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EVgo to go public via SPAC in bid to power EV charging expansion

By Kirsten Korosec

EVgo, the wholly owned subsidiary of LS Power that owns and operates public fast chargers for electric vehicles, has reached a deal to become a publicly traded company through a merger with special-purpose acquisition company Climate Change Crisis Real Impact I Acquisition Corporation.

The combined company, which will be listed under the new ticker symbol “EVGO” will have a market valuation of $2.6 billion. LS Power and EVgo management, which today own 100% of the company will be rolling all of its equity into the transaction. Once the transaction closes in the second quarter, LS Power will hold a 74% stake in the newly combined company.

EVgo has raised about $575 million in proceeds through the business combination, including a $400 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE. Investors include Pacific Investment Management Company LLC (PIMCO), funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Wellington Management, Neuberger Berman Funds and Van Eck Associates Corporation, according to the announcement.

EVgo’s leadership will remain intact, with Cathy Zoi continuing as CEO of the combined company.

The deal is the latest in a long string of electric vehicle-related companies to merge with so-called blank check companies, eschewing the traditional path to an IPO. Arrival, Canoo, ChargePoint, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, Proterra and The Lion Electric Company are some of the companies that have merged with SPACs — or announced plans to — in the past eight months.

EVgo is not a new entrant to the electric vehicle industry. The company was founded in 2010 and has spent better part of the decade scaling up its infrastructure. Today, EVgo has chargers in more than 800 locations in 67 major metropolitan markets across 34 states. The company has landed a number of partnerships, including with Albertsons, Kroger and Wawa to locate its chargers at these properties.

EVgo has also struck deals with automakers such as GM and Nissan as well as ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber. In July, GM and EVgo announced plans to add more than 2,700 new fast chargers over the next five years.

While electric vehicles still make up just a fraction of total cars, trucks and SUVs on today’s roads, the industry has forecast that the EV market will increase more than 100-fold between 2019 and 2040, EVgo said. The funds raised through the public market will be used to accelerate its expansion, according to the company.

“Just a few years ago, electric vehicles were considered niche,” EVgo CEO Cathy Zoi said in a statement. “Today, improved technology, lower costs, greater selection and a better appreciation for the performance of EVs is increasingly making them the vehicle technology of choice. With that, the need for fast charging is on the rise.”

Zoi noted that public charging will essential to meet the needs of the estimated 30% of Americans who do not have access to at-home charging as well as the growing number of fleets that are switching to electric vehicles.

Pinterest launches an AR-powered Try-on experience for eyeshadow

By Sarah Perez

Pinterest is expanding its virtual makeup try-on capabilities with today’s launch of a new augmented reality feature that allows online shoppers to virtually try on new eyeshadow. Initially, Pinterest is allowing try-on with 4,000 shades from brands like Lancome, YSL, Urban Decay, and NYX Cosmetics.

The feature leverages Pinterest’s existing Lens visual search technology, its skin tone ranges feature, and computer-vision powered recommendations, the company says. We also understand Pinterest is incorporating elements from data partner ModiFace, including digitization parameters that ensure the products recognized are mapped to ModiFace’s database for higher-quality rendering.

This not Pinterest’s first virtual makeup feature. The company had previously launched an AR try-on experience for lipstick a year ago, which has now grown to include 10,000 shades, discoverable from 48 million beauty pins from brands like Estée Lauder, bareMinerals, Neutrogena, NARS, Cle de Peau, Thrive Causemetics, NYX Professional Makeup, YSL Beauté, Lancôme, and Urban Decay. Retailers, including Kohl’s, have also used AR try-on to reach consumers.

With the newly launched eyeshadow try-on, users can filter the product search results by factors like color, price range, and brand. if they find something they like, they can then purchase it immediately, save it to a board, or browse a “more like this” section to find more Pins offering similar shades.

video of AR eyeshadow effect

Image Credits: Pinterest

The expansion to eyeshadow means users can now experiment with more of a full makeup look, rather than just try on individual shades. There’s a toggle that lets users switch between lipstick and eyeshadow to try on multiple products at once, Pinterest says.

AR-powered virtual makeup experiences have been growing in popularity over the years, thanks in part to AR beauty apps  like ModiFace’ YouCam MakeupSephora’s Virtual ArtistUlta’s GLAMLab and others. L’Oréal has also offered Live Try-On on its website, and partnered with Facebook to bring virtual makeup to the site. Target’s online Beauty Studio also offers virtual makeup.

More recently, Google entered the AR virtual makeup space, initially with the launch of a more limited feature on YouTube that allowed some beauty influencers to incorporate an AR try-on experience for products in their videos. In December 2020, however, Google more fully embraced AR try-on with the launch of virtual makeup try-on within Google Search, also in partnership with ModiFace.

But Pinterest’s expansion to eyeshadow means it’s once again ahead of Google when it comes to visual search technology and virtual makeup. Not only does it offer more lipstick shades than Google, it now also offers eyeshadow try-on.

Pinterest says the AR try-on feature is being made available for free to brands who want to create visual shopping experiences and reach customers earlier in their decision-making process. The company says it continues to generate revenue through ads, including shopping ads, and not by monetizing its AR features or doing any revenue share on the try-ons that turn into sales.

“As we make Pinterest more shoppable through products like AR Try on, the platform becomes more engaging and actionable to Pinners, which can result in increases in usage and click-through of ads,” a spokesperson explains. “Organic features like Try on and ingestion of catalogs to create Product Pins can oftentimes complement a paid strategy where brands drive traffic across the site,” they noted.

The support for eyeshadow try-on is timely. Some beauty brand sales have been depressed by the pandemic, and particularly lipsticks, since it makes no sense to use lip color when your face is under a mask. Instead, current beauty trends have shifted to highlighting the eyes, with bright and bold colors for eyeshadow shades, the wild floating eyeliner look, large false lashes, and more — trends that are also designed to look good when filmed for social media posts, of course.

Pinterest says it has indications that its AR features are converting undecided shoppers to customers. In 2020, Pinterest found that users would try-on an average of 6 lipstick shades once they began the AR try-on experience, and then were 5 times more likely to show purchase intent on try-on compared with standard Pins.

The new eyeshadow try-on is live starting today using the Lens camera in the Pinterest app for iOS and Android.

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Sounding Board raises cash as startups wake up to executive coaching

By Natasha Mascarenhas

In an unprecedented work environment defined by distributed teams and virtual-only communication, two co-founders think their 2018 bet reigns truer than ever: mentors need mentorship, too.

