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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

By Rita Liao

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services including Google and Facebook are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu. 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics, and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. US-China trade war: The runner-up comes as a no surprise given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the standoff, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.

  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.

  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.

  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.

  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.

  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy to pop idol Kris Wu who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with a myriad of interpretations.

  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.

  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant who the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.

  10. Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu has added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms:

Robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference, and quantum mechanics.

Getaround to expand Uber partnership to four more cities

By Kirsten Korosec

Getaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing service that first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NY in 2011, is expanding a partnership with Uber that gives users access to rideshare-ready vehicles.

The program, which launched as a pilot in May 2017 in San Francisco, is now available to Getaround customers in Los Angeles and San Diego. Two more cities, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. will soon follow, Getaround co-founder and CEO Sam Zaid told TechCrunch.

Getaround’s carsharing platform is designed to let people instantly rent and drive cars owned by their peers. Under this expanding partnership with Uber, people can now rent some of those vehicles by the hour to drive for the ride-hailing app.

This partnership shouldn’t be confused with Uber Rent, a car rental program launched in April 2018 that shut down last month.

“It really opens up a world of possibilities for people who might want to drive for Uber on a part-time basis but who don’t really need or want to own a car,” Zaid said. “If you’re a grad student who wants to do this one or two days a week, for example, this allows for you to make that happen.”

Still, Zaid noted, this isn’t for every car owner, or even car, on the Getaround platform. The pilot in San Francisco, which is continuing, attracts business-minded car owners who are thinking about maximizing their revenue opportunity. And Zaid expects a similar trend in the new cities.

Getaround cars used by Uber drivers travel about 50% more miles than other vehicles on the platform. However, the revenue potential is higher for owners who allow their vehicles to be used for rideshare, he noted.

To kick off the expanded program, Getaround made the first booking day free for up to 12 consecutive hours. After that, drivers pay a $5 per hour flat rate for use of the vehicle. There are no upfront fees, commitments or subscriptions, and no limit to the booking duration.

Cars are also equipped with standard additions typically found in ridesharing cars such as Uber decals, phone mounts and phone chargers. Insurance is also included on every trip, and Uber’s 24/7 customer support is available directly through the Uber Driver app.

Once a person successfully clears Uber’s screening process and uploads their drivers’ license, they can view, select and unlock a car directly through Getaround.

The partnership is possible because all cars on the Getaround platform are equipped with an integrated hardware and software solution that it calls Getaround Connect, a device that allows users to instantly book and unlock the car through the app without having to physically exchange of keys between owner and renter.

Earlier this year, Getaround raised a $300 series D round led by SoftBank with participation from Toyota Motor Corporation and others.

Samsung refreshes its S Pen-packing convertible PC

By Brian Heater

Welcome, friends, to the consumer electronics dead zone. It’s that increasingly brief window between the last of the pre-holiday releases and the CES deluge. It’s rarely home to genuinely exciting announcements, but when you’re a company like Samsung, you’ve got to find somewhere on the roadmap to portion out all of those gadgets.

Say hello to the new Notebook 9 Pen. It’s a convertible Windows laptop aimed at creatives. It’s a very Samsungy answer to the Surface line, right down to the inclusion of the S Pen. The PC sports a swiveling 13 or 15 inch screen encased in an all-metal frame.

It’s an update to he admittedly somewhat confusingly named line, still sporting an 8th-gen Intel Core i7 and a hearty 15 hours of battery life by Samsung’s estimation. On-board audio has been improved, courtesy of the company’s AKG arm. The S Pen also gets some upgrades here, with improved latency and three swappable tips.

Today’s news is the latest in what’s been an uncharacteristically noisy holiday season for Samsung, including the recent partial announcement of two 5G phones due out next year. A spate of new rumors also have the company announcing the Galaxy S10 around MWC in Feb/March. And then, of course, there’s that folding phone. Should be a packed 2019 for the company, all around.

The new Notebook 9 Pen, meanwhile, is due out in the States early next year.

African fintech startup Jumo raises $12.5M more to fund Asia expansion

By Jon Russell

Months after a big round, African fintech startup Jumo has pulled in a fresh $12.5 million to add more fuel for its expansion into Asia Pacific.

The new investment comes from London-based investment fund Odey Asset Management, and it is an extension to a $52 million round that closed back in September. The deal takes Jumo, which recently moved its headquarters to Singapore, to $103 million raised from investors. Its backers include Goldman Sachs, Proparco — which is attached to the French Development Agency — and Finnfund, and it was part of Google’s Launchpad accelerator last year.

Founded in 2014, Jumo specializes in social impact financial products, such as microloans, savings and insurance. It started out in Tanzania, and today it claims to have originated over $1 billion on loans. Since September, when it announced a first expansion into Asia via Pakistan, it claims it has grown to 10 million people saving or borrowing from its platform from a previous nine million. The company has some 350 staff across 10 offices in Africa, Europe and Asia.

Over the last year, the company said it has doubled the number of financial service providers and telcos on its platform. Of those deals, one of its highest profile is a digital finance product for Uber drivers that’s live in Kenya. That collaboration is likely to expand in Africa and potentially beyond, Jumo said.

Expansion is very much the name of the game all round for the company. Jumo CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball told TechCrunch in September that there are plans to expand to more Asian markets next year but, for now, the company isn’t saying which ones.

NYC’s Work-Bench announces $47M enterprise investment fund

By Ron Miller

Work-Bench, an early stage enterprise startup venture capital firm based in New York City announced its $47 million Fund II today. It follows their initial $10 million fund.

Work-Bench is itself like a venture capital investment startup. A scrappy operation run by just five enterprise industry veterans, it defies convention in a number of ways including setting up shop in New York City. While it’s based in New York, the company will invest anywhere in the country, writing checks for $1.5 million for the Seed 2 and Series A investments.

Work-Bench’s philosophy centers around a sales approach and giving their startups entree into some of the biggest companies in the country, many of which not coincidentally, are based near their offices.

The company starts by trying to understand specific enterprise customer pain points, even before they send a founder into pitch an executive. The startup founders are judged and guided by their ability to sell. In fact, one of the founders Jonathan Lehr says even before they invest in a company, they will send them to pitch a couple of customers and take advantage of that two-way feedback channel as a way to understand the startup’s selling skills.

