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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.

Tesla to bring portion of Model 3 production to China next year

Tesla, which reported its first quarterly profits in two years Wednesday, is looking to extend its earnings streak by bringing its new Model 3 to customers beyond North America. And part of that plan involves accelerating its manufacturing plans in China.

Tesla saw its revenue skyrocket to $6.8 billion in the third quarter (and a $312 million profit) thanks to sales of its new Model 3 vehicle, despite production bottlenecks and more recent issues with delivery logistics. The company was able to achieve that profitability milestone just through sales in the U.S. and Canada. That leaves two other massive markets on the table. Cue Europe and China.

Tesla said Wednesday it will start to take orders for the Model 3 in Europe and China before the end of 2018. Tesla said it will begin deliveries of the Model 3 to Europe early next year.

“The mid-sized premium sedan market in Europe is more than twice as big as the same segment in the U.S.,” Tesla said in its shareholder letter released Wednesday. “This is why we are excited to bring Model 3 to Europe early next year.”

Notably, the company is further accelerating its timeline for China and said it will bring portions of Model 3 production to the country next year.

“We are aiming to bring portions of Model 3 production to China during 2019 and to progressively increase the level of localization through local sourcing and manufacturing,” Tesla said in its earnings report. “Production in China will be designated only for local customers.”

Tesla said earlier this month it plans for as rapid build out of a factory in China. But there’s something new here. The term “portions of Model 3 production” is the important phrase. This could be referring to a term used in the manufacturing world known as a complete knock down. CKD is basically a kit of non-assembled parts of a product, like say a Model 3. It’s a strategy used to avoid tariffs when shipping to foreign countries.

Tesla has plans to build a factory in Shanghai, but construction hasn’t even begun yet.

The company secured in October rights to about 210 acres of land in Lingang, Shanghai, the site of the electric automaker’s planned factory and its first outside of the U.S.

Tesla warned in its production and delivery report in early October that tariffs, combined with the cost of shipping its vehicles via ocean carrier and the lack of access to cash incentives available to locally produced electric vehicles, has put the company at a disadvantage in China. Tesla reiterated those cost constraints in its third-quarter earnings report.

Tesla reached a deal in July with the Shanghai government to build a factory that it says will be capable of producing 500,000 electric vehicles a year. Once construction begins, it will take about two years until Tesla can produce vehicles. It will be another “two to three years before the factory is fully ramped up to produce around 500,000 vehicles per year for Chinese customers,” a Tesla spokesman said at the time.

Oracle acquires DataFox, a developer of ‘predictive intelligence as a service’ across millions of company records

Oracle today announced that it has made another acquisition, this time to enhance both the kind of data that it can provide to its business customers, and its artificial intelligence capabilities: it is buying DataFox, a startup that has amassed a huge company database — currently covering 2.8 million public and private businesses, adding 1.2 million each year — and uses AI to analyse that to make larger business predictions. The business intelligence resulting from that service can in turn be used for a range of CRM-related services: prioritising sales accounts, finding leads, and so on.

“The combination of Oracle and DataFox will enhance Oracle Cloud Applications with an extensive set of AI-derived company-level data and signals, enabling customers to reach even better decisions and business outcomes,” noted Steve Miranda, EVP of applications development at Oracle, in a note to DataFox customers announcing the deal. He said that DataFox will sit among Oracle’s existing portfolio of business planning services like ERP, CX, HCM and SCM. “Together, Oracle and DataFox will enrich cloud applications with AI-driven company-level data, powering recommendations to elevate business performance across the enterprise.”

Terms of the deal do not appear to have been disclosed but we are trying to find out. DataFox — which launched in 2014 as a contender in the TC Battlefield at Disrupt — had raised just under $19 million and was last valued at $33 million back in January 2017, according to PitchBook. Investors in the company included Slack, GV, Howard Linzon, and strategic investor Goldman Sachs among others.

Oracle said that it is not committing to a specific product roadmap for DataFox longer term, but for now it will be keeping the product going as is for those who are already customers. The startup counted Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company and Twilio among those using its services. 

The deal is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that larger platform providers are on the hunt for more AI-driven tools to provide an increasingly sophisticated level of service to customers. Second, in this case, it’s a sign of how content remains a compelling proposition, when it is presented and able to be manipulated for specific ends. Many customer databases can get old and out of date, so the idea of constantly trawling information sources in order to create the most accurate record of businesses possible is a very compelling idea to anyone who has faced the alternative, and that goes even more so in sales environments when people are trying to look their sharpest.

It also shows that, although both companies have evolved quite a lot, and there are many other alternatives on the market, Oracle remains in hot competition with Salesforce for customers and are hoping to woo and keep more of them with the better, integrated innovations. That also points to Oracle potentially cross and up-selling people who come to them by way of DataFox, which is an SaaS that pitches itself very much as something anyone can subscribe to online.

Addison Lee and Oxbotica ink self-driving deal, will offer autonomous car services in London by 2021

After undertaking a year-long investigation with Ford and four other mobility specialists on how to build self-driving systems that integrate with London’s existing transport infrastructure, Addison Lee today is announcing the next step in its autonomous strategy.

The on-demand ride company — which competes with black cabs, Uber and other car services — announced a deal with self-driving startup Oxbotica to develop autonomous vehicles, with the aim of getting them in service in London by 2021.

No financial details are being revealed about the deal. Addison Lee CEO Andy Boland, in an interview, described it as “purely commercial.” Currently Addison Lee is “unfashionably profitable,” he added, and so it is working on its current self-driving efforts off its own balance sheet. It is also wholly owned by PE firm the Carlyle Group, so it’s likely that this will help with future funding, although Boland did not rule out that when the company gets closer to a commercial launch, that it might need to look for funding to do this.

Meanwhile, Oxbotica — a spin-out from Oxford University — has raised around $18 million to date, with backers including Oxford, Innovate UK, the Ministry of Defence, the IP Group, insurers Axa XL and others.

The deal potentially sets up an interesting new avenue in how we might see autonomous cars being built, rolled out and operated.

Today, a number of transportation-on-demand companies that have roots in the tech world (Uber, Didi and Yandex Taxi are three examples) are trying to build their own self-driving tech. Alongside them, there are also a plethora of car makers who are also intent on building and running that experience.

Now, Addison Lee and Oxbotica are essentially presenting a third option: a system not built by the car service-operator, and not by a car maker, but by a third-party tech company that overlays the tech on top of whatever vehicle the service provider chooses to have.

Oxbotica was the first company to get a green light to start any kind of self-driving car test on a UK road, when it tested its equipment on a modified Renault driving five miles per hour in the town of Milton Keynes in 2016.

That early start was one of the reasons why Addison Lee decided to go with Oxbotica for its own efforts.

