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Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns expected to last until May 4

Tesla will suspend production at its U.S. factories until at least May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night and viewed by TechCrunch.

Pay cuts for salaried employees — which ranges from 30% for vice presidents, 20% for director-level executives and 10% for the remaining workforce — is expected to be in place until the end of the second quarter, according to the email. The salary cuts and furloughs will begin April 13. Employees who cannot work from home and have not been assigned critical onsite positions will be furloughed until May 4, according to the email.

“While we are continuing to keep only minimum critical operations running, we expect to resume normal production at our U.S. facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes,” the email from Tesla’s human resources department head Valerie Workman. “Until that time, it is important we take action to ensure we remain on track to achieve our long-term plans.”

“This is a shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times,” the email read.

Furloughed employees will remain employees of Tesla without pay. They will their healthcare benefit. The email directs furloughed employees to apply for unemployment benefits.

Tesla said in the email to employees that it will also put any merit-based actions such as equity grants on hold.

Tesla operates a number of factories and facilities throughout the U.S., namely its main assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., its Nevada gigafactory that produces battery packs and electric motors for the Model 3 and its factory in Buffalo, New York, which makes solar products.

Tesla announced March 19 plans to suspend production at its Fremont and Buffalo factories. At the time, the company didn’t say when it expected to restart production. The production suspension at its Fremont factory was set to begin March 23, a week after a shelter in place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” has continued at the Fremont factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. About 2,500 workers are still working at the plant.

Tesla said in March that it had enough liquidity to weather the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cash position at the end of the fourth quarter was $6.3 billion before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise.

“We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty,” Tesla said.

The company had available credit lines worth about  $3 billion, including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of its Shanghai factory at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019.

The Station: Bird and Lime layoffs, pivots in a COVID-19 era and a $2.2 trillion deal

Hello folks, welcome back (or hi for the first time) to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the all the ways people and packages move around this world. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

I also have started to publish a shorter version of the newsletter on TechCrunch . That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole enchilada — which comes out every Saturday — you can subscribe to the newsletter by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!

Before I get into the thick of things, how is everyone doing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m being earnest. I want to hear from you (note my email below). Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you are doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.

Please reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bird laid off about 30% of its employees due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

In a memo obtained by TechCrunch, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said:

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

The fallout from COVID-19 isn’t limited to Bird. Lime is also reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meanwhile, Wheels deployed e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus. NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.

The upshot to all of this: COVID-19 is turning shared mobility on its head. That means lay offs will continue. It also means companies like Wheels will try to innovate or pivot in hopes of staying alive.

While some companies pulled scooters off city streets, others changed how they marketed services. Some turned efforts to gig economy workers delivering food. Others, like shared electric moped service Revel, are focusing on healthcare workers.

Revel is now letting healthcare workers in New York rent its mopeds for free. To qualify, they just need to upload their employee ID. For now, the free rides for healthcare workers is limited to Brooklyn, Queens and a new service area from upper Manhattan down to 65th street. Revel expanded the area to include hospitals in one of the epicenters of the disease.

Revel is still renting its mopeds to the rest of us out there, although they encourage people to only use them for essential trips. As you might guess, ridership is down significantly. The company says it has stepped up efforts of disinfecting and cleaning the mopeds and helmets. Revel also operates in Austin, New York City, Oakland, and Washington. It has suspended service in Miami per local regulations.

Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, I would highlight a large funding round for a startup in the “deal of the week” section. This week, I have broadened my definition.

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act. President Donald Trump signed it hours later. The CARES act contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TechCrunch has just started what will be a multi-day dive into the 880-page document. And in the coming weeks, I will highlight anything related or relevant to the transportation industry or startups here.

I’ll focus today on three items: airlines, public transit and small business loans.

U.S. airlines are receiving $58 billion. It breaks down to about $25 billion in loans for commercial carriers, $25 billion in payroll grants to cover the 750,000 employees who work in the industry.  Cargo carriers will receive $4 billion in loans and $4 billion in grants. These loans come with some strings attached. Airlines will have to agree not to lay off workers through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.

