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Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

For nearly fifteen years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

Swedish ‘neobank’ P.F.C. picks up €5M backing from Nordic banking giant Nordea

P.F.C. (Personal Finance Co.), a so-called “neobank” founded in Sweden, has raised €5 million in funding. Backing the young company is Nordea, the largest bank in the Nordics region.

In other words, chalk this up as another example of an incumbent bank placing financial and strategic bets on a fintech upstart, even if it doesn’t always end as the parties involved planned.

Nordea is present in 20 countries, including having a stronghold in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Also targeting the Nordics, P.F.C. is tiny in comparison. The neobank says it hopes to get to 100,000 users by the end of the year.

Described as a personal finance app and accompanying debit card, P.F.C. is regulated under a payments institution license rather than being a fully-licensed bank. It’s the same lighter touch model that Revolut and a plethora of other banking apps choose, before in some instances applying for a bank license so they can begin doing more risky regulated activities: namely lending out deposits in the form of overdrafts and loans.

PFC DASHBOARD 02P.F.C.’s features include being able to instantly top up your account/card using Swish (a mobile payment technology provided by a group of Swedish banks), the ability to set a weekly budget, and automatic transaction categorisation.

In addition, you can freeze, unfreeze, change your pin and order a new card directly within the P.F.C. app. You also have the option to receive a push notification after each purchase with your updated balance.

It’s a travel card, too: P.F.C. says there are no additional fees for purchases and ATM withdrawals abroad.

Other soon-to-launch features include the ability for friends and partners to share expenses and settle debts, and personalised savings and credit products with “transparent pricing”.

“There’s an opportunity in the market for companies that personalize financial services,” says Eli Daniel Keren, founder and CEO of P.F.C., in a statement. “We provide a personal, transparent and simple banking experience for our customers”.

Adds Ewan Macleod, Chief Digital Officer at Nordea: “We are delighted to have P.F.C. in our portfolio as it provides a personalized digital solution for customers. We see the investment as a great opportunity for us to team up and support P.F.C. in their growth”.

Monzo, the UK challenger bank, raises £113M Series F led by YC’s Continuity fund at a £2B post-money valuation

Monzo, the fast-growing U.K.-based challenger bank with more than two million account holders, has raised £113 million (~$144m) in additional funding.

Confirming TechCrunch’s scoop in April, the Series F round is led by Y Combinator’s “Continuity” growth fund, and gives the company a new £2 billion (~$2.5b) post-money valuation. That’s double the £1 billion valuation it garnered in October last year.

A number of other new and existing investors have also participated in the Series F. They include Latitude, General Catalyst, Stripe, Passion Capital, Thrive, Goodwater, Accel, and Orange Digital Ventures.

The investment by London-based Latitude, the growth fund from prolific seed investor LocalGlobe, is particularly noteworthy given that LocalGlobe itself didn’t previously back Monzo. The same might be said of YC’s Continuity, considering that Monzo isn’t a YC alumni (although GoCardless, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield’s previous startup, did take part in the Silicon Valley accelerator).

The take-away: a growth fund attached to an early-stage fund can be a great antidote to the anti-portfolio (the list of successful companies a VC firm either missed, were unable or chose not to invest in).

Meanwhile, Monzo’s new funding round and YC’s backing should be viewed within the context of not only fast growth and increasingly convincing product-market fit in the U.K. — the challenger bank is currently adding 200,000 new sign-ups for its current account each month — but also recently unveiled plans to tentatively launch across the pond.

We first reported that Monzo was busy assembling a U.S.-based team over five months ago, and the U.K. company made its U.S. plans official last week. This will see a U.S. Monzo app and connected Mastercard debit card available via in-person signups at events to be held soon. The rollout will initially consist of a few thousand cards, supported by a waitlist in preparation for a wider launch.

The U.S. launch is being done in partnership with a local bank, but in the longer term Monzo plans to apply for its own U.S. bank license, similar to the strategy it employed in the U.K. so as to own and operate as much of its technical, product and regulatory infrastructure as possible.

In the U.K., this has helped Monzo achieve an NPS score of 80, which Blomfield previously told me is unusually high for a bank. This is seeing 60% of U.K. signups remain long-term active, transacting at once per week. As a counterpoint, however, the percentage of Monzo users that pay a salary into their Monzo account sits at between about 27% and 30% of active users, suggesting that a significant number of Monzo customers aren’t yet using it as their main account (Monzo’s definition of salaried is anyone who deposits at least £1,000 per month by bank transfer).

Success in the U.S., therefore, isn’t a given, conceded Blomfield when I had a call with him earlier this month. Instead, he argued that the key to cracking North America will be creating a fully localised version of Monzo based on carefully listening to U.S. users and once again finding product-market fit. He says there are obvious and less obvious cultural and technical differences in the way Brits and Americans save, spend and manage their finances, and this will require significant product divergence from the U.K. version of Monzo. Today’s new £113 million injection of capital is clearly designed to provide some of the breathing space required to achieve that.

As a side note, there are encouraging signs from other London-based fintechs that have ventured across the pond. One recent example is the financial “digital assistant” chatbot Cleo, which entered the U.S. around a year ago and has been more successful than the company anticipated, seeing Cleo add 650,000 active U.S. users to date. In fact, the U.S. currently makes up more than 90% of new Cleo users, prompting one source to describe the U.K. startup as effectively a U.S. company now.

Penta, the digital SME banking upstart, appoints co-founder of solarisBank as new CEO

Hon on the heels of being acquired by company builder Finleap, German SME banking upstart Penta has appointed a new CEO.

Marko Wenthin, who previously co-founded solarisBank (the banking-as-a-service used by Penta), is now heading up the company, having replaced outgoing CEO and Penta co-founder Lav Odorović.

I understand Odorović left Penta last month after it was mutually agreed with new owner Finleap that a CEO with more experience scaling should be brought in. The Penta co-founder remains a shareholder in the SME banking fintech and is thought to be eyeing up his next venture.

Wenthin, who remains on the board of solarisBank according to LinkedIn, stepped down from the banking-as-a-service’s executive team in late 2018 citing “health reasons” and saying that he needed to focus on his recovery. It’s not known what those health issues were, although, regardless, it’s good to see that he’s well-enough to take up a new role as Penta CEO.

Asked to comment on Odorović’s departure, Penta issued the following statement:

“Lav is still part of the shareholders at Penta. His step back from the operational management team was a decision taken by mutual agreement. Lav was the right fit during the building phase of Penta, but by entering a new step of growth, the company faces bigger challenges and needs therefore to position itself differently”.

Penta says that in his new leadership role, Wenthin, who previously spent 16 years at Deutsche Bank, will lead international expansion — next stop Italy — and begin to market the fintech to larger SMEs in addition to its original focus on early-stage startups and other small digital companies. “In the future, the focus will be also on traditional medium-sized companies,” says Penta.

Adds Wenthin in a statement: “I am very much looking forward to my new role at Penta. On the one hand, digital banking for small and medium-sized companies is very important to me, as they are the driver of the economy and I have spent most of my career in this segment. On the other hand, I have known Penta and the team for a long time as successful partners of solarisBank. Penta is the best example of how a very focused banking provider can create real, digital added value for an entire customer segment in cooperation with a banking-as-a-service platform”.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch understands that Odorović’s departure and the appointment of Wenthin isn’t the only recent personnel change within Penta’s leadership team. According to LinkedIn, Aleksandar Orlic, who held the position of CTO, departed the company last month. “We are searching for a new CTO,” said a Penta spokesperson.

Alongside Wenthin, that leaves Penta’s current management team as Jessica Holzbach (Chief Customer Officer), Luka Ivicevic (Chief of Staff), Lukas Zörner (Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Matteo Concas (Chief Marketing Officer).

5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

Car rental startup Virtuo picks up €20M Series B

Virtuo, the Paris-headquartered car rentals startup, has raised €20 million in Series B funding. The round is backed by Iris Capital, Balderton Capital and Raise Ventures, and will be used to continue expanding across the U.K. and other European countries.

Originally founded in France and available in 19 French and 2 Belgium locations, Virtuo launched in London last Summer, and says it plans to bring the service to U.K. cities Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh later this year.

The company will also expand to Spain and Germany in 2019, creating what Virtuo claims will be a “truly pan-European rental option,” for drivers who are seeking an alternative to the big five incumbent car rental companies.

