Get it on Google Play تحميل تطبيق نبأ للآندرويد مجانا

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging

TechCrunch

Apple is said to be working on a new version of the MacBook Air with a brand new physical case design that’s both thinner and lighter than its current offering, which was updated with Apple’s M1 chip late last year, per a new Bloomberg report. The plan is to release it as early as late 2021 or 2022, according to the report’s sources, and it will also include MagSafe charging (which is also said to be returning on Apple’s next MacBook Pro models sometime in 2021).

MagSafe would offer power delivery and charging, while two USB 4 ports would provide data connectivity on the new MacBook Air. The display size will remain at its current 13-inch diagonal measurement, but Apple will reportedly realize smaller overall sizes by reducing the bevel that surrounds the screen’s edge, among other sizing changes.

Apple has a plan to revamp its entire Mac lineup with its own Apple Silicon processors over the course of the next two years. It debuted its first Apple Silicon Macs, powered by its M1 chip, late last year, and the resulting performance benefits vs. their Intel-powered predecessors have been substantial. The physical designs remained essentially the same, however, prompting speculation as to when Apple would introduce new case designs to further distinguish its new Macs from their older models.

The company is also reportedly working on new MacBook Pros with MagSafe charging, which could also ditch the company’s controversial TouchBar interface – and, again according to Bloomberg, bring back a dedicated SD card slot. All these changes would actually be reversions of design changes Apple made when it introduced the current physical notebook Mac designs, beginning with the first Retina display MacBook Pro in 2012, but they address usability complaints by some of the company’s enthusiast and professional customers.

January 22nd 2021, 7:37 am

Privacy complaint targets European parliament’s COVID-19 test-booking site

TechCrunch

The European Parliament is being investigated by the EU’s lead data regulator over a complaint that a website it set up for MEPs to book coronavirus tests may have violated data protection laws.

The complaint, which has been filed by six MEPs and is being supported by the privacy campaign group noyb, alleges third party trackers were dropped without proper consent and that cookie banners presented to visitors were confusing and deceptively designed.

It also alleges personal data was transferred to the US without a valid legal basis, making reference to a landmark legal ruling by Europe’s top court last summer (aka Schrems II).

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which oversees EU institutions’ compliance with data rules, confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it has begun investigating.

It also said the “litigious cookies” had been disabled following the complaints, adding that the parliament told it no user data had in fact been transferred outside the EU.

“A complaint was indeed filed by some MEPs about the European Parliament’s coronavirus testing website; the EDPS has started investigating it in accordance with Article 57(1)(e) EUDPR (GDPR for EU institutions),” an EDPS spokesman told TechCrunch. “Following this complaint, the Data Protection Office of the European Parliament informed the EDPS that the litigious cookies were now disabled on the website and confirmed that no user data was sent to outside the European Union.”

“The EDPS is currently assessing this website to ensure compliance with EUDPR requirements. EDPS findings will be communicated to the controller and complainants in due course,” it added.

MEP, Alexandra Geese, of Germany’s Greens, filed an initial complaint with the EDPS on behalf of other parliamentarians.

Two of the MEPs that have joined the complaint and are making their names public are Patrick Breyer and Mikuláš Peksa — both members of the Pirate Party, in Germany and the Czech Republic respectively.

We’ve reached out to the European Parliament and the company it used to supply the testing website for comment.

The complaint is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the allegations of a failure to uphold regional data protection rules look pretty embarrassing for an EU institution. Data protection may also feel especially important for “politically exposed persons like Members and staff of the European Parliament”, as noyb puts it.

Back in 2019 the European Parliament was also sanctioned by the EDPS over use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections — in the regulator’s first ever such enforcement of an EU institution.

So it’s not the first time the parliament has got in hot water over its attention to detail vis-a-vis third party data processors (the parliament’s COVID-19 test registration website is being provided by a German company called Ecolog Deutschland GmbH). Once may be an oversight, twice starts to look sloppy…

Secondly, the complaint could offer a relatively quick route for a referral to the EU’s top court, the CJEU, to further clarify interpretation of Schrems II — a ruling that has implications for thousands of businesses involved in transferring personal data out of the EU — should there be a follow-on challenge to a decision by the EDPS.

“The decisions of the EDPS can be directly challenged before the Court of Justice of the EU,” noyb notes in a press release. “This means that the appeal can be brought directly to the highest court of the EU, in charge of the uniform interpretation of EU law. This is especially interesting as noyb is working on multiple other cases raising similar issues before national DPAs.”

Guidance for businesses involved in transferring data out of the EU who are trying to understand how to (or often whether they can) be compliant with data protection law, post-Schrems II, is so far limited to what EU regulators have put out.

Further interpretation by the CJEU could bring more clarifying light — and, indeed, less wiggle room for processors wanting to keep schlepping Europeans’ data over the pond legally, depending on how the cookie crumbles (if you’ll pardon the pun).

noyb notes that the complaint asks the EDPS to prohibit transfers that violate EU law.

“Public authorities, and in particular the EU institutions, have to lead by example to comply with the law,” said Max Schrems, honorary chairman of noyb, in a statement. “This is also true when it comes to transfers of data outside of the EU. By using US providers, the European Parliament enabled the NSA to access data of its staff and its members.”

Per the complaint, concerns about third party trackers and data transfers were initially raised to the parliament last October — after an MEP used a tracker scanning tool to analyze the COVID-19 test booking website and found a total of 150 third-party requests and a cookie were placed on her browser.

Specifically, the EcoCare COVID-19 testing registration website was found to drop a cookie from the US-based company Stripe, as well as including many more third-party requests from Google and Stripe.

The complaint also notes that a data protection notice on the site informed users that data on their usage generated by the use of Google Analytics is “transmitted to and stored on a Google server in the US”.

Where consent was concerned, the site was found to serve users with two different conflicting data protection notices — with one containing a (presumably copypasted) reference to Brussels Airport.

Different consent flows were also presented, depending on the user’s region, with some visitors being offered no clear opt out button. The cookie notices were also found to contain a ‘dark pattern’ nudge toward a bright green button for ‘accepting all’ processing, as well as confusing wording for unclear alternatives.

A screengrab of the cookie consent prompt that the parliament’s COVID-19 test booking website displayed at the time of writing – with still no clearly apparent opt-out for non-essential cookies (Image credit: TechCrunch)

The EU has stringent requirements for (legally) gathering consents for (non-essential) cookies and other third party tracking technologies which states that consent must be clearly informed, specific and freely given.

In 2019, Europe’s top court further confirmed that consent must be obtained prior to dropping non-essential trackers. (Health-related data also generally carries a higher consent-bar to process legally in the EU, although in this case the personal information relates to appointment registrations rather than special category medical data).

The complaints allege that EU cookie consent requirements are not being met on the website.

While the presence of requests for US-based services (and the reference to storing data in the US) is a legal problem in light of the Schrems II judgement.

The US no longer enjoys legally frictionless flows of personal data out of the EU after the CJEU torpedoed the adequacy arrangement the Commission had granted (invalidating the EU-US Privacy Shield mechanism) — which in turn means transfers of data on EU peoples to US-based companies are complicated.

Data controllers are responsible for assessing each such proposed transfer, on a case by case basis. A data transfer mechanism called Standard Contractual Clauses was not invalidated by the CJEU. But the court made it clear SCCs can only be used for transfers to third countries where data protection is essentially equivalent to the legal regime offered in the EU — doing so at the same time as saying the US does not meet that standard.

Guidance from the European Data Protection Board in the wake of the ruling suggests that some EU-US data transfers may be possible to carry in compliance with European law. Such as those that involve encrypted data with no access by the receiving US-based entity.

However the bar for compliance varies depending on the specific context and case.

Additionally, for a subset of companies that are definitely subject to US surveillance law (such as Google) the compliance bar may be impossibly high — as surveillance law is the main legal sticking point for EU-US transfers.

So, once again, it’s not a good look for the parliament website to have had a notice on its COVID-19 testing website that said personal data would be transferred to a Google’s server in the US. (Even if that functionality had not been activated, as seems to have been claimed.)

Another reason the complaint against the European Parliament is noteworthy is that it further highlights how much web infrastructure in use within Europe could be risking legal sanction for failing to comply with regional data protection rules. If the European Parliament can’t get it right, who is?

noyb filed a raft of complaints against EU websites last year which it had identified still sending data to the US via Google Analytics and/or Facebook Connect integrations a short while after the Schrems II ruling. (Those complaints are being looked into by DPAs across the EU.)

Facebook’s EU data transfers are also very much on the hook here. Earlier this month the tech giant’s lead EU data regulator agreed to ‘swiftly resolve’ a long-standing complaint over its transfers.

Schrems filed that complaint all the way back in 2013. He told us he expects the case to be resolved this year, likely within around six to nine months. So a final decision should come in 2021.

He has previously suggested the only way for Facebook to fix the data transfers issue is to federate its service, storing European users’ data locally. While last year the tech giant was forced to deny it would shut its service in Europe if its lead EU regulator followed through on enforcing a preliminary order to suspend transfers (which it blocked by applying for a judicial review of the Irish DPC’s processes).

The alternative outcome Facebook has been lobbying for is some kind of a political resolution to the legal uncertainty clouding EU-US data transfers. However the European Commission has warned there’s no quick fix — and reform of US surveillance law is needed.

So with options for continued icing of EU data protection enforcement against US tech giants melting fast in the face of bar-setting CJEU rulings and ongoing strategic litigation like this latest noyb-supported complaint pressure is only going to keep building for pro-privacy reform of US surveillance law. Not that Facebook has openly come out in support of reforming FISA yet.

January 22nd 2021, 4:06 am

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M fund

TechCrunch

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments. It’s unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin
America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables over 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. It has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

January 22nd 2021, 2:54 am

China’s draft payments rules put Ant, Tencent on notice

TechCrunch

A string of recent events in China’s payments industry suggests the duopoly comprising Ant Group and Tencent may be getting a shakeup.

Following the abrupt call-off of Ant’s public sale and a government directive to reform the firm’s business, the Chinese authorities sent another message this week signaling its plan to curb concentration in the flourishing digital payments industry.

The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.

Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.

The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.

Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.

Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.

 

As China heightens scrutiny over its payments giants, it’s also opening up the financial market to international players. In December, Goldman Sachs moved to take full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. This month, PayPal became the first foreign company with 100% control of a payments business in China after it bought out the remaining stake in its local payments partner Guofubao.

Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.

Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.

The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.

January 22nd 2021, 2:35 am

JustKitchen is using cloud kitchens to create the next generation of restaurant franchising

TechCrunch

JustKitchen operates cloud kitchens, but the company goes beyond providing cooking facilities for delivery meals. Instead, it sees food as a content play, with recipes and branding instead of music or shows as the content, and wants to create the next iteration of food franchises. JustKitchen currently operates its “hub and spoke” model in Taiwan, with plans to expand four other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States this year.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and FoodPanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

In addition to licensing deals, JustKitchen also develops its own brands and performs research and development for its partners. To enable that, chief operating officer Kenneth Wu told TechCrunch that JustKitchen is moving to a more decentralized model, which means its hub kitchens will be used primarily for R&D, and production at some of its spoke kitchens will be outsourced to other food vendors and manufacturers. The company’s long-term plan is to license spoke operation to franchisees, while providing order management software and content (i.e. recipes, packaging and branding) to maintain consistent quality.

Demand for meal and grocery deliveries increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, this means food deliveries made up about 13% of the restaurant market in 2020, compared to the 9% forecast before the pandemic, according to research firm Statista, and may rise to 21% by 2025.

But on-demand food delivery businesses are notoriously expensive to operate, with low margins despite markups and fees. By centralizing food preparation and pickup, cloud kitchens (also called ghost kitchens or dark kitchens) are supposed to increase profitability while ensuring standardized quality. Not surprisingly, companies in the space have received significant attention, including former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, Kitchen United and REEF, which recently raised $1 billion led by SoftBank.

Wu, whose food delivery startup Milk and Eggs was acquired by GrubHub in 2019, said one of the main ways JustKitchen differentiates is by focusing on operations and content in addition to kitchen infrastructure. Before partnering with restaurants and other brands, JustKitchen meets with them to design a menu specifically for takeout and delivery. Once a menu is launched, it is produced by JustKitchen instead of the brands, who are paid royalties. For restaurants that operate only one brick-and-mortar location, this gives them an opportunity to expand into multiple neighborhoods and cities (or countries, when JustKitchen begins its international expansion) simultaneously, a new take on the franchising model for the on-demand delivery era.

One of JustKitchen’s delivery meals

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meal before handing them to delivery partners. Spoke kitchens are smaller than hubs, closer to customers, and the goal is to have a high revenue to square footage ratio.

“The thesis in general is how do you get economies of scale or a large volume at the hub, or the central kitchen where you’re making it, and then send it out deep into the community from the spokes, where they can do a short last-mile delivery,” said Wu.

JustKitchen says it can cut industry standard delivery times by half, and that its restaurant partners have seen 40% month on month growth. It also makes it easier for delivery providers like Uber Eats to stack orders, which means having a driver pick up three or four orders at a time for separate addresses. This reduces costs, but is usually only possible at high-volume restaurants, like fast food chain locations. Since JustKitchen offers several brands in one spoke, this gives delivery platforms more opportunities to stack orders from different brands.

In addition to partnerships, JustKitchen also develops its own food brands, using data analytics from several sources to predict demand. The first source is its own platform, since customers can order directly from Just Kitchen. It also gets high-level data from delivery partners that lets them see food preferences and cart sizes in different regions, and uses general demographic data from governments and third-party providers with information about population density, age groups, average income and spending. This allows it to plan what brands to launch in different locations and during different times of the day, since JustKitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.

JustKitchen is incorporated in Canada, but launched in Taiwan first because of its population density and food delivery’s popularity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery penetration in the U.S. and Europe was below 20%, but in Taiwan, it was already around 30% to 40%, Wu said. The new demand for food delivery in the U.S. “is part of the new norm and we believe that is not going away,” he added. JustKitchen is preparing to launch in Seattle and several Californian cities, where it already has partners and kitchen infrastructure.

“Our goal is to focus on software and content, and give franchisees operations so they have a turnkey franchise to launch immediately,” said Wu. “We have the content and they can pick whatever they want. They have software to integrate, recipes and we do the food manufacturing and sourcing to control quality, and ultimately they will operate the single location.”

January 22nd 2021, 1:34 am

Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

TechCrunch

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million towards a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

 

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in a carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible product such as converting ethnaol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks.  Carbon Engineering, is Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

January 21st 2021, 8:35 pm

Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

TechCrunch

eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

January 21st 2021, 8:04 pm

Google’s parent firm is shutting down Loon connectivity project

TechCrunch

Google’s parent firm Alphabet is done exploring with the idea of using giant balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon after it could not find a sustainable business model and willing partners. This is the second major connectivity effort Google has killed in recent years. The Android-maker last year ended Google Station, a project through which it provided internet at hundreds of railway stations and several other public places.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

More to follow…

 

January 21st 2021, 7:49 pm

The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

TechCrunch

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we — Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace — had more than a little to noodle over, but not so much that we blocked out a second episode. We try to stick to our current format, but, may do more shows in the future. Have a thought about that? equitypod@techcrunch.com is your friend and we are listening.

Now! We took a broad approach this week, so there is a little of something for everything down below. Enjoy!

Like we said, it’s a lot, but all of it worth getting into before the weekend. Hugs from the team, we are back early Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

January 21st 2021, 6:49 pm

Telehealth startup Hims fell in its public trading debut — and that’s fine with its CEO

TechCrunch

Hims & Hers, a San Francisco-based telehealth startup that sells sexual wellness and other health products and services to millennials, began trading publicly today on the NYSE after completing a reverse merger with the blank-check company Oaktree Acquisition Corp.

Its shares slipped a bit, ending the day down 5% from where they started, but the company, which was founded in 2017 and now claims nearly 300,000 paying subscribers for its various offerings, has never been focused on a splashy headline about its first-day performance, cofounder and CEO Andrew Dudum told us earlier today.

On the contrary, Dudum says that while Hims might have once imagined a traditional IPO, it decided to go the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) route because of their pricing mechanisms and because it was approached by a SPAC led by renowned money manager Howard Marks, the founder of the global alternative investment firm Oaktree Capital Management. (“We fell in love with the Oaktree team and the capital market experience and deep resources they have.”)

We talked with Dudum about that SPAC’s structure; the lockups involved now that Him’s shares are trading; and how much of the business still centers around one of its first offerings, which was a generic version of erectile dysfunction pills. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You’re a Bay Area-based company selling to a mostly U.S. audience. How are you thinking about expanding that footprint geographically?

AD: We do have a small operation selling in the U.K.; we’re getting our feet wet in that market and building out a team and infrastructure and fulfillment. If you look at the regulatory landscape, there’s a huge amount of room [to grow] in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and Asia, and so in that order, we’ll start to [move into those markets].

TC: What is your average customer cost? 

AD: It has come down from $200 when we first launched, to roughly $100 last year, and we make, on average, close to $300 in the first couple of years in terms of a patient’s lifetime value.

TC: How quickly do customers churn?

AD: We break down lifetime value projections by quarter cohorts, and quarter over quarter, year over year, we’re monetizing each of these cohorts better, with high margin profiles.

As of last quarter, the business was growing 90% year-over-year, with 76% gross margins and greater cash efficiency, and that’s because as we provide more offerings, there is more cross purchasing. Also, word of mouth is becoming more of a dynamic, with more than 50% of the traffic to the site free at this point because we have built a brand with a young demographic.

TC: When are you projecting that you’ll turn profitable?

AD: We’ve reduced our annual burn and increased our margin efficiency and organic growth, so on a quarterly basis, we think in the next couple of years is a real possibility.

Image Credits: Hims & Hers

TC: Hims’s first wellness offerings included pills for male pattern hair loss and erectile dysfunction. How much revenue does that ED business account for?

AD: What we’ve disclosed is that roughly half [of our revenue] is that sexual health category — which includes [medicines for] generic erectile dysfunction, birth control, STDs, UTIs and premature ejaculation. The other half is predominately dermatology, including hair care [to address hair loss] and acne, and we’ve more recently moved into primary care and behavioral health.

TC: For retail investors, how do you differentiate the business from that of your rival Ro, which heavily promotes its ED products?

AD: There are a number of core differences between us and public and private players. First is our real focus on diversifying our offerings. With our focus on sexual health, dermatology, primary care and behavioral health, it’s in our DNA to quickly expand into new businesses.

We also think we’re different from most [rivals] in that we really invest time in building deep relationships with [those who represent] the future of healthcare markets — people in their teens, 20s and 30s. This demographic has a different set of tech expectations and consumer expectations than people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and if we want to build for the future, that means building for largest body of payers in the future.

Traditional healthcare companies monetize only the sick, but optimizing around that demographic precludes you from understanding what the next generation really needs and wants. I’ve never seen such a divergence between a patient population and legacy experience, and that’s a real advantage to us as a business.

TC: Hims just went public through a SPAC in a deal that gives the company around $280 million in cash – $205 million of that from Oaktree’s blank-check company and another $75 million through a private placement deal. How much runway does that give you?

AD: The company doesn’t burn a tremendous amount — between $10 million and $20 million a year — so a relatively long runway if we keep operating the business as is. But it does allow us to expand and grow into new businesses, too, including into big categories like sleep, infertility, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

TC: What about acquisitions?

AD: We’ll keep an eye open for strategic opportunities and consolidation opportunities. More than a dozen businesses a month come to us to be consolidated into the brand, but generally speaking, we’ve had the belief that so much is in front of us that we don’t want to be distracted.

TC: Is there a lockup period for anyone?

AD: There’s a traditional lock-up for executives and employees and the board.

TC: Did your SPAC sponsors get a board seat?

AD: No.

TC: How much do they now own of the company, and can they sell?

AD: Oaktree owns a couple percent and [the syndicate they brought to do the private placement] [owns] 12% But the very reason we went with them was the quality of the team and the organization . . . and they have the added incentive for the next year or two from a compensation standpoint for the company to succeed and to prove [out their thesis that Hims is a smart investment].

TC: Do you think the traditional IPO process is broken?

AD: The traditional IPO market hasn’t changed. It takes 12 to 18 months of preparation, which is a crazy amount of time for management to be distracted, then there’s this one-day PIPE that gives institutions a tremendous amount of money instantaneously. Maybe it makes for a good CNBC headline but at tremendous cost to the company. It’s atrocious. If you were a founder or employee and getting diluted twice as much as you have to be, you’d be really upset. It’s no surprise to me that founders like myself are looking at other modalities with better pricing and better structures.

January 21st 2021, 6:49 pm

Daily Crunch: Apple might be working on a VR headset

TechCrunch

A new report suggests there’s a pricey Apple VR headset in the works, Facebook’s Oversight Board will examine one of the social network’s most consequential decisions and we review the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is your Daily Crunch for January 21, 2021.

The big story: Apple might be working on a VR headset

Apple is developing a standalone virtual reality headset that could debut in 2022, according to Bloomberg.

The headset is supposed to include a processor more powerful than the M1 chip currently included in the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. And it would cost more than most competing products (so possibly in the $1,000 range or more).

It sounds, in other words, like this is meant to be a specialist product, perhaps paving the way for a more mass-market device later.

The tech giants

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump — Facebook VP Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing — The updates are mostly iterative for an already solid handset, but we won’t say “no” to a $200 price drop.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users — The company has been quietly working on a new feature that allows users to discover content using hashtags.

Startups, funding and venture capital

TripActions raises $155M at $5B valuation as corporate travel recovers from pandemic lows — The company became something of a poster-child for the impact of COVID-19 on certain startup categories.

Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally — Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it normally would.

Soci raises $80M for its localized marketing platform — National and global companies like Ace Hardware, Anytime Fitness, The Hertz Corporation and Nekter Juice Bar use Soci to coordinate marketing across individual stores.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Eight VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021 — In 2020, more of us saw our doctor on video than ever before.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech — Lemonade is a great example.

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team — In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

The biggest step the Biden administration took on climate yesterday wasn’t rejoining the Paris Agreement — Instead, it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards.

How Bitcoin is helping middle-class users survive the pandemic — People like Saeed, an Iranian immigrant to France, see cryptocurrency as a necessity.

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips — The method results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

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

January 21st 2021, 6:19 pm

Forsaking funding at a $1 billion valuation, Solugen preps a new green chemical product and a big 20

TechCrunch

Late last year, Solugen, a startup using synthetic biology to take hydrocarbons out of the chemicals industry, decided against pursuing a new round of funding that would have valued the company at over $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.

Instead, the Houston-based bio-manufacturing company raised an internal round of roughly $30 million from existing investors and continued working on its latest project — a new bio-based manufacturing process for a high-value specialty chemical that can act as an anti-corrosive agent.

That work represents a potentially lucrative new product line for the company and charts a course for a host of other businesses that are refashioning the basic building blocks of life in an attempt to supplant chemistry with biology for manufacturing and production.

If Solugen can get its high value chemical into commercial production, the company can follow the path that sustainable tech companies like Tesla have mastered — moving from a pricy specialty product into the mass market. And rather than over-promise and underdeliver. Solugen wanted to get the product line right first before raising big bucks, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

As the world looks to move away from oil and its byproducts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down or reverse global climate change, the chemicals industry is in the crosshairs as a huge target for disruption. Vehicle electrification solves only one part of the oil problem. The extractive industry doesn’t just produce fuel, but also the chemicals that make up most of the products that defined consumer goods in the twentieth century.

Chemicals are everywhere and they’re a huge business.

Companies like Zymergen raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year to develop industrial applications for synthetic biology, and they’re not alone. Startups including Geltor, Impossible Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, Lygos, Novomer, and Perfect Day have all raised significant amounts of capital to reduce the environmental footprint of food, chemicals, ingredients, and plastics through synthetic biology.

Some of these companies are seeing early success in food replacements and ingredients, but the promise of biologically based chemicals have been elusive — until now.

Solugen’s new product will produce glucaric acid, a tough-to-make chemical that can be used in water treatment facilities and as an anti-corrosive agent — and the company can make it with a zero carbon (or potentially carbon negative) manufacturing process, according to Solugen co-founder and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt.

The glucaric acid from Solugen is cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than existing phsophonates that are used for water treatment — and the company has the benefit of competing against chemicals manufacturers in China.

Given the continuing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. is looking to make more high value products — including chemicals — domestically, and Solugen’s technology is a good way forward to have home grown supplies of critical materials.

Solugen still intends to raise more capital, the company just wanted to wait until its latest production plant for the acid came online, according to Hunt.

It’s also the fruit of years of planning. The two co-founders, Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti first realized they could potentially use the technology they’d developed to make specialty chemicals back n 2017, according to Hunt. But first the company had to make the hydrogen peroxide as a precursor chemical, Hunt said.

“It’s advantageous for us to focus on this,” said Hunt. “As we scale, we can enter more commodity type markets down the road.”

It’s all part of the significant strides the entire industry is making, said Hunt. “Synthetic biology has really made significant strides,” he said. “We have our commercial plant coming online this summer [and it proves] synthetic biology has gotten to the point where we can compete on price and performance.”

So the capital infusion will come as the company gets closer to the completion of these commercial scale facilities.

“It’s not like we were sitting on a term sheet and we said no,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the milestones and the goals at a commensurate pace which is this year. I’m extremely bullish and optimistic of 2021.”

Solugen’s co-founder sees the path that his company is on as one that other startups working in the synthetic biology space will pursue to bring profitable products to market at the higher end before competing with more sustainable versions of commodity chemicals.

“How do you start a company that has this level of capital intensity?” Hunt asked. “You can start in the fine chemicals space where everything sells for tens to hundreds of dollars per pound. For us, glucaric acid is that specialty chemical and then we will do commodity.”

January 21st 2021, 5:49 pm

Pebble founder launches Beeper, a universal chat app that works with iMessage and others

TechCrunch

Decades ago, a software program called Trillian introduced a way for internet users to interact with multiple IM networks, like ICQ, AIM and MSN Messenger, in a single window. Now, Pebble founder and Y Combinator Partner Eric Migicovsky is revisiting this concept, but this time with a focus on centralizing access to modern-day chat applications. Through the newly launched app, Beeper, users can connect with 15 different messaging services, including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram and Twitter DMs, Messenger, Skype, Hangouts and others — even, through a few tricks, iMessage.

Migicovsky says he first came up with the idea for a universal chat app while working on the smartwatch pioneer Pebble, before its acquisition by Fitbit.

“We really wanted Pebble to be able to send iMessages, but we could never figure out a way to do it because there’s no API for iMessage,” he explains. But the idea for Beeper came to a head two years ago when he learned about a protocol called Matrix. “All of Beeper is built on top of Matrix, which is this open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol,” he says.

Migicovsky describes Matrix as mostly “a hacker thing,” but believes it’s starting to take off among developers. Basically, Matrix offers an API that allows developers to connect with other chat networks using a “bridge,” which relays the messages back and forth from one side to another.

“When I learned about that, I was like ‘hey, we could build Trillion using Matrix,'” Migicovsky says.

Image Credits: Beeper

Migicovsky began to work on Beeper as a side project with Tulir Asokan, a Matrix contributor he met in a Matrix chat room.

To make Beeper (previously called Nova) work with all the different chat apps, they had to build these connecting “bridges.” This code is also open-sourced and available at Gitlab.com/Nova.

“We think it’s really important for people to know what code they’re running — so it’s all open source. People can inspect it,” notes Migicovsky.

Because of this, people also don’t have to pay Beeper the $10 per month it’s charging for access to the service. If they know what they’re doing, they can just run the bridges on their own servers, if they choose.

While every messaging platform has its own unique setup in Beeper, making iMessage work was the most complicated. And the workaround here is somewhat involved, to put it mildly.

Beeper actually ships its users an old, jailbroken iPhone (iPhone 4S, because it’s cheap) to serve as the bridge. The code installed on the iPhone reads and writes to the database file where your iMessages are stored. The iPhone encrypts the messages with your own private key and then sends it over the Beeper network. This means Beeper, the company, can’t read your messages, Migicovsky says.

This process allows Android, Windows and Linux users to use iMessage. But it’s not the only way Beeper can make iMessages work. Mac users with an always-on device can instead choose to install a Beeper Mac app to work as the bridge.

Migicovsky says he’s not afraid of any shutdown attempts or litigation by Apple.

“What are they going to do?,” he asks, rhetorically.

Even if Apple somehow stopped Beeper from providing jailbroken iPhones to users, the company could redirect their customers to acquire their own old iPhones from Craigslist instead. Meanwhile, the software itself is open-source and running on an iPhone at the user’s house — so Beeper isn’t really “hacking” into iMessage itself.

“I think given the current climate of messaging freedom — I think it would be insane for Apple to start picking a fight with their own users,” Migicovsky adds. Plus, he notes that the European Commission is working on draft legislation similar to the GDPR that mandates all companies to open up messaging for other platforms.

“When that passes, they legally won’t be able to block people from doing something like Beeper,” Migicovsky notes.

Beeper, of course, is not the first or only startup focused on trying to break through the iMessage lockdown. Other apps have tried to do this in the past, like AirMessage or weMessage, for example. They have only seen limited adoption, however. And Beeper is not the only startup to try to centralize chat applications, either — Texts.com is developing a similar system.

That said, signups for Beeper were bigger than Migicovsky expected, he says, though declined to share the details. He says Beeper is slowly onboarding users as a result. (For that reason, we have not been able to actually use Beeper. We can’t speak to its claims or usability.)

Despite the competition, where Beeper may have an advantage is in understanding what makes for a great user experience. Pebble, after all, sold over 2 million watches.

Today, Beeper promises features like search, snoozing, archiving, and reminders, and works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android.

Longer-term, Migicovsky envisions a platform that could do more than just text and share media, stickers and emoji, like other chat apps. Instead, the team is building a platform that would allow people to build more tools and apps on top of Beeper — a system sort of like Gmail’s plugins. For example, there could be tools that would let users schedule calendar events from within their chats. Or perhaps a tool could help you see all the most recent messages you’ve had with a particular user across different platforms, like Clearbit.

Migicovsky declined also to detail how the work on Beeper is being financed but when asked if Beeper could be the next step for him — as in, a new company to work on — he replied, “possibly.”

“I’m enjoying my time at YC. It is fantastic. I was just inspired by all the companies that I work with to do this. Part of being VC is talking to all these founders who are building cool stuff and launching it. And I got a little bit jealous,” he admits.

January 21st 2021, 5:49 pm

IBM transformation struggles continue with cloud and AI revenue down 4.5%

TechCrunch

A couple of months ago at CNBC’s Transform conference, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna painted a picture of a company in the midst of a transformation. He said that he wanted to take advantage of IBM’s $34 billion 2018 Red Hat acquisition to help customers manage a growing hybrid cloud world, while using artificial intelligence to drive efficiency.