“The way they have built their technology and how they are already provisioning it has been impressive,” said Boland. “They have the most tangible capability that we could go with, and we felt that the way they were thinking about it, the business model isn’t just for ride share or car share, it’s across a range of other industry applications, and we like that, too. It’s now getting serious, and real-life-scale operators like Addison Lee are looking to bring this to market.” That would include shuttle services but potentially other kinds of commercial transportation (note that Oxbotica counts a commercial insurer as a backer).

“This represents a huge leap towards bringing autonomous vehicles into mainstream use on the streets of London, and eventually in cities across the United Kingdom and beyond,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “Our partnership with Addison Lee Group represents another milestone for the commercial deployment of our integrated autonomous vehicle and fleet management software systems in complex urban transport conditions. Together, we are taking a major step in delivering the future of mobility.”

The two will start first with a comprehensive 3D mapping sweep before moving on to other aspects of building the service to prepare a autonomous vehicle service for trials.

For now Addison Lee has not named a vehicle partner, and Boland said that this was intentional.

The initial mapping exercise will be on the company’s existing fleet of vehicles working on autonomous research around London today – those will be the Fords from last year’s deal, he said. “But in terms of future service provision in 2021, that decision is yet to be made. Oxbotica is agnostic to manufacturers, and that was also interesting to us at the moment.”

Although Addison Lee competes with the likes of Uber — which had to appeal for a provisional 15-month right to operate in London after initially losing its license — it is different in that it owns its own fleet of vehicles. That has given the company more of an incentive to try to develop its own technology that it might use across whatever vehicles it chooses to use in its fleet. It’s not clear how this will work alongside the fact that many car makers are also working on their own autonomous technology and subsequent strategy to “own” the self-driving experience — at some point they might even directly conflict — but for now following this route could be Addison Lee’s strongest bet for continuing to keep a close service for its drivers and its fleet, developing it in the way it feels is best for its own business.

“It’s about having a bit more control between us,” Boland said of the deal with Oxbotica, ” and creating and building those services together without the dependencies without the changing priorities of an OEM. So that we can do what we need to do.”

The self-driving car market is expected to be worth some £28 billion in the UK alone by 2035, and car services — versus private ownership — are shaping up to be a large part of how it might play out. Startups like FiveAI are also focusing on building self-driving car systems, specifically so that they can run in their own fleets of vehicles and in a service run by FiveAI: its reasoning is that autonomous vehicles will be too cost prohibitive to own for the majority of people.

As car ownership is predicted to decline as cars become ever-more sophisticated and expensive, car services are already on the rise and are predicted to grow some 21 per cent by 2030.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane.VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane.VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane.VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane.VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane.VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”

Cryptocurrency wallet startup Cobo raises $13M Series A to enter the U.S. and Southeast Asia

Cobo, a cryptocurrency wallet startup headquartered in Beijing, has raised a $13 million Series A to enter new international markets. The round was led by DHVC and Wu Capital, a family office based in China. Cobo plans to expand in the United States and Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam and Indonesia. Cobo is also now taking pre-orders for Cobo Vault, a hardware wallet (pictured above) that it claims is military grade. Cobo’s Series A brings its total funding to $20 million so far.

Cobo Wallet allows users to store both proof-of-stake and proof-of-work coins. One incentive for people to pick the app over its competitors is the ability to pool proof-of-stake assets with other users so they can increase their chances of mining and validating new blocks on the blockchain. Since launching earlier this year, Cobo says its digital wallet has gained more than 500,000 users.

The startup was founded last year by CEO Shixing Mao, who is known as Discus Fish in the crypto community, and CTO Changhao Jiang, a former platform engineer at Facebook and Google who co-founded Bihang, a cryptocurrency wallet acquired by OKCoin in 2013. Discus Fish, meanwhile, is known for launching F2Pool, China’s first mining pool.

Cobo Vault, which will retail for $479, meets the MIL-STD-810G U.S. military standard for equipment, Cobo’s head of hardware Lixin Liu said in an email, adding that it was built with proprietary firmware created especially for the device, a bank-grade encryption chip and military-grade aluminum.

Cobo Vault’s creation was prompted by an August 2017 incident in which F2Pool was hacked and more than 8,000 ETH was stolen from Discus Fish’s account. Fish also refunded customers’ lost ETH from his own assets. “As a result, Discus Fish was resolute on the fact that for crypto to gain mass market adoption, products had to be made to be hacker-resistant and truly safe,” said Liu.

Samsung acquires network analytics startup Zhilabs to help its transition to 5G

Samsung Electronics is betting that acquiring Zhilabs, a real-time networks analytics startup based in Barcelona, will ease its transition from 4G to 5G technologies. Financial details of the deal, which was announced today, have not been disclosed. Zhilabs will be fully owned by Samsung, but it will continue to operate independently under its own management.

The acquisition of Zhilabs is part of Samsung’s initiative, announced in August, to invest 25 trillion won (about $22 billion) in businesses working on AI, 5G, components for self-driving vehicles, and biopharmaceutical technologies.

In a statement, Youngky Kim, Samsung Electronic’s president and head of networks business, said “5G will enable unprecedented services attributed to the generation of exponential data traffic, for which automated and intelligent network analytics tools are vital. The acquisition of Zhilabs will help Samsung meet these demands to assure each subscriber receives the best possible service.”

Founded in 2008, Zhilabs’ products are used by customers including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Vodafone, and Telefonica to analyze and test network performance in real-time. Because its solutions allow service issues to be automatically detected and fixed, Zhilabs’ AI-based automation will help Samsung launch new services related to the industrial Internet of Things and smart cars.

Magic Leap is real and it’s a janky marvel

After years of speculation, some mockery, and more than a little befuddlement, the Magic Leap augmented headset is arriving in the hands of developers and users — and its first product is a somewhat janky piece of magic.

After officially announcing the availability of the product for pre-orders last month,  the company is pulling back the curtains on all of the prestidigitation it’s been cooking for the past several years. 

The company’s first developer conference is slated for tomorrow, with a keynote bright and early in the morning, but the $2.3 billion dollar augmented reality headset manufacturer let a slew of VIPs, media types (including your humble reporter) take a look at the first official content partnerships to come from its formerly super secret studios.

Development studios like Weta Workshop (whose partnership began with Magic Leap nearly a decade ago) and Wingnut AR (the augmented reality development studio founded by Peter Jackson) have revealed new games that involve battling robots and spider infestations (respectively); while the medical imaging company Brainlab and the direct to consumer furniture retailer and design consulting service, Wayfair, pitched their augmented reality wares to show the business use case for Magic Leap’s magic leap into virtual reality.

In all some sixteen companies pitched demos at the curtain-raising event today.

Earlier this afternoon Weta just debuted their augmented reality game as a preview to the Magic Leap conference and it’s impressive. The robot battling Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders is the clearest vision of what Magic Leap’s platform can do.

