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Tencent CEO warns companies must keep innovating to survive amid US-China tensions

By Rita Liao

On Tuesday, Tencent’s usually low-profile founder and CEO Pony Ma made rare comments to weigh in on escalating tensions between the United States and China, calling domestic tech companies to build more self-reliance in a bid to stay competitive.

“China has come to the forefront of development. There is less and less room for taking the best from outside and improving on them. As the ZTE and Huawei cases have intensified recently, we are also constantly watching whether the trade war will turn into a tech war,” said Ma at an event in China’s Yunnan Province per a transcript Tencent provided to TechCrunch.

Ma’s concern is not unexpected. As recent US-China negotiations show, the Shenzhen-based telecommunication and smartphone giant has become deeply entangled in the trade spat. The Commerce Department last week restricted American companies from selling components and other technology to Huawei — which the Trump administration has labeled as posing a national security threat — though it has since scaled back the ban. That would eventually cut Huawei off from certain services from Google, chips made by Qualcomm and Intel, and its other American suppliers.

Despite China’s efforts to lead in global innovation, many of its tech startups and champions still rely heavily on imported technologies to deliver products and services. People have celebrated this level of interdependence as a result of trade, but increasingly they worry decoupling the US and China will hurt companies on both sides and lead to a bifurcation of the global tech economy.

“[China]’s digital economy will be a high-rise built on sand and hard to sustain if we don’t continue to work hard on basic research and key knowledge, not to mention the transformation from old to new forms of drivers or high-quality development,” Ma pointed out.

Jack Ma, founder of Tencent’s arch-foe Alibaba, remarked along the same line following a similar ban placed on the sale of American components to Huawei rival ZTE in April of last year.

“It is the compelling obligation for big companies to compete in core technology,” said Alibaba’s Ma at an industry event per a report from the South China Morning Post.

The latest technology ban from the US has now accelerated Huawei’s efforts to become more technologically independent. That includes designing its own chips and rolling out its own smartphone operating system, though observers and stakeholders, including Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei himself, have raised questions on their viability in the short run.

“We will give it a try. Making the operating system isn’t too difficult. What’s difficult is the ecosystem. How do you build an ecosystem? This is a big project, and it will take time,” said Ren during an interview with state media on Tuesday.

When it comes to Huawei’s homegrown chips, Ren said the company is “capable of making American-quality semiconductors, but that doesn’t mean it won’t buy them.” On the other side, chip experts interviewed by Reuters have called out Huawei for its claim, saying it would be difficult for the Chinese company to manufacture network gears without American suppliers.

In Ford’s future, two-legged robots and self-driving cars could team up on deliveries

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous vehicles might someday be able to navigate bustling city streets to deliver groceries, pizzas, and other packages without a human behind the wheel. But that doesn’t solve what Ford Motor CTO Ken Washington describes as the last 50-foot problem.

Ford and startup Agility Robotics are partnering in a research project that will test how two-legged robots and self-driving vehicles can work together to solve that curb-to-door problem. Agility’s Digit, a two-legged robot that has a lidar where its head should be, will be used in the project. The robot, which is capable of lifting 40 pounds, can ride along in a self-driving vehicle and be deployed when needed to delivery packages.

“We’re looking at the opportunity of autonomous vehicles through the lens of the consumer and we know from some early experimentation that there are challenges with the last 50 feet,” Washington told TechCrunch in a recent interview. Finding a solution could be an important differentiator for Ford’s commercial robotaxi service, which it plans to launch in 2021.

The communication between Digit and a Ford autonomous vehicle is perhaps the most compelling piece of this research project. As the GIF below shows, the AV arrives at its destination, the hatch of the Ford Transit van opens and Digit unfolds itself, then grabs the package and walks to the door.

Ford Agility Robotics

Digit is equipped with lidar and stereo cameras, just enough sensors for basic navigation.

But there’s more to the story. The autonomous vehicle — equipped with a robust suite of sensors and computing power that allows for more complex decision making — is sharing its data with Digit long before it is deployed. When Digit “wakes up” it already knows where it is in the world. And if Digit runs into trouble, it can communicate with the idling AV for that extra perception and decision-making prowess.

This solves what Agility CEO Damion Shelton describes as a “classic robotics problem,” of helping the robot know where it is when it wakes up from its sleep state.

“If you know you’re riding around in the vehicle with a clear view of your entire surroundings, it’s a lot easier to get up and move around,” Shelton explained. “That’s really how we’re viewing the primary purpose of this beta exchange; to help the robot be aware of its surroundings, so that you don’t go through this sort of boot up process where the robot gets out of the car and is confused for the first 30 seconds it’s turned on.”

Agility’s Digit robot isn’t the only option Ford is experimenting with to solve that vehicle-to-doorstep problem, Washington said. However, Washington did note that the two-legged robots do have certain advantages, like the ability to step over cracks in the sidewalk and walk up stairs, that can be problematic for wheeled robots.

Ford and Agility’s agreement is categorized as a research project, for now. Ford has not taken an equity stake in Agility, Washington said, although he quickly added “that doesn’t mean we’re not open to it at some point.” 

For Agility, this project is a turning point — or certainly an acceleration — of its very new business. The robotics startup spun out of Oregon State University in late 2015 with an aim to commercialize research from the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory on bipedal locomotion. The company introduced its ostrich-inspired Cassie robot in 2017 as a bipedal research platform. Digit, which added an upper torso, arms, sensors, and additional computing power to the Cassie design, was introduced in February 2019.

Agility has 20 employees, about half of whom support the construction of the robots. The company has raised nearly $8.8 million in capital from a seed and Series A round. And now, with this latest partnership, Agility is prepping to raise another round to help it scale.

Agility has made two first-generation Digit robots. The company, which has offices in Albany, Oregon and Pittsburgh, plans to unveil the second-generation Digit in early summer. A third version of Digit — marking the final design of this bipedal robot — will likely come out in summer or early fall, Shelton said.

Agility will produce about six of these final versions of Digit. From here, Shelton estimated the company will have a steady state production of about two Digits a month. Ultimately, Agility is on pace to make between 50 and 100 by 2021.

All of this research and experimentation is part of the Ford’s eventual goal to launch a commercial robotaxi service. And that last 50-feet will be one of the critical hurdles it will need overcome if it hopes to make self-driving vehicles a profitable enterprise. To prepare, the automaker is pursuing two parallels tracks — testing and honing in on how an AV business might operate, while separately developing autonomous vehicle technology through its subsidiary Argo AI .

Argo AI,  the Pittsburgh-based company into which Ford invested $1 billion in 2017, is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is testing its go-to-market strategy through pilot programs with local businesses as well as large corporate partners like Walmart, Domino’s and Postmates.

Ford plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 under an LLC that’s dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. The $4 billion spending plan includes a $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI.

Ford is testing in Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. and is poised to expand into Austin.

Leak reveals Uber’s $9.99 unlimited delivery Eats Pass

By Josh Constine

What’s the cord-cutting equivalent to ditching your kitchen? Uber’s upcoming subscription to unlimited free food delivery. Uber is preparing to launch the $9.99 per month Uber Eats Pass, according to code hidden in Uber’s Android app.

The subscription would waive Uber’s service fee that’s typically 15 percent of your order cost. Given that’s often $5 or more, users stand to save a lot if they order in frequently. But Uber could still earn money on menu item markups, cover costs with a flat order fee that protects against someone ordering a single taco, and most importantly, build loyalty and scale at a time of intense food delivery competition.

The Uber Eats Pass was first spotted by Jane Manchun Wong, the notorious reverse engineering specialist who’s become a frequent TechCrunch tipster. She managed to generate screenshots from Uber’s Android app code the reveals a prototype of the feature. “Get free delivery, any restaurant, any time” is says, showing the amount of money you could have or already saved.

A Uber spokesperson did not dispute the legitimacy of the findings and told TechCrunch “We’re always thinking about new ways to enhance the Eats experience.” They declined to provide further details, which could hint that a launch is imminent but some details are still subject to change. For now we don’t know exactly what perks come with an Eats Pass or where it will be launching first.

