For the first time in years, the Apple Store is down ahead of WWDC

Happy WWDC day. Today kicks off Apple’s annual developer’s conference, with the traditional keynote starting at 10:00pm PST (watch it right here). Generally, WWDC focuses on software features and developer tools, and not consumer hardware. But for WWDC 2022, Apple might reveal new consumer hardware that will be available for purchase after the keynote — that’s what the rumors say, at least.

And now the Apple Store is down. The last time Apple took down its online store ahead of WWDC, the company unveiled the second generation iPad Pro in 2017. When the Apple Store returned following the keynote, the new iPad Pro, with its then-new Apple Pencil, was immediately available for order and shipped the following week.

The status of the Apple Store has long been viewed as a sign of an upcoming product release.

For this year’s event, there’s rumors that Apple will unveil hardware using its next-gen processor, the M2. This chip could power an updated MacBook Air or Mac Mini — both products were among the first to sport the M1 chip and are now due for an upgrade. The iPad is another M2 target. Apple is expected to unveil a new version of iOS that will bring a new user interface to the iPad to make it more desktop-like rather than a giant smartphone.

Expect the Apple Store to return to its normal operations following today’s WWDC Keynote. The show kicks off at 10:00am PST and generally lasts between an hour or two.

Read more about WWDC 2022 on TechCrunch

MSCHF drops tiny action figures of your favorite failed startup hardware

Hardware is hard. You can browse the archives of this site and come up with dozens of bold attempts to make new consumer electronics gadgets work — some of them very close to home. But, like all startups, most hardware companies run into the hard core grind of turning atoms into something worth buying. 

To commemorate the hardness of hardware, idea factory/art house MSCHF is releasing a set of 5 Dead Startup Toys as vinyl figurines that you can buy for $39.99 each or $159.99 for the set. It bills these as ‘iconic failed startups’ and the sales site offers a brief history of the rise and fall of each endeavor. They range from products that never really existed like the Theranos minilab to poorly timed early movers like Jibo to exercises in over-engineering like Juicero. 

Given that I have spent much of my career absorbing and trying to understand the difficult and complicated process of bringing consumer hardware to market, I love these things. There could be a lens of malice here, but I choose not to see it that way. Fraud is fraud and the people behind Theranos and debacles like the Coolest Cooler have or will see the business end of the legal system. 

But big visions and hardware dreams are not always so clearly pocketed into the hole of ‘failure’. Sometimes the hardware works but the supply chain doesn’t. Sometimes the vision is sound but the product is just too early. There are any number of reasons products fail — but (in as much as they were actually real) you often have to give it up for the teams of people and visionaries that wanted a thing to exist in the universe and dragged it kicking and screaming to that point. And off the cliffs.

The figures themselves are really well done, with crisp stamping and accurate detailing with readable text and nicely printed logos. Some of them are articulated as well, and accessorized. The Coolest Cooler gets its infamous blender and the Juicero has a removable (proprietary of course) ‘fresh veg’ pouch. The quality on these is quite high overall, I’d rank them up with some of the better novelty toys I’ve bought over the years — it’s not phoned in, much like the Cooler’s feature set.

The packaging, too, is quite impressive, each gets a customized box and the big set of all of them comes in a bigger rack box. Each one also comes with a ’cause of death’ on the back that tells you why each venture went under. MSCHF went the lengths to make this a pretty premium ‘toy’ drop, which is only fitting given that it’s a monument to physical products. 

As with much of MSCHF’s work, there’s an element of ‘wait, is this legal’ as well, because there are likely a bunch of holes that the IP connected to these products fell into but some of those holes could still have legal entities attached. But that element of danger is what has made many of its projects resonate so far so I don’t think they’re worried. 

After all, none of these products have the sign of the beast on them. Physically, anyway.

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Nothing founder Carl Pei on Ear 1 and building a hardware startup from scratch

On July 27, hardware maker Nothing will debut its first product, wireless earbuds dubbed Ear 1. Despite releasing almost no tangible information about the product, the company has managed to generate substantial buzz around the launch — especially for an entry into the already-crowded wireless earbud market.

