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Mashroom raises £4M for its ‘end-to-end’ lettings and property management service

TechCrunch

Mashroom, the London proptech that offers an “end-to-end” lettings and property management service, has raised £4 million in new funding.

Backing comes from existing unnamed private investors and matched funding from the U.K. taxpayer-funded Future Fund. It brings total funding to date for the company to £7 million.

Pitching itself as going “beyond the tenant-finding service” to include the entire rental journey — from property advertising, arranging viewings, credit history checks, maintenance, to end of tenancy and dispute resolution — the self-service platform lets landlords list their property, which tenants can then rent easily.

This includes digital credit and reference checks and the signing of rental agreements and tenancy renewals. In addition, open banking is employed to collect rental payments and provide real-time payment information to landlords.

“Letting and renting is, for the most part, still a fragmented, bricks-and-mortar industry,” says Mashroom founder and ex-venture capitalist Stepan Dobrovolskiy. “The experience as a landlord or tenant normally still involves a traditional estate agent who acts as intermediary and charges a hefty fee. While plenty of new players have come along with tech to solve certain points in the experience, we are the first to look at the entire process from end to end”.


Over on Extra Crunch, learn more about the opportunities within property tech with A/O PropTech, the European VC disrupting the €230 trillion real estate industry.


Dobrovolskiy says this sees Mashroom digitise about “98%” of the rental journey, although he maintains that some human interaction is, and perhaps always will be, necessary. “Unlike most traditional agents, we are also still there to help after tenants move in –- things like maintenance requests, insuring contents, moving out or extending contracts at the end of the tenancy. We fundamentally believe that automation and tech should augment rather than replace human interactions in this market, and a big part of our brand is to create better relationships between landlords and tenants,” he says.

As an example, Mashroom incentivises tenants to help landlords with viewings at the end of their tenancy by offering a week’s worth of rent as a reward. “No one knows a property better than people who actually live in it, and it removes a lot of friction to have current tenants schedule and host viewings at times that suit them,” explains Dobrovolskiy. “This costs less than 2% of annual rent for landlords, compared to paying 10%+ to an estate agent for finding a new tenant. So we are unlocking financial benefits for landlords and tenants at the same time as giving them more flexibility”.

Mashroom has also developed a “Deposit Replacement Product” as an alternative to the traditional deposit. In partnership with insurer Arch Capital, it lets tenants pay one week’s rent while offering landlords more protection than a regular deposit -– up to 12 weeks compared to the typical 5 weeks.

Noteworthy, the basic Mashroom service is free for tenants and landlords, with the proptech startup generating revenue via its financial products offering which, along with deposit replacement, includes rent guarantee and other insurance products. The startup also operates its own in-house mortgage brokerage for buy-to-let mortgages and refinancing for landlords.

August 7th 2020, 4:15 am

Netflix’s latest effort to make inroads in India: Support for Hindi

TechCrunch

Only about 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people know English. Yet, scores of firms operating in the country offer their services only in English in the country. Netflix, one such company, said on Friday it’s aiming to break through that language barrier.

The American on-demand video streaming giant today rolled out support for Hindi, a language spoken by nearby half a billion people in India, across its platform From sign up to search rows, to collections and synopsis and payment, Hindi language is available on Netflix across all devices, the company said.

“Delivering a great Netflix experience is as important to us as creating great content. We believe the new user interface will make Netflix even more accessible and better suit members who prefer Hindi,” said Monika Shergill, VP-Content at Netflix India, in a statement.

Netflix’s global competitors, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar also support Hindi language, though the latter has deployed Hindi in limited capacity (not for a movie or show’s synopsis, for instance).

More to follow…

August 7th 2020, 3:45 am

Trump signs executive orders banning transactions with TikTok and WeChat

TechCrunch

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of popular app TikTok . The White House also announced that he signed a similar order banning transactions with Tencent-owned WeChat, a messaging app that is ubiquitous in China, but has a much smaller presence than TikTok in the United States, where it is used mainly by members of the Chinese diaspora. Both orders will take effect in 45 days.

The orders cite the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.  It is important to note that naming the apps’ operations in the United States as a national emergency is an act that is highly unprecedented and the legality of the orders will likely be challenged. ByteDance is currently pushing back against the Indian government’s July decision to ban TikTok along with 59 other apps; like the U.S., India also cited national security concerns around user data collection.

Microsoft announced over the weekend that it is in negotiations to buy TikTok from ByteDance, naming September 15 as a deadline for negotiations. The order would take affect shortly after the deadline set by Microsoft for the deal. ByteDance reportedly agreed to give up its entire ownership in the app even though it had previously wanted to maintain a minority stake.

Trump announced at the end of last month that he planned to ban TikTok through the use of an executive order. The president and government officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, have made escalating comments over the past few weeks alleging that TikTok is a threat to national security. While TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the Beijing-based company (which also operates a Chinese version of the app called Douyin) has taken steps to distance TikTok from its Chinese operations, and claims that its data is stored outside of China.

The executive order on ByteDance said that “the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China…continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.”

In 45 days, transactions by any person or property subject to U.S. jurisdiction with ByteDance or any of its subsidiaries will be prohibited “to the extent that they are permitted under applicable law.” The order claims that TikTok’s access to user data including location, browsing and search histories “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to American’s personal and proprietary information–potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”

Trump’s executive order on WeChat was less expected, but not a complete surprise because Pompeo named the messaging app earlier this week when he said Trump was planning to take action “shortly” on TikTok and other Chinese companies. Like ByteDance, Trump claims WeChat’s data collection is a national security threat and may give the Chinese Communist Party access to user information. The order also cites WeChat’s censorship of material deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government.

TechCrunch has contacted ByteDance, TikTok, WeChat and Microsoft for comment.

This story is developing and will be updated.

August 6th 2020, 10:53 pm

Cadillac reveals Lyriq, its all-electric SUV flagship loaded with luxury and tech

TechCrunch

GM unveiled Thursday the Cadillac Lyriq, an all-electric crossover dripping in luxury, tech-forward touches and 300 miles of range that aims to propel the brand into a new electrified era.

That new era for Cadillac will have to wait though. The company said the Lyriq will go into production in the U.S. in late 2022, more than two years after its reveal date. The Cadillac Lyriq will be a global product, meaning it will be headed to China as well. Production in China will begin ahead of the U.S., according to Cadillac.

The Lyriq is just one in a roster of 20 electric vehicles that GM plans to bring to market by 2023. But it will be a critical one for the Cadillac brand. “The Lyriq sets benchmark for future Cadillacs,” Michael Simcoe, GM’s vice president of global design, said during the reveal.

The Lyriq embodies the kinds of luxury touches a Cadillac customer has come to expect, from the “black crystal” grille and jewelry box styled drawer to the 33-inch vertical LED touchscreen display and the dual-plane augmented reality-enhanced head-up display.

Cadillac aimed for a modern and aggressive design that it achieved by giving the Lyriq a low, fast roofline and wide stance. That “black crystal” grille is a dynamic feature with “choreographed”LED lighting that greets the owner as they approach the vehicle. The LED lighting continues in the rear with a split taillamp design.

Inside the vehicle are backlit speaker grilles, curved screens with hidden storage and orchestrated lighting features similar to the dynamic lighting outside.

The Lyriq will be available in rear-wheel drive and performance all-wheel drive configurations. It will come with DC fast charging rates over 150 kilowatts and Level 2 charging rates up
to 19 kW.

The tech inside the Lyriq includes the latest version of the hands-free driver assistance system called Super Cruise that first debuted in the Cadillac CT6 several years ago. Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

A vehicle has to be compelling visually to attract buyers. But the underlying foundation of the Lyriq is where GM has placed its biggest bet. Earlier this year, the automaker revealed a sweeping plan to produce and sell EVs that hinges on a new scalable electric architecture called Ultium that will support a wide range of products across all of its brands, including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC. The EV portfolio will include everything from compact cars and work trucks to large premium SUVs and performance vehicles.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations. At the heart of the new modular architecture will be the large-format pouch battery cells manufactured at this new factory.

GM recently started construction on a 3-million-square-foot factory that will mass produce Ultium battery cells and packs. The Ultium Cells LLC battery cell manufacturing facility in Lordstown, Ohio is part of a joint venture between GM and LG Chem that was announced in December. At the time, the two companies committed to invest up to $2.3 billion into the new joint venture, as well as establish a battery cell assembly plant on a greenfield manufacturing site in the Lordstown area of Northeast Ohio that will create more than 1,100 new jobs. The factory will be able produce 30 gigawatts hours of capacity annually.

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August 6th 2020, 7:39 pm

Judge says Uber, Lyft preliminary injunction ruling to come in ‘a matter of days’

TechCrunch

California Superior Court Judge Ethan P. Schulman heard arguments from Uber and Lyft, as well as lawyers representing the people of California regarding the request for a preliminary injunction that seeks to force Uber and Lyft to immediately reclassify their drivers as employees. Schulman did not make a ruling today but said we could all likely expect one to come within a matter of days, rather than weeks.

In the hearing, Schulman expressed how hard it is to determine the impact of a preliminary injunction in this case. For example, how Uber and Lyft would comply with the injunction is unknown, as are the economic effects on drivers, such as their ability to earn income, the hours they would be able to work and their eligibility for state benefits, Schulman said.

“I feel a little bit like I’m being asked to jump into a body of water without really knowing how deep it is, how cold the water is and what’s going to happen when I get in,” Schulman said.

Today’s hearing was the result of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with city attorneys from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco filing a preliminary injunction in an attempt to force Uber and Lyft to comply with AB 5 and immediately stop classifying their drivers as independent contractors.

The new law codifies the 2018 ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test (more on that a bit later) and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors based on the presumption that “a worker who performs services for a hirer is an employee for purposes of claims for wages and benefits…”

In the hearing today, lawyers on behalf of the people of the state of California, and Uber and Lyft, discussed the classification of workers as independent contractors versus employees, gig worker protections bill AB-5, the definition of a “hiring entity,” unemployment benefits, paid sick leave, workers’ compensation insurance and more.

Uber and Lyft maintained that an injunction would require them to restructure their businesses in such a material way that it would prevent them from being able to employ many drivers on either a full-time or part-time basis. Uber and Lyft’s argument, effectively, is that classifying drivers as employees would result in job loss.

“The proposed injunction would cause irreparable injury to Lyft and Uber, and would actually cause massive harm to drivers and harm to riders,” Rohit Singla, counsel for Lyft, said at the hearing. For example, Lyft estimates it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars simply to process the I-9 forms, which verify employment eligibility. It doesn’t cost anything to file that form, but it would require Uber and Lyft to further invest in their human resources and payroll processes.

Additionally, Singla argued that a preliminary injunction at this stage of the case would be drastic. His argument resonated with the judge.

“It’s not every day that a judge is asked to issue an injunction on a preliminary basis, as he emphasizes, that could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of people. And that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

But the plaintiffs disagreed. That vast number of people affected is a key reason to issue the injunction, Matthew Goldberg, Deputy San Francisco District Attorney argued. Additionally, Goldberg argued it would be quite feasible for Uber and Lyft to reclassify its drivers.

“It’s very doable,” he said. “[…] Both of these businesses already have very large, white-collar workforces at their corporations. I can assure you that every one of those workers is getting workers’ compensation insurance” and other benefits.

He added, “extending this set of benefits to more workers, administratively, is not as difficult as they allege given they already do this for thousands of workers.”

Additionally, there are elements of Uber- and Lyft-backed Prop 22 (details below) that are similar to what AB 5 requires, so plaintiffs argue there would not be irreparable harm for Uber and Lyft to comply with AB 5. Uber and Lyft, however, disagree.

In Uber’s opening arguments, Uber counsel Theanne Evangelis pointed to a number of product changes that should remove “any doubt about the compliance and demonstrate Uber is a technology platform” that operates a multi-sided marketplace she said. For example, Uber began allowing drivers in June to set their own prices.

Still, Judge Schulman pressed on Uber’s ability to satisfy Prong B of the ABC test. According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove (A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, (B) performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and (C) is regularly engaged in an “independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.”

“If you look at Uber or Lyft, they’re not in the business of maintaining an online app by itself,” Schulman said. “That’s the technology by which they perform. Their business is providing rides to people for compensation. In plain English, that’s what they do? Isn’t it?”

Evangelis quickly replied, “No.” She argued that what Uber and Lyft do is simply connect drivers and riders through their technology platform. She also pointed to the variety of services Uber offers, such as Uber Eats and Freight. Evangelis went on to ask the judge if he would put this on pause until November, when Californians will vote on Prop 22, which is backed by Uber, Lyft and others.

The ballot measure looks to implement an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job, 30 cents per mile for expenses, a healthcare stipend, occupational accident insurance for on-the-job injuries, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment and automobile accident and liability insurance. Most notably, however, it would keep drivers classified as independent contractors.

Judge Schulman, however, seemed flummoxed by the basis of the argument to wait until November to see what voters decide.

“It seems to me that’s not my role,” he said. “And more significantly, it seems to me, if any of us learned anything from the 2016 election, is many of us are unable to predict the outcome of elections…I just wonder about the legitimacy of an argument like that.”

Evangelis closed her time by saying that Uber believes it passes the ABC test today.

The motion for a preliminary junction was filed as part of the suit filed in May, which asserted Uber and Lyft gain an unfair and unlawful competitive advantage by misclassifying workers as independent contractors. The suit argues Uber and Lyft are depriving workers of the right to minimum wage, overtime, access to paid sick leave, disability insurance and unemployment insurance. The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of San Francisco, seeks $2,500 in penalties for each violation, possibly per driver, under the California Unfair Competition Law, and another $2,500 for violations against senior citizens or people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are both facing another lawsuit from the office of the California Labor Commissioner alleging wage theft. Filed yesterday in Oakland, the suits similarly aim to enforce the labor practices set forth by AB 5.

August 6th 2020, 7:39 pm

Google to roll out its digital learning platform to 23 million students and teachers in India’s Maha

TechCrunch

Google has partnered with one of the largest states in India to provide its digital classroom services to tens of millions of students and teachers, the search giant said today, as it makes further education push in the world’s second largest internet market.

The company, which recently announced plans to invest $10 billion in India, said it had partnered with the government of western state of Maharashtra that will see 23 million students and teachers access Google’s education offering at no charge.

Thursday’s announcement follows a recent survey by the Maharashtra government in which it had sought teachers’ interest in digital classroom alternatives. More than 150,000 teachers signed up for the program in less than 48 hours, Google said.

Maharashtra is the worst hit Indian state by Covid-19, with more than 460,000 confirmed cases. The state, like others in India, complied with New Delhi’s lockdown order in late March that prompted schools and other public places to close across the nation.

“All of us had questions regarding the future of education. We have come to a step closer to answering these questions due to the pandemic,” said Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in a statement.

Varsha Gaikwad, the education minister of Maharashtra, said the partnership with Google will help her department roll out tech solutions to students in about 190,000 schools.

“Our goal is to make Maharashtra the most progressive state in education by making effective use of online resources, platforms, bandwidth and technology, using the power of the Internet to reach out to the masses and bridge the gap in education,” she said.

The pandemic, which has brought several sectors to their knees in the country, has accelerated the growth of startups that operate digital learning platforms in the country. Byju’s, Facebook -backed Unacademy, Vedantu, and Toppr among other startups have amassed tens of millions of new students since March this year.

Google is providing students and teachers with a range of services including G Suite for Education, Google Forms for conducting quizzes and tests, and access to Google Meet video conferencing service, and Google Classroom that enables educators to create, review, and organize assignments, as well as communicate directly with students.

The company said it has also made Teach from Anywhere, a hub for educators, in Marathi, a very popular language in the state of Maharashtra.

“Our teachers and schools have the huge responsibility in shaping the future of our new generation, and we continue to be honored to play a role in offering digital tools that can enable more teachers to help even more students stay firmly on their journey of learning, during these times and beyond,” wrote Sanjay Gupta, Country Head and Vice President of Google India, in a blogpost.

The company has rushed to work with educators in India in recent months. Last month, Google announced that it had partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education, a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to provide its education offerings to more than 1 million teachers across 22,000 schools in India.

It also unveiled a grant of $1 million to Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF), a foundation in India that works with partners to provide underprivileged children with education opportunities, from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm.

Google’s global rival, Facebook, also partnered with CBSE last month to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators in the country.

August 6th 2020, 7:07 pm

Daily Crunch: Twitter and Facebook take action against Trump

TechCrunch

Facebook and Twitter are taking a stronger stand against pandemic misinformation, we preview the latest version of macOS and a mental health startup raises $50 million. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 6, 2020.

The big story: Twitter, Facebook take action against Trump misinformation

Facebook and Twitter both took action against a post from President Donald Trump and his campaign featuring a clip from a Fox News interview in which he misleadingly described children as “almost immune” to COVID-19. Facebook took down the offending post, while Twitter went further and locked the Trump campaign out of its account (separate from Trump’s personal account).

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter’s Aly Pavela said in a statement. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Meanwhile, Twitter also announced today that it will be labeling accounts tied to state-controlled media organizations and government officials (but not heads of state).

The tech giants

macOS 11.0 Big Sur preview — Big Sur is the operating system’s first primary number upgrade in 20 years, and Brian Heater says it represents a big step forward in macOS’ evolution.

Apple 27-inch iMac review — This will be one of the last Macs to include Intel silicon.

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go — Uber plans to use Autocab’s technology to link users with local providers when they open the app in locations where Uber doesn’t offer rides.

Startups, funding and venture capital

On-demand mental health service provider Ginger raises $50 million — Through Ginger’s services, patients have access to a care coordinator who serves as the first point of entry into a company’s mental health plans.

Mode raises $33 million to supercharge its analytics platform for data scientists — Mode has also been introducing tools for less technical users to structure queries that data scientists can subsequently execute more quickly and with more complete responses.

Crossbeam announces $25 million Series B to keep growing partnerships platform — Crossbeam is a Philadelphia startup that automates partnership data integration.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Can learning pods scale, or are they widening edtech’s digital divide? — In recent weeks, the concept has taken off all across the country.

Eight trends accelerating the age of commercial-ready quantum computing — Venrock’s Ethan Batraski writes that in the last 12 months, there have been meaningful breakthroughs in quantum computing from academia, venture-backed companies and industry.

5 VCs on the future of Michigan’s startup ecosystem — According to the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), there are 144 venture-backed startup companies in Michigan, up 12% over the last five years.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

More Chinese phone makers could lose US apps under Trump’s Clean Network — The Trump administration’s five-pronged Clean Network initiative aims to strip away Chinese phone makers’ ability to pre-install and download U.S. apps.

UK reported to be ditching coronavirus contact tracing in favor of ‘risk rating’ app — Reports suggest a launch of the much-delayed software will happen this month, but also that the app will no longer be able to automatically carry out contact tracing.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

August 6th 2020, 6:38 pm

Security bugs let these car hackers remotely control a Mercedes-Benz

TechCrunch

Few could ever forget back in 2015 when security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely killed a Jeep’s engine on a highway with a Wired reporter at the wheel.

Since then, the car hacking world has bustled with security researchers looking to find new bugs — and ways to exploit them — in a new wave of internet-connected cars that have only existed the past decade.

This year’s Black Hat security conference — albeit virtual, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — is no different.

Security researchers at the Sky-Go Team, the car hacking unit at Qihoo 360, found more than a dozen vulnerabilities in a Mercedes-Benz E-Class car that allowed them to remotely open its doors and start the engine.

Most modern cars are equipped with an internet connection, giving passengers access to in-car entertainment, navigation and directions, and more radio stations than you can choose from. But hooking up a car to the internet puts it at greater risk of remote attacks — precisely how Miller and Valasek hijacked that Jeep, which ended up in a ditch.

Although vehicle security has gotten better over the past half-decade, Sky-Go’s researchers showed that not even one of the most recent Mercedes-Benz models are impervious to attacks.

In a talk this week, Minrui Yan, head of Sky-Go’s security research team, said the 19 security vulnerabilities were now fixed, but could have affected as many as two million Mercedes-Benz connected cars in China.

Katharina Becker, a spokesperson for Mercedes’ parent company Daimler, pointed to a company statement published late last year after it patched the security issues. The spokesperson said Daimler could not corroborate the estimated number of affected vehicles.

“We addressed all findings and fixed all vulnerabilities that could be exploited before any vehicle in the market was affected,” said the spokesperson.

After more than a year of research, the end result was a series of vulnerabilities that formed an attack chain that could remotely control the vehicle.

To start, the researchers built a testbench to reverse-engineer the car’s components to look for vulnerabilities, dumping the car’s software and analyzing the car’s internals for vulnerabilities.

The researchers then obtained a Series-E car to verify their findings.

At the heart of the research is the E-Series’ telematics control unit, or TCU, which Yan said is the “most crucial” component of the car, as it allows the vehicle to communicate with the internet.

By tampering with the TCU’s file system, the researchers got access to a root shell — a way to run commands with the highest level of access to the vehicle’s internals. With root shell access, the researchers could remotely open the car’s doors.

The TCU file system also stores the car’s secrets, like passwords and certificates, which protect the vehicle from being accessed or modified without proper authorization. But the researchers were able to extract the passwords of several certificates for several different regions, including Europe and China. By obtaining the vehicle’s certificates and their passwords, the researchers could gain deep access to the vehicle’s internal network. The car’s certificate for the China region had a weak password, Yan said, making it easier to hijack a vulnerable car in the country.

Yan said the goal was to get access to the car’s back end, the core of the vehicle’s internal network. As long as the car’s back-end services can be accessed externally, the car is at risk of attacks, the researchers said.

The way the researchers did this was by tearing down the vehicle’s embedded SIM card, which allows the car to talk to the cell networks. A security feature meant the researchers couldn’t plug the SIM into a router without freezing access to the cell network. The researchers modified their router to spoof the vehicle, effectively making the cell network think it was the car.

With the vehicle’s firmware dumped, the networking protocols understood and its certificates obtained and cracked, the researchers say they could remotely control an affected vehicle.

The researchers said the car’s security design was tough and able to withstand a number of attacks, but it was not impervious.

“Making every back-end component secure all the time is hard,” the researchers said. “No company can make this perfect.”

But at least in the case of Mercedes-Benz, its cars are a lot more secure than they were a year ago.


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August 6th 2020, 6:23 pm

Uber’s delivery business is now larger than ride-hailing

TechCrunch

Uber reported its second-quarter earnings Thursday and buried in the blizzard of less-than-rosy numbers is a stunning figure that illustrates how much the company has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Uber’s delivery business — better known as Uber Eats — is now bigger than its original and core ride-hailing division, based on adjusted net revenue. Now, adjusted net revenue tells only a piece of this evolving Uber story. Income, or losses in the case of Uber’s delivery business, are also important.

Still, looking at the change of the past year, and specifically in the past two quarters, it’s clear that Uber’s strategy has shifted. And all eyes are on delivery.

Before digging deeper, let’s run a quick recap.

Uber’s reported net loss was $1.78 billion in the second quarter of 2020, down from a year-ago net loss of $5.24 billion. The company went public last year, resulting in various one-time, non-cash costs. The company’s net loss worked out to a loss of $1.02 per share. That was enough to beat analysts’ expectations of a $0.86 per-share deficit.

Uber missed on profitability in the quarter, but did surpass expectations on top line, posting more revenue than the $2.18 billion figure investors expected.

The shift to delivery

There are three key ways to weigh the company’s various businesses, of which only two are of material scale to the Uber’s operating results, namely Mobility (ride-hailing), and Delivery (Uber Eats). Here’s how the pair stacked up in Q2 2020:

Here’s how those gross bookings results turned into adjusted net revenue:

And how those revenue results turned into adjusted profit, and adjusted losses:

As you can see, Uber’s food delivery business is doing far more gross dollars in transaction volume. However, as Uber has a better take-rate (the portion of gross spend it gets to keep as revenue) with ride-hailing than Uber Eats, the two had far closer adjusted net revenue numbers. Here, again, Delivery beat Mobility.

When it came down to adjusted profit, Uber’s traditionally-core business of ride-hailing generated the superior result, generating positive adjusted EBITDA, while delivery lost money using the same profit calculation method.

In Q1 2020, Mobility generated more gross bookings, adjusted net revenue, and adjusted EBITDA than Delivery. In Q2, due to COVID-19 and its resulting economic impacts, two of the three numbers flipped. How fast the figures could change in the future if the market for ride-hailing recovers further, is not clear. Today’s earnings call made it clear that Uber is more about bringing you food than taking you to the airport, and that’s a big change for the American company.

To be clear, ride-hailing isn’t going anywhere. It’s the dual focus of delivery and ride-hailing that Uber is counting on to get it through this rough patch of COVID-19 pandemic as well as fortify its revenue earning potential in more stable times.

“It’s become clear that we have a hugely valuable hedge across our two core businesses that is a critical advantage in any recovery scenario,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Thursday. “When travel restrictions lift we know the mobility trips rebound. If restrictions continue or need to be re-imposed our delivery business will compensate.”

Graphical context

For fun, here are the pertinent sections of Uber’s Q2 investor slides.

Here’s the company’s Mobility numbers:

Image Credits: Uber

And, here are its Delivery results:

Happy number crunching!

August 6th 2020, 6:23 pm

Uber shares drop 4% after it loses more money than expected in Q2

TechCrunch

Today after the bell, American ride-hailing giant Uber released its second quarter results.

The company’s revenue fell compared to both the year-ago quarter (Q2 2019), and the sequentially-preceding period (Q1 2020). Investors had anticipated Uber’s declines due to COVID-19, and the company had spent time earlier this year assuring the investing public that it had enough cash to get through 2020 no matter what.

In the second quarter, Uber saw gross bookings of $10.2 billion, off 35% compared to the year-ago period. This resulted in revenue of $2.24 billion, down 29% from a year-ago result of $3.17 billion. Uber’s net loss was $1.78 billion in the second quarter of 2020, down from a year-ago net loss of $5.24 billion. The company went public last year, resulting in various one-time, non-cash costs.

The company’s net loss worked out to a loss of $1.02 per share, ahead of an analyst-expected $0.86 per-share deficit. Uber missed on profitability in the quarter, but did surpass street expectations on top line, posting more revenue than the $2.18 billion figure investors expected.

Shares of Uber are off a little more than 4% in after-hours trading, following its earnings report.

A Q1 retrospective

Let’s take a look at how the financials stack up compared to the first quarter of 2020. In short: Not well.

In Q2 2020, Uber reported a Q1 per-share loss of $1.70 on revenues of $3.54 billion. The company lost $2.94 billion in the quarter counting all costs. As noted above, Uber’s per-share loss fell to $1.02, while its revenue slipped to $2.24 billion; Uber’s top line therefore dipped 36.7% compared to the first quarter.

Digging deeper, Uber generated $737 million in ride-hailing trips in the second quarter, compared to $1.66 billion in the first three-month period of this year. Gross bookings were also down more than 35% from $15.78 billion in the first quarter compared to the second.

A changing business

Uber’s quarter was a period of change. Compared to the year-ago quarter, the company’s Delivery business (formerly its Uber Eats segment) saw its adjusted net revenue soar 162% compared to the year-ago quarter. At the same time, its larger Mobility segment (previously its Rides business) saw its adjusted net revenue fall 66% compared to to Q2 2019.

Uber’s ride-hailing business fell sharply as folks stayed home, while those same folks ordered lots of more food. The bookings mix-shift to food delivery did help Uber staunch ride-hailing losses, but not completely.

Ride-hailing, once a key driver of profitability at the company, only generated $50 million in adjusted EBITDA in Q2, a heavily-amended profit metric. That figure was off by $465 million compared to the year-ago period, and off $531 million compared to Q1 2020.

“Our mobility recovery is clearly dependent on the public health situation in any given area,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said during the Q2 earnings call. “Asia and India is in the recovery. We’ve seen gross bookings in Hong Kong and New Zealand at times exceed pre-COVID highs and European trends have also been encouraging.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. recovery is lagging. The company’s global geographic footprint remains a huge advantage, Khosrowshahi noted. He added that once cities do reopen, trips bounce back sharply.

While ride-hailing lost ground, the rising revenue footprint of Uber’s Delivery business posted slimmer losses than in the year-ago and sequentially-preceding quarter. With an adjusted EBITDA loss of $232 million in Q2 2020, the company shaved off more than $50 million in losses compared to its year-ago adjusted EBITDA loss of $286 million; in Q1 2020 Delivery posted adjusted losses of $313 million.

Naturally those declines are largely outside of Uber’s control, but they do show the sharp impact that the global pandemic and ensuing shuttering of many economies had on the 2019 IPO.

Uber closed the period with cash (cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments) of $7.8 billion. That figure was $9.0 billion at the end of its first quarter.

August 6th 2020, 5:06 pm

Watch SpaceX launch its tenth Starlink mission to build out its satellite internet constellation

TechCrunch

SpaceX is getting ready for a third try at launching its tenth Starlink mission, after two prior attempts were scrubbed, first in June and then again in July. Meanwhile, SpaceX has accomplished a lot – including another launch of a GPS satellite, and returning astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Earth from the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon.

This Starlink mission attempt is scheduled for Friday, August 7 at 1:12 AM EDT (10:12 PM PDT on August 6) and will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There’s also a backup opportunity scheduled for Saturday August 8 at 12:50 AM EDT (Augut 7 at 9:50 PM PDT).

The payload for this mission includes, predictably, Starlink satellites – 57 in total that will join the constellation already in low Earth orbit as SpaceX gets ready to begin its beta test, which it says will kick off this summer. Starlink aims to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband to customers who don’t currently have great access to that kind of connectivity, with a beta set to start in parts of the U.S. and Canada this year. The Starlink satellites on this flight are all equipped with a special extendable solar visor to prevent reflections from their radio surfaces from obscuring the night sky from Earth.

This mission also carries two BlackSky satellites, which is one of SpaceX’s customers through launch services provider Spaceflight. It’s the second time that SpaceX has carried another payload alongside its own Starlink satellites on one of these flights, showing its spacefaring rideshare business model in action.

The live feed for the launch will start at around 15 minutes prior to launch time, so at roughly 12:57 AM EDT (9:57 PM PDT).

August 6th 2020, 4:53 pm

Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Tyler Mitchell to talk Imagine Impact at Disrupt 2020

TechCrunch

The world is changing quickly. It seems to be growing more complicated by the minute.

Throughout the centuries, humans have used storytelling to make sense of the world around them. That is perhaps more true today than it ever was, as we have access to more stories (via the internet) than we ever have in history. But with this proliferation, it’s critical that the very best storytellers — a diverse group of storytellers — have access to the broadest audiences.

Imagine Impact, a content accelerator founded and led by Tyler Mitchell, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, aims to provide storytellers with the tools and access they need to reach as many people as possible. That’s why we’re thrilled to have Mitchell, Grazer and Howard join us at Disrupt 2020 on September 14-18.

Tyler Mitchell is a producer, writer and entrepreneur who has previously held the role of Executive Vice President at Imagine Entertainment, where he oversaw a slate of live action films as well as launching Imagine’s animation division. He has also produced films in his own right, including The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Lucky Number Slevin, and Maudie. Producer and writer for primetime shows Kidnapped and My Own Worst Enemy, Mitchell also has experience in the world of television.

Brian Grazer is an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning producer, racking up 43 Oscar nominations and 198 Emmy nominations, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards for A Beautiful Mind. He’s also a NYT bestselling author twice over and was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” He cofounded Imagine Entertainment alongside Ron Howard in the 80’s, and has now gone on to cofound Imagine Impact alongside Mitchell and Howard.

Ron Howard needs no introduction. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker has been a creative force in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films, including A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Splash. Alongside his illustrious film career, Howard has also executive produced a variety of award-winning television shows, including the Emmy-winning series “Arrested Development” and the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon”.

These three launched Imagine Impact two years ago to bring Silicon Valley-style mentorship, a model cultivated by Y Combinator and various VCs in the tech world, to Hollywood. As Netflix democratizes storytelling through its global platform for talent, Imagine Impact offers a place to vet that talent from the outset and nurture it through to the networks, studios and media platforms.

Netflix and Imagine Impact struck a deal in June to identify and develop film ideas across four genres, through a global submission process, that they will bring to Netflix for production and distribution.

Imagine Impact vets submissions with both experienced readers and a natural language processing system that was developed internally at the accelerator.

Since the first Impact program, the incubator has accepted 65 writers and paired them with industry experts (such as A Beautiful Mind‘s Akiva Goldsman. Thus far, 62 developed projects have come out of the process with 22 being sold or set up with major studios, networks and/or streaming services.

We’re thrilled to have Mitchell, Grazer and Howard join us at Disrupt 2020 to talk about how they’re mixing Silicon Valley tech and mentorship with the traditional Hollywood creative process and what the future of storytelling has in store for us. Get your pass today to hear this fantastic session – you can even save a cool $300 in the process!

August 6th 2020, 4:07 pm

The tale of 2 challenger bank models

TechCrunch

Accelerated by the pandemic and its economic fallout, the tale of retail challenger bank models across the world has been diverging. In the Americas, Albo, Chime, and Uoala have all reported record user numbers as consumers adapted to a “no-touch” economy. Aspiration and Varo announced successful equity fund raising rounds. In Europe, by contrast, Revolut had to lay off people, Monzo was forced to accept new funding at a 40% lower valuation and N26 had shut its U.K. operations already. What’s going on?