It seems like a sound enough approach. But instead of the new strategy acting as a big growth engine, IBM’s earnings today showed that its cloud and cognitive software revenues were down 4.5% to $6.8 billion. Meanwhile cognitive applications — where you find AI incomes — were flat.

If Krishna was looking for a silver lining, perhaps he could take solace in the fact that Red Hat itself performed well with revenue up 18% compared to the year-ago period, according to the company. But overall the company’s revenue declined for the fourth straight quarter, leaving the executive in much the same position as his predecessor Ginni Rometty, who led IBM during 22 straight quarters of revenue losses.

Krishna laid out his strategy in November telling CNBC, “The Red Hat acquisition gave us the technology base on which to build a hybrid cloud technology platform based on open-source, and based on giving choice to our clients as they embark on this journey.” So far the approach is simply not generating the growth Krishna expected.

The company is also in the midst of spinning out its legacy managed infrastructure services division, which as Krishna said in the same November interview should allow Big Blue to concentrate more on its new strategy. “With the success of that acquisition now giving us the fuel, we can then take the next step, and the larger step, of taking the managed infrastructure services out. So the rest of the company can be absolutely focused on hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence” he said.

While it’s certainly too soon to say his transformation strategy has failed, the results aren’t there yet, and IBM’s falling top line has to be as frustrating to Krishna as it was to Rometty. If you guide the company towards more modern technologies and away from the legacy ones, at some point you should start seeing results, but so far that has not been the case for either leader.

Krishna continued to build on this vision at the end of last year by buying some additional pieces like cloud applications performance monitoring company Instana and hybrid cloud consulting firm Nordcloud. He did so to build a broader portfolio of hybrid cloud services to make IBM more of a one-stop shop for these services

As retired NFL football coach Bill Parcells used to say, referring to his poorly performing teams,”you are what your record says you are.” Right now IBM’s record continues to trend in the wrong direction. While it’s making some gains with Red Hat leading the way, it’s simply not enough to offset the losses and something needs to change.

January 21st 2021, 5:49 pm

Judge denies Parler’s bid to make Amazon restore service

TechCrunch

A federal judge has denied an attempt by conservative social network Parler to force Amazon to host it on AWS. As expected by most who read Parler’s ramshackle legal arguments, the court found nothing in the lawsuit that could justify intervention, only “faint and factually inaccurate speculation.”

In the order, filed in the Western Washington U.S. District Court, Judge Barbara Rothstein explained how little Parler actually brought to the table to support its allegations that Amazon and Twitter were engaged in antitrust collusion and that AWS had broken its contract.

On the question of antitrust, Parler fell far short of demonstrating anything at all, let alone collusion in breach of the Sherman Act.

The evidence it has submitted in support of the claim is both dwindlingly slight, and disputed by AWS. Importantly, Parler has submitted no evidence that AWS and Twitter acted together intentionally — or even at all — in restraint of trade.

… Indeed, Parler has failed to do more than raise the specter of preferential treatment of Twitter by AWS.

Amazon had explained in its filing that not only does AWS not even host Twitter yet, though there are plans to do so, but that there are strict rules in place to prevent discussing one client with another. This was more than enough to dispute Parler’s flimsy claim, Rothstein noted.

On breach of contract, Parler had in the course of its argument essentially admitted to breach of contract on its end, but said that Amazon had broken its side of the bargain by not giving it 30 days to fix the problem as stipulated in the customer service agreement (CSA) at Section 7.2(b)(i). Turns out that doesn’t even matter:

Parler fails to acknowledge, let alone dispute, that Section 7.2(b)(ii) — the provision immediately following — authorizes AWS to terminate the Agreement “immediately upon notice” and without providing any opportunity to cure …

So the 30-day agreement was never in play if Amazon didn’t want it to be; one imagines that the clause is for less immediately concerning causes for action. Contract breach argument denied.

Parler’s allegation that Amazon was “motivated by political animus” likewise holds no water, according to the judge.

Parler has failed to allege basic facts that would support several elements of this claim. Most fatally, as discussed above, it has failed to raise more than the scantest speculation that AWS’s actions were taken for an improper purpose or by improper means … To the contrary, the evidence at this point suggests that AWS’s termination of the CSA was in response to Parler’s material breach.

The company also made the argument that it would suffer “irreparable harm” if AWS services were not restored, and in fact Rothstein had no reason to doubt Parler’s claims that it may face “extinction” as a result of these circumstances. Except that “Parler’s claims to irreparable harm are substantially diminished by its admission ‘that much of that harm would be compensable by damages.'”

In other words, money would fix it — which means it isn’t exactly irreparable.

On other legalities and technicalities, Rothstein finds that Parler makes no case or that Amazon’s case is much stronger — for instance, that being forced to host violent and hateful content would damage AWS’s reputation, perhaps even irreparably.

As is important to note in cases like this, the judge is not ruling on the merits of the whole case, only on the arguments and evidence presented in the request for an injunction to restore services while the case proceeds.

“To be clear, the Court is not dismissing Parler’s substantive underlying claims at this time” — which is to say that it is not dismissing the substance of the claims, nor asserting that they have substance. But Parler “has fallen far short” of demonstrating what it needs to in order to justify a legal intervention of that type.

The case will proceed to its next date, if indeed Parler has not faced the “extinction” it warned of by then.

Rothstein Order on Parler i… by TechCrunch

January 21st 2021, 5:49 pm

The FCC has its first Chairwoman in Jessica Rosenworcel

TechCrunch

The Biden administration has officially appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel acting FCC Chairwoman, making her the first woman to hold the position, and she will likely be nominated to fill the position formally later in the year. With her record of standing for equal access, industry accountability, and net neutrality, Rosenworcel’s FCC will be very different from her predecessor’s.

“I am honored to be designated as the Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden.  I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff.  It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” she said in a statement.

While Rosenworcel’s agenda will be made clear over the coming weeks and months, it is likely we will see the return of net neutrality from the shallow grave dug for it by Ajit Pai, and probably a new effort to better understand where in the country actually needs help getting broadband to those who need it, and how to do so quickly and equitably. Her first items of business, however, will likely pertain to getting internet access to those most affected by the pandemic.

(Disclosure: The FCC regulates TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, but this has no effect on our coverage.)

Rosenworcel first started at the FCC in 2003, and filled other federal communications regulation roles over the years. She was nominated for Commissioner by President Obama in 2011 (confirmed in 2012), and was in the running for Chair in 2013, though Tom Wheeler ended up taking the spot. Her second term as Commissioner began in 2017.

Throughout her tenure at the FCC Rosenworcel has pushed for net neutrality and improved broadband access for schools and economically disadvantaged areas. During Ajit Pai’s tumultuous term as Chairman she offered implacable resistance to what she saw as an unjustified hands-off approach to regulating telecoms, and a fierce indictment of the FCC’s failure to act in the best interest of the people it serves. Here are a few examples.

At the 2017 vote killing net neutrality, Rosenworcel was unsparing in voicing her fury at the shadiness of the entire rulemaking process:

I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.

In 2018, with an epidemic of robocalling growing by the month, she contradicted Pai’s claim that a $120M fine (almost certainly never collected) for one offender proved there was a “cop on the beat”:

Today the FCC adopts a forfeiture order to impose a penalty on one operation that made tens of millions of robocalls two years ago.  I support it.  But let’s be honest: Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon—and right now we’re all wet.

That the industry still has not widely adopted the framework that would nip robocalls in the bud is testament to this, though they should soon after the FCC finally got in gear. (This year she also contributed a piece to TechCrunch to call for immediate action on the rollout of 5G.)

In 2019, Rosenworcel called out the agency’s seeming lack of concern about a major loophole in telecoms regulation that allowed every mobile service vendor to essentially sell real-time location data to anyone willing to pay for it:

The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable.

Her office released letters to the agency from the major carriers as a stopgap measure to inform people. When the FCC finally formally moved against the practice, she noted “It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”

In 2020, Rosenworcel raised for the nth time the FCC’s lack of good data concerning broadband deployment in the country. The problem had rankled for years but was highlighted by a spectacular failure to vet industry data provided more or less on the honor system, which ended up throwing off numbers nationally:

This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC. In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.

An embarrassing demonstration of how poor the current system is. Of the broadband report itself she had written earlier:

This report deserves a failing grade. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.

After all, if the FCC doesn’t know who actually is getting decent broadband and who isn’t, how can they direct funds to help bridge that gap?

Lastly, late in 2020 when Pai caved to administration pressure to reevaluate the hugely important Section 230, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, Rosenworcel once again summed up the situation simply and honestly:

The timing of this effort is absurd. The FCC has no business being the president’s speech police.

This abortive attempt to weaken Section 230 never had legs and will not be pursued further.

These are only a handful of the more high-profile moments of Rosenworcel’s latest term, and in fact it is something of a disservice to list just them. The work of an FCC Commissioner is largely obscure and technical, with moments like those listed above more the exception than the rule. We’ll know more about Rosenworcel’s priorities and agenda soon.

January 21st 2021, 3:48 pm

How Bitcoin is helping middle-class users survive the pandemic

TechCrunch

Regulators may still want to imply Bitcoin is merely a tool for criminals, but for many middle-class users, it’s proving to be a lifeline.

Even as politicians like European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde criticize cryptocurrency for providing “loopholes” used for “funny business,” people like Saeed, an Iranian immigrant to France, see cryptocurrency as a necessity, because of the difficulty using mainstream financial systems.

Until 2020, Saeed, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was a software engineer in Iran whose salary barely reached €300 due to rampant inflation. In 2017, he started freelancing for international clients that paid him in Bitcoin. By September 2020, he’d finally saved enough Bitcoin to go to graduate school in France. However, the pandemic made his immigration process much harder.

“I passed all that strange bureaucracy and to get to a course in France last September, with only €1,000 in my pocket,” Saeed said. “HSBC, Banque Nationale de Paris, La Banque Postale, all rejected me, declining to open a bank account. I finally found a bank after a month.”

In the meantime, Saeed used Bitcoin. He is exactly the type of person who benefits from “loopholes” in the traditional banking system.

“Many people in Iran are working with European tech companies,” Saeed said. “Maybe I can’t buy Bitcoin directly from the exchange because of my nationality.”

Saeed thinks Lagarde represents bankers’ and government interests, not average citizens, who are happy to work with him. He said stricter regulations would make his access to the financial system more time-consuming and expensive, because he’d have to pay friends and colleagues to transact on his behalf. However, Iranian migrants are hardly the sole user group relying on Bitcoin during the pandemic.

In the United Kingdom, a British expat named Paul found himself trapped in London when flights back to his Asian country of residence got canceled. Due to tight capital controls in his former country, and the challenges of repatriation during constant lockdowns, Paul was living in between regulatory systems.

“I closed down the business [in Asia] just before the pandemic started. My father passed away and it was difficult to continue my company,” Paul said. “I was in hotels and Airbnbs for weeks and didn’t have a residential address…without Bitcoin I would have been locked out of cash. I could only take money out of the ATM for a certain number of months because it’s limited to holidays.”

Luckily, Paul had a little Bitcoin from earlier that year. Unlike Saeed, he didn’t feel comfortable with the technical aspects, but he learned quickly. He used Bitcoin to buy gift cards for groceries, phone bills, hotels and Uber, plus paid a friend back in Asia to help wrap up his apartment and put things in storage.

“I think it was generally a bad idea but, at least with Brexit, thank god we won’t be subject to whatever Lagarde does,” Paul said, adding that regulation can be beneficial if it avoids restrictions for people who don’t have banking access.

Today, almost a year later, Paul still doesn’t have access to most of his financial accounts. Instead, he downloaded Monzo, a banking app that uses passports for identity verification instead of residential addresses. He pays friends in London to deposit to his Monzo account.

“It becomes really convoluted. I primarily use crypto because it’s easier,” Paul said. “One of my friends is a student from Nigeria and had a similar experience. He used Bitcoin to pay his school fees… I’ve been at my current residence for a couple of months, so I would be able to finally open a bank account. But now I don’t really see the need, especially with the news of negative interest rates.”

Meanwhile, the fiat-denominated price of Bitcoin surged over the past six months. This provided Saeed and Paul both with a little extra capital to spend time figuring out what they want to do next. For Saeed, does it make sense to do the graduate program online, with fewer networking benefits and hands-on experiences (the reason he came to France)? How does Paul move forward with his career now that his family business closed and his sector (music marketing) is in shambles? 

Buying Bitcoin could be considered a form of gambling. Indeed, many middle-class hobbyist traders accrued life-changing amounts of wealth over the past year, usually by experimenting with risky software. For people like Paul and Saeed, who generally avoid experimental trades and lack alternative investment options, Bitcoin’s price appreciation is helping them get through a period of abysmal job markets and intermittent lockdowns. People don’t need to live in a dictatorship or a country suffering from high inflation to benefit from Bitcoin. I would know; I’m one of them. 

Like many people during the pandemic, my living situation changed dramatically and I initially couldn’t work full-time from home. I was lucky to sell a few poems in exchange for cryptocurrency, usually via direct messages and Bitcoin wallets or as digital collectibles through collaborations with tech-savvy artists. Then the bull market surged again, sending those meager earnings high enough to cover some of my bills. A valet worker and student in Kansas named Hess had a similar experience. 

Quarantine helped kill his relationship of six years and he found himself needing to move out. He put his savings into Bitcoin during spring 2020, so that by December he was able to move out.

“COVID hit and I was out of steady work for four months,” Hess said. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for my decision to basically throw 70% of my net worth into Bitcoin, I don’t think I would be in as good of a place mentally and financially.”

To be clear, that is an extremely risky financial move and I would not advise it as a first resort. Yet, for many people experiencing unexpected change due to COVID-19, Bitcoin has become the lifeline it was for Hess.

Over the past year, Bitcoin donations may have gained popularity with several American communities, including some of the extremist groups involved with storming Capitol Hill. Incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen echoed Lagarde’s concerns about Bitcoin being used for criminal activities.

However, so far, the analytics company Chainalysis estimates such donations add up to roughly $522,000. These numbers might also be compared to the cumulative totals managed by other subjects referenced in this article. For yet another lawful example, Lawrence Douglas, a former operations director at an event security company in California, lost his job as a result of the pandemic.

“Cash App pretty much changed my financial life,” Douglas said. “Bitcoin prices during the calendar year of 2020 provided me with lots of wiggle room, while I currently search for a new job.”

As an unemployed Black man, he was statistically less likely to have connections who could help him learn about stocks or precious metals, for example. He said Bitcoin, comparatively, has a “low barrier to entry.” In April 2020, he turned his stimulus check into a little Bitcoin nest egg. By November, he was utilizing a strategy called dollar-cost averaging, routinely buying small amounts of Bitcoin.

Douglas, like Paul, first bought cryptocurrency during the pandemic. On the other hand, when I interviewed more than a dozen Bitcoin users across Europe and North America for this article, most of them were crypto veterans who said Bitcoin gave them “peace” during the year-long crisis. Anesthesiologist Quentin Lobb, for example, said “bottom line, our net worth grew tremendously in 2020, thanks to Bitcoin. It has provided a pleasant and exciting sense of financial security.”

Yet another crypto veteran, Texas real estate agent broker Brandon Arnold, said the national political and economic situation was more “mentally taxing than ever before.” Against that backdrop, controlling a fraction of his own wealth gives him a sense of security. The price appreciation helps too, to be sure, though it’s not why Bitcoin is now so popular with middle-class users.

“If I factor in the risk of not having access to my capital, the price volatility doesn’t really matter,” Paul said. “As long as the price of Bitcoin doesn’t go to zero, it’s still more useful for me than the other options available.”

 

January 21st 2021, 3:48 pm

Instacart is eliminating the jobs of unionized workers

TechCrunch

Instacart plans to lay off nearly 2,000 of its workers, including the ten workers from the Kroger-owned Mariano’s who unionized early last year, Vice reports. These workers are responsible for in-store shopping and packing of groceries.

According to Vice, ten of the workers affected unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 in Skokie, Illinois. However, they have yet to negotiate a contract with Instacart, according to Vice. Instacart notified the union of the planned changes earlier this week. In the letter, Instacart said it planned to stop using in-store shoppers at Kroger-owned stores, which includes the Mariano’s store in Skokie, in Q1 and Q2 of this year, but no earlier than mid-March.

Currently, Instacart says it’s working to place the impacted employees with jobs at retailers or place them at other grocery stores that still rely on Instacart shoppers. In total, Instacart said about 1,800 employees will be affected by these changes. Those laid off will receive separation packages, according to Instacart. But according to UFCW, Instacart will provide between $250 to $750 to the workers they let go.

Instacart referenced the potential layoffs in a blog post earlier this week in a post about new pickup retailer model. In it, Instacart said it would wind down some of its in-store operations at some retail locations to switch to what it’s calling Partner Pick. Through Partner Pick, instead of relying on Instacart shoppers to pick and pack groceries, retailers will rely on their own workforces with the help of Instacart’s technology.

“As a result of some grocers transitioning to a Partner Pick model, we’ll be winding down our in-store operations at select retailer locations over the coming months,” an Instacart spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We know this is an incredibly challenging time for many as we move through the COVID-19 crisis, and we’re doing everything we can to support in-store shoppers through this transition. This includes transferring impacted shoppers to other retailer locations where we have Instacart in-store shopper roles open, working closely with our retail partners to hire impacted shoppers for roles they’re looking to fill, and providing shoppers with transition assistance as they explore new work opportunities. We’re also providing all impacted shoppers with separation packages based on their tenure with Instacart.”

This all comes as Instacart is gearing up to go public. In November, Reuters reported Instacart picked Goldman Sachs to lead its IPO at a $30 billion valuation. That would be a big jump from the $17.7 post-money valuation Instacart secured in October with a new $200 million funding round.

In a statement, UFCW International President Marc Perrone called these workers a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic and called on Instacart to stop these plans to fire them.

“Instacart firing the only unionized workers at the company and destroying the jobs of nearly 2,000 dedicated frontline workers in the middle of this public health crisis, is simply wrong,” he said. “As the union for Instacart grocery workers in the Chicago area and grocery workers nationwide, UFCW is calling on Instacart to immediately halt these plans and to put the health of their customers first by protecting the jobs of these brave essential workers at a time when our communities need them most.”

January 21st 2021, 3:04 pm

Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally

TechCrunch

Omnipresent, which helps companies employ remote-working local teams worldwide, has closed a $15.8M Series A funding round. The fundraise was led by an undisclosed investor with participation from existing investors, Episode 1, Playfair Capital and Truesight Ventures. The company said it closed the round five months after it’s July 2020 $2m in seed round.

Founders Matthew Wilson and Guenther Eisinger started the company as part of Entrepreneur First’s London cohort in 2019.

Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it would if the company did it on their own, by using Omnipresent’s platform to onboard employees compliantly in 150 countries. It provides employees with local contracts, tax contributions, and local and international benefits such as health insurance, pensions and equity options. 

In a joint statement, Guenther Eisinger and Matthew Wilson, Co-CEOs of Omnipresent said: “Even before the pandemic we recognized the revolutionary potential of breaking down legal and administrative barriers of international employment. As former business owners, we had first-hand experience of what a headache it is to navigate the complexity and bureaucracy of building global teams. Now with the pandemic and the global shift towards remote working it’s confirmed that we are on the right track.”

Wilson told me in an interview: “For instance, in Canada, we have a Canadian entity and we enter into an employment relationship with that person in Canada, on behalf of our client, so they don’t have to set up any of the legal infrastructure themselves in Canada, or any of the 149 countries that we operate in. We then manage all the ongoing administration of the employment relationship, whether that’s from an HR perspective, from an employee benefits perspective, or if they want to get health care for instance.”

The company competes with other firms like Remote.com and Boundless HQ.

Carina Namih, General Partner at Episode 1 Ventures commented: “While talent is evenly distributed around the world, for too long, opportunities have not been. I have experienced first hand the challenge of hiring globally. Omnipresent has already become a crucial piece of infrastructure for global teams working across different countries.”

Joe Thornton, General Partner at Playfair Capital commented: “Remote work undoubtedly represents the future of the modern workforce. The sooner companies adapt, the sooner they will reap the massive competitive advantage associated with a globally distributed workforce, including increased workforce productivity and satisfaction and a larger and more diverse pool of talent from which to recruit workers.”

Omnipresent said its own employer surveys show that over 85% of employers will be employing remote or international employees in 2021.

January 21st 2021, 3:04 pm

Spotify announces an exclusive podcast deal with filmmaker Ava DuVernay

TechCrunch

Spotify continues to enlist big names for its podcasting efforts. The latest: Filmmaker Ava DuVernay and her arts collective Array.

DuVernay has directed theatrically released films including “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” but she also made “13th” and “When They See Us” for Netflix, and she’s been an eloquent proponent for streaming as a more accessible way of telling her stories.

Spotify says that through this multiyear partnership, Array will be creating exclusive scripted and unscripted programming for the streaming audio platform. For these productions, it will be working with Gimlet, the podcast network that Spotify acquired in 2019.

“Recognizing the undeniable power of voice and sound, I’m thrilled to extend ARRAY’s storytelling into the realm of podcasts,” DuVernay said in a statement. “The opportunity to work with [Gimlet’s head of content] Lydia Polgreen and her passionate team drew us to Spotify as a home for our audio narratives and we couldn’t be more excited to begin this new creative journey.”

In addition to acquiring Gimlet, Spotify has also signed exclusive podcast deals with Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Rogan and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

January 21st 2021, 1:17 pm

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

TechCrunch

All change in the capital as the Biden administration takes charge, and thankfully without a hitch (or violence) after the attempted insurrection two weeks earlier.

In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery. Plus, the news in brief.


THE BIG PICTURE

Google says SolarWinds exposure “limited,” more breaches confirmed

The cyberattack against SolarWinds, an ongoing espionage campaign already blamed on Russia, claimed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as another federal victim this week. The attack also hit cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, the company’s chief executive confirmed. Marcin Kleczynski said in a blog post that attackers gained access to a “limited” number of internal company emails. It was the same attackers as SolarWinds but using a different intrusion route. It’s now the third security company known to have been targeted by the same Russian hackers after a successful intrusion at FireEye and an unsuccessful attempt at CrowdStrike.

January 21st 2021, 1:17 pm

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump

TechCrunch

Facebook announced Thursday that its newly-established external policy review group will take on one of the company’s most consequential acts: the decision to suspend former President Trump.

On January 7, Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely. That decision followed the president’s actions the day prior, when he incited a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving American democracy on a razor’s edge and a nation already deep in crisis even more shaken.

Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action” and explained why the Oversight Board would review the case.

“Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy,” Clegg said in a blog post.

“This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again.”

In its own statement on taking the case, the Oversight Board explained that a five member panel will evaluate the case soon with a decision planned within 90 days. Once that smaller group reaches its conclusions on how to handle Trump’s Facebook status — and, potentially, future cases involving world leaders — the decision will require approval from the majority of the board’s members. After that, the pace picks up a bit and Facebook will have one week to implement the board’s final decision.

Facebook likes to say that the board is independent, but in spite of having the autonomy to make “binding” case-by-case decisions, the board grew out of Facebook itself. The company appointed the board’s four original co-chairs and those members went on to expand the group into a twenty-member body.

As we’ve previously reported, the mechanics of the board bias its activity toward Facebook content taken down — not the stuff that stays up, which generally creates larger headaches for the company and society at large. Facebook has responded to this critique, noting that while the board may initially focus on reviewing takedowns, content still up on the platforms will be part of the project’s scope “as quickly as possible.”

Given some of the criticism around the group, the Trump case is a big moment for how impactful the board’s decisions will really wind up being. If it were to overturn Facebook’s decision, that decision would likely kick up a new firestorm of interest around Trump’s Facebook account, even as the former president recedes from the public eye.

The most interesting bit about the process is that it will allow the former president’s account admins to appeal his own case. If they do so, the board will review a “user statement” arguing why Trump’s account should be reinstated.

Facebook’s external decision making body is meant as a kind of “supreme court” for the company’s own policy making. It doesn’t really move quickly or respond in the moment, but instead seeks to establish precedents that can lend insight to future policy cases. While the per-case decisions are binding, whether the broader precedents it creates will impact Facebook’s future policy decisions remains to be seen.

January 21st 2021, 1:04 pm

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

TechCrunch

If you’re somewhat famous on various social networks, chances are you are exposed to hate speech in your replies or in your comments. French startup Bodyguard recently launched its app and service in English so that it can hide toxic content from your eyes. It has been available in French for a few years and the company has attracted 50,000 users so far.

“We have developed a technology that detects hate speech on the internet with a 90 to 95% accuracy and only 2% of false positive,” founder and CEO Charles Cohen told me.

The company has started with a mobile app that anyone can use. After you download the app and connect the app with your favorite social networks, you choose the level of moderation. There are several categories, such as insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia. You can select whether it’s a low priority or a top priority for each category.

After that, you don’t have to open the app again. Bodyguard scans replies and comments from its servers and makes a decision whether something is OK or not OK. For instance, it can hide comments, mute users, block users, etc. When you open Instagram or Twitter again, it’s like those hateful comments never existed.

The app currently supports Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. Unfortunately, it can’t process content on Snapchat and TikTok due to API limitations.

Behind the scenes, most moderation services rely heavily on machine learning or keyword-based moderation. Bodyguard has chosen a different approach. It algorithmically cleans up a comment and tries to analyze the content of a comment contextually. It can determine whether a comment is offensive to you, to a third-party person, to a group of persons, etc.

More recently, the startup has launched a B2B product. Other companies can use a Bodyguard-powered API to moderate comments in real time on their social platforms or in their own apps. The company charges its customers using a traditional software-as-a-service approach.

January 21st 2021, 12:35 pm

Why you should add TechCrunch Early Stage 2021 to your must-attend list

TechCrunch

As 2020 fades into the rearview mirror of history (huzzah!), it’s time to map out strategies to transform your early-stage startup dream into reality. If there’s one thing every early founder needs it’s information, and you’ll find it in abundance at TechCrunch Early Stage 2021.

Introduced last year — and one of the most popular events in TechCrunch history — TC Early Stage provides new startup founders (pre-seed through Series A) access to top experts to help them develop and strengthen their core entrepreneurial skills.

We’re talking everything from legal issues, fundraising, marketing, growth, product-market fit, tech stack, recruiting, pitch deck teardowns and more. Think of it as a condensed accelerator experience packed with workshops and highly interactive Q&As.

This conference was so popular that we’re hosting two virtual TC Early Stage events this year. Early Stage part one (April 1-2) and Early Stage part two (July 8-9). Even better, each event stands on its own merit with different topics, content, speakers and perspectives. Attend both to double your knowledge, double your networking, double your opportunities.

We might be biased, but we’re not the only people raving about TC Early Stage. Listen to what these early-stage founders said about TC Early Stage 2020.

“I recommend going to Early Stage. The virtual aspect helps in terms of scheduling, it offers community-building through networking and it gives early stage founders a framework for navigating the startup ecosystem. This is the stage where founders need more support, especially if they haven’t done this before.” — Ashley Barrington, founder, MarketPearl.

“Sequoia Capital’s session, Start with Your Customer, looked at the benefits of storytelling and creating customer personas. I took the idea to my team, we identified seven different user types for our product, and we’ve implemented storytelling to help onboard new customers. That one session alone has transformed my business.” — Chloe Leaaetoa, founder, Socicraft.

“Early Stage 2020 provided a rich, bootcamp experience with premier founders, VCs and startup community experts. If you’re beginning to build a startup, it’s an efficient way to advance your knowledge across key startup topics.” — Katia Paramonova, founder and CEO of Centrly.

Here’s the skinny on passes. Founder passes for either April or July event cost $199. Investors and startup enthusiasts can purchase Innovator passes for $299. Note: Early bird pricing ends Feb 27 and May 1, respectively.

Pro Tip: Save more when you buy a dual-event pass. Attend both Early Stage events for just $299 (Founder) or $349 (Innovator). Remember: The events feature different speakers, topics and content.

Don’t miss this unparalleled, interactive opportunity to learn best startup practices from leading experts, investors and successful founders. Mark your calendar and buy your Early Stage passes today!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 – Operations & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

January 21st 2021, 12:17 pm

These are the 20 companies presenting at Alchemist Accelerator’s 26th Demo Day today

TechCrunch

 

The enterprise-focused Alchemist Accelerator is hosting its 26th Demo Day today, with twenty companies expected to debut.

This is Alchemist’s third Demo Day to be fully virtual due to the ongoing pandemic. Alchemist Accelerator Director Ravi Belani tells me that this virtual format has thus far “outperformed the in person Demo Day format,” with Alchemist’s internal data indicating that follow-up meetings have increased by around 20%.

Want to watch along with the presentations? They’re scheduled to start at 10:30 am Pacific, and you can find a livestream here.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of all twenty companies in the order they’re expected to present, along with a bit about what they’re working on based on what’s publicly available:

G-71: A system that helps prevent and track leaks by automatically marking company documents “in a way that is invisible to the naked eye.”

Tazi.ai: A platform meant to help businesses apply machine learning to their own data to make decisions with things like retail demand prediction, or customer churn prediction.

Impruver: A platform for rolling out and analyzing the effectiveness of “continuous improvement” strategies.

Vardo: Monitors Jira and aims to predict when a project will be delayed based on a model of how each team works.

Image Credits: Seasony

Seasony: Building a robot to automate tasks involved in vertical farming operations, such as transporting plants to the appropriate section of a farm as they grow.

EcoSync: A retrofittable solution meant to help avoid heating empty rooms in older buildings (think colleges, office buildings, etc.). Ties into your existing room scheduling system, but they’ve also built a WiFi-based occupancy sensor.

BestPlace: AI tools for retail chain optimization, meant to help businesses figure out the best location for a store or the best mix of products to sell there.

Kwali: Automated quality control for food franchises. Their example is a pizza place using cameras to check if each pizza is being made to specifications (Correct ingredients? Are ingredients evenly distributed? How thick is the crust? etc.)

BigOmics Analytics: A “self-service analytics platform” for biologists to better understand and analyze their omics data.

FotoNow: AI system for detecting mistakes/defects in manufacturing, using cameras to detect things like scratches, dents, or missing parts as components move through a facility

Predictive Wear: Smart, non-invasive wearables meant to detect dehydration in athletes, flagging it for said athletes and their coaches before it’s an issue.

Raxel: A telematics SDK for teams building apps that involve cars, scooters, etc, providing tools for analyzing driver safety, efficiency, location tracking, and flagging any accidents.

Rebolet: A service meant to optimize the process of reselling your store’s returned/overstock items. You send them your returns, they analyze the condition of an item, then either sell, donate, or recycle them.

Image Credits: UVL

UVL Robotics: Drones purpose-built to help businesses track and count the inventory in their warehouses.

AutoCloud: A reimagined interface for monitoring and identifying outages on services like AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure.

SmallTalk: AI-based tool meant to assess the language proficiency of a potential hire

Sensegrass: A “soil intelligence” platform that uses smart sensors, satellite data, and public data to help optimize crop yield.

