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Amid unprecedented growth on its platform, Acorns cuts roles and shuts down an office

TechCrunch

Acorns, which helps millions of people invest their spare change in the stock market, has laid off between 50 to 70 people, TechCrunch has learned from multiple sources.

The Irvine, Calif.-based company would not confirm the total number of people laid off, but did confirm that there were cuts at the company as a result of broader business changes.

The news emerged days after the fintech company closed its Portland office earlier this week, one of four offices the company maintained. While Acorns offered Portland employees an opportunity to relocate to its Irvine headquarters, some roles were terminated as part of the relocation, the company said.

Employees laid off largely were members of Acorns’ support team. And the internal cuts are related to an external partnership with TaskUs, which out-sources customer care and support needs for other businesses. Acorns will bring on roughly 80 new TaskUs support roles in the next year, which the company said would grow its support team, just not its internal staff.

The internal Acorns support team will handle high-touch customer care situations via phone, while external roles will handle email support.

Beyond support roles, Acorns cut some people from various teams across the company.

Acorns has found unprecedented growth as the coronavirus brings new users into its world of investing and saving money. The company recently hit a milestone of 7 million sign-ups, continuing the trend that trading apps are benefiting from a down market.

At the same time, Acorns also launched a debit card that depends on users spending in order to make sense as a business product. Payment processing is a risky space to play in right now because consumer spending has nosedived due to shelter in place orders. It could be a weak spot for the company at the moment. Earlier today, Brex laid off 62 staff members, just one week after raising $150 million in venture capital money.

So, why does a company like Acorns, that is facing immense growth, need to do layoffs? Even if you’re winning right now, the pandemic and potential of an extended recession is forcing businesses to reevaluate the way they’re spending money. In Acorns’ case, it will have more headcount next year than it does right now. But dig a little deeper, and its choice to outsource roles and shut down an office means that growing right now can come at the cost of slimming down.

Investors in Acorns include PayPal, DST Global, Rakuten, Greycroft and Bain Capital.

May 30th 2020, 1:36 am

Toyota’s first plug-in hybrid RAV4 Prime priced a skosh under $40,000

TechCrunch

When Toyota unveiled the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime in November, the vehicle garnered a lot of attention because it achieved two seemingly conflicting goals. It was Toyota’s most fuel efficient and one of its most powerful vehicles.

Now, it’s getting praise for managing a base price under $40,000. Toyota said Friday that the standard trim of the plug-in vehicle, the RAV4 Prime SE, will start at $39,220,  a price that includes the mandatory $1,120 destination charge.

This plug-in RAV4 will have an all-wheel drive, sport-tuned suspension. When in pure EV mode it has a manufacturer-estimated 42 miles of range — putting it ahead of other plug-in SUVs. Toyota said it has a also has up to a manufacturer-estimated 94 combined miles per gallon equivalent. We’re still waiting on official EPA estimates.

The vehicle has a tuned 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and when combined with the electric motors will deliver 302 horsepower and be able to travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a projected 5.8 seconds.

The plug-in RAV4 will be offered in two variants. Toyota equips all of its RAV4 models with its standard active safety systems that includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, full-speed range dynamic radar cruise  control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, lane tracing assist and road sign assist.

The cheaper SE comes standard with some notable features like 18-inch painted and machined alloy wheels, heated front seats, a power liftgate, a 3-kilowatt onboard charger and a 8-inch touchscreen along with Amazon Alexa integration and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Some advanced driver assistance features such as blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert also comes standard.

There is a weather and moonroof package for an additional $1,665 upgrade, that adds extras like a heated steering wheel, heated rear outboard seats and rain-sensing windshield wipers with de-icer function.

The pricier XSE trim starts at $42,545 (with the destination price included) and offers more luxury touches such as a two-tone exterior paint scheme pairing a black roof with select colors, 19-inch two-tone alloy wheels, paddle shifters, wireless phone charger and a 9-inch touchscreen. There are several other upgrades, of course, including one for the multimedia system that adds dynamic navigation and a JBL speaker system. The daddy of upgrades on the XSE costs $5,760 and covers weather, audio and premium features including a heads-up display, panoramic moonroof, digital rearview mirror, surround-view cameras and four-door keyless entry.

The vehicle is expected to show up at dealerships this summer.

May 29th 2020, 9:31 pm

Zuckerberg explains why Facebook won’t take action on Trump’s recent posts

TechCrunch

In a statement posted to Facebook late Friday afternoon, Mark Zuckerberg offered up an explanation of why his company did not contextualize or remove posts from the accounts associated with President Donald Trump that appeared to incite violence against American citizens.

“We looked very closely at the post that discussed the protests in Minnesota to evaluate whether it violated our policies,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Our policy around incitement of violence allows discussion around state use of force, although I think today’s situation raises important questions about what potential limits of that discussion should be.”

Facebook’s position stands in sharp contrast to recent decisions made by Twitter, with the approval of its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, to screen a tweet from the President on Thursday night using a “public interest notice” that indicated the tweet violated its rules glorifying violence. The public interest notice replaces the substance of what Trump wrote, meaning a user has to actively click through to view the offending tweet.

Critics excoriated Facebook and its CEO for its decision to take a hands off approach to the dissemination of misinformation and potential incitements to violence published by accounts associated with the President and the White House. Some of the criticism has even come from among the company’s employees.

“I have to say I am finding the contortions we have to go through incredibly hard to stomach,” one employee, quoted by The Verge, wrote in a comment on Facebook’s internal message board. “All this points to a very high risk of a violent escalation and civil unrest in November and if we fail the test case here, history will not judge us kindly.”

Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s position saying that it would not take any action on the posts from the President because “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

Facebook’s chief executive also drew a sharp contrast between Facebook’s response to the controversy and that of Twitter, which has provided a fact check for one of the President’s tweets and hidden Thursday’s tweet behind a warning label for violating its policies on violence.

“Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician,” wrote Zuckerberg.

Twitter explained its decision in a statement. “This Tweet violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today,” the company said.

Twitter Comms

@TwitterComms

We have placed a public interest notice on this Tweet from @realdonaldtrump. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1266231100780744704 

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Replying to @realDonaldTrump

….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!

“We’ve taken action in the interest of preventing others from being inspired to commit violent acts, but have kept the Tweet on Twitter because it is important that the public still be able to see the Tweet given its relevance to ongoing matters of public importance,” the Twitter statement continued.

Perhaps, as Zuckerberg suggests, Facebook will have an opportunity to provide some answers to the questions around what the limits should be around allowing the state discussion of incitements to violence. For now, the company’s response only begs more questions.

A link to the full post from Zuckerberg follows below:

This has been an incredibly tough week after a string of tough weeks. The killing of George Floyd showed yet again that…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, May 29, 2020

May 29th 2020, 9:31 pm

As wildfire season approaches, AI could pinpoint risky regions using satellite imagery

TechCrunch

The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.

Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.

Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.

This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.

“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.

The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.

They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.

You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas, and safety warnings.

The researchers’ work was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

May 29th 2020, 5:45 pm

Brex, the credit card for startups, cuts staff amid restructuring

TechCrunch

Brex, last valued at $2.6 billion, is restructuring its credit card for startups business and cut 62 staff members, the co-founders Pedro Franceschi and Henrique Dubugras said in a blog post.

“Today we’re restructuring the company to better align our priorities with this new reality, while simultaneously accelerating our product vision. With that, I have some very sad news to share. 62 people will be leaving Brex today,” the post reads.

The cuts come as Brex’s customer base itself is struggling to stay afloat amid COVID-19: high-growth startups. The trickle-down to Brex’s core business, which depends on its customers spending money, was thus expected.

Brex has already cut some customer credit limits to mitigate some of the exposure risk, The Information reported, and Dubugras confirmed. Customers say the credit limit cuts came without warning or notice.

Additionally, the company, launched in Brazil and graduated from Y Combinator, raised $150 million recently.

When TechCrunch talked to Dubugras about the latest fundraise, the co-founder said the capital was offensive, rather than defensive.

“I’m glad this round came together, but if it hadn’t, we would’ve been fine,” he said last week. “The capital is so we can play offensive while everyone else plays defensive.”

In the blog post, the co-founders wrote to former staffers.

“Please continue dreaming big and don’t lose the ambition that attracted you to Brex. Don’t let anything, not even a global pandemic, take that away from you. I wish we could give each one of you a hug, so instead I’ll end this message like I’d do it in Portuguese. Abraços, Pedro and Henrique.”

Those laid off will be provided with eight weeks of severance, their computer and equipment, and Brex will dedicate a part of its recruiting team to help find new opportunities for ex-staffers. Additionally, Brex is making adjustments to the equity cliff and has extended healthcare benefits through the end of 2020.

Brex has amassed $465 million in venture capital funding to date.

May 29th 2020, 5:30 pm

Sony will show off the first PlayStation 5 games on June 4th

TechCrunch

Sony has been dishing out details on the PlayStation 5 piece-by-piece, rather than dropping all of the details at one big mega event. First came word of the Holiday 2020 release window. Then came an overview of the specs — like that it’ll have a super fast solid state drive by default. Most recently, they showed off the controller. (The divvied up approach makes sense, really; with the ongoing pandemic preventing events like E3 and GDC from happening… why wouldn’t Sony work on their own schedule and make every aspect its own mini-spectacle?)

The next glimpse they give, it seems, will be of the first games coming to the console.

This morning Sony announced that they’ll be hosting a live-streamed event on June 4th at 1pm Pacific. In a blog post about the event, Sony Interactive CEO Jim Ryan clarifies the focus:

We’ve shared technical specifications and shown you the new DualSense wireless controller. But what is a launch without games?

That’s why I’m excited to share that we will soon give you a first look at the games you’ll be playing after PlayStation 5 launches this holiday.

Ryan also notes that the event should last roughly an hour, but doesn’t suggest how many different games that’ll cover.

In a video that managed to pull in millions of views, Epic Games recently gave a first look at its upcoming Unreal Engine 5 running on pre-release PS5 hardware. Given that video’s success, I’d imagine that Sony is pretty dang eager to keep the early looks coming.

Will we finally see the console hardware itself? That’s still unclear. Seeing as they’ve pieced just about everything else out, though, I’d bet they’re saving that one for an event a bit closer to launch.

May 29th 2020, 5:14 pm

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

TechCrunch

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before shutting down in 2018.

By then, Conrad had already moved on, deciding in late 2017 that one of the many nascent teams that was camping out at Lemnos was onto a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate or, at the time, a burning passion for the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information. Using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes at construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity. “We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered. Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer who is on the 50th floor of the skyscraper he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are astonishingly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them, too. (Quartz is currently charging $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.)

It’s a big enough opportunity in fact, that Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having founded a venture firm and spent years as an investor may serve him well, too. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he also says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”

May 29th 2020, 3:59 pm

4 views on the future of retail and the shopping experience

TechCrunch

The global spread of COVID-19 and resulting orders to shelter in place have hit retailers hard.

As the pandemic drags on, temporary halts are becoming permanent closures, whether it’s the coffee shop next door, an historic bar, or a well-known lifestyle brand.

But while the present is largely bleak, preparing for the future has retailers adopting technologies faster than ever. Their resilience and innovation means retail will look and fee different when the world reopens.

We gathered four views on the future of retail from the TechCrunch team:

Alexa, how do I look?

Natasha Mascarenhas

May 29th 2020, 3:46 pm

Aaron Levie: ‘We have way too many manual processes in businesses’

TechCrunch

Box CEO Aaron Levie has been working to change the software world for 15 years, but the pandemic has accelerated the move to cloud services much faster than anyone imagined. As he pointed out yesterday in an Extra Crunch Live interview, who would have thought three months ago that businesses like yoga and cooking classes would have moved online — but here we are.

Levie says we are just beginning to see the range of what’s possible because circumstances are forcing us to move to the cloud much faster than most businesses probably would have without the pandemic acting as a change agent.

“Overall, what we’re going to see is that anything that can become digital probably will be in a much more accelerated way than we’ve ever seen before,” Levie said.

Fellow TechCrunch reporter Jon Shieber and I spent an hour chatting with Levie about how digital transformation is accelerating in general, how Box is coping with that internally and externally, his advice for founders in an economic crisis and what life might be like when we return to our offices.

Our interview was broadcast on YouTube and we have included the embed below.


Just a note that Extra Crunch Live is our new virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members. Folks can ask their own questions live during the chat, with past and future guests like Alexis Ohanian, Garry Tan, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and many, many more. You can check out the schedule here. If you’d like to submit a question during a live chat, please join Extra Crunch.


On digital transformation

The way that we think about digital transformation is that much of the world has a whole bunch of processes and ways of working — ways of communicating and ways of collaborating where if those business processes or that way we worked were able to be done in digital forms or in the cloud, you’d actually be more productive, more secure and you’d be able to serve your customers better. You’d be able to automate more business processes.

We think we’re [in] an environment that anything that can be digitized probably will be. Certainly as this pandemic has reinforced, we have way too many manual processes in businesses. We have way too slow ways of working together and collaborating. And we know that we’re going to move more and more of that to digital platforms.

In some cases, it’s simple, like moving to being able to do video conferences and being able to collaborate virtually. Some of it will become more advanced. How do I begin to automate things like client onboarding processes or doing research in a life sciences organization or delivering telemedicine digitally, but overall, what we’re going to see is that anything that can become digital probably will be in a much more accelerated way than we’ve ever seen before.

How the pandemic is driving change faster

May 29th 2020, 3:16 pm

YouTube and Tribeca’s global online film festival starts today

TechCrunch

Today, the online film festival We Are One is kicking off 10 days of films, talks, musical performances and VR experiences.

The event is a collaboration between Tribeca Enterprises (the organization behind the Tribeca Film Festival) and YouTube, with help from 21 film festivals from around the world.

Think of it as an attempt to recreate a little bit of the excitement of this year’s canceled festivals, and to showcase some of the films that would have screen there. Partner festivals include the Berlin International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.

YouTube Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl credited Tribeca for doing the “heavy lifting” of bringing all the festivals on-board and curating the lineup. He said that when the organization’s co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal first approached YouTube with the idea, “It sounded great to us, but it seemed impossible to actually execute — to get all of these important people around the world to agree to this one thing.”

However, Rosenthal and her team were able to pull it everything together in a short period of time, so YouTube is doing its part by giving the festival its online home. There will be more than 100 films screening on a schedule, just like a regular festival — although after many of the movies premiere, they will be available on-demand for the duration of the event.

And again, it’s not just films, but the other festival programming too, like Tribeca Talks with directors like Guillermo del Toro and Francis Ford Coppola. YouTube channels like Lessons from the Screenplay, CineFix, Now You See It and La Blogotheque have also gotten involved by creating new content for the event.

All the content is available for free, and Kyncl said that neither YouTube nor Tribeca are monetizing the event. Instead, they’re directing viewers to donate to COVID-19 relief efforts, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation and Give2Asia.

“We just see this as an immediate response with no commercial intent on our side,” he said.

And while We Are One was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyncl sounds hopeful that YouTube could help to create similar online festivals in the future — though he hastened to add that online experiences will never fully replace the “human connection” of an in-person festival.

“The role that youTube can play for all the festivals in the future is, we can extend their reach … whether it’s creators who may be participants in their film festivals in the future, or just audiences who are absolutely participating, but I think we can expand their universe in any way they wish,” Kyncl said. At the same time, he added, “We’ve given zero thought given to it thus far. We’re all focused on making sure we can pull this off in a short amount of time.”

May 29th 2020, 3:16 pm

SpaceX’s Starship SN4 launch vehicle prototype explodes after static engine fire test

TechCrunch

SpaceX had just conducted yet another static fire test of the Raptor engine in its Starship SN4 prototype launch vehicle on Friday when the test vehicle exploded on the test stand. This was the fourth static fire test of this engine on this prototype, so it’s unclear what went wrong vs. other static fire attempts.

This was a test in the development of Starship, a new spacecraft that SpaceX has been developing in Boca Chica, Florida. Eventually, the company hopes to use it to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket, but Starship is still very early in its development phase, whereas those vehicles are flight-proven, multiple times over.

SpaceX had just secured FAA approval to fly its Starship prototype for short, suborbital test flights earlier this week. The goal was to fly this SN4 prototype for short distances following static fire testing, but that clearly won’t be possible now, as the vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed in the explosion following Friday’s test, as you can see below in the stream from NASASpaceflight.com.

The explosion occurred around 1:49 PM local time in Texas, roughly two minutes after it had completed its engine test fire. We’ve reached out to SpaceX to find out more about the cause of today’s incident, and whether anyone was potentially hurt in the explosion. SpaceX typically takes plenty of safety precautions when running these tests, including ensuring the area is well clear of any personnel or other individuals.

This isn’t the first time one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes has met a catastrophic end; a couple of previous test vehicles succumbed to pressure testing while being put through their paces. This is why space companies test frequently and stress test vehicles during development – to ensure that the final operational vehicles are incredibly safe and reliable when they need to be.

SpaceX is already working on additional prototypes, including assembling SN5 nearby in Boa Chica, so it’s likely to resume its testing program quickly once it can clear the test stand and move in the newest prototype. This is a completely separate endeavor from SpaceX’s work on the Commercial Crew program, so that historic first test launch with astronauts on board should proceed either Saturday or Sunday as planned, depending on weather.

May 29th 2020, 3:16 pm

Salesforce stock is taking a hit today after lighter guidance in yesterday’s earning’s report

TechCrunch

In spite of a positive quarter with record revenue that beat analyst estimates, Salesforce stock was taking a hit today because of lighter guidance. Wall Street is a tough audience.

The stock was down $8.29/share or 4.58% as of 2:15 pm ET.

The guidance, which was a projection for next quarter’s earnings, was lighter than what the analysts on Wall Street expected. While Salesforce was projecting revenue for next quarter in the range of $4.89 to $4.90 billion, according to CNBC, analysts had expected $5.03 billion.

When analysts see a future that is a bit worse than what they expected, it usually results in a lower stock price and that’s what we are seeing today. It’s worth noting that Salesforce is operating in the same economy as everyone else and being a bit lighter on your projections in the middle of pandemic seems entirely understandable.

In yesterday’s report CEO Marc Benioff indicated that the company has been offering some customers some flexibility around payment as they navigate the economic fallout of COVID-19, and the company’s operating cash took a bit of a hit because of this.

“Operating cash flow was $1.86 billion, which was largely impacted by delayed payments from customers while sheltering in place and some temporary financial flexibility that we granted to certain customers that were most affected by the COVID pandemic,” president and CFO Mark Hawkins explained in the analyst call.

Still, the company reported revenue of $4.87 billion for the quarter, putting it on a run rate of $19.48 billion.

In a statement, David Hynes, Jr of Canaccord Genuity still remained high on Salesforce. “If you step back and think about what Salesforce is actually providing, tools that help businesses get closer to their customers are perhaps more important than ever in a slower-growth, socially distanced world. We have long reserved a spot for CRM among our top names in large cap, and we feel no differently about that view after what we heard last night. This is a high-quality firm with many levers to growth, and as such, we believe CRM is a good way to get a bit of defensive exposure to the favorable trends at play in software.”

The company is after all still firmly on the path to a $20 billion in revenue. As Hynes points out, overall the kinds of tools that Salesforce offers should remain in demand as companies look for ways to digitally transform much more rapidly in our current situation, and look to companies like Salesforce for help.

May 29th 2020, 2:46 pm

Audi launches high-tech car unit Artemis to fast track a ‘pioneering’ EV to market

TechCrunch

Audi has created a new business unit called Artemis to bring electric vehicles equipped with highly automated driving systems and other tech to market faster — the latest bid by the German automaker to become more agile and competitive.

The traditional automotive industry, where the design to start of production cycle might take five to seven years, has been grappling with how to bring new and innovative products to market more quickly to meet consumers’ fickle demands. The model is more akin to how Tesla or a consumer electronics company operates.

The first project under Artemis will be to “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically,” Audi AG CEO Markus Duesmann said in a statement Friday. The unit is aiming to design and produce what Audi describes as a “highly efficient electric car” as early as 2024.

Artemis will be led by Alex Hitzinger, who was in charge of Audi’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched just in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group. AID was absorbed into the European headquarters of Argo AI, a move that was made after VW invested $2.6 billion in capital and assets into the self-driving startup.

Hitzinger, who takes the new position beginning June 1, will report directly to Duesmann. Artemis will be based at the company’s tech hub of its INCampus in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Artemis is under the Audi banner. However, the aim is for this group’s work to benefit brands under its parent company VW Group.  Hitzinger and the rest of his team will have access to resources and technologies within the entire Volkswagen Group . For instance, Car.Software, an independent business unit under the VW Group, will provide digital services to Artemis.  The upshot: to create a blueprint that will make VW Group a more agile automaker able to bring new and technologically advanced vehicles to market more quickly.

VW Group plans to produce and sell 75 electric vehicle models across its brands by 2029, a group that includes VW passenger cars and Audi. The creation of Artemis hasn’t changed Audi’s plans to produce 20 new all-electric vehicles and 10 new plug-in hybrids by 2025.

“The obvious question was how we could implement additional high-tech benchmarks without jeopardizing the manageability of existing projects, and at the same time utilize new opportunities in the markets,” Duesmann said.

May 29th 2020, 2:28 pm

Daily Crunch: Trump takes aim at social media companies

TechCrunch

President Trump follows through on his threat to challenge the legal protections enjoyed by social media and internet companies, Magic Leap’s CEO is stepping down and China sees its biggest autonomous driving round yet.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for May 29, 2020.

1. Trump signs an executive order taking direct aim at social media companies

Yesterday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. Next, we’ll almost certainly see a court battle over whether the order is legal and enforceable.

While Trump and Attorney General William Barr have expressed interest in undermining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act before, this week’s action was prompted by Twitter’s decision to add a fact-checking link to the president’s tweet about voting by mail. That conflict isn’t going away either, with Twitter adding a “public interest notice” to another of Trump’s tweets for glorifying violence.

2. Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz is out

Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz announced that the company has secured a new bout of funding — but that Magic will be attempting a major turnaround without him at the helm.

3. SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortages in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field.

4. Cisco to acquire internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes

Cisco’s Todd Nightingale, writing in a blog post announcing the deal, said that the kind of data that ThousandEyes provides around internet user experience is more important than ever as internet connections have come under tremendous pressure.

5. Fintech regulations in Latin America could fuel growth or freeze out startups

Promoteo co-founder Ximena Aleman looks at what impact regulation has had so far in Latin America, and what needs to happen to strike a balance between sector growth and public trust. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Uber UK launches Work Hub for drivers to find other gig jobs during COVID-19

The ride-hailing giant rolled out a similar feature in the U.S. back in April, offering drivers the ability to respond to job postings from around a dozen other companies, as well as the ability to receive orders through other Uber units: Eats, Freight and Works.

7. Join us June 3 for a contact-tracing and exposure-notification app development and deployment forum

We’re working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host to their live-streamed discussion around contact-tracing and exposure-notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks.

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

May 29th 2020, 2:16 pm

Echo Looks will cease functioning in July, as Amazon discontinues the camera

TechCrunch

Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.

No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to completely shuttered in July.

Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch,

When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.

Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.

May 29th 2020, 1:58 pm

The best investment every digital brand can make during the COVID-19 pandemic

TechCrunch

Intuitively, stores that sell online should be making a killing during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, everyone is stuck at home — and understandably more willing to shop online instead of at a traditional retailer to avoid putting themselves and others at medical risk. But the truth is, most smaller online stores have seen better days.

The primary challenge is that smaller shops often don’t have the logistics networks that companies like Amazon do. Consequently, they’re seeing substantially delayed delivery timelines, especially if they ship internationally. Customers obviously aren’t thrilled about that reality. And in many cases, they’re requesting refunds at a staggering rate.

I saw this play out firsthand in April. At that point, my stores were down 20% or in some cases even 30% in revenue. Needless to say, my team was freaking out. But there’s one thing we did that helped us increase our revenue over 200% since the pandemic, decrease refund requests and even strengthen our existing customer relationships.

We implemented a 24-hour live chat in all of our stores. Here’s why it worked for us and why every digital brand should be doing it too.

Avoid the common ‘unreachability’ frustration

When I started my first online store in 2006, challenges that bogged my team down often meant that my team’s first priority became resolving those challenges so that we could serve our customers faster. But admittedly, when these challenges came up, it became more difficult to balance communicating with our customers and resolving the issues that prevented us from fulfilling their orders quickly.

May 29th 2020, 1:46 pm

TinyML is giving hardware new life

TechCrunch

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

May 29th 2020, 12:56 pm

Bunq adds donations to charities and tests redesign

TechCrunch

Challenger bank Bunq is adding a new feature that lets you donate to charities directly from the app. In addition to that, Bunq is also in the process of redesigning its app. The company is launching a public beta test to get feedback from its users.

Other fintech startups, such as Revolut and Lydia, have launched donation features in the past. But in those cases, startups have selected a handful of charities.

Bunq has chosen a different approach as you can create your own donation campaigns in the app. As long your local charity has an IBAN number, you can add it to Bunq’s donation feature. You can even add a local business in case you want to help them stay in business.

You can then invite other people to donate to your charities. You can also track the total amount of your donations as well as the total donations from the entire Bunq user base.

The company has also been working on the third major version of the app. In order to test it before the public release, Bunq is launching a public beta program. The first build will roll out in the coming weeks.

In order to simplify navigation, Bunq has tried to remove clutter by focusing on one main button on each page. The app will be divided in four main tabs.

The first tab called ‘Me’ will feature all your personal information — personal bank accounts, savings goals, etc. On the second tab called ‘Us’, you can see information about Bunq, such as total investments and total donations. The third tab features your profile information.

Finally, the fourth tab is a dedicated camera button. It lets you scan invoices and receipts, which could be particularly useful for business customers. I’m not sure a lot of people use that feature, but things could still change before the final release.

May 29th 2020, 12:56 pm

Twitter, Reddit challenge US rules forcing visa applicants to disclose their social media handles

TechCrunch

Twitter and Reddit have filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit challenging a U.S. government rule change compelling visa applicants to disclose their social media handles.

The lawsuit, brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice, and law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, seeks to undo both the State Department’s requirement that visa applicants must disclose their social media handles prior to obtaining a U.S. visa, as well as related rules over the retention and dissemination of those records.

Last year, the State Department began asking visa applicants for their current and former social media usernames, a move that affects millions non-citizens applying to travel to the United States each year. The rule change was part of the Trump administration’s effort to expand its “enhanced” screening protocols. At the time, it was reported that the information would be used if the State Department determines that “such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.”

In a filing supporting the lawsuit, both Twitter and Reddit said the social media policies “unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech” and that the rules violate the First Amendment rights “to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

Twitter and Reddit, which collectively have more than 560 million users, said their users — many of which don’t use their real names on their platforms — are forced to “surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States,” which “violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

“Twitter and Reddit vigorously guard the right to speak anonymously for people on their platforms, and anonymous individuals correspondingly communicate on these platforms with the expectation that their identities will not be revealed without a specific showing of compelling need,” the brief said.

“That expectation allows the free exchange of ideas to flourish on these platforms.”

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s policy chief for the Americas, said the social media rule “infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues.” Reddit’s general counsel Ben Lee called the rule a “intrusive overreach” by the government.

