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SmartNews’ COVID-19 vaccine alert reaches 1M users in Japan a week after launching

By Catherine Shu

Screenshots of SmartNews' Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app

SmartNews’ Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app

SmartNews announced today that its tools to help Japanese users find nearby COVID-19 vaccine bookings have reached more than one million users just a week after launching. The news discovery unicorn decided to create Vaccine Alert and Map features for its Japanese app because many people there are frustrated by the speed of vaccine rollouts. In the United States, where vaccinations are going much faster, SmartNews just released a feature that lets people find appointments by zip code today.

The company has more than 20 million monthly active users combined in Japan and the United States.

According to a public opinion poll by Nippon TV, more than 70% of Japanese people are dissatisfied with its slow vaccine rollout. That sentiment was echoed in SmartNews’ own research, which surveyed 900 people aged 65 to 79 at the beginning of April, and found that more than 90% felt there was insufficient information available about when and where they could get vaccinated. Challenges included the lack of a central portal for vaccine booking information, meaning local government offices and healthcare providers were inundated with questions.

A screenshot of SmartNews' vaccine locater feature for the American version of its app

A screenshot of SmartNews’ vaccine finder feature for the American version of its app

To create its Vaccine Alert and Map, SmartNews aggregated information from 1,741 municipalities across Japan. The Vaccine Alert lets users know when they are eligible to get a shot based on their location, age, occupation and health conditions. The Vaccine Map combines data from about 37,000 facilities, so people can see where bookings are available near them or get notified when their healthcare providers begin taking reservations.

The features were released on April 12, the day vaccinations began for elderly people in Japan, and had more than one million users a week later. This is in part because SmartNews is one of the country’s most popular news aggregator apps and also because the new features were covered by TV Asahi, a major TV station.

A company representative told TechCrunch that many people who signed up for the vaccine features were already SmartNews users, but it has also seen new downloads as people share their vaccination appointments with friends and family.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Business continuity planning is a necessity for your fund and portfolio

By Ram Iyer
Will Poole Contributor
Will Poole is co-founder and managing partner of Capria Ventures, a global financial services firm leading, partnering with and funding the largest network of fund managers collaborating to deliver superior returns and scaled impact in emerging markets.

Just shy of a year ago, I sent an email to our global fund manager partners and to our direct portfolio CEOs titled “Only the decisive survive.” At that time, not many outside of China were concerned about COVID-19. However, I was obsessed.

Hearing stories from fund manager friends with operations in China, I knew things were worse than what the Chinese press were telling the world. And I live only five miles south of the location of the first COVID death in the U.S. The pandemic was accelerating exponentially, and I wanted to get all of our partners to open their eyes to the risks and prepare as well as they could.

I’m not writing with that level of intensity or urgency this time, but I am concerned. We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

My partner Susana invested in 90 funds over 20 years — she’s seen everything from motorcycle accidents to depression take out fund managers and CEOs. Life works that way sometimes, and it’s not always someone else. It’s the “What happens if I get hit by a bus scenario?” In this case, the bus happens to be a global pandemic.

One of our funds in Asia recently reported COVID cases in three CEOs among their 23 companies. While developed market infections and deaths are trending down, many countries are seeing serious new outbreaks, and some, like Brazil, are doing badly.

Pandemic forecasting site IHME predicts a growing caseload across sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and Pacific regions. The LAC region is trending down overall, but some countries, including Colombia, are expected to experience a second (or third) wave of infections.

As the Economist said in mid-February, “Coronavirus is not done with humanity yet.”

Planning for your fund

A month or so ago, we were trying to move forward with an investment in a fund in Africa with whom we had been speaking and doing due diligence for a few months. They went radio silent for over two weeks. We didn’t know whether to be miffed, concerned for their health, or what.

Can the tech trade show return in 2021?

By Brian Heater

The past year has been a devastating one for the conference industry. It’s certainly an issue we’ve grappled with here at TechCrunch, as we’ve worked to move our programming to a virtual setting. Clearly each individual case calls for an individual solution, dependent on geography, attendance and a variety of other factors.

IFA has proven itself bullish on the in-person element. The Berlin tech show was one of a small handful of these sorts of events to go on with the show in Europe. The organization held an in-person event in September, albeit at a dramatically scaled-back rate.

“To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” director Jens Heithecker told me of last year’s event, which scaled back to around 170 exhibitors from 2,300.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization is planning to come back big this year, in spite of prolonged concerns around COVID-19 and its variants. A press release announcing the show’s fall return is downright celebratory.

“With the world on course to emerge from the pandemic, IFA Berlin is set to take place as a full-scale, real-life event from 3 – 7 September 2021,” the company writes. “Huge interest from brands, manufacturers and retailers across all industry sectors to exhibit, network and co-innovate on location in Berlin.”

The organization highlights some health and safety measures that are being carried over from last year’s event. But while it’s not quite ready to talk scale yet, the organization is highlighting a number of new tracks for the conference.

“As always, keeping our visitors and exhibitors safe is our top priority,” it said in a statement. “Of course, with all our precautions to ensure everybody’s good health, we don’t expect IFA Berlin 2021 to set new records. However, the trend is clear: IFA Berlin is set for a full-scale comeback, to lead our industry once more.”

Over in Spain, the GSMA is still working on its messaging as a number of large companies have already announced they intend to only attend the show “virtually.”

Organizers offered TechCrunch the following statement:

We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021, but we are pleased that exhibitors including Verizon*, Orange and Kasperksy are excited to join us in Barcelona. To ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience, we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform. The in-person and virtual options are provided so that all friends of MWC Barcelona can attend and participate in a way that works for them. We respect the decisions that have been made by some exhibitors and are working with them to move their participation to the virtual platform.

[*Disclosure: Verizon owns TechCrunch]

Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle and Ericsson have already announced they won’t be attending the show in person. Other large names are seemingly undecided. The whole thing is reminiscent of the lead-up to last year’s event, which was ultimately canceled.

The necessity of these large events was called into question prior to the pandemic, but the shift to virtual events has truly brought the topic into sharp relief. It’s true that there’s still value in an in-person event for hardware, specifically, but many have learned to adapt to a virtual setting. Even though if the last CES taught us anything, it’s that there are still a whole lot of kinks to work out with the system, especially as it pertains to prioritizing content all effectively being channeled through the same funnel.

People’s willingness to attend these events is based on a broad range of factors. At the very base level, there’s a question of personal comfortability (I can’t be the only one who has a visceral reaction every time they see crowded photos from past events). For many, it will be a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly attend a large indoor conference. There are factors like vaccinations and a particular region’s handling of the pandemic (all of which can wildly swing in the course of several months).

Just today, Germany’s Health Minister sounded the red alert, asking states to tighten restrictions. “We know from last autumn what happens when we don’t act quickly,” Jens Spahn warned the media.

There are a slew of other factors, including a potential attendee’s location and their workplace’s willingness to approve travel. Many companies have restricted business travel to all but the most essential trips. Depending on what you do for a living, your definition of “essential” may vary. But given how much can potentially change in that time, the soundest strategy for many is planning to tackle things remotely.

Earlier this week, the GSMA sent out its own email to previous attendees titled, “Why do you believe MWC Barcelona 2021 will take place?” The note seems to be a direct response to stories about exhibitors opting for a virtual presence.

“Depending on when you are reading this, we will be about 12 weeks away from the doors opening for MWC21 in Barcelona,” CEO John Hoffman wrote. “To say that the last year has been disruptive is an understatement and my thoughts are with anyone who has been impacted by COVID-19. I am not only hopeful about the future, but I am also excited about convening our ecosystem at MWC21. We recognise that not everyone will be able to attend in person and that is fine as we will augment our physical event with our MWC virtual program bringing you content from the show.”

Canceling a flagship show one year could have been utterly devastating. For many of these organizers — and the local governments who rely on tourism money — two years might seem unthinkable. MWC’s virtual strategy in year one of the pandemic was, understandably, undercooked.

More than a year into this, however, the GSMA and organizations like it hopefully have more robust strategies in place. The fact of the matter is that going virtual isn’t a one- or two-off. For many companies and people profoundly impacted by the pandemic, this is what the future looks like.

Yak Tack is a super simple app to boost vocabulary

By Natasha Lomas

Word nerds with a love for linguistic curiosities and novel nomenclature that’s more fulsome than their ability to make interesting new terms stick will be thrilled by Yak Tack: A neat little aidemémoire (in Android and iOS app form) designed for expanding (English) vocabulary, either as a native speaker or language learner.

Yak Tack uses adaptive spaced repetition to help users remember new words — drawing on a system devised in the 1970s by German scientist Sebastian Leitner.

The app’s core mechanic is a process it calls ‘tacking’. Here’s how it works: A user comes across a new word and inputs it into Yak Tack to look up what it means (definition content for words and concepts is sourced from Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Wikpedia via their API, per the developer).

Now they can choose to ‘tack’ the word to help them remember it.

This means the app will instigate its system of space repetition to combat the routine problem of memory decay/forgetting, as new information tends to be jettisoned by our brains unless we make a dedicated effort to remember it (and/or events conspire to make it memorable for other, not necessarily very pleasant reasons).

Tacked words are shown to Yak Tack users via push notification at spaced intervals (after 1 day, 2,3,5,8, and 13; following the fibonacci sequence).

Tapping on the notification takes the user to their in-app Tack Board where they get to re-read the definition. It also displays all the words they’ve tacked and their progress in the learning sequence for each one.

After the second repeat of a word there’s a gamified twist as the user must select the correct definition or synonym — depending on how far along in the learning sequence they are — from a multiple-choice list.

Picking the right answer means the learning proceeds to the next fibonacci interval. An incorrect answer moves the user back to the previous interval — meaning they must repeat that step, retightening (instead of expanding) the information-exposure period; hence adaptive space repetition.

It’s a simple and neat use of digital prompts to help make new words stick.

