FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Today — October 22nd 2019Your RSS feeds

FT launches a new consulting arm focused on helping businesses use consumer data

By Anthony Ha

As more and more news businesses turn to paywalls and subscriptions, The Financial Times looks like an early model and success story — a few months ago the organization announced that it’s passed 1 million paying readers, with digital subscribers accounting for more than three-fourths of its circulation.

Now The FT is looking to share some of what it’s learned (and further diversify its business) by launching a new consulting unit called FT Strategies.

Chief Data Officer Tom Betts told me that The FT built a lot of the technology behind its subscription efforts. At first, the team assumed that it might be able to build a business selling that technology to other publishers. After all, Vox Media and The Washington Post are both trying to do something similar with their content management systems.

So it was surprising to hear Betts say that FT Strategy is actually “a pure consulting business.”

Asked whether The FT might eventually start selling a tech product as well, he replied, “Never say never about the technology dimension, but I think as we did our market research and started talking to customers and looking more at the technological landscape out there, we realized that over the years, many of the elements of the technology we have built have become commoditized.”

That doesn’t mean there’s a technology stack that publishers can buy off-the-shelf that can meet all their needs (there’s at least one startup called The News Project trying to piece that stack together).

But Betts argued, “Even if you go and buy best-of-breed technology, that doesn’t mean you can assembly it in the right way to make it useful and meaningful to scale and grow direct-to-consumer revenues. And most importantly it doesn’t mean that you know how to operate it with teams and how to actually use it to successfully scale and grow your business.”

That’s precisely what FT Strategies is trying to provide. In fact, Betts said the company has already been quietly testing out the idea in beta and built up a customer list that includes Bonnier, The Business of Fashion, Penguin Random House and the V&A — so not just news companies, but also a book publisher and an art and design museum.

“I believe that the capabilities that we’e built, clearly they are salient to other news publishers, but I believe that they span far beyond that,” Betts explained.

He went on to argue that FT Strategies could potentially work with any company that’s “either facing disruption as the news media industry has” or that’s in a sector that’s part of the broader direct-to-consumer trend — basically, any company that needs help figuring out “how do we market to individuals, how do we build relationships to individuals, how do we leverage those relationships both so that the consumers have the most positive and engaging experience with our products and to maximize revenue.”

As for whether any of these business might be leery about giving another company — and, in some cases, a competitor — access to their customer data, Betts said that philosophically, the FT believes that “a healthy paid content ecosystem is good for the FT and it’s good for all the publishers that participate in it.”

More concretely, he said his team is “very clear internally about having the Chinese walls and professional standards for FT Strategy that ensures the right levels of confidentiality of clients’ data [so] their confidential information doesn’t leak back into the core operation.”

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

By Kate Clark

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

Here’s the very last trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

By Greg Kumparak

And there we have it: the very last trailer for a Star Wars movie focusing on the Skywalkers*.

After 42 long years of Jedi returning, clones attacking, and Force awakenings… the three pack of trilogies that is the “Skywalker saga” comes to an end this December with the release of Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

The saga will end, the story lives forever. Watch the final trailer for @StarWars: #TheRiseOfSkywalker in theaters December 20. Get your tickets now: https://t.co/MLbzRXrCJb pic.twitter.com/RLllQGme76

— Star Wars (@starwars) October 22, 2019

As with the last few Star Wars movies, Rise of Skywalker’s final trailer dropped right in the middle of Monday Night Football. This comes roughly six months after the first teaser landed back in April.

Rise of Skywalker is set to open on December 20th according to the billboards… which means it’s actually opening the evening of December 19th in much of the US due to midnight screenings and timezone rules. If your goal is to see it as early as possible to avoid spoilers and whatnot, double check when your theater’s first screening actually is.

(* until the inevitable point down the road when another Skywalker trilogy is announced… because, well, people like the Skywalkers.)

Through partnerships and a new software toolkit, Nvidia looks to surf the 5G wave

By Jonathan Shieber

Nvidia is making a hard pitch at this year’s Mobile World Congress Los Angeles that the future of software defined 5G networks should be powered by its chipsets.

Through the launch of a new software development toolkit and a series of partnerships announced today with Ericsson (for networking); Microsoft (for its cloud computing); and Red Hat (for its Kubernetes expertise), Nvidia is pitching telecommunications companies that its chipsets are the best base for managing the breadth of new services 5G networking will enable.

Getting in on the ground floor would be a huge win for the chip manufacturer, especially since 5G antennas will need to be fairly ubiquitous to be effective.

Helping to make that case is the launch of a new software development toolkit that will let telecommunications companies take more advantage of the “network slicing” abilities (allowing telecom companies to dial up and down capacity on a session-by-session basis) that 5G networking provides.

In a keynote speech from Nvidia’s chief executive, Jensen Huang, ahead of the convention, the company’s pitch is that embedding its chipsets and new software into those networks is the best way for telecom companies to add dynamically provisioned additional services.

The company has developed two software development kits: a CUDA Virtual Network Function, which provides optimized inputs and outputs and processing; and CUDA Baseband, which has a GPU-accelerated signal processing pipeline.

What’s more, the Aerial software development kits run on top of Nvidia’s previously announced EGX stack, which works with the new containerized software development paradigm dominated by Kubernetes.

The GPU-enabled off-the-shelf servers that telecoms can all be installed with NVIDIA software as containers that run on Kubernetes.

If the software is one new hook for telecommunications companies, Nvidia’s “collaboration” wth Ericsson could be another.

With Ericsson, Nvidia hopes to build out its abilities to virtualize radio area network architectures to make the networking technology lower-cost, more scalable, and more energy efficient. 

“With NVIDIA we will jointly look at bringing alternatives to market for virtualizing the complete radio access network,” Fredrik Jejdling, executive vice president and head of Networks at Ericsson, said, in a statement.

Another partner that Nvidia is bringing to the table is Microsoft, whose Azure cloud services will be more tightly integrated with Nvidia’s EGX hardware and software like the Metropolis video analytics tools.

“In a world where computing is becoming embedded in every place and every thing, organizations require a distributed computing fabric that spans the cloud and edge,” said Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, in a statement. Nvidia represents the edge, and Microsoft is making a pitch to be the cloud service provider. 

Tighter connectivity to cloud services is one way that Nvidia can ensure its stack of hardware and software tools makes an appealing choice for telecommunications companies casting around for the right hardware provider to complement their networking services. Another is to make sure that Nvidia’s chipsets are developer friendly.

To achieve that, the company also is expanding on its partnership with RedHat to speed up the adoption of Kubernetes in data centers and to telecom infrastructure through the newly announced Nvidia Aerial software development toolkit. 

