SpanIO is looking to upgrade the electrical fusebox for homes with a digital system that integrates into the existing circuit breaker technology that has been the basis for home energy management for at least a century.
Rao and his team are looking to make integrating renewable power, energy storage, and electric vehicles easier for homeowners by redesigning the electrical panel for modern energy needs.
“We packaged the metering controls and compute between the bus bar and the breaker,” says Rao. “Energy flows through the panel through a breaker bar and the breaker bar has tabs that you slot your breakers into… that tab is usually a conductor. We have designed a digital sub-assembly that packages current metering, voltage measurement and ability to turn each circuit on or off.”
The technology is meant to be sold through channels like solar energy installers or battery installers. The company already has plans to integrate its power management devices with energy storage systems like the ones available from LG .
Initially, Span expects to be selling its products in states like California and Hawaii where demand for solar installations is strong and homeowners have significant benefits available to them for installing renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.
For homeowners, the new power management system means that they have control over which parts of the home would be powered in the event of an outage. The company’s technology connects the entire home to a renewable system. Using existing technologies, installers have to set up a separate breaker and rewire certain areas of the home to receive the power generated by a renewable energy system, Rao says.
That control is handled through a consumer app available to download on mobile devices.
SpanIO is backed by a slew of early investors including Wireframe Ventures, Wells Fargo Strategic Capital, Ulu Ventures, Hardware Club, Energy Foundry, Congruent Ventures and 1/0 Capital, and intends to raise fresh cash for before the end of the year. Rao said the round would be “in the low double digits” of millions.
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.
The Portal TV lets you hang out with friends using your home’s biggest screen. It’s part of a new line of Portal devices that bring the platform’s auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Messenger video chat and end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.
Facebook says it also will provide a lot more clarity around privacy — although human review of voice recordings is still turned on by default.
The Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t include any hardware additions quite as flashy as the LTE functionality and ECG monitor it introduced with previous updates. But taken as a whole, the new features maintain the device’s spot at the top of the smartwatch heap.
For the longest time, Google Fi didn’t play the unlimited calls, text and data game. That’s changing this week.
With 1.92 million YouTube subscribers, Giertz is best known for her “shitty” robotic creations, including arms that serve soup and breakfast, draw holiday cards and apply lipstick — to hilariously uneven results.
Documents reviewed by TechCrunch offer new insight into the scope and scale of the Russian surveillance system known as SORM, and how Russian authorities gain access to the calls, messages and data of customers of the country’s largest phone provider.
Previously, you had to pay a one-time fee of $3.99 to access the Android or iOS apps, but CEO Owen Grover said this approach seemed increasingly at odds with Pocket Casts’ goals, and with the vision of the public radio organizations that acquired it last year.
For a brand, is it worth the effort to incorporate UGC into their marketing strategy? And if so, how can they do it within the rules — and more importantly, in adherence with the expectations of consumers? (Extra Crunch membership required.)
We have an amazing slate of speakers stopping by TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, including two full days scheduled for the debut of our Extra Crunch stage, which will focus on how founders can overcome the challenges they face through discussions of tactics with some of the most successful founders and leaders in our industry.
Want to learn how to raise your first dollars with Russ Heddleston at DocSend? How to get into Y Combinator with YC CEO Michael Siebel? How to iterate your product with the chief product officers of Uber, Tinder, Okta, and Instagram? How to evaluate talent with Ray Dalio? These and almost two dozen more panels are waiting for attendees on the EC stage.
Growth expert Julian Shapiro of BellCurve.com launched a new series of articles for Extra Crunch members on how to grow your startup using battle-tested growth hacks and techniques from heads of growth across Silicon Valley. His first piece came out on Friday on how to work with influencers, and now in this second edition, he investigates advertising and how to evaluate the value of PR firms.
How to make Snapchat ads profitable
Based on insights from Tim Chard.
- Snap has niche audiences you’ll want to take advantage of. Examples include “people with digestive issues.” Facebook doesn’t have that. Plus, ad clicks on Snap can be cheap ($0.30 USD isn’t uncommon).
- However, Snap traffic typically converts poorly once it arrives on your site or app.
