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Today — January 18th 2021General Tech

The Station: CES trends and Uber plots another spinoff

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

Before I launch into the news of the week, let’s take care of some housekeeping. First, you might have noticed that The Station landed in your email inbox on Sunday, not Saturday.

I have received some feedback that suggests the newsletter is typically read on Sundays. Do you have an alternate view? Please reach out with your opinion on this matter.

When would you like to see The Station? And what do you like and dislike about the newsletter?

One last item: I am now transportation editor at TechCrunch. The title change comes with more responsibility and a mission. I’ll be bringing on more freelancers to expand our “future of transportation” coverage. Mark Harris, an investigative reporter who has already delivered some wonderful articles for us, will be a more regular fixture here. Harris has a knack for rooting out news tucked inside legal documents and filings such as his Tesla tariffs article in 2019 and insights into the passenger capability of Elon Musk’s Las Vegas Loop project.

I hope to add more faces to the transportation bureau in the weeks and months to come.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

CES roundup

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Maybe it was the virtual format, but autonomous vehicle technology didn’t play a starring role at CES this year as it has in the past.

Instead, several other themes emerged at CES, mostly around infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems. And continuing a trend in 2020, there were several gigantic screens, including the Mercedes Hyperscreen that is pictured below.

Pioneer, Harman and Panasonic all revealed future products aimed at bringing more audio and visual technology into the vehicle. Harman, for instance, unveiled three new “experience concepts,” that can turn the infotainment system in a vehicle into a concert hall, recording studio or gaming center.

Panasonic also announced a partnership with UK startup Envisics to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs. Head-up displays, or HUDs, seemed to be everywhere this show. The technology isn’t new. But recent advances are pushing the capabilities of these systems, which are integrated in the dash of a vehicle and project images onto the windshield to aid drivers with navigation and provide other alerts.

Envisics Navigation

Image Credits: Envisics

GM had perhaps the biggest presence at the virtual 2021 CES, at least within the transportation sector. The automaker chose the tech trade show to announce a new business unit called BrightDrop that will focus on electric vans and other products and services for the commercial market. But that wasn’t all.

GM used the opportunity to tease its upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EUV — a vehicle that will have GM’s hands-free highway driving assist technology known as Super Cruise — as well as the Cadillac Celestiq dashboard and even a new logo. The intent of this bouquet of announcements was clear: GM wants the world — and shareholders — to know it’s serious about electrification and connected car tech.

GM’s numerous announcements were hard to miss — there was even an eVTOL. Conversely, Mobileye’s announcements flew a bit under the radar, but are arguably as notable. 

GM showed off two concepts at CES 2021: an autonomous shuttle and a personal eVTOL.

Mobileye outlined plans to expand its autonomous vehicles testing to more cities, which was expected and is in line with the company’s previously stated plans.

What stood out to me was a talk that Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua gave which outlined the company’s vision and progress.

The recap: Mobileye is taking a three-pronged strategy to developing and deploying automated vehicle technology that combines a full self-driving stack — that includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology— with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy.

Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. Shashua said Mobileye’s technology can now map the world automatically with nearly 8 million kilometers tracked daily and nearly 1 billion kilometers completed to date.

The company provided more details at CES about a new lidar System on Chip product that is under development and will come to market in 2025. The lidar, which will use Intel’s specialized silicon photonics fab, is notable because Mobileye is known for its camera-based technology. To be clear, Mobileye is not backing away from that camera-first approach. Shashua explained Mobileye believes the best technological and business approach is to develop a camera-first system and use the lidar and radar as add-ons for redundancy.

In short: Mobileye has the money and existing network to commercialize automated vehicle technology and bring it to the masses.

Below is sampling of our transportation-related CES coverage:

Mercedes unveils Hyperscreen, a 56-inch screen for its flagship EQS electric vehicle

GM targets delivery with new EV business unit BrightDrop

Mobileye is bringing its autonomous vehicle test fleets to at least four more cities in 2021

Sony reveal more details on its secretive Vision S sedan

Holographic startup Envisics partners with Panasonic to fast track in-car AR tech

Startups look beyond lidar for autonomous vehicle perception

BMW previews its next-generation iDrive infotainment system

Sono Motor plans to license the tech that powers it solar electric car

Air taxi startup Archer partners with FCA

Another Uber spinoff is in the works

POSTMATES OUSTER 1

Postmates’ Serve robot is equipped with cameras as well as lidar from Ouster.

Remember when I predicted that autonomous delivery would gain momentum in 2021? It seems that sometimes I am right!

Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year for $2.65 billion, is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company called Serve Robotics.

You might recall Serve, the yellow and black-emblazoned autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates X. This robot, which recently partnered with Pink Dot Stores for deliveries in West Hollywood, will likely be the centerpiece of the new startup.

I learned of a few important details of this plan, which is not yet settled. Uber will maintain a stake in this new startup. Uber’s stake was initially low, but has since popped to about 25%, according to sources familiar with the deal.

The company would be run by Ali Kashani, who heads up Postmates X and leads the Serve program. Anthony Armenta would lead the startup’s software efforts and Aaron Leiba would be in charge of hardware — keeping the same positions they hold at Postmates X.

I’ll fill y’all in with more details as I learn them.

