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Solar Foods wants to replace industrial animal farming with a high-tech protein harvest – TechCrunch

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Fermentation has a long, rich history in food production, from beer and wine, to yogurt and cheese, leavened bread and coffee, miso and tempeh, sauerkraut and kimchi, to name just a few of the tasty things we can consume thanks to a chemical process thought to date back to the neolithic period. But if this 2017-founded Finnish startup, Solar Foods, has its way fermentation could have a very special place in the future of human food too.

The industrial biotech startup is working on bringing a novel protein to market — one it says will offer a nutritious, sustainable alternative to animal-derived proteins. The product, a single cell protein it’s branding Solein, is essentially an edible bacteria; a single cell microbe grown using gas fermentation. Or, put another way, they’re harvesting edible calories from hydrogen-oxyidizing microbes.

“Technically it’s like a brewery,” explains CEO and co-founder Dr Pasi Vainikka in an interview with TechCrunch. “Like fermentation technologies are. It’s not that strange [a process] — there is this one difference, which is the feedstock.”

The production of Solein requires just a handful of ‘ingredients’: Air, water and energy (electricity) — which means there’s no need for vast tracts of agricultural land to be given our to making this future foodstuff. It could be produced in factories located in remote areas or inside cities and urban centers.

Nor indeed are other foods needed to feed it to create an adequate yield, as is the case with rearing livestock for human consumption. So the promise looks immense. (As Vainikka argues: “Land use and energy use are the two main problems of human kind — and the rest follows from these two.)

Nutritionally speaking, Solein resembles some existing foodstuffs — sitting between dried meat, dried carrot or dried soy in terms of the blend of vitamins, amino acids, proteins (overall, it’s 65% protein), per Vainikka. “So it’s very familiar but it’s a bit [of a] new combination,” he suggests, adding: “The taste is very mild, very neutral.” (A mild taste may not sound especially scintillating for the tastebuds but it means it’s easy to include as an ingredients in a wide range of foods without the need for a strong flavor to be masked.)

While Solar Foods has essentially discovered a new species through its fermentation process, the microbe itself obviously hasn’t just appeared on planet Earth — and is likely very ancient; perhaps even hundreds of millions of years old. So there’s a fascinating blend of old and new coming together in the startup’s bioreactor.

Why is finding new forms of protein important? The problem Solar Foods is aiming to tackle is that the environmental costs of livestock-based meat production are indisputably massive — whether you’re talking unsustainable land and water use; climate-heating emissions and pollution; and animal welfare concerns. But what if you could produce billions of nutritious meals without the need to deforest huge swathes of land and slaughter masses of livestock to produce the food? What if humanity could feed itself and stop consuming the planet in the process?

That’s the promise and the core differentiator that Solar Foods claims vs animal-derived proteins.

A Solar Foods bioreactor for producing Solein (Image credits: Solar Foods)

If you compare Solein to the growing gaggle of plant-based meat alternatives, they do still rely upon land being farmed to produce the necessary plants — whether soy or pea or oat etc — that form the basis of their products. Although they need far less land than meat production requires so the environment upside is still very real. But Solar Foods sees itself blending into this competitive mix — selling Solein to companies producing plant-based foods as another ingredient they can use to cook up nutritious, environmentally friendly meals.

“Cereals, vegetables, fruits, herbs aren’t going anywhere,” says Vainikka, discussing how Solein might fit into an evolved food production system. “So if we go back to the original problem — 80% of all the problems that have to do with food, whether it’s loss of natural habitat or forest loss or whatever, has to do with the industrialized animal production… So actually Solein could solve 80% of the problem but 20% of the calories because mostly we are, on a calorie basis, eating carbohydrates.”

And if you’re excited about the promise of lab-grown meat — which is also seeking to de-link protein production from land use — Vainikka says the startup is supportive of such efforts since, once again, it’s spying potential customers as he says cultivated/lab-grown meat producers could use Solein to feed the cell cultures they’re using to grow slaughter-free steaks.

So use-cases for Solar Foods’ edible bacteria look broad, provided people are willing to eat it (or have it fed to something in their food chain). Conceivably it could even be used as a feedstock for livestock — although the startup’s messaging is focused on the need to transform a broken food system and enter “the era of sustainable food production”, as its website puts it.

It is also working on developing a closed-loop system in which the sole byproduct of its production process — water containing bits of the Solein protein — would be continuously recycled back into production of more of the foodstuff. And if it can pull that off, the edible bacteria could potentially function as a life support system for humans on space missions where the timescales are too long for astronauts to rely on food supplies brought with them from Earth (such as, for eg, a mission to Mars).

“The specific thing that we think is different in what we’re doing — compared to anything else on the market today — is that we don’t use any agriculture in the foods,” Vainikka tells TechCrunch. “Electricity and carbon dioxide are the main ingredients — instead of sunlight and carbohydrates or oils. So that’s the fundamental point where the disconnection of food production from agriculture happens.

“That’s our thing. And the reason to do that is once you can de-link the connection between use of land and land-use impacts and food production then basically all the environmental benefits fall on your lap that there can be in relation to food production.”