As always, market environment, business model, industry structure, and economics and regulatory context matter. The U.S. has a big domestic market with large, attractive customer segments: Millennials, for example, who have come of age after the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and rely on the debit card as their primary spending vehicle, unlike older and wealthier consumers, who leverage their credit cards. Or issues-conscious consumers, who want to align their savings and spending decisions with their broader values.

Chime has successfully tapped into the former segment, offering a free checking account with no hidden fees and attractive features such as an immediate crediting of paychecks, forgoing the 2-3 days float that mainstream banks benefit from at the expense of their customers. Aspiration is going after the green customer segment, with features such as planting a tree for any rounded-up debit card purchase or offsetting customer carbon footprint at the gas pump.

Average debit card interchange fees in the U.S. at 1.2% of transaction value are high enough to pay for the tech platform. Both Chime and Aspiration function essentially as bank accounts for the customers at the front-end interface but have been able to structure themselves capital-efficiently. Chime’s actual deposit balances are held by back-end banking partners. Aspiration’s core vehicle is a cash management account under a FINRA brokerage license, also administered by a bank partner at the back-end. Varo in the U.S. has been the exception to these capital-light models by pursuing a federal, deposit-taking bank charter from the get-go, which was approved after three years in early 2020.

Similarly, In Latin America, Albo in Mexico or Neon in Brazil target a younger, lower-income segment that is willing to make the challenger bank cards their primary spending vehicle, and the debit interchange fee is high enough to make the economics work.

This is not the case in Europe. With near-instant retail payment settlement among bank current accounts and under tighter regulatory caps, debit card interchange fees are much lower at 0.2% of transaction value. To pay for their platforms, European challenger banks need other sources of revenue. Many are betting on credit — that’s why a number of them, such as Atom and Tandem, acquired full banking licenses before launching, despite the costly and lengthy process. Others, like Starling Bank and Tide, have set their sights on the more lucrative SME banking segment.

By contrast, Monzo and Revolut started with a prepaid card before obtaining a deposit-taking bank license. Both have focused largely on the younger, affluent, cosmopolitan customer segment, who use them as a secondary service to pay friends, spend abroad (at favorable exchange rates) and set budgets. Only 20% of Monzo’s customers use it exclusively, most of the rest rely on traditional banks for their primary account, which may also be why it is difficult to get customers to pay for premium services. Discretionary spending in this target segment, which constituted a bulk of the transactions on Monzo and Revolut, collapsed during the height of the COVID crisis and shutdown, putting relatively more pressure on these two London-based challenger banks.

Asia, Africa and other emerging markets have not seen yet the emergence of challenger banks at meaningful scale. The Monetary Authority of Singapore is currently narrowing a shortlist of applications for digital banking licenses from a variety of players, including a consortium of logistics platform Grab and Singtel, as well as gaming company Razer. In India, open banking is emerging along the lines of distinctive user segments.

SME neobanking is the most advanced with the likes of Bankopen (Open Technologies). On the consumer side, startups are focusing on segments such as blue-collar workers or rural populations addressing pain points encountered with traditional banking such as small transaction sizes or low account balances and catering to needs such as domestic remittances or goal-based savings. In Africa, the first wave of digital banks, like Carbon and FairMoney are emerging in Nigeria.

These emerging market challenger banks will have to look carefully at the market conditions, possible target segments, a sustainable revenue source, the initial product offerings that could lead to engagement and rapid growth, and the regulatory structure that best supports the desired business model.

The acceleration of the world moving toward a “no-touch” economy has provided a new impetus. However, the economics challenge seems to be closer in nature to the European starting point rather than the American industry context.

Flourish Ventures has investments in Albo, Aspiration, Chime, FairMoney, Neon and Tandem.   

August 6th 2020, 3:23 pm

Casa pivots to provide self-custody services to secure bitcoin

TechCrunch

Casa, a Colorado-based provider of bitcoin security services, is launching a managed service allowing customers to buy and hold their own bitcoin, rather than using an external custodian like Coinbase.

“With self-custody using Casa it’s impossible to be hacked and nearly impossible to have your bitcoin stolen,” wrote chief executive Nick Neuman in an email. “Leaving bitcoin on an exchange (e.g. Coinbase or many others) opens it up to theft; there is a long history of bitcoin theft and hacks from exchanges.”

Just last year, the major cryptocurrency exchange, Binance, was hacked and thieves made off with bitcoin that was worth $40 million at the time.

Before the upgrade with the new product offering, bitcoin traders had to buy their bitcoin at an exchange and then move their bitcoin off of the exchange to increase security. They can now be secure by default using Casa, according to Neuman.

Bitcoin can now be purchase through Casa and deposited directly into a user’s wallet on the service where they control the funds. Casa never has custody of the user’s bitcoin at any point in the process, which the company said eliminates the risk of using an exchange.

“With the dollar declining in value and a new era of potential inflation on the horizon, consumers are naturally looking for a safe asset class that’s outside the turbulence of the existing financial system,” said Neuman in a statement. “Traditionally, if investors wanted the security and control of Bitcoin self-custody, they had to jump through multiple hoops to register with an exchange, deposit funds for trading, and then move bitcoin to their wallet. As new users begin their Bitcoin journey, they have a much simpler and faster option for buying and securing their first bitcoin with Casa.”

August 6th 2020, 2:37 pm

Can learning pods scale, or are they widening edtech’s digital divide?

TechCrunch

Lucia, a six-year old, hides from Zoom calls and has rejected every edtech tool from Seesaw to Khan Academy. She will spend all of first grade in quarantine.

Her mother, Claire Díaz-Ortiz, says her daughter fits squarely into the “distance learning death zone.” The idea is that younger children are too young to do distance learning solo, even with tools meant to make it easier. Here’s one kindergartner’s remote fall class schedule:

“And unfortunately for my daughter, I’m a VC, not a Zoom mom,” Díaz-Ortiz said.

The impact of the distance learning death zone, as Díaz-Ortiz calls it, is one of the reasons why many wealthy families with young children are considering a new solution: learning pods.

Learning pods are small clusters of children within the same age range who are paired with a private instructor. Depending on a parent’s preferences, learning pods could be an in-home or virtual experience and be either a full-time school replacement or supplemental learning.

In recent weeks, the concept has taken off all across the country, from suburbs to cities. There’s a Facebook group for Boulder, Colorado school districts; organizers launched Pandemic Pod San Diego to “connect families looking for in-home, teacher-led learning groups.” Some households are offering teachers a retainer. Among working mom groupchats, pods are taking off as a sanity lifesaver, especially as childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women.

Startups are pivoting to keep up with the demand for private teachers. But because of high costs, only affluent families are able to form or join learning pods, which may limit the model’s ability to reach scale while extending the existing digital divide.

August 6th 2020, 2:05 pm

Google launches the final beta of Android 11

TechCrunch

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, though, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

August 6th 2020, 1:21 pm

macOS 11.0 Big Sur preview

TechCrunch

I honestly can’t remember when I first started writing about the mobile creep in macOS. It has happened little by little, update after update. My earlier fears that it would fully surrender to the influence of iOS have thus far not come to fruition, but the iPhone’s operating system continues to be the clearest indicator of future desktop updates.

It’s clear, of course, why one of Apple’s OSes would borrow so liberally from another. The iPhone has been top dog at the company for well over a decade now, and continues to monopolize resources and serve as a proving ground for its most cutting-edge experiences. Even as the Mac braces for its most radical update in recent memory with the switch from Intel to custom ARM processors, the shadow of iOS looms large over Big Sur.

There are a million reasons why this year’s WWDC was a strange one. One of the more unsung instances was the surprise reveal that the next version of macOS would be 11.0. The fact was never explicitly mentioned during the keynote, though the number was flashed on screen during a demo. It certainly seems worth mentioning the first primary number upgrade in 20 years, but who can ultimately say why Apple does the things it does?

What we can say for sure is that Big Sur does, indeed, represent a big step forward in macOS’ evolution in a couple of ways. The first and arguably most important is the aforementioned hardware update. Those first systems are set to arrive toward the end of the year, likely in the form of new iMac and MacBooks. The second and arguably more symbolic is one of the more radical design changes in the operating system’s recent memory.

For those less familiar with the operating system, the design changes likely feel subtle. For those of us who basically spend all day, every day staring at the operating system, they’re unavoidable. Big Sir borrows liberally from the iOS design language. The familiar circle icons are gone, making way for the squircle variety you’ll find on the iPhone. As ever, it’s up to third-party developers to decide if they want to join in on the fun. Right now, my app folder is a mix of circles and rounded squares. There are fun little touches throughout, like this address on the Mail icon envelope: 

Another iOS influence comes in the form of the push toward more translucence throughout the UI, most notably in the form of the menu bar, which is a closer match to the drop-down menus themselves. Those are larger, meanwhile, and offer a bit more room to breathe. Spacing in general is a big thing throughout the update.

That includes the new Finder windows, which also adopt more translucent elements and rounded corners. The dock, meanwhile, hovers ever so slightly above the bottom of the screen. Default sound updates might take me the longest to get used to. I only discovered that while taking a screenshot for this review — the familiar camera shutter sound having been swapped out for a bit of a plunk. Not sure how I feel about that one, if I’m being honest.

Perhaps the biggest update to Finder is also the most blatant lift from iOS. Joining other elements like Notification Center and Launchpad is Control Center. As with iOS, it’s a translucent drop-down menu that offers quick access to settings. Here it’s accessible by way of an icon in the menu bar, but every element here screams touchscreen. Seriously, the Display Brightness and Sound sliders beg to be adjusted by hand. A clear hint into plans for future Macs? Apple has long insisted that PCs and touchscreens are like oil and water, but there are some indications that the company’s stance could be softening.

Other control panel options include a Do Not Disturb mode, media playback, WiFi, Bluetooth and Airdrop. The available controls are customizable, and you can also drag an option off the panel and pin it to the menu bar.

Speaking of the Notification Center, there’s an update there as well. It’s free-floating, like other new design elements, and features a lot more information options, including weather, stocks and calendar events, along with upcoming third-party widgets. Like the Control Center, it’s customizable, both in terms of content and widget size. Certain forms of content like emails and new podcasts can also be interacted with directly from the Notification Center.

A number of updates to the Messages app itself are also worth noting here. Conversations can easily be pinned to the top of the list with a drag and drop. Group messaging has been beefed up, with the ability to comment on specific messages in line — a feature that’s simultaneously rolling out in iOS 14, as well. Specific members can be directly mentioned with an “@“ symbol and a photo can be set to designate the group.

Also of note is an improved search. Honestly, search has long been an annoyance on the desktop version of the app. Here it groups together links, photos and other highlights. There are a bunch of new message effects here, à la iOS, with things like balloons, confetti and lasers for celebration. Memojis can now be edited on the desktop, and Apple has also added Memoji stickers for quicker reactions.

Safari always seems to get the most love in the updates. It’s clear that Apple really wants its browser to remain competitive with the likes of Chrome and Firefox. Key updates include the ability to set a background image and customizable start page, manually adjust favorites and support for more extensions.

Tabs have been redesigned and favicon now appear by default, while hovering over a tab will show a preview of the hidden page — a genuinely useful addition. Rending speeds have improved and the company says the browser is overall more power-efficient than earlier versions. Apple’s also found another way to directly take on Google with the addition of a new translate feature that’s currently in beta with seven languages: English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese.

A handful of new maps features warrant mention here. Look Around brings a new Street View-style feature, making it easy to get to where you’re going — or simply live vicariously in this time of immobility. Clicking “Look Inside” on select locations like airports and malls, meanwhile, will show you an overhead view of the indoor map. Cycling directions have been added to a handful of cities (they don’t quite appear to have rolled out for NYC on the beta I’m using), along with an Electric Vehicle direction feature that shows you the route with the most charging station access.

The Big Sur public beta is out today. The final version of the software is set to release this fall.

August 6th 2020, 1:21 pm

On demand mental health service provider Ginger raises $50 million

TechCrunch

Ginger, a provider of on demand mental healthcare services, has raised $50 million in a new round of funding.

The new capital comes as interest and investment in mental health and wellness has emerged as the next big area of interest for investors in new technology and healthcare services companies.

Mental health startups saw record deal volumes in the second quarter of 2020 on the heels of rising demand caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, according to the data analysis firm CB Insights. More than 55 companies raised rounds of funding over the quarter, even though deal amounts declined 15% to $491 million. That’s still nearly half a billion dollars invested into mental health in one quarter alone.

What started in 2011 as a research-based company spun out of work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has become one of the largest providers of mental health services primarily through employer-operated health insurance plans.

Through Ginger’s services, patients have access to a care coordinator that is the first point of entry into the company’s mental health plans. That person is a trained behavioral health coach — typically someone with a master’s degree in psychology with a behavioral health coaching certificate from schools like Duke, UCLA, Michigan or Columbia and 200 hours of training provided by Ginger itself.

These health coaches provide the majority of care that Ginger’s patients receive. For more serious conditions, Ginger will bring in specialists to coordinate care or provide access to medications to alleviate the condition, according to the company’s chief executive officer, Russell Glass.

Ginger began offering its on-demand care services in 2016 and counts tens of thousands of active users on the platform. The company charges companies a fee for access to its services on a per-employee, per-month basis and provides access to mental health services to hundreds of thousands of employees through corporate benefit plans, Glass said.

Over 200 companies, including Delta Air Lines, Sanofi, Chegg, Domino’s, SurveyMonkey, and Sephora, pay  Ginger to cost-efficiently provide employees with high-quality mental healthcare. Ginger members can access virtual therapy and psychiatry sessions as an in-network benefit through the company’s relationships with leading regional and national health plans, including Optum Behavioral Health, Anthem California, and Aetna Resources for Living, according to a statement.

“Our entire mission here is to break the supply/demand imbalance and provide far more care,” said Glass in an interview. “Ultimately we want Ginger to be available to anybody who has a need. Being accessible to anybody, anywhere is an important part of the strategy. that means direct-to-consumer will be a direction we head in.”

For now, the company will use the money to build out its partner ecosystem with companies like Cigna, an investor in the company’s latest $50 million round. Ginger will also look to getting government payers to reach more people. eventually direct-to-consumer could become a larger piece of the business as the company drives down costs of care.

It’s also investing in automation and natural language processing to automate care pathways and personalizing patient care using machine learning.

The company’s $50 million Series D round was co-led by Advance Venture Partners and Bessemer Venture Partners, with additional participation from Cigna Ventures and existing investors such as Jeff Weiner, Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, and Kaiser Permanente Ventures. To date, Ginger has raised roughly $120 million. 

 Even as Ginger is working through the existing network of employer benefit plans and stand-alone insurance providers to offer its mental health services, other startups are raising money to offer employer-provided mental health and wellness plans. SonderMind is working to make it easier for independent mental health professionals to bill insurers, AbleTo helps employers screen for undiagnosed mental health conditions, and SilverLight Health partners with organizations to digitally monitor and manage mental health care. 

Meanwhile other startups are going direct-to-consumer with a flood of offerings around mental health. Well-financed, billion dollar-valued companies like Ro and Hims are offering mental health and wellness packages to customers, while Headspace has both a consumer facing and employer benefit offering. And upstart companies like Real are focusing on providing care specifically for women.

With its funding round, Ginger is adding David ibnAle, a founding partner at Advance Venture Partners (AVP), which is the investment firm behind S.I. Newhouse’s family-owned media and technology holding company, Advance; and the digital health investment guru Steve Kraus from Bessemer Venture Partners. 

“AVP invests in companies that are using technology to tackle large-scale, global challenges and transform traditional businesses and business models,” said David ibnAle, Founding Partner of Advance Venture Partners. “Ginger is doing just that. We are excited to partner with an exceptional team to help make high-quality, on-demand mental healthcare a reality for millions of more people around the world.”

August 6th 2020, 1:21 pm

Twitter adds labels for government officials and state-controlled media

TechCrunch

Twitter is introducing new labels for accounts and tweets tied to government officials and “state-affiliated media.”

“Twitter provides an unmatched way to connect with, and directly speak to public officials and representatives,” the company wrote in the blog post announcing these changes. “This direct line of communication with leaders and officials has helped to democratize political discourse and increase transparency and accountability.”

However, Twitter suggested that these labels are part of a larger effort “to protect that discourse because we believe political reach should be earned not bought.”

When it comes to labeling government officials, the company said it’s focusing on those who represent “the official voice of the state abroad,” including “foreign ministers, institutional entities, ambassadors, official spokespeople, and key diplomatic leaders.” It’s starting with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, with plans to add other countries in the future.

Twitter said these labels will not apply to “the personal accounts of heads of state,” because “these accounts enjoy widespread name recognition, media attention, and public awareness.” For example: President Donald Trump’s Twitter account has not been labeled, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s account has.

Image Credits: Twitter

As for state-affiliated media, Twitter said that media organizations that maintain editorial independence despite government financing, such as the BBC and NPR, will not labeled.

Instead, the label will be reserved for “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution” — for example, Russia-backed RT. To identify these outlets, the company says it’s consulting outside experts, including members of its Digital and Human Rights Advisory group (part of Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council).

Twitter also said state-affiliated media will no longer receive promotion via the service’s home timeline, notifications and search. (This limitation does not apply to government officials.) The service had already blocked these groups from purchasing advertising after an incident last year in which China’s state news agency bought promoted tweets to portray pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as violent.

August 6th 2020, 12:51 pm

Apple 27-inch iMac review

TechCrunch

At its first virtual World Wide Developers Conference back in June, Apple unveiled a huge piece of news about the future of the Mac. After years of rumors, the company finally confirmed plans to wean itself off of Intel processors in favor of its own in-house ARM-based chips. Apple noted that the process would be a gradual one, taking around two years to transition the entire line.

It was a rare peek behind the curtain for the company, owing to the fact that it needed to prep developers ahead of the transition, even releasing a limited ARM-based version of the Mac mini to help kickstart the process. That kind of lead time can be tricky to navigate. While it noted that the first ARM-based Macs are set to arrive later this year, Apple’s road map still includes Intel systems — which it added it will continue to support for “years to come.”

Announced this week, the long-rumored update to the iMac falls into the latter category. The system will be one of the last Macs to sport Intel silicon. Apple’s not saying how many more are still left in the pipeline, but the desktop adopts the chip giant’s 10th-gen Comet Lake processors. The new device puts Apple in the somewhat tricky position of positioning the new models as the greatest thing since sliced bread, while acknowledging that the biggest change to the category in about 10 or so years is on the way.

We don’t know specifically when ARM-based iMacs are coming, of course. Various earlier rumors pointed at a refreshed Intel model this year, with a new version sporting Apple silicon in 2021. Things are further complicated by rumors surrounding the imminent arrival of a radically redesigned version of the all-in-one. For now, however, the iMac retains its familiar, iconic form factor.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, the truth of the matter is that not everyone is able, willing or even interested in waiting for a mystery refresh. That’s kind of the thing with consumer hardware. There’s always an update arriving down the road. At some point you need to bite the bullet, pull the trigger or whatever your chosen metaphor. And this is, indeed, a powerful and capable machine. Also, let’s not discount the current demand for PCs.

After a rough first quarter due to supply issues, demand of home laptops and desktops is on the rise as many office employees have come to recognize that remote work is going to very much be our reality for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind that Google recently moved its office reopening date to next July, and the company is very much a bellwether for the tech industry at large. If you’re going to be working from home for awhile, two things are essential: a nice office chair and a capable computer.

The first bit is a conversation for another day. The second, on the other hand, is most easily accomplished with an all-in-one, and all-in-ones don’t get much easier than the iMac. Seriously, I set up the new 27-inch yesterday, and it really is the definition of Apple’s promise to “just work,” right down to the gigantic power button on the back. I’ll also quickly add that the version Apple sent me as configured is way, way more than most office workers are going to require.

The model has a 3.6 GHz 10-Core Intel Core i9, 32GTB of RAM, the AMD Radeon Pro 5700 XT with 16GB of Memory, 1TB of storage and the nano-textured glass. I just ticked all of the corresponding boxes on Apple’s site and found the system that starts at $1,800 priced at about $4,500, not including the Magic Keyboard and Trackpad. In fact, this is precisely the spec level that blurs the line between the upgraded iMacs and the iMac Pros.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Apple was, of course eager to point out the system’s potential for creative professions. And, indeed, the iMac has become an increasingly capable device over the past several years, and with the current configuration on the system I’m using, it’s easy to imagine this thing ending up in some music and even indie film studios. The line really saw a real expansion into the creative pro category when the iMac Pro stepped in to fill the absence left by the then-suspended Mac Pro line.

The non-Pro iMac line is well-positioned to appeal to the bedroom musicians and movie-makers, an increasingly broadening category in the age of COVID-19. Perhaps even more relevant, however, are the system’s teleconferencing capabilities. It seems unlikely that COVID-19 had a major impact on a device that had likely been in the pipeline for some time, but the new model does thankfully come with some features that will be welcome as Zoom conferences become an ever-increasing fixture in day-to-day work life.

The biggest upgrade here is the move from the 720p camera to the 1080p one found on the iMac. As someone who’s been playing around with his home audio/video setup during the pandemic while TechCrunch enters the brave new world of virtual tech conferences, it’s something that I’ve had a keen eye on. I’ve been suggesting since the outset of the pandemic that the next generation of laptops and desktops are finally going to be getting serious about microphones and webcams, after years of letting smartphones lead the pack.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’ve upgraded my system ahead of our big Disrupt event in September to include an external camera and microphone. I recognize that these are both probably overkill for a majority of users. The above shot was taken with the iMac webcam. It’s a clear shot and more than acceptable for teleconferencing needs. The system sports a number of on-board sensors designed to augment the experience, including face tracking for better shot framing and increased performance in low light.

I would love to see some future upgrade that adds depth detection and a bokeh effect — preferably real, though something akin to the portrait mode on the iPhone could also work. Something that’s really dawned on a lot of us over the past several months is that we don’t necessarily want the world — or even co-workers — peeking into out homes at all times. In fact, the depth-of-field is the number one reason I’ve opted to upgrade to the aforementioned external camera.

The same can be said for the microphone. It’s clear and perfectly suited to teleconference. Above is a clip of me reading the first few sentences of White Noise (it’s the first thing that popped into my head, I don’t know what to tell you). Don’t mind the slurred speech (Bell’s palsy sucks, don’t get it), but the audio is perfectly suited for a Zoom call. In a push to appeal to creatives, the company notes that the mics — similar to the hardware found on the 16-inch MacBook can be used for things like scratch vocals. I would say the do the trick for a majority of things we need day to day, but if you’re going to be say, recording a podcast or voice-over work, I would seriously consider an external mic.

The speakers, too, fill roughly the same needs. They’re perfectly good for a teleconference, audio playback and even casual movie watching and music listening. As someone who’s slightly obsessive about music listening, I would likely invest in some external speakers to pair with the desktop in the home setting, but the computer audio is well suited for an office.

The display, on the the other hand, is downright stunning. It’s a 5K (5120 x 2880) with 14.7 million pixels. It’s a bright 500 nits, and the colors pop. This is the first time the company has brought True Tone technology to the iMac, using light sensors to adjust the screen to more true to life colors. It’s a nice addition, and it all leads to a screen that positively pops. At the end of a long day, I’ve taken to swiveling the iMac around and using it to watch movies from my couch.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The other big new addition here on the screen front is the Nano-texture glass first introduced in the Pro Display XDR. I’ll quote Apple directly on that one: “Unlike typical matte finishes that have a coating added to the surface to scatter light, this industry-leading option is produced through an innovative process that etches the glass itself at the nanometer level.” More simply (and less marketingly) put, it’s a method for reducing screen glare that etches tiny nano structures in the glass instead of just adding a coating.

I’ve long felt that the Mac displays were too glossy for my liking and would happily move to nano-texture for all of my systems. The downside of the tech is that it seems to be prohibitively expensive. In the case of the 32-inch XDR, it adds $1,000 to the cost of the device. Here it’s an additional $500. In either case, it’s probably going to be far too pricey an addition for anyone who doesn’t absolutely need a glare-free system for work-related purposes.

There’s a nice selection of ports on the back of the device. You get four USB-A (full-size USB ports) and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C. I could have done with more of the latter, in an effort to further future-proof the system, but it’s a solid selection, none the less. There’s also a gigabit Ethernet port that can be upgraded to 10GB, for those who need to hard wire (another thing I’ve found necessary in this age of teleconferencing).

All in all, there are some really nice upgrades here. And it’s been fascinating watching the iMac upgrade into a truly capable machine. As configured with the unit Apple sent, you should probably be seriously considering the iMac Pro, which starts at $500 more (I mean, you’re already in for $4,500, after all, so what’s another few hundred dollars between friends). The upgrade will get you things like improved graphics, an improved thermal system, more power and more configuration options.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The big open question mark here is what the future looks like for the iMac — and how long we’ll have to wait to see it. That is, of course, the perennial question for hardware upgrades, but it’s exacerbated by the knowledge of imminent ARM-based systems and rumors surrounding a redesign. The iMac has and continues to be a nice-looking machine, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it could do with a redesign.

Likely both of these are still a ways down the road, however. And plenty of people who are in the process of setting their remote work stations will find plenty to look at with this easy-to-use all-in-one. It can be upgraded to sport some serious firepower and does good double duty as a work station and entertainment machine — the latter of which is great for a weirdo like me who doesn’t own a television.

The new iMac is available now, starting at $1,799.

August 6th 2020, 12:21 pm

Robinhood’s Q2 soars

TechCrunch

Robinhood’s huge, two-part Series F round came partially in Q2 and partially in Q3. The app-based trading platform announced the first $280 million  in early May, valuing the company at around $8.3 billion, up from a prior price tag of around $7.6 billion.

Then in July, Robinhood tacked on $320 million more at the same price, raising its valuation to around $8.6 billion.

While it has long been known that savings and investing apps and services are seeing a boom in 2020, precisely what caused investors to pour $600 million more into this already-wealthy company was less immediately evident. Recent data released by Robinhood concerning one of its revenue sources may help explain the rapid-fire capital events.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Filings from Robinhood covering the April through June period, Q2 2020, indicate that the company’s revenue from payment for order flow, a method by which a broker is paid to route customer orders through a particular group, or party rose during the period. As TechCrunch has covered, Robinhood generates a sizable portion of its revenue from such activities.

The company is hardly alone in doing so. As a new report from The Block, shared with The Exchange ahead of publication notes, Robinhood’s Q2 payment for order flow haul was impressive, but not singularly so; trading houses like E*Trade and Charles Schwab also grew their incomes from order flow routing in the period.

But Robinhood’s gains come in the wake of the firm’s promise to shake up its options trading setup after a customer took their own life. As we’ve written, there is a tension between Robinhood’s desire to limit who can access options trading, its need to grow and the incomes options-related order flow can drive for the budding fintech giant.

This morning, however, we are focusing on revenue growth over other issues (more to come on those later). Let’s dig into Robinhood’s Q2 order flow revenue numbers and see what we can learn about its run rate and current valuation.

A big Q2

According to The Block’s own calculations, Robinhood saw saw its total payment for order flow revenue roughly double, rising from $90.9 million in Q1 2020 to $183.3 million in Q2 2020, a 102% increase.

August 6th 2020, 12:21 pm

Hackers say ‘jackpotting’ flaws tricked popular ATMs into spitting out cash

TechCrunch

In 2010, the late Barnaby Jack, a world-renowned security researcher, hacked an ATM live on stage at the Black Hat conference by tricking the cash dispenser into spitting out a stream of dollar bills. The technique was appropriately named “jackpotting.”

A decade on from Jack’s blockbuster demo, security researchers are presenting two new vulnerabilities in Nautilus ATMs, albeit virtually, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Security researchers Brenda So and Trey Keown at New York-based security firm Red Balloon say their pair of vulnerabilities allowed them to trick a popular standalone retail ATM, commonly found in stores rather than at banks, into dispensing cash at their command.

A hacker would need to be on the same network as the ATM, making it more difficult to launch a successful jackpotting attack. But their findings highlight that ATMs often have vulnerabilities that lie dormant for years — in some cases since they were first built.

Barnaby Jack, the late security researcher credited with the first ATM “jackpotting” attacks. Now, 10 years later, two security researchers have found two new ATM cash-spitting attacks. Credit: YouTube

So and Keown said their new vulnerabilities target the Nautilus ATM’s underlying software, a decade-old version of Windows that is no longer supported by Microsoft. To begin with, the pair bought an ATM to examine. But with little documentation, the duo had to reverse-engineer the software inside to understand how it worked.

The first vulnerability was found in a software layer known as XFS — or Extensions for Financial Services — which the ATM uses to talk to its various hardware components, such as the card reader and the cash dispensing unit. The bug wasn’t in XFS itself, rather in how the ATM manufacturer implemented the software layer into its ATMs. The researchers found that sending a specially crafted malicious request over the network could effectively trigger the ATM’s cash dispenser and dump the cash inside, Keown told TechCrunch.

The second vulnerability was found in the ATM’s remote management software, an in-built tool that lets owners manage their fleet of ATMs by updating the software and checking how much cash is left. Triggering the bug would grant a hacker access to a vulnerable ATM’s settings.

So told TechCrunch it was possible to switch the ATM’s payment processor with a malicious, hacker-controlled server to siphon off banking data. “By pointing an ATM to a malicious server, we can extract credit card numbers,” she said.

Bloomberg first reported the vulnerabilities last year when the researchers privately reported their findings to Nautilus. About 80,000 Nautilus ATMs in the U.S. were vulnerable prior to the fix, Bloomberg reported. We contacted Nautilus with questions but did not hear back.

Successful jackpotting attacks are rare but not unheard of. In recent years, hackers have used a number of techniques. In 2017, an active jackpotting group was discovered operating across Europe, netting millions of euros in cash.

More recently, hackers have stolen proprietary software from ATM manufacturers to build their own jackpotting tools.


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849 or send an encrypted email to: zack.whittaker@protonmail.com

August 6th 2020, 12:21 pm

Extra Crunch Live: Join a live Q&A with Max Levchin today at 1pm PT/4pm ET

TechCrunch

Money makes the world go round, as the saying goes. But how and where we spend it are still very much up for grabs.

One person who has been pondering that question and providing answers very successfully is Max Levchin, and we’re very excited to have him as our special guest today on Extra Crunch Live, where we’ll be interviewing him as well as taking questions from the audience.

Levchin could not be more central to the story of Silicon Valley’s rise, and the rise of fintech, in the last twenty years. As one of the co-founders of PayPal, he’s been at the center of how we use the internet to send and spend money from its earliest days. And as the CEO of Affirm, one of the hottest fintech companies around today, you can safely say he’s still in the game and winning.

But wait! There’s more! All that’s just part of Max’s fintech credentials. He’s also currently the chairman of health tech startup Glow, and his past roles have included chairman of Yelp and member of the board of Yahoo, and much more.

We are living in truly crazy times today, with the global health pandemic impacting every aspect of our lives, no less our tech lives. Max’s track record, and his own story as an immigrant building huge businesses in America, make him a very compelling person to weigh in on all of that. So please join us to watch, and participate in the conversation.

Extra Crunch Live is open exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers. If you’re not already an Extra Crunch member, you can join here. We have the whole schedule of Extra Crunch Live talks as well.

I’ll be in the interviewer’s chair, and I plan to grill Max on all things fintech and foundery — where financial tech startups are going, how they are faring now, what founders need to be thinking about, and how to avoid big mistakes. I’m also really looking forward to what you, the audience, want to ask Max, too.

See you later for all the fun, Thursday August 6 at 4pm EDT / 1pm PDT / 8pm GMT. The links are below the fold.

We hope to see you there!

(Side Note: You can check out all our past episodes of Extra Crunch Live right here.

Details:

August 6th 2020, 12:21 pm

Eight trends accelerating the age of commercial-ready quantum computing

TechCrunch

Every major technology breakthrough of our era has gone through a similar cycle in pursuit of turning fiction to reality.

It starts in the stages of scientific discovery, a pursuit of principle against a theory, a recursive process of hypothesis-experiment. Success of the proof of principle stage graduates to becoming a tractable engineering problem, where the path to getting to a systemized, reproducible, predictable system is generally known and de-risked. Lastly, once successfully engineered to the performance requirements, focus shifts to repeatable manufacturing and scale, simplifying designs for production.

Since theorized by Richard Feynman and Yuri Manin, quantum computing has been thought to be in a perpetual state of scientific discovery. Occasionally reaching proof of principle on a particular architecture or approach, but never able to overcome the engineering challenges to move forward.

That’s until now. In the last 12 months, we have seen several meaningful breakthroughs from academia, venture-backed companies, and industry that looks to have broken through the remaining challenges along the scientific discovery curve. Moving quantum computing from science fiction that has always been “five to seven years away,” to a tractable engineering problem, ready to solve meaningful problems in the real world.

Companies such as Atom Computing* leveraging neutral atoms for wireless qubit control, Honeywell’s trapped ions approach, and Google’s superconducting metals, have demonstrated first-ever results, setting the stage for the first commercial generation of working quantum computers.

