She focused her career on social and ethical entrepreneurship with the goal of ending global poverty, founding three distinct organizations over her career spanning the for-profit and non-profit worlds. She was most well-known for Samasource, which was founded a little more than a decade ago to help machine learning specialists develop better ML models through more complete and ethical training datasets.
Janah and her company were well ahead of their time, as issues related to bias in ML models have become top-of-mind for many product leaders in Silicon Valley today. My TechCrunch colleague Jake Bright had just interviewed Janah a few weeks ago, after Samasource raised more than $15 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase.
We are all committed to continuing Leila’s work, and to ensuring her legacy and vision is carried out for years to come. To accomplish this, Wendy Gonzalez, longtime business partner and friend to Leila, will take the helm as interim CEO of Samasource. Previously the organization’s COO, Wendy has spent the past five years working alongside Leila to craft Samasource’s vision and strategy.
In addition to Samasource, Janah founded SF-based Samaschool, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income workers learn critical freelancing skills by helping them negotiate the changing dynamics in the freelance economy. The organization has built partnerships with groups like Goodwill to empower them to offer additional curricular resources within their own existing programs and initiatives.
Janah also founded LXMI, a skin-care brand that emphasized organic and fair-trade ingredients, with a focus on sourcing from low-income women’s cooperatives in East Africa. Founded three years ago, the company raised a seed round from the likes of NEA, Sherpa, and Reid Hoffman according to Crunchbase.
Across all of her initiatives, Janah consistently put the concerns of under-represented people at the forefront, and designed organizations to empower such people in their daily lives. Her entrepreneurial spirit, commitment, and integrity will be sorely missed in the startup community.
Clayton Christensen, a longtime professor at Harvard Business School who became famous worldwide after authoring the best-selling business book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,” passed away last night.
The Desert News reported earlier today that the cause tied to complications from leukemia treatments that Christensen was receiving in Boston. He was 67 years old.
Clayton had suffered from ill health for years, always battling his way back. By the age of 58, Clayton — who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 30 — had already suffered a heart attack, cancer, and a stroke, telling Forbes in 2011 that he tried to view such setbacks as opportunities, even, apparently, when they involved intensive speech therapy, which he was undergoing at the time.
Indeed, the entire business world came to know Christensen after Intel cofounder Andy Grove brought him into the company as an advisor, then announced to the world that “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” published in 1997, was the best book he’d read in 10 years. (This was saying something, given Grove’s own considerable writing skills.) Yet Christensen came from modest means.
According to a 2012 profile in New Yorker magazine, he grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” in Salt Lake City, in a Mormon household, collecting paper tray liners from fast food restaurants, and stuffing his 6′ 8″ frame into a 1986 Chevy Nova that he drove around town.
According to the profile, Christensen, an excellent student and a popular one (he was student body president), “wanted to go to Harvard or Yale, and got into both, but his mother wanted him to go to Brigham Young. Not knowing what to do, he fasted and prayed, and he discovered that God agreed with his mother. That wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so he fasted and prayed some more, just to make sure he hadn’t misheard or something, but he hadn’t, so he went to Brigham Young.”
There, he studied economics before and after a two-year leave of absence to serve as a volunteer full-time missionary for the LDS Church. Then it was off to Oxford, where he earned a master’s as a Rhodes Scholar, then Harvard Business School. After receiving his MBA, he landed at Boston Consulting Group, and after a few years in the working world, headed back to Harvard for a PhD so he could teach.
Throughout the course of his career, Christensen would write 10 books, though none were as ubiquitous as “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which was timed perfectly in retrospect. It put forth a theory why people buy products that are often cheaper and easier to use than their more sophisticated and more expensive predecessors, and resonated widely as one incumbent after another — Xerox, U.S. Steel, Digital Equipment Corp. — stumbled while other companies began rising in their dust: think Amazon, Google, Apple.
Interestingly, according to the New Yorker, one of Christensen’s rare, bad calls was his prediction that the Apple iPhone wouldn’t be widely adopted because it was too fancy.
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was a fan nevertheless. According to the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs published in October 2011, just weeks after Jobs’s death, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” “deeply influenced” him.
If you’re interested in learning more, you might enjoy this conversation between Christensen and investor-entrepreneur Marc Andreessen; it took place in 2016 at the Startup Grind series.
Two years after Vine’s co-founder Dom Hofmann announced he was building a successor to the short-form video app, today Byte makes its debut on iOS and Android. Byte lets you shoot or upload and then share six-second videos. It comes equipped with standard social features like a feed, Explore page, notifications, and profiles. For now, though Byte lacks the remixability, augmented reality filters, transition effects, and other bonus features you’ll find in apps like TikTok.
What Hofmann hopes will differentiate Byte is an early focus on helping content creators make money — something TikTok, and other micro-entertainment apps largely don’t offer. The app plans to soon launch a pilot of its partner program for offering monetization options to people proving popular on Byte.
Staying connected with Byte’s most loyal users is another way Hofmann hopes to set his app apart. He’s been actively running a beta tester forum since the initial Byte announcement in early 2018, and sees it as a way to find out what features to build next. “It’s always a bummer when the people behind online services and the people that actually use them are disconnected from one another, so we’re trying out these forums to see if we can do a better job at that” Hofmann writes.
very soon, we'll introduce a pilot version of our partner program which we will use to pay creators. byte celebrates creativity and community, and compensating creators is one important way we can support both. stay tuned for more info.
David Spreng spent more than 20 years in venture capital before dipping his toe into the world of revenue-based financing and realizing there was a growing appetite for alternatives to venture capital. Indeed, since forming debt-lending company Runway Growth Capital in mid-2015, Spreng has been busy writing checks to a variety of mostly later-stage companies on behalf of his institutional investors. (One of these, Oak Tree Capital Management in LA, is a publicly-traded credit firm.)
He expects he’ll be even busier in 2020. The reason — if you haven’t noticed already — is a general slowing down in what has been a very long boom cycle. “We’re in the late innings of a very long game,” said Spreng today, calling from Davos, where he has been attending meetings this week. “I don’t think the cycle is going to end this second. But where we went from a growth-at-all-costs mentality, boards are now saying, ‘let’s find a balance between top line growth and capital efficiency — let’s figure out a path to profitability.’ ”
Why is that good for Spreng and his colleagues? Because when a cycle ends, venture capitalists get stingier with their portfolio companies, writing fewer checks to support startups that aren’t hitting it out of the park, and often taking a bigger bite under more onerous terms when they do reinvest to counter the added risk they’re taking.
Google responded with a bit of doublespeak from its corporate account about how the redesign was intended to achieve the opposite effect of what it was actually doing.
“Last year, our search results on mobile gained a new look. That’s now rolling out to desktop results this week, presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded ‘Ad’ label for ads,” the company wrote.
“We’ve seen multiple instances over the last few years where Google has made paid advertisements ever more indistinguishable from organic search results,” Warner told the Post. “This is yet another example of a platform exploiting its bottleneck power for commercial gain, to the detriment of both consumers and also small businesses.”
For Google, the rationale is simple. The company’s advertising revenues aren’t growing the way they used to, and the company is looking at a slowdown in its core business. To try and juice the numbers, dark patterns present an attractive way forward.
Indeed, Google’s using the same tricks that it once battled to become the premier search service in the U.S. When the company first launched its search service, ads were clearly demarcated and separated from actual search results returned by Google’s algorithm. Over time, the separation between what was an ad and what wasn’t became increasingly blurred.
“Search results were near-instant and they were just a page of links and summaries – perfection with nothing to add or take away,” user experience expert Harry Brignull (and founder of the watchdog website darkpatterns.org) said of the original Google search results in an interview with TechCrunch.
“The back-propagation algorithm they introduced had never been used to index the web before, and it instantly left the competition in the dust. It was proof that engineers could disrupt the rules of the web without needing any suit-wearing executives. Strip out all the crap. Do one thing and do it well.”
“As Google’s ambitions changed, the tinted box started to fade. It’s completely gone now,” Brignull added.
The company acknowledged that its latest experiment might have gone too far in its latest statement and noted that it will “experiment further” on how it displays results.
Here’s our full statement on why we’re going to experiment further. Our early tests of the design for desktop were positive. But we appreciate the feedback, the trust people place in Google, and we’re dedicating to improving the experience. pic.twitter.com/gy9PwcLqHj
Huawei may have just found itself an ally in the most unexpected of places. According to a new report out of The Wall Street Journal, both the Defense and Treasury Departments are pushing back on a Commerce Department-led ban on sales from the embattled Chinese hardware giant.
That move, in turn, has reportedly led Commerce Department officials to withdraw a proposal set to make it even more difficult for U.S.-based companies to work with Huawei.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper struck a fittingly pragmatic tone while speaking with the paper, noting, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”
Huawei, already under fire for allegations of flouting sanctions with other countries, has become a centerpiece of a simmering trade war between the Trump White House and China. The smartphone maker has been barred from selling 5G networking equipment due to concerns over its close ties to the Chinese government.
Last year, meanwhile, the government barred Huawei from utilizing software and components from U.S.-based companies, including Google. Huawei is also expected to be a key talking point in upcoming White House discussions, as officials weigh actions against the repercussions they’ll ultimately have for U.S. partners.
The Commerce Department has yet to offer any official announcement related to the report.
If a thousand companies make their own smart light bulb, do a thousand companies also have to design a light switch app to control them?
Kraftful, a company out of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class, doesn’t think so. Kraftful builds the myriad components that an IoT/Smart Home company might need, puzzle piecing them together into apps for each company without requiring them to reinvent the light switch (or the pad lock button, or the smart thermostat dial) for the nth time.
Because no company wants an app that looks identical to a competitor’s, much of what Kraftful does is built to be tailored to each company’s branding — all the surface level stuff, like iconography, fonts, colors, etc. are all customizable. Under the hood, though, everything is built to be reusable.
This focus on finding the parts that can be built once makes sense, especially given the team’s background. CEO Yana Welinder and CTO Nicky Leach were previously Head of Product and a Senior Engineer, respectively, at IFTTT — the web service made up of a zillion reusable, interlinking “recipe” applets that let you hook just about anything (Gmail, Instagram, your cat’s litterbox, whatever) into anything else to let one trigger actions on the other.
Kraftful founders Nicky Leach and Yana Welinder
So why now? More smart devices are coming onto the market every day, many of them from legacy appliance companies who don’t have much (or any) history in building smartphone apps. Good apps are the exception — the Philips Hue app is one of the better ones out there, and even it’s a little wonky sometimes. Many of them are… real bad.
Bad apps get bad App Store reviews, and bad reviews dent sales. And even for those who dive in and buy it without checking the reviews first, bad apps means returned devices. According to this iQor survey from 2018, 22% of smart home customers give up and return the products before getting them to work.
“We kind of looked around and realized that 80% of all smart home apps have zero, one, or two stars on the app store,” Welinder tells me.
Knowing what’s working and what’s not with buyers is a strength of Kraftful’s approach; behind the scenes, they can run all sorts of analytics on how users are actually interacting with components in the apps they’re powering and adjust all of them accordingly. If they make a tweak to the setup process in one app, do more users actually get all the way through it? Great. Now roll that out everywhere.
“If you look at some of the leading smart lock apps, they all have very… very similar interfaces. They’ve basically gotten to a standardized user experience, but they’ve all be developed individually.” says Welinder. “So all of these companies are spending the resources designing and developing these apps, but they’re not getting the benefit of being standardized across the board and being able to leverage data from all of these apps to be able to improve them all at once”
Kraftful builds the app for both iOS and Android, tailors it to the brand’s needs, offers cloud functionality like push notifications and activity history, provides analytics for insights on how users are actually using an app, and keeps everything working as OS updates roll out and as device display sizes grow ever larger.
Of course, the entire concept of a dedicated app for a smart home device has some pretty fierce competition — between Apple’s Homekit and Google Home, the platform makers themselves seem pretty set on gobbling up much of the functionality. But most buyers still expect their shiny devices to have their own apps — something branded and purpose-built, something for the manual to point them to. Power users, meanwhile, will always want to do things beyond what the all-encompassing solutions like Homekit/Home are built for.
Folks at Google seem to agree with Kraftful’s approach, here — the team counts the Google Assistant Investments Program as one of the investors in the $1M they’ve raised. Other investors include YC, F7 Ventures, Cleo Capital, Julia Collins (co-founder of Zume Pizza and Planet Forward), Lukas Biewald (co-founder of CrowdFlower), Nicolas Pinto (co-founder of Perceptio), and a number of other angel investors.
Welinder tells me they’re already working with multiple companies to start powering their apps; NDAs prevent her from saying who, at this point, but she notes that they’re “some of the largest brands that provide smart lights, plugs/switches, thermostats, and other smart home products.”
Schwark Satyavolu is a general partner at Trinity Ventures where he makes early-stage investments in fintech, security and AI. A serial entrepreneur, he co-founded Yodlee (YDLE) and Truaxis, both of which were acquired. Previously, he held senior executive positions at LifeLock and Mastercard. He is an inventor on 15 patents.
We are living through one of the nation’s longest periods of economic growth. Unfortunately, the good times can’t last forever. A recession is likely on the horizon, even if we can’t pinpoint exactly when. Founders can’t afford to wait until the midst of a downturn to figure out their game plans; that would be like initiating swim lessons only after getting dumped in the open ocean.
When recession inevitably strikes, it will be many founders’ — and even many VCs’ — first experiences navigating a downturn. Every startup executive needs a recession playbook. The time to start building it is now.
While recessions make running any business tough, they don’t necessitate doom. I co-founded two separate startups just before downturns struck, yet I successfully navigated one through the 2000 dot-com bust and the second through the 2008 financial crisis. Both companies not only survived but thrived. One went public and the second was acquired by Mastercard.
I hope my lessons learned prove helpful to building your own recession game plan.
Los Angeles is one of the most desirable locations for commercial real estate in the United States, so it’s little wonder that there’s something of a boom in investments in technology companies servicing the market coming from the region.
It’s one of the reasons that CREXi, the commercial real estate marketplace, was able to establish a strong presence for its digital marketplace and toolkit for buyers, sellers, and investors.
Since the company raised its last institutional round in 2018, it has added over 300,000 properties for sale or lease across the U.S. and increased its user base to 6 million customers, according to a statement.
It has now raised $29 million in new financing from new investors including Mitsubishi Estate Company (“MEC”), Industry Ventures, and Prudence Holdings . Previous investors Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Jackson Square Ventures also participated in the financing.
CREXi makes money in three ways. There’s a subscription service for brokers looking to sell or lease property; an auction service where CREXi will earn a fee upon the close of a transaction; and a data and analytics service that allows users to get a view into the latest trends in commercial real estate based on the vast collection of properties on offer through the company’s services.
The company touts its service as the only technology offering that can take a property from marketing to the close of a sale or lease without having to leave the platform.
According to chief executive, Mike DiGiorgio, the company is also recession proof thanks to its auction services. “As more distressed properties hit the market the best way to sell them is through an online auction,” DiGiorgio says.
So far, the company has seen $700 billion of transactions flow through the platform and roughly 40% of those deals were exclusive to the company.
“The CRE industry is evolving, and market players, especially younger, digitally native generations are seeking out platforms that provide free and open access to information,” said Gavin Myers, General Partner at Prudence Holdings, in a statement. “CREXi directly addresses this market need, providing fair access to a range of CRE information. As CREXi continues to build out its stable of services, features, and functionality, we’re thrilled to partner with them and support the company’s continued momentum.”
CREXi joins the ranks of startups based in Los Angeles that have raised money to reshape the real estate industry. Estimates from Built in LA count roughly 127 companies, which have raised in excess of $2.4 billion, active in the real estate industry in Los Angeles. These companies range from providers of short-term commercial office space, like Knotel, or co-working companies like WeWork, to companies focused on servicing the real estate industry like Luxury Presence, which raised a $5 million round earlier in the year.
CEO David Solomon told CNBC that beginning this year, Goldman will no longer take companies public if they don’t have at least one “diverse” member on its board of directors.
Some will, perhaps rightly, see the announcement as little more than marketing. After all, it’s already widely viewed as unacceptable for a company to go public without at least one female board member and preferably far more diversity than that.
The deployment comes after a multi-year period of trials by the Met and police in South Wales. The Met says its use of the controversial technology will be targeted to “specific locations … where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders.”
If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is still going to drop support for those devices. But at least the company is backing away from its initial decision that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices would stop receiving updates, as well.
Eyeson’s website touts “no downloads, no lag, no hassle” video calls. But when TechCrunch came across founder Andreas Kröpfl last December, pitching hard in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin, he was most keen to talk about something else entirely: video dating.
The feat, which comes roughly 19 years after the website was founded, is a testament of “what humans can do together,” said Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that operates the online encyclopedia.
Germany’s top soccer (football) league, Bundesliga, announced today it is partnering with AWS to use artificial intelligence to enhance the fan experience during games.
Andreas Heyden, executive vice president for digital sports at the Deutsche Fußball Liga, the entity that runs The Bundesliga, says that this could take many forms, depending on whether the fan is watching a broadcast of the game or interacting online.
“We try to use technology in a way to excite a fan more, to engage a fan more, to really take the fan experience to the next level, to show relevant stats at the relevant time through broadcasting, in apps and on the web to personalize the customer experience,” Heyden said.
This could involve delivering personalized content. “In times like this when attention spans are shrinking, when a user when a user opens up the app the first message should be the most relevant message in that context in that time for the specific user,” he said.
It can also help provide advanced statistics to fans in real time, even going so far as to predict the probability of a goal being scored at any particular moment in a game that would have an impact on your team. Heyden thinks of it as telling a story with numbers, rather than reporting what happened after the fact.
“We want to, with the help of technology, tell stories that could not have been told without the technology. There’s no chance that a reporter could come up with a number of what the probability of a shot [scoring in a given moment]. AWS can,” he said.
Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon, says this about using machine learning and other technologies on the AWS platform to add to the experience of watching the game, which should help attract younger fans, regardless of the sport. “All of these kind of augmented customer fan experiences are crucial in engaging a whole new generation of fans,” Vogels told TechCrunch.
He adds that this kind of experience simply wasn’t possible until recently because the technology didn’t exist. “These things were impossible five or 10 years ago, mostly because now with all the machine learning software, as well as how the [pace of technology] has accelerated at such a [rate] at AWS, we’re now able to do these things in real time for sports fans.”
Bundesliga is not just any football league. It is the second biggest in the world in terms of revenue and boasts the highest stadium attendance of all football teams worldwide. Today’s announcement is an extension of an ongoing relationship between DFL and AWS, which started in 2015 when Heyden helped move the league’s operations to the cloud on AWS.
Heyden says that it’s not a coincidence he ended up using AWS instead of another cloud company. He has known Vogels (who also happens to be a huge soccer fan) for many years, and has been using AWS for more than a decade, even well before he joined the DFL. Today’s announcement is an extension of that long-term relationship.
Shin Kim is working on a new SaaS startup and is also chief of staff to entrepreneur Elad Gil . Previously, Shin was at Oak Hill Capital and J.P. Morgan and earned a Master’s in EECS (data science) from UC Berkeley.
A common question in the minds of many SaaS founders is the pace of raising capital. How much is too much too early? What amount of capital raise is typical for comparable peers? How capital-efficient are the best-in-class companies?
In the last 30 months (2017 2H onwards), a total of 21 SaaS U.S.-based, VC-backed companies have gone public, including Zoom, Slack, Datadog and others1. To answer the above questions, I analyzed all 21 companies to understand their fundraising and revenue-generating trajectories.
The charts below show each company’s annual run-rate revenue (ARR)2 and cumulative equity funding3 over time. Read endnotes for details on data source4 and methodology5. The backup for the full analysis can be accessed here.
Shin Kim is working on a new SaaS startup and is also chief of staff to entrepreneur Elad Gil . Previously, Shin was at Oak Hill Capital and J.P. Morgan and earned a Master’s in EECS (data science) from UC Berkeley.
With the recent emphasis on Uber and WeWork, much media attention has been focused on high-burn, “software-enabled” startups. However, most of the IPOs of the last few years in tech have been in higher capital efficiency software-as-a-service startups (SaaS).
In the last 30 months (2017 2H onwards), a total of 21 U.S.-based, VC-backed SaaS companies have gone public, including Zoom, Slack, Datadog and others1. I analyzed all 21 companies to understand their fundraising and revenue-generating trajectories. A deep dive into the individual companies’ trajectories can be found in this Extra Crunch article.
Here are the summary takeaways from this data set:
1. At IPO, total capital raised2 was slightly ahead of annual run-rate revenue (ARR)3 for the median company
Here is a scatterplot of the ARR and cumulative capital raised at the time each company went public. Most companies are clustered close to the diagonal line that represents ARR and capital raised matching each other. Total capital raised is often neck-and-neck or slightly higher than ARR.
For example, Zscaler raised $148 million to get to $146 million of ARR at IPO and Sprout Social raised $112 million to get to $106 million of ARR.
It is useful to introduce a metric instead of looking at gross dollars, given the high variance in revenue of the companies in the data set — Sprout Social had $106 million and Dropbox had $1,222 million in ARR, a 10x+ difference. Total capital raised as a multiple of ARR normalizes this variance. Below is a histogram of the distribution of this metric.
The distribution is concentrated around 1.00x-1.25x, with the median company raising 1.23x of ARR by the time of its IPO.
There are outliers on both ends. Domo is a profligate outlier that had raised $690 million to get to $128 million of ARR, or 5.4x of ARR — no other company comes remotely close. Zoom and Datadog are efficient outliers. Zoom raised $161 million to get to $423 million of ARR and Datadog raised $148 million to get to $333 million of ARR, both representing only 0.4x of ARR.
2. Cash burn is a more accurate measure of capital efficiency and may diverge significantly from capital raised (depending on the company)
How much capital a company raised tells only half of the story of capital efficiency, because many companies are sitting on a significant cash balance. For example, PagerDuty raised a total of $174 million but had $128 million of cash left when it went public. As another example, Slack raised a total of $1,390 million prior to going public but had $841 million of unspent cash.
Why do some SaaS companies end up seemingly over-raising capital beyond their immediate cash needs despite the dilution to existing shareholders?
One reason might be that companies are being opportunistic, raising capital far ahead of actual needs when market conditions are favorable.
Another reason may be that VCs that want to meet ownership targets are pushing for larger rounds. For example, a company valued at $400 million pre-money may only need $50 million of cash but could end up taking $100 million from a VC that wants to achieve 20% post-money ownership.
These confounding factors make cash burn — calculated by subtracting the cash balance from total capital raised4 — a more accurate measure of capital efficiency than total capital raised. Here is a distribution of total cash burn as a multiple of ARR.
Remarkably, Zoom achieved negative cash burn, meaning Zoom went public with more cash on its balance sheet than all of the capital it raised.
The median company’s cash burn at IPO was 0.77x of ARR, quite a bit less than the total capital raised of 1.23x of ARR.
3. The healthiest SaaS companies (as measured by the Rule of 40) are often the most capital-efficient
The Rule of 40 is a popular heuristic to gauge the business health of a SaaS company. It asserts that a healthy SaaS company’s revenue growth rate and profit margins should sum to 40%+. The below chart shows how the 21 companies score on the Rule of 405.
Among the 21 companies, eight companies exceed the 40% threshold: Zoom (123%), Crowdstrike (119%), Datadog (76%), Bill.com (56%), Elastic (55%), Slack (52%), Qualtrics (44%) and SendGrid (41%).
Interestingly, the same outliers in terms of capital efficiency as measured by cash burn, on both extremes, are the same outliers in the Rule of 40. Zoom and Datadog, which have the highest capital efficiency, score the highest and third highest on the Rule of 40. And inversely, Domo and MongoDB, which have the lowest capital efficiency, also score lowest on the Rule of 40.
This is not surprising, because the Rule and capital efficiency are really two sides of the same coin. If a company can sustain high growth without sacrificing profit margins too much (i.e. score high on the Rule of 40), it will over time naturally end up burning less cash compared to peers.
To apply all of this to your favorite SaaS business, here are some questions to consider. What is the total capital raised in multiples of ARR? What is the total cash burn in multiples of ARR? Where does it stack compared to the 21 companies above? Is it closer to Zoom or Domo? How does it score on the Rule of 40? Does it help explain the company’s capital efficiency or lack thereof?
Thanks to Elad Gil and Denton Xu for reviewing drafts of this article.
1Only includes U.S.-based, VC-backed SaaS companies. Includes Quatrics, even though it did not go public, as it was acquired right before its scheduled IPO.
2Includes institutional investments prior to the IPO. Does not include founders’ personal capital investment.
3Note that this is not annual recurring revenue, which is not a reporting requirement for public companies. Annual run-rate revenue is calculated by annualizing quarterly revenue (multiplying by four). The two metrics will track closely for SaaS businesses, given that SaaS revenue is predominantly recurring software subscriptions.
5Revenue growth is calculated as the growth rate of the revenue during the last 12 months (LTM) over the revenue during the 12 months prior to that. Profit margins are non-GAAP operating margins, calculated as operating income plus stock-based compensation expense divided by revenue over the last 12 months (LTM).
A popular sexting website has exposed thousands of photo IDs belonging to models and sex workers who earn commissions from the site.
SextPanther, an Arizona-based adult site, stored over 11,000 identity documents on an exposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage bucket, including passports, driver’s licenses, and Social Security numbers, without a password. The company says on its website that it uses to verify the ages of models who users communicate with.
Most of the exposed identity documents contain personal information, such as names, home addresses, dates of birth, biometrics, and their photos.
Although most of the data came from models in the U.S., some of the documents were supplied by workers in Canada, India, and the United Kingdom.
The site allows models and sex workers to earn money by exchanging text messages, photos, and videos with paying users, including explicit and nude content. The exposed storage bucket also contained over a hundred thousand photos and videos sent and received by the workers.
It was not immediately clear who owned the storage bucket. TechCrunch asked U.K.-based penetration testing company Fidus Information Security, which has experience in discovering and identifying exposed data, to help.
Researchers at Fidus quickly found evidence suggesting the exposed data could belong to SextPanther.
An hour after we alerted the site’s owner, Alexander Guizzetti, to the exposed data, the storage bucket was pulled offline.
“We have passed this on to our security and legal teams to investigate further. We take accusations like this very seriously,” Guizzetti said in an email, who did not explicitly confirm the bucket belonged to his company.
Using information from identity documents matched against public records, we contacted several models whose information was exposed by the security lapse.
“I’m sure I sent it to them,” said one model, referring to her driver’s license which was exposed. (We agreed to withhold her name given the sensitivity of the data.) We passed along a photo of her license as it found in the exposed bucket. She confirmed it was her license, but said that the information on her license is no longer current.
