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Suing your way to the stars – TechCrunch

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Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.

Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.

Now then! Onto the topic at hand.

Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.

Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.

This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:

“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.

A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.


Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, California on December 18, 2018.

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.

Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.

Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.

Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.

Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.

Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.


Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”

A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..

A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”


Thanks for reading! Until next week…

Lucas M.



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Bolt to expand EV option in South Africa – TechCrunch

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Estonian on-demand transport firm Bolt is set to roll out electric taxi options in South Africa four months after introducing e-bike food delivery services in the country.

Bolt’s plan follows the introduction of a ‘green category’ – which lets riders hail an electric or a hybrid vehicle. This comes as the company expands its services to environmentally friendly modes of transport.

“We are looking to roll out a green taxi category in South Africa in the next few months, and plan to roll out green categories in other African markets,” said Bolt’s regional director for Africa and Middle East, Paddy Partridge.

The company already offers a green option in Kenya, where it also runs e-bike food delivery. It also plans to launch e-mobility options for food delivery in its other markets across East Africa, including Uganda and Tanzania. 

Founded in 2013 by Markus Villig, the tech firm, which has operations in 45 countries – including seven in Africa – runs a gamut of services comprising ride-hailing, car, scooter and bike rentals, food delivery, and recently grocery delivery, fashioning itself as a transport and deliveries company.

“In East Africa we see a lot of potential on the motorbike side, and especially for delivery. We plan to invest more in this direction as it also serves to eliminate the challenges associated with constantly fluctuating fuel prices, currently the most significant operating cost for our couriers,” said Partridge.

Opportunities for electric mobility are said to be huge, but a majority of countries lack the necessary infrastructure to support their adoption, says a UNEP report

A lack of recharging infrastructure, low grid power connectivity, and generally expensive e-vehicles remain hindrances to the adoption of electric transportation options in many African countries. 

A transition to electric power would offer countries in sub-Saharan Africa a range of gains, including affordable transport and a reduction in emissions, with fossil-fuel vehicles contributing 12% of the region’s total emissions, according to the SSA Nature Sustainability report.

Bolt is planning arrangements with banking institutions in its markets in Africa to help its drivers access credit for purchasing electric vehicles, exploring other options away from its current scheme with leasing companies.

“The purchase cost and import duties are often high, thereby deterring ownership. We are exploring a number of vehicle financing partnerships in Kenya and South Africa for electric cars and bikes, which would help make it easier for drivers to get access to, and eventually own, electric vehicles,” he said.

The company’s plan to expand its offering across the continent comes in the wake of growing competition from companies such as Uber, which is currently testing a carpooling service in Nairobi, with plans to roll it out in Ghana and Nigeria.

Bolt recently launched the food delivery service in Nigeria, and also expanded its reach in South Africa by rolling out the service in Johannesburg after introducing it in Cape Town last year.

This comes in the wake of the company’s recent $696 million (€600M) funding round that the tech firm said will go into growing the new grocery delivery service, Bolt Market, as well as in expanding its other transport and delivery services. 

Sequoia Capital, Tekne Capital, and Ghisallo, G Squared, D1 Capital, and Naya Capital are some of the investors that participated in the funding round that increased its valuation to €4 billion. The new funding came after the International Finance Corporation injected $24 million (€20) into the business at the beginning of the year.

Among the services it is looking to grow is Bolt Drive, the car rental service launched early this year to offer different choices including compact, mid-size, electric, premium, SUV, and van. The service is currently available in Estonia’s capital Tallin with plans to roll it out in other Europe and Africa markets. Bolt Drive adds to the micro-mobility options – scooters and e-bikes – that the company introduced in line with its goal of availing to the masses, more budget environmentally friendly transport solutions. The e-mobility service is available in over 100 cities across Europe.

“We continue to scale up our operations for the benefit of our customers.  Our core business is to provide reliable, safe and affordable transportation services to everyone and we are excited to make travel easier and quicker in many cities across the continent,” said Partridge.



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“Pikmin Bloom,” an AR mobile game, is Niantic’s next collaboration with Nintendo – TechCrunch

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Niantic announced yesterday that its next augmented reality mobile game will be Pikmin Bloom, a collaboration with Nintendo. The free game is available now for iOS and Android in Singapore and Australia, but will roll out globally in the coming days.

