Meet the first private companies that NASA has selected to deliver stuff and things to the Moon

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has selected Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond as the first three private companies to deliver science and technology payloads under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) as part of its Artemis program.

In an announcement yesterday, the administration said that each lander will carry NASA-provided payloads to conduct science investigations and demonstrate technologies on the lunar surface to pave the way for NASA astronauts lunar return in 2024. In all NASA will dole out up to $253 million in contracts to the three companies for their respective missions.

“Our selection of these U.S. commercial landing service providers represents America’s return to the Moon’s surface for the first time in decades, and it’s a huge step forward for our Artemis lunar exploration plans,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. ”Next year, our initial science and technology research will be on the lunar surface, which will help support sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon in five years. Investing in these commercial landing services also is another strong step to build a commercial space economy beyond low-Earth orbit.”

As part of the submissions, each company proposed flying specific instruments including gear to predict lander positions; measure lunar radiation; assess lander impact on the Moon; and assist with navigation.

It’s not only a win for NASA, and the companies, but another feather in the cap for XPRIZE — given that Astrobotic was initially spun out of Carnegie Mellon University to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) in 2007.

The Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, which is backed by the Space Angels Network, was awarded $79.5 million to fly up to 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the moon by July 2021.

Intuitive Machines, out of Houston, received $77 million to fly five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark spot on the moon in the same timeframe. While Edison, N.J.-based Orbit Beyond is flying four payloads to the lunar lavea plain of Mare Imbrium, in one of the Moon’s many craters by September 2020.

“These landers are just the beginning of exciting commercial partnerships that will bring us closer to solving the many scientific mysteries of our Moon, our solar system, and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “What we learn will not only change our view of the universe, but also prepare our human missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.”

NASA’s partners have agreed to provide end-to-end commercial payload delivery services including: payload integration and operations, and launch and landing.

These first steps from NASA pave the way for not only the Administration’s lunar efforts, but also its eventual intentions to spacecraft and astronauts on Mars.

“This announcement starts a significant step in NASA’s collaboration with our commercial partners,” said Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a statement from Houston. “NASA is committed to working with industry to enable the next round of lunar exploration. The companies we have selected represent a diverse community of exciting small American companies, each with their own unique, innovative approach to getting to the Moon. We look forward to working with them to have our payloads delivered and opening the door for returning humans to the Moon.”

Equity transcribed: Is the tech press too positive in its coverage of startups?

Welcome back the latest transcribed edition of Equity, the TechCrunch podcast that takes a closer look at the startup headlines from the week.

Kate Clark and Alex Wilhelm kick this week off by discussing comments on Twitter made by Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham about the tech press. They then took a look at Uber’s first-quarter numbers, Brex raising, SoFi raising (and entering talks to buy the naming rights for the upcoming Los Angeles Rams stadium) and a lot more.

Here’s a sample:

Alex: Uber’s expectations were low. They had set, in their last S-1/A, these figures out and they came in the middle of revenue and loss expectations. I think the phrase is priced in, and that’s an odd place to be.

Kate: Yeah. It’s good that they came in on expectations. Lyft, you remember, had losses that were way, way, way higher than expected. But I would just say bottom line is, none of these companies, particularly I’m thinking of like Uber, Pinterest and Lyft, which are just recent unicorns to have gone public that are not enterprise software businesses. Is that they’re not profitable, and they’re not really showing clear paths to profitability yet. So, it’s just a little bit like, well, not looking so hot.

Alex: Just a little bit more about this. Because I know people aren’t going to go read the earnings reports because it’s boring. But if you dig into it, gross bookings rose 34% year over year. But adjusted net rev only grew 14%. Which means that of that new gross bookings, Uber’s take rate probably went down a little bit. Which implies that probably Uber Eats grew a lot and Uber’s percent cut of that revenue is smaller. So, the gross bookings growth looks great, but it doesn’t translate.

Click play below to have a listen and subscribe on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

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Alex: If you’re looking to sell your private company stock, SharesPost has a solution for you. With more than 4 billion in company approved transactions, SharesPost is the leading marketplace for private company shares. To learn more, visit us at sharespost.com/equity.

