How China’s synthetic media startup Surreal nabs funding in 3 months

What if we no longer needed cameras to make videos and can instead generate them through a few lines of coding?

Advances in machine learning are turning the idea into a reality. We’ve seen how deepfakes swap faces in family photos and turn one’s selfies into famous video clips. Now entrepreneurs with AI research background are devising tools to let people generate highly realistic photos, voices, and videos using algorithms.

One of the startups building this technology is China-based Surreal. The company is merely three months old but has already secured a seed round of $2-3 million from two prominent investors, Sequoia China and ZhenFund. Surreal received nearly ten investment offers in this round, founder and CEO Xu Zhuo told TechCrunch, as investors jostled to bet on a future shaped by AI-generated content.

Prior to founding Surreal, Xu spent six years at Snap, building its ad recommendation system, machine learning platform, and AI camera technology. The experience convinced Xu that synthetic media would become mainstream because the tool could significantly “lower the cost of content production,” Xu said in an interview from Surreal’s a-dozen-person office in Shenzhen.

Surreal has no intention, however, to replace human creators or artists. In fact, Xu doesn’t think machines can surpass human creativity in the next few decades. This belief is embodied in the company’s Chinese name, Shi Yun, or The Poetry Cloud. It is taken from the title of a novel by science fiction writer Liu Cixin, who tells the story of how technology fails to outdo the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai.

“We have an internal formula: visual storytelling equals creativity plus making,” Xu said, his eyes lit up. “We focus on the making part.”

In a way, machine video generation is like a souped-up video tool, a step up from the video filters we see today and make Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou popular. Short video apps significantly lower the barrier to making a professional-looking video, but they still require a camera.

“The heart of short videos is definitely not the short video form itself. It lies in having better camera technology, which lowers the cost of video creation,” said Xu, who founded Surreal with Wang Liang, a veteran of TikTok parent ByteDance.

Commercializing deepfakery

Some of the world’s biggest tech firms, such as Google, Facebook, Tencent and ByteDance, also have research teams working on GAN. Xu’s strategy is not to directly confront the heavyweights, which are drawn to big-sized contracts. Rather, Surreal is going after small and medium-sized customers.

Surreal’s face swapping software for e-commerce sellers

Surreal’s software is currently only for enterprise customers, who can use it to either change faces in uploaded content or generate an entirely new image or video. Xu calls Surreal a “Google Translate for videos,” for the software can not only swap people’s faces but also translate the languages they speak accordingly and match their lips with voices.

Users are charged per video or picture. In the future, Surreal aims to not just animate faces but also people’s clothes and motions. While Surreal declined to disclose its financial performance, Xu said the company has accumulated around 10 million photo and video orders.

Much of the demand now is from Chinese e-commerce exporters who use Surreal to create Western models for their marketing material. Hiring real foreign models can be costly, and employing Asian models doesn’t prove as effective. By using Surreal “models”, some customers have been able to achieve 100% return on investment (ROI), Xu said. With the multi-million seed financing in its pocket, Surreal plans to find more use cases like online education so it can collect large volumes of data to improve its algorithm.

Uncharted territory

The technology powering Surreal, called generative adversarial networks, is relatively new. Introduced by machine learning researcher Ian Goodfellow in 2014, GANs consist of a “generator” that produces images and a “discriminator” that detects whether the image is fake or real. The pair enters a period of training with adversarial roles, hence the nomenclature, until the generator delivers a satisfactory result.

In the wrong hands, GANs can be exploited for fraud, pornography and other illegal purposes. That’s in part why Surreal starts with enterprise use rather than making it available to individual users.

Companies like Surreal are also posing new legal challenges. Who owns the machine-generated images and videos? To avoid violating copyright, Surreal requires that the client has the right to the content they upload for moderation. To track and prevent misuse, Surreal adds an encrypted and invisible watermark to each piece of the content it generates, to which it claims ownership. There’s an odd chance that the “person” Surreal produces would match someone in real life, so the company runs an algorithm that crosschecks all the faces it creates with photos it finds online.

“I don’t think ethics is something that Surreal itself can address, but we are willing to explore the issue,” said Xu. “Fundamentally, I think [synthetic media] provides a disruptive infrastructure. It increases productivity, and on a macro level, it’s inexorable, because productivity is the key determinant of issues like this.”

Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers raises $12.5 million

A startup by an Apple alum that has become home to millions of low-skilled workers in India said on Tuesday it has raised an additional $12.5 million, just five months after securing $8 million from high-profile investors.

