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How did Atlanta become a top breeding ground for billion-dollar startups in the Southeast? – TechCrunch

Over the past five years, the Southeastern region, led by Atlanta, has gone from being “one of the best kept secrets” in tech, to a vibrant ecosystem teeming with a herd of the billion dollar tech businesses that are referred to in the investment world as “unicorns” (thanks to their supposed rarity). In those five […]

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Over the past five years, the Southeastern region, led by Atlanta, has gone from being “one of the best kept secrets” in tech, to a vibrant ecosystem teeming with a herd of the billion dollar tech businesses that are referred to in the investment world as “unicorns” (thanks to their supposed rarity).

In those five years venture capital investments surged to $2.1 billion in the region, with $1 billion invested in the last year alone, according to Lisa Calhoun, a partner with the Atlanta based investment firm, Valor Ventures.

It’s indicative of the entrepreneurial talent coming from the network of private and public schools across the region like Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama, Auburn, the University of Georgia, Vanderbilt, Emory, and the historically black colleges and universities like Morehouse, Spelman, and Xavier. And it’s also a sign of a reinvestment in local entrepreneurship — a decades-long campaign to turn Atlanta into the center of a hub-and-spoke network of startup cities that spans Miami to Atlanta, with stops in Birmingham, Nashville, New Orleans,

“Atlanta is what a next generation, global, post-Silicon Valley tech hub looks like. Our demographics are ten years ahead of the U.S.’s transformation into a majority minority society,” wrote Calhoun in an email. “With over 40% of the U.S. population in the Southeast, the greatest density of founders and executives of color, rafts of tech companies like AirBnB locating here, and our own legacy of top tech and talent, Atlanta sets the tone for what’s next. We have the growing, diverse population base all strong founders need to scale.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the region to establish itself as one of the next engines of economic return for the venture capital and investment business, though.

“The Southeast is 24% of the US GDP, but only accounts for 7% of the venture investment,” noted Blake Patton, the founder and general partner of the Atlanta-based investment firm, Tech Square Ventures. “With the recent momentum in the region, that is changing and investors are taking notice and backing local managers who in turn are investing the region’s best and brightest entrepreneurs.”

The Internet boom and bust in Atlanta

In the years after the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta was a high-flying contender for the title of one of the next big startup hubs in the United States.

The Olympics had put the city on the world’s stage, and seeing the wave of activity, excitement, and investment that came with the advent of internet companies like Virginia’s America Online, Atlanta’s city council and mayor were making a push for the city to become a telecom and startup hub in the early days of the first Internet boom.

“Something happened in the mid-90s driven by the Olympics where Atlanta hit the map worldwide. It wasn’t just that we were a supply and logistics hub. In the late 90s as the dot-com boom really evolved, things happened underground that aren’t as transparent as they should be. Atlanta Gas Light had the largest dark fiber ring in the country surrounding Atlanta. That was built solely with the olympics in mind. We had Georgia Tech working on the next generation of aerospace, and they added computer engineering,” said Christy Brown, the founder of the Atlanta based non-profit Launchpad2X and a serial entrepreneur and executive with deep ties to the Atlanta ecosystem.

Atlanta also had its fair share of early successes — high flying telecom and networking companies that were critical to the evolution of the first dot com era whose later years were either mired in scandal or who were acquired by much larger entities. These are companies like MCI Worldcom and Airtouch Cellular, which was gobbled up by Singular Wireless and would eventually become part of a restructured AT&T.

“There were all kinds of tech things happening in the city. A lot of these founders were getting venture on paper which evolved into the dot-bomb,” said Brown. “All of this was happening mid to late nineties, when the dot-bomb happened there was a lot of failure in the Atlanta area.”

