Voyage raises $31 million to bring driverless taxis to communities

Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, announced Thursday it has raised $31 million in a round led by Franklin Templeton.

Khosla Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the round. The company, which operates a ride-hailing service in retirement communities using self-driving cars supported by human safety drivers, has raised a total of $52 million since launching in 2017. The new funding includes a $3 million convertible note.

Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron has big plans for the fresh injection of capital, including hiring and expanding its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which always have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the expanded G2 fleet and staff are just the means toward Cameron’s grander mission to turn Voyage into a truly driverless and profitable ride-hailing company.

“It’s not just about solving self-driving technology,” Cameron told TechCrunch in a recent interview, explaining that a cost-effective vehicle designed to be driverless is the essential piece required to make this a profitable business.

The company is in the midst of a hiring campaign that Cameron hopes will take its 55-person staff to more than 150 over the next year. Voyage has had some success attracting high-profile people to fill executive-level positions, including CTO Drew Gray, who previously worked at Uber ATG, Otto, Cruise and Tesla, as well as former NIO and Tesla employee Davide Bacchet as director of autonomy.

Funds will also be used to increase its fleet of second-generation self-driving cars (called G2) that are currently being used in a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida. Voyage’s G2 fleet has 12 vehicles. Cameron didn’t provide details on how many vehicles it will add to its G2 fleet, only describing it as a “nice jump that will allow us to serve consumers.”

Voyage used the G2 vehicles to create a template of sorts for its eventual driverless vehicle. This driverless product — a term Cameron has used in a previous post on Medium — will initially be limited to 25 miles per hour, which is the driving speed within the two retirement communities in which Voyage currently tests and operates. The vehicle might operate at a low speed, but they are capable of handling complex traffic interactions, he wrote.

“It won’t be the most cost-effective vehicle ever made because the industry still is in its infancy, but it will be a huge, huge, huge improvement over our G2 vehicle in terms of being be able to scale out a commercial service and make money on each ride,” Cameron said. 

Voyage initially used modified Ford Fusion vehicles to test its autonomous vehicle technology, then introduced in July 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, its second generation of autonomous vehicles. But the end goal has always been a driverless product.

Voyage engineers Alan Mond and Trung Dung Vu

TechCrunch previously reported that the company has partnered with an automaker to provide this next-generation vehicle that has been designed specifically for autonomous driving. Cameron wouldn’t name the automaker. The vehicle will be electric and it won’t be a retrofit like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vehicles Voyage currently uses or its first-generation vehicle, a Ford Fusion.

Most importantly, and a detail Cameron did share with TechCrunch, is that the vehicle it uses for its driverless service will have redundancies and safety-critical applications built into it.

Voyage also has deals in place with Enterprise Fleet Management and Intact insurance company to help it scale.

“You can imagine leasing is much more optimal than purchasing and owning vehicles on your balance sheet,” Cameron said. “We have those deals in place that will allow us to not only get the vehicle costs down, but other aspects of the vehicle into the right place as well.”

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US raises travel warning for Hong Kong over growing civil unrest – CNBC

Fire burns as protesters stand off against riot police during a protest in the Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, China.

Billy H.C. Kwok | Getty Images

The United States raised its travel warning for Hong Kong, urging travelers to exercise increased caution in the Chinese territory due to what it termed civil unrest after months of sometimes violent street protests.

The protests in the Asian financial hub began with opposition to a now-suspended extradition law and have evolved into a direct challenge to the government and calls for full democracy.

“The protests and confrontations have spilled over into neighborhoods other than those where the police have permitted marches or rallies,” said the advisory, which was posted on the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau’s website on Wednesday.

“These demonstrations, which can take place with little or no notice, are likely to continue,” it said. The advisory was raised to level two on a four-point scale.

Australia also warned its travelers in an updated advisory on Wednesday.

The protests pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with a debilitating trade war with the United States and a slowing economy.