It’s not known how many, if any, visa applicants have been denied a visa because of their social media content. But since the social media rule went into effect, cases emerged of approved visa holders denied entry to the U.S. for other people’s social media postings. Ismail Ajjawi, a then 17-year-old freshman at Harvard University, was turned away at Boston Logan International Airport after U.S. border officials searched his phone after taking issue with social media postings of Ajjawi’s friends — and not his own.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch at the time that Ajjawi’s case was not isolated. A week later, TechCrunch learned of another man who was denied entry to the U.S. because of a WhatsApp message sent by a distant acquaintance.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately comment on news of the amicus brief.

May 29th 2020, 12:10 pm

How to upgrade your at-home videoconference setup: Lighting edition

TechCrunch

In this instalment of our ongoing series around making the most of your at-home video setup, we’re going to focus on one of the most important, but least well understood or implemented parts of the equation: Lighting. While it isn’t actually something that requires a lot of training, expertise or even equipment to get right, it’s probably the number one culprit for subpar video quality on most conference calls – and it can mean the difference between looking like someone who knows what they talk about, and someone who might not inspire too much confidence on seminars, speaking gigs and remote broadcast appearances.

Basics

You can make a very big improvement in your lighting with just a little work, and without spending any money. The secret is all in being aware of your surroundings and optimizing your camera placement relative to any light sources that might be present. Consider not only any ceiling lights or lamps in your room, but also natural light sources like windows.

Ideally, you should position yourself so that the source of brightest light is positioned behind your camera (and above it, if possible). You should also make sure that there aren’t any strong competing light sources behind you that might blow out the image. If you have a large window and it’s daytime, face the window with your back to a wall, for instance. And if you have a moveable light or a overhead lamp, either move it so it’s behind and above your computer facing you, or move yourself if possible to achieve the same effect with a fixed position light fixture, like a ceiling pendant.

Ideally, any bright light source should be positioned behind and slightly above your camera for best results.

Even if the light seems aggressively bright to you, it should make for an even, clear image on your webcam. Even though most webcams have auto-balancing software features that attempt to produce the best results regardless of lighting, they can only do so much, and especially lower-end camera hardware like the webcam built into MacBooks will benefit greatly from some physical lighting position optimization.

This is an example of what not to do: Having a bright light source behind you will make your face hard to see, and the background blown out.

Simple ways to level-up

The best way to step up beyond the basics is to learn some of the fundamentals of good video lighting. Again, this doesn’t necessarily require any purchases – it could be as simple as taking what you already have and using it in creative ways.

Beyond just the above advice about putting your strongest light source behind your camera pointed towards your face, you can get a little more sophisticated by adopting the principles of two- and three-point lighting. You don’t need special lights to make this work – you just need to use what you have available and place them for optimal effect.

A very basic, but effective video lighting setup involves positioning not just one, but two lights pointed towards your face behind, or parallel with your camera. Instead of putting them directly in line with your face, however, for maximum effect you can place them to either side, and angle them in towards you.

A simple representation of how to position lights for a proper two-point video lighting setup.

Note that if you can, it’s best to make one of these two lights brighter than the other. This will provide a subtle bit of shadow and depth to the lighting on your face, resulting in a more pleasing and professional look. As mentioned, it doesn’t really matter what kind of light you use, but it’s best to try to make sure that both are the same temperature (for ordinary household bulbs, how ‘soft,’ ‘bright’ or ‘warm’ they are) and if your lights are less powerful, try to position them closer in.

Similar to two-point lighting, but with a third light added positioned somewhere behind you. This extra light is used in broadcast interview lighting setups to provide a slight halo effect on the subject, which further helps separate you from the background, and provides a bit more depth and professional look. Ideally, you’d place this out of frame of your camera (you don’t want a big, bright light shining right into the lens) and off to the side, as indicated in the diagram below.

In a three-point lighting setup, you add a third light behind you to provide a bit more subject separation and pop.

If you’re looking to improve the flexibility of this kind of setup, a simple way to do that is by using light sources with Philips Hue bulbs. They can let you tune the temperature and brightness of your lights, together or individually, to get the most out of this kind of arrangement. Modern Hue bulbs might produce some weird flickering effects on your video depending on what framerate you’re using, but if you output your video at 30fps, that should address any problems there.

Go pro

All lights can be used to improve your video lighting setup, but dedicated video lights will provide the best results. If you really plan on doing a bunch of video calls, virtual talks and streaming, you should consider investing in some purpose-built hardware to get even better results.

At the entry level, there are plenty of offerings on Amazon that work well and offer good value for money, including full lighting kits like this one from Neewer that offers everything you need for a two-point lighting setup in one package. These might seem intimidating if you’re new to lighting, but they’re extremely easy to set up, and really only require that you learn a bit about light temperature (as measured in kelvins) and how that affects the image output on your video capture device.

If you’re willing to invest a bit more money, you can get some better quality lights that include additional features including wifi connectivity and remote control. The best all-around video lights for home studio use that I’ve found are Elgato’s Key Lights . These come in two variants, Key Light and Key Light Air, which retail for $199.99 and $129.99 respectively. The Key Light is larger, offers brighter maximum output, and comes with a sturdier, heavy-duty clamp mount for attaching to tables and desks. The Key Light Air is smaller, more portable, puts out less light at max settings and comes with a tabletop stand with a weighted base.

Both versions of the Key Light offer light that you can tune form very warm white (2900K) to bright white (7000K) and connect to your wifi network for remote control, either from your computer or your mobile device. They easily work together with Elgato’s Stream Deck for hardware controls, too, and have highly adjustable brightness and plenty of mounting options – especially with extra accessories like the Multi-Mount extension kit.

With plenty of standard tripod mounts on each Key Light, high-quality durable construction and connected control features, these lights are the easiest to make work in whatever space you have available. The quality of the light they put out is also excellent, and they’re great for lighting pros and newbies alike since it’s very easy to tune them as needed to produce the effect you want.

Accent your space

Beyond subject lighting, you can look at different kinds of accent lighting to make your overall home studio more visually interesting or appealing. Again, there are a number of options here, but if you’re looking for something that also complements your home furnishings and won’t make your house look too much like a studio set, check out some of the more advanced versions of Hue’s connected lighting system.

The Hue Play light bar is a great accent light, for instance. You can pick up a two pack, which includes two of the full-color connected RGB lights. You’ll need a Hue hub for these to work, but you can also get a starter pack that includes two lights and the hub if you don’t have one yet. I like these because you can easily hide them behind cushions, chairs, or other furniture. They provide awesome uplight effects on light-colored walls, especially if you get rid of other ambient light (beyond your main video lights).

To really amplify the effect, consider pairing these up with something one the Philips Hue Signe floor or table lamps. The Signe series is a long LED light mounted to a weighted base that provide strong, even accent light with any color you choose. You can sync these with other Hue lights for a consistent look, or mix and max colors for different dynamic effects.

On video, this helps with subject/background separation, and just looks a lot more polished than a standard background, especially when paired with defocused effects when you’re using better quality cameras. As a side benefit, these lights can be synced to movie and video playback for when you’re consuming video, instead of producing it, for really cool home theater effects.

If you’re satisfied with your lighting setup but are still looking for other pointers, check out our original guide, as well as our deep dive on microphones for better audio quality.

May 29th 2020, 11:55 am

Uber latest features lets riders book by the hour and make multiple stops

TechCrunch

Uber is bringing a new feature to the U.S. that lets users book rides for $50 an hour and make multiple stops as the ride-hailing company tries to respond to changing consumer needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hourly booking feature, which is already available in a handful of international cities in Australia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, will launch in a dozen U.S. cities beginning Monday. The product will be available in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Tacoma, Seattle and Washington D.C. Uber said it expects to expand into other U.S. cities in the coming weeks.

Uber made the move in an effort to offer riders a more convenient way to get things done, and to provide an additional earnings opportunity for drivers as we move forward in this ‘new normal,’ Niraj Patel, director of rider operations at Uber said in a statement.

Riders who want to use the new feature start by selecting “hourly” in the app and then entering their initial stop. Riders can see the $50 hourly rate at a glance and compare to other options before committing to the trip. The rider selects the expected hours and can enter in multiple stops — as many as three including the destination.

Image Credits: Uber

There are limitations to the feature, including mileage. In some cities, the hourly booking feature only allows drivers to travel up to 40 miles. Trips that travel farther than the mileage limit will be charged to the rider at a per mile rate. The same rule applies to trips the run over the booked hour; riders will be charged per minute over the hour.

Hourly booking cannot be used to travel to or from airports and trips must be within a city service area. The $50 hourly rate excludes tolls and surcharges.

 

May 29th 2020, 11:26 am

How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

TechCrunch

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run

May 29th 2020, 10:57 am

Google’s latest experiment encourages social distancing through AR

TechCrunch

Several months into this pandemic, you can no doubt already eyeball six feet/two meters with the best of them. But if you’re still having trouble — and happen to have an Android device handy — Google’s got you covered, I guess.

The latest project out of the company’s Experiments With Google collection, Sodar is a simple browser-based app that uses WebXR to offer a mobile augmented reality social distance. Visiting the site in Chrome on an Android handset will bring up the app. From there you’ll need to point your camera at the ground and move it around as the device recognizes the plane with a matrix of dots.

Move it up, and you’ll get a visual perimeter of two meters (that’s 6.6 feet for us imperial unit loving Americans) — the CDC-recommended length to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The organization also handily lists it as “about two arms’ length. The app is probably more clever than it is useful at this point. Perhaps some day in the future, if smart glasses ever really take off. A big if, of course. 

Meantime, holding a phone up to make sure you’re a proper distance away from your fellow human/disease vector is a bit less practical than good old fashioned common sense.

May 29th 2020, 9:38 am

Facebook takes on Twitter with Venue, a ‘second screen’ companion for live events

TechCrunch

Facebook’s R&D group, NPE Team, is launching a new app for engaging fellow fans around live events, Venue. This is the third new app to launch just this week from Facebook’s internal team focused on experimenting with new concepts in social networking. With Venue, the company aims to offer a digital companion for live events, starting with this Sunday’s NASCAR race.

The new app appears to be a challenge to Twitter, which today serves as the de facto “second screen” for commenting on live events and engaging with fellow fans. On Twitter, fans often use hashtags to add their commentary to live events that can range from TV show premieres to sports competitions to major political happenings, like live-streamed congressional hearings or the “State of the Union” presidential address, for example.

Twitter’s in-house curation team also rounds up the highlights from major events (e.g.), which are quick summaries featuring notable tweets, video clips, photos, comments and more about an event or related news story.

While there are some similarities with Twitter, Facebook’s Venue takes a different approach to the second screen.

Instead of having everyone viewing the event constantly chiming in with their own thoughts and reactions, the commentators for a given event hosted in Venue will only include well-known personalities — like journalists, current or former athletes, or aspiring “fan-analysts.” The latter could include popular social media personalities, for example.

These commentators will provide their own takes on the event and pose interactive questions and polls for those watching. The event host may also open up short, constrained chats around specific moments during the event — but fan commentary isn’t the main focus of the app.

In addition, fans don’t stay glued to their phone during the entire event when using Venue. Instead, the app sends out a notification to users when there’s a new “moment” available in the app. These “moments” aren’t like Twitter’s summaries. They’re one of the short, digital opportunities where fans can participate.

Facebook will first test Venue with NASCAR’s Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 race on Sunday, May 31, 2020. Social media personality, nascarcasm, will host the in-app “venue.”

Future NASCAR races will also be hosted in Venue, with commentators including nascarcasm, FOX Sports NASCAR reporter Alan Cavanna, and NASCAR driver Landon Cassill.

“As NASCAR makes its return to action over the coming weeks, Venue will provide users with a unique and exciting way to connect with fellow race fans from around the globe – all from the safety and comfort of their own homes,” said Tim Clark, NASCAR SVP and Chief Digital Officer, in a statement. “NASCAR was built on innovation, and we couldn’t be more excited to help a great partner like Facebook’s New Product Experimentation team innovate around new platforms,” he added.

Facebook believes the new app will give viewers the chance to better engage with live events and fellow fans.

“Live broadcasts still offer the rare opportunity for millions of people to consume content simultaneously,” Facebook explained in its announcement. “Despite drawing large concurrent viewership, live broadcasts are still a mostly solo viewing experience,” it noted.

That’s a bit of stretch. Fans certainly engage with one another when chatting about live events on Twitter. And when Twitter streams the video from a live event — something Venue doesn’t do, by the way — Twitter will offer a dedicated space where users can easily see the tweets from fellow viewers. Other live video platforms, including Facebook’s own Facebook Live and Instagram Live, also include chat experiences as do YouTube Live and Twitch.

The real difference between Venue and Twitter is that it shifts the balance of power. On Twitter, everyone’s comments are given equal footing. In Venue, it’s the expert hosts leading and curating the conversation.

Facebook hasn’t announced what future events Venue may host beyond NASCAR but it sounds like it has plans to expand Venue further down the road as it refers to NASCAR as its “first” sports partner.

The Venue app is live today on iOS and Android.

May 29th 2020, 9:27 am

Tech talent is flocking to smaller cities, but investors aren’t

TechCrunch

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. This week’s show took a break from regularly scheduled programming. Our co-host Alex Wilhelm, who usually leads us through the show, was on some deserved vacation, so Danny Crichton and Natasha Mascarenhas took the reigns and invited Floodgate Capital’s Iris Choi to join in on the fun. It’s Choi’s fourth time being on the podcast, which officially makes her our most tenured guest yet (in case the accomplished investor needs another bullet point on her bio page).

This week’s docket features scrappiness, a seed round, and a Startup battlefield alumnus.

Here’s what we chewed through:

  • LeverEdge raised seed funding to get you and your friends a volume discount on student loans. Fintech has been booming for years now, and startups often crop up around the painful wolrd of student loans. Yet this startup still caught our eye, and it has a little something to do with its choice to use collective bargaining power as its modus operandi.
  • Stackin’ raises $12.6M Series B for a text-messaging service that connects millennials to money tips, and eventually other fintech apps. According to CEO Scott Grimes, Stackin’ wants to be the “pipes that port people around fintech.” We get into if the world needs a fintech app marketplace and how it targets younger users.
  • D-ID, a Startup Battlefield alumnus, digitally de-identifies faces in videos and still images and just raised $13.5 million. We’re all worried about our privacy concerns, so the funding news was a refreshing change of pace from the usual headlines we see around surveillance. Now the company just needs to find a successful use case beyond the goodness in people’s hearts.
  • ByteDance, the Chinese parent company that owns TikTok, hit $3 Billion in net profit last year, reports Bloomberg. TikTok also recently snagged former Disney executive Kevin Mayer for its CEO. This one, as you can expect, made for an interesting conversation around privacy and bandwidth. We even asked Choi to weigh in on Donald J. Trump’s recent tweet threatening to regulate social media companies, since Floodgate was an early angel investor in Twitter.
  • We ended with a round table of sorts on how the future of work will look and feel in our new world, from college campuses to offices. We get into the vulnerability that comes with being on Zoom, the ever-increasing stupidity of “manels”, and how tech talent might be flocking to smaller cities but investors aren’t just yet.

And that was the show! Thanks to our producer Chris Gates for helping us put to this together, thanks to you all for listening in on this quirky episode, and thanks to Iris Choi for always bringing a fresh, candid perspective. Talk next week.

May 29th 2020, 9:27 am

Cisco to acquire internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes

TechCrunch

When Cisco bought AppDynamics in 2017 for $3.7 billion just before the IPO, the company sent a clear signal it wanted to move beyond its pure network hardware roots into the software monitoring side of the equation. Yesterday afternoon the company announced it intends to buy another monitoring company, this time snagging internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes.

Cisco would not comment on the price when asked by TechCrunch, but published reports from CNBC and others pegged the deal at around $1 billion. If that’s accurate, it means the company has paid around $4.7 billion for a pair of monitoring solutions companies.

Cisco’s Todd Nightingale, writing in a blog post announcing the deal said that the kind of data that ThousandEyes provides around internet user experience is more important than ever as internet connections have come under tremendous pressure with huge numbers of employees working from home.

ThousandEyes keeps watch on those connections and should fit in well with other Cisco monitoring technologies. “With thousands of agents deployed throughout the internet, ThousandEyes’ platform has an unprecedented understanding of the internet and grows more intelligent with every deployment, Nightingale wrote.

He added, “Cisco will incorporate ThousandEyes’ capabilities in our AppDynamics application intelligence portfolio to enhance visibility across the enterprise, internet and the cloud.”

As for ThousandEyes, co-founder and CEO Mohit Lad told a typical acquisition story. It was about growing faster inside the big corporation than it could on its own. “We decided to become part of Cisco because we saw the potential to do much more, much faster, and truly create a legacy for ThousandEyes,” Lad wrote.

It’s interesting to note that yesterday’s move, and the company’s larger acquisition strategy over the last decade is part of a broader move to software and services as a complement to its core networking hardware business.

Just yesterday, Synergy Research released its network switch and router revenue report and it wasn’t great. As companies have hunkered down during the pandemic, they have been buying much less network hardware, dropping the Q1 numbers to seven year low. That translated into a $1 billion less in overall revenue in this category, according to Synergy.

While Cisco owns the vast majority of the market, it obviously wants to keep moving into software services as a hedge against this shifting market. This deal simply builds on that approach.

ThousandEyes was founded in 2010 and raised over $110 million on a post valuation of $670 million as of February 2019, according to Pitchbook Data.

May 29th 2020, 8:38 am

Uber UK launches Work Hub for drivers to find other gig jobs during COVID-19

TechCrunch

Uber UK has launched a Work Hub for drivers to view a selection of temporary work opportunities with other companies as a way to supplement pandemic-hit ride-hailing earnings during the coronavirus crisis.

The Work Hub sits within the Uber driver app and displays offers of work from third party providers — including jobs that involve using a car to make deliveries — offering alternative gigs to drivers whose earnings have been affected by weak demand for ride-hailing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ride-hailing giant rolled out a similar feature in the US back in April, offering drivers there the ability to respond to job postings from around a dozen other companies, as well as the ability to receive orders through other Uber units: Eats, Freight and Works.

The UK flavor of the feature has fewer external suppliers (three at launch) — and seemingly no other internal Uber work gigs on offer.

From today, Uber said UK drivers can access “thousands” of “temporary job postings” and “flexible earning opportunities” with other companies — initially delivery firms Hermes and Yodel.

The recruiter, Adecco Group, is also offering temp work via the UK Work Hub for drivers.

“We’ll continue to add new partnerships and listings to the Work Hub as we find more opportunities for you, so check the Driver app regularly for updates,” Uber adds in a blog post announcing the launch.

The company has previously emailed UK drivers encouraging them to sign up for delivery work with the online supermarket Ocado, as demand for grocery delivery has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s now made this signposting more formal, via the Work Hub — and says the “thousands” of jobs are additional to any Ocado opportunities it had already emailed to UK drivers.

It’s not clear why Uber UK is not offering drivers the ability to pick up Uber Eats orders to tide themselves over.

However the Eats vs Uber ride-hailing labor force in the country likely has relatively little overlap, with cycle and motorbike couriers dominating UK Eats deliveries. Additionally, no UK cities keen to encourage extra cars to hit the streets right now — so Uber may have multiple reasons not to want to cross those streams in Europe.

“Drivers are doing essential work to keep our communities moving as we fight this virus, but with fewer trips happening they need more ways to earn. With the Work Hub, drivers can find these additional earning opportunities with other companies, working flexibly around driving on the Uber app if they choose to do so,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern and Eastern Europe, in a statement.

The Work Hub initiative generally looks intended to encourage drivers to supplement (pandemic-hit) Uber earnings with other gig jobs. And — cynics might say — discourage an essential platform workforce from looking elsewhere for permanent work.

Uber will need its pool of drivers to be there still, owning a car and available for gig work, when normalcy returns if it’s ride-hailing business is to bounce back.

Aside from the US and the UK, other markets where Uber has already launched the Work Hub for drivers are Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico, Portugal and South Africa.

While the feature has been born in a crisis, Uber had already made moves into the broader temp work space — launching a shift finder app, called Uber Works, in Chicago last year. And the company told us it sees longer term opportunity for the Work Hub, as a vehicle to broaden the type of earning opportunities it can put in front of drivers, saying the initiative will continue to evolve.

May 29th 2020, 8:08 am

SoftBank pours $500M into Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

TechCrunch

The race to automate vehicles on China’s roads is heating up. Didi, the Uber of China, announced this week an outsized investment of over $500 million in its freshly minted autonomous driving subsidiary. Placing the bet — the single largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector — is its existing investor Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant and startup benefactor that has also backed Uber.

The proceeds came through Softbank’s second Vision Fund, which was reportedly lagging in fundraising as its Fund I recorded massive losses in part due to the collapsing valuation of WeWork.

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortage in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field. In 2018, Didi ranked eighth in kilometers of autonomous driving tests carried out in Beijing, far behind search giant Baidu which accounted for over 90% of the total mileage that year.

It’s since played aggressive catchup. Last August, it spun off its then three-year-old autonomous driving unit into an independent company to focus on R&D, building partnerships along the value chain, and promoting the futuristic technology to the government. The team now has a staff of 200 across its China and U.S. offices.

As an industry observer told me, “robotaxis will become a reality only when you have the necessary operational skills, technology and government support all in place.”

Didi is most famous for its operational efficiency, as facilitating safe and pleasant rides between drivers and passengers is no small feat. The company’s leadership hails from Alibaba’s legendary business-to-business sales team, also known as the “Alibaba Iron Army” for its ability in on-the-ground operation.

On the tech front, the subsidiary is headed by chief executive Zhang Bo, a Baidu veteran, and chief technology officer Wei Junqing, who joined last year from self-driving software company Aptiv.

The autonomous segment can also benefit from Didi’s all-encompassing reach in the mobility industry. For instance, it’s working to leverage the parent company’s smart charging networks, fleet maintenance service and insurance programs for autonomous fleets.

The fresh capital will enable Didi’s autonomous business to improve safety — an area that became a focal point of the company after two deadly accidents — and efficiency through conducting R&D and road tests. The financing will also allow it to deepen industry cooperation and accelerate the deployment of robotaxi services in China and abroad.

Over the years, Didi has turned to traditional carmakers for synergies in what it dubs the “D-Alliance,” which counts more than 31 partners. It has applied autonomous driving technology to vehicles from Lincoln, Nissan, Volvo, BYD, to name a few.

Didi has secured open-road testing licenses in three major cities in China as well as California. It said last August that it aimed to begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with autonomous cars in Shanghai in a few months’ time. It’s accumulated 300,000 kilometers of road tests in China and the U.S. as of last August.

May 29th 2020, 7:27 am

Twitter screens Trump’s Minneapolis threat-tweet for glorifying violence

TechCrunch

After applying a fact-checking label Tuesday to a misleading vote-by-mail tweet made by US president Donald Trump, Twitter is on a roll and has labeled another of the president’s tweets — this time screening his words from casual view with what it calls a “public interest notice” that states the tweet violated its rules about glorifying violence. 

Here’s how the tweet appears without further interaction (second tweet in the below screengrab):

The public interest notice replaces the substance of what Trump wrote, meaning a user has to actively click through to view the offending tweet.

Engagement options are also limited as a result by this label, meaning users can only retweet the offending tweet with a comment; they cannot like it, reply to it or vanilla retweet it.

Twitter’s notice goes on to explain why it has not removed the offending tweet entirely — and this is where the public interest element of the policy kicks in — with the company writing: “Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” 

Twitter appears to be shrugging off the president’s decision yesterday to sign an executive order targeting the legal shield which internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content — doubling down on displeasing Trump who has accused social media platforms generally of deliberately suppressing conservative views, despite plenty of evidence that ad-targeting platform algorithms actually boost outrage-fuelled content and views — which tends, conversely, to amplify conservative viewpoints.

In the latest clash, Trump had tweeted in reference to violent demonstrations taking place in Minneapolis sparked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer — with the president claiming that “THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd” before threatening to send in the “Military”.

“Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Trump added — making a bald threat to use military force against civilians.

Twitter has wrestled with the issue of how to handle world leaders who break its content rules for years. Most often as a result of Trump who routinely uses its platform to bully all manner of targets — from rival politicians to hated journalists, disobedient business leaders, and even actors who displease him — as well as to dispense direct and sometimes violent threats.

Since being elected, Trump has also used Twitter’s global platform as a foreign policy weapon, firing military threats at the likes of North Korea and Iran in tweet form.

Back in 2018, for example, he teased North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with button-pushing nuclear destruction (see below tweet) — before going on to “fall in love” with the dictator when he met him in person.

Twitter’s go-to defence for not taking offending Trump tweets down in the past has been that, as US president, the substance of what the man tweets — however mad, bad and dangerous — is inherently newsworthy.

However, more recently, the company has created a policy tool that allows it to intervene — defining terms last summer around “public interest” content on Twitter.

It warned then (almost a full year ago, in June 2019) that it might place a public interest notice on tweets that would otherwise violate its rules (and therefore merit a takedown) — in order to “to provide additional context and clarity”, rather than removing the offensive tweet.

Fast forward a year and the tech giant has started applying labels to Trump’s tweets — beginning with a fact-check label earlier this week, related to the forthcoming US election, and following up now with a public interest notice related to Trump glorifying violence.

So, finally, the tech giant seems to be inching towards drawing a limit-line around Trump in near real-time.

Explaining its decision to badge the US president’s threat to order the military to shoot looters in Minneapolis, the company writes: “This Tweet violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

“We’ve taken action in the interest of preventing others from being inspired to commit violent acts, but have kept the Tweet on Twitter because it is important that the public still be able to see the Tweet given its relevance to ongoing matters of public importance,” Twitter goes on.

It also links to its policy against tweets that glorify violence — which states unequivocally [in bold]: “You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people.”

Back in June, when Twitter announced the ‘abusive behavior’ label, it also warned that tweets which get screened with a public interest notice will not benefit from any algorithmic acceleration, writing: “We’ll also take steps to make sure the Tweet is not algorithmically elevated on our service, to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets.”

However the newsworthiness of Twitter’s decision to finally apply its own rules vis-a-vis Trump will ensure there’s plenty of non-algorithmic amplification (and no little irony).

We reached out to the company with questions about its decision to apply a public interest screen on Trump’s latest tweet but at the time of writing it had not responded.

On Wednesday night, Twitter CEO and co-founder, Jack Dorsey, put out a series of tweets defending its decision to apply a fact-check label to Trump’s earlier misleading tweets about vote-by-mail.

“This does not make us an “arbiter of truth”,” wrote Dorsey. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Dorsey’s remarks followed pointed comments made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Fox News, seeking to contrast Facebook’s claimed ‘neutrality’ when policing its platform with Twitter’s policy of taking a stance on issues such as political advertising (which Twitter does not allow).

“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg told the conservative news station. “Private companies… especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

It’s notable that Dorsey used Zuckerberg’s exact turn of phrase — “arbiter of truth” — to reject Facebook’s attack on Twitter’s policy as a straw man argument.

May 29th 2020, 5:37 am

Belvo scores $10M from Founders Fund and Kaszek to scale its API for financial services

TechCrunch

Belvo, a Latin American fintech startup which launched just 12 months ago, has already snagged funding from two of the biggest names in North and South American venture capital.

The company is aiming to expand the reach of its service that connects mobile applications in Mexico and Colombia to a customer’s banking information and now has some deep-pocketed investors to support its efforts. 

If the business model sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Belvo is borrowing a page from the Plaid playbook. It’s a strategy that ultimately netted the U.S. startup and its investors $5.3 billion when it was acquired by Visa in January of this year.

Belvo and its backers, who funneled $10 million into the year-old company, want to replicate Plaid’s success and open up an entire new range of financial services companies in Latin America.  

