a table plugged into a phone.

Image Credits: Leica

There are now three easily reassignable function buttons. The rear touchscreen has twice the resolution of the old M10, though if you’re a real Leica fan you’ll probably have your eye to the optical finder.

Interestingly, but controversially, the M11 uses its full sensor at all times for exposure purposes. Having the camera essentially always in “live view” mode means accurate exposures, but according to DPReview’s initial review, it leads to longish startup times — and Leicas are generally quick as lightning to turn on and shoot with.

There’s a USB-C port that charges the camera’s new and much larger battery, or to pull shots off the card or 64-gig internal memory — or to suck them directly onto your phone and a companion app (another reason not to shoot full rez).

Leica’s M series is unique and definitely not an option for more hobby photographers, who will rightfully balk at the $8,995 price for the M11 body — the M10 debuted at $6,600 in 2017, and even adjusting for inflation the new price is eye-popping. And of course that’s before you get any lenses!

But the point is not to recommend this camera specifically — more to note that Leica is still making technically interesting and quite competent cameras, the technology of which occasionally dips down to prices that mere mortals like you and I might be able to afford (after living on ramen for a month or two, anyway). Expect to see more variants of the M11 over the years, but also some of the design lessons on display here applied to something more affordable. Not affordable affordable, but “less than a used car” affordable.