Tech Crunch

Fieldwire just raised $33.5 million more to give PlanGrid and its new owner Autodesk a run for their money

Fieldwire, which makes task management software for construction teams that helps organize everyone involved in a project so things don’t fall through the figurative (or literal) cracks, has raised $33.5 million in Series C funding led by Menlo Ventures, with participation from Brick & Mortar Ventures, Hilti Group, and Formation 8.

It isn’t a huge amount of money. Still, the traction Fieldwire is enjoying might give the folks at Autodesk some pause, given the growing threat it presents to PlanGrid — a rival that Autodesk acquired last year for $875 million.

Already, six-year-old Fieldwire has 65 employees, with 45 of them in San Francisco and the rest in Phoenix, plus a smaller outpost in France. And founder and CEO Yves Frinault says the company expects to have closer to 150 employees by next summer.

Fieldwire is also “cash profitable,” he says, “meaning our bank account goes up every month, even though we started going fast.” To underscore his point, he notes that when we last talked with him in 2015, the company’s platform was hosting 35,000 projects; it has since hosted half a million altogether, with more than 2,000 unique paying customers on the platform. Many of them pack a punch, too, like Clark Construction Group, a 113-year-old, Maryland-based construction firm that reported more than $5 billion in revenue last year and that began using Fieldwire across all of its projects this past summer. (Clark employs 4,200 people.)

Because Fieldwire grows from the bottom up, meaning it targets teams who then use it for projects that are then run by numerous enterprises that work on various projects with other teams that can then also adopt the software, it has spread particularly quickly throughout North America, which counts for 70 percent of its volume. Fieldwire is also making inroads in Europe, where 15 percent of its revenue is coming and, to a lesser but growing extent, Australia.

Altogether, its software is localized in 13 languages.

It employs a freemium model. Small teams with five members or less can use a significant portion of the product for free. But more users requires more storage typically, and that’s where Fieldwire starts charging — typically between $30 and $50 per user per month, though bigger companies tend to pay the company by the year or based on the scope of a particular project versus on a per-license basis.

Fieldwire’s two main types of customers are general contractors and subcontractors. GCs will usually use the company’s software as a way to track quality and progress. Subcontractors tend to use the software internally to run their own crews.

As for what’s on its roadmap, Fieldwire — which already enables users to look at floor plans in real time, message with one another, track punch lists, schedule jobs and file reports —  suggests it’s zeroing in on 3D architectural drawings, which puts it in more direct competition with PlanGrid.

PlanGrid also makes construction productivity software, and fueled by parent company Autodesk, it also now offers users the ability to access building information modeling data, in either 2D or 3D. Fieldwire doesn’t seem terribly daunted by this. Instead, Frinault calls it a “product challenge to make a 3D product model consumable, so we’re working on it right now.”

With its newest round of funding, Fieldwire has now raised $40.4 million altogether.

How to get people to open your emails

Julian Shapiro
Contributor

Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing agency that trains you to become a marketing professional. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you’re going stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice you can’t get elsewhere.

Our community consists of 600 startup founders paired with VP’s of growth from later-stage companies. We have 300 YC founders plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo, and Ritual .

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group, or marketing training program. See past growth reports here and here.

Without further ado, onto the advice.


How can you send email campaigns that get opened by 100% of your mailing list?

Based on insights from Nick Selman, Fletcher Richman of Halp, and Wes Wagner.

  • First, a few obvious pieces of advice for avoiding low open rates:
    • Avoid spam filters by avoiding keywords commonly used in spam emails.
    • Consider using email subjects (1) that are clearly descriptive and (2) look like they were written by a friend. Then A/B your top choices.
    • Include the recipient’s name in your email body. This signals to spam filters that you do in fact know the recipient.
  • Now, for the real advice: Let’s say 60% of your audience opens your mailing, how can you get the remaining 40% to open and read it too?
    • First, wait 2 weeks to give everyone a chance to open the initial email.
    • Next, export a list of those who haven’t opened. Mailchimp lets you do this.
    • Important note: The reason many recipients don’t open your email is because it was sent to Spam, it was buried in Promotions, or it was insta-deleted because it looked like spam (but wasn’t). The goal here is to resuscitate these people. You have two options for doing so:
    • (1) Duplicate the initial email then selectively re-send it to non-openers. This time, use a new subject (try a new hook) and downgrade the email to plain text: remove images and link tracking. De-enriching the email in this way can help bypass spam filters and the Promotions tab.
    • (2) Alternatively, export your list of non-openers to a third-party email tool like Mailshake (or Mixmax).
      • First, connect Mailshake to a new Gmail account on your company domain.
      • Next, configure Mailshake to automatically dole out small batches of emails on a daily schedule. Let it churn through non-openers slowly so that Gmail doesn’t flag your account as a spammer.
      • Emails sent through Mailshake are more likely to get opened than emails sent through Mailchimp. Why? Mailshake sends emails through your Gmail account, and Gmail-to-Gmail emails have a greater chance of bypassing Spam and Promotions folders, particularly if the sender doesn’t have a history of its emails being marked as spam.

After conquering smartphones, PopSocket sets its sights on beverages

In its first half-decade of existence, PopSocket has grown into one of the most popular — and imitated — smartphone accessories on the market. In 2018 alone, the company generated $90 million in profit. Not to bad for a little Colorado-based upstart.

So, where does an utterly dominated accessory maker go from here? Beverages, naturally. Delish was the first to report the existence of the PopThirst line. You may well have missed it in the wake of this week’s iPhone news. I was on a plane with limited WiFi access, I swear. Whatever the case, the weird little retractable phone holder that has captured the world’s imagination $15 at a time is now headed for the lucrative field of refreshments. 

It’s an odd evolution of the brand, to be sure. But why not strike while the iron (and coffee) is hot? I know plenty of people who swear by the phone accessory, and the pop-out gripper looks to fit pretty well on a matching koozie for hot and cold beverages, alike. Pop it on a can of LaCroix to find yourself on the cutting edge of the 2016 zeitgeist.

The cupholders feature a wide range of styles, from leopard print to camo. They’re up for pre-order on Popsocket’s page for $15 a pop. They’ll go on sale Sept 15.

Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn on the company’s IPO today, its unique dual class structure, and what’s next

Shares of Cloudflare rose 20% today in its first day of trading on the public market, opening trading at $18 after it priced its IPO at $15 a share yesterday and holding steady through the day.

Put another way, the performance of the nine-year-old company — which provides cloud-based network services to enterprises — was relatively undramatic as these things go. That’s a good thing, given that first-day “pops” often signal that a company has left money on the table. Indeed, Cloudflare had initially indicated that its shares would be priced between $10 and $12, before adjusting the price upward, which suggests its underwriters, led by Goldman Sachs, fairly accurately gauged demand for the offering.

Of course, it was still a very big day for Cloudlfare’s 1,069 employees and especially for Cloudflare’s founders Matthew Prince, its CEO, and Michelle Zatlyn, its COO. We talked with Zatlyn today in the hours after the duo rang the opening bell to ask about the experience, and how the IPO impacts the company going forward. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Thanks for making time for us on a busy day.

MZ: Of course! [TechCrunch’s] Battlefield [competition, in which Cloudflare competed in 2011] is such an integral part of our funding story. Thank you for giving us the stage to launch our company.

TC: Did you get any sleep last night?

MZ: I was so exhausted that I got a great night’s sleep. This whole process has been so incredible, so special. I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s been way better than I could have imagined. There are 150 of our teammates, early employees, family members, board members, champions and other friends here with us [in New York at the NYSE]. We also live-streamed [our debut] to our offices around the world so they could share this moment with us.

TC: How are you feeling about today? The stock is up 20%. There’s always banter afterward about whether a listing was priced right, whether any money was left on the table.

MZ: At this point, we’ve raised almost a billion dollars between today and all of the money we’ve raised from venture investors. We have a great team. We’re really happy. The markets are going to react how they react, but it’s part of our DNA to provide more value than we capture. We think that’s the way to build an enduring company.

TC: You have a liquid currency now. Do you imagine Cloudflare might become more acquisitive as a public company?

MZ: We’ve done some acquisitions on the smaller side and of course, we have a team that’s always looking at different opportunities. But we’re really engineering-driven, and we think we have many products and services left to build, so we’ll continue to invest in our products and in R&D development, as well as in our customer relationships.

TC: Retaining employees is a challenge that some newly public companies worry about. How will you address this in the coming days and months as lock-up periods expire?

MZ: I’m so proud of where we are today and of our whole team, and we’re just getting started. [Matthew and I will] show up Monday morning and get back to work and so will our employees, because they want to make the company [an even greater business].

TC: The company went public with a dual-class structure that gives not just management but all employees 10 times the voting rights of the shares sold to the public. Why was this structure important to Cloudflare, and did it give investors pause?

MZ: There are more than 1,000 people around the world who are building the product and working with customers, and we think it’s important for them to have that 10:1 structure, so it’s something we put in place a few years ago with the encouragement of some of our earlier investors.

TC: Were you modeling this after another company? Is there a precedent for it?

MZ: I don’t know of another one — there may be — but we weren’t inspired by another company. We just felt passionately about this being the right corporate structure and [I don’t think it was harder for us to tell the story of Cloudflare because of it]. Over the last two weeks, in talking with investors across the world, it wasn’t in the top 10 topics that came up, so I think we did a good job of describing it in our S-1.

TC: What was the roadshow like? What surprised you most?

MZ: Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of work involved from all kinds of people, in finance, our legal teams … But roadshows have a bad rap in that people think they’re grueling and that, by the end, you’ll be exhausted. That was my expectation. But it was really fun. It was a huge privilege to represent Cloudflare to all these investors who were incredibly smart and well-prepared. We traveled all over and people told us ‘You look better than most teams.’

Michelle Zatlyn

TC: Where does one go for these roadshows?

MZ: You have the usual suspects; there’s a travel roadshow circuit, with some variations based on people’s vacation schedules, but New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore is common, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Toronto. You go in person to some places and in others, people dial in. But the whole thing gave me new insight into these pools of capital after venture capital. It was really interesting.

TC: Cloudflare said in a recent amendment to its S-1 that it was in touch with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control back in May after determining that its products were used by individuals and entities that have been blacklisted by the U.S. Did this new revelation slow anything down?

MZ: There was no impact. Your group of advisors expands when you go through a public offering, and lawyers dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ and you become a better company for it.

We deliver cybersecurity solutions that are made broadly available to businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and that’s incredible, but there are also some unsavory actors online, and we’ve always been a transparent organization [about having to grapple with this].

TC: How will Cloudflare handle requests for service by embargoed and restricted entities going forward? As a public company, does that process change in any way?

MZ: We have a really good process today. I think people think that we let anyone use Cloudflare and that’s it. But if customers are breaking the law, we remove them from our network and that’s not new and we publish transparency reports on it.

Sometimes, [you’re confronting] things that aren’t illegal but they’re gross, and the question is whose job is it to take it offline. But I work with some of the smartest minds on this and we try to be very transparent about how we figure this out. The conversation is so much better than it was a few years ago, too, with policy makers and academics and the business community engaging on this. People around the world are talking about where the lines can be drawn, but these are tricky, heady conversations.

TC: They certainly put Cloudflare in a precarious spot sometimes, as when the company banned the internet forum 8chan earlier this year after it was learned that the site was used by a gunman to post an anti-immigration rant. Can we expect that Cloudflare will continue to make decisions like this on a case-by-case basis?

MZ: Freedom of speech is such a fundamental part of this nation. Citizens should want the lawmakers to decide what the law should be, and if lawmakers could do this, it would be much better. On the other side, these are new issues that are arising so we shouldn’t rush. Lots of opinions need to be weighed and conversations are much further along than they once were, but there’s still work to be done, and Cloudflare is one [participant] in a much broader conversation.

Another high-flying, heavily funded AR headset startup is shutting down

While Apple and Microsoft strain to sell augmented reality as the next major computing platform, many of the startups aiming to beat them to the punch are crashing and burning.

Daqri, which built enterprise-grade AR headsets, has shuttered its HQ, laid off many of its employees and is selling off assets ahead of a shutdown, former employees and sources close to the company tell TechCrunch.

In an email obtained by TechCrunch, the nearly 10-year-old company told its customers that it was pursuing an asset sale and was shutting down its cloud and smart-glasses hardware platforms by the end of September.

“I think the large majority of people who worked [at Daqri] are sad to see it closing down,” a former employee told TechCrunch. “[I] wish the end result was different.”

image

The company’s 18,000+ square foot Los Angeles headquarters (above) is currently listed as “available” by real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank. The company’s Sunnyvale offices appear to have been shuttered sometime prior to 2019.

Daqri’s shutdown is only the latest among heavily funded augmented reality startups seeking to court enterprise customers.

Earlier this year, Osterhout Design Group unloaded its AR glasses patents after acquisition talks with Magic Leap, Facebook and others stalled. Meta, an AR headset startup that raised $73 million from VCs including Tencent, also sold its assets earlier this year after the company ran out of cash.

Daqri faced substantial challenges from competing headset makers, including Magic Leap and Microsoft, who were backed by more expansive war chests and institutional partnerships. While the headset company struggled to compete for enterprise customers, Daqri benefitted from investor excitement surrounding the broader space. That is, until the investment climate for AR startups cooled.

Daqri was, at one point, speaking with a large private-equity firm about financing ahead of a potential IPO, but as the technical realities facing other AR companies came to light, the firm backed out and the deal crumbled, we are told.

As of mid-2017, a Wall Street Journal report detailed that Daqri had raised $275 million in funding. You won’t find many details on the sources of that funding, other than references to Tarsadia Investments, a private-equity firm in Los Angeles that took part in the company’s sole disclosed funding round. We’re told Tarsadia had taken controlling ownership of the firm after subsequent investments.

In early 2016, Daqri acquired Two Trees Photonics, a small UK startup that was building holographic display technologies for automotive customers. The UK division soon comprised a substantial portion of the entire company’s revenues, sources tell us. By early 2018, the division was spun out from Daqri as a separate company called Envisics, leaving the Daqri team to focus wholly on bringing augmented reality to enterprise customers.

The remaining head-worn AR division failed to gain momentum after prolonged setbacks in adoption of its AR smart glasses, including difficulties in training workers to use the futuristic hardware, a source told TechCrunch.

All the while, the company’s leadership put on a brave face as the startup sputtered. In an interview this year with Cornell Enterprise Magazine, Daqri CEO Roy Ashok told the publication that the startup was forecasting shipments of “tens of thousands” of pairs of its AR glasses in 2020.

Daqri, its founder and several executives did not respond to requests for comment.

Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

The only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 12, 2019

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

Yes. To be clear, Plaid powertrain is about a year away from production & applies to S,X & Roadster, but not 3 or Y. Will cost more than our current offerings, but less than competitors.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 12, 2019

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

*~ Some personal news ~*

We lapped Laguna Seca @WeatherTechRcwy in 1:36.555 during advanced R&D testing of our Model S Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype

(That’s a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan) pic.twitter.com/OriccK4KCZ

— Tesla (@Tesla) September 12, 2019

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Close followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”

Gig worker bill AB-5 passes in California

Assembly Bill 5, the gig worker bill opposed by the likes of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, has passed in the California State Senate. This comes shortly after California Governor Gavin Newsom officially put his support behind AB 5 in an op-ed.

The bill needed 21 votes to pass in the State Senate. It passed in a 29 to 11 vote this evening.

The next step is for Governor Newsom to sign the bill into law, which he is expected to do. If he signs the bill, it will go into effect at the beginning of 2020.

“AB 5 is only the beginning,” Gig Workers Rising member and driver Edan Alva said in a statement. “I talk daily to other drivers who want a change but they are scared. They don’t want to lose their only source of income. But just because someone really needs to work does not mean that their rights as a worker should be stepped all over. That is why a union is critical. It simply won’t work without it.”

The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codfiy the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors based on the presumption that “a worker who performs services for a hirer is an employee for purposes of claims for wages and benefits…”

Those who work as 1099 contractors can set their own schedules, and decide when, where and how much they want to work. For employers, bringing on 1099 contractors means they can avoid paying payroll taxes, overtime pay, benefits and workers’ compensation.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in an “independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.”

In short, AB-5, which has already passed in the California State Assembly, would ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits.

Uber and Lyft, two of the main targets of this legislation, are adamantly against it. Last month, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash amped up their efforts to do whatever they can to prevent it from happening. That’s in part due to the fact that the companies cost of operating would increase.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash each put $30 million toward funding a 2020 ballot initiative that would enable them to keep their drivers as independent contractors.

Assuming Gov. Newsom signs the bill, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

AB5 has passed through the Senate! We thank @LorenaAD80 for championing this in the legislature and celebrate with drivers from across the state who have spent years organizing. Up next: a real union for drivers!

— Gig Workers Rising (@GigWorkersRise) September 11, 2019

Good Capital launches to close the funding gap for early-stage Indian startups

Rohan Malhotra and Arjun Malhotra left their jobs in London and Silicon Valley to explore opportunities in India in late 2013. A year later, the brothers launched Investopad to connect with local startup founders and product managers and built a community to exchange insight. Somewhere in the journey, they wrote early checks to social-commerce startup Meesho, which now counts Facebook as an investor, Autonomic, which got acquired by Ford, and HyperTrack, among others. Now the duo is ready to be full-time VCs.

On Monday, they announced Good Capital, a VC fund that would invest in early-stage startups. Through Good Capital’s maiden fund of $25 million, the brothers plan to invest in about half a dozen startups in a year and provide between $100,000 to $2 million in their Seed and Series A financing rounds, they told TechCrunch in an interview last week.

“Through Investopad, we helped startup founders raise money, provided guidance, and helped them find customers. We did a ton of events, and learned about the market,” said Arjun, who worked at Capricorn Investment Group and also acted in 2014 blockbuster Bollywood title “Highway.”

Investopad’s first fund portfolio stands at a gross IRR of 138.3% and nine of its 12 investments have realised returns, with every dollar invested already returned, the brothers said.

Good Capital will focus on investing in startups that are building solutions that address users who have come online in India for the first time in the last two years, they said.

“We don’t have laser-focus on a particular sector,” said Rohan, who previously worked as a sports agent in the talent management business. “Our primary focus is to help startups that are taking a bottom-up approach.”

One example of such startup is Meesho, a social-commerce startup that has amassed over 2 million users who are engaging with the platform to sell products across India.