“I truly feel awful for others whom have signed up with their legit information,” she said.
The security lapse comes a week after researchers found a similar cache of highly sensitive personal information of sex workers on adult webcam streaming site, PussyCash.
More than 850,000 documents were insecurely stored in another unprotected storage bucket.
Midday on Friday it appeared that Apple’s App Store, a critical piece of the digital and mobile economies, struggled with uptime issues. Apple’s own status page indicated that the application vendor has having an “ongoing” issue that affected “some users.”
The company said that it was investigating the issue, according to its website.
Despite launching after the original iPhone, the App Store has become an industry to itself. According to certain data, the App Store drove $50 billion gross sales in 2019 — Apple takes a cut of transactions and sales, generating material revenue for itself.
The App Store will come back, but Apple is losing money along with its developer partners as we speak. More when it’s back. Until then, well, there’s Android or a walk.
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon recently said the investment bank won’t take companies public that don’t have at least one board member from an underrepresented group. The main focus will be on female board members, he told CNBC, because companies that have gone public in the last four years with at least one woman on their board of directors performed “significantly better” than those without. The new rule is set to go into effect in the U.S. and Europe on July 1.
While the move is significant, what Solomon and Goldman are doing is not a novel idea, nor is it the best version of an outdated idea. It reminds me of something Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said a few years ago at Dreamforce:
Overall, diversity is extremely important to us. Right now, this is the major issue [gesturing to the room/crowd]. I think when we feel like we’ve got this, you know, a little bit more under control, then I think that one is gonna surface as the major thing we’re focusing on. We’re not ignoring it, it’s something that we support, it’s something that we’re working on, but this is our major focus right now, is the women’s issue.
At the time, Benioff failed to address the complexity of diversity, which is what Goldman Sachs is doing. A “focus on women” does not take into account the intersectional identities many people have. And it’s those intersectional identities — whether it’s being a black woman, a trans man and so forth — that bring both intellectual and financial value to the table. By focusing on women, as Solomon said, Goldman Sachs is setting itself up to exclude women of color, as they are oftentimes left out of women-focused initiatives. This outdated and misguided strategy, where diversity equals more (white) women, needs to be squashed.
While this requirement will likely increase returns for Goldman Sachs and operate as a forcing function to boost diversity at startups, it needs to go further. By focusing on a broader definition of diversity, Goldman Sachs could be more inclusive and make its returns even greater.
Not convinced yet? Check out some agenda highlights featuring some of today’s leading robotics and AI leaders.
Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley) The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics) Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space.
Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies) Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.
Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike) Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here.
See the full agenda here
If you’re a startup, nab one of the 5 demo tables left and showcase your company to new customers, press, and potential investors. Demo tables run $2200 and come with 4 attendee tickets so you can divide and conquer the networking scene at the conference.
According to research firm Counterpoint, Chinese firm Vivo surpassed Samsung to become the second biggest smartphone vendor in India in Q4 2019. Xiaomi, with command over 27% of the market, maintained its top stop in the nation for the 10th consecutive quarter.
Vivo’s annual smartphone shipment grew 76% in 2019. The Chinese firm’s aggressive positioning of budget $100 to $150 S series of smartphones in the brick and mortar market and acceptance of e-commerce sales helped it beat Samsung, said Counterpoint analysts. Vivo’s market share jumped 132% between Q4 of 2018 and Q4 of 2019, according to the research firm.
Italy’s Competition and Markets Authority has launched proceedings against Facebook for failing to fully inform users about the commercial uses it makes of their data.
At the same time a German court has today upheld a consumer group’s right to challenge the tech giant over data and privacy issues in the national courts.
Lack of transparency
The Italian authority’s action, which could result in a fine of €5 million for Facebook, follows an earlier decision by the regulator, in November 2018 — when it found the company had not been dealing plainly with users about the underlying value exchange involved in signing up to the ‘free’ service, and fined Facebook €5M for failing to properly inform users how their information would be used commercially.
In a press notice about its latest action, the watchdog notes Facebook has removed a claim from its homepage — which had stated that the service ‘is free and always will be’ — but finds users are still not being informed, “with clarity and immediacy”, about how the tech giant monetizes their data.
The Authority had prohibited Facebook from continuing what it dubs “deceptive practice” and ordered it to publish an amending declaration on its homepage in Italy, as well as on the Facebook app and on the personal page of each registered Italian user.
In a statement responding to the watchdog’s latest action, a Facebook spokesperson told us:
We are reviewing the Authority decision. We made changes last year — including to our Terms of Service — to further clarify how Facebook makes money. These changes were part of our ongoing commitment to give people more transparency and control over their information.
Last year Italy’s data protection agency also fined Facebook $1.1M — in that case for privacy violations attached to the Cambridge Analytics data misuse scandal.
In separate but related news, a ruling by a German court today found that Facebook can continue to use the advertising slogan that its service is ‘free and always will be’ — on the grounds that it does not require users to hand over monetary payments in exchange for using the service.
A local consumer rights group, vzbv, had sought to challenge Facebook’s use of the slogan — arguing it’s misleading, given the platform’s harvesting of user data for targeted ads. But the court disagreed.
However that was only one of a number of data protection complaints filed by the group — 26 in all. And the Berlin court found in its favor on a number of other fronts.
Significantly vzbv has won the right to bring data protection related legal challenges within Germany even with the pan-EU General Data Protection Regulation in force — opening the door to strategic litigation by consumer advocacy bodies and privacy rights groups in what is a very pro-privacy market.
This looks interesting because one of Facebook’s favored legal arguments in a bid to derail privacy challenges at an EU Member State level has been to argue those courts lack jurisdiction — given that its European HQ is sited in Ireland (and GDPR includes provision for a one-stop shop mechanism that pushes cross-border complaints to a lead regulator).
But this ruling looks like it will make it tougher for Facebook to funnel all data and privacy complaints via the heavily backlogged Irish regulator — which has, for example, been sitting on a GDPR complaint over forced consent by adtech giants (including Facebook) since May 2018.
The Berlin court also agreed with vzbv’s argument that Facebook’s privacy settings and T&Cs violate laws around consent — such as a location service being already activated in the Facebook mobile app; and a pre-ticked setting that made users’ profiles indexable by search engines by default
The court also agreed that certain pre-formulated conditions in Facebook’s T&C do not meet the required legal standard — such as a requirement that users agree to their name and profile picture being used “for commercial, sponsored or related content”, and another stipulation that users agree in advance to all future changes to the policy.
Commenting in a statement, Heiko Dünkel from the law enforcement team at vzbv, said: “It is not the first time that Facebook has been convicted of careless handling of its users’ data. The Chamber of Justice has made it clear that consumer advice centers can take action against violations of the GDPR.”
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
SaaS stocks had a good run in late 2019. TechCrunch covered their ascent, a recovery from early-year doldrums and a summer slowdown. In 2020 so far, SaaS and cloud stocks have surged to all-time highs. The latest records are only a hair higher than what the same companies saw in July of last year, but they represent a return to form all the same.
Given that public SaaS companies have now managed to crest their prior highs and have been rewarded for doing so with several days of flat trading, you might think that there isn’t much room left for them to rise. Not so, at least according to Atlassian . The well-known software company reported earnings after-hours yesterday and the market quickly pushed its shares up by more than 10%.
Why? It’s worth understanding, because if we know why Atlassian is suddenly worth lots more, we’ll better grok what investors — public and private — are hunting for in SaaS companies and how much more room they may have to rise.
But we did manage to chat through a host of news, including:
Why Front’s latest investment (a $59 million Series C) is a pretty big deal. Not because of how much money it has raised — the firm has raised more in a single, preceding round — but because of who put the capital to work.
Also on the docket was the latest from Lambda School, which our former co-host and friend Kate Clark wrote. The gist is that regardless of how you feel about the company, your views are probably a bit too negative, or a bit too positive. (More on the company’s ilk from Extra Crunch here, and here.)
Smart speaker manufacturer Sonos clarified its stance when it comes to old devices that are no longer supported. The company faced some criticisms after its original announcement. Sonos now says that you’ll be able to create two separate Sonos systems so that your newer devices stay up to date.
If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is still going to drop support for those devices. According to the company, those devices have reached their technical limits when it comes to memory and processing power.
While nothing lasts forever, it’s still a shame that speakers that work perfectly fine are going to get worse over time. For instance, if Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.
But the announcement felt even more insulting as the company originally said that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices would stop receiving updates so that all your devices remain on the same firmware version. Even if you just bought a Sonos One, it would stop receiving updates if there’s an old speaker on your network.
“We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features, while legacy products work together and remain in their current state,” the company writes.
It’s not ideal, but the company is no longer holding your Sonos system back. Sonos also clarifies that old devices will still receive security updates and bug fixes — but there won’t be any new feature.
I still think Sonos should add a computing card slot to its devices. This way, you wouldn’t have to replace speakers altogether. You could get a new computing card with more memory and faster processors and swap your existing card. Modularity is going to be essential if tech companies want to adopt a more environmental-friendly stance.
While EU lawmakers are mulling a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition to safeguard individuals’ rights, as part of risk-focused plan to regulate AI, London’s Met Police has today forged ahead with deploying the privacy hostile technology — flipping the switch on operational use of live facial recognition in the UK capital.
The deployment comes after a multi-year period of trials by the Met and police in South Wales.
The Met says its use of the controversial technology will be targeted to “specific locations… where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders”.
“Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences,” it adds.
It also claims cameras will be “clearly signposted”, adding that officers will be “deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity”.
“At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passers-by,” it writes. “The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body worn video or ANPR.”
The biometric system is being provided to the Met by Japanese IT and electronics giant, NEC.
In a press statement, assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave claimed the force is taking a balanced approach to using the controversial tech.
“We all want to live and work in a city which is safe: the public rightly expect us to use widely available technology to stop criminals. Equally I have to be sure that we have the right safeguards and transparency in place to ensure that we protect people’s privacy and human rights. I believe our careful and considered deployment of live facial recognition strikes that balance,” he said.
London has seen a rise in violent crime in recent years, with murder rates hitting a ten-year peak last year.
The surge in violent crime has been linked to cuts to policing services — although the new Conservative government has pledged to reverse cuts enacted by earlier Tory administrations.
The Met says its hope for the AI-powered tech is will help it tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and “help protect the vulnerable”.
However its phrasing is not a little ironic, given that facial recognition systems can be prone to racial bias, for example, owing to factors such as bias in data-sets used to train AI algorithms.
So in fact there’s a risk that police-use of facial recognition could further harm vulnerable groups who already face a disproportionate risk of inequality and discrimination.
Yet the Met’s PR doesn’t mention the risk of the AI tech automating bias.
Instead it makes pains to couch the technology as “additional tool” to assist its officers.
“This is not a case of technology taking over from traditional policing; this is a system which simply gives police officers a ‘prompt’, suggesting “that person over there may be the person you’re looking for”, it is always the decision of an officer whether or not to engage with someone,” it adds.
While the use of a new tech tool may start with small deployments, as is being touting here, the history of software development underlines how potential to scale is readily baked in.
A ‘targeted’ small-scale launch also prepares the ground for London’s police force to push for wider public acceptance of a highly controversial and rights-hostile technology via a gradual building out process. Aka surveillance creep.
On the flip side, the text of the draft of an EU proposal for regulating AI which leaked last week — floating the idea of a temporary ban on facial recognition in public places — noted that a ban would “safeguard the rights of individuals”. Although it’s not yet clear whether the Commission will favor such a blanket measure, even temporarily.
UK rights groups have reacted with alarm to the Met’s decision to ignore concerns about facial recognition.
Liberty accused the force of ignoring the conclusion of a report it commissioned during an earlier trial of the tech — which it says concluded the Met had failed to consider human rights impacts.
It also suggested such use would not meet key legal requirements.
“Human rights law requires that any interference with individuals’ rights be in accordance with the law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be ‘necessary in a democratic society’,” the report notes, suggesting the Met earlier trials of facial recognition tech “would be held unlawful if challenged before the courts”.
When the Met trialled #FacialRecognition tech, it commissioned an independent review of its use.
The Met failed to consider the human rights impact of the tech Its use was unlikely to pass the key legal test of being "necessary in a democratic society"
A petition set up by Liberty to demand a stop to facial recognition in public places has passed 21,000 signatures.
Discussing the legal framework around facial recognition and law enforcement last week, Dr Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL, told us that in his view the EU’s data protection framework, GDPR, forbids facial recognition by private companies “in a surveillance context without member states actively legislating an exemption into the law using their powers to derogate”.
A UK man who challenged a Welsh police force’s trial of facial recognition has a pending appeal after losing the first round of a human rights challenge. Although in that case the challenge pertains to police use of the tech — rather than, as in the Met’s case, a private company (NEC) providing the service to the police.
Founder Andreas Kröpfl has spent almost a decade hard-grafting in the b2b unified communications space, building a videoconferencing business with a patented single-stream system and a claim of no ‘drop-offs’ thanks to “unique low-bandwidth technology”.
His Austria-based startup’s current web-based videoconferencing system, eyeson (née Visocon), which launched in 2018, has had some nice traction since launch, as he tells it, garnering a few million customers and getting a nomination nod as a Gartner Cool Vendor last year.
Eyeson’s website touts ‘no hassle, no, lag, no downloads’ video calls. Pricing options for the target b2b users run the gamut from freelance pro to full-blown enterprise. While the business itself has pulled in a smidge less than $7M in investor funding over the years.
But when TechCrunch came across Kröpfl last December, pitching hard in startup alley at Disrupt Berlin, he was most keen to talk about something else entirely: Video dating.
That’s because last summer the team decided to branch out by building their own video dating app, reusing their core streaming tech for a consumer-focused social experiment. And after a period of internal beta testing — which hopefully wasn’t too awkward within a small (up-til-then) b2b-focused team — they launched an experimental dating app in November in India.
The app, called Ahoi, is now generating 100,000 video calls and 250,000 swipes per day, says Kröpfl.
This is where he breaks into a giggle. The traction has been crazy, he says.
In the staid world of business videoconferencing you can imagine eyeson’s team eyeing the booming growth of certain consumer-focused video products rather enviously.
Per Kröpfl, they had certainly noticed different desires among their existing users — which pushed them to experiment. “We saw that private people like the simple fun features (GIF reactions, …) and that business meetings were more focused on ‘drop-off’ [rates] and business features,” he tells us. “To improve both in one product was not working any more. So eyeson goes business plus SaaS.”
“Cloning eyeson but make it social,” is how he sums up the experiment.
Ahoi is very evidently an MVP at this stage. It also looks like a pretty brave and/or foolish (depending on your view) full-bore plunge into video dating, with nothing so sophisticated as a privacy screen to prevent any, er, unwanted blushes… (Whereas safety screening is an element we’ve recently seen elsewhere in the category — see: Blindlee.)
There’s also seemingly no way for users to specify the gender they wish to talk to.
Instead, Ahoi users state interests by selecting emoji stickers — such as a car, cat, tennis racket, games console or globetrotter. And, well, it goes without saying that even if you like cars a lot you’re unlikely to change your sexual orientation over the category.
There are no generic emoji that could be used to specify a sexual interest in men or women. But, er, there’s a horse…
Such limits may explain why Ahoi is generating so many early swipes — and rather fewer actual calls — in that the activity sums to (mostly) men looking for women to videochat with and being matched with, er, men.
And frustration, sexual or otherwise, probably isn’t the greatest service to try and sell.
Still, Kröpfl reckons they’ve landed on a winning formula that makes handy reuse of their core videoconferencing tech — letting them growth hack in a totally new category. Swipe right to video date.
“People are disappointed by perfect profiles on Tinder and the reality when meeting people,” he posits. “Wasted time. Especially women do not want to be stalked by men pretending to be someone else. We solve both by a real live conversation where only after a call both can decide to be connected or never see each other again.”
Notably, marketing around the app does talk rather fuzzily about it being a way to “find new pals”.
So while Kröpfl frames the experiment as dating, the reality of the product is more ‘open to options’. Think of it as a bit like Chatroulette — just with slightly more control (in that you have a few seconds to decide if you don’t want to talk to the next in-app match).
The very short countdown timer (you get just five seconds to opt out of a matched video chat) is very likely generating a fair number of unintended calls. Though such high velocity matching might appeal to a certain kind of speed dating addict.
Kröpfl says Ahoi has been seeing up to 20,000 new users added daily. They’re bullishly targeting 3M+ users this year, and already toying with ideas for turning video dates into a money spinner by offering stuff like premium subscriptions and/or video ads. He says the plan is to turn Ahoi into a business “step by step”.
“Everyone loves to make his profile better,” he suggests, floating monetization options down the line. Quality filtering for a fee is another possibility (“everyone is annoyed by being connected to the wrong people”).
They picked India for the test launch because it has a lot of people on the same timezone, a large active mobile user-base and cheap marketing is still “easily possible”. He also says that dating apps seemed popular there, in their experience. (Albeit, the team presumably didn’t have a great deal of relevant experience in this category — given Ahoi is an experiment.)
The intent is also to open Ahoi up to other markets in time too, once they get more accustomed to dealing with all the traffic. Kröpfl notes they had to briefly take the app off the store last month, as they worked on adding more server capability.
“It is very early and we were not prepared for this usage,” he says, admitting they’ve been “struggling to work on early feedbacks”. “We had to make it invisible temporarily — to improve server capacity and stability.”
The contrast in pace of uptake between the stolid (but revenue-generating) world of business meeting-fuelled videoconferencing and catnip consumer dating — which is money-sucking unless or until you can hit a critical mass of usage and get the chance to try applying monetization strategies — does sound like it’s been rather irresistible to Kröpfl.
Asked what it feels like to go from one category to the other he says “crazy, surprised and thrilling”, adding: “It is somehow also frustrating when all the intense b2b work is not as closely interesting to people as Ahoi is. But amazing that it is possible thanks to an extremely focused and experienced team. I love it.”
TechCrunch’s Manish Singh agreed to brave the local video dating app waters in India to check Ahoi out for us.
He reported back not having seen any women using the app. Which we imagine might be a problem for Ahoi’s longer term prospects — at least in that market.
“I spoke with one guy, who said his friend told him about the app. He said he joined to talk to girls but so far, he is only getting matched with boys,” said Singh. “I saw several names appear on the app, but all of them were boys, too.”
He told us he was left wondering “why people are on these apps, and why they have so much free time on a weekday”.
For ‘people’ it seems safe to conclude that most of Ahoi’s early adopters are men. As the Wall Street Journal reported back in 2018, India’s women are famously cool on dating apps — in that they’re mostly not on them. (We asked Kröpfl about Ahoi’s gender breakdown but he didn’t immediately get back to us on that.)
That market quirk means those female users who are on dating apps tend to get bombarded with messages from all the lonely heart guys with not much to swipe. Which, in turn, could make a video dating app like Ahoi an unattractive prospect to female users — if there’s any risk at all of being inundated with video chats.
And even if there are enough in-app controls to prevent unwelcome inundation by default, women also might not feel like they want their profile to be seen by scores of men simply by merit of being signed up to an app — as seems inevitable if the gender balance is so skewed.
Add to that, if the local perception among single women is that men on dating apps are generally a turn-off — because they’re too eager/forward — then jumping into any unmoderated video chat is probably not the kind of safe space these women are looking for.
No matter, Kröpfl and his team are clearly having far too much fun growth hacking in an unfamiliar, high velocity consumer category to sweat the detail.
What’s driving Ahoi’s growth right now? “Performance marketing mainly,” he says, pointing also to “viral engagement by sharing and liking profiles”.
Notably, there are already a lot of reviews of Ahoi on Google Play — an unusual amount for such an early app. Many of them appear to be five star write-ups from accounts with European-sounding names and a sometimes robotic grasp of language.
“Eventhough Ahoi has been developed recently, it had high quality for user about calling, making friends and widing your knowlegde [sic],” writes one reviewer with atrocious spelling whose account is attached to the name ‘Dustin Stephens.’
“Talking with like minded people and same favor will creat a fun and interesting atmosphere. Ahoi will manage for you to call like condition above,” says another apparently happy but confused-sounding user, going by the name ‘Elisa Herring’.
There’s also a ‘Madeleine Mcghin’, whose profile uses a photo of the similarly named child who infamously disappeared during a holiday in Portugal in 2007. “My experience with this app was awesome,” this individual writes. “It gives me the option to find new people in every country.”
Another less instantly tasteless five-star reviewer, ‘Stefania Lucchini’, leaves a more surreal form of praise. “A good app and it will bring you extra income, I would say it’s a great opportunity to have AHOI and be a part of it but it’s that it will automatically ban you even if you don’t show it. Marketing. body part, there are still 5 stars for me,” she (or, well, ‘it’) writes.
Among the plethora of dubious five-star reviews a couple of one-star dunks stand out — not least because they come from accounts with names that sound like they might actually come from India. “Waste u r time,” says one of these, using the name Prajal Pradhan.
This pithy drop-kick has been given a full 72 thumbs-up by other Play Store users.
We’re down in Sunnyvale, CA today, where Alchemist Accelerator is hosting a demo day for its most recent batch of companies. This is the 23rd class to graduate from Alchemist, with notable alums including LaunchDarkly, MightyHive, Matternet, and Rigetti Computing. As an enterprise accelerator, Alchemist focuses on companies that make their money from other businesses, rather than consumers.
21 companies presented in all, each getting five minutes to explain their mission to a room full of investors, media, and other founders.
Here are our notes on all 21 companies, in the order in which they presented:
i-50: Uses AI to monitor human actions on production lines, using computer vision to look for errors or abnormalities along the way. Founder Albert Kao says that 68% of manufacturing issues are caused by human error. The company currently has 3 paid pilots, totalling $190k in contracts.
Perimeter:A data visualization platform for firefighters and other first responders, allowing them to more quickly input and share information (such as how a fire is spreading) with each other and the public. Projecting $1.7M in revenue within 18 months.
Einsite: Computer vision-based analytics for mining and construction. Sensors and cameras are mounted on heavy machines (like dump trucks and excavators). Footage is analyzed in the cloud, with the data ultimately presented to job site managers to help monitor progress and identify issues. Founder Anirudh Reddy says the company will have $1.2M in bookings and be up and running on 2100 machines this year.
Mall IQ: A location-based marketing/analytics SDK for retail stores and malls to tie into their apps. Co-founder Batu Sat says they’ve built an “accurate and scalable” method of determining a customer’s indoor position without GPS or additional hardware like Bluetooth beacons.
Ipsum Analytics: Machine learning system meant to predict the outcome of a company’s ongoing legal cases by analyzing the relevant historical cases of a given jurisdiction, judge, etc. First target customer is hedge funds, helping them project how legal outcomes will impact the market.
Vincere Health: Works with insurance companies to pay people to stop smoking. They’ve built an app with companion breathalyzer hardware; each time a user checks in with the breathalyzer to prove they’re smoking less, the user gets paid. They’ve raised $400k so far.
Harmonize: A chat bot system for automating HR tasks, built to work with existing platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. An employee could, for example, message the bot to request time off — the request is automatically forwarded to their manager, presenting them with one-click approve/deny buttons which handle everything behind the scenes. The company says it currently has 400 paying customers and is seeing $500k in ARR, projecting $2M ARR in 2020.
Coreshell Technologies: Working on a coating for lithium-Ion batteries which the company says makes them 25% cheaper and 50% faster to produce. The company’s co-founder says they have 11 patents filed, with 2 paid agreements signed and 12 more in the pipeline.
in3D: An SDK for 3D body scanning via smartphone, meant to help apps do things like gather body measurements for custom clothing, allow for virtual clothing try-ons, or create accurate digital avatars for games.
Domatic: “Intelligent power” for new building construction. Pushes both data and low-voltage power over a single “Class 2” wire , making it easier/cheaper for builders to make a building “smart”. Co-founder Jim Baldwin helped build Firewire at Apple, and co-founder Gladys Wong was previously a hardware engineer at Cisco.
AiChemist Metal: Building a thin, lightweight battery made of copper and cellulose “nanofibers”. Co-founder Sergey Lopatin says the company’s solution is 2-3x lighter, stronger, and cheaper than alternatives, and that the company is projecting profitability in 2021. Focusing first on batteries for robotics, flexible displays, and electric vehicles.
Delightree: A task management system for franchises, meant to help owners create and audit to-dos across locations. Monitors online customer reviews, automatically generating potential tasks accordingly. In pilot tests with 3 brands with 16 brands on a waitlist, which the company says translates to about $400k in potential ARR.
DigiFabster: A ML-powered “smart quoting” tool for manufacturing shops doing things like CNC machining to make custom parts and components. Currently working with 125 customers, they’re seeing $500k in ARR.
NachoNacho: Helps small/medium businesses monitor and manage software subscriptions their employees sign up for. Issues virtual credit cards which small businesses use to sign up for services; you can place budgets on each card, cancel cards, and quickly determine where your money is going. Launched 9 months ago, NachoNacho says it’s currently working with over 1600 businesses.
Zapiens:a virtual assistant-style tool for sharing knowledge within a company, tied into tools like Slack/Salesforce/Microsoft 365. Answers employee questions, or uses its understanding of each employee’s expertise to find someone within the company who can answer the question.
Onebrief:A tool aiming to make military planning more efficient. Co-founder/Army officer Grant Demaree says that much of the military’s planning is buried in Word/Powerpoint documents, with inefficiencies leading to ballooning team sizes. By modernizing the planning approach with a focus on visualization, automation and data re-usability, he says planning teams could be smaller yet more agile.
Perceive: Spatial analytics for retail stores. Builds a sensor that hooks into existing in-store lighting wiring to create a 3D map of stores, analyzing customer movement/behavior (without face recognition or WiFi/beacon tracking) to identify weak spots in store layout or staffing.
Acoustic Wells:IoT devices for monitoring and controlling production from oil fields. Analyzes sound from pipes “ten thousand feet underground” to regulate how a machine is running, optimizing production while minimizing waste. Charges monthly fee per oil well. Currently has letters of intent to roll out their solution in over 1,000 wells.
SocialGlass: A marketplace for government procurement. Lets governments buy goods/services valued under $10,000 without going through a bidding process, with SocialGlass guaranteeing they’ve found the cheapest price. Currently working with 50+ suppliers offering 10,000 SKUs.
Applied Particle Technology:Continuous, realtime worker health/safety tracking for industrial environments. Working on wireless, wearable monitors that stream environmental data to identify potential exposure risks. Focusing first on mining and metals industries, later moving into construction, firefighting, and utilities environments.
Wikipedia has surpassed a notable milestone today: The English version of the world’s largest online encyclopedia now has over six million articles.
