TC

Auto Added by WPeMatico

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli virtual reality startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative it is pouring $15 billion into with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”

Hackers conquer Tesla’s in-car web browser and win a Model 3

A pair of security researchers dominated Pwn2Own, the annual high-profile hacking contest, taking home $375,000 in prizes including a Tesla Model 3 — their reward for successfully exposing a vulnerability in the electric vehicle’s infotainment system.

Tesla handed over its new Model 3 sedan to Pwn2Own this year, the first time a car has been included in the competition. Pwn2Own is in its 12th year and run by Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative. ZDI has awarded more than $4 million over the lifetime of the program.

The pair of hackers Richard Zhu and Amat Cam, known as team Fluoroacetate, “thrilled the assembled crowd” as they entered the vehicle, according to ZDI, which noted that after a few minutes of setup, they successfully demonstrated their research on the Model 3 internet browser.

The pair used a JIT bug in the renderer to display their message — and won the prize, which included the car itself. In the most simple terms, a JIT, or just-in-time bug, bypasses memory randomization data that normally would keep secrets protected.

Tesla told TechCrunch it will release a software update to fix the vulnerability discovered by the hackers.

“We entered Model 3 into the world-renowned Pwn2Own competition in order to engage with the most talented members of the security research community, with the goal of soliciting this exact type of feedback. During the competition, researchers demonstrated a vulnerability against the in-car web browser,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. “There are several layers of security within our cars which worked as designed and successfully contained the demonstration to just the browser, while protecting all other vehicle functionality. In the coming days, we will release a software update that addresses this research. We understand that this demonstration took an extraordinary amount of effort and skill, and we thank these researchers for their work to help us continue to ensure our cars are the most secure on the road today.”

That’s a wrap! Congrats to @fluoroacetate on winning Master of Pwn. There total was $375,000 (plus a vehicle) for the week. Superb work from this great duo. pic.twitter.com/Q7Fd7vuEoJ

— Zero Day Initiative (@thezdi) March 22, 2019

Pwn2Own’s spring vulnerability research competition, Pwn2Own Vancouver, was held March 20 to 22 and  featured five categories, including web browsers, virtualization software, enterprise applications, server-side software and the new automotive category.

Pwn2Own awarded a total of $545,000 for 19 unique bugs in Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Windows, VMware Workstation, Mozilla Firefox, and Tesla.

Tesla has had a public relationship with the hacker community since 2014 when the company launched its first bug bounty program. And it’s grown and evolved ever since.

Last year, the company increased the maximum reward payment from $10,000 to $15,000 and added its energy products as well. Today, Tesla’s vehicles and all directly hosted servers, services and applications are now in scope in its bounty program

Here are the 88 companies that launched at YC’s W19 Demo Day 2

Today was the second half of Y Combinator’s two-day Demo Day for its Winter 2019 class. Over 85 startups pitched on stage yesterday, and another huge batch launched today.

Previously held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, this YC Demo Day instead took over a massive warehouse in San Francisco. Like yesterday’s pitches, today’s were split across two stages (“Pioneer” and “Mission”) running in parallel — so even if you were there, you couldn’t see everything alone.

Here are all of the companies that launched today, and our notes from their presentations.

Pioneer Stage:

YSplit: Splitting utility bills and other recurring payments with roommates or loved ones is a huge pain where one person has to front the money and then nag the others to get paid back. YSplit offers virtual debit cards that make it easy to automatically split bills and collect cash from users’ bank accounts. By charging a 2 percent interchange fee to merchants, YSplit could build a solid business from the 26 million shared homes in the US alone.

The Juggernaut: A subscription publication focusing on South Asian stories. They hire freelance writers, publish one story per day, and charge users $5 a month. We wrote about The Juggernaut here.

 

Searchlight: Reference checks can screen out bad hires, yet many businesses wait until the very end of the interview cycle or don’t do extensive checks. Searchlight offers reference checks as a service. Job candidates invite their references to submit testimonials, which Searchlight collects and organizes into reports about someone’s work style, ideal environment, and skillset. Searchlight earns an average of $250 per job hopes to investigate all 30 million skilled hires in the US per year.

Allo: Connects local parents and helps them help each other with things like babysitting and errand-running through a “Karma” point system. Average user returns 12x per week.

 

Coursedog: Universities employ full time scheduling administrators to place faculty into courses and rooms. Coursedog automates this process by plugging into a school’s data to eliminate this busy work. Coursedog already has 8 university clients paying over $100,000 for a three-year contract. Next it wants to move into modernizing the process of booking spaces on campus as well as instructor and tuition payments.

 

AI Insurance: Cloud-based software for insurance claims. By moving things to the cloud rather than filing cabinets, the founders say they can save “thousands of hours per claim”. Their goal, once they’ve got enough claim data, is to use AI to determine things like how much a claim might ultimately cost.

 

Nebullam: Growing crops indoors can produce more food per acre that’s not dependent on weather, but the problems are the high labor costs and payback times for expensive equipment. Nebullam wants to be the John Deere of indoor farming. It sells a vertical farming cube and other equipment that can maximize yield and minimize costs. With a CEO who grew up on a farm, it’s already managed a 3 year payback time for its equipment vs an industry standard for 7 years.

Pronto: Ride-sharing for smaller cities in Latin America. Co-founder Miguel Martinez Cano says that the Uber model doesn’t work in these cities, as would-be riders don’t have credit cards and instead want to pay cash. Drivers pay a subscription fee of $59-99 per month. Currently doing 62,000 trips per month.

 

LEAH Labs: People spend $500 million per year on chemotherapy for their dogs, even though the treatment only extends their life temporarily without curing their disease. LEAH Labs wants to cure B-cell lymphoma cancer in dogs using Car T cells, a powerful new treatment method. There have been $20 billion in recent Car T cell company exits, but none of the big players are focused on dogs. LEAH Labs falls under the USDA instead of the FDA, so it requires less investment to get approved, which translate into $5,000 treatments.

 

Balto: A platform for fantasy sports league managers to make money from their work. As fantasy sports betting moves toward legality in more states, they want to capture the audience already making bets through other means.

 

Visly: Developers waste a ton of time rebuilding the same product for iOS, Android, and web and Visly says only 15 percent of developers use tools to simplify this. Visly’s cross-platform UI development suite makes it quick and easy to create consistent apps for different devices. The CEO worked on Facebook’s version called Yoga, but it always failed. Visly has fixed those problems so developers can focus on their invention, not porting it to other operating systems.

 

Mudrex: Lets people do algorithmic trading without programming knowledge, beginning with cryptocurrency. Last week, they saw a trading volume of $150,000. They charge users $300 a year for access to a drag and drop interface for building trading models, which the user can then test against historical trading data.

Brain Key: Diagnosis for brain diseases using 3D MRI data. Whereas many doctors use 2D slices from MRIs for diagnosis, Brain Key says they’re able to analyze data in 3D to do things like identify Parkinsons subtypes 35% more accurately than experts. They’re aiming to be in hospitals worldwide within 2 years.

 

Switchboard: It’s tough to efficiently match available trucks with freight needing to be shipped if you don’t know where the trucks are. Switchboard’s on-board truck sensors collect real time data on a truck’s location, destination, and more. Switchboard’s trucking freight marketplace launched three months ago and is already gathering data that could unlock more revenue streams.

Shef: Two months ago, California passed the first law in the country legalizing the sale of home cooked food. Shef creates a marketplace where home chefs can find nearby customers. Shef’s meals cost around $6.50 compared to $20 per meal for traditional food delivery, and the startup takes a 22 percent cut of every transaction. It’s been growing 50 percent month over month thanks to deals with large property management companies that offer the marketplace as a perk to their residents. Shef wants to be the Airbnb of home cooked food.

Qwest: Lets people pay money to skip lines at venues like clubs and bars. They’re currently at 10 venues in 2 cities, and say they should be at 100 venues in 6 cities this year. They aim to expand to events like music festivals and sporting events.

 

Circumvent Pharmaceuticals: Brain disease Batten, the Alzheimer’s of children, has no adequate treatment. Circumvent says its treatment can replace the missing enzyme at the root of the disease and has already been shown to be effective in mice. If it can get through expedited approval thanks to incentives for treating rare diseases, Circumvent wants to sell its medicine for $100,000 which is covered by insurance. Once it clears that hurdle, Circumvent will be much closer to working on Alzheimer’s treatments which could be hugely lucrative and a big win for humanity.

Withfriends: Membership programs for small businesses like bars, theaters, and barbershops. So far they have 80 small businesses on the platform, with over 5000 members working out to $400,000 in revenue. By integrating right into PoS machines, they say 15% of customers convert into members.

 

Askdata: Non-technical employees rarely use company data because it’s difficult to find and understand. Askdata offers a natural language search engine for internal data that translates words into SQL queries. Making data conveniently accessible could help businesses make better decisions.

 

Modern Labor: Pays people $10,000 to learn to code in exchange for 15% of their income for 2 years thereafter. Founder Francis Larson says Modern Labor’s first group of students is going through the program now, with 10,000 students on a waiting list.

NALA: Making mobile payments in Africa can require an internet connection and typing in a complex 46-digit code like the one above. NALA makes a mobile money app for easily paying friends and merchants as well as buying Internet airtime to capture the $300 billion in yearly mobile payments in Africa. Co-founder Benjamin Fernandes says NALA is 7X faster than competitors and has 5,000 active users. NALA earns money off commissions on airtime and bill payments, interest on savings, sending leads to insurance companies and other services. 

 

Vice Lotteries: A lottery platform that’s trying to “take the loss” out of lotteries. Amongst other things, they limit the bets users are allowed to make based on their wealth to prevent betting too much. Founder Matthew Curtis notes that their model is currently not legal, but they’re actively trying to change that.

 

GoLinks: Long, complex URLs make it tough to access internal company tools. GoLinks makes links short and easy to remember for clients like Reddit and Lyft. Its tool can programmatically generate URLs that are single sign-on compliant, and teams get a dashboard of analytics. Whether employees are setting up a new computer or working while traveling, GoLinks means they won’t be locked out.

Allure Systems:  Fashion brands spend $8 billion per year on models and photographers. Allure Systems uses AI to programatically produce apparel images for shopping sites. The technology can take one photo of a jacket and show it in a variety of poses on a range of models across different sizes. By increasing shopping conversion rates by 14 percent, the team has already racked up $1.4 million in annual recurring revenue with an average SAAS contract costing over $200,000 per year.

Spiral Genetics: Software built to compare large sets of human genome data to help cure diseases. Founder Adina Mangubat says existing software can’t analyze genome data at the massive scale it’ll be at in the coming years. They’ve generated $250K in revenue so far, with $1M in Letters of Intent.

 

Rune: Voice chat and automated friend/squad finder for players on mobile games (like Fortnite, PUBG.) In 10 days since launch, the company says it’s got 5,000 users who spend an average of 30 minutes per day on the platform. Friendships are handled within Rune, allowing users to switch from game to game.

 

Truora:  Truora offers fast and reliable background checks for Latin America at $3 per check. Truora also collects reports of fraud by workers from its clients to create a valuable database employers will pay to access. It already has Uber, Rappi, and other top regional marketplaces using their service.

Aura Vision: Like Google Analytics for physical stores. By pulling a video feed from “any camera” in a store, Aura provides customer age, gender, and how long customers have lingered with a method they say is anonymous and doesn’t require facial recognition. The company founders say they’ll charge stores an average of $9,600 per year.

 

GeoPredict: GeoPredict aims to remove the middlemen from oil and gas real estate sales, and use AI and historical data to help evaluate acreage. They transacted roughly $100,000 last week, and charge a 5% fee.

 

Union Apartment: It’s hard for international students to find housing if they don’t speak the language, don’t have local friends, and might not even have a bank account. Union Apartment offers furnished co-living apartments for international students starting with those from China. Beyond dwellings, Union Apartment provides events like karaoke nights and services like help with banking. It’s already profitable with $130,000 in gross profit in February which makes this a $24 billion gross profit potential business.

 

jet.law: Charges flat legal fees for employment litigation, using court records to predict the workload and how much they should charge up front (rather than charging by billable hours). Co-founder Jesse Unruh previously worked in big business litigation, while co-founder Kyle Harris was a manufacturing design engineer at Apple.

Friendshop:  Friendshop lets you recruit friends to buy with you to get deals. Friendshop wants to be the US version of Pinduoduo, a $24 billion Chinese group buying company. And after its virality helps Friendshop grow in beauty, it plans to move into other consumer goods businesses.

 

Pulse Active Stations Network: Health kiosks for India, meant to be installed in train stations. Co-founder Joginder Tanikella says that there are 600,000 preventable deaths in India as many in the region don’t get regular doctor checkups. “But everyone takes train,” he says. Their in-station kiosk measures 21 health parameters. The company made $28,000 in revenue last month. Charging $1 per test, Tanikella says each machine pays for itself within 3 months. In the future, the kiosks will allow them to sell insurance and refer users to doctors.

 

Pyxai: Employers don’t have scalable ways to screen for soft skills and culture fit. Pyxai gives job applicants a 30 minute quiz that it analyzes with natural language processing to assess what they can do and if they’ll mesh with existing staff. Deemphasizing resumes could decrease discrimination in hiring. Pyxai charges $6 per screening and wants to be part of how all 36 million knowledge job openings get filled.

 

Mage: An app built specifically for buying and selling cards from Magic: The Gathering — the largest trading card game in the world. Aiming to do for Magic what GOAT did for shoe resales, their app scans, recognizes, and prices cards and helps users to list them. The company says their average customer spends $120 per month on Magic cards.

 

Geosite: Businesses that need satellite imagery have to piece it together from 40 providers, manually download the content, and upload it to their system. Geosite is a marketplace for immediately usable spatial imagery. Clients pay an annual fee, and Geosite already has $3 million in contracts with the US Air Force.

 

Community Phone: Community Phone aims to be a friendlier wireless carrier, aggregating three existing wireless networks behind a company focused on a positive customer service experience. Co-Founder James Graham says they’re currently seeing $230k in annual recurring revenue, and are profitable with a 45% margin.

Superb AI: To build artificial intelligence, you need accurately labeled training data, but services like Mechanical Turk can be slow and inaccurate. Superb AI has built an AI that assists in the labeling process to speed it up 10X, and creates its own in-house AI algorithms. Superb AI has already done $1 million in revenue in the past 7 months. For most businesses to keep up with the AIs from Google, Facebook, and the other tech giants, they’ll need help generating training data that Superb can provide.

Termius: Termius makes an SSH client that works on desktop and mobile and already has 11,000 paying customers including employees at Disney and NASA. The freemium business model is propelled by its #1 ranking in app stores for “SSH”. Next, Termius wants to expand to teams to become a full collaboration platform.

 

Verto FX: Helps businesses in Africa obtain foreign currencies needed to work with international companies. They currently support the exchange of 18 currencies. The company has seen $26M transaction volume in 5 months of private beta, with $30k monthly revenue. Co-founders Anthony Oduwole and Ola Oyetayo both have backgrounds in building technology platforms for large banks.

Inito: This app lets you measure fertility hormones using a hardware dongle that plugs into your phone. Inito can perform a hormone test and use that data to diagnose and treat conditions, and aid in planning procedures like IVF and IUI. Inito claims it can help people get pregnant faster while earning a 65 percent margin on its hardware, and that its data could help diagnose illnesses earlier.

Woke: Finances ad campaigns for budding eCommerce brands and helps them grow in exchange for a cut of the profits. In one month, they’ve onboarded 4 merchants who are giving them 50% of profits on each sale.

 

 

PNOE: They’ve built a compact breath analysis device for fitness facilities, to provide athletes with information about their cardiac/metabolic health. It’s $6,000, and is meant to replace massive $60,000 alternatives. Revenue is growing 40% per month. After fitness facilities, they aim to bring the device into healthcare centers to help with heart disease, obesity. and breathing problems.

Mission Stage:

WeatherCheck: Measures weather damage for insurance companies. The company has secured 4.7 million in annual bookings in the five months since it launched to help insurance carriers reduce their overall claims expense. To use the service, insurers upload data about their properties. WeatherCheck then monitors the weather and sends notifications to insurance companies, if, for example, a property has been damaged by hail.

 

EatGeek: After selling their last startup to GrubHub, the co-founders of Eatgeek are looking to help restaurants pull in more large-scale catering orders. Most restaurants aren’t focused on courting those looking to cater events; EatGeek opens them up to an audience of people looking specifically for these larger orders. The company takes a 20 percent commission on every order that moves through their systems, but they don’t have to worry about dealing with the food preparation or delivery.

 

Avo: Prevents human error when implementing analytics. The company says humans suck at implementing analytics. Their team of engineers and data scientists previously built QuizUp, a startup backed by Sequoia Capital that garnered 100 million users. Avo is currently being used by Skip Scooters, among other businesses.

 

Adventurous Co: Adventurous is building an augmented reality scavenger hunt that partners live actors with a mobile app that can create an interactive family activity that’s a lot more engaging than regular “screen time.” They’re launching in San Francisco with 45-60min experiences that cost $15 per person. We previously wrote about Adventurous here.

 

Globe: The startup, which has dubbed itself the “Coinbase for derivatives,” has built a cryptocurrency-derivative exchange that supports high-frequency trading. The platform allows crypto holders to trade global markets with bitcoin and grants users the same access to data leveraged by institutional investors.

 

XGenomes: XGenomes is aiming to revolutionize DNA sequencing with a low-cost, high-efficiency solution that saves time and money. The company’s solution involves laying out samples on glass slides, identifying individual sequences and using machine learning to stitch together the high resolution photos and turn these images into a full DNA sequence. The team from Oxford and Harvard say that the market XGenomes is targeting is now larger than $6.5 billion.

 

Habitat Logistics: A food delivery startup that doesn’t have a consumer mobile app but helps restaurants make deliveries. What sets them apart from competitors?  The company only delivers to restaurants that are within 10 minutes of a customer’s home, saving them time on long deliveries. Restaurants ping Habitat when they have delivery needs and the company sends a driver to complete the delivery. Habitat says they are growing 17 percent month over month, currently collecting $110,000 monthly revenue by charging restaurants per delivery.

 

WorkClout: WorkClout is building software to help manufacturers manage their operations in a cohesive product. The team says 56 percent of all manufacturers still manage their software on paper and Excel, WorkClout makes it much easier to spot inefficiencies and improve workflows. The team is focusing on customers in the packaging manufacturing space first, and is looking to tackle food and beverage companies and textile manufacturers next.

 

PadPiper: A marketplace for finding monthly housing and compatible roommates. The company helps interns find the right place to live, with the right roommates, partnering with big companies who need to help their interns navigate the housing market. The founders say they had to move 35 times in five years for academic reasons and were disappointed by Craigslist and other options. PadPiper has $10,000 in monthly revenue and says it’s growing 37 percent week-over-week.