Designed to bring car rentals into the mobile age and in turn improve the user experience, the Virtuo app lets you book and unlock a Mercedes A-Class or GLA “in minutes,” at stations across the various cities the company operates, eradicating long wait times and arduous paperwork often associated with renting a car.

Like a plethora of mobility startups, the idea is to provide more options to a generation of non-car owners and in turn help creative a longer-term alternative to car ownership more generally.

“From the outset, we have been new challengers in an industry that has long-been dominated by 5 key players, whose bricks and mortar approach is deeply ingrained, not just in terms of market coverage, but also consumer rental habits,” Virtuo co-founder Karim Kaddoura tells me.

“We were the first to come into this industry with the fundamental belief that a 100 percent mobile approach is the only way to rebuild and re-think how car rental can be delivered from the ground up… From an operational perspective, by not being tied to bricks and mortar, we are able to launch stations, markets and services at a pace that has not been seen in the industry before”.

Kaddoura says Virtuo is also taking a data-driven and customer centric approach to building out its product, helping the company to innovate and improve every facet of renting a car. This has seen Virtuo garner 500,000 downloads of its app, which is popular with drivers between the age of 25 and 35.

I’m also told the average number of days of each rental is 4, averaging 325 miles per rental. Meanwhile, 80 percent of customers go for the compact A Class, while 20 percent take SUV.

“By continually listening to customer pain-points around booking processes, damage reporting, refuelling, communication and transparency, we can tackle these long-standing issues in new ways with technology as the solution,” he says. “The series B will play a key role in being able to provide greater availability across Europe and our existing markets”.

Adds Bernard Liautaud, managing partner of Balderton Capital: “Technology in cars and other areas of mobility is evolving rapidly, due to concerns over the environment and congestion. Given these shifts, renting a car as and when you need it is becoming a viable alternative to buying, particularly for younger people who have come of age as the sharing economy took off”.

Apple pays millions in backdated taxes to French authorities

Apple has agreed to pay back a large sum in backdated taxes. The company has confirmed the information to the AFP and Reuters. According to L’Express, Apple could have paid as much as €500 million ($572 million) — the AFP also confirmed that sum.

“The French tax administration recently concluded a multi-year audit on the company’s French accounts, and those details will be published in our public accounts,” the company told Reuters. French authorities can’t confirm the transaction due to tax secrecy.

This isn’t the first time French tax authorities investigate on tech companies. Amazon also settled a dispute with French authorities back in February 2018.

In August 2016, the European Commission ruled that Apple had benefited from illegal tax benefits from 2003 to 2014. Like many global companies, Apple has been accused of optimizing its corporate structure to lower the effective corporate tax rate in Europe.

While Apple appealed the decision back in 2016 saying that everything was legal, the company finished paying back the fine in September 2018. There are now $16.4 billion (€14.3 billion) sitting in an escrow account, waiting for the appeal.

And it sounds like Apple should have paid more taxes in France in particular. French tax authorities focused on profits generated in France over the past ten years.

Last month, the French government announced that it would start taxing big tech companies in France even if they report profits in another country. This tax will be based on revenue generated in France. Other European countries could follow the same model.

127 member countries of the OECD are also discussing new taxation rules for big tech companies. This time, the OECD wants to force companies to report profits in all countries where they operate.

Apeel partners with Nature’s Pride to bring spoilage resistant fruits and veggies to Europe

Apeel Sciences, the developer of a new technology that makes fruits and vegetables more resistant to spoilage, and Nature’s Pride, one of the largest vendors of avocados and mangos in Europe, are partnering to bring longer-lived avocados to market.

Subject to regulatory approval in the EU, Nature’s Pride said it will integrate Apeel’s plant-based preservation technology into its avocado supply chain — bringing avocados with double the edible shelf life to European homes.

Apeel’s technology takes the naturally occurring chemicals found in the skins and peels of plants and applies it to fresh produce, providing what the company calls “a little extra peel” that slows the rate of water loss and oxidation — which cause vegetables and fruits to spil.

The company says that its produce will stay fresh two to three times longer than untreated produce. Apeel touts that its technology can lead to more sustainable growing practices and less food waste.

Across Europe, 88 million tons of food is thrown out every year, at a cost of 143 billion euros (or roughly $163 billion dollars).

As part of the agreement with Nature’s Pride, Apeel Sciences is introducing a co-branded label with the European fruit supplier.

Founded in 2012 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help reduce post-harvest food loss in developing countries that lack access to refrigeration, Apeel Sciences is backed by a slew of marquee investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Viking Global Investors, Upfront Ventures, S2G Ventures, Powerplant Ventures, DBL Partners, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Department for International Development, and The Rockefeller Foundation .

Wandelbots raises $6.8M to make programming a robot as easy as putting on a jacket

Industrial robotics is on track to be worth around $20 billion by 2020, but while it may something in common with other categories of cutting-edge tech — innovative use of artificial intelligence, pushing the boundaries of autonomous machines that are disrupting pre-existing technology — there is one key area where it differs: each robotics firm uses its own proprietary software and operating systems to run its machines, making programming the robots complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

A startup out of Germany called Wandelbots (a portmanteau of “change” and “robots” in German) has come up with an innovative way to skirt around that challenge: it has built a bridge that connects the operating systems of the 12 most popular industrial robotics makers with what a business wants them to do, and now they can be trained by a person wearing a jacket kitted with dozens of sensors.

“We are providing a universal language to teach those robots in the same way, independent of the technology stack,” said CEO Christian Piechnick said in an interview. Essentially reverse engineering the process of how a lot of software is built, Wandelbots is creating what is a Linux-like underpinning to all of it.

With some very big deals under its belt with the likes of Volkwagen, Infineon and Midea, the startup out of Dresden has now raised €6 million ($6.8 million), a Series A to take it to its next level of growth and specifically to open an office in China. The funding comes from Paua VenturesEQT Ventures and other unnamed previous investors. (It had previously raised a seed round around the time it was a finalist in our Disrupt Battlefield last year, pre-launch.)

Notably, Paua has a bit of a history of backing transformational software companies (it also invests in Stripe), and EQT, being connected to a private equity firm, is treating this as a strategic investment that might be deployed across its own assets.

Piechnick — who co-founded Wandelbots with Georg Püschel, Maria Piechnick, Sebastian Werner, Jan Falkenberg and Giang Nguyen on the back of research they did at university — said that typical programming of industrial robots to perform a task could have in the past taken three months, the employment of specialist systems integrators, and of course an extra cost on top of the machines themselves.

Someone with no technical knowledge, wearing one of Wandelbots’ jackets, can bring that process down to 10 minutes, with costs reduced by a factor of ten.

“In order to offer competitive products in the face of the rapid changes within the automotive industry, we need more cost savings and greater speed in the areas of production and automation of manufacturing processes,” said Marco Weiß, Head of New Mobility & Innovations at Volkswagen Sachsen GmbH, in a statement. “Wandelbots’ technology opens up significant opportunities for automation. Using Wandelbots offering, the installation and setup of robotic solutions can be implemented incredibly quickly by teams with limited programming skills.”

Wandelbots’ focus at the moment is on programming robotic arms rather than the mobile machines that you may have seen Amazon and others using to move goods around warehouses. For now, this means that there is not a strong crossover in terms of competition between these two branches of enterprise robotics.

However, Amazon has been expanding and working on new areas beyond warehouse movements: it has, for example, been working ways of using computer vision and robotic arms to identify and pick out the most optimal fruits and vegetables out of boxes to put into grocery orders.

Innovations like that from Amazon and others could see more pressure for innovation among robotics makers, although Piechnick notes that up to now we’ve seen very little in the way of movement, and there may never be (creating more opportunity for companies like his that build more usability).

“Attempts to build robotics operating systems have been tried over and over again, and each time it’s failed,” he said. “But robotics has completely different requirements, such as real time computing, safety issues and many other different factors. A robot in operation is much more complicated than a phone.” He also added that Wandelbots itself has a number of innovations of its own currently going through the patent process, which will widen its own functionality too in terms of what and how its software can train a robot to do. (This may see more than jackets enter the mix.)

As with companies in the area of robotic process automation — which uses AI to take over more mundane back-office features — Piechnick maintains that what he has built, and the rise of robotics overall, is not going to replace workers, but put them on to other roles, while allowing businesses to expand the scope of what they can do that a human might never have been able to execute.

“No company we work with has ever replaced a human worker with a robot,” he said, explaining that generally the upgrade is from machine to better machine. “It makes you more efficient and cost reductive, and it allows you to put your good people on more complicated tasks.”