The round was co-led by Silicon Valley’s Founders Fund and Argentina’s Kaszek. With the new arsenal of capital complimented by the Founders Fund’s network and Kaszek’s deep knowledge of the Latin American market, Belvo hopes to triple its current team of 25 that is spread across operations in Mexico City and Barcelona. 

Since its initial establishment in May 2019, the company has raised a total of $13 million from Y Combinator (W20) along with some of the biggest players in Latin America’s startup scene. Those investors include David Velez, the co-founder of Brazil’s multi-billion dollar lending startup, Nubank; MAYA Capital and Venture Friends. 

The company’s co-founders, Pablo Viguera and Oriol Tintoré are no stranger to startups themselves. Viguera served as COO at European payments app Verse, and is a former general manager of one of the big European neo-banks, Revolut. Tintoré is a former NASA aerospace engineer, and while working for his Stanford MBA, founded Capella Space, an information collection startup that went on to raise over $50 million. 

The company said it aims to work with leading fintechs in Latin America, spanning across verticals like the neobanks, credit providers and personal finance products Latin Americans use every day.

Belvo has built a developer-first API platform that can be used to access and interpret end-user financial data to build better, more efficient and more inclusive financial products in Latin America. Developers of popular neobank apps, credit providers and personal finance tools use Belvo’s API to connect bank accounts to their apps to unlock the power of open banking.

Viguera says the capital will be used to open a new office in Sao Paulo, and invest in new product and business development hires. Notably, Belvo is only one year old, having launched in January 2020 and operative in Mexico and Colombia. 

Co-founders Pablo Viguera and Oriol Tintoré are a former Revolut GM and former NASA aerospace engineer.

 

Belvo’s latest funding also marks another instance of a U.S.-Latin America investment teamup for a Latin American company.

Nuvocargo, a logistics startup that wants to bolster the Mexico – U.S. trade lane with its freight transportation technology, also recently raised a round co-led by Mexico’s ALLVP and Silicon Valley-based NFX. American investors may be starting to take note of the co-investment opportunity of putting capital into startups serving the Latin American market in partnership with successful new wave domestic funds like Mexico’s ALLVP and Argentina’s Kaszek.  

May 29th 2020, 4:36 am

Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz is out

TechCrunch

Magic Leap talked a big game, and few were more responsible for fostering a cult of hype and excitement around its vision of the future than the company’s founder and CEO Rony Abovitz. Today, the CEO announced that the company has indeed secured a new bout of funding, but that the company will be attempting to mount a major turnaround without him at the helm.

According to a memo sent to staff, first obtained by Business Insider, Abovitz will continue on with the company through a transition period but that the company has been “actively recruiting candidates” to replace him.

“We have closed significant new funding and have very positive momentum towards closing key strategic enterprise partnerships,” the staff memo reads. “As the Board and I planned the changes we made and what Magic Leap needs for this next focused phase, it became clear to us that a change in my role was a natural next step. I discussed this with the Board and we have agreed that now is the time to bring in a new CEO who can help us to commercialize our focused plan for spatial computing in enterprise.”

The announcement comes after the augmented reality startup announced substantial layoffs earlier this month and announced that it would be pivoting from developing consumer products to fully focusing on its enterprise business. It was reported earlier this month that Magic Leap had locked down an additional $350 million in funding which would help the startup avoid further layoffs.

The startup has raised billions of venture capital funding under Abovitz’s tenure, but the startup has also undergone plenty of hurdles as they attempted to outdo Apple, Microsoft and Facebook in the race to create a mainstream AR device. Abovitz always seemed to have a consumer focus for his company, so its unsurprising that the company’s board would look elsewhere as the company shifts focus to enterprise.

May 28th 2020, 9:50 pm

Tesla board certifies Elon Musk’s payday worth more than $700 million

TechCrunch

Tesla’s board certified a financial milestone that unlocks the first tranche — worth more than $700 million — of an unprecedented multibillion-dollar pay package for CEO Elon Musk, according a document filed Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The milestone allows Musk to purchase the first grouping or tranche of nearly 1.69 million shares at a steep discount. Tesla shares closed Thursday at $805.81, putting the value at $775 million. Musk is able to buy those stock options at a price of $350.02 per share.

“As of the date of this proxy statement, one of the 12 tranches under this award has vested and become exercisable, subject to Mr. Musk’s payment of the exercise price of $350.02 per share and the minimum five-year holding period generally applicable to any shares he acquires upon exercise,” the SEC document reads.

The compensation plan approved by shareholders in 2018 consists of 20.3 million stock option awards broken up into 12 tranches of 1.69 million shares. These options will vest in 12 increments if Tesla hits specific milestones on market cap, revenue and adjusted earnings (excluding certain one-time charges such as stock compensation).

When the board and shareholders approved the package, Musk was theoretically able to earn nearly $56 billion if no new shares were issued. However, last year Tesla sold $2.7 billion in shares and convertible bonds.

To access those first tranche of stock options, Tesla’s market value had to reach a six-month average of $100.2 billion and either $20 billion in annual revenue or $1.5 billion in adjusted EBITDA. To meet the next milestone, Tesla’s market cap must increase another $50 billion in value and $35 billion in revenue or $3 billion in adjusted EBITDA.

The board certified the market cap and revenue milestone. The other operational milestone relating to $1.5 billion Adjusted EBITDA has been achieved but is subject to formal certification by the board, , according to the SEC filing.

Image Credits: Screenshot/SEC filing

The board must certify that each milestone has been achieved before Musk can exercise those stock options. To unlock every tranche, Tesla’s market cap will have to reach $650 billion.

Musk has never accepted a salary. Instead, he opted for, the shareholders approved, equity-based compensation plans. In a previous equity compensation plan, Musk was awarded stock options worth about $78 million in 2012 that vested only after Tesla hit production and market value milestones.

The 2018 CEO compensation plan not only ensured Musk would a be part of Tesla for the next decade, it also put an emphasis on market cap and revenue, not necessarily profitability.

Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting is scheduled for July 7, according to the document.

May 28th 2020, 6:34 pm

SpaceX gets FAA permission to fly its Starship spacecraft prototype

TechCrunch

SpaceX has received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly suborbital missions with its Starship prototype spacecraft, paving the way for test flights at its Boca Chica, Texas site. SpaceX has been hard at work readying its latest Starship prototype for low-altitude, short duration controlled flight tests, and conducted another static engine fire test of the fourth iteration of its in-development spacecraft earlier today.

Officially, the FAA has granted SpaceX permission to conduct what it terms “reusable launch vehicle” missions, which essentially means that the Starship prototype is now cleared to take-off from, and land back at, the launch site SpaceX operates in Boca Chica. The Elon Musk-led space company has already conducted similar tests, but previously used its ‘Starhopper’ early prototype, which was smaller than the planned production Starship, and much more rudimentary in design. It was basically used to prove out the capabilities of the Raptor engine that SpaceX will use to propel Starship, and only for a short hop test using one of those engines.

Since that flight last year, SpaceX has developed multiple iterations of a full-scale prototype of Starship, but thus far they haven’t gotten back to the point where they’re actively flying any of those. In fact, multiple iterations of the Starship prototype have succumbed during pressure testing – though SN4, the version currently being prepared for a test flight, has passed not only pressure tests, but also static test fires of its lone Raptor engine.

The plan now is to fly this one for a short ‘hop’ flight similar to the one conducted by Starhopper, with a maximum altitude of around 500 feet. Should that prove successful, the next version will be loaded with more Raptor engines, and attempt a high altitude test launch. SpaceX is quickly building newer version of Starship in succession even as it proceeds with testing the completed prototypes, in order to hopefully shorten the total timespan of its development.

There’s something of a clock that SpaceX is working against: It was one of three companies that received a contract award from NASA to develop and build a human lander for the agency’s Artemis program to return to the Moon. NASA aims to make that return trip happen by 2024, and while the contract doesn’t necessarily require that each provided have a lander ready in that timeframe, it’s definitely a goal, if only for bragging rights among the three contract awardees.

May 28th 2020, 6:04 pm

3 bearish takes on the current edtech boom

TechCrunch

Edtech is booming, but a short while ago, many companies in the category were struggling to break through as mainstream offerings. Now, it seems like everyone is clamoring to get into the next seed-stage startup that has the phrase “remote learning” on its About page.

And so begins the normal cycle that occurs when a sector gets overheated — boom, bust and a reckoning. While we’re still in the early days of edtech’s revitalization, it isn’t a gold mine all around the world. Today, in the spirit of balance and history, I’ll present three bearish takes I’ve heard on edtech’s future.

Quizlet’s CEO Matthew Glotzbach says that when students go back to school, the technology that “sticks” during this time of massive experimentation might not be bountiful.

“I think the dividing line there will be there are companies that have been around, that are a little more entrenched, and have good financial runway and can probably survive this cycle,” he said. “They have credibility and will probably get picked [by schools].” The newer companies, he said, might get stuck with adoption because they are at a high degree of risk, and might be giving out free licenses beyond their financial runway right now.

May 28th 2020, 5:46 pm

Trump signs an executive order taking direct aim at social media companies

TechCrunch

On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order targeting the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. That law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is essential to large social platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the kind of companies the president has long accused, without evidence, of engaging in anti-conservative censorship.

Trump was joined during the signing by Attorney General William Barr, who has previously expressed interest in stripping away or limiting the same legal protections. During the signing, Trump claimed that social media companies have “unchecked power” influenced by their “points of view.” Earlier in the day the president tweeted “This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”

On Tuesday, Twitter added warning labels to two tweets from the president that made false claims about vote-by-mail systems. The labels, which did not hide the tweets or even actually outright call them false, pointed users toward a fact-checking page. The move enraged the president, who lashed out at the company through tweets, specifically targeting Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity.

The executive order is not yet published, but we examined a draft of it previously that’s likely to bear a close resemblance to the finished copy. Among other things, the draft argues that platforms forfeit their rights to legal protection when they moderate content, as in the case of Twitter modifying the president’s tweet with a fact-checking disclaimer.

Civil rights groups and internet freedom watchdogs denounced the order Thursday, with the co-creator of the law in Trump’s crosshairs dismissing his actions as “plainly illegal.”

This story is developing

May 28th 2020, 5:04 pm

Join us June 3 for a contact tracing and exposure notification app development and deployment forum

TechCrunch

Exposure notification and contact tracing are two related but distinct measures many public health authorities are either considering or already implementing.

Contact tracing is a practice almost as old as epidemiology itself, but today’s technology means the way that we go about tracking the spread of a contagious illness within and between communities is changing very quickly. This presents an opportunity for learning more about the opportunities and challenges presented in extending contact tracing and exposure notification via digital means.

To that end, we’re happy to be working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks and Hangar. We’ll be playing host on TC to their live-streamed discussion around contact tracing and exposure notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks. The day’s events will include a roundtable discussion followed by a series of product demos, and will take place starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 3.

Below, we’ve included an agenda of the confirmed speakers and demonstrations for the day so far. Note that this is work in progress, and that more speakers and demos will be added to the day’s slate as we get closer to Wednesday. To RSVP for this free event, check out this link.

11am-1pm EDT: Roundtable Discussion – Hear from researchers, healthcare professionals, and technologists, including:

  • Andrew McLaughlin is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Andrew is the Chairman of Access Now, the former Deputy U.S. CTO for the White House, and the former Director of Global Public Policy at Google.
  • Daniel Burka is heading up the COVID-19 response efforts for New York State through Resolve to Save Lives, the not-for-profit organization led by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
  • Harper Reed is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Harper is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and was the CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
  • Jonathan Jackson is the Founder and CEO at Dimagi, a social enterprise that develops innovative technology solutions for frontline workforces and underserved populations. They have an extensive background in global health and are a leader in mobile health data collection.
  • Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science, and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Jonathan’s work focuses on topics including control of digital property, privacy frameworks, and the roles of intermediaries in Internet architecture.
  • Randall Thomas is assisting Resolve to Save Lives and other stakeholders with the New York State response to COVID-19. Randall is the CTO of Geometer, a technology incubator.

1pm-2pm EDT: Contact Tracing/Exposure Notification Product Demos – Leading organizations developing applications to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, primarily through contact tracing and exposure notification, will each demo their product. Teams include:

We’ll have a live stream available on June 3 so you can follow along, as mentioned, but you can also RSVP here to register your interest. It should be a day full of interesting, expert discussion of why there’s a need to extend contact tracing and exposure notification through connected and digital means, as well as the privacy, public health and policy implications such extension necessarily carries with it.

May 28th 2020, 4:34 pm

The secret to trustworthy data strategy

TechCrunch

Shortly after its use exploded in the post-office world of COVID-19, Zoom was banned by a variety of private and public actors, including SpaceX and the government of Taiwan. Critics allege its data strategy, particularly its privacy and security measures, were insufficiently robust, especially putting vulnerable populations, like children, at risk. NYC’s Department of Education, for instance, mandated teachers switch to alternative platforms like Microsoft Teams.

This isn’t a problem specific to Zoom. Other technology giants, from Alphabet, Apple to Facebook, have struggled with these strategic data issues, despite wielding armies of lawyers and data engineers, and have overcome them.

To remedy this, data leaders cannot stop at identifying how to improve their revenue-generating functions with data, what the former Chief Data Officer of AIG (one of our co-authors) calls “offensive” data strategy. Data leaders also protect, fight for, and empower their key partners, like users and employees, or promote “defensive” data strategy. Data offense and defense are core to trustworthy data-driven products.

While these data issues apply to most organizations, highly-regulated innovators in industries with large social impact (the “third wave”) must pay special attention. As Steve Case and the World Economic Forum articulate, the next phase of innovation will center on industries that merge the digital and the physical worlds, affecting the most intimate aspects of our lives. As a result, companies that balance insight and trust well, Boston Consulting group predicts, will be the new winners.

Drawing from our work across the public, corporate, and startup worlds, we identify a few “insight killers” — then identify the trustworthy alternative. While trustworthy data strategy should involve end users and other groups outside the company as discussed here, the lessons below focus on the complexities of partnering within organizations, which deserve attention in their own right.

Insight-killer #1: “Data strategy adds no value to my life.”

From the beginning of a data project, a trustworthy data leader asks, “Who are our partners and what prevents them from achieving their goals?” In other words: listen. This question can help identify the unmet needs of the 46% of surveyed technology and business teams who found their data groups have little value to offer them.

Putting this to action is the data leader of one highly-regulated AI health startup — Cognoa — who listened to tensions between its defensive and offensive data functions. Cognoa’s Chief AI Officer identified how healthcare data laws, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, resulted in friction between his key partners: compliance officers and machine learning engineers. Compliance officers needed to protect end users’ privacy while data and machine learning engineers wanted faster access to data.

To meet these multifaceted goals, Cognoa first scoped down its solution by prioritizing its highest-risk databases. It then connected all of those databases using a single access-and-control layer.

This redesign satisfied its compliance officers because Cognoa’s engineers could then only access health data based on strict policy rules informed by healthcare data regulations. Furthermore, since these rules could be configured and transparently explained without code, it bridged communication gaps between its data and compliance roles. Its engineers were also elated because they no longer had to wait as long to receive privacy-protected copies.

Because its data leader started by listening to the struggles of its two key partners, Cognoa met both its defensive and offensive goals.

May 28th 2020, 3:30 pm

TechCrunch’s Early Stage, Mobility and Space events will be virtual, too

TechCrunch

You may have heard the news: We’re taking Disrupt virtual. As you would expect, we are taking three of our other events this year virtual, too.

The virtual version of TC Early Stage will retain its focus on giving founders the opportunity to absorb direct, practical knowledge about how to grow and develop their startups.

Early Stage will take place over two days, July 21-22, and leverage the unique capabilities of virtual event platforms to host interactive breakout sessions with top investors, operators and ecosystem experts. You’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and learn from the top minds in fundraising, law, growth marketing, recruiting and many other important key arenas that normally go unexamined. We’ll also host a small number of highly impactful mainstage sessions: Reid Hoffman of Greylock will join us, as well as founders like Dylan Field from Figma and Mariam Naficy of Minted. You can pick up a ticket here.

The virtual edition of TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility will also occur over two days, October 6-7. Last year’s inaugural event was a massive success, bringing together every major player in the mobility startup space. Now, we’re aiming to make it more accessible and valuable to founders, investors and industry watchers. We will host a pitch-off for early-stage mobility companies during the show and talk to some of the most innovative startups and leaders from established tech firms. Stay tuned for more announcements as the date approaches. You can pick up a virtual ticket to the show here.

Virtual TechCrunch Sessions: Space will follow a two-day format as well and will happen on December 16-17, 2020. Join TechCrunch editors for a day of fireside chats and panel discussions with the top investors, founders and technologists forging the future of space. From smallsats to crewed vehicles, space has never been a more exciting opportunity for young companies. We’re here to help dive into this phenomenon in the way that only TechCrunch can. Get your ticket here.

Just like Disrupt, we expect these events to be even bigger and more inclusive than they were in past years. In the programing, we’ll be able to include startups, investors and experts from around the world, and your ability to attend is only limited by your ability to connect to the internet.

See you online soon!

May 28th 2020, 3:30 pm

Amazon expands use of SNAP benefits for online grocery to 11 more states

TechCrunch

Amazon customers in nearly a dozen more U.S. states are now able to use their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to purchase groceries online, the retailer announced on Thursday. The news represents a significant expansion of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot program introduced in 2019 that aimed to open up online grocery shopping to those on public assistance. This program is even more critical now, as in-store shopping puts consumers at risk of contracting the deadly novel coronavirus. 

To date, participating retailers in the USDA pilot program have included Walmart, Amazon, ShopRite, and other smaller chains.

Amazon confirmed to TechCrunch that the 11 new states that now support using SNAP for online grocery, include those that were added starting last week through today, Thursday, May 28.

The initial expansion of the pilot added New Mexico, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, which all became active last week. On Tuesday of this week, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, and New Jersey rolled out. And today, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Virginia were added as well.

With these new additions, Amazon customers on public assistance can shop online for groceries across a total of 25 U.S. states plus Washington D.C. At checkout, they can pay for groceries using their SNAP EBT.

Including the new states, Amazon now offers the use of SNAP EBT for online grocery in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

However, Amazon is not the only retailer offering online grocery for SNAP EBT customers in these 25 states.

According to the USDA’s website, SNAP users can now order their groceries online through either Amazon or Walmart in these markets.

The site also indicates that Amazon is the only retailer supporting the District of Columbia at present. In addition, ShopRite supports the use of SNAP for online groceries in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. And Wright’s Markets is participating in the pilot program in Alabama.

The USDA’s website indicates several more states are now in the planning phase so they can add online purchasing as a shopping option soon. These include Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

As part of Amazon’s participation in the USDA program, it not only enabled the use of SNAP EBT as a payment method, it also made its Amazon Fresh service available to SNAP recipients in states where Fresh is available without requiring a Prime membership. And it offered free shipping on both Amazon Fresh and Amazon Pantry orders.

At launch, Amazon had said the USDA pilot program would “dramatically increase access to food for more remote customers.”

However, in the coronavirus era, access to online grocery can be a life-saving measure for some.

The pandemic has complicated access to food for those on SNAP benefits, and for high-risk individuals on SNAP in particular. These consumers now have to risk getting COVID-19 every time they out for groceries themselves. And as more workers become unemployed due to the economic impacts from the pandemic, more people are joining public assistance programs like SNAP. 

In light of the pandemic, the USDA said it would fast-track any state that wanted to join the pilot. California, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, West Virginia, D.C., North Carolina, and Vermont, were just approved in April, for example. In May, the USDA approved Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

In under 6 weeks, the USDA has expanded access to the program to a total of 36 states plus D.C., it say, though many are not yet live. When they launch, however, online purchasing for groceries will be available to more than 90% of SNAP participants, the USDA has noted.

 

May 28th 2020, 3:30 pm

HBO Max was downloaded by 87K new users yesterday (Sensor Tower)

TechCrunch

How did yesterday’s launch of HBO Max go? We don’t have official numbers from WarnerMedia, but app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower says HBO Max was downloaded by nearly 87,000 new users across Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

That number might seem pretty low compared to other streaming launches — like the 4 million first-day installs for Disney+, or even the 300,000 installs for Quibi.

But keep in mind that HBO Max isn’t an entirely new service, either from a content perspective (it bundles HBO’s library with a wide range of other TV shows and movies) or from an app perspective, since it was released as an update for the existing HBO Now streaming app.

Sensor Tower acknowledged that these numbers do not include people who simply updated their old HBO app, but it offered another way to look at yesterday’s performance: Previously, HBO Now was averaging 16,000 new installs every day, so that’s 71,000 more downloads than normal.

It’s also worth noting that as I write this on Thursday afternoon, HBO Max is currently number two among “free” apps the App Store, behind Zoom but ahead of YouTube, Netflix, TikTok and Disney+.

Sensor Tower estimated that HBO Now and Max have been downloaded by 33 million people since launching in April 2015, compared to 260 million for Netflix, 120 million for Hulu (both Netflix and Hulu were measured starting in January 2014) and 50 million for Disney+.

May 28th 2020, 2:44 pm

Google makes sharing Plus Codes easier in a push to simply addressing system globally

TechCrunch

Two years ago, Google unveiled Plus Codes, a digital addressing system to help billions of people navigate to places that don’t have clear addresses. The company said today it is making it easier for anyone with an Android device to share those six-digit alphanumeric code.

Google Maps users on Android can now tap the blue dot that represents their current location to generate and share their six-digit coordinate with friends. Anyone with the code can look it up on Google Maps or Google Search to get the precise location of the destination.

The codes look like this: G6G4+CJ Delhi, India. Google says it divides the geographical surface of the world into tiled areas and attributes a unique six-letter code and the name of the city and country to each of them.

More than 2 billion people on the planet either don’t have an address or have an address that isn’t easy to locate. This challenge is more prevalent in developed markets such as India where a street address could often be as long as a paragraph, and where people often rely on nearby landmarks to navigate their way.

Google is not the only firm that is attempting to simply the addressing system. London-based what3words has broken the world in 57 trillion squares and assigned each of those blocks with three randomly combined words such as toddler.geologist.animated that are easier to remember and share. The company told TechCrunch earlier that it had partnered with a number of firms including several carmakers to expand its reach.

But what3words and Plus Codes have both struggled to gain wider traction. When Google announced this project in India, its executives told this correspondent that they were exploring ways to work with logistics firms and government agencies such as postal department to get wider adoption — though none of it has materialized yet. At the time, the company had also tested Plus Codes at some concerts in India, they said.

To get wider adoption, Google also made Plus Codes open source so that people and businesses could find their own use cases. “If you’ve ever been in an emergency, you know that being able to share your location for help to easily find you is critical. Yet in many places in the world, organizations struggle with this challenge on a daily basis,” the company said today.

May 28th 2020, 2:27 pm

Join GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards for a live Q&A: June 4 at 3:30 pm EDT/12:30 pm PDT

TechCrunch

What does a global mindset look like in a world where most of us no longer travel? And what does it mean to be local when everyone is connected?

Those are the first questions we had in mind when we read GGV Capital’s Twitter bio, which asserts that the investing shop with offices in five cities is a “global venture capital firm that invests in local founders.”

Certainly, some of its investments are far from home, including Khatabook (based in Bangalore), Keep (Beijing), Coder, (Austin) and Slice (New York City). And those are just GGV deals from the last few months.

But what constitutes a local investment in a world where, until recently, no deal was more than a plane ride or two away? Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, managing partners at GGV Capital, are swinging by Extra Crunch Live next week, and we’re going to dive into the above to figure it out.

Of course, we’ll also ask critical, founder-focused questions about their current investing pace, check sizes and how they are adapting to the COVID-19 era. But after that, there’s a lot of work to do.

We’ll call on Tung to share some of what he’s learned from his time investing in China’s tech landscape, with a specific focus on what he sees in the future that might prove encouraging. The other GGV partner joining, Richards, also has international experience working in Asia and Latin America, so the conversation should be interesting.

In February, the firm published a mom-and-pop shop investment thesis. GGV Capital wants to invest in startups that help small retailers digitize operations and work with better supply chains. It is also interested in startups that want to establish logistic and online payment infrastructure. (Surely Shopify can’t be this entire market, right?)

The thesis hinges on consumer shopping habits and retailers open for business, so we’ll see how Tung and Richards are changing their appetite, or further shaping it. 

Details are below for Extra Crunch subscribers; if you need a pass, get a cheap trial here

Chat with you all in a week!

When, where, Zoom

The Simpsons can now be watched in 4:3 aspect ratio on Disney+, as nature intended

TechCrunch

The greatest comedy in television history became a part of the Disney family when the mega-corporation gobbled up Fox last year, like so many forbidden donuts. Beyond having to make nice with the cartoon mouse American’s family had so openly antagonized over the decades, the deal meant that The Simpsons would have a permanent home on the new Disney+ streaming service.

That meant all 30 seasons of the longest running primetime series would be available in one place — albeit with one major catch. Disney went ahead and “remastered” the series, an act that largely involved stretching older episodes from their native 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9.

It was, understandably, enough to raise the ire of fans paying $7 a month to watch the beloved series. The resulting episodes looked distorted and important sight gags were lost to cropping. And The Simpsons without sight gags might as well be The Thompsons. There were annoyed grunts amid the fanbase, and Disney backed slowly into the hedge.

The long promised fix is finally here. Turns out it was easier said than done. Episodes will still pop up in the remastered aspect ratio by default, but clicking into the show description and “Details” from the main menu will let you toggle that off. The move will return the shows to 4:3 up to Season 20, when the show began to be natively produced in 16:9.

May 28th 2020, 1:57 pm

Going to war with Twitter, Trump threatens critical social media legal protections

TechCrunch

Accusing Twitter of censorship for adding a contextual label to false claims he made about the 2020 election process, President Trump has again declared war on social media companies.

After the White House told reporters that the president would soon announce an executive order “pertaining to social media,” the draft of that order is out in circulation. We’ve reviewed the draft, and while its contents are somewhat shocking by the standards of a normal administration, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Trump administration lash out at social media companies over accusations of political bias. In fact, we may be seeing the same executive order now that circulated in draft form last year.

A draft of an executive order is just that: a draft. Until the administration actually introduces or signs an order, its wishes — and threats — should be taken with a grain of salt. But we can get an idea of what this White House has in mind for punishing social media companies for ongoing unfounded claims of anti-conservative censorship.

The president’s draft order tries to exert control over social media companies in a few ways. The most ominous of those is by attacking a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law, often regarded as the legal infrastructure for the social internet, shields online platforms from legal liability for the content their users create. Without the law, Twitter or Facebook or YouTube (or Yelp or Reddit or any website with a comments section, including this one) could be sued for the stuff their users post.

Whether you think they should be held more accountable for their content or not, in a world without Section 230, social media companies would never have been able to scale into the services we use today.

The draft order attacks this legal provision by claiming that that part of the law means that “an online platform that engaged in any editing or restriction of content posted by others thereby became itself a ‘publisher,'” implying that a company would then be legally liable for things its users say. This is a misleading interpretation at best and one that seems specifically intended to let the White House intimidate companies like Twitter into moderating platforms even less.

This interpretation is a willful inversion of what the law really intends. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored Section 230, often says that the law provides companies with both a sword and a shield. The “shield” protects companies from legal liability and the “sword” allows them to make moderation decisions without facing liability for that either.

While Trump is trying to intimidate social media companies into doing even less moderation — such as Twitter labeling the falsehood he tweeted — the consensus beyond this politically expedient viewpoint is that social media should actually be removing and contextualizing more of the potentially harmful content on their platforms.

