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Tiny handheld Playdate ships next month for $179, with 24 charming monochrome games to start

By Devin Coldewey

Playdate, app and game designer Panic’s first shot at hardware, finally has a firm price and ship date, as well as a bunch of surprise features cooked up since its announcement in 2019. The tiny handheld gaming console will cost $179, ship next month, and come with a 24-game “season” doled out over 12 weeks. But now it also has a cute speaker dock and low-code game creation platform.

We first heard about Playdate more than two years ago, were charmed by its clean look, funky crank control, and black and white display, and have been waiting for news ever since. Panic’s impeccable design credentials combined with Teenage Engineering’s creative hardware chops? It’s bound to be a joy to use, but there wasn’t much more than that to go on.

Now the company has revealed all the important details we were hoping for, and many more to boot.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Originally we were expecting 12 games to be delivered over 12 weeks, but in the intervening period it seems they’ve collected more titles than planned, and that initial “season” of games has expanded to 24. No one knows exactly what to expect from these games except that they’re exclusive to the Playdate and many use the crank mechanic in what appear to be fun and interesting ways: turning a turntable, opening a little door, doing tricks as a surfer, and so on.

The team hasn’t decided how future games will be distributed, though they seem to have some ideas. Another season? One-off releases? Certainly the presence of a new game by one-man indie hit parade Lucas Pope would sell like hotcakes.

Screenshots of the Pulp game creation tool.

Image Credits: Panic

But the debut of a new lo-fi game development platform called Pulp suggests a future where self-publishing may also be an option. This lovely little web-based tool lets anyone put together a game using presets for things like controls and actions, and may prove to be a sort of tiny Twine in time.

A dock accessory was announced as well, something to keep your Playdate front and center on your desk. The speaker-equipped dock, also a lemony yellow, acts as a magnetic charging cradle for the console, activating a sort of stationary mode with a clock and music player (Poolsuite.fm, apparently, with original relaxing tunes). It even has two holes in which to put your pens (and Panic made a special yellow pen just for the purpose as well).

Playdate attached to its little cubical dock.

Image Credits: Panic

The $179 price may cause some to balk — after all, it’s considerably more than a Nintendo 3DS and with the dock probably approaches the price of a Switch. But this isn’t meant to be a competitor with mainstream gaming — instead, it’s a sort of anti-establishment system that embraces weirdness and provides something equally unfamiliar and undeniably fun.

The team says that there will be a week’s warning before orders can be placed, and that they don’t plan to shut orders down if inventory runs out, but simply allow people to preorder and cancel at will until they receive their unit. We hope to get one ourselves to test and review, but since part of the charm of the whole thing is the timed release and social aspect of discovery and sharing, it’s more than likely we’ll be experiencing it along with everyone else.

Toast’s Aman Narang and BVP’s Kent Bennett on how customer obsession is everything

By Jordan Crook

Toast has raised more than $900 billion and is reportedly valued at over $5 billion. But back in 2011, no one knew this startup would see such meteoric success. It had a few things going for it, of course — founder Aman Narang hailed from Endeca, where he was a software engineer and product lead with a reputation for being able to ship a lot of software quickly.

But the ambitions behind Toast were big, and complicated, and enough to give pause to any investor. Kent Bennett was one such VC, and while he had conviction in the founding team, he wasn’t convinced that they could tackle such a big problem.

Toast is a restaurant POS system that acts as a sort of operating system for an establishment, managing everything from online orders, deliveries and marketing to payroll and team management as well as the actual point of sale. Being able to do all that requires building a number of complex products, such as payments.

Early on, Bennett had told Narang not to build a restaurant POS. To him, it was too complicated and nuanced, which is why the systems from the ’90s were still deeply entrenched 20 years later. However, he did offer space in the Bessemer office for the Toast team to work on their product.

“I caught up with Aman and he told me that they did this interesting thing after hearing that a lot of their customers were frustrated by payments platforms, which are separate from the POS,” said Bennett. “Aman said they built their own payments platform. Once again, I was like, ‘You did what? You’re not allowed to build payments.’ But he told me that they built it and it improves their products, and that, by the way, they make a margin on it.”

Bennett said that when they added up the margins from the payments and the POS, it was impactful.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Bennett. “This is a really good business.”

From there, it became his obsession. And though it took a few more quarters to close the deal, they eventually got there. Bessemer led the company’s Series B financing in 2016.

We spoke to Bennett and Narang recently on an episode of Extra Crunch Live to explore the story of how they came together for the deal, what makes the difference for both founders and investors when fundraising, and the biggest lessons they’ve learned so far. The episode also featured the Extra Crunch Live Pitch-off, where audience members pitched their products to Bennett and Narang and received live feedback.

Extra Crunch Live is open to everyone each Wednesday at 3pm ET/noon PT, but only Extra Crunch members are able to stream these sessions afterwards and watch previous shows on-demand in our episode library.

Despite the complexity of the Toast system, or maybe because of it, Narang says the fundamentals are the most important part of communicating the business, especially when fundraising.

US PC shipments soar 73% in the first quarter as Apple falls from top spot

By Ron Miller

With increased demand from the pandemic, Canalys reports that U.S. PC shipments were up 73% over the same period last year. That added up to a total of 34 million units sold. While Apple had a good quarter with sales up 36%, it was surpassed by HP, which sold 11 million units in total with annual growth up an astonishing 122.6%.

As Canalys pointed out, the first quarter tends to be a weaker one for Apple hardware following the holiday season, but it’s a big move for HP nonetheless. Other companies boasting big growth numbers include Samsung at 116% and Lenovo at 92.8%. Dell was up 29.2%, fairly modest compared with the rest of the group.

Overall though it was a stunning quarter as units flew off the shelves. Canalys Research Analyst Brian Lynch says some of this can be attributed to the increased demand from 2020 as people moved to work and school from home and needed new machines to get their work done, but regardless the growth was unrivaled historically. ” … Q1 2021 still rates as one of the best first quarters the industry has ever seen. Vendors have prioritized fulfilling U.S. backlogs before supply issues are addressed in other parts of the world,” Lynch said in a statement.

