Watch this little robot transform to get the job done

Robots just want to get things done, but it’s frustrating when their rigid bodies simply don’t allow them to do so. Solution: bodies that can be reconfigured on the fly! Sure, it’s probably bad news for humanity in the long run, but in the meantime it makes for fascinating research.

A team of graduate students from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania made this idea their focus and produced both the modular, self-reconfiguring robot itself and the logic that drives it.

Think about how you navigate the world: If you need to walk somewhere, you sort of initiate your “walk” function. But if you need to crawl through a smaller space, you need to switch functions and shapes. Similarly, if you need to pick something up off a table, you can just use your “grab” function, but if you need to reach around or over an obstacle you need to modify the shape of your arm and how it moves. Naturally you have a nearly limitless “library” of these functions that you switch between at will.

That’s really not the case for robots, which are much more rigidly designed both in hardware and software. This research, however, aims to create a similar — if considerably smaller — library of actions and configurations that a robot can use on the fly to achieve its goals.

In their paper published today in Science Robotics, the team documents the groundwork they undertook, and although it’s still extremely limited, it hints at how this type of versatility will be achieved in the future.

The robot itself, called SMORES-EP, might be better described as a collection of robots: small cubes (it’s a popular form factor) equipped with wheels and magnets that can connect to each other and cooperate when one or all of them won’t do the job. The brains of the operation lie in a central unit equipped with a camera and depth sensor it uses to survey the surroundings and decide what to do.

If it sounds a little familiar, that’s because the same team demonstrated a different aspect of this system earlier this year, namely the ability to identify spaces it can’t navigate and deploy items to remedy that. The current paper is focused on the underlying system that the robot uses to perceive its surroundings and interact with it.

Let’s put this in more concrete terms. Say a robot like this one is given the goal of collecting the shoes from around your apartment and putting them back in your closet. It gets around your apartment fine but ultimately identifies a target shoe that’s underneath your bed. It knows that it’s too big to fit under there because it can perceive dimensions and understands its own shape and size. But it also knows that it has functions for accessing enclosed areas, and it can tell that by arranging its parts in such and such a way it should be able to reach the shoe and bring it back out.

The flexibility of this approach and the ability to make these decisions autonomously are where the paper identifies advances. This isn’t a narrow “shoe-under-bed-getter” function, it’s a general tool for accessing areas the robot itself can’t fit into, whether that means pushing a recessed button, lifting a cup sitting on its side, or reaching between condiments to grab one in the back.

A visualization of how the robot perceives its environment.

As with just about everything in robotics, this is harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t even sound easy. The “brain” needs to be able to recognize objects, accurately measure distances, and fundamentally understand physical relationships between objects. In the shoe grabbing situation above, what’s stopping a robot from trying to lift the bed and leave it in place floating above the ground while it drives underneath? Artificial intelligences have no inherent understanding of any basic concept and so many must be hard-coded or algorithms created that reliably make the right choice.

Don’t worry, the robots aren’t quite at the “collect shoes” or “collect remaining humans” stage yet. The tests to which the team subjected their little robot were more like “get around these cardboard boxes and move any pink-labeled objects to the designated drop-off area.” Even this type of carefully delineated task is remarkably difficult, but the bot did just fine — though rather slowly, as lab-based bots tend to be.

The authors of the paper have since finished their grad work and moved on to new (though surely related) things. Tarik Tosun, one of the authors with whom I talked for this article, explained that he’s now working on advancing the theoretical side of things as opposed to, say, building cube-modules with better torque. To that end he helped author VSPARC, a simulator environment for modular robots. Although it is tangential to the topic immediately at hand, the importance of this aspect of robotics research can’t be overestimated.

You can find a pre-published version of the paper here in case you don’t have access to Science Robotics.

Influencer marketing startup Mavrck raises another $5.8M

Mavrck has raised another $5.8 million in funding, bringing its total raised to $13.8 million.

When the company raised its Series A back in 2015, it was focused on helping brands work with “micro-influencers” who were already using their products. Now it describes itself as an “all-in-one” influencer marketing platform, offering a number of tools to automate and measure the process.

Last month, Mavrck announced new features for Pinterest, where it’s now an official marketing partner. It also says it’s been doing more to improve measurement and detect fraud — on the fraud side, it promises to analyze a “statistically significant sample” of an Instagram account’s followers, and of the accounts that engage with their content, to determine if they’re bots.