Down here on Earth, being able to unhitch food production from the vagaries of seasonal weather and other factors that can have major impacts on agricultural yields — such as pests, natural disasters, issues with supply chains specific to farming, and so on — is another touted advantage for Solar Foods’ approach. “Security of supply… consistency and quality,” says Vainikka, checking off some of the added advantages he says the edible protein offers vs traditional farming, i.e. on top of the massive heap of land-delinking-based environmental gains which could — for example — support a mass reforestation of farm land, promoting biodiversity and fighting global warming since trees suck up CO2.

Europe’s energy crisis bites

Solein looks like a no brainer on the environmental front. But one key component of its production — energy; electricity — is facing supply issues of its own in Europe at present, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russia being a major but unreliable supplier of gas to Europe.)

Solar Foods’ long term bet is on energy production costs being brought down (or, well stabilized) by widespread access to cheap renewables — such as wind and hydro energy in the north of Europe and solar in the sunny south. Thing is, for now, the European energy markets are typically structured so that the wholesale price of energy is linked to the cost of the most expensive type of energy (fossil fuel derived), despite there already being a fair amount of renewable energy available which is far cheaper to produce. (Hence why if the price of gas goes up the wholesale price of energy rises, and the bill payer must pay more, even if their energy supplier sources their energy from cheaper to produce renewable sources.)

Since the Ukraine war started, Europe has been facing an exacerbated supply vs demand issue. And over the past several months it’s been hard for Europeans to escape energy price spikes as their governments have sought to reduce reliance on Russian gas imports — shrinking energy supply options and helping keep war-spiked wholesale prices high.

The coming winter looks very grim, with Russia recently electing to entirely shutter gas exports via its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany in what looks like an attempt to weaken Western support for the pro-Ukraine sanctions. So energy supply in Europe has become a weapon of economic war.

It’s an incredibly volatile situation but one thing is clear: Europe’s ‘competitive’ marginal-cost-based energy markets are in desperate need of structural reform — to reflect the cheaper production costs of renewables and ensure consumers and businesses aren’t at the mercy of fossil fuel volatility and cripplingly high prices linked to Russian aggression.

But, in the meanwhile, with electricity being a key component of Solar Foods’ process, the startup is having to manage what Vainikka — who has a background in energy economics that he says allows him to understand where the markets are headed — refers to with classic Nordic understatement as “turbulence”.

Solar Foods CEO, Dr Pasi Vainikka (left) and CTO Juha-Pekka Pitkanen

Solar Foods CEO, Dr Pasi Vainikka (left) and CTO Juha-Pekka Pitkanen (Image credits: Solar Foods)

He suggests Solar Foods may therefore need to wait out the current energy crisis before it’s able to scale commercial production of Solein in a way that’s economically viable — though it’s banking on Europe being able to find a way through to more stable electricity prices in the not too distant future. (In recent days, the Commission has said it will be coming with an emergency reform plan to curb energy prices — both in the short term and over the longer run, to ensure prices reflect cheaper renewables.)

“At the moment we shouldn’t make electricity supply agreements for our factory. We can’t be on the market today to make those agreements,” confirms Vainikka. “Because of this [energy price volatility] — it’s a fact. The second [thing] is we are quite happy that we are not fermenting natural gas — we are fermenting electricity. So we have an opportunity to make a good deal after turbulence.”

“We need to replace fossil fuels with electricity so we need a lot of new generation capacity which is also a problem in the market but we’re confident that this works,” he adds. “Unfortunately there is this turbulence now.”

Solar Foods is pressing on regardless of the current energy crisis.

It’s in the process of building its first factory — actually a demo facility, as a step on the road to future commercial scaling up of Solein production — at a cost of around €40M, drawing on backing from a number of VC funds since 2017, over seed and Series A rounds, as well as raising debt financing (such as €15M from Danske Bank Growth earlier this year).

The demo facility at least won’t have major energy requirements to run. (Although he says it’s still holding off on signing an energy supply contract for now.)

“We’ll manage the turbulence but of course it would be better for it not to continue too long,” says Vainikka. “We’re using this demo [facility] operated by one wind turbine to prove that this scales — but the real factories would be 100x larger in terms of energy use, 50x larger — and it would need rather 50 turbines to run a huge facility that will produce half a billion meals. Then you must get a good [energy supply] contract and if we were investing into that factory now it might be postponed because of the turbulence.”

Good food and food for good?

With the demo factory set to come on stream in 2023, Solar Foods’ hope is the first consumer product containing Solein will be on the market by the end of next year (or, failing that, in early 2024). Which global market will get the first commercial taste of the novel protein will depend on regulatory clearances.

Solar Foods has applied for clearance in multiple jurisdictions but can’t predict whether regulators in Europe or the US or Asia will be first with approval, given variances in this process. (But Vainikka says it’s possible the first clearance could happen this year.)

What the first product for sale to consumers that contains Solein will be also isn’t yet clear.

Vainikka suggests a few possibilities — such as that it could be added to existing foods like breakfast cereals or vegan meals for fortification purposes (owning to its vitamin and mineral content, such as iron and B vitamins); or as a main ingredient in plant-based meat replacement products, replacing stuff like pea protein. Or he says it could be used as an egg-replacement in pasta or pastry production. Or as a principle ingredient in ice cream or yogurt (or even to make a spreadable faux cheese).

