FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Today — August 6th 2020Your RSS feeds

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go

By Natasha Lomas

Uber has bought UK based Autocab, which sells SaaS to the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, with the aim of expanding the utility of its own platform by linking users who open its app in places where it doesn’t offer trips to local providers who do.

No acquisition price has been disclosed and Uber declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Autocab has a SaaS presence in 20 countries globally at this stage, according to an Uber spokeswoman. We’ve asked whether it will be closing a marketplace service which connects local taxi firms with trip bookers in any locations as a result of the Uber acquisition.

The Manchester-based veteran taxi software maker — which sells booking and despatch software as well as operating a global marketplace (iGo) which local firms can plug into to get more trips — was founded back in 1989, per Crunchbase.

Uber’s spokeswoman said it plans to support Autocab’s expansion of SaaS and iGo internationally — suggesting the tech giant hopes to be able to integrate the marketplace across its own global footprint in order to be able to offer users a less patchy service.

The move also looks intended to create more opportunities for Uber drivers to pick up jobs from outside its own platform, including delivery work.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Uber said “thousands of people” open its app every month in places where they can’t get a trip. It lists 15 UK towns which fall into this category — headed by Oxford (with 67,099 app opens monthly) and Tunbridge Wells (46,150); or at the other end Colchester (16,540) and Ipswich (16,539).

“Through Autocab’s iGo marketplace, Uber will be able to connect these riders with local operators who choose to take their booking. In turn, operators should be able to expand their operations and offer more earnings opportunities to local drivers. Uber will also explore providing drivers with additional revenue opportunities related to its platform for other services, such as delivery,” it added.

According to Bloomberg, Uber won’t be integrating Autocab’s marketplace in markets where it already offers a service, such as London — so there does look to be an element of Uber using the purchase to shore up its own key markets by closing down the chance of a little locally flavored competition.

Uber’s rides business has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squeezed demand for on-demand transportation, as many professionals switching to remote work at home. Social distancing requirements have also hit the nightlife industry, further eating into demand for Uber’s service.

All of which makes life hard for Uber’s ‘self employed‘ drivers — giving the company an incentive to find ways to retain their service during a leaner time for on-demand trips when they may otherwise abandon the platform, damaging its ability to provide a reliable service.

For Autocab’s part, the acquisition offers a road to further global expansion. It will remain independent with its own board after the acquisition, per the pair’s press release — retaining its focus on serving the taxi and private hire vehicle industry globally.

Commenting in a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern & Eastern Europe, said: “Autocab has worked successfully with taxi and private hire operators around the world for more than thirty years and Uber has a lot to learn from their experience. We look forward to working with the Autocab team to help local operators grow and provide drivers with genuine earnings opportunities.”

Autocab CEO, Safa Alkatab, added: “Autocab has been working with local operators across the world to provide the technology to make them more efficient and open up a marketplace to provide more trips. Working with Uber we can scale up our ambitions, providing hundreds of thousands of additional trips for our customers, and help cement the place of licenced operators in their local community.”

Twitter locked the Trump campaign out of its account for sharing COVID-19 misinformation

By Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter took action against the official Trump campaign Twitter account Wednesday, freezing @TeamTrump’s ability to tweet until it removed a video in which the president made misleading claims about the coronavirus. In the video clip, taken from a Wednesday morning Fox News interview, President Trump makes the unfounded assertion that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

While Trump’s main account @realDonaldTrump linked out to the @TeamTrump tweet in violation, it did not directly share it. In spite of some mistaken reports that Trump’s own account is locked, at this time his account had not been subject to the same enforcement action as the Trump campaign account, which appears to have regained its ability to tweet around 6PM PT.

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Facebook also took its own unprecedented action against President Trump’s account late Wednesday, removing the post for violating its rules against harmful false claims that any group is immune to the virus.

The president’s false claims were made in service of his belief that schools should reopen their classrooms in the fall. In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made similar unscientific claims, arguing that children are “stoppers of the disease.”

In reality, the relationship between children and the virus is not yet well understood. While young children seem less prone to severe cases of COVID-19, the extent to which they contract and spread the virus isn’t yet known. In a new report examining transmission rates at a Georgia youth camp, the CDC observed that “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia launches new seed fund in collaboration with AngelList

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia has teamed up with AngelList to launch his debut $5 million rolling fund to invest in early-stage entrepreneurs.

