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Business author Julian Guthrie on the biggest difference between ‘alpha’ men and women

TechCrunch

If you’ve been out and about in Silicon Valley in the last month or so, chances are you’ve heard of “Alpha Girls,” a new book written by longtime journalist Julian Guthrie about four investors who’ve made a big impact on the world of startup investing. The book recognizes the four — Theresia Gouw, MJ Elmore, Sonja Hoel Perkins, and Magdalena Yesil — because they are interesting individuals, each with very different upbringings and skill sets and areas of expertise, but also because they succeeded in the venture industry during a time when they were almost always the only woman in the room, or at the conference, or in the middle of a team-building event.

Indeed, well before a light was shone bright on gender disparity in the world of VC, the four were blazing a trail. Elmore signed on with IVP in 1982,  becoming a general partner by age 28. Yesil cofounded the dot com high-flier CyberCash before joining USVP as a partner in 1988. Perkins’s star also rose quickly. By age 29, she was a general partner at Menlo Ventures, staying nearly 22 years before launching her own venture fund. Down the street, Gouw was building a track record at Accel, where she spent 15 years before cofounding her own firm in 2014, Aspect Ventures.

We talked with Guthrie earlier today about the four and how much time she’d spent with them. (“I think they were ready to block my calls and texts,” she laughed.) We wanted to know how these so-called alpha women differ from the many other subjects Guthrie has spent time with across her 20-year reporting career with the San Francisco Chronicle, during which time she also authored books about Larry Ellison and Peter Diamandis. We wondered, too, how long it took her to work on the book (roughly two years, including interviews with the women and the colleagues and their partners and the founders they’ve funded, among others).

But what really piqued our interest was whether, after working on the book, Guthrie viewed the venture industry as any more or less welcoming to women than at the outset of her research. “It is not as bad as it’s portrayed, in my opinion,” Guthrie told us. “There are success stories.”

Still, Guthrie noted that each of these investors had to grapple with much that a man might not, particularly in the early days of their careers but not exclusively. Some of these were mundane but constant considerations, including, “Should you take notes or not? When do you speak up? How do you network? Do you go to these boondoggles when it’s all guys?” Said Guthrie, “Some of these things were shocking to me, coming from my own very gender-neutral experience as a reporter.”

We also wondered if, in talking with the subjects of her book, they’d ever expressed having to emulate their male peers in order to get ahead.

Guthrie said on this front it was “not so much about emulating men but steering the spotlight away from their femininity, so it didn’t become a distraction.” She says Elmore quickly learned that if she wore a dress to a board meeting, for example, it would elicit compliments that weren’t necessarily expected, so she soon cut her hair and began wearing suits. Meanwhile, Perkins and Gouw participated in male-dominated events on the theory that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. For Perkins, this meant skiing alongside former Navy Seals when she was still a relative novice on the slopes. For Gouw, it was getting elbowed in the stomach during a competitive game of flag football.

Were they perhaps not so different after all from their male colleagues, we wondered? Is there one path to the top?Interestingly, Guthrie said that many of the men she has interviewed — including Ellison, Diamandis, Richard Branson and Elon Musk — “were happy to talk about their vulnerabilities, because it kind of rounds them out. It softens them in a nice way.” She observed that women who’ve enjoyed success meanwhile have a “much harder time sharing their mistakes, their regrets, their vulnerabilities,” said Guthrie. Because women are often provided less room for missteps, “I had to tell [the investors] again and again that it was important that we tell the good, bad, and ugly — not because I was seeking scandal but because I wanted these stories to be honest.”

Before we parted ways, we asked Guthrie about women and money, after she volunteered that it’s a “tricky issue for women. If you go after too much, you’re greedy; if you marry someone with money, you’re a gold digger.”

She pointed to a Forbes piece from last summer that called Gouw “America’s richest female venture capitalist.” Gouw apparently felt uneasy about the story and participated in it mostly to draw attention to her work with the advocacy organization she helped cofound, called AllRaise.  But as Gouw told Guthrie, it’s had a somewhat surprising impact. “She was a serious player before, but it kind of gave her street cred” with those who pay attention to Forbes’s Midas List and other forms of score-keeping, said Guthrie.

It’s a good thing, suggests Guthrie, who has been promoting her book to women in numerous industries, including in homebuilding and law and in medicine. “You see the same barriers across them all,” Guthrie said. But
“you’re also seeing these women’s groups and networks becoming more powerful across all these industries, where women are speaking out and creating these sisterhoods.”

Increasingly, they’re agreeing to some self-promotion, too. As Guthrie puts it, “It’s not boasting when it’s based on fact.”

Pictured above, left to right: Theresia Gouw, Sonja Perkins, MJ Elmore, Magdalena Yesil, and Julian Guthrie.

May 24th 2019, 7:53 pm

Uber’s first employee Ryan Graves resigns from board

TechCrunch

Ryan Graves, a longtime Uber employee and former chief executive officer, has resigned from the company’s board of directors, effective Monday.

The newly-public company announced the departure on Friday afternoon. Ron Sugar, the company’s independent chairperson fo the board, wrote in the filing that Graves was key in shaping what Uber is today. 

“As a thoughtful and engaged director, Ryan has continued to add value to Uber, offering insights and judgments that have helped us navigate the ups and downs of the business as we have grown over the past decade,” Sugar wrote. “While this is a bittersweet moment, we accept his personal decision that this is the right time for him to step down. Dara and I are grateful for his contributions to Uber’s success and wish him all the best going forward.”

Graves, who currently leads his investment firm Saltwater Capital, joined Uber in 2010, after co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted that he was “Looking 4 entrepreneurial product mgr/biz-dev killer 4 a location based service.. pre-launch, BIG equity, big peeps involved–ANY TIPS??” Graves responded to the request and the rest is history.

Graves served as the up-and-coming ridehail business’s CEO for a brief stint in 2010, helping officially launch the service and raise its first round of capital. He was the company’s senior vice president of global operations from 2011 to 2017, before stepping down in August mere months after Kalanick resigned

News of Graves resignation comes weeks after Uber completed a long-awaited initial public offering. The business (NYSE: UBER) was valued at $72 billion by venture capitalists ahead of its offering. Ultimately, Uber priced its stock at $45 apiece for a valuation of $82.4 billion in an early May offering, then began trading at $42 per share. It has since floundered on the stock market, failing to match its IPO price. Uber closed down 2.6 percent Friday.

According to Business Insider, Graves, a board member for nearly a decade, was expected to take home some $1 billion from the company’s IPO.

May 24th 2019, 6:36 pm

First American site bug exposed 885 million sensitive title insurance records

TechCrunch

News just in from security reporter Brian Krebs: Fortune 500 real estate insurance giant First American exposed approximately 885 million sensitive records because of a bug in its website.

Krebs reported that the company’s website was storing and leaking bank account numbers, statements, mortgage and tax records, and Social Security numbers and driving license images in an enumerable format — so anyone who knew a valid web address for a document simply had to change the address by one digit to view other documents, he said.

There was no authentication required — such as a password or other checks — to prevent access to other documents.

According to Krebs’ report, the earliest document was labeled “000000075” — with newer documents increasing in numerical order, he said.

The data goes back at least to 2003, said Krebs.

“Many of the exposed files are records of wire transactions with bank account numbers and other information from home or property buyers and sellers,” wrote Krebs. First American is one of the largest real estate title insurance giants in the U.S., earning $5.8 billion in revenue in 2018.

A spokesperson for First American did not immediately respond to a request for comment but told Krebs that its web application was shut down and that there would be “no further comment” until its review was complete.

It’s the latest breach of sensitive mortgage data in recent months.

TechCrunch exclusively reported in January a trove of more than 24 million financial and banking documents were left inadvertently exposed on a public cloud storage server for anyone to access. The data contained loan and mortgage agreements, repayment schedules and other highly sensitive financial and tax documents that reveal an intimate insight into a person’s financial life.

May 24th 2019, 5:20 pm

How to see another company’s growth tactics and try them yourself

TechCrunch

Every company’s online acquisition strategy is out in the open. If you know where to look.

This post shows you exactly where to look, and how to reverse engineer their growth tactics.

Why is this important? Competitive analysis de-risks your own growth experiments: You find the best growth ideas to adopt and the worst ones to avoid.

First, a warning: Your goal is not to repurpose another company’s hard work. That makes you a thief. Your goal is to identify other companies who face the same growth challenges as you, then to study their approaches for solutions to draw from.

As I walk through uncovering a competitor’s tactics, keep in mind which competitors are worth looking at: For instance, you should rarely over-analyze early-stage companies. They’re unlikely to be methodical at growth.

Meaning, if you blindly copy their site and their ads, it’s possible you’ll be copying tactics that are not actually responsible for their growth. Their success may instead be from network effects or other hidden factors.

Instead, it’s safest to get inspiration from companies who’ve sustained high growth rates for a long time, and who face the same growth challenges as you. They’re likely to have sophisticated growth operations worth studying deeply. Examples include:

If these aren’t your direct competitors, don’t worry. You don’t need to audit a direct competitor’s tactics to get incredibly valuable insights.

You can look past direct competitors.

You’ll gain useful insights from auditing the user acquisition funnel of any company who has a similar audience and business model.

Examples of audiences:

Audiences matter because their behaviors and needs differ wildly. Each requires its own growth strategy. You want to audit a company whose audiences is similar to yours.

You also want to ensure the company shares your business model. Examples include:

Each model may necessitate different ads, landing pages, automated emails, and sales collateral.

The process

Never implement another company’s tactics blindly.

There’s an effective process for growth analysis, and it looks like this:

  1. Source potential growth ideas.
  2. Prioritize them.
  3. A/B test them.
  4. Measure if an A/B variant significantly outperformed its baseline and whether the cost of implementing the winner would be worthwhile.
  5. Only then should you implement it.

An example

Here’s a brief example before we dive into tactics.

Let’s pretend we’re a SaaS company offering consumer banking tools, and that we’re struggling to get users to onboard our app. Our hypothesis is that visitors are bouncing because they don’t trust us with their sensitive information.

Our first step is to define both our audience and our business model:

Our next step is to look for companies who share those two aspects. (We can find them on Crunchbase.)

Once we have a few in hand, we look for how they handle customers’ sensitive information throughout their funnel. Specifically, we audit their:

It’s time to learn how we audit all that. I’ll share how our marketer training program teaches marketers to do this on the job.

Tactic #1: How to see a company’s A/B tests

May 24th 2019, 5:20 pm

‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000

TechCrunch

When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her out as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops, and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems onboard the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; Don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At under $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on) I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

May 24th 2019, 5:20 pm

Coinbits launches as a passive investment app for bitcoin

TechCrunch

Erik Finman is a twenty-something bitcoin maximalist as famous for his precocity as he is for his $12 bet on the currency a few years ago.

Now, Finman, who built his first company while still in High School, is launching a new startup called Coinbits, which allows users to passively invest in bitcoin.

The idea, according to Finman, is to democratize access to the currency by letting everyday folks invest nominal sums through well-known mechanisms like roundups on transactions made with a credit or debit card or through regular transactions from a customer’s savings or checking account to bitcoin through Coinbits.

Every transaction also helps Finman’s own bitcoin holdings grow and makes the young entrepreneur a little wealthier himself through his bitcoin holdings.

Users can make one-time investments of $10, $25, $50, or $100 dollars through the web-based platform and can establish a level of risk for their holdings.

Finman’s app collects no commissions on transactions and 98% of the Bitcoin is stored offline — for safety.

“Overall, investing in Bitcoin is complicated and can feel almost impossible,”. said Finman. “Coinbits allows you to put that spare change in Bitcoin. For example, if you spend $1.75 on French fries, that remaining 25 cents is invested automatically.”

Withdrawals are handled by CoinBits which will give users same-day processing for a 50 cent-fee and offers an easily downloadable record for accountants to deal with any gains or losses associated with bitcoin.

Given the fractional nature of these investments, and the volatility of bitcoin, it’s hard to know what real value investors can reap from these small transactions, but it’s a less risky way to experiment with building bitcoin holdings than take a huge flyer on the market.

 

 

May 24th 2019, 3:49 pm

SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

TechCrunch

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the Star Tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 few miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year. In the meantime I’ve asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back.

May 24th 2019, 3:36 pm

Livekick raises $3M to use live video for one-on-one training

TechCrunch

Livekick, a startup that gives customers access to one-on-one personal training and yoga from their home (or hotel room, or elsewhere), is announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding.

The company was founded by entrepreneur Yarden Tadmor and fitness expert Shayna Schmidt. Tadmor said that with all his travel for work, his fitness routine “really eroded,” so he contacted Schmidt and asked her to train him remotely — they’d connect via FaceTime, he’d mount his phone at the gym and she’d supervise his workout.

“We trained this way for a while, and then we realized: Hey, this is something that other people can really benefit from,” Tadmor said.

So with Livekick, users can sign up for one, two or three live, 30-minute sessions with a remote trainer, who they’ll connect with via the Livekick iOS app or website. (After a two-week trial, pricing starts at $32 per week.) The workouts will be tailored to the space and equipment that you have access to, and the trainers will also assign other workouts for the rest of the week.

Tadmor and Schmidt contrasted this approach with companies like Peloton and Mirror, which are bringing new exercise equipment and classes into the home, but which don’t offer one-on-one interaction with a trainer. Tadmor said this individualized approach is not just better tailored to each user’s needs, but also more effective at keeping them motivated. And Schmidt said the live interaction also ensures that people are doing their workouts correctly and safely.

As for the trainers, Schmidt said this gives them a new way to find clients, particularly during their off-hours.

“For trainers, the hours that user are never booked are usually noon to 4pm — they never get a client because people are at work, obviously,” she said. “So we can give trainers in London those hours because for a user in New York, that’s morning. We can really fill their schedules [and] help them make some more income.”

Beyond consumer subscriptions, Livekick also offers a corporate program called Livekick for Travelers. And just to be clear, the service isn’t just for frequent travelers, as Tadmor noted: “If you live in New York, you have access to a lot of fitness options, but most people don’t. You’ve got to do a lot of commuting to get to a studio with great trainers, and so part of what we’re trying to bring is really let you do that from the comfort of your home.”

And while we recently covered the launch of a similar service called Future, Livekick actually launched in September, and Tadmor said the average retention rate has been over six months.

The round was led by Firstime VC, with participation from Rhodium and Draper Frontier.

“With its leading technology and ethos to make exercise accessible and affordable, we believe Livekick has the capacity to improve the lives and health of millions,” said Firstime’s Nir Taralovsky in a statement.

May 24th 2019, 3:36 pm

CFIUS Cometh: What this Obscure Agency Does and Why It Matters to Your Fund or Startup

TechCrunch

On January 12, 2016, Grindr announced it had sold a 60% controlling stake in the company to Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese gaming firm, valuing the company at $155 million. Champagne bottles were surely popped at the small-ish firm.

Though not at a unicorn-level valuation, the 9-figure exit was still respectable and signaled a bright future for the gay hookup app. Indeed, two years later, Kunlun bought the rest of the firm at more than double the valuation and was planning a public offering for Grindr.

On March 27, 2019, it all fell apart. Kunlun was putting Grindr up for sale instead.

What went wrong? It wasn’t that Grindr’s business ground to a halt. By all accounts, its business seems to actually be growing. The problem was that Kunlun owning Grindr was viewed as a threat to national security. Consequently, CFIUS, or the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, stepped in to block the transaction.

So what changed? CFIUS was expanded by FIRRMA, or the Foreign Risk Review Modernization Act, in late 2018, which gave it massive new power and scale. Unlike before, FIRRMA gave CFIUS a technology focus. So now CFIUS isn’t just an American problem—it’s an American tech problem. And in the coming years, it will transform venture capital, Chinese involvement in US tech, and maybe even startups as we know it.

Here’s a closer look at how it all fits together.

What is CFIUS?

Image via Getty Images / Busà Photography

CFIUS is the most important agency you’ve never heard of, and until recently it wasn’t even more than a committee. In essence, CFIUS has the ability to stop foreign entities, called “covered entities,” from acquiring companies when it could adversely affect national security—a “covered transaction.”

Once a filing is made, CFIUS investigates the transaction and both parties, which can take over a month in its first pass. From there, the company and CFIUS enter a negotiation to see if they can resolve any issues.

May 24th 2019, 2:06 pm

Daily Crunch: Assange faces Espionage Act charges

TechCrunch

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.

1. WikiLeaks’ Assange charged under the Espionage Act in a ‘major test case’ for press freedom

Julian Assange, founder of whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, is facing more than a dozen additional charges from U.S. federal prosecutors.

According to the newly unsealed indictment, Assange faces 17 new charges — including publishing classified information — under the Espionage Act, a law typically reserved for spies working against the U.S. or whistleblowers and leakers who worked for the U.S. intelligence community.

2. Lime’s founding CEO steps down as his co-founder takes control

Lime announced co-founder and chief executive officer Toby Sun will transition out of the C-suite to focus on company culture and R&D. Brad Bao, a Lime co-founder and longtime Tencent executive, will assume CEO responsibilities.

3. The US Senate is coming after ‘loot boxes’

A new Senate bill asserts that “pay-to-win” transactions that give users a nominal advantage for a fee, or loot boxes, which allow users to essentially play a slot machine for rare and important items, are bad for minors and need to be banned.

4. Best Buy cancels Samsung Galaxy Fold pre-orders

A note from Best Buy cites “a plethora of unforeseen hiccups,” and adds, “Because we put our customers first and want to ensure they are taken care of in the best possible manner, Best Buy has decided to cancel all current pre-orders for the Samsung Galaxy Fold.”

5. Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Among other things, Prospress has developed WooCommerce Subscriptions, a recurring payment solution specifically designed for WooCommerce.

6. Instagram’s vertical IGTV surrenders to landscape status quo

Following lackluster buy-in from creators loathe to shoot in a proprietary format that’s tough to reuse, IGTV is retreating from its vertical-only policy.

7. Shopify quietly acquired Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing

Handshake is a New York startup that offers a commerce platform for businesses that sell wholesale goods.

May 24th 2019, 1:49 pm

Apply to TechCrunch’s premier startup competition, Startup Battlefield

TechCrunch

Imagine what $100,000 cash could do for your startup dreams. If you’re an early-stage startup founder determined to take your business to the top, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the serious task of competing in Startup Battlefield, our premier pitch-off that takes place at Disrupt San Francisco 2019 on October 2-4.

Step one is ridiculously quick and easy. Simply fill out this application form. Applying to and participating in Startup Battlefield is 100% free, so you have absolutely nothing to lose. Let’s get ‘er done!

Our Battlefield-tested TechCrunch editors have a knack for spotting greatness, and they’ll pour over every application to select 15-30 startups to compete. Each team receives extensive coaching — again from experienced TechCrunch editors and again, at no cost.

You’ll be ready to take your shot in the form of a six-minute pitch to a panel of expert VCs and tech leaders. Then they’ll pepper you with questions. If you make it into the second and final round, you’ll face a different set of judges, deliver your pitch again and endure another probing Q&A. From that final group, one exceptional startup will win $100,000 in equity-free cash and hoist the Disrupt cup. And it could be you.

The action is fast and furious, and it all takes place on the Disrupt Main Stage in front of a live audience of thousands, including tech movers and shakers, investors and more than 400 media outlets. Plus, we live-stream the entire competition on TechCrunch.com, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. And it’s available later on-demand.

You don’t even have to win the $100,000 to reap incredible benefits. In addition to exhibiting in Startup Alley all three days of the show, Battlefield participants get media and investor attention, invitations to VIP events, free passes to future TechCrunch events and complimentary subscriptions to Extra Crunch.

Plus, you’ll become part of the legendary Startup Battlefield alumni community. That group, which numbers more than 850 strong, has collectively raised more than $8.9 billion in funding and produced more than 110 exits. You might recognize some of the companies, like Mint, Dropbox, Yammer, TripIt, Getaround and Cloudflare to name just a few.

Startup Battlefield takes place at Disrupt SF 2019 on October 2-4. Are you ready to fight to make your dream a reality? Apply to compete in Startup Battlefield today.

Great news, startup founders. There’s more than one way to showcase your early-stage startup at Disrupt SF 2019. We’re looking for outstanding startups to apply for our TC Top Picks program. If we select your company, you’ll receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package, VIP treatment and plenty of media and investor exposure.

Interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt SF 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

May 24th 2019, 1:19 pm

Amazon finally supports Traditional Chinese books on Kindle

TechCrunch

A long-awaited service for readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and some other overseas Chinese communities have finally come true: Amazon has just started offering Traditional Chinese books for its Kindle E-reader.

The release filled an obvious gap for Kindle, which debuted back in 2007 and has been growing the number of languages it supports over the years. 2012 marked a major step in its Asia expansion as it began providing E-books in Simplified Chinese — the type of characters used in mainland China — under its China-specific site. That was a prelude to Kindle’s entry into China the next year. We will see if the same pattern of regional push will repeat for Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Kindle isn’t officially distributed at the moment.

Previously, people who read Traditional characters had to find roundabout ways to access the language on Kindle, such as buying Simplified content and converting it into Traditional using customized fonts that became available since Amazon’s 5.9.6 firmware update. Of course, that’s a time-consuming solution riddled with all sorts of calibration issues in spacing and font size.

The Traditional Chinese store kicked off with a list of over 20,000 books that people can read on their Kindle apps and Kindle devices. For some comparison, Kindle carried some 60,000 Simplified titles a year after introducing the language.

Users can now find Traditional Chinese books on a dedicated portal hosted on all existing Amazon.com websites, the company says. The early selection spans popular authors like Hugo Award-winning Liu Cixin and Chinese classics like Dream of the Red Chamber, in addition to translated bestsellers including George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series.

The regional launch is also targeted at authors, who can now self-publish their Traditional Chinese books through Kindle Direct Publishing and distribute the works to the language communities around the world.

“Bringing Traditional Chinese language books to Kindle is a step forward on our journey to provide more choice and selection to readers around the world,” said David Naggar, vice president of Kindle Books in a statement. But the store is not as finished as its Simplified counterpart yet, missing editor’s choice, book sales, pre-sales, book rankings and other potentially popular features.

May 24th 2019, 12:48 pm

Sonic the Hedgehog movie is getting delayed to redesign the title character

TechCrunch

To say that reaction to the first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer was mixed would be overly diplomatic. But at least fans were able to look beyond the thin premise and bizarre Jim Carrey turn for long enough to focus on what was really important: the weird ass Sonic design.

The latest in an increasingly frequent number of wins for internet commenters, director Jeff Fowler balked earlier this month, telling Twitter, “you aren’t happy with the design & you want changes. It’s going to happen.” Looks like Fowler and Paramount are going ahead with the changes, but it’s going to take the speedy blue fur ball a few months longer to get here than initially expected.

Once again, Fowler announced the big news on Twitter, writing, “Taking a little more time to make Sonic just right.” That tweet was accompanied by a new Valentine’s release date for the film, a three month delay of the original timeframe. Given that it’s already taken the beloved video game hero nearly 30 years to get to the big screen, what’s another couple of months, really?

Hopefully it will be enough time to hop cleanly over the uncanny valley.

May 24th 2019, 12:33 pm

MacBook Pro teardown reveals subtle changes to keyboard mechanism

TechCrunch

The shift to a new butterfly keyboard mechanism is Apple’s least popular design decision in recent memory. After a flood of negative feedback over stuck and malfunctioning keys, the company, has continued to upgrade the technology with subtle fixes.

Just two days ago Apple issued yet another update — one it believes will address many of the system’s on-going woes. Today iFixit broke open the new model, identifying some of the changes underneath. The tweaks appear to be small, and the iFixit folks are still on the fence about precisely what’s new here, but things do appear to line up with what we were told by the company.

Here’s Matthew,

The MacBook Pro keyboard mechanism has had a materials change in the mechanism. Apple says that this new keyboard mechanism composition will substantially reduce the double-type/no-type issue.

There have been some material changes to various elements, including the membrane the company added last year to both cut down on keyboard volume and (hopefully) help keep debris from lodging themselves beneath the keys. The material has shifted from an opaque (likely) silicone to clear (probably) nylon.

The dome, which provides the bounce back while typing appears to have been updated, as well in order to help protect it from the wear and tear that might have been contributing to failure.

“There are myriad possible reasons for this switch to crack or wear out,” iFixit writes, “manufacturing defects, plain old fatigue, prolonged heat, moisture, outgassing from other components, and corrosion are all common culprits.”

As with past updates, Apple’s choosing to remain silent over what precisely has changed. This time out, however, the company’s including the new models under the umbrella of its Keyboard Service Program, just in case.

May 24th 2019, 12:18 pm

Luckin leaves bitter aftertaste, now trading below IPO price

TechCrunch

In the first few days following Luckin Coffee’s initial public offering, the stock chart for LK looked like a roller coaster. Now it’s looking more like a freefall.

The Chinese Coffee chain successfully completed its highly anticipated offering roughly a week ago, raising over $550 million after pricing at $17 per share, the high end of its $15-$17 per share range.

Luckin was met with a warm reception from the markets, with the stock skyrocketing roughly 20% to a greater than $5 billion market cap in its first day of trading. However, concerns over the company’s lofty valuation, major cash burn and uncertain path to profitability have caused the stock to nosedive since.

Luckin has around 25% since closing its debut trading day at $20.38 per share, and 40% from its intraday peak of $25.96. As of Friday’s open, Luckin stock sat at $15.44, now well below its IPO price.

Leading into the IPO, Luckin had already been the topic of much debate. Luckin had filed for its public offering just a year and a half after its founding. And prior to its filing, Luckin had raised over $500 million in venture capital through four fundraising rounds that all occurred just within roughly one year’s time, per Pitchbook and Crunchbase data.

As Luckin’s valuation continued to level up, many questioned the sustainability of its business model and heavily discounted pricing strategy, with Luckin’s limited operating history already pointing to substantial losses and heavy cash outflows.

The concerns have followed Luckin into the public markets and it’s unclear whether the stock’s early struggles are just growing pains or a broader indication that public investors have limits to the levels of nascency and unprofitability they are willing to accept and bet capital on.

As one of the few publicly-traded early-stage growth companies, and likely the only one in the “coffee” vertical, Luckin lacks similar companies for investors to compare the stock to and also seems to lack a natural investor base – with the story a bit too foreign for typical tech sector investors and a bit too hectic for your typical food and beverage investor.

What is clear is that much is still misunderstood regarding the company’s unique history, its growth strategy, local market dynamics or otherwise. We’ll continue to keep an eye on Luckin stock to see whether the picture gets a bit brighter once investors get more comfortable with the story and as management proves its ability to execute.

For now, check out articles on Extra Crunch written by TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton and Rita Liao for deep dive primers into Luckin and all its moving parts.

May 24th 2019, 12:18 pm

Why Luckin’s ultimate target may not be Starbucks

TechCrunch

Starbucks plans to double its store count in China to 5,000 in 2021 and Luckin, a one-year-old coffee startup, is matching up by aiming to reach 4,500 by the end of this year. Luckin’s upsized $651 million flotation has brought American investors’ attention to this potential Starbucks rival in China, where the Seattle giant controlled over half of the coffee market as late as 2017. But as soon as you make your first purchase with Luckin, you realize its ultimate goal may not be to topple Starbucks.

To get your caffeine intake from Luckin, the ordering process happens entirely on its app. First, you will decide how you want to fetch the drink: have it delivered within 30 minutes, pick it up at a nearby Luckin kiosk, or sit back and sip at one of its full-on cafes, or what it calls ‘relax stores.’

Say you’re tied up at the desk, you can input your location to check if you’re within Luckin’s delivery radius. Luckin has essentially built a vast coffee delivery network through its partnership with one of China’s biggest courier services SF Express, which dispatch staff to ferry the drinks on scoot fleets. You then place the order, choosing from a range of drinks and customizing it — hot or cold, the amount of sugar and portions of creamer, the type of syrup flavor and the likes. When you get to the end, Luckin will ask you to pay via its app. If you’re a first-time user, you get a ‘first order free’ voucher, a common strategy for many Chinese consumer-facing apps to lure new users.

