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Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

IRL pivots into virtual event calendar In Remote Life

By Josh Constine

What do you do if you’re an event discovery startup and suddenly it’s illegal to attend events? You lean into the cultural shift and pivot. Today, $11 million-funded calendar app IRL is morphing from In Real Life to In Remote Life. It will now focus on helping people find, RSVP for, plan, share, and chat about virtual events from livestreamed concerts to esports tournaments to Zoom cocktail parties.

Coronavirus could make IRL relevant to a wider audience because before an event “only mattered if it was around you. But now with In Remote Life, content has no geographical limitations” says IRL co-founder and CEO Abe Shafi. “The need is exponentially greater because everyone’s routines have been shattered.” IRL ranked #138 in US App Store today, making it the top calendar app, even above Google’s (#168).

Robinhood’s Josh Elman joins IRL

IRL has some fresh product development talent to lead it through the transition. The startup has hired stock trading app Robinhood’s VP of Product Josh Elman . The former Greylock investor is well known for his product chops from jobs at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Elman joined Robinhood in early 2018 but left late last year, notably before its rash of recent outages that enraged users.

“I just realized more than anything that the company needed people who had 110% to give, and it wasn’t clear that was going to be me” Elman said of Robinhood, now valued at $7.6 billion and struggling to scale. “My first passions and all the things I’ve talked about over the years have been social and media.”

For now, IRL is a part time gig where he’ll be heading up a Secret Projects division. While most apps “try to suck more of our time”, he sees IRL as a chance to give this precious resource back to people. Though he insists “Robinhood’s great I’m a very happy shareholder.

Events without borders

“We were on a tear, hitting a stride with usaging and growth related to real life events” says Shafi. “Then this happened”, motioning on our Zoom call to the COVID-19 reality we’re now stuck in. “We realized we had to pull all of our content because it wasn’t happening.”

Today IRL’s iOS app launches a redesign of its Discover homescreen content to center on virtual events people can attend from home. There’s now tabs for gaming, podcasts, TV, and EDU, as well as music, food, lifestyle, and a catch-all ‘fun’ section. Each event can be added to your calendar that syncs with Google Cal, or Liked to add it to your profile that friends and fans can follow. You can also instantly launch a group chat about the event in IRL, or share it to Instagram Stories or another messaging app.

If you can’t find something public to do, you can make plans with friends using the composer with suggestions like “Let’s video chat”, “Zoom workout”, “gaming sesh”, or “Netflix party”. That instantly sets up a calendar event you can invite people to. And if you’re not sure when you want to host, IRL’s “soon” option lets you keep the schedule vague so you and friends can figure out when everyone’s available. 50% of IRL plans start out as “Soon” Shafi reveals, identifying a gap in rigid time/date calendars.

Beyond individual events, IRL also wants to make it easier to develop habits by letting you subscribe to workout, meditation, and other schedules. With sports seasons suspended, IRL lets people sync with calendars of hip-hop album releases and more instead. Or you can subscribe to an influencer’s life and digitally accompany them to events. The goal is that IRL will be able to merge offline events back into its content recommendations as social distancing subsides.

The biggest challenge for IRL will be tuning its event recommendation algorithm. It’s lost a lot of the traditional relevance signals about events like how close they are to your home, how much they cost, or if they’re even in your city. Transitioning to In Remote Life means a global range of happenings is now available to everyone, and since they’re often free to host, many lonely low-quality events have sprung up. That makes it much tougher for IRL to determine what to show.

For now, it’s basing recommendations on what you engage with most on its homescreen, but I found that can make the initial experience very hit-or-miss. The top events in each category were rarely exciting. But IRL is planning to beef up its onboarding process to ask about your interests, and integrate with Spotify so it knows which musicians’ online concerts you’d want to attend.

Still, Shafi thinks IRL is already better than asocial alternatives. “Our main age range is 13 to 25, college and post-college metropolitan areas and across college campuses. Our average user has never used a calendar before, or they’re just used a default calendar like Gcal or iCal.

A cure for loneliness

Hopefully, IRL will take a more serious swing at helping friends realize they’re free at the same time and can hang out. While Down To Lunch failed in this space, now Facebook Messenger and Instagram are exploring it with their auto-status feature, and location apps like Snap Map and Zenly could adapt to share not just where you are, but if you have the intention to hang out.

“How can we use just a little bit of nudging, transparency or suggestion to get people to just do one more thing per month?” Shafi asks. IRL is trying to figure out how to let you passively share that “I have 2 hours free” in a way that “never makes you feel rejected if they don’t respond.”

Facebook did launch a standalone Events calendar app back in 2016, but later paired down the calendaring features, folded it in with restaurant recommendations and renamed it Local. “As big as Facebook is, it can only do so many things insanely well” Elman says of his old employer. “They could do more [on Events], but it’s never been the juggernaut like photos.”

Shafi is happy to have the opportunity in such a foundational space. He describes the concept of the calendar as one he’s sure will outlive him, so it’s worth the effort to make it social no matter how long it takes — though I’m sure his investors like Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, and Floodgate hope it’ll find a way to monetize eventually.