“The industry is ramping 5G and the ‘smart everything’ revolution is beginning. Billions of sensors and devices will be sprinkled all over the world enabling new applications and services,” said Huang. “We’re working with Red Hat to build a cloud-native, massively scalable, high-performance GPU computing infrastructure for this new 5G world. Powered by the NVIDIA EGX Edge Supercomputing Platform, a new wave of applications will emerge, just as with the smartphone revolution.”

 

 

Yesterday — October 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

India moves closer to regulating internet services as it fears ‘unimaginable disruption to democracy’

By Manish Singh

India said on Monday that it is moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

In a legal document filed with the country’s apex Supreme Court, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said it would formulate the rules to regulate intermediaries by January 15, 2020.

In the legal filing, the government department said the internet had “emerged as a potent tool to cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity.” Oversight of intermediaries, the ministry said, would help in addressing the “ever growing threats to individual rights and nation’s integrity, sovereignty and security.”

The Indian government published a draft of guidelines for consultation late last year. The proposed rules, which revise the 2011 laws, identified any service — social media or otherwise — that have more than 5 million users as intermediaries.

Government officials said at the time that modern rules were needed, otherwise circulation of false information and other misuse of internet platforms would continue to flourish.

The Monday filing comes as a response to an ongoing case in India filed by Facebook to prevent the government from forcing WhatsApp to introduce a system that would enable revealing the source of messages exchanged on the popular instant messaging platform, which counts India as its biggest market with more than 400 million users.

Some have suggested that social media platforms should require their users in India to link their accounts with Aadhaar — a government-issued, 12-digit biometric ID. More than 1.2 billion people in India have been enrolled in the system.

Facebook executives have argued that meeting such demands would require breaking the end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp users enjoy globally. The company executives have said that taking away the encryption would compromise the safety and privacy of its users. The Supreme Court will hear Facebook’s case on Tuesday.

India’s online population has ballooned in recent years. More than 600 million users in India are online today, according to industry estimates. The proliferation of low-cost Android handsets and access to low-cost mobile data in the nation have seen “more and more people in India become part of the internet and social media platforms.”

“On the one hand, technology has led to economic growth and societal development, on the other hand there has been an exponential rise in hate speech, fake news, public order, anti-national activities, defamatory postings, and other unlawful activities using Internet/social media platforms,” a lower court told the apex court earlier.

‘People fix things. Tech doesn’t fix things.’

By Walter Thompson

Veena Dubal is an unlikely star in the tech world.

A scholar of labor practices regarding the taxi and ride-hailing industries and an Associate Professor at San Francisco’s U.C. Hastings College of the Law, her work on the ethics of the gig economy has been covered by the New York Times, NBC News, New York Magazine, and other publications. She’s been in public dialogue with Naomi Klein and other famous authors, and penned a prominent op-ed on facial recognition tech in San Francisco — all while winning awards for her contributions to legal scholarship in her area of specialization, labor and employment law.

At the annual symposium of the AI Now Institute, an interdisciplinary research center at New York University, Dubal was a featured speaker. The symposium is the largest annual public gathering of the NYU-affiliated research group that examines AI’s social implications. Held at NYU’s largest theater in the heart of Greenwich Village, Dubal’s event gathered a packed crowd of 800, with hundreds more on the waiting list and several viewing parties offsite. It brought together a relatively young and diverse crowd that, as my seatmate pointed out, contained basically zero of the VC vests ubiquitous at other tech gatherings.

AI Now’s symposium represented the emergence of a no-nonsense, women and people of color-led, charismatic, compassionate, and crazy knowledgeable stream of tech ethics. (As I discussed with New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz recently, not all approaches to tech ethics are created equal). AI Now co-founders Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker have built an institution capable of mobilizing significant resources alongside a large, passionate audience. Which may be bad news for companies that design and hawk AI as the all-purpose, all glamorous solution to seemingly every problem, despite the fact that it’s often not even AI doing the work they tout.

veenadubal

Legal scholar Veena Dubal.

As the institute’s work demonstrates, harmful AI can be found across many segments of society, such as policing, housing, the justice system, labor practices and the environmental impacts of some of our largest corporations. AI Now’s diverse and inspiring speaker lineup, however, was a testament to a growing constituency that’s starting to hold reckless tech businesses accountable. The banking class may panic at the thought of a Warren or Sanders presidency, but Big Tech’s irresponsible actors and utopian philosopher bros should be keeping a watchful eye on the ascendance of figures like Clark, Whittaker, and Dubal, along with their competence.

Here’s my free, evergreen solution advice for all tech companies: find unintended consequences of your products before journalists do, and think about how to address them even if you aren’t forced to by the law or public pressure, and then those problems won’t turn into scandals. https://t.co/IGymNWe2Q4

— Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) October 16, 2019


I won’t attempt a more detailed review of AI Now’s conference here; the organization will put out an annual report summarizing and expanding on it later this year; and if you’re intrigued by this piece, get on their mailing list and go next year.

Below is my conversation with Dubal, where we discuss why the AI Now Institute is different from so many other tech ethics initiatives and how a scholar of taxis became a must-read name in tech. Our conversation ends with the story of one well-off white male software engineer who experienced surprising failure, only to realize his own disillusionment helped him connect to a much greater purpose than he’d ever envisioned.

Epstein: Let’s start by talking about the AI Now Symposium. What does it mean for you to be here as one of the featured speakers?

Dubal: It’s so awesome for a center like this to to say that what Uber drivers are doing to organize to better their conditions is actually related to tech. For the last half decade at least, I’ve been doing what is considered tech work, but very much at the periphery. Because we weren’t explicitly doing computer science-related work, I think people didn’t think of the research people like me do as being at all [related to tech]… it was “just” labor. It wasn’t tech, even though it is on [workers] backs that the whole tech industry exists. So it’s powerful to be included in this conversation.

And for this particular event, they’ve done such a good job of [inviting speakers] whose research is thought of as on the periphery, but should be at the center in terms of what is really important from an ethics perspective. Ruha Benjamin [a Professor of African American Studies at Princeton and founder of Princeton’s JustData Lab]’s work is amazing and then the two people that I’m on the panel with, Abdi Muse [Executive Director of the Awood Center in Minneapolis, a community organization focused on advocating for and educating Minnesota’s growing East African communities about their labor rights], organizes warehouse workers in Minnesota, who are the reason Amazon can facilitate the transcontinental flow of goods in the way that they do.

AI Now co-founders

AI Now co-founders Meredith Whittaker and Kate Crawford. (Photo: Katherine Tyler)

And Bhairavi Desai [Executive Director of the New York Taxi Worker’s Alliance] — I’ve known her for 10 years and she has, from the very beginning, been fighting this gig nonsense. To have them in the room and centered, to have their voices centered instead of on periphery, is just so awesome for me.

