Tech Crunch

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Tesla has withdrawn its request for a court-ordered restraining order against Randeep Hothi, documents submitted to the court where the complaint was filed revealed Friday.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.

The Commerce Department will accept applications from companies that want to supply Huawei, but it remains blacklisted

About two months after Huawei was placed on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, the Chinese telecom equipment and smartphone giant will be able to do business with American suppliers again–but only if they get a license from the U.S. government. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made the announcement during a department conference, adding that companies must first demonstrate that the technology they sell to Huawei will not put national security at risk.

Huawei will remain on the entity list, however, and license applications will be reviewed under a “presumption of denial,” making it likely that most will not be approved.

Last month while both presidents were in Japan for the G20 Summit, Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would allow U.S. companies to sell equipment to Huawei again, but the promise created confusion about how it would be carried out, with the Commerce Department instructing staff to continue acting as if the blacklist is still in place. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment maker and second-largest smartphone vendor, is a major bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

The blacklist has had a major impact on Huawei, with important suppliers like Qualcomm, Intel and Google severing ties after it was placed on the entity list. Huawei, which has repeatedly denied being a threat to U.S. national security, said that being blacklisted would cost the company about $30 billion in revenue, though founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei later downplayed the impact in an interview with CNBC. It also means U.S. companies have lost an important customer. Out of the $70 billion Huawei spent buying components last year, $11 billion went to American companies like Qualcomm, Intel and Micron.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be the first publicly traded company for human spaceflight

The race to become the first publicly traded company dedicated to human spaceflight is over, and Virgin Galactic has won.

The company will be listing its shares on the New York Stock Exchange through a minority acquisition made by Social Capital Hedosophia; the special purpose acquisition company created by former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya as part of his exploration of alternative strategies to venture capital investing as the head of Social Capital — according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Formed with a $600 million commitment roughly two years ago, the SPAC is expected to make an $800 million commitment to Virgin Galactic, according to the Journal’s reporting.

Unlike other launch companies like Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Virgin Galactic has focused on suborbital launches for conducting experiments and taking tourists up to space. SpaceX is investing more heavily in the development of launch capabilities for lunar and interplanetary travel — and commercial applications like Internet connectivity via satellite.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin also reportedly has plans for space tourism while pursuing several commercial and government launch contracts (and a lunar lander).

Virgin Galactic was initially in discussions with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a roughly $1 billion capital infusion, but Virgin Galactic’s billionaire chief executive, Richard Branson, walked away from the deal in the wake of the kingdom’s assassination of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Kashoggi.

That’s when Palihapitiya stepped in, according to the Journal. The billionaire financier needed to do something with the capital he’d raised for the Hedosophia SPAC since the investment vehicles have to make an investment within a two-year timeframe or be wound down.

Likely, the Virgin Galactic business made a tempting target. The company already has roughly $80 million in commitments from people around the world willing to pay $250,000 for the privilege of a suborbital trip to the exosphere.

Virgin Galactic launched as a business in 2004, two years after SpaceX made its first fledgling steps toward creating a private space industry, and was the first company to focus on space tourism and launching small satellites into orbit. The company’s commercial division, Virgin Orbit, is still competing for satellite launch capabilities.

Like most privately funded space companies, Virgin Galactic was a pet project of the billionaire behind it, with the Journal estimating that Branson has put nearly $1 billion into the company already.

The new $800 million means that the SPAC isn’t the only investor in Virgin Galactic. Palihapitiya is taking a $100 million investment into the company too. In return the vehicle will own roughly 49% of the spaceflight business as it trades on the open market.

 

Equity transcribed: Investing elsewhere with Revolution’s Clara Sieg

Welcome back to the transcribed edition of the popular podcast Equity. Kate Clark had the hosting reins this week and welcomed Revolution’s Clara Sieg to the studio.

They discussed the trend of investors backing companies from “second-tier” markets like Austin, Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia, Seattle, etc. Just how do cities become tech hubs? It’s a special kind of recipe, Sieg says. A city must have a great university, or a few, nearby to provide a constant flow of talent. They need some big corporations around for the same reason. They need a healthy community of angel investors ready and willing to get things going.

Sieg: Fundamentally in these second and third tier markets, an idea on the back of a napkin doesn’t get funded, so you really have to bootstrap to a certain degree and prove out really economics before you can unlock capital. Typically the companies that we’re investing in at the Series A, Series B level are a little bit farther along than their brethren would be in the Bay Area or New York.

Valuation expectations are just lower so you own more of a company for a smaller check-in. Inherently, if it’s an exit, that is a better outcome for you and it’s just cheaper to scale companies in those markets. Employee retention is better, cost of living is lower, so the capital required to scale these companies and that’s coming in after you and diluting you is less.

Clark: So when Steve Case founded Revolution, was he coming at it from the perspective of like, “This is obviously good business?” Which it is, to invest in these companies, or was it coming from a perspective of like, “It’s not fair that companies in these areas just don’t have access to capital like we do here in the Bay Area?”

Sieg: Neither, really. I think our investing approach in the early days, and what we still focus on today is what is now commonly referred to as disruption, right? Historically, Zipcar was basically disrupting the rental car market, and it was not really thought of as a great venture-backable opportunity in the early days. That’s obviously changed now, transportation is a huge piece of what venture capitalists focus on, but from day one, we focused on sleepy, incumbent markets where technology can be an enabler of a new business model that makes it better, faster, cheaper for the consumer, or the business that it’s serving, and where you can change the margins in the business to create a market leader that incumbents then either have to own or that can be a large standalone company.

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Swedish ‘neobank’ P.F.C. picks up €5M backing from Nordic banking giant Nordea

P.F.C. (Personal Finance Co.), a so-called “neobank” founded in Sweden, has raised €5 million in funding. Backing the young company is Nordea, the largest bank in the Nordics region.

In other words, chalk this up as another example of an incumbent bank placing financial and strategic bets on a fintech upstart, even if it doesn’t always end as the parties involved planned.

Nordea is present in 20 countries, including having a stronghold in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Also targeting the Nordics, P.F.C. is tiny in comparison. The neobank says it hopes to get to 100,000 users by the end of the year.

Described as a personal finance app and accompanying debit card, P.F.C. is regulated under a payments institution license rather than being a fully-licensed bank. It’s the same lighter touch model that Revolut and a plethora of other banking apps choose, before in some instances applying for a bank license so they can begin doing more risky regulated activities: namely lending out deposits in the form of overdrafts and loans.

PFC DASHBOARD 02P.F.C.’s features include being able to instantly top up your account/card using Swish (a mobile payment technology provided by a group of Swedish banks), the ability to set a weekly budget, and automatic transaction categorisation.

In addition, you can freeze, unfreeze, change your pin and order a new card directly within the P.F.C. app. You also have the option to receive a push notification after each purchase with your updated balance.

It’s a travel card, too: P.F.C. says there are no additional fees for purchases and ATM withdrawals abroad.

Other soon-to-launch features include the ability for friends and partners to share expenses and settle debts, and personalised savings and credit products with “transparent pricing”.

“There’s an opportunity in the market for companies that personalize financial services,” says Eli Daniel Keren, founder and CEO of P.F.C., in a statement. “We provide a personal, transparent and simple banking experience for our customers”.

Adds Ewan Macleod, Chief Digital Officer at Nordea: “We are delighted to have P.F.C. in our portfolio as it provides a personalized digital solution for customers. We see the investment as a great opportunity for us to team up and support P.F.C. in their growth”.

Despite Trump’s promised reprieve, Commerce Department tells staff to continue treating Huawei as blacklisted

President Donald Trump recently promised to ease the ban on American companies doing business with Huawei, but the Commerce Department is requiring its staff to treat Huawei as if the blacklist is still in place, reports Reuters.

Enforcement staff were sent an internal letter this week by John Sonderman, the Deputy Director of the Office of Export Enforcement, to continue treating Huawei as blacklisted. The letter, viewed by Reuters, said applications from companies that want to sell to Huawei should be considered on merit and flagged with language that notes Huawei is on the entity list. The applications should also still be viewed under a “presumption of denial” policy that applies to companies on the blacklist. This means license applications are scrutinized more closely and most of them are rejected.

Along with 70 other companies, Huawei was added in May to an “entity list” of companies that U.S. companies are forbidden to do business with. As a result, many of Huawei’s most important component suppliers, including Qualcomm and Intel, severed ties with Huawei, while Google cut off its access to Android--a major headache for Huawei, which is the third-largest smartphone maker in the world. Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei said the ban would result in $30 billion in lost revenue.

According to Reuters, this is the only guidance enforcement officials have received since Trump’s surprise announcement, made after he met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the G20 summit. In an apparent concession to China, which sees Huawei as major sticking point in the U.S.-China trade war, Trump suggested that the U.S. will allow American companies to resume selling hardware to Huawei as long as it doesn’t pose a “great national emergency problem,” and would hold meetings about Huawei’s trade status.

After Trump’s announcement, Ren downplayed the effect of the promised partial reprieve, telling the Financial Times that the ban has helped the company “become more united than ever.” He added “if we aren’t allowed to use U.S. components, we are very confident in our ability to use components made in China and other countries.”

Elon Musk’s Boring Company is cranking up its hiring machine

Elon Musk’s tunneling and transportation startup The Boring Company is ramping up hiring about six weeks after landing a $48.7 million commercial contract to build and operate an underground “people mover” in Las Vegas.

The company’s website has posted more than a dozen new job openings in Las Vegas as well another 15 at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. That’s a tiny number of jobs when compared to openings at Musk’s two other companies SpaceX and Tesla. Still, it shows the company is attempting to scale up and move beyond the status of Musk pet project. (TBC hasn’t publicized how many people it employs; estimates from various sources put it at more than 80 people, although there’s evidence of overlap between SpaceX and TBC)

The Boring Company, or TBC, secured the contract in May to build an underground loop system that shuttles people after receiving approval from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The initial design for the project, dubbed Campus Wide People Mover, or CWPM, will focus on the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is currently in the midst of an expansion that is expected to be completed in time for CES 2021. The newly expanded Las Vegas Convention Center will span about 200 acres once completed. The people mover is supposed to be complete and ready for customers by December 2020.

Come work with us in Las Vegas – lots of boring jobs available! https://t.co/imlQMDfprJ

— The Boring Company (@boringcompany) July 2, 2019

This underground people mover will involve the construction of twin tunnels for vehicles and one pedestrian tunnel, according to contract documents. The twin tunnels are expected to be less than a mile. There will be three underground stations for passenger loading and unloading and an elevator or escalator system for passenger access to each station.

TBC is looking to fill the kind of jobs one might expect for such an engineering heavy endeavor, including civil and tunnel engineers, construction manager and lead architect.

Once completed, the people mover is supposed to whisk people between stops at high speeds in modified electric Tesla vehicles. The contract describes these as autonomous electric vehicles, or AEVs. The standard AEVs will be Tesla Model X and Model 3 vehicles, the company said. It plans to use modified Tesla Model X chassis for a “high-occupancy” AEV that will transport up to 16 passengers with both sitting and standing room.

(It should be noted that Tesla vehicles on roads today are not self driving, and instead have an advanced driver assistance system that handles certain tasks on highways such as lane steering and adaptive cruise control.)

Before it opens to the public, the contract dictates that TBC test the system for three months.

While the project is limited for now, TBC has said in the past that the project could someday connect downtown, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Las Vegas Boulevard Resort Corridor and McCarran International Airport.

Japan will restrict the export of some materials used in smartphones and chips to South Korea

Japan’s trade ministry said today that it will restrict the export of some tech materials to South Korea, including polyimides used in flexible displays made by companies like Samsung Electronics. The new rules come as the two countries argue over compensation for South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during World War II.