Like Pokémon Go, Pikmin Bloom will encourage players to get outside and explore their neighborhoods. Only now, instead of catching Pidgey and Rattata, you’ll collect seedlings and create a squad of Pikmin. The more you walk, the more Pikmin you’ll collect. These plant-animal hybrid creatures come from Nintendo’s strategy and puzzle game franchise of the same name.

Pikmin Bloom marks the sixth installment in the Pikmin video game series. There are many different types of Pikmin to interact with, and as you walk alongside them, you’ll leave augmented reality trails of flowers behind you. According to in-game footage in the announcement video (seen above), it looks like you can customize your avatar as a Mii.

Another feature that borrows from Pokémon Go is Pikmin Bloom’s monthly Community Day events. In the former, players are lured outdoors with special bonuses and rare featured Pokémon once per month, encouraging people to get outside and befriend fellow players. Niantic hasn’t released details, but the company said that it will host monthly Community Day events for Pikmin as well to plant and play together.

Pokémon Go has a weekly pop-up on Monday mornings that shows you how far you’ve walked that week. But Pikmin seems more specifically geared toward encouraging movement, showing the routes you walked and the steps you took at the end of every day.

The last time the two companies released a game together, it shattered expectations — so, no pressure to our floral friends. Even if Pokémon Go doesn’t feel as ubiquitous as it did in summer 2016, it’s making Niantic more money than ever, netting over $1 billion in 2020. But it doesn’t quite seem like there’s as much to do yet in Pikmin Bloom as there is in Pokémon Go or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. So, this game might be geared toward a more casual crowd who just want to see some pretty pixels while they walk — no shiny-hunting and raid battle coordination here…at least not yet.



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QOA brings in seed round to do for chocolate what Oatly did for milk – TechCrunch

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Munich-based QOA is gearing up to be among the first to bring a chocolate product to market that is 100% cocoa free.

It is also now backed by $6 million in seed funding in an investment round led by Cherry Ventures with participation by 50years, World Fund, Nucleus Capital, Trellis Road, Pioneer Fund and Tet Ventures.

The company kicked off this year, founded by the sister-and-brother team of Drs. Sara and Maximilian Marquart. Sara Marquart is a food chemist with a specialty in flavor formation, while Max Marquart is a material scientist and now three-time entrepreneur.

QOA, chocolate

QOA’s product test kit

The global chocolate confectionery industry was valued at over $208 billion in 2020, and is the largest part of the industry in the U.S. Two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa, but is at risk — one of the reasons the Marquarts decided to focus on it. Currently, up to 50% of the current cocoa supply is at risk due to pathogens and climate change, and cocoa is playing a role in both deforestation and forced child labor.

“Our food supply is threatened due to the way we eat,” Max Marquart told TechCrunch. “We love chocolate, however, we realized that there are some sustainability risks and wanted to do something about it so we can still have it in the future.”

Companies, like California Cultured and Voyager Foods, are also creating chocolate without the cocoa using different approaches. Meanwhile, QOA developed a fermentation process that uses natural byproducts from other food-making processes for its base material. It then uses proprietary microbactera and flavor formation to create a vegan product that mimics the texture and flavor of chocolate, but without any artificial additives, he said.

The fermentation process will enable the company to scale production by 2035 and be able to price its products the same or below the cost of traditional chocolate. In fact, Marquart is predicting that in the future, the chocolate market will have two pillars: one half that is exclusive, expensive products made with normal cocoa, and the other QOA products.

QOA was part of Y Combinator this year and was able to get its product test kit going so people can sample nine options. Marquart expects to have QOA’s first product on the market in 2022, and the new funding will go toward building out its first pilot production facility in Munich to complement one it has in Switzerland and hiring.

The company is in talks with its first business-to-business customers and expects to close some smaller contracts soon, Marquart  said.

“After that, we will go after our Series A so we can build out larger production lines,” he added.



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How to root out shadow IT and maximize SaaS investments – TechCrunch

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Growing reliance on SaaS has opened the door to shadow IT: SaaS applications bought by individual employees without the knowledge or approval of their organization’s IT department.

While shadow IT can be an opportunity for innovation, if left unaddressed, it can lead to risks like duplicate subscriptions, wasted IT spend, a lack of compliance and greater risk of a data breach.