One-year-old Apna said Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital led the $12.5 million Series B investment in the startup. Existing investors Lightspeed India and Rocketship VC also participated in the round. The startup, whose name is Hindi for “ours,” has now raised more than $20 million.

More than 6 million low-skilled workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians have joined Apna to find jobs and upskill themselves. But there’s more to this.

An analysis of the platform showed how workers are helping one another solve problems — such as a beautician advising another beautician to perform hair dressing in a particular way that tends to make customers happier and tip more, and someone sharing how they negotiated a hike in their salary from their employer.

“The sole idea of this is to create a network for these workers,” Nirmit Parikh, Apna founder and chief executive told TechCrunch in an interview. “Network gap has been a very crucial challenge. Solving it enables people to unlock more and more opportunities,” he said. Harshjit Sethi, principal at Sequoia India, said Apna was making inroads with “building a professional social network for India.”

The startup has become an attraction for several big firms, including Amazon, Flipkart, Unacademy, Byju’s, Swiggy, BigBasket, Dunzo, BlueStar and Grofers, which have joined as recruiters to hire workers. Apna offers a straightforward onboarding process — thanks to support for multiple local languages — and allows users to create a virtual business card, which is then shown to the potential recruiters. Parikh said Apna’s AI understands the cultural nuances, helping recruiters find the best candidates for their needs.

The past six months have been all about growth at Apna, said Parikh. The app, available on Android, had 1.2 million users in August last year, for instance. During this period, there have been 60 million interactions between recruiters and potential applicants, he said. The platform, which has amassed more than 80,000 employers, has a retention rate of over 95%, said Parikh.

“Apna has taken a jobs-centric approach to upskilling that we are very excited about. Lack of accountability has been the core issue with current skill / vocational learning alternatives for grey and blue-collar workers. Apna has turned the problem on its head by creating net-positive job outcomes for anyone who chooses to upskill on the platform,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

Image Credits: Nirmit Parikh

Parikh got the idea of building Apna after he kept hearing about the difficulty his family and friends faced in India in hiring people. This was puzzling to Parikh, as he wondered how could there be a shortage of workers in India when there are hundreds of millions of people actively looking for such jobs. The problem, Parikh realized, was that there wasn’t a scalable networking infrastructure in place to connect workers with employers.

Before creating the startup, Parikh met workers and went undercover as an electrician and floor manager to understand the problems workers were facing. That journey has not ended. The startup talks to over 15,000 users each day to understand what else Apna could do for them.

“One of the things we heard was that users were facing difficulties with interviews. So we started groups to practice them with interviews. We also started upskilling users, which has made us an edtech player. We plan to ramp up this effort in the coming months,” said Parikh, who also started an AI firm more than a decade ago to solve challenges with electricity flux and then another startup to solve for information overload. (The first startup is now being run by family and friends, and the second firm was sold to Intel, Parikh said.)

Parikh said the startup is overwhelmed each day with the response it is getting from its customers and the industry. Each day, he said, people share how they were able to land jobs, or increase their earnings. In recent months, several high-profile executives from companies such as Uber and BCG have joined Apna to scale the startup’s vision, he said, adding that the problem Apna is solving in India exists everywhere and the startup’s hope is to eventually serve people across the globe.

The app currently has no ads, and Parikh said he intends to not change that. “Once you get in the ad business, you start doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said. The startup instead plans to monetize its platform by charging recruiters, and offering upskill courses. But Parikh maintained that Apna will always offer its courses to users for free. The premium version will target those who need extensive assistance, he said. The startup also plans to expand its team.

As is the case elsewhere, millions of people lost their livelihood in India in the past year as coronavirus shut many businesses and workers migrated to their homes. There are over 250 million blue and grey-collar workers in India, and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Sethi.

Hear how to nail your virtual pitch meeting at Early Stage 2021

On a recent episode of Extra Crunch Live, Bain Capital Ventures’ Matt Harris said that if you had asked him a year ago what would happen to venture capital during a pandemic lockdown, he would have replied “it would have fallen off a cliff.” Before the world changed so fundamentally, VCs and founders alike believed they needed to meet in person to build trust before signing paperwork that would financially and emotionally bond them together for years and years.

Today, the landscape is very different. More institutional capital is flowing into startups at much faster rates and a good deal of credit must go to the virtual pitch meeting. Founders can now take 30+ meetings in a single day, but are they making the most of those meetings?