[gallery ids="2139025,2139022,2139023,2139024,2139026"]

The app also has a simple and neat user interface. It actually started as an email-only reminder system, says developer Jeremy Thomas, who made the tool for himself, wanting to expand his own vocabulary — and was (intentionally) the sole user for the first six months after it launched in 2019. (He was also behind an earlier (now discontinued) vocabulary app called Ink Paste.)

For now Yak Tack is a side/passion project so he can keep coding (and indulge his “entrepreneurial proclivities”, as he wordily puts it), his day job being head of product engineering at Gusto. But he sees business potential in bootstrapping the learning tool — and has incorporated it as an LLC.

“We have just over 500 users spread across the world (17 different timezones). We’re biggest in Japan, Germany, and the U.S.,” he tells TechCrunch.

“I’m funding it myself and have no plans to take on investment. I’ve learned to appreciate technology companies that have an actual business model underneath them,” he adds. “There’s an elegance to balancing growth and business fundamentals, and given the low cost of starting a SaaS business, I’m surprised more companies don’t bootstrap, frankly.”

The email-only version of Yak Tack still works (you send an email to word@yaktack.com with the word you’d like to learn as the subject and the spaced repeats happen in the same sequence — but over email). But the mobile app is much more popular, per Thomas.

It is also (inevitably) more social, showing users words tacked by other users who tacked the same word as them — so there’s a bit of word discovery serendipity thrown in. However the user who will get the most out of Yak Tack is definitely the voracious and active reader who’s ingesting a lot of text elsewhere and taking the time to look up (and tack) new and unfamiliar words as they find them.

The app itself doesn’t do major lifting on the word discovery front — but it will serve up random encounters by showing you lists of latest tacks, most-tacked this month and words from any other users you follow. (There’s also a ‘last week’s most tacked words’ notification sent weekly.)

Taking a step back, one of the cruel paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while it’s made education for kids harder, as schooling has often been forced to go remote, it’s given many stuck-at-home adults more time on their hands than usual to put their mind to learning new stuff — which explains why online language learning has seen an uplift over the past 12 months+.

And with the pandemic remaining the new dystopian ‘normal’ in most parts of the world, market conditions seem pretty conducive for a self-improvement tool like Yak Tack.

“We’ve seen a lot of good user growth during the pandemic, in large part because I think people are investing in themselves. I think that makes the timing right for an app like Yak Tack,” says Thomas.

Yak Tack is freemium, with free usage for five active tacks (and a queue system for any other words you add); or $5 a year for unlimited tacks and no queue.

“I figure the worldwide TAM [total addressable market] of English-learners is really big, and at that low price point Yak Tack is both accessible and is a huge business opportunity,” he adds.

Outschool is the newest edtech unicorn

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Outschool, a marketplace providing small-group, virtual after-school activities for children has raised a $75 million Series C led by Coatue and Tiger Global Management. TechCrunch first learned of the round from sources familiar with the transaction; the company confirmed the deal to TechCrunch later today.

The new funding values Outschool’s at $1.3 billion, around 4 times higher than its roughly $320 million valuation set less than a year ago.

To date, Outschool has raised $130 million in venture capital to date, inclusive of its new round.

The company’s valuation growth curve is steep for any startup, let alone an edtech concern that saw the majority of its growth during the pandemic. But while CEO and co-founder Amir Nathoo says his company’s new valuation is partially a reflection of today’s fundraising frenzy, he thinks revenue sustainability is a key factor in his company’s recent fundraise.

The new unicorn’s core product is after school classes for entertainment or supplemental studies, on an ongoing or one-off basis. As the company has grown, ongoing classes have grown from 10% of its business to 50% of its business, implying that the startup is generating more reliable revenue over time.

The change from one-off classes to enduring engagements could be good for the company and its students. On the former, recurring revenue is music to investor ears. On the latter, students need repetition to develop close relationships with a course and a group. Ongoing classes about debate or a weekly zombie dance class makes for a stickier experience.

Nathoo says everyone always asks what the most popular classes are, but said it continues to change since its main clientele – kids – have evolving favorites. One week it might be math, the other it might be minecraft and architecture.

Its changing revenue profile helped Outschool generate more than $100 million in bookings in 2020, compared to $6 million in 2019 and just $500,000 in 2017. Nathoo declined to share the company’s expectations for 2021 beyond “projecting to grow aggressively.”

Outschool reached brief positive cash flow last year as a result of massive growth in bookings, but Nathoo shared that that has since changed.

“My goal is to always stay within touching distance of profit,” he said. “But given the fast change in the market, it makes sense to invest aggressively into opportunities that will make sense in the long-term.”

What’s next

Nathoo expects to grow Outschool’s staff from 110 people to 200 by the end of the year, with a specific focus on international growth. In 2020, Outschool launched in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, so hiring will continue there and elsewhere.

On the flip side, Outschool isn’t  teachers at the same clip it was at the height of the pandemic in the United States. When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Within months, Outschool grew to host 10,000 teachers, a screening process that the founder explained was resource-heavy but vital. Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

Similar to how Airbnb created a host endowment fund to share its returns with the people who made its platform work, Outschool has dedicated 2% of its fundraise to creating a similar program to reward teachers on its platform in the event of liquidity.

One of Outschool’s most ambitious goals is, ironically, to go in school. While some startups have found success selling to schools amid the pandemic, district sales cycles and tight budgets continue to be a difficult challenge for scaling purposes. Still, the startup wants to make its way into students’ lives through contracts with schools and employers, which could help low income families access the platform. Nathoo says enterprise sales is a small part of its business, but the strategy began just last year as part of COVID-19 response. It is currently piloting its B2B offering with a number of schools.

Outschool will also consider acquiring early-stage startups focused on direct-to-consumer learning in international markets. While no acquisitions have been made by the startup to date, consolidation in the edtech sector broadly is heating up.

Nathoo stressed that Outschool’s continued growth, even as schools reopen, has de-risked the company from post-pandemic worries.

“There’s going to be a big spike of in-person activities because everyone is going to want to do that at once,” he said. “But then we’re going to settle at some more even distribution because the future of education is hybrid.”

He added that Outschool’s ethos around online learning hasn’t changed since conception. The company has never seen opportunity in the for-credit, subject-matter digital education sector, and instead has focused more on supplemental ways to support students after school.

“That’s the piece of the education system that is underserved and that was missing,” he said. “The advantages of online learning will remain in the convenience, the cost, and the variety of what you can get that isn’t always available locally.”

Tech talent can thrive in the public sector but government must invest in it

By Annie Siebert
Josh Mendelsohn Contributor
Josh Mendelsohn is the founder and managing partner of Hangar, a public sector investment firm focused on building and scaling innovative startups.

Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.

But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.

That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.

One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.

Chart of Facebook R&D spending vs. DARPA annual budget

Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar

Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.

Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.

From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.

My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.

Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.

A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.

NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.

One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.

There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.

Facebook launches profile frames that help you encourage friends to get the COVID-19 vaccine

By Sarah Perez

As Covid-19 vaccines are becoming more readily available to larger groups of the U.S. population, Facebook has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to launch new Facebook profile frames that allow users to share their support for getting vaccinated with their family and friends. The effort follows a similar launch in the U.K. through a partnership with National Health Services (NHS), which has already resulted in a quarter of Facebook users in the U.K. having seen a Facebook friend with the profile frame.

At launch, users in the U.S. can pick between frames which include banners that say either “Let’s Get Vaccinated” or “I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine” in English or Spanish. The banner will appear overlaid on the edge of their profile picture next to a blue bubble that reads “We Can Do This.”

Although there were already a variety of vaccine-promoting profile frames to choose from on Facebook, these were all third-party efforts until now. The new frames were created, in part, by Facebook, which will allow the company to better track their usage over time.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the weeks ahead, Facebook says it will show people a summary in their News Feed of all your friends, family members and people you follow who are using the new Covid-19 vaccine profile frames. For that reason, adopting the first-party frames will be important, if you want to be a part of that list that’s shown to others.

Facebook notes that it’s launching the frames because research shows how social norms can have a major impact on people’s attitude and behavior when it comes to their health — a notable assertition, given that the company wants otherwise downplay the power its network has when it comes to the spread of disinformation or anti-vax sentiments.

For this effort, Facebook believes, and the research supports, that when people see others who they know and trust getting the vaccine, and they’ll be encouraged to do the same. This can be particularly effective when it comes to encouraging those who were otherwise unsure about getting the vaccine.

Leveraging social media to encourage vaccinations has been part of the CDC’s toolkit as well, which is why you likely saw several photos from healthcare workers and essentials workers sharing their vaccination photos and talking about their experience. The CDC had also provided a sets of sample social media graphics and messages that could be used by organizations that wanted to promote vaccinations across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The new profile frames are rolling out starting today to Facebook users in the U.S.

How SOSV-backed Achiko pivoted from financial services to health tech during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Catherine Shu

Many companies had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. For SOSV-backed Achiko, this meant shifting its focus from mobile payment services to affordable COVID-19 screening. Achiko’s platform combines an app called Teman Sehat (“Health Buddy” in Indonesian) for payments and keeping test records, and proprietary low-cost testing kits using DNA aptamers, or synthetic strands of DNA, that are cheaper to manufacture than rapid or PCR tests.

The testing kits, formerly code-named Gumnuts and now called Aptamex, were developed in a partnership with Barcelona-based biotech company RegenaCellx.sl and completed the first phase of its clinical validation trials in January, with the goal of moving to production in the second quarter of this year. Teman Sehat, meanwhile, was built on technology that Achiko had developed for a payments aggregator called Mimopay.

Founded in 2018, Achiko listed on the Swiss Stock Exchange the next year. Chief executive officer Steven Goh told TechCrunch that the company was in the process of expanding into buy now, pay later services in 2020 when COVID-19 disrupted international travel. As a result, the compliance process would have been much more lengthy and expensive. Achiko decided to see what could be created with its existing technology to address the pandemic instead, and launched Teman Sehat as a result.