 

DevFlight: DevFlight wants to revamp the business model for open-source software. They’re building a marketplace to pair open-sourced developer with companies. DevFlight works with the company and developers to create a plan that helps both parties understand the scope of the project. DevFlight takes a 25 percent transaction on the deals.

Handle.com: Automates the collection process of unpaid construction invoices. Construction companies are often forced to pay for their own jobs when customers are late on payments. According to Handle, there are $104 billion in unpaid construction invoices every year. Handle launched six weeks ago and is currently collecting $22,800 in monthly revenue. The founders previously launched an Andreessen Horowitz-backed company called Tenfold.

 

Gerostate Alpha: Gerostate Alpha is tackling human aging, an ambitious goal. The three co-founders are all academics at the Buck Institute where they’ve spent years researching aging. They’ve used their proprietary platform for drug discovery to quickly parse 90,000 compounds and identify 150 hits for further research.

 

Trestle: Founded by a former employee of Stripe, a fellow Y Combinator grad, Trestle provides companies a home page/easy-to-use intranet with profiles of each employee. The company is already working with Brex, Plaid and others to help employees feel less isolated and work more productively amongst each other.

Green Energy Exchange: Green Energy Exchange wants to give consumers a choice in where they get their energy. The virtual utility co. plans to let consumers choose where their renewable energy comes from — at least in the 12 states where that’s legal. The founder previously ran a large multi-billion dollar energy company and now wants to make choosing your energy supplier as easy as paying for Netflix by partnering directly with solar and wind generators. The startup is launching in Texas next month.

 

rct studio: Led by a team of YC alums behind Raven, an AI startup acquired by Baidu in 2017, rct studio is a creative studio for immersive and interactive film. The platform provides a real time “text to render “engine (so the text “A man sits on a sofa” would generate 3D imagery of a man sitting on a sofa) that supports mainstream 3D engines like Unity and Unreal, as well as a creative tool for film professionals to craft immersive and open-ended entertainment experiences called Morpheus Engine.

 

CredPal: CredPal is building a credit card company for Africa that looks to help the 200 million in Africa’s neglected middle class that lack access to formal credit, the startup says. The company hopes to become the next American Express and bring African consumers more convenience and freedom in how they purchase goods.

 

Calii: The company helps consumers in Latin America save money by directly connecting them to producers of fruits and vegetables. Cutting out the middlemen saves consumers lots of cash, say the founders. The Latin American companies are taking Chinese behemoth Pinduoduo’s business model and applying it to a different geography, like Rappi and Grin have done before them.

 

Nabis: Nabis is tackling the cannabis shipping and logistics business, working with suppliers to ship out goods to retailers reliably. It’s illegal for FedEx to ship weed so Nabis has swooped in and is helping ship and connect while taking cuts of the proceeds, a price the suppliers are willing to pay due to their 98 percent on-time shipping record.

 

Nettrons: A no-human-in-the-loop AI talent sourcer meant to make the recruiting process more efficient. The company has three paying companies who they’ve helped make six hires to date. Nettrons, founded by a pair of engineers, says their target market is worth $1 billion.

 

Fuzzbuzz: Fuzzing is the process of throwing mountains of invalid data at code to find bugs. Fuzzbuzz is looking to simplify the process of fuzzing for developers, taking a long complicated setup and turning it into a 30 minute process that automates the easy parts and connects with existing services like Jira, Github and Slack.

 

Interprime: Provides “Apple level” treasury services to startups. Startups are raising a lot of money with no way to manage it, says Interprime. They want to help these businesses by managing these big investments. They take a .25 percent advisory fee for all the investment they oversee. So far, they have $10 million in investment capital they are servicing.

Taali Foods: Taali Foods is looking to create a new healthy snack food, starting off with a popcorn replacement made from popped water lily seeds. The snacks ditch artificial flavoring, ingredients or preservatives and delivers serial snackers a healthier option with 67% less fat and 20% less calories than regular popcorn.

 

Gordian Software: An API for travel booking companies to sell seat selection and checked bags. Right now, Gordian is profitable and earning $65,000 per month offering online travel agencies tools to help them sell seating, baggage and other ancillary products. Gordian has three major pilots in the works, including one with lastminute.com.

 

Shiok Meats: A cell-based clean shrimp meat provider founded by a team of scientists. Compared to other shrimp on the market, Shiok says their cell-based shrimp meat is more sustainable and taste the same as regular shrimp. The shrimp meat is grown in bioreactors, similar to brewing beer. The startup is targeting the Asia-Pacific shrimp market, which it says is worth $25 billion.

 

Hatch: Hatch is looking to keep the conversations between franchise businesses and their customers moving along and driving sales all the while. The team is focusing on text, email and voice automation to push revenue at their customers which includes Jeep, Ashley Homestore and Rent-A-Center. The company is profitable and earning $119,000 per month.

 

Bot Orange: A customer communication system built on WeChat that integrates sales, marketing and more. WeChat currently offers no tools to companies to manage customers. Bot Orange will be that customer management tool within the app, helping businesses manage various channels without having to navigate another third-party tool.

 

Postscript: Postscript is working with online commerce brands to contact customers on smartphones via SMS. The startup wants to be a Mailchimp for texts, automating conversations between mobile-savvy millennial consumers and companies that are increasingly focused on direct-to-consumer and subscription models. We wrote about Postscript on TechCrunch here.

 

Tailor-ED: Launched by a pair of Stanford grads, the startup helps teachers create tailored lesson plans by sending short quizzes to groups of students to figure out the best lesson plans for those students. In the last four weeks, 2,500 students have received lessons from Tailor-ED. Operating under a freemium model, the company says they are targeting a $1.5 billion market.


Wallets Africa: African debit cards often don’t let users pay for international services like Netflix. Wallets Africa is building a digital bank that brings support to many of these online purchases via a partnership with Visa. The team is currently processing $3.5 million in purchases every month.

 

AuroraQ: A developer of a “practical” quantum computer. The founder has a Ph.D. in quantum physics and says AuroraQ will be the “Dell of quantum computing,” building integrated computers from quantum components, which is must less costly.

 

Probably Genetic: Probably Genetic is selling direct-to-consumer DNA tests, aiming to help Americans diagnose whether they are one of the 15 million undiagnosed people in the country that have a rare genetic disease. The co-founders say that on average it takes people more than 7 years to get diagnosed, and Probably Genetic hopes to change that with their $1,200 test which they will be launching in 12 weeks.

 

Viosera Therapeutics: Uses AI to predict and block drug resistance in cancer and bacteria. The startup has treated its solution with mice infected with MRSA and were able to cure 100 percent of the infected mice. The company is targeting MRSA patients initially with its drug discovery platform. Viosera says it is beginning clinical trials in the next six months.

 

Upsolve: Upsolve wants to helps low-income individuals file for bankruptcy more easily. The non-profit service gets referral fees from pointing non low-income families to bankruptcy lawyers and is able to offer the service for free. The company says that medical bills, layoffs and predatory loans can leave low-income families in dire situations and that in the last 6 months, their non-profit has alleviated customers from $24 million in debt.

 

AllSome:  Virtual warehouses and fulfillment for online sellers in Southeast Asia. How it works: customers ship their inventory to AllSome’s warehouse space, and AllSome handles quality assurance, storage, labelling, packaging and shipping. AllSome’s founders say the company is profitable.

 

BearBuzz: BearBuzz is building an influencer marketplace that moves things along much more quickly than today’s negotiation slog. They’ve standardized ad formats and can automatically verify the video ads via image and voice recognition. The team plans to make money by facilitating these quicker connections and taking 25 percent of adspend.

 

Point: A digital bank offering a debit card with rewards and a better user experience. The company is going live with virtual debit cards and checking accounts next month. 

 

MyScoot: MyScoot wants to help urban millennials make friends in India with their platform for home-hosted social events. Users can search the service and pay to attend events. MyScoot looks to keep things safe for attendees through background checks, peer reviews and what they’re calling a “social trust scoring algorithm.” They have had more than 1000 bookings through their app, with 60% of users returning after booking their first event.

 

Memfault: A developer of tools for engineers at embedded hardware companies that they say are as good as tools available for mobile engineers. Memfault is used for deployment, monitoring and analytics. So far, they have four customers and $5,500 in monthly recurring revenue.

 

Board: Board is a mortgage company that lets home buyers lock down a house with an all-cash offer. Cash buyers are 4 times more likely to win in a bidding war and often save tens of thousands off of a property’s purchase price compared to those with mortgages. They’re looking to be a cash buyer for the 80 percent of people who need a mortgage, by approving people for these massive loans and then making 2 percent off the mortgage.

 

Portal Entryways: Portal automatically opens doors for wheelchair users and keeps them open until they’ve gone through. Many existing accessibility buttons are out of reach, or too far from doors to be helpful; Portal uses a smartphone app on the user’s phone to control these existing buttons (modified with Portal’s hardware), effectively hitting the button for them. Portal is focusing on public places with many doors at first, like universities and malls.   We wrote about Portal Entryways on TechCrunch here.

 

Blueberry Medical: A pediatric telemedicine company that provides medical care instantly to families. Blueberry provides constant contact, the ability to talk to a pediatrician 24/7 and at-home testing kits for a total of $8 per month. They’ve just completed a paid consumer pilot and were able to resolve 50 percent of issues without in-person care. They’ve partnered with insurance providers to reduce ER visits.

 

Maitian.ai: Maitian is building the next generation of vending machines, taking notes from the hotel mini-bar fridge and allowing businesses to sell food in a way that’s friendlier than the average vending machine. Users swipe their credit card, open the door to the machine and pick out what they want. The team is focusing on South East Asia and has launched in 2 locations.

 

Emi Labs: Is developing a virtual assistant for human resources workers that automates the hiring process for low-skilled jobs. The startup counts Burger King and PwC as customers, with a total market size of $2.4 billion. Emi Labs improves the candidate experience by making the hiring process more personalized to them using AI.

 

Latchel: Latchel is building a maintenance platform for property managements that helps them free up their time by processing requests and dispatching contractors to fix the issues. Latchel makes up to $10 per unit per month for property managers and charges a 10 percent referral fee to contractors when they source them for jobs.

 

Alpaca: Is developing an API for free stock trading to replace legacy software. The founders say Alpaca’s commission-free stock trading API is the first and only broker dealer that understands developers, and it allows customers to build and trade with real-time market data free of cost.

 

 

Lyft’s imminent IPO could value the company at $23B

Ridehailing firm Lyft will make its Nasdaq debut as early as next week at a valuation of up to $23 billion, The Wall Street Journal reports. The business will reportedly price its shares at between $62 and $68 apiece, raising roughly $2 billion in the process.

With a $600 million financing, Lyft was valued at $15.1 billion in June.

Lyft filed paperwork for an initial public offering in December, mere hours before its competitor Uber did the same. The car-sharing behemoths have been in a race to the public markets, igniting a pricing war ahead of their respected IPOs in a big to impress investors.

Uber’s IPO may top $120 billion, though others have more modestly pegged its initial market cap at around $90 billion. Uber has not made its S-1 paperwork public but is expected to launch its IPO in April.

Lyft has not officially priced its shares. Its S-1 filing indicated a $100 million IPO fundraise, which is typically a placeholder amount for companies preparing for a float. Lyft’s IPO roadshow, or the final stage ahead of an IPO, begins Monday.

San Francisco-based Lyft has raised a total of $5.1 billion in venture capital funding from key stakeholders including the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, which boasts a 13 percent pre-IPO stake, plus General Motors (7.76 percent), Fidelity (7.1 percent), Andreessen Horowitz (6.25 percent) and Alphabet (5.3 percent). Early investors, like seed-stage venture capital firm Floodgate, also stand to reap big returns.

Lyft will trade under the ticker symbol “LYFT.” JPMorgan Chase & Co., Credit Suisse Group AG and Jefferies Financial Group Inc. are leading the IPO.

Lyft recorded $2.2 billion in revenue in 2018 — more than double 2017’s revenue — on a net loss of $911 million.

Lyft declined to comment.

Decade in review: Trends in seed- and early-stage funding

We’ve decided to step back from the breaking news for a minute to conduct a review of seed and early-stage funding trends over the last decade for U.S.-based companies.

I’m fairly certain we can all agree that the environment for startups has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, specifically in two major ways:

  1. The development of seed funding as its own class and;
  2. The expansion of growth stage investing.

What we’ve also seen are recent concerns raised about the decline in seed stage funding by Mark Suster, a partner at UpFront Ventures, as there has not been commensurate growth in early stage funding (Series A and B), to meet this growth in seed-financed companies. This is often expressed as the Series A crunch.

So with venture funding at an all-time high, along with increased growth in supergiant rounds, now seems like an appropriate time to conduct this kind of review.

Setting the stage

First, let’s set the stage for our analysis and explain where our data comes from with a few quick facts:

  • Rounds below $1 million can be the most difficult to capture adequately as many angel and pre-seed deals are not reported.
  • Luckily, Crunchbase has an “active founder community” that adds early stage financings.
  • By “active founder community” we are referring to many founders who are active on Crunchbase adding their company, themselves as founders, and their fundings.
  • Around 47 percent of fundings below $5 million in the U.S. are added by contributors, as distinct from our analyst teams who process the news, track Twitter, and work directly with our venture partners.
  • For this study, we bucket U.S. funding rounds by size to indicate stage.
  • Given the high percentage of self-reported seed financing, data added after the end of a quarter needs to be factored in.
  • For this reason we use projected data for many of the Crunchbase quarterly reports in order to more accurately reflect recent funding trends. For the charts below we are using actual data, with some provisions for the data lag when discussing the trends.

Now, let’s take a look at the trends.

Rounds below $1 million are slumping

Since 2014 we have seen mostly double-digit declines in less than $1 million rounds each year – a strong pivot from 2008-2014 when we saw double-digit growth.

In 2018 seed funding counts and amounts below $1 million were down from 2015 at 41 and 35 percent respectively. Given that data at this stage can be added long after the round took place, we assess there could be a 20 percentage-point relative increase in 2018 compared to 2017.

If we factor this in, 2018 seed funding counts and amounts below $1 million are down from 2015 at 30 and 23 percent respectively. In other words, seed below $1 million are closer to 2012 and 2017 levels.

$1 million to $5 million rounds are flattening

Round from $1 million to $5 million also experienced growth from 2008 through 2015, more than threefold for counts and close to threefold for amounts. Upward growth stalled from 2015. However, we do not see a substantial downward trend in the last three years. Dollars invested are stable at $7.5 billion from 2015 through 2017. Counts and amounts are down in 2018 from the 2015 height by 12 percent for deal count and 6 percent for amounts.

At Crunchbase we are always cautious about reporting downward trends for the most recent year or quarter, as data does flow in after the close of the most recent time period. If the trend is over a greater time period, that is a stronger signal for change in the market. Based on data continuing to be added after the end of a year for the previous year, we assess around 10 percentage point increase relative to 2017. This would make 2018 roughly equivalent  to 2017 on rounds and slightly up on amounts.

Seed funds take bigger stakes

Why is seed flattening? Seed investors report putting more dollars into fewer deals. Or as they raise more substantial subsequent funds, they are putting more dollars into the same number of transactions. Seed funds need to get enough equity for a meaningful stake, should a startup survive to raise subsequent rounds. Seed funds are investing in fewer startups for more equity.

Larger venture funds taking a less active role in seed

UpFront Ventures’ Suster (referenced earlier) also talks about larger venture firms becoming less active in seed, as investing at the seed stage can limit their ability down the road to invest in competitive startups who emerge as growing contenders in a specific sector. The growth of more substantial funds in venture allows firms to see deals mature before investing, perhaps paying more to get the equity they want, and allowing startups not growing as quickly to fail or get acquired.

As Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures notes, “In the first five years of this decade, we saw the seed portion of the market explode. In the last five years of this decade we saw the growth portion of the market explode. But over those last ten years, the middle part, the traditional venture capital market, has not changed much.”

The middle is growing

For the middle, Series A and B rounds (which used to be the first institutional money in), the market for $5 million to $10 million rounds has almost doubled, but it has taken from 2008 to 2018. In that same period, growth has been slower than round below $5 million. Growth has continued past 2015. Since 2015, rounds are down slightly for one year, and then continue to grow in 2017 and 2018. Counts are up from 2015 by 17 percent and dollars by 18 percent.

$10 to $25 million rounds are growing

Rounds of $10 million to $25 million have grown over 11 years by 73 percentage points for counts, and 78 percentage points for amounts. This is a slower pace than $5 million to $10 million rounds, but continuing to edge up year over year.

Seed is maturing

Seed is its own class that is here to stay. Indeed pre-seed, seed and seed extension all seem to have specific dynamics. Of the 600-plus active seed funds who have raised a fund below $100 million, close to half have raised more than one fund. In the last three years in the U.S. we have not seen a slowing of seed funds raised for $100 million and below.

Conclusion

When we take into account the data lag, dollars for below $5 million is projected to be $8.5 billion, close to the height in 2015 of $8.6 billion. Deal counts are down from the height by a fifth, which does mean less seed-funded startups in the U.S. Provided that capital allocation is greater than $5 million continues to grow, less seed funded startups will die before raising a Series A. More companies have a chance to succeed, which is good for seed funds, and ultimately for the whole ecosystem.

No Man’s Sky has a big new update due out this summer

After a conspicuous stretch of silence ending with a mysterious teaser tweet on Thursday, No Man’s Sky creator Sean Murray revealed that another major free update is on the way. The new content, which is the first since last year’s Visions update, will hit the massive space exploration game this summer.

The bundle of new content, called No Man’s Sky “Beyond,” will tie together three different updates, though Murray is only giving up the details of one so far. The one we know about is something that Murray is calling “No Man’s Sky Online” which “includes a radical new social and multiplayer experience which empowers players everywhere in the universe to meet and play together” and weaves together three standalone updates into “a vision for something much more impactful.”

No Man’s Sky BEYOND, a major free chapter, coming Summer 2019.

With three updates in one:
1) No Man’s Sky Online
2) ?
3) ?

We’re working out butts off on something special
More Info soon ❤https://t.co/YtKimYyj6U pic.twitter.com/Txi8orUIs9

— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) March 15, 2019

The short preview video doesn’t reveal much, but it shows a ship we haven’t seen before in what looks like either a reimagined space station (that would be nice!) or some kind of brand new multiplayer hub area.

Murray emphasized that the multiplayer update wouldn’t add things from other major multiplayer games like microtransactions or subscriptions and that he has no intention of turning No Man’s Sky into an MMO. (Still, if a lot of people are playing online together in a massive world, isn’t it uh, kind of an MMO?) The blog post noted that the team would release more details on the other two big pieces of new content in the coming weeks.

