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Antarctic tests will prepare this rover for a possible trip to an icy ocean moon

TechCrunch

Exploring a distant moon usually means trundling around its uniquely inhospitable surface, but on icy ocean moons like Saturn’s Enceladus, it might be better to come at things from the bottom up. This rover soon to be tested in Antarctica could one day roll along the underside of a miles-thick ice crust in the ocean of a strange world.

It is thought that these oceanic moons may be the most likely on which to find signs of life past or present. But exploring them is no easy task.

Little is known about these moons, and the missions we have planned are very much for surveying the surface, not penetrating their deepest secrets. But if we’re ever to know what’s going on under the miles of ice (water or other) we’ll need something that can survive and move around down there.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE, is a robotic exploration platform under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It looks a bit like an industrial-strength hoverboard (remember those?), and as you might guess from its name, it cruises around the ice upside-down by making itself sufficiently buoyant to give its wheels traction.

“We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top. Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as ocean currents might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position,” explained BRUIE’s lead engineer, Andy Klesh, in a JPL blog post.

Unlike ordinary submersibles, though, this one would be able to stay in one place and even temporarily shut down while maintaining its position, waking only to take measurements. That could immensely extend its operational duration.

While the San Fernando Valley is a great analog for many dusty, sun-scorched extraterrestrial environments, it doesn’t really have anything like an ice-encrusted ocean to test in. So the team went to Antarctica.

The project has been in development since 2012, and has been tested in Alaska (pictured up top) and the Arctic. But the Antarctic is the ideal place to test extended deployment — ultimately for up to months at a time. Try that where the sea ice retreats to within a few miles of the pole.

Testing of the rover’s potential scientific instruments is also in order, since in a situation where we’re looking for signs of life, accuracy and precision are paramount.

JPL’s techs will be supported by the Australian Antarctic Program, which maintains Casey station, from which the mission will be based.

November 20th 2019, 9:18 pm

Google limits political ad targeting and all ‘demonstrably false claims’

TechCrunch

Google has joined Twitter in revising its political ad rules ahead of what promises to be a brutal election season. But while the latter chose to ban political advertising altogether, Google is mainly limiting the ability to target political demographics, and promises to take action against “demonstrably false claims.”

In a blog post Wednesday afternoon, the search giant explained the new rules in a way that is clearly intended to be understood by a broad audience, not the ad-buying elite.

“Given recent concerns and debates about political advertising, and the importance of shared trust in the democratic process, we want to improve voters’ confidence in the political ads they may see on our ad platforms,” wrote Scott Spencer, VP of product management at Google Ads.

The primary change, he explained, will be the limitation of targeting terms that can be used for political advertising buys that appear in search, on display ads, and on YouTube.

Google knows an immense amount about every one of its users, and as such can display ads to people who like certain products, are concerned with certain issues, and so on. But starting in December, if the ad is political in nature, it will only be able to be targeted to age, general, and postal code. (Notably, Twitter considers using zip codes “microtargeting” and will not allow it for political content.)

That’s nice, but it should be noted that such microtargeting may not be necessary for political issues, since advertisers can target search terms like “South San Jose city council candidates” and they’re off to the races. They just can’t send ads to people because they’re a Democrat, a Republican, support marriage equality, handgun restrictions, etc… but they can buy ads for the search terms “gay marriage,” “assault rifle ban,” and other items. That’s kind of fundamental to search-based ad buys.

At least it seems to be a step in the right direction — deep targeting for serious issues like that is not only unproven and controversial, but also fundamentally creepy. Better to do without it.

Google also said that it’s already “against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim—whether it’s a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died.”

As further examples of what it would not allow, it cited “misleading claims about the census process, and ads or destinations making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.” That puts rather a fine point on it.

And as a warning to temper your expectations, Google noted that “no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation,” so it plans to take “very limited” action, only for “clear violations.”

Funnily enough, of all the institutions on Earth, Google seems the one best suited to adjudicating content in that way. But “sensibly” is the key word here, and it is sensible for Google to avoid making promises it can’t keep.

Lastly Google will be expanding its election-related ad transparency reports to include “state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties.” These will be publicly searchable like those for national candidates, as shown above.

That the major platforms are moving at all on this question of money in politics is good, but it is hard to say how these restrictions — such as they are — will affect how things play out. It’s unlikely this is the last we’ll hear from Google, Twitter, or others on the topic.

November 20th 2019, 7:33 pm

Bandit opens a ‘mobile-only’ coffee shop in New York

TechCrunch

If you wander into the Bandit coffee shop in Midtown New York, you won’t be able to just walk up to the counter and order something. Instead, you’ll need to download a mobile app.

I experienced it for myself yesterday afternoon, when I — along with several other customers — pulled my phone out, downloaded the Bandit app, then used the app to create a profile, order and pay. A couple minutes later, a barista called me up to the counter and handed me my (pretty good) coffee.

In other words, while Starbucks has been experimenting with mobile ordering and payment, Bandit is betting entirely on what co-founder and CEO Max Crowley called a “mobile-only” store.

Obviously, this model can lead to some initial awkwardness, particularly if random passersby don’t understand it. But there are friendly Bandit staff members on-hand to help, and Crowley (who was previously the general manager of Uber for Business) said that this model offers an opportunity to create “a whole new type of experience.”

He pointed to the rapid growth of China’s Luckin Coffee as an inspiration, and he suggested that ultimately, Bandit should offer customers the most convenient way to satisfy their coffee cravings: Wherever they are, they open the app and order the drink they want. Then they’ll told when it will be ready, and where to pick it up.

Bandit can’t deliver that level of convenience for most customers quite yet, since it only has a single location. But Crowley said he’s also rethought other aspects of the coffee shop model.

For one thing, this first Bandit store is located in what’s essentially a raw retail space. Crowley said he’s team has developed an 11-by-11 foot countertop where all the coffee is prepared — it’s assembled elsewhere and just needs to be plugged in, eliminating the need for an extensive buildout.

“We can launch [a new location] in a few hours, and we can do it at about a tenth the cost of a traditional store,” he said.

So the plan is to launch four or five more New York stores in the coming months, and to expand beyond New York by the end of the first quarter of 2020.

Crowley added that by keeping costs down, Bandit can also keep its coffee affordable: “I don’t think an iced latte needs to be $6 or $7. Our goal is to be less expensive than Starbucks.” (My coffee yesterday, for example, cost me $2.) It’s also experimenting with other pricing models, starting with a $20 subscription that gets you an unlimited $1 drinks for a month.

And if this phone- and pop up-focused mentality sounds a little transactional — maybe even a little soulless — I will note that the actual coffee shop didn’t feel that way at all. While the space was a bit bare, it was eye-catching, with several large games like cornhole set for customers. Most importantly, people weren’t just rushing into pick up their coffee — they were actually hanging out.

“When we did some rudimentary scouting of coffee shop locations, we saw that about 80% of customers are grabbing their coffee and leaving,” Crowley said. “That is definitely core to us, making it super easy to grab it and leave, fulfilling drink orders in less than a minute. All of that said, in the future, we’re going to have this portfolio of different kinds of spaces, different kinds of experiences.”

November 20th 2019, 6:16 pm

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 fails during testing, next step will be to move to a newer design

TechCrunch

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype encountered an explosive failure during early testing in Texas on Wednesday – you can see exactly what happened in the video below, but basically it blew its lid during cryogenic testing – a standard test that you use to see if the vehicle can hold up to extreme cold temperatures, like those it would encounter in actual use. The good news is that this is exactly why SpaceX (and anyone building rockets) does this kind of early-stage testing on the ground, in controlled, relatively safe conditions. The bad news is that this might delay the company’s optimistic timelines.

As for next steps, the plan appears to be to take what Starship Mk1 has taught SpaceX so far and proceed with the next iteration of the prototype spacecraft – Starship Mk3. ‘Wait, didn’t we skip a Mk?’ you might ask – no, because SpaceX is already building Mk2 in parallel with this now-destroyed Mk1 at its other facility in Florida.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was quick to answer a question on Twitter from YouTuber Everyday Astronaut regarding the next steps for Starship testing, saying it’ll move on to Mk3 design, and that Mk1’s value was primarily “as a manufacturing pathfinder,” noting that “flight design is quite different.”

This is still a different version of events and Starship development from what’s been discussed previously: Starship Mk1 and Mk2 were originally characterized as high-altitude test flight vehicles, to follow the success of the ‘Starhopper’ snub-nosed subscale demonstrator, which was used to test a single Raptor engine for a couple of low-altitude hops at SpaceX’s Texas site.

Timelines are always fluid in the space business, however, and in particular in the launch industry. SpaceX also sets incredibly optimistic timelines for most of its ambitious goals, by the open admission of both Musk and SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Still, the company has said it’ll look to achieve orbital flight with a Starship prototype vehicle as early as next year, so we’ll have to wait and see whether this inopportune test result affects that schedule.

November 20th 2019, 5:46 pm

Sonos acquires voice assistant startup Snips, potentially to build out on-device voice control

TechCrunch

Sonos revealed during its quarterly earnings report that it has acquired voice assistant startup Snips in a $37 million cash deal, Variety reported on Wednesday. Snips, which had been developing dedicated smart device assistants that can operate primarily locally, instead of relying on consistently round-tripping voice data to the cloud, could help Sonos set up a voice control option for its customers that has “privacy in mind” and is focused more narrowly on music control than on being a general-purpose smart assistant.

Sonos has worked with both Amazon and Google and their voice assistants, providing support for either on their more recent products, including the Sonos Beam and Sonos One smart speakers. Both of these require an active cloud connection to work, however, and have received scrutiny from consumers and consumer protection groups recently for how they handle the data they collect form users. They’ve introduced additional controls to help users navigate their own data sharing, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence noted that one of the things the company can do in building its own voice features is developing them “with privacy in mind” in an interview with Variety.

Notably, Sonos has introduced a version of its Sonos One that leave out the microphone hardware altogether – the Sonos One SL introduced earlier this fall. The fact that they saw opportunity in a mic-less second version of the Sonos One suggests it’s likely there are a decent number of customers who like the option of a product that’s not round-tripping any information with a remote server. Spence also seemed quick to point out that Sonos wouldn’t seek to compete with its voice assistant partners, however, since anything they build will be focused much more specifically on music.

You can imagine how local machine learning would be able to handle commands like skipping, pausing playback and adjusting volume (and maybe even more advanced feature like playing back a saved playlist), without having to connect to any kind of cloud service. It seems like what Spence envisions is something like that which can provide basic controls, while still allowing the option for a customer to enable one of the more full-featured voice assistants depending on their preference.

Meanwhile, partnerships continue to prove lucrative for Sonos: Its team-up with Ikea resulted in 30,000 speakers sold on launch day, the company also shared alongside its earnings. That’s a lot to move in one day, especially in this category.

November 20th 2019, 5:01 pm

Apple expands and updates its ‘Everyone Can Code’ program

TechCrunch

Apple announced today an expansion of its program designed to get more students coding. The company says it has redesigned the “Everyone Can Code” curriculum with a focus on introducing more elementary and middle school students to coding, while also adding more resources for teachers, a new student guide, and refreshed Swift Coding Club materials. It’s also adding thousands of free coding sessions at Apple Stores in December, to celebrate Computer Science Education Week.

The updated curriculum is meant to make coding more approachable, Apple explains, by offering activities that are more closely connected to the students’ everyday lives. It also includes a new guide to Swift Playgrounds called Everyone Can Code Puzzles, where students can experiment with concepts and apply their understanding across over 40 hours of activities.

The guide comes with a teacher companion, which includes the solutions, assessment strategies, accessibility resources, and more.

The curriculum is also now optimized for VoiceOver, includes closed-captioned videos, and videos in American Sign Language.

In another expansion, Apple has integrated its Everyone Can Create project guides into the new curriculum. Launched last year on Apple Books, Everyone Can Create has served to get teachers to integrate things like drawing, music, filmmaking and photography into their classroom, by way of Apple technology.

Related this news, Apple says it’s increasing the number of Today at Apple coding sessions from December 1 through 15, 2019 in order to celebrate Computer Science Education Week.

The free, interactive sessions are meant to inspire young coders with block-based coding using robots, while more advanced coders use Swift Playgrounds to learn coding concepts or to code an AR project.

Some stores will also offer preschool-aged coding sessions in the new Coding Lab with Helpsters, the little monsters who star in the new Apple TV+ show, from the makers of Sesame Street. Other sessions will involve Apple Distinguished Educators, Apple Entrepreneur Camp innovators, developers, and artists. A Develop in Swift curriculum will continue to be available for high school and college students, Apple noted.

And for the seventh consecutive year, Apple will support the Hour of Code with a new Hour of Code Facilitator Guide that will help teachers and parents host sessions using Swift Playgrounds.

November 20th 2019, 4:30 pm

PayPal to acquire shopping and rewards platform Honey for $4B

TechCrunch

PayPal announced today it has agreed to acquire Honey Science Corporation, the makers of a deal-finding browser add-on and mobile application, for $4 billion, mostly cash. The acquisition, which is PayPal’s largest to date, will give the payments giant a foothold earlier in the customer’s shopping journey. Instead of only competing on the checkout page against credit cards or Apple Pay, for example, PayPal will leap ahead to become a part of the deal discovery process, as well.

Currently, Honey’s 17 million monthly active users take advantage of its suite of money-saving tools to track prices, get alerts, make lists, browse offers and participate in an Ebates-like rewards program called Honey Gold. Its users tend to be younger, millennial shoppers, both male and female.

PayPal aims to add Honey’s technology to its own product line, expanding its reach to PayPal’s 300 million users.

“What’s exciting is that we can take the functionality Honey now offers — which is product discovery, price tracking, offers and loyalty — and build that into the PayPal and Venmo experiences,” explains PayPal SVP of Global Consumer Products and Technology, and former Xoom CEO, John Kunze. “When Honey says they’re putting money in the pockets of their customers — that’s perfectly in line with what we want to do. We want to make digital commerce and financial services more affordable, easier to use, more fun and more accessible to people around the world,” he says.

In addition, PayPal’s network of 24 million merchant partners will gain the ability to offer targeted and more personalized promotions to consumers as a means of acquiring new business and driving increased sales. PayPal Credit may also be integrated into Honey to help finance larger purchases.

Honey has flown under the radar to some extent since its founding in 2012.

Originally only a web browser extension, Honey tracks sales and retailers’ promo codes, as a rival to RetailMeNot and others. What makes the extension so useful is that it automatically tries all the eligible promo codes for you during checkout then selects the one that provided the most savings and applies it on your behalf. This helps shoppers feel more comfortable with their purchases and reduces shopping cart abandonment.

The company also rolled out features to inform shoppers of an item’s price history, including the historical pricing of any product on Amazon’s marketplace. In 2017, Honey launched DropList, which would track and alert users to lower prices, as well as tools for finding travel deals.

As more consumers shifted their shopping to e-commerce merchants, Honey’s user base also rapidly grew.

Its browser extension now works across approximately 30,000 merchant websites, including fashion, technology, travel and even pizza delivery. Last year, Honey publicly shared that its 10 million members had saved over $800 million using its tools. As of today, Honey’s 17 million members have saved more than $2 billion to date.

 

“Honey is amongst the most transformative acquisitions in PayPal’s history. It provides a broad portfolio of services to simplify the consumer shopping experience, while at the same time making it more affordable and rewarding,” said Dan Schulman, president and CEO of PayPal, in a statement.

“The combination of Honey’s complementary consumer products with our platform will significantly enhance our ability to drive engagement and play a more meaningful role in the daily lives of our consumers. As a partner of choice for our merchants, this is another way that we can help them build and strengthen their customer relationships, provide personalized offers, and drive incremental sales. The combination of Honey and PayPal adds another significant and meaningful dimension to our two-sided platform,” Schulman added.

The acquisition also gives PayPal a way to fight back against the increased competition from Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech companies that have entered the payments market in recent years. On Apple’s Q4 2019 earnings call, for example, CEO Tim Cook noted that Apple Pay has now exceeded PayPal transaction volume with 3 billion transactions in the quarter. Meanwhile, analysts are predicting Facebook Pay has the potential to unseat both Apple Pay and PayPal alike.

Then there are PayPal’s original rivals — the world’s biggest card networks like Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover. These companies are also fighting to remain relevant online, with a new PayPal competitor of their own to simplify online checkout.

With Honey, PayPal immediately shifts the battle away from the checkout page itself to instead compete against all the places people go to discover, browse, get inspired and deal-hunt — whether that’s directly on retailers’ sites or through newer platforms, like Pinterest or Instagram Shopping.

As a result of the acquisition, Honey co-founders George Ruan and Ryan Hudson will join PayPal where they’ll work on product integrations and scaling the technology to a much larger user base. Also joining is Honey’s predominantly L.A.-based team of 350 employees.

The Honey team and headquarters will remain in L.A., where they’ve just signed a lease on a new office space with expansion goals in mind.

“Combining PayPal’s assets and reach with our technology, we can build powerful new online shopping experiences for consumers and merchants,” said Hudson. “We’ll have the ability to help millions of retailers efficiently reach consumers with offers that deliver more and more value to Honey members.”

To date, Honey had raised $49 million from investors, including Ludlow Ventures, Zuma Partners, Mucker Capital, SXE Ventures, BAM Ventures, Plug and Play, Wonder Ventures, Cendana Capital, Anthos Capital and others, according to Crunchbase.

Honey was already profitable on a net income basis in 2018, PayPal notes. The acquisition is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020, subject to regulatory approval. It’s expected to be accretive to PayPal’s non-GAAP earnings per share in 2021.

PayPal will hold a conference call at 2 PM PST today to discuss the transaction further.

November 20th 2019, 4:30 pm

Google Cloud launches Bare Metal Solution

TechCrunch

Google Cloud today announced the launch of a new bare metal service, dubbed the Bare Metal Solution. We aren’t talking about bare metal servers offered directly by Google Cloud here, though. Instead, we’re talking about a solution that enterprises can use to run their specialized workloads on certified hardware that’s co-located in the Google Cloud data centers and directly connect them to Google Cloud’s suite of other services. The main workload that makes sense for this kind of setup is databases, Google notes, and specifically Oracle Database.

Bare Metal Solution is, as the name implies, a fully integrated and fully managed solution for setting up this kind of infrastructure. It involves a completely managed hardware infrastructure that includes servers and the rest of the data center facilities like power and cooling, support contracts with Google Cloud and billing are handled through Google’s systems, as well as an SLA. The software that’s deployed on those machines is managed by the customer — not Google.

The overall idea, though, is clearly to make it easier for enterprises with specialized workloads that can’t easily be migrated to the cloud to still benefit from the cloud-based services that need access to the data from these systems. Machine learning is an obvious example, but Google also notes that this provides these companies with a bridge to slowly modernize their tech infrastructure in general (where ‘modernize’ tends to mean ‘move to the cloud’).

“These specialized workloads often require certified hardware and complicated licensing and support agreements,” Google writes. “This solution provides a path to modernize your application infrastructure landscape, while maintaining your existing investments and architecture. With Bare Metal Solution, you can bring your specialized workloads to Google Cloud, allowing you access and integration with GCP services with minimal latency.”

Since this service is co-located with Google Cloud, there are no separate ingress and egress charges for data that moves between Bare Metal Solution and Google Cloud in the same region.

The servers for this solution, which are certified to run a wide range of applications (including Oracle Database) range from dual-socket 16-core systems with 384 GB of RAM to quad-socket servers with 112 cores and 3072 GB of RAM. Pricing is on a monthly basis, with a preferred term length of 36 months.

Obviously, this isn’t the kind of solution that you self-provision, so the only way to get started — and get pricing information — is to talk to Google’s sales team. But this is clearly the kind of service that we should expect from Google Cloud, which is heavily focused on providing as many enterprise-ready services as possible.

November 20th 2019, 3:58 pm

Reimagine inside sales to ramp up B2B customer acquisition

TechCrunch

Slack makes customer acquisition look easy.

The day we acquired our first Highspot customer, it was raining hard in Seattle. I was on my way to a startup event when I answered my cell phone and our prospect said, “We’re going with Highspot.” Relief, then excitement, hit me harder than the downpour outside. It was a milestone moment – one that came after a long journey of establishing product-market fit, developing a sustainable competitive advantage, and iterating repeatedly based on prospect feedback. In other words, it was anything but easy.

User-first products are driving rapid company growth in an era where individuals discover, adopt, and share software they like throughout their organizations. This is great if you’re a Slack, Shopify, or Dropbox, but what if your company doesn’t fit that profile?

Product-led growth is a strategy that works for the right technologies, but it’s not the end-all, be-all for B2B customer acquisition. For sophisticated enterprise software platforms designed to drive company-wide value, such as Marketo, ServiceNow and Workday, that value is realized when the product is adopted en masse by one or more large segments.

If you’re selling broad account value, rather than individual user or team value, acquisition boils down to two things: elevating account based-selling and revolutionizing the inside sales model. Done correctly, you lay a foundation capable of doubling revenue growth year-over-year, 95 percent company-wide retention, and more than 100 percent growth in new customer logos annually. Here are the steps you can take to build a model that realizes on-par results.

Work the account, not the deal

Account-based selling is not a new concept, but the availability of data today changes the game. Advanced analytics enable teams to develop comprehensive and personalized approaches that meet modern customers’ heightened expectations. And when 77 percent of business buyers feel that technology has significantly changed how companies should interact with them, you have no choice but to deliver.

Despite the multitude of products created to help sellers be more productive and personal, billions of cookie-cutter emails are still flooding the inboxes of a few decision makers. The market is loud. Competition is cut throat. It’s no wonder 40 percent of sales reps say getting a response from a prospect is more difficult than ever before. Even pioneers of sales engagement are recognizing the need for evolution – yesterday’s one-size-fits-all approach to outreach only widens the gap between today’s sellers and buyers.

Companies must radically change their approach to account-based selling by building trusted relationships over time from the first-touch onward. This requires that your entire sales force – from account development representatives to your head of sales – adds tailored, tangible value at every stage of the journey. Modern buyers don’t want to be sold. They want to be advised. But the majority of companies are still missing the mark, favoring spray-and-pray tactics over personalized guidance.

One reason spamming remains prevalent, despite growing awareness of the need for quality over quantity, is that implementing a tailored approach is hard work. However, companies can make great strides by doing just three things:

Daily Crunch: Free Spotify comes to Alexa

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. Spotify’s free music service will now stream on Alexa devices, plus Bose and Sonos smart speakers

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes.

The Alexa support — which includes playing Spotify’s Top Hits playlist, Discover Weekly and more — will be available for users in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

2. Facebook’s latest experiment is a meme-creation app, Whale

Currently, the app allows users to decorate photos with text and stickers in order to create memes that can be shared to social media or texted to friends.

3. Vayyar nabs $109M for its “4D” radar tech, which detects and tracks images while preserving privacy

Vayyar is an Israeli startup that builds radar-imaging chips and sensors, as well as the software that reads and interprets the resulting images, for use in automotive and IoT applications.

4. Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

When you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories. Your News Update draws from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the stories that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

5. Bunch, the Discord for mobile games, raises $3.85M from Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games

Users who download the game can connect with friends and join an audio or video chat with them. From there, users can choose a game to load and the whole party is instantly taken into a multiplayer game session with their friends.

6. Build trust with remote users to get qualitative feedback

As co-founder of a digital health company, Alex Gold had to build a community of test patients. And because of security and privacy concerns, he had to approach this process unconventionally. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. 5 reasons you need to be at Disrupt Berlin

We’re one month out from Disrupt Berlin. And no matter which part of the startup ecosystem you inhabit, the event should be a huge opportunity. (I’ll be there!)

November 20th 2019, 3:48 pm

Mercedes prices its all-electric EQC crossover at $67,900

TechCrunch

The Mercedes-Benz EQC 400 4MATIC, the German automaker’s first all-electric vehicle under its new EQ brand, will start at $67,900 when it arrives in the U.S. early next year.

Mercedes-Benz announced Wednesday the price of the EQC 400 at the LA Auto Show. The price, which doesn’t account for the $7,500 federal tax credit, is notable because it’s below competitors like the Jaguar I-Pace, Audi e-tron and Tesla Model X.

It’s been a year since Mercedes-Benz unveiled the EQC, an all-electric crossover that kicked off the automaker’s plans to invest more than $12 billion to produce a line of battery-powered models under its new EQ brand. And in March, TechCrunch got a brief ride in the crossover in Austin during SXSW. In short, information about the vehicle has been out there. But the price has not.

The Mercedes EQC has a new drive system with compact dual electric drivetrains at each axle, which together generates 402 horsepower and 561 pound-feet of torque. The EQC can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds.

Mercedes has configured the vehicle motors to handle different aspects of the driving. The front electric motor is optimized for efficiency in the low to medium load range, while the rear motor is designed to create a sporty driving experience.

The vehicle’s 80 kilowatt-hour battery has an estimated range of around 200 miles, Mercedes-Benz has said in the past. The company didn’t provide updated numbers The battery has standard DC fast-charging that can reach an 80% charge in 40 minutes.

The EQC will come standard with the company’s new MBUX infotainment system, which is already in the A-Class. The infotainment system has put an emphasis on voice assistant technology and navigation, which will be a critical for new EV converts worried about locating charging stations. EQ-optimized navigation, driving modes, charging current and departure time can also be controlled and set via MBUX, the company said.

MBUX will recommend the shortest amount of time needed to get to a destination uses online services to find available DC fast charging stations to use if the operating range is insufficient. Mercedes-Benz customers can also find charging stations via the Mercedes me Charge card, the Mercedes me App or directly from the car.

The onboard charger makes the most from available external power, with the battery able to recharge from 10% to 80% in just 40 minutes.

The EQC will be available in three tiers at launch called progressive, premium and advanced. The progressive and premium tiers will offer two curated paint and upholstery options, while three selections will be available for the more expensive advanced tier.

The entry level progressive trim will come standard with MBUX, two 10.25-inch digital displays with touchscreen, advanced driver assistance system features like active brake assist with autonomous emergency braking, LED headlamps with adaptive highbeam assist and three years of

Production of the EQC started this year at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Bremen.

November 20th 2019, 2:47 pm

VEnvirotech transforms organic waste into bioplastics

TechCrunch

After a year of testing out environmental technologies for a private company, co-founder Patricia Ayma developed a process for bioplastic production using bacteria. The system turns organic matter, such as food waste, into a product that can be used as a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastics. “I realized that it was a simple technology for taking to society, that will benefit everyone,” she tells us.

The biotech startup began its pilot phase near Barcelona, at a BonArea supermarket plant, where they were able to develop and test the technology on an industrial scale with a potential customer. Ayma plans to push the innovation toward two sectors: Organic waste producers that want to shrink waste management costs and companies interested in purchasing the bioplastics for various applications.

The startup recently closed an investment round of more than €2 million, which will allow them to open a 33,000-square-foot plant to start production on the VE-box: A portable waste management container that will transform organic waste into biodegradable plastics. 

 

November 20th 2019, 2:47 pm

Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro battery case sports a new camera button

TechCrunch

Apple just released the iPhone 11 Pro’s battery case and it comes with surprise: a button for the camera. This is a minor, but welcomed addition to an otherwise standard battery case.

The button is clever. It’s located on the bottom half of the case is not a soft button that presses something on the phone. This button is exclusive to this case and when pressed, launches the iPhone’s Camera app even if the iPhone is locked. A quick press takes a photo and a longer press takes a QuickTake video.

The $129.00 case has other features too. It’s compatible with Qi-certified chargers and works with USB-PD-compatible chargers to pump power into the battery at a faster rate. Apple says, when the case is fully charged, it will provide the 50% longer battery life.

This is the first time Apple has added a shortcut of sorts to the camera app. On most Android phones, a double press of the power button launches the camera app. It’s handy, and while this button is exclusive to a case, is a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping that Apple figures out how to add this button to non-battery cases.

November 20th 2019, 2:47 pm

Smart Compose is coming to Google Docs

TechCrunch

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian today announced that Smart Compose, the AI-powered feature that currently tries to complete phrases and sentences for you in Gmail, is also coming to G Suite’s Google Docs soon. For now, though, your G Suite admin has to sign up for the beta to try it  and it’s only available in English.

Google says in total, Smart Compose in Gmail already saves people from typing about 2 billion characters per week. At least in my own experience, it also works surprisingly well and has only gotten better since launch (as one would expect from a product that learns from the individual and collective behavior of its users). It remains to be seen how well this same technique works for longer texts, but even longer documents are often quite formulaic, so the algorithm should still work quite well there, too.

Google first announced Smart Compose in May 2018, as part of its I/O developer conference. It builds upon the same machine learning technology Google developed for its Smart Reply feature. The company then rolled out Smart Compose to all G Suite and private Gmail users, starting in July 2018, and later added support for mobile, too.

November 20th 2019, 2:14 pm

Announcing TechCrunch Early Stage, a new event series all about founders

TechCrunch

TechCrunch covers a lot of bases in the tech startup world, but none is more important than supporting founders — especially early-stage founders. That’s what our new event series, TechCrunch Early Stage, is all about.

These single-day events debuting next year will be highly interactive opportunities for founders to tap experts in the core startup disciplines, starting with early-stage investors (lots of investors), legal wizzes, growth gurus, product-market fit wallahs, tech stack experts, recruiting aces and much more, including workshops on pitch breakdowns.

TechCrunch’s goal is to provide founders with insights and new relationships on par with what an accelerator experience provides, only in a single day, and with a much greater variety of experts and investors.

TC Early Stage is an outgrowth of Extra Crunch, TechCrunch’s subscription-based editorial offering that focuses on deep analysis and advice around the big topics facing founders. In October this year at Disrupt SF, we brought Extra Crunch to life on its own stage and featured experts on dozens of topics, including:

The sessions were mobbed. The TechCrunch team knows a winner when they one, and the result is this new event series. The first of three TC Early Stage events next year will be in San Francisco on April 28, with one in Paris on October 28 and another in New York City (date TBA).

TC Early Stage is designed for founders who are in their early innings, anywhere from pre-seed through series A, when entrepreneurs need all the guidance they can get. With that in mind, the event’s heart is dozens of breakout sessions run by with experts and curated by TechCrunch editors. The breakouts will be long on attendee questions and conversation, and the event is structured so that attendees can easily get to six to eight different breakouts over the course of the day. In addition, TechCrunch editors will hold a handful of interviews on a main stage with notable founders and investors in time slots that will not conflict with the breakouts.

Here is a sampling of the types of breakout sessions TechCrunch Early Stage will feature:

Between sessions, attendees can also meet the experts running the breakout sessions, as well as each other, via CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s event networking platform that connects like-minded attendees and arranges a meeting time and place.

The TechCrunch team is already busy building an all-star line-up for experts for the breakout sessions and memorable interviews for the main stage. The response from the expert community around TechCrunch has been resoundingly clear. Everyone sees the need – the deeper education of early stage founders – and they love the TC Early Stage format – a single day, highly interactive event that brings together early stage founders with an unprecedented collection of experts from across the startup ecosystem.

Tickets for the San Francisco event are available now, so jump in and grab yours to secure your seat while they last.

Not an early-stage founder? That’s okay, too. Later-stage founders, investors or just general startup enthusiasts are welcome to attend. A limited number of “Innovator passes” are available for folks who are not early-stage founders.

Partners are also very welcome! The event has many sponsorship opportunities, including breakout sessions. Contact the sales team to learn more by filling out this form.