Canalys Q1 2021 PC sales by vendor.

Image Credits: Canalys

Perhaps not surprisingly, low-cost Chromebooks were the most popular item as people looking to refresh their devices, especially for education purposes, turned to the lower end of the PC market, which likely had a negative impact on higher-priced Apple products, as well contributing to its drop from the top spot.

That’s where Samsung and other Chromebook vendors really shined. The firm reports that over the last year Chromebook sales shot up 548% with Samsung leading that growth with an astonishing 1,963% growth rate. Asus, HP and Lenovo all reported Chromebook sales rates up over 900%.

Those numbers include desktops, notebooks, tablets and workstations, but it was the notebook and tablets that get the bulk of the action here with notebooks up a whopping 131% YoY. While tablets didn’t grow at the same rate, sales were still up 51% with 11 million units sold in the quarter.

The company does not expect the market to slow significantly in the coming quarters with continued demand in the education market. While parts shortages, particularly in the chip market, continue to dog the industry, this will only continue to feed demand in the coming quarters, according to the firm.

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Turntable.fm competitor tt.fm launches beta app for iOS and Android

By Brian Heater

You’d be forgiven for being confused. I’ve been following this story and am currently writing it and I’m still fairly confused. But Turntable (or tt.fm), not to be confused with Turntable.fm (the name of both the original and recently re-released social music app) today just announced that it has launched iOS, Android and desktop versions of its own service.

By way of brief explanation, the original Turntable.fm shut down in 2013 to focus on a live music platform. It was a sad day for those of us who wasted countless workday hours on the site. But stuff happens. People change, companies pivot.

Of course, that nostalgia returned something fierce when we were all stuck inside for the past year, searching for a social connection. Those of us of a certain age who maybe haven’t gone all in on Twitch started pining for the site. So founder Billy Chasen planned a return. In its current beta iteration, it’s a bit of a time capsule, albeit with a few key changes like relying on YouTube streaming to circumvent some royalty issues. It works well. I’ve been using it. It’s fun. Oh, and the company just raised $7.5 million to bring it into the new decade.

Seemingly around the same time, an early Turntable.fm employee decided to launch another take on the service. Focused on mobile usage and opting for the crowdfunding route, TT.fm rode that wave of nostalgia to $500,000 in funding, announced back in March.

Today that service is launching in beta. It’s in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store as we speak. Or you can visit it in a browser. Like Turntable.fm, tt.fm (as we’re going to refer to it for simplicity’s sake) relies on third-party music services. At launch, music is pulled from a linked Spotify or Apple Music account, as well as Soundcloud. YouTube functionality is coming soon.

As you can see from the above shot, the offering is based on the same format as Turntable.fm, with similar but different graphics. DJs play songs on the stage and the audience bops their heads in approval if they like it. One of the ways the new offering is looking to distinguish itself is through hosted DJ sets from artists.

“Original Turntable fans are eager to get back on the dancefloor and have been asking for a product that serves their needs,” Perla said in a release, “including live DJ sets, social networking with music fans, music sharing and an online music community.”

As a fan of Turntable.fm, suddenly going from zero to two services feels like an embarrassment of riches. But the question remains whether it can move beyond a niche and really thrive in the crowded media environment of 2021. There’s probably room for one Turntable.fm.

But two? This already strange story is likely only getting stranger.

As Monday.com targets $6B+ IPO valuation, Zoom and Salesforce commit $150M

By Alex Wilhelm

Team management software company Monday.com dropped a new IPO filing today. The latest document — an F-1/A, because the company is based in Israel — provides what could be Monday.com’s final pre-IPO pricing notes and details planned investments from both Zoom and Salesforce after its public offering closes.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. 

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Monday.com’s price range of $125 to $140 per share values it north of $6 billion at the top end of its target interval, a steep upgrade from its final private price recorded in mid-2019.

Let’s quickly unpack its IPO valuation range, discuss the private placements that Zoom and Salesforce plan, and parse what Monday.com’s IPO news means for the broader public offering window.

Because the company is expected to price tomorrow and trade Thursday, we’re looking at data that could prove final, unless Monday.com manages to push its IPO price range higher or prices above its current estimates. Given the sheer number of IPOs that are either filed or rapidly forthcoming, Monday.com could prove to be a bellwether for the larger unicorn software exit market. Therefore, its debut matters to more than itself, its employees and its venture backers.

What’s Monday.com worth?

There are a few ways to value a company as it goes public. The first is its so-called simple valuation. To calculate a simple price for a debuting entity, we simply multiply the two extremes of its IPO price range by the number of shares it will have outstanding after its debut. That works out as follows in the case of Monday.com:

Founders must show investors that sustainability is more than lip service

By Walter Thompson
Todd Klein Contributor
Todd Klein is a partner at Revolution Growth, a VC fund that invests in growth-stage companies. During his 20-year career, Todd has been involved in financing and building over 150 venture and growth-stage companies in the media, consumer, technology, education and healthcare sectors.

Ending years of debates over environmental sustainability, the United States officially declared a climate crisis earlier this year, deeming climate considerations an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security. After recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, President Joseph R. Biden announced an aggressive new goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pushed world leaders to collectively “step up” their fight against climate change.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to do business with brands that align with their growing environmental values, rather than ignoring the climate consequences of their consumption. Even without regulation as a stick, consumer demand is now serving as a carrot to increase sustainability’s impact on public companies’ agendas.

Startups have already followed suit. Investors today view sustainability as an important pillar of any business model and are looking for entrepreneurs who “get it” from the beginning to build and scale next-generation companies. Startups interested in thriving cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought and should be prepared to enter the public eye with a plan for sustainable growth.

Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media.