In a statement, Vidit Aatrey, cofounder and CEO of Meesho, said, “Rohan and Arjun were our earliest investors. They have a phenomenal global network of entrepreneurs, operators and investors. They helped us early on with introductions to such people; who brought not only capital but, more importantly, valuable operational inputs which helped us learn quickly and find product-market fit faster. While we’ve grown from 2 people to over 1,000+ at Meesho, they remain close confidants!”

The VC fund has completed its first close of $12 million from Symphony International Holdings, a host of European family offices, and a number of other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Sundeep Madra, CEO of Ford X, and Yogen Dalal, Partner Emeritus at the Mayfield Fund and founder of Glooko, and Dinesh Moorjani, Managing Director of Comcast Ventures and founder of Hatch Labs and Tinder, will serve as advisors to Good Capital.

“Rohan and Arjun have a unique ability to identify trends and bring together founders and investors to go after the unique problems that India needs to have solved. They operate with a sense of urgency and innovation which is a major key at the seed-stage.” said Madra, who has invested in companies such as Uber and Zenefits.

The fund has also set up an investment committee whose members are Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO of Airtel and now a senior advisor at BCG, Rahul Khanna, formerly a managing partner at Cannan Partners and now founder of Trifecta Capital, and Kashyap Deorah, a serial entrepreneur who is currently building HyperTrack.

Good Capital has also already made two investments: SimSim, a video-based e-commerce platform that is trying to replicate the experience consumers have in offline stores, and Spatial, a cross-reality platform that allows people to collaborate through augmented reality. Garrett Camp, a founder of Uber and Expa, and Samsung Next have also invested in Spatial.

The VC fund is also interested in funding business-to-business startups, though they say these startups would ideally be building solutions for overseas markets. “There we are generally targeting makers, developers and designers, rather than solving problems for heavy-duty sales businesses.”

The arrival of Good Capital should help the Indian startup community, which today has to rely on a handful of VC funds that invest in early stage startups. “Conventionally, funds have targeted the top of the pyramid by exploring visible opportunities and replicated US companies and models,” said Moorjani in a statement.

“In contrast, Good Capital’s first principles thinking applied to India’s larger economy, which is coming online at scale with a supporting ecosystem for the first time, has been refreshing to see. The team is beyond talented.,” he added.

Even as Indian tech startups raised a record $10.5 billion in 2018, early-stage startups saw a decline in the number of deals they participated in and the amount of capital they received.

Early-stage startups participated in 304 deals in 2018 and raised $916 million in funds last year, down from $988 million they raised from 380 rounds in 2017 and $1.096 billion they raised from 430 deals the year before, research firm Venture Intelligence told TechCrunch.

As for Investopad, the brothers said they have hired a number of people who will now continue its operation.

Joi Ito resigns as MIT Media Lab head in wake of Jeffrey Epstein reporting

Joichi Ito, the embattled director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, has stepped down according to a statement by MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif. The news was first reported by The New York Times, which had received a copy of an email sent by Ito to university provost Martin A. Schmidt.

“After giving the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks,” the now-former director writes, “I think that it is best that I resign as director of the media lab and as a professor and employee of the Institute, effective immediately.”

In addition to resigning as director, Reif’s statement also confirmed that Ito resigned as a professor of the university.

The ‘matter’ to which the letter refers to is Ito’s reported connections to Jeffrey Epstein. The financier died in prison by hanging on August 10, following an arrest a month prior on federal charges of sex tracking minors.

Ito was among several high profile and powerful people whose alleged ties to the disgraced billionaire came into sharp focus following his arrest. In the immediate aftermath of that arrest, it came to light that the MIT Media Lab and Ito personally received funds from Epstein, to which Ito apologized in an August 15th letter.

The allegations against Ito intensified overnight following a report by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker that Ito’s engagement of Epstein were far deeper than had been previously been acknowledged. According to emails and documents discovered by Farrow, Ito and MIT Media Lab’s head of development, Peter Cohen, worked in tandem to conceal Epstein’s contributions from MIT’s central fundraising office, such as by marking donations anonymous and keeping his name out of disclosure statements.

Ito has long stood firm that the facts of his relationship with Epstein have been misreported. In an email to the Times, Ito said that the New Yorker piece was “full of factual errors.”

In response to Farrow’s piece, M.I.T, president L. Rafael Reif in today’s statement said:

Because the accusations in the story are extremely serious, they demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation. This morning, I asked MIT’s General Counsel to engage a prominent law firm to design and conduct this process. I expect the firm to conduct this review as swiftly as possible, and to report back to me and to the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, MIT’s governing board.

The MIT Media Lab is a storied research center with a long legacy of contributions to science, technology, and innovation. There are no indications yet on who might replace Ito.

In addition to the MIT Media Lab, Ito sits as a board director for The New York Times Company, where he sits on the company’s audit committee.

One can’t help but point out a perennial tweet that Ito wrote more than a decade ago about fundraising:

reminder to self: don’t invest with or take money from assholes

Joi Ito (@Joi) March 12, 2008

CDC says stop vaping as mystery lung condition spreads

Vape lung is spreading and the CDC is warning people not to use vaping products while they are investigating the cause. In a media briefing, the public health agency said that some 450 people are now thought to be affected, and as many as five have died.

The CDC’s incident manager for this issue, Dana Meaney Delman, summed up the situation as follows:

CDC, states, and other partners are actively investigating, but so far, no definitive cause has been established. No specific e-cigarette device or substance has been linked to all cases, and e-cigarette include a variety of chemical and additives; consumers may not know what these products contain.

Based on the clinical and laboratory evidence to date, we believe that a chemical exposure is likely associated with these illnesses. However, and I really want to stress this, more information is needed to determine which specific products or substances are involved

Reports earlier this week suggested that Vitamin E acetate, a byproduct of the vitamin complex formed during the vaporization process, may be to blame. Delman downplayed this, saying that although they are working with the labs that made that connection, nothing has been established as yet.

One trend worth noting, however, is that very few of the cases involve only nicotine products; most of the afflicted users reported using THC exclusively or as well as nicotine. This could be the result of many factors, however, so take it with a grain of salt.

The first death was reported in late August in Indiana, but other suspected cases have turned fatal in Illinois, Minnesota, California and Oregon — as reported by The Washington Post, though the CDC said three are confirmed and one is under investigation. The number of reported cases has skyrocketed, though this is likely a consequence of better information coming from state health authorities and hospitals, rather than a sudden epidemic.

In the meantime, the only advice they have is to avoid e-cigarette and vape device usage, especially modified devices or homebrew material. The fact is no one really knows what chemicals are formed in the conditions created by these devices, and some of them could be toxic.

While the investigation is ongoing, CDC has advised that individuals consider not using e-cigarettes because as of now, this is the primary means of preventing this type of severe lung disease. And of course e-cigarette use is never safe for youth, young adults, or pregnant women.

People who do use e-cigarette products should monitor themselves for symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, or others) and promptly seek medical attention for any health concerns. Regardless of the ongoing investigation, people who use e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street and should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances that are not intended by the manufacturer.

The CDC is working with numerous state authorities and the FDA to identify the cause of this malady, and will soon publish a report in The New England Journal of Medicine detailing the first 53 cases identified. This should help doctors and other health workers tell if they are dealing with a case of vape lung or something else.

Daniel Fox from WakeMed Hospitals in North Carolina characterized the condition as they had encountered it, with a preliminary diagnosis of “lipoid pneumonia”:

What we wanted to report and what we have seen has been a cluster of five cases that will be reported later today. Each of these cases featured a pulmonary illness in a relatively young person. Ranging in age from 18-35 from what we saw here in North Carolina. The symptoms that these patients were experiencing were being short of breath, having some GI or gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea and vomiting and fevers.

One of the things that was found in common with all of these cases is that all patients were using vaped substances in e-cigarettes. They all had abnormal chest x-rays and developed a need for a lot of oxygen.

All of our patients underwent evaluation, and after the clinical evaluation we found a certain type of pneumonia that was noninfectious. It’s called lipoid pneumonia. Basically, can be, it can occur when either oils or lipid-containing substances enter the lungs.

That is consistent with the Vitamin E acetate hypothesis, as that substance is oily and could enter the lungs mixed with the vapor and then stay there. But none of the doctors or experts on the call made that connection officially.

Some patients are being misdiagnosed as having bronchitis or a viral infection. If you are or anyone you know is getting sick and uses vaping products a lot, it’s worth mentioning this if you get checked out.

Delman concluded her briefing with an assurance that everything that can be done is being done:

Please know that CDC, FDA, state, and clinical partners are working hard to understand why people are getting sick. We will continue to share what we know and what we don’t know to help health departments, clinicians, and the public respond to this outbreak.

If you are concerned about your health or the health of a loved one who is using an e-cigarette product, contact your healthcare provider, or your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Alibaba acquires NetEase Kaola in deal worth $2 billion

Alibaba Group has acquired NetEase Kaola for $2 billion, the two companies said today, and will integrate it into Tmall, creating the largest cross-border e-commerce platform in China. The announcement follows weeks of media reports about a potential deal, which was said to have stalled in the middle of August after the companies reportedly disagreed on transaction details.

Tmall Import and Export general manager Alvin Liu has been named as Kaola’s new CEO, replacing Zhang Lei, but Kaola will continue to operate independently under its own brand.

Tmall Global and Kaola are China’s largest and second-largest cross-border e-commerce platforms, respectively, holding 31.7% and 24.5% of the market, and their union means they will create a business that will far outstrip in size rivals like JD Worldwide, VIP International and Amazon China. (Earlier this year, NetEase was reportedly in talks to merge Kaola with Amazon China).

Alibaba and Yunfeng, the investment firm launched by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, also agreed to invest $700 million into NetEase Cloud Music’s latest funding round. This will give Alibaba a minority stake in the streaming music service, with NetEase remaining its controlling shareholder.

In a press release, NetEase CEO William Ding said “We are pleased to have found a strategic fit for Kaola within Alibaba’s extensive ecosystem, where Kaola will continue to provide Chinese consumers with high-quality import products and services. At the same time, the completion of this strategic transaction will allow NetEase to focus on its growth strategy, investing in markets that allow us to best leverage our competitive advantages.”

Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Group’s CEO, said “Alibaba is confidence about the future of China’s import e-commerce market, which we believe remains in its infancy with great growth potential.”

Federal judge rules that the “terrorist watchlist” database violates U.S. citizens’ rights

A Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush has ruled that the “terrorist watchlist” database compiled by Federal agencies and used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security violates the rights of American citizens who are on it.

The ruling, first reported by The New York Times, raises questions about the constitutionality of the practice, which was initiated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Terrorist Screening Database is used both domestically and internationally by law enforcement and other federal agencies and inclusion on the database can have negative consequences — including limiting the ability of citizens whose names are on the list to travel.

The U.S. government has identified more than 1 million people as “known or suspected terrorists” and included them on the watchlist, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga is the culmination of several years of hearings on the complaint, brought to court by roughly two dozen Muslim U.S. citizens with the support of Muslim civil-rights group, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

The methodology the government used to add names to the watch list was shrouded in secrecy and citizens placed on the list often had no way of knowing how or why they were on it. Indeed, much of the plaintiffs lawsuit hinged on the over-broad and error-prone ways in which the list was updated and maintained.

“The vagueness of the standard for inclusion in the TSDB, coupled with the lack of any meaningful restraint on what constitutes grounds for placement on the Watchlist, constitutes, in essence, the absence of any ascertainable standard for inclusion and exclusion, which is precisely what offends the Due Process Clause,” wrote Judge Trenga.

In court, lawyers for the FBI contended that any difficulties the 21 Muslim plaintiffs suffered were outweighed by the government’s need to combat terrorist threats.

Judge Trenga disagreed. Especially concerning for the judge were the potential risks to an individual’s reputation as a result of their inclusion on the watchlist. That’s because the list isn’t just distributed to federal law enforcement agencies, but also finds its way into the hands of over 18,000 state, local,  county, city,  university and college, and tribal and federal law enforcement agencies and another 533 private entities. The judge was concerned that mistaken inclusion on the watchlist could have negative implications in interactions with local law enforcement and potential employers or local government services.

“Every step of this case revealed new layers of government secrets, including that the government shares the watchlist with private companies and more than sixty foreign countries,” said CAIR Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas. “CAIR will continue its fight until the full scope of the government’s shadowy watchlist activities is disclosed to the American public.”

Federal agencies have consistently expanded the number of names on the watchlist over the years. As of June 2017, 1.16 million people were included on the watchlist, according to government documents filed in the lawsuit and cited by the AP — with roughly 4,600 of those names belonging to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. In 2013, that number was 680,000, according to the AP.

“The fundamental principle of due process is notice and the opportunity to be heard,” said CAIR Trial Attorney Justin Sadowsky. “Today’s opinion provides that due process guarantee to all Americans affected by the watchlist.”

What you missed in cybersecurity this week

There’s not a week that goes by where cybersecurity doesn’t dominates the headlines. This week was no different. Struggling to keep up? We’ve collected some of the biggest cybersecurity stories from the week to keep you in the know and up to speed.

Malicious websites were used to secretly hack into iPhones for years, says Google

TechCrunch: This was the biggest iPhone security story of the year. Google researchers found a number of websites that were stealthily hacking into thousands of iPhones every week. The operation was carried out by China to target Uyghur Muslims, according to sources, and also targeted Android and Windows users. Google said it was an “indiscriminate” attack through the use of previously undisclosed so-called “zero-day” vulnerabilities.

Hackers could steal a Tesla Model S by cloning its key fob — again

Wired: For the second time in two years, researchers found a serious flaw in the key fobs used to unlock Tesla’s Model S cars. It’s the second time in two years that hackers have successfully cracked the fob’s encryption. Turns out the encryption key was doubled in size from the first time it was cracked. Using twice the resources, the researchers cracked the key again. The good news is that a software update can fix the issue.

Microsoft’s lead EU data watchdog is looking into fresh Windows 10 privacy concerns

TechCrunch: Microsoft could be back in hot water with the Europeans after the Dutch data protection authority asked its Irish counterpart, which oversees the software giant, to investigate Windows 10 for allegedly breaking EU data protection rules. A chief complaint is that Windows 10 collects too much telemetry from its users. Microsoft made some changes after the issue was brought up for the first time in 2017, but the Irish regulator is looking at if these changes go far enough — and if users are adequately informed. Microsoft could be fined up to 4% of its global annual revenue if found to have flouted the law. Based off 2018’s figures, Microsoft could see fines as high as $4.4 billion.

U.S. cyberattack hurt Iran’s ability to target oil tankers, officials say

The New York Times: A secret cyberattack against Iran in June but only reported this week significantly degraded Tehran’s ability to track and target oil tankers in the region. It’s one of several recent offensive operations against a foreign target by the U.S. government in recent moths. Iran’s military seized a British tanker in July in retaliation over a U.S. operation that downed an Iranian drone. According to a senior official, the strike “diminished Iran’s ability to conduct covert attacks” against tankers, but sparked concern that Iran may be able to quickly get back on its feet by fixing the vulnerability used by the Americans to shut down Iran’s operation in the first place.

Apple is turning Siri audio clip review off by default and bringing it in house

TechCrunch: After Apple was caught paying contractors to review Siri queries without user permission, the technology giant said this week it will turn off human review of Siri audio by default and bringing any opt-in review in-house. That means users actively have to allow Apple staff to “grade” audio snippets made through Siri. Apple began audio grading to improve the Siri voice assistant. Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all been caught out using contractors to review user-generated audio.

Hackers are actively trying to steal passwords from two widely used VPNs

Ars Technica: Hackers are targeting and exploiting vulnerabilities in two popular corporate virtual private network (VPN) services. Fortigate and Pulse Secure let remote employees tunnel into their corporate networks from outside the firewall. But these VPN services contain flaws which, if exploited, could let a skilled attacker tunnel into a corporate network without needing an employee’s username or password. That means they can get access to all of the internal resources on that network — potentially leading to a major data breach. News of the attacks came a month after the vulnerabilities in widely used corporate VPNs were first revealed. Thousands of vulnerable endpoints exist — months after the bugs were fixed.

Grand jury indicts alleged Capital One hacker over cryptojacking claims

TechCrunch: And finally, just when you thought the Capital One breach couldn’t get any worse, it does. A federal grand jury said the accused hacker, Paige Thompson, should be indicted on new charges. The alleged hacker is said to have created a tool to detect cloud instances hosted by Amazon Web Services with misconfigured web firewalls. Using that tool, she is accused of breaking into those cloud instances and installing cryptocurrency mining software. This is known as “cryptojacking,” and relies on using computer resources to mine cryptocurrency.

Malicious websites were used to secretly hack into iPhones for years, says Google

Security researchers at Google say they’ve found a number of malicious websites which, when visited, could quietly hack into a victim’s iPhone by exploiting a set of previously undisclosed software flaws.

Google’s Project Zero said in a deep-dive blog post published late on Thursday that the websites were visited thousands of times per week by unsuspecting victims, in what they described as an “indiscriminate” attack.

“Simply visiting the hacked site was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring implant,” said Ian Beer, a security researcher at Project Zero.

He said the websites had been hacking iPhones over a “period of at least two years.”

The researchers found five distinct exploit chains involving 12 separate security flaws, including seven involving Safari, the in-built web browser on iPhones. The five separate attack chains allowed an attacker to gain “root” access to the device — the highest level of access and privilege on an iPhone. In doing so, an attacker could gain access to the device’s full range of features normally off-limits to the user. That means an attacker could quietly install malicious apps to spy on an iPhone owner without their knowledge or consent.

Google said based off their analysis, the vulnerabilities were used to steal a user’s photos and messages as well as track their location in near-realtime. The “implant” could also access the user’s on-device bank of saved passwords.

The vulnerabilities affect iOS 10 through to the current iOS 12 software version.

Google privately disclosed the vulnerabilities in February, giving Apple only a week to fix the flaws and roll out updates to its users. That’s a fraction of the 90 days typically given to software developers, giving an indication of the severity of the vulnerabilities.

Apple issued a fix six days later with iOS 12.1.4 for iPhone 5s and iPad Air and later.

Beer said it’s possible other hacking campaigns are currently in action.

The iPhone and iPad maker in general has a good rap on security and privacy matters. Recently the company increased its maximum bug bounty payout to $1 million for security researchers who find flaws that can silently target an iPhone and gain root-level privileges without any user interaction. Under Apple’s new bounty rules — set to go into effect later this year — Google would’ve been eligible for several million dollars in bounties.

When reached, a spokesperson for Apple declined to comment.