At $9.99 per month, the Uber Eats Pass would cost the same and work similarly to Postmates Unlimited and DoorDash DashPass. If they all seem like good deals, you see why they’re less about immediate revenue and more about customer lock-in. You’re a lot less likely to order GrubHub or Caviar if you’ve already pre-paid to cover your Uber Eats delivery costs. And whichever apps emerge from this battle will have instituted the scale and steady behavior to raise prices or just enjoy large lifetime value from each subscriber.

Exploring new business opportunities could help perk up Uber’s share price which closed at $41.50 today two weeks after IPOing at an opening price of $42. There are fears that intense competition across both ride sharing and food delivery could make for an expensive road ahead for the newly public company. Any way it can gain an edge on its rivals keep users from straying to them is important. The logistics giant is already experimenting with allowing restaurants to offer discounts in exchange for promoted placement in the app, which is the first step to Uber becoming an ads company where businesses pay for extra exposure.

If Uber combined Eats Pass with its car service subscription Ride Passes, you have the foundation for a sort of Uber Prime experience — one where you pay an upfront subscription fee that scores you perks and discounts but also makes you likely to spend a lot more on Uber. That bundle could be even more central to Uber than Amazon, which has few direct rivals in the west. People will need to eat and get around for the foreseeable future. Subsidizing loyalty now could be costly in the short-term, but poise Uber for years of lucrative business down the line.

Valve’s Steam Chat gets its own iOS and Android apps

By Greg Kumparak

 

A little under a year ago, Valve released a big overhaul for the chat features built into its Steam game store/launcher. Focusing on modern day chat conveniences like better group chats and embedded media (GIFs!), some saw it as a move to hopefully keep a few more users from heading for Discord — which, as it just so happened, was weeks away from poking around Valve’s turf with a game store of their own.

Today, Steam Chat goes mobile. Valve has just announced that dedicated Steam Chat apps are available immediately on both iOS and and Android.

The new mobile client will let you see who’s online, who’s playing what, add new Steam friends, and, of course, chat (both one-on-one, or in groups.) Don’t want your phone buzzing nonstop? Valve says you can tweak notifications on a friend-by-friend, group-by-group basis.

One thing it can’t do quite yet? Voice chat. Valve says it’s on the way, but it didn’t make it into this initial release.

India’s Ola switches gears on its food delivery business Foodpanda

By Manish Singh

India’s Ola, which has expanded to select international markets and set ambitious goals for its electric vehicles business, is struggling with selling food. So it is making major changes to its food business.

The ride-hailing giant is pivoting Foodpanda, the Indian business of the food delivery startup it acquired in late 2017, to serving in-house food brands, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Unlike market leaders Zomato and Naspers-backed Swiggy that work with tens of thousands of restaurants to deliver food, Foodpanda will now focus on expanding its own portfolio of private label food brands, sources said.

Ola currently has about four private labels that cover food items such as shakes, biryani, and khichri, a dish from the Indian subcontinent made from rice and lentils. The company is working to expand this to 50 labels in the coming weeks, the sources said. The pivot comes as Foodpanda finds competition from Zomato and Swiggy unsustainable, one of the sources said. Local newspaper Mint reported earlier today that Ola was suspending Foodpanda’s business in India.

“As part of our ongoing business repurposing initiatives, we are focused on building a portfolio of own food brands and curated food offerings through our fast expanding network of kitchens. Many of these offerings are already available in all major cities through the Ola and Foodpanda apps. We continue to invest in expanding our facilities and kitchens, as well as our portfolio of food offerings for customers. We remain committed to our mission of building a superior food experience for millions of our customers,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

(Foodpanda, which operates in more than 10 other markets under a different owner — DeliveryHero — remains fully operational outside of India.)

After acquiring the India business of Foodpanda, Ola’s second foray into food business, the company aggressively tried to court customers by offering heavy discounts in early 2018. The company said then that it would invest $200 million in Foodpanda business. But later in 2018, the discounts began to run thin as Ola revised its strategy for the food business, one of the sources added.

The move comes as Zomato and Swiggy remain locked in a fierce battle in India, leaving little room for anyone without deep pockets and strong commitment. Uber has attempted to sell off its UberEats business in India to either of the two giants, but failed to get a deal, people familiar with the matter said. The San Francisco-headquartered firm, which went public earlier this month, has since cut its spendings budget for UberEats in India, a source familiar with the matter said.

Ola, which leads the ride-hailing market in India, has struggled with food business in the past, too. In 2015, it launched OlaCafe, a food delivery service that did not take off and was shut down a year later.

As of September last year, Foodpanda was processing about 3 million orders a month, compared to Swiggy and Zomato, both of which claim to handle over 30 million orders in the same period.

According to Mint, Ola has terminated contracts of most of its 1,500 food delivery partners, and laid off about 40 people. As of Wednesday morning (local time), the vast majority of restaurants listed on Foodpanda and Ola apps were not servicing in major cities.

India has emerged as one of the largest food-technology markets globally in recent years. It could be worth up to $2.5 billion by 2021, according to consulting firm RedSeer.

TransferWise now valued at $3.5B following a new $292M secondary round

By Steve O'Hear

TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service, is disclosing a new $292 million secondary round that sees investors value the company at $3.5 billion. That’s more than double the valuation TransferWise achieved in late 2017 at the time of its $280 million Series E round.

The new secondly funding — with no new cash entering TransferWise’s balance sheet as a number of existing shareholders sell all or a portion of their holding — was led by growth capital investors Lead Edge Capital, Lone Pine Capital and Vitruvian Partners.

Existing investors Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford expanded their holdings in TransferWise, whilst investment was also provided from funds managed by BlackRock.

In a call, TransferWise co-founder and Chairman Taavet Hinrikus told me the round was oversubscribed, too. The arbitrary figure of $292 million was simply the result of how much liquidity existing shareholders were willing to make available, and nowhere near the upper level of interest.

He is also pointed out that existing institutional investors aren’t exiting during this round, with Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford actually doubling down somewhat. Instead, this liquidity event was mainly a way for TransferWise employees — existing and presumably former — to cash in on some or all of their stake. And for new later stage investors to jump on-board.

All of which — and at the risk of repeating myself — would suggest that a potential TransferWise public offering is still a long way off yet, something that Hinrikus doesn’t refute. “Why would we go public?” he says rhetorically, noting that the company is still growing fast and capital isn’t an issue.

So why then in contrast are other fast-growing companies going public much earlier these days? “You’d have to ask them,” Hinrikus says, batting away my question in his usual laid back and matter-of-fact manner. Pressed a little harder, he says that one difference might be that TransferWise’s institutional investors aren’t (yet) pushing for a liquidity event on the scale of an IPO. As already noted, in some instances they are actually purchasing more shares in the company.

Hinrikus also says the regulatory climate is now changing in TransferWise’s favour. In 2018, the EU voted to mandate the outlawing of exchange rate mark-ups on international payments through its Cross-Border Payments Regulations, something that the London fintech company has long been lobbying for. Australia is thought to be considering similar regulatory measures following an inquiry into the issue by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

To that end, TransferWise says it now serves 5 million customers worldwide, processing £4 billion every month. Every year it estimates it saves customers £1 billion in bank fees. The service currently supports 1,600 currency routes, and is available for 49 currencies.

The company employs over 1,600 people across twelve global offices and says it will hire 750 more people in the next 12 months. Audited financials for fiscal year ending March 2018 revealed 77 percent revenue growth to £117 million and a net profit of £6.2 million after tax.

Following a report about misleading ads placed by anti-abortion groups, Google Ads updates its policies

By Catherine Shu

Starting next month, Google will enforce new policies for ads related to abortion in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland. Google will now require advertisers that want to run ads with abortion-related keywords to apply for certification as an organization that does, or does not, provide abortions. If their ads are approved, they will run with an automatically-generated disclaimer identifying which category they fall into.

The announcement of the new policies comes less than two weeks after the Guardian reported that Google had provided $150,000 in free advertising through its grant program for non-profits to the Obria Group, an anti-abortion group that runs crisis pregnancy centers, or organizations that provide services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling, but ultimately seek to deter people from getting abortions.