The implosion of early internet companies that came with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 reverberated through Atlanta’s tech ecosystem, erasing the early gains that companies made and setting the stage for a decade-long period of reconstruction punctuated by a few successes from holdouts that managed to make their way through the wreckage.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Through the lean years

One of those companies was MailChimp. Launched in 2001, in the early aftermath of the bursting of the tech bubble, the privately held email marketing startup was one of a number of projects at Ben Chestnut’s and Dan Kurzius’ web development firm.

The two men met at Cox Interactive Media to work on an early MP3 product. When that fizzled both men eventually lost their jobs and went into business together. They built MailChimp off of revenue, bootstrapping the business without venture capital in a model that many other tech founders in the area would seek to replicate.

A few years later, in 2003, another entrepreneur named John Marshall began installing internet hotspots at hospitality businesses, eventually expanding his Wandering WiFi service to include monitoring and managing other kinds of network infrastructure. This foray into startup land would eventually create another big Atlanta tech exit in AirWatch.

For the first six years MailChimp remained a side hustle, a product that the two co-founders continued to work on, but didn’t devote themselves to full time. It wasn’t until 2007, when the service hit 10,000 users, that the company became the full-time job for both founders.

Their once-scrappy startup turned them into billionaires. A 2018 Forbes profile put the company’s valuation at $4.2 billion on roughly $600 million in revenue.

If there was a starting gun for the Atlanta tech renaissance, it might be 2006, a few years before the global financial crisis and a time when the broader tech industry was finding itself a less financially precarious prospect for investors. Internet Security Systems, an Atlanta area dot-com darling that held an initial public offering in the late 90s sold to IBM for $1.3 billion that year.

Tom Noonan and Chris Klaus, the co-founders at Internet Security Systems, had an equally long road. What had started out as a company built when Klaus lived above Noonan’s garage in Atlanta in the mid-90s, morphed into a company pulling in $400 million in annual revenue before its acquisition by IBM.

As capital started flowing into Atlanta and the city regained some of its footing in the tech world, founders who had exited their companies began to reinvest money locally. And the city moved to create more events to foster entrepreneurship. 2006 saw the launch of Venture Atlanta, a conference designed to showcase early talent and startups coming from the region that served as a launchpad for several entrepreneurs that would shape the future of the city’s technology industry.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Setting a new scene

If 2006 was a big year for exits in Atlanta, it also proved to be the year that opened the floodgates on new entrepreneurial activity, which would give rise over the next decade to what’s now a thriving startup scene, pumping out a record number of billion dollar tech businesses.

It was the year that David Cummings and Adam Blitzer founded Pardot, a marketing and sales automation software developer that grew quickly and attracted the attention of big industry players like ExactTarget. It was also the year that Manhattan Associates executive Alan Dabbiere joined Marshall and Wandering WiFi became AirWatch, a company providing management and security tech for mobile enterprise networks.

Over the next few years MailChimp would become more active; Cloud Sherpas, founded by the entrepreneurs Michael Cohn and Sean O’Brien (who are now founders of the investment firm Overline Ventures) would launch and so would companies like the video streaming tech developer, ClearLeap (bought by IBM in 2015 and valued at over $110 million); the security company Damballa would launch (later acquired by Atlanta neighbor Core Security); and the service powering many of the major banks customer rewards programs, Cardlytics (now trading on the Nasdaq with a $4 billion market cap).

Buoyed by these emerging tech companies, other entrepreneurs would join the fray, with Kabbage (acquired for $850 million), Calendly (a $3 billion business as of this year) and the voice identification technology developer Pindrop (which raised $90 million back in 2018) emerging onto the scene at around the same time.

These companies set the table for what would become a buffet of startups focused primarily on payments and financial services, cloud-based business solutions, and internet security. Gone were the hardware heavy telecom companies and networking companies like Scientific Atlanta, whose business is compared to Hewlett Packard for having brought a high tech industry to the city in the 1950s — much like HP did in Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, a new generation of investor was moving into the Atlanta orbit, presaged by the 2006 launch of BIP Capital — an event that also proved meaningful for the city’s budding entrepreneurs.