The list of restricted supplies, expected to go into effect on July 4, includes polyimides used in smartphone and flexible organic LED displays, and etching gas and resist used to make semiconductors. That means Japanese suppliers who wish to sell those materials to South Korean tech companies such as Samsung, LG and SK Hynix will need to submit each contract for approval.

Japan’s government may also remove South Korea from its list of countries that have fewer restrictions on trading technology that might have national security implications, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled several Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, that had used forced labor during World War II must pay compensation and began seizing assets for liquidation. But Japan’s government claims the issue was settled in 1965 as part of a treaty that restored basic diplomatic relations between the two countries and is asking South Korea to put the matter before an international arbitration panel instead.

Researchers developed a sensing system to constantly track the performance of workers

Researchers have come up with a mobile-sensing system that can track and rate the performance of workers by combining a smartphone, fitness bracelets and a custom app.

The mobile-sensing system, as the researchers call it, is able to classify high and low performers. The team used the system to track 750 U.S. workers for one year. The system was able to tell the difference between high performers and low performers with 80% accuracy.

The aim, the researchers say, is to give employees insight into physical, emotional and behavioral well-being. But that constant flow of data also has a downside, and if abused, can put employees under constant surveillance by the companies they work for.

The researchers, including Dartmouth University computer science professor Andrew Campbell, whose earlier work on a student monitoring app provided the underlying technology for this system, see this as a positive gateway to improving worker productivity.

“This is a radically new approach to evaluating workplace performance using passive sensing data from phones and wearables,” said Campbell. “Mobile sensing and machine learning might be the key to unlocking the best from every employee.”

The researchers argue that the technology can provide a more objective measure of performance than self-evaluations and interviews, which they say can be unreliable.

The mobile-sensing system developed by the researchers has three distinct pieces. A smartphone tracks physical activity, location, phone use and ambient light. The fitness tracker monitors heart functions, sleep, stress and body measurements like weight and calorie consumption. Meanwhile, location beacons placed in the home and office provide information on time at work and breaks from the desk.

From here, cloud-based machine learning algorithms are used to classify workers by performance level.

The study found that higher performers typically had lower rates of phone usage, had longer periods of deep sleep and were more physically active.

Privacy experts and labor advocates have long raised concerns about the practice of tracking employees. That hasn’t stopped companies from incentivizing employees to wear fitness tracks in exchange for savings on insurance or other benefits. Startups have popped up to offer even more ways to track employees.

For instance, WeWork acquired in February Euclid, a data platform that tracks the identity and behavior of people in the physical world. Shiva Rajaraman, WeWork’s chief product officer, told TechCrunch at the time that the Euclid platform and its team will become integrated into a software analytics package that WeWork plans to sell to companies that aren’t renting WeWork space but want to WeWork-ify their own offices.

Meanwhile, the team of researchers suggests that while its system of continuous monitoring via wearables and other devices is not yet available, it could be coming in the next few years. It’s unclear if the team is making a calculated guess or if there are designs to try and launch this system as a product.

The team, led by Dartmouth University, included researchers from University of Notre Dame, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Washington, University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, Irvine, Ohio State University, University of Texas at Austin and Carnegie Mellon University .

A paper describing the study will be published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile Wearable and Ubiquitous Technology.

A rare glimpse into the sweeping — and potentially troubling — cloud kitchens trend

Independent restaurant owners may be doomed, and perhaps grocery stores, too.

Such is the conclusion of a growing chorus of observers who’ve been closely watching a new and powerful trend gain strength: that of cloud kitchens, or fully equipped shared spaces for restaurant owners, most of them quick-serve operations.

While viewed peripherally as an interesting and, for some companies, lucrative development, the movement may well transform our lives in ways that enrich a small set of companies while zapping jobs and otherwise taking a toll on our neighborhoods. Renowned VC Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital seemed to warn about this very thing in a Financial Times column that appeared last month, titled “The cloud kitchen brews a storm for local restaurants.”

Moritz begins by pointing to the runaway success of Deliveroo, the London-based delivery service that relies on low-paid, self-employed delivery riders who delivery local restaurant food to customers — including from shared kitchens that Deliveroo itself operates, including in London and Paris.

He believes that Amazon’s recent investment in the company “might just foreshadow the day when the company, once just known as the world’s largest bookseller, also becomes the world’s largest restaurant company.”

That’s bad news for people who run restaurants, he adds, writing, “For now the investment looks like a simple endorsement of Deliveroo. But proprietors of small, independent restaurants should tighten their apron strings. Amazon is now one step away from becoming a multi-brand restaurant company — and that could mean doomsday for many dining haunts.”

The good news . . . and the bad

He’s not exaggerating. While shared kitchens have so far been optimistically received as a potential pathway for food entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses — particularly as more people turn to take out —  there are many downsides  that may well outweigh the good, or certainly counteract it. Last year, for example, UBS wrote a note to its clients titled “Is the kitchen dead?” wherein it suggested the rise of food delivery apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats could well prove ruinous for home cooks and as well as fresh food providers, including restaurants and supermarkets.

The economics are just too alluring, suggested the bank. Food is already inexpensive to have delivered because of cheap labor, and that will cost center will disappear entirely if delivery drones every take off. Meanwhile, food is becoming cheaper to make because of central kitchens, the kind that Deliveroo is opening and Uber is reportedly beginning move into, as well. (In March, Bloomberg reported that Uber is testing out a program in Paris where it’s renting out fully equipped, commercial-grade kitchens to serve businesses that selling food on delivery apps like Uber Eats.)

The favorable case for cloud kitchens argues that businesses using the spaces are paying less than they would for traditional restaurant real estate, but the reality is also that most of the businesses moving into them right now aren’t small restaurateurs but quick service brands that already have a following and aren’t particular known for emphasis on food quality but instead for churning out affordable food, fast.

As Eric Greenspan, an L.A.-based chef who has appeared on many Food Network shows and has opened and closed numerous restaurants over the course of his career, explains in a new, independent documentary about cloud kitchens: “Delivery is the fastest growing market in restaurants. What started out as 10 percent of your sales is now 30 percent of your sales, and [the industry predicts] it will be 50 to 60 percent of a quick-serve restaurant’s sales within the next three to five years. So you take that, plus the fact that quick-serve brands are kind of the key to getting a fat payout at the end of the day . . .”

During an age when fewer people frequent them traditional restaurants —  with their overhead and turnover and razor-thin margins — running one simply makes less and less sense, Greenspan continues. “[Opening] up a brick-and-mortar restaurant these days is just like giving yourself a job. Now [with centralized kitchens], as long as the product is coming out strong, I don’t need to be there as a presence. I can quality control remotely now. I can go online and [sign out of a marketplace like Postmates or UberEats or Deliveroo] and not piss off any customers, because if I just decided to close the restaurant one day, and you drove over and it was closed, you’d be pissed. But if you’re looking for [one of my restaurants] in Uber Eats and you can’t find it because I turned it off, well, you’re not pissed. You just order something else.”

Big players only need apply . . .

The model works for now for Greenspan, who is running numerous restaurant “concepts” from one cloud kitchen in L.A. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that facility belongs in part to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, who was quicker than some to grok the opportunity that shared kitchens present. In fact, it was early last year that he announced he was investing $150 million in a startup called City Storage Systems that focused on repurposing distressed real estate assets and turning them into spaces for new industries, like food delivery.

That company owns CloudKitchens, which invites chains, as well as independent restaurant and food truck owners, to lease space in one of their facilities for a monthly fee, along with additional fees for data analytics meant to help the entrepreneurs boost their sales.

The pitch to restaurateurs is that CloudKitchens can reduce their overhead, but of course, the company is also amassing all kinds of data about its tenants and their customer preferences in the process that one could them seeing using over time. Little wonder that Amazon wants in, or that these outfits have at least one serious competitor in China — Panda Selected — that is doing exactly the same thing and which raised $50 million led by Tiger Global Management earlier this year.

No one can fault these savvy entrepreneurs for seizing on what looks like a gigantic business opportunity. Still, the kitchens, which make all the sense in the world from an investment standpoint, should not be embraced so readily as a panacea, either.

Most obviously, they rely on the same people who drive Ubers and handle food deliveries — people who aren’t afforded health benefits and whose financial picture is forever precarious as a result. As with Uber drivers, Deliveroo employees tried to gain status as “workers” last year with better pay and paid but they were denied these rights because they have the option of asking other riders to take their deliveries. The EU Parliament more recently passed new rules to protect so-called gig economy workers, though the measures don’t go far. (Meanwhile, in the U.S, Uber and Lyft continue to fight legislation that would give employee status to contract workers.)

Ripple effects . . .

Matt Newberg, a founder and foodie from New York, says he could see the writing on the wall when he recently toured CloudKitchen’s two L.A. facilities, along with the shared kitchens of two other companies: Kitchen United which last fall raised $10 million from GV, and and Fulton Kitchens, which offers commercial kitchens for rent on an annual basis.

Newberg is responsible for the aforementioned documentary (which you can also watch below), and he suggests that he most taken aback by the conditions of the first facility that CloudKitchens opened and operates on West Washington Boulevard in South L.A. Though most restaurant kitchens are chaotic scenes, Newberg said that as “someone who loves food and sustainability” the easy-to-miss warehouse didn’t feel “very humane” to him when he walked through it. It’s windowless for one thing (it’s a warehouse). Newberg says that he also counted 27 kitchens packed into what are “maybe 250-square-feet to 300 square-foot spaces,” and a lot of people who appeared to be in panic mode. “Imagine lots of screaming, lots of sirens triggered when an order gets backed up, tablets everywhere.”

Adds Newberg, “When i walked in, I was like, holy shit, no one even knows this exists in L.A. It felt like Ground Zero. It felt like a military base. I mean, it seemed genius, but also crazy.”

Newberg says CloudKitchen’s second, newer location is far nicer, as are the facilities of Kitchen United and Fulton Kitchens. “That [second CloudKitchen warehouse] felt like a WeWork for kitchens. Super sleek. It was as quiet as a server farm. There were still no windows, but the kitchens are nicer and bigger.”

Growing pains . . .

Every startup has growing pains, naturally, and presumably, shared kitchen companies are not immune to these. Still, Moritz, the venture capitalist, warns that they will benefit some far more than others. Writing in the FT, he says that in the early 2000s, his firm, Sequoia, invested in a chain of kebab restaurants called Faasos that planned to delivery meals to customers’ homes but was getting crushed by high rents and turnover among other things, so opened a centralized kitchen to sell kebobs. Now, he says, Fassos produces a wide variety of foods, including other Indian specialities but also Chinese and Italian dishes under separate brand names.

It’s the same playbook that Eric Greenspan is using, telling Food & WIne magazine last year that his goal was ultimately to have six delivery-only concepts running simultaneously, with two menus each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Greenberg, who is obviously media savvy, can probably pull it off, too, as has Fassos. But for restaurants that are not known franchises or have the star appeal of celebrity chef, the future might not look so bright.

Writes Moritz: “In some markets there is still an opportunity for hardened restaurant and kitchen operators — particularly if they are gifted in the use of social media to build a following and refashion themselves. But they need to move quickly before it becomes too expensive to compete with the larger, faster-moving companies. The mere prospect of Amazon using cloud kitchens to provide cuisine catering to every taste — and delivering these meals through services such as Deliveroo — should be enough to give any restaurateur heartburn.”

It should also worry people who care about their neighborhoods. Cloud kitchens may make it easier and cheaper than ever to order take-out, but there will be consequences, some of which most of us have yet to imagine.

India reportedly wants to build its own WhatsApp for government communications

India may have plans to follow France’s footsteps in building a chat app and requiring government employees to use it for official communications.

The New Delhi government is said to be pondering about the need to have homegrown email and chat apps, local news outlet Economic Times reported on Thursday.

The rationale behind the move is to cut reliance on foreign entities, the report said, a concern that has somehow manifested amid U.S.’s ongoing tussle with Huawei and China.