According to the Guardian, the ads placed by the Obria Group were misleading and made it appear as though their centers provide abortions, a tactic used by many crisis pregnancy centers. Google’s new policies also come as several states, including Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio have passed, or are seeking to pass, extremely restrictive laws limiting access to abortion.

Google did not mention crisis pregnancy centers or the new legislation in its policy update announcement, but the new rules may help limit the appearance of misleading ads. Before running ads with abortion-related keywords, advertisers must first submit an application to Google saying whether or not they provide abortions. If it is approved, their ads will run with automatically-generated in-ad disclaimers that says the advertiser either “provides abortions” or “does not provide abortions.” The disclosures will appear on the ads across all Search ad formats.

Google’s existing policies about abortion-related ads, which list countries where such ads are not allowed, or only allowed to run on a limited basis, will remain in place. (Abortion-related ads don’t appear on the Google Display Network.)

Google has already been criticized for allowing misleading ads related to abortion, including five years ago after an investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice American into ads for crisis pregnancy centers, the same issue reported by the Guardian this month. Misinformation about abortion is rampant, so this is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how effective Google’s new policy will be in combating a long-standing problem.

A young entrepreneur is building the Amazon of Bangladesh

By Jon Russell

At just 26, Waiz Rahim is supposed to be involved in the family business, having returned home in 2016 with an engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Instead, the young entrepreneur is plotting to build the Amazon of Bangladesh.

Deligram, Rahim’s vision of what e-commerce looks like in Bangladesh, a country of nearly 180 million, is making progress, having taken inspiration from a range of established tech giants worldwide, including Amazon, Alibaba and Go-Jek in Indonesia.

It’s a far cry from the family business. That’s Rahimafrooz, a 55-year-old conglomerate that is one of the largest companies in Bangladesh. It started out focused on garment retail, but over the years its businesses have branched out to span power and energy and automotive products while it operates a retail superstore called Agora.

During his time at school in the U.S., Rahim worked for the company as a tech consultant whilst figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation. Little could he have imagined that, fast-forward to 2019, he’d be in charge of his own startup that has scaled to two cities and raised $3 million from investors, one of which is Rahimafrooz.

Deligram CEO Waiz Rahim [Image via Deligram]

“My options after college were to stay in U.S. and do product management or analyst roles,” Rahim told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “But I visited rural areas while back in Bangladesh and realized that when you live in a city, it’s easy to exist in a bubble.”

So rather than stay in America or go to the family business, Rahim decided to pursue his vision to build “a technology company on the wave of rising economic growth, digitization and a vibrant young population.”

The youngster’s ambition was shaped by a stint working for Amazon at its Carlsbad warehouse in California as part of the final year of his degree. That proved to be eye-opening, but it was actually a Kickstarter project with a friend that truly opened his mind to the potential of building a new venture.

Rahim assisted fellow USC classmate Sam Mazumdar with Y Athletics, which raised more than $600,000 from the crowdsourcing site to develop “odor-resistant” sports attire that used silver within the fabric to repel the smell of sweat. The business has since expanded to cover underwear and socks, and it put Rahim’s mind to work on what he could do by himself.

“It blew my mind that you can build a brand from scratch,” he said. “If you are good at product design and branding, you could connect to a manufacturer, raise money from backers and get it to market.”

On his return to Bangladesh, he got Deligram off the ground in January 2017, although it didn’t open its doors to retailers and consumers until March 2018.

E-commerce through local stores

Deligram is an effort to emulate the achievements of Amazon in the U.S. and Alibaba in China. Both companies pioneered online commerce and turned the internet into a major channel for sales, but the young Bangladeshi startup’s early approach is very different from the way those now hundred-billion-dollar companies got started.

Offline retail is the norm in Bangladesh and, with that, it’s the long chain of mom and pop stores that account for the majority of spending.

That’s particularly true outside of urban areas, where such local stores almost become community gathering points, where neighbors, friends and families run into each other and socialize.

Instead of disruption, working with what is part of the social fabric is more logical. Thus, Deligram has taken a hybrid approach that marries its regular e-commerce website and app with offline retail through mom and pop stores, which are known as “mudir dokan” in Bangladesh’s Bengali language.

A customer can order their product through the Deligram app on their phone and have it delivered to their home or office, but a more popular — and oftentimes logical — option is to have it sent to the local mudir dokan store, where it can be collected at any time. But beyond simply taking deliveries, mudir dokans can also operate as Deligram retailers by selling through an agent model.

That’s to say that they enable their customers to order products through Deligram even if they don’t have the app, or even a smartphone — although the latter is increasingly unlikely with smartphone ownership booming. Deligram is proactively recruiting mudir dokan partners to act as agents. It provides them with a tablet and a physical catalog that their customers can use to order via the e-commerce service. Delivery is then taken at the store, making it easy to pick up, and maintaining the local network.

“We’ll tell them: ‘Right now, you offer a few hundred products, now you have access to 15,000,’ ” the Deligram CEO said.

Indeed, Rahim sees this new digital storefront as a key driver of revenue for mudir dokan owners. For Deligram, it is potentially also a major customer acquisition channel, particularly among those who are new to the internet and the world of smartphone apps.

This offline-online model — known by the often-buzzy industry term “omnichannel” — isn’t new, but in a world where apps and messaging is prevalent, reaching and retaining users is challenging, particularly in emerging markets.

“It’s not easy to direct people to a website today, and the app-first approach has made it hard,” Rahim said. “We looked at how companies in Indonesia and India overcame these challenges.”

In particular, he studied the work of Go-Jek in Indonesia, which uses an agent model to push its services to nascent internet users, and Amazon India, which leans heavily on India’s local “kirana” stores for orders and deliveries.

In Deligram’s case, the mudir dokan picks up sales commission as well as money for every delivery that is sent to their store. Home deliveries are possible, but the lack of local infrastructure — “turn right at the blue house, left at the white one, and my place is third from the left,” is a common type of direction — makes finding exact locations difficult and inefficient, so an additional cost is charged for such requests.

E-commerce startups often struggle with last-mile because they rely on a clutch of logistics companies to fulfill orders. In a rare move for an early-stage company, Deligram has opted to run its entire logistics process in-house. That obviously necessitates cost and likely provides significant growing pains and stress, but, in the long term, Rahim is betting that a focus on quality control will pay out through higher customer service and repeat buyers.

A prospective Deligram customer flips through a hard copy of the company’s product brochure in a local store [Image via Deligram]

Startups on the rise in Bangladesh

Rahim’s timing is impeccable. He returned to Bangladesh just as technology was beginning to show the potential to impact daily life. Bangladesh has posted a 7% rise in GDP annually every year since 2016, and with an estimated 80 million internet users, it has the fifth-largest online population on the planet.

“We are riding on a lot of macro trends; we’re among the top five based on GDP growth and have the world’s eighth-largest population,” Rahim told TechCrunch. “There are 11 million people in middle income — that’s growing — and our country has 90 million people aged under 30.”

“An index to track the growth of young people would be [capital city] Dhaka… you can just see the vibrancy with young people using smartphones,” he added.

That’s an ideal storm for startups, and the country has seen a mix of overseas entrants and local ventures pick up speed. Alibaba last year acquired Daraz, the Rocket Internet-founded e-commerce service that covers Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal, while the Chinese giant also snapped up 20% of bKash, a fintech venture started from Brac Bank as part of the regional expansion of its Ant Financial affiliate.

Uber, too, is present, but it is up against tough local opposition, as is the norm in Asian markets.

That’s because Bangladesh’s most prominent local startups are in ride-hailing. Pathao raised more than $10 million in a funding round that closed last year and was led by Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-hailing firm valued at more than $9 billion that’s backed by the likes of Tencent and Google. Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia.

Pathao is one of two local companies that competes alongside Uber in Bangladesh [Image via Pathao]

Its chief rival is Shohoz, a startup that began in ticketing but expanded to rides and services on-demand. Shohoz raised $15 million in a round led by Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures, which was announced last year.

Deligram has also pulled in impressive funding numbers, too.