The hype, however, is real — and somewhat understandable. Nothing founder Carl Pei has a good track record in the industry — he was just 24 when he co-founded OnePlus in 2013. The company has done a canny job capitalizing on heightened expectations, meting out information about the product like pieces in a puzzle.

We spoke to Pei ahead of the upcoming launch to get some insight into Ear 1 and the story behind Nothing.

TC: I know there was a timing delay with the launch. Was that related to COVID-19 and supply chain issues?

CP: Actually, it was due to our design. Maybe you’ve seen the concept image of this transparent design. It turns out there’s a reason why there aren’t many transparent consumer tech products out there. It’s really, really hard to make it high quality. You need to ensure that everything inside looks just as good as the outside. So that’s where the team has been iterating, [but] you probably wouldn’t notice the differences between each iteration.

It could be getting the right magnets — as magnets are usually designed to go inside of a product and not be seen by the consumer — to figuring out the best type of gluing. You never have to solve that problem if you have a non-transparent product, but what kind of glue will keep the industrial design intact? I think the main issue has been getting the design ready. And we’re super, super close. Hopefully, it will be a product that people are really excited about when we launch.

So, there were no major supply chain issues?

Not for this product category. With true wireless earbuds, I think we’re pretty fine. No major issues. I mean, we had the issue that we started from zero — so no team and no partners. But step by step, we finally got here.

That seems to imply that you’re at least thinking ahead towards the other products. Have you already started developing them?

We have a lot of products in the pipeline. Earlier this year, we did a community crowdfunding round where we allocated $1.5 million to our community. That got bought up really quickly. But as part of that funding round, we had a deck with some of the products in development. Our products are code-named as Pokemon, so there are a lot of Pokemon on that slide [Editor’s note: The Ear 1 was “Aipom.”]. We have multiple categories that we’re looking at, but we haven’t really announced what those are.

Why were earbuds the right first step?

I think this market is really screaming for differentiation. If you look at true wireless today, I think after Apple came out with the AirPods, the entire market kind of followed. Everybody wears different clothes. This is something we wear for a large part of the day. Why wouldn’t people want different designs?

We’re working with Teenage Engineering — they’re super, super strong designers. I think true wireless is a place where we can really leverage that strength. Also, from a more rational business perspective, wireless earbuds is a super-fast growing product category. I think we’re going to reach 300 million units shipped worldwide this year for this category. And your first product category should be one with good business potential.

“Screaming for differentiation” is an interesting way to put it. When you look at AirPods and the rest of the industry, are aesthetics what the market primarily lacks? Is it features or is it purely stylistic?

If we take a take a step back and think about it from a consumer perspective, we feel like, as a whole, consumer tech is quite, quite boring. Kids used to want to become engineers and astronauts and all that. But if you look at what kids want to become today, they want to be TikTokers or YouTubers. Maybe it’s because technology isn’t as inspiring as before. We talked to consumers, and they don’t care as much as a couple of years ago either. If you look at what what brands are doing in their communication, it’s all about features and specs.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder.

TechCrunch surveyed five key investors who touch different aspects of the consumer electronics industry, based on our TechCrunch List of top VCs recommended by founders, along with other sources.

We asked these investors the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches:

Despite the pandemic, each identified bright spots in the consumer electronic world. One thing is clear, investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups. Multiple respondents cited Peloton, Tonal and Mirror as recent highlights in consumer electronics.

Said Shasta Venture’s Rob Coneybeer, “With all due respect to my friends at Nest (where Shasta was a Series A investor), Tonal is the most exciting consumer connected hardware company I’ve ever been involved with.”

Besides asking about the trends and opportunities they’re pursuing in 2021, the investors we spoke to also identified other investors, founders and companies who are leaders in consumer hardware and shared how they’ve reshaped their investment strategies during the pandemic. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.

