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Today — March 26th 2019Your RSS feeds

Uber is paying $3.1BN to pick up Middle East rival Careem

By Natasha Lomas

After months and months of rumors it’s finally been confirmed that ride-hailing giant Uber is picking up its Middle East rival Careem in an acquisition deal worth $3.1 billion — with $1.7BN to be paid in convertible notes and $1.4BN in cash.

Careem was founded as a ride-hailing rival to Uber in 2012 but has since diversified its business to include offerings such as food and package deliver, bus services and credit transfers — bolstered via acquisitions of its own, such as RoundMenu and Commut (both announced last year).

Uber writes that it will acquire all of Careem’s mobility, delivery, and payments businesses across the greater Middle East region, which it notes ranges from Morocco to Pakistan. Major markets are stated to include Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Uber writes that it expects the transaction to close in Q1 2020, pending applicable regulatory approvals.

Commenting in a statement, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said:

This is an important moment for Uber as we continue to expand the strength of our platform around the world. With a proven ability to develop innovative local solutions, Careem has played a key role in shaping the future of urban mobility across the Middle East, becoming one of the most successful startups in the region. Working closely with Careem’s founders, I’m confident we will deliver exceptional outcomes for riders, drivers, and cities, in this fast-moving part of the world.

While Careem CEO and co-founder, Mudassir Sheikha had this to say in another supporting statement:

Joining forces with Uber will help us accelerate Careem’s purpose of simplifying and improving the lives of people, and building an awesome organisation that inspires. The mobility and broader internet opportunity in the region is massive and untapped, and has the potential to leapfrog our region into the digital future. We could not have found a better partner than Uber under Dara’s leadership to realise this opportunity. This is a milestone moment for us and the region, and will serve as a catalyst for the region’s technology ecosystem by increasing the availability of resources for budding entrepreneurs from local and global investors.

Upon closing, Careem will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Uber — and will continue to operate under its own brand, with Sheikha leading the Careem business.

Careem under Uber’s ownership will report to its own board made up of three representatives from Uber and two representatives from Careem.

There is some overlap in regional market operation currently. So it remains to be seen whether both brands will continue to operate in cities such as Cairo or Casablanco — or whether Careem might ultimately prevail as the selected brand for Middle Eastern and select Asian markets.

Initially it sounds like there’s no plan to make major market changes, with Uber writing that the pair will operate their respective regional services as well as independent brands.

It describes the acquisition as a marriage of its “global leadership and technical expertise with Careem’s regional technology infrastructure and proven ability to develop innovative local solutions”, suggesting the acquisition will support enable the pair to offer “diverse mobility, delivery and payment options”, while bolstering regional transportation infrastructure “at scale”. 

“It will speed up the delivery of digital services to people in the region through the development of a consumer-facing super-app that offers services such as Careem’s digital payment platform (Careem Pay) and last-mile delivery (Careem NOW),” Uber further suggests.

Uber also claims the acquisition will support an expansion in the “variety and reliability” of services offered, touting a “broader range of price points” for ride-hailing consumers, while claiming too that drivers working for the two brands should expect an increase in trip growth and “improved services” supporting better work opportunities and “higher and more predictable earnings” by making better use of their time on the road.

Albeit they would say that wouldn’t they. And certainly it remains to be seen how consolidation of the two regional ride-hailing rivals will have a positive impact on consumer prices for such services in the region.

In a memo to Uber staff obtained by CNBC, Khosrowshahi couches the move as a “big leap” for Uber, pointing to strong growth in markets such as Pakistan and other regional developments such as Saudi Arabia opening up to women drivers as putting wind in ride-hailing’s sails.

On the structural decision to allow Careem to maintain an independent brand and operate separately, he says this was chosen after “careful consideration”.

“[W]e decided that this framework has the advantage of letting us build new products and try new ideas across not one, but two, strong brands, with strong operators within each. Over time, by integrating parts of our networks, we can operate more efficiently, achieve even lower wait times, expand new products like high-capacity vehicles and payments, and quicken the already remarkable pace of innovation in the region,” he says, adding that he expects “very little” to change in either teams’ day-to-day operations post-close since both companies will “continue to largely operate separately after the acquisition”.

 

Careem has raised around $772M to date, according to Crunchbase, with investors including Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holdings, Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and Japanese tech giant Rakuten.

This story is developing… refresh for updates…

Apple TV+ makes Facebook Watch look like a joke

By Josh Constine

Apple flexed its wallet today in a way Facebook has scared to do. Tech giants make money by the billions, not the millions, which should give them an easy way to break into premium video distribution: buy some must-see content. That’s the strategy I’ve been advocating for Facebook but that Apple actually took to heart. Tim Cook wrote lines of zeros on some checks, and suddenly Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Oprah became the well-known faces of Apple TV+.

Facebook Watch has…MTV’s The Real World? The other Olsen sister? Re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Actually, Facebook Watch is dominated by the kind of low-quality viral video memes the social network announced it would kick out of its News Feed for wasting people’s time.

And so while Apple TV+ at least has a solid base camp from which to make the uphill climb to compete with Netflix, Facebook Watch feels like it’s tripping over its own feet.

Today, Apple gave a preview of its new video subscription service that will launch in fall offering unlimited access to old favorites and new exclusives for a monthly fee. Yet even without any screenshots or pricing info, Apple still got people excited by dangling its big-name content.

Spielberg is making short films out of the Amazing Stories anthology that inspired him as a child. Abrams is spinning a tale of a musician’s rise called Little Voice Witherspoon and Aniston star in The Morning Show about anchoring a news program. And Oprah is bringing documentaries about workplace harassment and mental health.

This tentpole tactic will see Apple try to draw users into a free trial of Apple TV+ with this must-see content and then convince them to stay. And a compelling, exclusive reason to watch is exactly what’s been missing from…Facebook Watch. Instead, it chose to fund a wide array of often unscripted reality and documentary shorts that never felt special or any better than what else was openly available on the Internet, let alone what you could get from a subscription. It now claims to have 75 million people Watching at least one minute per day, but it’s failed to spawn a zeitgeist moment. Even as Facebook has scrambled to add syndicated TV cult favorites like Firefly or soccer matches to free, ad-supported video service, it’s failed to sign on anything truly newsworthy.

That’s just not going to fly anymore. Tech has evolved past the days when media products could win just based on their design, theoretical virality, or the massive audiences they’re cross-promoted to. We’re anything but starved for things to watch or listen to. And if you want us to frequent one more app or sign up for one more subscription, you’ll need A-List talent that makes us take notice. Netflix has Stranger Things. HBO has Game Of Thrones. Amazon has the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Disney+ has…Marvel, Star Wars, and the princesses. And now Apple has the world’s top directors and actresses.

Video has become a battle of the rich. Apple didn’t pull any punches. Facebook will need to buy some new fighters if Watch is ever going to deserve a place in the ring.