The app offers incentives for people to get tested, take payments and keep records of test results that could be used for check-ins by workplaces and businesses. While working on Teman Sehat, however, Goh said Achiko’s team realized that the cost of COVID-19 PCR and rapid tests were too high for many people in emerging markets. While frequent mass testing might eventually be accessible in the United States and Europe, Goh told TechCrunch “the actual wholesale costs of rapid tests would be $5 to $8. By the time, you’re actually delivering a rapid test in the field, it could be anything between $20 and $70, and if you’re in a country like the Philippines or Indonesia, that sort of price point is too high.”

Achiko decided Teman Sehat’s potential would be limited unless it was coupled with a low-cost testing solution, and began working with Regenacellx.sl. In January, it appointed Dr. Morris Berrie, co-founder and chairman of TTS Global Initiative, as president to help with the development and production of Aptamex.

Achiko’s team emphasizes it is not meant to be a replacement for PCR and rapid tests. Instead, Aptamex will serve as an affordable screener, costing under 25 cents USD per kit, that can be used frequently (daily or every other day), and people who test positive will be referred to PRC or rapid tests.

Berrie told TechCrunch that the benefit of aptamers is that they are inexpensive to produce and can be ordered from suppliers of synthetic DNA. “It is incredibly cheap and synthetic and the test itself is non-invasive. All these things are big pluses. The most important of all is the price point is a fraction of other testing kits available,” he said.

To use Aptamex, people gargle a mouthwash, spit a sample into a tube and drop it off at a testing center. Then the saliva sample is diluted in Aptamex’s aptamer test conjugate and scanned with a spectrophotometer to see if the aptamers bind to the COVID-19 spike protein. Results are available within an hour and can be sent through Teman Sehat. Phase 1 testing for Aptamex in Indonesia showed results of 91% sensitivity (or how often it correctly showed a positive result) and 85% specificity (or how well it identified true negatives) in field tests.

Procurement and manufacturing for Aptamex tests is currently underway in Taiwan, and Achiko is preparing filings with Indonesia’s Ministry of Health with the target of shipping kits by the beginning of the third quarter. It is also applying for CE certification in Europe and plans to apply for FDA approval in the United States, too.

Goh said aptamers can used to develop tests for other pathogens, and applied in other formats, including microfluidics and electronic sensors. This means Aptamex can be adapted for COVID-19 mutations and eventually be used to screen for other diseases. One potential barrier to the use of aptamers in diagnostics is the lack of standardized protocols and kits, but Achiko believes those can be developed as the cost of chemical synthesis decreases and databases of aptamers are created.

In the future, Achiko will continue to focus on health tech instead of financial products. “There’s no intention to be a financial services platform going forward,” Goh said. “The vision of being able to use a new technology stack to detect first with COVID, but any universe of other pathogens or indications of possible ailments, and having a platform to integrate these things in a contemporary way is something we believe is worthwhile.”

Apple Maps adds COVID-19 travel guidance for over 300 airports worldwide

By Darrell Etherington

Apple has updated its native Maps app with more helpful information designed to assist with travel while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Apple Maps on iPhone, iPad and Mac will now show COVID-19 health measure information for airports when searched via the app, either through a link to the airport’s own COVID-19 advisory page, or directly on the in-app location card itself.

The new information is made available through a partnership with the Airports Council International and provides details on COVID-19 safety guidelines in effect at over 300 airports worldwide. The type of information provided includes requirements around COVID-19 testing, mask usage, screening procedures and any quarantine measures in effect, and generally hopes to help make the process of traveling while the global pandemic continues easier, and as vaccination programs and other counterefforts are set to prompt a global travel recovery.

Earlier this month, Apple also added COVID-19 vaccination locations within the U.S. to Apple Maps, which can be found when searching either via text, with Siri, or using the “Find nearby” location-based feature. Last year, the company added testing sites in various locations around the world and added COVID-19 information modules to cards for other types of businesses.

Will the pandemic spur a smart rebirth for cities?

By Annie Siebert
Michael Proman Contributor
Michael Proman is a managing director at Scrum Ventures and heads the firm’s SmartCityX program.

Cities traditionally have been bustling hubs where people live, work and play. When the pandemic hit, some people fled major metropolitan markets for smaller towns — raising questions about the future validity of cities. It’s true that we’re still months away from broader reopenings and herd immunity via current vaccination efforts.

However, those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.   

U.N. forecasts show that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, communities that are the epicenters of culture, innovation, wealth, education and tourism, to mention just a few benefits. They are not only worth saving — they’re also ripe for rebirth, precisely why many municipal leaders in the U.S. anticipate the Biden administration will allocate substantial monetary resources to rebuilding legacy infrastructure (and doing so in a way that prioritizes equitable access). 

With this emphasis on inclusivity and social innovation, the tech community has the ability to address a range of lifestyle and well-being issues: infrastructure, transportation and mobility, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, and energy allocation.

In this time of reset for cities, what smart city technologies will transform how we live our lives? What kinds of technology will make the biggest impact on cities in the next 12 months? Which smart cities are ahead of the curve? 

To unpack these questions and more, we conducted the SmartCityX Survey of industry experts — including smart city investors, corporate and municipal thought leaders, members of academia, and startups on the front lines of urban innovation — to help provide valuable insights into where we’re heading. Below you’ll find some key takeaways:

Infrastructure is the most crucial issue for cities

Critical infrastructure topped the list of most prominent issues facing today’s cities, followed closely by traffic and transportation. Cisco may have left the party too soon, but others, including countless startups, are lining up and capitalizing on future growth opportunities in the space. A couple of recent data points that support this trend — particularly as it relates to infrastructure rebuilding, IoT and open toolkits to connect fragmented technologies — include the following:  

“Smart Infrastructure is paramount to Smart City success. It’s crucial that this infrastructure be ‘architected’ as opposed to just connected. This is the only way to truly achieve seamless interoperability while ensuring scalability, reliability, security and privacy. Technology companies that offer robust architectural components and/or platforms stand to deliver tremendous stakeholder value and outsized returns to investors.” – Sue Stash, – — General Partner, Pandemic Impact Fund

What’s driving change in cities?

When asked what will accelerate innovation and change in cities, an overwhelming majority cited COVID-19 as the primary factor, followed by remote work, which has accelerated the adoption of online collaboration tools and forced legacy companies to complete multi-year digital transformation projects in a matter of months. The biggest opportunity is to build cities back better and smarter, focusing on new infrastructures that do more with less, and for most of us, that begins and ends at home.

The return of neighborhood retail and other surprising real estate trends

By Eric Eldon

The pandemic made remote work and on-demand delivery normal far faster than anyone expected. Today, as the world beings to emerge from the pandemic, location doesn’t matter like it did a year ago.

As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses.

Modern society produced superstar cities filled with skyscraper office and residential buildings. Now, the populations that once thrived in these urban centers are deciding how to repurpose them for a post-pandemic world.

I caught up with ten top investors who focus on real estate property technology to get a sense of how they’re betting on the future.

They are optimistic overall, because the typically glacial real estate industry now sees proptech as essential to its future. However, they are the most unsure about the office sector, at least as we knew the concept before the pandemic.

They expect remote work to be part of the future in a significant way and foresee ongoing high housing demand in the suburbs and smaller cities. They are especially positive about fintech and SaaS products focused on areas like single-family home sales and rentals. Many are continuing to invest in big cities, but around alternative housing (co-living, accessory dwelling units) and climate-related concepts.

Most surprisingly, some investors are actually excited about physical retail. I examined the latest evidence and found myself agreeing. As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses. Details farther down.

(And before we dig in below, please note that Extra Crunch subscribers can separately read the following people responding fully in their own words, with lots of great information I wasn’t able to explore below.)

When the office is more of a luxury

The pandemic combined with existing trends has made office renters “more akin to a consumer of a luxury product,” explains Clelia Warburg Peters, a venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures and long-time proptech investor and real estate operator.

Landlords who have “largely been in a position of power since the 1950s” now have to put the customer first, she says. The “best landlords will recognize that they are going to be under pressure to shift from simply providing a physical space, to helping provide tenants with a multichannel work experience.”

This includes tangible additional services like software and hardware for managing employees as they travel between various office locations. But the market today also dictates a new attitude. “These assets will need to be provided in the context of a much more human relationship, focusing on serving the needs of tenants,” she says. “As lease terms inevitably shorten, tenants will need to be courted and supported in a much more active way than they have been in the past.”

The changes in office space may be more favorable to the supply side in suburban areas.

“Companies are going to have to offer employees space in an urban headquarters,” Zach Aarons of Metaprop tells me. But many will also want to offer ”some sort of office alternative in the suburbs so the worker can leave home sometimes but not have to take a one-hour train ride to get to the office when needed.”

“If we were still purchasing hard real estate assets like many of us on the MetaProp team used to do in previous careers,” he added, “we would be looking aggressively to purchase suburban office inventory.”

Most people thought that remote work was here for good and would impact the nature of office space in the future.

Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing director of Wilshire Lane Partners, is generally bullish on big cities, but he notes that startups themselves are already untethering from specific places. This is a key leading indicator, in TechCrunch’s opinion.

“Something that has been interesting to watch over the past year is how startups themselves have begun to evolve due to newfound geographic flexibility from the pandemic,” he observes. “Previously, startups (especially real-estate-related startups) felt pressure to be ‘headquartered’ near where their customers, prospective capital sources and pools of talent were located. However, we’ve seen this change over the past few months.”

In fact, a recent report by my former colleague Kim-Mai Cutler, now a partner at Initialized Capital, highlights these trends in a regular survey of its portfolio companies. When the pandemic began, the Bay Area was still the number one place that founders said they’d start a company. Today, remote-first is in first place. Meanwhile, the portfolio companies are either going toward remote-first or a hub-and-spoke model of a smaller headquarters and more far-flung offices. Those who maintain some sort of office say they will require significantly less than five days a week. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would also not adjust salaries based on location!

That’s a small sample but as Demuyakor says, “Startups (a) are frequently the most adept at utilizing the types of technology necessary for effective remote work and (b) simultaneously have to compete ferociously for talent. As such, I think we may be able to infer what the ‘future of work’ may look like as we observe what startups choose to do as the pandemic passes.”