Epstein: It’s very clear that AI Now is dedicated to doing that, maybe even moreso than any other peer organization I can identify. How do you see AI Now, as an organization, positioned among their various peers?

Dubal: It’s a great question. I’ve looked at a couple of other more nonprofity things that do tech and equality, and you are absolutely right; more so than any other organization, [AI Now] centers the people who are often at the periphery. Everything that they do is very deliberative.
They aren’t moving through things really quickly, onto the next project really quickly. Every decision they make is thoughtful, in terms of the people that they hire, for example, or how they do an event, or who they include in an event. It’s just very, very thoughtful, which is not how most things in tech, period, run.

Epstein: They’re not moving fast. They’re not breaking things.

Dubal: Exactly. They’re not breaking things. They’re fixing things. And the other thing is, even The TechEquity Collaborative, a nonprofit in San Francisco, there’s a tech utopian imaginary that guides their work. They really have a belief that the technology is going to fix things. AI now, based on all the interactions I’ve had with them, My sense is that their ethos is very much about how people fix things. Tech doesn’t fix things.

So they’re centering the people who can fix things. They’re in a powerful place, and I think because they’re so sophisticated in the work that they do, they have a powerful voice, which is unusual for people who are interested in the subaltern and in the issues that hurt the most marginalized.

Epstein: Yes. What made me want to come all the way here from Cambridge, MA, where we are not exactly suffering from a shortage of tech ethics initiatives, and what made me decide to miss a lot of the Disrupt conference even though I work for TechCrunch, is that it’s rare that you have an organization that is able to combine to things: genuinely fighting for the marginalized, or helping the subaltern speak; and actually achieving a very significant public voice. Usually it’s maybe one or the other but not both.

Report: SoftBank is taking control of WeWork at an ~$8B valuation

By Kate Clark

WeWork, once valued at $47 billion, will be worth as little as $7.5 billion on paper as SoftBank takes control of the struggling co-working business, CNBC reports.

SoftBank, a long-time WeWork investor, plans to invest between $4 billion and $5 billion in exchange for new and existing shares, according to CNBC . The deal, expected to be announced as soon as tomorrow, represents a lifeline for WeWork, which is said to be mere weeks from running out of cash and has been shopping several of its assets as it attempts to lessen its cash burn.

WeWork declined to comment.

To be clear, it is reportedly the Vision Fund’s parent company, SoftBank Group Corp. that is taking control, with SoftBank International chief executive officer Marcelo Claure stepping in to support company management, per reports.

The Japanese telecom giant’s move comes precisely four weeks after co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann relinquished control of the company and transitioned into a non-executive chairman role, and about three weeks after WeWork decided to delay its highly anticipated initial public offering. WeWork’s vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and the company’s president and chief operating officer Artie Minson are currently serving as WeWork’s co-CEOs.

In addition to those personnel shake-ups, WeWork has lost its communications chief, Jimmy Asci, its chief marketing officer, Robin Daniels and several others. Meanwhile, the company has slashed hundreds of jobs, and opted to shut down its school, WeGrow, in 2020.

Now expected to go public in 2020, WeWork was also said to be in negotiations with JPMorgan for a last-minute cash infusion. The company, now a cautionary tale, will surely continue to reduce the sky-high costs of its money-losing operation in the upcoming months.

WeWork revealed an unusual IPO prospectus in August after raising more than $8 billion in equity and debt funding. Despite financials that showed losses of nearly $1 billion in the six months ending June 30, the company still managed to accumulate a valuation as high as $47 billion, largely as a result of Neumann’s fundraising abilities.

“As co-founder of WeWork, I am so proud of this team and the incredible company that we have built over the last decade,” Neumann said in a statement confirming his resignation last month. “Our global platform now spans 111 cities in 29 countries, serving more than 527,000 members each day. While our business has never been stronger, in recent weeks, the scrutiny directed toward me has become a significant distraction, and I have decided that it is in the best interest of the company to step down as chief executive. Thank you to my colleagues, our members, our landlord partners, and our investors for continuing to believe in this great business.”

6 tips founders need to know about securing their startup

By Zack Whittaker

If you’ve read anything of mine in the past year, you know just how complicated security can be.

Every day it seems there’s a new security lapse, a breach, a hack, or an inadvertent exposure, such as leaving a cloud storage server unprotected without a password. These things happen, but they don’t have to; aecurity isn’t as difficult as it sounds, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

We sat down with three experts on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF earlier this month to help startups and founders understand what they need to do, when, and why.

We asked Google’s Heather Adkins, Duo’s Dug Song, and IOActive’s Jennifer Sunshine Steffens for their best advice. Here’s what they had to say.

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. Don’t put off the security conversation

The one resounding message from the panel: don’t put security off.

“There are basically three areas that folks should start considering how to bucket those risks,” said Duo’s Song. “The first is corporate risk in defending your users and applications they access. The second is application security and product risk. A third area is is around production, security and making sure that the operation of your security program is something that keeps up with that risk. And then a fourth — a new and emerging space — is trust, and not just privacy, but also safety.”

It’s better to be proactive about security than to be reactive to a data breach; not only will it help your company bolster its security posture, but it also serves as an important factor in future fundraising negotiations.

Song said founders have a “very direct obligation” to think about security as soon as they take someone else’s money, but especially when a company starts gathering user or customer data. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of those folks whose data you have to protect,” he said. “It’s not just your existential threats to your business, but you do have a responsibility, right to figure out how to do this well.”

IOActive’s Steffens said startups are already a target — simply because it’s assumed many won’t have thought much about security.

“A lot of attackers will go after startups who have high value data, because they know security is not a priority and it’s going to be a lot easier to get ahold of,” she said. “Data these days is extraordinarily valuable.”

2. Start with the security basics

Google’s Adkins, who runs the search giant’s internal information security team, joined the company almost two decades ago when it was just the size of a large startup. Her job is to keep the company’s network, assets, and employees safe.

“When I got there, they were so fanatical about security already, that half of the job was already done,” she said. “From the moment [Google] took its first search query, it was thinking about where those logs are stored, who has access to them, and what is its responsibility to its users,” she said.

“Startups who are successful with security are those where the chief executive and the founders are fanatical from day one and understand what threats exist to the business and what they need to do to protect it,” she said.

Song said many popular products and technologies these days come with strong security by default, such as iPhones, Chromebooks, security keys and Windows 10.

“You’re better off than the 90% of large companies out there,” he said. “That’s one of those few strategic advantages you have as a smaller, nimbler organization that doesn’t have a lot of legacy,” he added. “You can do things better from the start.”

“A lot of the basics are still key,” said Steffens. “Even as we come out with the new shiny technology, having things like firewalls and antivirus, and multi-factor authentication.”

“Security doesn’t always have to be a money thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of open source technology that’s really great.”

