The next big bet for former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick may be cloud kitchens — in China

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick may have been nudged out of one of the world’s most highly valuable private companies by investors frustrated over its troubled culture, but his moves remain of great interest given how far he’d driven the rideshare giant.

One such move, according to a new report in the South China Morning Post, looks to be to help foster the growing concept of cloud kitchens in China.

We’ve reached out to Kalanick for more information, but per the SCMP’s report, Kalanick is partnering with the former COO of the bike-sharing startup Ofo, Yanqi Zhang. Their apparent project involves Kalanick’s L.A.-based company, CloudKitchens, which enables restaurants to set up kitchens for the purposes of catering exclusively to customers ordering in, as that’s how many people are consuming restaurant food in increasing numbers. (More on the movement here and here.) The kitchens are established in underutilized real estate that Kalanick is snapping up through a holding company called City Storage Systems.

According to The Spoon, a food industry blog, the trend is beginning to gain momentum in particular regions, including India, where it says many restaurants struggle to afford the traditional restaurant model, which often involves paying top dollar for rent, as well covering wages for employees, from dishwashers to cooks to servers. Using so-called cloud kitchens enables these restaurateurs to share facilities with others, and to do away with much of their other overhead.

Some are even being promised more affordable equipment. For example, according to The Spoon, the restaurant review site Zomato, through its now two-year-old service called Zomato Infrastructure Services, aims to create kitchen “pods” that restaurants can rent, and it’s using data to identify recently closed restaurants that may be looking to offload their kitchen equipment for whatever they can get for it.

Shared kitchens have also been taking off in China, as notes the SCMP, which cites Beijing-based Panda Selected and Shanghai-based Jike Alliance as just two companies that Kalanick would be bumping up against.

Kalanick wasn’t the first here in the U.S. to spy the trend bubbling up, but he seems to be taking it as seriously as any entrepreneur. Last year, he spent $150 million to buy a controlling stake in City Storage Systems, the holding company of CloudKitchens, through a fund that he established around the same time, called the 10100 fund. The money was used to buy out most of the company’s earlier backers, including venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, according to a report last year by Recode.

That same report said that Kalanick now has a controlling interest in City Storage Systems. It also said that serial entrepreneur Sky Dayton — who previously founded EarthLink, co-founded eCompanies and founded Boingo — is a co-founder.

City Storage Systems isn’t interested in on-demand kitchens alone, reportedly. The idea behind it is to buy distressed real estate, including parking lots, and repurpose it for a number of online-focused ventures.

While the China twist looks like a new development, it wouldn’t be a wholly surprising move. Having had to back out of China with Uber in 2016, Kalanick may be of a mind to jump into the country faster this time around, and with a local partner with whom he has a relationship. Indeed, Zhang spent two years as a regional manager for Uber in China before co-founding Ofo, which has since run into problems of its own.

We’ve also reached to Zhang for this story and hope to update it when we learn more.

Let’s save the bees with machine learning

Machine learning and all its related forms of “AI” are being used to work on just about every problem under the sun, but even so, stemming the alarming decline of the bee population still seems out of left field. In fact it’s a great application for the technology and may help both bees and beekeepers keep hives healthy.

The latest threat to our precious honeybees is the Varroa mite, a parasite that infests hives and sucks the blood from both bees and their young. While it rarely kills a bee outright, it can weaken it and cause young to be born similarly weak or deformed. Over time this can lead to colony collapse.

The worst part is that unless you’re looking closely, you might not even see the mites — being mites, they’re tiny: a millimeter or so across. So infestations often go on for some time without being discovered.

Beekeepers, caring folk at heart obviously, want to avoid this. But the solution has been to put a flat surface beneath a hive and pull it out every few days, inspecting all the waste, dirt and other hive junk for the tiny bodies of the mites. It’s painstaking and time-consuming work, and of course if you miss a few, you might think the infestation is getting better instead of worse.

Machine learning to the rescue!

As I’ve had occasion to mention about a billion times before this, one of the things machine learning models are really good at is sorting through noisy data, like a surface covered in random tiny shapes, and finding targets, like the shape of a dead Varroa mite.

Students at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland created an image recognition agent called ApiZoom trained on images of mites that can sort through a photo and identify any visible mite bodies in seconds. All the beekeeper needs to do is take a regular smartphone photo and upload it to the EPFL system.

The project started back in 2017, and since then the model has been trained with tens of thousands of images and achieved a success rate of detection of about 90 percent, which the project’s Alain Bugnon told me is about at parity with humans. The plan now is to distribute the app as widely as possible.

“We envisage two phases: a web solution, then a smartphone solution. These two solutions allow to estimate the rate of infestation of a hive, but if the application is used on a large scale, of a region,” Bugnon said. “By collecting automatic and comprehensive data, it is not impossible to make new findings about a region or atypical practices of a beekeeper, and also possible mutations of the Varroa mites.”

That kind of systematic data collection would be a major help for coordinating infestation response at a national level. ApiZoom is being spun out as a separate company by Bugnon; hopefully this will help get the software to beekeepers as soon as possible. The bees will thank them later.

