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This startup reworked its privacy-friendly sensors to help battle COVID-19

One little-known home and retail automation startup might seem like an unlikely candidate to help combat the ongoing pandemic. But its founder says its technology can do just that, even if it wasn’t the company’s original plan.

Butlr, a spin-out of the MIT Media Lab, uses a mix of wireless, battery-powered hardware and artificial intelligence to track people’s movements indoors without violating their privacy. The startup uses ceiling-mounted sensors to detect individuals’ body heat to track where a person walks and where they might go next. The use cases are near-endless. The sensors can turn on mood-lighting or air conditioning when it detects movement, help businesses understand how shoppers navigate their stores, determine the wait-time in the queues at the checkout and even sound the alarm if it detects a person after-hours.

By using passive infrared sensors to detect only body heat, the sensors don’t know who you are — only where you are and where you’re heading. The tracking stops as soon as you leave the sensor’s range, like when you leave a store.

The technology is in high demand. Butlr says some 200,000 retail stores use its technology, not least because it’s far cheaper than the more privacy-invading — and expensive — alternatives, like surveillance cameras and facial recognition.

But when the pandemic hit, most of those stores closed — as effectively did entire cities and nations — to counter the ongoing threat from of COVID-19. But those stores would have to open again, and so Butlr got back to work.

Butlr’s privacy-friendly body heat sensors don’t know who you are — only where you are. Now the company is retooling its technology to help combat coronavirus. (Image: Butlr)

Butlr’s co-founder Honghao Deng told TechCrunch that it began retooling its technology to help support stores opening again.

The company quickly rolled out new software features — like maximum occupancy and queue management — to help stores with sensors already installed cope with the new but ever-changing laws and guidance that businesses had to comply with.

Deng said that the sensors can make sure no more than the allowed number of people can be in a store at once, and make sure that staff are protected from customers by helping to enforce social distancing rules. Customers can also see live queue data to help them pick a less-crowded time to shop, said Deng.

All these things before a pandemic might have sounded, frankly, a little dull. Fast-forward to the middle of a pandemic and you’re probably thankful for all the help — and the technology — you can get.

Butlr tested its new features in China at the height of the pandemic’s rise in February, and later rolled out to its global customers, including in the United States. Deng said Butlr’s technology is already helping customers at furniture store Steelcase, supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market and the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi to help them reopen while minimizing the risk to others.

It’s a pivot that’s paid off. Last month Butlr raised $1.2 million in seed funding, just as the pandemic was reaching its peak in the United States.

Nobody knew a pandemic was coming, not least Deng. And as the pandemic spread, businesses have suffered. If it wasn’t for quick thinking, Butlr might’ve been another startup that succumbed to the pandemic.

Instead, the startup is probably going to help save lives — and without compromising anyone’s privacy.

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India’s Reliance Jio Platforms to sell $1.2 billion stake to Mubadala

Abu Dhabi-based sovereign firm Mubadala has become the latest investor in Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms, joining five American firms including Facebook and Silver Lake that have secured stakes in India’s biggest telecom operator at the height of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Mubadala said it had agreed to invest $1.2 billion in Reliance Jio Platforms for a 1.85% stake in the firm. The deal valued the Indian telecom operator, which launched in the second half of 2016, at $65 billion.

A subsidiary of Reliance Industries, the most valued firm in India whose core businesses are in oil refining and petrochemicals, Reliance Jio Platforms has raised $11.5 billion by selling 19% stake in the last seven weeks.

“Through my longstanding ties with Abu Dhabi, I have personally seen the impact of Mubadala’s work in diversifying and globally connecting the UAE’s knowledge-based economy. We look forward to benefitting from Mubadala’s experience and insights from supporting growth journeys across the world,” Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, said in a statement.

The announcement today further shows the appeal of Jio Platforms to foreign investors that are looking for a slice of the world’s second-largest internet market. Media reports have claimed in recent weeks that Amazon is considering buying stakes worth at least $2 billion in Bharti Airtel, India’s third-largest telecom operator, while Google has held talks for a similar deal in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator.

India has emerged as one of the biggest global battlegrounds for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms that are looking to win the nation’s 1.3 billion people, most of whom remain without a smartphone and internet connection.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak, managing director and group chief executive of Mubadala Investment Company, said, “We have seen how Jio has already transformed communications and connectivity in India, and as an investor and partner, we are committed to supporting India’s digital growth journey. With Jio’s network of investors and partners, we believe that the platform company will further the development of the digital economy.”

Mubadala, which has more than $229 billion in assets, is also an investor in AMD and Alphabet’s Waymo, and SoftBank.

The new capital should help Ambani, India’s richest man, further solidify his commitment to investors when he pledged to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021 — in part because of the investments it has made to build Jio Platforms, said Mahesh Uppal, director of Com First, a communications consultancy.

Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

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Innovaccer wants to be the service that unifies all healthcare data

The holy grail for technology companies working in the healthcare industry is becoming the gateway for all healthcare data.

Big legacy providers like Epic and Cerner are trying to reach out to hospital networks to hoover up all of their data. Google is interested in it. Salesforce is interested in it. Everyone wants to be the resource that organizes and manages healthcare data for physicians and hospital providers — everyone including the San Francisco-based startup Innovaccer, which has raised $70 million in new financing to finance its mission.