Currently, Wandelbots is working with large-scale enterprises, although ultimately, it’s smaller businesses that are its target customer, he said.

“Previously the ROI on robots was too difficult for SMEs,” he said. “With our tech this changes.”

“Wandelbots will be one of the key companies enabling the mass-adoption of industrial robotics by revolutionizing how robots are trained and used,” said Georg Stockinger, Partner at Paua Ventures, in a statement. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a steep decline in robotic hardware costs. Now, Wandelbots’ resolves the remaining hurdle to disruptive growth in industrial automation – the ease and speed of implementation and teaching. Both factors together will create a perfect storm, driving the next wave of industrial revolution.”

 

 

Xiaomi is opening a retail store in London as it extends its Europe push

Xiaomi’s expansion into Europe continues at speed after the Chinese smartphone maker announced plans to open its first retail store in London.

The company is best known for developing quality Android phones at affordable prices and already it has launched devices in Spain, Italy and France. Now, that foray has touched the UK where Xiaomi launched its Mi 8 Pro device at an event yesterday and revealed that it will open a store at the Westfield mall in London on November 18.

That outlet will become Xiaomi’s first authorized Mi Store. Styled on Apple’s iconic stores, the Mi store will showcase a range of products, not all of which are available in the UK.

Still, Xiaomi has shown a taste of what it plans to offer in the UK by introducing a number of products alongside the Mi 8 Pro this week. Those include its budget tier Redmi 6A phone and, in its accessories range, the Xiaomi Band 3 fitness device and the £399 Mi Electric Scooter. The company said there are more to come.

That product selection will be available via Xiaomi’s own Mi.com store and a range of other outlets, including Amazon, Carphone Warehouse and Three, which will have exclusive distribution of Xiaomi’s smartphones among UK telecom operators.

It’s official, Xiaomi has finally arrived in the UK! We brought our flagship #Mi8Pro which had its global debut outside Greater China. Other products announced include Xiaomi Band 3, our wildly popular fitness band, as well as Mi Electric Scooter. pic.twitter.com/YlOBysFBgM

— Wang Xiang (@XiangW_) November 8, 2018

Xiaomi hasn’t branched out into the U.S. — it does sell a number of accessories — but the European launches mark a new phase of its international expansion to take it beyond Asia. While Xiaomi does claim to be present in “more than 70 countries and regions around the world,” it has recorded most of its success in China, India and pockets of Asia.

CEO Lei Jun has, however, spoken publicly of his goal to sell Xiaomi phones in the U.S by “early 2019” at the latest.

Still, even with its focus somewhat limited, Xiaomi claims it has shipped a record 100 million devices in 2018 to date. The firm also posted a $2.1 billion profit in its first quarter as a public company following its Hong Kong IPO. However, the IPO underwhelmed with Xiaomi going public at $50 billion, half of its reported target, while its shares have been valued at below their IPO price since the middle of September.

Nikola Motor unveils a new hydrogen semi truck designed for Europe

Nikola Motor has started taking reservations for Tre, the startup’s first hydrogen-electric truck built for the European market.

Nikola Motor, which less than a year ago announced plans to build a $1 billion hydrogen-electric semi truck factory in a suburb of Phoenix, said it’s in the preliminary planning stages to identify the proper location for its European manufacturing facility.

European testing is projected to begin in Norway around 2020, the company said.

The Tre — it means three in Norwegian — is still years away from production. CEO Trevor Milton said production will begin around the same time as its U.S. version between 2022 and 2023.

But it illustrates Nikola’s global aspirations.

The U.S. and Europe have different trucking regulations. Nikola had to design a different model to meet those regulations before it consider trying to break into Europe. 

Nikola Motor Nikola Tre back

The Tre will be built with redundant braking, redundant steering, redundant 800V dc batteries and a redundant 120 kW hydrogen fuel cell, all necessary for true level 5 autonomy, Milton said in a statement. Level 5 is the highest level autonomy, a designation in which the vehicle handles all driving under all conditions.

The Nikola TRE will come will come in 500 to 1,000 horsepower versions. The truck will be able to travel 500 to 1,200 kilometers, depending on options a customer chooses.

Nikola plans to have more than 700 hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. and Canada by 2028. The company said Monday it’s working Nel Hydrogen of Oslo to provide hydrogen stations for the U.S. market.

Nel will be used to secure resources for Nikola’s European growth strategy, according to Nikola CFO Kim Brady.

By 2028, Nikola plans to have a network of more than 700 hydrogen stations across the USA and Canada. Each station will be capable of 2,000 to 8,000 kgs of daily hydrogen production. Nikola’s European stations are planned to come online around 2022 and are projected to cover most of the European market by 2030.

The company will display a prototype display of the Nikola TRE during the Nikola World event April 16 and April 17 in Phoenix.

New ‘Dark Ads’ pro-Brexit Facebook campaign may have reached over 10M people, say researchers

A major new campaign of disinformation around Brexit, designed to stir up U.K. ‘Leave’ voters, and distributed via Facebook, may have reached over 10 million people in the U.K., according to new research. The source of the campaign is so far unknown, and will be embarrassing to Facebook, which only this week claimed it was clamping down on “dark” political advertising on its platform.

Researchers for the U.K.-based digital agency 89up allege that Mainstream Network — which looks and reads like a “mainstream” news site but which has no contact details or reporter bylines — is serving hyper-targeted Facebook advertisements aimed at exhorting people in Leave-voting U.K. constituencies to tell their MP to “chuck Chequers.” Chequers is the name given to the U.K. Prime Ministers’s proposed deal with the EU regarding the U.K.’s departure from the EU next year.

89up says it estimates that Mainstream Network, which routinely puts out pro-Brexit “news,” could have spent more than £250,000 on pro-Brexit or anti-Chequers advertising on Facebook in less than a year. The agency calculates that with that level of advertising, the messaging would have been seen by 11 million people. TechCrunch has independently confirmed that Mainstream Network’s domain name was registered in November last year, and began publishing in February of this year.

In evidence given to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today, 89up says the website was running dozens of adverts targeted at Facebook users in specific constituencies, suggesting users “Click to tell your local MP to bin Chequers,” along with an image from the constituency, and an email function to drive people to send their MP an anti-Chequers message. This email function carbon-copied an info@mainstreamnetwork.co.uk email address. This would be a breach of the U.K.’s data protection rules, as the website is not listed as a data controller, says 89up.

The news comes a day after Facebook announced a new clampdown on political advertisement on its platform, and will put further pressure on the social media giant to look again at how it deals with the so-called “dark advertising” its Custom Audiences campaign tools are often accused of spreading.

89up claims Mainstream Network website could be in breach of new GDPR rules because, while collecting users’ data, it does not have a published privacy policy, or contain any contact information whatsoever on the site or the campaigns it runs on Facebook.

The agency says that once users are taken to the respective localized landing pages from ads, they are asked to email their MP. When a user does this, its default email client opens up an email and puts its own email in the BCC field (see below). It is possible, therefore, that the user’s email address is being stored and later used for marketing purposes by Mainstream Network.

TechCrunch has reached out to Mainstream Network for comment on Twitter and email. A WhoIs look-up revealed no information about the owner of the site.

TechCrunch’s own research into the domain reveals that the domain owner has made every possible attempt to remain anonymous. Even before GDPR came in, the domain owners had paid to hide its ownership on GoDaddy, where it is registered. The site is using standard GoDaddy shared hosting to blend in with 400+ websites using the same IP address.

Commenting, Damian Collins MP, the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the U.K. House of Commons, said: “We do not know who is funding the Mainstream Network, or who is behind its operations, but we can see that they are directing a large scale advertising campaign on Facebook designed to get people to lobby their MP to oppose the Prime Ministers’s Brexit strategy. I have been sent a series of emails from constituents as a result of these adverts, in a deliberate attempt to alter the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.”

“The issue for parliamentarians is we have no idea who is targeting whom via political advertising on Facebook, who is paying for it, and what the purpose of that communication is. Facebook claimed this week that it was working to make political advertising on their platform more transparent, but once again we see potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent to influence the political process and no one knows who is behind this.”

Mike Harris, CEO of 89up said: “A day after Facebook announced it will no longer be taking ‘dark ads’, we see once again evidence of the huge problem the platform is yet to face up to. Facebook has known since the EU referendum that highly targeted political advertising was being placed on its platform by anonymous groups, yet has failed to do anything about it. We have found evidence of yet another anonymous pro-Brexit campaign placing potentially a quarter of a million pounds worth of advertising, without anyone knowing or being able to find out who they are.”

