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Meituan-Dianping’s IPO off to a good start as shares climb 7% on debut

Meituan-Dianping (3690.HK) enjoyed a strong debut today in Hong Kong, a sign that investors are confident in the Tencent-backed company’s prospects despite its cash-burning growth strategy, heavy competition and a sluggish Hong Kong stock market.

During morning trading, Meituan’s shares reached a high of HKD$73.85 (about $9.41), a 7% increase over its initial public offering price of HKD$69. When Meituan reportedly set a target valuation of $55 billion for its debut, it triggered concerns that the company, which bills itself a “one-stop super app” for everything from food delivery to ticket bookings, as overconfident.

While Meituan, the owner of Mobile, is the leading online marketplace for services in China, it faces formidable competition from Alibaba’s Ele.me and operating on tight margins and heavy losses as it spends money on marketing and user acquisition costs. As it prepared for its IPO, Meituan was also under the shadow of underwhelming Hong Kong debuts by Xiaomi and China Tower. Like Xiaomi, Meituan is listed under a new dual-class share structure designed to attract tech companies by allowing them to give weighted voting rights to founders.

The sponsors of Meituan’s IPO are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Google will match up to $1M in donations for Hurricane Florence relief

As cities in Hurricane Florence’s path deal with its aftermath, Google will match up to $1 million in donations to help with relief efforts.

The disaster’s death toll is currently 35 people and about 343,000 people in North Carolina are without electricity. The hurricane caused widespread flooding and property damage throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

 

Google drew attention to its Hurricane Florence donation campaign with a banner that appeared on top of Gmail for some users. Google has matched donations for other disasters before, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey last year. It’s also raised money for humanitarian efforts crises, like a 2015 matching program for up to $5.5 million in donations to provide aid to refugees in Europe. For that campaign, it temporarily added a “Donate” button to its search homepage.

The company is partnering with non-profit Network for God to collect and distribute funds. All donations will be directed to the American Red Cross, which Google said it chose to work with “because of their strong track record and existing response in the region.”

Other tech companies helping with Hurricane Florence relief include Amazon, which enabled Alexa users to make donations by saying “Alexa, donate to Hurricane Florence disaster relief” and sent trucks with food and donated items to affected areas, and Apple, which donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. Airbnb also offered free rooms to people fleeing the hurricane.

 

Ola raises $50M at a $4.3B valuation from two Chinese funds

Ola, the arch-rival of Uber in India, has raised $50 million at a valuation of about $4.3 billion from Sailing Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, and the China-Eurasian Economic Cooperation Fund (CEECF), a state-backed Chinese fund. The funding was disclosed in regulatory documents sourced by Paper.vc and reviewed by Indian financial publication Mint.

According to Mint, Sailing Capital and CEECF will hold a combined stake of more than 1% in Ola . An Ola spokesperson said the company has no comment.

Ola’s last funding announcement was in October, when it raised $1.1 billion (its largest funding round to date) from Tencent and returning investor SoftBank Group. Ola also said it planned to raise an additional $1 billion from other investors that would take the round’s final amount to about $2.1 billion.

At the time, a source with knowledge of the deal told TechCrunch that Ola was headed toward a post-money valuation of $7 billion once the $2.1 bllion raise was finalized. So while the funding from Sailing Capital and CEECF brings it closer to its funding goal, the latest valuation of $4.3 billion is still lower than the projected amount.

Ola needs plenty of cash to fuel its ambitious expansion both within and outside of India. In addition to ride hailing, Ola got back into the food delivery game at the end of last year by acquiring Foodpanda’s Indian operations to compete with UberEats, Swiggy, Zomato and Google’s Areo. It was a bold move to make as India’s food delivery industry consolidated, especially since Ola had previously launched a food delivery service that shut down after less than one year. To ensure the survival of Foodpanda, Ola poured $200 million into its new acquisition.

A few months later after buying Foodpanda, Ola announced the acquisition of public transportation ticketing startup Ridlr in an all-stock deal. Outside of India, Ola has been focused on a series of international launches. It announced today that it will begin operating in New Zealand, fast on the heels of launches in the United Kingdom and Australia (its first country outside of India) this year.

Marc and Lynne Benioff will buy Times magazine from Meredith for $190M

Another tech billionaire will scoop up a major news outlet. Meredith Corporation, which acquired Time Inc. in January, announced today that it has agreed to sell its eponymous magazine to Salesforce.com co-founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff for $190 million in cash.

Meredith said in March that it planned to sell Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money as part of its goal to save $400 million to $500 million over the next two years and increase the profitability of its remaining portfolio of publications. In its announcement today, the company said it will use proceeds from the sale of Times magazine to pay off debt and expects to reduce its debt by $1 billion during fiscal 2019.

Meredith’s acquisition of Time Inc. was controversial because it received financial support from Koch Equity Development, the private equity fund run by Charles and David Koch, known for backing conservative causes.

The Benioffs, who are on the other side of the spectrum as supporters of progressive politics, are purchasing Time magazine as individuals. In other words, Salesforce.com, where Benioff serves as chairman and co-CEO, and other companies are not involved with the deal. Marc Benioff told the Wall Street Journal that he and his wife will not be involved in Time magazine’s daily operations or editorial decisions and added that “we’re investing in a company with tremendous impact on the world, one that is also an incredibly strong business. That’s what we’re looking for when we invest as a family.”

Other tech billionaires who have purchased major publications include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in a personal capacity five years ago and Laurene Powell Jobs, whose philanthropic organization, Emerson Collective, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic last year. (While Jack Ma was a driving force behind Alibaba Group’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post in 2016, that acquisition was made by the company, not Ma.)

Despite being one of the most famous and iconic news brands in the U.S., Times magazine has (like other print publications) struggled to cope with falling circulation and revenue as it invests digital properties.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the magazine’s editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, said “we’ve done a lot to transform this brand over the last few years so that it is far beyond a weekly magazine” and added that its business is “solidly profitable.”

North Korea skirts US sanctions by secretly selling software around the globe

Fake social media profiles are useful for more than just sowing political discord among foreign adversaries, as it turns out. A group linked to the North Korean government has been able to duck existing sanctions on the country by concealing its true identity and developing software for clients abroad.

This week, the US Treasury issued sanctions against two tech companies accused of running cash-generating front operations for North Korea: Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology or “China Silver Star,” based near Shenyang, China, and a Russian sister company called Volasys Silver Star. The Treasury also sanctioned China Silver Star’s North Korean CEO Jong Song Hwa.

“These actions are intended to stop the flow of illicit revenue to North Korea from overseas information technology workers disguising their true identities and hiding behind front companies, aliases, and third-party nationals,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said of the sanctions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in a follow-up story, North Korean operatives advertised with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, solicited business with Freelance.com and Upwork, crafted software using Github, communicated over Slack and accepted compensation with Paypal. The country appears to be encountering little resistance putting tech platforms built by US companies to work building software including “mobile games, apps, [and] bots” for unwitting clients abroad.

The US Treasury issued its first warnings of secret North Korean software development scheme in July, though did not provide many details at the time. The Wall Street Journal was able to identify “tens of thousands” of dollars stemming from the Chinese front company, though that’s only a representative sample. The company worked as a middleman, contracting its work out to software developers around the globe and then denying payment for their services.

Facebook suspended many suspicious accounts linked to the scheme after they were identified by the Wall Street Journal, including one for “Everyday-Dude.com”:

“A Facebook page for Everyday-Dude.com, showing packages with hundreds of programs, was taken down minutes later as a reporter was viewing it. Pages of some of the account’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends also subsequently disappeared…

“[Facebook] suspended numerous North Korea-linked accounts identified by the Journal, including one that Facebook said appeared not to belong to a real person. After it closed that account, another profile, with identical friends and photos, soon popped up.”

Linkedin and Upwork similarly removed accounts linked to the North Korean operations.

Beyond the consequences for international relations, software surreptitiously sold by the North Korean government poses considerable security risks. According to the Treasury, the North Korean government makes money off of a “range of IT services and products abroad” including “website and app development, security software, and biometric identification software that have military and law enforcement applications.” For companies unwittingly buying North Korea-made software, the potential for malware that could give the isolated nation eyes and ears beyond its borders is high, particularly given that the country has already demonstrated its offensive cyber capabilities.

Between that and sanctions against doing business with the country, Mnuchin urges the information technology industry and other businesses to exercise awareness of the ongoing scheme to avoid accidentally contracting with North Korea on tech-related projects.

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.

Not hog dog? PixFood lets you shoot and identify food

What happens when you add AI to food? Surprisingly, you don’t get a hungry robot. Instead you get something like PixFood. PixFood lets you take pictures of food, identify available ingredients, and, at this stage, find out recipes you can make from your larder.

It is privately funded.

“There are tons of recipe apps out there, but all they give you is, well, recipes,” said Tonnesson. “On the other hand, PixFood has the ability to help users get the right recipe for them at that particular moment. There are apps that cover some of the mentioned, but it’s still an exhausting process – since you have to fill in a 50-question quiz so it can understand what you like.”

They launched in August and currently have 3,000 monthly active users from 10,000 downloads. They’re working on perfecting the system for their first users.

“PixFood is AI-driven food app with advanced photo recognition. The user experience is quite simple: it all starts with users taking a photo of any ingredient they would like to cook with, in the kitchen or in the supermarket,” said Tonnesson. “Why did we do it like this? Because it’s personalized. After you take a photo, the app instantly sends you tailored recipe suggestions! At first, they are more or le

ss the same for everyone, but as you continue using it, it starts to learn what you precisely like, by connecting patterns and taking into consideration different behaviors.”

In my rudimentary tests the AI worked acceptably well and did not encourage me to eat a monkey. While the app begs the obvious question – why not just type in “corn?” – it’s an interesting use of vision technology that is definitely a step in the right direction.

 

Tonnesson expects the AI to start connecting you with other players in the food space, allowing you to order corn (but not a monkey) from a number of providers.

“Users should also expect partnerships with restaurants, grocery, meal-kit, and other food delivery services will be part of the future experiences,” he said.

Alibaba announces CEO Daniel Zhang will succeed Jack Ma as chairman next year

Following speculation about Jack Ma’s imminent retirement, Alibaba Group announced today that its CEO, Daniel Zhang, will succeed Ma as chairman next year. After stepping down as chairman on September 10, 2019 (exactly a year from now), Ma will continue serving as a board member until its annual general shareholders’ meeting in 2020.

After that, Ma will remain a lifetime partner of the Alibaba Partnership, or a group of 36 partners drawn from the senior management ranks of Alibaba Group companies and affiliates. They hold a considerable amount of sway over the company because they have the right to nominate, or in certain situations, appoint up to a simple majority of its board of directors.

Alibaba’s announcement follows reports that Ma’s retirement from the company he co-founded in 1999 as an online marketplace was imminent, with Ma, a former English teacher, planning to dedicate his time to philanthropy in education. Ma downplayed those reports, however, telling the South China Morning Post (which is owned by Alibaba) that instead he will gradually reduce his role in the company through a succession plan.

Ma stepped down as CEO in 2013, handing the position over to Jonathan Lu. Lu was replaced in 2015 by Zhang, Alibaba’s former COO, after Ma reportedly told employees that it’s time for the company to be run by people born in the 1970s and after (Zhang was born in 1972, three years after Lu).

In a letter sent to media outlets today, Ma wrote that Zhang has “demonstrated his superb talent, business acumen and determined leadership” since taking over as CEO. Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters. His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models.”

Ma added that “this transition demonstrates that Alibaba has stepped up to the next level of corporate governance from a company that relies on individuals, to one built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development.”

Ma also re-emphasized his narrative that his departure from Alibaba Group will be very gradual. “I have put a lot of thought and preparation into this succession plan for 10 years. I am delighted to announce the plan today thanks to the support of the Alibaba Partnership and our board of directors,” he wrote. “I also want to offer special thanks to all Alibaba colleagues and your families, because your trust, support and our joint enterprise over the past 19 years have prepared us for this day with confidence and strength.”

Of his plans after Zhang takes over as chairman next year, Ma said he will continue contributing to the Alibaba Partnership, before adding “I also want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do. The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things – because what if new dreams can be realized?! The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”

Hate speech, collusion, and the constitution

Half an hour into their two-hour testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were asked about collaboration between social media companies. “Our collaboration has greatly increased,” Sandberg stated before turning to Dorsey and adding that Facebook has “always shared information with other companies.” Dorsey nodded in response, and noted for his part that he’s very open to establishing “a regular cadence with our industry peers.”

Social media companies have established extensive policies on what constitutes “hate speech” on their platforms. But discrepancies between these policies open the possibility for propagators of hate to game the platforms and still get their vitriol out to a large audience. Collaboration of the kind Sandberg and Dorsey discussed can lead to a more consistent approach to hate speech that will prevent the gaming of platforms’ policies.

But collaboration between competitors as dominant as Facebook and Twitter are in social media poses an important question: would antitrust or other laws make their coordination illegal?

The short answer is no. Facebook and Twitter are private companies that get to decide what user content stays and what gets deleted off of their platforms. When users sign up for these free services, they agree to abide by their terms. Neither company is under a First Amendment obligation to keep speech up. Nor can it be said that collaboration on platform safety policies amounts to collusion.

This could change based on an investigation into speech policing on social media platforms being considered by the Justice Department. But it’s extremely unlikely that Congress would end up regulating what platforms delete or keep online – not least because it may violate the First Amendment rights of the platforms themselves.

What is hate speech anyway?

Trying to find a universal definition for hate speech would be a fool’s errand, but in the context of private companies hosting user generated content, hate speech for social platforms is what they say is hate speech.

Facebook’s 26-page Community Standards include a whole section on how Facebook defines hate speech. For Facebook, hate speech is “anything that directly attacks people based on . . . their ‘protected characteristics’ — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, or serious disability or disease.” While that might be vague, Facebook then goes on to give specific examples of what would and wouldn’t amount to hate speech, all while making clear that there are cases – depending on the context – where speech will still be tolerated if, for example, it’s intended to raise awareness.