Public transit has been allocated $24.9 billion. The CARES Act provides almost three times the FY 2020 appropriations for this category, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The funds are distributed through a formula that puts $13.79 billion to urban, $2 billion to rural, $7.51 billion towards state of good repair and $1.71 billion for high-density state transit. APTA notes that these funds are for operating expenses to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 beginning on January 20, 2020.

Amtrak received an additional $1 billion in grants, that directs $492 million of those funds towards the northeast corridor. The remaining goes to the national network.

Small business loans are a critical piece of the bill, and an area where many startups may be focused. There is a lot to unpack here, but in basic terms the act provides $350 billion in loans that will be administered by the Small Business Administration to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. These loans are meant to cover an eligible borrower’s payroll, rent, utilities expenses and mortgage interest for up to eight weeks. If the borrower maintains its workforce, some of the loan may be forgiven.

Venture-backed startups seeking relief may run into problems qualifying. It all comes down to how employees are counted. Normally, SBA looks at a company’s affiliates to determine if they qualify. So, a startup owned by a private equity firm is considered affiliated with the other companies in that firm’s portfolio, which could push employment numbers far beyond 500. That rule also seems to apply to venture-backed startups, in which more than 50% of voting stock is held by the VC.

The guidance on this is still spotty. But Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, said in recent explainer that the rule has the “potential to be problematic for startups because the SBA affiliation rules are highly complex and could cause lenders to group together several otherwise unaffiliated portfolio companies of a single venture capital firm in determining whether a borrower has no more than 500 employees.”

One final note: The SBA has waived these affiliation rules for borrowers in the food services and food supply chain industry. It’s unclear what that might mean for those food automation startups or companies building autonomous vehicles for food delivery.

More deal$

COVID-19 has taken over, but deals are still happening. Here’s a rundown of some of partnerships, acquisitions and fundraising round that got our attention.

  • Lilium, the Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and aspires to run in its own taxi fleet, has raised $240 million in a funding round led by Tencent. This is being couched as an inside round with only existing investors, a list that included participation from previous backers such as Atomico, Freigeist and LGT. The valuation is not being disclosed. But sources tell us that it’s between $750 million and $1 billion.
  • Wunder Mobility acquired Australia-based car rental technology provider KEAZ. (Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but as part of the deal KEAZ founder and CTO Tim Bos is joining Wunder Mobility) KEAZ developed a mobile app and back-end management tool that lets rental agencies, car dealerships, and corporations provide shared access to vehicles.
  • Cazoo, a startup that buys used cars and then sells them online and delivers to them your door, raised $116 million funding. The round was led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
  • Helm.ai came out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. Helm.ai says it developed software for autonomous vehicles that can skip traditional steps of simulation, on-road testing and annotated data set — all tools that are used to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
  • RoadSync, a digital payment platform for the transportation industry, raised a $5.7 million in a Series A led by Base10 Partners with participation from repeat investor Hyde Park Venture Partners and Companyon Ventures. The company developed cloud-based software that lets businesses invoice and accept payments from truck drivers, carriers and brokers. Their platform is in use at over 400 locations nationwide with over 50,000 unique transactions monthly, according to RoadSync.
  • Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale. The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America.

A final word

Remember, the weekly newsletter features even more mobility news and insights. I’ll leave ya’ll with this one chart from Inrix. The company has launched a U.S. traffic synopsis that it plans to publish every Monday. The chart shows traffic from the week of March 14 to March 20. The upshot: COVID-19 reduced traffic by 30% nationwide.

inrix traffic drop from covid

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Giga New York will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible. We will do anything in our power to help the citizens of New York.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2020

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

TikTok donates $3 million to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charity feeding kids affected by school closures

The social media giant TikTok said that it would donate $3 million to AfterSchool All-Stars, a charity founded by actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to feed families whose food security was affected by the close of public schools in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

TikTok said in a statement Thursday that families in 60 cities with After-School All-Stars chapters would receive food vouchers and gift cards that can be spent on food and other essentials through local grocery stores.