The startup announced a $2.5 million Series A raise at the end of March, which Rahim wrote came from “a network of institutional and angel investors;” such is the challenge of finding a large check for a tech play in Bangladesh. The investors involved included Skycatcher, Everblue Management and Microsoft executive Sonia Bashir Kabir. A delighted Rahim also won a check from Rahimafrooz, the family business.

That’s not a given, he said, admitting that his family did initially want him to go to work with their business rather than pursuing his own startup. In that context, contributing to the round is a major endorsement, he said.

Rahimafrooz could be a crucial ally in future fundraising, too. Despite an improving climate for tech companies, Bangladesh’s top startups are still finding it tough to raise money, especially with overseas investors that can write the larger checks that are required to scale.

“I think the biggest challenge is branding. Every time I speak with new investors, I have to start by explaining where Bangladesh is, or the national metrics, not even our business,” Pathao CEO Hussain Elius told TechCrunch.

“There’s a legacy issue. Bangladesh seems like a country which floods all the time and the garment sector going down — that’s a part of the story but not the full story. It’s also an incredible country that’s growing despite those challenges,” he added.

Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia. Elius didn’t address that directly, but he did admit that raising growth funding is a bigger challenge than seed-based financing, where the Bangladesh government helps with its own fund and entrepreneurial programs.

“It’s hard for us as we’re the first ones out there, but it’ll be easier for the ones who’ll follow on,” he explained.

Still, there are some optimistic overseas watchers.

“We remain enthusiastic about the rapidly expanding set of opportunities in Bangladesh,” said Hian Goh, founding partner of Singapore-based VC firm Openspace — which invested in Pathao.

“The country continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, underpinned by additional growth in its garments manufacturing sector. This has blossomed into an expanding middle class with very active consumption behavior,” Goh added.

Growth plans

With the pain of fundraising put to the side for now, the new money is being put to work growing the Deligram business and its network into more parts of Bangladesh, and the more challenging urban areas.

Geographically, the service is expanding its agent reach into five more cities to give it a total of seven locations nationwide. That necessitates an increase in logistics and operations to keep up with, and prepare for, that new demand.

Deligram workers in one of the company’s warehouses [Image via Deligram]

Rahim said the company had handled 12,000 orders to date as of the end of March, but that has now grown past 20,000 indicating that order volumes are rising. He declined to provide financial figures, but said that the company is on track to increase its monthly GMV volume by six-fold by the end of this year. Electronics, phones and accessories are among its most popular items, but Deligram also sells apparel, daily items and more.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter to assumptions, Deligram started in rural areas, where Rahim saw there was less competition but also potentially more to learn through a more early-adopter customer base. That’s obviously one major challenge when it comes to growth, and now the company is looking at urban expansion points.

On the product side, Deligram is in the early stages of piloting consumer financing using its local store agents as the interface, while Rahim teased “exciting IOT R&D projects” that he said are in the planning stage.

Ultimately, however, he concedes that the road is likely to be a long one.

“Over the last 18-20 years, modern retail hasn’t made much progress here,” Rahim said. “It accounts for around 2.5% of total retail, e-commerce is below 1% and the long tail local stores are the rest.”

“People will eventually shift, but I think it’ll take five to eight years, which is why we provide the convenience via mom and pop shops,” he added.

Food delivery startup Dahmakan eats up $5M for expansion in Southeast Asia

By Jon Russell

It’s harvest season for Southeast Asia’s full-stack food delivery startups. Following on from Singapore’s Grain raising $10 million, so Malaysia-based Dahmakan today announced a $5 million financing round of its own.

The money takes the startup to $10 million raised to date — its last round as $2.6 million last year — and it comes via new investors U.S-based Partech Partners and China’s UpHonest Capital and existing backers Y-Combinator, Atami Capital and the former CEO of Nestlé who was an angel investor. The round was closed earlier this year but is now being announced alongside this expansion play.

It’s been a busy couple of years for the company, which was founded in 2015 by former execs from Rocket Internet’s FoodPanda service. Dahmakan — which means “Have you eaten?” in Malay — graduated Y Combinator in 2017 and it expanded to Thailand last year through an acquisition, so what’s on the menu for 2019?

It is going all in on ‘cloud kitchen’ model of using unwanted retail space to cook up meals specifically for digital orders, which is entirely its business since it handles all processes in house rather than through a marketplace model.

Already, in its home town of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Dahmakan has introduced ‘satellite’ hubs that will allow it to serve customers located in different parts of the city more efficiently. The service already fares better than rivals like FoodPanda, Grab Food and (in Thailand) GoJek’s GetFood service because customers order ahead of time from a fixed menu with scheduled delivery times, but there’s room to do better and more.

“The way that we are thinking about it is that we are 18 months ahead of the competition in terms of the cloud kitchen model. Most are only starting to build out clusters of mini kitchens (150sqft) or so without leveraging too much AI in terms of product development, procurement or automation in machinery,” Dahmakan COO and co-founder Jessica Li told TechCrunch.

“What we’ve figured out is how to scale food production for thousands of deliveries while maintaining quality and keeping costs at 30 percent below comparable restaurant prices,” she added, explaining that the company plans to add “new brands and new products” using the satellite hub approach.

A serving of Ayam Penyet, Indonesian smashed chicken

Dahmakan is looking to extend its reach in Southeast Asia, too.

Li said the immediate priority is domestic growth in Malaysia with the service set to expand in Penang and Johor Bharu during the third quarter of this year. Beyond that, she revealed that Dahmakan plans to move into Singapore and Indonesia before the end of 2019.

Food delivery is quickly becoming the new ride-hailing war in Southeast Asia as Grab and Go-Jek, which have raised the most money in the region, pour capital into space. Quite why they are doing so isn’t entirely clear. Food could be a channel for loyalty (if such a thing can exist in incentive-led verticals) and user engagement for ride-hailing or other parts of their so-called “super app” services, but, either way, it is certainly distorting the market by flooding users with promotions.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for startups like Dahmakan and Grain which have grown in a more sustainable and responsible manner. They benefit from more people using food delivery in general, while they may also become attractive acquisition targets in the future.

Like Grain, Dahmakan puts a focus on healthy eating, which stands in contrast to the typical junk food orders that others in the space serve through their marketplace of restaurants. That certainly helps them stand out among certain audiences, and it’ll be interesting to see what new products and brands that Dahmakan is hatching to capitalize on the flood of attention food delivery is seeing..

This is certainly only the start. A Google-Temasek report on Southeast Asia published last year forecasts that the region’s food delivery market will grow from an estimated $2 million last year to $8 billion in 2025. That four-fold prediction is larger than the growth forecast for ride-hailing, although the latter is larger.

“That’s faster than any other region even China,” Li said.

A report from Google and Temasek predicts huge growth for ride-hailing and food delivery services in Southeast Asia

Famed founder Daphne Koller tells it straight: “With most drugs, we do not understand why they work”

By Connie Loizos

Daphne Koller doesn’t mind hard work. She joined Stanford University’s computer science department in 1995, spending the next 18 years there in a full-time capacity before cofounding the online education giant Coursera, where she spent the following four years and remained co-chairman until last month. Koller then spent a little less than two years at Alphabet’s longevity lab, Calico, as its first chief computing officer.

It was there that Koller was reminded of her passion for applying machine learning to improve human health. She was also reminded of what she doesn’t like, which is wasted effort, something that the drug development industry — slow to understand the power of computational methods for analyzing biological data sets — as been plagued by for years.

In fairness, those computational methods have also gotten a whole lot better more recently. Little wonder that last year, Koller spied the opportunity to start another company, a drug development company called Insitro that has since raised $100 million in Series A funding, including from GV, Andreessen Horowitz and Bezos Expeditions, among others. As notably, the company recently partnered with Gilead Sciences to find medicines to treat a liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) because of all the human data on the disease that Gilead has amassed over the years.

Later, Insitro may target even bigger epidemics, including perhaps Alzheimer’s disease or Type 2 diabetes. Certainly, it has reason to feel optimistic about what it can accomplish. As Koller told a group of rapt attendees at an event hosted by this editor a few days ago, “We’re now at a moment in history where a confluence of technologies emerged all at around the same time allow really large and interesting and disease-relevant data sets to be produced in biology. In parallel, we see  . . . machine learning technologies that are able to make sense of that data and come up with novel insights that can hopefully cure disease.”