Josh Feldberg, 89up researcher, said: “We have no idea who is funding this campaign. Only Facebook do. For all we know this could be funded by thousands of pounds of foreign money. This case just goes to show that despite Facebook’s claims they’re fighting fake news, anonymous groups are still out there trying to manipulate MPs and public opinion using the platform. It is possible there has been unlawful data collection. Facebook must tell the public who is behind this group.”

TechCrunch has reached out to both Facebook and Mainstream Network for comment prior to publication and will update this post if either respond to the allegations.

Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

Europe’s Uber rival Taxify is launching itself into the e-scooter game

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The likes of Uber and Lyft are increasingly cosying up to scooters, and now one of the biggest ridesharing operators in Europe is joining the fray.

Estonian startup Taxify is rolling out an electric scooter sharing service in Paris this week, with plans to launch in other cities across Europe and Australia in the coming months. 

Much like Uber and Lyft’s vision, the scooters can be booked in the same Taxify app used to hail car rides. 

“One in five Taxify rides are less than 3 kilometres (1.8 miles), which is the perfect distance to cover with an electric scooter,” Markus Villig, CEO and co-founder of Taxify said in a statement.  Read more…

More about Tech, Europe, Scooters, Ridesharing, and Taxify

Shine grabs $9.3 million to build a bank for freelancers

French startup Shine is raising a $9.3 million (€8 million) Series A round. The company is building an alternative to traditional bank accounts for freelancers working in France.

XAnge is leading today’s round with existing investor Daphni also participating, as well as business angels Gilles Samoun and Ed Zimmerman. The company previously raised $3.3 million (€2.8 million) from Daphni, Kima Ventures and various business angels.

While it’s pretty easy to get started as a freelancer in many countries, France is not one of them. You need to register a “micro-company”, report your earnings for corporate taxes, report sales tax collection in some cases and more.

Arguably, it has gotten much easier recently with a ton of resources to get started. But Shine wants to go one step further and package everything you need in an app.

Shine starts by helping you register your company. After downloading the app, the company will guide you through the process — you need to take a photo of your ID and fill out a form. It feels like signing up to a social network. Compared to the official process, Shine’s process is less intimidating and easier to understand.

You can send and receive money from your Shine account just like in any banking app. Shine gives you your own banking information (IBAN) to receive payments and pay using direct debit. A few days later, you receive a debit card. You can temporarily lock the card or disable some features in the app, such as ATM withdrawals and online payments.

Shine doesn’t handle IBAN and cards directly. The company partners with Treezor for those banking features.

If you’re a rider on Deliveroo and UberEats, or if you work with a freelancer marketplace, such as Malt, Side, Upwork and Brigad, all you need to do is enter your Shine IBAN on those platforms. If you work with clients directly, Shine has an integrated invoicing system. It generates a web page and a PDF that you can send to your clients. When a client opens the page, you get a notification. They can pay with a card.

Finally, Shine reminds you when you have to pay your taxes and has a customer support team that can help you figure out what you need to do. They’re slowly building a comprehensive knowledge base on being a freelancer in France.

Shine is free for everything I just described except if you choose to accept card payments on your invoices. But even for that feature, it remains quite cheap.

The company plans to launch a premium plan in the coming months with advanced accounting features. So far, 25,000 freelancers are using Shine in France. And 10 percent of new freelancers (“micro-entrepreneurs”) register their company through Shine.

While challenger banks, such as N26 and Revolut are widely successful, it’s great to see some companies focus on niche markets with the same approach. Shine is a breath of fresh air for freelancers in France. The company is making the process so much easier for newcomers.

Walmart co-leads $500M investment in Chinese online grocery service Dada-JD Daojia

Walmart sold its China-based e-commerce business in 2016, but the U.S. retail giant is very much involved in the Chinese internet market through a partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com. Alibaba’s most serious rival, JD scooped up Walmart’s Yihaodian business and offered its own online retail platform to help enable Walmart to products in China, both on and offline.

Now that relationship is developing further after Walmart and JD jointly invested $500 million into Dada-JD Daojia, an online-to-offline grocery business which is part owned by JD, according to a CNBC report.

Unlike most grocery delivery services, though, Dada-JD Daojia stands apart because it includes a crowdsourced element.

The business was formed following a merger between JD Daojia, JD’s platform for order from supermarkets online which has 20 million monthly users, and Daojia, which uses crowdsourcing to fulfill deliveries and counts 10 million daily deliveries. JD Daojia claims over 100,000 retail stores and its signature is one-hour deliveries for a range of products, which include fruit, vegetables and groceries.

Walmart is already part of the service — it has 200 stores across 30 Chinese cities on the Dada-JD Daojia service; as well as five online stores on the core JD.com platform — and now it is getting into the business itself via this investment.

JD.com said the deal is part of its ‘Borderless Retail’ strategy, which includes staff-less stores and retail outlets that mix e-commerce with physical sales.

“The future of global retail is boundaryless. There will be no separation between online and offline shopping, only greater convenience, quality and selection to consumers. JD was an early investor in Dada-JD Daojia, and continues its support, because we believe that its innovations will be an important part of realizing that vision,” said Jianwen Liao, Chief Strategy Officer of JD.com, in a statement.

Alibaba, of course, has a similar hybrid strategy with its Hema stores and food delivery service Ele.me, all of which links up with its Taobao and T-Mall online shopping platforms. The company recently scored a major coup when it landed a tie-in with Starbucks, which is looking to rediscover growth in China through an alliance that will see Ele.me deliver coffee to customers and make use of Hema stores.

Away from the new retail experience, JD.com has been doing more to expand its overseas presence lately.

The company landed a $550 million investment from Google this summer which will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the world. Separately, JD.com has voiced intention to expand into Europe, starting in Germany, and that’s where the Google deal and a relationship with Walmart could be hugely helpful.

Another strategic JD investor is Tencent, and that relationship has helped the e-commerce firm sell direct to customers through Tencent’s WeChat app, which is China’s most popular messaging service. Tencent and JD have co-invested in a range of companies in China, such as discount marketplace Vipshop and retail group Better Life. Their collaboration has also extended to Southeast Asia, where they are both investors in ride-hailing unicorn Go-Jek, which is aiming to rival Grab, the startup that bought out Uber’s local business.

ezCater acquires GoCater to expand beyond the US

Catering marketplace company ezCater is already putting its big $100 million funding round to good use. The company is acquiring GoCater, a European marketplace that operates in the same field. This is ezCater’s first international expansion move.

If you’re in charge of ordering catered lunch at your office, you probably have heard about ezCater . The company lets you order breakfast, lunch or dinner for 10, 30 or maybe 100 people at once. This service could be particularly useful to impress a client, throw an office party, get lunch together during an off-site and more.

But ezCater doesn’t cook anything itself. The company is a marketplace and connects you with catering companies and big restaurants around you. In other words, ezCater lets you browse the menu of dozens of restaurants around you from the same website and place an order without picking up the phone.

Of course, ezCater didn’t invent catering. But catering is a fragmented industry with a lot of friction. It’s hard to know how much you’re going to pay in advance, it takes a lot of effort to find a new restaurant outside of your usual list. And restaurants could use a new way to promote their offering. Those are the perfect ingredients to create an online marketplace.

You may already know all the options around your office, but ordering through ezCater provides additional benefits. For instance, all your receipts are centralized in the same interface, which lets you get a clear overview of your spendings on catering.

You can also let other people order food for their clients and events. ezCater lets you set maximum amounts, tipping policies and more.

GoCater offers more or less the same thing, but in France and Germany. The company started as a spinoff from French startup La Belle Assiette. GoCater lets you create a whitelist of catering options. You can also set up an approval system so that the intern doesn’t order ice creams for everyone. Finally, GoCater clients only get billed once per month, even if companies order multiple times.

You pay the same price if you order through GoCater or the catering company directly. Catering companies end up paying a cut on GoCater orders. But the startup takes care of billing, accounting and accounts receivable. This way, you can focus on your core business instead of chasing money from past clients.

ezCater is an order of magnitude bigger than GoCater. ezCater works with 60,000 restaurants, while GoCater only has a few hundred restaurants on its platform. It’s worth noting that ezCater has been around for much longer.

But GoCater has one big advantage over ezCater — they have a team on the ground in Europe, ready to attract new restaurants and corporate clients. It’s clear that ezCater was looking for a way to get started in Europe, and GoCater seems like the right fit.