“We are all operating in uncertain times, and it’s more important now than ever before for both our local and global communities to come together to help those in need,” said Vanessa Pappas, General Manager of TikTok U.S., in a statement. “This pledge to ASAS will help more students get access to meals, safely provided to them, during this crisis. While this alone won’t mitigate the impact of the current situation, we hope it can relieve one worry for parents who are balancing social distancing mandates, work and caring for children who can no longer go to school each day.”

Chapters in cities that have been hardest hit by the epidemic will receive the aid, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Corporate partners in the initiative include Food Land, Giant, Kroger, Publix, Ralphs, Safeway, Target and Walmart .

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese media company Bytedance, also said it would match up to $1 million in employee donations to the ASAS to boost the organization’s ability to provide food.

“During a crisis, improvisation is critical and everyone has to look at new ways to help the most vulnerable,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California Governor and Founder of After-School All-Stars, in a statement. “The After-School All-Stars programs are paused with schools closed, but we remain committed to supporting the 100,000 families we work with year-round. When I founded After-School All-Stars in 1992, the goal was always to support the families who need it the most. I’m grateful to TikTok for their donation which allows us to shift our priorities so our team can safely deliver groceries and gift cards for groceries to the families we help.”

 

Did African startups raise $496M, $1B or $2B in 2019?

Five years ago, it was hard to come by any numbers for annual VC investment in Africa. These days the challenge is choosing which number to follow.

That’s the case for three venture funding studies for Africa that turned up varied results.

The numbers and variance

Investment stats released by media outlet Disrupt Africa, data-base WeeTracker and Africa focused fund Partech have left some people scratching their heads.

From high to low, Partech pegged total 2019 VC for African startups at $2 billion, compared to WeeTracker’s $1.3 billion estimate and Disrupt Africa’s $496 million.

That’s a fairly substantial spread of $1.5 billion between the assessments. The variance filtered down to country VC valuations, though it was a little less sharp.

Africa VC markets 2019Partech and WeeTracker shared the same top-three countries for 2019 VC investment in Africa — Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt — but with hundred-million dollar differences.

Disrupt Africa came up with a different lead market for startup investment on the continent — Kenya — though its $149 million estimate for the East African country was some $500 million lower than Partech and WeeTracker’s VC leader, Nigeria.

So what accounts for the big deviations? TechCrunch spoke to each organization (and reviewed the reports) and found the contrasting stats derive from different methodologies — namely defining what constitutes a startup and an African startup.

Partech’s larger overall VC valuation for the continent comes from broader parameters for companies and quantifying investment.

“We do not limit the definition of startups by age of the incorporation or size of funds raised,” Partech General Partner Tidjane Deme told TechCrunch.

This led the fund, for example, to include Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian financial-services company Interswitch . The corporate round was certainly tech-related, though few would classify Interswitch — which launched in 2002, acquires companies, and has a venture fund — as a startup.

Partech’s higher annual VC value for Africa’s startups could also connect to tallying confidential investment data.

“We…collect and analyze undisclosed deals, accessing more detailed information thanks to our relationships within the ecosystem,” the fund’s report disclosed.

WeeTracker’s methodology also included data on undisclosed startup investments and opened up the count to funding sources beyond VC.

“Debt/loans, grants/awards/prizes/non-equity assistance, crowdfunding, [and] ICOs are included,” WeeTracker clarified in a methodology note.

Disrupt Africa used a more conservative approach across companies and investment. “We are a bit more narrow on what we consider a startup to be,” the site’s co-founder Tom Jackson told TechCrunch.

“In the clearest scenario, an African startup would be headquartered in Africa, founded by an African, and have Africa as its primary market,” Disrupt Africa’s report stated  — though Jackson noted all these factors don’t always align.

“Disrupt Africa tackles this issue on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Partech was more liberal in its definition of an African startup, including investment for tech-companies that count Africa as their primary market, but not insisting they be incorporated or operate HQs on the continent.

Andela FoundersThat opened up inclusion of large 2019 rounds to Africa focused, New York headquartered tech-talent accelerator Andela and investment to Opera’s verticals, such as OPay in Nigeria.

In addition to following a more conservative definition of African startup, Disrupt Africa’s report was more particular to early-stage ventures. The site’s report primarily counted investment for companies founded within the last five year and excluded “spin-offs of corporates or any other large entity…that [has]…developed past the point of being a startup.”