The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association warns that restricting online access would be ruinous for the region

After Hong Kong’s leader suggested she may invoke emergency powers that could potentially include limiting Internet access, one of city’s biggest industry groups warned that “any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong.”

While talking to reporters on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested the government may use the Emergency Regulations Ordinance in response to ongoing anti-government demonstrations. The law, which has not been used in more than half a century, would give the government a sweeping array of powers, including the ability to restrict or censor publications and communications. In contrast to China’s “Great Firewall” and routine government censorship of internet services, Hong Kong’s internet is currently open and mostly unrestricted, with the exception of laws to prevent online crime, copyright infringements and the spread of obscene material like child pornography.

In an “urgent statement” addressed to Hong Kong’s Executive Council, the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) said that because of technology like VPNs, the cloud and cryptographies, the only way to “effectively and meaningfully block any services” would entail putting all of Hong Kong’s internet behind a large-scale surveillance firewall. The association added that this would have huge economic and social consequences and deter international organizations from doing business in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, restricting the internet in Hong Kong would also have implications in the rest of the region, including in mainland China, the HKISPA added. There are currently 18 international cable systems that land, or will land, in Hong Kong, making it a major telecommunications hub. Blocking one application means users will move onto another application, creating a cascading effect that will continue until all of Hong Kong is behind a firewall, the association warned.

In its statement, the HKISPA wrote that “the lifeline of Hong Kong’s Internet industry relies in large part on the open network,” adding “Hong Kong is the largest core node of Asia’s optical fiber network and hosts the biggest Internet exchange in the region, and it is now home to 100+ data centers operated by local and international companies, and it transits 80%+ of traffic for mainland China.”

“All these successes rely on the openness of Hong Kong’s network,” the HKISPA continued. “Such restrictions imposed by executive orders would completely ruin the uniqueness and value of Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub, a pillar of success as an international financial centre.”

The HKISPA urged the government to consult the industry and “society at large” before placing any restrictions in place. “The HKISPA strongly opposes selective blocking of Internet Services without consensus of the community,” it said.

More than 130 U.S. companies have reportedly applied to sell to Huawei, but the Commerce Department has approved none of them

Trump said in July that some U.S. suppliers would be allowed to sell to Huawei while it remains blacklisted, but so far no vendors have been allowed to do so. Reuters reports that more than 130 applications have been submitted by companies that want to do business with Huawei, but the U.S. Commerce Department has not approved any of them yet.

Huawei has served as a bargaining chip in the U.S.-China trade war, which escalated again last week when Trump said he would adds tariffs to $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, after China said it would impose duties of $75 billions on U.S. goods. Trump’s mixed signals during this weekend’s G7 summit also created confusion on Wall Street.

When both presidents met at the G20 Summit in June, Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would allow some American companies to sell to Huawei, even though it remains on the Commerce Department’s Entity List. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the Commerce Department would begin accepting applications again, requiring companies to prove that the tech they sell to Huawei would not pose a national security risk.

But one of the reasons no licenses have been granted yet is because the Commerce Department is unclear about what it is supposed to do. Former Commerce department official William Reinsch told Reuters that “nobody in the executive branch knows what [Trump] wants and they’re all afraid to make a decision without knowing that.”

In addition to providing telecom equipment, Huawei is an important customer for many U.S. tech firms, including Qualcomm, Intel and Micron. Out of the $70 billion in parts it bought last year, $11 billion of that went to U.S. suppliers. The U.S. claims Huawei is a national security risk, a charge the company has repeatedly denied.

Beam, the remote-controlled telepresence robot, gets acquired by Denmark’s Blue Ocean Robotics

Beam, a telepresence robot with a screen that a person can remotely control and use to communicate via video, became a breakthrough success in the world of robotics in part because of its role in helping high-profile, but movement-limited, people like Edward Snowden better communicate with the outside world, and disability rights activists meet with world leaders. Now, the control of Beam the product itself is changing: Suitable Technologies, the creator of the Beam, is selling it to Blue Ocean Robotics, a Denmark-based developer and incubator that describes itself as a “Robot Venture Factory.”

In an interview we conducted via a Beam robot — where I dialled into Blue Ocean’s offices and navigated a Beam from its docking station around the office and into a private room — Blue Ocean’s CEO and co-founder Claus Risager said his company is not buying Suitable itself: the deal includes only the IP, staff who work on Beam robots, hardware inventory and other related assets. Currently, there are a few versions of the Beam on the market: the two main categories are a smaller robot that is priced around $2,000-$4,000, and a larger Beam Pro that sells for around $15,000 per machine.

The key with Blue Ocean’s development to date is that it has built a “toolbox” (Risager’s term) that it uses to build different robotic hardware — one of its most successful has been its UVD Robot that can perform remote, ultra-violet-based disinfection in hospitals and other infection-prone environments — that it will be using to develop iterations of the Beam. That could mean that long-rumored ideas of the Beam getting robotic arms and other appendages could be coming at some point.

Suitable Technologies, meanwhile, was founded by Scott Hassan, a robot enthusiast that was an early investor in Google; a prolific and prescient software engineer whose work is associated with some of the most iconic and transformational internet companies of our time (he was a key figure in Google’s early search development, and had built Yahoo Groups and was at analytics company Alexa Internet, the latter of which became part of Amazon and has become the name synonymous with AI-based voice interfaces); and an entrepreneur who founded the now-defunct robotics incubator Willow Garage before Suitable Technologies. Both Willow and Suitable were privately financed by Hassan himself.

Hassan is known for being somewhat media shy, and he declined to respond to requests for comment on what will happen with Suitable Technologies now that the only product that it has developed and released to date is getting sold. Risager also declined to talk about why his company acquired just the product but not the company behind it, but he noted that the two companies had been working in partnership for some time already to help distribute the Beam in Europe, where it is used in settings like hospitals as well as other enterprise and industrial applications.

“Our logic behind the purchase is that we have a large customer base ourself and every one of them is buying more Beams and discovering more applications for it,” Risager said. “This is proof for us that there is big growth in this market and that is why we believe in it.”

In a statement provided by Blue Ocean, Hassan described the sale as a “multi-year partnership”, which seems to imply that Suitable will be sticking around for a while more, although it’s not entirely clear if he’s referring to the past or the present in the statement.

“Through our multi-year partnership, I am confident that Blue Ocean Robotics has the commitment, knowhow, and passion to support current Beam customers, acquire new customers, and build the business into new areas,” said Hassan.

Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed. Blue Ocean has raised only around $15 million in funding according to PitchBook, although Risager said the actual figure is actually closer to $30-40 million. It has a number of enterprise products already on the market that Risager said have made the company profitable to date, and so the purchase of Beam, and future development, will be financed internally. Risager said his company plans to invest “several million dollars” into the development and future of Beam.

But at a time when robotics as a startup idea has had some significant setbacks — recent shutdowns include Rethink Robotics, Anki, Keecker and Jibo — it seems that this is not the rule for everyone in the field. Risager told me that he has daily emails from firms that would like to take stakes in the company, and it seems that the startup has engaged with more than one large tech company that has approached it with M&A in mind.

“We started six years ago and have three products today,” he said, “and we expect in two years’ time one of them will be acquired or something like that. It’s a part of our business model: at some point these will be worth more to a large global company than to us.

“Everyone understands that in the next 10-20 years the robotics field will grow a lot,” he continued. The professional service robotics market is doubling ever year at the moment. It is currently quite small, with sales of around 100,000 robots annually, but with companies like Amazon and Facebook taking interest, you can see how is potential for a bigger enterprise, but also consumer, push. “I could have a serious conversation with potential investors every day, if I wanted to,” he said.

Web host Hostinger says data breach may affect 14 million customers

Hostinger said it has reset user passwords as a “precautionary measure” after it detected unauthorized access to a database containing information on millions of its customers.

The breach is said to have happened on Thursday. The company said in a blog post it received an alert that one of its servers was improperly accessed. Using an access token found on the server, which can give access to systems without needing a username or a password, the hacker gained further access to the company’s systems, including an API database. That database contained customer usernames, email addresses, and passwords scrambled with the SHA-1 algorithm, which has been deprecated in favor of stronger algorithms after researchers found SHA-1 was vulnerable to spoofing. The company has since upgraded its password hashing to the stronger SHA-2 algorithm.

Hostinger said the API database stored about 14 million customers records. The company has more than 29 million customers on its books.

The company said it was “in contact with the respective authorities.”

hostinger

An email from Hostinger explaining the data breach. (Image: supplied)

News of the breach broke overnight. According to the company’s status page, affected customers have already received an email to reset their passwords.

The company said that financial data was not compromised, nor was customer website files or data affected.

But one customer who was affected by the breach accused the company of being potentially “misleading” about the scope of the breach.

A chat log seen by TechCrunch shows a customer support representative telling the customer it was “correct” that customers’ financial data can be retrieved by the API but that the company does “not store any payment data.” Hostinger uses multiple payment processors, the representative told the customer, but did not name them.

Chief executive Balys Kriksciunas told TechCrunch that the remarks made by the customer support representative were “misleading” and denied any customer financial data was compromised. A company investigation into the breach, however, remains under way.

Updated with remarks from Hostinger.

Related stories:

Uber tries to reassure customers that it takes safety seriously, following NYTimes book excerpt

It’s hard at times not to feel sorry for Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, given all that he inherited when he became the ride-share giant’s top boss back in April 2017.

Among his many to-do items: take public a money-losing company whose private-market valuation had already soared past what many thought it was worth, clean-up the organization’s win-at-all-costs image, and win over employees who clearly remained loyal to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, an inimitable figure who Khosrowshahi was hired to replace.

Things are undoubtedly about to get worse, given the fast-upcoming publication of a tell-all book about Uber authored by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac. In just one excerpt published yesterday by the newspaper, Isaac outlines how Uber misled customers into paying $1 more per ride by telling them Uber would use the proceeds to fund an “industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app, and insurance.”

The campaign was hugely successful, according to Isaac, who reports that it brought in nearly half a billion dollars for Uber. Alas, according to employees who worked on the project, the fee was devised primarily to add $1 of pure margin to each trip.

Om Malik, a former tech journalist turned venture capitalist, published a tongue-in-cheek tweet yesterday after reading the excerpt, writing, “Apology from @dkhos coming any minute — we are different now.”

Malik was close. Instead of an apology, Uber today sent some of its riders an email titled, somewhat ominously, “Your phone number stays hidden in the app.” The friendly reminder continues on to tell customers that their “phone number stays hidden when you call or text your driver through the app,” that “pickup and dropoff locations are not visible in a driver’s trip history,” and that “for additional privacy, if you don’t want to share your exact address, request a ride to or from the nearest cross streets instead.”

The email was clearly meant to reassure riders, some of whom might be absorbing negative press about Uber and wondering if it cares about them at all. But not everyone follows Uber as closely as industry watchers in Silicon Valley, and either way, what the email mostly accomplishes is to remind customers that riding in an Uber involves life-and-death risk.

Stressing that the company is “committed to safety” is the debating equivalent of a so-called negative pregnant, wherein a denial implies its affirmative opposite. It’s Uber shooting itself in the foot.

Uber

It would have been more effective for Uber to email riders that when it talks about safety, it really does mean business — and not the kind where it swindles its own customers for pure monetary gain.

Either way, the affair underscores the tricky terrain Uber is left to navigate right now. Though campaigns like Uber’s so-called “safe rides fee” was orchestrated under the leadership of Kalanick — who did whatever it took to scale the company — it’s Khosrowshahi’s problem now.

So is the fact that the company’s shares have been sinking since its IPO in early May; that Uber’s cost-cutting measures will be scrutinized at every turn (outsiders particularly relished the company’s decision to save on employees’ work anniversaries by cutting out helium balloons in favor of stickers); and that Uber appears to be losing the battle, city by city, against labor activists who want to push up the minimum wage paid to drivers.

And those are just three of many daunting challenges that Khosrowshahi has been tasked with figuring out  (think food delivery, self-driving technologies, foreign and domestic opponents). No doubt Isaac’s book will highlight plenty of others.

How Uber handles the inevitable wave of bad publicity that comes with it remains to be seen. We don’t expect Khosrowshahi to come out swinging; that’s not his style. But we also hope the company doesn’t take to emailing riders directly, without any context. It’s great if Uber is taking customer safety more seriously than it might have under Kalanick’s leadership, but reaching out to tell riders how to remain safe from their Uber drivers isn’t the way to do it, especially without acknowledging in any way why it’s suddenly so eager to have the conversation.

Confirmed: Disney is making an Obi-Wan series with Ewan McGregor

The rumors have been suggesting it for a while now, and fans have been pretty much begging for it… and it’s happening: Ewan McGregor will return to the role of Obi-Wan for a new Disney+ series.

Disney dropped the news at a panel during D23 this evening, almost immediately after premiering the trailer for its other live action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian.

Details are still remarkably light. There’s not even an official name for the series yet. Beyond McGregor’s involvement, the only details mentioned are that the scripts are written, and that shooting should begin in 2020.

JUST ANNOUNCED: Hello there! Ewan McGregor will reprise his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in an untitled series for #DisneyPlus! #D23Expo

— Disney D23 (@DisneyD23) August 24, 2019

ThredUp, whose second-hand goods will start appearing at Macy’s and JCPenney, just raised a bundle

ThredUp, the 10-year-old fashion resale marketplace, has a lot of big news to boast about lately. For starters, the company just closed on $100 million in fresh funding from an investor syndicate that includes Park West Asset Management, Irving Investors and earlier backers Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, Upfront Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Redpoint Ventures.

The round brings ThredUP’s total capital raised to more than $300 million, including a previously undisclosed $75 million investment that it sewed up last year.

A potentially even bigger deal for the company is a new resale platform that both Macy’s and JCPenney are beginning to test out, wherein ThedUp will be sending the stores clothing that they will process through their own point-of-sale systems, while trying to up-sell customers on jewelry, shoes, and other accessories.

It says a lot that traditional retailers are coming to see gently used items as a potential revenue stream for themselves, and little wonder given the size of the resale market, estimated to be a $24 billion market currently and projected to become a $51 billion market by 2023.

We talked yesterday with ThredUp founder and CEO James Reinhart to learn more about its tie-up with the two brands and to find out what else the startup is stitching together.

TC: You’ve partnered with Macy’s and JCPenney. Did they approach you or is ThredUp out there pitching traditional retailers?

JR: I think [the two companies] have been thinking about resale for some time. They’re trying to figure out how to best serve their customers. Meanwhile, we’ve been thinking about how we power resale for a broader set of partners, and there was a meeting of the minds six months ago

We’re positioned now where we can do this really effectively in-store, so we’re starting with a pilot program in 30 to 40 stores, but we could scale to 300 or 400 stores if we wanted.

TC: How is this going to work, exactly, with these partners?

JR: We have the [software and logistics] architecture and the selection to put together carefully curated selections of clothing for particular stores, including the right assortment of brands and sizes, depending on where a Macy’s is located, for example. Macy’s then wraps a high-quality experience around [those goods]. Maybe it’s a dress, but they wrap a handbag and scarves and jewelry around the dress purchase. We feel [certain] that future consumers will buy new and used at the same time.

TC: Who is your demographic, and please don’t say everyone.

JR: It is everyone. It’s not a satisfying answer, but we sell 30,000 brands. We serve lots of luxury customers with brands like Louis Vuitton, but we also sell Old Navy. What unites customers across all brands is they want to find brands that they couldn’t have afforded new; they’re trading up to brands that, full price, would have been too much, so Old Navy shoppers are [buying] Gap [whose shopper are buying] J. Crew and Theory and all the way up. Consistently, what we hear is [our marketplace] allows customers to swap out their wardrobes at higher rates than would be possible otherwise, and it feels to them like they’re doing it in a more [environmentally] responsible way.

TC: What percentage of your shoppers are also consigning goods?

JR: We don’t track that closely, but it’s typically about a third.

TC: Do you think your customers are buying higher-end goods with a mind toward selling them, to defray their overall cost? I know that’s the thinking of CEO Julie Wainwright at [rival] The RealReal. It’s all supposed to be a kind of virtuous circle of shopping.

JR:  We like to talk about buying the handbag, then selling it, but plenty of people will also buy a second-hand Banana Republic sweater because it’s a value [and because] fashion is the second-most polluting industry on the planet.

TC: How far are you going to combat that pollution? I’m just curious if you’re in any way try to bolster the sale of hemp, versus maybe nylon, clothes for example.

JR: We aren’t driving material selection. Our thesis is: we want to stay out of the fashion business and instead ensure there’s a responsible way for people to buy second hand.

TC: For people who haven’t used ThredUp, walk through the economics. How much of each sale does someone keep?

JR: On ThredUp, it isn’t a uniform payment; it depends instead on the brand. On the luxury end, we pay [sellers] more than anyone else — we pay up to 80 percent when we resell it. If it’s Gap or Banana Republic, you get maybe 10 or 15 or 20 percent based on the original price of the item.

TC: How would you describe your standards? What goes into the reject pile?

JR: We have high standards. Items have to be in like-new or gently used condition, and we reject more than half of what people send us. But I think there’s probably more leeway for the Theory’s and J.Crew’s of the world than if you’re buying a Chanel dress.

TC: Unlike some of your rivals, you don’t sell to men. Why not?

JR: Men’s is a small market in secondhand. Men wear the same four colors — blue, black, gray and brown — so it’s not a big resale market. We do sell kids’ clothing, and that’s a big part of our market.

TC: When Macy’s now sells a dress from ThredUp, how much will you see from that transaction?

JR: We can’t share the details of the economics.

TC: How many people are now working for ThredUp?

JR: We have less than 200 in our corporate office in San Francisco, and 50 in Kiev, and then across four distribution centers — in Phoenix; Mechanicsburg [Pa.]; Atlanta; and Chicago — we have another 1,200 employees.

TC: You’ve now raised a lot of money in the last year. How will it be used?

JR: On our resale platform [used by retailers like Macy’s] and on building our tech and operations and building new distribution centers to process more clothing. We can’t get people to stop sending us stuff. [Laughs.]

TC: Before you go, what’s the most under-appreciated aspect of your business?

JR: The logistics behind the scenes. I think for every great e-commerce business, there are incredible logistics [challenges to overcome] behind the scenes. People don’t appreciate how hard that piece is, alongside the data. We’re going to process our 100 millionth item by the end of this year. That’s a lot of data.

Fresh out of Y Combinator, Tandem lands millions from Andreessen Horowitz

Tandem, one of the most sought after companies to graduate from Y Combinator’s summer batch, will emerge from the accelerator program with a supersized seed round and an uncharacteristically high valuation.