For now, the company will keep both brands after the acquisition. The teams will slowly merge the platforms into a single product.

“The entire GoCater team is staying, and we’re now going to rapidly expand the European team of the company — both the sales team for Europe and the tech and product team for the group,” GoCater founder and CEO Stephen Leguillon told me.

PayU acquires Zooz to take on international payment services

A week after PayPal led a $50 million round in the cross-border payment specialist PPRO, one of its big competitors in the developing world has announced an acquisition of its own in the same space. PayU — the payments division of Naspers that is sometimes described as the PayPal of the developing world — has acquired Zooz, a startup based out of Israel that provides an API to merchants that lets them accept a variety of payments depending on the market.

The two had already been working together — specifically to provide PayU payment options to merchants in markets where PayU is active — and the plan will be to integrate the services further to enable PayU to step deeper into the cross-border payment services space, potentially even by enabling the integration of the payment methods of competitors as part of the mix of payment options.

“In the choice between building a closed walled garden and open platform, we decided to go with the second model,” PayU’s CEO Laurent le Moal said in an interview. “The reality is that you need to be neutral and work with everyone.”

PayU will also invest in adding further features to the Zooz platform, such as fraud management (which you could argue is table stakes these days in payments), real-time reporting and smart routing.

Zooz’s whole team of 70 will be joining, including co-founders Oren Levy (CEO) and Ronen Morecki (CTO), who will respectively take senior roles at PayU as business development with larger merchants, and CTO of innovation.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but that PayU has said that this deal brings its total spend on acquisitions and investments to about $350 million to date. That includes acquiring CitrusPay for $130 million, investing €100 million (between $120 million and $130 million) in Kreditech and several other investments. Doing the math, this potentially puts this deal at a range of between $50 million and $100 million.

Zooz was founded in 2010 and had raised around $33 million, from investors that include Target Global Ventures, Fang Fund, iAngels, Kreos Capital and existing investors Blumberg Capital, lool ventures, Rhodium, Claltech (Access Industries’ Israeli tech vehicle), XSeed Capital, CampOne Ventures and angel investor Eilon Tirosh.

Similar to PPRO, the company in which PayPal invested earlier this month, Zooz’s service addresses the widespread fragmentation that exists in payments globally. While credit cards are very much the norm in the US, globally they account for just under 20 percent of all e-commerce transactions, with consumers and businesses in different geographies developing their own localised payment methods and preferences. For example, cash on delivery or deposited with convenience stores, or bank transfers also play big roles.

This can be a problem for a merchant that is based in one country but interested in selling to people in another — an opportunity estimated to be worth $994 billion globally — if it doesn’t accept whatever the local payment method happens to be. Zooz addresses this by providing an API to merchants that gives them the option of a number of payment providing companies and methods so that they can enable the most popular variety of payment options to buyers depending on the market.

It will be worth watching whether payment companies will continue to be happy integrating with Zooz after its sale to PayU is complete. The fact that Zooz already integrates with different payment options, and itself is not a payment services provider, was one reason why PayU was interested in it.

At a time when there are multiple options for payment methods, including PayU itself, there is potentially an opportunity to be able to make revenues by trying to play in as many of those transactions as possible. Notably, PayU already lets people integrate some 250 methods into its own wallet, and it says it’s the leading online payment service provider in 16 markets out of the 17 in which it is active..

Zooz potentially will be boosting that footprint with more than just a platform that enables multiple payment options, but the transaction data and analytics that come with those transactions, which can become useful for other services in other parts of the business.

“The unique contribution we bring to PayU is an advanced technological layer which not only helps merchants worldwide to upscale their operations and provide a better customer experience, but also offers analytics and optimization capabilities that equip them with unprecedented insights,” noted Levy, Zooz’s CEO.

UK report warns DeepMind Health could gain ‘excessive monopoly power’

DeepMind’s foray into digital health services continues to raise concerns. The latest worries are voiced by a panel of external reviewers appointed by the Google-owned AI company to report on its operations after its initial data-sharing arrangements with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) ran into a major public controversy in 2016.

The DeepMind Health Independent Reviewers’ 2018 report flags a series of risks and concerns, as they see it, including the potential for DeepMind Health to be able to “exert excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure that’s bundled with provision of the Streams app — and which, contractually, positions DeepMind as the access-controlling intermediary between the structured health data and any other third parties that might, in the future, want to offer their own digital assistance solutions to the Trust.

While the underlying FHIR (aka, fast healthcare interoperability resource) deployed by DeepMind for Streams uses an open API, the contract between the company and the Royal Free Trust funnels connections via DeepMind’s own servers, and prohibits connections to other FHIR servers. A commercial structure that seemingly works against the openness and interoperability DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has claimed to support.

There are many examples in the IT arena where companies lock their customers into systems that are difficult to change or replace. Such arrangements are not in the interests of the public. And we do not want to see DeepMind Health putting itself in a position where clients, such as hospitals, find themselves forced to stay with DeepMind Health even if it is no longer financially or clinically sensible to do so; we want DeepMind Health to compete on quality and price, not by entrenching legacy position,” the reviewers write.

Though they point to DeepMind’s “stated commitment to interoperability of systems,” and “their adoption of the FHIR open API” as positive indications, writing: “This means that there is potential for many other SMEs to become involved, creating a diverse and innovative marketplace which works to the benefit of consumers, innovation and the economy.”

“We also note DeepMind Health’s intention to implement many of the features of Streams as modules which could be easily swapped, meaning that they will have to rely on being the best to stay in business,” they add. 

However, stated intentions and future potentials are clearly not the same as on-the-ground reality. And, as it stands, a technically interoperable app-delivery infrastructure is being encumbered by prohibitive clauses in a commercial contract — and by a lack of regulatory pushback against such behavior.

The reviewers also raise concerns about an ongoing lack of clarity around DeepMind Health’s business model — writing: “Given the current environment, and with no clarity about DeepMind Health’s business model, people are likely to suspect that there must be an undisclosed profit motive or a hidden agenda. We do not believe this to be the case, but would urge DeepMind Health to be transparent about their business model, and their ability to stick to that without being overridden by Alphabet. For once an idea of hidden agendas is fixed in people’s mind, it is hard to shift, no matter how much a company is motivated by the public good.”

We have had detailed conversations about DeepMind Health’s evolving thoughts in this area, and are aware that some of these questions have not yet been finalised. However, we would urge DeepMind Health to set out publicly what they are proposing,” they add. 

DeepMind has suggested it wants to build healthcare AIs that are capable of charging by results. But Streams does not involve any AI. The service is also being provided to NHS Trusts for free, at least for the first five years — raising the question of how exactly the Google-owned company intends to recoup its investment.

Google of course monetizes a large suite of free-at-the-point-of-use consumer products — such as the Android mobile operating system; its cloud email service Gmail; and the YouTube video sharing platform, to name three — by harvesting people’s personal data and using that information to inform its ad targeting platforms.

Hence the reviewers’ recommendation for DeepMind to set out its thinking on its business model to avoid its intentions vis-a-vis people’s medical data being viewed with suspicion.

The company’s historical modus operandi also underlines the potential monopoly risks if DeepMind is allowed to carve out a dominant platform position in digital healthcare provision — given how effectively its parent has been able to turn a free-for-OEMs mobile OS (Android) into global smartphone market OS dominance, for example.

So, while DeepMind only has a handful of contracts with NHS Trusts for the Streams app and delivery infrastructure at this stage, the reviewers’ concerns over the risk of the company gaining “excessive monopoly power” do not seem overblown.

They are also worried about DeepMind’s ongoing vagueness about how exactly it works with its parent Alphabet, and what data could ever be transferred to the ad giant — an inevitably queasy combination when stacked against DeepMind’s handling of people’s medical records.

“To what extent can DeepMind Health insulate itself against Alphabet instructing them in the future to do something which it has promised not to do today? Or, if DeepMind Health’s current management were to leave DeepMind Health, how much could a new CEO alter what has been agreed today?” they write.

“We appreciate that DeepMind Health would continue to be bound by the legal and regulatory framework, but much of our attention is on the steps that DeepMind Health have taken to take a more ethical stance than the law requires; could this all be ended? We encourage DeepMind Health to look at ways of entrenching its separation from Alphabet and DeepMind more robustly, so that it can have enduring force to the commitments it makes.”

Responding to the report’s publication on its website, DeepMind writes that it’s “developing our longer-term business model and roadmap.”

