Pear, now nearly 10 years old and with numerous hits, looks to close its biggest fund by far

Pear, a Palo Alto, Ca.-based venture firm that we’ve been tracking since its outset in 2012, looks to be closing in on its fourth fund with $410 million in capital commitments, shows a new SEC filing.

It would be a big step up from Pear’s first three funds, which closed progressively with $50 million in 2013, $75 million in 2016, and $160 million in capital commitments in 2019, including from a longtime limited partner, the University of Chicago.

Reached for comment, cofounder Pejman Nozad emailed back, “I can’t comment!”

Nozad and cofounder Mar Hershenson have long been first-stop for prominent early-stage investors that are looking to fund nascent teams, given the firm has been among the earliest backers in a notable number of companies that have gone to raise ever-bigger rounds and higher valuations, including the now publicly traded companies DoorDash and Guardant Health.

Other startups to attract capital from Pear before nearly any other firm was aware of their existence include the deep-linking startup Branch, which closed on $300 million in funding in February at a $4 billion valuation; Gusto, valued at $9.5 billion last summer when it raised $175 million in funding; and Aurora Solar, a firm that provides software services for the solar industry and was valued at $4 billion in February when it closed a $200 million round.

Like other firms, Pear is likely to see the valuations of its still-private portfolio companies slide downward — possibly by a lot — depending on how long this correction lasts.

Hershenson, who joined TechCrunch for a mobility-focused event this week, noted on stage that startups are in for a bumpy ride, given how frothy the market had grown.

Asked if the startup party is over, Hershenson answered: “Maybe for a little while it’s over . . .The problem is that the market was priced too high in 2021, and we’re all adjusting to that price change, and that changes how companies raise money.

“Everybody knows that the stock market is down a lot,” she’d said. “Software stocks are down in some cases 80%. [Meanwhile] if you’re a private company, and you were very lucky and you raised money in 2021, you may have gotten a multiple of 100x on your ARR. Today, those multiples are 10x or 20x. That means that if your company was $2 billion [at the time of your fundraise], your company is [now] worth $200 million.:

Even with a steep reset in prices, however, Pear’s success to date is undeniable. It’s also unlikely.

Nozad, very famously, was earlier a rug dealer who insisted on toting rugs to his clients’ homes, where during the course of long conversations, they would learn about the rug and he would learn about their business. He eventually became a scout for his boss, and a trusted friend to some very powerful people.

“He has a good sniffer, and I trust the guy,”  Sequoia’s Doug Leone told Forbes back in 2012. “He’s like me, from the earth.” Sequoia has, in fact, backed a number of companies that Pear has funded, including Guardant Health and DoorDash.

Meanwhile, his partner, Mar Hershenson, was also very much an outlier a decade ago. Despite founding several companies previously and though she holds an M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University, she is a native of Spain and more unusual in VC circles, she is a woman who had not previously cut her teeth at someone else’s venture firm. While that may not seem very notable today, she was in very rare company as a VC even a decade ago.

Pear hosted an invite-only demo day earlier this week, coverage of which we’ll have for readers early next week. (Unlike Y Combinator, the outfit holds a demo day each year for a comparatively limited number of companies — typically around 10.)

In the meantime, some of its other, newest checks have gone to Sudozi, a two-year-old Austin, Tex., startup that provides a SaaS platform to help enterprises improve their money management capabilities and that just this month announced a $4.3 million seed round led by Pear.

Pear also recently wrote a follow-on check to Osmind, a two-year-old, Bay Area-based startup that makes software to chart and update patient information and documents, with a focus on mental health. The outfit raised $40 million in Series B funding led by DFJ Growth, an announcement it also made earlier this month.

Correction: This story originally reported that Pear’s newest fund is closed, a fait accompli; we’ve updated the story to reflect that it is not.

Coinbase’s lost momentum

Hey everyone, and welcome back to Chain Reaction.

In our Chain Reaction podcast this week, Anita and I chatted with Mercedes Bent of Lightspeed Venture Partners on backing blockchain startups and the future of consumer fintech. More details below.

Last week, we talked about how the crypto industry needs to take a moment to reflect on buying the love of its followers. This week, we’re looking at the unhappy misfortunes of America’s favorite public crypto company

To get this newsletter in your inbox every Thursday, you can subscribe on TechCrunch’s newsletter page.

Coinbase suspends UPI payments in India days after launch

Image Credits: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

the hottest take

Though crypto markets have been relatively stable since last week’s bombastic dump-o-rama, gloom was on the menu this week for institutional investors and retail buyers prophesying crypto winters falling upon all ye households for the next several years.

The message from VCs to crypto startups and mega corps alike was “cut the fat” — a statement which doesn’t jibe too well with the lavish launch parties and plans to quintuple hiring that plenty of founders seemed to be working toward last month. It’s been a period of unprecedented boom for crypto startups, but life has been looking a bit less pleasant for Coinbase since Bitcoin and the public markets hit their frothy peak in November of last year.