PostureHealth: Camera-based posture correction for individuals and companies

Apis Cor: 3d printed buildings, including one the company says is already the largest 3d printed building in the world.

Via.delivery: A network of brick-and-mortar stores willing to act as local pickup locations for your shipments. They say they currently have roughly 15,000 locations across 12 time zones.

January 21st 2021, 12:17 pm

A.I.-powered transcription service Otter.ai can now record from Google Meet

TechCrunch

Otter.ai, the A.I.-powered voice transcription service which already integrates with Zoom for recording online meetings and webinars, is today bringing its service to Google Meet’s over 100 million users. However, in this case, Otter.ai will provide its live, interactive transcripts and video captions by way of a Chrome web browser extension.

Once installed, a “Live Notes” panel will launch directly in the Chrome web browser during Google Meet calls, where it appears on the side of the Google Meet interface. The panel can be moved around and scrolled through as the meeting is underway.

Here, users can view the live transcript of the online meeting, as it occurs. They can also adjust the text size, then save and share the audio transcripts when the meeting has wrapped.

The company says the feature helps businesses cut down on miscommunication, particularly for non-native English speakers who may have trouble understanding the spoken word. It also offers a more accessible way for engaging with live meeting content.

And because the transcriptions can be shared after the fact, people who missed the meeting can still be looped in to catch up — an increasing need in the remote work era of the pandemic, where home and parenting responsibilities can often distract users from their daily tasks.

The transcripts themselves can also be edited after the fact by adding images and highlights, and they can be searched by keywords, as with any Otter.ai transcription.

In addition, users can access the company’s Live Captions feature that supports custom vocabulary. Otter points out that there are other live captioning options already available for Google Meet, but the difference here is that Otter’s system creates a collaborative transcript when the meeting ends. Other systems, meanwhile, tend to just offer live captions during the meeting itself.

To use the new feature, Chrome users will need to install the Otter.ai Chrome extension from the Chrome Web Store, then sign in to their Otter.ai account. The new feature is available to all Otter.ai customers, including those on Basic, Pro and Business plans.

Otter in the past leveraged its earlier Zoom integration to push more users from free plans to paid tiers, and will likely do the same with the new Google Meet support. The company’s paid plans offer the ability to record more minutes per month, and include a range of additional features like the ability to import audio and video for transcription, a variety of export options, advanced search features, Dropbox sync, added security measures, and more.

The company has seen its business increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying shift to online meetings. Last April, Otter said it had transcribed over 25 million meetings, and its revenue run rated had doubled compared with the end of 2019.

January 21st 2021, 12:04 pm

Walking Duck is a digital news startup trying to find middle ground in U.S. politics

TechCrunch

Can any news organization bridge the separate realities that the left and right seem to occupy in U.S. politics? A new startup with the odd-yet-memorable name Walking Duck is going to try.

Walking Duck (an inversion of a “lame duck” president and a reference to the duck test) was founded by journalist Mark Halperin, as well as Paul and Audra Wilke, who are also backing it with their PR firm Upright Position Communications.

While the startup is producing a variety of content and events, including virtual town halls, there are three main pieces to the Walking Duck strategy — the Walking Duck website, which aggregates news from other publications, usually focused on a few key stories for the day, with additional commentary; plus Halperin’s newsletter Wide World of News and his Newsmax show Mark Halperin’s Focus Group.

Halperin also serves as Walking Duck’s managing editor, and he said that he and the Wilkes have a shared vision for a publication that’s different from “the partisan media,” where “everything is cast through the lens of the red tribe or the blue tribe.”

And yes, aggregation is a key part of that vision, not just allowing the startup to cover national news with a relatively small team of five (for now), but also to offer different perspectives. In fact, Halperin argued that any news organization that’s being honest will admit that it’s doing aggregation.

Image Credits: Walking Duck

“Even if you have a big scoop about something, people want to know: What’s the reaction to the scoop, how is that scoop being treated elsewhere?” he said. “Aggregation can be smarter and faster and less ideological than exists in a lot of places. You can aggregate for everyone where you and elevate smart over angry.”

In my conversation with Halperin and Paul Wilke (Walking Duck’s CEO), I suggested that the “both sides” approach (which other new publications are also touting) has its limitations: When you’ve got a (now former) president seeking to undermine an election that he lost, and when his supporters violently storming the Capitol, simply presenting two sides of an argument as if they were equally valid seems insufficient, to put it mildly.

“We don’t always try to show both sides, accuracy matters,” Wilke said. Similarly, Halperin said that it’s less about making sure there’s a 50-50 balance, and more about avoiding the limitations of a partisan lens. As an example, he argued that liberal outlets demonized former FBI director James Comey after his memo may have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, then reversed course and valorized him after  President Trump fired him.

“I think he should be covered on the individual incidents in a way that’s consistent,” Halperin said.

All of that might sound incongruous from a journalist with a show on Newsmax — which, far from being a center-of-the-road network, has attracted an audience by being more pro-Trump and more willing to spread election misinformation than Fox News. But Halperin and Wilke said that by creating a show that brings four Trump voters and four Biden voters (not professional pundits) from across the country together over Zoom and attempting to find common ground, they’re exposing conservative viewers to new points of view — and they’d be happy to do the same for liberals if the show was on MSNBC.

“Just go to any cable news network and try to find a show that’s to Trump voters and talking to Biden voters,” Halperin said. “We’re dong it every week. That’s the essence of trying to grapple with how do these two groups talk to each other.”

Halperin does have an existing relationship with Newsmax, which came after he lost his contracts at more mainstream networks following numerous accusations of sexual harassment.

When I brought this up in my initial email correspondence with Wilke, he said, “[Mark’s] history is firmly in his past. He’s expressed remorse, been through counseling and has publicly (and privately) apologized to his victims, and they have … accepted his apologies. Additionally, Upright (my other company) is a PR firm that has more women than men, and we’re bringing some of them over to Walking Duck, and we discussed this issue with them and made sure they felt comfortable and knew that a safe workplace was a priority.”

I also brought this up on our call, and Halperin said, “I recognize the expectations that people have. I’ve just continued to do my best to be a good colleague and a good professional. If people are willing to let me work I appreciate the opportunities, but it’s up to them.”

January 21st 2021, 12:04 pm

8 VCs agree: behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

TechCrunch

In TechCrunch investor surveys of years past, we’ve seen a big focus on fixing what’s broken or bringing the infrastructure into the modern era. But the world has dramatically changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More of us saw our doctor on video than ever before in 2020 — reaching a 300-fold increase in telehealth visits. It was the year healthcare finally moved fully into the digital space with data management solutions as well. And, though those digital visits have fallen slightly from the beginning of the pandemic, it doesn’t look like people want to go back to the way things were in the foreseeable future.

Now we’re onto the next phase where more people will be getting vaccinated, more of us will likely start to return to the office towards the end of the year, and there’s now a slew of new tech solutions to the issues 2020 presented. If you are investment-minded, as so many of our TechCrunch readers are, you will likely see a lot of potential in this space in 2021.

So we asked some of our favorite health tech VCs from The TechCrunch List where we are headed in the next year, what they’re most excited about and where they might be investing their dollars next. We asked each of them the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity:


Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocker, partners, Venrock

Do you see more consumer demand for digital services? How does this trend affect what you are looking to invest in for 2021?
The pandemic certainly intensified pressure on the legacy, fee-for-service, activity-based healthcare system since volumes dried up for several months. People were scared to go to the doctor and doctors who are only paid when they see patients saw their revenue evaporate overnight. Telemedicine offered some revenue salvation fee-for-service healthcare but it was impossible to do as many tests and procedures so they have by and large, since summer 2020, reverted back to in-person as much as possible for increased revenue capture.

On the other hand, value-based providers were, in the short term, more insulated as they are paid based on typical levels of utilization. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has motivated more providers to embrace value-based care because it offers much more stable cash flows and does not depend on the tyranny of cramming more patients into the daily schedule.

With value-based care, the incentives are strongly aligned for more, and continued, tech-enabled virtual care since it is more profitable for those clinicians when they detect diseases earlier and take action to avoid hospitalizations. The beauty of virtual and tech-enabled care is that it can be delivered more frequently and group visits can be facilitated easily, with multiple specialists or people supporting a patient, to improve coordination and speed of action. Also, much more data can be brought to bear to make these interactions higher quality. Imagine how much better blood pressure is controlled when a doctor has not just the in-office reading but also all of the daily readings, or diabetic control when it is informed by all the data from a patient’s continuous glucose monitor, or post-surgical care when a surgeon can review daily pictures of the surgical site.

The enormity of the opportunity to make healthcare more productive and recession-proof growth from our aging population will attract more entrepreneurs and more capital to healthcare IT.

Digital health funding broke records in 2020, with investors pouring in over $10 billion in the first three quarters and a jump in deals overall, compared to the previous year. Do you see that trend continuing as we move back to offices and out of this pandemic or do you think this was a blip due to special circumstances?

We think growth in healthcare IT has been and will continue to be, driven by (1) better businesses and business models via aligned economic incentives and information and (2) some big wins in the space via Teladoc-Livongo merger and JD Health IPO — so both sides of the supply (great businesses) — demand (investor interest) equation. For payers, many healthcare providers and patients, it is in their interest to adopt more cost-effective approaches for care delivery and to access new data to derive insights and remove arbitrages. These prerequisites are strongly aligned in favor of more healthcare IT company formation, rapid growth and successful exits.

While people may spend more time receiving in-person HC in the future than today, we think the rapid adoption of virtual care in 2020 coupled with ever-stronger incentives for the healthcare system to emulate consumer technology usability and the never-ending imperative of improving affordability, will continue to drive demand for startups. We also think that downward cost pressures will drive demand for technology to replace fax-machine-era, labor-first administrative processes too.

What do you think are the biggest trends to look out for in the digital healthcare industry this next year, given we are likely toward the end of the year to see more workers return to the office and everyone resuming activities as they did before this pandemic hit?

We think that telehealth will become the “Intel Inside” for many of the full stack healthcare IT businesses — Medicare Advantage payers, navigation companies, virtual pharmacies, virtual primary care practices — and that patients will continue to embrace telehealth. As a result, payers will increasingly redesign how insurance benefits work to encourage every patient to start with a telehealth visit every time. In many cases, telehealth will be able to fully resolve the problem and if not, guide the patient, along with the relevant data, to the best next step in care. This will improve responsiveness and reduce costs. We do think that brick-and-mortar players will lag behind since they continue to have strong incentives for in-person care and procedures to cover their large fixed costs.

COVID-19 has also made inescapable the inadequacy of behavioral healthcare in America. We have observed this firsthand through our investment in Lyra Health, which experienced dramatic growth in 2020. We think greater access to behavioral health, better coordination of behavioral health and primary care, better use of medications and tech-enabled care for more complex behavioral health conditions are all large opportunities.

We also foresee virtual care growing in more specialty care areas as patients demand more convenient ways to access specialist expertise and value-based primary care doctors desire more rapid and cost-effective ways to co-manage patients.

How will the Biden administration possibly affect your funding strategy in the digital health field now that there’s a change of the guard?

Economic incentives to lower healthcare cost growth and the desire to use information and data to find arbitrages and insights are as aligned as ever. Remember, the law driving the adoption of new payment models is MACRA, which passed the Senate in a bipartisan 92-8 vote in 2015. This implies an uninterrupted effort to drive the adoption of value-based care in Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid. A Biden administration will also continue efforts to create more interoperable data systems and support telehealth adoption.

A Biden administration also reduces uncertainty around the permanence of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They instead will focus their efforts on expanding coverage through enhanced subsidies to buy insurance, more marketing of ACA plans, greater support for e-broker enrollment and strong incentives for states to expand Medicaid. And we do not think Medicare for All will be seriously considered by a ~50/50 Senate, although it will likely be spoken about periodically and loudly by the far left.

What’s the biggest category in your mind for digital health this next year? Why is that?

“Technology-enabled, virtual-everything” as the initial journey in healthcare, until you need to visit a facility because in-person is necessary. In 2020, we witnessed about a decade of user adoption compressed into six months as COVID-19 made it scary, or even impossible, to access in-person healthcare. Nearly every clinician in America, and at about half of the population, conducted a virtual healthcare visit in 2020. What happened? Patients liked it. Clinicians found virtual visits useful. And going forward we think that most care will incorporate aspects of virtual care, asynchronous communication and in-person encounters only when a procedure is needed. As importantly, payers found these approaches to be more cost-effective since care was delivered more rapidly and with only the most necessary diagnostics tests ordered.

Finally, are there any rising startups in your portfolio we should keep our eyes on at TechCrunch? 

We have two portfolio companies that may be very compelling candidates:  Suki and NewCo Health.

Suki has created a virtual medical assistant that acts as a voice user interface for electronic health records, enabling a doctor to write their clinical notes, enter orders, view information and exchange data with other providers dramatically and more efficiently. They have launched primary care and specialist doctors across dozens of health systems in 2020.

NewCo Health is a startup trying to democratize access to world-class cancer outcomes. Starting initially in Asia, they are tech-enabling the diagnosis, treatment planning and care management processes for cancer patients, connecting expert clinicians to every cancer case.

January 21st 2021, 12:04 pm

Plaid launches FinRise, an incubator for underrepresented fintech founders

TechCrunch

Plaid is launching FinRise, a nine-month incubator for early-stage fintech founders from underrepresented backgrounds. Inspired by an internal hackathon amid Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the accelerator is explicitly looking at startups led by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Plaid Growth Manager Nell Malone and Design Manager Bhargavi Kamakshivalli are spearheading the project.

Malone tells TechCrunch that the incubator is looking to accept three to five post-seed and pre-Series B tech startups with a product in the beta stage. In order to apply, startups need to have a minimum of 2 employees and a founder to join the program. The startup should obviously operate in the fintech space, but specifically have a part of its business focused on consumer business finance data.

That last prerequisite dovetails exactly into what Plaid does: it’s a software startup that acts as connective tissue between consumer bank accounts and fintech apps. Thus, FinRise feels like a creative extension of these integrations, albeit one focused more on helping founders start companies than simply gaining new customers.

Accepted startups will get mentorship from Plaid leaders, a dedicated account manager who will help with product insights, and a network where founders can go to for advice on the bootcamp sessions. The incubator is longer than an accelerator program like Y Combinator or TechStars, which usually run for three months, but less intensive.

“The three-day virtual bootcamp will be the most intensive part of the FinRise program,” Malone said. “After the workshop, participants will work with their dedicated account managers and have access to ongoing programming support structures…our goal is to provide ongoing support at every stage of our participant’s journey over the course of nine months.”

The announcement fortuitously comes just a week after Plaid announced it would not merge with Visa after running into regulatory hurdles. The deal, which was valued at $5.3 billion when announced, was met with optimism from fintech founders and VCs. That said, it did underscore how private fintech startups will increasingly have to deal with policy issues as the sector continues to grow.

The accelerator’s bootcamp portion, which will be a three-day affair, plans to address this dynamic in the lens of how startups should deal with regulatory and legal pressures in the financial services space. Other topics of discussion will include information security, engineering practices, and user-centric design.

The hurdle for underrepresented founders tends to be access to funding instead of access to mentorship.  For now, the incubator isn’t taking any equity nor is it giving any capital itself, but FinRise did commit to introducing its cohort to a network of VC firms and accelerators with checkbooks.

Of course, Plaid could also consider investing in any of these startups, taking a classic corporate venture capital approach. When asked if this could happen, Malone said that “this is not part of our plan right now. It’s early, we’re excited to pilot the program and see how it goes.”

January 21st 2021, 11:14 am

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing

TechCrunch

The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.

The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.

Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.

The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.

The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”

Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.

The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.

As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.

Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.

Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.

[gallery ids="2098908,2098905,2098906,2098907,2098909,2098910,2098911,2098913,2098916"]

Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.

I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.

There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:

  1. The stylus is sold separately.
  2. You need to buy a case with an S Pen holder (also sold separately, naturally) if you’ve got any hope of not losing it.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.

The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.

In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.

It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”

 

January 21st 2021, 11:14 am

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users

TechCrunch

YouTube is embracing the hashtag. The company has been quietly working on a new feature that allows users to better discover content using hashtags — either by clicking on a hashtag on YouTube or by typing in a hashtag link directly. Before, these actions would return a mix of content related to the hashtag, but not only those videos where the hashtag had been directly used. Now that’s changing, as YouTube has fully rolled out its new “hashtag landing pages.”

Going forward, when you click on a hashtag on YouTube, you’ll be taken to a dedicated landing page that contains only videos that are using the hashtag. This page is also sorted to keep the “best” videos at the top, YouTube claimed. The ranking algorithm, however, may need some work as it’s currently surfacing an odd mix of both newer and older videos and seems to be heavily dominated by Indian creator content, in several top categories.

The result, then, is not the equivalent to something like a hashtag search on a social network like Facebook or Twitter, for example, where more recent content gets top billing. For that reason, it may be difficult to use these hashtag landing pages for discovery of new videos to watch, as intended, but could still serve as an interesting research tool for creators looking to better leverage the hashtag format.

For instance, you may find that the #interiordesign hashtag is a crowded place, with 8,400 channels and 29,000 videos, but a niche hashtag like #interiordesignlivingroom has under 100 channels and videos. If people began to use hashtags regularly to seek out videos, using narrowly targeted tags could potentially help creators’ videos be more easily found.

Image Credits: YouTube screenshot

The hashtag landing pages are accessed through clicking on a tag on YouTube, not by doing a hashtag search. However, if you want to go to a particular hashtag page directly, you can use the URL format of youtube.com/hashtag/[yourterm]. (E.g. youtube.com/hashtag/beauty)

We’ve noticed, in testing the feature, that there are not hashtag pages for some controversial terms associated with content YouTube previously said it would block, like QAnon and election conspiracy videos, such as #stopthesteal.

The feature itself was first announced through YouTube’s Community forum earlier this month, where it was described as a new way that YouTube would “group content together and help you discover videos through hashtags.”

On Tuesday, YouTube noted on its “Creator Insider” channel that the feature had been fully rolled out to 100% of all users. (The video’s creator, however, misspoke, by saying you could “search” for hashtags to reach the new landing page. That is not the case today.) The hashtag landing pages are available on both desktop and mobile.

 

January 21st 2021, 10:59 am

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech

TechCrunch

This morning, while checking the latest price for shares of recent IPO Poshmark, I noticed that they were down from their first-day results. The company’s pricing was more than strong, and its first trading results were nearly comical.

After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the the used goods marketplace’s debut.

But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?


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


So The Exchange, ever at your service, raced around to collect the data. And what did we find? Most hot tech IPOs have held onto their gains, and many have actually run up the score in the ensuing weeks.

Lemonade is a great example. It first targeted a $23 to $26 per-share IPO price. That rose to $26 to $28 per share, then it priced at $29 per share. It opened at $50.06 per share, closing the day worth $69.41. 

And today? A single Lemonade share will set you back $145.21. The company is now worth $8.22 billion, despite only posting Q3 revenues of $17.8 million, a decline from the year-ago period (for more on why that is, and why it isn’t as bad as you might initially think, read this.)

Analysts anticipate that Lemonade will post revenues of $18.91 million in Q4 2020, again via Yahoo Finance, putting the company on an annualized run rate of 109x. For a business running with net margins of -173.6% in its most recent quarter. And that’s after Lemonade announced a large share sale!

All this is to say that the fiery optimism fueling dazzling IPO debuts has the potential to keep pushing them higher. Which you can view as troubling, if you are a boring index funder like myself, enticing, if you are a founder looking to go public in the near-future, and potentially irksome if you are a VC annoyed when upside leaks to parties other than yourself.

This brings us to our data set. Below, I’ve collated a host of recent IPOs, their opens and their current prices. Only one has shed value.

And then we reexamined eight 2020 offerings that you will recall so we could run the same exercise. The results were not what I expected and indicate a stock market — let alone an IPO market — sufficiently inflated to warrant the whispered moniker of bubble.

Let’s have some fun.

Up, and then up some more

January 21st 2021, 10:59 am

South African startup Aerobotics raises $17M to scale its AI-for-agriculture platform

TechCrunch

As the global agricultural industry stretches to meet expected population growth and food demand, and food security becomes more of a pressing issue with global warming, a startup out of South Africa is using artificial intelligence to help farmers manage their farms, trees, and fruits.

Aerobotics is a South African startup that provides intelligent tools to the world’s agriculture industry. It raised $17 million in an oversubscribed Series B round.

South African consumer internet giant Naspers led the round through its investment arm, Naspers Foundry, investing $5.6 million, according to Aerobotics. Cathay AfricInvest Innovation, FMO: Entrepreneurial Development Bank, and Platform Investment Partners, also participated.

Founded in 2014 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics is currently focused on building tools for fruit and tree farmers. Using artificial intelligence, drones and other robotics, its technology helps track and assess the health of these crops, including identifying when trees are sick, tracking pests and diseases, and analytics for better yield management. 

The company has progressed its technology and provides independent and reliable yield estimations and harvest schedules to farmers by collecting and processing both tree and fruit imagery from citrus growers early in the season. In turn, farmers can prepare their stock, predict demand, and ensure their customers have the best quality of produce.

Aerobotics has experienced record growth in the last few years. For one, it claims to have the largest proprietary data set of trees and citrus fruit in the world having processed 81 million trees and more than a million citrus fruit.

The seven-year-old startup is based in Cape Town, South Africa. At a time when many of the startups out of the African continent have focused their attention primarily on identifying and fixing challenges at home, Aerobotics has found a lot of traction for its services abroad, too. It has offices in the U.S., Australia, and Portugal — like Africa, home to other major, global agricultural economies — and operates in 18 countries across Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. 

Image Credits: Aerobotics

Within that, the U.S. is the company’s primary market, and Aerobotics says it has two provisional patents pending in the country, one for systems and methods for estimating tree age and another for systems and methods for predicting yield.  

The company said it plans to use this Series B investment to continue developing more technology and product delivery, both for the U.S. and other markets. 

“We’re committed to providing intelligent tools to optimize automation, minimize inputs and maximize production. We look forward to further co-developing our products with the agricultural industry leaders,” said Paterson, the CEO in a statement.

Once heralded as a frontier for technology centuries ago, the agriculture industry has stalled in that aspect for a long while. However, agritech companies like Aerobotics that support climate-smart agriculture and help farmers have sprung forth trying to take the industry back to its past glory. Investors have taken notice and over the past five years, investments have flowed with breathtaking pace. 

For Aerobotics, it raised $600,000 from 4Di Capital and Savannah Fund as part of its seed round in September 2017. The company then raised a further $4 million in Series A funding in February 2019, led by Nedbank Capital and Paper Plane Ventures.

Naspers Foundry, the lead investor in this Series B round, was launched by Naspers in 2019 as a 1.4 billion rand (~$100 million) fund for tech startups in South Africa. Asides Aerobotics, Naspers Foundry has invested in online cleaning service, SweepSouth, and food service platform, Food Supply Network. 

January 21st 2021, 10:44 am

PlayVS acquires GameSeta to accelerate expansion into Canada

TechCrunch

PlayVS, the esports company bringing organized leagues to high schools and colleges, is today announcing its first acquisition. The startup, which has raised more than $100 million, has acquired GameSeta, a Vancouver-based startup that is also looking to provide infrastructure for high school esports teams. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The deal will accelerate PlayVS during its growth phase and help it expand into the Canadian market. GameSeta has a partnership with BC School Sports, the governing body for organized school sports in British Columbia, which will transfer to PlayVS.

PlayVS has a similar (and exclusive) partnership with NFHS, the high school equivalent of the NCAA, here in the States. The company has also sprinted into the college market, launching a college product as part of a partnership between PlayVS and Epic Games. Since launching a college offering, total player growth is up 460 percent. The company has also launched a new $900,000 scholarship pool for high schools and colleges.

Founded by Delane Parnell in the beginning of 2019, PlayVS has grown rapidly, brokering partnerships with school sports organizations and publishers alike. In fact, PlayVS title offerings include League of Legends, Rocket League, SMITE, Overwatch, Fortnite, FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21. PlayVS has served more than 19,000 high schools across all 50 states. It boasts more than 230,000 registered users.

PlayVS acts as a portal for schools to create esports teams and compete against other schools. Traditional sports like basketball and baseball have established systems (and governing organizations) to organize league schedules, playoffs, referees and more. PlayVS has positioned itself as that governing body and organizational system for esports.

Not only does PlayVS facilitate these leagues, but it also offers colleges and esports organizations a much-needed recruitment tool, letting them view games and track metrics of individual players.

As part of the acquisition, GameSeta’s Tawanda Masawi and Rana Taj will join the PlayVS team and lead Canadian operations.

Alongside geographic expansion, PlayVS is also looking to expand beyond high schools and colleges with plans to launch a direct to consumer product.

“We’re going to launch some direct consumer products directly in partnership with publishers to open up the PlayVS ecosystem so people can organize and join competitions, whether they are associated with high schools or otherwise,” said Parnell. “We’re really excited about that. The markets in general have just shown great appetite for gaming as a form of entertainment and content. Obviously, players are really excited about eSports as a form of content and a way to engage in competition and so we want to make sure that PlayVS is a place where people compete more broadly.”

January 21st 2021, 10:44 am

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

TechCrunch

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called ‘robomorphic computing’ to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new – if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations – like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used an field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increase manufacturing speed and efficiency – though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

January 21st 2021, 10:14 am

Cloud infrastructure startup CloudNatix gets $4.5 million seed round led by DNX Ventures

TechCrunch

CloudNatix founder and chief executive officer Rohit Seth

CloudNatix, a startup that provides infrastructure for businesses with multiple cloud and on-premise operations, announced it has raised $4.5 million in seed funding. The round was led by DNX Ventures, an investment firm that focuses on United States and Japanese B2B startups, with participation from Cota Capital. Existing investors Incubate Fund, Vela Partners and 468 Capital also contributed.

The company also added DNX Ventures managing partner Hiro Rio Maeda to its board of directors.

CloudNatix was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Rohit Seth, who previously held lead engineering roles at Google. The company’s platform helps businesses reduce IT costs by analyzing their infrastructure spending and then using automation to make IT operations across multiple clouds more efficient. The company’s typical customer spends between $500,000 to $50 million on infrastructure each year, and use at least one cloud service provider in addition on-premise networks.

Built on open-source software like Kubernetes and Prometheus, CloudNatix works with all major cloud providers and on-premise networks. For DevOps teams, it helps configure and manage infrastructure that runs both legacy and modern cloud-native applications, and enables them to transition more easily from on-premise networks to cloud services.

CloudNatix competes most directly with VMWare and Red Hat OpenShift. But both of those services are limited to their base platforms, while CloudNatix’s advantage is that is agnostic to base platforms and cloud service providers, Seth told TechCrunch.

The company’s seed round will be used to scale its engineering, customer support and sales teams.

 

January 21st 2021, 10:14 am

TripActions raises $155M at $5B valuation as corporate travel recovers from pandemic lows

TechCrunch

This morning TripActions, a software company whose tools help businesses book and manage corporate travel, announced a new $155 million investment.

Three investors led the round: prior investor Andreessen Horowitz, Addition Ventures, and Elad Gil. The new investment, a Series E, values TripActions at $5 billion on a post-money basis, a company spokesperson wrote via email.

Valuation marks are normally only moderately useful, but in the case of TripActions’ latest round carry more weight.

The company — along with restaurant software unicorn Toast — became something of a poster-child for the impact of COVID-19 on some categories of startups. TechCrunch covered the launch of a new $500 million credit facility for a TripActions product called Liquid in late February, 2020. A month later in late March TripActions laid off hundreds of staff as the travel market froze solid.

For a company that had raised $250 million at a $4 billion valuation in mid-2019, it was a dramatic reversal of fortunes. (TripActions did raise an additional $125 million in what it called “convertible-to-IPO financing” last June, when the travel market was especially bleak.)

Today, however, investors are betting on the company’s fortunes, not only providing it with another nine-figures of capital, but giving it a new, larger valuation as well.

An up-round less than a year after layoffs is an impressive recovery, so TechCrunch wanted to learn more about the corporate travel market, TripActions’ bread and butter, and the pace of the venerable business trip’s recovery; as COVID-19 vaccines roll out, how quickly are employees getting back onto planes?

According to a company spokesperson, the corporate travel market is at “20 percent levels as of this month,” while growing between 3% and 6% “week-over-week.” That pace of recovery could have given investors confidence that TripActions’ recovery to at least most of its former strength was merely a matter of time.

TechCrunch also asked TripActions what the corporate travel market will look like in the Zoom-ready, hybrid-work world that many expect. A spokesperson wrote that the company “strongly” believes that corporate travel will come back, “maybe not at 100 percent immediately,” but to 75% “within the next year.”

The spokesperson also wrote that a more distributed working population could actually boost corporate travel. If that bears out, TripActions could wind up in a stronger position post-COVID than it might have managed if the pandemic had never happened. For a unicorn forced to lay off so many workers when its market temporarily disappeared, such a return to power would be a coup.

Returning to the round, TripActions intends to use the new monies to invest in its product. The company highlighted recent feature releases in an email to TechCrunch to underscore the point, including software integrations, adding that it intends to keep working on its finance-focused Liquid product.

The spokesperson also said that the company “will build features on the travel side for distributed teams to meet in-person more easily.” As many anticipate that the days of completely geographically centered companies are over, the decision makes sense.

TechCrunch asked what portion of its previously laid off staff have been rehired to date, and if the new funds will be used to rehire employees that were let go last year. We’ll update the piece when we hear back.

Regardless, from pre-pandemic highs, to a COVID-19 trough, to today with a newly raised valuation and lots of new cash, TripActions’ last year is a future business case study in the making.

January 21st 2021, 10:14 am

The biggest step the Biden administration took on climate yesterday wasn’t rejoining the Paris Agree

TechCrunch

While the Biden Administration is being celebrated for its decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement in one of its first executive orders after President Joe Biden was sworn in, it wasn’t the biggest step the administration took to advance its climate agenda.

Instead it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards. While companies track their revenues and expenses and monitor for all sorts of risks, impacts from climate change and emissions aren’t tracked in the same way. Now, in the same way there are general principals for accounting for finance, there will be principals for accounting for the impact of climate through what’s called the social cost of carbon.

Among the flurry of paperwork coming from Biden’s desk were Executive Orders calling for a review of Trump era rule-making around the environment and the reinstitution of strict standards for fuel economy, methane emissions, appliance and building efficiency, and overall emissions. But even these steps are likely to pale in significance to the fifth section of the ninth executive order to be announced by the new White House.

That’s the section addressing the accounting for the benefits of reducing climate pollution. Until now, the U.S. government hasn’t had a framework for accounting for what it calls the “full costs of greenhouse gas emissions” by taking “global damages into account”.

All of this is part of a broad commitment to let data and science inform policymaking across government, according to the Biden Administration.