Abundant’s apple harvesting robots get their first commercial deployment

By Brian Heater

We’ve been writing about Abundant Robotics for roughly three years at this point. Now the SRI spin out is finally ready for primetime. Abundant announced this week that New Zealand-based T&G Global will be using its robots to harvest apples.

Abundant says the news is part of a plan to be involved in year-round picking, by teaming with companies in both hemispheres, starting with this first deployment in New Zealand.

“Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself,” Abundant CEO Dan Steere said in a press release tied to the announcement. “Our relationship with growers and access to real-world conditions on partner orchards through the development and testing process has been key to getting the technology to the point where it is now commercially viable.”

Abundant’s been piloting its technology on a smaller scale for a while now, but the T&G deal marks the company’s first commercial deployment. To date, the Bay Area based company has raised $12 million, including a $10 million Series A led by GV (Google Ventures) back in 2017. It’s a small but important start for robotic technologies that have the potential to revolutionize the way food is harvested around the globe. 

No Man’s Sky’s next update will let you explore infinite space in virtual reality

By Taylor Hatmaker

No Man’s Sky just figured out a way to make a wildly absorbing space exploration game even more immersive.

Announced during Sony’s first PlayStation State of Play update, No Man’s Sky devotees will soon be able to explore an endless procedurally generated universe in virtual reality. Hello Games’ Sean Murray followed Sony’s news with a bit more color on Twitter, detailing what No Man’s Sky would look like when given the VR treatment.

The VR update is part of No Man’s Sky Beyond, the development team’s latest extremely generous bundle of new content, doled out to existing players for free. No Man’s Sky’s virtual reality makeover will launch on PlayStation VR and Steam VR this summer.

The VR update will bring enhance the first-person perspective of the existing game, allowing players to steer a starship using their thruster, reach into a bag to fetch their multitool and wave to fellow players meandering around the vastness of space.

No Man's Sky Virtual Reality is not a separate mode. Anything that is possible in NEXT or any other update is ready and waiting in VR. pic.twitter.com/zSMSCaz4es

— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) March 25, 2019

While we don’t know all of the details yet, that experience will dovetail nicely with the forthcoming feature cluster known as No Man’s Sky Online, “a radical new social and multiplayer experience” for the at times isolated space sim.

“No Man’s Sky Virtual Reality is not a separate mode, but the entire game brought to life in virtual reality,” Murray wrote in a blog post. According to Murray the update will offer “a true VR experience rather than a port.”

You can get a glimpse of how this will look in a teaser video, though since much of it depicts normal gameplay plenty of surprise is still in store. Assuming the game runs well enough, No Man’s Sky Virtual Reality will be a far cry from gimmicky VR games that lack true depth, offering one of the most expansive — if not the most expansive — VR experiences to date.

No Man’s Sky fans should still keep an eye out — there’s one more mystery announcement left for the Beyond update, which is shaping up to make the No Man’s Sky world more epic than anyone who played the game at launch could ever have hoped for.

“By bringing full VR support, for free, to the millions of players already playing the game, No Man’s Sky will become perhaps the most-owned VR title when released,” Murray wrote.

“We are excited for that moment when millions of players will suddenly update and be able to set foot on their home planets and explore the intricate bases they have built in virtual reality for the first time.”

A look inside crypto firm Galaxy Digital, founded by “sidelined” Wall Street legend Mike Novogratz

By Connie Loizos

Mike Novogratz, a former hedge fund manager who was once captain of Princeton’s college wrestling team, has been described as many things, including in just one New Yorker article in which he was featured last year.  An on-and-off-again billionaire. A sidelined Wall Street legend. “Bombastic.” “Full of shit.” A former party animal whose “lifestyle issues” led to his removal as a partner at Goldman Sachs back in 2000.

While Novogratz appears to be beloved by many friends, despite these qualities or perhaps because of them, he may be more notable as a risk-taker who has racked up big wins — and big losses — first at Goldman, then at Fortress Investments. Now, he’s trying to rebuild his fortune with his own merchant bank, Galaxy Digital, which describes itself as a “bridge between the crypto and institutional worlds,” and which is squarely focused on cryptocurrencies and the promise of new blockchain technologies. It may be a smashing success, but failure looks like an option again, too. At least, as of November, Galaxy had suffered at least $136 million in trading losses.

To better understand the firm and whether it has what it takes to stick around, we talked last week with Sam Englebart, a longtime media and tech investor who first began managing money for Novogratz’s family office and wound up cofounding Galaxy with him. Englebart  — who was visiting San Francisco from New York for the weeklong Game Developers Conference  —  oversees the outfit’s principal investments business and the EOS.io Ecosystem Fund, a $325 million joint venture with Block.one that’s focused on making investments in projects that utilize the EOS.io blockchain software. We asked about Galaxy’s not-very-good 2018 and how Englebart, Novogratz, and the rest of their 75-person team can produce the returns they expect to see. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: For our readers who aren’t familiar with Galaxy Digital, what’s the elevator pitch? 

SE: It’s an investment bank with a balance sheet to invest. We invest in everything blockchain and crypto related and in the future of tech broadly. We had two pools of capital, our balance sheet, and we’re also publicly traded in Toronto [having executed a reverse merger with a shell company on the exchange].  We’ve invested several hundred million dollars already in blockchain and crypto investments and tokens.

TC: One of the things you oversee is a venture fund that counts Block.one as the only limited partner other than Galaxy. Block.one develops software known as eos.io, a blockchain-based infrastructure software.

SE: It’s an evolution of bitcoin and ethereum; it’s another blockchain protocol that allows [developers] to build applications atop it that are decentralized. Block.one did a token sale and had enormous success, raising $4 billion dollars. And having raised all this money for the development of their protocol, they wanted to allocate some of it back to professional VCs who could then invest in way that’s beneficial to [its own] ecosystem, so they committed $1 billion to partner VC funds. Well, they are managing $400 million themselves, and $600 million is being managed by five partner funds, of which we’re managing $300 million. [The funds] are all geographically diverse. We’re the largest and cover North America.

TC: And you kicked in $25 million to have some skin in the game. Do you co-invest in anything with the other partner funds or share deal flow in any way? Also, does Block.one have to sign off on what you want to fund?

SE: Generally speaking, we’re trying to stay somewhat close to our geography, but if we see a great deal in Asia, we might share it with [former Jefferies Asia CEO Michael Alexander, the fund manager there] and take a share. And ours is ultimately a fund managed by Galaxy. We work closely and collaboratively with [Block.one] but they aren’t technically on our investment committee.

TC: What other products does Galaxy have?