The months-old business, which is developing communication software for remote teams after pivoting from crypto, is raising a $7.5 million seed financing at a valuation north of $30 million, sources tell TechCrunch. Airbnb investor Andreessen Horowitz is leading the round.

Tandem and a16z declined to comment for this story. The round has yet to close, which means the deal size is subject to change. Y Combinator startups raise capital using SAFE agreements, or simple agreements for future equity, which allow investors to buy shares in a future priced round at a previously agreed-upon valuation.

We’re told several top venture capital firms were vying for a stake in Tandem. One firm even gifted the founders a tandem bike, sources tell TechCrunch, resorting to amusing measures to sway the Tandem team. But it was a16z — which has an established interest in the growing future of work sector, evidenced by its recent investment in the popular email app Superhuman — that ultimately won the coveted lead investor spot.

Tandem provides a virtual office for remote teams, complete with video-chatting and messaging capabilities, as well as integrations with top enterprise tools including Notion, GitHub and Trello. The service launched one month ago and has signed contracts with Airbnb, Dropbox and others. The company claims to be growing 50% week-over-week.

“Every company is a remote company,” Tandem chief executive officer Rajiv Ayyangar said during his pitch to investors on day two of Y Combinator Demo Days this week. “You have salespeople in the field, [companies with] multiple offices, people working from home. Tandem isn’t just building the future of remote work, it’s building the future of work.”

Ayyangar was previously a data scientist at Yahoo before joining Yakit, a startup seeking to simplify ecommerce delivery, as the director of product. Co-founders Bernat Fortet Unanue and Tim Su are also Yahoo alums.

We’re told Tandem’s fundraise was nearly complete before it pitched to investors Tuesday afternoon. Startups that participate in YC are often flooded with offers from VCs throughout the three-month program. Firms are hungry for the batch’s Airbnb, Dropbox or Stripe — graduates of the program — and will pay premiums on startup equity for their chance to invest in a future ‘unicorn.’

As a result, the median seed deal for U.S. startups in 2018 was roughly $2 million — a record high — with typical pre-money valuations hovering north of $10 million. Tandem’s seed financing represents both a trend of swelling seed deals and valuations, as well as a tendency for VCs to dole out more cash to fresh-from-YC companies amid heightened competition amongst their peers.

The previous YC batch, which wrapped up in March, included ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch, a trio of companies that pocketed venture capital ahead of demo day. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation before demo day, sources told TechCrunch at the time (months after demo day, Zero Down announced a whopping $30 million financing). ZeroDown was an outlier, of course, as the company’s founders had previously co-founded the billion-dollar HR software company Zenefits.

As for the summer batch, we’re told Actiondesk, Taskade and Tandem are amongst the startups to garner the most hype from investors. Some even forwent the demo day pitch altogether. BraveCare, which is creating urgent care clinics intended just for kids, raised $4.1 million ahead of demo day, we’re told. The company opted not to pitch to additional investors this week.

You can read about all the company’s that pitched during demo day one here and demo day two here.

All 84 startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 1

It’s that time of year, Silicon Valley’s investor technocrati and advice-giving Twitter celebrities descended upon Pier 48 in San Francisco to judge the latest summer batch of Y Combinator startups. TechCrunch was there, as well, and we were tapping away feverishly as co-founders pitched to woo investors.

There are 197 companies in total in the summer YC batch, we heard from 84 of them today — in addition to a few off-the-record pitches which we agreed to hold off publicizing as they remain in stealth. We’ll hear from another chunk of them tomorrow, so check back tomorrow for even more startup blurbs.

Demo Day used to be the debut for many of these companies, but as Y Combinator’s prestige has grown so has the likelihood that the batch’s best will be closing rounds at outsized valuations before the first pitches have been made.

We’ll undoubtedly be reporting on some of these rounds moving forward, but for now here are the 84 companies whose founders pitched onstage today at Y Combinator Demo Days – Day 1.


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  • Mighty: Mixpanel’s founder is at Y Combinator with his new startup, Mighty, a $20 per month cloud computer streaming service that’s just for Google Chrome (at the moment). Why pay for a free piece of software? The startup says that by streaming the experience from a beefed-up PC your most-used app will be considerably faster and only use 5% of your CPU. It’s a premium product with a tight niche, but the company has ambitions to support other software types as it builds out the tech.
  • Hype and Vice: This startup combines the latest trends with college brands to make fashion-focused college apparel for women. Working with 11 universities to date, the founders say the company has grown 4x YoY, with margins of 84%; meanwhile, they have 50 additional college licenses in the pipeline.
  • Lumineye: Lumineye wants to help first responders identify people through walls. In domestic violence disputes, hostage rescue or human trafficking situations, first responders often need help determining where humans are behind closed doors or other barriers. Lumineye’s team of four built a portable 3D-printed radar device that uses signal analysis software to differentiate moving and breathing humans from other objects through barriers like drywall, concrete, rubble and brick. For Lumineye, four pilot programs represent $90K in ARR. They’ve also just signed a $50K pilot with the U.S. Air Force. They’re also signed on to start testing with the FBI this fall.
  • Flo Recruit: This is an applicant-tracking platform for in-person recruiting events. The startup helps companies scale their college recruiting efforts, saving time and money. The company says they have $8,500 in monthly recruiting revenue, counting Y Combinator itself as one of its customers.
  • Gaiascope: Electricity trading is a $15 billion annual market, but it’s hard. Electricity is consumed instantly, which means the supply must always match the demand. That, however, leads to extreme price volatility. Traditional quant models don’t work, so this is where Gaiascope’s algorithms come in. Through its quant fund, Gaiascope enables electricity trading at more predictable prices. 
  • Revel: Many of the venture-backed communities online seem to be geared toward 20-something dudes, but Revel is aiming to create an online-to-offline community group for women over the age of 50. The site is a $15 per month membership that gives you access to the community-hosted groups. Revel went live in the Bay Area last month.

demoday node

  • Node: Node wants to use an Ikea-like assembly process to build sustainable backyard cottages — a market the founders say is worth $100 billion and growing quickly. In the past year 25 cities have passed legislation to allow these buildings. Node ships a flat pack of materials that it says only take a few days to assemble into a turnkey backyard cottage or sustainable vacation home. They’ve sold 11 homes in the past two weeks, and the founders are optimistic that they could reach 50% margins with their tech. Early target markets include Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. 
  • Prolific: A marketplace for finding survey participants on demand. Submit your survey, tell them a bit about your target audience, and they’ll find survey participants accordingly. They saw $185K net revenue in July, with 2.5x yearly growth through word of mouth.
  • Juno College of Technology: JCT is creating the technical university of the future. The startup operates a coding bootcamp, expected to do $3 million in revenue by the end of 2019. Similar to Lamda School, they offer income-share agreements, but “the similarities stops there,” explained the founder. Juno says it places 87% of founders who complete their nine-week long program. 
  • LAIKA: In Latin America, it’s hard to buy pet supplies in person due to a reliance on bus transportation. LAIKA, an online pet supplies service for Latin America, aims to make it easier. The startup has $200,000 in monthly revenues and is growing 30% month over month. 
  • ScholarMeThe startup is building what it calls the “Common App for college financing,” a single form that helps students pay for college. The company prevents prospective students from filling out endless forms to find scholarships, FAFSAs, income-share agreements and loans. 
  • Sable: Getting set up with a bank is a slow process for people new to the U.S. It can take months for foreign-born people to get set up with a credit card and a checking account. Sable launched a mobile bank for international people in the U.S. that wants to expedite that process. The team has collectively worked on distributed teams that launched 14 banking products in the past. The company is currently managing credit cards and live checking accounts. With Sable, users can get set up with a credit card and checking account online in five minutes. In five days of launch, the company has 135 customers and is managing $200,000. Sable is targeting 4.5 million creditworthy internationals, and what it says is a $3.3 billion market in the U.S. alone. The team wants to eventually launch a suite of banking products like mortgages and student loans while they’re at the beginning of their financial independence in the U.S. 

demoday metacode

  • Metacode: “Better code search,” currently for Swift, TypeScript and Javascript. Whereas many code environments only do plaintext search, Metacode sorts results by relevance, displays code in the context of code around it and allows you to filter results by keyword. The company says more than 700 engineers from companies like Pinterest and VueJS are currently using it. The cost is $25 per month per engineer.
  • Fad Mania: This is an app that provides users with an endless stream of games with ambitions of being the next major social network. One of the first games was called Trump Punch, which got more than 100,000 organic users. The team realized most games don’t retain users and decided to create Fad Mania, which develops social-first games. Fad Mania has 1,000 weekly users.
  • Breadfast: This startup delivers fresh bread, milk and eggs to customers in Egypt. Because Breadfast makes its own bread and works with farmers, its business has 35% gross margins with $180,000 in monthly revenue. For customers, Breadfast costs $18 per month per household.
  • Ever Loved: If you thought people using GoFundMe’s to pay for their surgeries were dark, Ever Loved is helping people pay for funeral expenses with a dedicated platform. The crowdfunding site can help families and friends amass cash and the startup will let people pay for services directly from the site, letting them take a slice on both sides of the transaction.
  • Localyze: Localyze provides international employee relocation as a service. Employee relocation is an expensive cost for businesses, yet every year, two million people are moving to the U.S. and Europe for work. Localyze wants to streamline that process with a software that automates some tasks related to immigration, moving and housing processes 50% faster. The platform also connects international employees to services like banking, insurance and transportation. Localyze is currently working with 27 B2B customers and says it produced $16,000 in revenue last month.
  • Safely Deposit: This startup provides on-demand safe deposit boxes specifically for physical papers like estate documents and wills. You mail your documents in via FedEx, they store the physical copy in a safe deposit box while providing you access to digital copies. The cost is $120 per year.

demoday elpha

  • Elpha: (IMAGE) This is a networking and communication platform for women in tech to talk candidly online. Elpha today counts 15,000 members and 6,000 members visiting the site each work. They have 23 paying companies who pay $12,000 per year for access to the platform. Elpha strives to be the first professional network built for and by women.
  • Basis: This is a construction startup that automates workflows and manages bids from subcontractors. To date, Basis has four signed contracts within three weeks of operating. The big vision is to become a full-fledged platform for the construction industry.
  • Hatchways: Learning to code online has kind of been a trope for people that are tired of their careers and are ready to do something new. The issue is that even if they get their skills to a great position that’s really only part of the equation. Hatchways is building a platform to help people who have learned to code online find internships and team projects. The startup is aiming to collect fees on both sides, from candidates looking to find opportunities and companies looking for new talent. They’re starting with software engineers but are also looking to help people get into finance, as well.
  • Puzzl: Puzzl is a campaign tracking platform for brands; it focuses on the in-person parts of campaigns. The platform lets businesses manage their ambassador programs and track metrics without being physically present at targeted locations. Puzzl’s software lets companies track impressions, engagement and conversions for the in-person parts of marketing campaigns. They managed a campaign for Juli Learning code school, another YC company. They’ve made $11,000 in revenue with 33% margins since launching 20 campaigns. Puzzl is currently enabling brands to manage 100 brand ambassadors in what it says is an $8 billion market.

demoday marble

  • Marble Technologies: This startup provides cashier-free checkout kiosks for restaurants, running on iPads. Marble’s founders say their solution increases customer spending by 16%. They have three national restaurant chain contracts in the works, and have processed $3 million in sales to date. They charge $12,000 per location, per year. 
  • Apero Health: Led by a pair of serial entrepreneurs, including the former chief technology officer of Doctor on Demand, Apero Health provides automated claim submission, integrated online patient building and modern APIs to doctor’s offices. 

demoday shortstory

  • Short Story: You could think of Short Story as a Stitch Fix for petite women. Petite women can have a hard time finding clothes that fit them. First, petite women complete a style quiz to notify the company of their preferences. Then, Short Story sends them their first monthly box of clothes. Short Story says the petite women’s clothing market is worth $35 billion. To date, Short Story has seen 74% monthly revenue growth.
  • EncepHeal Therapeutics: Non-addictive prescription substitutes have been a very popular solution for people addicted to drugs like tobacco and opioids. EncepHeal Therapeutics is creating medications to help the 2.5 million cocaine and methamphetamine addicts have a similar option. The company’s medication has shown promising early testing on lab rats.
  • PopSQL: PopSQL provides collaborative SQL query editing. You can store SQL queries you run regularly, grouping them into folders that can be kept private or shared amongst your team. Version history tracks changes so it can be reverted if/when something breaks. It currently has more than 100 paying companies, and is making $13K per month. It plans to build a marketplace for apps that run on top of your company’s database.
  • Kuarti: Kuarti is building the OYO of Latin America. The founder equates the current hotel booking process in Latin America to what it looked like decades ago in the U.S. Kuarti identified a trend of increasing demand to travel within Mexico’s growing middle class. However, there are currently no standardized hotel options in the country. Kuarti wants to provide another hotel booking option for standardized hotel chains that can be reserved online. The company wants to partner with independent hotels, to make small renovations and offer rooms for $35 per night. They’ve partnered with four hotels, have 20 rooms in their inventory and say that users have already booked 275 nights collectively. The founder identifies this as a $2.5 billion market in Mexico alone, and an $11 billion market across all of Latin America, where it hopes to expand. Kuarti is a Mexican company that is part of the business accelerator with which Airbnb started.
  • UpEquity: The startup lets future homeowners put down all-cash offers in what they claim is a $20 billion market opportunity. The founders, Harvard Business School dropouts, have a history in the private equity industry. The startup claims to have more than $30,000 in revenue for the month of August. The tech-enabled mortgage solution says it provides customers better bargaining power than traditional solutions, at competitive rates.
  • Blair: Blair finances college education through income-share agreements. Through ISAs, which require students to pay back Blair a percentage of their future income, Blair finances everything from tuition to cost of living. Since launching a few weeks ago, Blair has already put $250,000 toward the education of 20 students. Blair will deploy its second fund this week.
  • Intersect Labs: Intersect Labs is building CoreML for enterprise, letting its customers easily build machine learning models to help make sense of their historical data and deliver insights without having to hire data scientists. The monthly subscription is aiming to deliver a product that doesn’t require much technical knowledge. “If you can use a spreadsheet, you can use Intersect Labs.”
  • Traces: As privacy-conscious consumers speak up against the proliferation of facial recognition tech, there’s still a clear need for a product that enables smart camera tracking for customers. Traces is building computer vision tracking tech that relies on cues other than facial structure like clothing and size to help customers integrate less invasive tracking tech. It was built by former Ring engineers.

demoday Epic Aerospace

  • Epic Aerospace: Epic is manufacturing inexpensive space tugs to deliver satellites into geostationary orbit. The 21-year-old founder has been building rockets since he was 16, and is now managing a team of seven aerospace engineers with Epic Aerospace. The founder describes propulsion as one of the biggest problems for satellite companies, in that it can take up to two years to qualify new satellite systems and can cost up to $30 million. The problem they’re solving is moving satellites from low Earth orbit directly into geostationary orbit. Epic’s tug is half the cost of the competition and is reusable. They’re currently working with Satellogic, and chasing what the founder says is a $3.1 billion geostationary insertion market. 
  • Soteris: Soteris is a startup building machine learning software for insurance pricing. Within six months of their pilot, they already have two insurers under contract, giving them $500K in guaranteed annual revenue. 
  • Gold Fig Labs: The startup is building a tool for version control on settings pages. The founders come from Firebase, where they were both early employees. The company has signed up 60 companies in the last five weeks, including “multi-billion-dollar tech companies.”
  • Mela: Mela, which refers to itself as the Pinduoduo for India, is an e-commerce platform that enables customers to participate in group shopping and buying via WhatsApp and Facebook. The number of orders on Mela are increasing by 59% per day. 

demoday Million Marker

  • Million Marker: The world is full of nasty chemicals that can mess up your body. Million Marker is building testing kits to help people measure their exposure to certain chemicals. The startup is starting with a urine testing kit that analyzes for BPA and Phthalates, plastics chemicals that can disrupt hormones and lead to fertility issues. 
  • Well Principled: This is an AI-driven management consultant that says it wants to “replace MBAs with software.” Companies spend $200 billion on management consultants every year. Well Principled wants to replace that expensive and cumbersome system with its tech that has culled growth and revenue learnings from academic research and turned it into enterprise software. The company wants to eliminate the need for outside consultants by integrating its software into the daily operations of businesses as they launch new products. Well Principled is advised and invested in by early Palantir leaders, and claims $840,000 ARR from its first Fortune 200 customer. 
  • Dashblock: Dashbloack creates APIs from any web page using machine learning. Drop in a URL, select the data you want from a page, and it will figure out how to automatically extract it and provide it via API. It has have more than 1,500 users since launching two weeks ago.
  • Valiu: This startup provides remittances, or international money transfers, focused on the Latin American market. The company is beginning with a focus on Venezuela, where there are limited options for transferring money globally. The company estimates a $15 million market and is currently growing 35% month over month.
  • Vorticity: Vorticity builds custom chips to make computers 10,000x faster for fluid dynamics modeling. Vorticity’s chips and processes can be applied to industries like aerospace, life sciences and nuclear energy. Boom Supersonics, which spends millions of dollars every year on fluid dynamics work, is Vorticity’s first customer. 
  • PredictLeads: PredictLeads is aiming to help data-driven investors identify companies that are picking up traction. The startup says its data can tell you when the startups that you passed on are starting to gain traction, informing you when they’ve launched new products or are starting to advertise new partnerships.
  • GreenTiger: Billing itself as the Robinhood for India, this startup is allowing users to trade U.S. stocks from India for ₹0 commission. As it is now, Indians don’t have Social Security numbers, preventing them to trade U.S. stocks. GreenTiger provides commission-free trades on NASDAQ and NYSE, and allows users to start trading in two minutes. GreenTiger provides transactional shares, allowing Indian traders to start trading with as little as ₹100. These ex-Microsoft founders describe the opportunity as worth $7.2 billion. 
  • Compound: Compound provides wealth management for startup employees, helping them figure out what their stock options actually mean, forecast their value over time and optimize against things like potential taxes. Launched two weeks ago, they currently have 200 startup employees as customers.
  • Prenda: A startup that provides in-home “microschools” for K through 8th graders. Prenda provides everything a teacher needs to run a microschool, from glue sticks to curriculum. The startup claims microschools are the future of education.