He is cutting $100,000 to $250,000 checks for startups and has a particular interest in B2B, SaaS, future of work, video, and developer tools. Limited partners include Arlan Hamilton, Josh Kopelman, and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant.

But, here’s the twist: Lavingia raised $5 million using just a Notion memo, a few tweets, and a Zoom call with over 1,800 registrants.

“It’s the power of Zoom and Twitter in the COVID era,” Lavingia said.

Still, two months ago, Lavingia didn’t even know he wanted to be a VC. The entrepreneur has made some angel investments in Lambda School, Figma, Haus, Clubhouse, and HelloSign (which was acquired by Dropbox). Eventually, though, he says angel investing got too expensive for him to do so he stopped.

Then, following George Floyd’s murder, he followed the lead of other investors rushing to invest in Black founders and tweeted this:

Occasionally I angel invest in tech startups, including @LambdaSchool, @figmadesign, @HelloSign. I’m also an LP in @Backstage_Cap.

My next investment will be in a Black founder. If you are one, please send me an email this week about what you’re working on: sahil@hey.com

Sahil Lavingia (@shl) June 1, 2020

As a result of the tweet, he invested in 4 startups founded by Black entrepreneurs. Since some were looking on follow-on capital, he tapped into his network, including AngelList founder Naval Ravikant. Ravikant, seeing the deals, floated the concept of a rolling fund by him.

Rolling funds via Zoom

In February, AngelList launched a so-called rolling venture fund product to help emerging venture capitalists close their first funds, faster. The fund structure allows fund managers to raise new capital commitments on a regular basis and invest as they go, ergo the “rolling” aspect. Lavingia worked with AngelList to create his fund, and has capital commitments of $1.25 million per quarter in a $5 million per year fund.

The rolling fund structure can be a bit volatile because limited partners have to “re-up” their investments on a quarterly basis. It could put a fund’s investing ability in flux and thus impact portfolio construction, too.

One way to battle this volatility is that limited partners must commit to at least four consecutive quarters when investing in a rolling fund. After that, investors can choose on a quarter by quarter basis if they want to invest in the fund. Lavingia says that on this first close, he could have raised 5 to 10 times the capital, but chose to pick smaller checks from exceptional people. The smallest check in is $55,000 a year split over four quarters, he said.

Lavingia also claims that the rotating nature of check acceptance will allow him to continually invite a more diverse limited partner base as time goes on. He declined to share specific numbers on the current diversity of his LP base, but said that 30 percent of his portfolio companies to date are founded by Black entrepreneurs.

One other note on rolling funds, an SEC regulation — 506(c) — allows investors to publicly fundraise.Traditional venture capital funds are usually raised in private which disproportionately benefits those who already have their foot in the door. Lavingia says the 506(c) regulation allows him, as a first-time fund manager, to raise publicly on Zoom.

Lavingia hosted a Q&A about his new fund with a group of his buddies: Work Life Ventures’ Brianne Kimmel, AngelList’s Sunil Pai, and Earnest Capital’s Tyler Tringas.

Lavingia says that there were around 600 to 700 people live on the call, which is larger than most conferences he’s spoken at.

Lavingia was the second employee at Pinterest and left to start building Gumroad, a platform to help creators sell products to consumers. The company went through a gutting round of layoffs and restructuring in 2015, inspiring Lavingia to pen a viral blog post about his “failure to build a billion-dollar company.” Today, Gumroad is at $10 million ARR and is growing 100% year over year with a team of 10 people.

While Lavingia will continue to work on Gumroad, he says that his failure and transparency around it “is actually growing the company faster.”

‘I think it gives me a little bit more bandwidth to do an experiment along these lines,” he said, of the fund.

First-time fund managers have had to turn to unique ways to de-risk themselves in this volatile time. Lavingia’s story is no different, and showcases that the power of remote deals isn’t just a phenomenon that founders will benefit from.

As e-commerce accelerates, fintech startups raised record $100M rounds in Q2

By Alex Wilhelm

Reading headlines here and there, one might assume that venture capital interest in fintech startups is setting records every quarter.

After all: didn’t Robinhood raise $280 million and $320 million more this year? Stripe raised $600 million just a few minutes ago, and wasn’t it Monzo that raised £60 million a few weeks back? Oh, and Hippo raised $150 million the other day.

And what about that huge Plaid exit earlier in the year and Chime’s jillion dollars that came right before 2019 ended?