“Instead of starting with whiz bang tech like a lot of West Coast VCs do, by starting with the problem and and where budget dollars are being allocated, when we’re looking at companies from an investment perspective it really helps us connect all the dots a little a lot better. That’s because on the one hand the corporate executive is getting a solution to a pain point from the startup, and the startup founders are getting an introduction to the right stakeholder at the right time for them at the right organization,” Lehr told TechCrunch.

Work-Bench Team. Photo: Work-Bench

Work-Bench has set up their headquarters as space for hosting regular events that help introduce founders to key people in the community and learn about different subjects such as writing a successful RFP, negotiating contracts and setting up a successful proof of concept (PoC). They also have work spaces where founders from the portfolio companies can interact on a daily basis and get direct feedback from the Work-Bench principals, who run a truly hands-on operation.

It seems to have worked. Among the enterprise startups funded with their initial fund were Dialpad, Tamr, Cockroach Labs and CoreOS, which was sold to Red Hat for $250 million in January. In all, they invested in 17 companies in the first fund.

The second fund is already under way with 9 investments so far including Scytale, a security and identity protocol startup; Algorithmia, which is working on DevOps for AI and Catalyst, a customer success platform.

Fund II investors include co-anchors Industry Ventures and an unnamed Chicago family office. Corporate backers include Wipro, Schneider Electric and CA Technologies. Other investors include Fund I founders Craig Walker from Dialpad, Andy Palmer from Tamr, and Tim Eades from vArmour.

Minted lands $208M Series E from Permira and T. Rowe Price

By Kate Clark

Minted, a company we’ve been covering on this site for a decade-plus, plans to double down on its wholesale and licensing business, which helps larger retailers sell stationery, art and home decor designed by its community of independent artists.

To fund the growing initiative, the design marketplace is today announcing a $208 million Series E funding led by Permira, with participation from T. Rowe Price. The round brings Minted’s total raised to date to $300 million. The company, founded in 2007, has previously landed backing from Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Technology Crossover Ventures and others.

“Minted is playing into a trend that’s really fortunate for us, which is a need for differentiated design that helps retailers compete,” the company’s founder and chief executive officer Mariam Naficy told TechCrunch.

Naficy, a former vice president of U.S. e-commerce at The Body Shop, declined to disclose the company’s valuation but says it’s profitable on an earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) basis and is on track to post “low hundreds of millions” in revenue this year. Its wholesale and licensing operation, she says, is itself expected to become a nine-figure business, too, and will likely represent 50 percent of Minted’s earnings in four years.

Minted is best known as an online marketplace for printed goods, like wedding invitations, greeting cards, notebooks, stationery and wall art. The company crowdsources work from independent illustrators, textile designers, painters and other artists, then lets its customers vote on the designs they like best to determine what is sold on Minted. Then, the platform leverages predictive analytics to forecast bestsellers. As a result, Naficy says they’ve collected hoards of valuable data surrounding consumer preferences.

Minted, in addition to fueling growth of its wholesale business, will use the investment to build out a robust supply chain, expand the team and continue experimenting with new business strategies, like its first brick-and-mortar store that recently popped up on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, where the company is selling wall art and stationery.

Postmates unveils Serve, a friendlier autonomous delivery robot

By Josh Constine

San Francisco partially banned delivery robots because they obstructed pedestrians, so Postmates built one with eyes, turn signals, and a mandate to yield. Serve is Postmates’ new cooler-meet-autonomous-stroller that it hopes can cut costs and speed up deliveries. The semi-autonomous rover uses cameras and LIDAR to navigate sidewalks, but always has a human pilot remotely monitoring a fleet of Serves who can take control if there’s a problem. There’s even a “Help” button, touchscreen, and video chat display customers or passers-by can use to summon assistance.

Serve will be rolling out in various cities over the next year. It does deliveries to customers that unlock its cargo hatch with their phone or a passcode, but it also can grab food from restaurants in congested areas and bring them to a Postmates dispatch hub from which delivery people can take packages the last mile. That could save Postmates money on delivery labor, but the company didn’t provide any information on how it might help transition delivery staff to other roles or careers.

“Somehow as a society we’re OK with moving a 2-pound burrito with a 2-ton car. All the energy is used to move the car, not the burrito, and there all the congestion it introduces” says Ali Kashani, VP of Postmates X special projects. So Postmates spent the last couple of years piloting autonomous rovers built by Starship and Robby before deciding only it had the on-demand experience to build the right bot.

Serve can carry 50 pounds of goods for 25 miles on a single charge — enough to make around a dozen deliveries per day. Thanks to a low center of gravity achieved by building the battery into the bottom of the chassis, it’s less likely to get cow-tipped. It uses Velodyne Lidar and a NVIDIA XAVIER processor to tell where it’s going.  A Postmates spokesperson tells me that the scalability and efficiency of the rovers, “ultimately we believe that there will be a world where goods move rapidly at almost zero cost to the consumer.”

We took time to figure out what is the language for the rover and pedestrians to interact with each other. If a robot is at sidewalk and wants to be able to cross the street, it needs to show its intent to cross” Kashani tells me. Thanks to a light ring around the top with turn signals and eyes that can indicate where it’s trying to go, Kashani believes Serve can be a respectful and natural part of the urban environment. 

Avoiding becoming an obstacle to seniors, children, and people in wheelchairs will be critical if cities are going to allow robots like Serve to operate. In December, San Francisco nearly banned the bots by limiting companies to three robots each with only nine total in the city that are relegated to low-population areas, can’t travel more than three miles per hour, and must be supervised remotely by humans.

Postmates tells me it’s been working with the SF board of supervisors including Norman Yee and a coalition of logistics companies to develop a regulatory framework for issuing permits allowing limited autonomous deliveries. Postmates’ permit application is under review by the City of SF. Postmates is working with SF’s Emerging Technology Working Group, local merchant associations, and pedestrian safety groups to figure out how to balance innovative tools that could increase local retail sales and reduce traffic with the public’s need for right of way on the sidewalks.