Some landlords (with big loans) and large cities (with big budgets) are making a push to repopulate their offices quickly, and some large companies are loading up on office space or reaffirming their commitments to current locations.

Maybe efforts like these, plus the natural desire to network live, will bring back the industry clusters and pull everyone back to the old geographies? Maybe something close to 100% of what we saw before? What does that look like?

In such a scenario, some pandemic-era changes will persist, says Christopher Yip, a partner and managing director at RET Ventures. “A populace that has become sensitized to public health considerations may well gravitate toward solo forms of transportation (cars and bicycles) instead of mass transit, and parking-related and bike-sharing tech tools may likely thrive. From a real estate management perspective, technology that makes high-density living more comfortable and healthier will also increase, as consumers will become increasingly attracted to touchless technology and tools that facilitate self-leasing.”

Here’s the other scenario that he lays out “if a large number of jobs remain fully remote.”

“In theory, retail and office properties could structurally continue to suffer, and there has been some talk from government officials in certain regions about converting office properties into affordable housing,” he details. “If market-rate vacancies in cities remain high, there will be increasing demand for short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and Kasa, which enable landlords to gain revenue from hotel-type stays even in a market where residential demand is not strong.”

Vik Chawla, a partner at Fifth Wall, sketches out a middle-of-the-road scenario. “We believe that major cities will continue to attract knowledge workers and top talent post-pandemic,” he says, “though we expect remote work to become an increasingly critical component to the work economy, meaning that there will be increased flexibility in terms of time spent in the office versus elsewhere.”

This would still mean some sort of long-term price decline. “At a city level, this means that rents should taper relative to pre-pandemic levels due to lesser demand,” he believes. “That said, the real estate ecosystems in cities that have experienced growth throughout the pandemic will enter a period of innovation, and with it, see an increase in housing density, ADUs and modular building techniques.”

Andrew Ackerman, managing director of UrbanTech for DreamIt Ventures, also sees a gentle deflation of commercial office prices over time, followed by some complex space-management questions.

“[T]he return to work will likely result in more flexible work arrangements rather than the demise of the office which, as leases renew over the next 5-10 years, will lead to a gradual meaningful-but-not-catastrophic reduction in the demand for office space. The question is, what then happens to the excess office space?”

“Office to residential conversion is tricky,” he elaborates. “Layout is a major constraint. Many modern offices have deep, windowless interior space that is hard to repurpose. But even with narrow layouts, the structural elements are often in the wrong place. Drilling thousands of holes in structural concrete so you can move plumbing and gas to the right places is a heavy lift.”

This might just lead to new types of still-valuable uses? “One of the areas that I’m still investigating is whether co-living or microunits might be a more attractive conversion option. Turning an office break room and interior bullpens into a shared kitchen, dining area, and recreation or work flexspace may be a better way to repurpose deep interior space without a very costly retrofit. And if you don’t have to reroute too much plumbing, it may even be possible to convert (and convert back!) individual floors as market demand for office and residential space fluctuates over time.”

All respondents saw proptech being a core part of the next era of big cities (of course), however bullish or bearish they may be about the office itself.

A new equilibrium for residential

Housing availability has become even more limited in most places during the pandemic, with many more people looking to buy and fewer people wanting to sell. This is even though the previously hottest cities have seen major rental price drops.

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is staying focused on the housing problem, and solutions to it like co-living. “Despite the pandemic, it is still difficult for millennials and Gen Z to afford to live in the most expensive cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.) at current wage levels,” he says. “As such, we believe that we will continue to see demand for products and solutions that can continue to help alleviate costs and burdens of living in major cities. For example, we think that at its core, co-living is an economic decision. Solutions that continue to help people live where they want to live more easily (ADUs are another example of this) will continue to thrive.”

Casey Berman, managing director and general partner of Camber Creek, thinks that “cities will continue to attract people to live, work and play because they offer density and opportunities for experiences that people crave even more now. To the extent all of this is true, there will be renewed demand for urban spaces and properties to take advantage of that demand.”

He says that the firm has been investing in products to make dense living safer and more convenient and “we expect those solutions will become increasingly popular. Flex allows tenants to pay rent online in easier-to-manage installments and in the process makes it more likely that landlords will receive payment on time. Latch’s access control devices are in one out of 10 new multifamily buildings. A lot of people purchased a pet over the past year. PetScreening makes it easy to manage pet records and confirm when a pet is a service or support animal.”

Robin Godenrath and Julian Roeoes, partners at Picus Capital, generally share this viewpoint and describe how new living arrangements in cities could allow for more radical changes to how people live.

“Flexible living solutions will allow remote workers to spend time across different cities with a fully managed, affordable and safe rental option for short-to-long-term urban living,” he says, “while commercial conversion to residential will play a key role in driving down per square foot prices enabling long-term returning residents to afford less densified space. Although co-living densifies multifamily buildings, we believe it will remain an interesting sector as the continued shift to remote work will make living communities increasingly important considering the reduced social interaction on the job.”

But modern proptech is also making the suburbs and beyond more appealing in the long run, according to many. Great new technologies for living can exist anywhere you are.

Proptech has also helped fuel the new suburban boom. “There is an ongoing trend of reverse urban migration causing an uptick in the demand for suburban-style living,” he says. “Proptech companies have played a significant role in enabling this shift, specifically via digitizing the home buying, selling and renting transaction processes (e.g., iBuyers, alternative financing models and tech-enabled brokerages). Additionally, proptech companies have played a key role in reducing physical interactions through remote appraisals, 3D/VR viewings and digital communications thus enabling homebuyers and sellers to efficiently and safely transact throughout the pandemic.”

Ultimately, the same technologies that could make cities more affordable will also help out in the suburbs. “We strongly believe that the acceleration of the digitalization of the home transaction process coupled with the significant increase in demand for suburban-style housing and evolving buyer profiles (e.g., tech-savvy millennials) opens up a multitude of opportunities for proptech to significantly impact suburban living across construction, access and lifestyle. This includes companies focusing on built-to-rent developments, modular homebuilding, affordable housing, community building and digital amenities.

Many investors who we talked to highlighted the single-family rental market trend. Here’s Christopher Yip again from RET.

“One of the unheralded trends of the past decade has been the rise of the single-family rental (SFR) market,” he says “with a significant number of major investors moving into this asset class. The SFR space is poised to benefit from the migration from cities, and the tech that supports SFR will likely have positive ripple effects across the industry.”

“SFR portfolios are particularly challenging to operate efficiently and at scale; compared with a multifamily property, they have more distinct unit layouts and are more spread out geographically,” he explains. “Technology has the ability to streamline operations and maintenance for SFR operators, with smart home tools like SmartRent facilitating self-touring and management of these distributed portfolios. We’re bullish on this space and are keeping a close eye on proptech tools that serve this market.”

Andrew Ackerman of DreamIt agrees. “Single-family has been neglected, slowly growing more interesting both from an asset and proptech perspective for some time. For example, we invested in startups like NestEgg and Abode who service this ecosystem … prior to the pandemic. COVID has been good to these startups and brought more attention to the opportunities in single-family in general.”

Stonly Baptiste and Shaun Abrahamson, co-founders of Urban.us, already see a world of options unfolding across geographies, with choices like co-living and short-term rentals letting people find new lifestyles. “Portfolio companies like Starcity are really thriving as co-living doesn’t just solve for cost, but also for a key overlooked issue — access to community. We also see room for more nomadic lifestyles. A lot of the discussion about Miami is about people moving there, but it seems like a more interesting question for a lot of places is maybe whether or not people will spend a few months of the year there. So for remote workers this might mean places near specific activities like mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding etc. Starcity makes it easy to move between city locations and Kibbo takes this far beyond the city by building communities around van life.”

Here’s how all these changes are adding up for the suburban market, as mapped out by Clelia Warburg Peters of BCV.

“The residential transaction disruption is now settling in three core categories: iBuyers (who buy homes directly from sellers and ultimately hope to own the sell-side marketplace), neobrokers (who generally employ their agents and use secondary services such as title mortgage and insurance to increase their revenue) and elite agent tools (platforms or tools focused on the top agents).”

This combination of innovations are changing residential real estate as we know it. “[C]onsumers are increasingly open to alternative financing tools, including home-equity-based financing models (where you sell a stake in your home, or you buy into full ownership in a home over time). The growth and proliferation of these new models are consolidating the whole residential market so that brokerage sales commissions and commission from the sale of mortgage, title and home insurance are now functionally one large and intertwined disruptable market.”

The surprising revival of neighborhood retail

Humans seem to love the concept of a traditional Main Street full of bustling, walkable local businesses. But the hits have kept coming to the people trying to successfully operate independent retail storefronts.

E-commerce began cutting into traditionally thin margins with the rise of Amazon and the 90s wave of “e-tailers.” More recently, art galleries, high-end restaurants and boutiques became a harbinger of gentrification in many cities. Many commercial retail landlords in these locations aggressively priced rents as more residents moved in who could afford higher prices, ultimately contributing to gluts of empty storefronts in prime locations.

The pandemic seemed to be the final blow, with even the most loyal shoppers turning to order online while local businesses stayed closed.

And yet, a range of investors are strangely optimistic. Even though the pandemic upended social and economic activity for more than a year, most agreed that IRL retail experiences are an essential aspect of modern life.

“Humans are fundamentally social animals and I think we will all be hungry for in-person experiences once it is safe to return to them. Additionally, I think the shift away from working five days a week in the office is going to create a greater desire for ‘third spaces’ — not home, not a formal office environment,” said Peters.

“I do think we will continue to see more ‘Apple store’-type retail experiences, where the focus is less on selling inventory and more on creating an environment for customers to physically interact with goods and experience the brand ethos beyond a website. Because I anticipate that retail rents are going to be meaningfully lower at the end of the pandemic, I actually think we will see even more experimentation than we did pre-COVID. It will be a very interesting period for retail.”

Many others held views in this direction, whether they are investing specifically in retail-related tech or more generally in third-space ideas.