Revenue could come in the form of selling access to events through the app, or letting promoters and local businesses pay for enhanced discovery. For now, though, IRL is building a deeper connection with event and content publishers with the upcoming launch of its free Add To Calendar button they can build into their sites and emails. Elman says several services charge for these buttons that integrate with Apple and Google’s calendars, but IRL hopes giving them away will help fill its app with things to do, whatever that might be.

“Our tagline is ‘live your best life’. It’s not judgmental. If your best life is playing video games on your couch with your homies, we don’t judge you for that.”

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Lending startups are angling for new business from the COVID-19 bailout

By Jonathan Shieber

As the largest federal stimulus package in the history of the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, injects a planned $2.2 trillion into the U.S. economy, fintech startups are angling to get a seat at the table when it comes to distributing the cash.

“In the last crisis, banks stepped away from the kinds of lending that our members do,” says Scott Stewart, the head of the Innovative Lending Platform Association. “The bank process [for lending] is quite lengthy. Our members are underwriting loans using algorithms at speed and scale.”

Under the CARES Act, roughly $450 billion in loans are set to be distributed through the Small Business Administration and other entities. While Congress is still working out the details, fintech companies are thinking that they should — and will — have a role to play getting stimulus money into the hands of entrepreneurs.

“The Treasury Department and the SBA have the authority and have been instructed in the legislation to allow us into the room,” says Stewart. “We will have to go through some sort of process to become qualified non-bank lenders.”

The argument for handing some of the responsibility for distributing the stimulus dollars to startups to disburse comes from the ability of these companies to approve loans faster than typical banks.

NASA and SpaceX add some retro flair to the Falcon 9 rocket flying the first crewed Dragon launch

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX are moving ahead full-steam with the Demo-2 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – the first launch to carry astronauts to space aboard a private launch vehicle from American soil. The Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the Crew Dragon to space will include a NASA logo that has been – technically – required from active duty since 1992.

The 1970s-era “worm” logo is a take on NASA branding that has, for more than 20 years now, been relegated to souvenir status. You’ve probably seen it adorning caps, sweatshirts, stickers and other swag, but it hasn’t graced an official NASA spacecraft since its retirement from use. The NASA “meatball” logo that the agency does use on in-space assets today actually predates the “worm” and was developed in the late 1950s – but the latter’s tubular simplicity still has a more “retro” feel.

That vibe returns to active use with the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, which is currently set for launch sometime in early-to-mid May, and which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space, and to the International Space Station, for the final step in certifying Crew Dragon for regular use in operational astronaut transportation missions.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – AUGUST 10: NASA’s “meatball” logo displayed on the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

NASA shared an image of the red “worm” logo emblazoned on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket currently being readied for that mission in Florida, and the agency also said that it’s likely not the last time you’ll see it in official, active mission use. Don’t worry, fans of the meatball classic: The agency says that one’s still its primary symbol, even if the worm has poked its head out of the ground.

Daily Crunch: Amazon announces new warehouse safety steps

By Anthony Ha

Amazon says it will start taking additional steps to ensure the safety of its warehouse workers, SoftBank backs out of its latest WeWork investment and Zoom tries to fix its security issues. Here’s your Daily Crunch for April 2, 2020.

1. Amazon begins running temperature checks and will provide surgical masks at warehouses

Amazon has already taken some precautions, including mandatory paid 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive, as well as increased cleaning and sanitization efforts of families and infrastructure. The new measures to be introduced next week include taking temperatures of employees at the entrances to warehouses, with any individuals wth a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to be sent home, where they’ll have to have three consecutive days without fever to return to work.

There have been a number of employee actions in response to Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse.

2. SoftBank terminates $3B tender offer for WeWork shares

SoftBank was already rumored to be getting cold feet when the Wall Street Journal reported last month that it was using regulatory investigations as a way to back out of its commitment to buy $3 billion in shares from existing WeWork shareholders.

3. Zoom freezes feature development to fix security and privacy issues

Zoom has been widely criticized over the past couple of weeks for terrible security, a poorly designed screensharing feature, misleading dark patterns, fake end-to-end-encryption claims and an incomplete privacy policy. So the company says that for the next 90 days it’s enacting a feature freeze, which means it won’t ship any new feature until it is done fixing the current feature set. Zoom will also work with third-party experts and prepare a transparency report.

4. Luckin Coffee’s board initiates investigation into $300M potential fraud

In a filing with the SEC, the company’s board announced that it has initiated an internal investigation into the activities of its former COO Jian Liu, who may have inflated revenues by the company by an early estimate of more than $300 million (RMB2.2 billion).

5. How 6 top VCs are adapting to the new uncertainty

If you read VC Twitter, you might think that nothing has changed at all. It’s not hard to find investors who say they are still cutting checks and doing deals. But as Q1 venture data trickles in, it appears that VC activity is gradually slowing down. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

For years, Amazon has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from the Prime Video app on Apple devices as a way to avoid platform fees. A recent update changes that.