Biden writes:

“It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

The specific section of the order addressing accounting and accountability calls for a working group to come up with three metrics: the social cost of carbon (SCC), the social cost of nitrous oxide (SCN) and the social cost of methane (SCM) that will be used to estimate the monetized damages associated with increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

As the executive order notes, “[an] accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.” What the Administration is doing is attempting to provide a financial figure for the damages wrought by greenhouse gas emissions in terms of rising interest rates, and the destroyed farmland and infrastructure caused by natural disasters linked to global climate change.

These kinds of benchmarks aren’t flashy, but they are concrete ways to determine accountability. That accountability will become critical as the country takes steps to meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement. It also gives companies looking to address their emissions footprints an economic framework to point to as they talk to their investors and the public.

The initiative will include top leadership like the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a position that Biden elevated to a cabinet level post).

Representatives from each of the major federal agencies overseeing the economy, national health, and the environment will be members of the working group along with the representatives or the National Climate Advisor and the Director of the National Economic Council.

While the rule-making is proceeding at the federal level, some startups are already developing services to help businesses monitor their emissions output.

These are companies like CarbonChainPersefoni, and SINAI Technologies. And their work compliments non-profits like CDP, which works with companies to assess carbon emissions.

Biden’s plan will have the various agencies and departments working quickly. The administration expects an interim SCC, SCN, and SCM within the next 30 days, which agencies will use when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations and agency actions. The President wants final metrics will be published by January of next year.

The executive order also restored protections to national parks and lands that had been opened to oil and gas exploration and commercial activity under the Trump Administration and blocked the development of the Keystone Pipeline, which would have brought oil from Canadian tar sands into and through the U.S.

“The Keystone XL pipeline disserves the U.S. national interest. The United States and the world face a climate crisis. That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory. At home, we will combat the crisis with an ambitious plan to build back better, designed to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs,” according to the text of the Executive Order. “The United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway. Leaving the Key`12stone XL pipeline permit in place would not be consistent with my Administration’s economic and climate imperatives.”

January 21st 2021, 9:29 am

Soci raises $80M for its localized marketing platform

TechCrunch

Soci, a startup focused on what it calls “localized marketing,” is announcing that it has raised $80 million in Series D funding.

National and global companies like Ace Hardware, Anytime Fitness, The Hertz Corporation and Nekter Juice Bar use Soci (pronounced soh-shee) to coordinate individual stores as they promote themselves through search, social media, review platforms and ad campaigns. Soci said that in 2020, it brought on more than 100 new customers, representing nearly 30,000 new locations.

Co-founder and CEO Afif Khoury told me that the pandemic was a crucial moment for the platform, with so many businesses “scrambling to find a real solution to connect with local audiences.”

One of the key advantages to Soci’s approach, Khoury said, is to allow the national marketing team to share content and assets so that each location stays true to the “national corporate personality,” while also allowing each location to express  a “local personality.” During the pandemic, businesses could share basic information about “who’s open, who’s not” while also “commiserating and expressing the humanity that’s often missing element from marketing nationally.”

“The result there was businesses that had to close, when they had their grand reopenings, people wanted to support that business,” he said. “It created a sort of bond that hopefully lasts forever.”

Khoury also emphasized that Soci has built a comprehensive platform that businesses can use to manage all their localized marketing, because “nobody wants to have seven different logins to seven different systems, especially at the local level.”

The new funding, he said, will allow Soci to make the platform even more comprehensive, both through acquisitions and integrations: “We want to connect into the CRM, the point-of-sale, the rewards program and take all that data and marry that to our search, social, reviews data to start to build a profile on a customer.”

Soci has now raised a total of $110 million. The Series D was led by JMI Equity, with participation from Ankona Capital, Seismic CEO Doug Winter and Khoury himself.

“All signs point to an equally difficult first few months of this year for restaurants and other businesses dependent on their communities,” said JMI’s Suken Vakil in a statement. “This means there will be a continued need for localized marketing campaigns that align with national brand values but also provide for community-specific messaging. SOCi’s multi-location functionality positions it as a market leader that currently stands far beyond its competitors as the must-have platform solution for multi-location franchises/brands.”

January 21st 2021, 9:15 am

Creative Fabrica, a platform for digital crafting resources, lands $7 million Series A

TechCrunch

Roemie Hillenaar and Anca Stefan, the co-founders of Creative Fabrica

Creative Fabrica is best known as a marketplace for digital files, like fonts, graphics and machine embroidery designs, created for crafters. Now the Amsterdam-based startup is planning to expand into new verticals, including yarn crafts and projects for kids, with a $7 million Series A round led by Felix Capital. FJ Labs and returning investor Peak Capital also participated.

The new funding brings Creative Fabrica’s total raised to about $7.6 million, including its 2019 seed round.

Before launching Creative Fabrica in 2016, co-founders Anca Stefan and Roemie Hillenaar ran a digital agency. The startup was created to make finding digital files for creative projects easier. It started as a marketplace, but now also includes a showcase for finished projects, tools for creating fonts and word art, and a subscription service called the Craft Club. The company currently claims more than one million users around the world, with about 60% located in the United States and 20% in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Creative Fabrica’s sellers make money in a couple of ways. If their digital assets are purchased individually, they get 50% of revenue. Files downloaded through the subscription service are assigned points, with creators receiving revenue at the end of the subscription period based on the number of points they accumulate.

Hillenaar, the company’s chief executive officer, told TechCrunch that Creative Fabrica launches new verticals based on what they see users sharing on their platform. For example, its designs are often used for die-cutting, and it recently launched POD (print on demand) files and digital embroidery verticals based on user interest.

Many of the files sold on Creative Fabrica include a commercial license and about 35% of its users actively sell the crafts they make. There are several other marketplaces that offers digital downloads for crafters and designers, including Etsy and Creative Market. Hillenaar said Creative Fabrica’s automated curation gives it more control over copyright infringement than Etsy, which means its users have more assurance that they can sell things made with its files without running into issues. While Creative Market also sells fonts, vector graphics and other files, it is mostly targeted toward publishers and website designers. Creative Fabrica’s focus on crafters means it files are designed to work with home equipment like Silhouette, a die-cutting machine.

Creative Fabrica also focuses on the entire creative process of a crafter or the “full funnel,” Hillenaar added. For example, someone who wants to make decorations for a birthday party can look through projects shared to the platform for inspiration, download digital materials and then start crafting using Creative Fabrica’s tutorials. Since many of Creative Fabrica’s crafts involve equipment like desktop die-cutting machines or sewing and embroidery machines, the platform offers a series of comprehensive tutorials to help crafters get started.

As Creative Fabrica expands into verticals like yarn crafts (it already offers knitting and crochet patterns) and kids projects, it’ll compete more directly with site likes Ravelry, which many yarn crafters rely on for patterns and services like Kiwi Crate that supply materials and instructions for children. Hillenaar said Creative Fabrica’s value proposition is focusing on the many people who take part in several different kinds of crafts.

According to a report from the Association for Creative Industries, about 63% of American households are involved with some form of craft. Out of that number, most partake in multiple kinds of projects.

“Somebody who is knitting is also likely to do die-cutting or woodworking, or another type of craft,” he said. “We believe that with our holistic view on this market we can cater to your whole creative crafting side instead of focusing on just one niche.”

January 21st 2021, 8:45 am

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

TechCrunch

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

January 21st 2021, 8:45 am

Google inks agreement in France on paying publishers for news reuse

TechCrunch

Google has reached an agreement with an association of French publishers over how it will be pay for reuse of snippets of their content. This is a result of application of a ‘neighbouring right’ for news which was transposed into national law following a pan-EU copyright reform agreed back in 2019.

The tech giant had sought to evade paying French publishers for use of content snippets in its news aggregation and search products by no longer displaying them in the country.

But in April last year the French competition watchdog quashed its attempt to avoid payments, using an urgent procedure known as interim measures — deeming Google’s unilateral withdrawal of snippets to be unfair and damaging to the press sector, and likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position.

A few months later Google lost an appeal against the watchdog’s injunction ordering it to negotiate to pay for reuse of snippets — leaving it little choice but to sit at the table with French publishers and talk payment.

L’Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale (APIG), which represents the interests of around 300 political and general information press titles in France, announced the framework agreement today, writing that it sets the terms of negotiation with its members for Google’s reuse of their content.

In a statement, Pierre Louette, CEO of Groupe Les Echos – Le Parisien, and president of L’Alliance, said: “After long months of negotiations, this agreement is an important milestone, which marks the effective recognition of the neighboring rights of press publishers and the beginning of their remuneration by digital platforms for the use of their online publications.”

Google has also put out a blog post — lauding what it said is a “major step forward” after months of negotiations with French publishers.

The agreement “establishes a framework within which Google will negotiate individual licensing agreements with IPG certified publishers within APIG’s membership, while reflecting the principles of the law”, it said.

IPG certification refers to a status that online media organizations in France can gain if they meet certain quality standards, such as having at least one professional journalist on staff and having a main purpose of creating permanent and continuous content that provides political and general information of interest to a wide and varied audience.

“These agreements will cover publishers’ neighboring rights, and allow for participation in News Showcase, a new licencing program recently launched by Google to provide readers access to enriched content,” Google added, making reference to a news partnership program it announced last year — which it said would have an initial $1BN investment.

Google has not confirmed how much money will be distributed to publishers in France solely under the agreed framework over content reuse which is directly linked to the neighbouring right.

And the News Showcase program which Google spun up quickly last year looks conveniently designed to help it obfuscate the value of individual payments it may be legally required to make to publishers for reusing their content.

The tech giant told us it is in conversations with publishers in many countries to negotiate agreements for News Showcase — a program that is not limited to the EU.

It also said earlier investments announced with publishers under Showcase come as it anticipates legal regimes that may exist once the EU’s copyright directive is implemented in other countries, adding that it will evaluate laws as and when they are introduced.

(NB: France was among the first EU countries to the punch to transpose the copyright directive; application of the neighbouring right will expand across the bloc as other Member States bake the directive into national law.)

On the French agreements specifically, Google said they are for its News Showcase but are also inclusive of the publisher’s neighboring rights, after we asked about the separation between payments that will be made under the French framework and Google’s News Showcase. So about as clear as mud, then.

The tech giant did tell us it has reached individual agreements with a handful of French publishers so far, including (major national newspaper titles) Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération.

It added that payments will go direct to publishers and terms will not be disclosed — noting they are strictly confidential. It also said these individual deals with publishers take account of the neighbouring right framework but also reflect individual publisher needs and differences.

On criteria for payments for neighbouring rights, Google’s blog post states: “The remuneration that is included in these licensing agreements is based on criteria such as the publisher’s contribution to political and general information (IPG certified publishers), the daily volume of publications, and its monthly internet traffic.”

On this, Google also told us it is focused on IPG publishers because the French law is too (it pointed to a line of the law that states: “The amount of this remuneration takes into account elements such as human, material and financial investments made by publishers and press agencies, the contribution to press publications to political and general information and the importance of use of press publications by online public communication services.”)

But it added that its door remains open to discussion with other non APIG publishers.

We also reached out to L’Alliance with questions and will update this report with any response.

Although individual payments to publishers under the French framework are not being disclosed the agreement looks like a major win for Europe’s press sector — which had lobbied extensively to extend copyright to news snippets via the EU’s controversial copyright reform.

Some individual EU Member States — including Germany and Spain — previously attempted to get Google to pay publishers by baking similar copyright provisions into national law. But in those instances Google either forced publishers to give it their snippets for free (by playing traffic-hungry publishers off against each other) or shut down Google News entirely. So some payment is clearly better than nada.

That said, with details of the terms of individual deals not disclosed — and no clarity over exactly how remunerations will be calculated — there’s a lot that remains murky over Google paying for news reuse.

Neither Google nor L’Alliance have said how much money will be distributed in total under the French agreement to covered publishers. 

Another issue we’re curious about is how the framework will protect publishers from changes to Google’s search algorithms that could have a negative impact on traffic to their sites.

This seems important given that monthly traffic is one of the criteria being used to determine payment. (And it’s not hard to find examples of such negative search ‘blips’.)

It also looks clear that the more publishers Google can attract into its ‘News Showcase’ program, the more options Google will have for displaying news snippets in its products — and therefore at a price it has more power to set.

So the longer term impact of the application of the EU’s copyright directive on publisher revenues — and, indeed, how it might influence the quality of online journalism that Google accelerates into Internet users’ eyeballs — remains to be seen.

The French competition watchdog’s investigation also remains ongoing. Google said it continues to engage with that probe.

In 2019 the national watchdog slapped Google with a €150 million fine for abusing its dominant position in the online search advertising market — sanctioning it for “opaque and difficult to understand” operating rules for its ad platform, Google Ads, and for applying them in “an unfair and random manner.”

While, last October, the US Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google — alleging that the company is “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising”.

The UK’s competition watchdog has also raised concerns about the ad market dominance of Google and Facebook, asking for views on breaking up Google back in 2019. The UK government has since said it will establish a pro-competition regulator to put limits on big tech.

January 21st 2021, 7:29 am

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

TechCrunch

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

January 21st 2021, 7:14 am

Financial forecasting startup Springbox AI launches its apps and raises $2M

TechCrunch

Springbox AI, an AI-powered financial forecasting application designed to replace financial market investment service and aimed at the average financial markets trader, has launched on iOS and Android.

It’s been built by a team of founders who previously worked at Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas. It’s so far raised $2M in funding from private investors in Europe.

The app costs $49 a month, and includes a range of tools including market forecasting; live market screening of stocks, forex, and futures markets; and trading news.

Springbox AI Co-Founder Kassem Lahham said: “Most brokers focus their marketing by selling investors the dream or the myth of easy-money, resulting in 96% of self-traders losing money and quitting. Using Springbox AI traders will have access to an app that will help them succeed, focused on the data.”

Springbox competes with trading apps like eToro, but eToro focuses on social trading and following a strong investor from the community. Springbox is designed for slightly more sophisticated traders, say the founders.

January 21st 2021, 6:13 am

Raspberry Pi Foundation launches $4 microcontroller with custom chip

TechCrunch

Meet the Raspberry Pi Pico, a tiny little microcontroller that lets you build hardware projects with some code running on the microcontroller. Even more interesting, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is using its own RP2040 chip, which means that the foundation is now making its own silicon.

If you’re not familiar with microcontrollers, those devices let you control other parts or other devices. You might think that you can already do this kind of stuff with a regular Raspberry Pi. But microcontrollers are specifically designed to interact with other things.

They’re cheap, they’re small and they draw very little power. You can start developing your project with a breadboard to avoid soldering. You can pair it with a small battery and it can run for weeks or even months. Unlike computers, microcontrollers don’t run traditional operating systems. Your code runs directly on the chip.

Like other microcontrollers, the Raspberry Pi Pico has dozens of input and output pins on the sides of the device. Those pins are important as they act as the interface with other components. For instance, you can make your microcontroller interact with an LED light, get data from various sensors, show some information on a display, etc.

The Raspberry Pi Pico uses the RP2040 chip. It has a dual-core Arm processor (running at 133MHz), 264KB of RAM, 26 GPIO pins including 3 analog inputs, a micro-USB port and a temperature sensor. It doesn’t come with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. And it costs $4.

If you want to run something on the Raspberry Pi Pico, it’s quite easy. You plug your device to your computer using the micro-USB port. You boot up the Raspberry Pi Pico while pressing the button. The device will appear on your computer as an external drive.

In addition to C, you can use MicroPython as your development language. It’s a Python-inspired language for microcontrollers. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has written a ton of documentation and a datasheet for the Pico.

Interestingly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to let others benefit from its own chip design. It has reached out to Adafruit, Arduino, Pimoroni and Sparkfun so that they can build their own boards using the RP2040 chip. There will be an entire ecosystem of RP2040-powered devices.

This is an interesting move for the Raspberry Pi Foundation as it can go down this path and iterate on its own chip design with more powerful variants. It provides two main advantages — the ability to control exactly what to put on board, and price.

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

January 21st 2021, 5:13 am

Porsche and Axel Springer increase investment into their APX accelerator to €55M

TechCrunch

Berlin-based early-stage fund APX today announced that its two investors, European publisher Axel Springer and sports car maker Porsche, have increased their investment in the fund to a total of €55 million.

With this, APX, which launched in 2018, is now able to deploy up to €500,000 in pre-Series A seed funding per company. That’s up from up to €100,000 when the fund launched. So far, the group has invested in more than 70 companies and plans to increase this number to close to 200 by 2022.

When APX launched, the fund didn’t disclose the total investment from Porsche and Axel Springer. Today, the team said that the new investment “more than doubles APX’s total amount for investing in new and current companies.” APX also stressed that the total volume of the fund is now “at least” €55 million, in part because the investors can always allocate additional funding for outliers.

In addition to the new funding, APX also today announced that it is doing away with its 100-day accelerator program and instead opting for a long-term commitment to its companies, including participation in future rounds.

“We will try and invest into 50 or more companies this year — and we were at 35 last year. So this is quite some growth,” APX founding managing director (and folk music aficionado) Henric Hungerhoff told me. “We think that our deal flow systems and our entire operations are settled in well enough that we can have quality founders in our portfolio. That’s our goal — and that might even increase to 70 the year after. […] We see really nice synergies or network effects within our portfolio, with founders helping other founders and learning from each other.”

Image Credits: APX

Hungerhoff tells me that the team is quite confident in its ability now to identify quality deal flows. The team is using a data-driven approach. And while it leverages its own network and that of its founders, it has also set up a scout program at leading European universities to identify potential founders, for example.

As APX founding managing director, and the former CEO of Axel Springer’s Plug and Play accelerator, Jörg Rheinboldt noted, APX never asks its founders to pitch. Instead, the team has multiple conversations with them about the product they want to build, how they came up with the idea — and how it changed over time.

“And then, we do multiple things simultaneously,” Rheinboldt said. “One is, we look at team dynamics. How do the founders interact? We also stress them a little bit — in a friendly way — where someone asks very fast questions, or we focus a little bit on one person and see how the others rescue them. We want to know about the team dynamics and then we want to understand the strategy, how we can help them best?”

The idea here is to be able to invest quickly. In addition, though, with the new funding, the team isn’t just able to invest into more companies but also invest more into the individual companies.

Image Credits: APX

“We want to invest deeper per startup at a very early stage,” Hungerhoff said. “So far, […] our typical approach was a non-dilution, pro-rata follow-on strategy with most of our portfolio companies. And this is something we want to pledge in the future. Looking at the past, 100% of the times in equity rounds, we do the pro-rata follow-on or more, but now, we have developed a strategy that we will, for the fastest-moving of fastest-growing companies, we want to deploy significantly more cash in a very early phase, which means an amount of up to €500,000.”

What the team saw was that the companies in its portfolio would raise a small pre-seed round from APX and other investors, with APX typically taking a 5% stake in the startup. Most founders would then go on and raise extended pre-seed or seed rounds soon thereafter.

“We more felt like we missed out when we saw these companies raising really nice financing rounds and we did our investment,” Rheinbolt said. “We felt very good that we can do a pro-rata investment. but we looked at each other and said: we knew this, we knew that they would do this 12 weeks ago. We could have given them a check and maybe the round would have been done in eight weeks and maybe [our stake] wouldn’t be 5% but 7%.”

Given this new focus on supporting startups throughout their lifecycle, it’s no surprise that APX did away with the 100-day program as well. But the team still expects to be quite hands-on. With a growing network, though, the partners also expect that founders will be able to learn from each other, too. “We now see the value that is coming from this,” Hungerhoff said. For example, a team that we’ve invested in two months ago, they’re now thinking about the angel round. They can actually get the best advice on this — or just experienced sharing — from another team, rather than talking to Jörg who did this maybe 30 years ago — no offense.”

The team also spends a lot of time thinking about its community, which now includes founders from 20 countries. The COVID pandemic has obviously moved most of the interactions online. Before COVID, APX often hosted events in its offices, which helped create the kind of serendipity that often leads to new ideas and connections. Looking ahead, the team still believes that there is a lot of value in having face-to-face meetings, but at the same time, maybe not every company needs to move to Berlin and instead visit for a few days every now and then.

Bonus: Here is Hungerhoff’s latest album with St. Beaufort.

January 21st 2021, 5:00 am

Softr scores $2.2M seed for its no-code website and web app platform powered by Airtable

TechCrunch

No-code — software that lets you accomplish tasks that previously required coding skills — is an increasingly hot space, even if the basic premise has been promised and not fully realised for many years. Related to this are companies like Airtable, which attempt to make building relational databases and interrogating them as easy as creating a spreadsheet. Now Softr, a startup out of Berlin, wants to push the no-code concept further by making it easy to build websites on top of Airtable without the need to write code.

Recently soft launched on Product Hunt, today the young company is disclosing $2.2 million in seed funding, having previously been bootstrapped by its two Armenian founders, CEO Mariam Hakobyan and CTO Artur Mkrtchyan. Leading the round is Atlantic Labs, along with Philipp Moehring (Tiny.VC) and founders from GitHub, SumUp, Zeitgold, EyeEm and Rows.

Started in 2019, Softr has built a no-code platform to enable anybody to build websites and web apps based on data housed in Airtable. The idea is to let Airtable do the database grunt work, combined with Softr’s relatively flexible but template-driven approach to website and web app creation.

Softr’s Hakobyan explains that out of the box the startup offers templates for anything from a simple marketing website to web apps for an e-commerce store, job board, marketplace and more. Those applications can include functionality like user authentication, gated content, payments, upvoting, and commenting etc.

“Softr has zero learning curve and can literally be used by anyone without a tech background, as it abstracts away all the technical aspects and focuses the user on product building and content, rather than technology,” she explains. “Softr uses Airtable as the database, as it makes it easy creating and sharing relational databases, without having to learn SQL or scripting. Airtable has gotten pretty popular in the last few years and is used not only by individuals but also Fortune 500 companies”.

Image Credits: Softr

To that end, Hakobyan says Softr’s magic is that it uses the concept of “pre-built building blocks” (listings, user accounts, payments etc) and business logic to handle most of the heavy lifting on behalf of the website creator. “When using blocks and templates.. ., 70% of the work is already done for the user,” she explains.

In addition, Softr connects to popular services like Stripe, Paypal, Mailchimp, Zapier, Integromat, Hotjar, Google Analytics, Hubspot, Drift and others.

Softr is currently used by “several thousands of makers and startups”. Examples of applications that customers have built on Softr include a language learning school with membership, a baby-sitters booking marketplace, and a community with gated content and online courses.

Armed with capital, Softr plans to expand its customer base to non-tech functions of SMBs to help them build internal tooling, such as employee directories, product inventories, real estate listings etc., and to automate manual processes.

January 21st 2021, 5:00 am

Eight Roads Ventures Europe shifts its gears towards diversity, appointing Lucile Cornet to Partner

TechCrunch

The world of European VC can post another win for diversity this week as Lucile Cornet is appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.

Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.

Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”

Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”

Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.

France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.

Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”

Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”

In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.

January 21st 2021, 5:00 am

This startup says its AI can better spot a healthy embryo — and improve IVF success

TechCrunch

With every year, AI is beginning to bring more standardized levels of diagnostic accuracy in medicine. This is true of skin cancer detection, for example, and lung cancers.

Now, a startup in Israel called Embryonics says its AI can improve the odds of successfully implanting a healthy embryo during in vitro fertilization. What the company has been developing, in essence, is an algorithm to predict embryo implantation probability, one they have trained through IVF time-lapsed imaging of developing embryos.

It’s just getting started, to be clear. So far, in a pilot involving 11 women ranging in age from 20 to 40, six of those individuals are enjoying successful pregnancies, and the other five are awaiting results, says Embryonics.

It’s a big business to be chasing. The global in-vitro fertilization market is expected to grow from roughly $18.3 billion to nearly double that number in the next five years by some estimates.

But Embryonics is more interesting for its potential to shake up the status quo, wherein tens of thousands of women who undergo IVF each year face costs of anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per cycle (at least in the U.S.), along with long-shot odds that grow worse as a woman ages.

Indeed, it’s reducing the number of IVF rounds, and attendant expenses, that drives Embryonics, which was founded three years ago by CEO Yael Gold-Zamir, an M.D. who studied general surgery at Hebrew University, yet became a researcher in an IVF laboratory owing to an abiding interest in the science behind fertility.

As it happens, she would be introduced to two individuals with complementary interests and expertise. One of them was David Silver, who had studied bioinformatics at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and who, before joining Embryonics last year, spent three years as a machine learning engineer at Apple and three years before that as an algorithm engineer at Intel.

The second individual to whom Gold-Zamir was introduced was Alex Bronstein, a serial founder who spent years as a principal engineer with Intel and who is today the head of the Center for Intelligent Systems at Technion as well as involved with several efforts involving deep learning AI, including at Embryonics and at Sibylla AI, a nascent outfit focused on algorithmic trading in capital markets.

It’s a small outfit, in short, but the three, along with Embryonics’s now 13 other full-time employees, appear to be making progress.

Fueled in part by $4 million in seed funding led by the Shuctermann Family Investment Office (led by the former president of Soros Capital, Sender Cohen) and the Israeli Innovation Authority, the company says it’s about to receive regulatory approval in Europe that will enable it to sell its software — which the team says can recognize patterns and interpret image in small cell clusters with greater accuracy than a human —  to fertility clinics across the continent.

Using a database with millions of (anonymized) patient records from different centers around the world that representing all races and geographies and ages, says Gold-Zamir, the company is already eyeing next steps, too.

Most notably, beyond analyzing which of several embryos ismost likely to thrive, for example, Embryonics wants to work with fertility clinics on improving what’s called hormonal stimulation, so that their patients produce as many mature eggs as possible.

As Bronstein explains it, every woman who goes through IVF or fertility preservation goes through this hormonal stimulation process — which involves getting injected with hormones from 8 to 14 days — to induce their ovaries to produce numerous eggs. But right now, there are three general protocols and  a “lot of trial and error in trying to establish the right one,” he says. Though deep learning, Embryonics thinks it can begin to understand not just which hormones each individual should be taking but the different times they should be taken.

In addition to embryo selection, Embryonics has also have developed a non-invasive genetic test based on analysis of visual information, together with clinical data, that in some cases can detect major chromosomal aberrations like down syndrome, says Gold-Zamir.

And there’s more in the works. “Embryonics’s goal is to provide a holistic solution, covering all aspects of the process,” says Gold-Zamir, who notes that she is raising four children of her own, along with running the company.

It’s too soon to say whether the nascent outfit will succeed, naturally. But it certainly seems to be at the forefront of a technology that is fast changing after more than 40 years wherein many IVF clinics worldwide have simply assessed embryo health by looking at days-old embryos on a petri dish under a microscope to assess their cell multiplication and shape.

In 2019, for instance, investigators from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City published own their conclusion  that AI can evaluate embryo morphology more accurately than the human eye after using 12,000 photos of human embryos taken precisely 110 hours after fertilization to train an algorithm to discriminate between poor and good embryo quality.

The investigators said that each embryo was first assigned a grade by embryologists that considered various aspects of the embryo’s appearance. The investigators then performed a statistical analysis to correlate the embryo grade with the probability of a successful pregnancy outcome. Embryos were considered good quality if the chances were greater than 58 percent and poor quality if the chances were below 35%.

After training and validation, the algorithm was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97% accuracy.

Photo Credit: Tammy Bar-Shay

January 21st 2021, 1:37 am

Accounting automation startup Geroges raises $42.4 million and rebrands to Indy

TechCrunch

French startup Georges — or Georges.tech — is raising a new round of funding of $42.4 million (€35 million). The company is also getting a new name and will be called Indy going forward. The startup has been building an accounting automation application for freelancers and small companies.

Singular is leading today’s funding round. You might not be familiar with Singular, but it makes a ton of sense to see the VC firm on the cap table. Former Alven partners Jeremy Uzan and Raffi Kamber left the Paris-based VC firm to raise their own fund. Uzan previously invested in Indy when he was at Alven and he’s following up with Singular.

Existing investors Alven and Kerala are also investing once again. Overall, Indy has managed to attract 40,000 clients who pay a monthly subscription fee to access the service.

Indy first started with a product specifically designed for freelancers, self-employed people, doctors, architects, lawyers, etc. It can help you replace your accountant altogether. You first connect the service to your bank account. Indy then imports all your transactions and tries to tag and categorize as many transactions as possible.

You can go back and add missing data. You can also add receipts or invoices right next to your transactions. Once this is done, you know how much VAT you’re supposed to get back at the end of the year.

Indy then automatically fills out administrative forms based on your data. You can then download your tax documents or send them directly from Indy.

You can also use the platform to get an overview of your business. You can see your corporate revenue, track your expenses, and see how much you earn per year based on personal expenses and your own pay.

Over time, Indy has expanded its service so that it supports more types of companies. In addition to freelancers, Indy supports EURL, SARL, SAS and SASU. In 2020, the startup has tripled its revenue.

And the company plans to improve its product to support even more self-employed people, including people selling stuff under the BIC status in France. Indy plans to hire 100 people in 2021 in Lyon.

Indy has even bigger plans as it has been evaluating the U.S. as a potential market. There are a ton of self-employed people in the U.S. and that’s why it represents an interesting opportunity.

January 21st 2021, 1:37 am

Wireless charging tech developer Powermat pivots to industrial applications with Jetsons Robotics pa

TechCrunch

When the two year-old Indian company Jetsons Robotics began searching for a partner to help design charging stations for their autonomous rooftop solar installation cleaning robots, the Israeli company Powermat was an obvious choice.

While the company had made its name as the designer for wireless charging technologies for consumer electronics, over the past two years the company was shifting its focus to more industrial applications. So it made sense to work with the Indian company on new form factors and applications for its charging technologies.

Indeed, the consumer market that Powermat had hoped to capture had been, by that point, broadly commoditized, so the tech developer needed a new direction.

Cleaning rooftop solar installations can be a costly endeavor, running companies anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per year, according to Jetsons Robotics chief executive, Jatin Sharma. The use of robots to replace human labor can save money, but the autonomous solution that the company wanted to build necessitated some kind of wireless charging dock, he said.

Contact-based charging meant too many variables in the outdoor environment, but an inductive charger would be too costly. Until the company worked with Powermat on a solution, Sharma said.

Backed by 100x.vc, Sharma’s robots are already cleaning roughly 1.7 megawatts of solar installations on a daily basis.

For Powermat, the solar cleaning robots are a good test of the company’s new industrial focus, according to chief technology officer Itay Sherman.

“You can look at it like maturation of the market,” Sherman said. “Powermat had been a pioneer in driving wireless technology. This market is maturing and we are moving on to markets where the technology and innovation is important. We have decided to shift our efforts to these emerging markets. Robotics is one, medical devices, IOT, and the automotive market are others.”