Hans Tung, GGV Capital

Which consumer hardware sector shows the most promise for explosive growth?

For consumer hardware, offering end users a differentiated experience is extremely important. Social interactions, gamification and high-quality PGC (professionally generated content) such as with Peloton, Xiaomi and Tonal is a must to drive growth. It’s also easy to see how the acceleration of the digital economy created by COVID-19 will also drive growth for hardware.

First, services improved by the speed and reliability of 5G such as live streaming, gaming, cloud computing, etc. will create opportunity for new mobile devices and global mass market consumers will continue to demand high-quality, low-cost hardware. For example, Arevo is experimenting with “hardware as a service” with a 3D printing facility in Vietnam.

For enterprise hardware, security, reliability and fast updates are key competitive advantages. Also as a result of 5G… manufacturing automation and industrial applications. Finally IoT for health and safety may find its sweet spot thanks to COVID-19 with new wearables that track sleep, fitness and overall wellness.

How did COVID-19 change consumer hardware and your investment strategy?

One opportunity for consumer hardware companies to consider as a result of COVID-19 is how they engage with their customers. They should think of themselves more like e-commerce companies, where user experience, ongoing engagement with the consumer and iteration based on market feedback rule the day. While Peloton had this approach well before COVID, it has built a $46 billion company thinking about their products in this way.

For example, some consumers felt the bike was too expensive so instead of responding with a low-end product, the company partnered with Affirm to make their hardware more affordable with pay-as-you-go plans. A Peloton bike is not a one-and-done purchase; there is constant interaction between users, and the company that drives more satisfaction in the hardware adds more value in the business.

Entering 2021, in what way is hardware still hard?

Hardware is still hard because it takes more to iterate fast. The outcome for competitors relative to speed-to-market can be dramatic. For example, every year I look at future generation of EVs with lots of innovations and cool features from existing OEMs but see very few of these making it to market compared to Tesla and other pure players that are cranking out vehicles. Their speed of execution is impressive.

Who are some leaders in consumer hardware — founders, companies, investors?

  • John Foley, founder and CEO of Peloton. John and the Peloton team have cracked the code on the integration of community experience and hardware.
  • Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit and founder/CEO of Arevo, maker of ultrastrong, lightweight continuous carbon fiber products on demand. Experienced founder and team with 3D printing manufacturing know-how at scale are now able to offer breakthrough consumer and industrial products at competitive prices.
  • Manu Jain, head of Xiaomi’s business in India where Xiaomi is the #1-selling smart phone. He built the Indian operation from the ground up; had zero dollar marketing budget for the first three years; and localized manufacturing for all Xiaomi phones sold in India.
  • Jim Xiao, founder and CEO of Mason, a rising star who is creating “mobile infrastructure as a service.”
  • Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. Irving and his team are on a mission to reimagine modern farming.

Is there anything else you would like to share with TechCrunch readers?

Worry less about trends and build products that resonate with customers.


Dayna Grayson, Construct Capital

Seed funding tips and tricks from Uncork Capital founder Jeff Clavier

Angel funding, seed investing and generally focusing on earlier stage investing is a huge business in the world of startups these days — it helps investors get in early to the most promising companies, and (because of the smaller size of the checks) allows for even the less prolific to spread their bets.

There was a time when it was immensely difficult for a founder to get a first check, not least because there were fewer people writing them. However, Jeff Clavier was an exception to that rule.

As the founder of Uncork Capital (formerly known as SoftTech VC), he has been in the business of angel and seed investing for 16 years, popularizing the opportunity and highlighting the need for more support at this stage — well before it was cool. You could say he was early to early stage.

Clavier said that at the end of 2019, it was estimated that there were more than 1,000 firms focusing on seed investing in the market, but by the end of this year, there will be about 2,000. “Don’t ask me whether it makes any sense because when I started 16 years ago, I didn’t think would be a big deal,” he said. “But certainly that creates a bit of a conundrum for founders to try and understand.”