Kate: Hello, and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital focus podcast. I’m back this week with Crunchbase news Editor in Chief, Alex Wilhelm Hey Alex, how’s it going?

Alex: Things are good. It’s cold out in the East Coast. But I’m more excited to hear about things on your end because you are in the new TechCrunch podcast studio. What is it like?

Foxconn halts production lines for Huawei phones, according to reports

Huawei, the Chinese technology giant whose devices are at the center of a far-reaching trade dispute between the U.S. and Chinese governments, is reducing orders for new phones, according to a report in The South China Morning Post.

According to unnamed sources, the Taiwanese technology manufacturer Foxconn has halted production lines for several Huawei phones after the Shenzhen-based company reduced orders. Foxconn also makes devices for most of the major smart phone vendors including Apple and Xiaomi (in addition to Huawei).

In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” to protect U.S. networks from foreign technologies, Huawei and several of its affiliates were barred from acquiring technologies from U.S. companies.

The blacklist has impacted multiple lines of Huawei’s business including it handset manufacturing capabilities given the company’s reliance on Google’s Android operating system for its smartphones.

In May, Google reportedly suspended business with Huawei, according to a Reuters report. Last year, Huawei shipped over 200 million handsets and the company had a stated goal to become the world’s largest vendor of smartphones by 2020.

These reports from The South China Morning Post are the clearest indication that the ramifications of the U.S. blacklisting are beginning to be felt across Huawei’s phone business outside of China.

Huawei was already under fire for security concerns, and will be forced to contend with more if it can no longer provide Android updates to global customers.

Contingency planning is already underway at Huawei. The company has built its own Android -based operating system, and can use the stripped down, open source version of Android that ships without Google Mobile Services. For now, its customers also still have access to Google’s app store. But if the company is forced to make developers sell their apps on a siloed Huawei-only store, it could face problems from users outside of China.

Huawei and the Chinese government are also retaliating against the U.S. efforts. The company has filed a legal motion to challenge the U.S. ban on its equipment, calling it “unconstitutional.”  And Huawei has sent home its American employees deployed at R&D functions at its Shenzhen headquarters.

It has also asked its Chinese employees to limit conversations with overseas visitors, and cease any technical meetings with their U.S. contacts.

Still, any reduction in orders would seem to indicate that the U.S. efforts to stymie Huawei’s expansion (at least in its smartphone business) are having an impact.

A spokesperson for Huawei U.S. did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter takes down ‘a large number’ of Chinese-language accounts ahead of Tiananmen Square anniversary

Twitter has suspended a large number of Chinese-language user accounts, including those belonging to critics of China’s government. It seems like a particularly ill-timed move, occurring just days before thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.

“A large number of Chinese @Twitter accounts are being suspended today,” wrote Yaxue Cao, founder and editor of the U.S.-based publication China Change. “They ‘happen’ to be accounts critical of China, both inside and outside China.”

Cao then went on to highlight a number of the suspended accounts in a Twitter thread.

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The Chinese government reportedly began cracking down late last year on people who post criticism on Twitter. The author of that story, The New York Times’ Paul Mozur, has also been tweeting about the takedowns, noting that “suspensions seem not limited to accounts critical of China” and that it appears to be “an equal opportunity purge of Chinese language accounts.”

In response, Twitter’s Public Policy account said it suspended “a number of accounts this week” mostly for “engaging in mix of spamming, inauthentic behavior, & ban evasion.” It acknowledged, however, that some of the accounts “were involved in commentary about China.”

“These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part,” the company said. “Sometimes our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize. We’re working today to ensure we overturn any errors but that we remain vigilant in enforcing our rules for those who violate them.”

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By this point, the deletions had attracted broader political notice, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio declaring, “Twitter has become a Chinese govt censor.”

And while Cao acknowledged Twitter’s official explanation, as well as help she’s received from the company in the past, she said, “Per @Twitter’s explanation, it’s cleaning up CCP bots but accidentally suspended 1000s anti-CCP accts. That doesn’t make sense.”