“We need to make our communication insular,” an unnamed top government official was quoted as saying by the paper. The person suggested that by putting Chinese giant Huawei on the entity list, the U.S. has “set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.”

India has its own ongoing trade tension with the U.S. Donald Trump earlier this month removed the South Asian nation from a special trade program after India did not assure him that it will “provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets.” India called the move “unfortunate”, and weeks later, increased tariffs on some U.S. exports.

The move to step away from foreign communication apps, if it comes to fruition, won’t be the first time a nation has attempted to cautiously restrict usage of popular messaging apps run by foreign players in government offices.

France launched an encrypted chat app — called Tchap — for use in government offices earlier this year. Only those employed by the French government offices can sign up to use the service, though the nation has open sourced the app’s code for the world to see and audit.

Of course, a security flaw in Tchap came into light within the first 24 hours of its release. Security is a real challenge that the government would have to tackle and it might not have the best resources — talent, budget, and expertise — to deal with it.

China, which has restricted many foreign companies from operating in the nation, also maintains customized versions of popular operating systems for use in government offices. So does North Korea.

It won’t be an unprecedented step for India, either. The nation has been trying to build and scale its own Linux-based desktop operating system called BOSS for several years with little success as most government agencies continue to use Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

Even as India has emerged as the third-largest startup hub in the world, the country has failed to build local alternatives for many popular services. Facebook’s WhatsApp has become ubiquitous for communication in India, while Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows power most smartphones and computers in the nation.

WeWork acquires Waltz, an app that lets users access different spaces with a single credential

WeWork announced today that it will acquire Waltz, a building access and security management startup, for an undisclosed amount. Waltz’s smartphone app and reader allows users to enter different properties with a single credential and will make it easier for WeWork’s enterprise clients, such as GE Healthcare and Microsoft, to manage their employees’ on-demand memberships to WeWork spaces.

WeWork’s announcement said “with deep expertise in mobile access and system integrations, Waltz has the most advanced and sophisticated products to provide that single credential to our members and to help us better connect them with our spaces.” Waltz was founded in 2015 by CEO Matt Kopel and has offices in New York and Montreal. After the acquisition, Waltz will be integrated into WeWork, but maintain its current customer base.

WeWork has been on an acquisition spree over the past year as it evolves from co-working spaces to a software-as-a-service provider. Companies it has bought include office management platforms Teem (for $100 million) and Managed by Q, as well as Euclid, a “spatial analytics platform” that allows companies to analyze the use of workspaces by their employees and participation at meetings and other events.

Likewise, Waltz isn’t just an alternative to keys or access cards. Its cloud-based management portal gives companies data about who enters and exits their buildings and also allows teams to set “Door Groups,” which restricts the use of some spaces to certain people. According to Waltz’s help site, it can also be used to make revenue through ads displayed in its app.

Microsoft will offer console streaming for free to Xbox One owners

Microsoft’s Sunday E3 pressure was all about the games. In fact, while the company did offer some information about hardware and services, the information all arrived fast and furious at the end of the conference. While it’s probably unsurprising that the company had very little to offer in the way of information about its upcoming 8K console, Project Scarlett, most of us expected Project xCloud to get a lot more face time on stage.

The company powered through a whole lot of information about its upcoming streaming offering like it was going out of style (or, perhaps, like the lights were going out at its own theater). The speed and brevity of it all left a number of audience members confused on the specifics — and caused some to speculate that the service night not be as far along as Microsoft had hoped.

We caught up with a few Microsoft reps on our final day at the show to answer some questions. The company is unsurprisingly still mum on a number of key details around the offering. A couple of key things are worth clarifying, though. For starters console stream is not considered a part of Project xCloud. Rather, the ability to play games on one’s own Xbox One remotely is a separate feature that will be coming to users via a software update.

Asked what advantages console streaming has over the parallel xCloud offering, Microsoft’s answer was simple: it’s free. Fair enough. This serves a two-fold purpose. First, it helps differentiate Microsoft’s streaming offerings from Stadia and second, it provides another value proposition for the console itself. As to how performance is expected to differ between console streaming and XCloud, it wouldn’t comment.

As I wrote earlier today, the company does see the potential of a large scale move to the cloud, but anticipates that such a shift is a long ways off. After all, if it didn’t, it likely wouldn’t have announced a new console this week at E3.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

In trying to clear “confusion” over anti-harassment policy, YouTube creates more confusion

After a series of tweets that made it seem as if YouTube was contradicting its own anti-harassment policies, the video platform published a blog post in an attempt to clarify its stance. But even though the post is supposed to “provide more details and context than is possible in any one string of tweets,” it is similarly confusing and raises yet more questions about how serious YouTube is about combatting harassment and hate speech on its platform—especially if the abuse comes from a high-profile channel with million of subscribers.

YouTube is currently under fire for not taking earlier, more decisive actions against conservative commentator Steven Crowder after he made homophobic and racist comments about Vox reporter Carlos Maza in multiple videos. The platform eventually demonetized Crowder’s channel, which currently has more than 3.8 million subscribers, but then stated it would allow Crowder to start making ad revenue again if he fixed “all of the issues” with his channel and stopped linking to an online shop that sold shirts saying “Socialism is for f*gs.”

Before demonetizing Crowder’s channels, YouTube responded to Maza in a series of tweets that created confusion about how it enforces it policies. The platform said after an “in-depth review” of flagged videos by Crowder, it decided that even though the language they contained was “clearly hurtful,” the videos did not violate its policies because “as an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone-from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts-to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies.” This was in spite of the fact that Crowder’s derogatory references to Maza’s ethnicity and sexual orientation violate several of YouTube’s policy against harassment and cyberbullying, including “content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person.”

I’ve been called an anchor baby, a lispy queer, a Mexican, etc. These videos get millions of views on YouTube. Every time one gets posted, I wake up to a wall of homophobic/racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter.

— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 31, 2019

In the new blog post, posted by YouTube head of communications Chris Dale, the platform gives a lengthy explanation of how it attempts to draw the line between things like “edgy stand-up comedy routines” and harassment.

As an open platform, we sometimes host opinions and views that many, ourselves included, may find offensive. These could include edgy stand-up comedy routines, a chart-topping song, or a charged political rant — and more. Short moments from these videos spliced together paint a troubling picture. But, individually, they don’t always cross the line.

There are two key policies at play here: harassment and hate speech. For harassment, we look at whether the purpose of the video is to incite harassment, threaten or humiliate an individual; or whether personal information is revealed. We consider the entire video: For example, is it a two-minute video dedicated to going after an individual? A 30-minute video of political speech where different individuals are called out a handful of times? Is it focused on a public or private figure? For hate speech, we look at whether the primary purpose of the video is to incite hatred toward or promote supremacism over a protected group; or whether it seeks to incite violence. To be clear, using racial, homophobic, or sexist epithets on their own would not necessarily violate either of these policies. For example, as noted above, lewd or offensive language is often used in songs and comedic routines. It’s when the primary purpose of the video is hate or harassment. And when videos violate these policies, we remove them.

In the case of Crowder’s persistent attacks on Maza, YouTube repeated its stance that the videos flagged by users “did not violate our Community Guidelines.”

The decision to demonetize Crowder’s channel was made, however, because “we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization,” Dale wrote.

In order to start earning ad revenue again, “all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise,” he added.

The latest YouTube controversy is both upsetting and exhausting, because it is yet another reminder of the company’s lack of action against hate speech and harassment, despite constantly insisting that it will do better (just yesterday, for example, YouTube announced that it will ban videos that support views like white supremacy, Nazi ideology or promote conspiracy theories that deny events like the Holocaust or Sandy Hook).

The passivity of social media companies when it comes to stemming the spread of hate through its platforms has real-life consequences (for example, when (Maza was doxxed and harassed by fans of Crowder last year), and no amount of prevarication or distancing can stop the damage once its been done.

SentinelOne raises $120M for its fully-autonomous, AI-based endpoint security solution

Endpoint security — the branch of cybersecurity that focuses on data coming in from laptops, phones, and other devices connected to a network — is an $8 billion dollar market that, due to the onslaught of network breaches, is growing fast. To underscore that demand, one of the bigger startups in the space is announcing a sizeable funding round.

SentinelOne, which provides real-time endpoint protection on laptops, phones, containers, cloud services and most recently IoT devices on a network through a completely autonomous, AI-based platform, has raised $120 million in a Series D round — money that it will be using to continue expanding its current business as well as forge into new areas such as building more tools to automatically detect and patch software running on those endpoints, to keep them as secure as possible.

The funding was led by Insight Partners, with Samsung Venture Investment Corporation, NextEquity participating, alongside all of the company’s existing investors, which include the likes of Third Point Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Data Collective, Sound Ventures and Ashton Kutcher, Tiger Global, Granite Hill and more.

SentinelOne is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but CEO and co-founder Tomer Weingarten confirmed it was up compared to its previous funding events. SentinelOne has now raised just shy of $130 million, and PitchBook notes that in its last round, it was valued at $210 post-money.

That would imply that this round values SentinelOne at more than $330 million, likely significantly more: “We are one of the youngest companies working in endpoint security, but we also have well over 2,000 customers and 300% growth year-on-year,” Weingarten said. And working in the area of software-as-a-service with a fully-automated solution that doesn’t require humans to run any aspect of it, he added, “means we have high margins.”

The rise in cyberattacks resulting from malicious hackers exploiting human errors — such as clicking on phishing links; or bringing in and using devices from outside the network running software that might not have its security patches up to date — has resulted in a stronger focus on endpoint security and the companies that provide it.

Indeed, SentinelOne is not alone. Crowdstrike, another large startup in the same space as SentinelOne, is now looking at a market cap of at least $4 billion when it goes public. Carbon Black, which went public last year, is valued at just above $1 billion. Another competitor, Cylance, was snapped up by BlackBerry for $1.5 billion.

Weingarten — who cofounded the company with Almog Cohen (CTO) and Ehud Shamir (CSO) — says that SentinelOne differs from its competitors in the field because of its focus on being fully autonomous.

“We’re able to digest massive amounts of data and run machine learning to detect any type of anomaly in an automated manner,” he said, describing Crowdstrike as “tech augmented by services.” That’s not to say SentinelOne is completely without human options (options being the key word; they’re not required): it offers its own managed services under the brand name of Vigilance and works with system integrator partners to sell its products to enterprises.

There is another recurring issue with endpoint security solutions, which is that they are known to throw up a lot of false positives — items that are not recognized by the system that subsequently get blocked, which turn out actually to be safe. Weingarten admits that this is a by-product of all these systems, including SentinelOne’s.

“It’s a result of opting to use a heuristic rather than deterministic model,” he said, “but there is no other way to deal with anomalies and unknowns without heuristics, but yes with that comes false positives.” He pointed out that the company’s focus on machine learning as the basis of its platform helps it to more comprehensively ferret these out and make deductions on what might not otherwise have proper representation in its models. Working for a pilot period at each client also helps inform the algorithms to become more accurate ahead of a full rollout.

All this has helped bring down SentinelOne’s own false positive rate, which Weingarten said is around 0.04%, putting it in the bracket of lower mis-detectors in this breakdown of false positive rates by VirusTotal:

“Endpoint security is at a fascinating point of maturity, highlighting a massive market opportunity for SentinelOne’s technology and team,” said Teddie Wardi, Managing Director, Insight Partners, in a statement. “Attack methods grow more advanced by the day and customers demand innovative, autonomous technology to stay one step ahead. We recognize SentinelOne’s strong leadership team and vision to be unique in the market, as evidenced through the company’s explosive growth and highly differentiated business model from its peer cybersecurity companies.”

By virtue of digesting activity across millions of endpoints and billions of events among its customers, SentinelOne has an interesting vantage point when it comes to seeing the biggest problems of the moment.

Weingarten notes that one big trend is that the biggest attacks are now not always coming from state-sponsored entities.