Commonalities across reports

For all the differences on annual VC counts for Africa, there were some common threads across WeeTracker, Partech, and Disrupt Africa’s investment reports.

The first was the rise of Nigeria — which has Africa’s largest population and economy — as the top destination for startup VC investment on the continent.

The second was the prominence of fintech as the most funded startup sector across Africa, gaining 54% of all VC in Partech’s report and $678 million of the $1.3 billion to startups in WeeTracker’s study.

VC inequality

An unfortunate commonality in each report was the preponderance of startup investment going to English speaking Africa. No francophone country made it into the the top five in any of the three reports. Only Senegal registered on Partech’s country-list, with a small $16 million in VC in 2019.

The Dakar Angel Network launched last year to bridge the resource gap for startups in French-speaking African countries.

Final sum

There may not be a right or wrong stat for annual investment to African startups, just three reports with different methodologies that capture unique snapshots.

Partech and WeeTracker offer a broader view of multiple types of financial support going to tech companies operating in Africa. Disrupt Africa’s assessment is more specific to a standard definition of VC going to startups originating and operating in Africa.

Three reports with varying numbers on the continent’s startup investment is a definite upgrade to what was available not so long ago: little to no formal data on VC in Africa.

New York’s Governor Cuomo requires insurers to waive cost sharing for COVID-19 tests

In a move that other states might want to emulate, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said that the state’s Department of Financial Services is requiring health insurers in the state to waive cost sharing associated with testing for the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

The initiative paves the way for low-cost emergency room, urgent care, and hospital visits for patients worried that they may have contracted the virus.

The Governor also said that New Yorkers receiving Medicaid coverage will not be expected to pay a co-pay for any testing related to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The steps are designed to ensure that residents of the state won’t have to worry about cost as an obstacle for getting tested. Any tests that are being conducted at the State’s Wadsworth Lab are fully covered.

Cuomo’s administration also outlined other actions health insurers are either going to be required or advised to take — including informing New Yorkers of available benefits, offering telehealth medical advice and treatment, and preparing insurers to cover the costs of COVID-19 immunizations if a vaccine becomes available.

“We have the best health-care system in the world, and we are leveraging that system including our state-of-the-art Wadsworth testing lab to help contain any potential spread of the novel coronavirus in New York,” Governor Cuomo said, in a statement. “Containing this virus depends on us having the facts about who has it – and these measures will break down any barriers that could prevent New Yorkers from getting tested.”

The state’s initiative will prevent insurers from forcing cost-sharing on in-network provider office visits or urgent care visits, when the purpose is a test for the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. The initiative is also designed to ensure that New Yorkers receiving Medicaid coverage have their costs covered.

Employees who are in self-funded employer-based plans not regulated b ERISA statutes need to contact employers to see how the new regulations will effect them.

The State is also requiring insurers to devote resources to inform consumers of available benefits; provide and promote telehealth services; encourage and verify whether provider networks are adequately prepared to handle potential increases in demand for services including offering access to out-of-network services; covering the costs of immunizations if they become available; expand access to prescription drugs; and ensure proper emergency care.

The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

Report: NYC and Arlington, VA win the contest for Amazon’s split East Coast headquarters

New York City and Arlington, Virginia have reportedly won Amazon’s lengthy and highly-publicized pageant for the locations of its new headquarters, beating out 238 other contestants. According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, an official announcement may come as early as Tuesday.

The offices will be located in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan, and Crystal City, a neighborhood in Arlington, which is a 15-20 minute drive from Washington D.C.

Last week, more than a year after the Seattle-based company began asking cities to submit proposals for its second headquarters, nicknamed HQ2, reports emerged that Amazon planned to open two new locations, instead of just one, catching candidates off guard. WSJ reported that the Amazon decided to split a total of 50,000 employees between two new offices because the company believes it can recruit better candidates that way, while also avoiding the traffic, housing, and other potential infrastructure headaches of adding tens of thousands of new employees to one area.