Staking claims for Atlanta’s future

The rising tide of entrepreneurs coming out of Atlanta also served to revitalize the city’s moribund investment community. Hit hard by the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the Atlanta-area firms that managed to survive the crash began to look to later stage businesses and outside of the Atlanta tech ecosystem for startups to back, according to data from CrunchBase and several interviews with investors and founders.

Noro-Moseley Partners, for instance, is by far the most active investor hailing from Atlanta. Over it’s long history the firm has done over 123 deals according to Crunchbase, but in the last five years, data indicates only four investment from the firm were made into Atlanta-based companies.

By contrast, the arrivistes at BIP have been deploying capital and raising successively larger funds since they first came to town. Over the last five years the firm has invested in at least 15 Atlanta-area deals, and now, under the moniker of Panoramic Ventures, the firm is targeting a $300 million early stage fund to invest across the southeast and midwest.

“Traditionally, access to capital was challenging for founders in Atlanta and the Southeast. In the past, it was considered a disadvantage for a tech business to be based outside of the traditional innovation hubs [in] Silicon Valley or the Northeast because it was more difficult to secure investment capital. This was because the large funds were located inside the hubs and had plenty of opportunities right on their doorsteps for investment,” wrote Mark Buffington, the co-founder and chief executive of BIP Capital, in an email to TechCrunch. “While the traditional hubs are still key in terms of aggregate capital, the requirement for startups to also be inside the hubs has changed. Increasingly, venture funds are locating themselves in other areas of the country where innovation is occurring. At the same time, the amount of capital available from local and regional investors is growing, in large part due to the influx of dollars into the private markets.”

Another member of the new school of investors that’s changing Atlanta’s investment scene is Patton; whose work with Tech Square Ventures and Engage, the corporate venture capital investment firm and startup initiative harnessing the power of a number of the biggest companies in Atlanta, also galvanized entrepreneurship and the newfound interest in startup tech companies.

“The recent momentum in the region is driven by increased connectivity across the innovation ecosystem and a critical mass of entrepreneurs and talent coming out of the region’s many successful startups. With corporations focused on digital transformation and innovation, all large companies have to a degree become tech companies and that drives connectivity as talent moves across both startups and tech companies,” Patton said. “Perhaps our greatest strength is our diversity and being home to four leading HBCUs, and I hope in the next 5 years the Southeast will emerge as a leader in producing successful startups founded by diverse entrepreneurs and built with diverse teams. It’s not just a moral imperative – with half the nation’s black population, the Southeast must succeed in engaging under-served entrepreneurs to lead – and you can’t tackle diversity nationally without tackling it in the Southeast.”

Still, other ingredients were needed for the resurgence of startup activity in the city. These would be co-workings spaces like David Cummings’ launch of the Atlanta Tech Village in 2012; the continuing relevance of the Atlanta Tech Development Center; the Venture Atlanta conference and the co-working space around Hypepotamus — which remains the go-to publication for Southern startup activity.

Every entrepreneur and investor mentioned Cummings’ decision to reinvest in the city and launch the Tech Village near Atlanta’s tony suburb of Buckhead as one of the biggest sparks for the city’s renewed entrepreneurial fervor. Soon after Cummings sold Pardot he and David Lightburn established Atlanta Tech Village as a co-working spot for entrepreneurs. It attracted a number of new startup founders whose businesses would become the next wave of big startups. “When David Cummings sold Pardot he wanted a place for entrepreneurs to have community,” said one longtime player in the Atlanta tech community. “They would do these startup chow down lunches and really support entrepreneurs building businesses.”

And just as key was the longtime hub for Georgia Tech-affiliated startups, the Atlanta Tech Development Center, the entrepreneurs and investors noted. Venture Atlanta had a role to play as well, bringing investors from every corner of the country to the city to showcase top talent. Together with CreateX, and the Venture Atlanta program, the four initiatives and workspaces for early stage entrepreneurs planted a number of seeds that would soon blossom into companies like PartPic, Greenlight Financial (which is now worth $2.3 billion), Kabbage, FullStory and Pindrop.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

A haven for diverse founders and investors

During those early days of the Atlanta startup ecosystem, there was one spot more welcoming than most for diverse and women-led founders — the co-working space and offices for Hypepotamus.