Coinbase is currently trading below $65 per share after a more than 80% decline from its November all-time high. A lot of other public market tech stocks are also feeling the hurt, but relative to just how much revenue Coinbase pulled in last year, it’s clear investors have nuked their expectations for the company’s future performance. Coinbase did $7.4 billion in net revenue in 2021 and is currently rocking a market cap below $14 billion. That’s nuts.

Public market investors may not have the rosiest view of Coinbase, but the question is how this really impacts the company. Well, the firm is adjusting its growth expectations for one thing. COO Emilie Choi announced this week that the company was hitting the brakes, “Heading into this year, we planned to triple the size of the company. Given current market conditions, we feel it’s prudent to slow hiring and reassess…”

This is expected, but isn’t great for a company that has several cash-swolen competitors all chasing their market share. The company has been diversifying its offerings looking to leverage its network and provide more of a browser for the nascent web3 world, but it’s unclear what kind of consumer pickup the crypto world is looking at over the next year compared to the past couple, something which has left the company in a fairly grim position for the near-term…

the latest podcast

Hey, it’s Anita, here to give you an update on our latest episode of Chain Reaction, where we unpack the latest web3 news, block-by-block for the crypto-curious. 

In this episode, we talked about 30-year-old blockchain billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) buying a 7.6% stake in Robinhood and what he could possibly be planning to do to help turn around the struggling exchange amid a rough first half of the year. We also explained the difference between custodial and non-custodial wallets, since Robinhood just announced it’s launching the latter — the latest in a spate of new products intended to attract more users to its platform. 

Since we talked about Robinhood, we had to go over what’s up with its competitor, Coinbase, which said this week that it would be slowing its hiring plans because of the crypto market crash. We also gave listeners an update on the latest with the disgraced UST — the stablecoin that (kind of) started it all.

Our guest this week was Mercedes Bent, an investor at Lightspeed Venture Partners who helped us unpack the loaded term that is the “metaverse” and talked about some of the long-term potential she’s seeing in sectors like web3 video games. 

Subscribe to Chain Reaction on Apple, Spotify or your alternative podcast platform of choice to keep up with us every week.

Anita Ramaswamy

follow the money

Where startup1 money is moving in the crypto world:

  1. Cross-chain wallet BitKeep banks $15 million from Dragonfly
  2. Treasury management startup Coinshift gets $15 million from Tiger Global
  3. Crypto startup TipTop raises $24 million from a16z
  4. Web3 social startup CyberConnect scores $15 million from Animoca and Sky9
  5. Smart contract security startup Certora scores $36 million from Jump
  6. Crypto education co Encode Club raises $5 million from Galaxy Digital and Lemnis Capital
  7. Crypto games co Metatheory banks $24 million from a16z
  8. Investment DAO Seed Club scores $15 million from Union Square Ventures, others
  9. Crypto investment firm Elwood Technologies gets $70 million from Goldman Sachs
  10.  Web3 studio Gusto Collective nabs $11 million from Animoca


Animoca Brands plans to add education to its multibillion-dollar NFT and gaming business

Animoca Brands has grown into one of the biggest firms in the metaverse, play-to-earn gaming and NFT worlds, but its co-founder Yat Siu told TechCrunch there’s a new sector the company wants to enter: education. No, not education about crypto topics, but more general educational tooling that could apply to more than one discipline. Siu said he hopes to drive the teacher economy with a “learn-to-earn” or “teach-to-earn” model, so both teachers’ and students’ time can be rewarded in the form of a token or cash. This push could be a new wave for the crypto ecosystem to implement additional ways to earn rewards.

Jacquelyn Melinek

Thanks for following along, and get Chain Reaction in your inbox every Thursday by subscribing on the TechCrunch newsletter page.

—  Lucas Matney

Why founders should start talking now to bankers and potential buyers

Founders have gotten the memo that the ground is shifting under their feet right now. What to do about it is the question. Already, teams are making plans to scale back their spending to preserve capital. They’re making painful staff cuts toward that same end — or else instituting hiring freezes.

But they should also be thinking a lot harder about building relationships with bankers and the larger companies that might conceivably be interested in acquiring their startup, says two attorneys who work on both the ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ side of transactions, with both large companies and venture-backed outfits, and who both have more than 20 years of experience.

Indeed, to better understand some of the options founders may have, we talked earlier today with Denny Kwon and Scott Anthony, both of whom represent the white shoe law firm Covington & Burling (where former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is also an attorney). They answered a range of questions that we thought startups might be wondering about right now. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: How much has the world changed in the last few weeks?

DK: There is certainly a feeling of more pressure on sellers to get deals done as quickly as possible in light of the fact that there’s a lot of market volatility right now and they don’t know how buyers may be reacting to a significant decline in their stock price. Smaller companies are also facing the prospect of a slightly more challenging fundraising market, so alternatives for them are narrowing. 

TC: Given that public shares are so volatile right now, are acquirers more or less inclined to offer equity as a component of a deal? 

DK: It’s much more challenging to price deals with a significant stock component in this market. With any volatility, you don’t get a clear sense of the inherent value of a share, so all-cash deals are much more favorable to targets.