“We leave the final formulation and product development for our customers so that we can empower them to renew categories,” he suggests. “And make having a food an act for good.”

Solein, a novel protein, shown integrated into a variety of foodstuffs

Some of the demo foods the startup has cooked up in its labs (Image credits: Solar Foods)

“Frankly as a company we think that it might be a good idea to focus on what we master — which is this conversion-fermentation; producing this ingredient and so that it would have the functionalities needed for food products,” he continues, expanding on Solar Foods’ decision to stay in its biotech lane. “There are so many, so huge, or so experienced or so old [food] companies on the market who have already access to the consumer, all the experience regarding textures, product development regarding all kinds of plant-based ingredients and so on. So when we introduce Solein into the market you would not only need to get everything right, what we are doing and mastering now, but also the final product — of course taste and texture is decisive.”

“So that’s a heavy investment program that we’ve dived into,” he adds, emphasizing the still extensive range of requirements for developing a product that’s designed even to be an ingredient in processed foods that people eat.

“Nutrition must be there… then second is safety, then functionality, of course — how it works and forms texture — and then scaling and production technology; who has it, how does it work, is it scalable, and how does the supply chain work — so who’s really the gatekeeper? So this we are in the middle of now… A lot will happen in the next 12-16 months.”

While Solar Foods won’t be a food product maker itself it does have an R&D lab where it carries out culinary experiments with its product — and images on its website show a selection of demo foodstuffs, from chicken-style chunks served with pasta, to soup, bread and a breakfast smoothie, all with a distinctive rich yellow hue.

In its refined form — i.e. after it’s passed through Solar Foods’ electrolysing and fermenting bioreactors and been dried — Solein takes the form of a yellow powder (the hue is down to betacarotene it naturally contains).

The strong color makes it looks a bit like a custom blend of turmeric and cumin. But taste-wise it’s nothing like that strong. Per Vainikka, one expert taster who sampled it suggested it was akin to dried carrot. But whether or not you’re a fan of carrots is besides the point; he emphasizes that the taste is mild enough that it can be easily masked in whatever food product it was being incorporated into — just without the added nutrients going anywhere.

For example, in the sample case of adding Solein to pasta, Vainikka says it would — nutritionally speaking — be akin to eating, say, a plate of spaghetti bolognese with all the nourishment derived from an animal-based ingredient but without the need to have any minced meat on the plate. Which, well, might take some swallowing for those used to consuming traditional (and oftentimes culturally significant) recipes. (An Italian I described this meat-less but nutritionally meat-like pasta dish to at a dinner party I attended recently was visibly shocked at the prospect and a second Italian she started to explain the concept to responded by suggesting we should focus on having fun eating the actual food on our plates instead of talking about, er, such high concept stuff, so, well, there may be some acceptance humps in the short term.)

But as plant-based faux meats advance in taste and texture it’s easy to envisage creative food producers being able to whip up something that has a meat-like taste and texture and — thanks to the addition of Solein — is also imbued with similar levels of protein, iron and vitamins as actual meat. And that could be a strong selling point for consumers, especially with the current food fad for high protein eating.

Other food ideas Solar Foods has been experimenting with in its labs are ‘cheese’ ball lollypops, mayonnaises and dressings, pancakes and plenty more besides.

Solein

Image credits: Solar Foods

Vainikka says he hopes the first commercial food to contain the ingredient won’t be a burger — since there are so many meat-alternative patty options out there already. But he suggests it could be a “meat like bite” — something akin to a nugget — such as might be be served in an Asian hot-pot or similar. “Then yogurt, ice cream, soup, bakery pastry application is something that might go first,” he postulates.

“You could imagine it could be a frozen food, fresh or even on the street kitchen of Asian city,” he also suggests, saying the startup is keen to branch out and “appreciate different food cultures on the planet” — so it can “try to explain how Solein could be an ingredient in different kinds of dishes from the Asian hot pots to burger patties to soups or pastries or whatever”.

Food is of course not only cultural but individual tastes can be hugely personal — and/or political. So once Solein leaves Solar Foods’ factories and arrives in customers’ commercial kitchens that’s where all these localizing product and branding challenges will really kick in — as buyers will have to work on figuring out how best to blend it in with other taste and cultural considerations or indeed make its presence stick out loudly (at least on the packet) where shouting about sustainability benefits might be the best way to reap big sales in their particular target market.

One thing looks clear: The future of food won’t be dull — or even uniformly yellow-hued. A full rainbow of possibilities for alternative eats are coming down the pipe — and the environmental challenges we face, as a species, demand we find appetite to consume them.



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Twitter expands access to its experimental Status feature…but not to its paid subscribers • TechCrunch

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Twitter’s throwback feature, Twitter Status, is today expanding its list of potential status updates to choose from, in a continuation of tests that began this July. The feature, which is something of a cross between MySpace moods and a Facebook status, allows users to tag posts with an additional expression beyond the tweet itself — like “shower thoughts,” “spoiler alert” or “picture of the day.” Now, the company is adding common Twitter slang to its list, allowing users to tag their tweets with things like “Don’t @ me,” “Tweeting it into existence,” or “That’s it, that’s the Tweet,” and more.