The new investment from firms including Steadview Capital, Tiger Global, Dragoneer, Westbridge Capital, the Abu Dhabi investment firm Mubadala Capital, and Microsoft’s corporate investment arm, M12.

These are deep-pocketed investors for whom money is no object, but Innovaccer has shown a fair bit of traction among hospitals and health systems with its data analysis and management platform.

The company’s software pulls from datasets including those generated by Cerner and Epic’s healthcare records, as well as insurance companies and pharmacies to create a more holistic view of a patient, the company says.

Since its launch in 2014, Innovaccer has provided a single source or healthcare information for 3.8 million patients and saved healthcare systems more than $400 million, the company said.

“Healthcare still needs a lot of work to become patient-centered and connected by organizing information and making it more accessible. It is really important to make patient data seamlessly available to all providers along the patient’s care journey,” said Abhinav Shashank, the co-founder and chief executive at Innovaccer, in a statement. “We have been fortunate to work with transformational healthcare initiatives that our amazing customers are engaged in. The vision of helping healthcare work as one needs a connected and open technology framework. We are excited to be at the forefront of providing the tech platform for our customers to drive that change.”

Its technology relies on over 200 APIs to take data from health plans, primary care providers, pharmacies, labs and hospitals and serves that data to 25,000 care providers. The company hopes to take that number ot over 100 million healthcare records and 500,000 caregivers over the next several years.

It’s a lofty goal, but one that appeals to the Ravi Mehta, the founder of the $2.5 billion hedge fund Steadview Capital.

“By using their connected care framework coupled with their leading-edge data aggregation and analytics platform, they are unifying patient records and enabling care teams to coordinate patient care at a new level,” said Mehta. “We believe this will achieve greater efficiencies, enable better care and reduce overall healthcare spend in the years to come.” 

Source: TechCrunch

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All the high-tech, powerful vehicles TechCrunch reviewed in 2019

TechCrunch occasionally reviews cars. Why? Vehicles are some of the most complex, technical consumer electronics available. It’s always been that way. Vehicles, especially those available for the consumer, are the culmination of bleeding-edge advancements in computing, manufacturing, and material sciences. And some can go fast — zoom zoom.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve looked at a handful of vehicles from ultra-luxury to the revival of classic muscle cars. It’s been a fun year full of road trips and burnouts.


In the last weeks of 2018, we drove Audi’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. The familiar e-tron SUV.

I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks, and through deep sand, it’s sturdy and surefooted.

Read the review here.

A few months later, we got an Audi RS 5 Sportback for a week. It was returned with significantly thinner tires.

This five-door sedan is raw and unhinged, and there’s an unnatural brutality under the numerous electronic systems. Its twin-turbo 2.9L power plant roars while the Audi all-wheel drive system keeps the rubber on the tarmac. It’s insane, and like most vacations, it’s lovely to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live with the RS 5.

Read the review here.

At the end of Spring, a 2019 Bentley Continental GT blew us away.

The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.

Read the review here.

In late May, we drove Audi’s 2019 Q8 from Michigan to New York City and back. To the passengers, it was comfortable. For the driver (me), it was unpleasant.

Yet after spending a lot of time in the Q8, I found it backwards. Most crossovers provide the comfort of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. This one has the rough comfort of an SUV with the limited utility of a sedan. Worse yet, driving the Q8 around town can be a frustrating experience.

Read the review here.

2019 bmw i8 1

The BMW i8 is a long for this world, so we took it out for one last spin, several years after reviewing it just after it was released.

The BMW i8 is just a stepping stone in BMW’s history. An oddball. It’s a limited-edition vehicle to try out new technology. From what I can tell, BMW never positioned the i8 as a top seller or market leader. It was an engineer’s playground. I love it.

Read the review here.

2020 gt500 3

This fall, we went to Las Vegas to get the first taste of Ford’s latest GT500. It’s exhilarating and yet manageable.

During my short time with the 2020 GT500, I never felt overwhelmed with power when driving it on city streets. The 2020 GT500 is an exercise in controlled restraint. Somehow this 760 HP Ford can hit 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and still be easy to putz around town. It’s surprising and a testament to the advances made within Dearborn.

Read the review here.

McLaren Senna GTR doors

Supercars are often an exercise in excess, and yet the McLaren Senna GTR is something different. It’s a testament to how McLaren operates.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get the temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC, and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.

Read the review here.

Quick thoughts on other cars we drove this year.

2020 BMW M850i xDrive Coupe
A grand tourer for the modest millionaire. With all-wheel drive, a glorious engine, and heated armrests, the 850i is exciting and comfortable anywhere.

2019 Ford GT350
Forget the GT500. The GT350, with a standard gearbox and naturally aspirated 5.2L V8, is a pony car that gives the driver more control and more thrills than its more expensive, supercharged cousin.

2020 BMW M2 Competition Coupe
This small BMW coupe is perfectly balanced. It’s powerful, controllable, and, during our week with it, gave endless thrills (and donuts). This was my favorite car this year.

2019 Ford Raptor
Need a pickup that’s faster than a sports car? You probably don’t, but if so, we discovered the Raptor was capable and enjoyable if not a bit unwieldy in traffic thanks to its wide body.

Source: TechCrunch