Nonetheless, when it became clear that New York City and Arlington, Virginia were among the top contenders, residents of both areas began to worry about Amazon’s impact on housing costs and commutes, with New Yorkers wondering if the beleaguered New York City subway can handle 25,000 potential new riders. Long Island City community groups have also called on Amazon to pay a “gentrification tax” to help keep local residents from being priced out of their neighborhood by its employees.

As for the other cities that were potential contenders (the 20 finalists included Indianapolis, Denver, Dallas, and Nashville), Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, said on Twitter that he believed the work they put into Amazon’s competitive bidding process can be repurposed to build new startup ecosystems.

My statement on @Amazon’s #HQ2 decision: pic.twitter.com/Ty7220jgFa

— Steve Case (@SteveCase) November 13, 2018

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

Swiping right on virtual relationships

There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.

The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.

Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.

She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex. 

Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.

There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.

Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.

VR is the future of couples therapy

VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.

“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”

VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise. 

As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR. 

The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts. 

Women in sextech

Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?

Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.

“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.

Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.

The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.

“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”

Real estate property manager and developer JLL launches a $100 million tech investment fund

The multi-billion dollar real estate developer and property manager JLL is getting into the tech investment game with the launch of a new $100 million fund run by corporate subsidiary JLL Spark.

Initially envisioned as a technology-focused business unit of the multinational real estate company, the firm eventually turned to the more traditional venture capital investment model as a way to get more exposure to all of the new technologies that are coming to market, according to JLL SPark’s co-chief executive Mihir Shah.

For Shah and his co-founder Yishai Lerner running the real estate company’s investment firm is the first foray by either executive into the world of real estate or property technology. But both men have been working in the startup world of the Bay Area for at over a decade.

In fact, the two serial entrepreneurs launched one of their first companies from the TechCrunch 50 conference way back in 2007 (it was a mobile app that mimicked Yelp).

The two eventually sold their mobile review business to GroupOn and began doing some angel investing. It was during that venture into the wild world of seed stage prospecting that Shah got bitten by the real estate bug while trying to buy some commercial real estate.

“I was looking at the process and was thinking ‘Wow! That is not a modern process,’” Shah said.

Unbeknownst to Shah, at the same time he was looking for commercial real estate, the commercial real estate industry was looking for someone like him.

JLL had put out feelers and hired head hunters to find someone who could take the lead at the firm’s burgeoning technology practice, Shah said.

“They had all sorts of internal initiatives bringing in new technology companies and services to their existing clients,” Shah said. “They understood that technology was going to transform all aspects of the industry.”

One of the first steps that JLL had taken was to acquire Stessa, which developed and sold asset management software for the real estate industry. But Shah and Lerner quickly realized that the buy and build strategy wouldn’t be robust enough for JLL’s needs.

“Over the last six months we saw how much innovation was happening in the proptech space and we thought it made more sense to launch a venture fund,” Shah said.

The firm will invest anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million into seed stage or Series A companies with the option to dabble in later stage deals, according to Shah. The firm has made two investments so far — neither one of them in startups.

The commitments have been in one accelerator program, the New York-based Metaprop, which focuses on real estate tech investment, and Navitas Capital, which is billed as a later stage investor in the same space.

Both investments appear to be geared toward educating the firm’s two principals on the market and what’s already happening in the space.

The benefit that a corporate firm like JLL can provide to startups is the access to pilot projects where companies can deploy their technologies and, indeed, that’s the pitch that Shah makes to potential portfolio companies.

“Money is not enough,” he said. “There’s a lot of products out there, but they’re struggling with distribution.” JLL has designated a few buildings in top cities around the world to fast track new technologies and provide trial spaces for them to develop, Shah told me. “Our value as a strategic is to build that bridge and make that connection.”

“Creating this $100 million venture fund through JLL Spark allows us to continue to lead the real estate industry in bringing the best proptech ideas to reality,” said Christian Ulbrich, JLL’s Global chief executive. “It complements and expands our substantial ongoing investments in innovative, cutting-edge digital solutions, which is a core part of our Beyond strategic vision and commitment to achieve ambitions for our clients.”

 

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.