May 24th 2019, 12:18 pm

Roland’s tiny R-06 recorder is better than your phone’s recorder app

TechCrunch

In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.
In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.

May 24th 2019, 10:18 am

How to avoid An IPO

TechCrunch

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

We’re back to our old, weekly cadence. Which is all well and good but after a run of doubling up episodes to keep up with the news cycle, showing up just every seven days nearly feels like vacation. But hey, we’re here for you (you follow us both on Twitter, right?).

There was a lot to go over, so please enjoy the following:

An IPO update: First up we checked in on our favorite children, the recently public. Uber and Lyft are still down. Fastly is still far up while Luckin Coffee is losing air like a pinched balloon. Also, Slack has a new ticker symbol, and we have thoughts about it.

Changes at YC: In case you hadn’t heard, YC has a brand new president by the name of Geoff Ralston. Sam Altman, opting to focus exclusively on OpenAI, is no more.

DoorDash’s capital hunger: We had to record a day early this week, putting us precisely one day ahead of the DoorDash round. Turns out it was a $600 million round at a $12.7 billion valuation. Listen on for our take on the round, the company and its space.

Sun Basket raises: Yet another food delivery — well, meal kit delivery — business raised this week, too. Sun Basket, which sends healthy meal-kits to its customers, closed in on $30 million in Series E funding.

TransferWise’s not-an-IPO: What do you call a company more than doubling its valuation through a huge, sanctioned secondary transaction? Weird flex, but ok. Anyway. TransferWise is now worth $3.5 billion, up from its now-passé Series E valuation of $1.58 billion. If you want to dodge an IPO this is one pretty good way.

Finally, TransferWise actually makes money. Quelle surprise, literally.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

May 24th 2019, 10:18 am

Best Buy cancels Samsung Galaxy Fold preorders

TechCrunch

Samsung is taking its time bringing the Galaxy Fold back to market. And frankly, that’s probably for the best. The Note debacle from a few years back was an important lesson about what happens when you rush a product back to market. That one resulted in a second recall — PR nightmae upon PR nightmare.

With a release date still very much in limbo, Best Buy has sent notes to those who pre-ordered the Fold. Spotted by The Verge, the letter has since been posted to Best Buy’s support forum. It cites “a plethora of unforeseen hiccups,” (fair enought) adding, “Because we put our customers first and want to ensure they are taken care of in the best possible manner, Best Buy has decided to cancel all current pre-orders for the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

The letter goes on to assure customers that the big box retailer is “working closely with Samsung” to help deliver the product to customers. At the moment, however, their guess on the timeframe is as good as ours.

Recent reports have suggested that an announcement was imminent, with the company having solved design flaws that had reviewers peeling off screens and getting debris jammed in the holes of the folding mechanism. More recent reports gave the product a June 13 release date, but that too appears to have been scrubbed for the time being.

May 24th 2019, 10:18 am

Uber launches a Jump e-bike pilot in London, one year on from winning taxi license appeal

TechCrunch

After admitting it had to modify some of its Jump electric bikes to fix braking issues — the same problem that had halted Lyft’s e-bike business — Uber is getting back on its bike, so to speak. Almost one year after nearly getting driven off London’s streets completely by losing its taxi operating license, Uber today announced the launch of Jump e-bikes in London. The service is kicking off with a pilot of 350 bikes in the borough of Islington, with plans to expand to more areas of the city in the coming months.

If you are in the catchment, Jump Bikes will now appear as an option in your Uber app alongside UberPool, UberX and public transportation data — which was added three weeks ago.

Pricing for the dockless Jump bikes is modelled on how Jump works in the US: it costs £1 to unlock a bike, and then £0.12 per minute to ride it, with your first five minutes free. The electric pedal-assist responds to pedal pressure, and can give a boost to help you ride up to 15 miles per hour. If you park a bike outside of the allowed range (currently, Islington), you get warning on the app. And if you leave the bike parked there, you get a £25 fine.

“There is now one more transport alternative for the 3.5 million people who use the Uber app in the capital,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s GM for Northern and Eastern Europe. “Over time, it’s our goal to help people replace their car with their phone by offering a range of mobility options – whether cars, bikes or public transport, all in the Uber app.”

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, built on hailing cars through apps, have been gradually incorporating other forms of transportation on to their platforms to diversify what they offer to consumers, and to provide a more open and accessible face to local regulators.

In urban areas, sometimes taking cars is excessive or impractical because of the distances covered, or the traffic situation, or because the passenger wants to do something more active than sit in the back of a Prius. (It’s not the only one: as we reported a couple of weeks ago, Uber’s soon-to-be-Middle Eastern business Careem, which it’s buying for $3.1 billion, has also been working on buying a bike startup.)

That has led to adding in other “vehicles” like bikes and scooters, as well as public transportation for those who want to walk a little as well. The bigger idea is that even in cases where the operator — Uber, in this case — is not getting a cut on the ride (as in the case of public transportation), or actually making very little on the ride while also taking on more overhead (as it does with owning bike fleets where average rides are likely to be under $10), it’s helping create a habit. It wants to be the app a consumer turns to for any transportation-related need.

But it’s not just about consumer choice. It was almost a year ago that Uber won a hotly-contested appeal in the London courts to get an extension of its vehicle-operating license in London (which had been snapped away from it by angry regulators) while it worked on fixing some of the issues that it had with its service: adding more environment-friendly, and car traffic congestion-reducing, options like e-bikes is also part of that effort.

Still, micro-mobility — the term for two-wheeled vehicles and the short rides and small fees that are typically collected around them — has had something of a bumpy road in London and other markets.

We still do not have any on-demand scooter services (electric or otherwise) running widely in London. Part of the reason is that the UK’s Department of Transportation and Transport for London (the city’s local authority) — have not yet determined whether and how to change electric scooters’ classification for open-road use.

Currently, electric scooters are classified as light electric vehicles and are illegal on both roads and sidewalks, so can only be used on private property, making any wide commercial rollouts impossible. To date, the only electric scooter businesses that we have seen launched in the UK have been pilots in closed campuses, like the Bird scooter service in the Olympic Village started last year.

There are a number of electric scooter services already available in other markets in Europe — Paris, where you might find kids giving each other lifts and couples romantically co-riding on single vehicles, is apparently one of the largest e-scooter markets in the world now — but these are facing other problems, such as malfunctioning vehicles, and vast, clutter-ific oversupply. That’s not stopping money from pouring into the startups, though!

Bikes have also had issues: a number of the companies that confidently launched services a year ago have either collapsed or significantly curtailed operations. Some are recapitalising and trying once more on a different footing. Mobike, which is currently raising money to complete a spinoff from its Chinese parent, also wants to add alternative forms of transport, which could include e-bikes and scooters, to its fleet.

Electric bikes — despite some notable hiccups in the US, such as Lyft’s service halt, executive changes and layoffs — are a story that has yet to be fully played out.

If you were to walk through many parts of the city today, you’d likely see multiple Lime e-bikes alongside the plethora of other shared bikes that can be picked up and used on-demand.

The city is sprawling enough that walking might take a bit too long, and congested enough that any motorised car or bus also doesn’t inspire, with a good enough amount of inclines that regular bikes face a barrier from some: the perfect environment for e-bikes, some might say.

That’s given Uber a big fillip to move ahead with the Jump launch here now.

“We’re excited to bring JUMP bikes to Islington, our first launch in London. With our electric bikes, we hope to encourage more people to try an environmentally friendly way to get across the city,” said Christian Freese, General Manager of JUMP, EMEA, in a statement.

“Our JUMP bikes have been designed with safety in mind, with a sturdy frame and a bright red colour that makes them visible to other road users. The app explains features of the bike before your first trip so you can ride confidently. We encourage everyone to think about wearing a helmet, follow all traffic laws and break early and gradually.”

Unlike its original forays into car-sharing, Uber’s move with bikes has been made with playing-nice in mind.

“We’re working hard to make Islington an attractive and easier place to walk and cycle. We’re pleased to welcome JUMP to Islington – bike sharing offers a simple way for many residents, workers and visitors to get around quickly, cheaply and conveniently,” said Claudia Webbe, a councillor in the borough of Islington who is also executive member for Environment and Place. “Shared electric bikes are accessible to many people of different ages and fitness levels, and can help encourage even more people to switch to cycling, which is healthier and more environmentally friendly.”

May 24th 2019, 7:28 am

Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M round for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

TechCrunch

In many large cities across Africa, motorcycle taxies are as common as yellow-cabs in New York.

That includes Lagos, Nigeria, where ride-hail startup Gokada has raised a $5.3 million Series A round to grow its two-wheel transit business.

Gokada has trained and on-boarded over 1000 motorcycles and their pilots on its app that connects commuters to moto-taxis and the company’s signature green, DOT approved helmets.

The startup has completed nearly 1 million rides since it was co-founded in 2018 by Fahim Saleh—a Bangladeshi entrepreneur who previously founded and exited Pathao, a motorcycle, bicycle, and car transportation company.

For Gokada’s Series A, Rise Capital led the investment joined by Adventure Capital, IC Global Partners, and Illinois based First MidWest Group. Coinciding with the round, Nigerian investor and Jobberman founder Ayodeji Adewunmi will join Gokada as co-CEO.

Gokada will use the financing to increase its fleet and ride volume, while developing a network to offer goods and services to its drivers. “We’re going to start a Gokada club in each of the cities with a restaurant where drivers can relax, and we’ll experiment with a Gokada Shop, where drivers can get things they need on a regular basis, such as plantains, yams, and rice,” Saleh told TechCrunch.

The startup differs from other ride-hail ventures in that it doesn’t split fare revenue with drivers. Gokada charges drivers a flat-fee of 3000 Nigerian Naira a day (around $8) to work on their platform. The company is looking to generate a larger share of its revenue from building a commercial network around its rider community.

“We don’t do anything with the fares. We want to create an Amazon prime type membership…and ecosystem around the driver where we’re going to provide them more and more services, such as motorcycle insurance, maintenance, personal life-insurance, micro-finance loans,” Saleh said.

“We’re trying to provide a network of great services for our drivers that makes them stick with us, and not necessarily see a reason to switch to other platforms,” said Saleh.

Competition among those platforms is heating up, as global players enter Africa’s motorcycle taxi market and local startups raise VC and expand to new countries.

Uber began offering a two-wheel transit option in East Africa in 2018, around the same time Bolt (previously Taxify) started motorcycle taxi service in Kenya.

Rwanda has motorbike taxi startups SafeMotos and Yegomoto. Uganda based motorcycle ride-hail company Safeboda expanded into Kenya in 2018 and this month raised a Series B round of an undisclosed amount co-led by the venture arms of Germany’s Allianz and Indonesia’s GoJek.

Safeboda will use the round to further expand in East Africa and Nigeria in the near future, the startup’s CEO Maxime Diedonne confirmed to TechCrunch.

In Nigeria, Gokada faces a competitor in local startup MAX.ng, which offers mobile based passenger and logistics delivery services.

Overall, Africa’s motorcycle taxi market is becoming a significant sub-sector in the continent’s e-transport startup landscape. Two-wheel transit startups are vying to digitize a share of Africa’s boda boda and okada markets (the name for motorcycle taxis in East and West Africa)—representing a collective revenue pool of $4 billion and expected to double to $9 billion by 2021, according to a TechSci study.

“There is a formalization of an informal sector play here…to make it safer and higher quality,” Gokada investor Nazar Yasin of Rise Capital told TechCrunch.

The appeal to passengers is the lower cost of motorbike transit compared to buses or cabs ($1.85 is Gokada’s average fare) and the ability of two-wheelers to cut through the heavy congestion in cities such as Lagos and Nairobi.

A notable facet of motorcycle ride-hail companies in Africa is better organizing a space with a reputation for being somewhat chaotic and downright dangerous (see Nigeria’s past bans on the sector entirely due to safety).

For Gokada that includes training courses and certification of riders, the ability to track trips and safety stats from the app, and quality control for motorcycles—something that’s been lacking in East and West Africa’s non-digital moto-taxi space.

The company’s rider program offers a way for drivers to buy, own, and maintain their motorcycles as they earn. Gokada has entered into partnership with Indian motorcycle maker TVS Motors to create a custom version of the company’s TVS Apache motorcycles for Gokada drivers.

Gokada is also experimenting with adding sensors to its fleet to better track safety standards. “We’re looking at seat sensors and another GPS sensor to track things like ‘did this driver add more than one passenger on the bike’ and all that data will feed back into our servers,” Saleh said.

The company won’t enter any new countries in Africa in the near future. “We plan to expand all over Nigeria. We think its a large enough market for now,” said Gokada CEO Fahim Saleh. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation (190 million) and largest economy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 24th 2019, 5:28 am

Crypto exchange Binance prepares to add margin trading ‘soon’

TechCrunch

Binance, the world’s most prominent crypto exchange, says it is close to adding a much-anticipated margin trading feature to its service following weeks of speculation.

The company tweeted confirmation of the upcoming feature in a screenshot which subtly teases the imminent arrival of margin trading options. Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (pictured above) first revealed that the feature was headed to Binance during a live stream following a hack earlier this month that saw Binance lose around $40 million in Bitcoin.

TechCrunch understands that margin trading has been beta tested among selected users. A Binance representative declined to comment on the specifics, but did confirm that margin trading will be available on Binance.com “soon.”

 

Margin trading, which lets traders use their balance as collateral to super-size their buying power, is seen by many as an important growth vector for crypto trading. Binance is often the world’s largest exchange based on daily trading volumes — though it is currently ranked second, according to Coinmarketcap data — but it has avoided margin trading to date. Instead, exchanges like BitMex, Huobi Pro, Poloniex, Kraken and Coinbase’s GDAX have run with the ball and offered the functionality. Coinbase has also considered adding it for regular, retail customers.

The new feature is part of a number of expansions from Binance as it aims to broaden its reach. The company has added support for purchasing crypto using fiat currency in three countries — Jersey (for the UK), Uganda and most recently Singapore — while it also released an early version of its ‘decentralized’ exchange (DEX) to offer further trading options.

Despite that hack, which saw Binance pause withdrawals and deposits for a week, the crypto market remains bullish on the company. Binance’s BNB token passed a $30 valuation this week for the first in its history. Its worth is up 8 percent over the last 24 hours — that’s better than Bitcoin (5 percent), Ethereum (6 percent) and XRP (4 percent), which are crypto’s three largest tokens based on ‘coin market cap.’

There’s been excitement around Bitcoin’s rally in recent weeks, which saw its price briefly pass $8,000 a coin this month, but BNB has been the pick of crypto’s top tokens in 2019. Its value has increased more than five-fold since January 1, when it was worth $6. Today, it trades at $33, as of the time of writing.

Binance’s BNB token has been a standout performer for crypto investors in 2019 [Chart via Coinmarketcap.com]

May 24th 2019, 5:28 am

Online bank Simple makes things harder by removing bill pay

TechCrunch

With a growing number of challenger banks taking on the U.S. market, one of the original startup banks, Simple — now owned by BBVA — has taken the unusual step of removing a core banking feature: bill pay. The company claimed the feature was under-utilized and usage was trending downwards, which is why it decided to sunset the option to pay bills through its app. That decision, not surprisingly, has angered a number of customers who are taking to social media and online forums like Reddit threatening to switch banks as a result.

It’s likely true that fewer people today use bill pay than in the past.

The feature is something of a holdover from an earlier era before electronic payment options and auto pay became as ubiquitous as they are now. And many customers may still have bill pay set up even though another electronic option has since become available. Or they may not want to take the time to reconfigure things, when what they have works.

But despite bill pay’s waning usage, it’s odd to shut down such a commonplace banking feature. It’s rare to find a bank that doesn’t offer bill pay services, in fact, outside of a handful of smaller up-and-comers that aren’t full-service banks.

Even new most of the newer U.S. fintech players like Chime, Qapital, SoFi Money, Varo, Aspiration, and others offer bill pay services where they mail a check for you. And it’s common among more traditional online banks like Ally, as well.

Removing bill pay also greatly impacts those who pay their rent by way of a mailed check, as many landlords are not set up for electronic payments. This is a recurring complaint among the customers who are lambasting Simple for its decision.

Instead, these customers will now have to purchase Simple’s newly available paper checks (sold in packs of 25 for $5 — oh, what a timely launch!).

They’ll then need to buy stamps, address envelopes, fill out checks and actually mail them.

Postal mail, of course, is not a preferred by today’s younger generation — many of whom never had to write letters, having grown up in the internet age. Millennials have even complained that the very act of having to mail things gives them anxiety, due to all the steps involved and their overall unfamiliarity with the process.

Considering that banks like Simple are targeting the millennial customer, forcing them back to checks they have to mail themselves is not the smartest move — at least from a public relations perspective.

On top of all this, Simple’s announcement about the discontinuation of bill pay was not well-communicated. As it touted the arrival of paper checks, an email footer also quietly noted that bill bay would also shut down after July 9, 2019. Customers dinged Simple for its lack of transparency.

The company claimed it was sending emails about bill pay to customers — but many didn’t receive any message before learning of the change on Twitter. And they were angry.

Since the decision was announced, Simple has been dutifully responding to customers’ complaints on Twitter, sometimes with smiley emojis and cheerful customer service-ese, like: “We hear ya. Mailing payments for bills can be nerve wracking.” 

The company even wished one customer well on their journey to find another bank.

In addition to declining usage, the company said its newer Expenses feature was not working well with Bill Pay, which was another factor in its decision.

Predictably, the volume of customer complaints has led to the creation of a Change.org petition.

Things are now going so badly that Simple just sent customers another email in response to all the backlash. In it, the company acknowledges how unhappy customers are about its decision and its handling of the news.

“To be completely transparent, a really small percentage of our customers use Bill Pay,” the email reads. “With this service’s usage declining, we made the decision to sunset it. This allows us to use those resources to build new features that benefit a broader number of customers. We know that some of you aren’t happy about this decision or how we broke the news, and for that, we’re sorry.”

The decision, however, still stands.

Simple was one of the original innovators in online banking. But after its acquisition, the pace of innovation has slowed down and customer growth has stagnated. Over the years, the company has been maligned for not allowing non-U.S. citizens to sign up and for shutting down customers’ accounts without with little notice, due to transition issues.

Now it’s angering customers again just as a number of new, millennial-focused online banks are hitting the market — and as challenger banks from Europe, like N26 and Revolut are preparing to make the jump to the U.S. That may not be the best time to send a core group of users in search of alternatives.

The full email sent to customers is below:

You probably heard this already but if you haven’t: Simple’s “Pay a bill” and “Mail a check” features (also known as “Bill Pay”) are going away on or after July 9. If you have a payment scheduled on or after that date, it will not be paid or sent.

To be completely transparent, a really small percentage of our customers use Bill Pay. With this service’s usage declining, we made the decision to sunset it. This allows us to use those resources to build new features that benefit a broader number of customers.

We know that some of you aren’t happy about this decision or how we broke the news, and for that, we’re sorry.

We’ll continue to be in touch over the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, we’re reachable via a support message or at (888) 248-0632.

Thanks,

— The Team at Simple

Simple has been offered the opportunity to comment.

 

 

May 24th 2019, 5:28 am

The U.S. Senate is coming after ‘loot boxes’

TechCrunch

Gamers feel passionately about loot boxes, turns out some elected officials do too.

A new Senate bill was formally introduced today with bipartisan support and it could categorically shift how today’s top platforms and distribution platforms monetize the titles they sell. The bill’s introduction was first reported by The Verge.

The bill asserts that “pay-to-win” transactions that give users a nominal advantage for a fee or loot boxes which allow users to essentially play a slot machine for gaining rare or important items, are bad for minors and need to be banned. If the bill passes, offending studios could be fined.

It’s hard to reiterate what a major impact this legislation could have, the games industry has reorganized itself around micro-transactions in the past decade. Much of the growth of the industry’s greatest success stories has been tied to the idea that free-to-download games can quickly nurture massive growth with network effects and then gradually monetize those users via small payments for items that can give them a unique look or edge.

This obviously wouldn’t fully sink in-game transactions by any means, but loot boxes have been one of the most lucrative models and by placing a ceiling on acceptable behavior for these transactions, game companies might have to find new ways to monetize their content.

The death of loot boxes probably isn’t going to be mourned by many outside of game publishers’ accounting departments. There was something kind of fun about them for adults that knew exactly what they were doing, but it was still mostly in an infuriating way.

Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who introduced the bill, told Kotaku earlier this week that loot boxes were “basically adding casinos to children’s games,” which generally feels like a fair assertion.

As with almost all major pieces of legislation that aim to address new trends in technology, there’s potential that broadness in language can leave room for this to be very damaging to the industry, but the broadness here seems to be that this minor-oriented provision is going to end up being universal. Gizmodo notes some more issues with the grayness surrounding what exactly is “pay-to-win.”

What is a “minor-oriented” game? Is that simply any game with an ESRB rating below “M for Mature”? Nope, the bill outlines that game publishers need to focus on titles if they have “constructive knowledge that any users are under 18.” So, that’s just about every single game.

This was addressed, sort of, in a FAQs list released by Hawley’s camp:

While it is true that a large proportion of game players are adults, even games with predominantly adult player bases – including games marketed primarily to adults – tend to have enormous appeal to children. The onus should be on developers to deter child consumption of products that foster gambling and similarly compulsive purchasing behavior, just as is true in other industries that restrict access to certain kinds of products and forms of entertainment to adult consumers.

The legislation has some important problems its aiming to put in check, and clearly the gaming industry hasn’t been as active as it should in ensuring minors aren’t being taken advantage of in the midst of a micro-transaction land grab, so I’m not going to cry over them, but there’s a lot at play here so hopefully nothing rushes through without proper considerations.

You can read the full text of the legislation here.

May 23rd 2019, 9:42 pm

Lime’s founding CEO steps down as his co-founder takes control

TechCrunch

In an all-hands meeting this afternoon, the scooter and bike-sharing phenom Lime announced co-founder and chief executive officer Toby Sun would transition out of the C-suite to focus on company culture and R&D. Brad Bao, a Lime co-founder and long-time Tencent executive, will assume chief responsibilities, Lime confirmed to TechCrunch.

“Lime has experienced unprecedented growth in the global marketplace under the joint leadership of our co-founders Brad Bao and Toby Sun,” the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Fortunately, Lime’s structure allows for our executive leadership to be multipurpose and we are making a few changes to our team today to seize the opportunity ahead of us.”

Sun and Bao launched Lime together in late 2016. The San Mateo-based company had near-immediate success, attracting hundreds of millions in venture capital funding and reaching a valuation of more than $1 billion in only a year and a half’s time. Today, the company is valued at $2.4 billion and is expected to hit the fundraising circuit soon.

In addition to today’s CEO shake-up, Lime’s chief operating officer and former GV partner Joe Kraus has been promoted to the role of president. Kraus joined Lime-full time late last year after more than a decade at the venture arm of Alphabet.

Bao, given his Tencent tenure, seems like a natural choice to lead Lime into a more mature phase of business. Sun, a former investment director at Fosun Kinzon, has less operational experience than his counterpart, most recently as the vice president of its gaming decision.

News of Sun’s demotion comes hot off the heels of a fresh new marketing campaign in which the Lime co-founders describe the scooter-sharing startup’s origin story and grand ambitions. The company, backed by Bain Capital Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Fidelity Ventures, GV, IVP, and a slew of other top-notch investors, is active in more than 100 cities in the U.S. and 27 cities internationally. As of June, riders had taken more than 50 million trips on one of Lime’s vehicles.

May 23rd 2019, 9:28 pm

Canopy’s upscale co-working business adds a new location in SF on the heels of strategic funding

TechCrunch

Canopy, an upscale, profitable developer of co-working spaces, has expanded its footprint in San Francisco to a third location on the heels of a strategic financing round.

Co-founded by the product designer Yves Behar; the second generation design-build developer Amir Mortazavi; and serial entrepreneur and medical office space developer Steve Mohebi, Canopy bills itself as a better-designed WeWork for high-powered adults (or aspiring high-powered adults).

Canopy co-founders Amir Mortazavi, Yves Behar and Steve Mohebi

The company opened its latest office space in the financial district of San Francisco and has plans to double its . Jackson Square location with a new penthouse space.

Investors in the round were culled from Canopy members and a few institutional investment funds including: Structure Capital, Montage Ventures, Graph Ventures and individuals like Erik  Blachford, the former chief executive of Expedia, Mark PIncus, the former chief executive of Zynga, and Spencer Raskoff the co-founder of Zillow.

Canopy’s latest office will be at 353 Kearny Street and Pine. The ground floor will house a retail store in partnership with Monocle Magazine ad contain 32 offices suitable for everyone from one person shops to larger teams of ten.

Like all of its offices, Canopy’s new building will be kitted out with Herman Miller sit-to-stand desks and Sayl chairs, and sound masking for privacy.

“Designing our spaces along with my friend and co-founder, Yves Behar, to serve the unmet demands of the premium segment has been a true labor of passion,” said co-founder and CEO, Amir Mortazavi, in a statement. “We build everything around our members’ needs — a generosity of space, abundant natural light, easy flow between private and shared spaces — to ensure the overall Canopy experience is at once inspiring and calm.”

The company boasts 300 members already and its founders say the business is already profitable. Canopy’s workspaces are not for everyone. Prices start at $100 per month to take advantage of the company’s addresses for people who want a virtual office. For folks who want ten days worth of access to the co-working space’s common areas and an actual seat at a table, the price tag is $365 per month ($275 gets you 60 days of access out of a year).

Meanwhile, anyone who wants to be able to sit at an actual desk and work at a Canopy space better be willing to shell out $925 per month. That’s… not cheap.

May 23rd 2019, 8:54 pm

You can do it, robot! Watch the beefy, 4-legged HyQReal pull a plane

TechCrunch

It’s not really clear just yet exactly what all these powerful, agile quadrupedal robots people are working on are going to do, exactly, but even so it never gets old watching them do their thing. The latest is an Italian model called HyQReal, which demonstrates its aspiration to winning strongman competitions, among other things, by pulling an airplane behind it.

The video is the debut for HyQReal, which is the successor to HyQ, a much smaller model created years ago by the Italian Institute of Technology, and its close relations. Clearly the market, such as it is, has advanced since then, and discerning customers now want the robot equivalent of a corn-fed linebacker.

That’s certainly how HyQReal seems to be positioned; in its video, the camera lingers lovingly on its bulky titanium haunches and thick camera cage. Its low slung body recalls a bulldog rather than a cheetah or sprightly prey animal. You may think twice before kicking this one.

The robot was presented today at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where in a workshop (documented by IEEE Spectrum) the team described HyQReal’s many bulkinesses.

It’s about four feet long and three high, weighs 130 kilograms (around 287 pounds), of which the battery comprises 15 — enough for about two hours of duty. It’s resistant to dust and water exposure and should be able to get itself up should it fall or tip over. The robot was created in collaboration with Moog, which created special high-powered hydraulics for the purpose.

It sounds good on paper, and the robot clearly has the torque needed to pull a small passenger airplane, as you can see in the video. But that’s not really what robots like this are for — they need to generate versatility and robustness under a variety of circumstances, and the smarts to navigate a human-centric world and provide useful services.

Right now HyQReal is basically still a test bed — it needs to have all kinds of work done to make sure it will stand up under conditions that robots like Spot Mini have already aced. And engineering things like arm or cargo attachments is far from trivial. All the same it’s exciting to see competition in a space that, just a few years back, seemed totally new (and creepy).

