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Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski among list of last-minute Trump pardons

Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison on one count of stealing trade secrets, has received a pardon from President Donald Trump.

The full pardon, which was one of 73 issued late Tuesday evening, means Levandowski will avoid a prison cell. The president also commuted 70 sentences. Levandowski received his sentence in August 2020. However, Judge Alsup, who presided over the case, said he didn’t need to report to prison until the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed.

Levandowski could not be reached for comment.

Levandowski’s pardon was supported by technology founders and investors, including Founders Fund’s co-founder Peter Thiel and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey;  trial lawyers Miles Ehrlich and Amy Craig; and businessman and investor Michael Ovitz.

Here is the full description, which includes people who supported the pardon, that was posted by the White House:

Anthony Levandowski — President Trump granted a full pardon to Anthony Levandowski. This pardon is strongly supported by James Ramsey, Peter Thiel, Miles Ehrlich, Amy Craig, Michael Ovitz, Palmer Luckey, Ryan Petersen, Ken Goldberg, Mike Jensen, Nate Schimmel, Trae Stephens, Blake Masters, and James Proud, among others. Mr. Levandowski is an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology. Mr. Levandowski pled guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation. Notably, his sentencing judge called him a “brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs.” Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.

Levandowski has been a polarizing figure in the autonomous vehicle industry. He is by all accounts — even among some of his harshest critics — a brilliant engineer. His bravado and risk-taking combined with a likable, even affable personality won him followers and rivals.

He has been vilified as a thieving tech bro, unceremoniously ejected from Uber, and forced into bankruptcy by a $179 million award against him. He has also been heralded as a star engineer who was an early pioneer of autonomous vehicles. Levandowski was one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. He was rewarded handsomely  — about $127 million by Google — for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court documents.

The criminal case that led to Levandowski’s sentencing in August is part of a multi-year legal saga that has entangled Levandowksi, Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

In 2016, Levandowski left Google and started Otto with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, under the indemnification agreement between Uber and Levandowski, the company was compelled to defend him.

While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

While Levandowski wasn’t a defendant in the Waymo v Uber suit, he would soon face a bigger obstacle.

In August 2019, the U.S. District Attorney charged Levandowski alone with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Levandowski and the U.S. District Attorney reached a plea deal in March 2020. Under that agreement, Levandowski admitted to downloading thousands of files related to Project Chauffeur. Specifically, he pleaded guilty to count 33 of the indictment, which is related to taking what was known as the Chauffeur Weekly Update, a spreadsheet that contained a variety of details including quarterly goals and weekly metrics as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome.

The U.S. District Attorney’s office had recommended a 27-month sentence. Levandowski had sought a fine, 12 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service. Alsup ultimately determined that home confinement would “[give] a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”

Instead, Alsup sentenced Lewandowski to 18 months, but delayed his prison time until the pandemic was under control. Levandowski also agreed to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo and a fine of $95,000.

Qualcomm-backed chipmaker Kneron nails Foxconn funding, deal

A startup based out of San Diego and Taipei is quietly nailing fundings and deals from some of the biggest names in electronics. Kneron, which specializes in energy-efficient processors for edge artificial intelligence, just raised a strategic funding round from Taiwan’s manufacturing giant Foxconn and integrated circuit producer Winbond.

The deal came a year after Kneron closed a $40 million round led by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Amongst its other prominent investors are Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund, Sequoia Capital, Qualcomm and SparkLabs Taipei.

Kneron declined to disclose the dollar amount of the investment from Foxconn and Winbond due to investor requests but said it was an “eight figures” deal, founder and CEO Albert Liu told TechCrunch in an interview.

Founded in 2015, Kneron’s latest product is a neural processing unit that can enable sophisticated AI applications without relying on the cloud. The startup is directly taking on the chips of Intel and Google, which it claims are more energy-consuming than its offering. The startup recently got a talent boost after hiring Davis Chen, Qualcomm’s former Taipei head of engineering.