By leveraging SaaS management and taking some steps, businesses can more effectively manage shadow IT, gain a competitive edge, reduce unnecessary costs and empower a distributed workforce.

To avoid the negative consequences associated with shadow IT, you need to give IT teams visibility into your organization’s entire SaaS portfolio. Once IT has a line of sight into all applications in use and how they are used, they are positioned to optimize investments. Maximize your SaaS investments with these tips:

Implementing self-service SaaS at your organization is easier than you may think.

Discover all SaaS applications and spending

Some organizations take a spreadsheet-based approach to managing their SaaS applications. Others turn to web browser plugins, single sign-on tools and cloud access security brokers. But these discovery processes can be time-consuming and involve piecing together SaaS inventories from disparate sources, often resulting in records that are out of date before they’re even completed.

Even the most detailed, frequently updated spreadsheet is not always the most effective way to manage SaaS, especially when you consider that organizations manage over 650 SaaS applications on average, and they underestimate the number of SaaS applications within their ecosystem by two to three times. If you don’t know a SaaS application exists, how can you manage and budget for it?

To optimize your SaaS portfolio, you have to start with gaining complete visibility. Tools like SaaS management platforms with machine learning capabilities that detect SaaS purchases enable continuous discovery of software. These solutions can also integrate with your financial management systems to discover purchases.

It’s critical for this strategy to happen in real time so you have a picture of your tech ecosystem that’s always complete, accurate and up to date.

Optimize and rightsize licenses and features

Do you have as many active users as you accounted for or could you downgrade your plan? Perhaps an employee left, but their accounts were never deactivated. In practice, you may not need all the premium features or seats you’ve paid for, which means there could be opportunities to reduce your SaaS spend.



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Apple launches Fitness+ group workouts powered by SharePlay – TechCrunch

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Apple has launched a new way for Fitness+ users to work out or meditate with people in other locations through group workouts powered by SharePlay. The tech giant first teased the feature at its September 14th virtual event.

Fitness+ subscribers can use SharePlay to start a group workout or meditation session with up to 32 other people while using FaceTime on an iPhone or iPad. The Fitness+ session will stream completely in sync for everyone on the call.

To begin a group session, users need to start a FaceTime call and navigate to the Fitness+ app. From there, you can select a workout and get started. SharePlay also works with Apple TV so users can follow the workout on a larger screen while staying connected with their friends on FaceTime through their iPhone or iPad.

Apple notes that when you work out in a group through SharePlay, you’ll see their metrics and progress toward closing their Activity rings. When someone closes their Activity rings during a workout, everyone in the session will be notified.

Additionally, Fitness+ will be available in 15 new countries on November 3rd, including Austria, Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. Fitness+ will be available in English, with subtitles in Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish.

The service is currently available in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. With this upcoming expansion, Fitness+ will be available in 21 countries in total.

Apple also says that ​​beginning November 1, 2021, around 3 million fully insured UnitedHealthcare members in the U.S. will be able to enroll with Apple Fitness+ for a year-long subscription, at no additional cost as part of their plan benefits.

Fitness+ is also introducing a new episode of its Time to Walk series, which is an immersive audio walking experience, with actor and disability advocate Marilee Talkington. In this episode, she talks about defying expectations and how she helps empower others to do the same.

Apple launched Fitness+ on December 14, 2021, and has since worked to compete with other subscription fitness offerings, including Peloton. Fitness+ is available as a standalone subscription for $9.99 per month, or as a part of the Apple One Premier plan for $29.95 per month, which gives users access to Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, Apple News+, and iCloud+ with 2TB of storage.



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Marcy Venture Partners, cofounded by Jay-Z, just closed its second fund with $325 million – TechCrunch

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Marcy Venture Partners, the venture firm cofounded in 2018 by Shawn Carter (Jay-Z), former Roc Nation CEO Jay Brown, and former Walden VC general partner Larry Marcus, says it has closed its second fund with $325 million in capital commitments. The team, which closed its debut fund with $85 million, is now managing $600 million in assets altogether, says cofounder Marcus.

The firm describes itself as having a “consumer, culture and positive impact” investment strategy, and it says the majority of its existing portfolio companies are founded or run by people who identify as women or people of color.