The feat, which comes roughly 19 years after the website was founded, is a testament of “what humans can do together,” said Ryan Merkley, Chief of Staff at Wikimedia, the non-profit organization that operates the omnipresent online encyclopedia.
The 6 millionth article is about Maria Elise Turner Lauder, a 19th-century Canadian school teacher, travel writer, and fiction writer. The article was written by Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, a long time editor of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is available in dozens of languages, but its English-language version has the most number of articles. Following English edition, which hit 5 million articles in late 2015, are German version, with about 2.3 million articles, and the French version that has about 2.1 million articles.
Over the years, Wikipedia has conducted seminars in many nations to encourage more people to become contributors in their own local languages, and has also improved its tools to make the writing, editing, and publishing processes easier.
The private launch market is an area of a lot of focus in the emerging space startup industry, not least because it unlocks the true potential of most of the rest of the market. But so far, we can count on one hand the number of new, private space launch companies that have actually transported payloads to orbit. Out of a number of firms racing to be the next to actually launch, LA-based Relativity Space is a prime contender, with a unique approach that could set it apart from the crowd.
I spoke to CEO Tim Ellis about what makes his company different and about what kind of capabilities it will bring to the launch market once it starts flying, something the company aims to do beginning next year. Fresh off a $140 million funding round in October 2019, Relativity’s model could provide another seismic shift in the economics of doing business in space, and has the potential to be as disruptive to the landscape — if not more so — as SpaceX.
“We built the largest metal 3D printers in the world, which we call a ‘Stargate,’ ” Ellis said. “It’s actually replacing a whole factory full of fixed tooling — and having all of our processes being 3D printing, we really view that as being the future because that lets us automate almost the entire rocket production, and then also reduce part count for much larger launch vehicles so our rocket can carry a 1,250-kg payload to orbit.” Because Relativity Space’s launch vehicle is nearly 10 times larger than those made by Rocket Lab or Orbex, “it’s a totally different payload class.”
That difference is crucial, and represents the paradigm shift that Relativity Space could engender once its products are introduced to the commercial market. The company knows first-hand how its approach fundamentally differs from existing launch providers like Blue Origin and SpaceX — Ellis previously worked as a propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, and co-founder and CTO Jordan Noone worked on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule program. Ellis said Relativity’s approach won’t just unlock cost savings due to automation, it will also provide clients with the ability to launch payloads that weren’t possible with previous launch vehicle design constraints.
Some of the biggest banks in the United States are among the powerful institutions in the world. But like every incumbent, they still have to hustle to stay relevant. Morgan Stanley has increasingly gotten behind investors who say they want to see more direct listings, for example. Some of those investors wield a lot of influence after all, and if you can’t beat them (and you want to stay ahead of the competition), you’d better join them.
Now Goldman Sachs has made an announcement of its own that’s very much a part of the times: its CEO, David Solomon, today told CNBC that beginning this year, Goldman will no longer take companies public if they don’t have at least one “diverse” member on its board of directors. “Starting on July 1st in the U.S. and Europe, we’re not going to take a company public unless there’s at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women,” Solomon said specifically on the network’s “Squawk Box.”
Some will, perhaps rightly, see the announcement as little more than marketing. After all, it’s already widely viewed as unacceptable for a company to go public without at least one female board member and preferably far more “diversity” than that. WeWork, for example, tried to go public last year with an all-male board, only to realize soon after that if it wanted to pursue an initial public offering, it had better mix it up a bit. (Of course, by the time it amended its S-1 to name Harvard professor Frances Frei as its first female board member, its offering was already starting to crumble.)
Adding one’s first female board member ahead of an IPO is such a cliche at this point that the more interesting question is how close to the filing a related announcement will be made.
Airbnb, founded in 2008, brought aboard its first female board member in 2018, so let’s call it two years ahead of its presumed 2020 IPO. A decade is a long time to go without any diversity on a board, but it’s also not atypical. Slack’s first female board member, Sarah Friar, joined the company in March 2017, roughly two years before the company — eight years old at the time — staged its direct listing last year. Similarly, Peloton, the fitness company, now eight years old, brought aboard its first female board director, Pamela Thomas-Graham, in the spring of 2018; in September of last year, it went public.
Indeed, we’re not criticizing Solomon — when it comes to diversity, every little bit helps. But if Goldman Sachs really wants to maintain its place in the banking hierarchy, a much bolder stance would to only take public companies that have diverse workforces, which is far more important — and impactful — than adding a woman and/or person of color to a board of directors as part of their IPO preparations.
Let’s be real here. Directors of public companies typically meet just four times a year to review quarterly result. Beyond ensuring that strategic objectives are being met and hopefully making introductions to the company, these roles are given more attention than they should be by the media. (They often pay ludicrous amounts, too.)
Even pledging that Goldman is only going to take public companies that give back — say 1% of future profits to the NAACP, as one idea — would put it in pole position for those founders and investors who truly want to be progressive. Of course, Goldman might miss out on a lot of business in the immediate term, but we’re guessing it’s a gamble that would pay off over time.
In the meantime, institutionalizing a process that’s already happening and doesn’t have nearly enough real-world impact is maybe better, just barely, than not institutionalizing that thing. According to Solomon, about 60 companies in the U.S. and Europe have gone public recently with all white, male boards.
When we reached out to others of the big banks today to see if they might make a public commitment of their own regarding pre-IPO companies — we wrote to Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and JPMorgan — each of them, which have said in various ways that they are committed to diversity, declined to comment.
Aki CEO Scott Swanson told me that he’s anticipating serious growth in the demand for ad personalization, particularly as consumers see personalization everywhere else online.
Swanson argued that Eyeview’s technology is particularly strong thanks to its focus on video, with “the ability to generate millions of permutations of a video creative and store them in the cloud.” It offers even more opportunities when combined with Aki’s existing technology, which delivers ads targeted for specific “mobile moments,” like whether the viewer is relaxing at home or out running errands.
Plus, the acquisition allows Aki to expand beyond mobile advertising to desktop and connected TV.
The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Swanson said that in addition to acquiring the technology, he’s also working to bring on old Eyeview clients and to hire Eyeview team members (he estimated that he’s hired nearly 15 so far and is aiming for around 20). At the same time, he acknowledged that there are challenges in resurrecting a business that had been shut down.
“The technology itself was decommissioned, it was taken down, it was backed up in the cloud,” Swanson said. “As the acquisition proceeds, we’ll literally be taking the code base and relaunching it in the cloud … Hiring the people was super important, and then because it’s not a traditional acquisition where we get customers and stuff, we have to go call up all the customers one-by-one, just as we have to hire people one-by-one.”
Eyeview had raised nearly $80 million in funding before running out of cash and laying off a team of around 100 employees. (Aki, meanwhile, has raised only a seed round of $3.75 million back in 2016; Swanson said the company has grown organically since then.) The news came only a few months after digital media veteran Rob Deichert took over as CEO.
“While it was disappointing to have to shut down the Eyeview business, I’m very happy that the technology assets have found a home with Aki,” Deichert told me via email. “Their business is a logical fit for the technology.”
And despite Eyeview’s misfortunes, Swanson said he’s confident that the company still works as a standalone business: “Look, these guys have been running a business that was full of really happy customers who were seeing good results and seem to have been disappointed when they shut down.”
The bigger issue, he suggested, is the adtech industry as a whole, with advertisers feeling fatigued “with having too many options,” along with a lack of “appetite on the large exit side.”
“The broader trend here is for companies that operate profitably and can support themselves effectively to become a little bit more tech-enabled managed services business,” Swanson said.
As the number of drones proliferates in cities and towns across America, government agencies are scrambling to find ways to manage the oncoming traffic that’s expected to clog up their airspace.
Companies like Airmap and KittyHawk have raised tens of millions to develop technologies that can help cities manage congestion in the friendly skies and now they have a new competitor in the Detroit-based startup, Airspace Link, which just raised $4 million from a swarm of investors to bring its services to the broader market.
The financing for Airspace Link follows the company’s reception of a stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for low altitude authorization and notification capabilities, according to chief executive Michael Healander.
According to Healander, what distinguishes Airspace Link from the other competitors in the market is its integration with mapping tools used by municipal governments to provide information on ground-based risk.
“We’re creating the roads based on ground-based risk and we push that out into the drone community to let them know where it’s okay to fly,” says Healander.
That knowledge of terrestrial critical assets in cities and towns comes from deep integrations between Airspace Link and the mapping company Esri, which has long provided federal, state, and local governments with mapping capabilities and services.
“We’ve just spent the past month understanding what regulation is going to be around to support it. In two years from now every drone will be live tracked in our platform,” says Healnder. “Today we’re just authorizing flight plans.”
As drone operators increase in number, the autonomous vehicles pose more potential risks to civilian populations in the wrong hands.
Parking lots, sporting events, concerts — really any public area — could be targets for potential attacks using drones.
“Drones are becoming more and more powerful and smarter,” EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned in a statement last summer, “which makes them more and more attractive for legitimate use, but also for hostile acts.”
Already roughly half of the population of the U.S. lives in controlled airspace where drones which are flying with over a half a pound of weight require flight plan authorization, according to Healander.
“We build out population data and give state and local governments a tool to create advisories for emergency events or any areas where high densities of people will be,” says Healander. “That creates an advisory that goes through our platform to the drone industry.”
Airspace Link closed a $1 million pre-seed round in September 2019 with a $6 million post-money valuation. The current valuation of the company is undisclosed, but the company’s progress was enough to draw the attention of investors led by Indicator Ventures with participation from 2048 Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Matchstick Ventures, Detroit Venture Partners and Invest Detroit.
For Healander, Airspace Link is only the latest entrepreneurial venture. He previously founded GeoMetri, an indoor GPS tracking company, which was acquired by Acuity Brands.
I’ve been a partner of ESRI my entire life,” says Healander. “I’ve been in the geospatial industry for four or five companies with them.”
The company has four main components of its service. There’s AirRegistry, where people cna opt-in or out of receiving drone deliveries; AirInspect, which is a service that handles city and state permitting for drone operators; AirNetm, which works with the FAA to create approved air routes for drones; and AirLink an API that connects drone operators with local governments and collects fees for registering drones.
Fintech companies are fundamentally changing how the financial services ecosystem operates, giving consumers powerful tools to help with savings, budgeting, investing, insurance, electronic payments and many other offerings. This industry is growing rapidly, filling gaps where traditional banks and financial institutions have failed to meet customer needs.
Yet progress has been uneven. Notably, consumer fintech adoption in the United States lags well behind much of Europe, where forward-thinking regulation has sparked an outpouring of innovation in digital banking services — as well as the backend infrastructure onto which products are built and operated.
That might seem counterintuitive, as regulation is often blamed for stifling innovation. Instead, European regulators have focused on reducing barriers to fintech growth rather than protecting the status quo. For example, the U.K.’s Open Banking regulation requires the country’s nine big high-street banks to share customer data with authorized fintech providers.
The EU’s PSD2 (Payment Services Directive 2) obliges banks to create application programming interfaces (APIs) and related tools that let customers share data with third parties. This creates standards that level the playing field and nurture fintech innovation. And the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority supports new fintech entrants by running a “sandbox” for software testing that helps speed new products into service.
Regulations, if implemented effectively as demonstrated by those in Europe, will lead to a net positive to consumers. While it is inevitable that regulations will come, if fintech entrepreneurs take the action to engage early and often with regulators, it will ensure that the regulations put in place support innovation and ultimately benefit the consumer.
Government and policy experts are among the most important people in the future of transportation. Any company pursuing the shared scooters and bikes business, ride-hailing, on-demand shuttles and eventually autonomous vehicles has to have someone, or a team of people, who can work with cities.
Enter Shin-pein Tsay, the director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber . TechCrunch is excited to announce that Tsay will join us on stage at TC Sessions: Mobility, a one-day conference dedicated to the future of mobility and transportation.
If there’s one person who is at the center of this universe, it’s Tsay. In her current role at Uber, she leads a team of issues experts focused on what Uber calls a “sustainable multi-modal urban future.”
Tsay is also founder. Prior to Uber, she founded a social impact analysis company called Make Public. She was also the deputy executive director of TransitCenter, a national foundation focused on improving urban transportation. She also founded and directed the cities and transportation program under the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For the past four years, Shin–pei has served as a commissioner for the City of New York Public Design Commission. She is on the board of the national non-profit In Our Backyard.
Stay tuned, we’ll have more speaker announcements in the coming weeks. In case you missed it, TechCrunch has already announced Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Waymo’s head of trucking Boris Sofman and Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan will be participating in TC Sessions: Mobility.
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Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.
Between 2005 and 2018, the five biggest U.S. tech firms collectively spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying federal policymakers. But they shelled out even more in 2019: Facebook boosted its lobbying budget by 25%, while Amazon hiked its political outlay by 16%. Together, America’s biggest tech firms spent almost $64 million in a bid to shape federal policies.
Clearly, America’s tech giants feel they’re getting value for their money. But as CEO of Boundless, a 40-employee startup that doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest in political lobbying, I’m proposing another way. One of the things we care most about at Boundless is immigration. And while we’ve yet to convince Donald Trump and Stephen Miller that immigrants are a big part of what makes America great — hey, we’re working on it! — we’ve found that when you have a clear message and a clear mission, even a startup can make a big difference.
So how can scrappy tech companies make a splash in the current political climate? Here are some guiding principles we’ve learned.
1) Speak out
You can’t make a difference if you don’t make some noise. A case in point: Boundless is spearheading the business community’s pushback against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge rule.” This sweeping immigration reform would preclude millions of people from obtaining U.S. visas and green cards — and therefore make it much harder for American businesses to hire global talent — based on a set of new, insurmountable standards. We’re doing that not by cutting checks to K Street but by using our own expertise, creativity and people skills — the very things that helped make our company a success in the first place.
By leveraging our unique strengths — including our own proprietary data — we’ve been able to put together a smart, business-focused amicus brief urging courts to strike down the public charge rule. And because we combine immigration-specific expertise with a real understanding of the issues that matter most to tech companies, we’ve been able to convince more than 100 other firms — such as Microsoft, Twitter, Warby Parker, Levi Strauss & Co. and Remitly — to cosign our amicus brief. Will that be enough to persuade the courts and steer federal policy in immigrants’ favor? The jury’s still out. But whatever happens, we take satisfaction in knowing that we’re doing everything we can on behalf of the entire immigrant community, not just our customers, in defense of a cause we’re passionate about.
2) Take a stand
Taking a stand is risky, but staying silent is a gamble, too: Consumers are increasingly socially conscious, and almost nine out of 10 said in one survey that they prefer to buy from brands that take active steps to support the causes they care about. It depends a bit on the issue, though. One survey found that trash-talking the president will win you brownie points from millennials but cost you support among Baby Boomers, for instance.
So pick your battles — but remember that media-savvy consumers can smell a phony a mile off. It’s important to choose causes you truly stand behind and then put your money where your mouth is. At Boundless, we do that by hiring a diverse workforce — not just immigrants, but also women (we’re over 60%), people of color (35%) and LGBTQ+ (15%) — and putting time and energy into helping them succeed. Figure out what authenticity looks like for your company, and make sure you’re living your values as well as just talking about them.
3) Band together
Tech giants might have a bigger megaphone, but there are a lot of startups in our country, and quantity has a quality all its own. In fact, the Small Business Administration reported in 2018 that there are 30.2 million small businesses in the United States, 414,000 of which are classified as “startups.” So instead of trying to shout louder, try forging connections with other smart, up-and-coming companies with unique voices and perspectives of their own.
At Boundless, we routinely reach out to the other startups that have received backing from our own investor groups — national networks such as Foundry Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, Pioneer Square Labs, Two Sigma Ventures and Flybridge Capital Partners — in the knowledge that these companies will share many of our values and be willing to listen to our ideas.
For startups, the venture capitalists, accelerators and incubators that helped you launch and grow can be an incredible resource: Leverage their expertise and Rolodexes to recruit a posse of like-minded startups and entrepreneurs that can serve as a force multiplier for your political activism. Instead of taking a stand as a single company, you could potentially rally dozens of companies — from a range of sectors and unique weights in their fields — on board for your advocacy efforts.
4) Use your superpowers
Every company has a few key superpowers, and the same things that make you a commercial success can help to sway policymakers, too. Boundless uses data and design to make the immigration process more straightforward, and number-crunching and messaging skills come in handy when we’re doing advocacy work, too.
Whether you’re Bill Gates or a small-business owner, if you’re quoted in The New York Times, then your voice will reach the same people. Reporters love to feel like they’re including quotes from the “little guy,” so make yourself accessible, and learn to give snappy, memorable quotes to reporters, and you’ll soon find that they keep you on speed dial.
Our phones rang off the hook when Trump tried to push through a healthcare mandate by executive order, for instance, and our founders were quoted by top media outlets — from Reuters to Rolling Stone. It takes a while to build media relationships and establish yourself as a credible source, but it’s a great way to win national attention for your advocacy.
6) Know your lawmakers
To make a difference, you’ll need allies in the corridors of power. Reach out to your senators and congresspeople, and get to know their staffers, too. Working in politics is often thankless, and many aides love to hear from new voices, especially ones who are willing to stake out controversial positions on big issues, sound the alarm on bad policies or help move the Overton window to enable better solutions.
We’ve often found that prior to hearing from us, lawmakers simply hadn’t considered the special challenges faced by smaller tech companies, such as lack of internal legal, human and financial resources, to comply with various regulations. And those lawmakers come away from our meetings with a better understanding of the need to craft straightforward policies that won’t drown small businesses in red tape.
Political change doesn’t just happen in the Capital Beltway, so make a point of reaching out to your municipal and state-level leaders, too. In 2018, Boundless pitched to the Civic I/O Mayors Summit at SXSW because we knew that municipal leaders played a critical role in welcoming new Americans into our communities. Local policies and legislation can have a big impact on startups, and the support of local leaders remains a critical foundation for the kinds of change we want to see made to the U.S. immigration system.
Take the next step
It’s easy to make excuses or expect someone else to advocate on your behalf. But if there’s something you think the government could be doing better, then you have an obligation to use your company’s energy, talent and connections to push back and create momentum for reform. Sure, it would be nice to splash money around and hire a phalanx of lobbyists to shape public policy — but it’s perfectly possible to make a big difference without spending a dime.
But first, figure out what you stand for and what strengths and superpowers you can leverage to bear the problems you and your customers face. Above all, don’t be afraid to take a stand.
Space launch startup Firefly Aerospace encountered a setback as it kicked off the first “hot” tests of its Alpha launch vehicle’s engines – a fire resulted from its first test engine fire. The fire occurred at 6:23 PM local time on Wednesday during the first planned 5-second fire in a series of test firings Firefly intended to run for Alpha at its Briggs, Texas facility. The fire was located “in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage,” Firefly has said in a new statement about the incident.
Firefly’s engineers immediately stopped the engine test, and the facility’s fire suppression system put out the fire, the company says. The team is currently reviewing data around the test to identify the cause, and will perform a complete investigation to figure out what’s going on and then report those results, according to the statement. Firefly also says that “at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger” and adds that it’s working with local emergency response and governing authorities throughout the investigation.
The launch startup has encountered setbacks before, though its biggest previous hurdle was of a different nature: Firefly Space Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, before returning with a slightly different corporate identity as Firefly Aerospace later that year, still under the leadership of founder and current CEO Tom Markusic. Firefly was rescued at least in part thanks to a lifeline investment from Noosphere Ventures, and said at the time it had enough runway to fund it fully through development and flight of Alpha, an expendable launch vehicle that will be able to delivery as much as a metric ton to low-Earth orbit.
This fire is a setback, but it does appear that it was at least quickly contained and didn’t result in any kind of explosion or total destruction of the test launch vehicle. It’s too soon to say what this will mean for Firefly’s timelines, which at the end of last year, anticipated a first launch of Alpha sometime between this February and March.
Anomalies are part of the process of developing new launch systems and spacecraft, so this isn’t necessarily a major blow for Firefly – depending, of course, on what the investigation reveals regarding the ultimate cause.
Firefly’s statement on the incident is included in full below.
Firefly Aerospace maintains a 200-acre manufacturing and test facility in Briggs, Texas, 27 miles north of its headquarters.
On January 22, 2020, test engineers were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle. The test was to be the first in a series of propulsion tests to verify design and operation of the stage, and involved a short, 5-second firing of the stage’s four engines.
At 6:23 pm local time, the stage’s engines were fired, and a fire broke out in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage. The 5-second test was immediately aborted and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire. The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it is complete.
Firefly is committed to workplace safety, and at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger. Firefly is coordinating closely with local authorities and emergency response personnel as it investigates the anomaly and refines its contingency procedures.
A recent report from Bloomberg claimed Apple was considering making original podcasts related to its Apple TV+ streaming service shows. Now we have further confirmation that these companion podcasts are indeed in the works. In an interview with Forbes, an executive producer of the Apple TV+ anthology series “Little America,” Lee Eisenberg, talks about the benefits of working with Apple — noting, by the way, that the show will have a podcast as well as a playlist featuring music from the series.
Neither of these has yet to launch, but are in line with what Bloomberg claimed Apple has been planning.
The audio programs — basically Apple’s own original podcasts — would help to market some of Apple TV+’s more high-profile shows. “Little America” was mentioned in Bloomberg’s report as one possibility, given the rave reviews it received from critics. Golden Globe nominee “The Morning Show,” which also won Jennifer Aniston a best actress award at the Screen Actor Guild Awards, was another.
Eisenberg, speaking to Forbes, confirmed the plans to cross-promote the new show across Apple’s platform.
“Apple is such a worldwide and multi-faceted brand,” he said. “We’re doing a podcast to delve more into the stories and the music on the show. There’ll also be a playlist for every episode. We’re putting out a book too. Apple has an infrastructure that just felt like it would be able to touch all of the different pieces that we wanted,” he added.
The comment was meant to highlight one of the benefits of working with a company like Apple, in a piece that laid out how different Apple’s approach is from rival networks and streaming services. For example, Apple was passionate about “Little America,” which focuses on the immigrant experience in America, even when traditional networks had passed with concerns over subject matter and lack of star power. In fact, Apple sold itself and its streaming service to “Little America’s” producers and creators, not the other way around.
It’s unclear when the “Little America” podcast or episode playlists will go live or to what extent Apple will be involved when they do. Apple has not responded to requests for comment on the matter.
Such a move would represent a big jump by Apple into the world of original podcasts, if and when it comes to pass. Today, the company’s selection of Apple-produced podcasts are limited to things like Apple keynotes, special events, and quarterly earnings calls — not really what you think of as original audio programming.
Apple is alone among the top streaming services in terms of not having some sort of original audio programming play. Spotify has heavily invested in podcasts, and now has hundreds of originals and exclusives available to its users. It also acquired several podcast networks and podcast startups, including Gimlet, Parcast, and Anchor. It’s now said to be in discussions with The Ringer.
It seems original audio programming is something that’s now becoming table-stakes in the streaming music wars. Apple’s entry may be belated, but it will at least be differentiated as its podcasts will promote its shows and vice versa, instead of only being connected to music.
Quora, a ten-year-old question-and-answer startup based in Mountain View, is laying off staff in its Bay Area and New York offices, the company’s CEO announced on the site today.
Like other startup leaders being pushed by investors to focus more heavily on cashflow, CEO Adam D’Angelo wrote that the layoffs and “organizational changes” were being pursued in order to focus on “scaling the organization in a financially responsible way.”
D’Angelo did not disclose the scale of the layoffs. Recode reported last year that Quora was locking down $60 million at a $2 billion valuation, noting at the time that the startup had around 200 employees. The company has publicly disclosed $225 million to date according to Crunchbase from investors including Benchmark, Peter Thiel and Y Combinator.
We’ve reached out to the company for additional comment.
“[W]e need to reduce our burn rate to a sustainable level from which we can focus on pursuing the mission and growing the business over the long term. We do not want to be dependent on outside capital, so self-reliance and careful management of our resources are crucial to our future,” D’Angelo wrote.
Over the past several weeks, layoffs have been hitting startups including several in SoftBank’s portfolio as well as Mozilla, and just today, genetic testing startup 23andMe.
Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.
Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.
Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington D.C. before the end of 2020.
At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.
Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.
Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.
Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.
Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.
Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.
Google today announced that Dataset Search, a service that lets you search for close to 25 million different publicly available datasets, is now out of beta. Dataset Search first launched in September 2018.
Researchers can use these datasets, which range from pretty small ones that tell you how many cats there were in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2018 to large annotated audio and image sets, to check their hypotheses or train and test their machine learning models. The tool currently indexes about 6 million tables.
With this release, Dataset Search is getting a mobile version and Google is also adding a few new features to Dataset Search. The first of these is a new filter that lets you choose which type of dataset you want to see (tables, images, text, etc.), which makes it easier to find the right data you’re looking for. In addition, the company has added more information about the datasets and the organizations that publish them.
A lot of the data in the search index comes from government agencies. In total, Google says, there are about 2 million U.S. government datasets in the index right now. But you’ll also regularly find Google’s own Kaggle show up, as well as a number of other public and private organizations that make public data available as well.
As Google notes, anybody who owns an interesting dataset can make it available to be indexed by using a standard schema.org markup to describe the data in more detail.
In Xerox’s latest effort to get HP to bend to its will and combine the two companies, it announced its intent today to try and replace the entire HP Board of Directors at the company’s stockholder’s meeting in April. That would be the same board that unanimously rejected Xerox’s takeover bid.
As you might imagine, HP was none too pleased with this latest move by Xerox. “We believe these nominations are a self-serving tactic by Xerox to advance its proposal, that significantly undervalues HP and creates meaningful risk to the detriment of HP shareholders,” HP fired back in a statement today emailed to TechCrunch.
It went onto blame Xerox shareholder Carl Icahn for the continued pressure. “We believe that Xerox’s proposal and nominations are being driven by Carl Icahn, and his large ownership position in Xerox means that his interests are not aligned with those of other HP shareholders. Due to Mr. Icahn’s ownership position, he would disproportionately benefit from an acquisition of HP by Xerox at a price that undervalues HP,” the company stated.
The two companies exchanged increasingly harsh letters in November as Xerox signaled its intent to take over the much larger HP. HP questioned Xerox’s ability to raise the money, but earlier this month it announced had in fact raised the $24 billion it would need to buy the company. HP was still not convinced.
Today’s exchange is just the latest between the two companies in an increasingly hostile bid by Xerox to combine the two companies.
Waymo said Thursday it will begin mapping and eventually testing its autonomous long-haul trucks in Texas and parts of New Mexico, the latest sign that the Alphabet company is expanding beyond its core focus of launching a robotaxi business.