Christine Tao and Lori Mazan, the brains behind Sounding Board, want to train any leader within an organization to be a better leader. The San Francisco startup connects anyone from first-time managers to C-suite executives with coaches through a marketplace.

Revenue has doubled or tripled every year since 2016, which the company says hovers in the “multi-millions” range. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Sounding Board has seen demand for its platform grow even more. Quarterly bookings have increased 3.4 times from Q2 2020, and in the last five months, monthly revenue has doubled.

On the heels of this growth, the co-founders say that Sounding Board’s next step as a startup is to grow beyond coaching services and into a platform that can show leaders how those newfound skills are impacting business development. The new product is meant to serve as a hub and roadmap where a participant and coach can track insights, progress and behaviors.

Within the platform, a user can schedule sessions with a coach, get matched to someone, as well as look at resources and complete tasks assigned to them. Beyond that, there is a feature that allows the coach and the manager to measure goals on an ongoing basis, similar to OKR-related software.

“The content is great, but unless you can apply that content, it’s not very useful,” Mazan said. “So this coaching is a way to help people apply the insights and the learning they’ve gotten from some kind of content and really utilize that in the workplace.”

The new product takes the monthly in-person summit that your organization used to call executive coaching and turns it into a living, breathing part of a manager’s workflow.

Beyond helping its users have a better temperature check on their progress, the product will help Sounding Board scale its services. Now any tutor on Sounding Board has more ways into a user’s mind and workflow, so every call isn’t synchronous and can be managed more evenly.

The co-founders see their long-term differentiation living in this feature. Anyone can create a marketplace, but it takes seamless, easy-to-use tech to track the effectiveness of what happens post-coaching.

Tao admits that the startup isn’t for everyone. Sounding Board has seen early adoption around enterprise companies that are in a late-stage, hyper-growth mindset heading toward an IPO. That level of maturity is a sweet spot for a third-party such as them to come in and scale leaders across teams. Customers include VMware, Uber, Plaid, Chime and Dropbox.

That said, within organizations, 60% of Sounding Board’s users are first-time managers, 30% are middle-tier and 10% are C-suite. The co-founders think these numbers indicate a broader demand for mentorship beyond what their competitors offer, which often sticks to C-suite life coach territory or stress management.

“Everyone is starting to realize that we’re going to have to offer coaching broader than just in the C-suite, and sometimes they don’t really know what that means,” said Mazan.

The realization, along with COVID-19 tailwinds, has helped Sounding Board attract new millions in venture capital. The startup tells TechCrunch that it has raised a $13.1 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Other investors include Correlation Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, Precursor Ventures, as well as Degreed founder David Blake and Kevin Johnson, the former CEO of Udemy.

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

By Alex Wilhelm

Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)

After digging into the United States’ broader venture capital results from last year with an extra eye on fintech and unicorn investing, at least one trend was clear: venture capital is getting later and larger (as expected).

Record dollar amounts were being invested, but across falling deal volume. More money and fewer rounds meant larger rounds, often going to the late and super-late stage startups in the market.

Unicorns are feasting, in other words, while some younger startups struggle to raise capital.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


There have been some encouraging signs of seed activity, mind, but full-year data made it clear that in America, the more mature startups had the best of it.

But what about the rest of the world? After parsing KPMG data concerning both how VCs invested in Europe (here) and Asia (here) last year, there are clear echoes. But not entire reproductions.

Let’s discuss key data points from the two reports. This will be illustrative, brief and painless. Into the data!

European VCs: Rich, but not evenly distributed

Compared to historical investment levels, KPMG’s European VC report describes a venture capital scene at its peak. Q4 2020 saw $14.3 billion invested into EU startups across 1,192 deals, the highest dollar amount charted and a modest besting of the previous record set in Q3 2020.

However, despite impressive investment totals, the number of deals that the money was spread over proved lackluster.

The Q4 2020 deal count was the lowest on record since the continent’s deal peak in Q1 2019. Squinting at the provided chart, it appears that deal volume in Europe has fallen from around 2,200 in that peak quarter, to Q4’s fewer than 1,200 deals.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth

By Kirsten Korosec

A month before the COVID-19 pandemic had spread to North America, auto fintech startup MotoRefi — newly armed with nearly $9 million in venture capital — was preparing to bring its refinancing platform to the masses.

CEO Kevin Bennett, and the investors behind the company, saw the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans. What they didn’t anticipate was the sudden uptick in demand fueled by COVID-19 and the uncertainty and chaos that the pandemic created.

MotoRefi, which was born out of QED Investors in 2017, developed an auto refinancing platform that handles the entire process, including finding the best rates,  paying off the old lender and re-titling the vehicle. The company has benefitted from the convergence of two trends sparked by COVID-19 that has turbocharged its business: an accelerated adoption of fintech across the economy and growing attention towards personal finance. 

Now, investors are pouring more money into the startup to help it make the most of the spike in demand for auto refinancing.

MotoRefi said Friday it has raised $10 million in a round led by Moderne Ventures. Liza Benson, a partner at Moderne Venture, will join the board.

“Many people are looking around saying how can they save money?” Bennett said, commenting on the events of the past year. “And while auto refinance historically is in a relatively low awareness category of personal finance, that interest has really grown and accelerated through 2020.”

For instance, Google searches for auto refinance increased about 40% in 2020 over the previous year, he added.

The company said its revenue rose by sixfold, its workforce tripled to more than 150 people and the number of lenders on its platform doubled over the past year. MotoRefi said it refinanced more than $250 million of auto loans in 2020.

“We actually weren’t planning on raising twice in a year,” Bennett said. “But the growth had been pretty noticeable from the investor standpoint in the market.”

That new capital will be used to hire more employees and expand its offerings, according to Bennett, who noted that MotoRefi now operates in 42 states and Washington DC.

MotoRefi has raised more than $24 million to date. The company raised last February $8.6 million in a Series A funding round. That round, which would later grow to $9.4 million, was co-led by Accomplice and Link Ventures. Motley Fool Ventures, CMFG Ventures (part of CUNA Mutual Group) and Gaingels also participated in the round. The Series A round followed $4.7 million in seed funding that MotoRefi announced in March 2019.