“It’s true that retail has been in flux for more than a decade; the list of common e-commerce purchases has expanded from books and clothing to prepared meals and groceries. It’s also true that the pandemic has accelerated e-commerce’s growth, to the detriment of brick-and-mortar retail,” says RET’s Yip. “But people are still human and crave in-person experiences. Even if cities never bounce back fully, major metropolises will still have enough foot traffic to support a fair amount of retail, and innovative models like pop-up shops can be brought in to help address vacancies. It should also be noted that the public markets still have some confidence in the retail space. While the major REITs struggled in early to mid-2020, many have recovered substantially, and several have actually surpassed their pre-pandemic figures. It has been a bad decade for retail — and a very bad year — but it is just too soon to close the book on the sector.”

Godenrath and Roeoes of Picus say movie theaters are just one example of a retail sector poised for success when public life resumes at scale post-pandemic.

“Cinemas, many of which are key shopping center anchor tenants, were already reinventing the traditional theater experience by offering a more holistic experiential solution (e.g., reserved seating, 4DX visuals, in-theater restaurants, cafes and bars) and the pandemic has led to an expansion of these offerings (i.e., private theater rentals and events). We have the opinion that this trend will continue to expand across the entire retail real estate industry from restaurants (immersive culinary experiences) to traditional retail (integrated online and offline shopping experiences) and believe that proptech will play a defining role in helping retail real estate owners identify potential tenants and market properties as well as in helping retailers drive in-store customer engagement and gain key insights into the customer journey.”

The internet is also a friend these days, surprisingly! “We also see a lot of potential for hybrid models combining online and offline experiences without friction,” they say. “Taking the fitness sectors as an example we can imagine a new normal where in-studio courses are broadcasted to allow a broader participant group and apps tracking fitness and health progress throughout in-studio visits and at-home workouts.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear from any of the investors I interviewed.

You can also see how retail intersects with many other solutions investors are betting on, particularly to improve the appeal of cities and solve for macro problems like climate change.

“Cities have some massively underutilized assets, perhaps the biggest being public spaces that are allocated to cars,” Baptiste and Abrahamson say. “So one change we think will become permanent is reallocating parking spaces away from private vehicles to micromobility (bike/scooter/board lanes, parking, etc.). We’re seeing a lot of demand for portfolio companies like Coord (manages curb space starting with commercial vehicles and smart zones), Qucit (manages bike and scooter share operations in many large cities) and Oonee (secure bike/scooter/board parking).”

That’s just the start of the virtuous cycle they foresee.

“As [car removal] happens, the use cases like logistics can shift to electric micro-EVs. Similarly, parklets or seating areas increase social spaces. The EU is setting the pace for banning cars, but overall reduced access to streets for cars is going to be a big change. And likely will make cities attractive — yes, you give up private living space, but you’re going to get a lot more common/social space. This is also likely to drive more co-living so you can decrease the cost basis for being in a city, but get a lot more from shared spaces, which have no real comparison in lower density communities.”

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is betting in the same direction.

“One of the key tenets of our overall strategy has always been a focus on space utilization and identifying the best ways technology can monetize underutilized spaces. This can be seen clearly with many of our newest investments: Stuf and Neighbor (monetization of basements, parking garages and other vacant spaces), MealCo (monetization of vacant kitchens), WorkChew (monetization of restaurant seating areas, hotel lobbies and conference rooms), and Saltbox (monetization of empty warehouses). We believe that landlords can certainly use these types of strategies to help mitigate increased levels of vacancies that we’re seeing across the real estate industry today in the medium term.”

If this thesis pans out, retail may become more about shared spaces. “With WorkChew in particular, which just announced funding this week, we’re seeing a ton of demand for their product both on the demand side and the supply side. Hotels and restaurants are excited to partner with them to monetize their less-utilized spaces and infrastructure,” said Demuyakor. “And of course, employers and companies love [it] as an easy amenity that can be offered to their hybrid workforces that increasingly want to spend more time out of the HQ office.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear explicitly from the investors I interviewed.

  • First, millions of new businesses have been created during the pandemic, to the surprise of even economists and policymakers. A large portion appear to have a very local angle, whether food delivery (cupcakes) or services (on-site haircuts) or internet-first products with strong local followings (much of Etsy). These entrepreneurs went internet-first and now, as commercial rents plummet, they have sufficient revenue to support a physical presence.
  • Second, most local business that have sustained themselves during the COVID-19 era figured out how to succeed on the internet. To see which ones in your vicinity are weathering the storm, just open one of your preferred on-demand delivery and services apps and place an order.
  • Third, as noted by respondents and available data, landlords are already starting to drop prices, creating a renter’s market for the first time in decades.
  • Fourth, there are whole new types of financing opening up to more traditional businesses that could enable any company with a successful online side hustle, hobby (or perhaps larger project) to get funding for expansion. (This reason is perhaps the most speculative, but we are trying to figure out the future here at TechCrunch.) For example, Shopify has just invested in Pipe.com, a new “platform for trading recurring revenue.” Although the companies are not saying much now about the relationship, it’s possible to imagine a bunch of successful small(ish) businesses on Shopify suddenly getting a new kind of capital infusion right as the math is suddenly much better for a storefront location.

If you roll all of this up with other broader shifts in how we think about cities, like making them more climate-friendly through allowing density and bike lanes, you can start to see a world emerging that sounds a lot more like the fantasies of a New Urbanist than the world before the pandemic.

At the same time, these concepts are being deployed across smaller cities, suburbs and towns: All will compete to offer the highest quality of living — unless the old network effects of industry clusters return miraculously.

And let’s say the industry clusters don’t cluster like they used to. It’s possible that many landlords, lenders and city budgets will have to retrench soon, creating a drag on the economies of otherwise-attractive cities.

Even in this case, you can imagine a rebirth for places like New York and San Francisco focused around housing, retail and amenities. Maybe one day, we’ll look back at recent decades as the bad old days before we collectively bottomed out during the pandemic and had to decide on the right answers for the long-term.

And with that, I invite readers to go check out the full sets of responses from the investors I interviewed. Each person offered a lot more than I was able to fit into this already-too-long article and is worth reading in detail. Extra Crunch subscription required, so you can support our ongoing coverage of these changes.

I’ll be covering the future of proptech and cities more soon. Have other thoughts about all of this? Email me at eldon@techcrunch.com.

The Struggle to Vaccinate People in Jails and Prisons

By Emma Grey Ellis
One year later, Covid-19 is still hitting incarcerated people at a disproportionate rate. But efforts are under way to prioritize them for vaccines.

Curran Biotech’s new nanocoating could prevent indoor transmission of COVID-19

By Sophie Burkholder

A new nanocoating from Curran Biotech could dramatically improve air filtration to prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors.

Their Capture Coating technology acts as a supplement to any household or commercial HVAC system by bonding to the filter fibers, giving them greater hydrophobic properties. This combined effect prevents virus-carrying droplets from traveling through the filter fibers, which, without the treatment, only prevent some viral transmission.

“’Capture Coating’ is designed to mitigate and significantly decrease viral transmission of COVID-19 through specified air filtration media by forming a breathable, flexible, non-leaching, water-repellent barrier against aqueous respiratory droplets that act as virion carriers that can potentially be recirculated through conventional air-filters,” wrote Curran Biotech founder and University of Houston physics professor Shay Curran in an email. Despite the molecular complexity of the coating, the product itself can simply be sprayed onto an HVAC system’s filter.

This new droplet-targeting coating is an improvement over current filtration methods, which typically only target dry molecules. Not only do those methods often have at least some potential of viral droplet transmission, but current solutions to improve them aren’t always energy efficient.

“In the world where energy management is very important, that means recycling the same air in the building with the risk of cross contamination,” wrote Curran. “Taking outside air is one way to dilute the air, but that means we also lose a huge amount in terms of energy, and still don’t solve the problem of taking the virus away from places where people congregate.”

Indoor air ventilation remains an important tool in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 across schools, small businesses, and other public buildings, but updating old HVAC systems to the recommended CDC standards can be costly. Curran hopes that his company’s approach can help address this issue, as the Capture Coating requires only a simple spray, rather than a completely new system of filters. “That really means for a few dollars when used on a standard issue MERV8, you can have huge indoor protection and stop its spread throughout the building,” he wrote.

Because of the nature of the nanocoating, Curran’s technology can help prevent viral droplet transmission long after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hydrophobic qualities of the coating prevent respiratory droplets from actions like sneezing or coughing from passing through the filter, while the HVAC system itself retains its normal capabilities for dry molecule filtration. With the Capture Coating, common droplet-transmitting viruses like the flu or cold will also be filtered out of circulation.

Similarly, the nanocoating would work in preventing transmission of any variant of the COVID-19 virus, as all of those variants also undergo droplet transmission. “It does not mean we get away from taking precautions such as hand washing, wearing masks etc, but it does mean we can work indoors far more safely,” wrote Curran.

So far, Curran Biotech’s Capture Coating technology is in use in 11 states, and will soon be announcing partnerships with distributors and filter companies to directly provide consumers with coated filters. Curran wrote that the company has also had successful trials of the technology in New York City, and hopes to expand use of the product even further across businesses and institutions around the country.


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Facebook to label all COVID-19 vaccine posts with pointer to official info

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook will soon label all posts discussing the coronavirus vaccination with a pointer to official information about COVID-19, it said today.

It also revealed it has implemented some new “temporary” measures aimed at limiting the spread of vaccine misinformation/combating vaccine hesitancy — saying it’s reducing the distribution of content from users that have violated its policies on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation; or “that have repeatedly shared content debunked as False or Altered by our third-party fact-checking partners”.

It’s also reducing distribution of any COVID-19 or vaccine content that fact-checking partners have rated as “Missing Context”, per the blog post.

While admins for groups with admins or members who have violated its COVID-19 policies will also be required to temporarily approve all posts within their group, it said. (It’s not clear what happens if a group only has one admin and they have violated its policies.)

Facebook will also “further elevate information from authoritative sources when people seek information about COVID-19 or vaccines”, it added.

It’s not clear why users who repeatedly violate Facebook’s COVID-19 policies do not face at least a period of suspension. (We’ve asked the company for clarity on its policies.)

