Hi, and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages travel from Point A to Point B. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. If this is your first time, hello; I’m glad you’re with us.
I have started to publish a version of the newsletter on TechCrunch. That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole newsletter, which comes out every weekend, you can subscribe by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!
Last week, I asked readers to share how they were doing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The response was overwhelming. It wasn’t just the number of you who reached out. It was your words — devoid of pretense, the veneer exposed — that struck me.
There were, of course, those who used the opportunity to make a marketing push or pitch a story. I get the impulse, but you won’t be rewarded here. I’m seeking something different. And I will share below some of what you sent me in hopes that it provides insight, solace or, dare I suggest, an esprit de corps among us.
I will repeat my appeal from last week: Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you’re doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.
As we’ve seen the past few weeks, operators are stepping up to respond and adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lyft began offering its scooters for free to healthcare and other essential workers. As part of the program, up to 30-minute rides will be free for members of critical workforces through April 30 in Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, the Washington D.C. metro area, San Diego and Santa Monica.
Spin, similarly, introduced a new initiative that provides free, 30-minute rides and helmets to essential healthcare workers. Spin, which began offering this on April 1, is making this available in Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Tampa and Washington, D.C.
‘Micromobility winter on steroids’
That’s how RideReport CEO William Henderson described the current state of the micromobility industry in a recent interview with TechCrunch reporter Megan Rose Dickey.
Ride Report creates software that enables cities to work with micromobility operators. That gives Henderson a bird’s-eye view on the industry, which he shared with TechCrunch.
Yep, this is an Extra Crunch article, and you need a subscription. A few of the highlights include biking as one of the few bright spots, how some companies have pivoted to providing rides to healthcare workers and insights on how the industry and cities might have reacted had the pandemic occurred two years in the future.
A novel rewards program
These times have sparked a host of new ideas. Here’s one. A Nashville-based startup called Hytch Rewards developed an app that companies and governments can use to give their employees incentives to walk, bike, rideshare or use public transit. The company’s entire purpose has been to reward commuter behavior that reduces traffic congestion and lowers emissions.
Now it’s pivoting to reward people for staying at home. The office of Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper is among the first employer to partner on Hytch’s Shelter in Place initiative, which offers a small daily reward to staff for working from home.
— Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)
Deal of the week
This week, we’ll highlight Via’s Series E funding round that was led by Exor. The on-demand shuttle startup raised $400 million, TechCrunch learned. Exor contributed $200 million of that raise. The remaining $200 million came from new investors Macquarie Capital, Mori Building and Shell, as well as existing investors 83North, Broadscale Group, Ervington Investments, Hearst Ventures, Planven Ventures, Pitango and RiverPark Ventures.
Noam Ohana, who heads up Exor Seeds, the holding company’s early-stage investment arm, will join Via’s board.
Via gets the “deal of the week” designation not just because its post-funding valuation is now $2.25 billion. Via’s actions during the pandemic offers a little bit of understanding on how companies are adapting and where opportunities may lie. Via has two sides of its business: a consumer-facing shuttle and a “partnerships” division that sells its software platform to cities and transit authorities that allows them to deploy their own shuttles.
As you might expect, the consumer-facing shuttles has been adversely affected by COVID-19. There is some promise with the partnerships side of the business, according to CEO Daniel Ramot .
Existing partners, a list that includes transit authorities in Berlin, Germany, Ohio and Malta, have worked with Via to convert or adapt the software to meet new needs during the pandemic. A city might dedicate its shuttle service to transporting goods or essential personnel. For instance, Berlin converted its 120-shuttle fleet transport to an overnight service that provides free transit to healthcare workers traveling to and from work.
“There has been a real interest in emergency services,” Ramot told me, adding he expects to see more demand for the software platform and the flexibility it provides as the pandemic unfolds.
Via isn’t the only company shifting its attention to emergency services. Moovit, an Israeli-based Mobility as a Service startup, launched an Emergency Mobilization On-Demand service. The feature was developed to turn unused vehicle fleets into an on-demand solution to get essential workers to their destination. Moovit is also offering transit agencies and operators a transit data manager for free for three months. This management tool lets transit agencies communicate schedules, line changes and service alerts to users.
