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Google spinoff Cartken and REEF Technologies launch Miami’s first delivery robots

Self-driving and robotics startup Cartken has partnered with REEF Technologies, a startup that operates parking lots and neighborhood hubs, to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami.

With this announcement, Cartken officially comes out of stealth mode. The company, founded by ex-Google engineers and colleagues behind the unrequited Bookbot, was formed to develop market-ready tech in self-driving, AI-powered robotics and delivery operations in 2019, but the team has kept operations under wraps until now. This is Cartken’s first large deployment of self-driving robots on sidewalks.

After a few test months, the REEF-branded electric-powered robots are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius in downtown Miami. The robots, which are insulated and thus can preserve the heat of a plate of spaghetti or other hot food, are pre-stationed at designated logistics hubs and dispatched with orders for delivery as the food is prepared.

“We want to show how future-forward Miami can be,” Matt Lindenberger, REEF’s chief technology officer, told TechCrunch. “This is a great chance to show off the capabilities of the tech. The combination of us having a big presence in Miami, the fact that there are a lot of challenges around congestion as Covid subsides, still shows a really good environment where we can show how this tech can work.”

Lindenberg said Miami is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning, with potential for the Cartken robots to be used for REEF’s other last-mile delivery businesses. Currently, only two restaurant delivery robots are operating in Miami, but Lindenberger said the company is planning to expand further into the city and outward into Fort Lauderdale, as well as other large metros the company operates in, such as Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and eventually New York.

Lindenberger is hoping the presence of robots in the streets can act as a “force multiplier” allowing them to scale while maintaining quality of service in a cost-effective way.

“We’re seeing an explosion in deliveries right now in a post-pandemic world and we foresee that to continue, so these types of no-contact, zero-emission automation techniques are really critical,” he said.

Cartken’s robots are powered by a combination of machine learning and rules-based programming to react to every situation that could occur, even if that just means safely stopping and asking for help, Christian Bersch, CEO of Cartken, told TechCrunch. REEF would have supervisors on site to remotely control the robot if needed, a caveat that was included in the 2017 legislation that allowed for the operation of self-driving delivery robots in Florida.

“The technology at the end of the day is very similar to that of a self-driving car,” said Bersch. “The robot is seeing the environment, planning around obstacles like pedestrians or lampposts. If there’s an unknown situation, someone can help the robot out safely because it can stop on a dime. But it’s important to also have that level of autonomy on the robot because it can react in a split second, faster than anybody remotely could, if something happens like someone jumps in front of it.”

REEF marks specific operating areas on the map for the robots and Cartken tweaks the configuration for the city, accounting for specific situations a robot might need to deal with, so that when the robots are given a delivery address, they can make moves and operate like any other delivery driver. Only this driver has an LTE connection and is constantly updating its location so REEF can integrate it into its fleet management capabilities.

Image Credits: REEF/Cartken

Eventually, Lindenberger said, they’re hoping to be able to offer the option for customers to choose robot delivery on the major food delivery platforms REEF works with like Postmates, UberEats, DoorDash or GrubHub. Customers would receive a text when the robot arrives so they could go outside and meet it. However, the tech is not quite there yet.

Currently the robots only make it street-level, and then the food is passed off to a human who delivers it directly to the door, which is a service that most customers prefer. Navigating into an apartment complex and to a customer’s unit is difficult for a robot to manage just yet, and many customers aren’t quite ready to interact directly with a robot. 

“It’s an interim step, but this was a path for us to move forward quickly with the technology without having any other boundaries,” said Lindenberger. “Like with any new tech, you want to take it in steps. So a super important step which we’ve now taken and works very well is the ability to dispatch robots within a certain radius and know that they’re going to arrive there. That in and of itself is a huge step and it allows us to learn what kind of challenges you have in terms of that very last step. Then we can begin to work with Cartken to solve that last piece. It’s a big step just being able to do this automation.”

This Y Combinator startup is taking lab grown meat upscale with elk, lamb, and wagyu beef cell lines

Last week a select group of 20 employees and guests gathered at an event space on the San Francisco Bay, and, while looking out at the Bay Bridge dined on a selection of choice elk sausages, wagyu meatloaf, and lamb burgers — all of which were grown from a petrie dish.

