Miso scores $10 million to bring its hamburger-flipping robot to more restaurants


Pasadena-based hardware startup Miso Robotics just got a big vote of confidence from investors, in the form of a $10 million Series B. This latest windfall led by Acacia Research Corporation brings the company’s total disclosed funding to $14 million and arrives as it ramps up production and gets ready to deliver its hamburger-cooking robot Flippy to 50 CaliBurger locations.

“We’re super stoked to use this funding to develop and scale our capabilities of our kitchen assistants and AI platform,” CEO/co-founder Dave Zito said on a call with TechCrunch ahead of the announcement. “Our current investors saw an early look at our progress, and they were so blown away that they doubled-down.”

A robot’s view of the grill

The round also includes new investors, including, notably, Levy, a Chicago-based hospitality company that runs restaurants and vending machines in entertainment and sporting venues in the U.S. and U.K. The company’s investment is clearly a strategic one, as it looks toward staffing solutions in its heavily trafficked locations.

“The Levy participation is really centered around their looking at this future world where people are increasingly wanting prepared foods,” says Zito. “People really like the idea of a kitchen assistant that can really come in and be that third hand for the overworked staff. They’re all reporting high turnover rate and increasing customer demand for fresh ingredients prepared quickly. Trying to keep that at accessible prices is hard.”

We’ve already seen a number of demos of Flippy in earlier iterations, including a peek inside the robot’s AI-based vision system back at Disrupt in September. The company promises a more public debut of the robot at the Pasadena CaliBurger location is set to arrive in “the coming weeks.”

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Featured Image: Miso Robotics

Agrilyst raises another $1.5M for its intelligent indoor farming platform


Agrilyst, a platform that makes it easier for indoor farmers to manage their crops based on sensor data, today announced that it has raised a $1.5 million funding round from iSelect Fund, Argonautic Ventures, Horizons Lab (Horizons Venture’s seed fund) and Onland Capital Fund. The new investors were joined by existing investors Compound and the New York State Innovation Capital Fund. That’s on top of the $1 million round Agrilyst announced in 2016.

As Agrilyst co-founder and CEO Allison Knopf tells us, the company, which won our Disrupt San Francisco Startup Battlefield in 2015, has been on a bit of a roll lately. It added 100 new customers in 2017 and saw 500 percent growth in both revenue and customers since 2016. It’s service is now available in 10 countries and its tools support more than 50 different vegetables and 800 crops.

When the company launched, the team was very adamant that it didn’t want to be seen as a tool for indoor cannabis growers, but it recently added support for cannabis, too, as well as for floriculture and insect productions.

“We see a world where computation cost is driven to zero and we now have the resources to monitor the growth, health, and biology of every single seed,” says Phil Chen, Advisor at Horizons Lab. “I see Allison and her team at Agrilyst as the interpreters of this data to secure future food sources.”

As for the team, it’s worth noting that the company recently brought on both a new CTO (to replace co-founder and CTO Jason Camp, who left the company last year) and a VP of Customer Success.

Unsurprisingly, Agrilyst plans to use the new funding to support its growth and expand into new markets and product lines. Having a number of new investors who focus on the large Chinese market (Horizons, Argonautic and Onland) will surely help the company expand into this market, too.

Featured Image: fanjianhua/Getty Images

Safe Catch Tuna is a startup on a mission to eradicate the risk of mercury poisoning from your fish


Bay Area startup Safe Catch Tuna has developed a patented technology to detect mercury levels in a variety of fish and pledges that its own brand of tuna products have the lowest levels of any brand.

The company is one of those overnight successes more than a decade in the making. Co-founder Sean Wittenberg started the company in 2004 after his own mom was diagnosed with mercury poisoning. She’d been eating canned tuna fish a few times a week and started to become lethargic, weak and suffer from short-term memory loss.

Thankfully, she recovered but the incident was scary enough to prompt Wittenberg to come up with a way to ensure the safety of tuna. He and his co-founder Bryan Boches started marketing the tech to some of the big tuna manufacturers but soon found they weren’t interested.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much incentive for manufacturers to test all their products and none of them seemed interested in what Safe Catch was doing — despite an Environmental Protection Agency warning back then that pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children should not be consuming tuna in a can.

The company nearly died in 2015 from lack of a market. That’s when Wittenberg and Boches decided to pivot and become a tuna manufacturer themselves.