Magic Leap teased the two companies’ vision for what immersive augmented game play could like in its promotional materials for years, but the culmination of the development work the two have undertaken is about three to five hours of gameplay battling robots that appear from the walls and floors and doors of any room. It’s (pardon the easy pun) magic.

According to Weta games director Greg Broadmore, the final game is the result of six years of collaboration between the creative studio and Magic Leap.

Rony Abovitz, Magic Leap’s visionary chief executive, first reached out to Weta with a vision for “Our Blue” a far-reaching, immersive, science fiction-influenced immersive world that Abovitz wanted Weta to help realize. Abovitz kept in touch with the Weta team and as he began putting the pieces together for Magic Leap, brought the studio on board to develop content.

Dr. Grodbort’s is the first fruits of that partnership and it’s pretty stunning.

Setting aside the problems that Magic Leap still has with field of view and with slight glitches in the game mechanics (which could entirely have been the fault of this author), Dr. Grordbort’s lays out the Magic Leap headset as a convincing gaming device (albeit at a somewhat price-prohibitive $2,295 apiece.

In the game, users are given a backstory by the eponymous Dr. Grordbort, who informs players that they’re the last best hope to save the world from a robotic alien invasion. From there on in, it’s about picking up a blaster and shooting the potential robot invaders who appear from portals around a room.

To start the game, a user maps their space by wandering around it with the Magic Leap on. Once the device has the lay of the land ( a process that can take up to four minutes — depending on size) the narrative will commence and the user is drawn into Dr. Grordbort’s world and gameplay.

“The game helped shape the platform,” said Brodmore. “Dr. Grordbort’s was the problem and Magic Leap is the solution.”

Without the close relationship to Magic Leap that Weta enjoyed, the game from Wingnut’s studio was far less robust, but no less enjoyable.

In their first foray into Magic Leap’s world, the augmented reality studio created a game that puts the user into the most bizarre job training session they’ve ever experienced.

As the new hire at an extermination company that deals with some fairly vicious and viscous insects, the user is put through some paces with how to kill virtual bugs in real space. The mapping engines and graphics are exceptional, the narrator walking a user through the game shows off Magic Leap’s exceptional use of sound technology and the humor in the game is reminiscent of some of the best Wallace and Gromit set pieces.

Beginning with a simple bat, and working up through a flamethrower, players were instructed in how to kill various creepy crawlies and concoct a serum to attract others. I’m not a fan of first person shooters (or much of a gamer in general), but that Wingnut game was damn fun.

And if gaming was one side of the spell that Magic Leap was hoping to weave with new users, business use cases were the other.

In partnership with Brainlab, the company is trying to show how its toolkit can be used in both educational and operational theaters for physicians and surgeons. In a demonstration users were encourage to take a look at a replica of a brain tumor patient’s brain scan in three dimensions. The device is aimed at helping doctors plan surgeries and understand the potential ramifications of different approaches to removing growths in a brain.

Meanwhile, the retailer Wayfair put users through a demonstration of its first Magic Leap application. A visualization tool that takes furniture from a virtual showroom into the real space that furniture would occupy.

It’s part of a longterm skunkworks development project set up within the online retailer to explore applications for augmented reality in a bit to sell more stuff to more folks without the need for a physical showroom (although Wayfair has launched a few popups earlier this month)

Behind all of this is a simple truth. Magic Leap needs content — almost as much as it needed to reduce the form factor and improve the usability of its first headset.

It has achieved those last two demands above the expectations of even the most hardened critic. Wearables still look goofy, but they feel good and the pack that powers the Magic Leap experience is among the best — lightweight and wearable, and with a three-hour battery charge, among the best in the industry.

There’s still some assembly required, as a user needs to determine the type of headset they’ll need and select a nosebridge that gives the headset the proper lift so its hardware can work properly. If a user wears glasses, it’s going to require a special prescription that can be ordered separately as an attachment that fits into the headset.

The other pieces of hardware packaged with the Magic Leap include a motion sensing hand controller (similar to what users have experienced as part of any video game console) and a hip pack with the processing power of a notebook computer.

The device doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer, but it does only work indoors.

Setting aside the limitations of the first generation of a hardware device, the Magic Leap is about as impressive a piece of augmented or virtual reality hardware as I’ve seen. Other companies may have better fields of view and a more compact device, but they lack the variety of content that makes Magic Leap’s offerings shine. The early partnerships the company has inked have, indeed, paid off.

And as it rolls out its offerings the company is learning the lessons of wearable headsets past.

Its initial customers — in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle — will receive a home visit from a Magic Leap employee who will walk them through the way the product works in a thirty minute to sixty minute demo. That’s the same level of bespoke treatment that Google Glass offered to its initial explorers.

One benefit of an AR headset like Magic Leap’s is that it’s much, much easier to navigate than a fully immersive VR headset. Another, is the flexibility it offers in terms of applications from a mixed reality setting.

“This is the evolution of computing,” said Shrenik Sadaigi, the director of next generation experiences at Wayfair — and the architect of the company’s experiments in augmented and virtual reality.

“We think of this as a productivity device,” Sadaigi said. “Browsing for stuff on the web. That’s the computing environment. Your space is your screen and your space becomes another variable on the computing platform. We want to make people love the space they live in. Using mixed reality to … the app that we’re presenting today we think of it as a design experience.”

One of the big breakthroughs in the company’s platform is the controller and how easy it is to use, as Sadaigi noted in our conversation. “The controller is doing a lot of work for you. [The company] is giving you something new… that is kind of the old, but in a new form. It’s simplified the experience to swiping and clicking.”

More complicated interactions can be handled by using the voice interface the company has built into the device and the eye scrolling feature that’s part of the inside out tracking the company uses.

Behind all of this is Abovitz and his crazy vision for a new platform for computing.

“That decision to start something new and bigger and more ambitious, to try to change all of computing, was a bit nuts. It’s like Bilbo Baggins having to step out of the Shire,” Abovitz told VentureBeat earlier this year. “If you spend enough hours in a Magic Leap system, it’s almost impossible to go back to your phone or computer or television. You realize that they’re very thin slices. Magic Leap gives you a giant volume of computing. When you actually get to play with it, spatial computing means you work within a volume, not just a slice.”

Google will not bid for the Pentagon’s $10B cloud computing contract, citing its “AI Principles”

Google has dropped out of the running for JEDI, the massive Defense Department cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion. In a statement to Bloomberg, Google said that it decided not to participate in the bidding process, which ends this week, because the contract may not align with the company’s principles for how artificial intelligence should be used.

In statement to Bloomberg, Google spokesperson said “We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles. And second, we determined that there were portions of the contract that were out of scope with our current government certifications,” adding that Google is still “working to support the U.S. government with our cloud in many ways.”