The expansion was first spotted by app researcher Jane Manchun Wong, and Twitter confirmed the addition began rolling out to Twitter Status testers on Monday.

Other new status options now available include “Breaking news,” “Gaming,” “Pet of the day,” “So wholesome,” “Then and now,” “To whom it may concern,” “Touching grass,” “Twitter do your thing,” “Watching cricket,” “Watching football,” “Watching rugby,” and “Winning.”

The experiment, however, is not one of the “early access” features provided to Twitter’s paying customers as part of their Twitter Blue subscription.

Until today, the option to add a status to a tweet has been available to a select group of users in the U.S. With the update, Twitter says it’s now bringing on users in Australia, as well.

“As part of this expansion, those with access to the status feature will see a new set of potential statuses to choose from. Additionally, more people in Australia will also receive access to the experiment today,” a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch. They added that, with today’s update, the “majority of people in Australia” will now be able to use the feature.

One group that doesn’t necessarily have the ability to use the Twitter Status feature is the group of power users who pay for a Twitter Blue subscription. Though Twitter marketed Blue to those who wanted an expanded range of features — like a better news reading experience, personalization options, and early access to experiments — it hasn’t made all its new product tests available to its paid subscribers.

For instance, when Twitter began rolling out the addition of podcasts to its revamped “Audio” tab, Twitter Blue users weren’t the first group to gain access to the feature. Instead, Twitter made podcasts visible to a random group within its English-speaking mobile audience in August before later rolling out podcasts to paid subscribers the following month.

Similarly, Twitter Status isn’t listed among the experiments offered to Twitter Blue subscribers at this time.

Asked why Twitter isn’t prioritizing its paid subscriber base when it comes to trialing its new products first, as promised, a spokesperson clarified that it will only offer some of its experiments to subscribers while others will be tested with the broader public.

This seems to be a poor strategic decision on Twitter’s part, as those who are actually paying for Twitter have to stand by and watch other users get to play around with new features first — a perk they were promised. Though it’s understandable that some features may need to be tested among a larger group, at the very least, paid customers should be within that group.

The spokesperson clarified that Twitter Blue subscribers will have access to what the company considers “higher-impact” features first — like NFT profile pictures and, notably, the new Edit Tweet option.

The latter also today rolled out to Blue subscribers in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand after Twitter teased the editing feature last week. But the launch does not yet include Twitter Blue’s largest market, the U.S., which Twitter said would be “coming soon.”

Again, this strategy seems to be off the mark. While it’s one thing to test a small experiment within select geographies, it’s disheartening to see Twitter prioritize select markets and non-subscribers over its paying customers when it comes to some of its most fun and in-demand features.



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Geely’s Europe expansion continues, Argo robotaxis on the Lyft app and Tesla AI Day takeaways • TechCrunch

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive the full edition of the newsletter every weekend in your inbox. This is a shorter version of The Station newsletter that is emailed to subscribers. Want all the deals, news roundups and commentary? Subscribe for free

Welcome back to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B. 

The week capped off with Tesla AI Day, a recruitment slash roadshow that ended up lasting three hours. Yeah.

What did we learn and see? Tesla has made progress on its Tesla bot, also called Optimus. It is no longer a human dressed in a robot suit, but an actual robot. Will it make Boston Dynamics or Serve Robotics shake in their boots? Probably not. But it was a robot that moved, albeit briefly.

A few takeaways:
1. The event was somehow simultaneously very dense and lacking basic details that would help establish baselines and progress.
2. Tesla made a point to put employees from the AI and hardware teams on stage (this is unusual for the typical Elon-centric reveals and events)
3. There was an incredible emphasis on how the bot was equipped with components and tech used in Tesla vehicles, notably Autopilot. There is an efficiency that comes from shared parts and technology, but it also can come at great risk. Especially when said tech — ahem Autopilot — is controversial and coming under increased scrutiny by regulators.
4. Musk was asked if Tesla was still a sustainable energy company and he responded “I think the mission effectively does somewhat broaden with the advent of Optimists to you know, I don’t know, making the future awesome.” He also said that he believed that Tesla could provide a meaningful contribution to artificial general intelligence.
5. Tesla employees provided other updates, including its auto-labeling technology and the Dojo supercomputer. While Tesla employees explained these, Musk was off-stage tweeting” “Naturally, there will be a catgirl version of our Optimus.”

You can always email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions, or tips. You also can send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec

Micromobbin’

There wasn’t too much micromobility news this week, so we’ll keep this brief. Here’s what you need to know in the world of tiny electric vehicles.

Climate change is killing bees, and that’s a big problem, because bees kind of help regulate the effects of climate change. What’s this got to do with micromobility? Well, Cake launched a limited edition Kalk model bike called Flower Power that’s available in seven different color options. The company said that 5% of profits from the bikes will be donated to the World Bee Project, which is dedicated to saving the planet’s bee population.

Delfast unveiled a smaller electric moped that it’s calling the Delfast California, which has a 750W motor and reach a max speed of 28 mph, making it slightly less intense than Delfast’s more badass bike the Top 3.0.

Pure Electric is teasing a folding scooter that is expected to launch in early October. Is that a fat tire we detect, or just a play of the light?

