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Startups Get the Kinks Out of Drones, Online Shopping, Mobile GPS and Other Techs

The Demo conference is no longer a unique launchpad for startup companies. These days it seems like there’s a startup launch event every couple of weeks, and plenty of opportunities in between these to get a new-product fix by visiting Kickstarter or Indiegogo. But because Demo attracts a broader range of companies than many of the startup launchpads—hardware and software, consumer and enterprise—it is a good place to take the temperature of the latest trends.

At this fall’s Demo, held last week in San Jose, my thermometer read cool in terms of breakthrough technologies or product categories, but hot in the area of fixing problems with the technologies already broadly used or rapidly proliferating. And fixing a problem that nobody else has addressed, even a small one, isn’t a bad way to build a successful company, PayPal founder and now-venture capitalist Peter Thiel pointed out to the thousand or so attendees.

A few examples of potential kink-straightening techs from Demo 2014:

The problem: The flight time of today’s small drones is too short for many potential applications

The company: Top Flight Technologies

The proposed solution: a hybrid motor for drones.

Top Flight introduced small drones powered by hybrid electric motors; the company says these propulsion systems provide eight times the amount of energy as lithium batteries of the same weight. Top Flight is currently beta testing its Airborg Hybrid, and in six months to a year expects to start shipping drones that can carry nine-kilogram payloads for two hours, at a list price of $20,000 to $25,000. Top Flight’s expects its first buyers to include companies in the agriculture and insurance industries, not consumers.

The problem: Lots of apps use GPS these days, but GPS use quickly drains mobile phone batteries

The company: PathSense

The proposed solution: Used data from onboard sensors to do inertial navigation, tapping into the GPS signal only when necessary.

The idea for PathSense came out of a problem faced by the founders’ previous company—Trapster, an app that alerted users in real time to speed traps, red light cameras, and the like. Trapster’s app ran GPS in the background, quickly draining phone batteries—once users figured that out, many deleted the app. PathSense is hoping to help other app-makers avoid this pitfall by creating a mostly inertial navigation system that taps the multiple sensors on the phone, and pairs that information with map data and the company’s own algorithms to pinpoint location; only checking in with GPS when the algorithm’s conclusions and the map data conflict. The company says it can provide accurate location information using 90 percent less energy than GPS alone. PathSense is planning to offer its technology to app developers, and says it can be inserted in any app with just a few lines of code.

Inertial navigation, of course, is nothing new, but in the past has had accuracy issues.  PathSense representatives told me that the time is right to take another look at the technology, because devices carry more sensors today than ever before, the accuracy of those sensors has improved, and available street map data is vastly better than it was just a couple of years ago. And, they indicated, PathSense is putting a lot of effort into calibrating the sensors of the various brands and models of phones, a project that, they hope, will make jumping into this business harder for competitors.

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Tesla's X-Men Robots and Lyft's Pink Pool Noodles Bring a Touch of Whimsy to the Workplace

We recently caught a glimpse of both Tesla’s and Lyft’s freshly remodeled digs, courtesy of a Tesla blog post, a San Francisco Chronicle article, and a Curbed report post. Though Tesla’s just-updated space is a factory floor, and Lyft’s is a three-story building in San Francisco’s Mission District, what they have in common is Silicon Valley whimsy.

Over at Tesla’s factory, overhead steel structures previously used to move cars and parts during the assembly process have been replaced by robots named after X-Men characters. In Tesla’s blog, the “Tesla Motors Team” explained that, “To us, these robots are like superheroes, so we figured they deserved superhero names.” (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is no stranger to the world of superheroes; he reportedly was the model for the Tony Stark character as portrayed in the Ironman movies, and makes a cameo in Ironman 2.)

