There’s plenty of buzz about the concept of making our cities “smarter” — that is, loading them up with sensors and data-driven services to improve efficiency and quality of life. Hell, even Google has taken to loading up its event venues with scores of sensors.
Most of the discussion out there deals with how local governments are working toward this lofty, nebulous goal, but a team called Acrobotics Industries is trying to put the onus on the citizens. To that end the team has kicked off a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign for a small sensor array called the Smart Citizen kit in hopes that people will start collecting and sharing their environmental data with the world.
“There’s a problem with the way current cities were built,” Acrobotic’s COO Francisco Zabala told me. “Beijing’s air quality is insanely bad — we think we have it bad in L.A. — and it’s not getting any better.
The heart (or brain, I guess) of the Smart Citizen project is an Arduino-powered kit that gets tucked away inside (or outside, if you’ve got the right kind of enclosure) of a user’s home to track local environmental variables — think temperature, humidity, air composition, ambient brightness, and sound levels. It’s arguably neat enough to keep tabs on the environmental conditions at your home while you’re not there, but the real value here is when a host of users set up their Smart Citizen sensors and fire up them up en masse.
It’s the team’s hope that Smart Citizen kits will sell widely enough that regular people will be able to get an accurate glance at environmental conditions with a finer sort of granularity than you’d get by firing up, say, the Weather Channel app. For what it’s worth, Zabala concedes that the Smart Citizen project is largely geared toward making people aware of climate change and global warming without getting too political or divisive about it.
“I believe that climate is changing for the worse, but our approach is more personal,” Zabala said. “By raising awareness we’re working toward a solution without banging on people’s heads.”
As it happens, a few of those Smart Citizen kits have already been fired up. A quick look at a demo version of the sensor-tracking website reveals that a handful of the little things are live in Zabala’s native Barcelona — the Smart Citizen team ran an earlier, more local crowdfunding campaign (Zabala called it a “proof of concept run”) that saw a number of users in Spain install and fire up their sensor arrays all around the city. Hovering over a bright blue spot displays the latest environmental data (users can define how often they want those updates to occur), while greyed out units haven’t been fired up lately.
Thanks to how the Smart Citizen kit is constructed, users will eventually be able to monitor more than just the environmental criteria this early kit supports. Zabala said that the Acrobotics team is currently working on swappable daughterboards that will allow the Smart Citizen kit to be used for soil and water testing, too — perfect for you city-dwelling gardeners. If you’re suddenly itching to monitor your surroundings more acutely, you’ll be able to lay claim to a fully constructed Smart Citizen for $155 — the more handy among you can save a little money by springing for the $105 unassembled kit instead.
QFPay‘s card reader admittedly looks a bit clunkier than its U.S. or European equivalents Square or iZettle.
It looks like a wonky, old calculator. But that’s because Chinese consumers don’t trust merchants easily and a basic phonejack reader without a keypad makes them nervous, says COO Tim Lee. He says consumers are worried that their PINs will get stolen by unscrupulous merchants.
“Aesthetically, it’s not that beautiful,” he said. “Square is very Apple-like and we’d want to have good design, but we are practical for two reasons. We must have a PIN pad in China and secondly, we have limited money so we’d want to build a minimum viable product and then keep on improving.”
Because of these more practical modifications, QFPay is seeing traction that has it processing close to $400 million per year on an annualized basis.
They have 30,000 merchants all over China and recently picked up funding from Sequoia China, although the size of the round is still undisclosed.
Among their clients are better-known names like Groupon-like 55Tuan, which uses QFPay to collect fees from merchants all across China.
QFPay’s model is slightly different from Square’s. For one, they don’t give away their readers for free. They charge 899 renminbi or just under $150 for each one. Competitors like Lakala also charge for their readers at about 199 renminbi a pop.
