Tech must radically rethink how it treats independent contractors

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Despite a surging stock market and many major tech players having record quarters, we’re still seeing layoffs throughout tech and the rest of corporate America. Salesforce recorded a huge quarter, passing $5 billion in revenue, only to lay off around 1000 people. LinkedIn is laying off 960 people one day after reporting a 10% increase in revenue.

These layoffs may seem like a contraction in size for these huge enterprises, but it’s actually the beginning of something I call The Great Unbundling of Corporate America. They still need to grow, they still need to innovate, they still need to get work done and they’re not simply canceling projects and giving up on contracts.

Just as COVID-19 has accelerated the move to remote work, our current crisis has accelerated the trend toward hiring independent contractors. Back in 2019 a New York Times report found that Google had a shadow workforce of 121,000 temporary workers and contractors, overshadowing their 102,000 full-timers. ZipRecruiter reported in 2018 that tech, along with its record employment growth, was showing an increasing share of listings for independent contractors.

A study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between 6.9% and 9.6% of all workers are now independent contractors, and according to Upwork, that may be as high as 35%. Mark my words — companies are using this time as an opportunity to swing the pendulum toward independent contractors and trimming the fat, justifying it with a vague gesture toward “an unprecedented time.”

That’s why, in my opinion, you’re seeing the NASDAQ hitting record highs despite everyone’s turmoil — depressingly, investors can see that large companies are tightening up and cleaning up waste, while finding an affordable workforce at will. As they have unbundled themselves from our physical offices, large enterprises are going to unbundle themselves from having to have a set number of employees.

When Square allowed its entire workforce to work remotely permanently. It wasn’t just because they wanted them to feel more creative and productive, but was likely a move away from having quite as much expensive, needless office space.

Similarly, if there is work that a full-time employee does that could be done by a flexible, independent contractor, why not make that change too? And it’ll be a lot easier to make without as many people at the office.

The argument I’m making is not anti-contractor, though.

I can’t think of any point in history where it’s been better to create a freelance business — the startup costs are significantly lower, and as companies move toward remote work, you can theoretically take business nationally (or internationally) like never before. Companies’ moves toward replacing W-2 workers with contractors is an opportunity for people to create their own miniature freelance empires, unbundling themselves from corporate America’s required hours, and potentially creating a way to weather future storms by taking away any single company’s leverage on their income.

The rush to remote work is also likely to push more workers into the freelance economy too. By having to create a remote office, with a remote presence in meetings and having to manage and organize our days, the average worker has all but adjusted to the life of a freelancer.

Where some might have gone to an office and had things simply happen to them, the remote world requires an attention to your calendar and active outreach to colleagues that, well, models how one might run a freelance business. Those with core skillsets that can be marketed and sold to multiple clients should be thinking about whether being a wage slave is necessary anymore, and with good reason.

That said — corporate America, and especially tech, has to treat this essential workforce with a great deal more empathy and respect than they have thus far.

Uber and Lyft were ordered to treat drivers as employees in part due to the fact that they never treated their contractors like parts of the company. Other than the obvious lack of benefits (paid time off, health insurance, etc.), Uber, like many large enterprises, treats contractors as disposable rather than flexible, despite them being the literal driving force of the company. When Uber went public, they gave a nominal bonus for drivers that had completed 2500 to 40,000 trips, with a chance to buy up to $10,000 of stock — at the IPO price. These drivers, that had been the very reason that many people became millionaires and billionaires when Uber went public, were given the chance to maybe make money, if they sold the stock quickly enough.

It’s an abject lesson on how to not build loyalty with independent contractors. It’s also a lesson on what the next big company that wants to build themselves off the back of the 1099’er should do.

What I’m suggesting is a radical rethinking of freelance contracting. I want you to see independent contractors as a different kind of worker, not as a way of skirting getting a full-time employee. A freelancer, by definition, is someone that you don’t monopolize, and someone that you should actively give agency and, indeed, part of the network you’re building. One of the issues of corporate America’s approach to freelance work is an us-versus-them approach to employment — you’re either part of us or you’re simply a thing we pick up and put down. What I’m suggesting is treating your freelancers as an essential part of your strategy, and compensating them as such. Freelancers should own equity and should have skin in the game — they may be working with you on a number of projects and take literal ownership of vast successes throughout your history.