So Tesla’s new robots are tagged Xavier, Iceman, Wolverine, Beast, Storm, Colossus, Vulcan, and Havok. Of that group, Storm is the only woman. That makes Tesla’s robot workforce 12.5 percent female—low even for a Silicon Valley tech company. Tesla could at least have gotten up to the engineering workforce average of 25 percent (still not impressive) by selecting a second woman from the X-Men oeuvre (perhaps instead of Vulcan, who, my expert sources tell me, has only a tenuous claim to being an X-Man, and is certainly far less qualified to represent the team of superhumans than, say, female superheroes Rogue or Shadowcat).

Meanwhile, over at Lyft, they’ve named the printers after people with great mustaches, like Tom Selleck. I guess I can’t complain about the lack of diversity in this selection.

Both companies have gone for the wide-open floor plan; Tesla, because that’s pretty much what you need at a factory; Lyft, because that’s pretty much what is cool right now. At Lyft, however, the mostly open office space hides a secret room; the door opens when you press on a certain portrait to reveal a cozy reading area with a small stash of alcohol; it has plenty of bookshelves, but only a few actual books (because millennials don’t actually read books, I suppose, but use them as platforms to stack monitors on.) If Tesla has a secret room, the company isn’t saying.

Photo walls are big at tech companies these days. Tesla’s new photo wall shows the factory building over its 54-year life, including its years as home to General Motors and then NUMMI, GM’s joint venture with Toyota. Lyft’s photo wall displays pictures of popular storybook characters, including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Willy Wonka. Besides collecting photos, Tesla commissioned some art. The company had a comic artist do illustrations of the manufacturing process, and these are printed on some of the interior glass walls. Lyft’s headquarters boasts some original artwork as well: mustache-inspired paintings from Lyft’s various city launches.

At Tesla, the decorating team wrapped pillars with climbing plants (because every cool company needs a living wall). At Lyft, they wrapped 8000 pool noodles with pink fabric and covered the interior of the elevator with pink fur. Tesla’s building plan includes skylights; Lyft reached for the skies with a roof deck.

Both companies’ renovations displayed social consciousness. A barrel placed at Lyft is dedicated to collecting “hoodies for the homeless.” Tesla boasts that it recycled 50 tons of material during the remodel.

Photo walls are big at tech companies these days. Tesla’s new photo wall shows the factory building over its 54-year life, including its years as home to General Motors and then NUMMI, GM’s joint venture with Toyota. Lyft’s photo wall displays pictures of favorite storybook characters, including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Willy Wonka. Besides collecting photos, Tesla commissioned some art—the company had a comic artist do illustrations of the manufacturing process, and these are printed on some of the interior glass walls. Lyft’s headquarters boasts some original artwork as well—mustache-inspired paintings from Lyft’s various city launches.

Both companies have gone for the wide-open floor plan; Tesla, because that’s pretty much what you need at a factory; Lyft, because that’s pretty much what is cool right now. At Lyft, however, the mostly open office space hides a secret room; the door opens when you press on a certain portrait to reveal a cozy reading area with a small stash of alcohol; it has plenty of bookshelves, but only a few actual books (because millennials don’t actually read books, I suppose, only use them to stack monitors on.) If Tesla has a secret room, the company isn’t saying.

Updated 11/21

Robo-Surgeon Takes on Baldness

Lots of news lately from San Jose-based robo-surgeon manufacturer Restoration Robotics. In October, the company announced that it had just sold its 100th ARTAS robotics system (at about US $200,000 each) and “harvested” its 10 millionth hair follicle. (At about 1200 to 1600 hair follicles per patient, that’s perhaps 7000 or so patients that have had the robotic surgery.)

And this month, news came out that the backers of Restoration Robotics, among them venture firms Sutter Hill, Clarus, and InterWest Partners, had just put a few more million dollars into the company, closing out a Series C round of $45 million, for a total investment to date of more than $70 million. (That’s $7 per hair if you’re counting.)

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The Refrigerator as Wireless Charger

Sometime next year, when you see your teen standing in front of the open refrigerator staring inside for far longer than seems to make sense, he might have an excuse: he could be charging his phone and wearables.