- Here’s a technique to mitigate that: cross-target your Snap traffic. Meaning, use unique UTM tags on your Snap ad links. Then, in Facebook/Instagram, detect that unique UTM to create a custom audience of Snap visitors. Finally, retarget those visitors with FB/IG ads, which tend to convert much better than Snap.
In Julian’s third edition of the Growth Report, he offers even more tips on how to increase open rates, whether you should use Bing Ads(!), and whether and how to handle multi-touch attribution.
Sex, despite being one of the most fundamental human experiences, is still one of those businesses that some advertisers reject, banks are hesitant to financially support and some investors don’t want to fund.
That’s TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey discussing the rise of “sextech”, a movement among technologists and product designers to open up one of the most fundamental human experiences to technological innovation. Yet, the often puritanical nature of business means that while some innovations are widely received and lushly funded, other startups remain adrift, struggling to advertise and secure funding.
Megan talks with a range of founders and investors in the space, finding the positive stories along with a heap of frustrating ones. There is a lot more work to do here.
But in reality, it’s hard to say how big that market really is, Founders Fund Partner Cyan Banister, who has invested in a handful of sextech startups, tells TechCrunch.
“It’s hard to gauge and the reason why is these businesses aren’t capable of operating at the same scale a normal business could operate at,” Banister says. “They’re kind of cut off at the knees by not being able to advertise. They can’t be on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in the way other businesses could… It’s hard to know how big these companies could be if we could change the social norms and stigmas associated with these products.”
Banister has invested in O.School using personal funds, and in Unbound via venture firm Founders Fund . Unbound, a sexual wellness startup for women, focuses on sex toys, accessories and jewelry that doubles as pleasure products. In December 2017, Unbound raised $2.7 million from Founders Fund, Slow Ventures and others.
“The objective has always been to take the category mainstream like Viagra,” Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez tells TechCrunch.
Extra Crunch media columnist Eric Peckham is back with the next part of his three-part EC-1 looking at music infrastructure startup Kobalt. In part one, Eric talked about how a former Swedish saxophonist built and grew what has become one of the most important music industry startups to arise from Europe since Spotify.
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.
In an email obtained by TechCrunch, Daqri — which built enterprise-grade AR headsets — told its customers that it’s pursuing an asset sale and will be shutting down its cloud and smart-glasses hardware platforms by the end of September.
Daqri is the latest heavily funded, enterprise-focused augmented reality startup to struggle or shut down recently, with Osterhout Design Group unloading its AR glasses patents earlier this year and Meta selling its assets after it ran out of cash.
Previously, any lapse in payment could cut off the customer from an app’s subscription-based features. Now, Apple says developers will have the option to offer a “grace period,” giving Apple more time to collect payment.
Teeth-straightening company SmileDirectClub rang the opening bell at Nasdaq yesterday, marking its first day of trading as a public company.
Element AI has built an artificial intelligence systems integrator of sorts, designed to help other companies develop and implement AI solutions.
Vudu viewers can turn filters on and off for sex/nudity, violence, substance abuse and language. In the first three instances, Vudu will skip the relevant scenes, and in the case of strong language, it will mute the dialog.
The Replica tool grew out of Model Lab, a project started two years ago to investigate modeling as a way to address urban problems — specifically the fact that public agencies don’t have all the information needed to understand the connections between transportation and land use.
When he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar, not just to his own institution’s practices, but to those of the philanthropy field at large. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
While the production company — led by Star Wars director J.J. Abrams and his wife/co-CEO Katie McGrath — was already working with Warner Bros. to create shows like “Castle Rock” and “Westworld,” this new deal is an exclusive agreement covering TV, theatrical films, games (it formed a games division with Tencent last year) and content for digital platforms.
“WarnerMedia and AT&T are delighted to launch a long-term collaboration with our world-class partners and colleagues J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath,” said WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey in a statement. “We are extremely excited about the potential to deliver remarkable and memorable stories and characters across multiple platforms to audiences around the world. J.J., Katie and all of Bad Robot bring extraordinary vision, exquisite filmmaking, and exemplary industry leadership to this endeavor and our company.”
WarnerMedia is planning to launch its streaming service HBO Max next year, and these kinds of exclusive production deals could be an important weapon in the upcoming streaming wars. After all, reclaiming the rights to “Friends” is nice, but subscribers are also going to want fresh content.