Among Kneron’s customers are Chinese air conditioning giant Gree and German’s autonomous driving software provider Teraki, and the new deal is turning the world’s largest electronics manufacturer into a client. As part of the strategic agreement, Kneron will work with Foxconn on the latter’s smart manufacturing and newly introduced open platform for electric vehicles, while its work with Winbond will focus on microcontroller unit (MCU)-based AI and memory computing.

“Low-power AI chips are pretty easy to put into sensors. We all know that in some operation lines, sensors are quite small, so it’s not easy to use a big GPU [graphics processing unit] or CPU [central processing unit], especially when power consumption is a big concern,” said Liu, who held R&D positions at Qualcomm and Samsung before founding Kneron.

Unlike some of its competitors, Kneron designs chips for a wide range of use cases, from manufacturing, smart home, smartphones, robotics, surveillance, payments, to autonomous driving. It doesn’t just make chips but also the AI software embedded in the chips, a strategy that Liu said differentiates his company from China’s AI darlings like SenseTime and Megvii, which enable AI service through the cloud.

Kneron has also been on a less aggressive funding pace than these companies, which fuel their rapid expansion through outsize financing rounds. Six-year-old SenseTime has raised about $2.6 billion to date, while nine-year-old Megvii has banked about $1.4 billion. Kneron, in comparison, has raised just over $70 million from a Series A round.

Like the Chinese AI upstarts, Kneron is weighing an initial public offering. The company is expected to make a profit in 2023, Liu said, and “that will probably be a good time for us to go IPO.”

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40 million funding round

Google is writing check to another startup in India. The Android-maker, which last year unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second largest internet market, said on Tuesday that it is participating in a $40 million investment round of hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo, a Bangalore-based firm that it has also previously backed.

Five-year-old Dunzo said Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada, and Alteria among others participated in its Series E financing round, which brings its to-date raise to $121 million.

Dunzo operates an eponymous hyper-local delivery service in nearly a dozen cities in India including Bangalore, Delhi, Noida, Pune, Gurgaon, Powai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Users get access to a wide-range of items across several categories, from grocery, perishables, pet supplies and medicines to dinner from their neighborhood stores and restaurants.

E-commerce accounts for less than 3% of all retail sales in India, according to industry estimates. Mom and pop stores and other neighborhood outlets that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns, villages and slums across the country drive most of the sales in the nation. The way Dunzo has grown, it poses a challenge to e-commerce firms such as Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, as well as local food and grocery delivery startups such as Swiggy, Zomato, BigBasket, and Grofers. Several people also use Dunzo to pick up and move random items such as a laptop charger or wallet or a lunch box from one point in the city to another.

“As merchants go digital, Dunzo is helping small businesses in their digital transformation journey in support of business recovery,” said Caesar Sengupta, VP, Google, in a statement. “Through our India Digitization Fund, we’re committed to partnering with India’s innovative startups to build a truly inclusive digital economy that will benefit everyone.”

Kabeer Biswas, chief executive and co-founder of Dunzo the startup has grown its annual gross merchandise value business to about $100 million. (GMV used to a popular metric that several e-commerce firms relied on to demonstrate their growth, however, it’s one of the meaningless ways to gauge a startup’s growth. Most firms have stopped using GMV. Additionally, when a startup speaks GMV language, traditionally it has meant they are anything but close to profitability, which happens to be true in the case of Dunzo.)

“Dunzo’s mission resonated stronger than ever in 2020. We have been amazed by everything merchants and users have started to depend on the platform for. We truly believe we are writing a playbook for how hyperlocal businesses can be built with sustainable unit economics and capital responsibility. As a team, we are more focused than ever to enable local Merchants to get closer to their Users and build one of the most loved consumer brands in the country,” Biswas said in a statement.

Google, which invested $4.5 billion in Jio Platforms last year, recently backed social news app Dailyhunt and Glance, a part of ad giant InMobi Group that is aggressively expanding ways to populate content on Android users’ lockscreen. Google is also in talks with local social media ShareChat and may alone invest more than $100 million in the Indian startup, TechCrunch reported earlier this months. Talks about Google’s interest in ShareChat has previously also been reported by local media houses Economic Times and ET Now.