It’s tough to keep wearables charged, because the whole point of wearable devices is to wear them 24/7, not stick them in chargers. There’s nothing more annoying to a fitness band user than to lose an afternoon’s step count; it wrecks the entire month’s average. Or consider the Apple Watch intro—the biggest concern expressed by observers—battery life, and when would you charge it?

Obvious answer: wireless charging. Many companies have been working on this; most use inductive charging, that depends on devices being within an electromagnetic field, sitting on a charging pad, or at least on a tabletop with a pad beneath it.

Energous is taking a different approach; its technology harvests energy from RF signals. Energous is not the only company to work on this technology (others include Israeli startup Humavox and Pittsburgh company Powercast), though it is one of the better funded, having raised $24 million in a public offering earlier this year.

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What's a Perfect Haxlr8r Product? A Robotic Wearable STEM Toy

I go to a lot of startup launches, and typically find myself flipping quickly through the program looking for the rare piece of hardware among all the apps, cloud services, and other things you can look at, but not touch (except virtually). Not that an app or cloud service can’t be revolutionary, but there’s just something about hardware that’s different. For one, people starting a hardware company have to love their products enough to believe that people will want to pay for them from the get go. Nobody builds a hardware company by giving all the products away and figuring out a business model later. Also, hardware company founders know they are going to have to manufacture their products at some point—a scary, and expensive, proposition.

So I always look forward to Haxlr8r’s launches. And this, the fifth class of startups launched last week by the Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco-based incubator did not disappoint.

Short background on Haxlr8r (skip this if you’ve read it before): The accelerator takes 10 companies for 111 days, many of those spent in Shenzhen. The companies refine their ideas for hardware products and figure out how to manufacture them. Then they try to get the money to do an initial manufacturing run, sometimes from investors, sometimes from Kickstarter or other crowd funding efforts. The goal, says Cyril Ebersweiler, founder of Haxlr8r, is to figure out how to build meaningful products right and ship them fast, because “any hardware company is capital intensive, so getting to revenues is essential.” In return for a piece of equity, Haxlr8r gives the companies seed money, connects them to mentors, and helps the founders learn their way around the Shenzhen manufacturing scene.

Most of the 10 companies launched products that were STEM toys, wearables, a robots, or some combination of the three. But this latest class of startups covered just about every current trend, including health, the Internet of Things, and rapid prototyping—though one gadget was unabashedly retro.

Here they are, loosely grouped by trend.

Linkitz  (wearable, STEM toy):  Linkitz founder Lyssa Neel says she was looking to build a tech toy for the way girls play—social and collaborative—that would familiarize them with engineering and software. She came up with electronic puzzle pieces that link together into wearable gadgets, along with a simple visual language for programming them. The first release will let girls create “electronic friendship bracelets” that communicate with each other. For example, says the company’s website, a bracelet can “sparkle when a friend is near.” Future “links” will include motion sensors and touch sensors to let kids make the wearables do more. Is mashing up three trends (wearables, STEM toys, and friendship bracelets) just too obvious, or a slam dunk? Not sure when we’ll find out; Neel didn’t announce a ship date for the toys.

Clarity (wearable, health): Clarity’s founders think their wearable air pollution sensors will sell big in China, for starters, and then in other regions with pollution problems. Besides giving instant air-quality readings to help users decide, say, whether to put on a protective mask or try to stay indoors, Clarity’s gadget will send readings to an app that will track total exposure to air pollutants over time. The company will collect anonymized data from individuals to eventually create maps of pollution microclimates, allowing people to avoid pollution hotspots and peak pollution times in various areas. Cofounder Hannah Hagen says “People can’t wait to get their hands on it in Beijing.”  It plans to start manufacturing in February and have it in Chinese consumers’ hands in May.