Serial entrepreneur Monique Mills was there. So was Jewel Burks Solomon, who sold her company, PartPic, to Amazon in 2016 and is now the Head of Google for Startups in the U.S.

“My first office was at Hypepotamus because they offered free space,” Burks Solomon recalled. “And at the time I didn’t have much money. Then when I raised some money the next major one was at ATDC — the state of Georgia’s incubator. They offered subsidized space and they had an entrepreneur in residence and they had a whole program to help Atlanta-based startups with some kind of technology.”

It was the Hypepotamus space, and subsequent venues like Opportunity Hub and The Gathering Spot that catalyzed the Black entrepreneurial community in Atlanta, according to several founders and investors.

And if the Hypepotamus space, carved out by National Builder Supply, was one of the catalysts, then the angel investor, Mike Ross, was the other.

“Mike has funded many successful Black-led startups in the Atlanta ecosystem and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him,” entrepreneur Candace Mitchell Harris told UrbanGeekz in a recent profile. “When many have faced the run around of false promises or flat out rejections, Mike confidently put his money in and pushed our founders further.”

Ross, a Morehouse College alumnus, who made his wealth as a consultant in the construction and contracting industry has backed Black founders and investors including: Luma, Partpic, Monsieur, Axis Replay, Myavana, TechSquare Labs, Opportunity Hub, and The Gathering Spot.

Investors like Paul Judge and entrepreneurs like Joey Womack, Barry Givens, and Mitchell Harris, all benefited from Ross’ investment largesse.

“Mike was the catalyst for our company’s success as our very first angel investor,” says Mitchell Harris, co-founder and CEO of beauty tech startup Myavana, told UrbanGeekz. “I still remember meeting him for the first time at the Black Founders Conference in June 2012, inquisitive and eager to get behind the movement that was beginning in Atlanta in the tech startup scene.”

And Ross blazed a trail for other investors like the Fearless Fund, a group of women investors led by Arian Simone, Ayanna Parsons, and Keshia Knight Pulliam, who launched their first fund in 2019, and Collab Capital, which launched last year (and is led by Burks Solomon, Justin Dawkins, and Barry Givens) — close to a decade after Ross first began investing.

“Right now women of color are the most founded but the least funded entrepreneurs,” Simone said. “Atlanta is a mecca of black entrepreneurship for us to have a venture capital and tech presence here.. I will charge the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia and the banks that they need to back what we’re doing here.. It is needed.”

Not only is it needed, but it’s working. Of the 36 venture capital firms identified as part of TechCrunch’s research as having a focus on early stage investments in the Atlanta area, 41% met one or more of the following criteria: identification as having a diversity focus across investments, identification as having a diverse fund management team, or both, according to data from Crunchbase.

And through a sample size of 158 startups spanning Pre-Seed, Seed, or Series A in the Atlanta area, which were included in TechCrunch’s research, 48% met one or more of the following criteria: identification as having a sex-diverse founding team, identification has having a racially-diverse founding team, or both. In many instances, founding teams did not self identify, so the number of diverse founders may be greater than currently documented based on publicly available data.

As UrbanGeekz noted, about 25% of the employees in Atlanta’s tech industry are black. In San Francisco, by contrast, that figure is 6%.

“Ten years ago [the Black tech startup ecosystem] was just starting out,” Ross told UrbanGeekz. “Now Atlanta is one of the top tech hubs in the country and the ecosystem is probably one of the most diverse.”

Looking ahead

“I’m really excited about what’s happening now. It’s much more diverse in terms of the people that have the ability to deploy capital. I’m optimistic about what is to come in the tech space,” said Burks Solomon.