Contracted work has only become mercenary through the treatment of the freelance worker. Where tech has succeeded in creating hundreds of thousands of independent contractor positions, it also has to lead the way in reimagining how we may treat them and reward them for their work. And corporate America needs to take a step beyond simply seeing them as a cheaper, easier way to do business. They’re so much more.



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We’re updating The TechCrunch List soon. Founders, send in your recommendations of the most helpful lead VCs

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Earlier this year, we launched The TechCrunch List, a carefully curated group of VCs who lead rounds recommended by thousands of founders for their acumen and friendliness, grouped by market focus, stage, and geography.

Since the launch of the List, we’ve seen great engagement: tens of thousands of founders have each come back multiple times to use the List to scout out their next fundraising moves and understand the ever changing landscape of venture investing.

We last revised The TechCrunch List on July 30th with 116 new VCs based on founder recommendations, but as with all things venture capital, the investing world moves quickly. That means it’s already time to begin another update.

To make sure we have the best information, we need founders — from new founders who might have just raised their VC rounds to experienced founders adding another round to their cap tables — to submit recommendations to us. Thankfully, our survey is pretty short (about 2 minutes), and the help you can give other founders fundraising is invaluable. Please submit your recommendation soon.

Since our last update in July, we have already had 840 founders submit new recommendations, and we are now sitting at about 3,500 recommendations in total now. Every recommendation helps us identify promising and thoughtful VCs, helping founders globally cut through the noise of the industry and find the leads for their next checks.

If you have questions about the List, our methodology, or about how to submit, we have a handy Frequently Asked Questions page. Otherwise, get those recommendations in. We’ll close this latest batch of recommendations off on Friday, and publish a newly updated List in the next two to three weeks.

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Despite a rough year for digital media, Blavity and The Shade Room are thriving

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Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt, TechCrunch media and advertising reporter Anthony Ha sat down with Blavity CEO Morgan DeBaun and The Shade Room CEO Angelica Nwandu to chat about their respective media companies, 2020 in the media world and how they view a recent conversation inside of media to hire and retain more diverse workforces.

Blavity is a network of online publications focused on Black audiences across verticals like politics, travel and technology. To date, the company has raised $9.4 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The Shade Room is an Instagram-focused media company that publishes hourly updates on national news, celebrity updates and fashion. Focused on the Black perspective, The Shade Room has attracted more than 20 million followers on Instagram and comments on issues of importance during key national moments.

During her conversation with Ha, Nwandu said that during the Black Lives Matters protests, The Shade Room was akin to a Black CNN.

With both companies founded in 2014, both CEOs have kept their media startups alive during a particularly difficult period. In the last six years, many media brands have shuttered, sold, slimmed or slunk away to the ash heap of history.



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Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

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French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

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Big tech has 2 elephants in the room: Privacy and competition

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The question of how policymakers should respond to the power of big tech didn’t get a great deal of airtime at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, despite a number of investigations now underway in the United States (hi, Google).

It’s also clear that attention- and data-monopolizing platforms compel many startups to use their comparatively slender resources to find ways to compete with the giants — or hope to be acquired by them.

But there’s clearly a nervousness among even well-established tech firms to discuss this topic, given how much their profits rely on frictionless access to users of some of the gatekeepers in question.

Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston evinced this dilemma when TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino asked him if Apple’s control of the iOS App Store should be “reexamined” by regulators or whether it’s just legit competition.

“I think it’s an important conversation on a bunch of dimensions,” said Houston, before offering a circular and scrupulously balanced reply in which he mentioned the “ton of opportunity” app stores have unlocked for third-party developers, checking off some of Apple’s preferred talking points like “being able to trust your device” and the distribution the App Store affords startups.

“They also are a huge competitive advantage,” Houston added. “And so I think the question of … how do we make sure that there’s still a level playing field and so that owning an app store isn’t too much of an advantage? I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I do think it’s an important conversation to be had.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said the question of whether large tech companies are too powerful needs to be reframed.

“Big per se is not bad,” she told TC’s Zack Whittaker. “We need to focus on whether competitors and consumers are being harmed. And, if that’s the case, what are the remedies?”

In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have advanced their understanding of digital business models — making great strides since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg answered a question two years ago about how his platform makes money: “Senator, we sell ads.”

A House antitrust subcommittee hearing in July 2020 that saw the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple answer awkward questions and achieved a higher dimension of detail than the big tech hearings of 2018.