Those guidelines were since updated in 2017 and both the EPA and FDA now say its ok for pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children to consume small amounts of tuna a few times per week, as long as it falls below the 1.0 parts per million standard suggested. Many manufacturers like Starkist and Bumble Bee say on their sites they only sell the kind of canned fish products that fall far below that standard.

The biggest problem, says Boches, is the FDA and EPA are only testing about 200 fish a year from these other manufacturers, whereas Safe Catch is testing over a million fish a year to ensure safety.

“We’re the only brand and the only company in the world that can screen fish for mercury in real-time,” Boches tells TechCrunch. “Otherwise, it would take a lab a week and cost one-hundred dollars for every single test and that would mean each can would be twenty-dollars a can. It would never work.”

It’s been a long road and Boches admits has been an expensive company to build but he says Safe Catch is now at a point where it can scale. In just two years, the company went from zero to selling its products in 10,000 stores across the U.S., doubling sales each year and creating 22 SKU’s. Boches says it’s particularly popular with the paleo and Whole30 diet market.

The company also recently pulled in $5 million in seed funding from Echo Capital, Essential Investments and various angels to help expand its line of mercury tested seafood products — including a new line of seasoned tuna pouches using “real spice blends,” Ahi canned tuna and canned and pouched salmon.

“We started over and created a canned tuna that tastes better, looks better and is better for you,” Wittenberg said. “Our artisan process lets us retain 100 percent of the nutrients and natural oils in each tuna and we slow cook each one to perfection.”

Each Safe Catch product promises to not contain pyrophosphates or additives and is BPA-free. You can find the brand in various grocery stores or online at Amazon and other various retail outlets.

Square has acquired a 32-year-old restaurant delivery company


Square has acquired Entrees On-Trays, a 32-year-old restaurant delivery platform. The plan is to expand the footprint of its on-demand food delivery service, Caviar, in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.

There were a few factors Square took into consideration in its acquisition of Entrees On-Trays, Caviar product lead Gokul Rajaram told TechCrunch via email. For one, the acquisition is designed to accelerate Caviar’s growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and take advantage of the partnerships Entrees On-Trays has formed with local restaurants.

Entrees On-Trays is “a lot like Caviar,” Rajaram said. “They have great relationships with restaurants, and they offer amazing service for diners.”

Thanks to the acquisition, Caviar will be able to deliver from local favorites like Hoffbrau Steak and Grill House, and Riscky’s Bar-B-Q, a family-owned restaurant that has been around since 1927.

Dallas-Fort Worth is also an important market for Caviar, with Rajaram noting that Dallas has the most restaurants per capita in the U.S. Caviar first entered the Dallas-Fort Worth market in 2015 with just 30 restaurants on board.

Last year, in conjunction with Square’s acquisition of OrderAhead, Caviar launched an order-ahead pickup service. Caviar declined to share metrics regarding its order-ahead business in comparison with its delivery business, but Rajaram says its full-fledged food ordering business is solid.

“We feel good about Caviar’s overall growth in the past year,” Rajaram said. “An increasing number of restaurants are choosing Caviar as their partner because we are a complete online ordering platform.”

For the rest of the year, Caviar wants to continue growing its existing markets and piloting cross-country pop-ups. Last year, for example, Caviar brought San Francisco’s Souvla to New York and Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We’re always thinking a lot about how to continue being the best possible partner to restaurants, and also exploring ways to help both consumer and corporate diners find delicious, healthy meals,” Rajaram said. “Many people think food delivery means low-quality meals that are bad for you – we want to end this misperception!”

Inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered no-checkout convenience store

By now many have heard of Amazon’s most audacious attempt to shake up the retail world, the cashless, cashierless Go store. Walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. I got a chance to do just that recently, as well as pick the brain of one of its chief architects.

My intention going in was to try to shoplift something and catch these complacent Amazon types napping. But it became clear when I went in that this wasn’t going to be an option. I was never more than a foot or two from an Amazon PR rep, and as Dilip Kumar, the projects VP of Technology, convinced me, they’d already provided against such crude attacks on their system.

As you might have seen in the promo video, you enter the store (heretofore accessible to Amazon employees only) through a gate that opens when you scan a QR code generated by the Amazon Go app on your phone. At this moment (well, actually the moment you entered or perhaps even before) your account is associated with your physical presence and cameras begin tracking your every move.

The many, many cameras.