Waymo said in a tweet posted early Thursday it had picked these areas because they are “interesting and promising commercial routes.” Waymo also said it would “explore how the Waymo Driver” — the company’s branded self-driving system — could be used to “create new transportation solutions.”
Waymo plans to mostly focus on interstates because Texas has a particularly high freight volume, the company said. The program will begin with mapping conducted by Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
The mapping and eventual testing will occur on highways around Dallas, Houston and El Paso. In New Mexico, Waymo will focus on the southern most part of the state.
Interstate 10 will be a critical stretch of highway in both states — and one that is already a testbed for TuSimple, a self-driving trucking startup that has operations in Tucson and San Diego. TuSimple tests and carries freight along the Tucson to Phoenix corridor on I-10. The company also tests on I-10 in New Mexico and Texas.
This week, we’ll start driving our Chrysler Pacificas and long-haul trucks in Texas and New Mexico. These are interesting and promising commercial routes, and we’ll be using our vehicles to explore how the Waymo Driver might be able to create new transportation solutions. pic.twitter.com/uDqKDrGR9b
Waymo, which is best known for its pursuit of a robotaxi service, integrated its self-driving system into Class 8 trucks and began testing them in Arizona in August 2017. The company stopped testing its trucks on Arizona roads sometime later that year. The company brought back its truck testing to Arizona in May 2019.
Those early Arizona tests were aimed at gathering initial information about driving trucks in the region, while the new round of truck testing in Arizona marks a more advanced stage in the program’s development, Waymo said at the time.
Waymo has been testing its self-driving trucks in a handful of locations in the U.S., including Arizona, the San Francisco area and Atlanta. In 2018, the company announced plans to use its self-driving trucks to deliver freight bound for Google’s data centers in Atlanta.
Waymo’s trucking program has had a higher profile in the past year. In June, Waymo brought on 13 robotics experts, a group that includes Anki’s co-founder and former CEO Boris Sofman, to lead engineering in the autonomous trucking division.
Layoffs in the technology and venture-backed worlds continued today, as 23andMe confirmed to CNBC that it laid off around 100 people, or about 14% of its formerly 700-person staff. The cuts would be notable by themselves, but given how many other reductions have recently been announced, they indicate that a rolling round of belt-tightening amongst well-funded private companies continues.
Mozilla, for example, cut 70 staffers earlier this year. As TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois reported earlier in January, the company’s revenue-generating products were taking longer to reach market than expected. And with less revenue coming in than expected, its human footprint had to be reduced.
Scooter unicorns Lime and Bird have also reduced staff this year. The for-profit drive is firing on all cylinders in the wake of the failed WeWork IPO attempt. WeWork was an outlier in terms of how bad its financial results were, but the fear it introduced to the market appears pretty damn mainstream by this point. (Forsake hope, alle ye whoe require a Series H.)
It’s one thing to develop a working machine learning model, it’s another to put it to work in an application. Cortex Labs is an early stage startup with some open source tooling designed to help data scientists take that last step.
The company’s founders were students at Berkeley when they observed that one of the problems around creating machine learning models was finding a way to deploy them. While there was a lot of open source tooling available, data scientists are not experts in infrastructure.
CEO Omer Spillinger says that infrastructure was something the four members of the founding team — himself, CTO David Eliahu, head of engineering Vishal Bollu and head of growth Caleb Kaiser — understood well.
What the four founders did was take a set of open source tools and combine them with AWS services to provide a way to deploy models more easily. “We take open source tools like TensorFlow, Kubernetes and Docker and we combine them with AWS services like CloudWatch, EKS (Amazon’s flavor of Kubernetes) and S3 to basically give one API for developers to deploy their models,” Spillinger explained.
He says that a data scientist starts by uploading an exported model file to S3 cloud storage. “Then we pull it, containerize it and deploy it on Kubernetes behind the scenes. We automatically scale the workload and automatically switch you to GPUs if it’s compute intensive. We stream logs and expose [the model] to the web. We help you manage security around that, stuff like that,” he said
While he acknowledges this not unlike Amazon SageMaker, the company’s long-term goal is to support all of the major cloud platforms. SageMaker of course only works on the Amazon cloud, while Cortex will eventually work on any cloud. In fact, Spillinger says that the biggest feature request they’ve gotten to this point, is to support Google Cloud. He says that and support for Microsoft Azure are on the road map.
The Cortex founders have been keeping their head above water while they wait for a commercial product with the help of an $888,888 seed round from Engineering Capital in 2018. If you’re wondering about that oddly specific number, it’s partly an inside joke — Spillinger’s birthday is August 8th — and partly a number arrived at to make the valuation work, he said.
For now, the company is offering the open source tools, and building a community of developers and data scientists. Eventually, it wants to monetize by building a cloud service for companies who don’t want to manage clusters — but that is down the road, Spillinger said.
Lidar sensors are likely to be essential to autonomous vehicles, but if there are none of the latter, how can you make money with the former? Among the industry executives I spoke with, the outlook is optimistic as they unhitch their wagons from the sputtering star of self-driving cars. As it turns out, a few years of manic investment does wonders for those who have the wisdom to apply it properly.
The show floor at CES 2020 was packed with lidar companies exhibiting in larger spaces, seemingly in greater numbers than before. That seemed at odds with reports that 2019 had been a sort of correction year for the industry, so I met with executives and knowledgeable types at several companies to hear their take on the sector’s transformation over the last couple of years.
As context, 2017 was perhaps peak lidar, nearing the end of several years of nearly feverish investment in a variety of companies. It was less a gold rush than a speculative land rush: autonomous vehicles were purportedly right around the corner and each would need a lidar unit… or five. The race to invest in a winner was on, leading to an explosion of companies claiming ascendancy over their rivals.
Unfortunately, as many will recall, autonomous cars seem to be no closer today than they were then, as the true difficulty of the task dawned on those undertaking it.
Snapchat and NBC Olympics are again teaming up to produce customized Olympics content for users in the U.S. — this time, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer. The companies had previously worked together during the Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018 Olympics. The PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games in 2018 reached over 40 million U.S. users, up 25% from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In addition, 95% of those users were under the age of 35.
This younger demographic is getting harder to reach in the cord-cutting era, as many people forgo pay-TV subscriptions and traditional broadcast networks in favor of on-demand streaming services, like Netflix. That limits the reach of advertisers, impacting NBC’s bottom line.
The Snap partnership helps to fix that, as it offers NBC Olympics a way to sell to advertisers who want to reach younger fans who don’t watch as much — or any — TV. Snapchat today reaches 90% of all 13 to 24 year-olds in the U.S., and 75% of all 13 to 34 year-olds. 210 million people now use Snapchat daily.
NBC Olympics says it’s the exclusive seller of all the new customized content associated with the Games, working in partnership with Snap.
This year, it’s also putting out more content than before.
The company plans to release more than 70 episodes across four daily Snapchat shows leading up to and during the Games. That’s triple the number of episodes it offered in 2018.
For the first time, it’s creating two daily Highlight Shows for Snapchat, which will be updated in near real-time. The shows will include the must-see moments from the day in Tokyo.
In addition, two unscripted shows will air during the Games, each with two episodes per day. One, “Chasing Gold,” which first debuted during PyeongChang 2018, will follow the journeys of Team USA athletes. The second show is new this year, and will be a daily recap of the most memorable moments curated especially for Snapchat users. Both are being produced by The NBCUniversal Digital Lab.
The deal will also see Snap curating daily Our Stories during the Games, as it has done in previous years. The stories will include photos and videos from fans as well as content from the NBC Olympics.
“We know the audience on Snap loves the Olympic Games,” said Gary Zenkel, President, NBC Olympics, in a statement. “After two successful Olympics together, we’re excited to take the partnership to another level and produce even more content and coverage from the Tokyo Olympics tailored for Snapchatters, which also will directly benefit the many NBC Olympics advertisers who seek to engage further with this young and active demographic.”
Snapchat isn’t the only digital destination for Olympics content, however. NBC and Twitter teamed up to stream limited live event coverage, highlights and a daily Olympics show from the Tokyo Games. It was unclear at the time the deal was announced if NBC had opted for Twitter over Snapchat. Now we know that’s not the case — in fact, Snap’s deal with NBC is even bigger than before.
Here’s how it butchered a search query for “Metallica” this morning:
Remember when that interface was simpler, and easier to use, and didn’t try to do literally every possible thing for every possible user at once?
It’s not just Google’s mobile search interface that makes me want to claw my eyes out and learn how to talk to trees. Everyone now knows that Mountain View has effectively given up on trying to distinguish ads from organic results (Does the company view them as interchangeable? Probably?). TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas covered the company’s recent search result design changes today, calling them “user-hostile,” going on to summarize the choices as its “latest dark pattern.”
Chrome and TweetDeck are joined by apps like Slack that are also slowing down over time. It appears that as every developer writes code on a computer with 64,000 gigs of RAM, they presume that they can waste everyone else’s. God forbid if you have the piddling 16 gigs of RAM that my work machine has. Your computer is going to lag and often crash. Great work, everyone!
Also, fuck mobile apps. I have two phones now because that’s how 2020 works and I have more apps than I know what to do with, not to mention two different password managers, Okta and more.I’m so kitted out I can’t breathe. I have so many tools available to me I mostly just want to put them all down. Leave me alone! Or only show me the thing I need — not everything at once!
Anyhoo video games are still pretty good as long as you avoid most Battle Royale titles, micropayments, and EA. Kinda.
Outside of in-app purchases in mobile games, subscription revenue from non-game apps helped to boost 2019’s mobile consumer spend — a figure that reached $120 billion globally last year, according to a recent report by App Annie. Now, new data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower indicates U.S. subscription app revenue grew by 21% last year from the $3.8 billion generated by the top 100 subscription apps to reach over $4.6 billion in 2019.
The firm also found that the subscription revenue by these apps accounted for 19% of the total $24 billion in U.S. consumer spend in 2019, across both the Apple App Store and Google Play.
Tinder was the No. top-grossing app of 2019, App Annie’s earlier report said.
Today, Sensor Tower adds that Tinder was also responsible for 10% of the spending in the top 100 apps in 2019, thanks to its monthly recurring subscriptions like Tinder Gold at $14.99 per month and Tinder Plus at $9.99 per month.
Breaking down the consumer spending on subscriptions in the U.S. App Store, specifically, the report found that users spent $3.6 billion in the top 100 subscription apps of 2019, up 16% from the $3.1 billion spent in 2018. YouTube was the top subscription app on the U.S. App Store, followed by Tinder. In 2019, YouTube crossed the $1 billion milestone through in-app spending, including for its ad-free tier, YouTube Premium, which it heavily promotes. On Google Play, however, Tinder was No. 3, behind Pandora and Google One (cloud storage across Google platforms).
Google One’s climb to the top of the charts in 2019 was also a change from past years, where the top charts were dominated by dating and entertainment apps, Sensor Tower noted.
On Google Play in the U.S. in 2019, users spent more than $1.1 billion in the top 100 grossing subscription apps on the platform, up 42% year-over-year from the $775 million spent in 2018.
However, the App Store still leads in consumer spending, by comparison with $3.6 billion versus Google Play’s $1.1 billion.
Top apps drive a majority of consumer spending, but the subscription model is benefitting even those apps further down on the charts. For example, the top 10 subscription apps grew by 10% in 2019, but the No. 11 to No. 100 apps grew by 35% in the same period of time.
This trend is expected to continue in 2020 and the years ahead.
Atlassian today announced an update to Jira Software, its popular project and issue tracking tool, that brings a number of major updates to the roadmapping feature it first introduced back in 2018. Back in 2018, Atlassian also launched its rebuilt version of Jira Software, which took some of its cues from Trello, and today’s release builds upon this.
“When we launched that new Jira experience back in October 2018, I think we had a really good idea of what we were trying to do with it and where we were taking it,” said Jake Brereton, the head of marketing for Jira Software. “And I think if you fast forward 14 months to where we are today, we just had some really strong validation in a number of areas that are over the target and that that investment we made was worth it.”
With this release then, Jira Software’s roadmapping tool is getting progress bars that show you the overall status of every roadmap item and that give you a lot more information about the overall state of the project at a glance. Also new here are hierarchy levels that let you unfold the roadmap item to get more in-depth information about the stories and tasks that are part of an item. You can also now map dependencies by simply dragging and dropping items, something that was missing from the first release but that was surely high on the list for many users. Atlassian is also introducing new filters and a number of UI enhancements.
But as Matt Ryall, head of product for Jira Software, told me, one of the standout features of the release is its integration with Confluence, Atlassian’s wiki-like collaborative workspace for businesses. Thanks to the new infrastructure that now underpins Jira since last year’s release, you can now embed Jira Software’s roadmaps right into a Confluence document and every update is immediately reflected in real time.
“Roadmaps provides a live view of the work in JIRA,” he said. “So it’s not a roadmap that you maintain by hand. This is really showing you what your development teams are working on right now.”
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
Today we’re digging into One Medical’supdated IPO filing released this week. The document contains directional pricing information that will help us understand where the tech-enabled medical care startup expects the market to value itself and also details its Q4 2019 Preliminary Estimated Unaudited Financial Results, which gives us a fuller picture of its financial health.
As we’ll see, One Medical’s expected valuation matches secondary-market transactions in the firm’s equity, and, at the upper-end of its proposed IPO range, represents a solid boost to its final private valuation. Afterwards, we’ll dig back through the company’s numbers, figure out its implied revenue multiple and make a bullish and bearish argument for the company’s hoped-for IPO valuation.
It’s going to be fun! (For a general dive into the company’s IPO filing, head here.)
Early Stage SF is sneaking up on us and there is plenty to be excited about. The one-day event, which brings together a wide variety of startup experts to host breakout sessions, is going down on April 28 and we have a handful of speakers to announce.
So without any further ado:
We’re thrilled to announce that Jeff Clavier, Sarah Guo, Caryn Marooney, and Ali Partovi will be joining us at the event.
Jeff Clavier is Managing Partner and founder at Uncork Capital, with portfolio companies that include Eventbrite, Sendgrid, Fitbit, Vungle, and Mint.com. His current investments include Vidyard, Postmates, Molekule, Shippo and Front.
Seed Funding Tips and Tricks – Jeff Clavier
There are now a thousand micro-VCs entrepreneurs can raise capital from, creating confusing market dynamics. Learn tips and tricks on fund raising from Uncork Capital’s Managing Partner, Jeff Clavier.
Sarah Guo joined Greylock Partners in 2013 and led the firm’s investments in Cleo, Demisto, Sqreen, and Utmost, and sits on the boards of several startups. Before Greylock, she was at Goldman Sachs where she invested at the growth level in companies like Dropbox, and advised pre-IPO tech companies and public tech companies alike, including Workday (the former) and Netflix, Zynga and Nvidia (the latter).
SaaS Fundraising and Growth – Sarah Guo
Sarah Guo, Partner at Greylock is an early stage investor in enterprise software, with over half a dozen investments made across cyber security, AI, HR and health. She’ll give a rundown on why strong storytelling, a focus on solving a single problem well, and a thesis on defensibility are all essential in a pitch, and why making seed and series A investments often comes down to betting on the founding team.
Ali Partovi runs Neo, a mentorship community and VC fund that brings together tech veterans with diverse startup leaders. Partovi has backed the likes of Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook and Uber, and also founded Code.org. Partovi also has experience as an entrepreneur, selling his first startup LinkExchange all the way back in 1998.
Hiring Your First 5 Engineers – Ali Partovi
The first few employees determine a startup’s trajectory. Learn the dos and don’ts of hiring your early engineers.
Caryn Marooney is a partner at Coatue Management, sitting on the boards of ZenDesk and Elastic, with an advisory role at Airtable. Before Coatue, Caryn oversaw communications for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus for eight years. Marooney is also a cofounder of the OutCast Agency, where she worked with companies across a wide spectrum of industries and sizes, including Salesforce, Amazon, Netflix and VMWare.
Why Should Anyone Care? (Making Your Brand Stand Out) – Caryn Marooney
Startups often struggle to create a narrative that stands out. As a General Partner at Coatue, former head of Comms at Facebook, and co-founder of the OutCast Agency, Caryn Marooney has seen it all. Come learn the brand and messaging framework that can help your company stand out (while staying true to yourself.)
There will be about 50+ breakout sessions at the show, and attendees will have an opportunity to attend at least seven. The sessions will cover all the core topics confronting early-stage founders — up through Series A — as they build a company, from raising capital to building a team to growth. Each breakout session will be led by notables in the startup world on par with the folks we’ve announced today.
Don’t worry about missing a breakout session, because transcripts from each will be available to show attendees. And most of the folks leading the breakout sessions have agreed to hang at the show for at least half the day and participate in CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s great app to connect founders and investors based on shared interests.
Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Buy your ticket today and you can sign up for the breakouts we are announcing today. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is getting ready to begin its human spaceflight program, which aims to carry its first astronauts starting in 2022. In advance of that milestone, however, the agency will be launching its ‘Gaganyaan’ crewed orbital spacecraft later this year if all goes to plan – and while it won’t carry any human passengers, it will have one robotic crew member on board.
‘Vyommitra’ (via Time of India) is the name ISRO has given to its “half-humanoid” robotic astronaut, which will be on board the Gaganyaan when it takes its first flight in December. The robot has a range of functions and features, including being able to operate switch panels to control the capsule, and it can operate as a “companion,” with the ability to “converse with the astronauts, recognize them and respond to their queries,” as the robot put it in its own words at an unveiling this week.
Vyommitra is bilingual, and its semi-anthropomorphic nature will mean it can provide valuable data from this first uncrewed flight about how Gaganyaan would perform were a person actually strapped in and at the controls. The robot can also apparently perform “all” crew functions, including controlling environmental and life support systems, and it’s designed to have an expressive face and lip-synch capabilities for relaying info via voice, including messages from ground control.
This isn’t the first robot with human-like design or capabilities to make its way to space: Russia’s Skybot has made its way to the ISS, and NASA is testing spheroid robots called ‘Astrobee’ that are designed to support astronauts and act as assistants. Each of these favors a different approach, however, and Vyommitra is an interesting take because of the clear effort put in to have it resemble a human in form as well as function.
Brooke Hammerling, the strategic communications veteran that brought us BrewPR, announced her new project today.
Dubbed The New New Thing, Hammerling’s new communications advisory wants to help startups bring more authenticity to brand messaging and comms through high-level partnerships with CEOs, founders, and executive leadership teams.
There are a few critical pieces to The New New Thing:
First, Hammerling will not focus on the usual six-month press release strategy that drives communications at most tech startups. The New New Thing isn’t focused as much on an individual product or funding round announcement as much as the high-level strategy of storytelling across the entire brand, including the company and the founder. In fact, the only pre-launch clients Hammerling will be taking on must be female-led and mission driven.
Second, she’ll be working directly with startup leadership teams to craft those narratives paying special attention to the stories in between the stories.
And finally, The New New Thing will have a huge focus on authenticity as a driver of relationships between its clients and the media.
One catalyst for the new project, according to Hammerling, was the evolution of the comms landscape as a whole. Not only is the media’s bullshit detector hyper sensitive, but so is the end-reader. It’s no longer enough to send out the same robotic press release announcing funding.
“I’m bored of seeing the same picture of two male founders announcing their funding for some fintech product that’s going to change the world,” said Hammerling. “There needs to be a fostering of the relationships between CEOs and the people telling their story. Being authentic is really hard for larger organizations, or really any organization. And now, in 2020, there is no option but to be.”
Hammerling explained that getting into the weeds with founders and tackling a storytelling challenge is what she loves doing most. She admits that managing a large team and dealing with the nitty gritty of comms (writing up press releases, pitching speakers for tech conferences, etc.) aren’t her strong suits.
As you might imagine, the launch of The New New Thing means that Hammerling has officially left Brew PR, the firm she founded and sold to Freuds for $15 million.
The New New Thing is part of a newly expanded collective of service providers called Plan A, led by Co-CEOs MT Carney and Andrew Essex. Plan A combines expert service providers from the fields of communications, branding, advertising, creative, and social, among others.
Hammerling will be focusing on early- and growth-stage startups in the tech industry, with a current client list that includes Lemonade, LiveNation, Framebridge, Splice, and Eko.
One example of how The New New Thing works is made clear with Splice. The company is represented by a PR firm that manages the day-to-day news cycle and announcement schedule, while Hammerling works directly with founder and CEO Steve Martocci on the overall narrative that runs through all of that.
When asked about the greatest challenge moving forward, Hammerling’s answer offered a taste of the authenticity and relatability she’s trying to bring out of her clients.
“Can I do this? Do I have the right instincts and guidance for my clients?” said Hammerling. “I think I do and I’ve been successful at that, but how do I maintain that and communicate that to others?”
Match Group, the dating app giant and parent company to Match, Tinder, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and several other dating apps, announced this morning it has invested in and partnered with connected safety platform Noonlight to roll out a series of new safety features to its suite of dating apps. The tools include those for emergency assistance, location tracking, photo verification, and an updated in-app Safety Center.
The Noonlight partnership follows an investigative report by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations from December 2019, which revealed how Match Group allowed known sexual predators to use its apps. The report also noted that Match Group didn’t have a uniform policy of running background checks on its dating app users, putting the responsibility on users to keep themselves safe.
The company explained at the time that it didn’t screen users of its free dating apps because it didn’t collect enough personal information to do so. But the results of that strategic decision meant that users of Tinder, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and Match Group’s other free dating app platforms could encounter sexual predators — including registered sexual offenders, it admitted.
Today, Match Group says it has invested in Noonlight with the intention of rolling out new safety features to its apps, starting with Tinder on January 28, 2020. Tinder, now Match Group’s leading dating app and biggest moneymaker, has been downloaded over 340 million times and has nearly 5.7 million paying subscribers. It was also the top-grossing non-game app of 2019.
The company didn’t disclose the size of its Noonlight investment, but did say it was joining Noonlight’s Board of Directors. Noonlight, which has been operating for five years, today partners with Uber, Lyft, Alexa, Google Home, Fitbit, Canary, SmartThings and others, according to its website. It has handled over 100,000 emergencies to date and runs 3 monitoring centers.
One key addition to Tinder, powered by Noonlight, will allow U.S. users to share details about upcoming dates via Noonlight’s Timeline technology. Tinder users will be able to share who they are meeting, where and when by adding the date to their timeline.
Beyond being a way to combat the reporting about dating app dangers, Match’s interest in this particular safety feature may also have been inspired by its new competition from Facebook. Last fall, the social network launched its Facebook Dating platform in the U.S., which allows daters share their live location with a trusted friend via Messenger.
Another new feature in Tinder will allow users to easily and discreetly trigger emergency services via the Noonlight app, if they’re feeling uneasy or in need of assistance. This is something that ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft also offer.
Similar to other buttons that connect users to emergency responders at 911, Noonlight’s own dispatchers will first reach out to the user, then alert emergency responders on their behalf if needed. They’ll also be able to provide emergency dispatchers with information from the Tinder user’s timeline, like their location.
Other updates to Tinder include a new Photo Verification feature for verifying a match’s authenticity; a harassment detection prompt (“Does This Bother You?”), powered by machine learning; and a revamped, in-app Tinder Safety Center.
The photo verification feature will allow members to self-authenticate through real-time selfies which are compared to their existing profile photos using a combination of human assistance and A.I. technology. Verified photos will get a blue checkmark to signal they’ve been verified. This feature is now in testing in select markets and will become more widely available in 2020.
Meanwhile, the “Does This Bother You?” prompt will appear when an offensive message has been sent. When a Tinder member responds “Yes,” they will have the option to report the person for their behavior. The technology will also be used to power a new feature called “Undo,” that will ask users if they want to take back a message that contains offensive language before it’s sent.
The new Tinder Safety Center, developed in collaboration with the Match Group Advisory Council, has also been updated to be more comprehensive, informing users of new tools and resources. This is launching first in the U.S., U.K., France and Germany, before rolling out to additional markets in 2020. In the future, the Safety Center will also become personalized to the app’s user.
This set of features will also roll out to Match Group’s other dating apps in the months ahead, with Match the next to arrive after Tinder. Match is expected to launch its own new Safety Center, photo verification and a new Date Check-In feature to alert friends and family of their date plans, sometime in 2020. Other Match Group brands will follow.
“A safe and positive dating experience is crucial to our business,” said Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg, in a statement about the deal. “We’ve found cutting-edge technology in Noonlight that can deliver real-time emergency services – which doesn’t exist on any other dating product – so that we can empower singles with tools to keep them safer and give them more confidence. Integrating this kind of technology, in addition to the other safety standards that Match Group is implementing across our brands, is a necessary step in dating innovation,” she said.
“We’re proud to partner with Match Group and start our integration with Tinder to provide an enhanced level of protection and comfort throughout the dating experience,” added Noonlight Co-Founder Nick Droege. “Meeting a new person can be an anxiety-inducing event for a myriad of reasons. In working closely with Match Group brands, our goal is to make sure safety isn’t one of those reasons.”
This next year will be one of the most important since Boston Dynamics was founded back in 1992. After changing hands from Google to Softbank, the robot maker is getting more aggressive about commercializing products, bringing Spot to market, while Handle waits in the wings.
The news includes a new CEO, its first since founding. This week, Boston Dynamics is also making Spot’s SDK available to the public via Github. That will go live tomorrow. It’s a pretty big step for the company and its plans to grow its first commercially-available robot into a platform — something it’s talked up for a while now.
VP Michael Perry offered up the following comment to TechCrunch,
The SDK enables a broad range of developers and non-traditional roboticists to communicate with the robot and develop custom applications that enable Spot to do useful tasks across a wide range of industries. Developers will still need to become part of the Early Adopter Program to lease the robot to execute their code, but all interested parties will now be able to view the SDK and existing early adopters can open source their own code. With the SDK, developers in the Early Adopter Program can create custom methods of controlling the robot, integrate sensor information into data analysis tools, and design custom payloads which expand the capabilities of the base robot platform.
One of our customers Holobuilder is using the SDK to integrate Spot into their existing app. With what they’ve developed, workers can use a phone to teach Spot to document a path around a construction site and then Spot will autonomously navigate that path and take 360 images that go right into their processing software. Other customers are exploring VR control, automated registration of laser-scanning, connecting Spot’s data to cloud work order services, using Edge computing to help Spot semantically understand its environment, and much more.
Boston Dynamics has already showcased a number of potential applications for the robot on stage at TechCrunch’s annual Robotics+AI conference. Early uses include security and construction site monitoring. Spot’s ability to walk up and down stairs and open doors make it uniquely qualified among these sorts of robots. Another video, which featured Spot being used in state police drills, meanwhile, raised some concern with the ACLU.