 

January 21st 2021, 12:23 am

Digital securities platform iSTOX closes $50 million Series A to make private equity accessible to m

TechCrunch

Oi Yee Choo, chief commercial officer of digital securities platform iSTOX

iSTOX, a digital securities platform that wants to make private equity investment more accessible, has added new investors from Japan to its Series A round, bringing its total to $50 million. Two of its new backers are the government-owned Development Bank of Japan and JIC Venture Growth Investments, the venture capital arm of Japan Investment Corporation, a state-backed investment fund.

Other participants included Juroku Bank and Mobile Internet Capital, along with returning investors Singapore Exchange, Tokai Tokyo Financial Holdings and Hanwha Asset Management.

Founded in 2017 and owned by blockchain infrastructure firm ICHX, iSTOX’s goal is to open private capital opportunities, including startups, hedge funds and private debt, that are usually limited to a small group of high-net-worth individuals to more institutional and accredited investors. (It also serves accredited investors outside of Singapore, as long as they meet the country’s standards by holding the equivalent amount in assets and income.) iSTOX’s allows users to make investments as small as SGD $100 (about USD $75.50) and says it is able to keep fees low by using blockchain technology for smart contracts and to hold digital securities, which makes the issuance process more effective and less costly.

iSTOX’s Series A round was first announced in September 2019, when the company said it had raised an undisclosed amount from Thai investment bank Kiatnakin Phatra Financial Group while participating in the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) FinTech Regulatory Sandbox. The Singaporean government has been especially supportive of blockchain technology, launching initiatives to commercialize its use in fintech, data security, logistics and other sectors.

iSTOX completed the sandbox program in February 2020, and was approved by the MAS for the issuance, custody and trading of digitized securities. The new funding will be used for geographical expansion, including in China, where it already has an agreement in the city of Chongqing, and Europe and and Australia, where it is currently working on issuance deals. iSTOX also plans to add new investment products, including private issuances that investors can subscribe to in “bite-size portions.”

In a press statement, iSTOX chief commercial officer Oi Yee Choo said, “Capital markets are transforming rapidly because of advancements in technology. The regulator MAS and our institutional investors have been far-sighted and progressive, and they support the change wholeheartedly.”

The company is among several Asia-based fintech platforms that want to democratize the process of investing. For retail investors, there are apps like Bibit, Syfe, Stashaway, Kristal.ai and Grab Financial’s investment products.

Since iSTOX works with accredited and institutional investors, however, its most direct competitors include the recently-launched DBS Digital Exchange, which is also based in Singapore. iSTOX’s advantage is that it offers more kinds of assets. Right now, it facilitates the issuance of funds and bonds, but this year, it will start issuing private equity and structured products as well. The company’s securities are also fully digitized, which means they are created on the blockchain, instead of being recorded on the blockchain after they are issued, which means iSTOX is able to offer faster settlement times.

January 20th 2021, 10:22 pm

Indian stock exchanges approve $3.4B Reliance and Future deal in setback for Amazon

TechCrunch

Indian stock exchanges approved the $3.4 billion deal between retail giants Reliance Retail and Future Group on late Wednesday in yet another setback for Amazon, which has invested over $6.5 billion in the world’s second largest internet market and sought to block the aforementioned deal.

The Bombay Stock Exchange said in a notification that it had spoken with India’s markets regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), and had no objection or adverse observation on the deal.

Wednesday’s notification is the latest setback for Amazon, which had written to SEBI and Indian antitrust watchdog to block the multi-billion deal between Future Group and Reliance Retail, the two largest retail chains in India. Last year, India’s antitrust group gave a go ahead to the deal to the Indian firms.

“We hereby advise that we have no adverse observations with limited reference to those matters having a bearing on listing/de-listing/continuous listing requirements within the provisions of Listing Agreement, so as to enable the company to file the scheme with Hon’ble NCLT [National Company Law Tribunal],” the notification read. SEBI has advised Future to share various aspects of its ongoing litigation with Amazon to NCLT, whose approval for the deal is pending.

Amazon bought 49% stake in one of Future’s unlisted firms in 2019 in a deal that was valued at over $100 million. As part of the deal, Future could not have sold assets to rivals, Amazon has said in court filings.

Things changed last year after the coronavirus pandemic starved the Indian firm of cash, Future Group chief executive and founder Kishore Biyani said at a recent virtual conference. In August, Future Group said that it had reached an agreement with Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which runs India’s largest retail chain, to sell its retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing businesses for $3.4 billion.

Amazon later protested the deal by reaching an arbitrator in Singapore and asked the court to block the deal between the Indian retail giants. Amazon secured emergency relief from the arbitration court in Singapore in late October that temporarily halted Future Group from going ahead with the sale.

The two estranged partners also fought at the Delhi High Court last year, which in a rare glimmer of hope for the American giant rejected Future’s plea for an ad-interim injunction to restrain Amazon from writing to regulators and other authorities to raise concerns over — and halt — the deal between the two Indian giants.

An Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch that the firm will continue to pursue legal remedies. “The letters issued by BSE & NSE clearly state that the comments of SEBI on the ‘draft scheme of arrangement’ (proposed transaction) are subject to the outcome of the ongoing Arbitration and any other legal proceedings. We will continue to pursue our legal remedies to enforce our rights,” the spokesperson said.

At stake is India’s retail market that is estimated to balloon to $1.3 trillion by 2025, up from $700 billion in 2019, according to consultancy firm BCG and local trade group Retailers’ Association India. Online shopping accounts for about 3% of all retail in India.

January 20th 2021, 8:23 pm

Genflow nabs $11M investment from BGF

TechCrunch

Genflow, a London an0d LA-based brand building agency that offers an e-commerce and mobile tech platform to let influencers start companies, has raised $11 million in funding.

Leading the round is U.K. investor BGF. The injection of capital will be used by Genflow to further scale its offering and for international expansion.

Founded in 2016 by entrepreneur Shan Hanif to help social media influencers develop their brands and extract revenue from their audiences, Genflow combines aspects of a traditional branding agency — such as strategy, design and planning — and a tech company with its own software stack.

This sees Genflow position itself as a brand-as-a-service (BaaS) platform, which helps influencers develop their own digital and physical products instead of promoting other brands, and enables them to launch their own membership club, gated community, mobile app or direct to consumer brand.

“Genflow offers the complete infrastructure from design, development, manufacturing and logistics through to strategy, marketing and content creation to drive revenue and profit,” explains the company.

Genflow says its client base are established influencers who typically have large followings on Instagram and YouTube.

“Genflow allows an influencer to start their own business instead of the traditional brand deals so if someone with an audience wants truly their own audience and business Genflow does that for them,” says Hanif. “We provide them the complete infrastructure to launch a business: design, manufacturing, development, content, strategy and marketing all in one place. This gives us the unique ability to execute to a very high level that drives revenue”.

Hanif says influencers typically approach Genflow either with an idea or when they need help figuring out what brand they can launch. “We use ‘Genlytics,’ our in-house built software, to see what the best brand they can release by checking their analytics, breakdown of their followers, what brands they have worked with in the past and to see how much they can potentially sell,” he explains.

Next, Genflow onboards the client and begins the brand building process, offering broadly two options: Gated content, membership clubs, community and mobile apps, or developing direct to consumer brand with physical products.

The first is akin to having your own OnlyFans, Patreon or social media platform. The second is a classic D2C e-commerce play and includes designing the products, and working with factories to create samples, manufacture the products and then handle all logistics etc.

“In both cases then we plan the launch of the brand, the marketing strategy and then work with the influencer to launch the brand itself,” adds Hanif.

“What’s interesting is that traditionally in startups you find a problem, get a team, some funding then try to find customers. What we have invented is the ‘audience first approach’ where we already have the audience and now just need the right products and it’s instantly a success. The metrics that I see for our brands are not normal: conversion rates that are 5-30%, 20% repeat purchase buys and around 6:1 return on Facebook ads.

“We are proud that every brand we have launched to date is profitable and growing year on year so we know our approach works.”

January 20th 2021, 7:53 pm

Daily Crunch: Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski

TechCrunch

On his way out the door, President Donald Trump pardons a former Googler, Jack Ma reappears and Wattpad gets acquired. This is your Daily Crunch for January 20, 2021.

The big story: Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski

Although Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States as I write this, he still held the role on Tuesday evening, when he included former Googler Anthony Levandowski (who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets) in his final set of 73 pardons. The pardon had been supported by Founders Fund’s Peter Thiel and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, among others.

Today, of course, Joe Biden was inaugurated, prompting immediate changes to the White House website. And Amazon wasted no time offering the new president help with rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines.

Also, we have a piece from former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina about the relationship between the Biden administration and Silicon Valley.

The tech giants

Alibaba shares jump on Jack Ma’s first appearance in 3 months — Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video call.

Valve and five PC games publishers fined $9.4M for illegal geo-blocking — In addition to Valve, the five sanctioned games publishers are: Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video — The feature is currently only available to select creators who have opted into the test.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600M — Naver plans to incorporate at least part of the business into another of its holdings, the publishing platform Webtoon.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record — This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000.

Landbot closes $8M Series A for its ‘no code’ chatbot builder — The startup has grown to around 2,200 paying customers.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020 — The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes? — The latest edition of Dear Sophie, the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

Hello, Extra Crunch community! — Tell us what else you want from Extra Crunch.

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

Everything else

MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming — The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment.

Reflections on the first all-virtual CES — We’ve long questioned whether in-person trade shows are a thing of the past. This year, we put it to the test.

Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost — A new study examines tentative carbon costs on the connectivity and data infrastructure that make working from home possible.

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

January 20th 2021, 6:53 pm

Curtsy, a clothing resale app aimed at Gen Z women, raises $11 million Series A

TechCrunch

Curtsy, a clothing resale app and competitor to recently IPO’d Poshmark, announced today it has raised $11 million in Series A funding for its startup focused on the Gen Z market. The app, which evolved out of an earlier effort for renting dresses, now allows women to list their clothes, shoes and accessories for resale, while also reducing many of the frictions involved with the typical resale process.

The new round was led by Index Ventures, and included participation from Y Combinator, prior investors FJ Labs and 1984 Ventures, and angel investor Josh Breinlinger (who left Jackson Square Ventures to start his own fund).

To date, Curtsy has raised $14.5 million, including over two prior rounds which also included investors CRV, SV Angel, Kevin Durant, Priscilla Scala, and other angels.

Like other online clothing resale businesses, Curtsy aims to address the needs of a younger generation of consumers who are looking for a more sustainable alternative when shopping for clothing. Instead of constantly buying new, many Gen Z consumers will rotate their wardrobes over time, often by leveraging resale apps.

Image Credits: Curtsy

However, the current process for listing your own clothes on resale apps can be time consuming. A recent report by Wired, for example, detailed how many women were spinning their wheels engaging with Poshmark in the hopes of making money from their closets, to little avail. The Poshmark sellers complained they had to do more than just list, sell, package and ship their items — they also had participate in the community in order to have their items discovered.

Curtsy has an entirely different take. It wants to make it easier and faster for casual sellers to list items by reducing the amount of work involved to sell. It also doesn’t matter how many followers a seller has, which makes its marketplace more welcoming to first-time sellers.

“The big gap in the market is really for casual sellers — people who are not interested in selling professionally,” explains Curtsy CEO David Oates. “In pretty much every other app that you’ve heard about, pro sellers really crowd out everyday women. Part of that is the friction of the whole process,” he says.

On Curtsy, the listing process is far more streamlined.

The app uses a combination of machine learning and human review to help the sellers merchandise their items, which increase their chances of selling. When sellers first list their item in the app, Curtsy will recommend a price then fill in details like the brand, category, subcategory, shipping weight and the suggested selling price, using machine learning systems training on the previous items sold on its marketplace. Human review fixes any errors in that process.

Also before items are posted, Curtsy improves and crops the images, as well as fixes any other issues with the listing, and moderates listings for spam. This process helps to standardize the listings on the app across all sellers, giving everyone a fair shot at having their items discovered and purchased.

Another unique feature is how Curtsy caters to the Gen Z to young Millennial user base (ages 15-30), who are often without shipping supplies or even a printer for producing a shipping label.

First-time sellers receive a free starter kit with Curtsy-branded supplies for packaging their items at home, like poly mailers in multiple sizes. As they need more supplies, the cost of those is built into the selling flow, so you don’t have to explicitly pay for it — it’s just deducted from your earnings. Curtsy also helps sellers to schedule a free USPS pickup to save a trip to the post office, and it will even send sellers a shipping label, if need be.

“One of the things we realized quickly is Gen Z does not really have printers. So we actually have a label service and we’ll send you the label in the mail for free from centers across the country,” says Oates.

Later, when a buyer of an item purchased from Curtsy is ready to resell it, they can do so with one tap — they don’t have to photograph it and describe it again. This also speeds up the selling process.

Overall, the use of technology, outsourced teams who improve listings, and extra features like supplies and labels can be expensive. But Curtsy believes the end result is that they can bring more casual sellers to the resale market.

“Whatever costs we have, they should be in service of increased liquidity, so we can grow faster and add more people,” Oates says. “In case of the label service, those are people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in selling online. There’s no other app that would allow them to sell without a printer.”

This system, so far, appears to be working. Curtsy now has several hundred thousand people who buy and sell on its iOS-only app, with an average transaction rates of 3 items bought or sold per month. When the new round closed late in 2020, the company was reporting a $25 million GMV revenue run rate, and average monthly growth of around 30%. Today, Curtsy generates revenue by taking a 20% commission on sales (or $3 for items under $15.)

The team, until recently, was only five people — including co-founders David Oates, William Ault, Clara Agnes Ault, and Eli Allen, plus a contract workforce. With the Series A, Curtsy will be expanding, specifically by investing in new roles within product and marketing to help it scale. It will also be focused on developing an Android version of its app in the first quarter of 2021 and further building out its web presence.

“Never before have we seen such a strong overlap between buyers and sellers on a consumer-to-consumer marketplace,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, about the firm’s investment. “We believe the incredible love for Curtsy is indicative of a large marketplace in the making,” he added.

January 20th 2021, 4:53 pm

African edtech startup uLesson lands a $7.5 million Series A

TechCrunch

ULesson, an edtech startup based in Nigeria that sells digital curriculum to students through SD cards, has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Owl Ventures, which closed over half a billion in new fund money just months ago. Other participants include LocalGlobe and existing investors, including TLcom Capital and Founder Collective.

The financing comes a little over a year since uLesson closed its $3.1 million seed round in November 2019. The startup’s biggest difference between now and then isn’t simply the millions it has in the bank, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its entire value proposition.

ULesson launched into the market just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The startup, which uses SD cards as a low-bandwidth way to deliver content, saw a wave of smart devices enter homes across Africa as students adapted to remote education.

“The ground became wet in a way we didn’t see before,” founder and CEO Sim Shagaya said. “It opens up the world for us to do all kinds of really amazing things we’ve wanted to do in the world of edtech that you can’t do in a strictly offline sense,” the founder added.

Similar to many edtech startups, uLesson has benefited from the overnight adoption of remote education. Its positioning as a supplementary education tool helped it surface 70% month over month growth, said Shagaya. The founder says that the digital infrastructure gains will allow them to “go online entirely by Q2 this year.”

It costs an annual fee of $50, and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

With fresh demand, Shagaya sees uLesson evolving into a live, online platform instead of an offline, asynchronous content play. The startup is already experimenting with live tutoring: it tested a feature that allowed students to ask questions while going through pre-recorded material. The startup got more than 3,000 questions each day, with demand so high they had to pause the test feature.

“We want you to be able to push a button and get immediate support from a college student sitting somewhere in the continent who is basically a master in what you’re studying,” he said. The trend of content-focused startups adding on a live tutoring layer continues when you look at Chegg, Quizlet, Brainly and others.

The broader landscape

E-learning startups have been booming in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s led to an influx of tutoring marketplaces and content that promises to serve students. One of the most valuable startups in edtech is Byju’s, which offers online learning services and prepares students for tests.

But Shagaya doesn’t think any competitors, even Byju’s, have cracked the nut on how to do so in a digital way for African markets. There are placement agencies in South Africa and Kenya and offline tutoring marketplaces that send people to student homes, but no clear leader from a digital curriculum perspective.

“Everybody sees that Africa is a big opportunity,” Shagaya said. “But everybody also sees that you need a local team to execute on this.”

Shagaya thinks the opportunity in African edtech is huge because of two reasons: a young population, and a deep penetration of private school-going students. Combined, those facts could create troves of students who have the cash and are willing to pay for supplementary education.

The biggest hurdle ahead for uLesson, and any edtech startup that benefitted from pandemic gains, is distribution and outcomes. ULesson didn’t share any data on effectiveness and outcomes, but says it’s in the process of conducting a study with the University of Georgia to track mastery.

“Content efforts and products [will] live or die at the altar of distribution,” Shagaya said. The founder noted that in India, for example, pre-recorded videos do well due to social nuances and culture. ULesson is trying to find the perfect sauce for videos in markets around Africa and embed that into the product.

January 20th 2021, 4:20 pm

Amazon offers Biden resources for Covid-19 vaccine rollout

TechCrunch

Following Joseph Biden’s swearing in as the 46th President of the United States, Amazon is offering help in the administration’s stated goals for rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine. In a letter provided to TechCrunch, Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark congratulates Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, while promising, “to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration.”

The note references a pledge set by Biden in while introducing members of pandemic team during a press conference in December of last year. “My first 100 days won’t end the Covid-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” the then-President-elect said. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”

More recently, Covid-19 task force member epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called the goal “aspirational […] but doable,” adding that it would take time to ramp up.

In his letter, Clark details Amazon’s response to the virus, as many warehouse and other workers were employed throughout as essential workers. Included in the resources on offer are deals with health care providers who can administer vaccines on-site.

“We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities,” Clark writes. “We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available. Additionally, we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

January 20th 2021, 3:19 pm

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

TechCrunch

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Dear Free:

Today is a historic day. The pace of change is accelerating now, especially in Washington. At the time of this writing, Biden is expected to imminently launch a new legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. As the world sits back and watches, we are focusing great collective attention on upgrading our political, sociological and technological structures so that each human has the chance to succeed.

One of the things I adore about my practice of supporting international professionals with U.S. immigration is bearing witness to the process of individual transformation; it is an honor to support people in their personal journey from living in a world of effects to becoming the cause.

The immediate focus of the proposed legislation is centered around a solution for Dreamers (who are in the U.S. without documentation) as well as supporting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and children. For more of my recent thoughts on this topic, check out my recent podcast explaining many of the changes. The draft bill is expected to span hundreds of pages, so please follow this Dear Sophie column for more updates as I track and explore the details, especially related to tech immigration.

Innovation will be supported by many new immigration opportunities coming into greater focus. Biden’s campaign platform celebrated how “Immigrants are essential to the strength of our country and the U.S. economy.” The Biden team has prioritized immigration as a key focus within COVID, with an immediate goal of rewriting most Trump-era rules. For context, Trump issued more than 400 immigration-related executive orders and proclamations during his term.

H-1Bs: Although H-1Bs have been in the news a lot regarding new wage rules changing the order of the lottery and litigation, the lottery is still happening this spring, and if you want to sponsor candidates, the time to act is now, regardless of what is happening in Washington. If your company is planning on sponsoring individuals for an H-1B visa — whether they’re already living in the U.S. or are living abroad — I suggest that you continue to prepare for the upcoming H-1B registration period.

January 20th 2021, 2:50 pm

Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost

TechCrunch

The massive shift to remote work due to COVID-19 has resulted in a huge reduction in emissions from vehicles and other sources, but it comes with costs of its own. A new study puts tentative carbon costs on the connectivity and data infrastructure that make working from home possible — and gives you an excuse to leave the camera off.

The researchers, from Perdue, Yale, and MIT, attempted to analyze the carbon, land, and water costs of internet infrastructure.

“In order to build a sustainable digital world, it is imperative to carefully assess the environmental footprints of the Internet and identify the individual and collective actions that most affect its growth,” they write in the paper’s introduction.

Using a single metric is too reductive, they argue: carbon emissions are a useful metric, but it’s also important to track the sources of the power, the water cost (derived from what’s needed to cool and operate datacenters), and the theoretical “land cost” needed to produce the product. If it sounds a little hand-wavy, that’s because any estimate along these lines is.

“In any calculation of this type at this global scale, you need to make a lot of assumptions and a lot of the data that you need are missing,” said lead study author, Yale’s Kaveh Madani, in an email to TechCrunch. “But it is a good start and best we could do using the available data.” (Madani noted that a lack of transparency in the industry, rather than a lack of statistical and scientific rigor, is the greater hindrance to the study’s accuracy.)

An example of their findings is that an hour of HD video streaming produces up to 440 grams of Carbon Dioxide emissions — up to 1,000g for YouTube or 160g for Zoom and video conferencing due differing video quality. For comparison, the EPA says a modern car produces 8,887 grams per gallon of gas. If you’re taking an hour of video meetings a day instead of commuting 20 miles to work, you’re definitely in the green, as it were, by an order of magnitude or more.

Image Credits: Madani et al

But no one is arguing that the work from home shift or increase in digital consumption is a bad thing. “Of course, a virtual meeting is better for the environment than driving to a meeting location, but we can still do better,” said Madani.

The issue is more that we think of moving bits around as having marginal environmental cost — after all, it’s bits being flipped or sent along fiber, right? Yes, but it’s also powered by enormous datacenters, transmission infrastructure, and of course the wasteful eternal cycle of replacing our devices — though that last one doesn’t figure into the paper’s estimates.

If we don’t know the costs of our choices, we can’t make them in an informed way, the researchers warn.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” Madani said in a Perdue news release.

Leaving your camera off for a call you don’t need to be visible for makes for a small — but not trivial — savings in carbon emissions. Similarly, lowering the quality on your streaming show from HD to SD could save almost 90 percent of the energy used to transmit it (though of course your TV and speakers won’t draw any less power).

That doomscrolling habit, already a problem, seems even worse when you think that every flick of the thumb indirectly leads to a puff of hot, gross air out of a datacenter somewhere and a slight uptick in the air conditioning bill. Social media in general doesn’t use as much data as HD streaming, but the rise of video-focused networks like TikTok means they could soon catch up.

Madani explained that, puff pieces writing misleading summaries of their research aside, the study does not prescribe any simple remedies like turning off your camera. Sure, you can and should, he argues, but the change we should be looking for is systemic, not individual. What are the chances millions of people will independently and regularly decide to turn off their cameras or lower the streaming quality from 4K to 720p? Pretty low.

But on the other hand, if the costs of these services are made clear, as Madani and his team attempt to do in a preliminary way, perhaps pressure can be applied to the companies in question to make changes on the infrastructure side that save more energy in a day with an improved algorithm than 50 million people would with conscious decisions that they faintly resent.

“Consumers deserve to know more about what is happening. People currently don’t know what is going on when they press the Enter button on their computers. When they don’t know, we can’t expect them to change behavior,” Madani said. “[Policy makers] should step in, raise concerns about this sector, try to regulate it, force increased transparency, impose pollution taxes and develop incentive mechanisms if they do not want to see another unsustainable, uncontrollable sector in the future.”

The change to digital has created some amazing efficiencies and reduced or eliminated many wasteful practices, but in the process it has introduced new ones. That’s just how progress works — you hope the new problems are better than the old ones.

The study was published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recylcling.

January 20th 2021, 2:35 pm

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video

TechCrunch

TikTok is testing a new video Q&A feature that allows creators to more directly respond to their audience’s questions with either text or video answers, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. The feature works across both video and livestreams (TikTok LIVE), but is currently only available to select creators who have opted into the test, we understand.

Q&A’s have become a top way creators engage fans on social media, and have proven to be particularly popular in places like Instagram Stories and in other social apps like Snapchat-integrated YOLO, or even in smaller startups.

On TikTok, however, Q&A’s are now a big part of the commenting experience, as many creators respond to individual comments by publishing a new video that explains their answer in more detail than a short, text comment could. Sometimes these answers are meant to clarify or add context, while other times creators will take on their bullies and trolls with their video responses. As a result, the TikTok comment section has grown to play a larger role in shaping TikTok trends and culture.

Q&A’s are also a key means for creators to engage with fans when live streaming. But it can be difficult for creators to keep up with a flood of questions and comments through the current live chat interface.

Seeing how creators were already using Q&A’s with their fans is how the idea for the new feature came about. Much like the existing “reply to comments with video” feature, the Q&A option lets creators directly respond to their audience questions. Where available, users will be able to designate their comments as questions by tapping the Q&A button in a video’s comment field, or they can submit questions directly through the Q&A link on the creator’s profile page.

For creators, the feature simplifies the process of responding to questions, as it lets them view all their fans’ questions in one place.

There’s no limit to the number of questions that a creator can receive, though they don’t have to reply to each one.

The feature was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, who posted screenshots of what the feature looks like in action, including how it appears on users’ profiles.

During the test, the new Q&A feature is only being made available to creators with public Creator Accounts that have over 10,000 followers and who have opted into the feature within their Settings, TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch. Participants in the test today include some safelisted creators from TikTok’s Creative Learning Fund program, announced last year, among others.

TikTok says the Q&A feature is currently in testing globally, and it aims to roll out it to more users with Creator Accounts in the weeks ahead.

January 20th 2021, 2:35 pm

Miami-based Ironhack raises $20 million for its coding bootcamps as demand for coders continues

TechCrunch

Ironhack, a company offering programming bootcamps across Europe and North and South America, has raised $20 million in its latest round of funding.

The Miami-based company with locations in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, Paris and Sao Paulo said it will use the money to build out more virtual offerings to compliment the company’s campuses.

Over the next five years, 13 million jobs will be added to the tech industry in the U.S., according to Ironhack co-founder Ariel Quiñones. That’s in addition to another 20 million jobs that Quiñones expects to come from the growth of the technology sector in the EU.

Ironhack isn’t the only bootcamp to benefit from this growth. Last year, Lambda School raised $74 million for its coding education program.

Ironhack’s raised its latest round from Endeavor Catalyst, a fund that invests in entrepreneurs from emerging and underserved markets; Lumos Capital, which was formed by investors with a long history in education technology; Creas Capital, a Spanish impact investment firm; and Brighteye, a European edtech investor.

Prices for the company’s classes vary by country. In the U.S. an Ironhack bootcamp costs $12,000, while that figure is more like $3,000 for classes in Mexico City.

The company offers classes in subjects ranging from web development to UX/UI design and data analytics to cybersecurity, according to a statement. 

“We believe that practical skills training, a supportive global community and career development programs can give everyone, regardless of their education or employment history, the ability to write their stories through technology,” said Ariel Quiñones, co-founder of Ironhack.

Since its launch in 2013, the company has graduated more than 8,000 students, with a job placement rate of 89%, according to data collected as of July 2020. Companies who have employed Ironhack graudates include Capgemini, Siemens, and Santander, the company said.

 

January 20th 2021, 2:20 pm

Hello, Extra Crunch community!

TechCrunch

First and foremost, thank you for subscribing to Extra Crunch.

I hope you feel like you’ve been getting value from the content our writers and guest contributors are creating, the events we’re producing and the podcasts we’re … podding. You truly are a member of our team.

It’s time to kick it up a notch

I began my career as an avid TechCrunch reader and remained one even when I joined as a writer, when I left to work on other things and now that I’ve returned to focus on better serving our community.

I know what it’s like to write, read and share the news of the day but my favorite part has always been spending time hanging out with some of you at events and gatherings. Unfortunately, the global predicament we’re in now with COVID-19 means we haven’t been able to connect in the ways that we’re used to.

We’re adapting

We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. As a subscriber, we quite literally work for you and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.

I’ve been chatting with some of the folks in our community and I’d love to talk to you, too. Nothing fancy, just 5-10 minutes of your time to hear more about what you want to see from us and get some feedback on what we’ve been doing so far.

These are just some of the things we’re discussing behind the scenes to bring all of you even more value:

If you would be so kind as to take a minute or two to fill out this form, I’ll drop you a note and hopefully we can have a chat about the future of the Extra Crunch community before we formally roll out some of the ideas we’re cooking up.

Thank you again for your support. We’re looking forward to hanging out with you more, even if it’s just online for a little while longer.

January 20th 2021, 2:04 pm

White House, dark mode: Biden admin refreshes Presidency’s website, vows accessibility

TechCrunch

WhiteHouse.gov, the official website for all Presidential actions and efforts, is among the first things to be changed up under the freshly inaugurated President Biden. A fashionable dark mode appeared, a large text toggle for straining eyes, and the webmaster has committed to making the whole site conform to the latest accessibility guidelines.

The look isn’t so very different from the previous administration’s site — they’re both fairly modern and minimal experiences, with big photos up front and tidy lists of priorities and announcements once you drill down into a category.

Image Credits: White House

But one big design change implemented by the new administration that many will appreciate is the inclusion of a dark mode, or high contrast mode, and a large type toggle.

Dark modes have been around forever, but became de rigeur when Apple implemented its own system-wide versions on iOS and macOS a while back. It’s just easier on the eyes in many ways, and at any rate it’s nice to give users options.

The WhiteHouse.gov dark mode changes the headline type from a patriotic blue to an eye-friendly off-white, with links a calming Dijon. Even the White House logo itself goes from a dark blue background to full black with a white border. It’s all very tasteful, and if anything seems like a low contrast mode, not high.

The large type mode does what it says, making everything considerably bigger and easier to tap or click. The toggles, it must be said, are a bit over-prominent, but they’ll probably tweak that soon.

More important is the pledge in the accessibility section:

This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.

Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria.

The WCAG guidelines are a set of best practices for designing a website so that its content can be easily accessed by people who use screen readers, need captions for audio, or can’t use a mouse or touchscreen easily. The guidelines aren’t particularly hard to meet, but as many have pointed out, it’s harder to retrofit a website to be accessible than to design it for accessibility from the start.

One thing I noticed was that many of the photos on the White House website have alt text or visible captions attached — these help visually impaired visitors understand what’s in an image. Here’s an example:

Image Credits: White House

 

 

 

 

Normally that alt text would be read out by a screen reader when it got to the image, but it’s generally not made visible.

Unless the metadata was stripped from the previous administration’s site (it’s archived here), none of the photos I checked had text descriptions there, so this is a big improvement. Unfortunately some photos (like the big header photo on the front page) don’t have descriptions, something that should probably be remedied.

Accessibility in other places will mean prompt inclusion of plaintext versions of governance items and announcements (versus PDFs or other documents), captions on official videos and other media, and as the team notes, lots of little improvements that make the site better for everyone who visits.

It’s a small thing in a way, compared with the changes expected to accompany the new administration, but small things tend to pile up and become big things.

As Microsoft’s Isaac Hepworth noted, there’s still lots of work to do, and that’s why U.S. Digital Services hid a little message in the source code:

Image Credits: White House

If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.

January 20th 2021, 1:50 pm

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pa

TechCrunch

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the U.K. challenger bank entirely at the end of the month, staff were informed earlier today.