So what exactly do founders need to put in place to demonstrate that they’re on the right track when it comes to sustainability? Here are five attributes that investors are looking for.

1. A truly customer-centric feedback loop

It’s fairly easy for any company to claim that it understands customers’ wants and needs, but it’s challenging to have the tech stack in place to prove a company actually listens to customer feedback and meets those expectations.

Investors now expect startups to have both platforms and solutions — social listening channels, relationship management tools, surveying programs and review forums — that allow them to hear and act on the needs of their customers. Without the proper communications tools and actual people using them, your eco-friendly efforts will likely appear to be merely lip service.

Take the example of TemperPack, which manufactures recyclable insulated packaging solutions for shipments of cold, perishable foods and pharmaceuticals. The direct relationship between a packager like TemperPack and the end consumer is often invisible. But as we were looking into investing in the company, some of its life sciences customers told us about comments they had received from end users — people who were receiving medicine twice per day. Another supplier’s packaging required them to visit a recycler for disposal, a real-world pain point that was causing them to consider switching to a different medication.

Revolution Growth decided to add TemperPack as a portfolio company after directly seeing its customer feedback loop in action: End-user requests informed product development, proving both a market need and customer demand on the sustainability front. This firsthand example demonstrates how an investor, a packaging maker, a life sciences company and an end user are now interconnected in one relationship while underscoring how end-user feedback can connect the dots for sustainable product development.

2. Public commitment to sustainability goals

Over the past several years, we have seen millennials and Gen Z consumers demand transparency in sustainability efforts. As these generations grow in purchasing power, investors will look for startups that make their commitments to eco-friendly goals as transparent as possible to satisfy shrewd consumer needs.

For many VCs, making public commitments to sustainability goals is a sign that your startup is working toward becoming a next-generation company. Investors will look for goals that are thoughtful, with a clear understanding of where your company will have agency and influence, and that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). They will also expect regular reports on progress.

Although a company’s management establishes these goals, its board should play a behind-the-scenes role in driving the goals forward, keeping leadership on track and setting the playing field so executives understand that they’re being evaluated on criteria transcending positive EBIDTA.

Taking these steps will ensure goals are responsible and ambitious while also holding the company accountable to consumers and stakeholders to see the initiatives through to completion.

3. Purpose-driven culture

Even the best-laid sustainability goals will go unmet without a strong culture designed to guarantee leadership and employee alignment. Sustainability must be ingrained in a startup’s culture — from the top down and bottom up — and there’s a lot at stake if it’s not.

Another Revolution Growth portfolio company, the global fintech-revolutionizing startup Tala, demonstrates how young companies can imbue their cultures with purpose-driven values. While Tala’s mission is to provide credit to the unbanked, the company believes that the consumer’s best interests should always come first. During 2019’s holiday season, Tala contrasted with businesses fueling consumption by instead urging customers in Kenya to not take out loans, protecting them from predatory unregulated lenders amid a lack of functioning credit bureaus and loan-stacking databases. This forward-looking approach ultimately safeguarded Tala’s customers and its vibrant digital lending industry.

Beyond determining what they stand for, many of our portfolio companies face challenges securing talent. People have choices about where they want to work, and those with intrinsic motivations — such as concerns about the environment — will feel uncomfortable if their employers do not share their values. Regulatory risks and customer attrition pale in comparison to the human cost of losing star performers who seek other work cultures that better align with their values.

A clear values system should embed sustainability into the decision-making process, make obvious imperatives and empower employees to follow through.

4. Accountability

Companies aren’t only judged by their own initiatives — they’re also judged by their partners. As startups build new relationships or expand to work with new suppliers, investors will be keen to know that these outside parties align with their stated sustainability philosophies.

Before becoming publicly involved with another company, a startup should gauge each new supplier’s reputation, including insights into their employment practices. Take leading Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava or healthy-inspired salad-centric chain Sweetgreen, both Revolution Growth portfolio companies; neither will source proteins from farms with inhumane policies. If companies are not aware of these factors, their customers will eventually let them know, and likely hold them accountable for the oversight.

Think of it this way: If a diagram of your partnerships and supplier relationships was printed on the front page of The New York Times, would you be comfortable with what it shows the world? Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media. It’s no longer possible to fly under the radar with relationships that are antithetical to a company’s sustainability goals. So take a hard look at your supplier and partner ecosystem, and make clear that you are bringing your green vision to life through every extension of your business.

5. Financial realism

Financial realism acknowledges that a company can want to do good, but unless they have the economics, they won’t survive to make an impact. For most startups, beginning with financial realism as a mindset and incrementalism as an approach will be key to success, enabling all businesses to contribute to a more resilient planet. For startups that prioritize environmentally friendly business practices alongside a product or service, this strategy can prevent goodness from becoming the enemy of greatness. Founders in this position can commit to a stage-by-stage sustainability plan, rather than expecting an overnight transformation. Investors understand the delicate balance between striving to meet green goals and keeping the lights on.

Entrepreneurs looking to build a business that not only adopts eco-friendly practices but also has sustainability at its heart may have to consider starting in a niche industry or market that is less price-sensitive and ready for a solution today. Once that solution is firmly established, the business can build upon what they’ve created, rather than going big with something that doesn’t scale — and failing fast. Without an initial set of customers that value and love what you’re doing, you won’t get to the bigger play.

As the public and private sectors continue to address the climate crisis, sustainability will increasingly become a mandate rather than an option, and funding will increasingly flow to startups that have addressed potential environmental concerns. Unfortunately, pressure for companies to meet sustainability demands has led to “greenwashing” — the deceptive use of green marketing to persuade consumers that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing has forced investors to look beyond mere words for action. As we move toward a more sustainable future, startups pursuing VC funding will need to prove to investors that sustainability is a priority across their entire organizations, aligning their outreach, public commitments and cultures with accountability and concrete examples of sustainable activities. Even if those examples are just steps toward larger goals, they will show investors and customers that startups are ready today to contribute to a greener and better tomorrow.