3. Start looking at security as an investment

“The sooner you start thinking about security, the less expensive it is in the end,” said Steffens.

That’s because, the experts said, proactive security gives companies an edge over competitors who tack on security solutions after a breach. It’s easier and more cost-effective to get it right the first time without having to fill in gaps years later.

It might be a hard sell to funnel money into something where you won’t actively see financial returns, which is why founders should think of security as investments for the future. The idea is that if you spend a little money at the start, it can save you down the line from the inevitable — a security incident that will cost you in bad headlines, lost customer trust, and potentially fines or other sanctions.

NASA’s Jim Bridenstine says 2035 is doable for human landing on Mars — provided budget is there

By Darrell Etherington

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took part in a joint presentation by the chiefs of a number of international space agencies at the annual International Astronautical Conference on Monday. At the end of the event, a question was put to the entire group — when do we get to Mars?

After a joke answer of “Tuesday” by ESA Director General Jan Wörner, Bridenstine followed with a serious answer that he believes — provided everyone can get their governments to actually back them and provide the support needed — it’s possible that astronauts could land on Mars by as early as 2035.

“If we accelerate the Moon landing, we’re accelerating the Mars landing — that’s what we’re doing,” Bridenstine said, referring to the agency’s aggressive, accelerated timeline of aiming to land the first American woman and next American man on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program.

“If our budgets were sufficient,” Bridenstine said, turning to his colleagues from NASA’s international equivalents, “I would suggest that we could do it by 2035.”

“The goal is to land on the Moon within five years and be sustainable by 2028,” Bridenstine said during a press conference following the agency leadership panel, clarifying that sustainability means “people living and working on another world for long periods of time.”

The caveat Bridenstine offered, that budgets match ambition, is not an insignificant one. NASA just faced a congressional subcommittee budgetary hearing about its plan to get to the Moon by 2024, and faced some heavy skepticism. From NASA’s scientific and technical assessment of Mars mission feasibility for a 2035 target, however, the agency previously discussed this date as early as 2015.

The Station: Volvo evolves, Skip trips and touchscreen tech

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is back for another week of news and analysis on all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future. As always, I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter at TechCrunch.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This week, we’re looking at factories in China, scooters in San Francisco and touchscreens in cars, among other things.

Please reach out anytime with tips and feedback. Tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome to micromobbin’ — a weekly dive into the tiny but mighty chaotic world of micromobility. This also happens to be a place where Megan Rose Dickey reigns. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Uber, Lime and Spin each deployed 500 electric scooters in San Francisco as part of the city’s permitting program. This means residents in SF can now choose from Uber-owned JUMP, Lime, Spin or Scoot scooters. Unfortunately for Skip, the company did not receive a permit to continue operating in the city, which means layoffs at the local level are afoot, Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko unveiled Tortoise, an autonomous repositioning software for micromobility operators. The idea is to help make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed.

Let’s close this section with the obligatory funding round. Wheels, a pedal-less electric bike-share startup, raised a $50 million round led by DBL Partners. That brought its total funding to $87 million.

Oh, but wait, TC reporter Romain Dillet reminded us that micromobbin’ happens outside of the U.S. too. Uber also announced this past week that it has integrated its app with French startup Cityscoot, which has a fleet of free-floating moped-style scooters.

This is the latest example of Uber’s plan to become a super mobility app that goes well beyond its own network of ride-hailing vehicles.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Snapshot: Touchscreen tech

We’ve seen a lot of different approaches when it comes to engaging with connected car services: head-up displays on the windshield, small screens perched on the dashboard, interactive voice and, of course, connections and mounts for smartphones.

But how about if your whole car becomes the touchscreen? A startup called Sentons is working on technology that could make that happen. The company uses a technique involving processors and AI that emit and read ultrasound to detect physical movement on a surface, such as touch, force or gestures, and users can create “virtual controls” on the fly that work on these surfaces.

This week, it released SurfaceWave, a software and hardware stack that works on glass, metal and plastic surfaces of smartphones.

CEO Jess Lee says the next iterations are going to be the kinds of materials that are used to make car dashboards and other interior surfaces you find inside the vehicle, including leather, thicker plastic and other materials. The company is already engaging with automotive companies, Lee told TechCrunch.

I can see a lot of possibilities for this in the human-driven vehicles of today. We’ve already seen how Tesla has changed how we think about infotainment systems in cars. And then there’s electric vehicle startup Byton, which plans to bring a vehicle to market with a touchscreen that extends along the entire dashboard.

The real opportunity for Sentons will be with autonomous vehicles, a product that will afford its passengers more leisure time.

— Ingrid Lunden

Made in China

the station china

Earlier this week, Tesla was given the OK to begin producing vehicles at its $2 billion factory in Shanghai. Tesla was added to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s list of approved automotive manufacturers.

Now we’ll watch and wait to see if production starts this month. Expect the topic of China and this factory to come up during Tesla’s earnings call with analysts October 23.

In other China factory news, we hear that electric vehicle startup Byton plans to host a splashy opening ceremony in early November for its new plant. The event will include lots of Chinese officials, company executives and maybe a preview of a near-final production version of its M-Byte vehicle.

Byton’s factory in Nanjing covers some 800,000 square meters (8.6 million square feet) funded with a total investment of more than $1.5 billion. Over the summer, the walls and roof went up, equipment was installed and commissioning began in five major workshops: stamping, welding, paint, battery and assembly.

The plant will begin trial production in late 2019.

This all sounds great, but there have been challenges, and the constant requirement for capital is one of them. Byton has delayed the launch of the production version of the M-Byte by two quarters. It’s now looking like commercial production will begin by the end of the second quarter of 2020.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits for those manufacturing geeks out there:

  • The stamping shop completes one panel every 3 seconds on average. Byton claims it will be one of the fastest stamping production lines in China.
  • The welding shop incorporates 335 welding robots supplied by KUKA and boosts the automation rate to 99%, according to Byton.
  • The paint shop is equipped with a “3 Coating 2 Baking” system and thin film pre-treatment as well as the transverse “Eco-Incure” oven technology.
  • The battery shop will produce and assemble battery packs, designed independently by Byton. Battery maker CATL provides the battery cells and modules and aluminum maker Constellium supplies the aluminum battery tray.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. A little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip.

To get a “little bird” and the rest of the newsletter, please subscribe. Just go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

What does systems engineering in AVs mean?

the station autonomous vehicles1

I recently spoke to Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics, about the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis. STPA is the foundation for Ike’s product development.

The company also released a wickedly long safety report (it’s halfway down that landing page in the link provided).

The complete interview was included in the emailed newsletter. Yet another reason to subscribe to this free newsletter. Here’s one quote from the interview with Aikin:

We asked the question, what do we have to prove to ourselves and demonstrate in order to be on a public road safely? It’s the same question that we’re going to have to answer for the product as well, which is, what do we need to prove to assure that we’re safe to operate without a human in the cab?