At TechCrunch Early Stage in April, Melissa Bradley will talk us through how to nail your virtual pitch meeting and take questions from the audience.

Bradley is the co-founder of Ureeka, a venture-backed mentorship platform for SMBs that pairs founders with experts and mentors. Bradley is also founder and managing partner of 1863 Ventures, a business development program that accelerates underrepresented entrepreneurs (a group Bradley calls the New Majority) into their hyper-growth phase.

She’s also a professor at Georgetown University’s business school, teaching impact investing, social entrepreneurship, P2P economies and innovation.

In short, Bradley deeply understands what it’s like to sit on both sides of the table, as a VC and a founder, and even more deeply understands what it takes to have a successful virtual meeting from her experience building Ureeka (which is entirely virtual).

Bradley joins an all-star cast of speakers at TC Early Stage, an event that is packed with breakout sessions focused on all the core competencies that a startup needs to be successful. Here’s a preview of some of the sessions going down at TC Early Stage:

  • How to Get An Investor’s Attention (Marlon Nichols, MaC Venture Partners)
  • Four Things to Think About Before Raising a Series A (Bucky Moore, Kleiner Perkins) 
  • How Founders Can Think Like a VC (Lisa Wu, Norwest Venture Partners) 
  • Finance for Founders (Alexa von Tobel, Inspired Capital) 
  • Building and Leading a Sales Team (Ryan Azus, Zoom CRO)
  • Keys to Nailing Product Market Fit (Rahul Vohra, Superhuman)

That’s not all. The TC Early Stage curriculum is being spread across two events, with fundraising and operations represented on April 1 & 2 and fundraising and marketing deep dives on July 8 & 9. Folks who buy a ticket to just one event will get three months of Extra Crunch for free, and folks who buy a dual-event ticket will get six months of Extra Crunch membership for free.

An Extra Crunch membership comes with access to:

And much more! Really, what are you waiting for? Pick up a ticket to TC Early Stage here or use the widget below:

Chicago Ventures raises $63M to back seed-stage startups located anywhere but Silicon Valley

Buzzy mega-rounds and high-profile IPOs often dominate headlines. But many of those companies were once early-stage and scrapping to raise a seed round.

Today, Chicago Ventures, a VC firm that often leads seed-stage rounds, announced the close of its third fund — a $63 million vehicle that it’s already put to work.

Chicago Ventures (which is based in Chicago, where else?) has a very specific set of criteria when it looks to back companies. For one, as mentioned, it not only wants to back seed-stage startups, it usually leads those rounds. The firm is targeting 25 investments out of its new fund with an average check size of $1.5 million to $2 million.

As evidence, it has so far backed 11 companies out of this third fund, leading 10 of those rounds. The startups include CognitOps, CoPilot, Forager, Interior Define, NOCD, OneRail, PreFix and Ureeka.

The firm also is focused on investing in companies located out of the traditional hotspots of Silicon Valley and New York. Six of its most recent investments were in Chicago-based startups, two in Austin (where it recently opened an office), one in Orlando, Florida, and one in Los Angeles.

Chicago Ventures prides itself in identifying, and backing, “overlooked” companies. It was founded in 2012 under the premise that enduring companies could be built “anywhere” and not restricted to “a few select area codes.”

“Only a handful of funds consistently lead seed rounds. Tag-along, momentum-based investing is the norm,” the firm said in a statement. “The industry’s attention still converges on industries and geographies with rich histories of innovation. We fill these gaps. We lead seed rounds before it’s obvious, and serve as active, operationally-involved partners during a company’s earliest days. We invest off the coasts.”

Since its inception, the firm’s portfolio companies have raised more than $1.5 billion in follow-on capital. Seventeen of those companies are now valued over $100 million, including Cameo, business software marketplace G2 and logistics software company project44.

Chicago Ventures closed its second fund in 2016 — which included a $60 million main fund and a $6 million sidecar fund. The firm opted not to go the sidecar route this time around. 

In conjunction with the new fund, Chicago Ventures also announced that it has promoted Peter Christman and Lindsay Knight to partner. Christman leads investments in companies rebuilding old-line enterprise workflows and consumer products expanding access to care and financial well-being. Knight leads the firm’s post-investment operations, including talent, business development and functional best practice sharing.