November 20th 2019, 2:14 pm

Circ, the Berlin-based e-scooter company, makes layoffs following ‘operational learnings’

TechCrunch

Circ, the Berlin-based e-scooter rentals — or so-called micro-mobility — company founded by Lukasz Gadowski of Delivery Hero fame, has made a number of layoff, TechCrunch has learned.

This has seen a reduction in headcount in its HQ and other regional operations. The exact number isn’t clear, although once source placed it at around 50 people or less than 10% of employees.

Confirming the restructuring, Circ issued the following statement, citing the move to swappable batteries and a shift of focus to “efficiency and ops excellence”:

After fast growth in the initial stage now we focus on efficiency and ops excellence, including switching our operations mode to swappable battery scooters, [we] just introduced the Circ “KAISER” vehicle in a few German cities. Apart from being more cost efficient that is also more sustainable (cargo bikes instead of vans).

I managed to get Gadowski on a call and he added some further context to the layoffs, citing three reasons behind the decision to reduce headcount: seasonality, operational learnings, and indeed the move to e-scooters with swappable batteries.

“It’s a seasonal business, we have less riders in the winter than summer,” explained the Circ founder. “In winter you can expect less than 50% of your summer rides, with the current micro-mobility devices. That may change in the future”.

With regards to operational learnings, Gadowski says the company needed to learn how to operate a micro-mobility service across many markets simultaneously. “Basically figure out how to be more efficient, how to run a micro-mobility operation; it’s not optimised yet and we learned over the summer”.

He also conceded that, within the micro-mobility space more generally, there had been something of a land grab strategy that is now perhaps inevitably shifting towards greater emphasis on capital efficiency. “When we started this there was a focus on time to market but now it is not about time to market but efficiency,” he tells me.

Finally, Gadowski says the move to swappable battery technology means that Circ can run more efficiently and therefore also requires less people.

“What happens at the moment is we have warehouses where we store the scooters, maintain them and charge the batteries. Vans bring them into the city hotspots, the user rides them, then vans pick them up again where they are maintained or batteries charged. And now this changes to swappable batteries operations in which the vehicles are equipped with batteries that are swappable so you charge only the battery in the warehouse… and mechanics do light maintenance in-field. This requires less people because it is more operations efficient”.

Meanwhile, Circ shared some updated metrics with TechCrunch. The company says it has enabled approximately 10 million rides to date and has 3 million registered customers. It operates in more than 40 cities across 14 European countries, in addition to United Arab Emirates.

In addition, I’m told that this year Circ has seen “positive unit economics” in cities in about 1/3rd of its countries (5 out of 14). “In 2020 we expect to be unit economic profitable across the group,” a spokesperson tells TechCrunch.

Circ — then called Flash —raised €55 million in Series A funding in January, with Target Global leading the round via its mobility fund.

November 20th 2019, 1:14 pm

Uber reports a sharp rise in government demands for user data

TechCrunch

Uber says the number of legal demands for riders’ data made by U.S. and Canadian authorities has risen sharply in the past year.

The ride-hailing company said the number of law enforcement demands for user data during 2018 are up 27% on the year earlier, according to its annual transparency report published Wednesday. Uber said the rise in demands was partly due to its business growing in size, but also a “rising interest” from governments to access data on its customers.

Uber said it received 3,825 demands for 21,913 user accounts from the U.S. government, with the company turning over some data in 72% of cases, during 2018.

That’s up from 2,940 demands for 17,181 user accounts a year earlier, with a slightly higher compliance rate of 73%.

Canadian authorities submitted 161 demands for data on 593 user accounts during 2018.

Uber said that the rise in demands for customer data presents a challenge for the ride-hailing company, previously valued at $82 billion, which went public in May. “Our responsibility to preserve consumer privacy while meeting regulatory and public safety obligations will become increasingly complex and challenging as we field a growing number of government requests for data every year,” said Uttara Sivaram, Uber’s global privacy and security public policy chief.

The company also said it disclosed ride information on 34 million users to U.S. regulators and 1.8 million users to Canadian regulators, such as local taxi and transport authorities. Uber said it is mandated to give over the information to regulators as part of the “bespoke legal and regulatory requirements to which we are subject,” which can include pickup and drop-off locations, fares, and other data that may “identify individual riders,” the company said.

Uber isn’t the only company fielding a record number of demands from governments. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a rise in government demands over the past year as their customer base continues to grow while governments become increasingly hungry for companies’ data.

But Uber’s figures only offer insight into only the largest portions of its businesses — its consumer and business ride-hailing services, food delivery, and electric scooters — and only covers the North America, despite operating in hundreds of cities around the world.

Despite the rise in overall law enforcement requests, Uber said it “has not received a national security request” to date.

Such disclosures are rare but not unheard of. Most national security demands, such as orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and FBI-issued subpoenas, are coupled with secrecy rules that prevent the companies from disclosing anything about the demand. By proactive posting these so-called “warrant canary” statements, companies can quietly reveal when they have received such orders by removing the statements from their websites.

Apple famously used a warrant canary in its first transparency report in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2016, Reddit quietly removed its warrant canary suggesting it had received a classified order.

Although the First Amendment protects government-compelled speech, the legality of warrant canaries remain legally questionable.

November 20th 2019, 1:14 pm

Kleiner Perkins joins $24.5M funding led by Blockchain Capital for Bison Trails

TechCrunch

Kleiner Perkins has joined a $24.5 million Series A funding round for Bison Trails, a provider of blockchain protocols, which was led by Blockchain Capital to develop the firm’s infrastructure services.

Other participants included Coinbase Ventures, ConsenSys, A Capital, Collaborative Fund and Sound Ventures as new investors. Galaxy Digital and Initialized, as early backers, joined this latest round after participating in a $5.25 million seed round in March.

Bison Trails became one of the 21 founding members for Facebook’s Libra Association in October, boosting its somewhat flagging reputation as a global infrastructure service provider after high profile players like PayPal pulled out.

That makes Bison Trails the only blockchain infrastructure firm in the Libra project.

The New York-based startup helps customers deploy the participation nodes on any blockchain, without having to develop their own supporting technologies such as security, and serves more than 20 protocol projects.

In a statement Kleiner Perkins investing partner Monica Desai said: “Bison Trails realized early that node infrastructure would become a bottleneck to blockchain adoption, which is why they created a decentralized, user-friendly solution.”

“When we started building Bison Trails, we wanted to bring transparency and ease to entrepreneurs bold enough to build in a decentralized ecosystem, investors wise enough to back a nascent market, and enterprises courageous enough to commit to a technological inevitability like blockchain technology and cryptocurrency,” said Joe Lallouz, CEO of Bison Trails. “We have become the easiest way to run infrastructure on multiple blockchains. And have helped the world’s leading protocols, companies and builders launch and manage secure, highly-available, and geographically distributed nodes on blockchain networks.”

November 20th 2019, 12:31 pm

Cheq raises another $16M to fight ad fraud

TechCrunch

Cheq, a startup focused on preventing ad fraud and ensuring that ads run in brand-safe environments, has raised $16 million in Series B funding.

When the company raised its $5 million Series A last year, CEO Guy Tytunovich contrasted Cheq’s approach with what he called “first generation solutions for ad verification” — rather than identifying fraud and other issues after an ad has already run, he said Cheq is more proactive and can block ads from being served in real time.

I caught up with Tytunovich yesterday, and he told me that this approach remains one of Cheq’s strengths.

At the same time, he also acknowledged that “refunds, rebates and make goods” are allowing advertisers to achieve a kind of retroactive prevention. So he’s increasingly focused on Cheq’s accuracy.

Tytunovich suggested that rather than simply relying on keywords (an approach that might suggest that a relatively innocuous article like “LeBron James killed it last night” isn’t an appropriate place to serve an ad), Cheq is examining 1,200 different factors, “looking for anomalies or looking where the fraudster did some sloppy work.”

He added, “We investigate every single impression in JavaScript. We are extremely deterministic, to not cause this damage of false positives and false negatives.”

And Tytunovich said that despite the number of companies tackling the issue, fraud is still growing — he pointed to a recent report from Cheq estimating that fraud will cost advertisers $23 billion this year.

“You need to be smarter every day,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing in ad fraud, not just different types of sophisticated fraud — as the time goes by we see more and more of that organized crime type of ad fraud. Which is fascinating on the one hand, but also it’s kind of frightening if you really think about it.”

The new funding was led by Battery Ventures (which also led the Series A) and MizMaa Ventures. The latter is an Israeli firm that Tytunovich said already “helped tremendously” with things like introductions, even before making an investment.

Cheq is also moving into new areas like connected TV and console gaming.

Ultimately, Tytunovich said he wants the company to become the “immune system of the internet” — which doesn’t just mean detecting ad fraud, but also becoming “a solution to everything that sucks about digital advertising specifically, things like fake news and how advertising relates to that.”

November 20th 2019, 12:14 pm

With echoes of Theranos, Truvian Sciences revives the dream of low-cost, accessible blood tests

TechCrunch

A little over a year after the dissolution of the once high-flying blood testing startup Theranos, another startup has raised over $27 million to breathe new life into the vision of bringing low-cost blood tests to point-of-care medical facilities.

Unlike Theranos, Truvian Sciences is not claiming that most of its blood tests do not need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and is, in fact, raising the money to proceed with a year-long process to refine its technology and submit it to the FDA for approval.

“More and more consumers are refusing to accept the status quo of healthcare and are saying no to expensive tests, inconvenient appointments and little to no access to their own test results,” said Jeff Hawkins, the president and chief executive of Truvian, in a statement. “In parallel, retail pharmacies are rising to fill demand, becoming affordable health access points. By bringing accurate, on-site blood testing to convenient sites, we will give consumers a more seamless experience and enable them to act on the vast medical insights that come with regular blood tests.”

Hawkins, the former vice president and general manager of reproductive and genetic health business at Illumina, is joined by a seasoned executive team of life sciences professionals including Dr. Dena Marrinucci, the former co-founder of Epic Sciences, who serves as the company’s senior vice president of corporate development and is a co-founder of the company.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Mate Marschalko

As part of today’s announcement, the company said it was adding Katherine Atkinson, a former executive at Epic Sciences and Illumina, as its new chief commercial officer, and has brought on the former chairman of the Thermo Fisher Scientific board of directors, Paul Meister, as a new director.

Funding for the company came from GreatPoint Ventures and included DNS Capital,Tao Capital Partners and previous investor Domain Associates.

The ultimate goal, according to Hawkins, is to develop a system that can be installed in labs and can provide accurate results in 20 minutes for a battery of health tests from a small sample of blood for as low as $50. Typically, these tests can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars — depending on the testing facility, says Hawkins.

Using new automation and sensing technologies, Truvian is aiming to combine chemistries, immunoassays and hematology assays into a single device that can perform standard assessment blood tests like lipid panels, metabolic panels, blood cell counts, and tests of thyroid, kidney and liver functions.

The company’s system includes remote monitoring and serviceability, according to a statement from Truvian. Its dry reagent technology allows materials to be stored at room temperature, removing the need for cold chain or refrigerated storage. According to a statement, the company is working to receive a CE Mark in the European Economic Area and submitted to the FDA for 510(k) clearance along with a  “clinical laboratory improvement amendments” waiver application to let the devices be used in a retail setting or doctor’s office.

“We don’t believe that single drop of blood from a finger stick can do everything,” says Hawkins (in opposition to Theranos). “Fundamentally as a company we have built the company with seasoned healthcare leaders.”

As the company brings its testing technology to market, it’s also looking to compliment the diagnostics toolkit with a consumer-facing app that would provide a direct line of communication between the company and the patients receiving the results of its tests.

Truvian’s data will integrate with both Apple and Google’s health apps as well as reside on the company’s own consumer-facing app, according to Hawkins.

“At the end of the day precision medicine is going to come from integrating these data sources,” says Hawkins. “I think if we pull off what we want we should be able to make your routine blood testing far more accessible.”

November 20th 2019, 12:01 pm

Front announces Front Calendar to integrate scheduling with shared inboxes

TechCrunch

Front, the company that lets you manage your inboxes as a team, acquired Meetingbird last year. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Front is about to roll out its own calendar. This way, you can manage meetings within Front and find time that works for everyone.

Integrating emails with your calendar makes a lot of sense. There’s a reason why Outlook lets you manage both your inbox and your calendar. And there’s also a reason why Google includes both Gmail and Google Calendar in G Suite accounts.

Front Calendar works with both Google and Office 365 accounts as the backend infrastructure for your calendars. You can open up a day view by clicking on the calendar button in the top right corner.

As you can see in the following screenshot as well, you get a preview of your existing events when somebody sends you a calendar invitation.

A day view doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to plan further ahead, that’s why you can expand the calendar and get a full-fledge calendar in glorious full screen:

Finally, Front Calendar is bringing back Meetingbird’s core feature. You can insert a widget in your email with your available meetings times. Recipients can click to accept a time slot.

It looks like a good Google Calendar or Outlook alternative. But Front says that it wants to add a multiplayer component — beyond just inviting people to events. You could imagine opening an event and @-mentioning your teammates to reschedule an event. You could also imagine setting up sophisticated rules to automatically tag and organize events based on multiple criteria.

The first version of Front Calendar will be available in December.

November 20th 2019, 11:38 am

Ubiquiti announces new AmpliFi Alien router with Wi-Fi 6

TechCrunch

Ubiquiti, the company behind popular UniFi Wi-Fi access points and networking equipment, is releasing a new router for consumers — the AmpliFi Alien.

Today’s new device is an all-in-one networking device. It features a router (the “brain” of your local network), four Gigait Ethernet ports and Wi-Fi capabilities. And yes, it is a Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) device.

You can plug the AmpliFi Alien to your modem, put your modem in bridge mode and let it take care of your network at home. It should be a huge improvement compared to ISP-provided hardware.

When it comes to Wi-Fi performance, the AmpliFi Alien supports 8×8 MIMO Wi-Fi 6 (both 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and offers a separate 5GHz Wi-Fi 5 radio (802.11ac). There aren’t a ton of devices that support Wi-Fi 6 just yet. The iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10 support Wi-Fi 6, but not the brand new 16-inch MacBook Pro for instance.

But the AmpliFi Alien also works with older devices that run on previous Wi-Fi generations, so you don’t have to replace all your gadgets. You can also set up an isolated guest network if you don’t want your friends to be able to access your computers on your network. You can also use your AmpliFi devices as a VPN endpoint when you’re on the road.

The device itself is a cylinder-shaped tower with flat edges at the front of the back of the device. It looks a bit like the recently announced UniFi Dream Machine, but it’s less curvy and taller. There’s a color touch screen to get information about connection speeds and some LEDs at the base of the tower.

You can buy multiple AmpliFi Alien and create a mesh network around your house. A single AmpliFi Alien costs $379.

Compared to the UniFi Dream Machine, you can’t control the device with UniFi’s network management controller. This is a consumer device so you don’t get a ton of customizations on the software front — the AmpliFi Alien isn’t designed for enterprise clients. But Ubiquiti offers an AmpliFi mobile app to configure the DHCP server, port forwarding and Wi-Fi settings.

November 20th 2019, 11:25 am

Anyone can now create maps and stories on Google Earth

TechCrunch

Google Earth is making a significant change to its product, with the addition of content creation tools that allow anyone to create maps and stories for its platform. The feature is an expansion of the Voyager program, launched in 2017, which then introduced guided tours from top storytellers, scientists, and nonprofits, like BBC Earth, Jane Goodall, Sesame Street, and NASA.

Those tours combined text and imagery, including Street View and 360-degree videos, to immerse viewers in habitats around the world, where they could explore and learn.

The new content creation tools offer similar capabilities, including the ability to select from Street View photos and 3D views of the earth when telling your story. You can also add placemarks, lines, shapes, photos, and videos, and write the text in a rich text editor, create title screens for slides for fullscreen presentations, and more.

The resulting stories can be organized into narratives that will fly users from place to place as they watch the presentation. The tools also support collaboration and the final stories can be shared with others by way of a Google Drive integration. This could allow a group of educators, for example, to work together to build out tours that complemented their lesson plans.

Early adopters have used these creation tools to build maps that show a river under threat, an Antarctic expedition, or offer a 3D tour of Renaissance architecture in Italy, among other things. An educational nonprofit also used the feature to showcase the stops characters made in the Young Adult novel, Walk Two Moons.

There’s a clear use case here for education, as the tools let teachers to build stories to bring their lessons to life and give students a close-up look at the places they’re learning about. But some may choose to use the tools for things of a more personal nature, like travel inspiration or bucket list-making, for example.

When Google launched its Voyager platform in 2017, it also modernized Google Earth for modern web browsers, meaning it can now run as a web app in Google Chrome.

This all ties into Google’s larger push for Chromebooks in the classroom — an area where it also competes against Apple and Microsoft.

That battle is fairly heated, as well. Apple’s marketing SVP Phil Schiller even slammed Google’s Chromebooks this week says they’re “cheap” and won’t succeed. However, low-cost Chromebooks have been winning so far. According to estimates, 60% of all laptops and tablets purchased for U.S. K-12 classrooms were Chromebooks, and only 18% were Apple products, CNBC reported.

With Google Earth creation tools that tie into Google Drive, Google has added another competitive advantage for its own products. But whether teachers will actually adopt the tools at scale remains to be seen. Many professionally created tours are already available, after all, through Voyager. And while the creation is easy enough, it’s also time-consuming to find the right photos and videos, to add places and write text.

One concern is that by opening up creation tools to the crowd, Google Earth could be inviting spam and other inappropriate content to show up on a platform often used in classroom settings by children. Google says it has built automated detection systems, including machine learning models, that can help it find and remove policy-violating content, however.

It also enables users to flag any such content so it can conduct manual reviews review and take action. And the user attribution is prominently displayed on the content, so everyone can see the author information. Repeated violations could see the user banned from further content creation.

The creation tools are now available in the Google Earth web app, and the projects can be viewed on mobile and tablet devices using the Google Earth mobile app for iOS and Android, says Google.

November 20th 2019, 11:25 am

Vouch raises $45M led by YC Continuity for business insurance that targets startups

TechCrunch

“Move fast and break things” is a term we usually associate with Facebook (at least, until 2014) and the general startup ethos of being disruptive. Now in true entrepreneurial fashion, the phrase is finding itself as the center of — what else — a startup idea, which today is announcing a sizeable Series B as it gains traction.

Vouch, which offers business insurance specifically targeting startups, is today announcing a Series B of $45 million, led by Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund. The company was part of YC cohort that presented this past August, and between then and now it appears to have also raised a Series A of $24 million, with this Series B actually also closing back in September (I’m guessing the delay in timing was to coincide the news with the expansion of its service to California). PitchBook data indicates that Vouch’s valuation has also ramped up rapidly: it’s currently at $210 million. (Previous investors in the company include Ribbit Capital, SVB Financial Group, Y Combinator, Index Ventures, and 500 Startups, with the total raised to date now at $70 million.)

The company — not to be confused with the tutoring network Vouch, nor the ‘social network for loans’ Vouch — will be using the money that it will use to continue expanding its product and to bring the service to more geographies.

In addition to now launching in its newest region of California, today, it’s also live in Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. Today’s move is a key one, considering Silicon Valley is at the heart of the tech world, and therefore startups, and therefore fertile ground for acquiring new customers.

(It seems that although Vouch itself is based in San Francisco, it delayed a California launch in part to test out the product in smaller markets before hitting the big time: California, it notes, accounts for 50% of the whole business insurance market in the US, and California startups alone spend $44 billion annually on it.)

When Vouch launched at YC, founder Sam Hodges (who had been one of the original co-founders of Funding Circle, the business lending platform that went public in London) described the platform’s mission as a way of mitigating risks because sometimes “bad things happen to good startups.”

The company’s insurance covers all the tricky things that can befall young businesses in what is a very volatile market. (Common wisdom says that most fail, some have put the figure as high as 90%.)

That includes general liability (which includes damage to rented premises, personal or advertising injury, and related areas), business liability, management liability, fiduciary liability, cyber and crime coverage, rented and non-owned auto insurance and more. (Health or workers’ compensation are not included.) The products start at $200/year, which Vouch says undercuts most of what is already on the market. Munich Re backs the policies.

“Vouch helps founders manage the risks associated with starting up a new company, so they can focus on creating and growing businesses that change the world. We believe that’s a purpose worth pursuing,” said Hodges in a statement. “As an entrepreneur, I’ve spent most of my career building companies at the intersection of technology and financial services. I know first-hand that along the journey of building and growing a business, teams will face numerous high-stakes challenges. Vouch is here to support entrepreneurs and mitigate those challenges from the beginning, leaving more room for growth.”

Y Combinator has always had a soft spot for startups that built services for startups, and this is no exception. It makes perfect sense as a follow-on investment for Continuity, which has also backed Brex, Gusto, Instacart, LendUp, and Stripe. In this sense, it becomes a strategic investor, not unlike Silicon Valley Bank (which tells startups that do business with it that Vouch is its preferred insurance provider).

“Y Combinator and Vouch share a common goal – giving founders the support they need to build successful, innovative companies,” said Anu Hariharan, Partner at Y Combinator Continuity, in a statement. “Vouch is built specifically for startups, so founders have the peace of mind that their business is covered. This platform is fundamental to the startup community, as it enables founders to focus on growing their companies — which is why we were bullish on leading the Series B.”

November 20th 2019, 10:55 am

WHILL brings its autonomous wheelchairs to North American airports

TechCrunch

After trials in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, Tokyo’s Haneda airport, and Abu Dhabi airport earlier this year, WHILL, the developer of autonomous wheelchairs, is bringing its robotic mobility tech to North America.

At airports in Dallas and Winnipeg, travelers with mobility limitations booked a Whill through Scootaround and test out the company’s products.

Using sensing technologies and automatic brakes, Whill’s wheelchairs detect and avoid obstacles in busy airports, allowing customers to get to their gate faster.

Based in Yokohama, Japan, Whill has raised roughly $80 million for its technology to bring autonomy to personal mobility.

“When traveling, checking in, getting through security and to the gate on time is critical to avoid the hassle and frustration of missing a flight,” said Satoshi Sugie, the founder and chief executive of WHILL, in a statement. “Travelers with reduced mobility usually have to wait longer times for an employee to bring them a wheelchair and be pushed to their gate, reducing their flexibility while traveling. We are now providing an opportunity for travelers with reduced mobility to have a sense of independence as they move about the airport and get from point A to point B as smoothly as possible.”

The company is one of a growing number of startups and established technology companies tackling the massive market of assistive technologies.

The entire population of people with disabilities globally stands at 1 billion and there are 70 million potential customers for assistive technology products across Europe. If demand in human terms isn’t enough to sway would-be entrepreneurs, then perhaps a recent market report indicating that spending on assistive technologies for the elderly and people with disabilities is projected to reach over $26 billion by 2024 will do the trick.

“Accessibility is a priority for Winnipeg Richardson International Airport and travel is now easier for passengers with limited mobility thanks to our partnership with WHILL. We are excited to be one of the first airports in North America to trial WHILL’s autonomous personal mobility devices with our travelers.”

November 20th 2019, 10:09 am

Inhabitr raises $4 million to let you rent furniture

TechCrunch

Inhabitr, a Chicago-based furniture rental platform, has today announced the close of a $4 million in Series A funding, led by Great North Labs.

Inhabitr launched in 2016 after the cofounders, who have gone through dozens of moves between the two of them, decided that purchasing, moving and maintaining furniture is one of the biggest pain points of the whole process.

Inhabitr tries to solve that by letting users rent furniture on the platform at a much more affordable cost than buying, never having to worry about the associated costs of moving that furniture should they relocate.

The company works directly with manufacturers to source products, and partners with local furniture stores and their employees to handle delivery and white glove installation.

Customers can choose from pre-packaged rooms to go, which have been curated by in-house designers, or build their own room by renting a la carte. Living room packages range from $70/month to $130/month, while individual pieces of furniture, like a sofa, are priced anywhere between $30/month to as high as $150/month for some high-end pieces. If at any time a user wants to change things up, Inhabitr charges a $99 swap fee to swap old furniture out with new.

The Chicago-based company already serves 10 cities in the U.S. and has put furniture in more than 2000 homes.

The hope is that Inhabitr can better serve the end customer by tying together these three existing frameworks — designers, furniture manufacturers, and retail stores.

Cofounder Ankur Agrawal believes that one of the biggest challenges for the company is scaling operations in a logistics-heavy industry, and perfecting the training playbook for the retail employees interfacing with the end customer.

“Another big challenge is capital,” said Agrawal. “Furniture as a category is an operations-heavy category and there is little understanding around the industry. Investors think of this as a non-sexy category and are looking for an obsolete business that software can come and disrupt. But the next feat of iteration will come from brick and mortar innovation.”

November 20th 2019, 10:09 am

Spotify’s free music service will now stream on Alexa devices, plus Bose and Sonos smart speakers

TechCrunch

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes as Spotify says its free tier will now stream across Alexa-powered devices, as well as other smart speakers from Sonos and Bose. The Alexa support will be available for users in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

In the case of Alexa devices, like Amazon Echo speakers or the Fire TV, users will be able to ask Alexa to play Spotify’s playlist, like “Today’s Top Hits,” or their personalized playlist, “Discover Weekly,” among others. The service can also be set as the default, so you can use commands like “Play my Discover Weekly,” “Like this song,” or “Pause,” and more, without having to say “on Spotify.”

Meanwhile, on Sonos and Bose speakers, users can set up Spotify Connect from the Spotify app. This works with Bose smart speakers and soundbars, as well as all Sonos smart speakers, including the new indoor/outdoor speaker Sonos Move and the Symfonisk IKEA WiFi Speaker, integrated with the Sonos Home Sound System.

To use Spotify Connect, you’ll tap the “Devices” icon on the screen to select which speaker you want to use. This will also require the Bose and Sonos devices are updated to the latest firmware, the company says.

The expanded support for smart speakers comes only a day after Amazon directly challenged Spotify with a major move of its own. On Tuesday, Amazon announced its own music service would become free across devices, including the web, Fire TV, iOS, and Android. Before, the free, ad-supported music service was only available on Echo devices. While the services is a rival of sorts to other free services, like Spotify and Pandora, it has a more limited catalog of just 2 million tracks. That makes it better for those who only casually listen to music stations and curated playlists.

Spotify’s stock dropped almost 5% on Tuesday after Amazon’s announcement, however.

By now making Spotify’s free tier more accessible, it’s likely that many people will choose Spotify’s free streaming over Amazon’s free streaming, given the larger catalog of over 50 million songs. In addition, Spotify is best known for its personalization capabilities that help introduce users to new music based on their likes and listening history, which continues to be a major draw.

However, Amazon is only one of many challengers Spotify faces these days, with Apple Music, YouTube Music and regional players in big markets like India and China, also vying for users.

In addition, TikTok owner ByteDance is said to be preparing to move into music streaming, aiming for markets like India, Indonesia, and Brazil. That’s a huge threat not only because of the markets it’s targeting but because you can now draw a direct line between TikTlk top tracks and No. 1 tracks and hits on Spotify, which gives it a competitive advantage.

 

November 20th 2019, 10:09 am

Sharding, scalability, decentralization – You name it, we’ve got it on the EC stage in Berlin

TechCrunch

Sharding and scalability. Transactions per second.  Crypto-ecosystems. The decentralized web. These are the voyages of the Starship Blockchain, on it’s 5-year mission to seek out… Ok, you get the drift! But as you can tell, there remain many, many issues to tease out of this burgeoning new tech world, one we will be unpacking at Techcrunch Disrupt Berlin this December.

There are still a lot of issues to deal with. The current version of Ethereum can only handle a dozen transactions per second. “Sharding” or spreading the load via partitioning should lead to a drastic increase in performance, but the question is how to do it? Ethereum 2.0 still remains a moving target. There is even a growing “Ethereum killer” community. And while all this goes on, high-minded organizations like the Web3 Foundation are trying to foster the development of a user-friendly crypto-ecosystem and decentralized web.

Who on earth would take all this on? TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin of course, and in particular our Extra Crunch stage.

Since we launched Extra Crunch, our premium content service for those readers who like to hold TechCrunch close and cuddle it at night, we’ve been running a premium EC stage at our TechCrunch Disrupt conferences, and this will be no less true in Berlin.

Given Berlin is a hotbed of blockchain startups and development, it would be utterly remiss of us not to cover this subject, but the Extra Crunch stage gives us some extra (oh yeah!) bandwidth to do deep-dives for attendees to get under this skin of this rapidly expanding aspect of the tech industry.

We’re excited to be joined by three amazing speakers to pore over the latest development in the blockchain world.

Justin Drake (Ethereum)
Justin studied mathematics at Cambridge University. He was a Bitcoin entrepreneur from 2014 to 2017 and is now an Ethereum 2.0 researcher.

Justin is going to cover off where Ethereum 2.0 is at right now as someone who has been working on sharding and scalability and supporting the Ethereum ecosystem to enable these new use cases.

With the current version of Ethereum only able to handle a dozen transactions per second, sharding will be crucial, but Ethereum 2.0 is a moving target and remains a large-scale experiment of distributed development.

If the community gets it right, Ethereum 2.0 could transform the Ethereum blockchain into a sort of “world computer” that can execute instructions across a network of servers all around the world. On the EC stage Justin will also be talking about building a blockchain startup on the Extra Crunch Stage with other blockchain experts. If anyone know, he knows how important it is to build a community of developers and researchers around your blockchain project.

Ash Eagan (Accomplice VC)
A World Economic Forum Global Shaper and advisor at ConsenSys’ Tachyon Accelerator, Ash Eagan has backed a number of headline companies in the space including Bison Trails, Coda, CoinList, Dapper Labs, Near, Simplex, and Torus. Before Accomplice, he co-launched ConsenSys’ venture arm and started his career at Converge VC in Boston.

Egan has previously highlighted the ongoing innovations within the “Ethereum killer” community and how it “expands the sandbox” but he also believes that for mass adoption of crypto on social networks to take off, users will need to be monetized via advertisements and referrals.

Ashley Tyson (Web3 Foundation)
Ashley Tyson is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at Web3 Foundation. She spends her time aligning diverse teams working on decentralized systems and supporting blockchain ecosystem initiatives like Ethereum Community Fund and ETHPrize.

Prior to Web3 Foundation, Ashley co-founded DEFCAD, a censorship-resistant search engine for 3D printable files. She deeply understands the need for a decentralized web, beginning her career in NYC at one of the first social media-focused agencies, where she helped multinational corporations build Web 2.0 strategies around consumer data acquisition for use in marketing initiatives.

Disrupt Berlin runs December 11 and December 12. Tickets are available here!

November 20th 2019, 9:25 am

Email app Spark receives update with new design

TechCrunch

Spark, the popular email app from Readdle, has been redesigned on iOS and Android. The interface has always been a bit busy in the mobile app. That’s why the updated app now features a cleaner design and a handful of new features.

On the design front, Spark now uses simple headers to separate smart sections, such as newsletters, notifications and personal emails. It looks better than the rounded boxes with a colorful background.

There’s a lot of whitespace now, but the company has also taken advantage of this update to add dark mode. When you tap on a thread, the thread view has been updated as well.

When it comes to new features, the app tries to autopopulate your inbox with profile pictures. Just like Vignette, it pulls images from popular web services. For instance, if somebody who emails you has a Twitter account under the same email address, Spark can add the Twitter profile picture to your inbox.

Everybody has their own way of dealing with their email inbox. That’s why Spark lets you choose the buttons that appear at the bottom of an email thread. For instance, if you use folders a lot, you can put a folder button. But if you want to replace that button with a snooze button, you can.

