Bell & Ross creates a transparent tourbillon

It’s spring and that means it’s time for Basel, the definitive international watch show. Around this time every year all of your favorite brands – and brands you’ve never heard of – launch unique timepieces that cost more than a few dozen Honda Accords and look like something made by Doctor Manhattan during one of his less melancholy moments.

Today’s wild timepiece comes to use from Bell & Ross, makers of big square watches that look like aircraft dials. This new piece, called the BR-X1-Skeleton-Tourbillon-Sapphire, maintains the traditional B&R shape but is almost completely clear with a case made of sapphire and held together by pins and screws. The movement, which comes in three colors, is a complete hand-wound tourbillon system and is beautifully visible from all angles.

A tourbillon, for the uninitiated, is a system for rotating the watch’s balance wheel 360 degrees. This system, originally created by Breguet, ensured that a watch didn’t slow down when subjected to odd gravitational forces. Now, however, it’s a wildly expensive conversation starter.

This is a beautiful update to B&R’s original see-through watch and, while the vast majority of us will never own something like this, it’s nice to know that someone still cares about horological complexity paired with wild design. How much does it cost to own the watch equivalent of Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet? About $500,000. The piece, for those interested in picking one up, will be available online.

Entrepreneur First, the London-based company builder backed by Greylock, expands to Hong Kong

When Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners led Entrepreneur First‘s $12.4 million funding round in September, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman said he could see the company builder expanding to “20 or 30 or 40 cities, maybe even 50“. Since then, EF has expanded to Berlin, in addition to existing programmes in London and Singapore, and today the so-called ‘talent first’ investor is adding Hong Kong to the list.

Heading up EF’s Hong Kong office is former Airbnb and Google exec Lavina Tien, while the Hong Kong programme, which kicks off in July, will copy the Berlin format, meaning that it will run for 3 months per cohort, not 6 months as in London and Singapore. In addition, teams formed at EF Hong Kong will be eligible to participate in its Singapore demo day.

This is part of a new EF format that aims to make the company builder’s secret sauce, which sees it recruit founders ‘pre-team, pre-idea,’ a lot more scalable. So far, EF co-founder Matt Clifford tells me, it’s working out well.

He says the Berlin program was able to set up and recruit its first cohort in 9 weeks compared to the 9 months it took to get fully operational in Singapore, sounding extremely bullish about the future potential for more expansion.

That’s because the new shorter formula is designed to let EF focus locally on the part most unique to the organisation — persuading the best technical and domain talent to try their hand at entrepreneurship and in turn matching them with a complementary co-founder so that they can form a startup that might otherwise never exist.

Clifford also says this is about doubling down on EF’s Asia ambitions. He notes that, similar to other EF outposts, Hong Kong is a burgeoning but perhaps latent tech ecosystem with good education — such as Hong Kong University for Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — and access to capital that is beginning to turn its attention locally rather than simply investing abroad.

Adds EF co-founder Alice Bentinck: “We believe that there are a handful of exceptional technologists globally who have the skills and ambition to build the next generation of breakout technology companies. We know that we will find some of them in Hong Kong, just as we have in London, Singapore and Berlin”.

Meanwhile, Clifford won’t be drawn into where EF might expand next, although he doesn’t rule out adding a further programme this year. If I had to guess, I’d say Paris is a good bet, but in all honestly there are quite a number of cities that could tick the EF box.

Separately, I’m hearing that the company builder is raising a new investment fund so that it can continue the strategy of doing follow-on investments at seed and Series A into the most promising companies it helps build, across all of the locations it now operates. As always, watch this space.

Skyline AI raises $3M from Sequoia Capital to help real estate investors make better decisions

Skyline AI, an Israeli startup that uses machine learning to help real estate investors identify promising properties, announced today that it has raised $3 million in seed funding from Sequoia Capital. The round will be used to build its tech platform and hire experts in data science and machine learning.

Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Tel Aviv, Skyline AI predicts future property values and also analyzes the real estate market to help investors make important decisions such as when to raise rents, renovate or sell. Co-founder and chief executive officer Guy Zipori told TechCrunch that Skyline AI’s founding team (who also includes chief technology officer Or Hiltch, chief revenue officer Iri Amirav and executive chairman Amir Leitersdorf) worked together for years at various artificial intelligence-based startups in sectors including security, healthcare and online video. After several of their companies exited, the four were in a position to find investment opportunities. They wanted to explore commercial real estate, but Zipori “were surprised by how limited the technology is in this space.”

Though more industries are turning to data science and artificial intelligence to save time while making complex decisions, many veteran investors still depend on Excel spreadsheets, outdated market data and their “gut feelings,” added Zipori.

Skyline AI wants to take the guesswork out of investment decisions by training its technology on what it claims is the most comprehensive dataset in the industry, drawing on more than 130 sources and analyzing over 10,000 attributes on each data asset for the last 50 years. Skyline AI’s tech then compiles all information into a data lake and cross-references everything to find discrepancies and figure out what information is the most accurate.

“As a side note, we were surprised to learn that asset data sampled from different sources is often dissimilar, meaning that in some cases decisions regarding large deals were made based on bad data,” Zipori said.

One benefit of Skyline AI’s system is that it is able to consider variables that would be difficult to include in Excel spreadsheets and other traditional methods for aggregating data, which is important in real estate because there are so many factors that can impact a property’s value and impact its rents, occupancy levels, maintenance costs and future worth.

In a statement, Sequoia Capital partner Haim Sadger said “The promise of AI to transform commercial real estate investments cannot be understated. Over the last few years, we’ve seen AI disrupt a number of traditional industries and the real estate market should be no different. The power of Skyline AI technology to understand vast amounts of data that affect real estate transactions, will unlock billions of dollars in untapped value.”

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is the way to wean yourself off of DSLRs

Samsung has a new smartphone out, the Galaxy S9 (and S9+). It’s the latest flagship from one of the top smartphone makers in the world, but this year’s version has a lot in common with last year’s model, at least on the surface. The big focus (lol) this year was on the camera, and for good reason: Samsung stepped up its game significantly in this department with this update, and it comes closest to any smartphone camera I’ve tried yet to replicating some of the aspects of traditional photography that I love.

Arguably, other smartphone cameras, and the Pixel 2 in particular, can produce better photos. The Samsung Galaxy S9 is basically on par with that industry leader when it comes to quality of photos when shot in automatic mode – in some situations, including a lot of low-light scenarios, the S9 is better, but in others, like when there are big lightning differences across the scene, Google’s smartphone edges the Samsung. But either device (and the latest iPhones, if you’re going beyond Android) is going to be a fantastic photographic choice for most smartphone buyers, and that shouldn’t be a major concern when making a buying decision.

Where the Samsung Galaxy S9 really takes a leap forward is in bringing some of what has been so appealing about manual-friendly retro camera designs like those favoured by Fujifilm to the mobile realm. There are plenty of manual photography apps that do similar things, but the Galaxy S9 has its crucial dual aperture camera lens, which can manually switch from F/1.5 to F/2.4 in pro shooting mode. This gives you a noticeable degree of control over depth of field, or the effect of subtly blurring either background or foreground details depending on where you want to draw attention in the frame.

It’s this small, but crucial detail that really drives the appeal of the S9 for me. Without it, it’d be difficult to roundly recommend it as a major upgrade from last year’s model, and hard to say that it can stand apart from the rest of the crowd, most of which now feature magnificent cameras.

The Galaxy S9 also produces pretty fantastic results with full-light photos outdoors, as you can see from the gallery, with vibrant, rich color that might be a bit artificial, but ultimately comes off looking like it includes the kind of minor boosts and tweaks I’d do while editing in post anyway. The video shooting is good, as well, though it lacks the degree of stabilization that Google’s Pixel 2 can provide when filming while in motion.