It’s one of the huge unproven hypotheses. Anybody in this space that doesn’t consider that to be a huge technical challenges is ignoring a really thorny and important question.

Who will own the future of transportation?

Our mobility coverage extends to Extra Crunch. Check out my latest article on who will own the future of transportation based on insights from Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The idea here is to explore some of the nuances of this loaded question.

Extra Crunch requires a paid subscription and you can sign up here.

 

Daily Crunch: We review the Pixel 4

By Anthony Ha

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

1. Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

Brian Heater was impressed by the improvements in Google’s latest smartphone, including camera upgrades and the Recorder app.

However, he also argued that the Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, moving forward, especially after the Pixel 3a it was confirmed that consumers were looking for something cheaper.

2. NordVPN confirms it was hacked

The admission comes after rumors that the company had been breached, and what first emerged was that NordVPN had left an expired internal private key exposed, potentially allowing anyone to spin out their own servers imitating NordVPN.

3. Netflix to raise $2 billion in debt to fund more content spending

Despite a relatively strong earnings report last week, Netflix isn’t out of the woods just yet. Disney+ and Apple+ launch next month, and there’s more competition on the way.

4. Commercetools raises $145M from Insight for Shopify-style e-commerce APIs for large enterprises

The funding comes at the same time as commercetools is getting spun out by REWE, a German retail and tourist services giant that acquired the startup in 2015.

5. The Surface Pro 7 is a competent upgrade with USB-C, refreshed processors, but little else that’s new

The Pro 7, which is going on sale today, is a competent upgrade that gives Surface Pro users exactly what they want — even if it sticks to a tried and tested formula.

6. IPOs are the beginning, not the end

At Disrupt SF, PagerDuty’s Jennifer Tejada argued that an IPO “is part of the beginning of a long journey for a durable company that you want to build a legacy around.” (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The Equity team talks to Greylock’s Sarah Guo about the future of software-as-a-service products, while Original Content has a review of “El Camino,” the new “Breaking Bad” movie on Netflix.

Is there room for a US equivalent to China’s No. 1 news app?

By Catherine Shu

In China, Toutiao is literally big news.

Not only has its parent company ByteDance achieved a $75 billion valuation, two of its apps — Toutiao, a news aggregator, and Douyin (Tik Tok in China) — are chipping into WeChat’s user engagement numbers, no small feat considering the central role WeChat plays in the daily lives of the region’s smartphone users.

The success of Toutiao (its name means “headline”) prompts the question: why hasn’t one news aggregator app achieved similar success in the United States? There, users can pick from a roster of news apps, including Google News, Apple News (on iOS), Flipboard, Nuzzel and SmartNews, but no app is truly analogous to Toutiao, at least in terms of reach. Many readers still get news from Google Search (not the company’s news app) and when they do use an app for news, it’s Facebook.

The top social media platform continues to be a major source of news for many Americans, even as they express reservations about the reliability of the content they find there. According to research from Columbia Journalism Review, 43% of Americans use Facebook and other social media platforms to get news, but 57% said they “expect the news they see on those platforms to be largely inaccurate.” Regardless, they stick with Facebook because it’s timely, convenient and they can share content with friends and read other’s comments.

The social media platform is one of the main reasons why no single news aggregator app has won over American users the same way Toutiao has in China, but it’s not the only one. Other factors, including differences between how the Internet developed in each country, also play a role, says Ruiwan Xu, the founder and CEO of CareerTu, an online education platform that focuses on data analytics, digital marketing and research.

While Americans first encountered the Internet on PCs and then shifted to mobile devices, many people in China first went online through their smartphones and the majority of the country’s 800 million Internet users access it through mobile. This makes them much more open to consuming content — including news and streaming video — on mobile.

New Facebook features fight election lies everywhere but ads

By Josh Constine

Heaven forbid a political candidate’s Facebook account gets hacked. They might spread disinformation…like they’re already allowed to do in Facebook ads…

Today Facebook made a slew of announcements designed to stop 2020 election interference. “The bottom line here is that elections have changed significantly since 2016″ and so has Facebook in response, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters. “We’ve gone from being on our back foot to proactively going after some of the biggest threats out there”

Facebook Protect

One new feature is called Facebook Protect. By hijacking accounts of political candidates or their campaign staff, bad actors can steal sensitive information, expose secrets, and spread disinformation. So to safeguard these vulnerable users, Facebook is launching a new program with extra security.

Facebook Protect entails requiring two-factor authentication, and having Facebook monitor for hacking attempts like suspicious logins. Facebook can then inform the rest of an organization and investigate if it sees one member under attack.

Today’s other announcements include:

  • The takedown of foreign influence campaigns, three from Iran and one from Russia in order to protect users from deception.
  • Labelling state-owned or controlled media organizations like Russia Today on their Facebook Pages and the the Ad Library to help users identify potential propaganda.
  • Added Page ownership transparency for ePages with large US audiences and those verified to run political ads which will have to display their owner’s organization’s legal name, city, and phone number or website so it’s clear where information comes from.
  • New transparency features around political ad spend including a US presidential candidate spend tracker, more geographic spending details, info on what apps an ad appear on, and programmatic access to downloads of political ad creative.
  • Much more prominent fact-checking labels will now run as interstitials warnings atop photos and videos on Facebook and Instagram that were fact-checked as false, rather than smaller labels attached below the post to make sure users know information is false before consuming it. Users will also be warned before they share posts fact-checked as false to keep them from going viral.

04 misinfo 02

  • A wider ban on voter suppression ads that suggest it’s useless to vote, provide inaccurate polling or voter eligibility information, or threaten people if they vote or based on the outcome of an election to prevent intimidation and confusion.
  • A $2 million investment from Facebook into media literacy projects to develop new methods of educating people to understand political social media and ads.
  • Facebook Protect offering hack monitoring services to elected officials, candidates political party committees, government agencies and departments surrounding elections, and verified users involved in elections.

Facebook Page Transparency Spend Tracker

Combined, the efforts could protect both campaigns and constituents from misinformation while giving everyone more clarity about where content comes from. Yet the approach highlights Facebook’s tightrope walk between policing its networks and overstepping into censorship.

In a speech last week, Zuckerberg tried to firmly plant Facebook as erring on the side of giving people a voice rather than stifling speech. He raised the threat of China’s influence over foreign businesses by dangling its giant market in exchange for adherence to its political values. And he tried to defend allowing lies in political ads, arguing that banning political ads on Facebook as I’ve recommended the company do would benefit incumbents and silence challengers who don’t have media attention.

Trump Ad 1

A Trump ad spreads misinformation claiming Democrats want to repeal the second amendment

Yet throughout the call, Zuckerberg was hammered with questions about Facebook’s willingness to fact check what users share with friends, but not what politicians pay to show to millions of voters.

