Africa Roundup: MEST, Airbus and Microsoft expand in Africa, while Afrostream shutters

MEST appointed Aaron Fu as its new Managing Director, as the Accra based incubator scales up its presence across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Founded in 2008, MEST operates as a training program and seed fund for African innovators to build successful commercial tech companies.

Fu told TechCrunch he plans to focus on the incubator’s continued expansion. The organization currently has offices or on ground presence in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. It actively recruits in those countries and Cote d’Ivoire. MEST is in the process of opening physical incubator spaces in multiple countries. “We want to connect our startups to markets, resources customers, and teams from all across Africa to make their dream of building truly pan African companies a reality,” said Fu.

Liquid Telecom announced a partnership with Microsoft to accelerate cloud adoption in Africa. Through MS’s Cloud Solution Provider program, Liquid Telecom will offer African businesses cloud services and products, such as Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Dynamics 365, Microsoft Office 365, and Enterprise Mobility Suite. The program will also extend to startups and accelerators, Liquid Telecom’s Group Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira confirmed to TechCrunch. A subsidiary of EcoNet wireless (which was founded by Zimbabwean mogul and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa) Liquid Telecom has been expanding its mobile and ISP product presence across Africa.

Y-Combinator-backed French language VOD startup Afrostream shuttered, ending subscription services in 24 African and 5 African countries. In a Medium post, Founder Tonjé Bakang laid out a candid post-startup failure assessment of the entire journey, translated here. The high price of acquiring content as a legal streaming subscription service versus the pervasiveness of illegal movie sites offering it for free were the leading demerits.

All in all Bakang’s after-action-report reads as a solid briefer on the economics of VOD in Africa (and globally) and the travails of a startup founder from fundraising to profit seeking. His parting shots compared it to dating.

“As in any relationship, the fear of suffering in the end must not obscure all the happiness that precedes,” said Bakang. “It is exactly the same as entrepreneurship. After a failure, you have to start again.” Sounds like Bakang plans to turn the Afrostream shutdown into a fail up experience.

 

And on the ascending phase of the startup lifecycle, AirBus held its inaugural BizLab pitch event in Nairobi targeting African startups using UAVs, 3D printing, smart sensors, and IoT. The 11 finalists included Kenyan design venture Kuunda 3D and Ugandan UAV environmental monitoring company ESSIPS International.

Kenyan startup Illuminium Greenhouses was crowned the winner for its use of digitally controlled solar greenhouses and SMS activated irrigation systems to boost the prospects for smallholder farmers.

And concluding on African tech competitions, the agenda for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa was announced. See below and the competition online streaming October 11 from Nairobi!

Source | Techcrunch

Pi wants to extend the reach of wireless charging

Wireless charging isn’t new — but with the new iPhones picking it up as a feature, it’s about to get a huge boost in visibility.

But wireless charging is still pretty limited, particularly in terms of where your device can be while pulling a charge. For the most part, “wireless charger” means “a pad you sit your device directly on.” Lift your phone a few centimeters off the pad, and charging stops.

Pi, a company that debuted in the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield this afternoon, wants to change that. It’s building a device — the aptly named Pi Charger — that they say can charge multiple devices within about a foot in any direction. It’s not the full-room charging concept that other companies have spent years trying to tackle, but it provides a good bit more flexibility over a pad.

The team says they’re using resonant induction here, or the same underlying concept that powers the Qi charging standard found in the new iPhones and many an Android phone. Their secret sauce, according to co-founder John Macdonald, is a beam-forming algorithm that lets them safely direct a magnetic field to wherever the device is sitting.

“What’s at the heart of this is this algorithm that lets us shape a magnetic field,” John tells me. “It’s an old idea… but, the real genius behind this — my co-founder Lixin [Shi] — he was able to reduce this problem that was so complicated that you’d need several minutes of compute time on the latest i7 processor to solve. He came up with these matrices that could prove that you could get to an optimal solution in just two clock cycles on a simple microcontroller.”

The company demonstrated the tech onstage, and it appeared to work. They showed five devices (four phones, one tablet) charging simultaneously when brought within range of the Pi.