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  2. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wondered when the idea of Amazon’s cashierless store was first proposed how it would be accomplished. Cameras on the ceiling, behind the display cases, on pedestals? What kind? Proximity and weight sensors, face recognition? Where would this all be collated and processed?

Amazon’s approach wasn’t as complex as I expected, or rather not in the way I expected. Mainly the system is made up of dozens and dozens of camera units mounted to the ceiling, covering and recovering every square inch of the store from multiple angles. I’d guess there are maybe a hundred or so in the store I visited, which was about the size of an ordinary bodega or gas station mart.

These are ordinary RGB cameras, custom made with boards in the enclosure to do some basic grunt computer vision work, presumably things like motion detection, basic object identification, and so on.

They’re augmented by separate depth-sensing cameras (using a time-of-flight technique, or so I understood from Kumar) that blend into the background like the rest, all matte black.

The images captured from these cameras are sent to a central processing unit (for lack of a better term, not knowing exactly what it is), which does the real work of quickly and accurately identifying different people in the store and objects being picked up or held. Picking something up adds it to your “virtual shopping cart,” and you can pop it in a tote or shopping bag as fast as you like. No need to hold it up for the system to see.

This is where the secret sauce is, Kumar told me, and I believe him. As banal a problem as it may seem to determine which similarly dressed person picked up which nearly identical yogurt cup, it’s very difficult to get right at the speed and accuracy level needed in order to base an entire business on it.

A student, after all, with the resources available these days, could probably design a version of this store in a few weeks that would work 80 percent of the time. But to get it right 99.9 percent of the time, frictionlessly and instantly, is a challenge that requires a great deal of work.

Notably, there is no facial recognition used (I asked). Amazon perhaps sensed early on that this would earn them rebuke from privacy-conscious shoppers, though the idea of those people coming to this store strikes me as unlikely. Instead, the system uses other visual cues and watches for continuity between cameras — you’re never not in sight of a lens, so it’s easy for the system to see a shopper move from one camera to another and make the connection.

Should there be a technical problem with a camera or it gets sauce on its lens somehow, the system doesn’t break down entirely. It’s been tested with cameras missing, though naturally it wouldn’t be long before a replacement is put in place and the system re-re-calibrates.

In addition to the cameras, there are weight sensors in the shelves, and the system is aware of every item’s exact weight — so no trying to grab two yogurts at once and palm the second, as I considered trying. You might be able to do it Indiana Jones style, with a suitable amount of sand in a sack, but that’s more effort than most shoplifters are willing to put out.

And, as Kumar noted to me, most people aren’t shoplifters, and the system is designed around most people. Building a system that assumes ill intent rather than merely detecting discrepancies is not always a good design choice.

There is in fact a human in the loop should the system find itself in a bind, but Kumar said this was rare enough that it hardly needed to be considered. He also said that the difficulty of monitoring the store doesn’t increase with square footage, though of course you’ll need more cameras and more processing power.

It’s also been tested with serious crowds; we were there during a slow time in the mid-afternoon, but shortly before that was the lunch rush, they told me, when dozens rather than a handful of people could be found walking in and out without doing anything more than showing their phone to a sensor at the entrance.

There may not be cashiers, but there are staff: stockers who replenish inventory; an ID checker (and erstwhile sommelier I’m sure) in the wine and beer section, and chefs in the back throwing together fresh sandwiches and meal kits. Someone also hovers in the entrance area to help people with the app, answer questions, and take returns.

The selection was mainly grab-and-go lunches and snacks, with the usual handful of household items you grab at the bodega on the way home. Prices were what you’d expect at a supermarket rather than a convenience store, though.

As for the expected Amazon gambits that leverage its existing properties and hooks, few are to be found. The app is self-contained, and your purchases are tracked there rather than on your “main” Amazon account. Prime members don’t get lower prices. Whole Foods has a little section of its own but there’s no broader partnership (and no plans to convert any of those stores to Go, though I can’t imagine why not).

Overall I’m impressed with the seamlessness of the system, and I can see these things successfully operating here and there.

On the philosophical side, I’m troubled, of course — a convenience store you just walk out of is a friendly mask on the face of a highly controversial application of technology: ubiquitous personal surveillance.

It’s a bit overkill, I think, to replace a checker or self-checkout stand with a hundred cameras that unblinkingly record every tiny movement. What’s to gain? 20 or 30 seconds of your time back? Lack of convenience has hardly been a complaint for this market — it’s right there in the name: “convenience store.”