Dashlane taps JD Sherman, ex-Hubspot COO, as new CEO, as co-founder Emmanuel Schalit steps aside

By Ingrid Lunden

Our reliance on internet-based services is at an all-time high these days, and that’s brought a new focus on how well we are protected when we go online. Today comes some news from one of the bigger companies working in the area of password security, which points how business is shifting for the companies providing these tools.

Emmanuel Schalit, the co-founder of popular password manager Dashlane, is stepping down as CEO of the startup. He is being replaced by JD Sherman, the former COO of HubSpot, as Dashlane makes plans to move more aggressively to court more business users.

“This is about thinking about its next leg of our scaling strategy, more B2B monetization after being strong in B2C,” Sherman said in an interview, praising his predecessor’s growth of the consumer business and noting his realization that “B2B was not his forte.”

Sherman’s career focus, in contrast, has been all about B2B. Before his eight years at Hubspot, he was the CFO of Akamai (which, as a CDN, also had security as a focus, albeit in a completely different way), and before that IBM.

Since accepting the offer, Sherman (pictured right) has been quietly working with Schalit — who will no longer hold any operational role — to get up to speed and will be taking over formally at the start of February.

Sherman is based out of Boston and will eventually commute to Dashlane’s HQ in New York: eventually, because everyone is remote-working at the moment, with Sherman himself getting hired in a virtual process.

The changing of the guard comes at an interesting time for the startup. Dashlane now has 15 million users, up from 10 million+ in 2019. That was the same year that Dashlane announced two significant rounds of funding just six weeks apart from each other: first a $30 million round (which appeared to have some debt as part of it), then a $110 million Series D that valued the company at just over $500 million. Its backers include the likes of Sequoia, Bessemer, FirstMark, Rho Ventures and consumer credit reporting giant TransUnion.

Sherman would not talk about current valuation, nor where the company is currently standing regarding its next financial steps, except to say that it’s in a good place and to provide the smallest of hints of an IPO on the horizon.

“The Series D was a healthy round for a subscription business,” he said. “Right now, cashflow is solid and we have the funding we need for our growth, so there is no urgent plan to raise money. When we do, we’ll see if it is an IPO round” — that is, the last round before an IPO — “or not. To me, it’s all about growing the business.”

My guess: that valuation has gone up, given the boost in user numbers, the growth of its enterprise business and the huge shifts in the market in the last year that have put a spotlight on companies that are making using the internet safer. (Also, note that Logmein, which owns competitor LastPass, was picked up by PE firms for about $4.3 billion in a deal that completed last year.)

Dashlane was founded focused primarily on providing password management tools for consumers. These still account for the majority of its users, but the Series D funding was in part to fuel a bigger push into the business market, and to generally get on the radar of more people.

The expansion into business users was a natural move in more ways than one. First, the consumer service is designed as a freemium offering, while businesses provide a more steady and guaranteed revenue stream. Second, there is a natural progression that comes from being a happy consumer user: you might want to have the same service for your online work life, too. That remains the strategy for Sherman.

“The plan is to have two sides to the business,” he said, using the well-worn consumer-to-business analogy of a flywheel to describe how it will work: “The more who use it, more businesses will start to adopt it and get comfortable with using a password manager.”

That strategy is lately getting a major fillip, in the form of the massive boost in online activity in the past year.

Activities like taking care of all your shopping, entertainment, social and work-related needs have all moved online in the last year, pushed into the virtual sphere by the emergence and persistent presence of the easily contagious and dangerous Covid-19 virus.

Some of that shift has worked out better than many thought it would, and now, some believe that even when the pandemic does get under control, a lot of us will still be using the internet to get all of those things done on a regular basis.

But while I’ve heard a lot of industry people describe that situation as “the genie is out of the bottle”, perhaps a more fitting expression might be that Pandora’s box has been opened. That is to say, the increased online usage has created an alarmingly large opportunity for malicious hacking, security breaches and misuse of our online identities.

This consequently has a pretty direct link back to Dashlane.

Password protection is one of the most important elements of keeping yourself and your information safe online, with, weak, stolen and reused passwords some of the biggest causes of security breaches both for consumers and businesses (by some estimates, you can track 80-90% of all security breaches back to password issues).

Beyond that, not least because of all the breaches we’ve now seen, the current market has become much more concerned about privacy and security (a trend manifesting in all kinds of ways), and that has bred a lot more awareness and appetite for the kinds of tools that Dashlane, and other companies that enable better online security, provide.

There will likely continue to be developments in the technology to both suss out bad actors and block them in their tracks when they do try to enter networks, and the technology sold to organizations to keep their and their customers’ information in the cloud in more secure ways will also be improved. But above and beyond all that, password managers are likely to continue to play a role in the mix.

Password managers may not always be a perfect solution — there have been a few cases of breaches over the years, and while they have not been in recent times, security researchers at the University of York in May 2020 identified vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited — but they remain a relatively easy option for end users themselves to be more proactive in protecting their identities specifically by building a better way to guard their passwords. (Among all that, it’s also worth pointing out that Dashlane has never had a breach in its 10+ years of operations.)

And there are a number of routes to providing password management, including efforts from platform players themselves and more direct Dashlane competitors like 1Password and LastPass. Notably, some of the efforts to bridge some of that together, such as the “OpenYolo” project spearheaded by Google and Dashlane, have stalled over the years, in part because of the complexity of implementing it with other existing managers.

But even within that fragmented, competitive and (still at times) vulnerable market, Dashlane still has a lot of opportunities for growth.

“The business is strong and growing,” Sherman said. “The craziness around Covid and remote networking have raised the profile of password management and security in general. It’s a more difficult environment, but there is a tailwind there.”

Blobr, the ‘no-code’ company turning APIs into products, raises €1.2M pre-seed

By Steve O'Hear

Blobr, a Paris-based startup operating in the no-code space with tech to make it easier for companies to expose and monetise their existing APIs, has raised €1.2 million in pre-seed funding.

The round is led by pan-European pre-seed and seed investor Seedcamp, with participation from New Wave, Kima and various angel investors. Blobr is also the first company to take investment from New Wave — the new European venture capital firm co-founded by Pia d’Iribarne and Jean de la Rochebrochard — since the VC confirmed it had closed $56 million in deployable capital from an all-star lineup of investors, including Iliad’s Xavier Niel, Benchmark’s Peter Fenton and Tony Fadell of Apple fame.