Prynt (unabashedly retro): Prynt’s plan is to bring back the instant camera in the form of a $129 smart phone case (the smart phone acts as the camera, the case is the printer). The company is using print technology and inkless printer paper from Zink which—get this—they discovered when they read an article I wrote about Zink back in 2009, cofounder David Zhang told me.  And here’s a cute twist—Prynt is going digital to paper and back to digital in a way I haven’t heard of before: When you take a picture using their app, the smartphone saves a snippet of video. Later, when you point a smartphone camera at the printed picture, you’re automatically directed to a website with a replay of the video. Prynt’s product isn’t going to save the world, but it’s cute. The company plans to do a bigger product launch at CES in January, and to start shipping next summer.

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Magic Leap Draws From the Bay Area to Assemble Its Brain Trust

Unless you completely missed the tech news last month, you know that a stealthy Florida-based startup, Magic Leap, got a $542 million infusion of capital—much of it from Silicon Valley investors, led by Google.

Magic Leap also appears to have been collecting Silicon Valley engineers, and appears likely to continue doing so.

Magic Leap was founded by biomedical engineer Rony Abovitz. The quirky Abovitz makes for good press: according to New York Magazine he’s dabbled in cartooning, plays in an indie-rock band, accidentally got a CNN executive fired, and blogs like “a college philosophy major who hit the bong a little too hard.” But he’s also got a serious track record: he sold a previous startup, Mako Surgical, for $1.65 billion. (Mako produces a robotic arm for use in orthopedic surgeries, along with a line of orthopedic implants.)

Magic Leap first started hitting the press back in July, when John Markoff wrote about the company in the New York Times.  According to Markoff’s article, the cool thing about the company’s “cinematic reality” technology (Abovitz eschews words like augmented reality or virtual reality) is its potential to eliminate the motion sickness  (a.k.a. simulator sickness), headaches, and fatigue suffered by a significant subset of people—like me—when using today’s virtual reality technology.  Markoff explained that Magic Leap intends to use digital light field technology to provide better depth information than today’s stereoscopic 3-D. That’s the approach to collecting visual data used in Lytro’s digital cameras; projection versions have been demonstrated by Nvidia and the MIT Media Lab. It considers the individual rays of light bouncing off an object (or generated by a virtual object), measuring the intensity and direction of each, not simply just recording the final image they produce.

When Magic Leap’s big funding announcement was made in October, however, the buzz was not about eliminating motion sickness in virtual reality, but about something a lot broader and nondescript. The company, Abovitz said at the time, is working on “what we believe will be the most natural and human-friendly wearable computing interface in the world,”—something he predicted would be a “new way for humans to interact with computers.” Officially, the approach is “dynamic digitized light field technology,” and the best anyone can figure out is that it will involve some kind of projector beaming images into your eye.

People who have seen the technology are reportedly blown away.

Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull said, “I spent half a day immersed in [their technology], I just couldn’t get the smile off my face.”

Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor, now a member of Magic Leap’s board reported, “It is like a rocket ship for the mind."

Whether it’s this mind-blowing appeal of the technology, or the over-$1-billion valuation of the pre-IPO venture, the company is drawing techies like W.C. Fields’ clever cat who ”eats cheese and breathes down rat holes with baited breath”

In recent months, Magic Leap has hired people who you might not think would be easy to lure away from their current jobs—like Michael Kass, who until a couple of months ago was a senior scientist at Pixar, and had been there for 18 years.

In addition to Kass, a sampling of what seems to be dozens of other recent Bay Area hires has been assembled from social media sleuthing; the company is being very stealthy about its team and other details. The list includes, in no particular order:

•  Jean-Yves Bouguet, a member of Google’s founding Streetview team

• Graeme Devine, founder of Santa Cruz’s GRL Games

Gary Bradski, who helped do the vision system on Stanley, Stanford’s grand-challenge winning autonomous vehicle, and worked at Willow Garage

• Jeremy Leibs, another Willow Garage alum

• Michael Woods, founder of Mountain View toy company E&M Labs

Gholamreza Amayeh, from image sensor pioneer Foveon

Magic Leap has also picked up folks from Apple, Tessera, Intel, and Amazon’s Sunnyvale research lab. And this is just the beginning of its hiring spree. Magic Leap is looking for engineers with experience in, according to a posting on Bouguet’s LinkedIn page:  “3D pose estimation, Visual SLAM, IMU processing, Sensor fusion, Sensor Calibration (camera, IMU,...), 3D modeling, 2D and 3D tracking, Mapping, GIS, Pattern matching, 3D graphics, Machine learning, Human machine interface, Eye tracking and gaze tracking, Gesture recognition, Real time systems, Mobile application development, 3D game design, Unity game engine, Robotics, Cloud computing, FPGA designer, Embedded programming.”