May 23rd 2019, 8:09 pm

Automakers have a choice: Become data companies or become irrelevant

TechCrunch

While Bezos amassed billions, Apple took over our culture, Google became ubiquitous and software ate the world, the automotive industry needed a bailout. Since then, they have more or less recovered, but they are no longer the undisputed titans of American industry. That title now belongs to companies that traffic in data, and the FAANGs of the world have their digital fingers on the pulse of what moves us.

However, not all hope is lost for the old auto titans. Cars are here to stay, whether they have drivers or not. Automakers can ensure their seat at the table by implementing strategies better suited for the digital age and making data a core part of their future business.

Massive opportunity

“Big data” is a tired phrase, but the data boom is in full swing. New mobility giants like Lyft and Uber are built on data. Existing data and technology-focused companies, like Samsung (acquiring Harman), Intel (acquiring Mobileye), Google (with Maps and Waymo) and Apple (with Maps and Titan), are building mobility products. This makes perfect sense given the scale of the transportation and mobility sector.

There are 1.2 billion vehicles in operation globally, and people travel more than 23 trillion (that is with a T) miles every year. By 2020, each person on Earth will create an estimated 1.7 MB of data per second. A 2016 report from AAA showed that Americans spend an average of 17,600 minutes driving every year. By those estimates, Americans will be generating 1.8 TB of data every year in their vehicles. Add additional sensors to a vehicle like cameras, radar and lidar, connect these vehicles to the cloud, and suddenly Intel’s claims that autonomous vehicles will produce 4 TB of data in one and a half hours of driving doesn’t look too crazy. McKinsey believes there could be as much as $750 billion of value in vehicle data by 2030. Both numbers are hand-wavy, but the message is clear: there exists a massive opportunity.

Who wants the data?

Not all data is created equal and different data customers are seeking different data points to augment and expand their existing services. Automakers themselves and dealerships want to track vehicles post-production to better understand how customers are using their products. They can use this data to improve their product, push customers to dealerships for maintenance and repair and ultimately retain customers to enhance lifetime value.

Telecommunication companies are seeking to provide in-vehicle Wi-Fi and data services and ultimately scaling 5G networks to connect vehicles to the internet. Repair shops want to have remote access to sensors and systems on the vehicle to diagnose and even predict maintenance and repair events. Urban planners, advertisers and hedge funds want to access location-based analytics to understand how and why we are moving to provide a complete picture of individual preferences.

Insurance companies want access to speed, acceleration and navigation data to provide more accurate premium estimates for individual users and usage-based insurance. Developers want access to vehicle data to build new products and services that we have yet to conceive. The list goes on and on.

Data customers have a more advanced vehicle data strategy than the automakers themselves, and they have partnered with many startups that are trying to collect and aggregate vehicle data. For example, many startups provide a piece of hardware that plugs into the onboard diagnostic (OBD) port of a vehicle in partnership with insurance companies or repair shops. However, the OBD provides only a small subset of the total vehicle data.

Who has it?

Despite these “hacks,” the richest data set for vehicle-specific data is recorded on the CANBUS, and the automakers have the easiest access that data. This puts automakers in the best position to decide who can utilize the data and how.

We’ve already seen that larger automakers like BMW do not want to cede control to large technology companies — so what are the other options? Data management and monetization are not core competencies of the automotive industry. Manufacturers and suppliers currently operate on seven-year product cycles, which give them complete control over a stable value chain at the expense of interaction with end customers and less than state-of-the-art digital capabilities. Privacy and security concerns are looming, particularly for luxury brands with century-long heritages. Key for automakers will be finding a way to gain access to data expertise without giving away their proprietary position in the market.

Smaller automakers may be okay ceding some position to technology companies that could provide ADAS, autonomy and data management solutions (e.g. Aurora, Waymo) as they would likely struggle to build on their own. Ceding this position would relegate those automakers down the automotive hierarchy, but perhaps bring them greater volume in the future. For example, Waymo is developing its technology stack on Chrysler and Jaguar vehicles.

Automakers overwhelmed by this prospect may want to consider an acquisition, as they did for self-driving technology with Argo AI and Cruise. For instance, Ford acquired TransLoc and Autonomic to develop internal capabilities. General Motors took a substantial stake in third-party data platform Wejo. Automakers could also attempt to build these capabilities on their own. Toyota is developing a $1 billion data center.

What’s next?

It is abundantly clear to us at Autotech Ventures that there is a lot of value to be captured from vehicle data. That value will only grow as more and more sensors are added to vehicles. Automakers are in prime position to capture a tremendous share of this value, but will need to move quickly and perhaps reorganize their priorities along the way. We are skeptical that they can do it on their own.

Whether automakers decide to engage tech companies, acquire startups to help them gain expertise or rely on a startup to supply their data management needs, we expect a lot of activity in the space soon.

May 23rd 2019, 7:24 pm

Snap, which has yet to release a diversity report, hires its first head of D&I

TechCrunch

Snap has brought on its first-ever diversity and inclusion lead, former Google Director of Diversity Strategy Oona King.

In a memo sent to Snap employees today, Snap Chief People Officer Lara Sweet announced King’s hiring. Although Snap is late in the game of hiring a diversity lead and has yet to release a diversity report, Sweet said Snap wants to “lead by example and contribute to human progress by breaking down systemic barriers that lead to people feeling excluded.”

This comes shortly after reports surfaced that Snap paid settlements to at least three female employees who alleged they were laid off due to their gender. And about one year ago, a former Snap engineer‘s email surfaced from November 2017 that criticized the company for having a toxic and sexist culture that is unwelcome to people of color and women. The former Snap engineer, Shannon Lubetich, described how Snap is not adequately promoting diversity at the company.

“The letter was a really good wake-up call for us,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said last May at a tech conference.

Spiegel described how, in light of the letter, Snap hired external consultants to help the company figure out areas in which to improve. Snap also ran a company-wide survey and changed its promotion structure, Spiegel said.

While Snap has previously said it provides diversity numbers to its employees, the company has yet to publicly produce a diversity report, unlike its many peers in the tech industry.

Here’s the full memo Sweet sent to employees:

Hi Team,

At Snap we are deeply committed to making progress on Diversity & Inclusion. We want to lead by example and contribute to human progress by breaking down systemic barriers that lead to people feeling excluded. And we know we have to start at home: ensuring Snap’s employee culture represents the diversity of our global users is critical to our success.

As a part of this commitment, I’m very excited to announce Oona King as Snap’s first VP of Diversity and Inclusion. Oona comes to us from Google, where she is Director of Diversity Strategy. She brings extensive experience from a variety of industries including technology, media, and politics, having been an advisor to the British Prime Minister on issues of equality and the second black woman elected to British Parliament earlier in her career. She also held Head of Diversity and Inclusion roles at both YouTube and the British Broadcaster, Channel 4. Oona will report to me, and help ensure our diversity and inclusion efforts are even more impactful – both within the company and across our products and content.  Oona starts on June 11.

We’re so excited to have Oona join us, to help us build diversity and inclusion into everything we do – from how we build teams, to how we create products and content.  We’re confident she will help us make Snap a more diverse and inclusive company at all levels, so please join me in welcoming Oona to Snap — we can’t wait to have her on the team!

Lara

May 23rd 2019, 6:54 pm

Streem buys Selerio in effort to boost its AR teleconferencing tech

TechCrunch

Streem, an AR startup that is meshing teleconferencing software with computer vision tech, has acquired a small UK startup called Selerio that’s also building out augmented reality technologies.

The startups were both members of betaworks’ VisionCamp accelerator program last year where they met and collaborated while tackling separate computer vision problems in the AR space.

Streem’s play is that they can create a kind of souped-up Skype call that enables home service providers to get more visual data in the course of chatting with home-owners. This can be something simple like character recognition that enables users to point their phone rather than reciting a 30-character serial number, the company can also take measurements or save localized notes.

The Portland startup has disclosed more than $10 million in funding, though they have also just closed a new bout of funding though they’re not sharing the amount yet.

Selerio’s focus is all about gaining a contextual understanding of a space. The startup was spun out of research from Cambridge University. The company has not disclosed its amount of seed funding, but betaworks, Greycroft Partners and GGV Capital are among its backers. All three of Selerio’s employees have joined Streem as part of the acquisition.

May 23rd 2019, 6:54 pm

Original Content podcast: Dragons love symbolism, and other lessons from the ‘Game of Thrones’ final

TechCrunch

This post and podcast include spoilers for “Game of Thrones.”

Remember how it felt six weeks ago, right before “Game of Thrones” returned for its final season? The excitement? The anticipation? That was so, so long ago.

Darrell Etherington, the original co-host of the Original Content podcast, joins us once again to wrap up our week-by-week discussion of the show’s final season. And while there were critics who liked the finale, we weren’t among them.

Anthony, at least, defends the first half of the episode, which deals with the fallout from “The Bells” and takes the story to its tragic conclusion. We might wonder why, exactly, a dragon would want to melt the Iron Throne, but it’s a bold, striking image — and the moments around it, with Drogon grieving for Daenery’s death, are surprisingly moving.

But none of us can make sense of what comes afterward. If you look carefully, you can probably see the seeds of a complex and satisfying conclusion — and in his final performance as Tyrion, Peter Dinklage almost sells you on that conclusion through sheer charisma and force of wall. What ends up on screen, however, is a listless march through the final plot points, with nearly every character seeming to shrug and give up — because hey, it’s the finale.

We close out our discussion with our general thoughts on the show, now that we know the full story. And before we get into our spoiler-y “Game of Thrones” discussion, we also review “Wine Country,” a Netflix comedy directed by Amy Poehler, with an impressive cast that includes Poehler, Maya Rudoph, Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey.

If you feel like skipping ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
1:25 “Wine Country” review
9:50 “Game of Thrones” review

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

May 23rd 2019, 6:07 pm

WikiLeaks’ Assange charged under the Espionage Act in a ‘major test case’ for press freedom

TechCrunch

Julian Assange, founder of whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, has been charged with over a dozen additional charges by U.S. federal prosecutors, including under the controversial Espionage Act — a case that will likely test the rights of freedom of speech and expression under the First Amendment.

Assange, 47, was arrested at the Ecuadorean embassy in London in April after the U.S. government charged him with conspiracy to hack a government computer used by then army officer Chelsea Manning to leak classified information about the Iraq War. Ecuador withdrew his asylum request seven years after he first entered the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face unrelated allegations of rape and sexual assault. Assange was later jailed in the U.K. for a year for breaking bail while he was in the embassy.

According to the newly unsealed indictment, Assange faces 17 new charges — including publishing classified information — under the Espionage Act, a law typically reserved for spies working against the U.S. or whistleblowers and leakers who worked for the U.S. intelligence community.

Both Manning and Edward Snowden, two former government employees turned whistleblowers, were both charged under the Espionage Act for leaking files to the media. 

Prosecutors said Thursday that the WikiLeaks founder — who published numerous troves of highly classified diplomatic cables, military videos showing the killing of civilians, and government hacking tools — was charged in part because Assange published a “narrow subset” documents passed to him by Manning while she was working as an Army intelligence analyst that revealed the names of confidential sources.

A statement from the Justice Department read:

After agreeing to receive classified documents from Manning and aiding, abetting, and causing Manning to provide classified documents, the superseding indictment charges that Assange then published on WikiLeaks classified documents that contained the unredacted names of human sources who provided information to United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to U.S. State Department diplomats around the world.

According to the superseding indictment, Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.

The department said many of the files were classified as “secret,” meaning their release could do “serious damage” to U.S. national security.

Assange is also accused of engaging in “real-time discussions” with Manning to send over the classified files.

After Assange’s arrest in April, prosecutors had two months to lay additional charges before it sought extradition from the U.K. to the U.S., where he would be tried in court. In refusing to testify to a grand jury about Assange, Manning was held in contempt and jailed for two months. Prior to the release of Thursday’s superseding indictment, Manning was jailed again for refusing to provide testimony.

Debate remains over whether Assange, the self-styled editor of WikiLeaks, should be considered a journalist and be granted protections as such. John Demers, who heads the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told reporters that Assange “is no journalist.”

But the case will likely strike at the heart of the First Amendment, which protects against government interference with citizen and reporters’ rights to freedom of speech and expression. It’s rare but not unheard of for reporters to be charged under the national security law — less so for publishing news reports embarrassing to the government but more so to obtain details of the sources who revealed the information in the first place.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said the indictment will be a “major test case” for press freedoms because  Espionage Act “doesn’t distinguish between what Assange allegedly did and what mainstream outlets sometimes do, even if the underlying facts [or] motives are radically different.”

The Obama administration, which charged several federal employees under the Espionage Act during the president’s two-term administration, reportedly wanted to charge Assange with but too worried it would have a chilling effect on press freedoms.

News of the indictment already sparked anger and frustration among free speech and civil liberties groups.

WikiLeaks called the news “madness” ia tweet. “It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment,” said its Twitter account.

“The Department of Justice just declared war — not on WikiLeaks, but on journalism itself,” tweeted Snowden. “This case will decide the future of media,”

May 23rd 2019, 4:54 pm

Shopify quietly acquired Handshake, an e-commerce platform for B2B wholesale purchasing

TechCrunch

E-commerce platform Shopify has quietly made an acquisition to continue its expansion of the services and products that merchants can sell and purchase through its platform. It has acquired Handshake, a New York startup offers a commerce platform for businesses that sell wholesale goods.

Shopify has confirmed the deal in a short statement:

Handshake is now a part of Shopify. We consider acquisitions in the normal course of business as we focus on making commerce better for everyone.” It hasn’t disclosed the value but a source tells us it was under $100 million.

We also received an emailed tip that noted that the acquisition was announced to staff earlier this month, and that the team, is operating as part of Shopify’s extended service tier, Shopify Plus, headed by David Moellenkamp. Indeed, Handshake’s profile on LinkedIn now indicates that it was acquired by Shopify, and Glen Coates, who had been the founder and CEO of Handshake, is now the director of product at Shopify Plus.

Handshake had raised about $23.5 million and was valued in its last round (in 2016 — note that it’s not this Handshake) at just under $54 million, according to PitchBook. Investors included Boldstart Ventures, Emergence Capital, SoftTech VC, Point Nine and others. (We’re trying to find out more on the price.)

The opportunity that Handshake had identified, and now Shopify is targeting, is the end of the e-commerce market for brands and other merchants selling items wholesale, potentially alongside consumer-focused retail efforts.

This is big business: a recent report found that B2B e-commerce sales in the U.S. alone passed $1 trillion for the first time in 2018. As with consumer-focused sales, platforms like Handshakes offer merchants the ability to handle these sales directly, rather than handing off the sales to third-party marketplaces.

Handshake’s customers include the likes of Bugaboo, Williams Sonoma and Roland.

This deal comes at an interesting time for Shopify.

Some weeks ago, we reported on how Mailchimp and Shopify had stopped working together, only to find out days later that Mailchimp had actually also quietly acquired an e-commerce startup to start to build out more purchasing tools for its customers. In that regard, this latest acquisition by Shopify underscores how it’s also growing and expanding its scope — albeit in a way that puts it into closer competition with the likes of Alibaba and Amazon, which themselves have carved out a strong place as B2B marketplaces.

May 23rd 2019, 4:37 pm

Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb has rejoined the venture world — but he hasn’t forgotten Juul

TechCrunch

Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration chief, became known during his tenure for his efforts to regulate the tobacco and e-cigarette industries — and for his particular focus on Juul, the fast-growing e-cigarette company that Gottlieb squarely blames for creating a “youth epidemic” of e-cigarette use by teenagers.

Indeed, when he announced that he would be stepping down from his post in early March, it seemed Gottlieb had dealt the tobacco industry a winning hand. There was even talk that he’d been pressured to leave by conservative groups along with some Republicans in Congress, including Senator Richard Burr, who’d blasted Gottlieb on the Senator floor in January over a plan to ban menthol cigarettes. (Burr’s home state of North Carolina produces more tobacco than any other state.)

But Gottlieb isn’t giving up so easily, he says. In an interview this morning, Gottlieb said there was nothing more to his resignation than his stated reason at the time: his family. “I was commuting from Westport (Connecticut) to Washington every Friday night; I was only home with my three young kids on Saturdays,” he told us. “After two years, that got difficult.”

Gottlieb, who just rejoined the venture firm New Enterprise Associates as a special partner focused on healthcare, further suggests that he will continue to bang the drum when it comes to e-cigarette usage as a private citizen. To wit, in addition to his work at NEA, where he previously served as a venture partner from 2007 until joining the FDA in 2017, Gottlieb is becoming a regulator contributor at CNBC, where he will appear both on television and in print. He also anticipates contributing to the Wall Street Journal and to the Washington Post and to writing deeper dives in medical journals. (“I was publishing on an almost weekly basis” before joining the FDA, Gottlieb notes.)

Indeed, though Gottlieb will have plenty of demands on his time — he has also resumed an earlier role as a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank — he says he’s not done with the work he started in Washington, noting that he’s “very efficient” when it comes to both his writing and policy work and insisting that he will “still be actively engaged.”

Partly that owes to Gottlieb’s concerns that Juul — which hitched its wagon to tobacco giant Altria in December by  selling it a 35 percent stake in its business for $38 billion — is only becoming more pervasive owing to the tie-up.

Gottlieb still very much believes that the company “bears an outsized responsibility for this public health crisis” wherein one in five people in the U.S. now vapes occasionally, and a growing percentage of those users are teenagers. With Altria’s marketing muscle and much bigger retail footprint, says Gottlieb, Juul adoption could well erase a generation of gains in the fight against nicotine addiction.

As for whether Gottlieb’s public campaign will have real teeth, that remains to be seen. It also isn’t yet clear how aggressively or not the acting FDA commissioner, Ned Sharpless, will be when it comes to battling big tobacco, particularly considering the 80-plus lobbyists employed by Juul in Washington and that, according to the New York Times, have three primary goals: fighting proposals to ban flavored e-cigarette pods, pushing legislation that includes provisions denying local governments the right to adopt strict vaping controls, and working to make sure that bills to discourage youth vaping do not have stringent enforcement measures.

Gottlieb says he’s optimistic. His successor is “a cancer doctor,” he notes. “He has certainly expressed interest in advancing [the] policies [the FDA has already set in motion].”

At the very least, at an all-hands meeting last month, Commissioner Sharpless suggested that fighting nicotine addiction remains a priority. Among his other comments, he said the agency will “maintain our focus on ending the use of combustible cigarettes among adults, and on preventing kids from ever starting.

“That includes undertaking vital research to ensure we have the data necessary to make informed regulatory decisions on electronic cigarette products, so that we can reverse the growing epidemic of youth ENDS [electronic nicotine delivery systems] use. We simply won’t tolerate misleading marketing or selling tobacco products to children.”

May 23rd 2019, 3:51 pm

Cruise says its AV successfully completed 1,400 unprotected left hand turns

TechCrunch

Unprotected left hand turns are tough for robots and humans alike. The compounding variables of crossing in front of oncoming traffic make it one of the toughest maneuverers in driving. It’s one of the toughest challenges for self-driving platforms — even more so as drivers often look for non-verbal cues from other drivers to when it’s safe to cross.

Cruise, the self-driving division within General Motors, today released a video reporting it successfully completed 1,400 such turns within a 24 hour period. The test took place on the busy and hilly streets of San Fransisco. Some of the examples on the video show a vehicle cautiously entering an intersection only to wait for another vehicle to pass before making the turn. Other times, the vehicle is assertive and enters the turn without delay. Only four examples are shown, though Cruise insists they have video proof of all 1,400. None of the videos show the Cruise vehicle navigating around crossing pedestrians.

“In an unpredictable driving environment like SF, no two unprotected left-turns are alike,” Kyle Vogt, president & CTO, Cruise said in a released statement. “By safely executing 1,400 regularly, we generate enough data for our engineers to analyze and incorporate learnings into code they develop for other difficult maneuvers.”

Self-driving companies often rely on data collected from its vehicles. Successful or not, both instances will give the engineers data that can be added to existing models to make future rides more successful. In this case, having successfully completed 1,400 in a short amount of time will give Cruise’s engineers loads to work with.

Cruise is permitted to test about 180 Generation 3 on public roads in Califorina. It didn’t state how many vehicles were needed to complete this test.

May 23rd 2019, 3:39 pm

Microsoft’s new language learning app uses your phone’s camera and computer vision to teach vocabula

TechCrunch

Eight Microsoft interns have developed a new language learning tool that uses the smartphone camera to help adults improve their English literacy by learning the words for the things around them. The app, Read My World, lets you take a picture with your phone to learn from a library of over 1,500 words. The photo can be of a real-world object or text found in a document, Microsoft says.

The app is meant to either supplement formal classroom training or offer a way to learn some words for those who didn’t have the time or funds to participate in a language learning class.

Instead of lessons, users are encouraged to snap photos of the things they encounter in their everyday lives.

“Originally, we were planning more of a lesson plan style approach, but through our research and discovery, we realized a Swiss army knife might be more useful,” said Nicole Joyal, a software developer intern who worked on the project. “We wound up building a tool that can help you throughout your day-to-day rather than something that teaches,” she said.

Read My World uses a combination of Microsoft Cognitive Services and Computer Vision APIs to identify the objects in photos. It will then show the word’s spelling and speak the phonetic pronunciation of the identified vocabulary words. The photos corresponding to the identified words can also be saved to a personal dictionary in the app for later reference.

Finally, the app encourages users to practice their newly discovered words by way of three built-in vocabulary games.

The’s 1,500-word vocabulary may seem small, but it’s actually close to the number of words foreign language learners are able to pick up through traditional study. According to a report from the BBC, for instance, many language learners struggle to learn more than 2,000 to 3,000 words even after years of study. In fact, one study in Taiwan found that after 9 years of learning a foreign language, students failed to learn the most frequently-used 1,000 words.

The report also stressed that it was most important to pick up the words used day-to-day.

Because the app focuses on things you see, it’s limited in terms of replacing formal instruction. After gathering feedback from teachers and students who tested an early version, the team rolled out a feature to detect words in documents too. It’s not a Google Lens-like experience, where written words are translated into your own language — rather, select words it can identify are highlighted so you can hear how they sound, and see a picture so you know what it is.

For example, the app pointed at a student’s school supply list may pick out words like pencils, notebooks, scissors, and binders.

The app, a project from Microsoft’s in-house incubator Microsoft Garage, will initially be made available for testing and feedback for select organizations. Those who work with low literacy communities at an NGO or nonprofit, can request an invitation to join the experiment by filling out a form.

 

May 23rd 2019, 3:39 pm

Fresh off a $530M round, Aurora acquires lidar startup Blackmore

TechCrunch

Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, is in an acquiring mood. The company, founded in early 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, announced Thursday that it acquired lidar company Blackmore.

The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. 7D, founded by former software engineer from Pixar animation Magnus Wrenninge, is a simulation startup that makes photorealistic synthetic dataset for street scenes. Aurora confirmed the acquisition.

Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition come on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. It’s considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry — with the exception of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a handful of others — as a critical and necessary sensor for self-driving vehicles.

Blackmore, which has 70 employees, might not be a household name. And its base of operations in Bozeman, Montana makes it a seeming oddball amongst the Silicon Valley scene.

But in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention.

Blackmore CEO Randy Reibel, noted in a recent interview, a highlight was getting a chance to see the look on Urmson’s face when he first saw the lidar in action.

Not all lidar is the same, both Urmson and Reibel noted. The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell AM lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then track how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.

Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low power and continuous wave, a bit like keeping a flashlight on, the company’s CTO and co-founder Stephen Crouch explained. The upshot is FMCW lidar can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It’s also “immune” to interference from sun or other other sensors, Crouch added.

The big win, Urmson and Reibel echoed, is that it is optimized with the perception stack. In other words, this lidar is technically compatible in a way that will improve perception of Aurora’s “driver.”

The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two months of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. In 2017, Cruise acquired Strobe and Argo AI bought Princeton Lightwave.

That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” AV companies are particularly protective of their tech and opening the door to an outside lidar company takes convincing.

Despite the acquisition, Urmson reiterated, as he has in the past, that Aurora is not interested in manufacturing hardware whether it’s cars or lidars. The company will work with automotive Tier 1 suppliers and other partners as it scales.

For now, Aurora is focused on integrating Blackmore’s lidar into its self-driving stack and isn’t necessarily planning to sell lidar sensors as a standalone product. But, Urmson added, “We’re open minded about the future.”

May 23rd 2019, 3:39 pm

From launch to launch: Peter Beck on building Rocket Lab’s orbital business

TechCrunch

Breaking into the launch industry is no easy task, but New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has done it without missing a step. The company has just completed its third commercial launch of 2019, and is planning to increase the frequency of its launches until there’s one a week. It’s ambitious, but few things in spaceflight aren’t.

Although it has risen to prominence over the last two years at a remarkable rate, the appearance of Rocket Lab in the launch market isn’t exactly sudden. One does not engineer and test an orbital launch system in a day.

The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2006, and for years pursued smaller projects while putting together the Rutherford rocket engine, which would eventually power its Electron launch vehicle.

Far from the ambitions of the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, which covet heavy-launch capabilities to compete with ULA to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, Rocket Lab and its Electron LV have been laser-focused on frequent and reliable access to orbit.

Utilizing 3D printed engine components that can be turned out in a single day rather than weeks, and other manufacturing efficiencies, the company has gone from producing a rocket a year to one a month, with the goal of one a week, to match or exceed its launch cadence.

Seem excessive? The years-long backlog of projects waiting to go to orbit disagrees. There’s demand to spare and the market is only growing.

Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO, sat down with us to talk about the process of building a launch provider from scratch, and where the company goes from here — other than up.

Devin: To start with, why don’t we talk about the recent launches? Congratulations on everything going well, by the way. Any thoughts on these most recent ones?

Peter: Thanks, it’s great to be hitting our stride. We wanted electron to be an accurate vehicle and we’re averaging within around 1.4 kilometers. When you get into what that means, at those speeds it takes 180 milliseconds to travel 1.4 km, so we’ve got the accuracy down pat.

May 23rd 2019, 3:39 pm

Indian PM Narendra Modi’s reelection spells more frustration for US tech giants

TechCrunch

Amazon and Walmart’s problems in India look set to continue after Narendra Modi, the biggest force to embrace the country’s politics in decades, led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to a historic landslide re-election on Thursday, reaffirming his popularity in the eyes of the world’s largest democracy.

The re-election, which gives Modi’s government another five years in power, will in many ways chart the path of India’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, as well as the local play of Silicon Valley companies that have grown increasingly wary of recent policy changes.

At stake is also the future of India’s internet, the second largest in the world. With more than 550 million internet users, the nation has emerged as one of the last great growth markets for Silicon Valley companies. Google, Facebook, and Amazon count India as one of their largest and fastest growing markets. And until late 2016, they enjoyed great dynamics with the Indian government.

But in recent years, New Delhi has ordered more internet shutdowns than ever before and puzzled many over crackdowns on sometimes legitimate websites. To top that, the government recently proposed a law that would require any intermediary — telecom operators, messaging apps, and social media services among others — with more than 5 million users to introduce a number of changes to how they operate in the nation. More on this shortly.

Growing tension

May 23rd 2019, 2:53 pm

Daily Crunch: Indiegogo has a new CEO

TechCrunch

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.

1. Indiegogo hires Reddit’s Andy Yang as new CEO

CEO David Mandelbrot is stepping down, and according to sources close to the company, several other Indiegogo employees are also leaving.

Mandelbrot announced his departure on LinkedIn, citing “personal reasons.” He was at Indiegogo for six years, starting as senior vice president of operations in August of 2013. Yang, meanwhile, recently led the product team at Reddit.

2. Google’s Duplex calls still frequently require human intervention

Google’s AI-based reservation booking service seems almost too impressive to be a machine. And in fact, now that it’s being used for real-world reservations, the company revealed the calls are often made by human operators at call centers.

3. Invites are out for Apple’s June 3 WWDC keynote — there will be unicorns

On the books for this year’s event: iOS 13, watchOS 6, macOS 10.15 and maybe Apple TV.