“Members across the spectrum, including far-right House and Senate leaders, are agitating for government regulation of internet platforms,” Wyden wrote in a prescient TechCrunch op-ed two years ago calling for tech companies to step up or face an existential threat.

“Even if the government doesn’t take the dangerous step of regulating speech, just eliminating the [Section] 230 protections is enough to have a dramatic, chilling effect on expression across the internet.”

Beyond attacking Twitter’s moderation decisions through Section 230, the draft executive order says the White House will reestablish a “tech bias” reporting tool, presumably so it can unsystematically collect anecdotal evidence that he and his supporters are being unfairly targeted on social platforms. According to the order, the White House would then submit those reports to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The order would further rope in the FTC to make a public report of complaints and “consider taking action” against social media companies that “restrict speech.”

It’s not clear what kind of action, if any, the FTC would have legal ground to take.

The order also asks the Commerce Secretary to file a petition that would require the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” parts of Section 230 — a role the commission isn’t likely eager to embrace.

“Social media can be frustrating. But an executive order that would turn the FCC into the president’s speech police is not the answer,” Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted on Thursday morning.

The order also calls for the U.S. Attorney General William Barr to form a working group of state attorneys general “regarding the enforcement of state statutes” to collect information about social media practices, another presumably legally unsound exercise in partisanship. Barr, a close Trump ally, has expressed his own appetite for dismantling tech’s legal protections in recent months.

While Trump’s executive order may prove toothless, there is some appetite for dismantling Section 230 among tech’s critics in Congress — a branch of the government with much more power to hold companies accountable.

The most prominent of those threats is currently the EARN-IT Act, a Senate bill introduced in March that would amend Section 230 “to allow companies to “‘earn’ their liability protection” under the guise of pressuring them to crack down on enforcement against child sexual exploitation. The executive order doesn’t directly connect to that proposal, but sounding the war drums against the tech industry’s key legal provision will likely signal Trump’s Republican allies to double down on those efforts.

In response to the circulating draft executive order, Twitter declined to comment when reached by TechCrunch, and Facebook and Google did not respond to our emails. The Internet Association, the lobbying group that represents the interests of internet companies, was out with a statement opposing the president’s efforts on Thursday morning:

“Section 230, by design and reinforced by several decades of case law, empowers platforms and services to remove harmful, dangerous, and illegal content based on their terms of service, regardless of who posted the content or their motivations for doing so.

“Based on media reports, this proposed executive order seems designed to punish a handful of companies for perceived slights and is inconsistent with the purpose and text of Section 230. It stands to undermine a variety of government efforts to protect public safety and spread critical information online through social media and threatens the vibrancy of a core segment of our economy.”

The group also pointed to the fact that political figures rely on social media to successfully broadcast their thoughts to millions of followers every day—80 million, in Trumps’ case.

The ACLU also weighed in on the executive order Thursday morning. “Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane. “This order, if issued, would be a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”

“Ironically, Donald Trump is a big beneficiary of Section 230. If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump’s lies, defamation, and threats.”

May 28th 2020, 1:45 pm

BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

TechCrunch

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them? ”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early, and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle, and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35 percent in soybeans, 70-100 percent in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25 percent,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly twenty thousand. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4M seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics, and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

May 28th 2020, 1:45 pm

Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

TechCrunch

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

May 28th 2020, 1:27 pm

Daily Crunch: Twitter vs. Trump

TechCrunch

Tensions escalate between President Trump and his favorite social media platform, Google and Microsoft considering investing in the Indian telecom market and the Raspberry Pi foundation announces a new Raspberry Pi.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for May 28, 2020.

1. Jack Dorsey explains why Twitter fact-checked Trump’s false voting claims

After Twitter flagged a pair of President Trump’s tweets with a fact-checking label on Tuesday, White House officials denounced a specific Twitter employee and said that the president will soon sign an executive order “pertaining to social media.”

Meanwhile, in a series of tweets, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey resisted the idea that the platform is becoming an “arbiter of truth” and instead said, “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.” He also said, “There is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this.”

2. Google and Microsoft reportedly considering stakes in telecom firms in India after Facebook deal

Weeks after Facebook acquired a 9.9% stake in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms, two more American firms are reportedly interested in the Indian telecom market. Google is considering buying a stake of about 5% in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator in India, according to Financial Times. Separately, Microsoft is in talks to invest up to $2 billion in Reliance Jio Platforms, Indian newspaper Mint reported Friday.

3. Raspberry Pi Foundation announces Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM

As always, you get a single-board computer that is the size of a deck of cards. It has an ARM-based CPU, many ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a big community of computer enthusiasts. The 8GB model costs $75, which makes it the most expensive Raspberry Pi out there.

4. Providing card services to fintech companies around the world gives Marqeta a $4.3 billion valuation

This could have been Marqeta’s year to list as a public company on a major American stock exchange. Instead, in the wake of an American economy pushed over the edge by a global pandemic, the company has turned to an undisclosed financial services firm for another $150 million in equity funding.

5. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg shares his COVID-19 strategy and tactics

Hans Vestberg, CEO of TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon, joined us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live. In our discussion, he spoke about how he’s managing the organization during this global crisis, his thoughts on work-from-home, acquisition strategy and the ways in which 5G will change the way we work and live. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. SpaceX’s first astronaut launch is scrubbed due to weather – next attempt set for Saturday

SpaceX and NASA made the call to scrub the launch since there were a couple of weather issues that prevented the attempt from taking place. The next window for the launch is Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 PM EDT.

7. Netflix, Disney+ or HBO Max? The best streaming service for your watching habits

Don’t waste any time arguing! These recommendations are 100% objectively correct.

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

May 28th 2020, 1:15 pm

Truthset raises $4.75M to help marketers score their data

TechCrunch

Data, the cliche goes, is the new oil of the digital economy. But Truth{set} co-founder and CEO Scott McKinley wants to know: “Why does no one care about the quality of that fuel?”

That’s an issue McKinley saw in his seven years as an executive at Nielsen, where he said he realized that most marketing data products are “all built on massive error.” As evidence, he pointed to recent studies showing that bad data leads marketers to waste 21 cents of every dollar, and that in many cases, consumer data is “similar to or even worse than what you’d get if you used random chance to create a target list.

McKinley argued, “You wouldn’t drive a car to a gas station where there’s no octane rating on the pump.” He created Truth{set} to provide that octane rating to marketers, and to “shine the light on that whole ecosystem.”

More specifically, the company scores the consumer data that marketers are buying on accuracy, on a scale between 0.00 and 1.00. To do create these scores, Truth{set}  checks the against independent data sources, as well as first-party data and panels.

“In order for us to do this, we had to develop a perspective on what is truthful and what is not,” McKinley said. “And so instead of building our own data sets, we said, ‘Let’s be smarter than that, let’s verify everybody else’s data with these independent sources of truth.'”

Image Credits: Truthset

In addition to coming out of stealth,  Truth{set} is also announcing that it has raised $4.75 million in seed funding from startup studio super{set}, WTI, Ulu Ventures, and strategic angel investors.

The company says it’s compatible demand-side platforms, data management platforms and customer platforms. It also integrates with the leading data providers including Facebook, LiveRamp and The Trade Desk.

McKinley added that the platform can even “suppress” consumer IDs that don’t meet a marketer’s standards, so that they’re not used in targeting.

Throughout our conversation, he emphasized the idea of independence, arguing that in order to provide trustworthy scores, “You cannot have a conflict of interest.” At the same time, Truthset is working closely with the data providers to score their data and to help them improve their accuracy. The goal is to create an expectation among marketers that if data is accurate, it will come with a score from Truthset.

“There’s a FOMO thing here — if you’re not being measured, what are you hiding?” McKinley said.

May 28th 2020, 1:15 pm

How Grab adapted after COVID-19 hit its ride-hailing business

TechCrunch

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft. Grab, Southeast Asia’s largest ride-hailing company, has also been impacted, but the company has adapted by quickly transitioning many of its ride-hailing drivers to its on-demand delivery verticals and expanding services needed by customers during social distancing measures.

The company told TechCrunch that its ride-hailing drivers saw their incomes decrease by about a double-digit percentage in April 2020, compared to October 2019, in line with a double-digit drop in gross merchandise volume for Grab’s ride-hailing business in some markets. Between March and April, more than 149,000 Grab ride-hailing drivers switched to performing on-demand deliveries. In some markets, the transition was done very quickly. For example, in Malaysia, 18,000 drivers moved to delivery in a single day. The platform also saw an influx of new driver requests, many from people who had been laid off or furloughed, as well as merchants who needed a new way to make income.

Russell Cohen, Grab’s regional head of operations, told Extra Crunch that to redeploy driver capacity to delivery verticals, the company worked with governments in its eight markets to understand how different COVID-19 responses, including stay-at-home orders, affected on-demand logistics. Anticipating shifts in consumer behavior, it also started adding new services that will continue after the pandemic.

Quickly moving driver capacity from ride-hailing to on-demand delivery

Grab currently has about nine million “micro-entrepreneurs,” or what it calls the drivers, delivery, merchants and agents on its platform. Cohen says the company began to see an effect on ride-hailing and transportation patterns in January and February as flights out of China, and air travel in general, began to decrease. Then COVID-19 started to have a material impact on its ride-hailing business in March, with a sharp drop after countries began implementing stay-at-home orders.

May 28th 2020, 1:15 pm

YouTube introduces Video Chapters to make it easier to navigate through longer videos

TechCrunch

If you’ve ever found yourself scrubbing your way through a long YouTube video to get to the “good” part, you’ll appreciate the new feature YouTube is launching today: Video Chapters. The feature uses timestamps that creators apply to their videos, allowing viewers to easily jump forward to a specific section of the video or rewatch a portion of the video.

YouTube was spotted testing Video Chapters back in April, but today the feature is going live for all users across iOS, Android, and desktop.

Video Chapters will be automatically enabled when creators add chapter information to their video’s description as a line of timestamps and titles. The first timestamp has to be marked 0:00, followed by a space, then the chapter’s title. On the next line, you’ll type the timestamp where the next chapter starts (e.g. “2:31”), then a space and that chapter’s title. When you’re finished adding in the chapters, you save the changes and the Video Chapters will be listed as you scrub through the video.

Videos will need to have at least 3 timestamps that are 10 seconds or more in length in order to use the feature.

To make it easier for viewers to navigate Video Chapters, YouTube built in haptic feedback on mobile so users will feel a slight “thump” that informs them they’re moving into a new chapter, the company explains. On platforms where haptic feedback is not available, YouTube instead uses a “snapping” behavior that will snap you to the start of the chapter. That way, viewers who want to land on a precise spot near the chapter start can wait for a moment before releasing so they aren’t snapped to the start of the chapter.

In addition, users on mobile and tablet devices can also slide their finger up and down while scrubbing — without releasing — to reveal the scrubber bar and see exactly where they’re placing the playhead.

YouTube said the feature gained a lot of positive feedback during testing, but it has tweaked the product a bit based on its earlier experimentation.

For example, YouTube has since increased the number of supported chapters across devices after realizing that it was helpful to allow the devices to determine how many chapters can be shown, based on the available screen space. That means in a video with a lot of chapters, you may see more on desktop than on mobile devices, and more appear when you’re full screen on your phone than when you’re viewing the video in the smaller, portrait player.

Because the feature requires the creator to input the timestamps, you may not see it on all videos just yet. But there are a few you can visit now if you want to see Video Chapters in action, including this Flaming Lips concert, this Radiohead concert, this Spotlight channel interview with creators, this guitar tutorial, this cooking video, this recipe video, and this lecture on machine learning.

The new feature positions YouTube to be a better resource for long-form content as it becomes less cumbersome to navigate videos. The feature could even increase user engagement with some videos as viewers won’t get frustrated by having to scroll through parts they don’t want to watch, give up, then exit the video in search of a different one that’s easier to navigate. On the flip side, it could decrease total watch times, as viewers only watch particular sections of videos instead of the video’s full content.

YouTube says the new feature will not impact recommendations.

May 28th 2020, 1:15 pm

Extra Crunch Live: Join Box CEO Aaron Levie for a live Q&A today at 3pm EDT/12pm PDT

TechCrunch

Aaron Levie is a luminary of the SAAS world; the chief executive of Box, a company that helped revolutionize the collaborative office environment; and the leader of a team that had worked remotely before COVID-19 made it a necessity rather than a luxury.

He’s also going to be joining us later today on Extra Crunch Live, our virtual speaker series for Extra Crunch members.

Levie’s going to get a flurry of questions from me and the inestimable, incalculably knowledgeable maestro of all things enterprise, Ron Miller, on topics ranging from how software as a service companies are responding to the pandemic to how to build a remote office culture.

Business leaders like Levie are living through their second black swan event that’s reshaping the global economy.

Levie started his company 15 years ago while still an undergrad in the proverbial dorm room and has matured from those early days into a public company executive, guiding his employees, customers and investors through the current crisis.

We’ll be discussing how (or whether) responses to the financial crisis of the last decade hold any lessons for the current economic climate.

The discussion starts at 3 p.m. EDT/12 p.m. PDT/9 p.m. GMT. You can find the full details below.

Extra Crunch members are encouraged to ask their own questions during the Zoom call, so please come prepared. If you’re not already a member, sign up on the cheap right here.

You can also check out the full Extra Crunch Live schedule here.

See you soon!

May 28th 2020, 1:15 pm

Plex launches a co-watching experience for its on-demand library and users’ personal media

TechCrunch

Virtual viewing parties that let people watch video together remotely have become a popular way to stay connected with friends and family amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier today, Hulu announced the addition of a new “Watch Party” feature for its site to make a virtual viewing experience a built-in feature of its service. Now, media software maker Plex is also today launching its own “Watch Together” feature which works both with its own collection of on-demand content and users’ personal media.

The feature is launching in beta as it’s still considered experimental, but will allow Plex users to invite friends on Plex to watch a TV show or movie together. If a user is not on Plex, you can invite them to join via the link, as well.

Plex says the co-viewing experience is supported on both its free selection of on-demand movies and TV shows as well as on content from a user’s personal library without limitations. However, unlike Hulu’s new feature, Watch Together doesn’t currently include a built-in chat function. Instead, Plex simply handles the playback of the content and keeping it in sync between the different parties.

The company hasn’t put a specific cap on the number of users who can join a Watch Together session.

The company’s FAQ explains the number of people who can join will depend on your own server hardware where the Plex Media Server software runs, in addition to your network connection, disk speed, and the content being shared. If you add too many people to the session, you’ll experience playback issues, Plex warns.

Once a session begins, users can join from multiple devices or rejoin if they accidentally leave early, but no new people can be added. Unlike Hulu’s new co-watching feature, anyone who pauses the stream will pause the playback for all users, not just themselves.

At launch, Plex’s Watch Together feature works on Apple and Android platforms, including Apple TV and iOS/iPadOS, as well as on Android mobile and Android TV. Support for Roku will come soon after with other platforms to follow.

During testing, it will also be available for free to all users instead of only those who pay for a Plex Pass subscription. That will allow the company to gain more feedback about bugs and feature requests from a wider user base. But it will a paid offering in the future when the initial preview period wraps.

Co-watching video has become a popular activity during coronavirus lockdowns and quarantines.

One extension Netflix Party has seen a spike in usage as U.S. consumers were forced to shelter-in-place due to the coronavirus outbreak. HBO also recently partnered with browser extension Scener to offer a “virtual theater” experience that supports up to 20 people. Social apps like Instagram and HouseParty have rolled out co-watching capabilities, too.

Plex says the new Watch Together feature is live today in beta.

May 28th 2020, 12:57 pm

Win a Wild Card to compete in Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020

TechCrunch

Ready to take advantage of every opportunity to keep your startup on track and moving forward? Yes, yes you are. Exhibiting in Startup Alley during Disrupt SF 2020 is nothing but opportunity. It offers founders beaucoup benefits, but there’s one more whopper waiting for two standout startups. We’re talking about the Wild Card entry to compete in Startup Battlefield.

Yup, buy yourself a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and you’ll have a shot at joining Disrupt SF 2020’s elite Startup Battlefield cohort. The winner of this epic pitch competition takes home the coveted Disrupt Cup and $100,000. And who couldn’t use that kind of equity-free cash infusion right about now?

Here’s how it all works. Exhibit in Startup Alley, where you’ll demo your tech products, platforms or services to potential investors, customers, engineers, media outlets and, well, the list goes on. This is no time to take your foot off the gas, and Startup Alley offers a prime opportunity to network one-on-one and build relationships with the people who can help keep your startup moving forward.

Now, about that Wild Card. The discerning TechCrunch editorial team will review all exhibiting startups and — talk about a tough task — select only two companies to compete in Startup Battlefield.

If you’re chosen, you’ll join the other Battlefield competitors and deliver a 6-minute pitch and demo to a panel of judges — top-name VCs and technologists. You’ll also answer a Q&A after your pitch. If you make it through to round two, you’ll do it all again to a fresh set of experts.

Does it sound a bit far-fetched — going from mild-mannered exhibitor to Battlefield Champion — hoisting the Disrupt Cup and hauling $100K back home? Okay, it’s longshot, but it’s not unprecedented! The folks at RecordGram pulled it off, why not you?

Even if you don’t win the competition, you’ll launch in front of the global startup community, be on the receiving end of intense media and investor interest and join the ranks of the Startup Battlefield Alumni community — more than 900 companies (including the likes of Dropbox, Mint, Yammer and Vurb) that have collectively raised $9 billion and produced 115 exits.

Don’t miss your double dose of opportunity. Exhibit in Startup Alley at Disrupt SF 2020, drive your dream to the next level and take a shot at winning a Wild Card. Who knows? You might just be the next Startup Battlefield champ.

TechCrunch is mindful of the COVID-19 issue and its impact on live events. You can follow updates here.

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

May 28th 2020, 12:45 pm

Mirantis releases its first major update to Docker Enterprise

TechCrunch

In a surprise move, Mirantis acquired Docker’s Enterprise platform business at the end of last year and while Docker itself is refocusing on developers, Mirantis kept the Docker Enterprise name and product. Today, Mirantis is rolling out its first major update to Docker Enterprise with the release of version 3.1.

For the most part, these updates are in line with what’s been happening in the container ecosystem in recent months. There’s support for Kubernetes 1.17 and improved support for Kubernetes on Windows (something the Kubernetes community has worked on quite a bit in the last year or so). Also new is Nvidia GPU integration in Docker Enterprise through a pre-installed device plugin, as well as support for Istio Ingress for Kubernetes and a new command-line tool for deploying clusters with the Docker Engine.

In addition to the product updates, Mirantis is also launching three new support options for its customers that now give them the option to get 24×7 support for all support cases, for example, as well as enhanced SLAs for remote managed operations, designated customer success managers and proactive monitoring and alerting. With this, Mirantis is clearly building on its experience as a managed service provider.

What’s maybe more interesting, though, is how this acquisition is playing out at Mirantis itself. Mirantis, after all, went through its fair share of ups and downs in recent years, from high-flying OpenStack platform to layoffs and everything in between.

“Why we do this in the first place and why at some point I absolutely felt that I wanted to do this is because I felt that this would be a more compelling and interesting company to build, despite maybe some of the short-term challenges along the way, and that very much turned out to be true. It’s been fantastic,” Mirantis CEO and co-founder Adrian Ionel told me. “What we’ve seen since the acquisition, first of all, is that the customer base has been dramatically more loyal than people had thought, including ourselves.”

Ionel admitted that he thought some users would defect because this is obviously a major change, at least from the customer’s point of view. “Of course we have done everything possible to have something for them that’s really compelling and we put out the new roadmap right away in December after the acquisition — and people bought into it at very large scale,” he said. With that, Mirantis retained more than 90 percent of the customer base and the vast majority of all of Docker Enterprise’s largest users.

Ionel, who almost seemed a bit surprised by this, noted that this helped the company to turn in two “fantastic” quarters and was profitable in the last quarter, despite the COVID-19.

“We wanted to go into this acquisition with a sober assessment of risks because we wanted to make it work, we wanted to make it successful because we were well aware that a lot of acquisitions fail,” he explained. “We didn’t want to go into it with a hyper-optimistic approach in any way — and we didn’t — and maybe that’s one of the reasons why we are positively surprised.”

He argues that the reason for the current success is that enterprises are doubling down on their container journeys and because they actually love the Docker Enterprise platform, like infrastructure independence, its developer focus, security features and ease of use. One thing many large customers asked for was better support for multi-cluster management at scale, which today’s update delivers.

“Where we stand today, we have one product development team. We have one product roadmap. We are shipping a very big new release of Docker Enterprise. […] The field has been completely unified and operates as one salesforce, with record results. So things have been extremely busy, but good and exciting.”

May 28th 2020, 12:26 pm

Existing backers put another £40M into UK challenger bank Starling

TechCrunch

Starling Bank, the U.K.-based challenger bank founded by banking veteran Anne Boden, has raised an additional £40 million in funding, TechCrunch has learned.

The round is led by existing backers, Harry McPike’s JTC and Merian Chrysalis Investment Company Limited, and adds to the £60 million raised in February this year.

Now boasting 1.4 million accounts, including 155,000 business accounts, Starling Bank has raised a total of £363 million since its launch in 2014. Noteworthy, I’m told that its deposit base has doubled in the last six months and it now holds more than £2.4 billion in deposits.

“This additional funding from our existing investors demonstrates their commitment both to Starling and to our small business and personal customers who need our support now more than ever,” said Starling’s Anne Boden in a statement confirming the fundraise.

I understand the new funding will enable the bank to continue investing in growth, and, more specifically, to provide “much-needed support to small business customers who have been hit by the coronavirus emergency”.

This has seen it collaborate with the U.K. government to increase lending to SMEs as part of the country’s various coronavirus crisis business support packages, including £300 million under the government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and direct to its customers under its own CBIL and Bounce Back Loan Schemes.

To that end, since launching SME accounts in March 2018 and securing £100 million in state aid via the Capability and Innovation Fund (CIF), business banking has become a big bet for Starling. It appears to be starting to pay off, too, with the bank now claiming to hold a 2.6% share of the U.K.’s SME banking market, with almost £500 million of SME lending currently on its balance sheet.

May 28th 2020, 12:26 pm

Storage marketplace Warehouse Exchange raises $2.2M

TechCrunch

Warehouse Exchange, a startup that describes itself as the Airbnb of warehouse space, has raised $2.2 million in seed funding.

The company was founded Jonathan Rosenthal (CEO of Saybrook Management) and Dan Pimentel (previously CFO/COO of startup Hub TV). They recently brought on former eHarmony CEO Grant Langston as the Warehouse Exchange’s chief executive.

Langston admitted that his new job might sound pretty different from running an online dating company, but he said that in both cases, it’s really about using technology to build a marketplace.

In the case of Warehouse Exchange, Langston said the opportunity lies in the fact that “businesses that wanted warehouse space were not welcome in warehouses.” Specifically, there are plenty of new e-commerce companies that want “smaller footprints for shorter periods of time and want to handle their own inventory,” but particularly pre-pandemic, most of the third-party logistics companies (known as 3PLs) operating warehouses weren’t interested in that business.

So Warehouse Exchange has created a marketplace connecting renters with flexible warehouse space — Langston said businesses are renting space through the marketplace for an average of 11 months (though it usually starts with a shorter amount of time and then gets extended).

Warehouse Exchange CEO Grant Langston

In fact, the company said it’s seen 22,000 searches on its site in the past 18 months. The warehouse space, meanwhile, might not come from traditional warehouse operators, but instead from other organizations that have extra space that they want to monetize.

Langston added, “3PLs are typically not interested in this small e-commerce demand, but what has happened in the last eight weeks is that a lot of these companies have lost their anchor tenant and need to rethink their revenue.”

In order for a warehouse shift to this model, Langston said some rethinking is required, but “the infrastructure is quite light” — usually, you just partitions to separate different parts of the warehouse.

Given the broader concerns about warehouse safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, I also asked about who is responsible for those issues within the warehouses. Langston said it’s up to the individual tenants, noting that in many cases it’s just one person running an e-commerce business, and that “in a general sense, there’s not a lot of intermingling between tenants.”

The new funding comes from investors including Xebec Realty. Langston said he’s already working to raise a Series A, with a target of $6 to $7 million.

May 28th 2020, 12:15 pm

Former Lime exec launches Cabana, a company that merges #vanlife and hotels

TechCrunch

Is it glamping on wheels? Hotel #vanlife?

It’s Cabana, a new startup from a former Lime executive that’s bringing tricked out vans with all the amenities of a Holiday Inn hotel room to cities on the West Coast starting in Seattle.

Because of Lime I spent 54 consecutive weeks on the road staying at hotels,” recalls Scott Kubly, the co-founder and chief executive of Cabana . “I got this bug that there needed to be a better way.”

So with the benefit of a few years of startup salary in the bank, Kubly launched Cabana. “The way I would describe is vanlife, meets car-sharing, meets a boutique hotel. It’s a hotel room packed into the back of a van.”

The vans come with showers, toilets, a slide out two-range stovetop that can serve as a kitchen and the freedom to hit the road after a customer crushes that last sales meeting, conference appearance, convention, or just needs to travel and experience the outdoors.

The vans cost $200 per-night plus tax to rent and there’s a fleet of several vans already available in Seattle. Booking a van is simple through the company’s app and everything is contactless — an important feature in the COVID-19 era.

[gallery ids="1995050,1995048,1995047"]

Kubly estimates that there’s around $15 billion spent on travel that he thinks he can unlock with Cabana and the company is definitely tapping into a small, but not insignificant trend of glamping, vanlife, luxury experiences that investors are already backing.

Companies like Tentrr, HipCamp and even Airbnb have gotten in on the vanlife movement and Cabana’s founder definitely thinks he can ride the wave.

Cabana has already raised $3.5 million from investors led by Craft Ventures — the investment firm founded by David Sacks. Other investors included Goldcrest Capital, Travis VanderZanden, the chief executive and founder of Bird, and Sunny Madra, Vice President Ford X at Ford Motor Company.

“Cabana gives people an ideal combination of freedom, comfort, and convenience,” said David Sacks, co-founder and general partner of Craft, in a statement.  “Despite the societal upheaval of the last few months, the human desire to travel and explore remains unchanged. Why shelter in place when you can shelter in paradise?”

Sacks may be on to something. According to Kubly, the RV rental business has exploded and are up 650% year-on-year. “People are going a little stir crazy,” he said.

Back in 2019 when Kubly and his co-founder Jonathan Savage, a former nuclear engineer for the Navy and the bassist in the Red Not Chili Peppers (a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band), launched the company, they weren’t expecting to have to deal with running a hospitality business during a pandemic, but they’ve adapted.

Image credit: Cabana

Cabana’s fleet of vans are cleaned and then irradiated with UVC light (the same treatment the President suggested, wrongly, for people) and then left to stand for six-to-eight hours between rentals.

The hardest part of the business hasn’t been handling the vans or disinfecting them for customers concerned about the novel coronavirus, but the more mundane task of cleaning out the toilets.

“There is a toilet and a toilet tank,” said Kubly. “At the end of every trip we swap that out. Just like scooters have swappable batteries we have swappable toilet tanks. It is the big downside of the business.”

He should know. He spent the first six months that the company was in business cleaning out the tanks himself on the retrofitted van that he and Savage had bought to test the business idea.

“Ideas that utilize existing infrastructure and satisfy a previously unseen or emerging consumer need are often the genesis of companies that can establish and lead a new industry,”  said VanderZanden in a statement. “Cabana fits squarely within this theory and provides travelers a new way to experience and explore destinations that might not otherwise have been available to them while also avoiding carbon-emitting flights.” 