Twitter uses a “hateful conduct” prohibition which they define as promoting “violence against or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” They also prohibit hateful imagery and display names, meaning it’s not just what you tweet but what you also display on your profile page that can count against you.

Both companies constantly reiterate and supplement their definitions, as new test cases arise and as words take on new meaning. For example, the two common slang words to describe Ukrainians by Russians and Russians by Ukrainians was determined to be hate speech after war erupted in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. An internal review by Facebook found that what used to be common slang had turned into derogatory, hateful language.

Would collaboration on hate speech amount to anticompetitive collusion?

Under U.S. antitrust laws, companies cannot collude to make anticompetitive agreements or try to monopolize a market. A company which becomes a monopoly by having a superior product in the marketplace doesn’t violate antitrust laws. What does violate the law is dominant companies making an agreement – usually in secret – to deceive or mislead competitors or consumers. Examples include price fixing, restricting new market entrants, or misrepresenting the independence of the relationship between competitors.

A Pew survey found that 68% of Americans use Facebook. According to Facebook’s own records, the platform had a whopping 1.47 billion daily active users on average for the month of June and 2.23 billion monthly active users as of the end of June – with over 200 million in the US alone. While Twitter doesn’t disclose its number of daily users, it does publish the number of monthly active users which stood at 330 million at last count, 69 million of which are in the U.S.

There can be no question that Facebook and Twitter are overwhelmingly dominant in the social media market. That kind of dominance has led to calls for breaking up these giants under antitrust laws.

Would those calls hold more credence if the two social giants began coordinating their policies on hate speech?

The answer is probably not, but it does depend on exactly how they coordinated. Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have grown large internal product policy teams that decide the rules for using their platforms, including on hate speech. If these teams were to get together behind closed doors and coordinate policies and enforcement in a way that would preclude smaller competitors from being able to enter the market, then antitrust regulators may get involved.

Antitrust would also come into play if, for example, Facebook and Twitter got together and decided to charge twice as much for advertising that includes hate speech (an obviously absurd scenario) – in other words, using their market power to affect pricing of certain types of speech that advertisers use.

In fact, coordination around hate speech may reduce anti-competitive concerns. Given the high user engagement around hate speech, banning it could lead to reduced profits for the two companies and provide an opening to upstart competitors.

Sandberg and Dorsey’s testimony Wednesday didn’t point to executives hell-bent on keeping competition out through collaboration. Rather, their potential collaboration is probably better seen as an industry deciding on “best practices,” a common occurrence in other industries including those with dominant market players.

What about the First Amendment?

Private companies are not subject to the First Amendment. The Constitution applies to the government, not to corporations. A private company, no matter its size, can ignore your right to free speech.

That’s why Facebook and Twitter already can and do delete posts that contravene their policies. Calling for the extermination of all immigrants, referring to Africans as coming from shithole countries, and even anti-gay protests at military funerals may be protected in public spaces, but social media companies get to decide whether they’ll allow any of that on their platforms. As Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman has stated, “There’s no right to free speech on Twitter. The only rule is that Twitter Inc. gets to decide who speaks and listens–which is its right under the First Amendment.”

Instead, when it comes to social media and the First Amendment, courts have been more focused on not allowing the government to keep citizens off of social media. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that made it a crime for a registered sex offender to access social media if children use that platform. During the hearing, judges asked the government probing questions about the rights of citizens to free speech on social media from Facebook, to Snapchat, to Twitter and even LinkedIn.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made clear during the hearing that restricting access to social media would mean “being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas [a]nd [that] the First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information.”

The Court ended up deciding that the law violated the fundamental First Amendment principle that “all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen,” noting that social media has become one of the most important forums for expression of our day.

Lower courts have also ruled that public officials who block users off their profiles are violating the First Amendment rights of those users. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the Southern District of New York, decided in May that Trump’s Twitter feed is a public forum. As a result, she ruled that when Trump blocks citizens from viewing and replying to his posts, he violates their First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment doesn’t mean Facebook and Twitter are under any obligation to keep up whatever you post, but it does mean that the government can’t just ban you from accessing your Facebook or Twitter accounts – and probably can’t block you off of their own public accounts either.

Collaboration is Coming?

Sandberg made clear in her testimony on Wednesday that collaboration is already happening when it comes to keeping bad actors off of platforms. “We [already] get tips from each other. The faster we collaborate, the faster we share these tips with each other, the stronger our collective defenses will be.”

Dorsey for his part stressed that keeping bad actors off of social media “is not something we want to compete on.” Twitter is here “to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one, we know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

He even went further. When it comes to the drafting of their policies, beyond collaborating with Facebook, he said he would be open to a public consultation. “We have real openness to this. . . . We have an opportunity to create more transparency with an eye to more accountability but also a more open way of working – a way of working for instance that allows for a review period by the public about how we think about our policies.”

I’ve already argued why tech firms should collaborate on hate speech policies, the question that remains is if that would be legal. The First Amendment does not apply to social media companies. Antitrust laws don’t seem to stand in their way either. And based on how Senator Burr, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chose to close the hearing, government seems supportive of social media companies collaborating. Addressing Sandberg and Dorsey, he said, “I would ask both of you. If there are any rules, such as any antitrust, FTC, regulations or guidelines that are obstacles to collaboration between you, I hope you’ll submit for the record where those obstacles are so we can look at the appropriate steps we can take as a committee to open those avenues up.”

Coinbase plots to become the New York Stock Exchange of crypto securities

The future of Coinbase looks something like the New York Stock Exchange. That’s according a vision laid out by CEO Brian Amstrong who was interviewed on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco today.

Coinbase is known for being the most popular exchange for converting fiat currency into crypto — most of the largest traded exchanges are crypto-to-crypto — but he foresees a future in which it plays host to a growing number of cryptocurrencies as it becomes standard for companies to create their own token, which runs alongside equity as an alternative investment system.

“It makes sense that any company out there who has a cap table… should have their own token. Every open source project, every charity, potentially every fund or these new types of decentralized organizations [and] apps, they’re all going to have their own tokens,” Armstrong said.

“We want to be the bridge all over the world where people come and they take fiat currency and they can get it into these different cryptocurrencies,” he added.

Brian Armstrong (Coinbase) says crypto regulation will result in the next version of the stock market #TCDisrupt pic.twitter.com/2kyxAmhPSZ

— TechCrunch (@TechCrunch) September 7, 2018

That tokenized future could see Coinbase host hundreds of tokens within “years” and even potentially “millions” in the future, according to Armstrong. That’s a big jump on the five cryptocurrencies that it currently supports today, and it would make it way larger than financial institutions like the New York Stock Exchange, which is actually a Coinbase investor and is getting into Bitcoin, or the NASDAQ.

One of the critical pieces of making this vision a reality is, of course, regulation. This week at Disrupt, others in crypto space have argued that a lack of clarity around crypto regulation is costing the U.S. as innovation and startups are being developed in overseas markets. As the founder of a U.S.-based crypto startup that is valued at over $1 billion and is hiring hard, Armstrong doesn’t subscribe to that thesis but he did admit that there is “a big open question” over whether the majority of the new rush of tokens he foresees will be securities or not.

Still, Coinbase has made moves to add security tokens to its portfolio with the acquisition of a securities dealer earlier this year.

“We do feel a substantial subset of these tokens will be securities,” he said. “Our approach has always been to be the most trusted [exchange] and the easiest to use. So we want to be the legal compliant place where you can start to trade these tokens that are classified as securities.”

“Web 1.0 was about publishing information, web 2.0 was about interaction and web 3.0 is going to be about value transfer on the internet because now the web has this native currency and so applications can be built that instantly tap into this global economy on the internet,” Armstrong added.

How international can crypto become? The Coinbase CEO thinks that the total number of people in the crypto ecosystem can reach one billion within the next five years, up from around 40 million today.

You can watch the full video from Armstrong’s interview below.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Goldman CFO: the story about us dropping Bitcoin trading was ‘fake news’

It sometimes feels like the price of Bitcoin rises and falls on the turn of a speculative dime, and yesterday we saw one such moment come to pass, when it was reported that Goldman Sachs was planning to drop a plan to build a Bitcoin trading platform, causing the price of the cryptocurrency to crash. But today, at TechCrunch Disrupt, the CFO of Goldman Sachs described the story as “fake news,” and said that in fact the bank is still considering how to offer services that involved physical Bitcoin, but that it has not yet set a timeline for it.

“I was in New York yesterday and I was co-chairing our risk committee, and I saw the news article,” said CFO Marty Chavez, referring to the report yesterday. “It wasn’t like we announced anything or that anything had changed for us… I never thought I’d hear myself actually use this term, but I’d really have to describe that as fake news.”

As Chavez described it, Goldman Sachs had been building a Bitcoin trading platform modelled on a commodities futures trading platform, where there is never any Bitcoin traded, but more the promise of how the currency might move.

“Our institutional clients said, ‘We would love for you to clear these new Bitcoin-linked futures contracts offered by the exchanges,’ so we’ve been doing that, and then clients since May [started to ask], ‘We would like for you also to provide us liquidity and trade the principal as principal the futures contracts, not just clear them,’ and so we’ve been doing that, the next stage of the exploration, what we call ‘non-deliverable forwards.’

“These are derivatives, over the counter derivatives,” he continued. “They’re settled in U.S. dollars and the reference price is the Bitcoin U.S. dollar price established by a set of exchanges, the same one that’s referenced in the futures contracts, and we’re working on that now because the clients wanted physical Bitcoin — something tremendously interesting and tremendously challenging. From the perspective of custody, we don’t yet see an institutional grade custody cases custodian solution for Bitcoin.”

While companies like Coinbase are trying to tap into that demand by offering custodial services aimed squarely at institutional money, but Goldman itself still has no timeline for when its own offering might be ready.

“We’re interested in having that exist, and it’s a long road and so I would just be speculating. Maybe someone who was thinking about our activities here got very excited that we would be making markets as principal and physical Bitcoin, and as they got into realizing that that’s part of the evolution but it’s not here yet.”

Bitcoin — and the crypto market generally — suffered significant price losses this week off the back of reports of Goldman’s aborted plans, but that wasn’t the sole trigger. Reuters also reported that EU is looking into regulating crypto and is preparing a report that proposes to regulate exchanges and ICOs.

Bitcoin hit a record valuation of nearly $20,000 in January, and it has struggled to return to those highs during the rest of this year. The cryptocurrency was priced at $6,536 at the time of writing, some way short of a months-long high of $8,266 on July 26, according to information from Coinmarketcap.com.

WSJ reports that Theranos will finally dissolve

Theranos is reportedly finally closing down for good, nearly three years after a Wall Street Journal investigation called its blood testing technology into question. The WSJ said the company, whose dramatic downfall spawned a best-selling book that’s set to be filmed with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, sent shareholders an email saying it will formally dissolve and seek to pay unsecured creditors its remaining cash in the coming months.

Holmes resigned as CEO in June after she and Theranos’ former president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud in June.

Both Holmes and Balwani had already been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (the criminal charges are separate from the civil ones filed by the SEC). In its complaint, the SEC said the two engaged in “an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business and financial performance,” which ultimately enabled them to raise more than $700 million from investors.

Holmes and the SEC settled the charges by having Holmes agree to pay a $500,000 penalty and be barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years. She was also required to return the remaining 18.9 million shares she obtained while engaging in fraud and relinquish voting control of Theranos.

TechCrunch has sent an email to Theranos’ public relations address asking for comment.

Microsoft no longer taking new enrollments for its Surface Plus financing program

Microsoft has quietly ended its Surface Plus financing program about a year after it launched. In a message on its site, the company said it stopped taking new enrollments on August 31 “after much thought and consideration.” The change does not affect existing customers, however, who will still be covered by their current financing plans.

Financed by Klarna, a Stockholm-headquartered online financial services provider, the Surface Plus financing program launched in August 2017. It targeted students and other people who wanted an affordable way to own a Surface device, allowing them to spread payments over 24 months. The Surface Plus plan also enabled customers to upgrade to the latest device after 18 months, as long as they returned their previous device in good working condition.

In a FAQ, Microsoft said existing customers will still be able to upgrade their Surface under the plan’s terms. The program’s end also does not affect existing warranty plans.

Microsoft’s Surface Plus for Business payment plans launched around the same time as the Surface Plus program and it looks like it will continue. TechCrunch has contacted Microsoft for more information.

Used car site Vroom is raising $70M six months after a big round of layoffs

After cutting a big portion of its staff in March, Vroom is back pitching investors. Yesterday, the site for buying and selling used cars filed to raise $70 million in new equity funding.

Vroom has already secured $30 million of that $70 million target, signaling confidence from investors that it’ll become profitable and beat out key competitors in the space, like Carvana and Shift.

The startup wants to make the process of buying a used car as easy as ordering a pizza. With more than 3,000 cars for sale on the site, Vroom delivers directly to its customers’ doorsteps. Since it was founded in 2013, Vroom has brought in $320 million from General Catalyst, T. Rowe Price, Altimeter and others, reaching a valuation of $655 million in July 2017.

Vroom declined to comment on its upcoming round.

As part of the March layoffs, Vroom, which is headquartered in New York City, also shuttered its Dallas, Texas and Whitestown, Indiana locations. The official number of employees Vroom let go is unclear, though when news of the layoffs broke, the company listed 845 employees on its website. Today, the site list “600+” or about 30% fewer employees.

The cuts, the company said, were part of a restructuring that would allow Vroom to focus on profitability. This is what the company had to say in March:

“While Vroom’s business is healthy and financially stable, we’re always looking to align our resources to fulfill our long-term vision and deliver on our mission,” the statement said. “In sharpening our focus on profitability, we recently made some adjustments to our strategy that has impacted our headcount. While decisions like this are never easy, we are putting the company in a better position to become the leader in online car buying and continue to invest in future areas of growth.”

It’s not surprising Vroom is back in the fundraising game. Buying and selling cars is a capital-intensive business. 