“Rather than charging for the early stages of our work, our first priority has been to prove that our technologies can help improve patient care and reduce costs. We believe that our business model should flow from the positive impact we create, and will continue to explore outcomes-based elements so that costs are at least in part related to the benefits we deliver,” it continues.

So it has nothing to say to defuse the reviewers’ concerns about making its intentions for monetizing health data plain — beyond deploying a few choice PR soundbites.

On its links with Alphabet, DeepMind also has little to say, writing only that: “We will explore further ways to ensure there is clarity about the binding legal frameworks that govern all our NHS partnerships.”

“Trusts remain in full control of the data at all times,” it adds. “We are legally and contractually bound to only using patient data under the instructions of our partners. We will continue to make our legal agreements with Trusts publicly available to allow scrutiny of this important point.”

“There is nothing in our legal agreements with our partners that prevents them from working with any other data processor, should they wish to seek the services of another provider,” it also claims in response to additional questions we put to it.

We hope that Streams can help unlock the next wave of innovation in the NHS. The infrastructure that powers Streams is built on state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards, known as FHIR. The FHIR standard is supported in the UK by NHS Digital, NHS England and the INTEROPen group. This should allow our partner trusts to work more easily with other developers, helping them bring many more new innovations to the clinical frontlines,” it adds in additional comments to us.

“Under our contractual agreements with relevant partner trusts, we have committed to building FHIR API infrastructure within the five year terms of the agreements.”

Asked about the progress it’s made on a technical audit infrastructure for verifying access to health data, which it announced last year, it reiterated the wording on its blog, saying: “We will remain vigilant about setting the highest possible standards of information governance. At the beginning of this year, we appointed a full time Information Governance Manager to oversee our use of data in all areas of our work. We are also continuing to build our Verifiable Data Audit and other tools to clearly show how we’re using data.”

So developments on that front look as slow as we expected.

The Google-owned U.K. AI company began its push into digital healthcare services in 2015, quietly signing an information-sharing arrangement with a London-based NHS Trust that gave it access to around 1.6 million people’s medical records for developing an alerts app for a condition called Acute Kidney Injury.

It also inked an MoU with the Trust where the pair set out their ambition to apply AI to NHS data sets. (They even went so far as to get ethical signs-off for an AI project — but have consistently claimed the Royal Free data was not fed to any AIs.)

However, the data-sharing collaboration ran into trouble in May 2016 when the scope of patient data being shared by the Royal Free with DeepMind was revealed (via investigative journalism, rather than by disclosures from the Trust or DeepMind).

None of the ~1.6 million people whose non-anonymized medical records had been passed to the Google-owned company had been informed or asked for their consent. And questions were raised about the legal basis for the data-sharing arrangement.

Last summer the U.K.’s privacy regulator concluded an investigation of the project — finding that the Royal Free NHS Trust had broken data protection rules during the app’s development.

Yet despite ethical questions and regulatory disquiet about the legality of the data sharing, the Streams project steamrollered on. And the Royal Free Trust went on to implement the app for use by clinicians in its hospitals, while DeepMind has also signed several additional contracts to deploy Streams to other NHS Trusts.

More recently, the law firm Linklaters completed an audit of the Royal Free Streams project, after being commissioned by the Trust as part of its settlement with the ICO. Though this audit only examined the current functioning of Streams. (There has been no historical audit of the lawfulness of people’s medical records being shared during the build and test phase of the project.)

Linklaters did recommend the Royal Free terminates its wider MoU with DeepMind — and the Trust has confirmed to us that it will be following the firm’s advice.

“The audit recommends we terminate the historic memorandum of understanding with DeepMind which was signed in January 2016. The MOU is no longer relevant to the partnership and we are in the process of terminating it,” a Royal Free spokesperson told us.

So DeepMind, probably the world’s most famous AI company, is in the curious position of being involved in providing digital healthcare services to U.K. hospitals that don’t actually involve any AI at all. (Though it does have some ongoing AI research projects with NHS Trusts too.)

In mid 2016, at the height of the Royal Free DeepMind data scandal — and in a bid to foster greater public trust — the company appointed the panel of external reviewers who have now produced their second report looking at how the division is operating.

And it’s fair to say that much has happened in the tech industry since the panel was appointed to further undermine public trust in tech platforms and algorithmic promises — including the ICO’s finding that the initial data-sharing arrangement between the Royal Free and DeepMind broke U.K. privacy laws.

The eight members of the panel for the 2018 report are: Martin Bromiley OBE; Elisabeth Buggins CBE; Eileen Burbidge MBE; Richard Horton; Dr. Julian Huppert; Professor Donal O’Donoghue; Matthew Taylor; and Professor Sir John Tooke.

In their latest report the external reviewers warn that the public’s view of tech giants has “shifted substantially” versus where it was even a year ago — asserting that “issues of privacy in a digital age are if anything, of greater concern.”

At the same time politicians are also gazing rather more critically on the works and social impacts of tech giants.

Although the U.K. government has also been keen to position itself as a supporter of AI, providing public funds for the sector and, in its Industrial Strategy white paper, identifying AI and data as one of four so-called “Grand Challenges” where it believes the U.K. can “lead the world for years to come” — including specifically name-checking DeepMind as one of a handful of leading-edge homegrown AI businesses for the country to be proud of.

Still, questions over how to manage and regulate public sector data and AI deployments — especially in highly sensitive areas such as healthcare — remain to be clearly addressed by the government.

Meanwhile, the encroaching ingress of digital technologies into the healthcare space — even when the techs don’t even involve any AI — are already presenting major challenges by putting pressure on existing information governance rules and structures, and raising the specter of monopolistic risk.

Asked whether it offers any guidance to NHS Trusts around digital assistance for clinicians, including specifically whether it requires multiple options be offered by different providers, the NHS’ digital services provider, NHS Digital, referred our question on to the Department of Health (DoH), saying it’s a matter of health policy.

The DoH in turn referred the question to NHS England, the executive non-departmental body which commissions contracts and sets priorities and directions for the health service in England.

And at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for a response from the steering body.

Ultimately it looks like it will be up to the health service to put in place a clear and robust structure for AI and digital decision services that fosters competition by design by baking in a requirement for Trusts to support multiple independent options when procuring apps and services.

Without that important check and balance, the risk is that platform dynamics will quickly dominate and control the emergent digital health assistance space — just as big tech has dominated consumer tech.

But publicly funded healthcare decisions and data sets should not simply be handed to the single market-dominating entity that’s willing and able to burn the most resource to own the space.

Nor should government stand by and do nothing when there’s a clear risk that a vital area of digital innovation is at risk of being closed down by a tech giant muscling in and positioning itself as a gatekeeper before others have had a chance to show what their ideas are made of, and before even a market has had the chance to form. 

Shared housing startups are taking off

When young adults leave the parental nest, they often follow a predictable pattern. First, move in with roommates. Then graduate to a single or couple’s pad. After that comes the big purchase of a single-family home. A lawnmower might be next.

Looking at the new home construction industry, one would have good reason to presume those norms were holding steady. About two-thirds of new homes being built in the U.S. this year are single-family dwellings, complete with tidy yards and plentiful parking.

In startup-land, however, the presumptions about where housing demand is going looks a bit different. Home sharing is on the rise, along with more temporary lease options, high-touch service and smaller spaces in sought-after urban locations.

Seeking roommates and venture capital

Crunchbase News analysis of residential-focused real estate startups uncovered a raft of companies with a shared and temporary housing focus that have raised funding in the past year or so.

This isn’t a U.S.-specific phenomenon. Funded shared and short-term housing startups are cropping up across the globe, from China to Europe to Southeast Asia. For this article, however, we’ll focus on U.S. startups. In the chart below, we feature several that have raised recent rounds.

Notice any commonalities? Yes, the startups listed are all based in either New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, two metropolises associated with scarce, pricey housing. But while these two metro areas offer the bulk of startups’ living spaces, they’re also operating in other cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

From white picket fences to high-rise partitions

The early developers of the U.S. suburban planned communities of the 1950s and 60s weren’t just selling houses. They were selling a vision of the American Dream, complete with quarter-acre lawns, dishwashers and spacious garages.

By the same token, today’s shared housing startups are selling another vision. It’s not just about renting a room; it’s also about being part of a community, making friends and exploring a new city.

One of the slogans for HubHaus is “rent one of our rooms and find your tribe.” Founded less than three years ago, the company now manages about 80 houses in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, matching up roommates and planning group events.