Spark is now a better citizen on iPadOS 13. You can open multiple instances of Spark. This way, you can work on a document with an email thread using Split View and you can open a second Spark window to check your inbox in a separate workspace. Spark on iPadOS also supports the floating keyboard and new iPadOS gestures.

November 20th 2019, 9:25 am

Tuesday Company acquires VoteWithMe as tech for politics looks to consolidate ahead of 2020

TechCrunch

Tuesday Company, the organizational toolkit for political advocacy groups and candidates, has taken another step to consolidate its position in the growing market for tech-enabled political outreach with the acquisition of the voting mobilization service VoteWithMe.

Launched in the wake of the 2016 election by three former staffers from Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency, Tuesday is one of the higher profile alumni from the progressive-focused technology accelerator, Higher Ground Labs.

Michael Luciani, Jordan Birnholtz, and Shola Farber, the co-founders of Tuesday Company, met working on mobilization and outreach for the Clinton campaign in 2016. Although Clinton lost, the work that the trio had done to encourage staffers and volunteers to send personalized outreach messages to their social network increased outreach in Michigan and other battleground states.

Now, coupled with VoteWithMe’s technology to encourage people to get to the polls on election day, the company believes it has a more complete platform to organize and mobilize for election day.

While Tuesday’s users were political campaigns, advocacy groups, and their professional staffers, VoteWithMe was a free-to-use app that went directly to voters to encourage them to get friends to voting booths. The company had over 250,000 downloads at the time of its acquisition.

“The opportunity to bring the B2B and B2C aspects together was really really really important,” says Farber, the Tuesday Co. chief operating officer.

“We did a really great job building for organizations and for staff and organizers because our team is so strongly rooted in the organizing practice… and, VoteWithMe, they did a great job of building that consumer experience and our goal is to blend the expertise there,” according to Birnholtz, the company’s chief product officer.

The size of the acquisition was not disclosed, but the all-cash transaction means that Tuesday Company now owns the VoteWithMe tech and the team developing the VoteWithMe product will continue to have a consulting relationship with Tuesday Company.

While national politics dominates the news, advocacy groups of all stripes are seeing the benefits in applying the same tools that well-funded political campaigns brought to bear on the electorate to promote particular issues.

Non-profits represent at least $13 billion of annual business, according to Farber, and Tuesday Company believes its services can provide value to all of them.

“The… political campaign world is really hard to build an innovative, sustainable business in, because it’s relatively small. Folks that don’t figure out how to become broadly relevant won’t survive,” says Birnholtz.

In the wake of the acquisition, investors can expect to see Tuesday Company out on the fundraising trail. The company is backed by Higher Ground Labs and individual investors like Chris Sacca and Reed Hoffman.

While Hoffman’s forays into the intersection of tech and politics have not always been without scandal, he has emerged as one of the most prolific backers of companies looking to apply technology to the political sphere.

 

November 20th 2019, 9:25 am

Brava, a smart oven maker with big names attached, just sold to an industrial equipment company

TechCrunch

Brava had a lot of things working in its favor as startups go. It was founded in 2015 by serial executive John Pleasants, whose past stints have included as co-president of Disney Interactive Media Group, COO of Electronic Arts, and CEO of Ticketmaster.

His plans to create a suite of snazzy direct-to-consumer line of smart hardware and software products, beginning with the Brava oven, also attracted tens of millions of dollars from an impressive line-up of backers, including True Ventures, TPG Growth, and Lightspeed Venture Partners, among others. Indeed, though some sophisticated kitchen devices have come and gone (Juicero), some liked what Pleasants and his growing team in Redwood City, Ca., were trying to cook up, and one of these admirers, apparently, was the Middleby Corporation, a publicly traded commercial and residential cooking and industrial process equipment company in Illinois that just acquired Brava — though neither Brava nor Middleby is disclosing terms of the deal.

We were in touch via email yesterday with both Pleasants and the CEO of Middleby, Tim FitzGerald, to learn what they can share about the tie-up, as well as to ask what happens to Brava and its tens of employees now.

TC: This was a young company. Why turn around and sell it?

JP: The company itself is four years-old and we’ve had product available in market for one year. We’ve been venture funded to date and had the option to continue raising growth capital or merge with Middleby Corporation. Brava’s mission has always been to enable everyone to cook delicious, healthy home-cooked food with minimal time and effort, and we believe the fastest way to achieve this bold goal is through a strategic partnership with someone who can help make that happen.

TC: How did Brava and Middleby come together? Who brokered the first conversation? Was Brava talking with anyone else?

JP: We’ve been in talks with many people about financing, and a select group of strategics about a deeper partnership to achieve our objective. We had the assistance of City Capital in the process, and they made the introduction to Middleby in Chicago.

TC: How much is Middleby paying for the company? Also, is this an all-cash deal?

JP: While not disclosing the total amount, the consideration includes a mix of cash and stock

TC: So what’s next? Will Middleby retain the Brava name or will this be phased out over time?

JP: Brava as it’s known today will not only continue but see accelerated growth and expansion. We will continue to sell the product and support our customers under the Brava brand while further innovating new products and services for our customers.

TF: The Brava name will remain. The product and technology will enhance our existing residential and commercial kitchen appliance portfolio. In Middleby Residential, we manufacture and sell Viking Range and other well-known consumer brands.

TC:  How many people does Brava currently employ and how many if any are going to Middleby?

JP: Brava employs 38 people and all will be going to Middleby. I will remain as the CEO of Brava and will also work with other Middleby divisional leaders to leverage Brava’s light cooking platform and services for their existing brands. We’re excited by this because we currently have many ideas and plans for leveraging the Brava technology across new form factors, business segments (residential and commercial) and geographies. This all becomes more feasible with Middleby.

TC: We last talked before the Brava oven was out in the world. How many units did you wind up selling? 

JP: We’re closing in on 5,000 customers and expect to have a big holiday.

TC: What were some of the lessons learned with this experience?

JP: People love it. You can see this every day throughout our online communities. It’s not just about the quality of food and the ease in creating it . . . we hear comments all the time about how spouses who hardly ever cooked now do, how kids who never liked vegetables now ask for more . . .

In terms of what people want that doesn’t currently exist, [I’d say] more recipes and programs (we have thousands, but there are so many more we can do) and more flexibility; we can uniquely cook multiple ingredients simultaneously to perfection with our light-cooking technology and this enables lots of fun combinations [but] our customers would like even more flexibility in mixing and matching ingredients.

TC: Any business lessons?

JP: In terms of business lessons, it’s challenging to explain Brava’s full value proposition in a quick ad on social media. We have revolutionary technology that enables a new way of cooking that’s better, easier, faster — and that sounds almost too good to be true.

TC: Do you think the market for smart cooking appliance is big enough at this point? What do you think are the remaining hurdles and how do consumers get past them?

JP: The “smart cooking appliance” market is in its infancy. There are still very few pioneers in the space and household penetration is negligible. But this is all about to change. Once people know someone who can personally attest to the benefits, I fundamentally believe the adoption curve will bend exponentially.  People spend a lot of money on household appliances…once they can be “smart” and “chef powered” and deliver well against that promise, why would most people not want a “smart” one versus a “non-smart” one?

TF: We see this market growing significantly with the next generation [of home cooks] who currently rely on and demand a digital experience.

November 20th 2019, 9:25 am

Gravitational nabs $25M Series A to ease cloud deployment with Kubernetes

TechCrunch

As we move into an increasingly multi-cloud world, there is a portability problem moving applications between clouds. Gravitational wants to fix that, and today it announced a $25 million Series A.

The round was led by Kleiner Perkins with help from S28 Capital and Y Combinator. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $31 million, according to the company.

Ev Kontsevoy, Gravitational co-founder and CEO, says his company is solving a couple of big problems around cloud portability. “There are just differences between all these different cloud providers because applications have dependencies. The application might depend on the cloud provider’s capabilities, and they use all this different middleware software that the cloud providers are bundling today with the infrastructure,” Kontsevoy explained. Those dependencies make it difficult to move an application to another cloud without additional coding.

He says that the other problem is related to on-going management of an application after you deploy it in the cloud, and that requires a large operations team. The problem with that is that there is a shortage of talent to fill these positions.

To solve these problems, Gravitational looked to Kubernetes . The company believes customers should build software using Kubernetes, open source software and standards, and instead of building in the cloud dependencies up front, make their programs completely vanilla.

“Start with your application and don’t worry about clouds at all, don’t even have a cloud account in the beginning. Make sure your application runs on top of Kubernetes, package all of your software dependencies into Kubernetes, use open source software and open standards as much as you possibly can,” he explained.

He says that Kubernetes gives you the ability to build software with very little administration, and then you can use Gravitational’s Gravity tool to package that solution into a single file, which you can then deploy on any cloud, private data center or even make available as download like you could with software back in the 1990s.

He sees organizations moving to container-driven software using Kubernetes, and as they do this, he believes they can break this dependency on the individual cloud providers using his company’s tools.

It’s certainly compelling if it works as described. Gravitational has 20 employees and around 100 paying customers. The company offers a couple of tools, Gravity and Gravitational Teleport as open source. It was a member of the Y Combinator 2015 cohort.

November 20th 2019, 9:25 am

Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

TechCrunch

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and robotics.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers, to determine the problems their trying to solve, their sources of input data, and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental Tires, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

She converted Samasource to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on Samasource’s $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with the company. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder believes that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grown,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased employees in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150 percent in 2020, its CEO said.

November 20th 2019, 8:55 am

Invasive scheme spotted that foxes tracker blockers

TechCrunch

Online privacy is facing a new challenge: A first-party tracker that appears to be unblockable with standard privacy tools such as adblockers.

The tracker in question was spotted being deployed by French national newspaper, Liberation, which in October promised subscribers an entirely tracker-free experience.

That promise garnered it a bunch of attention from privacy experts who dug around and found a first-party tracker embedded on its site which uses a subdomain (that’s mostly random) in order to redirect to a third party — thereby making it difficult to block (i.e. without also blocking Liberation’s own domain).

“To participate in this rather invasive scheme, a website operator need to make a decision to delegate the domain name alias,” explains Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and advisor, and research associate Center for Technology and Global Affairs Oxford University.

“It’s a setting where the website the user visits delegates a domain name alias to a third-party script provider. So when the user visits example.com, the alias for the content might be Y.example.com, which in reality points to a site third-party.example.org, a third-party server.

“This setting can effectively bypass third-party trackers and adblockers, especially if the domain name part contains unpredictable strings. This is because the user is visiting a website where a tracker could work in context of the first party, the visited website.”

On Liberation’s site the tracker points to the domain of a French “marketing optimization” provider called Eulerian — which sells data-driven analytics to websites. Though Liberation claims its subscribers aren’t being tracked via this method for ad targeting purposes — but only so it can gather site analytics. (Non-subscribers will be tracked for ad targeting, however.)

The newspaper’s own fact check team have reported at length on the controversy here — covering both privacy and security implications of its use of the first-party tracker scheme, and noting that privacy researchers are working on methods to defeat the technique. 

Zooming out, while the unblockable (or at least tricky to block) tracking scheme does not appear to be being used very widely as yet, there’s a chance such a technique could be taken up more widely if sites look to replace third party tracking cookies with alternatives.

This is because web browsers have been taking an increasingly proactive approach to squeezing the operation range of tracking technologies. Mozilla recently switched on third-party cookie tracker blocking by default, for example. While, this summer, WebKit announced a new tracking prevention policy that put privacy on a par with security. Google has also announced changes to how its Chrome browser handles cookies.

“Exact prevalence is unknown but it is fair to say thousands of sites subscribe to this particular scheme from the provider now under discussion, among them some very popular sites,” says Olejnik. “The technical possibility of such as scheme is not entirely new, in fact I did see it in use in 2014. There may have been less motivation to use it until now, though.”

“Focusing on forward-outlook is sometimes useful, isn’t it?” he adds.

Asked about practical ways such tracking might be defeated, Olejnik suggests tracker blockers would need to devise a “custom mode of checks to detect these specific schemes” — as they work on “slightly different principles than other ways of including third-party content”.

Perhaps more effective at skewering such tricky schemes might be a recent ruling by Europe’s top court which clarified that user consent must be obtained prior to storing or accessing non-essential cookies, and cannot be implied or assumed.

November 20th 2019, 8:55 am

Remrise raises $8.2M to deliver tailored, plant-based sleep solutions

TechCrunch

Sleep is big business. Casper, Leesa and a dozen other mattress companies have driven the point home in recent years. It’s something we all want, but none of us are getting enough of. In 2017, sleep aids generated $69.5 billion, globally. By 2023, that number is expected to blow past $101 billion.

Remrise is the latest startup in search of the Holy Grail of a better night’s sleep. The company’s already raised $8.2 million in seed funding led by Founders Fund to kickstart that effort. Fostered by Atomic, the same incubator that gave the world Hims/Hers, the startup delivers herbal sleep solutions, tailored to the user.

The goal of the service is to move users off medicated sleep aids, using a combination of traditional herbal supplements and improvements to sleep hygiene. “We’re creating an app that is tracking and analyzing data,” CEO and founder Veronica Lee tells TechCrunch. “So we’re going to connect to any existing trackers to understand your bedtime, wake time, REM cycles. We’re collecting that passive data, and we’re also working with the customer around collecting active data around choices. The goal is to help the consumer improve sleep hygiene over time.”

The company has already launched a pilot with 90 users and plans to expand it to a larger study of about 400 people, using both sleep trackers (like Fitbits or Apple Watches) and sleep clinics. In the meantime, however, it’s already launching for the public.

There’s a 14-point questionnaire on Remrise’s site aimed at getting users started. I filled it out and the startup suggested the “Rested Up” mix, featuring Spirit Poria (Fu Shen), Salvia Root (Dan Shen), Polygala (Yuan Zhi), Shi Chang Pu, GABA, Magnesium and Valerian Root. Results will vary.

“Each formation has about a dozen to 15 different ingredients. We’re tailoring it to the individual. When people go through the quiz, we’re basing the patterns off of traditional Chinese medicine patterns. Each profile type goes through four different patterns that rotate on a daily basis.”

The company is offering a “free trial” for a week, which requires the user to pay shipping. Those interested in the full service deal will be charged $55 a month.

November 20th 2019, 8:26 am

Starburst raises $22M to modernize data analytics with Presto

TechCrunch

Starburst, the company that’s looking to monetize the open-source Presto distributed query engine, today announced that it has raised a $22 million funding round led by Index Ventures, with the firm’s partner Mike Volpi joining the board. The general idea behind Presto is to allow anybody to use the standard SQL query language to run interactive queries against a vast amount of data that can sit in a variety of sources.

Like so many other open-source companies, Starburst plans to monetize Presto, which was originally developed at Facebook and open-sourced in 2013, by adding a number of enterprise-centric features on top, with the obvious focus being security features like role-based access control, as well as connectors to enterprise systems like Teradata, Snowflake and DB2, and a management console where users can configure the cluster to auto-scale, for example.

The Starburst co-founders, Justin Borgman and Matt Fuller previously sold their “SQL-on-Hadoop” company Hadapt to Teradata. After their tenure at Teradata, they decided to focus on turning Presto into an enterprise-grade service and after a few years, they succeeded in hiring Preso founders Brian Sundstrom, Martin Traverso and Dave Philips, as well.

“What makes Presto so interesting is that it allows you to do data warehouse analytics without the data warehouse,” Starburst CEO Borgman told me. “What I mean by that is that you can query data anywhere. You don’t have to load the data, you don’t have to transform the data, and you don’t have to prepare the data.”

With this, an analyst can then access data anywhere, using regular SQL queries, without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure that makes it all work.

Starburst CEO Justin Borgman

Starburst’s overall mission to unify all of these data sources may sound a bit familiar, and I’ve heard somewhat similar pitches from other companies as well, including the likes of Databricks. Borgman, however, argues, that Starburst’s target audience is quite different from that of other projects, which tend to sit on top of the Spark engine. “We see Spark as very complementary to Presto,” he said. “What I mean by that is, we really think that Spark is best for the data scientist who is training machine learning models and working with Python notebooks, and writing code in Scala. Sort of the AI use cases. We’re focused exclusively on SQL — and SQL is a language that caters to a much broader audience. Maybe it’s not the data scientist PhD, but it’s the business analyst, the guy who went to business school and is trying to create some charts to show what’s going on with sales.”

The company says it will use the new funding to build out its salesforce and marketing team, which it doesn’t really have right now, and expand its engineering team. Like similar open-source companies, chances are Starburst will, sooner or later, offer Presto as a managed service, too, though Borgman wasn’t quite ready to talk about this yet.

“Index has a long history of backing open source companies and data infrastructure companies. Some of these have now become household name:  MySQL, Elastic, Confluent, Datadog and Kong to name a few,” Index Venture’s Volpi writes in a bog post today. That already made Starburst a good fit for a potential investment, though he also notes that bringing the Presto founders on board helped seal the deal and something he helped engineer.

“Our great fortune was that Justin and Matt are immensely wise and able to put aside ego’s and short term personal gain,” writes Volpi. “We were excited when they came to terms with Dain, Martin, and Dave. The end result was a reborn Starburst — a company constituted of the entrepreneurs that seized the commercial opportunity of Presto and the genius founders who invented it in the first place.”

November 20th 2019, 8:26 am

Submit a guest post to Extra Crunch

TechCrunch

We’re ramping up the number of guest posts we publish on Extra Crunch so we can expand our coverage of fundraising, growth, hiring and emerging technology trends. This change is a direct response to our readers; many subscribers have been requesting additional how-to articles, and we hear you.

We also want to help recurring columnists improve their writing so they can reach more people on an ongoing basis. To this end, we’re offering additional editing support, publishing at least one-third of their columns on TechCrunch in front of the paywall and giving them extra consideration for stage time at Disrupt and other conferences. Going forward, the main way for contributors to publish on TechCrunch will be to also publish on Extra Crunch.

To submit a guest post or query, or if you have questions, email guestcolumns@techcrunch.com.

We’re still happy to run one-off columns on Extra Crunch if they are compelling to startup founders. And, we will still run one-off guest columns every so often on TechCrunch (in front of the paywall), but these are intended to be of a clear public-interest nature. While we’ve experimented with a wide range of approaches to columns over the years, the core value we provide is from our own work.

Why submit a guest post?

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If you have experience that might help someone else in your situation, consider turning it into a guest post — it’s good to share what you know, and it’s a solid way to establish yourself as a thought leader.

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November 20th 2019, 8:26 am

Vayyar nabs $109M for its “4D” radar tech, which detects and tracks images while preserving privacy

TechCrunch

The future of the connected home, connected car, and connected everything will have a lot of imaging technology at the center of it: sensors to track the movement of people and things will be a critical way for AI brains to figure out what to do next. Now, with a large swing towards more data protection — in part a reaction to the realization of just how much information about us is being picked up — we’re starting to see some interesting solutions emerge that can still provide that imaging piece, but with privacy in mind. Today one of the startups building such solutions is announcing a big round of funding.

Vayyar, an Israeli startup that builds radar-imaging chips and sensors as well as the software that reads and interprets the resulting images which is used in automotive and IoT applications (among others) — providing accurate information about what is going on a specific place, even if it’s behind a wall or another object, but without the kind of granular detail that would actually be able to personally identify someone — has picked up $109 million, money that it will use to expand the range of applications that it can cover and to double down on key markets like the US and China.

From what I understand from sources close to the deal, this round is being done at a valuation “north” of $600 million, which is a big step up on the company’s valuation in its C-round in 2017, which was at around $245 million post-money, according to PitchBook data.

Part of the reason for the big multiple is because the company already has a number of big customers on its books, including the giant automotive supplier Valeo and what Raviv Melamed — Vayyar’s co-founder, CEO and chairman — described to me as a “major Silicon Valley company” working on using Vayyar’s technology in its smart home business.

I was going to write that the funding is notable for the large size, but it feels these days that $100 million is the new $50 million (which is to say, it’s becoming a lot more common to raise so much). What’s perhaps more notable is the source of the funding. The Series D is being led by Koch Disruptive Technologies, with Regal Four and existing investors including Battery Ventures, Bessemer Ventures, ICV, ITI, WRVI Capital, Claltech all also participating. The total raised by the startup now stands at $188 million.

Koch Disruptive Technologies is the venture arm of Koch Industries, the multinational giant that works across a range of oil and gas, manufacturing, ranching and other industries. It’s founded by the Koch brothers, Charles and the late David, who are mostly known in popular culture for their strong support of right-wing politicians, businesses and causes. It’s an image that hasn’t really helped the VC arm and its partners seem to be trying to downplay it these days.

Putting that to one side, the Vayyar investment has a lot of potential applicability across the many industries where Koch has holdings.

“Advancements in imaging sensors are vital as technology continues to disrupt all aspects of society,” said Chase Koch, president of Koch Disruptive Technologies. “We see incredible potential in combining Vayyar’s innovative technology and principled leadership team with Koch’s global reach and capabilities to create breakthroughs in a wide range of industries.”

Over the last several years, the startup has indeed been working on a number of ways of applying its technology on behalf of clients, who in turn develop ways of productising it. There are a few exceptions where Vayyar itself has built ways of using its tech in direct consumer products: for example, the Walabot, a hand-held sensor that works in conjunction with a normal smartphone to give people the ability to, say, detect if a pipe is leaking behind a wall.

But for the most part, Melamed says that its focus has been on building technology for others to use. These have, for example, included in-car imaging sensors that can detect who is sitting where and what is going on inside the vehicle, useful for example for making sure that no one is dangerously blocking an airbag, or accidentally setting off a seatbelt alarm when not actually in a seat, or (in the case of a sleeping baby) being left behind on accident creating potentially dire outcomes.

Regulations will make having better safety detection a must over time, Melamed noted, and more immediately, “By 2022-2023 it will be a must for all new cars to be able to detect [the presence of babies getting left behind when you leave the car] if you want to have a five-star safety rating.”

The focus (no pun intended) on privacy is a somewhat secondary side-effect of what Vayyar has built to date, but that same swing of regulation is likely to continue to put it into the fore, and make it as much of a feature as the imaging detection itself.

Vayyar is not the only company using radar to build up better imaging intelligence: Entropix, Photonic Vision, Noitom Technology and Aquifi and ADI are among the many companies also building imaging solutions based on the same kind of technology. Melamed says that this is where the company’s software and algorithms help it to stand out.

“I think when you look at what we have developed for example for cars, these guys are far behind and it will take some time to close the gap,” he added.

 

November 20th 2019, 7:25 am

Bunch, the Discord for mobile games, raises $3.85M from Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games

TechCrunch

Growing up, Selcuk Atli spent a good deal of his free time playing video games with his friends. And when I say with his friends, I mean actually with them. They’re called LAN parties, where everyone brings over their consoles and the group gets to play together virtually and in real life, all at the same time.

Atli, a grown man now, still loves games, but misses the memories made during LAN parties.

That’s how Bunch was born.

Bunch is a lot like Discord, but for mobile games. Users who download the game can connect with friends and join an audio or video chat with them. From there, users can choose a game to load and the whole party is instantly taken not just to the game, but into a multiplayer game session with their friends.

Today, Bunch has announced the close of a strategic investment round of $3.85 million from top game makers including Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games, Miniclip, and Colopl Next. Bunch’s previous investors include London Venture Partners, Founders Fund, Betaworks, Shrug Capital, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, and 500 Startups.

Bunch has a handful of first-party games on its platform to ensure that new users have a starting off point. However, one of the biggest challenges of scaling is creating relationships with third-party game makers to eventually integrate that deep linking technology into the Bunch app.

With this new money, Bunch finds itself under the arm of a handful of some of the biggest mobile game publishers in the world. This new funding also brings Bunch’s total financing since launch to $8.5 million.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a company try to bring the nostalgia of 90s gaming into the 21st Century. Discord has made quite a name for itself in the gaming world with a platform that allows gamers to communicate before, during and after a game.

However, Discord is more targeted at PC gamers, and is meant to give users the chance to meet and communicate with other gamers, rather than just hopping on a call with existing friends.

TeaTime Live, founded by QuizUp founder Thor Friedricksein, is another competitor focused squarely on mobile. However, TeaTime Live is going hard into Snapchat-like filters and avatars for video chat. And, like Discord, TTL wants users to meet other gamers, not connect with their IRL friends.

Bunch is primarily focused on connecting gamers with their actual friends. Once you’ve both loaded into a game, Bunch keeps running in the background to power voice chat. By focusing on real friends, Atli believes that the impact of Bunch can be much greater for both users and the games themselves.

In fact, Atli says that user retention on a specific game grows 1.3 times with every new friend added on the platform. Indeed, between Day 7 and Day 30, Bunch Cohorts’ retention rates are 2x the retention of normal players, according to the Bunch CEO.

For now, Bunch is focused entirely on user acquisition and scaling to more games, but could see an opportunity to generate revenue through a subscription or in-app purchase model around premium Bunch features.

November 20th 2019, 7:07 am

San Diego-based Founders First Capital Partners gets $100 million for revenue-based fund

TechCrunch

Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.

The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.

The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.

Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.

At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.

The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.

The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.

It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.

“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.

Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.

Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.

But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.

“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth.  We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”

November 20th 2019, 7:07 am

Google makes converting VMs to containers easier with the GA of Migrate for Anthos

TechCrunch

At its Cloud Next event in London, Google today announced a number of product updates around its managed Anthos platform, as well as Apigee and its Cloud Code tools for building modern applications that can then be deployed to Google Cloud or any Kubernetes cluster.

Anthos is one of the most important recent launches for Google, as it expands the company’s reach outside of Google Cloud and into its customers’ data centers and, increasingly, edge deployments. At today’s event, the company announced that it is taking Anthos Migrate out of beta and into general availability. The overall idea behind Migrate is that it allows enterprises to take their existing, VM-based workloads and convert them into containers. Those machines could come from on-prem environments, AWS, Azure or Google’s Compute Engine, and — once converted — can then run in Anthos GKE, the Kubernetes service that’s part of the platform.

“That really helps customers think about a leapfrog strategy, where they can maintain the existing VMs but benefit from the operational model of Kubernetes,” Google Engineering Director Jennifer Lin told me. “So even though you may not get all of the benefits of a cloud-native container day one, what you do get is consistency in the operational paradigm.”

As for Anthos itself, Lin tells me that Google is seeing some good momentum. The company is highlighting a number of customers at today’s event, including Germany’s Kaeser Kompressoren and Turkey’s Denizbank.

Lin noted that a lot of financial institutions are interested in Anthos. “A lot of the need to do data-driven applications, that’s where Kubernetes has really hit that sweet spot because now you have a number of distributed datasets and you need to put a web or mobile front end on [them],” she explained. “You can’t do it as a monolithic app, you really do need to tap into a number of datasets — you need to do real-time analytics and then present it through a web or mobile front end. This really is a sweet spot for us.”

Also new today is the general availability of Cloud Code, Google’s set of extensions for IDEs like Visual Studio Code and IntelliJ that helps developers build, deploy and debug their cloud-native applications more quickly. The idea, here, of course, is to remove friction from building containers and deploying them to Kubernetes.

In addition, Apigee hybrid is now also generally available. This tool makes it easier for developers and operators to manage their APIs across hybrid and multi-cloud environments, a challenge that is becoming increasingly common for enterprises. This makes it easier to deploy Apigee’s API runtimes in hybrid environments and still get the benefits of Apigees monitoring and analytics tools in the cloud. Apigee hybrid, of course, can also be deployed to Anthos.

November 20th 2019, 4:51 am

India’s Swiggy bets big on cloud kitchens

TechCrunch

Can cloud kitchens take off in India? Swiggy, one of the country’s largest food delivery startups, is betting on it. The Prosus Ventures-backed startup said on Wednesday it has established 1,000 cloud kitchens for its restaurant partners in the country.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm said it has invested in over a million square feet of real estate space across 14 cities in the country over the last two years to help restaurant partners of all sizes expand to more locations both within their city and across new cities through cloud kitchens.

Swiggy said it has already invested about $24.5 million in its cloud kitchens business that it calls Swiggy Access, and plans to pump another $10.5 million into it by March next year.

Compared to developed nations like Japan and the U.S., India remains a very underpenetrated market for restaurants. “Even in dense areas, you know you need more restaurants,” said Larry Illg, chief executive of Prosus Ventures, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“That’s the value of creating kitchens for delivery platforms. We have the visibility of all the market dynamics. We can look at a location, comb through the data and know what kind of restaurants and food supplies would work there. Over time, you come to realize the neighborhood and their collective behaviour,” he said.

That’s where cloud kitchens could help. For restaurateurs, cloud kitchens reduce the risk when they look for expansion. “You have figured out the menu, and you know the operations. But you still have to take a big real estate risk when picking the location. Kitchens allow them to de-risk all these factors,” said Illg.

Early signs show that the concept of cloud kitchens is working for Swiggy Access partners. The company said one in three partners has been able to expand to a second kitchen within 90 days of signing up. Many restaurants from smaller cities have also expanded into big cities, the startup said.

Raymond Andrews, founder and chief executive of Biryani Blues, said in a statement that Swiggy Access has enabled the eatery to “expand quickly into newer territories not just in Delhi-NCR but also to Chandigarh. In the six years of our existence, I have found Access to be the easiest way to expand my brand. It’s a game-changer for the industry.”

Swiggy believes that India could emerge as the second-highest number of cloud kitchens after China in the coming years, said Vishal Bhatia, CEO of New Supply business at the firm. A year ago, the company had just 200 cloud kitchen partners.

“The milestone of Swiggy successfully creating over 1000 partner kitchens shows the faith the restaurant partners have in the concept and bolsters our pioneering efforts in enabling more success stories in the restaurant ecosystem,” he said.

Swiggy is also betting that cloud kitchens will help it speed up the delivery time. Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety said last month that the company is quickly scaling up “pods” that house cloud kitchens for restaurants in a way that they are “within a 10-minute reach of 99% of their consumers.”

Swiggy added that it is on track to create 15,000 new direct or indirect jobs in the restaurant industry through its Access program by next six months.

The announcement today comes weeks after news broke that Travis Kalanick, founder and former chief executive of Uber, is buying up cheap properties in India and some other markets to scale his cloud kitchens venture.

Indian newspaper Economic Times reported earlier this month that Ashish Saxena, former India head of TexMex Cuisine, franchisee for American casual dining restaurant chain Chili’s Grill & Bar in the country, is working with Kalanick on CloudKitchens, the new venture.

Food delivery firm FoodPanda, owned by ride-hailing giant Ola, earlier this year also pivoted to cloud kitchens.

November 20th 2019, 2:18 am

Dream Games raises $7.5M seed to develop ‘high-quality’ puzzle games

TechCrunch

Dream Games, a Turkish mobile gaming company founded by former Peak Games employees who worked together on hit puzzle games Toy Blast and Toon Blast, has raised $7.5 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is Makers Fund, with co-investment from London’s Balderton Capital. The funding will be used to increase headcount within the Dream Games team, targeting 20 employees in year one.

The company — which is yet to launch a product — is co-founded by CEO Soner Aydemir, the former Product Director at Peak Games. The rest of the Dream Games team are Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam (former Peak Games engineering leads), Eren Sengul (former Peak Games product manger), and Serdar Yilmaz (former Peak Games 3D artist).

“Most of the [mobile games] companies believe that the market is saturated, but we believe there are still huge opportunities in the casual puzzle market,” Aydemir tells TechCrunch. “There are too many mediocre mobile games, but players deserve better. We see that there are still millions of players waiting for new, well-designed and enjoyable puzzle games, and we are committed to creating great games to meet players’ expectations”.