Nonetheless, there still seems to be a lack of consensus among lawmakers over how exactly to grapple with big tech, even though the issue elicits bipartisan support, as was in plain view during a Senate Judiciary Committee interrogation of Google’s ad business earlier this month.

On stage, Lofgren demonstrated some of this tension by discouraging what she called “bulky” and “lengthy” antitrust investigations, making a general statement in favor of “innovation” and suggesting a harder push for overarching privacy legislation. She also advocated at length for inalienable rights for U.S. citizens so platform manipulators can’t circumvent rules with their own big data holdings and some dark pattern design.



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HMD is bringing a 5G smartphone and wireless earbuds to the US

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Over the past four years or so, HMD has carved out a nice little niche for itself with its Nokia-branded handsets. The instant name recognition of a legacy brand was a nice little perch on which to gain some footing in an overcrowded market.

Pricing has long been a key to its appeal, as well, and that’s on display with the arrival of the company’s first 5G-enabled handset. The Nokia 8.5 5G runs $699 and goes up for pre-order today in the U.S. It will also be hitting Amazon in the coming weeks. It’s not cheap by the company’s standards, but it’s definitely among the more competitively priced 5G handsets around.

The phone is also set to make an appearance in the upcoming Bond film. It features four rear-facing cameras, including a 64-megapixel lens and a macro — an uncommon but increasingly popular alternative on the latest batch of smartphones. The screen is a massive 6.81 inches, and the device is — unsurprisingly — powered by Qualcomm’s mid-tier Snapdragon 765G.

Today’s announcement also finds Nokia bringing its fully wireless earbuds stateside. No specific time frame was given for the Power Earbuds, but they’ll be priced at a reasonable $99. There’s stiff competition in the market, these days — especially in the low end of the market — but the buds have been getting a pretty positive reaction for their price point, thanks to a comfortable design and a ridiculous 150 hours of battery courtesy of their massive charging case.

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Latch, a smart lock company, looks to become a platform with the launch of LatchOS

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Tech that powers physical spaces is in the midst of a growth spurt. One company in the mix, Latch, is today announcing the next phase of the company with the launch of LatchOS.

Latch was founded back in 2014 with the mission of creating a vertically integrated hardware/software solution for door access in apartment buildings. Unlike some smart home locks that replace the lock on the door, Latch looked at the different locks that exist in apartment buildings and created solutions that work with each.

This allows building managers and apartment renters/owners to manage their doors and who has access, including the maintenance staff, deliveries, etc.

With the launch of LatchOS, the company is getting even deeper into the buildings, giving users the ability to manage more than just the door but integrate the app with other devices in a building. These integrations include Sonos speakers, Honeywell and ecobee thermostats, and Jaso and Leviton light switches all from their Latch app.

This is just the start. LatchOS was built to become the backbone of the platform, allowing more integrations to be implemented or built out based on the needs of the buildings and users.

Though the company has flown somewhat under the radar, it’s raised more than $150 million and says it did more than $100 million in sales in 2019, with one of every ten buildings in the United States being built with Latch products.

Latch makes money by selling hardware to building owners and then charging a monthly software fee, allowing the service to be free to renters and apartment owners. With the launch of LatchOS, the company can now build out integrations to earn revenue off of end users, as well, should they choose to upgrade to new features or purchase services through the platform.

The company, helmed by former Apple employees Luke Schoenfelder and Thomas Meyerhoffer, as well as full stack hardware engineer Brian Jones, has more than 230 employees and declined to share any information around the diversity of its staff.

“People have always seen us as a lock company and they wonder why a lock company is doing this other stuff,” said Schoenfelder. The reality is that we’ve never wanted to be a lock company. We just needed to build the locks to make the rest of the system work. That’s why we built our own hardware. We’ve always been focused on building the system that makes the building better for everybody.”

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Morgan Beller, co-creator of the Libra digital currency, just joined the venture firm NFX

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Morgan Beller, who is a co-creator of the proposed Libra digital currency, along with Facebook vice presidents David Marcus and Kevin Weil, has left the company to become a general partner with the venture firm NFX .

In a call yesterday, she said she first became acquainted with the San Francisco-based outfit five years ago when on a “tech trek” to Israel, she met its local partner, Gigi Levy-Weiss, and formed a friendship with him.

At the time, she was a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz, working on its deal team after graduating from Cornell as a statistics major.