As of now, Clavier has made nearly 230 investments and counting.

TechCrunch Early Stage, our virtual conference highlighting that stage of startup life, was the perfect venue to hear from him on all things seed investing and building startups today. Below are some highlights, a link to the video and a pitch deck he put together for the chat. Questions were edited for space and clarity.

Not all VCs are created equal (so know who you are pitching)

First thing to understand is that not all VCs are created equal. There are a bunch of different firms, tons of them out there, and you as a founder need to understand what are the specifics of your pitch opportunity, how to match with the right firm, and to figure out what stage of “early” you happen to be.

Startups can be super early, or mid-stage, which is typically what we refer to as pre-seed. Then there’s the seed stage, where you have developed a product, with a demo. And there is post-seed, where you have product but are not quite ready to raise a Series A. So who are the firms that can actually be the right fit for me at those different stages? The qualification part of the targeting is really important. Especially in a COVID environment when you can’t spend the same kind of time with each other.

It’s useful for founders to try and understand investors better, maybe asking a couple of questions like, “When is the last time you made a brand new investment at seed stage?” And “How has your investment process changed as a result of COVID?”

For investors, you want to understand how you’re going to evolve your process to cope with the fact that you don’t spend time with those founders face-to-face. Some firms are still struggling with that.

At Uncork, we’re now past the point of portfolio triage that we had in the first few weeks of of the pandemic. What was surprising to me was the speed and velocity at which some deals actually.

Find an investment lead

Another thing that is important at seed stage is to understand the difference between the leaders and followers in the investment. Unfortunately for founders, you’re going to have a lot of people trying to very quickly come to a decision and say, “Oh, I’m gonna invest $100,000, $200,000, whatever,” in your round. But unfortunately, it’s really not useful at all to have a bunch of followers and no leads. And so as part of your targeting, you really want to think about which firms are going to write the larger check, set the terms and help me, the entrepreneur, put the round together.

If you work with a lead investor that has a very strong brand, then that will make your life much easier.

You want to have everything lined up: pitch deck, the backup slides, the references that investors will ask you for, which allow them to try and figure out who you are and how you work, with input from people that you’ve worked with. I won’t go too much into detail of the pitch deck because this is something that has been written about a lot but those are typically the questions that you want to highlight in the deck. You want to have clear answers around how much you would like to raise.

Prepare for your remote pitch

Having a remote pitch is a new thing, but we’re all doing it, via Zoom.

Even though there are many solutions, my advice is use Zoom because everybody uses Zoom. Everybody’s used to Zoom, people have Zoom installed… Don’t try and pitch from your phone — that’s horrible. Use a computer and if you can, have a fixed connection because Wi-Fi is the enemy. Make sure that you have a proper light environment, and turn off all notifications so that you don’t have Slack notifications coming in the middle of the conversation.

If you have it, go through the deck, but then some VCs prefer stories. In any case, don’t have them browse your deck, share your screen and take control of the conversation. It’s very hard, but try and make eye contact through the camera.

Don’t do what someone did to me a couple of weeks ago: They literally opened and shared the screen and so the calendar and their inbox with some emails from other VCs [were visible] … And if you’re pitching as a team, which you should because we’re trying to get to know the founders, try and figure out either the way you’re going to pitch or the cues you’re going to use to have the conversation involve everyone because you don’t want to have someone not being involved at all. So rehearsing is very important.

Practice the pitch to previous investors, friends who have been on the entrepreneurial side, friends who are on the investor side and try and get all their feedback together and rehearse until it feels right. Do this in the same environment where you’ll do the actual pitch.

Introductions matter more than cold emails

Introductions are also very important. Sometimes people will say, “Well, I’m just getting going and I don’t know how to get introduced.” The introduction is typically an important step for founders. It’s figuring out who is someone in their network who knows me, who can vouch for them with me and essentially, use the credibility I have for the person, and introduce them on their behalf.