demoday Curri

  • Curri: An Uber for construction supplies, Curri delivers construction-related materials, parts and tools on-demand. From refrigerators to small pipe fittings, Curri’s network of drivers can deliver it to your warehouse, job site or anywhere else you may need it for an average delivery of fee of $77. For three months in a row, Curri has grown 112% month over month. 
  • Nomad RidesNomad rides wants to compete with the big rideshare companies, but they also want to kill them. The commission-free rideshare program changes up the business equation by having drivers pay a monthly subscription to Nomad while collecting all of the ride profits. They are targeting college campuses first. In a two-month illegal trial period, the company facilitated 5,700 rides at Indiana University before the startup had to shut down, but they say they’re legal now and ready to try new markets.
  • EARTH AI: This full stack AI-powered mining exploration company built a technology to predict the location of un-mined rare metals. EARTH AI’s mission is to improve the efficiency of mineral exploration to provide enough metals and minerals for current and future generations. The company predicts where metals may exist, actually mines the ore and then sells it. The team credits themselves with discovering the world’s first AI-predicted mineral deposit, and says it has also secured the rights to $18 billion worth of ore.
  • Binks: Binks provides tailor-made clothing for women in India. The company says that the traditional method requires four-plus visits to a tailor; Binks, meanwhile, uses photos and computer vision to calculate fit and make clothing within three days.
  • Lang API: A language translation platform that helps businesses translate the language on their website or app into any language in minutes, Lang says they are building the “AWS for translations” in what is a $20 billion market.
  • Rent the Backyard: Imagine building and then renting out a studio apartment in your own backyard. Well, that’s what Rent the Backyard is all about. Rent the Backyard handles everything from the construction of the studio to selecting the tenant to occupy it. In exchange, the startup takes a 50% cut of the rent. So far, Rent the Backyard has 10 signed letters of intent from homeowners, with more than 1,200 people on its waitlist.

demoday LEGACY

  • Legacy: Legacy is a male fertility startup building a mail-in sperm testing product that helps people test their reproductive health without leaving their home. The company sells a kit that users can use and send back to them, at which point Legacy is able to analyze the sperm and let users know whether everything is in good working order.
  • Lezzoo: Lezzoo wants to build the “super-app of the Middle East,” starting with an on-demand delivery service in Iraq. The company currently delivers food, beverages, groceries and pharmaceuticals to users in Iraq. The founder says they are seeing positive unit economics, including a net profit of 63 cents per delivery. The market is huge — 40 million people live in Iraq, but there is no digital infrastructure in place to serve the needs of an increasingly mobile population. The founder claims there’s a demand for mobile services like Lezzoo, citing that current users are placing two orders per month. Due to the lack of digital infrastructure in the country, Lezzoo is tasked with solving the problems of payments and mapping in addition to scaling its delivery network.
  • Kern Systems: This startup wants to store information in DNA. “Google stores about 10,000 petabytes of data. You could store that in just the DNA in your thumb,” says company co-founder Henry Lee. The company says their first DNA storage synthesizer should be finished in nine months.

demoday courier

  • Courier: After adding one line of code with Courier, developers can, first, send messages through every communication channel to users. Courier then measures users’ response rates on each channel (Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger etc.) and determines where notifications should be directed.  
  • Lokal: Lokal provides local news, information and classifieds for India. Since launching the app 10 months ago, Lokal has grown to 260,000 daily active users and is growing at 27% month over month. “The existing apps only focus on national and state level news,” the founder said. Otherwise, in order to get local news, they need to read a physical newspaper. 
  • taxProper: The company says that 60% of homeowners overpay on property taxes, so taxProper is building software that quickly allows customers to easily appeal their property taxes, helping them enter data about their home and determine if they are overpaying. The startup is charging $79 per appeal.
  • InEvent: This is CRM for corporate events. It’s hard for businesses to create personalized, automated event experiences. This platform lets corporate event planners integrate registration, vendor and travel and expense management. InEvent is seeing $1.15 million ARR in Brazil, and broke into the U.S. corporate event market in May — which it describes as a $7.5 billion opportunity. They’re seeing $13,000 MRR in the U.S.

demoday quirk

  • Quirk: Quirk is a “thought diary” that helps to stop panic attacks by using the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy. You identify negative thoughts you’re having, and then examine those thoughts to determine which parts are negatively impacting you. It costs $5.99 per month; the company says one month after launch, they have 1,000 paying customers.
  • Zippi: Zippi provides loans specifically designed for gig workers in Brazil, a booming population underserved by traditional banks. The gig workers repay their loans with a percent of their income each week. Zippi is live and fully compliant. To date, they’ve done $160,000 in loans and plan to build and end-to-end neo bank for gig workers in Latin America. 
  • Simmer: Simmer provides reviews for individual dishes, not just for restaurants. Simmer tells you the best reviewed dishes across all delivery apps and services to help you better decide which food to order on-demand. In a one-month pilot there were 1,300 weekly active users on Simmer. This fall, Simmer will launch in three cities. 
  • Actiondesk: Updating spreadsheets is about as unsexy as enterprise workflows get, but Actiondesk is focusing wholly on revamping the data tables with “superpowers.” The company’s solution allows customers to dynamically connect data sources and their spreadsheets so that edits made in the spreadsheet will be replicated in the data source. Users are also able to schedule actions related to the data in their sheets.
  • GradJoy: GradJoy is a fintech platform that wants to help recent grads better-strategize their student loan payments. The company bills itself as “a student loan co-pilot,” and a “robo-advisor for student debt,” offering services meant to help users save money. GradJoy connects loans and financial information to create personalized repayment plans for new borrowers. They’ve completed eight refinances in two weeks, and have amassed more than 1,000 customers within a few weeks of being operative. GradJoy doesn’t want to stop at student debt, but scale out to provide services for other types of debt repayment in the future. 
  • Taskade: This is a collaboration tool for remote teams. You can create lists, outlines and mindmaps, then collaborate and chat about them in real-time. It currently has more than 700 active teams, and over 10,000 active users.
  • Alana: Alana helps large businesses headquartered in Latin America hire and retain blue-collar workers. Their hope is to become the LinkedIn of the blue-collar industry with a better matching process for potential employees and by automating much of the process. The company claims to have experienced very fast growth, working with companies like Hilton, Starbucks and Rappi. They charge a monthly subscription per store or $400 in MRR per location.

demoday Obie

  • Obie: This is a free analytics platform for commercial real estate owners to manage their assets. From there, Obie uses that data to sell insurance to those commercial real estate owners. In the last year, Obie has done $1.4 million in gross premiums.
  • Together SoftwareTogether is building souped-up employee mentorship software that helps new employees get connected with veterans inside their company. The onboarding buddy program handles pairing of employees and can help the duos schedule meetings and work their way through development plans.
  • Holy Grail: Holy Grail says it has built a cheaper and faster way to manufacture batteries. The company is using AI to find the next generation of batteries at what it claims is 1,000x faster and hundreds of million dollars cheaper than traditional R&D processes. Holy Grail’s software designs batteries and predicts their performance — then manufactures them using a robot it built. Traditional R&D relies on trial and error and spreadsheets, and this company thinks it can harness AI to “do something good for the world while also making money.” 
  • Tranqui Finanzas: This startup provides consumer debt consolidation for Latin America, where 45 million employees have existing high interest loans. Payments are made through salary deductions. After launching seven weeks ago, they’re making $6K monthly net revenue.
  • Sorting Robotics: It began its life building a robot sorting Magic: The Gathering cards. Now it’s pivoting to sorting weed. They buy cannabis trim for $120 per lb; their robot separates the sticks/leaves from the flower, which can be resold for upwards of $180 per lb. Four weeks after rolling out their first robot, it’s making roughly $1,000 per day.
  • Pengram: Augmented reality is making itself useful through Pengram’s indoor navigation system. Pengram enables anyone to create indoor pathways using any iOS device and then easily share those pathways with others. Already, Pengram has a $10,000 pilot with building maintenance company Johnson Controls, which uses the tool to quickly located sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and other systems they need to find and ensure are properly up to date and working.

demoday Yummy

  • Yummy Future: Yummy Future is basically a robotic Starbucks. The company wants to take baristas out of the coffee-making process, using a box of robots to make complex espresso drinks. It’s not the only one in this space, but the startup is hoping that partnerships with existing marketplace retailers will be the key to its success.
  • Athlane: Athlane is building what it calls “the NCAA for esports,” a new esports league powered by its software. The founders believe they have what it takes to help college esports eclipse traditional sports, citing that the League of Legends finals saw 5X the viewership of the NBA finals in 2019. Athlane hopes college esports teams will compete on their platform because they’ll actually be able to pay their players. Athlane will enable teams to monetize through its AI-powered sponsorship platform, and has secured two contracts with G Fuel and DraftKings. 
  • TRM Labs: Banks are required to trace the source of their customers’ money. TRM helps banks identify and trace cryptocurrency fraud. They charge $20K per user seat. Though they couldn’t say the name, TRM says they recently signed a top-five global bank as a customer.
  • Mars Auto: The startup is developing autonomous trucks for the $50 billion Korean trucking market. The goal is to fully automate warehouse to warehouse truck operations to save the trucking market billions. The company has two LOIs with two of the largest logistic businesses in Korea.
  • Wasmer: Wasmer is an application container that works in edge computing. Powered by WebAssembly, Wasmer is building the next generation of containers that enables developers to run any code on any client.
  • Matagora: Matagora is delivering pop-up physical storefronts for online brands. The startup is partnering with local businesses to fill areas of their store with online-only gear that brands are looking to get in front of people’s eyeballs. Matagora takes a whopping 40% of each sale.

demoday Nonu

  • Nonu: Nonu calls itself the “Hims for India.” The company created a subscription hair loss prevention kit that includes medicines, vitamins and herbal shampoo. The founder says that 80% of Indian men don’t know that prescription medicine can stop hair loss in India, and therefore are getting scammed into spending over a billion dollars on fake hair loss products while continuing to lose hair. With Nonu, all you have to do is take a photo of your balding head, and you’ll receive a monthly subscription of medicine that will show up at your door. Nonu says that within this $7.2 billion market, there are 60 million hair loss patients who can afford this $120 a year subscription in India. Nonu has already amassed 500 subscribers, and plans to expand into tackling sexual wellness. 
  • Dex: Dex is a personal CRM. You sync up your contacts/calendars, and it finds the people you haven’t kept in touch with and reminds you to reach out. You can add notes about a contact — like what you last spoke about, or what’s going on in their life — to help with the conversation next time you see them.
  • Outtalent: This startup helps engineers living in emerging markets get jobs abroad. The company was launched by a pair of brothers from Kyrgyzstan, one of which landed a life-changing job at Google years ago and wants to make the entire process easier for other foreigners.
  • SannTek Labs: SannTek created a breathalyzer that detects cannabis consumption, as well as alcohol consumption. The founders say there’s currently no breathalyzer for cannabis because it’s a technically challenging task. SannTek has developed sensors that can detect whether you’ve consumed cannabis in the last three hours. Once it launches, it will charge police officers $20 per test.
  • BuildStream: The startup is a platform for companies to manage and optimize rented equipment fleets. The team is focusing specifically on the construction industry, trying to minimize idle equipment. Users start by installing off-the-shelf IoT sensors on gear to track the fleet of equipment and pinpoint areas for optimization.
  • Sling Health: Sling Health wants to build more cost-effective virtual care teams. The ex-Forward founders say they want to turn any doctors office into a One Medical model. Next-gen tools can’t scale their engineering teams. Sling’s platform automates back offices with remote medical teams and 24/7 chat support. Sling Health says it has already transformed 12 doctor’s offices and is producing over $17,000 in monthly recurring revenue. The founders say they can save doctors 67% on labor costs while also drastically improving patient experiences with a personalized care team. The tech can apparently manage scheduling, create personalized follow-ups and manage prescriptions.

demoday mofe

  • MoFE: The “Museum of Future Experiences” turns physical spaces into trippy, walk-around virtual reality experiences. They launched in New York three weeks ago, and have sold every ticket available so far to bring in $60K in revenue since launch.

 

That’s all for Day 1, we’ll be posting our favorites from today’s batch soon and we’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of the batch.

RedDoorz raises $70M to expand its budget hotel network in Southeast Asia

Singapore-based budget hotel booking startup RedDoorz is tiny in comparison to fast-growing giant Oyo. But it is holding its ground and winning the trust of an ever growing number of investors.

On Monday, the four-year-old startup announced it has raised $70 million in Series C financing round, less than five months after it closed its $45 million Series B. The new round, which is ongoing, was led by Asia Partners and saw participation from new investors Rakuten Capital and Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund.

The startup, which has raised $140 million to date, has been seeing “tremendous interest from investors, so it is decided to do a back-to-back rounds,” said Amit Saberwal, founder and CEO of RedDoorz, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Regardless, the new funds will help RedDoorz fight SoftBank-backed Oyo, which is already aggressively expanding to new markets. Oyo currently operates in more than 80 nations.

Saberwal isn’t necessarily threatened by Oyo, on the contrary, he sees Oyo’s success as a testament that there is room for more players to be in the space. He is confident that RedDoorz is “on the right track to create the next tech unicorn in Southeast Asia,” and trade in public exchange in the next two to three years.

RedDoorz operates a marketplace of “two-star, three-star and below” budget hotels, selling access to rooms to people. Currently it has 1,400 hotels on its network, said Saberwal. By the end of the year, the startup aims to grow this number to 2,000.

The startup operates in 80 cities across Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, and plans to use the new capital to expand its network in its existing markets, said Saberwal. At least for the next one year, RedDoorz has no plans to expand beyond the four markets where it currently operates, he said.

“Anything in the accommodation is our playground. We have all kinds of properties. We have three-star hotels, some hostels, so we will continue to go deeper and wider moving forward,” Saberwal, a former top executive at India’s travel giant MakeMyTrip, said.

It’s a great combination: Making the ubiquity of typically unorganized local guesthouse-style rooms with the more organized and efficient — but pricier — hotel option.

Some of the new capital will also go into broadening RedDoorz’s tech infrastructure, building a second engineering hub in Vietnam. (RedDoorz’s current regional tech hub is based in India.)

NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ review

It’s true, you’ve got the Galaxy Note to thank for your big phone. When the device hit the scene at IFA 2011, large screens were still a punchline. That same year, Steve Jobs famously joked about phones with screens larger than four inches, telling a crowd of reporters, “nobody’s going to buy that.”

In 2019, the average screen size hovers around 5.5 inches. That’s a touch larger than the original Note’s 5.3 inches — a size that was pretty widely mocked by much of the industry press at the time. Of course, much of the mainstreaming of larger phones comes courtesy of a much improved screen to body ratio, another place where Samsung has continued to lead the way.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

In some sense, the Note has been doomed by its own success. As the rest of the industry caught up, the line blended into the background. Samsung didn’t do the product any favors by dropping the pretense of distinction between the Note and its Galaxy S line.

Ultimately, the two products served as an opportunity to have a six-month refresh cycle for its flagships. Samsung, of course, has been hit with the same sort of malaise as the rest of the industry. The smartphone market isn’t the unstoppable machine it appeared to be two or three years back.

Like the rest of the industry, the company painted itself into a corner with the smartphone race, creating flagships good enough to convince users to hold onto them for an extra year or two, greatly slowing the upgrade cycle in the process. Ever-inflating prices have also been a part of smartphone sales stagnation — something Samsung and the Note are as guilty of as any.

So what’s a poor smartphone manufacturer to do? The Note 10 represents baby steps. As it did with the S line recently, Samsung is now offering two models. The base Note 10 represents a rare step backward in terms of screen size, shrinking down slightly from 6.4 to 6.3 inches, while reducing resolution from Quad HD to Full HD.

The seemingly regressive step lets Samsung come in a bit under last year’s jaw dropping $1,000. The new Note is only $50 cheaper, but moving from four to three figures may have a positive psychological effect for wary buyers. While the slightly smaller screen coupled with a better screen to body ratio means a device that’s surprisingly slim.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

If anything, the Note 10+ feels like the true successor to the Note line. The baseline device could have just as well been labeled the Note 10 Lite. That’s something Samsung is keenly aware of, as it targets first-time Note users with the 10 and true believers with the 10+. In both cases, Samsung is faced with the same task as the rest of the industry: offering a compelling reason for users to upgrade.

Earlier this week, a Note 9 owner asked me whether the new device warrants an upgrade. The answer is, of course, no. The pace of smartphone innovation has slowed, even as prices have risen. Honestly, the 10 doesn’t really offer that many compelling reasons to upgrade from the Note 8.

That’s not a slight against Samsung or the Note, per se. If anything, it’s a reflection on the fact that these phones are quite good — and have been for a while. Anecdotally, industry excitement around these devices has been tapering for a while now, and the device’s launch in the midst of the doldrums of August likely didn’t help much.

The past few years have seen smartphones transform from coveted, bleeding-edge luxury to necessity. The good news to that end, however, is that the Note continues to be among the best devices out there.

The common refrain in the earliest days of the phablet was the inability to wrap one’s fingers around the device. It’s a pragmatic issue. Certainly you don’t want to use a phone day to day that’s impossible to hold. But Samsung’s remarkable job of improving screen to body ratio continues here. In fact, the 6.8-inch Note 10+ has roughly the same footprint as the 6.4-inch Note 9.

The issue will still persist for those with smaller hands — though thankfully Samsung’s got a solution for them in the Note 10. For the rest of us, the Note 10+ is easily held in one hand and slipped in and out of pants pockets. I realize these seem like weird things to say at this point, but I assure you they were legitimate concerns in the earliest days of the phablet, when these things were giant hunks of plastic and glass.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s curved display once again does much of the heavy lifting here, allowing the screen to stretch nearly from side to side with only a little bezel at the edge. Up top is a hole-punch camera — that’s “Infinity O” to you. Those with keen eyes no doubt immediately noticed that Samsung has dropped the dual selfie camera here, moving toward the more popular hole-punch camera.

The company’s reasoning for this was both aesthetic and, apparently, practical. The company moved back down to a single camera for the front (10 megapixel), using similar reasoning as Google’s single rear-facing camera on the Pixel: software has greatly improved what companies can do with a single lens. That’s certainly the case to a degree, and a strong case can be made for the selfie camera, which we generally require less of than the rear-facing array.

The company’s gone increasingly minimalist with the design language — something I appreciate. Over the years, as the smartphone has increasingly become a day to day utility, the product’s design has increasingly gotten out of its own way. The front and back are both made of a curved Gorilla Glass that butts up against a thin metal form with a total thickness of 7.9 millimeters.