Calling Bucharest VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Bucharest and Romania will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Romania’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

The deadline is January 22, 2021.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Romania, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

It may not be as glamorous as D2C, but beauty tech is big money

By Walter Thompson
Sindhya Valloppillil Contributor
Sindhya Valloppillil is the founder and CEO of Skin Dossier, a venture partner at Next Gen Ventures, a freelance writer and formerly a beauty industry executive and marketing professor.

Last week, Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced that it was terminating plans to acquire razor startup Billie following a U.S. Federal Trade Commission lawsuit to stop the deal.

Last year, Edgewell Personal Care ditched its debt-heavy $1.37 billion deal for Harry’s, Inc, formerly valued at $1 billion after the FTC sought to block the acquisition.

In addition to these FTC challenges, it is also now becoming clear that relying on VC-subsidized products and celebrating outrageous valuations can be problematic for D2C brands. With a few wonderful and rare exceptions such as Rothy’s (which raised $42 million but was profitable from the beginning and generated $140 million in revenue within two years of launching), D2C unicorns are addicted to the cycle of venture funding to feed growth in order to maintain a high valuation multiple.

The path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs.

This works for a while; however, when the path to profitability appears murky and exit options either don’t appear or only appear from nontech companies with very conservative multiples, the walls start crumbling.

In a WWD article, Odile Roujol, the former CEO of Lancôme who launched venture fund FAB Ventures, said, “Generally speaking, the era of $1 billion valuations for beauty companies is over. The people that struggle have been the companies that spend so much money in just a few years.” She went on to say, “The big corporations now … are not ready to spend $1.2 billion, $1.5 billion on such a brand like Glossier.”

This change in sentiment from acquirers is further fueled by recent research on the challenges of turning hypergrowth companies profitable. In his Harvard Business School case study “Direct to Consumer Brands,” Professor Sunil Gupta wrote, “Acquiring DTC brands is easy for incumbent conglomerates, but making them profitable is challenging. More than three years after Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club, it was still unprofitable.”

Unilever executives learned that the average cost of acquiring a new customer online was about the same as in stores. David Taylor, CEO of P&G, said his company was still figuring out how to turn recently acquired direct-to-consumer brands into profitable businesses.

Taylor summarized this dilemma, saying, “There are many, many launches that grow fast … a business model that makes money is a higher challenge.” Since making these realizations, incumbent conglomerates will be more cautious when considering the acquisition of hyped D2C brands that raised lots of venture capital.

Beauty tech is a better bet: Meitu and Perfect Corp.

What’s cooler than beauty companies that are (or were) valued at $1 billion? Beauty tech SaaS companies that are worth $5.2 billion at IPO. We don’t hear much about the leading global beauty tech companies such as Meitu and Perfect Corp. because their founders are not celebrity influencers, they don’t have massive Instagram followings here in the U.S. and they are not celebrated in our media. Although their companies are based in Asia and they raised money mostly from Chinese investors, their companies are global successes.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

By Anthony Ha

Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”

That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.

“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”

In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?

Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.

From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.

There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.

The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.

The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.

Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.

No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.

I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.

So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?

For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.

But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.

People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?

So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.

It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.

Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.

Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

WhatsApp-Facebook data-sharing transparency under review by EU DPAs after Ireland sends draft decision

By Natasha Lomas

A long-running investigation in the European Union focused on the transparency of data-sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp has taken the first major step towards a resolution. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) confirmed Saturday it sent a draft decision to fellow EU DPAs towards the back end of last year.

This will trigger a review process of the draft by other DPAs. Majority backing for Facebook’s lead EU data supervisor’s proposed settlement is required under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) before a decision can be finalized.

The DPC’s draft WhatsApp decision, which it told us was sent to the other supervisors for review on December 24, is only the second such draft the Irish watchdog has issued to-date in cross-border GDPR cases.

The first case to go through the process was an investigation into a Twitter security breach — which led to the company being issued with a $550,000 fine last month.

The WhatsApp case may look very timely, given the recent backlash over an update to its T&Cs, but it actually dates back to 2018, the year GDPR begun being applied — and relates to WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR (which set out how information must be provided to data subjects whose information is being processed in order that they are able to exercise their rights).

In a statement, the DPC said:

“As you are aware, the DPC has been conducting an investigation into WhatsApp Ireland’s compliance with Articles 12-14 of the GDPR in terms of transparency, including in relation to transparency around what information is shared with Facebook, since 2018. The DPC has provisionally concluded this investigation and we sent a draft decision to our fellow EU Data Protection Authorities on December 24, 2020 (in accordance with Article 60 of the GDPR in order to commence the co-decision-making process) and we are waiting to receive their comments on this draft decision.

“When the process is completed and a final decision issues, it will make clear the standard of transparency to which WhatsApp is expected to adhere as articulated by EU Data Protection Authorities,” it added.

Ireland has additional ongoing GDPR investigations into other aspects of the tech giant’s business, including related to complaints filed back in May 2018 by the EU privacy rights not-for-profit, noyb (over so called ‘forced consent’). In May 2020 the DPC said that separate investigation was at the decision-making phase — but so far it has not confirmed sending a draft decision for review.

It’s also notably that the time between the DPC’s Twitter draft and the final decision being issued — after gaining majority backing from other EU DPAs — was almost seven months.