You’re reading an abbreviated version of micromobbin’. Subscribe for free to the newsletter and you’ll get a lot more.

Deal of the week

money the station

When news broke that Chinese carmaker Geely Holding Group acquired a 7.6% share of British luxury automaker Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings, one of my co-workers (and an international reporter who covers China) exclaimed: Geely owns everyone!

It sure seems like it.

Geely was aiming to own all of Aston Martin. Instead, it settled for a small stake. Geely didn’t even get a board seat out of the deal. But no matter, Geely has squeezed a lot out of seemingly empty juice vesicles before.

Geely, which owns Lotus and is the largest shareholder of Polestar and Volvo Cars, took a 10% stake valued at $9 billion in Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler in 2018. Geely didn’t have a board seat either, but managed to exert its influence over the company, including a joint venture with the German automaker that gave it partial control of the Smart car brand.

Aston Martin also announced that it raised $732 million from investors that included Mercedes-Benz and Saudi’s Public Investment Fund participating. Yew Tree Consortium holds 19% of Aston Martin following the raise. The Public Investment Fund has become a new anchor shareholder with a 18.7% stake in the company.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Faraday Future, the struggling EV SPAC, secured up to $100 million in funding through $40 million in convertible notes and warrant exercise payments and up to $60 million in convertible notes from Hong Kong holding company Senyun International.

Gogoro signed a $345 million five-year credit facility agreement in order to increase liquidity amid uncertain economic conditions. The loan comes from a group of 10 syndicated banks led by Mega International Commercial Bank Co., according to a regulatory filing.

Harley Davidson’s electric motorcycle division spinoff, LiveWire, raised less than planned and was valued below expectations when it went public this week through a SPAC combination. Shocking! LiveWire brought in $295 million in net proceeds, which is short of the $545 million anticipated when the deal was announced in December.

Want more deals? A whole list of them, including info on Aptiv, TerraWatt and TruckSmarter were in the subscription version this week. Subscribe for free here. 

Notable reads and other tidbits

Autonomous vehicles

Argo AI’s robotaxis are now operating on the Lyft network in Austin, Texas. This is a public service and the second city in which Lyft and Argo are operating a commercial robotaxi operation after Miami, which launched in December.

Aurora announced its 4th generation Driver, which can now detect and maneuver around a variety of objects and debris on the road and detect repainted lines in complex construction zones.

In a series of simulated tests, Waymo’s driver avoided crashes better than a virtual representation of a hyper-attentive driver.

Electric vehicles, batteries & charging

Arrival produced its first battery-electric van at the company’s Microfactory in Bicester, U.K., which uses autonomous mobile robots instead of a traditional assembly line. The remaining vans built this year will be earmarked for testing, validation and quality control, rather than customer delivery.

ChargerHelp has partnered with Tesla improve reliability and consumer confidence in charging access.

New York follows California and mandates that all new passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs sold in New York state must be zero emissions by 2035.

People

Airbnb co-founder and billionaire Joe Gebbia has joined Tesla’s board as an independent director.

Charly Mwangi, the former executive vice president of manufacturing at Rivian, who previously worked at Tesla, is now a partner at Eclipse Ventures.

Lyft has canceled job interviews and issued a hiring freeze in the U.S., according to anonymous professional network Blind.

Treepz CEO Onyeka Akumah talks to TechCrunch’s Rebecca Bellan about how to succeed in transportation in the latest edition of our founder’s Q&A series.

Want to read more of the notable reads plus other bits of news from the week? The Station’s weekly emailed newsletter has a lot more on EVs and AVs, future of flight, insider info and more. Click here and then check “The Station” to receive the full edition of the newsletter every weekend in your inbox.



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24 hours left to apply to volunteer at TechCrunch Disrupt and attend for free • TechCrunch

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It takes a veritable army to make TechCrunch Disrupt — which takes place October 18–20 in San Francisco — the well-oiled experience that savvy startuppers have come to know and love. And we couldn’t do it nearly as well without our incredible volunteers.

If you’re looking for a no-budget way to experience Disrupt up close and personal, sign up to volunteer for work exchange. Not only will you get a behind-the-scenes look at how to produce events, but you’ll also earn a free pass ($1,995 value) to experience the event. The deadline to apply is tomorrow, October 3 at 11:59 p.m. PDT.

You’ll work hard, play hard and get free access to all three days of Disrupt. Whether you dream of becoming a startup founder, marketer or event coordinator, this is a great way to see what it takes to produce a world-renowned tech startup conference.

Plus, your free pass gives you access to the full Disrupt experience — the main stage, the TechCrunch+ stage, the expo floor — where you’ll find the Startup Battlefield 200 — and the Startup Battlefield competition.

Volunteers handle a variety of tasks to help make this startup conference an epic experience for everyone. At any given time, you might help with registration, wrangle speakers, direct attendees, stuff goodie bags, place signage, scan tickets or help with pre-marketing activities.