Blomfield held the role of CEO until May last year when he assumed the newly created title of president and resigned from the Monzo board. However, having been given the time and space to consider his long-term future at the bank he helped create 6 years ago, and with a refreshed executive team now in place, he says it is time to “hand over the baton”.

In a brief but candid telephone interview, Blomfield also revealed that, as well as being unhappy during the last couple of years as CEO when the company scaled well beyond a “scrappy startup,” the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns exasperated pressures placed on his own mental well-being. “I’m very happy to talk about what’s gone on with me, because I don’t think people do it enough,” he says.

“I stopped enjoying my role probably about two years ago… as we grew from a scrappy startup that was iterating and building stuff people really love, into a really important U.K. bank. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just that the things I enjoy in life is working with small groups of passionate people to start and grow stuff from scratch, and create something customers love. And I think that’s a really valuable skill but also taking on a bank that’s three, four, five million customers and turning it into a ten or twenty million customer bank and getting to profitability and IPOing it, I think those are huge exciting challenges, just honestly not ones that I found that I was interested in or particularly good at”.

In early 2019 after realising he was “doing too much and not enjoying it,” Blomfield began talking to Monzo investor Eileen Burbidge of Passion Capital, and Monzo Chair Gary Hoffman, about changing roles and how he needed more help. Then, he says, “Covid just exasperated things,” a period when Monzo also had to cut staff, shutter its Las Vegas office and raise bridge funding in a highly publicised down round.

“I think [for] a lot of people in the world — and you and I have spoken about this — going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” says Blomfield. “I don’t think I was any different, so I was really struggling. I had a really, really supportive exec team around me and a really supportive set of investors on board and I was really grateful that when I put my hand up and said, ‘I need help,’ they were super receptive to that”.

Blomfield also comes clean about his role as president, a title that was intended as a way to provide the time and space for him to get well and figure out if he would return to longer-term to Monzo or depart entirely. Contrary to rumours, Blomfield says he wasn’t pushed out by investors. Instead, the Monzo board actually put pressure on him to remain as CEO longer than he wanted or perhaps should have (a version of events corroborated by my own sources). “When I took that president role, it was not certain one way or another what would happen,” Blomfield says, apologising in case I felt I was misled when I reported the news.

(The truth is, within weeks of running that news piece, I knew it was far from certain Blomfield would ever return, with multiple sources, including people close to and worried about Blomfield, confiding in me how burned out the Monzo founder was. As weeks turned into months and following additional sourcing, I had enough information to write a follow up story much earlier but chose to wait until a formal decision was taken).

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear interviewing Monzo’s Tom Blomfield

Meanwhile, Blomfield describes his resignation as a Monzo employee as “bitter-sweet,” and is keen to praise what the Monzo team has already achieved, including since his much reduced involvement. “I think the team has done phenomenally well over the last year or so in really difficult circumstances,” he says. In particular, he cites Monzo’s new CEO TS Anil as doing a “phenomenal” job, while describing Sujata Bhatia, who joined as COO last year, as “an absolute machine, a real operator”.

To that end, Monzo now has almost 5 million customers, up from 1.3 million in 2019. Monzo’s total weekly revenue is now 30% higher than pre-pandemic, helped no doubt by over 100,000 paid subscribers across Monzo Plus and Premium in the last five months (sources tell me the company surpassed £2 million in weekly revenue in December for the first time in its history). Albeit at a lower valuation, the challenger bank also raised £125 million from new and existing investors during the pandemic.

Blomfield also says that Anil and Bhatia and other members of the Monzo executive team have specific skills related to scaling and managing a bank approaching 5 million customers that he simply doesn’t. And even if he did, he has learned the hard way that there are aspects of running a large company that not everyone enjoys.

“Going from a CEO where you’re front and centre dealing with all of the different pressures every day to a much lighter role is a huge huge weight off my shoulders and has given me the time and space to recover,” he adds. “I’m now feeling pretty great. I’m enjoying life again”.

As for what’s next for Blomfield, he says he wants to “chill out” for a bit and perhaps take a holiday. He’s also finishing his vaccination training so that he can volunteer to help deliver the U.K.’s national COVID-19 vaccination rollout. A recent tweet by Blomfield about a side project also led to speculation that he has begun a new venture. Not true, says Blomfield, telling me it was a 5 day project designed to get back into coding and play with a robotic 2D printer. And while he’s very much left Monzo, he says he’ll continue cheering the company on from the outside.

January 20th 2021, 1:05 pm

EU chief warns over ‘unfiltered’ hate speech and calls for Biden to back rules for big tech

TechCrunch

In a speech to the European Parliament today marking the inauguration of US president Joe Biden, the president of the European Commission has called for Europe and the US to join forces on regulating tech giants, warning of the risks of “unfiltered” hate speech and disinformation being weaponized to attack and undermine democracies.

Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the shock storming of the US capital earlier this month by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump as an example of how wild claims being spread and amplified online can have tangible real-world consequences, including for democratic institutions.

“Just a few days ago, several hundred [Trump supporters] stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy. The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action,” she said. “That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy.”

European institutions are also being targeted with “hate and contempt for our democracy spreading unfiltered through social media to millions of people”, she warned, pointing to similarly disturbing attacks that have taken place in the region in recent years. Such as an attempt by right-wing extremists in Germany to storm the Reichstag building last summer and the 2016 murder of UK politician, Jo Cox, by a fascist extremist.

“Of course, the storming of the [US] Capitol was different. But in Europe, too, there are people who feel disadvantaged and are very angry,” she said, suggesting feelings of exclusion and injustice can make people vulnerable to believing the “rampant” conspiracy theories that platforms have allowed to circulate freely online, and which she characterized as “often a confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

“We must make sure that messages of hate and fake news can no longer be spread unchecked,” she added, reiterating the case for regulating social media by pressing the case for imposing “democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the Internet giants”.

The European Commission has already set out its blueprint for overhauling the region’s digital rulebook when it unveiled the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act last month. Although it won’t be including hard legal limits on disinformation in the package — preferring to continue with a voluntary, but beefed up code of conduct for content that falls into a grey area where it may be harmful but isn’t actually illegal.

von der Leyen said the aim for the regulations is to ensure “if something is illegal offline it must also be illegal online”. The Commission has also said the tech policy package is about forcing platforms to take more responsibility for the content they spread and monetize.

But it’s not yet clear how the proposed laws will ultimately tackle the tricky issue of how assessments are made to remove (or reinstate) speech; and whether platforms will continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and watchful eye), or whether they end up entirely independent of platform control.

What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former but the proposal has to go through the EU’s co-legislative process — so such details are likely to be debated and could be amended prior to adoption into law.

“We want the platforms to be transparent about how their algorithms work. We cannot accept a situation where decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on our democracy are being made by computer programs without any human supervision,” von der Leyen went on. “And we want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate.”

She also reiterated the concern expressed in recent days about the unilateral actions taken by tech giants to close down Trump’s megaphone — echoing comments by political leaders across Europe earlier this month who dubbed the display of raw platform power, from companies like Twitter, as ‘problematic’; and said it must result in regulatory consequences for tech giants.  

“No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules,” she said, adding: “It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

In the speech, the EU president also expressed hope that the Biden administration will be inclined to arc toward Europe’s agenda on digital regulation — as part of the anticipated post-Trump reboot of EU-US relations.

The Commission recently adopted a new transatlantic agenda in which it laid out a number of policy areas it hopes for joint-working with the US — with tech governance key among the areas of hoped for policy cooperation.

von der Leyen reiterated the idea that a joint Trade and Technology Council could be “a first step” toward the EU and US fashioning a “digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”.

“It is in this digital field that Europe has so much to offer the new government in Washington,” she suggested. “The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level. As has long been the case with the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Together we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: From data protection and privacy to the security of technical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion and protection of privacy.”

While there’s evidently a keen appetite in the EU to reset US relations post-Trump, it remains to be seen how much of a policy reboot the Biden administration will usher in vis-a-vis big tech.

He has not been as vocal a critic of platform giants as other Democratic challengers for the presidency. And the Obama administration, which he of course served in, had very cosy ties to Silicon Valley.

Concerns have also been raised in recent days about Biden’s potential picks for a key appointment at the justice office — in light of antitrust probes of big tech vs the prospective appointees’ deep links to tech giants and/or promotion of historical mergers. So it hardly looks like a model for a full and clean reset.

While the tricky issue of pro-privacy reform of US surveillance laws — which EU commissioners have warned will be needed to resolve the legal uncertainty clouding data transfers from the region to the US (and which tech giants themselves have largely avoided in their own lobbying) — seems likely to need legislation from Congress, rather than being a change that could be driven solely by the Biden administration.

The chances of the incoming president being inclined to champion such a relatively wonky tech-policy issue when he has so much else in his ‘needs urgent attention’ in-tray also seem relatively slim. But even slender odds can look promising after the Trump era.  

January 20th 2021, 12:21 pm

Joe Biden’s new gig

TechCrunch

After serving as Obama-Biden campaign manager and White House Deputy Chief of Staff and now living in San Francisco and working with the tech sector, I am hopeful about the Biden-Harris administration’s ability to put in place smart policies and regulatory stability to further unleash the industry’s vast potential — not to mention the effect their calm and measured leadership could have on our greater economy.

However, with new leadership comes new perspectives on many of the most critical issues facing Silicon Valley. While the bonds between the innovation economy and the Obama-Biden Administration resulted in national prosperity, the tech sector is now intertwined in nearly every facet of American life.

The resulting tension means the new Administration will take its role as regulator seriously and investors and businesses alike should not overlook how quickly President Biden will move on policy – especially as it relates to the future of work and getting the U.S. economy back on track.

There’s no question the gig companies had a banner year in 2020. Even with ride-hailing usage down dramatically, the strength of meal, grocery and just about everything else delivered combined with the victory in California of Proposition 22 has driven up market caps and positioned many startups for going public. Yet, while the West Coast may be feeling emboldened, the Beltway has another trajectory in mind.

Congress has been working on gig worker classification legislation named the PRO Act for months. The bill closely mirrors the maligned California Assembly Bill 5 that Proposition 22 mostly reversed. It’s broadly supported by labor and could see some traction this year. Labor is already working hard to line up support from the various Congressional coalitions, and at the same time gig economy companies are gearing up to fight it with their unlimited resources.

The question is – what will President Biden do? Long ago he voiced his support for AB 5 and laid out plans to solve worker misclassification during the campaign, but he’s also hiring and appointing staff to the Administration deeply experienced in tech. President Biden has been governing longer than most startup founders have been alive, he’s a master at understanding forces in Washington and how to reach a compromise. He knows that what’s rarely discussed during legislative debate is how the law will actually be implemented.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections.

Despite most bills being thousands of pages, they’re rarely prescriptive. Those details are left up to agencies. President Biden has oversight of the Department of Labor, which, if the PRO Act is passed, will be responsible for its implementation.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections. President Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, while a staunch supporter of labor, is also well regarded by the business sector as someone they can work with and reach a compromise.

We just have to look to the states to understand why this outcome is so plausible. The gig companies already have Proposition 22 type campaigns underway in six states and are running legislation in a half dozen more. By the end of 2021 there will be law on the books codifying worker protections in nearly a third of the country, modeled on Proposition 22.

This kind of momentum is hard to ignore and labor knows it. Although labor is aligned in its support of the PRO Act, the alignment becomes blurry when considering state action. For example, many northeastern states have had a thriving black car and taxi industry for decades.

This means Labor’s position on gig laws in New York and New Jersey are quite different than places like Washington State or Illinois where gig workers are still relatively new and the ink is drying on regulations supported by Uber and Lyft just a few years ago. Labor is aligned as much as they can be and enough to support the PRO Act, but there isn’t a national movement and that leaves room for compromise.

This is all good news for the tech sector. It’s a fantasy to think that regulation wouldn’t eventually come to protect the very workers who power the gig economy. And that’s a good thing – tech has a moral responsibility to do right by its workers. However, those regulations shouldn’t and won’t be imposed on tech. Rather it will take weeks and months of campaigns and bills winding their way through the states and Congress, culminating with negotiations and compromises.

Or maybe even years of renewed regulatory processes. All of which will be overseen by a new President who has witnessed first-hand over his career how innovation can help the nation grow and recover.

After four years of Trump’s stubborn denialism, magic thinking and economic harm, Biden will promote policy rigor, public spiritedness and private sector ingenuity to work together for innovative solutions. It will be hard work and I promise you it won’t be pretty, but we should expect the dawn of a new era of U.S. tech-driven dynamism.

January 20th 2021, 11:51 am

Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020

TechCrunch

The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined, with super late-stage startups reaching new valuation thresholds at a record pace, and total venture capital funding in the United States recording its second-best result of all time.

That’s according to data released recently by CB Insights, which complements our look back at 2020’s venture capital year in America from yesterday.

At the time, we noted that American startups raised an average of $428 million each day last year, a sum that helps illustrate how rapid the private markets moved during the odd period.


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


But a peek at aggregate results for the world’s largest VC market provides only part of the picture. We need to narrow our lens and peer more deeply into standout categories to understand how the U.S. venture capital market managed to post its biggest year ever in terms of dollars invested, despite seeing deal volume slip for a second consecutive year.

This morning, we’re scraping data together to better understand.

First, we want to how unicorns performed in Q4 2020. This column noted in late December that it felt like unicorn creation was rapid in the quarter; how did that hold up?

And then we’ll take a look dig into PitchBook data concerning the fintech sector, a huge recipient of venture capital time, attention and money.

Fintech’s 2020 is a good perspective to view both the year and its wild final quarter. So this morning, as America itself resets, let’s take a moment to understand last year just a little bit better as we get into this new one.

Unicorns

One of the most curious things about the unicorn era is the rising bet it represents. I’ve written about this before so I will be brief: Nearly every quarter, the number of unicorns — private companies worth $1 billion or more — goes up.

The private market is able to create more unicorns than it has been historically able to exit them.

Some of these companies exit, sometimes in group fashion. But, quarter after quarter, the number of unexited unicorns rises. This means that the bet on expected future liquidity from venture capitalists and other private investors keeps ratcheting higher.

January 20th 2021, 10:50 am

MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farmin

TechCrunch

Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

January 20th 2021, 10:04 am

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket re

TechCrunch

SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

January 20th 2021, 9:17 am

Cannabis marketing startup Fyllo acquires DataOwl

TechCrunch

Fyllo has acquired DataOwl, a company offering marketing and loyalty tools for cannabis retailers.

Fyllo said it already works with 320 cannabis retailers across 25 states (plus Puerto Rico and Jamaica). According to Chief Marketing Officer Conrad Lisco, this acquisition allows the company to offer the industry’s “first end-to-end marketing solution,” combining consumer data, digital advertising, regulatory compliance (thanks to Fyllo’s acquisition of CannaRegs last year) and, through DataOwl, CRM and loyalty tied into a business’ point-of-sale system.

As an example, founder and CEO Chad Bronstein (previously the chief revenue officer at digital marketing company Amobee) said that retailers will be able to use the Fyllo platform to send promotional texts to regular customers while, crucially, ensuring that those campaigns are fully in compliance with state and local regulations. He added that eventually, the platform could be used beyond cannabis, in other regulated industries.

“Beauty, gambling, etc. — the same things need to happen in every regulated industry, they would all benefit from loyalty and compliance automation,” Bronstein said.

In addition, he argued that mainstream brands are increasingly interested in using data around cannabis and CBD consumers, as borne out in a Forrester study commissioned by Fyllo.

Lisco said this acquisition comes at a crucial time for the cannabis industry, with dispensaries classified as essential businesses in many states, as well as continuing momentum behind marijuana legalization.

“In 2020, cannabis came of age,” he said. “We would say it went form illicit to essential in 10 months … 2021 is really about watching endemic [marijuana] brands try to scale, so that they can capitalize on the explosive growth. They’ve historically been excluded from the kinds of integrated marketing capabilities that other non-endemic [mainstream] brands get to use when go to market.”

Bronstein said Fyllo aims to bring those capabilities to marijuana brands, first by bringing the its compliance capabilities into the DataOwl product. The company also aims to create a national cannabis loyalty platform, allowing a marijuana retailer in one state to easily expand its marketing capabilities into other states in a compliant fashion.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. DataOwl co-founders Dan Hirsch and Vartan Arabyan are joining Fyllo, as is the rest of their team, bringing the company’s total headcount to 110.

“By integrating with Fyllo, DataOwl’s solutions will reach the widest possible audience via the industry’s most innovative marketing platform,” Hirsch said in a statement.

January 20th 2021, 9:17 am

Valve and five PC games publishers fined $9.4M for illegal geo-blocking

TechCrunch

A four-year antitrust investigation into PC games geo-blocking in the European Union by distribution platform Valve and five games publishers has led to fines totalling €7.8 million (~$9.4M) after the Commission confirmed today that the bloc’s rules had been breached.

The geo-blocking practices investigated since 2017 concerned around 100 PC video games of different genres, including sports, simulation and action games.

In addition to Valve — which has been fined just over €1.6M — the five sanctioned games publishers are: Bandai Namco (fined €340k), Capcom (€396k), Focus Home (€2.8M), Koch Media (€977k) and ZeniMax (€1.6M).

The Commission said the fines were reduced by between 10% and 15% owing to cooperation from the companies, with the exception of Valve who it said chose not to cooperate (a “prohibition Decision” rather than a fine reduction was applied in its case).

Valve has been contacted for comment.

The antitrust investigation begun in February 2017, with a formal statement of objections issued just over two years later when the Commission accused the companies of “entering into bilateral agreements to prevent consumers from purchasing and using PC video games acquired elsewhere than in their country of residence” in contravention of EU rules.

The mechanisms used by the companies to prevent certain cross-border sales of certain PC games were geo-blocked Steam activation keys and bilateral licensing and distribution agreements to restrict certain cross-border sales.

EU lawmakers has now found that these business practices partitioned certain European markets according to national borders — denying regional consumers the benefits of the EU’s Digital Single Market to shop around for the best offer.

Commenting in a statement, EVP Margrethe Vestager, who heads up competition policy for the bloc, said: “Today’s sanctions against the ‘geo-blocking’ practices of Valve and five PC video game publishers serve as a reminder that under EU competition law, companies are prohibited from contractually restricting cross-border sales. Such practices deprive European consumers of the benefits of the EU Digital Single Market and of the opportunity to shop around for the most suitable offer in the EU.”.

According to the Commission’s investigation, geo-blocking of Steam activation keys prevented activation of certain of the five games’ publishers titles outside of Czechia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It said agreements between the companies to geo-block activation keys had lasted between one and five years and were found to have been implemented at various times between September 2010 and October 2015.

While four of the games publishers (not Capcom) were found to have entered into licensing and distribution agreements with various PC games distributors (not Value) in the European Economic Area (EEA) which contained clauses which restricted cross-border sales of the affected titles within the EEA, including the aforementioned Central and Eastern European countries.

The Commission said these agreements lasted generally longer (“between three and 11 years”), and were implemented at different times between March 2007 and November 2018.

Since the investigation started, EU lawmakers have passed a regulation against unjustified geo-blocking. Although the legislation only applies to PC video games distributed on CDs or DVDs, not to downloads. So games are only partially covered.

A Commission review of how the geo-blocking regulation is operating, published last November, discussed a possible extension of its scope in a range of areas, including for games. However it did not make a strong case for that change. (It also found demand for cross-border access to games (and software generally) relatively low vs other content services.)

But while games distributed via digital downloads look set to remain outside the scope of the EU’s unjustified geo-blocking regulation, the fines against Valve et al show that geo-blocking can still be a legal minefield as contractual agreements to restrict cross-border sales run counter to the bloc’s antitrust rules.

The specific breaches are of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and Article 53 of the Agreement on the European Economic Area which prohibit agreements between companies that prevent, restrict or distort competition within the EU’s Single Market, per the Commission.

January 20th 2021, 8:18 am

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

TechCrunch

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The ‘Another One Leaves The Crust’ mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

January 20th 2021, 7:48 am

HiPeople picks up $3M seed to automate reference checks

TechCrunch

HiPeople, a HR tech startup based in Berlin that wants to automate the reference checking process, has raised $3 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is Mattias Ljungman’s Moonfire, with participation from Capnamic Ventures, and Cherry Ventures. It follows a $1.1 million pre-seed in late 2019. Notably, the seed round was closed fully remote, without any in-person meetings. “Just like the hiring processes of HiPeople’s clients,” founders Jakob Gillmann and Sebastian Schüller told me in an email.

HiPeople says the investment will be used to support growth so that more recruiters can hire remotely using automated reference checks. Longer term, the company is developing a candidate analytics platform to provide rich data and insights on each candidate and enable what it frames as “data-driven” hiring.

“Abstractly-speaking HiPeople is in the talent insights business,” say Gillmann and Schüller. “It’s mission is to enable better hiring by automatically collecting and analyzing talent data, and providing rich insights. HiPeople currently solves this by automating candidate reference checks from request, to collection, and analysis. This allows companies to extend the information they have on a candidate without additional manual work”.

The idea behind the software-as-a-service is that HiPeople’s approach creates a seamless user experience for the recruiter, and “verified, in-depth reference checks they can trust”. As a result, the startup claims that its users on average collect 2x the amount of references on a candidate, in 50% of the time. “Traditionally, reference checks are underutilized due to the highly manual process, and often only exclusively used for executive hiring. HiPeople dusts off reference checks, and enables rich talent insights by rethinking how they are done,” says HiPeople’s founders.

HiPeople’s customers span fast growing startups to tech scale-ups and more established upper mid-market companies. For example, process mining company Celonis, which doubled its workforce in the last 12 months to 1,200 employees globally, uses HiPeople to improve hiring quality for roles in San Francisco, Munich and Tokyo. “By programmatically conducting reference checks the company hires talent based on verified insights on topics like areas of improvement, skills, teamwork style, or work values,” explains HiPeople.

Adds Moonfire’s Mattias Ljungman: “Workflow automation of repetitive processes, and insights on the candidate that go beyond the limitations of the CV, are a clear pain for anybody in recruiting. The Covid-influenced reality of remote work, hence remote hiring practices, has increased the complexity of finding the right talent. HiPeople created a way to enable anybody who is hiring to make better decisions, whilst improving processes and increasing hiring velocity”.

Gillmann and Schüller tell me that in Europe, HiPeople mainly competes with the existing infrastructure and processes recruiters use to manually conduct references checks. In the U.S., companies like Xref or Crosschq are more direct competitors in terms of automating reference checks.

January 20th 2021, 6:33 am

Alibaba shares jump on Jack Ma’s first appearance in 3 months

TechCrunch

Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video, three months after his last public appearance in October, sending the e-commerce firm’s shares up more than 8% in Hong Kong.

The video was first posted on a news portal backed by the government of Zhejiang, the eastern province where Alibaba is headquartered, and the clip was verified by an Alibaba spokesperson.

Speculations swirled around Ma’s whereabouts after media reported in December that he skipped the taping of a TV program he created. Ma, known for his love for the limelight, has seen his e-commerce empire Alibaba and fintech giant Ant Group increasingly in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities in recent months.

Ma last appeared publicly at a conference where he castigated China’s financial regulatory system in front of a room of high-ranked officials. His controversial remark, according to reports, prompted the Chinese regulator to abruptly halt Ant’s initial public offering, which would have been the biggest public share sale of all time.

Ant has since been working on corporate restructuring and regulatory compliance under the directions of the government. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce platform, also came under scrutiny as market regulators opened an investigation into its alleged monopolistic practices.

Some argue that the recent clampdown on Jack Ma’s internet empire signals Beijing’s growing unease with the super-rich and private-sector power brokers.

“Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation,” wrote Li Yuan for the New York Times.

“You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.”

In the 50-second video, Ma talked directly into the camera against what appears to be decorative paintings depicting a water town typical of Zhejiang. An art history book is shown amid a stack of books, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a ceramic figurine of a stout, reclining man, looking relaxed and content.

Ma addressed the 100 teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, which was set up by the Jack Ma Foundation to identify outstanding rural teachers every year. The video also briefly shows Ma visiting a rural boarding school in Zhejiang on January 10. The award ceremony was moved online this year due to the pandemic, Ma told the teachers.

When Ma announced his retirement plan, he pledged to return to his teaching roots and devote more time to education philanthropy, though the founder still holds considerable sway over Alibaba. The legendary billionaire began his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, and on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he nicknames himself the “ambassador for rural teachers.”

January 20th 2021, 3:16 am

Landbot closes $8M Series A for its ‘no code’ chatbot builder

TechCrunch

Barcelona-based Landbot, a ‘no-code’ chatbot builder, has bagged a $8M Series A led by the Spanish-Israeli VC firm Swanlaab, alongside support from Spain’s innovation-focused public agency, CDTI. Previous investors Nauta Capital, Encomenda and Bankinter also participated in the round.

We last chatted to Landbot back in 2018 when it raised a $2.2M seed and had 900+ customers. It’s grown that to ~2,200 paying customers, with some 50,000 individuals now using its tool (across both free and paid accounts).

Since its seed it’s also increased recurrent revenues 10x — and is expecting growth to keep stepping up, fuelled by the new financing.

It says the coronavirus pandemic has supercharged demand for conversational landing pages as all sorts of businesses look for ways to automate higher volumes of digitally inbound customer comms, without needing to make major investments in in-house IT.

Landbot’s customers range from SMEs to specific teams and products within larger organisations, with the startup name-checking the likes of Nestlé, MediaMarkt, CocaCola, Cepsa, PcComponentes and Prudential among its customer roster.

“We are seeing strong traction from industries like eCommerce, Financial Services and Marketing Agencies,” CEO & co-founder Jiaqi Pan tells TechCrunch. “The ecommerce segment is one we have seen the most growth in since COVID-19, where we increased 2x the number of customers from ecommerce industry.”

The new funding will be used to double Landbot’s team during 2021 (currently it employs 40 people) — with hiring planned across sales, marketing and engineering.

The startup, which launched its ‘no code’ flavor of chatbot builder back in 2017, previously relocated HQ from Valencia to Barcelona to help with recruitment.

Since Landbot’s launch, the burgeoning ‘no code/low code’ movement has become a fully fledged trend driven by demand for productivity- and lead-boosting digital services outstripping most businesses’ supply of expert in-house techies able to build stuff.

Hence the rise of service-builder tools that make customizable tech capabilities accessible to non-technical staff.

The pandemic has merely poured more fuel on this fire — and low-friction tools like Landbot are clearly reaping the rewards.

Interestingly, as well as competing with other conversational chatbot builders, like San Francisco-based ManyChat, Landbot says it’s seeing traction from customers who are seeking to replace web forms with more engaging chat interfaces.

Its drag-and-drop chatbot builder tool supports information workers to design what Landbot bills as “an immersive web page experience filled with gifs and visual elements to capture the attention of the end-user” — so you can understand the appeal for SMEs to be able to replace their boring old static forms with an experience any smartphone user is familiar with from using messaging apps like WhatsApp.

“In terms of the main competitor in the no-code space, we have some overlap with ManyChat as the most direct competitor for Chatbot. On the other hand, as we have a lot of customers using us to replace their forms we are competing also against form builders like Typeform,” says Pan, the latter another Barcelona-based startup which similarly bills itself as a platform for “conversational” and “interactive” data collection.

Landbot notes it recently acquired India-based Morph.AI, a chat-based marketing automation tool, which it’s using to help convert social, website and ad traffic into leads — also with the aim of further expanding into presence in the Asian market.

To date, 90% of its customers are international, with 60% coming from the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Juan Revuelta, general partner of Swanlaab, said: “The beauty of Landbot is in the drag and drop solution of the product. The simplicity is critical to making this product accessible to everyone across many different types of business. If you’re a small company you don’t have the luxury of time or money to solve issues in customer service or run lavish marketing campaigns.

“Landbot helps all businesses to have truly frictionless conversations with customers and exchange the data they need to make smarter decisions and scale. The team has had a remarkable 2020, and we’re excited to support them in helping more businesses this year.”

January 20th 2021, 3:16 am

Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski among list of last-minute Trump pardons

TechCrunch

Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer and serial entrepreneur who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison on one count of stealing trade secrets, has received a pardon from President Donald Trump.

The full pardon, which was one of 73 issued late Tuesday evening, means Levandowski will avoid a prison cell. The president also commuted 70 sentences. Levandowski received his sentence in August 2020. However, Judge Alsup, who presided over the case, said he didn’t need to report to prison until the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed.

Levandowski could not be reached for comment.

Levandowski’s pardon was supported by technology founders and investors, including Founders Fund’s co-founder Peter Thiel and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey;  trial lawyers Miles Ehrlich and Amy Craig; and businessman and investor Michael Ovitz.

Here is the full description, which includes people who supported the pardon, that was posted by the White House:

Anthony Levandowski — President Trump granted a full pardon to Anthony Levandowski. This pardon is strongly supported by James Ramsey, Peter Thiel, Miles Ehrlich, Amy Craig, Michael Ovitz, Palmer Luckey, Ryan Petersen, Ken Goldberg, Mike Jensen, Nate Schimmel, Trae Stephens, Blake Masters, and James Proud, among others. Mr. Levandowski is an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology. Mr. Levandowski pled guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation. Notably, his sentencing judge called him a “brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs.” Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.

Levandowski has been a polarizing figure in the autonomous vehicle industry. He is by all accounts — even among some of his harshest critics — a brilliant engineer. His bravado and risk-taking combined with a likable, even affable personality won him followers and rivals.

He has been vilified as a thieving tech bro, unceremoniously ejected from Uber, and forced into bankruptcy by a $179 million award against him. He has also been heralded as a star engineer who was an early pioneer of autonomous vehicles. Levandowski was one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project, which was internally called Project Chauffeur. He was rewarded handsomely  — about $127 million by Google — for his work on Project Chauffeur, according to the court documents.

The criminal case that led to Levandowski’s sentencing in August is part of a multi-year legal saga that has entangled Levandowksi, Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

In 2016, Levandowski left Google and started Otto with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later. Two months after the acquisition, Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron. Uber wasn’t a party to either arbitration. However, under the indemnification agreement between Uber and Levandowski, the company was compelled to defend him.

While the arbitrations played out, Waymo separately filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that included 0.34% of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. That calculated at the time to about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

While Levandowski wasn’t a defendant in the Waymo v Uber suit, he would soon face a bigger obstacle.

In August 2019, the U.S. District Attorney charged Levandowski alone with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets while working at Google. Levandowski and the U.S. District Attorney reached a plea deal in March 2020. Under that agreement, Levandowski admitted to downloading thousands of files related to Project Chauffeur. Specifically, he pleaded guilty to count 33 of the indictment, which is related to taking what was known as the Chauffeur Weekly Update, a spreadsheet that contained a variety of details including quarterly goals and weekly metrics as well as summaries of 15 technical challenges faced by the program and notes related to previous challenges that had been overcome.