The Twitter case was relatively straightforward (a data breach) vs the more complex business of assessing ‘transparency’. So a final decision on WhatsApp seems unlikely to come to a swifter resolution. There are clearly substantial differences of opinion between DPAs on how the GDPR should be enforced across the bloc. (In the Twitter case, for example, German DPAs suggested a fine of up to $22M vs Ireland’s initial proposal of a maximum of $300k). Although there is some hope that GDPR enforcement of cross border cases will speed up as DPAs gain experience of the various processes involved in making these co-decisions.

Returning to WhatsApp, the messaging platform has had plenty of problems with transparency in recent weeks — garnering lots of unwelcome attention and concern over the privacy implications of a confusing mandatory update to its T&Cs which has contributed to a major migration of users to alternative chat platforms, such as Signal and Telegram.

The backlash led WhatsApp to announced last week that it was delaying enforcement of the new terms by three months. Last week Italy’s data protection agency also issued a warning over a lack of clarity in the T&Cs — saying it could intervene using an emergency process allowed for by EU law (which would be in addition to the ongoing DPC procedure).

 

On the WhatsApp T&Cs controversy, the DPC’s deputy commissioner Graham Doyle told us the regulator had received “numerous queries” from confused and concerned stakeholders which he said led it to re-engage with the company. The regulator previously obtained a commitment from WhatsApp that there is “no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world”. But it subsequently confirmed it would delay enforcement of the new terms.

“The updates made by WhatsApp last week are about providing clearer, more detailed information to users on how and why they use data. WhatsApp have confirmed to us that there is no change to data-sharing practices either in the European Region or the rest of the world arising from these updates. However, the DPC has received numerous queries from stakeholders who are confused and concerned about these updates,” Doyle said.

“We engaged with WhatsApp on the matter and they confirmed to us that they will delay the date by which people will be asked to review and accept the terms from February 8th to May 15th. In the meantime, WhatsApp will launch information campaigns to provide further clarity about how privacy and security works on the platform. We will continue to engage with WhatsApp on these updates.”

While there’s no doubt Europe’s record of enforcement of its much vaunted data protection laws against tech giants remains a major weak point of the regulation, there are signs that increased user awareness of rights and, more broadly, concern for privacy, is causing a shift in the balance of power in favor of users.

Proper privacy enforcement is still sorely lacking but Facebook being forced to put a T&Cs update on ice for three months — as its business is subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny — suggests the days of platform giants being able to move fast and break things are firmly on the wain.

Similarly, for example, Facebook recently had to delay the launch of a dating feature in Europe while it consulted with the DPC. It also remains limited in the data it can share between WhatsApp and Facebook because of the existence of the GDPR — so still can’t share data for ad targeting and product enhancement purposes, even under the new terms.

Europe, meanwhile, is coming with ex ante rules for platform giants that will place further obligations on how they can operate with the aim of counteracting abusive behaviors and bolstering competition in digital markets.

 

Tencent-backed Hike, once India’s answer to WhatsApp, has given up on messaging

By Manish Singh

India’s answer to WhatsApp has completely moved on from messaging.

Hike Messenger, backed by Tencent, Tiger Global and SoftBank and valued at $1.4 billion in 2016, earlier this month announced that it was shutting down Sticker Chat, its messaging app.

The startup, founded by Kavin Bharti Mittal, this month pivoted to two virtual social apps called Vibe and Rush, said Mittal, who is the son of telecom giant Airtel’s chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal.

In a series of tweets earlier this month, Kavin said that India will never have a homegrown messenger that makes inroads in the world’s second largest market unless it chooses to ban Western companies from operating in the nation. “Global network effects are too strong,” he said. WhatsApp has amassed over 450 million users in India, its biggest market by users.

Mittal described opportunities in building virtual worlds as a “much better approach for today’s world that is unconstrained by cheap, fast data and powerful smartphones.”

In recent years, Hike made bets on stickers and emojis to cater to the younger population in India. In a meeting with TechCrunch in late 2019, Mittal said that the startup was overwhelmed with the engagement stickers on its platform and was working to automate development of personalized stickers.

In a different meeting last year, Mittal showcased emojis that replicated human expressions and a virtual hangout place called HikeLand. Vibe is the rebranded version of HikeLand and the emojis Hike developed will continue to be available to users on both the newer apps, Mittal said earlier this month.

Hike, which has raised more than $260 million to date, had enough runway last year, Mittal said, who hinted that the startup may raise more capital a year later.

Hike also attempted to build its own operating system through acquisition of a startup called Creo. In 2018, Hike launched Total OS that aimed to cater to users with low-cost Android smartphones and slow internet data.

The startup later shut down the project. Mittal told TechCrunch that the arrival of Reliance Jio, which prompted Airtel and Vodafone to lower mobile data tariff on their networks, solved the data issues in the country and Total OS was no longer needed in the market.

proSapient raises $10M Series A led by Smedvig Capital to expand expert network platform

By Mike Butcher

For several years there has been talk about how to leverage ‘experts’ online. How do you ‘suck their brains’ for information in an efficient manner, whether it be for research into companies or sectors, often for investment purposes. Major players in this arena include GLG, Third Bridge, Guidepoint and Alphasights. With the pandemic destroying many means of hearing experts – conferences and events for instance – and turning the entire world into a remote working experiment, platforms like these are now far more relevant than they ever were before.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the expert network and primary research platform, proSapient, has now closed a $10m Series A investment led by Smedvig Capital. Noted high-profile investor Guy Hands and existing investors 24 Haymarket also participated in the round. This brings the total raised by proSapient to date to $18m. The company will use the cash to expand internationally.

proSapient is essentially a SaaS platform for interrogating expert networks. It’s aimed mainly at investors and consultants to gather data. The platform matches experts to projects and provides transcripts. You can gather insight over the phone or in-person; launch bespoke surveys; conduct small strategy projects with a small group of experts. You can search, filter messaging, and also collaborate internally on the platform. It now claims to be servicing over 100 clients across Europe and the USA, with revenue up over 100% year on year. 