Aydemir says Dream Games doesn’t believe in a “hit-or-miss approach” to game development. Instead, he frames the studio’s strategy as “evolution over innovation” and “execution over ideas”. This will see it develop a first flagship title that can be iterated over the long term.

“We plan to fix the pain points for players in existing games,” he says. “Our experience makes us confident we can build something truly global by focusing on a single high-quality, long-standing game instead of multiple flash-in-the-pan titles. We’d rather people were loyally playing our one game for 10 years than losing interest every six months when something new comes along”.

With regards to audience, Aydemir says Dream Games is targeting players over the age of 25 in U.S., Canada and Europe. He pegs gender distribution at 65% female and 35% male. “Our players can be from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but they are mainly average people who have routine lives,” he says.

Aydemir is also keen to flag up the burgeoning gaming sector in Turkey, which he claims is positioned to be one of the world’s leading ecosystems for mobile games.

In 2017, Peak Games, based in Istanbul, sold its card and board games studio to mobile gaming giant Zynga for $100 million. Zynga later opened a studio in the city and made further acquisitions, paying $250 million for Gram Games, the Turkish developers behind a number of popular puzzle titles. Other casual gaming studios with a presence in the region include Good Job Games, Ruby Games, Alictus, Rollic Games and Bigger Games.

November 20th 2019, 2:18 am

Robinhood launches… UK waiting list

TechCrunch

It is approaching a year since TechCrunch broke news that Robinhood was stealthily recruiting for a London office ahead of plans to expand to the U.K. And in August the U.S.-based company, which pioneered “commission-free” stock-trading states-side, announced it had received regulatory approval to operate this side of the pond, signalling that a U.K. launch was indeed imminent. Well, now the wait is almost over, with the launch of the Robinhood U.K. waitlist.

In a classic bait and switch PR briefing on Tuesday — pitched as Robinhood introducing its investing platform to U.K. customers, which a number of local journalists, this one included, took to mean an actual launch — co-founder and co-CEO Vlad Tenev and President of Robinhood UK Wander Rutgers revealed that Robinhood UK will be opening its doors early next year.

“We’re very excited to be announcing that our waitlist for Robinhood UK is going to be going live,” said Tenev. “Customers will be able to sign up for early access to our commission free investing platform in the U.K. and it’s very interesting for us because it will be our first live international market and a very important step for us to fulfil our mission to democratise access to the financial system”.

“We expect the product to be in the hands of customers in Q1 of next year,” clarified Rutgers.

When it does launch, Robinhood will initially offer what Rutgers described as “the best of Robinhood” to the U.K., including, of course, “commission-free” trading of stocks.

“It starts with our core platform: unlimited commission frees trades, no account minimums, and access to a huge range of equities from both the US and from across the world,” he told TechCrunch. “Secondly, we will enable instant deposit, instant trading, without any foreign exchange fees. Users can fund very easily from from any U.K. back using a phone or debit card and withdraw just as easily”.

In addition, the Robinhood UK app will include information to help with trading, including videos from the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters, along with features to help users keep track of their investments, such as price movement alerts, analyst ratings, earnings, and being able to dial into earnings reports.

There will also be “snacks,” Robinhood’s daily podcast and newsletter, and “Robin Hood goals,” the fintech’s premium subscription service for qualifying professional investors.

What is particularly interesting about Robinhood’s pending U.K. launch is that it won’t be without direct competition. In the commission-free investing space, Freetrade was first out of the gate, and has since been joined by Revolut and Bux.

However, arguably, regardless of Robinhood’s deep pockets, a rising tide could lift all boats in the neo broker space since these upstarts are trying to grow the market by introducing new, younger people to investing, not just stealing customers from incumbents that are charging higher fees.

“We’ve been very successful [in the U.S.] at attracting multiple types of customers,” said Tenev. “You know of course there’s your first time investor that doesn’t have a brokerage account before and discovers investing through Robinhood’s product. And, you know, we think there’s a fair number of those types of folks in the U.K. as well. And then there’s also customers that invest a little bit more actively and are familiar [with] the fees… I think will will be able to attract customers from that group as well.”

Meanwhile, an intriguing element of any Robinhood-Revolut comparisons is that the two companies share a number of investors, namely Index and DST. Both companies also have incredibly high valuations, too.

“It’s not something that we spend a lot of time talking to our investors about,” said Tenev when asked if he was concerned that Revolut is now effectively a competitor, before delivering the standard startup narrative about focusing on customers not competitors.

“We’re certainly aware of competitors and, you know, believe that there’s things that we can learn from them but generally, you know, we found that if our focus is on the customer and listening really closely to them, we build products that customers love and.. that ends up working very well”.

But how did Tenev react when first hearing that Revolut was launching zero-commission trading?

“I don’t really remember the exact reaction that I had, but certainly, you know, having competitors and people entering our space is is nothing new for us,” answered the Robinhood co-CEO.

November 20th 2019, 2:18 am

Volkswagen’s new all-electric concept wagon could be coming to the U.S. by 2022

TechCrunch

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

November 19th 2019, 11:35 pm

Audi’s next all-electric vehicle, the e-tron Sportback, is a “coupé” SUV

TechCrunch

Audi revealed Tuesday evening in Los Angeles the e-tron Sportback as the German automaker begins to chip away at its plan to launch more than 30 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2025.

The e-tron Sportback reveal ahead of the LA Auto Show follows the launch earlier this year of Audi’s first all-electric vehicle, the 2019 e-tron.

Audi has delivered 18,500 of its all-electric e-tron SUVs globally since March 2019 when the vehicle first came to market. And the company is hoping to grab more, and different, customers with the Sportback.

Audi plans to offer two variants of the vehicle, a Sportback 50 and Sportback 55. The Sportback will come to Europe first in spring 2020. The Sportback 55 will come to the U.S. in fall 2020.

Audi calls this e-tron Sportback a SUV coupé, the latest evidence that automakers are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional automotive terminology. This is not a two-door car with a fixed roof and a sloping rear, although there are “coupé” elements in the design.

This is in fact a SUV with a roof that extend flat over the body and then drops steeply to the rear — that’s where the coupé name comes in — and into the D pillar of the vehicle. Then there’s the classic “Sportback” feature in the body where the lower edge of the side window rises toward the rear.

There are design details repeated throughout the exterior, specifically the four-bar pattern in the headlamps, front grille and wheels. And of course there are special interior and exterior finishes – 13 paint colors in all — and a first edition version customers can buy. The base price of the Sportback is 71,350 ($79,000).

But importantly, besides some styling and design changes, this vehicle boasts longer range and for everyone outside the U.S., futuristic looking side mirrors and new lighting tech.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a 86.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has a range of up to 446 kilometers (277.1 miles) in the EU’s WLTP cycle. The EPA estimates aren’t out yet, but expect the range numbers to be slightly lower.

The company is targeting an EPA range of about 220 miles over the 204 miles of range that the regular e-tron gets.

Audi was able to improve the range by increasing the net battery capacity. It also decoupled the front motor and improved the thermal management.

Lighting and mirrors

Audi is known for its lighting and the company has made this a key feature in the Sportback. The vehicle has a new digital matrix headlights that breaks down light into tiny pixels. The result is precise lighting that has high resolution.

Inside the headlight is a digital micromirror device that acts like a video projector. Inside the DMD is a small chip from Texas Instruments that contains one million micromirrors. These micromirrors can be tilted up to 5,000 times per second.

The upshot: The headlights can project specific patterns on the road or illuminate certain areas more brightly. And for fun, animations like the e-tron or Audi logos can be projected on a wall when the vehicle is stopped.

Check out this video to see it in action.

The safety piece of this is the most interesting. For instance, on a freeway the light might creates a carpet of light that illuminates the driver’s own lane brightly and adjusts dynamically when he or she changes lane.

Then there are the virtual exterior mirrors. This wing-shaped side mirror doesn’t have an exterior mirror. Instead, it supports integrate small cameras. The captured images appear on high-contrast OLED displays inside the car between the instrument panel and the door.

If the driver moves their finger toward the surface of the touch display, symbols are activated with which the driver can reposition the image. The mirrors can be adjust automatically to three driving situations for highway driving, turning and parking.

Neither the mirrors of the digital matrix LED lighting is available in the U.S. and won’t be until the government changes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, which are the regulations that dictate the design, construction, performance, and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

November 19th 2019, 9:45 pm

Former Casper execs are building a direct-to-consumer dog food startup called Jinx

TechCrunch

With Jinx, three former members of the Casper team are looking to bring what CEO Terri Rockovich called “the Casper playbook” to selling dog food.

The startup has raised $5.65 million from an all-star list of investors including Alexis Ohanian of Initialized Capital, Align Ventures, Brand Foundry, Wheelhouse Group, Will Smith and his family, the rapper Nas, singer Halsey, YouTube star/late night host Lilly Singh and TV personality/former NFL star Michael Strahan.

Rockovich previously served as vice president of acquisition and retention marketing at Casper, where she met her co-founders Sameer Mehta and Michael Kim. She said all three of them are “dog obsessives” who have experience trying to feed “picky eaters.” And they wer “hungry for a brand that is skinned in a way that is a lot more relatable to millennial consumer.”

It’s not just about taking regular dog food and selling it in a new way, either. Rockovich noted that an estimated 56% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. So Jinx’s staff nutritionist — working with a larger nutrition council — has developed a line of kibble and treats that she said is “packed with organic proteins, diversified proteins and easy-to-process carbohydrates for a moderately active animal.”

Jinx plans to start selling its first products in January. Rockovich said it will target pet owners with a certain set of “lifestyle attributes” — like living in an apartment, hiring dog walkers and owning dogs who sleep in their beds — and educate them so they actually examine the ingredients of their dog food, whether they buy it from Jinx or someone else.

“We understand the serious nature of creating something that goes into a body and kind of powers a lifestyle,” she said. “We’ve been so conscious of that. Frankly, it’s delayed our timeline — we know we have to get it right.”

As for how much this will cost, Rockovich said Jinx will “fall in the premium category.” (If you’re familiar with premium dog food brands, she said Jinx pricing be somewhere between Blue Buffalo and Orijen.) And while the company start off by selling directly to consumers through its website, Rockovich said her Casper experience has taught her the importance of having “some IRL presence, specifically in retail.”

November 19th 2019, 7:02 pm

How Airbnb handles discrimination claims

TechCrunch

When disability rights lawyer Haben Girma, who is blind and deaf, booked an apartment in London via Airbnb last month, she says the host cancelled her reservation after she disclosed that her guide dog would be joining her.

Prior to the cancellation, Girma and the host, Kirk Truman, had a lengthy exchange over the course of about a week-and-a-half in which Girma explained her situation, as well as educated the host about Airbnb’s non-discrimination policy that protects both her and her guide dog, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equality Act in the U.K., she told TechCrunch.

Despite this discussion, which TechCrunch has read and reviewed, Truman continued to express concern, saying, “I think my freeholder would be really unhappy with me if he found out that I had somebody stay in the flat with a dog/guide dog.”

The discussion continued, with Truman saying that “it should all be fine.” In the same message, he added that, had he “known when you first requested to book about you bringing your guide dog, I would’ve spoken to you about all we’ve discussed before proceeding with the booking.”

But ultimately, a couple of weeks later, Truman canceled Girma’s reservation. He justified the cancellation by saying the property would be undergoing some work during her scheduled stay, according to the conversation reviewed by TechCrunch. However, Girma says when her friend tried to book the same dates at that property five days later, Truman accepted the reservation.

When reached for comment about why Truman accepted her friend’s reservation for those same dates, Truman told TechCrunch via email his property has a leak and that the repairs are supposed to happen this coming weekend (November 23-24), which is when Girma was originally scheduled to stay at his flat.

“These dates were changed to this week by the contractor but then again changed to this coming weekend and are likely to be delayed into next week,” Truman said. “I should also add, that I also had to cancel another booking due to the issues with the leak as it happened again quite recently.”

It was when Girma found out Truman accepted her friend’s reservation for the same dates that she reached out to Airbnb. The company expressed remorse and told Girma that it would review the situation to determine if Truman deserved a warning, account suspension or permanent removal from the platform.

“For privacy reasons we can’t share what will happen after the review, but we want you to know that we are committed to fighting discrimination and ensuring that the Airbnb community is open and accessible to everyone,” an Airbnb customer service representative named Matt wrote to her in a message reviewed by TechCrunch.

But Girma took issue with the fact that Airbnb said it would keep the resolution of the review process quiet.

“Telling victims of discrimination that the result of the review process is private contributes to guests feeling like the platform is not safe,” Girma told TechCrunch via email. “We want to know if the company decides to protect discriminatory hosts. The company needs to be transparent with victims of discrimination.”

Girma proceeded to engage in a discussion with Airbnb, in which the company continued to say that its privacy policy prohibited it from communicating the results of the investigation to her. Airbnb offered to help her find a new place to stay, but Girma said she was not interested.

“I’m interested in whether or not Airbnb will take action, and I’m deeply disappointed that the company has chosen not to tell me what will be done in this incident,” Girma wrote to Airbnb.

In response, Airbnb reiterated that it would not disclose what actions it took with Truman. About one week later, however, Airbnb changed its course and let her know that the company took the route of host education. Additionally, Airbnb said Truman was now aware that future violations could result in his removal from the Airbnb platform.

But Girma said she had already gone out of her way to educate the host about Airbnb’s policy, as well as the ADA and the U.K.’s Equality Act.

“He knew it would be against your policy, and still canceled my reservation,” Girma wrote to Airbnb. “He claimed it was because the flat would have construction during my dates. My nondisabled friend then applied to stay at the flat for the exact same dates, and Kirk immediately accepted my friend’s reservation. All of this is in the records I sent to you.”

Haben Girma with Mylo, her seeing guide dog

Girma then expressed dismay that Airbnb had chosen not to remove Truman and asked the company to reconsider. Shortly after sending that message, Girma got in touch with TechCrunch.

Following an inquiry from TechCrunch, Airbnb said it would suspend Truman for 30 days:

“To use our platform, Airbnb community members must commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of disability, race, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias. We have suspended this host and sincerely thank Haben both for reporting this incident and for her past work to help Airbnb’s team better serve the disability community.”

In determining what action to take, Airbnb concluded that what Truman did fell into the category of discriminatory impact versus discriminatory intent. So, if a host calls the guest the N-word, that’s discriminatory intent and impact, which would result in immediate removal from the platform. Discriminatory impact, according to Airbnb, is how it sees this situation between Girma and the host. Airbnb’s theory is that Truman is not irredeemable and can learn from this situation. And, if he doesn’t, then he may be removed entirely.

“I understand the implication yes, though this was not why Haben’s booking was cancelled in the first place,” Truman told TechCrunch. “I have written to Airbnb to appeal against this decision as I feel there appears to have been a misunderstanding.”

Airbnb has since notified Girma of the resolution, which entails the aforementioned 30-day suspension, as well as a re-education of its policies. However, she says this is a “gentle” punishment.

“Responding to violations by educating hosts again and again creates a culture where hosts know they can get away with discrimination,” Girma said. “And if they are extremely unlucky the worst that will happen is a thirty-day suspension.”

Even more alarming, Girma said, is that Airbnb told her the company has instructed Truman that any similar violation “may result” in his removal.

“Airbnb cannot even commit to removing Kirk if he does this again,” she said. “I’m deeply concerned about the lack of enforcement.”

Airbnb has since offered Girma money to cover her costs of seeking accommodation elsewhere, but she says she does not plan to accept any compensation.

What Girma would prefer, she told TechCrunch, is for Airbnb to commit to making the complaint process transparent to victims, strictly enforce the accessibility policy and remove hosts who violate it.

“The company has thousands and thousands of hosts; why is Airbnb so intent on protecting a host that knowingly violated policies and discriminated against a disabled guest?” Girma wondered. “Airbnb has a systemic enforcement problem. Knowingly violating Airbnb policy apparently won’t even get hosts removed from the platform. Airbnb policy is to not tell victims of discrimination the results of complaint reviews. How will guests ever feel safe using Airbnb when we know hosts that violate Airbnb’s own policies stay on the platform?”

Airbnb has long faced issues with discrimination. In 2016, the company announced product and policy changes aimed at eradicating racist behavior. That included a new non-discrimination policy and a mandatory community commitment to treat fellow platform members with respect and without judgment and bias.

It’s worth noting Airbnb has also made some positive changes on the accessibility front. Last March, it added accessibility filters to make it easier for people with disabilities to find accessible travel accommodations, such as places with step-free entry and entryways that are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

But despite Airbnb’s attempts to educate hosts and create a platform that fosters inclusivity, it’s clear that not all hosts are on board, which is still resulting in discrimination. If you’ve experienced discrimination on Airbnb, please get in touch with me at megan@techcrunch.com.

November 19th 2019, 6:43 pm

Sundance Institute’s Co//ab offers online education and feedback for filmmakers

TechCrunch

The Sundance Institute is looking to reach a broader community of up-and-coming filmmakers with a new website called Co//ab.

The institute’s chief product officer Tara Hein-Phillips told me that a small pilot version of the site first launched early in 2018, before beginning a “proper beta” in November of that year. And it spent a full year in beta testing — growing to 20,000 members — before Sundance took the label off earlier this month.

Hein-Phillips described Co//ab as an extension of the institute’s existing artist’s programs — leveraging the internet so that the programs can “have more impact.” There are plenty of other filmmaking tutorials out there (I’m both tickled and tempted by the existence of this David Lynch MasterClass), but she said they tend to be “inspirational,” whereas Co//ab is designed to be “more practical, more hands-on.”

“We really wanted the sweet spot to focus around works in progress — to give artists a completely safe and trusted space with other artists to take that work to the next level,” she said. “That’s its whole purpose in the world.”

So Co//ab offers a general library of instructional videos, but also more in-depth courses and master classes. There’s also an opportunity to participate in monthly challenges (the current one involves rewriting an unsatisfying final scene) and to share scripts and films for feedback from other members of the Sundance community.

Asked about whether that feedback ever gets too harsh, Hein-Phillips noted that there’s a very “hands-on” community manager.

“We really do work to cultivate the spirit of generosity,” she added. “In part, it’s a little bit in reaction too what we’ve seen in online community today. We’re really trying to allow artists to redefine what online community is … We’re seeing that really happen. We get so little negative feedback toward other people.”

Access to the video library is free, with pricing starting at $10 per month for a membership that includes members-only webinars and feedback on your work. There’s an additional fee for the individual classes — but Hein-Phillips noted that Co//ab will be offering need-based scholarships to 20% of all participants.

“We’re clearly a not-for-profit,” she said. “Our goal is not to make money with this. We’d like it to be self-sustaining, and if it did happen to make money, that would filter back to our artist’s programs.”

November 19th 2019, 6:32 pm

Lucence raises $20 million Series A for its non-invasive cancer screening technology

TechCrunch

Lucence Diagnostics, a genomic medicine startup that develops non-invasive tests for cancer screening, announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series A led by IHH Healthcare, one of the world’s largest integrated private healthcare groups. Other participants included SGInnovate and returning investors Heliconia Capital (a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings), Lim Kaling and Koh Boon Hwee.

The round will be used for scaling Lucence’s labs, hiring and making its products commercially available to more patients in Asia and North America.

The funding will also support two prospective clinical trials. One will focus on its technology’s sensitivity to actionable variables in late-stage cancer patients, while the other will evaluate its use for early-stage detection in several types of cancer, including lung, colorectal, breast and pancreatic. Lucence is currently designing a study that will involve 100,000 participants to validate its early-stage detection test. It will recruit its first patient in the middle of next year and launch in the United States and Asia.

Together with its seed funding, this round brings Lucence’s total raised so far to $29.2 million.

Lucence’s tests are currently used by physicians in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and it plans to expand further in North America and East Asia. Its lab in Singapore has received both CLIA certification and CAP accreditation, which means its tests can be used by doctors and patients in the United States. It is also currently building a lab in the Bay Area to decrease turnaround times for patients.

Headquartered in Singapore, with offices in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Suzhou, China, Lucence was founded by CEO Dr. Min-Han Tan, an oncologist, and spun out from Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2016. Two years later, it launched LiquidHALLMARK, which the company describes as “the first and only clinical sequencing blood test that detects both cancer-related genetic mutations and cancer-causing viruses with a single assay” and looks for signs of fourteen types of cancer. The company says LiquidHALLMARK has been used by oncologists for 1,000 patients in Asia so far.

Other genomic sequencing startups that have developed tests that screen for cancer risks and signs include Sanomics, Prenetics, Guardant and Grail. Lucence’s differentiators include its proprietary amplicon-sequencing, which examines specific genomic regions for variations, including mutations linked to cancer. The company describes its tests as a “Swiss Army knife,” because it can be used for cancer screening, diagnoses, treatment selections and monitoring.

In a statement, Dr. Kelvin Loh, the CEO-designate of IHH Healthcare, said “liquid biopsy is a game-changer in our endeavor to provide cancer treatments with better, value-driven outcomes through precise treatment selections and more affordable care. Our investment in Lucence will provide IHH patients with better access to this advanced technology.”

November 19th 2019, 6:32 pm

Scooter maker Superpedestrian raises $20 million as it gears up to launch

TechCrunch

Superpedestrian, the startup working with a handful of scooter operators to deploy vehicles that can perform self-diagnostics, just raised a $20 million round from Spark Capital, General Catalyst, Hanaco Ventures and Empire Angels. This brings Superpedestrian’s total funding to $64 million.

Superpedestrian has yet to announce its operating partners, but is on track to launch in multiple markets in January.

Superpedestrian scooters can last up to seven days without recharging, assuming about five to six rides per day, its CEO Assaf Biderman told TechCrunch. But its key offering is the vehicle intelligence platform, which is designed to detect more than one hundred situations that could lead to malfunction, triage each issue and then determine what response to take in order to prevent vehicle damage and rider injury.

“The vehicle is constantly asking itself if it’s safe,” Biderman said.

That means Superpedestrian’s software is continuously monitoring for things like water penetration, cut internal wires, battery cell temperature imbalances, braking issues and more. Superpedestrian’s software is also able to quickly enforce local speed limits via geofencing.

Superpedestrian isn’t disclosing how much it’s selling its platform and vehicles to operators, but says the price is competitive with the other products on the market. While Biderman says Superpedestrian is currently focused on selling to operators, the company does plan to eventually sell directly to consumers.

While launching and operating shared micromobility services is no longer novel, Superpedstrian is trying to take advantage of an emerging opportunity in the space. That opportunity is software. As business and mobility analyst Horace Dediu recently told me, these micromobility vehicles have an opportunity to also be software hubs. In fact, he said it’s where he expects bigger players like Google and Apple to enter the space.

November 19th 2019, 5:42 pm

In the ghost kitchen race, GV-backed Kitchen United aims to kill with kindness; here’s its playbook

TechCrunch

Cloud kitchens, ghost kitchens, dark kitchens. No doubt by now you know a little about these businesses that are moving into underused or more affordable properties that can be turned into shared workspaces for the purposes of cooking up meals exclusively for delivery.

You probably also know that former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been at the forefront of the trend for more than a year, growing his CloudKitchens business as fast as he can, fueled in part by $400 million that he quietly raised from the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Sometimes these are in the U.S., in so-called opportunity zones or lower-income areas that, under the Trump Administration, are enabling businesses to set up shop and avoid federal taxes in exchange. Kalanick is also reportedly eyeing big moves into both India and China.

CloudKitchens has competition, though. In fact, among a growing number of rivals, its fiercest competitor is Kitchen United, a Pasadena, Ca.-based outfit that has raised roughly $56 million to date from investors including GV, Fidelity, and the real estate operating companies Divco West and RXR Realty, among others — and which has turned down hundreds of millions of dollars more for the time being.

Does its founder, a tech veteran turned restaurateur Jim Collins, not understand the opportunity before him? It was one question among many that Collins answered last week at a StrictlyVC event in San Francisco where he dazzled the crowd with his comic timing — and his tactics. The interview — conducted by former TechCrunch editor and now CNBC reporter Lora Kolodny — also provided one of the best overviews to date of what this fast-ballooning industry is really about.

If you’re interested in the future of how food is made and delivered — and who could win and lose in the process — this is an interview you should read to the end.

On Collins’s background:

“I did tech companies for a bunch of years and sold the last one off about 10 years ago, and i said i never want to work with venture capital people again. [Laughs.] That’s sort of true but not completely. Honestly, I was burned out, it was a grind.

[One day] there was a restaurant up the street for sale. I walked up the street and bought the restaurant and then came home and told my wife, ‘I bought the restaurant.’ And so we had a conversation that [that decision] might entail a lifestyle change where I was going to be gone every night, and I was at the restaurant every night for about a year and a half getting it going, but I absolutely fell in love with the restaurant business.

On how he came to run Kitchen United (as well as run his restaurant, which is still a going concern):

[Our restaurant] is in Montrose outside of Los Angeles, in a sleepy community that most people in Los Angeles have never heard of, and about a year-and-a-half ago, we started getting people at the door, saying, ‘Yes, I’m from Postmates’ or ‘DoorDash’ or ‘UberEats’ and ‘I’m here to place an order.’  Because we weren’t signed up on any services, I was like: What is that? I was so far outside of my past world that I didn’t even know what it was. But all of a sudden, it was a thing and [it was growing], and one day, a headhunter who I knew well called me up and said, ‘Hey, I want you to take a look at food thing.’ So he sent me a job description (that was honestly terrible) for the CEO role at Kitchen United, so I went and met the founders — the two folks who were with the company at the time — and I kind of fell in love with them and felt like it was a big idea that we could go after.

What they pitched him on, and why he didn’t think it would work:

The original business plan was,  ‘Robots and autonomous cars are going to change the food business, so we need to be ready for that, so let’s build kitchens!’ And I said, ‘I think that’s actually true . . . in 10 years. The problem that the restaurant industry is experiencing because of the explosion of the shift in consumer demand and consumption isn’t a robots-and-autonomous-cars problem. It’s a proximity problem, and proximity is a problem we can solve tomorrow while we’re waiting.

What Kitchen United is building exactly:

We build kitchen centers. Basically you go into a space that’s $25 per square foot that no one has rented in 20 years, so we’ll take that space and put a bunch of kitchens in it. We also install a lot of technology — IoT, conveyer belts, all kinds of display information; we use machine learning to understand fire times — a whole series of things that go into deploying a kitchen center. Then we build a pick-up center in the front of the space that’s kind of the retail interface where drivers from Ubers, Postmates, DoorDash, Cavier, GrubHub (and seven other services can pick up the food) and [consumers can also grab pick-up].

There’s a thing called shared kitchens, which means that I’m going to go and cook in a space this morning, and when I’m done, somebody else is going to walk in this afternoon and cook in that same space. That’s not our business. Ours is effectively creating four-wall spaces for known restaurants to operate inside of our facilities for the purpose of extending their reach to meet new markets for delivery and consumer pick-up.

On whether Kitchen United is raising more money soon:

I don’t think so. We closed our Series B about six weeks ago.

It’s weird to be an entrepreneur in this world. There are two different operating methods that you’re encouraged to pursue if you’re going after a hot space. You’re either encouraged to be the biggest and fastest and to take as much money as you possibly can so you can be the biggest fastest, right? Or you’re encouraged to work hard and build a great business and then once you’ve built a great business, go out and get lots of money so you can build it.

Honestly, I felt like this business was so complex, that we had to learn about elementary stuff, like, where do we build these? Where’s the right place to put ’em? When we first started, we had meetings with big investment firms that were saying, ‘We’ll put $250 million against a $750 million valuation right now.’ That was the first conversation, when it was really like, we’ll put $8 in against whatever [laughs]. But when we were having that conversation, I’m flying home, thinking, $250 million? How would I deploy that? And they’re saying, ‘Well, you just go out and buy a bunch of warehouses in opportunity zones, and put kitchens in them, and it’ll be a great business! It’ll be awesome and you’ll own the market!”

Except warehouses in opportunity zones are too far away from consumers for food to get there fast enough for consumers to want to order from those restaurants. So I would have deployed $150 million in venture capital on brick walls and dry wall and stoves and vents and plumbing — like, ugly stuff. And once that stuff is deployed, it isn’t like it’s so easy to pick it up and move it someplace else.

How Kitchen United competes, if not in a land grab: 

Most conservative projections for this space over the course of the next four years are that we’re going to go from somewhere around $30 billion today to around $230 billion, so people come along and people say, ‘This guy is in this business and he’s got all this money’ or ‘This company has raised this much to put to work; does that make you nervous?’ And the answer is, if we go out and build 3,000 of these things, we build like the fourth-largest restaurant chain in the U.S., we’ve only addressed about 40 percent of the total market. So when I look at it from a pure antiseptic, practical perspective, the fact is we need other people in the space, helping us solve the problem. And honestly, to the extent that other people are learning from us and getting better, and we’re learning from others and getting better, I think the competition isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s a good thing. (Here, Kolodny teased him for his “very diplomatic answer.”)

On what makes Kitchen United distinct from its long and growing list of rivals:

First, we decided the U.S. is a giant market, so we decided to focus here on the U.S., despite requests probably once a week from somebody saying, ‘Come to Saudi Arabia’ because it turns out it’s hard to build kitchens anywhere in the world, and we’re pretty good at building them.

The other thing we did . . .[is decide to play nice with Kitchen United’s two biggest customers  — major food chains and delivery services]. I don’t want to boil the ocean. I don’t want to be a restaurant; I don’t want to cook food for consumers. There are 800,000 restaurants in the U.S., so let’s let them cook food and let’s come alongside them and help them expand what they are doing into new areas. . . . Our whole job is to expand the inventory for the [delivery] marketplace, expand the addressable market for the restaurant, and expand options for consumers so that we have a great business for all the various markets that we’re serving.

On the criteria to become part of Kitchen United:

We don’t work with startup restaurants. We don’t work with people that only have one location. When we started, we didn’t know what would work so we brought in all kinds of restaurants and ended up having to kick most of them out because either they didn’t know how to be a restaurant or they didn’t know how to be a multi-location restaurant. This is true of the ghost kitchen community as a whole: if you’re a restaurant and you don’t already have a consumer connection and an audience and a following and you try to open in a space with no consumer interface, no storefront, you have to climb a giant mountain.

There are some virtual restaurant brands. We have one in our location in Chicago. They were people who had operated multi-location restaurants and had a tremendous amount of internet marketing savvy and skill, so we decided to let them operate and they’re actually doing pretty well, so that’s an interesting new wrinkle.

On whether anything disqualifies a business from using Kitchen United as a platform:

Yes, a lot of large chains that will say we want to be in Kitchen United. We were at a big real estate development conference in Las Vegas and there were probably 20 chains that talked with us about being in KU and probably 18 of them would not qualify.

You’d like to think [that’s on a nutritional basis]. One thing we’ve learned isn’t to filter what the American consumer wants; our job is just to provide a path for them to get what they want.

The actual challenge is giant chains that have very little ability to create an online connection to their consumer. If they don’t have sophisticated online ordering interfaces, if they haven’t deployed the right technologies into their ERP and their ordering infrastructure and all the stuff that goes into the back end, then they aren’t going to be a good fit for KU because of the operational problems they have to overcome is just too great.

On how Kitchen United uses the data that’s running through it’s operations:

It’s a hot topic. We’re pretty careful. KU is a partner to our restaurants, and so we learn information through our own order channel. We don’t derive much information through the marketplace channels. There’s sort of a misnomer that when the marketplaces deliver orders . . . all we know is a consumer name, we don’t know an address or any of the other information. So you don’t get a lot of data like that.