“Right now we’re seeing how fast advanced techniques are funnelling down from government-sponsored attackers to any cyber criminal. Sophisticated malicious hacking can now come from anywhere,” he said.

When it comes to figuring out what is most commonly creating vulnerabilities at an organization, he said it was the challenge of keeping up to date with security patches. Unsurprisingly, it’s something that SentinelOne plans to tackle with a new product later this year — one reason for the large funding round this time around.

“Seamless patching is absolutely something that we are looking at,” he said. “We already do vulnerability assessments today and so we have the data to tell you what is out of date. The next logical step is to seamlessly track those apps and issue the patches automatically.”

Indeed it’s this longer term vision of how the platform will be developing, and how it’s moving in response to what the current threats are today, that attracted the backers. (Indeed the IoT element of the “endpoint” focus is a recent additions.

“SentinelOne’s combination of best-in-class EPP and EDR functionality is a magnet for engagement, but it’s the company’s ability to foresee the future of the endpoint market that attracted us as a technology partner,” a rep from Samsung Venture Investment Corporation said in a statement. “Extending tech stacks beyond EPP and EDR to include IoT is the clear next step, and we look forward to collaborating with SentinelOne on its groundbreaking work in this area.

Apple announces its 2019 Design Award winners

Apple doled out its 2019 Design Awards at its Worldwide Developer Conference this afternoon, highlighting a range of apps that work as beautifully as they look, the company said. This year, half the award winners were mobile games, which may speak to where much design innovation is today taking place. Other creativity focused and health care apps filled out the rest of the winners’ list.

To take home a prize, the apps’ had to excel across three areas: visual design, technology, and innovation. Specifically, Apple looks for apps that take full advantage of its latest devices and technologies.

The award winners don’t just get to take home a (newly redesigned) trophy. They also get an envious Apple prize pack that includes a 512GB iPhone 10S, AirPods, a 512GB 12.9 inch iPad Pro, Apple Pencil 2, a 64GB Apple TV 4K, an Apple Watch Series 4, a top of the line MacBook Pro, and a fully loaded iMac Pro. The apps will also be featured in the iOS App Store, gaining them more exposure.

The winning apps this year included:

Ordia: a one-finger action game where you play as a new life form taking its first leaps into a strange and hazardous world. Apple said this game offered a great balance between difficulty and satisfaction. It also focused on accessibility features, with a colorblind mode, for example. The game, from Loju LTD, was developed for two years and launched only a month ago, catching Apple’s eye.

Flow by Moleskin: Creative app for sketching, writing and drawing, Flow, was chosen for its attention to detail and overall design. It also showcased Apple technologies like Apple Pencil, gestures, iOS drawing APIs, and Metal.

The Gardens Between: A a single-player adventure-puzzle game about time, memory and friendship from The Voxel Agents won for its cinematic moments and immersive experience. Apple also really liked its gameplay mechanic which lets you stop time, which allows you to play without feeling rushed.

Asphalt 9 Legends: Gameloft’s latest iteration on the car racing game features cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, and W Motors. What makes it worthy of the award are its incredible effects and graphics, as well as its custom engine and Metal 2 integration. 

Pixelmator Photo: This photo editing app specifically won for its iPad version, which makes photo editing easy for everyone. But what Apple really liked was its use of Metal, CoreML and how it leveraged machine learning technologies to suggest changes to photos.

ELOH: Another game winner, this one described as a “chilled out puzzler.” The game helps you relax and decompress, said Apple, but its key component is its sound effects soundtrack, which complements its beautiful graphics and the animations. There are no time constraints on this one, so you can relax and enjoy playing.

Butterfly IQ – Ultrasound: This app was a standout from the group for focusing on a real healthcare need, not gaming or the creative arts. The app connects with a separate device to give mobile ultrasounds. The app won based largely on that innovation alone. As Apple noted, the idea with this app is that you can move ultrasound to a microchip and move the computer to an iOS device, instead of the big, expensive machines required today.

Thumper: Pocket Edition: This winning music rhythm game was unique and did a great job introducing new game mechanics involving swipes and taps. But it also has a psychedelic soundtrack to complement the action that sounds great when played loud.

Homecourt: The Basketball App:  This basketball training app uses a proprietary mobile AI technology to track, record, and provide deep analysis of all your shots and workouts using your iPhone’s camera.

 

 

Penta, the digital SME banking upstart, appoints co-founder of solarisBank as new CEO

Hon on the heels of being acquired by company builder Finleap, German SME banking upstart Penta has appointed a new CEO.

Marko Wenthin, who previously co-founded solarisBank (the banking-as-a-service used by Penta), is now heading up the company, having replaced outgoing CEO and Penta co-founder Lav Odorović.

I understand Odorović left Penta last month after it was mutually agreed with new owner Finleap that a CEO with more experience scaling should be brought in. The Penta co-founder remains a shareholder in the SME banking fintech and is thought to be eyeing up his next venture.

Wenthin, who remains on the board of solarisBank according to LinkedIn, stepped down from the banking-as-a-service’s executive team in late 2018 citing “health reasons” and saying that he needed to focus on his recovery. It’s not known what those health issues were, although, regardless, it’s good to see that he’s well-enough to take up a new role as Penta CEO.

Asked to comment on Odorović’s departure, Penta issued the following statement:

“Lav is still part of the shareholders at Penta. His step back from the operational management team was a decision taken by mutual agreement. Lav was the right fit during the building phase of Penta, but by entering a new step of growth, the company faces bigger challenges and needs therefore to position itself differently”.

Penta says that in his new leadership role, Wenthin, who previously spent 16 years at Deutsche Bank, will lead international expansion — next stop Italy — and begin to market the fintech to larger SMEs in addition to its original focus on early-stage startups and other small digital companies. “In the future, the focus will be also on traditional medium-sized companies,” says Penta.

Adds Wenthin in a statement: “I am very much looking forward to my new role at Penta. On the one hand, digital banking for small and medium-sized companies is very important to me, as they are the driver of the economy and I have spent most of my career in this segment. On the other hand, I have known Penta and the team for a long time as successful partners of solarisBank. Penta is the best example of how a very focused banking provider can create real, digital added value for an entire customer segment in cooperation with a banking-as-a-service platform”.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch understands that Odorović’s departure and the appointment of Wenthin isn’t the only recent personnel change within Penta’s leadership team. According to LinkedIn, Aleksandar Orlic, who held the position of CTO, departed the company last month. “We are searching for a new CTO,” said a Penta spokesperson.

Alongside Wenthin, that leaves Penta’s current management team as Jessica Holzbach (Chief Customer Officer), Luka Ivicevic (Chief of Staff), Lukas Zörner (Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Matteo Concas (Chief Marketing Officer).

Meet the first private companies that NASA has selected to deliver stuff and things to the Moon

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has selected Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond as the first three private companies to deliver science and technology payloads under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) as part of its Artemis program.

In an announcement yesterday, the administration said that each lander will carry NASA-provided payloads to conduct science investigations and demonstrate technologies on the lunar surface to pave the way for NASA astronauts lunar return in 2024. In all NASA will dole out up to $253 million in contracts to the three companies for their respective missions.

“Our selection of these U.S. commercial landing service providers represents America’s return to the Moon’s surface for the first time in decades, and it’s a huge step forward for our Artemis lunar exploration plans,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. ”Next year, our initial science and technology research will be on the lunar surface, which will help support sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon in five years. Investing in these commercial landing services also is another strong step to build a commercial space economy beyond low-Earth orbit.”

As part of the submissions, each company proposed flying specific instruments including gear to predict lander positions; measure lunar radiation; assess lander impact on the Moon; and assist with navigation.

It’s not only a win for NASA, and the companies, but another feather in the cap for XPRIZE — given that Astrobotic was initially spun out of Carnegie Mellon University to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) in 2007.

The Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, which is backed by the Space Angels Network, was awarded $79.5 million to fly up to 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the moon by July 2021.

Intuitive Machines, out of Houston, received $77 million to fly five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark spot on the moon in the same timeframe. While Edison, N.J.-based Orbit Beyond is flying four payloads to the lunar lavea plain of Mare Imbrium, in one of the Moon’s many craters by September 2020.

“These landers are just the beginning of exciting commercial partnerships that will bring us closer to solving the many scientific mysteries of our Moon, our solar system, and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “What we learn will not only change our view of the universe, but also prepare our human missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.”

NASA’s partners have agreed to provide end-to-end commercial payload delivery services including: payload integration and operations, and launch and landing.

These first steps from NASA pave the way for not only the Administration’s lunar efforts, but also its eventual intentions to spacecraft and astronauts on Mars.

“This announcement starts a significant step in NASA’s collaboration with our commercial partners,” said Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a statement from Houston. “NASA is committed to working with industry to enable the next round of lunar exploration. The companies we have selected represent a diverse community of exciting small American companies, each with their own unique, innovative approach to getting to the Moon. We look forward to working with them to have our payloads delivered and opening the door for returning humans to the Moon.”

The U.S. Senate is coming after ‘loot boxes’

Gamers feel passionately about loot boxes, turns out some elected officials do too.

A new Senate bill was formally introduced today with bipartisan support and it could categorically shift how today’s top platforms and distribution platforms monetize the titles they sell. The bill’s introduction was first reported by The Verge.

The bill asserts that “pay-to-win” transactions that give users a nominal advantage for a fee or loot boxes which allow users to essentially play a slot machine for gaining rare or important items, are bad for minors and need to be banned. If the bill passes, offending studios could be fined.

It’s hard to reiterate what a major impact this legislation could have, the games industry has reorganized itself around micro-transactions in the past decade. Much of the growth of the industry’s greatest success stories has been tied to the idea that free-to-download games can quickly nurture massive growth with network effects and then gradually monetize those users via small payments for items that can give them a unique look or edge.

This obviously wouldn’t fully sink in-game transactions by any means, but loot boxes have been one of the most lucrative models and by placing a ceiling on acceptable behavior for these transactions, game companies might have to find new ways to monetize their content.

The death of loot boxes probably isn’t going to be mourned by many outside of game publishers’ accounting departments. There was something kind of fun about them for adults that knew exactly what they were doing, but it was still mostly in an infuriating way.

Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who introduced the bill, told Kotaku earlier this week that loot boxes were “basically adding casinos to children’s games,” which generally feels like a fair assertion.

As with almost all major pieces of legislation that aim to address new trends in technology, there’s potential that broadness in language can leave room for this to be very damaging to the industry, but the broadness here seems to be that this minor-oriented provision is going to end up being universal. Gizmodo notes some more issues with the grayness surrounding what exactly is “pay-to-win.”

What is a “minor-oriented” game? Is that simply any game with an ESRB rating below “M for Mature”? Nope, the bill outlines that game publishers need to focus on titles if they have “constructive knowledge that any users are under 18.” So, that’s just about every single game.

This was addressed, sort of, in a FAQs list released by Hawley’s camp:

While it is true that a large proportion of game players are adults, even games with predominantly adult player bases – including games marketed primarily to adults – tend to have enormous appeal to children. The onus should be on developers to deter child consumption of products that foster gambling and similarly compulsive purchasing behavior, just as is true in other industries that restrict access to certain kinds of products and forms of entertainment to adult consumers.

The legislation has some important problems its aiming to put in check, and clearly the gaming industry hasn’t been as active as it should in ensuring minors aren’t being taken advantage of in the midst of a micro-transaction land grab, so I’m not going to cry over them, but there’s a lot at play here so hopefully nothing rushes through without proper considerations.

You can read the full text of the legislation here.

Semiconductor startup CNEX Labs alleged Huawei’s deputy chairman conspired to steal its intellectual property

A San Jose-based semiconductor startup being sued by Huawei for stealing trade secrets has hit back in court documents, accusing the Chinese firm’s deputy chairman of conspiring to steal its intellectual property, reports the Wall Street Journal. In court filings, CNEX Labs, which is backed by the investment arms of Dell and Microsoft, alleges that Eric Xu, who is also one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, worked with other Huawei employees to steal its proprietary technology.

