No Tipping Necessary: Hundreds of Delivery Robots Are Coming to Los Angeles

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

No Tipping Necessary: Hundreds of Delivery Robots Are Coming to Los Angeles

On a recent crisp winter morning outside an empty office park in the San Fernando Valley, there were no workers to be seen. That is unless one counts the cooler-sized delivery robot slowly whirring down the sidewalk as Felipe Chavez, founder and CEO of Kiwibot, nervously watched to make sure the droid did not veer of course.

Just as no one now thinks twice about seeing e-scooters that were non-existent before late 2017, the sight of a robot ferrying salads, pizza, or groceries could become common on Los Angeles sidewalks before this year is over.


Kiwibot has quietly been testing its robots – specially designed to look cute and non-threatening – for the past few weeks in the Valley, as well as more recently at a major university campus the company won't yet name. If all goes well, Kiwibot will begin offering delivery to students through as early as next month before expanding to Santa Monica and other parts of the city after that.

"L.A. is going to be our most important city this year," Chavez said. "In the first five months of the year we plan to employ 100 robots here in the city, and we expect that by the end of the year we're going to have around 400 robots deployed."

Kiwibot robot delivery

Postmates, which is now owned by Uber, has been testing a handful of delivery robots in West Hollywood since April. While those are accompanied by a human chaperone, the Kiwibot robots set out on their own, though operators take over remotely for more complex tasks like crossing the street.

Kiwibot has already made over 120,000 deliveries since 2017 during rollouts at University of California, Berkeley, University of Denver, and San Jose, where it partnered with Shopify and Ordermark. But L.A., with its vast geographic footprint, is a whole new degree of difficulty.

"It's a great challenge for us," said Chavez.

Kiwibot chose L.A. because the city already has a high adoption of food delivery, it is home to potential partners like ChowNow and Ordermark, and the city has been a willing collaborator through its Urban Movement Labs (UML), mostly by sharing data on city streets and sidewalks.

"We trust L.A. to be the best new market for us because the food delivery habit is already there, and we feel backed to scale in an organized and socially responsible and sustainable manner," said David Rodriguez, Kiwibot's head of business.

After a confrontational approach between cities and ridesharing and e-scooter companies, Lilly Shoup, UML's interim executive director, says L.A. is trying to be more collaborative with delivery robots.

"I think we've learned that it's important for city transportation agencies to get ahead of new technology before they appear on city streets," Shoup said. "It's important to understand their business models and proactively develop policies."

UML is also working on a pilot to deliver goods via drone by 2022 and in both instances Shoup says the technology can help reduce pollution and congestion since most deliveries now are made via cars.

"It's really exciting to think about new ways to reduce the environmental impact of delivery," Shoup said.

Robots substantially bring down the cost of delivery, which could help restaurants that operate on thin margins during even the best of times and have been devastated this year. But it will also mean fewer delivery jobs, most of which have been preserved as contract work in California with the recently passed Proposition 22.

Restaurants typically pay between 15% to 30% on orders placed with delivery services like Postmates or Grubhub and drivers are hardly getting rich. In fact, they often make less than minimum wage.

Kiwibot charges fees of a couple dollars on each order – which can be absorbed by the restaurant or passed onto customers. The company says its cost per delivery is now $2.98 but as it scales and the technology improves it can shave the cost down to $1.23 by the end of 2022.

Right now, Kiwibot robots – which cost between $2,500 and $4,000 each – can only operate in a 1.5 mile radius but the company's next generation can go eight miles and is large enough to fit a 12-inch pizza.

Kiwibot

Courtesy Kiwibot

Will the Public Accept Robots?

Even when the technology is ready, Kiwibot has what may be a tougher obstacle to overcome – public acceptance. Public safety commissioners in West Hollywood raised concerns about Postmates' robots and even in tech-friendly San Francisco, a city lawmaker, worried they might run into pedestrians, tried to ban them.

Kiwibot warns potential investors on its crowdfunding page: "Delivery bots have proved controversial in some regulatory environments with some cities, like San Francisco, putting out laws that make it difficult for us to deploy. If this became widespread we would have trouble going to market."

Chavez says he spends a great deal of time thinking about how he can get the public to be comfortable with robots.

"There is a sector of people that are concerned about robots and I think that it is very important to listen to them and to get their feedback on everything. but robots are going to happen," Chavez said.