She’s not alone. New firms like Cohn and O’Brien’s Overline Ventures, Panoramic, and Outlander Labs, the firm launched by the former Los Angeles investors Paige and Leura Craig are all signs of investors’ long-term belief in the health of the Atlanta startup ecosystem.

“We think that the Southeast and especially Atlanta has the opportunity to become a key hub for tech startups in the next 5 years. It feels a lot like Los Angeles five years ago. The talent is here but historically the issue has been lack of mentorship, early stage capital, and the later stage capital as they grow and scale,” wrote Outlander co-founder Leura Craig, in an email. “However that is all changing given the fact that so many investors are now moving to all parts of the country and are open to investing in areas that they never invested in before. Covid dramatically accelerated the flight from California and New York and the Southeast’s tech scene is going to be a huge winner as a result of this migration. ”

Major tech companies are also showing their faith in Atlanta’s startup scene through significant investments into the ecosystem. Most recently, Apple has committed nearly $100 million to new projects including the Propel Center, a $25 million bid designed to encourage diversity and entrepreneurship at a site to be built near Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

It is going to be both a virtual platform and a physical campus in the Atlanta University Center.

Students will be able to follow different educational tracks focused on artificial intelligence, agricultural technologies, social justice, entertainment, app development, augmented reality, design and creative arts and entrepreneurship. This isn’t just a monetary investment for Apple, as employees will help develop curricula and provide mentorship as well. There will be internship opportunities for students.

Apple isn’t the only big tech company to commit to Atlanta’s thriving tech community. Facebook is building out a massive, multi-billion dollar extension to data center facilities near the city, and Google committed that the Atlanta area would receive some fo the planned $9 billion investment in job growth across the U.S.

The current growth that Atlanta’s startup scene is experiencing can serve as a model for other urban areas on the rise. The recipe seems to be a strong technical college, an investment in collaborative startup resources, a network of willing investors to reinvest in the local community, the support of city government through non-profit and promotional activities, and finally an embrace of the diverse history of the city itself. There’s no need to remake Silicon Valley, but the tools of Silicon Valley can be used to make burgeoning tech communities better.

With reporting assistance from TechCrunch analyst Kathleen Hamrick.

Some rising stars of the new Atlanta ecosystem

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the region to establish itself as one of the next engines of economic return for the venture capital and investment business, though.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/02/how-did-atlanta-become-a-top-breeding-ground-for-billion-dollar-startups-in-the-southeast/

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Maybe SPACs were a bad idea after all – TechCrunch

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter for your weekend enjoyment.

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Hello friends, I was out yesterday with what I’m calling Moderna Syndrome. Basically I got whacked by my second vaccine dose, and instead of enjoying a day off eating candy and spoiling my dogs I spent the entire day on the couch unable to move. All that’s to say that I missed Coinbase and DoorDash earnings when they came out.

Catching us up, Coinbase met its forecasts that it had previously released (more here), and today its stock is flat. DoorDash, in contrast, beat market expectations and is currently up just over 25% as I write to you.

But despite huge quarters from each, both companies are far below their recently set all-time highs. Coinbase is worth around $265 per share today, off from an all-time high of $429.54, which it set recently. And DoorDash is worth $145 this afternoon, far below its $256.09 52-week high.

They are not alone amongst recent public offerings that have lost steam. Many SPAC-led combinations are tanking. But while Coinbase and DoorDash are still richly valued at current levels and worth far more than they were as private companies, some startups that took SPAC money to float are not doing well, let alone as well.

As Bloomberg notes, five electric vehicle companies that SPAC’d their way to the public markets were worth $60 billion at one point. Now the collection of mostly revenue-free public EV companies have shed “more than $40 billion of market capitalization combined from their respective peaks.” Youch.

And SPAC hype-man and general investing bon vivant Chamath Palihapitiya is taking some stick for his deal’s returns as well. It’s all a bit messy. Which, to be fair, is pretty much what we’ve expected all along.