“These changes are an answer to how we have seen people playing since the release of NEXT, and is something we’ve dreamed of for a long time,” Murray added.

After a very rough launch and its accompanying critical lambasting in 2016, No Man’s Sky’s team has consistently added huge free content updates to the game. That dedication to building out the world the development team initially promised has brought “millions” of new players into the fold and inspired a thriving online and in-game community.

That community will be happy to hear that according to his latest blog post, Murray doesn’t intend to walk away from the game any time soon.

Amazon reportedly nixes its price parity requirement for third-party sellers in the U.S.

Amazon will stop forbidding third-party merchants who list on its e-commerce platform in the United States from selling the same products on other sites for lower prices, reports Axios.

The company’s decision to end its price parity provision comes three months after Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged the Department of Justice to open an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s policies and a few days after Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she would make breaking up Amazon, Google and Facebook a big part of her campaign platform.

Also called “most favored nation” (MFN) requirements, Amazon’s price parity provisions gave it a competitive edge, but because of its size, also led to concerns about its impact on competition and fair pricing for consumers. Amazon stopped requiring price parity of its European Union sellers in 2013 after it was the subject of investigations by the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading and Germany’s Federal Cartel Office.

In a statement, Blumenthal said Amazon’s “wise and welcome decision comes only after aggressive advocacy and attention that compelled Amazon to abandon its abusive contract clause.” He added that “I remain deeply troubled that federal regulators responsible for cracking down on anti-competitive practices seem asleep at the wheel, at great cost to American innovation and consumers.”

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

It’s time to disrupt nuclear weapons

Beatrice Fihn
Contributor

Beatrice Fihn is the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Atomic bombs are primarily a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities.”

Those are the words of Leo Szilard, one of the scientists who pushed for the development of nuclear weapons. He wrote them as part of a petition signed by dozens of other scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project pleading with President Harry Truman not to use the nuclear bomb on Japan.

Mere months after its introduction in 1945, the architects of today’s nuclear world feared the implications of the technology they had created.

Nearly 75 years later it’s time again to ask technologists, innovators, entrepreneurs and academics: will you be party to the ‘ruthless annihilation of cities’? Will you expend your talents in the service of nuclear weapons? Will you use technology to create or to destroy?

Our moment of choice

Humanity is at another turning point.

A new nuclear arms race has begun in earnest with the US and Russia leading the way; tearing up the promise of lasting peace in favor of a new Cold War. Russia’s latest weapon is built to destroy entire coast lines with a radioactive tsunami. The US is building new nuclear weapons that are ‘more likely to be used’.

Meanwhile, North Korea appears to again be building its nascent nuclear weapons program. And India and Pakistan stand on the verge of open nuclear conflict, which climate modeling shows could lead to a global famine killing upwards of 2 billion people.

An Indian student wearing a mask poses with her hands painted with a slogans for peace during a rally to mark Hiroshima Day, in Mumbai on August 6, 2018. (PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)

How do we stop this march toward oblivion?

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has created an opening — a chance to radically change course with the power of international law and shifting norms. The nuclear ban treaty will become international law once 50 nations have ratified it. We are already at 22.

The financial world is also recognizing the risk, with some of the world’s biggest pension funds divesting from nuclear weapons. But there is something even more powerful than the almighty dollar; human capital.

“It took innovation, technological disruption, and ingenuity to create the nuclear dawn. We will need those same forces in greater measure to bring about a nuclear dusk.”

The nuclear weapons industrial complex relies on the most talented scientists, engineers, physicists and technologists to build this deadly arsenal. As more of that talent moves into the tech sector, defense contractors and the Pentagon is seeking to work with major technology companies and disruptive startups, as well as continue their work with universities.

Without those talented technologists, there would be no new nuclear arms race. It’s time to divest human capital from nuclear weapons.

A mistake to end humanity?

Just over one year ago Hawaiians took cover and frantically Googled, “What to do during a nuclear attack”. Days later many Japanese mobile phone users also received a false alert for an inbound nuclear missile.

The combination of human error and technological flaws these incidents exposed makes accidental nuclear attacks an inevitability if we don’t move to end nuclear weapons before they end us.

The development of new machine learning technologies, autonomous weapons systems, cyber threats and social media manipulation are already destabilizing the global political order and potentially increasing the risk of a nuclear cataclysm. That is why it’s vital that the technology community collectively commits to using their skills and knowledge to protect us from nuclear eradication by joining the effort for global nuclear abolition.

A mock “killer robot” is pictured in central London on April 23, 2013 during the launching of the Campaign to Stop “Killer Robots,” which calls for the ban of lethal robot weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots calls for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. (Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

We need to stop this foolish nuclear escalation in its tracks. Our commitment must be to a nuclear weapons-free world, by disrupting the trajectory we are currently heading on. Business as usual will likely end in nuclear war.

It took innovation, technological disruption, and ingenuity to create the nuclear dawn. We will need those same forces in greater measure to bring about a nuclear dusk — the complete disarmament of nuclear-armed states and safeguards against future proliferation.

The belief that we can keep doing what we have done for seven decades for another seven decades is naive. It relies on a fanciful, misplaced faith in the illogical idea of deterrence. We are told simultaneously that nuclear weapons keep the world safe, by never being used. They bestow power, but only make certain states powerful.

This fallacy has been exposed by this moment in time. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have proliferated. Key treaties have been torn up or are under threat. And even more states are threatening to develop nuclear weapons.

So I am putting out a call to you: join us with this necessary disruption; declare that you will not have a hand in our demise; declare that you will use technology for good.

After more than 10 years, Flickr frees its login system from Yahoo

Oh joy, oh rapture, unsubdued, Flickr’s login is no longer tied to Yahoo. The photo-sharing platform announced today that it will roll out a new system to members over the next few weeks that doesn’t require a Yahoo ID. This is welcome news to long-time Flickr users who are still bitter over the requirement, introduced in 2007, two years after Yahoo acquired Flickr, that forced everyone to use Yahoo credentials to sign in. Flickr was acquired by SmugMug in April 2018 and since then, a new login has been “the single most requested feature by our community,” according to a post on the company’s blog.

Flickr may no longer have the same clout as it did in the pre-Instagram era, but many users (like me) have been uploading photos to it for years and still use it as an archive for images taken before smartphones became ubiquitous. The Yahoo login system, however, was a lot more tedious than it needed to be, especially if you did not use Yahoo Mail or its other services and constantly forgot your password. Two enormous data breaches of Yahoo accounts made users even more upset that they were tied into a system that they otherwise never used.

Users still have to use their Yahoo credentials until they get access to the new login process. When that happens, they will be allowed to pick a new login email address and new password. That address will be the only one used by their Flickr account for both authentication and emails from the company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equity Shot: Lyft files to go public and we’re stoked

Hello and welcome to an Equity Shot, a short-form episode of the show where we dive into a single breaking news story. Guess what we’re talking about today?! It’s Lyft . You guessed correctly.

The Lyft S-1 is the very first major S-1 event of 2019. As you might recall, the government shutdown gummed the IPO process by halting the Securities and Exchange Commission, an agency that plays the most active role in helping a company go public. Now the government is open, and Lyft’s formerly private filing is now a public filing.

You can read Kate’s deep dive here or mine here, but what follows is an overview of what we chatted about on the show. Here’s the SEC filing if you want to follow along.

Up top are revenue and growth. Lyft’s revenue grew from $1.06 billion to nearly $2.2 billion from 2017 to 2018. That’s impressive.

Next is costs. Lyft’s costs rose dramatically during 2018, compared to the year prior. In fact, Lyft’s total cost profile rose from $1.77 billion in 2017 to a staggering $3.13 billion in 2018. That’s a lot, and each figure is far higher than its revenue.

Which lead us to losses. Sure those revenue numbers look hot, but Lyft, at the same time, lost $911 million on 2018 revenue and $688 million the previous year. Though, as Alex points out, that ratio is improving, pointing to a positive (maybe even profitable???) future for Lyft.

However, while the S-1 had its ups and downs, two data points stood out that weren’t GAAP, but did make us appreciate Lyft’s work a bit more. As we explain, Lyft’s share of bookings (total value of services) from its platform is rising as is its revenue-per-rider. Those bode well for the future, too.

We closed the episode with some chatter on Lyft’s plan to reward its drivers. The business is helping drivers — the core of its business — earn a piece of that tasty IPO pie with a $10,000 bonus. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has more on that here. Plus, we’d have been remiss not to discuss Lyft’s scooter play, which it apparently spent $60 million on last year.

All that and we got an S-1 done. Let’s have a few more, and quickly.

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

Image recognition startup ViSenze raises $20M Series C

ViSenze, a startup that provides visual search tools for online retailers like Rakuten and ASOS, announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series C. The round was co-led by Gobi Ventures and Sonae IM, with participation from other backers including returning investors Rakuten and WI Harper.

Founded in 2012, ViSenze has now raised a total of $34.5 million (its last round was a Series B announced in September 2016). The Singapore-based company, whose clients also include Urban Outfitters, Zalora, and Uniqlo, bills its software portfolio as a “personal shopping concierge” that allows shoppers to find or discover new products based on visual search, automatic photo tagging, and recommendations based on their browsing history. ViSenze’s verticals include fashion, jewelry, furniture, and intellectual property.

ViSenze’s latest funding will be used to develop its software through partnerships with smartphone makers including Samsung, LG, and Huawei. The company has offices in Asia, Europe, and the United States, and claims an annual revenue growth rate of more than 200 percent. Other startups in the same space include Syte.ai, Slyce, Clarifai, and Imagga.

In a statement, Rakuten Ventures partner Adit Swarup said “When we first invested in ViSenze in 2014, retailers had just started seeing the benefits of powering product recommendations with image data. Today, ViSenze not only powers recommendations for the largest brands in the world, but has helped pioneer a paradigm shift in e-commerce; helping consumers find products inside their favorite social media videos and images, as well as initiate a search directly from their camera app.”

Other participants in the round included returning investors Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Ventures, Raffles Venture Partners, Enspire Capital, and UOB Venture Management, as well as new investors Tembusu ICT Fund, 31Ventures Global Innovation Fund, and Jonathan Coon’s Impossible Ventures.

Romance scams cost more money than any other type of consumer fraud, says the Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission has released data that shows romance scams cost more money than other types of consumer fraud reported to the agency last year—and the problem is getting worse. Romance scammers target people through dating sites and apps or social media, often using fake profiles and sob stories to convince victims to send them large amounts of money.

The number of romance scams reported to the FTC increased from 8,500 in 2015 to 21,000 last year. Reported losses from these scams grew more than four times, from $33 million in 2015 to $143 million last year. The figures for 2018 are based on 21,368 reports submitted to FTC’s Consumer Sentinel, a database of consumer complaints.

Romance scams were particularly costly for individual victims. The median loss reported by romance scam victims was $2,600, or seven times higher than the median loss across other types of fraud. People between the ages of 40 to 69 reported losing money to romance scams at twice the rate of people in their 20s, but the elderly lost larger amounts, with victims aged 70 and over reporting the biggest median losses at $10,000.

The FTC says the majority of victims were asked to wire money, while the second largest group were asked to use gift or reload cards like Moneypak, which are all methods that are quick, usually difficult to reverse, and allow recipients to remain anonymous. Romance scammers often claim they need money for medical and other emergencies, and come up with excuses about why they can’t meet with their targets in person, for example claiming to be in the military and stationed abroad or not having enough funds to travel.

To prevent being victimized, the FTC suggests doing a reverse image search of profile photos to check if a profile is fake, not sending money to people you haven’t met in person, and being open with family and friends about online relationships.

BuzzFeed News employees vote to unionize

Shortly after BuzzFeed News employees revealed that they had voted to unionize, its editor-in-chief said the company wants to meet with them to discuss voluntarily recognition. Employees announced today that they are organizing as BuzzFeed News Union under the NewsGuild of New York.

“Our staff has been organizing for several months, and we have legitimate grievances about unfair pay disparities, mismanaged pivots and layoffs, weak benefits, skyrocketing health insurance costs, diversity, and more,” says a mission statement posted to BuzzFeed News Union’s site. It adds that employees have been meeting for years and ramped up its efforts last fall when BuzzFeed laid off video staffers and its podcast team. Organizing efforts gained more urgency two weeks ago, when BuzzFeed cut 15 percent of its workforce, or about 250 jobs.

BuzzFeed News’ deputy news director Jason Wells reports that the publication’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, told employees “we look forward to meeting with the organizers to discuss a way toward voluntarily recognizing their union.”

Just a few hours after we went public with our unionizing effort, @buzzfeedben has responded to our demand for voluntary recognition @bfnewsunion pic.twitter.com/rgXitJyBcF

— Davey Alba (@daveyalba) February 13, 2019

Wells’ notes that BuzzFeed News is “on track to be one of the last major newsrooms to unionize in the wake of industry pressures that have shrunk many media outlets.” Other outlets with new employee unions include HuffPost and the Los Angeles Times. The NewsGuild of New York also represents the New York Times, Reuters, the Daily Beast and the Los Angeles Times.

In their mission statement, BuzzFeed News Union’s organizers said they want an agreement that “requires due process for termination, a diverse newsroom, reasonable severance amid layoffs, a competitive 401(k), rights to our creative works, and affordable health insurance.”

It also calls on BuzzFeed News’ management to address pay gaps and give employees on contract, or “permalancers, who are paid through a third party but are functionally members of our team,” the same treatment as other staff.

BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said during a 2015 company meeting that he didn’t think “a union is right for BuzzFeed,” though his recent response to employees demanding that the company compensate their laid-off colleagues for unused paid time off make signal a more conciliatory approach. After the meeting, BuzzFeed News paid out all unused vacation and comp days to laid-off staff even in states they are not legally required to do so.

Car rental startup Virtuo picks up €20M Series B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscription platform Substack adds podcast support

Substack started out by providing individual writers and publishers with a set of tools enabling them to charge a subscription fee for their newsletters. Now it’s giving them the ability to do the same thing with podcasts.

In fact, Morgan Creek Digital Assets founder Anthony “Pomp” Pompliano is already using the platform to introduce a daily podcast to complement his existing, crypto-focused Off the Chain newsletter.

“We’ve always thought the magic of what Substack is doing is the fact that we’re disintermediating the people creating stuff and the people who are consuming it — you are the brand they’re paying for,” Substack CEO Chris Best told me. “That whole model works incredibly well for newsletters, and to us, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be a great model for podcast content.”

Substack’s podcasting capabilities will allow publishers to either offer a podcast-specific subscription — or, like Pompliano, to include it as part of a broader package with their newsletter subscription. The podcast itself will be distributed through an audio player that can be embedded in both newsletters and on the web.

A web-based audio player might seem like a clunky way to listen to podcasts, but Substack’s player (which you can try out here) works pretty smoothly and includes features like the ability to jump backward and forward 30 seconds, and to play podcasts at various speeds.

Substack audio

Best added that he’s also open to the idea of creating a private, subscriber-only feed that can be accessed by podcast apps.

“We’re going to put it out there and see what people want,” he said. But he argued that the “existing feed-based podcast system” is “not living up to its potential” when it comes to enabling podcasters to make money from subscriptions.

We spoke shortly after Spotify announced that it was acquiring podcast companies Gimlet and Anchor, which Best said illustrates the importance of a tool like Substack, because it’s focused on “empowering individuals”: “We let people get paid directly by people, rather than aggregated into a wider system.”

I also brought up the patronage model for supporting content creators enabled by Patreon (which is currently how I support one of my favorite podcasts).

“We definitely think the world is big enough for both of those things,” Best replied. While he expressed admiration for the Patreon model, he argued, “There’s also room for another kind of thing, where you say, ‘Hey, I’m doing this professionally, it’s my job, I do a good job with it and you should pay for it.’”

And Best doesn’t intend to stop with newsletters and podcasts. There are plans to support other media formats, although the exact timing will depend on Substack’s customers.

“We are hyper-focused on serving the authors that we’re working with,” he said. “The timing tends to depend on when we find people that want to do it. Why we did the podcast thing now [comes from] Pomp wanting to do it now.”

YouTube’s CEO says it will continue addressing monetization issues, admits Rewind 2018 was “cringey”

In an open letter to YouTube creators today, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki admitted that even her kids think Rewind 2018 is “cringey.” Meant as a celebratory recap, the video has garnered a record-setting 15 million dislikes so far.

“We hear you that it didn’t accurately show the year’s key moments, nor did it reflect the YouTube you know. We’ll do better to tell our story in 2019,” Wojcicki wrote.

Wojcicki also mentioned important issues like Article 13, proposed legislation in the European Union nicknamed the “meme ban” for its potentially chilling effect on user-generated content and monetization. Many creators saw their revenue hurt during “Adpocalypse” last year after YouTube introduced new policies to placate advertisers.

Intended to keep ads from running in front of videos with objectionable content, creators said the policies also resulted in the demonetization of many videos without a clear reason. But the letter is unlikely to address the concerns of creators who are still trying to recover revenue or gain a better understanding of how YouTube’s policies are enforced.

For example, Wojcicki repeated the statistic that the number of YouTube creators “earning five or six figures in the last year grew more than 40 percent,” which the platform has said since at least December 2017, when Adpocalypse began. (That month, Bloomberg published a story that said YouTube claimed channels making six figures or more in revenue had increased 40 percent over the last year).

But YouTube doesn’t provide much more detail than that and though Wojcicki said that number is proof that creators are “creating the next generation of media companies and we’re thrilled to see how much the YouTube creator economy is thriving,” researchers have found that a very thin sliver of YouTubers ever make it into that revenue bracket.

For example, a professor at Germany’s Offenburg University of Applied Sciences found last year that breaking into the top three percent of most-viewed channels on YouTube might bring in advertising revenue of about $16,800 a year. Those at the very top, or top one percent, often earn revenue through other deals like sponsorships, making it even more difficult to estimate how much of their revenue comes from advertising on YouTube.

Wojcicki also did not address the fact that YouTube has been kicking off many channels that were part of multi-channel networks (MCN), often used by creators who don’t to deal directly with YouTube AdSense.

Videos are removed because they may be at risk of violating YouTube’s terms of service, but creators and MCNs have complained about the lack of transparency into how they are enforced.

Wojcicki acknowledged the communication issues and said YouTube had taken steps to improve it. YouTube Studio, to provide more insight into how videos are performing, will be available to all creators this year. YouTube is also now more responsive on social media channels. Wojcicki said it has increased the number of its responses by 50 percent and made response times 50 percent faster.

Wojcicki also noted that monetization “remains a pain point” for many creators. “Just as a reminder, we started last year with many of our largest advertisers paused because of brand safety concerns,” she wrote.