Blobr, founded by Alexandre Airvault (CEO) and Alexandre Mai (CTO), is aiming to become the default “business and product layer” for APIs. This idea is to enable product and business people to manage and monetise a company’s application programming interfaces without technical knowledge or the need to use up more internal engineering resources. And by doing so, the startup believes we’ll see much more innovative use of APIs as commercial data and functionality is made accessible by more third parties to build on top.

“We believe companies should stop thinking of APIs as mere pipes and start building them as products to unleash their power,” says Airvault. “This means APIs should be priced, customized and managed with a user-oriented mindset and not only a tech one”.

To make this a reality, Blobr is designed to empower product and business owners to “make data-sharing a profitable model”, while reducing their dependence on tech. “I believe this approach is what will drive the data exchanges to the next level”, he explains.

Blobr’s no-code technology offers quite a lot of functionality already. From one existing internal API, you can filter confidential information or GDPR-related data; it’s also possible to deliver different API output depending on customer segmentation so you only expose the data that’s needed; and API usage can be linked to usage-based business models or a monthly subscription in Stripe.

Airvault says the startup’s main competitors include API management solutions from Google, IBM, Axway and MuleSoft. “Those platforms are tailored for internal APIs but are not thought of and optimized to manage APIs as products. They are tailored for technical people, whereas Blobr as a no-code solution is built from scratch for product and business people to avoid technical people to be involved in the equation,” he adds.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code

By Natasha Lomas

Google has threatened to close its search engine in Australia — as it dials up its lobbying against draft legislation that is intended to force it to pay news publishers for reuse of their content.

Facebook would also be subject to the law. And has previously said it would ban news from being shared on its products owing if the law was brought in, as well as claiming it’s reduced its investment in the country as a result of the legislative threat.

“The principle of unrestricted linking between websites is fundamental to Search. Coupled with the unmanageable financial and operational risk if this version of the Code were to become law it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia,” Google warned today.

Last August the tech giant took another pot-shop at the proposal, warning that the quality of its products in the country could suffer and might stop being free if the government proceeded with a push to make the tech giants share ad revenue with media businesses.

Since last summer Google appears to have changed lobbying tack — apparently giving up its attempt to derail the law entirely in favor of trying to reshape it to minimize the financial impact.

Its latest bit of lobbying is focused on trying to eject the most harmful elements (as it sees it) of the draft legislation — while also pushing its News Showcase program, which it hastily spun up last year, as an alternative model for payments to publishers that it would prefer becomes the vehicle for remittances under the Code.

The draft legislation for Australia’s digital news Code which is currently before the parliament includes a controversial requirement that tech giants, Google and Facebook, pay publishers for linking to their content — not merely for displaying snippets of text.

Yet Google has warned Australia that making it pay for “links and snippets” would break how the Internet works.

In a statement to the Senate Economics Committee today, its VP for Australia and New Zealand, Mel Silva, said: “This provision in the Code would set an untenable precedent for our business, and the digital economy. It’s not compatible with how search engines work, or how the internet works, and this is not just Google’s view — it has been cited in many of the submissions received by this Inquiry.

“The principle of unrestricted linking between websites is fundamental to Search. Coupled with the unmanageable financial and operational risk if this version of the Code were to become law it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia.”

Google is certainly not alone in crying foul over a proposal to require payments for links.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has warned that the draft legislation “risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online”, among other alarmed submissions to the committee.

In written testimony he goes on:

“Before search engines were effective on the web, following links from one page to another was the only way of finding material. Search engines make that process far more effective, but they can only do so by using the link structure of the web as their principal input. So links are fundamental to the web.

“As I understand it, the proposed code seeks to require selected digital platforms to have to negotiate and possibly pay to make links to news content from a particular group of news providers.

“Requiring a charge for a link on the web blocks an important aspect of the value of web content. To my knowledge, there is no current example of legally requiring payments for links to other content. The ability to link freely — meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web operates, how it has flourished till present, and how it will continue to grow in decades to come.”

However it’s notable that Berners-Lee’s submission does not mention snippets. Not once. It’s all about links.

Meanwhile Google has just reached an agreement with publishers in France — which they say covers payment for snippets of content.

In the EU, the tech giant is subject to an already reformed copyright directive that extended a neighbouring right for news content to cover reuse of snippets of text. Although the directive does not cover links or “very short extracts”.

In France, Google says it’s only paying for content “beyond links and very short extracts”. But it hasn’t said anything about snippets in that context.

French publishers argue the EU law clearly does cover the not-so-short text snippets that Google typically shows in its News aggregator — pointing out that the directive states the exception should not be interpreted in a way that impacts the effectiveness of neighboring rights. So Google looks like it would have a big French fight on its hands if it tried to deny payments for snippets.

But there’s still everything to play for in Australia. Hence, down under, Google is trying to conflate what are really two separate and distinct issues (payment for links vs payment for snippets) — in the hopes of reducing the financial impact vs what’s already baked into EU law. (Although it’s only been actively enforced in France so far, which is ahead of other EU countries in transposing the directive into national law).

In Australia, Google is also heavily pushing for the Code to “designate News Showcase” (aka the program it launched once the legal writing was on the wall about paying publishers) — lobbying for that to be the vehicle whereby it can reach “commercial agreements to pay Australian news publishers for value”.

Of course a commercial negotiation process is preferable (and familiar) to the tech giant vs being bound by the Code’s proposed “final offer arbitration model” — which Google attacks as having “biased criteria”, and claims subjects it to “unmanageable financial and operational risk”.

“If this is replaced with standard commercial arbitration based on comparable deals, this would incentivise good faith negotiations and ensure we’re held accountable by robust dispute resolution,” Silva also argues.

A third provision the tech giant is really keen gets removed from the current draft requires it to give publishers notification ahead of changes to its algorithms which could affect how their content is discovered.

“The algorithm notification provision could be adjusted to require only reasonable notice about significant actionable changes to Google’s algorithm, to make sure publishers are able to respond to changes that affect them,” it suggests on that.

It’s certainly interesting to consider how, over a few years, Google’s position has moved from ‘we’ll never pay for news’ — pre- any relevant legislation — to ‘please let us pay for licensing news through our proprietary licensing program’ once the EU had passed a directive now being very actively enforced in France (with the help of competition law) and also with Australia moving toward inking a similar law.

Turns out legislation can be a real tech giant mind-changer.

Of course the idea of making anyone pay to link to content online is obviously a terrible idea — and should be dropped.

But if that bit of the draft is a negotiating tactic by Australians lawmakers to get Google to accept that it will have to pay publishers something then it appears to be winning one.

