Author: Devin Coldewey

EarthOptics helps farmers look deep into the soil for big data insights



Farming sustainably and efficiently has gone from a big tractor problem to a big data problem over the last few decades, and startup EarthOptics believes the next frontier of precision agriculture lies deep in the soil. Using high-tech imaging techniques, the company claims to map the physical and chemical composition of fields faster, better, and more cheaply than traditional techniques, and has raised $10M to scale its solution.

“Most of the ways we monitor soil haven’t changed in 50 years,” EarthOptics founder and CEO Lars Dyrud told TechCrunch. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress around precision data and using modern data methods in agriculture – but a lot of that has focused on the plants and in-season activity — there’s been comparatively little investment in soil.”

While you might think it’s obvious to look deeper into the stuff the plants are growing from, the simple fact is it’s difficult to do. Aerial and satellite imagery and IoT-infused sensors for things like moisture and nitrogen have made surface-level data for fields far richer, but past the first foot or so things get tricky.

Different parts of a field may have very different levels of physical characteristics like soil compaction, which can greatly affect crop outcomes, and chemical characteristics like dissolved nutrients and the microbiome. The best way to check these things, however, involves “putting a really expensive stick in the ground,” said Dyrud. The lab results from these samples affects the decision of which parts of a field need to (Read more...)

Elodie Games obtains $32.5M round to make social co-op gaming better



During the darkest hours of the pandemic, millions upon millions of people turned to online gaming as a way to pass time in lockdown and connect with friends they couldn’t see in person. But a social, cooperative, fun and cross-platform gaming experience is remarkably hard to find — and Elodie Games is here to change that.

Elodie’s co-founders, Christina Norman and David Banks, are gaming industry vets who both worked on global hit League of Legends at Riot Games. The pair — also partners — left in 2019 to form their own company, announcing their intention in 2020 to build games focusing on co-op, crossplay, and “endlessly engaging experiences,” which suggests more open-ended, sandbox play.

The team already numbers 30 (and they’re hiring), and the game they’re working on is still something of a mystery; the images on its site are just general ideas, nothing from development. But what they showed behind closed doors was clearly enough to secure a $32.5 million Series A from Galaxy Interactive and a16z, with Brian Cho of Patron and Chris Ovitz from Electric Ant participating as well. The company last raised $5M in 2020 to get the ball rolling and clearly they’ve put that money to good use.

Norman explained that the main idea is to remove the barriers many gamers have come to accept as inevitable.

“At the simplest level, we’re designing our game so players have these great experiences more easily, and more frequently,” she told TechCrunch. “This starts with removing friction (Read more...)

1047 Games raises $100M on the runaway success of its debut title, Splitgate



When you’re hot, you’re hot. And 1047 Games is making the most of the heat generated by Splitgate, its first game and a now a breakout success. After working on a shoestring for years, the team has since May raised three rounds, the latest for a massive $100M.

Co-founder and CEO Ian Proulx credited a dedicated community and, as he described it, “taking a Silicon Valley approach to running a game business.”

At the time 1047 Games was founded, about 5 years ago, free to play (f2p) PC games were a niche genre. While games like World of Tanks and Warframe were seeing success, and of course many mobile games relying on in-app-purchases, Fortnite had yet to show the industry that f2p could be so ludicrously profitable.

“5 years ago it was very hit driven: you spend years developing a product, put all this money into hyping the launch, and then hope it’s a success,” Proulx explained. “Our process was, there’s no way we can take that risk — if we spent our entire budget and got it wrong, we’re out of business. So we thought, let’s do a soft launch, put it out there and see what happens, learn, listen, look at the data. Why would I spend money marketing a product that I have no idea about whether it will be a success? If we wanted to spend money, and we didn’t have a lot, I’d rather spend it on a product that has great metrics and (Read more...)

Sanas aims to convert one accent to another in real time for smoother customer service calls



In the customer service industry, your accent dictates many aspects of your job. It shouldn’t be the case that there’s a “better” or “worse” accent, but in today’s global economy (though who knows about tomorrow’s) it’s valuable to sound American or British. While many undergo accent neutralization training, Sanas is a startup with another approach (and a $5.5M seed round): using speech recognition and synthesis to change the speaker’s accent in near real time.

The company has trained a machine learning algorithm to quickly and locally (that is, without using the cloud) recognize a person’s speech on one end and, on the other, output the same words with an accent chosen from a list or automatically detected from the other person’s speech.

Screenshot of the Sanas desktop application.

Image Credits: Sanas.ai

It slots right into the OS’s sound stack so it works out of the box with pretty much any audio or video calling tool. Right now the company is operating a pilot program with thousands of people in locations from the USA and UK to the Philippines, India, Latin America, and others. Accents supported will include American, Spanish, British, Indian, Filipino and Australian by the end of the year.

To tell the truth, the idea of Sanas kind of bothered me at first. It felt like a concession to bigoted people who consider their accent superior and think others below them. Tech will fix it… by accommodating the bigots. Great!

But while I still have a little bit of that feeling, I can see there’s (Read more...)

Luminate aims to make hair loss from chemotherapy a thing of the past



Hair loss resulting from chemotherapy is one of the most recognizable side effects in all of medicine, and for many is an unwanted public announcement of their condition and treatment. Luminate Medical may have a solution in a medical wearable that prevents the chemical cocktail from tainting hair follicles, preventing the worst of the loss and perhaps relegating this highly visible condition to the past.

When Luminate CEO Aaron Hannon and his co-founder Bárbara Oliveira were asking patients and doctors about areas of cancer treatment that they could perhaps innovate in, “we were just astonished at how much hair loss dominated the conversation,” said Hannon. “So from then on out we’ve just been laser focused on making that something that doesn’t exist any more.”