The U.S. District Attorney’s office had recommended a 27-month sentence. Levandowski had sought a fine, 12 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service. Alsup ultimately determined that home confinement would “[give] a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”

Instead, Alsup sentenced Lewandowski to 18 months, but delayed his prison time until the pandemic was under control. Levandowski also agreed to pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo and a fine of $95,000.

January 20th 2021, 2:31 am

Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600 million

TechCrunch

Wattpad, the 14-year-old, Toronto-based, venture-backed storytelling platform with reach into a number of verticals, is being acquired by Naver, the South Korean conglomerate, in a $600 million cash-and-stock deal.

Naver plans to incorporate at least part of the business into another of its holdings, the 16-year-old publishing portal Webtoon, which Naver launched in 2004, brought to the U.S., and that features thousands of comic strips created by its users. It also has a huge audience. According to Naver, Webtoons was averaging more than 67 million monthly users as of last August.

On its face, the deal appears to make sense. According to Korea’s Pulse News, some of  Korea’s webtoons are finding a broader audience and crossing over into film. (Below is a trailer for one popular series called “The Secret of Angel.”)

Similarly, Wattpad, which originally launched as an e-reading app, has evolved into a hugely popular platform where users publish their original work and more than 90 million people visit monthly to read them.  (According to a story published last week in the Verge, Wattpad has published more than a billion stories over the years,  and it claims its users spend a collective 22 billion minutes per month reading these.)

Like Webtoon, Wattpad too has been more focused on streaming media, given the many platforms now needing fresh content, from Netflix to Apple to Amazon, not to mention more traditional media companies. (In addition to Wattpad Studios, Wattpad also launched a book publishing division in 2019.)

CEO Jun Koo Kim of Webtoon said in a release about the new tie-up that it represents a “big step towards us becoming a leading global multimedia entertainment company.” Meanwhile, CEO Seong-Sook Han of Naver — whose properties include the popular Tokyo-based messaging app Line — tells Deadline that Wattpad co-founders Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen will continue to lead the company they have built post-acquisition.

As for whether this is a win for Wattpad’s investors, it appears to be a moderate one, though it’s discern much without knowing the terms under which each invested.

Wattpaid had raised $117.8 million from investors in Asia, the United States, and Canada over the years and closing its most recent round with $51 million in 2018 from Tencent Holdings, BDC, Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures, Peterson Group, Canso, and Raine Ventures. That last deal assigned the company a post-money valuation of $398 million according to Pitchbook.

January 19th 2021, 8:59 pm

Reflections on the first all-virtual CES

TechCrunch

I’ve spent more time than I care to mention over the last several years wondering aloud about the value of in-person trade shows. There’s something seemingly antiquated in the idea of jamming a bunch of people in a room, walking from booth to booth. Sure, they’ve fulfilled an important need in the past, but aren’t they just a relic in this hyperconnected world?

I’ve always assumed that if trade shows were to go extinct, it would be a gradual process — a slow fade into cultural irrelevance, like bookstores and record stores (both things I miss dearly). Technology has, for many intents and purposes, dramatically reduced their relative value to our society.

While it’s undoubtedly true that Spotify and the Kindle Store are lacking in much of the appeal and all of the charm of their real-world counterparts, we’re happy to sacrifice all that and more at the alter of convenience.

A rampaging pandemic has effectively given us a year without in-person trade shows. That means, among other things, we’ve had a much more immediate control variable in this question about trade shows. Last year’s CES managed to get in just under the wire. The next major consumer electronics show — Mobile World Congress — was eventually canceled after much hand-wringing.

The CTA (the governing body behind CES) appeared to have been planning a scaled-back in-person version of the show this year, following a similar move by the team behind the Berlin-based IFA over the summer. By July, however, it was clear that such a plan was untenable. To put it bluntly, the United States didn’t have its shit together when it comes to keeping this virus in check (I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we just hit 400,000 deaths on the day I’m writing this).

CES 2021 was far from the first tech show to go all virtual over this past year. The size and scope of the event, on the other hand, are relatively unique here. Per the CTA, the 2020 show drew north of 170,000 attendees. The majority of the tech events I’ve attended virtually in the past year have been put on by a single company. CES is obviously a different beast entirely.

The CTA’s (nee CEA) role in the industry certainly afforded it a fair bit of goodwill up front. The show, after all, dates back to the late-60s. It has ebbed and flowed over the years (taking hits from external forces like the 2008 financial crisis), but it has remained a constant. Those of us who’ve been doing this for a while tend to face the show with equal parts anticipation and dread. But the companies always come out.

Per the CTA’s numbers, nearly 2,000 companies launched products at the 2021 event. The figure pales in comparison to the 4,419 companies exhibiting last year, but that’s to be expected. In addition to the uncertain nature of the event, it’s been a remarkably crappy year for plenty of companies. I certainly had my questions and doubts going in — chief among them was the value of an event like this for a startup? Without an in-person element, wasn’t this just yet another chance to get lost in the noise?

I heard similar feedback from startups on the side, though ultimately nearly 700 chose to exhibit at the show. I know because I ended up going through all of them for the purposes of our coverage. It brought back a kind of visceral memory of the year I challenged myself to walk every square inch of the show, and ended up being challenging for entirely different reasons.

Ultimately, this was the element I missed the most. For me, CES’s biggest appeal has been the element of discovery. Eureka Park, the jam-packed startup portion of the show at the Sands Expo, is easily the best part. The vast majority of exhibitors are not for us, but I still get a charge stumbling on something new and innovative I’ve not seen before. The blogger instinct that lives dormant inside kicks in and I can’t wait to get back in front of my laptop to tell the world.

There was no Eureka Park this year — not even a virtual version. There’s just no good way to approximate a show floor online — at least none that I’m aware of. A couple of existing contacts offered to send me stuff in the mail to look out. Sensel, for instance, has a new version of its trackpad (which it announced today will be integrated into Lenovo’s latest ThinkPad). But for obvious reasons, it’s just not possible to get all 700 startups to send review units to my one-bedroom in Queens.

More than anything, the virtual event highlighted the technology limitations of an event at this scale. Press conferences are simple enough (though I found frustration in the various different platforms the CTA employed). More often than not, these felt like lengthy commercials for the exhibiting company. The in-person versions are, as well, of course, but we tend to be blinded by the spectacle. For my own purposes, there just wasn’t a lot that that couldn’t have been accomplished more efficiently with a press release.

The nature of news releases was far more nebulous this year. More companies seemingly took liberties by dumping their news well ahead of the show. Other companies offered their own sort of counter programming. One of the biggest advantages to these events when it comes to my own peace of mind is how they regulate the news flow. I know going into the year that there’s going to be one hair-pullingly difficult week at the beginning of the year where a ton of news is announced.

With CES less of a center of gravity this year, I anticipated seeing a less segmented news flow. I’ve commented to colleagues over the last couple of years that there’s “no more slow season” when it comes to hardware news, and this will likely only increase that sentiment. Obviously there’s upside in having things more evenly spread out, but I’ve got the feeling we’re moving toward something more akin to a series of small CES-like events throughout the year, and the thought makes my blood turn cold.

It’s been clear in recent years that companies would rather break out from the noise of CES in favor of their own events, following in Apple’s footsteps. Virtual events are a perfect opportunity to adopt that approach. Apple, meanwhile, moved from one event to a series of one smaller event every month toward the end of the year. When you’re not asking people to fly across the country or world to attend an event, the bar for what qualifies as news lowers considerably. Perhaps instead of having thousands of companies vying for our attention at one event, we’re moving toward a model in which there are instead thousands of events. The mind boggles.

I have some hyper-specific grievances about the CTA’s format, but I’ll save them for the post-event survey that I may or may not get around to filling out. I still found value in the virtual event. It was an excuse to talk to a bunch of startups I wasn’t familiar with. Ultimately, however, I think the event served as a testament to the fact that as much as we bemoan all of the headaches and head colds that come with an event like CES, there’s still a lot of value to be had in the in-person event.

There’s little doubt that the CTA and the rest of these sorts of organizations are champing at the bit to return to in-person events, even as a bumpy vaccine rollout leaves a big question mark around the expected timeline. There’s a very good chance that we’ll view 2020/2021 as the beginning of the end for the in-person trade show. But given the sorts of limitations we’ve seen in the past year, I’m not ready to declare them fully dead any time soon.

January 19th 2021, 7:59 pm

Elon Musk said it was ‘Not a Flamethrower.’

TechCrunch

After two days locked up in an Italian prison, American Max Craddock was finally able to make his case to a judge.

“It’s not a weapon of war,” his lawyer told the investigating magistrate. “It’s a toy they sell to children.”

Craddock had been arrested in the Sardinian port city of Olbia in June 2018 after trying to board a private party bus with a collectible flamethrower from Elon Musk’s latest startup, The Boring Company. Craddock had painted his flamethrower black, and written on it the name of a floating music festival in the Bahamas he had attended the previous year while starring in reality TV show Unanchored.

Alarmed by the sight of what he thought was a gun, the bus driver refused to drive off, and then called the police.

“They were very chill at first,” Craddock told TechCrunch in a recent phone interview. “But as the night went on, it kept getting worse. I spent the first night in jail in Olbia and then they took me to prison.”

When Craddock managed to get a lawyer, she told him the judge would probably just let him go with a warning. Instead, the magistrate ordered him back to his cell. That was when Craddock, pictured below, learned possession of a flamethrower in Italy can carry a 10-year prison sentence.

A few months later, author John Richardson was sitting down to work at his home in London, when there was a loud knock at the door. He opened it and five police officers barged in wearing tasers and tactical gear.

“I think a couple of them also had handguns,” Richardson told TechCrunch. “But I’m slightly hazy on that because my legs went wobbly.”

The police officers sat Richardson down on his sofa and informed him that they had a warrant to search the premises. “I was, like, what’s going on here?” Richardson recalled. “Then something clicked and I said, ‘Is this about the flamethrower?'”

The raid was indeed about his flamethrower.

Craddock and Richardson are not the only Boring Company customers to have fallen foul of law enforcement.

More than 1,000 flamethrower purchasers abroad have had their devices confiscated by customs officers or local police, with many facing fines and weapons charges. In the U.S., the flamethrowers have been implicated in at least one local and one federal criminal investigation. There have also been at least three occasions in which the Boring Company devices have been featured in weapons hauls seized from suspected drug dealers.

The upshot: What Musk and his army of fans thought was just another of his money-spinning larks is having real-world consequences for people and countries not in on the joke.

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions from TechCrunch for this story.

The spark of an idea

Inspired by Los Angeles traffic, Musk launched The Boring Company in December 2016.  The startup’s mission was to solve urban traffic jams by moving cars through tiny tunnels. But re-engineering sewer tunneling technology to build a revolutionary subterranean transportation network doesn’t come cheap. In an effort to drum up awareness and funds, Musk announced in December 2017 a limited run of novelty flamethrowers designed and branded by The Boring Company.

It was a scheme that had produced results earlier that year. Musk raised $1 million just weeks after launching sales of a $20 Boring Company hat.

“I’m a big fan of Spaceballs, the movie,” Musk told Joe Rogan during an infamous podcast in 2018. “They have a flamethrower in the merchandising section of Spaceballs, and, like, the kids love that one.”

The device uses a standard propane gas canister and is functionally similar to propane torches for melting ice, killing weeds or applying roofing materials. But with its rifle-style stock, pistol grip and sci-fi styling, the Boring Company’s flamethrower had a very different aesthetic — more post-apocalyptic party accessory than everyday yard maintenance.

Musk did his best to hype sales, tweeting to his Twitter followers, which numbered about 22 million at the time: “Flamethrower obv best way to light your fireplace/BBQ. No more need to use a dainty ‘match’ to ignite!”

He also threw a launch party in Los Angeles, where Craddock was one of the first 1,000 customers to collect a flamethrower, just before his European trip. “I removed the gas canister, put the flamethrower in my carry-on, and had no trouble on the flights,” he said.

Musk’s influence and the appeal of the product provided a winning combination.

“I had no intention of going around setting fire to stuff,” said Richardson. “I just thought it looked pretty cool, and was something I could potentially flip for a lot more money down the line.”

The Boring Company would make 20,000 flamethrowers and sell them at $500 each, netting the young company $10 million.

‘Not’ a Flamethrower

The 20,000 flamethrowers quickly sold out, with orders flooding in from around the world. As the shipping date neared, however, The Boring Company realized its scorching new product could also be a legal hot potato.

“We are told that various countries would ban shipping of it, that they would ban flamethrowers,” Musk told Rogan in 2018. “So, to solve this problem for all of the customs agencies, we labelled it, ‘Not a Flamethrower.'”

“Did it work? Was it effective?” asked Rogan. “I don’t know. I think so. Yes,” Musk replied.

The correct answer was no.

In London, the flamethrower came to the attention of Operation Viper, a rapid response team dedicated to tackling gun crime. Working with customs officials, Viper tracked Musk’s flamethrowers en route to the nation’s capital. “There has been a debate as to whether these are firearms,” one of the Viper officers wrote in an email to Richardson. “Similar flamethrowers have been seized right across London.” One Londoner had his laptop and several cellphones confiscated along with the flamethrower.

Flamethrower raids were also happening around the UK and across Europe. A YouTube vlogger in Manchester was targeted by police after featuring the Boring Company’s gadget in one of his videos, while up to 1,000 purchasers in Switzerland had devices confiscated and were issued fines. One took his case to court, saying the flamethrower was little different from a school Bunsen burner. He lost.

Not just a European problem

Without the immediacy of a Customs check, the backlash to Musk’s flamethrowers in the United States took longer to arrive. But in June 2019, a Democratic lawmaker in the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would criminalize owning and using Musk’s flamethrower.

“Elon Musk’s Boring Company released a new flamethrower… without any concern to the training of the purchasers or their reasons for buying,” reads S1637. “This bill establishes that owning and using a flamethrower is a criminal act, unless it is used for agricultural, construction or historical collection purposes. These dangerous devices should not be sold to civilians, and use needs to be restricted to trained professionals.”

Not every police force believes that new laws are necessary — finding that existing ones are enough. In June 2020, police in Springfield, Mass., stopped a car for a missing inspection sticker. One of the officers noticed what he thought was a rifle hidden beneath a seat — actually a Boring Company flamethrower. Its owner, passenger Brandon McGee, was charged with carrying a dangerous weapon and an “infernal machine” (a device for endangering life or property using fire).

The same month, FBI agents executing a search warrant against a Pennsylvania man, Brandon Althof Long, stumbled across his Boring Company flamethrower propped against a wall. Long had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to riot and cause civil disorder, and conspiracy to use fire to commit a felony, during riots in Ohio protesting police brutality.

The agents seized the flamethrower out of concern for their safety, which a U.S. district judge later ruled lawful. “Other individuals could be located inside the house and the flamethrower could have been used to endanger officers as they retreated from Long’s home,” she wrote.

Novel items like flamethrowers are rarely specified in law, says Ryan Calo, a law professor and co-founder of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. “Some items – like guns or spring knives – are weapons ‘per se,’ meaning that they are always weapons. But most statutes have an ‘or other deadly weapon’ clause as well, meaning that anything that is capable of causing serious bodily harm, even a rock, can be a weapon in the right circumstances,” he said.

The problem is, what circumstances? A flame-spouting weed-killer might not attract the interest of police, whereas a similar device styled like an assault rifle is more likely to be considered threatening. “And if you use the item during the commission of another crime, this can lead to a distinct offense of using a deadly weapon to commit a felony,” said Calo.

For all Musk’s portrayal of the Not a Flamethrower as just an entertaining toy, police forces — and criminals — in North America are increasingly treating them as dangerous weapons. In rural Wisconsin, a two-year narcotics investigation led police to arrest two men in July 2020 with a hoard of drugs, cash and weapons. Among the cocaine, pistols and assault rifles prominently displayed in the traditional seizure photo was a Boring Company flamethrower. Similar seizures were displayed by police in Canada in December and again this month.

Guelph Police Service lays out items seized including Not a Flamethrower, the novelty item sold by The Boring Company. Image credit: Guelph Police

No company has complete control over what customers do with its products. However, this isn’t the first time a product connected to Musk has been misused.

Tesla, the electric automaker led by Musk, has been criticized for naming its advanced driver assistant system Autopilot and for calling the $10,000 add-on option Full Self-Driving (FSD) even though the driver must remain engaged at all times and is legally liable. A German court has banned the company from using the terms “Autopilot” or “full potential for autonomous driving” on its website or in other marketing materials.

Safety advocates have argued that using terms like Autopilot and FSD misrepresents the capabilities of the system. The name, along with the lack of an in-cabin camera that monitors the driver, has led owners to push well beyond the bounds of the system.

Videos showing Tesla owners misusing Autopilot and FSD abound on YouTube. Some have had run-ins with law enforcement. One Canadian man was charged for sleeping in his Tesla as it drove down the highway.

Eternal flame

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

John Richardson eventually got his Not a Flamethrower back from the Metropolitan police. He now intends to keep it out of the public eye, at least until it’s worth selling. “I’m happy to sit on it for however long,” he said. “And if there is a zombie apocalypse, at least I’ve got one.”

For now, Craddock remains the only person that TechCrunch can identify as having been incarcerated solely for possessing a Not A Flamethrower. “It was a hair-raising experience,” he said. “I’m in the middle of nowhere in Sardinia, on 24-hour lockdown with an older guy giving off Mafia vibes.”

After nearly a week in prison, Craddock was abruptly handed his belongings (flamethrower aside) and set free. “My lawyer asked the judge, ‘Do you really want to be the guy on international news keeping an American in jail over this toy?’,” he said. “I think that was the key to getting me out.”

Craddock took the first plane home. He says he now regrets taking the flamethrower abroad, and carrying it in public: “I would have preferred not to have spent that week in an Italian prison but now I’ve got a hell of a story.”

He also has another flamethrower.

“As soon as I got back, I built myself a new one,” said Craddock. “You can follow YouTube videos with links to all the things you need. It’s pretty simple.”

January 19th 2021, 6:56 pm

Brave web browser adds native support for peer-to-peer IPFS protocol

TechCrunch

The decentralized tech community is aiming to find support for technologies that go beyond cryptocurrency support.

In a blog post, today the team at Brave announced that they have worked with Protocol Labs to integrate native support for the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) inside their browser. The peer-to-peer file sharing standard launched in 2015 and has been gathering support among open-source advocates who laud the protocol’s ability to stop companies and government bodies from taking down content across the web, as well as the more functional performance improvements, offline file viewing capabilities and underlying reliability.

IPFS shares plenty of similarities with BitTorrent and allows files to be hosted by a multitude of users distributed across networks. With the update, Brave users will be able to access content from web addresses starting with ipfs:// and will be able to host an IPFS node themselves. The company says that adding support for IPFS will help improve “the overall resilience of the Internet.”

Brave is a likely home for the IPFS protocol given the company’s affinity for all things decentralized. The startup founded by Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich says it now has 24 million monthly active users. Some of Brave’s most unique features have involved blockchain or peer-to-peer tech. In 2018, Brave announced a beta of Tor Tabs bringing the decentralized Onion protocol into the mix.

Last year, Opera announced that it was bringing limited support for IPFS to its Android application.

Decentralization tech is finding more mainstream interest as tech companies have slowly warmed up to the opportunities in cryptocurrency. Last week, TechCrunch looked into how Twitter was looking to help build out a decentralized network for social media platforms.

It’s unclear whether this is a technology that more mainstream browsers will opt to support natively, given the clear potential for abuse that exists in allowing users to work around file takedowns and the fact that is a pretty niche technology for the time being.

January 19th 2021, 6:56 pm

Daily Crunch: Microsoft backs Cruise

TechCrunch

Autonomous vehicle company Cruise raises a $2 billion new round, Netflix keeps growing and WhatsApp faces more privacy concerns. This is your Daily Crunch for January 19, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft backs Cruise

Cruise announced today that it has raised $2 billion in new funding at a $30 billion valuation, with Microsoft joining as a new investor. (Previous backers GM and Honda also participated.)

This includes a long-term strategic partnership between the two companies, with Cruise using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform for its yet-to-launch autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service. Microsoft is also becoming the preferred cloud provider for GM as part of the deal.

“As Cruise and GM’s preferred cloud, we will apply the power of Azure to help them scale and make autonomous transportation mainstream,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a statement.

The tech giants

Netflix shares soar as it passes 200M paying subscribers — Netflix capped off a year of impressive streaming growth by adding 8.5 million net new paying subscribers during the fourth quarter.

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy over ‘grave concerns’ — India’s IT ministry said the upcoming update to the app’s data-sharing policy has raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens.”

Apple’s new editorial franchise, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, to highlight interesting creators — The editorial team at Apple will select new podcast creators to feature every month.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Rivian raises $2.65B as it pushes toward production of its electric pickup — Rivian is now valued at $27.6 billion.

PPRO nabs $180M at a $1B+ valuation to bring together the fragmented world of payments — The London startup has built a platform to make it easier for marketplaces, payment providers and other e-commerce players to enable localized payments.

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40M funding round — Last year, Google unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In 2020, VCs invested $428M into US-based startups every day
That’s according to data shared by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association.

Six investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities — “We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” said Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public — Bustle could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via SPAC.

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

Everything else

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’ —  A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance,” the European Commission said today.

Paramount+, the successor to CBS All Access, launches March 4 in the US, Canada and Latin America — The company had been touting its plans for the rebranded service since earlier last year.

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

January 19th 2021, 6:26 pm

Podchaser raises $4m to build a comprehensive podcast database

TechCrunch

Podchaser, a startup building what it calls “IMDB for podcasts,” recently announced that it has raised $4 million in a funding round led by Greycroft.

In other words, it’s a site where — similar to the Amazon-owned Internet Movie Database — users can look up who’s appeared in which podcasts, rate and review those podcasts and add them lists. In fact, CEO Bradley Davis told me that the startup’s “vibrant, exciting community of podcast nerds” have already created 8.5 million podcast credits in the database.

Davis said this is something he simply wanted to exist and was, in fact, convinced that it had to exist already. When he realized that it didn’t, he posted on Reddit asking whether anyone was willing to build the company with him — which is how he connected with his eventual co-founder and CTO Ben Slinger in Australia. (Podchaser is a fully distributed company, with Davis currently based in Oklahoma City.)

To be clear, Davis doesn’t think podcast nerds are the only ones taking advantage of the listings. Instead, he suggested that it’s useful for anyone seeing to learn more about podcasts and discover new ones, with Podchaser’s monthly active users quintupling over the past year.

For example, he said that one of the most popular pages is politician Pete Buttigieg’s profile, where visitors don’t just learn about Buttigieg’s own podcast but see others on which he’s appeared. (You can also use Podchaser to learn more about TechCrunch’s Equity, Mixtape and Original Content podcasts, though those profiles could stand to be filled out a bit more.)

There has been endless discussion about how to fix podcast discovery, and while Davis isn’t claiming that Podchaser will solve it wholesale, he thinks it can be part of the solution — not just through its own database, but through the broader Podcast Taxonomy project that it’s organizing.

“I think if we are successful at standardizing a lot fo the terminology, and if we do an analysis of all podcasts, of how popular they are, that [will help many listeners] to cull and find the good stuff,” he said.

Podchaser plans to add new features that will further encourage user contributions, like a gamification system and a discussion system.

While the consumer site is free, the startup recently launched a paid product called Podchaser Pro, which provides reach and demographic data across 1.8 million podcasts. It also monetizes by providing podcast players with access to its credits through an API.

Davis said the startup was “lucky” that it decided to build a database that’s “agnostic” from any specific podcast player.

“So we had a lot of latitude to work with those platforms, we integrate with many of those platforms and you’re going to see a lot of our credits showing up [in podcast players],” he said.

In addition to Greycroft, Advancit Capital, LightShed Ventures, Powerhouse Capital, High Alpha, Hyde Park Venture Partners and Poplar Ventures also participated in the round, as did TrendKite founder A.J. Bruno, Ad Results Media CEO Marshall Williams and Shamrock Capital Partner Mike LaSalle.

“Even in the face of a pandemic, the podcast market continues to grow at a breakneck pace,” said Greycroft co-founder and chairman Alan Patricof in a statement. “The demand from consumers and brands is insatiable. Podchaser’s data and discovery tools are crucial to taking podcasting to new heights.”

January 19th 2021, 6:11 pm

Drone-focused construction startup TraceAir raises $3.5M

TechCrunch

Bay Area-based construction startup TraceAir today announced a $3.5 million Series A. Led by London-based XTX Ventures, this round brings the company’s total funding up to $7 million. The raise includes existing investor Metropolis VC, along with new additions Liquid 2 Ventures, GEM Capital, GPS Ventures and Andrew Filev.

We first noted the company back in 2016, when it pitched a method for using drones to spot construction errors before they become too expense. It’s a pretty massive field that various technology companies are attempting to solve through a variety of different means, ranging from quadrupedal robots to site-scanning hard hats.

Last February, TraceAir announced a new drone management tool. “Haul Router provides the best mathematically objective hauls for each given drone scan,” the company noted at the time. “Any employee can use the tool to design a haul road and export the results to feed into grading equipment.”

The pandemic has thrown the construction industry for a loop (along with countless others). But unlike other sectors, demand still remains high in many places. TraceAir is hoping its solution will prove beneficial as many outfits seek a way to continue the process in spite of uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 pandemic created new challenges for the U.S. and worldwide construction industries, resulting in delayed projects and growing unemployment rates,” CEO Dmitry Korolev said in a release tied to the news. “Our platform allows industry leaders to manage projects more efficiently and collaborate with their teams remotely, minimizing the need for a physical presence on-site.”

TraceAir says the additional funding will go toward its sales and marketing, along with future product developments, including an unnamed product set for release this quarter.

January 19th 2021, 5:40 pm

Adthena acquires Kantar’s paid search business

TechCrunch

Adthena is expanding its partnership with market research company Kantar by acquiring Kantar’s paid search business.

The two companies announced an agreement earlier this month, through which Adthena data will be integrated into Kantar’s ad intelligence product. Now, through this new acquisition, Adthena said Kantar search clients will get access to the Adthena product suite.

Kantar moved into the paid search business in 2012 by acquiring AdGooroo (not surprisingly, it eventually rebranded the offering).

“As search continues to become the barometer by which all advertising efforts are measured, the importance of having access to the best intelligence possible cannot be understated,” said Adthena CEO Ian O’Rourke in a statement. “And this acquisition of Kantar’s paid search assets, in combination with our Kantar partnership, will enable us to break new ground for brands and agencies while also helping us to continue upon our growth trajectory.”

O’Rourke previously told me that Adthena stands out thanks to its “Whole Market View,” using artificial intelligence to create visualizations of all the keywords in paid and organic search used to find a business and their competitors.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, but Adthena confirmed that some Kantar team members will be joining the company.

January 19th 2021, 5:40 pm

Facebook and Instagram’s AI-generated image captions now offer far more details

TechCrunch

Every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram gets a caption generated by an image analysis AI, and that AI just got a lot smarter. The improved system should be a treat for visually impaired users, and may help you find your photos faster in the future.

Alt text is a field in an image’s metadata that describes its contents: “A person standing in a field with a horse,” or “a dog on a boat.” This lets the image be understood by people who can’t see it.

These descriptions are often added manually by a photographer or publication, but people uploading photos to social media generally don’t bother, if they even have the option. So the relatively recent ability to automatically generate one — the technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple years — has been extremely helpful in making social media more accessible in general.

Facebook created its Automatic Alt Text system in 2016, which is eons ago in the field of machine learning. The team has since cooked up many improvements to it, making it faster and more detailed, and the latest update adds an option to generate a more detailed description on demand.

The improved system recognizes 10 times more items and concepts than it did at the start, now around 1,200. And the descriptions include more detail. What was once “Two people by a building” may now be “A selfie of two people by the Eiffel Tower.” (The actual descriptions hedge with “may be…” and will avoid including wild guesses.)

But there’s more detail than that, even if it’s not always relevant. For instance, in this image the AI notes the relative positions of the people and objects:

Obviously the people are above the drums, and the hats are above the people, none of which really needs to be said for someone to get the gist. But consider an image described as “A house and some trees and a mountain.” Is the house on the mountain or in front of it? Are the trees in front of or behind the house, or maybe on the mountain in the distance?

In order to adequately describe the image, these details should be filled in, even if the general idea can be gotten across with fewer words. If a sighted person wants more detail they can look closer or click the image for a bigger version — someone who can’t do that now has a similar option with this “generate detailed image description” command. (Activate it with a long press in the Android app or a custom action in iOS.)

Perhaps the new description would be something like “A house and some trees in front of a mountain with snow on it.” That paints a better picture, right? (To be clear, these examples are made up but it’s the sort of improvement that’s expected.)

The new detailed description feature will come to Facebook first for testing, though the improved vocabulary will appear on Instagram soon. The descriptions are also kept simple so they can be easily translated to other languages already supported by the apps, though the feature may not roll out in other countries simultaneously.

January 19th 2021, 5:40 pm

Netflix’s ‘Shuffle Play’ feature will roll out to all users worldwide this year

TechCrunch

Netflix is always in search of a better way to instantly connect users to something to watch, instead of having them waste time unsuccessfully scrolling through all the available programming options. Now, the company says a recent test focused on solving this problem, Shuffle Play, has proven popular enough to roll out to all users worldwide.

In the streamer’s Q4 2020 earnings, announced today, Netflix noted the product development only briefly. It referred broadly to a test of a new feature that “gives members the ability to choose to instantly watch a title chosen just for them versus browse.” It also noted the feature would reach all users worldwide sometime in the first half of 2021.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the test in question is Shuffle Play, which we first covered back in August 2020. However, the company tells us the actual name of the feature is something that’s still being tested.

Shuffle Play puts a big button right on the Netflix home screen, beneath your profile icon. When clicked, Netflix randomly plays content its personalization algorithms think you’ll like. This could include a movie you’re currently watching, something you’ve saved to your watch list, or a title that’s similar to something you’ve already watched, for example.

A variation has also been spotted in the TV app’s sidebar navigation. More recently, we’ve found this sidebar option relabeled as “Shuffle Play,” instead of “Play Something” as before.

In addition, as you start scrolling down through the Netflix home screen on the TV, you’ll eventually come across a screen that explains what the option is for and points to the new button with a red arrow.

“Not sure what to watch?,” this page asks, before explaining how Shuffle Play works.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The button has already appeared on some users’ Netflix app for TV devices, due to the ongoing tests.

In its letter to shareholders, Netflix said the user response to Shuffle Play has been positive — which is funny because the original responses to the feature on social media were decidedly mixed. However, the company doesn’t make its decisions based on what a handful of tweets once said, but rather in how Netflix members actually used the product, of course.

Netflix also tells us the feature is still being tested only on TV devices, not other platforms like web or mobile. It declined to say how many users or what percentage had been opted into the test to date.

Shuffle Play is the latest in a long series of tests where Netflix has tried to make it easier to find something to watch right away.