- Qcraft.ai raised what it described as an “eight-figure USD investment” in a seed funding round from IDG Capital, Vision+ Capital and Tide Capital. Qraft didn’t provide the exact number; VentureBeat reported it is $24 million.
- Phantom.ai, which has focused on advanced driver assistance systems, raised $22 million in a Series A round led by Celeres Investments; Celeres was joined by Ford Motor and Korean telecommunications giant KT. Two existing investors, Millennium Technology Value Partners and DSC Investment, also participated in the round.
- Seegrid, a company that makes self-driving industrial vehicles for material handling, closed a $25 million growth-equity investment from G2VP.
- GM and Honda deepened their relationship and said they will jointly develop two new electric vehicles slated for 2024. Under the plan, the automakers will focus on their respective areas of expertise. Honda will design the exterior and interiors of the new electric vehicles; GM will contribute its new electric vehicle architecture and Ultium batteries, its OnStar safety and security services and its hands-free advanced driver assistance technology, known as Super Cruise.
- Enovix, which has developed a silicon-based lithium-ion battery, has raised $45 million in new funds. The company said T. J. Rodgers and York Capital participated, as well as an unnamed “major new strategic investor.”
Layoffs in a time of COVID-19
We’ve all seen the bars, restaurants, retail shops and salons in our community shuttered because of stay-at-home directives from local and state governments. We’ve started to see the results of those closures in the form of tens of thousands of jobless claims.
Startups are not immune. It is difficult to get an exact number, but Layoffs.fyi is working to track what is going on in the startup world. As of April 4, the site had calculated 126 startups had laid off more than 10,000 people since March 11.
The transportation sector has been among those hardest hit. Some of the companies that have laid off 20% or more of their staff include shared scooter company Bird; peer-to-peer car rental startups Getaround and Turo; Cabin; freight brokerage KeepTruckin: and Moovel and Zipcar.
Maybe your company is actually hiring. If so, go check out Layoffs.fyi, the site doesn’t just list layoffs. The site also includes spreadsheet that list employees you might want to hire.
I have selected a few excerpts from readers who shared with me — and now you all — their observations about what is happening in their lives in this COVID-19 world. I have edited these for length and clarity.
I plan to share more with you in the weeks ahead, so please reach out.
From Canoo CPO James Cox, who also advises founders of Routable.ai, a startup that developed a real-time routing engine for high-capacity rides. Cox explained in his email to me that Routable’s CEO wrote a piece in Medium (which you can read here) about providing critical transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic:
As a result of the piece, the Boston Medical Center reached out last week. They’ve now adapted their technology to provide rides to homeless people and solve an allocation problem of which bed in which hospital in Boston to send them to.
They’ve worked directly with the frontline doctors and nurses and IT teams on it. They were previously using a whiteboard, which is obviously not going to scale to solve the problem! The trial launches Monday and is a really interesting short-term pivot that is solely focussed on doing good and adjusting to this crazy world we are now living in.
From Aryan Bhasin, a college student under lockdown in India:
There is no sense of transportation at all. Public transport is becoming interesting because even though all forms of transport are banned (one can only use a vehicle to buy essentials at grocery stores), the Indian government has been sending hoards of buses to get villagers back to their villages — completely blowing apart all rules of social distancing.
Airlines, too, have been a very interesting sector to follow. Most airlines have changed their business models significantly in lieu of COVID-19 as governments organize airlifts for stranded citizens.
From Luis Orsini-Rosenberg, CEO of GetHenry, a Berlin-based micromobility startup that focuses on B2B services. GetHenry, which is part of the Techstars Smart Mobility Accelerator, operates in Austria, Germany and Spain. He shared what is happening in Austria:
All of our business partners in Austria had to close its gates. A day after the lockdown was communicated by the government, we started to reach out to hundreds of restaurants, deliveries, couriers, hospitals, pharmacies and medical services to offer them our vehicles for individual transportation or last-mile delivery cases. Last week, the first e-scooters went out to restaurant partners and medical services.
We are starting to generate some revenues again, but it will not be enough to keep the business alive long-term. We have applied for public aid funds and wage subsidies and will cut costs to an absolute minimum in the coming weeks. Going forward, we will either: wait and do nothing or solely focus on the last-mile delivery service.