It all sounds like talk we’ve heard before in recent years, but coming from Koller, one gets the sense that we’re finally getting close. Below are some excerpts from Koller’s interview with journalist Sarah McBride of Bloomberg. You can also watch their conversation below.

On why Insitro struck a partnership with Gilead (beyond that it could prove lucrative, with up to $1 billion in milestones attached to successfully developing targets for NASH):

There are fairly broad categories that our technology is well-suited for. We’re really interested in creating what you might call disease-in-a-dish models — places where diseases are complex, where we really haven’t had a good model system, where typical animal models that have been used [for years, including testing on mice] just aren’t very effective — and creating those ‘in vitro’ models to generate very large amounts of data that can be interpreted using machine learning.

There’s a whole slew of diseases that lend themselves to this type of approach. NASH was one of them, so partly it was the suitability of our technology to this disease, and partly it was that Gilead was just a really good partner for it because they have a whole bunch of human data from some of the clinical trials that have been running [which give us] access to two complementary data sources. One is what happens to the disease in large human cohorts, and one is what happens when you look at what the disease does in vitro, in the dish, then see if we can use what we see in the dish using machine learning to predict what we see in the human.

On how Insitro views data differently than big pharma companies:

Pharma companies say, ‘We have lots of data.’ And you say, ‘What kinds of data do you have?’ And it turns out they have dribs and drab of data, each stored on a separate spreadsheet in someone else’s laptop. There’s metadata that isn’t even recorded. For them, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I did the experiment and obviously I recorded what I had to because it doesn’t make sense to throw it away,’ but they don’t think of it as something you build a company on top of.

We come at it a completely different way. We say, ‘This is the problem that you’d like to solve. If only we had a model that could tell us the result of this experiment without having to do the experiment, because it’s costly or complicated or even impossible [because it would involve perturbing a living human’s gene].’  Well, machine learning has gotten really good at building predictive models if you give it the right data to train the model. So we’re in the business of actually building data for the sole purpose of training machine learning models. We think of [these models] like little crystal balls that would allow you to avoid doing [these more expensive or complicated] experiments.

On the impact of the National Institutes of Health’s “All of Us” research program, which is an effort to gather data from one million or more people living in the U.S. to accelerate research and improve health in part by logging individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology:

I would say if anything that the U.S. is a little late to the game on this one. There have been a number of national cohorts have already been generated in different countries; the two that are currently best developed are in Iceland and in the U.K, but there’s also one in Finland and one in Ireland and even in Estonia, where they’ve taken a large population from within that country and measured their genetics, but also measured a whole lot of properties about those people, including blood biomarkers and urine biomarkers and behavioral aspects and physical aspects and imaging. And so what you have now (in these countries) is a dataset that tells you, ‘Nature perturbed this gene,’ and, ‘We see this effect on the human.’

[In the UK, specifically, where they started their program five years ago and recruited 500,000 volunteers who agreed to physical and cognitive and blood pressure testing and images of the brain and the abdomen, among other things] it’s an incredibly rich data set [from which] discoveries are coming along on pretty much weekly basis.

… So this is valuable not just primarily for gene therapies but just as a way of identifying targets that actually make a difference, because most drugs that go into clinical trials fail. And by most, I mean 95 percent. And most drugs fail because they are targeting the wrong things. They are targeting proteins or genes that do not affect the disease they are supposed to affect.

The recent, very visible failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials — actually several of them in a row — were almost certainly because the protein they were targeting, called amyloid beta, is just not the right causal factor in the disease.

On what researchers can do now with STEM cells that would have been possible even a few years ago:

[There are now] tools that have enabled the creation of not only large amounts of data but large amounts of biologically relevant data. So we used to do experiments on cancer cell lines . . . but it’s not a very disease relevant model. Today, we can take a small sample of skin cells and use what’s called the Yamanaka factor, to reprogram those cells to stem cell status, which are the cells that exist effectively in the womb. And those cells are capable of differentiating themselves into neural cells or liver cells or cardiac cells, and those are very disease relevant because they represent human biology; you can take those cells now from patients and from healthy people and see if there are differences in how they appear.

Readers, we could feature more of the transcript here, but we highly suggest watching the conversation with Koller. If you use this text as a leaping off point, you’ll want to start listening at around the 13-minute mark. It’s definitely worth the time to listen to what she has to say, including about cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular dystrophy in babies, and why the “mouse models” we’ve long relied on for a wide number of seemingly ubiquitous diseases “range from bad to really, really bad.” Hope you enjoy it.

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Sofar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

By Josh Constine

Tired of noisy music venues where you can hardly see the stage? Sofar Sounds puts on concerts in people’s living rooms where fans pay $15 to $30 to sit silently on the floor and truly listen. Nearly 1 million guests have attended Sofar’s more than 20,000 gigs. Having attended a half dozen of the shows, I can say they’re blissful…unless you’re a musician to pay a living. In some cases, Sofar pays just $100 per band for a 25 minute set, which can work out to just $8 per musician per hour or less. Hosts get nothing, and Sofar keeps the rest, which can range from $1100 to $1600 or more per gig — many times what each performer takes home. The argument was that bands got exposure, and it was a tiny startup far from profitability.

Today, Sofar Sounds announced it’s raised a $25 million round led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, building on the previous $6 million it’d scored from Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group. The goal is expansion — to become the de facto way emerging artists play outside of traditional venues. The 10-year-old startup was born in London out of frustration with pub-goers talking over the bands. Now it’s throwing 600 shows per month across 430 cities around the world, and over 40 of the 25,000 artists who’ve played its gigs have gone on to be nominated for or win Grammys. The startup has enriched culture by offering an alternative to late night, dark and dirty club shows that don’t appeal to hard-working professionals or older listeners.

But it’s also entrenching a long-standing problem: the underpayment of musicians. With streaming replacing higher priced CDs, musicians depend on live performances to earn a living. Sofar is now institutionalizing that they should be paid less than what gas and dinner costs a band. And if Sofar suck in attendees that might otherwise attend normal venues or independently organized house shows, it could make it tougher for artists to get paid enough there too. That doesn’t seem fair given how small Sofar’s overhead is.

By comparison, Sofar makes Uber look downright generous. A source who’s worked with Sofar tells me the company keeps a lean team of full-time employees who focus on reserving venues, booking artists, and promotion. All the volunteers who actually put on the shows aren’t paid, and neither are the venue hosts, though at least Sofar pays for insurance. The startup has previously declined to pay first-time Sofar performers, instead providing them a “high-quality” video recording of their gig. When it does pay $100 per act, that often amounts to a tiny shred of the total ticket sales.

“Sofar, however, seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians” writes musician Joshua McClain. “This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.” He’s urged people to #BoycottSofarSounds

A deeply reported KQED expose by Emma Silvers found many bands were disappointed with the payouts, and didn’t even know Sofar was a for-profit company. “I think they talk a lot about supporting local artists, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay for musicians to get paid shit,” Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney told KQED.

Sofar CEO Jim Lucchese, who previously ran Spotify’s Creator division after selling it his music data startup The Echo Nest and has played Sofar shows himself, declares that “$100 buck for a showcase slot is definitely fair” but admits that “I don’t think playing a Sofar right now is the right move for every type of artist.” He stresses that some Sofar shows, especially in international markets, are pay-what-you-want and artists keep “the majority of the money”. The rare sponsored shows with outside corporate funding like one for the Bohemian Rhapsody film premier can see artists earn up to $1500, but these are a tiny fraction of Sofar’s concerts.

Otherwise, Lucchese says “the ability to convert fans is one of the most magical things about Sofar” referencing how artists rely on asking attendees to buy their merchandise or tickets for their full-shows and follow them on social media to earn money. He claims that if you pull out what Sofar pays for venue insurance, performing rights organizations, and its full-time labor, “a little over half the take goes to the artists.” Unfortunately that makes it sound like Sofar’s few costs of operation are the musicians’ concern. As McClain wrote, “First off, your profitability isn’t my problem.”