TC: Are targets in a position right now to make demands? How much leverage does a startup with dwindling options really have?

DK: Whenever we see volatile markets, where valuations were incredibly high [and are] being reset, it always takes time for sellers expectations to reset as well, so although they may be a temporary [lull in activity] because of the market, if there’s a ‘normalization’ that’s to come, we’ll probably see M&A activity, especially where valuation expectations are reduced on both the buyer’s and the seller’s side.

My sense [right now] is that buyers may view the market correction as being potentially opportunistic but sellers may not have the same expectations because they may hope for a rebound in the near future. Once seller expectations come down and they continue to hear from VCs that funding may not be as available as it was 6 to 12 months ago, they’ll be even harder pressed to turn away acquisition offers that come in.

TC: Are you seeing deals being yanked as buyers look to reprice earlier agreements to their benefit?

DK: The pending deals I’m working on are continuing apace.

TC: We’re all hearing — and reading — about very steep valuation drops already. Do you have any sense of how much value your clients have lost in recent weeks or whether certain sectors are getting hit harder than others?

SA:There’s valuation pressure, but it’s hard to gauge [the degree]. Certainly, we have companies that were racing to close valuations [before Russia invaded Ukraine] and [that period since] has changed everyone’s expectations. I think there’s concern on the company side that investors are sitting out and that’s driving valuations down.

Companies with revenues and good prospects will weather any downturn better — they always have. Sector wise, it will depend, but the whole stablecoin [debacle] hasn’t helped the crypto stuff.

TC: How big a concern are antitrust regulators to your bigger clients? 

DK: It’s top of mind for all practitioners, but there’s a dichotomy in that some transactions are reportable and others are not. For those that are reportable — the threshold is approximately $100 million —  we’re spending an incredible amount of time analyzing the potential for regulatory issues.

TC: How long does an M&A process take, and at what point do both sides agree on a price?

DK: From that initial approach from an acquirer, the time period can vary from a few weeks if there is alignment right away, up to several months if the target company wants to see if there is other interest. A lot depends on how compelling that first offer may appear. Once you get to a handshake on a valuation, it’s usually a six- to eight-week process to get a signed definitive agreement.

SA: If the [startup] is the one that is making the decision to find a buyer, then the process – maybe they hire bankers, maybe they use board members’ connections to reach out to strategics – the process and timing can be very different depending on how quickly they need the money and how quickly they can get potential buyers interested . . . and the size of the company, but buyers are still going to run their diligence process.

TC: Let’s assume M&A will be a more significant factor, given the cooling funding environment. If you were to advise a startup on the pros and cons about proceeding, what points would you make?

DK: Many companies at an inflection point that need to raise money to fund their growth or expansion are going to have a difficult decision to make, which is to either raise a new round where the valuation may not meet their expectations or [where they see a lot of dilution], or an M&A exit, where they see proceeds now but lose out on [potential] upside.

TC: Should startups that are open to selling be reaching out to anyone, or should they wait to see who approaches them? Some might worry their startup’s value will drop as soon as they indicate a willingness to sell.

DK:  I’d be advising startups to talk to bankers and keep relationships up with people at the larger companies they know simply because we may be in for a longer-term correction, where funding becomes even more challenging than it has been over the last couple of months.

SA: Having relationships with the bankers is prudent so if you have to check the market, you have those relationships already. Also, keeping in contact with customers and bigger strategic partners that would be natural buyers for the company could short-circuit any kind of sale process later.

Daily Crunch: South Korea’s special financial crimes unit is investigating Do Kwon

What is that we hear? Is that the Friday, May 20, 2022, on the calendar and the soft, alluring siren’s song of a weekend that’s right around the corner? Why, yes, that must be it!

Our events team is busy putting together an awesome TechCrunch Disrupt, and we are psyched about Startup Battlefield, where the winner will walk away with a $100,000 check to continue building the future it is envisioning. Here’s how to be in the running. — Haje and Christine

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • UST UGH: Terraform Labs founder Do Kwon has some ’splaining to do with South Korea’s special financial crimes unit, which has launched an investigation into the collapse of Terraform’s stablecoin TerraUSD (UST) and its sister token Luna earlier this month. Prosecutors might be first in line, but the line is growing, with investors filing a lawsuit against Kwon and his co-founder Daniel Shin over alleged charges of fraud and other financial regulation violations. Also joining are Luna Foundation Guard advisors who tell Jacquie that they have not heard from Kwon in weeks.
  • Standoff: We enjoyed reading Carly’s piece outlining what happened with Costa Rica’s ransomware attacks — the Conti gang is attempting to overthrow the government — and who could be next. As of our newsletter time, the ransom part was still going on. The deadline given was May 23.
  • Klarna konundrum: The payments company is reportedly the latest to be fine with lowering its valuation, and in its case, there is some capital attached. We think Alex sums it up well saying, “No one likes a down round. They are dilutive, messy and demoralizing. But they are also miles better than not raising money and dying, so companies raise them when required.” He goes into why Klarna taking an insider round with a cut valuation is worth it or not.