Customers include P&G, Godiva and PepsiCo, and the company says recurring revenue has grown 400 percent year-over-year.

“Everything that we have done at Mavrck this year has been done with the intention to drive the influencer industry forward,” said co-founder and CEO Lyle Stevens in the funding announcement. “Every new capability that we’ve introduced, every partner that we’ve started working with, every influencer behavior that we’ve tracked was part of our mission to help marketers harness the power of content that people trust to drive tangible business value for their brands.”

The new funding comes from GrandBanks Capital and Kepha Partners. A spokesperson said this isn’t a Series B, but rather additional capital raised to support increased demand and channel partnerships.

Snapchat’s PR firm sues influencer for not promoting Spectacles on Instagram

Influencer marketing could get a lot more accountable if Snapchat’s PR firm wins this lawsuit. Snapchat hoped that social media stars promoting v2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses on its biggest competitor could boost interest after it only sold 220,000 of v1 and had to take a $40 million write-off. Instead, Snap comes off looking a little desperate to make Spectacles seem cool.

Snap Inc. commissioned its public relations firm PR Consulting (real imaginative) to buy it an influencer marketing campaign on Instagram . The firm struck a deal with Grown-ish actor Luka Sabbat after he was seen cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian. Sabbat got paid $45,000 up front with the promise of another $15,000 to post himself donning Spectacles on Instagram.

He was contracted to make one Instagram feed post and three Stories posts with him wearing Specs, plus be photographed wearing them in public at Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks. He was supposed to add swipe-up-to-buy links to two of those Story posts, get all the posts pre-approved with PRC, and send it analytics metrics about their performance.

But Sabbat skipped out on two of the Stories, one of the swipe-ups, the photo shoots, the pre-approvals and the analytics. So as Variety’s Gene Maddaus first reported, PRC is suing Sabbat to recoup the $45,000 it already paid plus another $45,000 in damages.

TechCrunch has attained a copy of the lawsuit filing, embedded below, that states “Sabbat has been unjustly enriched and PRC is entitled to damages.” Snap confirms to us that it hired PRC to run the campaign, and that it also contracted a campaign with fashion blog Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine Cohen. And as a courtesy, I Photoshopped some Spectacles onto Sabbat above.

But interestingly, Snap says it was not involved in the decision to sue Sabbat. The debacle brings unwanted attention to the pay-for-promotion deal that brands typically tried to avoid when commissioning influencer marketing. The whole thing is supposed to feel subtle and natural. Instead, PRC’s suit probably cost Snapchat more than $90,000 in reputation.

The case could solidify the need for influencer marketing contracts to come with prorated payment terms where stars are paid fractions of the total purse after each post rather than getting any upfront, as The Fashion Law writes. PRC’s choice to chase Sabbat even despite the problematic publicity for its client Snap might convince other influencers to abide more closely to the details of their contracts. If social media creators want to keep turning their passion into their profession, they’re going to have to prove they’re accountable. Otherwise brands will slide back to traditional ads.


The tactics behind The Athletic’s breakout success in sports subscriptions

Local newspapers may be shuttering and people may be consuming most news on social media, but don’t tell Alex Mather that a subscription news publication can’t grow like a unicorn startup. His 2-year-old sports publisher The Athletic has gained over 100,000 paid subscribers (60 percent under age 34) and has a 90 percent retention rate.

Having already raised $30 million in its short life, the company announced a new $40 million Series C yesterday, led by Founders Fund and Bedrock Capital. It reportedly values The Athletic around $200 million.

I interviewed Alex Mather (The Athletic’s CEO) and Eric Stomberg (partner at Bedrock Capital) to understand what’s behind the breakout success, and why they think this publishing startup can scale to become a multi-billion dollar company.

EP: Bedrock makes concentrated, contrarian bets. Explain how The Athletic fits that.

ES: I first met Alex and Adam in 2016 during Y Combinator. The popular view then, as it remains now, was that people just aren’t willing to pay for content online and that to win in media you have to put out a high volume of free articles on social.

The Athletic took the opposite approach. It’s a narrative violation. Everything is part of a paid subscription, with the belief that instead of writers needing to post 3-4 pieces per day, they should focus on deeper stories that add value to paid subscribers over time. That worldview resonated with us. If you can create content at scale that people are willing to pay for, that’s a powerful economic engine.

There’s so much sports coverage already out there, by professionals and amateurs alike, so why are people willing to pay for The Athletic?