There’s also the question of what happens to the labor Serve replaces. A Postmates spokesperson claims that Serve is about augmenting its fleet with super powers rather than replacing its fleet. The company does 4 million deliveries per month and some might not ever be completable by robots. But it’d be nice to see Postmates spin up some training courses or offer transitions to behind-the-scenes operations and customer service rolls to deliverers that eventually feel the squeeze.

Interestingly, Kashani hinted at how Postmates might end up moving to an “Uber X, Uber Black Car” model where you’d pay more to have a human take your delivery upstairs and directly to your door, while you might pay less if you’re willing to grab your order from the Serve robot out on the curb. Essentially, Postmates Serve is poised to turn human delivery into a luxury.

Prisma’s new AI-powered app, Lensa, helps the selfie camera lie

By Natasha Lomas

Prisma Labs, the startup behind the style transfer craze of a couple of years ago, has a new AI-powered iOS app for retouching selfies. An Android version of the app — which is called Lensa — is slated as coming in January.

It bills Lensa as a “one-button Photoshop”, offering a curated suite of photo-editing features intended to enhance portrait photos — including teeth whitening; eyebrow tinting; ‘face retouch’ which smooths skin tone and texture (but claims to do so naturally); and ‘eye contrast’ which is supposed to make your eye color pop a bit more (but doesn’t seem to do too much if, like me, you’re naturally dark eyed).

There’s also a background blur option for adding a little bokeh to make your selfie stand out from whatever unattractive clutter you’re surrounded by — much like the portrait mode that Apple added to iOS two years ago.

Lensa can also correct for lens distortion, such as if a selfie has been snapped too close. “Our algorithm reconstructs face in 3D and fixes those disproportions,” is how it explains that.

The last slider on the app’s face menu offers this feature, letting you play around with making micro-adjustments to the 3D mesh underpinning your face. (Which feels as weird to see as it sounds to type.)

Of course there’s no shortage of other smartphone apps out there on stores — and/or baked right into smartphones’ native camera apps — offering to ‘beautify’ selfies.

But the push-button pull here is that Lensa automatically — and, it claims, professionally — performs AI-powered retouching of your selfie. So you don’t have to do any manual tweaking yourself (though you also can if you like).

If you just snap a selfie you’ll see an already enhanced version of you. Who said the camera never lies? Thanks AI…

Prisma Labs’ new app, Lensa, uses machine learning to automagically edit selfies

Lensa also lets you tweak visual parameters across the entire photo, as per a standard photo-editing app, via an ‘adjust’ menu — which (at launch) offers sliders for: Exposure, contrast, saturation, plus fade, sharpen; temperature, tint; highlights, shadows.

While Lensa is free to download, an in-app subscription (costing $4.99 per month) can let you get a bit more serious about editing its AI-enhanced selfies — by unlocking the ability to adjust all those parameters across just the face; or just the background.

Prisma Labs says that might be useful if, for example, you want to fix an underexposed selfie shot against a brighter background.

Paying for a subscription also removes watermarks and in-app ads.

“Lensa utilizes a bunch of Machine Learning algorithms to precisely extract face skin from the image and then retouching portraits like a professional artist,” is how it describes the app, adding: “The process is fully automated, but the user can set up an intensity level of the effect.”

The startup says it’s drawn on its eponymous style transfer app for Lensa’s machine learning as the majority of photos snapped and processed in Prisma are selfies — giving it a relevant heap of face data to train the photo-editing algorithms.

Having played around with Lensa I can say its natural looking instant edits are pretty seductive — in that it’s not immediately clear algorithmic fingers have gone in and done any polishing. At a glance you might just think oh, that’s a nice photo.

On closer inspection you can of course see the airbrushing that’s gone on but the polish is applied with enough subtly that it can pass as naturally pleasing.

And natural edits is one of the USP’s Prisma Labs is claiming for Lensa. “Our mission is to allow people to edit a portrait but keep it looking natural,” it tells us. (The other key feature it touts is automation, so it’s selling the time you’ll save tweaking your selfies.)

Anyone who suffers from a chronic skin condition might view Lensa as a welcome tool/alternative to make-up in an age of the unrelenting selfies (when cameras that don’t lie can feel, well, exhausting).

But for those who object to AI stripping even skin-deep layers off of the onion of reality, Lensa’s subtle algorithmic fiddling might still come over as an affront.

With deadline looming for healthcare.gov enrollment, Stride offers direct enrollment for gig workers

By Jonathan Shieber

Stride Health, the consumer healthcare consulting and optimization service, has inked a new partnership with the U.S. government’s healthcare departments to provide “enhanced direct enrollment” to verify tax credit eligibility and process enrollments on its platform.

The service is akin to e-filing taxes, according to Stride founder and chief executive, Noah Lang. “Except in this case you’re spending tax credits,” Lang wrote in an email.

Using the service freelancers, gig economy workers and basically any other consumer who isn’t covered through an employer provided insurance program can use Stride to spend tax credits to enroll in a health insurance plan.

Stride Health is one of only two companies (the other being HealthSherpa) that has direct access to enrolling customers through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“In my view, it’s also a great bedrock foundation to the public-private partnerships we’ll need to make something like Portable Benefits work,” Lang wrote.

The integration is even more important given the looming deadline for enrollment in healthcare.gov. About one third of freelancers qualify for subsidized health insurance that costs less than $25 per month, but 58% who don’t enroll say they don’t buy health insurance because of the cost, according to data provided by Stride. About 37% of freelancers have not enrolled in coverage according to Stride — despite qualifying for cheaper insurance.

The deadline for enrollment in coverage available through the Affordable Care Act is December 15.

Chorus.ai rings up $33M for its platform that analyses sales calls to close more deals

By Ingrid Lunden

Chorus.ai, a service that listens to sales calls in real time, and then transcribes and analyses them to give helpful tips to the salesperson, has raised $33 million to double down on the current demand for more AI-based tools in the enterprise.

The Series B is being led by Georgian Partners, with participation also from Redpoint Ventures and Emergence Capital, previous investors that backed Israeli-founded, SF-based Chorus.ai in its $16 million Series A two years ago.