In 2019, for example, Netflix tried out a shuffle mode that let you click on a popular show to start playing a random episode. This may have worked well when users wanted to play a random episode of their default pick, like the “The Office” or “Friends,” but Netflix has lost both.

It has also promoted its shows on the login screen and as screensavers, and notoriously autoplayed previews until last year, when it finally caved in to user demand for a way to turn this off.

Overall, the goal is to make the Netflix experience closer to that of traditional TV, where you could switch the set on and content just started playing.

Netflix says Shuffle Play will roll out globally in the first half of 2021, but didn’t share more specifics.

January 19th 2021, 5:26 pm

A first look at Qualtrics’ IPO pricing

TechCrunch

Earlier today, Qualtrics dropped a new S-1 filing, this time detailing its proposed IPO pricing. That means we can now get a good look at how much the company may be worth when it goes public later this month.

The debut has been one TechCrunch has been looking forward to since the company announced that it would be spun out from its erstwhile corporate parent, SAP. In 2019, the Germany-based enterprise giant SAP snatched up Qualtrics for $8 billion just before it was to go public.

Qualtrics is either worth less than we would have guessed, or its first IPO range feels light.

That figure provides a good marker for how well SAP has done with the deal and how much value Qualtrics has generated in the intervening years. Keep in mind, however, that the value of software companies has risen greatly in the last few years, so the numbers we’ll see below benefit from a market-wide repricing of recurring revenue.

Qualtrics estimates that it may be worth $22 to $26 per share when it goes public. Is that a lot? Let’s find out.

Qualtrics’ first IPO range

First, scale. Qualtrics is selling just under 50 million shares in its public offering. As you can math out, at more than $20 per share, the company is looking to raise north of $1 billion.

After going public, Qualtrics anticipates having 510,170,610 shares outstanding, inclusive of its 7.4 million underwriter option. Using that simple share count, Qualtrics would be worth $11.2 billion to $13.3 billion.

January 19th 2021, 5:10 pm

Netflix shares soar as it passes 200M paying subscribers

TechCrunch

Netflix capped off a year of impressive streaming growth by adding 8.5 million net new paying subscribers during the fourth quarter.

That means the streaming giant now has a total of 204 million paying subscribers worldwide — net growth of 37 million new subscribers for the full year, up from 28 million net additions in 2019.

The company also reported that it brought in $6.64 billion in revenue and earnings per share of $1.19 during Q4, compared to analyst predictions of $6.63 billon in revenue and EPS of $1.39.

In response to the earnings report, Netflix shares were up 12.4% in after-hours trading (as of 4:43pm Eastern).

Looking ahead, Netflix projected that it will add 6.0 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2021 — the same as its old forecast for Q4, and less than half the 15.8 million subscribers that Netflix added in Q1 2020 (right as lockdowns were beginning in the United States).

The company’s investor letter also highlights a number of hit titles from the quarter, projecting that 72 million households will “choose to watch” (watch at least two minutes of) “The Midnight Sky” in its first 28 days of release, while 68 million households chose to watch “Holidate.” It also said the most recent season of “The Crown” was its most popular yet, with more than 100 million households choosing to watch the show “since its initial launch.”

“In addition to titles with big viewership, we also aspire to have hits that become part of the cultural zeitgeist,” Netflix said. “In 2020 alone, we had ​’Tiger King,​’ ‘​Bridgerton​’ and ​’The Queen’s Gambit​.’ … In fact, Netflix series accounted for nine out of the 10 most searched shows globally in 2020, while our films represented two of the top 10.”

The company acknowledged growing competition from new(-ish) streaming services like Disney+, Peacock and HBO Max, but its user numbers still put it far ahead of any streaming competition — Disney+, for example, had 86.8 million subscribers as of early December (Disney’s service launched a little over a year ago and is still rolling out globally).

“Our strategy is simple: if we can continue to improve Netflix every day to better delight our members, we can be their first choice for streaming entertainment,” Netflix said. “This past year is a testament to this approach. Disney+ had a massive first year (87 million paid subscribers!) and we recorded the biggest year of paid membership growth in our history.”

eMarketer analyst Eric Haggstrom made a similar point in a statement:

Netflix ended 2020 on a high note, adding over 36 million subscribers and passing 200 million subscribers. Despite increasing competition from Disney and others, Netflix had its strongest year yet and will look to grow further in 2021, with a strong content release slate already planned. So far, Netflix has been a clear winner of the streaming wars.

January 19th 2021, 4:56 pm

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

TechCrunch

Deep tech startups develop cutting-edge innovations with the power to truly revolutionize society. The founding team members at these companies often come from deeply technical backgrounds, which powers rapid product progress but can create bottlenecks on the go-to-market side.

In this post, I outline the answers to four key questions around marketing at early-stage deep tech companies that are post-revenue:

From this post, deep tech startups can formulate their marketing hiring strategy and attract and cultivate top talent to drive their go-to-market plan. Without business execution, even the most groundbreaking innovations do not achieve their intended impact.

What do marketing teams at deep tech companies do?

To set the context, I share below the typical projects of deep tech marketing teams, which look different from marketing in other industries given the greater product focus and complexity, regulatory oversight and longer time to market.

Go-to-market

Marketers leverage the strength of the IP to establish collaborations with large companies, such as pharma companies and institutions, such as the government, universities or hospitals. To this end, marketers develop creative ways to gather lists of, and information on, key contacts at these potential partners. They also build sales collateral, such as demo videos, pitch decks and one-pagers, to more effectively reach and build long-term relationships with these prospects.

More broadly, marketers also develop the go-to-market strategy beyond partnerships. To this end, marketers conduct in-depth market research on business models, monetization strategies and reimbursement channels.

Communications

Marketers create original content to establish the company as a thought leader, build the company’s brand credibility through social media and apply for awards and honors to validate the potential of the company’s solution.

Forecasting

Marketers work with finance and product teams to formulate projections as the company moves into the clinical phase.

When should deep tech companies hire marketers?

The CEO and other members of the founding team take on marketing work in the formation stage to better understand and empathize with the needs, capabilities and opportunities in the department before bringing someone on full time.

Once the product shows signs of repeatable revenue, a marketing lead is needed. Specifically, this is ahead of a large Series A round, after a small Series A round or when a commercial partner has expressed interest in larger, long-term contracts. Instead of the typical chief marketing officer or chief revenue officer title, deep tech startups call this person a chief commercial officer or chief partnerships officer.

For additional support in the formation stage, companies bring on MBA interns and work with their investors. Prior to the Series A, platform teams at deep tech venture-capital funds are hands-on in helping with marketing through actually doing marketing projects for their portfolio companies, ideating on long-term marketing strategy with the founders through regular feedback sessions and connecting founders with vetted marketing contractors or agencies.

For companies that require FDA approval, commercial advisors, consultants and board members fully take on the partnership strategy work (which represents the bulk of the marketing needs) prior to the Series A round. Similarly, external consultants, such as marketing agencies, can take over major projects like launch strategy. External consultants can then join the team should their performance be strong.

For drug-development companies, the marketing leader is most crucial when the company enters the clinical phase and prepares for trials, regardless of funding stage.

Do marketing hires need industry experience?

Of course, it is ideal to hire someone with experience selling into the space and someone who is comfortable with the complex supply chains and long sales cycles. However, if the choice is between someone with functional expertise but no industry expertise and someone with industry experience but limited or no functional expertise, it is better to hire the former candidate and leverage the rest of the team for domain expertise. Deep tech is a niche area, so the other team members can support the marketer in developing industry expertise.

January 19th 2021, 3:26 pm

Bolt Mobility launching into 48 new markets after snapping up Last Mile’s assets

TechCrunch

Bolt Mobility, the Miami-based micromobility startup co-founded by Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, is expanding to 48 new markets after acquiring the assets of Last Mile Holdings.

Bolt Mobility’s rise and Last Mile’s demise captures the uncertainty that plagued micromobility companies in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic upended business models that were, in some cases, already on shaky ground.

Bolt Mobility and Last Mile were both negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolt Mobility, for instance, had to shut down in several markets in early 2020 due to the pandemic. The company rebounded after it tweaked its business model and began to partner with local operators, added GM’s former VP global design Ed Welburn as an adviser and came out with a new scooter equipped with dual brakes, 10-inch wheels, LED lights, swappable batteries with 25 miles of range and NanoSeptic surfaces on its handlebars and brake levers designed to rid these common contact points of germs and bacteria.

Last Mile Holdings didn’t fare as well.

If Last Mile Holdings doesn’t sound familiar, the brands it once owned might. Last Mile was a holding company that owned the OjO Electric scooters and Gotcha Mobility, which had a portfolio of electric trikes, scooters and bikes. The company acquired Gotcha in a $12 million cash and stock deal that closed in March 2020.

As Bolt Mobility grew, with its customer base hitting 300,000 users in 2020, Last Mile hit headwinds. Last Mile Holdings, which traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under MILE, ended up selling its U.S. assets in an auction. Bolt Mobility acquired substantially all of the assets of the company for a credit bid of $3 million, according to a filing at the end of the year.

Those assets include 8,500 new devices, including e-scooters, e-bikes, pedal bikes and sit-down cruisers and licenses to operate in 48 new markets, the majority of which (more than 30) are exclusive contracts, according to Bolt CEO Ignacio Tzouma. The 48 new markets include 18 university campuses.

“The acquisition represents a significant expansion for Bolt on all fronts,” Tzoumas said, adding that the company brought on former Gotcha Chief Operating Officer Matt Tolan, who will now serve as Bolt’s chief commercial officer, as well as about 20 team members who were formerly a part of Gotcha’s tech and operations teams.

Riders in Bolt’s new markets will continue to be able to access and use the e-scooters, e-bikes and pedal bikes through the Gotcha Mobility and Ojo Electric iOS and Android mobile apps. Bolt is working with cities and universities to transition these markets to Bolt’s platform. The acquisition adds e-bikes to the Bolt platform for the first time. Although, the company was already developing its own line of e-bikes that it plans to launch later this year.

Image Credits: Bolt Mobility

Bolt credits its new business model for helping it survive and even thrive in 2020. Instead of continuing to handle the complex and expensive task of fleet management and operations, Bolt decided to partner with local companies. These partners operate Bolt’s fleets on the ground in each individual market. This customizable approach allowed for a business partnership model in select markets where Bolt leased scooters to delivery workers, restaurants and other small businesses, the company said. 

By July, Bolt and its partners were operating in five new or re-launched markets. Bolt also has a backlog of agreements with partners for an additional 20 markets that the acquisition is primed to fulfill, according to the company. 

Tzoumas said Bolt was able to execute the deal without taking on any additional debt, and “under terms that will allow us to continue devoting our resources to expanding and improving our services in all of the markets where we operate.” The acquisition was funded in part by Fuel Venture Capital, an existing Bolt investor.  Bolt is also backed by Sofreh Capital and The Yucaipa Companies.

“We founded Bolt because we believe in micromobility as a movement that can transform the way people live and move within their communities,” Usain Bolt said in a statement. “This expansion proves that anything is possible for micromobility when you support it with talented people, innovative technology, and the incredible work ethic of the Bolt team.”

January 19th 2021, 3:10 pm

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

TechCrunch

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

January 19th 2021, 2:56 pm

Ad-supported EV charging network developer Volta raises $125 million

TechCrunch

Volta, the developer of a network of electric vehicle charging stations that monetize using advertising, has raised $125 million in new funding in a process managed by Goldman Sachs.

Volta builds and operates a network of electric vehicle charging stations that are sited in parking lots around grocery stores, pharmacy chains, banks and hospitals.

The company has placed its charging stations, with their 55-inch digital displays in locations at 200 cities across 23 states, according to a statement.

The charge is free for vehicle owners and is supported by the retailers and consumer goods companies that want to reach the EV audience.

With the new financing, Volta has now raised over $200 million in funding and intends to use its cash to begin expanding internationally.

Companies who have placed Volta’s chargers on their sites include Albertsons Companies, Giant Food, Regency Centers, Wegmans and TopGolf. Brands advertising on the company’s screens include GM, Hulu, Nestlé, Polestar, Porsche and Unilever.

“Since our initial investment in Volta in 2018, excitement and interest in electrification — and specifically solving for public charging solutions — has continued to gain momentum,” said John Tough, Managing Partner at Energize Ventures, a major and existing investor in this round. “Our conviction in this team has similarly grown, and we believe Volta is poised to lead this market as the most capital-efficient and highly utilized EV charging network in the country.”

 

January 19th 2021, 2:24 pm

Uppbeat launches a freemium music platform aimed at YouTubers

TechCrunch

A new music platform, Uppbeat, aims to make it easier for YouTubers and other content creators to find quality free music to use in their videos. The system, which is designed to navigate the complexities of copyright claims while also fairly compensating artists, offers an alternative to existing free music platforms, including YouTube’s own Audio Library and Creative Commons’ legal music for videos, for example.

The idea for the startup comes from Lewis Foster and Matt Russell, the U.K.-based co-founders of another music-licensing company, Music Vine, which has been operating for about six years.

Last year, the co-founders realized there was a growing opportunity to address the creator space with a slightly different product.

“We were realizing, more and more, was that the creator space — YouTubers, streamers, podcasters — has become enormous, but there wasn’t a music platform that was doing a nice job for those type of users,” explains Foster. “So we sat down and thought about what the perfect music resource would look like for creators. That led to deciding to build Uppbeat,” he says.

They began developing the Uppbeat website in September 2020 and launched it to the public on Monday.

On the creators’ side, Uppbeat’s key focus is on eliminating headaches over copyright claims, particularly on YouTube.

Currently, if a YouTuber gets a copyright claim over music in their video, it can cause them to lose income. Though YouTube has worked to address this problem over the years with new features and changes to its Content ID match system, it’s still an issue.

“If a YouTuber gets a copyright claim, [YouTube] can de-monetize their video. And if they go through YouTube’s dispute system, it can take as long as 30 days for it to get resolved. It’s a pretty big frustration for YouTubers,” Foster says.

Uppbeat’s music will instead almost instantly clear the claims.

Image Credits: Uppbeat

Similar to Spotify, the Uppbeat website leverages a freemium model, To get started, creators can sign up for a free account that provides with access to about 50% of the site’s roughly 1,000-track music catalog and 10 downloads per month. The paid plan offers full catalog access and no download limit.

Free users simply add a credit to their YouTube video description to clear copyright claims, while paid users are added to an approved list, eliminating this extra step.

Because the tracks have to fingerprinted to fight off unlicensed usage, a copyright claim will still occur. But instead of taking days or weeks to resolve, it will be cleared within about five minutes, the company says. The Uppbeat system clears the claim by checking the video description for the necessary credit and by checking the claim against its list of paid users. This is all automated, too, which helps to speed things up.

Image Credits: Uppbeat

Meanwhile, on the artists’ side, Uppbeat will pays as their music is used — even by the free users.

The revenue from the premium subscriptions, and soon, advertising, is divided between the artists on a monthly basis, in proportion to the number of downloads the artist receives.

“What that means from the artists’ perspective is, on average, they’re going to make the same amount from tracks on the premium side as they do on the free side,” says Lewis. “It means, even for free usage, they will get paid,” he adds.

The site will also monetize through audio ads that play as you browse the tracks and listen to the music. (However, these are just promoting the paid plan for the time being.)

Browsing Uppbeat’s catalog is easy, too. The music is organized by genre, theme and style in colorful rows that aim to introduce all the different types of music and beats a YouTuber may need. For example, there’s music customized for use the background and other tracks that cater to different moods, like inspiring, calm, happy, dramatic, and more. A catalog of SFX (sound effects) is expected to be added in a few months, too.

Uppbeat believes its existing music industry connections with producers, composers and songwriters via Music Vine will help them to source higher-quality tracks than other free music services.

At present, the startup is self-funded through revenues from Music Vine, but Foster says they’ve had some VC interest. For now, though, the founders are looking to keep the ownership in-house, for the most part.

However, Uppbeat is experimenting with both a referral program and a profit-sharing scheme. The latter will allow YouTubers who bring Uppbeat new customers, then take the full revenue from those customers for two years’ time.

“We’re taking a massive sacrifice,” Foster admits. “But from from our perspective, the faster we can get Uppbeat out there and well-known in the YouTuber space, then we’re happy to share that [revenue]. We think it’s a cool idea to share that within the YouTuber community, rather than [take] a big private investment,” he notes.

The startup is also considering making shares in the company available to some larger YouTubers, Foster adds.

Today, Uppbeat is a team of 8 employees and 12 freelancers, based in Leeds, U.K.

 

January 19th 2021, 2:24 pm

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’

TechCrunch

The European Union is preparing the ground for vaccine passports. A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance”, the Commission said today, adding that it wants “an appropriate trust framework” to be agreed upon by the end of January — “to allow Member States’ certificates to be rapidly useable in health systems across the EU and beyond”.

“Vaccination certificates allow for a clear record of each individual’s vaccination history, to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects,” it writes, adding that: “A common EU approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable certificates would allow people to use their records in other Member States. Though it is premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection, an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future.”

It’s not clear what form (or forms) these pan-EU coronavirus vaccine certificates will take as yet — but presumably there will be both paper-based and digital formats, to ensure accessibility.

Nor is it clear exactly how EU citizens’ identity and medical data will be protected as checks on vaccination status take place. Or, indeed, who the trusted entities storing and managing sensitive health data will be. All that detail is to come — and may well vary by Member State, depending on how immunity certification verification systems get implemented.

Last week a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, announced involvement in a separate, cross-industry effort to establish a universal standard for vaccination status that they said would build on existing standards, such as the SMART Health Cards specification which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

That tech-backed effort is pushing for an “encrypted digital copy of [a person’s] immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for those not wanting or able to use a smartphone. The PR also talked about a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Nothing so specific is being proposed for the common EU approach as yet. And it looks clear that a number of vaccine credential standards will be put forward globally — as a potential universal standard. (The Commission is touting its forthcoming framework on that front too.)

Whatever is devised in the EU must ensure compliance with the region’s data protection framework (which bakes in requirements for security and privacy by design and default when processing people’s information). So it could offer better privacy protection than a private sector-led effort, for example.

The EU’s eHealth Network — a body which includes representatives from relevant Member States’ authorities who are supported by a wider European Joint Action body, called eHAction — will be responsible for defining the minimum dataset needed for vaccination certificates used at the EU level, per the Commission.

It says this must include “a unique identifier and an appropriate trust framework ensuring privacy and security”.

Expect relevant stakeholders such as Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor and Data Protection Board to weigh in with expert advice, as happened last year with coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

“The Commission will continue to work with Member States on vaccination certificates which can be recognised and used in health systems across the EU in full compliance with EU data protection law — and scaled up globally through the certification systems of the World Health Organisation,” EU lawmakers add, saying the forthcoming framework will be presented in the WHO “as a possible universal standard”.

Commenting in the challenges ahead for developing privacy-safe vaccination verification, Lukasz Olejnik, a Europe-based independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, told TechCrunch: “It is tricky to follow privacy by design for this particular [use-case]. It is unclear if anyone will be interested in identifying possible innovative privacy-preserving frameworks such as anonymous cryptographic credentials.

“In the end perhaps we will end up with some approach using verifiable credentials, but establishing trust will remain a challenge. What will be the source of trust? Is it possible to prove a particular status without the need to disclose the user identity? These are the core questions.”

“I hope this proposal will be public and transparent,” he added of the EU framework.

It’s worth emphasizing that all this effort is a bit ‘cart before the horse’ at this stage — being as it’s still not confirmed whether any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been developed primarily to protect the recipient from serious illness, also prevent transmission of the disease or not.

Nonetheless, systems for verifying proof of immunization status are fast being spun up — ushering in the possibility of ‘vaccine passport’ checks for travellers within the EU down the road, for example. It’s also not hard to envisage businesses requesting COVID-19 vaccination certification before granting access to a physical facility or service, in a bid to reassure customers they can spend money safety — i.e. once such documentation exists and can be verified in a standardized way.

Standardized frameworks for vaccination credentials could certainly have very broad implications for personal freedoms in the near future, as well as wide ramifications for privacy — depending on how these systems are architected, managed and operated.

Europe’s privacy and security research community mobilized heavily last year as the pandemic triggered early proposals to develop coronavirus contacts tracing apps — contributing to a push for exposure notification apps to be decentralized to ensure privacy of individuals’ social graph. However efforts toward establishing vaccination certification systems don’t appear to have generated the same level of academic engagement as yet.

In an analysis of the implications of immunity certificates, published last month, Privacy International warned that any systems that require proof of vaccination for entry or a service would be unfair “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine” — a bar that remains far off indeed.

European countries, which are among the global leaders on COVID-19 vaccination rollouts, have still only immunized tiny minorities of their national populations so far. (Even as the Commission today urged Member States to set targets to vaccinate a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 by March 2021; and at least 70% of the total adult population by summer — targets which look like fantastical wishful thinking right now.)

“Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes which do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices,” the rights group further urged, also warning that COVID-19 immunity should not be used as a justification for expanding or instating digital identity schemes.

January 19th 2021, 1:54 pm

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

TechCrunch

Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.

After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.

While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.

“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”

All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.

Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?

Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.

Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.

There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?

Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.

Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.

Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

January 19th 2021, 1:09 pm

We’ll discuss the future of the gig economy and contract works at TC Sessions: Justice on March 3

TechCrunch

Like so many other subjects, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought concerns about the gig economy and contract workers into sharp focus over the past year which is why we’ll be diving into this topic at TC Sessions: Justice on March 3.

From food delivery services like Seamless to warehouse and fulfillment jobs at places like Amazon, these often low-paid jobs have kept people supplied with essentials during one of the most difficult moments in modern American history.

But why is it that jobs our society has labeled “essential” often carry the least number of protections for those who fulfill them? Is there a way to ensure a safety net for the people who need it the most?

As the pandemic continued to rage, California passed Proposition 22. The law was regarded as a big win for companies like Uber and Lyft (who pumped a collective $200 million into promotions) and a tremendous step back for workers looking for basic employment rights. But the battle between the Prop 22 proponents and the gig workers who oppose it continues. A group of rideshare drivers in California and the Service Employees International Union have filed a lawsuit alleging Proposition 22 violates California’s constitution.

To discuss the gig worker economy and its future in a post-Prop 22 world, we will be joined by Jessica E. Martinez, the co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an organization devoted to promoting health and safety conditions for workplaces; Vanessa Bain, a gig worker activist who co-founded the Gig Workers Collective; and Christian Smalls, a former Amazon worker turned activist.

TC Sessions: Justice will be held online on March 3. Get your tickets today!

January 19th 2021, 11:54 am

Apple’s new editorial franchise, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, to highlight interesting creators

TechCrunch

Apple today announced a new editorial franchise called Apple Podcasts Spotlight, which aims to highlight rising podcast creators in the U.S. The editorial team at Apple will select new podcast creators to feature every month and then give them prominent screen real estate in the Apple Podcasts app and promote them across social media and elsewhere. This will allow creators to reach a wider audience, similar to how the App Store showcases a selection of recommended apps and games with large banners at the top of its screen.

The first Spotlight creator is Chelsea Devantez, who hosts the podcast Celebrity Book Club. On Fridays, Chelsea and special guests including Emily V. Gordon, Gabourey Sidibe, Ashley Nicole Black and Lydia Popovich will meet to discuss the memoirs of “badass celebrity womxn,” as an announcement describes it.

The idea for the show began a year ago when Devantez was reading Jessica Simpson’s memoir and started recapping it on Instagram. The reaction from her followers prompted her to expand the concept into a podcast.

Upcoming episodes will feature Oscar-nominated writer and producer Emily V. Gordon talking Drew Barrymore’s “Little Girl Lost;” actress Stephanie Beatriz discussing Celine Dion’s memoir “My Story My Dream;” Leighton Meester on Carly Simon’s “Boys in the Trees;” and a special Valentine’s Day episode where Chelsea and TikTok star Rob Anderson read Burt Reynolds’ and Loni Anderson’s competing divorce memoirs.

“Apple Podcasts Spotlight helps listeners find some of the world’s best shows by shining a light on creators with singular voices,” said Ben Cave, Global Head of Business for Apple Podcasts, in a statement about the launch. “Chelsea Devantez has created a fun, vibrant space with Celebrity Book Club for listeners to gain new perspectives on the celebrities we thought we knew. We are delighted to recognize Chelsea and Celebrity Book Club as our first Spotlight selection and look forward to introducing creators like Chelsea to listeners each month,” he added.

Apple says future Spotlight creators will be announced monthly from across a range of podcast genres, formats and locations, and will often focus on independent and underrepresented voices. The content is previewed ahead of selection to ensure quality, but there are no specific requirements about the podcast size and reach.

In general, the new Spotlight creators will debut toward the front of the week, but the specific days are fluid to adapt to holidays, major cultural events, and others. The next Spotlight selection, for example, will launch in mid-February.

The Spotlight creators will be featured at the top of the Browse tab of Apple Podcasts and will be promoted through the Apple Podcasts social media accounts. Some form of in-app featuring will continue throughout the entire month the creators are in the “spotlight.”

Apple says it will also collaborate with the featured creators on their own channels. And, over time, you’ll see promotion via additional Apple-operated channels including outdoor advertising in major U.S. metros.

The news of the new editorial program comes shortly after a report from The Information suggested Apple is working to expand its podcasts platform with the introduction of a podcast subscription service, threatening rivals like Spotify, SiriusXM and Amazon.

Though Apple Podcasts still leads the market, Spotify has been catching up by spending over $800 million on podcast companies, like Anchor, the Ringer, Gimlet Media, and more recently, podcast ad company Megaphone.

SiriusXM, meanwhile, bought podcast management and analytics platform Simplecast, ad tech platform AdsWizz, and podcast app Stitcher. Not to be left out, Amazon just a few weeks ago announced it was acquiring the podcast network Wondery.

Beyond helping the creators grow their audience, Apple says the larger goal with the program is to welcome new audiences to podcasts, in general.

Though podcasts are growing in popularity, the monthly podcast listener base is just 37% in the U.S., according to Edison Research. That means it’s nowhere near being an activity that’s popular among a majority of the U.S. population at this time. Before Apple can effectively monetize podcasts as a subscription service, it needs to help get more people listening to podcasts on a regular basis.

Apple declined to say if the program would expand outside the U.S. at a later date.

January 19th 2021, 11:54 am

Wendy Xiao Schadeck becomes Northzone’s first New York partner

TechCrunch

Northzone‘s new partner Wendy Xiao Schadeck isn’t new to the firm — she actually joined back in 2015.

Before entering the venture world, Schadeck co-founded co-working and childcare startup CoHatchery. And as a Northzone principal, she’s already been involved in the firm’s investments in Spring Health (mental health), 3box (cloud infrastructure), Livepeer (blockchain-based video transcoding), Magic.link (user authentication) and Main Street (helping companies apply for tax credits).

More broadly, Northzone says Schadeck helped to develop the firm’s investment theses around crypto, consumer technology, health, developer/web 3.0 infrastructure.

“Wendy has already proven herself through very insightful sector-driven thought leadership and has solidified our position in the New York ecosystem,” said General Partner Pär-Jörgen Pärson in a statement. “She has defined and redefined an honest, authentic and inspiring dialogue between herself as an investor and the entrepreneurs she supports.”

Schadeck told me that her interests have “crystallized” around three key areas — “open data, open finance and open community.” And she said that with her promotion to partner, she will be able to work even more closely with founders, a topic she’s become “obsessed” with.

“We’ve all seen this VC meme, ‘How can I be helpful?’ and I’ve sometimes accidentally literally said it,” Schadeck said. “But we mean it: Other than providing capital, first and foremost, on good terms, what other dimensions are there that are becoming more and more important? … How can I customize my approach to provide what the founder needs from me?”

While Schadeck is Northzone’s first New York-based partner (its other partners are in London and Stockholm), she said she will make investments outside the region.

“We’ve tried to do this matrix approach, where we both have sectors that we’re pretty excited about and build expertise and experience in, as well as relationships” she said. “And those relationships are better with local entrepreneurs.”

 

January 19th 2021, 11:09 am

Paramount+, the successor to CBS All Access, launches March 4 in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America

TechCrunch

Last year, ViacomCBS announced its CBS All Access streaming service would soon rebrand as Paramount+, to better reflect the expanded content lineup following the Viacom-CBS merger in 2019. Today, the company says it has set a launch date for Paramount+ in the U.S.: March 4, 2021. It’s also sharing the launch dates for other international markets, including Latin America, Canada and the Nordics.

The service will debut on March 4 in Latin American markets, and will rebrand from CBS All Access to Paramount+ in Canada at the same time. However, Canada won’t receive the expanded lineup until later in 2021. The Nordics region will see the service arrive on March 25, 2021, which is followed by a launch in Australia in “mid-2021.”

The company had been touting its plans for the rebranded service since earlier last year, explaining how the new streaming offering, an expansion of CBS All Access,  would allow it to showcase the company’s biggest franchises and its deep library, while also offering a home to its growing collection of original content, like the multiple “Star Trek” series now streaming on CBS All Access and “The Good Wife” spin-off, “The Good Fight,” among others.

The service will also continue to stream sports, like NFL games and those from other leagues, like the NCAA and PGA, and live stream news from CBSN and local stations.

Last year, ViacomCBS additionally announced other originals it had planned for the new service, including “The Offer,” a scripted limited series about the making of “The Godfather;” CIA spy drama “Lioness,” created by Taylor Sheridan; a reimagined version of MTV’s “Behind the Music,” which will focus on the past 40 years; a true crime docu-series, “The Real Criminal Minds,” based on the fictional TV hit; and a revival of BET’s “The Game.”

There will be expanded children’s programming, too, including a new kids original series “Kamp Koral,” from Nickelodeon’s “Spongebob Squarepants.” And it it will be the subscription video on demand home for the “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run.”

CBS All Access had already been expanding its lineup ahead of the full rebrand, with the goal of reaching more than 30,000 episodes and movies, by incorporating content from ViacomCBS-owned brands like BET, CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and Paramount Pictures.

Despite its plans to make Paramount+ a standalone destination, ViacomCBS has been licensing its content to other streamers, as well. During its first full year as a newly combined company in 2020, ViacomCBS made carriage deals with Comcast, Dish, Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent), Nextstar, Meredith, Cox and Sinclair, and hashed out agreements with YouTube TV and Hulu for incremental revenues. Both YouTube TV and Hulu added over a half dozen ViacomCBS-owned channels to their respective lineups and hiked prices, as a result.

Because Paramount+ is built on CBS All Access’ existing tech platform, it will have the same distribution across platforms (TV, web, and mobile) as its predecessor from day one.

Today, CBS All Access is estimated to have around 8 million subscribers, which makes it far smaller than other newer rivals like Disney+ (73M+) and HBO Max (12.6M “activated users”).

January 19th 2021, 10:54 am
Get it on Google Play تحميل تطبيق نبأ للآندرويد مجانا