7. Air Doctor scores $7.8M to connect travellers with local doctors

Founded in 2016, Air Doctor aims to empower travellers who get sick when abroad and need non-emergency advice or treatment. It has created a network of local private physicians that travellers can access, typically via travel insurance or perks.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Google Cloud launches a managed Memcached service

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced the beta of Memorystore for Memcached, a new service that provides a fully managed in-memory datastore that is compatible with the open-source Memcached protocol. It will join Redis in the Memorystore family, which first launched in 2018.

As Gopal Ashok, Google’s product manager for Memorystore notes in today’s announcement, Redis remains a popular choice for use cases like session stores, gaming leaderboard, stream analytics, threat detection and API rate limiting, while Memcached is typically used as a caching layer for databases. Developers also regularly use Memcached as a session store and with this new service, developers can scale their clusters up to 5TB of memory per instance.

Since the service is fully compatible with Memcached, developers should be able to take any of their applications that use the protocol and migrate them over to Google Cloud and its Memorystore platform. As a fully managed service, Google will handle all of the routine tasks like monitoring and patching. Figuring out the right size of a cache remains a bit of an art, though, but Google Cloud argues that its detailed metrics will allow developers to easily scale their instances up and down as needed to optimize the service for their specific use cases. Those metrics, the company notes, are exposed in Cloud Monitoring, Google Cloud’s centralized monitoring dashboard, and the Cloud Console.

Currently, Memorystore for Memcached can be used for applications that run on Compute Engine, Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), App Engine Flex, App Engine Standard and Cloud Functions.

It’s worth noting that Amazon, with ElastiCache for Memcached, and specialized startups like MemCachier. And Redis Labs, too, is offering a fully managed Memcached service that can run on AWS, Azure and Google Cloud.

ARCH Venture Partners raises $1.46 billion across two funds for biotech investing

By Jonathan Shieber

Against a backdrop where the life-or-death consequences of biotechnology innovation are becoming increasingly apparent as the world races to develop vaccines and therapies to treat COVID-19, life sciences investor ARCH Venture Partners has raised $1.46 billion in funding to finance new tech development.

The two funds, ARCH Venture Fund X and ARCH Venture Fund X Overage, are the latest in the firm’s long line of investment vehicles dedicated to invest in early stage biotechnology companies.

“ARCH has always been driven to invest in great science to impact human health. There isn’t a better illustration of our principles than our all-in battle against COVID-19,” said co-founder and Managing Director Robert Nelsen in a statement. “The healthcare revolution will be accelerated by the changes that are happening now and we are excited to continue to invest aggressively in risk takers doing truly transformational science.”

ARCH portfolio companies Vir Biotechnology, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, VBI Vaccines, Brii Biosciences, and Sana Biotechnology are all working on COVID-19 therapeutics; while Quanterix is developing technology to support clinical testing and clinical trial development. Another company that ARCH has backed, Twist Biosciences, has gene editing tools that the company believes can support therapeutic and vaccine development; and Bellerophon, a developer of inhaled nitric oxide delivery technologies, received emergency access approval from the FDA as a treatment to help alleviate respiratory distress associated with COVID-19.

The firm’s Overage fund will be used to take larger stakes in later-stage companies that require more capital, the firm said.

“Our companies bring cutting-edge science, tools and talent to bear in developing medicines for a wide range of diseases and conditions faced by millions. With these two new funds, we are continuing that work with urgency and a deep sense of purpose,” managing director Kristina Burow said in a statement. “We invest at all levels, whether it’s fifty thousand dollars or hundreds of millions, so that each company and each technology has the best chance to advance and change the landscape.”

The two new funds are roughly the same size as ARCH’s last investment funds, which closed in 2016 with $1.1that billion, but are a big jump from the 2014 ARCH funds that raised $560 million in total capital commitments.

The increasing size of the ARCH funds is a reflection of a broader industry trend which has seen established funds significantly expand their capital under management, but also is indicative of the rising status of biotech investing in the startup landscape.

These days, it’s programmable biology, not software, that’s eating the world.

“ARCH remains committed to our mission of the last 35 years, advancing the most promising innovations from leading life science and physical sciences research to serve the worldwide community by addressing critical health and well-being challenges,” said Keith Crandell in a statement. “ARCH has been privileged to found, support and invest in groundbreaking new companies pursuing advancements in infectious disease, mental health, immunology, genomic and biological tools, data sciences and ways of reimagining diagnostics and therapies.”

Managing directors for the new fund include Robert Nelsen, Keith Crandell, Kristina Burow, Mark McDonnell, Steve Gillis and Paul Thurk.

Consumers spent record $23.4 billion on apps in Q1 2020, thanks to being stuck indoors

By Sarah Perez

Time spent in mobile apps has been surging, as people stuck at home due to the coronavirus outbreak have been turning to apps to do their shopping, manage their finances, find new exercises, work from home, and stay entertained. According to new data from App Annie, released today, Q1 2020 was the largest-ever quarter in terms of consumer spend on apps. In addition, the average weekly time spent in apps and games worldwide was up 20% year-over-year in the quarter, based on an analysis of Android devices.