Aibo hangs out with some (real) dogs

I had this fun idea to make a video called “Real dog vs. robot dog,” where Henri (my Maltese Shih Tzu) and Aibo would go head to head performing a dozen tricks like high-five, bark and play dead. Aibo arrived, however, when I was simultaneously battling a cold and dog-sitting for my best friend. Because two days with Aibo didn’t allow for much time to teach him tricks, I decided to give him free rein to explore the apartment while I followed him around with my iPhone in a Theraflu haze.

As expected, Aibo was incredibly cute, does a bunch of tricks and can learn new ones with practice and patience. Brian goes in-depth here.

Pack life

The (real) dogs were curious at first, and would sniff Aibo (his butt rather), but shortly afterwards would ignore him, despite his numerous attempts to engage with them. If this were elementary school, Aibo would be the smelly new kid no one wanted to play with.

Like a real dog

We were told each Aibo was programmed to have a unique personality. The Aibo we received was a defiant little one that would obey orders half the time. He was also needy and would constantly try to get my attention. Unlike a real dog though, I could tell him to go to his charging station or turn him off.

Although his OLED eyes were meant to be expressive and help mimic a puppy’s endearing personality, they can be creepy at times, especially when he does the side-eye or when his pupils dilate.

Room for improvement

Aibo’s impressive for a robot companion dog, but with a $2,899 price tag, I’d like to suggest the following features for the next iteration:

  • Fur. Aibo isn’t very cuddly, and it’s a bit more difficult to get emotionally attached to a cold, shiny object rather than, say, a teddy bear.
  • Better movement. He would get stuck between rooms or at the edge of the rug and hardwood floors. He’s also quite slow. Watching him performing certain tricks and getting settled into his docking station was like waiting for a .jpg to load on dial-up.
  • The ability to read your expressions, so he knows when you’re sad and can act accordingly.
  • A fart feature, so you can blame your farts on Aibo.

Sony plans to roll out a security package in Japan that uses Aibo’s on-board sensors to keep your home safe. I’m not quite sure what that entails, but if Aibo’s eyeballs could be used as cameras to stream video footage on your smartphone while you’re not home, and alert you when someone’s there, that alone would justify the price tag.

This U.S. version, however, is available now.

Juul Labs hires former Apple employee to lead the fight against counterfeits

Juul Labs, the e-cig company under fire for its product’s popularity with young people, has brought on a new VP of Intellectual Property Protection with Adrian Punderson, formerly of PwC and Apple.

Punderson’s job is all about working alongside government agencies, as well as Juul Labs Intellectual Property VP Wayne Sobon, to combat the sale of counterfeit and infringing products. These can range from copycat vapes and pods that are actually marketed as Juul products all the way to products that are designed specifically to be Juul compatible without using the trademark.

These counterfeit and infringing products pose a serious threat to the company. Of course, no business wants its products infringed or its market share stolen.

With Juul, however, it’s far more complicated. Juul Labs is currently under heavy FDA scrutiny over the popularity of its products with minors.

“As you start to enforce generally on the sale of these types of products to youth, oftentimes they are going to look for another seller or distribution point of this product,” said Punderson. “The challenge is that oftentimes they’re going to platforms or places for this and you have no idea what the origin of the product is. A lot of it is counterfeit. So they get something they believe is Juul only to find out they have a counterfeit device or pod.”

He went on to say that, for Juul, a top priority is identifying counterfeit sellers and quickly putting that information into the hands of law enforcement. To the extent that they can’t take action, said Punderson, Juul will take civil action.

Part of the concern is that there is zero transparency into what ingredients are being used in infringing products, whereas Juul’s recipe at least meets the legal requirements for disclosure as it seeks full FDA approval.

Juul doesn’t currently have data around the scale of infringing products on the market, but counterfeit Juul products may inaccurately increase sales figures, intensifying scrutiny from the FDA.

Juul has already taken legal action against many infringing manufacturers and distributors, but Punderson aims to take Juul’s efforts against infringing products to a new level.

He sees the issue as threefold: Juul Labs must work to stop these products from being manufactured in the first place, ensure they aren’t allowed across borders into the country and take action against retailers who sell infringing products and remove them from the market.

“This isn’t a problem where there is only a production problem but there isn’t really a distribution or consumption problem,” said Punderson. “We don’t have the luxury of looking at the problem singly-faceted. From a global perspective, we want to stop the production and distribution of infringing products around the world, and we’ll work closely with government agencies attempting to stop illicit distribution of goods.”

Punderson previously served as managing director of IP Protection at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, VP of Global Anti-Counterfeiting/Anti-Diversion at Oakley and worked at Apple on the Intellectual Property Enforcement team.

Juul is currently viewed by many as a Facebook-ified, 2018 version of Marlboro. Notably, Juul Labs recently closed a $12.8 billion investment from Altria Group, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes. When asked why he chose to work for Juul, Punderson said his initial reaction was no. But after he did some research around the mission of the company, and thought of his own personal experience losing his father to emphysema, he came around quickly.

“I would do anything to get two or three more years with my dad, who was a lifelong smoker,” said Punderson. “[…] We’re trying to do good things here, move people away from tobacco and give them an alternative. To me, it’s a valuable, noble cause that’s worth being involved in and I’m proud to be here.”

It remains to be seen just how big of an issue infringing products are for Juul and other above-board e-cig makers, but Juul is ramping up its efforts to combat copycats from getting into the hands of consumers.