Vroom’s competitors have similarly raised a lot of capital. Carvana brought in more than $300 million in equity funding, as well as $400 million in debt, before hitting the stock markets in 2017. Shift has raised roughly $110 million to date. Beepi, a cautionary tale in the business of selling used cars online, landed $150 million in VC funding, then failed to sell its business twice, ultimately selling for parts to multiple buyers, including Vroom.

Google denies Trump’s claim that it did not promote his State of the Union address

Google is pushing back against a claim by Donald Trump that the search engine stopped promoting State of the Union livestreams on its homepage after his presidency began. Trump’s claim came in the from of a tweeted video, which was still pinned to the top of his profile when this post was published at 9:30 PM PST, Aug. 29, 2018, after Google’s refutation and multiple media reports of its inaccuracy.

Hashtagged #stopthebias, the video appears to show that Google did not display links to livestreams of Trump’s first public speech to a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017 or his first State of the Union on January 30, 2018, despite promoting Obama’s State of the Union addresses in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

#StopTheBias pic.twitter.com/xqz599iQZw

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018

Google, however, says it did indeed highlight Trump’s first State of the Union in 2018, but that it usually does not include links on its homepage to a president’s first public address to Congress, so neither Obama nor Trump’s were featured. In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, the company said “On January 30, 2018, we highlighted the livestream of President Trump’s State of the Union on the google.com homepage. We have historically not promoted the first address to Congress by a new President, which is technically not a State of the Union address. As a result, we didn’t include a promotion on google.com for this address in either 2009 or 2017.”

Google statement to @JohnPaczkowski on Trump’s tweet pic.twitter.com/1w82mQqApg

— Jon Passantino (@passantino) August 29, 2018

The video shared by Trump does not make a distinction between a president’s first public speech to a joint session of Congress and his first State of the Union address.

A discrepancy in Google’s logo also suggests that at least one of the screenshots, which appear to have been taken from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, was doctored. A Gizmodo commenter notes that one of the screenshots in the video Trump tweeted, from January 12, 2016, shows a version with the previous Google logo, not the sans-serif version introduced in September 2015, which can be seen in a Wayback Archive’s screen capture from January 10, 2016 and other days from that month when a Google Doodle wasn’t featured.

Capture from the video tweeted from President Trump’s account

One of Wayback Machine’s captures on January 10, 2016

Furthermore, while a link to Trump’s State of the Union does not appear on archived versions of Google’s homepage from January 30, 2018, it does show up on a capture from 1AM on January 31, as Twitter user @WrockBro notes. That may be because the Wayback Machine uses Greenwich Mean Time time stamps.

Not only that, but also this: https://t.co/RfJIKpYGJX

🅱en🛸JPL (@WrockBro) August 30, 2018

The Wayback Machine capture linked by Twitter user @WrockBro

Trump’s tweet is the part of his current onslaught against Google, other tech companies and mainstream media, which he accuses of having a liberal bias and burying news about his administration. It is worth pointing out, however, that Trump’s 2017 first speech to Congress was widely praised as “presidential” by journalists across the political spectrum, even liberal publications. In turn, they were ridiculed by critics for being awed by a president acting presidential.

Twitter suspends more accounts for “engaging in coordinated manipulation”

Following last week’s suspension of 284 accounts for “engaging in coordinated manipulation,” Twitter announced today that it’s kicked an additional 486 accounts off the platform for the same reason, bringing the total to 770 accounts.

While many of the accounts removed last week appeared to originate from Iran, Twitter said this time that about 100 of the latest batch to be suspended claimed to be in the United States. Many of these were less than a year old and shared “divisive commentary.” These 100 accounts tweeted a total of 867 times and had 1,268 followers between them.

Since our initial suspensions last Tuesday, we have continued our investigation, further building our understanding of these networks. In addition, we suspended an additional 486 accounts for violating the policies outlined last week. This brings the total suspended to 770.

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 27, 2018

As examples of the “divisive commentary” tweeted, Twitter shared screenshots from several suspended accounts that showed anti-Trump rhetoric, counter to the conservative narrative that the platform unfairly targets Republican accounts.

Fewer than 100 of the 770 suspended accounts claimed to be located in the U.S. and many of these were sharing divisive social commentary. On average, these 100 Tweeted 867 times, were followed by 1, 268 accounts, and were less than a year old. Examples below. pic.twitter.com/LQhbvFjxSo

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 27, 2018

Twitter also said that the suspended accounts included one advertiser that spent $30 on Twitter ads last year, but added those ads did not target the U.S. and that the billing address was outside of Iran.

“As with prior investigations, we are committed to engaging with other companies and relevant law enforcement entities. Our goal is to assist investigations into these activities and where possible, we will provide the public with transparency and context on our efforts,” Twitter said on its Safety account.

After years of accusations that it doesn’t enforce its own policies about bullying, bots and other abuses, Twitter has taken a much harder line on problematic accounts in the past few months. Despite stalling user growth, especially in the United States, Twitter has been aggressively suspending accounts, including ones that were created by users to evade prior suspensions.

Twitter announced a drop of one million monthly users in the second quarter, causing investors to panic even though it posted a $100 million profit. In its earnings call, Twitter said that its efforts don’t impact user numbers because many of the “tens of millions” of removed accounts were too new or had been inactive for more than a month and were therefore not counted in active user numbers. The company did admit, however, that it’s anti-spam measures had caused it to lose three million monthly active users.

Whatever its impact on user numbers, Twitter’s anti-abuse measures may help it save face during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on September 5. Executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google are expected to be grilled by Sen. Mark Warner and other politicians about the use of their platforms by other countries to influence U.S. politics.

China announces transportation industry reform, days after murder of Didi carpooling passenger

The Chinese government announced it will reform the transportation industry to safeguard passengers, three days after a female passenger was allegedly raped and murdered by a Didi Chuxing driver last Friday. Provinces and autonomous regions are now tasked with setting up passenger safety committees by the end of this month and ensuring that incidents are investigated promptly.

The crime led to the suspension of Hitch, Didi Chuxing’s carpooling service, and the firing of two executives: Hitch’s general manager and Didi’s vice president of customer services. This is not the first time, however, that Didi has been forced pull back on Hitch. Earlier this year, it suspended night operations after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who had accessed the service using his father’s account. Nighttime Hitch rides then resumed in June after Didi put new safety measures in place, including a rule that prohibited drivers from accepting ride requests by passengers of the opposite sex during certain hours.

The latest incident took place on Friday in the eastern province of Zhejiang and is especially concerning because the driver had been flagged just one day before the murder by another female passenger who complained that he followed her after she left his vehicle. In a statement, Didi said a safety center representative failed to follow corporate policy and initiate an investigation within two hours. The company also admitted that its customer service procedures has “many deficiencies” and said it will “plead for law enforcement and the public to work with us in developing more efficient and practical collaborative solutions to fight criminals and protect user personal and property safety.”

China’s police and transport ministries have already said that Didi bears “unshirkable responsibility” for Friday’s murder. The company has already been accused of being too lax with passenger safety, leaving its users–particularly women–vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault.

What stunned me while reporting this was the numbers. According to Southern Weekly, at least 53 women have been raped or sexually harassed by Didi drivers in the past 4 yrs?! Caixin says there are 14 rapes linked to Didi drivers, citing court docs. https://t.co/Me0oBXRyxo

— Sui-Lee Wee 黄瑞黎 (@suilee) August 27, 2018

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the agency that enacts strategies for China’s economic and social development, posted its announcement, titled “Concerning untrustworthy behavior in the emerging transportation sector,” online on Monday morning.

In it, the NDRC said it will put measures into place to root out untrustworthy and dishonest operators in China’s transportation industry, which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Provinces and autonomous regions must form committees and procedures to ensure passenger safety by August 31 and share information about violations and offenders with other municipalities.

While the NDRC mentioned all transportation sectors, including railways, airplanes and ships, it singled out passenger vehicles, including buses, shuttles and cabs, in one passage and ordered municipalities to investigate offenses in a timely manner. Operators that don’t take action quickly to fix “untrustworthy behavior” risk being placed on a blacklist and having their names published on government websites.

Pirated Twitch streams hijack YouTube’s pay-per-view Logan Paul/KSI boxing match

Today, there was a little bit of a skirmish between two professional YouTubers. Our dear old friend Logan Paul and KSI had an actual boxing match at the Manchester Arena where 15,000 tickets were sold (!!!!!!!!) for an event that ultimately ended in a draw and vows for a rematch.

The action onstage wasn’t the only place where viewers could get a look into the action, there was a $10 pay-per-view stream on YouTube, but more people seemed to end up watching pirated streams on Twitch with boxing fight streams reaching over a million concurrent users at one point. Streams also popped up on Twitter-owned Periscope and there were a few unofficial streams popping up on YouTube as well.

There is now over 2 million concurrent viewers for the KSI Logan Paul fight. 800,000 on the official YouTube stream that cost $10 to watch, and 1.2 million watching for free on Twitch. #KSIvLogan pic.twitter.com/ZZ0FYHLzOn

— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) August 25, 2018

Now, forget the parties involved and the topic and the motivations for a moment if you can. I understand if it might feel more than a little difficult to feel remorse for the parties involved, that has been a common refrain for pirated content popping up from whatever group for whatever reason though.

There’s obviously a big difference between free curiosity and $10 curiosity for an event like this but it seems pretty apparent that having access to a free stream on an easily-accessible mainstream site probably dissuaded some people from paying for the event on YouTube. While people may have previously scoured the web for pop-up ridden sites to view something like this, Twitch and other services unofficially served it up on a platter.

There are plenty of events similar to this one, but so often the refrain is made that people have to turn to pirated streams because the alternative is paying for cable or something that is really against the spirit of these easy-to-access platforms. Well, here’s an example of something that falls far outside that argument.

It’s impossible to squash all of the pirated streams, but Amazon’s Twitch is a bit too mature to be hosting pirated streams in such rampant numbers without being a little more proactive — instead of just relying on user reports to police pirated content that was fairly hard to avoid stumbling upon on the platform.

Even as tech companies continue to try and crack live content, services like Twitch that don’t proactively search out users hijacking streams of big events like this really serve to complicate and deter their own goals of eventually finding a way to monetize big events like this.

Epic Games just gave a perk for folks to turn on 2FA; every other big company should, too

Let’s talk a bit about security.

Most internet users around the world are pretty crap at it, but there are basic tools that companies have, and users can enable, to make their accounts, and lives, a little bit more hacker-proof.

One of these — two-factor authentication — just got a big boost from Epic Games, the maker of what is currently The Most Popular Game In The World: Fortnite.

Epic is already getting a ton of great press for what amounts to very little effort.

Son: Do you know what two-factor authentication is?
Me: Uh, yeah?
Son: I get a free dance on @Fortnitegame if I enable two factor. Can we do that?

Incentives matter.

— Dennis (@DennisF) August 23, 2018

The company is giving users a new emote (the victory dance you’ve seen emulated in airports, playgrounds and parks by kids and tweens around the world) to anyone who turns on two-factor authentication. It’s one small (dance) step for Epic, but one giant leap for securing their users’ accounts.

The thing is any big company could do this (looking at you Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and any other company with a huge user base).

Apparently the perk of not getting hacked isn’t enough for most users, but if you give anyone the equivalent of a free dance, they’ll likely flock to turn on the feature.

It’s not that two-factor authentication is a panacea for all security woes, but it does make life harder for hackers. Two-factor authentication works on codes, basically tokens, that are either sent via text or through an over-the-air authenticator (OTA). Text messaging is a pretty crap way to secure things, because the codes can be intercepted, but OTAs — like Google Authenticator or Authy — are sent via https (pretty much bulletproof, but requiring an app to use).

So using SMS-based two-factor authentication is better than nothing, but it’s not Fort Knox (however, these days, even Fort Knox probably isn’t Fort Knox when it comes to security).

Still, anything that makes things harder for crimes of opportunity can help ease the security burden for companies large and small, and the consumers and customers that love them (or at least are forced to pay and use them).

I’m not sure what form the perk could or should take. Maybe it’s the promise of a free e-book or a free download or an opportunity to have a live chat with the celebrity, influencer or athlete of a user’s choice. Whatever it is, there’re clearly something that businesses could do to encourage greater adoption.

Self-preservation isn’t cutting it. Maybe an emote will do the trick.

Australia bans Huawei and ZTE from supplying technology for its 5G network

Australia has blocked Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for its 5G network, which is set to launch commercially next year. In a tweet, Huawei stated that the Australian government told the company that both it and ZTE are banned from supplying 5G technology to the country, despite Huawei’s assurances that it does not pose a threat to national security.

We have been informed by the Govt that Huawei & ZTE have been banned from providing 5G technology to Australia. This is a extremely disappointing result for consumers. Huawei is a world leader in 5G. Has safely & securely delivered wireless technology in Aust for close to 15 yrs

— Huawei Australia (@HuaweiOZ) August 22, 2018

Earlier today, the Australian government issued new security guidelines for 5G carriers. Although it did not mention Huawei, ZTE or China specifically, it did strongly hint at them by stating “the Government considers that the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorized access or interference.”

Concerns that Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese tech companies will be forced to comply with a new law, passed last year, that obligates all Chinese organizations and citizens to provide information to national intelligence agencies when asked have made several countries wary of using their technology. Earlier this month, the United States banned the use of most Huawei and ZTE technology by government agencies and contractors, six years after a Congressional report first cited the two companies as security threats.

In its new security guidelines, the Australian government stated that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security. In particular, it noted the diminishing distinctions between the core network, where more sensitive functions like access control and data routing occur, and the edge, or radios that connect customer equipment, like laptops and mobile phones, to the core.

“This new architecture provides a way to circumvent traditional security controls by exploiting equipment in the edge of the network – exploitation which may affect overall network integrity and availability, as well as the confidentiality of customer data. A long history of cyber incidents shows cyber actors target Australia and Australians,” the guidelines stated. “Government has found no combination of technical security controls that sufficiently mitigate the risks.”