Honeywell and Cambridge Quantum form joint venture to build a new full-stack quantum business

By Frederic Lardinois

Honeywell, which only recently announced its entry into the quantum computing race, and Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQ), which focuses on building software for quantum computers, today announced that they are combining Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions (HQS) business with Cambridge Quantum in the form of a new joint venture.

Honeywell has long partnered with CQ and invested in the company last year, too. The idea here is to combine Honeywell’s hardware expertise with CQ’s software focus to build what the two companies call “the world’s highest-performing quantum computer and a full suite of quantum software, including the first and most advanced quantum operating system.”

The merged companies (or ‘combination,’ as the companies’ press releases calls it) expect the deal to be completed in the third quarter of 2021. Honeywell Chairman and CEO Darius Adamczyk will become the chairman of the new company. CQ founder and CEO Ilyas Khan will become the CEO and current Honeywell Quantum Solutions President Tony Uttley will remain in this role at the new company.

The idea here is for Honeywell to spin off HQS and combine it with CQC to form a new company, while still playing a role in its leadership and finances. Honeywell will own a majority stake in the new company and invest between $270 and $300 million. It will also have a long-term agreement with the new company to build the ion traps at the core of its quantum hardware. CQ’s shareholders will own 45% of the new company.

Image Credits: Honeywell

“The new company will have the best talent in the industry, the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the first and most advanced quantum operating system, and comprehensive, hardware-agnostic software that will drive the future of the quantum computing industry,” said Adamczyk. “The new company will be extremely well positioned to create value in the near-term within the quantum computing industry by offering the critical global infrastructure needed to support the sector’s explosive growth.”

The companies argue that a successful quantum business will need to be supported by large-scale investments and offer a one-stop shop for customers that combines hardware and software. By combining the two companies now, they note, they’ll be able to build on their respective leadership positions in their areas of expertise and scale their businesses while also accelerate their R&D and product roadmaps.

“Since we first announced Honeywell’s quantum business in 2018, we have heard from many investors who have been eager to invest directly in our leading technologies at the forefront of this exciting and dynamic industry – now, they will be able to do so,” Adamczyk said. “The new company will provide the best avenue for us to onboard new, diverse sources of capital at scale that will help drive rapid growth.”

CQ launched in 2014 and now has about 150 employees. The company raised a total of $72.8 million, including a $45 million round, which it announced last December. Honeywell, IBM Ventures, JSR Corporation, Serendipity Capital, Alvarium Investments and Talipot Holdings invested in this last round — which also means that IBM, which uses a different technology but, in many ways, directly competes with the new company, now owns a (small) part of it.

Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian is speaking at TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh

By Matt Burns

TechCrunch is thrilled to announce Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian is speaking at our Pittsburgh event on June 29. You can register here. It’s free to participate and hear President Farnam’s interview.

President Jahanian is an outspoken advocate for science and innovation, making him perfect to headline our event focused on startup activity in Pittsburg, PA. Speaking to a House committee in April, Jahanian identified recent trends shaping the research and development throughout the United States. Among those mentioned was a widening opportunity gap and rising economic inequality — topics that are also fundamentally shaping startups in Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.

“Carnegie Mellon’s decades-long leadership in research and education in AI and robotics has catalyzed an innovation ecosystem in the Pittsburgh region where entrepreneurship, creativity and placemaking intersect,” Jahanian told TechCrunch. “These emerging technologies are changing the way we farm, enabling millions to learn a new language, leading the race to develop self-driving vehicles, and even going to the moon. We are committed to empowering citizens across Pittsburgh to take part in the economic benefits of these innovations as they continue to transform our world.”

Pittsburgh is a fantastic startup ecosystem quickly growing by leveraging its incredible universities, a welcoming local government, and experienced investors. Though thousands of miles away, Pittsburgh has long contributed to Silicon Valley’s success through research and development. To TechCrunch, Pittsburgh represents a city leveraging its local assets to help build companies in and out of the area. We recently published a deep profile on Duolingo that highlights how the local Pittsburgh ecosystem helped turn the startup into a billion dollar company.

TechCrunch Hardware Editor Brian Heater is interviewing Jahanian. Heater was key in shaping and programming TechCrunch’s past events including Sessions: Robotics, a cornerstone discipline at CMU.

TechCrunch City Spotlight: Pittsburgh features talks from Jahanian, local startups, and local leaders. More names will be announced in the coming weeks.

We’re still looking for startups to participate in the event. It’s free to register and participating in networking and watch the event (click here to register). It’s also free to apply to pitch your startup at the event (click here to apply). We’re looking for early stage companies from the greater Pittsburgh area that can give a two minute pitch to a panel of local venture capitalists in exchange for feedback.

Apple’s RealityKit 2 allows developers to create 3D models for AR using iPhone photos

By Sarah Perez

At its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announced a significant update to RealityKit, its suite of technologies that allow developers to get started building AR (augmented reality) experiences. With the launch of RealityKit 2, Apple says developers will have more visual, audio, and animation control when working on their AR experiences. But the most notable part of the update is how Apple’s new Object Capture technology will allow developers to create 3D models in minutes using only an iPhone.

Apple noted during its developer address that one of the most difficult parts of making great AR apps was the process of creating 3D models. These could take hours and thousands of dollars.

With Apple’s new tools, developers will be able take a series of pictures using just an iPhone (or iPad or DSLR, if they prefer) to capture 2D images of an object from all angles, including the bottom.

Then, using the Object Capture API on macOS Monterey, it only takes a few lines of code to generate the 3D model, Apple explained.

Image Credits: Apple

To begin, developers would start a new photogrammetry session in RealityKit that points to the folder where they’ve captured the images. Then, they would call the process function to generate the 3D model at the desired level of detail. Object Capture allows developers to generate the USDZ files optimized for AR Quick Look — the system that lets developers add virtual, 3D objects in apps or websites on iPhone and iPad. The 3D models can also be added to AR scenes in Reality Composer in Xcode.