Officially called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, bidding for the initiative’s contract began two months ago and closes this week. JEDI’s lead contender is widely considered to be Amazon, because it set up the CIA’s private cloud, but Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are also expected to be in the running.

The winner of the contract, which could last for up to 10 years, is expected to be announced by the end of the year. The project is meant to accelerate the Defense Department’s adoption of cloud computing and services. Only one provider will be chosen, a controversial decision that the Pentagon defended by telling Congress that the pace of handling task orders in a multiple-award contract “could prevent DOD from rapidly delivering new capabilities and improved effectiveness to the warfighter that enterprise-level cloud computing can enable.”

Google also addressed the controversy over a single provider, telling Bloomberg that “had the JEDI contract been open to multiple vendors, we would have submitted a compelling solution for portions of it. Google Cloud believes that a multi-cloud approach is in the best interest of government agencies, because it allows them to choose the right cloud for the right workload.”

Google’s decision no to bid for JEDI comes four months after it reportedly decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, which involved working with the military to analyze drone footage, including images taken in conflict zones. Thousands of Google employees signed a petition against its work on Project Maven because they said it meant the company was directly involved in warfare. Afterward, Google came up with its “AI Principles,” a set of guidelines for how it will use its AI technology.

It is worth noting, however, that Google is still under employee fire because it is reportedly building a search engine for China that will comply with the government’s censorship laws, eight years after exiting the country for reasons including its limits on free speech.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund will also invest $45B in SoftBank’s second Vision Fund

The sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia plans to invest $45 billion into the second SoftBank Vision Fund, two years after putting the same amount into the original $100 billion Vision Fund, Saudi Arabia Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview on Friday.

When the first Vision Fund was announced, it was by far the biggest private equity fund ever created, but if SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son’s plans come to fruition, it will not be the last. Son told Bloomberg Businessweek last month that he wants to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is anticipating a fresh influx of $170 billion over the next three to four years after selling its stake in Saudi Basic Industries, as well as the upcoming IPO of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said Prince Mohammed, who is also the PIF’s chairman. The PIF, which has also made investments in Uber, Tesla and Lucid, has enjoyed a “huge benefit” from the first Vision Fund, he told Bloomberg.

“We would not put, as PIF, another $45 billion if we didn’t see huge income in the first year with the first $45 billion,” Bin Salman said. He added that its investment in the first Vision Fund will help PIF achieve its new target of $600 billion in assets by 2020, up from the almost $400 billion it currently holds.

SoftBank Group has been contacted for comment.

SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia’s other partnerships include a deal to build the world’s biggest solar plant for $200 billion. The PIF said earlier this month the plant is still going ahead despite a Wall Street Journal report that it had been shelved.

9 highlights from Snapchat CEO’s 6000-word leaked memo on survival

Adults, not teens. Messaging, not Stories. Developing markets, not the US. These are how Snapchat will make a comeback, according to CEO Evan Spiegel . In a 6,000-word internal memo from late September leaked to Cheddar’s Alex Heath, Spiegel attempts to revive employee morale with philosophy, tactics, and contrition as Snap’s share price sinks to an all-time low of around $8 — half its IPO price and a third of its peak.

“The biggest mistake we made with our redesign was compromising our core product value of being the fastest way to communicate” Spiegel stresses throughout the memo regarding ‘Project Cheetah’. It’s the chat that made Snapchat special, and burying it within a combined feed with Stories and failing to build a quick-loading Android app have had disastrous consequences.

Spiegel shows great maturity here, admitting to impatient strategic moves and outlining a cohesive path forward. There’s no talk of Snapchat ruling the social app world here. He seems to understand that’s likely out of reach in the face of Instagram’s competitive onslaught. Instead, Snapchat is satisfied if it can help us express ourselves while finally reaching even meager profitability.

Snapchat may be too perceived as a toy to win enough adults, too late to win back international markets from the Facebook empire, and too copyable by good-enough alternatives to grow truly massive. But if Snap can follow the Spiegel game-plan, it could carve out a sustainable market through a small but loyal audience who want to communicate through imagery.

Here are the most interesting takeaways from the memo and why they’re important:

1. Apologizing For Rushing The Redesign

“There were, of course, some downsides to moving as quickly as a cheetah We rushed our redesign, solving one problem but creating many others . . . Unfortunately, we didn’t give ourselves enough time to continue iterating and testing the redesign with a smaller percentage of our community. As a result, we had to continue our iterations after we launched, causing a lot of frustration for our community.”

Spiegel always went on his gut rather than relying on user data like Facebook. Aging further and further away from his core audience, he misread what teens cared about. The appealing buzz phrase of “separating social from media” also meant merging messaging and Stories into a chaotic list that made both tougher to use. Spiegel seems to have learned a valuable lessen about the importance of A/B testing.

2. Chat Is King

“Our redesigned algorithmic Friend Feed made it harder to find the right people to talk to, and moving too quickly meant that we didn’t have time to optimize the Friend Feed for fast performance. We slowed down our product and eroded our core product value. . . . Regrettably, we didn’t understand at the time that the biggest problem with our redesign wasn’t the frustration from influencers – it was the frustration from members of our community who felt like it was harder to communicate . . . In our excitement to innovate and bring many new products into the world, we have lost the core of what made Snapchat the fastest way to communicate.”

When Snap first revealed the changes, we predicted that “Teen Snap addicts might complain that the redesign is confusing, jumbling all content from friends together.” That made it too annoying to dig out your friends to send them messages, and Snap’s growth rate imploded, with it losing 3 million users last quarter. Expect Snap to optimize its engineering to make messages quicker to send and receive, and it even sacrifice some of its bells and whistles to make chat faster in developing markets.

3. Snapchat Must Beat Facebook At Best Friends

“Your top friend in a given week contributes 25% of Snap send volume. By the time you get to 18 friends, each incremental friend contributes less than 1% of total Snap send volume each. Finding best friends is a different problem than finding more friends, so we need to think about new ways to help people find the friends they care most about.”

Facebook’s biggest structural disadvantage is its broad friend graph that’s bloated to include family, co-workers, bosses, and distant acquaintances.  That might be fine in a feed app, but not for Stories and messaging where you only care about your closest friends. With friend lists and more, Facebook has tried and failed for a decade to find better ways to communicate with your besties. This is the wedge through which Snapchat can attack Facebook. If it develops special features for luring your best friends onto the app and staying in touch with them for better reasons than just maintaining a Snap “Streak”, it could hit Facebook where it can’t defend itself.