Of that, now-former CEO Marc Raibert told me, “There is a part of a humanity that loves to worry about robots taking over or being weaponized or something like that. We definitely want to counter that narrative. We’re not interested in weaponized robots. We’ve also gotten positive feedback from the fact that the police were using our robot to look at suspicious packages. There’s a real safety issue there and that it generated some additional interest with us as well. I mean, this isn’t really anything different than any new technology. There’s a wide variety of things it can be used for. We’re working to be responsible and trying find the good things that it could be used for.”
The truth is that the nature of Boston Dynamics’ robots have — and probably always will — raise suspicions among an audience trained to be suspicious of large robots like Spot through generations of sci-fi stories. Certainly having it in the field with officers only contributed to such suspicions for many. Also true is that once Spot and the SDK are out in the world, BD will only have so much control over how such products are used in the world.
One well-known early adopter is Adam Savage. The former Mythbuster got his hands on a Spot over the holidays and produced a video wherein he interacts with the robot like a kid on Christmas day. Understandable. I’ve controlled Spot myself and it’s pretty awesome once you get over the fleeting concern that you’re going to break a machine the size of a large dog that costs as much as a car.
According to his video, Savage will be working with Spot for the next year.
After more than a quarter-century spent developing some of the industry’s most iconic and advanced machines, Boston Dynamics is a company in the midst of a profound transformation. This week, the Waltham, Mass.-based organization issued a number of key announcements, all focused on the same fundamental shift, as it readies the release of two commercial robots: Spot and Handle.
The top of the company has recently seen its first major shakeup since its founding in the early 1990s. Founder Marc Raibert has stepped aside from his role as CEO, a transition that occurred quietly back in October. Longtime employee Rob Playter will be stepping into the position, having most recently served as Boston Dynamics’ COO.
Playter joined the company early on, after penning a PhD thesis on “Passive Dynamics in the Control of Gymnastic Maneuvers.” A former NCAA gymnast himself, Playter’s work clearly has a bit of a spiritual successor in the complex maneuvers of the bipedal Atlas — arguably the most advanced of Boston Dynamics’ machines.
The move comes during an important crossroads for the company, and Raibert, its longtime leader, public face and chief evangelist. “I just had my 70th birthday,” he tells TechCrunch. “So I’ve been thinking about this for about a year that we needed a succession plan and I had been working on it during that time, talking to SoftBank, making sure they were cool with the idea, and making sure I was cool with the idea.”
Playter has hung with the company through numerous changes, serving as a Robotics Director at Google after the software giant purchased Boston Dynamics back in 2013. When the company switched hands to SoftBank, he took on the COO role.
“I’ve been the organizational guy for a long time,” he says. “I basically hired most of the people in the company and growing us aggressively is a big challenge right now. Over the past year, bringing on new people into our executive leadership team has been a primary goal, as well as feeding an insatiable appetite for our technical teams to grow in order to meet the goals we’ve set for them. Which includes not only advancing the state of the art of robotics but actually making some of our robots into products and delivering them and supporting them and changing the organization to do so.”
Focus for many at Boston Dynamics has shifted in recent years. At our Robotics event a few years back, Raibert announced plans to offer a commercial version of its Spot robot, aimed at performing security, construction site inspections and a variety of different tasks. Spot officially went on sale in September, and the company tells TechCrunch that it’s ramping up production with hopes of hitting 1,000 a year.
Boston Dynamics has long insisted that the production version of Spot will be a platform, allowing end users to tailor it to a variety of different tasks. That dream takes a step closer to reality with the release of the Spot software development kit on GitHub this week.
“The SDK enables a broad range of developers and non-traditional roboticists to communicate with the robot and develop custom applications that enable Spot to do useful tasks across a wide range of industries,” VP Michael Perry said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “With the SDK, developers in the Early Adopter Program can create custom methods of controlling the robot, integrate sensor information into data analysis tools, and design custom payloads which expand the capabilities of the base robot platform.”
The company has already announced a few early partners. Perry again, “One of our customers, HoloBuilder, is using the SDK to integrate Spot into their existing app. With what they’ve developed, workers can use a phone to teach Spot to document a path around a construction site and then Spot will autonomously navigate that path and take 360 images that go right into their processing software. Other customers are exploring VR control, automated registration of laser-scanning, connecting Spot’s data to cloud work order services, using Edge computing to help Spot semantically understand its environment, and much more.”
In keeping with the company’s longstanding viral approach to marketing, buster of myths Adam Savage is among the early developers. Savage will participate in development with the robot for the next year, a milestone he celebrated with the release of a Tested video that understandably mostly entails him controlling the robot like a kid with a new RC car on Christmas morning.
Ultimately, Boston Dynamics will only have so much input into what happens to these robots once they’re out in the world. There are currently nearly 100 robots out in the world, and production is ramping up to around 83 units a month. A video that debuted onstage at our robotics event last year recently caused a dust up with the ACLU after showcasing state police using Spot in hostage rescue field training.
“There is a part of a humanity that loves to worry about robots taking over or being weaponized or something like that,” says Raibert. “We definitely want to counter that narrative. We’re not interested in weaponized robots. We’ve also gotten positive feedback from the fact that the police were using our robot to look at suspicious packages. There’s a real safety issue there and that it generated some additional interest with us as well. I mean, this isn’t really anything different than any new technology. There’s a wide variety of things it can be used for. We’re working to be responsible and trying find the good things that it could be used for.”
SoftBank’s 2018 acquisition marked a major turning point for the company, of course. Though Boston Dynamics insists that the investor firm has done little in the way of pressing it into commercialization. Those plans, it explains, were already in the works.
“I think the remarkable thing about SoftBank is they’re absolutely interested in the products and the moneymaking potential of what we’re doing while having a very serious interest in support for the longer range stuff we’re doing,” says Raibert, who is staying on at BD/SoftBank in a chairman role. “And over the 18 months that we’ve been part of SoftBank, I’ve repeatedly tested that commitment. Talking to the top leadership at SoftBank and they have repeatedly endorsed that. They’re very enthusiastic also for us to productize and make robots and make robot products.”
The company will maintain its commitment to developing research robots, a role Raibert will continue to help facilitate. That list includes products like Atlas and, no doubt, some still unannounced products. Others, including Handle, will be developed with an eye toward production. In April, the company acquired Bay Area-based 3D vision startup Kinema Systems to bring imaging to the pick-and-place robot.
Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it plans to offer the robot up for commercial use in the next two years.
“We’ve been doing proof of concept tests with Handle and some early customers to validate our expectations on what the useful tasks are in a warehouse for moving boxes around,” says Playter. “We have a small set of those customers and we’re getting feedback from them. So far they’re really excited about this capability. It’s unique. As far as I know, we’re the only case-picking warehouse robot in development right now. And this is just a ubiquitous job, whether you’re unloading trucks or loading trucks or building pallets or de-palletizing. There’s thousands of warehouses just full of boxes.”
Fintech startup Revolut lets you earn interests on your savings thanks to a new feature called savings vaults. That feature is currently only available to users living in the U.K. and paying taxes in the U.K.
The company has partnered with Flagstone for that feature. For now, the feature is limited to Revolut customers with a Metal subscription (£12.99 per month or £116 per year). But Revolut says that it will be available to Revolut Premium and Standard customers in the near future.
Savings vaults work pretty much like normal vaults. You can create sub-accounts in the Revolut app to put some money aside. And Revolut offers you multiple ways to save. You can round up all your card transactions to the nearest pound and save spare change in a vault.
You can also set up weekly or monthly transactions from your main account to a vault. And of course, you can transfer money manually whenever you want.
Metal customers in the U.K. can now turn normal vaults into savings vaults. The only difference is that you’re going to earn interests — Revolut pays those interests daily. You can take money from your savings vault whenever you want.
Revolut promises 1.35% AER interest rate up to a certain limit. If you put a huge sum of money in your savings vault, you’ll get a lower interest rate above the limit. Your money is protected by the FSCS up to a value of £85,000 for eligible customers.
The food industry may be the biggest industry in the world, but it’s also one of the least efficient. BCG says 1.6 billions tons of food, worth $1.2 trillion, is wasted in food every year and those numbers are only expected to go up.
A number of players have stepped up to try and solve their own portion of the problem, and one such solution is Crisp. The company, which received $14 million in Series A funding last year led by FirstMark Capital, is today going live with its platform (which has been in beta).
Crisp aims to solve the global food waste problem via demand forecasts. Founder and CEO Are Traasdahl, a serial founder, believes that a lack of communication and data flow between the many players in the supply chain is a main cause for all this waste, a great deal of which happens long before the food reaches the consumer.
Right now, forecasting demand is no where close to a perfect science for many of these players. From food brands to distributors to grocery stores, the problem is usually solved by looking at a spreadsheet from last year’s sales for hours to try to determine the signals that played into this or that SKU’s sales performance.
And then there was Crisp.
Integrated with almost any ERP software a company might have, Crisp ingests historical data from these food brands and combines that data with signals around other demand drivers, such as seasonality, holidays, price sensitivity and other pricing information, marketing campaigns, competitive landscape, weather that might affect the sale or shipment of certain produce or other ingredients.
Using these data points, and historical sales data, Crisp believes it can give a much more accurate picture of demand over the next day, week, month or year.
But Crisp isn’t just for food brands, such as Nounós Creamery, a Crisp customer that says its reduced scrapped inventory by 80 percent since switching to the platform. Crisp serves almost every player in the food supply chain, from retailers to distributors to brands to brokers.
And the more customers it gets, the better it is at predicting demand on a very specific level. For instance, the demand forecasting Crisp offers for a particular grocery store, based on external data, will obviously get much better once that grocery store is a customer on the platform.
Traasdahl was initially concerned that his customers would be reluctant to hand over this type of sensitive sales data, and also that players within the industry might be anxious to hand over such data to a platform that’s aggregating everyone’s data, including their competitors. Turns out, the food industry has more of a “better together” mentality.
“Other industries are not as dependent on each other,” said Traasdahl. “If I am a creamery and need to buy blueberries for my yogurt, I may have five different vendors for those blueberries. And if they don’t get delivered on the right day, Costco will yell at me for being late with the yogurt. Everyone in the supply chain is somewhat dependent on each other.”
For that reason, it’s been easier to attract clients to the platform than expected. The prospect of a collaborative demand forecast platform, that’s pulling signals from across the entire industry, is going to be more accurate than siloed demand forecasts produced by a single vendor or brand.
During the beta program, which launched in October, Crisp brought on more than 30 companies to the platform, including Gilbert’s Craft Sausages, SunFed Perfect Produce, Nounós Creamery, Hofseth, REMA and Superior Farms.
Lighter Capital announced today that it has secured access to $100 million to lend to growing startups. The firm is best-known for its work with revenue-based financing, in which expanding companies repay borrowed funds out of future receipts. Lighter has also expanded into other, equity-free capital options for startups in the last year.
Lighter is most easily understood as part of the group of firms that provide what TechCrunch has described as “alt-VC,” forms of capital access that do not fit into the traditional venture capital model of selling shares (equity) for cash. With the VC method, venture capitalists raise funds from wealthy capital pools, disbursing the funds in pieces to various private companies for an ownership stake. Those growth-focused firms then try to scale rapidly. Those that succeed become valuable, rendering the venture investment lucrative, and, hopefully, the venture capital fund profitable.
In alt-VC, various forms of debt are put to work, tailored to companies that are growth-oriented, often existing outside of the realm of what traditional banks would consider lending-ready. Startups that are working in software-as-a-service (SaaS) or e-commerce are often considered ideal candidates for alt-VC in its various forms, as returns that can be generated with marginally deployed capital are calculable with reasonable certainty in those fields.
Lighter’s new $100 million access to capital (we’ll call it a fund, for lack of a better term) will allow it to accelerate its business, the firm’s CEO Thor Culverhouse told TechCrunch. Lighter has a number of “ideas about how we’re going to grow [its] business,” Culverhouse said in a phone call, and having more “access to capital is a very important element to that growth strategy.”
According to a release, Lighter has “invested” over $200 million in more than 350 companies to date; however, even though Lighter’s loans return capital and could allow for the recycling of funds, the $100 million in new funds represents a step up in capacity for the company. (Lighter is working with HCG for its capital access.)
The new funds will be disbursed in more ways than one. In June of 2019, Lighter added two more traditional forms of debt to its list of offerings: term loans and lines of credit. Culverhouse discussed the additional products with TechCrunch, connecting term loans to revenue-based financing options:
We did two things. When you think about the [revenue-based financing] function we have today, it is a term loan, it’s just that the repayment is based on whatever your monthly recurring revenue is. What we noticed is some people liked that flexibility. We [also] noticed some of our customers said, actually, I’d rather have a very predictable payment stream. And so we came out with another term loan that is like any other term loan, it’s just as a predictable payment stream throughout the year. So they’re very, very much alike. And then we came out with a line of credit, which is more traditionally used for working capital. So it’s a 12-month revolver, if you will.
Here Lighter capital describes a link between revenue-based financing and regular loans that is worth chewing on. Revenue-based financing is merely a loan, tuned modestly for the SaaS world. That’s it. It allows for recurring-revenue focused companies to vary their payments over time, but both a term loan to a growth-oriented startup and a revenue-based financing event are pretty similar at their core.
Which, naturally, makes Lighter’s move into more traditional loans pretty reasonable. With $100 million to put to work, Lighter is going to move some cash. That, in conjunction with the growing set of firms offering similar services, should help a lot of folks fund their companies’ growth without selling shares.
NASA has finalized the payloads for its first cargo deliveries scheduled to be carried by commercial lunar landers, vehicles created by companies the agency selected to take part in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In total, there are 16 different payloads, which consist of a number of difference science experiments and technology experiments, that will be carried by landers built by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both of these landers are scheduled to launch next year, carrying their cargo to the Moon’s surface and helping prepare the way for NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine is set to launch aboard a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will make its own lunar trip aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both landers will carry two of the payloads on the list, including a Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) that is basically a mirror-based precision location device for situating the lander itself; and a Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) – a laser-based sensor that can provide precision navigation during descent and touchdown. Both of these payloads are being developed by NASA to ensure safe, controlled and specifically targeted landing of spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, and their use here be crucial in building robust lunar landing systems to support Artemis through the return of human astronauts to the Moon and beyond.
Besides those two payloads, everything else on either lander is unique to one vehicle or the other. Astrobotic is carrying more, but its Peregrine lander can hold more cargo – its payload capacity tops out at around 585 lbs, whereas the Nova-C can carry a maximum of 220 lbs. The full list of what each lander will have on board is available below, as detailed by NASA.
Overall, NASA has 14 total contractors that could potentially provide lunar payload delivery services through its CLPS program. That basically amounts to a list of approved vendors, who then bid on whatever contracts the agency has available for this specific need. Other companies on the CLPS list include Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and more. Starting with these two landers next year, NASA hopes to fly around two missions per year each year through the CLPS program.
Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL): SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing, and evaluate contaminants injected into the regolith by the landing itself. It will give scientists insight into the how a spacecraft landing might affect the composition of samples collected nearby. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS): PILS is a technology demonstration that is based on an International Space Station test platform for validating solar cells that convert light to electricity. It will demonstrate advanced photovoltaic high-voltage use for lunar surface solar arrays useful for longer mission durations. It is being developed at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS): The LETS radiation sensor will collect information about the lunar radiation environment and relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft’s inaugural uncrewed flight in 2014. It is being developed at NASA Johnson.
Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS): NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane – all resources that could potentially be mined from the Moon — while also mapping surface temperature and changes at the landing site. It is being developed at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo): MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles. It can be installed to either measure the lunar exosphere or the spacecraft outgassing and contamination. Data gathered from MSolo will help determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources. It is being developed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere after descent and landing and throughout the lunar day to understand the release and movement of volatiles. It was previously developed for ESA’s (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission and is being modified for this mission by NASA Goddard and ESA.
Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS): NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface by measuring how much hydrogen-bearing materials are at the landing site as well as determine the overall bulk composition of the regolith there. NSS is being developed at NASA Ames.
Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS): NMLS will use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface, and also observe and detect the presence of water or other rare elements. The data will help inform scientists’ understanding of the radiation environment on the Moon. It’s based on an instrument that currently operates on the space station and is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG): MAG will characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface. NASA Goddard is the lead development center for the MAG payload.
Intuitive Machines Payloads
Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aide future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. In addition, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
Twitter is pouring a little more fuel on the messaging fire. It’s added a heart+ button to its direct messaging interface which lets users shortcut to a pop-up menu of seven emoji reactions so they can quickly express how they’re feeling about a missive.
Emoji reactions can be added to text or media messages — either via the heart+ button or by double tapping on the missive to bring up the reaction menu.
The social network teased the incoming tweak a few hours earlier in a knowing tweet about sliding into DMs that actually revealed the full line-up of reaction emojis — which, in text form, can be described as: Crying lol; shocked/surprised; actually sad; heart; flame; thumb-up and thumb-down.
So instead of a smilie face Twitter users are being nudged towards an on-brand-message Twitter heart, in keeping with its long-standing pick for a pleasure symbol.
If it’s there to stand in for appreciation a clap emoji could surely have done the trick. Whereas flame wars aren’t typically associated with constructive speech. But — hey — the flame icon does catch the eye…
Say more with new emoji reactions for Direct Messages!
To add a reaction, click the icon that appears when you hover over the message on web or double tap the message on mobile and select an emoji from the pop-up.
Twitter is late to this extroverted party. Rival messaging platforms such as Apple iMessage and Facebook Messenger have had emoji reactions for years, whereas Twitter kept things relatively minimal and chat-focused in its DM funnel — to its credit (at least if you value the service as, first and foremost, an information network).
So some might say Twitter jumping on the emoji reaction bandwagon now is further evidence it’s trying to move closer to rivals like Facebook as a product. (See also: Last year’s major desktop product redesign — which has been compared in look and feel to the Facebook News Feed.)
But if so this change at least is a relatively incremental one.
Twitter users have also, of course, always been able to react to an incoming DM by sending whatever emoji or combination of emoji they prefer as a standard reply. Though now lazy thumbs have shortcut to emote — so long as they’re down with Twitter’s choice of icons.
In an FAQ about the new DM emoji reactions, Twitter notes that emoting will by default send a notification to all conversation participants “any time a new reaction is added to a message”.
So, yes, there’s attention-spamming potential aplenty here…
Adjust your notification and DM settings accordingly.
You can only choose one reaction per missive. Each symbol is displayed under the message/media with a count next to it — to allow for group tallies to be totted up.
While clicking on another symbol will swap out the earlier one — generating, er, more notification spam. And really annoying people could keep flipping their reaction to generate a real-time emoji streaming game of notification hell (hi growth hackers!) with folks they’ve been DMing with on Twitter. So that’s another good reason to lock down your settings.
Twitter users still running older version of its apps which don’t support message reactions will see a standard text emoji message per reaction sent — which kinda confusingly makes it look like the reaction sender has actually been liking/flaming their own stuff. All the more reason to not be spammy about emoji.
Wrist-worn fitness trackers tend to do a fine job when exercising outdoors. For those glued to gym equipment, however, things get trickier. GPS can’t really do its job detecting distances, and machines like the elliptic tend to be even trickier.
Recent generations of the Apple Watch and WatchOS have worked to bridge the gap, with more sophisticated workout detection and the addition of GymKit in 2017. With the latter, Apple started working with equipment manufactures to ditch the 30-pin iPod machines for newer models that worked with Apple’s detection.
This week, the company takes a step further by partnering with the gyms themselves. The new Apple Watch Connected program will launch with four partners. It’s a pretty diverse quartet, ranging from old-school to boutique, including Orangetheory, Basecamp, YMCA and Crunch Fitness. And like GymKit before it, there’s a pretty good chance it will take a while to make it to your neighborhood workout facility, unless you live in a handful of metro areas, including Manhattan and the Twin Cities.
The program is designed to further bridge the gap between life inside and outside of the gym. It’s basically a four-legged stool, including GymKit-enabled equipment, an Apple Watch and iOS app (developed with Apple), accepting Apple Pay and, perhaps, most interesting of the bunch, “incentive programs.”
How each chain opts to participate is up to the specifics of their own business model. Most notably, GymKit machines may be optional, as they are in the case of Orangetheory, whose workouts are built around machine-shifting interval training. As such, the GymKit logging ultimately makes less sense.
Getting back to the incentive program, that, too, will vary a bit, depending on the nature of the deal with the gym. Take Orangetheory. Here you can can basically use activity to earn stuff like Nike and Apple gift cards. In the case of Crunch, you can earn deductions from your fees, up to $300 over two years. At YMCA, earnings go to “community initiatives,” while Basecamp’s go back to paying off the value of the Apple Watch Series 5 GPS the gym provides.
All in all, seems like a win-win for all parties. Apple gets more active engagement in a small but growing concentrated number of gyms, and gyms get to list an Apple partnership among their perks. GymKit partners, meanwhile, are set to sell a bunch more machines. There are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 GymKit machines currently out there, a list that doesn’t include recently announced partners like Woodway, Octane and TRUE Fitness.
When the Department of Defense finally made a decision in October on the decade long, $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, it seemed that Microsoft had won. But nothing has been simple about this deal from the earliest days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that last night Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court decides on its protest of the DoD’s decision.
The company announced on November 22nd that it had filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims protesting the DoD’s decision to select Microsoft. Last night’s motion is an extension of that move to put the project on hold until the court decides on the merits of the case.
“It is common practice to stay contract performance while a protest is pending and it’s important that the numerous evaluation errors and blatant political interference that impacted the JEDI award decision be reviewed. AWS is absolutely committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts and to an expeditious legal process that resolves this matter as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson said in a statement last night.
As we previously reported, the statement echoes sentiments AWS CEO Andy Jassy made at a press event during AWS re:Invent in December:
“I would say is that it’s fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly,” he said. He added, “I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal.”
This is just the latest turn in a contract procurement process for the ages. It will now be up to the court to decide if the project should stop or not, and beyond that if the decision process was carried out fairly.
TikTok, the fast-growing user-generated video app from China’s Bytedance, has been building a new music streaming service to compete against the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. And today it’s announcing a deal that helps pave the way for a global launch of it. It has inked a licensing deal with Merlin, the global agency that represents tens of thousands of independent music labels and hundreds of thousands of artists, for music from those labels to be used legally on the TikTok platform anywhere that the app is available.
The news is significant because this is the first major music licensing deal signed by TikTok as part of its wider efforts in the music industry. That includes both its mainstay short-form videos — where music plays a key role (the app, before it was acquired by Bytedance, was even called ‘Musically’) — as well as new music streaming services.
Specifically, a source close to TikTok has confirmed to TechCrunch that this Merlin deal covers its upcoming music subscription service Resso.
“Independent artists and labels are such a crucial part of music creation and consumption on TikTok,” said Ole Obermann, global head of music for Bytedance and TikTok, in a statement. “We’re excited to partner with Merlin to bring their family of labels to the TikTok community. The breadth and diversity of the catalogue presents our users with an even larger canvas from which to create, while giving independent artists the opportunity to connect with TikTok’s diverse community.”
Music is a fundamental part of the TikTok experience, and this deal covers everything that’s there today — videos created by TikTok users, sponsored videos created for marketing — as well as whatever is coming up around the corner.
One reason why monetising can’t happen is because of the lack of deals at the other end of the chain. As of December, TikTok had yet to sign any deals with the “majors” — Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music — and from what we understand Merlin is the first big deal of its kind of the company. However, there are signs that more such agreements may be coming soon. Obermann, who was hired away from Warner Music last year, in turn hired another former Warner colleague, Tracy Gardner, who now leads label licensing for the company. And just yesterday, the company opened an office in Los Angeles, the heart of the music industry.
The move to bring more licensed music usage to TikTok (and other Bytedance apps) is significant for other reasons, too.
On one hand, it’s about labels trying to evolve with the times, collecting revenues wherever audiences happen to be, whether that is in short-form user-generated video, in advertising that runs alongside that, or in a new music service capitalising on the new vogue for streamed media.
“This partnership with TikTok is very significant for us,” said Jeremy Sirota, CEO, Merlin, in a statement. “We are seeing a new generation of music services and a new era of music-related consumption, much of it driven by the global demand for independent music. Merlin members are increasingly using TikTok for their marketing campaigns, and today’s partnership ensures that they and their artists can also build new and incremental revenue streams.”
One the other hand, the deal is significant also because it underscores how TikTok is increasingly working to legitimise itself in the wider tech and media marketplace.
While Bytedance’s acquisition of TikTok continues to face regulatory scrutiny, the company has been working on ways to assert its independence from China’s control, which has included many clarifications about where its content is hosted (not China! it says) and even a search for a new US-based CEO. On another front, more licensing deals should also help the company with the many legal and PR issues that have been hanging over it concerning how it pays out when music is used in its popular app.
Did you notice a recent change to how Google search results are displayed on the desktop?
I noticed something last week — thinking there must be some kind of weird bug messing up the browser’s page rendering because suddenly everything looked similar: A homogenous sea of blue text links and favicons that, on such a large expanse of screen, come across as one block of background noise.
I found myself clicking on an ad link — rather than the organic search result I was looking for.
Here, for example, are the top two results for a Google search for flight search engine ‘Kayak’ — with just a tiny ‘Ad’ label to distinguish the click that will make Google money from the click that won’t…
Turns out this is Google’s latest dark pattern: The adtech giant has made organic results even more closely resemble the ads it serves against keyword searches, as writer Craig Mod was quick to highlight in a tweet this week.
There's something strange about the recent design change to google search results, favicons and extra header text: they all look like ads, which is perhaps the point? pic.twitter.com/TlIvegRct1
Last week, in its own breezy tweet, Google sought to spin the shift as quite the opposite — saying the “new look” presents “site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded ‘Ad’ label for ads”:
Last year, our search results on mobile gained a new look. That’s now rolling out to desktop results this week, presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded “Ad” label for ads. Here’s a mockup: pic.twitter.com/aM9UAbSKtv
But Google’s explainer is almost a dark pattern in itself.
If you read the text quickly you’d likely come away with the impression that it has made organic search results easier to spot since it’s claiming components of these results now appear more “prominently” in results.
Yet, read it again, and Google is essentially admitting that a parallel emphasis is being placed — one which, when you actually look at the thing, has the effect of flattening the visual distinction between organic search results (which consumers are looking for) and ads (which Google monetizes).
Another eagle-eyed user Twitter, going by the name Luca Masters, chipped into the discussion generated by Mod’s tweet — to point out that the tech giant is “finally coming at this from the other direction”.
‘This’ being deceptive changes to ad labelling; and ‘other direction’ being a reference to how now it’s organic search results being visually tweaked to shrink their difference vs ads.
