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. 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 revenue,” 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.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Rotender's CEO said its technology could "earn a venue over $700,000 a year in drink revenue."

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🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

🔦 Spotlight

Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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