May 28th 2020, 12:15 pm

Presso shifts focus to clothing disinfecting for film studios amid COVID-19 concerns

TechCrunch

The Presso team first piqued my interest in a trip to Hong Kong last summer. The startup promised a clever approach to dry cleaning that involved setting up robotic kiosks in hotel hallways. The product is aimed at traveling business people looking for a quick clean of rumpled up clothing ahead of an important business meeting. Best of all, it cuts out pricey hotel laundry services.

Obviously, a lot has changed in late-August, and like many others, the team has attempted to find a way to leverage its technology in the battle against the spread of COVID-19. The solution is a bit more niche than some, but Presso is still a fairly small team. The company has added a disinfecting element to its robot in line with CDC guidelines and has begun selling a limited number of units to TV and film production companies.

“My family in India actually contracted coronavirus and my mom and grandparents had to be hospitalized,” cofounder and CEO Nishant Jain told TechCrunch. “They are all safe now thankfully. If we can play even a small part in keeping clothes sanitized and people safe, we’d be honored. Even our team members have been quite active with helping out their local communities by sourcing masks and PPE for hospitals and designing ventilators.”

The move comes as California governor Gavin Newsom has announced plans to get film production back on track. Many studios are balking at such a rush to return to work, but for those who are still interested, Presso is offering up units for sets looking to remove the potential spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Presso’s latest push is fueled in part by an additional $250,000 in funding, bringing the team’s total up to $511,000. The company says it’s seen a 200% growth in orders from one month to the next, including high profile clients like Disney/Marvel, HBO, CBS an FOX.

May 28th 2020, 12:15 pm

Hulu launches a new Watch Party feature for virtual viewing parties and chat

TechCrunch

Hulu today is introducing a new feature called “Hulu Watch Party,” its first social feature that will allow viewers to virtually watch Hulu together at the same time while in separate locations and chat with one another within the Hulu app. The feature is being tested first on Hulu.com for Hulu’s “No Ads” subscribers for the time being.

It will work with thousands of movies and shows in Hulu’s on-demand streaming library, the company says.

To see which programs are available for this Watch Party viewing experience, users will look for a new “Watch Party” icon on the title’s Details page. They will then be given a link to invite their family and friends to join their Watch Party session, which can support up to 8 people in total.

While watching, users can chat with one another in real-time through a built-in chat function. Plus, users will be able to control their own playback of the title without impacting the group’s experience — in other words, it’s not the same sort of shared stream experience as many similar services offer. But this way, users suffering from a poor connection or those in need of a bathroom break can rejoin the group when they’re ready. A handy “Click to Catch Up” button in the chat window will get them back in sync.

Viewers must be 18 or older to start or join Watch Party sessions, Hulu says.

The addition of the social feature comes following a surge of interest in apps and extensions that enable virtual watch parties for streaming services amid the pandemic. One browser plugin, Netflix Party, even went viral as U.S. consumers were forced to shelter-in-place during coronavirus lockdowns. HBO, meanwhile, recently partnered with browser extension Scener to offer a “virtual theater” experience that supports up to 20 people.

But unlike the existing options, Hulu’s Watch Party doesn’t require a browser plugin or extension of any kind. Instead, the feature works within Hulu’s website itself on both Mac and PC computers.

The feature is live starting today on Hulu.com.

 

May 28th 2020, 11:54 am

Researchers use biometrics, including data from the Oura Ring, to predict COVID-19 symptoms in advan

TechCrunch

A team of researchers from the West Virginia University (WVU) Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI), along with WVU’s Medicine department and staff from Oura Health have developed a platform they say can be used to anticipate the onset of COVID-19 symptoms in otherwise healthy people up to three days in advance. This can help with screening of pre-symptomatic individuals, the researchers suggest, enabling earlier testing and potentially reducing the exposure risk among frontline healthcare and essential workers.

The sudsy involved using biometric data gathered by the Oura Ring, a consumer wearable that looks like a normal metallic ring, but that includes sensors to monitor a number of physiological metrics, including body temperature, sleep patterns, activity, heart rate and more. RNI and WVU Medical researchers combined this data with physiological, cognitive and behaviroral biometric info from around 600 healthcare workers and first responders.

Participants in the study wore the Oura Ring, and provided additional data that was then used to develop AI-based models to anticipate the onset of symptoms before they physically manifested. While these are early results from a phase one study, and yet to be peer-reviewed, the researchers say that their results showed a 90 percent accuracy rate on predicting the occurrence of symptoms including fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and more, all of which could indicate that someone has contracted COVID-19. While that doesn’t mean that individuals have the disease, a flag from the platform could mean they seek testing up to three days before symptoms appear, which in turn would mean three fewer days potentially exposing others around them to infection.

Next up, the study hopes to expand to cover as many as 10,000 participants across a number of different institutions in multiple states, with other academic partners on board to support the expansion. The study was fully funded by the RNI and their supporters, with Oura joining strictly in a facilitating capacity and to assist with hardware for deployment.

Many projects have been undertaken to see whether predictive models could help anticipate COVID-19 onset prior to the expression of symptoms, or in individuals who present as mostly or entirely asymptomatic based on general observation. This early result from RNI suggests that it is indeed possible, and that hardware already available to the general public could play an important role in making it possible.

May 28th 2020, 11:43 am

Amazon says it will offer full-time jobs to 125,000 temporary workers

TechCrunch

In a blog post today, Amazon announced plans to offer permanent jobs to around 70% of the 175,000 temporary workers it brought on to meet demand amid a COVID-19-fueled surge. Initially filled as seasonal positions, the company will be transferring 125,000 people to full-time roles next month, as the pandemic-fueled push theoretically dies down.

Those roles will earn workers a minimum wage of $15 and hour (after pushback from lawmakers like Bernie Sanders) and access to some training programs designed to help them work their way up at the company. The full-time jobs will kick in the same month Amazon winds down its $2 an hour hazard pay for workers.

Amazon has been the subject of criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including letters from senators and attorneys general aimed at getting a better picture of its worker health policies, along with numbers of employees who have been infected or died from the novel coronavirus.

Another asked the company to offer insight into why the company had fired a number of staff who had been vocally critical of its policies. Amazon has denied any wrong doing in all of this and insisted that COVID-19 rates among staff are lower than the general population.

This latest move comes amid the worst U.S. unemployment rate since the Great Depression. This week, an additional 2.1 million Americans applied for unemployment, bringing the total up to 41 million since the beginning of the pandemic. Economists are hopeful that reopening sectors of the country will help reverse those figures, assuming that such actions don’t lead to massive spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

May 28th 2020, 11:43 am

6 leading mobility VCs discuss the road ahead

TechCrunch

Millions of consumers sheltering in place to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus sent shockwaves through the global economy. Transportation-related companies were not spared in the upheaval. Mobility startups consolidated, pulled back from some markets and reduced headcount. And yet, the industry — and the VCs who invest in it — is still rolling forward.

Founders are huddled with their teams, picking over spreadsheets and go-to-market strategies in search of ways to accelerate as their runways grow ever shorter. And while the pace of investments might have slowed, venture capitalists are still seeking out innovative tech and overlooked ideas.

TechCrunch spoke with six investors about the state of mobility, which trends they’re most excited about and what they’re looking for in their next investments:

Ernestine Fu, Alsop Louie Partners

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

In-car cybersecurity. Today’s vehicles are highly sophisticated smart devices, and cybersecurity is becoming an integral part of automakers’ development efforts. We’re already seeing infotainment connectivity systems and over-the-air software updates in cars being vulnerable to cyberattacks. Vehicles will serve as the nodes of vast information networks, especially as personal mobility, autonomous driving and car connectivity drive our future. In-car cybersecurity threats will remain an ongoing concern — and a rich investment opportunity.

Stonly Baptiste & Shaun Abrahamson, Urban Us

What trends are you most excited about in mobility hardware from an investing perspective?

The most interesting thing is the continued reduction in costs of electric drivetrains and autonomous stacks. These are going to have a profound impact on total costs of fleets – lower labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

May 28th 2020, 11:43 am

Meditation and mindfulness apps continue their surge amid pandemic

TechCrunch

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in downloads of mental wellness, and specifically, those focused on meditation, dealing with anxiety, and helping users fall asleep. According to a new report from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the world’s 10 largest English-language mental wellness apps in April saw a combined 2 million more downloads during the month of April 2020 compared with January, reaching close to 10 million total downloads for the month.

The charts were dominated by market leaders including No. 1 app Calm with 3.9 million downloads in April, followed by Headspace with 1.5 million downloads, then Meditopia, with 1.4 million. Of those, Calm saw the largest number of new installs with more than 911,000 more downloads in April compared with January, a rise of nearly 31%. Another app, Relax: Master Your Destiny, grew 218% since the start of the year, picking up 391,000 downloads in April.

In addition, 8 of the top 10 grew their monthly installs in April compared with January. Most also grew their number of new downloads on a month-over-month basis between March and April as well, the firm noted.

This is not the first report to detail the surge of interest in mobile meditation apps since the COVID-19 outbreak. App Annie had earlier found that downloads of mindfulness apps hit 750,000 during the week of March 29, 2020, up 25% from the weekly average in January and February.

The apps have used a variety of different approaches to grow their businesses amid the pandemic. One app, Headspace, was the first to offer free memberships to front-line medical professionals and first responders. It later expanded its free access to the unemployed and launched a collection of free content for those living in New York, in partnership with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Other apps, including Breethe, Ten Percent Happier, and Simple Habit, offered free memberships to medical workers, following Headspace’s lead.

This strategy has the short-term benefit of gaining the apps good press while helping out those who are battling COVID-19 on the front lines. But it also comes across as a little opportunistic — as if the companies are using the pandemic and, in particular, medical workers’ struggles to boost their downloads. If the companies truly cared about the impacts of COVID-19 on users’ stress and anxiety, a better strategy may have been one that involved rolling out an entirely free collection to all their users focused on that topic of COVID-19 stress and anxiety, specifically.

Calm, meanwhile, took a different approach. It launched a page of free resources, but instead focused on partnerships to expand free access to more users, while also growing its business. Earlier this month, nonprofit health system Kaiser Permanente announced it was making the Calm app’s Premium subscription free for its members, for example — the first health system to do so.

The company’s decision to not pursue as many free giveaways meant it may have missed the easy boost from press coverage. However, it may be a better long-term strategy as it sets Calm up for distribution partnerships that could continue beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis.

Sensor Tower’s full report delves into which apps are more popular in the U.S. vs the U.K. and other data. It’s available here.

Image credits: Sensor Tower

May 28th 2020, 11:43 am

Cookware startup Caraway raises $5.3M as it eyes new product categories

TechCrunch

Caraway, a direct-to-consumer startup selling ceramic pots and pans, is announcing that it has raised $5.3 million in seed funding.

Founder and CEO Jordan Nathan (previously a brand manager at e-commerce holding company Mohawk Group) told me that he became interested in cookware after burning a Teflon pan and learned more about the dangers of Teflon poisoning.

In fact, although nonstick materials like Teflon are used most of the cookware sold in the United States, it turns out that that there are real health risks when those pots and pans are overheated.

So Nathan said Caraway offers non-toxic, eco-friendly pots and pans that are also well-designed and premium quality. The four-item cookware set costs $395 and also comes with pot and lid holders (Nathan noted that many consumers also struggle with storage).

When I brought up some of the broader issues facing direct-to-consumer startups before the pandemic, particularly around costly user acquisition, Nathan said, “Caraway has been focused on sustainable growth since day one. We’re only a few months old and growing very fast, but at the same time, we’re focused on cutting cost and making sure every dollar returns a profitable first purchase from consumers.”

Image Credits: Caraway

Caraway isn’t revealing any sales numbers, but Nathan suggested that the company has definitely benefited from increased consumer interest as everyone is stuck at home and doing more cooking.

And he said that interest extends beyond buying Caraway products: “It’s been a really good time to activate our community. There’s been a lot more engagement, a lot of sharing of user generated content, sharing on Instagram — not just for cookware and pans, but education around cooking, around storage, around design.”

The company’s supply chain has also been affected by the pandemic. Nathan said his team has done work to expedite shipments, but “where we’ve put our focus has really just been communicating with customers that there will be delays.”

The new funding comes from more than 100 investors, including Republic Labs, Springdale Ventures, Wesray Social, Bridge Investments, WTI, CompanyFirst, G9 Ventures, Super Angel Syndicate (led by Ben Zises), Five Four Ventures, alongside Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn, PopSugar co-founder Brian Sugar (PopSugar), Glossier and Arfa founders/executives Henry Davis and Bryan Mahoney, One Kings Lane co-founder Ali Pincus and Nik Sharma of Sharma Brands.

In a statement, Dunn said:

Many people think direct-to-consumer brands are going to struggle in this new economy. From being an investor in two dozen brands, the truth is more nuanced: some are really flourishing. Caraway had strong momentum at launch, with a clear vision from founder Jordan Nathan around the future of home goods. The COVID-19 pandemic then amplified that momentum with the surge of in-home cooking. Caraway’s out of the gates growth rate is in the top 1% of what I’ve seen in DTC brands. This is not a pots and pans company, this is a disruptor to traditional brick and mortar multi-category home brands.

To that last point, Nathan said Caraway has already expanded into kitchen linens, and there are plans for other home products.

“With every new product we launch, we’re bringing the same focus [that we brought to] cookware,” he said. “The same colors, the same sleek and timeless design, the non-toxic, eco-friendly material. And every product we launch will have a storage solution built into it.”

May 28th 2020, 10:56 am

Tia Health gets over $24 million to build a network of holistic health clinics and virtual services

TechCrunch

Tia Health, the developer of a network of digital wellness apps, clinics and telehealth services designed to treat women’s health holistically, has raised $24.275 million in a new round of funding.

The company said that the financing would support the expansion of its telehealth and clinical services to new markets, although co-founder and chief executive Carolyn Witte would not disclose, where, exactly those locations would be.

Co-founded initially as a text-based tool for women to communicate and receive advice on sexual health and wellness, Witte and her co-founder Felicity Yost always had bigger ambitions for their business.

Last year, Tia launched its first physical clinic in New York and now boasts a team of 15 physicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, therapists, and other treatment providers. The support staff is what helps keeps cost down, according to Witte.

“We reduce the cost of care by 40% [and] we do that through collaborative care staffing. [That] leverages mid-level providers like nurse practitioners to deliver higher touch care at lower cost,” she said. 

Tia closed its most recent round before shelter-in-place went into effect in New York on March 17, and since then worked hard to port its practices over to telehealth and virtual medicine, Witte said.

Two days later, Tia went live with telehealth services and the company’s membership of 3,000 women responded. Witte said roughly half of the company’s patients have used the company’s telehealth platform. Since Tia began as an app first before moving into physical care services, the progression was natural, said Witte. The COVID-19 epidemic just accelerated the timeline. “In the last 90 days close to 50% of Tia’s 3,000 members have engaged in chat or video,” Witte said. 

The move to telehealth also allowed Tia to take in more money for its services. With changes to regulation around what kinds of care delivery are covered, telehealth is one new way to make a lot of money that’s covered by insurance and not an elective decision for patients.

“That has allowed us to give our patients the ability to use their insurance for that virtual care and bill for those services,” Witte said of the regulatory changes. 

The staff at Tia consists not just of doctors and nurse practitioners (there are two of each), but also licensed clinical therapists that provide mental health services for Tia’s patient population too.

“Before COVID we surveyed our 3,000 patients in NY about what they want and mental health was the most requested service,” said Witte.  “We saw a 400% increase in mental health related messages on my platform. We rolled out this behavioral health and clinical program paired with our primary care.”

As Tia continues to expand the services it offers to its patients, the next piece of the puzzle to provide a complete offering for women’s health is pregnancy planning and fertility, according to Witte.

The company sees itself as part of a movement to repackage a healthcare industry that has concentrated on treating specific illnesses rather than patient populations that have unique profiles and care needs.

Rather than focusing on a condition or medical specialization like cardiology, gastroenterology, gynecology or endocrinology, the new healthcare system treats cohorts or groups of people — those over 65, adult men and women, as groups with their own specific needs that cross these specializations and require different types of care.

We are really focused on collecting longitudinal data to better understand and treat women’s health,” said Witte. “A stepping stone in that regard is expanding our service line to support the pregnancy journey.” 

Tia’s latest round was led by new investor Threshold Ventures with participation from Acme Ventures (also a new backer) and previous investors including Define Homebrew, Compound and John Doerr, the longtime managing partner at KPCB.

When the company launched, it’s stated mission was to use women’s data to improve women’s health.

“We believe reproductive-aged women deserve a similar focus, and a new model of care designed end-to-end, just for us,” the company said in a statement

As Tia continues to stress, women have been “under-researched and underserved by a healthcare system that continues to treat us as ‘small men with different parts’ — all-too-often neglecting the complex interplay of hormones, gene regulation, metabolism, and other sex-specific differences that make female health fundamentally distinct from male health. It’s time for that to change.”

But Tia won’t be changing anything on the research front anytime soon. The company is not pursuing any clinical trials or publishing any research around how the ways in which women’s menstrual cycles may affect outcomes or influence other systems, according to Witte. Rather the company is using that information in its treatment of individual patients, she said.

The company did just hire a head of research — an expert in reproductive genomics, which Witte said was to start to understand how the company can build out proof points around how Tia’s care model can improve outcomes. 

Tia will reopen its brick-and-mortar clinic in New York on June 1 and will be expanding to new locations over the course of the year. That expansion may involve partnerships with corporations or existing health care providers, the company said.

“By partnering with leading health systems, employers, and provider networks to scale our Connected Care Platform, and open new physical and digital Tia doors, we can make ‘the Tia Way’ the new standard of care for women and providers everywhere,” Tia said in a statement.

As it does so, the company said it will continue to emphasize its holistic approach to women’s health.

As the company’s founders write:

Being a healthy woman is all-too-often reduced to not having an STD or an abnormal Pap, but we know that the leading cause of death for women in America is cardiovascular disease. We also know that women are diagnosed with anxiety and depression at twice the rate of men, and that endocrine and autoimmune disorders are on the rise. In pregnancy, c-section and preterm birth rates continue to go up instead of down, as does maternal mortality, with the U.S. reporting more maternal deaths than any developed country in the world.

We believe that the solution is a preventive “whole women’s health” model…

May 28th 2020, 10:56 am

German federal court squashes consent opt-outs for non-functional cookies

TechCrunch

Yet another stake through the dark-patterned heart of consentless online tracking. Following a key cookie consent ruling by Europe’s top court last year, Germany’s Federal Court (BGH) has today handed down its own ‘Planet49’ decision — overturning an earlier appeal ruling when judges in a district court had allowed a pre-checked box to stand for consent.

That clearly now won’t wash even in Germany, where there had been confusion over the interpretation of a local law which had suggested an opt-in for non-functional cookies might be legally valid in some scenarios. Instead, the federal court ruling aligns with last October’s CJEU decision (which we reported on in detail here).

The ‘Planet49’ legal challenge was originally lodged by vzbz, a German consumer rights organization, which had complained about a lottery website, Planet49, that — back in 2013 — had required users to consent to the storage of cookies in order to play a promotional game. (Whereas EU law generally requires consent to be freely given and purpose limited if it’s to be legally valid.)

In a statement today following the BGH’s decision, board member Klaus Müller said: “This is a good judgment for consumers and their privacy. Internet users are again given more decision-making authority and transparency. So far, it has been common practice in this country for website providers to track, analyze, and market the interests and behaviors of users until they actively contradict them. This is no longer possible. If a website operator wants to screen his users, he must at least ask for permission beforehand. This clarification was long overdue.”

There is one looming wrinkle, however, in the shape of Europe’s ePrivacy reform — a piece of legislation which deals with online tracking. In recent years, European institutions have failed to reach agreement on an update to this — with negotiations ongoing and lobbyists seeking ways to dilute Europe’s strict consent standard.

Should any future reform of ePrivacy weaken the rules on tracking consent that could undo hard won progress to secure European citizens’ rights, under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which deals with personal data more broadly.

vzbz’s statement warns about this possibility, with the consumer rights group urging the EU to “ensure that the currently negotiated European ePrivacy Regulation does not weaken these strict regulations”.

“We reject the Croatian Presidency’s proposal to allow user tracking in the future on the legal basis of a balance of interests,” added Müller. “The end devices of the consumers allow a deep insight into complex emotional, political and social aspects of a person. Protecting this privacy is a great asset. We therefore require tight and clear rules for user tracking for advertising purposes. This may only be permitted with consent or under strict conditions defined in the law.”

In the meanwhile, there will be legal pressure on data controllers in German to clean up any fuzzy cookie notices to ensure they are complying with consent requirements.

“As the implementation of these new requirements are easily visible (and technically identifiable) on the website, incompliance bears a high risk of cease-and-desist and supervisory procedures,” warns law firm TaylorWessing in a blog post commenting on the BGH decision.

Separately today, another long running legal challenge brought by vzbz against the social networking giant Facebook — for allegedly failing to gain proper consent to process user data related to games hosted on its app platform, back in 2012 — is set to get even longer after the BGH sought a referral on a legal question to Europe’s top court.

The German federal court is seeking clarification on whether consumer protection organizations can bring a lawsuit before the country’s civil courts seeking redress for data protection breaches. “This question is controversial in the case law of the instance courts and the legal literature,” the court notes in a press release.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the CJEU referral.

May 28th 2020, 10:39 am

Netflix, Disney+ or HBO Max? The best streaming service for your watching habits

TechCrunch

Gone are the days of not having enough time to catch up on all of those movies and TV shows you’ve been meaning to get around to. For the foreseeable future, at least, many of us have nowhere to go and nothing but time on our hands.

We’ve already offered a few suggestions for ways to spend your newfound downtime, but there’s a more pragmatic question at hand. With this week’s arrival of HBO Max, an overcrowded streaming market becomes even more competitive, particularly here in the United States.  Gone are the days of Netflix’s streaming supremacy (at least from a content perspective). There’s a streaming service for virtually every need and nearly every one is best at something (with the possible exception of Apple TV+, with its fairly sparse selection, and whatever is going on with Quibi).

In a perfect world, we would all be able to subscribe to every service and never have to leave the house again. But those $5-$15/month fees add up pretty quickly when you’re not looking. For most of us, choosing the right service or service requires a bit of strategic spending. As such, we’re going to make life a bit easier on you and your wallet by designating the top services across 10 key categories.

Again, this is a U.S.-focused list, since that’s where we’re based. But many of these services are available outside the States, or will be in the next year or two.

The best service for … Prestige TV

Winner: HBO Max

The debate about the best TV show of all time always seems to wind up on HBO. The premium cable network has transformed expectations around what television can and should do, with shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” regularly cited at the top of the list of all-time greats. And then there’s “Westworld,” “Game of Thrones,” newcomers like “Succession” and top-tier comedy like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Eastbound and Down” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” Not every series has been a slam-dunk, but as far as prestige episodic television is concerned, you’re not going to do any better than HBO. (B.H.)

The best service for … Blockbusters

Winner: Disney+

Disney has dominated the theatrical box office for the past decade, thanks to its acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm/Star Wars — not to mention the continued popularity of its animated films and live-action remakes. Disney+ is where you can catch up with almost all those big-budget hits, and it will be the streaming home for future Marvel blockbusters. (A.H.)

The best service for … Classics

Winner: Criterion Channel/HBO Max

While Criterion’s reputation can seem forbiddingly arty (see below) — and of course, some art films are stone cold movie classics — the service also offers plenty of classic Hollywood titles, like a recent retrospective showcasing Columbia noir. And if you’re a kaiju fan, it also has nearly every old-schoool Godzilla movie in its library. That said, it isn’t the only place you can find classic titles. HBO Max, in particular, is the streaming home to Turner Classic Movies, with some of the best films of all time, including “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” And it has a deal to offer some Criterion titles, too. (A.H.)

The best service for … Documentaries

Winner: HBO Max/CuriosityStream

As with its drama and comedy series, there’s really no one out there who can touch HBO’s documentary output. The network has consistently racked up Emmy wins since the late ’90s. It’s had some added competition from Netflix in recent years, but HBO continues to deliver, including last year’s heart-wrenching ‘Leaving Neverland.’ If you like your documentaries served with a side of more documentaries, however, there’s always CuriosityStream. $20/year will get you a boatload of original docs, broken down by category. (B.H.)

The best service for … Kids

Winner: Disney+

All the big streaming services have a selection of movies and shows for kids, but it’s hard to beat the titles in Disney’s library — all their animated classics, plus Pixar, plus Disney Channel hits like “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical.” HBO Max is a strong runner-up with Sesame Street and the full Studio Ghibli library, but if your kid wants to sing along to “Frozen” over and over again, this is where they can do it. (A.H.)

The best service for … Indies

Winner: Hulu/Criterion Channel

Most streaming services (save for Apple TV+ and Disney+) have a pretty sizable selection of indies. The quality of the films varies greatly from service to service and film to film, but nearly all of them have some hidden gems for when you’re looking to spend a bit of time outside of the studio system. As far as the mainstream ones go, I was surprised to discover during this quarantine that Hulu has the best selections of the bunch, courtesy of deals with top notch indie distributors. If you want a straight shot of the stuff, however, the Criterion Channel is your best bet — and the supplementary content is unmatched by other services. (B.H.)

The best service for … Free stuff

Winner: Tubi/Vudu

To be honest, I had no idea Tubi existed until recently. I was searching for a Korean movie about a baseball playing gorilla (it’s real, seriously), and landed on the site, where it was streaming for free with ad breaks. You would probably end up banging your head against the wall if you relied on Tubi as your sole streaming service, but its selection is surprisingly solid. There are genuinely good films in there, in amongst the dregs. There are also plenty of dregs there, if that’s your thing. Also check out Walmart’s Vudu. In addition to your standard rentals, the service also has a decent selection of free films. (B.H.)

The best service for … Star Trek

Winner: CBS All Access

It might seem silly to build an entire streaming service around a single entertainment franchise, but a) Have you met Star Trek fans? And b) That was clearly the strategy behind CBS All Access, which has already released two Trek spinoffs, “Discovery” and “Picard.” Although the newly remerged ViacomCBS seems to have broader streaming plans, Star Trek still seems like a centerpiece of that strategy, with a whole bunch of new Trek content being developed under the supervision of Alex Kurtzman. (That said, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are sufficient if you just want to rewatch The Original Series or The Next Generation.) (A.H.)

The best service for … Arthouse

Winner: Criterion Channel

Been missing trips to the local arthouse theater? With places like the Anthology Film Archives, Museum of the Moving Image and Angelika temporarily shut down here in New York, I’ve been finding some respite in the Criterion Collection’s truly excellent curated selection of films. While it’s true that sometimes the best thing for the pandemic is a little mindless movie watching, if you want to take in some culture without leaving the house, Criterion’s got you covered. (B.H.)

The best service for … a lot of everything

Winner: Netflix

You may be wondering why we’ve barely mentioned the streaming world’s biggest player. That’s because Netflix isn’t actually the best in any one category — at least in our view. Instead, it’s pretty good in a whole bunch of categories, whether that’s older TV shows, classic films, original series like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things,” reality hits like “Tiger King” and original movies like “The Irishman.” So if you want a single service that scratches a whole bunch of different itches, Netflix is still your best bet.

May 28th 2020, 10:39 am

2020 Lotus Evora GT Review: A thrilling, analog weekend racer

TechCrunch

Why’s this on TechCrunch? We hear that occasionally when posting things outside of our general programming. Generally, there’s a tech hook; there isn’t here with this $100,000 2020 Lotus Evora GT.

