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Meet the 10 Startups in Techstars' 2021 Space Accelerator Class
Techstars' Space Accelerator took off this week with its third class of space-related companies that make everything from AI-powered smart cameras to technology that can anticipate celestial collisions.
The 10 startups selected for the competitive four-month program are based across the U.S. and Australia and will work with Techstars on a mostly remote basis.
All are developing technology with multiple uses in space and will receive a $120,000 investment in addition to access to Techstars' expanding network of mentors.
That network includes aerospace experts at the Pasadena-based NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Participating companies include Lockheed Martin, Arrow Electronics, SAIC and Israel Aerospace Industries.
"Alumni from our previous cohorts are launching space systems and infrastructure, raising tens of millions of dollars in venture capital as well as receiving lucrative contracts from both government and commercial customers," said Jonathan Fentzke, the program's managing director.
The program will culminate in a demo day on Sept. 2 where the startups will show off their work in hopes of winning potential investors or clients.
Fentzke noted that while no companies in this year's cohort are based in LA, Techstars still has partners mentors and investors based here.
"As it turns out the four companies in California out of 10 are not based in L.A. today, but will likely have a presence over time," Fentzke told dot.LA.
Here's a look at the 10 companies selected for this year's Techstars Space Accelerator.
LOCATION: San Clemente, Ca.
CEO: Graeme Rae
Founded by maritime engineer Dr. Graeme Rae, Hyperkelp is building buoys that aren't your average fishing bobber. Its tech can collect and transmit data about the surrounding ocean and incoming payloads from space. The company says its goal is to create a network of the buoys around the ocean to help aerospace launch companies stream data from anywhere around the world.
LOCATION: San Francisco, CA. and Tel Aviv, Israel
CEO: Ohad Levi
Hyperspec.ai makes smart cameras that run on artificial intelligence. The company's CEO Sravan Puttagunta previously worked in HP's engineering department. In a nutshell, Hyperspec's cameras are made to create accurate mapping and object tracking in real time, with the goal of being used on self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles.
LOCATION: Sydney, Australia
CEO: Dr. Andri Mahendra
Nicslab develops technology called the "source measurement system" that uses quantum computing to help organizations optimize their internet speeds and make them faster. Its current clients include the University of Oxford, HP Labs and Mitsubishi Electric.
LOCATION: Indianapolis, In.
CEO: Aaron Pierce
Pierce Aerospace makes software that helps autonomous drones identify objects and payloads. It argues that this software is critical to the development of the drone industry -- after all, it can be pretty scary if a drone goes rogue because it can't see where it's going. In 2019 the company received a roughly $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to continue work on its flagship product, the Flight Portal ID system, which the DoD wants to use on its Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
LOCATION: Rockville, MD.
CEO: Michael Rowny
Pixspan develops a system that lets large files be transferred from different storage locations (like hardware or the cloud) at rapid speeds -- sometimes up to 5 times faster than average, it reports. It's compatible with several app programming interfaces, the main one being Amazon Web Services.
LOCATION: San Mateo, Ca.
CEO: Dave Krauthamer
QuSecure is a security company that focuses on protecting government and corporate systems from hacks. Specifically, its software works to keep encrypted data from being stolen and decrypted by quantum computers, which can steal and read valuable information at rapid speed. Its customers include Google and Amazon.
LOCATION: Alexandria, Va.
CEO: Eric Ingram
Scout -- also known as Scout Space -- develops software that helps spacefaring companies visualize what's going on in the great beyond and avoid casualties, like crashes with other spacecraft, satellites or debris. The company was founded in 2019 and says its name is an acronym for helping Spacecraft Observe and Understand Things around them.
LOCATION: San Diego, CA.
CEO: Mike Flanigan
As the name suggests, SeaSatellites is building unmanned vessels that work as satellites for the ocean and have a wide array of potential uses, from environmental data collection to communications. Similar to their skyward counterparts, SeaSatellites' tech can be controlled from anywhere and are designed to carry payloads on long missions.
LOCATION: Denver, CO.
CEO: David Mitlyng
This company's name is Greek to us -- literally. A nod to the Greek god of opportune time, Kairos, is an appropriate name for this startup using quantum mechanics to bring GPS-type technology to areas of the globe without internet access.
LOCATION: Boston, MA.
CEO: Katie Willgoos
Thermexit is the only company in this year's Space Accelerator cohort that's led by a woman. CEO Katie Willgoos joined the company in March and helps the company create and sell its main product, Theremexit Pads, which are tiny thermal sensing sticky pads that can be placed on circuit boards and inside computers.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated this is Techstars' second space accelerator cohort. It's the accelerator's third such class. It also, misnamed the CEO of Hyperspec.ai.
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Live performance app Encore, co-founded by rapper Kid Cudi, wants to put concerts in people’s pockets.
The Culver City-based company is among a bunch of virtual concert startups to emerge as the pandemic forced musicians to cancel or postpone in-person shows. But unlike competitors that are producing shows for virtual reality headsets or putting pay-per-view concerts on computers, Encore is betting fans will watch their favorite artists on smartphones. Think of it as a higher quality Instagram Live, with artists performing before augmented reality (AR) backgrounds and video chatting with fans.