People should make up their own minds about what candidates are credible. I don’t think those determinations should come from tech companies . . . People need to be able to see this content for themselves” Zuckerberg insisted. Yet if Facebook is willing to cover photos containing misinformation with a warning label you have to click to see past, it’s strange that it’s unwilling to do the same for political ads.

Like farming out fact-checking to third-party news outlets as Facebook already does, banning political ads wouldn’t force Facebook to judge the truth of individual statements, and they’d still have the right to share what they want to their own followers.

When I asked why he believes banning political ads would favor incumbents, Zuckerberg admitted “You’re right that incumbents can raise more money” and he wasn’t sure there’d been a comprehensive study on the matter. His defense relied on anecdotal beliefs of unnamed sources:

I’ve talked to a lot of people. The general belief that they have, when they’re a challenger, is that they rely on different mechanisms like ads in order to get their voices into a debate more than incumbents do . . . 

From all of the conversations that I’ve had, the general overwhelming consensus from people who are participating in these things and who work on them has been that removing political ads would favor incumbents.”

While the rest of Facebook’s announcements today felt like sensible steps in the right direction, the company will need a stronger arguments for why it polices misinformation shared by users but not political ad campaigns.

If it wants to find a better middleground, it could offer standardized ad units for political campaigns that endorse the candidate and ask for donations, but can’t make potentially untruthful assertions about themselves or their competitors.

Twitch hires former Zynga exec Doug Scott as chief marketing officer

By Sarah Perez

Amazon-owned game streaming service Twitch has snagged Zynga’s Chief Marketing Officer, Doug Scott, to join as its own CMO, the company announced today. At Zynga, Scott led global marketing for just over three years. Prior to that, he was CMO at the music startup BandPage and the VP, Marketing and Revenue at mobile game publisher, DeNA.

He has additionally served on the board for Matrixx Initiatives and as an advisor to YouTube Music.

Scott’s background spanning gaming, entertainment, and streaming make him a good fit to join Twitch at a time when it’s trying to stretch beyond its roots.

In more recent years, Twitch’s creators have expanded into areas like personal vlogs, creative arts, entertainment, and more. One Twitch streamer’s efforts in interactive media even won the site its first Emmy this year.

And now, Twitch is trying out “Watch Parties,” where streamers can screen Amazon Prime Video shows and movies to their fans as a shared experience.

doug scottMeanwhile, Twitch itself has driven the expansion beyond video games in its own way. It has made deals with sports leagues including the NBA and NFL to stream some games, and more recently announced deals with wrestling and women’s hockey, The NYT reported.

Twitch also makes its own content. In April, for example, it launched its first game — Twitch Sings, a karaoke-style experience designed for live streaming.

Last month, the company underwent a huge makeover, from a marketing and branding perspective, with the introduction of a new Twitch logo and other branding changes.

While purple remains the Twitch logo’s iconic color, it’s now supported by a range of complementary colors that streamers can adopt for themselves. Via a new “Creator Color” tool, Twitch streamers can pick a color that better represents their own personal brand — even if it’s not Twitch’s classic purple. The updated style also includes a new Glitch logo, new font, and larger plans for Twitch’s unique ’emotes.’

Twitch presented the platform’s makeover at this year’s TwitchCon event in San Diego, where it unveiled a new ad campaign that highlights how Twitch can be more than just a place to stream games. (Its tagline: “You’re already one of us.”)

With all these shifts underway, it was high time for Twitch to fill its vacated CMO position, which was previously held by Kate Jhaveri, who left for the NBA this summer.

Other recent hires at Twitch have included Sarah Iooss, previously of Mic, as Head of North America Sales, and ex-Googler Dan Clancy as executive VP of creator and community experience.

“Twitch is revolutionizing entertainment through its massive and highly engaged community of creators and fans,” said Scott, in a statement. “I could not be more excited to join this incredible team and help to bring Twitch’s unique culture, brand and its passionate community to new audiences and global markets.”

“We’re thrilled to welcome Doug Scott to Twitch as our Chief Marketing Officer,” added Sara Clemens, COO, Twitch. “Doug has deep experience extending brands into new markets across games and entertainment industries, making him the ideal fit to lead Twitch’s marketing strategy. As Twitch continues to grow, Doug will play an integral role in extending the brand beyond endemic audiences, supporting our incredible creators and expanding our presence in global markets,” she said.

Twitch today claims over 15 million average daily users and over 3 million unique creators streaming each month. At any given time, the site has an average of 1.3 million viewers, the company says.

 

Superhuman founder seeks to raise debut venture fund

By Kate Clark

The founder of one of 2019’s most buzzworthy startups is putting on his VC hat.

Rahul Vohra, the creator of the $30/month subscription emailing service Superhuman, and Todd Goldberg, the founder of the marketing business Mailjoy, are circulating a pitch deck to potential limited partners, with plans to raise a $4 million debut angel fund, TechCrunch has learned.

Goldberg declined to comment. Vohra did not respond to a request for comment.

San Francisco-based Superhuman has raised millions in venture capital funding, attracting a $260 million valuation with a $33 million investment led by the respected firm Andreessen Horowitz earlier this year. Quickly, Superhuman developed a loyal fan base and inspired a new wave of startups building for the “prosumer.”

“Superhuman has become an aspirational brand and product that many SaaS companies want to emulate,” Vohra and Goldberg write in the deck, obtained by TechCrunch. “Founders of these companies seek out Rahul as an investor. This helps us get into the hottest rounds — even the closed ones.”

[gallery ids="1900307,1900397,1900398,1900399,1900400"]

Vohra and Goldberg have been seeding startups for the past four years, according to the deck. Both men have completed the Y Combinator startup accelerator and funded other graduates of the program, including Tandem, which emerged from YC this summer with funding from a16z, Vohra and several others. One or both of the pair have also invested in Command E, a tool that enables instant cloud search; Mercury, a bank tailored to the needs of startups; and Sandbox VR, which is developing premium virtual reality experiences in retail locations.

Many of Vohra and Goldberg’s existing investments, such as Sandbox VR, Tandem and Mercury, are also a16z portfolio companies, as is Superhuman. We’re guessing Vohra has served as a sort of scout for the firm, bringing in attractive deals for a16z to lead, with room for him to nab a friendly allocation.

Vohra and Goldberg are hoping to collect capital from LPs to scale their investment activity. According to the deck, they will make 25 to 35 deals with check sizes ranging between $50,000 to $150,000. The fund will invest in the “prosumerization” of the enterprise, business infrastructure, health, fitness & wellness, “devsumer” & low-code/no-code, audio-first products, creator tools and “enterprization” of consumers.