Apple said developers like Wayfair, Etsy and others are using Object Capture to create 3D models of real-world objects — an indication that online shopping is about to get a big AR upgrade.

Wayfair, for example, is using Object Capture to develop tools for their manufacturers so they can create a virtual representation of their merchandise. This will allow Wayfair customers to be able to preview more products in AR than they could today.

Image Credits: Apple (screenshot of Wayfair tool))

In addition, Apple noted developers including Maxon and Unity are using Object Capture for creating 3D content within 3D content creation apps, such as Cinema 4D and Unity MARS.

Other updates in RealityKit 2 include custom shaders that give developers more control over the rendering pipeline to fine tune the look and feel of AR objects; dynamic loading for assets; the ability to build your own Entity Component System to organize the assets in your AR scene; and the ability to create player-controlled characters so users can jump, scale and explore AR worlds in RealityKit-based games.

One developer, Mikko Haapoja of Shopify, has been trying out the new technology (see below) and shared some real-world tests where he shot objects using an iPhone 12 Max via Twitter.

Developers who want to test it for themselves can leverage Apple’s sample app and install Monterey on their Mac to try it out.

Apple says there are over 14,000 ARKit apps on the App Store today, which have been built by over 9,000 different developers. With the over 1 billion AR-enabled iPhones and iPads being used globally, it notes that Apple offers the world’s largest AR platform.

Apple's Object Capture on a Pineapple. One of my fav things to test Photogrammetry against. This was processed using the RAW detail setting.

More info in thread 👇pic.twitter.com/2mICzbV8yY

— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021

Apple's Object Capture is the real deal. I'm impressed. Excited to see where @Shopify merchants could take this

Allbirds Tree Dashers. More details in thread 👇pic.twitter.com/fNKORtdtdB

— Mikko Haapoja (@MikkoH) June 8, 2021

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Maryland and Montana are restricting police access to DNA databases

By Carly Page

Maryland and Montana have become the first U.S. states to pass laws that make it tougher for law enforcement to access DNA databases.

The new laws, which aim to safeguard the genetic privacy of millions of Americans, focus on consumer DNA databases, such as 23andMe, Ancestry, GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, all of which let people upload their genetic information and use it to connect with distant relatives and trace their family tree. While popular — 23andMe has more than three million users, and GEDmatch more than one million — many are unaware that some of these platforms share genetic data with third parties, from the pharmaceutical industry and scientists to law enforcement agencies.

When used by law enforcement through a technique known as forensic genetic genealogy searching (FGGS), officers can upload DNA evidence found at a crime scene to make connections on possible suspects, the most famous example being the identification of the Golden State Killer in 2018. This saw investigators upload a DNA sample taken at the time of a 1980 murder linked to the serial killer into GEDmatch and subsequently identify distant relatives of the suspect — a critical breakthrough that led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo.

While law enforcement agencies have seen success in using consumer DNA databases to aid with criminal investigations, privacy advocates have long warned of the dangers of these platforms. Not only can these DNA profiles help trace distant ancestors, but the vast troves of genetic data they hold can divulge a person’s propensity for various diseases, predict addiction and drug response, and even be used by companies to create images of what they think a person looks like.

Ancestry and 23andMe have kept their genetic databases closed to law enforcement without a warrant, GEDmatch (which was acquired by a crime scene DNA company in December 2019) and FamilyTreeDNA have previously shared their database with investigators. 

To ensure the genetic privacy of the accused and their relatives, Maryland will, starting October 1, require law enforcement to get a judge’s sign-off before using genetic genealogy, and will limit its use to serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, and human trafficking. It also says that investigators can only use databases that explicitly tell users that their information could be used to investigate crimes. 

In Montana, where the new rules are somewhat narrower, law enforcement would need a warrant before using a DNA database unless the users waived their rights to privacy.

The laws “demonstrate that people across the political spectrum find law enforcement use of consumer genetic data chilling, concerning and privacy-invasive,” said Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “I hope to see more states embrace robust regulation of this law enforcement technique in the future.”

The introduction of these laws has also been roundly welcomed by privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the EFF, described the restrictions as a “step in the right direction,” but called for more states — and the federal government — to crack down further on FGGS.

“Our genetic data is too sensitive and important to leave it up to the whims of private companies to protect it and the unbridled discretion of law enforcement to search it,” Lynch said.

“Companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA have allowed and even encouraged law enforcement searches. Because of this, law enforcement officers are increasingly accessing these databases in criminal investigations across the country.”

A spokesperson for 23andMe told TechCrunch: “We fully support legislation that provides consumers with stronger privacy protections. In fact we are working on legislation in a number of states to increase consumer genetic privacy protections. Customer privacy and transparency are core principles that guide 23andMe’s approach to responding to legal requests and maintaining customer trust. We closely scrutinize all law enforcement and regulatory requests and we will only comply with court orders, subpoenas, search warrants or other requests that we determine are legally valid. To date we have not released any customer information to law enforcement.”

GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, both of which opt users into law enforcement searches by default, told the New York Times that they have no plans to change their existing policies around user consent in response to the new regulation. 

Ancestry did not immediately comment.

Read more:

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

ISEE brings autonomy to shipping hubs with self-driving yard trucks

By Devin Coldewey

Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.

Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.

Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.

ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao.  “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”

Two ISEE trucks without containers on the back.

Image Credits: ISEE

The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.

“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.

The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.

Overhead view of autonomous and ordinary trucks moving around a shipping yard.

Image Credits: ISEE

Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.

Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.

The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”

To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.

It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.

“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.

ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao (top), Debbie Yu (left), and Chris Baker.

ISEE Founders

“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”

Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.

So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.

Network security startup ExtraHop skips and jumps to $900M exit

By Ron Miller

Last year, Seattle-based network security startup ExtraHop was riding high, quickly approaching $100 million in ARR and even making noises about a possible IPO in 2021. But there will be no IPO, at least for now, as the company announced this morning it has been acquired by a pair of private equity firms for $900 million.