The makers of the virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, snag real money from Silicon Valley

Brud, the actual company behind one of Instagram’s most popular virtual influencers (it’s a thing), has raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors because this is 2018 and everything is awful.

Last week, the Los Angeles-based startup led by Trevor McFedries, outed itself as the collective consciousness behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela and her less well known contemporaries Blawko22 and BermudaisBae in a choreographed melodrama worthy of Los Angeles’ best reality television.

i am deeply invested in the drama surrounding lil miquela and now you all have to be too. sorry!!! https://t.co/ta1T4rDFGz

— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) April 19, 2018

The subject of numerous glowing profiles in online and print fashion and lifestyle magazines (including, most recently, in High Snobiety), Lil Miquela’s stardom (and her fellow avatars) fascinated because the characters’ creators coyly toed the line around “her” self-awareness and their own. In the process, they created a sensation that’s become well-known worldwide.

It’s less well-known that the company is backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital investment — firms like Sequoia Capital. Our sources put the company’s funding somewhere around $6 million in its recent funding round.

There are other notable investors from Silicon Valley and New York rumored to be in the round — like New York’s BoxGroup and the Bay Area’s SV Angel. Sequoia declined to comment for this article and Box Group’s David Tisch did not respond to a request for comment.

All of the virtual drama with Miquela started late last week when news outlets (including TechCrunch) reported that Miquela’s Instagram account (or that of her handlers) was hacked by operators of a social media account belonging to another virtual personality known as “Bermudaisbae” (a more right wing social media persona with fewer followers).

McFedries, brud‘s founder and chief executive, confirmed that the Miquela account had been hacked in a text exchange with me, writing, “some redditor idiots hacked the page we think.”

That was a lie.

The account “hack” was architected by brud as part of an ongoing virtual reality drama playing out on Instagram and other social media platforms between avatars it had developed, all designed to attract media attention, according to people with knowledge of brud and its plans. It worked. 

McFedries has not responded to further requests for comment after confirming that the Miquela account was “good”.

One Los Angeles investor familiar with the company said brud was “using conflict to introduce new characters… same as the Kardashians always have.”

The investor added that two years into the development of the Miquela persona, brud‘s founders knew that the fad could lose some of its luster as the is-she-or-Isn’t-she-real tension dissipates under the weight of continuously thwarted expectations — like a post-modern twist on the will-or-won’t-they dramatic tension defining most sitcoms since Cheers.

“People aren’t going to buy that she’s human so they make it seem as if she’s had an existential crisis and now she is the first in a breed of conscious AR characters that they will build a world around,” this investor wrote. “[Manufacturing] social influence.”

Blawko22 and Lil Miquela imposed over a gas station exterior simulating a pit stop on the road to Coachella

For his part, the 33-yar-old McFedries had been manufacturing social influence in Los Angeles through his talents as a dj, producer and director before entering the startup world.

First under the name of DJ Skeet Skeet and then as DJ Skeeter, and, finally, Yung Skeeter, McFedries has worked or performed with a number of the world’s best selling recording artists including Chris Brown, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry (and — interestingly — more obscure acts like Bonde do Role).  

Working as an an “artist advocate” for Spotify, a DJ for a radio show on iHeartRadio, and as a spokesman for VitaminWater sustained McFedries along with managing the career of BANKS and executive producing her first album and a single on Azealia Banks’ 2014 record “Broke with Expensive Taste” — at least according to a Wikipedia page on Yung Skeeter. 

Around this time McFedries also began investing in companies, according to AngelList.

Roughly two years after the Banks record release, Lil Miquela made her first appearance on Instagram. And the rest is history as written in Internet archives and memes. Ephemeral, but infinite.

The project that brud seems to be pursuing — turning celebrity into a virtual commodity; commenting on the unreality of the “real” entertainment industry by literally creating an unreal celebrity — is fascinating.

There’s certainly a valid criticism to be made about the ways in which celebrity operates, the ways in which our “social” media has corroded society, and the unbridled power of these platforms to transform messengers and their messages into movements.