Margo Polishchuk, Co-Founder of proSapient, said in a statement: “This funding round will facilitate our strategic objective of being a leading  primary research platform for the private equity and consulting sectors.”

Rob Toms, managing director at Smedvig Capital, commented: “We’re excited to be working with Margo and Jordan to continue their impressive growth and international expansion. They have a great team, strong market position and a clear vision of where the business is going.”

Additionally, proSapient recently appointed Mike Wroe, former group CFO of Just Eat plc, as Chairman.

Samsung vice chairman Jay Y. Lee sent back to prison in bribery case

By Catherine Shu

Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jay Y. Lee is back in prison following a retrial of his 2017 conviction in a bribery case that helped lead to the downfall of former South Korean president Park Guen-hye. The Seoul High Court sentenced Lee to 30 months on Monday.

Lee was originally convicted of bribery in 2017 and sentenced to five years, but was released in 2018 after the sentence was reduced and suspended on appeal. In August 2019, however, South Korea’s Supreme Court overturned the appeals court, ruling that it was too lenient, and ordered the case to be retried.

Lee was expected to become chairman of Samsung after the death of his father, Lee Kun-hee, in October 2020. He has served as the chaebol’s de facto leader since his father suffered a stroke in 2014. With Lee’s sentencing today, it is unclear who will take over his responsibilities at Samsung.

Charges against Lee included bribing Park to gain support for deals that would have helped Lee inherit control of Samsung from his father. The illegal payments played a major role in the corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment, arrest and 25-year prison sentence.

 

The bribery case is separate from another one Lee is involved in, over alleged accounting fraud and stock manipulation. Hearings in that case begun in October.

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for comment.

Goama lets developers integrate a social gaming platform into their apps

By Catherine Shu

Goama (also known as Go Games) lets developers quickly integrate social games into their apps. Some of Goama’s clients have used it for promotional campaigns, while others rely on the platform, which introduces new games every week, to add a full-fledged gaming function to their app.

The startup, which recently took part in SOSV’s accelerator program, presented last week during CES at the Taiwan Tech Arena pavilion. The event is over, but Goama’s virtual booth is still up.

Some of Goama’s clients are “super apps,” or apps that offer several services and want to include games, too. To better serve super apps, Goama recently introduced a tournament model in addition to its subscription model for users.

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The startup says that integrating Goama’s platform can help apps grow brand awareness when people share their results or invite other players tournaments. It also increases user engagement, with players typically spending more than 16 minutes per session playing games. So far, the platform has a combined total of 2.5 million unique users.

The company currently focuses on Asia and Latin America, where mobile penetration is growing quickly, and works with more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, to enable digital payments and communications. Its gaming platform’s user interface can be customized to match host apps and rewards can include points and other prizes that can be spent inside the app. Some companies that have used Goama include food delivery app FoodPanda, Snickers and money transfer app WavePay.

Twitter is bringing Moments to Indian social app Dailyhunt

By Manish Singh

Five years after its launch, Twitter Moments is growing beyond the American social networking platform.

On Monday, Twitter said it had partnered with Dailyhunt to bring Moments to the Indian social app. Dailyhunt app now has a dedicated tab called ‘Twitter Moments India’ to showcase curated tweets pertaining to news and other events in the world’s second largest internet market.

The partnership will allow Twitter to extend its reach in India, where according to mobile insight firm App Annie (data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch), it had fewer than 75 million monthly active users last month. Dailyhunt, which last month raised $100 million in a round from Google, Microsoft and AlphaWave, in comparison, claims to reach over 285 million users each day.

Unlike Twitter, Dailyhunt is also popular in smaller Indian cities and towns. The Indian social app, which serves users in 14 local languages, termed its partnership with Twitter as its “biggest collaboration” to date.

“At Twitter, we are committed to doing what we can to ensure people can keep up with what the world is talking about at any given time. Moments — a curated set of Tweets about a particular topic — are a powerful way to do so. With this partnership with Dailyhunt, a platform that caters to diverse languages and readers from all parts of India, we are thrilled to extend Twitter Moments to the Dailyhunt app,” said Manish Maheshwari, Managing Director of Twitter India, in a statement.

Umang Bedi, co-founder of Dailyhunt and former head of Facebook India, said, “the past year has shown us the power of public opinion and awareness and it is incumbent upon us to mobilize this discourse by making information more accessible, more reliable, and more engaging. When a trusted partner with our shared vision of enabling consumers to create and share information without barriers validates our platform with their presence, we know we are on the right path.”

Flipkart doubles down on rewards program, partners with 5,000 retail outlets in India

By Manish Singh

Flipkart on Monday launched SuperCoin Pay that its customers will be able to use across thousands of retail stores across the country as Walmart-owned e-commerce giant bets on its loyalty program to win and sustain its user base in the world’s second largest internet market.