As for email, I do read every single one I get. But to date, there’s only two cold emails that have led to an investment at Uncork. So just think about two investments out of 227 were cold emails and the rest was introduction. So it’s worth trying to figure out who knows people who know the VCs you want to try and connect to are so you can get those intros working.

Run fundraising like you might run your sales or CRM

Fundraising is basically a sales job. So like any CRM, you want to be able to track that figure out, who has said what, what the pushback was, what the questions were, so you can really be on point with your follow-ups. 

And be quick. If someone says, “Oh, send me this information, send me your references, send me your deck.” Literally, you should send that within a couple of hours of the meeting so that you can show that you’re on top of the ball, and that you’re good at following up because what we’re trying to assess when you pitch us is how good are you at selling your product? 

Make sure you track everything … [and] update the pitch as you get feedback from people. 

What if we do all of this, and it still doesn’t work?

If it never works, and nobody bites maybe you want to rework the pitch entirely. 

Maybe you want to think about what you should be doing. Some companies will pitch to a few firms and get three term sheets and they will say, “Oh, this fundraising thing was easy,” but, they’re really the exception. 

Most companies will pitch 50 firms and get one yes. And that’s what matters: to get one VC saying yes, to get to the next stage. It really only takes one investor to give you the push and the runway to get to the next round. 

I still remember Udemy pitching a bunch of people at seed stage many years ago and no one would bite. Then one, Keith Rabois, said yes, and suddenly the company was funded because everyone followed Keith’s lead. The other day I saw that they were raising $3 billion. So it just took one person, Keith, to give them the momentum. 

What is the impact on future fundraising if we received funds from either a crowdfunding site or an accelerator? 

It’s good if it’s an incubator that we have respect for in the sector that the company’s involved in, that’s the difference. The days of, “Oh, I have raised $5 million on whatever crowdfunding site for my product,” used to be exciting until a lot of the companies that were doing that failed. So these days it is, like, whatever. But I think it’s part of the funding ecosystem. So we’re more interested in the reasons why you picked doing YC or TechStars or others. Consumer hardware has become a very, very challenging category to get financed. Because there’s been so many failures, and also, we’ve had a hard time translating traction through crowdfunding to actually building big companies.

What kind of diligence questions do startups need to be prepared to answer?

Since it’s early stage, you don’t have much around customers and customer attraction and customer numbers. But if you have we’ll try and understand both the financial side. So unit economics, how much you spent to get those customers, how much you’re spending to service them. And have you lost customers or, why are they using this product? Things like that. What’s the competitive environment?

Has the shift to virtual pitching increased or decreased your due diligence?

Probably [increased]. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. So after awhile you develop some kind of a feel for things. It’s really hard to get the feel for things to translate online, right? So spending a bit more time on reference checks and trying to essentially use people we know, who know those founders, as proxies for us to figure out how they’re gonna behave and what if something challenging happens because it does. At the same time, because the velocity of deals has increased, it’s been challenging to take more time where there’s pressure to take less.

How do you feel about pitching with materials other than slide decks?

I think everything works, it’s really up to you. I like decks. I never take notes. So I always listen to the founder telling me the story and giving you a pitch deck. So the pitch deck is really useful to just get key data points and make sure everything is covered because then I can get back to it. If everything is just a story I can live with it. I would say be good at both is probably the way to think about it.

How much typically do you give up in equity if you’re taking a $2 million seed round?

It really depends, [but] I would say the standard these days is … $2 million [at] 20% dilution plus the option pool would be kind of a standard deal. But if you’re earlier than that, then maybe 25% two on six. If ever you’re a repeat founder with a track record or a very impressive founding team, you may be able dilute less, but what most founders will do is typically choose to dilute 20-ish percent and increase the size of the round if they can get a higher valuation.

What is the best way to get an introduction to an investor?