While early and noisy, these systems, even at just 40-80 error-corrected qubit range, may be able to deliver capabilities that surpass those of classical computers. Accelerating our ability to perform better in areas such as thermodynamic predictions, chemical reactions, resource optimizations and financial predictions.

As a number of key technology and ecosystem breakthroughs begin to converge, the next 12-18 months will be nothing short of a watershed moment for quantum computing.

Here are eight emerging trends and predictions that will accelerate quantum computing readiness for the commercial market in 2021 and beyond:

1. Dark horses of QC emerge: 2020 will be the year of dark horses in the QC race. These new entrants will demonstrate dominant architectures with 100-200 individually controlled and maintained qubits, at 99.9% fidelities, with millisecond to seconds coherence times that represent 2x -3x improved qubit power, fidelity and coherence times. These dark horses, many venture-backed, will finally prove that resources and capital are not sole catalysts for a technological breakthrough in quantum computing.

August 6th 2020, 12:21 pm

UK reported to be ditching coronavirus contacts tracing in favor of ‘risk rating’ app

TechCrunch

What’s going on with the UK’s coronavirus contacts tracing app? Reports in the national press today suggest a launch of the much delayed software will happen this month but also that the app will no longer be able to automatically carry out contacts tracing.

The Times reports that a repackaged version of the app will only provide users with information about infection levels in their local area. The newspaper also suggests the app will let users provide personal data in order to calculate a personal risk score.

The Mail also reports that the scaled back software will not be able to carry out automated contacts tracing.

We’ve reached out to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) with questions and will update this report with any response. DHSC is the government department leading development of the software, after the NHS’s digital division handed the app off.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world this year, digital contacts tracing has been looked to as a modern tool to COVID-19 by leveraging the near ubiquity of smartphones to try to understand individual infection risk based on device proximity.

In the UK, an earlier attempt to launch an NHS COVID-19 app to support efforts to contain the virus by automating exposure notifications using Bluetooth signals faltered after the government opted for a model that centralized exposure data. This triggered privacy concerns and meant it could not plug into an API offered by Apple and Google — whose tech supports decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

At the same time, multiple countries and regions in Europe have launched decentralized contacts tracing apps this year. These apps use Bluetooth signals as a proxy for calculating exposure risk — crunching data on device for privacy reasons — including, most recently, Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

However in the UK’s case, after initially heavily publicizing the forthcoming app — and urging the public to download it in its daily coronavirus briefings (despite the app not being available nationwide) —  the government appears to have stepped almost entirely away from digital contacts tracing, claiming the Apple -Google API does not provide enough data to accurately calculate exposure risk via Bluetooth.

Decentralized Bluetooth coronavirus contacts tracing apps that are up and running elsewhere Europe have reported total downloads and sometimes other bits of data. But there’s been no comprehensive assessment of how well they’re functioning as a COVID-fighting tool.

There have been some reports of bugs impacting operation in some cases, too. So it’s tricky to measure efficacy. Although the bald fact remains that having an app means there’s at least a chance it could identify contacts otherwise unknown to users, vs having no app and so no chance of that.

The Republic of Ireland is one of the European countries with a decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing app (which means it can interoperate with Northern Ireland’s app) — and it has defended how well the software is functioning, telling the BBC last month that 91 people had received a “close contact exposure alert” since launch. Although it’s not clear how many of them wouldn’t have been picked up via manual contacts tracing methods.

A government policy paper published at the end of last month which discussed the forthcoming DHSC app said it would allow citizens to: identify symptoms; order a test; and “feel supported” if they needed to self isolate. It would also let people scan a QR codes at venues they’ve visited “to aid contact tracing and help understand the spread of the virus”.

The government paper also claimed the app would let users “quickly identify when they have been exposed to people who have COVID-19 or locations that may have been the source of multiple infections” — but without providing details of how that would be achieved.

“Any services that require more information from a citizen will be provided only on the basis of explicit consent,” it added.

Ahead of the launch of this repackaged app it’s notable that DHSC disbanded an ethics committee which had been put in place to advise the NHS on the app. Once development was handed over to the government, the committee was thanked for its time and sent on its way.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One program today, professor Lilian Edwards — who was a member of the ethics committee — expressed concern at the reports of the government’s latest plans for the app.

“Although the data collection is being presented as voluntary it’s completely non-privacy preserving,” she told the program, discussing The Times’ report which suggests users will be nudged to provide personal data with the carrot of a ‘personal risk score’. “It’s going to involve the collection of a lot of personal, sensitive data — perhaps your health status, your retirement status, your occupation etc.

“This seems, again, an odd approach given that we know one of the reasons why the previous app didn’t really take off was because there was rather a loss of public trust and confidence in it, because of the worries partly about privacy and about data collection — it not being this privacy-preserving decentralized approach.”

“To mix the two up seems a strange way to go forward to me in terms of restoring and embedding that trust and confidence that your data won’t be shared with people you don’t want it to be,” Edwards added. “Like maybe insurers. Or repurposed in ways that you don’t know about. So it seems rather contrary to the mission of restoring trust and confidence in the whole test and trace endeavour.”

Concerns have also been raised about another element of the government’s digital response to the coronavirus — after it rushed to ink contracts with a number of tech giants, including Palantir and Google, granting them access to NHS data.

It was far less keen to publish details of these contracts — requiring a legal challenge by Open Democracy, which is warning over the impact of “Silicon Valley thinking” applied to public health services.

In another concerning development, privacy experts warned recently that the UK’s test and trace program as a whole breaches national data protection laws, after it emerged last month that the government failed to carry out a legally required privacy impact assessment ahead of launch.

August 6th 2020, 11:34 am

6 VCs on the future of Michigan’s startup ecosystem

TechCrunch

The Michigan startup scene is growing and venture capitalists see several key areas of opportunities. What follows is a survey of some of the top VCs in the state and how they see COVID-19 affecting the growth of Detroit, Ann Arbor and all of Michigan’s startup ecosystem. According to the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), there are 144 venture-backed startup companies in Michigan, which is an increase of 12% over the last five years.

The amount of capital available in the state hit a four-year high in 2019 after shrinking from record levels in 2015. The MVCA says the total amount of VC funds under management in Michigan is $4.3 billion. Out of that, 71% of the capital has been invested into companies and the MVCA states its members estimate an additional $1.2 billion of venture capital is needed to “adequately fund the growth of Michigan’s 144 startup companies in the next two years.”

As the VCs say below, life sciences is a large part of the Michigan ecosystem, attracting 38% of all investments made in the state. Information technology comes in second, receiving 34% of the total capital invested, with 85% going to those focused on software. Mobility, often thought as Michigan’s mainstay, only received 7% of the capital in 2019. Here’s who we spoke to:

VCs remain bullish on Michigan’s life science startups

Michigan has long been a hub for life science startups and the venture capitalists polled expect that to continue. Chris Stallman of Fontinalis Partners points to Michigan’s long-standing reputation in this field and expects this to continue.

Tim Streit of Grand Ventures agrees and sees the pandemic as accelerating the sector’s growth. In recent weeks he says his firm has seen a “number of promising digital therapeutics deals based in or near Michigan … and the timing couldn’t be more perfect for these kinds of companies to succeed.”

Chris Rizik of Renaissance Venture Capital notes that drug development will continue to drive growth around the country and is a strength of the Michigan ecosystem. He also points to Jeff Williams, CEO of NeuMoDx, as a leader in the life science community and who has led a number of Michigan’s most successful startups.

The notable exception to this are startups directly serving hospitals, according to Patricia Glaza of ID Ventures. She sees this as a challenging market in the era of COVID-19, saying “Hospitals are bleeding cash without elective surgeries and hard to prioritize nonessential technologies.”

Ann Arbor is becoming a hub for security companies

Duo Security’s impressive exit to Cisco in 2018 is still resonating in the scene. As such, many venture capitalists are seeing Ann Arbor becoming a home for security startups.

Stallman of Fontinalis states, “I think the cybersecurity realm will be a bright spot as some of those spillover effects from the 2018 acquisition of Duo Security by Cisco take hold (this is still in its early days — employees will reach the end of their employment agreements and will start new companies, etc.).” Rizik of Renaissance Venture Capital said something similar: “The success of Duo Security highlighted Michigan’s growing reputation as a cybersecurity hub. The University of Michigan has always been strong in this area, and we now see a number of interesting startups in this field popping up around Ann Arbor.”

When asked about leaders in the Michigan startup scene, nearly all of the VCs listed Duo Security founders Dug Song and Jon Oberheide as key players. Perhaps Rizik said it best: “Dug Song is a great leader, who not only created a monster success for the region with Duo Security, but also has devoted much of his time to strategically working to help Michigan move forward as a responsible, startup-friendly community.”

Michigan is well-suited to benefit from remote work

Of course Michigan-based venture capitalists would be bullish on their own state, but nearly all of the VCs share the same reasons on why Michigan is a good place. They list low cost of living, amazing STEM-focused schools and a community of founders, VCs and business leaders eager to help each other.

Few VCs mention mobility as a bright spot for Michigan startups

Surprisingly, few of the VCs in the survey mention mobility or automotive as a highlight of the Michigan startup scene, which runs counter to the national narrative. Stallman sums up the situation this way: “The mobility space will see both headwinds and tailwinds. Companies vying for automotive customers may find that the industry’s challenges have resulted in a shorter ‘priority list’ for many automakers and suppliers; on the other side, companies helping to remove enterprise risk through innovation in supply chain, automation, workforce efficiency, etc. will have arguably more opportunity going forward.”

Chris Stallman, partner, Fontinalis Partners

How much is local investing a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

We have always been a thematically focused investor rather than a geographically focused investor; prior to COVID-19, we had invested 99% of our capital outside of Michigan. With that said, we’d love to invest more in Michigan and support more local founders.

What do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Detroit/Ann Arbor/Michigan longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub?

Southeast Michigan has always been a story of two different startup worlds: health/life sciences and hardware/software tech. On the life sciences side, this region has a long-standing reputation of innovation and university research, and I expect that to remain largely the same going forward. It would seem to me that life sciences companies may not have as easy of a time adapting to new remote-work environments since much of the innovation work remains lab/clinic/facility-based.

For the world of other technology, I think there will certainly be more embracing of remote work and distributed teams — this area has always had some degree of that since it’s not uncommon to see companies with another office elsewhere or a few remote employees that come from very specific backgrounds that are hard to recruit for locally. Since this area has always had some of that, I could see a case that this new paradigm will be an easier adjustment for this region. However, the flip side of that is that so much of tech innovation and developing an ecosystem is about density and serendipitous collisions — for an area that was still on the come-up, losing what ground had been gained in recent years will no doubt make the spillover benefits of this aspect harder to come by. I worry a bit that angel and seed activity will slow locally (and hopefully that the growth in seed funds nationally will offset that).

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

I think a larger theme that is arising out of this COVID-19 situation is that people have a heightened sense of health, safety and security. Life sciences will remain resilient so long as there’s funding for continued research, and I think the cybersecurity realm will be a bright spot as some of those spillover effects from the 2018 acquisition of Duo Security by Cisco take hold (this is still in its early days — employees will reach the end of their employment agreements and will start new companies, etc.).

The mobility space will see both headwinds and tailwinds. Companies vying for automotive customers may find that the industry’s challenges have resulted in a shorter “priority list” for many automakers and suppliers; on the other side, companies helping to remove enterprise risk through innovation in supply chain, automation, workforce efficiency, etc. will have arguably more opportunity going forward.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Michigan’s startup scene?

Detroit has not yet hit a full critical mass from a startup ecosystem standpoint, and that is most evident in the more limited amount of angel and seed capital available to companies here; and, to a lesser extent, a more shallow pool of mentors and advisors for founders than what you would find in SF, LA, NYC, Boston, etc.

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

Here are some of the prominent ones (note that we have invested in any): Dug Song and Jon Oberheide (Duo Security), Mina Sooch (has founded and led several prominent biotech companies), Amanda Lewan (Bamboo Detroit), Kyle Hoff (Floyd), Josh Luber and Greg Schwartz (StockX).

A lot of Bay Area founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Michigan?

Quality research institutions, access to talent locally and ability to pull from Toronto/Ohio/etc., significant industry (automotive, logistics, manufacturing and financial services) in its footprint, supportive state programs for startups, cost of living, international airport with easy access (when the world moves again, that is), etc.

Patricia Glaza, EVP and managing director, ID Ventures

August 6th 2020, 11:34 am

48 hours left on early-bird savings to Buy Disrupt 2020

TechCrunch

You won’t find a better deal than this on Disrupt 2020 passes, but you won’t find it at all if you don’t take action within 48 short hours. The opportunity to save up to $300 dollars on your pass disappears when the early-bird deadline expires.

Wake up, smell the savings and buy your Disrupt pass before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

This all-virtual Disrupt spans five days — September 14-18 — and it includes an unprecedented number of attendees and early-stage startups from around the world. Translation? More time and opportunity to learn, connect and collaborate with influential people who can help you move your business forward.

Let’s face facts. In our current global situation, building a successful startup requires every tool in the shed. Disrupt is a prime source for gathering new, effective tools. Still on the fence? Listen to what three of your peers have to say about their Disrupt experiences.

“Disrupt was a great place to look for potential partners beyond our blockchain world. We got to meet and collaborate with founders in complimentary technologies like IoT and AI. Building those relationships will help all of us provide customers with better solutions. It’s a win-win.” — Joel Neidig, founder of SIMBA Chain.

“I wanted to get the most out of my time at Disrupt. I learned a lot by splitting my time between the Startup Battlefield, the Main Stage speakers and the how-to presentations for founders on the Extra Crunch Stage.” — JC Bodson, founder and CEO of Arbitrage Technologies.

“I’ve attended many tech events and demo days. I like Disrupt’s approach. It combines demos with educational components — like speakers, panels and Q&As — that help you learn new trends and tactics. It’s more like a tech summit.” — Daniel Lloreda, general partner at H20 Capital Innovation.

Check out this preview of just some of the Disrupt speakers and sessions, take advantage of the new Pitch Deck Teardown and don’t forget about CrunchMatch. Our AI-driven networking platform opens weeks ahead of Disrupt so you have even more time to find and connect with the people who align with your business goals.

So many reasons to attend Disrupt 2020 and so little time left to score early-bird savings. Hop off the fence, buy your pass before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT), save up to $300 and get ready to add a bunch of new tools to your startup arsenal.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

August 6th 2020, 11:34 am

Mode raises $33M to supercharge its analytics platform for data scientists

TechCrunch

Data science is the name of the game these days for companies that want to improve their decision making by tapping the information they are already amassing in their apps and other systems. And today, a startup called Mode Analytics, which has built a platform incorporating machine learning, business intelligence and big data analytics to help data scientists fulfil that task, is announcing $33 million in funding to continue making its platform ever more sophisticated.

Most recently, for example, the company has started to introduce tools (including SQL and Python tutorials) for less technical users, specifically those in product teams, so that they can structure queries that data scientists can subsequently execute faster and with more complete responses — important for the many follow up questions that arise when a business intelligence process has been run. Mode claims that its tools can help produce answers to data queries in minutes.

This Series D is being led by SaaS specialist investor H.I.G. Growth Partners, with previous investors Valor Equity Partners, Foundation Capital, REV Venture Partners, and Switch Ventures all participating. Valor led Mode’s Series C in February 2019, while Foundation and REV respectively led its A and B rounds.

Mode is not disclosing its valuation, but co-founder and CEO Derek Steer confirmed in an interview that it was “absolutely” an up-round.

For some context, PitchBook notes that last year its valuation was $106 million. The company now has a customer list that it says covers 52% of the Forbes 500, including Anheuser Busch, Zillow, Lyft, Bloomberg, Capital One, VMWare, and Conde Nast. It says that to date it has processed 830 million query runs and 170 million notebook cell runs for 300,000 users. (Pricing is based on a freemium model, with a free “Studio” tier and Business and Enterprise tiers priced based on size and use.)

Mode has been around since 2013, when it was co-founded by Steer, Benn Stancil (Mode’s current president) and Josh Ferguson (initially the CTO and now chief architect).

Steer said the impetus for the startup came out of gaps in the market that the three had found through years of experience at other companies.

Specifically, when all three were working together at Yammer (they were early employees and stayed on after the Microsoft acquisition), they were part of a larger team building custom data analytics tools for Yammer. At the time, Steer said Yammer was paying $1 million per year to subscribe to Vertica (acquired by HP in 2011) to run it.

They saw an opportunity to build a platform that could provide similar kinds of tools — encompassing things like SQL Editors, Notebooks, and reporting tools and dashboards — to a wider set of users.

“We and other companies like Facebook and Google were building analytics internally,” Steer recalled, “and we knew that the world wanted to work more like these tech companies. That’s why we started Mode.”

All the same, he added, “people were not clearly exactly about what a data scientist even was.”

Indeed, Mode’s growth so far has mirrored that of the rise of data science overall, as the discipline of data science, and the business case for employing data scientists to help figure out what is “going on” beyond the day to day, getting answers by tapping all the data that’s being amassed in the process of just doing business. That means Mode’s addressable market has also been growing.

But even if the trove of potential buyers of Mode’s products has been growing, so has the opportunity overall. There has been a big swing in data science and big data analytics in the last several years, with a number of tech companies building tools to help those who are less technical “become data scientists” by introducing more intuitive interfaces like drag-and-drop features and natural language queries.

They include the likes of Sisense (which has been growing its analytics power with acquisitions like Periscope Data), Eigen (focusing on specific verticals like financial and legal queries), Looker (acquired by Google) and Tableau (acquired by Salesforce).

Mode’s approach up to now has been closer to that of another competitor, Alteryx, focusing on building tools that are still aimed primary at helping data scientists themselves. You have any number of database tools on the market today, Steer noted, “Snowflake, Redshift, BigQuery, Databricks, take your pick.” The key now is in providing tools to those using those databases to do their work faster and better.

That pitch and the success of how it executes on it is what has given the company success both with customers and investors.

“Mode goes beyond traditional Business Intelligence by making data faster, more flexible and more customized,” said Scott Hilleboe, MD, H.I.G. Growth Partners, in a statement. “The Mode data platform speeds up answers to complex business problems and makes the process more collaborative, so that everyone can build on the work of data analysts. We believe the company’s innovations in data analytics uniquely position it to take the lead in the Decision Science marketplace.”

Steer said that fundraising was planned long before the coronavirus outbreak to start in February, which meant that it was timed as badly as it could have been. Mode still raised what it wanted to in a couple of months — “a good raise by any standard,” he noted — even if it’s likely that the valuation suffered a bit in the process. “Pitching while the stock market is tanking was terrifying and not something I would repeat,” he added.

Given how many acquisitions there have been in this space, Steer confirmed that Mode too has been approached a number of times, but it’s staying put for now. (And no, he wouldn’t tell me who has been knocking, except to say that it’s large companies for whom analytics is an “adjacency” to bigger businesses, which is to say, the very large tech companies have approached Mode.)

“The reason we haven’t considered any acquisition offers is because there is just so much room,” Steer said. “I feel like this market is just getting started, and I would only consider an exit if I felt like we were handicapped by being on our own. But I think we have a lot more growing to do.”

August 6th 2020, 11:21 am

Sony’s excellent over-ear headphones get smarter

TechCrunch

Sony knows how to make a great pair of headphones. The WH-1000XM3 are one of the best received pairs of over-ear models in recent years. Two years later, the company is ready to unveil their successors, which sport a number of smart connected features.

In fact, the WH-1000XM4 bring all sorts of nice upgrades to the line. Unsurprisingly, a number of them are smart features that more fall into the category of nice to have, rather than essential, but there are a few core updates, as well.

For starters, there’s improved noise canceling, courtesy of the two mics on each ear. Sony says the on-board system-on-a-chip is capable of processing noise 700 times a second, along with a built-in algorithm that’s capable of adjusting the adaptive noise canceling in something akin to real time.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit here, however, is a feature the company says is capable of “rebuilding” audio lost to compression — a pretty constant presence in the time of streaming everything. The technology was a joint venture with Sony Music Studios Tokyo. I’m definitely excited to hear how it actually sounds in practice — companies tend to make some big promises with these sort of lossless restoring technologies, to limited effect.

Image Credits: Sony

There’s 360 audio on-board, as well, of course. That’s been a big pet project for Sony — and one the company is going to really start pushing with the arrival of the PlayStation 5 later this year. The headphones support both Google Assistant and Alexa and utilize Google’s Fast Pair feature to get the connection up and running immediately. There’s also a feature that will let you ring the headphones when you misplace them.

Other notable additions include a Speak-to-Chat feature that turns down the music when you talk, adaptive sound for location you can pre-program and automate music pausing when you take them off your ears. That last bit will save on battery life. Sony promises up to 30 hours on a charge, though, so you should be good to go for a while. And when you’re in a pinch, 10 minutes of charging gets you five hours of playback.

The headphones up are for pre-order now and will hit retail mid-month, priced at $350.

August 6th 2020, 11:04 am

Google discontinues the Pixel 4, nine months after release

TechCrunch

Days after announcing the Pixel 4a, Google has quietly discontinued sales of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The move, noted early by the Verge, represents an extremely truncated lifecycle for a Google flagship — around half of the 18 months the company continued to sell its two predecessors.

Google already announced the imminent arrival of the Pixel 5, when it noted the forthcoming handset would be one of two Pixels devices to sport 5G, along with the Pixel 4a 5G.

The company confirmed the move in a statement, noting, “Google Store has sold through its inventory and completed sales of Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL. For people who are still interested in buying Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL, the product is available from some partners while supplies last. Just like all Pixel devices, Pixel 4 will continue to get software and security updates for at least three years from when the device first became available on the Google Store in the US.”

The Pixel 4 was a largely well-received device, owing mostly to impressive camera work. But the handset was hampered by bad battery life — something Google has since addressed in the 4a. The new budget handset also sports an excellent camera for its price point, making the Pixel 4’s  existence somewhat redundant. Though the end of the Pixel 4 XL does leave Google with a larger option.

The company has clearly been dealing with a kind of identity crisis with its smartphones. A recent management shakeup appears to point to a desire for a new direction for the line, which has long suffered from uneven sales. Among other things, Google entered an already saturated market and has had some trouble distinguishing its offerings from other Android handsets.

It remains to be seen whether the Pixel 5 will be the first device to benefit from the division’s new direction.

August 6th 2020, 10:34 am

WordPress.com launches new P2 to take on internal communication tools

TechCrunch

WordPress.com, a division of Automattic, is launching a new product called P2. And this time, it’s all about improving internal communications for private groups. As a remote company, Automattic has been using P2 internally for years to communicate asynchronously. It’s a place to share long-form posts, a repository to keep onboarding documents and other important ever-green documents.

P2 is built on top of WordPress . You can view it as a sort of WordPress for teams that is heavily customized around the concept of sharing ideas with other team members. Companies now rely on multiple internal communication tools. P2 can replace some of them but doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel altogether.

For instance, P2 isn’t a Slack competitor. You can’t use it for real-time chat. But P2 can be used to share important announcements — the kind of announcements that you can find on an intranet portal.

Image Credits: WordPress.com

You can also use it for long-term projects and create your own P2 for your team in particular. In that case, P2 competes more directly with Workplace by Facebook or Yammer. In order to make it more useful for asynchronous communications, P2 has some features that make it more useful than a simple WordPress blog.

For instance, you can @-mention your coworkers to send them a notification and follow posts to receive updates. You can also create checklists, embed PDF documents, stick important posts at the top of the homepage and stay on top of what happened while you were gone. There are dedicated menus to view new posts, new comments and mentions you’ve received.

While you can theoretically access the classic WordPress back-end, you can write new posts, edit existing posts and write comments without ever leaving P2. The company uses the new block editor that lets you add headings, lists, video embeds and media in a visual way. It works a bit like Squarespace’s editor or Notion, and it makes a ton of sense to leverage the new editor right next to content you’re viewing, commenting on, etc.

For content that always remains relevant, you can create documents, which are pages without a specific publishing date and without comments. These documents are sorted in their own category and can be easily shared across a company. You can use documents for internal policies, guides or important contact information. Many companies rely on Google Docs and shared folders in Google Drive for this kind of documents. P2 could potentially replace those shared folders and become the main information repository.

By default, P2 sites are private but you can make them public in case you want to share updates on your product with clients or use P2 for public events.

If you’re familiar with the WordPress ecosystem, you might already know a WordPress theme called P2. The new P2 announced today is a new product that takes that idea to the next level. Automattic has been iterating on the concept and using it widely with its 1,300 employees across 912 internal P2 sites.

WordPress.com is going to offer hosted P2 instances. Anybody can create a P2 for free and invite other people. Eventually, WordPress.com plans to offer paid subscriptions for advanced features. In other words, P2 is going to be a software-as-a-service product. But there will be a self-hostable, open source version in the future as well.

I played around with a few P2 instances, and the overall impression is that the complexity of WordPress remains hidden by default, which is a good thing. It’s a clean and focused product that would work particularly well in that spot between company-wide emails and announcements getting lost in Slack.

Image Credits: WordPress.com

August 6th 2020, 9:31 am

Crossbeam announces $25M Series B to keep growing partnerships platform

TechCrunch

As sales teams partner with other companies, they go through a process called account mapping to find common customers and prospects. This is usually a highly manual activity tracked in spreadsheets. Crossbeam, a Philadelphia startup, has come up with a way to automate partnership data integration. Today the company announced a $25 million Series B investment.

Redpoint Ventures led the round with help from existing investors FirstMark Capital, Salesforce Ventures, Slack Fund and Uncork Capital along with new investors Okta Ventures and Partnership Leaders, a partnership industry association. All in all, an interesting mix of traditional VCs and strategic investors that Crossbeam could potentially partner with as they grow the business.

The funding comes on the heels of a $3.5 million seed round in 2018 and a $12.5 million Series A a year ago. The startup has now raised a total of $41 million.

Crossbeam has been growing steadily and that attracted the attention of investors, whom Moore says approached him. He was actually not thinking about fundraising until next year, but when the opportunity presented itself, he decided to seize it.

The platform has a natural networking effect built into it with over 900 companies using it so far. As new companies come on, they invite partners, who can join and invite more partners, and that creates a constant sales motion for them without much effort at all.

“We didn’t go out fundraising. We caught the eye of Redpoint because they could see the virality of the product and the extent to which it was being used by many of their portfolio companies and companies out in the market […],” CEO and co-founder Bob Moore told TechCrunch.

Image Credits: Crossbeam

To accelerate interest in the product, the company also announced a new free tier, which replaces the limited free trial and a starter level that previously cost $500 per month. Prior to this move, if you didn’t move to the starter tier, you would lose your data when the trial was over.

“The idea here is what we’ve seen in the data is that we can create a whole lot of value for people and demonstrate really strong ROI once they get in the door and actually have access to that data, and they don’t have to worry about a free trial where the data is going away,” Moore explained.

Moore says they currently have 28 employees and have ambitious plans to add new people to the mix in the coming months, expecting to reach 50 employees by early 2021. As the company revs up on the personnel side, Moore says diversity is front and center of their plans.

“As far as Crossbeam specifically goes, we’ve made sure that diversity, equity and inclusion is part of our entire recruiting process and also the cultural experience that we create for people that are at the company,” he said. Although he didn’t discuss specific numbers, he said the company was making progress, particularly in the latest round of hires.

While the company has an office in Philly, even before COVID hit, it was a remote first organization with about half of the employees working from home. “I think a lot of our culture was kind of built to make sure that remote team members are first class citizens in every respect in the company. So we already had all the controls, technology and practices in place, and when we shut the office, it was about as smooth as could be,” he said.

August 6th 2020, 9:31 am

Majority of tech workers expect company solidarity with Black Lives Matter

TechCrunch

The death of George Floyd and the recent Black Lives Matter protests have drawn widespread attention to the systemic racism within the United States. Millions of individuals across every state have come together to demand change.

Yet, whether companies believe they have a responsibility to respond to, resist and address this racism remains unclear. Do customers expect, or desire, a response? Do the companies’ own employees expect a response? Corporate America has the ability to use its influence for the change many of their employees are demanding; however, historically companies have been wary of inserting themselves into the middle of any conflict.

Now more than ever, it’s important for employers to align themselves with their employees’ expectations, though. Since March 2020 professionals working remotely increased from 30% to 80%, drastically accelerating an already rapidly growing trend. This remote nature has made it increasingly difficult to maintain a strong sense of “corporate community” and trust between leaders and employees.

At Fishbowl, we have been able to observe employees’ sentiments and expectations of their employers during this time.

Fishbowl is a new workplace social network that brings professionals together in a new era of remote work. Fishbowl provides thousands of industry and community-related bowls (aka groups) that allow verified professionals to have more honest and intimate conversations with other people working in roles and industries similar to their own.

Over the past several weeks, we saw a large increase in conversations about employers’ roles in addressing systemic racism and support for the Black Lives Matter cause. Our team decided to quantify the insights from these conversations, and polled employees on whether they expect their companies to speak out. We found that the majority of employees expect a public statement, but it varies significantly by industry.

About the survey

In order to determine how many employees expect their companies to release a statement on recent events, we asked professionals one question:

“Do you expect your company to publicly speak up for the Black Lives Matter cause?”

Professionals could answer with one of two options: (A) Yes or (B) No. The survey ran from June 5 through June 7, 2020 and received responses from over 16,812 verified professionals on the Fishbowl app from across the United States. Respondents included employees at companies such as IBM, JP Morgan, Facebook, McKinsey, Deloitte, Bank of America, Amazon, Edelman, Nike, Google, KPMG and thousands of others.

Here’s what our survey revealed:

Expected company solidarity with Black Lives Matter by industry. Image Credits: Fishbowl (opens in a new window)

Most expect their company to speak up: Of the 16,812 professionals that responded, 11,638 (69.22%) answered that they expect their company to publicly speak up about the Black Lives Matter cause. A majority of professionals expect a statement of some sort from their employer.

By gender:  76.77% of women and 62.75% of men answered that they expect their company to speak up for the Black Lives Matter movement.

By industry: Human resources employees had the highest percentage of employees expecting their company to publicly respond about BLM, with a vast majority of 88.89%. Tech employees followed with 78.93%, while advertising employees were only marginally behind with 78.42%. Conversely, the law industry had the lowest percentage of employees expecting their company to speak up, with only 48.45%. Following closely behind were finance (56.92%) and teachers (57.21%).

By state: Out of the states with more than 100 responses, Californian participants were the most likely to expect their company to speak up about the movement, with 75.27%. Maryland (74.89%), Washington, D.C. (74.21%) and Massachusetts (74.02%) followed closely behind. Kansas showed the lowest percentage of employees expecting their company to show support for BLM, with 51.46%. Louisiana (57.14%), South Carolina (60.83%) and Missouri (61.93%) trailed behind.

Tech industry professionals expect statements

As noted above, the response varied greatly by industry, with tech standing out toward the top, with 79% of employees expecting public statements from their employer.

Big tech companies and their CEOs command more attention from the media than any other industry. With that attention comes certain expectations and pressure to respond to important causes like BLM from the public and their own employees.

So, when these companies speak out (or don’t), the public takes note. Social networking platforms in particular rely on how the public perceives them for business. Not making a statement could lead to a loss of business for some of these companies. For example, Facebook’s inaction on posts by Trump about the protests led to user and employee backlash last week.

Companies within other industries, on the other hand, such as law firms, are not household names, nor have the same level of scrutiny from the public eye. If anything, law firms and the individuals working there are asked to represent both sides of any argument, supporting the survey results showing less than half of attorneys expected public statements from their employers.

Looking ahead

What companies say (and don’t say) in coming weeks will greatly impact the relationship and trust with their employees. Now that tech giants like Apple, Google, Amazon and even TikTok, have made statements supporting the Black Lives Matter cause, the focus will shift from public statements to action and accountability.

As a recent Washington Post article on diversity in tech reveals, the words from these institutions might not always be representative of their actions. Employees of these companies are now rightfully asking their employers to turn their commitment to the cause into action by looking internally, and to start making the corporate environment more equitable for Black professionals.

August 6th 2020, 9:31 am

Special raises $2.26M to build a subscription platform for online creators

TechCrunch

Special is a new startup offering online video creators a way to move beyond advertising for their income.

The service was created by the team behind tech consulting and development firm Triple Tree Software. Special’s co-founder and CEO Sam Lucas told me that the team had already “scrapped our way from nothing to a seven-figure annual revenue,” but when the founders met with Next Frontier Capital (Next Frontier, like Special, is based in Bozeman, Montana) they pitched a bigger idea — an app where creators charge a subscription fee for access to premium content.

While Triple Tree started in the service business, Lucas explained that the goal was also to create “a product company that we could sell for $100 million.” Now Special is announcing that it has raised $2.26 million in seed funding from Next Frontier and other investors.

It’s also built an initial version of the product that’s being tested by friends, family and a handful of creators, with plans for a broader beta test in October.

With online advertising slowing dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, YouTube recently highlighted the fact that 80,000 of its channels are earning money from non-ad sources, and that the number of creators who receive the majority of their income from a source other than advertising grew 40% between January and May.

One of the main ways that creators can ask their viewers for money is through Patreon. Lucas acknowledged Patreon as a “very big inspiration” for Special, but he said that conversations with creators pointed to a few key ways that the service falls short.

Image Credits: Special

For one thing, he argued while contributions on Patreon are framed as “donations” or “support,” Special allows creators to emphasize the value of their premium content by putting it behind a subscription paywall. The existing service supports paywalls as well, but that leads to Lucas’ next point — that Patreon was built built for creators of all kinds, while Special is focused specifically on video, and it’s built a high-quality video player into the experience.

In fact, Lucas described Special’s spin on the idea of a white labeled product as “silver label.” The goal is to create “the perfect balance between a platform and a custom app” — creators get their own customizable channels that emphasize their brand identity (rather than Special’s), while still getting the distribution and exposure benefits of being part of a larger platform, with their content searchable and viewable on web, mobile and smart TVs.

Creators also retain ownership of their content, and they get to decide how much they want to charge subscribers — Lucas said it can be anywhere between “$1 or $999” per month, with Special taking a 10% fee. He added that the team has plans to build a bundling option that would allow creators to team up and offer a joint subscription.

Lucas’ pitch reminded me of startups like Vessel (acquired and shut down by TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon in 2016), which previously hoped to bring online creators together for a subscription offering. In Lucas’ view, Vessel was similar to newer apps like Quibi, in that they directly funded creators to produce exclusive content.

“It’s a billion-dollar arms race, with what used to be a technology play but is now a production studio play,” he said. Special doesn’t have the funding to compete at that level, but Lucas suggested that a studio model also provides the wrong incentives to creators, who say “Hell yeah, keep those checks coming in,” but disappear “the moment the checks stop.”

“I almost think it’s an egotistical play,” Lucas added. “The company thinks they know best what a creator should produce for an audience that doesn’t exist yet. We say: Let them do it on Special. Do whatever you want, as long as you follow our terms of service, and own your creative vision.”

It might also seem like a big challenge to recruit creators while based in Montana, but Lucas replied that Special has more access than you might think, especially since the town has become “such a hotspot for extremely wealthy people to buy their third home.”

More broadly, he suggested that the distance from Hollywood and Silicon Valley “allows us to not follow the trends of every new streaming platform and [instead] truly find those independent creators underneath the woodworks.”

August 6th 2020, 9:31 am

TikTok announces first data center in Europe

TechCrunch

TikTok, the Chinese video sharing app that’s found itself at the center of a geopolitical power struggle which threatens to put hard limits on its global growth this year, said today it will build its first data center in Europe.

The announcement of a TikTok data center in the EU also follows a landmark ruling by Europe’s top court last month that put international data transfers in the spotlight, dialling up the legal risk around processing data outside the bloc.

TikTok said the forthcoming data center, which will be located in Ireland, will store the data of its European users once it’s up and running (which is expected by early 2022) — with a slated investment into the country of around €420M (~$497M), according to a blog post penned by global CISO, Roland Cloutier.

“This investment in Ireland… will create hundreds of new jobs and play a key role in further strengthening the safeguarding and protection of TikTok user data, with a state of the art physical and network security defense system planned around this new operation,” Cloutier wrote, adding that the regional data centre will have the added boon for European users of faster load times, improving the overall experience of using the app.

The social media app does not break out regional users — but a leaked ad deck suggested it had 17M+ MAUs in Europe at the start of last year.

The flipside of TikTok’s rise to hot social media app beloved of teens everywhere has been earning itself the ire of US president Trump — who earlier this month threatened to use executive powers to ban TikTok in the US unless it sells its US business to an American company. (Microsoft is in the frame as a buyer.)

Whether Trump has the power to block TikTok’s app is debatable. Tech savvy teenagers will surely deploy all their smarts to get around any geoblocks. But operational disruption looks inevitable — and that has been forcing TikTok to make a series of strategic tweaks in a bid to limit damage and/or avoid the very worst outcomes.

Since taking office the US president has shown himself willing to make international business extremely difficult for Chinese tech firms. In the case of mobile device and network kit maker, Huawei, Trump has limited domestic use of its tech and leant on allies to lock it out of their 5G networks (with some success) — citing national security concerns from links to the Chinese Communist Party.

His beef with TikTok is the same stated national security concerns, centered on its access to user data. (Though Trump may have his own personal reasons to dislike the app.)

TikTok, like every major social media app, gathers huge amounts of user data — which its privacy policy specifies it may share user data with third parties, including to fulfil “government inquiries”. So while its appetite for personal data looks much the same as US social media giants (like Facebook) its parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, is subject to China’s Internet Security Law — which since 2017 has given the Chinese Chinese Communist Party sweeping powers to obtain data from digital companies. And while the US has its own intrusive digital surveillance laws, the existence of a Chinese mirror of the US state-linked data industrial complex has put tech firms right at the heart of geopolitics.

TikTok has been taking steps to try to insulate its international business from US-fuelled security concerns — and also provide some incentives to Trump for not quashing it — hiring Disney executive Kevin Mayer on as CEO of TikTok and COO of ByteDance in May, and promising to create 10,000 jobs in the U.S., as well as claiming US user data is stored in the US.

In parallel it’s been reconfiguring how it operates in Europe, setting up an EMEA Trust and Safety Hub in Dublin, Ireland at the start of this year and building out its team on the ground. In June it also updated its regional terms of service — naming its Irish subsidiary as the local data controller alongside its UK entity, meaning European users’ data no longer falls under its US entity, TikTok Inc.

This reflects distinct rules around personal data which apply across the European Union and European Economic Area. So while European political leaders have not been actively attacking TikTok in the same way as Trump, the company still faces increased legal risk in the region.

Last month CJEU judges made it clear that data transfers to third countries can only be legal if EU users’ data is not being put at risk by problematic surveillance laws and practices. The CJEU ruling (aka ‘Schrems II’) means data processing in countries such as China and India — and, indeed, the US — are now firmly in the risk frame where EU data protection law is concerned.

One way of avoiding this risk is to process European users’ data locally. So TikTok opening a data center in Ireland may also be a response to Schrems II — in that it will offer a way for it to ensure it can comply with requirements flowing from the ruling.

Privacy commentators have suggested the CJEU decision may accelerate data localization efforts — a trend that’s also being seen in countries such as China and Russia (and, under Trump, the US too it seems).

EU data watchdogs have also warned there will be no grace period following the CJEU invalidating the US-EU Privacy Shield data transfer mechanism. While those using other still valid tools for international transfers are bound to carry out an assessment — and either suspend data flows if they identify risks or inform a supervisor that the data is still flowing (which could in turn trigger an investigation).

The EU’s data protection framework, GDPR, bakes in stiff penalties for violations — with fines that can hit 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. So the business risk around EU data protection is no longer small, even as wider geopolitical risks are upping the uncertainty for global Internet players.

“Protecting our community’s privacy and data is and will continue to be our priority,” TikTok’s CISO writes, adding: “Today’s announcement is just the latest part of our ongoing work to enhance our global capability and efforts to protect our users and the TikTok community.”

August 6th 2020, 7:45 am

More Chinese phone makers could lose US apps under Trump’s Clean Network

TechCrunch

Over a third of the world’s smartphone sales come from Chinese vendors Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. These manufacturers have thrived not only because they offer value-for-money handsets thanks to China’s supply chains, but they also enjoy a relatively open mobile ecosystem, in which consumers in most countries can freely access the likes of Google, Instagram and WhatsApp.

That openness is under attack as the great U.S.-China tech divide inches closer to reality, which can cause harm on both sides.

The Trump Administration’s five-pronged Clean Network initiative aims to strip away Chinese phone makers’ ability to pre-install and download U.S. apps. Under U.S. sanctions, Huawei already lost access to key Google services, which has dealt a blow to its overseas phone sales. Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and other Chinese phone makers could suffer the same setback as Huawei, should the Clean Network applies to them.

For years, China has maintained a closed-up internet with the Great Firewall restricting a bevy of Western services, often without explicitly presenting the reasons for censorship. Now the U.S. has a plan that could potentially keep Chinese apps off the American internet.

The Clean Network program was first announced in April as part of the Trump Administration’s efforts in “guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”

Beijing said Thursday it’s firmly opposed to U.S. restrictions on Chinese tech firms and blasted that the U.S. uses such actions to preserve its technology hegemony.

Many on Chinese social media compare Trump’s Clean Network proposal to routine cyberspace crackdowns in China, which regulators say are to purge pornography, violence, gambling, and other ‘illegal’ activities. Others that espouse a free internet lament its looming demise.

It’s unclear when the rules would be implemented and how they would be enforced. The program also aims to remove ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps from US app stores. A TikTok ban is looking less likely as Microsoft nears a buyout, but other Chinese apps also have a big presence in the U.S. Many, like WeChat and Weibo, target the diaspora community, while players like Likee and Zynn, owned by Chinese firms, are making waves among local users.

Chinese firms are already hedging. Some like TikTok have set up overseas data centers. Others register their entities abroad and maintain U.S. offices, while still resorting to China for cheaper engineering talents. It’s simply impractical to investigate — and hard to determine — every app’s Chinese origin.

Under the program, carriers like China Mobile are not allowed to connect with U.S. telecoms networks, which could prevent these services from offering U.S. roaming to Chinese travelers.

The initiative also tells U.S. companies not to store information on Chinese cloud services like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu. Chinese cloud providers don’t find many clients in the U.S., perhaps except when they are hosting data for their own services, such as Tencent games serving American users.

Lastly, the framework wants to ensure U.S. undersea cables connecting to the world “are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper-scale.”

Such sweeping restrictions, if carried out, will almost certainly trigger retaliation from China. But what bargaining chips are left for Beijing? Apple and Tesla are the few American tech behemoths with significant business interest in China.

August 6th 2020, 5:32 am

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go

TechCrunch

Uber has bought UK based Autocab, which sells SaaS to the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, with the aim of expanding the utility of its own platform by linking users who open its app in places where it doesn’t offer trips to local providers who do.

No acquisition price has been disclosed and Uber declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Autocab has a SaaS presence in 20 countries globally at this stage, according to an Uber spokeswoman. We’ve asked whether it will be closing a marketplace service which connects local taxi firms with trip bookers in any locations as a result of the Uber acquisition.

The Manchester-based veteran taxi software maker — which sells booking and despatch software as well as operating a global marketplace (iGo) which local firms can plug into to get more trips — was founded back in 1989, per Crunchbase.

Uber’s spokeswoman said it plans to support Autocab’s expansion of SaaS and iGo internationally — suggesting the tech giant hopes to be able to integrate the marketplace across its own global footprint in order to be able to offer users a less patchy service.

The move also looks intended to create more opportunities for Uber drivers to pick up jobs from outside its own platform, including delivery work.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Uber said “thousands of people” open its app every month in places where they can’t get a trip. It lists 15 UK towns which fall into this category — headed by Oxford (with 67,099 app opens monthly) and Tunbridge Wells (46,150); or at the other end Colchester (16,540) and Ipswich (16,539).

“Through Autocab’s iGo marketplace, Uber will be able to connect these riders with local operators who choose to take their booking. In turn, operators should be able to expand their operations and offer more earnings opportunities to local drivers. Uber will also explore providing drivers with additional revenue opportunities related to its platform for other services, such as delivery,” it added.

According to Bloomberg, Uber won’t be integrating Autocab’s marketplace in markets where it already offers a service, such as London — so there does look to be an element of Uber using the purchase to shore up its own key markets by closing down the chance of a little locally flavored competition.

Uber’s rides business has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squeezed demand for on-demand transportation, as many professionals switching to remote work at home. Social distancing requirements have also hit the nightlife industry, further eating into demand for Uber’s service.

All of which makes life hard for Uber’s ‘self employed‘ drivers — giving the company an incentive to find ways to retain their service during a leaner time for on-demand trips when they may otherwise abandon the platform, damaging its ability to provide a reliable service.

For Autocab’s part, the acquisition offers a road to further global expansion. It will remain independent with its own board after the acquisition, per the pair’s press release — retaining its focus on serving the taxi and private hire vehicle industry globally.

Commenting in a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern & Eastern Europe, said: “Autocab has worked successfully with taxi and private hire operators around the world for more than thirty years and Uber has a lot to learn from their experience. We look forward to working with the Autocab team to help local operators grow and provide drivers with genuine earnings opportunities.”

Autocab CEO, Safa Alkatab, added: “Autocab has been working with local operators across the world to provide the technology to make them more efficient and open up a marketplace to provide more trips. Working with Uber we can scale up our ambitions, providing hundreds of thousands of additional trips for our customers, and help cement the place of licenced operators in their local community.”

August 6th 2020, 5:32 am

Infermedica scores $10M Series A for its ‘AI-driven’ diagnosis and triage platform

TechCrunch

Infermedica, the Poland-founded health tech startup that offers an AI-driven platform for preliminary diagnosis and triage, has raised just over $10 million in Series A funding.

The round is led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and digital health fund Heal Capital. Existing investors Karma Ventures, Inovo Venture Partners, and Dreamit Ventures also participated.

Infermedica says the investment will be used for platform R&D to further enhance its patient triage and symptom checking features and clinical decision support analysis. The company is also planning to expand operations in Germany and the U.S. The new capital means the startup has raised $15 million in total to date.

Founded in 2012 in Wrocław by CEO Piotr Orzechowski, Infermedica describes itself an “AI-driven, customisable, multi-language” platform that aids patient care and healthcare service delivery. Like a plethora of competitors, such as Ada Health, Babylon and Your.MD, it combines the expertise of doctors with its own algorithms to offer symptom triage and advice to patients.

Image Credits: Infermedica

Notably, the company operates a B2B model, working with insurance companies, telemedicine companies, and health systems that want to offer digitally delivered symptom-checks. It positions itself as “API-first,” as well as whitelabeling its platform on behalf of customers.

“We’re focused on improving the way patients make decisions about their symptoms,” explains Orzechowski. “According to studies, the majority of internet users search online when they’re feeling unwell, but it’s hard to find accurate and personalized answers about our own health. To help everyone evaluate their symptoms in a quick and reliable way, we’ve developed a carefully curated AI platform that asks diagnostic questions and computes likelihoods of primary care conditions. With nearly 40,000 hours of physician work and 6,000,000 completed user checkups, we are among the most trusted vendors of symptom checking technology”.

To that end, current Infermedica clients include health insurance companies, such as Allianz, Global Excel, and Medis,, where digital triage claims to help optimise the cost of providing care. The startup also sells into hospital systems, including Sana Kliniken, and is used to identify the urgency of a patient’s case and to collect information prior to a hospital visit. It also offers its API to technology companies, such as Microsoft, who integrate the platform into its health bot.

On competition, Orzechowski says that there are several “great companies” in the space, but argues that each of them does something different in terms of their product or marketing focus. “What makes Infermedica unique is that we are API-first,” he says. “We’re solely focused on providing the most powerful AI triage and pre-diagnosis component, and we integrate easily with all other platforms such as chatbots, patient portals, and EHRs. We want to become like Stripe, but for medical diagnosis”.

Meanwhile, Infermedica makes money by licensing its technology to its B2B clients. The startup’s SaaS model sees it charge based on the number of performed API calls or completed patient checkups.

August 6th 2020, 4:15 am

Attorneys general from twenty states call on Facebook to do more to fight discrimination, disinforma

TechCrunch

In an open letter to Facebook’s leadership posted earlier today, the attorneys general from twenty states called on the company to do more to fight intimidation, discrimination, disinformation, harassment and hate speech on the platform.

“Although Facebook has made some progress in counteracting the use of its platform to dehumanize and demean, that is just the beginning of what is necessary,” the attorneys general wrote. “Private parties, organized groups, and public officials continue to use Facebook to spread misinformation and project messages of hate against different groups of Americans. In many cases, these messages lead to intimidation and harassment of particular individuals online.”

Roughly 40 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment, according to study by the Anti-Defamation League and around 70 percent of those reporting harassment said it came on Facebook or its associated platforms, according to the report.

So the attorneys general asked Facebook to take more steps to protect users and provide redress for those platform participants who are victims of intimidation and harassment.

Their letter joins a chorus of consternation that has arisen to chastise the platform and its chief executive for doing too little, too late to stem the hate speech and misinformation that has come to define the platform’s experience for many users.

Over the summer, some of the biggest brands in the US pulled advertising from social media platforms in response to a campaign from civil rights organizations.

That boycott includes huge mainstream brands including Coca-Cola, Best Buy, Ford and Verizon. Other brands on board include Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Reebok, REI, Patagonia and Vans.

While some of the companies may have ulterior motives for pulling advertising, pressure has been growing on the company to take more action against the provocateurs on its platform.

In the face of all this criticism, Zuckerberg has been steadfast in his refusal to budge (even as his logic becomes increasingly tortured).

The attorneys general agree with these other assessments. “[The] steps you have taken thus far have fallen short,” the attorneys wrote. “With the vast resources at your disposal, we believe there is much mroe that you can do to prevent the use of Facebook as a vehicle for misinformation and discrimination, and to prevent your users from being victimized by harassment and intimidation on your platforms.”

The leaders of the legal arms of state governments from California to the District of Columbia took the company to task and called on its leadership to follow the steps highlighted in its Civil Rights Audit to strengthen its commitment to civil rights and fighting disinformation.

Facebook also may be beginning to listen to its critics. Earlier this evening the company took down a post from President Donald Trump that included misinformation about the COVID-19 epidemic.

It’s a decision that could signal a new direction for Facebook, which has taken incremental steps to distance itself from the perception that the company deliberately turns a blind eye to the president’s potentially harmful behavior.

“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” Facebook’s Liz Bourgeois said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Facebook also had a response for the attorneys general. In a statement issued to NBC News, Facebook spokesperson Daniel Roberts said that hate speech was working to ensure people feel safe on the internet.

“Hate speech is an issue across the internet and we are working to make Facebook as safe as possible by investing billions to keep hate off our platform and fight misinformation,” Roberts told the network in a statement.

August 5th 2020, 11:48 pm

Twitter locked the Trump campaign out of its account for sharing COVID-19 misinformation

TechCrunch

Twitter took action against the official Trump campaign Twitter account Wednesday, freezing @TeamTrump’s ability to tweet until it removed a video in which the president made misleading claims about the coronavirus. In the video clip, taken from a Wednesday morning Fox News interview, President Trump makes the unfounded assertion that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

While Trump’s main account @realDonaldTrump linked out to the @TeamTrump tweet in violation, it did not directly share it. In spite of some mistaken reports that Trump’s own account is locked, at this time his account had not been subject to the same enforcement action as the Trump campaign account, which appears to have regained its ability to tweet around 6PM PT.

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Facebook also took its own unprecedented action against President Trump’s account late Wednesday, removing the post for violating its rules against harmful false claims that any group is immune to the virus.

The president’s false claims were made in service of his belief that schools should reopen their classrooms in the fall. In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made similar unscientific claims, arguing that children are “stoppers of the disease.”

In reality, the relationship between children and the virus is not yet well understood. While young children seem less prone to severe cases of COVID-19, the extent to which they contract and spread the virus isn’t yet known. In a new report examining transmission rates at a Georgia youth camp, the CDC observed that “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

August 5th 2020, 9:45 pm

Facebook just took down a Trump post for spreading ‘harmful’ COVID-19 misinformation

TechCrunch

Facebook took down a video President Trump posted to his account Wednesday, citing its rules against false claims about the coronavirus. The decision to remove the video signals a new direction for Facebook, which has been taking incremental steps recently to distance itself from the perception that the company deliberately turns a blind eye to the president’s potentially harmful behavior.

The video in question was a clip from a Fox News segment from Wednesday morning in which the president makes the unsubstantiated claim that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. While much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, children can contract COVID-19 and are believed to be able to spread it to others, even without symptoms.

“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” Facebook’s Liz Bourgeois said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Twitter also removed a link to the same video clip, which the official Trump Twitter account @TeamTrump shared earlier on Wednesday. Links to the tweet now point Twitter users to a message that the tweet violated Twitter’s rules and is no longer available.

August 5th 2020, 8:17 pm

Uber and Lyft face new lawsuit from CA Labor Commissioner

TechCrunch

Uber and Lyft are both facing another lawsuit from the office of the California Labor Commissioner alleging wage theft. Filed today, the suits argue both Uber and Lyft are misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors and aim to enforce the labor practices set forth by AB 5.

“The Uber and Lyft business model rests on the misclassification of drivers as independent contractors,” California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower said in a statement. “This leaves workers without protections such as paid sick leave and reimbursement of drivers’ expenses, as well as overtime and minimum wages.”

The goals of the separate suits are to recover the money that is allegedly owed to these drivers. By classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, both Uber and Lyft have not been required to pay minimum wage, overtime compensation, nor have they been required to offer paid breaks or reimburse drivers for the costs of driving.

AB 5, which went into law earlier this year, outlines what type of worker can and cannot be classified as an independent contractor. The law codifies the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in work of some independently established trade or other similar business.

These suits are seeking for the court to order Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees and provide them with all the protections that come with being a W-2 employee.

“For years Uber and Lyft have been stealing wages and exploiting every legal loophole they can to avoid paying drivers what they deserve,” Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen said in a statement. “It was shameful before and it is even more shameful now, during the middle of a pandemic, that we have allowed wealthy companies to get away with this. This lawsuit is an essential part of holding these companies accountable and protecting drivers’ rights.”

These new lawsuits come just months before Californians are set to vote on Prop 22, a ballot measure backed by Uber, Lyft and others. The ballot measure looks to implement an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job, 30 cents per mile for expenses, a healthcare stipend, occupational accident insurance for on-the-job injuries, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment and automobile accident and liability insurance. Most notably, however, it would keep drivers classified as independent contractors.

“[…]as this lawsuit clearly demonstrates, Sacramento politicians are more interested in the wishes of their special interest donors than the will of the vast majority of drivers and are intent on stripping drivers of the freedom to choose independent work,” the Yes on 22 campaign said in a statement. “This coordinated effort by all levels of government to run a politically motivated campaign will hurt the state at the worst possible time.”

August 5th 2020, 8:17 pm

Unagi, the iPhone of scooters, now has a subscription service

TechCrunch

Unagi, the portable and design-forward electric scooter company that made a splash with celebs and pop stars, has launched a subscription service.

The service, called Unagi All-Access, will be offered in New York City and Los Angeles. The company said it plans to expand to additional markets as it gathers customer feedback and refines the service.

Customers will be able to choose from two plans. There will be pay-as-you-go monthly plan that costs $39 per month and a discounted annual plan for $34 a month. Unagi does charge a $50 initial setup fee, which means that first month will cost customers $89. The flat monthly fee includes maintenance and insurance for scooter theft or damage.

Image Credits:

Once a customer subscribes, an assembled Model One scooter is shipped to their home within 24 hours, Unagi promises. The Model One costs $990 for customers who want to buy the scooter outright.

Once a customer cancels their subscription, Unagi reclaims the scooter, which is then put through a 80-point inspection. Unagi tells TechCrunch that it’s the same inspection that the scooters go through at the factory. There’s no written guarantee that subscribers will get a new scooter. However, Unagi said customers will likely get new scooters because the company has been ramping up production since the beginning of the pandemic to meet demand.

It is a risk for Unagi, but one the company is betting will pay off amid — and after — the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This model is well-suited to today’s world: as cities re-open, people are rethinking how they get to the supermarket, the post office and the park,” according to the company’s recent blog post announcing the service. “Data shows COVID-wary consumers are afraid of shared transportation, whether it’s the subway, an Uber or a shared scooter. They’re looking for safer alternatives.”

The company was already researching a subscription service before COVID-19 spread throughout the world, according to CEO David Hyman.

Unagi tested the idea last fall. A deeper study was launched in spring in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School that determined demand was higher than expected.

“COVID just reinforced our desire to get it live and was the impetus for going live in both LA and NYC at the same time,” Hyman told TechCrunch in an email.

Unagi isn’t alone in this scooter subscription pivot, or what we like to call hardware-as-a-service. Others are also pursuing this business model, including Dance and Voi.

August 5th 2020, 6:46 pm

YouTube bans thousands of Chinese accounts to combat ‘coordinated influence operations’

TechCrunch

YouTube has banned a large number of Chinese accounts it said were engaging in “coordinated influence operations” on political issues, the company announced today. 2,596 accounts from China alone were taken down from April to June, compared with 277 in the first three months of 2020.

“These channels mostly uploaded spammy, non-political content, but a small subset posted political content primarily in Chinese similar to the findings in a recent Graphika report, including content related to the U.S. response to COVID-19,” Google posted in its Threat Analysis Group bulletin for Q2.

The Graphika report, entitled “Return of the (Spamouflage) Dragon: Pro Chinese Spam Network Tries Again,” can be read here. It details a large set of accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that began to be activated early this year that appeared to be part of a global propaganda push:

The network made heavy use of video footage taken from pro-Chinese government channels, together with memes and lengthy texts in both Chinese and English. It interspersed its political content with spam posts, typically of scenery, basketball, models, and TikTok videos. These appeared designed to camouflage the operation’s political content, hence the name.

It’s the “return” of this particular spam dragon because it showed up last fall in a similar form, and whoever is pulling the strings appears undeterred by detection. New, sleeper, and stolen accounts were amassed again and deployed for similar purposes, though now — as Google notes — with a COVID-19 twist.

When June rolled around, content was also being pushed related to the ongoing protests regarding the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other racial justice matters.

The Google post notes that the Chinese campaign, as well as others from Russia and Iran, were multi-platform, as similar findings were reported by Facebook, Twitter, and cybersecurity outfits like FireEye.

Having taken down 186 channels in April, 1,098 in May, and 1,312 in June, we may be in for a bumper crop in the summer as well. Watch with care.

August 5th 2020, 5:30 pm

Match confirms plans for Tinder Platinum, a new top-level subscription for power users, arriving Q4

TechCrunch

Tinder is testing a new top-level subscription plan, Tinder Platinum, which it expects to roll out before year-end. The news of the coming service was announced this week by Tinder parent Match Group during its Q2 2020 earnings call with investors. Match described the subscription as providing additional value beyond Tinder’s current paid plan, Tinder Gold, but noted the feature was still in the very early stages of testing and was essentially still considered a minimum viable product.

The company added the version of Platinum that’s live now doesn’t yet have all the features Tinder plans to test. Though Match didn’t offer specifics as to the feature set itself, it broadly described Platinum as a way to give power users “more control, a better experience, and more advantages.”

The confirmation of the test follows a recent report by a user who had spotted Platinum in the wild.

According to a U.K.-based Tinder user, the offer for Platinum popped up when they were using Tinder on the web. But they weren’t able to make a purchase, they said.

However, in the screenshots they provided and posted to Reddit, Platinum is described as offering everything already available through Tinder Gold, along with a handful of extra options. Specifically, Tinder’s marketing touted that Platinum subscribers would have the ability to message users before matching via Super Likes. They would also get “prioritized likes” (meaning subscribers’ likes would be seen first) and they’d have ability to see who already liked them for instant matching purposes.

The image also showed price points as £5.97 per month, if on an annual plan; £8.35 per month, if on a 6-month plan; or £14.32 per month, if paying monthly.

Of course, these prices could change. Tinder typically tests different price points alongside new features, before launching them publicly.

Match Group told investors on the call it expects Platinum to mostly be an ARPU (average revenue per user) driver. Tinder’s ARPU was down 2% on a quarter-over-quarter basis in Q2, the company noted.

“Unlike Gold, which was by far the most successful and unique revenue feature we’ve ever launched, [and] which drove meaningful ARPU increases along with almost doubling of subscriber conversion, [Platinum] is not at all expected to be anywhere close to Gold,” explained Match Group CEO Shar Dubey. “There’s a fair bit of testing still to be done and our goal is, that if all goes well, we should be able to globally roll this out by the end of the year, later in Q4,” she added.

Match’s plans to squeeze more revenue out of its flagship app Tinder comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how people use dating apps. The company said the health crisis had led to weaker a la carte purchases and some shifts among users to lower-priced packages. Tinder also had to revamp its Tinder U product for college students, as students left their respective campuses. And it lost momentum in India, a key international market, as well as Brazil.

Despite these issues, Match beat on earnings with $103.1 million in profits, or $0.51 per share, on revenues of $555.5.million, topping Wall St. estimates. The company cited its launches of video dating products as helping it continue to drive revenue through the pandemic — a time when people may be less willing to immediately meet up in person.

Specifically, Tinder’s average subscriber base increased by 128,000 in Q2, up 18% year-over-year, to reach 6.2 million. Tinder’s direct revenue grew 15% year-over-year, the company said.

August 5th 2020, 4:45 pm

Black Founders Matter, a fund focused on Black entrepreneurs, makes first investment

TechCrunch

Too often, Black founders are locked out of Silicon Valley before they even have a chance to get started, Marceau Michel, founder of venture capital firm Black Founders Matter, tells TechCrunch.

“It’s important we’re looking at the social justice movement from very different places,” Michel says. “It’s one thing for Black people to not be killed by the police — that’s just the baseline. We still have Black people locked out of economic opportunity.”

That’s why Michel has not given up on his mission to raise a $10 million fund to invest in Black entrepreneurs. Michel and I first chatted back in 2018, when he unveiled the fund. Between then and now, Michel worked for a VC firm in Portland to better understand how the industry works. He also toyed with the idea of launching an incubator for Black entrepreneurs, instead of creating a fund. But what he landed on was that the tech industry needs more deciders, he says. So far, Black Founders Matter has raised about $1 million for the fund.

“We’re not struggling to raise this fund now,” he says. “It’s very tangible and very much in hand. The investors we’re having conversations with understand the importance of the work we’re doing in investing in Black and diverse problem solvers make this society better.”

But it didn’t always feel like a feasible goal, Michel says. What’s makes it feel more achievable today is the heightened attention and conversations around racism in our society, he says.

“Now, because it’s in the national conversation and in people’s minds, these resources are coming in quicker and the investors we’re talking to get what we’re trying to do,” he says. “You can do great work and you can also get profits. Those things are not mutually exclusive. We’ve had to turn investors down that we’re looking at Black Founders Matter as a charity.”

Last month, Black Founders Matter made its first investment in a company called A Kids Book About, founded by Jelani Memory.

“In a world where we look at how Black lives matter but also how we look at the quality of Black life in this country, it’s about creating access for the community to be able to solve problems,” Michel says.

That’s what the fund’s first investment did. A Kids Book About, which published its first book on the topic of racism in October, helps solve a problem for all communities, he says. Black Founders Matter only invested $40,000, but that figure is more of a reflection of how much space was left in the round. Michel says Memory carved out that space for Black Founders Matter by turning down other checks. Beyond this investment, there are a number of other companies on the firm’s radar, but first, it’s a matter of getting the funds to invest.

“This whole experience of raising this venture fund and working in this space was an exercise in being patient and not forcing it before it was its time,” Michel says. “And now, it’s clearly time and the floodgates have opened. And we’re able to do it with integrity and authenticity. I’m not at a place where I need to convince people anymore. We’re able to have conversations with authority and not from a place of desperation. We’re able to be selective about who invests in our fund. We can be selective and that is a very good sign of the future of Black entrepreneurship.”

August 5th 2020, 4:45 pm

DoorDash launches a convenience store

TechCrunch

On-demand delivery startup DoorDash has launched a digital storefront to sell household items, as well as the types of things you’d find at a convenience store. So, chips, ice cream, spices, and packaged foods from local restaurants. Called DashMart, the convenience store is available in eight cities throughout the U.S. and plans to launch in additional cities over the next few months.

These are essentially micro-fulfillment centers that carry around 2,000 items where DashMart warehouse associates pick and pack the orders, and then delivery workers, known as Dashers, come to collect the order and deliver to the customer.

The move into the virtual storefront comes a few months after DoorDash partnered with more than 1,800 convenience stores throughout the country to better respond to the needs of customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, DoorDash has been under scrutiny for its labor practices, especially amid this global health crisis. Last month, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin sued DoorDash for “illegally misclassifying employees as independent contractors.” In the complaint, Boudin argues DoorDash misclassified its workers and in doing so, engages in unfair labor practices.

In a statement to TechCrunch at the time, DoorDash said it’s been supportive of its workers throughout the pandemic by offering them safety equipment, telemedicine and more. DoorDash has also long been a proponent of keeping its workers classified as independent contractors.

Up for vote this November is Prop 22, a measure backed by DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and Instacart, which aims to make drivers and delivery workers for said companies exempt from a new state law that classifies them as W-2 employees.

However, a report conducted by the Partnership for Working Familiesargues voting yes on Prop 22 would “create a permanent underclass of workers in a growing sector of the economy.”

August 5th 2020, 3:59 pm

Krisp snags $5M A round as demand grows for its voice-isolating algorithm

TechCrunch

Krisp’s smart noise suppression tech, which silences ambient sounds and isolates your voice for calls, arrived just in time. The company got out in front of the global shift to virtual presence, turning early niche traction has into real customers and attracting a shiny new $5 million series A funding round to expand and diversify its timely offering.

We first met Krisp back in 2018 when it emerged from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator. The company was an early one in the big surge of AI startups, but with a straightforward use case and obviously effective tech it was hard to be skeptical about.

Krisp applies a machine learning system to audio in real time that has been trained on what is and isn’t the human voice. What isn’t a voice gets carefully removed even during speech, and what remains sounds clearer. That’s pretty much it! There’s very little latency (15 milliseconds is the claim) and a modest computational overhead, meaning it can work on practically any device, especially ones with AI acceleration units like most modern smartphones.