Companies like NBCUniversal and Apple were reportedly pursuing a deal with Bad Robot as well. WarnerMedia seemed to emerge as the winner earlier this summer, but the deal wasn’t official until yesterday.
Although the financial terms were not disclosed, The Hollywood Reporter says the deal is worth $250 million.
WarnerMedia says that under this agreement, Bad Robot will make TV shows under the Warner Bros. Television Group umbrella, but it will still be able to sell those shows to “external outlets.” It also says Bad Robot will honor existing feature film commitments at Paramount — and of course, Disney will release Abrams’ next film as director, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
As biotechnology becomes more central to new innovations in healthcare, material science and manufacturing, one of the nation’s research hubs is getting a new accelerator called Petri to launch companies focused on the commercialization of new technologies.
Backed by the Boston-based venture capital firm Pillar, Petri has a three-year $15 million commitment to back companies developing new biotech applications in food, healthcare, industrial chemicals and new materials — along with the enabling technologies to bring these products to market.
“We’re at the inflection point where these technologies will impact and continue to impact health but will also impact food, agriculture, chemicals and materials,” says Petri co-founder, Tony Kulesa. “Everything we touch has some element of biology.”
Pillar has already invested in a couple of companies that show the potential promise of new biotech research coming from Boston-based universities, like Boston University, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Asimov,io, a company that has set an ultimate goal of designing new genomes for industrial applications, was co-founded by graduates from Boston University and MIT, and is a part of the Pillar portfolio. PathAi, a company working on enabling technologies for computational biology, also counts an MIT grad as a co-founder. Meanwhile, Harvard’s George Church has been instrumental in the development of a number of biotech companies working at the frontier of genetic applications for healthcare and manufacturing.
As an instructor at MIT, Kulesa spent seven years at MIT watching, in his words, how engineering has transformed biology. “It became clear to me that these technologies need to get out in the world,” he said.
Joining Kulesa as a managing director is Brian Baynes, a serial entrepreneur who founded Midori Health, an animal nutrition startup; Kaleido Biosciences, a microbiome control focused company; Celexion, a protein engineering and synthetic biology company; and Codon Devices, a synthetic biology toolkit company which was sold to Ginkgo Bioworks .
Over time, Kulesa and Baynes expect to have 10 to 20 companies in each cohort as the program expands. In addition to checks of at least $250,000 the Petri accelerator has lab and office space available for each company.
The companies also could benefit from potential partnerships with companies like Ginkgo Bioworks, which happens to share office space in the same building, and with the accelerator’s clutch of big-name advisors and “co-founders” recruited from across the life sciences industry.
These co-founders, who collectively hold a double-digit equity stake in Petri’s accelerator, include Reshma Shetty, from Ginkgo Bioworks; Emily Leproust of Twist Bioscience; Stan Lapidus, who was at Exact Sciences and Cytyc; Daphne Koller, the co-founder and chief executive of Insitro; Alec Nielsen, the founder Asimov; and researchers Chris Voigt of MIT and Pam Silver and George Church from Harvard’s Wyss Institute.
Genetically engineered organisms are finding their way into everything from food to fuel to chemistry. Companies like Impossible Foods, which uses genetically modified soy product, has raised hundreds of millions for its protein replacement, while Solugen, a manufacturer of chemicals using genetically modified organisms, has raised tens of millions to commercialize its technology. And Ginkgo Bioworks has raised nearly half a billion dollars to pursue applications for industrial biology.
While tech giants like Google and Amazon build and invest in a multitude of artificial intelligence applications to grow their businesses, a startup has raised a big round of funding to help those that are not technology businesses by nature also jump into the AI fray.
Element AI, the very well-funded, well-connected Canadian startup that has built an AI systems integrator of sorts to help other companies develop and implement artificial intelligence solutions — an “Accenture” for machine learning, neural network-based solutions, computer vision applications and so on — is today announcing a further 200 million Canadian dollars ($151.3 million) in funding, money that it plans to use to commercialise more of its products, as well as to continue working on R&D, specifically working on new AI solutions.