The lawsuit, set for trial on June 3 in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas, started in 2017 when Huawei sued CNEX and one of its founders, Yiren “Ronnie” Huang, a former employee at Huawei’s Santa Clara office, for stealing its technology and using unlawful means to poach 14 other Huawei employees. CNEX filed a countersuit the following year. Huawei has denied the startup’s allegations in court filings.

The lawsuit is happening at a fraught time for Huawei. Last week, the Chinese telecom equipment maker (and the world’s second-largest smartphone brand), was placed on a trade blacklist by the Trump administration, which also signed an executive order that would make it possible to block American companies from doing business with Huawei and other companies it deems a national security threat. As a result, several companies have suspended business with Huawei, including Google, Qualcomm, Intel and ARM.

Court filings said that after being directed by Xu to analyze CNEX’s technical information, a Huawei engineer met with the startup’s officials in June 2016, pretending to be a potential customer. But then the engineer produced a report about CNEX’s tech and put it into a database of information about competitors run by Huawei’s chip development unit.

CNEX’s lawyers also say that Xu knew about a partnership between Huawei and Xiamen University that was allegedly part of plan to steal the startup’s trade secrets. They claim Xiamen obtained a memory board from CNEX in 2017 under a licensing agreement, saying it would be used for academic research. But CNEX lawyer Eugene Mar said that “what was hidden from CNEX was that Xiamen was working with Huawei and had entered into an agreement separately with Huawei to provide them with all of their research test reports,” according to court transcripts viewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Information from the university’s study was then allegedly used for Huawei chip projects, including one that is expected to be released this year. Huawei’s lawyers refuted CNEX’s charges, claiming that the partnership between Huawei and the university did not involve reverse engineering or CNEX’s trade secrets and was meant to design database software instead of developing chips. A Huawei lawyer said that Xu was part of “the chain of command that had requested” information about CNEX and that a CNEX document had been placed into its chip development unit’s database, but denied allegations that anything was stolen.

CNEX co-founder Huang claimed in court filings that he offered to sell his intellectual property to Huawei when he started working at Futurewei, its research and development unit. Huawei refused his offer, but then later tried to get Huang to give them his IP under an employee agreement, which Huang refused to sign, he claims. Huang left Futurewei in 2013 and founded CNEX Labs soon after.

Valve’s Steam Chat gets its own iOS and Android apps

 

A little under a year ago, Valve released a big overhaul for the chat features built into its Steam game store/launcher. Focusing on modern day chat conveniences like better group chats and embedded media (GIFs!), some saw it as a move to hopefully keep a few more users from heading for Discord — which, as it just so happened, was weeks away from poking around Valve’s turf with a game store of their own.

Today, Steam Chat goes mobile. Valve has just announced that dedicated Steam Chat apps are available immediately on both iOS and and Android.

The new mobile client will let you see who’s online, who’s playing what, add new Steam friends, and, of course, chat (both one-on-one, or in groups.) Don’t want your phone buzzing nonstop? Valve says you can tweak notifications on a friend-by-friend, group-by-group basis.

One thing it can’t do quite yet? Voice chat. Valve says it’s on the way, but it didn’t make it into this initial release.

‘Game of Thrones’ season finale sets record as HBO’s most-viewed episode ever

Despite disappointing many longtime fans of the show, the “Game of Thrones” series finale set a new record for HBO as the most viewed episode in the network’s history. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the episode reached 13.6 million viewers during its initial airing on Sunday night, which rose to 19.3 million once replays and early streaming was included. The record was previously held for a short time by the season’s penultimate episode, which drew in 12.48 million viewers when first aired and a total of 18.4 million during its first night.

The eighth and last season of “Game of Thrones,” which premiered in 2011, averaged 44.2 million viewers through Sunday after streaming, on-demand, DVRs and replays were added in, or 10 million more than the season 7 average, said HBO .

The previous HBO series finale with the most viewers was “The Sopranos” with 11.9 million viewers, though that was in 2007, before streaming and other digital services took off.

 

TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

Equity transcribed: Away’s $1.4B valuation and CrowdStrike’s S-1

Welcome back to another transcribed edition of Equity, the wildly popular TechCrunch podcast that digs deep into the week’s news about … equity.

There were no IPOs this week so there was only one episode, but it was jam-packed with news about direct-to-consumer scooters, luggage funding and fake meat. This is where tech has taken us this week.

Oh, and Slack set the date for its direct listing.

Kate: So [Away] raised a 100 million, series D. This round was led by Wellington Management, so not by a traditional venture capital firm. Though Away is backed by big name faces like Forerunner Ventures, which is responsible for investments in pretty much direct to consumer companies. So this valued Away at 1.4 billion, and that’s obviously quite large, but what’s particularly surprising about that valuation is that Away was valued at just 400 million the last time they raised money, which was a series C of 50 million, maybe about 1 or 2 years ago.

Alex: Oh gosh.

Kate: I’m not sure exactly when that was. But we’re seeing a major, major, major uptick in its valuation. And the reason why is because at its series C, Away was profitable already. Like I was telling Alex, they didn’t say anything about profitability this time, so I don’t know where that stands, but I do know they have $150 million in revenue.

Alex: Yearly revenue.

Kate: Yes. They are growing top line at 100%. They have an NPS score in the 80’s, and they have a bunch of new investors in this round that I think kind of shows that they’re going well. And also, they want to use this capital to create a generic travel brand. So they want to be more than just these Instagram-friendly cute luggage, suitcases, carry-ons, whatever they want to be. Kind of provide anything and everything you might need when you’re going on a trip of any kind.

For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


Kate Clark: Hello, and welcome back to Equity. I am TechCrunch’s Kate Clark. This week, I am in the studio with Alex Wilhelm of Crunchbase News. Hello Alex, how are you doing today?

Alex Wilhelm: I am good, but as we were just saying before we hit record, this is in some ways a bittersweet moment for us in this room, because it is the last time that the three of us, you, myself, and our excellent producer Christopher Gates, will be together in the TC podcast studio at 410 Townsend.

Kate: It is indeed a bittersweet moment for all of us.

Chat app Line is adding Snap-style disappearing stories

Facebook cloning Snap to death may be old news, but others are only just following suit. Line, the Japanese messaging app that’s popular in Asia, just became the latest to clone Snap’s ephemeral story concept.

The company announced today that it is adding stories that disappear after 24-hours to its timeline feature, a social network like feed that sits in its app, and user profiles. The update is rolling out to users now and the concept is very much identical to Snap, Instagram and others that have embraced time-limited content.

“As posts vanish after 24 hours, there is no need to worry about overposting or having posts remain in the feed,” Line, which is listed in the U.S. and Japan, wrote in an update. “Stories allows friends to discover real-time information on Timeline that is available only for that moment.”

Snap pioneered self-destructed content in its app, and the concept has now become present across most of the most popular internet services in the world.

In particular, Facebook added stories to across the board: to its core app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app with over 1.5 billion monthly users. Indeed, Facebook claims that WhatsApp stories are used by 500 million people, while the company has built Instagram into a service that has long had more users than Snap — currently over one billion.

The approach doesn’t always work, though — Facebook is shuttering its most brazen Snap copy, a camera app built around Instagram direct messages.

China’s top chat app WeChat added its own version earlier this year, and while it said in its earnings this week that users upload “hundreds of millions of videos each day” to its social platforms, it didn’t give numbers on its Snap-inspired feature.

Line doesn’t have anything like the reach of Facebook’s constellation of social apps or WeChat, but it is Japan’s dominant messaging platform and is popular in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Japanese company doesn’t give out global user numbers but it reported 164 million monthly users in its four key markets as of Q1 2019, that’s down one million year-on-year. Japan accounts for 80 million of that figure, ahead of Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

While user growth has stagnated, Line has been able to extract increase revenue. In addition to a foray into services — in Japan its range covers ride-hailing, food delivery, music streaming and payments — it has increased advertising in the app’s timeline tab, and that is likely a big reason for the release of stories. The new feature may help timeline get more eyeballs, while the company could follow the lead of Snap and Instagram to monetize stories by allowing businesses in.

In Line’s case, that could work reasonably well — for advertising — since users can opt to follow business accounts already. It would make sense, then, to let companies push stories to users that opted in follow their account. But that’s a long way in the future and it will depend on how the new feature is received by users.

Tech stocks slide on US decision to blacklist Huawei and 70 affiliates

The United States has been lobbying for months to prevent its western allies from using Huawei equipment in their 5G deployment, and on Wednesday, Washington made it more difficult for the Chinese telecom titan to churn out those next-gen products.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it will add Huawei and its 70 affiliates to the so-called ‘Entity List,’ a move that will prevent the telecom giant from buying parts and components from U.S. companies without approval from Washington. That confirms reports of the potential ban a day before.

Despite being the largest telecom equipment maker around the world, Huawei relies heavily on its American suppliers, giving the U.S. much leeway to hobble the Chinese firm’s production.

Following the dramatic move, shares of a gauge of Huawei affiliates slumped on Wednesday. Tatfook Technology, which sells to Huawei as well as Ericsson and Bosch, dropped 2.84 percent in Shenzhen in morning trading. New Sea Union Telecom, a supplier to China’s ‘big three’ telecom network operators and Huawei, slid 4.88 percent. Another Huawei key partner Chunxing Precision Mechanical dropped as much as 5.37 percent.

Huawei did not comment directly on the Commerce Department’s blacklist when reached out by TechCrunch, but said it’s “ready and willing to engage with the U.S. government and come up with effective measures to ensure product security.”

“Restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger; instead, this will only serve to limit the U.S. to inferior yet more expensive alternatives, leaving the U.S. lagging behind in 5G deployment, and eventually harming the interests of U.S. companies and consumers,” Huawei hit back in the statement.

This view is congruent with some of the harshest criticisms of Washington’s backlash against Huawei. Scholars and industry observers warn that Chinese tech firms have become such an integral part to the global economy that severing ties with Huawei will do ham to 5G advancement worldwide.

In addition, the Chinese company said the U.S.’s “unreasonable restrictions will infringe upon Huawei’s rights and raise other serious legal issues,” though it did not spell out what those rights and legal concerns are.

The announcement dropped on the same day U.S. President Donald Trump declared “a national emergency” over technology supply chain threats from the country’s “foreign adversaries”.

The Commerce Department said it has a reasonable basis to conclude that “Huawei is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interest.”

Some of the U.S’s allies including the U.K. are still investigating Huawei’s possible security threat and deciding how close a link they should keep with Huawei, but the Shenzhen-based company has already taken a bold step to give its potential clients some assurance.

Just this Tuesday, Huawei told reporters in London that it’s “willing to sign no-spy agreements with governments, including the U.K. government,” and commit itself to making its equipment “meet the no-spy, no-backdoors standard.”

The U.S.’s tit-for-tat with Huawei also includes the push to arrest the company’s CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges that Huawei did business in Iran in breach of U.S. sanctions.

Huawei launches AI-backed database to target enterprise customers

China’s Huawei is making a serious foray into the enterprise business market after it unveiled a new database management product on Wednesday, putting it in direct competition with entrenched vendors like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.

The Shenzhen-based company, best known for making smartphones and telecom equipment, claims its newly minted database uses artificial intelligence capabilities to improve tuning performance, a process that traditionally involves human administrators, by over 60 percent.

Called the GaussDB, the database works both locally as well as on public and private clouds. When running on Huawei’s own cloud, GaussDB provides data warehouse services for customers across the board, from the financial, logistics, education to automotive industries.

The database launch was first reported by The Information on Tuesday citing sources saying it is designed by the company’s secretive database research group called Gauss and will initially focus on the Chinese market.