Now that it has ample funding, I hope to see Sofar double down on paying artists a fair rate for their time and expenses. Luckily, Lucchese says that’s part of the plan for the funding. Beyond building tools to help local teams organize more shows to meet rampant demand, he says “Am I satisfied that this is the only revenue we make artists right now? Abslutely not. We want to invest more on the artist side.” That includes better ways for bands to connect with attendees and turn them into monetizable fans. Even just a better followup email with Instagram handles and upcoming tour dates could help.

We don’t expect most craftspeople to work for “exposure”. Interjecting a middleman like Sofar shouldn’t change that. The company has a chance to increase live music listening worldwide. But it must treat artists as partners, not just some raw material they can burn through even if there’s always another act desperate for attention. Otherwise musicians and the empathetic fans who follow them might leave Sofar’s living rooms empty.

Google says some G Suite user passwords were stored in plaintext since 2005

By Zack Whittaker

Google says a small number of its enterprise customers mistakenly had their passwords stored on its systems in plaintext.

The search giant disclosed the exposure Tuesday but declined to say exactly how many enterprise customers were affected. “We recently notified a subset of our enterprise G Suite customers that some passwords were stored in our encrypted internal systems unhashed,” said Google vice president of engineering Suzanne Frey.

Passwords are typically scrambled using a hashing algorithm to prevent them from being read by humans. G Suite administrators are able to manually upload, set and recover new user passwords for company users, which helps in situations where new employees are on-boarded. But Google said it discovered in April that the way it implemented password setting and recovery for its enterprise offering in 2005 was faulty and improperly stored a copy of the password in plaintext.

Google has since removed the feature.

No consumer Gmail accounts were affected by the security lapse, said Frey.

“To be clear, these passwords remained in our secure encrypted infrastructure,” said Frey. “This issue has been fixed and we have seen no evidence of improper access to or misuse of the affected passwords.”

Google has more than 5 million enterprise customers using G Suite.

Google said it also discovered a second security lapse earlier this month as it was troubleshooting new G Suite customer sign-ups. The company said since January it was improperly storing “a subset” of unhashed G Suite passwords on its internal systems for up to two weeks. Those systems, Google said, were only accessible to a limited number of authorized Google staff, the company said.

“This issue has been fixed and, again, we have seen no evidence of improper access to or misuse of the affected passwords,” said Frey.

Google said it’s notified G Suite administrators to warn of the password security lapse, and will reset account passwords for those who have yet to change.

A spokesperson confirmed Google has informed data protection regulators of the exposure.

Google becomes the latest company to have admitted storing sensitive data in plaintext in the past year. Facebook said in March that “hundreds of millions” of Facebook and Instagram passwords were stored in plaintext. Twitter and GitHub also admitted similar security lapses last year.

Read more:

10 immigration tips for love-struck tech workers

By Arman Tabatabai
Xiao Wang & Anjana Prasad Contributor
Anjana Prasad is senior advisor of immigration law and Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.

Even techies might agree that server rooms aren’t the most romantic places to fall in love — but it happens. And with foreign-born workers making up nearly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s labor force alone, many tech-sector romances now come with a romcom-ready complication: What happens when one or both partners are immigrants?

The good news is there’s no reason to put your life on hold just because you’re on an employment-based visa. It’s perfectly possible to fall in love, get married, and — assuming you’ve picked Mr. or Mrs. Right — live happily ever after in America.

The bad news is the immigration system is growing more complicated, with longer delays and policies favoring perceived talent over family unification. If you’re planning to put a ring on it, move quickly because it’s only getting harder to secure a green card and citizenship for you and your partner.

Here are 10 less-than-romantic — but seriously important — immigration tips to consider when Cupid comes calling:

1. If you’re on OPT, get an upgrade

Many tech workers’ first U.S. job opportunity is the up-to-three-year professional training period, or Optional Practical Training (OPT), that comes with student visas.

What will save crypto?

By David Riggs
Sulaiman al-Fahim Contributor
Sulaiman al-Fahim is an international businessman based in Dubai with focuses on property management/real estate, cryptocurrency, and philanthropy. His company, Sulaiman Al-Fahim Holdings, is a global operator that facilitates transactions to develop properties in various areas of the world. He is also an advisor and partner at ADAB Solutions, a group dedicated to bringing the newest movement in financial tech to the Muslim world.

Cryptocurrency technology has been on a tumultuous journey since its creation in 2009. According to a recent New York Times article, bitcoin enthusiasts in the U.S. wrongly predicted the involvement of Wall Street institutions and investors in cryptocurrency, which would have given it legitimacy. Instead, the opposite effect has taken place: big investors have avoided crypto because of its volatility, as shown by bitcoin’s devastating drop in price last year.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East and among major Muslim communities, there is a growing curiosity surrounding cryptocurrency — and a call for regulation that deals with the stigmas against it. There are about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, and the global Islamic economy with the inclusion of crypto tools, services and products could equate to approximately US$3 trillion by 2021. If we are able to work through the challenges and implement crypto for a Muslim audience, the addressable market for crypto could increase exponentially. 

But since its inception, Muslim leaders and communities have debated on whether or not cryptocurrencies should be deemed halal or haram, permissible or forbidden. Shariah-compliant finance is a fundamental part of Islamic tradition, and it’s the primary reason why Islamic countries have been so dubious of the new currency.

The challenge of Shariah compliance

Shariah compliance refers to finances and investments that adhere to Islamic law. This includes prohibiting riba, or charged interest, and avoiding any “unethical concerns,” such as maisir (gambling), alcohol and tobacco production, weaponry and more. It also prohibits qimar, or investments based on speculation. Crypto’s proven volatility has been likened to gambling and speculation, a critical reason behind the debate of halal and haram. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have outright banned cryptos, and the concern over the legitimacy of crypto has thus far prevented the Middle East from truly embracing the technology.

But for those paying attention, the attitude around cryptocurrency in the Middle East has begun to shift in the past year. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has led the charge in nurturing an acceptance of cryptocurrency in the region, and launched a strategy that aims for 50% of all government transactions to occur through blockchain. The first cryptocurrency exchange in UAE, the Cryptobulls Exchange, opened last year and gained more than 200,000 traders. Ripple, a top global blockchain platform, has plans to set up an office in Dubai, and is working with UAE Exchange, the country’s largest remittance firm, to set up blockchain-based payments to Asia.

How companies and institutions are approaching compliance

In addition, the development of Shariah-compliant crypto and blockchain services is beginning to weave a new narrative, an essential one that reconciles and compromises with the tenets of Islamic tradition. In mid-2018, cryptocurrency and finance platform Stellar was permitted to integrate and service financial institutions in the Middle East by The Shariyah Review Bureau (SRB), a leading international advisory agency licensed by the Central Bank of Bahrain, as a result of its compliance to Shariah law in its practices. X8 AG, a Swiss-based startup well known for its fiat-backed crypto, also received certification from the SRB, demonstrating that fiat-supported currencies are more appealing to Islamic countries.

Even more recently, 2019 has already seen the launch of meem, Bahrain’s first fully digital bank, and the first Shariah-compliant digital bank in the region. It will also see the launch of Qintar, the first crypto token expressly made to be Shariah-compliant. It will be built on their Islamic Blockchain (ISL), which has received fatwa (a non-binding legal opinion) of approval from Islamic scholars and researchers. The ISL is secured and speedy with full transparency, allowing users to safely control their own trades and ensure that their transactions follow restrictions like riba or maisir.

Shariah compliance has hit the ground running

These swift, sweeping movements toward Shariah compliance in the past few years are paving the way for a wider adoption of the technology, as well as an increased mindfulness and inclusion of the way business is conducted in different cultures. The establishment of new institutions that all play a part in a Shariah-compliant crypto ecosystem, such as banks and exchanges, help build up a regulated foundation that can keep cryptocurrency stable and provide a vetting process for which projects will be deemed halal or haram. 

And of course, the development and counsel of Shariah advisory boards in various forms not only lend legitimacy, but keep companies accountable in enforcing these rules. Approval from Islamic scholars and experts will also work to lift the stigmas of cryptocurrency in the region and the culture.