“Operationalising AI is currently the industry’s toughest challenge, and few companies have been successful at taking proofs-of-concept out of the lab, imbedding them strategically in their operations, and delivering actual business impact,” said Element AI CEO Jean-François (JF) Gagné in a statement. “We are proud to be working with our new partners, who understand this challenge well, and to leverage each other’s expertise in taking AI solutions to market.”
The company did not disclose its valuation in the short statement announcing the funding, nor has it ever talked about it publicly, but PitchBook notes that as of its previous funding round of $102 million back in 2017, it had a post-money valuation of $300 million, a figure a source close to the company confirmed to me. From what I understand, the valuation now is between $600 million and $700 million, a mark of how Element AI has grown, which is especially interesting, considering how quiet is has been.
The funding is being led by Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), along with participation from McKinsey & Company and its advanced analytics company QuantumBlack; and the Québec government. Previous investors DCVC (Data Collective), Hanwha Asset Management, BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada), Real Ventures and others also participated, with the total raised to date now at C$340 million ($257 million). Other strategic investors in the company have included Microsoft, Nvidia and Intel.
Element AI was started under an interesting premise that goes something like this: AI is the next major transformational shift — not just in computing, but in how businesses operate. But not every business is a technology business by DNA, and that creates a digital divide of sorts between the companies that can identify a problem that can be fixed by AI and build/invest in the technology to do that and those that cannot.
Element AI opened for business from the start as a kind of “AI shop” for the latter kinds of enterprises, to help them identify areas where they could build AI solutions to work better, and then build and implement those solutions. Today it offers products in insurance, financial services, manufacturing, logistics and retail — a list that is likely to get longer and deeper with this latest funding.
One catch about Element AI is that the company has not been very forthcoming about its customer list up to now — those that have been named as partners include Bank of Canada and Gore Mutual, but there is a very notable absence of case studies or reference customers on its site.
However, from what we understand, this is more a by-product of the companies (both Element AI and its customers) wishing to keep involvement quiet for competitive and other reasons; and in fact there are apparently a number of large enterprises that are building and deploying long-term products working with the startup. We have also been told big investors in this latest round (specifically McKinsey) are bringing in customers of their own by way of this deal, expanding that list. Total bookings are a “significant double digit million number” at the moment.
“With this transaction, we are investing capital and expertise alongside partners who are ideally suited to transform Element AI into a company with a commercial focus that anticipates and creates AI products to address clients’ needs,” said Charles Émond, EVP and head of Québec Investments and Global Strategic Planning at la Caisse, in a statement. CDPQ launched an AI Fund this year and this is coming out of that fund to help export more of the AI tech and IP that has been incubated and developed in the region. “Through this fund, la Caisse wants to actively contribute to build and strengthen Québec’s global presence in artificial intelligence.”
Management consultancies like McKinsey would be obvious competitors to Element AI, but in fact, they are turning out to be customer pipelines, as traditional system integrators also often lack the deeper expertise needed in newer areas of computing. (And that’s even considering that McKinsey itself has been investing in building its own capabilities, for example through its acquisition of the analytics firm QuantumBlack.
“For McKinsey, this investment is all about helping our clients to further unlock the potential of AI and Machine Learning to improve business performance,” said Patrick Lahaie, senior partner and Montreal managing partner for McKinsey & Company, in a statement. “We look forward to collaborating closely with the talented team at Element AI in Canada and globally in our shared objective to turn cutting-edge thinking and technology into AI assets which will transform a wide range of industries and sectors. This investment fits into McKinsey’s long-term AI strategy, including the 2015 acquisition of QuantumBlack, which has grown substantially since then and will spearhead the collaboration with Element AI on behalf of our Firm.”
People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.
And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.”
This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.
But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.
Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.
Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions.
That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).
Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.
As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”
From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.
But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.
Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration.
Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?
Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.
Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing.
Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?
Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.
From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.
Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage.
Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.
I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”
It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.
I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.
Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?
Vudu, the streaming service owned by Walmart, announced a new feature today that will make it easier for viewers to avoid sex and violence in movies.
Anyone who’s watched an R-rated movie on broadcast television or on an airplane is probably familiar with films that have been “edited for content,” but Vudu’s new Family Play option give viewers more control over what they find objectionable.