The announcement comes at a time when Huawei’s core telecom business is drawing scrutiny in the West over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. That segment accounted for 40.8 percent of Huawei’s total revenues in 2018, according to financial details released by the privately-held firm.

Huawei’s consumer unit, which is driven by its fast-growing smartphone and device sales, made up almost a half of the company’s annual revenues. Enterprise businesses made up less than a quarter of earnings, but Huawei’s new push into database management is set to add new fuel to the segment.

Meanwhile, at Oracle, more than 900 employees, most of whom worked for its 1,600-staff research and development center in China, were recently let go amid a major company restructuring, multiple media outlets reported earlier this month.

Data provided to TechCrunch by Boss Zhipin offers clues to the layoff: The Chinese recruiting platform has recently seen a surge in newly registered users who work at Oracle China. But the door is still open for new candidates as the American giant is currently recruiting for more than 100 positions through Boss, including many related to cloud computing.

Shares of SoftBank Group, Uber’s biggest stakeholder, slide after its disappointing IPO

As Uber’s biggest shareholder, SoftBank Group had high hopes for the ride-sharing company’s stock market debut last week. Instead, the Japanese conglomerate’s shares have been sliding along with Uber’s following its disappointing initial public offering. SoftBank shares began sliding at the end of last week after Uber set its IPO price at the low end of its planned range. Since the start of trading on Friday morning, SoftBank Group shares have fallen 14.4 percent in value from 11,700 yen (about $106.69) to 10,020 yen (about $91.37)

On paper, SoftBank Group, which became an investor in Uber in early 2018, had expected to make a profit of $3 billion from its debut. According to its IPO filing, SoftBank Group is Uber’s largest shareholder, owning 16.3 percent of pre-IPO shares through its Vision Fund.

After shares continued falling on their second day of trading, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told employees in a memo that “like all periods of transition, there are ups and downs. Obviously, our stock did not trade as well as we had hoped post-IPO. Today is another tough day in the market, and I expect the same as it relates to our stock.”

All major market indexes fell on Monday as the China-U.S. trade war continued to escalate, with China planning to raise customs on American imports after the U.S.increased tariffs on Chinese goods last week.

Singapore’s Grain, a profitable food delivery startup, pulls in $10M for expansion

Cloud kitchens are the big thing in food delivery, with ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s new business one contender in that space, with Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, a major focus. Despite the newcomers, a more established startup from Singapore has raised a large bowl of cash to go after regional expansion.

Founded in 2014, Grain specializes in clean food while it takes a different approach to Kalanick’s CloudKitchens or food delivery services like Deliveroo, FoodPanda or GrabFood.

It adopted a cloud kitchen model — utilizing unwanted real estate as kitchens, with delivery services for output — but used it for its own operations. So while CloudKitchens and others rent their space to F&B companies as a cheaper way to make food for their on-demand delivery customers, Grain works with its own chefs, menu and delivery team. A so-called ‘full stack’ model if you can stand the cliched tech phrase.

Finally, Grain is also profitable. The new round has it shooting for growth — more on that below — but the startup was profitable last year, CEO and co-founder Yi Sung Yong told TechCrunch.

Now it is reaping the rewards of a model that keeps it in control of its product, unlike others that are complicated by a chain that includes the restaurant and a delivery person.

We previously wrote about Grain when it raised a $1.7 million Series A back in 2016 and today it announced a $10 million Series B which is led by Thailand’s Singha Ventures, the VC arm of the beer brand. A bevy of other investors took part, including Genesis Alternative Ventures, Sass Corp, K2 Global — run by serial investor Ozi Amanat who has backed Impossible Foods, Spotify and Uber among others — FoodXervices and Majuven. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, Raging Bull — from Thai Express founder Ivan Lee — and Cento Ventures participated.

The round includes venture debt, as well as equity, and it is worth noting that the family office of the owners of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — Sassoon Investment Corporation — was involved.

Grain covers individual food as well as buffets in Singapore

Three years is a long gap between the two deals — Openspace and Cento have even rebranded during the intervening period — and the ride has been an eventful one. During those years, Sung said the business had come close to running out of capital before it doubled down on the fundamentals before the precarious runway capital ran out.

In fact, he said, the company — which now has over 100 staff — was fully prepared to self-sustain.

“We didn’t think of raising a Series B,” he explained in an interview. “Instead, we focused on the business and getting profitable… we thought that we can’t depend entirely on investors.”

And, ladies and gentleman, the irony of that is that VCs very much like a business that can self-sustain — it shows a model is proven — and investing in a startup that doesn’t need capital can be attractive.

Ultimately, though, profitability is seen as sexy today — particularly in the meal space where countless U.S. startups has shuttered including Munchery and Sprig — but the focus meant that Grain had to shelve its expansion plans. It then went through soul-searching times in 2017 when a spoilt curry saw 20 customers get food poisoning.

Sung declined to comment directly on that incident, but he said that company today has developed the “infrastructure” to scale its business across the board, and that very much includes quality control.

Grain co-founder and CEO Yi Sung Yong [Image via LinkedIn]

Grain currently delivers “thousands” of meals per day in Singapore, its sole market, with eight-figures in sales per year, he said. Last year, growth was 200 percent, Sung continued, and now is the time to look overseas. With Singha, the Grain CEO said the company has “everything we need to launch in Bangkok.”

Thailand — which Malaysia-based rival Dahamakan picked for its first expansion — is the only new launch on the table, but Sung said that could change.

“If things move faster, we’ll expand to more cities, maybe one per year,” he said. “But we need to get our brand, our food and our service right first.”

One part of that may be securing better deals for raw ingredients and food from suppliers. Grain is expanding its ‘hub’ kitchens — outposts placed strategically around town to serve customers faster — and growing its fleet of trucks, which are retrofitted with warmers and chillers for deliveries to customers.

Grain’s journey is proof that startups in the region will go through trials and tribulations, but being able to bolt down the fundamentals and reduce burn rate is crucial in the event that things go awry. Just look to grocery startup Honestbee, also based in Singapore, for evidence of what happens when costs are allowed to pile up.

Educational gaming platform Kahoot acquires math app maker DragonBox for $18M

Kahoot, the popular e-learning platform that provides a range of games to teach subjects (it has described itself as the “Netflix of education”), has made its first acquisition: it has acquired DragonBox, a startup that builds math apps, for $18 million in a combination of cash and shares.

Åsmund Furuseth, Kahoot’s CEO and co-founder, said in an interview that the deal was being done at an uptick to Kahoot’s previous valuation of $376 millon; the bigger company is now creeping up to $400 million.

It’s a relatively strong exit for DragonBox, which had raised less than $500,000 since 2012 primarily from going through incubators and accelerators, according to PitchBook.

The plan will be to bring DragonBox — which, like Kahoot, has roots in Norway — on wholesale to continue growing DragonBox’s existing business, as well as to supplement Kahoot’s offering. Today the smaller startup already has millions of users in Europe, including schools that use it to teach K-12 math curriculum subjects, but alongside that it will also to start to develop more educational content for the main Kahoot platform.

That Kahoot platform up to now has grown organically through a combination of both Kahoot-created, and user-created content (users can build their own games on Kahoot); as well as through serving two markets: K-12 users, and enterprise customers for corporate training. Furuseth sees DragonBox as supplementing the first of these, specifically by helping it expand into more parent-led and home learning that supplements what children might be getting in classrooms.

That’s an area where Kahoot already has a sizeable business. Furuseth said that of the 1 billion plays that its platform saw in 2018, 700 million came from K-12 classrooms, 30 million came from enterprises, and the rest — around 270 million — came from people using Kahoot at home, playing around 100 million games. That speaks to an opportunity to build more content to serve that third sector, which is where DragonBox will fit.

“Since day one, DragonBox has made learning math more fun and engaging for children around the world. Together with Kahoot!, we will enable millions of more users to enjoy learning math in an awesome way,” said Jean-Baptiste Huynh, math teacher, CEO and co-founder of DragonBox.

Furuseth added that the company is also looking at making further acquisitions to continue growing Kahoot alongside its own organic growth, tapping into the fact that there are dozens of smaller startups in the world of education that will be challenged to scale up on their own. (Not the small number of enterprise users in the mix today: my guess is that’s an area where the company may try to grow through more bolt-on businesses.)

“In general, it’s hard for many small and even successful ed-tech companies to reach a large mass of users because it’s difficult to cut through the noise,” Furuseth said in an interview. “We think our brand can help by reaching out with more learning experiences now and in the future.”

Under Furuseth as CEO, the company has been trying to tap into that also by way of a new accelerator that it launched last year called Ignite, which it sees partly as a way to help grow those businesses, as well as a way to find promising startups that it might worth with or acquire itself.

Match Group records solid first-quarter revenue thanks to an increase in Tinder subscribers

Match Group’s revenue saw solid growth in the first quarter thanks to an increase in Tinder subscribers. The company, whose portfolio of dating apps also includes Match.com, PlentyOfFish, OkCupid and Hinge, among others, said in its earnings report today that total quarterly revenue grew 14% year over year to $465 million. If the effects of foreign exchange aren’t included, growth would have been 18%.

Net earnings attributable to shareholders grew 23% to $123 million, or 42 cents per share, from $99.7 million, or 33 cents in the same period a year ago. Operating income increased 6% to $119 million from $112 million. During the first quarter of 2019 and 2018, Match Group recorded an income tax benefit of $28 million and $12 million, respectively, related to the exercise of vesting of stock-based awards.

During the first quarter, Tinder average subscribers were 4.7 million, up from 384,000 in the previous quarter and 1.3 million year over year. In total, Match Group’s average subscribers increased 16% to 8.6 million, up from 7.4 million a year ago. Match Group said the growth in subscribers and increase in average revenue per user (ARPU) at Tinder boosted its revenue, but it was partially offset by foreign exchange effects. ARPU was flat year-over-year, but without foreign exchange effects, it would have increased by 4% to 60 cents.

The company said its adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) growth was impacted by the higher cost of generating revenue, specifically in-app purchase fees because revenue increasingly comes through mobile app stores, and higher legal costs, but offset by lower selling and marketing expenses. Adjusted EBITDA grew 13% to $155 million from $138 million.

During the first quarter, Match Group restructured its executive team, appointing three new general managers to oversee regions in Asia in order to gain more users there and focus on international growth. Its first-quarter earnings presentation highlighted opportunities in India, where Tinder is the highest-grossing Android app according to App Annie; Japan, where Match Group now owns two of the top five dating apps (Pairs is number one in Japan, while Tinder is ranks at fourth); and Southeast Asia, where Tinder is now within the top 10 grossing apps in six countries.

The company did not break down earnings by country, but during the first quarter, it had a total of 8,613,000 million average subscribers, with 4,361,000 in North America and 4,252,000 internationally. Total ARPU was 58 cents: 60 cents in North America and 56 cents internationally. Total revenue was $ $464.6 million, and of that $454 million was direct revenue, split between $237.8 million from North America and $216.2 million from international (indirect revenue is revenue that does not come directly from Match Group’s end users, and most of that is advertising revenue.

Great teams, UBI, data retention policies, and Amazon HQ2

3 key secrets to building extraordinary teams

David Cancel, the CEO and founder of Drift, wrote a deep dive on how to think about finding and recruiting the kinds of people who build incredible startups. Among the factors he looks at:

Scrappiness (Importance: 35%)

The four most telling words a new hire can say: “I’ll figure it out.” If you find someone who says that (and can follow through on it), you know you’ve found someone with drive — someone who will plunge headfirst into any challenge and help move the company forward. But to clarify, the type of drive I look for in new hires is different from traditional ambition. Because traditionally ambitious people, while hard workers, tend to obsess over their own personal rise up the corporate ladder. They always have an eye on that next title change, from manager to director, director to VP, or VP to C-suite, and that influences how they perform. That’s why a decade ago, while running my previous company Performable, I added a new requirement to our job descriptions: “Scrappiness.” Today, it’s one of our leadership principles at Drift.