“We worked incredibly hard to build the right systems and tools to make sure advertisers feel confident investing in YouTube, and most are now back,” she continued. “On the creator side, we’ve been improving our classifiers so that we make the right monetization decision for each video,” adding that YouTube has increased the accuracy of its monetization icon system (which gives creators details about why a video has been monetized or not) by 40 percent and made it easier for creators to appeal decisions.

But she conceded that YouTube still has more work to do. Part of that effort includes giving creators other potential revenue streams, like YouTube Music and YouTube Premium, which has expanded to 29 countries from five at the beginning of 2019. It also lowered the subscriber threshold for channel memberships, which allows viewers to purchase memberships, to 30,000 from 100,000.

The “meme ban”

YouTube creators and other people who rely on the platform as a source of revenue in the EU will have an extra set of headaches to deal with next year. Last September, the EU Parliament voted to back Article 13 of the European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Market. Nicknamed the “meme ban” because it would mandate sites with large amounts of user-generated content to take down content that infringes on copyright, the legislation’s vague wording has led to concerns about how it would be enforced.

For YouTube in particular, Article 13 means that it would have automatically scan and filter user uploads for copyright violations, but it is unclear if its existing Content ID system would be enough for it to comply. Although memes and parodies are protected by laws in many countries, upload filters still aren’t advanced enough to differentiate between copyright violations and memes. Article 13’s opponents worry that this can have a chilling effect. Wojcicki wrote last year that it could potentially shut down the ability of millions of people to upload to YouTube and threaten “thousands of jobs” in the EU. YouTube is campaigning for the legislation to be reworded.

In today’s letter, Wojcicki said videos about the issue have been viewed “hundreds of millions of times,” but added that policymakers “lacked an understanding of the European creator community’s impact and size.”

“I shared with legislators the huge economic benefit you all bring to your home countries,” she said. “In France alone, we have more than 190 channels with more than 1 million subscriptions, with the number of E.U. channels reaching that milestone up 70% year over year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulu teams up with that world record Instagram egg to raise awareness of mental health

Remember that egg that became Instagram’s most-liked post? It used its recently-acquired fame to shed light on mental health and the pressures of social media.

The account now has 10 million followers — its record photo has over 52 million likes — and it put that audience to use with a 30-second video that aired on Hulu around the Super Bowl. The account had teased a major revealed in recent weeks, and it proved to be the short spot with Hulu that promotes mental health awareness, particularly around the context of using social media.

“Recently I’ve started to crack… the pressure of social media is getting to me,” the video reads as the egg’s shell begins to crack before breaking into pieces.

“If you’re struggling too, talk to someone,” the egg says before it is resurrected with a full shell once again.

The video closes with a link to the Mental Health America website.

Hulu’s Egg reveal is a mental health PSA which I love 🥰pic.twitter.com/Mb46prevKR

— Alexandra Able (@AlexandraAble) February 4, 2019

The video received praise from Mental Health America and many others on Twitter, but plenty of its Instagram followers expected more or don’t have a Hulu account, according to comments.

We’d like to thank #TalkingEgg for shining a limelight on #mentalhealth tonight with an important message. Not everyone chooses to #fightintheopen for mental health, but you did for the 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental health condition. Thank you, #EggGang! 💚🥚pic.twitter.com/9KPlXG5re4

— Mental Health America (@MentalHealthAm) February 4, 2019

At the same time, the creators of the account — three advertising executives in South London — revealed background on the project, the egg is called “Eugene,” in an interview with the New York Times.

The trio — Chris Godfrey, Alissa Khan-Whelan and C.J. Brown — explained that they had been approached by Hulu, which had paid to develop the video which aims to take advantage of the hype and online chatter around the Super Bowl to raise its message. Given that the account is followed by a large number of children, as its creators acknowledged in the interview, a positive message like this rather than a commercial sell-out is a pleasant surprise, particularly when it is estimated that brand deals could fetch $10 million.

Hulu is the first to get a crack at the egg, but it remains to be seen if its appeal to brands will endure and whether its future messaging and partners will also be health-related.

Theranos documentary review: The Inventor’s horrifying optimism

A blood-splattered Theranos machine nearly pricks an employee struggling to fix it. This gruesome graphical rendering is what you’ll walk away from HBO’s “The Inventor” with. It finally gives a visual to the startup’s laboratory fraud detailed in words by John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood”.

The documentary that premiered tonight at Sundance Film Festival explores how the move fast and break things ethos of Silicon Valley is “really dangerous when people’s lives are in the balance” as former employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz says in the film. Theranos promised a medical testing device that made a single drop of blood from your finger more precise than a painful old-school syringe in your vein. What patients ended up using was so inaccurate it put their health in jeopardy.

But perhaps even more frightening is the willingness of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes to delude herself and everyone around her in service of a seemingly benevolent mission. The documentary captures how good ideas can make people do bad things.

“The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley” juxtaposes truthful interviews with the employees who eventually rebelled against Holmes with footage and media appearances of her blatantly lying to the world. It manages to stick to the emotion of the story rather than getting lost in the scientific discrepancies of Theranos’ deception.

The film opens and closes with close-ups of Holmes, demonstrating how the facts change her same gleaming smile and big blue eyes from the face of innovative potential to that of a sociopathic criminal. “I don’t have many secrets” she tells the camera at the start.

Though the film mentions early that her $9 billion-plus valuation company would wind up worth less than zero, it does a keen job of building empathy for her that it can tear down later. You see her tell sob stories of death in the family and repeat her line about building an end to having to say goodbye to loved ones too soon. You hear how she’s terrified of needles and how growing up, “my best friends were books.”

But then cracks start to emerge as old powerful men from professors to former cabinet members faun over Holmes and become enthralled in her cult of personality as validation snowballs. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney has a knack for creeping dread from his experience making “Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” He portrays Holmes’ delusions of grandeur with shots of her portrait beside those of Archimedes, Beethoven, and her idol Steve Jobs.

The first red flag comes when Holmes names her initial device Edison after the historic inventor the film assures you was quite a fraud himself. Soon, sources from inside the company relay how the Edison and subsequent Theranos hardware never worked right but that demos were faked for customers and investors. Instead of sticking to a firm timeline, Gibney bounces around to hammer home the emotional arcs of employees from excited to dubious, and of Holmes from confidence to paranoia.

Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” meticulously chronicled every tiny warning sign that worried Theranos’ staff in order to build a case. But the author’s Wall Street Journal day job bled through, sapping the book of emotion and preventing it from seizing the grandeur of the tale’s climactic moments.

Gibney fills in the blanks with cringe-inducing scenes of Theranos’ faulty hardware. A ‘nanotainer’ of blood rolls off a table and fractures, a biohazard awaiting whoever tries to pick it up. The depiction of working in Theranos’ unregulated laboratory scored the biggest gasps from the Sundance audience. Former employees describe how Theranos recruited drifters they suspected of hepatitis as guinea pigs. Their stale blood evaporates into the air surrounding machines dripping with inky red, covered in broken test tubes. Gibney nails the graphics, zooming in on a needle spraying droplets as a robotic arm sputters through malfunctions. I almost had to look away as the film renders a hand reaching into the machine and only just dodging an erratic syringe.

A still from The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley by Alex Gibney, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly.

At times, Gibney goes a bit too melodramatic. The toy music box twinkling foreshadows a dream becoming a nightmare, but it gets maddening after an hour straight. The pacing feels uneven, sometimes bogged down in Holmes’ personal relationships when later it seems to speed through the company’s collapse.

Though elsewhere, the director harnesses the nervous laughter coping mechanism of the former employees to inject humor into the grim tale. With accuracy so low, Shultz jokes that “if people are testing themselves for syphilis with Theranos, there’s going to be a lot more syphilis in the world.” Visual dramatizations of journalists’ audio recordings of Holmes and the eventual legal disputes bring this evidence to life.

Alex Gibney, director of The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The most touching scene sees Fortune’s Roger Parloff on the brink of implosion as he grapples with giving Holmes her first magazine cover story — momentum she used to eventually get Theranos’ useless hardware in front of real patients who depended on its results.

The Inventor succeeds at instilling the lesson without getting too preachy. It’s fine to be hopeful, but don’t ignore your concerns no matter how much you want something to be real. It takes an incredibly complex sequence of events and makes it at once gripping and informative. If you haven’t read “Bad Blood” or found it drab, “The Inventor” conveys the gravity of the debacle with a little more flare.

Yet the documentary also gives Holmes a bit too much benefit of the doubt, suggesting that hey, at least she was trying to do good in the world. In the after-film panel, Gibney said “She had a noble vision . . . I think that was part of why she was able to convince so many people and convince herself that what she was doing was great, which allowed her to lie so effectively.” Carreyrou followed up that “she was not intending to perpetrate a long con.”

Yet that’s easier to say for both the director and the author when neither of their works truly investigated the downstream health impacts of Theranos’ false positives and false negatives. If they’d tracked down people who delayed critical treatment or had their lives upended by the fear of a disease they didn’t have, I doubt Holmes would be cut so much slack.

Some degree of ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ might be essential to build hard technology startups. You must make people believe Inc something that doesn’t exist if you’re to pull in the funding and talent necessary to make it a reality. But it’s not just medical, hardware, or “atoms not bits” startups that must be allegiant to the truth. As Facebook and WhatsApps’ role in spreading misinformation that led to mob killings in India and Myanmar proved, having a grand mission doesn’t make you incapable of doing harm. A line must be drawn between optimism and dishonesty before it leads to drawing chalk outlines on the ground.

VCs give us their predictions for startups and tech in Southeast Asia in 2019

The new year is well underway and, before January is out, we polled VCs in Southeast Asia to get their thoughts on what to expect in 2019.

The number of VCs in the region has increased massively in recent years, in no small part due to forecasts of growth in the tech space as internet access continues to shoot up among Southeast Asia’s cumulative population of more than 600 million consumers.

There are other factors, including economic growth and emerging middle classes, but with more than 3.8 million people becoming first-time internet users each month — thanks to smartphones — Southeast Asia’s ‘digital economy’ is tipped to more than triple to reach $240 billion by 2025. That leaves plenty of opportunity for tech and online businesses and, by extension, venture capitalists.

With a VC corpus that now numbers dozens of investment firms, TechCrunch asked the people who write the checks what is on the horizon for 2019.

The only rule was no more than three predictions — below, in no particular order, is what they told us.


Albert Shyy, Burda

Funds will continue to invest aggressively in Southeast Asia in the first half of this year but capital will tighten up by Q4 as funds and companies prepare for a possible recession. I think we will see a lot of companies opportunistically go out to fundraise in Q1/Q2 to take advantage of a bull market.

We will see two to three newly-minted unicorns from the region this year, after a relative lull last year.

This will (finally) be the year that we start to see some consolidation in the e-commerce scene


Dmitry Levit, Cento

A significant portion of capital returned by upcoming U.S. IPOs to institutional investors will be directed to growth markets outside of China, with India and Southeast Asia being the likeliest beneficiaries. Alternative assets such as venture and subsets of private equity in emerging markets will enter their golden age.

The withdrawal of Chinese strategic players held back by weakened domestic economy, prudent M&A by local strategics and ongoing caution among Japanese, Korean and global corporates, combined with ongoing valuations exuberance by late-stage investors allocating funds to Southeast Asia, will continue holding back large liquidity events. Save perhaps for a roll-up of a local champion or two into a global IPO. Fundraising will get more troublesome for some of Southeast Asia’s larger unprofitable market leaders. Lack of marquee liquidity events and curtailed access to late-stage capital for some will lead to a few visible failures (our money is on the subsidy-heavy wallets!) and a temporary burst of short-term skepticism around Southeast Asia as an investment destination towards the end of 2019.

The trend towards the emergence of value-chain specific funds and fund managers will continue, as digitalization is reaching ever further into numerous industry sectors and as Southeast Asia hosts an increasing portion of global supply chains. We foresee at least dozen new venture firms and vehicles emerging in 2019 with clear sector-led investment thesis around the place of Southeast Asian economies in the global value chains of fashion industry, agriculture and food; labour, healthcare services; manufacturing, construction tech and so on, with investment teams that have the necessary expertise to unravel this increasing complexity.


Willson Cuaca, East Ventures

Jakarta becomes Southeast Asia’s startup capital surpassing Singapore in terms of the number of deals and investment amount.

As Indonesia’s startup scene heats up, regional seed and series A funds move away from Indonesia and target Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines (in market priority order).

Southeast gets two new unicorns.


Rachel Lau, RHL Ventures

North Asian companies will provide well-needed liquidity as they withdraw capital from developed American and European markets due to the Federal Reserve’s actions. The FED raised interest rates and reduced the size of its balance sheet (by not replacing the bonds that were maturing at a rate of $50 billion a month). This has been seen in the recent fundraising exercise by Southeast Asian unicorns. Grab has recently seen an impressive list of North Asian investors such as Mirae, Toyota and Yamaha . A recent stat stated that 85 percent of the funding of Southeast Asia startups have gone to billion dollar unicorn such as Grab and Gojek, bypassing the early stage startups that are more in need for funding, this trend is expected to continue. Therefore, we will see early-stage companies and venture capitalists becoming more focused on generating cash flow from operating operations instead as fundraising activities become more difficult.

A growth in urbanization in Southeast will create new job opportunities in small/medium businesses, as evident in China. Currently, only 12 percent of Asia’s urban population live in megacities, while four percent live in towns of fewer than 300,000 inhabitants. New companies will see the blurred lines between brick and mortar businesses vs pure online businesses. In the past year or so, we have seen more and more offline businesses going online and more online businesses going offline.

Fertility rates in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam exceed 2.1 births per woman — the level that sustains a population — but rates below 1.5 in Singapore and Thailand mean their populations will decline without immigration. As we see more startup activities coming to Southeast Asian countries, we expect to see more qualified foreign talent moving to the region vs staying in low growth American and European countries.


Kay-Mok Ku, Gobi Ventures

First Chinese “Seaward” Unicorn in Southeast Asia. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese startups are targeting overseas markets from the get go (known as Chuhai 出海 or “Seaward”). These Chinese entrepreneurs typically bring with them best practices in consumer marketing and product development honed by a hyper-competitive home market, supported by strong, dedicated technical team based out of China and increasingly capitalized by Chinese VCs which have raised billion-dollar funds.

Consolidation among ASEAN Unicorns. While ASEAN now boasts 10 unicorns, they are duplicative in the sense that more than one exists in a particular category, which is unsustainable for winner-takes-all markets. For example, in the ASEAN ride-hailing space, while one unicorn is busy with regional geographic expansion, the other simply co-exists by staying focused on scope expansion within its home market. This will never happen in a single country market like China but now that the ASEAN ride hailing unicorns are finally locking horns, the stage may be set for a Didi-Kuadi like scenario to unfold.

ASEAN jumps on Chinese 5G bandwagon. The tech world in the future will likely bifurcate into American and Chinese-led platforms. As it is, emerging markets are adopting Chinese business models based on bite-sized payment and have embraced Chinese mobile apps often bundled with cheap Chinese smartphones. Looking ahead, 5G will be a game changer as its impact goes beyond smartphones to generic IoT devices, having strategic implications for industries such as autonomous driving. As a result, the US-China Trade War will likely evolve into a Tech War and ASEAN will be forced to choose side.


Daren Tan, Golden Equator Capital

We are excited by growth in the AI and deep tech sectors. The focus has generally been on consumer-focused tech in Southeast Asia as an emerging market, but we are starting to see proprietary solutions emerge for industries such as medtech and fintech. AI also has great applicability across a wide range of consumer sectors in reducing reliance on manpower and creating cost savings.

Data analytics to uncover organizational efficiencies and customer trends will continue to be even more widely used, but there will also be greater emphasis on securing such data especially confidential information in light of multiple high-profile data breaches in 2018. Tools enabling the collection, storage, safe-keeping and analysis of data will be essential.

We are seeing the emergence of more institutional funds from North Asia. So far it has predominantly been Chinese tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba, now we are starting to see Korean and Japanese institutions placing greater emphasis on investment in the Southeast Asian region.


Vinnie Lauria, Golden Gate Ventures

Even more capital flowing from U.S. and China into Southeast Asia, with VCs from both locations soon to open offices in the region

A fresh wave of Series A investments into Vietnam.

Ten exits over $100 million.

 


Amit Anand, Jungle Ventures

The emergence of a financial services super app, think the Meituan or WeChat but only for financial services: The Southeast Asian millennial is one of the most underserved customer from a financial services perspective whether it is payments, consumer goods loans, personal loans, personal finance management, investments or other financial services. We will see the emergence of digital platforms that will aggregate all these related services and provide a one stop financial services shop for this digitally native consumer.

Digitisation of SMEs will be new fintech: Southeast Asia is home to over 100 million SMEs that are at the cusp of digital transformation. Generational change in ownership, local governments push for digitization and increased globalization have created a perfect storm for these SMEs to adopt cloud and other digital technologies at neck-breaking pace. Startups focussing on this segment will get mainstream attention from the venture community over the next few years as they look for new industries that are getting enabled or disrupted by technology.


Kuo-Yi Lim and Peng Ong, Monk’s Hill Ventures

Lyft and Uber go public and show the path to profitability for other rideshare businesses. This has positive effect for the regional rideshare players but also puts pressure on them to demonstrate the same economics in ridesharing. Regional rideshare players double down on super-app positioning instead, to demonstrate value in other ways as rideshare business alone may not reach profitability — ever.

The trade war between China and the US reaches a truce, but a general sense of uncertainty lingers. This is now the new norm — things are less certain and companies have to plan for more adverse scenarios. In the short term, Southeast Asia benefits. Companies — Chinese, American etc — see Southeast Asia as the neutral ground. Investment pours in, creating jobs across industries. Acquisition of local champions intensifies as foreign players jostle for the lead positions.

“Solve the problem” – tech companies will become more prominent… tech companies that are real-estate brokers, recruiters, healthcare providers, food suppliers, logistics… why: many industries are very inefficient.


Hian Goh, Openspace Ventures

Fight to quality will happen. Fundraising across all stages from seed to Series C and beyond will be challenging if you don’t have the metrics. Investors will want to see a path to profitability, or an ability to turn profitable if the environment becomes worse. This will mean Saas companies with stable cash flows, vertical e-commerce with strong metrics will be attractive investment opportunities.

Investor selection will become critical, as investors take a wait and see approach. Existing or new investors into companies will be judged upon their dry powder in their funds and their ability to fund further rounds

The regulatory risk for fintech lenders will be higher this year, rising compliance cost and uncertainty on licensing, which would lead to consolidation in the market.