This has translated to a record increase in consumer spending on the app stores.

In Q1 2020, consumers worldwide spent over $23.4 billion through the app stores — the largest-ever quarter, App Annie said.

iOS accounted for $15 billion of that figure and Google Play was $8.3 billion. Both of these figures were an increase of 5% year-over-year on their respective platforms.

Non-gaming apps accounted for 35% of consumer spend on iOS and 15% on Google Play. Meanwhile, consumers spent over $16.7 billion on games in the quarter.

The U.S. and China were the largest contributors to consumer spend on iOS and the U.S., Japan, and South Korea were the largest on Google Play.

Android users spent the most on Games, Social, and Entertainment apps, thanks especially to Disney+ and Twitch.

Meanwhile, iOS users spent the most on Games, Entertainment, and Photo and Video apps, with TikTok notably breaking into the top 5 by consumer spend on iOS in the quarter, at No. 3 behind Tinder and YouTube.

31 billion apps installed in Q1 2020

There were also 31 billion new app downloads in Q1 2020, up 15% from the fourth quarter of 2019. That’s notable, given that the fourth quarter usually sees a big boost in app installs from holiday sales of new phones, and Q1 managed to top that.

On Google Play, downloads were up 5% year-over-year to 22.5 billion while iOS downloads were up 15% year-over-year to over 9 billion.

Non-gaming apps on Google Play accounted for a majority (55%) of downloads and on iOS, they were 65% of downloads — an indication that people were looking for a variety of mobile apps to manage their newly stay-at-home and work-from-home lives, not just distractions.

The largest markets for Google Play downloads were India and Brazil, owing to their sizable populations and preference for lower-cost, Android devices. On iOS, China and the U.S. were the two largest markets by downloads and the main drivers of download growth for the quarter.

Mobile Games, Tools, and Entertainment were the largest categories for Google Play downloads while Games, Photo and Video, and Entertainment were the largest categories on iOS.

On both platforms, Games drove the most growth.

In Q1 2020, mobile game downloads grew 20% year-over-year to reach over 13 billion in the quarter. They were also up 30+% on a quarterly basis.

On Google Play, game downloads were up 25% to nearly 10 billion, year-over-year, and on iOS they were up 25% to top 3 billion in Q1.

Users downloaded Puzzle, Simulation, Action, Simulation and Arcade games in the quarter, but spent the most on Role Play, Action, and Strategy games, as is typical.

Other categories seeing strong downloads across both platforms included Heath & Fitness, Education, and Business. Health & Fitness was up 40% on Google Play and 30% on iOS, quarter-over-quarter. Education was up 35% on Google Play and 40% on iOS. And Business was up was up 30% on Google Play and 35% on iOS.

 

 

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

T-Mobile customers on unlimited wireless family plans get a free year of Quibi

By Sarah Perez

T-Mobile this morning officially announced its exclusive partnership with the new streaming service, Quibi, set to launch on April 6. The service will be made available for free for a year to T-Mobile customers on its unlimited wireless family plans.

The streaming service, founded by Hollywood media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, has been specifically built for on-the-go viewing on mobile devices. Its “shows” can be watched in 10 minutes or less and take advantage of the mobile device’s ability to be held different ways to enable seamless switching between portrait and landscape modes.

Thanks to Katzenberg’s industry connections, Quibi original content will feature A-Listers and other big names, including Jennifer Lopez, Chrissy Teigen, Chance the Rapper, Liam Hemsworth, Sophie Turner, Lena Waithe, Nicole Richie, Reese Witherspoon and others.

Typically, Quibi subscriptions are offered at $4.99 per month for its ad-supported plan or $7.99 per month for its ad-free option.

Quibi had confirmed last October that a deal with T-Mobile was in place, in statements made to various news outlets. But the details of the deal itself were not yet announced nor confirmed by T-Mobile at that time.

According to T-Mobile’s release, Magenta and ONE plans with taxes and fees included will be eligible for the free Quibi add-on, as will discounted First Responder, Military and Magenta Plus 55 plans, and small business customers with up to 12 lines.

T-Mobile customers can go to mytmobile.com now through July 7 to sign up, or they can use the T-Mobile Android or iOS app beginning on April 6 to add Quibi.

In addition, until April 3, T-Mobile customers who use the T-Mobile Tuesdays app for Android or iOS can get early access to three bonus episodes of the new Jennifer Lopez series, “Thanks a Million” when it launches on April 6. That means customers will have a total of 6 episodes to watch at launch. And on April 7, five people who enter the T-Mobile Tuesdays sweepstakes will win a free Google Pixel 4 XL.