The Bangalore-headquartered e-commerce giant said it had partnered with over 5,000 retail outlets including TimesPoints, Peter England, Cafe Coffee Day and Flying Machine across India to give its customers a “greater value and choice” to cash in on their Flipkart loyalty program, called SuperCoin Rewards. Flipkart customers earn these SuperCoins when they make purchases on the e-commerce platform.

Customers will be able to pay up to 100% of the bill value through SuperCoins, Flipkart said, pointing out that traditional loyalty programs have struggled to gain traction because they locked customers to their platform and made it difficult to convert reward points to cash.

Its retail partners operate in a wide-range of categories including fashion, grocery, food and beverages, travel, health and wellness. These retail partners will offer a QR code to make it easier for Flipkart customers to redeem their rewards points.

The move comes as giant e-commerce firms in India aggressively partner with physical and digital stores across the country. Amazon, too, has broadened its offering in recent years to offer coupons and discounts that Amazon Pay customers can redeem when making purchases at Urban Company, Domino’s, BigBazaar, More, Oyo Rooms, Licious, BookMyShow, Swiggy, and RedBus, for instance.

“The lines between online and offline shopping are becoming increasingly blurred, and our intention is to make the consumers’ shopping experience more rewarding, no matter where they shop,” said Prakash Sikaria, Vice President of Growth and Monetization at Flipkart, in a statement.

“Being a part of the SuperCoin programme enables our partners to reap the benefits of Flipkart’s 300 million customer base through a truly integrated rewards initiative,” he added.

Flipkart said customers on its platform have earned over a billion SuperCoin to date.

Personio raises $125M on a $1.7B valuation for an HR platform targeting SMEs

By Ingrid Lunden

With the last year changing how (and where) many of us work, organizations have started to rethink how well they manage their employees, and what tools they use to do that. Today, one of the startups that is building technology to address this challenge is announcing a major round of funding that underscores its traction to date.

Personio — the German startup that targets small and medium-sized businesses (10-2,000 employees) with an all-in-one HR platform covering recruiting and onboarding, payroll, absence tracking and other major HR functions — has picked up $125 million in funding at a $1.7 billion post-money valuation.

The Series D is being co-led by Index Ventures and Meritech, with previous backers Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Northzone, Global Founders Capital and Picus all participating.

The $1.7 billion valuation is a big jump on the company’s $500 million valuation a year ago, and it comes after a year where the startup has doubled its revenues, and was not on the hunt to raise, with much of its previous fundraising still in the bank.

Personio currently counts some 3,000 SMEs in Europe as customers.

In an interview, Hanno Renner, the co-founder and CEO of Personio, said that the startup would be using the funding to continue building out the product — which operates a little like Workday, but built for much smaller organizations — as well as expanding its presence in Europe.

Although SMEs can be a notoriously challenging customer segment, Renner said that a new opportunity has emerged: a new wave of people in the SME sector have started to realise the value of having a modern and integrated HR platform.

“We started Personio in 2016 wanting to become the leading HR platform for mid-market companies, and we knew it could be a great company, but we realize it can be hard to grasp what HR really means,” he said. “But I think what has driven our business in the past year has been the realization that HR is not just an important part, but maybe the most important part, of any business.”

It may take one magic turn to convert users, he said, by providing (as one example) tools to recruit, sign contracts and onboard new employees remotely. Still, he acknowledges that the mid-market — especially those companies not built around technology — has been “lagging for years,” with many still working off Excel spreadsheets, or even more surprisingly, pen and paper. “Supporting them by helping them to digitize in a more efficient way has been driving our business.”

Personio is not the only startup hopeful that the shift in how we work will bring a new appreciation (and appetite) for purchasing HR tools. Others like Hibob have also seen a big boost in their business, and have also been raising money to tap into the opportunity more aggressively.

Hibob is looking to build in more training tools, underscoring the feature race that Personio will also have to run to keep up.

But given the sheer numbers of SMBs in the European market — more than 25 million, and accounting for more than 99% of all enterprises, according to research from the European Union — the fact that many of them have yet to adopt any kind of HR platform at all, there remains a lot of growth for a number of players.

“SMEs are the backbone of the European economy, employing 100 million people across the continent, but it is also a sector that has been neglected by software companies focused predominantly on large enterprises,” Martin Mingot, a partner at Index who sits on Personio’s board, said in a statement. “Personio changes that, having created a set of powerful tools tailored to address the needs of small businesses.”

“We have had the pleasure of working with some of the most successful SaaS companies in the world, and given Personio’s success over the past five years and the immense market potential, we strongly believe in Personio’s ability to build an equally successful and impactful business,” added Alex Clayton, general partner at Meritech Capital, in his own statement. “After many great discussions with Hanno over recent years, we are now excited to be joining the journey.” Clayton is also joining the board with this round.

Startups at CES showed how tech can help elderly people and their caregivers

By Catherine Shu

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the challenges many elderly people face. Older adults are among the highest-risk groups for developing cases that need hospitalization and nursing homes were especially vulnerable to outbreaks. While dealing with COVID-19, the elderly have also faced many other problems, including the difficulty of accessing medical care for chronic conditions during lockdowns and isolation.