Not that there aren’t some SPAC-combinations that make sense. There are. But mostly it’s been more speculative hype than business substance. Perhaps that’s why Coinbase and DoorDash didn’t need to lean on crutches to get public. Sure, the market is still figuring out what they are actually worth, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any real trouble. But consider, for a moment, the companies that have agreed to go public via a SPAC before the correction and are still waiting for their deal to complete.

TFW ur forecast is conservative

The Exchange has been on the horn recently with a few public company CEOs after their earnings report. After those conversations, we have to talk a bit about guidance. Why? Because it’s a game that I find slightly annoying.

Some public companies simply don’t provide forecasts. Cool. Root doesn’t, for example, provide quarterly guidance. Fine. Other companies provide guidance, but only in a super-conservative format. This is in effect no guidance at all, in my view. Not that we’re being rude to companies per se, but they often wind up in a weird dance between telling the market something and telling it something useful.

Picking on Appian’s CEO as he’s someone I like, when discussing his own company’s forecasts Matt Calkins said that its guidance is “unfailingly conservative” — so much so that he said it was nearly frustrating. But he went on to argue that Appian is not short-run focused (good), and that if a company puts up big estimates it is more judged on the expectation of those results versus the realization of said results. That line of thinking immediately makes ultra-prudent guidance seem reasonable.

This is a philosophical argument more than anything, as Wall Street comes up with its own expectations. The financial rubber hits the road when companies guide under Wall Street’s own expectations or deliver results that don’t match those of external bettors. So guidance matters some, just not as much as people think.

BigCommerce’s CEO Brent Bellm helped provide some more guidance as to why public companies can guide a bit more conservatively than we might expect during our recent call. It helps them not overspend. He noted that if BigCommerce — which had a super solid quarter, by the by — is conservative in its planning (the font from which guidance flows, to some degree) it can’t deploy too much near-term capital.

In the case of BigCommerce, Bellm continued, he wants the company to overperform on revenue, but not adjusted profits. So, if revenue comes in ahead of expectations, it can spend more, but won’t work to maximize their near-term profitability. And he said that he’s told analysts just that. So keeping guidance low means that it won’t overspend and blast its adjusted profitability, while any upside allows for more aggressive spend?

Harumph, is my general take on all of the above. It’s very fine to have public company CEOs play the public game well, but what I’d greatly prefer is if they did something more akin to what startups do. High-growth tech companies often have a board-approved plan and an internal plan that is more aggressive. For public companies this would be akin to a base case and a stretch case. Let’s have both, please? I am tired of parsing sandbagged numbers for the truth.

Sure, by reporting a guidance range, public companies are doing some of that. But not nearly enough. I hate coyness for coyness’s sake!

That’s enough of a rant for today, more on BigCommerce earnings next week if we can fit it in. You can read more from The Exchange on Appian and the larger low-code movement here, if that’s your jam.

Never going back

We’re running a bit long today, so let me demount with some predictions.

Nearly every startup I’ve spoken to in the last year that had 20 or fewer staff at the time of the chat is a remote-first team. That’s due to their often being born during the pandemic, but also because many very early-stage startups are simply finding it easier to recruit globally because often the talent they need, can afford or can attract, is not in their immediate vicinity.

Startups are simply finding it critical to have relaxed work location rules to snag and, we presume, retain the talent that they need. And they are not alone. Big Tech is in similar straits. As The Information reported recently:

An internal Google employee message board lit up last Wednesday morning as news of what many staff perceived as a more relaxed policy for working remotely circulated. One meme shared on the board showed a person crying, labeled “Facebook recruiters.” Another showed a sad person labeled “San Francisco landlords.”

If you aren’t laughing, maybe you have a life. But I do this for a living, and I am dying at that quote.