And while Google’s threat to close down its search engine might sound ‘full on’, as Silva suggests, when you consider how many alternative search engines exist it’s hardly the threat it once was.

Especially as plenty of alternative search engines are a lot less abusive toward users’ privacy.

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio

By Mike Butcher

Five-year-old “slow dating” app Once has been acquired by the Dating Group, one of the largest companies in the dating world, for $18 million in cash and stock. Dating Group has 73 million registered users across a range of portfolio apps, including Dating.com.

Clémentine Lalande, co-founder and CEO of Once, will continue leading the company under a two-year agreement. Fellow co-founder Jean Meyer retained a stake in the company after departing two years ago.

Once has 9 million users on its platform, while the startup also garnered a further 1 million from a spin-out app it later launched called Pickable.

Once is a dating app that uses matching algorithms to deliver just one match per day to each user. It pitched itself as an alternative to the frenetically paced apps such as Tinder and Bumble. Indeed, Bumble revealed last week that two in five people of those it surveyed are taking longer to get to know someone as a result of pandemic lockdowns. And 38% Bumble users admit that it had made them want something more serious. So Once had a ready market.

Each pair on the Once app has 24 hours of each other’s attention and can continue chatting if they “like” each other. The AI looks at the account’s info, dating preferences and previous history in order to find the best possible match. Users can also rate each particular profile to let the AI better understand their taste.

In a statement, Lalande said: “I am thrilled to join the Dating Group today, both because of their proven focus on post-swiping dating alternatives, and to leverage the huge synergies between Once and Dating Group. In such a concentrated and competitive market having a large partner will allow us to augment our reach and accelerate geographical expansion”.

Bill Alena, chief investment officer at Dating Group said: “We strongly believe in the concept of AI and making quality matches. We see a huge potential in integrating Once into our portfolio. We’re excited to have Clémentine join Dating Group, she and her team have built a fascinating product and with this acquisition, Dating Group expands deeper into the Western European market.”

Dating Group has offices in seven countries and a team of more than 500 professionals, with more than 73 million registered users across the entire portfolio. Its brands include Dating.com, DateMyAge, Dil Mil, Cherish, Tubit, AnastasiaDate and ChinaLove.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines

By Darrell Etherington

Web infrastructure company Cloudflare is releasing a new tool today that aims to provide a way for health agencies and organizations globally tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue – completely free of charge. The company’s ‘Project Fair Shot’ initiative will make its new Cloudflare Waiting Room offering free to any organization that qualifies, essentially providing a way from future vaccine recipients to register and gain access to a clear and constantly-updated view of where they are in line to receive the preventative treatment.

“The wife of one of Cloudflare’s executives in our Austin was trying to register her parents for the COVID-19 vaccine program there,” explained Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince via email. “The registration site kept crashing. She said to her husband: why doesn’t Cloudflare build a queuing feature to help vaccine sites? As it happened, we had exactly such a feature under development and scheduled to be launched in early February.”

After realizing the urgency of the need for something like this tool to help alleviate the many infrastructure challenges that come up when you’re trying to vaccinate a global population against a viral threat as quickly as possible, Cloudflare changed their release timetable and devoted additional resources to the project.

“We talked to the team about moving up the scheduled launch of our Waiting Room feature,” Prince added. “They worked around the clock because they recognized how important helping with vaccine delivery was. These are the sorts of projects that really drive our team: when we can use our technical expertise and infrastructure to solve problems with broad, positive impact.”

On the technical side, Cloudflare Waiting Room is simple to implement, according to the company, and can be added to any registration website built on the company’s existing content delivery network without any engineering or coding knowledge required. Visitors to the site can register and will receive a confirmation that they’re in line, and then will receive a follow-up directing them to a sign-up page for the organization administering their vaccine when it’s their turn. Further configuration options allow Waiting Room operators to offer wait time estimates to registrants, as well as provide additional alerts when their turn is nearing (though that functionality is coming in a future update).

As Prince mentioned, Waiting Room was already on Cloudflare’s project roadmap, and was actually intended for other high-demand, limited supply allocation items: Think must-have concert tickets, or the latest hot sneaker release. But the Fair Shot program will provide it totally free to those organizations that need it, whereas that would’ve been a commercial product. Interested parties can sign up at Cloudflare’s registration page to get on the waitlist for availability.

“With Project Fair Shot we stand ready to help ensure everyone who is eligible can get equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines and we, along with the rest of humanity, look forward to putting this disease behind us,” Prince explained.

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints across Europe under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The high velocity trading of Internet users’ personal data can’t possibly be compliant with GDPR’s requirement that such information is adequately secured, the complaints contend.

Other concerns attached to real-time bidding (RTB) focus on consent, questioning how this can meet the required legal standard with data being broadcast to so many companies — including sensitive information, such as health data or religious, political and sexual affiliation.

Since the first complaints were filed the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has raised its own concerns over what it said are systemic problems with lawfulness in the adtech sector. But last year announced it was pausing its investigation on account of disruption to businesses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today it said it’s unpausing its multi-year probe to keep on prodding.

In an update on its website, deputy commissioner, Simon McDougall, ICO, who takes care of “Regulatory Innovation and Technology” at the agency, writes that the eight-month freeze is over. And the audits are coming.

“We have now resumed our investigation,” he says. “Enabling transparency and protecting vulnerable citizens are priorities for the ICO. The complex system of RTB can use people’s sensitive personal data to serve adverts and requires people’s explicit consent, which is not happening right now.”

“Sharing people’s data with potentially hundreds of companies, without properly assessing and addressing the risk of these counterparties, also raises questions around the security and retention of this data,” he goes on. “Our work will continue with a series of audits focusing on digital market platforms and we will be issuing assessment notices to specific companies in the coming months. The outcome of these audits will give us a clearer picture of the state of the industry.”

It’s not clear what data the ICO still lacks to come to a decision on complaints that are approaching 2.5 years old at this point. But the ICO has committed to resume looking at adtech — including at data brokers, per McDougall, who writes that “we will be reviewing the role of data brokers in this adtech eco-system”.

“The investigation is vast and complex and, because of the sensitivity of the work, there will be times where it won’t be possible to provide regular updates. However, we are committed to publishing our final findings, once the investigation is concluded,” he goes on, managing expectations of any swift resolution to this vintage GDPR complaint.