Indeed, the deck is packed with buzzwords. The “prosumerization” of the enterprise is tech-speak for work products with nicer interfaces and more premium features. A “devsumer” tool is one that enables consumers to complete developer tasks on their own, i.e. without coding — devsumer products on the market include Airtable, Notion and Retool. Finally, the “enterprization” of consumers simply means the rise of business tools built for consumers first.

Vohra and Goldberg cite their experience as operators as one of their “unfair advantages,” along with their ability to secure large allocations (a decent piece of the pie) in startups, their YC network, relationships with other angels & funds and their ability to get pro rata access in later rounds.

Founders often search for established operators to join their cap tables for exactly these reasons. Someone like Vohra can help startups foster relationships with big-name venture capital backers and make critical introductions to their own rapidly growing pool of customers.

The rise of micro-funds led by networked entrepreneurs, including Niv Dror’s Shrug Capital or Brianne Kimmel’s new outfit, Work Life Ventures, for example, could pose a threat to existing institutional seed investors, who may not be as well-versed in specific sectors or able to offer as much time to potential founders. On the other hand, many micro-funds co-invest with or are backed by VCs, which means returns from the fund end up in the same pockets, in essence.

Deploying capital from a fund, however, is time consuming. How Vohra can balance building a Series B startup and investing in upwards of 35 businesses remains to be seen.

Though Superhuman was founded in 2014 — Vohra incorporated the business immediately after the LinkedIn acquisition of his previous startup, Rapportive — the company is essentially still in closed beta (those looking for access must be approved for the service in iOS’s TestFlight, where constant beta updates are delivered). Today, it’s popular in the Bay Area tech scene where the tagline “sent via Superhuman” has become a status symbol of sorts. But many are uncertain non-techies will be willing to shell out $30 per month for a luxury email tool.

With that said, Superhuman has a wait list of 180,000 people, according to The New York Times, which spoke to Vohra in June. With a large and growing valuation, an email tool with rave reviews and a set of loyal followers, Vohra will likely have no trouble navigating his way into Silicon Valley’s hottest deals.

Microsoft acquires Mover to help with Microsoft 365 cloud migration

By Ron Miller

Microsoft wants to make it as easy as possible to migrate to Microsoft 365, and today the company announced it had purchased a Canadian startup called Mover to help. The companies did not reveal the acquisition price.

Microsoft 365 is the company’s bundle that includes Office 365, Microsoft Teams, security tools and workflow. The idea is to provide customers with a soup-to-nuts, cloud-based productivity package. Mover helps customers get files from another service into the Microsoft 365 cloud.

As Jeff Tepper wrote in a post on the Official Microsoft Blog announcing the acquisition, this about helping customers get to the Microsoft cloud as quickly and smoothly as possible. “Today, Mover supports migration from over a dozen cloud service providers — including Box, Dropbox, Egnyte, and Google Drive — into OneDrive and SharePoint, enabling seamless file collaboration across Microsoft 365 apps and services, including the Office apps and Microsoft Teams,” Tepper wrote.

Tepper also points out that they will be gaining the expertise of the Mover team as it moves to Microsoft and helps add to the migration tools already in place.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, says that moving files from one system to another like this can be extremely challenging regardless of how you do it, and the file transfer mechanism is only part of it. “The transition to 365 from an on-prem system or competing cloud supplier is never a migration, per se. It’s a rebuild, with a completely different UX, admin model, set of services, and operational assumptions all built into the Microsoft cloud offering,” Byrne explained.

Mover is based in Calgary, Canada. It was founded in 2012 and raised $1 million, according to Crunchbase data. It counts some big clients as customers including AutoDesk, Symantec and BuzzFeed.

Shine Bathroom raises $750K for a smart home add-on that flushes away your toilet doldrums

By Ingrid Lunden

One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.

In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”

It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.

Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.

The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.

“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”

Intro

Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).

The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.

It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.

Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.

“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”

Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).

That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)

Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.

Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.

AlexaAskSam

The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.

Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.

The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.

On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.

The startup in its time raised more than $70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.

Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)

“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.  

Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.

“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.

Africa can list more gazelles at home than unicorn IPOs abroad

By Jake Bright

At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop suggested that Silicon Valley’s unicorn IPO model might not be right for African startups.

The is largely because the continent’s startups face a vastly different macro business environment, Diop explained during a discussion of investing in Africa with 500 Startups’ Sheel Mohnot and IFC’s Wale Ayeni. In a subsequent conversation, she clarified an alternative approach for African startups to raise capital from public listings.

“It might be a better option to set lower revenue expectations and have startups list on local exchanges to raise capital from IPOs when they’re ready,” said Diop. “We may be able to create more gazelles at home than unicorns abroad,”

Disrupt SF 2019 Africa Investing Session Diop Mohnot Ayeni

A gazelle at home could be a company valued at a $100 million or more and generating revenues of $15 to $50 million, according to Diop.

“We should have a discussion of setting a right valuation, a valuation that is more appropriate to African startups,” she said.

A VC investor at Orange Digital Ventures and co-founder of Dakar Angels Network, Diop’s perspective comes in the wake of Jumia’s going public on the New York Stock Exchange this April.

The e-commerce venture became the first VC-funded digital company operating in Africa to list on a major global exchange, a fact that may have raised expectations for additional $100 million revenue tech firms creating unicorns and IPOs in Africa.

The $100 million revenue point has served as the unofficial IPO benchmark for startups and investors; after reaching unicorn status in 2014, Jumia achieved it last year (with big losses in tow).

But as I mentioned in a previous Extra Crunch piece, it will be difficult for startups operating in Africa to hit that revenue mark, even with all the leaps and bounds occurring in the continent’s economies and tech sector. The overall operating environment is still fairly costly and challenging, compared to other regions.

To put the $100 million revenue benchmark in perspective for Africa, the continent’s entire tech VC funding only recently surpassed $1 billion annually, according to Partech data, which means the $100 million rule would requires a company to generate annual revenues up to roughly 10% of the yearly value of VC raised across the entire ecosystem.

YouTube founder secretly building sports fan game GreenPark

By Josh Constine

Chad Hurley is hunting for what comes after fantasy sports. He envisions a new way for fans to play by watching live and cheering for the athletes they love. Beyond a few scraps of info the YouTube co-founder would share and his new startup’s job listings revealed, we don’t know what Hurley’s game will feel like. But the company is called GreenPark Sports, and it’s launching in Spring 2020.

“There is an absence of compelling, inclusive ways for large masses of sports fans to compete together” Hurley tells me. “The idea of a ‘sports fan’ has evolved – it is now more a social behavior than ever before. We’re looking at a much bigger, inclusive way for all fans of sports and esports teams to play.”