In the gap between then and now, the startup has seen strong growth, listening in to some 5 million calls, and performing hundreds of thousands of hours of transcriptions for around 200 customers, including Adobe, Zoom, and Outreach (among others that it will not name).

Micha Breakstone, the co-founder (who has a pretty long history in conversational AI, heading up R&D at Ginger Software and then Intel after it acquired the startup; and before that building the tech that eventually became Summly and got acquired by Yahoo, among other roles), says that while the platform gives information and updates to salespeople in real time, much of the focus today is on providing information to users post-conversation, based on both audio and video calls.

One of its big areas is “smart themes” — patterns and rules Chorus has learned through all those calls. For example, it has identified what kind of language the most successful sales people are using and in turn prompts those who are less successful to use it more. Two general tips Breakstone told me about: using more collaborative terms like we and us; and giving more backstory to clients, although there will be more specific themes and approaches based on Chorus’s specific customers and products.

“I’d say we are super attuned to our customers and what they need and want,” Breakstone said. Which makes sense given the whole premise of Chorus.

It also creates smart “playlists” for managers who will almost certainly never have the time to review hundreds of hours of calls but might want to hear instructive highlights or ‘red alert’ moments where a more senior person might need to step in to save or close a deal.

There are currently what seems like dozens of startups and larger businesses that are currently tackling the opportunity to provide “conversational intelligence” to sales teams, using advances in natural language processing, voice recognition, machine learning and big data to help turn every sales person into a Jerry Maguire (yes, I know he’s an agent, but still, he needs to close deals, and he’s a salesman). They include TalkIQ (which has now been acquired by Dialpad), People.AI, Gong, Voicera, VoiceOps, and I’m pulling from a long list.

“We were among the very first to start this, no one knew what conversational intelligence was before us,” Breakstone says. He describes most of what was out in the market at the time as “Nineties technology” and adds that “our tech is superior because we built it in the correct way from the ground up, with nothing sent to a third party.”

He says that this is one reason why the company has negative churn — it essentially wins customers and hasn’t lost any. And having the tech all in-house not only means the platform is smarter and more accurate, but that helps with compliance around regulations like GDPR, which also has been a boost to its business. It’s also scored well on metrics around reps hitting targets better with its tools (the company claims its products lead to 50 percent greater quota attainment and ‘ramp time’ up by 30 percent for new sales people who use it).

Chorus.ai has helped us become a smarter sales organization as we’ve scaled. We have visibility into our sales conversations and what is working across all of our offices”, said Greg Holmes, Head of Sales for Zoom Video Communications, in a statement. “We’ve seen a drastic reduction in new hire ramp times and higher sales productivity with even more reps hitting quota. Chorus.ai is a game changer.”

Chorus has raised $55 million to date and Breakstone said he would not disclose its valuation — despite my best attempts to use some of those sales tips to winkle the information out of him. But I understand it to be “significantly higher” than in its last round, and definitely in the hundreds of millions.

As a point of reference, after its Series A two years ago, it was only valued at around $33 million post-money according to PitchBook.

“Maintaining high-quality sales conversations as you scale a sales organization is hard for many companies, but key to delivering predictable revenue growth. Chorus.ai’s Conversation Intelligence platform solves that challenge with a market-leading solution that is easy-to-use and delivers best-in-class results.” said Simon Chong, Managing Partner at Georgian Partners, in a statement. (Chong is joining the board with this round.) “Chorus.ai works with some of the best sales teams in the world and they love the product. We are very excited to partner with Chorus.ai on their next phase of growth as they help world class sales teams reach higher quota attainment and efficiency.”

Zymergen lands $400 million more for its genetically altered microbes, led by SoftBank Vision Fund

By Connie Loizos

Zymergen, a five-year-old company that manufacturers molecules for a wide array of uses and industries, has closed on $400 million in Series C funding led by one of its earlier investors, the SoftBank Vision Fund.

Even in a world where triple-digit million-dollar rounds have become de rigueur, the amount stands out, as does the company, which occupies a 301,000-square-foot campus in Emeryville, Ca. and has been growing like gangbusters. How? By engineering yeast and bacterial strains for outfits across the pharmaceutical, food and agricultural, specialty chemical, and electronics industries.

Its objective is typically the same: to engineer tiny microbes with the aid of advanced computing to help increase the yields from these customers’ fermentation processes — and fatten their bottom lines in the process. Zymergen doesn’t care if it’s an antibiotic they want to make, an alternate feedstock, or even flexible OLEDs — the kind that Apple uses to produce its screen technology.

In fact, Zymgergen cofounder and CEO Joshua Hoffman says one of the biggest opportunities before his now 600-person company is to produce entirely new products that are untethered to traditional petroleum-based manufacturing, which currently underpins nearly everything we use and own, from gas to golf bags, from dishwasher parts to dresses.

As it relates to OLEDs, for example, Hoffman notes that “current petrochemical-derived films don’t work as well as they should. They’re too blue, or they scratch, or they de-laminate and the screen comes apart. The problems are rooted in their core chemistry. But biology gives you whole palette with which to create films, adhesives, and coatings.”

Zymergen never names its customers, except to say they are “Fortune 50” to “Fortune 500” companies. In an interview yesterday, Hoffman said he was not at liberty to disclose the specific products that Zymergen has helped to create either, offering only that its “partners have sold half a billion dollars worth of products made with our bugs in the last couple of years.”

Added Hoffman, “Roughly 70 percent of the things that we find are in parts of the genome that humans don’t understand.”

Indeed, Zymergen — whose number of customers is also a closely guarded secret  — attributes most of those findings to robotics that help eliminate human error and to machine learning that helps find more advanced patterns. Hoffman even argues that it would be hard for another outfit to effectively compete with it at this point because it’s “too hard to replicate the data sets” that Zymergen has created.

Yet it does have competitors. Among them is nine-year-old Ginkgo Bioworks, which similarly designs, engineers, develops, tests, and licenses organisms for use in sweeteners, cosmetic ingredients, crop treatments, and pharmaceuticals, among other things. And Gingko has raised substantial funding of its own — roughly $430 million to date, including from Viking Global Investors, General Atlantic, and Bill Gates.