4. Leak reveals Uber’s $9.99 unlimited delivery Eats Pass

The subscription would waive Uber’s service fee, which is typically 15% of your order cost.

5. Rotten Tomatoes will start verifying ticket purchases for audience reviews

To be clear, you’ll still be able to leave a review without verification, but verified reviews will be clearly marked, and only those reviews will be included when calculating the Audience Score.

6. Panic’s Playdate is a pint-sized gaming machine with a ‘season’ of 12 intriguing titles

Panic, renowned creator of useful Mac apps and more recently publisher of interesting games, has created a tiny handheld console that goes anywhere and receives a regular trickle of new games. It’s called Playdate.

7. 10 immigration tips for love-struck tech workers

There’s nothing more romantic than a carefully prepared green card application. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

May 23rd 2019, 2:53 pm

Here’s the first teaser trailer for the new Star Trek: Picard series

TechCrunch

Just a bit shy of a year ago, Patrick Stewart blew the minds of Star Trek fans everywhere by taking the stage at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention to announce he was returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard.

His return would come in the form of a series made for CBS’ streaming service, CBS All Access. He hinted that Jean-Luc may no longer be the captain we know from years ago — but beyond that, details were light.

The first teaser trailer for the series just dropped… and sure enough, it sounds like he’s not a part of Starfleet at all anymore.

“Tell us… why did you leave Starfleet, Admiral?”, says a voice in the trailer, the camera panning over a case of “Chateau Picard” wine. In Trek lore, the Picard family has a winery in France; the trailer implies that post-Starfleet, Jean-Luc has retired to the family vineyard.

This series is said to take place roughly 18 years after Patrick Stewart’s last Star Trek film, Nemesis — or, as some fans have already worked out, the year 2397. The trailer speaks of an “unimaginable” event that happens in the years shortly after Nemesis, perhaps shaking Jean-Luc enough to retire once and for all. (Also worth noting that the voice refers to him as “Admiral” rather than “Captain”, suggesting that Picard finally took the promotion at some point post-Nemesis.)

What happened? And why is Jean Luc seemingly returning now? We’ll find out in just a few months; the series is scheduled to arrive “at the end of the year” 2019

May 23rd 2019, 2:21 pm

Amazon is reportedly working on an emotion-tracking Alexa wearable

TechCrunch

Amazon probably knows everything else about you at this point, so why not let it track your emotions, too? The company is said to be working on a wearable wellness device said to be able able to determine a user’s emotional state. Word arrives from a Bloomberg story based on “internal documents.”

This comes on the heels of a patent issued for the company designed to let Alexa determine a speaker’s mood and respond accordingly based on how they’re feeling. That filing highlighted relevant emotions like “happiness, joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom [and] stress.” That’s a pretty wide range of reactions for a smart assistant.

The smartphone-connected, wrist-worn device is said to be the product of the Alexa and Lab126 hardware team. It’s currently being tested, internally, under the codename “Dylan.” It’s worth noting that Amazon has recently been encouraging a lot of experimentation among its internal hardware team, especially when it comes to Alexa products. Among other things, that experimentation has led to the creation of Echo Buttons. Most, however, haven’t made it past the trial phase.

Amazon’s tight lipped on the matter, and the anonymous folks who’ve been discussing the device haven’t offered any info on potential timeframe. All we do know for sure is that Amazon’s looking to get Alexa on as diverse and array of products as possible, and this certainly qualifies as that.

May 23rd 2019, 2:21 pm

Facebook releases community standards enforcement report

TechCrunch

Facebook has just released its latest community standards enforcement report and the verdict is in: people are awful, and happy to share how awful they are with the world.

The latest effort at transparency from Facebook on how it enforces its community standards contains several interesting nuggets. While the company’s algorithms and internal moderators have become exceedingly good at tracking myriad violations before they’re reported to the company, hate speech, online bullying, harassment and the nuances of interpersonal awfulness still have the company flummoxed.

In most instances, Facebook is able to enforce its own standards and catches between 90% and over 99% of community standards violations itself. But those numbers are far lower for bullying, where Facebook only caught 14% of the 2.6 million instances of harassment reported; and hate speech, where the company internally flagged 65.4% of the 4.0 million moments of hate speech users reported.

By far the most common violation of community standards — and the one that’s potentially most worrying heading into the 2020 election — is the creation of fake accounts. In the first quarter of the year, Facebook found and removed 2.19 billion fake accounts. That’s a spike of 1 billion fake accounts created in the first quarter of the year.

Spammers also keep trying to leverage Facebook’s social network — and the company took down nearly 1.76 billion instances of spammy content in the first quarter.

For a real window into the true awfulness that people can achieve, there are the company’s self-reported statistics around removing child pornography and graphic violence. The company said it had to remove 5.4 million pieces of content depicting child nudity or sexual exploitation and that there were 33.6 million takedowns of violent or graphic content.

Interestingly, the areas where Facebook is the weakest on internal moderation are also the places where the company is least likely to reverse a decision on content removal. Although posts containing hate speech are among the most appealed types of content, they’re the least likely to be restored. Facebook reversed itself 152,000 times out of the 1.1 million appeals it heard related to hate speech. Other areas where the company seemed immune to argument was with posts related to the sale of regulated goods like guns and drugs.

In a further attempt to bolster its credibility and transparency, the company also released a summary of findings from an independent panel designed to give feedback on Facebook’s reporting and community guidelines themselves.

Facebook summarized the findings from the 44-page report by saying the commission validated Facebook’s approach to content moderation was appropriate and its audits well-designed “if executed as described”.

The group also recommended that Facebook develop more transparent processes and greater input for users into community guidelines policy development.

Recommendations also called for Facebook to incorporate more of the reporting metrics used by law enforcement when tracking crime.

“Law enforcement looks at how many people were the victims of crime — but they also look at how many criminal events law enforcement became aware of, how many crimes may have been committed without law enforcement knowing and how many people committed crimes,” according to a blog post from Facebook’s Radha Iyengar Plumb, Head of Product Policy Research. “The group recommends that we provide additional metrics like these, while still noting that our current measurements and methodology are sound.”

Finally the report recommended a number of steps for Facebook to improve, which the company summarized below.

Meanwhile examples of what regulation might look like to ensure that Facebook is taking the right steps in a way that is accountable to the countries in which it operates are beginning to proliferate.

It’s hard to moderate a social network that’s larger than the world’s most populous countries, but accountability and transparency are critical to preventing the problems that exist on those networks from putting down permanent, physical roots in the countries where Facebook operates.

 

May 23rd 2019, 2:09 pm

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

TechCrunch

Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Longreads, Simplenote and a bunch of other cool things, is acquiring a small startup called Prospress. Among other things, Prospress has developed WooCommerce Subscriptions, a recurring payment solution specifically designed for WooCommerce.

Given that physical and digital subscriptions are taking over the e-commerce world, it makes sense that Automattic wants to own WooCommerce Subscriptions. Charging customers on a regular basis is one of the most painful challenges when it comes to payment.

Prospress also works on a marketing automation tool to remind customers that they have abandoned their carts, follow up, cross sell and more. The company also has a tool to test your checkout functionality before going live. After the acquisition, the Prospress team will keep iterating on its own products and join the rest of the WooCommerce team.

This is a strategic acquisition more than anything else. Prospress has around 20 employees, so it’s not going to change the face of Automattic and its team of 900 people. But it’s an important move so that Automattic can own a bigger chunk of the (e-commerce) stack.

WooCommerce competitor Shopify doesn’t provide subscriptions out of the box. You have to use third-party products, such as Bold or ReCharge.

Like WordPress, WooCommerce is an open source project — it integrates directly with WordPress. It means that anyone can download WooCommerce and host it on their servers. And the WooCommerce ecosystem is one of the main advantages of WooCommerce compared to obscure e-commerce solutions.

Many WooCommerce users probably host their e-commerce website on WordPress.com. But by controlling the payment module, Automattic can also generate some revenue if WooCommerce users choose to use WooCommerce Subscriptions as their payment solution.

May 23rd 2019, 2:09 pm

Zero raises $20 million from NEA and others for a credit card that works like debit

TechCrunch

Just ahead of the launch of the Apple Card, a startup that has its own take on modernizing the credit card industry, Zero, is announcing the close of its $20 million Series A. The new round of funding was led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA), and brings Zero’s total raised to date to $35 million, including both equity and debt funding.

Other investors in the round include SignalFire, Eniac Ventures, Nyca Partners, and some unnamed school endowments. Zero had previously announced an $8.5 million raise in fall 2017, led by Eniac, and had raised $7 million in venture debt from Silicon Valley Bank.

Zero has a clever idea that targets millennials’ hesitance to sign up for credit cards.

Today, only 33 percent of millennials have a major credit card, a Bankrate survey found — largely because they’re wary of falling into the vicious debt cycle. Instead, this younger demographic often only carries a debit card. But that also means they’re missing out on credit card benefits — like points, rewards, and cash back.

Zero’s idea is to offer a rewards credit card that works like debit.

The Zerocard itself is a World Mastercard, so it earns credit card cash back. But unlike a traditional credit card, it’s combined with an FDIC-backed checking account called Zero Checking. That means Zerocard and Zero Checking work together in the app, allowing cardholders to see one net number they can spend from.

That way, they won’t make the mistake of accidentally going over budget, as is often the case with traditional credit cards who then benefit from charging interest on the unpaid balance.

Zero co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen says he had always liked optimizing his personal finances, but didn’t see the value in overspending to chase rewards.

“People spend 10 to 15 percent more on average just because they’re putting it on a credit card, and not seeing where they stand all the time,” he says. “Spending 10 to 15 percent more to chase 1 to 2 percent in rewards doesn’t make sense.”

Plus, he adds, “half of all credit card points are never even redeemed.”

With Zerocard, the company does away with other credit card annoyances as well.

Zerocard doesn’t charge annual fees like many traditional credit cards do. And Zero Checking doesn’t add any additional ATM fees beyond what the ATM owner charges. It also does away with foreign transaction fees, minimum balance fees, and overdraft fees — like many of today’s challenger banks.

Meanwhile, the Zero app is built with an eye towards what makes apps great.

Galen, who led product development for Zynga’s “Words with Friends” has experience in this department, while co-founder and COO Joel Washington previously co-founded car sales marketplace Shift. The executive team, combined, has backgrounds that include time at Affirm, Apple, Capital One, Dropbox, Google, Postmates, Silicon Valley Bank, Upgrade, and Wells Fargo.

Overall, Zero’s design feels clean and simple, compared to the cluttered and dated apps from traditional banks. It has smart features, too, like a detailed transaction view that shows the vendor’s logo and location on a map to make it easier to recognize purchases.

“Zero creates an innovative debit-style experience, with an elegant design, and truly compelling rewards. It’s a fabulous banking experience,” said Hans Morris, Managing Partner of Nyca Partners and former President of Visa, Inc., in a statement. “Few people understand how complex it is to launch either a credit card or a checking account program, and I believe Zero is the first U.S. startup to launch both,” he said.

Zero launched in November 2018, but only to a small number of customers. Though officially open for business, it was functioning more like a public beta — though it didn’t call it that at the time. Meanwhile, its waitlist continued to grow.

Today, there are still 204,000 people waiting to be allowed in — something that Galen says is now going to happen.

“We haven’t launched to everyone on the waitlist yet, but we expect to within the next few weeks,” he says.

Another interesting twist on traditional credit cards is Zero’s path to card upgrades: it encourages but also rewards customers for telling their friends. By doing so, customers gain access to better-looking cards and higher cash back percentages.

Zero customers start with a “Quartz” card offering 1 percent back on purchases. When a friend they refer joins, they receive a higher-level card called “Graphite” that offers 1.5 percent back. Two friends earns you the “Magnesium” card with 2 percent back and four friends gets you the “Carbon” card with 3 percent back. The Carbon card is also solid metal, capitalizing on the millennial trend of wanting their cards to look cool. And metal cards are in particular demand.

To receive the full cash back rates, customers have to pay their balances in full by the due date, Zero says.

The company has partnered with Salt Lake City-based WebBank to issue the card, and deposits are held at Memphis-based Evolve Bank & Trust, an FDIC member. Zero makes money primarily on interchange and interest on deposits.

While some users may leave balances on the card that generate interest, Zero isn’t focused on that aspect of the business for revenue generation.

“Most companies in fintech today are launching undifferentiated debit cards as a feature or extension to their product for an additional engagement and monetization stream,” says Rick Yang, partner at NEA, as to why he invested.

“Zero is completely focused on their card programs and building a differentiated solution that actually provides a value proposition that resonates with consumers. We’ve also been fascinated by the growth of debit outpacing credit, and we think that our solution gives consumers the best of both worlds,” he adds.

Zero is currently iOS-only, but is working on an Android version which is expected to be ready in August.
 

 

 

 

 

May 23rd 2019, 2:09 pm

Google integrates food delivery services into Search, Maps and Assistant

TechCrunch

Google today announced that it is launching the ability to order food delivery directly from Google Search, Maps and the Assistant. Google itself isn’t getting into the delivery game, though. Instead, it is partnering with companies like DoorDash, Postmates, Delivery.com, Slice and ChowNow. Support for Zuppler and others is ‘coming soon.’ The ordering experience, though, is deeply integrated into Google’s tools and you can pay with Google Pay.

For restaurants that participate, you’ll soon see and ‘Order Online’ button in Search and Maps when you search for a specific restaurant or cuisine.

While Seach and Maps are probably the way most people will use this feature, Google is also building this feature into the Assistant. Here, you’ll be able to say: “Hey Google, order food from [name of your favorite take-out restaurant].” This is supported on Android and iOS. You can even re-order your regular go-to-meal using nothing but your voice. Since it would be somewhat impractical to have the Assistant read you the menu, the initial command really only kicks off a tap-driven experience that has you select menu items and confirm the order. To reorder, you won’t have to do that, though.

 

May 23rd 2019, 1:08 pm

DoorDash, now valued at $12.6B, shoots for the moon

TechCrunch

More than five years ago, Sequoia partner Alfred Lin called Tony Xu, the founder of a small on-demand delivery startup called DoorDash, to say he was passing on the company’s seed round.

This was, of course, before venture capital funding in food delivery startups had taken off. DoorDash, launched out of Xu’s Stanford graduate school dorm room, wasn’t worth Sequoia’s capital — yet.

Today, venture capitalists are valuing the San Francisco-based company at a whopping $12.6 billion with a $600 million Series G. New investors Darsana Capital Partners and Sands Capital participated in the deal, which nearly doubles DoorDash’s previous valuation, alongside existing backers Coatue Management, Dragoneer, DST Global, Sequoia Capital, the SoftBank Vision Fund and Temasek Capital Management.

As for Sequoia’s Alfred Lin, he realized his mistake years ago and jumped in on DoorDash’s 2014 Series A and has participated in every subsequent round since. DoorDash, a graduate of Y Combinator’s Summer 2013 cohort, is also backed by Kleiner Perkins, CRV and Khosla Ventures, among others. In total, the company has raised $2.5 billion in VC funding, making it one of the most well-capitalized private companies in the U.S.

SoftBank, via its prolific dealmaker Jeffrey Housenbold, was responsible for making DoorDash a unicorn in early 2018. The nearly $100 billion Vision Fund led DoorDash’s $535 million Series D, valuing the business at $1.4 billion. Just three months ago, the SoftBank Vision Fund, DST Global, Coatue Management, GIC, Sequoia and Y Combinator put an additional $400 million in the fast-growing business.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 05: DoorDash CEO Tony Xu speaks onstage during Day 1 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 5, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Xu told TechCrunch the company’s Series F was “a reflection of superior performance over the past year.” DoorDash was currently seeing 325 percent growth year-over-year, he said, pointing to recent data from Second Measure showing the service had overtaken Uber Eats in the U.S., coming in second only to GrubHub.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Xu said at the time. “If you just run the math on DoorDash’s course and speed, we’re on track to be number one.”

At a venture capital-focused summit hosted in April, Xu added that DoorDash was the largest delivery platform in America by “pretty wide margins,” explaining that it was, in fact, growing 4x faster than its next closest peer. In this morning’s announcement, the company added that it’s grown 60 percent since its late February Series F, with its annualized total sales hitting $7.5 billion in March, an increase of 280 percent year-over-year. 

Still, one wonders what kind of growth metrics DoorDash might be sharing to attract that kind of valuation multiple. The company has yet to disclose revenues and is not yet profitable but has seen its price tag grow astronomically in just two years. Since March 2018, DoorDash’s valuation has skyrocketed from $1.4 billion to $4 billion with a $250 million Series E to $7.1 billion with a $350 million Series F and finally, to nearly $13 billion with its Series G.

The $12.6 billion valuation makes DoorDash one of the 10 most valuable venture-backed companies in the U.S., surpassing Coinbase, Instacart and even Slack, according to PitchBook.

DoorDash is currently active in more than 4,000 cities in the U.S. and Canada, with hundreds of partners including both restaurants and supermarkets (Walmart is using DoorDash for grocery deliveries). The company also operates DoorDash Drive, which allows businesses to use the DoorDash network to make their own deliveries.

 

May 23rd 2019, 1:08 pm

Apply to TC Hackathon at Disrupt SF 2019 before the spots disappear

TechCrunch

Calling all code whisperers, rock-star programmers and code poets. If you want to compete in the TechCrunch Hackathon at Disrupt San Francisco 2019 on October 2-4, do not wait. We’re limiting the hackathon to only 800 participants, and half of those spots are already gone, baby, gone. Don’t miss your chance for glory, cash and prizes. Apply for the hackathon today.

An important reminder: Applying to, and participating in, the hackathon is free. Plus, all competitors receive Expo Only passes for days one and two and an Innovator pass for day three of Disrupt SF.

This hackathon will challenge you both mentally and physically. Teams consisting of 4-6 people will choose one of several sponsored hack challenges and use sponsored APIs, data sets and other tools to design and build a creative solution to a real-world problem — in roughly 24 hours. Don’t have a team? No problem, we’ll help you find one when you arrive.

It’s an all-out push to the finish, and we’ll fuel your ambition with free food, beer and plenty of coffee and Red Bull.

When the clock runs out, judges from both the sponsors and TechCrunch will review each project, science-fair style. Ten finalists will be selected to present a 60-second demo the next day on the Extra Crunch stage at Disrupt SF.

Individual sponsors award a variety of prizes, including cash, to the team with the project that best addresses the specific challenge. But hold on now, there’s one more jewel in the hackathon crown. TechCrunch editors will select one team as the best overall hack and award a grand prize of $10,000.

We’ll have more information about this year’s sponsors — and the specific challenges and prizes they offer — in the coming weeks. But if you want an idea of what you might encounter, review the sponsored contests, prizes and winners from Disrupt SF 2018. Want more details? Learn more about what to expect at the hackathon.

The TechCrunch Hackathon goes down at Disrupt San Francisco 2019 on October 2-4, and your savvy competitors have already snapped up half of the available spots. If you want to pit your skills against the best coders and designers in the world, sign up for the hackathon now. We can’t wait to see the amazing projects you create in San Francisco!

Is your company interested in sponsoring the Hackathon at Disrupt San Francisco 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

May 23rd 2019, 1:08 pm

Instagram’s vertical IGTV surrenders to landscape status quo

TechCrunch

A year ago Instagram made a bold bet with the launch of IGTV: That it could invent and popularize a new medium of long-form vertical videos. Landscape uploads weren’t allowed. Co-founder Kevin Systrom told me in August that “What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Now a dedicated hub for multi-minute portrait mode video won’t exist anywhere at all. Following lackluster buy-in from creators loathe to shoot in a proprietary format that tough to reuse, IGTV is retreating from its vertical-only policy. Starting today, users can upload traditional horizontal landscape videos too and they’ll be shown full-screen when users turn their phones sideways while watching IGTV’s standalone app or its hub within the main Instagram app. That should hopefully put an end to crude ports of landscape videos shown tiny with giant letterboxes slapped on to fill out the vertical screen.

Instagram spins it saying “Ultimately, our vision is to make IGTV a destination for great content no matter how it’s shot so creators can express themselves how they want . . . .  In many ways, opening IGTV to more than just vertical videos is similar to when we opened Instagram to more than just square photos in 2015. It enabled creativity to flourish and engagement to rise – and we believe the same will happen again with IGTV.”

The potential flood of repurposed YouTube videos could drive more attention to IGTV after a launch that felt like a flop. There’s been no break-out stars, must-see shows, or cultural zeitgeist moments on IGTV. Instagram refused to provide a list of the most viewed long-form clips. Sensor Tower estimates just 4.2 million installs to date for IGTV’s standalone app, amounting to less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users downloading the app. In the last month, and it saw 3.8 times more downloads per day in its first three months on the market than than last month.

May 23rd 2019, 12:38 pm

Takeaways from KubeCon; the latest on Kubernetes and cloud native development

TechCrunch

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois and Ron Miller discuss major announcements that came out of the Linux Foundation’s European KubeCon/CloudNativeCon conference and discuss the future of Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies.

Nearly doubling in size year-over-year, this year’s KubeCon conference brought big news and big players, with major announcements coming from some of the world’s largest software vendors including Google, AWS, Microsoft, Red Hat, and more. Frederic and Ron discuss how the Kubernetes project grew to such significant scale and which new initiatives in cloud-native development show the most promise from both a developer and enterprise perspective.

“This ecosystem starts sprawling, and we’ve got everything from security companies to service mesh companies to storage companies. Everybody is here. The whole hall is full of them. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between them because there are so many competing start-ups at this point.

I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a consolidation in the next six months or so where some of the bigger players, maybe Oracle, maybe VMware, will start buying some of these smaller companies. And I’m sure the show floor will look quite different about a year from now. All the big guys are here because they’re all trying to figure out what’s next.”

Frederic and Ron also dive deeper into the startup ecosystem rapidly developing around Kubernetes and other cloud-native technologies and offer their take on what areas of opportunity may prove to be most promising for new startups and founders down the road.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

May 23rd 2019, 12:22 pm

Andreessen pours $22M into PlanetScale’s database-as-a-service

TechCrunch

PlanetScale’s founders invented the technology called Vitess that scaled YouTube and Dropbox. Now they’re selling it to any enterprise that wants their data both secure and consistently accessible. And thanks to its ability to re-shard databases while they’re operating, it can solve businesses’ troubles with GDPR, which demands they store some data in the same locality as the user it belongs to.

The potential to be a computing backbone that both competes with and complements Amazon’s AWS has now attracted a mammoth $22 million Series A for PlanetScale. Led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by the firm’s Cultural Leadership Fund, head of the US Digital Service Matt Cutts plus existing investor SignalFire, the round is a tall step up from the startup’s $3 million seed it raised a year ago.

“What we’re discovering is that people we thought were at one point competitors, like AWS and hosted relational databases — we’re discovering they may be our partners instead since we’re seeing a reasonable demand for our services in front of AWS’ hosted databases” says CEO Jitendra Vaidya.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Vitess, a predescessor to Kubernetes, is a horizontal scaling sharding middleware built for MySQL. It lets businesses segment their database to boost memory efficiency without sacrificing reliable access speeds. PlanetScale sells Vitess in four ways: hosting on its database-as-a-service, licensing of the tech that can be run on-premises for clients or through another cloud provider, professional training for using Vitess, and on-demand support for users of the open-source version of Vitess.

“We don’t have any concerns about the engineering side of things, but we need to figure out a go-to-market strategy for enterprises” Vaidya explains. “As we’re both technical co-founders, about half of our funding is going towards hiring those functions [outside of engineering], and making that part of our organization work well and get results.”

May 23rd 2019, 12:22 pm

Spansive’s first wireless charger powers multiple phones simultaneously and works through thick case

TechCrunch

 

When Pi Charging (winner of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017) rebranded as Spansive last month, the company also dropped plans for its previously-shown cone-shaped charger capable of charging phones placed within a few inches around it. That charger would’ve required special cases for each device — and as the world quickly adopted built-in wireless charging standards like Qi, that no longer seemed like the right move.

They did say, however, that they were working on a different, Qi-centric wireless charging device with a “few tricks” of its own, and that it’d arrive by summer. This is that charger.

Called the Spansive Source, it’s a base station capable of wirelessly charging four phones at once. Unlike their cone-shaped charger, you’ll need to set your phone pretty much right on top of the Source — but unlike most pad-based wireless chargers, you won’t need to fuss with getting it aligned just right. Built using some of the same concepts they’d figured out with the cone-shaped charger, Spansive tells me that Source can determine where your phone is placed on the pad and adjust its array of magnetic charging coils accordingly. It’s also able to charge right through many brands of phone cases.

Spansive CEO and co-founder John MacDonald brought a few of his chargers to our office — and, while it’s tough to gauge how well something like this works in a short demo, it seemed to do what they promised. He placed one phone after another onto the base station, and each one’s screen lit up, its respective battery percentage ticking upward. He placed a phone with a thick Otterbox on the charger; it started juicing right up. The last phone he added to the pile had an Otterbox and a PopSocket on it, and it seemed to work all the same.

Spansive says Source charges at a rate of up to 5W for each phone being charged wirelessly, while the USB ports push up to 12W. MacDonald tells me that the wireless charging rate isn’t impacted by the number of phones on the pad; in other words, the first phone won’t charge slower just because you’ve added another phone or two to the charger.

John was careful to note that the Source is built to charge phones, specifically. The angled design would make resting something like an Apple Watch on it a bit awkward, for example — so Source also has two USB ports on its side, meant to help charge your various other devices. Even within the phone category, Spansive isn’t promising full compatibility across all Qi phones right off the bat; MacDonald tells me they’ve focused on getting it to work with Samsung’s Galaxy phones (beginning with the S7) and iPhones (beginning with iPhone 8), with certification/compatibility with other phones likely coming down the road via over-the-air software update. It has WiFi built-in for pulling down those updates, with a button on Source’s base for wiping your WiFi credentials with a tap if you don’t want yet another IoT device on your network indefinitely.

Source goes up for sale today at $189, shipping immediately in two colorways: white and charcoal.

May 23rd 2019, 12:07 pm

Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader returns with a larger screen

TechCrunch

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Nook. Barnes & Noble’s e-reader was more than just a rare competitor to Amazon’s steamrolling Kindle, it was a nice device with an interesting design — and one of the first in its class to now standard technologies like front lighting.

But good readers never really die, they just go into extended hibernation and people forget all of about them. And also they sometimes die. Anyway, it’s clear that the Nook division ultimately wasn’t the sort of exit strategy Barnes & Noble was hoping for (no one, it seemed, could predict Amazon), but it continues to release products here and there, including the bigger, better Nook GlowLight Plus.

The new reader maintains the classic Nook soft touch style, coupled with a considerably larger 7.8 inch screen featuring the titular front lighting. Bulkiness has always been a bit of an issue with the Nook, and that’s almost certainly more so the case with the larger footprint. It’s a sacrifice for a more comfortable device, and the price is certainly right though, at $199.

That includes 8GB of built in storage and your standard works-for-weeks-at-a-time battery. The physical page buttons, which Amazon has since come back around on are here, as well. Oh, and the new Nook is waterproof for all of those summer reading misadventures.

It his B&N stores on Memorial Day and will available online Wednesday May 29.

May 23rd 2019, 11:23 am

eFounders backs Yousign to build a European eSignature company

TechCrunch

French startup Yousign is partnering with startup studio eFounders. While eFounders usually builds software-as-a-service startups from scratch, the company is trying something new with this partnership.

eFounders wants to create all the tools you need to make your work more efficient. The startup studio is behind many respectable SaaS successes, such as Front, Aircall or Spendesk. And electronic signatures are a must if you want to speed up your workflow.

Sure, there are a ton of well-established players in the space — DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe Sign, HelloSign, etc. But nobody has really cracked the European market in a similar way.

Yousign has been around for a while in France. When it comes to features, it has everything you’d expect. You can upload a document and set up automated emails and notifications so that everybody signs the document.