Last year, Australia introduced the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR), which takes effect next month and directs carriers and telecommunication service providers to protect their networks and infrastructure from national security threats and also notify the government of any proposed changes that may compromise the security of their network. It also gives the government the power to “intervene and issue directions in cases where there are significant national security concerns that cannot be addressed through other means.”

Huawei’s Australian chairman John Lord said in June that the company had received legal advice that its Australian operations are not bound to Chinese laws and he would refuse to hand over any data to the Chinese government in breach of Australian law. Lord also argued that banning Huawei could hurt local businesses and customers by raising prices and limiting access to technology.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE and Huawei for comment.

LinkedIn’s China rival Maimai raises $200M ahead of planned US IPO

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Maimai, China’s biggest rival to LinkedIn, has revealed today that it received a $200 million D Series investment back in April in what the company claims to be the largest investment in the professional networking market. That’s surprising but correct: LinkedIn went public in 2011 and was bought by Microsoft for $26 million in 2016, but it raised just over $150 million from investors as a private company.

Global venture capital DST led the round for Maimai which include participation from existing investors of IDG, Morningside Venture Capital, and DCM.

The new capital takes Maimai to $300 million raised from investors, according to CrunchbaseCaixin reports that the valuation of the company is more than $1 billion which would see the firm enter the global unicorn club.

Beyond the fundraising, the firm said it plans to invest RMB 1 billion (around $150 million) over the next three years in a career planning program that it launched in partnership with over 1,000 companies. Those partners include global top-500 firm Cisco and Chinese companies such as Fashion Group and Focus Media.

This investment could be the last time Maimai taps the private market for cash. That’s because the company is gearing up for a U.S. IPO and overseas expansion in the second half of 2019, according to the company founder and CEO Lin Fan.

Launched in the fall of 2013, Maimai aims particularly at business people as a platform to connect professional workers and offer employment opportunities. The service now claims over 50 million users. As a Chinese counterpart of LinkedIn, Maimai has competed head-on with Chinese arm of the U.S. professional networking giant since its establishment and gradually gained an upper hand with features tailored to local tastes.

maimai

It can be hard to gauge the population of social networks, but Chinese market research firm iResearch ranked Maimai ahead of LinkedIn for the first time in the rankings of China’s most popular social networking apps in April last year. The firm further gained ground this year as its user penetration rate reaching 83.8 percent in June, far higher than LinkedIn China’s 11.8 percent, according to data from research institute Analysys.

As a China-born company, Maimai gained momentum over the past two years with localized features, such as anonymous chat, mobile-first design, real-name registration, and partnerships with Chinese corporations. But like all Chinese tech services, it is subject to the state’s tight online regulation. The government watchdog has ordered Maimai to remove the anonymous posting section on its platform last month. The same issue applies to LinkedIn, which has been criticized for allowing its Chinese censorship to spill over and impact global users.

With assistance from Jon Russell

Cootek, the Chinese maker of TouchPal keyboard, files for $100M US IPO

Cootek, the Chinese mobile internet company best known for keyboard app TouchPal, has filed for a public offering in the United States. In its F-1 form, submitted last week to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cootek said it wants to raise up to $100 million.

The Shanghai-based company began operating in 2008, when TouchPal was launched, and incorporated as CooTek in March 2012. In its SEC filing, Cootek said it currently has 132 million daily active users, with average DAUs increasing 75% year-over-year as of June. It also said it achieved 453% total ad revenue growth in the six month period before June.

While AI-based TouchPal, which offers glide typing and predictive text, is Cootek’s most popular product, it also has 15 other apps in its portfolio, including fitness apps HiFit and ManFIT and a virtual assistant called Talia. The company uses its proprietary AI and big data technology to analyze language data collected from users and the Internet. Then it uses those insights to develop lifestyle, healthcare and entertainment apps. Together, those 15 apps reached an average of 22.2 million monthly average users and 7.3 million daily average users in June.

TouchPal itself had 125.4 million daily average users in June 2018, with active users launching the app an average of 72 times a day. It currently supports 110 languages.

Most of Cootek’s revenue comes from mobile advertising. It says net revenue grew from $11 million in 2016 to $37.3 million in 2017, or 238.5% year-over-year, while its net loss dropped from $30.7 million in 2016 to $23.7 million in 2017. It achieved net income of $3.5 million for the six months ending in June, compared to a net loss of $16.2 million in the same period a year ago.

Cootek plans to be listed under the ticker symbol CTK on the New York Stock Exchange and will use the IPO’s proceeds to grow its user base, invest in AI and natural language processing tech and improve advertising performance. The offering will be underwritten by underwritten by Credit Suisse, BofA Merrill Lync and Citi.

Robotics-as-a-service is on the way and inVia Robotics is leading the charge

The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done.

After their graduation from the University of Southern California’s robotics program, Lior Alazary, Dan Parks, and Randolph Voorhies, were casting around for ideas that could get traction quickly.

“Our goal was to get something up and running that could make economic sense immediately,’ Voorhies, the company’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

The key was to learn from the lessons of what the team had seen as the missteps of past robotics manufacturers.

Despite the early success of iRobot, consumer facing or collaborative robots that could operate alongside people had yet to gain traction in wider markets.

Willow Garage, the legendary company formed by some of the top names in the robotics industry had shuttered just as Voorhies and his compatriots were graduating, and Boston Dynamics, another of the biggest names in robotics research, was bought by Google around the same time — capping an six-month buying spree that saw the search giant acquire eight robotics companies.

In the midst of all this we were looking around and we said, ‘God there were a lot of failed robotics companies!’ and we asked ourselves why did that happen?” Voorhies recalled. “A lot of the hardware companies that we’d seen, their plan was: step one build a really cool robot and step three: an app ecosystem will evolve and people will write apps and the robot will sell like crazy. And nobody had realized how to do step 2, which was commercialize the robot.”

So the three co-founders looked for ideas they could take to market quickly.

The thought was building a robot that could help with mobility and reaching for objects. “We built a six-degree-of-freedom arm with a mobile base,” Voorhies said.

However, the arm was tricky to build, components were expensive and there were too many variables in the environment for things to go wrong with the robot’s operations. Ultimately the team at inVia realized that the big successes in robotics were happening in controlled environments. 

“We very quickly realized that the environment is too unpredictable and there were too many different kinds of things that we needed to do,” he said. 

Parks then put together a white paper analyzing the different controlled environments where collaborative robots could be most easily deployed. The warehouse was the obvious choice.

Back in March of 2012 Amazon had come to the same conclusion and acquired Kiva Systems in a $775 million deal that brought Kiva’s army of robots to Amazon warehouses and distribution centers around the world.

“Dan put a white paper together for Lior and I,” Voorhies said, “and the thing really stuck out was eCommerce logistics. Floors tend to be concrete slabs; they’re very flat with very little grade, and in general people are picking things off a shelf and putting them somewhere else.”

With the idea in place, the team, which included technologists Voorhies and Parks, and Lazary, a serial entrepreneur who had already exited from two businesses, just needed to get a working prototype together.

Most warehouses and shipping facilities that weren’t Amazon were using automated storage and retrieval systems, Voorhies said. These big, automated systems that looked and worked like massive vending machines. But those systems, he said, involved a lot of sunk costs, and weren’t flexible or adaptable.

And those old systems weren’t built for random access patterns and multi-use orders which comprise most of the shipping and packing that are done as eCommerce takes off.

With those sunk costs though, warehouses are reluctant to change the model. The innovation that Voorhies and his team came up with, was that the logistics providers wouldn’t have to.

“We didn’t like the upfront investment, not just to install one but just to start a company to build those things,” said Voorhies. “We wanted something we could bootstrap ourselves and grow very organically and just see wins very very quickly. So we looked at those ASRS systems and said why don’t we build mobile robots to do this.”

In the beginning, the team at inVia played with different ways to build the robot.l first there was a robot that could carry several different objects and another that would be responsible for picking.

The form factor that the company eventually decided on was a movable puck shaped base with a scissor lift that can move a platform up and down. Attached to the back of the platform is a robotic arm that can extend forward and backward and has a suction pump attached to its end. The suction pump drags boxes onto a platform that are then taken to a pick and pack employee.

We were originally going to grab individual product.s. Once we started talking to real warehouses more and more we realized that everyone stores everything in these boxes anyway,” said Voorhies. “And we said why don’t we make our lives way easier, why don’t we just grab those totes?” 

Since bootstrapping that initial robot, inVia has gone on to raise $29 million in financing to support its vision. Most recently with a $20 million round which closed in July.

“E-commerce industry growth is driving the need for more warehouse automation to fulfill demand, and AI-driven robots can deliver that automation with the flexibility to scale across varied workflows. Our investment in inVia Robotics reflects our conviction in AI as a key enabler for the supply chain industry,” said Daniel Gwak, Co-Head, AI Investments at Point72 Ventures, the early stage investment firm formed by the famed hedge fund manager, Steven Cohen.

Given the pressures on shipping and logistics companies, it’s no surprise that the robotics and automation are becoming critically important strategic investments, or that venture capital is flooding int the market. In the past two months alone, robotics companies targeting warehouse and retail automation have raised nearly $70 million in new financing. They include the recent raised $17.7 million for the French startup Exotec Solutions and Bossa Nova’s $29 million round for its grocery store robots.

Then there are warehouse-focused robotics companies like Fetch Robotics, which traces its lineage back to Willow Garage and Locus Robotics, which is linked to the logistics services company Quiet Logistics.

“Funding in robotics has been incredible over the past several years, and for good reason,” said John Santagate, Research Director for Commercial Service Robotics at Research and Analysis Firm IDC, in a statement. “The growth in funding is a function of a market that has become accepting of the technology, a technology area that has matured to meet market demands, and vision of the future that must include flexible automation technology. Products must move faster and more efficiently through the warehouse today to keep up with consumer demand and autonomous mobile robots offer a cost-effective way to deploy automation to enable speed, efficiency, and flexibility.”

The team at inVia realized it wasn’t enough to sell the robots. To give warehouses a full sense of the potential cost savings they could have with inVia’s robots, they’d need to take a page from the software playbook. Rather than selling the equipment, they’d sell the work the robots were doing as a service.

“Customers will ask us how much the robots cost and that’s sort of irrelevant,” says Voorhies. “We don’t want customers to think about those things at all.”

Contracts between inVia and logistics companies are based on the unit of work done, Voorhies said. “We charge on the order line,” says Voorhies. “An order line is a single [stock keeping unit] that somebody would order regardless of quantity… We’re essentially charging them every time a robot has to bring a tote and present it in front of a person. The faster we’re able to do that and the less robots we can use to present an item the better our margins are.”

It may not sound like a huge change, but those kinds of efficiencies matter in warehouses, Voorhies said. “If you’re a person pushing a cart in a warehouse that cart can have 35 pallets on it. With us, that person is standing still, and they’re really not limited to a single cart. They are able to fill 70 orders at the same time rather than 55,” he said.

At Rakuten logistics, the deployment of inVia’s robots are already yielding returns, according to Michael Manzione, the chief executive officer of Rakuten Super Logistics.

“Really [robotics] being used in a fulfillment center is pretty new,” said Manzione in an interview. “We started looking at the product in late February and went live in late March.”

For Manzione, the big selling point was scaling the robots quickly, with no upfront cost. “The bottom line is ging to be effective when we see planning around the holiday season,” said Manzione. “We’re not planning on bringing in additional people, versus last year when we doubled our labor.”

As Voorhies notes, training a team to work effectively in a warehouse environment isn’t easy.

The big problem is that it’s really hard to hire extra people to do this. In a warehouse there’s a dedicated core team that really kicks ass and they’re really happy with those pickers and they will be happy with what they get from whatever those people can sweat out in a shift,” Voorhies said. “Once you need to push your throughput beyond what your core team can do it’s hard to find people who can do that job well.” 

The tech angle in dogs, mac and cheese and working out

Welcome back to TechCrunch Mixtape, the podcast where Megan Rose Dickey and I, Henry Oliver Pickavet, talk about some of the stories of the week that we feel like talking about. This week it was dogs, working out and mac and cheese.

BarkBox creators Bark and Co. decided that Nashville, Tenn., needed a place for dogs to take their humans. Naturally they created a dog park that includes space for humans to convene and drink coffee with their friends and hop on the Wi-Fi while the dogs get down to doing dog things. There is a membership fee, of course.

Mac and cheese is the next thing we talked about because Y Combinator invested money in a restaurant called Mac’d. It’s not got much of a tech angle aside from making itself available for delivery-via-app in Portland. Niche. But there is nothing wrong with talking about mac and cheese, because come on.

And finally, Tonal this week came out with the first workout machine that I actually want in my studio apartment. (I will find room.) The system doesn’t use weights, but rather electromagnetism to simulate and control weight.

Next week, we have Sarah Cooper in the studio for a chat about her new book “How to Succeed Without Hurting Men’s Feelings,” and it’s great. You can pre-order it here. In the meantime, click play below to listen to this week’s episode. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, what are you waiting for? Find us on Apple PodcastsStitcherOvercastCastBox or whatever other podcast platform you can find.

Crypto firm Pantera Capital is looking to raise up to $175 million for a new venture fund

Pantera Capital, which has made its mark in recent years by investing early and often in a wide variety of digital assets, is looking to raise up to $175 million for its third venture fund — an enormous jump from the $25 million it deployed for its second venture fund and its $13 million debut venture fund, which it closed in 2013.

Firm partner Paul Veradittakit says the target amount is a “function of how fast the space is moving, the talent coming in, the opportunities, and the sizing of rounds. With more interesting later-stage investments [on our radar], too, we want to be flexible and able to move with the market.”

Whether the firm closes with $175 million or another number is an open question. A newly processed SEC filing shows it has so far rounded up more than $71 million in capital commitments from 90 investors, an amount that Veradittakit calls a “first close.”

Certainly, Pantera is accustomed to managing meaningful sums of money. In addition to its venture funds, which are structured like most traditional venture funds — they feature a 10-year investing period, similar economics, and involve good old-fashioned checks to startups in exchange for some amount of equity — the firm is also juggling three other strategies.