Hong Kong is facing its worst crisis since it returned to China from British rule in 1997 because of the protests, the head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office said on Wednesday. 

More protests are planned in several districts across the city this weekend, starting on Friday, with demonstrators also planning a three-day rally at the city’s international airport.

Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam visited Hong Kong districts on Wednesday to speak with residents and inspect a police station that had been the target of recent protests.

She said in a statement after the visit the government would put forward measures to improve people’s livelihoods.

More demonstrations in Hong Kong

Young people have been at the forefront of the protests and are angry about broader problems that include sky-high living costs and what they see as an unfair housing policy skewed towards the rich.

The normally efficient and orderly city has seen its transport network besieged and shut down by demonstrators, while protests across the city have also shut big-brand stores and popular shopping malls.

Hong Kong police have arrested 589 people since the protests began in June, the youngest aged 13.

Several thousand Hong Kong lawyers, dressed in black, marched in silence on Wednesday to call on the government to safeguard the independence of the city’s department of justice.

They fear the justice department’s prosecutions of arrested protesters are taking on an increasingly political slant. Many of those arrested have been charged with rioting, which carries a 10-year jail term.

Protesters have started to use increasingly diverse tactics to evade capture, shifting quickly from place to place and using online platforms such as Telegram to direct hundreds of people.

They also circulated brightly colored pamphlets for tourists ahead of the airport demonstrations to help them understand what was happening. The pamphlets said the protesters would never surrender.

“Dear Travellers, please forgive us for the ‘unexpected Hong Kong’. You’re arrived in a broken, torn-apart city, not the one you have once pictured. Yet the city you imagined is exactly what we are fighting for,” the pamphlets said.

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Demetrix raises $50 million to brew cannabis

With skyrocketing demand for consumer products and renewed research into its medicinal value, cannabis is having a moment.

The quasi-legalization of marijuana created a gold rush for the industry, and startups like Demetrix are reaping the benefits.

The company, founded by the famed U.C. Berkeley researcher Jay Keasling and helmed by former Amyris executive Jeff Ubersax just raised $50 million in a new round of financing to continue its pursuit of isolating and brewing cannabinoids, the active chemical ingredients in the marijuana plant.

The money came from previous investor Horizons Ventures, the Hong Kong-based firm backed by real estate billionaire Li Ka-shing, and Tuatara Capital, a fund which invests in the legal cannabis industry.

The idea of using yeast to brew cannabinoids isn’t a new one, and there are several companies active in the space. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug based on one of the cannabinoids that’s found in marijuana, interest in the potential to identify and manufacture other pharmaceutically beneficial chemicals from the plant has grown.

Demetrix’s competitive advantage, according to Ubersax, is the company’s access to an exclusive license on Keasling’s research from Berkeley. The technology Keasling developed gives the company a unique ability to isolate and develop new cannabinoids and start screening them for utility.

“We’re providing high-quality, low-cost access to these molecules that have traditionally come from plants,” says Ubersax. 

Demetrix expects the global market for cannabinoids to reach $100 billion by 2029, citing 2016 research from Ackrell Capital.

While it’s currently cheaper to just extract from the plant itself cannabinoids used in existing products, as the body of research grows around applications for the more rare cannabinoids found in smaller percentages in the plant itself, brewing the active chemicals will start to look more and more appealing.

Demetrix says it will use the money from the new financing to scale its operations and commercialize the first of the more than 100 unique cannabinoids it believes can be applied to consumer and medical products.

“Demetrix’s mission is to help the world benefit from nature’s rarest ingredients, and we’re excited to partner with world-class investors like Tuatara Capital and Horizons Ventures to help global pharmaceutical, supplement, and consumer product companies deliver innovative products using cannabinoids,” said Demetrix CEO Jeff Ubersax, in a statement. “We’ve assembled a team of industry veterans, built a scalable technology platform, and are working with global regulatory organizations to quickly commercialize.”

The company has raised $61 million to date.

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