Signatures are legally binding and Yousign archive your documents. You can also create document templates and send contract proposals using an API.

The main challenge for Yousign is that Europe is still quite fragmented. The company will need to convince users in different countries that they need to switch to an eSignature solution. Starting today, Yousign is now available in France, Germany, the U.K. and Spain.

Yousign had only raised some money. eFounders is cleaning the cap table by buying out existing investors and replacing them.

“We can’t really communicate on the details of the investment, but what I can tell you is that we bought out existing funds for several millions of euros in order to replace them — founders still have the majority of shares,” eFounders co-founder and CEO Thibaud Elzière told me.

In a blog post, Elzière writes that eFounders has acquired around 50 percent of the company through a SPV (Single Purpose Vehicle) that it controls. The startup studio holds 25 percent directly, and investors in the eFounders eClub hold 25 percent.

Yousign now looks pretty much like any other eFounders company when they start. Of course, founders and eFounders might get diluted further down the road if Yousign ends up raising more money.

May 23rd 2019, 11:23 am

Using full-body MRIs, Ezra can now detect 11 cancers in men and 13 in women

TechCrunch

When Ezra first launched about six months ago, the company was using magnetic resonance imaging machines to test for prostate cancer in men.

But the company’s founder, Emi Gal, always had a larger goal.

“One of the biggest problems in cancer is that there’s no accurate, fast, painless, way to scan for cancer anywhere in the body” Gal said at the time of his company’s debut.

Now he’s several steps closer to a solution. Rather than having to do painful biopsies which often come with significant side effects, Gal’s software can now be used to slash the cost for a full-body MRI scan designed to screen for 11 different types of cancer in men and another 13 types of cancer in women (who have more organs that are likely to develop cancer).

The scans take about an hour and costs just $1,950, compared with the $5,000 to $10,000 that a full-body MRI scan can cost.

That’s still a steep price for customers to pay out of pocket. Insurance companies won’t pay for Ezra’s screens… yet. The company is in talks with some insurance companies and expects to have some pilot projects up in the last quarter of 2018 and first quarter of 2020. The goal, says Gal, is to have Ezra covered by insurers and self-employed insurers.

It’s hard to overstate how vitally important early cancer screening is for patients.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.7 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019. For 600,000 people that diagnosis will be a death sentence. Roughly half of cancer patients are detected in the late stage of the disease and only two out of ten late-stage cancer patients survive longer than five years.

Gal knows the toll that can take on patients and families all too well. The serial entrepreneur, who started his first company at 20 and sold it at 30, volunteered at a hospice in his hometown of Bucharest, and became determined to come up with a screen to detect cancer earlier.

Gal started working on Ezra’s cancer-screening toolkit last year, with patient data taken from the National Institute of Health and supplemented with 150 cancer screens from additional patients.

Ezra initially came to market with a single test to screen for prostate cancer using machine learning to diagnose the screens coming off of an abbreviated MRI scan that takes 20 minutes.

All of the MRI sequences that Gal’s company uses are FDA approved, but the machine learning algorithms the company has developed has not been cleared, yet.

While Ezra can screen for different cancers, the firm’s technology doesn’t offer a diagnosis. That’s still up to a physician and requires additional testing. “We’re turning MRIs from what is a diagnostic test into a screening test,” says Gal.

“What we’ve done is removed the sequences not necessary for screening and brought the liver scan down to 15 minutes [and] the total scanning time down to an hour,” Gal says.

Rather than building out its own network of MRI machines to conduct the tests, Ezra has partnered with the MRI facility network RadNet on testing. The company also offers post-diagnosis consultations to help direct patients who are diagnosed with cancer to seek proper treatment.

The company is currently working in nine centers across New York and intends to expand to San Francisco and Los Angeles later this year.

Gal’s vision for early cancer screening was appealing enough to rake in $4 million in financing from investors including Founders Future, Credo Ventures, Seedcamp, Esther Dyson and other angel investors including SoundCloud co-founder Alex Ljung.

Ultimately, Ezra’s success will hinge on whether it can continue to drive down costs with its direct-to-consumer pitch, or become a diagnostic tool that insurers embrace.

“Over time, our goal is to build different AIs for different organs to decrease the cost even further,” says Gal.

May 23rd 2019, 11:23 am

Rotten Tomatoes will start verifying ticket purchases for audience reviews

TechCrunch

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes is taking additional steps to confirm that audience members actually see a movie before leaving a rating or review.

The site’s Audience Scores — which are distinct from the Tomatometer, which is based on professional reviews — have become a target for supposed fans looking to voice their discontent around big releases. That’s particularly been the case for movies like “Captain Marvel,” “Black Panther” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which feature women or people of color as their leads. (Despite the reactionary backlash, each of those films has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.)

Earlier this year, the site announced that it would not allow users to post comments about a movie until a came out. But that only delayed the debate — if you wanted to rant about a title without seeing it, you just had to wait a little longer.

So starting today, Rotten Tomatoes is taking advantage of the fact that it’s owned by ticketing service Fandango (which in turn is owned by Comcast and WarnerMedia). For all new movies moving forward, users who want to leave a rating or review will be asked to verify their ticket purchase through Fandango.

To be clear, you’ll still be able to leave a review without verification, but verified reviews will be clearly marked, and only those reviews will be included when calculating the Audience Score.

The Audience Score will also be replacing the user rating system in Fandango, with the service prompting ticket buyers to leave a Rotten Tomatoes review after they’ve seen the film.

“Because of scale that Fandango brings, we expect to get to a critical mass of verified ratings really quickly out of the gate,” said Fandango’s vice president of product Greg Ferris.

He added that Rotten Tomatoes has also partnered with AMC Theatres, Regal and Cinemark Theatres to verify purchases from those theater chains later this year.

It’s also exploring ways to confirm that you watched a movie on streaming or TV. And while the system currently verifies just one review per transaction, Feriss said he’s looking at how to support multiple reviews for group ticket purchases.

May 23rd 2019, 11:06 am

FanDuel partners with fuboTV to bring sports betting data to the live streaming service

TechCrunch

Live sports streaming service fuboTV today announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with daily fantasy sports provider FanDuel, which will see the latter’s betting data integrated into fuboTV’s streaming platform. The deal also includes a media buy and a carriage agreement that brings FanDuel -owned horse-racing networks TVG and TVG2 to fuboTV, as well. The deal is only live in New Jersey, but fuboTV says it will be able to integrate sports betting data on the platform in other states where betting is legal over time.

The partnership makes FanDuel the exclusive sportsbook, online casino, horse racing, and daily fantasy sports partner, meaning fuboTV won’t be doing similar deals with competitors. And FanDuel will be the exclusive advertiser across all those categories on fuboTV.

This is the first time the sports betting service has formed a strategic partnership with an over-the-top streaming service — but it’s one that makes sense given the likely overlap in both of their user bases.

The TVG network, meanwhile, will be added to fuboTV’s base package ($54.99/mo) and TVG2 will become available in the Sports Plus add-on package that offers a couple dozen more channels for $8.99/mo. The channels will bring horse racing industry coverage, as well as programming on sports betting and fantasy news, which includes TVG’s sports betting-focused show “More Ways to Win.”

The channels are set to launch in the coming weeks.

Also the weeks ahead, FanDuel’s betting data will become integrated into fuboTV — including under fuboTV-branded channels and FanDuel’s TVG channels, plus on content detail pages, in the programming guide, and elsewhere. This same data will later roll out to other U.S. states, where legal, as it’s a national deal.

Other channels will receive the betting data integration over time.

That means, for the time being, the betting data is only displaying on two fuboTV-branded channels — fubo Network and fubo Cycling — in addition to the horse racing channels. This is a fairly limited integration, given that fuboTV’s base package today include 95 channels across a range of sports. It also means the betting data is limited cycling, soccer, and horse racing to start, as those are the only sports covered by the aforementioned channels.

But fuboTV says it expects to expand to other channels and sports in time. Of course, it will need to broker further deals to make that happen.

To be clear, only sports betting data will be provided to fuboTV viewers.

FuboTV is not facilitating the actual betting, nor will the FanDuel ads offer some sort of clickthrough experience that would direct viewers to its own site.

The company declined to share the deal terms, only noting FanDuel’s advertising buy.

“We’re partnering with fuboTV to demonstrate how FanDuel can enhance the live viewing experience by allowing cord-cutting sports fans to view the content that matters to them the most from their TV, phone, tablet or computer,” said Adam Kaplan, FanDuel VP of Content Business & Operations, in a statement. “FuboTV is a sports-centric company, focused on live sports and entertainment content, making them a natural partner. By integrating our odds and data on fuboTV’s platform, we are truly changing the way people watch live sports,” he said.

“We are always looking for ways to add value for consumers and enhance their premium experience with fuboTV,” said Min Kim, fuboTV VP of Business Development, added. “Gaming and sports are natural complements, and fuboTV’s industry-leading product offerings will be further enriched with FanDuel’s innovative entertainment solutions.”

May 23rd 2019, 10:53 am

Sarah Connor returns in the teaser trailer for ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

TechCrunch

Oh boy, there’s another Terminator movie on its way.

I haven’t watched any of the franchise’s big-screen installments since “Terminator 2” — not “Rise of the Machines,” “Salvation” or the hilariously-named “Genisys.” But I remember the hype cycle around the latter films, with the excitement that maybe this time we’d see a return to the spirit and quality of the first two movies, followed by the inevitable disappointment when it didn’t happen.

To be honest, this teaser trailer for “Dark Fate” doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the other sequels — there’s an evil Terminator (Gabriel Luna) hunting down a human woman (Natalie Reyes), protected in turn by a good Terminator (Mackenzie Davis).

However, it highlights two key elements that may give fans hope. First off, the big entrance is reserved not for Arnold Schwarzenegger (who’s barely in the trailer at all), but instead for Linda Hamilton, who’s returning as Sarah Connor for the first time since “Terminator 2.”

And behind the scenes, franchise creator James Cameron is taking an active role once again — he was presumably too busy with a million “Avatar” sequels to direct, but he’s on-board as a producer and story writer (Josh Friedman, who created the excellent “Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV show, also gets a story credit). And alongside the trailer, Paramount has released a promotional video with Cameron touting this as the true successor to “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2.”

“Terminator: Dark Fate” was directed by Tim Miller (who previously directed “Deadpool”) and is scheduled for release on November 1, 2019.

May 23rd 2019, 10:23 am

Tencent’s latest education push is a nod to new collaborative structure

TechCrunch

When Tencent announced it had formed a new education brand this week, the internet giant wasn’t just flexing the muscles to conquer China’s booming online education sector. The new initiative is also an early result of Tencent’s long plan to foster more internal collaboration at a time when its core businesses, the lucrative video gaming segment and the billion-user WeChat, are under attack.

Called ‘Tencent Education’, the new brand consists of 20 products across all six of the firm’s business groups, announced executive senior vice president Dowson Tong at the company’s annual ecosystem summit on Wednesday. According to Tong, Tencent has over the years served some 15,000 schools and 70,000 educational institutes, giving it a reach of over 300 million users in the sector.

What this means is when it comes to making education products, there will be more teamwork among Tencent divisions, from the one overseeing WeChat to the entertainment-focused unit operating some of the world’s most played games. The catalog of services ranges from face recognition technology to monitor students during class time (I know, it makes me cringe), to personal development classes for adults.

This level of cross-department cooperation had been rare at Tencent until recently. For years, the Shenzhen-based company fostered a competitive culture it compares to horse races. On the one hand, internal rivalry spawns innovation. The success of WeChat has demonstrated Tencent’s willingness to let a new product eat into its legacy social network QQ. The strategy doesn’t always work, though. To contain TikTok’s rise, Tencent has churned out a dozen short video apps, but none has reached their rival’s supremacy.

Competition, on the other hand, produces internal silos and hurts collaboration. This is a critique that has often come at Tencent, although Tong refuted the notion in a recent interview with local news outlet Yicai, saying that Tencent actually had a history of keeping a data system for internal collaboration.

Meanwhile, its rival Alibaba has gotten more credit for structuring business units under one cooperative umbrella. When founder Jack Ma set up an “underlying unified data, safety, risk management and technology foundation” almost seven years ago, his goal was to tear down “internal corporate walls.” The integration was targeted at customers as well. For instance, Ma envisioned a future where a merchant on Alibaba’s consumer-facing marketplace Taobao would directly source from 1688.com, its business-to-business ecommerce arm.

Tencent is undergoing a similar transformation. In October, the company announced a sweeping reorganization that saw it knit together a few disparate business lines primed for synergies. Take the Platform and Content Group. The newly minted group consolidated all non-WeChat social and content services — spanning QQ, an app store, a web browser, two news apps, an esports platform and several video services — under one single division.

Historically, Tencent has derived a bulk of its income from video games and a handful of popular social media apps. But the cards are increasingly stacked against these ventures as China exerts more control over the gaming sector and Bytedance seizes more online attention, so part of the October reorg was aimed at fending off imminent competition from new rivals by better utilizing internal resources, as it’s the case with PCG.

The other part of the agenda is set for what’s further down the road. Tong told Yicai that the time is ripe for ‘the industrial internet,’ a buzzword in China that refers to the upgrade of traditional industries with technology. Tencent wants to be a leading force in the revolution, and the plan is to open up its technology to other enterprises, as Tencent has done through the education initiative.

“In the age of the industrial internet, I think the ultimate job is to be open… so we are opening a lot of the technologies we’ve accumulated in the past and integrating them for the use of other companies,” said Tong.

May 23rd 2019, 10:23 am

Google Assistant gets NYC subway arrival times ahead of MTA Google Pay support

TechCrunch

Next week, New York City’s Metro Transit Authority will be adding contactless payment support for Google Pay. In the meantime, Google’s getting ready by bringing a key new commuting feature to Android.

Starting today, NYC straphangers can use Google Assistant to find out the ETA of the next train. Saying, “Hey Google, when is the next 4 train arriving?” or “Hey Google, when is the next train?” Will pop up its estimated arrival in each direction, along with walking directions to the closet station. Something I could have used this morning, after narrowly missing the R train.

If you’re located in the New York City area, odds are you’ve already seen the contactless payments pop up in a handful of locations along the 4,5,6 line. Next week, those commuting between Grand Central in Manhattan and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center in Brooklyn will be able to swipe their phone as part of a public pilot.

For now, at least, it seems the future is limited to single ride payment (versus daily/weekly/monthly cards), as the MTA works on hammering out the finer details. Stations that accept Google Pay will be added to Maps in coming weeks. Android users will also be able to add in a credit or debit card via the app. That feature is also arriving for riders in Melbourne and London.

May 23rd 2019, 10:23 am

Hunters.ai raises $4.5M for its autonomous threat hunting solution

TechCrunch

Hunters.ai, a Tel Aviv-based startup that built an AI-based threat hunting solution, today announced that it has raised a $5.4 million seed funding round led by YL Ventures and Blumberg Capital.

Threat hunting has traditionally been a rather manual practice, where analysts try to actively identify potential threats to their systems. This has always been a very data-driven activity, though, so it’s no surprise that a number of startups are now looking to automate the process. Not all attacks are as easy to spot as an attacker who is trying to brute force a password, for example. Sometimes, a sophisticated attacker may have the credentials to get into a network, for example. It’s then up to the hunter and hunting tools to recognize that there is unusual activity, because, in the end, these attackers always leave a few breadcrumbs in their wake.

The Hunters team tells me that it did a lot of market validation before deciding on its focus. “The main gap we saw is the level of talent, experience and understanding of the attack side inside of organizations,” Hunters CEO Uri May told me. “This led us to develop what we call the autonomous threat hunting machine, which is taking our understanding of what threat hunting is and to take that to a lot of customers around the world in a scalable way.”

Similar solutions often rely on agents, scanners and other techniques that collect the data, but Hunters gathers its information by integrating with existing systems. The system then continuously analyzes this data and looks for abnormalities.

As May and Hunters CTO Tomoer Kazaz stressed when I talked to them, the team wanted to provide users with more than just alerts, though. “We don’t call it alerts because it’s a full attack story because it’s more of a correlation of multiple alerts into an actionable attack story,” Kazaz said. “We always provide customers with some actionable action items.”

Over time, the company plans to integrate this dashboard with other security orchestration products.

“IT security teams must become faster and better at detecting and stopping attacks, and threat hunting is the obvious strategy of choice. But hiring the highly specialized and in-demand skills and knowledge needed is simply not possible,” said Ofer Schreiber, a partner at YL Ventures . “This leaves an attack detection gap and the cost of failure is a board-level concern. Deploying Hunters is like putting an army of highly skilled threat hunters to work to magnify your team’s power and close that gap.”

As is so often the case with Israeli security startups, May and Kazaz started their careers in the Israeli Defense Forces. The team also has Blumberg Captial’s Ehud Schneerson on its board. Schneerson is the former commander of Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of the NSA, an organization that has probably spawned more security startups in recent years than any university.

Hunters is now available to a limited set of customers, with general availability planned for late 2019.

 

May 23rd 2019, 10:06 am

Indiegogo hires Reddit’s Andy Yang as new CEO

TechCrunch

Indiegogo has a new chief. Andy Yang will take over for outgoing CEO David Mandelbrot who is stepping down. According to sources close to the company, several other Indiegogo employees are also leaving. Indiegogo has yet to confirm this claim or state the number or reason for their departure.

Mandelbrot announced the move on LinkedIn, citing “personal reasons” as the reason he’s leaving. He was at Indiegogo for six years starting as SVP of Operations in August of 2013.

Andy Yang comes to Indiegogo from Reddit where he was most recently leading its product team. He was previously the CEO of 500px.

Yang comes to Indiegogo at a critical time for the company. Consumers are increasingly becoming jaded by crowdfunding projects that leave backers without their promised product. Under Mandelbrot’s leadership, he helped Indiegogo net several key partners including General Electric and Lego. The company also enlisted the help of several manufacturing and marketing professionals to help backers make projects into products.

TechCrunch requested an interview with Yang, but has yet to be granted that request.

May 23rd 2019, 10:06 am

Zenkit redesigns its project management app, adds public API and more

TechCrunch

There’s no darth of Trello-style project management services, but while the core of Zenkit is exactly that, it’s also far more flexible than most and offers plenty of ways to adjust the service to your style of work (and beyond Kanban). Today, the company is launching version 3.0 of its service and with that, it’s not just putting a fresh coat of paint on the service but also launching a number of new features for end users and developers.

With this new version, Zenkit moved to a unified user interface across mobile and desktop. The company is also placing a bet of progressive web apps. Indeed, As Zenkit CEO and co-founder Martin Welker told me, the company has now ceased developing native apps entirely.

“Existing frameworks such as Ionic are all component based, which means they couldn’t accommodate the deep complexity we envisaged,” he said. “It became clear to us that we would need to write our own framework that accommodated the entire app, not just it’s components, in order to realize our vision. The implementation of the Zenkit framework not only aligned our design across all platforms, but it also had a radical impact on how our team develop.”

With this new version, Zenkit is also introducing new features like published collections, for example. You can think of those as publish boards (or mindmaps, calendars etc.) that you can share with people outside of your organization or embed on any website. Welker expects that users will use this to share project roadmaps or changelogs for their apps, for example, while freelancers and consultants may use it to share their project progress with clients. He also expects that event managers will use it to post public schedules for their conferences, for example.

Another feature this move also enables is split-screen support on iPad.

“Our redesign was triggered by the need to improve the Zenkit mobile experience, especially on tablets,” Zenkit CEO Martin Welker said. “We know that tablets and phones are used differently, for different purposes, so the progressive web apps update makes Zenkit feel like it was designed as a native app for each device, while letting us immediately push updates and fixes from one central code source.”

Zenkit also adders Microsoft Teams support and the ability to log in with a Microsoft account, as well as iCalendar subscriptions.

There’s also now a public API, which is actually more interesting than it sounds. Since there is a generic database at the core of the service, developers will essentially be able to use Zenkit as a database backend for their own apps, too. It’ll be interesting to see how developers will use this service.

May 23rd 2019, 10:06 am

A cryptocurrency stealing app found on Google Play was downloaded over a thousand times

TechCrunch

Researchers have found two apps masquerading as cryptocurrency apps on Android’s app store, Google Play.

One of them was largely a dud. The second was designed to steal cryptocurrency, the researchers said.

Security firm ESET said one of the two fake Android apps impersonated Trezor, a hardware cryptocurrency wallet. The good news is that app couldn’t be used to steal cryptocurrency stored by Trezor. But the researchers found the app was connected to a second Android app which could have been used to scam funds out of unsuspecting victims.

Lukas Stefanko, a security researcher at ESET — who has a long history of finding dodgy Android apps — said the fake Trezor app “appeared trustworthy at first glance” but was using a fake developer name to impersonate the company.

The fake app was designed to trick users into turning over a victim’s login credentials. Uploaded to Google Play on May 1, the app quickly ranked as the second-most popular search result when searching for “Trezor” behind the legitimate app, said Stefanko. Users on Reddit also found the fake app and reported it as recently as two weeks ago.

According to Stefanko, the server where user credentials were sent was linked to a website linked to another fake wallet, purportedly to store cryptocurrency, and also listed on Google Play since February 25.

“The app claims it lets its users create wallets for various cryptocurrencies,” said Stefanko. “However, its actual purpose is to trick users into transferring cryptocurrency into the attackers’ wallets – a classic case of what we’ve named wallet address scams in our previous research into cryptocurrency-targeting malware.”

Both apps were collectively downloaded more than a thousand times. After ESET contacted Google, the apps were pulled offline the next day.

Read more:

May 23rd 2019, 9:53 am

Fika Ventures raises $76M to fund the growing LA tech ecosystem

TechCrunch

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger today as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announces its sophomore investment fund.

Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

News of Fika’s second effort comes as investment in LA tech continues to reach record highs. In total, more than $60 billion was invested in LA startups in 2018. So far this year, companies headquartered in the area have attracted roughly $25 billion in equity funding, according to data collected by PitchBook.

“It’s still really underserved from a capital standpoint,” Zhuo said of the LA region. “We feel over the next couple of years, we’ll start to see repeat entrepreneurs come out of these LA companies. The timing is ripe for a fund like ours to capitalize on the opportunity.”

Ho, a former general partner and co-founder of San Francisco seed fund Susa Ventures, told TechCrunch LA is benefiting from the exodus of founders and investors from Silicon Valley: “A lot of the folks from up north have moved down here for better quality of life,” she explained.

“Silicon Valley has gotten a bad rap over the last couple of years so folks move down here, engineers come down here, founders come down,” Ho added. “I’ve watched the ecosystem grow over the last two decades.”

Fika Ventures focuses on the greater B2B ecosystem but has also supported companies solving social issues within housing, education and healthcare. Ho cited an investment in WeeCare, a startup that helps people launch curriculum-based home daycares within their own homes, as an example.

Additional Fika portfolio companies include Asian food delivery business Chowbus, Elementary Robotics, a developer of robot assistants, and Chatdesk, a customer support messaging platform.

May 23rd 2019, 9:23 am

Serverless and containers: Two great technologies that work great together

TechCrunch

Cloud native models using containerized software in a continuous delivery approach could benefit from serverless computing where the cloud vendor generates the exact amount of resources required to run a workload on the fly. While the major cloud vendors have recognized this and are already creating products to abstract away the infrastructure, it may not work for every situation in spite of the benefits.

Cloud native put simply involves using containerized applications and Kubernetes to deliver software in small packages called microservices. This enables developers to build and deliver software faster and more efficiently in a continuous delivery model. In the cloud native world, you should be able to develop code once and run it anywhere, on prem or any public cloud, or at least that is the ideal.

Serverless is actually a bit of a misnomer. There are servers underlying the model, but instead of dedicated virtual machines, the cloud vendor delivers exactly the right number of resources to run a particular workload for the right amount of time and no more.

Nothing is perfect

Such an arrangement would seem to be perfectly suited to a continuous delivery model, and while vendors have recognized the beauty of such an approach, as one engineer pointed out, there is never a free lunch in processes that are this complex, and it won’t be a perfect solution for every situation.

Arpana Sinha, director of product management at Google says the Kubernetes community has really embraced the serveless idea, but she says that it is limited in its current implementation, delivered in the form of functions with products like AWS Lambda, Google Cloud Functions and Azure Functions.

“Actually, I think the functions concept is a limited concept. It is unfortunate that that is the only thing that people associate with serverless,” she said.

She says that Google has tried to be more expansive in its definition “It’s basically a concept for developers where you are able to seamlessly go from writing code to deployment and the infrastructure takes care of all of the rest, making sure your code is deployed in the appropriate way across the appropriate, most resilient parts of the infrastructure, scaling it as your app needs additional resources, scaling it down as your traffic goes down, and charging you only for what you’re consuming,” she explained

But Matt Whittington, senior engineer on the Kubernetes Team at Atlassian says, while it sounds good in theory, in practice fully automated infrastructure could be unrealistic in some instances. “Serverless could be promising for certain workloads because it really allows developers to focus on the code, but it’s not a perfect solution. There is still some underlying tuning.”

He says you may not be able to leave it completely up to the vendor unless there is a way to specify the requirements for each container such as instructing them you need a minimum container load time, a certain container kill time or perhaps you need to deliver it a specific location. He says in reality it won’t be fully automated, at least while developers fiddle with the settings to make sure they are getting the resources they need without over-provisioning and paying for more than they need.

Vendors bringing solutions

The vendors are putting in their two cents trying to create tools that bring this ideal together. For instance, Google announced a service called Google Cloud Run at Google Cloud Next last month. It’s based on the open source Knative project, and in essence combines the goodness of serverless for developers running containers. Other similar services include AWS Fargate and Azure Container Instances, both of which are attempting to bring together these two technologies in a similar package.

In fact, Gabe Monroy, partner program manager at Microsoft, says Azure Container Instances is designed to solve this problem without being dependent on a functions-driven programming approach. “What Azure Container Instances does is it allows you to run containers directly on the Azure compute fabric, no virtual machines, hypervisor isolated, pay-per-second billing. We call it serverless containers,” he said.

While serverless and containers might seem like a good fit, as Monroy points there isn’t a one size fits all approach to cloud native technologies, whatever the approach may be. Some people will continue to use a function-driven serverless approach like AWS Lambda or Azure Functions and others will shift to containers and look for other ways to bring these technologies together. Whatever happens, as developer needs change, it is clear the open source community and vendors will respond with tools to help them. Bringing serverless and containers is together is just one example of that.

May 23rd 2019, 9:03 am

Future launches $150/mo exercise app where real coaches nag you

TechCrunch

The only way to beat laziness is with guilt, and so that’s what Future sells. It assigns you an actual human trainer who builds personalized workout plans and message you throughout the day to make sure you’re doing them. It even gives you an Apple Watch to track your activity and ensure you’re not lying. Future actually got me to the gym where my coach kicked my ass remotely with a 30 minute lifting routine I’d never have stuck to by myself.

The catch? It’s probably the most expensive app you’ve ever seen, charging $150 per month.

Future officially launches today, touting some stunning stats from its beta tests. 95% of users stuck with it for 3 months, and 85% kept training for 6 months. Luckily it comes with a 1-month money-back guarantee that CEO Rishi Mandal says has only been redeemed once.

The remarkable retention and Future’s potential to become a gateway for your fitness and nutrition spending have roped in some big name investors. Today it’s announcing an $8.5 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins, building on its $3 million seed. Other backers include Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, and Caffeinated Capital. Athletes are betting on Future’s promise of democratizing the personal training they get, including Golden State Warrior Sean Livingston, and NFL stars Ndamukong Suh and Kelvin Beachum.

“Future manages to be both deeply personalized (and personable!) while being super convenient” says Krieger of one of his first investments since leaving Instagram. Future’s Mandal previously built local experience app Sosh while sitting next to Krieger at incubator Dogpatch Labs where Instagram got its start. “The always available nature of it means travel or a shifting schedule is no longer an excuse to not work out.”