It is evident that cryptocurrency and blockchain are beginning to earn the favor of Islamic countries. It is also clear that the necessary steps are already being made in order to make blockchain and crypto Shariah-compliant, as well as increasing acceptance of the new fintech among Muslim people. 

The nearly two billion Muslims in the world represent a significant 23% of the total population, and by including them in crypto ventures through Shariah-compliant regulation, we can see crypto finally become the global economic system that it deserves to be.

Mid-range flagships like the Honor 20 Pro are giving premium phones a run for their money

By Brian Heater

Phone sales have been trending downward for some time now. There are a number of reasons for this — many of which you can read about in this piece I published last week. The creeping cost of premium handsets is pretty high on that list, with flagships now routinely topping $1,000 from many of the big names.

The big smartphone makers have begun to react to this, with budget flagship alternatives like the iPhone XR, Galaxy S10e and Pixel 3a. A new crop of mid-range flagships, however, are giving them a run for their money and serving as an important reminder that a quality handset doesn’t need to be priced in the four digits.

The Honor 20 Pro fits nicely in the latter camp, joining the likes of the recently announced OnePlus 7 Pro and Asus ZenFone 6 in demonstrating that premium specs can still be had for what was once considered a reasonable flagship price.

Of course, before we get into specifics of pricing with the newly announced handset, it bears mentioning whether Honor, a brand owned by Huawei, will actually ever make it to the States. That’s all pretty complicated — like Donald Trump in a trade war with with China complicated. The pricing on the London-launched Pro version is €599, putting it at around $670.

The phone’s got Huawei’s latest and greatest Kirin 980 processor, coupled with a 6.26-inch display with hole-punch cutout and a quartet of rear-facing cameras. Those include a wide angle with 117-degree shots, 48-megapixel main, telephoto and a macro, which is an interesting addition to the standard array. The Pro’s out at some point in the June or July time frame.

Huawei bans aside, it will be interesting to see how this new crop of more affordable premium devices impacts the rest of the big names up top.

Udacity, Mercedes-Benz create sensor fusion nanodegree as demand for self-driving car engineers rises

By Kirsten Korosec

Udacity and Mercedes-Benz’s North American R&D lab have developed curriculum for a sensor fusion nanodegree, the latest effort by the online education startup to meet high demand for skills related to autonomous vehicles and to duplicate the success it has had with its self-driving car engineer program.

Enrollment for the sensor fusion degree opened up Tuesday.

Udacity specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

The new sensor fusion nanodegree is one of the recent additions and changes enacted by Udacity’s co-founder Sebastian Thrun as part of a larger turnaround plan aimed at bring costs in line with revenue without hurting growth.

The sensor fusion program is made up of four courses and is intended to take about four months to complete. Students will learn about lidar obstacle detection, radar obstacle detection, camera and lidar data fusion, and Kalman Filters. Those who finish the degree should be able to work with lidar, radar, and cameras — sensors that are used on the vast majority of autonomous vehicles.

A group of MBRDNA employees are enrolled in the sensor fusion program as part of an Enterprise training pilot.

“There’s no such thing as self-driving car generalists,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “Companies are looking for something specific. And the hottest thing around right now is sensor fusion.”

And despite the AV industry dipping into the “trough of disillusionment” Thrun said there is still a lot of demand for skilled workers.

“It’s easier to get a job right now than raise money from investors,” Thrun said. “All of these companies like Zoox and Aurora, Waymo, Cruise and Tesla are hiring like crazy.”

For instance, GM’s self-driving car unit Cruise announced in March plans to hire hundreds of employees through the end of the year, doubling its engineering staff.

Udacity and Sunnyvale,Calif.,-based Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) have partnered on nanodegree programs before. In 2016, the two companies collaborated on a self-driving car engineer nanodegree — a program that attracted thousands of students and would lead to the spinout of AV startup Voyage. More than 21,000 students from 120 countries have enrolled in that program.

Udacity doesn’t break out graduation rates for individual programs, making it difficult to assess how many people have completed the self-driving car engineer degree or have gone on to jobs in the field.

Udacity has reported that a 34 percent graduation rate over its more than 30 nanodegree programs. The company also notes that nanodegree program graduates have landed new jobs with Audi, BMW, Bosch, Jaguar Land Rover, Lyft, NVIDIA, and Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes employs more than 40 nanodegree program graduates globally, according to Udacity.

Udacity also other nanodegree related to the industry, including an introduction to self-driving cars and flying cars.

In April, Udacity laid off about 20 percent of its workforce and is restructuring its operations. Udacity now employs 300 full-time equivalent employees and about 60 contractors. The company has also added new services aimed at retaining students, including a technical mentorship program. Since May 1, every Udacity student has access to technical mentors, expert reviewers, career coaches, and personalized learning plans.

The company experienced growth in 2017 and revenue that increased 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees. And while new programming was added in 2018, the volume slowed and failed to attract the same attention and enrollment as its predecessors. Meanwhile, costs ballooned. After CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. Thrun, who founded Google’s moonshot factory X, is also CEO of flying-car startup Kitty Hawk Corp.

DefinedCrowd offers mobile apps to empower its AI-annotating masses

By Devin Coldewey

DefinedCrowd, the Startup Battlefield alumnus that produces and refines data for AI-training purposes, has just debuted iOS and Android apps for its army of human annotators. It should help speed up a process that the company already touts as one of the fastest in the industry.

It’s no secret that AI relies almost totally on data that has been hand-annotated by humans, pointing out objects in photos, analyzing the meaning of sentences or expressions, and so on. Doing this work has become a sort of cottage industry, with many annotators doing it part time or between other jobs.

There’s a limit, however, to what you can do if the interface you must use to do it is only available on certain platforms. Just as others occasionally answer an email or look over a presentation while riding the bus or getting lunch, it’s nice to be able to do work on mobile — essential, really, at this point.

To that end DefinedCrowd has made its own app, which shares the Neevo branding of the company’s annotation community, that lets its annotators work whenever they want, tackling image or speech annotation tasks on the go. It’s available on iOS and Android starting today.

It’s a natural evolution of the market, CEO Daniela Braga told me. There’s a huge demand for this kind of annotation work, and it makes no sense to restrict the schedules or platforms of the people doing it. She suggested everyone in the annotation space would have apps soon, just as every productivity or messaging service does. And why not?

The company is growing quickly, going from a handful of employees to over a hundred, spread over its offices in Lisbon, Porto, Seattle, and Tokyo. The market, likewise, is exploding as more and more companies find that AI is not just applicable to what they do, but not out of their reach.

Biofourmis raises $35M to develop smarter treatments for chronic diseases

By Jon Russell

Biofourmis, a Singapore-based startup pioneering a distinctly tech-based approach to the treatment of chronic conditions, has raised a $35 million Series B round for expansion.

The round was led by Sequoia India and MassMutual Ventures, the VC fund from Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Other investors who put in include EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board, China-based healthcare platform Jianke and existing investors Openspace Ventures, Aviva Ventures and SGInnovate, a Singapore government initiative for deep tech startups. The round takes Biofourmis to $41.6 million raised to date, according to Crunchbase.

This isn’t your typical TechCrunch funding story.

Biofourmis CEO Kuldeep Singh Rajput moved to Singapore to start a PhD, but he dropped out to start the business with co-founder Wendou Niu in 2015 because he saw the potential to “predict disease before it happens,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

AI-powered specialist post-discharge care

There are a number of layers to Biofourmis’ work, but essentially it uses a combination of data collected from patients and an AI-based system to customize treatments for post-discharge patients. The company is focused on a range of therapeutics, but its most advanced is cardiac, so patients who have been discharged after heart failure or other heart-related conditions.

With that segment of patients, the Biofourmis platform uses a combination of data from sensors — medical sensors rather than consumer wearables, which are worn 24/7 — and its tech to monitor patient health, detect problems ahead of time and prescribe an optimum treatment course. That information is disseminated through companion mobile apps for patients and caregivers.