Google previously laid the groundwork for this latest visual trickery by spending earlier years amending the look of ads to bring them closer in line with the steadfast, cleaner appearance of genuine search results.
Except now it’s fiddling with those too. Hence ‘other direction’.
Masters helpfully quote-tweeted this vintage tweet (from 2016), by journalist Ginny Marvin — which presents a visual history of Google ad labelling in search results that’s aptly titled “color fade”; a reference to the gradual demise of the color-shaded box Google used to apply to clearly distinguish ads in search results.
Now a user of Google’s search engine has — essentially — only a favicon between them and an unintended ad click. Squint or you’ll click it.
This visual trickery may be fractionally less confusing in a small screen mobile environment — where Google debuted the change last year. But on a desktop screen these favicons are truly minuscule. And where to click to get actual information starts to feel like a total lottery.
A lottery that’s being stacked in Google’s favor because confused users are likely to end up clicking more ad links than they otherwise would, meaning it cashes in at the expense of web users’ time and energy.
Back in May, when Google pushed this change on mobile users, it touted the tweaks as a way for sites to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link on a search result page. But it did so while simultaneously erasing a box-out that it had previously displayed around the label ‘Ad’ to make it stand out.
That made it “harder to differentiate ads and search results,” as we wrote then — predicting it will “likely lead to outcry”.
There were certainly complaints. And there will likely be more now — given the visual flattening of the gap between ad clicks and organic links looks even more confusing for users of Google search on desktop. (Albeit, the slow drip of design change updates also works against mass user outcry.)
We reached out to Google to ask for a response to the latest criticism that the new design for search results makes it almost impossible to distinguish between organic results and ads. But the company ignored repeat requests for comment.
Of course it’s true that plenty of UX design changes face backlash, especially early on. Change in the digital realm is rarely instantly popular. It’s usually more ‘slow burn’ acceptance.
But there’s no consumer-friendly logic to this one. (And the slow burn going on here involves the user being cast in the role of the metaphorical frog.)
Instead, Google is just making it harder for web users to click on the page they’re actually looking for — because, from a revenue-generating perspective, it prefers them to click an ad.
It’s the visual equivalent of a supermarket putting a similarly packaged own-brand right next to some fancy branded shampoo on the shelf — in the hopes a rushed shopper will pluck the wrong one. (Real life dark patterns are indeed a thing.)
It’s also a handy illustration of quite how far away from the user Google’s priorities have shifted, and continue to drift.
“When Google introduced ads, they were clearly marked with a label and a brightly tinted box,” said UX specialist Harry Brignull. “This was in stark contrast to all the other search engines at the time, who were trying to blend paid listings in amongst the organic ones, in an effort to drive clicks and revenue. In those days, Google came across as the most honest search engine on the planet.”
Brignull is well qualified to comment on dark patterns — having been calling out deceptive design since 2010 when he founded darkpatterns.org.
“I first learned about Google in the late 1990s. In those days you learned about the web by reading print magazines, which is charmingly quaint to look back on. I picked up a copy of Wired Magazine and there it was – a sidebar talking about a new search engine called ‘Google’,” he recalled. “Google was amazing. In an era of portals, flash banners and link directories, it went in the opposite direction. It didn’t care about the daft games the other search engines were playing. It didn’t even seem to acknowledge they existed. It didn’t even seem to want to be a business. It was a feat of engineering, and it felt like a public utility.
“The original Google homepage was recognised a guiding light of purism in digital design. Search was provided by an unstyled text field and button. There was nothing else on the homepage. Just the logo. Search results were near-instant and they were just a page of links and summaries – perfection with nothing to add or take away. The back-propagation algorithm they introduced had never been used to index the web before, and it instantly left the competition in the dust. It was proof that engineers could disrupt the rules of the web without needing any suit-wearing executives. Strip out all the crap. Do one thing and do it well.”
“As Google’s ambitions changed, the tinted box started to fade. It’s completely gone now,” Brignull added.
The one thing Google very clearly wants to do well now is serve more ads. It’s chosen to do that deceptively, by steadily — and consistently — degrading the user experience. So a far cry from “public utility”.
And that user-friendly Google of old? Yep, also completely gone.
When Dfinity raised $102 million in funding in 2018 at a $2 billion valuation in a round jointly led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain Capital, it was thought of as a step change in the world of blockchain technology. In an area that was synonymous generating a lot of headlines around cryptocurrency speculation, this was a shift in focus, looking instead at the architecture behind Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the rest, and how it could be used for more than just “mining”, distributing and using new financial instruments — with a major, mainstream VC backing the idea, no less.
Dfinity launched with a very lofty goal: to build what it called the “Internet Computer”: a decentralized and non-proprietary network to run the next generation of mega-applications. It dubbed this public network “Cloud 3.0”.
Now, looks like this is Cloud is now about to break.
In Davos this week, Dfinity launched the Bronze edition of its Internet Computer, a limited release that takes the startup one step closer to its full commercial release, expected later this year.
And to prove out the concept of how an application would run on its new network, Dfinity today demonstrated an open social network called LinkedUp.
The start-up has rather cheekily called this “an open version of LinkedIn,” the Microsoft-owned social network for professional. Unlike LikedIn, LinkedUp — which runs on any browser, is not owned or controlled by a corporate entity.
LinkedUp is built on Dfinity’s co-called Internet Computer, its name for the platform it is building to distribute the next generation of software and open internet services.
The software is hosted directly on the internet on a Switzerland-based independent data center, but in the concept of the Internet Computer, it could be hosted at your house or mine: the compute power to run the application — LinkedUp, in this case — is coming not from Amazon AWS, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure, and is instead based on the distributed architecture that Dfinity is building.
Dfinity is open-sourcing LinkedUp for developers to create other types of open internet services on the structure it has built. This ‘open social network for professional profiles’ suggests that, on Difinity’s opensource software, one could create an ‘Open WhatsApp’, ‘Open eBay’, ‘Open Salesforce’, or ‘Open Facebook’.
(Good news, since LinkedIn might not be so happy about a lookalike service with a name and layout that also looks very familiar. “While we can’t comment specifically on any proposed trademark, LinkedIn does monitor and take action as necessary to protect our trademarks,” a spokesperson said.)
“Big tech has hijacked the internet and stifled innovation by owning the proprietary infrastructure and user relationships,” said Dominic Williams, Founder and Chief Scientist at Dfinity in a statement. “As a result, a handful of for-profit companies have created a monopolistic and closed internet. The Internet Computer provides a means to rebuild internet services in open form.”
So perhaps what we should be calling this is not LinkedUp, but more a new sort of “Linux for the cloud”.
Dfinity claims the application was built by “1.5 engineers in three weeks,” thus demonstrating how easy the infrastructure is to use.
The tools include a Canister Software Developer Kit and a simple programming language called Motoko that is optimized for Dfinity’s Internet Computer.
“The Internet Computer is conceived as an alternative to the $3.8 trillion dollar legacy IT stack, and empower the next-generation of developers to build a new breed of tamper-proof enterprise software systems and open internet services. We are democratizing software development,” Williams said. “The Bronze release of the Internet Computer provides developers and enterprises a glimpse into the infinite possibilities of building on the Internet Computer — which also reflects the strength of the Dfinity team we have built so far.”
Dfinity says its “Internet Computer Protocol” allows for a new type of software called autonomous software, which can guarantee permanent APIs that cannot be revoked. When all these open internet services (e.g., open versions of WhatsApp, Facebook, eBay, Salesforce, etc) are combined with other open software and services it creates “mutual network effects” where everyone benefits.
We quizzed Dfinity a little more on all this and asked whether this was an actual launch.
A spokesperson told us: “Since our first major milestone of launching a terminal-based SDK and new programming language called Motoko — by the co-creator of WebAssembly — on 1 November, DFINITY has released 13 new public versions of the SDK, to our second major milestone [at WEF Davos] of demoing a decentralized web app called LinkedUp on the Internet Computer running on an independent data center in Switzerland. Subsequent milestones towards the public launch of the Internet Computer will involve (1) on-boarding a global network of independent data centers, (2) fully tested economic system, and (3) fully tested Network Nervous Systems for configuration and upgrades.”
It also looks like Dfinity will not be raising more money just yet.
But the question is how they plan to woo people to it? “Dfinity has been working with a select group of Fortune 500 companies, strategic consultancies, systems integrators, venture capitalists, and universities,” the company said.
We are not sure that will quite suffice to take out Facebook, LinkedIn and all the other tech giants, but we’re fascinated to see how this plays out.
Language-learning platform Busuu, which has fast expanded to take on traditional giants like Duolingo, says it has acquired the live video tutoring company Verbling for an undisclosed amount, other than calling it a “double-digit million dollar acquisition.”
As a result, Busuu will now use the Verbling platform to expand into the live video tutoring space for its consumer users and corporate clients.
Busuu says it recently surpassed 100 million users globally, makes it one of the world’s fastest-growing EdTech companies. It says it reach cash flow break-even last year, and plans to generate over $40 million in revenues in 2020.
CEO and cofounder Bernhard Niesner said “we also plan to go public in the future.”
Speaking to TechCrunch, he said: “We are operating in the massive $60bn global language learning market, with digital language learning only representing a tiny 10% market share right now. This digital part will grow fast due to wider consumer adoption driven by better learning outcomes, expected to reach $17bn market value in 2027. Getting access to the capital markets would allow us to accelerate our growth, expand into other learning areas and build a truly globally leading, multi-billion dollar, digital learning business.”
The new Verbling-based ‘Busuu live’ will be a combination of their AI-powered learning content, interaction with other learners plus 1-1 live tutoring with professional teachers.
“We are also excited to leverage our 4bn data points from our learners to provide useful information to our new 10,000+ live teachers about their students. So whenever a teacher starts a live lesson, they will have access to relevant information about the progress of their students within Busuu, so they can fully adapt their lessons to the individual needs of their learners.”
Busuu was originally founded in Madrid in 2008 and in 2012 moved to London, but now plans to open an office back in its ‘home town.’
Niesner said: “The London hiring market has become increasingly more competitive over the last couple of years (also due to Brexit, competition from Facebook and Google etc) while the Spanish startup-ecosystem has made tremendous progress.”
Verbling was founded in San Francisco in 2011 by the Swedish co-founders Mikael Bernstein (CEO) and Gustav Rydstedt (CTO) who met while studying at Stanford University. After attending the Y-Combinator program, Verbling raised over $4.4m from Learn Capital, DFJ and Bullpen Capital. The platform has over 10,000 pre-vetted live teachers and offers interactive 1-1 lessons in nearly 60 different languages.
Mikael Bernstein, Co-Founder and CEO, Verbling said: “We are very excited to be joining forces with Busuu’s talented and experienced team, combining our world-class tutors with Busuu’s AI-powered platform will enable language learners across the globe to reach proficiency even faster.”
Following the acquisition, Verbling’s team members, including co-founders Mikael Bernstein (CEO) and Gustav Rydstedt (CTO) will join Busuu.
For context, the main publicly-listed language learning business is Rosetta Stone but they belong to the old version of language learning and have not yet done their shift to mobile, although they might survive that. There are expectations that both Duolingo and VIPKids (the Chinese English learning unicorn) will go public soon.
Internet services company Opera has come under a short-sell assault based on allegations of predatory lending practices by its fintech products in Africa.
Hindenburg Research issued a report claiming (among other things) that Opera’s finance products in Nigeria and Kenya have run afoul of prudent consumer practices and Google Play Store rules for lending apps.
Hindenburg — which is based in NYC and managed by financial analyst Nate Anderson — went on to suggest Opera’s U.S. listed stock was grossly overvalued.
That’s a primer on the key info, though there are several additional shades of the who, why, and where of this story to break down, before getting to what Opera and Hindenburg had to say.
A good start is Opera’s ownership and scope. Founded in Norway, the company is an internet services provider, largely centered around its Opera browser.
Two years later, Opera went public in an IPO on NASDAQ, where its shares currently trade.
Though Opera’s web platform isn’t widely used in the U.S. — where it has less than 1% of the browser market — it has been number-one in Africa, and more recently a distant second to Chrome, according to StatCounter.
On the back of its browser popularity, Opera went on an African venture-spree in 2019, introducing a suite of products and startup verticals in Nigeria and Kenya, with intent to scale more broadly across the continent.
In Nigeria these include motorcycle ride-hail service ORide and delivery app OFood.
Central to these services are Opera’s fintech apps: OPay in Nigeria and OKash and Opesa in Kenya — which offer payment and lending options.
Fintech focused VC and startups have been at the center of a decade long tech-boom in several core economies in Africa, namely Kenya and Nigeria.
In 2019 Opera led a wave of Chinese VC in African fintech, including $170 million in two rounds to its OPay payments service in Nigeria.
Opera’s fintech products in Africa (as well as Opera’s Cashbean in India) are at the core of Hindenburg Research’s brief and short-sell position.
The crux of the Hindenburg report is that due to the declining market-share of its browser business, Opera has pivoted to products generating revenue from predatory short-term loans in Africa and India at interest rates of 365 to 876%, so Hindenburg claims.
The firm’s reporting goes on to claim Opera’s payment products in Nigeria and Kenya are afoul of Google rules.
“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be…in violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps…we think this entire line of business is at risk of…being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action,” the report says.
Based on this, Hindenburg suggested Opera’s stock should trade at around $2.50, around a 70% discount to Opera’s $9 share-price before the report was released on January 16.
Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.
Founder Nate Anderson confirmed to TechCrunch Hindenburg continues to hold short positions in Opera’s stock — which means the firm could benefit financially from declines in Opera’s share value. The company’s stock dropped some 18% the day the report was published.
On motivations for the brief, “Technology has catalyzed numerous positive changes in Africa, but we do not think this is one of them,” he said.
“This report identified issues relating to one company, but what we think will soon become apparent is that in the absence of effective local regulation, predatory lending is becoming pervasive across Africa and Asia…proliferated via mobile apps,” Anderson added.
While the bulk of Hindenburg’s critique was centered on Opera, Anderson also took aim at Google.
“Google has become the primary facilitator of these predatory lending apps by virtue of Android’s dominance in these markets. Ultimately, our hope is that Google steps up and addresses the bigger issue here,” he said.
TechCrunch has an open inquiry into Google on the matter. In the meantime, Opera’s apps in Nigeria and Kenya are still available on GooglePlay, according to Opera and a cursory browse of the site.
For its part, Opera issued a rebuttal to Hindenburg and offered some input to TechCrunch through a spokesperson.
In a company statement opera said, “We have carefully reviewed the report published by the short seller and the accusations it put forward, and our conclusion is very clear: the report contains unsubstantiated statements, numerous errors, and misleading conclusions regarding our business and events related to Opera.”
Opera added it had proper banking licenses in Kenyan or Nigeria. “We believe we are in compliance with all local regulations,” said a spokesperson.
TechCrunch asked Hindenburg’s Nate Anderson if the firm had contacted local regulators related to its allegations. “We reached out to the Kenyan DCI three times before publication and have not heard back,” he said.
As it pertains to Africa’s startup scene, there’ll be several things to follow surrounding the Opera, Hindenburg affair.
The first is how it may impact Opera’s business moves in Africa. The company is engaged in competition with other startups across payments, ride-hail, and several other verticals in Nigeria and Kenya. Being accused of predatory lending, depending on where things go (or don’t) with the Hindenburg allegations, could put a dent in brand-equity.
There’s also the open question of if/how Google and regulators in Kenya and Nigeria could respond. Contrary to some perceptions, fintech regulation isn’t non-existent in both countries, neither are regulators totally ineffective.
Kenya passed a new data-privacy law in November and Nigeria recently established guidelines for mobile-money banking licenses in the country, after a lengthy Central Bank review of best digital finance practices.
Nigerian regulators demonstrated they are no pushovers with foreign entities, when they slapped a $3.9 billion fine on MTN over a regulatory breach in 2015 and threatened to eject the South African mobile-operator from the country.
As for short-sellers in African tech, they are a relatively new thing, largely because there are so few startups that have gone on to IPO.
In 2019, Citron Research head and activist short-seller Andrew Left — notable for shorting Lyft and Tesla — took short positions in African e-commerce company Jumia, after dropping a report accusing the company of securities fraud. Jumia’s share-price plummeted over 50% and has only recently begun to recover.
As of Wednesday, there were signs Opera may be shaking off Hindenburg’s report — at least in the market — as the company’s shares had rebounded to $7.35.
Bounce, a Bangalore-based startup that operates over 15,000 electric and gasoline docked bikes in nearly three dozen cities in India, said today it has raised $105 million in a new funding round as it explores sustainable ways to expand within the nation and build its own electric vehicles.
TechCrunch reported in late November that Bounce was in advanced stages of talks to raise $150 million at over $500 million valuation. The startup has raised $194 million to date.
Bounce, formerly known as Metro Bikes, allows customers to rent a scooter and pay 10.5 Indian rupees (15 cents) for each kilometer of the ride. The platform clocks 1.2 million rides each day.
Bounce earlier deployed its own operations team in each city and flooded the market with its scooters, but in recent weeks it has started to explore a new strategy, said co-founder and chief executive Vivekananda Hallekere in an interview with TechCrunch.
“We realized that it was not the smartest move to expand Bounce’s network on our own,” he said. The startup now works with mom-and-pop stores and local merchants in each city and they run their own operations.
To date, Bounce has replicated this model in six cities in India and has partnered with over 250,000 shops and merchants. “We launch in the cities with our own vehicles, but overtime, these micro-entrepreneurs deploy their own bikes and scooters. They are still using our app, and are part of the Bounce platform, but they don’t have to be locked into our scooter ecosystem,” he explained.
The shift in strategy comes as Bounce looks to cut expenses and find a sustainable way to expand. “Otherwise, I would need a billion dollar of debt to launch a million vehicles in India,” he argued. “We wanted a model that is scalable and profitable, and helps us create the most impact.”
If you’ve ever entered a company’s office as a visitor or contractor, you probably know the routine: check in with a receptionist, figure out who invited you, print out a badge and get on your merry way. Brussels, Belgium- and New York-based Proxyclick aims to streamline this process, while also helping businesses keep their people and assets secure. As the company announced today, it has raised a $15 million Series B round led by Five Elms Capital, together with previous investor Join Capital.
In total, Proxyclick says it’s systems have now been used to register over 30 million visitors in 7,000 locations around the world. In the UK alone, over 1,000 locations use the company’s tools. Current customers include L’Oreal, Vodafone, Revolut, PepsiCo and Airbnb, as well as a number of other Fortune 500 firms.
Gregory Blondeau, founder and CEO of Proxyclick, stresses that the company believes that paper logbooks, which are still in use in many companies, are simply not an acceptable solution anymore, not in the least because that record is often permanent and visible to other visitors.
Proxyclick’s founding team.
“We all agree it is not acceptable to have those paper logbooks at the entrance where everyone can see previous visitors,” he said. “It is also not normal for companies to store visitors’ digital data indefinitely. We already propose automatic data deletion in order to respect visitor privacy. In a few weeks, we’ll enable companies to delete sensitive data such as visitor photos sooner than other data. Security should not be an excuse to exploit or hold visitor data longer than required.”
What also makes Proxyclick stand out from similar solutions is that it integrates with a lot of existing systems for access control (including C-Cure and Lenel systems). With that, users can ensure that a visitor only has access to specific parts of a building, too.
In addition, though, it also supports existing meeting rooms, calendaring and parking systems and integrates with Wi-Fi credentialing tools so your visitors don’t have to keep asking for the password to get online.
Like similar systems, Proxyclick provides businesses with a tablet-based sign-in service that also allows them to get consent and NDA signatures right during the sign-in process. If necessary, the system can also compare the photos it takes to print out badges with those on a government-issued ID to ensure your visitors are who they say they are.
Blondeau noted that the whole industry is changing, too. “Visitor management is becoming mainstream, it is transitioning from a local, office-related subject handled by facility managers to a global, security and privacy driven priority handled by Chief Information Security Officers. Scope, decision drivers and key people involved are not the same as in the early days,” he said.
It’s no surprise then that the company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its roadmap. Specifically, it’s looking to integrate its solution with more third-party systems with a focus on physical security features and facial recognition, as well as additional new enterprise features.
If I watch a Story cross-posted from Instagram to Facebook on either of the apps, it should appear as “watched” at the back of the Stories row on the other app. Why waste my time showing me Stories I already saw?
It’s been over two years since Instagram Stories launched cross-posting to Stories. Countless hours of each feature’s 500 million daily users have been squandered viewing repeats. Facebook and Messenger already synchronized the watched/unwatched state of Stories. It’s long past time that this was expanded to encompass Instagram.
I asked Facebook and Instagram if it had plans for this. A company spokesperson told me that it built cross-posting to make sharing easier to people’s different audiences on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s continuing to explore ways to simplify and improve Stories. But they gave no indication that Facebook realizes how annoying this is or that a solution is in the works.
The end result if this gets fixed? Users would spend more time watching new content, more creators would feel seen, and Facebook’s choice to jam Stories in all its apps would fee less redundant and invasive. If I send a reply to a Story on one app, I’m not going to send it or something different when I see the same Story on the other app a few minutes or hours later. Repeated content leads to more passive viewing and less interactive communication with friends, despite Facebook and Instagram stressing that its this zombie consumption that’s unhealthy.
The only possible downside to changing this could be fewer Stories ad impressions if secondary viewings of peoples’ best friends’ Stories keep them watching more than new content. But prioritizing making money over the user experience is again what Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized is not Facebook’s strategy.
There’s no need to belabor the point any further. Give us back our time. Stop the reruns.
After announcing a $550 million fundraise last August, U.K. AI-based health services startup Babylon Health is putting some of that money to use with its widest-ranging project to date. The company has inked a 10-year deal with the city of Wolverhampton in England to provide an integrated health app covering 300,000 people, the entire population of the city.
The financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Babylon confirmed that the NHS is not taking a stake in the startup as part of it. The plan is to start rolling out the first phase of the app by the end of this year.
Babylon Health is known for building AI-based platforms that help diagnose patients’ issues. Babylon’s services are provided as a complement to seeing actual clinicians — the idea being that the interactions and AI can speed up some of the work of getting people seen and into the system. Some of Babylon’s best known work to date has been a chatbot that it built for the NHS in the U.K., and, in addition to working with a number of private businesses on their employee healthcare services, it is also now in the process of rolling out services in 11 countries in Asia. (In August, Babylon said it was delivering 4,000 clinical consultations each day, or one patient interaction every 10 seconds; covering 4.3 million people worldwide; with more than 1.2 million digital consultations completed to date.)
Even with all these milestones passed — milestones that have helped catapult Babylon to a $2 billion valuation — its latest project will be its most ambitious to date: it will be the first time that Babylon works on a project that combines both hospital and primary medical care into an all-in-one app.
“We are extremely proud of this exciting 10-year partnership with RWT which will benefit patients and the NHS as a whole,” said Ali Parsa, CEO and founder of Babylon, in a statement. “We have over 1,000 AI experts, clinicians, engineers and scientists who will be helping to make Digital-First Integrated Care a reality and provide fast, effective, proactive care to patients. Together with RWT, we can demonstrate this works and help the NHS lead healthcare across the world.”
The plan is for Babylon and the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust — the local health authority and body that will oversee the work for the city’s population — to build an app that will not only provide remote diagnoses, but also live monitoring of patients with chronic conditions (using wearables and other monitoring apps) and the ability to connect people with doctors and others remotely.
Other services will include the ability to let patients access their own medical records and review their own consultations; book appointments; renew prescriptions; view a “digital twin” of their own state of health based on medical history and other details; and manage their rehab after a procedure, illness or injury.
The gap in the market that Babylon is tackling is the fact that many countries are seeing populations that are both growing bigger and generally living longer, and that is putting a strain not just on public health services, but also those that are managed completely or partly privately. This has been a particularly painful theme in Babylon’s home market, the U.K., where healthcare is nationalised and is regularly facing budgetary and human capital shortages, but there is no infrastructure (or consumer finance) to supplement that for the majority of people.
The aim, however, goes beyond simply filling NHS gaps; it’s also about trying to build services that fit better with how people live, for example to provide them with certain services at home to save them from coming into, say, a hospital to be treated if the condition merits it.
“We know from our active engagement with patients of all ages and backgrounds that they are keen to use technology that will improve access and give them greater control of their own health, wellbeing and social inclusion,” said Trust Chief Executive David Loughton, CBE, in a statement. “For example, it should be normal for a patient with a long-term condition to take a blood-test at home, have the results fed into their app which alerts the specialist if they need an appointment. The patient chooses a time to meet, has the consultation through the app, works with their specialist to build a care plan, and the app encourages them to complete it whilst assessing the impact it’s having. This is our vision for properly joined-up and integrated care.”
AI has become a major theme in the drive to improve healthcare and medicine overall, primarily through two main areas: providing diagnostic and other services to patients in situations, acting in roles that would otherwise be played by humans; and in research, acting as a “super brain” to help perform complex calculations in the quest for better drug discovery, disease pathology and other areas that would take humans far longer to do on their own.
Well aware of the strains on health systems, startups, investors and other stakeholders have jumped into using AI in the hopes of creating more efficiency and potentially better outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that all the outcomes have actually been better. Google’s DeepMind encountered a lot of controversy around how it handled patient data in its own NHS deals, leading to questions and investigations that have now stretched into years. And BenevolentAI — which has been working on drug discovery — found itself raising money last year in round that devalued the loss-making company by half.
Paul Bate, Babylon’s MD of NHS services, noted in an interview that Babylon is mindful of patient privacy and consent, and notes that the service is opt-in and transparent in its data usage when engaging users. He declined to comment on how and when data will be retained by the NHS or by Babylon (or both) but said it would be made clear in the app when it is launched.
“It’s not a simple answer to say whether one body or another will keep it, but it will be transparent, both for US and the NHS, when it launches,” he added.
If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.
It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.
This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.
A small electric component, or an tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.
Another, more sinister looking prototype.
The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly what combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping, or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.
A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.
How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.
Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.
The investment brings the company’s total financing to $180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.
Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.
The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.
“For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. “This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it’s important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”
Google is giving an A.I. upgrade to its Collections feature — basically Google’s own take on Pinterest, but built into Google Search. Originally a name given to organizing images, the Collections feature that launched in 2018 let you save any type of search result — images, bookmarks, or maps locations — into groups called “Collections” for later perusal. Starting today, Google will make suggestions about items you can add to Collections based on your Search history across specific activities like cooking, shopping or hobbies.
The idea here is that people often use Google for research but don’t remember to save web pages for easy retrieval. That leads to users to dig through their Google Search History in an effort to find the lost page. Google believes that A.I. smarts can improve the process, by helping users to build reference collections by starting the process for them.