Many of these issues won’t go away after the pandemic. According to the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of caregivers, especially for elderly people who want to continue living at home instead of moving into nursing homes.

Tech can help in many ways: by helping caregivers (and reducing burnout), allowing seniors to perform health monitoring at home and creating tools to combat isolation. During CES, there were several “age-tech” presentations. One of the most notable was AARP Innovation Lab, the non-profit’s startup accelerator program. It presented nine companies at the virtual show.

Zibrio's smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

Zibrio’s smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

One common theme among AARP’s group was tech that helps elderly people “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities instead of moving into a nursing home. For example, Wheel Pad designs accessible home and work spaces that can be installed into existing structures and sites. Mighty Health is an app that pairs users with health coaches, certified trainers and personalized nutrition plans, while Zibrio, a scale that assesses users’ balance to predict if they are at risk for a fall, can also be incorporated into at-home routines.

Other startups from AARP Innovation Lab focus on helping caregivers, too. For example, FallCall Solutions’ creates Apple Watch apps that send alerts if a fall is detected and help family members check on users. Another app, called Ianacare, helps family members coordinate caregiving tasks and ask for support. End-of-life planning is one of the most emotionally difficult processes for families, and Cake, an “end-of-life platform” helps by providing tools for estate and health care planning, as well as resources to help relatives cope with caregiving issues and grief.

Other startups center on medical care. For people with chronic conditions, Folia Health helps monitor the progress of treatments. On the clinical side, Embleema’s software allows clinical investigators to share data and design studies, making pharmaceutical research more efficient.

Other noteworthy age-tech startups at CES included Nobi, a smart lamp that automatically turns on when users stand up and sends alerts to family members if they fall. Nobi can also be used in residences and nursing homes.

Caregiver Smart Solution's app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solution’s app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solutions is a multi-faceted platform that makes it easier for seniors to stay at home with a machine learning-based app for early detection of potential health issues, fall sensors, monitors and emergency buttons. For people with incontinence, DFree, a wearable device, can reduce stress by monitoring how full their bladder is with an ultrasound sensor and keeping track of their average time between bathroom visits. It’s available for both consumers and health care facilities.

A diagram of companion robot Cutii's features

A diagram of companion robot Cutii’s features

For elderly people living in nursing homes, Rendever is a virtual reality platform that wants to help reduce isolation. It can be used with reminiscence therapy, which guides individuals with dementia through experiences that remind them of their pasts, and to allow virtual travel to landmarks. Cutii, a companion robot, also seeks to reduce loneliness. While companion robots have been a mainstay of CES for years, Cutii sets itself apart with entertainment like music, games and live events. It also has video call and night patrol features.

Signal and Telegram are also growing in China – for now

By Rita Liao

As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.

Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.

The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.

The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.

Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.

Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.

The fact that Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.

The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.

The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.

“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.

“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.

To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.

The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram, and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.

The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.

In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.

“Apple has a history of pre-emptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”

UK’s Bloom & Wild raises $102M to seed its flower delivery service across Europe

By Ingrid Lunden

Bloom & Wild, a London-based startup that takes an updated and online approach to the very traditional business of ordering and delivering flowers, has seen business blossom in the last year. And today, it is announcing a big round of funding to help it double down on the opportunity ahead.

The company has raised £75 million ($102 million), a Series D that it plans to use to continue expanding across Europe (in addition to the UK, it operates today in Ireland, France, Germany and Austria) as it also continues to build out the business through technology, hiring new talent, thinking up more ideas and new partnerships, such as a new deal with supermarket giant Sainsbury’s to spearhead a new brick-and-mortar push.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to continue trading when we know how tough the past nine months or so has been for many,” said Aron Gelbard, Bloom & Wild’s co-founder & CEO, in an emailed interview. “It’s been a real joy & privilege to help keep our customers connected with their loved ones when we’ve all been missing being able to see our friends & family. We’ve certainly seen strong sales during periods of national restrictions across our markets, but sales have held strong during periods of relatively limited restrictions as we’ve retained new customers and converted many of our new recipients too.”

The funding is being led by General Catalyst, with Index Ventures, Novator, Latitude Ventures, D4 Ventures (established by Hanzade Dogan), and existing investors such as Burda Principal Investments also participating.

Bloom & Wild is not disclosing its valuation, but it comes on the heels of some very strong growth. Revenues for the company were up 160% in 2020, with some 4 million deliveries of flowers in that period — more than had ever been made in the lifetime of the company previously, it said. That helped push the company into the black, its first profitable year.

Founded in 2014, Bloom & Wild had only raised around $35 million before this, according to PitchBook, which estimates its pre-money valuation at $88 million.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “How can people think about flowers at a time like this? We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, for crying out loud.”

And indeed, that is so. But it seems that there is a special place for flower-based gifts, whether for other people or just for ourselves, that are appreciated especially when times are hard.

And while we’ve also seen people move quickly past that extra toilet paper, face masks and other practical purchases to click buy on many not-totally-essential indulgences — from fancy food and drinks through to nicer furniture since they’re spending so much time at home — I’d argue flowers have a unique position in the indulgence/gifting pantheon.

In the midst of a health pandemic that has severely curtailed how people can interact with each other in person, getting flowers from a person can take on a new and sometimes deeper meaning. The physical presence — the colors, the smells, the rustle of life — they convey can be a proxy for the human interaction that we’re missing.