SE: We’re also in the process of raising a credit and special opportunities fund to make structured credit investments in the . space. We have an index fund. It’s a portfolio of investment products. Galaxy Digital more broadly has an investment business, a trading business — Mike is best-known for and been a macro trader for most of his career and is now trading around crypto tokens and liquid products — and then and advisory business, too. We’re a registered broker-dealer doing M&A advisory, increasingly focusing on what we think will be opportunities as startups begin to [consolidate their efforts], and also doing traditional capital raising for startups and later-stage companies.

TC: Of those, which is your biggest business?

SE: Our investment business is our biggest business by far. Our trading business is growing quickly, even through a downturn in the market, though it’s really taking the longest to stand up as any trading business would. Our advisory business is [the most nascent].

TC: Galaxy found a way to go public back in August. Why was that important to the firm to do?

SE: If we’d just wanted to be a venture business, we didn’t need to go public. But we’re in this phase where institutional investors are going to want and need exposure to blockchain [investments] and crypto, while at the same time, it’s going to be a while before they feel comfortable buying these assets directly. Things are changing. Andreessen Horowitz has a [crypto] fund. [Former Sequoia Capital partner] Matt Huang has a fund now.  They’re credible investors. But change takes time. And in terms of custody and insurance and CYA-type stuff, we felt having a public currency was the easiest way for investors to do it who don’t want to lock up their capital in a fund but who want to bet broadly across the space.

Not much of the company is floated. We think that as we prove out what we’re building [that will change].

TC: Is it safe to say that last year was pretty brutal, especially given that the firm officially opened its doors last January?

SE: Oh, yeah, definitely, though it was a somewhat predictable selloff from in hindsight. I don’t care what the asset class it is — when things go up with that kind of velocity, they tend to come down with equal momentum. People got very excited. What’s unique about crypto and blockchain relative to other retail [offerings is that it’s] possible for the average person to buy into the frenzy. The development of other tech has involved professional investors taking risk in a calculated manner, but suddenly, [crypto] was available to everyone. And it was the evolution of crowdfunding and social media and information spreads fast, and when the message is that you can get rich fast, people are going to go for it.

Presumably, many retail investors who got in got out, along with people who’d been in the space a while and took their profits. So things were never as good or as bad as they seemed. Despite the ‘crypto winter,’ companies have been [at work] and a lot of the hype is turning into actual working technology.

TC: So no more frenzies or bubbles?

SE: We’ll definitely see more as this technology continues to develop. We’re still a ways away from it being the seamless technology we enjoy with the web. But it’s probably not all that different from what we lived through the last time around, where a few companies become massively important and a lot of them don’t.

TC: How do you rate SEC chief Jay Clayton? Are you in favor of SEC regulating more of this new world?

SE: Yes, for sure. Fair, researched, smart regulation is absolutely what an industry like this needs, along with making sure people understand that there will be standards in terms of behavior and business practices that every industry needs. I think the more, reasonable regulation we have, the better everyone will be.

TC: Is there a country whose regulations or approach you’d like the U.S. to adopt?

SE: There isn’t one particular place where I think, The U.S. should do this. We’re our own unique country, with our own issues and problems and benefits. I do [hope that] in an increasingly global world, we don’t over-regulate ourselves to the point of people building technology elsewhere. There’s a lot at stake.

TC: What has you most excited right now about the deals you’re seeing?

SE: Video games and digital objects are one of the reasons I’m excited. Many will integrate blockchain technology in important ways that will matter this year, and,  by the way, I don’t think we’re many years away from web 3.0 and the decentralized internet from being ubiquitous in the same way that we’d be shocked today if we encountered a business that had no exposure to the internet.

TC: What applications are close?

SE: The trickiest thing is to remember [not to expect an] old medium with a new tech thing stuck on it. The reason there’s been so much talk about blockchain and video games, for example, is because the [gaming] world is made up of digital objects. Meanwhile, people have recognized that the blockchain allows you to create truly scarce digital objects that someone can truly own and trade as they as they would a physical object. With respect to gaming, that means you can truly start to own the digital objects you are [using in gaming] or, if you’re a collector of certain physical objects, how you collect them will become gamified in digital ways.

Consider that owning something is really about status. You show your friends, you achieve the status of owning that thing, then you either put it in your closet or trade it for money. In the digital world, you don’t have to go through the process of dealing with that physical object that has to be stored or else packed and shipped to someone else. There’s a startup for example, VIRL, that buys custom shoes, then digitizes them using a volumetric camera system that turns them into a 3D object that you can see on your phone and authenticate as being one of say, only 10 copies. These digital sneakers — these non-fungible tokens — can then remain in the collector’s inventory or be made tradable through an exchange. And it just takes a second. You can have your item instantly.

The lines between commerce and gaming and trading grow more blurred by the day.

TC: What’s your driving thesis?

SE: That the digital world will be no different than the physical world as we invest more and more time in digital worlds and our digital identity, and included in that is the inventory of stuff we own. We’re going to demand that no one can take that away from us.

Above: Mike Novogratz speaks during the 2018 Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at The Times Center on September 20, 2018 in New York City.

Yesterday — March 25th 2019Your RSS feeds

Talk Apple news with TechCrunch EIC Matthew Panzarino

By Eric Eldon

Apple rolled out major updates to main consumer services today, including a new Apple credit card, an ad-free TV subscription service, a paywalled version of News (that includes Extra Crunch), and a gaming platform upgrade.

TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino attended live to hear the latest, and I can tell you that he has already developed some strong opinions…. Tomorrow at 10:30 am PT, Extra Crunch members will get to hear first-hand from him about the ins and outs of the company’s latest media offerings.

Tune in to listen to the details about what happened onstage and off, as well as the opportunity to ask Matthew anything Apple.

To listen to this and all future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

McDonald’s is acquiring Dynamic Yield to create a more customized drive-thru

By Anthony Ha

McDonald’s is announcing an agreement to acquire personalization company Dynamic Yield.

The announcement does not include a price, but a source with knowledge of the deal said that it’s more than $300 million. This is the fast food chain’s largest acquisition in 20 years.

Dynamic Yield works with brands across e-commerce, travel, finance and media to create what’s been described as an Amazon-style personalized online experience.

McDonald’s said it will use this technology to create a drive-thru menu that can be tailored to things like the weather, current restaurant traffic and trending menu items. Once you’ve started ordering, the display can also recommend additional items based on what you’ve already chosen.

In fact, the company said it tested this in several U.S. locations in 2018. The plan is to start rolling this out across the United States in 2019, and then to move into international markets. McDonald’s also plans to integrate this technology into other digital products, like self-serve kiosks and the McDonald’s mobile app.

“Technology is a critical element of our Velocity Growth Plan, enhancing the experience for our customers by providing greater convenience on their terms,” said McDonald’s president and CEO Steve Easterbrook in a statement. “With this acquisition, we’re expanding both our ability to increase the role technology and data will play in our future and the speed with which we’ll be able to implement our vision of creating more personalised experiences for our customers.”

The plan that Easterbrook is referring to was first announced in March 2017, with a focus on technology like the McDonald’s mobile app and its Experience of the Future stores.