A screenshot of Encore's Studio app for iPhone.
Photo courtesy of Encore
“What's disruptive about what we're doing is it is mobile live performance,” Encore co-founder and CEO Jonathan Gray told dot.LA. “It's free [for the artist] in your pocket, everywhere you go. And I think that's ultimately the vision of the company.”
Founded in 2020, the startup previously required artists to use both an iPad and iPhone to set up a show, with the more powerful tablets ensuring better production quality. But the iPad requirement proved to be a barrier for artists who couldn’t afford one, Gray said. Encore brings artists to its physical studio to perform on a greenscreen stage, too, but the company wants Encore shows to feel less like formal productions. They’ll ideally be something an artist does casually—and frequently—to engage with fans and make money in a lower stakes environment.
“The vision of the company, and the way we will get scale, is with artists doing stuff on their own,” Gray said. “I think as soon as it's on your phone, as soon as you can be going live in a minute, you're totally changing what it means to go live.”
Admission is cheap, but Gray said fans collectively spend a lot of money during a show. Middle-tier artists who have relatively smaller but engaged fan bases have racked up several thousand dollars during an Encore show—without booking a venue or hiring a production team.
“There's this completely untapped part of the music industry that has tons of engagement, but the engagement is on social [media],” Gray said. “Ultimately, your superfans can only stream on Spotify so many times. And even though you have super fans, how many of them are going to show up to a single city on a single night? Not that many.”
The new Encore Studio App lets artists design AR stages, add custom artwork and incorporate visual effects to turn basic spaces into more visually compelling backdrops. Other features include live polls, “backstage pass” video chats, and “clap goals,” in which artists can, for example, entice fans to spend more to hear new music.
Encore has raised $9 million in seed funding so far from investors like Battery Ventures, 468 Capital and Parade Ventures. The company has 14 employees and has facilitated 200 live shows since its first app went live in February. Roughly 2,000 artists have registered with Encore, which shows performers are interested but haven’t tried it, Gray said. That’s a big reason why the company is removing the iPad obstacle.
“You can actually get from downloading the app to having your own AR world and going live in like two minutes,” Gray said. “Before—it was not two minutes.”
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Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.
Google “Tesla battery fire” and you’ll find no shortage of results. Just last month, USA Today reported that California firefighters had to use 4,500 gallons of water to douse one of the brand’s EVs. And Tesla certainly isn’t alone: recalls and fire safety problems have plagued brands like Lucid, Rivian, and Chevy. But what causes these incidents? And how do you weigh the risk against a traditional internal combustion engine?
Lithium-ion batteries, like the ones used in almost every EV on the roads today, are designed to store as much energy as possible in the smallest space possible. This creates a lot of heat when energy demand is high. This principle is obvious to anyone who has ever noticed their phone or laptop battery getting hot with extended use. And because lithium-ion batteries can only safely operate with a narrow range of temperatures, most modern electronics—and EVs certainly—have numerous safeguards in place to prevent batteries from getting too hot. Almost all modern smartphones, for instance, will simply shut down if they get too hot. Every EV on the road has complex cooling systems to manage the thermal strain on their batteries and multiple failsafes. When everything is working as intended, the battery should never get dangerously hot.
But crashes and malfunctions do happen. If a piece of road debris or a crash damages a battery, fire is certainly possible. A design flaw or manufacturing defect can also create a dangerous situation. The thing that makes lithium-ion battery fires so serious is that they create a feedback loop known as thermal runaway: Once the battery overheats the electrolytes in the cell catch on fire, which creates more heat, which ignites more electrolytes, etc., etc.
Traditional means of stopping the fire, like dousing it in water, are often insufficient to put out the flames because the battery packs are hard to reach and retain enough heat to reignite over and over again as soon as the water stops flowing. In 2019,Firefighters in the Netherlands were forced to submerge a BMW i8 in a tank of water for 24 hours due to a particularly persistent battery fire.
While lithium-ion battery fires are nasty and dangerous, calculating the risk they pose to drivers presents a somewhat different picture. A 2017 report [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, concluded that
“…the propensity and severity of fires and explosions from the accidental ignition of flammable electrolytic solvents used in Li-ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels. The overall consequences for Li-ion batteries are expected to be less because of the much smaller amounts of flammable solvent released and burning in a catastrophic failure situation.”
TL;DR gasoline is also flammable and internal combustion engines still have batteries.
So, while it may be tempting to think that EVs pose an increased safety risk due to their lithium-ion batteries, the best data we have right now suggests that they’re no more dangerous than gas cars. Furthermore, numerous new battery technologies could reduce the risk of fire substantially.
Solid state batteries, for example, are often touted as being ore stable and less likely to ignite, though some research suggests the question may be a bit more complex than that. Other companies, like Battery Streak, in Camarillo, CA, are adding exotic materials to more traditional lithium-ion battery formulations in an effort to improve the thermal characteristics and performance.
If any of these companies can find a way to reliably mass produce these batteries and get them into EVs, the cars of tomorrow may prove considerably safer than anything on the road today, at least in terms of fire risk.
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David Shultz is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside and Nautilus, among other publications.