Look, it’s clear that lots of people can do lots of work outside of an office, and even though labor purchasers (employers) want to run 1984-style operations on their employees (labor sellers) to ensure that they are Doing Precisely Enough, the actual denizens writing code are like, naw. And that’s just too much for Big Tech to handle as they are literally just cash flows held up by people who type for a living.

What this means is that tech is not going back to 100% in-office work or anything close to. At least not at companies that want to actually ensure that they have top-tier talent.

It’s a bit like when you see a company comprising only white men; you know that it doesn’t have nearly the best team that it could. Firms that enforce full-office policies are going to overindex on a particular demographic. And it won’t be to their benefit.

Alex

Catching us up, Coinbase met its forecasts that it had previously released (more here), and today its stock is flat. DoorDash, in contrast, beat market expectations and is currently up just over 25% as I write to you.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/15/2152389/

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Leveling the playing field – TechCrunch

There is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community.

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Williesha Morris Contributor

Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, playing video games or chatting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries.

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team.

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny.

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible.

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community.

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged.

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them.

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device.

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry.

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.”

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR.

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices.

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation.

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want.

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said.

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems.

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology.

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved.

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/15/leveling-the-playing-field/

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The energy ecosystem should move to make the ‘energy internet’ a reality – TechCrunch

Global trends make it clear that the Next Big Thing isn’t any single thing at all. Instead, the future is about open innovation and integration of elements across the entire energy supply chain.

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Brian Ryan is vice president of Innovation at National Grid Partners, the innovation and investment arm of multinational energy company National Grid.

As vice president of Innovation at National Grid Partners, I’m responsible for developing initiatives that not only benefit National Grid’s current business but also have the potential to become stand-alone businesses. So I obviously have strong views about the future of the energy industry.

But I don’t have a crystal ball; no one does. To be a good steward of our innovation portfolio, my job isn’t to guess what the right “basket” is for our “eggs.” It’s to optimally allocate our finite eggs across multiple baskets with the greatest collective upside.

Put another way, global and regional trends make it clear that the Next Big Thing isn’t any single thing at all. Instead, the future is about open innovation and integration of elements across the entire energy supply chain. Only with such an open energy ecosystem can we adapt to the highly volatile — some might even say unpredictable — market conditions we face in the energy industry.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

I like to think of this open, innovation-enabling approach as the “energy internet,” and I believe it represents the most important opportunity in the energy sector today.

The internet analogy

Here’s why I find the concept of the energy internet helpful. Before the digital internet (a term I’m using here to encompass all the hardware, software and standards that comprise it), we had multiple silos of technology such as mainframes, PCs, databases, desktop applications and private networks.

As the digital internet evolved, however, the walls between these silos disappeared. You can now utilize any platform on the back end of your digital services, including mainframes, commodity server hardware and virtual machines in the cloud.

You can transport digital payloads across networks that connect to any customer, supplier or partner on the planet with whatever combination of speed, security, capacity and cost you deem most appropriate. That payload can be data, sound or video, and your endpoint can be a desktop browser, smartphone, IoT sensor, security camera or retail kiosk.

This mix-and-match internet created an open digital supply chain that has driven an epochal boom in online innovation. Entrepreneurs and inventors can focus on specific value propositions anywhere across that supply chain rather than having to continually reinvent the supply chain itself.

The energy sector must move in the same direction. We need to be able to treat our various generation modalities like server platforms. We need our transmission grids to be as accessible as our data networks, and we need to be able to deliver energy to any consumption endpoint just as flexibly. We need to encourage innovation at those endpoints, too — just as the tech sector did.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

The 5D future

So what is the energy internet? As a foundation, let’s start with a model that takes the existing industry talk of digitalization, decentralization and decarbonization a few steps further:

Digitalization: Innovation depends on information about demand, supply, efficiency, trends and events. That data must be accurate, complete, timely and sharable. Digitalization efforts such as IoE, open energy, and what many refer to as the “smart grid” are instrumental because they ensure innovators have the insights they need to continuously improve the physics, logistics and economics of energy delivery.