4. Discover Soars As Facebook Watch And IGTV Stumble

“Our Shows continue to attract more and more viewers, with over 18 Shows reaching monthly audiences of over 10M unique viewers. 12 of which are Original productions. As a platform overall, we’ve grown the amount of total time spent engaging with our Shows product, almost tripling since the beginning of the year. Our audience for Publisher Stories has increased over 20% YoY, and we believe there is a significant opportunity to continue growing the number of people who engage with Discover content . . .We are also working to identify content that is performing well outside of Snapchat so that we can bring it into Discover. “

Discover remains Snapchat’s biggest differentiator, scoring with premium video content purposefully made for mobile. What it really needs, though, are a few must-see tentpole shows to drag in a wider audience that can get hooked on the reimagined digital magazine experience.

5. But Discover Is A Mess

“Our content team is working hard to experiment with new layouts and content types in the wake of our redesign to drive increased engagement.”

Snapchat Discover is an overcrowded pile of clickbait. News outlets, social media influencers, original video Shows, and aggregated user content collections all battle for attention in a design that feels overwhelming to the point of exhaustion. Thankfully Snapchat seems to recognize that more cohesive sorting with fewer images and headlines bombarding you might make Discover a more pleasant lean-back consumption experience.

6. Aging Up To Earn Money

“Most of the incremental growth in our core markets like the US, UK, and France will have to come from older users who generate higher average revenue per user . . . Growing in older demographics will require us to mature our application . . . Many older users today see Snapchat as frivolous or a waste of time because they think Snapchat is social media rather than a faster way to communicate. Changing the design language of our product and improving our marketing and communications around Snapchat will help users understand our value . . . aging-up our community in core markets will also help the media, advertisers, and Wall Street understand Snapchat.”

Snapchat can’t just be for cool kids anymore. Their lower buying power and lifestage make them less appealing to brands. The problem is that Snapchat risks turning off younger users by courting their older siblings or adults. If, like Facebook, users start to feel like Snapchat is a place for parents, they may defect in search of the next purposefully built to confuse adults to stay hip.

7. Finally Prioritizing Developing Markets

“We already have many projects underway to unlock our core product value in new markets. Mushroom allows our community to use Snapchat on lower-end devices. Arroyo, our new gateway architecture, will speed up messaging and many other services . . . It might require us to change our products for different markets where some of our value-add features detract from our core product value”

Sources tell me Snapchat’s future depends on the engineering overhaul of its Android app, a project codenamed ‘Mushroom’. Slow video load times and bugs have made Snapchat practically unusable on low-bandwidth connections and old Android phones in the developing world. The company concentrated on the US and other first-world markets, leaving the door open for copycats of Stories built by Instagram (400 million daily users) and WhatsApp (450 million daily users) to invade the developing world and dwarf Snap’s 188 million total daily users. In hopes of a smooth rollout, Snapchat is already testing Mushroom, but it will have to do a ton of marketing outreach to convince frustrated users who ditched the app to give it another try.

8. Fresh Ideas, Separate Apps

“We’re currently building software that takes the millions of Snaps submitted to Our Story and reconstructs parts of the world in 3D. We can then build augmented reality experiences on top of those models and distribute them as Lenses . . . If our innovation compromises our core product of being the fastest way to communicate, we should consider create [sic] separate applications or other ways of delivering our innovation.”

Snapchat has big plans for augmented reality. It doesn’t just want to stick animations over the top of anywhere, or create AR art installations in a few big cities. It wants to build site-specific AR experiences across the globe. And while everything the company has built to date has lived inside of Snapchat, it’s willing to spawn standalone apps if necessary so that it doesn’t bog down its messaging service. That could give Snapchat a lot more leeway to experiment.

9. The Freedom Of Profitability

“Our 2019 stretch output goal will be an acceleration in revenue growth and full year free cash flow and profitability. With profitability comes increased autonomy and freedom to operate our business in the long term best interest of our community without the pressure of needing to raise additional capital.”

Snapchat is still bleeding money, losing $353 million last quarter. Snapchat ended up selling 2.3 percent of its equity to a Saudi Arabian prince in exchange for $250 million to lengthen its rapidly shortening runway. And last year it took $2 billion from Chinese gaming giant Tencent. Deals like that could threaten Snapchat’s ability to prioritize its goals alone, not the moral imperatives or developer platforms that would benefit its benefactors. Once profitable, Snapchat won’t have to worry so much about struggling with short-term user growth and can instead focus on retention, societal impact, and its true purpose — creativity.

We’re kicking off Startup Battlefield MENA, here are the startups and agenda

We’re kicking off Startup Battlefield MENA here in Beirut, where 15 startups will be taking the stage, along with speakers from Facebook (our partner on the event through its FB Start program), Instabug, Eventus, Wuzzuf, Careem and Myki.

For those of you who can’t be here in person, check back on TechCrunch later today, where we’ll be sharing videos and other highlights from the event. And of course, announcing the winner!

For the first time, TechCrunch is holding Startup Battlefield MENA in partnership with FB Start. After scouring does dozens of countries, sifting through hundreds and hundreds of extremely talented startups, TechCrunch selected 15 elite companies across the region to compete in prestigious global Startup Battlefield competition for $25,000 equity-free prize, a trip for 2 to TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 and the coveted title of “Middle East & North Africa’s Favorite Startup”.

After weeks of intense coaching from the TC team, these startups are primed for international launch. For the semi-final round, each founder will pitch for 6 minutes, with a live demo on stage, followed by 6 minutes of Q&A with our expert panel of judges. After, our judges will deliberate and 5 teams will be selected to compete in the final round of Startup Battlefield – same pitch, but with an even more intense Q&A.

So, who are these chosen few? From creating new forms of fast setting concrete to quickly build houses in areas recovering from natural disasters to agricultural monitoring technology preventing water-related conflict, this batch of companies is truly changing the world. Companies also include financial investment AI platforms, edible insect based protein powder, to culturally relevant dating apps. Founders in the automotive industry are poised to change everything from how we pick the cars we want to buy to how we optimize their maintenance. From innovations to hydroponic gardens, educational tutoring platforms to modernizing technology for hotel chains, Startup Battlefield MENA is set to highlight the regions most promising startups. Videos from the event will be posted on TechCrunch.com after the event. Stay tuned!

Session 1: 9:30am – 10:30am

BuildinkHarmonicaMaterialSolvedMoneyFellowsNeotic AI

Session 2: 11:10am – 12:10am

NutransaSeabex by IT GrapesIN2SeezAutotell 

Session 3: 1:40pm – 2:40pm

SynkersVerboseMakerbraneArgineeringPureHarvest


Welcome Remarks
9:05 am – 9:25 am

Infrastructure and Connectivity: A Regional Perspective with Imad Kreidieh (Ogero Telecom) and Ari Kesisoglu (Facebook)
Access to the internet and connectivity is the driving force for the 4th industrial revolution. Join a conversation about how the Telco industry is changing in Lebanon and the region, and what that means for businesses and consumers. Sponsored by Facebook

9:25 am – 10:30 am

Startup Battlefield Competition – Flight #1
TechCrunch’s iconic startup competition is here and for the first time in MENA, as entrepreneurs from around the region pitch expert judges and vie for US$25,000 no-equity cash prize and a trip for two to compete in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2019.