Of course, both are longer term bets on the future, even while their respective investors are betting that one will be the bigger breakout company over time. For his part, Rohit Sharma, a venture partner with the early-stage firm True Ventures, has his money on Zymergen. True was among the first institutional investors to invest in the company in 2014, and during a call yesterday, Sharma, who has sat on the board ever since, gushed about what it has managed to build since. “This is easily one of the most promising companies I’ve worked with,” he said. “This isn’t engineering eyeballs or daily active users or manipulating business models. This is innovation on the scale of the way the chemical industry came into existence and grew to $3 trillion plus industry. Zymergen will still be very relevant in 20 years.”

In the meantime, the company, which had closed its previous round with $130 million in 2016, is starting to see meaningful revenue, suggests Hoffman. Though Zymergen structures its deals differently depending on the customer, in all cases, it charges a subscription fee for its product and a share of the value that it creates.

Other investors in Zymergen’s newest round include Goldman Sachs and Hanwha Asset Management, as well as earlier investors DCVC, True, Two Sigma Ventures, DFJ and Innovation Endeavors. The capital, says Hoffman, will be used to reach more customers and invest more in its platform.

“It’s a boatload of money,” he volunteers. But he says the company was “able to raise it because we’re showing commercial traction and technology traction. This differentiated way of thinking about biology really works.”

Opera brings a flurry of crypto features to its Android mobile browser

By Jon Russell

Crypto markets may be down down down, but that isn’t stopping Opera’s crypto feature — first released in beta in July — from rolling out to all users of its core mobile browser today as the company bids to capture the ‘decentralized internet’ flag early on.

Opera — the world’s fifth most-used browser, according to Statcounter — released the new Opera Browser for Android that includes a built-in crypto wallet for receiving and sending Bitcoin and other tokens, while it also allows for crypto-based commerce where supported. So on e-commerce sites that accept payment via Coinbase Commerce, or other payment providers, Opera users can buy using a password or even their fingerprint.

Those are the headline features that’ll get the most use in the here and now, but Opera is also talking up its support for “Web 3.0” — the so-called decentralized internet of the future based on blockchain technology.

For that, Opera has integrated the Ethereum web3 API which will allow users of the browser to access decentralized apps (dapps) based on Ethereum. There’s also token support for Cryptokitties, the once-hot collectible game that seemingly every single decentralized internet product works with in one way or another.

But, to be quite honest, there really isn’t much to see or use on Web 3.0 right now, the big bet is that there will be in the future.

Ethereum, like other cryptocurrencies, in a funk right now thanks to the bearish crypto market, but the popular refrain from developers is that low season is a good time to build. Well, Opera has just shipped the means to access Ethereum dapps, will the community respond and give people a reason to care?

Pessimism aside, this launch is notable because it has the potential to get blockchain-based tech into the daily habits of “millions” of people, Charles Hamel — Opera’s product lead for crypto — told TechCrunch over email.

While Opera can’t match the user base of Apple’s Safari or Google Chrome — both of which have the advantage of bundling a browser with a mobile OS — Opera does have a very loyal following, which makes this release one of the most impactful blockchain launches to date.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Glose raises $3.4 million for its collaborative reading app

By Romain Dillet

French startup Glose just raised a $3.4 million funding round (€3 million) for its reading app on iPhone, iPad and Android. The company wants to make reading books more social.

If you’re an avid book reader, chances are you always carry a pencil with you to write some notes in the margins. Or maybe you have a tiny notebook with important quotes. But that experience hasn’t worked well with ebooks.

Sure, you can highlight text on your ereader, in the Kindle app and other ebook apps. But it’s hard to do anything with them down the road. Glose wants to leverage your phone to let you do more with the book you’re currently reading.

OneRagTime, Expon Capital, Kima Ventures, Bpifrance participated in today’s funding round as well as business angels, such as Sébastien Breteau, Patrick Bertrand and Julien Codorniou.

Glose has its own bookstore and lets you read your own DRM-free ebooks. The app then keeps you motivated with reading streaks and other gamification aspects. But my favorite feature is that you can highlight texts, write annotations and share them with your friends.

When your friends read the same book six months later, they can open the annotations in the margin to see what you wrote down. You can follow booklists, create private reading groups and see the progress of your friends. 600,000 people have downloaded the app.

Up next, Glose wants to release a separate service called Glose Education. This version will be tailored for universities and high schools. Teachers will be able to create reading groups, assign homework, write down annotations for the class and more. This seems like a natural use case for a social reading app.

Grab lands $150M for Yamaha Motor to double down on motorbike on-demand services

By Jon Russell

Grab, the Southeast Asia ride-hailing firm that bought out Uber’s local business, has added another investor to its rolling cast of backers after it added $150 million from Yamaha Motor to its ongoing Series H round.

That round is targeted at $3 billion, and Yamaha Motor joins an investor group in the round that includes strategics like Toyota ($1 billion)Hyundai ($250 million)Microsoft (undisclosed), Thai bank Kasikorn ($50 million) and travel firm Booking ($200 million). A host of more institutional investors like OppenheimerFunds, Ping An Capital, Mirae Asset — Naver Asia Growth Fund also took part.

The deal comes just weeks after Yamaha Motor backed India-based Drivezy, a service for self-renting cars and motorbikes.

The deal means Grab has brought on four automotive firms in the round, although Yamaha Motor is focused on motorbikes. Indeed, Grab said it intends to collaborate with the bike-maker on Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country with 260 million people, where it is in a dogfight with rival Go-Jek and also less traditional foes like Tokopedia who compete on finance and on-demand services.

The two companies said they will work together on flexible financial aid for people considering buying a motorbike to work on Grab’s platform. Yamaha Motor said it’ll also work on improving safety for riders and passengers, too. In addition, the Japanese firm said it may tap Grab’s customer and driver base for input when developing future vehicles.

Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are three markets where Grab offers motorcycles on-demand as both passenger rides — traffic in Southeast Asia’s megacities is something to behold — as well as fleet based food or grocery deliveries or services on demand.

Grab isn’t alone in that two-wheeled push, however. Go-Jek operates bike-based services in its home market of Indonesia, while it is expanding into Vietnam and Thailand, too. Backed by the likes of Google, Tencent and Meituan, Go-Jek is in the process of raising $2 billion in new capital while this year it has finally expanded beyond Indonesia for the first time.