“T-Mobile customers have always been ahead of the curve – streaming more data, watching more mobile video – so when we first heard about Quibi, we knew our customers would love it,” said Mike Sievert, President and CEO of T-Mobile, in a statement. “And, with more of us staying home right now, Quibi’s never been more needed. It comes on the scene with a totally different experience, made for mobile, quick to watch and as entertaining as anything you’ve ever seen!”

Teaming up with a mobile carrier to gain traction among customers for a streaming service is a viable strategy. Disney+ did it with Verizon, which ultimately accounted for 20% of its early customers.

However, Quibi isn’t Disney — it’s not a known brand with pent-up consumer demand. What’s more, its original marketing no longer makes sense in the post-COVID-19 era.

Quibi has had to reposition its service in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak as something that works for at-home viewing. But in reality, the service was originally intended to fill those empty moments in your on-the-go lifestyle — like riding the subway, waiting in line, sitting in a waiting room before an appointment, and more. Now, with people stuck and home in government lockdowns and home quarantines, the minutes stretch out endlessly. There’s plenty of time to watch long-form content and the living room TV has more draw over the small phone screen. 

But ultimately, Quibi’s success may not come down to its technology, tricks, or episode length. It will come down the quality of its shows and their ability to capture an audience.

 

 

Forward launches ‘Forward At Home’ primary care service to address COVID-19 healthcare crunch

By Darrell Etherington

The global coronavirus pandemic has already caused a tremendous strain on healthcare resources around the world, and it’s leading to a shift in how healthcare is offered. Startup Forward, which debuted in 2016 and has since expanded its tech-focused primary care medical practice to locations in major cities across the U.S., is launching a new initiative called ‘Forward At Home’ that reflects those changes and adapts its care model accordingly.

Forward’s primary differentiator is its focus on what it terms a patient’s ‘baseline,’ which is established by an in-person visit they make when they join that employs a body scanner at a doctor’s office to take a number of readings and produce an interactive chart displayed on-screen in the doctor’s exam room. Forward founder and CEO Adrian Aoun, who previously led special projects at Google before building the health tech company, said that as the company has ramped its efforts to support patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through in-clinic and drive-through testing, it also wanted to address the ongoing need for care for non-COVID patients.

“If people aren’t leaving their homes, and frankly, you don’t really want them to leave their homes unless you need them to, you have to figure out how to do all that remotely,” Aoun said in an interview, referring to Forward’s comprehensive biometric data gathering process. “So we’ve we’ve implemented a bunch of different things as rapidly as possible. The first is, how do we collect some biometrics – so we put together a kit that has a bunch of sensors in it that we actually mail to you. This includes an EKG, a connected thermometer, connected blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter.”

This approach provides a whole new level of remote care, over and above what’s typically defined as “telemedicine,” which generally amounts to little more than video calls with doctors, Aoun points out. Forward’s approach includes automated vitals monitoring for alerting a doctor if a patient needs intervention, and a patient has access to all their own data in the app as well. The Forward At Home product also take their exam room smart display and brings it to their mobile devices, presenting it for shared consultation between doctor and patient during viral visits, which are available 24/7 to Forward members.

At launch, the service also includes home visits to collect urine and blood samples, as an added measure designed specifically to help patients adhere to CDC and health agency guidelines around self-isolation while also getting a detailed and thorough level of care. Aoun says that this part of the offering doesn’t make sense at scale, and will likely revert to in-clinic visits once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

The rest of the model, though spurred into deployment because of the coronavirus conditions, and the need to limit the number of people going in to medical facilities and hospital all across the country unless they absolutely need to, is here to stay, however. Aoun says that Forward’s goal has always been to address the need for tech-friendly, advanced and comprehensive primary care for everyone, but that it took an approach similar to Tesla’s by addressing the top end of the market first in order to be able to fund development of more broadly available services later on.

Meanwhile, the need to shift as much care as possible to in-home is pressing, and evidence from countries around the world is increasingly pointing to how important that is to stopping the spread.

“The big thing to flatten the curve, the whole point of it, is that the hospitals are going to be overrun,” Aoun said. “So you want to take as many cases as you can, where they don’t actually have to be in the ICU, and treat them outside of the ICU – that’s your first principle. Then your second principle is, and China kind of discovered this early […] they started moving to getting people out of the hospitals, as much as possible for a second reason, which is not that the hospitals are overloaded, but that the hospitals are one of the fastest ways to spread COVID-19.”

That’s a perspective also supported by lessons shared from Italian medical professionals in their effort to deal with the COVID-19 situation there, which has essentially decimated large parts of their medical facility infrastructure.

Forward is also still continuing the other work it’s doing to address COVID-19 needs, including providing its risk assessment screening tool to all, as well as offering testing via clinics and drive-throughs to members, as well as mental health support. It’s also looking to expand its drive-through testing to new sites across the U.S. The Forward At Home initiative, meanwhile, will help ensure that clients who have other pressing health needs aren’t left behind while the effort to combat COVID-19 continues.

Venture-backed Celularity receives FDA approval for early trials of a new cell therapy for COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Celularity, the venture-backed developer of novel cell therapies for cancer treatments, has received an initial clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to begin early-stage clinical trials on a potential treatment for COVID-19.