The dinner was a coming out party for Orbillion Bio, a new startup pitching today in Y Combinator’s latest demo day, that’s looking to take lab-grown meats from the supermarket to high end, bespoke butcher shops.

Instead of focusing on pork, chicken and beef, Orbillion is going after so-called heritage meats — the aforementioned elk, lamb, and wagyu beef to start.

By focusing on more expensive end products, Orbillion doesn’t have as much pressure to slash costs as dramatically as other companies in the cellular meat market, the thinking goes.

But there’s more to the technology than its bourgie beef, elite elk, and luscious lamb meat.

“Orbillion uses a unique accelerated development process producing thousands of tiny tissue samples, constantly iterating to find the best tissue and media combinations,” according to Holly Jacobus, whose firm, Joyance Partners, is an early investor in Orbillion. “This is much less expensive and more efficient than traditional methods and will enable them to respond quickly to the impressive demand they’re already experiencing.”

The company runs its multiple cell lines through a system of small bioreactors. Orbillion couples that with a high throughput screening and machine learning software system to build out a database of optimized tissue and media combinations. “The key to making lab grown meat work scalably is choosing the right cells cultured in the most efficient way possible,” Jacobus wrote.

Co-founded by a deeply technical and highly experienced team of executives that’s led by Patricia Bubner, a former researcher at the German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim. Joining Bubner is Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay, a former director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, who was a post-doc at Berkeley with Bubner and serves as the company’s chief technology officer. Rounding out the senior leadership is Samet Yildirim, the chief operating officer at Orbillion and a veteran executive of Boehringer Ingelheim (he actually served as Bubner’s boss).

Orbillion Bio co-founders Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay, CTO, Patricia Bubner, CEO, and Samet Yildirim, COO. Image Credit: Orbillion Bio

For Bubner, the focus on heritage meats is as much a function of her background growing up in rural Austria as it is about economics. A longtime, self-described foodie and a nerd, Bubner went into chemistry because she ultimately wanted to apply science to the food business. And she wants Orbillion to make not just meat, but the most delicious meats.

It’s an aim that fits with how many other companies have approached the market when they’re looking to commercialize a novel technology. Higher end products, or products with unique flavor profiles that are unique to the production technologies available are more likely to be commercially viable sooner than those competing with commodity products. Why focus on angus beef when you focus on a much more delicious breed of animal?

For Bubner, it’s not just about making a pork replacement, it’s about making the tastiest pork replacement.

“I’m just fascinated and can see the future in us being able to further change the way we produce food to be more efficient,” she said. “We’re at this inflection point. I’m a nerd, i’m a foodie and I really wanted to use my skills to make a change. I wanted to be part of that group of people that can really have an impact on the way we eat. For me there’s no doubt that a large percentage of our food will be from alternative proteins — plant based, fermentation, and lab-grown meat.”

Joining Boehringer Ingelheim was a way for Bubner to become grounded in the world of big bioprocessing. It was preparation for her foray into lab grown meat, she said.

“We are a product company. Our goal is to make the most flavorful steaks. Our first product will not be whole cuts of steak. The first product is going to be a Wagyu beef product that we plan on putting out in 2023,” Bubner said. “It’s a product that’s going to be based on more of a minced product. Think Wagyu sashimi.”

To get to market, Bubner sees the need not just for a new approach to cultivating choice meats, but a new way of growing other inputs as well, from the tissue scaffolding needed to make larger cuts that resemble traditional cuts of meat, or the fats that will need to be combined with the meat cells to give flavor.

That means there are still opportunities for companies like Future Fields, Matrix Meats, and Turtle Tree Scientific to provide inputs that are integrated into the final, branded product.

Bubner’s also thinking about the supply chain beyond her immediate potential partners in the manufacturing process. “Part of my family were farmers and construction workers and the others were civil engineers and architects. I hold farmers in high respect… and think the people who grow the food and breed the animals don’t get recognition for the work that they do.”

She envisions working in concert with farmers and breeders in a kind of licensing arrangement, potentially, where the owners of the animals that produce the cell lines can share in the rewards of their popularization and wider commercial production.