The firms, Bain Capital Private Equity and Crosspoint Capital Partners, are buying a security solution that provides controls across a hybrid environment, something that could be useful as more companies find themselves in a position where they have some assets on-site and some in the cloud.

The company is part of the narrower Network Detection and Response (NDR) market. According to Jesse Rothstein, ExtraHop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, it’s a technology that is suited to today’s threat landscape, “I will say that ExtraHop’s north star has always really remained the same, and that has been around extracting intelligence from all of the network traffic in the wire data. This is where I think the network detection and response space is particularly well-suited to protecting against advanced threats,” he told TechCrunch.

The company uses analytics and machine learning to figure out if there are threats and where they are coming from, regardless of how customers are deploying infrastructure. Rothstein said he envisions a world where environments have become more distributed with less defined perimeters and more porous networks.

“So the ability to have this high quality detection and response capability utilizing next generation machine learning technology and behavioral analytics is so very important,” he said.

Max de Groen, managing partner at Bain, says his company was attracted to the NDR space, and saw ExtraHop as a key player. “As we looked at the NDR market, ExtraHop, which […] has spent 14 years building the product, really stood out as the best individual technology in the space,” de Groen told us.

Security remains a frothy market with lots of growth potential. We continue to see a mix of startups and established platform players jockeying for position, and private equity firms often try to establish a package of services. Last week, Symphony Technology Group bought FireEye’s product group for $1.2 billion, just a couple of months after snagging McAfee’s enterprise business for $4 billion as it tries to cobble together a comprehensive enterprise security solution.

Sony’s best-in-class noise-cancelling earbuds finally get a pricey upgrade

By Brian Heater

It’s been two years since Sony raised the bar for wireless earbuds. Six months before Apple upped its own game with the AirPods Pro, the WF-1000XM3 set a new standard for sound and active noise cancelation. Since then, few companies have been able to match – let alone surpass – their performance.

After several weeks’ worth of leaks, the electronics giant is back with the WF-1000XM4 – a pair of buds it claims will best both the sound quality and ANC of the originals. It’s a high bar with an equally lofty price tag. The pricing was steep with the originals at $230, and now it seems Sony is really leaning in here at $280.

The wireless earbud category was already feeling crowded in 2019, but that’s nothing compared to where we’re at in 2021. There are also plenty of sub-$50 options out (you can also pick up decent Sony earbuds for under $100). Rather than finding a way to drop the cost, however, Sony is looking to cement a place at the truly premium end of spectrum, at $30 more than even the AirPods Pro.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, given how high the company set the bar with the M3s, I’m definitely looking forward to testing these things out (a pair just arrived, so more soon). The M4s could well make a great pair of travel headphones – when we start doing that more regularly. The company says the secret sauce here is the V1, a newly designed processor that both enhances the ANC and the sound quality on the buds.

“Specially developed by Sony, the newly designed Integrated Processor V1 takes the noise canceling performance of Sony’s acclaimed QN1e chip and goes even further,” the company writes. “With two noise sensing microphones on the surface of each earbud – one feed-forward and one feed-back – the headphones analyze ambient noise to provide highly accurate noise cancellation.”

There are beam-forming mics on board, as well, to capture sound directly from the speaker’s mouth and reduce unnecessary ambient noise. Interesting tidbit here, too, “The new bone-conduction sensor only picks up vibrations from the user’s voice, enabling even clearer speech when making calls.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s automatic wind noise reduction for when you’re outside, coupled with a new 6mm driver. The redesigned system promises richer bass and better sound with less distortion. Naturally, Sony has also brought over its High-Resolution Audio Wireless technology, capable of transmitting 3x the data of standard Bluetooth with up to 990 kbps, according to the company.

The buds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio – clearly something more manufacturers are looking at for high-end headphones, as they take small steps toward augmented audio. That feature needs to be enabled in the Sony app and naturally only works with select services. Adaptive Sound Control, meanwhile, adjusts playback volume based on ambient noise.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As mentioned above, I’ve got a pair sitting on my desk right now, and right off the bat, the charging case is significantly smaller than the M3, while still boasting a full 24 hours of life on a charge. The buds themselves get up to eight hours, which is around the industry standard for higher-end sets. Five minutes of charging the case should get you an hour of playback.

The shape has changed significantly from the M3. The long wings are now bulbous and sit above the ear canal. Curious to see whether this eases some of the pressure with long term use. The buds are rated IPX4 waterproof and work with both Google Assistant and Alexa. They’ll fast pair to Android devices and Windows 10 machines.

They’re available beginning today for $280.

Here’s what’s happening tomorrow at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Lauren Simonds

Tomorrow, June 9 is the big day, mobility fans! Get ready to rub virtual elbows with the brightest minds and makers, movers and shakers at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. You, along thousands of other attendees from around the world, will find insight, inspiration and, most of all, opportunity to help you make your mobility startup dreams a reality.

Procrastination Station: It’s not too late to join your community and get the inside scoop on the latest mobility trends and tech. Buy your pass now and drive this opportunity like you stole it.

The event agenda features 20 different presentations, interviews, panel discussions and breakout sessions on range of topics — everything from servicing EV charging stations, autonomous vehicles — and the AI that powers them — the state of venture capital (come get your SPAC on), public-private partnerships, equity and accessibility and, whoa, so much more.

We’re going to point out just a few of tomorrow’s highlights to whet your mobility whistle and to help you make the most of your time. You can kiss schedule conflicts goodbye, thanks to video-on-demand. Catch any session you miss later at your convenience.

Ready? Take a look at what’s happening tomorrow at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. Times listed below are EDT, but the agenda will automatically reflect your time zone.