Startups and VC

Today, we got a wee bit excited about Haje’s somewhat-expletive-filled rant about Coca-Cola’s new bottle caps that don’t detach from the bottle, against a backdrop of greenwashing.

We also loved Brian’s piece about Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky’s love for small phones. “If no one else makes one I guess I will be forced to make it myself,” Migicovsky laments.

Also, Brian and Haje tag-teamed on a pair of articles about Sony’s new earbuds. Brian covers the buds themselves (“As someone who tests a lot of earbuds over the course of a year, the LinkBuds S are among the best sounding and most comfortable I’ve had in my ears”), and Haje double-clicked on the Endel soundscape-creating app.

Strap on your dancing shoes, there’s a veritable dance party of more news coming your way:

We also have a roundup of some of the awesome stories that came out of our Mobility event:

Three things to remember when diversifying your startup’s cap table

High Angle View Of Multi Colored Toys Over White Background

Image Credits: redmal (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Just as a sales team builds and refines its funnel, early stage founders in fundraising mode can create an investor funnel that will help sustain their company for years to come.

Oriana Papin-Zoghbi, CEO and co-founder of women’s health startup AOA Dx, shared her investor breakdown with TC+:

  • 35% private investors
  • 34% women (female investors or female-headed funds)
  • 26% venture capitalists
  • 23% family and friends
  • 18% international investors
  • 15% angel groups

“When building an investor funnel, vocalizing what you want is crucial to finding the right investors,” says Papin-Zoghbi.

“Finding the right investors is like finding the right team members — you need to be upfront about your expectations and address what you want them to bring to the table.”

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Deposit 25 cents: If you’re a gamer, we presume you have some thoughts on God of War: Ragnarök. Devin’s take is that this game “may be the most accessible title yet, and that’s saying something.” It’s good to see Microsoft create a game that offers features that are customizable for people with certain specific disabilities, like a visual or hearing impairment.
  • The family that Snaps together stays together: For every parent dying to know who their teen is interacting with on Snapchat, the social media giant is close to launching its parental control feature, “Family Center.” For those of you not on Snapchat, or don’t have children, Sarah tells us this is important because it is one of the few social networks where you can’t see someone’s friend list.
  • Holy Poké Balls!: There’s now a Poké Ball reward for being both a Pokémon GO player and an Amazon Prime member.
  • Dating update: It looks like Match Group, the parent company of dating apps Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid, is on good terms with Google again. Crisis averted?

Even Amazon can’t quite figure out what Astro is for

Amazon’s cute little Astro robot has been scurrying its way around my apartment for the past few weeks. It has no arms to scratch its own head in confusion, but I am willing to do that for him. As part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program, the robot is a $1,000 invitation-only program with limited numbers of robots available, as the company is trying to get them into consumers’ hands with a question: How would you use this?

The company suggests that some use cases include home monitoring — an autonomous home-security system that can wander around from room to room. Astro has the ability to patrol a home with Ring Protect Pro, pop its periscope camera to see the counters, detect unidentified people when in “away mode,” send alerts when it hears sounds like glass breaking and more. You can also use it when you’re home — if you hear the dog barking at night, you can send Astro to see what’s happening without having to leave the cozy cocoon of your duvet-burrito.

The company also suggests that Astro might be a good solution for offering remote care. Your loved one can ask Astro to set and deliver reminders, or you can use Drop In to stay connected. Plus, Astro works with Alexa Together, which allows for remote care for aging loved ones, or for offering care for people who have mobility challenges or other disabilities.

Amazon also offers companionship as a potential use case — it suggests all the fun things Astro can do (things like “Astro beatbox,” or “what’s your favorite animal?” are top items, the company suggests), and it has other features that make it seem more like a pet than a Skynet-harboring robot of death and destruction.

The whole purpose of a Day 1 Edition product is for Amazon’s product teams to get their most ambitious projects into customers’ hands faster so they can provide feedback that, in this case, will help shape the Astro experience. It makes sense. Right now, Astro is a robust system and can handle a wide array of commands and tasks that customers are finding useful. The robot has a little carrying tray and a USB port for extensions that will give it any number of interesting new powers, extendable by hackers and tech-savvy users, much in the same way that someone can write and deploy an Alexa skill today.

Astro’s sensors mean it doesn’t bump into things too often. And the paint along the bottom of the chassis, and the scrapes on the walls of my apartment, indicate that Astro still has a little bit of learning to do on that front. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

Personally, throughout my time with Astro, I thought the robot was adorable. The speakers are good, and it’s kinda fun to have a boombox trail around and play your tunes or podcasts as you are doing chores. As a piece of first-generation tech, it’s an impressive feat that has tremendous potential. But that alone isn’t enough to make a product. In a world where the environment is front of mind, we could do with fewer gadgets that will end up in landfills eventually, not more, and so I find myself wondering what this thing is for. I can imagine a number of niche use cases — including the ones listed above — but I keep being unclear on whether this is a device that needs to exist at all.