(If you think any of these describe you, Bouguet’s LinkedIn page suggests you contact him directly. Or you can check out the company’s long list—some 70—job openings here.)

Magic Leap founder Abovitz has said that he has no intentions of moving the business from South Florida to Silicon Valley. But while a few of these recent hires have indeed relocated, it’s hard to believe that the bulk of them will. Which perhaps is why Magic Leap has also hired a few experienced Bay Area human resources professionals (It’s hard to believe he couldn’t find qualified HR people in Florida). Could a Magic Leap Silicon Valley Research Center be in the works? If so, there’s a really nice building in Mountain View, recently abandoned by Microsoft, that’s just about the right size.

Back From the Past: Stanford Resurrects First U.S. Website

In 1991, the World Wide Web was just a toddler. Tim Berners-Lee at European particle physics laboratory CERN had developed the idea two years earlier and used his NeXT computer to host web pages for the laboratory, but there were few followers. Then in December the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory put up what is thought to be the first website hosted in the United States.

Then SLAC physicist Tony Johnson saw a Web demonstration at a 1991 conference in France. He and SLAC physicist Paul Kunz, using software brought back from the conference, set up the first known U.S. web server. SLAC rolled out its first web pages between 6 and 12 December 1991.

The home page  [pictured above] had just a few lines of text and links to a phone book and a database. This web site design was quickly superseded by later versions. And that, of course was before there were any formal efforts to preserve web pages. It was before anybody knew you’d want to look at an old web page—and long before the Internet Archive started its Wayback Machine preservation effort in 1996.

But a few SLAC staff members did tuck away the code for those first versions of their website. So “Stanford Wayback,” a project that’s part of Stanford Libraries’ web archiving initiative, was able to bring the original web site back in honor of the Web’s 25th anniversary this year. They’ve also revived several other versions of the SLAC site.

It’s worth taking a moment to look and remember how far we’ve come from a few lines of text and links.

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Tech Stars Open Their Doors For A Silicon Valley Halloween

Silicon Valley’s tech stars generally keep a low profile, and people generally let them, trying not to stare or intrude when they spot them around town. But on Halloween, the tech illuminati light up the night and open their doors. And parents gawk at the often over-the-top but decidedly low-tech decorations while the kids line up to get a candy bar—often a really large candy bar—and a “You’re Welcome” direct from Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, or Google’s Larry Page.

Last year, Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, carried on the family’s tradition of extreme Halloween decorating with a stunning display of dozens of hand-carved Jack-O-Lanterns on pikes of different heights; it looks like a similar display will go up today; as of Thursday, post holes were dug and carved pumpkins stockpiled.

Jobs’ neighbors, like Google co-founder Larry Page, go big on Halloween as well. So big that this year, no-parking signs have been posted and nearby streets may be closed to traffic.

Mayer’s house, meanwhile, has been sporting Halloween decorations for weeks—but the most impressive decorations are the gigantic array of carved pumpkins in the former parking lot of a nearby funeral home she recently purchased—and where she hosted her annual Halloween party on Sunday evening. Mayer is known for her impressive Halloween and Christmas parties—though this year there was some debate among neighbors about whether or not it was a proper use of a funeral home. My take: C’mon, if you owned a funeral home, wouldn’t you open it up for Halloween?

Of course, if your kid is going to trick or treat the tech stars, he or she might want to think tech for a Halloween costume. You could dress like a specific tech exec—black mock turtleneck and jeans, for example, or a hoodie and plain T-shirt with a touch of ginger in your hair. Or how about a generic tech geek?