12:05 pm – 12:35 pm

Self-Driving Deliveries: Autonomous vehicles and robotics were well on their way transforming deliveries before the pandemic struck. In the past year, these technologies have moved from novel applications to essential innovations. We’re joined by execs at Starship Technologies, Gatik and Nuro — each with individual approaches that span the critical middle and last mile of delivery.

1:45 pm – 2:05 pm

Public-Private Partnerships: Advancing the Future of Mobility and Electrification: The future of mobility starts with the next generation of transportation solutions. Attendees will hear from some of the most innovative names on opportunities that await when public and private entities team up to revolutionize the way we think about technology. Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer, will be joined by Nina Grooms Lee, Chief Product Officer of May Mobility.

3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Startup Pitch Feedback Session: Tune in as the 28 startups exhibiting at TC Mobility pitch to, and hear feedback from, TechCrunch staff. The pitch deck you improve by watching may be your own.

5:05 pm – 5:15 pm

EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with the founders poised to take advantage of the rise in electric vehicle sales. This time, we will chat with Evette Ellis, co-founder of ChargerHelp! a startup that enables on-demand repair of electric vehicle charging stations.

12:05 pm – 6:20 pm

Explore the expo: Don’t miss the 28 game-changing startups exhibiting in the expo area. Ask for a live demo, a product walk-through or simply start a conversation and see where it leads. Opportunity awaits.

And that, mobility fans, is the classic tip of the iceberg. Get a good night’s sleep, carbo-load and prepare for a marathon of opportunity at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. We’ll see you tomorrow!

Almanac is building a faster doc editor for the remote work era

By Lucas Matney

Few things have captured Silicon Valley-based investors’ attention in recent years quite like the quest to back the successor[s] to Google Docs. The estimable and entrenched productivity suite has been unbundled and repackaged into products that a number of multi-billion dollar tech startups have been built around.

All the while, entrepreneurs are continuing to poke holes in their predecessors’ lore, creating something faster, sleeker or more intuitive. For plenty of the current generation productivity startups, the journey to replace Google Docs and Microsoft Office got a historic shot in the arm this past year as a global pandemic gave remote work software companies a jot of attention.

“Covid has made everybody realize that the way that we were working had to change,” Almanac CEO Adam Nathan told TechCrunch. “The core tools we used for productivity, Microsoft Word and Google Docs were for when we did a completely different type of work.”

Almanac is trying to revamp the document editor in a package that’s quicker than products like Notion and far more intuitive than legacy software suites, Nathan says. Last year, the startup raised a $9 million seed round led by Floodgate and has been quietly building out its network of users in early access beta.

The document editor found its way into a disparate number of offices outside tech startups — from a Domino’s branch to a veterinary office — through its open source template library Core, a hub for user-submitted guides on everything from how to run a one-on-one meeting to how to structure salaries for your customer service team. There are 5,000 documents on Core which are accessible to any logged-in user, something that has been a sizable customer channel for the startup as more companies and offices across the country have begun to question some entrenched ways of doing things.

“There are way more people working in docs outside of Silicon Valley than in it,” Nathan says.

As a document editor, Almanac’s core offering is the ability to keep files organized in the way that companies actually organize themselves.

One of its hallmark features is the ability to track document changes in a way that makes Google Docs look completely unintelligible. User can easily make their own copies of documents, merge them with the original and quickly approve changes. Users can also get approval from their manager or another user in their network and ask for feedback along the way.

For tasks that require a bit more thought, people can use Almanac to add tasks to another users to-do list inside the documents themselves, a feature that they might have needed a project management tool like Asana to handle in the past. Updates for items a user has been assigned or has assigned to others live inside their own inbox where notifications flow automatically as documents evolve. The team believes that functionality like this inside Almanac will help teams cut down on unnecessary Slacking and let the documents speak for themselves.

This week we shipped a feature that makes writing in Almanac even faster: snippets. 🚀

Snippets enable you to save content (or whole docs) and easily reinsert them into a doc. 👇pic.twitter.com/YvmHBZM7dG

— Almanac 🌱 (@AlmanacDocs) May 14, 2021

The company is quickly iterating itself into new workflows — they recently launched a feature specifically around building and updating handbooks, and they also just shipped a feature called Snippets which allows users to save oft-used blocks of texts so they can quickly build up new documents.

In a crowded productivity software space, Almanac’s sell relies on users fully committing to the offering, that’s been a central struggle in the post-Microsoft Office era where users have often seen their productivity toolsets swell with tools claiming to cut down on confusion. This often isn’t the fault of the tools themselves, but with how organizations adopt new software. Almanac hopes that by focusing on common workflows inside documents, its users can resist the urge to open another app and instead realize the gains that come from centralizing feedback in one platform.

Blendoor data lets you know if companies are living up to diversity pledges

By Ron Miller

Many companies talk the talk when it comes to diversity, but it’s harder to know if a firm is actually going the extra mile to hire more qualified people from underrepresented groups, or if they just make noise about it. Blendoor, a six-year-old startup, wants to put data to work on the problem by giving companies a score based on publicly available data to let the world know just how diverse a company actually is.

Blendoor founder and CEO Stephanie Lampkin says that when she launched the company, it was more focused on finding qualified diverse candidates by mitigating unconscious bias in the hiring process. That involved removing name, age, gender or any other indications that could potentially create bias and just let the person’s work record stand on its own. She said that the startup targeted companies that had made public DEI pledges as a natural place to start.

As the company directed its efforts in this direction, however, Lampkin says that it quickly became apparent that the public positioning of a company, and how it directed its hiring resources, were often two different things, and she decided to switch focus. “So we decided to create an index, a credit score, and we pulled in a ton of data from their diversity reports, their EEO One forms if they publish them and all of this buzz around different pledges and investments and partnerships, etc.,” Lampkin told me.

She then took this data and structured it, normalized it and built an algorithm that could dynamically score companies much the same way that our credit rating or security scorecards work and make that information public.