Here’s how it works. After you’ve visited pages on Google Search in the Google app or on the mobile web, Google will group together similar pages related to things like cooking, shopping, and hobbies then prompt you to save them to suggested Collections.
For example, after an evening of scouring the web for recipes, Google may share a suggested Collection with you titled “Dinner Party” which is auto-populated with relevant pages from your Search history. You can uncheck any recipes that don’t belong and rename the collection from “Dinner Party” to something else of your choosing, if you want. You then tap the “Create” button to turn this selection from your Search history into a Collection.
These Collections can be found later in the Collections tab in the Google app or through the Google.com side menu on the mobile web. There is an option to turn off this feature in Settings, but it’s enabled by default.
The Pinterest-like feature aims to keep Google users from venturing off Google sites to other places where they can save and organize things they’re interested in — whether that’s a list of recipes they want to add to a pinboard on Pinterest or a list of clothing they want to add to a wish list on Amazon. In particular, retaining e-commerce shoppers from leaving Google for Amazon is something the company is heavily focused on these days. The company recently rolled out a big revamp of its Google Shopping vertical and just this month launched a way to shop directly from search results.
The issue with sites like Pinterest is that they’re capturing shoppers at an earlier stage in the buying process — during the information-gathering and inspiration-seeking research stage, that is. By saving links to Pinterest’s pinboards, shoppers ready to make a purchase are bypassing Google (and its advertisers) to check out directly with retailers.
Meanwhile, Google is simultaneously losing traffic to Amazon, which now surpasses Google for product searches. Even Instagram, of all places, has become a rival, as it’s now a place to shop. The app’s Shopping feature is funneling users right from its visual ads to a checkout page in the app. PayPal, catching wind of this trend, recently spent $4 billion to buy Honey in order to capture shoppers earlier in their journey.
For users, Google Collections is just about encouraging you to put your searches into groups for later access. But for Google, it’s also about getting people to shop on Google and stay on Google, no matter what they’re researching. Suggested Collections may lure you in as an easy way to organize recipes, but ultimately this feature will be about getting users to develop a habit of saving their searches to Google — and particularly their product searches.
Once you have a Collection set up, Google can point you to other related items, including websites, images, and more. Most importantly, this will serve as a new way to get users to perform more product searches, too, as it can send users to other product pages without the user having to type in an explicit search query.
The update also comes with an often-requested collaboration feature, which means you can now share a collection with others for either viewing or editing.
Sharing and related content suggestions are live worldwide.
The A.I.-powered suggested collections are live in the U.S. for English users starting today and will reach more markets in time.
Danika Laszuk, the head of Betaworks Camp, told me at the time that the startup studio was looking for companies that are trying to build “audio-first” experiences for smart speakers and wireless headphones, or pursuing other audio-related opportunities like synthetic audio or social audio.
Now Betaworks is unveiling the six startups that it has selected to participate in the program, covering everything from game assistants to AI music production. Each startup receives a pre-seed investment from Betaworks, and will be working out of the firm’s New York City offices for the next three months.
Here are the companies:
Storm is working on a live audio platform that it says will allow your friends to ask you anything.
Midgame is building voice-enabled gaming assistants, starting with a bot that answers questions to improve your gameplay in Stardew Valley.
Scout FM is developing hands-free listening experiences such as podcast radio stations and voice assistants for Amazon Alexa, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Google Cloud today announcedSecret Manager, a new tool that helps its users securely store their API keys, passwords, certificates and other data. With this, Google Cloud is giving its users a single tool to manage this kind of data and a centralized source of truth, something that even sophisticated enterprise organizations often lack.
“Many applications require credentials to connect to a database, API keys to invoke a service, or certificates for authentication,” Google developer advocate Sath Vargo and product manager Matt Driscoll not in today’s announcement. “Managing and securing access to these secrets is often complicated by secret sprawl, poor visibility, or lack of integrations.”
With Berglas, Google already offered an open-source command-line tool for managing secrets. Secret Manager and Berglas will play well together and users will be able to move their secrets from the open-source tool into Secret Manager and use Berglas to create and access secrets from the cloud-based tool as well.
With KMS, Google also offers a fully managed key management system (as do Google Cloud’s competitors). The two tools are very much complementary. As Google notes, KMS does not actually store the secrets — it encrypts the secrets you store elsewhere. The secret Manager provides a way to easily store (and manage) these secrets in Google Cloud.
Secret Manager includes the necessary tools for managing secret versions and audit logging, for example. Secrets in Secret Manager are also project-based global resources, the company stresses, while competing tools often feature manage secrets on a regional basis.
The new tool is now in beta and available to all Google Cloud customers.
This morning the company is pulling back the curtain a bit, debuting its first batch of dual-screen developer tools and shedding some light on how apps can utilize that second screen.
While a developer kit for the Android-powered Duo has been made available immediately, the company says dev tools for the Windows-powered Neo will arrive in “the coming weeks”, with a target date of February 11th.
By default, says Microsoft, apps on these dual-screen devices will only occupy one screen. Users can elect to “span” the app to make it stretch across both — but, at least for now, it’s not something an app can force to happen.
While simply stretching an app to fill both screens is one approach, Microsoft offered up a few alternative “pattern ideas” to better utilize the form factor:
Meanwhile, Microsoft is also starting to build out web standards for dual-screen devices — APIs for developers to easily detect dual-screen devices, for example, allowing them to adapt their web apps accordingly. The company says preview builds of Microsoft Edge with early dual-screen APIs should start shipping “soon”.
While no specific launch date has been given for either device, Microsoft has given both a launch window of sometime around the Holidays of 2020. Getting these dev tools out sooner than later, then, makes sense — while it might look neat, two screens aren’t inherently better than one. For the concept to ever take off, Microsoft needs developers to find the novel ways to use that second screen; the ways in which having a pair of screens really makes things better, rather than just… different.
International Business Machines is living a case study of a large, established company vying to transform. Over the last decade, the technology elder has struggled to move into areas like cloud and AI. IBM has leaned on a combination of its own R&D abilities and deep pockets to push into modern markets, but has struggled to turn them into revenue growth.
At one point, Big Blue posted 22 sequential quarters of falling revenue, a mind-boggling testament to how hard it can be to turn around a juggernaut. More recently, IBM shrank for another five consecutive quarters, a streak it broke with yesterday’s news that it had beat analyst expectations.
The quarter brought modest, but welcome revenue growth. Perhaps more importantly, the company’s top line expansion was co-led by the old IBM mainframe business and its newest champion, Red Hat.
IBM can be happy for the positive financial news, for now at least, but it needs to repeat the result. The challenge it faces moving forward will include finding a way to continue revenue growth while modernizing its product line and ensuring that its huge Red Hat purchase continues to perform.
Startup productivity tools have never been better, but that’s led to employees being more passionate than ever about the tools that they want to use themselves. PMs don’t want to use Jira, engineers don’t want to mess with Trello and keeping everyone happy can mean replicating processes again and again.
Montreal-based Unito is building software that helps these platforms communicate with each other so teams can keep their favorite tools without bringing the company to a crawl. The startup has just closed a $10.5 million Series A round led by Bessemer Venture Partners with participation from existing investors Mistral Venture Partners, Real Ventures, and Tom Williams.
Unito’s tool works by collaborating among most of the major workplace productivity software suites’ APIs and automatically translating an action in one piece of software to the others. Updates, comments and due dates can then sync across each of the apps, allowing employees to only interact with the software that’s best for their job.
For Unito, the challenge is convincing startups that are paying for more subscription tools than ever that they need another tool to make sense of what they already have. Unito CEO Marc Boscher tells TechCrunch that company leaders are already having to deal with impassioned pleas for adopting or abandoning certain tools, something that his product can alleviate.
“Every company’s got a debate about which tools to use to get their work done and track their work, and it’s never the same so someone has to lose out eventually,” Boscher says. “People are becoming really passionate about their tools whether they love them or hate them.”
Venture capitalists have been increasingly pouring money into SaaS products built for specific workflows. For employees that have long had to deal with software built for someone else’s role, the proliferation of more team-specific has been welcome, but the ease of use comes with the danger that data or updates can get siloed.
Bessemer partner Jeremy Levine led this deal, saying that the firm was attracted to Unito after seeing how the product allowed teams to choose their own tools, something that was becoming more critical amid the proliferation of vertical-specific SaaS products. Levine’s other early stage bets include Shopify, Yelp and LinkedIn.
Unito’s current integrations include tools like Jira, Asana, Trello, GitHub, Basecamp, Wrike, ZenDesk, Bitbucket, GitLab and HubSpot.
Scopely, the massively funded mobile game publisher, has made good on its promise to start buying up more properties with the treasure chest it amassed in a whopping $200 million round last year.
The target this time is Walt Disney Company’s FoxNext Games Los Angeles and Cold Iron Studios. Disney picked up Fox’s game division in the huge $71.3 billion deal which merged the two entertainment powerhouses in 2019.
There’s no word on how much Scopely spent on the deal, but the company is quickly becoming one of LA’s biggest mobile game studios, joining the ranks of companies like Jam City as mega-players in the mobile games ecosystem emerging in Los Angeles.
The city has long been home to game development talent including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, and others.
FoxNext is already the home of the popular “Marvel Strike Force” game and is developing “Avatar: Pandora Rising”, which is a multiplayer strategy game based on the James Cameron blockbuster, “Avatar”.
The portfolio doesn’t include the Fox IP licensed game titles, which will continue to live under Disney’s licensed game business.
“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can’t wait to see what more we can do together,” said Tim O’Brien, Chief Revenue Officer at Scopely, in a statement. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games’ player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together.”
As a result of the acquisition, FoxNext’s President, Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role, according to the company. Meanwhile, Amir Rahimi, FoxNext’s senior vice president will become assume the mantle of President, Games at FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio, the company said.
Last year, Scopely hit $1 billion in lifetime revenue and recently bought theDIGIT Game Studios to further expand its footprint in Europe and across North America.
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.
“Dear Sophie” is a collaborative forum hosted by Extra Crunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, who is certified as a specialist attorney in immigration and nationality law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.”
Dear Sophie: I live in Germany, but I am a Hungarian citizen. I’m worried that I won’t qualify for an O-1A visa because I’m definitely not famous or a genius. I want to move my startup to America so we can access investors and the North American market. Because I am Hungarian and not German, I don’t qualify for an E-2 investor visa. Is there any way I can pull off moving to the States and growing my company over the next two to three years?
— Hopeful in Hamburg
Dear Hopeful: You are not alone! If your dream is to move to the United States, you can definitely make it happen through your existing company in Germany. It’s going to take some basic planning and then a little bit of time to lay the groundwork. I’ll walk you through the basic requirements so that you can get an idea of what’s ahead of you, but if you need individual specific legal advice, you should ask an attorney. For now, I hope this helps.
The first thing the United States government will want to see is that you have a registered company here. It could be any type of company, even an LLC in California. However, startup investors usually prefer a Delaware C corporation. If you don’t yet have a company registered in Germany because you are very early stage, then you could also consider having the Delaware corporation be the parent company of any future legal entities in Europe. Talk to a corporate attorney about the right choice for you.
From the immigration perspective, all of this is necessary because of the main requirements of the L-1A visa for intracompany transferees. These requirements demand that a U.S. and foreign company have a qualifying relationship for an employee transfer, such as a parent/subsidiary, a branch or an affiliation.
Disney announced today it has sold the game studio FoxNet Games Los Angeles, the makers of “MARVEL Strike Force” and other titles, as well as Cold Iron Studios in San Jose, to the interactive entertainment and mobile game company, Scopely. The studios were acquired by Disney in 2019 as a part of its $71.3 billion deal for 21st Century Fox. Disney is not, however, divesting of Fox’s full gaming lineup. The company clarified that its separate portfolio of Fox IP licensed game titles were not a part of this deal and will continue to be a part of Disney’s licensed games business.
Aquisition terms were not disclosed.
FoxNet Games released its first title, “MARVEL Strike Force” in March 2018 and it brought in $150 million in its first year across iOS and Android. Another FoxNet title “Storyscape,” released in early 2019, offers choose-your-own-adventure tales taking place in the world of “The X-Files” or “Titanic.” More recently, the studio soft-launched “Avatar: Pandora Rising,” a massive real-time strategy and social game set in Pandora from the movie “Avatar.”
According to data from Sensor Tower “MARVEL Strike Force” has been downloaded over 26 million times to date. “Storyscape” has topped 1.7 million installs. The Avatar title isn’t broadly available, as it’s still in development. It only has 100,000 downloads at present.
FoxNet’s website also notes a game based on the movie franchise “Alien,” is coming soon. (This was acquired with FoxNet’s own deal for Cold Iron Studios back in 2018.)
“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can’t wait to see what more we can do together,” said Tim O’Brien, Chief Revenue Officer at Scopely, in a statement about the deal. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games’ player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together,” he added.
Scopely, which hit over a billion in lifetime revenue in summer 2019, had also acquired DIGIT Game Studios last year, home to the top-grossing MMO/strategy game “Star Trek Fleet Command” and strategy MMO “Kings of the Realm.”
Other Scopely top game titles include “Looney Tunes World of Mayhem,” “The Walking Dead: Road to Survival,” “Wheel of Fortune: Free Play,” “WWE Champions 2019,” “Yahtzee with Buddies Dice Game,” “Dice with ellen,” “Scrabble Go,” and many more.
With its latest acquisition, Scopely adds another top-grossing game to its lineup, expands its in-development pipeline, and gains the expertise of FoxNet team. When the transaction completes, FoxNet Games President Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role and FoxNet Games SVP & GM Amir Rahimi will lead the FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio within Scopely as President, Games.
The hedge fund, focused on data-driven quantitative investing, was well on its way to amassing the $60 billion in assets under management that it currently holds, but wanted more exposure to early stage technology companies, so it created a venture capital arm, Two Sigma Ventures.
At the time, the firm was backed primarily by the hedge fund with a $150 million commitment. Now, eight years and several investments later, the firm has raised $288 million in new funding from outside investors and is pushing to prove out its model, which leverages its parent company’s network of 1,700 data scientists, engineers and industry experts to support development inside its portfolio.
“The world is becoming awash in data and there’s continuing advances in the science of computing,” says Two Sigma Ventures co-founder Colin Beirne. “We thought eight years ago when when started, that more and more companies of the future would be tapping into those trends.”
Beirne describes the firm’s investment thesis as being centered on backing data-driven companies across any sector — from consumer technology companies like the social networking monitoring application, Bark, or the high performance, high-end sports wearable company, Whoop.
Alongside Beirne, Two Sigma Ventures is led by three other partners, Dan Abelon, who co-founded SpeedDate and sold it to IAC; Lindsey Gray, who launched and led NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute; and Villi Iltchev, a former general partner at August Capital.
Recent investments in the firm’s portfolio include Firedome, an endpoint security company; NewtonX, which provides a database of experts; Radar, a location-based data analysis company; and Terray Therapeutics, which uses machine learning for drug discovery.
Other companies in the firm’s portfolio are farther afield. These include the New York-based Amper Music, which uses machine learning to make new music; and Zymergen, which uses machine learning and big data to identify genetic variations useful in pharmaceutical and industrial manufacturing.
Currently, the firm’s portfolio is divided between enterprise investments, consumer-facing deals, and healthcare focused technologies. The biggest bucket is enterprise software companies, which Beirne estimates represents about 65% of the portfolio. He expects the firm to become more active in healthcare investments going forward.
“We really think that the intersection of data and biology is going to change how healthcare is delivered,” Beirne says. “That looks dramatically different a decade from now.”
To seed the market for investments, the firm’s partners have also backed the Allen Institute’s investment fund for artificial intelligence startups.
Together with Sequoia, KPCB, and Madrona, Two Sigma recently invested in a $10 million financing to seed companies that are working with AI. “This is a strategic investment from partner capital,” says Beirne.
Typically startups can expect Two Sigma to invest between $5 million and $10 million with its initial commitment. The firm will commit up to roughly $15 million in its portfolio companies over time.
We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. Today (and one day late thanks to the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous “Exhalation.”
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Reading The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
I was electrified reading this short story. It’s one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: what begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand how the various puzzle pieces fit together even better.
Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.
A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:
Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.
What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a “lived” existence. It’s one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.
In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.
Chiang is saying something more taut: we aren’t just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.
At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, “In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks.” Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.
Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won’t someone just give me the right answer?
But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It’s the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the “fun” (and it isn’t fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.
Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.
By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — it’s purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!
All together then, the short story manages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity, and the meaning of existence into a handful of pages based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn’t science fiction at its finest, I don’t know what is.
Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion, and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. Will try to include more reader comments in future editions.
Reading guide to Exhalations
We will read the next short story in the collection, Exhalations, for next week (targeting Tuesday January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:
How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?
United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by the NSO Group to hack into the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos .
The report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.
Netflix addressed the competitive landscape in its Q4 earnings report, arguing that there’s “ample room for many services to grow as linear TV wanes,” noting that during the quarter, “our viewing per membership grew both globally and in the U.S. on a year over year basis, consistent with recent quarters.”
Tencent is cementing its position as one of the world’s biggest video and online gaming companies by revenue. Funcom, meanwhile, is traded publicly on the Oslo Stock Exchange, and the board has already recommended accepting the offer — which is being made at around 27% higher than Tuesday’s closing share price.
The new apps include a Screen Stopwatch for tracking screen time, another that lets you visualize your phone usage as bubbles and a third that lets you put your phone in an envelope. And no, that last one’s not a joke — the envelope would still allow you to make and receive calls, and to use the camera to take photos.
If you own a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, FYI: Sonos is going to stop shipping updates to those devices. And if Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.
GM subsidiary Cruise now employs more than 1,700 people, a considerable chunk of whom are software engineers. Less well-known is the company’s strategy of building out a hardware team, which will eventually take over Cruise’s 140,000-square-foot building on San Francisco’s Bryant Street.
Faida tells us that the company is trying to thread a fine line between conflicting interests and string together a critical mass of internet users who want to get rid of unwelcome distractions; along with digital publishers and ad purveyors who want to maximize eyeballs on their stuff — and are likely especially keen to reach a tech-savvy, ad-blocking demographic. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
The $100 million ARR club, in case you’re just joining us today, is a list of yet-private companies that have either reached the $100 million ARR mark, or are close to reaching it and have plans to crest the threshold in short order. The goal of writing and publishing the list is to provide a non-valuation lens through which we can view the private market’s leading constituents. Revenue milestones matter more than valuation bumps.
Back in August, we flagged a filing for you that we’d found interesting, one for a now 2.5-year-old, 40-person Redwood City, Calif.,-based startup called Bear Robotics that’s been developing robots that deliver food to restaurant customers. The filing listed a $35.8 million target; Bear Robotics founder and CEO John Ha now tells us the final close, being announced today, was $32 million in Series A funding.
The round was led by SoftBank Group, whose other recent robotics bets include the currently beleaguered food truck company Zume and, as we reported yesterday, Berkshire Grey, a seven-year-old, Lexington, Ma.-based company that makes pick, pack and sorting robots for fulfillment centers and that just raised a whopping $263 million in Series B funding led by SoftBank.
But of course, we know you’re interested in much more than Bear Robotics’ funding picture, so we asked Ha — a former Intel research scientist turned technical lead at Google who in recent years opened and closed his own restaurant — to share more about the company and its robot servers.
TC: You were an engineer at Google. Why then start your own restaurant?
JH: It’s not like I had a dream of having a restaurant; it was more of an investment. It sounded fun, but it didn’t turn out to be fun. What I was really shocked by was how much hard work is involved and how low [employees’] income is. I felt [as I was forced to close it] that this was going to be my life’s work — to transform the restaurant industry with the skills I have. I wanted to remove the hard work and the repetitive tasks so that humans can focus on the truly human side, the hospitality. At restaurants, you’re selling food and service, but most of your time is spent dealing with hiring people and people not showing up, and I suspect our product will change [the equation] so restaurants can focus more on food and service.
TC: How did you come up with the first idea or iteration of the robot you’ve created, that you’re calling Penny?
JH: First, me and my restaurant staff constantly discussed, ‘If we have this robot, what would it look like and what capacity and features would it need?’ I knew it couldn’t be too big; robots have to be able to move well in narrow spaces. We also focused on the right capacity. And we didn’t want to make a robotic restaurant. I wanted to build a robot that no one really cares about; it’s just in the background, sort of like R2D2 to Luke Skywalker. It’s a sidekick — a bland robot with a weak personality to get things done for your master.
TC Let’s talk parts. How are these things built?
JH: It’s self-driving tech that’s been adopted for indoor space, so it can safely navigate from Point A to Point B. A server puts the food on Penny, and it finds a way to get to the table. It has a two wheel differential drive, plus casters. It’s pretty safe. A lot of similar-looking robots have blind spots but ours doesn’t. It can detect baby hands on the floor — even something as thing as a wallet that’s fallen from someone’s table.
We’re not using robot arms because it’s very difficult to make it 100% safe when you have arms in a crowded space. The material — it’s going to be plastic — is safe and easy to clean and able to work with the sanitizers and detergents used in restaurants. We’ve also had to made sure the wheels won’t accumulate food waste, because that would cause issues with the health department.
TC: So this isn’t out in the world yet.
JH: We haven’t entered the mass manufacturing phase yet.
TC: Where will these be built, and how will you charge for them?
JH: They’ll be made somewhere in Asia — maybe China or some other country. And we haven’t figured out pricing yet but restaurants will be leasing these, not buying them, and there will be a monthly subscription fee that they are paying for a white-glove service, so they don’t have to worry about maintenance or support.
TC: How customizable are these Penny robots going to be? Are there different tiers of service?
JH: Penny can be configured into several modes. The default is [for it to hold] three trays, so it can carry food to a table or a server can use it for bussing help.
TC: Will it address the customers?
JH: Penny can speak and play sound, but it’s not conversational yet. It can say, ‘Please take your food,’ or play music while it’s moving. That’s where customers may want to personalize the robot for their own purposes.
TC: Ultimately, the idea is for this to be sold where — just restaurants?
JH: Wherever food is served, so it’s being tested right now in some restaurants, casinos, some homes. [I’m sure we’ll add] nursing homes.
Reuters reported yesterday, citing six sources familiar with the matter, that the FBI pressured Apple into dropping a feature that would allow users to encrypt iPhone backups stored in Apple’s cloud.
The decision to abandon plans to end-to-end encrypt iCloud-stored backups was reportedly made about two years ago. The feature, if rolled out, would have locked out anyone other than the device owner — including Apple — from accessing a user’s data. In doing so, it would have made it more difficult for law enforcement and federal investigators, warrant in hand, to access a user’s device data stored on Apple’s servers.
Reuters said it “could not determine exactly” why the decision to drop the feature was made, but one source said “legal killed it,” referring to the company’s lawyers. One of the reasons that Apple’s lawyers gave, per the report, was a fear that the government would use the move as “an excuse for new legislation against encryption.”
It’s the latest in a back and forth between Apple and the FBI since a high-profile legal battle four years ago, which saw the FBI use a little-known 200-year-old law to demand the company create a backdoor to access the iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter. The FBI’s case against Apple never made it to court, after the bureau found hackers who were able to break into the device, leaving the question of whether the government can compel a company to backdoor their own products in legal limbo.
The case has prompted debate — again — whether or not companies should build technologies that lock out law enforcement from data, even when they have a warrant.
TechCrunch managing editor Danny Crichton says companies shouldn’t make it impossible for law enforcement to access their customers’ data with a warrant. Security editor Zack Whittaker disagrees, and says it’s entirely within their right to protect customer data.
Zack: Tech companies are within their rights — both legally and morally — to protect their customers’ data from any and all adversaries, using any legal methods at their disposal.
Apple is a great example of a company that doesn’t just sell products or services, but one that tries to sell you trust — trust in a device’s ability to keep your data private. Without that trust, companies cannot profit. Companies have found end-to-end encryption is one of the best, most efficient, and most practical ways of ensuring that their customers’ data is secured from anyone, including the tech companies themselves, so that nobody other than the owner can access it. That means even if hackers break into Apple’s servers and steal a user’s data, all they have is an indecipherable cache of data that cannot be read.
But the leaks from last decade which revealed the government’s vast surveillance access to their customers data prompted the tech companies to start seeing the government as an adversary — one that will use any and all means to acquire the data it wants. Companies are taking the utilitarian approach of giving their customers as much security as they can. That is how you build trust — by putting that trust directly in the hands of the customer.
Danny: Zack is right that trust is critical between technology companies and users — certainly the plight of Facebook the past few years bears that out. But there also has to be two-way trust between people and their government, a goal thwarted by end-to-end encryption.
No one wants the government poking their heads into our private data willy-nilly, scanning our interior lives seeking out future crimes à la Minority Report. But as citizens, we also want to empower our government with certain tools to make us safer — including mechanisms such as the use of search warrants to legally violate a citizen’s privacy with the authorization of the judiciary to investigate and prosecute suspected crimes.
In the past, the physical nature of most data made such checks-and-balances easy to enforce. You could store your private written notebooks in a physical safe, and if a warrant was issued by an appropriate judge, the police could track down that safe, and drill it open if necessary to access the contents inside. Police had no way to scan all the private safes in the country, and so users had privacy with their data, while the police had reasonable access to seize that data when certain circumstances authorized them to do so.
Today, end-to-end encryption completely undermines this necessary judicial process. A warrant may be issued for data stored on let’s say iCloud, but without a suspect’s cooperation, the police and authorities may have no recourse to seize data they legally are allowed to acquire as part of their investigation. And it’s not just law enforcement — the evidential discovery process at the start of any trial could similarly be undermined. A judiciary without access to evidence will be neither fair nor just.
I don’t like the sound or idea of a backdoor anymore than Zack does, not least because the technical mechanisms of a backdoor seem apt for hacking and other nefarious activities. However, completely closing off legitimate access to law enforcement could make entire forms of crime almost impossible to prosecute. We have to find a way to get the best of both worlds.
Zack: Yes, I want the government to be able to find, investigate and prosecute criminals. But not at the expense of our privacy or by violating our rights.
The burden to prosecute an individual is on the government, and the Fourth Amendment is clear. Police need a warrant, based on probable cause, to search and seize your property. But a warrant is only an authority to access and obtain information pursuant to a crime. It’s not a golden key that says the data has to be in a readable format.