QFPay’s transaction fees also legally have to be a lot lower than what U.S. and European companies can charge. They don’t charge more than 0.78 percent per transaction, which is one-third of the 2.75 percent that Square charges. That cuts the company’s margins on every swipe, although Lee says that R&D costs are substantially lower in China.
QFPay also recently released an API that lets third-party developers create payment experiences. (Square does not currently offer an API.) It’s still early so there just 100 developers on the platform.
The Chinese market has myriad challenges, which could also be good opportunities for QFPay.
For one, penetration for point-of-sale terminals is still quite low. Lee says only about 5 million merchants out of China’s estimated 100 million have proper point-of-sale machines, so QFPay has to do a lot of education on why its products are valuable.
The country is also heterogeneous with different provinces having different business cultures.
“In the north, merchants just have a leisure life. They open the shop and go home at 5 of 6 p.m.,” he said. “But in the Southern provinces, they will stay open until midnight.” The Western provinces are also far less developed than the coasts, with many Chinese merchants still carrying feature phones.
Lee said they started working on the company about six months after Square launched. The company’s management team has experience working for PayPal, MasterCard, HSBC and Western Union; that breadth of experience spans the entire history of digital payments in the country.
They face internal competitors like Lakala and iBoxPay, but Lee says those are consumer-facing solutions. He says they basically target reader sales at consumers that want to pay for utilities and other services through their phones.
But QFPay is aimed at merchants and the company is working on all sorts of software tools to handle CRM, analytics and loyalty products.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than a year since ride-sharing service Lyft first launched in beta to friends and family, offering a low-cost alternative to on-demand black car service Uber. Not only has it grown aggressively in its home market since then, but Lyft has since begun offering service in Los Angeles and Seattle. It’s tacking on another city this weekend with a launch in Chicago.
With the addition of Chicago, Lyft will now be in four markets nationwide. That’s fewer than competitors SideCar and Uber, but it’s been focused on improving its rollout with each new city. With the recent addition of Cherry co-founder Travis VanderZanden as COO and its expansion playbook set, Lyft president John Zimmer promises me that the company will be aggressively adding new cities over the next year.
In the early stages of its expansion the company has seen positive signs of growth from each new city it’s launched in. Lyft’s launch in Los Angeles outpaced its first 12 weeks in San Francisco, with three times the number of users after its first 12 weeks. And the first month of service in Seattle has outpaced both its first two markets.
In Chicago, it’s hoping for the same type of demand trajectory, and believes it already has the driver supply to match. The launch team in Chicago has seen more drivers apply during its initial outreach period than in either Seattle or L.A., Zimmer tells me.
Exporting Company Culture
The company decided to expand to Chicago next due to the population density and transportation habits of residents there. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t really look at data around the number of people who have tried using downloading the app or using the service locally there.
Just as in L.A. and Seattle, Lyft sent a launch team ahead to Chicago to recruit drivers and vet them for service. For Lyft, that means driver and criminal background checks, as well as a car inspection and training to ensure that drivers fit with the community that it’s trying to build.
Along with the easily recognizable pink mustaches that grace Lyft vehicles, the company’s culture could be its biggest differentiator, but it’s also the most difficult piece of the business to re-create as it expands from market to market.
As for those mustaches — the company almost ran out, as it’s been adding drivers more quickly than its supplier could keep up, Zimmer tells me. Mostly, that was due to growth in San Francisco, where the company has recently doubled its driver count over the last two months.
Notably, the increase in supply has happened while Lyft has faced increased competition in its home market from Uber, which recently launched ride-sharing services of its own. In an effort to compete, Uber has been trying to poach Lyft drivers with some aggressive marketing tactics — including a “Shave the ‘Stache” mobile billboard that’s been driving around San Francisco over the past week.
Focus Now On Ride Sharing
Along with the launch in Chicago, the startup is announcing that it’s officially putting to rest the Zimride brand and will be known just as Lyft going forward. The company continues to support the legacy Zimride business, but the company’s main focus is on ride sharing — and has been for a while. So it’s not a huge surprise that it’s decided to reincorporate as Lyft Inc.