At the same time, McDonald’s said Dynamic Yield will continue to operate as a standalone company serving existing and future clients, and that it will continue to invest in the core personalization technology.

According to Crunchbase, Dynamic Yield has raised a total of $83.3 million from investors, including Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer Venture Partners and Marker Capital, as well as strategic backers like Naver (which owns the messaging apps Line and Snow), Baidu, The New York Times and Deutsche Telekom.

“We started Dynamic Yield seven years ago with the premise that customer-centric brands must make personalization a core activity,” said Dynamic Yield co-founder and CEO Lior Agmon in a statement. “We’re thrilled to be joining an iconic global brand such as McDonald’s and are excited to innovate in ways that have a real impact on people’s daily lives.”

Deep Science AI joins Defendry to automatically detect crimes on camera

By Devin Coldewey

Deep Science AI made its debut on stage at Disrupt NY 2017, showing in a live demo how its computer vision system could spot a gun or mask in CCTV footage, potentially alerting a store or security provider to an imminent crime. The company has now been acquired in a friendly merger with Defendry, which is looking to deploy the tech more widely.

It’s a great example of a tech-focused company looking to get into the market, and a market-focused company looking for the right tech.

The idea was that if you have a chain of 20 stores, and 3 cameras at each store, and people can only reliably keep an eye on 8-10 feeds at a time, you’re looking at a significant personnel investment just to make sure those cameras aren’t pointless. If instead you used Deep Science AI’s middle layer that highlighted shady situations like guns drawn, one person could conceivably keep an eye on hundreds of feeds. It was a good pitch, though they didn’t take the cup that year.

“The TechCrunch battlefield was a great launching off point as far as getting our name and capabilities out there,” said Deep Science AI co-founder Sean Huver in an interview (thanks for the plug, Sean). “We had some really large names in the retail space request pilots. But we quickly discovered that there wasn’t enough in the infrastructure as far as what actually happens next.”

That is to say, things like automated security dispatch, integration with private company servers and hardware, that sort of thing.

“You really need to build the monitoring around the AI technology rather than the other way around,” Huver admitted.

Meanwhile, Pat Sullivan at Defendry was working on establishing automated workflows for internet of things devices — from adjusting the A/C if the temperature exceeds certain bounds to, Sullivan realized at some point, notifying a company of serious problems like robberies and fires.

“One of the most significant alerts that could take place is someone has a gun and is doing something bad,” he said. “why can’t our workflows kick off an active response to that alert, with notifications and tasks, etc? That led me to search for a weapons and dangerous situations dataset, which led me to Sean.”

Although the company was still only in prototype phase when it was on stage, the success of its live demo with a team member setting off an alert in a live feed (gutsy to attempt this) indicated that it was actually functional — unlike, as Sullivan discovered, many other companies advertising the same thing.

“Everyone said they had the goods, but when you evaluated, they really didn’t,” he opined. “Almost all of them wanted to build it for us — for a million dollars. But when we came across Deep Science we were thrilled to see that they actually could do what they said they could do.”

Ideally, he went on to suggest, the system could be not just an indicator of crimes in progress but crimes about to begin: a person donning a mask or pulling out a gun in a parking lot could trigger exterior doors to lock, for instance. And when a human checks in, either the police could be on their way before the person reaches the entrance, or it could be a false positive and the door could be unlocked before anyone even noticed anything had happened.

Now, one part of the equation that’s mercifully not necessarily relevant here is that of bias in computer vision algorithms. We’ve seen how women and people of color — to start — are disproportionately affected by error, misidentification, and so on. I asked Huver and Sullivan if these issues were something they had to accommodate.

Luckily this tech doesn’t rely on facial analysis or anything like that, they explained.

“We’re really stepping around that issue because we’re focusing on very distinct objects,” said Huver. “There’s behavior and motion analysis, but the accuracy rates just aren’t there to perform at scale for what we need.”

“We’re not keeping a list of criminals or terrorists and trying to match their face to the list,” added Sullivan.

The two companies talked licensing but ultimately decided they’d work best as a single organization, and just a couple weeks ago finalized the paperwork. They declined to detail the financials, which is understandable given the hysteria around AI startups and valuations.

They’re working together with Avinet, a security hardware provider that will essentially be the preferred vendor for setups put together by the Defendry team for clients and has invested an undisclosed amount in the partnership. We’ll be following the progress of this Battlefield success story closely.

On the ground with TechCrunch at GDC 2019

By Lucas Matney

The Game Developers Conference was held last week in San Francisco and we wanted to get together to discuss what we saw at the show for Extra Crunch members.

VR, gaming engines, Unity, Unreal and Epic were just some of the topics we touched upon. But perhaps the biggest of all was Google’s new game-streaming service Stadia. Lucas had the opportunity to play with Stadia in a room at the Four Seasons and was a little underwhelmed at first.

I was playing it on a hotel TV hooked up to a laptop and I think I was connecting to a data center in San Jose which was about 50 miles away, which is definitely on the low end if they are rolling it out across the entire United States. But, when I started, the demo was a little like — I think they just had the system on for a couple of hours when I tried it and immediately it was awful. There were so many problems with it. And I was playing Doom 2016 and was just like clicking the trigger, and then a half second later it was firing a shot.

And I could just see over my shoulder just all of these, the Google execs and then the PR people, they were just like kind of making low chit chat like, “Oh shit.” Then one of these guys just grabs the controller from me and is like, “Yeah it kind of seems like we’re having some issues, we’re just going to restart the system.”

While Google Stadia was the big talk of the week, Eric had a chance to learn more about Unity and Unreal offerings, both of which unveiled a number of new features for developers, as well as their expansion into spaces beyond gaming.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Cross-border fintech startup Airwallex raises $100M at a valuation of over $1B

By Jon Russell

Australia-based Airwallex is the tech startup to enter the billion-dollar ‘unicorn club.’ The company announced today that it has closed a $100 million Series C round that values its business above $1 billion.

Started in Melbourne in 2015 by four Chinese founders, Airwallex provides a service that lets companies manage cross-border revenue and financing in their business much like an alternative to consumer-focused service TransferWise.

Its customers can, for example, set up overseas bank accounts if they have paying customers overseas. When they want to move that revenue back to their HQ, they simply do so through the Airwallex system which uses inter-bank exchanges to trade forex at a mid-market rate. That’s something that can save its clients as much as 90 percent on their foreign exchange rates, and it massively simplifies the challenge of doing business overseas.

This new round of funding is led by DST Global — the high profile investors that’s backed the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Xiaomi and more — with participation from returning investors that include Sequoia China, Tencent, Hillhouse Capital, Gobi Partners, Horizons Ventures and Australia’s SquarePeg Capital. Airwallex has now raised over $200 million; its previous investment was an $80 million raise around nine months ago.

