Techstars Aerospace Alums Gather for a Day of Partnership and Project Reveals

Tami Abdollah

Tami Abdollah was dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter.

Techstars Aerospace Alums Gather for a Day of Partnership and Project Reveals
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator's latest class announced partnerships with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Maxar Technologies and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) North America, among others, at Wednesday's long-awaited showcase. It was the culmination of months of focused and sometimes grueling remote work.

The program aims to help companies achieve several years of commercial growth within three months, with mentorship from the accelerator's partners, including the U.S. Air Force, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Lockheed Martin, Israel Aerospace Industries North American (IAI), SAIC and Maxar Technology.


The class of 10 companies come from Los Angeles, Toronto, Poland and states across the U.S. Among them is a company that provides a user-friendly AR/VR platform for use in education and training, a developer of an advanced AI system for data scientists as well as an air contamination and quality monitoring system.

"This is cutting edge development, and we need it for space exploration," said Tom Cwik, who manages the space technology office at JPL.

Because of the pandemic, Wednesday's Demo Day was held over YouTube, rather than in-person at the California Science Center. "It's kind of like the first day of the rest of your life," said the program's managing director Matt Kozlov.

Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator - Demo Day 2020 (Updated)www.youtube.com

Here are some of today's key announcements:

Prewitt Ridge Partners with JPL

Los Angeles-based Prewitt Ridge co-founder and CEO Steve Massey joined forces with his co-founder, Zeke Brechtel, both formerly with SpaceX to build an integrated software platform that aims to remove data duplication, lower the likelihood of error and let companies work faster.

Prewitt Ridge announced that JPL will be its first major external user in the aerospace and robotics space, which is a target market for the company. Massey said the company has been able to gain a deeper understanding of JPL's needs, approaches and challenges through the accelerator program. The company will help with a small research and development project, building the robotic arm for the lunar lander payload — which helps deploy equipment onto the moon's surface.

Urban Sky's Stratospheric Balloon Gets PreSeed Investment

In less than a year, Urban Sky co-founder and CEO Andrew Antonio said the company has "designed, built and flown the first-ever reusable high altitude balloon and collected sample aerial imagery from the stratosphere."

Its microballoon is reusable and reduces the cost of high-resolution remote sensing and weather-related data capture from its stratospheric vantage point.

Antonio announced that Urban Sky oversubscribed its pre-seed round with investments from New Stack, L.A.-based VC firm TenOneTen, Catapult and Techstars. The company also won a $250,000 cash grant from the state of Colorado as a top startup in the state and a small business innovation research contract from JPL to further develop its tech for wildlife monitoring applications. Antonio also said that Maxar has stated its interest in partnering with Urban Sky as an imaging subcontractor. Lastly, Atonio announced the company's first commercial customer and partner, Arturo, to conduct its one-year imaging pilot program over Colorado.

vRotors Gets a Slew of Partnerships

L.A.-based vRotors, which provides a platform that aims to make it easier to control a remote robotic device from a PC, Mac, mobile phone or VR headset, from anywhere in the world.

Co-founder and CEO Neil Malhotra announced vRotors' first partnerships with Dish Network to help with remote tower inspections; with Maxar Technologies to do real-time, high-resolution 3-D map applications; and Honeywell to do remote supervision of its autonomous air taxi fleets. vRotors is also working with IAI to automate the landing process for their next moon mission.

Lux Semiconductors Gets Federal Backing

Co-founder and CEO Shane McMahon announced that Lux, which has developed a flexible silicon wafer to help miniaturize electronics, has raised more than $200 million from major federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.

The company has been collaborating with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on technical matters and is also working on several cooperative research agreements with strategic defense agencies focused on advanced microelectronics. McMahon said the company has received support from five of the top aerospace and defense firms and is partnering with two of them on "joint proposals to embed our electronics into their systems."

Bifrost Will Generate Martian Landscape

Charles Wong, the CEO and co-founder of Bifrost, which helps AI developers generate labelled datasets faster, announced Wednesday that it will be working with JPL to generate synthetic Martian terrain with the aim of helping to achieve the dream of safely landing a helicopter on Mars. Wong said the company is also in talks with Rolls Royce to enable new capabilities in aerospace.

Holos Will Bring Its Virtual Reality Training to the Air Force, IAI

The Madison, Wisconsin-based company Holos aims to "give people agency over the virtual experience" so that they can create immersive education and training environments without having to outsource to a firm.