10:30 am – 10:50 am

BREAK
10:50 am – 11:10 am

Jennifer Fong (Facebook)
Hear from Facebook’s head of the Developer Circles Program about their work with developers, startups and businesses to build, grow, measure, and monetize using Facebook and Messenger platform products. Sponsored by Facebook

11:10 am – 12:10 am

Startup Battlefield Competition – Flight #2
TechCrunch’s iconic startup competition is here and for the first time in MENA, as entrepreneurs from around the region pitch expert judges and vie for US$25,000 no-equity cash prize and a trip for two to compete in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2019.

12:10 pm – 1:10 pm

BREAK
12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Workshop: Automated Driving Mobility in MENA with Mandali Khalesi (Toyota)
Toyota’s Global Head of Automated Driving Mobility and Innovation will share Toyota’s latest automated driving research findings and its plans for the future. There will be 30 minutes set aside for consultation, where the audience will have the opportunity to advise Toyota on both how it should go about developing automated driving mobility for MENA, as well as how best to work together with entrepreneurs in the region.

1:15 pm – 1:40 pm

Lessons 10 Years On with Omar Gabr (Instabug), Nour Al Hassan (Tarjama), Mai Medhat (Eventtus) and Ameer Sherif (Wuzzuf) – Moderated by Editor at Large Mike Butcher
Ten years ago the Middle East and North Africa’s tech ecosystem was worth perhaps tens of millions of dollars. Today it’s in the hundreds of millions, and beyond. A decade ago the societal landscape was very different from today. Let’s discuss the huge changes that have happened and challenges and opportunities ahead.

1:40 pm – 2:40 pm

Startup Battlefield Competition – Flight #3
TechCrunch’s iconic startup competition is here and for the first time in MENA, as entrepreneurs from around the region pitch expert judges and vie for US$25,000 no-equity cash prize and a trip for two to compete in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2019.

2:40 pm – 3:00 pm

Fireside Chat with Magnus Olsson (Careem) – Moderated by Managing Editor Matt Burns
How do you scale a big startup in MENA? We hear from Magnus Olsson, founder and Managing Director of ride-hailing giant Careem on how they joined the unicorn club with Lyft and Uber.

3:00 pm – 3:25 pm

Where Will the Exits Come From with Henri Asseliy (Leap Ventures), Priscilla Elora Sharuk (Myki), and Kenza Lahlou (Outlierz Ventures) – Moderated by News Editor Ingrid Lunden
Both VCs and startups in MENA alike are furiously building the companies of the future. But you can’t have a startup without an acquisition or IPO, so where are they going to come from? We’ll hear from both the founder and investor perspectives.

3:25 pm – 4:40 pm

Startup Battlefield Competition – Final Round
TechCrunch’s iconic startup competition is here and for the first time in MENA, as entrepreneurs from around the region pitch expert judges and vie for US$25,000 no-equity cash prize and a trip for two to compete in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2019.

4:40 pm – 4:55 pm

BREAK
4:55 pm – 5:20 pm

MENA Content Plays with Paul Chucrallah (BeryTech Fund), Hussam Hammo (Tamatem) and Rami Al Qawasmi (Mawdoo3) – Moderated by News Editor Ingrid Lunden
A little-known fact about the MENA market is the sheer lack of Arabic language content online for consumers, whether it be media, music, games or events. Arabic-specific sites have appeared, tailor-made to the market. We’ll get the perspective of key entrepreneurs in this space.

5:20 pm – 5:35 pm

Startup Battlefield Closing Awards Ceremony
Watch the crowning of the latest winner of the Startup Battlefield

Stitch Fix tumbles 20% in after-hours trading following lukewarm earnings report

Shares of Stitch Fix plunged more than 20 percent in after-hours trading on Monday following the release of a tepid fourth-quarter earnings report.

The online retailer and personal styling service’s adjusted earnings exceeded analyst expectations, but its revenue and active users fell short of estimates. In the quarter ending July 28, Stitch Fix reported a net income of $18.3 million, or 18 cents per share, up from analyst’s 4 cents per share estimate. Its reported net revenue of $318.3 million, a 23 percent year-over-year increase, failed to meet analyst expectations of $318.6 million.

The San Francisco-based company’s user base grew 25 percent YoY, to 2.7 million, another disappointment to Wall Street, which was looking for more than 2.8 million.

Stitch Fix, which has a market cap of nearly $4.4 billion, also reported fiscal year 2018 earnings. In its first year as a public company, Stitch Fix had $1.2 billion in net revenue, $44.9 million in net income and an adjusted EBITDA of $53.6 million.

Founder Katrina Lake took the company public on the Nasdaq in November 2017 in a highly anticipated consumer IPO. The company raised $120 million in the process, selling 8 million shares after making a last-minute decision to downsize its offering ahead of its first day of trading.

Following the release of its first-ever earnings report in December, shares of Stitch Fix similarly took a huge hit, plunging down 10 percent on the news.

The company usually finds its footing and, overall, its stock has continued to climb since its IPO. Stitch Fix had its best day yet on September 18 when its stock was valued at $52.44 apiece, up from the initial price of $15 apiece.

Alongside its earnings report, Stitch Fix announced the upcoming launch of Stitch Fix U.K., its first-ever international market expected to be available to consumers by the end of FY 2019. Following the release of its Q3 earnings report, the company announced the hire of Deirdre Findlay as its new chief marketing officer, as well as the launch of Stitch Fix Kids.

On the earnings call Monday, Lake emphasized how both services, Stitch Fix Kids and Stitch Fix U.K., will augment Stitch Fix’s total addressable market.

“We believe our ability to create a uniquely personalized shopping experience is something that will resonate with consumers and brands outside of the U.S.,” Lake said in a statement.

Trump administration sues California over its brand-new net neutrality law

The Department of Justice announced on Sunday that it has filed a lawsuit against California to block its new net neutrality law, just hours after it was signed by governor Jerry Brown. The lawsuit was first reported by the Washington Post. Senior Justice Department officials told the newspaper it is filing the lawsuit because only the federal government can regulate net neutrality and that the Federal Communications Commission had been granted that authority by Congress to ensure states don’t write conflicting legislation.

In its announcement, the Justice Department stated that by signing California’s Senate Bill 822 into law, the state is “attempting to subvert the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach by imposing burdensome state regulations on the free Internet, which is unlawful and anti-consumer.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does. Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order.”

This is the latest of several legal showdowns between the Trump administration and California, the largest blue state.