Specifically, they can turn filters on and off for sex/nudity, violence, substance abuse and language. In the first three instances, Vudu will skip the relevant scenes, and in the case of strong language, it will mute the dialogue. The feature is already supported in more than 500 films.
At an advertiser event in May, Vudu leaders suggested that they will stand out from the other streaming services by creating content that can be watched by entire families, with Senior Director Julian Franco declaring, “We’re not just going to be programming for Williamsburg and Silver Lake.”
It sounds like Vudu has similar ambitions for all its original content. In a blog post today, Vice President Scott Blanksteen wrote:
With so much content available and more people watching, what if we could also be a streaming service that provides a great, safe viewing environment for families? What if we could provide our customers the flexibility to ensure that content and the Vudu experience are appropriate for everyone in the family to watch, including the youngest of viewers – kids?
A streaming service called VidAngel ran into legal trouble (and eventually declared bankruptcy) a couple years ago when it tried to sell movies that were edited to be family friendly. However, where VidAngel was operating independently to decrypt and edit DVDs, Vudu told Variety that it’s working with the movie studios.
Vudu also says it’s partnering with advocacy group Common Sense Media to provide ratings and reviews “from a parent’s perspective,” and to create a kid-friendly viewing mode. And it’s launching its first original series today — a remake of “Mr. Mom,” with new episodes streaming every Thursday.
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.
Despite California lawmakers passing a bill designed to turn gig workers into regular employees, Uber has made it clear it plans to do whatever it takes to keep classifying its drivers as independent contractors.
“We will continue to advocate for a compromise agreement,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West said. That agreement might include a guaranteed earnings minimum while on a trip, portable benefits and a “collective voice” for drivers.
This looks like another step for Spotify to diversify its business model.
Simbe has been showcasing its inventory robot Tally since 2015. And earlier this year, U.S. supermarket chain Giant Eagle announced plans to begin a pilot program, deploying Tally in select stores.
U.K. MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes. They’re urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children, suggesting that kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock these boxes.
The second part of our in-depth look at Kobalt focuses on the complex way royalties flow through the industry, and how Kobalt is restructuring that process. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
With Yelp Connect, restaurants will be able to post updates about things like recent additions to the menu, happy hour specials and upcoming events. These updates are then shown on the Yelp homepage, in a weekly email and on the restaurant’s profile page.
If you haven’t bought a ticket to Disrupt yet, you’re probably a bad person who’s making bad decisions.
Fair, the $1.2 billion startup backed by SoftBank that has built a smartphone-based car leasing platform that lets people takes cars for as little as one month, is making another acquisition in the ongoing consolidation of the short-term car rental market. It’s picking up Canvas, another platform for leasing cars, from its owner Ford Motor Credit, a division of the car giant Ford Motor Company that provides leasing and financing to dealers and customers.
The price and other financial details were not disclosed, but we have confirmed with Fair’s co-founder Scott Painter that it will give Ford an equity stake in his startup, so there are at least some shares involved. Canvas is a similar kind of business to Fair’s but significantly smaller.
Fair has about 45,000 subscribers currently in the U.S., with 3.2 million downloads across 30 markets, while Canvas has only around one-tenth of that (3,800 to be exact: one possible reason that Ford decided not to hold on to it) across San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas. While Canvas offered leases starting at three months, Fair’s start at one month, although Painter said that the average they have found are that consumers take cars for about 18 months, while those leasing for ridesharing use them on average for 12.
The Canvas business will continue to operate, but it will gradually switch over to the Fair brand in the coming months. Those who are currently on Canvas contracts will be given the option to switch over to Fair as those deals come up for renewal.
We have confirmed that Ford is not investing further into Fair with this acquisition — not yet, at least. “This is an opportunity to build a relationship,” he said.
While equity funding is always something that Fair is looking at, he added, the company more immediately is planning to announced further debt funding next week, he said. Fair raised hundreds of millions in debt and equity to date to expand to new cities and buy in more vehicles.
Fair is picking Canvas’s employees, technology and business in the deal, Painter said. The team will stay in San Francisco, where they are currently based, to help Fair expand its operations in the Bay Area and continue hiring. “It’s an important market for us for engineers and developers,” he added. This is Fair’s third acquisition, following Xchange Leasing, the leasing business of Uber, for about $400 million; and of rental car service Skurt, for about $50 million.