I spoke with Anthony Robson, the principal product manager for robotic technologies and consumer robotics at Amazon, to try to get to the bottom of things. It quickly became clear that Astro’s ambition is sky-high, and that the Amazon team doesn’t quite know which direction that ambition will take it. By design, it claims, which I have some respect for, but it seems weird to me to take a “let’s build it and see if they will come, and what they will use it for” approach.

Don’t misunderstand me; I do believe there are places and use cases where Amazon’s adorable little robot friend makes a lot of sense — but when I talk to startups day in and day out, it feels really jarring. I wouldn’t let a startup get away with a solution looking for a problem, and so it feels curious to be tempted to let Amazon — who really should know better — off the hook.

“This is the very first robot in a brand new category of robots. When we started this program, we were like, why not us? Why not Amazon? You know, we have this great ecosystem with Alex and the AI chops to be able to do this. Let’s do it, let’s learn from customers,” comments Robson. “We went out and did a lot of research around what kinds of things people could envision robots helping them in their home. The home monitoring capabilities were certainly the most popular thing people could envision. I’d love to be able to check if I left the stove on, or whether my back door is unlocked. I’d love to be able to check if I need to buy bananas because the fruit bowl is empty. I want to be able to check if the kids came home or to be notified when they come home. I want to be able to talk to them and find them in the house. So that was a very popular use case that people identified. There are a number of use cases.”

Astro Cargo Bay

Astro’s cargo bay is sizeable and has a USB-C port to extend its functionality further. An SDK to build software for Astro is in the works, Amazon suggests. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The ideas came fast and thick, and every time I found myself wondering; yes, but… Really? Would customers potentially pay $1,000 to solve this problem?

Of course, the additional flexibility of the Astro platform broadens the potential quite a bit.

“We insisted on having some level of extensibility. We’re gonna learn so much about every home — and every home is going to be different and have different needs. So we added a cargo bay area with a USB port, and asked the question ‘how can we extend this platform to do more things for more people?’ We didn’t envision at the beginning of this program that we would have a pet food dispenser at the launch event,” marvels Robson. “We have customers who are working in their home offices on either side of the house sending things to each other using their Astro. We are learning, we are listening and we are adapting. We’re going to extend Astro’s capabilities as we learn from customers.”

The product team does have a few things on its wish list that it wasn’t able to prioritize for launch for various reasons.

“There are a lot of things that, simply from a practical perspective, we couldn’t add. Astro doesn’t climb stairs, for example. The level of complexity that would add to the product would simply make it too costly, and make it so it’s not accessible to as many people as we would like,” explains Robson. “We had to make trade-offs like that. We would have liked the periscope camera to go that little bit higher. But we had to compromise and say, you know, this is just enough to see over the counters. That is perfect — that keeps the device small.”

The product team also suggests that it wanted Astro to be able to move around much faster. At its current pace, you can out-walk it if you stroll briskly through the hallways of your mansion — but speed also equals trade-offs. The laws of physics start getting in the way pretty quickly, in other words.

“Again, the complexity of being able to make sure that it can be safe at all times goes up exponentially. A factor of two, with every increase in speed,” explains Robson. “You have to be very judicious about how much speed you put in because it’s going to make your sensing and your safety solutions twice or multiple times more complex.”

The Astro team hasn’t launched a developer toolkit for the Astro robot yet, but that’s on its way, too.

“We’re working hard with strategic partners. I think [an Astro SDK] is going to be happening. We want to bring that intelligent motion capability to more and more skills and accessories in the future,” says Robson. “It is not something we have ready today, but it’s coming very soon. We’re working on it as hard as we can.”

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on countertops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The comms team for Astro is excited about the potential of the robot as a comms and monitoring tool. It tells the story of one customer; their father-in-law had fallen out of his wheelchair. The family used Astro to communicate and coordinate emergency service responses to help him get back up. Giving additional, roaming assistance to people living independently seems like a powerful use case — except for the quirk of Astro not being able to climb stairs or open doors.

I did have a couple of fun interactions with Astro that surprised and delighted me. For example, as one part of the setup process, Astro tells you to take a couple of steps back to make space for it to leave its charging dock. As it did that, I swear it flicked the screen representing its “face”, much like one would wave one’s hands to shoo someone away. I was never able to get Astro to do it again, and the product team wasn’t able to confirm whether I hallucinated that, or whether that’s something Astro actually does.

“You know, that’s the thing when you give a robot a body language, depending on what it has to do, it’s going to move in the way it needs to move. Sometimes those things end up being interesting combinations,” laughed Robson. “So I can’t think of exactly why that would happen, but… I have been surprised by Astro before.”

Astro is an extraordinarily well-thought-out robot on a technical level. The big wheels mean it can climb over thresholds between rooms with no issues. It got stuck on my bath mat a few times but managed to dislodge itself every time, which is impressive. When I was testing Astro, I also had a foster kitten, and Astro and Chairman Meow seemed to become good friends, with the two of them chasing each other around the apartment. Astro ran over Meow’s tail once, and Meow got his revenge by folding over the bath mat, trapping Astro in the bathroom for a few hours. I’m not convinced Meow did that on purpose, to be fair, but it did strike me as funny.