She said the George Floyd killing was a turning point for her and the company. “When George Floyd [was killed] and I saw this resurgence of the diversity pledge, I decided that I don’t want to play in this diversity theater anymore and just be another check-the-box-solution that companies are using to demonstrate that they care,” she said.

She added, “So we decided to double down on BlendScore and in doing so hold companies accountable for all of these big financial commitments that they’re making in order to track the deployment of that capital, but also the downstream effects in terms of their hiring, retention, promotion rates, compensation equality, etc.”

That culminated in a report the company recent published looking at the data and finding that companies’ public stance doesn’t always match its public face, especially with pledges following Floyd’s death. “My initial purpose was to demonstrate if there is a negative correlation between pledges and performance — and the only area where we found that to be true was with Black employees versus Black Lives Matter pledges.” She says that everywhere else there was pretty consistent positive correlation around companies that said they wanted to improve in areas like gender diversity and pay equality, and those that were actually doing that.

In terms of making money, Lampkin says that she wants to focus on helping companies with governance when it comes to diversity pledges, especially for public companies, which will have to answer to a variety of constituencies, from investors to consumers. She also believes that their approach to measuring diversity will also increasingly have an impact on who wants to work at a company and the ability to attract the best talent.

She says that if people are insisting on making diversity a political stance, she’s going to focus on diversity as a fiduciary responsibility. While it may be good for society as a natural byproduct of that, some companies only see it through that governance lens, and if that’s the case, she intends to work that angle.

“I’m doubling down on ESG and fiduciary responsibility. No more talk about what’s good for a society. [It doesn’t matter] what you believe is good for society. This is now about risk management and ESG,” she said.

So far the company has 13 employees and she reports she’s raised about $1.7 million. She acknowledges raising money is a challenge, especially for a Black woman founder. It’s worth noting that fewer than 100 Black women have ever raised more than $1 million as of last year.

“It’s been really challenging. We’ve had to just survive off revenue, and think in part it’s because we sit at the intersection of social activism and for-profit venture, when a lot of investors are like Marc Andreessen they don’t see a path [for Stakeholder Capitalism], but I think that’s changing and the investor community claims to be on board for more impact investing, so we’ll see.”

CISA launches platform to let hackers report security bugs to US federal agencies

By Zack Whittaker

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has launched a vulnerability disclosure program allowing ethical hackers to report security flaws to federal agencies.

The platform, launched with the help of cybersecurity companies Bugcrowd and Endyna, will allow civilian federal agencies to receive, triage and fix security vulnerabilities from the wider security community.

The move to launch the platform comes less than a year after the federal cybersecurity agency, better known as CISA, directed the civilian federal agencies that it oversees to develop and publish their own vulnerability disclosure policies. These policies are designed to set the rules of engagement for security researchers by outlining what (and how) online systems can be tested, and which can’t be.

It’s not uncommon for private companies to run VDP programs to allow hackers to report bugs, often in conjunction with a bug bounty to pay hackers for their work. The U.S. Department of Defense has for years warmed to hackers, the civilian federal government has been slow to adopt.

Bugcrowd, which last year raised $30 million at Series D, said the platform will “give agencies access to the same commercial technologies, world-class expertise, and global community of helpful ethical hackers currently used to identify security gaps for enterprise businesses.”

The platform will also help CISA share information about security flaws between other agencies.

The platform launches after a bruising few months for government cybersecurity, including a Russian-led espionage campaign against at least nine U.S. federal government agencies by hacking software house SolarWinds, and a China-linked cyberattack that backdoored thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers, including in the federal government.

Apple Music launches Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio, adds Spatial Audio playlists

By Sarah Perez

Last month, Apple announced it would soon add lossless audio streaming and Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos to its Apple Music subscription at no extra charge. That upgrade has now gone live, Apple announced this morning — though many noticed the additions actually rolled out yesterday, following the WWDC keynote.

The entire Apple Music catalog of 75+ million songs will support lossless audio.

The lossless tier begins at CD quality — 16 bit at 44.1 kHz, and goes up to 24 bit at 48 kHz, Apple previously said. Audiophiles can also opt for the high-resolution lossless that goes up to 24 bit at 192 kHz. Apple has said you’ll need to use an external, USB digital-to-analog converter to take advantage of the latter — simply plugging in a pair of headphones to an iPhone won’t work.

Apple Music subscribers will be able to enable the new lossless option under Settings > Music > Audio quality. Here, you’ll be able to choose the different resolutions you want to use for different connections, including Wi-Fi, cellular, and download.

When you make your selection in Settings, iOS warns that lossless files will use “significantly more space” on your device, as 10 GB of storage would allow you to store approximately 3,000 songs at high quality, 1,000 songs with lossless, or 200 songs with high-res lossless.

Image Credits: Apple

Meanwhile, Spatial Audio will be enabled by default on hardware that supports Dolby Atmos, like Apple’s AirPods and Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip. The latest iPhone, iPad, and Mac models also support Dolby Atmos. Spatial Audio on Apple Music will also be “coming soon” to Android devices, Apple said.

To kick off launch, Apple Music is today rolling out new playlists designed to showcase Spatial Audio. These include:

Apple is also adding a special guide to Spatial Audio on Apple Music, which will help music listeners hear the difference. This will include tracks from artists like Marvin Gaye and The Weeknd, among others. And Apple will air a roundtable conversation about Spatial Audio featuring top sound engineers and experts, hosted by Zane Lowe at 9 am PT today on Apple Music.

Because songs have to be remastered for Dolby Atmos specifically, these guides and playlists will help music fans experience the new format without having to hunt around. Apple says it’s working with artists and labels to add more new releases and the best catalog tracks in Spatial Audio. To help on this front, Apple notes there are various initiatives underway — including doubling the number of Dolby-enabled studios in major markets, offering educational programs, and providing resources to independent artists.

Apple also said it will build music-authoring tools directly into Logic Pro. Later this year, the company plans to release an update to Logic Pro that will allow any musician to create and mix their songs in Spatial Audio for Apple Music.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

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