The Lotus Evora GT is supersized go-kart with nary an advanced technical feature. And I love it. While most cars are coming equipped with supercomputers, the lack of technical wizardry makes the 2020 Evora GT interesting, and that’s why it’s on TechCrunch.

A modest v6 rests behind the driver. The stats are hardly notable. 416 BHP and 317 lb-ft. It’s supercharged with an Edelbrock screw providing 8.7 psi of boost. In all, it’s not much considering rivals often sport twice the power and torque. The Lotus Evora GT doesn’t care. The engine provides intense thrills and driving dynamics. This car proves that even today, when 1,000 hp is obtainable and F1-inspired hybrid systems are hitting cars, over-the-top horsepower and exotic power plants are not needed. Not really, at least.

This Lotus follows a timeless analog formula. Throw a good engine in a little car, give the driver control over the transmission, and fun ensues.

[gallery ids="1994903,1994906,1994908,1994907,1994905,1994904"]

Review

I never turned on the radio. The howl of the engine was enough for me as I took this Lotus around Michigan’s deserted backroads.

The engine wails with power. A distinct whine is caused by the supercharger that’s quickly followed up by a roar from the exhaust. The combination creates a harmony missing in most modern sports cars. Now in days, automakers take grain pain in isolating drivers from the violent explosions powering their vehicles, and in a vehicle the size of this Lotus, that’s not possible.

The Lotus Evora GT is small. This isn’t a car for commuting. The creature comforts of power seats, and cup holders are missing. There’s no room for golf clubs. The tiny storage compartment between the rear-mounted engine and the bumper has a warning not to exceed 50kg. There’s a back seat, but don’t expect anyone to sit in it; it’s too small for even a child. This is a car for whipping around a track or empty roads and enjoying every second of it.

Power is instructed through a six-speed manual transmission. The throws are lovely and spaced perfectly. It’s the Goldilocks of standards. Not too long, not too short. Not too hard, not too soft. Just right. This transmission is part of the Lotus Evora GT’s appeal.

In most modern sports cars, the driver is often a conductor, sending instructions to various orchestra members. The result is beautiful music, and the crowd cheers as the conductor take a bow. But he didn’t do anything. He just told the musicians what to do.

In cars like this Lotus, the driver is more akin to a one-person band. Sure, the music or driving might not be as technically beautiful as an orchestra, but that one man, controlling and playing all the instruments, simultaneously produced magic.

Save the manuals.

With immense power to weight ratio, the Lotus is primed for excitement. In traffic, it’s like driving a Hot Wheels toy car next to a giant Tonka Truck. Wide Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 XLs seem to provide enough grip to allow the Evora GT to climb a wall. I had a smile every time there was a sharp highway ramp.

There are a handful of competitors around the Evora GT’s $100,000 price tag. For perspective buyers, they should be considered. For nearly the same price, one can opt for the stellar Porsche 718 Cayman GT4, which offers similar driving characteristics with a lot more creature comforts. Likewise, the base model Porsche 911 starts at $100,000 and can be configured for weekend fun and daily commuting.

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, I’m unable to provide a report from a track. Everything is closed here in late May as the country struggles to reopen.

This Lotus Evora GT is a quarantine buster. I live outside of a small city in the middle of Michigan. Make a right when leaving my house to go to town. Take a left, and I have access to endless roads lined with cornfields. That’s where I spent most of my time with this Lotus.

It’s a thrilling ride, racing through country roads. Uphills and down. Around meandering country lines and fields and animal pastures. I’ve taken many cars through this area, and the open stretches of the road never get old. This Lotus feels at home on these back roads.

Cars like the Evora GT are a dying example of motoring. Electric sports cars can provide more thrills, and yet they lack the mechanical wonder caused by gas-powered cars. The Lotus Evora GT is a new car with an old soul. It doesn’t want to live a life of commuting. It wants to drive for the hell of it.

May 28th 2020, 9:40 am

Audient’s EVO 4 is a sleek, modern USB audio interface with useful smart features

TechCrunch

The USB audio interface is a fairly standardized device – for those who might not know, that’s the hardware you use to take a microphone or instrument that uses an XLR or 1/4″ output and get that into your computer via a USB connection for recording or streaming. There are a lot of choices in USB audio interfaces, from a wide range of brands, but a relatively new entrant from Audient is the EVO 4, a modern take on the device that includes some smarter tech tweaks to make using one even easier.

Basics

The EVO 4 is a 2in / 2out audio interface, which means that it supports input from up to two microphones or instruments, and can output to speakers and/or headphones, as well as your computer. Audient has made the EVO 4 even more flexible on the input front with a dedicated 1/4″ input for plugging in your guitar, in addition to the combo XLR+1/4″ connectors on the back. This is a great feature for anyone looking to use this as a recording method for instruments, and goes above and beyond most of its competitors in terms of flexibility.

Audient has also helpfully used USB-C as the primary connector for linking up the EVO 4 to your computer. This means it’s likely to work with cables you already have or that are easy to find no matter where you happen to want to use it. The USB-C connection also not only routes audio to your computer, but also provides all the power the EVO 4 needs to operate, including what it requires to provide 48V phantom power to microphones that require that to operate. The fact that it’s powered via USB makes it super handy for portable use, and its overall small size helps with this as well, making it the perfect audio interface for creating a lightweight, very packable podcast interview kit.

On top of the EVO 4, you’ll find all the physical controls. There’s a single large volume dial, two buttons to select the XLR inputs, a 48v phantom power toggle, a monitor mix and pan button and a volume button that applies to both headphones and any attached speakers. There’s also a dedicated, large green button that’s specifically for Smartgain, a unique feature Audient has included with the EVO 4 that really boosts its convenience – more on that later.

The EVO 4’s control interfaces are a bit of a mixed bag – on the one hand, they help keep the hardware minimalist and sleek. On the other, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to adjust input volume levels, control interfaces, switch between different outputs and adjust the mix to each, and more. It’s definitely a more modern interpretation of an audio control surface (many other USB interfaces still just primarily user dedicated hardware switches and dials for most of these things), and so it’s going to have a learning curve for anyone used to the older way of doing things. That said, once you do figure out what everything does and what to press, in what order, it’s all relatively intuitive and easy to remember from that point on.

Features

Where the EVO 4 really shines is in the features that Audient has added to make it more convenient and flexible than your average USB audio interface. Two in particular, Smartgain and Audio Loop-back, are immensely useful and make using the EVO 4 incredibly easy and convenient even for people inexperienced in any kind of audio recording or editing.

Smartgain, which as mentioned has a dedicated button on the top of the EVO 4, lets you automatically set the gain (essentially the input volume) level of any instrument or mic you plug into the interface for the best possible results. Typically, setting gain levels on a USB audio interface is a fully manual affair, and involves a lot of listening back to yourself either via monitors or through recordings. With Smartgain, you simply tap the button, tap the input you want to set (you can select both), and start speaking, singing or playing – after a few seconds, the button will flash green to indicate that it has set the gain level based on the volume of your input.

If you’re doing a recording where you’re both singing and playing guitar, for instance, you can set Smartgain to determine the best level for each input, which makes it super simple to record a balanced multitrack recording of both. It’s hard to understate how much time and frustration this can save in the recording process.

As for Audio Loop-back, it similarly makes it easier to record audio – but by allowing you to capture the sound coming from your computer, as well as the inputs from whatever mics or sources you have plugged into the EVO 4 itself. This is a super handy feature for something like an advanced game streaming setup, since you can use it to route the sound from any game you’re playing along with your commentary via your mic plugged into the interface to the same output source.

Audient accomplishes this without the need for any additional hardware or connections from the EVO 4 to your computer, but you will need to makes some adjustments in either the streaming or recording software you’re using, or in your computer’s audio devices settings. Luckily, the company provides clear and easy-to-follow instructions about how to do that depending on your specific needs.

Often, this kind of thing requires an additional dedicated capture device, and a much more complicated and roundabout setup in software, too. Audient building it into the EVO 4 shows that they recognize the needs of the modern market for USB audio interfaces, and it’s a great competitive advantage for the gadget over the rest of the field.

Bottom Line

At $129, Audient’s EVO 4 is a remarkable value for a USB audio interface with these capabilities. One of the most popular devices in the same category, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, retails for $30 more, is larger and doesn’t come with any features similar to Smartgain or Audio Loop-back.

EVO 4 is compatible with PC, Mac, and iOS devices, and it’s small enough to be perfect for a portable setup, as well as taking up very little desk space. It has a matte black, lightly textured surface that looks great, and the large volume dial has graduated, clicky tactile response that makes it simple to use.

For podcasters and at-home recording artists, this is a fantastic option that packs a lot of value and quality into a sleek, feature-rich package.

May 28th 2020, 9:40 am

Stackin’ raises $12.6M Series B to help millennials navigate the crowded fintech space

TechCrunch

Fintech’s funding boom for the past decade has led to a flurry of new consumer startups tackling a wide range of money-related issues, from saving apps to investing platforms.

Should you download Robinhood, Stash, Public, Acorns, or Truebill? The fintech craze creates confusion for consumers when it comes to figuring out which startup is the best to handle your money.

That clutter has created room for Venice-based Stackin’, a curated marketplace for fintech apps that today raised $12.6 million in a Series B funding round led by Octopus Ventures. According to CEO Scott Grimes, Stackin’ “wants to be the simplest entry point into finance” for millennials. Today’s raise brings the company’s total known funding to $19.6 million. Other investors in the company include Experian Ventures, Cherry Tree Investments, Dig Ventures, Mucker Capital, Unlock Venture Partners, TechStars and Wavemaker Partners.

How it works

Stackin’ uses text messaging to give money tips to young consumers, which it meets by advertising on platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. Think of Stackin’ as a more friendly and less nerdy “robo-advisor” that sends you advice on how to save, and from time to time, recommends you an app that you might enjoy in the fintech space.

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“Sometimes you’ll get some education, sometimes we’ll send you something funny via text,” said Grimes. “So the text messages themselves are not always built for response. They’re built to keep you engaged. They’re built to teach you something.” Tips look like how to manage a stimulus check, or how to save $500 on your couch.

The texts for the first 30 to 60 days are tailored to how someone finds Stackin’. If users come in from a TikTok around investing, the first two months are around investing tips. After that time period, the knowledge becomes more general.

When Stackin’ has enough information on a user to see that they might be interested in opening an investment account, for example, they present three options to the user of platforms they can use.

Stackin’ added one million active users in a little over a year, up 500,000 active users from when it raised last July. It has sent over 100 million text messages to date.

The easiest way to understand how Stackin’ makes money is to think of it as an advertising agent for other fintech brands. It’s yet another channel that Robinhood or Chime can use to market itself, and Stackin’ drives leads to younger customers. Stackin’ makes money when users either click into one of their product recommendations or download an app, depending on the contract. The company’s base rate is determined on a contract-by-contract basis.

Grimes said that the text messaging service, built atop Twilio, incurs “a lot of costs” for the company, which is not yet profitable. But he hopes that as the company captures more users, their recommendations will get better and revenue will increase.

Many fintech startups have a financial literacy component similar to Stackin’, but their education is only effective after a consumer decides to download their app in the first place. Stackin’s competitive edge is that it brings in potential customers to fintech before they are in the “download a robo-adviser” stage of their financial journey. Grimes describes them as the “pipes that port people around fintech.”

Success (and a shutter)

With the new financing and COVID-19, Stackin’ is doubling down on its text-messaging business and stripping the company of its other plays in the product field. In the fall, Stackin’ launched a new investment feature similar to Acorns to encourage users to invest. In June, it launched a no-fee, checking and savings account feature in partnership with Radius Bank. The company recently ended its partnership with Radius Bank and will continue its small investing operations, an “unraveling” move that the CEO says was so “Stackin did not look like it competes with its customers.”

“As a referral product, we don’t even want the appearance that we’re trying to compete with the neo-banking space,” Grimes said. “Our core focus as we move forward is going to be 100 percent built around how we can be the most efficient company on the planet and use data to refer people into the products they need when they need them.”

Stackin’ has 18 employees, and will use the new funding to expand its messaging service, user growth, and marketplace to the United Kingdom later this year.

May 28th 2020, 9:27 am

Video news startup Stringr raises $5.75M from Thomson Reuters and others

TechCrunch

Stringr, a video-focused startup that says it can help news organizations adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, is announcing that it’s raised $5.75 million in new funding.

When I wrote about the the company at the end of 2015, it was creating a marketplace that connected news organizations with videographers who could provide them with news footage. Since then, co-founder and CEO Lindsay Stewart (a former TV news producer herself) told me the network has grown to more than 100,000 videographers.

At the same time, Stringr has added new tools for things like live streaming, transcription and editing, creating what Stewart described as “the most efficient video production platform.”

And she suggested that media companies need a platform like this more than ever. Yes, some Stringr customers are just using the service when they need footage, but she said others see Stringr as a purely cloud-based solution for producing news programming “when nobody’s coming into the office.”

And speaking of footage, newsrooms are going to need help on that front too, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic having a dramatic impact on the media industry’s bottom line.

“I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that media companies … the business model, even more than before COVID, has been challenged,” Stewart added. So those companies are turning to Stringr for help in figuring out “how they become as cost effective as they possibly can, while still providing a valuable service to society overall.”

Stringr has also launched a division called Embed Studios that taps into the startup’s videographer network to create content for brands including Corcoran, Zillow, HBO Max, Amazon, Lightworkers, TikTok, Mastercard, United Way and MGM.

The company has now raised a total of $7.25 million. The new funding comes from Thomson Reuters, as well as previous investors G5 Capital and Advection Growth Capital.

It sounds like the Reuters investment is part of a broader partnership where the wire service’s customers can request video footage from Stringr. In fact, Stewart said that the startup’s work with Reuters is also pushing it to recruit videographers globally, starting in western Europe. (It was previously focused on the United States and the United Kingdom.)

May 28th 2020, 9:27 am

Nuro’s self-driving vehicles to delivery prescriptions for CVS Pharmacy

TechCrunch

Nuro, the autonomous robotics startup that has raised more than $1 billion from Softbank Vision Fund, Greylock and other investors, said Thursday it will test prescription delivery in Houston through a partnership with CVS Pharmacy. The pilot, which will use a fleet of the startup’s autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles and transition to using its custom-built R2 delivery bots, is slated to begin in June.

The partnership marks Nuro’s expansion beyond groceries and into healthcare. Last month, the startup dipped its autonomous toe in the healthcare field through a program to delivery food and medical supplies at temporary field hospitals in California set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot program centers on one CVS Pharmacy in Bellaire, Texas and will serve customers across three zip codes. Customers who place prescription orders via CVS’ website or pharmacy app will be given the option to choose an autonomous delivery option. These pharmacy customers will also be able add other non-prescription items to their order.

Once the autonomous vehicle arrives, customers will need to confirm their identification to unlock their delivery. Deliveries will be free of charge for CVS Pharmacy customers.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice
president of store operations at CVS Health, said in a prepared statement. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

Nuro is already operating in the Houston area. Walmart announced in December a pilot program to test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market using Nuro’s autonomous vehicles. Under the pilot, Nuro’s vehicles deliver Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston. The autonomous delivery service involves R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only, with no on-board drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

Nuro also partnered with Kroger (Fry’s) in 2018 to test autonomous Prius vehicles and its first-generation custom-built robot known as R1. The R1 autonomous vehicle was operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. In March 2019, Nuro moved the service with Kroger to Houston, beginning with autonomous Priuses.

Image Credits: Nuro

The company’s contactless delivery program shuttling medical supplies and food is also continuing. Under that program, which began in late April, Nuro’s R2 bots are used at two events centers — in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento — that have been turned into temporary healthcare facilities for COVID-19 patients. Nuro is delivering meals and equipment to more than 50 medical staff at both sites every week.

It’s unclear how long the field hospital program will continue. Last week, there were 25 patients across the two sites. The Sleep Train Arena is accepting patients through June 30 via California Office of Emergency Services. The hospital may be converted to a shelter for those affected by fires through the end of this year.

May 28th 2020, 9:27 am

Italy’s Commerce Layer raises $6M led by Benchmark for its headless e-commerce platform

TechCrunch

In the world of commerce, the last few months have underscored the fact that every retailer, brand and entity that sells or distributes something needs to have a digital strategy. Today, one of the startups that’s built a platform aimed at giving them more control in that process is announcing a Series A to continue expanding its business.

Commerce Layer, which has built a “headless” e-commerce platform — used to develop online sales strategies that use APIs to plug your inventory to take orders and payments from a variety of endpoints like other marketplaces, your own site and app (and the various payment systems you might use depending on the country you’re selling into), messaging services, social channels, and more — has raised a Series A of $6 million, which CEO and founder Filippo Conforti said the startup will be using to continue expanding in more geographies and adding in more endpoints to fit the needs of its current (and future) customers.

The funding is being led by Benchmark Capital, with participation also from Mango Capital, DAXN, PrimeSet, SV Angel, and NVInvestments. The startup is based out of Italy — specifically, just outside of Florence in Tuscany. And so the funding is notable for a few reasons: first, for the investors; second, what it says about this particular category in the tech ecosystem right now; and third, that even in what was at one point the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Western countries, we are seeing signs of recovery and activity in the tech ecosystem.

In fact, Commerce Layer was talking to Benchmark and others in the Valley well before the outbreak of the pandemic, and the term sheets with those investors were signed in January, also before things really kicked off in Italy. What took significantly longer was the process after, in which many individual investors in the startup, based in Italy, had to sign off paperwork related to the new investors and the fact that Commerce Layer was also incorporating in the US as part of that deal. All of that was handled remotely.

The world of e-commerce has changed a huge amount in the last couple of decades. The early days saw people ‘shopping’ online but ordering through email, eventually giving way to having your own site or selling perhaps on a marketplace like eBay or Amazon. Modern times have made that process both easier and more complex.

Complex, because brands and retailers now have a large array of options and permutations for how to sell something, both on their own sites as well as on a number of other platforms (some, as we have described before, have foregone sites altogether).

Easier, because the rise of APIs to enable developers to plug into a number of other systems without building everything themselves from scratch (including, even, platforms like RapidAPI, which has also recently raised $25 million, to help organise and manage how those APIs are used).

This is where Commerce Layer fits into the picture, with an API-based system that is able to manage multiple SKUs, prices, and inventory data to help its customers sell in any currency, with distributed inventory models, and global shipping that makes it easy to add or adjust where and when you are selling, be it across your site or app, or a different platform altogether.

There are a number of tools on the market today to enable the very smallest, and the very biggest, merchants to develop and power online sales for brick-and-mortar or pure-play e-commerce companies and brands; and there are even a number of “headless” options out there.

The wider list is pretty extensive, but some of the bigger names include Shopify, BigCommerce, Commercetools, and Ecwid and Strapi (both of which also announced funding just last week, see here and here).

Conforti — who got his start in e-commerce a decade ago when building online commerce solutions for Gucci — acknowledges that the competitive landscape is indeed very big, but also believes that the key lies services like his being significantly younger, and thus more modern and easy to use, than even the legacy headless systems or services developed by older e-commerce enablers.

“Being headless is mandatory in order to provide a truly omnichannel experience to customers,” Conforti said. If you’re not API-first that is a flag, he added. “Everyone knows it’s the future, and the present.” He said that he considered Commercetools, another European company, “the only real competitor” although “they were born 15 years ago so you get some older technology. Commerce Layer is more fresh with more modern APIs.”

Customers of Commerce Layer include Chilly’s (the fashionable water bottle company), Au Depart, Richard Ginori and more, who Conforti says help shape what his startup builds next: for example one of its customers wants an integration with Farfetch, the high-end fashion marketplace, and so they are building that to subsequently offer it as an option to others.

Eric Vishria, a general partner at Benchmark who is joining the board of the startup with this round, said that the distinction is great enough between what Commerce Layer has built and what already exists on the market to take a bet on the company.

“Right now there is a huge gap between the mom-and-pop, give-me-a-generic-template-based-storefront-quickly, and the invest-a-hundred-engineers-and-millions-of-dollars-to-build-everything-from-scratch,” he said. “The most likely approach to fill that need is the JAM stack and API approach – like Commerce Layer, which will give companies radically more flexibility to create unique experiences than a template. But allows them to build quickly and inexpensively by assembling building blocks rather than everything from scratch.

“We committed to investing in Commerce Layer before the pandemic took hold, but I couldn’t be more delighted to invest in a company founded in Italy right now. The fact that the team continued to build and grow in Italy through this all is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit.

Benchmark once had a full European arm, which separated and now goes by the name Balderton. Meanwhile, it has also continued to invest in a number of startups in the region from its own funds, including Zendesk (Denmark), Elastic (Netherlands), Contentful and ResearchGate.

May 28th 2020, 9:27 am

Wasabi announces $30M in debt financing as cloud storage business continues to grow

TechCrunch

We may be in the thick of a pandemic with all of the economic fallout that comes from that, but certain aspects of technology don’t change no matter the external factors. Storage is one of them. In fact, we are generating more digital stuff than ever, and Wasabi, a Boston-based startup that has figured out a way to drive down the cost of cloud storage is benefiting from that.

Today it announced a $30 million debt financing round led led by Forestay Capital, the technology innovation arm of Waypoint Capital with help from previous investors. As with the previous round, Wasabi is going with home office investors, rather than traditional venture capital firms. Today’s round brings the total raised to $110 million, according to the company.

Founder and CEO David Friend says the company needs the funds to keep up with the rapid growth. “We’ve got about 15,000 customers today, hundreds of petabytes of storage, 2500 channel partners, 250 technology partners — so we’ve been busy,” he said.

He says that revenue continues to grow in spite of the impact of COVID-19 on other parts of the economy. “Revenue grew 5x last year. It’ll probably grow 3.5x this year. We haven’t seen any real slowdown from the Coronavirus. Quarter over quarter growth will be in excess of 40% — this quarter over Q1 — so it’s just continuing on a torrid pace,” he said.

He said the money will be used mostly to continue to expand its growing infrastructure requirements. The more they store, the more data centers they need and that takes money. He is going the debt route because his products are backed by a tangible asset, the infrastructure used to store all the data in the Wasabi system. And it turns out that debt financing is a lot cheaper in terms of payback than equity terms.

“Our biggest need is to build more infrastructure, because we are constantly buying equipment. We have to pay for it even before it fills up with customer data, so we’re raising another debt round now,” Friend said. He added, “Part of what we’re doing is just strengthening our balance sheet to give us access to more inexpensive debt to finance the building of the infrastructure.”

The challenge for a company like Wasabi, which is looking to capture a large chunk of the growing cloud storage market is the infrastructure piece. It needs to keep building more to meet increasing demand, while keeping costs down, which remains its primary value proposition with customers.

The money will help the company expand into new markets as many countries have data sovereignty laws that require data to be stored in-country. That requires more money and that’s the thinking behind this round.

The company launched in 2015. It previously raised $68 million in 2018.

May 28th 2020, 8:40 am

Gogoro unveils Eeyo, its new ebike brand

TechCrunch

Gogoro, the mobility company best known for its SmartScooters, revealed details about its new ebike brand Eeyo today. Eeyo will launch with two lightweight models, both powered by the SmartWheel, a self-contained hub designed by the company that integrates motors, batteries, sensors and smart connectivity technology.

Eeyo is the first product that Gogoro will introduce in the United States, nine years after it was founded by HTC executives. The ebikes will go on sale there and in Taiwan, where Gogoro is based, in July, and in Europe shortly afterward.

With more than 300,000 customers, Gogoro’s SmartScooters and their charging stations are a common sight in Taiwanese cities. Technology developed by the company, including its lightweight rechargeable batteries, are also used in scooters made by Yamaha, Suzuki, Aeon and PGO. It plans to make Eeyo’s tech available to manufacturing partners as well.

Gogoro co-founder and CEO Horace Luke told TechCrunch that even though scooters are widely used in many cities in Asia and Europe, they are less common in the U.S., so the company decided to make Eeyo its first American launch instead of the SmartScooter.

The team began planning Eeyo’s launch a year ago and even though they could not have anticipated it would happen during COVID-19, Luke said the pandemic has created new demand for ebikes, a market that was already growing quickly.

“At the moment, use of public transportation is down and people are very cautious about it. This is forcing people to find alternative ways to get around,” said Luke. “A lot of cities are very hilly, commutes are long and with streets closed, cars are not as efficient as they used to be. So there is a huge demand and the ebike market is blowing up.”

The company began working on Eeyo about three years ago, with the idea of creating a “human-electric hybrid.”

“That sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘e-bike’ until you ride what we made,” Luke said. “It took a lot of time for us to create this project. Instead of focusing on utility and the power assistance to get somewhere, we wanted to create a different paradigm. Thinking ‘I need to take my ebike to the grocery store’ isn’t usually exciting, but we wanted to focus on agility and excitement.”

Eeyo’s first ebike models, the 1 and 1s, were designed with a specific user in mind: city dwellers who want agile, fast bikes that are able to handle tricky terrain like hills. “I kept telling our team, I want the bike to give me the same feeling I had when I was 18 and able to get somewhere without breaking into a sweat. I wanted to bring that excitement and joy back into riding a two-wheeler to our customers.”

The Eeyo 1s and 1 weigh 26.4 pounds and 27.5 pounds, respectively, much lighter than many ebikes, which typically weigh 45 to 50 pounds. Its carbon fiber frame was designed so riders can carry the bikes on their shoulder. They are charged either by snapping chargers around their hubs, or placing them on an optional stand charger.

Most of the technology used in Gogoro’s SmartScooters, including its batteries and charging stations, were designed by the company’s engineers. SmartWheel, the key technology behind Eeyo, was also developed in-house.

“What drives the mechanism for performance is our innovation, the SmartWheel,” said Luke. “It is a hub-based motor, it has a battery and sensors in it, a computer system and a motor system.” That includes Gogoro’s Intelligent Power Assist system, which uses a torque sensor to detect how hard a rider is pedaling and calculate the amount of assistance the bike needs to give.

The SmartWheel also connects to the Eeyo app, which enables riders to monitor their speed and pedaling power when their smartphones are mounted to the bike. It also downloads over-the-air firmware and software updates for the bike, similar to the Gogoro SmartScooter’s automatic updates.

Both Eeyo models use the SmartWheel, have full carbon fiber frames and forks, and two riding modes: “sport mode,” which responds to the rider’s pedaling and delivers about 40 miles of range, or the distance the bike can be used to travel on one charge, and “Eco Mode,” which conserves battery power by limiting power assistance and can extend the ebike’s range to 55 miles.

The Eeyo 1s is available in one color, “warm white,” and its seat post, handlebars and rims are also made out of full carbon fiber. It weighs 26.4 pounds and will be priced at $4,599. The Eeyo 1 comes in two colors, “cloud blue” and “lobster orange,” and uses alloy seat posts, handlebars and rims instead. It weighs 27.5 pounds and will cost $3,899.

Gogoro sees itself as a mobility platform business that not only manufactures vehicles, but also develops technology for electric vehicles and vehicle sharing. Luke said the company wants to offer its ebike technology, including the SmartWheel, for use by other manufacturers because Gogoro “has never taken a one-size-fits-all approach, even with our scooter business. That is one reason we work with Yamaha, Suzuki, PGO, Aeon.”

Working with partners also furthers the company’s goal of getting more electric vehicles on the street and reducing pollution.

“We only have X amount of years to make changes and if we get more people alongside us, we can make a giant impact,” Luke added. “Other people will build different form factors, ones that are more leisure-like, more focused on utility, while we focus on sportiness, agility and fun.”