A role working on corporate development and strategy at Medium would follow, then it was on to Facebook in 2017, where Beller began in corporate development and — intrigued by cryptocurrency tech — where she quickly began evangelizing to her bosses the importance of better understanding it.

As she half-jokingly explains it, “Crypto is a mental virus for which there is no cure. I was at a16z when they got infected with the crypto virus.” She eventually caught it herself, and by the time she joined Facebook, she says she “realized no one was thinking about that space full time, so I took it upon myself to [help the company] figure out its point of view.”

Indeed, a CNBC story about Beller last year reports that at one point, she was the sole person on a Facebook blockchain initiative —  meeting with those in the know, attending relevant events, and otherwise researching the technology. Bill Barhydt, the CEO of the digital wallet startup Abra, told the outlet of Beller:  “I give her a lot of credit for taking what seems like a very methodical, long-term approach to figuring this out.”

All that said, Beller notes that as a full-time investor with NFX, she will not be focused exclusively or even mainly on crypto. Her focus instead will be finding and helping to cultivate seed-stage startups that aim to grow so-called network effects businesses.

It’s the broad theme of NFX, a now 25-person outfit cofounded five years ago by serial entrepreneurs who have all seen their companies acquired, including Levy-Weiss (who cofounded the online travel site Lastminute.com, and the social casino game publisher Playtika); Pete Flint (cofounder of the home buyers’ site Trulia); and James Currier (of the social network Tickle).

Certainly, she will keep busy at the firm, she suggests. As part of getting to know the partners and their thinking better, she introduced them to one company that they have since funded.

The pace has generally picked up, Flint tells us, saying that during the second quarter of this year and the third, NFX has twice broken its own investing records both because of “incredible founders who are reacting to this opportunity” and growing awareness about NFX, which last year closed its second fund with $275 million.

Last month, for example, NFX led a seed round for Warmly, a nine-month-old, San Francisco-based startup whose product tracks individuals in a customer’s CRM system, then sends out a notification when one of his or her contacts changes jobs. It also led a round recently for Jupiter, a year-old, San Francisco-based grocery delivery startup.

Naturally, Beller’s new partners are full of praise for her. Flint says the firm began looking for a fourth partner two years ago and that it has “spoken with dozens of exceptional people” since then, but it “always came back to Morgan.”

As for why the 27-year-old is ready to leap back into VC, Beller says that her work across Facebook and Medium and a16z “made me realize my favorite parts of projects is that zero-to-one phase and that with investing, it’s zero-to-one all day” with a team she wanted to be part of.

Further, she adds, while at Facebook, she was helping scout out deals for the venture firm Spark Capital, so she’s already well-acquainted with the types of founders to which she gravitates. “They’re are all weird in the right ways, and they’re all maniacally obsessed with winning.”

As for how she launches her career as a general partner in a pandemic, she notes that she loves walking and that she’ll happy cover 20 miles a day if given the opportunity.

“If anyone wants to safely walk with me,” she suggests that she’d love it.  Says Beller, “I’m not worried about San Francisco longer term. I don’t think there’s a replacement for in-person meetings.”

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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

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No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

“Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

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Made In Space is sending the first ceramic manufacturing facility in space to the ISS next week

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In-space manufacturing company Made In Space is pushing the envelope on what can, well, be made in space with its next mission – which is set to launch aboard a Northrop Grumman International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission set for next Tuesday. Aboard that launch will be Made In Space’s Turbine Ceramic Manufacturing Module (aka CMM), a commercial ceramic turbine blisk manufacturing device that uses 3D-printing technology to produce detailed parts the require a high degree of production accuracy.

A turbine blisk is a combo rotor disk/blade array that is used primarily in engines used in the aerospace industry. Making them involves using additive manufacturing to craft them as a single component, and the purpose of this mission is to provide a proof-of-concept about the viability of doing that in a microgravity environment. Gravity can actually introduce defects into ceramic blisks manufactured on Earth, because of the way that material can settle, leading to sedimentation, for instance. Producing them in microgravity could mean lower error rates overall, and a higher possible degree of precision for making finely detailed designs.

Made In Space, which was acquired earlier this year by new commercial space supply parent co. Redwire, has been at the forefront of creating and deploying 3D printing technologies in space, particularly through its partnership with the International Space Station. The goal of the company is to demonstrate the commercial benefits of in-space manufacturing, and to commercialize the technology in order to create tangible benefits for a number of industries right here on Earth.

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