“We’re privileged to have played our part in keeping people connected in this difficult period, and I’m proud of our growing team for scaling our operations whilst maintaining the signature thought and care we put into every order,” said Gelbard in a statement. “With this new backing from General Catalyst and Index we start 2021 with renewed energy to pursue our vision of becoming the world’s leading and most loved flower company.”

If you’ve ever ordered flowers for someone or for yourself, you know there is no shortage of options for doing so. In the UK alone there are some 7,500 florists according to the British Florist Association, and that’s not counting thousands more online-only retailers (like Bloom & Wild) or the many services that knit these together into wider delivery networks such as Interflora or FTD. FTD has been something of a consolidator here: in 2018 it acquired a US flower delivery startup called BloomThat (which likened itself to an Uber for flowers).

While some people still prefer to shop for tangible things like flowers in person, a lot of that has moved into the virtual world over the years — especially for those ordering flowers to be delivered to someone — making it in some ways much easier to launch and grow online-only flower businesses.

Bloom & Wild’s product approach is to sell flowers as bouquets, and to give people the option of making the smaller of those bouquets extremely easy to deliver, by designing a box that fits through the typical UK mail slot (either in your front door or elsewhere).

The bouquets it sells, meanwhile, are Instagrammably eye-catching, created for the kind of person who might discover them on that social network (where it has around 250,000 followers), and targeted at our modern predicament. (For example, the bouquet pictured above is called “The Ezra”. Its description: “This cocktail of vibrant oranges and soft lilacs reminds us of holidays in the sun. And the people we’d spend them with. Missing your travel buddy? Send them this instant day-brightener.”)

There are options for ordering flowers for offices — although these are almost certainly not getting ordered as much days — and to build subscriptions, as you might with any other D2C product you order online. And once Bloom & Wild gets to know you and what you like, that will inform how and which flowers on the service are presented to you. Over time it’s moved into more than flowers — it sold Christmas trees this season, and offers a few gifts alongside its bouquets — and it is gradually building out a brick-and-mortar presence, too.

But most of all, it seems the company has seen a surge of interest not just because of the efficiency and targeting of its service, but because it has gotten the product right — specifically delivering flowers that people like.

Gelbard points out that the company has “the most direct supply chain in the flower industry, sourcing directly from growers. This means our customers get excellent value and their flowers last longer, arriving in bud and regularly blooming for up to ten days or more.”

He also notes that the company has built a “bespoke technology and data science platform” focused on a quick and easy ordering experience on app or web. Lastly, “in a traditionally commoditised industry reliant on paid search, we’ve taken an innovative approach to product and brand development,” he notes, pointing to the “letterbox flower” invention.

“Bloom & Wild has infused the traditional flower giving experience with predictive analytics and technology to deliver a fresher, less-travelled bouquet to the people you care most about,” said Adam Valkin, MD, General Catalyst, in a statement. “What’s most impressive about Aron and his team has been their duality of focus since launch. They’re bringing industry-leading efficiency to the intricate supply chain challenges of flower delivery while simultaneously building a beloved experience that connects with consumers in a remarkably authentic way.”

Martin Mignot, Partner at Index Ventures added: “Bloom & Wild team have reinvented every aspect of flower delivery and gifting, challenging the status quo at every stage. Through relentless execution, Aron and his team have created a delightful experience for customers, becoming the fastest growing flower business in Europe. We’re thrilled to partner with them as they scale internationally.”

Yesterday — January 17th 2021General Tech

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.

Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.

 

GitHub’s head of HR resigns in light of termination of Jewish employee

By Megan Rose Dickey

A GitHub internal investigation has revealed the company made “significant errors of judgment and procedure” in the firing of the Jewish employee who cautioned his coworkers about the presence of Nazis in the DC area on the day of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In a blog post today, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said the company’s head of HR took full responsibility for what happened and resigned from the company yesterday.

“In light of these findings, we immediately reversed the decision to separate with the employee and are in communication with his representative,” Brescia said in the blog post. “To the employee we wish to say publicly: we sincerely apologize.”

On the day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, a worried GitHub employee warned his co-workers in the D.C. area to be safe.

After making a comment in Slack saying, “stay safe homies, Nazis are about,” a fellow employee took offense, saying that type of rhetoric wasn’t good for work, the former employee previously told me. Two days later, he was fired, with a human relations representative citing a “pattern of behavior that is not conducive to company policy” as the rationale for his termination, he told me.

In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this week, the now-former employee said he was genuinely concerned about his co-workers in the area, in addition to his Jewish family members. During that interview, he said he would not be interested in getting his job back, but would be interested in other forms of reconciliation.

Threat of inauguration violence casts a long shadow over social media

By Taylor Hatmaker

As the U.S. heads into one of the most perilous phases of American democracy since the Civil War, social media companies are scrambling to shore up their patchwork defenses for a moment they appear to have believed would never come.

Most major platforms pulled the emergency break last week, deplatforming the president of the United States and enforcing suddenly robust rules against conspiracies, violent threats and undercurrents of armed insurrection, all of which proliferated on those services for years. But within a week’s time, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google had all made historic decisions in the name of national stability — and appearances. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit and even Pinterest took their own actions to prevent a terror plot from being hatched on their platforms.