The rebrand follows a long and winding road that the company has been on since its inception. It all started about six years ago, when a group of friends founded Zimride to make it easier for university students to carpool home during the holidays and on weekends. The carpool community eventually expanded beyond university students, but the founders saw a larger opportunity in helping passengers get around urban markets.
So early last year, the remaining founders decided to take the business in a different direction and focus more on ride-sharing in cities rather than the longer, road trip-style carpooling that Zimride was traditionally known for. Thus Lyft was born.
Now that it has seen success with that model in San Francisco and subsequent cities, Lyft is ready to make it available throughout the country. Expect a number of new cities to be turned up over the next several months, as the Lyft expansion team continues to grow.
Top Hat Monocle, the Toronto-based provider of mobile-based classroom response systems, has decided to get Lasik and has dropped the ‘monocle’ from its name and logo. Top Hat, as the company will now be known, is celebrating this move with the launch of a redesigned corporate site at TopHat.com and, more importantly, it also switching to a freemium model where classes with fewer than 30 students can now use its tools for free.
The tool was always free for educators, but students had to pay $20 per semester to subscribe to the service. As Andrew D’Souza, Top Hat’s COO told me yesterday, the company decided to make this switch in order to accommodate a number of different scenarios. Many teachers, for example, want to adopt Top Hat in the middle of the semester but don’t want to have to ask their students to pay at that point. Some also just want to try it, but they don’t want their students to have to sign up and pay – especially if they aren’t sure that they’ll continue to use it. Top Hat is also seeing strong interest from teachers in K-12 schools and this switch should help them to use its tools, too. The 30-person limit, he told me, is meant to ensure that the company’s costs for offering the free service (mostly SMS fees), remain reasonable.
“Our goal is to put Top Hat in the hands of every student and teacher” D’Souza said in the announcement today. “With this new pricing model, we’re eliminating the barrier for instructors to give the platform a try in their class. We expect this to significantly accelerate the word-of-mouth-driven adoption we’re already seeing.”
As for the name change, D’Souza told me that for a mobile-first company, “Top Hat Monocle” was always a very long name. Half-jokingly, he also added that ‘monocle’ turned out to be hard to spell for many users. Quite a few people were already referring to the company as ‘Top Hat’ anyway and the team decided that the tool had enough brand recognition that making the switch wasn’t very risky.
Top Hat is currently being used in 350 universities worldwide.
HealthTap, the doctor Q&A site and mobile app, has closed a $24 million series B round of funding — capital it says it will use to acquire “top talent”, expand its web and mobile offerings, and accelerate growth. The new round, which brings the total raised by the company to $37.9m, was led by Khosla Ventures, while existing investors Mayfield Fund, and Mohr Davidow Ventures also participated.
Meanwhile, Keith Rabois, ex-COO of Square and Khosla partner, will join HealthTap’s board of directors, and Vinod Khosla is to act as an advisor to the startup.
HealthTap’s platform provides health information primarily through its Q&A functionality which connects users to a network of more than 38,000 registered doctors, via both its website and mobile apps — thus offering a sometimes more efficient and cheaper alternative to seeing a doctor face-to-face, and certainly a better alternative than rolling the dice on Google when searching for medical advice.
For the doctors who join HealthTap, the platform provides tools to build an online and real-world reputation — the usual draw for those contributing to a Q&A site — and the potential to attract new patients while also improving the quality of health information online, which is noble in itself.
HealthTap claims that the new financing represents “one of the most substantial series B investments to date in the digital health industry”, and that the company has grown “rapidly over the past year, nearly quadrupling the number of doctors in its network, and serving tens of millions of people worldwide via its web and mobile apps.”
Testimony to this, in March we reported that HealthTap was seeing users ask doctors more than 10 million questions every month and that the site was serving more than 7.5 million monthly unique visitors, with its mobile apps having been downloaded more than 2 million times.