GreenPark Sports Chad Hurley

 

Hurley already has an all-star team. One of GreenPark’s co-founders Nick Swinmurn helped start Zappos, while another Ken Martin created marketing agency BLITZ. Together they’ve raised an $8.5 million seed round led by SignalFire and joined by Sapphire Sports and Founders Fund. “With this team’s impeccable track record and vision for the future of fandom, this was an investment we had to make,” said Chris Farmer, founder and CEO of SignalFire.

It all comes down to allegiance — something Hurley, Swinmurn, and Martin truly understand. Everyone is seeking ways to belong and emblems to represent them. In an age when many of our most prized possessions from photographs to record collections have been digitized, we lack tangible objects that center our individuality. Culture increasingly centers around landmark events, with what we’ve done mattering more than what we own.

GreenPark could seize upon this moment by helping us to align our identities with a team. This instantly unlocks a likeminded community, a recurrent activity, and a unified aesthetic. And when reality gets heavy, people can lose themselves by hitching their spirits to the scoreboard.

Rather than just tabulating results after the match like in fantasy sports, GreenPark wants to be entwined with the spectacle as it happens. “We’re going to be working with a mix of ways to visualize the live game – from unique gamecast-like data to highlight clips. The social viewing experience can be much more than just the straight live video” Hurley explains.

GreenPark Sports Logo

He came up with GreenPark after selling assets of his video editing app Mixbit to BlueJeans a year ago. Hurley already had an interactive relationship with sports…though one that’s reserved for the rich: he’s part owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Football Club. Meanwhile, Swinmurn co-founded the Burlingame Dragons Football Club affiliated with San Jose’s team, and is on the board of Denmark’s FC Helsingør.

Those experiences taught them the satisfaction that comes from a deeper sense of ownership or allegiance with a team. GreenPark will give an opportunity for anyone to turn fandom into its own sport. “We shared a love of sports and set out to look into opportunities around legalized sports betting in the US” Hurley tells me.” But quickly they found “it was obvious the regulated space wouldn’t allow us to innovate as quickly as we wanted” and they saw a more opportunity amidst a younger mainstream audience.

“We’re not ready to disclose publicly the exact detailed gameplay yet” Hurley says. But here’s what we could cobble together from around the web.

GreenPark Sports lets you “Destroy the other teams’ fans” to “climb the leaderboards”, its site says cryptically. According to job listings, it will pipe in live game data, starting with the NBA and expanding to other leagues, and offer cartoon characters with facial expressions and full-body gestures to let users live out the highs and lows of matches. Don’t expect trivia questions or player stat memorization. It almost sounds like a massively multiplayer online fan arena. 

As with blockbuster games Fortnite or League Of Legends, GreenPark is free-to-play. But a mention of virtual clothing hints at monetization, where you could spruce up avatars with digital team apparel. Hurley tells me “We are in the perfect storm of the thirst for innovation at the traditional league level, the next level of maturing for esports, investment in sports betting and overall dire need to better understand today’s largest populace of sports fans – Millenial / Gen Z.” The closed beta launches in the Spring.

Screen Shot 2019 10 21 at 9.45.29 AM

There’s a massive hole to fill in the wake of the Draft Kings / FanDuel marketing sure a few years ago. Most apps in the space just carry scores or analysis, rather than community. “What’s amazing about being a fan of a team or player is the common bond you have with other fans” Hurley explains, “where even if you don’t know the other fans of your team – you are all in it to win it – together.”

Publications like The Athletic have proven there are plenty of fans willing to pay to feel closer to their favorite teams. The most direct competitor for GreenPark might be Strafe, that lets you track and predict the winners of esports matches.

People already spend tons of time on building fictional worlds like Minecraft and money outfitting their Fortnite avatar with the coolest clothes. If GreenPark can create a space for sports’ fan self-expression, it could create the online destination for legions of IRL enthusiasts that see who they root for as core to who they are.

Sydney’s AirTree Ventures closes $275M fund as Aussie unicorns gather pace

By Mike Butcher

The Australian scene industry has, in the last few years, started to generate a swathe of startups that have broken through internationally. Prior to this current era, Australia was scene has very much a local market in tech terms, with only occasional breakouts, like Atlassian . In fact, it’s now gaining a reputation as a serial producer of high-quality tech platforms, the hottest of which right now is Canva, which recently raised an additional $85 million to bring its valuation to $3.2 billion, up from $2.5 billion in May. Investors in the company include Bond, General Catalyst, Bessemer Venture Partners, Blackbird and Sequoia China. Notably, Sydney-based AirTree Ventures also invested early.

So that momentum is further confirmed by the news that Airtree has closed its 3rd fund of $275m. This new fund comes after AirTree’s $250m fund in 2016 and a $60m fund in 2014. You can clearly see the buildup in these numbers.

John Henderson, Partner said: “The interest from investors in our fund is a stunning reflection on the performance of the entrepreneurs we’ve been lucky enough to back. We were humbled by overwhelming demand, but felt it was the right thing for our investors to maintain discipline and a consistent fund size across vintages.”

Australian venture capital was less than fashionable after the dotcom boom and bust, and local institutional capital in Australia and New Zealand all but disappeared, hence why we saw so few startups form the region.

AirTree’s $60m fund in 2014, broke that drought and Australia now boasts over 50 tech startups valued at $100 million, 14 over $500 million and produces one ‘unicorn’ per year on average.

Airtree has gone on to invest in Australian and Kiwi startups like Canva, Prospa, Secure Code Warrior, Athena, Flurosat, Brighte, Joyous, Thematic and A Cloud Guru. Prospa, Australia’s main online lender to small businesses, IPO’ed on the Australian Stock Exchange in June 2019.

Airtree can invest as little as $200k, but now has the firepower to own the pipeline all the way up the investment stack.

Craig Blair, Managing Partner commented: “As ex-founders, we have experienced the tough, lonely road ourselves. This empathy with the founder journey helps us focus on when to provide support and when to get out of the way. In our next fund, we’ll be expanding our suite of services and our network of connections, all designed to give our founders an unfair advantage.”

The VC also announced two promotions and a new executive hire:

• Elicia McDonald promoted to Principal, with a mandate to lead new investments
• Emily Close joining the investment team, promoted to Associate
• Melissa Ran leading AirTree’s Community and Advocacy efforts

AirTree’s latest fund is backed by six institutional investors from Australia including AustralianSuper, SunSuper and Statewide. The rest of the new fund comes from a range of successful entrepreneurs and family offices.

Henderson added: “An important portion of our portfolio is already in New Zealand and we remain very focused on supporting that market. We’ve been investing meaningful resources and funds in New Zealand since 2014 and we’ll have more Kiwi news to share soon.”

The fund raise follows news that AirTree portfolio company Property-tech start-up :Different has raised a second round of capital from AirTree, alongside Brisbane-based real estate fund PieLAB, as it expands into Queensland.

❌