Information we do get is stuff like how many chicken sandwiches a Chick-fil-A is selling or whatever. And you might think, ‘Oh cool, so you’ll just make a chicken sandwich [of your own] when Chick-fil-A closes down and you’ll sell it to the public.’ The restaurant world is very nervous about that; it’s a big topic in this space. If you go to restaurant conferences, there are a lot [accusations of], ‘They’re stealing my data.’ I’m the guy on stage saying, ‘It’s their data [the delivery marketplaces]. They attracted the consumer, they got the order from you. It’s their data. They aren’t stealing your data, it’s their data; you chose to allow them to sell your product on their network.’

But [also] it’s not as easy as that. You can’t just whip up a fried chicken sandwich and make consumers like it. The world is littered with even more failed restaurants than failed startups.

What happens to neighborhoods — and local restaurants — if Kitchen United succeeds:

The restaurant industry is huge — $800 billion in the U.S., $675 billion if you discount hospitals and stuff like that. [This take-out market] is somewhere around $33 billion this year. So we’re edging into it as a percentage, but if you look at dining room revenue year over year for the last 20 years in the U.S restaurant industry, it grows 1% per year, which is pretty much consistent with population growth. And the same is projected to be the case this year.

So restaurants aren’t dying because of marketplace delivery. Marketplace delivery is actually pulling business out of grocery stores. That’s why you see Kroger and Amazon and other grocery store chains plowing down rows of [goods] and installing warm counters with warm food and you’re seeing grocery chains focus on delivery.

It’s the wild west. It’s a crazy market and I absolutely, positively love it. It’s not a question of what gets me up in the morning. I never go to bed.

November 19th 2019, 5:10 pm

Is this Niantic’s next game?

TechCrunch

First came Pokémon GO. Then came Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Then came… Catan?

It’s starting to look like the next property to get Niantic’s “real world game” treatment will be Catan — the namesake island from the popular Settlers Of Catan board game series.

Late last month, the company behind Catan said during a board games conference in Germany that it was working on a “upcoming massively multiplayer location based game” (albeit with no mention of Niantic). Called Catan: World Explorers, they noted that it “transforms the entire Earth into one giant game of CATAN”.

A website for the game has since gone up, and folks over at the Ingress subreddit (the unofficial homebase for fans of Niantic’s very first title) managed to uncover a few curious breadcrumbs hiding in the source code. The official Terms of Service and Privacy Policy links both point to Niantic’s servers, for example, and the page pulls in some Javascript with “Niantic” in the filename. So if Niantic wasn’t involved here, someone made a bunch of super weird mistakes.

Sure enough, I’ve confirmed with folks at Niantic that the company is indeed involved. They won’t say much about it, but confirmed to me that the game is being built on Niantic’s Real World Platform.

Not sure what that means? After the launch of Pokémon GO, Niantic started focusing on taking the tools they’ve already built (their massive database of real world locations, the game engine, and the server architecture that makes the whole ‘real world game’ experience work) and opening them up for third parties to build upon. Whereas Pokémon GO was largely built within Niantic with some oversight from The Pokémon Company, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite shifted more of the workload over to their partners at WB Games. As I wrote in my profile of Niantic and its goal of becoming a platform company back in April:

There’s a ton of overlap when it comes to which of the two companies is building what aspect of the game, but from what I’m told it sounds like Niantic is mostly focusing on the stuff behind the curtain — everything on the platform side, like the map engine, the networking, and the AR tech — while WB Games’ main focus is the stuff you’ll see in game, like the story, the content, and the art and animation.

Meanwhile, we know a little about this Catan game from the aforementioned promo site:

Beyond that, I’m told that more details should trickle out sometime in early 2020.

One of the very first things Niantic did, back when it was a tiny team inside of Google that didn’t really know what it was going to build, was tear apart a massive collection of board games to find mechanics that might work as a mobile game. This led them to build a prototype called BattleSF… which led to Ingress… which led to Pokémon GO, and beyond. It’s sort of fun, then, that the company has ended up back in the realm of board games.

November 19th 2019, 4:41 pm

Karma’s new electric hinge-winged hypercar concept goes 0 to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds

TechCrunch

Karma Automotive took the wraps off Tuesday of a new electric concept car called the SC2 that produces a heart-thumping 1,100 horsepower and can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds.

The concept is a showpiece and an integral part of the Chinese-backed California-based startup’s new strategy to become a technology and design incubator that supplies other automakers.

Karma Automotive also unveiled Tuesday at Automobility LA, the press and trade days of the LA Auto Show, a performance variant of its Revero GT. The new Revero GTS is similar to the Revero GT, but boasts more performance and several other new interior and tech touches.

Meanwhile, the SC2 — with its eye-popping looks and performance specs — is meant to be show what Karma can do, not necessarily what it will do.

Karma CEO Lance Zhou called the SC2 a “signpost” to the company’s future as a technology-driven brand. It also previews the company’s future design language.

“Our open platform serves as a test bed for new technologies and partnerships, where we are to provide engineering, design, technology and customization resources others,” Zhao said.

The nuts and bolts

The battery-electric concept has front and rear mounted twin electric motors that deliver 800 kW peak power, with 10,500 pound-feet wheel torque and 350 miles of pure electric range. The I-shaped 120 kilowatt-hour battery is housed in the center tunnel beneath the dashboard and seats.

The vehicle has carbon ceramic breaks, a push-rod operated racing suspension and a Karma torque vectoring gearbox.

The hinge-winged doors aren’t the only flashy or tech-forward features. The concept has long-range radars, cameras, and FMCW lidar sensors in a nod towards an autonomous driving future.

Drivers will theoretically (this is a concept after all) enter the vehicle through fingerprint and facial recognition sensors. Inside the vehicle, there are biometric seats and 3D audio to create individual sound zones for driver and passenger. Electro chromatic glass shifts from clear to opaque for privacy and light sensitivity.

Reliving the drive

Karma also showed a feature that lets drivers re-live their street-racing adventures through a simulation. A triple high definition camera under the windshield and frequency-modulated
continuous wave lidar sensors capture of the car in motion. At the same time, software captures in real-time all of the turns, braking and acceleration of driving.

After the drive, an adaptive laser projector replays the journey while the vehicle is parked. A mounted smartphone acts as the cabin’s rear-view mirror and turns it into a driving simulator where the user can re-experience their drive and fine-tune their skills.

And of course, drivers can then share that experience with others or stream drivers’ routes from
around the world within their own vehicles.

SC2’s technology can be integrated into a variety of future vehicles, according to Andreas Thurner, Karma’s vp of global design and architecture.

And that’s the whole point of this exercise. It’s unlikely that the SC2 will ever be made as a production vehicle. But the tech and design features in it could live on.

Karma Automotive’s roots began with Fisker Automotive, the startup led by Henrik Fisker that ended in bankruptcy in 2013. China’s Wanxiang Group purchased what was left of Fisker in 2014 and Karma Automotive was born.

Karma hasn’t had the smoothest of resurrections. The company’s first effort, known as the Revero, wasn’t received warmly. The Revero GT has been an improved effort. However, that hasn’t relieved the pressure.

The company laid off about 200 workers this month from its Irvine, Calif. headquarters following a restructuring that will focus on licensing its technology to other carmakers. The company’s assembly plant is in Moreno Valley, Calif.

This new incubator effort is an effort to bring some stability to the company and help it offset the capitally intensive business of designing and producing its own cars.

November 19th 2019, 3:58 pm

Facebook’s latest experiment is a meme creation app, Whale

TechCrunch

Facebook’s NPE Team, a division inside the social networking giant that will build experimental consumer-facing social apps, has now added a third app to its lineup with the launch of meme creation app Whale. Currently, the app allows users to decorate photos with text and stickers in order to create memes that can be shared to social media or texted to friends.

The app isn’t all that original, given the plethora of image-editing apps on the App Store today with similar feature sets. But it does have the advantage of being free to use without in-app purchases or subscriptions.

In Whale, users can take a photo, select a picture from their camera roll, or browse the app’s library of stock images in order to create a meme. Blank, 2-grid, 3-grid, and 4-grid canvas layouts are also available. To customize the images, users can add emojis, text, effects, and filters like laser eyes, vortex or bulge, for example.

In addition to making shareable memes, users can make their own image stickers using the crop and cut tools. And those with artistic capabilities can use the included freeform drawing tool, as well.

Like other NPE Team apps, Whale isn’t offered for download in the U.S. Instead, it’s only available in Canada for the time being — the home market for the first two NPE Team apps, Aux and Bump. The latter was also available in the Philippines, but neither have reached the U.S. Canada is likely being chosen as it’s a good proxy for the U.S., in terms of consumer demographics and user behavior, but has fewer users to contend with, in case an app takes off and has to quickly scale.

Facebook had announced its plans for the NPE Team back in July, explaining that its goal would be to rapidly experiment with new ideas, and shut down those projects that didn’t gain traction.

Its investment in creating new mobile social experiences comes at a time when Facebook’s suite of apps is facing serious competition from newer publishers, including most notably, Snapchat and TikTok. More broadly, the social networking app market is today filled with Snapchat platform apps, like Yolo or LMK, at the top of the charts, alongside newer video chat apps like Houseparty and Marco Polo.

App store intelligence firm Apptopia was first to spot Whale’s launch, which was reported by The Information. The app arrived on November 15, 2019, according to App Annie but it hasn’t yet ranked in any App Store category at this time.

Facebook says it’s not commenting on individual NPE Team apps, but had previously noted that the availability of the apps would depend on each app itself.

 

November 19th 2019, 3:39 pm

Luna is a new kind of space company helping biotech find its footing in microgravity

TechCrunch

Toronto-based startup Luna Design and Innovation is a prime example of the kind of space company that is increasingly starting up to take advantage of the changing economics of the larger industry. Founded by Andrea Yip, who is also Luna’s CEO, the bootstrapped venture is looking to blaze a trail for biotechnology companies who stand to gain a lot from the new opportunities in commercial space – even if they don’t know it yet.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the public and private health industry, doing a lot of product and service design and innovation,” Yip told me in an interview. “I was working in pharma[ceuticals] for several years, but at the end of 2017, I decided to leave the pharma world and I really wanted to find a way to work along the intersection of pharma, space and design, because I just believe that the future of health for humanity is in space.”

Yip founded Luna at the beginning of this year to help turn that belief into action, with a focus on highlighting the opportunities available to the biotechnology sector in making use of the research environment unique to space.

“We see space as a research platform, and we believe that it’s a research platform that can be leveraged in order to solve healthcare problems here on Earth,” Yip explained. “So for me, it was critically important to open up space to the biotech sector, and to the pharma sector, in order to use it as a research platform for R&D and novel discovery.”

The International Space Station has hosted a number of pharma and biotech experiments.

NASA’s work in space has led to a number of medical advances, inducing digital imaging tech used in breast biopsy, transmitters used for monitoring fetus development within the womb, LED’s used in brain cancer surgery and more. Work done on researching and developing pharmaceuticals in space is also something that companies including Merck, Proctor & Gamble and other industry heavyweights have been dabbling in for years, with experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceFarma have now sent entire minilaboratories to the ISS to conduct research on behalf of clients. But it’s still a business with plenty of remaining under-utilized opportunity, according to Yip – and tons of potential.

“I think it’s a highly underutilized research platform, unfortunately, right now,” she said. “When it comes to certain physical and life sciences phenomena, we know that things behave differently in space, in what we refer to as microgravity-based environments […] We know that cancer cells, for instance, behave differently in short- and longer-term microgravity when it comes to the way that they metastasize. So being able to even acknowledge that type of insight, and try and understand ‘why’ can unlock a lot of new discovery and understanding about the way cancer actually functions […] and that can actually help us better design drugs, and treatment opportunities here on Earth, just based on those insights.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Credit: Blue Origin .

Yip says that while there has been some activity already in biotech and microgravity, “we’re on the early end of this innovation,” and goes on to suggest that over the course of the next ten or so years, the companies that will be disrupting the existing class of legacy big pharma players will be ones who’ve invested early and deeply in space-based research and development.

The role of Luna is to help biotech companies figure out how best to approach building out an investment in space-based research. To that end, one of its early accomplishments is securing a role as a ‘Channel Partner’ for Jeff Bezos’ commercial space launch company Blue Origin. This arrangement means that Luna acts a a sales partner for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, working with potential clients for the Amazon founder’s rocket company on how and why they might seek to set up a sub-orbital space-based experiment.

That’s the near-term vision, and the way that Luna will seek to have the most impact here on Earth. But the possibilities of what the future holds for the biotech sector start to really open up once you consider the current trajectory of the space industry, including NASA’s next steps, and efforts by private companies like SpaceX to expand human presence to other planet.

“We’re talking about going back to the Moon by 2024,” Yip says, referring to NASA’s goal with its Artemis program. “We’re talking about going to Mars in the next few years. There’s a lot that we will need to uncover and discover for ourselves, and I think that’s a huge opportunity. Who knows what we’ll discover when we’re on other planets, and we’re actually putting people there? We have to start preparing for that and building capability for that.”

November 19th 2019, 3:39 pm

Linode launches its Kubernetes Engine into beta

TechCrunch

Before the hyperclouds, there were Linode, Mediatemple, HostGator and seemingly a million other hosting services that let you rent affordable virtual private servers for your development needs. And while we don’t talk about them all that much these days, with maybe the exception of Digital Ocean, which disrupted that market a few years ago thanks to its low prices, these services are still doing quite well and are working to adapt their offerings to today’s developers. Unsurprisingly, that often means adding support for containers, which is exactly what Linode is doing with the beta launch of its Linode Kubernetes Engine (LKE) this week.

Like similar services, 16-year old Linode argues that its offering will help enable more developers to adopt containers, even if they are not experts in managing this kind of infrastructure.

“With the launch of Linode Kubernetes Engine, we’ve democratized Kubernetes for developers, regardless of their resources or expertise,” said Linode CEO and Founder Christopher Aker. “By automating the configuration, node provisioning and management of Kubernetes clusters, we’ve made it faster and easier to ship modern applications. And with realtime autoscaling, free master services, and our intuitive cloud manager interface and open API, developers can bypass the complexities of traditional container management and focus on innovating.”

The service is, of course, integrated with the rest of Linode’s tools, which these days include block and object storage, for example, as well as load balancing, in addition to the usual server options. There’s also support for autoscaling and while advanced users can use tools like Helm charts, Terraform and Rancher, there’s also one-click app support for deploying often-used applications.

Linode’s service is entering a market that already features plenty of other players. But it’s also a growing market with room for lots of different tools that cater to a variety of needs. Tools like Kubernetes now allow companies like Linode to reach beyond their current customer base and offer businesses a platform that allows them to easily develop and test new services on one platform and then put them into production somewhere else — or, of course, put them into production on Lindode, too.

 

November 19th 2019, 3:09 pm

Karma Automotive unveils its faster next act, the Revero GTS

TechCrunch

Karma Automotive’s second act is a gasoline-electric luxury vehicle that aims to deliver more performance and tech inside a sleek and sporty $149,950 package.

The 2020 Revero GTS unveiled Tuesday during AutoMobility LA, the press and trade days of LA Auto Show, shares some of the same bits as its sibling Revero GT. Both vehicles use a gasoline-electric powertrain — a BMW engine powers a generator that charges the 28 kilowatt-hour nickel manganese cobalt lithium-ion battery. Like the GT, the battery supplies the GTS with 80 miles of electric driving. Both vehicles have a total 360-mile range when they’re fully charged and fueled with gas.

And both have some of the same operational features, including three driving modes and launch control that allows drivers to unlock all the power and torque inside and “launch” the vehicle down the road. The three drive modes are “stealth,” for pure-electric driving, a range extender mode called “sustain,” and sport, which combines the output from the battery pack and the generator for maximum driving performance.

The specs

The GTS does have a lot of extra though and costs about $15,000 more than the GT. The GTS has a new body, including a redesigned hood, doors, deck lid, body sides and side mirrors. It’s also faster off the line and can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in an estimated 3.9 seconds compared to the 4.5 seconds in the GT. The GTS comes with electronic torque vectoring, refined power steering. It also has a higher electronically-limited top speed of 130 miles per hour versus the GT’s 125 mph.

The GTS’ twin electric motors and all-electric powertrain produce 536 horsepower and 635 pound-feet of torque, which should deliver a responsive and exciting enough drive. Although we’ll have to wait and experience it for ourselves.

The new vehicle has advanced driver assistance features like blind spot and cross traffic detection as well as audio technology developed in house and active noise cancelling. The infotainment system has also been improved on the GTS and includes haptic tactile switches a new touchscreen and user interface processor as well as a center console with improved storage.

Karma Automotive says it will begin production of the GTS in first quarter of 2020. First deliveries of the Revero GT expected during the fourth quarter of 2019.

The new business plan

The Karma Revero GT was the first fully conceived product to come out of a company that launched from the remnants of Fisker Automotive, the startup led by Henrik Fisker that ended in bankruptcy in 2013. China’s Wanxiang Group purchased what was left of Fisker in 2014 and Karma Automotive was born.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. The company’s first effort, known as the Revero, wasn’t received warmly. The Revero GT has been an improved effort. However, that hasn’t relieved the pressure.

The company laid off about 200 workers this month from its Irvine, Calif. headquarters following a restructuring that will focus on licensing its technology to other carmakers. The company’s assembly plant is in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Karma’s efforts to pack more tech and performance in the GTS makes sense considering the company’s new business strategy to open its engineering, design, customization and manufacturing resources to other companies. It also explains Karma’s other reveal Tuesday, an all-electric concept vehicle called the SC2 that delivers a stunning 1,100 horsepower and 10,500 lb.-ft. of torque and can achieve 0 to 60 mph in less than 1.9 seconds.

In other words, the GTS is a model of what Karma can do. And it explains some of Karma’s decisions to design and produce more of the vehicle’s components in house. Karma has developed its own inverters to maximize and maintain full software control for fast over-the-air updates as well as a proprietary 7.1-channel 570-watt Soloscape audio system, according to Todd George, the company’s VP of Engineering. The inverters convert DC current from the battery  pack to power the AC drive motors, and to also capture AC power from the regenerative braking system to recharge the battery pack.

It’s a business angle that Karma hopes will give it the immediate and long-term capital it needs to stay afloat. Karma is backed and owned by Wanxiang, the massive Chinese auto parts supplier. But it will eventually need to stand on its own.

November 19th 2019, 3:09 pm

Build trust with remote users to get qualitative feedback

TechCrunch

Over the past decade, software developers and growth marketers have automated most qualitative user feedback and testing. And yet, what about testing with communities like patients or senior citizens who may be more challenging to reach?

It was 2:00 a.m. at the Marriott Hotel in Singapore and I just wanted to get to bed after a 16-hour flight. As co-founder of a digital health company, I was in the process of building a community of test patients. Because of security and privacy concerns, I had to approach this process unconventionally; manually recruiting prospective testers online through administered groups and forums.

One of our test users had placed two urgent calls to me. I immediately called her back.

“One of our group members needs a new doctor. She is not doing well and needs a better specialist. I know you have a doctor on staff and I know it’s not his job but…umm, but…”

I interjected immediately.

“Don’t worry. You don’t need to say anything. We’ll do everything we can.”

Immediately, I dropped everything and called our company’s Chief Medical Officer to start a referral process. For the next few days, we fired off introductions to new doctors and assisted even though these tasks were not at all related to our company’s product. We were engaging with a non-conventional community which sometimes required going above and beyond the call of duty.

In recent years, product managers have fundamentally altered and automated usability testing for new products. Employing distributed labor marketplaces like Rainforest QA, Usabilia and Juicy Studio, growth-minded product managers have accelerated UI, UX, and backend product testing to ship faster and faster.

One of the most important subsets of usability testing, qualitative user feedback, has also faced an onslaught of automation.

And yet, there are numerous organizations who operate in spaces like healthcare, politics, or even eldercare where obtaining qualitative feedback is not that easily automated. Often, these are fields where security, privacy, and other restrictions necessitate a manual recruiting strategy focused on partnership and community development. A good example of this is a digital health company looking to test the first iteration of its product with patients where protected health information may be shared. Yet another example is an application focused on First Amendment violations targeting journalists or other at-risk groups where identity disclosure may be prohibitive. One needs to look no further than recent news of Google’s Nightingale project with Ascension Health to underscore the importance of the right policies and controls in these spaces.

I’ve learned the lessons in this space first-hand. Over the past two years, I have built a user community of patients who suffer from cardiovascular disease. For no monetary compensation, they are testing our company’s digital health application because they believe in its potential to make a difference in their lives and those of others. The most remarkable and fulfilling experience of my professional career, I have learned that to test your product with non-conventional users, you have to approach the process non-conventionally as well. In the words of Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham, you are going to have to “do things that don’t scale” and not be afraid of digging right in.

Specifically, you have to look for and recruit users in unexpected places; some of which resist automated growth marketing efforts. Second, you need to understand the value of partnership as these groups tend to resist more transactional relationships. And finally, you need to ask for permission and be honest and forthright with your intentions as to the testing process and the eventual product that you hope will hit the market.

Recruit in unexpected places

If recruiting test users in a challenging space like healthcare, law and order, or even eldercare, you need to seek them out in non-traditional and unexpected places. While you may think that online discussion forums like that are centered around user testing is the first place to go, there are other channels in which you can find more engaged and eager communities.

In medicine, community platforms including Patients Like Me and Care Opinion provide a key outlet to reach potential participants in a constructive and open way. In the political space, sites like Democratic Gain and Hill Zoo act similarly. Uniquely, these platforms have built-in security and approval features that protect users’ identities and allow them to only enter into conversations with their express and full consent. This is a key consideration for sensitive groups.

Facebook Groups allows for even more long tail recruiting but with the obvious and attendant risks that recruiting on an open platform like Facebook carries. Due to the closed nature of the Groups product as well as many built-in security features, Facebook Groups has escaped many of the information integrity issues and as a result, is one of the healthy components of the platform. Start by searching for a group in your space. Proceed by asking the group’s administrator for permission to engage with members by explaining your purpose and focus honestly. Often, in areas like medicine or politics, group members are eager to participate in testing new products where they can offer feedback in real-time and make an impact.

Even more fascinating is Quora . Quora’s platform emphasizes long tail discussions on a range of topics that even Facebook Groups cannot be narrow enough to encapsulate or cover. So, if you are looking for users with an extremely narrow focus, say those who are interested in testing a mobile app for tourism in the historic center of Hvar, Croatia, Quora may be your best opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals. Quora’s discussions can go quite deep, drive substantial value, and be generative of new product features.

It’s a partnership, not a transaction

November 19th 2019, 3:09 pm

Macy’s said hackers stole customer credit cards — again

TechCrunch

For the second time in as many years, Macy’s customers have been hit by a data breach involving countless numbers of credit cards.

In a filing with the California attorney general, the retail giant said hackers siphoned off customers’ names, addresses, and phone numbers, but also credit card numbers, card verification codes, and expiration dates by inserting malicious code on its website and quietly sending the stolen data back to the hackers.

Macy’s said the breach lasted a week, between October 7 and October 15. The retail giant did not say how many customers were affected, but the breach is likely to affect thousands of customers.

It’s the latest example of hackers breaking into websites and installing credit card skimming malware. It’s not known who was behind the credit card theft, but a hacking group known as Magecart has been behind some of the largest credit card skimming efforts in recent years — including the American Cancer SocietyBritish AirwaysTicketmasterAeroGarden and Newegg.

Last year, Macy’s admitted a months-long breach that saw hackers steal credit card data and passwords about 0.5% of its customer base — on both its website and Bloomingdale’s site, which Macy’s owns. The breach resulted in a class action suit, which accused Macy’s of “lackadaisical, cavalier, reckless, and negligent” security practices.

Macy’s is one of the most popular websites in the U.S., according to Alexa rankings.

November 19th 2019, 3:09 pm

Clumio raises $135M Series C for its backup as a service platform

TechCrunch

Clumio, a 100-people startup that offers a SaaS-like service for enterprise backup, today announced that it has raised a $135 million Series C round, led by existing investor Sutter Hill Ventures and new investor Altimeter Captial. The announcement comes shortly after the company’s disclosure in August that it had quietly raised a total of $51 million in Series A and B rounds in 2017 and 2018. The company says it plans to use this new funding to “accelerate its vision to deliver a globally consolidated data protection service in and for the public cloud.”

Given the amount of money invested in the company, chances are Clumio is getting close to a $1 billion valuation, but the company is not disclosing its valuation at this point.

The overall mission of Clumio is to build a platform on public clouds that gives enterprises a single data protection service that can handle backups of their data in on-premises, cloud and SaaS applications. When it came out of stealth, the company’s focus was on VMware on premises. Since then, the team has expanded this to include VMware running on public clouds.

“When somebody moves to the cloud, they don’t want to be in the business of managing software or infrastructure and all that, because the whole reason to move to the cloud was essentially to get away from the mundane,” explained Clumio CEO and co-founder Poojan Kumar.

The next step in this process, as the company also announced today, is to make it easier for enterprises to protect the cloud-native applications they are building now. The company today launched this service for AWS and will likely expand it to other clouds like Microsoft Azure, soon.

The market for enterprise backup is only going to expand in the coming years. We’ve now reached a point, after all, where it’s not unheard of to talk about enterprises that run thousands of different applications. For them, Clumio wants to become the one-stop-shop for all things data protection — and its investors are obviously buying into the company’s vision and momentum.

“When there’s a foundational change, like the move to the cloud, which is as foundational a change, at least, as the move from mainframe to open systems in the 80s and 90s,” said Mike Speiser, Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures . “When there’s a change like that, you have to re-envision, you have to refactor and think of the world — the new world — in a new way and start from scratch. If you don’t, what’s gonna end up happening is people make decisions that are short term decisions that seem like they will work but end up being architectural dead ends. And those companies never ever end up winning. They just never end up winning and that’s the opportunity right now on this big transition across many markets, including the backup market for Clumio.”

Speiser also noted that SaaS allows for a dramatically larger market opportunity for companies like Clumio. “What SaaS is doing, is it’s not only allowing us to go after the traditional Silicon Valley, high end, direct selling, expensive markets that were previously buying high-end systems and data centers. But what we’re seeing — and we’re seeing this with Snowflake and […] we will see it with Clumio — is there’s an opportunity to go after a much broader market opportunity.”

Starting next year, Clumio will expand that market by adding support for data protection for a first SaaS app, with more to follow, as well as support for backup in more regions and clouds. Right now, the service’s public cloud tool focuses on AWS — and only in the United States. Next year, it plans to support international regions as well.

Kumar stressed that he wants to build Clumio for the long run, with an IPO as part of that roadmap. His investors probably wouldn’t mind that, either.

November 19th 2019, 2:57 pm

Give InKind’s smarter giving platform brings in surprise $1.5 million in pre-seed funding

TechCrunch

Helping out a friend in need online can be surprisingly difficult. While giving cash is easy enough, that’s often not what people need most — so Give InKind aims to be the platform where you can do a lot more than write a check. The idea is such a natural one that the company tripled its goal for a pre-seed round, raising $1.5 million from Seattle investors.

The company was selected for inclusion in the Female Founders Alliance’s Ready Set Raise accelerator, at the demo day for which I saw founder Laura Malcolm present.

The problem Malcolm is attempting to solve is simply that in times of hardship, not only do people not want to deal with setting up a fundraising site, but money isn’t even what they require to get through that period. Malcolm experienced this herself, when she experienced a personal tragedy and found that what was out there to let others help was simply inadequate.

“My friends and family were trying to support me from around the country, but the tools they had to do that were outdated and didn’t solve the problems for us,” she explained. “There just wasn’t one place to put all the help that’s needed, whether that’s meal drop-off, or rides to school for the kids, or a wishlist for Instacart, or Lyft credits. Every situation is unique, and no one has put it all together in one place where, when someone says ‘how can I help?’ you can just point there.”

The idea with Give InKind is to provide a variety of options for helping someone out. Of course you can donate cash, but you can also buy specific items from wishlists, coordinate deliveries, set up recurring gifts (like diapers or gift boxes), or organize in-person help on a built-in calendar.

These all go on a central profile page that Malcolm noted is rarely set up by the beneficiary themselves.

“90 percent of pages are set up by someone else. Not everyone has been impacted by one of these situations, but I think almost everyone has known someone who has, and has wondered how they were supposed to respond or help,” she explained. “So this isn’t about capturing people during a time of need, but about solving the problem for people who want to know how to help.”

That certainly resonated with me, as I have always felt the cash donation option when someone is going through a tough time to be pretty impersonal and general. It’s nice to be able to help out in person, but what about a friend in another city who’s been taken out of action and needs someone else to figure out the dog walking situation? Give InKind is meant to surface specific needs like that and provide the links (to, for instance, Rover) and relevant information all in one place.

“The majority of actions on the site are people doing things themselves — signing up for meals, or to help. The calendar view is for coordination, and it’s the most used part of the site. About 70 percent is that, the rest is those national services [i.e. Instacart, Uber, etc.],” Malcolm said.

Locally run services (cleaners that aren’t on a national directory, for instance) are on the roadmap, but as you can imagine that takes a lot of footwork to put together, so it will have to wait.

Right now the site works almost entirely on an affiliate model; Helpers make accounts to do things like add themselves to the schedule or help edit the profile, then get sent out to the merchant site to complete the transaction there. The company is experimenting with on-site purchases for some things, but the idea isn’t to become host transactions except where that can really add value.

The plan for expansion is to double down on the existing organic growth patterns of the site. Every page that gets set up attracts multiple new users and visits, and those users are far more likely to start more pages even years down the line. Between improving that and some actual marketing work, Malcolm feels sure that they can grow quickly and could soon join other major giving services like GoFundMe in scale.

Ready, set, raise… a lot more than expected

Give InKind came to my attention through the Female Founder Alliance here in Seattle, which hosted a demo night a little while ago to highlight the companies and, naturally, their founders as well. Although some of the companies focused on female-forward issues, for instance the difficulty of acquiring workwear tailored to women’s bodies, the idea is more to find valuable companies that just happen to have female founders.

“Ready Set Raise was built to find high potential, dramatically undervalued investment opportunities, and translate them into something the VC community can understand,” said FFA founder Leslie Feinzaig. “Our last member survey results were consistent with findings that women founders raise less capital but make it go further. Give InKind is a perfect example. They bootstrapped for 3 years, found product market fit, grew 20% every month, and still struggled to resonate with investors.”

Yet after presenting, Malcolm’s company was honored at the event with a $100K investment from Trilogy Ventures. And having originally kicked off fundraising with a view to a $500K round, she soon found she had to cap it at an unexpected but very welcome $1.5M. The final list of participants in the round includes Madrona Venture Group, SeaChange Fund, Keeler Investments, FAM Fund, Grubstakes, and X Factor Ventures.

I suggested that this must have been something of a validating experience.

“It’s super validating,” she agreed. “The founder journey is long and hard, and the odds are not in favor of female founders or impact companies, necessarily, and consumer is not huge in Seattle, either. We really sort of defied the odds across the board raising this round so quickly… Seattle really showed up.”

She described the accelerator as being “incredibly unique. It’s entirely about creating access for female founders to investors, mentors, and experts.”

“We spent so much time turning my model upside down and shaking everything out of it. Turns out it was much more defensible than I thought. We didn’t change the business, and we didn’t change the product — we lightly changed the positioning,” she said. “This combination of access with coaching and mentorship, getting the ability to present the business in a way that’s compelling, you realize how much of this is held back from people who don’t have these opportunities. I’ve been carrying around Give InKind for three years in a paper bag, and they put a bell on it.”