On certain smooth surfaces like glass, you’ll occasionally find the device gliding slightly. I’d say the chances of dropping it are pretty decent with its frictionless design language, so you’re going to want to get a case for your $1,000 phone. Before you do, admire that color scheme on the back. There are four choices in all. Like the rest of the press, we ended up with Aura Glow.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

It features a lovely, prismatic effect when light hits it. It’s proven a bit tricky to photograph, honestly. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, but these are the prices we pay to have the prettiest phone on the block.

One of the interesting footnotes here is how much the design of the 10 will be defined by what the device lost. There are two missing pieces here — both of which are a kind of concession from Samsung for different reasons. And for different reasons, both feel inevitable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The headphone jack is, of course, the biggie. Samsung kicked and screamed on that one, holding onto the 3.5mm with dear life and roundly mocking the competition (read: Apple) at every turn. The company must have known it was a matter of time, even before the iPhone dropped the port three years ago.

Courage.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung glossed over the end of the jack (and apparently unlisted its Apple-mocking ads in the process) during the Note’s launch event. It was a stark contrast from a briefing we got around the device’s announcement, where the company’s reps spent significantly more time justifying the move. They know us well enough to know that we’d spend a little time taking the piss out of the company after three years of it making the once ubiquitous port a feature. All’s fair in love and port. And honestly, it was mostly just some good-natured ribbing. Welcome to the club, Samsung.

As for why Samsung did it now, the answer seems to be two-fold. The first is a kind of critical mass in Bluetooth headset usage. Allow me to quote myself from a few weeks back:

The tipping point, it says, came when its internal metrics showed that a majority of users on its flagship devices (the S and Note lines) moved to Bluetooth streaming. The company says the number is now in excess of 70% of users.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Also, as we’re all abundantly aware, the company put its big battery ambitions on hold for a bit, as it dealt with…more burning problems. A couple of recalls, a humble press release and an eight-point battery check later, and batteries are getting bigger again. There’s a 3,500mAh on the Note 10 and a 4,300mAh on the 10+. I’m happy to report that the latter got me through a full day plus three hours on a charge. Not bad, given all of the music and videos I subjected it to in that time.

There’s no USB-C dongle in-box. The rumors got that one wrong. You can pick up a Samsung-branded adapter for $15, or get one for much cheaper elsewhere. There is, however, a pair of AKG USB-C headphones in-box. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Samsung doesn’t get enough credit for its free headphones. I’ve been known to use the pairs with other devices. They’re not the greatest the world, but they’re better sounding and more comfortable than what a lot of other companies offer in-box.

Obviously the standard no headphone jack things apply here. You can’t use the wired headphones and charge at the same time (unless you go wireless). You know the deal.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The other missing piece here is the Bixby button. I’m sure there are a handful of folks out there who will bemoan its loss, but that’s almost certainly a minority of the minority here. Since the button was first introduced, folks were asking for the ability to remap it. Samsung finally relented on that front, and with the Note 10, it drops the button altogether.

Thus far the smart assistant has been a disappointment. That’s due in no small part to a late launch compared to the likes of Siri, Alexa and Assistant, coupled with a general lack of capability at launch. In Samsung’s defense, the company’s been working to fix that with some pretty massive investment and a big push to court developers. There’s hope for Bixby yet, but a majority of users weren’t eager to have the assistant thrust upon them.

Instead, the power button has been shifted to the left of the device, just under the volume rocker. I preferred having it on the other side, especially for certain functions like screenshotting (something, granted, I do much more than the average user when reviewing a phone). That’s a pretty small quibble, of course.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Bixby can now be quickly accessed by holding down the power button. Handily, Samsung still lets you reassign the function there, if you really want Bixby out of your life. You can also hold down to get the power off menu or double press to launch Bixby or a third-party app (I opted for Spotify, probably my most used these days), though not a different assistant.

Imaging, meanwhile, is something Samsung’s been doing for a long time. The past several generations of S and Note devices have had great camera systems, and it continues to be the main point of improvement. It’s also one of few points of distinction between the 10 and 10+, aside from size.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The Note 10+ has four, count ’em, four rear-facing cameras. They are as follows:

  • Ultra Wide: 16 megapixel
  • Wide: 12 megapixel
  • Telephoto: 12 megapixel
  • DepthVision

Samsung Galaxy Note10

That last one is only on the plus. It’s comprised of two little circles to the right of the primary camera array and just below the flash. We’ll get to that in a second.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

The main camera array continues to be one of the best in mobile. The inclusion of telephoto and ultra-wide lenses allow for a wide range of different shots, and the hardware coupled with machine learning makes it a lot more difficult to take a bad photo (though believe me, it’s still possible).

The live focus feature (Portrait mode, essentially) comes to video, with four different filters, including Color Point, which makes everything but the subject black and white.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Samsung’s also brought a very simple video editor into the mix here, which is nice on the fly. You can edit the length of clips, splice in other clips, add subtitles and captions and add filters and music. It’s pretty beefy for something baked directly into the camera app, and one of the better uses I’ve found for the S Pen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ with Super Steady (left), iPhone XS (right)

Ditto for the improved Super Steady offering, which smooths out shaky video, including Hyperlapse mode, where handshakes are a big issue. It works well, but you do lose access to other features, including zoom. For that reason, it’s off by default and should be used relatively sparingly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ (left), iPhone XS (right)

Zoom-on Mic is a clever addition, as well. While shooting video, pinch-zooming on something will amplify the noise from that area. I’ve been playing around with it in this cafe. It’s interesting, but less than perfect.

Zooming into something doesn’t exactly cancel out ambient noise from outside of the frame. Everything still gets amplified in the process and, like digital picture zoom, a lot of noise gets added in the process. Those hoping for a kind of spy microphone, I’m sorry/happy to report that this definitely is not that.

Screen Shot 2019 08 16 at 5.43.43 PM 2

The DepthVision Camera is also pretty limited as I write this. If anything, it’s Samsung’s attempt to brace for a future when things like augmented reality will (theoretically) play a much larger role in our mobile computing. In a conversation I had with the company ahead of launch, they suggested that a lot of the camera’s AR functions will fall in the hands of developers.

For now, Quick Measure is the one practical use. The app is a lot like Apple’s more simply titled Measure. Fire it up, move the camera around to get a lay of the land and it will measure nearby objects for you. An interesting showcase for AR potential? Sure. Earth shattering? Naw. It also seems to be a bit of a battery drain, sucking up the last few bits of juice as I was running it down.

3D Scanner, on the other hand, got by far the biggest applause line of the Note event. And, indeed, it’s impressive. In the stage demo, a Samsung employee scanned a stuffed pink beaver (I’m not making this up), created a 3D image and animated it using an associate’ movements. Practical? Not really. Cool? Definitely.

It was, however, not available at press time. Hopefully it proves to be more than vaporware, especially if that demo helped push some viewers over to the 10+. Without it, there’s just not a lot of use for the depth camera at the moment.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

There’s also AR Doodle, which fills a similar spot as much of the company’s AR offerings. It’s kind of fun, but again, not particularly useful. You’ll likely end up playing with it for a few minutes and forget about it entirely. Such is life.

The feature is built into the camera app, using depth sensing to orient live drawings. With the stylus you can draw in space or doodle on people’s faces. It’s neat, the AR works okay and I was bored with it in about three minutes. Like Quick Measure, the feature is as much a proof of concept as anything. But that’s always been a part of Samsung’s kitchen-sink approach — some combination of useful and silly.

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That said, points to Samsung for continuing to de-creepify AR Emojis. Those have moved firmly away from the uncanny valley into something more cartoony/adorable. Less ironic usage will surely follow.

Asked about the key differences between the S and Note lines, Samsung’s response was simple: the S Pen. Otherwise, the lines are relatively interchangeable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s return of the stylus didn’t catch on for handsets quite like the phablet form factor. They’ve made a pretty significant comeback for tablets, but the Note remains fairly singular when it comes to the S Pen. I’ve never been a big user myself, but those who like it swear by it. It’s one of those things like the ThinkPad pointing stick or BlackBerry scroll wheel.

Like the phone itself, the peripheral has been streamlined with a unibody design. Samsung also continues to add capabilities. It can be used to control music, advance slideshows and snap photos. None of that is likely to convince S Pen skeptics (I prefer using the buttons on the included headphones for music control, for example), but more versatility is generally a good thing.

If anything is going to convince people to pick up the S Pen this time out, it’s the improved handwriting recognition. That’s pretty impressive. It was even able to decipher my awful chicken scratch.

Note 10

You get the same sort of bleeding-edge specs here you’ve come to expect from Samsung’s flagships. The 10+ gets you a baseline 256GB of storage (upgradable to 512), coupled with a beefy 12GB of RAM (the regular Note is a still good 8GB/256GB). The 5G version sports the same numbers and battery (likely making its total life a bit shorter per charge). That’s a shift from the S10, whose 5G version was specced out like crazy. Likely Samsung is bracing for 5G to become less of a novelty in the next year or so.

The new Note also benefits from other recent additions, like the in-display fingerprint reader and wireless power sharing. Both are nice additions, but neither is likely enough to warrant an immediate upgrade.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Once again, that’s not an indictment of Samsung, so much as a reflection of where we are in the life cycle of a mature smartphone industry. The Note 10+ is another good addition to one of the leading smartphone lines. It succeeds as both a productivity device (thanks to additions like DeX and added cross-platform functionality with Windows 10) and an everyday handset.

There’s not enough on-board to really recommend an upgrade from the Note 8 or 9 — especially at that $1,099 price. People are holding onto their devices for longer, and for good reason (as detailed above). But if you need a new phone, are looking for something big and flashy and are willing to splurge, the Note continues to be the one to beat.

China’s Transsion and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion is teaming up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa that recently confirmed its imminent IPO.

Wapi Capital is the venture fund of Kenyan fintech startup Wapi Pay—a Nairobi based company that facilitates digital payments between African and Asia via mobile money or bank accounts.

Investments for the new partnership will come from Transsion’s Future Hub, an incubator and seed fund for African startups opened by Transsion in 2019.

Starting September 2019, Transsion will work with Wapi Capital to select early-stage African fintech companies for equity-based investments of up to $100,000, Transsion Future Hub Senior Investor Laura Li told TechCrunch via email.

Wapi Capital won’t contribute funds to Transsion’s Africa investments, but will help determine the viability and scale of the startups, including due diligence and deal flow, according to Wapi Pay co-founder Eddie Ndichu.

Wapi Pay and Transsion Future Hub will consider ventures from all 54 African countries and interested startups can reach out directly to either organization, Ndichu and Li confirmed.

The Wapi Capital fintech partnership is not Transsion’s sole VC focus in Africa. Though an exact fund size hasn’t been disclosed, the Transsion Future Hub will also make startup investments on the continent in adtech, fintech, e-commerce, logistics, and media and entertainment, according to Li.

Transsion Future Hub’s existing portfolio includes Africa focused browser company Phoenix, content aggregator Scoop, and music service Boomplay.

Wapi Capital adds to the list of African located and run venture funds—which have been growing in recent years—according to a 2018 study by TechCrunch and Crunchbase. Wapi Capital will also start making its own investments and is looking to raise $1 million this year and $10 million over the next three years, according to Ndichu, who co-founded the fund and Wapi Pay with his twin brother Paul.

Transsion’s commitment to African startup investments comes as the company is on the verge of listing on China’s new Nasdaq-style STAR Market tech exchange. Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch this month the IPO is in process and that it could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

Transsion’s move into venture investing tracks greater influence from China in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

Transsion’s Wapi Pay partnership is the second recent event — after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

Only 24 hours left to apply to Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen

Holy hardware, startup founders! You have only 24 hours left to apply to the Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12. This hardware-only pitch competition, cousin to TechCrunch’s world-renown Startup Battlefield, is a real game-changer. Got hardware? Want to launch on a world stage? Do. Not. Delay. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 before 11:59pm on August 14th.

What’s in it for you? Excellent question. If you’re selected to compete, you’ll join a cadre of outstanding early-stage hardware startup to vie for a $25,000 prize along with global media and investor exposure. Come to Shenzhen, show the world your innovative hardware and take your startup to the next level.

We partnered with China’s TechNode, to produce this Hardware Battlefield during the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen show happening November 9-12. We’ll consider your startup if you meet these simple basic requirements.

  • Submit your application by on August 14
  • You must have a minimally viable product to demo onstage
  • Your product has received little if any, press coverage to date
  • Your product must be a hardware device or component

TechCrunch editors will closely vet qualified applications and select approximately 15 startups to compete. If you make the cut, get ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You’ll receive six weeks of free pitch coaching from our Battlefield editorial team. When it comes time to step onto the stage and deliver your pitch, you’ll be calm, cool and on point.

Every team gets six minutes to pitch in front of a panel of judges comprised of expert VCs, founders and technologists. They’ll hit you up with a tough Q&A and if you make the first cut, you’ll repeat the process all over again to a fresh set of judges.

Only one startup will be hailed the Hardware Battlefield champion, but the intense investor and media attention can change the lives of any or all competitors. Oh, and here’s another perk. All participants join the ranks of the Startup Battlefield elite. Our Battlefield alumni community currently numbers 857 companies that have accumulated $8.9 billion in funding and 110 exits. Just think of the potential networking opportunities.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12, but the application window closes at on August 14. Join us in China’s hardware heartland and launch your startup to the world. Apply to compete right now.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Porsche packs the power into its newest Cayenne plug-in hybrids

Porsche is upping its plug-in hybrid game with several new vehicles added to its lineup, including a power-packing 2020 Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid.

The plug-in version of this flagship SUV combines a 14.1-kilowatt-hour battery and 134-horsepower electric motor with a 4.0-liter twin turbocharged V8 engine found in the traditional gas-powered Cayenne Turbo. The electric motor is located between the V8 engine and its standard eight-speed transmission.

The upshot is a 670-horsepower plug-in beast that produces 663 pound-feet of torque and can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds. Not bad for an SUV.

But it’s not all about power. Porsche also increased the energy capacity of its battery, 30% more than the one used in previous generation plug-in hybrid Cayenne models. EPA fuel economy figures have not been released yet, but if it’s like other Porsche plug-in hybrids, the range will be somewhere around 20 or so miles.

The automaker has a number of nifty standard items in the Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid (and two new plug-in variants of the Cayenne Coupé), including a 7.2 kW onboard charger and 21-inch AeroDesign Wheels. The upgraded charger enables a complete recharge of the battery in as little as 2.4 hours when using a 240-volt connection with a 50-amp circuit, according to Porsche.

The plug-in versions of Cayenne Turbo and the Cayenne Turbo Coupé also comes standard with Porsche’s ceramic composite brakes, dynamic chassis control and other bonuses like 18-way adaptive sports seats.

All of this has a price, of course. The base price of the 2020 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid is $161,900.

porsche cayenne plgu in

2020 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid

Porsche also took the wraps off of two other plug-in variants of its new Cayenne Coupé, a smaller, flashier version of the Cayenne. Both Cayenne Coupé variants feature a fixed spoiler above the rear window with a new adaptive rear spoiler below it that’s designed to enhance aerodynamic stability.

The Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid Coupé has a base price of pricier $164,400, slightly more expensive than its Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid counterpart due to a few additional extras such as 20-inch alloy wheels and a glass panoramic roof.

But the two high-end vehicles share many of the same standard items and stats. Both vehicles can travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds and reach a top speed of 183 miles per hour, which is electronically limited.

Porsche also unveiled a less powerful and cheaper 455-horsepower Cayenne E-Hybrid Coupé that has a V6 engine and a base price of $86,400. This coupé version, which has the same powertrain as the Cayenne E-Hybrid, has a top speed of 157 mph and can travel from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds.

Competition among alternative protein players gets hot as companies beef up with new deals

The competition for control of the burgeoning market for burger replacements (and other alternatives to animal proteins) continues to heat up.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods the two leading contenders for top purveyor of plant-based patties (and other formulations) have spent most of the typically sleepy summer months jockeying for the position as top supplier to a food industry suddenly ravenous for alternatives to traditional meat product.s

As soon as the first Impossible Whoppers came off the flame broilers at Burger King, Beyond Meat was announcing a new fast food chain supply deal of its own with Subway.

Through that agreement the publicly traded provider of plant-based products will be grinding up meatless meatballs for Subway’s new vegetarian option to the classic meatball sub.

Subway will roll out meatless meatballs in 685 of its franchise locations in the U.S. and Canada starting in September.

Not to be outdone, Impossible Foods came swinging back with some a new partnership with the institutional food prep giant Sodexo. At roughly 1,500 Sodexo locations food slingers at healthcare facilities and corporate and university cafeterias will unveil new options like Impossible Foods-based sausage muffin sandwiches, sausage gravy and biscuits, steakhouse burgers and creole burgers.

Screen Shot 2019 08 11 at 4.36.46 PM

Image courtesy of Sodexo

“Sodexo is committed to providing customers with more plant-forward and sustainable options as part of their diet,” said Rob Morasco, senior director culinary development, Sodexo, in a statement. “We are excited to expand our menu to include the Impossible Burger’s flavorful blend, which will be featured in several new products this fall.”

Set against this meatless horserace for national food service dominance, other plant-based providers have launched to take the startup direct-to-consumer approach to satisfy vegetarian cravings for other types of food substitutes.

It was partially in response to this furor over the vegetarian market that the world was introduced to Nuggs. Ben Pasternak, the company’s young founder, first came to fame as the teenage entrepreneur behind the social media app Monkey.

When Monkey was sold to a Chinese company in 2017, Pasternak turned his attention to food. He’s been cooking up the idea for Nuggs since that time. In 2018 the core team assembled with Pasternak bringing on Liam Mullen, a former pastry chef and self-trained molecular gastronomist who was working for the high-end New York restaurant Daniel at the age of 16.

Screen Shot 2019 08 11 at 4.38.18 PM

Image courtesy of Nuggs

Unlike Impossible Foods, which has faced supply chain woes thanks to its initial strategy of building its own manufacturing facilities, Nuggs is manufactured by McCain Foods, a food prep giant that also led the company’s $7 million round. Other investors include Rainfall Ventures; Greylock Discovery Fund; Maven Ventures; NOMO Ventures; M Ventures; ACME Capital; Founder of MTV and CEO of iHeartMedia, Bob Pittman; Casper Founder & COO, Neil Parikh; and Former President of Tumblr, John Maloney.

While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have grabbed most of the headlines as the first generation of protein substitutes to really make a dent with consumers, Just (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek) has also nabbed some major deals with big fast food chains for its big product — egg replacements.