The company, which has raised at least $290 million to date (according to Crunchbase), uses “Natural Killer” (NK) cell therapies to boost the immune system’s disease-fighting response.

For Celularity, those NK cells are derived from stem cells cultivated from placental tissue, which hospitals typically treat as medical waste.

Backed by the venture investment firm Section 32, and strategic investors including Celgene, now a division of Bristol Myers; United Therapeutics, a biomedical technology developer; Human Longevity, the troubled venture-backed startup founded by J. Craig Venter; and Sorrento Therapeutics, a publicly traded biomedical company, Celularity was pursuing a number of applications of the novel cell therapy, but its initial focus was on cancer treatments.

The real breakthrough for the company, and one of the reasons it has attracted so much capital, is that its cell therapies don’t need to be cultivated from a patient donor — a lengthy and expensive process. Celularity is able to produce NK cells and store them, so that they can be ready for transfusion when they’re needed.

With the the FDA’s clearance, Celularity is going to begin a small, 86-person trial to test the efficacy of its CYNK-001 immunotherapy to treat COVID-19 infected adults, the company said.

There are at least two studies underway in China that are also testing whether Natural Killer cells can be used to treat COVID-19.

NK cells are a type of white blood cell that are part of the body’s immune system. Unlike t-cells, which target particular pathogens, NK cells typically work to support the immune system by identifying and destroying cells in the body that appear to be stressed, either from an infection or a mutation.

The therapy seems to be successful in treating certain types of cancer, and the company’s researchers speculate that it can provide similar results in stopping the ability of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 to spread throughout the body.

However, there are some potential roadblocks and risks to pursuing the NK therapy. Chiefly, COVID-19 is deadly in part because it can push the immune system into overdrive. The “cytokine storm” that results from the infection means that the body starts attacking healthy cells in the lungs, which leads to organ failure and death. If that’s the case, then boosting the immune response to COVID-19 might be dangerous for patients.

There’s also the possibility that NK cells might not be able to detect which cells are infected with the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, rendering the therapy ineffective.

“Studies have established that there is robust activation of NK cells during viral infection regardless of the virus class,” said Celularity’s chief scientific officer, Xiaokui Zhang, in a statement. “These functions suggest that CYNK-001 could provide a benefit to COVID-19 patients in terms of limiting SARS-CoV-2 replication and disease progression by eliminating the infected cells.”

Amazon begins running temperature checks and will provide surgical masks at warehouses

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon has detailed someone  measures its taking to prevent any further spread of COVID-19 at its warehouse facilities in the U.S. and Europe, according to Reuters, including taking temperature checks and distributing facemasks to employees at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores. The commerce giant has seen a dramatic increase in demand as countries and regions globally have ordered lock-down and varying degrees of self-isolation and quarantine measures, and has also seen confirmed cases of COVID-19 among warehouse workers across the U.S.

Amazon has already described some precautions it’s been taking, including mandatory paid 14-day quarantines for employees who test positive, as well as increased cleaning and sanitization efforts of families and infrastructure. The new measures to be introduced next week include taking temperatures of employees at the entrances to warehouses, with any individuals wth a fever of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to be sent home, where they’ll have to have three consecutive days without fever to return to work. Employees will also be provided with surgical masks starting next week, the company says, once it receives shipments of orders of “millions” placed a few weeks ago.

In addition to these measures, Amazon will also be using machine-learning powered software to monitor footage from cameras in and around buildings to ensure that employees are maintaining the safe, recommended distances from one another during shifts.

There have been a number of employee actions in response to Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, which led to the firing of the worker who led the action. Employees at a Detroit Amazon warehouse are also planning a walkout to protest what they cite as dangerous working conditions.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also staffing up to deal with the increased need for warehouse and fulfilment employees. The company previously announced a plan to hire as many as 100,000 new workers to handle the uptick, and told Reuters on Wednesday that it has already hired 80,000 since making that goal.

Jim Fruchterman raises $1.7M for Tech Matters, a new effort to help nonprofits do tech better

By Ned Desmond

Social entrepreneurship pioneer Jim Fruchterman has launched a new nonprofit, Tech Matters, with $1.7 million in backing from corporate and foundation sources, including Twilio, Okta, Working Capital, Facebook and Schmidt Futures.

Tech Matters is Fruchterman’s new vehicle to address what he sees as a crippling weakness in the social good sector: the failure to use technology the way technologically savvy for-profits do. 

“The social change sector has huge problems and is 10-20 years behind the times. People are finally waking up to the fact that if they really want to do social good at scale that’s going to involve software and data technology,” says Fruchterman. “The mission is to bring the benefits of technology to all of humanity, not the richest 5% of it.”

In order to have the broadest possible impact, Tech Matters is aiming for wins at the technology systems level that can benefit multiple organizations facing similar challenges. 