We need volunteers on October 17–20. If you can meet the following criteria, we want to hear from you:

  • Attend a mandatory orientation on Monday, October 17 at Moscone Center.
  • Work a minimum of 10 hours during the entire conference, starting from October 17 (the day before the conference starts) to October 20. You’ll find volunteer shift availability in the application. We might select you for some pre-event opportunities, which would count toward your hours.
  • You may be scheduled for an 8- to 9-hour shift or you may be scheduled with two separate shifts of 4 to 5 hours each. Shifts can start as early as 6:30 a.m. PDT or end as late as 8:30 p.m. PDT.
  • You must provide your own housing and transportation.
  • Due to the high volume of applications, we will notify only the selected applicants.

Read the volunteer FAQ for more information.

Lend us a helping hand, and we’ll hand you a free pass. Save money, gain valuable experience and still have plenty of time to take in all the startup goodness that TechCrunch Disrupt has to offer. Apply to volunteer by October 3 to get your free pass, and we’ll see you in October!



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Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch

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Hi all! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we quickly sum up some of the most read TechCrunch stories from the past seven days. The goal? Even when you’re swamped, a quick skim of WiR on Saturday morning should give you a pretty good understanding of what happened in tech this week.

Want it in your inbox? Get it here.

most read

  • Elon’s texts: As part of the ongoing Musk vs. Twitter trial, a big ol’ trove of Twitter-related texts between Elon and various key figures/executives/celebrities has been made public. Amanda and Taylor look at some of the most interesting bits, with appearances from people like Gayle King, Joe Rogan, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (or, as he seems to be named in Elon’s contacts, “jack jack”.)
  • Instagram bans PornHub’s account: “After a weeks-long suspension,” writes Amanda, “Pornhub’s account has been permanently removed from Instagram.” Why? PH says they don’t know, as they insist everything they put on Instagram was totally “PG” while calling for “full transparency and clear explanations.”
  • Interpol issues a red notice for Terra’s founder: “Interpol has issued a red notice for Do Kwon,” write Manish and Kate, “requesting law enforcement agencies worldwide to search for and arrest the Terraform Labs founder whose blockchain startup collapsed earlier this year.”
  • Google Maps’ new features: A bunch of new stuff is coming to Google Maps, and Aisha has the roundup. There’s a new view style meant to help you “immerse” yourself in a city before you visit, a “Neighborhood vibe” feature that aims to capture an area’s highlights, and augmented reality features that use the view from your camera to show exactly where ATMs and coffee shops are.
  • Meta’s hiring freeze: The era of explosive hiring at Meta/Facebook is over, it seems. The company will freeze hiring and “restructure some groups” internally, Zuckerberg reportedly announced during an internal all-hands this week.
  • Hacker hits Fast Company, sends awful push notifications: If you got a particularly vulgar push notification from Fast Company by way of Apple News this week, it’s because a hacker managed to breach the outlet’s content management system. The hacker also apparently published a (now pulled) post on Fast Company outlining how they got in.
  • NASA hits an asteroid: If we needed to hit an asteroid from millions of miles away — to, say, change its course and steer it away from Earth — could we do it? NASA proved they could do just that this week, smashing a purpose-built spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,700 mph. The asteroid in question was never believed to be a threat to Earth, but these are the kinds of things you want tested before they’re necessary.
  • Microsoft confirms Exchange vulnerabilities: “Microsoft has confirmed two unpatched Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities are being exploited by cybercriminals in real-world attacks,” writes Carly. Even worse? There’s no patch yet, though MSFT says one has been put on an “accelerated timeline” and offers temporary mitigation measures in the meantime.

audio roundup

Didn’t have time to tune in to all of TechCrunch’s podcasts this week? Here’s what you might’ve missed:

  • Evernote and mmhmm co-founder Phil Libin joined us on Found to share what he’s learned about remote work and why he’ll “never go to work in the metaverse.”
  • The Chain Reaction crew went deep on why crypto exchange FTX bid billions on a bankrupt company’s assets.
  • Amanda joined Darrell on the TechCrunch Podcast to explore whether Tumblr was reversing its controversial porn ban (spoiler: no), and Devin hopped on to talk all about NASA’s wild anti-asteroid test mission.

techcrunch+

What hides behind the TechCrunch+ paywall? Lots of really great stuff! It’s where we get to step away from the unrelenting news cycle and go a bit deeper on the stuff you tell us you like most. The most-read TC+ stuff this week?

  • Is Silicon Valley really losing its crown?: A provocative question, one asked all the more after COVID flipped the switch on widespread remote work pretty much overnight. Alex dives into the investor data to see where the money is going, and whether or not that’s changed.
  • Investors hit the brakes on productivity software: It’s an Alex Wilhelm double feature this week! After a few quarters of consistent investment growth, it seems investor interest in productivity tools might be waning. Why? Alex looks at why/how investment in the vertical has shifted.



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Telegram cuts subscription cost by more than half in India • TechCrunch

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Telegram has cut the monthly subscription fee for its premium tier by more than half in India, just months after introducing the offering as it attempts to aggressively cash in on a large user base in one of its biggest markets.

In a message to users in India on Saturday, Telegram said it was making the subscription available in the country at a discount. The monthly subscription now costs customers 179 Indian rupees ($2.2), down from 469 Indian rupees ($5.74) earlier. The app’s monthly subscription, called Telegram Premium, costs between $4.99 to $6 in every other market.