U.S. State Department begins social media screening for nearly all visa applicants

Yesterday the U.S. State Department began implementing its requirement that nearly all U.S. visa applicants submit their social media usernames, previous email addresses and phone numbers as part of the application process. The new requirement, which could affect up to 15 million would-be travelers to the U.S., is part of a broad expansion of enhanced screening under the Trump administration.

First proposed in March 2018, the State Department only just updated the application forms to request the additional information, according to a report from the Associated Press.

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” the department said in a statement to the AP. “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

In the past, this enhanced screening information, including email, phone numbers and social media had only been required for applicants who had been identified for extra scrutiny — primarily people who had traveled to areas with a high degree of terrorist activity. Roughly 65,000 applicants per-year had fallen into that category, according to the AP.

When the State Department first filed its notice of the changes, it estimated that 710,000 immigrant visa applications and 14 million nonimmigrant visa applicants would be affected — including business and student travelers.

New questions on the visa application forms list social media platforms and require applicants to provide any account names they may have had on them for a five-year period. The forms also request phone numbers and email addresses applicants have used over the past five years, along with their international travel and deportation status and whether any family members have been involved in terrorist activities.

These new obstacles to immigration come at a time when competition for highly-skilled talent is at an all-time high. And according to data from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. is no longer the top-ranked destination for highly skilled workers or entrepreneurs.

Increasingly, immigrants are turning to countries like Canada,  Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand as destinations to settle and start businesses or find work, OECD data suggests.

It’s a (not unexpected) turn of events that could have significant consequences for the country as tensions with China continue to rise.

As The Economist noted earlier this week, putting up obstacles to immigration is exactly the wrong thing for the country to do.

It would be just as unwise for America to sit back. No law of physics says that quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other technologies must be cracked by scientists who are free to vote. Even if dictatorships tend to be more brittle than democracies, President Xi Jinping has reasserted party control and begun to project Chinese power around the world. Partly because of this, one of the very few beliefs which unite Republicans and Democrats is that America must act against China. But how?

For a start America needs to stop undermining its own strengths and build on them instead. Given that migrants are vital to innovation, the Trump administration’s hurdles to legal immigration are self-defeating. So are its frequent denigration of any science that does not suit its agenda and its attempts to cut science funding (reversed by Congress, fortunately).

Slack’s hidden origins, cybersecurity, fintech, plus Africa’s startup growth

The Slack Origin Story

Slack is one of the most iconic enterprise companies to come out of Silicon Valley. Part of the reason is the mythos surrounding the startup’s founding as a games company and later pivot into workplace communication. But what’s the story behind the story of the high-flying company? Who supported the company every step of the way?

Our venture capital reporter Kate Clark has the history and background on Slack, soon to be trading as WORK on the NYSE.

“We realized, wow, this is hugely a productive way of working and I think all of us agreed we wouldn’t work without a system like this again and maybe other people would like it,” Butterfield said in a recent video released by Slack ahead of its June 20 direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

So the team reimagined their future and looked to their investors for support.

Accel, sources tell TechCrunch, remained committed. Andreessen Horowitz, however, had a more complicated response. According to sources familiar with the matter, a16z was highly skeptical of Butterfield and whether he could succeed in the enterprise space. When Tiny Speck went out to raise its first round of capital as an enterprise software upstart in what would technically be its Series C, a16z hesitated.

A source close to Slack told TechCrunch that a16z put the company “through the ringer,” telling Butterfield that enterprise “wasn’t in his DNA.” A16z denies these accounts citing their close relationship with Butterfield and the business in 2019. Admittedly, it’s unclear how much capital a16z may or may not have funneled to Slack at the Series C but given it currently owns nearly 10 percent less of Slack than Accel, a fellow early investor, its likely to have cut back its capital commitments around the time of Tiny Speck’s pivot.

Feedback on product and editorial?