As we reported last year, one of its newest funds is a hedge fund that’s focused exclusively on initial coin offerings. As firm founder Dan Morehead told us at the time, Pantera buys pre-sale ICOs, “basically getting a discount to the ICO price by getting in early, when it’s just a team and a white paper.” Meanwhile, Morehead had added, “We help provide the right connections, whether in terms of marketing or recruiting or business development.

The vehicle is evergreen, says Veradittakit, meaning it has an indefinite fund life that lets investors come and go.

The other two other funds that Pantera currently oversees are also structured like hedge funds. One is a Bitcoin fund that has attracted plenty of investors over the years, and returned a lot to them, too, according to the calculations of Morehead. In fact, he wrote two weeks ago that the fund, launched five years ago, has enjoyed a lifetime return of 10,136.15 percent net of fees and expenses.

The very last fund invests in cryptocurrencies that are already trading on exchanges — an approach that includes machine learning to algorithmically invest in crypotcurrencies, as well as allows for some discretionary input by Pantera’s top brass, which includes Morehead, Veradittakit, and Joey Krug, who joined Pantera last year after cofounding the market forecasting startup Augur. (It went on to orchestrate the first ICO on the ethereum network.)

Explains Veradittakit of this last pool, it’s for “if you are’t sure that Bitcoin will remain the dominant cryptocurrency, or you’re interested in other use cases that may arise, or you just want to build a diversified portfolio of assets that have asymmetrical returns as bitcoin, or maybe return even more because they feature lower valuations.”

In some ways, the venture efforts of Pantera —   which employs 38 people altogether in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Ca. —  may be its most challenging given the nature of VC. Investors in the asset class are typically willing to wait a handful of years for a firm to produce returns; in Pantera’s case, because it is betting exclusively on ventures, tokens, and projects related to blockchain tech, digital currency, and crypto assets, some of those returns could potentially take even longer.

Veradittakit doesn’t sound concerned. Rattling off some of Pantera’s venture investments to date, including in BitStamp, Xapo, Ripple, and Circle, not to mention more recent investments in Chain, Abra, Veem Polychain, and Z Cash, he sounds more like a proud parent. Pantera has invested in “lots of wallets and exchanges focused around the world, in Coinbases of different geographies, in enterprise-related blockchain companies. More recently, we’ve funded everything from big data to decentralized application platforms.”

It’s still very early days, he acknowledges. But “in terms of returns, there will be companies that create something completely disruptive. There will be M&A [opportunities] more often and that [come together] more quickly than other companies.”

If everything goes as planned, Pantera will be there when they do, and it will have more resources to deploy than ever.

Twitter puts Infowars’ Alex Jones in the ‘read-only’ sin bin for 7 days

Twitter has finally taken action against Infowars creator Alex Jones, but it isn’t what you might think.

While Apple, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Spotify and many others have removed Jones and his conspiracy-peddling organization Infowars from their platforms, Twitter has remained unmoved with its claim that Jones hasn’t violated rules on its platform.

That was helped in no small way by the mysterious removal of some tweets last week, but now Jones has been found to have violated Twitter’s rules, as CNET first noted.

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

That means he will still be able to use the service and look up content via his account, but he’ll be unable to engage with it. That means no tweets, likes, retweets, comments, etc. He’s also been ordered to delete the offending tweet — more on that below — in order to qualify for a fully functioning account again.

That restoration doesn’t happen immediately, though. Twitter policy states that the read-only sin bin can last for up to seven days “depending on the nature of the violation.” We’re imagining Jones got the full one-week penalty, but we’re waiting on Twitter to confirm that.

The offending tweet in question is a link to a story claiming President “Trump must take action against web censorship.” It looks like the tweet has already been deleted, but not before Twitter judged that it violates its policy on abuse:

Abuse: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

When you consider the things Infowars and Jones have said or written — 9/11 conspiracies, harassment of Sandy Hook victim families and more — the content in question seems fairly innocuous. Indeed, you could look at President Trump’s tweets and find seemingly more punishable content without much difficulty.

But here we are.

The weirdest part of this Twitter caning is one of the reference points that the company gave to media. These days, it is common for the company to point reporters to specific tweets that it believes encapsulate its position on an issue, or provide additional color in certain situations.

In this case, Twitter pointed us — and presumably other reporters — to this tweet from Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson:

Alex Jones has been suspended by Twitter for 7 days for a video talking about social media censorship. Truly, monumentally, beyond stupid. 😄

On the same day that the Infowars website was brought down by a cyber attack.

Will this madness ever end? pic.twitter.com/hXDzH2b7rT

— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) August 14, 2018

WTF, Twitter…

Voatz: a tale of a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea

Let’s get the fish in the barrel out of the way. Voatz are a tech startup whose bright idea was to disrupt democracy by having people vote on their phone, and store the votes on, you guessed it, a blockchain. Does this sound like a bad idea? Welp.

It turned out that they seemed awfully casual about basic principles of software security, such as not hard-coding your AWS credentials. It turned out that their blockchain was an eight-node Hyperledger install, i.e. one phenomenologically not especially distinguishable from databases secured by passwords. They have been widely and justly chastised for these things. But they aren’t what’s important.

To their credit, their system is opt-in, and apparently generates real-time voter-verified paper ballots, the single most important thing about any voting system. But still. We need to step back and ask a question here: why are we trying to vote via an app and collate election results on any kind of centralized system at all? We don’t want to make voting more efficient. Efficiency is not the problem we are trying to solve with elections. The inefficiency of paper ballots and their handling and collation and tabulation is a feature, not a bug.

Just ask everyone at Def Con’s Vote Hacking Village, whose successes have been rampant this weekend, in the midst of the enmity of the National Association of Secretaries of State:

ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE US OR YOUR OWN LYING EYES?! https://t.co/SOVL4Jb0dU

— TProphet (@TProphet) August 9, 2018

Voatz were approaching the wrong problem in the wrong way from the start. Even if your blockchain repository is verifiably write-once, which it isn’t, it only records the data sent to it via your app and servers. Voting cannot rely on apps and servers, no matter how allegedly secure they are claimed to be. It’s nice that you generate paper ballots for a post-election audit, but since we should not and cannot ever trust voting servers and software, and therefore will need to do a post-election paper ballot count every time — how about we skip the man-in-the-middle, and all of your software, and go straight to that part?

The other point is brought to us by XKCD, who responded to Voatz with this:

which in turn brought this response from Facebook’s (soon-to-be-former) CISO Alex Stamos:

I agree with Chris.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to “Why can’t we just have building codes for software? It worked to protect against earthquakes and fire!”

Earthquakes and fire aren’t conscious adversaries. Try writing a standards document on how to win at chess. https://t.co/eAPk6M3ijN

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) August 8, 2018

which in turn brought this response from CFI and engineer Rob Russell, which a lot of the finest engineers I know have been sharing across social media:

This is wildly disingenuous, I speak as a flight instructor and major IT incident investigator. Modern software authors have the professional discipline of a cute puppy in comparison to aviation practitioners. https://t.co/6GzCqLNpcl

— Rob Russell (@www_ora_tion_ca) August 9, 2018

There are valid points on all sides here. Stamos is right that most spheres, e.g. aviation, don’t have to deal with the constant threat of intelligent adversaries attacking the system in the same way that software does (although as they events at SeaTac yesterday show us, they are by no means devoid of such threats.)

But Russell brings up the very valid point that because software people are so fixated on adversaries, on hackers and not being hacked, their definition of “security” is often restricted to breaches and exploits and vulnerabilities, rather than systemic flaws, or sloppy development techniques, which hurt users’ security even if no external hacker is involved. In fairness, over the last few years the infosec community has been good at broadening its definition of “secure” beyond “external hacker resistant” … but it seems pretty apparent that much, much more work is needed.

Facebook is the recruiting tool of choice for far-right group the Proud Boys

Twitter may have suspended the Proud Boys and their controversial leader Gavin McInnes, but it was never their platform of choice.

The Proud Boys, a self described “Western chauvinist” organization that often flirts with more hard-line groups of the far right, runs an elaborate network of recruiting pages on Facebook to attract and initiate members. While McInnes maintained a presence on many platforms, Facebook is the heart of the group’s operations. It’s there that the Proud Boys boast more than 35 regional and city-specific groups that act as landing pages for vetting thousands of new members and feeding them into local chapters.

When it comes to skirting the outer boundaries of social acceptability, McInnes could teach a master class. The Vice founder and Canadian citizen launched his newest project in 2016, capturing a groundswell of public political activity on the far right and launching the Proud Boys, a men’s club allied around the mantra “West is best,” its dedication to Trump and a prohibition against flip-flops and porn.

Facebook recruiting

The group makes national headlines for its involvement in violent dust-ups between the far right and far left and has a robust recruitment network centered on initiating members through Facebook groups. As for where it fits into the far right’s many sub-factions, McInnes objects to the term alt-light, sometimes used to describe far right group that oppose some mainstream conservative ideals but don’t openly endorse white nationalism. “Alt Light is a gay term that sounds like a diet soda in bed w Alt Right,” he said on Twitter last year. “We’re “The New Right.”

To that end, most regional affiliate pages run a message outlining some ground rules, including a declaration that its members not be racist or homophobic — a useful disclaimer for making the group more palatable than many of its less clever peers.

The Proud Boys’ agenda is less explicitly race-based than many groups it has affiliations with, espousing instead a broad sort of antagonism to perceived enemies on the political left and a credo of “western chauvinism.” The language is cleaned up, but it’s one degree removed from less palatable figures, including Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler. McInnes hosted Kessler on his own talk show just days after Kessler led the Charlottesville rally that left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead. In the segment, McInnes tried to create space between Kessler and the Proud Boys, though it wasn’t Kessler’s first time on the show or his only affiliation with the Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys also coordinates with the Vancouver, Washington-based group known as Patriot Prayer, another fairly social media-savvy far right organization that doesn’t openly endorse explicitly white nationalist groups, but still welcomes them into the fold during demonstrations that often turn violent.

Who are the Proud Boys?

Like much of the young, internet-fluent alt-right, the Proud Boys intentionally don’t take themselves too seriously, a strategy that conveniently opens the door for them to denounce any kind of controversy that might arise. They show up to protests wearing black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts, have a whole charter’s worth of inside jokes and in general seem a bit more media and internet savvy than hardline white nationalist groups, some of which Facebook has managed to clear out in the last year.

Unlike some less strategic and internet-savvy portions of the far right, McInnes and his Proud Boys are careful not to openly encourage preemptive violence. Still, the Proud Boys do encourage retaliatory violence, going so far as to enshrine physical altercations in its organizational hierarchy.

To earn their “first degree,” Proud Boys must openly declare their allegiance to the group’s ideals, usually in a Facebook vetting group.

To earn the second, they have to get beaten up by other members while naming five breakfast cereals (maybe a loose tie-in to the group’s mantra against masturbation). To earn the third degree they have to get a Proud Boys tattoo. The fourth degree is reserved for members who get in a brawl sufficient for the honor:

“You can’t plan getting a fourth degree. Its a consolation prize for engaging in a major conflict for the cause. Being arrested is not encouraged, although those who are immediately become fourth degree because the court has registered a major conflict. Serious physical fights also count and it’s up to each chapter to decide how serious the conflict must be to determine a fourth degree.”

That’s where the Proud Boys Facebook network comes in. To get accepted into a local chapter, prospective members join specific vetting groups and are asked to upload a video of them meeting their “first degree” requirements:

“Once you are added here, to be properly vetted you must upload and post a video of yourself reciting our First Degree. This is just a quick video of you saying EXACTLY THIS:

“My name is [full name], I’m from [city, state], and I am a western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” You can add anything else you’d like to your video, as long as you say those words exactly.

YouTube is full of first and second degree videos depicting the usually short half-ironic hazing ceremonies.

Facebook also hosts pages dedicated to the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, a new-ish subdivision of the Proud Boys and its paramilitary wing. The Alt-Knights, also known as FOAK, are led by Kyle Chapman, a.k.a. “Based Stickman,” a far right figure who grew to fame after beating political enemies with a stick at a 2017 Berkeley protest. The Alt-Knights aren’t always quite as careful to denounce violence.

Whether the Proud Boys are in violation of Facebook’s unevenly enforced and sometimes secretive policies or not, the organization is making the most of its time on the platform. Facebook has rules against organizing harm or credible violence that the Proud Boys’ brawling ethos and alt-knights would seem to run afoul of, but the group stands by the useful mantra “We don’t start fights, we finish them.”

TechCrunch reached out to the Proud Boys to get an idea of their membership numbers and will update this story if we receive a reply. An analysis of affiliated pages shows that Proud Boys groups have added hundreds of members in the last 30 days across many chapters.

With a second Unite the Right rally around the corner and the ugly reality of more real-life violence organized on social media looming large, platforms are on their toes for once. Facebook has cleaned up some of the rampant racism that stemmed from the extreme right presence on its platform, but savvier, self-censoring groups like the Proud Boys are likely to be the real headache as Facebook, Twitter and Google trudge through an endless minefield of case-by-case terms of service violations, drawing sharp criticism from both sides of the political spectrum no matter where they choose to place their feet.

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket take its first re-flight

SpaceX is sending of one of newest Falcon 9 rockets back into space for the second time this early morning U.S. time.

The Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket is designed to be able to go into space and return 100 times, but these are early days. The rocket leaving today is taking Indonesian satellite Merah Putih in what will be its second trip — a re-flight — into space. If all goes well and the SpaceX robotic drone successfully collects the rocket off the Florida coast as planned, then this particular vehicle will be the first Block 5 to manage a repeat lift-off following a previous trip in May.

The next major focus for the firm is to reduce the preparation time and cost required between the relaunch of rockets. Obviously, there’s plenty of benefits for faster turnaround time and the cost-savings associated. But first thing is first and the vehicle out today could become the first Falcon 9 to go into space three times.

The launch happened a few minutes ago, but you can keep up with progress via the SpaceX live feed above.