“We’re continuing to expand our efforts to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by adding labels to Facebook and Instagram posts that discuss the vaccines,” Facebook said in the Newsroom post today.

“These labels contain credible information about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines from the World Health Organization. For example, we’re adding a label on posts that discuss the safety of COVID-19 vaccines that notes COVID-19 vaccines go through tests for safety and effectiveness before they’re approved.”

The incoming COVID-19 information labels are rolling out globally in English, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, Arabic and French (with additional languages touted “in the coming weeks”), per Facebook.

As well as soon rolling out labels “on all posts generally about COVID-19 vaccines” — pointing users to its COVID-19 Information Center — Facebook said it would add additional “targeted” labels about “COVID-19 vaccine subtopics”. So it sounds like it may respond directly to specific anti-vaxxer misinformation it’s seeing spreading on its platform.

“We will also add an additional screen when someone goes to share a post on Facebook and Instagram with an informational COVID-19 vaccine label. It will provide more information so people have the context they need to make informed decisions about what to share,” Facebook added.

The moves follow revelations that an internal Facebook study of vaccine hesitancy — which was reported on by the Washington Post yesterday after it obtained documents on the large-scale internal research effort — found a small number of US users are responsible for driving most of the content that’s hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“Just 10 out of the 638 population segments [Facebook’s study divided US users into] contained 50 percent of all vaccine hesitancy content on the platform,” the Post reported. “And in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine hesitant content.”

Last week the MIT Technology Review also published a deep-dive article probing Facebook’s approach to interrogating, via an internal ‘Responsible AI’ team, the impacts of AI-fuelled content distribution — which accused the company of prioritizing growth and engagement and neglecting the issue of toxic misinformation (and the individual and societal harms that can flow from algorithmic content choices which amplify lies and hate speech).

In the case of COVID-19, lies being spread about vaccination safety or efficacy present a clear and present danger to public health. And Facebook’s PR machine does appear to have, tardily, recognized the extent of the reputational risk it’s facing if it’s platform is associated with driving vaccine hesitancy.

To wit: Also today it’s announced the launch of a global COVID-19 education drive that it says it hopes will bring 50M people “closer to getting vaccinated”.

“By working closely with national and global health authorities and using our scale to reach people quickly, we’re doing our part to help people get credible information, get vaccinated and come back together safely,” Facebook writes in the Newsroom post that links directly to a Facebook post by founder Mark Zuckerberg also trailing the new measures, including the launch of a tool that will show U.S. Facebook users where they can get vaccinated and provide them with a link to make an appointment.

Facebook said it plans to expand the tool to other countries as global vaccine availability steps up.

Facebook’s vaccine appointment finder tool (Image credits: Facebook)

Facebook has further announced that the COVID-19 information portal it launched in the Facebook app in March last year which points users to “the latest information about the virus from local health ministries and the World Health Organization” is finally being brought to Instagram.

It’s not clear why Facebook hadn’t already launched the portal on Instagram.

But it’s decided to double down on fighting bad speech (related to vaccines) with better speech — saying Instagram users will get new stickers they can add to their Instagram Stories “so people can inspire others to get vaccinated when it becomes available to them”.

In other moves being trailed in Facebook’s crisis PR blitz today it has touted “new data and insights” on vaccine attitudes being made available to public officials via COVID-19 dashboards and maps it was already offering (the data is collected by Facebook’s Data for Good partners for the effort at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland as part of the COVID-19 Symptom Survey).

Albeit, it doesn’t specify what new information is being added there (or why now).

Also today it said it’s “making it easy to track how COVID-19 vaccine information is being spread on social media through CrowdTangle’s COVID-19 Live Displays“.

“Publishers, global aid organizations, journalists and others can access real-time, global streams of vaccine-related posts on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in 34 languages. CrowdTangle also offers Live Displays for 104 countries and all 50 states in the US to help aid organizations and journalists track posts and trends at a regional level as well,” Facebook added, again without offering any context on why it hadn’t made it easier to use this tool to track vaccine information spread before.

Its blog post also touts “new” partnerships with health authorities and governments on vaccine registration — while trumpeting the ~3BN messages it says have already been sent “by governments, nonprofits and international organizations to citizens through official WhatsApp chatbots on COVID-19”. (As WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted there is no simple way to quantify how many vaccine misinformation messages have been sent via the same platform.)

Per Facebook, it’s now “working directly with health authorities and governments to get people registered for vaccinations” (such as in the city and province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is using WhatsApp as the official channel to send notifications to citizens when it’s their turn to receive the vaccine).

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have partnered with ministries of health and health-focused organizations in more than 170 countries by providing free ads, enabling partners to share their own public health guidance on COVID-19 and information about the COVID-19 vaccine,” Facebook’s PR adds in a section of the post which it’s titled “amplifying credible health information and resources from experts”.

Certific, a health tech startup from the founder of TransferWise, aims to be the rails for certified home testing

By Steve O'Hear

Certific, a health tech startup co-founded by TransferWise’s Taavet Hinrikus, is breaking cover today with the launch of what it claims is the first “certified” remote COVID-19 testing service.

The British-Estonian company is using techniques borrowed from the worlds of fintech and telemedicine, including asking users to film themselves while taking the at-home test, in a bold attempt to solve remote testing’s adherence and trust problem.

Initially targeting private individuals and businesses in the U.K., with other markets to follow, tests can be ordered online and are carried out remotely with the promise of a certified result the following day for PCR tests and in under 90 minutes for antigen tests.

More broadly, the Certific app and user journey is designed to increase trust in remote testing and ensure that self-performed tests reach the same standard as those carried out in a clinical setting.

“When the pandemic hit, we started toying around with the first finger prick tests to see if you have antibodies, and thinking, ‘hey, is there a way to make use of these to help the world along,’ ” Hinrikus told me during an interview earlier this week. “[But] then it turned out that these kind of antibody tests, and the end immunity, was a very unclear concept. And so we kind of put it on hold, but we kept on thinking about what better things we can do to make testing more trustworthy and easier”.

Then late last year he and Certific’s other co-founders — physician Dr. Jack Kreindler and CEO Liis Narusk — realised that there were things “that we can and should be doing to come up with a more democratised way of medical testing, and apply this to the pandemic”.

Hinrikus doesn’t quite say it, but as the founder of TransferWise and a prolific angel investor, including backing Estonian verification platform Veriff, there’s little doubt that Certific is partly inspired by the authentication techniques that have gained prominence in fintech, such as video selfies used to onboard new customers at digital banks. In addition, medical director Kreindler has experience with anti-doping in close-combat sports.

Coupled with more traditional identity checks, the Certific app asks you to film yourself while you take the test. The recording and test result is securely uploaded to Certific and checked by a qualified physician to ensure you have adhered to the manufacturer’s instructions properly. A medical certification containing the test result is then delivered back to the app. PCR tests cost £64, and the soon to be available rapid antigen tests will be sold in 12-packs for £249 (making the price of a single antigen test £20.75).

But how easy would it be to cheat the test and therefore fake a result? “That’s one thing we definitely are very, very focused on solving,” says Certific CEO Narusk. “Our experience in all the anti-fraud and anti-cheat areas means that we went far and beyond to make sure that you can’t actually tamper with the process. So when you record the video, and after you have recorded the video, it is checked by our test verification officers who make sure that you haven’t moved the tests away from the screen”.

In addition, Certific ensures that the test you have used is actually the test that you ordered and contains the same unique ID, and that you are the person who was supposed to do the test.

That in itself isn’t entirely fraud proof, and Hinrikus clarifies that Certific is initially focusing on ensuring that a test is carried out medically correctly. He says that a higher-priced tier will be offered at a later stage with enhanced video verification, such as a live operator acting as a witness.

This could be particularly useful for businesses, such as live events or travel, where there could be incentives for individuals to cheat and where operators may be required to prove to insurance companies or government authorities that they are COVID-19 safe.

Kreindler, Certific’s medical director, contrasts this with key workers that are currently permitted by U.K. authorities to carry out coronavirus home-testing without any additional verification, but who aren’t nearly as likely to want to fake a result.

“If you think about it, those public servants are not at a great disadvantage if they test positive, because they still get paid. So there’s less of an incentive to cheat. And the challenge comes where you are doing point of care testing in an environment where there actually is some incentive or a big disadvantage [to testing positive]”.

Kreindler also says it’s not just about individuals and that Certific has worked with academics in Estonia, North America and in the U.K. to develop a computational risk model for mass testing for “super spreader” environments, such as large events. People will not only be able to take a test at home before attending, but a risk model that continually learns and takes into account “democratised decentralised testing” and an understanding of vaccination and immunity, could enable further mitigations to be put in place to make sure there’s no net spread of the virus back into the community. “That’s very core to our thinking going forward,” he says. “It’s not just about certifying testing, it’s also about certifying crowds”.

Zooming out even further — and beyond the current coronavirus pandemic — Certific has been built to be entirely test agnostic. Combining speed, convenience, adherence and trust, the company aims to be the rails on which existing and future home tests can run (my words, not theirs). In the future, this could span testing for sexually transmitted diseases (SDIs) to anti-doping tests in sports. And, of course, new types of COVID-19 tests as they come on stream.

Notable Health seeks to improve COVID-19 vaccine administration through intelligent automation

By Sophie Burkholder

Efficient and cost-effective vaccine distribution remains one of the biggest challenges of 2021, so it’s no surprise that startup Notable Health wants to use their automation platform to help. Initially started to help address the nearly $250 billion annual administrative costs in healthcare, Notable Health launched in 2017 to use automation to replace time-consuming and repetitive simple tasks in health industry admin. In early January of this year, they announced plans to use that technology as a way to help manage vaccine distribution.

“As a physician, I saw firsthand that with any patient encounter, there are 90 steps or touchpoints that need to occur,” said Notable Health medical director Muthu Alagappan in an interview. “It’s our hypothesis that the vast majority of those points can be automated.”

Notable Health’s core technology is a platform that uses robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing (NLP), and machine learning to find eligible patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. Combined with data provided by hospital systems’ electronic health records, the platform helps those qualified to receive the vaccine set up appointments and guides them to other relevant educational resources.

“By leveraging intelligent automation to identify, outreach, educate and triage patients, health systems can develop efficient and equitable vaccine distribution workflows,” said Notable Health strategic advisor and Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board Member Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, in a press release.

Making vaccine appointments has been especially difficult for older Americans, many of whom have reportedly struggled with navigating scheduling websites. Alagappan sees that as a design problem. “Technology often gets a bad reputation, because it’s hampered by the many bad technology experiences that are out there,” he said.

Instead, he thinks Notable Health has kept the user in mind through a more simplified approach, asking users only for basic and easy-to-remember information through a text message link. “It’s that emphasis on user-centric design that I think has allowed us to still have really good engagement rates even with older populations,” he said.

While the startup’s platform will likely help hospitals and health systems develop a more efficient approach to vaccinations, its use of RPA and NLP holds promise for future optimization in healthcare. Leaders of similar technology in other industries have already gone on to have multi-billion dollar valuations, and continue to attract investors’ interest.

Artificial intelligence is expected to grow in healthcare over the next several years, but Alagappan argues that combining that with other, more readily available intelligent technologies is also an important step towards improved care. “When we say intelligent automation, we’re really referring to the marriage of two concepts: artificial intelligence—which is knowing what to do—and robotic process automation—which is knowing how to do it,” he said. That dual approach is what he says allows Notable Health to bypass administrative bottlenecks in healthcare, instructing bots to carry out those tasks in an efficient and adaptable way.

So far, Notable Health has worked with several hospital systems across multiple states in using their platform for vaccine distribution and scheduling, and are now using the platform to reach out to tens of thousands of patients per day.

Sounding Board raises cash as startups wake up to executive coaching

By Natasha Mascarenhas

In an unprecedented work environment defined by distributed teams and virtual-only communication, two co-founders think their 2018 bet reigns truer than ever: mentors need mentorship, too.

Christine Tao and Lori Mazan, the brains behind Sounding Board, want to train any leader within an organization to be a better leader. The San Francisco startup connects anyone from first-time managers to C-suite executives with coaches through a marketplace.

Revenue has doubled or tripled every year since 2016, which the company says hovers in the “multi-millions” range. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Sounding Board has seen demand for its platform grow even more. Quarterly bookings have increased 3.4 times from Q2 2020, and in the last five months, monthly revenue has doubled.

On the heels of this growth, the co-founders say that Sounding Board’s next step as a startup is to grow beyond coaching services and into a platform that can show leaders how those newfound skills are impacting business development. The new product is meant to serve as a hub and roadmap where a participant and coach can track insights, progress and behaviors.

Within the platform, a user can schedule sessions with a coach, get matched to someone, as well as look at resources and complete tasks assigned to them. Beyond that, there is a feature that allows the coach and the manager to measure goals on an ongoing basis, similar to OKR-related software.

“The content is great, but unless you can apply that content, it’s not very useful,” Mazan said. “So this coaching is a way to help people apply the insights and the learning they’ve gotten from some kind of content and really utilize that in the workplace.”

The new product takes the monthly in-person summit that your organization used to call executive coaching and turns it into a living, breathing part of a manager’s workflow.

Beyond helping its users have a better temperature check on their progress, the product will help Sounding Board scale its services. Now any tutor on Sounding Board has more ways into a user’s mind and workflow, so every call isn’t synchronous and can be managed more evenly.

The co-founders see their long-term differentiation living in this feature. Anyone can create a marketplace, but it takes seamless, easy-to-use tech to track the effectiveness of what happens post-coaching.

Tao admits that the startup isn’t for everyone. Sounding Board has seen early adoption around enterprise companies that are in a late-stage, hyper-growth mindset heading toward an IPO. That level of maturity is a sweet spot for a third-party such as them to come in and scale leaders across teams. Customers include VMware, Uber, Plaid, Chime and Dropbox.

That said, within organizations, 60% of Sounding Board’s users are first-time managers, 30% are middle-tier and 10% are C-suite. The co-founders think these numbers indicate a broader demand for mentorship beyond what their competitors offer, which often sticks to C-suite life coach territory or stress management.

“Everyone is starting to realize that we’re going to have to offer coaching broader than just in the C-suite, and sometimes they don’t really know what that means,” said Mazan.

The realization, along with COVID-19 tailwinds, has helped Sounding Board attract new millions in venture capital. The startup tells TechCrunch that it has raised a $13.1 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Other investors include Correlation Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, Precursor Ventures, as well as Degreed founder David Blake and Kevin Johnson, the former CEO of Udemy.

Privacy complaint targets European parliament’s COVID-19 test-booking site

By Natasha Lomas

The European Parliament is being investigated by the EU’s lead data regulator over a complaint that a website it set up for MEPs to book coronavirus tests may have violated data protection laws.

The complaint, which has been filed by six MEPs and is being supported by the privacy campaign group noyb, alleges third party trackers were dropped without proper consent and that cookie banners presented to visitors were confusing and deceptively designed.

It also alleges personal data was transferred to the US without a valid legal basis, making reference to a landmark legal ruling by Europe’s top court last summer (aka Schrems II).

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which oversees EU institutions’ compliance with data rules, confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it has begun investigating.

It also said the “litigious cookies” had been disabled following the complaints, adding that the parliament told it no user data had in fact been transferred outside the EU.

“A complaint was indeed filed by some MEPs about the European Parliament’s coronavirus testing website; the EDPS has started investigating it in accordance with Article 57(1)(e) EUDPR (GDPR for EU institutions),” an EDPS spokesman told TechCrunch. “Following this complaint, the Data Protection Office of the European Parliament informed the EDPS that the litigious cookies were now disabled on the website and confirmed that no user data was sent to outside the European Union.”

“The EDPS is currently assessing this website to ensure compliance with EUDPR requirements. EDPS findings will be communicated to the controller and complainants in due course,” it added.

MEP, Alexandra Geese, of Germany’s Greens, filed an initial complaint with the EDPS on behalf of other parliamentarians.

Two of the MEPs that have joined the complaint and are making their names public are Patrick Breyer and Mikuláš Peksa — both members of the Pirate Party, in Germany and the Czech Republic respectively.

We’ve reached out to the European Parliament and the company it used to supply the testing website for comment.

The complaint is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the allegations of a failure to uphold regional data protection rules look pretty embarrassing for an EU institution. Data protection may also feel especially important for “politically exposed persons like Members and staff of the European Parliament”, as noyb puts it.

Back in 2019 the European Parliament was also sanctioned by the EDPS over use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections — in the regulator’s first ever such enforcement of an EU institution.

So it’s not the first time the parliament has got in hot water over its attention to detail vis-a-vis third party data processors (the parliament’s COVID-19 test registration website is being provided by a German company called Ecolog Deutschland GmbH). Once may be an oversight, twice starts to look sloppy…

Secondly, the complaint could offer a relatively quick route for a referral to the EU’s top court, the CJEU, to further clarify interpretation of Schrems II — a ruling that has implications for thousands of businesses involved in transferring personal data out of the EU — should there be a follow-on challenge to a decision by the EDPS.

“The decisions of the EDPS can be directly challenged before the Court of Justice of the EU,” noyb notes in a press release. “This means that the appeal can be brought directly to the highest court of the EU, in charge of the uniform interpretation of EU law. This is especially interesting as noyb is working on multiple other cases raising similar issues before national DPAs.”

Guidance for businesses involved in transferring data out of the EU who are trying to understand how to (or often whether they can) be compliant with data protection law, post-Schrems II, is so far limited to what EU regulators have put out.

Further interpretation by the CJEU could bring more clarifying light — and, indeed, less wiggle room for processors wanting to keep schlepping Europeans’ data over the pond legally, depending on how the cookie crumbles (if you’ll pardon the pun).

noyb notes that the complaint asks the EDPS to prohibit transfers that violate EU law.

“Public authorities, and in particular the EU institutions, have to lead by example to comply with the law,” said Max Schrems, honorary chairman of noyb, in a statement. “This is also true when it comes to transfers of data outside of the EU. By using US providers, the European Parliament enabled the NSA to access data of its staff and its members.”

Per the complaint, concerns about third party trackers and data transfers were initially raised to the parliament last October — after an MEP used a tracker scanning tool to analyze the COVID-19 test booking website and found a total of 150 third-party requests and a cookie were placed on her browser.

Specifically, the EcoCare COVID-19 testing registration website was found to drop a cookie from the US-based company Stripe, as well as including many more third-party requests from Google and Stripe.

The complaint also notes that a data protection notice on the site informed users that data on their usage generated by the use of Google Analytics is “transmitted to and stored on a Google server in the US”.

Where consent was concerned, the site was found to serve users with two different conflicting data protection notices — with one containing a (presumably copypasted) reference to Brussels Airport.

Different consent flows were also presented, depending on the user’s region, with some visitors being offered no clear opt out button. The cookie notices were also found to contain a ‘dark pattern’ nudge toward a bright green button for ‘accepting all’ processing, as well as confusing wording for unclear alternatives.

A screengrab of the cookie consent prompt that the parliament’s COVID-19 test booking website displayed at the time of writing – with still no clearly apparent opt-out for non-essential cookies (Image credit: TechCrunch)

The EU has stringent requirements for (legally) gathering consents for (non-essential) cookies and other third party tracking technologies which states that consent must be clearly informed, specific and freely given.

In 2019, Europe’s top court further confirmed that consent must be obtained prior to dropping non-essential trackers. (Health-related data also generally carries a higher consent-bar to process legally in the EU, although in this case the personal information relates to appointment registrations rather than special category medical data).

The complaints allege that EU cookie consent requirements are not being met on the website.

While the presence of requests for US-based services (and the reference to storing data in the US) is a legal problem in light of the Schrems II judgement.

The US no longer enjoys legally frictionless flows of personal data out of the EU after the CJEU torpedoed the adequacy arrangement the Commission had granted (invalidating the EU-US Privacy Shield mechanism) — which in turn means transfers of data on EU peoples to US-based companies are complicated.