The move to Fair will be Canvas’s third home under its third brand.
The company was originally founded as ZephyrCar to tap the opportunity of providing cars to Uber and Lyft drivers among other lease markets. It then rebranded as Breeze to double down on ridesharing. Then, as those rideshare companies explored other options for leasing (including Uber’s own unprofitable foray into Xchange Leasing), it shut down, at which point the team and other assets were picked up by Ford and rebranded as Canvas. At that point, the company shifted to a more specific consumer focus to lease Ford, Lincoln, and eventually other makes of cars.
Over that time, it’s amassed a lot of knowledge and data about car leasing and building that into more efficient, on-demand services, a contrast with many of the traditional leasing services in the market today.
“Canvas’ mission is to provide customers with flexible access to the vehicle of their choice for an affordable monthly payment,” said Ned Ryan, CEO of Canvas, in a statement. “Our strong synergies with Fair make this a natural fit.”
Ford’s move was part of the automaker’s efforts to explore the future of transportation: we’re in the middle of a tectonic shift in the automotive industry where new innovations like ridesharing and autonomous vehicles, along with changing consumer demands, have changed the game when it comes to simply making and selling vehicles.
As Painter characterizes it, Ford’s ownership of Canvas was partly about exploring all of that — something that it will now continue to do as a shareholder of Fair.
“Canvas built an impressive business and we learned a lot about subscription services, fleet management and the technology that underlies both,” said Sam Smith, executive vice president of strategy and future products at Ford Credit, in a statement. “We are proud of the work that was done in support of Canvas and we wish the entire team the best of luck.”
Ford’s competitors — including GM, Daimler and more — have also made big investments and acquisitions in an effort to better understand the shifts, and to hopefully keep a sizeable business alive in the future, a pattern that is likely to continue.
“I think if you’re a carmaker today, you have to think about how the world is changing and how to serve consumers given the rise of smartphones and the changing business models of the automotive industry,” said Painter.
Bryn Mooser, co-founder of virtual and augmented reality studio RYOT, said he’s “hanging up my VR and AR hats to really focus on more, shall we say, traditional nonfiction storytelling.”
Back in 2016, Mooser sold RYOT to The Huffington Post and AOL (TechCrunch’s parent company, now known as Verizon Media), and he left RYOT at the end of last year. Today he’s announcing XTR, a production company focused on documentary films and nonfiction series.
The company’s name comes from the 16 millimeter camera that Mooser said was part of a “first wave” of tools making documentary filmmaking more accessible. With XTR, Mooser said he wants to continue that process.
“Technology is front-and-center of this revolution that’s happening,” he told me. “What’s happening in documentary films right now is a direct result of cameras getting cheaper,” making it easier for anyone to create a “beautiful, professional film.”
At the same time, he noted that documentary distribution was previously limited to art-house cinemas, HBO and “one row at your local Blockbuster.” Now, social media and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have opened up new distribution channels that are bringing documentaries to broader audiences.
XTR will be based out of LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, in a warehouse that will serve as office, post-production facility and event space. And rather than operating like a traditional production company, Mooser said he wants XTR to take “more of a tech startup approach.”
He explained, “We have a vision to really scale it out: How do we work with a lot of new directors? How do we work with all the platforms? How do we think about audiences globally?”
That approach also involves outside capital. XTR said it’s already raised an undisclosed amount of funding from former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, Franklin McLarty, Christina and David Arquette, Josh Kushner, Lyn and Norman Lear, Bryan Baum and Zem and James Joaquin.
While Mooser is officially unveiling the company today, he said it’s already developing eight documentaries (which will be announced later this year) with partners like Vice Studios, Futurism and Anonymous Content.
“There’s a real opportunity to have a new company in there, looking out for those new filmmakers, and [trying] to shift the power balance a little bit,” he said. “The way we do that is, we look for great talent and we empower them to do what they want to do … at every step of way.”
It’s easy to think about mainframes as some technology dinosaur, but the fact is these machines remain a key component of many large organizations’ computing strategies. Today, IBM announced the latest in their line of mainframe computers, the z15.