Most impressively, the company has become a unicorn within three years of its launch — that’s an impressive feat, the company has come a long way since we wrote about its $3 million seed round in late 2016. CEO Jack Zhang told TechCrunch that the company is being public with its valuation for the first time because it provides a major validation that will help it build a reputation and develop additional services in the financial services space.

“We talked to a number of global funds we found interesting but we picked DST because our biggest priority is international expansion and [the firm will] help us opening doors and going after larger opportunities,” Zhang said of the lead investor for the round.

Indeed, the Airwallex vision has grown since that seed round. Today the company has eight offices worldwide, over 260 staff, and it helped send “billions” of U.S. dollars worldwide through its payment flows. This year it expects that number to grow to “tens of billions,” while it has also expanded its focus in terms of both customers and services.

“Traditionally, we served a lot of the internet companies, but now we are saying that it doesn’t matter about size,” Zhang said. “We want to go after small companies and help all businesses to grow and expand globally.”

On the product side, he added that “the vision has evolved and now we’re building a fundamental global finance infrastructure.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, Zhang said Airwallex wants to be more than just a cross-border partner for companies. It already offers services like virtual bank accounts in 50 countries, it plugs in to partners to offer other financial services and its planned future products include credit card issuance to allow companies to manage money overseas with greater granular control.

Indeed, already Airwallex has an internal team nicknamed ‘Alpha/ that helps SMEs and other businesses to grow overseas, while Zhang said it has made undisclosed investments in companies where it sees an aligned ‘global’ vision.

“Alpha identifies early-stage companies and helps them to grow,” Zhang explained. “Whether they work with us or not we don’t care, we help connect them to investors and networks.”

Airwallex founders (left to right) Xijing Dai, Jack Zhang, Lucy Liu, Max Li

The idea for the business came to Zhang, who spent time at Australia banks ANZ and NAB, after he grew frustrated of the challenges of importing overseas goods for a coffee business that he invested in with friends.

“We were importing from overseas and paying Western Union a bunch of money,” he recalls. “It was all very slow.”

Airwallex has fixed that problem for any would-be international-minded coffee shop owners/investors, but Zhang is convinced that the future of his business is to be an ecosystem for global banking and financial services. Precisely what that might mean in the future isn’t clear. But looking at companies that work closely with business customers, Airwallex is ideally placed to offer loans and financing, either directly or via partners, and really involve itself in growing its customers and their businesses.

Having started focused on Asia — and China in particular — Zhang is gunning for global growth, and that really means the U.S. and U.K and growing beyond Airwallex’s offices in London and San Francisco. The company is looking to kickstart that push through acquisitions, with Zhang admitting his team is “actively seeking interesting payment startups in the U.K and the U.S.”

Airwallex is also casting its eye on banking licenses in selected markets, which could mean it returns to raise additional capital at the end of this year or the startup of 2020.

The company isn’t saying too much about its own financials at this point. Airwallex makes its money taking an undisclosed cut of the transactions its clients make — Zhang calls it “tiny” but he said revenue grew five-fold last year while it is seeing “double-digit” growth on a monthly basis. The economy is running on solid unit economics, he maintains.

For now, the backing of its investors is allowing Airwallex to grow its business without needing to focus on making money. That’s proven tricky for some fintech companies — such as TransferWise and Europe’s challenger banks — but Zhang is confident that when that changes, his company will have little trouble being sustainable.

“We believe that there are huge opportunities for companies such as Airbnb and Amazon while SMEs need a true one-stop shop for their business to go from local to global. We know we have so many revenue streams we can get on the future, [but for now we are] focused on customer acquisition and helping our customers to scale,” he said.

Verified Expert Lawyer: Mike Lincoln

By Eric Eldon

In 1999, Mike Lincoln co-founded the first East Coast office of top Silicon Valley law firm Cooley LLP. Over the last two decades, he has built out the practice to extend well beyond the region, today covering Boston and New York too, while also heading up the firm’s business department, and serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia.

Along the way, he has collected an impassioned group of founder clients, more than two dozen of whom had a lot to tell us about how he has helped them.


On being a startup lawyer:

“[I]f you really believe you can make dreams happen and that you can help create jobs and you can help cure disease and other things that startups do, then your practice will flourish and the money will follow because people will see it in your eyes. They’ll see that you’re passionate about helping to grow a company, helping to solve real world problems, helping to create jobs…. You should not do this because you are trying to figure out a way to make millions of dollars. You do it just like entrepreneurs do it with, passion and commitment and a higher calling to try in your own small way to change the world.”

“He is my first recommendation to any founder and I work with him on every project that presents the opportunity.” Hooman Radfar, San Francisco, Partner at Expa

On his approach:

“Early on, I think it is being part of a firm that values the time spent going out to scout for new companies. And then once you’ve found them, I think that the key role — to use another metaphor — is to be a good Sherpa. A startup lawyer is climbing the mountain with the entrepreneur and there are lots of paths up the mountain and knowing which path to take on which day is the role that I think a good startup lawyer plays which is not really pure legal advice.”

On the DC-area tech scene:

“There is a rich talent pool here of people often coming out of government or three-letter agencies that start companies grounded in cybersecurity and national defense. So for example, we just did the Tenable IPO here in the DC market. That would be an example of a local company that I work with that was born out of that sort of DNA. And then another example of that would be a company like Netwitness which I worked with from early on which and which sold to EMC. Yet another of a strong company in this sector is Mandiant which we helped to sell to FireEye for $1.3 billion.”

Below, you’ll find founder recommendations, the full interview, and more details like their pricing and fee structures.

This article is part of our ongoing series covering the early-stage startup lawyers who founders love to work with, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely so please fill it out if you haven’t already. If you’re trying to navigate the early-stage legal landmines, be sure to check out our growing set of in-depth articles, like this checklist of what you need to get done on the corporate side in your first years as a company.

 


The Interview

Eric Eldon: I’d love to hear more about your background and how you got into startup law.

Mike Lincoln: Out of law school, I clerked for a federal appellate court judge in Chicago and then I went to Latham & Watkins in DC. I have always been drawn to entrepreneurship and startups. I started a few very small companies myself in high school and after college and so had a bit of the entrepreneurial bug. After more of a Wall Street type of practice at Latham, I saw what was going on in the Washington DC market in the 90s. Venture capital was starting to flow in to the market and companies like AOL were going public and I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do. I want to go work with startups and emerging companies and venture backed companies.” And so I set out to go do just that.

After talking to a few Silicon Valley based law firms, we ended up deciding to go with Cooley. So Joe Conroy and I launched the office 1999 in Reston, Virginia and that was really the first Silicon Valley firm to make the move East. For the next decade after that, we were heads down building a practice and a brand up and down the East coast. My co-founder Joe Conroy is now the CEO of Cooley and I am now head of the business department. Even though I live in the DC area, I spend a great deal of time in Palo Alto because that’s where we’re headquartered and I have spent a lot of time in more recent years helping to launch our offices in New York, Boston, London, Los Angeles, Brussels and other places. But despite my travel schedule and my firm duties, I still do exactly what I have always done and that is to work with interesting entrepreneurs and startups every day of the week. That’s what I love to do.