The company began by offering its standalone software for free, with paid tier that removed time limits. It also shipped integrated into popular social chat app Discord. But the real business is, unsurprisingly, in enterprise.

“Early on our revenue was all pro, but in December we started onboarding enterprises. COVID has really accelerated that plan,” explained Davit Baghdasaryan, co-founder and CEO of Krisp. “In March, our biggest customer was a large tech company with 2,000 employees — and they bought 2,000 licenses, because everyone is remote. Gradually enterprise is taking over, because we’re signing up banks, call centers and so on. But we think Krisp will still be consumer-first, because everyone needs that, right?”

Now even more large companies have signed on, including one call center with some 40,000 employees. Baghdasaryan says the company went from 0 to 600 paying enterprises, and $0 to $4M annual recurring revenue in a single year, which probably makes the investment — by Storm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TechNexus and Hive Ventures — look like a pretty safe one.

It’s a big win for the Krisp team, which is split between the U.S. and Armenia, where the company was founded, and a validation of a global approach to staffing — world-class talent isn’t just to be found in California, New York, Berlin and other tech centers, but in smaller countries that don’t have the benefit of local hype and investment infrastructure.

Funding is another story, of course, but having raised money the company is now working to expand its products and team. Krisp’s next move is essentially to monitor and present the metadata of conversation.

“The next iteration will tell you not just about noise, but give you real time feedback on how you are performing as a speaker,” Baghdasaryan explained. Not in the toastmasters sense, exactly, but haven’t you ever wondered about how much you actually spoke during some call, or whether you interrupted or were interrupted by others, and so on?

“Speaking is a skill that people can improve. Think Grammar.ly for voice and video,” Baghdasaryan ventured. “It’s going to be subtle about how it gives that feedback to you. When someone is speaking they may not necessarily want to see that. But over time we’ll analyze what you say, give you hints about vocabulary, how to improve your speaking abilities.”

Since architecturally Krisp is privy to all audio going in and out, it can fairly easily collect this data. But don’t worry — like the company’s other products, this will be entirely private and on-device. No cloud required.

“We’re very opinionated here: Ours is a company that never sends data to its servers,” said Baghdasaryan. “We’re never exposed to it. We take extra steps to create and optimize our tech so the audio never leaves the device.”

That should be reassuring for privacy wonks who are suspicious of sending all their conversations through a third party to  be analyzed. But after all, the type of advice Krisp is considering can be done without really “understanding” what is said, which also limits its scope. It won’t be coaching you into a modern Cicero, but it might help you speak more consistently or let you know when you’re taking up too much time.

For the immediate future, though, Krisp is still focused on improving its noise-suppression software, which you can download for free here.

August 5th 2020, 3:59 pm

Instagram’s hashtag searches gave Trump better treatment than Biden

TechCrunch

Instagram apparently handled searches for popular hashtags related to the two presidential candidates differently, pointing Joe Biden search queries toward often negative related hashtags while making no such suggestions in corresponding searches pertaining to President Trump.

A new report by the Tech Transparency Project details the strange platform behavior. In the report, the tech watchdog compared searches for 20 popular hashtags related to the Trump and Biden campaigns and found that related hashtag suggestions were disabled for the Trump-related searches, including #donaldtrump, #trump, #draintheswamp and #trump2020.

For searches of corresponding Biden hashtags like #Biden, #biden2020, #joementum and #teambiden, Instagram suggested a number of related hashtags in a list that was obviously algorithmically generated. While those related suggestions were a mixed bag, they included many hashtags critical of the Biden campaign like #sleepyjoe, #neverbiden and even adjacent conspiratorial hashtags like #covid19isahoax and #georgesorosisevil.

Image Credit: Tech Transparency Project

Alerted to the discrepancy by Buzzfeed, which first reported the new Tech Transparency Project finding, Instagram called the issue a “bug.”

“This isn’t about politics,” Instagram’s comms team wrote in a combative reply to Buzzfeed’s Ryan Mac on Twitter. Instagram also accused the reporter of cherry-picking examples to fit a “sensational narrative.”

Instagram’s team downplayed the uneven handling of candidate’s searches, arguing that the same issue affected a number of other far less consequential hashtags, including #menshair and #gumdisease. Instagram has now disabled the related hashtag suggestions feature across the board.

Trump’s status as the current president could begin to explain the difference in treatment, but the related hashtags were even turned off for the Trump campaign slogan #draintheswamp as well as #fucktrump. The feature was also toggled off for a handful of other political figure hashtags including #obama, #tedcruz and #jaredkushner.

While it’s not evident that the discrepancy was intentional on behalf of Instagram, this particular Trump-friendly search quirk cuts against the narrative that major social media sites are biased against Republicans — an unfounded refrain regularly undermined by the lopsided success of right-leaning content on social platforms. And as we’ve seen time and time again, a company’s intentions have little to do with the unintended consequences of the algorithmic suggestions that make their products so sticky to begin with.

August 5th 2020, 3:59 pm

The story behind Rent the Runway’s first check

TechCrunch

When Rent the Runway co-founders Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman got their first term sheet, it had an exploding clause in it: If they didn’t sign the offer in 24 hours, they would lose the deal.

The co-founders, then students at Harvard Business School, were ready to commit, but their lawyer advised them to pause and attend the meetings they had previously set up with other investors.

Twelve years later, Rent the Runway has raised $380 million in venture capital equity funding from top investors like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Temasek, Fidelity, Highland Capital Partners and T. Rowe Capital. Fleiss gave up an operational role in the company to a board seat in 2017, as the company reportedly was eyeing an IPO.

But the shoe didn’t always fit: Earlier this year, Rent the Runway struggled with supply chain issues that left customers disgruntled. Then, the pandemic threatened the market of luxury wear more broadly: Who needs a ball gown while Zooming from home? In early March, the business went through a restructuring and laid off nearly half of its workforce, including every retail employee at its physical locations.

In 2009, Fleiss and Hyman were successful Harvard Business School students. Hyman’s father knew a prominent lawyer who agreed to advise them on a contingency basis in exchange for connecting them with potential investors.

Still, fundraising “was extremely hard,” Hyman said. “We were in the middle of a recession and we were two young women at business school who had never really done anything before.”

Fleiss said venture capital firms often sent junior associates, receptionists and assistants to take the meeting instead of dispatching a full-time partner. “It was clear they weren’t taking us very seriously,” Fleiss said, recounting that on one occasion, a male investor called his wife and daughter on speaker to vet their thoughts.

In an attempt to test their thesis that women would pay to rent (and return) luxury clothing, Fleiss and Hyman started doing trunk pop-up shows with 100 dresses. On one occasion, they rented out a Harvard undergraduate dorm room common hall and invited sororities, student activity organizations and a handful of investors.

Only one person showed up, said Fleiss: A guy “who was 30 years older than anyone else in the room.”

Old-fashioned meets nontraditional

August 5th 2020, 3:29 pm

Go public now while software valuations make no sense

TechCrunch

Software valuations are bonkers, which means it’s a great time to go public. Asana, Monday.com, Wrike and every other gosh darn software company that is putting it off, pay attention. Heck, even service-y Palantir could excel in this market.

Let me explain.

Over the past few weeks, TechCrunch has tracked the filing, first pricing, rejiggered pricing range, and, today, the first day of trading for BigCommerce, a Texas-based e-commerce company. You can think of it as a comp with Shopify to a degree.

In the wake of the Canadian phenom’s blockbuster earnings report, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range. Yesterday the company did itself one better, pricing $1 per share above that raised range, selling 9,019,565 shares at $24 per share, of which 6,850,000 came from BigCommerce itself.

Before some additions, there are now 65,843,546 shares of BigCommerce in the world, giving the company an IPO valuation of around $1.58 billion.

Given that the company’s Q2 expected revenue range is “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million,” the company sported a run-rate multiple of 11.1x to 11x, depending on where its final revenue tally comes in. That felt somewhat reasonable, if perhaps a smidgen light.

Then the company opened at $68 per share today, currently trading for $82 per share. Hello, 1999 and other insane times. BigCommerce is now worth, using some rough math, around $5.4 billion, giving it a run-rate multiple of around 38x, using the midpoint of its Q2 revenue range.

August 5th 2020, 2:29 pm

A new technique can detect newer 4G ‘stingray’ cell phone snooping

TechCrunch

Security researchers say they have developed a new technique to detect modern cell-site simulators.

Cell site simulators, known as “stingrays,” impersonate cell towers and can capture information about any phone in its range — including in some cases calls, messages and data. Police secretly deploy stingrays hundreds of times a year across the United States, often capturing the data on innocent bystanders in the process.

Little is known about stingrays, because they are deliberately shrouded in secrecy. Developed by Harris Corp. and sold exclusively to police and law enforcement, stingrays are covered under strict nondisclosure agreements that prevent police from discussing how the technology works. But what we do know is that stingrays exploit flaws in the way that cell phones connect to 2G cell networks.

Most of those flaws are fixed in the newer, faster and more secure 4G networks, though not all. Newer cell site simulators, called “Hailstorm” devices, take advantage of similar flaws in 4G that let police snoop on newer phones and devices.

Some phone apps claim they can detect stingrays and other cell site simulators, but most produce wrong results.

But now researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have discovered a new technique that can detect Hailstorm devices.

Enter the EFF’s latest project, dubbed “Crocodile Hunter” — named after Australian nature conservationist Steve Irwin who was killed by a stingray’s barb in 2006 — helps detect cell site simulators and decodes nearby 4G signals to determine if a cell tower is legitimate or not.

Every time your phone connects to the 4G network, it runs through a checklist — known as a handshake — to make sure that the phone is allowed to connect to the network. It does this by exchanging a series of unencrypted messages with the cell tower, including unique details about the user’s phone — such as its IMSI number and its approximate location. These messages, known as the master information block (MIB) and the system information block (SIB), are broadcast by the cell tower to help the phone connect to the network.

“This is where the heart of all of the vulnerabilities lie in 4G,” said Cooper Quintin, a senior staff technologist at the EFF, who headed the research.

Quintin and fellow researcher Yomna Nasser, who authored the EFF’s technical paper on how cell site simulators work, found that collecting and decoding the MIB and SIB messages over the air can identify potentially illegitimate cell towers.

This became the foundation of the Crocodile Hunter project.

A rare public photo of a stingray, manufactured by Harris Corp. Image Credits: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Crocodile Hunter is open-source, allowing anyone to run it, but it requires a stack of both hardware and software to work. Once up and running, Crocodile Hunter scans for 4G cellular signals, begins decoding the tower data, and uses trilateration to visualize the towers on a map.

But the system does require some thought and human input to find anomalies that could identify a real cell site simulator. Those anomalies can look like cell towers appearing out of nowhere, towers that appear to move or don’t match known mappings of existing towers, or are broadcasting MIB and SIB messages that don’t seem to make sense.

That’s why verification is important, Quintin said, and stingray-detecting apps don’t do this.

“Just because we find an anomaly, doesn’t mean we found the cell site simulator. We actually need to go verify,” he said.

In one test, Quintin traced a suspicious-looking cell tower to a truck outside a conference center in San Francisco. It turned out to be a legitimate mobile cell tower, contracted to expand the cell capacity for a tech conference inside. “Cells on wheels are pretty common,” said Quintin. “But they have some interesting similarities to cell site simulators, namely in that they are a portable cell that isn’t usually there and suddenly it is, and then leaves.”

In another test carried out earlier this year at the ShmooCon security conference in Washington, D.C. where cell site simulators have been found before, Quintin found two suspicious cell towers using Crocodile Hunter: One tower that was broadcasting a mobile network identifier associated with a Bermuda cell network and another tower that didn’t appear to be associated with a cell network at all. Neither made much sense, given Washington, D.C. is nowhere near Bermuda.

Quintin said that the project was aimed at helping to detect cell site simulators, but conceded that police will continue to use cell site simulators for as long as the cell networks are vulnerable to their use, an effort that could take years to fix.

Instead, Quintin said that the phone makers could do more at the device level to prevent attacks by allowing users to switch off access to legacy 2G networks, effectively allowing users to opt-out of legacy stingray attacks. Meanwhile, cell networks and industry groups should work to fix the vulnerabilities that Hailstorm devices exploit.

“None of these solutions are going to be foolproof,” said Quintin. “But we’re not even doing the bare minimum yet.”


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849 or send an encrypted email to: zack.whittaker@protonmail.com

August 5th 2020, 2:15 pm

Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

TechCrunch

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

August 5th 2020, 1:45 pm

Microsoft launches Open Service Mesh

TechCrunch

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new open-source service mesh based on the Envoy proxy. The Open Service Mesh is meant to be a reference implementation of the Service Mesh Interface (SMI) spec, a standard interface for service meshes on Kubernetes that has the backing of most of the players in this ecosystem.

The company plans to donate Open Service Mesh to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to ensure that it is community-led and has open governance.

“SMI is really resonating with folks and so we really thought that there was room in the ecosystem for a reference implementation of SMI where the mesh technology was first and foremost implementing those SMI APIs and making it the best possible SMI experience for customers,” Microsoft partner program manager (and CNCF board member) Gabe Monroy told me.

Image Credits: Microsoft

He also added that, because SMI provides the lowest common denominator API design, Open Service Mesh gives users the ability to “bail out” to raw Envoy if they need some more advanced features. This “no cliffs” design, Monroy noted, is core to the philosophy behind Open Service Mesh.

As for its feature set, SMI handles all of the standard service mesh features you’d expect, including securing communications between services using mTLS, managing access control policies, service monitoring and more.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are plenty of other service mesh technologies in the market today, though. So why would Microsoft launch this?

“What our customers have been telling us is that solutions that are out there today, Istio being a good example, are extremely complex,” he said. “It’s not just me saying this. We see the data in the AKS support queue of customers who are trying to use this stuff — and they’re struggling right here. This is just hard technology to use, hard technology to build at scale. And so the solutions that were out there all had something that wasn’t quite right and we really felt like something lighter weight and something with more of an SMI focus was what was going to hit the sweet spot for the customers that are dabbling in this technology today.”

Monroy also noted that Open Service Mesh can sit alongside other solutions like Linkerd, for example.

A lot of pundits expected Google to also donate its Istio service mesh to the CNCF. That move didn’t materialize. “It’s funny. A lot of people are very focused on the governance aspect of this,” he said. “I think when people over-focus on that, you lose sight of how are customers doing with this technology. And the truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today. I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that’s really the reason why we’re not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment.”

August 5th 2020, 1:15 pm

Twitter says Android security bug gave access to direct messages

TechCrunch

Twitter says a security bug may have exposed the private direct messages of its Android app users, but said that there was no evidence that the vulnerability was ever exploited.

The bug could have allowed a malicious Android app running on the same device to siphon off a user’s direct messages stored in the Twitter app by bypassing Android’s in-built data permissions. But, Twitter said that the bug only worked on Android 8 (Oreo) and Android 9 (Pie), and has since been fixed.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that the bug was reported by a security researcher “a few weeks ago” through HackerOne, which Twitter uses for its bug bounty program.

“Since then, we have been working to keep accounts secure,” said the spokesperson. “Now that the issue has been fixed, we’re letting people know.” Twitter said it waited to let its users know in order to prevent someone from learning about the issue and taking advantage of it before it was fixed.

The notice sent to affected Twitter users. (Image: TechCrunch)

Twitter said the vast majority of users had updated their Twitter for Android app and were no longer vulnerable. But the company said about 4% of users are still running an old and vulnerable version of its app, and users will be notified to update the app as soon as possible.

Many users began noticing in-app pop-ups notifying them of the issue.

News of the security issue comes just weeks after the company was hit by a hacker, who gained access to an internal “admin” tool, which along with two other accomplices hijacked high-profile Twitter accounts to spread a cryptocurrency scam that promised to “double your money.” The hack and subsequent scam netted over $100,000 in scammed funds.

The Justice Department charged three people — including one minor — allegedly responsible for the incident.

August 5th 2020, 1:15 pm

Here are all the things Samsung announced at today’s Unpacked event

TechCrunch

Samsung’s first virtual Unpacked ranked somewhere between Microsoft and Apple’s recent events in terms of overall presentation and general awkwardness. The show kicked off seven minutes late, and a number of on-screen presenters certainly tended toward the more…awkward side of things, but overall, it was a decent first virtual event as the company embraces what it’s branded as “The Next Normal.”

Toward the end of the show, mobile head TM Roh noted, “Going forward, 5G and foldable will be the major pillars of Samsung’s future.” 5G is certainly a no-brainer. The event saw the company taking a step toward standardizing the next-gen wireless technology across its flagship mobile devices — as well as making its first appearance on the company’s tablets.

Image Credits: Samsung

As expected, the big news is the latest version of Samsung’s perennial favorite phablet line. The Note 20 gets 5G for both models and now comes in 6.7 and 6.9-inch models. The Ultra version gets a 120Hz refresh rate along with a hybridized 50x super zoom, using the same technology introduced with the Galaxy S20 earlier this year.

The most unsung addition might be UWB (ultra-wideband), which will enable a number of new features, including close proximity file sharing, a future unlock feature (with partner Assa Abloy) and a find my phone-style feature with an AR element. Xbox head Phil Spencer also made a brief remote cameo to announce Game Pass access, bringing more than 100 streaming titles to the device.

The models start at  $1,000 and $1,300, respectively. They’ll start shipping August 21.

New to the 5G game is the Galaxy Tab series. Samsung says the line includes “the first tablets that support 5G available in the United States.” The S7 and S7+ sport an 11 and 12.4-inch display, respectively, and start at $650 and $850, respectively. No word yet on pricing for the 5G versions.

Image Credits: Samsung

The event included a pair of new wearables. The more exciting of the two is probably the Galaxy Buds Live. Samsung has made consistently solid wireless earbuds, and the latest version finally introduce active noise canceling, along with some cool features like the ability to double as a mic for a connected Note device. The bean Buds are available today for $170.

Image Credits: Samsung

I’d be lying if I said the most exciting part of the Galaxy Watch 3 wasn’t the return of the physical bezel — long the best thing about Samsung’s smartwatches. Also notable is the addition of improved sleep and fitness tracking, along with an ECG monitor, which Samsung announced has just received FDA clearance. The Galaxy Watch 3 runs $400 and $430 for the 41mm and 45mm, respectively. There will also be LTE models, priced at $50 more.

Image Credits: Samsung

As for the foldable side of things, the event also found Samsung announcing its latest foldable, the Galaxy Z Fold 2, with help from superstar boy band, BTS. The focus on the new version mostly revolves around fixing the numerous problems surrounding its predecessor. That includes a new glass reinforcement for the screen and a hinge that sweeps away debris that can fall in and break the screen in the process. More information on the foldable will be announced September 1.

August 5th 2020, 1:15 pm

Just 72 hours left to save up to $300 on Disrupt 2020 passes

TechCrunch

It takes a village — or in this case a kickass global startup community — to help you survive and thrive in challenging times. Tap into your village at Disrupt 2020, but do it quickly to gain entry at the lowest possible price. You have just three days left before the price goes up.

Buy an early-bird pass to Disrupt before August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT), and you can save up to $300.

The virtual Disrupt 2020 programming runs from September 14-18, but you can start networking weeks ahead of time with CrunchMatch. Answer a few quick questions and our enhanced AI-powered platform finds and connects you with people who can help you achieve your business goals.  CrunchMatch makes fast, precise matches and gets smarter the more you use it, so go nuts — schedule 1:1 video meetings with potential investors, customers, or founders, showcase your innovative products or interview prospective employees.

We’re dedicated to supporting early-stage founders and, to that end, we’ve created a new series of sessions we call The Pitch Deck Teardown. We invite Disrupt attendees to submit their pitch decks (we’ll give preference to early-stage startups) for a slide-by-slide analysis by top venture capitalists.

They’ll talk about what does and doesn’t work in your deck and suggest changes to make it stronger and more compelling. You’ll learn what VCs look for and what they consider red flags that can derail your dream. We’re planning multiple sessions throughout Disrupt, and if you want to be considered for a tear down, submit your pitch deck here.

There’s so much opportunity waiting for you at Disrupt. Explore hundreds of innovative startups, including the TC Top Picks, in Digital Startup Alley, see who takes home $100,000 in the Startup Battlefield pitch competition and don’t miss the top tech, investment and business minds sharing their insight and experience across the Disrupt stages.

Join your village to learn new ways to survive and thrive. It starts by saving up to $300, but that deal disappears in three days. Buy your pass to Disrupt before early bird pricing ends on August 7 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

August 5th 2020, 12:59 pm

Technologists: Consider Canada

TechCrunch

America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.

But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.

We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.

U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.

We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.

But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.

Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.

We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.

One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.

“Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke told disaffected U.S. tech workers on Twitter recently.

But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.

Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.

American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.

It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.

August 5th 2020, 12:45 pm

Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia launches new seed fund in collaboration with AngelList

TechCrunch

Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia has teamed up with AngelList to launch his debut $5 million rolling fund to invest in early-stage entrepreneurs.

He is cutting $100,000 to $250,000 checks for startups and has a particular interest in B2B, SaaS, future of work, video, and developer tools. Limited partners include Arlan Hamilton, Josh Kopelman, and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant.

But, here’s the twist: Lavingia raised $5 million using just a Notion memo, a few tweets, and a Zoom call with over 1,800 registrants.

“It’s the power of Zoom and Twitter in the COVID era,” Lavingia said.

Still, two months ago, Lavingia didn’t even know he wanted to be a VC. The entrepreneur has made some angel investments in Lambda School, Figma, Haus, Clubhouse, and HelloSign (which was acquired by Dropbox). Eventually, though, he says angel investing got too expensive for him to do so he stopped.

Then, following George Floyd’s murder, he followed the lead of other investors rushing to invest in Black founders and tweeted this:

As a result of the tweet, he invested in 4 startups founded by Black entrepreneurs. Since some were looking on follow-on capital, he tapped into his network, including AngelList founder Naval Ravikant. Ravikant, seeing the deals, floated the concept of a rolling fund by him.

Rolling funds via Zoom

In February, AngelList launched a so-called rolling venture fund product to help emerging venture capitalists close their first funds, faster. The fund structure allows fund managers to raise new capital commitments on a regular basis and invest as they go, ergo the “rolling” aspect. Lavingia worked with AngelList to create his fund, and has capital commitments of $1.25 million per quarter in a $5 million per year fund.

The rolling fund structure can be a bit volatile because limited partners have to “re-up” their investments on a quarterly basis. It could put a fund’s investing ability in flux and thus impact portfolio construction, too.

One way to battle this volatility is that limited partners must commit to at least four consecutive quarters when investing in a rolling fund. After that, investors can choose on a quarter by quarter basis if they want to invest in the fund. Lavingia says that on this first close, he could have raised 5 to 10 times the capital, but chose to pick smaller checks from exceptional people. The smallest check in is $55,000 a year split over four quarters, he said.

Lavingia also claims that the rotating nature of check acceptance will allow him to continually invite a more diverse limited partner base as time goes on. He declined to share specific numbers on the current diversity of his LP base, but said that 30 percent of his portfolio companies to date are founded by Black entrepreneurs.

One other note on rolling funds, an SEC regulation — 506(c) — allows investors to publicly fundraise.Traditional venture capital funds are usually raised in private which disproportionately benefits those who already have their foot in the door. Lavingia says the 506(c) regulation allows him, as a first-time fund manager, to raise publicly on Zoom.

Lavingia hosted a Q&A about his new fund with a group of his buddies: Work Life Ventures’ Brianne Kimmel, AngelList’s Sunil Pai, and Earnest Capital’s Tyler Tringas.

Lavingia says that there were around 600 to 700 people live on the call, which is larger than most conferences he’s spoken at.

Lavingia was the second employee at Pinterest and left to start building Gumroad, a platform to help creators sell products to consumers. The company went through a gutting round of layoffs and restructuring in 2015, inspiring Lavingia to pen a viral blog post about his “failure to build a billion-dollar company.” Today, Gumroad is at $10 million ARR and is growing 100% year over year with a team of 10 people.

While Lavingia will continue to work on Gumroad, he says that his failure and transparency around it “is actually growing the company faster.”

‘I think it gives me a little bit more bandwidth to do an experiment along these lines,” he said, of the fund.

First-time fund managers have had to turn to unique ways to de-risk themselves in this volatile time. Lavingia’s story is no different, and showcases that the power of remote deals isn’t just a phenomenon that founders will benefit from.

August 5th 2020, 12:29 pm

Rolling updates on Beirut, a city and a tech community devastated

TechCrunch

It was only relatively recently, in October 2018, that TechCrunch held Startup Battlefield MENA to unpack startups in the Middle East and North Africa. When TechCrunch went looking for a city in the region to host the event in, it quickly became clear that Beirut was the one for us. Vibrant, full of creative entrepreneurs, and a fantastic startup scene made it a natural TechCrunch choice.

That year Beirut came into its own as tech cluster, with the ongoing emergence of the Beirut Digital District, Antwork and similar initiatives and spaces in the city.

Beirut has created many stand-out startups including Instabug and MYKI, as well as local VC funds including BeryTech Fund and Leap Ventures among others.

Startup Battlefield MENA was a huge success and helped shine a light on that ecosystem.

But it goes without saying that both Lebanon’s financial and political crisis last year, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit Beirut very hard.

We have therefore witnessed the explosion yesterday, which devastated the city and so many lives, with enormous sadness. Our hearts go out to everyone there.

So this post will not be a traditional TechCrunch post about startups and investors.

This will be kept as a rolling list of updates and stories from the tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and investors in a city which is close to TechCrunch’s heart and will be updated as we get information, and put into sections.

Any tech founders or investors in Beirut can email me a statement about how they are doing, if they are well, how their team are doing, if their office was damaged etc. Any stories AT ALL can be sent to mike [AT] mikebutcher.me and I will assemble them for publication here. Put “Beirut” in the subject line.

URGENT NEEDS:
Maps of Shelters, Initiative to Locate Victims https://helplebanon.carrd.co/

FINANCIAL DONATIONS:
You can donate to the Disaster Relief Fund, Lebanese Red Cross and others here.

Lebanese Red Cross donations should be done on desktop (not mobile as their app has some glitches).

Impact Lebanon, a non-profit organization, is a social incubator for driven Lebanese around the world and is raising a crowd-funder here.

Life Lebanon is a relief fund created by the Lebanese in Finance organization (a serious organization formed of expats mostly in UK and US)

DONATE BLOOD:
To donate blood in Lebanon: https://dsclebanon.org/who-we-are | http://www.redcross.org.lb/SubPage.aspx?pageid=317

Vetted and reliable NGOs worth supporting:
Lebanese Red Cross
Offre Joie
Chance Association
Bank to School
Arc En Ciel
Bassma
Sesobel

VOLUNTEERING:
Offre-Joie is an organization that is very respectable and has done good work in reconstruction post-civil war, it’s now seeking volunteers and raising a relief fund here.

MEDIA / INFORMATION:
The961 is one of the leading Lebanese English media/news sites and nd one of the handful of independent and non-politically backed media outlets in the country. Check their Instagram page for pictures/details of missing people by families and friends following the explosion. They are working with a couple of full stack developers from the dev community in Lebanon to develop a platform of some sort where people can submit missing people and their info. It will be set up directly on The961.com as an extension to the news site. It’s also launched a fundraiser for the Lebanese Red Cross through their NGO (legally registered in Canada).

STORIES FROM THE GROUND:

• Entrepreneur Omar Itani: “Yesterday I lost a lot, my car, my house, my phone, one of our shops. The shop was inaugurated less than three months ago, we have poured hundreds of hours of work into the shop and invested thousands and thousands of dollars. Since its opening, the shop has been doing tremendously well and became one of the city’s fashion landmarks. Today the shop is only a memory nothing remains, all vanished in a second.” Read here.

• Business Empower is a Beirut-based technology company that offers e-commerce, data analytics, security and cloud solutions for several local and multi-national companies. The business has sustained significant damage from the event. It was stablished in 2008 by founder Mouhammad Fakhoury. Fakhoury, a Syracuse University alumni and previous Software Engineer at Adobe Systems and Microsoft, who moved to Lebanon to start his own company. Thankfully no one was physically hurt, employees were working remotely due to covid-19 restrictions.

MORE UPDATES WILL FOLLOW….

(Image credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla)(Hussein Malla)

August 5th 2020, 12:29 pm

TikTok updates policies to ban deepfakes, expand fact-checks, and flag election misinfo

TechCrunch

As uncertainty swirls around TikTok’s future in the U.S., the company this morning announced new Community Guidelines focused on helping keep misleading and deceptive content off its platform. The new rules aim to better clarify what’s allowed and not allowed on TikTok, broaden the app’s fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election, and ban the use of “deepfakes” (manipulated content) designed to deceive. In addition, TikTok has added an in-app reporting option for election misinformation. It also claims to have worked with experts, including the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force (CFITF), run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to help counter the threat of foreign influence on elections.

That latter item is a particularly clever spin on TikTok’s current situation, given that it’s the foreign interference of TikTok itself that the Trump Administration is concerned about, along with the potential security risk that comes from the possibility of China’s authoritarian government collecting massive amounts of data on TikTok’s American users.

TikTok, however, says it has worked with CFITF and other experts to help stop the dangers of foreign influence on U.S. elections. The task force shares insight about possible disinformation campaigns across the industry and connects local election officials with online platforms and law enforcement. TikTok didn’t clarify the extent of its work in this area, but CFITF has only existed since 2018 so these would be fairly recent efforts.

The company also says it’s expanding its relationships with PolitiFact and Lead Stories to fact check potential misinformation related to the 2020 U.S. election. The organizations were previously focused on other fact-checks, like those related to COVID-19 and climate change.

However, fact-check organizations’ ability to actually find and fact-check misleading content can be difficult as much of this content is framed by users as “just my opinion.” A quick search on TikTok this morning for “climate change hoax,” for example, pulled up videos with dissenting user opinions on the topic with no fact-check applied. This isn’t a problem unique to TikTok, of course. Social media platforms in general struggle the line between free speech and misinformation, especially when content goes viral that shares a viewpoint not held by a majority of the scientific or academic community.

TikTok also says today it will roll out an election misinformation option to its in-app reporting feature in the “coming weeks.” But it didn’t offer a clear launch date, despite elections now being months away.

The company says it’s clarifying its policy to ban the use of “synthetic or manipulated content,” too. This will now include deepfakes meant to deceive or distort the truth. The policy continues to be questionably enforced. For example, TikTok easily pulled up the recent viral video that claims to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drunk — a video that has been manipulated from the original where she speaks normally. There is no fact-check applied. Facebook, by comparison, labeled the video “partly false,” given the digital slowing down of the original video.

None of these problems around fake content or attempts to deceive are unique to TikTok, of course. U.S. companies don’t have things under control, either.

TikTok, in addition, notes it releases Transparency Reports and recently added new Transparency webpage with information for lawmakers and users alike.

Its policy around “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” has also been restated to be clearer, TikTok says.

The new policy reads:

Do not engage in coordinated inauthentic activities (such as the creation of accounts) to exert influence and sway public opinion while misleading individuals, our community or the larger public about the account’s identity, location or purpose

The Trump administration has put the TikTok ban on hold for at least 45 days for now, ostensibly so TikTok could work out a deal with Microsoft. The U.S. government wants the company to spin out its U.S. operations to distance itself from China.

TikTok users, naturally, have their own theories about why Trump is coming down so hard on their prefered social app. Some number of TikTok teens pranked the Trump campaign over the rally in Tulsa, for starters. Other TikTok users pointed out that Trump’s real concern is that TikTok doesn’t allow political ads — and microtargeting voters on Facebook helped Trump win the last election.

These theories are interesting to debate (may not be entirely wrong!), but the reality is that the concerns over TikTok’s connection to China have some bipartisan support.

August 5th 2020, 12:15 pm

Google updates G Suite for mobile with dark mode support, Smart Compose for Docs and more

TechCrunch

Google today announced a major update to its mobile G Suite productivity apps.

Among these updates are the addition of a dark theme for Docs, Sheets and Slides, as well as the addition of Google’s Smart Compose technology to Docs on mobile and the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents without having to covert them. Other updates include a new vertically scrollable slide viewing experience in Slides, link previews and a new user interface for comments and action items. You can now also respond to comment on your documents directly from Gmail.

For the most part, these new features are now available on Android (or will be in the next few weeks) and then coming to iOS later, though Smart Compose is immediately available for both, while link previews are actually making their debut on iOS, with Android coming later.

Most of these additions simply bring existing desktop features to mobile, which has generally been the way Google has been rolling out new G Suite tools.

The new dark theme will surely get some attention, given that it has been a long time coming and that users now essentially expect this in their mobile apps. Google argues that it won’t just be easier on your eyes but that it can also “keep your battery alive longer” (though only phones with an OLED display will really see a difference there).

Image Credits: Google

You’re likely familiar with Smart Compose at this time, which is already available in Gmail and Docs on the web. Like everywhere else, it’ll try to finish your sentence for you, though given that typing is still more of a hassle on mobile, it’s surely a welcome addition for those who regularly have to write or edit documents on the go.