The robot also has a sign affixed to the back to clarify that it is not recording any video, something that was added after homeless people in San Jose feared they were being spied on.

There is a "black box," which records in case of an emergency, but none of the devices have been stolen — so far.

Even though local regulations can allow for robots to go as fast as 10 mph, Chavez has found a speed of 6 mph makes people feel safer.

There are also important visual considerations. Kiwibot's robots look nothing like the hulking devices conjured up in sci-fi movies like "Transformers" or "The Terminator." They are more like a plastic cooler on wheels with lights on the front that resemble a smiling face.

"The new version is even more cute," said Chavez. "It's like a squirrel on a rock."

Taking a page from nature, the design is deliberately playful and small.

"When you see an animal and it is bigger than the width of your shoulders you feel threatened," Chavez said. "So we have made sure that the robot is never going to be wider [than you] so that people don't feel threatened."

Coronavirus has also been helpful, helping accelerate the adoption not only of delivery but also of robots – who you don't have to worry about coughing on you.

Competition with Bigger Robot Deliveries

Kiwibot, which is based in San Jose, has raised more than half $1 million from more than 650 investors in its latest crowdfunding campaign, to bring its fundraising total to over $3 million.

That pales in comparison to not only Uber but also much larger rivals Starship, a robot food delivery service launched in 2014 by two Skype co-founders that plans to rollout deliver to 100 universities by next summer and Nuro – an autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google engineers valued at $4 billion. The company received regulatory approval last week to operate on city streets in the Bay Area.

But with global autonomous last-mile delivery projected to grow from $11.16 billion next year to $76 billion by 2030, Kiwibot sees room for multiple competitors.

"In L.A. right now we are talking with multiple partners, very big companies," said Chavez.

"Everything is moving very fast," he added, as his robot inched along the sidewalk, heading back to the lab to continue more testing.

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Robot Bartenders, Space Construction and a Weight Loss App: Highlights From Techstars’ LA Demo Day

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Robot Bartenders, Space Construction and a Weight Loss App: Highlights From Techstars’ LA Demo Day
Andria Moore

On Wednesday, Techstars’ fall 2022 class gathered in Downtown Los Angeles to pitch their products to potential investors in hopes of securing their next big funding round. dot.LA co-sponsored the demo day presentation alongside Venice-based space news website Payload.

Managing director Matt Kozlov explained that unlike previous years, this year Techstars combined two cohorts, merging its space accelerator program and Los Angeles program into one demo day. The result was a comprehensive pitch day where investors, founders and press could hear from 12 creative and intriguing companies working across a variety of industries.

What’s new in space startups

On the space side, two local firms were introduced, including Fenix Space, a San Bernardino startup that got off the ground in 2017 and is looking to wrestle control of the commercial air launch market away from local rival Virgin Orbit.

Fenix Space has a different model of air launching rockets than Virgin; instead of strapping the rockets to a large plane like Virgin does, it plans to tow them through the air. During the Techstars demo day Fenix CEO Jason Lee told Payload co-founder Ari Lewis that Fenix conducted one sub-orbital test flight last year, and is working on making a second craft that will be tested at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range by second quarter of next year.

During his pitch Lee said, he sees a wide variety of tow launch applications including terrestrial logistics (think an alternative to ground shipping for e-commerce, as one example) but noted, “we're starting with space because corporations and governments looking to put assets into space are relying on ground launch operations from only five orbital space points in the United States… . As a result, the wait time to launch is up to two years, customers are subject to fixed schedules, are being delivered to limited orbital destinations, and are often delayed weeks or even months.”

Lee said Fenix’s crafts can carry 75 times more payload per launch and can launch payloads to orbit 1000 times faster than its competitors. The company has raised $9 million in funding over five years, said Lee and has memorandums of understanding with “major commercial customers” that account for at least $32 million in potential revenue. He also noted Fenix has existing partnerships with the Air Force Research Lab and commercial space operations support agreement with Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Fenix also has a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop its tow-glider launch platform and an exclusive license agreement with the agency.

man explaining space tech Fenix Space CEO Jason Lee. Photo: Fenix/Techstars LA

In Orbit Aerospace CEO Ryan Elliot was clearly passionate about the company’s mission to make manufacturing in space as easy as possible. “Today, the only way to manufacture in space and recover products back on Earth is through the International Space Station,” Elliot said. Elliot is betting that In Orbit can help reduce the high wait times and correspondingly spiking costs of space manufacturing by helping customers set up their own space factories.