AM: While there appears to be an abundance of content, most of it is aggregated, shallow content for a broad audience. We produce fewer stories and target a diehard fan. Our subscribers consistently tell us that no one else produces the same depth on a daily basis.

How did you determine the $60/year price point?

AM: We think of $60/year ($5/month) as less than the average NBA ticket. It’s a meaningful price but not prohibitive, especially when we do discounts in the first year. Like all subscription companies, whether we like it or not, we have to consider how our pricing stacks up against Netflix. For $10/month, you can subscribe to Netflix which is spending $8 billion per year in content.

Is The Athletic profitable?

AM: We expand by launching in local markets. We are in 47 thus far. The operational focus is on building a local team and becoming profitable in each local market. I can tell you that most markets are profitable in the first year — currently all of our markets over one year old are profitable and most of those over 6 months old are profitable.

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Explain your growth strategy in terms of coverage: Which sports did you start with and at which level (local versus national)?

AM: Direct-to-consumer businesses have to really work to earn their subscribers’ hard-earned money. We have to obsess over where we can be different. In the beginning, that was with hockey and baseball, because those have been de-prioritized by the bigger players. That shifted as we gained more subscribers: we needed to become comprehensive. We hired folks to cover the NBA, to cover the NFL, to cover soccer.

Do subscribers usually come just for one local sport or for the broader bundle?

AM: We’ve built a powerful bundle. A local newspaper has local politics, local restaurants, and then local sports. We have just the sports, but add a national perspective and a nationwide bundle. Most of our subscribers are “super bundlers,” meaning they subscribe to content from multiple cities plus at least one national product and usually a college product that’s not local. We provide all that for significantly less than competitors.

Eric — as a VC looking for multi-billion-dollar exits, how are you analyzing the potential scale of a subscription publication like this? Even most people who are bullish on subscriptions believe it’s a choice of going for a niche audience and staying small.

ES: There are two things we look for in a subscription business: retention and a positive flywheel.

Retention. In any subscription business, the key question is: can they maintain their subscribers over time? Most of them don’t. Spotify does, Netflix does, and The Athletic does as well. The Athletic is off the charts, which sets it up for scale. You want to see deep engagement over a very, very long period of time — years.

A positive flywheel. The more you build your subscriber base, the more you build your revenue base. That allows you to get better content, to hire unique writers, to build greater depth. In doing so, you attract people who weren’t ready to subscribe in the early days but now you have writers they follow and content they want. Technology is important here too: as you build a bigger platform with more content, serving the right content at the right time to each user is a key advantage. When this flywheel is working it’s actually quite hard to put a ceiling on the business.

Most publishers did a so-called “pivot to video” over the last couple of years. You’re anchored in writing. Why not more video at the start?

AM: We’re obsessed with the consumer and all our research in the beginning said that people still like to read books and articles. Advertising with text may not be as good as with video, which may be why so many other companies “pivoted to video,” but we think the written word is still the best way to convey certain types of stories. It’s straightforward, it doesn’t require headphones.

There’s an incredible amount of talent out there that can produce these stories and that has been cast aside by many entities. We saw it as an opportunity to give them great jobs and bring value to our subscribers. That has paid off for us.

What are your plans for video or other content formats in the future?

AM: We raised this Series C with audio and video in mind. We can tell even more stories when we add in audio and video possibilities. Our goal is to serve the subscriber: some love to read, some love to listen, others prefer to watch. We look up to things like The Ringer, Andre the Giant on HBO, VICE News, Gimlet, and The Daily by The New York Times all as incredible storytelling, and we ask ourselves “how can we do sports versions of those?”

Why focus on hiring experienced, full-time writers rather than a stable of contributors or curating from the vast pool of content by fans? Lots of amateurs pay close attention to sports.

AM: What’s really important to us is a growth mentality — that by Day 100 on our team a writer is thinking very differently. We’re providing lots of data, lots of feedback. We invest in great people who will figure this out with us over time. Also, scaling so quickly from 0 to 300 editorial staff was possible because we recruited experienced talent who know what to do already.

We do have about 400 contributors as well. These are folks who may be lawyers or accountants but are passionate about the teams they cover. We are a way for them to reach a premium audience. We can pay them really well and give them world-class editors formerly with Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

How are you acquiring your subscribers?

AM: When we expand into a new market, we gain new subscribers by hiring writers who have a following already and by word of mouth from existing subscribers. Then like any direct-to-consumer brand, we are acquiring subscribers through Google, Facebook and Twitter.