Users who have not received the message are also seeing the new price in the settings section of the app, they said and TechCrunch independently verified.

India is one of the largest markets for Telegram. The instant messaging app has amassed over 120 million monthly active users in the country, according to analytics firm data.ai. (An industry executive shared the figures with TechCrunch.) That figure makes the app the second most popular in its category in the country, only second to WhatsApp, which has courted over half a billion users in the South Asian market.

Telegram, which claims to have amassed over 700 million monthly active users globally, introduced the optional subscription offering in June this year in a move it hopes will improve its finances and continuing to support a free tier. Premium customers gain access to a wide-range of additional features such as the ability to follow up to 1,000 channels, send larger files (4GB) and faster download speeds.

The Dubai-headquartered firm joins a list of global tech firms that offer their services for lower cost in India. Apple’s music app charges $1.2 for the individual monthly plan in the country, whereas Netflix’s offerings starts at as low as $1.83 in the country.



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Welcome to spooky season in startups • TechCrunch

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Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.

A multibillion dollar acquisition, IPO projections and some good ol’ VC and billionaire drama?

It would be unfair to say that this week in tech and startups felt like 2021’s boom cycle; especially when you look at layoffs coming from Truepill, its fourth this year, and Meta announcing that it will freeze hiring. At the same time, it does feel like there’s a new feeling in the air. Heck, NFT marketplaces are still raising money. 

The market is not dull, but it’s not loud; and the mood among my sources is certainly closer to spooky than it is to savage. Besides the fact that, yes, I did grow up writing poetry about fall foliage before deciding that I wanted to be a journalist, I’m saying all this to validate the nuance of this moment.

The ideas that I’m looking toward throughout the end of the year are as follows:

  • What happened to the black swan memos? In the early innings of the economic downturn, investors turned to portfolio companies to warn of an increasingly volatile environment. That conversation hasn’t disappeared, but it has certainly gotten quieter, with many investors now telling me that there’s a super surge of financing on the way. So, what’s the new guidance that is being sent to portfolio companies?
  • What’s the human side of the layoff story? My colleagues Mary Ann and Christine gave us all an important lesson this week, which is that stories about workforce reductions should not revolve around the employer. The duo wrote about the human cost of Better.com’s layoff spree — full story here — and I’m not-so-subtly going to steal this idea. I want to talk to people impacted by tech’s 2022 layoff wave and hear what next steps look like. I hear it’s a lot more complicated than “you should’ve known your company was overhyped to begin with.”
  • Finally, what are startups preparing to actually do differently? I’m guilty of this, but we often speak about startups and tech with generalizations, slightly hedged by explaining that it’s useful for directional purposes. I want to know what startups learned this year and are tactically doing differently. Spending with more discipline or focusing on the product doesn’t count; give me specifics, and better yet, tell me what you are disagreeing with your investors on.

Do let me know what yours are by tweeting at me or responding to this post. If you missed last week’s newsletter, read it here: “Tiger Global, fickle checks and the difficulty of acceleration.” We also recorded a companion podcast, here: “Building startups in public has an end date.”

In today’s newsletter, we’ll talk about the beauty of pivots, a creative way to prove that your startup hires entrepreneurial people and the latest from 500 global.

If you like this newsletter, do me a quick favor? Forward it to a friend, share it on Twitter and tag me so I can thank you for reading myself!

A reminder that pivots work

TC’s Rebecca Szkutak wrote about how a pivot helped HopSkipDrive win a difficult pitch to parents: Trust your kids with our ride-sharing services.

Here’s why it’s important: As we discussed in our latest Equity podcast, sometimes we’re all just a Hop, Skip and a Drive away from success. The “Uber for X” model has been MIA for a few years now, so the story behind HopSkipDrive and its trusty partner stands out to me. Who said schools weren’t experimental!

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

A different version of CVC, I guess

News broke this week that Cloudflare gathered $1.25 billion in financing for startups that use its own platform. Well, kind of.

Here’s why it’s important: The security, performance and reliability company didn’t raise a corporate venture fund, typical of other companies looking to breed entrepreneur attention. Instead, Cloudflare just got dozens of venture firms to offer to invest up to $1.25 billion to companies in their existing funds. It’s a little softer than a traditional investment vehicle, given that we don’t know how formal those offers of support are, and the fact that Cloudflare is not providing any funding or making any funding decisions.

To me, the commitment just tells us that Cloudflare wants to show startups that it doesn’t just make sense to use their software, it makes cents.

Image Credits: Getty Images

The follow-up

I’m experimenting with a new section in Startups Weekly, where each week we follow up with an old story or trend to see what’s changed since our first look. This week, we’re following up on our conversation about accelerator and demo days with a look at how 500 Global, formerly 500 Startups, thinks about it.

Here’s what’s new: It’s been a little over a year since accelerator 500 Startups rebranded to 500 Global in an attempt to reposition itself as a venture firm. In my latest for TechCrunch+, I spoke to Clayton Bryan, partner and head of 500 Global’s accelerator program, about how they keep up with competition. Excerpt down below!

The investor highlighted the effectiveness of rolling admissions, which its two main accelerator competitors, Y Combinator and Techstars, don’t do. Three years ago, 500 Global said it would decide on investments all year instead of just twice yearly. Demo days will still happen biannually, but startups can choose which demo day they want to be a part of.