Mobileye CEO clowns on Nvidia for allegedly copying self-driving car safety scheme

By Devin Coldewey

While creating self-driving car systems, it’s natural that different companies might independently arrive at similar methods or results — but the similarities in a recent “first of its kind” Nvidia proposal to work done by Mobileye two years ago were just too much for the latter company’s CEO to take politely.

Amnon Shashua, in a blog post on parent company Intel’s news feed cheekily titled “Innovation Requires Originality, openly mocks Nvidia’s “Safety Force Field,” pointing out innumerable similarities to Mobileye’s “Responsibility Sensitive Safety” paper from 2017.

He writes:

It is clear Nvidia’s leaders have continued their pattern of imitation as their so-called “first-of-its-kind” safety concept is a close replica of the RSS model we published nearly two years ago. In our opinion, SFF is simply an inferior version of RSS dressed in green and black. To the extent there is any innovation there, it appears to be primarily of the linguistic variety.

Now, it’s worth considering the idea that the approach both seem to take is, like many in the automotive and autonomous fields and others, simply inevitable. Car makers don’t go around accusing each other of using the similar setup of four wheels and two pedals. It’s partly for this reason, and partly because the safety model works better the more cars follow it, that when Mobileye published its RSS paper, it did so publicly and invited the industry to collaborate.

Many did, and as Shashua points out, including Nvidia, at least for a short time in 2018, after which Nvidia pulled out of collaboration talks. To do so and then, a year afterwards, propose a system that is, if not identical, then at least remarkably similar, and without crediting or mentioning Mobileye is suspicious to say the least.

The (highly simplified) foundation of both is calculating a set of standard actions corresponding to laws and human behavior that plan safe maneuvers based on the car’s own physical parameters and those of nearby objects and actors. But the similarities extend beyond these basics, Shashua writes (emphasis his):

RSS defines a safe longitudinal and a safe lateral distance around the vehicle. When those safe distances are compromised, we say that the vehicle is in a Dangerous Situation and must perform a Proper Response. The specific moment when the vehicle must perform the Proper Response is called the Danger Threshold.

SFF defines identical concepts with slightly modified terminology. Safe longitudinal distance is instead called “the SFF in One Dimension;” safe lateral distance is described as “the SFF in Higher Dimensions.”  Instead of Proper Response, SFF uses “Safety Procedure.” Instead of Dangerous Situation, SFF replaces it with “Unsafe Situation.” And, just to be complete, SFF also recognizes the existence of a Danger Threshold, instead calling it a “Critical Moment.”

This is followed by numerous other close parallels, and just when you think it’s done, he includes a whole separate document (PDF) showing dozens of other cases where Nvidia seems (it’s hard to tell in some cases if you’re not closely familiar with the subject matter) to have followed Mobileye and RSS’s example over and over again.

Theoretical work like this isn’t really patentable, and patenting wouldn’t be wise anyway, since widespread adoption of the basic ideas is the most desirable outcome (as both papers emphasize). But it’s common for one R&D group to push in one direction and have others refine or create counter-approaches.

You see it in computer vision, where for example Google boffins may publish their early and interesting work, which is picked up by FAIR or Uber and improved or added to in another paper 8 months later. So it really would have been fine for Nvidia to publicly say “Mobileye proposed some stuff, that’s great but here’s our superior approach.”

Instead there is no mention of RSS at all, which is strange considering their similarity, and the only citation in the SFF whitepaper is “The Safety Force Field, Nvidia, 2017,” in which, we are informed on the very first line, “the precise math is detailed.”

Just one problem: This paper doesn’t seem to exist anywhere. It certainly was never published publicly in any journal or blog post by the company. It has no DOI number and doesn’t show up in any searches or article archives. This appears to be the first time anyone has ever cited it.

It’s not required for rival companies to be civil with each other all the time, but in the research world this will almost certainly be considered poor form by Nvidia, and that can have knock-on effects when it comes to recruiting and overall credibility.

I’ve contacted Nvidia for comment (and to ask for a copy of this mysterious paper). I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Here’s everything Apple announced at its ‘Show Time’ event

By Greg Kumparak

Even after last week’s stream of hardware releases — a new iPad, new iMacs, and new AirPods all back-to-back — Apple had more to announce.

The company announced a bunch of new stuff at a two hour event this morning, primarily focusing on its new premium media subscriptions. Don’t have time to catch up on all of it? Here are the highlights:

Apple TV+

AppleTV+: Apple is building an ad-free subscription video service. It announced a ton of new original content from names like Oprah, Steve Carell, JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Jason Momoa, Kumail Nanjiani, and many, many more.

You’ll also be able to use the app to subscribe to and view other add-on services, like HBO, Showtime, Stars, and CBS All Access. The new Apple TV app will work with iOS, macOS, and smart TVs (Samsung first, then Sony, LG, and Vizio) along with Roku’s hardware and Amazon’s Fire TV. No pricing details were revealed.

Apple News+

Apple News+: Apple News is getting an overhaul, including a new subscription service called Apple News+. For $10 per month, you’ll get access to 300+ magazines (current and past issues) and digital subscriptions, including People, Vogue, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and Wired. Oh, and TechCrunch’s Extra Crunch!

Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade: An ad-free, all-you-can-eat gaming service for games on iOS, macOS, and tvOS. Apple says it’ll have 100+ games at launch, with titles from the likes of Disney, Konami, and LEGO. All games will be playable offline. It launches this fall in 150 regions, but Apple didn’t say how much it’ll cost.

Apple Credit Card

The Apple Credit Card: Apple is making a credit card. It’ll exist as a virtual card and as a physical titanium card. It’ll have no late fees or annual fees. The physical card has no number printed on it — nor a CVV, expiration date, or signature.

If a merchant needs that info, you’ll be able to pull it up in the Wallet app. It generates one-time use, dynamic security codes, which TC’s Zack Whittaker points out should make it a lot harder to steal. Customer service is handled via in-app text messaging. It’ll be available this summer.

Apple Pay on transit systems

Apple Pay on Transit in US cities: Later this year, Apple Pay will work on transit systems in a few major US cities, beginning with Portland, Chicago, and New York City.

YouTube denies that it is canning scripted series, plans to launch ad-supported slate in coming weeks

By Ingrid Lunden

On the heels of Apple announcing paid, monthly subscription services for video, games, and news, YouTube says it is also doubling down original video content. Parent company Google has denied a report in Bloomberg that YouTube has stopped accepting pitches for scripted shows. But it also confirmed another aspect of the same report: it plans a big focus on paid subscriptions by introducing an ad-supported slate that will include new and existing series in the coming weeks.