The firm’s first partnership is with Child Helpline International, which is working with Tech Matters to create a common platform for 170 groups around the world providing hotlines for children facing crises such as drug and sexual abuse. Twilio.org, the social good arm of Twilio, is providing $300,000 to support the project, as well as Twilio’s Flex contact center platform.

Jim Fuchterman with TechCrunch reporter Megan Rose Dickey at TechCrunch Sessions: Blockchain in Zug, Switzerland, 2018.

Today, most of those 170 hotlines are either iffy hacks running on a computer somewhere or dependent on a volunteer, a phone and a pad of paper. The new platform will enable volunteers to track inbound messaging via sms, voice, WhatsApp, and WeChat.

“It is super compelling to be able to help 170 helplines with one partnership,” says Erin Reilly, Twilio’s chief social impact officer. “Tech Matters has the technical expertise and staff to build this. We are confident they can execute and we are honored to play a small part.”

Tech Matters is in many ways a continuation of what Fruchterman started in 1989 with his first nonprofit, the Palo Alto-based Benetech.

Fruchterman, a Caltech engineering grad, MacArthur Fellow and successful entrepreneur, set up Benetech to raise capital, much the same way venture firms do, to support technologically sophisticated approaches to social problems, especially in the disabilities and human rights fields.

Benetech’s biggest success was to win the U.S. Department of Education’s contract for Bookshare, the federal program that funds reading materials for the blind. Benetech won the contract by digitizing the materials that were formerly cassette tapes and Braille books, which in turn reduced costs, improved the service to readers, and expanded services. In 2017, Benetech won the five-year, $42.5 million contract for the third time. 

Fruchterman handed leadership of Benetech to Betsy Beauman in 2018 and left to start work on Tech Matters. Asked what’s different this time, Fruchterman says Tech Matters is structured so that he can concentrate on helping figure out systems solutions that have broad relevance to the social sector, as well as provide consulting to nonprofits pondering technology investments.

“At Benetech, raising money to support an 80-person team and a $15 million budget took 80% of my time,” he says. “Now fund raising is more like 20% and I am liberated to actually do the advising I want to do. Basically I provide free consulting, though more often it’s free anti-consulting, because most of my job is talking to people out of bad tech ideas.” 

Fruchterman is also writing a book to help get his message out as broadly as possible to nonprofits. “One chapter I’m itching to write,” he says, is “The Five Bad Tech for Good Ideas,” which everybody tries first, like the app nobody will download, the blockchain as your first significant database project, the One True List and so on.”

With the COVID-19 crisis now raging, Fruchterman is especially eager to take on a close cousin to the crisis text hotline project. “My dream even before the pandemic was to work with some of the cloud companies to create a fully functional crisis contact center in a box solution. The idea is that we could quickly provision solutions that would allow a new hotline to turn on in hours or a day at most.”

Additional backers of Tech Matters include EcoAgriculture Partners, FJC, the Hitz Family Foundation, the Peery Foundation, the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Fund.

A bug bounty alone won’t save your startup — here’s why

By Zack Whittaker

In this world, there is no such thing as perfect security.

Every app or service you use — even the websites you visit — have security bugs. Companies go through repeated rounds of testing, code reviews and audits — sometimes even bringing in third-parties. Bugs get missed — that’s life, and it happens — but when they are uncovered, companies can get hacked.

That’s where a bug bounty comes into play. A bug bounty is an open-door policy to anyone who finds a bug or a security flaw; they are critical for channeling those vulnerabilities back to your development team so they can be fixed before bad actors can exploit them.

Bug bounties are an extension of your internal testing process and incentivize hackers to report bugs and issues and get paid for their work rather than dropping details of a vulnerability out of the blue (aka a “zero-day”) for anyone else to take advantage of.

Bug bounties are a win-win, but paying hackers for bugs is only one part of the process. As is usually the case where security meets startup culture, getting the right system in place early is best.

Why you need a vulnerability disclosure program

A bug bounty is just a small part of the overall bug-hunting and remediating process.

Facebook Messenger launches Mac & Windows apps

By Josh Constine

Facebook Messenger is finally getting desktop apps almost 9 years after its debut. After seeing over a 100% increase in desktop browser audio and video calling, Messenger today releases its Mac and Windows desktop apps. They bring the same features as the browser version, but make it easier to keep your chat threads handy than having Messenger buried in one of many tabs.

Facebook originally announced the Messenger desktop apps at its F8 conference a year ago. But given the conference is cancelled due to coronavirus this year and users clearly wanted the desktop apps now, it made sense to launch them without a big press event.

Luckin Coffee’s board initiates investigation into $300M potential fraud

By Danny Crichton

China-based Luckin Coffee, the fastest growing growing coffee brand in the world, has dazzled VCs, public market investors and frankly us over the years with its dizzyingly high growth, expanding from a handful of stores and delivery kiosks to tens of thousands in a just a few years, quickly outpacing Starbucks’ aggressive expansion in the world’s second largest economy.

All those numbers though may not be what they seem.