Just mind your network, LinkedIn is your best friend. I have a large, extensive network. So do most VCs. And so there’s always a bunch of people who are connecting you and us, right? The key challenge is to understand who knows us really well. So you have to make some kind of a bottom up and top-bottom approach. The bottom up is who is in your network who could know me and the top to bottom is who are the founders I work with who may be reachable to you. Because for us, strong signals are founders because our founders know us the best and if ever, they say, “Oh, you have to spend time with that person” then we will. [Also] co-investors, people we trust who we’ve co-invested with a lot. The problem is that there are a lot of people who know us. And I’m pretty good at only accepting LinkedIn invitations from people I actually have met face-to-face. I may have to revise that now because people are online, but you need to assess who’s out there who will vouch for you with me, and that I will pay attention to. And that takes a bit of time.

What’s your view on markets like Africa, now that we’re in this virtual world. Are you casting the net wider? 

We are really looking at the U.S. market at Uncork. It is a messy market, and you can build a multibillion dollar company on the U.S. market. Eventually they will open up to other geographies. We used to focus on founders in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston. But a couple of years ago, we started telling our entrepreneurs, it’s so expensive to build a startup in Silicon Valley. Just think about building remote-friendly companies. Think about hiring talent wherever it is, so it doesn’t have the same cost. San Francisco is incredibly expensive, and people just leave companies after a year or two. So think about cost of hiring and cost of retention. 

We have recently invested in a company called where one of the founders is actually in Egypt. So we’re thinking much more broadly about geographies. But in terms of focus, our market focus is on the U.S.

What is the likelihood of getting pre-seed funding without a technical co-founder, but a very well-thought through idea or pitch? 

That’s where figuring out the firm’s service is important. Some people will say I really want to see someone who can build that and will try and assess execution capabilities. But I’ve recently done a pre-seed investment with a repeat founder [where] he doesn’t really have a technical co-founder yet, but I know we can hire because he’s done it four times. So it’s a massive idea, I’m super excited, and I know we will be able to attract the talent he needs because he’s done it before.

I funded my startup myself and proceeded to launch a minimal viable product. What optics does that send to an investor? 

That’s a massive commitment, right? You put your own time and money behind it. I invested some of my own money for three years before launching SoftTech and that was my commitment to the world that I was going to do it no matter what, and so, it sends a very strong message.

In the last four investments you made during the COVID-19 period, how long did it take you to get comfortable? 

We always have a very large funnel, so we typically fund like 1% of what we see. I don’t remember the number of meetings but probably four to six, with the founders or about the founders. Because there’s multiple people on the team as well. It’s a bunch of hours spent during a very short period of time, because they were all compressed decision times, like a few days compared to a couple of weeks maximum. Those were pretty intense days where we just spent all our time focusing on those companies.

We all just need to be comfortable with the process that we follow to assess those opportunities online. And if I can’t get comfortable, then I will pass. 

For a machine-learning healthcare SaaS startup still developing its prototype, do you suggest we pitch for seed money?

Well, then you just go back to why is this relevant? What’s going to be the return on investment for the target users or customers of that startup? What are they replacing? Why is it 100x better and make the make the argument and the pitch of why this makes a ton of sense. And then we’ll assess it. And we’ll either say yes, because we trust the founders or no, because we don’t agree with their assessment.

How long on average is an initial pitch? 

Oh, it’s 10, 12, 15 slides. I always allocate 50 minutes. So 50 minutes to an hour, I would say think about 25 to 30 minutes and then a bunch of questions, and I always ask a bunch of questions along the way. And the hour has gone by very quickly.

What are you doing to overcome challenges for minority founders?

We welcome minority founders and 30% of our portfolio is women. We’re working very, very hard on getting people of color in the portfolio. We will work very hard to figure out how to stretch the network. It’s harder, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an excuse for us not to do those.

VCs and startups consider HaaS model for consumer devices

I’ve been following consumer audio electronics company Nura with great interest for a few years now — the Melbourne-based startup was one of the first companies I met with after starting with TechCrunch. At the time, its first prototype was a big mess of circuits and wires — the sort of thing you could never imagine shrunk down into a reasonably-sized consumer device.