The periscope camera is an extraordinarily clever feature that dramatically increases the usefulness of Astra, and the wayfinding tech is impressive. Telling Astro to go to the kitchen, and having it dutifully scurrying its way around my stacks of Amazon deliveries, office chairs and the odd shoe strewn along the flow was entertaining. A lot of work went into making Astro seem non-threatening. It moves slowly and gingerly near people and pets, it doesn’t bump into stuff all that much, and when it does, it does so carefully. The screen and Astro’s “face” are expressive, and cute, and invite a high degree of trust and user-friendliness. It shows that Amazon has the capacity of building incredibly capable robotics, even when it is compromising on product issues along the way.

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

I won’t miss it when I return it to its corporate office to be passed on to the next journalist who will be taking a closer look, which is rarely a good sign, but I hope that Amazon learns enough so it becomes better at telling the story of its adorable little robot. It is, truly, a solution that is carefully and adorably scurrying around looking for a use case. If Astro’s persistence is any indication, it will eventually find one.

Hyundai to open $6.5B EV factory in Georgia

Hyundai is the latest automaker to announce plans to open an EV factory in Georgia, the same state where Rivian is preparing to break ground on its controversial plant.

Hyundai’s $6.5 billion EV and battery manufacturing facility outside of Savannah will further the state’s goal of becoming a major regional hub for the EV industry. As sales of electric vehicles start to surge, the Peach State aims to establish a statewide, closed-loop battery-electric ecosystem that includes rare earth mining, battery and chip production, and auto parts manufacturing, according to state officials.

Hyundai’s capital investment, which includes $1 billion from non-affiliated suppliers, represents the largest economic development deal recruited by Georgia, officials said Friday. Hyundai expects to create 8,100 jobs at the 2,293-acre site.

Georgia has become aggressive in its efforts to attract manufacturers, awarding Rivian the state’s largest-ever incentives package of $1.5 billion to build a plant on 2,000 acres east of Atlanta. In return, Rivian has pledged to hire 7,500 workers at an average annual salary of $56,000 by the end of 2028. However, the project has stirred up local controversy; residents have rallied around concerns ranging from land preservation to the use of tax dollars.

The issue became political, as opponents of the Rivian plant mobilize against Gov. Brian Kemp ahead of his race for re-election in November.

Rivian plans to break ground this summer and open by early 2024.

Hyundai’s site represents a collaboration among four Georgia counties that used proceeds from selling property to Amazon to help fund the $61 million land purchase. The partnership which calls itself the Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority (JDA), pooled the plots to create a “shovel-ready mega-site” for a large manufacturer.

Hyundai said the plant will begin production in 2025 with the capacity to build 300,000 vehicles per year.

Officials hope to replicate the model to attract more mega-site manufacturing projects to the state.

SK On, a South Korean EV lithium-ion battery maker, is building a $2.6 billion EV battery complex nearby. The company, which said its plant will be able to power 310,000 electric vehicles annually, has contracts with Ford and Volkswagen.

Indian launch startup Skyroot successfully completes full-duration stage test

Skyroot, the first private Indian company to design, build and test a solid rocket propulsion stage, has reached another key milestone in the development of its Vikram-I launch vehicle: a full-duration test of the rocket’s third stage.

The third stage, dubbed Kalam-100 in homage to Indian rocket scientist and former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is just one part of the company’s debut rocket. Vikram-I includes three solid fuel stages, plus a liquid-fueled kick stage that’s designed to serve the small satellite launch market. It’s designed to carry up to 480 kilograms to low-inclination orbits, and the company says on its website that it’s designed to be assembled and launched from any launch site within 24 hours.

Vikram-I is one of a trio of rockets Skyroot is currently developing; the other two, Vikram-II and Vikram-III, will be able to carry heavier payloads with multiple orbital insertions, Skyroot says.

The test-firing of the rocket stage took place at a private test range in Nagpur City, India, CEO Pawan Kumar Chandana told TechCrunch in an email. That range belongs to Skyroot investor and industrial explosives, ammunitions and propulsion systems manufacturer Solar Industries India.

The next steps will be test firings for Stage 1 and Stage 2, Chandana said. The company’s existing funding, including an $11 million Series A and a $4.5 million bridge round, will cover most of the costs of testing. Skyroot is in the process of raising a Series B to take the company to “multiple orbital launches,” he said.

All this funding should get Skyroot to a technology demonstration launch by the end of this year, with the company’s first commercial orbital mission early next year. That launch would take off from India’s spaceport on Sriharikota Island, and would make Skyroot the first private Indian company to build and launch private rockets.

Digital biomarkers are healthcare’s next frontier

Blood pressure, body temperature, hemoglobin A1c levels and other biomarkers have been used for decades to track disease. While this information is essential for chronic condition management, these and many other physiological measurements are typically captured only periodically, making it difficult to reliably detect early meaningful changes.