May 28th 2020, 7:39 am

Google and Microsoft reportedly considering stakes in Indian telecom firms after Facebook deal

TechCrunch

Weeks after Facebook acquired a 9.9% stake in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms, two more American firms are reportedly interested in the Indian telecom market.

Google is considering buying a stake of about 5% in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator in India, according to Financial Times. Separately, Microsoft is in talks to invest up to $2 billion in Reliance Jio Platforms, Indian newspaper Mint reported Friday.

According to Financial Times, Google has also held talks with Reliance Jio Platforms, a three-and-a-half-old telecom operator that has raised $10.3 billion in the last couple of weeks from Facebook and U.S. privacy equity firms Silver Lake, KKR, General Atlantic, and Vista.

Buzz about Microsoft’s interest in Reliance Jio Platforms, the top telecom operator in India with more than 388 million subscribers, has been swirling in the market for more than a month, though both the companies have declined to comment. A spokesperson of Google declined to comment today.

India has emerged as the one of the latest global battlegrounds for American and Chinese firms that are looking for their next billion users. About half a billion Indians came online in the last decade, with just as many still living offline.

In the last decade, Facebook and Google have launched connectivity efforts in India to bring more people online. While Facebook maintains one such effort, called Express Wi-Fi, in India, Google discontinued a project that allowed millions of Indians to access mobile internet for free at more than 400 railway stations earlier this year.

Both the companies have traditionally struggled to make much money from these users in India, the world’s second largest internet market with more than 600 million users. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said last month that the company would work with Jio Platforms to help small merchants and businesses come online. The two companies have already kick-started their collaboration.

Already struggling to improve their profits because of Jio’s aggressive expansion, Vodafone Idea and nation’s third largest telecom operator Airtel are also scrambling to pay India billions of dollars that they owe to the government because of a decade old case. Vodafone executives said earlier that they may have to exit the country if the government does not provide it some relief.

The American giants have formed multiple partnerships with telecom operators in the key overseas market over the years to expand their reach in the nation. Microsoft has a partnership with Reliance Jio to bring Office 365 to millions of small businesses at subsidized cost. Google maintains a similar partnership with Airtel for its Google Cloud suite.

May 28th 2020, 7:39 am

Providing card services to fintech companies around the world gives Marqeta a $4.3 billion valuation

TechCrunch

This could have been Marqeta’s year to list as a public company on a major American stock exchange.

The company, while still unprofitable, is a darling of the financial services sector and only last year reached a $2 billion valuation on the back of a $260 million round of financing.

In the previously torrid public market environment that was supposed to see public listings from Airbnb and other unicorn companies, Marqeta could have been a contender. Now, in the wake of an American economy pushed over the edge by a global pandemic the company has turned to an undisclosed financial services firm for another $150 million in equity funding. The round values the company at over $4 billion.

“We’re finding that fintech is eating the world,” said Marqeta chief executive Jason Gardner. 

In some ways, Marqeta’s success is a function of the growth of fintech as a category overall. As more companies entered the market competing for customers’ attention, one of the services they all wanted to offer was something akin to a credit or debit card.

Enter Marqeta, which provides the tools for financial services platforms of all stripes to provide cards, wallets, and other payment mechanisms. Customers include Square, Uber, Affirm, Instacart, and DoorDash. 

Now as startups in other countries around the world launch technology enabled challenger banks and credit services to the existing offerings, Marqeta can just follow the money and begin pitching its wares in new markets.

That’s part of what the company will be using its money for, according to Gardner.

“Theres’ an opportunity to issue a card on every continent,” he said. 

As for that initial public offering, even though Marqeta won’t disclose any information about its revenue or other balance sheet information, “we see ourselves as a public company,” Gardner said.  

And even despite the epidemic and its attendant damage to the American economy (not to mention the very human cost in American lives — now numbering over 100,000 dead from the disease’s spread) the need for financial services technologies continues to rise.

The social response to the pandemic will even exacerbate the payment trends that’s driving adoption of Marqeta’s services, according to Gardner.

“I think the idea of payments are going to change. You’re going to see more e-commerce and that leads to curbside pickup and touchless payments,” Gardner said.

That’s accelerating other trends that played a role in Marqeta’s last big round of financing, like the growth of the internet and the use of smartphones for e-commerce.

Last year, Marqeta cited research from Edgar, Dunn & Company, estimating the volume of the card issuing industry — that is, transactions made via cards — to be worth around $45 trillion.

“Visa and Mastercard have interconnected every single merchant that accepts cards, and that is still growing significantly,” Gardner said, at the time.

But that expansion is coming at the same time that banks have been pricey and slow to move to accommodate the long tail of new opportunities for payment services, he said. By providing quick and flexible options to any kind of commerce company that wants to make the move into issuing cards to its customers, along with supporting services around them such as payment reconciliations, real-time fund transfers and customer interactive voice response services, Marqeta has managed to grab an entire generation of customers that banks have left behind.

And just as Marqeta opened an office in London to capitalize on the growing market for “challenger banks” (like N26, Monese, Starling and Revolut) that have come from Europe (which account for 14% of the banking market’s revenues in Europe — roughly $238 billion) there’s an opportunity for the company in the growing fintech market in Latin America.

There’re an increasing number of fintech unicorns being given their horns in Latin America thanks to investments from SoftBank, Tencent, TCV, and investors like Andreessen Horowitz.

 “Marqeta continues to move forward from strength to strength in 2020 as our global modern card issuing platform provides essential infrastructure and support to our customers across industries and oceans,” said Gardner, in a statement. “We’re building a single global platform to define and power the future of money for the world’s leading innovators. This new capital helps us accelerate our mission to empower builders to bring the most innovative products to market, wherever they are in the world.”

 

May 28th 2020, 7:39 am

EQT acquires freemium graphics and stock photo marketplace, Freepik

TechCrunch

Freepik, a Malaga-Spain based website which offers a curated freemium marketplace of vector graphics and stock photos fed by a community of contributing designers and photographers, is being acquired by investment and private equity firm EQT.

The EQT Mid Market Europe fund has entered into an agreement to acquire a majority stake of Freepik from its founders and management team, who will remain on as minority owners, with co-founders, Alejandro and Pablo Blanes and Joaquin Cuenca, continuing to lead the company day to day, the pair said in a press release today.

EQT believes favorable global trends are set to feed Freepik’s business, with the PE firm pointing to factors such as the increasing shift to digital advertising, the “global democratization of content production” via social media and the surge in mobile media and online gaming — areas it says have shown resilience to downturns and recessions.

Freepik, which was founded back in 2010 and claims to be the largest freemium provider of digital visual content in the world, has some 32 million monthly visitors to its site, 20M registered users and 5BN downloads to date — with the site offering more than 10M graphic resources, including icons, vectors, photos, and templates.

Freemium users of the repository can access “thousands” of graphical resources, while premium fee-paying users have access to a far wider selection of content and unlimited downloads. All submissions are reviewed, with only a subset selected for the marketplace. While content sourcing is data-driven, based on Freepik crunching download data to better understand consumer demand.

On the supplier side, Freepik has a network of over 450 in-house freelancer graphical designers in addition to 9,000+ external contributors, per its website. It operates under two additional brands (Flaticon and SlidesGo).

EQT said today it will support Freepik’s accelerated growth by investing in its proprietary content library, UX and tech platform — including AI and tool integration capabilities. Broadening Freepik’s market penetration in markets such as the US and Asia is another goal for the acquisition, given EQT’s slated “digital expertise” and global presence.

Commenting in a statement, Victor Englesson, partner at EQT Partners and investment advisor to EQT Mid Market, said: “We are impressed by Freepik’s achievements and EQT is proud to partner with its co-Founders to help achieve its full potential. Freepik is supported by numerous positive secular megatrends and represents a truly thematic investment, which fits strongly with EQT’s focus on growth investments and partnerships with world class management teams.”

EQT is a prolific investor in and buyer of tech startups, acquiring the likes of b2b payment transfer business Banking Circle and commercial Linux distribution Suse in recent years. It’s also recently invested in Peanut, a social network for mothers; Anyfin (consumer loans refinancing); Netlify (microservices for building websites); and Wolt (food delivery), to name a few. The firm has more than €62BN in raised capital and some €40BN in assets under management across 19 active funds.

“We are very excited to partner with EQT and look forward to working together,” added Freepik co-founder Cuenca in another statement on the acquisition. “EQT’s digital and sector expertise, global platform, combined with local presence across Europe, the US and Asia, as well as its extensive network of advisors will be key to our future success and of great value for the strengthening of our management team.”

The value of the acquisition has not being disclosed. The transaction is expected to close in June 2020.

May 28th 2020, 6:54 am

A 12 year journey ends as Skimlinks is acquired by retail marketing platform Connexity

TechCrunch

Connexity, a lead-gen platform for online retailers, has acquired Skimlinks, a UK platform for publishers to make money through affiliate links. Terms of the deal were undisclosed. According to Crunchbase, Skimlinks had raised a total of $25.5M and reached a late a Series C stage of funding, the final round coming from Frog Capital which invested $16M.

An early Seed investor was Sussex Place Ventures way back in 2009. For context, San Francisco-based competitor VigLink, which has raised a total of $27.3 million, remains an independent company.

Sources in the VC industry indicate that the acquisition was a “decent one” that may even have hit three figures, with a possible a large-ish earnout and equity component. Certainly, this was not a ‘firesale,’ by any means.

Although coy on the price of the acquisition, co-founder and President Alicia Navarro said: “Every party, including many staff, has made money out of this deal and is very happy.”

Cofounded in 2007 by Navarro and Joe Stepniewski, Skimlinks rode the wave of online activity as publishers struggled to monetize their ballooning online operations in the mid-teens of the last decade. Affiliate programs allow publishers to get a cut of the revenue when their link drives a purchase on an e-commerce site. Skimlinks makes the process easier through automation.

Originally spinning out of an idea Navarro had about consumer online commerce habits — a startup called Skimbit which resembled Pinterest in some respects — it had scaled to the US by the time I interviewed Navarro in 2012.

In 2013 it took on a growth financing round led by Greycroft Partners.

A couple of years later the platform was driving more than $500 million in e-commerce sales for publishers.

By 2016 editorial content from its publisher network of 1.5M domains had driven nearly $1 billion of ecommerce transactions and the company said it was on a path to profitability.

In 2018 Navarro stepped away from the CEO position, taking on the role of President, and handed the reigns to Sebastien Blanc, previously Chief Revenue Officer.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Navarro said the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated the growth of the business as more publishers in its network monetized the massively increased online traffic, brought about by global lockdown policies.

Bill Glass, CEO of Connexity said in a statement: “Our solutions help retailers acquire new customers and sales while enabling ecommerce-oriented publishers to monetize engaged shopping audiences. Combining the companies creates more scale on both sides of the marketplace.”

Sebastien Blanc, CEO of Skimlinks said: “By marrying Connexity’s CPC search budgets with the broad CPA affiliate monetization coverage of Skimlinks, we provide best-in-class monetization for publishers. Our combined scale will fortify Connexity as a critically important customer acquisition channel for retailers and will strengthen publisher monetization solutions.”

And what of the founders? Stepniewski has taken on a senior role with Facebook UK. Navarro is now working on a fresh startup she bills as “AirBnB-meets-Calm as a service” allowing founders or executives to unplug and get into what is known as ‘Deep Work’.

She is now in the process of early-stage fundraising, so her entrepreneurial journey is clearly going to continue.

May 28th 2020, 6:24 am

Greyparrot bags $2.2M seed to scale its AI for waste management

TechCrunch

London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.

The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.

Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.

By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.

Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.

Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.

It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.

“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”

“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.

Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc. 

May 28th 2020, 5:39 am

Raspberry Pi Foundation announces Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM

TechCrunch

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has released a new version of its flagship model, the Raspberry Pi 4. In addition to the models that come with 2GB and 4GB of RAM, there’s a new 8GB model. This model costs $75, which makes it the most expensive Raspberry Pi out there.

As always, you get a single-board computer that is the size of a deck of cards. It has an ARM-based CPU, many ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a big community of computer enthusiasts. You’ll be able to run applications that require more RAM, whether you use the Raspberry Pi to run a server or as a desktop computer.

All the different versions of the Raspberry Pi 4 have the exact same specifications, except for RAM. Some components have moved on the board, but it’s just a minor adjustment. Earlier this year, the Raspberry Pi Foundation replaced the 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 with the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 while keeping the same price point.

So here’s the current lineup for the Raspberry Pi 4:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 2GB of RAM for $35
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB of RAM for $55
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM for $75

The foundation says that it has been working on an 8GB variant for a while, but it took longer than expected as an LPDDR4 RAM package with 8GB had to be specifically designed for the Raspberry Pi.

On the software front, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has started working on a 64-bit version of Raspbian, the operating system designed to run on a Raspberry Pi. Raspbian still uses a 32-bit kernel and needs to make the switch to 64-bit to take advantage of the 8GB of RAM. In the mean time, you can install Ubuntu or Gentoo on a Raspberry Pi now.

Raspbian, a portmanteau word of Raspberry and Debian, is now called Raspberry Pi OS. Nothing else is changing other than the name.

May 28th 2020, 4:54 am

Meniga, the digital banking tech provider, raises €8.5M led by French bank Groupe BPCE

TechCrunch

Meniga, the London-headquartered fintech that provides digital banking technology to some of the world’s largest banks, has closed a €8.5 million in additional funding.

Described primarily as a “strategic investment,” the round is led by Groupe BPCE, the second-largest banking group in France, alongside Portugal’s Grupo Crédito Agrícola and long-standing strategic partner UniCredit. All three are customers of Meniga.

The funding will be used for continued investment in Meniga’s R&D activities, as well as to strengthen the fintech’s sales and service teams to meet what it says is growing demand. Other participants in the round include current institutional investors Velocity Capital, Industrifonden, and Frumtak Ventures.

“We are very pleased to welcome Groupe BPCE and Crédito Agrícola to our growing group of strategic investors,” says Georg Ludviksson, CEO and co-founder of Meniga, in a statement. “Partnering closely with our customers is a key part of our strategy to be the preferred digital innovation partner to our clients. An equity relationship is an excellent way to strengthen such partnerships”.

Meniga’s digital banking platform helps banks and fintechs use personal finance data to innovate in their online and mobile offerings. Its various products include a software layer that bridges the gap between a bank’s legacy tech infrastructure and a modern API, making it easier to build consumer-friendly digital banking experiences.

Meniga‘s product suite spans data aggregation technologies, personal and business finance management solutions, cashback rewards and transaction-based carbon insights.

The company’s tech has also been designed to support and benefit from Open Banking, and helped by this, its products and services are already used by more than 90 million banking customers across 30 countries.

This saw it open new office locations in Barcelona and Singapore in 2019, adding to its existing presence in London, where the company is headquartered, and Reykjavi, where much of its R&D is located, alongside offices in Stockholm, Helsinki and Warsaw.

Meanwhile, lead investor Groupe BPCE first partnered with Meniga back in 2018. Cue statement from Groupe BPCE’s Yves Tyrode, chief digital and data officer, and member of the management board of Groupe BPCE: “Our partnership with Meniga has been extremely positive to date. Together, we have laid the groundwork for continued digital innovation at Groupe BPCE to better serve our customers in a very dynamic banking market. We look forward to continue transforming our digital customer experience and contribute to building the future of digital banking together with Meniga”.

May 28th 2020, 3:52 am

Meet News Break, the news app trending in America founded by a Chinese media veteran

TechCrunch

TikTok isn’t the only new media app with Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. News Break, a news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng with teams in Beijing, Shanghai, Seattle and Mountain View, has been sitting among the top three news apps in the U.S. App Store since March, according to third-party data from Sensor Tower.

Positioned as a news aggregator focused on local reporting, the platform surged to be the third-most downloaded U.S. iOS app across the board in mid-March.

The fledgling news app announced this week a substantial boost as it onboards Harry Shum as its board chairman. Shum is the former president of Microsoft AI and Research Group and played a key role in establishing the Microsoft Research Asia lab, which has trained a raft of China’s top AI talents including the founder of autonomous driving unicorn Momenta.

Former Microsoft executive Harry Shum joins News Break, a local news aggregator founded in the U.S. by a Chinese media veteran (Photo source: News Break)

News Break is staffed with other storied overseas Chinese tech bosses. Jeff Zheng, the founding chief executive, headed up Yahoo Labs in Beijing where he oversaw algorithm improvements in search, media, advertising and mobile. In 2011, he left Yahoo to launch Yidian Zixun, the Beijing-based startup seen early on as the main rival of Toutiao, the hit news app that made ByteDance a household name in China before Douyin emerged. Together with other algorithm-driven news apps, the duo changed the habits of hundreds of millions in China from consuming human-curated news to machine-recommended content with minimal human oversight.

News Break is Zheng’s effort to replicate Yidian Zixun’s success in foreign markets with his co-founder Ren Xuyang, a former Baidu executive. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2015, News Break now boasts 23 million monthly users with a growing network of over 10,000 content providers.

Screenshots of the News Break app (Source: News Break)

The type of personalized reading experience pioneered by Toutiao is now a default feature across media apps in the U.S., said (in Chinese) Vincent Wu, chief operating officer of News Break, at an event in Silicon Valley. To stand out from the crowd, the company serves up local news and happenings for readers, for Wu observed that America’s mainstream media focus overwhelmingly on national affairs and celebrity gossip, “news that’s irrelevant to my day-to-day.”

“Only high-quality, hyper-relevant local news can provide valuable information to readers,” he added.

ByteDance has tried exporting the Toutiao model through TopBuzz, but the overseas edition never achieved mainstream success and is reportedly looking for a buyer.

Other big names involved in News Break range from Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang who joined as the chief advisor as well as Wu, HuffPost’s former operations head.

Particle Media, the Delaware-registered operating entity of News Break, has raised over $20 million to date from investors including IDG Capital, ZhenFund and Ding Lei, the founder of Chinese online media and gaming giant NetEase.

May 28th 2020, 3:06 am

Vaya Africa launches electric ride-hail taxi network

TechCrunch

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, has launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa headquartered company has acquired a fleet of Nissan Leaf EVs and developed its own solar powered charging stations.

The program goes live in Zimbabwe this week, as Vaya finalizes partnerships to begin on-demand electric taxi and delivery services in markets that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia.

“Zimbabwe is a sandbox really. We’ve moved on to doing pilots with other countries right across Africa,” Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

Vaya is a subsidiary of Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Group, which includes one of Southern Africa’s largest mobile operators and Liquid Telecom, an internet infrastructure company.

Masiyiwa has become one of Africa’s Gates, Branson type figures, recognized globally as a business leader and philanthropist with connections and affiliations from President Obama to the Rockefeller Foundation.

Working with Zimuto on the Vaya EV product is Liquid Telecom’s innovation partnerships lead, Oswald Jumira.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with  startups, investors, and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital product models.

Ethiopia has local ride-hail ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber’s been active in several markets on the continent since 2015 and like competitor Bolt, got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in  2018.

Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EV’s for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around two-wheeled transit.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the Government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand .

Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto, Image Credits: Econet Group

The appeal of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi market — beyond environmental benefits — is the unit economics, given the cost of fuel compared to personal income is generally high for most of the continent’s drivers.

“Africa is excited, because we are riding on the green revolution: no emissions, no noise and big savings… in terms of running costs of their vehicles,” Zimuto said.

She estimates a cost savings of 40% on the fuel and maintenance costs for drivers on the ride-hail platform.

At the moment, with fuel prices in Vaya’s first market of Zimbabwe at around $1.20 a liter, the average trip distance is 22 kilometres for a price of $19, according to Econet Group’s Oswald Jumira.

With the Nissan Leaf vehicles on Vaya’s charging network, the cost to top up will be around $5 for a range of 150 to 200 kilometres.

Image Credits: Vaya Africa

“It’s the driver who benefits. They take more money home. And that also means we can reduce the tariff for ride hailing companies to make it more affordable for people,” Jumira told TechCrunch .

The company has adapted its business to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Vaya provides PPE to its drivers and sanitizes its cars four to five times a day, according to Zimuto.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from delivery to motorcycle and Tuk Tuk taxis.

On the question of competing with Uber in Africa, Vaya points to the reduced fares offered by its EV program as one advantage.

The CEO of Vaya Mobility, Dorothy Zimuto, also points to certain benefits of knowing local culture and preferences.

“We speak African That’s the language we understand. We understand the people and what they want across our markets. That’s what makes the difference.” she said.

It will be something to watch if Vaya’s EV bet and local consumer knowledge translates into more passenger flow and revenue generation as it goes head to head with other ride-hail companies, such as Uber, across Africa.

May 28th 2020, 2:35 am

DHL acquires stake in Link Commerce developed by MallforAfrica.com

TechCrunch

DHL has acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing digital-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s e-commerce platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

With the investment one of the world’s largest delivery services looks to build a broader client-base globally using a business built in Africa.

DHL is trying to get their hands more into global e-commerce…across the world and they figured our platform was a good way to do it,” Link Commerce CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch.

Folayan originally founded MallforAfrica, which paved the way for Link Commerce. DHL’s investment in the company —  the amount of which is undisclosed — has roots in collaboration with Folayan’s original startup.

MallforAfrica began a partnership with DHL in 2015 and launched DHL Africa eShop in 2019. The sales platform is powered by Link Commerce and has brought more than 200 U.S. and U.K. sellers — from Neiman Marcus to Carters — online to African consumers in 34 countries.

Image Credits: DHL

Similar to MallforAfrica’s model, Africa eShop allows users to purchase goods directly from the websites of any of the app’s global partners.

For the global retailers selling on Africa eShop, the hurdles that held back distribution on the continent — payments, currency risk, logistics — are handled by the underlying Link Commerce operating platform.

“That’s what our service does. It takes care of that whole ecosystem to enable global e-commerce to exist, no matter what country you’re in,” Folayan told TechCrunch in 2019.

Link Commerce was built out of Folayan’s startup MallforAfrica.com, which he founded the in 2011 after studying and working in the U.S.

A common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home — highlighted a gap between supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to close that gap by allowing people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

MallforAfrica and Link Commerce founder Chris Folayan, Image Credits: MallforAfrica

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

MallforAfrica’s Africa eShop expansion put it on a footing to compete with Pan African e-commerce leader Jumia — which went public on the NYSE in 2019 — and China’s Alibaba, anticipated to enter online retail on the continent at some point.

The Link Commerce, DHL deal won’t change that, but Folayan has shifted the hirearchy of his businesses to make Link Commerce the lead operation and Africa one market of many.

Image Credits: Link Commerce

“We changed the structure. So now Link Commerce is above MallforAfrica and MallforAfrica is now powered by Link Commerce,” Folayan explained on a recent call.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” he added.

Folayan and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world, where other companies may look to grow by wrapping an online store, payments, and logistics solution around their core business.

That could include any large entity that wants to launch an international e-commerce site, according to Folayan.

“Link Commerce is focused on banks, mobile companies, shipping companies and partnering with them to expand globally,” he said.

That’s a big leap from Folayan’s original venture, MallforAfrica.com

What began as a startup to sell brand name jeans and sneakers online in Africa, has pivoted to a global e-commerce fulfillment business partially owned by logistics giant DHL.

May 28th 2020, 2:35 am

Dishcraft Robotics is using robots to save reopening restaurants from creating more waste

TechCrunch

Dishcraft Robotics has a simple pitch to corporate kitchens and restaurants that could potentially save tons of single use plastic, non-compostable takeout containers, dishware and cutlery from ending up landfills.

Use its cleaning service that will drop off all the clean, reusable dishware and cutlery a restaurant or corporate kitchen could possibly need in the morning and pick up all the dirty dishes, cups and silverware that the foodservice location uses throughout the day.

“In this model we take care of the collection and cleaning of dishes,” said Linda Pouliot, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.

That’s the offer. Behind the scenes the company will use its compliment of robots that can clean up 10,000 pieces of dishware or cutlery to quickly and efficiently clean up the mess.

The restaurants, Pouliot says, have more inventory than they could possibly need — even as Dishcraft only runs one drop-off and pick up service throughout the day at corporate offices.

The company has just announced a $20 million round of funding that will expand its service beyond the corporate kitchen and into communities that are worried about the waste produced by the explosion in takeout that’s occurred as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.

A green business model is at the heart of Dishcraft’s new pitch. The company launched in June of last year with a massive dishwashing robot that it was debating selling to kitchens around the country. Now it’s settled on a services approach that makes its robotic-powered dishwashers an easier sell to businesses. “We saw that cloud kitchens took off… we’re the same. We’re cloud dishwashing,” said Pouliot.  

The company has a collection system that works in a 25 mile radius and uses biodiesel to power its fleet of trucks that pickup and deliver the clean dishes, according to Pouliot.

The founder of an automated floor cleaning robotic service, Neato Robotics, Pouliot has a long history of applying high tech solutions to real world problems.

Along with co-founder Paul Birkmeyer, the company’s chief technology officer and a former employee of SRI International, Pouliot founded Dishcraft in 2015. The two discussed the opportunity for a robotics business cleaning dishes over lunch at a restaurant. The restaurant’s dishwasher had called out sick for the day and the head chef came over to spend a few minutes with the two entrepreneurs discussing the pains of the dishwashing business, Pouliot recalled.

The company’s technology involves the integration of sensors, computer vision, machine learning, UV lighting, and innovative mechanics to autonomously sort, scrub, inspect, and rack dishware, the company said. Plates are cleaned and inspected multiple times using sensors that can spot miniscule particles invisible to the human eye, the company said.

Current customers include Affirm and foodservice company Guckenheimer, and the company said it would announce others soon.

Image credit: Dishcraft Robotics

After an early investment from Lemnos Labs, the company moved from the garage where it had been prototyping its robotic designs and moved into Lemnos’ offices.

Pouliot is a 15 year robotics industry veteran, and after Neato Robotics knew that the cleaning industry represented a special niche for robotics that not many other companies were pursuing.

Dishcraft currently works out of a cleaning facility in San Carlos, Calif. and will use some of the capital it raised to expand the facility as it builds out its to-go solution for cleaning reusable containers. “Communities and cities are interested in more sustainable solutions,” said Pouliot, and that interest is driving demand for Dishcraft.

“For example… Alameda, Calif. has 300 restaurants and 100 have signed up for a zero waste initiative,” Pouliot said, which is creating interest at the city government level for Dishcraft’s services.

“With a cafeteria we have a collection system and every day we pick up the dishwares,” she said. “With cities there will be a specified drop off point and a system that will take all the wares back to our centralized hub and clean them and inspect them and deliver clean wares the following day.”

The new $20 million will be used to expand the number of hubs. Funding for the new round was led by new investor Grit Ventures. Returning investors First Round Capital, Baseline Ventures, Fuel Capital, and Lemnos also participated in the round, according to the company. As a result of the funding, Marc Randolph, co-founder and former CEO of Netflix, and Kelly Coyne, founder and partner at Grit Ventures, will join Dishcraft’s board of directors. 

So far, Dishcraft has raised $46 million in venture funding.

“Even pre-COVID, Dishcraft was on track to be a significant force of disruption in the world of food services,” said Kelly Coyne, founder and partner at Grit Ventures, in a statement. “In recent years, robotics has introduced major operational improvements in traditional industry. In particular, firms like Dishcraft that leverage RaaS (robotics-as-a-service) have been able to rapidly gain traction and sell effortlessly into long-stagnant industries.” 