Patrick Stewart is returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard for a new Star Trek series

Did you ever think Patrick Stewart would return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard? Neither did he.

But he will! Sir Pat Stew himself just announced the news on Instagram, timed to line up with an on-stage announcement at the Star Trek Las Vegas 2018 convention:

I will always be very proud to have been a part of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when we wrapped that final movie in the spring of 2002, I truly felt my time with Star Trek had run its natural course. It is, therefore, an unexpected but delightful surprise to find myself excited and invigorated to be returning to Jean-Luc Picard and to explore new dimensions within him. Seeking out new life for him, when I thought that life was over.

During these past years, it has been humbling to hear stories about how The Next Generation brought people comfort, saw them through difficult periods in their lives or how the example of Jean-Luc inspired so many to follow in his footsteps, pursuing science, exploration and leadership. I feel I’m ready to return to him for the same reason – to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times. I look forward to working with our brilliant creative team as we endeavor to bring a fresh, unexpected and pertinent story to life once more.

The official account for the new (but separate) Star Trek Discovery series sheds light on a few more details: the story will focus on the “next chapter” of Picard’s life (after Next Generation, presumably), and will be made available on CBS’ online subscription/original content service, CBS All Access.

Make it so! @SirPatStew will be returning to his iconic role as Jean-Luc Picard in a new @cbsallaccess #StarTrek series that tells the story of the next chapter in Picard’s life‼pic.twitter.com/T5qQJ4gzU0

— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) August 4, 2018

Stewart shared a few more details at the Las Vegas convention, noting that it was still early days and they’re still working out what it’ll all look like:

He may not… be a captain anymore. He may not be the Jean-Luc that you recognize and know so well. It may be a very different individual; someone who has been changed by his experiences. Twenty years will have passed — more or less exactly the time between the last movie (Nemesis) and today.

We have no scripts, as yet. We’re just talking, talking, talking storylines.

It will be, I promise, I guarantee, something very, very different. But it will come to you with the same passion, and determination, and love of the material, and love of our followers and fans… exactly as we had it before.

Alas, just about everything else about the show is still a mystery for now, presumably because it’s not all totally finalized yet. Name? Unknown. How many episodes? Who knows!

Maybe what the world needs right now is some Star Trek. Not the flashy, snappy JJ Abrams Trek — just good ol’ Picard out there getting his Prime Directive on.

Here’s Patrick Stewart’s surprise Star Trek convention visit in full, as uploaded by Jaime Bastidas (the announcement comes in at 9:20):

Facebook Dating will be a feature, not an app; here’s a peek

Facebook Dating doesn’t plan to launch a standalone dating app, which should temper expectations about how deeply it’s diving into Tinder and Match Group’s territory. The feature will be based inside Facebook’s main app, alongside its many other utilities buried beyond the home screen. It’s not ready for the public yet, but company employees are now internally testing it — though they’re warned that it’s not for dating their co-workers.

Facebook gave a preview of its Dating features back in May at its F8 conference. Now we’re getting an early look at its onboarding process thanks to screenshots pulled from the Facebook app’s code by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The designs give a sense of the more mature vibe of Facebook Dating, which seems more purposeful for finding a serious partner than a one-night stand.

Once you opt in to activating Facebook Dating, only other people who have also turned it on will be able to see you, and it won’t be shared to News Feed. You can choose if friends of friends can see you or not, and Dating profiles allow non-binary and transgender and orientation options. You’ll unlock Groups or Events you’re a part of for Dating, and you’ll be able to browse potential matches based on the plethora of info Facebook knows about you. If two people express interest in each other (no swiping), they can text each other over Messenger or WhatsApp.

TechCrunch has learned some new details from Facebook, as well. Facebook is considering a limit on how many people you can express interest in, which would prevent a spammy behavior of rapidly approving everyone you see. Blocking someone on Dating won’t also block them on Facebook, though that’s not finalized.

Facebook has no plan for paid subscriptions to premium Dating features. It’s currently not going to show ads in Dating, though it could reconsider that later.

Dating will be 18+ only in the U.S. and abide by local laws on who is considered an “adult.”

For now Facebook is taking careful steps toward Dating. It’s not blitzing into the market with a big flashy app. Instead it’s hoping the feature could create the meaningful relationships that make people appreciate Facebook and stick with it over the years. That’s more important than ever with all its recent troubles.

Uber and Lyft encourage NYC customers to oppose proposed ride-hail cap legislation

Uber is making calls to some of its customers in New York City, offering to connect them to local council members to express their opposition to the proposed legislation that would cap the number of ride-hailing drivers in the city, BuzzFeed first reported. Meanwhile, Lyft is also reaching out to its NYC-based riders, asking them to contact their local officials.

For context, the NYC city council is currently considering legislation that would limit the number of ride-hail drivers on the road. Specifically, the proposal wants to place a one-year hold on the issuance of new for-hire vehicle licenses, unless the vehicles are wheelchair accessible.

This legislation would affect Uber, Lyft, Juno and Via — all of which operate ride-hailing services in the city. The deadline to submit an amended version of the proposal is tonight at midnight, so the clock is ticking.

Anyway, some people seem to be a bit upset about receiving calls from Uber, but Uber Director of Public Affairs Jason Post told TechCrunch the calls are simply one of its tactics that is consistent with its terms of services.

Uber is not calling every single customer in the city, Post said, but the company is making enough calls to yield a few dozen calls per council member. Though, why people are answering calls from unknown numbers is beyond me.

Uber is also employing an in-app takeover that notifies passengers of the legislative landscape in NYC.

“Uber has launched an App takeover so New Yorkers can read the Council’s bills for themselves,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “We believe New Yorkers will join us in supporting living wages for drivers and opposing a cap that will harm outer borough riders who have come to rely on Uber because of the unreliable, or non-existent subway.”

Lyft says the proposals would affect wait times, driver earnings and job opportunities.

“Worst of all, the proposals prioritize corporate medallion owners above the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers,” a Lyft spokesperson said. “And while many are saying that this a cap would not diminish service, based on Lyft’s internal driver attrition trends, we believe the industry’s annual churn rate is at least 25%, meaning available drivers for New York City ride-share would shrink significantly within the next year if a cap were imposed, massively undercutting service levels across the board and in particular in outer-borough neighborhoods.”

Lyft’s VP of public policy, Joseph Okpaku, also noted in a Medium post that the cap would have even worse effects on communities of color.

“For communities of color, who, before the arrival of ridesharing, were denied equal transportation options, the impact will be felt even more strongly,” he wrote. “It will return us to the days when African-American and Latino New Yorkers had to worry whether they would get a ride every time they raised their hand to hail a cab.”

Tesla is making a $1500… surfboard?

Tesla is no stranger to branded merch. Its got the standard company swag — the hats, the shirts, and the mugs. It’s got quirkier stuff, like miniature Teslas for kids and USB chargers shaped like the Superchargers that juice up their vehicles.

And now they’ve got… surfboards?

While it’s now gone for some reason, a product page went live in its shop early this morning detailing a $1500 Tesla-branded board (we’ve asked Tesla for insight, but it sounds like they sold out.) Electrek caught the description before the page vanished:

“Designed by the Tesla Design Studio in collaboration with Lost Surfboards and Matt “Mayhem” Biolos, surfboard shaper for World Surf League Championship athletes. The Limited Edition Tesla Surfboard features a mix of the same high-quality matte and gloss finishes used on all our cars. The deck is reinforced with light-weight “Black Dart” carbon fiber, inspired by the interiors in our cars, and featuring tonal logos in subtle contrast gloss.”

(Update: the page is back up now, and it is, in fact, sold out)

While its unclear why the product page vanished, a Google cache of it is visible here, and a few people on Twitter mention being able to get orders in before it went down.

At $1500 before tax, the board is… certainly on the higher end of the surfboard pricing scale. A solid board from a company like JS or Ripcurl would cost you around $750. Most of the boards made by Lost (the company Tesla is doing the collab with here) go for around $700-800. But with a limited run of 200 boards, they’re probably going to sell out here anyway. My gut feeling is that many of these could end up being wall pieces or permanent roof rack accessories rather than shredding up the ocean — but who knows.

And for the curious surfers out there: based on Lost’s other “Black Dart” models, this board comes in at 6’8″ long. It doesn’t come with fins. The now-gone product page said all 200 boards should ship within 2-10 weeks.

Here’s all the photos that were on the product page:

Segway’s whacky new roller shoes will cost $399

Did you know Segway is making a pair of self-balancing roller shoes? It is! The company has been tinkering with all sorts of new form factors since it was acquired by Ninebot in 2015, from half-sized Segways to kick scooters. Next up: inline… shoe… platform things.

Called the Segway Drift W1s, they sorta look like what would happen if you took a hoverboard (as in the trendy 2016 hoverboard-that-doesn’t-actually-hover “hover”board, not Marty McFly’s hoverboard), split it in two and plopped one half under each foot.

It released a video demonstrating the shoes a few weeks back. Just watching it makes me feel like I’ve bruised my tailbone, because I’m clumsy as hell.

Pricing and availability was kept under wraps at the time, but the company has just released the details: a pair will cost you $399, and ship sometime in August. Oh, and they’ll come with a free helmet, because you’ll probably want to wear a helmet.

A new product page also sheds some light on a few other previously undisclosed details: each unit will weigh about 7.7lbs, and top out at 7.5 miles per hour. Riding time “depends on riding style and terrain,” but the company estimates about 45 minutes of riding per charge.

I look forward to trying these — then realizing I have absolutely no idea how to jump off and just riding forever into the sunset.

SessionM customer loyalty data aggregator snags $23.8 M investment

SessionM announced a $23.8 million Series E investment led by Salesforce Ventures. A bushel of existing investors including Causeway Media Partners, CRV, General Atlantic, Highland Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers also contributed to the round. The company has now raised over $97 million.

At its core, SessionM aggregates loyalty data for brands to help them understand their customer better, says company co-founder and CEO Lars Albright. “We are a customer data and engagement platform that helps companies build more loyal and profitable relationships with their consumers,” he explained.

Essentially that means, they are pulling data from a variety of sources and helping brands offer customers more targeted incentives, offers and product recommendations “We give [our users] a holistic view of that customer and what motivates them,” he said.

Screenshot: SessionM (cropped)

To achieve this, SessionM takes advantage of machine learning to analyze the data stream and integrates with partner platforms like Salesforce, Adobe and others. This certainly fits in with Adobe’s goal to build a customer service experience system of record and Salesforce’s acquisition of Mulesoft in March to integrate data from across an organization, all in the interest of better understanding the customer.

When it comes to using data like this, especially with the advent of GDPR in the EU in May, Albright recognizes that companies need to be more careful with data, and that it has really enhanced the sensitivity around stewardship for all data-driven businesses like his.

“We’ve been at the forefront of adopting the right product requirements and features that allow our clients and businesses to give their consumers the necessary control to be sure we’re complying with all the GDPR regulations,” he explained.

The company was not discussing valuation or revenue. Their most recent round prior to today’s announcement, was a Series D in 2016 for $35 million also led by Salesforce Ventures.

SessionM, which was founded in 2011, has around 200 employees with headquarters in downtown Boston. Customers include Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and Barney’s.

Cogito scores $37M as AI-driven sentiment analysis biz grows

Cogito announced a $37 million Series C investment today led by Goldman Sachs Growth Equity. Previous investors Salesforce Ventures and OpenView also chipped in. Mark Midle of Goldman Sachs’ Merchant Banking Division, has joined Cogito’s Board of Directors

The company has raised over $64 million since it emerged from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab back in 2007 trying to use the artificial intelligence technology available at the time to understand sentiment and apply it in a business context.

While it took some time for the technology to catch up with the vision, and find the right use case, company CEO and founder Joshua Feast says today they are helping customer service representatives understand the sentiment and emotional context of the person on the line and give them behavioral cues on how to proceed.

“We sell software to very large software, premium brands with many thousands of people in contact centers. The purpose of our solution is to help provide a really wonderful service experience in moments of truth,” he explained. Anyone who deals with a large company’s customer service has likely felt there is sometimes a disconnect between the person on the phone and their ability to understand your predicament and solve your problem.

Cogito in action giving customer service reps real-time feedback.

He says using his company’s solution, which analyzes the contents of the call in real time, and provides relevant feedback, the goal is to not just complete the service call, but to leave the customer feeling good about the brand and the experience. Certainly a bad experience can have the opposite effect.

He wants to use technology to make the experience a more human interaction and he recognizes that as an organization grows, layers of business process make it harder for the customer service representative to convey that humanity. Feast believes that technology has helped create this problem and it can help solve it too.

While the company is not talking about valuation or specific revenue at this point, Feast reports that revenue has grown 3X over the last year. Among their customers are Humana and Metlife, two large insurance companies, each with thousands of customer service agents.

Cogito is based in downtown Boston with 117 employees at last count, and of course they hope to use the money to add on to that number and help scale this vision further.

“This is about scaling our organization to meet client’s needs. It’s also about deepening what we do. In a lot of ways, we are only scratching the surface [of the underlying technology] in terms of how we can use AI to support emotional connections and help organizations be more human,” Feast said.

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.

Propelling deep space flight with a new fuel source, Momentus prepares for liftoff

Mikhail Kokorich, the founder of Momentus, a new Y Combinator-backed propulsion technology developer for space flight, hadn’t always dreamed of going to the moon.

A physicist who graduated from Russia’s top-ranked Novosibirsk University, Kokorich was a serial entrepreneur in who grew up in Siberia and made his name and his first fortunes in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The heart of Momentus’ technology is a new propulsion system that uses water as a propellant instead of chemicals.

Image courtesy Momentus

Using water has several benefits, Kokorich says. One, it’s a fuel source that’s abundant in outer space, and it’s ultimately better and more efficient fuel for flight beyond low earth orbit. “If you move something with a chemical booster stage to the moon. Chemical propulsion is good when you need to have a very high thrust,” according to Kokorich. Once a ship gets beyond gravity’s pull, water simply works better, he says.