Chicago Ventures has also named Jackie DiMonte to the team as a new partner. DiMonte comes from Hyde Park Venture Partners, where she led early-stage, enterprise investments. An engineer by training, DiMonte is based in Austin, where Chicago Ventures has made 10 investments since 2015.

In 2020, the dollars invested into seed-stage startups in the United States had an up-and-down year that TechCrunch explored in this piece. Also, the pattern of rising seed-check sizes seen in prior years continued, despite the tumultuous business climate.

Martech company Zeta Global raises $222.5M in debt

Zeta Global, the marketing technology company founded by David A. Steinberg and former Apple CEO John Sculley, is announcing an additional $222.5 million in new debt financing.

The company has gone down the debt route before — a Series F raised in 2017 combined $115 million funding with $25 million in debt. BofA Securities served as lead arranger and bookrunner for the new financing, with participation from Barclays, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley Senior Funding.

“For this round, we were able to both refinance our debt and add in a large amount of capacity for current operations and future initiatives,” Steinberg (Zeta’s CEO) told me via email. “We were able to work with our syndicate to capture a low interest-rate and take advantage of the strong credit markets.”

The company emphasizes its data-driven approach to marketing, combining companies’ first-party data with artificial intelligence and what it says are more than 2.4 billion customer identifiers. Steinberg said this approach has only become more crucial, with 2020 delivering “a five-year acceleration” as brands face the challenge of “digitally transforming their business structure to be data-centric.”

“Zeta’s capabilities are helping marketers engage customers across the entire digital ecosystem more intelligently and efficiently, with individualized messages, offers, and content by way of our identity-based data and predictive AI,” Steinberg continued. “Our challenge is to continue to keep up with our customers’ needs and maintain our competitive advantage around data and AI.”

The company’s funding announcement notes that previous loans have been used to finance acquisitions and integrations, including commenting platform Disqus and machine learning-powered marketing platform Boomtrain. Asked whether this new debt will also be used for acquisitions, Steinberg said the company continues to “organically innovate,” with a focus on its customer data platform and connected TV capabilities.

Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.

Axonius nabs $100M at a $1.2B valuation for its asset management cybersecurity platform

Remote work has become the norm for many businesses in the last year, and today a startup that has built a cybersecurity platform to help manage all the devices connecting to organizations’ wide-ranging networks — while also providing a way for those organizations to take advantage of all the best that the quite fragmented security market has to offer — is announcing a major round of funding and a big boost to its valuation after seeing its annual recurring revenues grow ten-fold over 15 months.

Axonius, which lets organizations manage and track computing-based assets that are connecting to their networks — and then plug that data into some 300 different cybersecurity tools to analyse it — has closed a round of $100 million, a Series D that values the company at over $1 billion ($1.2 billion, to be exact).

“We like to call ourselves the Toyota Camry of cybersecurity,” Axonius co-founder and CEO Dean Sysman told me in an interview last year. “It’s nothing exotic in a world of cutting-edge AI and advanced tech. However it’s a fundamental thing that people are struggling with, and it is what everyone needs. Just like the Camry.” It will be using the funding to continue scaling the company, it said, amid surging demand, with ARR growing to $10 million last year.

This latest round — led by Stripes, with past investors Bessemer Venture Partners (BVP), OpenView, Lightspeed, and Vertex also participating — represents a huge jump for the startup.

Not only is this the company’s biggest round to date, but last year’s $58 million Series C — which closed just as the Covid-19 pandemic was kicking off and remote working, to better enforce social distancing, was starting to take off with it — valued the company at just over $302 million, according to PitchBook data. Axonius has now raised around $195 million in funding.

Last week BVP announced a new pair of funds totaling $3.3 billion, with one dedicated to later stage growth rounds: this indicates that this money is already getting put to work. Amit Karp, the BVP partner who sits on Axonius’ board, describes the startup as one of the “fastest-growing companies in BVP history.”

When I last covered Axonius, one of the details that really struck me is that its platform is especially useful in today’s market, not just because of its focus on identifying devices on networks may well — and today genuinely do — extend outside of a traditional “office”, but also because of how it views the cybersecurity industry.

It’s a very fragmented market today, with hundreds of companies all providing useful tools and techniques to safeguard against one threat or another. Axonius essentially accepts that fragmentation and works within it, and it has its job cut out for it. Last year when I covered the company’s funding, it integrated with and ran network assets through 100 different cybersecurity tools; now that number is 300.