Feinbaig cited the competitiveness of the application process and quality of their coaches, which give lots of 1 on 1 time, for the high quality of the companies emerging from the accelerator. You can check out the rest of the companies in the second cohort here — and of course Give InKind is live should you or anyone you know need a helping hand.

November 19th 2019, 2:27 pm

CMU finds that even bad robot trash talk can throw you off your game

TechCrunch

A commons tactic in both amateur and professional sports – and even in competitions as mundane as a casual board game night – is trash talk. But the negative effect of trash talk may have less to do with the skill of the repartee involved, and more with just the fact that it’s happening at all. A new study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that even robots spitting out pretty lame pre-programmed insults can have a negative impact on human players.

CMU’s study involved programming one of SoftBank’s Pepper humanoid robots to deliver scorchers like “I have to say you are a terrible player” to a group of 40 participants, who were playing the robot in a game called “Guards and Treasures,” which is a version of a strategy game often used for studying rationality. During the course of the experiment, participants played 35 times against the robot – some getting bolstering, positive comments form the robot, while others were laden with negative criticism.

Both groups of participants improved at the game over time – but the ones getting derided by the bots didn’t score as highly as the group that was praised.

It’s pretty well-established that people excel when they receive encouragement from other – but that’s generally meant other humans. This study provides early evidence that people could get similar benefits from robotic companions – even ones that don’t look particularly human-like. The researchers still want to do more investigation into whether Pepper’s humanoid appearance affected the outcome, vs. say a featureless box or an industrial robot acting as the automaton opponent and doling out the same kind of feedback.

The results of this and related research could be hugely applicable to areas like at-home care, something companies including Toyota are pursuing to address the needs of an aging population. It could also come into play in automated training applications, both at work and in other settings like professional sports.

November 19th 2019, 2:09 pm

Vulog will power Hyundai’s new LA car-sharing service

TechCrunch

The technology behind Hyundai’s new car-sharing service in Los Angeles is provided by a company that is largely unknown despite its ubiquity.

Vulog announced Tuesday during Automobility LA that Hyundai will use its technology platform for a car-sharing pilot that will launch in Los Angeles at the end of 2019 and will eventually grow to 300 vehicles.

Vulog might have a low profile, but it’s hardly a startup. The French-based company has been providing the underlying hardware and software needed for car-sharing services since 2006. Vulog’s product, which includes tools like fleet management and a consumer-facing app, is used in car-sharing services in more than 30 cities globally. The company says its turnkey product can get a large-scale car-sharing service up and running in about three months.

Today, its platform is used by Volkswagen’s WeShare, Kia Motor’s Wible and Groupe PSA’ Free2Move car-sharing service. Aimo, which is owned by Sumitomo Corporation, and a British Columbia Automobile Association company called Evo also uses the platform. And now, Hyundai.

Earlier this month, Hyundai Group launched MoceanLab, a mobility service venture based in Los Angeles and the latest effort by the automaker to diversify and modernize its core business of producing and selling vehicles. MoceanLab will focus on piloting autonomous ridesharing, shuttling, multimodal transportation, and personal mobility in Los Angeles.

One of the efforts under MoceanLab is Mocean Carshare, the car-sharing service that will use Vulog’s technology platform. The service is part of a permit pilot program offered by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The car-sharing service will use 20 Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Mocean Carshare will eventually transition to a fleet of 300 fully electric vehicles from Hyundai and Kia Motors. 

MoceanLab, the umbrella mobility services venture, will do more than car-sharing. The Hyundai-owned company is eyeing the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles as an event to offer a variety of services to alleviate congestion, including autonomous ridesharing and shuttling.

The creation of MoceanLab follows Hyundai’s joint venture with autonomous driving company Aptiv and the launch of BotRide, an autonomous ride-hailing service in nearby Irvine, California with Chinese autonomous startup Pony.ai  and Via.

Meanwhile, Vulog has its own ambitions. The company plans to double its footprint in the next year to hit 60 cities by the end of 2020.

November 19th 2019, 1:39 pm

Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

TechCrunch

Starting today, when you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories.

That’s probably what many of us are hoping for when we listen to a news radio station or a daily news podcast during the morning commute. But those come from a single broadcaster, and may require you to hop around to get all the news you’re looking for.

In contrast, the feature that Google is calling Your News Update draws stories from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the ones that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

“Audio has always been great,” said Audio News Product Manager Liz Gannes (a former tech journalist herself.) “It’s a tremendously evocative medium that conveys an immense amount of information.”

But she suggested that “the distribution technology has been slower [t evolve] than things like text and video,” which is why Google has been experimenting in this area. For example, it’s already added news stories to Google Assistant, as well as responses to news-related questions like “What’s the latest news about Brexit?”

Gannes added that behind the scenes, the company has been developing “an open specification for single topic audio stories.” So rather than dealing with an unwieldy hourlong broadcast or podcast, Google Assistant is working clips focused on a specific piece of news.

Your News Update usually starts with a few brief, general interest clips — namely, the big headlines of the day. Then it starts playing longer stories that are selected based on what Google knows about you.

For example, when I tried it out this morning, my update began with a 30-second update on the impeachment from Fox News (not one of my regular news sources) and ran through other then major stories of the day, then switched to longer (two- to three-minute) entertainment stories from sources like The Hollywood Reporter.

Gannes noted that “there’s a big emphasis on local news in this product — that don’t just mean where you live, but also other locations you care about.” And she said the average update will be around an hour and a half — so it can keep you occupied during a long commute, no dial-fiddling required.

John Ciancutti, Google’s director of engineering for search, added that the recommendations should get smarter over time: “If you want to skip a story … the more you listen, the better sense we get of your tastes and interests.” He also suggested that Your News Update could become more sensitive to context, offering different stories depending on whether (say) you’re in your car or in your kitchen.

“You can imagine in the future, you tune in and we know you’re in your car on Tuesday morning at 7:36, and we can predict based on other listening that you’ve got about a 28-minute commute,” Ciancutti said.

Your News Update is currently available in English in the United States, with plans for international expansion next year.

November 19th 2019, 1:28 pm

Facebook announces dates for its 2020 F8 developers conference

TechCrunch

Facebook announced its plans for its F8 annual developer conference, which is where the company shows off its latest technology, apps and its vision for the future. The company says the next event will take place on May 5-6, 2020 at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

Interested attendees can sign up at www.f8.com to be notified when registration opens and receive updates.

Last year, the company used the F8 event to introduce a huge redesign of Facebook.com, plus upgrades, products, and expansions in areas like Messenger, WhatsApp, Dating, Marketplace and beyond. It also showed off how it’s putting new technology to work, including with VR, smart home, hardware, and other developer-facing technology, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

Facebook isn’t yet talking about what it will show off at F8 in 2020, but says it will feature: “product demos, deep-dive sessions that showcase how technology can enable you to come together and create your best work, and opportunities for you to network with our global developer community and learn from each other,” according to its announcement.

Beyond the news that comes from F8 in terms of individual products, the conference gives Facebook a platform to present its overarching vision.

Last year, for example, it was one of a network that’s trying to become more private and working to retain users. More recently, Facebook’s initiatives show a company that’s still trying to be disruptive, with new products like Libra. But some of its launches also demonstrate that the company is painfully aware of how much it’s ceding traction to other social apps, like Snapchat and TikTok. We’ll see if Facebook has any new responses to those challenges, or to the larger, more existential issues Facebook now faces with the rise of anti-trust investigations that put Facebook in their crosshairs.

November 19th 2019, 1:28 pm

Robotics startup Picnic, known for its automated pizza assembly system, raises $5 million

TechCrunch

Picnic, a robotics startup that focuses on food production, announced today that it has raised $5 million in additional seed funding. The new round was led by Creative Ventures, with participation from Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital.

The company also said it has hired Kennard Nielsen, a product engineer who worked on the first four Kindle Fire tablets, Nike Fuelband, Microsoft Xbox and Doppler Labs’ HereOne from Doppler Labs at previous positions, as its new vice president of engineering.

The new funding will be used for product development, hiring and marketing.

Picnic is known for an automated pizza assembly system that launched in October. The configurable, modular platform currently focuses on high-volume pizza production and can reach rates of up to 180 18-inch pizzas or 300 12-inch pizzas an hour. The system fits into existing kitchen layouts, including food trucks and kiosks, and integrates with Picnic’s software to provide backend data and cloud analytics that help with consistency, speed and reducing food waste.

Picnic operates on a “robotics-as-a-service” model, with users paying for the system on a subscription basis. The pizza assembly system’s first customers were Centerplate, a food and hospitality provider for large event venues, and Washington-based restaurant chain Zaucer Pizza.

In June, Picnic also hired Mike McLaughlin, a food and beverage industry veteran who previously held roles at BUNN, Concordia Coffee Systems and Starbucks, as its vice president of product.

November 19th 2019, 12:35 pm

Make a personal plan for your exit or IPO

TechCrunch

Whether you’re a founder, an early employee or an executive, the possibility of an exit offers extraordinary financial possibilities.

However, I see plenty of founders having liquidity events only to find themselves making hurried decisions with their newfound wealth, ultimately feeling frustrated when they realize they’ve paid a painful price by not having the proper advice. 

Typically, I recommend breaking your planning into two separate phases to reduce overwhelm and maximize your wealth: planning before an exit and planning after an exit.

Determine your goals and strategy

Before an exit, it’s important to coordinate planning and hammer out key details that will carry you through the sale of your business. This typically means teaming up with a financial adviser, an accountant, and an estate planning attorney. Just as you’ve built the team of your company to help your business grow and succeed, it’s important to build a team that’s coordinated and focused on your personal financial success both now and in the future. 

Spending time upfront to determine your goals, objectives, and desired lifestyle can save you endless headaches on the back end of an exit, possibly save you a surprising amount in taxes and set you up for long-term success and fulfillment.

Taxes and QSBS

Speaking with a professional can help you determine what tax savings opportunities would be most applicable to your specific situation. For example, if you’re a startup founder, you may qualify for the QSBS exclusion (qualified small business stock). This exclusion could, if you qualify, allow you to exclude up to $10 million, and sometimes multiples of that, in federal capital gains tax after selling your stake in the company. 

One of our clients whose company was being acquired did not know whether he would qualify for the QSBS exclusion when he was introduced to us. By coordinating with his corporate counsel and accountant, we determined he would. In this specific situation he had acquired the domestic C Corporation shares of his tech company, and held them for over five years by the time the acquisition happened. And when he initially obtained the shares, the gross assets of the company were less than $50 million. Needless to say, he was pleased to learn that the first $10 million of his gains were exempt from federal tax!

Requirements to qualify for QSBS include but are not limited to:

  1. Domestic C corporation stock acquired directly from the company and held for over 5years
  2. Stock issued after Aug 10th, 1993, and ideally, after Aug 27th, 2010 for a full 100% exclusion
  3. Gross assets of the company must be less than $50 million when the stock was acquired 
  4. Active business with 80% of assets being used to run the business. Cannot be an investment entity
  5. Cannot be an excluded business type such as, but not limited to finance, professional services, mining/ natural resources hotel/ restaurants, farming or any other business where the business reputation is a skill of one or more of the employees.

Estate planning and wealth transfer

November 19th 2019, 12:21 pm

DoorDash tipping practices prompts lawsuit from DC Attorney General

TechCrunch

DoorDash is facing a new lawsuit regarding its tipping practices. This time, it’s coming from Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. In the suit, Racine accuses DoorDash of engaging in deceptive tipping practices while also failing to provide any relief to workers whose tips were taken.

Racine’s office first opened an investigation into DoorDash’s practices in March 2019. In D.C., the suit alleges DoorDash customers paid millions of dollars in tips that the company used to offset the costs of its payments to workers over the span of two years. Racine’s office is seeking to make DoorDash pay damages and restitution.

“We strongly disagree with and are disappointed by the action taken today,” a DoorDash spokesperson told TechCrunch in an email. “Transparency is of paramount importance, which is why we publicly disclosed how our previous pay model worked in communications specifically created for Dashers, consumers, and the general public starting in 2017. We’ve also worked with an independent third party to verify that we have always paid 100% of tips to Dashers. We believe the assertions made in the complaint are without merit and we look forward to responding to them through the legal process.”

The suit focuses on how DoorDash had been offsetting the amount it pays its delivery drivers with customer tips. DoorDash’s payment structure as follows: $1 plus customer tip plus pay boost, which varies based on the complexity of order, distance to restaurants and other factors. It’s only when a customer doesn’t tip at all, which DoorDash told Fast Company happens about 15 percent of the time, that DoorDash is on the hook to pay the entire guaranteed amount.

In July, DoorDash announced it would change its tipping model, about a month after it doubled down on that same model. In August, DoorDash revealed how its new model would work but it later made clear that it would not be paying back any workers for lost wages.

“There’s no ‘back pay’ at issue here because every cent of every tip on DoorDash has always gone and will always go to Dashers,” a DoorDash spokesperson previously told TechCrunch via email in response to a question about whether or not DoorDash would back pay its delivery workers.

When Instacart changed its tipping practices earlier this year, it retroactively compensated shoppers when tips were included in the payment minimums. DoorDash, however, does not see the need for back pay. DoorDash fully implemented its new policy in September.

Meanwhile, DoorDash is funding a ballot initiative alongside Uber and Lyft to try to ensure it doesn’t have to treat its workers as W-2 employees.

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

This initiative is a direct response to the legalization of AB-5, the gig worker bill that will make it harder for the likes of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies to classify their workers as 1099 independent contractors.

I’ve reached out to DoorDash and will update this story if I hear back.

November 19th 2019, 12:21 pm

Here’s the first look inside Orbex’s Scotland rocket factory

TechCrunch

European private launch startup Orbex is getting ready to start actually launching payloads aboard its own rockets, and it’s pulling back the curtains to give a look at the factory it’s using to build its launch vehicles. The UK-based company is building its rockets from a facility in Scotland, and this virtual tour gives an idea of what they’re doing to make the first rocket field by renewable, clean-burning fuel a reality.

Orbex Prime’s Stage 2 vehicle.

The second stage that Orbex will use employs bio-prone for its fuel, which will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 90 percent vs. the kerosene based fuel used on most similar vehicles. Orbex also built reusability into their ‘Prime’ launch vehicle design, and it’s 3D-printing its engines in one single piece, working with partner SLM to make this possible. That will add more structural reliability to the engine, the company says.

Orbex carbon fibre winding machine.

In service of making this unique vehicle, the Orbex site in Scotland features “one of the largest carbon fibre winding machines in Europe,” which measures around 60 feet long and which can produce its rockets with a weight savings of up to 30 percent vs. similarly sized vehicles already on the market. That weight savings means faster acceleration and more fuel efficiency.

Also part of the new facility is a large autoclave that is used to bring the rocket components to the proper temperature for setting and curing. The company says that its equipment can wind its main stage fuel tanks in just a matter of hours using this equipment, which is a big part of ability to achieve launch vehicle construction efficiency, which leads to affordable costs for small satellite launch clients keen to make use of the Prime to deliver their payloads.

Orbex’s 3D-printed rocket engine.

The 3D printer for the engines can fully print one of the Prime’s engines in just five hours – each Prime launcher will make use of six for the vehicle that will power the first stage, and a seventh, vacuum-rated one to power the second stage as it makes the final trip to orbit to delivery its payloads.

Orbex already has a number of commercial contracts in place, and expects to fly Prime for the first time sometime in 2021. It’ll look to launch from the proposed Sutherland spaceport, which is currently in development and will be Europe’s first ever mainland orbital spaceport once complete.

November 19th 2019, 12:05 pm

Amazon’s new Fire TV Blaster works with Echo to control your TV, soundbar, cable box and more

TechCrunch

Amazon already offers Alexa voice control to TV owners through its Fire TV devices, by way of a voice remote or by pairing an Echo device with a Fire TV, for hands-free voice commands. Now, it’s introducing a new device, the Fire TV Blaster, which extends that same hands-free voice control to your TV itself and other TV devices — like your soundbar, cable box, or A/V Receiver.

That means you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, turn off the TV,” or “Alexa, switch to HDMI 1 on TV.” You can also control the volume and the playback.

And if you have other TV devices, you can control them hands-free as well, by saying things like “Alexa, turn up the soundbar volume,” or “Alexa to ESPN on cable.”

The Fire TV Blaster is designed to be added to the mix when you’re already using an Echo paired with a Fire TV.  The idea is to make it possible to go 100% hands-free, in terms of controlling your devices with your voice, no matter what your particular setup is like.

Amazon says customers use Alexa more when they don’t have to push a button on their remote. For instance, when customers use the Fire TV Cube, which offers hands-free voice control, they use Alexa 8 times more often. But the Fire TV Cube is more expensive — and a bulky, big cube isn’t the aesthetic everyone wants in their living room. Plus, many customers already own a Fire TV Stick or other Fire TV device, and just want to extend its functionality.

That’s where the Fire TV Blaster would come in.

The new device arrives at a time when Amazon Fire TV isn’t only competing against Roku as the media player (or TV OS) of choice among consumers — it’s also competing for control of the whole living room. Thanks to Roku’s recent launches of its smart soundbar and wireless subwoofer, at various price points, as well as its wireless speakers, Roku wants to more of the market. Amazon has countered with the launch of its own soundbar and other devices.

Many consumers like to buy devices from all the same brand because they know the devices have been designed to work well with one another — like the HomePod and Apple TV or the Echo Studio and Fire TV, or the Roku and its speakers.

But many others have a hodgepodge of devices from various manufacturers. If they don’t want to swap them out, the Fire TV Blaster can just work with them instead, while keeping the customer in the Amazon family.

The Fire TV Blaster includes a power cord (micro-USB), wired infrared support / IR extender cable, and support for 802.11 a/b/g/n 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wi-fi. It works with the Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen) with Alexa Voice Remote (2nd Gen), Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen) with Alexa Voice Remote (1st Gen), Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV (3rd Gen), Fire TV Cube (1st Gen and 2nd Gen), and any Echo speaker or smart display.

The device is available for $34.99 in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Germany and ships on December 11, Amazon says. You can also buy it in a bundle for $79.99 with a Fire TV Stick 4K and Echo Dot.

 

 

 

November 19th 2019, 11:36 am

Hands-on with DJI’s Osmo Mobile 3

TechCrunch

Hello, it’s your video-making friends at TechCrunch again. This time, DJI sent us the latest iteration of their mobile phone gimbal to try out for a couple of weeks. While I took mine to Budapest and Vienna, Gregory tested his demo unit all around the Bay Area.

 

With added tools like gesture control, story mode, Hitchcock dolly zoom and hyper-lapse, the Osmo 3 breaks up the monotony of regular footage and makes shooting more fun. It’s a great hardware design upgrade for DJI and a must-have for content creators, influencers and regular folks. For anal-retentive video makers like us, we just need a little bit more control.

November 19th 2019, 11:20 am

Meet Dongtu, the Giphy of China

TechCrunch

With its own universe of homegrown social networks, e-commerce platforms and search engines, the Chinese internet is a world apart from its counterpart in the U.S. But in some areas, the two countries are surprisingly similar. That’s particularly true of people’s love for GIFs .

Some feelings are better expressed in pictures and animations than words. Starting in the 2010s, the onset of smartphones gave rise to the need for portable, flexible ways to send images and videos in chats. GIFs, the 1987-invention otherwise known as the graphics interchange format, is a perfect solution for transmitting lightweight pixels. These endlessly looping images quickly caught on in China, where mobile-first internet has flourished over the last decade.

Noticing the trend, Californian Grant Long moved to China and partnered with local entrepreneurs Ann Ding and Jiaming Yin to create Dongtu, which means “moving pictures” in Chinese. Much like Giphy and Google-owned Tenor, Dongtu runs an in-house creative team that pumps out a bountiful supply of GIFs; it also distributes works of third-party creators such as entertainment studios and contracted designers, as well as popular memes sourced from the web. The startup’s content is then baked into some 3,000 apps with chatting features, including mainstream ones like WeChat, Twitter-like Weibo and Dingtalk, Alibaba’s answer to Slack.

Dongtu claims it generates 750 million daily searches and over 3 billion views per day through the GIFs it provides to third-party platforms. In comparison, its American predecessor Giphy, which uses different performance metrics, had some 300 million daily users as of last March. Aside from tapping into China’s obsession with GIFs, the journey of Dongtu is as much about a foreign entrepreneur carving out his spot in the crowded Chinese market as it is about a budding startup surviving alongside the giants.

Navigating the Chinese internet

Dongtu’s logo

Before his time in China, Long managed product and business development at Swyft Media, a New York-based company that made branded micro-content like stickers and fonts. In 2015, Swyft began working closely with rising messengers Kik, KakaoTalk and Viber, through which Long came to believe that a major growth opportunity was coming up in Asia. He wanted Swyft to enter this part of the world, but it became harder to push for changes after the startup got acquired by publicly-traded Monotype Imaging.

In 2016, Long packed up for China and began studying the market on the ground from Shanghai. Before long, he realized that a fully foreign entity would not be able to succeed alone for “both localization challenges as well as political reasons,” he told TechCrunch in a phone interview. The American entrepreneur approached Biaoqingyun (“Emoji Cloud”), a local sticker startup that would otherwise be his competitor, to partner and create Dongtu together.

“It’s definitely not the case that China is 100% different from America and America is 100% different from China because ultimately, we’re all humans. And we have very similar tendencies of natural behaviors and desires for things,” said Long, who now leads business strategy at Dongtu. “If you have a lot of understanding from another market, a lot of that actually does translate [in a new market]. You just have to localize it in terms of the platforms and services.”

Having a local partner is crucial to navigating local media regulations. Apps in China can get pulled for spreading content that is illegal or simply deemed “inappropriate,” a liability that’s often vaguely defined. Before anything goes live, publishers are compelled to conduct stringent screening and GIF distributors are no exception.

Dongtu does not currently allow open uploads of user-generated content because doing so can be risky in China without significant content moderation efforts. “I’m personally very impressed by [China’s] short video platforms,” said Long. “If you think of the volume of content created and shared, and the fact that they’re able to survive for as long as they have under the oversight that that is required.”

Source: Dongtu

Even with the advance of machine learning technology, Chinese media platforms still rely on large armies of human auditors to address the ever-changing whims of regulators. “Historically, something might be considered appropriate, but now suddenly, it isn’t. I think the risk is that it’s hard to draw a line and decide, well, what makes this piece of content inappropriate and different from this other thing that looks similar but is fine,” noted the founder.

Dealing with Chinese giants

Dongtu has over time found a sweet spot in China’s fierce internet industry by providing the essential content that thousands of apps need to enrich user communication. One big-name client is WeChat. The startup runs a GIF store inside Tencent’s billion-user messenger where users can search for trending GIFs and load up their sticker arsenal.

A less expected partner is e-commerce titan Alibaba. While Amazon shoppers normally make decisions based on what others have to say on the products, Chinese consumers not only pore over reviews but also tend to pose detailed questions to vendors. Direct messaging is thus an inseparable part of Chinese e-commerce apps. Livestreaming has also emerged to allow shoppers and sellers to interact in a real-time manner. GIFs can play a big part in social commerce just like they would lighten up conversations in messengers.

Dongtu GIFs are integrated into the chatting feature of Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace. Source: Dongtu

Chinese users might be similarly into animated images as Americans, but the adaptability of the format is far wider in China. Dongtu’s vast library contains everything from NFL-themed stickers to soap opera memes. “A grandma in a rural city who’s on WeChat can be quite familiar with sending sticker content whereas, in the U.S., I think it’s far more of a young person’s behavior,” Long observed.

The way that Chinese apps adapt GIFs is also reflective of their hands-on approach to the customer journey. Most critically, the majority of Dongtu’s integrations with partners happen through SDK instead of API. The former, which stands for Software Development Kit, gives third-party developers a more “turnkey” user experience. For instance, a Dongtu-powered GIF on China’s largest podcast app Ximalaya can lead to a landing page that Dongtu has predetermined, a process that would not be otherwise achievable through the lightweight Application Programming Interface, which leaves it to the main app to display content the way they want.

In contrast, Giphy and Google-owned rival Tenor were originally built on API integrations. “For us, it’s more like our SDK talking to our back end, so we’re having a two-way conversation with ourselves. It’s decentralized across all these different channels,” suggested Long.

Working with giants brings Dongtu a steady revenue stream — and potential funding opportunities. The rivaling pair Alibaba and Tencent rarely invest in the same startup, but for Long, “the ideal scenario would be if we could raise from both Alibaba and Tencent, because we do so much with both of them.”

Dongtu makes money from a combination of paid consumer functions as well as paid promotions commissioned by marketers who want the brands they represent to be part of people’s GIF-powered communication, including a structure that incentivizes large app partners to co-sell these GIF campaigns to their own large base of direct clients.

Dongtu counts ZhenFund as one of its seed investors. Cheetah Mobile, the Chinese firm known for developing utility apps, led its Series A round. Other investors from these rounds include InnoAngel, a venture fund started by alumni of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, and Creation Ventures, an investment fund specializing in entertainment and content.

November 19th 2019, 11:06 am

Salesforce Customer 360 aims to bring all customer data into a single view

TechCrunch

The holy grail of customer experience these days involves gathering all of the data on an individual customer into a single record. Today at Dreamforce, the company’s massive customer customer conference taking place in San Francisco, Salesforce announced the latest iteration of Customer 360, its platform of tools designed to create that single record.

The goal here is to be able to have all your customer data in a single place so that you can build a deep understanding, and deliver meaningful experiences based on that knowledge. The company is not alone in this. Adobe announced genera availability of a similar product last week and startups like Segment are also trying to solve this issue.

Salesforce has been working on this problem for the last year, and today it announced Customer 360 Truth. “What we’ve been working on for the last year is some new capabilities and some existing capabilities, and bringing them all together to actually go and try to create that single source of truth of your customer,” Patrick Stokes, EVP of platform and shared services at Salesforce explained.

This isn’t just about pulling Salesforce data into this record. “We are connecting to every application, not just within Salesforce, but external to Salesforce as well. We are helping you authenticate and govern the customer data that you have. And then ultimately getting it into a state where you can use it to really deliver personalized experiences,” Stokes said.

The Salesforce solution involves four main components, which generally are part of any solution like this. The first is Customer 360 Data Manager, which provides a way to connect to and gather data from a variety of data sources. Next is Salesforce Identity, which is designed to create a unified login, which could help make it easier to identify who the person is. Customer 360 Audience, which helps you identify all of the different online identities an individual has, and finally there is Salesforce Privacy and Data Governance, which lets you control how the data is used.

The solution also encompasses MuleSoft’s tools to help connect to various data sources and pull them into a single view, and the Cloud Information Model, an open source data model introduced last week with AWS and Genesys also involved. The Customer 360 Truth platform is built on top of this model.

All of the components are generally available starting today, except Audience Manager, which is expected some time in the first half of next year.

All of this is hard to do, and while Salesforce is providing all the base level tools you need for a solution like this, time will tell how well all of these components fit together to build the kind of complex customer profile this promises.

November 19th 2019, 11:06 am

SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft can supply NASA’s lunar space station – and become its own orbital pla

TechCrunch

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is in the process of developing ‘Dream Chaser,’ a reusable spacecraft designed to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, and bring it back to Earth, landing on a runway like the Space Shuttle. Today, the company revealed more about the Dream Chaser at a press event at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It literally showed off a new cargo component of the Dream Chaser, with a full-scale model on site – the ‘Shooting Star’ is an ejectable, disposable secondary cargo vehicle that can itself dock with the ISS while in orbit, take on waste cargo from the station, and then do a controlled de-orbit to burn up in the atmosphere, leaving nothing behind. This expendable component adds a lot of versatility to the Dream Chaser’s design, and extends the vehicle’s mission capabilities with safe disposal of materials that otherwise wouldn’t be suitable for loading aboard the Dream Chaser for its return journey to Earth.

So it’s got a nested cargo craft that can itself autonomously dock with the ISS and take out the trash, but that’s not the only trick up the Dream Chaser’s sleeve: The spacecraft will also be able to reach and resupply the Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to deploy to act as a staging point for its lunar surface missions. The Dream Chaser will have to have its satellite bus attached to make that trip, but it means it’ll be able to participate much more in NASA’s Artemis program. Probably not coincidentally, SNC was named as one of the new approved vendors that can bid on NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts (basically deliveries to the Moon’s surface).

Dream Chaser can also actually become an orbital satellite itself – its design allows for an inflatable module to be attached that can essentially convert it into an orbital platform with a very high payload and power capacity. Multipurpose is the name of the game when it comes to making multi-planetary space-based operations a viable, recurring long-term thing that we can actually accomplish, so Dream Chaser is looking like quite the high-value package if all of this comes together.

Already, Dream Chaser has been tapped by NASA to run commercial resupply services (via the CRS-2 contract – you’ve probably heard the ‘CRS’ term because both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop) won the first batch and have been providing those over the course of the last several years. The Dream Chaser spacecraft is currently under construction, and is aiming for 2021 for its first mission on behalf of NASA.

November 19th 2019, 10:50 am

Spotify turns its personalization technology to podcasts with launch of Your Daily Podcasts

TechCrunch

Spotify is taking the personalization technology that powers its music playlists, like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix, and turning it to podcasts. The company announced this morning the launch of a new podcast playlist called Your Daily Podcasts, that allows users to discover new shows and keep up with their favorites. In other words, it’s a discovery mechanism for finding new podcasts — similar to how Discovery Weekly will recommend new music.

The playlist will only appear when you’ve listened to at least four podcasts in the past 90 days, Spotify says. It will be available in the “Your Top Podcasts” shelf in the Home tab or in the “Made for You” hub in the app.

As with Spotify’s music playlists, algorithms will be used to analyze your podcast listening behavior like what’s you’ve recently streamed and what you follow. It will then recommend what episode to listen to next based on this history and what sort of podcasts you like. This could be the next episode in something you’re already listening to, a standalone evergreen episode from a popular podcast, or a more timely episode from a daily updating podcast, the company says. It also promises it won’t skip ahead if you’re listening to a story-driven sequential series.

After a few recommended episodes from your own subscriptions or history, Spotify will suggest new shows and begin playing their episodes after a brief intro that says, “And now, something new based on your listening.”

But unlike Discover Weekly, where the main goal is to keep users engaged and subscribed to Spotify’s service, Your Daily Podcasts has a secondary motive as well — to point users to Spotify’s own, in-house programs. While the new playlist at launch doesn’t appear to be favoring Spotify’s shows over others, it certainly is including them.

Over time, Spotify’s playlist could help grow the fan bases for its own programming, which listeners can’t get elsewhere. That also keeps them subscribed. Plus, podcasts are another surface against which Spotify can advertise, and they don’t have the hefty licensing fees associated with streaming music — especially when their creation is handled in-house.

In the third quarter, Spotify launched 22 original and exclusive titles from Spotify Studios, including The Ringer: The Hottest Take and The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet in the U.S. It also launched a number of originals from the studios it recently acquired, Gimlet and Parcast, the company said. As a result of its efforts, it’s seeing exponential growth in podcast hours streamed (up 39% from the prior quarter).

However, podcast adoption among the overall user base lags…just under 14% of users are listening to the audio programs. A new playlist like this could help, but it also misunderstands how some people listen to audio shows. They don’t necessarily want to hear any ol’ program they like at any time. Much like selecting something to watch on TV, people will be in the “mood” for one type of podcast over another at different times. Sometimes, it may be true crime, sometimes news, sometimes pop culture, sometimes comedy, etc. Throwing all those genres into the same mix is a disjointed experience.