It’s been about 15 weeks since we launched Extra Crunch. Since then, we have covered everything from deep dives into Patreon and Niantic (Unity is coming right up – I’ve been editing the drafts) to growth tactics and how to raise venture capital really, really fast, to building out a Verified Experts list of top startup professionals.

Startups net more than capital with NBA players as investors

If you’re a big basketball fan like me, you’ll be glued to the TV watching the Golden State Warriors take on the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals. (You might be surprised who I’m rooting for.)

In honor of the big games, we took a shot at breaking down investment activities of the players off the court. Last fall, we did a story highlighting some of the sport’s more prolific investors. In this piece, we’ll take a deeper dive into just what having an NBA player as a backer can do for a startup beyond the capital involved. But first, here’s a chart of some startups funded by NBA players, both former and current.

 

In February, we covered how digital sports media startup Overtime had raised $23 million in a Series B round of funding led by Spark Capital. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern was an early investor and advisor in the company (putting money in the company’s seed round). Golden State Warriors player Kevin Durant invested as part of the company’s Series A in early 2018 via his busy investment vehicle, Thirty Five Ventures. And then, Carmelo Anthony invested (via his Melo7 Tech II fund) earlier this year. Other NBA-related investors include Baron DavisAndre Iguodala and Victor Oladipo, and other non-NBA backers include Andreessen Horowitz and Greycroft.

I talked to Overtime’s CEO, 27-year-old Zack Weiner, about how the involvement of so many NBA players came about. I also wondered what they brought to the table beyond their cash. But before we get there, let me explain a little more about what Overtime does.

Founded in late 2016 by Dan Porter and Weiner, the Brooklyn company has raised a total of $35.3 million. The pair founded the company after observing “how larger, legacy media companies, such as ESPN, were struggling” with attracting the younger viewer who was tuning into the TV less and less “and consuming sports in a fundamentally different way.”

So they created Overtime, which features about 25 to 30 sports-related shows across several platforms (which include YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Twitch) aimed at millennials and the Gen Z generation. Weiner estimates the company’s programs get more than 600 million video views every month.

In terms of attracting NBA investors, Weiner told me each situation was a little different, but with one common theme: “All of them were fans of Overtime before we even met them…They saw what we were doing as the new wave of sports media and wanted to get involved. We didn’t have to have 10 meetings for them to understand what we were doing. This is the world they live and breathe.”

So how is having NBA players as investors helping the company grow? Well, for one, they can open a lot of doors, noted Weiner.

“NBA players are very powerful people and investors,” he said. “They’ve helped us make connections in music, fashion and all things tangential to sports. Some have created content with us.”

In addition, their social clout has helped with exposure. Their posting or commenting on Instagram gives the company credibility, Weiner said.

“Also just, in general, getting their perspectives and opinions,” he added. “A lot of our content is based on working with athletes, so they understand what athletes want and are interested in being a part of.”

It’s not just sports-related startups that are attracting the interest of NBA players. I also talked with Hussein Fazal, the CEO of SnapTravel, which recently closed a $21.2 million Series A that included participation from Telstra Ventures and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry.

Founded in 2016, Toronto-based SnapTravel offers online hotel booking services over SMS, Facebook Messenger, Alexa, Google Home and Slack. It’s driven more than $100 million in sales, according to Fazal, and is seeing its revenue grow about 35% quarter over quarter.

Like Weiner, Fazal told me that Curry’s being active on social media about SnapTravel helped draw positive attention and “add a lot of legitimacy” to his company.

“If you’re an end-consumer about to spend $1,000 on a hotel booking, you might be a little hesitant about trusting a newer brand like ours,” he said. “But if they go to our home page and see our investors, that holds some weight in the eyes of the public, and helps show we’re not a fly-by-night company.”

Another way Curry’s involvement has helped SnapTravel is in terms of the recruitment and retainment of employees. Curry once spent hours at the office, meeting with employees and doing a Q&A.

“It was really cool,” Fazal said. “And it helps us stand out from other startups when hiring.”

Regardless of who wins the series, it’s clear that startups with NBA investors on their team have a competitive advantage. (Still, Go Raptors!)