That also helps in the mission of curbing the emissions associated with big agribusiness and breeding and raising livestock on a massive scale. If you only need a few animals to make the meat, you don’t have the same environmental footprint for the farms.

“We need to make sure that we don’t make the mistakes that we did in the past that we only breed animals for yield and not for flavor,” said Bubner. 

Even though the company is still in its earliest days, it already has one letter of intent, with one of San Francisco’s most famous butchers. Guy Crims, also known as “Guy the Butcher” has signed a letter of intent to stock Orbillion Bio’s lab grown Wagyu in his butcher shop, Bubner said. “He’s very much a proponent of lab-grown meat.”

Now that the company has its initial technology proven, Orbillion is looking to scale rapidly. It will take roughly $3.5 million for the company to get a pilot plant up and running by the end of 2022 and that’s in addition to the small $1.4 million seed round the company has raised from Joyant and firms like VentureSoukh.

“The way i see an integrated model working later on is to have the farmers be the breeders of animals for cultivated meat. That can reduce the number of cows on the planet to a couple of hundred thousand,” Bubner said of her ultimate goal. “There’s a lot of talking about if you do lab grown meat you want to put me out of business. It’s not like we’re going to abolish animal agriculture tomorrow.”

Image Credit: Getty Images

Bill Gates wants Western countries to eat “synthetic meat”; Meatable has raised $47 million to make it

In a recent interview discussing Bill Gates’ recent book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster“, the Microsoft and Breakthrough Energy founder (and the world’s third wealthiest man) advocated for citizens of the richest countries in the world to switch to diets consisting entirely of what he called synthetic meat in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Gates’ call is being met by startups and public companies hailing from everywhere from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, London to Los Angeles, and Berkeley to… um… Chicago.

Indeed, two of the best funded companies in the lab-grown meat market hail from The Netherlands, where Mosa Meat is being challenged by a newer upstart, Meatable, which just announced $47 million in new financing.

The company aims to have its first product approved by European regulators by 2023 and notching commercial sales by 2025.

Meatable has a long road ahead of it, because, as Gates acknowledged in his interview with MIT Technology Review (ed. note: I’m available for a call, too, Bill), “the people like Memphis Meats who do it at a cellular level—I don’t know that that will ever be economical.”

Beyond the economics, there’s also the open question of whether consumers will be willing to make the switch to lab grown meat. Some companies, like the San Francisco-based Just Foods and Tel Aviv’s Supermeat are already selling chicken patties and nuggets made from cultured cells at select restaurants.

These products don’t get at the full potential for cellular technology according to Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technology officer. “We have seen the nugget and the chicken burger, but we’re working on whole muscle tissue,” Luining said.

The sheer number of entrants in the category — and the capital they’ve raised — points to the opportunity for several winners if companies can walk the tightrope balancing cost at scale and quality replacements for free range food.

“The mission of the company is to be a global leader in providing proteins for the planet. Pork and beef and regularly eaten cuts have on environmental and land management,” Luining said. “The technology that we are using allows us to go into different species. First we’re focused on the animals that have the biggest impact on climate change and planetary health.”

For Meatable right now, price remains an issue. The company is currently producing meat at roughly $10,000 per pound, but, unlike its competitors, the company said it is producing whole meat. That’s including the fat and connective tissue that makes meat… well… meat.

Now with 35 employees and new financing, the company is trying to shift from research and development into a food production company. Strategic investors like DSM, one of the largest food biotech companies in Europe should help. So should angel investors like Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, the executive chairman of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; and Dr. Rick Klausner, the former executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a founder of Juno Therapeutics, GRAIL, and Mindstrong Health, after leaving Illumina where he served as chief medical officer.

Institutional investors in the company’s latest round include Google Ventures founder Bill Maris’ new fund, Section 32,  and existing investors like: BlueYard Capital, Agronomics, Humboldt, and Taavet Hinrikus. 

The company’s first commercial offering will likely be a lab-grown pork product, but with expanded facilities in Delft, the location of one of the top universities in The Netherlands, a beef product may not be far behind.

“[Meatable has] a great team and game-changing technology that can address the challenges around the global food insecurity issues our planet is facing,” said Klausner. “They have all the right ingredients to become the leading choice for sustainably and efficiently produced meat.”