May 28th 2020, 1:36 am

Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

TechCrunch

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

Carry1st has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

May 28th 2020, 1:21 am

Jack Dorsey explains why Twitter fact-checked Trump’s false voting claims

TechCrunch

After Twitter flagged a pair of President Trump’s tweets with a fact-checking label on Tuesday, tensions between the president and his favored social media platform are running high.

On Wednesday night, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—rarely one to pick a political fight—took to his own platform to clarify the company’s decision.

In the statement, Dorsey referenced comments Mark Zuckerberg made to Fox News contrasting Facebook’s obsessively neutral approach to policing its platform with Twitter’s present situation. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said. “Private companies… especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Dorsey also denounced Trump’s online supporters and surrogates for going after the company’s executives, asking the Twitter’s newly energized critics, inspired by Trump’s own ire toward the company, to “please leave our employees out of this.”

On Dorsey’s own account and the official Twitter Safety account, the company clarified that its decision to add a fact-checking link to two of Trump’s tweets stemmed specifically from the possibility that they might “confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process.”

In the tweets the company added a label to—but did not hide or remove—the president states falsely that California’s governor is “sending ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state no matter who they are or how they got there.” In reality, the state is only sending the ballots to registered voters. Trump also made fear-mongering false claims about the integrity of mail-in voting, a system already widely used around the country in the form of absentee ballots.

With his clarification, Dorsey linked to what Twitter calls its “civic integrity policy,” a set of rules prohibiting certain kinds of “manipulative behavior” on the platform. Per those rules, misleading information about how to vote, the documents required to vote or the date and time of an election of other civic process are prohibited. Under the policy, broader claims about elections “such as unsubstantiated claims that an election is ‘rigged'” are not prohibited.

Twitter’s list of possible enforcement actions includes forcing users to delete the tweets, locking their account if the misinformation is present in a bio or permanent suspension “for severe or repeated violations of this policy.”

Though the timing might be coincidental, Tuesday’s move by Twitter came on the heels of a series of tweets from Trump promoting a baseless conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and political rival Joe Scarborough was responsible for the death of a Congressional intern almost two decades prior.

On Wednesday evening, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the president would soon sign an executive order “pertaining to social media,” widely expected to be a shocking though likely unsubstantial strike back at Twitter’s policy enforcement choices this week. The order may rehash the White House’s previous stalled efforts to threaten Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a vital legal provision underpinning the modern internet—and wield power against social media companies through the FTC and FCC.

Alluding to the expected retaliation, Trump tweeted “Stay Tuned!!!” to his more than 80 million followers.

May 28th 2020, 12:50 am

Investors say emerging multiverses are the future of entertainment

TechCrunch

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the adoption of new technologies and cultural shifts that were already well underway. According to a clutch of heavy-hitting investors, this dynamic is particularly strong in gaming and extended reality.

Unlike other segments of the startup and tech world, where valuations have been slashed, early-stage companies focused on building new games, gaming infrastructure and virtual or extended reality entertainment are having no trouble raising money. They’ve even seen valuations rise, investors said.

“Valuations have increased pretty significantly in the gaming sector. Valuations have gone up 20 to 25% higher than I would have seen prior to this pandemic,” Phil Sanderson, a co-founder and managing director at Griffin Gaming Partners, told fellow participants on a virtual panel during the Los Angeles Games Conference earlier this month.

Driving the appetite for new investments is the entertainment industry’s bearhug of virtual events, animated features, games and social media platforms after widespread shelter-in-place orders made physical events an impossibility.

May 27th 2020, 8:18 pm

Fintech regulations in Latin America could fuel growth or freeze out startups

TechCrunch

It may have entered the game later than other leading regions such as Europe and North America, but Latin America’s fintech industry is dynamic and growing fast. The sector was recently given a valuation of more than $150 billion and continues to expand year-on-year.

And while the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on the sector is yet to be determined, there’s no doubt that the demand for certain fintech solutions is on the rise. As smaller financial institutions across the region are under pressure to digitize, many are calling on fintechs to help them along this journey. In addition, a number of SMEs are seeking out digital loan services to help them get through the crisis.

The sector’s speedy expansion has meant that regulators in LatAm are under increasing pressure to enact legislation that addresses the murky waters of fintech activity, providing confidence to consumers and investors alike. However, regulation across the region must be careful to not quash innovation, while startups must figure out how to be agile in an environment which is becoming increasingly regulated. Let’s take a closer look at what impact regulation has had so far in LatAm, and what needs to happen to strike a balance between sector growth and public trust.

The development of fintech regulation across LatAm

Mexico is currently leading the way when it comes to fintech regulation in LatAm, thanks to its comprehensive 2018 fintech Law. The law covers most fintech activities, including crowdfunding, virtual wallet, transactions carried out with cryptocurrencies and open banking. In addition, Mexico has certain financial laws that regulate financial entities in their execution of transactions using fintech. The law also provides a regulatory sandbox for both licensed and non-licensed companies.

Brazil is the furthest ahead after Mexico, as it individually legislates crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending, while a special congressional commission is working on a broader legislative strategy. Brazil’s Central Bank also endeavors to make open banking legislation effective by the third quarter of 2020, which will pave the way for a thriving open banking ecosystem.

May 27th 2020, 6:49 pm

Appeals court rules in favor of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter in anti-conservative bias suit

TechCrunch

The same day Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten to regulate or shut down social media sites, the U.S. appeals court in Washington D.C. dismissed a lawsuit accusing top tech companies of silencing conservative voices. Filed in 2018 by nonprofit Freedom Watch and rightwing gadfly Laura Loomer, the suit accused Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google of stifling first amendment rights.

The suit alleged that four of tech’s biggest names “have engaged in a conspiracy to intentionally and willfully suppress politically conservative content.” It specifically cited Loomer’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, following a tweet about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Also noted is her inability to grow an audience base and revenue on Google’s YouTube, suggesting that after Trump’s election “growth on these platforms has come to a complete halt, and its audience base and revenue generated has either plateaued or diminished.” Apple’s alleged role is less clear.

In the ruling, District Judge Trevor McFadden notes that Freedom Watch and Loomer failed to back up a claim that the companies were “state actors,” involved with the regulation of free speech.

“The Plaintiffs do not show how the Platforms’ alleged conduct may fairly be treated as actions taken by the government itself,” the judge writes. “Facebook and Twitter, for example, are private businesses that do not become ‘state actors’ based solely on the provision of their social media networks to the public.”

In other words, the companies cannot violate the first amendment, because banning users doesn’t constitute government abridgment of free speech. Per the decision, “Freedom Watch fails to point to additional facts indicating that these Platforms are engaged in state action and thus fails to state a viable First Amendment claim.”

May 27th 2020, 6:17 pm

Amazon offers more details about why HBO Max isn’t on Fire TV

TechCrunch

WarnerMedia’s new streaming service HBO Max launched today with couple of conspicuous absences from the list of supported devices — Max is not yet available on Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV.

It sounds like this isn’t just a technical issue that will be fixed imminently. WarnerMedia’s vice president of communications Chris Willard told USA Today that “there is no deal in place” to bring the service to those platforms.

In a statement sent out this afternoon, Amazon suggested that the disagreement revolves around bringing HBO Max to Prime Video Channels, and around HBO’s somewhat confusing distribution strategy. (For those of you who haven’t been following along: The HBO Now app is being updated as HBO Max, which includes HBO, plus a bunch of other content. At the same time, HBO will continue to operate as a standalone brand.)

The company said that by not making Max available through Prime Video Channels, WarnerMedia’s parent company AT&T “is choosing to deny those loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog.”

Here’s Amazon’s full statement:

With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels. Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog. We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming through the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service and that’s a priority for us.

Meanwhile, a statement from Roku also pointed to unresolved issues:

As the No. 1 streaming platform in the U.S. we believe that HBO Max would benefit greatly from the scale and content marketing capabilities available with distribution on our platform. We are focused on mutually positive distribution agreements with all new OTT services that will deliver a quality user experience to viewers in the more than 40 million households that choose Roku to access their favorite programs and discover new content. Unfortunately we haven’t reached agreement yet with HBOMax. While not on our platform today, we look forward to helping HBOMax in the future successfully scale their streaming business.

 

May 27th 2020, 6:17 pm

An hourly home-sharing startup in San Francisco finds itself in the city’s crosshairs

TechCrunch

Emmanuel Bamfo is used to fighting uphill battles. Still, his latest fight, with the city of San Francisco, may well destroy his business if he doesn’t win it and quickly.

Bamfo is the cofounder and CEO of Globe, a year-old, six-person startup that connects customers with rooms in people’s mostly urban homes. Think Airbnb, except that Globe isn’t anyone looking for days- or months-long stays but instead for a day break in between commitments.

Globe evolved from an earlier company called Recharge that tried convincing hotels to let its customers rent their rooms by the hour and even minute, and had raised around $2.5 million in seed funding. When hotels pushed back on the idea of cleaning their rooms so frequently, the nascent outfit entered into the popular accelerator program Y Combinator last summer and came out as a company that connects customers to home owners instead.

Growth at Globe had been slow but steady since, with more than 10,000 hosts around the world signing up to rent out rooms in their homes.

Then came COVID-19. Some hosts kept providing space to guests. One tech worker, Abe Disu, recently told the New York Times that he rented out his San Francisco apartment through Globe about 70 times between August and April, earning about $50 per hour after cleaning costs. (“Someone books your space, you do a tight clean-up, and boom, you’ve made $90,” says Bamfo.)

More expressed concerns about germs. “I thought we were dead,” says Bamfo,

Instead of give up, Bamfo — educated by Y Combinator and his own experience with pivoting — began to position Globe as a platform for people who needed an escape from quarantine. The pitch: Globe can help individuals find that quiet place to make calls, away from roommates and children. It offers a reprieve from loved ones for a much-needed hour or two.

It’s an appealing proposition on some levels. Who doesn’t long for a change in scenery at his point? Still, there is a pandemic, and safety is concern. Indeed, though Bamfo says Globe has layered in policies specific to COVID-19 — it’s cleaning checklist for hosts has grown longer and customers have to send in pictures of thermometer readings that show they don’t have a fever — the city of San Francisco, at least, doesn’t think they go far enough.

The city sent Globe a letter last week noting that the company’s hourly rental business appears to violate the shelter-in-place order it instituted in March and that it extended indefinitely last week with some modifications that do not apply to Globe’s business. It says it’s prepared to take action, too. If has warned Globe that if it doesn’t immediately half its business, the startup — and its founders, Bamfo and Erix Xu, who is a former senior engineering director at Reddit — risk “fine, imprisonment or both, pursuant to San Francisco Administrative Code section 7.17(b) and California Penal Code section 148.”

It adds that the “California Penal Code section 409.5 also authorizes the City to close down properties constituting a menace to public health. Likewise, failure to abide by the San Francisco Planning Code is a nuisance and is punishable by fines of up to $1,000 per day. Likewise, failure to abide by Chapter 41A of the Administrative Code is punishable by fines of
up to $484 per day.”

It’s a bitter if somewhat unsurprising development for Globe, which is based in San Francisco, and counts the city as its biggest market. Bamfo and Xu have limited resources, and a drawn-out shut-down could very easily become permanent. Still, it’s hard to see how the company avoids a bigger blow-up if it doesn’t comply very soon — or the city doesn’t instead begin to relax some of its policies.

Right now, Bamfo seems to be counting on the latter, and perhaps for good reason. Yesterday, for example, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that barbershops and hair salons can begin accepting customers again in many California counties. San Francisco and neighboring counties have maintaining more sweeping restrictions for now, but that could change in a matter of weeks.

In the meantime, Bamfo — who says he was “shocked” by the city’s letter — is engaging in a game of chicken. He says that while Globe works on an official response, one that it will send by Tuesday of next week, the company is continuing to make its service available in its hometown.

Noting that neither Airbnb nor hotels have received the same feedback from the city, he says that Globe “doesn’t want to focus on regulations, fines, and threats of jail time. We want instead to elevate this discourse around solutions.”

 

Globe Living Receives Unwelcome News from San Francisco by TechCrunch on Scribd

May 27th 2020, 6:05 pm

Instagram’s AR filters are getting more dynamic

TechCrunch

Augmented reality filters on Instagram are picking up some new tricks with the latest update to Facebook’s Spark AR platform.

Spark AR has been making pretty consistent updates to the feature sets developers can play with in creating AR filters since it exited closed beta on Instagram last year. Today, Facebook added some new functionality to the platform on Instagram, allowing creators to build more complex filters to entice users with. Creators can now build filters that respond visually to music or allow users to apply effects to media from their camera roll. In addition to the new features, Facebook has also created AR Sticker templates that can allow creators to customize AR filters quickly.

The new AR Music feature allows developers to create filters that interact with music, be that tunes that are uploaded directly, selected from Instagram’s music selection tool or just audio that’s playing in the background. It’s a pretty logical step for Instagram, bringing equalizer-style visual effects into filters and pushing users to bring music and AR into their Stories simultaneously.

Bringing gallery selection tools to Instagram’s filters allow users to spin new AR effects on previously captured photos or video. With Media Library, one can easily grab an old photo or video and toss a filter on it, with Gallery Picker, users can transform a visual filter with media from their gallery allowing for a level of customization that could promote more consistent usage of singular filters among users.

You can see what they look like in action on Instagram’s blog announcing the updates.

Facebook has talked a big game about augmented reality’s future across all of its platforms, but over the past several years the company has had a rough time making the camera a meaningful platform inside the Facebook app, leaving much of the development advances to Instagram which has always had the advantage of a hefty reliance on both its in-app camera and visual filters. These new updates are iterative but partially address one of the big underlying usability issues with AR filter effects: they often aren’t dynamic enough to encourage reuse. Bringing audio effects and greater customizability will allow developers to build filters that can hopefully have new life instilled in them again and again based on user creativity.

These new updates to Spark AR Studio are available today.

 

May 27th 2020, 4:47 pm

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg shares his COVID-19 strategy and tactics

TechCrunch

This week, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg joined us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live.

Vestberg is leading the company through the midst of one its biggest rollouts to date with the push into 5G connectivity. In our discussion, he spoke about how he’s managing the organization during this global crisis, his thoughts on work from home and acquisition strategy, and the ways in which 5G will change the way we work and live.

(Disclosure: Verizon Communications is TechCrunch’s parent company.)

Extra Crunch members can check out a partial transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity) or watch it in its entirety via YouTube video below.


Extra Crunch Live features some of the brightest minds in tech and VC, including Aileen Lee, Roelof Botha, Kirsten Green and Mark Cuban. Upcoming episodes will include Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and others. Extra Crunch members can submit questions to speakers in real time, so please sign up here if you haven’t already.


His initial reaction to news of the lockdown

We’re a large company with 135,000 employees in 70 different countries around the globe. So, of course, we had an early warning when it started actually in Asia. We have employees in Asia, so we got the feeling that this could be really serious. It was early in the first week of February, we moved to the highest emergency or crisis level in the company. That means that we go to a certain crisis mode on how we organized and how we galvanized the company.

That’s usually put into place every time there is a big national disaster because you need to split between people taking care of the crisis and people taking care of running the business. So we were very early on with that. In the beginning of February, we started the emergency crisis operations center that was taking care of employee questions and prioritization of important things. At the same time, we continued to run the business. That was the first thing we did very early on.

Upcoming Extra Crunch Live episodes include discussions with Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, and Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz.

The other thing we did very early on is that we understood that this was something unprecedented. I mean, you have been in crisis before. I mean, I’ve been in the telecom crisis, and we’ve been in the banking crisis when everything just went boom. This is something totally different. You cannot use any of your historical experience when it comes to this pandemic, which actually impacts each and every one of us when it comes to health. So I was honest, and thought that they’re going to be a lot of questions. We decided very early on to run our noon live webcast to our employees. We are on our… I think it’s the 11th week, where at noon every day, we run the webcast for all our employees. That was two of the first things we did.

We didn’t think we were going to run for 11 weeks on the new live webcast, but we have done it because we see there’s a very good tool to communicate with all our employees.

May 27th 2020, 4:03 pm

Rivian is building an in-house insurance agency

TechCrunch

Rivian is hiring an insurance agency data manager, a job posting that suggests the all-electric automaker is planning to offer its own insurance to customers.

The job was first posted by RivianForums, which also reached out to TechCrunch with the tip. Roadshow/CNET also reported about this new position. Rivian wouldn’t provide more details about its plans, but did confirm it has some job postings in the area of insurance.

The job is to lead Rivian’s property and casualty (P&C) insurance agency, a position that entails recruiting, training, coaching and managing employed licensed sales agents and an insurance customer care team, according to the posting on Rivian’s website. The employee will also sell insurance products and provide feedback to partners on opportunities, the posting said.

The posting, which seeks someone with more than 10 years of experience and who is a licensed in P&C in multiple states, suggests this will be a global product. The job is curiously based at the automaker’s factory in Normal, Ill., and not at its Plymouth, Mich. headquarters.

The move appears to follow Tesla’s lead. Last August, Tesla  launched an insurance product, promising owners of its electric vehicles to deliver rates 20% and even as high as 30% lower than other insurance providers. The product known as Tesla Insurance is only available to owners in California. The business will expand to additional U.S. states in the future, Tesla has said.

May 27th 2020, 4:03 pm

Crypto Startup School: Capturing value in crypto through network effects and mechanism design

TechCrunch

Editor’s note: Andreessen Horowitz’s Crypto Startup School brought together 45 participants from around the U.S. and overseas in a seven-week course to learn how to build crypto companies. Andreessen Horowitz is partnering with TechCrunch to release the online version of the course over the next few weeks. 

Week three of a16z’s Crypto Startup School focuses on understanding how to capture value and design proper incentives within the decentralized framework. We learn how familiar ideas like network effects and mechanism design can hold unique power for crypto networks.

In the first presentation, Andreessen Horowitz crypto partner Ali Yahya discusses “Crypto Business Models.” Yahya explains that the consensus mechanisms of blockchains create trust among independent participants in decentralized networks.

At first glance, this may seem at odds with the idea of capturing value, since none of the factors that allow companies to build moats in traditional industries — trade secrets, intellectual property, or control of a scarce resource — apply in crypto.

This leads to the “value-capture paradox” — how can easy-to-replicate, open-source code be defensible in a competitive landscape?

The answer is that network effects are just as powerful, if not more so, in crypto than in traditional industries. This is due to the economic flywheel enabled by tokens, which incentivize participants and coordinate all economic activities in crypto networks. Combined with the ability of developers to build on each others’ networks using autonomously executing smart contracts, this should result in winner-take-all dynamics, contrary to what might seem intuitive in open source, Yahya says.

In the next lecture, Sam Williams, founder and CEO of decentralized storage system Arweave, gives an overview of “Mechanism Design,” a field of study that has become newly relevant with the development of Bitcoin and subsequent blockchains that require carefully designed incentives for network participants.

Williams uses examples to show that economic incentives, when designed properly, can persuade self-interested people to exhibit useful behaviors at fair market value with minimal central planning. This provides a new tool to bootstrap decentralized networks.

He cautions, however, that poorly conceived incentive systems can overpower moral frameworks in ways that can be dangerous. This could be harmful, he says, in decentralized protocols, since self-executing code may not be easily altered to curtail unintended consequences.

Williams closes with a case study of his company, Arweave, and the way it created an endowment-style financial incentive system to build a platform where data can be secured forever. This kind of model opens the door to new kinds of community-owned networks that can’t be manipulated by central owners.

May 27th 2020, 3:33 pm

Docker expands relationship with Microsoft to ease developer experience across platforms

TechCrunch

When Docker sold off its enterprise division to Mirantis last fall, that didn’t mark the end of the company. In fact, Docker still exists and has refocused as a cloud-native developer tools vendor. Today it announced an expanded partnership with Microsoft around simplifying running Docker containers in Azure.

As its new mission suggests, it involves tighter integration between Docker and a couple of Azure developer tools including Visual Studio Code and Azure Container Instances (ACI). According to Docker, it can take developers hours or even days to set up their containerized environment across the two sets of tools.

The idea of the integration is to make it easier, faster and more efficient to include Docker containers when developing applications with the Microsoft tool set. Docker CEO Scott Johnston says it’s a matter of giving developers a better experience.

“Extending our strategic relationship with Microsoft will further reduce the complexity of building, sharing and running cloud-native, microservices-based applications for developers. Docker and VS Code are two of the most beloved developer tools and we are proud to bring them together to deliver a better experience for developers building container-based apps for Azure Container Instances,” Johnston said in a statement.

Among the features they are announcing is the ability to log into Azure directly from the Docker command line interface, a big simplification that reduces going back and forth between the two sets of tools. What’s more, developers can set up a Microsoft ACI environment complete with a set of configuration defaults. Developers will also be able to switch easily between their local desktop instance and the cloud to run applications.

These and other integrations are designed to make it easier for Azure and Docker common users to work in in the Microsoft cloud service without having to jump through a lot of extra hoops to do it.

It’s worth noting that these integrations are starting in Beta, but the company promises they should be released some time in the second half of this year.

May 27th 2020, 3:02 pm

Angling to be eyewear’s next big thing, Futuremood launches with mood-altering sunglasses

TechCrunch

Austin Soldner and Michael Schaecher, the co-founders of the new sunglasses brand Futuremood, met at the newly formed San Francisco research and development lab created by the high end audio tech developer Bose.

The two were tasked with working on Bose’s sunglasses wearable and bonded over a shared interest in sneakers and fashion. Over many conversations the two men realized that there was an opportunity to use technology to rewrite the sunglasses playbook and launch the first new brand to the market since Oakley came on the scene.

There was also an opportunity to bring the materials science and tech-forward strategies that sneaker companies have developed to an industry that hadn’t seen any real technical revolutions in decades.

Enter Futuremood “Auras”, which the company bills as the first glasses scientifically tested and proven to alter your mood.

Using technology developed by the lens manufacturer Zeiss, Futuremood’s first glasses come in four different colors — a relaxing green, a refreshing blue, an energizing red, and a focusing yellow. The company is launching its eyewear in two different styles a boxy, chunky frame and a more traditional rounded frame.

Any mood altering effects are thanks to Zeiss’ halochrome lens technology, which the lens manufacturer has been working with — and publishing papers on — to suss out the science behind its claims that the use of filtered light can change the way folks feel.

There’s some preliminary research that the company has done, but the science is still largely unproven (Zeiss conducted two studies at European universities). 

Schaecher and Soldner are believers and the two longtime tech execs see these lenses as a window into a wider world of material science experimentation and product development that they’re hoping to bring to market with Futuremood.

“If you think about sneakers and where Nike and Adidas got to where they are today, it was through innovation in product design and materials and branding and marketing and all of that had been missing from the sunglasses space,” Schaecher said.

The second marketing hire at Airbnb and the first marketing hire at the now-defunct Munchery, Schaecher knows a thing or two about branding. Meanwhile, Soldner, the founder of Playground.fm, and a former product designer at Jawbone, is the technical expert and lead designer for all of Futuremood’s frames.

“We really saw an opportunity to push the envelope in technical innovation and product innovation,” said Schaecher. “We have a backlog of stuff to push the envelope of what sunglasses are.”

One thing sunglasses are is a very very big business. Consumers spent $14.5 billion on sunglasses in 2018, according to the market research firm, Grand View Research.

If Futuremood can capture even a fraction of that market with its unique spin on sunglasses, it’ll be in good shape.

As with any good direct to consumer product, Futuremood’s difference begins with its packaging. Tapping in to the mood-altering “wearable drugs” aesthetic, the company’s product is packaged in boxes with the same bright hues as the sunglasses. Inside there’s a cloth to clean the glasses, a velvet pouch to hold them and a scented pack of incense matches and a vaguely tarot-esque card with information on the glasses and the sensation they’re meant to evoke (there’s even a Spotify playlist to listen to).

In an email, Scaecher described the sensation as “not as subtle as CBD, but not as s trong as a shot of tequila or glass of Rosé.

“Austin and I are really into different ways of self care and taking moments and… we thought there was an opportunity to bring delight and joy,” with the packaging, Schaecher said. “We don’t expect people to be firing up Spotify playlists and incense matches every time they wear things.”

Futuremood has been mostly bootstrapped to date, and like everything else in the year of our lord 2020, the company’s plans were pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our lenses are made in Zeiss’ Italian factory and the glasses were made outside of Shenzhen,” said Schaecher. “We quarantined the first order for two weeks. Zeiss was right in that region of Italy was getting hit hard. We’ve been delaying since then.. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to grind on something for eighteen months… and then have to delay launching.”

Even with the pandemic, though, the company moved ahead with the design for its second product and that gives a hint for where Schaecher and Soldner want to go with their business. “We have our second product line and that is not mood-altering glasses,” said Schaecher. “That’s a traditional sunglasses line that uses titanium alloy metals that are more commonly seen in aerospace than in eyewear.”

The design aesthetic is also more in the luxury vein, which Schaecher teased was akin to something that would be more at home in a Cartier showroom rather than a direct to consumer brand’s digital storefront.

Right now, the company is going direct to consumers through its website, but it’s looking at the potential for some retail collaborations and field marketing when the country opens back up for business.

As for the mood-altering effects and whether “wearable drug” can win market share, Schaecher is pretty optimistic. “People definitely have reactions,” he said. “It’s a fun, new thing that’s never existed before.”

Image Credits: Futuremood

May 27th 2020, 3:02 pm

Up close with the fresh new spacesuits astronauts will soon wear in orbit for the first time

TechCrunch

Inside the first American spacecraft to take humans to orbit since the Space Shuttle launching today are, well, humans. And those humans are wearing brand new spacesuits that are also making a historic debut. Ahead of today’s launch (which you can watch here), NASA and SpaceX gave a fresh look at the new suits, which we may be seeing much more of soon.

The spacesuits were designed by SpaceX in collaboration with NASA and the astronauts going up today, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. They’re intended to bring modern materials and technology to a comfortable form factor that integrates seamlessly with the Crew Dragon capsule.

These aren’t, it is important to note, a replacement for the familiar EVA suits that have been in use for decades, though those are also being redesigned in-house. The ones Behnken and Hurley will wear are pressure suits, akin to what fighter jet pilots wear. These custom-fitted garments are meant to provide protection against the dangers of launch, including brief periods of vacuum or high heat, but not outer space.

The SpaceX suits are flame- and impact-resistant and have communications and climate control built right in. The helmet has the radio and mics, naturally, and air and electricity flow through a single umbilical cable that connects to the wearer’s seat in the spacecraft.

“One of the things that was important in the development of this suit was to make it easy to use, something that the crew just has to literally plug in when they sit down, and then the suit kind of takes care of itself from there,” said SpaceX’s Chris Tripp in the NASA video highlighting the suits. “It’s really part of the vehicle, so we think of it as a kind of suit-seat system.”

Considering the advances that have been made over the last decade in electronics and software, astronauts and mission control should expect improved and simplified communications — the kind of noise reduction and voice detection we expect in our video calls nowadays is also very useful in aerospace.

Another interesting change is in the gloves, which must be durable yet flexible, and at the same time conductive — because the astronauts operate the Dragon capsule via touchscreen. It would be no good if they had to take off a glove to make a selection.

“[We] worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input,” Behnken said in a recent NASA press conference.

Like everything else aboard the capsule, the suits will be put to their first full-scale test today, though of course they’ve been through all kinds of in-house evaluations before.

“It took us three almost four years to design suits that both look good and work well,” said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk in a recent interview. “we want to inspire kids to say that that one day they want to wear that uniform… get them fired up about, ‘Yeah, I want to be an astronaut. I want to be our work on aerospace engineering, on advanced spaceflight.’ What today is about is reigniting the dream of space.”

May 27th 2020, 2:48 pm
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