If anything, Spotify should be trying to design a podcast experience that looks more like Netflix than a music app. Perhaps with rows where there are different grouping by genre or topic, or rows featuring short-form quick bites or longer, in-depth shows. A row with clips where you could check out new shows then click “subscribe” to keep following them. It could even put easy-to-access buttons next to these rows in order to launch a stream of favorites from a given genre. Basically, personalize the whole podcast interface so it feels like your own rather than trying to do that within a single playlist.

This is not Spotify’s first attempt at a podcast playlist. It also recently launched “Your Daily Drive” which combines music and podcasts. And it now allows users to create their own playlists using podcasts.

Spotify says the new playlist is available free and Premium users in U.S., U.K., Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

 

November 19th 2019, 10:36 am

India says law permits agencies to snoop on citizen’s devices

TechCrunch

The Indian government said on Tuesday that it is “empowered” to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital communication “generated, transmitted, received, or stored” on a citizen’s device in the country in the interest of national security or to maintain friendly relations with foreign states.

Citing section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy said local law empowers federal and state government to “intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”

Reddy’s remarks were in response to the parliament, where a lawmaker had asked if the government had snooped on citizens’ WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, and Google calls and messages.

The lawmaker’s question was prompted after 19 activists, journalists, politicians, and privacy advocates in India revealed earlier this month that their WhatsApp communications may have been compromised.

WhatsApp has said that Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO’s tools have been used to send malware to 1,400 users. The Facebook-owned company has in recent weeks alerted users whose accounts had been compromised. The social juggernaut earlier this month sued NSO alleging that its tools were being used to hack WhatsApp users.

NSO has maintained that it only sells its tools to government and intelligence agencies, an assertion that stoked fear among some that the state could be behind targeting the aforementioned 19 people — and perhaps more — in the country.

Reddy did not directly address the questions, but in a blanket written statement said that “authorized agencies as per due process of law, and subject to safeguards as provided in the rules” can intercept or monitor or decrypt “any information from any computer resource” in the country.

He added that each case of such interception has to be approved by the Union Home Secretary (in case of federal government) and by the Home Secretary of the State (in case of state government.)

Last month, the Indian government said it was moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

It told the country’s apex court that it would formulate the rules by January 15 of next year.

A report published today by New Delhi-based Software Law and Freedom Centre (SFLC) found that more than 100,000 telephone interception are issued by the federal government alone every year.

“On adding the surveillance orders issued by the state governments to this, it becomes clear that India routinely surveils her citizens’ communications on a truly staggering scale,” the report said.

The non-profit organization added that the way current laws that enable law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on citizens’ private communications are “opaque” as they are run “solely by the executive arm of the government, and make no provisions for independent oversight of the surveillance process.”

November 19th 2019, 10:06 am

Amazon makes its music streaming service free with ads

TechCrunch

Amazon is making its music streaming service free. The company previously offered free, ad-supported streaming only to customers who owned an Amazon Echo device. Now it’s rolling out free streaming to anyone using the Amazon Music app on iOS, Android, Fire TV and Amazon Music on the web in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

The company has been steadily making its music streaming service more accessible by reducing prices. Earlier this year, for example, Amazon said it would no longer charge the $3.99 per month for streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited to Echo devices or require customers to pay for Amazon Prime in order to gain access to Prime Music’s smaller, 2+ million song catalog. Instead, it rolled out an ad-supported version of Amazon Music for free to Echo owners.

This is basically the same 2 million song catalog that comes with Prime Music, it just includes advertising and doesn’t require Prime membership.

Now, it’s making Amazon Music free for anyone — Echo owner or not — across a range of devices. This will allow users to play thousands of stations based on any song, artist, era, or genre, similar to Pandora. They’ll also gain access to top playlists, like “All Hits” featuring the world’s top songs, or the “Holiday Favorites” station, among others.

The move doesn’t really threaten paid subscription services like Spotify or Pandora’s premium tier or Apple Music, as Amazon’s free service has a much smaller catalog. It’s also not nearly as advanced in terms of its personalization technology, which powers things like Spotify’s Discover Weekly and other custom playlists. These are a big draw for music fans, and a reason they opt for one streaming service over another.

Instead, Amazon’s free music service serves more as a way to upsell consumers by encouraging them to join Amazon Prime in order to remove the ads from their music. (Prime Music’s 2 million songs are an added perk of a Prime subscription.) This is Amazon’s true motive: lock in more customers to Amazon Prime, ensure they realize the value of the free shipping and other benefits, then get them to renew every year. Once a Prime member, people will shop more often from Amazon, which is where the retailer’s profits lie.

The free music service also serves as an entry point into Amazon’s wider music ecosystem. If customers decide they want a larger, ad-free catalog, they can up to join Amazon Music Unlimited instead, which offers 50 million songs at $7.99 per month for Prime members, or $9.99 per month for others. And true audiophiles can upgrade to Amazon Music HD for $12.99 per month for Prime members, or $14.99 per month for non-members.

For the time being, Amazon is offering 4 months of Amazon Music Unlimited for $0.99.

November 19th 2019, 9:50 am

Sweden drops rape investigation into Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange

TechCrunch

Sweden has dropped an investigation into Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, on allegations of suspected rape.

In a statement today the country’s prosecution authority said the evidence has “weakened considerably” in the almost a decade that’s elapsed since the events in question.

“I would like to emphasise that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events. Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed; however, my overall assessment is that the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation,” said Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecution.

The prosecutor had only announced in May that it was reopening an investigation into allegations of sexual offences which date back to August 2010. The investigation was earlier discontinued in 2017 but reopened at the request of the lawyer for the alleged victim following Assange’s arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after the country withdrew diplomatic immunity.

After his arrest Assange was convicted for violating bail conditions and sent to Belmarsh prison in London where he remains.

He is now facing potential extradition to the US which quickly instigated extradition proceedings against him — initially charging Assange with conspiracy to hack into a classified computer, and then additional charges under the Espionage Act.

The extradition hearing is due to take place in February 2020 after a UK judge denied a request by Assange’s lawyers to delay proceedings to give him more time to prepare his defence.

When Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 it was an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden. The Wikileaks founder claimed he would be at risk of extradition to the US. But after spending some seven years of self-imposed incarceration in Knightsbridge he faces a major legal fight to stave off the same outcome.

November 19th 2019, 9:50 am

The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

TechCrunch

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

November 19th 2019, 9:36 am

SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

TechCrunch

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics and ad targeting startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

November 19th 2019, 9:20 am

Salesforce, AWS expand partnership to bring Amazon Connect to Service Cloud

TechCrunch

Salesforce and AWS announced an expansion of their on-going partnership that actually goes back to a $400 million 2016 infrastructure services agreement, and expanded last year to include data integration between the two companies. This year, Salesforce announced it will be offering AWS telephony and call transcription services with Amazon Connect as part of its Service Cloud call center solution.

“We have a strategic partnership with Amazon Web Services, which will allow customers to purchase Amazon Connect from us, and then it will be pre-integrated and out of the box to provide a full transcription of the call, and of course that’s alongside of an actual call recording of the call,” Bill Patterson, executive vice president for Service Cloud explained.

It’s worth noting that the company will be partnering with other telephony vendors as well, so that customers can choose the Amazon solution or another from Cisco, Avaya or Genesys, Patterson said.

These telephony partnerships fill in a gap in the Service Cloud call center offering, and give Salesforce direct access to the call itself. The telephony vendors will handle call transcription and hand that off to Salesforce, which can then use its intelligence layer called Einstein to “read” the transcript and offer the CSR next best actions in real time, something the company has been able to do with interactions from chat and other channels, but couldn’t do with voice.

“As this conversation evolves, the consumer is explaining what their problem is, and Einstein is [monitoring] that conversation. As the conversation gets to a critical mass, Einstein begins to understand what the content is about and suggests a specific solution to the agent,” Patterson said.

Salesforce will begin piloting this new Service Cloud capability in the spring with general availability expected next summer.

Only last week, Salesforce announced a major partnership with Microsoft to move Salesforce Marketing Cloud to Azure. These announcements show Salesforce will continue to use multiple cloud partners when it makes sense for the business. Today, it’s Amazon’s turn.

November 19th 2019, 9:20 am

Eden office management platform raises $25 million Series B

TechCrunch

Eden, the workplace management platform that connects office managers with service providers, today announced the close of a $25 million Series B round led by Reshape. Participants in the round also include Fifth Wall Ventures, Mitsui Fudosan, RXR Realty, Thor Equities, Bessemer Venture Partners, Alate Partners, Quiet Capital, S28 Capital, Canvas Ventures, Comcast Ventures, Upshift Partners, Impala Ventures, ENIAC Ventures, and Crystal Towers, among others.

Eden was founded by Joe DuBey back in 2015 and launched out of Y Combinator as an on-demand tech repair and support service, sending IT specialists to consumers’ homes to help set up a printer or repair a cracked phone screen. Within the first year, Eden had pivoted its business entirely to the enterprise, helping B2B clients with their IT issues at much cheaper cost than employing an IT specialist full time.

By 2017, Eden had expanded well beyond IT support into other office management categories, like inventory management around supplies, cleaning, handiwork and more. Indeed, revenue shifted dramatically from Eden’s W2 wizards toward third-party vendors and service providers, with around 75 percent coming from third parties.

Today, 100 percent of Eden’s revenue comes from connecting offices with third-party providers. The company is live in 25 markets, including a few international cities like Berlin and London. Eden now has more than 2,000 service providers on the platform.

The next phase of the company, according to DuBey, is to focus on the full spectrum of property management, zooming out to landlords and property managers.

“The broader vision we have is that everyone in the workplace will use Eden to have a better day at work, from the landlord of the building to the software engineer to the office manager, who is our primary client,” said DuBey. “One thing we’ve learned is that there is a meaningful part of the world you can serve by working directly with the business or the office or facilities manager. But it might be the majority of our category where you really need to build a relationship with the landlord and the property manager to really be successful.”

To that end, Eden is currently in beta with software aimed at landlords and property managers that could facilitate registered guests and check-ins, as well as building-related maintenance and service issues.

Eden has raised just over $40 million in funding since inception.

November 19th 2019, 9:20 am

LA-based Maslo pivots to professional services, launching an AI product for executive coaching

TechCrunch

When the Los Angeles-based startup Maslo launched its first product in early 2018, the company was focused on a direct-to-consumer tool designed to encourage mindfulness and self-awareness through a machine learning enabled avatar that would respond to individual’s inputs.

Now the company has reframed its offering, raised a fresh round of financing and is coming to market with a refined vision for a training tool for executive coaching.

Like the original Maslo, the new product is a service for journaling and personal growth, but this time it includes dashboards and visualization tools for the life coaches and training professionals that are molding the minds and leadership habits of tomorrow’s executives.

“Most of the products and experiences today are one dimensional,” said Maslo co-founder Ross Ingram. “They’re pulling information from you, but they’re not really reacting or responding.”

Using natural language processing and other machine learning tools, Maslo’s service will process entries by customers from their voice-activated, recorded journals and visualize data on a dashboard so that clients can see their how language patterns, thematic trends, and emotions recur among their customers.

Image courtesy of Maslo

As part of its go-to-market strategy Maslo is partnering with the International Coaching Federation and any coaches who are currently enrolled in an ICF Accredited Coaching Program can access Maslo’s services at no cost.

The new product launch follows a $1 million capital commitment from Saki Georgiadis, who was an early investor in Calm, and Dr. Ray Muzyka, the founder and former chief executive of Bioware.

“I’m quite excited about the opportunity here to transform technology into products and services that help us become holistically, better humans,” said Muzyka, in a statement. “[Maslo’s] recent focus has validated my original interest, which led me to invest.”

Maslo is also currently collaborating with professors from the University of British Columbia and researchers from the Canadian national research organization focused on social innovation, Mitacs, on a stud to assess the efficacy of “empathetic computing”.

Maslo has also been awarded a grant in partnership with The University of British Columbia and Mitacs, a nonprofit national research organization in Canada focused on industrial and social innovation. The grant focuses on “Assessing the Efficacy of Empathetic Computing,” and will be coordinated with a team within Dr. Alan Kingstone’s Brain, Attention, and Reality (BAR) Lab. The research will look to provide insights on the effects of personification in computing products on people and their relationships.

“We are extraordinarily excited to be partnering with Maslo, and we see this as the start of an exciting exploration into a human centric engagement with technology,” said Dr. Alan Kingstone, the head of the Brain, Attention, and Reality (BAR) Lab at UBC.

November 19th 2019, 9:06 am

Xiaomi integrates earthquake alert system into MIUI OS, unveils Xiao AI 3.0 digital assistant

TechCrunch

Xiaomi today unveiled a new iteration of its virtual assistant Xiao Ai and shared a new feature of Android -based MIUI operating system as the publicly listed Chinese technology group pushes to expand its internet services ecosystem. The company also said that it will be launching ten 5G devices next year.

At its annual Mi Developer conference in Beijing, the company said it is integrating an earthquake warning function into MIUI for select users in China, with plans to expand it nationwide soon.

The integration, touted as the first of its kind globally, will enable alerts to be sent to smartphones running MIUI 11 and Mi TV “seconds to tens of seconds” before the quake waves arrive, Xiaomi said.

The feature, which was first trialed in September this year, has been developed in partnership with Institute of Care-life, a Chengdu-based organization focusing on natural disaster warning. Xiaomi said it has activated the feature for the earthquake-prone Sichuan Province and plans to expand it elsewhere in the nation soon.

Wang Tun, head of the institute, said this function, unlike those available through apps in some countries, works more efficiently and does not rely on a working internet connection.

Xiao AI 3.0

The company also unveiled Xiao AI voice assistant 3.0, the latest iteration of its digital assistant. The service, used by 49.9 million users each month, now offers a male voice option and supports a naturally continuous dialogue on smartphones.

Xiaomi founder and chief executive Lei Jun addressing developers at a company’s conference on Tuesday

Xiaomi added that it is launching a new version of MACE, the open-source deep-learning framework that powers Xiao AI. The new MACE-Kit for developers will open its source soon, the company said.

“Xiaomi’s AutoML model now leads the industry by dataset performance; and MiNLP, the company’s natural language processing platform, is activated over 6 billion times on a daily basis, making Xiao AI one of the world’s busiest AI platform,” said Cui Baoqiu, VP and Chairman of Xiaomi’s Technical Committee, in a statement.

On the sidelines of these announcements, Xiaomi added that it is aiming to serve more partners in the manufacturing industry around the globe through its Finance payments service. The company has invested in over 270 ecosystem partners, among which more than 100 are focused on the development of smart hardware and lifestyle products, it said. Overall, more than 400 business partners in the manufacturing chain today are using Xiaomi Finance, it claimed.

At the conference, Lei Jun, founder and chief executive of Xiaomi said the company also plans to market over ten 5G-enabled devices next year as part of its effort “in making 5G + AIoT part of daily life of everyone.”

November 19th 2019, 9:06 am

Angell is a smart bike with an integrated display

TechCrunch

Meet Angell, a new smart bike from a French startup led by Marc Simoncini who is mostly known for founding Meetic. The company is announcing its first electric-bike today. And the goal is to make an e-bike that is smarter than everything out there.

“We dedicate half of public space to cars even though cars only represent 12% of trips,” Angell founder and CEO Marc Simoncini told me. And according to the company’s data, only 2% of people use bikes to move around a city in France, compared to 31% in the Netherlands and 13% in Germany.

So there’s a market opportunity for a newcomer in the e-bike space in France, and eventually in other major cities around the world. “Our goal is to become the global leader in the smart bike space,” Simoncini said.

When it comes to hardware, the Angell e-bike is a 14kg bike with an aluminum frame, integrated lights and a removable battery. It has a 2.4-inch touch screen to control the bike. The battery should last 70km on a single charge. There are also turn signals that you can activate with a button.

The Angell e-bike comes with everything you’d expect from a connected bike and that you can already find on Cowboy and Vanmoof e-bikes. It connects with your phone using Bluetooth and has an integrated lock and alarm system. If somebody tries to steal your bike, the bike will play a loud sound. If somebody manages to steal your bike, you can track it using an integrated GPS chip and cellular modem.

But Angell wants to go one step further with its integrated display. First, you can select different levels of assistance directly on the bike itself. You can display information on the screen when you’re riding your bike, such as speed, calories, battery level and distance on the screen. You can also set an emergency contact so that they automatically receive a notification if your bike detects a fall.

More interestingly, you can set a destination on your phone and get turn-by-turn directions on your bike. In addition to arrows that tell you when you’re supposed to turn, your handlebar vibrates as well.

“70% of the Angell project is software,” Simoncini said.

The Angell e-bike will be available at some point during the summer of 2020. It’ll cost €2,690 ($2,966) with pre-orders starting a few months earlier. Customers can also choose to pay €74.90 per month for 36 months. Angell will also partner with an insurance company to offer a theft and damage insurance product for €9.90 per month.

The Angell e-bike is just the first step of the company. Eventually, Angell wants to dedicate 5% of its revenue to a smart city fund and incubator, the Angell Lab. The company wants to create an ecosystem of startups that want to reinvent city mobility. Angell is fully funded by Marc Simoncini for now.

November 19th 2019, 8:20 am

Four must-haves for the Tesla ‘Cybertruck’ all-electric pickup truck

TechCrunch

Tesla is set to unveil its pickup this week and it needs to be widely different from its current lineup. The current line of Tesla vehicles share a lot of parts, and, logically, the Tesla pickup will do the same. However, a truck has different demands than a passenger car or sport utility vehicle. It has to be more robust and able to stand up to more abuse. It has to tow and haul and scale more than a mall flowerbed.

The Tesla pickup is launching as Rivian’s electric pickup is nearing launch. The Rivian R1T looks and feels like an electric pickup. It’s also built off of a purpose-built platform designed to haul and tow. Tesla does not have a similar platform as the Model X SUV is more car than a truck.

Eventually, more automakers will offer electric trucks. Ford has confirmed it’s building an electric F-150 and recently showed it off pulling a train. The upsides are profound. An electric truck will, in theory, offer improved toque (better towing), high payload capacity (due to better weight distribution), and improved performance numbers (electric motors are quick). A truck platform is also, by nature, larger and stronger allowing automakers to stuff more batteries into the frame.

Here’s what we want to see in a pickup from Tesla:

Twice the towing capacity of the Model X

The Tesla Model X is incredible and by most measures, the fastest production SUV available. But it cannot tow much. That’s not because of the powertrain but rather the vehicle platform. A Tesla pickup needs to be able to tow and haul.

According to the Model X owners manual, the vehicle can tow 5,000 pounds. That’s good enough for a couple of jet skis or a tiny trailer, but not much else. For comparison, most Ford F-150 models can tow over 10,000 pounds with some models topping off at 13,000 lbs. Rivian projects its electric pickup can tow over 11,000 pounds. The difference comes from the frame design and vehicle length.

The design of the vehicle often limits towing. The rear suspension needs to be able to support the weight, and the vehicle needs to be long enough to reduce trailer sway. Short vehicles have a hard time towing trailers, and the Model X, built on a version of the Model S, is a compact vehicle. There’s nothing worse than looking out the driver-side window and seeing your trailer racing you down the hill.

In the name of safety alone, a Tesla pickup must have improved towing capacity over the Model X. It should have an integrated trailer brake controller, too — something missing from the Model X.

The Model X platform is not built for hauling either. According to the owner’s manual, when two passengers are in the vehicle, it can only hold an additional 654 lbs. That’s just eight bags of Quickrete cement. To make matters worse, the rear deck of the Model X can only support 285 lbs somewhat saying the rear axle cannot hold that much weight, and the additional weight needs to be spread between the two axles.

A pickup needs to be able to take a load of wood mulch or a couple of major appliances, and Tesla’s current platforms are not designed for such.

Most light-duty pickups, from the Honda Ridgeline to the F-150, can support from 1,500 lbs to 2,000 lbs in the bed. And it’s easy to exceed that rating, too. An open truck bed is an invitation to load it up, but unless you’re using a heavy-duty pickup, don’t get a pallet of landscaping bricks.

Robust Serviceable Parts

Even if a pickup is only used for monthly Home Depot runs, it sustains more abuse than passenger vehicles due to its size. Brakes wear out quicker, and tires need more attention. If it has a light-duty suspension, bushings and joints wear out faster than in cars or SUVs.

Tesla makes it difficult for owners to repair the vehicles they purchased. I don’t expect that to be any different with the Tesla pickup. Tesla is not going to want owners wrenching on the truck. Since that’s the case, the pickup must come with improved parts.

The serviceable parts (brakes, suspension, and tires) that come on the Tesla pickup needs to be more robust and reliable than that used on the Tesla passenger vehicles.

Electric vehicles feature much fewer parts that can go wrong than internal combustion vehicles. It’s great. Owners do not have to change a timing belt or engine oil. But there are still items that will wear out, and most pickup buyers need assurances that they can go the distance.

Off-roading capabilities (or the ability to add off-roading capabilities)

The electric Rivian R1T is currently racing across South America to demonstrate its off-roading chops. Here’s the company’s blog post about it. This excites the truck guy in me. Now that’s a truck, I yell!

I don’t have the data, but I suspect most light-duty pickups are hardly used to their potential. I have a well-equipped F-150 that is used to tow a trailer twice a year.

Trucks are often aspirational purchases where buyers shop for potential lifestyles. Sure, you must have a truck, because one day, you’re going to buy that travel trailer and drive through Yellowstone. To fulfill this dream, a pickup should be able to run the desert or climb rocks.

The Rivian R1T gets a lot of things right, and I hope Tesla is following Rivian’s lead. It’s longer than a Ford Ranger and exceeds the Toyota Tacoma’s bed capacity rating. The wheel wells are large, seemingly saying it can support larger tires than the original from the factory. The R1T has an imposing stance. It looks the part, and the Tesla pickup needs to look the part, too.

Even if the Tesla looks like a weak truck, it’s essential to be able to modify the truck. Add-ons are a big part of the truck culture. My F-150 has become a money pit as I’ve thrown cash into buying accessories. Rivian knows this and has shown off its pickup with a handful of adds-on from tents to kitchens.

Power output

A Tesla pickup could have a unique selling point by allowing owners to use it as a high-output generator.

Right now, a lot of trucks have plenty of power ports, both 12v and 110v. They’re found throughout the cab and bed but cannot power serious tools. The 12v system used in internal combustion vehicles will not power much more than a drill or small saw, let alone a house by acting as a whole house generator.

The functionality would be well received. Homeowners would appreciate the ability to power parts of their homes during blackouts. Campers could use it when taking the pickup on an adventure. Construction works could use it to power and recharge tools.

Right now, there isn’t a way to output the full power of a Tesla vehicle. Owners can use an inverter, but that’s also limited and requires extra parts. Tesla would need to build safeguards and regional power ports into the battery platform to ensure safety and compatibility.

A word about the price.

There’s no way around this. A Tesla pickup will be more expensive than its internal combustion counterparts. It will be an upscale pickup, aimed at those that wear Arc’teryx instead of Carhart.

Rivian is pricing its pickup with a starting price of $69,000 and a Tesla pickup will likely start in the same range. If it’s a new platform built for hauling or towing, Tesla will have a lot of engineering and manufacturing hours to recuperate, which will drive the price north. Until more are available, Tesla and Rivian will be able to set the market price.

It’s a lot for a truck. That’s the price of a fully-spec’d out Ford F-150 that’s more comfortable or capable than it has any right to be. It’s also the same price as a beefy F-350 with Ford’s most potent engine and a towing capacity of 37,000 lbs.

Check back later this week as TechCrunch will be on hand later when Tesla unveils its pickup.

November 19th 2019, 8:20 am

The Cerebras CS-1 computes deep learning AI problems by being bigger, bigger, and bigger than any ot

TechCrunch

Deep learning is all the rage these days in enterprise circles, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Whether it is optimizing ad spend, finding new drugs to cure cancer, or just offering better, more intelligent products to customers, machine learning — and particularly deep learning models — have the potential to massively improve a range of products and applications.

The key word though is ‘potential.’ While we have heard oodles of words sprayed across enterprise conferences the last few years about deep learning, there remain huge roadblocks to making these techniques widely available. Deep learning models are highly networked, with dense graphs of nodes that don’t “fit” well with the traditional ways computers process information. Plus, holding all of the information required for a deep learning model can take petabytes of storage and racks upon racks of processors in order to be usable.

There are lots of approaches underway right now to solve this next-generation compute problem, and Cerebras has to be among the most interesting.

As we talked about in August with the announcement of the company’s “Wafer Scale Engine” — the world’s largest silicon chip according to the company — Cerebras’ theory is that the way forward for deep learning is to essentially just get the entire machine learning model to fit on one massive chip. And so the company aimed to go big — really big.

Today, the company announced the launch of its end-user compute product, the Cerebras CS-1, and also announced its first customer of Argonne National Laboratory.

The CS-1 is a “complete solution” product designed to be added to a data center to handle AI workflows. It includes the Wafer Scale Engine (or WSE, i.e. the actual processing core) plus all the cooling, networking, storage, and other equipment required to operate and integrate the processor into the data center. It’s 26.25 inches tall (15 rack units), and includes 400,000 processing cores, 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory, 9 petabytes per second of on-die memory bandwidth, 12 gigabit ethernet connections to move data in and out of the CS-1 system, and sucks just 20 kilowatts of power.

A cross-section look at the CS-1. Photo via Cerebras

Cerebras claims that the CS-1 delivers the performance of more than 1,000 leading GPUs combined — a claim that TechCrunch hasn’t verified, although we are intently waiting for industry-standard benchmarks in the coming months when testers get their hands on these units.

In addition to the hardware itself, Cerebras also announced the release of a comprehensive software platform that allows developers to use popular ML libraries like TensorFlow and PyTorch to integrate their AI workflows with the CS-1 system.

In designing the system, CEO and co-founder Andrew Feldman said that “We’ve talked to more than 100 customers over the past year and a bit,“ in order to determine the needs for a new AI system and the software layer that should go on top of it. “What we’ve learned over the years is that you want to meet the software community where they are rather than asking them to move to you.”

I asked Feldman why the company was rebuilding so much of the hardware to power their system, rather than using already existing components. “If you were to build a Ferrari engine and put it in a Toyota, you cannot make a race car,” Feldman analogized. “Putting fast chips in Dell or [other] servers does not make fast compute. What it does is it moves the bottleneck.” Feldman explained that the CS-1 was meant to take the underlying WSE chip and give it the infrastructure required to allow it to perform to its full capability.

A diagram of the Cerebras CS-1 cooling system. Photo via Cerebras.

That infrastructure includes a high-performance water cooling system to keep this massive chip and platform operating at the right temperatures. I asked Feldman why Cerebras chose water, given that water cooling has traditionally been complicated in the data center. He said, “We looked at other technologies — freon. We looked at immersive solutions, we looked at phase-change solutions. And what we found was that water is extraordinary at moving heat.”

A side view of the CS-1 with its water and air cooling systems visible. Photo via Cerebras.

Why then make such a massive chip, which as we discussed back in August, has huge engineering requirements to operate compared to smaller chips that have better yield from wafers. Feldman said that “ it massively reduces communication time by using locality.”

In computer science, locality is placing data and compute in the right places within, let’s say a cloud, that minimizes delays and processing friction. By having a chip that can theoretically host an entire ML model on it, there’s no need for data to flow through multiple storage clusters or ethernet cables — everything that the chip needs to work with is available almost immediately.

According to a statement from Cerebras and Argonne National Laboratory, Cerebras is helping to power research in “cancer, traumatic brain injury and many other areas important to society today” at the lab. Feldman said that “It was very satisfying that right away customers were using this for things that are important and not for 17-year-old girls to find each other on Instagram or some shit like that.”

(Of course, one hopes that cancer research pays as well as influencer marketing when it comes to the value of deep learning models).

Cerebras itself has grown rapidly, reaching 181 engineers today according to the company. Feldman says that the company is hands down on customer sales and additional product development.

It has certainly been a busy time for startups in the next-generation artificial intelligence workflow space. Graphcore just announced this weekend that it was being installed in Microsoft’s Azure cloud, while I covered the funding of NUVIA, a startup led by the former lead chip designers from Apple who hope to apply their mobile backgrounds to solve the extreme power requirements these AI chips force on data centers.

Expect ever more announcements and activity in this space as deep learning continues to find new adherents in the enterprise.

November 19th 2019, 8:20 am

Salesforce wants to bring voice to the workplace

TechCrunch

At its annual Dreamforce mega-conference in San Francisco, Salesforce today introduced the next steps in its Einstein Voice project, which it first announced last year. Einstein Voice is the company’s AI voice assistant. You can think of it as Salesforce’s Alexa or Google Assistant, but with a more focused mission.

During a briefing ahead of the event, Salesforce Chief Product Officer Bret Taylor showed off an Einstein and Alexa enabled Einstein speaker (Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff was supposed to be at the meeting, too, but for unknown reasons, he didn’t show) — and yes, it looked like Salesforce’s Einstein cartoon figure and its voluminous white hair lit up when it responded to queries. The company isn’t planning on making these devices available to the public, but it does show off the work the company has done with Amazon to integrate the service (though is by no means an Amazon -exclusive since the company is also working to bring Einstein to Google devices).

The theory here, as Taylor explained, is that having access to Salesforce data through voice will enable salespeople to quickly enter data into Salesforce when they are on the go and to ask the system questions about their data. The company argues that while voice assistants have found a place in the home, there are a lot of upsides to bringing it to businesses as well. That means a system has to account for the security needs of enterprises, too, as well as the fact that there is a wide range of different user personas it has to account for.

“We’re really excited about the idea of voice in businesses — the idea that every business can have an AI guide to their business decisions,” Taylor said. “I view it as part of this progression of technology. Computers and software started in the terminal with a keyboard, thanks to Xerox Parc moved to a mouse and graphic user interface, and then thanks to Steve Jobs, moved to a touchscreen, which I think is probably the dominant form factor for computers nowadays. And voice is really that next step.”

This next step, Taylor argues, will allow companies to rethink how people interact with software and data. With voice, Einstein, which is Salesforce’s catch-all name for its AI products, has a “seat at the table,” he noted because you can simply as the system a question if you need additional data during a conversation. But the real mission here is to bring these tools to every business — not just to Salesforce’s executive meetings.

To enable this, Salesforce is launching a tool that will allow anybody within a company to quickly build basic Einstein skills to pull up data from Salesforce. These skills focus on data input and relatively basic queries, for now. During a demo ahead of the event, the team showed off how easy it would be to enable a manager to ask about the current sales performance of his team, for example. By now means, though, is this tool as rich as products like Google’s DialogFlow or Microsoft’s Azure Bot Service. It’s nowhere near as flexible yet, but the team notes that it’s still early days and that it is working on enabling the ability to have more complex dialogs with Einstein in the future, for example.

To be honest, it’s hard not to look at this as a bit of a gimmick. There are probably real use cases here, that every company will have to define for itself. Maybe there are salespeople who indeed want to use a voice interface to update their CRM system after a customer meeting, for example. Or they may want to ask about the value of an account while they are in the car. In many ways, though, this feels like a technology looking for a problem, despite Salesforce’s protestations that customers are asking for this.