Launched in 2018, the egg replacement from Just inked a major deal in late July with Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee, donut, and sandwich chain. Much as Beyond Meat has found a home for its meatless sausages at Dunkin Donuts in the U.S., Just has seen Tim Hortons take its eggless egg replacement to a Canadian consumers (Hortons also has a sandwich using Beyond Meat).

Some companies are going beyond plant-based protein replacements to lab-grown versions of the real thing. That’s been the story behind Perfect Day, which sold out of their $20-per-pint ice cream in a matter of hours. Like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the company intends to sell through ice cream manufacturers rather than going direct to consumers with its own product, according to a CNBC report.

The three protein replacement companies have grabbed investor attention and heralded a surge of venture capital investment into plant based protein products. In all, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Just have snagged over $1 billion in funding.

For investors in Beyond Meat, the $122 million in capital will yield billions in returns. The company’s market capitalization is up to a meaty $13.4 billion from $1.5 billion when its stock first began public trading. Analysts at Barclays predict the market for alternative proteins could hit $140 billion by 2029.

Tesla Model 3 owner implants RFID chip to turn her arm into a key

Forget the keycard or phone app, one software engineer is trying out a new way to unlock and start her Tesla Model 3.

Amie DD, who has a background in game simulation and programming, recently released a video showing how she “biohacked” her body. The software engineer removed the RFID chip from the Tesla Model 3 valet card using acetone, then placed it into a biopolymer, which was injected through a hollow needle into her left arm. A professional who specializes in body modifications performed the injection.

You can watch the process below, although folks who don’t like blood should consider skipping it. Amie DD also has a page on Hackaday.io that explains the project and the process.

The video is missing one crucial detail. It doesn’t show whether the method works. TechCrunch will update the post once a new video delivering the news is released.

Amie is not new to biohacking. The original idea was to use the existing RFID implant chip that was already in her hand to be able to start the Model 3. That method, which would have involved taking the Java applet and writing it onto her own chip, didn’t work because of Tesla’s security. So, Amie DD opted for another implant.

Amie DD explains why and how she did this in another, longer video posted below. She also talks a bit about her original implant in her left hand, which she says is used for “access control.” She uses it to unlock the door of her home, for instance.

 

 

How safe are school records? Not very, says student security researcher

If you can’t trust your bank, government or your medical provider to protect your data, what makes you think students are any safer?

Turns out, according to one student security researcher, they’re not.

Eighteen-year-old Bill Demirkapi, a recent high school graduate in Boston, Massachusetts, spent much of his latter school years with an eye on his own student data. Through self-taught pen testing and bug hunting, Demirkapi found several vulnerabilities in a his school’s learning management system, Blackboard, and his school district’s student information system, known as Aspen and built by Follett, which centralizes student data, including performance, grades, and health records.

The former student reported the flaws and revealed his findings at the Def Con security conference on Friday.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of hacking,” Demirkapi told TechCrunch prior to his talk. “I started researching but I learned by doing,” he said.

Among one of the more damaging issues Demirkapi found in Follett’s student information system was an improper access control vulnerability, which if exploited could have allowed an attacker to read and write to the central Aspen database and obtain any student’s data.

Blackboard’s Community Engagement platform had several vulnerabilities, including an information disclosure bug. A debugging misconfiguration allowed him to discover two subdomains, which spat back the credentials for Apple app provisioning accounts for dozens of school districts, as well as the database credentials for most if not every Blackboard’s Community Engagement platform, said Demirkapi.

“School data or student data should be taken as seriously as health data. The next generation should be one of our number one priorities, who looks out for those who can’t defend themselves.”
Bill Demirkapi, security researcher

Another set of vulnerabilities could have allowed an authorized user — like a student — to carry out SQL injection attacks. Demirkapi said six databases could be tricked into disclosing data by injecting SQL commands, including grades, school attendance data, punishment history, library balances, and other sensitive and private data.

Some of the SQL injection flaws were blind attacks, meaning dumping the entire database would have been more difficult but not impossible.

In all, over 5,000 schools and over five million students and teachers were impacted by the SQL injection vulnerabilities alone, he said.

Demirkapi said he was mindful to not access any student records other than his own. But he warned that any low-skilled attacker could have done considerable damage by accessing and obtaining student records, not least thanks to the simplicity of the database’s password. He wouldn’t say what it was, only that it was “worse than ‘1234’.”

But finding the vulnerabilities was only one part of the challenge. Disclosing them to the companies turned out to be just as tricky.

Demirkapi admitted that his disclosure with Follett could have been better. He found that one of the bugs gave him improper access to create his own “group resource,” such as a snippet of text, which was viewable to every user on the system.

“What does an immature 11th grader do when you hand him a very, very, loud megaphone?” he said. “Yell into it.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He sent out a message to every user, displaying each user’s login cookies on their screen. “No worries, I didn’t steal them,” the alert read.

“The school wasn’t thrilled with it,” he said. “Fortunately, I got off with a two-day suspension.”

He conceded it wasn’t one of his smartest ideas. He wanted to show his proof-of-concept but was unable to contact Follett with details of the vulnerability. He later went through his school, which set up a meeting, and disclosed the bugs to the company.

Blackboard, however, ignored Demirkapi’s responses for several months, he said. He knows because after the first month of being ignored, he included an email tracker, allowing him to see how often the email was opened — which turned out to be several times in the first few hours after sending. And yet the company still did not respond to the researcher’s bug report.

Blackboard eventually fixed the vulnerabilities, but Demirkapi said he found that the companies “weren’t really prepared to handle vulnerability reports,” despite Blackboard ostensibly having a published vulnerability disclosure process.

“It surprised me how insecure student data is,” he said. “School data or student data should be taken as seriously as health data,” he said. “The next generation should be one of our number one priorities, who looks out for those who can’t defend themselves.”

He said if a teenager had discovered serious security flaws, it was likely that more advanced attackers could do far more damage.

Heather Phillips, a spokesperson for Blackboard, said the company appreciated Demirkapi’s disclosure.

“We have addressed several issues that were brought to our attention by Mr. Demirkapi and have no indication that these vulnerabilities were exploited or that any clients’ personal information was accessed by Mr. Demirkapi or any other unauthorized party,” the statement said. “One of the lessons learned from this particular exchange is that we could improve how we communicate with security researchers who bring these issues to our attention.”

Follet spokesperson Tom Kline said the company “developed and deployed a patch to address the web vulnerability” in July 2018.

The student researcher said he was not deterred by the issues he faced with disclosure.

“I’m 100% set already on doing computer security as a career,” he said. “Just because some vendors aren’t the best examples of good responsible disclosure or have a good security program doesn’t mean they’re representative of the entire security field.”

A.Capital Partners, founded by Ronny Conway, targets $140 million for its third fund

Silicon Valley investor Ronny Conway is raising his third early-stage venture fund, shows a new SEC filing that states the fund’s target is $140 million and that the first sale has yet to occur.

The now six-year-old firm, A.Capital, focuses on both consumer and enterprise tech, and has offices in Menlo Park and San Francisco.

Among the many brand-name companies in its portfolio are Coinbase, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Reddit. (You can find its other investments here.)

Conway led the seed-stage program of Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) for roughly four years in its earliest days and left in 2013 to raise his debut fund, which closed with $51 million in capital commitments. He also raised two, smaller parallel funds at the time.

According to SEC filings, he sought out $140 million for his second fund, though he never announced its close.

A.Capital is today run by Conway, along with General Partner Ramu Arunachalam (also formerly of a16z) and Kartik Talwar, who worked previously with Conway’s brother Topher, and his famed father, Ron, at their separate venture firm, SV Angel.

Conway maintains a far lower profile than his father, who throughout his venture career has nurtured relationships not only with founders but with tech reporters and local politicians.

Though now ancient history in Silicon Valley years, Ronny Conway has been credited with introducing a16z to Instagram when it was a nascent mobile photo-sharing app.

Conway, a former Googler, met Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom in the several years when Systrom, too, worked for the search giant, beginning in 2006. It turned out to be a highly worthwhile introduction to a16z, though it could have been even lucrative. Though the firm made a seed-stage bet on Instagram, it didn’t follow up with another check because of a separate investment in a competing startup that would eventually flounder (PicPlz).

It was a sensitive issue at the time for a16z, with some noting its missed opportunity. In fact, firm cofounder Ben Horowitz felt compelled to write in a blog post that when Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, a16z did just fine, wringing $78 million from its $250,000 seed investment in the startup.

Google and Twitter are using AMD’s new EPYC Rome processors in their datacenters

AMD announced that Google and Twitter are among the companies now using EPYC Rome processors during a launch event for the 7nm chips today. The release of EPYC Rome marks a major step in AMD’s processor war with Intel, which said last month that its own 7nm chips, Ice Lake, won’t be available until 2021 (though it is expected to release its 10nm node this year).

Intel is still the biggest datacenter processor maker by far, however, and also counts Google and Twitter among its customers. But AMD’s latest releases and its strategy of undercutting competitors with lower pricing have quickly transformed it into a formidable rival.

Google has used other AMD chips before, including in its “Millionth Server,” built in 2008, and says it is now the first company to use second-generation EPYC chips in its datacenters. Later this year, Google will also make virtual machines that run on the chips available to Google Cloud customers.

In a press statement, Bart Sano, Google vice president of engineering, said “AMD 2nd Gen Epyc processors will help us continue to do what we do best in our datacenters: innovate. Its scalable compute, memory and I/O performance will expand out ability to drive innovation forward in our infrastructure and will give Google Cloud customers the flexibility to choose the best VM for their workloads.”

Twitter plans to begin using EPYC Rome in its datacenter infrastructure later this year. Its senior director of engineering, Jennifer Fraser, said the chips will reduce the energy consumption of its datacenters. “Using the AMD EPYC 7702 processor, we can scale out our compute clusters with more cores in less space using less power, which translates to 25% lower [total cost of ownership] for Twitter.”

In a comparison test between 2-socket Intel Xeon 6242 and AMD EPYC 7702P processors, AMD claimed that its chips were able to reduce total cost of ownership by up to 50% across “numerous workloads.” AMD EPYC Rome’s flagship is the 64-core, 128-thread 7742 chip, with a 2.25 base frequency, 225 default TDP and 256MB of total cache, starts at $6,950.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIT researchers are working on AI-based knitting design software that will let anyone, even novices, make their own clothes

The growing popularity of 3D printing machines and companies like Thingiverse and Shapeways have given previously unimaginable powers to makers, enabling them to create everything from cosplay accessories to replacement parts. But even though 3D printing has created a new world of customized objects, most of us are still buying clothes off the rack. Now researchers at MIT are working on software that will allow anyone to customize or design their own knitwear, even if they have never picked up a ball of yarn.

A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), led by computer scientist Alexandre Kaspar, released two new papers describing the software today. One is about a system called InverseKnit that automatically creates patterns from photos of knitted items. The other one introduces new design software, called CADKnit, that allows people with no knitting or design experience to quickly customize templates, adjusting the size, final shape and decorative details (like the gloves shown below).

The final patterns can be used with a knitting machine, which have been available to home knitters for years, but still require a fair amount of technical knowledge in order to design patterns for.

MIT knitting gloves2

Gloves made using CADknit

Both CADKnit and InverseKnit want to make designing and making machine-knitted garments as accessible as 3D printing is now. Once the software is commercialized, Kaspar envisions “knitting as a service” for consumers who want to order customized garments. It can also enable clothing designers to spend less time learning how to write knitwear patterns for machines and reduce waste in the prototyping and manufacturing process. Another target audience for the software are hand-knitters who want to try a new way of working with yarn.

“If you think about it like 3D printing, a lot of people have been using 3D printers or hacking 3D printers, so they are great potential users for our system, because they can do that with knitting,” says Kaspar.

One potential partner for CADKnit and InverseKnit is Kniterate, a company that makes a digital knitting machine for hobbyists, makerspaces and small businesses. Kaspar says he has been talking to Kniterate’s team about making knitwear customization more accessible.

To develop InverseKnit, researchers first created a dataset of knitting patterns with matching images that were used to train a deep neural network to generate machine knitting patterns. The team says that during InverseKnit’s testing, the system produced accurate instructions 94% of the time. There is still some work to do before InverseKnit can be commercialized. For example, the machine was tested using one specific type of acrylic yarn, so it needs to be trained to work with other fibers.

CADKnit, on the other hand, combines 2D images with CAD and photo-editing software to create customizable templates. It was tested with knitting newbies, who despite having little machine knitting experience were still able to create relatively complex garments like gloves and effects, including lace motifs and color patterns.

“3D printing took a while before people were comfortable enough to think they could do something with it,” says Kaspar. “It will be the same thing with what we do.”

Original Content podcast: ‘Years and Years’ takes an unsettling look at the next decade

“Years and Years” is an unusual show. It’s a co-production of HBO and the BBC, and in the course of six hourlong episodes, it covers a span of more than 10 years in our near future.

During that time, we see the rise of a terrifying Trump-style politician in the United Kingdom named Vivian Rook (played by Emma Thompson), along with lots more political, economic and technological upheaval. All of this is seen through the eyes of Manchester’s Lyons family — grandmother Muriel and adult siblings Rory, Edith, Daniel and Rosie, plus their spouses and children.

No one in the family is a major power player; they simply watch everything change with a growing sense of dread. That, in large part, is what makes the show effective — it feels true to the experience of trying to get on with your life while the world shifts around you.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we spend the entire hour reviewing the show. We had some reservations about the finale — which seemed to abandon the strengths of the previous episodes — but even so, we were impressed by the series, and by the way it brought so many of our fears to life.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
0:23 “Years and Years” review
30:07 “Years and Years” spoiler discussion

Samsung posts 55.6% drop in second-quarter profit as it copes with weak demand and a trade dispute

As it forecast earlier this month, Samsung reported a steep drop in its second-quarter earnings due to lower market demand for chips and smartphones. The company said its second-quarter operating profit fell 55.6% year-over-year to 6.6 trillion won (about $5.6 billion), on consolidated revenue of 56.13 trillion won, slightly above the guidance it issued three weeks ago.

Last quarter, Samsung also reported that its operating profit had dropped by more than half. The same issues that hit its earnings during the first quarter of this year have continued, including lower memory prices as major datacenter customers adjust their inventory, meaning they are currently buying less chips (the weak market also impacted competing semiconductor maker SK Hynix’s quarterly earnings).

Samsung reported that its chip business saw second-quarter operating profit drop 71% year-over-year to 3.4 trillion won, on consolidated revenue of 16.09 trillion won. In the second half of the year, the company expects to continue dealing with market uncertainty, but says demand for chips will increase “on strong seasonality and adoption of higher-density products.”

Meanwhile, Samsung’s mobile business reported a 42% drop in operating profit from a year ago to 1.56 trillion won, on 25.86 trillion won in consolidated revenue. The company said its smartphone shipments increased quarter-over-quarter thanks to strong sales of its budget Galaxy A series. But sales of flagship models fell, due to “weak sales momentum for the Galaxy S10 and stagnant demand for premium products.”

Samsung expects the mobile market to remain lackluster, but it will continue adding to both its flagship and mass-market lineups. It is expected to unveil the Note 10 next month and a new release date for the delayed Galaxy Fold, along with new A series models in the second half of the year.

“The company will promptly respond to the changing business environment, and step up efforts to secure profitability by enhancing efficiency across development, manufacturing and marketing operations,” Samsung said in its earnings release.

It’s not just market demand that’s impacting Samsung’s earnings. Along with other tech companies, Samsung is steeling itself for the long-term impact of a trade dispute between Japan and South Korea. Last month, Japan announced that it is placing export restrictions on some materials used in chips and smartphones. Samsung said it still has stores of those materials, but it is also looking for alternatives since it is unclear how long the dispute between the two countries may last (and it could last for a long time).

Capital One’s breach was inevitable, because we did nothing after Equifax

Another day, another massive data breach.

This time it’s the financial giant and credit card issuer Capital One, which revealed on Monday a credit file breach affecting 100 million Americans and 6 million Canadians. Consumers and small businesses affected are those who obtained one of the company’s credit cards dating back to 2005.

That includes names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, self-reported income and more credit card application data — including over 140,000 Social Security numbers in the U.S., and more than a million in Canada.

The FBI already has a suspect in custody. Seattle resident and software developer Paige A. Thompson, 33, was arrested and detained pending trial. She’s been accused of stealing data by breaching a web application firewall, which was supposed to protect it.

Sound familiar? It should. Just last week, credit rating giant Equifax settled for more than $575 million over a date breach it had — and hid from the public for several months — two years prior.

Why should we be surprised? Equifax faced zero fallout until its eventual fine. All talk, much bluster, but otherwise little action.

Equifax’s chief executive Richard Smith “retired” before he was fired, allowing him to keep his substantial pension packet. Lawmakers grilled the company but nothing happened. An investigation launched by the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the governmental body responsible for protecting consumers from fraud, declined to pursue the company. The FTC took its sweet time to issue its fine — which amounted to about 20% of the company’s annual revenue for 2018. For one of the most damaging breaches to the U.S. population since the breach of classified vetting files at the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, Equifax got off lightly.

Legislatively, nothing has changed. Equifax remains as much of a “victim” in the eyes of the law as it was before — technically, but much to the ire of the millions affected who were forced to freeze their credit as a result.

Mark Warner, a Democratic senator serving Virginia, along with his colleague since turned presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, was tough on the company, calling for it to do more to protect consumer data. With his colleagues, he called on the credit agencies to face penalties to the top brass and extortionate fines to hold the companies accountable — and to send a message to others that they can’t play fast and loose with our data again.

But Congress didn’t bite. Warner told TechCrunch at the time that there was “a failure of the company, but also of lawmakers” for not taking action.

Lo and behold, it happened again. Without a congressional intervention, Capital One is likely to face largely the same rigmarole as Equifax did.

Blame the lawmakers all you want. They had their part to play in this. But fool us twice, shame on the credit companies for not properly taking action in the first place.

The Equifax incident should have sparked a fire under the credit giants. The breach was the canary in the coal mine. We watched and waited to see what would happen as the canary’s lifeless body emerged — but, much to the American public’s chagrin, no action came of it. The companies continued on with the mentality that “it could happen to us, but probably won’t.” It was always going to happen again unless there was something to force the companies to act.

Companies continue to vacuum up our data — knowingly and otherwise — and don’t do enough to protect it. As much as we can have laws to protect consumers from this happening again, these breaches will continue so long as the companies continue to collect our data and not take their data security responsibilities seriously.