Moreover, biomarkers extracted from blood require uncomfortable blood draws, can be expensive to analyze, and again, are not always timely.

Historically, continuous tracking of an individual’s vital signs meant they had to be in a hospital. But that’s not true anymore. Digital biomarkers, collected from wearable sensors or through a device, offer healthcare providers an abundance of traditional and new data to precisely monitor and even predict a patient’s disease trajectory.

With cloud-based servers and sophisticated, yet inexpensive, sensors both on the body and off, patients can be monitored at home more effectively than in a hospital, especially when the sensor data is analyzed with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technology.

Opportunities for digital biomarkers

A major opportunity for digital biomarkers is in addressing neurodegenerative diseases such as mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Neurodegenerative disease is a major target for digital biomarker development due to a lack of easily accessible indicators that can help providers diagnose and manage these conditions. A definitive diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease today, for example, generally requires positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other imaging studies, which are often expensive and not always accurate or reliable.

Cost savings and other benefits

Digital biomarkers have the potential to unlock significant value for healthcare providers, companies and, most importantly, patients and families, by detecting and slowing the development of these diseases.

A third straight week of tech layoffs in the books

You thought the market was bad for venture capitalists, but what about the actual workers behind the tech companies they’ve backed?

Reluctantly, we’re writing a tech layoffs roundup for the third week in a row, because once again, there have been reductions across stages and sectors. Over the past month, public and private tech companies have been announcing mass layoffs across sectors. Employees from Section4, Carvana, DataRobot, Mural, Robinhood, On Deck, Thrasio, MainStreet and Netflix have been impacted by the workforce reductions. Some bigger companies are instituting hiring freezes, such as Twitter and Meta, or announcing a shift in strategy, such as Uber.

As has been our mantra while reporting on the layoffs sweeping the tech industry: layoffs don’t happen to companies, they happen to people. Especially for the U.S.-based tech employees, layoffs don’t just mean a loss of income — they mean a medically dangerous loss of healthcare.

Let’s take a look at which companies announced reductions this week.

Netflix layoffs continue 

After layoffs hit Netflix’s content arm Tudum a few weeks ago, 150 more primarily U.S.-based employees were let go, plus 70 other employees in the animation division.

A Netflix representative wrote in an emailed statement, “As we explained on earnings, our slowing revenue growth means we are also having to slow our cost growth as a company.” Netflix reported revenue of $7.87 billion for the first quarter of 2022 and a significant loss of 200,000 subscribers.

Contractors were also impacted by these layoffs, but the number of affected workers in that designation is unclear. TechCrunch asked Netflix about reports that staff running diverse social channels like Strong Black Lead, Golden, Most and Con Todo were laid off, but Netflix said that the company decided not to renew contracts with certain agencies it used to recruit contractors. Still, it doesn’t feel great to see queer people and people of color losing their jobs, which helped Netflix cater to these audiences.

Picsart’s unicorn status didn’t save it 

Less than a year ago, Picsart raised $130 million from SoftBank, putting the visual creator tools startup into unicorn territory with a valuation exceeding $1 billion. A leaner, hipper version of Adobe, things seem to have taken a downturn for Picsart, which laid off 8% of its staff this week, affecting 90 people. Other SoftBank-backed companies like Cameo, which also became a unicorn last year, just conducted layoffs. When Alex Wilhelm last covered Picsart, he noted that the company was expected to go public — that still hasn’t happened, which may be a clue into what’s going on at the company to precipitate such cuts.

India’s Cars24 cuts 600 jobs

Cars24, a marketplace for used cars last valued at $3.3 billion by its venture capital investors, cut 600 jobs — or 6% of its entire workforce — this week. The Series G startup had just raised a $400 million round, making the reduction more about runway extension than lack of ability to pay the bills.

As our own Manish Singh reports, Cars24 is one of many Indian startups that fired people in the last few weeks. Employees from Vedantu, Unacademy, Meesho, OkCredit, Trell, Furlenco and Lido have also cut several roles, he says.

Marketplace startups, such as Cars24, feel especially vulnerable during a downturn. Consumer spending habits can get extremely fickle, which means that demand may decline while supply stays consistent or even grows. Balancing the two sides is the biggest art for any marketplace startup, but it becomes especially difficult to predict stability in revenue when everyone else has hit pause.

Skillz scales back esports biz team 

Esports company Skillz laid off 70 employees, around 10% of the team, earlier this week, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. No executives were impacted by the cuts.

“We decided to reorganize our resources and investments to increase our profitable growth and further deliver against our vision of building the competition layer of the internet,” the company said in an emailed statement. “This realignment resulted in changing some of our programs and consequently people on our team as we prioritize our resourcing levels to continue to offer a great player experience and enable more game developers to bring their creations to life.”

The company’s statement is ironic; to better support its external community, it is cutting its internal community. The company says it plans to continue hiring in some areas of the business but did not mention which ones.