To date, the trio has written checks to at least 21 companies, including in fashion, skin care, and food companies. Among those many bets includes Rihanna’s lingerie company Savage X Fenty; the sneaker marketplace StockX; Therabody, which makes percussion therapy tools; Simulate, which makes plant-based, chicken-flavored nuggets; and an allergen-free cookie maker called Partake Foods.

Carter and company have also begun investing in crypto projects, supporting Bitski, a San Francisco-based startup NFT marketplace, earlier this year, and investing more recently in spatial LABS (sLABS), a tech incubator that focuses on the metaverse and blockchain-based products

The San Francisco- and L.A.-based firm, named after the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn where Carter grew up, was initially targeting $200 million for the newest fund, per an SEC filing from April.



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Heart to Heart raises $750K to bring sweet, sweet flirtation to your ear-holes – TechCrunch

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Radio has long been described as the most intimate of media. Quips about putting radio on the internet aside, the persistent popularity of podcasting and the cockamamie climb of Clubhouse shows that audio-based platforms will continue to echo around the upper echelons of the ecosystem for a while yet. Joining the fray is Heart to Heart, an audio-first dating app aiming to bring back some intimacy to the process of finding the right person for your next foray, whether that’s a saucy encounter or a mate for life.

“I used to act, and from my time in acting, I saw how much voice, and audio experiences drive intimacy between people,” explains Joshua Ogundu, co-founder and CEO of Heart to Heart. “When it came down to the dating apps, it was never something I could get into. I felt like you needed to come up with a textual one-liner. That was never my way of approaching romantic conversations.”

Heart to Heart is pushing back against the endless swiping and messaging of many of its competitors, offering a contrasting experience to sending the same opening line to dozens of people or typing with your thumbs until deep into the night.

“I believe that the best consumer investments come from people who have unique insights on consumer behavior and ways that new tech products can allow new forms of social interaction,” said Charles Hudson from Precursor Ventures, who led the pre-seed investment round. “I have been a big fan of Josh’s TikTok videos for some time and his ability to poke at the tech industry with timely, relevant videos really showcased his creativity and ability to communicate via short-form video. I think the idea around confirming photos, storytelling, and audio will yield a product that really speaks to people’s unmet needs around communication and will create a whole new way for people to connect.”

While Precursor doesn’t particularly focus on audio-first startups, the team has seen a number of opportunities in that space. It was an early investor in Howard Akumiah’s company, Betty Labs (acquired by Spotify), as well as Isa Watson’s company (Squad), Falon Fatemi’s company (Fireside) and several others that are still in stealth.

“I believe that there is a major wave of interesting activity happening around non-music audio and I believe that we are still in the early innings of non-music, audio-driven social experiences,” says Hudson. “The last two companies that I feel really innovated in this category were Tinder and Bumble. I think Josh and his team have a new mechanic that feels differentiated and unique and I think it has the potential to be the foundation for a new way for people to meet and get to know each other in ways that aren’t easily accomplished today.”

Joshua Ogundu, co-founder and CEO of Heart to Heart (Photo provided by Heart to Heart)

The company raised the pre-seed round of $750,000. The round was led by Precursor Ventures, and Bryce Roberts of OATV & Angelica Nwandu of The Shade Room partnered on the investment, as well as Marie Rocha at Realist Ventures. In addition, a number of angel investors joined the round, including Chris Bennett (Wonderschool), Andy Weissman (USV) and Gregory Levey (Robinson Huntly).

“The main thing we are trying to accomplish with the $750K, is to focus on building our iOS app, and making LA our first launch market,” says Ogundu. “Dating is such a local experience, and it makes sense to us to build and improve locally, then scaling it up from there.”

“Voice is so intentional and intimate, and that is exactly what we’re building here at Heart to Heart,” says Ogundu, suggesting that the voice mechanic is helpful in a dating context because it helps slow people down. “I think that because it takes more energy to send that voice snippet to someone, you’ll be more intentional with who you even look to strike up conversations with.”

The founding team consists of Joshua Ogundu, who wears the CEO hat. He is joined by Arihant Jain and Komal Shrivastava, who have been heading up the engineering and design efforts. The company hopes to get its product to market by the end of the year.



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