The company received a $750,000 small business innovation grant from the U.S. Air Force to work on developing a virtual maintenance and repair training system for the F-35 out of Southern California's Edwards Air Force base. It's also contracted to develop a prototype to integrate the command and control of space, air and cyber assets for the U.S. Air Force. Holos also announced that it will be working with IAI to explore developing a next generation multi-domain command and control system powered through AR and VR that can be used for training.

___

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

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.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

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.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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With Its First EV Launching at the End of the Month, Fisker’s Manufacturing Strategy Sets it Apart

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Fisker
Fisker

I’ve spilled considerable ink on California-based electric vehicle companies like Rivian, Faraday Future, Vinfast, and Tesla. But one company that’s flown under the radar is Fisker. Backed by the charismatic auto industry legend bearing the same name, the company is planning to start delivering its first model, the Fisker Ocean One, at the end of the month.

So what distinguishes Fisker from its myriad competitors? Their path to market. Specifically, Fisker has handed off the manufacturing of its upcoming EVs to partner companies Magna Steyr and Foxconn.

Shirking the responsibility of, you know, actually building your own car, comes with a host of pros and cons. Fisker’s eventual success or failure in the EV space may come down to how it balances and manages each.

From the highest level, outsourcing production lets Fisker do a couple of things. First, it allows them to get to market a bit quicker: building a factory can take years. Second, it reduces the risk and headaches that many other EV makers run into as they get manufacturing online. Magna Steyr, the manufacturer of the Ocean One, is an established company with an excellent track record in the industry, assembling cars for brands like BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar. Previous reports have even revealed that the Ocean One will be built on a modified version of a Magna Steyr electric vehicle platform.

The existing expertise has helped Fisker get to market quicker, and as more and more legacy automakers join the EV space, expedience may pay dividends. Avoiding the high upfront capital expenditure may have also helped the company keep their prices low. I’ve spent many paragraphs complaining about the high price of entry into the EV world. But at $37,499, the Ocean One would be among the most affordable plug-in options on the market–especially in the crossover/small SUV category. If the car is even close to competitive with offerings like the Ioniq 5 or the Kia EV6, that price should look very attractive to budget conscious consumers.

The exact terms of the deal between Fisker and Magna Steyr aren’t public. But Daron Gifford, Leader of Plante Moran’s Mobility Practice, says that assembly plus labor and overhead usually accounts for 15-20% of an automaker’s cost structure. But the price of relying on outside manufacturing is, of course, relinquishing control of how many cars you can make. “As you scale up, you reach a point when there's more of a tendency to want to be in control of your own production,” says Stephanie Brinley, Principal Analyst at S&P Global Mobility. “What you risk–whether you're working with Magna or Foxconn or someone else–is that your ultimate capacity is going to depend on what they're doing.”

Gifford agrees that outsourcing manufacturing might make it difficult or cost prohibitive for Fisker to make changes to its manufacturing processes on the fly. He also points out that the process adds a lot of complexity and operational risk for the company. “It’s going to be a management challenge,” Gifford says. “But the bigger problem on top of the management challenge is the supply chain.” Sourcing the parts from around the world, shipping everything to Magna Steyr’s plant in Graz, Austria, assembling vehicles, and then loading them onto boats to send back to the US is likely both costly and slow for Fisker. “If they sourced everything in Europe, it’s a shorter supply chain, but I suspect they did not,” says Gifford.

Outsourcing to Austria also complicates the picture with regard to the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden’s new infrastructure legislation includes language that requires EVs be assembled in North America to be eligible for the full discount. As such, this would exclude the Ocean One from qualifying. However, last month Magna announced its intent to set up a manufacturing plant on US soil, meaning that future runs of the Ocean may be eligible for the full rebate.

This isn’t to say that Fisker couldn’t add its own manufacturing further down the line once the brand is more established. That option, according to Brinley, is certainly on the table. But as it currently stands the company is already under contract with Foxconn for its second model—the Pear. The vehicle marks theTaiwanese electronics company's first foray into automotive manufacturing. And the agreement is more difficult to assess since all that is known about the Pear is that it will be built in Foxconn’s Ohio factory.

If Fisker’s partnership with manufacturers sees considerable success, other brands may seek to emulate their model. But up to this point–at least in the EV world–no one’s yet decided to outsource production to a third party manufacturer, making Fisker’s example the largest-scale experiment of its kind. Which is why, Brinley says, we may not be able to evaluate the success of the strategy for years to come. “It's not a sprint, it's a marathon,” she says. “I think that if you take a broader view, the winner isn't necessarily decided in the next three years. A brand could stumble at the beginning and still be just fine in a decade. But it's easier to start off with a success than with a stumble.”

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