Commenting on the ICO’s continued reluctance to take enforcement action against adtech despite mounds of evidence of rampant breaches of the law, Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties who was involved in filing the first batch of RTB GDPR complaints — and continues to be a vocal critic of EU regulatory inaction against adtech — told TechCrunch: “It seems to me that the facts are clearly set out in the ICO’s mid 2019 adtech report.

“Indeed, that report merely confirms the evidence that accompanied our complaints in September 2018 in Ireland and the UK. It is therefore unclear why the ICO requires several months further. Nor is it clear why the ICO accepted empty gestures from the IAB and Google a year ago.”

“I have since published evidence of the impact that failure to enforce has had: Including documented use of RTB data to influence an election,” he added. “As that evidence shows, the scale of the vast data breach caused by the RTB system has increased significantly in the three years since I blew the whistle to the ICO in early 2018.”

Despite plentiful data on the scale of the personal data leakage involved in RTB, and widespread concern that all sorts of tangible harms are flowing from adtech’s mass surveillance of Internet users (from discrimination and societal division to voter manipulation), the ICO is in no rush to enforce.

In fact, it quietly closed the 2018 complaint last year — telling the complainants it believed it had investigated the matter “to the extent appropriate”. It’s in the process of being sued by the complainants as a result — for, essentially, doing nothing about their complaint. (The Open Rights Group, which is involved in that legal action, is running this crowdfunder to raise money to take the ICO to court.)

So what does the ICO’s great adtech investigation unpausing mean exactly for the sector?

Not much more than gentle notice you might be the recipient of an “assessment notice” at some future point, per the latest mildly worded ICO blog post (and judging its past performance).

Per McDougall, all organizations should be “assessing how they use personal data as a matter of urgency”.

He has also committed the ICO to publishing “final findings” at some future point. So — to follow, post-pause — yet another report. And more audits.

“We already have existing, comprehensive guidance in this area, which applies to RTB and adtech in the same way it does to other types of processing — particularly in respect of consentlegitimate interestsdata protection by design and data protection impact assessments (DPIAs),” he goes on, eschewing talk of any firmer consequences following should all that guidance continue being roundly ignored.

He ends the post with a nod to the Competition and Markets Authority’s recent investigation of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals (to phase out support for third party cookies on Chrome) — saying the ICO is “continuing” to work the CMA on that active antitrust complaint. You’ll have to fill in the blanks as to exactly what work it might be doing there — because, again, McDougall isn’t saying.

If it’s a veiled threat to the adtech industry to finally ‘get with the ICO’s privacy program’, or risk not having it fighting adtech’s corner in that crux antitrust vs privacy complaint, it really is gossamer thin.

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is said to be working on a new version of the MacBook Air with a brand new physical case design that’s both thinner and lighter than its current offering, which was updated with Apple’s M1 chip late last year, per a new Bloomberg report. The plan is to release it as early as late 2021 or 2022, according to the report’s sources, and it will also include MagSafe charging (which is also said to be returning on Apple’s next MacBook Pro models sometime in 2021).

MagSafe would offer power delivery and charging, while two USB 4 ports would provide data connectivity on the new MacBook Air. The display size will remain at its current 13-inch diagonal measurement, but Apple will reportedly realize smaller overall sizes by reducing the bevel that surrounds the screen’s edge, among other sizing changes.

Apple has a plan to revamp its entire Mac lineup with its own Apple Silicon processors over the course of the next two years. It debuted its first Apple Silicon Macs, powered by its M1 chip, late last year, and the resulting performance benefits vs. their Intel-powered predecessors have been substantial. The physical designs remained essentially the same, however, prompting speculation as to when Apple would introduce new case designs to further distinguish its new Macs from their older models.

The company is also reportedly working on new MacBook Pros with MagSafe charging, which could also ditch the company’s controversial TouchBar interface – and, again according to Bloomberg, bring back a dedicated SD card slot. All these changes would actually be reversions of design changes Apple made when it introduced the current physical notebook Mac designs, beginning with the first Retina display MacBook Pro in 2012, but they address usability complaints by some of the company’s enthusiast and professional customers.

Privacy complaint targets European parliament’s COVID-19 test-booking site

By Natasha Lomas

The European Parliament is being investigated by the EU’s lead data regulator over a complaint that a website it set up for MEPs to book coronavirus tests may have violated data protection laws.

The complaint, which has been filed by six MEPs and is being supported by the privacy campaign group noyb, alleges third party trackers were dropped without proper consent and that cookie banners presented to visitors were confusing and deceptively designed.

It also alleges personal data was transferred to the US without a valid legal basis, making reference to a landmark legal ruling by Europe’s top court last summer (aka Schrems II).

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which oversees EU institutions’ compliance with data rules, confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it has begun investigating.

It also said the “litigious cookies” had been disabled following the complaints, adding that the parliament told it no user data had in fact been transferred outside the EU.

“A complaint was indeed filed by some MEPs about the European Parliament’s coronavirus testing website; the EDPS has started investigating it in accordance with Article 57(1)(e) EUDPR (GDPR for EU institutions),” an EDPS spokesman told TechCrunch. “Following this complaint, the Data Protection Office of the European Parliament informed the EDPS that the litigious cookies were now disabled on the website and confirmed that no user data was sent to outside the European Union.”

“The EDPS is currently assessing this website to ensure compliance with EUDPR requirements. EDPS findings will be communicated to the controller and complainants in due course,” it added.

MEP, Alexandra Geese, of Germany’s Greens, filed an initial complaint with the EDPS on behalf of other parliamentarians.

Two of the MEPs that have joined the complaint and are making their names public are Patrick Breyer and Mikuláš Peksa — both members of the Pirate Party, in Germany and the Czech Republic respectively.

We’ve reached out to the European Parliament and the company it used to supply the testing website for comment.

The complaint is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the allegations of a failure to uphold regional data protection rules look pretty embarrassing for an EU institution. Data protection may also feel especially important for “politically exposed persons like Members and staff of the European Parliament”, as noyb puts it.

Back in 2019 the European Parliament was also sanctioned by the EDPS over use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections — in the regulator’s first ever such enforcement of an EU institution.

So it’s not the first time the parliament has got in hot water over its attention to detail vis-a-vis third party data processors (the parliament’s COVID-19 test registration website is being provided by a German company called Ecolog Deutschland GmbH). Once may be an oversight, twice starts to look sloppy…

Secondly, the complaint could offer a relatively quick route for a referral to the EU’s top court, the CJEU, to further clarify interpretation of Schrems II — a ruling that has implications for thousands of businesses involved in transferring personal data out of the EU — should there be a follow-on challenge to a decision by the EDPS.