It seems that for now the plan is for this to exist alongside YouTube Premium, its $11.99 ad-free subscription service that provides access to YouTube Music and original video content and films, which is not going away. Reports about YouTube’s changing content monetization strategy, moving content out from behind the paywall, have been going around for months.

We’ve also been able to confirm that part of the shift will indeed include cancelling two existing shows, Origin and Overthinking with Kate & June, which will not be on the new slate — one of the other details reported by Bloomberg.

The move signifies that Google is rethinking how it competes in the world of streamed video as the landscape gets increasingly crowded with a selection of options from which to choose. That’s happening not on one but two levels.

Many of the biggest existing services, as well as those that are now coming online, are putting millions into commissioning original movies and series. Netflix alone is estimated to be putting some $15 billion into its own slate this year. In other words the ante is very high for snagging big names and then investing in the production of films and series with them, and with competition the prices are getting higher.

Interestingly, $15 billion is also how much in advertising revenues that YouTube generated last year, and that is the second area where YouTube is changing up how it is planning to compete. With a number of companies now vying for a share of your entertainment budget with monthly subscription fees or one-off payments for specific items, YouTube is exploring a no-fee approach, playing to its strengths and offering its original TV content not as part of subscriptions but as an ad-supported free service.

One of the notable aspects of building original content plays for streaming services is that it means the provider sidesteps some of the more tricky, expensive and time-consuming aspects of negotiating regional deals with rightsholders. YouTube appears to be hoping to tackle this as well, from what we understand, by developing new series and formats that will appeal (and be accessible by) a global audience.

YouTube is easily Google’s most successful and popular effort in the world of social media, and beyond that it’s one of the most popular destinations on the web.

But the report and Google’s quick refutation underscores an ongoing issue for the company. One of the more persistent challenges for Google has been figuring out the best way to leverage YouTube’s audience and platform that has essentially been built around user-generated content — with its huge emphasis on user-created or user-uploaded videos that are by default presented with comments, ads, and carousels of further videos to watch — into one that can also be seen as a home for more finely-tuned premium video content, to create a one-stop-shop at a time when the several others are building services that can pull viewers away.

Tell us who designed your startup’s brand

By Yvonne Leow

Before people ever use or buy your product, they’ll interact with your brand. What does your company stand for? How is your product different? Branding is an often overlooked, but essential component of communicating your company’s values, connecting with potential customers, and ultimately, driving conversions.  

But finding the right brand designer is hard. Depending on your budget, industry, and scope, brand designer and brand agency services can vary widely. It’s a niche community, and brand designers who thrive in chaotic, fast-paced startup environments are rare.

We’re demystifying the world of brand design by covering how companies like Intercom approach their brand identity and asking founders, like you, to nominate a talented brand designer or agency they’ve collaborated with. We’ll be publishing more branding articles, guest posts by industry experts, and brand designer profiles in the weeks to come, but we need your help. We’re relying on your recommendations to identify which brand designer and agencies to feature.

We’re especially looking for people who have experience in these three categories:

  • Visual brand identity: Conveying a startup’s core values through its logo, colors, typography, graphics, and other visual elements
  • UX/UI design: Designing how a company’s brand is expressed through user experience and user interface elements, such as colors, shapes, fonts, illustrations, and icons.
  • Brand narrative and strategy: Developing a startup’s story and a plan for how it is internally and externally communicated

We’re also interested in understanding how much time you’ve worked with a designer or agency, whether you’d recommend them to a friend, and examples of their work

Brand design is just one of our latest initiatives to identify the best service providers for startups. As we develop a shortlist of the top brand designer and agencies in the world, we’ll be asking them about their design philosophy, brand development process, rates and fees, and more. We’ll publish their profiles (along with your recommendations) on ExtraCrunch.  

We’ll continue updating our database of brand designers on a rolling basis, but in the meantime, help us share this article and nominate a brand designer or agency you know and love.

Any thoughts or questions? Email us at ec_editors@techcrunch.com.

All the videos from Apple’s big media event

By Jordan Crook

Video served as both form and function today at Apple’s media event, and the company wasn’t stingy with classic Apple event videos. Ranging from previews of new services like Apple Arcade to a look at the artists creating content for Apple TV +, the videos should give folks who missed the livestream a quick look at what’s next out of Apple services.

As with most events, today’s kicked off with a teaser video:

The first product Apple announced was Apple News+, which offers access to over 300 magazines and newspapers for $9.99/month. Of note, Apple News+ is the only product Apple announced today that’s also available today.

The second new product out of Apple is Apple Card. Apple Card is essentially an electronic credit card that works anywhere that Apple Pay is accepted. The Apple Card app lets you see your transaction history, pay your card, and earn 2 percent cash back daily on your purchases all within the Wallet app.

And yes, it comes with a physical card, which is made of titanium, laser-etched with your name, and has no number. The Apple Card should make credit card fraud more difficult.

Apple then announced a new gaming subscription service called Apple Arcade.

The service won’t launch until this fall, but will include more than 100 premium games at launch from partners including Disney, Konami and Lego. Importantly, this is a cross-platform product, meaning games are playable on iOS, MacOS and tvOS, giving Apple the chance to leverage iOS to get gaming on the Mac.

This one came with two videos, but no price.

And finally, Apple announced Apple TV+, a forthcoming subscription service that would give users access to Apple’s new library of original content. This includes a new show from Jennifer Anniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell about a morning news show and an anthology series from Kumail Nanjiana that tells the true story of everyday immigrants, among many others.

And one more thing… Oprah has signed on to do two new shows with Apple TV+.

Apple TV+ doesn’t come out until the Fall and there’s still no word on pricing.

Oprah offers more details about her partnership with Apple

By Anthony Ha

Apple’s event today, where it announced its streaming plans and more, ended with a whole bunch of celebrities taking the stage to talk about the shows they’re making for the new TV+ service. The boldface names included Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston — but for the big finish, Apple brought out Oprah Winfrey.

Apple said last year that it had signed “a unique, multi-year content partnership” with Winfrey. That announcement, however, didn’t include any details about the programs she’d be making.

Winfrey described two documentaries today. First, there’s “Toxic Labor,” looking at the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace. There’s also an untitled, multi-part documentary about mental health.

In addition, Winfrey said she’s working on a new version of her book club with Apple, which she said will be “the biggest, most vibrant, the most stimulating book club on the planet.” The idea is that her interviews with authors can be streamed to Apple stores and devices around the world.

“I want to literally convene a meeting of the minds, connecting us through books,” she said.

More broadly, Winfrey said that with her Apple content, “I want to reach that sweet spot where insight and perspective, truth and tolerance, actually intersect.” And she’s excited to use their platform to get her message out to an enormous audience: “They’re in a billion pockets, y’all. A billion pockets.”