Perhaps brud wants to make these critiques through its very existence — or at least use its low-brow as high-brow (or is it vice versa?) intellectual appeal as a veneer over the more crass (but potentially honest) mission of selling more shit more effectively through the use of spokespeople whose views only change when their creators want them to (it worked for Hollywood’s star system). That at least gets sponsors and advertisers out of the potentially messy situations that can come from working with spokespeople whose actions can’t be controlled by software — or an ingenious marketing team.

In the High Snobiety profile-as-honors-senior-English-thesis on Lil Miquela published yesterday, the avatar’s own spokesperson was quoted as saying:

“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”

It’s a lofty goal backed by a number of inarguably good works. However, lying to reporters may not be the best way to continue trying to achieve it.

Minds aims to decentralize the social network

Decentralization is the buzzword du jour. Everything – from our currencies to our databases – are supposed to exist, immutably, in this strange new world. And Bill Ottman wants to add our social media to the mix.

Ottman, an intense young man with a passion to fix the world, is the founder of Minds.com, a New York-based startup that has been receiving waves of new users as zealots and the the not-so-zealous have been leaving other networks. In fact, Zuckerberg’s bad news is music to Ottman’s ears.

Ottman started Minds in 2011 “with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world,” he said. He and his CTO, Mark Harding, have worked in various non-profits including Code To Inspire, a group that teaches Afghani women to code. He said his vision is to get us out from under social media’s thumb.

“We started Minds in my basement after being disillusioned by user abuse on Facebook and other big tech services. We saw spying, data mining, algorithm manipulation, and no revenue sharing,” he said. “To us, it’s inevitable that an open source social network becomes dominant, as was the case with Wikipedia and proprietary encyclopedias.”

His efforts have paid off. The team now has over 1 million registered users and over 105,000 monthly active users. They are working on a number of initiatives, including an ICO, and the site makes money through “boosting” – essentially the ability to pay to have a piece of content float higher in the feed.

The company raised $350K in 2013 and then a little over a million dollars in a Reg CF Equity Crowdfunding raise.

Unlike Facebook, Minds is built on almost radical transparency. The code is entirely open source and it includes encrypted messenger services and optional anonymity for users. The goal, ultimately, is to have the data be decentralized and any user should be able to remove his or her data. It’s also non-partisan, a fact that Ottman emphasized.

“We are not pushing a political agenda, but are more concerned with transparency, Internet freedom and giving control back to the user,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when every network that cares about free speech gets lumped in with extremists.”

He was disappointed, for example, when people read that Reddit’s choice to shut down toxic sub-Reddits was a success. It wasn’t, he said. Instead, those users just flocked to other, more permissive sites. However, he doesn’t think those sites have be cesspools of hate.

“We are a community-owned social network dedicated to transparency, privacy and rewarding people for their contributions. We are called Minds because it’s meant to be a representation of the network itself,” he said. “Our mission is Internet freedom with privacy, transparency, free speech within the law and user control. Additionally, we want to provide our users with revenue opportunity and the ability to truly expand their reach and earn rewards for their contributions to the network.”

New York property speculators have figured out how to evict everyone

New York’s catastrophic homelessness is about to get much, much worse: the skyrocketing property values (driven by speculators who buy apartments in order to get their money out of corrupt and failing states abroad, leaving them empty with the understanding that they can be cashed out on short notice, thanks to the white-hot market of other money-launderers) have attracted very deep-pocketed, anonymous hedge-funds that are snapping up buildings with rent-stabilized and rent-controlled units, who use a ruthless set of highly refined tactics to kick out all their tenants and then flip the building.
(more…)

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One of baseball's most unpopular players is thriving in retirement

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Former MLB All-Star Alex Rodriguez will host a CNBC show called “Back in the Game,” which chronicles the financial woes of ex-athletes struggling to navigate life after their playing days, according to multiple reports

And if you’ve been following A-Rod since his playing career ended last year, you know he is the most ironic choice to host this show, because A-Rod is absolutely killing the retirement game.

In fact, it seems like Rodriguez’s post-playing days are treating him better than his 22 years in the big leagues. Though he amassed 14 All-Star appearances, three MVP awards and a World Series ring, A-Rod was somewhat of a polarizing figure in Major League Baseball. Read more…

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