Starcity pitches itself as an antidote to loneliness. “Social isolation is a growing epidemic—we solve this problem by bringing people together to create meaningful connections,” the company homepage states.

The San Francisco company also positions its model as a partial solution to housing shortages as it promotes high-density living. It claims to increase living capacity by three times the normal apartment building.

Costs and benefits

Shared housing startups are generally operating in the most expensive U.S. housing markets, so it’s difficult to categorize their offerings as cheap. That said, the cost is typically lower than a private apartment.

Mostly, the aim seems to be providing something affordable for working professionals willing to accept a smaller private living space in exchange for a choice location, easy move-in and a ready-made social network.

At Starcity, residents pay $2,000 to $2,300 a month, all expenses included, depending on length of stay. At HomeShare, which converts two-bedroom luxury flats to three-bedrooms with partitions, monthly rents start at about $1,000 and go up for larger spaces.

Shared and temporary housing startups also purport to offer some savings through flexible-term leases, typically with minimum stays of one to three months. Plus, they’re typically furnished, with no need to set up Wi-Fi or pay power bills.

Looking ahead

While it’s too soon to pick winners in the latest crop of shared and temporary housing startups, it’s not far-fetched to envision the broad market as one that could eventually attract much larger investment and valuations. After all, Airbnb has ascended to a $30 billion private market value for its marketplace of vacation and short-term rentals. And housing shortages in major cities indicate there’s plenty of demand for non-Airbnb options.

While we’re focusing here on residential-focused startups, it’s also worth noting that the trend toward temporary, flexible, high-service models has already gained a lot of traction for commercial spaces. Highly funded startups in this niche include Industrious, a provider of flexible-term, high-end office spaces, Knotel, a provider of customized workplaces, and Breather, which provides meeting and work rooms on demand. Collectively, those three companies have raised about $300 million to date.

At first glance, it may seem shared housing startups are scaling up at an off time. The millennial generation (born roughly 1980 to 1994) can no longer be stereotyped as a massive band of young folks new to “adulting.” The average member of the generation is 28, and older millennials are mid-to-late thirties. Many even own lawnmowers.

No worries. Gen Z, the group born after 1995, is another huge generation. So even if millennials age out of shared housing, demographic forecasts indicate there will plenty of twenty-somethings to rent those partitioned-off rooms.

Job hunting service Glassdoor sold to Japan’s Recruit for $1.2 billion

U.S. job hunting service Glassdoor, which is best known for providing insight into company working cultures, has been acquired for $1.2 billion in cash by Recruit, a $39 billion Japanese corporate that specializes in HR and recruitment services.

The all-cash acquisition will see Glassdoor continue to maintain its brand, CEO Robert Hohman explained in a blog post.

“Our mission has been the same since day one: to help people everywhere find a job and company they love. That mission will not change as part of Recruit. Glassdoor will continue to operate as a distinct brand to fulfill this mission — and will be able to do so with greater speed and impact than we could achieve alone,” Hohman wrote.

Glassdoor raised a total of just over $200 million from investors, with its most recent round a $40 million Series H in March 2016. That last investment gave Glassdoor a valuation of around $1 billion. That’s not a huge amount more than what Recruit is paying, which suggests that the last couple of years haven’t been so spectacular for Glassdoor in terms of growth.

Nonetheless, this deal looks like a win for those backers, particularly the earlier stage investors such as Benchmark and Battery Ventures .

Ten-year-old Glassdoor says it is used by 59 million people each month, many of whom come to the service to read about how companies are rated by the people who work, or worked there. While it is headquartered in the U.S., Glassdoor says it has information on more than 770,000 companies across 190 countries worldwide, including 40 million reviews covering company culture, CEO ratings, salary information and more.

Glassdoor’s revenue comes from recruitment services, and it claims to work with some 7,000 employees and 40 percent of the Fortune 500.

Recruit may not be a well-known name in the U.S. but the Japanese firm is huge, and it is history as a purchaser of overseas businesses.

The firm — which was founded in 1960 — is listed on the Toyko Stock Exchange and it has 45,000 employees across 60 countries.

Beyond recruitment and HR services, it also operates in real estates, travel, dining and other segments. That’s reflected in its past acquisitions, which have included U.S. job sites Indeed.com (2012), Simply Hired (2016) and, in Europe, restaurant site Quandoo (2015)hair and beauty service Wahanda (2015) and education technology company Quipper (2015).

Russia’s Telegram ban that knocked out 15M Google, Amazon IP addresses had a precedent in Zello

Russia blocking access to Telegram after the messaging app refused to give it access to encrypted messages has picked up an unintended casualty: we’re now up to over 15 million IP addresses from Amazon and Google getting shut down by the regulators in the process, taking various other (non-Telegram) services down with it.

Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov earlier today said that its reach in the country has yet to see an impact from the ban 24 hours on, with VPNs, proxies and third-party cloud services stepping in to pick up the slack for its roughly 14 million users in the country, and third parties refusing to buckle under requests from Roskomnadzor, the regulator, to remove the app from its stores and servers.

“Thank you for your support and loyalty, Russian users of Telegram. Thank you, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft — for not taking part in political censorship,” Durov noted.

But Telegram’s Russia crisis is not the first time that an app banned by the Russian government has had to rely on third-party support to navigate its position with users. A recent precedent involving a much smaller communications app sheds some light on how all of this works. And ironically, its own run-in may have been the reason for why the government moved so quickly to block so many IP addresses around Telegram’s, affecting more than just the app itself.

A little over a year ago, the walkie-talkie app Zello received a notice from the Russian regulator Roskomnadzor. Zello was informed that it would be banned unless it started to host records of the conversations that were taking place on the app on Russian servers — in compliance with a hosting requirement that Russia put in place for ISPs back in 2014 as part of its efforts to tighten its control of digital information in the name of national security.

You might remember the name Zello from its bump of attention when a wave of people hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas used it to communicate with each other when voice services went down or became too clumsy to use, but mobile internet connections stayed up. “Voice is how we most naturally communicate, and push-to-talk and radio-style communication is instant, no dialling or waiting,” said Zello CEO Bill Moore. “It can be with one person or large groups and build relationships and to solve problems.”

The startup itself is based out of Austin, Texas and has around 120 million registered users, with around four million monthly active users.

Moore — who had in the past also founded and run another Texas startup, TuneIn — said in an interview this week that Zello’s run-in with Russia started about a year ago, when the regulator started to block the application in Spring 2017, after Zello refused to cooperate with the hosting requirement, both on grounds of cost and principle.

(Cost: because it’s a small startup. And principle: because Zello is built in a way where messages are stored locally, both for direct messages and those sent in more widely-distributed channels, the feature that Moore believes might have been “why Zello annoyed Russia,” because protestors used these channels to coordinate activities.”)

Instead of buckling and leaving Russia, Zello decided to use to some software it had written years before, when the app had been issued with a block in Venezuela after it ran afoul of the government there — software “that let us change IP addresses for our service,” as Moore describes it. The change in IP addresses essentially meant that as Zello was shut down in one place, it was able to hop to another, using services from either AWS or Google Cloud.

Moore said that Zello — which originally hosted its service on IBM’s cloud before the ban — used its IP hopping tactic for nearly a year, moving first across IP addresses on Amazon and then hopping to Google Cloud when Amazon got too hot. By the time Zello started using Google Cloud, the government was well on to Zello’s ways, and it took only about 10 days before Google asked Zello to stop, Zello’s CTO and founder Alexey Gavrilov added.

“About a month ago, the press in Russia began to report that Roskomnadzor was threatening to block millions of addresses if that’s what it took to get Zello [to retreat]. That was when Amazon said, ‘you need to stop changing IP addresses,’” Gavrilov said. “We tried to get Amazon to reconsider, making the case that by asking us to stop, it is are really acting the same way that ISPs do that are controlled by Russia. Zello is not damaging, but Russia is by blocking. It’s not wise to go along with that threat.”

His argument echoes what Durov has been saying in defense of Telegram, although it didn’t appear to wash for the smaller app. “We lost that debate,” Gavrilov said.

Moore and Gavrilov say they believe Telegram may be using a similar kind of approach to move around Amazon- and Google-based IP addresses (I’ve tried to contact Durov to ask about this but have not had a reply; Google and Amazon also have not replied to my emails). However, now, with the Russian authorities well aware of the tactic, it simply decided to block large swathes of IPs to act more quickly, rather than negotiate with cloud companies to pick out which IP addresses were actually being used.

