Making the world a better place?

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With Disrupt only a couple of weeks away, I am getting my ears ready to hear startups promise that they are making the world a better place. As cliché as it is, it could well be true, and it’s at least worth trying. — Anna

Happy returns

Have you heard of reverse logistics? If you haven’t, you are surely familiar with the concept behind it: e-commerce returns.

Mexico-based entrepreneur Agustin Shutte told my colleague Christine Hall that in Latin America, the reverse logistics process “is a mess” — and it’s a mess his company Devolut is hoping to fix, with $600,000 in pre-seed funding.

But on a global level, Devolut is not the only startup in this space. There’s YC Combinator alum Rever and Philadelphia-based ReturnLogic. But Shutte told Christine that U.S. company Happy Returns, which PayPal acquired in 2021, is the one he’s most hoping to emulate, with a network of “city points.”

More than the physical footprint, though, what caught my attention is how many of these return-focused startups say they are using AI in some form. For example, Devolut is working on leveraging AI to make new product recommendations as part of the return and exchange process.

Managing returns efficiently is a necessity for online sellers, both because they need to keep their customers happy to retain them and because reducing their environmental impact becomes no longer optional as their market share of overall commerce grows.

Turning returns into an opportunity to sell another product recommended by an AI-powered algorithm is a way for companies to monetize something they have to do, without incurring losses.

Say what you will, but it’s typically easier to get companies to do the right thing when they have a financial incentive to do so. If AI means less trash ending up in landfills during the holiday season, I’m all for it.

Sim City

Color me more skeptical about plans to build a brand-new city in California, reportedly backed by a who’s who of the tech industry. Not that California doesn’t need more housing, as I discussed just last week. But there’s already a lot that can be done at the neighborhood level — including starting new ones from scratch. See, for instance, Culdesac‘s plan to build a car-free neighborhood, or Zubi Group’s eco-neighborhood project La Pinada in Spain. Maybe it’s just me, but an entire city sounds like a bit much.

Chilling in the blue zone

Talking about nice places to live, Netflix recently added a documentary series called “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” which focuses on parts of the world where people live longer than average, often to 100 (called “blue zones”). Even if I have written about longevity and talked to investors interested in this sector, I wouldn’t be familiar with the term “blue zones” were it not for a startup called, well, Bluezone Insurance. That’s no coincidence, of course: This British insurtech was co-founded by a medical doctor concerned with chronic lifestyle diseases.

But Bluezone isn’t focused on people who were born in the right place to live to 100. Instead, the target audience of its life insurance product is people with chronic diseases who could benefit from living healthier lives.

The idea that my insurer, bank or employer may have a say in my lifestyle always makes me feel a bit icky, even if it’s geared toward me being healthier. But if the alternative is not being able to get life insurance, as often is the case when you have a chronic disease, it may well be worth the trade-off. Now excuse me while I teletravel to Okinawa for some cooking lessons.

Robots for all

With low birth rates, countries with blue zones typically have an aging population, and Japan is one of these. So it makes sense that Japanese giant Toyota is interested in eldercare robotics — and now it is doubling down in backing Intuition Robotics. As you may recall, that’s the company behind ElliQ, a companion robot hoping to make older adults feel less lonely. Its Series B investors already included Toyota AI Ventures, and it has now just raised another round of $25 million in funding led by Toyota’s growth-stage investment fund Woven Capital.

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