All of which is a tall order, but not as far-fetched as it might seem. In Orbit developed a custom orbital satellite it calls the Haven Shepherd to launch customers’ cargo to space for manufacturing. Once the mini-factory is operational, In Orbit’s second module, a capsule called the Haven Retriever, will bring raw materials to the factory and swap that payload for the new, finished product to return it back to earth.

Elliot also noted the company is the only one trying to tackle the challenge of building a permanent orbital station that can interface with Earth, and has some $180 million in potential contracts in the pipeline. Adding that In Orbital has a Space Act Agreement with NASA and is planning a test mission as soon as 2024.

Apps focused on food and drink

One overarching theme of this year’s Techstars LA cohort was a focus on the food and beverage industries, as well as the intersection those industries have with the healthcare market.

Rotender was one of the splashier startups in this Techstars cohort, because, well, who doesn’t think the phrase “robot bartender” sounds cool. Sure, this robot won’t listen to you gripe about your partner during happy hour, but it will pour you a G&T in under 30 seconds. At least, that’s the gist pitched by CEO Ben Winston.

Rotender could work a large private event, but Winston said the company’s focused on getting into sports stadiums and entertainment venues. Capitalizing on the one thing all fans hate – long lines for concessions – Rotender is aiming to convince venues that spending $35,000 annually on a robot to pour drinks is worth the spend. “One Rotender unit operating 18 or more hours a week will earn a venue over $700,000 a year in drink credit,” Winston said, adding that it could also save a venue over 175,000 annually in spillage fees.

On the business-to-business side, Techstars-backed app Bevz is trying to “save your local convenience store,” as CEO Jason Vego put it. Bevz is basically an order management system for bodegas that helps them avoid running out of top-selling products. The app syncs with the store’s custom point of sale system and sends users notifications to purchase more products before it runs out. It also consolidates input from various delivery apps to give the store a clear picture of what is sold and how frequently.

“These stores are constantly running out of products that their customers want to buy, leading to $50 billion in lost revenue every year,” Vego said. “Most stores don't have any technology… this [platform] is a game-changer.

powerpoint explaining growth in company Bevz CEO Jason Vego pitches his app for convenience stores. Photo: Bevz/Techstars LA

Startups targeting mental and physical wellness

While a number of local startups backed by TechStars are looking to innovate in the food and beverage market, two in particular were focused on fitness coaching.

Founded by Liz Dickinson in 2020, San Diego-based wellness app Relish Life is an app-based clinic that connects people with clinicians for medication-assisted weight loss therapy supplemented by mental health treatment. Dickinson said during her pitch that Relish participants reported “11% body weight lost by six months compared to only 5% in 12 months, twice the weight in half the time of our competitor and we've clinically validated that the weight stays off,” Dickinson said. “Anything that stress triggers, we can treat,” she added, noting the platform could be used to help modify other unhealthy behaviors like smoking or even possibly addiction.

Another wellness-focused app pitching at the demo day was Liberate, a Brentwood-based coaching app focused on mental fitness. CEO Olivia Bowser said during her pitch that she quit her “dream job” six years ago after quickly burning out. The experience prompted her to found Liberate, which companies can choose as a benefit for their workers.

The platform works by connecting people with counselors and guided stress management and wellness exercises to complete throughout the day. There’s also a Slack channel for team-wide guided wellness exercises and morale boosting. “At less than two years old, we've serviced hundreds of companies through monthly and annual contracts… [and] helped nearly 5,000 employees feel happier and more productive at work,” Bowser said.

Derek Jeter’s Arena Club Knocked a $10M Funding Round Right Out of the Park

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

sports trading cards
Arena Club /Andria Moore

Sports trading card platform Arena Club has raised $10 million in Series A funding.

Co-founded by CEO Brian Lee and Hall of Fame Yankees player Derek Jeter, Arena Club launched its digital showroom in September. Through the platform, sports fans can buy, sell, trade and display their card collections. Using computer vision and machine learning, Arena Club allows fans to grade and authenticate their cards, which can be stored in the company’s vault or delivered in protective “slabs.” Arena Club intends to use the new cash to expand these functions and scale its operations.