Even if your business is fully betting on G Suite, chances are somebody will still send you an Office document. On the web, G Suite could already handle these documents without any conversion. This same technology is now coming to mobile as well. It’s a handle feature, though I’m mostly surprised this wasn’t available on mobile before.

As for the rest of the new feature, the one worth calling out is the ability to respond to comments directly from Gmail. Last year, Google rolled out dynamic email on the web. I’m not sure I’ve really seen too many of these dynamic emails — which use AMP to bring dynamic content to your inbox — in the wild, but Google is now using this feature for Docs. “Instead of receiving individual email notifications when you’re mentioned in a comment in Docs, Sheets, or Slides, you’ll now see an up-to-date comment thread in Gmail, and you’ll be able to reply or resolve the comment, directly within the message,” the company explains.

 

August 5th 2020, 12:15 pm

India’s Byju’s acquires WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million

TechCrunch

Byju’s has acquired edtech startup WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million as the Indian online learning giant looks to expand its dominant reach in the country.

The all-cash deal makes 18-month-old WhiteHat Jr., which offers online coding classes to school-going students, the fastest exit story of this size in Indian startup ecosystem.

WhiteHat Jr., which had raised about $11 million from Omidyar Network and Nexus Venture Partners, has achieved a revenue run rate of $150 million.

“We started WhiteHat Jr. to make kids creators instead of consumers of technology,” said Karan Bajaj, founder of WhiteHat Jr., in a statement. “Technology is at the centre of every human interaction today and we had set out to create a coding curriculum that was being delivered live and connected students and teachers like never before. Integration with a visionary company such as BYJU’S will help take this idea to new heights and help unleash the remarkable creative potential of kids at a global scale.”

“WhiteHat Jr is the leader in the live online coding space. Karan has proven his mettle as an exceptional founder and the credit goes to him and his team for creating coding programs that are loved by kids. Under his leadership the company has achieved phenomenal growth in India and the US in a short span of time.” said Byju Raveendran, founder and chief executive of Byju’s, in a statement.

More to follow…

August 5th 2020, 12:15 pm

Datafold is solving the chaos of data engineering

TechCrunch

It seemed so simple. A small schema issue in a database was wrecking a feature in the app, increasing latency and degrading the user experience. The resident data engineer pops in a fix to amend the schema, and everything seems fine — for now. Unbeknownst to them, that small fix completely clobbered all the dashboards used by the company’s leadership. Finance is down, ops is pissed, and the CEO — well, they don’t even know whether the company is online.

For data engineers, it’s not just a recurring nightmare — it’s a day-to-day reality. A decade plus into that whole “data is the new oil” claptrap, and we’re still managing data piecemeal and without proper systems and controls. Data lakes have become data oceans and data warehouses have become … well, whatever the massive version of a warehouse is called (a waremansion I guess). Data engineers bridge the gap between the messy world of real life and the precise nature of code, and they need much better tools to do their jobs.

As TechCrunch’s unofficial data engineer, I’ve personally struggled with many of these same problems. And so that’s what drew me into Datafold.

Datafold is a brand-new platform for managing the quality assurance of data. Much in the way that a software platform has QA and continuous integration tools to ensure that code functions as expected, Datafold integrates across data sources to ensure that changes in the schema of one table doesn’t knock out functionality somewhere else.

Founder Gleb Mezhanskiy knows these problems firsthand. He’s informed from his time at Lyft, where he was a data scientist and data engineer, and later transformed into a product manager “focused on the productivity of data professionals.” The idea was that as Lyft expanded, it needed much better pipelines and tooling around its data to remain competitive with Uber and others in its space.

His lessons from Lyft inform Datafold’s current focus. Mezhanskiy explained that the platform sits in the connections between all data sources and their outlets. There are two challenges to solve here. First, “data is changing, every day you get new data, and the shape of it can be very different either for business reasons or because your data sources can be broken.” And second, “the old code that is used by companies to transform this data is also changing very rapidly because companies are building new products, they are refactoring their features … a lot of errors can happen.”

In equation form: messy reality + chaos in data engineering = unhappy data end users.

With Datafold, changes made by data engineers in their extractions and transformations can be compared for unintentional changes. For instance, maybe a function that formerly returned an integer now returns a text string, an accidental mistake introduced by the engineer. Rather than wait until BI tools flop and a bunch of alerts come in from managers, Datafold will indicate that there is likely some sort of problem, and identify what happened.

The key efficiency here is that Datafold aggregates changes in datasets — even datasets with billions of entries — into summaries so that data engineers can understand even subtle flaws. The goal is that even if an error transpires in 0.1% of cases, Datafold will be able to identify that issue and also bring a summary of it to the data engineer for response.

Datafold is entering a market that is, quite frankly, as chaotic as the data being processed. It sits in the key middle layer of the data stack — it’s not the data lake or data warehouse for storing data, and it isn’t the end user BI tools like a Looker, Tableau or many others. Instead, it’s part of a number of tools available for data engineers to manage and monitor their data flows to ensure consistency and quality.

The startup is targeting companies with at least 20 people on their data team — that’s the sweet spot where a data team has enough scale and resources that they are going to be concerned with data quality.

Today Datafold is three people, and will be debuting officially at YC’s Demo Day later this month. Its ultimate dream is a world where data engineers never again have to get an overnight page to fix a data quality issue. If you’ve been there, you know precisely why such a product is valuable.

August 5th 2020, 11:59 am

Hear Cloudflare and PlanGrid’s amazing journey from founding to exit at Disrupt 2020

TechCrunch

How and when should startup founders think about the “exit”? It’s the perennial question in tech entrepreneurialism, but the how’s and when’s are questions to which there are a multitude of answers. For one thing, new founders often forget that the terms of the exit may not eventually be entirely in their control. There’s the board to think of, the strategic direction of the company, the first-in investors, the last-in. You name it. We’ll be chatting about this at Disrupt 2020.

Exits normally happen in only one of two ways: Either the startup gets acquired for enough money to give the investors a return or it grows big enough to list on the public markets. And it just so happens we have two perfect founders who will be able to unpack their own journeys on those two roads.

When Cloudflare went public last year it certainly wasn’t the end of its 10-year journey, and nor was it PlanGrid’s when it was acquired by Autodesk in 2018.

Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn saw every nook and cranny of the company’s journey towards its IPO, which received a warm reception, even if there were a few bumps along the road leading up to it. What comes after an IPO and how to do you even get there in the first place? Zatlyn will be laying it all out for us.

PlanGrid’s journey to acquisition by Autodesk was equally fascinating, and Tracy Young – who, as CEO and co-founder, shepherded the company to an $875 Million exit – will be able to give us an insight into what it’s like to dance with a potential acquirer, go through that (often fraught) process, and come out the other side.

We’re excited to host this conversation at Disrupt 2020 and expect it to fill up quickly. Grab your pass before this Friday to save up to $300 on this session and more.

August 5th 2020, 11:59 am

Jump bikes are now on the Lime app and heading to more cities

TechCrunch

Three months ago, Jump’s bright red bikes and scooters had disappeared from city streets after Uber unloaded the micromobility company to Lime as part of a complex $170 million fundraising round. When the Jump bikes were finally spotted it was in a recycling yard, where more than 20,000 of them laid in piles, awaiting their demise.

The Jump brand wasn’t erased completely. New, unused Lime bikes were tucked away in storage. Lime has started to add those Jump bikes to cities like Denver, London, Paris, Seattle and Washington D.C. But they were only available through the Uber app. Now, the Jump bikes will show up on the Lime app — as red, not green bike icons. This is the first time since Lime acquired Jump’s assets that the bikes have been integrated into its app.

Image Credits: Lime

Lime said Wednesday that Jump  bikes will now be available exclusively through the Lime app for the next few weeks. Once it has integrated Jump’s software, the bikes will be available through both the Uber and Lime apps.

Lime plans to add Jump bikes to more cities, starting with Rochester, Minnesota. More will follow in the coming weeks.

The addition of Jump bikes to Lime’s app has cleared up some speculation of what would happen to the brand post acquisition. But it hasn’t answered every question.

Jump engineers had been working on and ready to scale its newest version of Jump bikes, called the 5.8, when the acquisition occurred and they all lost their jobs. Numerous former Jump employees who have spoken to TechCrunch said the new tech-forward 5.8 versions were weeks away from heading to cities. However, they have yet to appear on city streets.

August 5th 2020, 11:59 am

PandaDoc announces second Series B extension worth $30M

TechCrunch

PandaDoc, the startup that provides a fully digital sales document workflow from proposal to electronic signature to collecting payment, announced a $30 million Series B extension today, making it the the second such extension the company has taken since taking its original $15 million Series B in 2017. The total for the three B investments is $50 million.

Company co-founder and CEO Mikita Mikado says that he took this approach, taking the original money in 2017, then $5 million last year along with the money announced today because it made more sense financially for the company than taking a huge chunk of money all at once.

“Basically when we do little chunks of cash frequently, [we found that] you dilute yourself less,” Mikado told TechCrunch. He said that they’ve grown comfortable with this approach because the business became more predictable once it passed 10,000 customers. In fact today it has 20,000.

“With a high velocity in-bound sales model, you can predict what’s going to happen next month or [say] six months out. So you kind of have this luxury of raising as much money as you need when you need it, minimizing dilution just like public companies do,” he said.

While he wouldn’t discuss specifics in terms of valuations he did say that the B1 had 2x the valuation of the original B round and the B2 had double the valuation of the B1.

For this round, One Peak led the investment with participation from Microsoft’s Venture Fund (M12), Savano Capital Partners, Rembrandt Venture Partners and EBRD Venture Capital Investment Programme.

Part of the company’s growth strategy is using their eSignature tool to move people to the platform. They made that tool free in March just as the pandemic was hitting hard in the U.S., and it has proven to be what Mikado called “a lead magnet” to get more people familiar with the company.

Once they do that he says, they start to look at the broader set of tools and they can become paying customers. “This launch helped us validate that businesses need a broader workflow solution. Businesses used to think of the eSignature as the holy grail in getting a deal done. Now they are realizing that eSignature is just a moment in time. The full value is what happens before, during and after the eSignature in order to get deals done,” Mikado said.

The company currently has 334 employees with plans to hit 380 by year’s end and is aiming for 470 by next year. With the office in San Francisco, Belarus and Manila, it has geographic diversity built in, but Mikado says it’s something they are still working at and includes anti-bias programs and training and leadership programs to give more people a chance to be hired or promoted into management.

When it came to shutting down offices and working from home, Mikado admits it was a challenge, especially since some of the geographies they operate in might not have access to a good internet connection at home or face other challenges, but overall he says it has worked out in terms of maintaining productivity across the company. And he points out being geographically diverse, they have had to deal with online communications for some time.

August 5th 2020, 11:59 am

In a sign of digital health’s rise, Livongo and Teladoc Health agree to $18.5 billion merger

TechCrunch

In a sign of the growing importance and value of digital healthcare in the world of medicine, two of the industry’s publicly traded companies have agreed to a whopping $18.5 billion merger.

The union of Teladoc Health, a provider of virtual care services, and Livongo, which has made a name for itself by integrating hardware and software to monitor and manage chronic conditions like diabetes, will create a giant in the emerging field of telemedicine and virtual care.

“By expanding the reach of Livongo’s pioneering Applied Health Signals platform and building on Teladoc Health’s end-to-end virtual care platform, we’ll empower more people to live better and healthier lives,” said Glen Tullman, Livongo Founder and Executive Chairman. “This transaction recognizes Livongo’s significant progress and will enable Livongo shareholders to benefit from long-term upside as the combined company is positioned to serve an even larger addressable market with a truly unmatched offering.”

Under the terms of the agreement, each share of Livongo will be exchanged for 0.5920 shares of Teladoc health plus a cash payment of $11.33 for each share. The deal, based on Teladoc’s closing price on August 4, 2020, is roughly $18.5 billion. It’s an eye-popping figure for a company that was, at one point, trading below $16 per-share.

But the new reality of healthcare delivery in the era of COVID-19 rapidly accelerated the adoption of digital and remote care services like those Livongo was selling to its customers — and investor came calling as a result.

The combined company is expected to have pro forma revenue of $1.3 billion representing 85 percent year on year growth, on a pro forma basis. For 2020, the combined company expects adjusted EBITDA to reach $120 million.

“This merger firmly establishes Teladoc Health at the forefront of the next-generation of healthcare,” said Jason Gorevic, the chief executive officer of Teladoc Health, in a statement. “Livongo is a world-class innovator we deeply admire and has demonstrated success improving the lives of people living with chronic conditions. Together, we will further transform the healthcare experience from preventive care to the most complex cases, bringing ‘whole person’ health to consumers and greater value to our clients and shareholders as a result.”

The companies emphasized their combined ability to engage with patients and monitor and manage their conditions using technology. Teladoc Health’s flywheel approach to continued member engagement combined with Livongo’s proven track record of using data science to build consumer trust will accelerate the combined company’s development of longitudinal consumer and provider relationships, the companies said in a statement.

Teladoc currently counts 70 million customers in the United States with an access to Medicare and Medicaid patients that Livongo’s services could reach. The combined company also pitched the operational efficiencies that could be created through the merger. Teladoc estimated that there would be “revenue synergies” of $100 million two years from the close of the deal, reaching $500 million on a run rate basis by 2025, according to a statement. 

Gorevic will run the combined company and David Snow will serve as the chair of the new board — which will be comprised of eight current Teladoc board members and five members of the Livongo board.

The company expects the deal to close by the end of the fourth quarter, subject to regulatory approvals. Lazard advised Teladoc on the transaction while Morgan Stanley served as the financial advisor to Livongo. 

August 5th 2020, 11:28 am

Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds Live bring active noise cancelation for $170

TechCrunch

Samsung’s made quality earbuds for a number of years now. They’re never particularly exciting or innovative, but they’re always a solid choice in an overcrowded market. Today’s big Unpacked event adds yet another model to the growing list of options.

Already sporting the Galaxy Bean nickname based on early leaks, and for reasons that should be painfully obvious, the most notable thing here is the addition of Active Noise Canceling. That’s a feature that has most often been reserved for higher-priced models.

Image Credits: Samsung

For $170, these are certainly worth considering, even if they’re not quite as premium as the Sony WF-1000XM3 or AirPods Pro. But honestly, not everyone is looking to shell out more than $200 for a pair of wireless earbuds.

The Galaxy Buds Live sport a 12mm speaker (larger than what’s found on the Buds+), coupled with a bass duct for increased low-end sound. There are three mics on board, which can double for the phone microphone while shooting video with a connected Note 20. They’re IPX2 water resistant and feature removable tips with two different sizes for a better fit.

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The battery should give you eight hours on a charge (down to six with active noise canceling on), plus another 21 hours via the carrying case. Five minutes of charging, meanwhile, should get you an hour of playback. The Buds Live are available now through Samsung’s site.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

The bezel is back for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3

TechCrunch

The rotating bezel has always felt like Samsung’s secret weapon in the smartwatch battle. It is, without question, the best input device. No one, not even Apple’s crown, comes close. For that reason, it was a bit baffling when the company opted to drop it for its Active line of watches. Samsung attempted to convince us all that the “digital bezel” was just as good. It definitely, definitely wasn’t.

Thankfully, the newly announced Watch 3 brings back the bezel. The company is quick to note that it’s a “slimmed down” version, which, fair enough. The company’s smartwatches — like its smartphones — can tend toward the bulky. And it’s definitely possible to have too much hardware on one’s wrist.

Overall, the timepiece is 14% thinner and 15% lighter than its predecessor, in both the 41mm and 45mm versions, which offer a larger screen in spite of the smaller frame. The company is also promising two full days of battery life on a charge — a necessary feature with the introduction of National Sleep Foundation-approved sleep tracking, which measures breathing, movement and REM cycles to give you a better picture of your nocturnal activities.

There are a number of other health features on board, as well, including VO2 max blood oxygen tracking, fall detection, a running coach and activity tracking for 40 exercises (seven of which can be autodetected). The watch also features an EKG reader and blood pressure detection, both of which will be available in Korea at launch (U.S. users will have to wait for FDA approval to get in on that action).

The Watch 3 goes on sale tomorrow, priced at $400 and $430 for the 41mm and 45mm versions, respectively. There’s also an LTE-enabled version of each, priced at $450 and $480.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Q3 2020 is primed to be an intense shopping season for VCs

TechCrunch

With the high possibility of an extremely active fundraising marketplace for the rest of the year, founders need to know how to take advantage of it. As you can see from the DocSend Pitch Deck Interest Metrics, spikes in the marketplace previously have resulted in some pretty specific behaviors by VCs.

Here are some tips on how to use the increasing levels of VC interest to your advantage.

VCs are spending less time on your deck, so get to the point

We’re seeing record low time spent per pitch deck. We know from previous research that VCs spend on average 3.5 minutes per pitch deck. But over the last quarter that time has dipped below three minutes. That can actually be a good and a bad thing. It implies that VCs are streamlining their process of looking at decks, which means they most likely know what they want. The downside of this is if you break a few cardinal rules right now your deck could end up in the reject pile.

From our research, VCs expect a deck to be around 20 pages. They expect a straightforward narrative that starts with your problem, leading to the solution, and then your product and business model. Our data found that VCs respond best to 35-50 words per slide (too few words per slide is also an issue; you want to offer enough context for your deck to make sense without you presenting it). The only place you can increase your word count is on your Team page. Our data shows the average number of words on a successful Team slide is 80. This gives you room to highlight the founding team’s relevant experience and show how you’re uniquely suited to build your business.

You have to include a “why now” slide and it should mention COVID-19

We already know that investors respond well to a Why Now slide. Our research shows that 54% of successful pitch decks included a Why Now slide, where only 38% of failed decks included it. That slide now has to work twice as hard. We’re hearing from investors that they expect to see information in your pitch deck about how your business has been affected by COVID-19 and how you plan to manage that impact moving forward. Even if the pandemic has had no material effect on your business, the investor will still have the question. Get out in front of it with a well-formed response near the beginning of your deck.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

What Q2 fundraising data tells us about the rest of 2020

TechCrunch

It’s safe to say that no one could have predicted how this year’s fundraising marketplace was going to shape up. The beginning of the year saw us trending toward a blockbuster start, similar to 2018, rather than the steady burn of 2019. But after March there was no clear road map for how VCs and founders were going to react.

We’ve been tracking three key data metrics from the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to show us real-time trends in the fundraising marketplace. Using aggregate and anonymous data pulled from thousands of pitch deck interactions across the DocSend platform, we’re able to track the supply and demand in the marketplace, as well as the quality of pitch deck interactions.

The main two metrics are Pitch Deck Interest and Founder Links Created. These are leading indicators for how the fundraising marketplace is shaping up as it measures the activity happening around the pitch deck. As that interest peaks, we expect the amount of funds deployed to increase in the months after. Pitch Deck Interest is measured by the average number of pitch deck interactions for each founder happening on our platform per week, and is a great proxy for demand.

Founder Links Created is how many unique links a founder is creating to their deck each week; because each person you send a document to in DocSend gets a unique link, we can use this as a proxy for supply by looking at how many investors a founder is sharing their deck with per week.

Here’s what we saw in Q2 and how that will affect the rest of the year.

VCs are shopping

VC interest has been at an all-time high over the last quarter. Interest rebounded over the course of a few weeks after the pandemic was declared and shelter-in-place orders were given. But once interest rebounded to pre-pandemic levels it did something surprising. It kept climbing. In fact, the top 10 weeks for VC interest this year were all in Q2. Overall, interest was up 21.6% QoQ and 26% YoY. This means we’re looking at VCs viewing more pitch decks than they have any time in the last two years.

This is in spite of VC interest traditionally declining from late spring into summer, before bottoming out during the last two weeks of August. After the initial peak in the spring, VC interest typically doesn’t rebound until October.

But not only can we see that VCs are interacting with a lot of decks, we also can determine the quality of those interactions. We measure how long a VC spends reading each deck. From our previous research we know that the average pitch deck interaction is less than 3.5 minutes. But the amount of time VCs spent reading each deck in Q2 steadily declined, going below two minutes toward the end of the quarter. This tells us VCs are speeding through decks. That means they either know what they’re looking for and aren’t wasting time, or they’re scrutinizing decks less, opting for a Zoom call to hear more from a founder.

For founders, this means having a tight deck is even more important than before. Don’t have more than 20 slides, don’t send your appendix in your send-ahead deck and keep your slides concise and thoughtful (read our guide on how to put together a send-ahead deck here).

If you’re still not able to get a meeting with a VC during this intense shopping season, you may want to consider changing your fundraising strategy.

Founder timelines have changed

We can see over the last quarter that there have been clear spikes in the amount of links founders are sending out. Founders sent out 11% more deck links in Q2 than they did in Q1, but what’s interesting is that the number of links created actually dropped below 2019 levels on three separate occasions. So while founders might have been rushing to send their deck out during unstable times, there were plenty of weeks where founders were hanging back.

This conflicting story can tell us several things. First, founders have most likely condensed their fundraising efforts. According to our research earlier this year, the average pre-seed round takes longer than three months to complete. For those fundraising during a pandemic, three months can seem like a lifetime. This is not only due to the logistics of setting meetings with VCs who have packed calendars, but also the iteration process of receiving feedback from a potential investor, working on your deck, then sending it out to new targets. With global uncertainty, many founders likely decided to shorten their time away from their business by reducing their fundraising efforts to just a few weeks.

Second, due to aggressive cost cutting at the beginning of the pandemic, many founders found themselves with more runway than they expected. In fact, according to a recent survey we did, nearly 50% of founders changed their fundraising timeline by either moving it forward or delaying it. Founders that could afford to decided to avoid the volatile fundraising marketplace in an effort to preserve their valuations.

We’re looking at more than displaced interest from March

While it was easy during April and early May to think the fundraising marketplace was experiencing delayed activity due to the crash in March, the sustained interest makes it hard to believe that’s still the case, especially taking into account seasonality. The last week of the quarter saw a 37% increase in interest over 2019 and an 18% increase over 2018. With that level of activity, we’ve clearly entered a new normal for fundraising.

While valuations might be fluctuating, it’s quite clear VCs are shopping. To figure out why, you don’t have to look any further than the 2008 financial crisis. The businesses born out of crises tend to address real, systemic problems that require big, bold fixes. And the pandemic has certainly laid bare many societal issues that are worth addressing.

What Q3 and Q4 could look like based on current trends

If it’s clear that VCs are shopping, and it’s clear that this isn’t displaced interest from earlier this year, what does that mean for the future? We would normally see an increase in founder activity starting in late summer, leading to peak VC interest in the fall. Founder activity has been up and down, and VC interest has been steadily rising, which tells us there’s still pent-up demand to deploy capital. We should also see many founders who delayed their fundraising efforts enter the marketplace in the next few months. If pandemic conditions worsen, we might also see founders who had decided to push their fundraising efforts to next year moving their timelines forward.

If the current level of interest represents the new normal for VCs, we expect it to only increase as we enter the fall. And with more founders coming online in early to late fall, that pent-up demand should result in an increasingly active market. If you’re a founder, I would recommend kicking off your fundraise now in order to capitalize on the increased interest from investors and decreased competition for at least the first pitch meeting.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

As e-commerce accelerates, fintech startups raised record $100M rounds in Q2

TechCrunch

Reading headlines here and there, one might assume that venture capital interest in fintech startups is setting records every quarter.

After all: didn’t Robinhood raise $280 million and $320 million more this year? Stripe raised $600 million just a few minutes ago, and wasn’t it Monzo that raised £60 million a few weeks back? Oh, and Hippo raised $150 million the other day.

And what about that huge Plaid exit earlier in the year and Chime’s jillion dollars that came right before 2019 ended?

That’s how it has felt to me, at least. And with good reason: new data from CB Insights indicates that fintech startups raised a record number of so-called “mega-rounds,” financings worth $100 million and more, in the second quarter of 2020.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


So the vibe in fintech that huge rounds have been landing quite often is correct. But underneath the big deals, there was early-stage weakness in the market that makes for a surprising contrast.

The same CB Insights report details a key “tailwind” factor for many fintech startups, namely that e-commerce is booming in the COVID-19 era, rising from about 16% of total U.S. commerce to around 27% through Q2 of this year.

So, let’s start by taking a quick look at Square’s earnings that leaked yesterday, and some notes from Shopify’s recent results to decipher just how fast the economy is heading online before examining what happened in Q2 VC for fintech startups as a cohort.

We’ll keep this as numbers-light as we can, and fun as we can — I promise. Let’s go!

Digital commerce is growing like a weed

You might think that Square, a company most famous for its IRL payment terminals and ability to turn any person into a micro-company would suffer while COVID-19 slowed in-person business. But, despite slowing gross payment volume (GPV), as expected, Square’s revenue exploded in Q2, growing from $1.17 billion in Q2 2019 to $1.92 billion in the most recent period.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 ships August 21, starting at $1,000

TechCrunch

Samsung promised a lot of gadgets for today’s big Unpacked event — five in all, as a matter of fact. As expected, the big headliners — both figuratively and literally — are the latest additions to the popular Note line.

Also unsurprising is the company’s positioning the Note 20 — along with the rest of today’s new hardware — as  “devices […] that seamlessly integrate to empower consumers navigating a rapidly changing world.” It’s mostly a bit of hyperbole as the company looks to position a pair of pricey flagship phones in the midst of an extraordinarily unprecedented year.

Like the Galaxy S20 before it, Samsung’s skipping 10 full numbers here for the sake of consistency. On a whole, nothing here jumps out as a huge leap in progress, a fact due in no small part to the company’s six-month flagship cycle. There are, however, a number of notable upgrades on-board here, as the company works to retain its position among the bleeding edge of smartphone advances.

Image Credits: Samsung

Samsung was, of course, one of the first company’s to embrace 5G, employing the next-gen technology well before achieving any sort of saturation point. The company has also embraced the budget side of the spectrum with the Galaxy A71 5G. It follows then, the Note line is the company’s “first fully 5G-capable Note,” meaning that the technology is no longer just the realm of the more premium model — and that it utilizes both the Sub-6 and mmWave versions of 5G technology.

Once again, the Note line is divided into two distinct models: this time out, the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra, starting at $1,000 and $1,300, respectively. Much has been made of Samsung’s attempts to move the devices at a — less than opportune time. The fact of the matter is people aren’t really buying handsets these days. For one thing, lots of people just don’t have the sort of disposable income they did just a year ago. And what money is going to technology is generally being spent on things like PCs, as remote becomes the new norm for office workers.

Image Credits: Samsung

Handsets costing $1,000+ had already become a tough sell in recent years, with an overall market slow down — and recent figures from third-party analysts show that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to Samsung’s sales bottom line.

All of that said, the Note is still very much the standard by which all other phablets are judged. Plenty of other companies have tried and failed to launch competitive pocket productivity devices, and for its nearly decade-long existence, no one has been able to come close to the Galaxy Note.

As is its custom, Samsung continues to press the bounds of screen size on the line. The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra sport 6.7 and 6.9-inch displays, respectively. Both are up from the 10, which sported a 6.3 and 6.8-inch screen. The Ultra also sports a 120Hz refresh rate.

For the first Samsung launch in recent memory, I can’t tell you what kind of job the company has done keeping the footprint down in spite of an ever-enlarging screen — for reasons that are probably obvious, I haven’t seen or touched the device in person yet. Soon, I’m told.

Image Credits: Samsung

What I can say is that the dimensions have increased, but only by a millimeter or so. And both models have added somewhere between 10-30 grams apiece. The device retains the familiar three-camera array, albeit with a redesigned enclosure. The Note Ultra borrows some key cues from the S20 Ultra. The biggest additions are the 108-megapixel wide-angle and the Space Zoom technology, which brings up to 50x super zoom (only 5x optical) on the Ultra and 30x (3x hybrid optical) on the 20. The Ultra also sports laser auto focus for quicker shots, while the 20 sports a 64-megapixel telephoto. Both models can now shoot video in 8K, as well.

The fan favorite S Pen gets a bunch of updates, including increased precision and responsiveness, along with gesture controls that do things like shoot screenshots or return to the home screen. The stylus can be used as a remote control as well, up to 30 feet, courtesy of Bluetooth Low Energy. The associated Notes app features better cloud syncing and a new recording feature, which associates time stamps with written notes (there’s no live transcription à la Google Recorder, however).

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Samsung and Microsoft have broadened their partnership here. That includes the ability to access Samsung notes and mirror the mobile device on a Windows 10 PC. And mid-next month, the Note 20 will be getting Xbox Game Pass access, with 100+ games, as Samsung looks to position its high-end handsets as more serious mobile gaming devices.

There is, as ever, DeX support, letting users mirror the system to a connected smart TV. In spite of rumors around Samsung’s waning interest with Bixby, the company tells me that the smart assistant “remains consistent” with what has been offered on previous devices. A fun addition also worth pointing out is the ability to pair the new Galaxy Buds Live as microphones for when you’re shooting a subject talking. UWB (ultra-wideband) is another new addition that lets users share files when in close proximity and will double as a digital key at some point down the road.

Image Credits: Samsung

The models are powered by the new Snapdragon 865+. The Ultra ships with 12GB of RAM and either 128GB or 512GB of storage. The Note 20 has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Their batteries are 4,500mAh and 4,300mAh, respectively. Pre-orders open tomorrow, and they’ll start shipping August 21.

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Extra Crunch Live: Join Wealthfront CEO Andy Rachleff August 11 at 1pm EDT / 10am PDT about the futu

TechCrunch

Wealthfront was one of the earliest and remains one of the most formidable companies in the so-called robo-advisor space — algorithmic apps that manage and optimize your savings and investments. Since its debut, the platform has skyrocketed in popularity, taking in more than $200 million in venture capital according to Crunchbase, including a recent $75 million round led by Tiger Global in 2018 when the company had just shy of $10 billion in assets under management. Since then, it’s added additional banking services such as high-interest checking accounts and other products.

Wealthfront’s product expansion mirrors the broader landscape of fintech, which has seen massive growth in investor enthusiasm over the past decade. From managing student loans and investment products, to lowering barriers to trading stocks, to creating new APIs to extend financial services across more businesses, fintech has been one of the hottest sectors for founders and investors.

That’s why we’re thrilled to bring Andy Rachleff, CEO and co-founder of Wealthfront, on to Extra Crunch Live this coming August 11th at 1pm EDT / 10am PDT / 5pm GMT. Login details are below for Extra Crunch members.

Before he started and built up Wealthfront, Rachleff spent nearly a decade as a general partner at early-stage VC firm Benchmark, where he invested in a myriad of industries.

We’re excited for him to bring both the investor and operator hats to bear on some of the most pressing questions going on in fintech and wealth management today. As banks increasingly reposition themselves as digital-native, how can startups compete with such large incumbents? Saving rates have jumped the past few months — what does that portend for the future of wealth management and banking? And will greater concerns about ESG in finance change the way financial apps approach the market going forward?

This is an open conversation, and we will be taking questions from the audience as well. So come prepared with some interesting ones covering the gamut of what’s going on in finance today.

Join us August 11th — we look forward to seeing you there.

Details:

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Google Play Music to shut down starting in September, will disappear by December

TechCrunch

Google’s plans to wind down its Google Play Music service in favor of the company’s newer YouTube Music have been known for some time. But Google this week has given users a deadline on making the switch. The company says YouTube Music will fully replace Google Play Music in December 2020, at which point Google Play Music users will no longer be able to stream from or otherwise use the Google Play Music app.

Though December is the final deadline for being able to export from the Google Play Music app, your ability to stream from the Google Play Music app will end before then.

In September 2020, users in New Zealand and South Africa will be the first to lose access to stream or use the Google Play Music app. The rest of the world will lose their access in October.

However, Google will continue to make your content available for export through December. Through the transfer tool released in May, Google Play Music users will be able to export their playlists, uploads, purchases, likes and more to YouTube Music. Alternately, users can use the Google Takeout service to export their data and download their purchased and uploaded music.

For those considering making a switch to a rival streaming service, like Spotify, there aren’t official tools available, but there are third-party options, like Soundiiz, TuneMyMusic, MusConv, and others.

Google says it will also be making changes to the Google Play store and Music Manager.

Starting this month, users will no longer be able to make purchases or pre-order music from Google Play Music through Music Manager, nor will they be able to upload and download music.

The company has been preparing YouTube Music in advance of this shift to address complaints Google Play Music users had with earlier versions of the service. This year, Google increased playlist length from 1,000 to 5,000 songs and added support for uploads (up to 100K tracks — 50K more than on Google Play Music). It has also rolled out offline listening, lyrics, and Explore tab for discovery, and a tool for transferring podcast subscriptions and episode progress to Google Podcasts.

YouTube Music offers a variety of playlist options now, too, including collaborative playlists built with friends and new programmed playlists built by editors. Assistive technology now also make personalized suggestions of what to add when you’re building a YouTube Music playlist.

YouTube Music service has expanded its reach across platforms, as well, with support for Android TV, Google Maps (for music while navigating), and via Google Assistant in recent days.

For any user who doesn’t opt to move to YouTube Music, Google says subscriptions will be automatically canceled.