“The decisions of the EDPS can be directly challenged before the Court of Justice of the EU,” noyb notes in a press release. “This means that the appeal can be brought directly to the highest court of the EU, in charge of the uniform interpretation of EU law. This is especially interesting as noyb is working on multiple other cases raising similar issues before national DPAs.”

Guidance for businesses involved in transferring data out of the EU who are trying to understand how to (or often whether they can) be compliant with data protection law, post-Schrems II, is so far limited to what EU regulators have put out.

Further interpretation by the CJEU could bring more clarifying light — and, indeed, less wiggle room for processors wanting to keep schlepping Europeans’ data over the pond legally, depending on how the cookie crumbles (if you’ll pardon the pun).

noyb notes that the complaint asks the EDPS to prohibit transfers that violate EU law.

“Public authorities, and in particular the EU institutions, have to lead by example to comply with the law,” said Max Schrems, honorary chairman of noyb, in a statement. “This is also true when it comes to transfers of data outside of the EU. By using US providers, the European Parliament enabled the NSA to access data of its staff and its members.”

Per the complaint, concerns about third party trackers and data transfers were initially raised to the parliament last October — after an MEP used a tracker scanning tool to analyze the COVID-19 test booking website and found a total of 150 third-party requests and a cookie were placed on her browser.

Specifically, the EcoCare COVID-19 testing registration website was found to drop a cookie from the US-based company Stripe, as well as including many more third-party requests from Google and Stripe.

The complaint also notes that a data protection notice on the site informed users that data on their usage generated by the use of Google Analytics is “transmitted to and stored on a Google server in the US”.

Where consent was concerned, the site was found to serve users with two different conflicting data protection notices — with one containing a (presumably copypasted) reference to Brussels Airport.

Different consent flows were also presented, depending on the user’s region, with some visitors being offered no clear opt out button. The cookie notices were also found to contain a ‘dark pattern’ nudge toward a bright green button for ‘accepting all’ processing, as well as confusing wording for unclear alternatives.

A screengrab of the cookie consent prompt that the parliament’s COVID-19 test booking website displayed at the time of writing – with still no clearly apparent opt-out for non-essential cookies (Image credit: TechCrunch)

The EU has stringent requirements for (legally) gathering consents for (non-essential) cookies and other third party tracking technologies which states that consent must be clearly informed, specific and freely given.

In 2019, Europe’s top court further confirmed that consent must be obtained prior to dropping non-essential trackers. (Health-related data also generally carries a higher consent-bar to process legally in the EU, although in this case the personal information relates to appointment registrations rather than special category medical data).

The complaints allege that EU cookie consent requirements are not being met on the website.

While the presence of requests for US-based services (and the reference to storing data in the US) is a legal problem in light of the Schrems II judgement.

The US no longer enjoys legally frictionless flows of personal data out of the EU after the CJEU torpedoed the adequacy arrangement the Commission had granted (invalidating the EU-US Privacy Shield mechanism) — which in turn means transfers of data on EU peoples to US-based companies are complicated.

Data controllers are responsible for assessing each such proposed transfer, on a case by case basis. A data transfer mechanism called Standard Contractual Clauses was not invalidated by the CJEU. But the court made it clear SCCs can only be used for transfers to third countries where data protection is essentially equivalent to the legal regime offered in the EU — doing so at the same time as saying the US does not meet that standard.

Guidance from the European Data Protection Board in the wake of the ruling suggests that some EU-US data transfers may be possible to carry in compliance with European law. Such as those that involve encrypted data with no access by the receiving US-based entity.

However the bar for compliance varies depending on the specific context and case.

Additionally, for a subset of companies that are definitely subject to US surveillance law (such as Google) the compliance bar may be impossibly high — as surveillance law is the main legal sticking point for EU-US transfers.

So, once again, it’s not a good look for the parliament website to have had a notice on its COVID-19 testing website that said personal data would be transferred to a Google’s server in the US. (Even if that functionality had not been activated, as seems to have been claimed.)

Another reason the complaint against the European Parliament is noteworthy is that it further highlights how much web infrastructure in use within Europe could be risking legal sanction for failing to comply with regional data protection rules. If the European Parliament can’t get it right, who is?

noyb filed a raft of complaints against EU websites last year which it had identified still sending data to the US via Google Analytics and/or Facebook Connect integrations a short while after the Schrems II ruling. (Those complaints are being looked into by DPAs across the EU.)

Facebook’s EU data transfers are also very much on the hook here. Earlier this month the tech giant’s lead EU data regulator agreed to ‘swiftly resolve’ a long-standing complaint over its transfers.

Schrems filed that complaint all the way back in 2013. He told us he expects the case to be resolved this year, likely within around six to nine months. So a final decision should come in 2021.

He has previously suggested the only way for Facebook to fix the data transfers issue is to federate its service, storing European users’ data locally. While last year the tech giant was forced to deny it would shut its service in Europe if its lead EU regulator followed through on enforcing a preliminary order to suspend transfers (which it blocked by applying for a judicial review of the Irish DPC’s processes).

The alternative outcome Facebook has been lobbying for is some kind of a political resolution to the legal uncertainty clouding EU-US data transfers. However the European Commission has warned there’s no quick fix — and reform of US surveillance law is needed.

So with options for continued icing of EU data protection enforcement against US tech giants melting fast in the face of bar-setting CJEU rulings and ongoing strategic litigation like this latest noyb-supported complaint pressure is only going to keep building for pro-privacy reform of US surveillance law. Not that Facebook has openly come out in support of reforming FISA yet.

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

By Rita Liao

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments.

It’s still unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets, which are Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand.

“We will share more details locally as vaccinations roll out and our local support plans are finalized,” said a spokesperson for the company.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

To ensure passenger and driver safety, the company rolled out a mask detection technology last year for in-car cameras across China and some of its overseas markets.

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents in 2018. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

In all, Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables more than 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. Outside China, it has over 20 million users and 2.8 million drivers and couriers.

The company has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

The story was updated with more details of the fund on January 22, 2021.

China’s draft payments rules put Ant, Tencent on notice

By Rita Liao

A string of recent events in China’s payments industry suggests the duopoly comprising Ant Group and Tencent may be getting a shakeup.