You financially incentivize your writers based on them acquiring new subscribers through their articles or by promoting The Athletic with their followers online. That is very uncommon in publishing. Explain that strategy.

AM: It ties back to our focus on building for the long term and investing in talent that will grow with us. We like to assign incentives that give us the best chance of building a sustainable business and we think about compensation in that way. We give our team equity in the company and for many, we tie a portion of their comp to the performance of their team, sport, city. It’s a great way to share in the responsibility and success of the business.

At the bottom of articles, you ask readers to rate each story as “Meh,” “Solid,” or “Awesome.” I wish every publisher did this. How do you use this data? How do a writer’s scores impact them?

AM: It’s about feedback loops. Our writers gauge feedback when they share on Twitter. This is another data point. It helps paint a more complete picture. NPS alone isn’t enough of course though. We look at whether articles drive new subscribers, drive deep engagement, drive comments, etc. We don’t use pageviews, but we certainly use metrics. Usually, this results in a writer producing very different work on Day 100 than they were on Day 0.

Explain the interaction between subscribers. It’s not unique to have a comments section: there are bad comments sections, good comments sections and comments sections that go unused. At a tactical level, how do you think about building community?

AM: My co-founder and I met at Strava, the social network for endurance athletes. I ran the product team and we were obsessed with community. We see an incredible connection between community engagement and subscriber retention. The question that drives us is how can we connect users in an authentic way, how can we connect users to our staff in an authentic way, how can we connect users to athletes in an authentic way. We’re doing a lot of experimentation here. We have a distinct opportunity because of our paywall: most of the comments on The Athletic are saying substantive things.

A look at all the companies participating in 500 Startups’ 24th accelerator program

TechCrunch has an exclusive look at the companies participating in 500 Startups‘ 24th startup accelerator batch, which kicked off last week.

Through its four-month seed program, the Silicon Valley seed fund invests $150,000 in exchange for 6 percent equity. The companies below include a mix of industries from cryptocurrency to digital health to e-commerce. 500 Startups says 40 percent of the companies have a female founder, 50 percent have a black, mixed-race or Latinx founder and 31 percent are headquartered outside the U.S.

Here’s a closer look at the 22 companies, which will demo their tech to investors on February 28:

  • Alba: A Santiago, Chile-based mobile marketplace for babysitters in emerging markets.
  • Assemble: A Los Angeles-based digital platform for automating video content production.
  • Back Office: A Palm Beach, Florida-based financial software provider focused on streamlining personal bookkeeping.
  • BlockVigil: A San Francisco-based platform for building and scaling blockchain applications.
  • Cambridgene: A Cambridge-based developer of clinical-genomic software for personalizing cancer therapy in hospitals.
  • Celer Network: A platform for building and scaling decentralized applications.
  • Crowdz: Headquartered in Sunnyvale, the blockchain-based B2B marketplace builds digitized supply chains.
  • HAMAMA: A San Francisco-based provider of microgreen kits for growing healthy food at home.
  • IOTW: A Hong Kong-based IoT-connected cryptocurrency mining platform.
  • Kura Tech: A San Francisco-based developer of augmented reality glasses with micro-display and variable focus.
  • Memoir Health: A Boston-based behavioral health startup providing physical and virtual mental wellness and substance use services.
  • MessageCube: Headquartered in Sunnyvale, the company is building an integration for people to discuss and purchase shared experiences over chat.
  • Ovation: A Provo, Utah-based online portal for restaurant reviews meant to help businesses measure customer experience.
  • PantyProp: A New York-based seller of underwear and swimwear for women to wear while menstruating.
  • Pilleve: A Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based startup using data to help care providers lower the costs associated with opioid addiction.
  • Savion: A Livermore-based aviation company bringing green, long-range private jets to the middle class.
  • SnapShyft: Headquartered in Indianapolis, the startup provides an on-demand labor marketplace focused on the food and beverage industry.
  • Thrive Agric: An Abuja, Nigeria-based crowdfunding platform for farms and farmers in Africa.
  • TripAfrique: Headquartered in Paris, the online booking platform helps travelers arrange trips to Africa.
  • UTRUST: A Zurich-based cryptocurrency payments platform that offers buyers protection, instant transactions and more.
  • Zeuss Tech: Headquartered in Palo Alto, the blockchain-based anti-money-laundering platform targets cash-intensive industries.
  • No information is available on the final company, which is in stealth mode.

Here’s a look at 500 Startups batch 23, 22 and 21.