Google’s strategy with music has been overly complicated for some time (not unlike its strategy with messaging and communication apps). When users signed up for YouTube Premium (previously YouTube Red), they’d automatically receive access to Google Play Music, and vice versa. And Google continued to sell YouTube Music as a separate subscription. In other words, Google created a world where it wasn’t only competing against big streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora, it was also competing against itself.

Now it’s hoping to shift its streamers to YouTube Music. The idea came about because YouTube for a long time has been a way to access free music, thanks to a deep catalog of officially licensed music videos, live performances and other music content. So why not upsell YouTube’s freeloading music fans on an ad-free, upgraded music experience? That strategy may have worked to some extent, but it’s more recently being challenged. Last week, Facebook announced deals with record labels to make music videos free on its platform, as well. If user behavior shifts as a result, YouTube’s ability to funnel free music fans into a premium product could be impacted, too.

 

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Dear Sophie: Can I bypass H-1B and sponsor a grad for a green card?

TechCrunch

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

A very bright and promising foreign national who graduated from a U.S. university has been working for our firm and just received a STEM OPT extension. We would like to keep her on after her STEM OPT ends. We registered her in this year’s H-1B lottery, but unfortunately, she wasn’t selected.

Given the challenges of getting an H-1B through the lottery and the #h1bvisaban, how can we bypass the H-1B and potentially sponsor her for a green card?

— Eager in Emeryville

Dear Eager,

Happy to hear you’re willing to sponsor a promising graduate from an American university for a green card. Sounds like you’re interested in exploring the EB-2 or EB-3 green card with the PERM process. For additional resources, feel free to check out my recent podcast on PERM.

Just because U.S. immigration policy often runs counter to retaining the best and the brightest college graduates in the U.S. doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Some options exist for these talented folks and the companies that want to hire them, even though many employment-based green cards require candidates who are outstanding in their field. Recent graduates often haven’t yet built up their work experience and credentials, but there can be paths forward.

Although it may present some immigration risks to the candidate that should be weighed carefully in collaboration with an experienced business immigration attorney, many employers have been doing as you suggested: sidestepping the H-1B visa and directly pursuing a green card. This is often due to the extremely competitive H-1B lottery and high denial rates for initial H-1B petitions and extensions. Also, a moratorium on all green cards, H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas for individuals currently outside the U.S. is in effect until the end of this year. This now makes it nearly impossible for most employers to sponsor individuals to come to the U.S. unless their work is in the national interest or essential to the U.S. food supply chain.

So, many people are seeking solutions. First, the basics: Because your STEM OPT employee is already in the U.S., and the H-1B lottery now only costs $10 to register a candidate, I suggest that your company continue to enter her in the lottery as a backup option in case her F-1 STEM OPT status ends before you can secure her a green card.

The green cards for which most recent graduates would be eligible require the sponsoring employer to go through the PERM labor certification process before filing a green card petition. Separately there are other green cards for extraordinary ability which I’ve also written about.

PERM, which stands for Program Electronic Review Management, is the system used for applying for labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor . Please speak with an attorney about the timing of this process and consider any risks to your employee’s personal immigration situation given her current F-1 nonimmigrant status.

Labor certification must be submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with EB-2 and EB-3 green card petitions. Labor certification confirms that no U.S. workers are qualified and available to accept the job offered to the green card candidate and employing the green card candidate won’t adversely affect the wages and working conditions of American workers.

Without knowing more about your STEM OPT employee’s background and qualifications, I would surmise that she might be able to qualify for one of these employment-based green cards:

Both of these green card categories require the employer sponsor to go through the PERM labor certification process. Because PERM is a complex process and will determine if you can proceed with sponsoring your employee for a green card, I recommend that you work with an experienced immigration attorney.

In general, PERM requires employers to take these steps:

The duties and requirements of the position should be detailed and typical for your company — not tailored to the green card candidate. These duties and requirements will be used for job posting during the recruitment process.

In more detail, employers must file a prevailing wage request to the National Prevailing Wage Center of the Labor Department. The prevailing wage is determined based on the position, the geographical location of the position and economic conditions. The employer must pay the prevailing wage or higher for the position to ensure that hiring a foreign national would not adversely affect the wages of U.S. workers in similar positions. This process can take a few months.

The most time-consuming of these steps is the recruitment process to determine whether qualified U.S. workers are available for the position. To do that, an employer must advertise the job in two Sunday editions of a local newspaper, submit a job order with the state workforce agency (CalJOBS in California) and file an internal company notice of the filing. Plan ahead with your legal team to consider running some things in parallel to decrease the overall time.

For professional positions, employers need to use three additional recruitment methods, such as using a job recruiting website, an employment firm, a job fair, a posting at a career placement center at a local university or college, or incentives for employee referrals.

The job order with the state workforce agency must run for at least 30 consecutive days. The internal job posting must be up for 10 consecutive business days. Employers must allow 30 days for candidates to apply and interview U.S. workers who apply.

Generally, if there are no qualified applicants, employers then file ETA Form 9089 to the Labor Department. No supporting documents need to be submitted with the form, but the documents must be maintained for five years, especially as there could be an audit. The Labor Department will send a verification email to the employer along with a sponsorship questionnaire, which the employer should fill out within a week of receiving it. It’s important to not miss this email!

The PERM process can take anywhere from three to eight months as long as the Labor Department does not audit your case. The Labor Department conducts two types of audit: random audits and targeted audits. Random audits are done to make sure employers are following the PERM procedure.

Some common reasons for targeted audits could include:

The Labor Department usually issues an audit notice within six months of receiving the labor certification application, and the employer must respond within 30 days. An audit does not mean an employer’s PERM will not be approved. However, it can add nine to 18 months to the process. If an employer does not respond to the audit notice, the Labor Department will deem the case abandoned, and for any future PERM applications, the employer may be required to conduct supervised recruitment.

Once the Labor Department approves the PERM Labor Certification for that position, you must file the green card petition to USCIS within 180 days. If your employee was born in any country other than China or India and you are sponsoring her for an EB-2 green card, you can file the I-140 green card petition and the I-485 adjustment of status from F-1 STEM OPT to EB-2 at the same time, assuming the “priority date” is still current.

If eligible, your STEM OPT employee could also enter the diversity green card lottery in the fall to increase her chances of getting a green card. Each year, 50,000 green cards are reserved for individuals born in countries that have low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Let me know if you have any other questions. Good luck!

— Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Here’s the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

TechCrunch

Samsung promised five “power devices” for its virtually-only Unpacked event. We already know about the Note 20, Galaxy Watch 3, Tab S7 and Buds Live — so what’s left? We speculated based on an earlier news that the company would debuting a new foldable — the biggest question, however, is whether it would be a rehash of the recently announced Galaxy Z Flip 5G or something else entirely.

Turns out the company is releasing the sequel to its first foldable, the…troubled Galaxy Fold. After a false start or two, the company says it sold one million units of the innovative but overly fragile handset. Announced earlier this year, however, the clamshell-styled Flip was better received, and frankly the foldable Samsung ought to have released in the first place.

With all of that in mind, what lessons has the company applied to the new version of the Fold? For starters, the front displays seemed like something of an afterthought on the original Fold. For the Galaxy Z Fold 2, it expands significantly to 6.2 inches, in addition to the main (foldable) 7.6-inch screen.

The colors will match the new Notes (and the rest of the devices announced today), available in  Mystic Black and Mystic Bronze.

Details are still forthcoming, including how reinforced this version is. The company notes in the press material, “After releasing two foldable devices and listening to user feedback on the most requested upgrades and new features, Samsung unveils the Galaxy Z Fold 2 with meaningful innovations that offer users enhanced refinements and unique foldable user experiences.”

The company appears to not quite be ready to talk about the new foldable beyond these first few details. Instead, it’s promising addition information next month — likely at the press event it has planned in lieu of an appearance at IFA in September. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to play around it then, too. We’ll try to be gentle this time.

 

August 5th 2020, 11:15 am

Instagram Reels launches globally in over 50 countries, including US

TechCrunch

Instagram Reels, the company’s significant effort in challenging TikTok on short-form creative content, is launching globally, starting today. The feature is being made available across 50 countries, including the U.S., as TechCrunch had previously reported. The expansion means Reels will now be available in key international markets, such as India, Brazil, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Argentina and several others.

The timing is fortuitous, given TikTok’s uncertain future in the U.S. as the Trump administration weighs either banning the Chinese-owned app entirely or forcing it to sell off its U.S. operations.

However, Facebook’s plans to respond to the TikTok threat were underway well before now.

In late 2018, Facebook launched a TikTok clone called Lasso. The app didn’t take off and was shuttered this year. Though unsuccessful as a standalone product, Lasso represents Facebook’s ability to run what are essentially large-scale beta tests that don’t have to generate revenue. This allows Facebook to collect a sizable amount of user behavioral data that can then be put to use when building new features for flagship apps, like it’s doing with Instagram Reels.

Following Lasso’s tests, Instagram released Reels in Brazil in November 2019, where it was called Cenas, to see how Instagram users would respond to a different sort of mobile video experience.

Those tests steadily expanded outside the U.S. to markets like India and parts of Europe in 2020.

With Reels, Instagram’s goal is not just to capture the now potentially up-for-grabs TikTok audience in the U.S. — it’s to steal them away even if TikTok remains.

Image Credits: Instagram

Today, Instagram caters to a certain kind of creator community that doesn’t always overlap with the younger, Gen Z (and up) user base that’s found a home on TikTok. (And Gen Alpha, if we’re being honest.) Instead, Instagram users either share polished, curated photos to their Feed; publish personal and casual videos in Stories; or share almost YouTube-like creator content to IGTV. Meanwhile, Instagram’s browsing experience hasn’t offered a way to quickly swipe through videos like on TikTok.

Image Credits: Instagram

Reels aims to change that. The feature lets users create and publish 15-second videos using a new set of editing tools that include options like AR effects, a countdown timer, a new align tool to line up different takes and, of course, music. Instagram’s deals with major record labels mean users won’t have to wonder if their sound will later be removed due to a rights issue and will offer a variety of musical content right out of the gate.

A comprehensive audio catalog could be a competitive advantage for Reels — not to mention a feature that’s difficult for smaller apps to acquire due to the complicated nature of record label negotiations.

When TikTok users recently descended on rival apps upon news of a potential TikTok ban in the U.S., one of their chief complaints was the lack of good music or popular sounds. Some even republished their favorites under hashtags like #sounds or #TikToksounds in an effort to rebuild TikTok’s catalog via user-generated uploads.

Instagram understood the importance of music — not just editing tools, workflow and discovery — in helping its TikTok competitor thrive. TikTok, after all, has its own record label contracts — though the extent of those deals haven’t been widely published.

“We think it’s really important to honor the rights of the music labels — and that’s one we’ve been working on for years now,” said Instagram head of Product, Vishal Shah. “We’re launching Reels now in countries where we have rights. We think that the catalog is quite deep and it has some unique content that you can’t really find, at that depth, in other platforms. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that all the restrictions that we needed to put in place — whether that was on the country basis or what could people download and use and remix etc. — were all built into the product from from day one. That’s something we’ve been working with the labels on and was an important consideration in the launch,” he added.

What he didn’t mention is that Instagram’s music industry relationships aren’t only with the record labels. The company has deals with other publishers and independents as well, which have been part of the company’s ongoing partnership efforts and strategic negotiations that are helping fuel other Facebook products, like the recent launch of Music Videos. 

Image Credits: Instagram

Using Reels is easy because it’s built into the Instagram Camera that people already know how to use. To create a new Reel, you’ll select the option at the bottom of the Instagram Camera, next to Story. The editing tools then pop up on the left side of the screen, which is where you’ll find the AR effects and other options, like the timer, speed and align features.

Like other Instagram posts, Reels can be saved to Drafts while they’re a work in progress. When ready to go live, Reels can be pushed out across key surfaces in the app — including Stories, Stories with Close Friends only or as a DM. If you have a public Instagram account, you also can publish Reels to the wider Instagram audience, which will discover them within a new space in Explore.

Image Credits: Instagram

Reels can also be captioned and hashtagged, and friends can be tagged — allowing Instagram to leverage the size and scale of its user base to help the new feature go viral. If Reels are published to Stories, they’ll disappear in 24 hours. Otherwise, Reels will continue to live on in a new tab on users’ profiles.

To watch Reels from Explore, users are presented in a vertical feed personalized to your interests, similar to TikTok. “Featured” Reels are those chosen by Instagram to guide users to original content and will be labeled accordingly.

Overall, what Instagram has built isn’t all that differentiated from TikTok. But nor is it a direct clone.

Instead, Instagram has turned the entirety of the TikTok experience into a single feature among many others within its own app. That’s been a formula for success in the past — Instagram Stories is now bigger than all of Snapchat, for instance.

But TikTok has built something that may not be as easily replicated: a community of users who started their social media lives with underage accounts on Musical.ly. They grew up with the app, lived through the TikTok rebranding and now may see no need to switch — unless TikTok actually does disappear.

Or, as my tween put it when a friend told her TikTok wasn’t really going to be banned: “So Instagram built Reels for nothing?”

August 5th 2020, 9:28 am

Sight Diagnostics raises $71M Series D for its blood analyzer

TechCrunch

Sight Diagnostics, the Israel-based health-tech company behind the FDA-cleared OLO blood analyzer, today announced that it has raised a $71 million Series D round with participation from Koch Disruptive Technologies, Longliv Ventures (which led its Series C round)and crowd-funding platform OurCrowd. With this, the company has now raised a total of $124 million, though the company declined to share its current valuation.

With a founding team that used to work at Mobileye, among other companies, Sight made an early bet on using machine vision to analyze blood samples and provide a full blood count comparable to existing lab tests within minutes. The company received FDA clearance late last year, something that surely helped clear the way for this additional round of funding.

Image Credits: Sight Diagnostics

“Historically, blood tests were done by humans observing blood under a microscope. That was the case for maybe 200 years,” Sight CEO and co-founder Yossi Pollak told me. “About 60 years ago, a new technology called FCM — or flow cytometry — started to be used on large volume of blood from venous samples to do it automatically. In a sense, we are going back to the first approach, we just replaced the human eye behind the microscope with machine vision.”

Pollak noted that the tests generate about 60 gigabytes of information (a lot of that is the images, of course) and that he believes that the complete blood count is only a first step. One of the diseases it is looking to diagnose is COVID-19. To do so, the company has placed devices in hospitals around the world to see if it can gather the data to detect anomalies that may indicate the severity of some of the aspects of the disease.

“We just kind of scratched the surface of the ability of AI to help with with a wish with blood diagnostics,” said Pollak. “Specifically now, there’s so much value around COVID in decentralizing diagnostics and blood tests. Think keeping people — COVID-negative or -positive —  outside of hospitals to reduce the busyness of hospitals and reduce the risk for contamination for cancer patients and a lot of other populations that require constant complete blood counts. I think there’s a lot of potential and a lot of a value that we can bring specifically now to different markets and we are definitely looking into additional applications beyond [complate blood count] and also perfecting our product.”

So far, Sight Diagnostics has applied for 20 patents and eight have been issued so far. And while machine learning is obviously at the core of what the company does — with the models running on the OLO machine and not in the cloud — Pollak also stressed that the team has made breakthroughs around the sample preparation to allow it to automatically prepare the sample for analysis.

Image Credits: Sight Diagnostics

Pollok stressed that the company focused on the U.S. market with this funding round, which makes sense, given that it was still looking for its FDA clearance. He also noted that this marks Koch Disrupt Technologies’ third investment in Israel, with the other two also being healthcare startups.

“KDT’s investment in Sight is a testament to the company’s disruptive technology that we believe will fundamentally change the way blood diagnostic work is done,’ said Chase Koch, President of Koch Disruptive Technologies . “We’re proud to partner with the Sight team, which has done incredible work innovating this technology to transform modern healthcare and provide greater efficiency and safety for patients, healthcare workers, and hospitals worldwide.”

The company now has about 100 employees, mostly in R&D, with offices in London and New York.

August 5th 2020, 9:28 am

Genki’s Covert Dock is the perfect dock for the Nintendo Switch – and other gadgets, too

TechCrunch

The Nintendo Switch’s ability to quickly transition from portable to home console is definitely one of its major selling points, but Nintendo’s official dock never really made much sense with the portable nature of the Switch itself. Luckily, third-party accessory maker Genki created the Covert Dock, a device no larger than a smartphone USB charger that easily connects your Switch to any TV. Plus, it actually is a USB charger for all your devices, too.

The basics

The Covert Dock includes a USB Type-C port that’s rated for the Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which means it can charge not only the Switch, but also an iPhone, Android smartphones, the iPad Pro and even a MacBook (though its max output is 30w, so you won’t get full-speed charging for any power-hungry large devices). It also includes a USB-A port, which you can use not only for charging, but also for connecting controllers, microphones, mice, Ethernet adapters, and more to devices connected via USB-C. Finally, there’s an HDMI port, which you can use to connect your Switch (or other devices that support USB-C video out) to your TV or display.

The HDMI port supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at up to 60hz, so it can easily handle the 720p output of the Switch. The Genki Covert Dock also features folding power prongs for maximum portability – and it’s extremely compact, coming in smaller than a MacBook Air charger despite all of its capabilities.

Image Credits: Genki

Genki also provides a set of global power adapters that slide on to the folded prongs for easy travel compatibility, adding to its versatility. There’s also a six-foot USB-C 3.1 charging cable included in the box, so you have everything you need to begin using it right away. When you don’t have an HDMI cable plugged in, it can also power your Switch while you play just like with any other standard USB-C charger.

At $74.99, the Genki Covert Dock actually comes in under the retail price of Nintendo’s official dock set for Switch – and it’s a much more versatile device thanks to its ability to act as a hub for a wide range of devices that support display output over USB-C. Combine that with the travel adapter set, and the Covert Dock is really replacing two or three devices in your bag, rather than just a Switch dock.

Performance

Genki’s Covert Dock feels very sturdy and well-built, not at all like many of the third-party dock alternatives that you can find on Amazon. Inside, it uses Gallium Nitride technology to enable its small size while still making sure it can provide good power output without overheating.

It worked flawlessly both for charging my Switch (and other devices) and for connecting the Switch to my TV. As soon as you plug in an HDMI cable, the Switch behaves just as it would when using the official dock, switching off the built-in display and outputting to the television in HD resolution.

Image Credits: Genki

Ditto with plugging in an iPad Pro, and a MacBook Pro. Both automatically detect the HDMI connection and behave just like they would using any other display adapter.

Users of other third-party Switch display docking solutions might be hesitant to trust another one, given how frequently third-party hardware has led to issues including console bricking. But Genki has a great and thorough explanation of why their dock shouldn’t encounter such issues, and it mostly relates to their proper implementation of the PD 3.0 specification. Over the course of testing on an up-to-date Switch console over a couple of weeks, I definitely haven’t encountered any issues.

Bottom line

If you own a Switch (not the Switch Lite, sadly, since it doesn’t support video out), then there’s no question that you should also own a Genki Covert Dock. It’s the dock that the console should’ve shipped with, since it respects the Switch’s portability and offers a way to connect to a TV that takes up no more space than the Switch USB charger itself.

Even if you don’t own a Switch, the Genki Covert Dock might be something you need – it’s a great way to power an iPad while presenting during a meeting, for instance, and also a fantastic travel charger even when you’re not using the display features. Genki has done a tremendous job of packing a whole lot of versatility into a unique and well-built device, and at a price that’s very reasonable when you consider how many other potential gadgets and dongles it’s replacing.

August 5th 2020, 9:28 am

Harness makes first acquisition, snagging open source CI company Drone.io

TechCrunch

Harness has made a name for itself creating tools like continuous delivery (CD) for software engineers to give them the kind of power that has been traditionally reserved for companies with large engineering teams like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Today, the company announced it has acquired Drone.io, an open source continuous integration (CI) company, marking the company’s first steps into open source, as well as its first acquisition.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

“Drone is a continuous integration software. It helps developers to continuously build, test and deploy their code. The project was started in 2012, and it was the first cloud native, container native continuous integration solution on the market, and we open sourced it,” company co- founder Brad Rydzewski told TechCrunch.

Drone delivers pipeline configuration information as code in a Docker container. Image: Drone.io

While Harness had previously lacked a CI tool to go with its continuous delivery tooling, founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal said this was less about filling in a hole than expanding the current platform.

“I would call it an expansion of our vision and where we were going. As you and I have talked in the past, the mission of Harness is to be a next generation software delivery platform for everyone,” he said. He added that buying Drone had a lot of upside.”It’s all of those things — the size of the open source community, the simplicity of the product — and it [made sense], for Harness and Drone to come together and bring this integrated CI/CD to the market.”

While this is Harness’ first foray into open source, Bansal says it’s just the starting point and they want to embrace open source as a company moving forward. “We are committed togetting more and more involved in open source and actually making even more parts of Harness, our original products, open source over time as well,” he said.

For Drone community members who might be concerned about the acquisition, Bansal said he was “100% committed” to continuing to support the open source Drone product. In fact, Rydzewski said he wanted to team with Harness because he felt he could do so much more with them than he could have done continuing as a stand-alone company.

“Drone was a growing community, a growing project and a growing business. It really came down to I think the timing being right and wanting to partner with a company like Harness to build the future. Drone laid a lot of the groundwork, but it’s a matter of taking it to the next level,” he said.

Bansal says that Harness intends to also offer a commercial version of Drone with some enterprise features on the Harness platform, even while continuing to support the open source side of it.

Drone was founded in 2012. The only money it raised was $28,000 when it participated in the Alchemist Accelerator in 2013, according to Crunchbase data. The deal has closed and Rydzewski has joined the Harness team,

August 5th 2020, 9:28 am

Watch SpaceX’s stunning Starship prototype ‘hop’ test flight and landing

TechCrunch

SpaceX achieved a big win in their Starship spacecraft development program on Tuesday evening, flying the SN5 prototype of that future vehicle to a height of around 500 feet, propelled by a single Raptor engine. The test, which took place at SpaceX’s rocket development and testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marks the first time that a full-scale Starship prototype has left the ground.

The company released a video of the whole test, including footage captured both from a drone’s-eye-view, as well as from a camera mounted on board Starship SN5, inside the fuselage and offering a look at the Raptor engine in action, as well as the landing legs activating in preparation for landing.

Following the successful test, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk outlined next steps for the Starship development process, which includes “several” more short hops, followed by high altitude testing. The landing legs will also go through some changes, first extending in length and then becoming much wider and taller, with the ability to land on more uneven terrain, according to Musk.

August 5th 2020, 8:15 am

US tech needs a pivot to survive

TechCrunch

Last month, American tech companies were dealt two of the most consequential legal decisions they have ever faced. Both of these decisions came from thousands of miles away, in Europe. While companies are spending time and money scrambling to understand how to comply with a single decision, they shouldn’t miss the broader ramification: Europe has different operating principles from the U.S., and is no longer passively accepting American rules of engagement on tech.

In the first decision, Apple objected to and was spared a $15 billion tax bill the EU said was due to Ireland, while the European Commission’s most vocal anti-tech crusader Margrethe Vestager was dealt a stinging defeat. In the second, and much more far-reaching decision, Europe’s courts struck a blow at a central tenet of American tech’s business model: data storage and flows.

American companies have spent decades bundling stores of user data and convincing investors of its worth as an asset. In Schrems, Europe’s highest court ruled that masses of free-flowing user data is, instead, an enormous liability, and sows doubt about the future of the main method that companies use to transfer data across the Atlantic.

On the surface, this decision appears to be about data protection. But there is a choppier undertow of sentiment swirling in legislative and regulatory circles across Europe. Namely that American companies have amassed significant fortunes from Europeans and their data, and governments want their share of the revenue.

What’s more, the fact that European courts handed victory to an individual citizen while also handing defeat to one of the commission’s senior leaders shows European institutions are even more interested in protecting individual rights than they are in propping up commission positions. This particular dynamic bodes poorly for the lobbying and influence strategies that many American companies have pursued in their European expansion.

After the Schrems ruling, companies will scramble to build legal teams and data centers that can comply with the court’s decision. They will spend large sums of money on pre-built solutions or cloud providers that can deliver a quick and seamless transition to the new legal reality. What companies should be doing, however, is building a comprehensive understanding of the political, judicial and social realities of the European countries where they do business — because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

American companies need to show Europeans — regularly and seriously — that they do not take their business for granted.

Europe is an afterthought no more

For many years, American tech companies have treated Europe as a market that required minimal, if any, meaningful adaptations for success. If an early-stage company wanted to gain market share in Germany, it would translate its website, add a notice about cookies and find a convenient way to transact in euros. Larger companies wouldn’t add many more layers of complexity to this strategy; perhaps it would establish a local sales office with a European from HQ, hire a German with experience in U.S. companies or sign a local partnership that could help it distribute or deliver its product. Europe, for many small and medium-sized tech firms, was little more than a bigger Canada in a tougher time zone.

Only the largest companies would go to the effort of setting up public policy offices in Brussels, or meaningfully try to understand the noncommercial issues that could affect their license to operate in Europe. The Schrems ruling shows how this strategy isn’t feasible anymore.

American tech must invest in understanding European political realities the same way they do in emerging markets like India, Russia or China, where U.S. tech companies go to great lengths to adapt products to local laws or pull out where they cannot comply. Europe is not just the European Commission, but rather 27 different countries that vote and act on different interests at home and in Brussels.

Governments in Beijing or Moscow refused to accept a reality of U.S. companies setting conditions for them from the outset. After underestimating Europe for years, American companies now need to dedicate headspace to considering how business is materially affected by Europe’s different views on data protection, commerce, taxation and other issues.

This is not to say that American and European values on the internet differ as dramatically as they do with China’s values, for instance. But Europe, from national governments to the EU and to courts, is making it clear that it will not accept a reality where U.S. companies assume that they have license to operate the same way they do at home. Where U.S. companies expect light taxation, European governments expect revenue for economic activity. Where U.S. companies expect a clear line between state and federal legislation, Europe offers a messy patchwork of national and international regulation. Where U.S. companies expect that their popularity alone is proof that consumers consent to looser privacy or data protection, Europe reminds them that (across the pond) the state has the last word on the matter.

Many American tech companies understand their commercial risks inside and out but are not prepared for managing the risks that are out of their control. From reputation risk to regulatory risk, they can no longer treat Europe as a like-for-like market with the U.S., and the winners will be those companies that can navigate the legal and political changes afoot. Having a Brussels strategy isn’t enough. Instead American companies will need to build deeper influence in the member states where they operate. Specifically, they will need to communicate their side of the argument early and often to a wider range of potential allies, from local and national governments in markets where they operate, to civil society activists like Max Schrems .

The world’s offline differences are obvious, and the time when we could pretend that the internet erased them rather than magnified them is quickly ending.

August 5th 2020, 8:15 am

ChargePoint raises $127M as electric vehicle adoption grows among fleet operators

TechCrunch

Electric vehicle charging network ChargePoint raised $127 million in funding in a bid to expand its platform for businesses and fleets in North America and Europe.

A mix of existing investors from the oil and gas, utilities and venture industries added to the round, including American Electric Power, Chevron Technology Ventures, Clearvision and Quantum Energy Partners.

This latest addition, which was an extension of its Series H round, pushes ChargePoint’s total funding to $660 million. The company didn’t provide a valuation.

An increasing number of businesses and municipalities are turning to electric vehicles as governments enact stricter emissions regulations. Meanwhile, an increasing number of new electric passenger cars, SUVs and soon pickup trucks are coming to market. In the next 18 months, GM, Ford, Nissan, Volvo along with startups Polestar and Rivian will have electric vehicles in production. Then there’s Tesla, which has continued to scale its existing portfolio while preparing to add new vehicles, including its Cybertruck.

The upshot: ChargePoint is aiming to keep up with the pace of electric vehicle adoption. But it’s not all about expanding the network for privately owned passenger vehicles.

ChargePoint designs, develops and manufactures hardware, and accompanying software as well as a cloud subscription platform, for electric vehicles. The company might be best known for its branded public and semi-public charging spots that consumers use to charge their personal electric cars and SUVs as well as its home chargers. However, ChargePoint also has a commercial-focused business that provides hardware and software to help fleet operators manage their delivery vans, buses and cars. In all, the company has more than 114,000 charging spots globally. 

ChargePoint President and CEO Pasquale Romano said the shift towards electrification is intensifying for mainstream businesses and fleet operators. The new capital will help the company’s expansion plans keep on pace with the market, he added. Specifically, the funds will be used to commercial and fleet portfolio in North America and Europe and continue to scale policy, marketing and sales efforts.

August 5th 2020, 7:30 am

Springboard raises $31 million to expand its mentor-guided education platform to more geographies

TechCrunch

Springboard, an online education platform that provides upskilling and reskilling training courses to people looking to learn in-demand roles, has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand to more geographies.

The Series B financing round for the San Francisco-headquartered startup was led by investment firm Telstra Ventures . Vulcan Capital and SJF Ventures, as well as existing investors Costanoa Ventures, Pearson Ventures, Reach Capital, International Finance Corporation (IFC), 500 Startups, Blue Fog Capital, and Learn Capital also participated in the round, said the seven-year-old startup, which has raised more than $50 million to date.

Springboard offers a range of six-month and nine-month courses on data-science, artificial intelligence, design, coding, analytics and other upskilling subjects to help students and those who are already employed somewhere land better jobs.

The startup, which expanded to India last year, also connects students with mentors — people who are working at Fortune 500 companies — to guide them better navigate professional decisions, Vivek Kumar, Managing Director at Springboard, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Startups offering upskilling courses have gained traction in recent years as companies across the globe complain about not being satisfied with a large portion of the undergraduate students who are applying for a job with them.

In many markets like India, one of the global hubs for tech consulting firms, it has become a common sight for several major IT giants to spend months in retraining their new hires. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in elimination of tens of thousands of additional jobs.

“India is witnessing one of its toughest challenges owing to the recent job losses that have impacted a large section of the workforce. It is therefore imperative for displaced workers to make the difficult transition into new, in-demand careers,” said Parul Gupta, co-founder of Springboard, in a statement.

To make its courses reach more students, Springboard has adjusted the price points of its offering for each geography. A nine-month course that sells for around $7,500 in the U.S., for instance, is priced at $3,300 in India, explained Kumar.

The startup, which also works with financial partners to allow students to pay for the course in instalments and at no interest, refunds the tuition fee to the students who are unable to secure a better job, said Kumar.

Which brings us to one of the biggest milestones of Springboard: Fewer than 0.02% of its students have ever asked for a refund. Kumar said most students who enroll for a course on its platform end up with a job that pays them 25% higher at the very least and it goes as high as 100%.

Springboard already serves students in more than 80 geographies, but it plans to deploy the fresh capital to formally enter those markets, said Kumar.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

August 5th 2020, 7:30 am

Censys, a search engine for internet devices, raises $15.5M Series A

TechCrunch

Internet device search engine Censys is one of the biggest search engines you’ve probably never heard of.

If Google is the search engine for finding information sitting on the web, Censys is the search engine for finding internet devices, like computers, servers, and smart devices, that hosts the data to begin with. By continually mapping the internet looking for connected devices, it’s possible to identify devices that are accessible outside a company’s firewall. The aim is to help companies keep track of which systems can be accessed from the web and know which devices have exploitable security vulnerabilities.

Now, Censys has raised $15.5 million in a Series A fundraise, led by GV and Decibel with participation from Greylock Partners.

David Corcoran, chief executive and co-founder of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based internet security startup, said the company plans to “aggressively” invest in top security talent and plans to double its headcount from about 50 to 100 in the next year, including expanding its sales, engineering, and leadership teams.

“We’re thrilled to have the support of world-class investors as we keep the momentum building and continue to revolutionize how businesses manage their security posture in an ever-changing environment,” said Corcoran.

The fundraise couldn’t come at a more critical time for the company. Censys is not the only internet device search engine, rivaling Binary Edge and Shodan. But Censys says it has spent two years on bettering its internet mapping technology, helping it see more of the internet than it did before.

The new scan engine, built by the same team that developed and maintains its original open-source ZMap scanner, claims to see 44% more devices on the internet than other security companies. That helps companies see new vulnerable systems as soon as the come online, said Censys’ chief scientist Zakir Durumeric.

Censys is one of a number of growing security companies in the Ann Arbor area, alongside NextHop Technologies, Interlink Networks, and Duo Security, co-founded by Dug Song, who also sits on Censys’ board.

“You can’t protect what you can’t see — but in today’s dynamic IT environment, many organizations struggle to find, much less keep track of, every system and application at risk before the attackers do,” said Song. “Censys empowers defenders with the automated visibility they need to truly understand and to get ahead of these risks, enabling even small security teams to have an outsized impact.”

August 5th 2020, 7:30 am

Amazon inks cloud deal with Airtel in India

TechCrunch

Amazon has found a new partner to expand the reach of its cloud services business AWS in India, the world’s second largest internet market.

On Wednesday, the e-commerce giant announced it has partnered with Bharti Airtel, the third-largest telecom operator in India with more than 300 million subscribers, to sell a wide-range of AWS offerings under Airtel Cloud brand to small, medium, and large-sized businesses in the country.

The deal could help AWS, which leads the cloud market in India, further expand its dominance in the country. The move follows a similar deal Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecom operator, struck with Microsoft last year to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

Airtel, which serves over 2,500 large enterprises and more than a million emerging businesses, itself signed a similar cloud deal with Google in January this year. That partnership is still in place.