Under Attorney General Sessions, the Justice Department has already filed separate lawsuits against California over immigrant sanctuary laws and a law meant to stop the Trump administration from selling or transferring federal land to private corporations. The Trump administration is also clashing with the state over environmental protection regulations.

Senate Bill 822 was introduced by Democratic Senator Scott Wiener to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality protections tossed out by the FCC last year.

Even though Washington and Oregon have also passed their own net neutrality laws, the outcome of the federal government’s battle with California will have ramifications throughout the country because the state’s new net neutrality law is the most stringent one so far, banning most kinds of zero-rating, which allows telecoms to offer services from certain providers for free.

As such, it has been the target of fierce lobbying by telecoms like AT&T and Comcast. While the FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai and telecoms argue that zero-rating allows them to offer better deals (Pai claimed in the Justice Department’s statement today that they have proven popular “especially among lower-income Americans,”) net neutrality advocates say it gives Internet service providers too much power by forcing users to rely on certain services, stifling consumer options and freedom of information.

Solve, MIT’s take on social innovation challenges, may be different enough to work

Since McKinsey released a report on how best to use prizes to incentivize innovation nearly a decade ago, an entire industry has grown around social innovation challenges. The formula for these “save the world” competitions has become standard. Drum up a lot of buzz around an award. Partner with big names to get funding and high-profile judges. Try and get as many submissions as possible from across the world. Whittle down the submissions and come up with a list of finalists that get to pitch at a glitzy event with a lot of media attention.

On the final stage, based on pitches that last mere minutes, pick a winner that can get upwards of millions in prize funding. Don’t have a software platform to run a challenge of this kind? No worries, numerous for-profit vendors have sprung up that can do all the work for you—for anywhere from ten to a few hundred thousand dollars. The growth has been so exponential that prizes awarded through competitions has grown from less than $20 million in 1970 to a whopping $375 million just four decades later.

But do these prizes get the sort of world-saving results they aim for? There’s little quantified evidence to back that, and some leaders in philanthropy are broadly skeptical.

For its part, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying a different approach to innovation challenges with Solve, taking some of what’s worked in these challenges and fusing it with elements of tech accelerator programs, including post-award training that focuses on results.

Solve is entering an already crowded field of innovation challenges. Many of these prizes overlap, with each vying to be the “Nobel” of its field. More prizes means more noise—which has led to a race to offer more money to get attention.

But even private-sector riches do not guarantee that prize money for innovation gets good results. In 2004, Bigelow Enterprises sponsored a $50 million Space Prize but it failed to capture the imagination of space researchers and eventually folded. Back in 2009, Netflix invited outside teams to improve it movie recommendation algorithm by 10% for a $1 million reward. The Netflix Prize led to a race among programmers, only for Netflix to eventually kill the entire plan because it was getting better results in-house.

Overall, the social innovation competitions tend to reward presentation, glitz and charisma, and penalize speaking English as a second language, introversion and inability to make flashy slides.

Solve, which held its third annual finalists event on Sunday September 23 in New York, is taking a different approach.

Unlike other contests where questions are internally decided, Solve crowdsources the questions to begin with. Its team takes months to run hackathons and workshops around the world to decide on the four most pressing questions to become the focus of that year’s challenge. This year, the questions focused on teachers and educators, workforce of the future, frontlines of health and coastal communities.

The competition is then opened up to participants from around the world with relatively low barriers to entry, resulting in 1,150 submissions from 110 countries in the last competition round. (That’s at least one submission from nearly 60 percent of all countries in the world!)

The prize recipients of the GM Prize for Advanced Technology. Photo: Adam Schultz | MIT Solve

To qualify, though, participants need to have more than just an idea. They must have a prototype that works, be either in the growth, pilot or scale stage, and be tech-driven. Submissions are then evaluated by judges from across industry, intergovernmental organizations and academia to get to 15 finalists for each of the four challenge questions. These 60 finalists get a full day with judges to be asked in-depth questions and have their ideas evaluated.

The day after, with all the preparations completed, the finalists get three minutes apiece to present on stage. Crucially, instead of one winner, eight finalists are chosen for each of the challenge questions.

Each finalist receives an initial $10,000 prize, plus a pool of hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by partners including General Motors, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Consensys, and RISE.

This year, for example, Ugandan health care startup Neopenda brought in an additional $30,000 in funding through Solve, from a UN program sponsored by Citi. An intelligent messaging app called TalkingPoints, meanwhile, received backing from General Motors and Save the Children to develop its personalized coaching technology for parents and educators. (You can see more details on this year’s winners and prizes here.)

As opposed to being a “one and done competition” where winning the prize money marks the end of the competition, managing director of community Hala Hanna tells me that the real work begins once the Solver teams are selected. Each qualifying Solver team gets 12 months of engagement and support from the organization. “Our value-add is providing a network, from MIT and beyond, and then brokering partnerships,” she explains.

Perhaps the biggest testament to the Solve method getting traction is its funders putting in even more cash in support. At the closing event on Sunday, an upbeat Matthew Minor, Solve’s director for international programs, took to the stage decked out in Solve-branded socks and a broad smile. He announced the winning finalists—and more funding opportunities. Two of Solve’s original backers, the Atlassian Foundation and the Australian government, are continuing to invest out of a standing $2.6 million budget for companies in the workforce track. RISE, a global impact investing fund, is putting an additional $1 million into companies focused on coastal communities.

The Australians have already put in funding to help past winners scale after the program. One of them is Ruangguru, a digital boot camp in Indonesia that gives youth dropouts resources they need to earn graduation certificates. The startup had reached nearly a million Indonesians prior to participating in Solve; through the program and the additional funding, it assisted more than 3 million Indonesian youth by the end of last year. Iman Usman, one of Ruangguru’s founders, tells me that Solve enabled them to enter into partnerships that helped them scale across Indonesia in a way they would have never been able to do on their own.

Solve has also been unequivocally good at ensuring diversity, both in its own staffing and—perhaps for related reasons—in those that are chosen as finalists. Of Solve’s 20 full-time staff, 14 are women, as are six out of the seven leadership team members and—by my count—at least seven nationalities from four continents are represented on staff.

The 33 Solver teams selected at the finals this year hail from 28 different countries, with 61 percent of them being women-led. At a time when the tech industry is struggling to increase diversity, Solve’s emphasis on diversity in challenge design and promotion has led to applicants and finalists that reflect the world Solve aims to help.

Hanna noted that increasing diversity is not as difficult as it’s made out to be. “Honestly, we’re not even trying that hard,” she explained. “So whoever says there are no women in tech, I say, crazy talk.”

The view from the Apella at Solve Challenge Finals on Sept. 23. Photo: Adam Schulz | MIT Solve

Still, Solve does have a few kinks to work out. By taking on extremely broad topics, the competition can sometimes lack focus. Lofty questions mean you can get very disparate answers, making it hard to compare them in a way that feels fair.