Heang Chhor, Qualgro

Southeast Asia: an intensifying battlefield for tech investments

There has never been so much VC money in Southeast Asia chasing interesting startups, at all life cycle stages. The 10 most active local and regional VCs have raised their second or third funds recently, amassing at least two times more money than a few years ago, probably reaching a total amount close to $1 billion. In addition, international VCs have also doubled down on their allocation into the region, while top Chinese VCs have visibly stated their intent not to miss the dynamic momentum. Several growth funds have recently built a local presence in order to target Southeast Asia tech companies at Series C and beyond. Not counting the amount going to the unicorns, there might be now more than $3-4 billion available for seed to growth stages, which may be 3-4 times the amount of three years ago. There are, of course, many more good startups coming up to invest into. But the most promising startups will be in a very favorable position to negotiate higher valuation and better terms. However, they should not forget that, eventually, what creates value is how they make a difference with their tech capabilities or their business model, how they acquire and retain the best talent, with the funds raised, not only how much money they will be able to raise. Most local and regional corporate VCs are likely to lose in this more intense investment game.

Significant VC money investing into so-called ‘AI-based startups’, but are there really much (deep) Artificial Intelligence capabilities around?

A good portion of the SEA startups claim they have ‘something-AI’. Investors are overwhelmed, if not confused, by the ‘AI claim’ that they find in most startup pitches. While there is no doubt that Southeast Asia will grow its own strong AI-competence pool in the future, unfortunately today most ‘AI-based’ business models from the region would still be just ‘good algorithms or machine learning’ that can process some amount of data to come up with good-enough outcomes, that do not always generate substantial business value to users/customers. The significant budget that some of the very-well-funded Southeast Asia unicorns are putting into their ‘AI-based apps’ or ‘AI platform’ is unlikely to make a real difference for the consumers, for lack of deep AI competences in the region. 2019 may be another year of AI-promise, not realized. Hopefully, public and private research labs, universities and startups will continue to be (much more) strongly supported (especially by governments) to significantly build bigger AI talent pool, which means growing and attracting AI talent into the region.

Bigger Series A and Series B rounds to fuel more convincing growth trajectory, towards growth-stage fundraising.

Although situations vary a lot: typical Series A in Southeast Asia used to be around $5 million, and Series B around $10-15 million. Investors tended to accept that normally companies would raise money after 18 months or so, between A and B, and between B and C. There has been an increasing number of larger raises at A and B recently, and very likely this trend will accelerate. The fact that VCs now have much more money to deploy into each investment will contribute to this trend. However, the required milestones for raising Series C have become much more around: minimum scale and very solid growth (and profit) drivers. Therefore, entrepreneurs will have to look for getting as much funding reserve as possible, irrespective of time between raises, to build growth engines that take their companies past the milestones of the next Series, be it B or C. In the future, we will see more Series A of $10 million and more Series B of well-above $20 million. Compelling businesses will not have too much difficulties for doing so, but most Southeast Asia entrepreneurs would be wise to learn to more effectively master fundraising skills for capturing much bigger amounts than in the past. Of course, this assumes that their businesses are compelling enough in the eyes of investors.


Vicknesh R Pillay, TNB Aura

Out-sized valuations will be less commonplace in 2019 as Southeast Asian investors learn from experience and become more sophisticated. Therefore, we do see opportunities at Series A/B for undervalued deals due to lack of early-stage funding while we expect to continue to see the trend of the majority of venture capital investments going into later stage companies (Series C and beyond) due to lower risk appetite and ‘herd’ mentality.

2018 has also seen the rapid emergence of many corporate venture capital funds and innovation programs. But, 2019 will see large corporations cutting back on their allocation towards startup investing which would be the easiest option for them in case of adverse news to the jittery public markets in 2019.

With the growth of AI, the need for API connections and increased thought leadership to embrace tech, Southeast Asia is going to see an upsurge in SaaS startups and existing startups moving to a Saas business model. Hence, we expect increased investments into Saas companies focused on IoT and cybersecurity as hardware data and software are moved onto the cloud.


Chua Kee Lock, Vertex Ventures

Southeast Asia VC investment pace has grown steadily and significantly since 2010 where it started from less than $100 million in VC investment in the region. For the first eight months of 2018, the region’s VC investment was over $5.4 billion. For the whole of 2018, it will likely end around $8 billion. For 2019, we expect the VC investment pace to surpass 2018 level and record between $9-10 billion. Southeast Asia will continue to attract more VC investments because:

(1) Governments in Southeast Asia, especially ASEAN, continue their support policy to encourage startups.

(2) young demographics and the fast technology adoption in Southeast Asia give rise to more innovative and disruptive ideas.

(3) global investors looking for a better return and will naturally focus on growing emerging market like Southeast Asia.

The trend towards gig economy will begin to have an impact in the region. In developed economies like the U.S, gig economy is expected to reach over 40 percent by 2020. The young population will look for more freelance opportunities as a way to increase income levels while still maintaining flexibility. This will include white-collar work like computer programming, accounting, customer service, etc. and also blue-collar work like delivery services, ride-sharing, home services, etc. We believe that the gig economy will grow to over 15 percent in Southeast Asia by 2019.

AI-heavy or -driven startups will begin to make inroads into Southeast Asia.


Victor Chua, Vynn Capital

The BIG convergence — there will more integration between industries and sectors. Traveloka went into car rental, Blibli went into travel business and these are only some examples. There is a lot of synergistic value between travel startups and food startups or between property startups and automotive startups. Imagine a future where you travel to a city where you stay in an apartment you rented through a marketplace (like Travelio, my portfolio company), and when you need to book a restaurant you can make the reservation through a platform that is integrated with the property manager, and when you need to move around you go down to the car park to drive a car you rent from an automotive marketplace. There is clear synergy between selective industries and this leads to an overall convergence between companies, between industries.

More channels to raise Series B/C, early-stage companies find fundraising more challenging — We have seen a number of VC funds raising or already raised growth funds, this means that there are now more channels for Series A or B companies to raise growth rounds. As the market matures, there will be more competition for investments amongst growth funds as there is considerably more growth in the number of growth funds than companies that are raising at growth-stage. On the flip side, the feel is that there is a consistent growth in the number of early-stage companies, yet the amount of capital in early-stage funds is not growing as much as more VCs prefer bigger and later stages, due to the maturity of their existing portfolio companies.

Newcomers gaining weight — there will be at least 10 companies that will hit a valuation of at least $100 million. These valuations will not be based on a single market exposure. Companies that raise larger rounds will need to show that they are regional.


Thanks to all the VCs who took part, I certainly felt like the class teacher collecting assignments.

The case against behavioral advertising is stacking up

No one likes being stalked around the Internet by adverts. It’s the uneasy joke you can’t enjoy laughing at. Yet vast people-profiling ad businesses have made pots of money off of an unregulated Internet by putting surveillance at their core.

But what if creepy ads don’t work as claimed? What if all the filthy lucre that’s currently being sunk into the coffers of ad tech giants — and far less visible but no less privacy-trampling data brokers — is literally being sunk, and could both be more honestly and far better spent?

Case in point: This week Digiday reported that the New York Times managed to grow its ad revenue after it cut off ad exchanges in Europe. The newspaper did this in order to comply with the region’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, which includes a regime of supersized maximum fines.

The newspaper business decided it simply didn’t want to take the risk, so first blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages and then nixed behavioral targeting. The result? A significant uptick in ad revenue, according to Digiday’s report.

“NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, SVP for global advertising at New York Times International,” it writes.

“Currently, all the ads running on European pages are direct-sold. Although the publisher doesn’t break out exact revenues for Europe, Demarta said that digital advertising revenue has increased significantly since last May and that has continued into early 2019.”

It also quotes Demarta summing up the learnings: “The desirability of a brand may be stronger than the targeting capabilities. We have not been impacted from a revenue standpoint, and, on the contrary, our digital advertising business continues to grow nicely.”

So while (of course) not every publisher is the NYT, publishers that have or can build brand cachet, and pull in a community of engaged readers, must and should pause for thought — and ask who is the real winner from the notion that digitally served ads must creep on consumers to work?

The NYT’s experience puts fresh taint on long-running efforts by tech giants like Facebook to press publishers to give up more control and ownership of their audiences by serving and even producing content directly for the third party platforms. (Pivot to video anyone?)

Such efforts benefit platforms because they get to make media businesses dance to their tune. But the self-serving nature of pulling publishers away from their own distribution channels (and content convictions) looks to have an even more bass string to its bow — as a cynical means of weakening the link between publishers and their audiences, thereby risking making them falsely reliant on adtech intermediaries squatting in the middle of the value chain.

There are other signs behavioural advertising might be a gigantically self-serving con too.

Look at non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo, for instance, which has been making a profit by serving keyword-based ads and not profiling users since 2014, all the while continuing to grow usage — and doing so in a market that’s dominated by search giant Google.

DDG recently took in $10M in VC funding from a pension fund that believes there’s an inflection point in the online privacy story. These investors are also displaying strong conviction in the soundness of the underlying (non-creepy) ad business, again despite the overbearing presence of Google.

Meanwhile, Internet users continue to express widespread fear and loathing of the ad tech industry’s bandwidth- and data-sucking practices by running into the arms of ad blockers. Figures for usage of ad blocking tools step up each year, with between a quarter and a third of U.S. connected device users’ estimated to be blocking ads as of 2018 (rates are higher among younger users).

Ad blocking firm Eyeo, maker of the popular AdBlock Plus product, has achieved such a position of leverage that it gets Google et al to pay it to have their ads whitelisted by default — under its self-styled ‘acceptable ads’ program. (Though no one will say how much they’re paying to circumvent default ad blocks.)

So the creepy ad tech industry is not above paying other third parties for continued — and, at this point, doubly grubby (given the ad blocking context) — access to eyeballs. Does that sound even slightly like a functional market?

In recent years expressions of disgust and displeasure have also been coming from the ad spending side too — triggered by brand-denting scandals attached to the hateful stuff algorithms have been serving shiny marketing messages alongside. You don’t even have to be worried about what this stuff might be doing to democracy to be a concerned advertiser.

Fast moving consumer goods giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble are two big spenders which have expressed concerns. The former threatened to pull ad spend if social network giants didn’t clean up their act and prevent their platforms algorithmically accelerating hateful and divisive content.

While the latter has been actively reevaluating its marketing spending — taking a closer look at what digital actually does for it. And last March Adweek reported it had slashed $200M from its digital ad budget yet had seen a boost in its reach of 10 per cent, reinvesting the money into areas with “‘media reach’ including television, audio and ecommerce”.

The company’s CMO, Marc Pritchard, declined to name which companies it had pulled ads from but in a speech at an industry conference he said it had reduced spending “with several big players” by 20 per cent to 50 per cent, and still its ad business grew.

So chalk up another tale of reduced reliance on targeted ads yielding unexpected business uplift.

At the same time, academics are digging into the opaquely shrouded question of who really benefits from behavioral advertising. And perhaps getting closer to an answer.

Last fall, at an FTC hearing on the economics of big data and personal information, Carnegie Mellon University professor of IT and public policy, Alessandro Acquisti, teased a piece of yet to be published research — working with a large U.S. publisher that provided the researchers with millions of transactions to study.

Acquisti said the research showed that behaviourally targeted advertising had increased the publisher’s revenue but only marginally. At the same time they found that marketers were having to pay orders of magnitude more to buy these targeted ads, despite the minuscule additional revenue they generated for the publisher.

“What we found was that, yes, advertising with cookies — so targeted advertising — did increase revenues — but by a tiny amount. Four per cent. In absolute terms the increase in revenues was $0.000008 per advertisment,” Acquisti told the hearing. “Simultaneously we were running a study, as merchants, buying ads with a different degree of targeting. And we found that for the merchants sometimes buying targeted ads over untargeted ads can be 500% times as expensive.”

“How is it possible that for merchants the cost of targeting ads is so much higher whereas for publishers the return on increased revenues for targeted ads is just 4%,” he wondered, posing a question that publishers should really be asking themselves — given, in this example, they’re the ones doing the dirty work of snooping on (and selling out) their readers.

Acquisti also made the point that a lack of data protection creates economic winners and losers, arguing this is unavoidable — and thus qualifying the oft-parroted tech industry lobby line that privacy regulation is a bad idea because it would benefit an already dominant group of players. The rebuttal is that a lack of privacy rules also does that. And that’s exactly where we are now.

“There is a sort of magical thinking happening when it comes to targeted advertising [that claims] everyone benefits from this,” Acquisti continued. “Now at first glance this seems plausible. The problem is that upon further inspection you find there is very little empirical validation of these claims… What I’m saying is that we actually don’t know very well to which these claims are true and false. And this is a pretty big problem because so many of these claims are accepted uncritically.”

There’s clearly far more research that needs to be done to robustly interrogate the effectiveness of targeted ads against platform claims and vs more vanilla types of advertising (i.e. which don’t demand reams of personal data to function). But the fact that robust research hasn’t been done is itself interesting.

Acquisti noted the difficulty of researching “opaque blackbox” ad exchanges that aren’t at all incentivized to be transparent about what’s going on. Also pointing out that Facebook has sometimes admitted to having made mistakes that significantly inflated its ad engagement metrics.

His wider point is that much current research into the effectiveness of digital ads is problematically narrow and so is exactly missing a broader picture of how consumers might engage with alternative types of less privacy-hostile marketing.

In a nutshell, then, the problem is the lack of transparency from ad platforms; and that lack serving the self same opaque giants.

But there’s more. Critics of the current system point out it relies on mass scale exploitation of personal data to function, and many believe this simply won’t fly under Europe’s tough new GDPR framework.

They are applying legal pressure via a set of GDPR complaints, filed last fall, that challenge the legality of a fundamental piece of the (current) adtech industry’s architecture: Real-time bidding (RTB); arguing the system is fundamentally incompatible with Europe’s privacy rules.

We covered these complaints last November but the basic argument is that bid requests essentially constitute systematic data breaches because personal data is broadcast widely to solicit potential ad buys and thereby poses an unacceptable security risk — rather than, as GDPR demands, people’s data being handled in a way that “ensures appropriate security”.

To spell it out, the contention is the entire behavioral advertising business is illegal because it’s leaking personal data at such vast and systematic scale it cannot possibly comply with EU data protection law.

Regulators are considering the argument, and courts may follow. But it’s clear adtech systems that have operated in opaque darkness for years, without no worry of major compliance fines, no longer have the luxury of being able to take their architecture as a given.

Greater legal risk might be catalyst enough to encourage a market shift towards less intrusive targeting; ads that aren’t targeted based on profiles of people synthesized from heaps of personal data but, much like DuckDuckGo’s contextual ads, are only linked to a real-time interest and a generic location. No creepy personal dossiers necessary.

If Acquisti’s research is to be believed — and here’s the kicker for Facebook et al — there’s little reason to think such ads would be substantially less effective than the vampiric microtargeted variant that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to describe as “relevant”.

The ‘relevant ads’ badge is of course a self-serving concept which Facebook uses to justify creeping on users while also pushing the notion that its people-tracking business inherently generates major extra value for advertisers. But does it really do that? Or are advertisers buying into another puffed up fake?

Facebook isn’t providing access to internal data that could be used to quantify whether its targeted ads are really worth all the extra conjoined cost and risk. While the company’s habit of buying masses of additional data on users, via brokers and other third party sources, makes for a rather strange qualification. Suggesting things aren’t quite what you might imagine behind Zuckerberg’s drawn curtain.

Behavioral ad giants are facing growing legal risk on another front. The adtech market has long been referred to as a duopoly, on account of the proportion of digital ad spending that gets sucked up by just two people-profiling giants: Google and Facebook (the pair accounted for 58% of the market in 2018, according to eMarketer data) — and in Europe a number of competition regulators have been probing the duopoly.

Earlier this month the German Federal Cartel Office was reported to be on the brink of partially banning Facebook from harvesting personal data from third party providers (including but not limited to some other social services it owns). Though an official decision has yet to be handed down.

While, in March 2018, the French Competition Authority published a meaty opinion raising multiple concerns about the online advertising sector — and calling for an overhaul and a rebalancing of transparency obligations to address publisher concerns that dominant platforms aren’t providing access to data about their own content.

The EC’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, is also taking a closer look at whether data hoarding constitutes a monopoly. And has expressed a view that, rather than breaking companies up in order to control platform monopolies, the better way to go about it in the modern ICT era might be by limiting access to data — suggesting another potentially looming legal headwind for personal data-sucking platforms.

At the same time, the political risks of social surveillance architectures have become all too clear.

Whether microtargeted political propaganda works as intended or not is still a question mark. But few would support letting attempts to fiddle elections just go ahead and happen anyway.

Yet Facebook has rushed to normalize what are abnormally hostile uses of its tools; aka the weaponizing of disinformation to further divisive political ends — presenting ‘election security’ as just another day-to-day cost of being in the people farming business. When the ‘cost’ for democracies and societies is anything but normal. 

Whether or not voters can be manipulated en masse via the medium of targeted ads, the act of targeting itself certainly has an impact — by fragmenting the shared public sphere which civilized societies rely on to drive consensus and compromise. Ergo, unregulated social media is inevitably an agent of antisocial change.

The solution to technology threatening democracy is far more transparency; so regulating platforms to understand how, why and where data is flowing, and thus get a proper handle on impacts in order to shape desired outcomes.

Greater transparency also offers a route to begin to address commercial concerns about how the modern adtech market functions.

And if and when ad giants are forced to come clean — about how they profile people; where data and value flows; and what their ads actually deliver — you have to wonder what if anything will be left unblemished.

People who know they’re being watched alter their behavior. Similarly, platforms may find behavioral change enforced upon them, from above and below, when it becomes impossible for everyone else to ignore what they’re doing.

Snap’s exec team continues to shrink as more reports of internal drama surface

Days after Snap announced the departure of its CFO, reports have emerged that the company’s HR chief was asked to leave following an internal investigation late last year that had led to the firing of its global security head.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Snap fired global security head Francis Racioppi late last year after an investigation uncovered that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an outside contractor he had hired. After the relationship ended, Racioppi terminated the woman’s contract, the report says.

Racioppi denied any wrongdoing in a comment to the Journal. A report from Cheddar also adds that one of Racioppi’s assistants was fired for aiding in an attempt to cover up the scandal.

The investigation’s findings reportedly contributed to CEO Evan Spiegel asking the company’s HR head Jason Halbert to step down. Halbert announced his plans to leave the company this week.

While today’s news pins two high-profile executive departures to a single incident, Snap’s executive team has seemed to be losing talent from its ranks at a quickening pace.

Snap’s ephemeral C-suite https://t.co/cdNDFyVEGS

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) January 16, 2019

Snap did not comment on the reports.

Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

GBatteries let you charge your car as quickly as visiting the pump

A YC startup called GBatteries has come out of stealth with a bold claim: they can recharge an electric car as quickly as it takes to full up a tank of gas.

Created by aerospace engineer Kostya Khomutov, electrical engineers Alex Tkachenko and Nick Sherstyuk, and CCO Tim Sherstyuk, the company is funded by the likes of Airbus Ventures, Initialized Capital, Plug and Play, and SV Angel.

The system uses AI to optimize the charging systems in electric cars.

“Most companies are focused on developing new chemistries or materials (ex. Enevate, Storedot) to improve charging speed of batteries. Developing new materials is difficult, and scaling up production to the needs of automotive companies requires billions of $,” said Khomutov. “Our technology is a combination of software algorithms (AI) and electronics, that works with off-the-shelf Li-ion batteries that have already been validated, tested, and produced by battery manufacturers. Nothing else needs to change.”

The team makes some bold claims. The product allows users to charge a 60kWh EV battery pack with 119 miles of range in 15 minutes as compared to 15 miles in 15 minutes today. “The technology works with off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries and existing fast charge infrastructure by integrating via a patented self-contained adapter on a car charge port,” writes the team. They demonstrated their product at CES this year.

Most charging systems depend on fairly primitive systems for topping up batteries. Various factors – including temperature – can slow down or stop a charge. GBatteries manages this by setting a very specific charging model that “slows down” and “speeds up” the charge as necessary. This allows the charge to go much faster under the right conditions.

The company bloomed out of frustration.

“We’ve always tinkered with stuff together since before I was even a teenager, and over time had created a burgeoning hardware lab in our basement,” said Sherstyuk. “While I was studying Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, we’d often debate and discuss why batteries in our phones got so bad so rapidly – you’d buy a phone, and a year later it would almost be unusable because the battery degraded so badly.”

“This sparked us to see if we can solve the problem by somehow extending the cycle life of batteries and achieve better performance, so that we’d have something that lasts. We spent a few weeks in our basement lab wiring together a simple control system along with an algorithm to charge a few battery cells, and after 6 months of testing and iterations we started seeing a noticeable difference between batteries charged conventionally, and ones using our algorithm. A year and a half later of constant iterations and development, we applied and were accepted in 2014 into YC.”

While it’s not clear when this technology will hit commercial vehicles, it could be the breakthrough we all need to start replacing our gas cars with something a little more environmentally-friendly.

Hulu unexpectedly releases “Fyre Fraud” days before Netflix’s competing documentary

Not since the literary biopic showdown between “Capote” and “Infamous” has there been such an intense battle for the attention of viewers. This time, the fight is between Hulu and Netflix’s competing documentaries about the disastrous Fyre Festival, a 2017 music festival whose failure led to eight lawsuits and a six-year prison sentence for co-founder Billy McFarland. Hulu unexpectedly released its film, “Fyre Fraud” today, just four days before Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” was scheduled to premiere. Both films are helmed by award-winning filmmakers.

Entertainment Today reports that Hulu hopes its documentary, directed by Emmy-nominated, Peabody-winning filmmaking team Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason “will provide enlightening context ahead of [co-executive producer Elliot] Tebele’s Netflix documentary.”

“Fyre Fraud” contains exclusive interviews with McFarland, who co-founded Fyre with rapper Ja Rule, and people who used to work for Tebele’s marketing agency FuckJerry, one of the festival’s promoters. Some of Tebele’s former employees claim in “Fyre Fraud” that Tebele asked them to cover up early warning signs about the festival.

McFarland was later sentenced six years to jail in for defrauding investors, while Ja Rule is fighting to be removed as a defendant from a $100 million class action lawsuit. Attendees paid thousands of dollars for tickets, expecting a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, but instead found themselves staying in tents, no Internet service, no water, and food like processed cheese sandwiches. Delayed flights made the experience even more nightmarish, as guests were forced to wait hours in the heat for their charter flights back to Miami.

In response, the makers of Netflix’s “Frye,” directed by Chris Smith (whose “American Movie” won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999), told Entertainment Weekly that even though they worked with Tebele and Jerry Media (a FuckJerry brand), “at no time did they, or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics. We stand behind our film, believe it is an unbiased and illuminating look at what happened, and look forward to sharing it with audiences around the world.”

Smith told Entertainment Weekly earlier this week that McFarland wasn’t included in the documentary because he “wanted to get paid” for appearing and “we didn’t feel comfortable with him benefitting after so many people were hurt as a consequence of his actions.”

TechCrunch has contacted Netflix and Hulu for comment.

Samsung’s new Galaxy M smartphones will launch in India first

Samsung will launch its new lower-priced Galaxy M series in India before the smartphones roll out globally. Asim Warsi, senior vice president of Samsung India’s smartphone business, told Reuters that three devices will be available through its website and Amazon India at the end of January and are intended to help the company double online sales.

Samsung is currently trying to recover its lead in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market behind China, after losing it to Xiaomi at the end of 2017, when Xiaomi’s sales in India overtook Samsung for the first time, according to data from both Canalys and Counterpoint.

Xiaomi’s budget Redmi series gave it an advantage since Samsung had a dearth of competitors in the same price bracket, but analysts noted the Korean electronics giant maintains an edge in terms of R&D and supply chain expertise. Samsung leaned into those strengths last year, opening what it describes as the world’s largest mobile phone factory in Noida, just outside of New Delhi.

Specs about the three Galaxy M smartphones emerged last month, with details appearing on platform benchmark Geekbench about devices called M10, M20 and M30, the latter of which may be powered by an Exynos 7885 chip with 4GB ram.

Warsi told Reuters that “the M series has been built around and incepted around Indian millennial consumers.” The price range of Indian-first smartphones will be from less than 10,000 rupees (about $142) to 20,000 rupees. TechCrunch has emailed Samsung for more information about the new phones.

The company will debut the latest version of its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S10, in San Francisco on Feb. 20.

Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR

In a new a16z podcast with the venture firm’s founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, there’s a lot to enjoy, from Andreessen’s TV show recommendations to Horowitz’s secret to excellent barbecue. (It’s pretty much just “time,” as you might imagine.)

More useful for our founder readers may be Andreessen’s predictions around tech and, because he’s asked about them specifically, his predictions when it comes to wearables, including that virtual reality will be “one thousand” times bigger than augmented reality. It’s an interesting statement given the firm’s bet on Magic Leap and its AR goggles.

You can find the entire podcast here. Our favorite parts are excerpted below for your weekend reading:

On audio:

“The really big one right now is audio. Audio is on the rise just generally and particularly with Apple and the AirPods, which has been an absolute home run [for Apple]. It’s one of the most deceptive things because it’s just like this little product, and how important could it be? And I think it’s tremendously important, because it’s basically a voice in your ear any time you want.

For example, there are these new YouTube type celebrities, and everybody’s kind of wondering where people are finding the spare time to watch these YouTube videos and listen to these YouTube people in the tens and tens of millions. And the answer is: they’re at work. They have this bluetooth thing in their ear, and they’ve got a hat, and that’s 10 hours on the forklift and that’s 10 hours of Joe Rogan. That’s a big deal.

Of course, speech as a [user interface] is rapidly on the rise. So I think audio is going to be titanically important.”

On sensors:

“The second thing I’d nominate for wearables is the concept of sensors on the body. Here, the Apple Watch is clearly in the lead with what they’re doing with the heartbeat sensor. But I think we’ll have a full complement of medical-grade sensors on our body — in a way that we have chosen to [have them] — over the next five or 10 years. I think we’ll be able to predict things like heart attacks and strokes before they happen. Talk about a killer app. [Laughs.] ‘Beep. I’m going to have a heart attack in four hours. Maybe I should drive to the hospital.’

The survival rate [for heart attack victims] at the hospital is, like, 99 percent. The survival rate for people at home is like 50 percent. There’s an opportunity for a massive increase in quality of life with the sensor platforms people are going to have.”

On the future of AR/VR:

“I think optics are coming. It’s going to be a long road, but I think AR and VR are going to work, and that we’re going to have heads-up displays that are going to remove the need for what we have now, which is this little pane of glass that we’re expected to experience the whole world through. The whole world is going to open up around us.

I think AR has tons of potential applications, both at work and at home. [But] I think VR is going to be about 1,000 times bigger. In the Valley right now, this is a very contrarian view. The general theme that you hear is that AR will be bigger than VR, and obviously it should be. If you can do things overlaid over the real world, that should be inherently more interesting than having to construct a synthetic world.

I just think that’s only true for people who live in a really interesting place in the real world. But only something like .1 percent and 1 percent of people on Earth live in a place where they wake up every morning and think, Wow, there are so many interesting things to see. So for everyone who doesn’t already live on a college campus or in Silicon Valley or in a major other city, the new environments we’re going to be able to create in VR will inherently be much more interesting. And there will be a lot more of them.”

China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

China’s Chang’e-4 probe softlands on Moon’s far side pic.twitter.com/Z1R6tbpBMI

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games

Chinese internet giant Tencent has been excluded from the first batch of video game license approvals issued by the state-run government since March.

China regulators approved Saturday the released of 80 online video games after a months-long freeze, Reuters first reported. None of the approved titles listed on the approval list were from Tencent Holdings, the world’s largest gaming company.

Licenses are usually granted on a first come, first serve basis in order of when studios file their applications, several game developers told TechCrunch. There are at least 7,000 titles in the waiting list, among which only 3,000 may receive the official licenses in 2019, China’s 21st Century Business Herald reported citing experts. Given the small chance of making it to the first batch, it’s unsurprising the country’s two largest game publishers Tencent and NetEase were absent.

The controlled and gradual unfreezing process is in line with a senior official’s announcement on December 21. While the Chinese gaming regulator is trying its best to greenlight titles as soon as possible, there is a huge number of applications in the pipeline, the official said. Without licenses, studios cannot legally monetize their titles in China. The hiatus in approval has slashed earnings in the world’s largest gaming market, which posted a 5.4 percent year-over-year growth in the first half of 2018, the slowest rate in the last ten years according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Tencent is best known as the company behind WeChat, a popular messaging platform in China. But much of its revenue comes from gaming. Even with a recent decline in gaming revenue, the company has a thriving business that is majority owner of several companies including Activision, Grinding Gears Games, Riot and Supercell. In 2012, the company took a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, maker of Fortnite. Tencent also has alliances or publishing deals with other video gaming companies such as Square Enix, makers of Tomb Raider. 

The ban on new video game titles in China has affected Tencent’s bottom line. The company reported revenue from gaming fell 4 percent in the third quarter due to the prolonged freeze on licenses. At the time, Tencent claimed it had 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline. To combat pressure in its consumer-facing gaming business, the Chinese giant launched a major reorganization in October to focus more on enterprise-related initiatives such as cloud services and maps. Founder and CEO Pony Ma said at the time the strategic repositioning would prepare Tencent for the next 20 years of operation.

“In the second stage, we aspire to enable our partners in different industries to better connect with consumers via an expanding, open and connected ecosystem,” stated Ma.

China tightened restrictions in 2018 to combat games that are deemed illegal, immoral, low-quality or have a negative social impact such as those that make children addicted or near-sighted. This means studios, regardless of size, need to weigh new guidelines in their production and user interaction. Tencent placed its own restrictions on gaming in what appeared to be an attempt to assuage regulators. The company has expanded its age verification system, an effort aimed at curbing use of young players, and placed limits on daily play.

Update (December 30, 10:00 am, GMT+8): Adds context on China’s gaming industry and Tencent.

Two years later, I still miss the headphone port

Two years ago, Apple killed the headphone port. I still haven’t forgiven them for it.

When Apple announced that the iPhone 7 would have no headphone port, I was pretty immediately annoyed. I figured maybe I’d get over it in a few months. I didn’t. I figured if worse came to worse, I’d switch platforms. Then all of the other manufacturers started following suit.

This, of course, isn’t a new annoyance for me. I’ve been hating headphone adapters on phones right here on this very website since two thousand and nine. For a little stretch there, though, I got my way.

It was a world full of dongles and crappy proprietary audio ports. Sony Ericsson had the FastPort. Nokia had the Pop-Port. Samsung had like 10 different ports that no one gave a shit about. No single phone maker had claimed the throne yet, so no one port had really become ubiquitous… but every manufacturer wanted their port to become the port. Even the phones that had a standardized audio jack mostly had the smaller 2.5mm port, requiring an adapter all the same.

Then came the original iPhone with its 3.5mm headphone port. It was a weird recessed 3.5mm port that didn’t work with most headphones, but it was a 3.5mm port! Apple was riding on the success of the iPod, and people were referring to this rumored device as the iPod Phone before it was even announced. How could something like that not have a headphone port?

Sales of the iPhone started to climb. A few million in 2007. Nearly 12 million in 2008. 20 million in 2009. A tide shifted. As Apple’s little slab of glass took over the smartphone world, other manufacturers tried to figure out what Apple was doing so right. The smartphone market, once filled with chunky, button-covered plastic beasts (this one slides! This one spins!), homogenized. Release by release, everything started looking more like the iPhone. A slab of glass. Premium materials. Minimal physical buttons. And, of course, a headphone port.

Within a couple years, a standard headphone port wasn’t just a nice selling point — it was mandatory. We’d entered a wonderful age of being able to use your wired headphones whenever you damn well pleased.

Then came September 7th, 2016, when Apple had the “courage” to announce it was ditching the 3.5mm jack (oh and also by the way check out these new $150 wireless headphones!).

Apple wasn’t the first to ditch the headphone port — but, just as with its decision to include one, its decision to remove it has turned the tide. A few months after the portless iPhone 7 was announced, Xiaomi nixed the port on the Mi 6. Then Google ditched it from its flagship Android phone, the Pixel 3. Even Samsung, which lampooned Apple for the decision, seems to be tinkering with the idea of dropping it. Though leaks suggest the upcoming Galaxy S10 will have a headphone port, the company pulled it from the mid-range A8 line earlier this year. If 2016 was the year Apple took a stab at the headphone jack, 2018 was the year it bled out.

And I’m still mad about it.

Technology comes and goes, and oh-so-often at Apple’s doing. Ditching the CD drive in laptops? That’s okay — CDs were doomed, and they were pretty awful to begin with. Killing Flash? Flash sucked. Switching one type of USB port for another? Fine, I suppose. The new USB is better in just about every way. At the very least, I won’t try to plug it in upside down only to flip it over and realize I had it right the first time.

But the headphone jack? It was fine. It stood the test of time for one hundred damned years, and with good reason: It. Just. Worked.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the removal of the headphone port bugs me more than other ports that have been unceremoniously killed off, and I think it’s because the headphone port almost always only made me happy. Using the headphone port meant listening to my favorite album, or using a free minute to catch the latest episode of a show, or passing an earbud to a friend to share some new tune. It enabled happy moments and never got in the way.

Now every time I want to use my headphones, I just find myself annoyed.

Bluetooth? Whoops, forgot to charge them. Or whoops, they’re trying to pair with my laptop even though my laptop is turned off and in my backpack.

Dongle? Whoops, left it on my other pair of headphones at work. Or whoops, it fell off somewhere, and now I’ve got to go buy another one.

I’ll just buy a bunch of dongles, and put them on all my headphones! I’ll keep extras in my bag for when I need to borrow a pair of headphones. That’s just like five dongles at this point, problem solved! Oh, wait: now I want to listen to music while I fall asleep, but also charge my phone so it’s not dead in the morning. That’s a different, more expensive splitter dongle (many of which, I’ve found, are poorly made garbage).

None of these are that big of a deal. Charge your damned headphones, Greg. Stop losing your dongles. The thing is: they took a thing that just worked and just made me happy and replaced it with something that, quite often, just bugs the hell out of me. If a friend sent me a YouTube link and I wanted to watch it without bugging everyone around me, I could just use whatever crappy, worn out headphones I happened to have sitting in my bag. Now it’s a process with a bunch of potential points of failure.

“But now its water resistant!” Water-resistant phones existed before all of this, plenty of which had/have headphone ports. As a recent example, see Samsung’s Galaxy S9 with its IP68 rating (matching that of the iPhone XS.)

“But it can be slimmer!” No one was asking for that.

“But the batteries inside can be bigger!” The capacity of the battery barely jumped in the years from the 6S to the 8 — from 1,715mAh to 1,821mAh. It wasn’t until a few years later with the iPhone X, when the standard iPhone started getting wider and taller, that we saw super big jumps in its battery capacity.

Will this post change anything? Of course not. Apple blew the horn that told the industry it’s okay to drop the headphone port, and everyone fell right in line. The next year — and the year after that — Apple sold another 200M-plus phones. At this point, Apple doesn’t even bother giving you the headphone adapter in the box. Apple’s mind is made up.

But if you’re out there, annoyed, stumbling across this post after finding yourself with a pair of headphones and a smartphone that won’t play friendly together in a pinch, just know: you’re not the only one. Two years later, I’m still mad at whoever made this call — and everyone else in the industry who followed suit.

Tesla shares fall 7.6% following price cuts in China and Elon Musk’s promise to reimburse missed tax credits

Monday was a tough day for the U.S. stock market, but Tesla shares were hit especially hard. The stock fell by 7.6 percent after Tesla cut the Model 3’s price in China and CEO Elon Musk promised to reimburse U.S. customers if they miss a tax credit deadline due to Model 3 shipment delays.

Reuters reported this weekend that the Model 3’s prices on Tesla’s China website had been reduced by up to 7.6 percent, with the starting price now at 499,000 RMB (about $72,000). This is the third time since November that Tesla has lowered the price of its vehicles in China.

The first was in November, when it slashed the price of Model X and Model S vehicles by 12 to 26 percent, stating that it was “absorbing a significant part of the tariff to help make cars more affordable for customers in China.” Then this month, Tesla cut Model X and Model S prices again, citing China’s decision to temporarily suspend a new 25 percent tariff on American-produced vehicles and auto parts as the two countries reached a ceasefire in the trade war.

In October, Tesla announced on its site that if U.S. customers needed to order a Model S, Model X, or Model 3 before October 15 if they wanted the full $7,500 federal tax credit, which begins to phase out once a manufacturer sells 200,000 qualifying vehicles in the U.S. (Tesla hit that milestone earlier this year). As a result, the federal tax vehicle will be cut 50 percent to $3,750 for vehicles delivered January 1 to June 30, 2019, before behing halved again on July 1.

On Sunday, Musk tweeted in response to a question that if a customer’s pre-December order isn’t delivered before the end of the year, Tesla will reimburse the tax credits they missed out on.

If Tesla committed delivery & customer made good faith efforts to receive before year end, Tesla will cover the tax credit difference

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2018

After months of production and delivery delays, Tesla ramped up fulfillment of Model 3 orders in the third quarter of this year, when it delivered a total of 83,500 vehicles, including 55,840 Model 3 units.

Uber reaches tentative settlement with drivers arbitrating over employment status and expense reimbursement

Uber is reportedly on track to go public in the first quarter next year, and in the lead up to that, it’s sewing up some loose ends.