So why “Pi”? It’s a nod to both co-founders’ alma mater, MIT. The school celebrates Pi in a number of ways, including announcing admissions on Pi Day (March 14th — or 3/14); given that they spun the project out of an MIT lab, it only made sense to continue the tradition.

The company began its life in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, otherwise known as CSAIL. After its founders met by chance in a class (an entrepreneurship class that their peers and teachers pushed them into taking), they decided to work out a deal with the school to turn Lixin’s work into a commercial project.

“Without that school, we wouldn’t exist.” says John.

The company has raised $3.5 million to date.

Pi’s team says they haven’t settled on an exact price for their charger yet, but they expect it to ship for under $200 sometime in 2018.

Battlefield Judge Q&A:

How far can it charge?

About 12 inches in any direction; above, to the side or below.

How fast can it charge?

It varies by distance; right next to the device, it charges at full speed. The further the device is from the Pi, the slower it is.

What’s your pricing going to look like at volume?

We don’t have exact pricing today, but it’ll be well under $200 and we’ll maintain above 50 percent gross margin.

Have you thought about making a component that can be plugged into something like Google Home, or existing wired devices?

Yes! Absolutely.

How can you make a lot of money here?

A lot of it has to do with the verticals we can reach. We’re starting with consumer, but the enterprise is what we want to follow up with. If you use it at home, you’ll want one in the office. If there’s one in the office, you’ll want one in the conference room.

Will it work with laptops?

This one won’t; the max power output of this device is 20w. We can increase that with different components.

Are you building cases for existing devices?

Yes — for the sake of backwards compatibility. You won’t need a case for future phones, like the iPhone 8.

Future Family aim to simplify the world of female fertility testing, all while bringing down the cost of treatment options. But female fertility is but a part of the baby equation; it takes two to tango, as they say.

With that in mind, Future Family is now offering fertility testing for men, as well, with a new product they call the Sperm Activity Test (or SAT.) They took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield to debut it for the first time.

Here’s how it’ll work:
•You go on their site and order the $200 test.
•You’ll receive a folio in the mail that introduces you to your “nurse concierge” and outlines the next steps.
•You’re paired with a local clinic, which you visit for your sperm analysis. The clinic measures volume, concentration, motility and morphology.
•As most people would get their results without knowing what the heck they were looking at, they pair you with a fertility expert for a video chat to breakdown what it all means and what the next steps might be.

The goal? To make accurate, in-depth testing available without requiring users to navigate insurance woes and specialists.

After the test, Future Family will also offer assistance with services like fertility preservation (sperm banking).

Future Family isn’t running the test or labs here, and they didn’t try to come up with some new test of their own — they’re just trying to simplify the process and provide a clear and direct route to established lab tests. “Tests are still very hard to get access to. Insurance can be a blocker; people don’t know where to go to get a test; private clinics can be expensive. We take all that away.”

“There’s something like 7 million couples at any time that are seeking or need fertility assistance,” Claire Tomkins tells me. “Do you know how many of those get help? About 200,000. It’s super expensive. It’s really hard to navigate; there’s a bunch of clinical information online, but not much else. It’s a personal and difficult journey, with no support services.”

Future Family was founded by Tomkins and Eve Blossom after Tomkins saw the many challenges involved firsthand, spending hundreds of thousands on treatments to have a child. “It opened my eyes to how broken the experience was,” she tells me. You can find our previous coverage of the company here.

Battlefield Judge Q&A

Can you talk about the validity of your test? Is there a risk of false positives, or false negatives?

We’re not a laboratory company; we’re using the tests that the top doctors and clinics use, and making them available online.

What have you learned so far about going direct to consumer? What’s your customer acquisition cost?

We launched back in June, and we’ve had a very strong response with lots of inbounding. Our costs are very sustainable.

Are there other products and services that you think could be relevant?

Yes; this is a whole journey, and there are a lot of areas we could help.

How do you recruit your fertility experts? Are they contractors or actual employees?

We’re building a nationwide network of fertility nurses. We’re recruiting them from the top clinics, and usually have 8-10 years of experience. Many of them are joining as contractors, but we’re slowly starting to convert some of them over [to employees].

Have you thought about making your own tests or technology?

Right now we’re working with partners to bring the best available tests to more users.

Goodbye, photo studios. Hello, colormass virtual photoshoots

IKEA is a leader among those that have pushed the limits when it comes to using digital imaging to take product marketing to the next level. When you look at an IKEA catalog or its website, you might think you are looking at rooms full of Swedish sofas, coffee tables and stylish lamps, but you’re actually looking at highly realistic, but digitally manipulated 3D facsimiles — the same facsimiles that are now being used to build the next generation of retail: AR apps that let you select and place pieces in your own rooms to help figure out what to buy.

All this is pretty cool, but also potentially frustrating if you are a manufacturer, retailer or anyone else who is manufacturing or selling a tangible product: not everyone has the resources of an IKEA to create digital inventory like this. Until now.

Berlin-based colormass, one of the startups presenting today at TechCrunch Disrupt as part of the Battlefield, has developed a platform that lets you recreate an IKEA-style experience for your own merchandise.

A furniture company (or another business in the area of manufacturing) supplies its own production files, which are already created as part of a company’s manufacturing process; and it also supplies information regarding textures, colors and other variables related to the pieces. Then colormass uses computer vision algorithms to convert these images into lifelike, but fabricated, 3D files that can be altered with different textures and colors and subsequently embedded in different (equally virtual, not real) scenes, like this:

and this:

The resulting service is a fraction of what it would cost for a business either to create a system like the one used by, say, IKEA, or to build the various physical products and settings to shoot them in the more traditional way.

“Companies like IKEA use very sophisticated software to do this,” said Balint Barli, who co-founded colormass with Tas Solti and Benjamin Foldi. “We want to enable everyone to be able to do this without knowing anything about 3D. If you want to do what IKEA does, you used to need specialized hardware, expensive software and a lot of experience and training in 3D to be able to do it. Now you don’t.”

A lot of the computer vision developments that we’ve seen hit the market of late have been squarely focused on consumer apps: filters that give us faces like cute animals, or a new color of hair, or help place us into the thick of the action in video games.

Video games and consumer apps, in fact, were where colormass’s founders first got their start. Barli and Solti’s early work was in the area of 3D reconstruction technology, essentially recreating people’s faces so they could be used in video games and in other applications, like hair coloring.

That market is both crowded and, in a sense, becoming more commoditized, though, so they began to think of other places where the same computer vision technology could be applied.

The pair then teamed up with Foldi, whose experience was specifically in 3D imaging. “We quickly realized that the tech could go into a different direction, essentially in helping to make better and less expensive, but still high quality, marketing images and product design,” Barli said.

Barli said that colormass started working with furniture manufacturers in 2016, with current customers usually of the medium-sized variety with $100 million or more in revenue.

He said that customers (at least for now) do not like to be named. “Since these images look exactly like photos, they would like to keep the impression that they are actual images of the real objects.”

Colormass is interesting because it is addressing a clear gap in the enterprise market, helping to digitize “any kind of tangible product,” in the words of Barli. The idea will be to continue to augment this, for example with the ability to manipulate multiple products or images in a 3D room. But he also says that its B2B service for the design and home-goods communities is “only the mid-term goal.”

“The long-term goal is to aggregate all the digitized products to become one of the largest repositories of 3D assets, a library that can be used for product marketing, but also games and other VR and AR applications,” he said. “3D content is a big problem, because there just isn’t that much.” The company has already started building this, signing agreements with their customers to be able to keep certain images in colormass’s own database.

This opens some interesting doors for the company, making it either a competitive rival (or interesting complementary acquisition) not just for the Autodesks and Adobes of this world, but massive photo agencies like the Gettys, as well.

Augmedics is building augmented reality glasses for spinal surgery

Meet Augmedics, an Israeli startup working on augmented reality headsets for surgeons performing spinal surgery. The company is participating in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt SF.

Computer assisted surgery systems are nothing new. Plenty of surgeons look at a screen while performing an operation. But Vizor is something new. Instead of making you look away from your patient, the device acts as a heads up display and gives you greatly enhanced perception.