If it’s really as difficult for the feds to gain access to encrypted phones as they say it is, it needs to show us evidence that stands up to scrutiny. So far the government has shown it can’t act in good faith on this issue, nor can it be trusted. The government has for years vastly artificially inflated the number of encrypted devices it said it can’t access. It’s also claimed it needs the device makers, like Apple, to help unlock devices when the government has long already had the means and the technologies capable of breaking into encrypted devices. And the government has refused to say how many investigations are actively harmed by encrypted devices that can’t be unlocked, effectively giving watchdogs no tangible way to adequately measure how big of a problem the feds claim it is.
But above all else, the government has repeatedly failed to rebut a core criticism from security engineers and cryptography experts that a “backdoor” designed only for law enforcement to access would not inadvertently get misused, lost, or stolen and exploited by nefarious actors, like hackers.
Encryption is already out there, there’s no way the encryption genie will ever float its way back into bottle. If the government doesn’t like the law, it has to come up with a convincing argument to change the law.
Danny: I go back to both of our comments around trust — ultimately, we want to design systems built on that foundation. That means knowing that our data is not being used for ulterior, pecuniary interests by tech companies, that our data isn’t being ingested into a massive government tracking database for broad-based population surveillance, and that we ultimately have reasonable control over our own privacy.
I agree with you that a warrant simply says that the authorities have access to what’s “there.” In my physical safe example, if a suspect has written their notes in a coded language and stored them in the safe and the police drill it open and extract the papers, they are no more likely to read those notes than they are the encrypted binary files coming out of an end-to-end encrypted iCloud.
That said, technology does allow scaling up that “coded language” to everyone, all the time. Few people consistently encoded their notes thirty years ago, but now your phone could potentially do that on your behalf, every single time. Every single investigation — again, with a reasonable search warrant — could potentially be a multi-step process just to get basic information that we otherwise would want law enforcement to know in the normal and expected course of their duties.
What I’m calling for then is a deeper and more pragmatic conversation about how to protect the core of our system of justice. How do we ensure privacy from unlawful search and seizure, while also allowing police access to data (and the meaning of that data, i.e. unencrypted data) stored on servers with a legal warrant? Without a literal encoded backdoor prone to malicious hacking, are there technological solutions that might be possible to balance these two competing interests? In my mind, we can’t have and ultimately don’t want a system where fair justice is impossible to acquire.
Now as an aside on the comments about data: the reality is that all justice-related data is complicated. I agree these data points would be nice to have and would help make the argument, but at the same time, the U.S. has a decentralized justice system with thousands of overlapping jurisdictions. This is a country that can barely count the number of murders, let alone other crimes, let alone the evidentiary standards related to smartphones related to crimes. We are just never going to have this data, and so in my view, an opinion of waiting until we have it is unfair.
Zack: The view from the security side is that there’s no flexibility. These technological solutions you think of have been considered for decades — even longer. The idea that the government can dip into your data when it wants to is no different from a backdoor. Even key escrow, where a third-party holds onto the encryption keys for safe keeping, is also no different from a backdoor. There is no such thing as a secure backdoor. Something has to give. Either the government stands down, or ordinary privacy-minded folk give up their rights.
The government says it needs to catch pedophiles and serious criminals, like terrorists and murderers. But there’s no evidence to show that pedophiles, criminals, and terrorists use encryption any more than the average person.
We have as much right to be safe in our own homes, towns and cities as we do to privacy. But it’s not a trade-off. Everyone shouldn’t have to give up privacy because of a few bad people.
Encryption is vital to our individual security, or collective national security. Encryption can’t be banned or outlawed. Like the many who have debated these same points before us, we may just have to agree to disagree.
Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka, and Farmwise.
Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.
Farmwise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.
Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.
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Despite ongoingspeculation and investor pressure, Netflix is still declining to adopt an advertising-based business model as a means to boost its revenue, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings confirmed on Tuesday. The company on its Q4 earnings call again shot down the idea of an ad-supported option, with Hastings explaining there’s no “easy money” in an online advertising business that has to compete with the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
Explained the exec, “Google and Facebook and Amazon are tremendously powerful at online advertising because they’re integrating so much data from so many sources. There’s a business cost to that, but that makes the advertising more targeted and effective. So I think those three are going to get most of the online advertising business,” Hastings said.
To grow a $5 billion to $10 billion advertising business, you’d need to “rip that away” from the existing providers, he continued. And stealing online advertising business from Amazon, Google, and Facebook is “quite challenging,” Hastings added, saying “there’s not easy money there.”
“We’ve got a much simpler business model, which is just focused on streaming and customer pleasure,” he said.
The CEO also noted that Netflix’s strategic decision to not enter the ad business has its upsides, in terms of the controversies that surround companies that collect personal data on their users. To compete, Netflix would have to track more data on its subscribers, including things like their location — that’s not something it’s interested in doing, he said, calling it “exploiting users.”
“We don’t collect anything. We’re really focused on just making our members happy,” Hastings stated.
That’s not exactly true, of course. Netflix does track viewership data in order to make determinations about which of its original programs should be renewed and which should be canceled. It also looks at overall viewing trends to make decisions about what new programs to greenlight or develop. And it tracks users’ own interactions with its service in order to personalize the Netflix home screen to show users more of what they like.
The company also this quarter introduced a new viewership metric — “chose to watch,” which counts the number of people who deliberately watched a show or movie for at least two minutes. That’s far longer than Facebook or Google’s YouTube, but isn’t a great way to tell how many people are watching a show to completion, as on TV.
However, none of this viewership tracking is on the scale of big tech’s data collection practices, which is what Hastings meant by his comment.
“We think with our model that we’ll actually get to larger revenue, larger profits, larger market cap because we don’t have the exposure to something that we’re strategically disadvantaged at — which is online advertising against those big three,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Netflix’s CEO has had to repeat the company’s stance on being an ad-free business. In Q2 2019, Netflix reminded investors in its shareholder letter that its lack of advertising is part of its overall brand proposition.
“When you read speculation that we are moving into selling advertising be confident that this is false,” the letter said.
Analysts have estimated Netflix could make over a billion more per year by introducing an ad-supported tier to its service.
To some extent, the increased push for Netflix to adopt ads has to do with the changes to the overall streaming landscape.
Netflix today is facing new competition from two major streaming services, Disney+ and Apple+ — both of which have subsidized their launch with free promotions in order to gain viewership. In the next few months, Netflix will have to take on several others, including mobile streaming service Quibi, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, and NBCU’s Peacock. The latter features a multi-tiered business model, including a free service for pay-TV subscribers, an ad-free premium tier, and one that’s ad-supported.
The service was introduced to investors last week where it was well-received.
Other TV streaming services also rely on ads for portions of their revenue, including Hulu and CBS All Access. Meanwhile, a number of ad-supported services are also emerging, like Roku’s The Roku Channel, Amazon’s IMDb TV, TUBI, Viacom’s Pluto TV, and others.
Netflix’s decision to keep itself ad-free is likely welcome news for its subscriber base, however, who see the lack of ads as being a key selling point.
Amazon Music, the streaming music service from the e-commerce and cloud giant that competes against the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, announced a milestone in its growth today: it has passed 55 million customers across the six different pricing tiers that it offers for the service, ranging from $15 per month through to a free, ad-supported tier.
The numbers represent a strong leap forward for the service, which launched in October 2016. But in the bigger race to tie down consumers making the move to streaming services with recurring subscriptions, Amazon still lags behind Apple Music, which last summer said it passed 60 million paying users, and Spotify, which last quarter said it now had 248 million users globally, 113 million of them paying.
Amazon does not break out how many users are in each of its tiers, although we are asking and will update if we learn more. The overall figure, Amazon said, includes growth of more than 50% for the top tier, called Amazon Music Unlimited, which includes HD-quality tracks for about 50 million songs in the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan and most recently Brazil. Other countries without HD-quality where Amazon Music is available include France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico, and it notes that customers more than doubled in these four countries.
“We’re proud to reach this incredible milestone and are overwhelmed by our customers’ response to Amazon Music,” said Steve Boom, VP of Amazon Music, in a statement. “Our strategy is unique and, like everything we do at Amazon, starts with our customers. We’ve always been focused on expanding the marketplace for music streaming by offering music listener’s unparalleled choice because we know that different listeners have different needs. As we continue to lead in our investment in voice with Alexa, and in high-quality audio with Amazon Music HD, we’re excited to bring our customers and the music industry even more innovation in 2020 and beyond.”
As with other Amazon products and services, the company has built its music offering around cross-selling existing customers — namely those who are already using or considering its Prime membership service — which helps Amazon with its economies of scale (promotions to customers who are already getting promotions cost less, for starters); and target consumers who are happy with the convenience of having all of its services under one bill. The discount for Prime users also serves as a sweetener for those considering subscribing to the membership tier.
Prime users get a discount on both single subscriptions the Unlimited service ($7.99/month or $79/year) and Family plans. Similarly those who only subscribe on a single device, either the Fire TV or Echo, can pay $3.99/month for the service. The ad-supported service gives a smaller range of tracks, playlists and stations for free with advertising interspersed.
The general stickiness of Amazon media services — which include storage, video, reading, games and more — is a model that Apple is also following, building out a range of its own content offerings alongside those of the third-party apps in the App Store. Spotify has taken a more music- and audio-first approach, with its forays into areas like video never quite gaining traction. In its last earnings, the company addressed its place in the market.
Specifically, it noted that Amazon appears to be picking up more ad-supported than paying users at the moment, leaving an opening for Spotify to continue growing that business.
“We continue to feel very good about our competitive position in the market,” it noted in a statement. “Relative to Apple, the publicly available data shows that we are adding roughly twice as many subscribers per month as they are. Additionally, we believe that our monthly engagement is roughly 2x as high and our churn is at half the rate. Elsewhere, our estimates imply that we continue to add more users on an absolute basis than Amazon. Our data also suggests that Amazon’s user base skews significantly more to ‘Ad-Supported’ than ‘Premium’, and that average engagement on our platform is approximately 3x.”
Substack announced today that it has built support for multiple authors into its service. The company provides a publishing tool that blends blogs and email newsletters into a single entity, with a focus on subscription monetization.
The day’s updates also include a number of publisher-friendly tools, like shared access and homepage features closer to those of traditional websites than the linear timeline style that Substack has focused on so far.
The additions, which also include nice-to-haves like author pages for multi-person publications, mark a new level of maturity for Substack, a service that quickly attracted both authors and an audience after it launched. That early traction helped the company land an outsized — when compared to the size of its team — Series A that put $15.6 million into the business.
For users of the service, news of the funding was welcome. As was Substack’s disclosure at the time that the publications on its platform had attracted 50,000 paying subscribers. That figure was exciting, indicating that the company’s product might help writers of all sorts build a monetized audience, a holy grail for written creatives.
In light of today’s updates, TechCrunch asked Substack about the progress of its monetization, specifically curious about how many paid subscribers Substack publications had accreted. The company declined to share new numbers, with its co-founder and COO Hamish McKenzie instead saying that his team is “very happy with the growth [it has] seen over the past few months.”
In a company blog post accompanying today’s news, the firm noted “tens of thousands of paying subscribers,” implying that Substack has not yet doubled its former 50,000 person subscriber base. (Doing so would give Substack six-figures worth of subscribers. However, as it reached the 50,000 paid subscriber mark less than a year ago, it might be aggressive to expect such a rapid doubling.)
Newsletter, blog, website
Part of Substack’s initial success came from its intelligent blending of blogs and newsletters. Anyone who wanted to build one or the other got both, in a format that worked for each; bloggers could send email, and the email-focused also got a home on the internet. That the product came stapled to monetization tools made it all the more attractive.
Today’s updates help add a new form to the Substack mix: Websites. Here’s what a new Substack website can look like:
The ability to pin posts to the top of publications, the addition of photo bylines, and other tools mean that users can now do much more with the Substack publications. The company will now have to tread the line between the power of simplicity, and simply empowering its power users.
The company’s model appears to be working. Traffic to the larger Substack service has risen in recent months, according to analytics service Alexa. Substack was ranked among the 13,000th most visited global site in October of last year, according to the platform. It’s now in the 11,000s. With media companies like The Dispatch hatching on Substack, and with today’s updates, expect that number to continue to fall.
Substack is a bet that readers will pay for the written work that they care about. It’s a good wager. And better tools will tilt the odds more in its favor.
Now we can simply count down until Substack announces 100,000 paid subscribers.
Electric scooter operator Skip is gearing up to appeal San Francisco’s decision to not grant it a permit to operate in the city. When the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced the permit grantees in September, it came as a surprise to Skip, which had previously received a permit to operate as part of the city’s pilot program.
Ahead of the appeal hearing last Thursday, TechCrunch caught up with Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor to learn about the company’s game plan and why he thinks it can prevail in a battle that other electric scooter providers have lost.
Prior to the city’s decision last year to grant permits to Lime, Uber’s JUMP, Bird’s Scoot and Ford’s Spin, Skip was one of only two companies operating shared electric scooter services in San Francisco. Leading up to the new permitting application process, Skip said it had been working to ensure its electronic locks would be fully integrated by the beginning of the new permit period, Dastoor told TechCrunch. The company did this with guidance from the SFMTA, so when Skip was denied a permit, the team was caught off guard.
“It was a huge surprise,” Dastoor said. “We found out basically the same time as the press did that we didn’t get that permit, so it was pretty surprising to all of us.”
Front is raising a $59 million Series C funding round. Interestingly, the startup hasn’t raised with a traditional VC firm leading the round. A handful of super business angels are investing directly in the productivity startup and leading the round.
Business angels include Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, Atlassian President Jay Simons, Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest, Qualtrics co-founders Ryan Smith and Jared Smith and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan. Existing investors including Sequoia Capital, Initialized Capital and Anthos Capital are participating in this round as well.
While Front doesn’t share its valuation, the company says that the valuation has quadrupled compared to the previous funding round. Annual recurring venue has also quadrupled over the same period.
The structure of this round is unusual, but it’s on purpose. Front, like many other startups, is trying to redefine the future of work. That’s why the startup wanted to surround itself with leaders of other companies who share the same purpose.
“First, because we didn't need to raise (we still had two years of runway), and it's always better to raise when we don't need it. The last few months have given me much more clarity into our go-to-market strategy,” Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin told me.
Front is a collaborative inbox for your company. For instance, if you want to share an email address with your coworkers (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com), you can integrate those shared inboxes with Front and work on those conversations as a team.
It opens up a ton of possibilities. You can assign conversations to a specific person, @-mention your coworkers to send them a notification, start a conversation with your team before you hit reply, share a draft with other people, etc.
Front also supports other communication channels, such as text messages, WhatsApp messages, a chat module on your website and more. As your team gets bigger, Front helps you avoid double replies by alerting other users when you’re working on a reply.
In addition to those collaboration features, Front helps you automate your workload as much as possible. You can set up automated workflows so that a specific conversation ends up in front of the right pair of eyes. You can create canned responses for the entire team as well.
Front also integrates with popular third-party services, such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Clearbit and dozens of others. Front customers include MailChimp, Shopify and Stripe.
While Front supports multiple channels, email represents the biggest challenge. If you think about it, email hasn’t changed much over the past decade. The last significant evolution was the rise of Gmail, G Suite and web-based clients. In other words, Front wants to disrupt Outlook and Gmail.
With today’s funding round, the company plans to iterate on the product front with Office 365 support for its calendar, an offline mode and refinements across the board. The company also plans to scale up its sales and go-to-market team with an office in Phoenix and a new CMO.
Advances in biology, biochemistry, sensors and automation have the potential to reshape the ways manufacturing in America is done and a relatively new firm called Anzu Partners has just raised $190 million to invest in companies turning these scientific achievements into new products and services.
Far from Silicon Valley, Anzu is investing in technology companies coming from places as disparate as Durham, Omaha, and Santa Fe, in addition to the traditional technology hub of Boston and its surrounding area.
“We started in early 2016 with a focus on venture capital and early stage private equity,” says firm managing partner Whitney Haring-Smith. “The majority of the transactions that we do are minority, but there are a subset that are control.”
One of those acquisitions, for the optical electronics equipment manufacturer Axsun Technologies, yielded one of the firm’s early exits when the Massachusetts-based company was sold to Excelitas in a roughly $80 million transaction. The firm saw at least one other exit last year when Siemens bought its portfolio companyMultiMechanics in November.
Co-founded and managed by former Boston Consulting Group leadership David Seldin and David Michael, the leadership team has expanded to include another BCG, alum, John Ho, who was just named partner with the close fo the fund.
Anzu Partners writes checks in the $3 million to $8 million range and follows that capital with commitments of up to $15 million, according to Haring-Smith.
“We focus today on investing in the technologies that enable tomorrow’s industries,” Haring-Smith said of the firm’s thesis. “We don’t know whether this biologic drug or that biologic drug will succeed but we know that all biologic drugs will need certain things.”
Examples include the company’s investment in the Santa Fe-based NTX Bio, which was made not because the startup manufactures particular biologics for the pharmaceutical industry, but because it makes technology which can produce lower cost, higher purity and higher stability biologics. “It doesn’t make vaccines, but makes vaccine manufacturing more cheap and efficient,” says Haring-Smith.
The firm has already made six investments from its new fund since it first began fundraising efforts last April.
Portfolio companies include the Durham-based BioSkryb, which makes technologies to improve gene sequencing; Boston Microfluidics, which develops blood collection devices; GelSight, which makes 3D imaging systems to improve quality control in manufacturing; immunoSCAPE, which profiles immune systems to provide better data on potentially applicable therapeutics for patients; Sofregen, which tissue support and regeneration products based on a novel process for manufacturing silk proteins, and Solchroma Technologies, which uses a unique manufacturing process to make digital displays.
Anzu operates from offices in Tampa, San Diego, Washington, and Boston and Haring-Smith believes that the geographic diversity gives the company a leg up on deals.
With the new fund, the firm expects to expand its geographic footprint to other under-capitalized regions around the U.S.
In October, Google debuted experimental apps focused on digital wellbeing, including one that offered a notification mailbox, another that tracked how long you went between phone unlocks, and even one that let you print out the information you needed from your phone for the day so you wouldn’t have to use it, to name a few. Now, Google has added three more apps to its unique collection with the launch of a Screen Stopwatch for tracking screen time, another that lets you visualize your phone usage as bubbles, and a third which lets you put your phone in an envelope…wait, what?
Envelope is not a joke, as it turns out, but rather the latest bit of creativity from London-based design studio, Special Projects. The group had already created the phone info printout app, Paper Phone, which arrived when Google’s Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform first launched last year.
The team’s new Envelope app helps you to still use your phone for basic functions, like making or receiving calls or using the camera to take photos. But all this is done from inside a paper envelope custom-designed for your phone. To wrap up your phone, there’s a printable PDF for Google Pixel 3a phones which you print at full scale, then cut, fold and glue. The end result is a paper phone sleeve that leaves room for the camera and offers a numberical keypad on the front, in case you need to make calls.
The app, meanwhile, helps to make the buttons light up to be seen through the paper.
Envelope is clearly more of a design experiment rather than a practical tool. While touchscreens do work through paper, wrapping your phone up for the day will certainly complicate things — like when you need to get someone’s phone number (because no one memorizes these anymore!) or to look up directions, among other things. But it would allow you to challenge yourself to see how long you could make it before ripping the envelope open, we suppose.
Another new app, Activity Bubbles, creates a new bubble for each phone unlock during the day. The bubble then grows larger the longer you use your device. Your bubbles can be set as a live wallpaper so you can continually keep track of your screen time.
Screen Stopwatch tracks how long you’ve been on your phone each day by counting the hours, minutes and seconds of screen time with every unlock. This, too, can be set as a live wallpaper so you can see your phone usage grow throughout the day.
These latter two apps were put out by Google Creative Lab, as were many of the first apps launched last fall.
Google explained at the time the goal with its Digital Wellbeing Experiments is to inspire designers and developers to keep digital wellbeing at top of mind when building technology. While some of the experiments may be “out there” — like envelopes for the phone — the overall goal is not to make these mainstream apps, but rather to get people thinking about our phone and app addictions. Major tech companies, Google included, are increasingly focused on what they can do better in this area — adding features like “take a break” reminders, alerts that tell you when you’re “all caught up” with your feed, or rolling out tools to help reduce screen time, like app limits or the ability to turn off distracting notifications.
The Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform is open to contributions, but new additions are reviewed before they’re added to the site, a process that could take weeks. The apps themselves will work on recent Android handsets.
Small Door, a veterinary services membership startup, today announced the grand opening of its NYC location at 15 Seventh Ave. Small Door soft-launched the space in November of 2019.
The vet startup first came onto the scene in April of 2019 with a $3.5 million seed round led by Lerer Hippeau Ventures, with participation from Primary Venture Partners and Brand Foundry Ventures. Flatiron Health founders Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg, Warby Parker cofounders Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, and Sweetgreen founders on Neman, Nic Jammet, and Nat Ru also invested.
The company is taking a fresh approach to veterinary services by offering a membership program, not unlike One Medical.
Part of the problem with vet services is that veterinary practices are often overworked and underpaid. This can translate to long waits for patients, short visits, and a low quality of professional life for veterinarians themselves. Through a membership model, Small Door believes it can give vets more time with their pet patients and decrease wait times considerably for patients and their owners.
The company has also rethought healthcare space itself. For example, the waiting room is spread out and designed with little nooks to keep animals happy and unthreatened by their fellow patients while waiting.
Different membership tiers get users access to different features. For dogs, the base tier ($12/month) offers same or next-day appointments, priority access to specialists, and 24/7 virtual care. The Premium tier ($75/month) offers two annual exams, core vaccinations, an annual blood panel, and other preventative care like deworming, heartworm screening, etc. The Premium Plus Tier ($89/month) offers everything in the premium package alongside a 12-month supply of both flea and tick preventative treatment as well as a 12-month supply of heartworm preventative treatment.
For cats, plans range from $8/month to $74/month with similar offerings.
Small Door was set up as a Public Benefit Corporation, identifying Small Door vets and pets as key stakeholders in the business. Suicide is a growing problem among vets, who often deal with mounting debt, compassion fatigue, difficult hours and even more difficult customers.
Since its soft launch, 55 percent of Small Door customers are millennials and 70 percent of customers are women, according to founder Josh Guttman.
A new United Nations report says a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, was “most likely” used to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.
The report, published by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday, said the Israeli-based spyware maker likely used its Pegasus mobile spyware to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.
It comes a day after reports emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned by the Amazon founder, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The report said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone.
Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.
NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.
But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.
U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who authored the report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”
Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak. The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.
The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.
U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.
The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.
The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.
Fortnite, one of the world’s most popular games, will now be an official high school sport and college sport thanks to an LA-based startup called PlayVS .
The company has partnered with Epic Games to bring competitive league play to the collegiate and high school level. This also marks PlayVS’s entry into colleges and universities.
PlayVS launched in April of 2018 with a mission of bringing esports to high school, with a league akin to traditional sports like basketball or football. Though a partnership with the NFHS, high schools (or parents, or the students themselves) can pay $64/player to be placed in a league to compete with neighboring schools, just like any other sport.
But PlayVS partnerships go deeper than the NFHS (the NCAA of high school sports), as the company is also partnering with the publishers themselves. This is the part that puts PlayVS a step ahead of its competition, according to founder Delane Parnell .
While other companies are setting up paid competitive leagues around video games, very few if any have partnerships at the publisher level. This means that those startups could be shut down on a whim by the publishers themselves, who own the IP of the game.
PlayVS is the first to score such a partnership with Epic Games, the maker of the world’s most popular video game.
These publisher partnerships also allow PlayVS to productize the experience in a way that requires almost no lift for schools and organizations. Players simply sign into PlayVS and get dropped into their scheduled match. At the end, PlayVS pulls stats and insights directly from the match, which can be made available to the players, coaches, fans and even recruiters.
For PlayVS, the college landscape presents a new challenge. With high school expansion, the NFHS fueled fast and expansive growth. Since launch, more than 13,000 high schools have joined the waitlist to get a varsity esports team through PlayVS, which represents 68% of the country. PlayVS says that just over 14,000 high schools in the United States have a football program, to give you a comparison.
The NFHS has a relationship with the NCAA, but no such official partnership has been signed, meaning that PlayVS has to go directly to individual colleges to pitch their technology. Luckily, they’re going in armed with the most popular game in the world, and at a time when many colleges are looking to incorporate esports scholarships and programs.
And it doesn’t hurt that PlayVS has quite a bit of cash in the bank — the company has raised $96 million since launch.
Unlike the rest of the PlayVS titles, the first season of Fortnite competition will be free to registered users, courtesy of the partnership with Epic Games. Registration for the first seasons closes on February 17 for high schools, and February 24 for colleges and universities. The season officially kicks off on March 2.
The format for competition will be Duos, and organizations can submit as many teams of two as they like. The top teams will be invited to the playoffs with a chance to win a spot in the championship in May.
Tesla reportedly reached a settlement with the State of Michigan regarding the sales and service of its vehicles. According to the AP, this settlement would end the automakers lawsuit against the state, which barred Tesla and others from selling vehicles directly to consumers. This would lead to consumers being able to purchase, take delivery, and service Tesla vehicles within the State of Michigan.
Currently, Michigan law states consumers can only purchase vehicles through franchised dealerships and not directly from an automaker. Tesla, as an automaker, sells directly to consumers through dealerships it owns. As a result, consumers in Michigan had to jump through hoops to purchase a Tesla vehicle.
Currently, Tesla has a limited presence in the home state of America’s Big Three automakers. Shoppers have to visit a so-called showcase within an upscale mall located in a Detroit suburb. Representatives at this location cannot advice shoppers on vehicle pricing or buying options. What’s more, if a Tesla vehicle is purchased in Michigan, it must be obtained in a different state.
Tesla challenged Michigan’s stance in a 2016 lawsuit and this settlement would give consumers more freedom of choice by allowing Tesla to sell and service vehicles. Under the terms of this settlement, Tesla would sell vehicles through a subsidiary and deliver vehicles to consumers. However, these vehicles would be titled from a different state, forcing the new owners to retitle them for Michigan. Tesla will also be allowed to open service centers in Michigan.
Elon Musk seems happy with the report of the settlement.
Lately, the venture community’s relationship with advertising tech has been a rocky one.
Advertising is no longer the venture oasis it was in the past, with the flow of VC dollars in the space dropping dramatically in recent years. According to data from Crunchbase, adtech deal flow has fallen at a roughly 10% compounded annual growth rate over the last five years.
While subsectors like privacy or automation still manage to pull in funding, with an estimated 90%-plus of digital ad spend growth going to incumbent behemoths like Facebook and Google, the amount of high-growth opportunities in the adtech space seems to grow narrower by the week.
Given the movement in the adtech and martech sectors, we wanted to try to gauge where opportunity still exists in the verticals and which startups may have the best chance at attracting venture funding today. We asked four leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in marketing and advertising: