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Advocating reform, activist investor Elliott Management takes a $2.5B stake in SoftBank

By Jonathan Shieber

The activist investment firm Elliott Management has steadily amassed a $2.5 billion stake in the headline-grabbing, Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank even as a series of missteps battered the company’s share price.

Famous for its investments in companies like Slack and Uber and infamous for betting billions on the co-working real estate marketplace and development company, WeWork, SoftBank presented an enticing target for Elliott’s brand of financial speculation, according to an initial report in The Wall Street Journal.

Last November, SoftBank Group reported a $6.5 billion loss thanks in part to its efforts to bail out its investment in WeWork — a company once valued in private markets at $47 billion.

Those losses sent the stock price tumbling, but despite its troubles, SoftBank still holds a vast stable of portfolio companies. It’s those assets that Elliott Management thinks are appealing enough to carve out some of its $34 billion in assets under management for a minority stake.

Elliott’s substantial investment in SoftBank Group reflects its strong conviction that the market significantly undervalues SoftBank’s portfolio of assets,” a spokesperson for the firm wrote in an email. “Elliott has engaged privately with SoftBank’s leadership and is working constructively on solutions to help SoftBank materially and sustainably reduce its discount to intrinsic value.”

SoftBank made waves in the technology investment world with its massive $100 billion Vision fund, which was designed to take stakes in emerging technology companies that required lots of cash, but could potentially transform various industries.

The audacious investment strategy was financed by working with sovereign wealth funds like the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (whose principals are linked to a leadership known for ordering the assassination of journalists) and companies like Apple and Microsoft.

Through its limited partners and with its own cash, SoftBank was able to take large equity stakes in companies across a range of different industries. However, it now appears that those large equity stakes will be difficult to maintain or justify.

Over the last year, several of SoftBank’s portfolio companies have run into trouble, and it’s an open question whether any changes Elliott might be able to effect at the top of the organization would have an impact on the performance of the underlying portfolio.

Indeed, given SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s 22% ownership stake in the business, any corporate activism that Elliott may initiate or advocate for could have limited results.

There are good businesses in the SoftBank portfolio, and public investors have rushed in to buy the company’s stock on the back of the disclosure of Elliott Management’s investment.

However, the flood of capital that came into the venture market in 2018 seems to have crested, which could leave SoftBank and its new investors soaked.

UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

By Zack Whittaker

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Remarks made by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday said said the Israeli spyware maker’s flagship Pegasus mobile spyware was likely used to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.

It comes a day after news emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned to examine the Amazon founder’s phone, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The forensics report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.

U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who were given a copy of the forensics report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.

The Saudi government has rejected the claims, calling them “absurd.”

NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.

Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak.

The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.

The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.

U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.

The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.

The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.

Amazon did not immediately comment.

Chinese podcasting and audio content app Lizhi debuts on Nasdaq

By Catherine Shu

Lizhi, one of China’s biggest audio content apps, is debuting on Nasdaq today under the ticker symbol LIZI. It is the first of its major competitors, Ximalaya and Dragonfly, to go public (though Ximalaya is expected to also list in the United States later this year). Lizhi is offering 4.1 million shares at an IPO price of $11 per share.

Though Lizhi, Ximalaya and Dragonfly each host podcasts, audiobooks and livestreams, Lizhi, whose investors include Xiaomi, TPG, Matrix Partners China, Morningside Venture Capital and Orchid Asia, has differentiated itself by focusing on user-generated content created with the app’s recording tools.

According to market research firm iResearch, it has the largest community of user-generated audio content in China. The company said that in the third quarter of 2019, it had a base of 46.6 million average monthly active users on mobile and 5.7 million average monthly active content creators. While podcasts in the U.S. typically use revenue models based on ads or subscriptions, creators on Lizhi and other Chinese podcasting apps monetize through virtual gifts, similar to the ones given by viewers during video livestreams.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Lizhi CEO Marco Lai said the company plans to use proceeds from the IPO to invest in product development and its AI technology. Lizhi uses AI tech to distribute podcasts, which it says results in a 31% click rate on content. AI is also used to monitor content, give creators instant user engagement data and provide features that allow them to fine-tune recordings, reduce noise and create 3D audio.

Despite its quick growth, Lai says online audio in China is still an emerging segment. About 45.5% of total mobile internet users in China listened to online audio content in 2018, but adoption is expected to increase as IoT devices like smart speakers become more popular, especially in smaller cities. Lizhi has a partnership with Baidu for its Xiaodu smart speakers, and develop new ways of distributing content for IoT devices, says Lai.

All the high-tech, powerful vehicles TechCrunch reviewed in 2019

By Matt Burns

TechCrunch occasionally reviews cars. Why? Vehicles are some of the most complex, technical consumer electronics available. It’s always been that way. Vehicles, especially those available for the consumer, are the culmination of bleeding-edge advancements in computing, manufacturing, and material sciences. And some can go fast — zoom zoom.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve looked at a handful of vehicles from ultra-luxury to the revival of classic muscle cars. It’s been a fun year full of road trips and burnouts.


In the last weeks of 2018, we drove Audi’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. The familiar e-tron SUV.

I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks, and through deep sand, it’s sturdy and surefooted.

Read the review here.

A few months later, we got an Audi RS 5 Sportback for a week. It was returned with significantly thinner tires.

This five-door sedan is raw and unhinged, and there’s an unnatural brutality under the numerous electronic systems. Its twin-turbo 2.9L power plant roars while the Audi all-wheel drive system keeps the rubber on the tarmac. It’s insane, and like most vacations, it’s lovely to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live with the RS 5.

Read the review here.

At the end of Spring, a 2019 Bentley Continental GT blew us away.

The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.

Read the review here.

In late May, we drove Audi’s 2019 Q8 from Michigan to New York City and back. To the passengers, it was comfortable. For the driver (me), it wasn’t very pleasant.

Yet after spending a lot of time in the Q8, I found it backwards. Most crossovers provide the comfort of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. This one has the rough comfort of an SUV with the limited utility of a sedan. Worse yet, driving the Q8 around town can be a frustrating experience.

Read the review here.

2019 bmw i8 1

The BMW i8 is a long for this world, so we took it out for one last spin, several years after reviewing it just after it was released.

The BMW i8 is just a stepping stone in BMW’s history. An oddball. It’s a limited-edition vehicle to try out new technology. From what I can tell, BMW never positioned the i8 as a top seller or market leader. It was an engineer’s playground. I love it.

Read the review here.

2020 gt500 3

This fall, we went to Las Vegas to get the first taste of Ford’s latest GT500. It’s exhilarating and yet manageable.

During my short time with the 2020 GT500, I never felt overwhelmed with power when driving it on city streets. The 2020 GT500 is an exercise in controlled restraint. Somehow this 760 HP Ford can hit 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and still be easy to putz around town. It’s surprising and a testament to the advances made within Dearborn.

Read the review here.

McLaren Senna GTR doors

Supercars are often an exercise in excess, and yet the McLaren Senna GTR is something different. It’s a testament to how McLaren operates.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get the temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC, and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.

Read the review here.

Quick thoughts on other cars we drove this year.

2020 BMW M850i xDrive Coupe
A grand tourer for the modest millionaire. With all-wheel drive, a glorious engine, and heated armrests, the 850i is exciting and comfortable anywhere.

2019 Ford GT350
Forget the GT500. The GT350, with a standard gearbox and naturally aspirated 5.2L V8, this pony car gives the driver more control and more thrills than its more expensive, supercharged cousin.

2020 BMW M2 Competition Coupe
This small BMW coupe is perfectly balanced. It’s powerful, controllable, and, during our week with it, gave endless thrills (and donuts). This was my favorite car this year.

2019 Ford Raptor
Need a pickup that’s faster than a sports car? You probably don’t, but if so, we discovered the Raptor was capable and enjoyable if not a bit unwieldy in traffic thanks to its wide body.

Volkswagen to bring self-driving electric shuttles to Qatar by 2022

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen Group and Qatar have agreed to develop a public transit system of autonomous shuttles and buses by 2022 for the capital city of Doha.

The agreement signed Saturday by VW Group and the Qatar Investment Authority is an expansive project that will involve four brands under VW Group, including Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Scania, its shared ride service MOIA and Audi subsidiary Autonomous Intelligent Driving, or AID.

The aim is to develop the entire transport system, including the electric autonomous shuttles and buses, legal framework, city infrastructure and ride-hailing software required to deploy a commercial service there. The autonomous vehicles will be integrated into existing public transit.

“For our cities to progress we need a new wave of innovation,” QIA CEO Mansoor Al Mahmoud said in a statement. “AI-enabled, emission-free transportation technologies will help advance urban mobility, while diminishing congestion and improving energy efficiency.

The fleet will include 35 autonomous electric ID. Buzz vehicles from the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles unit, which will shuttle up to four passengers on semi-fixed routes in a geo-fenced area of Doha. Another 10 Scania buses will be used for larger groups.

Closed testing of the shuttle vehicles and buses is expected to begin in 2020. Trials could start as early as 2021. VW and QIA said the project will go live by the end of 2022.

Amazon launches Audible Suno free app featuring short-stories in India

By Manish Singh

Amazon is having another go at expanding its reach to listeners in India. The company, which launched pay-to-use Audible in the country last year, today introduced a new service called Audible Suno that offers free access to “hundreds of hours of audio entertainment, enlightenment and learning.”

And it’s banking on major Indian celebrities to draw the listeners.

Audible Suno, which is exclusively available to users in India, features more than 60 original and exclusive episodes (of 20 to 60 minutes in length) in both Hindi and English languages. Audible, the world’s largest seller and producer of audio content, said Suno is aimed at filling the “idle time” listeners have each day during their commutes and performing other daily chores.

The company says Audible Suno, available to users through a dedicated Android app and via iOS Audible app, is also free of advertisements.

The launch of Audible Suno in India illustrates the commitment the company has in the country, said Audible founder and chief executive Don Katz. Amazon has invested more than $5.5 billion in its business in India to date. The company’s tentacles today reach a number of categories in the country, including e-commerce, payments, online ticketing business, video and audio streaming and VC deals.

“I’ve always been passionate about the transformative power of the spoken word, and I’m delighted to be able to offer this breadth of famous voices and culturally resonant genres with unlimited access, ad-free and free of charge,” said Katz.

Who are these famous voices you ask? Here’s the list: Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Karan Johar, Anil Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Mouni Roy, Anurag Kashyap, Neelesh Misra, Tabu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Diljit Dosanjh, Vir Das and Vicky Kaushal.

Audible Suno currently offers shows in a range of genres, including horror (Kaali Awaazein), romance and relationships (Matrimonial Anonymous and Piya Milan Chowk), suspense (Thriller Factory) and comedy series (The Unexperts by Abish Mathew). Non-fiction series include interviews with some of the country’s biggest stars, and socially relevant subjects such as mental health, sex education and the rights of the LGBTQI+ community.

The electric Porsche Taycan Turbo has an EPA range of 201 miles

By Kirsten Korosec

The Porsche Taycan Turbo, one of several variants of the German automaker’s first all-electric vehicles, has an EPA estimated range of 201 miles, according to government ratings posted Wednesday.

This is the first variant of the Taycan — Porsche’s first all-electric vehicle — to receive an estimated range from the EPA. The range, which indicates how far the vehicle can travel on a single charge, is far behind other competitors in the space, notably the Tesla Model S. But it also trails other high-end electric vehicles, including the Jaguar I-Pace and the Audi e-tron.

The biggest gulf is between the Taycan Turbo and the long-range version of the Model S, which has an EPA range of 373 miles. The performance version of the Model S has a range of 348 miles. It was also below the Jaguar I-Pace, an electric vehicle that launched in 2018. The EPA has given the Jaguar I-Pace an official estimated range of 234. However, the company recently said it was able to add another 12 miles of range to the vehicle through what it learned in the I-Pace racing series.

The European standard known as the WLTP placed the range of the Porsche Taycan Turbo at up to 279 miles.

Despite the lower EPA range estimate, Porsche said it’s not disappointed.

“We sought to build a true Porsche, balancing legendary performance our customers expect of our products with range sufficient to meet their everyday needs,” a Porsche spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The Taycan is a phenomenal car built to perform and drive as a Porsche should. We stand by that.”

epa electric range

Porsche introduced in September the Taycan Turbo S and Taycan Turbo — the more powerful and expensive versions of its all-electric four-door sports car with base prices of $185,000 and $150,900, respectively.

In October, the German automaker revealed a cheaper version called the Porsche Taycan 4S that is more than $80,000 cheaper than its leading model. All of the Taycans, including the 4S, are the same chassis and suspension, permanent magnet synchronous motors and other bits. However, this third version, which will offer a performance-battery-plus option, is a little lighter, cheaper and slightly slower than the high-end versions of the Taycan that were introduced earlier this year. Theoretically, the 4S should also have a higher range.

Porsche has always said it would have multiple versions of the Taycan. The 2020 Taycan Turbo will be among the first models to arrive in the United States.

While Porsche said it isn’t disputing the EPA range, the automaker did send an email to dealers Wednesday to share additional data that shows a far rosier picture.

Porsche asked AMCI Testing to conduct independent tests to evaluate the Taycan Turbo range, according to an email the automaker sent to dealers for Taycan customers. The independent automotive research firm came up with a range of 275 miles, a result that was calculated by averaging the vehicle’s performance over five test cycles.

Audi experiments with a ride share service in Southern Germany using an EV and gasoline fleet

By Jonathan Shieber

Audi Business Innovation is testing out a ride sharing service in Southern Germany called BITS that uses both gasoline and electric vehicles in its fleet.

To manage the service, Audi has turned to Fleetonomy, a fleet management service that offers white labeled ride hailing app services and fleet management technology.

The company develops technology to handle fleet utilization and improve efficiency by bringing visibility to maintenance constraints, real-time demand and supply availability.

The service provides long-distance drives across Southern Germany with a mix of electric and internal combustion powered vehicles.

“The need for flexible mobility among customers is growing and is set to become an additional focus area for the automotive industry said Nico Gropper, Audi Business Innovation GmbH, in a statement. “We always aspire to be at the forefront of these developments. Services that include both electric and ICE vehicles have to deal with additional levels of complexity in order to run smoothly and solving these complexities with the right technology partner is crucial to the operational and financial success of the entire service.”

After a successful initial test in October, the company is planning on doing more with the service. The new partnership with Fleetonomy gives Audi both an app-based bespoke ride hailing service and a way to manage a fleet of both electric and combustion vehicles.

The tech can be used to address range anxiety issues by supplying specific vehicles for trips that are scheduled for certain distances so that battery capacity isn’t as much of an issue and so that routes can be managed by optimizing for charging time and locations.

Using Fleetonomy, Audi has dispatch and scheduling management dashboards, and presents a mobile  app for both passengers and drivers (it’s an Uber-like experience that automakers can control themselves).

“Automotive manufacturers worldwide are expanding their role as service providers of on-demand mobility services and are looking for efficient ways to manage their fleets in order to create services that are both profitable as well as provide a great traveling experience,” said Fleetnomy Co-Founder & CEO Israel Duanis, in a statement. “Fleetonomy’s advanced mobility platforms are up for the task in Audi Business Innovation’s new mobility project, BITS, and we are immensely honored to be the technology partner chosen to power this first-of-its-kind service. We are looking forward to continuing to support Audi Business Innovation in their New Mobility journey.”

Is your startup protected against insider threats?

By Zack Whittaker

We’ve talked about securing your startup, the need to understand phishing risks and how not to handle a data breach. But we haven’t yet discussed one of the more damaging threats that all businesses large and small face: the insider threat.

The insider threat is exactly as it sounds — someone within your organization who has malicious intent. Your employees will be one of your biggest assets, but human beings are the weakest link in the security chain. Your staff are already in a privileged position — in the sense that they are in a place where they have access to far more than they would as an outsider. That means taking data, either maliciously or inadvertently, is easier for staff than it might be for a hacker.

“Organizations need to understand that the threats coming from inside their organizations are as critical as, if not more dangerous than, the threats coming from the outside,” said Stephanie Carruthers, a social engineering expert who serves as chief people hacker at IBM X-Force Red, a division of Big Blue that looks for breaches in IoT devices before — and after — they go to market.

Insider risks can become active threats for many reasons. Some individuals may become disgruntled, some want to blow the whistle on wrongdoing and others can be approached (or even manipulated) by career criminals over debts or other matters in their private life.

There are plenty of examples, many not too far back in recent history.

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