When a patient is undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer-inhibiting drugs course through their entire body — anywhere the blood goes. This has a variety of side effects, like weakness and nausea, and on a longer time scale hair loss occurs as the substances affect the follicles. Luminate’s solution, developed in partnership with the National University of Ireland Galway, is to prevent the blood from reaching those cells in the first place.

Image of a woman wearing the Luminate headset.

Image Credits: Luminate

The device that effects this is a sort of mechanized compression garment for the head. If that sounds a bit sinister, don’t worry — the pressure comes from air bladders and pads pressing against the scalp, not screws or plates; Hannon says that it isn’t uncomfortable and pressure is carefully monitored.

There’s also (Read more...)

Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy



One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems. Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as eight percent all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if (Read more...)

Avalo uses machine learning to accelerate the adaptation of crops to climate change



Climate change is affecting farming all over the world, and solutions are seldom simple. But if you could plant crops that resisted the heat, cold or drought instead of moving a thousand miles away, wouldn’t you? Avalo helps plants like these become a reality using AI-powered genome analysis that can reduce the time and money it takes to breed hardier plants for this hot century.

Founded by two friends who thought they’d take a shot at a startup before committing to a life of academia, Avalo has a very direct value proposition, but it takes a bit of science to understand it.

Big seed and agriculture companies put a lot of work into creating better versions of major crops. By making corn or rice ever so slightly more resistant to heat, insects, drought or flooding, they can make huge improvements to yields and profits for farmers, or alternatively make a plant viable to grow somewhere it couldn’t before.

“There are big decreases to yields in equatorial areas — and it’s not that corn kernels are getting smaller,” said co-founder and CEO Brendan Collins. “Farmers move upland because salt water intrusion is disrupting fields, but they run into early spring frosts that kill their seedlings. Or they need rust resistant wheat to survive fungal outbreaks in humid, wet summers. We need to create new varieties if we want to adapt to this new environmental reality.”

To make those improvements in a systematic way, researchers emphasize existing traits in the plant; this (Read more...)

Role’s video role-playing platform makes a $2.75M charm attempt on the burgeoning tabletop world



Tabletop gaming is in the middle of a historic boom, despite recent restrictions imposed on in-person gatherings by COVID. The tools adopted by game masters and casual players to play remotely are powerful but not always the easiest to use or adopt. Role hopes to change that with a super-accessible video platform focused on the social aspect of role-playing games, and it has raised a $2.75 million seed round to do so.

It’s hard to say what has powered the incredible growth of the tabletop gaming space, which just a few years ago was perceived as a sleepy realm of basement-dwelling nerds, a niche within a niche. But it was a different kind of sleeping giant, one that has proven to be immensely diverse, valuable, and surprisingly tenacious in the face of the pandemic.

Some platforms, like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, have seized on this opportunity to provide online video collaboration platforms for playing games like D&D, strategy titles, and many others of the general tabletop type.

But Logan Dwight and Ian Hirschfeld, co-founders of Role, felt these approaches tended to emphasize the mechanics over what they felt was a more important aspect of RPGs.

“We asked ourselves, why is it that people, when they have all these options, choose to play D&D on the internet? And what we figured out is, it’s the people,” said Dwight. “The game lives in the minds of the people, a shared social experience. It’s about the conversation, the face-to-face interactions.”

This is (Read more...)

Bedrock modernizes seafloor mapping with autonomous sub and cloud-based data



The push for renewable energy has brought offshore wind power to the forefront of many an energy company’s agenda, and that means taking a very close look at the ocean floor where the installations are to go. Fortunately Bedrock is here to drag that mapping process into the 21st century with its autonomous underwater vehicle and modern cloud-based data service.

The company aims to replace the standard “big ship with a big sonar” approach with a faster, smarter, more modern service, letting companies spin up regular super-accurate seafloor imagery as easily as they might spin up a few servers to host their website.

“We believe we’re the first cloud-native platform for seafloor data,” said Anthony DiMare, CEO and cofounder (with CTO Charlie Chiau) of Bedrock. “This is a big data problem — how would you design the systems to support that solution? We make it a modern data service, instead of like a huge marine operation — you’re not tied to this massive piece of infrastructure floating in the water. Everything from the way we move sonars around the ocean to the way we deliver the data to engineers has been rethought.”

The product Bedrock provides customers is high-resolution maps of the seafloor, made available via Mosaic, a familiar web service that does all the analysis and hosting for you — a big step forward for an industry where “data migration” still means “shipping a box of hard drives.”

Normally, (Read more...)

BrainQ raises $40M to transform stroke patient rehabilitation with its home therapy device



If you injure your elbow, surgery can help. If you lose a leg, prostheses are available. But problems within the brain are more difficult to treat, and for stroke victims rehabilitation is largely left to the body’s own repair mechanisms. BrainQ aims to change that with a device that stimulates the damaged part of the brain and promotes self-repair, showing enough improvement in studies to warrant a Breakthrough Device certification from the FDA — and the company has just raised $40M to take it to market.

It should be said at the outset that doubting the efficacy of some brainwave-emitting miracle device is natural. And in fact when I spoke with BrainQ’s founder Yotam Drechsler, he reminded me of the last time we’d talked — back in 2017, at which time I “expressed strong skepticism.”

No hard feelings — the tech was largely notional then, he admitted — but since that time the team has continued its work, raised some money, and what was a promising if not well supported thesis then has turned into one backed by firsthand data and clinical outcomes. The resulting system could be the biggest improvement to stroke therapy in decades or more.

Strokes can result in various obvious impairments, such as grip strength or coordination, but of course the injury is not to the hand or leg itself, it is to the networks in the brain that govern those parts. But medical science has no method for directly rebuilding those networks — the (Read more...)