Biofourmis uses a mobile app as a touch point to give patients tailored care and drug prescriptions after they are discharged from the hospital

That’s to say that medicine works differently on different people, so by collecting and monitoring data and crunching numbers, Biofourmis can provide the best drug to help optimize a patient’s health through what it calls a “digital pill.” That’s not Matrix-style futurology, it’s more like a digital prescription that evolves based on the needs of a patient in real time. It plans to use a network of medical delivery platforms, including Amazon-owned PillPack, to get the drugs to patients within hours.

Yes, that’s future tense because Biofourmis is waiting on FDA approval to commercialize its service. That’s expected to come by the end of this year, Singh Rajput told TechCrunch. But he’s optimistic, given clinical trials, which have covered some 5,000 patients across 20 different sites.

On the tech side, Singh Rajput said Biofourmis has seen impressive results with its predictions. He cited tests in the U.S. that enabled the company to “predict heart failure 14 days in advance” with around 90% sensitivity. That was achieved using standard medical wearables at the cost of hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands, with advanced kit such as Heartlogic from Boston Scientific — although the latter has a longer window for predictions.

That type of disruption from Biofourmis might appear to upset the apple cart for pharma companies, but Singh Rajput maintains that the industry is moving toward a more qualitative approach to healthcare because it has been hard to evaluate the performance of drugs and price them accordingly.

“Today, insurance companies are blinded not having transparency on how to price drugs,” he said. “But there are already 50 drugs in the market paying based on outcomes, so the market is moving in that direction.”

Outcome-based payments mean insurance firms reimburse all outcomes based on the performance of the drugs; in other words, how well patients recover. The rates vary, but a lack of reduction in remission rates can see insurers lower their payouts because drugs aren’t working as well as expected.

Singh Rajput believes Biofourmis can level the playing field and added more granular transparency in terms of drug performance. He believes pharma companies are keen to show their products perform better than others, so over the long-term that’s the model Biofourmis wants to encourage.

Indeed, the confidence is such that Biofourmis intends to initially go to market via pharma companies, which will sell the package into clinics bundled with their drugs, before moving to work with insurance firms once traction is gained. While Biofourmis is likely to be bundled with initial medication, the company will take a commission of 5-10% on the recommended drugs sold through its digital pill.

Biofourmis CEO and co-founder Kuldeep Singh Rajput dropped out of his PhD course to start the company in 2015

Doubling down on the U.S.

With its new money, Biofourmis is doubling down on that imminent commercialization by relocating its headquarters to Boston. It will retain its presence in Singapore, where it has 45 people who handle software and product development, but the new U.S. office is slated to grow from 14 staff right now to up to 120 by the end of the year.

“The U.S. has been a major market focus since day one,” Singh Rajput said. “Being closer to customers and attracting the clinical data science pool is critical.”

While he praised Singapore and said the company remains committed to the country — adding EDBI to its investors is certainly a sign — he admitted that Boston, where he once studied, is a key market for finding “data scientists with core clinical capabilities.”

That expansion is not only to bring the cardio product to market, but also to prepare products to cover other therapeutics. Right now, it has six trials in place that cover pain, orthopedics and oncology. There are also plans to expand in other markets outside of the U.S, and in particular Singapore and China, where Biofourmis plans to lead on Jianke.

Not lacking in confidence, Singh Rajput told TechCrunch that the company is on course to reach a $1 billion valuation when it next raises funding — that’s estimated as 18 months away and the company isn’t saying how much it is worth today.

Singh Rajput did confirm, however, that the round was heavily oversubscribed, and that the startup rebuffed investment offers from pharma companies in order to “avoid a conflict of interest and stay neutral.”

He is also eyeing a future IPO, which is tentatively set for 2023 — although by then, Singh Rajput said, Biofourmis would need at least two products in the market.

There’s a long way to go before then, but this round has certainly put Biofourmis and its digital pill approach on the map within the tech industry.

Daily Crunch: Instagram influencer contact info exposed

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. Millions of Instagram influencers had their private contact data scraped and exposed

A massive database containing contact information for millions of Instagram influencers, celebrities and brand accounts was found online by a security researcher.

We traced the database back to Mumbai-based social media marketing firm Chtrbox. Shortly after we reached out, Chtrbox pulled the database offline.

2. US mitigates Huawei ban by offering temporary reprieve

Last week, the Trump administration effectively banned Huawei from importing U.S. technology, a decision that forced several American companies, including Google, to take steps to sever their relationships. Now, the Department of Commerce has announced that Huawei will receive a “90-day temporary general license” to continue to use U.S. technology to which it already has a license.

3. GM’s car-sharing service Maven to exit eight cities

GM is scaling back its Maven car-sharing company and will stop service in nearly half of the 17 North American cities in which it operates.

4. Maisie Williams’ talent discovery startup Daisie raises $2.5M, hits 100K members

The actress who became famous playing Arya Stark on “Game of Thrones” has fresh funding for her startup.

5. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels to launch the app as soon as the end of this quarter.

6. Future Family launches a $200 membership for fertility coaching

In its recent user research, Future Family found that around 70% of new customers had yet to see a fertility doctor. So today, the startup is rolling out a new membership plan that offers customers a dedicated fertility coach, and helps them find a doctor in their area.

7. When will customers start buying all those AI chips?

Danny Crichton says it’s the best and worst time to be in semiconductors right now. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Stein Mart embraces the enemy with installation of Amazon Lockers in nearly 200 stores

By Sarah Perez

Another brick-and-mortar retailer is turning to Amazon to help save its struggling business. Today, discount chain operator Stein Mart announced it will install Amazon Hub lockers in nearly 200 stores as soon as next month. The lockers are self-serve kiosks that allow Amazon shoppers to take advantage of in-store pickup and returns.

The deal will bring increased foot traffic to Stein Mart stores, potentially increasing its sales.

Meanwhile, Amazon gains the advantage of a brick-and-mortar presence for delivery and returns without having to invest in more real estate or making an acquisition, as it did with Whole Foods. The move also benefits Amazon’s battle with Walmart — the latter which has been quick to leverage its brick-and-mortar locations to aid its online shoppers.

Walmart stores, for example, offer self-serve pickup towers for online orders, curbside pickup for groceries and other household needs, and other in-store pickup options. Last fall, it also began offering in-store returns for items from third-party marketplace sellers.

Stein Mart’s deal follows a larger industry trend of retailers and brands collaborating with, instead of fighting with, Amazon.

For example, department store chain Kohl’s recently expanded its own Amazon partnership.

Over the past couple of years, Kohl’s had been working with the e-commerce giant by allowing Amazon shoppers to bring their returns to one hundred Kohl’s stores across the U.S. The deal resulted in increased foot traffic and revenues — and some would say it even saved Kohl’s.

In April, Kohl’s said the Amazon returns program would expand to all 1,150 of its U.S. locations.

Stein Mart, which last year made Retail Dive’s list of 12 retailers at risk of bankruptcy, has been fighting across multiple fronts to survive. It has improved its merchandise, cleaned out inventory, cut costs, and tested services like ship-to-store. More recently, it began testing “endless aisles” (kiosks to connect store shoppers to broader online inventory), added mobile checkout and introduced a smarter fulfillment logic system to help fill web orders.

The company had also hinted last year it was open to almost anything, saying it planned to  “explore strategic alternatives” to help improve its declining sales.

Despite its improvements, the chain still ended up with a disappointing 2018 holiday sales season, and remains in need a bigger boost to its bottom line. That’s where the Amazon Hub lockers come in.

The program allows Amazon shoppers to choose a Locker location at their nearest Stein Mart as their shipping address for their online orders at checkout. When their item arrives, they’ll receive an email along with a barcode that’s used to pick up their package during store hours.

This immediately should increase foot traffic to Stein Mart stores, as it has at Kohl’s, Whole Foods, and other Amazon Locker locations. Over time, the hope is that Stein Mart sales will improve as well, if it’s able to successfully market its own in-store merchandise to the Amazon shoppers who drop by.

“We are thrilled to offer this innovative delivery experience to Amazon customers while introducing new shoppers to Stein Mart,” said Hunt Hawkins, Stein Mart’s CEO, in a statement. “Customer service and convenience are top priorities at Stein Mart, and the ability to give both to Amazon customers was a big factor in our decision to introduce this program.”

Stein Mart says the lockers will be available by early June.

 

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