On the Galaxy S9+ (which I didn’t test, but spent a bit of time with ahead of launch), the dual-camera design provides even more balm for DSLR and mirrorless addicts, since it gives you access to that 2x manual zoom. But the standard S9 strikes a great balance in terms of portability, design and features, and honestly most people won’t often use the zoom lens anyway.

Another key feature of the S9 is its new super slow motion mode, which captures brief clips at 960 fps at 720p resolution. I had fun with this, but found its automatic mode frustrating (it rarely detected motion when I wanted it to, and often went either too early or too late to get the moment). Turning that to manual was again more fun, for many of the reasons described above, and more interesting in terms of results produced, like the clip below.

Other new features, including the AR Emoji, are less well-executed and will probably enter the dustbin of history with a lot of other Samsung exclusive features. That’s not necessarily a criticism however: Samsung trying a bunch of stuff and then introducing it into the wild for hundreds of millions of customers isn’t hurting anyone (though mode switching on the S9 is super sensitive to casual left and right swipes, meaning AR emoji could come up accidentally) and sometimes crazy stuff they try actually works. AR emojis is not one of those.

AdStage raises another $3M as it shifts focus to data

AdStage is announcing that it’s raised $3 million in new funding.

That might not sound like much for a startup that raised a $6.25 million Series A back in 2014, but CEO Sahil Jain told me via email that the company has always raised “in tranches.” So when you combine this new funding with the 2014 round and the $2 million raised in 2016, “We’ve essentially raised a large Series A in total.”

Plus, he said he spent all of 2017 shifting the focus of AdStage’s business. The company continues to offer tools for automating online advertising, but the main selling point is to consolidate campaign data across networks, and then to combine that with offline conversion data.

“We went from a platform where you come to build campaigns and ads to one where you cannot do that at all, and instead, come to analyze what is working and what is not from campaigns/ads you already have running,” Jain said.

The strategy seems to be paying off, with revenue growing 150 percent last year, and the total amount of ad spend on the platform increasing 25 percent to more than $500 million.

The new funding comes from Forté Ventures, HubSpot and Verizon Ventures. (Verizon owns TechCrunch.) AdStage will also be working with HubSpot to build more CRM integrations.

“We have the option for pursuing profitability with no additional capital this year, or doubling down on growth, at which point a larger B round makes a lot of sense,” Jain said. “It is important we execute thoughtfully, which will lead us to the route we decide on as a business.”

GoPro to license camera lenses and sensors to third party manufacturers

GoPro is today announcing a multi-year deal with Jabil that aims to put GoPro technology in everything from police body cameras to video conferencing solutions. Through this agreement, Jabil will license GoPro’s design and intellectual property for use in approved third-party devices. This is the first time GoPro is letting other manufacturers build products with GoPro parts. The products will not be branded GoPro at this time.

GoPro has worked with Jabil since the GoPro Hero4, which was released in 2014. Jabil is a United States-based manufacturing firm that operates 90 facilities across 23 countries. Financial terms of this new agreement were not announced.

Irv Stein, Jabil’s vice president of Jabil Optics, said in a released statement that it sees “early market feedback indicating strong demand in the enterprise action camera segment for applications in smart homes, military, fire, police, rescue, and security.” And that’s just the beginning.

GoPro CTO Sandor Barna sees opportunity for GoPro to provide the lens and image sensors for video conferencing solutions, robotics and self-driving cars.

It seems GoPro is ready to expand from the action camera market and leverage its brand in other segments. This agreement allows for licensing a range of GoPro’s products and service including digital imaging and consumer products. At this time, third party action cameras are not allowed as the agreement only covers products that do not compete with GoPro’s products.

GoPro, whose stock is at an all-time low of less than $5.00, is struggling to stay afloat. The company just laid off a good chunk of its drone division and has struggled to find its footing even as the company releases new and improved products. This move could put GoPro on solid ground. Even though GoPro undeniably makes the best action cameras on the market, the company keeps losing value. It’s a smart move to leverage its brand through a partner to brand out into new markets.