Vizor is a sort of eyewear with clear glasses. But it can also project your patient’s spine in 3D so that you can locate your tools in real time even if it’s below the skin. It has multiple sensors to detect your head movements as well.

“What we are projecting is the patient’s CT scans,” co-founder and CEO Nissan Elimelech told me before Disrupt. “We do not have an active X-ray device that emits X-ray light. But instead, we’re using the patient’s CT scan with a very sophisticated registration process. And then we project a 3D model of the CT scan.”

Hospitals first have to segment the spine from the rest of the scan, such as soft tissue. They already have all the tools they need to do it themselves.

Then, doctors have to place markers on the patient’s body to register the location of the spine. This way, even if the patient moves while breathing, Vizor can automatically adjust the position of the spine in real time.

Surgeons also need to put markers on standard surgical tools. After a calibration process, Vizor can precisely display the orientation of the tools during the operation. According to Augmedics, it takes 10-20 seconds to calibrate the tools. The device also lets you visualize the implants, such as screws.

Elimelech says that the overall system accuracy is about 1.4mm. The FDA requires a level of accuracy below 2mm. The company is still working on FDA approval before it can sell Vizor to hospitals in the U.S. It could still take a year or two. But some surgeons have already tried it.

“We showed it to 50 spine surgeons right now. They’re all overwhelmed by the technology,” Elimelech said. “They could actually feel like they had superhero capabilities.”

And if you think spine surgery is a niche market, think again because navigation systems cost a small fortune. Neurosurgeons already use navigation systems, but it’s not as common for spine surgery. “We’re going to be reasonably competitive with other products,” Elimelech said. Current systems cost between $200,000 and $500,000.

Oneva wants to make it easier to access elder, infant and child care through employee benefits

When it comes to finding someone to take care of your kids or your aging parent, the on-demand aspect of services that some businesses offer is not really a selling point. The most important element is trust and the peace of mind that you’re hiring a qualified person to take care of some of the most important people in your life.

Onēva enables employers to offer elder, infant and child care, as well as housecleaning and other in-home services as employee benefits. All of Onēva’s providers are verified through FBI background checks, criminal background checks, reference checks and ID verification. Of those who apply to be a caregiver, only six percent get through the startup’s screening process. This startup is basically bringing the gig economy to the corporate world and without all the risks of hiring an unvetted person.

Onēva has been piloting its program with Microsoft since February of this year, and the results have been “staggering,” Onēva CEO Anita Darden Gardyne, a proud 54-year-old black woman, told TechCrunch.

“The fact that it’s being brought about by a woman, and a minority woman at that is pretty cool,” Microsoft Director of Supplier Diversity and Global Procurement Fernando Hernandez told TechCrunch.

Male employees are booking over 60% of the in-home care jobs, with families spending 2.5x more than what Onēva had initially forecast. On average, each family is signing up for more than two services via the platform. Over 40% of the people who sign up request three or more different services.

“The elderly care we provide is an evergreen market,” Darden Gardyne said. “From a corporate perspective, there’s no data about how elder care affects the workforce. But elder care is the hidden giant in the room that we know either because we experience it at home or know other people who are having this as an issue right now.”

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All in all, Microsoft says it’s been a popular employee benefit offering so far. The aim is to roll it out to all Microsoft employees down the road.

“There’s a need for it in the market,” Hernandez said. “Whether you’re at the young end and need child care or at the other end looking at elder care or find yourself in that sandwich generation where you need both, the need is high.”

Onēva projects doing over $10 million in revenue in its first year of operating. But in order to scale, Oneva will need more capital. Onēva has raised $850,000 to date from friends, family and some angel investors. It’s worth mentioning that just a little over 10 black women in the startup industry have hit the $1 million fundraising mark.

“I am very thrilled to be on the cusp of breaking that million-dollar mark and am confident that will happen in short order,” Darden Gardyne said. “My investors are thrilled with our progress and our results, given our limited investment. It speaks to what we already know — that women and women of color in particular are highly efficient. In this moment, as we scale, having been starved by institutional investment has only made us stronger. It means I own more. It means we’re agile.”