TechCrunch has learned that Uber has offered a tentative settlement to pay out 11 cents for every mile driven for Uber (including adjacent services like Uber Eats) to drivers who have been in individual arbitration with the company over their employment classification. Drivers were pursuing individual arbitration after an appeals court ruled in September that they could not combine their cases into a class action lawsuit.

Uber has declined to comment for this story, and one of the firms representing drivers, Lichten & Liss-Riordan, has not yet responded to our request for comment.

In a case that now goes back years and covers nine states, some 160,000 drivers had been seeking to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors, partly in order to get compensated for expenses related to driving for the company, such as gasoline used and vehicle maintenance.

Another big complaint in the case involved tips: drivers said Uber would not allow them to take or keep tips from passengers. (The claim preceded June 2017, when Uber formally introduced tips in its app, netting some $600 million extra for drivers in one year.)

Uber’s settlement of 11 cents per mile for all on-trip miles that were driven for Uber bypasses addressing those specific details. Notably, drivers who accept the settlement sign documents to release all claims against Uber related to employee misclassification.

The settlement is tentative depending on a sufficient number of drivers signing the agreement (we do not know what the minimum would be), among other factors, and it could take up to six months for payments to get to drivers.

On one hand, this an okay result in what was a challenging situation for litigating drivers. A class action lawsuit, combining several people into one case, would have gained economies of scale in terms of legal costs, and that could have meant a stronger recovery payout for the group.

But with the appeals judges striking down that possibility, it would have been left to individual drivers to pursue their own cases against the company. That is an expensive and time-consuming process and might not have seen as many plaintiffs willing to fight.

It may have been unpalatable for Uber, too. With the company gearing up for a public listing and all the scrutiny that comes with that, drawing a line under these cases with a settlement is a better result than multiple, years-long arbitration cases.

It’s also an important step in Uber repairing its image with current and potential drivers.

The company went through a huge crisis last year that highlighted questionable management and bad company culture when it came to female employees, treatment of drivers, interfacing with regulators and more.

(In fact the tipping was introduced as part of the company’s wider efforts to repair its business and image among drivers, passengers and employees. It also included appointing a new CEO. )

Having a loyal and growing base of drivers is essential to Uber scaling its business, and this settlement is one signal to drivers that Uber is trying to do right by them.

Still, it seems that the bargaining power here may have been more on Uber’s side.

Uber, valued at $72 billion as of its last funding and potentially as high as $120 billion in an IPO, is one of the world’s biggest privately-held tech companies. The 11 cents per mile it’s offering as a settlement is estimated to be only one-third of what a driver could have recovered for just one of the claims, expense reimbursement, had he or she pursued the arbitration rather than opted for the settlement.

Securing rights for the growing number of contract workers in the labor market has been one of the more controversial aspects of the boom in “gig-economy” businesses. It will be interesting to see how and if more of these kinds of cases come to light, and if regulators start to wade in, in cases where employers have not.

Convo now lets you see which employees got the memo

Convo, a tool perhaps best described as a real-time company message board, picked up a new trick this week: automated acknowledgements.

It’s a pretty common thing in the corporate world: you need to send something out to all of the employees at your company, but you also need to know exactly who has seen it (and, of course, who hasn’t.) Who actually got the memo? Can you say that everyone has seen some mandatory reading? Who still needs to see it?

You can try to use email read receipts, but those are hit-or-miss — particularly as many email clients disable them by default nowadays. You can make everyone sign a form saying they’ve seen the document in question, but that’s a pain in the butt. When all you need is a list that says “Yep, these employees have all seen this blurb of text” so you can meet some new compliance requirement, it shouldn’t be complicated.

Convo’s new tool makes it pretty easy: write your post like any other, but check the “Recipients must acknowledge to view” box before sending it out.

When it pops up in your colleagues’ Convo timeline, it’ll be almost entirely blurred, save for a subject line and a prompt asking them to acknowledge the post. Once they deliberately acknowledge it, the post is de-blurred, the original poster gets an alert letting them know someone has read it, and the reader’s name moves from the “Has not seen” to the “Has seen” list.

To be clear, this isn’t a security feature; there are ways to get around the blurring without officially acknowledging it. Hell, you can just say ‘Hey Jim, did you already open that convo post? Let me see it on your phone’. The point here isn’t preventing anyone in the company from seeing something, but in making sure everyone has seen something, and having an automatically generated list to fulfill any compliance requirements. If you’re using Convo’s group features correctly, it should only show up for people you intend to see it in the first place.

The feature rolled out earlier this week. It’ll be available for all Convo networks for the next month to check out, at which point they expect to limit it to Enterprise-level customers.

China’s Tencent Music raises $1.1 billion in downsized US IPO

Tencent Music, China’s largest streaming company, has raised $1.1 billion in a U.S. IPO after it priced its shares at $13 a piece ahead of a listing on the Nasdaq.

That makes it one of the largest tech listings of the year, but the pricing is at the bottom end of its $13-$15 range indicating that the much-anticipated IPO has felt the effects of an uncertain market. Indeed, the company is said to have paused the listing process, which it started in early October, for a time so choppy are the waters right now — and that’s not even mentioning a shareholder-led lawsuit that was filed last week.

Still, this listing gives TME — Tencent Music Entertainment, a spin-out of Tencent — an impressive $21.3 billion valuation which is just below the $30 billion that Spotify commanded when it went public earlier this year via an unconventional direct listing. TME was valued at $12 billion at the time of Spotify’s listing in Q1 of this year so this is also a big jump. (Meanwhile, Spotify’s present market cap is around $24 billion.)

The company operates a constellation of music streaming services in China which span orthodox Spotify-style streaming as well as karaoke and live-streaming services. Altogether, TME claims 800 million registered users — although there’s likely a little creative accounting or double counting across apps involved since the Chinese government itself says there are 800 million internet users in the entire country.

Notably, though, TME is profitable. The same can’t be said for Spotify and likely Apple Music — although we don’t have financials for the latter. That’s down to the unique business model that the Chinese firm operates, with subscription and virtual goods a major driver for its businesses, while Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging app helps it reach users and gain virality.

Tidy though the numbers are, its revenues are dwarfed by those of Spotify, which grossed €1.4 billion ($1.59 billion) in sales in its last quarter. For comparison, TME did RMB 8.6 billion ($1.3 billion) in revenue for the first six months of this year.

TME executives are taking that as a sign that there’s ample scope to grow their business, although it seems unlikely that will ever be as global as Spotify. The two companies might yet collaborate in the future though, since they are both mutual shareholders via a share swap deal that concluded one year ago.

You can read more about TME in our deep dive below.

We also wrote about the lessons Western services like Spotify and Apple Music can learn from TME.

Awaken offers meditations focused on healing from systems of oppression

A mindful, contemplative approach to internalized racism and sexism is a necessary piece of the puzzle of dismantling systems of oppression, Awaken founder and CEO Ravi Mishra says. That’s the entire point of Awaken, a mindfulness and meditation app specifically geared toward helping people cope with the harsh realities of today’s society.

Awaken got its roots in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Mishra told TechCrunch. The election surfaced these “larger questions that have to do with race, gender, sexuality and power, and how they live inside of us.”

Through Awaken, Mishra hopes to offer mindfulness and meditation practices that help cultivate stability within marginalized communities. These contemplative practices center around sitting with certain questions and identity construction. Awaken’s founding teachers are Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens and Sensei Greg Snyder — three leaders focused on the intersection of mindfulness and social change.

Similar to meditation app Headspace, which is valued at $320 million, Awaken has a freemium plan in place. For full access to content, Awaken charges $8.99 a month. While Awaken does seek to make money, Mishra says he’s not doing it for profit. Instead, the plan is to use all the money Awaken makes for activist work.

“We’re currently running at a loss and figuring out how to break even,” he told me. “The hope and idea is once we are fully profitable, we’ll move that into activist work.”

Awaken has plans to close a round of funding from mission-aligned angel investors early next year.

Fortnite gets into Christmas mode with snow, planes and ziplines in season 7

Fortnite, the world’s most popular game, is getting into the festive period after it released its much-anticipated Season 7 update which includes lots of Christmasy touches.

The new season sees an iceberg smash into the island where the battle royale smash hit is located, that means there’s frozen terrain in the form of places like Frosty Flights and Polar Peak as well as falling snow, snow-covered trees and slippery ice.

The most notable update to the playing style is the arrival of X-4 Stormwing planes which you can take for a ride in the skies. Beyond helping you get around quicker, they’re also complete with weapons for shooting down other planes or taking aim at enemies on the ground. The game now also includes ziplines, another useful addition that’ll change how players get around the map.

The festive touches also include wrapping for weapons and vehicles, while there’s a Sergeant Santa skin that’s up for grabs.

Outside the regular battle mode, Epic Games has added a Minecraft-like ‘creative’ mode that gives each player their own island which can be customized. This, to me, is one of the best introductions to date since the new game mode gives players a new way to battle privately with friends.

Creative is initially limited to players who buy the season 7 battle pass, but it’ll be available to all Fortnite gamers after December 13.

Fintech investors and founders to judge Startup Battlefield Africa

TechCrunch will soon be returning to Africa to hold its Startup Battlefield competition dedicated to the African continent.

The event, in Lagos, Nigeria, on December 11, will showcase the launch of 15 of the hottest startups in Africa onstage for the first time. We’ll also be joined by some of the leading investment firms in the region. The event is now sold out, but keep your eyes on TechCrunch for video of all the panels and the Battlefield competition.

Here are just some of the investors and founders who will be judging the startups competing for US$25,000.


Olugbenga Agboola, Flutterwave

Olugbenga Agboola is the CEO of Flutterwave, a payments technology company headquartered in San Francisco with operations and offices across Africa and Europe. Prior to co-founding Flutterwave, Olugbenga contributed to the development of fintech solutions at several tech companies and financial institutions such as PayPal and Standard Bank, among others. He is a serial entrepreneur with two successful exits under his belt. He is a software engineer with a Master’s Degree in Information Technology Security and Behavioral Engineering, as well as an MBA.

Barbara Iyayi, Element

Barbara Iyayi is the chief growth officer and managing director of Africa for Element, which deploys AI-powered mobile biometrics software to develop digital platforms globally. Barbara was part of the founding team of Atlas Mara, a London stock exchange-listed company, co-founded by Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank, which was the first-ever entity to raise more than $1 billion to invest in, operate and manage financial institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. As the Regional Lead for M&A and Investments, she led investments into banks and developed the banking platform’s entry into seven countries in Africa. Notably, she led the acquisition and first-ever merger of two banks in Rwanda, to be the leading innovative retail bank — Banque Populaire du Rwanda — and led a $250 million equity investment in Union Bank of Nigeria.

Aaron Fu, MEST Africa

Aaron is an early-stage investor, entrepreneur and strategic advisor to both startups as they scale and corporates as they transform to gain agility for disruptive innovation. Over the last five years he has specifically focused on innovation in Africa, working with global brands and entrepreneurs across diverse industries, from financial services to health to mobile to agriculture.

As managing director at MEST, he is dedicated to training, investing in and incubating the next generation of global software entrepreneurs in Africa. He manages a portfolio of 30-plus startups spanning fintech, media, e-commerce and agritech. 

Sam Gichuru, Nailab

Sam Gichuru is founder and CEO of Nailab, one of Kenya’ s leading business incubators. His contribution in establishing the startup business ecosystem in Kenya, through Nailab, has been significant, and as a result was invited as a key speaker during the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, held in Nairobi and officiated by then U.S. President Barack Obama.

Sam has been instrumental in propagating the development of a strong and vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem, and it’s through this engagement that he was most recently selected by Jack Ma to lead, through Nailab, the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, a $10 million Initiative that seeks to discover, spotlight and support 10 African entrepreneurs every year for the next 10 years.

Olufunbi Falayi, Savannah Fund


Olufunbi Falayi  is a partner at Passion Incubator, an early-stage technology incubator and accelerator that invests in early-stage startups. He co-led investment in 12 startups, including Riby, BeatDrone, AdsDirect, TradeBuza and Waracake. Olufunbi also a principal at Savannah Fund, driving investment in West Africa.

“Daredevil” will not be renewed for a fourth season, the latest Marvel series cancelled by Netflix

Despite strong reviews and a fan petition, Netflix said today that it is cancelling “Daredevil” after three seasons. This is the latest Marvel series, after “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist,” that Netflix has cancelled recently, and is a sign that Marvel TV and Netflix’s multi-series agreement, signed in 2013, may be hitting some bumps.

Centered around a blind lawyer-turned-superhero in New York City, played by Charlie Cox, “Daredevil” was the first series released as part of the Marvel -Netflix deal in 2015. This leaves “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” as the two remaining Marvel series on Netflix.

Netflix said in a statement sent to Deadline, which first broke the news, that “we are tremendously proud of the show’s last and final season and although it’s painful for the fans, we feel it best to close this chapter on a high note. We are thankful to our partners at Marvel, showrunner Erik Oleson, the show’s writers, stellar crew, and incredible cast including Charlie Cox as Daredevil himself, and we’re grateful to the fans who have supported the show over the years.”

The streaming service added that the three seasons will remain on Netflix for years, while “the Daredevil will live on in future projects for Marvel,” leaving open the possibility that the character might appear in “Jessica Jones” or “The Punisher.” Another possibility is the series moving to Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+, expected to launch late next year (the Walt Disney Company owns Marvel Entertainment).

The abrupt cancellations of three Marvel series over the last new months may point to hiccups in the partnership between Netflix and Marvel TV. Potential conflicts between the two include the cost of producing Marvel-Netflix shows, the success of Netflix’s own original content, and disagreements about the length of seasons. The Marvel seasons had 13 episodes each, but newer Netflix shows are only 10 episodes per season.

Microsoft wins $480M military contract to outfit soldiers with HoloLens AR tech

Microsoft is readying its HoloLens augmented reality tech for combat. The company just won a $480 million military contract with the U.S. government to bring AR headset tech into the weapon repertoires of American soldiers.

The two-year contract may result in follow-on orders of more than 100,000 headsets according to documentation describing the bidding process. One of the contract’s tag lines for the AR tech seems to be its ability to enable “25 bloodless battles before the 1st battle,” suggesting that actual combat training is going to be an essential aspect of the AR headset capabilities.

“Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions. This new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement sent to TechCrunch.

Magic Leap was also pursuing the contract according to the report in Bloomberg. The military contract bid was perhaps a bit more of a stretch for the company which has previously maintained that its company’s efforts are focused centrally on consumers. The startup has only recently released its first development kit, while Microsoft’s tech has been in developer hands for more than two years.

Some of the documentation (PDF download) surrounding this bid is intensely interesting and really showcases how extensively the military has researched how augmented reality tech can alter the training and combat environments of soldiers.

Obviously, Microsoft wouldn’t just be planning to take what it’s been selling to factory workers and put it onto a battlefield, but the system requirements outlined in the contract already seem to eclipse what the current generation HoloLens optics are capable of, including items like the device’s FoV which will have a requirement of between 55 and 110 degrees.

Other stipulations include the device being no heavier than 1.5 pounds and being compatible with existing military helmets. The head-worn device would specifically track weapons and allow soldiers to see simulated fire from their real weapons while offering offering training with weapons like Javelin missile systems in a completely simulated environment.

These are all just early frameworks, but Microsoft now will be developing technologies that keep the U.S. military at the forefront of augmented reality tech, something that will probably be a boon to their enterprise focused solutions as well.

CRISPR scientist in China claims his team’s research has resulted in the world’s first gene-edited babies

In what represents a dramatic and ethically fraught escalation of CRISPR research, a Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in helping create the world’s first genetically-edited babies. Dr. Jiankui He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.

The AP’s interview was published after a report by the MIT Technology Review earlier today that He’s team at the Southern University of Science and Technology wants to use CRISPR technology to eliminate the CCR5 gene and create children with resistance to HIV.

He’s claims are certain to cause a huge stir at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, set to begin in Hong Kong on Tuesday. According to the Technology Review, the summit’s organizers were apparently not notified of He’s plans for the study, though the AP says He informed them today. (It is important to note that there is still no independent confirmation of He’s claim and that it has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

During his interview with the AP, He, who studied at Rice and Stanford before returning to China, said he felt “a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example” and that “society will decide what to do next.”

According to documents linked by the Technology Review, the study was approved by the Medical Ethics Committee of Shenzhen HOME Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The summary on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry also said the study’s execution time is between March 7, 2017 to March 7, 2019, and that it sought married couples living in China who met its health and age requirements and are willing to undergo IVF therapy. The research team wrote that their goal is to “obtain healthy children to avoid HIV providing new insights for the future elimination of major genetic diseases in early human embryos.”

A table attached to the trial’s listing on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry said genetic tests have already been carried out on fetuses of 12, 19, and 24 weeks of gestational age, though it is unclear if those pregnancies included the one that resulted in the birth of the twin girls, whose parents wish to remain anonymous.

“I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” He told the AP, adding that if the study causes harm, “I would feel the same pain as they do and it’s going to be my own responsibility.”

Chinese scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou first edited the genes of a human embryo using CRISPR technology (the acronym stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which enables the removal of specific genes by acting as a very precise pair of “genetic scissors,” in 2015. Though other scientists, including in the United States, have conducted similar research since then, the Southern University of Science and Technology’s study is considered especially radical because of the ethical implications of CRISPR, which many scientists fear may be used to perpetuate eugenics or create “designer babies” if carried out on embryos meant to be carried to term.

As in the United States and many European countries, using a genetically-engineered embryo in a pregnancy is already prohibited in China, though the Technology Review points out that this guideline, which was issued to IVF clinics in 2003, may not carry the weight of the law.

In 2015, shortly after the Sun Yat-sen University experiment (which was conducted on embryos that were unviable because of chromosomal effects) became known, a meeting called by several groups, including the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Institute of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, called for a moratorium on making inheritable changes to the human genome.

In addition to ethical concerns, Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing scientist and associate director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, a nonprofit in Seattle, told the Technology Review that He’s study is cause for “regret and concern” because it may also overshadow progress in gene-editing research currently being carried out on adults with HIV.

TechCrunch has contacted He for comment at his university email.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Steve Case (@SteveCase) November 13, 2018

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

Growing pains at venture-backed Moogsoft lead to layoffs

Eight months after bringing in a $40 million Series D, Moogsoft‘s co-founder and chief executive officer Phil Tee confirmed to TechCrunch that the IT incident management startup had shed 18 percent of its workforce, or just over 30 employees.

The layoffs took place at the end of October; shortly after, Moogsoft announced two executive hires. Among the additions was Amer Deeba, who recently resigned from Qualys after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged him with insider trading.