“That change has really resonated with founders,” Bryan said. He compared the previous version of 500 Global to a school with an annual schedule: There are times when you’re doing homework, times when you sit back and recruit, and summer vacation. Now, it’s year-round, and he admits it’s more challenging to manage, “but at the same time, much more appreciated by the founders.”

“I do think it makes us more competitive,” he said. “We can more frequently talk to founders and they can start our program at different points in time. They don’t have to wait for that application to open or that deadline. Whereas [with] some other programs, they might say, ‘Hey, wait for a couple more months so we’re accepting applications again.’ I think that openness and flexibility gives us a bit of an advantage.”

Startups employees should keep an eye on tax rules

Image Credits: bestdesigns / Getty Images

A few notes

We’re less than one month away from TechCrunch Disrupt, and I’m already emotional. It’s going to be a blast, a pep talk, a realization and a week not to miss. Here’s the full agenda, and here’s where you can get your tickets.

  • First up, use code “STARTUPS” for a special reader discount for Disrupt tickets. We’re less than one month away!
  • We also have a special for those impacted by layoffs. If you were laid off, go here to get a free ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt’s Expo.

While I have you, let’s talk some more. As you know, I co-host Equity, which goes out thrice a week and is TC’s longest-running podcast. We have some besties to listen to, too, including our crypto-focused show that goes by Chain Reaction and founder-focused show that goes by Found. The TechCrunch Podcast is also a can’t miss, so pay attention to all the good shows that they’re putting out. 

Seen on TechCrunch

Here are some of the cringiest revelations in the Elon Musk text dump

Why build a fintech any more when you can just raise €20M and white-label it to banks?

Instagram permanently disabled Pornhub’s account

EV charging deals keep coming, Ford squeezed by shortages and Kitty Hawk shuts down

Crypto platform Nexo sued by New York, California and six other US regulators 

Seen on TechCrunch+

Treepz founder Onyeka Akumah on how to succeed in transportation tech

What can the 2000 dot-com crash teach us about the 2022 tech downturn? 

Europe’s inaugural Women in VC Summit is the first step in a long climb toward equity

Venture investors hit the brakes on productivity software

Same time, same web page, next week?

N

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch



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Tesla’s robot strategy is inextricably tied to its Autopilot strategy, for better or for worse • TechCrunch

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Tesla unveiled its first prototype of its Optimus humanoid robot on Friday — an actual robot this time, by the strictest definition, instead of a flesh and blood human clad in a weird suit. The robot performed some basic functions, including walking a little bit and then raising its hands — all for the first time without supports or a crane, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

The company may be taking its first early steps into humanoid robotics, but it has a lot riding on the business. Musk has said that the Optimus bot will eventually be more valuable “than the car business, worth more than FSD (Tesla’s add-on ‘Full Self-Driving” feature, which is not self driving.)

What was apparent at the event Friday night is that Tesla is making the economically wise, but strategically questionable decision to yoke together the destinies of both Optimus and its Autopilot (and by extension, FSD) ambitions.

Tesla suggested that the reason it’s been able to move so quickly in the robotics world is that it has already laid a lot of the groundwork in its work attempting to develop automated driving for vehicles.

“Think about it. We’re just moving from wheels to our legs,” explained one of the company’s engineers. “So some of the components are pretty similar […] It’s exactly the same occupancy network. Now we’ll talk a little bit more details later with Autopilot team […] The only thing that changed really is the training data.”

It was a recurring theme throughout the presentation, with various presenters from Tesla (the company trotted out many, as is maybe to be expected for an event billed primarily as a recruiting exercise) bringing up how closely tied the two realms of research and development actually are.

In truth, what Tesla showed with its robot on stage at the event was a very brief demo that barely matched and definitely didn’t exceed a large number of humanoid robot demonstrations from other companies over the years, including most famously Boston Dynamics. And the linkage between FSD and Optimus is a tenuous one, at best.

The domain expertise, while reduced to a simple translation by Tesla’s presentation, is actually quite a complex one. Bipedal robots navigating pedestrian routes is a very different beast from autonomous vehicle routes, and oversimplifying the connection does a disservice to the immense existing body of research and development work on the subject.

Tesla’s presenters consistently transitioned relatively seamlessly between Optimus and its vehicles’ autonomous navigation capabilities. One of the key presenters for Optimus was Milan Kovac, the company’s director of Autopilot Software Engineering, who handed off to fellow Autopilot director Ashok Elluswamy to dive further into Tesla vehicular Autopilot concerns.

It’s very clear that Tesla believes this is a linked challenge that will result in efficiencies the market will appreciate as it pursues both problems. The reality is that there remains a lot of convincing to do to actually articulate that the linkages are more than surface-deep.

Not to mention, Autopilot (and more specifically, FSD) faces its own challenges in terms of public and regulatory skepticism and scrutiny. A robot you live with daily in close proximity doesn’t need that kind of potential risk.

Tesla may have turned its man-in-a-suite into a real robot with actual actuators and processors, but it still has a ways to go to make good on the promise that it’s a viable product with a sub-$20,000 price tag any of us will ever be able to purchase.



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