Grab claims over 125 million downloads and 2.5 billion rides to date. It has branched out into payments, food delivery and other areas in recent times as part of a strategy to become Southeast Asia’s all-in-one ‘super app.’

Apple plans major US expansion including a new $1 billion campus in Austin

By Jon Russell

Apple has announced a major expansion that will see it open a new campus in North Austin and open new offices in Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles as it bids to increase its workforce in the U.S. The firm said it intends also to expand its presence in Pittsburgh, New York and Boulder, Colorado over the next three years.

The Austin campus alone will cost the company $1 billion, but Apple said that the 133-acre space will generate 5,000 new jobs across a broad range of roles with the potential to add 10,000 more. The company claims to have 6,200 employees in Austin — its largest enclave outside of Cupertino — and it said that the addition of these new roles will make it the largest private employer in the city.

Apple said the new campus will include more than 50 acres of open space, and it will run entirely on renewable energy.

The investment was lauded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“Their decision to expand operations in our state is a testament to the high-quality workforce and unmatched economic environment that Texas offers. I thank Apple for this tremendous investment in Texas, and I look forward to building upon our strong partnership to create an even brighter future for the Lone Star State,” he said.

More broadly, Apple said it added 6,000 jobs to its U.S. workforce this year to take its total in the country to 90,000. It said it remains on track to create 20,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2023.

Outside of the Austin development, the iPhone-maker plans to expand to over 1,000 staff Seattle, San Diego and LA over the next three years., while adding “hundreds” of staff in Pittsburgh, New York, Boulder, Boston and Portland, Oregon.

Finalcad, the mobile platform for the construction industry, raises $40M Series C

By Steve O'Hear

Finalcad, a mobile platform that enables the construction industry to digitize much of its processes, has closed $40 million in Series C funding. The round was led by publicly listed London venture capital firm Draper Esprit, and Cathay Innovation, with the support of Salesforce Ventures. Existing existing French investors Serena, Aster and CapHorn Invest also participated.

Funded in 2012 by Jimmy Louchart, Joffroy Louchart and David Vauthrin, Finalcad has set out to solve the construction industry’s “chronic low productivity” problem. The Paris-based company has developed a SaaS and mobile app to help construction workers and other construction stakeholders collaborate digitally, which is believed to be the key to removing many of the efficiencies in construction.

Specifically — and according to McKinsey — labor-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1 percent a year over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8 percent for the total world economy and 3.6 percent in the case of manufacturing. The construction industry is also lagging behind in terms of digitization: MGI’s digitization index places it among the least digitized sectors.

To help remedy this, Finalcad’s SaaS lets construction site engineers, foremen, architects and consultants work together via the Finalcad mobile app, enabling collaboration across a wide variety of workflows both on site and at the office.

Along with acting as a communication tool — akin to a ‘Yammer for construction’ — the software also enables stakeholders to work on drawings, BIM models, tasks, controls, safety procedures and progress monitoring. From this vantage point, Finalcad is able to provide insights and “best practices at a company level,” powered by its analytics technology.

On who Finalcad’s competition is, unsurprisingly co-founder and CMO David Vauthrin says it’s a “mix of paper and pencil, excel sheets, and IM platforms,” such as WhatsApp or WeChat etc.

“On direct competiton, we face some players, but they are all very small companies, limited to one trade (e.g. buildings) or to a [single] geography,” he says.

Vauthrin also tells me that the Paris-based company’s business model is not based on per project sales, but is designed to encourage company-wide digital transformation. This sees Finalcad operate a subscription model based on a percentage of a company’s turnover.

“We created and implement into our customer’s organisation a ‘change management’ methodology to make sure that the majority of our customer’s workforce is going to embrace this change,” he adds.

To that end, Finalcad says it will use the new Series C funding to extend its SaaS, which spans support for buildings and infrastructure to energy, operations, and maintenance. It will also invest in R&D related to its Construction Insight Platform, and plans to hire an additional 100 people globally, adding to a current headcount of 170 people across 12 countries.

“When we raised our Series B in 2016, we intended to implement pivotal change: moving from a project-based business model to a company-wide digital transformation one. This involved covering all the main activities of our industry: buildings, infrastructure, energy, operations and maintenance,” says Jimmy Louchart, co-founder and CEO, in a statement.

“Since then, we validated this shift with some major contract wins in Europe and Asia. Now this Series C allows us to fully deploy our new strategy on a global scale. We firmly believe that this unique approach is coming to fruition, and the value we bring to our customers is the right path towards changing the way we build”.

Wandelbots raises $6.8M to make programming a robot as easy as putting on a jacket

By Ingrid Lunden

Industrial robotics is on track to be worth around $20 billion by 2020, but while it may something in common with other categories of cutting-edge tech — innovative use of artificial intelligence, pushing the boundaries of autonomous machines that are disrupting pre-existing technology — there is one key area where it differs: each robotics firm uses its own proprietary software and operating systems to run its machines, making programming the robots complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

A startup out of Germany called Wandelbots (a portmanteau of “change” and “robots” in German) has come up with an innovative way to skirt around that challenge: it has built a bridge that connects the operating systems of the 12 most popular industrial robotics makers with what a business wants them to do, and now they can be trained by a person wearing a jacket kitted with dozens of sensors.

“We are providing a universal language to teach those robots in the same way, independent of the technology stack,” said CEO Christian Piechnick said in an interview. Essentially reverse engineering the process of how a lot of software is built, Wandelbots is creating what is a Linux-like underpinning to all of it.

With some very big deals under its belt with the likes of Volkwagen, Infineon and Midea, the startup out of Dresden has now raised €6 million ($6.8 million), a Series A to take it to its next level of growth and specifically to open an office in China. The funding comes from Paua VenturesEQT Ventures and other unnamed previous investors. (It had previously raised a seed round around the time it was a finalist in our Disrupt Battlefield last year, pre-launch.)

Notably, Paua has a bit of a history of backing transformational software companies (it also invests in Stripe), and EQT, being connected to a private equity firm, is treating this as a strategic investment that might be deployed across its own assets.