Founded in 2012, San Francisco-based Moogsoft provides artificial intelligence for IT operations (AIOps) to help teams work more efficiently and avoid outages. The startup has raised $90 million in equity funding to date, garnering a $220 million valuation with its latest round, according to PitchBook. It’s backed by Goldman Sachs, Wing Venture Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Dell’s corporate venture capital arm, Singtel Innov8, Northgate Capital and others. Wing VC founder and long-time Accel managing partner Peter Wagner and Redpoint partner John Walecka are among the investors currently sitting on Moogsoft’s board of directors.

Tee, the founder of two public companies (Micromuse and Riversoft) admitted the layoffs affected several teams across the company. The cuts, however, are not a sign of a struggling business, he said, but rather a right of passage for a startup seeking venture scale.

“We are a classic VC-backed startup that has sort of grown up,” Tee told TechCrunch earlier today. “In pretty much every successful company, there is a point in time where there’s an adjustment in strategy … Unfortunately, when you do that, it becomes a question of do we have the right people?”

Moogsoft doubled revenue last year and added 50 Fortune 200 companies as customers, according to a statement announcing its latest capital infusion. Tee said he’s “extremely chipper” about the road ahead and the company’s recent C-suite hires.

Moogsoft’s newest hires, CFO Raman Kapur (left) and COO Amer Deeba (right).

Moogsoft announced its latest executive hires on November 2, only one week after completing the round of layoffs, a common strategy for companies looking to cast a shadow on less-than-stellar news, like major staff cuts. Those hires include former Splunk vice president of finance Raman Kapur as Moogsoft’s first-ever chief financial officer and Amer Deeba, a long-time Qualys executive, as its chief operating officer.

Deeba spent the last 17 years at Qualys, a publicly traded provider of cloud-based security and compliance solutions. In August, he resigned amid allegations of insider trading. The SEC announced its charges against Deeba on August 30, claiming he had notified his two brothers of Qualys’ missed revenue targets before the company publicly announced its financial results in the spring of 2015.

“Deeba informed his two brothers about the miss and contacted his brothers’ brokerage firm to coordinate the sale of all of his brothers’ Qualys stock,” the SEC wrote in a statement. “When Qualys publicly announced its financial results, it reported that it had missed its previously-announced first-quarter revenue guidance and that it was revising its full-year 2015 revenue guidance downward. On the same day, Deeba sent a message to one of his brothers saying, ‘We announced the bad news today.’ The next day, Qualys’s stock price dropped 25%. Although Deeba made no profits from his conduct, Deeba’s brothers collectively avoided losses of $581,170 by selling their Qualys stock.”

Under the terms of Deeba’s settlement, he is ineligible to serve as an officer or director of any SEC-reporting company for two years and has been ordered to pay a $581,170 penalty.

Tee, for his part, said there was never any admission of guilt from Deeba and that he’s already had a positive impact on Moogsoft.

“[Deeba] is a tremendously impressive individual and he has the full confidence of myself and the board,” Tee said.

 

U.S. declines in internet freedom rankings, thanks to net neutrality repeal and fake news

If you need a safe haven on the internet, where the pipes are open and the freedoms are plentiful — you might want to move to Estonia or Iceland.

The latest “internet freedoms” rankings are out, courtesy of Freedom House’s annual report into the state of internet freedoms and personal liberties, based on rankings of 65 countries that represent the vast majority of the world’s internet users. Although the U.S. remains firmly in the top ten, it dropped a point on the year earlier after a recent rash of changes to internet regulation and a lack of in the realm of surveillance.

Last year, the U.S. was 21 in the global internet freedom ranking — the lower number, the better a country ranks. That was behind Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany and Australia. This year the U.S. is at 22 — thanks to the repeal of net neutrality and the renewal of U.S. spy powers.

The report also cited “disinformation and hyperpartisan content” — or fake news — as a “pressing concern.”

It was only in June, after a protracted battle, that the Federal Communications Commission finally pulled the plug on the Obama-era rules that guaranteed the free and fair flow of internet data. Net neutrality — which promises to treat every user’s traffic as equal and doesn’t prioritize certain internet users or services over others — was dead. That was despite months of delays and a scandal that embroiled the FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai for allegedly lying to lawmakers over a falsified denial-of-service attack that he used to try to stifle criticism of his repeal plans. What did happen was an onslaught of citizens demanding that the net neutrality rules. But that was eclipsed by an astroturfing campaign that even used dead people to try to swing the decision.

What also dropped the U.S. a point was the near-clean reauthorization of the government’s surveillance laws, which passed with little debate despite a call for change. It was the first time to reel in the government’s spying powers since the Edward Snowden revelations a half-decade ago — but lawmakers buckled to pressure from the intelligence community, despite recognizing a long history of abuse and overreach by U.S. spy agencies.

Freedom House called the law’s renewal “a blow to civil rights and privacy advocates,” who advocated for change since long before Edward Snowden had a face.

A single digit drop in ranking may not seem like much, compared to the last-place contenders — Iran and China, predictably ranking in worst, but many see the U.S. as a beacon of free speech and expression — a model that others aspire to replicate.

As the report found, that goes both ways. The U.S. has its part to blame for the decline in at least 17 countries where “fake news” has been co-opted by oppressive regimes to justify crackdowns on dissent and free speech. The rise of “fake news,” a term largely attributed to Donald Trump — then a candidate for president — which spread like wildfire — and across borders — as a way to reject reported information or factual current events that were derogatory to a person’s views. In other words, it was a verbal hand grenade, lobbed whenever a person heard something they didn’t like.

Now, other regimes are cracking down on internet freedoms under the guise of fighting fake news. Philippines and Kazakhstan were both named by Freedom House as using “fake news” to restrict the internet by removing content and stifling the spread of views in the name of fighting misinformation.

While many might not care much for a country you know little about, it’s a reminder that the U.S. is still seen in high regard and other nations will follow in its footsteps.

Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said that the U.S. government in particular should take “a more proactive role” in stepping up their efforts to maintain a free and open internet to prevent playing into the hands of of “less democratic governments looking to increase their control of the internet.”

Brex has partnered with WeWork, AWS and more for its new rewards program

Brex, the corporate card built for startups, unveiled its new rewards program today.

The billion-dollar company, which announced its $125 million Series C three weeks ago, has partnered with Amazon Web Services, WeWork, Instacart, Google Ads, SendGrid, Salesforce Essentials, Twilio, Zendesk, Caviar, HubSpot, Orrick, Snap, Clerky and DoorDash to give entrepreneurs the ability to accrue and spend points on services and products they use regularly.

Brex is lead by a pair of 22-year-old serial entrepreneurs who are well aware of the costs associated with building a startup. They’ve been carefully crafting Brex’s list of partners over the last year and say their cardholders will earn roughly 20 percent more rewards on Brex than from any competitor program.

“We didn’t want it to be something that everyone else was doing so we thought, what’s different about startups compared to traditional small businesses?” Brex co-founder and chief executive officer Henrique Dubugras told TechCrunch. “The biggest difference is where they spend money. Most credit card reward systems are designed for personal spend but startups spend a lot more on business.”

Companies that use Brex exclusively will receive 7x points on rideshare, 3x on restaurants, 3x on travel, 2x on recurring software and 1x on all other expenses with no cap on points earned. Brex carriers still using other corporate cards will receive just 1x points on all expenses.

Most corporate cards offer similar benefits for travel and restaurant expenses, but Brex is in a league of its own with the rideshare benefits its offering and especially with the recurring software (SalesForce, HubSpot, etc.) benefits.

San Francisco-based Brex has raised about $200 million to date from investors including Greenoaks Capital, DST Global and IVP.  At the time of its fundraise, the company told TechCrunch it planned to use its latest capital infusion to build out its rewards program, hire engineers and figure out how to grow the business’s client base beyond only tech startups.

“This is going to allow us to compete even more with Amex, Chase and the big banks,” Dubugras said.

Ian Small, former head of TokBox, takes over as Evernote CEO from Chris O’Neill

Former TokBox head Ian Small is replacing Chris O’Neill as CEO of Evernote, the note-taking and productivity app company said this morning. In a blog post, Small said that the leadership change was announced to employees this morning by Evernote’s board. “We are all hugely appreciative of the energy and dedication Chris has shown over the last three years, and in particular for putting Evernote on solid financial footing so we can continue to build for the future,” he wrote.

Small added, “When Stepan Pachikov founded Evernote, he had a vision for how technology could augment memory and how an app could change the way we relate to information at home and at work. Evernote has been more successful at making progress towards Stepan’s dreams than he could have imagined, but Stepan and I both think that there is more to explore and more to invent.”

O”Neill had been Evernote’s CEO since 2015, when he took over the position from co-founder Phil Libin. Small previously served as CEO of TokBox, which operates the OpenTok video calling platform, from 2009 to 2014, and then as its chairman from 2014 to July of this year.

O’Neill’s departure as CEO is the latest significant leadership shift for Evernote, which has withstood several key executive departures over the last few months. In early September, we reported that the company had lost several senior executives, including CTO Anirban Kundu, CFO Vincent Toolan, CPO Erik Wrobel, and head of HR Michelle Wagner, as it sought funding in a potential down-round from the unicorn valuation it hit in 2012. According to TechCrunch’s sources, Evernote had struggled to grow its base of paid users and active users, as well as enterprise clients, for the last six years.

Then a few weeks later, Evernote announced that had to lay off 54 people, or about 15 percent of its workforce. O’Neill wrote a blog post about the company’s future growth strategy, including streamlining specific functions like sales so it could focus on product development and engineering.

Far-right social network Gab goes offline after GoDaddy tells it to find another domain registrar

Gab, the far-right social network that the suspect in Saturday’s mass shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue used to share anti-Semitic posts, has gone offline after GoDaddy gave it 24 hours to find a new domain provider. GoDaddy’s decision comes after PayPal, Medium, Stripe, and Joyent banned Gab’s accounts over the weekend.

Bowers may face the death penalty after being charged with 11 counts of murder and multiple hate crimes in connection to the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which the Anti-Defamation League said it believes is the deadliest against the Jewish community in U.S. history.

On his Gab profile, Bowers had written “jews are the children of satan” in his biography and repeatedly shared anti-Semitic content and other hate speech. Shortly before the shooting, Bowers allegedly wrote “HIAS [an organization that aids Jewish refugees] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

In an emailed statement, a GoDaddy spokesperson said Gab was told to move after breaking the domain registrar’s rules against violent content:

“We have informed Gab.com that they have 24 hours to move the domain to another registrar, as they have violated our terms of service. In response to complaints received over the weekend, GoDaddy investigated and discovered numerous instances of content on the site that both promotes and encourages violence against people.”

Gab now displays a message claiming it “is under attack” and has been “systematically no-platformed by App Stores, multiple hosting providers, and several payment processors.”

This is not the first time Gab has run afoul of its online service providers. Last year, Gab was banned from the Apple app store and Google Play for content violations. In August, Microsoft threatened to boot it from Azure web services if two anti-Semitic posts were not removed (the posts were taken down and Microsoft continued serving Gab).

After being suspended by Joyent, Gab said through its Twitter account that it would “likely be down for weeks,” but later tweeted that it would “be back soon.”

GoDaddy also stopped providing domain services to white supremacist site Daily Stormer in August 2017 after it posted an obscene article about Heather Heyer, who was killed while protesting last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Facial recognition startup Kairos founder continues to fight attempted takeover

There’s some turmoil brewing over at Miami-based facial recognition startup Kairos . Late last month, New World Angels President and Kairos board chairperson Steve O’Hara sent a letter to Kairos founder Brian Brackeen notifying him of his termination from the role of chief executive officer. The termination letter cited willful misconduct as the cause for Brackeen’s termination. Specifically, O’Hara said Brackeen misled shareholders and potential investors, misappropriated corporate funds, did not report to the board of directors and created a divisive atmosphere.

Kairos is trying to tackle the society-wide problem of discrimination in artificial intelligence. While that’s not the company’s explicit mission — it’s to provide authentication tools to businesses — algorithmic bias has long been a topic the company, especially Brackeen, has addressed.

Brackeen’s purported termination was followed by a lawsuit, on behalf of Kairos, against Brackeen, alleging theft, a breach of fiduciary duties — among other things. Brackeen, in an open letter sent a couple of days ago to shareholders — and one he shared with TechCrunch — about the “poorly constructed coup,” denies the allegations and details his side of the story. He hopes that the lawsuit will be dismissed and that he will officially be reinstated as CEO, he told TechCrunch. As it stands today, Melissa Doval who became CFO of Kairos in July, is acting as interim CEO.

“The Kairos team is amazing and resilient and has blown me away with their commitment to the brand,” Doval told TechCrunch. “I’m humbled by how everybody has just kind of stuck around in light of everything that has transpired.”

The lawsuit, filed on October 10 in Miami-Dade and spearheaded by Kairos COO Mary Wolff, alleges Brackeen “used his position as CEO and founder to further his own agenda of gaining personal notoriety, press, and a reputation in the global technology community” to the detriment of Kairos. The lawsuit describes how Brackeen spent less than 30 percent of his time in the company’s headquarters, “even though the Company was struggling financially.”

Other allegations detail how Brackeen used the company credit card to pay for personal expenses and had the company pay for a car he bought for his then-girlfriend. Kairos alleges Brackeen owes the company at least $60,000.

In his open letter, Brackeen says, “Steve, Melissa and Mary, as cause for my termination and their lawsuit against me, have accused me of stealing 60k from Kairos, comprised of non-work related travel, non-work related expenses, a laptop, and a beach club membership,” Brackeen wrote in a letter to shareholders. “Let’s talk about this. While I immediately found these accusations absurd, I had to consider that, to people on the outside of  ‘startup founder’ life— their claims could appear to be salacious, if not illegal.”

Brackeen goes on to say that none of the listed expenses — ranging from trips, meals, rides to iTunes purchases — were not “directly correlated to the business of selling Kairos to customers and investors, and growing Kairos to exit,” he wrote in the open letter. Though, he does note that there may be between $3,500 to $4,500 worth of charges that falls into a “grey area.”

“Conversely, I’ve personally invested, donated, or simply didn’t pay myself in order to make payroll for the rest of the team, to the tune of over $325,000 dollars,” he wrote. “That’s real money from my accounts.”

Regarding forcing Kairos to pay for his then-girlfriend’s car payments, Brackeen explains:

On my making Kairos ‘liable to make my girlfriend’s car payment’— in order to offset the cost of Uber rides to and from work, to meetings, the airport, etc, I determined it would be more cost effective to lease a car. Unfortunately, after having completely extended my personal credit to start and keep Kairos operating, it was necessary that the bank note on the car be obtained through her credit. The board approved the $700 per month per diem arrangement, which ended when I stopped driving the vehicle. Like their entire case— its not very sensational, when truthfully explained.

The company also claims Brackeen has interfered with the company and its affairs since his termination. Throughout his open letter, Brackeen refers to this as an “attempted termination” because, as advised by his lawyers, he has not been legally terminated. He also explains how, in the days leading up to his ouster, Brackeen was seeking to raise additional funding because in August, “we found ourselves in the position of running low on capital.” While he was presenting to potential investors in Singapore, Brackeen said that’s “when access to my email and documents was cut.”

He added, “I traveled to the other side of the world to work with my team on IP development and meet with the people who would commit to millions in investment— and was fired via voicemail the day after I returned.”

Despite the “termination” and lawsuit, O’Hara told TechCrunch via email that “in the interest of peaceful coexistence, we are open to reaching an agreement to allow Brian to remain part of the family as Founder, but not as CEO and with very limited responsibilities and no line authority.”

O’Hara also noted the company’s financials showed there was $44,000 in cash remaining at the end of September. He added, “Then reconcile it with the fact that Brian raised $6MM in 2018 and ask yourself, how does a company go through that kind of money in under 9 months.”

Within the next twelve days, there will be a shareholder vote to remove the board, as well as a vote to reinstate Brackeen as CEO, he told me. After that, Brackeen said he intends to countersue Doval, O’Hara and Wolff.

In addition to New World Angels, Kairos counts Kapor Capital, Backstage Capital and others as investors. At least one investor, Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, has publicly come out in support of Brackeen.

I’m proud of @BrianBrackeen. I’m honored to be his friend. He has handled recent events with his company with grace and patience, and has every right to be screaming inside. I’ve got his back. And he & I only want the best for @LoveKairos.

Certain distractions will be fleeting.

— Arlan 👊🏾 (@ArlanWasHere) October 25, 2018

As previously mentioned, Brackeen has been pretty outspoken about the ethical concerns of facial recognition technologies. In the case of law enforcement, no matter how accurate and unbiased these algorithms are, facial recognition software has no business in law enforcement, Brackeen said at TechCrunch Disrupt in early September. That’s because of the potential for unlawful, excessive surveillance of citizens.

Given the government already has our passport photos and identification photos, “they could put a camera on Main Street and know every single person driving by,” Brackeen said.

And that’s a real possibility. In the last couple of months, Brackeen said Kairos turned down a government request from Homeland Security, seeking facial recognition software for people behind moving cars.

“For us, that’s completely unacceptable,” Brackeen said.

Whether that’s entirely unacceptable for Doval, the interim CEO of Kairos, is not clear. In an interview with TechCrunch, Doval said, “we’re committed to being a responsible and ethical vendor” and that “we’re going to continue to champion the elimination of algorithmic bias in artificial intelligence.” While that’s not a horrific thing to say, it’s much vaguer than saying, “No, we will not ever sell to law enforcement.”

Selling to law enforcement could be lucrative, but that comes with ethical risks and concerns. But if the company is struggling financially, maybe the pros could outweigh the cons.

China’s NIO invests in LiDAR startup Innovusion

Innovusion, a two-year-old startup developing LiDAR sensor technology for autonomous vehicles, has raised $30 million in a Series A funding round co-led by Chinese firms Nio Capital and Eight Roads Ventures along with U.S.-based F-Prime Capital.

Other seed round and strategic investors joined the round, the startup said.

Nio Capital is the venture arm of Nio, the Chinese electric automaker aiming to compete with Tesla. Nio, which raised $1 billion when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in September, has operations in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, although it only sells its ES8 vehicle in China.

Innovusion, which was founded in November 2016, says it will use the funding to scale up its operations, specifically to ramp up production of its light detection and ranging sensor system called Innovusion Cheetah. The company began shipping samples of the system in the second quarter of 2018 and is beginning to take customer orders.

The round of funding will allow the Los Altos, California-based company to expand its R&D team and manufacturing facilities to more quickly develop, market and deliver Innovusion Cheetah LiDAR to customers around the world, according to Junwei Bao, the company’s co-founder and CEO. The company primarily is targeting customers in China and the U.S.

LiDAR is used by companies developing autonomous vehicles to detect and measure objects on the road around them. Most of the companies testing AVs believe LiDAR is an essential sensor required to deploy self-driving vehicles safely on public roads. It’s what has propelled demand for LiDAR and, in turn, an array of startups to pop up and try capture market share away from Velodyne, the long-time dominant leader in the space.