I’ve seen a fair number of iPods and iPhones come to the door (gotta save those old appliance cartons). One of my kids once dressed as the original iPod guy—only the techiest people “got it,” the rest thought he was a mime.

There will also be kids dressed as their favorite video game characters, of course. But what could be scarier than a “dead” social network?

I’ll be tweeting out the techiest costumes as the night goes on at twitter.com/TeklaPerry. In the meantime, Happy Silicon Valley Halloween.

Migrant Tech Workers Abused by Contract Labor Firms, Investigation Shows

California has a migrant worker problem. Reading that statement you’d likely picture a farmworker from Mexico or Central America. But you’d be wrong. It’s migrant tech workers, holders of H-1B visas, mostly from India, who are being abused.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) together with NBC Bay Area have been looking at tech immigrants to Silicon Valley—and elsewhere in the U.S.—for a year. And what they have found isn’t pretty.

The system, on the surface, doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Consulting firms (a.k.a. labor brokers, a.k.a. body shops) recruit skilled tech workers, mostly engineers and computer programmers. The firms handle the paperwork required to get these workers H-1B visas, a category reserved for those with highly specialized knowledge. Then tech companies contract with the consulting firms to use the workers. This allows the tech companies to quickly build up their work forces as needed, without having to deal with all the immigration paperwork. As stated in the NBC Bay Area report on the investigation, it’s a “flexible labor regime…placing skilled people with needy firms.” And the process, if it works properly, could smooth a path for tech workers looking to move to the U.S.—if they sign on with a consulting firm, the firm finds them a job; they don’t have to interview with multiple companies.  

But beneath the surface, the investigation found, many of these arrangements have problems. By looking at court records covering 600 H-1B visa abuse cases, the investigators found that contracts are often draconian, allowing the body shops to withhold wages and force workers to pay large fees if they quit. Some hold visas hostage to enforce these contracts, or threaten lawsuits.

Others bring in workers even though no jobs await. You can’t legally get an H1-B visa unless there’s a job to fill, so body shops purport to offer engineers open positions, and the engineers hired by a body shop should collect salaries from day one. But the body shops typically don’t pay workers until they place them at companies. And the body shops stockpile, or “bench,” workers so they have them on hand when jobs come up, sometimes sticking them in guesthouses and forbidding them to leave the property, the investigation determined.

That’s how the system hurts the workers. But it’s also hurting companies who want to bring in expert engineers and computer programmers the old-fashioned way—that is, by applying directly for an H-1B visa. Why? Because there’s a national cap of just 65,000 of these visas per year, and when the body shops scoop up visas to stockpile workers, the visas are not available for companies who really have tech jobs they can’t fill from within the U.S.

The investigators interviewed workers, keeping their identities confidential. One worker from India, for example, reported that he was told to stay in a guesthouse, a small apartment or home housing eight to ten workers, until he got assigned to a job. He wasn’t allowed to leave for several months, not even to go for a walk. Once he got a job, at a salary of $60 an hour, the body shop took an estimated 30 percent, or $35,000 a year, for “expenses.” Sometimes, the abuse is caught, and a labor broker is shut down—then pops right up again with a different name, often at the same address.

Companies who use workers from suspect body shops named in the investigation included Cisco, Google, eBay, Verizon, and Apple. But these companies are not alone. Even the U.S. Government, the investigation showed, uses workers from body shops. But not every company does. Facebook also was named in the investigation—as a company that doesn’t use labor brokers.

Scientific Community Blasts Microsoft for Closing of Silicon Valley Lab

“Dear Harry, Peter, and Jeannette,” starts a letter dated 14 October. It sounds like a casual note to a few good friends—or at least familiar colleagues. And indeed, that’s what the letter from more than 30 researchers from the U.S. computer science community to the leaders of Microsoft Research is; these people know each other from working together in the past or through meetings and conferences. But for the recipients, the letter is also a slap from peers that should be hard to ignore.

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Tekla Perry
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