How Future Works (Out)

Throughout the onboarding, Future flexes the money you spend to give what feels like a luxury app experience.

Upon signup, you’ll answer some questions about your goals like slimming down or beefing up, and pick from a few expert trainers who specialize in your needs. You’ll do a 15-minute video chat with your trainer to get friendly, describe your schedule, and hammer out details of your workout plan. After you get your welcome kit with some swag and an Apple Watch, your trainer delivers your week’s worth of personalized daily routines that come with video instructions for each exercise. The Future app provides audio cues to guide you through the workout while your trainer chimes in with personalized pointers and motivation via pre-recorded voice clips.

But what’s unique about Future is that your trainer proactively checks in with you throughout your day to make sure you’re actually getting to the gym or doing those pushups. Since you don’t switch between trainers with each workout like some apps, and since they have your activity and heart rate data from the Apple Watch, they can spot patterns of procrastination or flaking out. And you’re prompted to give feedback after each sweat session that the trainer uses to tweak your plan. That personalization and prodding go a long way to making sure Future always fits your day and actually stays part of it.

For example, I wanted to burn a few pounds without burning too much time by adding a gym day or two plus some warmup strength training before my home Peloton rides. My trainer Renee, a former University Of Wisconsin Director of Sports Performance for basketball, designed a 30-minute weight lifting circuit and some 10-minute bodyweight exercise plans for me. When I messaged her that I was doing an a more intense spin class today, she remixed my warmup exercises to avoid legs so I wouldn’t be tired during my ride. So far she’s always responded within a few minutes, and been cheerful yet forceful “I know your days are slammed, just wanted to check in and see if you were able to get to that spin class?” she messaged me at 6:30pm. That’s something even most in-person trainers don’t do.

The constant communication and sense of trust users develop with their coaches could give Future potential beyond subscription fitness. The app becomes a hub for your healthy behavior. Future already offers an in-app Shop where it recommends workout clothes, headphones, and water bottles. It’s easy to imagine it partnering with fitness equipment makers, health food lines, or other brands to score a cut of referred sales.

Still, the biggest hurdle is convincing people to pay over 10X their Netflix fee for a personal trainer they don’t see in person. Compared to the $1 apps we’re used to, Future can induce sticker shock. But compared to unused gym memberships, pricey private coaching, and potential health problems, Future could look affordable if well-to-do professionals squint right. And if it works. Humans are sluggish. Most heathy habits lapse. But Future is building the closest thing to “press button, pay money, get fitter” — which in the end looks like getting someone to enthusiastically shame us from afar.

 

May 23rd 2019, 6:35 am

Beautystack raises £4M seed to help beauty professionals become financially independent

TechCrunch

Beautystack, the London startup that’s creating a beauty professional booking app with heavy focus on social, has quietly picked up £4 million in seed funding led by Index Ventures.

The company had previously raised pre-seed funding from LocalGlobe (led by Suzanne Ashman) and counts David Rowan (ex-Wired), Julien Codorniou (Facebook Workplace) and Audrey Gelman (The Wing) as angel investors.

Founded by former salon owner and brand consultant Sharmadean Reid in April 2017 before being joined by co-founders Dan Woodbury and Ken Lalobo, Beautystack is part booking platform for independent beauty professionals and part social app. The idea, Reid tells me, is to “close the loop” on seeing the results of a beauty treatment that you like and being able to book it.

“Girls see millions of images of beauty treatments on social media and have no idea about who did it, how much it cost or what it even is,” she says. “We want to close the loop on the journey of seeing what you want, liking it and booking it. With Beautystack we use visual menus so you can search and book what you like.”

Reid says Beautystack’s “see it, like it, book it” approach is also designed to solve a bigger problem that means many beauty services providers are at the bottom of the $450 billion beauty industry and “don’t get the earnings, tech solutions or income or respect they deserve.”

“In my opinion they are the foundation of the industry and with Beautystack our mission is towards gender quality by increasing the earnings of these ‘Beauty Pros.’ I want to turn the beauty professionals into the next beauty influencers and have them earning salaries comparable to beauty bloggers. They always have been influential, but now we want to push them to the forefront.”

She says doing that requires a cultural change as well as a technological one, and that Beautystack, which launched a beta in January, is taking the time to cultivate its supply and promote the beauticians on its app through articles and content, “and nurture their confidence and their careers.” It also provides the tools needed for beauty professionals to work independently and reduce the time spent managing social media, customer support and bookings.

“Our typical supply customer is a millennial or Gen-Z independent beauty professional,” adds Reid, “mainly women, who tend to create a lot of content around their work (images and video), which they then post on social media. After working all day, they then have to respond to Instagram DMs, comments, texts and WhatsApps for their appointment requests, and typically there will be at least 10 exchanges, including screenshots of imagery to close a booking [without payment].”

Beautystack founders

These beauty professionals are typically leaving a salon and either setting up private studios, operating mobile, working from home or renting chairs in a salon as opposed to a commission model. With Beautystack, Reid says the beauty pro’s time is better protected against cancellations, too, with a 50% upfront booking and 50% upon completion. An image of the beauty treatment sought is attached to each booking and the beauty pro can view the client’s profile to gauge their taste before they even walk through the door.

It’s this “networked environment” that in part makes Beautystack stand out from competitors, with the app employing social media mechanics to allow users to see what their friends have booked and to follow and like their posts. “We have a two-sided networked marketplace that has equal functionality. Other beauty scheduling systems operate like a classified directory,” says Reid.

With that said, Beautystack isn’t a walled garden. Initially built as a web app using React, each beauty pro gets their own website accessible through any modern web browser and linked to their profile within the Beautystack mobile app.

“Later down the line I think we will do more with their web profiles and enable partner integrations in finance and accounting to support more experiences for beauty pros,” adds the Beautystack founder.

May 23rd 2019, 4:48 am

Join our mailing list and trim €200 off passes for Disrupt Berlin 2019

TechCrunch

Savvy early-stage startuppers of every stripe have their sights set on attending TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2019 on 11-12 December. Why? This showcase event draws the most innovative startups, technologists, founders and investors across Europe and beyond. Registration doesn’t open until June, but we have a way for you to save big right now.

All you need to do is sign up for our mailing list before the official registration opens, and we’ll knock €200 off the super-early-bird price of any Disrupt Berlin pass. When you sign up, we’ll email you a discount code to use when it’s time to pay for your ticket. That’s some savvy savings right there.

Great ideas and great startups know no boundaries, and neither do Disrupt Berlin participants. It’s a highly diverse startup community representing more than 50 countries, including European Union members, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, India, China and South Korea and many more. Talk about a world-class networking opportunity.

You’ll find hundreds of incredible early-stage startups exhibiting the latest tech innovations in Startup Alley, the expo hall and the heart of every Disrupt event. It’s a breeding ground of opportunity where you can make connections, find new collaborators, potential investors, employees or even meet the manufacturing contact you need to move your startup forward. In the Alley, the possibilities are endless.

Here’s another great Startup Alley opportunity: the TC Top Picks program. TechCrunch editors shine a bright Disrupt spotlight on a hand-picked cohort of promising startups representing a range of tech categories. They get to exhibit for free in Startup Alley, and they enjoy a ton of media and investor attention. We’ll have information on how you can apply to be a TC Top Pick in the coming weeks.

Be sure to experience the Startup Battlefield, the legendary pitch competition with the $50,000 cash prize. Since 2007, 857 participating Battlefield startups have collectively raised more than $8 billion in funding and generated 109 exits. But then again, maybe you’d rather compete than watch. Go you! We’ll have more info soon on how to apply, so keep checking back.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the great programming you’ll enjoy at Disrupt Berlin. We’re in the process building the agenda of speakers, panelists, workshops, Q&A Sessions and demos. And of course, there’s also the always-epic TechCrunch After Party.

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. Remember: When you sign up for our mailing list before the official registration opens, you’ll save €200 off the super-early-bird price of your pass. And you’ll stay up to date on the latest announcements and the multitude of ways you can explore and enjoy Disrupt Berlin.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact the sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

May 23rd 2019, 4:48 am

GitHub launches Sponsors, lets you pay your favorite open source contributors

TechCrunch

GitHub today launched Sponsors, a new tool that lets you give financial support to open source developers. Developers will be able to opt into having a “Sponsor me” button on their GitHub repositories and open source projects will also be able to highlight their funding models, no matter whether that’s individual contributions to developers or using Patreon, Tidelift, Ko-fi or Open Collective.

The mission here, GitHub says, is to “expand the opportunities to participate in and build on open source.”

That’s likely to be a bit controversial among some open source developers who don’t want financial interests to influence what people will work on. And there may be some truth to that as this may drive open source developers to focus on projects that are more likely to attract financial contributions over more esoteric projects that are interesting and challenging but aren’t likely to find financial backers on GitHub. We asked GitHub for a comment about this but did not receive a response by the time this article went live.

The program is only open to open source developers. During the first year of a developer’s participation, GitHub (and by extension, it’s corporate overlords at Microsoft) will also match up to $5,000 in contributions. For the next twelve months, GitHub won’t charge any payment processing fees either (though it will do so after this time is over).

Payouts will be available in every country where GitHub itself does business. “Expanding opportunities to participate on that team is at the core of our mission, so we’re proud to make this new tool available to developers worldwide,” the company says.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just about code and developers, but all open source contributors, including those who write documentation, provide leadership or mentor new developers, for example. As long as they have a GitHub profile, they’ll be eligible to receive support, too.

To make this work, GitHub is also launching a ‘Community Contributors’ hovercard to highlight the people who built the code your applications depend on, for example.

It will definitely be interesting to see how the community will react to Sponsors. The idea isn’t completely novel, of course, and there are projects like Beerpay that already integrate with GitHub. Still, the traditional route to get paid for open source is to find a job at a company that will let you contribute to projects, either as a full-time or part-time job.

In addition to Sponsors, GitHub is also launching a number of new security features. The company today announced that it has acquired Dependabot, for example, a tool that ensures that projects use the most up-to-date libraries. GitHub Enterprise is getting improved audit features, which are now generally available, and maintainers will now get beta access to a private space in GitHub to discuss potential security issues so that their public chats don’t tip off potential hackers. GitHub is also taking token scanning into general availability, which is meant to prevent developers from accidentally leaking their credentials from services like Alibaba Cloud, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Mailgun, Slack, Stripe and Twilio.

GitHub’s enterprise edition is also getting a few updates, including more fine-grained permissions, which are now generally available. Also generally available are Enterprise accounts, while new features like internal repos and organizational insights are now in beta.

May 23rd 2019, 4:48 am

Semiconductor startup CNEX Labs alleged Huawei’s deputy chairman conspired to steal its intellectual

TechCrunch

A San Jose-based semiconductor startup being sued by Huawei for stealing trade secrets has hit back in court documents, accusing the Chinese firm’s deputy chairman of conspiring to steal its intellectual property, reports the Wall Street Journal. In court filings, CNEX Labs, which is backed by the investment arms of Dell and Microsoft, alleges that Eric Xu, who is also one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, worked with other Huawei employees to steal its proprietary technology.

The lawsuit, set for trial on June 3 in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas, started in 2017 when Huawei sued CNEX and one of its founders, Yiren “Ronnie” Huang, a former employee at Huawei’s Santa Clara office, for stealing its technology and using unlawful means to poach 14 other Huawei employees. CNEX filed a countersuit the following year. Huawei has denied the startup’s allegations in court filings.

The lawsuit is happening at a fraught time for Huawei. Last week, the Chinese telecom equipment maker (and the world’s second-largest smartphone brand), was placed on a trade blacklist by the Trump administration, which also signed an executive order that would make it possible to block American companies from doing business with Huawei and other companies it deems a national security threat. As a result, several companies have suspended business with Huawei, including Google, Qualcomm, Intel and ARM.

Court filings said that after being directed by Xu to analyze CNEX’s technical information, a Huawei engineer met with the startup’s officials in June 2016, pretending to be a potential customer. But then the engineer produced a report about CNEX’s tech and put it into a database of information about competitors run by Huawei’s chip development unit.

CNEX’s lawyers also say that Xu knew about a partnership between Huawei and Xiamen University that was allegedly part of plan to steal the startup’s trade secrets. They claim Xiamen obtained a memory board from CNEX in 2017 under a licensing agreement, saying it would be used for academic research. But CNEX lawyer Eugene Mar said that “what was hidden from CNEX was that Xiamen was working with Huawei and had entered into an agreement separately with Huawei to provide them with all of their research test reports,” according to court transcripts viewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Information from the university’s study was then allegedly used for Huawei chip projects, including one that is expected to be released this year. Huawei’s lawyers refuted CNEX’s charges, claiming that the partnership between Huawei and the university did not involve reverse engineering or CNEX’s trade secrets and was meant to design database software instead of developing chips. A Huawei lawyer said that Xu was part of “the chain of command that had requested” information about CNEX and that a CNEX document had been placed into its chip development unit’s database, but denied allegations that anything was stolen.

CNEX co-founder Huang claimed in court filings that he offered to sell his intellectual property to Huawei when he started working at Futurewei, its research and development unit. Huawei refused his offer, but then later tried to get Huang to give them his IP under an employee agreement, which Huang refused to sign, he claims. Huang left Futurewei in 2013 and founded CNEX Labs soon after.

May 23rd 2019, 2:13 am

Revolut launches Group Vaults as an alternative to joint accounts

TechCrunch

Fintech startup Revolut is making vaults collaborative. You can now create a vault with someone else and use it like a normal vault.

Originally, vaults were an alternative to savings accounts without any interest rate. You could create vault in any currency (including supported cryptocurrencies) and set some money aside. You can round up your expenses and add change to a vault, program regular transfers to your vault or add money whenever you feel like it.

If vaults are like a Word document, group vaults are like a collaborative document in Google Docs. Multiple persons can now interact with a group vault just like a normal vault.

This will be useful for couples who want a sort of joint account without opening a bank account, parents giving some money to their children, roommates creating a common pot to pay for group expenses, friends going on vacation, etc.

Revolut users have created 1 million normal vaults so far. They currently hold the equivalent of $95 million (£75 million).

In other news, Revolut mentioned a new app for younger customers —Revolut Youth. It's not available yet but the company is working on it.

There are now 4.9 million registered users on Revolut. Every day, 12,000 people sign up. Every month, Revolut processes $5.5 billion in transaction volume.

May 23rd 2019, 2:13 am

Elon Musk’s Boring Company lands $48.7M contract for underground “people mover” in Las Vegas

TechCrunch

The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s tunneling and transportation startup, has landed a $48.7 million project to shuttle people in an underground Loop system around the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This is the company’s first commercial contract.

The initial design for the project, dubbed Campus Wide People Mover or CWPM, will focus on the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is currently in the midst of an expansion that is expected to be complete in time for CES 2021. The newly expanded Las Vegas Convention Center will span about 200 acres once completed. The LVCVA estimates that people walking the facility would travel two miles from one end to the other, a distance that prompted officials to find a transportation solution.

In March, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recommended that the Boring Company be selected. The board of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority voted Wednesday to approve the contract.

The approval comes with numerous strings and requires The Boring Company to achieve specific milestones, details of which The Guardian published earlier this month. The contract withholds over two-thirds of payments until construction is complete and requires The Boring Company to meet specific ridership goals.

The LVCVA estimated an initial $1.2 million outlay to TBC in fiscal year 2019, following by $15 million in 2020 and the final $32.47 million in 2021.

While the project is limited for now, TBC has said in the past project could someday connect downtown, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Las Vegas Boulevard Resort Corridor and McCarran International Airport.

This underground people mover will involve the construction of twin tunnels for vehicles and one pedestrian tunnel, according to contract documents. The twin tunnels are expected to be less than a mile. There will be three underground stations for passenger loading and unloading and an elevator or escalator system for passenger access to each station.

The people mover, once complete is supposed to whisk people between stops at high speeds in modified electric Tesla vehicles. The contract describes these as autonomous vehicles. (Today, Tesla vehicles are not self driving, and instead have an advanced driver assistance system that handles certain tasks on highways such as lane steering and adaptive cruise control.) Before it opens to the public, the contract dictates that TBC test the system for three months.

As Musk’s Boring Company lands one contract, safety concerns have been raised on the design of another more ambitious Loop system from Washington D.C. to Baltimore.

Details of the 35.3-mile system, which emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment, reveals a design that fails to meet several key national safety standards. The underground system appears to lack sufficient emergency exits, ignore the latest engineering practices and proposes passenger escape ladders that one fire safety professor calls “the definition of insanity.”

May 22nd 2019, 9:11 pm

Boom wants to build a supersonic jet for mainstream passengers; here’s its game plan

TechCrunch

While much of the world remains fixated on the competition to build autonomous cars, there’s another race that’s gaining momentum fast. It centers on supersonic jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. Indeed, while most commercial airliners today fly at between 400 and 650 miles per hour — largely because it’s more economical to burn fuel more slowly — a spate of startups is borrowing from the age of the legendary Concorde to build planes that they say will fly at 1,000 miles per hour, 1,500 miles per hour, and, even in one case, at more than 3,000 miles per hour.

The last of these, and seemingly the most audacious, is Hermeus, a year-old, Atlanta-based startup that wants to build planes capable of getting from New York to London in 90 minutes. Just last week, it announced that it has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Khosla Ventures. It’s also reportedly being advised by the former president of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space company. (That’s also where Hermeus’s CTO, Glenn Case, spent more than four years working on propulsion design and development.)

On the other end of the spectrum are Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace, both of which expect to build planes that seat around 12 people and fly at a little more than 1,000 miles per hour. Spike, an eight-year-old, Boston-based outfit, is very much focused on the luxury market. Aerion, a 17-year-old, Reno, Nev.-based concern, meanwhile wants to start with a 12-seater, then graduate to a larger and faster version of the same plane that can serve as a commercial airline.

Aerion seems to have the most momentum of the three. It’s currently collaborating with GE Aviation on its engine, Honeywell for its flight deck, and Boeing on engineering, design, and manufacturing. (Also worth noting: it has seen Lockheed Martin pull out of a partnership, as well as Airbus.)

But there is another company hoping to steal its thunder, and that’s Boom, a roughly five-year-old, Denver-based, 150-person company that has raised $141 million from investors, including Japan Airlines, Emerson Collective, and Y Combinator, and that says the capital is more than enough to begin realizing its vision of creating 55-seat airplanes that fly at twice the speed of sound, and at prices that compete with today’s business class fares.

In fact, says Boom, if all goes as planned, it will eventually make and sell planes to airlines that fly just as fast but accommodate many more people — at economy fares.

Is it possible? It’s possible to imagine, at least, for transatlantic flights, such as between New York to London, San Francisco to Tokyo, and Seattle to Shanghai. Because of the continuous loud “boom” created by the shock waves of any object moving faster than the speed of sound, most countries have banned supersonic jets from flying overhead.

Of course, there are many outstanding questions, including how these startups make the economics work, whether they can be sufficiently fuel efficient, and what it means to make flight around the globe faster — both the good and the bad.

Following, you can find outtakes from a conversation we had with Scholl last week at one of our StrictlyVC events, wherein he addresses many of these same questions. We’re also providing video of the interview, in case you’d like to hear from him directly.

We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation; we hope you will, too.

TC: Blake, you [spent a handful of years with Amazon, working on mobile shopping, then Groupon acquired a mobile payment company you’d cofounded, Kima Labs, and you stayed on]. So you’re at Groupon. You don’t have an aerospace background. But you decide that you are the guy to start a supersonic jet company. How did that happen?

BS:  It goes back to the decision I made to sell [Kima Labs] . . . I thought, is it worth what I will go through personally for the product we’re building, or should I take the great offer and live to found another day? And so I took the offer, and in reflecting on that, what I realized is, like, all startups are hard. There’s no such thing as an easy startup. And what often makes the difference is what decisions you make in those moments. What happens when you get up in the morning, and it’s a rough day — do you think, Why did I get into this thing? Or do you think, It doesn’t matter —  it’s totally worth it?

So after leaving Groupon, I had a whole bunch of startup ideas, everything from rental cars, to some stuff in healthcare, and my personal passion for a long time had been airplanes. And so I put on that lens of, how happy will I be personally if it works? And so I thought, I have to look at the supersonic thing that I’ve been sort of thinking about for a decade and do some research and probably get it out of my system.

TC: And how do you start putting together a plan to create a jet that flies at twice the speed of sound?

BS: The first thing was to understand why it hadn’t been done already. As it turns out, there was a bunch of just false conventional wisdom — that the space is capital intensive, that it’si highly regulated, that there are only two companies on the planet that build long-range commercial aircraft. So it just scares off a lot of entrepreneurs.

[So I went back to] first principles and [thought], the Concorde was created 50 years ago with slide rules and wind tunnels. And half a century later, [I wondered] why is that not working, and what would it take, and the answer was that the fuel economy was the problem. It was too expensive to operate, [so] none of the people could afford to fly on it. And you start to run the numbers and say, well — by the way, all this stuff you can do out of Wikipedia — what would you have to do to make this economically feasible? It turns out the answer is [to make the fuel efficiency] 30 percent [better] versus what was designed a long time ago. And you start to realize, that doesn’t sound impossible. [So] I went off and read some aerospace textbooks, and took a design class, and started to meet everybody I could find in the industry, and I told them to shoot holes in my idea. And eventually, people started saying, ‘No, this actually makes sense.’ And then so we started the company.

TC: How much of what you’re working on is built from scratch, versus building on the work of your predecessors?

BS: We’re really standing on the shoulders of all the work that’s happened in aerospace since literally the Concorde 50 years ago. And we’ve gone from aluminum as the material to carbon fiber composites; we’ve gone from defining aerodynamics in wind tunnels to being able to do it in simulation, through cloud computing; we’ve gone from engines that are loud and very inefficient to modern jet engines that are quiet and sip fuel. And it turns out that if you take all that technology that’s been proven, the big players in the space have been iteratively optimizing the same you’ve had since the 1960s. But you can actually take that same technology and instead of make the machine more efficient, make the human more efficient, and deploy it in service of speed. So the the design of our airplane is very radical, but the fundamental technology is conventional.

TC: So the wings are in the back. And how many jet engines does the plane feature?

BS: It has three, so one under each wing, and the third one on the tail.

TC: And who is building the jet engines?

BS: We haven’t picked a provider yet, but we’re working with two of the three major jet engine companies; they are basically bidding to provide a custom engine for us.

TC: You’re starting with a prototype that’s one third the size of the eventual airplane you plan to produce. Why did you decide on 55 seats for the design of the bigger plane?

BS: If you look at it relative to the Concorde, and you say, ‘Well, it’s not enough just to do something really cool, you have to make the economics work,’ what you need to do is to make the machine efficient enough that more people can afford to fly on it; you’ve gotta get the fares down. Then the second thing you’ve got to do is right-size the airplanes. If you’re in the airline business, you live and die by something called load factor, which is the percentage of seats that are filled. And if you put too many seats on the airplane relative to the price of the seats, you fly around empty. At 55 seats . . . you can fill the seats and make money . . .by charging business class fares . . .on hundreds of routes.

TC: My understanding was that on the Concorde, the cabin was actually quite small and not necessarily very comfortable. I’m sure this is sort of very much a later consideration, but have you put much
thought into how the cabin will look? Does it have to be terribly narrow? 

BS: The very first thing we built in my cofounder’s garage was a mock-up of the cabin, because it is size sensitive . . . If it’s a three- or four-hour flight, instead of a seven- or eight- or nine-hour flight, you’re still in there long enough that comfort matters. And so you can put a really nice interior in the airplane. So it’ll be sort of business-class style, with nice wide seats, big windows, plenty of room to work or relax. But when the flight is three to four hours, the seat doesn’t have to lay flat the way it does in business class today. By the time to get it down, it’s time to put it back up.


TC: So you said you’re still trying to decide on a jet engine provider. But again, this is highly ambitious. Are there any other partnerships that you’ve struck, maybe with [your investor] Japan Airlines? 

BS: [I recognize that] on the face of it, it sounds like something that only big companies can do. I think Boom has [requires] four ingredients to make it successful. Number one is the engineering execution on the airplanes; that’s the one thing we control directly. Number two is the customer demand, so showing that you’re building not just something that seems cool but is something that airlines really want. Number three is the supplier partnerships, so folks that build jet engines, folks that do carbon fiber composites, folks that do avionics. Unless you’re going to build the whole thing soup to nuts yourself, you need those partnerships. And then last but not least, you need a lot of capital.

And each of those components kind of wants the rest, like the investors want to know the airlines are there. The airlines always ask about the engine. The engine companies ask who the airlines are. And so it’s like a four-way chicken-and-egg problem. I often tell the team we’re in the chicken omelet business. [Laughs.] So what you do is incrementally spiral up. The tech on the airplane is actually conventional stuff that’s flying on other airplanes today, [meaning it’s] proven safe and reliable and efficient. But the way you go to market and the way you build partnerships is completely different from the way that Boeing or Airbus would do it. We call it ‘dating engagement marriage.’ And so whether it’s an airline partnership, or a supplier partnership, you start off with something relatively loose, like a letter of intent, that allows you to go off and show credibility to other parties, and you come back and you progressively sharpen those things.

So so where we stand today on the airline side of it is we’ve pre-sold 30 airplanes [to Japan Airlines and Virgin Group] at $200 million apiece . . .

TC: What does that mean, pre-sold? Is that a letter of intent?

BS: It’s a bit more than a letter of intent. This is the part of the go-to-market engineering that turns out to matter. So it’s basically an option agreement with some like cleverly engineered terms that I can’t go into too much. But basically, we achieve some milestones on our first prototype over the next year, and that kicks the options into expiration, and so the airlines, at the maximum point of Boom being credible, have to place an order or lose a bunch of favorable things.

For more on Boom, including how much it will need to raise, how it views its competitors, and how the company realizes its long-range vision to make the fastest flight the cheapest one, do check out our interview with Scholl below. If you’ve read the above interview, you might want to start around the 10-minute mark.

May 22nd 2019, 7:41 pm

Mona Lisa frown: Machine learning brings old paintings and photos to life

TechCrunch

Machine learning researchers have produced a system that can recreate lifelike motion from just a single frame of a person’s face, opening up the possibility of animating not just photos but also of paintings. It’s not perfect, but when it works, it is — like much AI work these days — eerie and fascinating.

The model is documented in a paper published by Samsung AI Center, which you can read it here on Arxiv. It’s a new method of applying facial landmarks on a source face — any talking head will do — to the facial data of a target face, making the target face do what the source face does.

This in itself isn’t new — it’s part of the whole synthetic imagery issue confronting the AI world right now (we had an interesting discussion about this recently at our Robotics+AI event in Berkeley). We can already make a face in one video reflect the face in another in terms of what the person is saying or where they’re looking. But most of these models require a considerable amount of data, for instance a minute or two of video to analyze.

The new paper by Samsung’s Moscow-based researchers, however, shows that using only a single image of a person’s face, a video can be generated of that face turning, speaking, and making ordinary expressions — with convincing, though far from flawless, fidelity.

It does this by frontloading the facial landmark identification process with a huge amount of data, making the model highly efficient at finding the parts of the target face that correspond to the source. The more data it has, the better, but it can do it with one image — called single-shot learning — and get away with it. That’s what makes it possible to take a picture of Einstein or Marilyn Monroe, or even the Mona Lisa, and make it move and speak like a real person.

In this example, the Mona Lisa is animated using three different source videos, which as you can see produce very different results, both in facial structure and behavior.

It’s also using what’s called a Generative Adversarial Network, which essentially pits two models against one another, one trying to fool the other into thinking what it creates is “real.” By these means the results meet a certain level of realism set by the creators — the “discriminator” model has to be, say, 90 percent sure this is a human face for the process to continue.