“AWS brings over 175 services. We pretty much support any workload on the cloud. We have the largest and the most vibrant community of customers,” said Puneet Chandok, President of AWS in India and South Asia, said on a call with reporters.

The two companies, which had a similar partnership in 2015, will also collaborate on building new services and help existing customers migrate to Airtel Cloud, they said.

Today’s deal illustrates Airtel’s push to build businesses beyond its telecom venture, said Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO and Head of Cloud and Security Business at Airtel, said on the call.

Deals with carriers, which were very common a decade ago as tech giants looked to acquire new users in India, illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments.

India has emerged as one of the emerging leading grounds for cloud services. The public cloud services market of the country is estimated to reach $7.1 billion by 2024, according to research firm IDC.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

August 5th 2020, 5:30 am

London-based Weezy raises seed funding for its 15-minute grocery delivery app

TechCrunch

First there was same-day delivery. Then came one-hour delivery. Now a new London startup wants to make 15 minute delivery a thing.

Putting the hyper hyper-local into online grocery shopping, Weezy combines its own strategically located fulfilment centres with a fleet of electric moped and bicycle couriers, ready to accept orders via the Weezy app. Its founders, Kristof Van Beveren and Alec Dent, think they’ve spotted a gap in the market for an online grocery service that targets “time-poor professionals and parents” who want the speed of an on-demand service but without it being prohibitively expensive.

Investors appear to agree, with Weezy launching out of stealth off the back of £1 million in pre-seed funding from Heartcore Capital, in addition to various individual backers made up of former executives of Ocado, Tesco, Sainsbury’s Chop Chop and Deliveroo.

Starting in London’s affluent Fulham and Chelsea districts, customers use Weezy’s app to select items on their shopping lists -– spanning fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and cupboard fillers, to over-the-counter medicines, cleaning products and alcoholic drinks — and pay. The order is then picked and packed at Weezy’s own fulfilment centre, before being delivered on electric scooters or bicycles within 15 minutes. The service runs between 10am and 10pm every day, charging £2.95 for delivery.

Notably, groceries are sourced not only from selected wholesalers, but also from local independent bakers, butchers and markets, seeing Weezy talk up its support for local businesses. The startup plans to open up to 15 more fulfilment centres in the U.K. capital city by the end of next year, before setting its sights on broader U.K. expansion.

“No other service delivers as quickly,” says Weezy CEO and co-founder Van Beveren. “Our hyperlocal fulfilment centre model works since we are able to optimise the space for fast picking and packing while having low property and fit-out costs, thereby keeping prices in check. This, coupled with our in-house team of riders, allows us to offer the fastest and friendliest grocery delivery service. And, compared to convenience stores, Weezy has better pricing and a broader and more premium range of products”.

In comparison, Van Beveren notes that Sainsbury’s Chop Chop takes up to 60 minutes to deliver (and outsources delivery to courier company Stuart). Amazon Prime Now promises 1-2 hours delivery via Morrisons and its own warehouses, while Amazon Fresh in London offers same or next day delivery.

“Next to speed, we have a full range of carefully curated products and pricing in line with recommended retail prices,” adds Weezy co-founder and COO Dent. “We also only use electric vehicles or bicycles for deliveries. We are committed to creating a supportive culture and the best working conditions for our team of riders, who are also trained to work in the fulfilment centre, and offered opportunities for career progression. Happy staff make happy customers”.

August 5th 2020, 5:30 am

Jakarta-based Wahyoo gets $5 million Series A to help small eateries digitize their operations

TechCrunch

Wahyoo’s team, including CEO Peter Shearer (third from left)

While growing up, Peter Shearer watched his mother get up every day at 2AM or 3AM to prepare for her catering business. For many people who own small food businesses in Indonesia, “everything is handled on their own, so I really, really wanted to create a system so they can have better operations and get more quality of life,” Shearer told TechCrunch.

His startup, Wahyoo, was founded in 2017 to help small eateries, called warung makan, digitize and automate more tasks, from ordering supplies to managing finances. Today, Wahyoo announced that it has raised $5 million in Series A funding led by Intudo Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on Indonesia.

Other investors in the round included Kinesys Group, Amatil X (the corporate venture program of Coca-Cola Amatil, one of the world’ five largest Coca-Cola bottlers), Arkblu Capital, Indogen Capital, Selera Kapital, Gratyo Universal Indonesia and Isenta Hioe. The capital will be used on hiring, developing Wahyoo’s tech platform and expanding beyond the Greater Jakarta area.

In a press statement about the investment, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “Small-and medium enterprises represent one of the major engines of economic growth in Indonesia and are being transformed through new innovative businesses like Wahyoo, bringing greater economic prosperity to small business owners throughout the country. Through the company’s digitization efforts, Wahyoo’s highly targeted support for warung makan businesses is creating positive economic and social impact for Indonesia’s working class.”

Wahyoo launched its app almost exactly a year ago and has onboarded about 13,800 warung makan so far. The company’s co-founders are Shearer, the chief executive officer; chief operating officer Daniel Cahyadi; and chief technology officer Michael Dihardja.

With about 268 million people, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest markets, and there are already startups, like Warung Pintar and BakuWarung, that focus on helping warung, or small corner stores, digitize more of their operations.

Shearer said he wanted to focus on Indonesian eateries in particular because “my background is in the food industry and I love anything related to food. Second, the potential is very big because no one has tapped into this type of warung before. Everyone focuses on retail, but no one taps into the culinary business.”

Wahyoo currently employs about 170 people, including on-the-ground teams who meet with warung makan owners. The eateries are “usually run by a family, from generation to generation,” with almost all tasks performed manually, including bookkeeping and going to markets early in the morning to buy ingredients, Shearer said.

A warung makan owner on Wahyoo’s platform

Wahyoo’s features include a next-day grocery delivery service from its own warehouses and integration with Go Food, a popular delivery app. The startup also runs an education program called Wahyoo Academy, with financial courses to help warung makan owners increase customer traffic and revenue, and offers advertising and brand partnerships.

For example, a restaurant on Wahyoo’s platform can earn money by placing ad banners or brochures in their stores. That is one of the way Wahyoo monetizes. It is free to use for restaurant owners, and makes revenue by taking a percentage of brand commissions.

Another revenue stream is Wahyoo’s fried chicken franchise, which gives warung makan owners the option of opening a small stall in front of their stores. It currently has about 350 stalls and keeps costs low by partnering with one of Indonesia’s largest poultry suppliers. Shearer said the company’s goal is to increase the number of stalls to 1,000 by the end of this year.

While eateries on Wahyoo saw a drop in their business in April and May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shearer said that it began to recover in June and July, and is now back to normal, partly because of the platform’s Go Food integration.

In the future, Wahyoo may face competition from other warung-focused startups if they decided to expand their services to restaurants as well, and new startups that want to tap into the business opportunity offered by the 59.3 million small- to medium-sized businesses in Indonesia, many of which haven’t digitized their operations yet.

Shearer said Wahyoo’s value proposition is its portfolio of complementary services. “We are basically creating an ecosystem,” he added. “We are not only focusing on the supply chain, but also our own brand. We have the fried chicken brand and in the future we will tap into financial technology and the catering business as well.”

August 5th 2020, 4:01 am

Hollywood’s Triller sets its own rhythm even as it gains from TikTok troubles

TechCrunch

Triller, the short video app backed by a Hollywood mogul and music celebrities, is rapidly ballooning in both user size and valuation. It’s now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

That’s a leap from its $130 million valuation reported last October. Triller’s founder and CEO Mike Lu declined to comment, although another executive confirmed the funding with Dot.la.

The app has emerged as what many see as a TikTok replacement, but it has been around since 2015, two years before TikTok’s debut, and has its own “identity and ecosystem,” the founder insisted.

According to Lu, Triller was already recording “significant growth” even before the Trump administration began mulling a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, although he also admitted the app is getting a boost from the TikTok backlash. 35 million new active users joined Triller just within the last few days. The app has so far collected 250 million downloads worldwide.

The Los Angeles-based startup still has a long way to catch up with TikTok, which crossed 2 billion downloads in April. The rivals both tout their capability to let users match videos with music, a defining feature for their success. In fact, Triller recently filed a lawsuit accusing its Chinese rival for infringing its patent for “creating music videos synchronized with an audio track.”

Triller attributed part of its achievement to majority investor Proxima Media, the Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh. Lu said his company has spent zero in marketing to reach its size, something that “has never happened in technology history.” But Ryan, the film producer and financier behind hits like The Fast and the Furious and The Social Network, has no doubt brought unmatched media exposure, celebrity connections, and naturally, their fans who convert to Triller users.

Triller has also secured deals with major record labels, clearing the way for users to make music-centered videos. Its roster of angel investors include Snoop Dogg, The Weekend, Marshmellow, Lil Wayne, among other big names.

“Ryan is second to none in Hollywood, entertainment and media,” said Lu. “I give [Proxima Media] a ton of credit for helping us get to this stage, this massive growth. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Celebrity-quality content is one thing that sets Triller apart from TikTok, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested in Triller in a strategic round.

“TikTok tries to grow its own celebrities. Triller already has all the big celebrities,” the investor said, refering to videos shared by Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmellow, and Eminem via Triller, which is now a popular place for releasing songs. TikTok has also become a testing ground for artists to test new works.

Meanwhile, the app strives to keep its ordinary users engaged, one thing TikTok has done very well. For example, it boasts of AI-powered editing features that enable users to make professionally looking music videos. It’s also lanched a Billboard chart that ranks the biggest Triller songs, leveling the playing field between emerging creators and celebrities.

“It gives the young people a feeling that they are close to celebrities,” observed Uzzaman.

The investor also believes there’s room for multiple players in the short video space, akin to how Uber and Lyft co-exist. Indeed, China has seen TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin going head to head with Kuaishou in recent years.

For Lu, Triller’s identity is anchored in music, especially hip hop music in the early days, with a demographic of 18-25.

Triller’s App Store images.

TikTok, in comparison, can be everything from light-hearted dance videos to goofy skits. One gets a hint of their differences from the visuals they picked for their App Store pages.

TikTok’s App Store images.

The TikTok alts

The fate of TikTok could still change dramatically in the coming weeks, although so far, there’s a decent chance that Microsoft may scoop up the Chinese-owned app. Some startups are betting that their US identity will help them win over users from TikTok, but a survey done by California-based Creative Digital Agency suggests that may not be the case.

65% of the hundreds of TikTok users it asked said they won’t feel more comfortable with their data policies even if TikTok were an American company, and 84.6% believe the proposed ban is motivated by political concerns.

“The vast majority believe that all American social media platforms are doing exactly the same thing in mining personal data, which is the big privacy concern,” the agency’s managing director Kevin Almeida suggested.

That said, TikTok’s growth has slowed down recently, as some creators hedge the risk of losing followers in the case of a ban. The app’s installs in the US last week were down 7% compared to the four-week average, shows data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. Its total downloads in the US are close to 190 million.

Triller is hardly the only US startup thriving against the backdrop of TikTok’s uncertain future. At least three other micro-video apps have seen new downloads in the hundreds of thousands in the US over the past week, according to Sensor Tower, and two are rooted in China.

They are Byte, Dom Hofmann’s new app after Vine was shuttered by Twitter; Zynn, which is run by Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese homegrown rival; and Likee, operated by Bigo, a Singapore-based company acquired by China’s YY. These apps totaled downloads of 2.9 million, 6.4 million, and 16.3 million in the US, respectively.

Growth of TikTok’s old rival Dubsmash isn’t as remarkable but the app has the most US installs among the competitors, reaching 41.6 million recently.

In comparison, Triller has accumulated 23.8 million downloads in the US. The app has seen a surge in downloads in India following the country’s TikTok ban, but it has also ranked among the top photo and video apps across multiple European and African countries where TikTok remains accessible.

The company operates a global team of 350 employees, most of whom are in the US and work on content operation and engineering.

August 5th 2020, 2:30 am

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

TechCrunch

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

August 5th 2020, 2:00 am

SpaceX successfully flies its Starship prototype to a height of around 500 feet

TechCrunch

SpaceX has been developing Starship, its next-generation spacecraft, at its site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company has built a number of different Starship prototypes to date, include one prior version called the Starhopper that was essentially just the bottom portion of the rocket. Today, the company flew its first full-scale prototype (minus the domed cap that will appear on the final version, and without the control fins that will appear lower down on its sides), achieving an initial flight of around 150 m (just under 500 feet).

This is the furthest along one of these prototypes has come in the testing process. It’s designated Starship SN5, which is the fifth serialized test article. SpaceX actually built a first full-scale demonstration craft called the Starship Mk1 prior to switching to this new naming scheme, so that makes this the sixth one this size they’ve built – with the prior versions suffering failures at various points during preparations, including pressure testing and following a static engine test fire.

SN5 is now the first of these larger test vehicles to actually take off and fly. This prototype underwent a successful static test fire earlier this week, paving the way for this short flight test today. It’s equipped with just one Raptor engine, whereas the final Starship will have six Raptors on board for much greater thrust. It managed to fly and land upright, which means that by all external indications everything went to plan.

Starhopper previously completed a similar hop in August of 2019. SpaceX has an aggressive prototype development program to attempt to get Starship in working order, with the ambitious goal of flying payloads using the functional orbital vehicle as early as next year. Ultimately, Starship is designed to pair with a future Falcon Heavy booster to carry large payloads to orbit around Earth, as well as to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

August 4th 2020, 8:09 pm

Anthony Levandowski sentenced to 18 months in prison, as new $4B lawsuit against Uber is filed

TechCrunch

Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who was at the center of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, has been sentenced to 18 months on one count of stealing trade secrets. 

Levandowski won’t be heading straight to prison, however. Judge William Alsup postponed his incarceration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He will report to prison at a future date yet to be determined.

Judge Alsup said that home confinement would “[give] a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”

During court proceedings today, Levandowski also agreed to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Google and a fine of $90,000.

The U.S. District Attorney’s office had recommended a 27-month sentence arguing in court today that Levandowski had committed the crime for ego or greed, and that he remained a wealthy man. 

“It was wrong for him to take all of these files, and it erases the contributions of many, many other people that have also put their blood, sweat and tears into this project that makes a safer self-driving car,” prosecutor Katherine Wawrzyniak said in her closing statement. “When someone as brilliant as Mr Levandowski and as focused on his mission to create self driving cars to make the world safer and better, and that somehow excuses his actions, that’s wrong.”

Levandowski had sought a fine, 12 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service. 

Levandowski spoke briefly on his behalf: “The last three and a half years have forced me to come to terms with what I did. I want to take this time to apologize to my colleagues at Google for betraying their trust, and to my entire family for the price they have paid and will continue to pay for my actions.”

The sentencing is the latest in a series of legal blows that have seen Levandowski vilified as a thieving tech bro, unceremoniously ejected from Uber, and forced into bankruptcy by a $179 million award against him.

And yet, Levandowski is not skulking away. Even as he faced more than two years in prison, the maverick engineer was plotting a comeback that could see him netting upwards of $4 billion from Uber. 

TechCrunch has learned that Levandowski recently filed a lawsuit making explosive claims against Waymo and Uber that, if proven, could turn his fortunes around with a multi-billion dollar payout. [Whether this is a last-ditch effort by a desperate man whose career has been upended by his own poor choices or a viable claim against a double-dealing tech titan, will be up to the courts to decide.

This new lawsuit, filed as part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings, mostly focuses on Uber’s agreement to indemnify Levandowski against legal action when it bought his self-trucking company, Otto Trucking. It also includes new allegations concerning the settlement that Waymo and Uber reached over trade secret theft claims. 

“No new comment on this most recent desperate filing,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email.

The quick backstory 

The criminal case that led to Levandowski’s sentencing Tuesday, as well as related civil proceedings and this new lawsuit, are 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.

Levandowski was an engineer and one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. Levandowski was paid about $127 million by Google for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court documents.

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.

Startling allegations in new lawsuit

This history matters because it is at the center of this new lawsuit that Levandowski filed in July.

He claims that the terms of the Uber-Waymo settlement – which have never been made public – included an agreement that Uber would never hire or work with him again. Levandowski says that resulted in Uber also reneging on its promises to support his trucking business. 

At closing of the Otto acquisition, an earnout plan would have given its owners “a percent interest of billions in profit for Uber’s new trucking business,” the lawsuit alleges. Levandowski would be made a non-executive chairman and control the new trucking business. Alternatively, Uber could decline to close on the transaction but instead grant Levandowski an exclusive license to Otto’s and Uber’s self-driving technology.

The lawsuit says that neither occurred, and that Uber “threatened to leave the transaction in limbo and force Mr. Levandowski to engage in protracted litigation to enforce his rights under the Otto Trucking Merger Agreement.” Uber then “coerced Mr. Levandowski to resign from Otto Trucking and to sell his interest in the company at a significant discount,” the lawsuit alleges.

The upshot: Levandowski believes and claims in the lawsuit that he should be awarded earnouts associated with the profits of Uber Freight  — the new name of Otto Trucking  — an amount that “should be at least $4.128 billion.” Uber made Uber Freight a separate business unit in August 2018. It has since set up a headquarters in Chicago and pursued an aggressive expansion even as it suffers losses. Bloomberg recently reported Uber Freight was seeking investment at a valuation of $4BN. In short, Levandowski wants the whole company. 

In addition, Levandowski hopes to force Uber to pay the $179 million sum that was awarded to Google in arbitration. (Google, for its part, is keen for Levandowski to prevail. A filing it made in the new lawsuit states: “[Levandowski] cannot come close to fully repaying Google (or his other creditors) in this bankruptcy without recovering on his indemnification claim against Uber.”)

The lawsuit also contains the remarkable accusation that Levandowski may not have been the only Google employee to take the company’s self-driving car secrets with them when they left. It notes an independent expert found that Uber’s self-driving software contained problematic functions that might require it to enter into a license agreement for use of Waymo’s intellectual property. 

The lawsuit claims that Levandowski did not work on software at Google or Uber, and thus “those trade secrets did not come from Mr. Levandowski, but rather a different former Google employee.” It goes on to claim that Waymo and Uber “settled issues relating to theft of trade secrets by individuals who are not Levandowski.” It does not identify any such person. 

“No new comment on this most recent desperate filing,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email. 

Crime and punishment

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. The charges disrupted Levandowski’s most recent project and prompted him to step down as CEO from a startup he co-founded called Pronto.ai that is developing an advanced driver assistance system product for trucks.

Levandowski and the U.S. District Attorney reached a plea deal in March 2020 that allowed him to avoid a protracted legal fight and a potentially lengthy prison sentence. Under the plea 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, the team’s objectives and key results as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome, according to the filing.

Levandowski said in the plea agreement that he downloaded the Chauffeur Weekly Update to his personal laptop on or about January 17, 2016, and accessed the document after his resignation from Google, which occurred about 10 days later.

In a victim impact statement, Waymo wrote that Levandowski’s “misconduct was enormously disruptive and harmful to Waymo, constituted a betrayal,” and requested that his sentence include “a substantial period of incarceration.” 

With no end to the COVID, it is possible that Levandowski’s latest lawsuit will be resolved before he even reports to jail. He may have been sentenced as a bankrupt, but he could enter prison a billionaire. 

August 4th 2020, 7:09 pm

‘Mulan’ is coming to Disney+ on September 4, for an additional price of $29.99

TechCrunch

Those wondering whether The Walt Disney Company would eventually give up on a traditional theatrical release for “Mulan” now have their answer.

Until now, Disney had repeatedly delayed “Mulan”‘s release due to theatrical closures in the U.S. and around the world, with “Mulan and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” expected to be the first big movie releases whenever theaters reopened.

However, with the pandemic showing no real signs of subsiding in the United States, and no clear date for theatrical reopenings in markets like New York and California, Warner Bros. recently announced that “Tenet” will not follow a traditional theatrical release schedule, and instead will open internationally this month before coming to select North American cities on September 3.

And during today’s earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said that “Mulan” will launch on Disney+ on September 4 as a “premiere access” release in “most Disney+ markets” including the United States and Canada, while also being released theatrically in “certain markets.” It sounds like subscribers will have to pay an additional $29.99 for the film, although Chapek didn’t offer any details about how this will work.

During the call, Chapek also said that as of yesterday, Disney+ has grown to more than 60.5 million paid subscribers.

August 4th 2020, 5:22 pm

Disney+ grows to more than 60.5M subscribers

TechCrunch

Disney+ had more than 60.5 million paying subscribers as of yesterday, according to The Walt Disney Company’s CEO Bob Chapek.

Chapek shared the number during a call to discuss the company’s latest earnings report, which covered the company’s most recent quarter ending on June 27. He was essentially offering an update on the 57.5 million paid subscriber figure included in the report, and he said the growth is “far exceeding our initial projections for the service.”

Disney+ launched in November of last year. The company previously announced in April that the service had passed 50 million subscribers. (Those numbers include subscribers acquired through bundling with Hotstar in India, as well as free subscribers through a promotion with TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon.)

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated growth for some streaming services. Most notably, Netflix added more than 10 million new subscribers in its most recent quarter, bringing its global total to nearly 193 million. As for Disney’s other streaming services, ESPN+ has grown more than 100% year-over-year to 8.5 million subscribers (as of June 26), while Hulu grew 27% to 35.5 million subscribers (3.4 million of them are paying for both video on demand and live TV).

And Disney+ may have gotten an additional bump, thanks to the release of “Hamilton” over the July 4 weekend.

Overall, Disney said revenue for its direct-to-consumer and international division increased 2% year-over-year, to $4.0 billion, while the unit’s operating loss grew from $562 million to $706 million.

Still, streaming likely counts as a relative bright spot compared to many of Disney’s other businesses that have either slowed or paused entirely due to the pandemic. (Parks are gradually reopening, for example.) The company’s total revenue fell 42% YOY to $11.8 billion, and earnings per share for the quarter showed a loss of $2.61.

August 4th 2020, 4:52 pm

Software stocks set new records despite earnings, pandemic

TechCrunch

You might have missed it, but amidst the current political-M&A-pandemic-election-disinformation news cycle we find ourselves in this week, SaaS and cloud companies reached new public market records.

Yesterday, the Bessemer-Nasdaq cloud index closed at 2,035.54, a new record finish for the basket of software companies. And, today, the index broached the 2,040 mark before ceding some ground.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


What matters for our purposes is that with a good chunk of the Q2 earnings cycle behind us, software companies are not only holding onto their gains from earlier in the year, they are managing to add to them, albeit modestly. Of course, valuation expansion during earnings season could still lead to gently falling multiples; as companies grow, if their shares gain value at a slower pace, their price/sales ratio can lose ground.

Regardless, for our purposes it’s notable that recent public market gains are not dissipating. Tech valuation boosts have helped major American indices regain ground lost early in the year, and Q2 earnings were a possible threat to prior progress. So far earnings-related dents are thin on the ground.

So, what’s going on? Why are SaaS and cloud stocks doing so well? Leaning on notes from two VCs — Jamin Ball from Redpoint and Mary D’Onofrio from Bessemer — we can unspool recent valuation highs.

August 4th 2020, 3:39 pm

Apple’s veteran marketing chief Phil Schiller moves to smaller role inside company

TechCrunch

After more than three decades climbing Apple’s ranks, marketing chief Phil Schiller is taking a step back at the company, being replaced by a long-time product marketing leader inside Apple.

Schiller is taking on a new role as an Apple Fellow where he will continue to lead the App Store and the company’s events, a press release details. Schiller has been with Apple since 1987, serving on the executive team for more than two decades, and has been a frequent presence onstage at Apple events. Schiller will continue to report directly to CEO Tim Cook in his new role.

Replacing Schiller and taking over the bulk of his responsibilities is Greg Joswiak, an Apple product marketing veteran who has become a more public face for the company in recent years at events and in media presentations. Joswiak’s promotion to senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing comes after nearly 20 years at Apple.

This appears to be Schiller moving to a largely advisory role with Apple employing some of its own marketing flourishes on the transition. Schiller’s maintenance of App Store messaging is interesting, especially as the company continues to be at the forefront of conversations around anti-competitive behavior among American tech companies. The App Store has been criticized for its revenue share model on digital services and CEO Tim Cook recently Zoom-testified in front of the House Antitrust Committee alongside other Big Tech CEO’s where the bulk of critiques levied at him by government officials seemed to focus on his handling of the App Store.

“Phil has helped make Apple the company it is today and his contributions are broad, vast, and run deep. In this new role he will continue to provide the incredible thought partnership, and guidance that have defined his decades at Apple,” said Cook in a statement. “Joz’s many years of leadership in the Product Marketing organization make him perfectly suited to this new role and will ensure a seamless transition at a moment when the team is engaged in such important and exciting work. I’m thrilled that the whole executive team will benefit from his collaboration, ideas, and energy.”

August 4th 2020, 2:38 pm

Parental control app Boomerang repeatedly blocked from Play Store, losing business

TechCrunch

Apple isn’t the only one accused of kicking out competitive solutions from its App Store. Google did the same — for over a month at least — or so alleges parental control app maker Boomerang. The company’s product competes with Google’s own Family Link solution for controlling screen time and children’s use of mobile devices. The company claims Google repeatedly removed its application from the Play Store for a variety of issues, including violations of Google’s “Deceptive Behavior Policy” which relates to users’ inability to easily remove the application from their Android device.

The issue itself is complicated and an indication of how poor developer communication processes can make an existing problem worse, leading developers to complain of anti-competitive behaviors.

Like Apple, Google also has a set of rules developers have to agree to in order to publish apps on the Google Play store. The difficulty is that those rules are often haphazardly or unevenly enforced, requests for appeals are met with no replies or automated responses and, at the end of the day, there’s no way for a developer to reach a human and have a real discussion.

You may recall a similar situation involving screen time apps hit a group of screen time app makers last year. Apple then had suddenly removed a host of third-party screen time and parental control apps, shortly after introducing its own Screen Time solution within iOS 12. The company’s move was brought up during last week’s antitrust hearings in Congress, where Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted Apple’s decision was due to the risk to user privacy and security these apps caused.

The case with Boomerang is not that different. A developer gets kicked out of the Play Store and seems to have no way to escalate the appeal to an actual human to discuss the nuances of the situation further.

The Boomerang Ban

For starters, let’s acknowledge that it makes sense that the Play Store would have a policy against apps that are difficult to uninstall, as this would allow for a host of malware, spam and spyware applications to exist and torment users.

However, in the case of a parental control solution, the reality is that parents don’t want their kids to have the option to simply uninstall the program. In fact, Boomerang added the feature based on user feedback from parents.

Google itself puts its Family Link controls behind a parental PIN code and requires parents to sign into to their Google account to remove the child’s account from a device, for instance.

Boomerang’s app required a similar course of action. In “Parent Mode,” parents would toggle a switch that says “prevent app uninstallation” in the app’s Settings to make the protection on the child device non-removable.

Image Credits: Boomerang

But despite the obvious intended use case here, Boomerang’s app was repeatedly flagged for the same “can’t uninstall app” reason by the Play Store’s app review process when it submitted updates and bug fixes.

This began on May 8th, 2020 and took over a month to resolve. The developer, Justin Payeur, submitted the first appeal on May 11th to test if the ban had just been triggered by Google’s “app review robots.” On May 13th, the app was re-approved without any human response or feedback to the appeals message he had sent to Google.

But then on June 30th, Boomerang was again flagged for the same reason: “can’t uninstall app.” Payeur filed a second appeal, explaining the feature is not on by default — it’s there for parents to use if they choose.

On July 6th, Boomerang had to inform users of the problem, as they had become increasingly frustrated they couldn’t find the app on Google Play. In a customer email that didn’t mince words, Boomerang wrote: “Google has become evil.” Complaints from users said that if the app didn’t offer the “prevent uninstall” feature, it wouldn’t be worth using.

On July 8th, Boomerang received a reply from Google with more information, explaining that Google doesn’t allow apps that change the user’s device settings or features outside the app without user’s knowledge or consent. Specifically, it also cited the app’s use of the “Google Accessibility Services API” in a manner that’s  in violation with the Play Store terms. Google said the app wouldn’t be approved until it remove functionality that prevented a user from removing or uninstalling the app from their device.

This requirement, though rooted in user security, disadvantages parental control apps compared with Google’s own Family Link offering. As Google’s help documentation indicates, removing a child’s account from an Android device requires parents to input a passcode — it can’t simply be uninstalled by the end user (the child).

Boomerang later that day received a second violation notification after it changed the app to be explicitly clear to the end user (the child) that the Device Administrator (a parent) would have permission to control the device, mimicking other apps Boomerang said were still live on Google Play.

After two more days pass with no reply from the Appeals team, Boomerang requested a phone call to discuss. Google sent a brief email, saying it was merging the two active Appeals into one but no other information about the Appeal was provided.

On July 13th, Boomerang was informed Google was still examining the app. The company replied again to explain why a parental control app would have such a feature. The same day, Boomerang was alerted that older versions of its app in its internal testing area in the Play Console were being rejected. These versions were never published live, the company says. The rejections indicated Boomerang was “degrading device security” with its app.

The next day, Boomerang informed its user base that it may have to remove the feature they wanted and emailed Google again to again point out the app now has clear consent included.

Image Credits: Boomerang; Email complains of “material impact” to business 

Despite not having made any changes, Google informs Boomerang on July 16th it’s in violation of the “Elevated Privilege Abuse” section of the Google Play Malware policy. On July 19th, the company removed the additional app protection feature and on July 21st, Google again rejected the app for the same violation — over a feature that had now been removed.

Despite repeated emails, Boomerang didn’t receive any message from Google until an automated email arrived on July 24th. Again, Google sent no response to the emails where Payeur explains the violating feature had now been removed. Repeated emails through July 30th were also not responded to.

After hearing about Boomerang’s issues, TechCrunch asked Google on July 27th to explain its reasoning.

The company, after a few follow-ups, told TechCrunch on August 3rd that the issues with Boomerang — as later emails to Boomerang had said — were related to how the app implemented its features. Google does not allow apps to engage in “elevated privilege” abuse. And it doesn’t allow apps to abuse the Android Accessibility APIs to interfere with basic operations on a device.

Google also said it doesn’t allow any apps to use the same mechanism Boomerang does, including Google’s own. (Of course, Google’s own apps have the advantage of deep integrations with the Android OS. Developers can’t tap into some sort of “Family Link API,” for example, to gain a similar ability to control a child’s device.)

“We recognize the value of supervision apps in various contexts, and developers are free to create this experience with appropriate safeguards,” a Google spokesperson said.

More broadly, Boomerang’s experience is similar to what iOS parental control apps went through last year. Like those apps, Boomerang too bumped up against a security safeguard meant to protect an entire app store from abusive software. But the blanket rule leaves no wiggle room for exceptions. Google, meanwhile, argues its OS security is not meant to be “worked around” like this. But it has also at the same time offered no official means of interacting with its OS and own screen time/parental control features. Instead, alternative screen time apps have to figure out ways to basically hack the system to even exist in the first place, even though there’s clear consumer demand for their offerings.

Boomerang’s particular case also reveals the complexities involved with of having a business live or die by the whims of an app review process.

It’s easy enough to argue that the developer should have simply removed the feature and moved on, but the developer seemed to believe the feature would be fine — as evidenced by prior approvals and the approval received upon at least one of its appeals. Plus, the developer is incentivized to fight for the feature because it’s something users said they wanted — or rather, what they demanded, to make the app worth paying for.

Had someone from Google just picked up the phone and explained to Boomerang what’s wrong and what alternative methods would be permitted, the case may not have dragged on in such a manner. In the meantime, Boomerang likely lost user trust, and its removal definitely impacted its business in the near-term.

Reached for a follow-up, Payeur expressed continued frustration, despite the app now being re-approved for Play Store distribution.

“It took Google over a month to provide us with this feedback,” he said, referencing the forbidden API usage that was the real problem. “We are currently digesting this”  he said, adding how difficult it was to not be able to talk to Google’s teams to get proper communication and feedback over the past several weeks.

Boomerang has begun collecting the names of other similarly impacted apps, lile Filter Chrome, Minder Parental Control, and Netsanity. The company says other apps can reach out privately to discuss, if they prefer.

 

 

 

August 4th 2020, 2:38 pm

More thoughts on growing podcasts

TechCrunch

We’ve aggregated many of the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of startup founders and heads of growth. You can participate by joining Demand Curve’s marketing training program or its Slack group.

Without further ado, on to our community’s advice.


More thoughts on growing podcasts

Insights from Harry Morton of Lower Street.

Podcast growth is all about relationships. To increase your listenership, consider partnering with:

  1. Other podcasters. Do an episode swap where you play an episode of your show on theirs, and vice versa. Make sure the two podcasts share similarly minded audiences.
  2. Curators. Every podcast aggregator has someone responsible for curating their featured content. Look them up on LinkedIn. Reach out via email. Be their friend. Send them only your best stuff.
  3. Subscribers. You rise in Apple’s podcast charts (which account for 60% of podcast listenership) by having a subscriber growth spurt in a concentrated period of time (24-48 hours). So, when you release an episode, immediately run your audience promotions aggressively and all at once.

Increasing referral incentives might not increase referrals

August 4th 2020, 1:21 pm
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