Partly because of the size of the service in question, and partly because of the blanket blocking, the difference between the IP addresses being blocked varied from just over 2,000 for Zello to more than 15 million by the time Telegram attempted its own IP hops.

Zello still believes that it was not in the wrong in its own encounters with the Russian government, although its appeals to Amazon and Google, and eventually Apple and others who host the app on their stores, ultimately didn’t wash.

“We believe that Zello doesn’t violate Russian law because originally the hosting requirement was written for ISPs, and Zello is not an ISP,” Moore said. “We cooperate with law enforcement on a consistent basis and do what we can under the law.” But like Telegram, Zello takes the view that the medium should not be attacked because of how it is used. “Terrorists drink water, but I don’t think we should outlaw water, either,” is how Moore describes his stance.

Since about two weeks ago, the only way that people in Russia can use Zello is by way of VPN proxies. Zello has a fairly even distribution of its several millon monthly active users across several countries, including the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Hong Kong. Russia had been one of its top markets until this happened, but the cost to Zello has been about half of its active users in the country, which now stand at 200,000.

“We don’t like to think about how we’ve lost half our users there,” Gavrilov said. “We like to think about how many we’ve managed to keep.”

Zello has always been ad-free and free to use by regular consumers. Moore said that the company is profitable, making its revenues through a premium tier for businesses to have their own private channels. So far, Zello is completely bootstrapped, although Moore said that it is likely it will want to raise money eventually to grow its consumer business.

Neither CTO nor CEO think that Russian bans impact the company’s wider business.

“In my opinion, incidents like these only help companies like Telegram and Zello on the global market,” Gavrilov (a native of Russia) said. “Realistically, Russia is a small share of the Telegram user base, and standing up to the demands in Russia just communicates to everyone else that you can trust these people. That only makes it more valuable.”

Amazon partners with French retailer Monoprix to launch Prime Now grocery deliveries in Paris

Amazon’s business in France is taking a big step forward after announcing a new deal today with retail giant Monoprix to deliver groceries through Prime Now. The service will begin serving Prime Now members in Paris this year and include products carried by Monoprix, including its own branded items and fresh produce.

Monoprix’s website already offers services including home deliveries in some areas and “click and collect,” which lets shoppers pre-order items online before picking them up at a nearby store.

Frédéric Duval, Amazon France’s country manager, told Journal du Dimanche earlier this month that the company wanted to launch grocery delivery there, though at the time he didn’t specify who Amazon would partner with. Monoprix competitors Systeme U, Leclerc and Intermarche were reportedly also considered potential candidates, while struggling big box store operator Carrefour was speculated to be an acquisition target.

Monoprix is owned by Casino Group, a French retail conglomerate that operates stores, including supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants, in France, Latin America and Southeast Asia. It generated 38 billion Euros in consolidated net sales last year.

In press statement, Duval said “This commercial partnership, which further enlarges Prime Now service selection, will enable Amazon Prime customers to benefit from ultra-fast deliveries for their Monoprix orders.”

Maki.vc is a new early-stage VC out of Helsinki co-founded by the Chair of Slush

A new early-stage VC fund targeting tech startups in the Nordics is getting its official launch today. Founded by serial entrepreneur and Slush Chairman Ilkka Kivimäki​, and former F-Secure and startup executive Pirkka Palomäki​, Helsinki-based Maki.vc will invest in nascent and burgeoning companies in the region, both at seed and Series A stage. The VC […]

Revolut broke even in December, now has 1.5 million customers

 Fintech startup Revolut can’t stop and won’t stop growing. The company has had an amazing month of December with a huge increase in the total volume of transactions and signups. Because of that, Revolut broke even in December for the first time ever. The company told me that it wasn’t just a lucky month and January is looking good as well. Revolut announced that it had reached… Read More

Day One Ventures launches fund which wraps VC and PR into one

 There is a clutch of new VC funds launched in the US every year, and but when you look at the stats around new funds started by women they are pretty dismal. A cursory glance at the figures from last year reveals that out of 153 funds founded in the US last year, only four were founded by women, and only two have gone on to raise money. Furthermore, women account for only seven percent of… Read More

Badi bags $10M to build out its room rentals platform in Europe

 Barcelona-based Badi launched a marketplace for urban room rentals in September 2015 with the goal of making it easier to find flatmates. The startup has now closed a $10M Series A investment, led by Spark Capital, with the aim of ramping up its presence across Europe. Read More

Sodexo acquires majority stake in French online restaurant FoodChéri

 Sodexo, a French publicly-listed food services and facilities management company, has acquired a majority stake in Paris-based online restaurant and food delivery startup FoodChéri. Terms of the deal remain undisclosed, though François Paulus of Breega Capital, which backed the company’s €6 million Series A, tells me he is “happy with the return”. Read More

Countingup, a startup from founder of Clear Books, raises ​$750K to merge banking and accounting

 Countingup, a new fintech startup from Tim Fouracre, who previously founded cloud accounting software Clear Books, wants to simplify the life of sole traders by reinventing the business bank account. Specifically, Fouracre’s vision is that for one-person enterprises, business banking and accounting software should be merged so that book keeping and filing accounts can be automated. Read More

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BuddyGuard raises €3.4M for its home security camera powered by AI

 BuddyGuard, the Berlin startup behind the Flare AI-powered home security camera, has raised €3.4 million in new funding, money it plans to use to ramp up marketing of the newly-launched device. Leading the round is German electrical specialist Bachmann Group, with participation from over 20 unnamed angel investors across Europe. Read More

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BridgeU raises $5.3m to close the gap between education and industry needs

 Students deciding on their next phase in higher education face a daunting choice and a array of options. Most schools have zero capability to deal with sifting 40,000 undergraduate courses in the UK, alone. Why not apply big data to the problem and create an ‘adaptive learning platform’ which actually helps students make these crucial decision, based on real data.
That’s… Read More

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AI-powered customer marketing platform Ometria raises $6M Series A

 Ometria, a customer marketing platform which says it’s “AI-powered” has raised $6m in Series A funding. US-based Summit Action led the round, along with an investment syndicate backed by individuals with roles inside some key retailers. Ometria has now raised a total of $11m to accelerate the development of its customer marketing platform, which, it claims, enables retailers… Read More

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Digital wealth manager Moneyfarm acquires tech behind fintech chatbot Ernest

 Moneyfarm, the U.K.-headquartered “digital wealth manager” has acquired the technology behind personal finance chatbot Ernest. Terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed, though I understand that, along with the tech, this is an acqui-hire of sorts, seeing London-based Ernest’s CTO Lorenzo Sicilia join Moneyfarm to oversee technology integration. Read More

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DogBuddy, the European dog sitting marketplace, scores €5M Series A

 DogBuddy, a pan-European online marketplace for dog sitting, has closed €5 million in Series A funding, money it plans for further expansion. Backing the London-headquartered startup in this round is existing investor Sweet Capital, the investment fund started by the founders of King.com, and a number of new unnamed private investors. It brings total raised by DogBuddy to €10 million. Read More

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Pointy, a startup that lets local retailers easily put stock online with a simple gadget, raises​ ​$6M

 Pointy​,​ ​an Irish start​ ​startup​ ​that​ lets ​local​ ​retailers put their stock online so that they can be discovered via search engines, has raised $6 million in Series A funding. The round is being led by Frontline Ventures, alongside Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Draper Associates and a number of notable angel investors. Read More

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Index Ventures is coming in force to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin this December

 We are delighted to announce our next wave of speakers for Disrupt Berlin. And what a wave. Index Ventures is one the world’s leading international venture capital firms. And we are incredibly excited to have 3 of its partners on stage at Disrupt Berlin!
But before we outline the details, please just be aware that our final batch of Disrupt Berlin 2017 tickets at the deeply… Read More

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Acasa is building a platform for ‘Generation Rent’ to manage their homes

 London-based startup Acasa has come a long way since late 2015. The company, then called Splittable, offered a way to manage and share household expenses with multiple house members. However, the bigger vision was to build a platform for ‘Generation Rent’ that makes moving from one houseshare to another as easy as logging in and out of the Acasa app. Read More

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Carspring, a London and Berlin startup that lets you buy a used car online, raises £5M Series B

 Carspring, the London and Berlin used car buying platform founded by Rocket Internet, has picked up £5 million in Series B funding. Backing the round are Rocket Internet itself, along with Channel 4’s Commercial Growth Fund, which offers media in the form of TV advertising in return for equity. Read More

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