In the other examples provided by the researchers, the quality and obviousness of the fake talking head varies widely. Some, which attempt to replicate a person whose image was taken from cable enws, also recreate the news ticker shown at the bottom of the image, filling it with gibberish. And the usual smears and weird artifacts are omnipresent if you know what to look for.

That said, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does. Note, however, that this only works on the face and upper torso — you couldn’t make the Mona Lisa snap her fingers or dance. Not yet, anyway.

May 22nd 2019, 6:53 pm

Spotify resets some account passwords citing ‘suspicious activity’

TechCrunch

Music streaming giant Spotify has notified an unspecified number of users that the company has reset their account password, but has left dozens of users asking why.

In an email, some Spotify users were told their password was reset “due to detected suspicious activity,” but gave no further details.

When reached, Spotify spokesperson Peter Collins said: “As part of our ongoing maintenance efforts to combat fraudulent activity on our service, we recently shared a communication with select users to reset their passwords as a precaution. As a best practice, we strongly recommend users not to use the same credentials across different services to protect themselves.”

In other words, Spotify says this is a credential stuffing attack, where hackers take lists of usernames and passwords from other breached sites and brute-force their way into other accounts.

We asked several people who received the email reset message. Some used the same password across different websites and some used passwords unique to Spotify. Two people who commented on this Hacker News thread also said their passwords were unique, casting doubt on the veracity of a credential stuffing attack.

It’s not uncommon for companies to reset user passwords if they believe they are weak or easily guessed. Companies typically don’t store user passwords in plaintext. Instead, they scramble passwords using a hashing algorithm. By scrambling lists of weak or stolen passwords using the same algorithm, companies can match weak passwords against their own databases and proactively send out password reset emails.

Netflix, Facebook, and Spotify too have all proactively reset account passwords in the aftermath of third-party data breaches by obtaining the dataset and matching exposed passwords against their databases.

Spotify did not respond to our follow-up questions.

Customers of Chipotle, DoorDash, and OkCupid have all reported account hacks in recent months. All three have denied data breaches.

May 22nd 2019, 6:24 pm

Google’s Duplex calls still frequently require human intervention

TechCrunch

When Google launched Duplex with a demo at I/O last year, the audience was left wondering how much of the call was staged. The AI-based reservation booking service seemed almost too impressive to be a machine. Now that it’s been used for real-world reservations, Google has revealed that it frequently isn’t.

The company recently told The New York Times that Duplex calls are often still made by human operators at call centers. Roughly a quarter of calls start with a live human voice. Of the calls that start with machines, 15 percent require a human to intervene.

Google told us during a demo last year that humans would be monitoring the system, ready to take over if something went haywire. That’s to be expected, of course. This sort of real world testing run into some snags as the company works to iron out the kinks, now that the product is available for both iOS and Android devices. But the 25 percent initiated by people seems a little high for the advanced AI-based system.

Along with initial test driving, Google is very much in a period of data collection for the service. While Duplex is extremely impressive in fits and starts (I’ve tried it, and it’s capable of fooling the listener for a quick reservation, if all goes well), the neural network requires a tremendous amount of data to improve, even though its essentially limited to a single task

May 22nd 2019, 6:24 pm

Panic’s Playmate is a pint-sized gaming machine with a ‘season’ of 12 intriguing titles

TechCrunch

Tired of your smartphone games, and don’t want to take the Switch with you on the train today? Panic, renowned creator of useful Mac apps and more recently publisher of interesting games, has created a tiny handheld console that goes anywhere and receives a regular trickle of new games. It’s called Playdate.

One has to admire the gumption of jumping into a space that has been so thoroughly dominated by Nintendo and smartphones over the last decade that hardly anyone has even attempted to break in. But Panic isn’t trying to build an empire — just do something interesting and new.

“Nothing’s surprising anymore and surprises are great!” reads the Playdate’s FAQ. “Panic saw an opportunity for something truly different in the world of video games. Something small-scale that could deliver a dose of fun and delight to video game players who have otherwise seen it all.”

It’s different, all right. Bright yellow with a black and white screen and with no spot for removable media like cartridges, the Playdate is more or less self-contained, except of course for the charger and wireless connection. And it’s over the wireless connection that the games come: 12 of them, exclusives created by well-known developers like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), Bennett Foddy (Getting Over It), and Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing).

They appear one at a time, weekly; the first title is Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, from Takahashi. Oh, right — did I mention it has a crank?

Yes, the gadget has the usual d-pad and two buttons, but on the side is a little crank that you’ll be using in all these weird little games. In the first one, for instance, you use it to advance and reverse time. Perhaps you’ll be reeling in fish, charging a flashlight, grinding stones for crafting, or any number of other tasks. It’s not necessary for every game, though, so don’t worry if it seems too weird. (The crank was the inspired choice of Teenage Engineering, Panic’s hardware design partner.)

In case you didn’t notice, the games are also black and white. The 2.7-inch, 400×240 screen has no backlight, but it isn’t e-paper but rather just an LCD without color filters. I’ve been saying we should do this for years! It should make for improved battery life and change the way you play a bit — in bed by the light of a lamp instead of on the couch looking at a bright screen.

“We thought Playdate needed to be a different experience than the one you get from your phone, or from a TV-based console,” said Panic’s Director of Special Projects, Greg Maletic, in an email. “This bizarre 1-bit reflective screen was a big part of that: you just won’t see a lot of devices go this route, and for us, that was part of the attraction. And it’s worked out really well: developers have felt energized designing for this weird but cool screen.”

When the 12 titles have all been delivered, there’s the possibility that more will come, but that depends on lots of things, the company said. But they were careful to make the platform easily hackable.

“Most hardware platforms nowadays have tight restrictions, so it was important to us that Playdate be open enough to allow experimentation,” said Maletic. “That’s the kind of platform that we, as developers, were personally craving. So we’ve made sure that people will be able to develop their own games and easily share them with their friends, without having to worry about plagues of mobile development like code signing and provisioning profiles.”

You’ll be able to preorder a Playdate for $149 later in the year. Yeah, it isn’t cheap — but it’s weird and fun and for now one of a kind. That has to count for something in the increasingly genericized world of gaming hardware.

May 22nd 2019, 6:11 pm

Documentary series Foundation is back with a season 2

TechCrunch

Paris startup campus Station F and Le Studio Next have teamed up once again for a second season of Foundation, a documentary series about building a startup. If you liked the first season, you’ll feel right at home.

A video team followed the entrepreneurs working for three startups through their work issues, their personal life and their emotional reactions. You’ll feel like you know them after watching the series.

This year, Foundation focuses on three different startups that try to have a social impact. You’ll meet Jean Guo and Binta Jammeh, co-founders of Konexio, Ruben Hallali, founder of HD Rain and Olivier Jeannel, founder of RogerVoice.

So without further ado, here’s Foundation season 2:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

May 22nd 2019, 5:11 pm

Consumer Reports knocks Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot, calls new feature ‘far less competent’ than a

TechCrunch

Consumer Reports is calling the automatic lane-change feature on Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot “far less competent” than a human driver and cautioned it could pose safety risks.

The consumer advocacy organization posted its review Wednesday on the newest version of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.

Navigate on Autopilot is an active guidance system that is supposed to navigate a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable “Navigate on Autopilot” for that trip.

Tesla pushed out a software update last month to allow for automatic lane changes. Drivers have to enable this feature, which gives the car permission to make its own lane changes. If not enabled, the system asks the driver to confirm the lane change before moving over. Automatic lane changes can be canceled at any time.

The system has been touted as a way to make driving less stressful and improve safety. In practice, the system had startling behavior, Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports told TechCrunch.

“It doesn’t take very long behind the wheel with this feature on to realize it’s not quite ready for prime time,” Fisher said. CR said one of the more troubling concerns were failures of Tesla’s three rearward-facing cameras to detect fast-approaching objects from the rear better than the average driver.

The CR reviewers found Navigate on Autopilot lagged behind human driving skills and engaged in problematic behavior such as cutting off cars and passing on the right. CR drivers often had to take over to prevent the system from making poor decisions.

As a result, the system increases stress and doesn’t improve safety, Fisher said, before asking “So what is the point of this feature?”

The automatic lane change reviewed by Consumer Reports is not the default setting for Autopilot, Tesla notes. It’s an option that requires drivers to remove the default setting. Tesla also argues that drivers using Navigate on Autopilot properly have successfully driven millions of miles and safely made millions of automated lane changes.

While Fisher acknowledged the default setting, he contends that isn’t the issue. He notes the Tesla has many warnings that the driver must be alert and ready to take over at any time.

“Our concern is that if you’re not alert (or ready to take over) you could be put into a tricky situation,” he said.

The bigger concern for all systems like these is the driver will put too much trust into it, Fisher said. The automatic lane-change feature might not be good enough for drivers to let down their guard yet. If Tesla improves this system, even a little bit, the risk of complacency and too much trust rises.

And that’s problematic because drivers still must be ready to take over. “Just watching automation is a harder human task than driving the car,” he said.

CR asserts that an effective driver monitoring system would mitigate this risk. DMS is typically a camera combined with software designed to track a driver’s attention and pick up on cognitive issues that could cause an accident such as drowsiness.

DMS are found in certain BMW models with an ADAS system called DriverAssist Plus, the new 2020 Subaru Outback and Cadillac’s equipped with its Super Cruise system.

This isn’t the first time CR has raised concerns about Autopilot. Last week, the consumer advocacy organization called on Tesla to restrict the use of Autopilot and install a more effective system to verify driver engagement in response to a preliminary report by National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal March 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3 with a semi-trailer in Delray Beach, Fla.

Last year, CR gave GM’s Super Cruise the top spot in its first-ever ranking of partially automated driving systems because it is the best at striking a balance between technical capabilities and ensuring drivers are paying attention and operating the vehicle safely. Tesla followed in the ranking not because it was less capable, but because of its approach to safety, Fisher noted.

CR evaluated four systems: Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, Autopilot on Tesla Model S, X and 3 models, ProPilot Assist on Infiniti QX50 and Nissan Leaf, and Pilot Assist on Volvo XC40 and XC60 vehicles. The organization said it picked these systems because they’re considered the most capable and well-known in the industry.

May 22nd 2019, 4:53 pm

Modsy scores $37M to virtually redesign your home

TechCrunch

Modsy has raised some new cash as the computer vision startup looks to get physical and build more of the furniture it recommends. The startup announced that they have closed $37 million in Series C funding led by TCV. They’ve now raised north of $70 million to date.

The service combines computer vision tech with human designer know how to let users design the trendy home of their dreams. The process begins with a user snapping pics of their room (or multiple rooms) which Modsy then stitches into a complete 3D model of the room.

Prices range from $69 to $349 depending on what level of finesse you’re looking for.

From there Modsy designers drop in furniture from their partners like Crate&Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm and others, if you pay for their $149 single room premium package, you can chat with the designers and swap out pieces or try completely different styles. All-in-all the app gives you a lot of options for the price, although the startup’s main method of monetization isn’t these one-time packages, it’s earning cash when you buy the furniture that they suggest.

Earlier this year the company branched out into creating their own furniture line of sofas and chairs which they are injecting into their room designs and recommendations. This could allow the company to transform into more of a smart furniture company as opposed to an AR/ computer vision startup.

“I founded Modsy on the premise that in the future we would all be shopping from a personalized catalog-like experience within a virtual version of our real homes,” CEO Shanna Tellerman said in a statement. “This new round of funding will bring us even closer to this reality.”

May 22nd 2019, 4:41 pm

Vignette is a handy new app that keeps your iOS contact photos up to date

TechCrunch

If there’s a special place in your heart for single-purpose utilities that solve a nagging problem, then you’re going to want to skip your daily Starbucks coffee and instead buy yourself a copy of the new iOS contacts utility Vignette. The new app is focused on doing one thing well: finding photos for your contacts by scouring social media profiles and updating them.

Many people don’t bother to add a photo when entering in an iOS contact for the first time — it’s often an afterthought at best. And because the iOS Contacts app directs you to your own photo library to find an image when editing a contact, adding a photo tends to be something people only do for close friends and family.  (After all, most people don’t carry around photos of co-workers, clients or business colleagues on their iPhone.)

But that means when you use Apple’s Phone app or iMessage and others, you see gray boxes with the person’s initials instead of a colorful picture.

It’s a minor grievance, sure, but one that can impact people with wide networks — like those who interact with a range of clients or customers as part of their job, or remote workers who like to be reminded of what far-flung colleagues look like, for instance.

Plus, the gray initial boxes are just aesthetically displeasing.

Vignette is simple to use. The app will scan select fields in your Contacts, including Email (which is used for Gravatar), Twitter, Facebook, and the Custom social network field, Instagram. (Instagram is not one of the built-in options in iOS Contacts, unfortunately).

You can then choose to update each contact with the photo it finds. In the case of multiple photos, you can pick which you prefer. And you don’t have to make these updates one-by-one — you can “Select All” to make dozens or even hundreds of updates at once.

If you’re worried the app won’t find anything — or not enough to warrant spending $4.99 — you can opt to run the scan first, before committing to paying. But if you decide to proceed with the updates, you’ll need to make the one-time purchase.

There are some third-party utilities for contact management, including those that will update based on social network profile data; but they tend to require you to authenticate with the third-party network in order to pull in the additional content.

Vignette does not. The app instead takes a privacy-minded approach to its work. It doesn’t require you upload your contacts to its servers, and it only uses the social networks anonymously as opposed to having you log in.

The indie developer behind the app, Casey Liss — who you might know from the Accidental Tech Podcast or the video series Casey on Cars — says he has a few ideas for improving the app in the near-term.

This includes duplicate detection, limiting Vignette’s scans to select contact groups, and better Facebook integration. (Right now it requires a numeric Facebook ID like fb://profile/1234567, which Liss realizes is undesirable).

He also acknowledges that many people are asking for LinkedIn integration.

“That would require login, which I’m currently kind of allergic to, but I’ve gotten enough requests to at least consider it,” he tells us.

The app was built over three months’ time, and is now launching just days before Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where it’s expected we’ll see updated versions of core apps including Messages.

Given its singular purpose, Vignette may not have a wide audience. Liss admitted that’s the case on a recent episode of the Analog(ue) podcast, in fact.

When asked, who the app was for, he responded: “it’s for me.”

“This is really scratching an itch that I had. I really was tired of looking at all these initials in my Contacts list — I wanted to have pictures,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to go through the manual process of adding them all one-by-one.”

He may be surprised to find quite a few of us were similarly annoyed by all the gray initials. The app today is making the rounds across the Apple blogs and news sites, including 9to5Mac, MacStories, The Mac Observer, Cult of Mac, and others, where it’s being largely well-received.

Vignette is a free download with a $4.99 in-app purchase on the App Store.

 

May 22nd 2019, 3:53 pm

My desk doesn’t deserve the $600 Dyson Lightcycle lamp

TechCrunch

Like many of you, I’m assuming, my desk was purchased at Ikea and is the center of my life. Such as it is, the desk is littered with bits of crackers, memory cards, branded Moleskin notebooks and countless coffee cups. I’m not a slob. I just live here. The desk is clean enough.

Then Dyson sent me its new task light to try out. My desk suddenly felt dirty. After assembling the light, I looked around and took inventory of my life and choices. If I was going to have something as lovely as this on my desk, I would have to have a cleaner space. I cleaned up my desk.

[gallery ids="1831413,1831417,1831415,1831420,1831419"]

Review

The Dyson Lightcycle is, well, a light. It makes the room brighter. And because it’s made by Dyson, it’s over-engineered and expensive. The Lightcycle is $600 and I’m not going to attempt to justify it’s price. I can’t. This is a product that costs countless times over its utility.

First the good.

The light works. Hit a button on the top and it turns on. Slide your finger across the top and the light’s brightness and color temperature changes.

The light is constructed with an insane attention to detail. It’s perfectly balanced. As the light slides up and down its main poll, a counterweight ensures an effortless motion. Likewise the light arm slides back and forth on three large wheels. All awhile, its seemingly wireless with all the connections and wires hidden throughout the mechanisms.

The Dyson Task light is beautiful. It’s impossible to look at the light and not be impressed by the construction. The function of the design is perfect for my desk. I placed it in the center of my workspace and the long arms allows it to reach where ever it’s needed.

The light works great and thanks to adjustable color temperatures, works in every situation. There are two touch-sensitive bars on top of the unit. Just slide a fingertip across the bars to make the light brighter or change the color temp. Dyson took the light temperatures option to the next level. The owner can connect the lamp to a smartphone app through Bluetooth, and when the light is connected, it will sync the color temp to the idea setting to match the owner’s location on Earth. It’s a clever function and is said to have a host of mental and physical benefits.

According to Dyson, this lamp’s LED unit is good for 60 years thanks to a heat pipe system. It’s said to pull the excess heat generated by the LED away from the unit, ensuring it lasts as long as possible.

And now the bad.

This lamp costs $600. That’s a hard sell. There are countless minimalist task lamps on the market. None have all the features found on the Dyson Lightcycle but one could argue that a person doesn’t need all of the features.

I found the light produced by the Lightcycle adequate. The intensity is adjustable and there’s even a supercharged mode that turns the intensity up to 11 — but that’s only accessible through the smartphone companion app. To me, when you need extra light, you need it immediately and not after the 30 seconds needed to use an app.

The Lightcycle’s main selling point is the automatic adjustable color temperature. It’s a lovely feature and my eyes feel after using this lamp. Just to be clear, there are a lot of products on the market for much less than the Lightcycle that can replicate the ideal color temperature. Get one. They’re a great gadget to have around in the winter months.

Bottom line

I can’t recommend a person spends $600 on a light. That said, the Dyson Lightcycle is a lovely object, should last a lifetime, and works as advertised.

May 22nd 2019, 3:53 pm

Getting a seat at the VC table

TechCrunch

We are witnessing the greatest paradigm shift in power since the advent of the venture capital industry. Since taking my first VC role in 2012, I’ve seen more change in the past year than all other years combined.

Six years after Ellen Pao’s landmark gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mary Meeker announced her departure to start a new fund with three other KPCB investors. Arlan Hamilton from Backstage Capital graced the cover of Fast Company with the caption “Venture Catalyst.” AllRaise’s circulation of a growing list of job postings is regularly hitting the inboxes of female investment talent climbing the check-writing ranks. To quote Seth Godin, “When you put the right idea into the world, people can’t unsee it.”

What does it mean to have a seat at the table, and how many of us have needed to bring our own chairs rather than wait for someone to offer us one?

Here are a few reflections on what having a seat at the investors’ table means to me:

Representation is a competitive advantage.

Venture has operated in many ways like a club since its inception, where deals are shared within small, private circles, often comprised of people with more in common than not. When investment decisions are made by people who are not representative of our population — instead representative of the interests of a very small percentage of the population (in ethnicity, culture, education, and socioeconomic status) — our economy suffers. In other words, fewer wants and needs are addressed by the goods and services in the market, creating less economic prosperity as a whole.

According to the NVCA and Pitchbook, the total investment into venture-backed companies reached $57 billion in just the first half of 2018. To put this into context, $57 billion is more than 114 countries can claim in GDP. Given just how much money is invested — an increasing figure each year as more venture money appears from new participants — we should be concerned that just 9% of U.S. VCs are women despite comprising 50.8% of the U.S. population and driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing.

#ANGELS and Carta exposed a staggering new statistic that just 9% of company equity is held by women, despite women comprising 33% of the founder and employee workforce.

The private and public markets are waking up to the realization that representation matters. A 2015 McKinsey study found that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” I’m in constant communication with a wide range of investors from established firms to new ones, and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive — having an investment team more representative of the population generates better deal flow. I have this conversation on a biweekly basis and know that the next generation of investors is watching to see what established VC firms are doing to remain competitive.

So, you ask, what’s next for venture capital?

Assimilation is a thing of the past.

I tried to blend in as much as possible when I first entered the venture world, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I came from a very different background than the people I was interacting with. I didn’t know what ski week was, my parents didn’t belong to private clubs, and Ivy League schools were a distant concept. Yet, I found common ground with my new social circle because they were, in many respects, regular people with “access” broadly defined as the primary differentiator.

Fast forward to today, I see the greatest opportunity for those who are boldly unique. A seat at the table means I can be myself and draw upon my unique experiences to make decisions and support my portfolio companies in a way that only I can. Our industry thrives when contrarian views are developed over time and implemented without compromise. Conformity is the main villain when we decide to settle for the familiar, ultimately generating stagnant venture returns. After all, venture capital is, by definition, meant to be a high-risk asset class.

Safe environments matter. Full stop.

Having a seat at the table means I get to draw the line when male investors, entrepreneurs, and other industry voices choose to transgress or act inappropriately. I feel safe in assuming the male leadership I choose to invest in will have a lower probability of ruining their company due to issues with workplace culture and sexual abuse allegations.

As we witness one industry giant topple after another, spanning film and media, consumer brands, and investors, it has become increasingly apparent that poor judgment calls and mistreatment of talent will no longer be swept under the rug. I occasionally have meetings with entrepreneurs and fellow investors where you could say my “stranger danger” alarms are triggered by off-color comments and malapropos gestures. These are the instances where I will choose to avoid a situation or pass on a business opportunity that could, in time, become a ticking time bomb and, long-term, a poor investment.

There are no more rules.

A close friend in VC often states, “The new rule is: there are no rules.” This means new people arriving to the table, chair in hand, to direct investment decisions, whether top-down as a company builder or bottoms-up as a content creator and micro-influencer. No rules means new faces showing up as limited partners in VC funds, and new managers of VC funds sharing their own unique stories of building their less-conventional careers. No rules also means that VC firms are going to look, act, and feel different, throwing out convention in favor of creativity and inclusivity.

Build it and they will come.

Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital said it best during her 36|86 AMA in Nashville with The JumpFund: “We will make our own club!” I nearly fell out of my seat applauding, laughing, and cheering. My own interpretation of this statement has to do with the can-do energy that is showing up in venture. In 2018, we are no longer waiting for someone to save a seat for us at the table or invite us into the room at all. We are showing up with our own chairs, building new tables, and creating new spaces and environments that foster the exchanging of ideas and deal docs.

Early in 2018, I set out to learn more about the startup and venture capital landscape in my new home city of Nashville, Tennessee, and in the broader surrounding geography of the Southeastern U.S. I quickly found that the entrepreneurs and investors I met were surprised by me — a relatively young, half-Mexican, female face did not immediately trigger the words ‘venture’ and ‘capital’.

Questions followed, such as, “How did you end up in venture capital?” and statements like, “People must tell you all of the time that you don’t look like the typical VC.” A few minutes into the conversation and those questions and statements dissipate, though I knew there must be a broader local community sharing my interests and lack of conformity in physical appearance and style. So, I set out and launched ModernCapital to make the venture capital industry more accessible to new talent. Our team of 4 (3 venture fellows plus myself) is 100% female and 50% Latina. As we spend more time digging into the entrepreneurial landscape of our region, more entrepreneurs and future investors from a wide range of backgrounds are contacting us wanting to join the community we are building.

Considering just how much has changed in the dialogue around venture capital and where the greatest next investment opportunities will arise, I am confident this is only the beginning.

May 22nd 2019, 3:49 pm

Getaround, Facebook, AI chips, Nvidia, Africa, and immigration

TechCrunch

Who helped your startup grow? Nominate a growth marketing agency.

For those who have been members of Extra Crunch for a while now, you have seen us go through two cycles of Verified Experts, covering startup attorneys and brand designers. Now, we turn our attention to our third community of startup professionals: growth marketers / hackers. Growth is the single most important objective of any startup, and so these professionals can have an outsized impact on which companies grow, and by how much.

Yvonne Leow is leading our search for the best growth marketers out there, as rated by founders. Worked with someone yourself? Impressed by the growth of a friend’s startup? Let us know with this handy form and get ready for new profiles in the coming weeks.

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

Our SF-based reporter Lucas Matney published his second piece in his “The Exit” series on, well, startup exits. Last time, Lucas looked at the acquisition of Dynamic Yield for $300 million by McDonald’s, and now he looks at Getaround’s $300 million acquisition of Paris-based Drivy (why Lucas loves $300m transactions, I have no idea). He interviewed Jeremy Uzan of Alven Capital to get the details:

May 22nd 2019, 3:49 pm

Review of Elon Musk’s DC-to-Baltimore ‘Loop’ system reveals safety concerns

TechCrunch

The Boring Company’s Loop transit system that aims to shuttle people in autonomous electric vehicles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. fails to meet several key national safety standards, a review of its proposal reveals.

The underground system appears to lack sufficient emergency exits, ignore the latest engineering practices and proposes passenger escape ladders that one fire safety professor calls “the definition of insanity.”

Details of the 35.3-mile system, the first segment in a high-speed network that Boring Company founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes will one day run all the way to New York, emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment.

Musk founded The Boring Company, or TBC, in 2016 after becoming frustrated with Los Angeles’ infamous traffic congestion. The aim was to find an efficient and cost-effective way to dig networks of tunnels for private vehicles. That idea evolved into the Loop, a system that would theoretically transport people in modified Tesla electric vehicles.

A Tesla Model X in The Boring Company’s demonstration tunnel in California. Photo/The Boring Company

Musk showed off his vision for what he has described as an ‘entirely new system of transport during an event  last December that took guests and media through a 1.1-mile demonstration tunnel underneath 120th Street in the city of Hawthorne, Calif. near one of Musk’s other companies, SpaceX. 

Fire risks and escape hatches

The Baltimore-to-Washington document specifies parallel tunnels running beneath highways, within which modified Tesla vehicles would travel autonomously at up to 150 miles per hour. Battery-powered cars would leave as frequently as every 30 seconds, with a journey time of just 15 minutes in either direction. In the future, Musk even envisages converting the tunnels into a Hyperloop system outfitted with pods that could theoretically reach speeds of 600 mph.

If the Baltimore-to-DC Loop system is considered a road tunnel, it would be the longest in the world. As a rail tunnel, it would only be surpassed by the epic Gotthard Base Tunnel running beneath the Swiss Alps.

But where the Gotthard Base Tunnel has escape passageways spaced about every 1,000 feet, Musk’s Loop will have up to 10,500 feet between emergency exits. That is more than four times the maximum distance permitted in standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for public rail and transit systems.

“Just because a vehicle doesn’t have gasoline doesn’t mean it’s not a significant fire risk,” said Glenn Corbett, a professor of security, fire and emergency management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps even more dangerous, and have been an issue for airlines and fire safety agencies for the last 10 years.”

Modern electric vehicle batteries can suffer intense, runaway fires when damaged. There have been two recent incidents — one captured on video in China — of a parked Tesla spontaneously exploding. Tesla said this month that it was updating its vehicles’ battery software for charging and thermal management. “Although fire incidents involving Tesla vehicles are already extremely rare and our cars are 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gas car, we believe the right number of incidents to aspire to is zero,” it wrote in a statement.

The Loop document says that TBC will install fire detection, suppression and safety measures as well as a powerful ventilation system. But the facilities for passengers to escape during an emergency, be it breakdown, fire, flooding or terrorism, leave much to be desired, says Corbett: “You’ll have people that range from 5 years old to 95. What they’re proposing now would certainly not pass muster.”

For a start, some of the Loop’s emergency exits are too far apart. Should a fire break out at the worst possible place, passengers could face a two-mile walk to an exit — and then up to another quarter of a mile to a ventilation shaft leading to the surface.

To comply with NFPA standards for rail tunnels, the Loop would need at least 74 such exits for each of the twin tunnels between Baltimore and DC. TBC’s document says it only intends to build “up to 70” in total.

If the Loop system were designated a road tunnel instead, complying would be even harder. Stricter NFPA standards for car and truck tunnels mean that TBC would have to construct more than 180 exit shafts for each tunnel.

“Even this standard, which is 1,000 feet between exits, is fairly weak,” Corbett said. “Smoke from a fire in an enclosed, below-grade area has a high propensity to kill people and create a lot of problems.”