Now, we’re in the waiting phase. More than a week after a deadly pro-Trump riot invaded the iconic seat of the U.S. legislature, the internet still feels like it’s holding its breath, a now heavily-fortified inauguration ceremony looming ahead.

(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s still out there

On the largest social network of all, images hyping follow-up events continued to circulate mid this week. One digital Facebook flyer promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state Capitols,” pushing the dangerous and false conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Facebook says that it’s working to identify flyers calling for “Stop the Steal” adjacent events using digital fingerprinting, the same process it uses to remove terrorist content from ISIS and Al Qaeda. The company noted that it has seen flyers calling for events on January 17 across the country, January 18 in Virginia and inauguration day in D.C.

At least some of Facebook’s new efforts are working: one popular flyer TechCrunch observed on the platform was removed from some users’ feeds this week. A number of “Stop the Steal” groups we’d observed over the last month also unceremoniously blinked offline early this week following more forceful action from the company. Still, given the writing on the wall, many groups had plenty of time to tweak their names by a few words or point followers elsewhere to organize.

With only days until the presidential transition, acronym-heavy screeds promoting QAnon, an increasingly mainstream collection of outrageous pro-Trump government conspiracy theories, also remain easy to find. On one page with 2,500 followers, a QAnon believer pushed the debunked claim that anti-fascists executed the attack on the Capitol, claiming “January 6 was a trap.”

QAnon sign

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On a different QAnon group, an ominous post from an admin issued Congress a warning: “We have found a way to end this travesty! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” The elaborate conspiracy’s followers were well represented at the deadly riot at the Capitol, as the many giant “Q” signs and esoteric t-shirt slogans made clear.

In a statement to TechCrunch about the state of extremism on the platform, Facebook says it is coordinating with terrorism experts as well as law enforcement “to prevent direct threats to public safety.” The company also noted that it works with partners to stay aware of violent content taking root on other platforms.

Facebook’s efforts are and late and uneven, but they’re also more than the company has done to date. Measures from big social networks coupled with the absence of far-right social networks like Parler and Gab have left Trump’s most ardent supporters once again swearing off Silicon Valley and fanning out for an alternative.

Social media migration

Private messaging apps Telegram and Signal are both seeing an influx of users this week, but they offer something quite different from a Facebook or Twitter-like experience. Some expert social network observers see the recent migration as seasonal rather than permanent.

“The spike in usage of messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal will be temporary,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan told TechCrunch. “Most users will either settle on platforms with a social experience, like Gab, MeWe, or Parler, if it returns, or will migrate back to Twitter and Facebook.”

That company uses AI to track how social groups connect online and what they talk about — violent conspiracies included. Morgan believes that propaganda-spreading “performative internet warriors” make a lot of noise online, but a performance doesn’t work without an audience. Others may quietly pose a more serious threat.

“The different types of engagement we saw during the assault on the Capitol mirror how these groups have fragmented online,” Morgan said. “We saw a large mob who was there to cheer on the extremists but didn’t enter the Capitol, performative internet warriors taking selfies, and paramilitaries carrying flex cuffs (mislabeled as “zip ties” in a lot of social conversation), presumably ready to take hostages.

“Most users (the mob) will be back on Parler if it returns, and in the meantime, they are moving to other apps that mimic the social experience of Twitter and Facebook, like MeWe.”

Still, Morgan says that research shows “deplatforming” extremists and conspiracy-spreaders is an effective strategy and efforts by “tech companies from Airbnb to AWS” will reduce the chances of violence in the coming days.

Cleaning up platforms can help turn the masses away from dangerous views, he explained, but the same efforts might further galvanize people with an existing intense commitment to those beliefs. With the winds shifting, already heterogeneous groups will be scattered too, making their efforts desperate and less predictable.

Deplatforming works, with risks

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told TechCrunch that social media companies still need to do much more to prepare for inauguration week. “We saw platforms fall short in their response to the Capitol insurrection,” Greenblatt said.

He cautioned that while many changes are necessary, we should be ready for online extremism to evolve into a more fractured ecosystem. Echo chambers may become smaller and louder, even as the threat of “large scale” coordinated action diminishes.

“The fracturing has also likely pushed people to start communicating with each other via encrypted apps and other private means, strengthening the connections between those in the chat and providing a space where people feel safe openly expressing violent thoughts, organizing future events, and potentially plotting future violence,” Greenblatt said.

By their own standards, social media companies have taken extraordinary measures in the U.S. in the last two weeks. But social networks have a long history of facilitating violence abroad, even as attention turns to political violence in America.

Greenblatt repeated calls for companies to hire more human moderators, a suggestion often made by experts focused on extremism. He believes social media could still take other precautions for inauguration week, like introducing a delay into livestreams or disabling them altogether, bolstering rapid response teams and suspending more accounts temporarily rather than focusing on content takedowns and handing out “strikes.”

“Platforms have provided little-to-nothing in the way of transparency about learnings from last week’s violent attack in the Capitol,” Greenblatt said.

“We know the bare minimum of what they ought to be doing and what they are capable of doing. If these platforms actually provided transparency and insights, we could offer additional—and potentially significantly stronger—suggestions.”

Signal operational again after daylong outage - CNET

By Steven Musil
The encrypted-messaging app was offline after experiencing a surge in new users.
  • January 17th 2021 at 16:58
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