Data controllers are responsible for assessing each such proposed transfer, on a case by case basis. A data transfer mechanism called Standard Contractual Clauses was not invalidated by the CJEU. But the court made it clear SCCs can only be used for transfers to third countries where data protection is essentially equivalent to the legal regime offered in the EU — doing so at the same time as saying the US does not meet that standard.

Guidance from the European Data Protection Board in the wake of the ruling suggests that some EU-US data transfers may be possible to carry in compliance with European law. Such as those that involve encrypted data with no access by the receiving US-based entity.

However the bar for compliance varies depending on the specific context and case.

Additionally, for a subset of companies that are definitely subject to US surveillance law (such as Google) the compliance bar may be impossibly high — as surveillance law is the main legal sticking point for EU-US transfers.

So, once again, it’s not a good look for the parliament website to have had a notice on its COVID-19 testing website that said personal data would be transferred to a Google’s server in the US. (Even if that functionality had not been activated, as seems to have been claimed.)

Another reason the complaint against the European Parliament is noteworthy is that it further highlights how much web infrastructure in use within Europe could be risking legal sanction for failing to comply with regional data protection rules. If the European Parliament can’t get it right, who is?

noyb filed a raft of complaints against EU websites last year which it had identified still sending data to the US via Google Analytics and/or Facebook Connect integrations a short while after the Schrems II ruling. (Those complaints are being looked into by DPAs across the EU.)

Facebook’s EU data transfers are also very much on the hook here. Earlier this month the tech giant’s lead EU data regulator agreed to ‘swiftly resolve’ a long-standing complaint over its transfers.

Schrems filed that complaint all the way back in 2013. He told us he expects the case to be resolved this year, likely within around six to nine months. So a final decision should come in 2021.

He has previously suggested the only way for Facebook to fix the data transfers issue is to federate its service, storing European users’ data locally. While last year the tech giant was forced to deny it would shut its service in Europe if its lead EU regulator followed through on enforcing a preliminary order to suspend transfers (which it blocked by applying for a judicial review of the Irish DPC’s processes).

The alternative outcome Facebook has been lobbying for is some kind of a political resolution to the legal uncertainty clouding EU-US data transfers. However the European Commission has warned there’s no quick fix — and reform of US surveillance law is needed.

So with options for continued icing of EU data protection enforcement against US tech giants melting fast in the face of bar-setting CJEU rulings and ongoing strategic litigation like this latest noyb-supported complaint pressure is only going to keep building for pro-privacy reform of US surveillance law. Not that Facebook has openly come out in support of reforming FISA yet.

Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

By Rita Liao

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments.

It’s still unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets, which are Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand.

“We will share more details locally as vaccinations roll out and our local support plans are finalized,” said a spokesperson for the company.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

To ensure passenger and driver safety, the company rolled out a mask detection technology last year for in-car cameras across China and some of its overseas markets.

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents in 2018. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

In all, Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables more than 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. Outside China, it has over 20 million users and 2.8 million drivers and couriers.

The company has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

The story was updated with more details of the fund on January 22, 2021.

How Bitcoin is helping middle-class users survive the pandemic

By David Riggs
Leigh Cuen Contributor
Leigh Cuen is a reporter in New York City. Her work has been published by Vice, Business Insider, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, Al Jazeera English, The Jerusalem Post, and many others. Follow her on Instagram at @leighcuen.

Regulators may still want to imply Bitcoin is merely a tool for criminals, but for many middle-class users, it’s proving to be a lifeline.

Even as politicians like European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde criticize cryptocurrency for providing “loopholes” used for “funny business,” people like Saeed, an Iranian immigrant to France, see cryptocurrency as a necessity, because of the difficulty using mainstream financial systems.

Until 2020, Saeed, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was a software engineer in Iran whose salary barely reached €300 due to rampant inflation. In 2017, he started freelancing for international clients that paid him in Bitcoin. By September 2020, he’d finally saved enough Bitcoin to go to graduate school in France. However, the pandemic made his immigration process much harder.

“I passed all that strange bureaucracy and to get to a course in France last September, with only €1,000 in my pocket,” Saeed said. “HSBC, Banque Nationale de Paris, La Banque Postale, all rejected me, declining to open a bank account. I finally found a bank after a month.”

In the meantime, Saeed used Bitcoin. He is exactly the type of person who benefits from “loopholes” in the traditional banking system.

“Many people in Iran are working with European tech companies,” Saeed said. “Maybe I can’t buy Bitcoin directly from the exchange because of my nationality.”

Saeed thinks Lagarde represents bankers’ and government interests, not average citizens, who are happy to work with him. He said stricter regulations would make his access to the financial system more time-consuming and expensive, because he’d have to pay friends and colleagues to transact on his behalf. However, Iranian migrants are hardly the sole user group relying on Bitcoin during the pandemic.

In the United Kingdom, a British expat named Paul found himself trapped in London when flights back to his Asian country of residence got canceled. Due to tight capital controls in his former country, and the challenges of repatriation during constant lockdowns, Paul was living in between regulatory systems.

“I closed down the business [in Asia] just before the pandemic started. My father passed away and it was difficult to continue my company,” Paul said. “I was in hotels and Airbnbs for weeks and didn’t have a residential address…without Bitcoin I would have been locked out of cash. I could only take money out of the ATM for a certain number of months because it’s limited to holidays.”

Luckily, Paul had a little Bitcoin from earlier that year. Unlike Saeed, he didn’t feel comfortable with the technical aspects, but he learned quickly. He used Bitcoin to buy gift cards for groceries, phone bills, hotels and Uber, plus paid a friend back in Asia to help wrap up his apartment and put things in storage.

“I think it was generally a bad idea but, at least with Brexit, thank god we won’t be subject to whatever Lagarde does,” Paul said, adding that regulation can be beneficial if it avoids restrictions for people who don’t have banking access.

Today, almost a year later, Paul still doesn’t have access to most of his financial accounts. Instead, he downloaded Monzo, a banking app that uses passports for identity verification instead of residential addresses. He pays friends in London to deposit to his Monzo account.

“It becomes really convoluted. I primarily use crypto because it’s easier,” Paul said. “One of my friends is a student from Nigeria and had a similar experience. He used Bitcoin to pay his school fees… I’ve been at my current residence for a couple of months, so I would be able to finally open a bank account. But now I don’t really see the need, especially with the news of negative interest rates.”

Meanwhile, the fiat-denominated price of Bitcoin surged over the past six months. This provided Saeed and Paul both with a little extra capital to spend time figuring out what they want to do next. For Saeed, does it make sense to do the graduate program online, with fewer networking benefits and hands-on experiences (the reason he came to France)? How does Paul move forward with his career now that his family business closed and his sector (music marketing) is in shambles? 

Buying Bitcoin could be considered a form of gambling. Indeed, many middle-class hobbyist traders accrued life-changing amounts of wealth over the past year, usually by experimenting with risky software. For people like Paul and Saeed, who generally avoid experimental trades and lack alternative investment options, Bitcoin’s price appreciation is helping them get through a period of abysmal job markets and intermittent lockdowns. People don’t need to live in a dictatorship or a country suffering from high inflation to benefit from Bitcoin. I would know; I’m one of them. 

Like many people during the pandemic, my living situation changed dramatically and I initially couldn’t work full-time from home. I was lucky to sell a few poems in exchange for cryptocurrency, usually via direct messages and Bitcoin wallets or as digital collectibles through collaborations with tech-savvy artists. Then the bull market surged again, sending those meager earnings high enough to cover some of my bills. A valet worker and student in Kansas named Hess had a similar experience. 

Quarantine helped kill his relationship of six years and he found himself needing to move out. He put his savings into Bitcoin during spring 2020, so that by December he was able to move out.

“COVID hit and I was out of steady work for four months,” Hess said. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for my decision to basically throw 70% of my net worth into Bitcoin, I don’t think I would be in as good of a place mentally and financially.”

To be clear, that is an extremely risky financial move and I would not advise it as a first resort. Yet, for many people experiencing unexpected change due to COVID-19, Bitcoin has become the lifeline it was for Hess.

Over the past year, Bitcoin donations may have gained popularity with several American communities, including some of the extremist groups involved with storming Capitol Hill. Incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen echoed Lagarde’s concerns about Bitcoin being used for criminal activities.

However, so far, the analytics company Chainalysis estimates such donations add up to roughly $522,000. These numbers might also be compared to the cumulative totals managed by other subjects referenced in this article. For yet another lawful example, Lawrence Douglas, a former operations director at an event security company in California, lost his job as a result of the pandemic.

“Cash App pretty much changed my financial life,” Douglas said. “Bitcoin prices during the calendar year of 2020 provided me with lots of wiggle room, while I currently search for a new job.”

As an unemployed Black man, he was statistically less likely to have connections who could help him learn about stocks or precious metals, for example. He said Bitcoin, comparatively, has a “low barrier to entry.” In April 2020, he turned his stimulus check into a little Bitcoin nest egg. By November, he was utilizing a strategy called dollar-cost averaging, routinely buying small amounts of Bitcoin.

Douglas, like Paul, first bought cryptocurrency during the pandemic. On the other hand, when I interviewed more than a dozen Bitcoin users across Europe and North America for this article, most of them were crypto veterans who said Bitcoin gave them “peace” during the year-long crisis. Anesthesiologist Quentin Lobb, for example, said “bottom line, our net worth grew tremendously in 2020, thanks to Bitcoin. It has provided a pleasant and exciting sense of financial security.”

Yet another crypto veteran, Texas real estate agent broker Brandon Arnold, said the national political and economic situation was more “mentally taxing than ever before.” Against that backdrop, controlling a fraction of his own wealth gives him a sense of security. The price appreciation helps too, to be sure, though it’s not why Bitcoin is now so popular with middle-class users.

“If I factor in the risk of not having access to my capital, the price volatility doesn’t really matter,” Paul said. “As long as the price of Bitcoin doesn’t go to zero, it’s still more useful for me than the other options available.”

 

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