Some companies are trying to guide micro-satellites with technologies like Phase 4 which use ionized gases like Xenon, but according to Kokorich those are more expensive and slower. “When ionized propulsion is used for geostationary satellites to orbit, it takes months,” says Kokorich, using water can half the time.

“We can carry ten tons to geostationary orbit and it’s much faster,” says Kokorich.

The company has already signed an agreement with ECM Space, a European launch services provider, which will provide the initial trip for the company’s first test of its propulsion system on a micro-satellite — slated for early 2019.

That first product, “Zeal,” has specific impulses of 150 to 180 seconds and power up to 30 watts.

Kokorich started his first business, Dauria, in the mid-90s amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, selling explosives and engineering services to mining companies in Siberia. Kokorich sold that business and went into retail, eventually building a network of stores that sold home goods and housewares across Russia.

That raked in more millions for Kokorich, who then said he diversified into electronics by buying Russia’s BestBuy chain out bankruptcy. But space was never far from his mind, and, eventually he returned to it.

“In 2011 I hit my middle-aged crisis,” Korkorich says. “So I founded the first private Russian aerospace company.”

That company, Dauria Aerospace, was initially feted by the government, garnering the entrepreneur a place in Skolkovo, and its inaugural cohort of space companies. In an announcement of the successes the space program had achieved in 2014 Kokorich co-authored a piece with the Russian cosmonaut Sergey Zhukov, who remains the executive director of the networking and aerospace programs at the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle startup incubator.

Utilis detects water leaks underground using satellite imagery.

A few months later Kokorich would be in the U.S. working to back the first of what’s now a triumvirate of startups focused on space.

“With all the problems with Russia in the Western world, I moved to the U.S.,” says Kokorich. Dauria had quickly raised $30 million for its work, but as this Moscow Times article notes, stiff competition from U.S. firms and the sanctions leveled against Russia in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea were taking their toll on the entrepreneur’s business. “It was a purely political immigration,” Korkorich says. “I don’t have purely business opportunities, because you have to work with the government [and] because the government would not like me.”

For all of his protestations, Kokorich has maintained several economic ties with partners in Russia. It’s through an investment firm called Oden Holdings Ltd. that Kokorich took an investment stake in the Canadian company Helios Wire, which was one of his first forays into space entrepreneurship outside of Russia. That company makes cryptographically secured applications for the transmission and reception of data from internet-enabled devices.

The second space company that the co-founder has built since moving to the U.S. is the satellite company Astra Digital, which processes data from satellites to make that information more accessible.

Now, with Momentus, Kokorich is turning to the problem of propulsion. “When transportation costs decrease, many business models emerge” Kokorich says. And Kokorich sees Momentus’ propulsion technology driving down the costs of traveling further into space — opening up opportunities for new businesses like asteroid mining and lunar transit.

The Momentus team is already thinking well beyond the initial launch. The company’s eyes are on a prize well beyond geostationary orbit.

Indeed, with water as a power source, the company says it will lay the groundwork for future cislunar and interplanetary rides. The company envisions a future where it will power water prospecting and delivery throughout the solar system, solar power stations, in-space manufacturing and space tourism.

And now, here’s a ‘Trumpy Cat’ augmented reality app from George Takei

Anyone who follows George Takei on Twitter can tell you that Star Trek‘s original Sulu is not a fan of President Donald Trump. But he’s found a new way to express that criticism — not just in tweets, interviews and op-eds, but also in an augmented reality app called House of Cats.

The app was built in partnership with Montreal-based development company BMAD, and it allows users to interact animated animal characters like Trumpy Cat, Meowlania, Vladdy Putin and Lil’ Rocket Pug. They can add their own voice recordings, superimpose the animals on real environments and take photos with them — Takei suggested including Trumpy Cat in photos of real-world protests.

When I asked where the idea came from, Takei had a simple explanation : “The Internet loves the combination of politics and cats.”

While the app looks pretty silly, Takei made the by-now-commonplace observation that satire is having a hard time keeping up with the daily news.

We spoke shortly after Trump had his press conference with Vladimir Putin — setting off this week’s cycle of criticism, denial and missing double negatives — and Takei told me, “No augmented reality could have created the true reality of what we saw this morning: Donald Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vladimir Putin … his denial of the attack on the core activity of our democratic system.”

Takei added that humor is a key ingredient in getting a serious message out into the world. He’s pointed to his embrace of memes (particularly Grumpy Cat) as one of the main drivers of his popularity on social media, which in turn gives him a bigger platform for his political views.

“I’m a political activist — I have been since I was a teenager, largely because of my childhood incarceration behind American barbed wire fences,” Takei said. He said his social media presence is meant to be an extension of that activism, but, “I notice that if I’m documenting the truth, people are nodding off. [So] I try to kind of inject a little humor into it.”

The app costs 99 cents, and there are plans for subscription content as well. It might seem strange to pay money for a satirical cat app, but keep in mind that some of the profits will go to Refugees International.

“Making a mockery of this particular person is going to be a very effective tool,” Takei said. “We’ll have fun while we also accomplish our mission to make this a better America.”

Apple’s iCloud user data in China is now handled by a state-owned mobile operator

If you’re an Apple customer living in China who didn’t already opt out of having your iCloud data stored locally, here’s a good reason to do so now. That information, the data belonging to China-based iCloud users which includes emails and text messages, is now being stored by a division of China Telecom, the state-owned telco.

The operator’s Tianyi cloud storage business unit has taken the reins for iCloud China, according to a WeChat post from China Telecom. Apple separately confirmed the change to TechCrunch.

Apple’s transition of the data from its own U.S.-based servers to local servers on Chinese soil has raised significant concern among observers who worry that the change will grant the Chinese government easier access to sensitive information. Before a switch announced earlier this year, all encryption keys for Chinese users were stored in the U.S. which meant authorities needed to go through the U.S. legal system to request access to information. Now the situation is based on Chinese courts and a gatekeeper that’s owned by the government.

Apple itself has said it was compelled to make the move in order to comply with Chinese authorities, and that hardly eases the mind.

It’s ironic that the U.S. government has pursued Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE on account of national security and suspected links to Chinese authorities, and yet one of America’s largest corporates is entrusting user data to a state-owned company in China.

The only plus for Apple users in China is that they can opt out of local data storage by selecting a country other than China for their iCloud account. Since it isn’t clear whether making that change today would see information migrated or deleted from the Chinese server, starting over with a new account is probably the best option at this point.

Hat tip @yuanfenyang

Online learning platform Unacademy gets $21M Series C from Sequoia India, SAIF and Nexus

Unacademy founders Roman Saini, Gaurav Munjal and Hemesh Singh

Bangalore-based Unacademy will add more educators to its online learning platform, which claims to be India’s largest, after closing a $21 million Series C. The funding comes from Sequoia India, SAIF Partners and Nexus Venture Partners, with participation from Blume Ventures (all four firms are returning from Unacademy’s Series B last year).

Originally a YouTube channel created in 2010 by Gaurav Munjal, Unacademy was officially launched as a startup in 2015 by founders Munjal, Roman Saini and Hemesh Singh. It has now raised $38.6 million in total.

While Unacademy offers a wide range of courses, its most popular offerings include preparation for important exams in India. Its platform includes two apps: one that lets educators create lessons and another that allows users to access them. Unacademy says it has 10,000 registered educators and three million users. Last month, the startup claims 3,000 educators were active on the platform and lessons were watched more than 40 million times.

Many lessons are available for free, though last year Unacademy launched a paid service called Plus that gives users access to features like private discussion forums and live video classes for a per-course fee. Unacademy claims it has achieved six times growth in monthly revenue since launching Plus. The premium classes also help it differentiate from other online learning platforms like Mrunal, a popular site that provides free test preparation for Indian students.

In addition to bringing on more teachers, Unacademy will use its new funding to expand key categories like pre-med, the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) and the Common Admission Test (CAT), which are required by many post-graduate programs.

In a media statement, SAIF partner Alok Goel said “Unacademy has demonstrated tremendous progress towards their goal of delivering personalized learning by connecting great quality educators and students on their platform. The company has diversified across several new domains and has achieved amazing word of mouth among learners.”

Elon Musk tweets he’ll “bet ya a signed dollar” that Thai cave rescuer is a “pedo”

Elon Musk seems not only intent on burning all the goodwill he earned for trying to help last week’s Thai cave rescue, but rolling around in its ashes, too. In a series of extraordinarily offensive, now deleted tweets, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO called a British diver who participated in last week’s dangerous rescue mission a “pedo guy,” adding in another tweet “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

Musk’s tantrum was triggered by an interview the diver, Vern Unsworth, gave CNN International last Friday, in which he called the small submarine Musk had SpaceX engineers build a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick it “where it hurts.” Though the submarine was intended to help the 12 boys stranded with their soccer coach navigate flooded cave passageways, Unsworth, who helped plan the rescue operation and recruited other cave diving experts, said it “had absolutely no chance of working.”

Unworth added that Musk “had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5 foot 6 long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles. It wouldn’t hadn’t have made the first 50 meters into the cave from the dive start point.” When the reporter mentioned that Musk had gone into the cave on Tuesday, Unsworth said he was “asked to leave very quickly. And so he should have been.”

The rescue mission, made even more challenging by monsoon season, claimed the life of a Thai Navy seal before all boys were saved last week.

This is not the first time that Musk has clashed with a member of the cave rescue team. As confirmation came in that the last group of boys and their coach had been freed on July 10, the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn, told reporters that “although [Musk’s] technology is good and sophisticated it’s not practical for this mission.”

In response, Musk dismissed the credentials of Ostanakorn, who led the joint command center coordinating the operation and is former acting governor of Chiang Rai, the province where the cave is located. In a tweet he said Ostanakorn was “described inaccurately as ‘rescue chief’” and “is not the subject matter expert” (the Columbus Dispatch reports that Ostanakorn holds a Master’s degree from Ohio State University, where he studied geodetic engineering and surveying).

Though Musk’s tweet about Ostanakorn was sharply criticized, many still gave him credit for his efforts. After all, engineering a submarine in a few days to save a group of children is an impressive and laudable feat. While Musk is known for going on strange Twitter rants, however, his attack on Unsworth is an entirely different stratosphere. In addition to defaming Unsworth in a particularly heinous way, the implication that a British diver would only go to Thailand, one of the world’s top diving destinations, for child sex tourism is problematic and arguably racist, as many have pointed out.

Elon Musk implying that British expats who live in Thailand are all kiddie fiddlers?
Erm… wow… isn’t that kind of a little bit racist?

— Robert Percy (@astweetedbyRP) July 15, 2018

Sure, Elon Musk calling a diver who help rescue 12 boys a ‘pedo’ just because he lives in Thailand is insulting, inflammatory and borderline libelous, but let’s not forget that it is also horrifically racist.

— Bay Area for Bernie (@BayArea4Bernie) July 15, 2018

He didn’t just call the British rescuer in Thailand a pedophile. He called him a pedophile because he couldn’t imagine another reason for a white guy to be in Thailand. Which is a false assumption. Sometimes white guys visit Thailand to show off their useless submarines.

— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) July 15, 2018

TechCrunch has contacted SpaceX for comment on Musk’s remarks.

3D printed guns are now legal… What’s next?

Jon Stokes
Contributor

Jon Stokes is one of the founders of Ars Technica, an author, and a former Wired editor. He currently hacks ruby at Collective Idea, and runs AllOutdoor.com.

On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.

At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.

LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.

The legacy machine

Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.

Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.

The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)

LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.

Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.

The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.

All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.

The author with LMT Defense hardware.

Guns, drugs, and a million Karl Lewises

This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.

Except this isn’t what will happen.

Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.

The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.

In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.

Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.

Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.

Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.

In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.

This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.

Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm

First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.

The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.

Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.

As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.

Disney tech smooths out bad CG hair days

Disney is unequivocally the world’s leader in 3D simulations of hair — something of a niche talent in a way, but useful if you make movies like Tangled, where hair is basically the main character. A new bit of research from the company makes it easier for animators to have hair follow their artistic intent while also moving realistically.

The problem Disney Research aimed to solve was a compromise that animators have had to make when making the hair on characters do what the scene requires. While the hair will ultimately be rendered in glorious high-definition and with detailed physics, it’s too computationally expensive to do that while composing the scene.

Should a young warrior in her tent be wearing her hair up or down? Should it fly out when she turns her head quickly to draw attention to the movement, or stay weighed down so the audience isn’t distracted? Trying various combinations of these things can eat up hours of rendering time. So, like any smart artist, they rough it out first:

“Artists typically resort to lower-resolution simulations, where iterations are faster and manual edits possible,” reads the paper describing the new system. “But unfortunately, the parameter values determined in this way can only serve as an initial guess for the full-resolution simulation, which often behaves very different from its coarse counterpart when the same parameters are used.”

The solution proposed by the researchers is basically to use that “initial guess” to inform a high-resolution simulation of just a handful of hairs. These “guide” hairs act as feedback for the original simulation, bringing a much better idea of how the rest will act when fully rendered.

The guide hairs will cause hair to clump as in the upper right, while faded affinities or an outline-based guide (below, left and right) would allow for more natural motion if desired.

And because there are only a couple of them, their finer simulated characteristics can be tweaked and re-tweaked with minimal time. So an artist can fine-tune a flick of the ponytail or a puff of air on the bangs to create the desired effect, and not have to trust to chance that it’ll look like that in the final product.

This isn’t a trivial thing to engineer, of course, and much of the paper describes the schemes the team created to make sure that no weirdness occurs because of the interactions of the high-def and low-def hair systems.

It’s still very early: it isn’t meant to simulate more complex hair motions like twisting, and they want to add better ways of spreading out the affinity of the bulk hair with the special guide hairs (as seen at right). But no doubt there are animators out there who can’t wait to get their hands on this once it gets where it’s going.

Machine learning boosts Swiss startup’s shot at human-powered land speed record

The current world speed record for riding a bike down a straight, flat road was set in 2012 by a Dutch team, but the Swiss have a plan to topple their rivals — with a little help from machine learning. An algorithm trained on aerodynamics could streamline their bike, perhaps cutting air resistance by enough to set a new record.