Decentralization: The internet changed the world in part because it took the power of computing out of a few centralized data centers and distributed it wherever it made sense. The energy internet will do likewise. Digitalization supports decentralization by letting assets be integrated into an open energy supply chain. But decentralization is much more than just the integration of existing assets — it’s the proliferation of new assets wherever they’re needed.

Decarbonization: Decarbonization is, of course, the whole point of the exercise. We must move to greener supply chains built on decentralized infrastructure that leverage energy supply everywhere to meet energy demand anywhere. The market is demanding it and regulators are requiring it. The energy internet is therefore more than just an investment opportunity — it’s an existential imperative.

Democratization: Much of the innovation associated with the internet arose from the fact that, in addition to decentralizing technology physically, it also democratized technology demographically. Democratization is about putting power (literally, in this case) into the hands of the people. Vastly increasing the number of minds and hands tackling the energy industry’s challenges will also accelerate innovation and enhance our ability to respond to market dynamics.

Diversity: As I asserted above, no one has a crystal ball. So anyone investing in innovation at scale should diversify — not just to mitigate risk and optimize returns, but as an enablement strategy. After all, if we truly believe the energy internet (or Grid 2.0, if you prefer that term) will require that all the elements of the energy supply chain work together, we must diversify our innovation initiatives across those elements to promote interoperability and integration.

That’s how the digital internet was built. Standards bodies played an important role, but those standards and their implementations were driven by industry players like Microsoft and Cisco — as well as top VCs — who ensured the ecosystem’s success by driving integration across the supply chain.

We must take the same approach with the energy internet. Those with the power and influence to do so must help ensure we aggressively advance integration across the energy supply chain as a whole, even as we improve the individual elements. To this end, National Grid last year kicked off a new industry group called the NextGrid Alliance, which includes senior executives from more than 60 utilities across the world.

Finally, we believe it’s essential to diversify thinking within the energy ecosystem as well. National Grid has sounded alarms about the serious underrepresentation of women in the energy industry and of female undergraduates in STEM programs. On the flip side, research by Deloitte has found diverse teams are 20% more innovative. More than 60% of my own team at NGP are women, and that breadth of perspective has helped National Grid capture powerful insights into companywide innovation efforts.

More winning, less predicting

The concept of the energy internet isn’t some abstract future ideal. We’re already seeing specific examples of how it will transform the market:

Green transnationalism: The energy internet is on its way to becoming as global as the digital internet. The U.K., for instance, is now receiving wind-generated power from Norway and Denmark. This ability to leverage decentralized energy supply across borders will have significant benefits for national economies and create new opportunities for energy arbitrage.

EV charging models: Pumping electricity isn’t like pumping gas, nor should it be. With the right combination of innovation in smart metering and fast-charging end-point design, the energy internet will create new opportunities at office buildings, residential complexes and other places where cars plus convenience can equal cash.

Disaster mitigation: Recent events in Texas have highlighted the negative consequences of not having an energy internet. Responsible utilities and government agencies must embrace digitization and interoperability to more effectively troubleshoot infrastructure and better safeguard communities.

These are just a few of the myriad ways in which an open, any-to-any energy internet will promote innovation, stimulate competition and generate big wins. No one can predict exactly what those big wins will be, but there will surely be many, and they will accrue to the benefit of all.

That’s why even without a crystal ball, we should all commit ourselves to digitalization, decentralization, decarbonization, democratization and diversity. In so doing, we’ll build the energy internet together, and enable a fair, affordable and clean energy future.

Here’s why I find the concept of the energy internet helpful. Before the digital internet (a term I’m using here to encompass all the hardware, software and standards that comprise it), we had multiple silos of technology such as mainframes, PCs, databases, desktop applications and private networks.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/11/the-energy-ecosystem-should-move-to-make-the-energy-internet-a-reality/

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