In a filing with the SEC this morning, the company’s board announced that it has initiated an internal investigation into the activities of its former COO Jian Liu, who may have inflated revenues by the company by an early estimate of more than $300 million (RMB2.2 billion). Expenses are believed by the board to be similarly inflated. Legal firm Kirkland & Ellis is the board’s counsel in its internal investigation.

Contact details for Jian Liu could not be located.

The alleged fraud is believed to have begun in the second quarter of 2019, although further details will have to come as the company conducts its investigation. The company told investors in its filing that they shouldn’t rely on the company’s recent financial statements, which are now believed to be inaccurate given the surfacing of this information.

Luckin shares, which trade as American Depositary Receipts, are down 70% right now according to Yahoo Finance.

The announcement of the investigation comes just days after the company appointed two new independent directors to its board. Last week, the company announced that Tianruo Pu, a seasoned accounting executive who was CFO of Zhaopin and UTStarcom, and Wai Yuen Chong, a supply chain executive who had stints at Charoen Pokphand Group and Luckin competitor Starbucks, had joined as independent directors and joined the company’s audit committee.

Luckin Coffee debuted in its IPO in May 2019 with a hot $650.8 million offering on Nasdaq, just a few weeks after raising a private round of funding from Blackrock. The company was notorious for both its stratospheric growth and also for its ample losses, with its 2018 numbers (before the alleged fraud detailed by the company) showing $125 million in revenue and $475 million in losses.

Disney+ beat Netflix in recent US downloads (report)

By Anthony Ha

Netflix may still dominate global streaming, but Disney+ has made a huge splash in the United States, where it launched in November.

That much was pretty clear already, and other reports have already suggested that Disney+ was the most downloaded app and biggest search trend in the United States last year. Now a new report from mobile intelligence company Apptopia and customer engagement platform Braze suggests that Disney’s streaming service has continued its spectacular success into 2020.

The report examines the months leading up to and after the service’s U.S. launch, and it includes charts of the most popular streaming apps for the first three months of 2020.

According to those charts, Netflix was the most downloaded streaming app globally, with 59.1 million downloads, followed by YouTube at 39.4 million. Disney+ (which is currently launching across Europe and India) was number seven on the list, with 17.5 million downloads.

In the United States however, Disney+ leads with 14.1 million downloads, versus 11.9 million for Netflix (which may have already saturated the U.S. market) and 8.1 million for Hulu (which is also owned primarily by Disney).

Lest you think this is purely a one-on-one contest between Netflix and Disney, it’s also worth noting that neither of them wins on time spent in-app — instead, it’s YouTube Kids that wins in both the United States and globally.

Apptopia/Braze report

Image Credits: Apptopia and Braze

And yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to even more streaming, with the report showing a 30.7% increase in streaming sessions in March

The report suggests that the success of Disney+ means that there’s still room for new streaming services. (It might, however, simply reflect Disney’s dominance of the entertainment world. It remains to be seen whether Quibi, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max can achieve similar success as they launch in the coming months.)

The report also looks at strategies that successfully drive engagement, as measured by daily active users. It points out that the most popular brands are 21% more likely to send push notifications and 300% more likely to send in-app messages. It also concludes that “content that creates fandom is king”:

Adult Swim’s cartoon series Rick and Morty proved to be the most effective content for generating both short-term and long-term monthly active users (MAU). Over the course of the most recent season of Rick and Morty, the Adult Swim app’s daily active users (DAU) increased by 504%. Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and sporting events also drove DAU growth in a meaningful way.

 

SaaS growth appears to slow as churn concerns rise

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Yesterday we explored what the SaaS world thinks about churn. A cohort of SaaS executives surveyed by Gainsight are expecting medium-bad churn (our take on their reported forecasts); select software companies will see booming demand; and the impact of churn won’t be felt evenly around the world, leaving some markets stronger than others, offering SaaS startups and their public brethren a chance to grow.

What mattered (read the piece if you have time) is that there is a general expectation that churn will rise as the world’s economy slips in the face of a historic pandemic and its constituent city- and country-wide shutterings. In time, we should see the impact of rising churn in public earnings reports, lower startup valuations, slower growth curves, and changing go-to-market motions.

But, something that we can see today is a falling growth rate among SaaS companies focused on both other businesses and consumers. This is thanks to new data from ProfitWell, a Boston-based software company that helps other firms track their subscription businesses and work to reduce churn. A set of charts provided to TechCrunch detail how the growth rate of SaaS companies, in both B2B and B2C, are falling. Add in a rising churn expectation for the modern software industry, and the market could be in for SaaS’s first patch of hard times in recent memory.

Growth

According to ProfitWell CEO and co-founder Patrick Campbell, the following data is predicated on “just under 20,000 subscription [and] SaaS companies” that range “from small startups to Fortune 50 companies.”

Given that we tend to focus a bit more on the B2B world, we’ll start there. The following chart tracks growth amongst business-focused SaaS startups that ProfitWell has data on. Try to spot where the trendlines change, and then check the data associated with the turn:

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