Apple’s new ‘Sesame Street’-themed TV show will teach kids coding basics

By Sarah Perez

The original “Sesame Street” TV show taught preschoolers basics like numbers and letters, but Apple’s new Sesame Street-themed show will instead focus on teaching kids coding basics. Introduced on stage today at Apple’s press event by none other than Big Bird himself, the Sesame Workshop-produced show is one of the new arrivals to Apple TV+, the company’s just-announced streaming TV service and Netflix rival.

The new kids show will focus on coding, because “coding fosters collaboration, critical thinking skills, and is an essential language that every child can learn,” Apple announced today by way of a muppet called Cody, who has learned to speak in PR soundbites.

“By teaching preschoolers about coding, we’re giving them the opportunity to change the world!” the muppet exclaimed.

The show will also have “cool music” and “funky dance moves,” Cody added.

Apple, of course, directly benefits by helping inspire the next generation of coders, as its ecosystem of apps – and the billions of dollars they generate – are built by millions of third-party developers. For Apple to retain a dominant position in the app industry, it needs to continue to build out its pipeline of new coders.

To date, the company has been pushing its coding language, Swift, by hosting educational sessions at Apple Stores, funding school programs and nonprofit initiatives, offering course materials to teachers, and through its own learn-to-code app, Swift Playgrounds. But this new kids TV show is designed to spark interest in programming at an even earlier age.

“You’re helping kids grow up to be smarter, stronger, and kinder,” said Big Bird to Cody, touting the series on stage at the press event.

Because Apple didn’t show a trailer for the series, it’s unclear how the coding tutorials will be presented to viewers. But at a high level, it will use the big ideas behind coding to solve problems.

Apple’s deal with Sesame Workshop had been announced in June 2018, and was said to include both live action and animated TV. But none of the actual shows were announced until today. The deal, it’s worth noting, does not include “Sesame Street” itself, as HBO made a five-year deal with Sesame Workshop for that title back in 2015.

Social investment platform eToro acquires smart contract startup Firmo

By Arman Tabatabai

Social investing and trading platform eToro announced that it has acquired Danish smart contract infrastructure provider Firmo for an undisclosed purchase price.

Firmo’s platform enables exchanges to execute smart financial contracts across various assets, including crypto derivatives, and across all major blockchains. Firmo founder and CEO Dr. Omri Ross described the company’s mission as “…enabl[ing] our users to trade any asset globally with instant settlement by tokenizing assets and executing all essential trade processes on the blockchain.” Firmo’s only disclosed investment, according to data from Pitchbook, came in the form of a modest pre-seed round from the Copenhagen Fintech Lab accelerator.

Firmo’s mission aligns well with that of eToro — which is equal parts trading platform, social network and educational resource for beginner investors — with the company having long communicated hopes of making the capital markets more open, transparent and accessible to all users and across all assets. By gobbling up Firmo, eToro will be able to accelerate its development of offerings for tokenized assets.

The acquisition represents the latest step in eToro’s broader growth plan, which has ramped up as of late. Earlier in March, the company launched a crypto-only version of its platform in the US, as well as a multi-signature digital wallet where users can store, send and receive cryptocurrencies.

The Firmo deal and eToro’s other expansion activities fit squarely into the company’s belief in the tokenization of assets and the immense, sector-defining opportunity that it creates. Etoro believes that asset tokenization and the movement of financial services onto the blockchain are all but inevitable and the company has employed the long-tailed strategy of investing heavily in related blockchain and crypto technologies despite the ongoing crypto winter.

“Blockchain and the tokenization of assets will play a major role in the future of finance,” said eToro co-founder and CEO Yoni Assia. “We believe that in time all investible assets will be tokenized and that we will see the greatest transfer of wealth ever onto the blockchain.” Assia expressed a similar sentiment in a recent conversation with TechCrunch, stating “We think [the tokenization of assets] is a bigger opportunity than the internet…”

After the acquisition, Firmo will operate as an internal R&D arm within eToro focused on developing blockchain-oriented trade execution and the infrastructure behind the digital representation of tokenized assets.

“The Firmo team has done ground-breaking work in developing practical applications for blockchain technology which will facilitate friction-less global trading,” said Assia.

“The adoption of smart contracts on the blockchain increases trust and transparency in financial services. We are incredibly proud and excited that [Firmo] will be joining the eToro family. We believe that together we have a very bright future and look forward to pursuing our shared goal to become the first truly global service provider allowing people to trade, invest and save.”

Apple unveils its subscription streaming service, Apple TV+

By Anthony Ha

To close out today’s press event focused on Apple’s service’s business, the company has officially announced its streaming initiative, Apple TV+.

CEO Tim Cook said this will be an ad-free subscription service, with everything available for online and offline viewing, across more than 100 countries. It’s coming this fall, but Apple hasn’t shared any pricing.

“We feel we can contribute something important to our culture and society through great storytelling,” Cook said.

The company already had a long list of shows in development, which will hopefully put all your “Carpool Karaoke” jokes to rest. They include an “Amazing Stories” reboot executive produced by Steven Spielberg, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic “Foundation” books and “The Morning Show,” a drama set in the morning TV industry starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.

Details about the shows have been coming out for more than a year, so the main question was: How would consumers get access to all of this content? And how much would they have to pay for it, if anything?

Reports last fall suggested that Apple might actually give this content away for free to anyone with an iOS or tvOS device, and that the original content would essentially function as an incentive to buy Apple hardware and as a funnel to other services.

And indeed, Apple announced that there’s a new Apple TV app coming in May, as well as Apple TV Channels, which will allow you to subscribe to other streaming services like HBO, Showtime, Starz and CBS All Access. It turns out TV+ will be a part of the TV app, but you’ll have to pay extra — even if Apple isn’t saying yet how much you’ll have to pay.

To highlight the caliber of filmmakers involved in this initiative, Apple showed off a promotional video featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Octavia Spencer, Ron Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Sofia Coppola, Damian Chazelle, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — who are, of course, all involved in making shows for Apple TV+.

Spielberg then took the stage to talk about his childhood love of the Amazing Stories magazine, which he subsequently turned into an ’80s TV series.

“Thanks to the visionary and inventive folks at Apple, my Amblin team and I are going to be resurrecting this 93-year-old brand and offering to multi-generational audiences a whole new batch of Amazing Stories,” he said.

And then  there was a veritable parade of celebrities touting their various shows: Aniston, Witherspoon and Steve Carrell, who are all starring in “The Morning Show; then Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodward, who talked about their science fiction series “See”; Kumail Nanjiani who said his anthology series “Little America” will consist of “human stories that feature immigrants,” then Big Bird (yes, that Big Bird) announced coding-themed shows that Sesame Workshop is making for Apple and then J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles — Bareilles performed the theme to their show “Little Voice.”

❌