The crux of what Axonius provides starts with a very basic but critical issue, which is being able to identify how many devices are actually on a network, where they are, and what they do there. The idea for the company came when Dean Sysman, the CEO who co-founded Axonius with Ofri Shur and Avidor Bartov, was previously working at another firm, the Integrity Project (now a part of Mellanox).

“Every CIO I met I would ask, do you know how many devices you have on your network? And the answer was either ‘I don’t know,’ or big range, which is just another way of saying, ‘I don’t know,’” Sysman told me last year. “It’s not because they’re not doing their jobs but because it’s just a tough problem.”

He said part of the reason is because IP addresses are not precise enough, and de-duplicating and correlating numbers is a gargantuan task, especially in the current climate of people using not just a multitude of work-provided devices, but a number of their own.

Axonius’s algorithms — “a deterministic algorithm that knows and builds a unique set of identifiers that can be based on anything, including timestamp, or cloud information. We try to use every piece of data we can,” said Sysman — are built to bypass some of this.

The resulting information then can used across a number of other pieces of security software to search for inconsistencies in use (bringing in the behavioural aspect of cybersecurity) or other indicators of malicious activity.

The fact of that platform play — and how it can grow with both the range of devices that are added, as well as technology built to counteract increasingly sophisticated threats — is what attracted investors. 

“It’s always exciting to invest in fast-growing, innovative, category-creating companies, but what Axonius has accomplished in such a short time is remarkable,” said Stripes founding partner Ken Fox in a statement. “With its commitment to solving a fundamental challenge with a simple, powerful platform that collects and correlates data from hundreds of products its customers already use, Axonius has built one of the most beloved products in security. We look forward to partnering with the Axonius team as they continue to invest in technical innovation and grow to meet global demand in 2021 and beyond.” Fox will join the Axonius board of directors with this round.

It seems that some of this news leaked out over the weekend. A spokesperson has confirmed it all to us but the “official” announcement will be coming out later today.

Istanbul’s Dream Games snaps up $50M and launches its first game, the puzzle-based Royal Match

On the back of Zynga acquiring Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8 billion last year and then following it up with another gaming acquisition in the country, Turkey has been making a name for itself as a hub for mobile gaming startups, and specifically those building casual puzzle games, the wildly popular and very sticky format that takes players through successive graphic challenges that test their logic, memory and ability to think under time pressure.

Today, one of the more promising of those startups, Istanbul-based, Peak alum-founded Dream Games, is announcing the GA launch of its first title, Royal Match (on both iOS and Android), along with $50 million in funding to double down on the opportunity ahead — the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey to date.

While Dream Games will focus for the moment on building out the audience for puzzle games with more innovative ideas, it also has its sights set on a bigger goal.

“We’re building this as an entertainment company,” CEO Soner Aydemir said in an interview, where he described Pixar as a key inspiration not just for size but for quality in its category. “What they did for animated movies, we want to do for mobile gaming. We are focusing on casual puzzle games first because everyone plays these, but we will also move forward with other genres. We want to be a huge interactive entertainment company that builds high quality games.”

The Series A is being led by Index Ventures, with participation also from Balderton Capital and Makers Fund. The latter two backed Dream Games previously, in a $7.5 million seed round in 2019. Index, meanwhile, is a notable VC to have on board: other successful gaming startups it has backed include Discord, King, Roblox, Supercell and Angry Birds maker Rovio.

Interestingly, this is not Index’s first investment in a gaming startup founded by Peak Games alums: in December it led a $6 million round for another Istanbul mobile casual puzzle gaming startup founded by ex-Peak employees: Bigger Games.

Dream Games is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Dream Games raising $57.5 million ahead of launching any games — or proving whether they get any traction — may sound like a risky bet, but there is some context to the story that sets up the odds in this startup’s favor.

The founding team all come from Peak Games, the Istanbul gaming startup that was so nice, Zynga bought it twice — first, in the form of one small acquisition of some specific titles, and then the whole company some years later.

CEO Soner Aydemir is Peak’s former director of product who built the company’s two biggest hits, Toy Blast and Toon Blast. Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam were Peak’s former engineering leads. And Peak product manager Eren Sengul and an ex-Peak 3D artist Serdar Yilmaz round out the rest of the founding team.

(Aydemir notes that the team left and formed Dream Games in 2019, about a year before Zynga’s full acquisition.)

The other indicators that Dream Games is on to something are its metrics for its limited test run of Royal Match.