Scrappy people don’t rely on titles or defined sets of responsibilities. Instead, they do whatever it takes to get the job done, even when no one is looking, and even if the tasks they’re performing could be considered “beneath their title.”

Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

We had a greatly informative conference call with our very own Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois, who were checking in from Facebook’s F8 conference in San Jose this week. In case you weren’t able to join us, the transcript and audio have been posted for Extra Crunch members:

Coinbase loses its first CTO after just one year in the job

Coinbase, the $8 billion-valued crypto exchange, has lost its CTO after Balaji Srinivasan announced his departure from the company.

Srinivasan became the U.S. company’s first CTO one year ago after it acquired Earn.com, where he was CEO and co-founder. Given the tenure — one year and one day — it looks like Srinivasan’s departure comes after he served the minimum agreed period with Coinbase.

A high-profile figure in the crypto space who has also spent time with Coinbase and Earn investor A16z, Srinivasan announced his move on Twitter. He declined to go into specifics but told TechCrunch that he plans to take time off to get fit, among other things, before launching into his next product.

1/2 Really enjoyed my time at Coinbase working with my friend @brian_armstrong. The Earn integration was successful and we’ve closed ~$200M in deals for the new Coinbase Earn. Was also my privilege to help with shipping new assets, launching USDC, & getting staking/voting going.

— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) May 4, 2019

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong paid tribute to Srinivasan’s “incredible contributions” to the company.

Srinivasan’s time at Coinbase saw the company ramp up its expansion efforts. Those include the launch of its own USDC stablecoin, the expansion (and planned expansion) of assets sold to consumers and ‘pro’ traders, and a wider global push. Away from consumers, it launched a slew of services for retail investors and today its services also include staking and over-the-counter trading.

There’s also Coinbase’s own VC arm for doing deals with promising startups and, also on the M&A side, the firm has continued making acquisitions and acquihires. This year, it has snapped up Y Combinator graduate Blockspring and Neutrino, whose founders controversially once worked for surveillance firm Hacking Team, in what were its eleventh and twelfth acquisitions to date.

Talent retention appears to be becoming a bit of an issue at Coinbase.

Srinivasan’s exit comes a month after Dan Romero, the company’s head of international, left after a five-year stint. According to Coindesk, the company has seen at least a dozen senior or mid-level executives leave since October when it raised $300 million led by Tiger Global.

Samsung sees Q1 profit plummet 60%

Samsung’s Q1 earnings are in and, as the company itself predicted, they don’t make for pretty reading.

The Korean giant saw revenue for the three-month period fall by 13 percent year-on-year to 52.4 trillion KRW, around $45 billion. Meanwhile, operating profit for Q1 2019 came in at 6.2 trillion KRW, that’s a whopping $5.33 billion but it represents a decline of huge 60 percent drop from the same period last year. Ouch.

Samsung’s Q1 last year was admittedly a blockbuster quarter, but these are massive declines.

What’s going on?

Samsung said that sales of its new Galaxy S10 smartphone were “solid” but it admitted that its memory chip and display businesses, so often the most lucrative units for the company, didn’t perform well and “weighed down” the company’s results overall. Despite those apparent S10 sales, the mobile division saw income drop “as competition intensified.” Meanwhile, the display business posted a loss “due to decreased demand for flexible displays and increasing market supplies for large displays.”

That’s all about on par with what analysts were expecting following that overly-optimistic Q1 earnings forecast made earlier this month.

The immediate future doesn’t look terribly rosy, too.

Samsung said the overall memory market will likely remain slow in Q2 although DRAM demand is expected to recover somewhat. It isn’t expecting too much to change for its display business, either, although “demand for flexible smartphone OLED panels is expected to rebound” which is where the company plans to place particular focus.

On the consumer side, where most readers know Samsung’s business better, Samsung expects to see improved sales in Q2, where buying is higher. It also teased a new Note, 5G devices — which will likely limited to Korea, we suspect — and that foldable phone.

The Galaxy Fold has been delayed after some journalists found issues with their review units — TechCrunch’s own Brian Heater was fine; he even enjoyed using it. There’s no specific mention in the quarterly report of a new launch date but it looks like the release will be mid-June, that’s assuming what AT&T is telling customers is accurate. But we’ll need to wait a few weeks for that to be confirmed, it seems.

Samsung says it will announce a revised launch date for the Galaxy Fold in the next few weeks.
Executives are speaking on a 1Q earnings conference call.

— Tim Culpan (@tculpan) April 30, 2019

Apple defends its takedown of some apps monitoring screen-time

Apple is defending its removal of certain parental control apps from the app store in a new statement.

The company has come under fire for its removal of certain apps that were pitched as tools giving parents more control over their children’s screen-time, but that Apple said relied on technology that was too invasive for private use.

“We recently removed several parental control apps from the App Store, and we did it for a simple reason: they put users’ privacy and security at risk. It’s important to understand why and how this happened,” the company said in a statement

The heart of the issue is the use of mobile device management technologies in the parental control apps that Apple has removed from the app store, the company said.

These device management tools give  control and access over a device’s user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions and browsing history to a third party.

“We started exploring this use of MDM by non-enterprise developers back in early 2017 and updated our guidelines based on that work in mid-2017,” the company said.

Apple acknowledged that the technology has legitimate uses in the context of businesses looking to monitor and manage corporate devices to control proprietary data and hardware, but, the company said, it is “a clear violation of App Store policies — for a private, consumer-focused app business to install MDM control over a customer’s device.”

The company said it communicated to app developers that they were in violation of App Store guidelines and gave the company 30 days to submit updates to avoid being booted from the App Store.

Indeed, we first reported that Apple was warning developers about screen-time apps in December.

“Several developers released updates to bring their apps in line with these policies,” Apple said in a statement. “Those that didn’t were removed from the App Store.”

Bad PR ideas, esports, and the Valley’s talent poaching war

Sending severed heads, and even more PR DON’Ts

I wrote a “master list” of PR DON’Ts earlier this week, and now that list has nearly doubled as my fellow TechCrunch writers continued to experience even more bad behavior around pitches. So, here are another 12 things of what not to do when pitching a startup:

DON’T send severed heads of the writer you want to cover your story

Heads up! It’s weird to send someone’s cranium to them.

This is an odd one, but believe it or not, severed heads seem to roll into our office every couple of months thanks to the advent of 3D printing. Several of us in the New York TechCrunch office received these “gifts” in the past few days (see gifts next), and apparently, I now have a severed head resting on my desk that I get to dispose of on Monday.

Let’s think linearly on this one. Most journalists are writers and presumably understand metaphors. Heads were placed on pikes in the Middle Ages (and sadly, sometimes recently) as a warning to other group members about the risk of challenging whoever did the decapitation. Yes, it might get the attention of the person you are sending their head to, in the same way that burning them in effigy right in front of them can attract eyeballs.

Now, I get it — it’s a demo of something, and maybe it might even be funny for some. But, why take the risk that the recipient is going to see the reasonably obvious metaphorical connection? Use your noggin — no severed heads.

Why your CSO — not your CMO — should pitch your security startup

Elon Musk, SEC agree to guidelines on Twitter use

Tesla,  Elon Musk and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reached an agreement Friday that will give the CEO freedom to use Twitter —within certain limitations — without fear of being held in contempt for violating an earlier court order.

Musk can tweet as he wishes except when it’s about certain events or financial milestones. In those cases, Musk must seek pre-approval from a securities lawyer, according to the agreement filed with Manhattan federal court.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan, the presiding judge on this matter, must still approve the deal. Nathan had given the SEC and Musk two weeks to work out their differences and come to a resolution.

Musk must seek pre-approval if his tweets include:

  • any information about the company’s financial condition or guidance, potential or proposed mergers, acquisitions or joint ventures,
  • production numbers or sales or delivery number (actual, forecasted, or projected),
  • new or proposed business lines that are unrelated to then-existing business lines (presently includes vehicles, transportation, and sustainable energy products);
  • projection, forecast, or estimate numbers regarding Tesla’s business that have not been previously published in official company guidance
  • events regarding the company’s securities (including Musk’s acquisition or disposition of shares)
  • nonpublic legal or regulatory findings or decisions;
  • any event requiring the filing of a Form 8-K such as a change in control or a change in the company’s directors; any principal executive officer, president, principal financial officer, principal accounting officer, principal operating officer, or any person performing similar functions

The fight between the two parties began after Musk’s now infamous August 7, 2018 tweet that had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share. The SEC filed a complaint in alleging that Musk had committed securities fraud.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC last year without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

The fight was re-ignited after Musk sent a tweet on February 19 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year end.

The SEC argued that the tweet sent by Musk violated their agreement. Musk has said the tweet was “immaterial” and complied with the settlement.

The SEC had asked the court to hold Musk in contempt for violating a settlement agreement reached last October over Musk’s now infamous “funding secured” tweet. The SEC had argued that Musk was supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors, the agency has argued. The SEC claimed a February 19 tweet violated the agreement.

Musk has steadfastly maintained that he didn’t violate the agreement.

Internet connectivity projects unite as Alphabet spinout Loon grabs $125M from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile

Two futuristic projects are coming together to help increase global internet access after Loon, the Google spinout that uses a collection of floating balloons to bring connectivity to remote areas, announced it has raised money from a SoftBank initiative.

HAPSMobile, a SoftBank project that is also focused on increasing global connectivity, is investing $125 million into Loon, according to an announcement from SoftBank made this morning. The agreement includes an option for Loon to make a reciprocal $125 million investment in HAPSMobile and it includes co-operation plans, details of which are below.

HAPSMobile is a one-year-old joint venture between SoftBank and U.S. company AeroVironment . The company has developed a solar-powered drone that’s designed to deliver 5G connectivity in the same way Facebook has tried in the past. The social network canceled its Aquila drone last year, although it is reported to have teamed up with Airbus for new trials in Australia.

Where Facebook has stumbled, HAPSMobile has made promising progress. The company said that its HAWK 30 drone — pictured below in an impression — has completed its initial development and the first trials are reportedly set to begin this year.

Loon, meanwhile, was one of the first projects to go after the idea of air-based connectivity with a launch in 2013. The business was spun out of X, the ‘moonshot’ division of Alphabet, last year and, though it is still a work in progress, it has certainly developed from an initial crazy idea conceived within Google.

Loon played a role in connecting those affected by flooding in Peru in 2017 and it assisted those devastated by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Loon claims its balloons have flown more than 30 million kms and provided internet access for “hundreds of thousands” of people across the world.

In addition to the capital investment, the two companies have announced a set of initiatives that will help them leverage their collective work and technology.

For starters, they say they will make their crafts/balloons open to use for the other — so HAPSMobile can tap Loon balloons for connectivity and vice-versa — while, connected to that, they will jointly develop a communication payload across both services. They also plan to develop a common ground station that could work with each side’s tech and develop shared connectivity that their airborne hardware can tap.

Loon has already developed fleet management technology because of the nature of its service, which is delivered by a collection of balloons, and that will be optimized for HAPSMobile.

The premise of HAPSMobile is very much like Loon

Outside of tech, the duo said they will create an alliance “to promote the use of high altitude communications solution with regulators and officials worldwide.”

The investment is another signal that shows SoftBank’s appetite in tech investing is not limited to up-and-coming startups via its Vision Fund, more established ventures are indeed also in play. Just yesterday, the Vision Fund announced plans to invest $1 billion in German payment firm Wirecard and its past investments include ARM and Nvidia, although SoftBank has sold its stake in the latter.

Douyu, China’s Twitch backed by Tencent, files for a $500M U.S. IPO

Douyu, a Chinese live streaming service focused on video games, has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as it prepares to raise up to $500 million on the NYSE less than a year after its archrival floated on the same stock market.