Some of the other uses cases here, which the company didn’t really highlight all that much in its briefing, seem far more compelling. It’s using Einstein Voice to coach call center agents by analyzing calls to pull out insights and trends from sales call transcripts. It’s also launching Service Cloud Voice, which integrates telephony inside the company’s Service Cloud. Using a built-in transcription service, Einstein can listen to the call in real time and proactively provide sales teams and call center agents with relevant information. Those use cases may not be quite as exciting, but in the end, they may generate for more value for companies than having yet another voice assistant for which they have to build their own skills, using what is, at least for the time being, a rather limited tool.

November 19th 2019, 8:20 am

BlueVine raises $102.5M more for banking services that target small businesses

TechCrunch

When it comes to fintech plays, small and medium businesses are not often the target audience: they’re too small and fragmented compared to big-spending corporates; and they’re too demanding compared to mass-market consumer users. But as a sector, they account for over 99% of all businesses in developed countries like the UK and USA, and that means they cannot be ignored. Today, one of the financial services startups that has built a business specifically catering to SMBs is announcing a big round of funding, underscoring the quiet opportunity and demand that is out there.

“We see a massive gap in the market, with most SMBs still using consumer plus accounts,” said Eyal Lifshitz, Bluevine’s CEO and co-founder. “That is the mission we are on.”

BlueVine, which offers financing and other banking services to SMBs, today is announcing that it has raised $102.5 million, a Series F round of equity funding that is coming from a mix of financial and notable strategic investors.

Led by ION Crossover Partners, the round also includes existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, Menlo Ventures, 83North, SVB Capital, Nationwide (a major financial services player in the UK), Citi Ventures, Microsoft’s venture fund M12, and private investors; as well as new investors MUFG Innovation Partners Co., Ltd, O.G. Tech (the VC connected to Israeli billionaire and property magnate Eyal Ofer), Vintage Investment Partners, ION Group, Maor Investments and additional private investors.

With this latest round, Silicon Valley-based BlueVine has raised between $240 million and $250 million in equity, with another half a billion dollars in debt financing to fuel its loans platform, Lifshitz said in an interview. The company has never disclosed valuation, and it’s not doing so today, but he added that BlueVine is “doing quite well”, with the valuation “up” compared to its Series E.

“We are not profitable yet, but we’ve grown 100% since last year and will do triple digit revenue this year,” Lifshitz said, noting that the company has now originated some $2.5 billions in loans to date to 20,000 small businesses.

While SMBs are not often the first target for fintech startups, that does not mean they are completely ignored. Others that have built big businesses around these users include Kabbage — the SoftBank-backed startup out of Atlanta that also started out with loans before diversifying also into a wider range of banking services. (Kabbage is currently valued at over $1 billion, as a point of comparison.) Another newer player in the space of SMB-focused banking is Mercury, which also recently raised money; its primary target is a narrower subset of the SMB world, startups.

BlueVine’s service is mainly based around its financing products, where it provides both lines of credit and term loans (both up to $250,000) and “factoring,” where customers can arrange for BlueVine to pay up front for invoices that they select to be paid, a service that translates into credit lines of up to $5 million and means that users don’t need to wait for money to come in before paying for bills.

As with Kabbage, BlueVine’s move into a wider array of banking services — sold as BlueVine Business Banking, which includes checking accounts and other services alongside financing — is a newer, still-growing and expanding business. The checking account, for example, only was announced in October this year.

For business customers, the idea is to give them a one-stop shop for all of their financial services, while for BlueVine, the idea is to create a more complete set of offerings to keep users on its platform and to make better margins on them across more services. Interestingly, this sets BlueVine up to compete not as much with startups — the majority of which still offer single-point services or a small collection of them, but with banks that still provide full suites of services, even if they are often more pricey and less efficient than startups.

My real competitors are the 4,600 banks in the US,” Lifshitz said. “It’s a very long tail in the US. But if you dive into that further, historically SMBs haven’t been serviced well by them.”

The fact that the company is attracting a range of financial services investors inevitably raises the question of how BlueVine might partner with them down the line or even become an acquisition target, but one thing that Lifshitz said that it will not be doing is white-label services (something that Kabbage has explored): “We don’t want to give our tech away,” he said. “We are focused on leveraging our tech to be the best in class.”

“BlueVine has demonstrated a track record of success with their multiple financing products and set themselves apart with their vision of a complete platform of innovative banking products for small businesses,” said Jonathan Kolodny, Partner at ION Crossover Partners, in a statement. “We’ve been following the company closely since its early days, and have witnessed the demand, and frankly the economic need, for BlueVine’s banking services. We believe the company is exceptionally well-positioned, thanks to its world-class management team, to change the way small businesses manage their financial needs today and in the future.”

November 19th 2019, 6:18 am

Cybersecurity startup CyCognito raises $23M in Series A funding

TechCrunch

CyCognito, a cybersecurity platform that aims to give visibility into a company’s security weak spots, has raised $23 million in its Series A round of funding.

Lightspeed Partners led the fundraise, putting in $18 million, which included a personal investment from Lightspeed venture partner and former Microsoft chairperson John Thompson, and additional participation from Sorenson Ventures. Another $5 million was brought in from existing investors, including UpWest and Dan Scheinman, who participated during the company’s seed round.

CyCognito says its software-as-a-service platform can “autonomously discover, enumerate, and prioritize each organization’s security risks based upon a global analysis of all external attack surfaces.” In other words, it measures a company’s entire attack surface, looking for holes and flaws, which could be exploited by malicious actors. It does this by maintaining tens of thousands of bots which spiders out across the internet, looking for internet-connected and exposed devices. With that database of digital assets, the company looks for issues that could be used for attacks.

The startup says its platform already in use by “dozens” of corporate customers, across healthcare, hospitality and financial verticals.

With $23 million in the bank, CyCognito says it plans to expand its engineering and sales teams to reach more enterprise clients.

Two years since the company’s founding, its leadership page consisted of only men.

Chief executive Rob Gurzeev said the company was “actively seeking to hire more women and non-binary persons into senior roles” and “actively encourages growth of diversity in its workforce.”

After TechCrunch raised lack of diversity with CyCognito, the company quickly changed its leadership page to include one woman.

November 19th 2019, 6:18 am

Heliogen’s new tech could unlock renewable energy for industrial manufacturing

TechCrunch

Last Monday a group of millionaires and billionaires took a trip to an industrial site in Lancaster, Calif. to witness the achievement of what could represent a giant leap forward in the effort to decarbonize some of the world’s most carbon intensive industries.

For Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab and brains behind the excursion, the unveiling was simply the latest in a string of demonstrations for new technologies commercialized by his nearly three-decade old startup company incubator. However, it may be the most significant.

What Gross is pursuing with his new company, Heliogen, offers a way forward for renewable energy to be applied to manufacturing processes for cement, lime, coke, and steel — some of the most energy intensive and polluting industries that exist in the world today.

“Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions,” said Bill Gates, a Heliogen backer who has committed millions of dollars to the development of new renewable energy technologies. “These materials are everywhere in our lives but we don’t have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable, zero-carbon versions of them. If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do. I’m pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross’s novel solar concentration technology. Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”

According to Gross, Kittu Kollaru, an investor in Heliogen who is also backing another of Idealab’s incubated companies working on developing an energy storage technology, Energy Vault, said after seeing the demonstration, “Bill… this is even bigger.”

At its core, Heliogen is taking a well-known technology called concentrated solar power, and improving its ability to generate heat with new computer vision, sensing and control technologies, says Gross. \

Four high resolution cameras capture real time video of a field of mirrors that are controlled by sensors to focus the sun’s energy on a particular spot. That spot, either at a transmission pipe used to transport gas, or a tower, is heated to over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Previous commercial concentrating solar thermal systems could only reach temperatures of 565 degrees Celsius, the company said. That’s useful for generating power, but can’t meet the needs of industrial processes. 

Achieving temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius gives manufacturing facilities the opportunity to replace the use of fossil fuels in a significant portion of their operations.

A facility hoping to install Heliogen’s technology (Image courtesy of Heliogen)

“They already have a power source/burner that is variable, based on the flow rate of materials, and is servo controlled to have the correct air flow exit temperature,” says Gross of many existing industrial operations. “So when we add heat (when the sun is out) the fossil fuel burner just automatically gets scaled back like a thermostat on a room heater (albeit at much higher temperature).  So it’s a seamless control integration.”

A plant could still operate on a 24-hour production schedule, and could still use fossil fuels, says Gross. But by deploying the Heliogen system, companies could reduce their fossil fuel consumption by up to 60%, according to the serial entrepreneur and investor. Gross believes that Heliogen’s systems will pay for themselves in a two-to-three year timeframe if companies buy the system outright, or Heliogen could manage the installation for a manufacturer and just charge them for the cost of the power.

Gross has been testing smaller versions of Heliogen’s industrial heating technology at a field with an array of 70 mirrors to prove that the super-concentrating technology could work. A full scale facility covers roughly two acres of land with mirrors and a tower where the rays are concentrated. “It’s like a death ray,” Gross said of the concentrated solar beams.

While initial applications for Heliogen’s technology will concentrate on industrial applications, longer term, Gross sees an opportunity to drive down the cost of Hydrogen production at an industrial scale. Long believed to be one of the keys to global decarbonization, Hydrogen’s use as a fuel source has been limited because it’s difficult to make without using fossil fuels.

Hydrogen’s importance to a carbon-free energy future can’t be overstated, according to energy advocates and longtime renewable energy entrepreneurs and investors like Jigar Shah. The founder and former chief executive of solar installation company, SunRun, Shah now invests in renewabel energy projects.

“As we move closer to 100% clean electricity grids, it will be necessary to not just store excess electricity production from the spring and fall, but to turn all of this excess electricity to valuable commodities that can help decarbonize other sectors outside of electricity — transportation, industrial heat, and chemicals,” Shah wrote in an article on LinkedIn. “That’s where hydrogen comes into play.”

Investors in Heliogen include venture capital firm Neotribe and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire Los Angeles-based investor and entrepreneur, who owns the Los Angeles Times and an investment conglomerate. THe investmente was made through Dr. Soon-Shiong’s investment firm, Nant Capital.

“For the sake of our future generations we must address the existential danger of climate change with an extreme sense of urgency,” said Dr. Soon-Shiong, in a statement. “I am committed to using my resources to invest in innovative technologies that harness the power of nature and the sun. By significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating a pure source of energy, Heliogen’s brilliant technology will help us achieve this mission and also meaningfully improve the world we leave our children.”

November 19th 2019, 6:18 am

Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service

TechCrunch

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw Hill are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

November 19th 2019, 4:15 am

A 10-point plan to reboot the data industrial complex for the common good

TechCrunch

A posthumous manifesto by Giovanni Buttarelli, who until his death this summer was Europe’s chief data protection regulator, seeks to join the dots of surveillance capitalism’s rapacious colonization of human spaces, via increasingly pervasive and intrusive mapping and modelling of our data, with the existential threat posed to life on earth by manmade climate change.

In a dense document rich with insights and ideas around the notion that “data means power” — and therefore that the unequally distributed data-capture capabilities currently enjoyed by a handful of tech platforms sums to power asymmetries and drastic social inequalities — Buttarelli argues there is potential for AI and machine learning to “help monitor degradation and pollution, reduce waste and develop new low-carbon materials”. But only with the right regulatory steerage in place.

“Big data, AI and the internet of things should focus on enabling sustainable development, not on an endless quest to decode and recode the human mind,” he warns. “These technologies should — in a way that can be verified — pursue goals that have a democratic mandate. European champions can be supported to help the EU achieve digital strategic autonomy.”

“The EU’s core values are solidarity, democracy and freedom,” he goes on. “Its conception of data protection has always been the promotion of responsible technological development for the common good. With the growing realisation of the environmental and climatic emergency facing humanity, it is time to focus data processing on pressing social needs. Europe must be at the forefront of this endeavour, just as it has been with regard to individual rights.”

One of his key calls is for regulators to enforce transparency of dominant tech companies — so that “production processes and data flows are traceable and visible for independent scrutiny”.

“Use enforcement powers to prohibit harmful practices, including profiling and behavioural targeting of children and young people and for political purposes,” he also suggests.

Another point in the manifesto urges a moratorium on “dangerous technologies”, citing facial recognition and killer drones as examples, and calling generally for a pivot away from technologies designed for “human manipulation” and toward “European digital champions for sustainable development and the promotion of human rights”.

In an afterword penned by Shoshana Zuboff, the US author and scholar writes in support of the manifesto’s central tenet, warning pithily that: “Global warming is to the planet what surveillance capitalism is to society.”

There’s plenty of overlap between Buttarelli’s ideas and Zuboff’s — who has literally written the book on surveillance capitalism. Data concentration by powerful technology platforms is also resulting in algorithmic control structures that give rise to “a digital underclass… comprising low-wage workers, the unemployed, children, the sick, migrants and refugees who are required to follow the instructions of the machines”, he warns.

“This new instrumentarian power deprives us not only of the right to consent, but also of the right to combat, building a world of no exit in which ignorance is our only alternative to resigned helplessness, rebellion or madness,” she agrees.

There are no less than six afterwords attached to the manifesto — a testament to the store in which Buttarelli’s ideas are held among privacy, digital and human rights campaigners.

The manifesto “goes far beyond data protection”, says writer Maria Farrell in another contribution. “It connects the dots to show how data maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.”

At the core of the document is a 10-point plan for what’s described as “sustainable privacy”, which includes the call for a dovetailing of the EU’s digital priorities with a Green New Deal — to “support a programme for green digital transformation, with explicit common objectives of reducing inequality and safeguarding human rights for all, especially displaced persons in an era of climate emergency”.

Buttarelli also suggests creating a forum for civil liberties advocates, environmental scientists and machine learning experts who can advise on EU funding for R&D to put the focus on technology that “empowers individuals and safeguards the environment”.

Another call is to build a “European digital commons” to support “open-source tools and interoperability between platforms, a right to one’s own identity or identities, unlimited use of digital infrastructure in the EU, encrypted communications, and prohibition of behaviour tracking and censorship by dominant platforms”.

“Digital technology and privacy regulation must become part of a coherent solution for both combating and adapting to climate change,” he suggests in a section dedicated to a digital Green New Deal — even while warning that current applications of powerful AI technologies appear to be contributing to the problem.

“AI’s carbon footprint is growing,” he points out, underlining the environmental wastage of surveillance capitalism. “Industry is investing based on the (flawed) assumption that AI models must be based on mass computation.

“Carbon released into the atmosphere by the accelerating increase in data processing and fossil fuel burning makes climatic events more likely. This will lead to further displacement of peoples and intensification of calls for ‘technological solutions’ of surveillance and border controls, through biometrics and AI systems, thus generating yet more data. Instead, we need to ‘greenjacket’ digital technologies and integrate them into the circular economy.”

Another key call — and one Buttarelli had been making presciently in recent years — is for more joint working between EU regulators towards common sustainable goals.

“All regulators will need to converge in their policy goals — for instance, collusion in safeguarding the environment should be viewed more as an ethical necessity than as a technical breach of cartel rules. In a crisis, we need to double down on our values, not compromise on them,” he argues, going on to voice support for antitrust and privacy regulators to co-operate to effectively tackle data-based power asymmetries.

“Antitrust, democracies’ tool for restraining excessive market power, therefore is becoming again critical. Competition and data protection authorities are realising the need to share information about their investigations and even cooperate in anticipating harmful behaviour and addressing ‘imbalances of power rather than efficiency and consent’.”

On the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifically — Europe’s current framework for data protection — Buttarelli gives a measured assessment, saying “first impressions indicate big investments in legal compliance but little visible change to data practices”.

He says Europe’s data protection authorities will need to use all the tools at their disposal — and find the necessary courage — to take on the dominant tracking and targeting digital business models fuelling so much exploitation and inequality.

He also warns that GDPR alone “will not change the structure of concentrated markets or in itself provide market incentives that will disrupt or overhaul the standard business model”.

“True privacy by design will not happen spontaneously without incentives in the market,” he adds. “The EU still has the chance to entrench the right to confidentiality of communications in the ePrivacy Regulation under negotiation, but more action will be necessary to prevent further concentration of control of the infrastructure of manipulation.”

Looking ahead, the manifesto paints a bleak picture of where market forces could be headed without regulatory intervention focused on defending human rights. “The next frontier is biometric data, DNA and brainwaves — our thoughts,” he suggests. “Data is routinely gathered in excess of what is needed to provide the service; standard tropes, like ‘improving our service’ and ‘enhancing your user  experience’ serve as decoys for the extraction of monopoly rents.”

There is optimism too, though — that technology in service of society can be part of the solution to existential crises like climate change; and that data, lawfully collected, can support public good and individual self-realization.

“Interference with the right to privacy and personal data can be lawful if it serves ‘pressing social needs’,” he suggests. “These objectives should have a clear basis in law, not in the marketing literature of large companies. There is no more pressing social need than combating environmental degradation” — adding that: “The EU should promote existing and future trusted institutions, professional bodies and ethical codes to govern this exercise.”

In instances where platforms are found to have systematically gathered personal data unlawfully Buttarelli trails the interesting idea of an amnesty for those responsible “to hand over their optimisation assets”– as a means of not only resetting power asymmetries and rebalancing the competitive playing field but enabling societies to reclaim these stolen assets and reapply them for a common good.

While his hope for Europe’s Data Protection Board — the body which offers guidance and coordinates interactions between EU Member States’ data watchdogs — is to be “the driving force supporting the Global Privacy Assembly in developing a common vision and agenda for sustainable privacy”.

The manifesto also calls for European regulators to better reflect the diversity of people whose rights they’re being tasked with safeguarding.

The document, which is entitled Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe, has been published on the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals ahead of its annual conference this week.

Buttarelli had intended — but was finally unable — to publish his thoughts on the future of privacy this year, hoping to inspire discussion in Europe and beyond. In the event, the manifesto has been compiled posthumously by Christian D’Cunha, head of his private office, who writes that he has drawn on discussions with the data protection supervisor in his final months — with the aim of plotting “a plausible trajectory of his most passionate convictions”.

November 19th 2019, 4:15 am

Playbuzz becomes Ex.co and expands its content marketing platform

TechCrunch

Playbuzz, a startup that helps publishers to add things like polls and galleries to their articles, has rebranded itself as Ex.co.

Co-founder and CEO Tom Pachys told me the name stands for “the experience company,” and he said it reflects the company’s broader content marketing ambitions. Ex.co will continue working with news publishers, but Pachys said there’s a bigger market for what the company has built.

“We’re seeing businesses wanting to become publishers in a way, to interact with their users in a way that’s very similar to what a publisher does,” Pachys said.

Playbuzz/Ex.co is hardly the first publishing startup realize that there may be more money in content marketing, but Pachys argued that this isn’t just a sudden pivot. After all, the company is already working with clients like Visa, Red Bull and Netflix (as well as our corporate siblings at The Huffington Post).

“The previous name does not reflect the values that we stand for today — not even future values,” he said.

Tom Pachys

Pachys also suggested that existing content marketing tools are largely focused on operations and workflow — things like hiring the right freelancer — while Ex.co aims at making it easier to actually create the content.

“We’re the ones innovate within the core — not around it, but the core itself,” he said. “And rather than trying to call them competition, we want to integrate with as much players in the ecosystem as possible.”

In addition to announcing the rebrand, Ex.co is also relaunching its platform as a broader content marketing tool, with new features like content templates, real-time analytics and lead generation.

Pachys, by the way, is new to the CEO role, having served as COO until recently, while previous Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert has become the company’s president. Pachys said the move wasn’t “directly correlated” with the other changes, and instead allows the two of them to focus on their strengths — Pachys oversees day-to-day operations, while Olmert focuses on investor relations and strategic deals.

“I co-founded the company with Shaul, who’s a very good friend of mine, we’ve known each other 20 years,” Pachys said. “Shaul is very much involved in the company.”

November 19th 2019, 1:17 am

New York State Attorney General reportedly investigating WeWork

TechCrunch

WeWork is reportedly being investigated by the New York State Attorney General. According to Reuters, the NYAG’s questions include if WeWork founder and former CEO Adam Neumann engaged in self-dealing.

A WeWork spokesperson said in an email that “we have received an inquiry from the office of the New York State Attorney General and are cooperating in the matter.” TechCrunch also contacted the New York State Attorney General’s office for comment. WeWork is headquartered in New York City.

This comes less than a week after Bloomberg reported WeWork is the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into potential rule violations related to its cancelled IPO.

WeWork’s parent company, The We Company, announced on Sept. 30 that it was withdrawing its S-1 filing for an initial public offering, shortly after Neumann stepped down as CEO. In addition to questions about the company’s financial state, red flags for investors included that Neumann had borrowed against his WeWork shares and leased properties he owned back to the company.

An entity Neumann controlled also sold the company the right to use the word “We” for $5.9 million, though he later asked the company to unwind the agreement and returned the money after public criticism.

After receiving a lifeline from investor SoftBank worth up to $8 billion, WeWork is now engaging in major cost-cutting measures, including layoffs at Meetup, which it acquired for $200 million in 2017.

November 19th 2019, 12:12 am

Earth is headed for its second warmest year in recorded history (the record was three years ago)

TechCrunch

Data from the U.S. government sure seems to indicate that the Earth is warming (despite what the current leadership may say).

Apparently, the globe just experienced the second-hottest October ever recorded and is on track for the second-hottest year to date on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only are we experiencing a run of hot Octobers (this is the tenth year that temperatures have hit recorded-history highs since 2003 and all five of the highest temperature years were in the past five years), but arctic ice has also shrunk to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.

Even as the Trump Administration enacts policies to reverse course on curbing the emissions that seem to be leading to a changing global climate, federal agencies like the NOAA keep releasing reports that reveal exactly how much the planet is changing.

Earlier this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began the process of formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. As with most momentous events of the Administration, the world was notified via Twitter.

While Secretary Pompeo was praising the nation’s approach to “reducing all emissions”, Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands hit historic record-setting temperatures and the world’s average sea surface temperature hit its second-warmest ever-recorded temperature.

Meanwhile, new projections are revising the risk that cities face from rising sea levels that are caused by melting glaciers due to warmer temperatures.

Maps created by the research organization Climate Central, and published in the journal Nature Communications indicate that rising seas could flood land that’s currently home to some 150 million people at high-tide by 2050, if steps aren’t taken to improve the resiliency of cities to flooding or reverse course on climate.

Even the Federal Reserve is waking up to climate change risks. The regulator responsible for U.S. monetary policy convened an event earlier this month to focus on the financial impacts of climate change.

“By participating more actively in climate-related research and practice, the Federal Reserve can be more effective in supporting a strong economy and a stable financial system,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board in Washington, said in prepared remarks at the same event, according to a report in The New York Times. 

November 18th 2019, 9:12 pm

Mubi launches streaming service in India

TechCrunch

Mubi, a 12-year-old on-demand movie streaming and rental service, has arrived in India. Like other streaming services giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Disney’s Hotstar, Mubi is offering its service at a slightly lower price in the key overseas entertainment market.

The London-headquartered firm is offering a three-month subscription in India at Rs 199 ($2.8), after which it would charge $7 a month or $67 a year (this way, the monthly cost works out to about $5.5). This is substantially lower than the £9.99 monthly subscription fee it charges to subscribers in the U.K., and the $10.99 it charges in the U.S.

Perhaps the lesser-known streaming service among all the usual names, Mubi has earned a name for itself by offering a selection of critically acclaimed movies. Unlike other services, Mubi’s catalog is incredibly thin. At any moment, the service offers only 30 recent and vintage movies. One new title arrives every day and another vanishes at the same time. No movie stays longer than 30 days on the platform.

The service, founded in 2007, started with the ambition of becoming just like what Netflix is today. But it became apparent to the company that they couldn’t afford to offer thousands of titles to users, founder and chief executive of the company Efe Cakarel told The New York Times in an interview two years ago.

“In the beginning, we wanted to be like Netflix, but the unit economies of an ‘all-you-can-eat’ site is very capital-intensive,” Cakarel told the Times. “The question becomes, how do you create a compelling experience? If you can’t get 10,000 titles, how about a limited selection?”

He will be speaking at Disrupt Berlin next month.

In an interview last month, Cakarel said most streaming platforms are today focused on the biggest TV series. “We focus on finding gems, often going back decades, that very few people know of. We are giving distribution to such films. You may not like a film, but it is there for a reason,” he said.

In India, Mubi has launched a dedicated page, where Indian movies are being showcased. Additionally, like in other markets, Mubi is offering a rental service to subscribers in India, allowing them to pick any movie from a selection of a few dozen for $3.5.

For its India business, the company has appointed film producer and Academy Award winner Guneet Monga (known for titles such as Gangs of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox and Masaan) as its content advisor. It also maintains a partnership with Times Bridge, the venture arm of Indian content conglomerate Times Internet.

“Monga has the sensibility for great cinema. The kind of films she produces, the kind of films she champions are the type of films more people should see. I cannot be more fortunate that she sees our vision in India,” Cakarel said in an interview.

In a statement, Monga said, “I’m thrilled we have launched a dedicated channel for Indian cinema as it means that film lovers can now watch amazing films like Salaam Bombay and Andaz Apna Apna, alongside globally renowned gems like Moonlight.”

The company has secured deals with local distributors FilmKaravan, NFDC, PVR Pictures, Shemaroo, and Ultra to populate titles on India section every day. Some of the upcoming titles include Kamal Swaroop’s cult film Om Dar-B-Dar, Kanu Behl’s Binnu Ka Sapna, which premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival this year, and ghost film Duvidha from Indian art-house master Mani Kaul.

Mubi Go, a service available in the U.K. and Ireland, which allows subscribers in those markets to get a movie ticket each week in a local theatre, is not available to customers in India.

November 18th 2019, 8:09 pm

The coming fight over who controls digital health data

TechCrunch

Spending for consumer digital healthcare companies is set to explode in the next few years; the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology is currently reviewing the requirements for data sharing with the Department of Health and Human Services, and their initiatives will unlock a wave of data access never before seen in the U.S. healthcare system.

Already, startups and large technology companies are jockeying for position over how to leverage this access and take advantage of new sensor technologies that provide unprecedented windows into patient health.

Venture capital investors are expected to invest roughly $50 billion in approximately 4,500 startups in the healthcare industry, according to data from CB Insights. In all, there have been 3,409 investments made in the healthcare market through the third quarter of 2019, with 31% of those deals done in what CB Insights identifies as digital health companies.

The explosion of data is unprecedented and already companies like Apple and Google are jockeying for control over how that data will be served up to healthcare practitioners and patients.

Chart courtesy of CB Insights

Apple and Google are setting out two divergent paths for handling patient data. For patient advocates, there’s a clear winner, and as startups look to play in these emerging ecosystems, it’s what the patient wants that may matter most.

The second that this data hits those shiny Silicon Valley apps, instead of being under HIPAA that’s covered, you become a user and you have no rights,” says one patient advocate. 

Last week, after reports in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, Google confirmed the details of a partnership with religiously-affiliated hospital and assisted living network, Ascension, a deal that involved the movement of millions of patient records into Google’s infrastructure.

The Alphabet subsidiary had first announced the agreement in its July earnings call, but the precise details of its work with the hospital records of Ascension patients were undisclosed until a more detailed description of the project was leaked by a whistleblower.

Google was not only moving patient records onto its cloud infrastructure, but was also developing tools to “help Ascension’s doctors and nurses more quickly and easily access relevant patient information, in a consolidated view,” the company confirmed in a blog post.

For the source of the Journal’s reporting, there were too many pieces of information about the project that both the Google engineers who were working on “Nightingale” and the doctors and patients in the Ascension healthcare system were kept in the dark about.

As the whistleblower wrote in a Guardian editorial late last week:

With a deal as sensitive as the transfer of the personal data of more than 50 million Americans to Google the oversight should be extensive. Every aspect needed to be pored over to ensure that it complied with federal rules controlling the confidential handling of protected health information under the 1996 HIPAA legislation.

Working with a team of 150 Google employees and 100 or so Ascension staff was eye-opening. But I kept being struck by how little context and information we were operating within.

What AI algorithms were at work in real time as the data was being transferred across from hospital groups to the search giant? What was Google planning to do with the data they were being given access to? No-one seemed to know.

Above all: why was the information being handed over in a form that had not been “de-identified” – the term the industry uses for removing all personal details so that a patient’s medical record could not be directly linked back to them? And why had no patients and doctors been told what was happening?

I was worried too about the security aspect of placing vast amounts of medical data in the digital cloud. Think about the recent hacks on banks or the 2013 data breach suffered by the retail giant Target – now imagine a similar event was inflicted on the healthcare data of millions.

Google insists that no patient data is being used to sell ads, or being coupled with either its own consumer data or data from other customers it may be working with in healthcare (a list that includes the Cleveland Clinic, Hunterdon Healthcare, and McKesson).

However, Google’s handling of patient data — through its own work with other partners and through DeepMind Health (a division of a Google spinout which the search giant recently acquired) — has been controversial.

In 2018, the search giant’s work with the U.K.’s National Health Service was criticized for not adhering to data governance standards and potentially breaking the law. And, earlier this year, Google was sued for allegedly mishandling patient data by including too much potentially identifiable patient information used in a study conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center, Google, and the University of Chicago.

In each instance, Google insisted that it followed all appropriate regulations, but the problem that the company faces is growing concern from a new crop of lawmakers and concerned consumers that the regulations which exist on the books are no longer appropriate.

Technology is coming for healthcare data

The news of Google’s work with Ascension and the concerns it has raised among consumers is just one example of the company’s broader efforts to capture more of the multi-trillion dollar healthcare market.

Google kicked off November with a $2.1 billion bid for Fitbit — a deal that would potentially put an incredible amount of currently unregulated consumer health data squarely under the magnifying glass of Google’s mammoth data analysis tools.

November 18th 2019, 8:09 pm

This room-sized LED egg captures amazing 3D models of the people inside it

TechCrunch

Capturing human performances in high-definition 3D is a complicated proposition, and among the many challenges is getting the lighting right. This impressive new project from Google researchers puts the subject in the center of what can only be described as an prismatic LED egg, but the resulting 3D models are remarkable — and more importantly, relightable.

What’s called volumetric capture uses multiple cameras in a 360-degree setup to capture what can look like a photorealistic representation of a subject, including all the little details like clothing deformation, hair movement, and so on. It has two serious weaknesses: First, it’s more like a 3D movie than a model, since you can’t pose the person or change their attributes or clothing; The second is an extension of the first, in that you can’t change the way the person is lit — whatever lighting they had when you captured them, that’s what you get.

“The Relightables” is an attempt by a team at Google AI to address this second issue, since the first is pretty much baked in. Their system not only produces a highly detailed 3D model of a person in motion, but allows that model to be lit realistically by virtual light sources, making it possible to place it in games, movies, and other situations where lighting can change.

Images from the Google AI paper that show the capture process and resulting 3D model alone and in a lighted virtual environment.

It’s all thanks to the aforementioned prismatic egg (and a couple lines of code, of course). The egg is lined with 331 LED lights that can produce any color, and as the person is being captured, those LEDs shift in a special structured pattern that produces a lighting-agnostic model.

The resulting models can be placed in any virtual environment and will reflect not the lighting they were captured in but the lighting of that little world. The examples in the video below aren’t exactly Hollywood-level quality, but you can see the general idea of what they’re going for.

The limitations of volumetric capture make it unsuitable for many uses in film, but being relightable brings these performances a lot closer to ordinary 3D models than they were before. Of course, you still have to do all your acting inside a giant egg.

“The Relightables” will be presented by the team at SIGGRAPH Asia.

November 18th 2019, 7:39 pm
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