Royal Match — in which players are tasked with helping King Robert restore his royal castle “to its former glory” by rebuilding it through a series of match-3 levels and obstacles, with new rooms, royal chambers and gardens making up the different levels of the game — was launched first as a limited test on iOS and Android in the U.K. and Canada in July leading up to this launch. In that time, Aydemir said it saw 1 million downloads and 200 daily average users.

“We think the numbers are very promising compared to previous experiences,” he said.

While Aydemir likes to describe Dream as an “entertainment” company, there is a lot of technology going into the product, from the graphics and the mechanics of the puzzles themselves through to the data science behind them.

“If you want to create an iconic game, you need to combine engineering, art and data science together with high quality user acquisition and a strong marketing approach,” he said.

And he believes that when you focus on these it will inevitably lead to quality, which means you no longer have to focus on simply trying to find a hit.

“We don’t like that approach,” he said. “We don’t want to find a hit.”

That was also the mix that Index also wanted to back.

“Building iconic titles requires a harmonious mix of craft, science and flawless execution,” said Index Ventures partner Stephane Kurgan, who led the round together with Index’s Sofia Dolfe. “The Dream Games team has perfected this mix over many years of working together, and has put it on full display in Royal Match. We could not be more excited to work with them in their journey to build the next global casual champion.”

While Dream Games’ long-term ambition is to build out interactive experiences around different audiences and genres, Aydemir said that casual games, and puzzles in particular, have proven to be a huge hit with consumers.

The strength of that trend has up to now meant that puzzle games generally have proven to have more staying power than other genres in mobile games, which have soared in popularity but also somewhat fizzled out.

“Every year we see the bigger market of users growing by 20%,” he said. “It will remain for decades.”

Interestingly, the focus on casual gaming startups in Turkey seems like a perfect storm of sorts. Undeniably, the proven success of Peak has brought in more punters, but it has also shown the way to developers: you can build a successful and global consumer tech startup out of Turkey, and perhaps puzzles — which focus on shapes — are especially good at transcending different language barriers.. Alongside that, Aydemir pointed out that the country is strong on engineers and developers but slim on opportunities with bigger tech companies.

“Mobile gaming is a younger industry, so that presents an opportunity,” he said.

Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

With $62.5M in debt financing, Road Runner Media puts digital ads behind commercial vehicles

If Southern California-based Road Runner Media succeeds, you’ll start seeing a lot more ads while you’re driving.

That’s because the startup is placing digital screens on the backs technicians’ vans, delivery vehicles, buses and other commercial vehicles. Those screens can show both ads and serve as a brake light — according to founder and chairman Randall Lanham, the brake light functionality is required if you’re putting a sign on the back of a vehicle.

“The way we look at it, we are a digital brake light,” Lanham said. Yes, the brake light is showing ads, but “the driver touching the brakes interrupts the ad.” (The sign can also indicate turns, reversing and emergency flashers. You can see a mock-up ad in the image above, and real footage in the video below.)

To pursue this idea, Lanham (who described himself as a “recovering attorney”) enlisted Chris Riley as CEO — Riley’s past experience includes several years as CEO of PesiCo Australia and New Zealand. And the company announced this week that it has secured $62.5 million in debt financing from Baseline Growth Capital.

The idea of putting ads on moving vehicles isn’t new. There are, of course, ads on the tops of taxis, and startups like Firefly are also putting digital signage on top of Ubers and Lyfts. But Riley said Road Runner’s ruggedized, high-resolution LCD screens are very different, due to their size, quality and placement.

“[Taxi-top ads] don’t have the color, the brilliance, the clarity,” he said. “We can run a true video ad on the screen.”

Riley also said the ads can be targeted based on GPS and time of day, and that the company eventually plans to add sensors to collect data on who’s actually seeing the ads.

As for concerns that these big, bright screens might distract drivers, Lanham argued they’re actually attracting driver’s eyes to exactly where they should be, and creating a brake light that’s much harder to ignore.

“Your eyes are affixed on the horizon, which is what the [Department of Transportation] wants — as opposed to on the floor or the radio or directly off to the left or right,” he said. “That’s where your safest driving occurs, when your eyes are up above the dashboard.”

In fact, Lanham said he’s “very passionate” about the company’s mission, which in his view will make roads safer, and is creating a platform that could also be used to spread public service messages.

“We have the ability to retrofit any vehicle and make it safer on the highways,” he added. “I really, truly believe that we will save lives, if we already haven’t.”

The company says it already has 150 screens live in Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, with plans to launch screens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in March.