We had an opportunity to stop these kinds of breaches from happening again, yet in the two years passed we’ve barely grappled with the basic concepts of internet security. All we have to show for it is a meager fine.

Thompson faces five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Everyone else faces just another major intrusion into their personal lives. Not at the hands of the hacker per se, but the companies that collect our data — with our consent and often without — and take far too many liberties with it.

Joy Capital closes $700M for early-stage investments in China

Joy Capital, the venture capital firm that’s backed Luckin, NIO, Mobike and other investor darlings in China, just raised $700 million for a new fund focusing on early-to-growth stage startups.

Launched in 2015 by a team of former investors at Legend Capital, the investment arm of PC maker Lenovo’s parent company, Joy Capital made the news official (in Chinese) on Monday. It didn’t identify the limited partners in this new corpus of funding but said they include “top” public pension funds and insurance companies. Its existing pool of investors counts those from sovereign wealth funds, education-focused endowment funds, family funds and parent funds.

The fresh money boosted Joy’s total tally to over 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) under management, with a focus on backing cutting edge technologies and companies involved in the digital upgrade of China’s traditional sectors, or what Joy’s founding partner Liu Erhai (pictured above) dubbed the “new infrastructure” in an op-ed for the China Securities Journal. Targets can include the likes of logistics companies, online car rental platforms or bike-sharing apps.

As a relatively young fund, Joy Capital has so far achieved a few large outcomes. One of its portfolio companies NIO became China’s first electric vehicle startup to go public in the U.S. as a rival to Tesla. It’s also funded Luckin, the Starbucks nemesis from China that floated in the U.S. only 18 months after inception. The fund’s other big wins include Mobike, the bike-sharing pioneer that was sold to Meituan Dianping for $2.7 billion and fast-growing house-sharing unicorn Danke Apartment.

Joy Capital’s new raise arrived at a time when Chinese venture investors are coping with a cash crunch amid a cooling economy exacerbated by the expansion of U.S. tariffs. We reported that private equity and venture capital firms in the country raised 30% less in the first six months of 2019 compared to a year earlier, and the number of investors that managed to attract fundings was down 52% in the same period.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

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

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

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

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

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SoftBank announces AI-focused second $108 billion Vision Fund with LPs including Microsoft, Apple and Foxconn

SoftBank Group announced today that it will launch its second Vision Fund with participation from Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft and other tech companies and investors. Called the Vision Fund 2, the fund will focus on AI-based technology. SoftBank said the fund’s capital has reached about $108 billion, based on memoranda of understandings. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.

It is worth noting that the second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government (the first Vision Fund’s close ties to people, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has understandably been a major source of concern for investors, companies and human rights observers).

But SoftBank Group also said is still in discussions with other participants and that the total amount of the fund is expected to increase. The full list of participants who have signed MOUs so far are: “Apple, Foxconn Technology Group, Microsoft Corporation, Mizuho Bank, Ltd., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, Ltd., The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Limited, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Standard Chartered Bank, and major participants from Taiwan.”

SoftBank’s intention to launch Vision Fund 2 was first reported earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal. The new fund is expected to decrease SoftBank’s reliance on Saudi Arabian investment and also potentially change the relationship between startups, corporate giants like Microsoft and investors.

The second Vision Fund could help SoftBank extend its position as the most influential investor globally. Through its first $97 billion Vision Fund, the giant invested in dozens of high-profile growing companies, including ride hailing giants Didi Chuxing and Grab, and India-based grocery delivery startup Grofers, payments-firm Paytm, and budget lodging startup Oyo.

The maiden Vision Fund, which was announced in October 2016 and began investing in early 2017, has earned 62% returns to date, SoftBank said last month. SoftBank, known for consistently cutting checks of $100 million and of larger sizes, has invested in 24 of 377 unicorns globally (companies with valuation of $1 billion or more), according to research firm CB Insights.

Alibaba to help Salesforce localize and sell in China

Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.

Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.

The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.

The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.

On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.

“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.

Overall, only about 10% of Salesforce revenues in the three months ended April 30 originated from Asia, compared to 20% from Europe and 70% from the Americas.

Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.

“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.

China plans e-cigarette regulation as industry booms

China is taking steps to regulate its blossoming vaping market as health concerns over electronic cigarettes increase in recent times.

China’s National Health Commission has begun research into e-cigarettes and plans to issue legislation for the industry, said the head of the health authority Mao Qunan at a press conference this week. The attempt came as Chinese e-cigarette startups raised loads of venture capital over the past year in their fight to vie for attention in the world’s largest market of smokers.

Vaping suppliers in China range from little-known workshops that have come under legal attack from industry giant Juul, which is reportedly mulling a China entry itself, to venture-backed startups operating out of manufacturing hub Shenzhen. At least 20 e-cigarette companies in China have raised fundings since the beginning of 2019, according to data collected by Crunchbase.

These players are in effect up against state monopoly China Tobacco, which is the world’s biggest cigarette maker and provides the government with colossal tax revenues.

Some researchers support the use of vaping to help adults quit smoking while others have shown that e-cigarettes are just as addictive as traditional ones. The other major controversy is the growing use of e-cigarettes among teenagers, which has led to California’s plan to ban vaping product sales.

China is also applying more scrutiny to the new smoking technology. Research shows that the aerosol produced by heating up e-cigarettes can contain “a lot of harmful substances” and additives in e-cigarettes can “pose health risks,” said Mao. He also noted that equivocal labeling of nicotine level can misguide smokers and sloppy device standards can result in battery explosion and other safety incidents.

Like the U.S., China has seen a worryingly high vaping rate among young people, which is another reason that urges Beijing to hold the industry in check. The use of e-cigarettes by kids, teens and young adults has been proven unsafe because nicotine, which is highly addictive, can harm brain development.

In May, China drew up a set of standards (in Chinese) for e-cigarettes that specify the level of nicotine, the type of additives and other components and designs allowed in battery-powered cigarette devices.

Watch Patrick Stewart grow bored of his winery in first ‘Star Trek: Picard’ trailer

Yes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is indeed coming back. We knew this from previous announcements, but CBS All Access turned heads at this year’s San Diego Comic Con with an actual trailer of Sir Patrick Stewart Picarding his heart out. He says “engage!” for god’s sake.

From what I can grasp from this trailer, the plot of this Picard-centric follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation is that Jean-Luc has retired to a quiet life running a winery but quickly realizes that he’s not through adventuring. For some reason, he has Data stored in pieces in a drawer. He’s convinced to come out of retirement with what looks like a fairly rag-tag crew. Then Data is back somehow.

All of which is to say that this looks awesome and I wish it was here now instead of its “early 2020” release date on the CBS streaming service.

Tesla drops request for restraining order against allegedly dangerous short seller

Tesla has withdrawn its request for a court-ordered restraining order against Randeep Hothi, documents submitted to the court where the complaint was filed revealed Friday. Hothi, an individual who is very vocal on social media about his short position in Tesla, had gone to extreme and potentially dangerous lengths in his avid attempts to collect materials to support his vocal criticism, according to the company.

The Alameda County Superior Court actually granted Tesla a temporary injunction in this matter back in April, after Tesla filed a complaint with supporting documents supporting its assertion that Hothi had injured a guard during a hit-and-run incident in February, and that he nearly caused an accident by driving dangerously in pursuit of a Tesla Model 3 undertaking a test driven on April 16.

After granting the temporary injunction based on Tesla’s description of events, supporting materials, and written affidavits submitted by employees, the court asked Tesla to produce both audio and video recordings related to these two incidents pursuant to a hearing. In withdrawing its complaint Friday, Tesla conveyed in documents filed with the court that it considered this requirement unnecessary in light of materials already provided, and an undue imposition on the privacy of their employees, since the recorded conversations regarding the incident contained “its employees’ private and personal conversations” as well as materials relating to the case.

Tesla maintains in its letter to the court that it still believes “a restraining order against Mr. Hothi is necessary and appropriate to protect its employees at their workplace,” it says that faced with the choice between said protection and exposing their employees’ private conversations to further public scrutiny, it will instead opt to pursue the protection of their safety “through other means.”

When contacted about the withdrawal, a Tesla spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company is now confident Hothi should be well aware at this stage that he’s not permitted to enter the company’s property, and that it will pursue legal action should he ever attempt to do so in future.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink looks to begin outfitting human brains with faster input and output starting next year

Neuralink, the Elon Musk-led startup that the multi-entrepreneur founded in 2017, is working on technology that’s based around ‘threads’ which it says can be implanted in human brains with much less potential impact to the surrounding brain tissue vs. what’s currently used for today’s brain-computer interfaces. “Most people don’t realize, we can solve that with a chip,” Musk said to kick off Neuralink’s event, talking about some of the brain disorders and issues the company hopes to solve.

Musk also said that long-term Neuralink really is about figuring out a way to “achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.” “This is not a mandatory thing,” he added. “This is something you can choose to have if you want.”

For now, however, the aim is medical and the plan is to use a robot that Neuralink has created that operates somewhat like a “sewing machine” to implant this threads, which are incredibly thin I(like, between 4 and 6 μm, which means about one-third the diameter of the thinnest human hair), deep within a person’s brain tissue, where it will be capable of performing both read and write operations at very high data volume.

All of this sounds incredibly far-fetched, and to some extent it still is: Neuralink’s scientists told The New York Times in a briefing on Monday that the company has a “long way to go” before it can get anywhere near offering a commercial service. The main reason for breaking cover and talking more freely about what they’re working on, the paper reported, is that they’ll be better able to work out in the open and publish papers, which is definitely an easier mode of operation for something that requires as much connection with the academic and research community as this.

Neuralink1

Neuralink co-founder and president Max Hodak told the NYT that he’s optimistic Neuralink’s tech could theoretically see use somewhat soon in medical use, including potential applications enabling amputees to regain mobility via use of prosthetics and reversing vision, hearing or other sensory deficiencies. It’s hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year, in fact, including via possible collaboration with neurosurgeons at Stanford and other institutions.

The current incarnation of Neuralink’s tech would involve drilling actual holes into a subject’s skull in order to insert the ultra thin threads, but future iterations will shift to using lasers instead to create tiny holes that are much less invasive and essentially not felt by a patient, Hodak told the paper. Working on humans next year with something that meets this description for a relatively new company might seem improbable, but Neuralink did demonstrate its technology used on a laboratory rat this week, with performance levels that exceed today’s systems in terms of data transfer. The data from the rat was gathered via a USB-C port in its head, and it provided about 10x more what the best current sensors can offer, according to Bloomberg.

Neurlalink’s advances vs. current BCI methods also include the combined thinness and flexibility of the ‘threads’ used, but one scientist wondered about their longevity when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time. The plan is also that the times electrodes implanted in the brain will be able to communicate wirelessly with chips outside the brain, providing real time monitoring with unprecedented freedom of motion, without any external wires or connections.

Elon Musk is bankrolling the majority of this endeavour as well as acting as its CEO, with $100 million of the $158 million its raised so far coming from the SpaceX and Tesla CEO. It has 90 employees thus far, and still seems to be hiring aggressively based on its minimal website (which basically only contains job ads). Elon Musk also noted at the outset of today’s presentation that the main reason for the event was in fact to recruit new talent.

Hellobike, survivor of China’s bike-sharing craze, goes electric

Just two years ago, investors were heavily pouring money into China’s dockless bike-sharing startups. Now that boom has busted with derelict bikes littering the streets of cities.

Meanwhile, a new race has started for two-wheelers with motors — and one of the main players is a survivor from the bike-sharing craze. Blessed with fundings from the world’s most valuable fintech company Ant Financial through its Series D to F funding rounds, Hellobike provides a range of mobility services such as shared e-bikes and rented electric scooters to its 230 million registered users.

Electric push

Hellobike first launched in 2016 by deploying shared bikes in smaller cities and towns — where Ofo and Mobike were largely absent early on — rather than large urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. This allowed Hellobike to largely avoid the cash splurging competition against Ofo and Mobike.

Ofo is now battling a major financial crisis as it struggles to repay user deposits. Its archrival Mobike has slowed down expansion since it was sold to Hong Kong-listed local services giant Meituan. And Hellobike, which boasts about its operational efficiency, has begun an electric push.

“When the two major powers were at war, neither of them went after electric bikes. They were fighting over bicycles,” Hellobike’s chief financial officer Fischer Chen (pictured above) recently told TechCrunch at Rise conference in Hong Kong, referring to the feud between Mobike and Ofo. “As such, there was no price war for e-bikes from the outset. The competition is rational.”

Electric two-wheeled vehicles are in high demand in the country where nearly 1.4 billion people live. According to data collected by Hellobike, nearly 300 million rides are completed on analog bikes every day in China. What many don’t realize is that pedal-assist electric bikes and pedal-free scooters together more than double that number, generating 700 million rides per day.

As with bicycles, there are benefits to rent rather than buy an electric bike in China. For one, users don’t need to worry about getting their assets stolen. Second — and, this is specific to electric vehicles — finding a safe, convenient charging spot can be a challenge in China.

That’s why Hellobike put up charging stations as it went about offering shared ebikes in 2017. At these kiosks, riders swap their battery out for a new one without having to plug in and wait. They then have the option to pay with Alipay, Ant’s mobile wallet with a one-billion user base.

hellobike

Hellobike’s bike (left and middle) and e-bike (right) models / Photo: Hellobike via Weibo

Of all the monthly two-wheeler electric bikes activity in China, Hellobike has captured 80% of the market share, Chen claims. For bike-sharing, it accounts for 60-70%. It’s hard to verify the share by looking at data compiled by third-party app trackers, for they don’t usually break out the user number for individual features. The Hellobike app is a one-stop-shop for bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters as well as carpooling, a service complementary to its main two-wheeler business intended to “capture price-sensitive small-town consumers” according to Chen.

Similarly, Mobike has been folded into Meituan’s all-in-one service app. What further complicates the inquiry is some of Hellobike’s rides are accessed directly on Alipay rather than its own app.

When it comes to competition in electric two-wheelers, Chen maintained that other challengers are “relatively small” and that acquiring online users has become “very difficult.” For Hellobike, getting existing customers to try out new features takes as much effort as “adding a new tab to its app,” Chen suggested.

But other internet giants have also set their sight on plugged-in micromobility. Both Mobike and ride-sharing leader Didi Chuxing have their own e-bike sharing programs. It won’t be an easy game, as all contenders need to cope with China’s increasingly strict rules for electric bicycles.

Scooter rental is next

What’s for certain is that Hellobike has big ambitions for electric micromobility. While shared bikes and e-bikes are meant for one-off uses, Hellobike plans to rent out e-scooters for longer swathes of time as many people might want the powered-up vehicles for their daily commute.

hellobike

Hellobike’s electric scooter. Caption: “App-enabled lock. Smart anti-theft. Real-time location tracking for checking the vehicle’s status.” / Photo: Hellobike homepage  

Hellobike founded a new joint venture last month to fulfill that demand. Joining forces with Ant — which is controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma — and China’s top battery manufacturer CATL, Hellobike is launching a rental marketplace for its 25 km/h e-scooters targeted at millions of migrant workers in Chinese cities.

“People might be able to afford an e-scooter that costs several thousand yuan [$1 = 6.88yuan], but they might be leaving the city after a year, so why would they buy it? So we come in as a third-party partner with a new rental model through which people pay about 200 yuan a month to use the scooter,” explained Chen. “By doing so, we convert people from buying vehicles to paying for services, renting the vehicles.”

The three shareholders will also work to install more battery-swapping stations nationwide that not only recharge Hellobike’s shared e-bikes but also its e-scooters, that will be made by manufacturing partners.

“We function as a platform and won’t compete with traditional scooter manufacturers,” suggested Chen. “They still get to use their own designs and SKUs [stock keeping units], but we will put smart hardware into their models… so users know where their vehicles are… and they can unlock the scooters with a QR code just like they do with a shared bike or e-bike.”

Hellboke has raised at least $1.8 billion to date, according to public data compiled by Crunchbase. Bloomberg reported in April that it was seeking to raise at least $500 million in a new funding round. The company declined to comment on its fundraising progress.

When it comes to financial metrics, Chen, a veteran investment banker, declined to disclose whether Hellobike overall is profitable but said the company “performs much better than its competitors” financially. The most profitable segment, according to the executive, is the electric bike business.

As for bicycles, Chen noted that China’s main bike-sharing companies are “no longer burning money” since they’ve raised prices in recent times. Hellobike’s bike unit has achieved cash-flow positive during the warmer, peak seasons, Chen added.

Apple disables Walkie Talkie app due to vulnerability that could allow iPhone eavesdropping

Apple has disabled the Apple Watch Walkie Talkie app due to an unspecified vulnerability that could allow a person to listen to another customer’s iPhone without consent, the company told TechCrunch this evening.

Apple has apologized for the bug and for the inconvenience of being unable to use the feature while a fix is made.

The Walkie Talkie app on Apple Watch allows two users who have accepted an invite from each other to receive audio chats via a ‘push to talk’ interface reminiscent of the PTT buttons on older cell phones.

A statement from Apple reads:

We were just made aware of a vulnerability related to the Walkie-Talkie app on the Apple Watch and have disabled the function as we quickly fix the issue. We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and will restore the functionality as soon as possible. Although we are not aware of any use of the vulnerability against a customer and specific conditions and sequences of events are required to exploit it, we take the security and privacy of our customers extremely seriously. We concluded that disabling the app was the right course of action as this bug could allow someone to listen through another customer’s iPhone without consent.  We apologize again for this issue and the inconvenience.

Apple was alerted to the bug via its report a vulnerability portal directly and says that there is no current evidence that it was exploited in the wild.

The company is temporarily disabling the feature entirely until a fix can be made and rolled out to devices. The Walkie Talkie App will remain installed on devices, but will not function until it has been updated with the fix.

Earlier this year a bug was discovered in the group calling feature of FaceTime that allowed people to listen in before a call was accepted. It turned out that the teen who discovered the bug, Grant Thompson, had attempted to contact Apple about the issue but was unable to get a response. Apple fixed the bug and eventually rewarded Thompson a bug bounty.  This time around, Apple appears to be listening more closely to the reports that come in via its vulnerability tips line and has disabled the feature.

Earlier today, Apple quietly pushed a Mac update to remove a feature of the Zoom conference app that allowed it to work around Mac restrictions to provide a smoother call initiation experience — but that also allowed emails and websites to add a user to an active video call without their permission.