Currently the record is held by Sebastiaan Bowier, who in 2012 set a record of 133.78 km/h, or just over 83 mph. It’s hard to imagine how his bike, which looked more like a tiny landbound rocket than any kind of bicycle, could be significantly improved on.

But every little bit counts when records are measured down a hundredth of a unit, and anyway, who knows but that some strange new shape might totally change the game?

To pursue this, researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Computer Vision Laboratory developed a machine learning algorithm that, trained on 3D shapes and their aerodynamic qualities, “learns to develop an intuition about the laws of physics,” as the university’s Pierre Baqué said.

“The standard machine learning algorithms we use to work with in our lab take images as input,” he explained in an EPFL video. “An image is a very well-structured signal that is very easy to handle by a machine-learning algorithm. However, for engineers working in this domain, they use what we call a mesh. A mesh is a very large graph with a lot of nodes that is not very convenient to handle.”

Nevertheless, the team managed to design a convolutional neural network that can sort through countless shapes and automatically determine which should (in theory) provide the very best aerodynamic profile.

“Our program results in designs that are sometimes 5-20 percent more aerodynamic than conventional methods,” Baqué said. “But even more importantly, it can be used in certain situations that conventional methods can’t. The shapes used in training the program can be very different from the standard shapes for a given object. That gives it a great deal of flexibility.”

That means that the algorithm isn’t just limited to slight variations on established designs, but it also is flexible enough to take on other fluid dynamics problems like wing shapes, windmill blades or cars.

The tech has been spun out into a separate company, Neural Concept, of which Baqué is the CEO. It was presented today at the International Conference on Machine Learning in Stockholm.

A team from the Annecy University Institute of Technology will attempt to apply the computer-honed model in person at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge in Nevada this September — after all, no matter how much computer assistance there is, as the name says, it’s still powered by a human.

The U.S. and ZTE reach a deal that will lift export ban

The United States government has made a deal with Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE that, once completed, will lift the ban preventing the company from working with American suppliers. The agreement eases tensions in the U.S.-China trade war because the seven-year denial order, which the Trump administration imposed in April after ZTE violated sanctions against North Korea and Iran, was a major point of contention between the two countries.

Our statement on #ZTE and the escrow agreement: pic.twitter.com/w0Bbej1mAU

— U.S. Commerce Dept. (@CommerceGov) July 11, 2018

According to a statement from the Commerce Department, once ZTE completes a $400 million escrow payment, the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) will lift the ban. The Commerce Department says “the ZTE settlement represents the toughest penalty and strictest compliance regime the Department has ever imposed in such a case. It will deter future bad actors and ensure the Department is able to protect the United States from those that would do us harm.”

Many U.S. lawmakers are still concerned about the security repercussions of the deal, however, and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week that could potentially restore some of the penalties imposed on ZTE.

The denial order was imposed because the Commerce Department claimed that ZTE violated U.S. laws against selling equipment containing American technology to Iran and North Korea, and not only failed to follow the terms of a 2017 agreement with the Department of Justice, but also lied to the U.S. The ban cut off access to several of ZTE’s key suppliers, including Qualcomm, and was severe enough that it was described as a “death penalty” for the company, which reportedly expected to lose $3 billion as a result.

But ZTE quickly became a pawn in the U.S-China trade wars and the Trump administration said in May that the company could continue buying from U.S. suppliers if it paid a fine of at least $1.3 billion and replaced its senior management and board. ZTE’s new management team was put into place last week, with new CEO Xu Ziyang promising stronger compliance procedures.

Aspire Capital offers fast finance for SMEs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s digital economy is tipped to grow more than six-fold to reach more than $200 billion per year, according to a report co-authored by Google, with e-commerce accounting for the dominant share. The emergence of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Lazada and U.S.-listed Shopee have enabled online entrepreneurship across the region, but still financial support for online sellers, who are basically SMEs, is lagging.

That’s where Singapore-based Aspire Capital, a six-month-old organization focused on speedy SME lending, is hoping to make a difference.

The company certainly has opportunity. With a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers and a rising middle class, Southeast Asia is increasingly an attractive market for businesses of all kind, and online companies in particular. Chinese giants Alibaba and Tencent have long devoted significant resources to the region where, like India, they see significant growth potential. E-commerce is the clear winner, in terms of size, with the e-Conomy SEA report — a joint research project between Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — forecasting e-commerce revenue will hit $88 billion by 2025 from $10.9 billion in 2017.

Data from the e-Conomy SEA report

The crux of its problem is that online sellers who use Lazada, Shopee or other platforms that are forgoing profit in order to grow, are ironically less able to scale their business since there are few ‘e-commerce friendly’ financing options.

That problem became apparent to Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli during a four-year stint with Lazada Singapore where, as CMO, he identified a financing disconnect for Lazada merchants.

“I saw the problem while trying to rally small businesses trying to grow in the digital economy,” Baronchelli told TechCrunch in an interview.

“The problem is really about providing working capital to small business owners. We started with online sellers, but we have expanded a bit as we see demand. There are 65 million small businesses in Southeast Asia, that’s ten times more than the U.S. so we see so much potential,” he added.

Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli pictured while at Lazada

Today, Aspire Capital covers Singapore where it has expanded beyond e-commerce merchants to cover other things of SMEs who seek loans, primarily for working capital as Baronchelli explains. So far, he added, it has served loans to over 100 businesses. Typically, its spread goes from as low as SG$5,000 to up to SG$100,000, that’s around $3,600-$73,500 in U.S. terms.

The company was founded in early 2018 and already it has done plenty. It was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2018 cohort and it has closed a $9 million seed round to kick its business off with the working capital that it needs itself.

That round included a range of investors such as Europe-based Hummingbird, New York’s Mark II Capital, ex-Sequoia partner Yinglan Tan’s Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator.

The principle behind the business is to make business financing quick and simple, Baronchelli said.

So rather than stacks of paperwork, SME owners fill out online forms and get a response the same day. Large parts of the application and review process are automated using a proprietary risk assessment engine, but Baronchelli said that ultimately a human makes the final call on whether to accept the application or not.

“We want to really be fast,” Baronchelli explained. “SMEs need quick decisions, they cannot wait three months for a bank. They need super quick, fast and no paperwork.”

The application process for companies seeking loans from Aspire Capital

He paints an example of online merchants who typically buy inventory from China which is sold customers within three to six months. If the business has a track record, it can take a loan to increase its stock and grow its revenues and profit, he explained.

Singapore may be a key market in Southeast Asia, but with a population of just over five million expansion is top of mind for Aspire. Baronchelli said he is doing due diligence on the first market expansion which he expects will happen before the end of this year. He expects that the business will raise further capital, perhaps towards the tail end of this year, which would be used to expand more aggressively across Southeast Asia in 2019.

He is also occupied building out the team. Right now, Aspire has ten people but he is keen to bring in ten to fifteen more staff, particularly on the tech side of the business.

Grab co-founder says Southeast Asia still has plenty of competition despite Uber’s exit

Grab may have bought itself a dominant position in Southeast Asia through its acquisition of Uber’s regional business, but the company still believes there’s competition in the ride-hailing space despite what consumers may feel.

But Grab customers aren’t alone in feeling that the Grab-Uber deal is detrimental, the Competition and Consumer Commission Singapore (CCCS) last week expressed concern that the tie-up is hurting consumers and that a lack of competition will reduce innovation. The watchdog is in the process of an investigation into the deal which could see it dish out fines for Uber and Grab, or potentially unwind the deal in Singapore altogether.

Despite that threat looming, Grab co-founder Hooi Ling Tan told an audience at the Rise conference in Hong Kong that the market, and ride-hailing more generally, remains competitive in Southeast Asia despite Uber’s exit.

“There’s still a lot of existing competition, we don’t foresee it ending ever.. and to be honest we don’t want it to because we continue to learn from them,” Tan said. “We continue to learn from alternative players who take alternative strategies [and] operational tactics.”

Go-Jek, the billion-dollar firm that dominates Indonesia and is plotting a regional expansion to fill Uber’s void, may be the most obvious rival, but Tan said that Grab is competing with more basic forces.

“From day one, our primary competitor has never been other ride-hailing apps, it’s actually been what [Grab CEO Anthony Tan] calls the hand — the hand that waves down a taxi on the side of the road,” Tan, who is not related to the Grab CEO, said. “That market is huge, [and it is something] we’re trying to provide an alternative service to because it isn’t exactly efficient as is.”

10 July 2018; Tan Hooi Ling, left, Co-Founder, Grab, and Kara Swisher, Executive Editor, Recode, on Centre Stage during day one of RISE 2018 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / RISE via Sportsfile

CCCS, the Singaporean watchdog, doesn’t agree, however. Last week it expressed concern that no other taxi apps rival Grab and that a prohibitive barrier of cost and network effects prevents new entrants from competing squarely. A lack of competition has already led to Grab raising prices, it argued, although Grab has denied doing so.

Tan didn’t comment directly on the regulator’s comments, but she did say at a subsequent press briefing that regulating ride-hailing is a tricky process.

“We’re all trying to figure out what’s the right way to balance the needs of the consumer and need to create an environment that’s supportive of innovation,” she said. “Together we’re trying to figure things out, we make mistakes together but are 100 percent combined in terms of our intent.”

An entity with which Grab is more unexpectedly combined with is Uber, and Tan’s comments certainly paint the relationship between the once-sworn enemies as a very pally one.

“The partnership makes a tonne of sense to us because we saw [Uber] as really true potential partners,” Tan said. “For example some of the things that they’ve been helping us a lot on… they have Uber Eats in Southeast Asia, which we didn’t have, and since we’ve helped take over their operations we’ve helped them expand it from two countries to six countries right now with a bunch more growth expansion plans.

“They’ve also had some of the best technology know-how, whether it’s mapping or just basic scaling infrastructure, those are some of the other things we’ve continued learned from them,” she added.

Tan said that Uber and Grab are educating each other on how their respective businesses are developing, and on that note Grab today went beyond ride-hailing with the launch of its “super app” that integrates third-party services. Uber has embraced scooters with its acquisition of Jump Bikes, but it will take some imagining for the ride-hailing giant to adopt non-transportation services like Grab’s push into payment and financial services.

But then that’s entirely the point of its Southeast Asia exit. It’s widely-believed that Uber left Southeast Asia’s loss-making market to clean its balance sheet ahead of a future IPO. Nonetheless, it got a solid 27.5 percent share in Grab in return and with the Singapore-based firm in the process of raising capital at a valuation of over $10 billion, Uber is already reaping the rewards on paper.

Grab raised $1 billion from Toyota last month and that is the first tranche of a larger fundraising effort to support the one-stop “super app” strategy in Southeast Asia’s post-Uber world.

Elon Musk says SpaceX is working on a kid-size submarine to extract those boys in Thailand

Over the last couple of days, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk has been tweeting about how to potentially help the 12 young soccer players and their coach who began exploring a cave in Thailand on June 23rd, quickly becoming trapped there by rising floodwaters.

Now, suggests Musk, working with cave experts in Thailand, he and engineers from his rocket company, SpaceX, have decided on the “primary path” to attempt to freeing the group: a “tiny, kid-size submarine” that uses the “liquid oxygen transfer tube” of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket as the hull.

It’s “[l]ight enough to be carried by two divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust,” Musk tweeted a couple of hours ago, adding that construction on the vehicle will be “complete in about 8 hours” after which it will be sent on a 17-hour flight to Thailand. (SpaceX is based in Hawthorne, California, outside of L.A.)

Whether the creation is made and shipped out remains to be seen, but Musk suggested on Twitter that it would be “[f]itted for a kid or small adult to minimize open air” with “[s]egmented compartments to place rocks or dive weights” and “adjust buoyancy.”

Musk had tweeted last night that both SpaceX and his much newer, tunnel boring company, Boring Company, would be sending engineers to Thailand today to see how they could help.

If SpaceX is able to create an escape pod that works, Musk — who enjoys a kind of cult status in the business world for building superior products in challenging, capital-intensive industries — will only further burnish his reputation as a kind of Tony Stark figure. Indeed, his Twitter feed is currently filled with adoring comments relating to his interest in rescuing the soccer team.

It’s a daunting challenge. As reported in the New York Times, the cave complex has never been fully mapped and it features different waterways that don’t appear to be directly linked. Rescue attempts have already led to one fatality, that of former Thai Navy SEAL diver Saman Gunan, who brought tanks of air to the boys and their coach, then lost consciousness in one of its passageways on his swim out of the complex.

Some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand. Iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try. Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull. Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Construction complete in about 8 hours, then 17 hour flight to Thailand

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Update: The original version of this story included a short reference to a contest that Musk is not involved in. Thanks to a reader for flagging this for us.

California’s new online cancellation law benefits many disgruntled subscribers in other places, too

A new California law that went into effect on July 1 will make it much easier for people to cancel subscriptions online. Since the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), includes all services that have paying customers in the state, it will also benefit dissatisfied customers in many places outside California.

The legislation, California Senate Bill No. 313, covers “any business that makes an automatic renewal or continuous service offer to a consumer in this state,” so that includes a very wide range of services, including newspapers and magazines, subscription boxes, streaming services and more. Not only that, but if you made the subscription online, the law stipulates that you are also allowed to cancel it online. In other words, you can no longer be forced to call a customer service phone number to stop the service, a task that is usually much more frustrating and time-consuming than signing up in the first place.

The bill also requires more transparency in how companies present promotional offers. For example, if they lure in users with a free trial or gift, then they also need to include a “clear and conspicuous explanation” in the offer of how much customers will be charged after the trial ends or if the pricing will change. It also needs to tell you how to cancel (and actually allow you to do so) before you are charged.

If you sign up for a subscription at a promotional or discounted price that is only valid for a certain amount of time, the company must get your consent again before charging your debit or credit card when the price returns to its normal rate.

According to Nieman Lab, many news organizations in California are already making changes to their systems to comply with the new law.