The ‘definition of insanity’

When passengers eventually reach the ventilation shafts, their problems might not be over. The tunnel floor will be between 44 and 104 feet below the surface.

“One or more means of vertical access (e.g. elevator, man basket, stairs or ladder) would be provided for ingress/egress,” states TBC’s document. At the top of each shaft will be either a shed housing ventilation equipment, or a flat steel grate.

“That’s not going to work,” Corbett said. “You’re telling me a 70-year-old grandmother who’s just traveled thousands of feet is going to climb a ladder to get out? That’s crazy. It’s the definition of insanity.”

Such long and inconvenient escape routes would also hamper incoming firefighters, who typically have only a 30-minute supply of air for their breathing apparatus.

“Ingress becomes a concern with very long tunnels,” said Justin Edenbaum, a tunnel fire and ventilation engineering consultant based in Toronto, Canada.

Another issue is that long tunnels are rare in the United States, a country that has more experience with fires in tall buildings than deep underground.

“All of our research in terms of stairwells has been done with downward motion,” Corbett explained. “What’s not been well studied are situations where people might have to walk a significant distance to get to a stairwell and then climb out. This is going to require a significant amount of research and consideration.”

A different approach

Where long transit tunnels have been built recently, in Europe and Asia, engineers have taken a different approach. Instead of widely separated staircases, frequent cross-passageways allow passengers to quickly escape fire or smoke into either a dedicated safety tunnel or the tunnel traveling in the other direction.

In 2016, Jae-Ho Pyeon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at San Jose State University, conducted a trend analysis of long tunnels around the world. He found that the majority of long rail tunnels globally have such crossover connections, and that all built in the last decade have exits spaced far closer than 2,500 feet.

Pyeon concluded: “Configurations connected by cross passages are becoming more popular, mainly due to increasingly demanding safety requirements.”

A 2015 study by Edenbaum found that not only do cross passages enable people to escape a smoky environment faster than stairways, they also let firefighters reach the blaze earlier, and can dramatically reduce construction costs.

The Boring Company’s take

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions about the Loop system but told TechCrunch that it had been designed to be the safest public transportation system in the world, which includes compliance with applicable safety and fire protection standards.

In the absence of federal rules for transit tunnels, the Loop will be subject to the regulations of the jurisdictions it passes beneath. Existing subway systems in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Maryland are all required to follow NFPA standards.

Curiously, TBC has yet to discuss its flagship project with Maryland’s fire agency.

“While the Office of the State Fire Marshal hasn’t been contacted by The Boring Company in regards to the proposed [Loop system], we would take the position of applying our standard underground subway safety standards to such a project to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” said Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci.

That being said, there is a slight chance that TBC would not be forced to include more shafts or emergency passages.

“[The NFPA standard states that] you can suggest solutions that are equivalent or superior to the stated methods, but they have to be approved the authority having jurisdiction,” says Edenbaum. “[TBC] may have an argument about how it can go as widely spaced as it wants. They could make the case that [the Loop] is safer than a highway. That’s a risk-based assessment, which is not very popular in North America, but it’s another way to look at it.”

The draft environmental assessment is currently in its public comment phase, along with a draft agreement between TBC and various federal agencies regarding the Loop’s impact on historical properties. There are also numerous other permits and approvals that will be necessary before TBC completes a detailed design and starts digging, including safety assessments.

TBC has also proposed projects in other parts of the country with varying success. The one closest to getting underway this year is in Las Vegas, where TBC has proposed building a high-speed underground transit system that would initially transport people around the Las Vegas Convention Center. 

The upshot: For all of Elon Musk’s obsession with speed, the world’s longest tunnel won’t be arriving anytime soon.

May 22nd 2019, 3:49 pm

Nectar’s sonar bottle caps could save $50B in stolen booze

TechCrunch

Bars lose 20 percent of their alcohol to overpours and “free” drinks for friends. That amounts to $50 billion per year in booze that mysteriously disappears, making life tough for every pub and restaurant. Nectar wants to solve that mystery with its ultrasound depth sensing bottle caps that measure how much liquid is left in a bottle by measuring how long it takes a sonar pulse to bounce back. And now it’s bringing real-time pour tracking to beer with its gyroscopic taps. The result is that bar managers can find out who’s pouring too much or giving away drink, which promotions are working, when to reorder bottles without keeping too much stock on hand, and avoid wasting hours weighing or eyeballing the liquor level of their inventory.

Nectar’s solution to alcohol shrinkage has now attracted a $10 million Series A led by DragonCapital.vc and joined by former Campari chairman Gerry Ruvo who will join the board. “Not a lot of technology has come to the bottle” Nectar CEO Aayush Phumbhra says of ill-equipped bars and restaurants. “Liquor is their highest margin and highest cost item. If you don’t manage it efficiently, you go out of business.” Other solutions can look ugly to customers, forcibly restrict bartenders, or take time and money to install and maintain. In contrast, Phunumbhra tells me “I care about solving deep problems by building a solution that doesn’t change behavior.”

Investors were eager to back the CEO, since he previously co-founded text book rental giant Chegg — another startup disrupting an aged market with tech. “I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family. No one in my family has ever worked for anyone else before” Phunumbhra says with a laugh. He saw an opportunity in the stunning revelation that the half-trillion dollar on-premises alcohol business was plagued by missing booze and inconsistent ways to track it.

Typically at the end of a week or month, a bar manager will have staff painstakingly look at each bottle, try to guess what percent remains, and mark it on a clipboard to be loaded into a spreadsheet later. While a little quicker, that’s very subjective and in-accurate More advanced systems see every bottled weighed to see exactly how much is left. If they’re lucky, the scale connects to a computer, but they still have to punch in what brand of booze they’re sizing up. But the process can take many hours, which amounts to costly labor and infrequent data. None of these methods eliminate the manual measurement process or give real-time pour info.

So with $6 million in funding, Nectar launched in 2017 with its sonar bottle caps that look and operate like old-school pourers. When bars order them, they come pre-synced and labeled for certain bottle shapes like Petron or Jack Daniels. Their Bluetooth batteries last a year and connect wirelessly to a base hub in the bar. With each pour, the sonar pulse determines how much is in the bottle and subtracts it from the previous measurement to record how much was doled out. And the startup’s new gyroscopic beer system is calibrated to deduce pour volume from the angle and time the tap is depressed without the need for a sensor to be installed (and repaired) inside the beer hose.

Bar managers can keep any eye on everything throughout the night with desktop, iOS, and Android apps. They could instantly tell if a martini special is working based on how much gin across brands is being poured, ask bartenders to slow their pours if they’re creeping upwards in volume, or give the green light to strong pours on weeknights to reward regular customers. “Some bars encourage overpours to get people to keep coming back” says local San Francisco celebrity bartender Broke-Ass Stuart, who tells me pre-measured pourers can save owners money but cost servers tips.

Nectar now sells self-serve subscriptions to its hardware and software, with a 20 cap package costing $99 per month billed annually with free yearly replacements. It’s also got a free 2 tap trial package, or a $399 per month enterprise subscription for 100 taps. Nectar is designed to complement bar point of sale systems. And if a bar just wants the software, Nectar just launched its PrecisionAudit app where staff tap the current liquid level on a photo of each different bottle for more accurate eyeballing. It’s giving a discount rate of $29.99 per month on the first 1000 orders.

After 2 million pours measured, the business is growing 200 percent quarter-over-quarter as bowling alley chains and stadiums sign up for pilots. The potential to change the booze business seduced investors like Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and the founding family of the Modelo beer company. Next, Nectar is trying to invent a system for wine. That’s trickier since its taps would need to be able to suck the air out of the bottles each night.

The big challenge will be convincing bars to change after tracking inventory the same way for decades. No one wants to deal with technical difficulties in a jam-packed bar. That’s partly why Nectar’s subscription doesn’t force owners to buy its hardware up front.

fIf Nectar can nail not only the tech but the bartender experience, it could pave a smoother path to hospitality entrepreneurship. Alcohol shrinkage is one factor leading to the rapid demise of many bars and restaurants. Plus, it could liberate bartenders from measuring bottles into the wee hours. Phunumbhra “They’re coming in on weekends and working late. We want them to spend that time with their families and on customer service.”

May 22nd 2019, 3:36 pm

Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

TechCrunch

Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

May 22nd 2019, 2:20 pm

Amazon has turned warehouse tasks into a (literal) game

TechCrunch

Working at an Amazon fulfillment center is tough and tedious. Stories of problematic working conditions have plagued the company for years now, and pressure has likely only increased as the retail giant is pushing to get packages out even faster.

To give the company some credit, it has worked to improve conditions, including the addition of a $15 minimum wage and automating certain tasks with the help of its growing robotics offering. Turns out the company has also been, quite literally, gamifying certain tasks.

WaPo (which, incidentally, is also own by Mr. Bezos) has a writeup of an “experimental” video game designed to motivator workers to fill orders. The games, which is apparently optional for employees, live on workstation screens, awarding points for fulfilling orders and pitting teams against one another in the process.

As the story notes, Amazon’s not alone in the idea. Gig-based companies like Uber and Lyft are similarly incentivizing workers with rewards for driving longer. In an age when we’ve gamified our own step counts through Fitbit and the like, it’s probably no surprise that companies are taking similar tacts for their duller positions.

Still, the whole thing is a bit odd — and probably a good indication of how repetitive this tasks can be. As we noted on a recent trip to the company’s massive Staten Island fulfillment center, the “picker” and “stower” gigs work closely with Amazon’s shelf sporting robots to get packages to their destination.

May 22nd 2019, 2:20 pm

Seven years later, the OUYA is dead for real

TechCrunch

 

Remember the OUYA?

As a cheap Android-powered game console, it was pitched as being able to “open the last closed platform: the TV”. It was one of the first huge Kickstarter campaigns, raising nearly 9 million dollars on the site in 2012. Even half a decade later, it remains one of the biggest campaigns Kickstarter has seen.

Outside of Kickstarter, the $99 console never really found its audience. OUYA was split up by 2015, its software assets and team acquired by Razer.

Razer kept the OUYA store running post-acquisition, a ghost of its former self. On June 25th, 2019, they’ll pull the plug once and for all.

In an FAQ on its site, Razer says that the OUYA store will be shut down by the end of June. The game store for the Forge TV (a similar attempt at an Android-powered console built by Razer itself) will also be shut down.

If you’ve somehow still got funds in your OUYA account, you’ll want to use them quick — the FAQ suggests that come June 25th, those funds will be more or less gone.

But what about the games you’ve already bought? Will those continue to work? That’s a bit more complicated. Writes Razer:

You will be able to play games via the OUYA platform until June 25, 2019. Once it has been shut down, access to the Discover section will no longer be available. Games downloaded that appear in Play, may still function if they do not require a purchase validation upon launch. Contact the game developer for confirmation.

In other words: some games will work, some won’t. They do note that the download servers will also go dark on June 25th — so if there’s a game you want to keep for the long term, make sure you’ve got it saved on the console.

May 22nd 2019, 2:03 pm

These startups are locating in SF and Africa to win in global fintech

TechCrunch

To become a global fintech player, locate your company in San Francisco and Africa.

That’s the approach of payments company Flutterwave, digital lending startup Mines, and mobile-money venture Chipper Cash—Africa-founded ventures that maintain headquarters in San Francisco and operations in Africa to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, clients, and the frontier of digital finance.

This arrangement wasn’t exactly coordinated across the ventures, but TechCrunch coverage picked up the trend and some common motives among these rising fintech firms.

Founded in 2016 by Nigerians Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Clients can tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber,  Booking.com and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

The Y-Combinator backed company is headquartered in San Francisco, runs its operations center in Nigeria, and plans to add offices in South Africa and Cameroon.

Flutterwave opened an office in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October. The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

May 22nd 2019, 1:52 pm

Subscription fatigue hasn’t hit yet

TechCrunch

U.S. consumers are still embracing subscriptions. More than a third (34%) of Americans say they believe they’ll increase the number of subscription services they use over the next two years, according to a new report from eMarketer. This is following an increase to 3 subscription services on average, up from 2.4 services five years ago.

The report cited data from subscription platform Zuora and The Harris Poll in making these determinations.

The study also debunks the idea that we’ve reached a point of subscription fatigue.

While only a third is planning to increase the number of subscriptions — a figure that’s in line with the worldwide average — the larger majority of U.S. internet users said they planned to use the same number of subscriptions services within two years as they do now.

In other words, they’re not paring down their subscriptions just yet — in fact, only 7 percent said they planned to subscribe to fewer services in the two years ahead.

However, that’s both good news and bad news for the overall subscription industry. On the one hand, it means there’s a healthy base of potential subscribers for new services. But it also means that many people may only adopt a new subscription by dropping another — perhaps to maintain their current budget.

Subscriptions, after all, may still feel like luxuries. No one needs Netflix, Spotify, groceries delivered to their home or curated clothing selections sent by mail, for example. There are non-subscription alternatives that are much more affordable. The question is which luxuries are worth the recurring bill?

The survey, however, did not define subscription services, which could include news and magazine subscriptions, digital streaming services, subscription box services, and more. But it did ask about consumers’ interest in the various categories.

Over half of U.S. consumers (57%) said they were interested in TV and video-on-demand services (like Netflix) and 38 percent were interested in music services.

Related to this, eMarketer forecasts U.S. over-the-top video viewers will top 193 million by 2021, or 57.3 percent of the population. Digital audio listeners will top 211 million by the same time, or 63.1 percent of the population.

The next most popular subscriptions in the survey were grocery delivery like AmazonFresh (32%) and meal delivery like Blue Apron (21%). Software and storage services like iCloud and subscription beauty services like Ipsy followed, each with 17 percent.

Consumers were less interested in subscription news and information and subscription boxes — the latter only saw 10 percent interest, in fact.

The figures should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The meal kit market is actually struggling. The consulting firm NPD Group estimated that only 4 percent of U.S. consumers have even tried them. So there’s a big disconnect between what consumers say they’re interested in, and what they actually do.

Meanwhile, the supposedly less popular news and information services market is, in some cases, booming. The New York Times, for instance, just this month posted a higher profit and added 223,000 digital subscribers to reach 4.5 million paying customers. And Apple now has “hundreds of people” working on Apple News+, it said this week. 

Of course, consumers will at some point reach a limit on the number of services they’re willing to pay for, but for the time being, the subscription economy appears solid.

 

May 22nd 2019, 1:52 pm

Google’s lead EU regulator opens formal privacy probe of its adtech

TechCrunch

Google’s lead data regulator in Europe has opened a formal investigation into its processing of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange, TechCrunch has learnt.

This follows a privacy complaint pertaining to adtech’s real-timing bidding (RTB) system filed under Europe’s GDPR framework last year.

The statutory inquiry into Google’s adtech that’s being opened by the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), cites section 110 of Ireland’s Data Protection Act 2018, which means that the watchdog suspects infringement — and will now investigate its suspicions.

The DPC writes that the inquiry is “to establish whether processing of personal data carried out at each stage of an advertising transaction is in compliance with the relevant provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, including the lawful basis for processing, the principles of transparency and data minimisation, as well as Google’s retention practices”.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

As we reported earlier this week complaints about the RTB system used by online advertisers have been stacking up across Europe.

The relevant complaint in this instance was lodged last fall by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave, and alleges “wide-scale and systemic breaches of the data protection regime” by Google and others in the behavioral advertising industry.

Where Google is concerned the complaint focuses on its DoubleClick/Authorized Buyers ad system.

In a nutshell, the RTB complaints argue the system is inherently insecure — and that’s incompatible with GDPR’s requirement that personal data is processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security”.

Commenting on the Irish DPC opening an inquiry in a statement, Ryan said: “Surveillance capitalism is about to become obsolete. The Irish Data Protection Commission’s action signals that now — nearly one year after the GDPR was introduced — a change is coming that goes beyond just Google. We need to reform online advertising to protect privacy, and to protect advertisers and publishers from legal risk under the GDPR”.

Similar complaints against RTB have been filed in the UK, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Ireland is leading the investigation of Google’s adtech as the company designates Google Ireland as the data controller for EU users.

May 22nd 2019, 1:52 pm

Amazon shareholders reject facial recognition sale ban to governments

TechCrunch

Amazon shareholders have rejected two proposals that would have requested the company not to sell its facial recognition technology to government customers.

The breakdown of the votes is not immediately known. A filing with the vote tally is expected later this week.

The first proposal would have requested Amazon to limit the sale of its Rekognition technology to police, law enforcement and federal agencies. A second resolution would have demanded an independent human and civil rights review into the use of the technology.

It followed accusations that the technology has bias and inaccuracies, which critics say can be used to racially discriminate against minorities.

The votes were non-binding, allowing the company to reject the outcome of the vote.

But the vote was almost inevitably set to fail. Following his divorce, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos retains 12 percent of the company’s stock as well as the voting rights in his ex-wife’s remaining stake. The company’s top four institutional shareholders, including The Vanguard Group, Blackrock, FMR and State Street, collectively hold about the same amount of voting rights as Bezos.

The resolutions failed despite an effort by the ACLU to back the measures, which the civil liberties group accused the tech giant of being “non-responsive” to privacy concerns.

In remarks, Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington, said: “The fact that there needed to be a vote on this is an embarrassment for Amazon’s leadership team. It demonstrates shareholders do not have confidence that company executives are properly understanding or addressing the civil and human rights impacts of its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance.”

“While we have yet to see the exact breakdown of the vote, this shareholder intervention should serve as a wake-up call for the company to reckon with the real harms of face surveillance and to change course,” he said.

The civil liberties group rallied investors ahead of the Wednesday annual meeting in Seattle, where the tech giant has its headquarters. In a letter, the group said the sale of Amazon’s facial recognition tech to government agencies “fundamentally alters the balance of power between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people.”

“As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities,” the letter added.

The ACLU said investors and shareholders had the power “to protect Amazon from its own failed judgment.”

Amazon pushed back against claims that the technology is inaccurate, and called on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to block the shareholder proposal prior to its annual shareholder meeting. The government agency blocked Amazon’s efforts to stop the vote, amid growing scrutiny of its product.

Amazon spokesperson Lauren Lynch said on Tuesday, prior to the meeting, that the company operates “in line with our code of conduct which governs how we run our business and the use of our products.”

An email to the company following Wednesday’s meeting was unreturned at the time of writing.

Read more:

May 22nd 2019, 1:05 pm

Daily Crunch: New MacBook Pros have a keyboard fix

TechCrunch

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.

1. Apple announces new MacBook Pros with a keyboard fix, oh, and more powerful processors

Apple says it’s taking three steps to remedy the keyboard situation: It will be making a materials change to the MacBook Pro keyboard mechanism, it’s covering all butterfly keyboards across its notebook line in its Keyboard Service program and it’s improving the repair process in Apple Stores to make things faster.

The new laptops have more to offer than improved keyboards: Apple says the 15-inch MacBook Pro will run at double the speed of the previous quad-core models.

2. TransferWise now valued at $3.5B following a new $292M secondary round

While this is a secondary round (so no new cash is entering the TransferWise balance sheet), previous investors aren’t exiting — in fact, Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford are actually doubling down.

3. ARM halts Huawei relationship following US ban

The dominoes continue to fall for Huawei in the wake of a Trump-led U.S. trade ban.

4. Google says some G Suite user passwords were stored in plaintext since 2005

The search giant disclosed the exposure Tuesday but declined to say exactly how many enterprise customers were affected.

5. London’s Tube network to switch on Wi-Fi tracking by default in July

Transport for London writes that “secure, privacy-protected data collection will begin on July 8” — while touting additional services, such as improved alerts about delays and congestion, which it frames as “customer benefits,” as expected to launch “later in the year.”

6. Apple has a plan to make online ads more private

By taking the identifiable person out of the equation, Apple says its new technology can help preserve user privacy without reducing the effectiveness on ad campaigns.

7. The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

Last month, Getaround acquired Parisian peer-to-peer car rental service Drivy. For more details about what lies ahead for Drivy and the Paris startup scene, we spoke to Alven Capital partner Jeremy Uzan, who first invested in Drivy’s seed round in 2013. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

May 22nd 2019, 1:05 pm

DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg is coming to Disrupt

TechCrunch

2019 is the year Facebook announced a ‘pivot to privacy’. At the same time, Google is trying to claim that privacy means letting it exclusively store and data-mine everything you do online. So what better time to sit down at Disrupt for a chat about what privacy really means with DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg?

We’re delighted to announce that Weinberg is joining us at Disrupt SF (October 2-4).

The pro-privacy search engine he founded has been on a mission to shrink the shoulder-surfing creepiness of Internet searching for more than a decade, serving contextual keyword-based ads, rather than pervasively tracking users to maintain privacy-hostile profiles. (If you can’t quite believe the decade bit; here’s DDG’s startup Elevator Pitch — which we featured on TC all the way back in 2008.)

It’s a position that looks increasingly smart as big tech comes under sharper political and regulatory scrutiny on account of the volume of information it’s amassing. (Not to mention what it’s doing with people’s data.)

Despite competing as a self-funded underdog against the biggest tech giants around, DuckDuckGo has been profitable and gaining users at a steady clip for years. It also recently took in a chunk of VC to capitalize on what its investors see as a growing international opportunity to help Internet users go about their business without being intrusively snooped on. Which makes a compelling counter narrative to the tech giants.

In more recent developments it has added a tracker blocker to its product mix — and been dabbling in policy advocacy — calling for a revival of a Do Not Track browser standard, after earlier attempts floundered with the industry, failing to reach accord.

The political climate around privacy and data protection does look to be pivoting in such a way that Do Not Track could possibly swing back into play. But if — and, yes it’s a big one — privacy ends up being a baked in Internet norm how might a pioneer like DuckDuckGo maintain its differentiating edge?

While, on the flip side, what if tech giants end up moving in on its territory by redefining privacy in their own self-serving image? We have questions and will be searching Weinberg for answers.

There’s also the fact that many a founder would have cut and run just half a decade into pushing against the prevailing industry grain. So we’re also keen to mine his views on entrepreneurial patience, and get a better handle on what makes him tick as a person — to learn how he’s turned a passion for building people-centric, principled products into a profitable business.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 – October 4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Tickets are available here.

May 22nd 2019, 12:51 pm

Invites are out for Apple’s June 3 WWDC keynote — there will be unicorns

TechCrunch

Apple’s WWDC keynote invites just went out, with only a couple of weeks to spare. The company’s graphic designers appear to be having some fun this time out, with a mind-blown rainbow unicorn, losing the Apple, Swift and App Store icons among others.

iOS 13, watchOS 6 and macOS 10.15 are no doubt on the books for this year’s event. I’d anticipate a lot more from the Apple TV side of things as well, in the wake of the big event earlier in the year.

Last year’s big show was completely devoid of hardware, though that could certainly change. Apple’s interestingly been in the habit of announcing small releases just ahead of its big shows this year, and that continues with this week’s announcement of new MacBook Pros with faster processors and, more importantly, updated keyboards.

The big show starts at 10AM PT on June 3. We’ll be there — though I’m still trying to get my colleagues to bring their unicorn onesies. I’ll keep you posted.

May 22nd 2019, 12:34 pm

Reserve your demo table for TC Sessions: Mobility 2019

TechCrunch

Early-stage startup ingenuity is one of the driving forces shaping the rapid, radical changes taking place in mobility and transportation. Come July 10, TechCrunch will host more than 1,000 movers, shakers and makers in San Jose for TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 for a day-long exploration of the technologies and challenges upending both industries.

Talk about a targeted audience. It’s the perfect place and opportunity to strut your startup stuff. Simply book a demo table to position your company in front of some of the most influential founders, investors, technologists and media. Networking made simple. You’re welcome.

TC Sessions: Mobility is jam-packed with speakers, workshops and demos that showcase an astounding range of topics, technologies, products and insight. We’ll dig deep into the future of transportation and mobility — including new and once-unimaginable technologies that lie ahead. We’ll cover the promises, the problems and the potential. And don’t worry, we’ll cover early-stage startup investing, too.

This lineup strikes a balance between industry powerhouses and smaller, but no less innovative teams working on the forefront. Here’s just a sample of what you can expect to enjoy:

That’s just a taste, but you can see even more at the TC Sessions: Mobility agenda. Keep in mind there are still a few surprise guests to be announced in the next month, so be sure to check back.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2019 takes place July 10 in San Jose, Calif. Don’t miss a prime opportunity to place your early-stage startup in front of influential change agents. Book a demo table today, while you still can. Can’t wait to see what you bring to San Jose!

Looking for sponsorship opportunities? Contact the TechCrunch team to learn about the benefits associated with sponsoring TC Sessions: Mobility 2019.

May 22nd 2019, 12:03 pm

Google’s new look for mobile search results puts site owners and publishers first

TechCrunch

Google today unveiled a new look for its mobile search results which gives sites a way to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link. Before, the search results were blue and the source — a publisher’s site, for example — would appear below in a smaller, green font. Now, it’s the publisher who gets top billing. With the refresh, the source for the search result appears on top and includes the site’s own icon.

The revamp is subtle, but one that will likely please publishers as it gives them a way to stand out. After all, web searchers who are already familiar with the publisher’s site may choose to click through (or rather, tap through) to their link out of a personal preference — even if it’s further down on the results page.

In addition, the website branding can help web searchers better understand where the information is coming from — like an official site or well-known news publication, for example.

The update also impacts how Google Search ads appear.

Before, the word “Ad” would display in a small green box ahead of the source link. Now, the word “Ad” appears in a bolded, black font where the website icon would otherwise be. It’s a bit less noticeable that the top search results link is an ad because your eyes are drawn to the blue link — and because the word “Ad” no longer has a box around it.

Google says the new design will help it prepare for the search changes ahead as it enables the company to add more action buttons and previews to the search result cards, while still retaining attribution back to the source.

The company recently announced some of its plans for new search features at Google I/O earlier this month, including AR in search results, as well as better news coverage and support for podcast search. The latter will offer links to listen right in the search results as well as tools to save the podcast to play later.

In the meantime, site owners and publishers who want to customize their icon for their organic search listings can do so here.

Google says this new design is rolling out first to mobile users over the next few days.

May 22nd 2019, 11:51 am

N26 faces banking regulator order about fraudulent transactions

TechCrunch

Fintech startup N26 received an order from BaFin, the German banking regulator. According to the regulator, N26 hasn’t been doing enough when it comes to money laundering and terrorist financing. The company has a specific period of time to implement changes and rectify its internal processes.

“Today, BaFin published an order for N26 Bank GmbH. An order is an instruction from them to improve processes within a certain time frame. The order requires us to optimize existing processes to prevent money laundering and increase N26 staffing levels,” the company says in a blog post.

A few articles have highlighted a handful of cases of fraud in recent weeks. Customers tried to use N26 for money-laundering purposes. It took some time before N26 reacted and closed those accounts.

It’s not that surprising given that literally every bank suffers from this issue. For instance, all the big French banks (BNP Paribas, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole and Crédit Mutuel) have been fined in the past for the same reason.

Banking regulators don’t review suspicious transactions directly. They make sure that banks have the right processes and teams to catch the vast majority of suspicious transactions.

As N26 has more than 2.5 million users, it’s been hard to scale its workforce appropriately. In other words, it has been short-staffed. In recent months, the company has been hiring customer support and anti-money laundering teams like crazy, by hiring more people directly and signing deals with subcontractors.

BaFin asks N26 to catch up with its backlog of flagged transactions. The company plans to be done by the end of next week. BaFin also wants to see written descriptions of processes and workflows. Finally, the regulator says that N26 should recheck the identity of some customers and redo the KYC process (“know your customer”). N26 says that it plans to implement BaFin’s requirements before the deadline.

Creating a startup is hard, but creating a bank with startup-like growth is even harder. Banking regulation is tough, and it’s a good thing for N26 customers that BaFin is keeping an eye out. Let’s hope that today’s order is just a bump in the road.

May 22nd 2019, 11:51 am
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