Piechnick — who co-founded Wandelbots with Georg Püschel, Maria Piechnick, Sebastian Werner, Jan Falkenberg and Giang Nguyen on the back of research they did at university — said that typical programming of industrial robots to perform a task could have in the past taken three months, the employment of specialist systems integrators, and of course an extra cost on top of the machines themselves.

Someone with no technical knowledge, wearing one of Wandelbots’ jackets, can bring that process down to 10 minutes, with costs reduced by a factor of ten.

“In order to offer competitive products in the face of the rapid changes within the automotive industry, we need more cost savings and greater speed in the areas of production and automation of manufacturing processes,” said Marco Weiß, Head of New Mobility & Innovations at Volkswagen Sachsen GmbH, in a statement. “Wandelbots’ technology opens up significant opportunities for automation. Using Wandelbots offering, the installation and setup of robotic solutions can be implemented incredibly quickly by teams with limited programming skills.”

Wandelbots’ focus at the moment is on programming robotic arms rather than the mobile machines that you may have seen Amazon and others using to move goods around warehouses. For now, this means that there is not a strong crossover in terms of competition between these two branches of enterprise robotics.

However, Amazon has been expanding and working on new areas beyond warehouse movements: it has, for example, been working ways of using computer vision and robotic arms to identify and pick out the most optimal fruits and vegetables out of boxes to put into grocery orders.

Innovations like that from Amazon and others could see more pressure for innovation among robotics makers, although Piechnick notes that up to now we’ve seen very little in the way of movement, and there may never be (creating more opportunity for companies like his that build more usability).

“Attempts to build robotics operating systems have been tried over and over again, and each time it’s failed,” he said. “But robotics has completely different requirements, such as real time computing, safety issues and many other different factors. A robot in operation is much more complicated than a phone.” He also added that Wandelbots itself has a number of innovations of its own currently going through the patent process, which will widen its own functionality too in terms of what and how its software can train a robot to do. (This may see more than jackets enter the mix.)

As with companies in the area of robotic process automation — which uses AI to take over more mundane back-office features — Piechnick maintains that what he has built, and the rise of robotics overall, is not going to replace workers, but put them on to other roles, while allowing businesses to expand the scope of what they can do that a human might never have been able to execute.

“No company we work with has ever replaced a human worker with a robot,” he said, explaining that generally the upgrade is from machine to better machine. “It makes you more efficient and cost reductive, and it allows you to put your good people on more complicated tasks.”

Currently, Wandelbots is working with large-scale enterprises, although ultimately, it’s smaller businesses that are its target customer, he said.

“Previously the ROI on robots was too difficult for SMEs,” he said. “With our tech this changes.”

“Wandelbots will be one of the key companies enabling the mass-adoption of industrial robotics by revolutionizing how robots are trained and used,” said Georg Stockinger, Partner at Paua Ventures, in a statement. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a steep decline in robotic hardware costs. Now, Wandelbots’ resolves the remaining hurdle to disruptive growth in industrial automation – the ease and speed of implementation and teaching. Both factors together will create a perfect storm, driving the next wave of industrial revolution.”

 

 

Volvo Trucks teases the all-electric semi truck it’s bringing to California in 2019

By Kirsten Korosec

Volvo Trucks released teaser images Wednesday of the electric trucks it plans to bring to California next year as part of a demonstration project, the latest truck manufacturer to publicize its electric plans in the state.

The attraction to California is no accident. The state has set aggressive targets to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions, particularly those generated from tailpipes.

Daimler Trucks North America said in July it would begin testing 20 fully electric heavy- and medium-duty Freightliner models at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this year. Tesla, which unveiled the Tesla Semi prototype in November 2017 , began testing its prototype semis in California and Nevada earlier this year. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said production of the Tesla Semi, a Class 8 heavy duty truck, would begin in 2019.

Newcomer Thor Trucks is developing a medium-duty Class-6 electric truck for UPS, which will also be tested in California.

Volvo Trucks plans to test its new electric VNR truck, a refitted version of its diesel-powered VNR model. The electric VNR, which will be based on powertrain technology used in the Volvo FE Electric, will be produced for the North American commercial vehicle market starting in 2020, the company said.

The introduction of the Volvo VNR Electric models is part of a partnership called LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions) between Volvo Group, California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), and industry leaders in transportation and electrical charging infrastructure.

The California Air Resources Board preliminary awarded $44.8 million to SCAQMD for the Volvo LIGHTS project. The LIGHTS project will focus on distribution, regional-haul and drayage operations.

The future is electric. The all-electric Volvo VNR will be introduced to demonstrators next year and commercialized in 2020. #FullyCharged pic.twitter.com/YBefdvH5TJ

— Volvo Trucks North America (@VolvoTrucksNA) December 12, 2018

The goal, according to Volvo Trucks North America President Peter Voorhoeve, is test and showcase their approach to electrifying the freight transport industry. The project will ultimately result in the commercialization of fully-electric heavy-duty trucks, Voorhoeve added.

“Electric trucks bring many unknowns and our holistic focus through the LIGHTS project will help our fleet partners transition securely and smoothly based on their individual needs regarding driving cycles, load capacity, uptime, range and other parameters,”Johan Agebrand, Volvo Trucks North America director of product marketing said in a statement. “Within the project we’ll look at everything from route analysis and battery optimization to servicing and financing. We always aim to offer high uptime and productivity.”

Lazada, Alibaba’s Southeast Asia e-commerce business, gets a new CEO

By Jon Russell

Alibaba has reshuffled the leadership at Lazada, its e-commerce firm in Southeast Asia, after CEO Lucy Peng — an original Alibaba co-founder — stepped down to be replaced by Lazada executive president Pierre Poignant.

Alibaba owns more than 90 percent of Lazada but it has been involved in the business since April 2016 when it bought 51 percent of Lazada for $1 billion from Rocket Internet. It invested a further $1 billion last year to increase its equity to around 83 percent and earlier this year it raised its stake even higher with an additional $2 billion injection.