Following the abrupt call-off of Ant’s public sale and a government directive to reform the firm’s business, the Chinese authorities sent another message this week signaling its plan to curb concentration in the flourishing digital payments industry.

The set of draft rules, designed to regulate non-bank payments and released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) this week, said any non-bank payments processor with over one-third of the non-bank payments market or two companies with a combined half of the market could be subject to regulatory warnings from the anti-monopoly authority under the State Council.

Meanwhile, a single non-bank payments provider with over one half of the digital payments market or two companies with a combined two-thirds of the market could be investigated for whether they constitute a monopoly.

The difference between the two rules is nuanced here, with the second stipulation focusing on digital payments as opposed to non-bank payments in the first.

Furthermore, the rules did not specify how authorities measure an organization’s market share, say, whether the judgment is based on an entity’s total transaction value, its transaction volume, or other metrics.

Alipay processed over half of China’s third-party payments transactions in the first quarter of 2020, according to market researcher iResearch, while Tencent handled nearly 40% of the payments in the same period.

 

As China heightens scrutiny over its payments giants, it’s also opening up the financial market to international players. In December, Goldman Sachs moved to take full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. This month, PayPal became the first foreign company with 100% control of a payments business in China after it bought out the remaining stake in its local payments partner Guofubao.

Industry experts told TechCrunch that PayPal won’t likely go after the domestic payments giants but may instead explore opportunities in cross-border payments, a market with established players like XTransfer, which was founded by a team of Ant veterans.

Ant and Tencent also face competition from other Chinese internet firms. Companies ranging from food delivery platform Meituan, e-commerce platforms Pinduoduo and JD.com, to TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance have introduced their own e-wallets, though none of them have posed an imminent threat to Alipay or WeChat Pay.

The comprehensive proposal from PBOC also defines how payments processors handle customer data. Non-bank payments services are to store certain user information and transaction history and cooperate with relevant authorities on data checks. Companies are also required to obtain user consent and make clear to customers how their data are collected and used, a rule that reflects China’s broader effort to clamp down on unscrupulous data collection.

JustKitchen is using cloud kitchens to create the next generation of restaurant franchising

By Catherine Shu

JustKitchen operates cloud kitchens, but the company goes beyond providing cooking facilities for delivery meals. Instead, it sees food as a content play, with recipes and branding instead of music or shows as the content, and wants to create the next iteration of food franchises. JustKitchen currently operates its “hub and spoke” model in Taiwan, with plans to expand four other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States this year.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and Foodpanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

In addition to licensing deals, JustKitchen also develops its own brands and performs research and development for its partners. To enable that, chief operating officer Kenneth Wu told TechCrunch that JustKitchen is moving to a more decentralized model, which means its hub kitchens will be used primarily for R&D, and production at some of its spoke kitchens will be outsourced to other food vendors and manufacturers. The company’s long-term plan is to license spoke operation to franchisees, while providing order management software and content (i.e. recipes, packaging and branding) to maintain consistent quality.

Demand for meal and grocery deliveries increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, this means food deliveries made up about 13% of the restaurant market in 2020, compared to the 9% forecast before the pandemic, according to research firm Statista, and may rise to 21% by 2025.

But on-demand food delivery businesses are notoriously expensive to operate, with low margins despite markups and fees. By centralizing food preparation and pickup, cloud kitchens (also called ghost kitchens or dark kitchens) are supposed to increase profitability while ensuring standardized quality. Not surprisingly, companies in the space have received significant attention, including former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, Kitchen United and REEF, which recently raised $1 billion led by SoftBank.

Wu, whose food delivery startup Milk and Eggs was acquired by GrubHub in 2019, said one of the main ways JustKitchen differentiates is by focusing on operations and content in addition to kitchen infrastructure. Before partnering with restaurants and other brands, JustKitchen meets with them to design a menu specifically for takeout and delivery. Once a menu is launched, it is produced by JustKitchen instead of the brands, which are paid royalties. For restaurants that operate only one brick-and-mortar location, this gives them an opportunity to expand into multiple neighborhoods and cities (or countries, when JustKitchen begins its international expansion) simultaneously, a new take on the franchising model for the on-demand delivery era.

One of JustKitchen's delivery meals, with roast chicken and vegetables

One of JustKitchen’s delivery meals. Image Credits: JustKitchen

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meals before handing them to delivery partners. Spoke kitchens are smaller than hubs, closer to customers, and the goal is to have a high revenue to square footage ratio.

“The thesis in general is how do you get economies of scale or a large volume at the hub, or the central kitchen where you’re making it, and then send it out deep into the community from the spokes, where they can do a short last-mile delivery,” said Wu.

JustKitchen says it can cut industry standard delivery times by half, and that its restaurant partners have seen 40% month on month growth. It also makes it easier for delivery providers like Uber Eats to stack orders, which means having a driver pick up three or four orders at a time for separate addresses. This reduces costs, but is usually only possible at high-volume restaurants, like fast food chain locations. Since JustKitchen offers several brands in one spoke, this gives delivery platforms more opportunities to stack orders from different brands.

In addition to partnerships, JustKitchen also develops its own food brands, using data analytics from several sources to predict demand. The first source is its own platform, since customers can order directly from Just Kitchen. It also gets high-level data from delivery partners that lets them see food preferences and cart sizes in different regions, and uses general demographic data from governments and third-party providers with information about population density, age groups, average income and spending. This allows it to plan what brands to launch in different locations and during different times of the day, since JustKitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.

JustKitchen is incorporated in Canada, but launched in Taiwan first because of its population density and food delivery’s popularity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery penetration in the U.S. and Europe was below 20%, but in Taiwan, it was already around 30% to 40%, Wu said. The new demand for food delivery in the U.S. “is part of the new norm and we believe that is not going away,” he added. JustKitchen is preparing to launch in Seattle and several Californian cities, where it already has partners and kitchen infrastructure.

“Our goal is to focus on software and content, and give franchisees operations so they have a turnkey franchise to launch immediately,” said Wu. “We have the content and they can pick whatever they want. They have software to integrate, recipes and we do the food manufacturing and sourcing to control quality, and ultimately they will operate the single location.”

Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

By Kirsten Korosec

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2021

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

By Mike Butcher

eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

Alphabet shuts down Loon internet balloon company

By Manish Singh

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using a fleet of balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon, a nine-year-old project and a two-and-a-half-year-old spin off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners.

The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

What happens next

In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.

Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.

Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.

It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.

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