Wuhan-based Douyu, whose name translates as “fighting fish”, is the second Twitch -like service backed by Tencent to go public in the United States. Its direct competitor Huya, who has a similarly fierce name “tiger’s teeth” and also counts Tencent as a major investor, raised $180 million from its NYSE listing last May.

It’s not surprising for Tencent to hedge its bets in esports streaming, given the giant relies heavily on video games to make money. For example, Tencent can use some of its portfolio companies’ ad slots to get the word out about its new releases. Indeed, Douyu’s filing shows it received a hefty 27.48 million yuan ($4.09 million) in advertising fees from Tencent last year.

As Douyu warns in its prospectus, its alliance with Tencent can be tenuous.

“Tencent may devote resources or attention to the other companies it has an interest in, including our direct or indirect competitors. As a result, we may not fully realize the benefits we expect from the strategic cooperation with Tencent. Failure to realize the intended benefits from the strategic cooperation with Tencent, or potential restrictions on our collaboration with other parties, could materially and adversely affect our business and results of operations.”

But there are nuances in the giant’s ties to China’s top two live streaming services that could mean more affinity between Tencent and Douyu. The social media and gaming behemoth is currently Douyu’s largest shareholder with a 40.1 percent stake owned through its wholly-owned subsidiary Nectarine. Over at Huya, Tencent is the second-largest stakeholder behind YY, the pioneer in China’s live streaming sector that had spun off Huya.

When it comes to the financial terms, the rivaling pair is in a head-on race. In 2018, Douyu doubled its net revenues to $531.5 million. Huya held an edge as it earned $678.3 million in the same period, also doubling the amount from a year ago.

Huya may have learned a few things about monetizing live streaming from 14-year-old YY as it managed to pull in more revenues despite owning a smaller user base. While Douyu claimed 153.5 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter, Huya had 116.6 million.

How the two make money also diverge slightly. In the fourth quarter, 86 percent of Douyu’s revenues originated from virtual items that users tipped to their favorite streaming hosts, with the remaining earnings derived from advertising and more. By contrast, Huya relied almost exclusively on live streaming gifts, which made up 95.3 percent of total revenues.

douyu

Screenshot of a Douyu live streaming session 

As Douyu grows its coffers to spend on content as well as technologies following the impending IPO, competition in China’s live streaming landscape is set to heat up. Just earlier this month, Huya raised $327 million in a secondary offering to invest in content and R&D. Like many other businesses anchored in content, Huya and Douyu depend tremendously on quality creators to keep users loyal. Both have offered sizable checks to live streaming hosts, promising to grow the internet celebrities into bigger stars.

And they’ve extended the battlefield outside China as emerging media forms, most exemplified by short video services Douyin (TikTok’s China version) and Kuaishou, threaten to steal people’s eyeball time away. Both bite-size video apps now enjoy a much bigger user base than their live streaming counterparts.

“We intend to further explore overseas markets to expand our user base through both organic expansion and selective investments,” noted Douyu in its IPO filing.

In a similar move, Huya’s overseas expansion is also well underway. “In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets. We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond,” said Huya chief executive Rongjie Dong in the company’s Q4 earnings report.

No one knows how to hire, plus brand design and African tech

Editor’s Note: No one knows how to hire

Hiring is the lifeblood of the world. Few people do truly singular work; instead, nearly every facet of our civilization is built by groups of humans (and increasingly machines) working in tandem.

Image by PeopleImages via Getty Images

That presents quite the puzzle though: if teamwork is so critical to the functioning of, well, everything, why are we so god awfully bad at building teams?

Minus a couple of high functioning teams of course, the evidence for team rot is all around us. Startups go bust when teams of two (i.e. founders) can’t make simple decisions about the future of their business. Large companies exsanguinate cash while their teams spend eons debating the minutia of a pixel in the checkout flow. At even larger scale, massive infrastructure projects like California’s HSR fail because the right people weren’t planning and building it (plus ten other issues of course).

How do we get this so wrong, so consistently?

The first reason, and the one most challenging to overcome, is that human endeavors are fundamentally built upon aspirations. A startup is a dream, no different than improving Excel’s formula editor or adding traffic signals to an intersection. Action cannot happen without aspiration, and so we tend to be far more optimistic with all facets of a plan before execution.

Notes from the Samsung Galaxy Fold: day four

Apologies for skipping day three. This kept me extremely busy yesterday. Though the Galaxy Fold remained a constant companion.

Before you ask (or after you ask on Twitter without having read beyond the headline), no it’s hasn’t broken yet. It’s actually been fairly robust, all things considered. But here’s the official line from Samsung on that,

A limited number of early Galaxy Fold samples were provided to media for review. We have received a few reports regarding the main display on the samples provided. We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter.

Separately, a few reviewers reported having removed the top layer of the display causing damage to the screen. The main display on the Galaxy Fold features a top protective layer, which is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage. We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers.

I’ll repeat what I said the other day: breakages and lemons have been known to happen with preproduction units. I’ve had it happen with device in a number of occasions in my many years of doing this. That said, between the amount of time it took Samsung to let us reviewers actually engage with the device and the percentage of problems we’ve seen from the limited sample size, the results so far are a bit of a cause for a concern.

The issue with the second bit  is that protective layer looks A LOT like the temporary covers the company’s phones ship with, which is an issue. I get why some folks attempted to peel it off. That’s a problem.

At this point into my life with the phone, I’m still impressed by the feat of engineering went into this technology, but in a lot of ways, it does still feel like a very first generation product. It’s big, it’s expensive and software needs tweaks to create a seamless (so to speak) experience between screens.

That said, there’s enough legacy good stuff that Samsung has built into the phone to make it otherwise a solid experience. If you do end up biting the bullet and buying a Fold, you’ve find many aspects of it to be a solid workhorse and good device, in spite of some of the idiosyncrasies here (assuming, you know, the screen works fine).

It’s a very interesting and very impressive device, and it does feel like a sign post of the future. But it’s also a sometimes awkward reminder that we’re not quite living in the future just yet.

Day One

Day Two

Uber’s self-driving car unit raises $1B from Toyota, Denso and Vision Fund ahead of spin-out

Uber’s has confirmed it will spin out its self-driving car business after the unit closed $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

The development has been speculated for some time — as far back as October — and it serves to both remove a deeply-unprofitable unit from the main Uber business: helping Uber scale back some of its losses, while giving Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (known as Uber ATG) more freedom to focus on the tough challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to market.

The deal values Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, the companies announced. In terms of the exact mechanics of the investment, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

The deal is expected to close in Q3, and it gives investors a new take on Uber’s imminent IPO, which comes with Uber ATG. The company posted a $1.85 billion loss for 2018, but R&D efforts on ‘moonshots’ like autonomous cars and flying vehicles dragged the numbers down by accounting for over $450 million in spending. Moving those particularly capital-intensive R&D plays into a new entity will help bring the core Uber numbers down to earth, but clearly there’s still a lot of work to reach break-even or profitability.

Still, those crazy numbers haven’t dampened the mood. Uber is still seen as a once-in-a-generation company, and it is tipped to raise around $10 billion from the IPO, giving it a reported valuation of $90 billion-$100 billion.

Like the spin-out itself, the identity of the investors is not a surprise.

The Vision Fund (and parent SoftBank) have backed Uber since a January 2018 investment deal closed, while Toyota put $500 million into the ride-hailing firm last August. Toyota and Uber are working to bring autonomous Sienna vehicles to Uber’s service by 2021 while, in further proof of their collaborative relationship, SoftBank and Toyota are jointly developing services in their native Japan which will be powered by self-driving vehicles.

The duo also backed Grab — the Southeast Asian ride-hailing company that Uber owns around 23 percent of — perhaps more aggressively. SoftBank has been an investor since 2014 and last year Toyota invested $1 billion into Grab, which it said was the highest investment it has made in ride-hailing.

“Leveraging the strengths of Uber ATG’s autonomous vehicle technology and service network and the Toyota Group’s vehicle control system technology, mass-production capability, and advanced safety support systems, such as Toyota Guardian, will enable us to commercialize safer, lower cost automated ridesharing vehicles and services,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, the executive VP who leads Toyota’s ‘connected company’ division, said in a statement.

Here’s Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s shorter take on Twitter

Excited to announce Toyota, Denso and the SoftBank Vision Fund are making a $1B investment in @UberATG, as we work together towards the future of mobility. pic.twitter.com/JdqhLkV7uU

— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) April 19, 2019

Congress readies for Mueller report to be delivered on CDs

If there weren’t enough obstacles already standing between Congress and the results of the special counsel’s multiyear investigation, lawmakers are expecting to need an optical drive to read the document.

A Justice Department official told the Associated Press that a CD containing the Mueller report would be delivered to Congress tomorrow between 11 and noon Eastern. At some point after the CDs are delivered, the report is expected to be made available to the public on the special counsel’s website.

.@PaulaReidCBS reports the Mueller report will be delivered to the Hill on CDs tomorrow.

House Judiciary Committee staff was prepared for this possibility — among many — and checked they still have a computer with a working CD-ROM drive (they do).

— Rebecca Kaplan (@RebeccaRKaplan) April 17, 2019

Any Congressional offices running Macs will likely have to huddle up with colleagues who still have a CD-capable drive. Optical drives disappeared from Apple computers years ago. With people increasingly reliant on cloud storage over physical storage, they’re no longer as popular on Windows machines either.

Tomorrow’s version of the report is expected to come with a fair amount of detail redacted throughout, though a portion of Congress may receive a more complete version at a later date. The report’s release on Thursday will be preceded by a press conference hosted by Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. If you ask us, there’s little reason to tune into that event rather than waiting for substantive reporting on the actual contents of the report once it’s out in the wild. Better yet, hunker down and read some of the 400 pages yourself while you wait for thoughtful analyses to materialize.

Remember: No matter what sound bites start flying tomorrow morning, digesting a dense document like this takes time. Don’t trust anyone who claims to have synthesized the whole thing right off the bat. After all, America has waited this long for the Mueller report to materialize — letting the dust settle won’t do any harm.

Billionaire François-Henri Pinault just pledged more than 100 million euros to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been saved after fire broke out in the early hours of Monday evening, but not before extensive damage was inflicted on the 856-year-old building, with much of its roof collapsing into itself, along with its main spire.

The fire had blazed for eight hours before firefighters were able to largely contain it, including saving its two iconic rectangular towers and many of its precious relics, including the Crown of Thorns, said to have been worn by Jesus Christ before the crucifixion. Still, as French President Emmanual Macron said outside the cathedral once the fire was nearly extinguished, “The worst has been avoided, but the battle isn’t fully won yet.” Macron continued on to say that France planned to start an international fundraising campaign to raise money for the renovations.

He may have a major head start on that campaign, thanks to billionaire François-Henri Pinault, who has already pledged more than 100 million euros to rebuild the cathedral. According to the AFP, Pinault said in a statement that he plans to provide the money through his family’s investment firm, Artemis — funding that he hopes will help church officials “completely rebuild Notre Dame.”

Pinault owns the French luxury group Kering, which oversees the luxury fashion brands Gucci and Saint Laurent, among others. Lesser known is that he’s a bit of a geek, or was once.

Pinault talked with TechCrunch years ago about his early love of computer science and about having interned at Hewlett Packard as a software developer. At the time, he also said he helped start Soft Computing, a company that was founded in Paris in 1984 by fellow students of Pinault, Eric Fischmeister and Gilles Venturi. They later took the company public and, last December, sold a majority stake in the business to ad giant Publicis.

An active philanthropist, Pinault has seemingly steered around much of the startup world since, unlike others of the world’s richest individuals. His few known startup investments include an early check to the online shopping platform Fancy. More recently, he helped provide funding to Muzik, an L.A.-based maker of so-called smart headphones that raised $70 million from investors last May.