That last investment saw Peng, formerly executive chairman of Ant Financial, become Lazada CEO in place of Max Bittner, who had been installed by former owner Rocket Internet back in 2012. Poignant also arrived at the company in 2012 and he worked alongside Bittner as Lazada’s COO. Since then, he has been head of its logistics division before a brief five-month stint as executive president prior to this new role.

Lazada operates in six countries across Southeast Asia, but there are very few indicators of how the business is performing.

Alibaba’s own financial reports bundle Lazada with the firm’s other international businesses. Collectively, they grossed RMB 4.5 billion ($650 million) in the last quarter. That’s an impressive 55 percent revenue jump but it accounts for a small portion of Alibaba’s total revenue of RMB 85.15 billion ($12.4 billion) in Q2 2019.

Lazada took part in the recent 11/11 Singles’ Day sale mega day. Alibaba as a whole grossed $31 billion in GMV during the 24-hour period but the company did not break out numbers for Lazada. Lazada itself said it broke records, but the only data it provided was that 20 million shoppers were “browsing and grabbing” deals on its site — you’ll note that statement doesn’t explicitly provide sales. We did ask at the time but Lazada declined to give sales or revenue numbers.

Against that backdrop, it is hard to say whether Peng was brought in as a stop-gap while Lazada searched for a new CEO, or whether her original remit was to preside over a revamp of the business. Lazada has certainly gone about installing new executive teams in many local markets, according to sources within the company, but it isn’t clear whether Peng is being recalled as planned or whether things didn’t work out as expected.

The news follows Alibaba’s second investment in Tokopedia, Indonesia’s leading e-commerce platform, yesterday.

Speaking on the rivalry, Tokopedia CEO William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch that he sees differences between the two.

“We see Lazada having a different business model than us: Lazada is a hybrid of retail and marketplace model, whereas Tokopedia is a pure marketplace. Lazada is [a] regional player, we are a national player in Indonesia,” he said.

Feds like cryptocurrencies and blockchain tech and so should antitrust agencies

By Jonathan Shieber
Thibault Schrepel Contributor
Thibault Schrepel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Economic Law at Utrecht University and a reviewer at the Stanford Journal of Blockchain Law & Policy.

While statements and position papers from most central banks were generally skeptical of cryptocurrencies, the times may be changing.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve of Saint Louis published a study that relates the positive effects of cryptocurrencies for privacy protection.

Even with the precipitous decline in value of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other currencies, the Federal Reserve author emphasized the new competitive offering these currencies created exactly because of the way they function, and accordingly, why they are here to stay.

And antitrust authorities should welcome cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies for the same reason.

Fact: crypto-currencies are good for (legitimate) privacy protection

In the July article from Federal Reserve research fellow Charles M. Kahn, cryptocurrencies were held up as an exemplar of a degree of privacy protection that not even the central banks can provide to customers.

Kahn further stressed that “privacy in payments is desired not just for illegal transactions, but also for protection from malfeasance or negligence by counterparties or by the payments system provider itself.”

The act of payment engages the liability of the person who makes it. As a consequence, parties insert numerous contractual clauses to limit their liability. This creates a real issue due to the fact that some “parties to the transaction are no longer able to support the lawyers’ fees necessary to uphold the arrangement.” Smart contracts may address this issue by automating conflict resolution, but for anyone who doesn’t have access to them, crypto-currencies solve the problem differently. They make it possible to make a transaction without revealing your identity.

Above all, crypto-currencies are a reaction to fears of privacy invasion, whether by governments or big companies, according to Kahn. And indeed, following Cambridge Analytica and fake news revelations, we are hearing more and more opinions expressing concerns. The General Data Protection Regulation is set to protect private citizens, but in practice, “more and more individuals will turn to payments technologies for privacy protection in specific transactions.” In this regard, cryptocurrencies provide an alternative solution that competes directly with what the market currently offers.

Consequence: blockchain is good for competition and consumers

Indeed, cryptocurrencies may be the least among many blockchain applications. The diffusion of data among a decentralized network that is independently verified by some or all of the network’s participating stakeholders is precisely the aspect of the technology that provides privacy protection and competes with applications outside the blockchain by offering a different kind of service.

The Fed of St. Louis’ study underlines that “because privacy needs are different in type and degree, we should expect a variety of platforms to emerge for specific purposes, and we should expect continued competition between traditional and start-up providers.”

And how not to love variety? In an era where antitrust authorities are increasingly interested in consumers’ privacy, crypto-currencies (and more generally blockchains) offer a much more effective protection than antitrust law and/or the GDPR combined.

These agencies should be happy about that, but they don’t say a word about it. That silence could lead to flawed judgements, because ignoring the speed of blockchain development — and its increasingly varied use — leads to misjudge the real nature of the competitive field.

And in fact, because they ignore the existence of blockchain (applications), they tend to engage in more and more procedures where privacy is seen as an antitrust concern (see what’s happening in Germany). But blockchain is actually providing an answer to this issue ; it can’t be said accordingly that the market is failing. And without a market failure, antitrust agencies’ intervention is not legitimate.

The roles of the fed and antitrust agencies could change

This new privacy offering from blockchain technologies should also lead to changes in the role of agencies. As the Fed study stressed:

“the future of central banks and payments authorities is no longer in privacy provision but in privacy regulation, in holding the ring as different payments platforms offer solutions appropriate to different niches with different mixes of expenses and safety, and with attention to different parts of the public’s demand for privacy.”

Some constituencies may criticize the expanding role of central banks in enforcing and ensuring privacy online, but those banks would be even harder pressed if they handled the task themselves instead of trying to relinquish it to the network.

The same applies to antitrust authorities. It is not for them to judge what the business model of digital companies should be and what degree of privacy protection they should offer. Their role is to ensure that alternatives exist, here, that blockchain can be deployed without misinformed regulation to slow it down.

Perhaps antitrust agencies should be more vocal about the benefits of cryptocurrencies and blockchain and advise governments not to prevent them.

After all, if even a Fed is now pro-crypto-currencies, antitrust regulators should jump on the wagon without fear. After all, blockchain creates a new alternative by offering real privacy protections, which ultimately put more power in the hands of consumers. If antitrust agencies can’t recognize that, we will soon ask ourselves: who are they really protecting?

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