TechCrunch+ roundup: Construction tech survey, founder-CEO friction, diversify your cap table

The technological advances we’ve made over the last few thousand years are stunning, but the construction industry still relies on centuries-old technology.

Configuring a robot to mix cement is easy, but delivering a CementTron 3000 to a job site, training employees on its use, and keeping it maintained are not the kinds of disruptions builders are looking for, especially when margins are so thin and experienced workers are hard to find.

Even so, investors are backing startups bringing robotics, data management, automation and augmented reality into the construction process.

Many major construction firms operate their own R&D divisions, but that hasn’t substantially changed attitudes about adopting new tech: in one survey, more than one-third of respondents who worked in the industry said they are ambivalent about using new tools. Despite their reluctance, growing numbers of construction tech startups are helping builders with bidding, scheduling, modeling software, and, quite frequently, drones.

To learn more about the market forces shaping construction tech in 2022, we spoke to five investors:

  • Nikitas Koutoupes, managing director, Insight Partners
  • Heinrich Gröller, partner, Speedinvest
  • Momei Qu, managing director, PSP Growth
  • Suzanne Fletcher, venture partner, Prime Movers Lab
  • Sungjoon Cho, general partner, D20 Capital

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Use discount code TCPLUSROUNDUP to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription

TechCrunch columnist Sophie Alcorn will join a TechCrunch+ Twitter Space on Tuesday, May 24.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/Sophie Alcorn

On Tuesday, May 24 at 8:30 a.m. PT/11:30 a.m. ET, I’m hosting a Twitter Space with Silicon Valley immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn, who writes the “Dear Sophie” advice column for TechCrunch+ each Wednesday. If you have questions about working and living legally in the United States, please join the conversation.

To get a reminder before the chat, follow @TechCrunchplus on Twitter.

Thanks very much for reading: I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch+

For better or for worse: Managing founder-CEO tension inside a startup

Hands pulling rubber band

Image Credits: Flashpop (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Technical founders often recruit a CEO who can fill in gaps in their business experience, but if they cannot build a strong partnership, everyone suffers.

Metaphorically, imagine two people in a lifeboat arguing over which direction leads to land.

Managing potential points of tension is critical, but founders must be pragmatic: Only choose someone you respect, and be prepared to invest time and energy into cultivating a close relationship, advises Max Schireson, an executive-in-residence at Battery Ventures. Previously, the co-founders of MongoDB hired him to be their CEO.

“In the best case, a strong partnership can pioneer new models and build a lasting and impactful company,” says Schireson.

Dear Sophie: Can I do anything to speed up the EAD renewal process?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

I’m on an L-2 visa as a dependent spouse to my husband’s L-1A.

My EAD (work permit) is expiring in May — we filed for the extension of both my visa and EAD a few months ago. How long is the current process?

Might there be anything I can do so my employment isn’t affected?

— Career Centered

The one-chart argument that tech valuations have fallen too far

As you may have heard, tech companies are having a bit of a whoopsie.

But is it possible that stock sellers have gone overboard when it comes to devaluing these startups so deeply and so quickly?

Alex Wilhelm says they have, in large part because “select tech concerns are now worth less than they were before the pandemic, despite having a few years of growth in the bank.”

To make his case, he tracked the share price for Okta and found that the identity platform’s share price has rolled back to where it was in early 2019.

“It’s also about three times as large,” writes Alex. “But it is now worth less today than it was back then. Chew on that.”

3 things to remember when diversifying your startup’s cap table

High Angle View Of Multi Colored Toys Over White Background

Image Credits: redmal (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Just as a sales team builds and refines its funnel, early-stage founders in fundraising mode can create an investor funnel that will help sustain their company for years to come.

Oriana Papin-Zoghbi, CEO and co-founder of women’s health startup AOA Dx, shared her investor breakdown with TC+:

  • 35% private investors.
  • 34% women (female investors or female-headed funds).
  • 26% venture capitalists.
  • 23% family and friends.
  • 18% international investors.
  • 15% angel groups.

“When building an investor funnel, vocalizing what you want is crucial to finding the right investors,” says Papin-Zoghbi.

“Finding the right investors is like finding the right team members — you need to be upfront about your expectations and address what you want them to bring to the table.”

Pitch Deck Teardown: BoxedUp’s $2.3M seed round pitch deck

When video production equipment rental company BoxedUp launched, it initially focused on serving corporate customers who hosted events and conferences.

And then, it pivoted: Earlier this year, BoxedUp raised a $2.3 million seed round to scale up its rental marketplace where individuals can rent high-end equipment directly to creators.

“We found a $10 billion opportunity where owner-operators are renting things out via Instagram and rental shops are still using really old websites,” said CEO and founder Donald Boone.

“Instead of spending $30,000 to buy a camera to rent out one at a time, we could instead create the platform to connect people that have that $30,000 camera,” he told TechCrunch in March.

To help other founders replicate his success with BoxedUp’s seed round, he’s shared the unreacted 22-slide pitch deck with TechCrunch+.