Nura managed, of course. And the final product looked and sounded great; hell, even the box was nice. If I’m lucky, I see a consumer hardware product once or twice a year that seems reasonably capable of disrupting an industry, and Nura’s custom sound profiles fit that bill. But the company was unique for another reason. A graduate of the HAX accelerator, the startup announced NuraNow roughly this time last year.

Hardware as a service (HaaS) has been a popular concept in the IT/enterprise space for some time, but it’s still fairly uncommon in the consumer category. For one thing: a hardware subscription presents a new paradigm for thinking about purchases. And that is a big lift in a country like the U.S., which spent years weaning consumers off contract-based smartphones.

That Nura jumped at the chance shouldn’t be a big surprise. Backers HAX/SOSV have been proponents of the model for some time now. I’ve visited their Shenzhen offices a few times, and the topic of HaaS always seems to come up.

In a recent email exchange, General Partner Duncan Turner described HaaS as “a great way to keep in contact with your customers and up sell them on new features. Most importantly, for start-ups, recurring revenue is critical for scaling a business with venture capital (and will help appeal to a broad set of investors). HaaS often has a low churn (as easier to put onto long-term contracts).”

Exclusive: 2019 HAX report reveals hardware startup trends

Hardware startups are expanding from the world of consumer tech; global hardware accelerator HAX knows this better than most and details the latest trends in its yearly report. One of the most active early-stage hardware investors, the group today released exclusively to TechCrunch its yearly report with insights on hardware startups.

The report highlighted several vital insights: hardware companies are increasingly entering the public market, and more privately-held hardware startups are exceeding a valuation of $1 billion. Of those unicorns, more than 50% are Chinese hardware companies.

Former Anki engineers will steer Waymo’s self-driving trucks effort

More than a dozen engineers, who lost their jobs after consumer robotics startup Anki shut down in April, have found a new home.

The 13 robotics experts, a group that includes Anki’s co-founder and former CEO Boris Sofman, are heading over to self-driving vehicle company Waymo, to lead engineering in the autonomous trucking division, according to a LinkedIn post. Sofman will report to CTO Dmitri Dolgov.

The group of engineers comprises nearly the entire technical team at Anki, many of whom have roots at Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program, and includes its former behavior lead Brad Neuman and perception lead Andrew Stein. Anki’s head of hardware Nathan Monson and its former program manager Charlie Hite have also joined Waymo.

Axios was the first to report the move.

Anki built several popular products, starting with Anki Drive in 2013 and later the popular Cozmo robot. The Bay Area-startup had shipped more than 3.5 million devices with annual revenues approaching $100 million, Sofman wrote Thursday in a LinkedIn post.

Anki had raised more than $180 million, according to Crunchbase. The company was apparently prepared to take its robots business beyond entertainment, but it ran out of runway before it was able to activate that plan. “In the end we couldn’t overcome recent hurdles and the complexities of consumer hardware,” Sofman wrote.

Anki was a consumer robots company, which would seem like a bit of a leap over to Waymo. However, Sofman noted that it was autonomous driving that “first sparked” his attraction to the field and was the focus of his thesis at Carnegie Mellon.

“Throughout the last decade, I would look over at what was happening at Waymo and be inspired by the progress they were making, and the inevitable impact their technology would have on everyone’s lives in the years to come,” Sofman wrote.

The trucking team will work out of Waymo’s San Francisco office, a newer development within the company’s structure.

Much of the attention on Waymo has been on its robotaxi ambitions and its Waymo One ride-hailing service in the Phoenix area. However, the company has intentions to apply its full self-driving stack to other commercial applications, including trucks and deliveries.

“The nice thing about all those properties is that while the specialization layer are very different, the core technology, and the hardest problems that you’re trying to solve on research and engineering are exactly the same,” Dolgov said during an interview in March at MIT Tech Review’s EmTech Digital conference.