Like so many ways companies are applying tech today, this seems to me an immense amount of ingenuity and resources being used to “solve” something that few people care about and fewer still consider a problem. As a technical achievement it’s remarkable, but then again, so is a robotic dog.

The store works — that much I can say for it. Where Amazon will take it from here I couldn’t say, nor would anyone respond meaningfully to my questions along these lines. Amazon Go will be open to the public starting this week, but whether anyone will find it to be anything more than a novelty is yet to be seen.

mRelief launches end-to-end food stamp enrollment service


Signing up for food stamps can be cumbersome, especially for those with limited access to transportation and internet. In San Francisco, about one in four people struggle with hunger, according to the SF-Marin Food Bank. Meanwhile, $13 billion in food stamps benefits are unclaimed every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through startup mRelief, people with low incomes can easily figure out if they qualify for resources like food stamps, as well as other much-needed social services.

In an attempt to make it easier for people to access the resources they need, mRelief has launched an end-to-end process for people to enroll in the food stamp program in San Francisco. mRelief will launch this same service on the UC Davis campus on January 16, when students return to school.

Up until today, mRelief simply helped people find out if they qualify for food stamp services. Now, mRelief takes them through the entire process. The service is completely free to use and mRelief also offers free Lyft rides to people who need to do interviews. This launch is a culmination of a contracts and partnerships with the California Department of Social Services, San Francisco County and Yolo County Health and Human Services Department.

Through mRelief, applicants can apply for food stamps via the company’s web-based or text messaging tool. Text messaging is an important function, mRelief co-founder and CTO Genevieve Nielsen told TechCrunch, because “a lot of our users lose access to the internet at a certain point throughout the month.”

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“Text messaging is something will last throughout the month no matter how much data you have,” she said. “It’s also very easy and very conversational. We don’t want internet access to be a barrier.”

Since launching in 2016 at a Y Combinator demo day, mRelief has helped 230,000 families across the country connect to social services.

“This, for us, is about government being able to partner with startups to build effective innovation for food stamp programs,” mRelief co-founder and Executive Director Rose Afriyie told me. “We are innovating in San Francisco Country in partnership with the local government and are able to provide first-rate technology services to the people who are most vulnerable.”

When mRelief first partnered with CalFresh, 52 percent of people applied in person. mRelief also soon learned that people spent a few hours in the office trying to get their food stamps. That’s why mRelief focused on eliminating the burden of transportation as well as reducing the amount of time people spent in person. Now, 81 percent of its users are applying through mobile.

“Our mission has been long been to restore dignity by transforming access to social services,” Afriyie told me.

Featured Image: racorn/Shutterstock

Nima announces a $289 portable peanut allergy tester


Peanut allergy is common and now there’s a new way to detect if a food substance contains the ingredient. Nima’s Peanut is a small, self-contained unit to detect peanuts. And like Nima’s gluten detector, it seems quick and easy to use.

In both the peanut and gluten tester, the user places a pea-size chunk of food into the single-use testing tube. After this tube is placed into the Nima, the device uses different sensors and chemistry to detect either peanuts or gluten. The results are delivered in about three minutes.

Nima says the sensors can detect peanut or gluten to 20 parts per million at a 99 percent accuracy.

Peanut is available for pre-order now and will ship later this year with a 12-pack of test capsules. It’s $60 off at $229 if pre-ordered before March 8, 2018. Additional capsule 12-packs will cost $72 or $59 through auto-delivery or the premium membership program.

The company is today also announcing an improved version of its gluten tester and a subscription plan that provides users with test capsules at a discounted price.

I’ve used the first generation Nima device for gluten and it’s a wonderful device. My daughter has Celiac disease and the Nima has saved us several times at restaurants. The downside is the cost. We don’t use it every time. We only break the Nima out when a food substance deemed gluten free looks questionable.

Gluten is now available for $289 and ships with a 12-pack of test capsules. Additional capsule 12-packs will cost $72 or $59 through auto-delivery or the premium membership program that costs $9.99 a month.

The company was founded in October, 2013 and was original known as 6SensorLab. At CES 2016, the company won TechCrunch’s Hardware Battlefield. Since its founding, the company has raised $13.2 million in funding from such funds as Foundry Group, Kapor Capital, Lemnos Labs, and Nest co-founder, Matt Rogers.