And while it’s great that the award monies are not all given to a single winner, it is not quite clear how funders pick the teams that do get funding. 15 qualifying finalists this year ended up winning money awards, some winning more than one, while the remaining 18 qualifying teams went home with the minimum amount. This is because Solve funders get to pick which of the teams that qualify at the finals get their respective monetary prizes. Of course, all 33 qualifying teams equally get to be a part of the Solve class with all the support and training that includes.

Another kink is the audience choice award—selected through open online voting prior to the finals—but not tied to any clear concrete benefit. Take the example of Science for Sharing (Sci4S), a Mexico-based startup that trains teachers to better engage students in STEM and has already reached nearly a million children across Latin America. It garnered 419 community votes in the Education Challenge, more votes than any other participant in the category, and handedly won the audience choice award. Ultimately, Sci4S was not selected as a Solver team. Another education startup, Kenya-based Moringa School, only got two votes but was selected. While Moringa and others were compelling and qualified in their own right,  it’s still hard not to think that Sci4S should have focused all of its time on its presentation and ignored the audience vote.

All in all, Solve does get a number of things right where other innovation challenges have failed. Instead of anointing one winner for the entire competition, it selects a class of dozens—reflecting the simple fact that the world’s most intractable problems are not going to be solved by any singular idea. Unlike many challenges put on by educational institutions and open only to their own students, Solve opens its doors wide. And winning at the finals doesn’t end your connection with MIT, it only starts it, with all qualifying finalists getting a year of individualized support, training and mentorship.

Done right, prizes can be effective at incentivizing startups to focus on pressing societal issues that can truly benefit from tech-driven solutions. But prizes for the sake of prizes can add to the noise and dissipate scarce public resources and entrepreneur attention. In the increasingly crowded world of innovation challenges promising to change the world, MIT’s Solve is a step away from the noise and towards effective prize granting.

Tech In Asia lays off staff after canceling planned ICO

Earlier this month, media startup Tech In Asia surprised its readers when it announced plans to implement an $18 per month paywall. More expensive than packages for the Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, the subscription went live this week. It’s designed to make the business self-sustaining after a tricky period of business in which the company contemplated an ICO and was forced to make cutbacks to its team.

The Singapore-based company — which operates a popular blog and events business in Southeast Asia — laid off as many as one-third of its staff after it went back on a plan to raise money from an ICO, according to documents reviewed by TechCrunch and multiple people familiar with the situation.

In July, as the company scrapped its ICO plans, Tech In Asia fired 18 of its 60 employees in Singapore; one-third of its smaller employee base in Indonesia and restructured other business units after scrapping the plan to develop its own cryptocurrency. Most of the layoffs were in non-editorial business lines — like the company’s jobs division, which works with companies to pitch the Tech In Asia website as a recruitment platform. That division laid off half of its team, according to a source, while a number of reporters elected to leave the company too, as E27 reported in August.

Tech In Asia founder and CEO Willis Wee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While the fundraising target for the ICO wasn’t disclosed, the plan was to bring in enough new investment to extend the company’s eroding runway.

The ICO was part of ‘Project Tribe,’ a strategy to develop a decentralized platform that would allow any organization to develop online communities using a blockchain-based framework built by Tech In Asia, according to documents viewed by TechCrunch.

“Our goal is to give Tech In Asia back into the hands of the community and harness community forces to bring us closer to our mission of building and serving Asia’s tech communities,” the company wrote in one section of the whitepaper, which was never released but had been widely-circulated beyond Tech In Asia staff.

The most successful ICOs have developed decentralized systems that are often initially beneficial to the company behind the token sale, but that can, in theory, be extended to cover other businesses.

Project Tribe used that angle. Bearing some basic similarities to the Civil journalism platform, the plan was initially to host Tech In Asia’s news and community website over the next three years, before opening up to third parties by 2021.

Company-wide Slack messages seen by TechCrunch show that it was discarded after the management team balked at the risk behind the move. They told staff their concern that token economics, pleasing retail investors and legal uncertainties would all distract from the core business. That reversal was taken despite “significant” investment resources and dozens of staff being allocated to develop the concept and whitepaper over a number of months.

From funding to cutbacks

It wasn’t so long ago that Tech In Asia was the toast of Asia’s media community.

The startup — which launched in 2010 — brought in $6.6 million in fresh funding last November in a round led by Korean investor Hanwha.

In the ensuing six months, after watching annual revenue drop thanks in part to a dramatic decline in its events business, the Tech In Asia leadership caught crypto fever and decided to venture into the new world of ICOs.

There were signs of trouble earlier in 2017 for the company. Tech in Asia laid off most of its India-based team in early 2017 and ended its events business in that country. Those decisions impacted its event business, which a source said saw total revenue drop by more than 50 percent.

A shift to community content, with fewer ‘original’ reporting and journalism pieces also cut into company performance. Internal data seen by TechCrunch shows that monthly active users on the site were down 31 percent year-on-year in Q2 2018 — reaching 1.84 million — while total pageviews slipped by one-third, too.

Tech In Asia’s management team told all staff in June that its runway, which was thought to be shored up by the November deal, had gone from a solid-looking 81 months to just 14 months. Management claimed that a change in financial calculations caused the difference and employees were reassured that their jobs were safe.

One month later, however, the company began shedding staff in an effort to cut costs, reversing a hiring spree it launched in January, according to sources.

Two sources told TechCrunch that morale of the remaining staff was crushed when members of the management ‘flaunted’ the fruits of their wealth on social media just days after firing large portions of the team. Some social media updates posted to the internet that upset departing staff members included a photo of Rolex, the view of a villa on a weekend trip to Bali, and an expensive sushi dinner bill. 

With the company facing a straitened financial situation, if Tech In Asia tries to raise money again it’ll have some explaining to do to potential investors.

The business grossed SG$3.37 million (US$2.47 million) for the first six months of the year. Annualized, that would represent a 15 percent drop on 2017’s revenue, and Tech In Asia is still losing money. It recorded a net loss of SG$1.43 million (US$1.05 million) for the first half of 2018, according to internal data. That’s an average monthly burn rate of SG$0.23 million, or US$0.17 million.

Nonetheless, Wee — the Tech In Asia CEO — is hopeful that the subscription model pivot can make Tech In Asia sustainable in the long run.

“As you probably know, our business model has been built around events and advertising. While these have kept our business going, we are still working towards becoming profitable. Why is achieving this important? Because the only way we can be better at serving Asia’s tech ecosystem is if we have more resources and a consistent income stream,” he wrote when announcing the subscription package.

Full disclosure: I bought an annual subscription to Tech In Asia at the early bird discount rate being offered right now. That doesn’t impact my coverage of this story — I support a number of media businesses via subscription packages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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