The new funding brings Arena Club’s total amount raised to $20 million. M13, defy.vc, Lightspeed Ventures, Elysian Park Ventures and BAM Ventures contributed to the round.

“Our team is thankful for the group of investors—led by M13, who see the bright future of the trading card hobby and our platform,” Lee said in a statement. “I have long admired M13 and the value they bring to early-stage startups.”

M13’s co-founder Courtney Reum, who formed the early-stage consumer technology venture firm in 2016 alongside his brother Carter Reum, will join Arena Club’s board. Reum has been eyeing the trading card space since 2020 when he began investing in what was once just a childhood hobby.

The sports trading card market surged in 2020 as fans turned to the hobby after the pandemic brought live events to a standstill. Since then, prices have come down, though demand remains high. And investors are still betting on trading card companies, with companies like Collectors bringing in $100 million earlier this year. Fanatics, which sells athletic collectibles and trading cards, reached a $31 billion valuation after raising $700 million earlier this week. On the blockchain, Tom Brady’s NFT company Autograph lets athletes sell digital collectibles directly to fans.

As for Arena Club, the company is looking to cement itself as a digital card show.

“Providing users with a digital card show allows us to use our first-class technology to give collectors from all over the world the luxury of being able to get the full trading card show experience at their fingertips,” Jeter said in a statement.

Is Airbnb’s New Push To Expand Short-Term Rentals Enough for Hosts To Combat LA’s City Policy?

Amrita Khalid
Amrita Khalid is a tech journalist based in Los Angeles, and has written for Quartz, The Daily Dot, Engadget, Inc. Magazine and number of other publications. She got her start in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for CQ-Roll Call. You can send tips or pitches to amrita@dot.la or reach out to her on Twitter at @askhalid.
LA house

L.A.’s lax enforcement of Airbnbs has led to an surge of illegal short-term rentals — even four years after the city passed a regulation to crack down on such practices. But what if hosts lived in a building that welcomed Airbnb guests and short-term rentals?

That’s the idea behind Airbnb’s new push to expand short-term rental offerings. The company is partnering with a number of corporate landlords that agreed to offer “Airbnb-friendly” apartment buildings, reported The Wall Street Journal last week. According to the report, the new service will feature more than 175 buildings managed by Equity Residential, Greystar Real Estate Partners LLC and 10 other companies that have agreed to clear more than 175 properties nationwide for short-term rentals.

But prospective hosts in Los Angeles who decide to rent apartments from Airbnb’s list of more than a dozen “friendly” buildings in the city likely won’t earn enough to break even due to a combination of high rents, taxes and city restrictions on short-term rentals. Rents on one-bedroom apartments in most of the partnered buildings listed soared well over $3,000 a month. Only a few studios were available under the $2,000 price range. If a host were to rent a one bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $2,635 (which amounts to $31,656 annually), they would have to charge well over the $194 average price per night for Los Angeles (which amounts to $23,280 per year) according to analytics platform AllTheRooms.

Either way, residents who rent one of these Airbnb friendly apartments still have to apply for a permit through the City of Los Angeles in order to host on Airbnb.

“[..Airbnb-friendly buildings] seems like a good initiative. However, from a quick look, it seems that given the rent, Airbnb revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover all expenses if the host follows the city’s policy,” says Davide Proserpio, assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

In addition, since L.A.’s 120-day cap on short-term rentals still applies to the buildings on Airbnb’s listing platform, that greatly limits the number of longer-term guests a resident can host. Not to mention, some of the buildings that Airbnb lists have even shorter limits – The Milano Lofts in DTLA for example only allows residents to host 90 nights a year.

Airbnb’s calculations of host earnings may be greatly misleading as well, given that the estimate doesn’t include host expenses, taxes, cleaning fees or individual building restrictions. For example, Airbnb estimates that a resident of a $3,699 one bedroom apartment at the Vinz in Hollywood that hosts 7 nights a month can expect $1,108 a month in revenue if they host year-round. But the Vinz only allows hosts to rent 90 days a year, which greatly limits the potential for subletters and a consistent income stream.

Keep in mind too that since the apartment will have to serve as the host’s “primary residence”, hosts will have to live there six months out of the year. All of which is to say, it’s unclear how renting an apartment in an “Airbnb-friendly” building makes hosting easier — especially in a city where illegal short-term rentals already seem to be the norm.

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