For starters, as you would probably expect, these are big and powerful machines capable of handling enormous workloads. For example, this baby can process up to 1 trillion web transactions a day and handle 2.4 million Docker containers, while offering unparalleled security to go with that performance. This includes the ability to encrypt data once, and it stays encrypted, even when it leaves the system, a huge advantage for companies with a hybrid strategy.
Speaking of which, you may recall that IBM bought Red Hat last year for $34 billion. That deal closed in July and the companies have been working to incorporate Red Hat technology across the IBM business including the z line of mainframes.
IBM announced last month that it was making OpenShift, Red Hat’s Kubernetes-based cloud-native tools, available on the mainframe running Linux. This should enable developers, who have been working on OpenShift on other systems, to move seamlessly to the mainframe without special training.
IBM sees the mainframe as a bridge for hybrid computing environments, offering a highly secure place for data that when combined with Red Hat’s tools, can enable companies to have a single control plane for applications and data wherever it lives.
While it could be tough to justify the cost of these machines in the age of cloud computing, Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, says it could be more cost-effective than the cloud for certain customers. “If you are a new customer, and currently in the cloud and develop on Linux, then in the long run the economics are there to be cheaper than public cloud if you have a lot of IO, and need to get to a high degree of encryption and security,” he said.
He added, “The main point is that if you are worried about being held hostage by public cloud vendors on pricing, in the long run the z is a cost-effective and secure option for owning compute power and working in a multi-cloud, hybrid cloud world.”
Companies like airlines and financial services companies continue to use mainframes, and while they need the power these massive machines provide, they need to do so in a more modern context. The z15 is designed to provide that link to the future, while giving these companies the power they need.
The company was amongst an exclusive subset of startups in YC’s winter 2019 batch to walk into demo day term sheet in hand. Top VCs, like Accel and Sequoia Capital, couldn’t wait until the team’s public pitch was complete to seed the company.
Middesk performs background checks, but not of people; rather, the startup helps companies identify business and regulatory risk in their customer base. Today, it’s announcing its first round of capital, a $4 million financing led by Accel’s Rich Wong, with participation from Sequoia. Founded by two early employees of another YC graduate, Checkr, which automates the pre-employment background check process for companies, Middesk chief executive officer Kyle Mack and chief technology officer Kurt Ruppel wanted to apply their learnings to a business identity product.
“What we’ve built from the ground up is a product to help companies understand who their customers are and what those customers do for their business,” Mack explains.
Selling a product in a traditional and heavily regulated industry, Mack says having top-tier, established venture funds Accel and Sequoia on board has made a big difference for the company. This is particularly interesting, given the round comes at a time in which competition for early-stage deals is greater than ever. More and more billion-dollar funds, Accel and Sequoia included, are moving downstream to purchase stakes in promising companies as early as possible, beating out seed funds by providing better terms and brand recognition.
Accel was also an early investor in Checkr, which most recently raised a $100 million Series C at a $900 million valuation, and was familiar with the Middesk team prior to the company’s formation: “One of the nice things about this job is if you have a chance to do it right, you can build relationships with people and work with them across multiple companies,” Accel’s Wong tells TechCrunch.
San Francisco-based Middesk is working with customers, including Checkr and Plaid, a well-financed leader in fintech, as well as smaller entrants to the B2B market, like the even more recent YC-grad Vouch, which sells business insurance to startups. Mack says they are particularly focused on payments, lending, payroll, expenses and credit businesses, or those with regulatory risk requirements.
“Effectively anyone that’s touching money that’s a B2B business has regulatory requirements to do what we do,” Mack said. “There is a whole new wave of companies applying consumer-style experiences to business products, but the risks they deal with, they aren’t designed to manage those risks at scale.”
With the infusion of capital, Middesk has grown its team from two to seven, creating engineering and operations teams in the process. In the long term, Mack cites Plaid and its proven ability to rapidly become the go-to tool for connecting applications to consumer bank accounts, as inspiration.
“We talk about this idea of becoming a single source for all the external signals you might want to have about a business,” he said. “Plaid has built a single place to get a host of transaction data of people and businesses. We think about Middesk as a single place to find high-quality and trusted information for a single business.”
UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.
Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.
Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.
The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.
“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.
As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.
In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.
A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.
In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.
“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.
“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”
The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.
“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.
“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.
“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”
The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.
MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.
The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).
“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.
“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.
During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.
A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.
Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.
Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage.
The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.
“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”
“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.
Backed by over $200 million in VC funding, Kobalt is changing the way the music industry does business and putting more money into musicians’ pockets in the process.
In Part I of this series, I walked through the company’s founding story and its overall structure. There are two core theses that Kobalt bet on: 1) that the shift to digital music could transform the way royalties are tracked and paid, and 2) that music streaming will empower a growing middle class of DIY musicians who find success across countless niches.
This article focuses on the complex way royalties flow through the industry and how Kobalt is restructuring that process (while Part III will focus on music’s middle class). The music industry runs on copyright administration and royalty collections. If the system breaks — if people lose track of where songs are being played and who is owed how much in royalties — everything halts.
Kobalt is as much a compliance tech company as it is a music company: it has built a quasi “operating system” to more accurately and quickly handle this using software and a centralized approach to collections, upending a broken, inefficient system so everything can run more smoothly and predictably on top of it. The big question is whether it can maintain its initial lead in doing this, however.
At its big press event yesterday, Apple announced that its TV+ streaming service would cost $4.99 per month and a launch date on November 1. But it’s supposed to be available in more than 100 countries, so what does that pricing look like outside the United States?
The service will cost $5.99 CAD ($4.54 US) in Canada, £4.99 ($6.15) in the United Kingdom, 4.99€ ($5.50) in the rest of Europe, A$7.99 ($5.48) in Australia, 600 JPY ($5.57) in Japan and INR 99 ($1.38) in India. That’s significantly cheaper than Netflix or Disney+ across-the-board — though in India, it’s still more expensive than Disney-owned Hotstar.
And if that’s not affordable enough for you, you’ll also get a year of free access when you purchase select Apple hardware.
The launch titles should include “The Morning Show” (a drama set in the world of morning TV and starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell) and “See” (a post-apocalyptic series starring Jason Momoa).
The two companies said that the new programming, which will be featured as part of Quibi’s “Daily Essentials” programming, will be filmed in the Beeb’s central London headquarters five days a week and each segment will be five minutes long.
The show aims to catch viewers up with all the news from around the world in five minutes, according to the two companies.
“Since the BBC began life as a start-up in 1922 we have been focused on two things: innovating to reach our audiences in new ways; and providing trustworthy news and entertainment of the highest quality,” said BBC Global News chief executive, Jim Egan in a statement. “Technology is changing constantly, as is the world at large and we’re delighted to be working with an innovative new player like Quibi to bring young audiences a daily made-for-mobile global news update of the highest quality from our unparalleled network of international correspondents and experts.”
The BBC also has news programming distributed on Snap and Facebook’s Instagram. So the company seems to be covering its bases to ensure it doesn’t miss out on the potential next big thing in media platforms.
“BBC News is one of the most respected news brands around the globe, and in particular for millennials in America today,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, founder and chairman of the board of Quibi. “We’re proud to partner with them to create a daily international news report for Quibi.”
The deal with the BBC follows a July announcement that Quibi had also hooked up with NBC News for programming. As we reported at the time, that deal includes a six-minute morning and evening news show for Quibi’s service.
NBC News also runs a Snapchat news show called Stay Tuned that reaches millions, and recently launched its own digital streaming news network, NBC News Now, delivered through its NBC app.
The mobile-only streaming service is set for an April 2020 launch, and has already announced a big slate of programming from top-tier filmmakers and actors.
Some of the highlights include commitments from filmmakers Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro and Antoine Fuqua and producer Jason Blum to create series for the service, plus a show called “Inspired By” with Justin Timberlake.
As we’ve reported, subscribers to Quibi can also expect a show about Snapchat’s founding, an action-thriller starring Liam Hemsworth, a murder mystery comedy from SNL’s Lorne Michaels, a beauty docuseries from Tyra Banks, a Steven Spielberg horror show, a comedy from Thomas Lennon, a car-stunt series with Idris Elba and more.