That’s how it has felt to me, at least. And with good reason: new data from CB Insights indicates that fintech startups raised a record number of so-called “mega-rounds,” financings worth $100 million and more, in the second quarter of 2020.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


So the vibe in fintech that huge rounds have been landing quite often is correct. But underneath the big deals, there was early-stage weakness in the market that makes for a surprising contrast.

The same CB Insights report details a key “tailwind” factor for many fintech startups, namely that e-commerce is booming in the COVID-19 era, rising from about 16% of total U.S. commerce to around 27% through Q2 of this year.

So, let’s start by taking a quick look at Square’s earnings that leaked yesterday, and some notes from Shopify’s recent results to decipher just how fast the economy is heading online before examining what happened in Q2 VC for fintech startups as a cohort.

We’ll keep this as numbers-light as we can, and fun as we can — I promise. Let’s go!

Digital commerce is growing like a weed

You might think that Square, a company most famous for its IRL payment terminals and ability to turn any person into a micro-company would suffer while COVID-19 slowed in-person business. But, despite slowing gross payment volume (GPV), as expected, Square’s revenue exploded in Q2, growing from $1.17 billion in Q2 2019 to $1.92 billion in the most recent period.

What Q2 fundraising data tells us about the rest of 2020

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

It’s safe to say that no one could have predicted how this year’s fundraising marketplace was going to shape up. The beginning of the year saw us trending toward a blockbuster start, similar to 2018, rather than the steady burn of 2019. But after March there was no clear road map for how VCs and founders were going to react.

We’ve been tracking three key data metrics from the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to show us real-time trends in the fundraising marketplace. Using aggregate and anonymous data pulled from thousands of pitch deck interactions across the DocSend platform, we’re able to track the supply and demand in the marketplace, as well as the quality of pitch deck interactions.

The main two metrics are Pitch Deck Interest and Founder Links Created. These are leading indicators for how the fundraising marketplace is shaping up as it measures the activity happening around the pitch deck. As that interest peaks, we expect the amount of funds deployed to increase in the months after. Pitch Deck Interest is measured by the average number of pitch deck interactions for each founder happening on our platform per week, and is a great proxy for demand.

Founder Links Created is how many unique links a founder is creating to their deck each week; because each person you send a document to in DocSend gets a unique link, we can use this as a proxy for supply by looking at how many investors a founder is sharing their deck with per week.

Here’s what we saw in Q2 and how that will affect the rest of the year.

VCs are shopping

VC interest has been at an all-time high over the last quarter. Interest rebounded over the course of a few weeks after the pandemic was declared and shelter-in-place orders were given. But once interest rebounded to pre-pandemic levels it did something surprising. It kept climbing. In fact, the top 10 weeks for VC interest this year were all in Q2. Overall, interest was up 21.6% QoQ and 26% YoY. This means we’re looking at VCs viewing more pitch decks than they have any time in the last two years.

This is in spite of VC interest traditionally declining from late spring into summer, before bottoming out during the last two weeks of August. After the initial peak in the spring, VC interest typically doesn’t rebound until October.

But not only can we see that VCs are interacting with a lot of decks, we also can determine the quality of those interactions. We measure how long a VC spends reading each deck. From our previous research we know that the average pitch deck interaction is less than 3.5 minutes. But the amount of time VCs spent reading each deck in Q2 steadily declined, going below two minutes toward the end of the quarter. This tells us VCs are speeding through decks. That means they either know what they’re looking for and aren’t wasting time, or they’re scrutinizing decks less, opting for a Zoom call to hear more from a founder.

For founders, this means having a tight deck is even more important than before. Don’t have more than 20 slides, don’t send your appendix in your send-ahead deck and keep your slides concise and thoughtful (read our guide on how to put together a send-ahead deck here).

If you’re still not able to get a meeting with a VC during this intense shopping season, you may want to consider changing your fundraising strategy.

Founder timelines have changed

We can see over the last quarter that there have been clear spikes in the amount of links founders are sending out. Founders sent out 11% more deck links in Q2 than they did in Q1, but what’s interesting is that the number of links created actually dropped below 2019 levels on three separate occasions. So while founders might have been rushing to send their deck out during unstable times, there were plenty of weeks where founders were hanging back.

This conflicting story can tell us several things. First, founders have most likely condensed their fundraising efforts. According to our research earlier this year, the average pre-seed round takes longer than three months to complete. For those fundraising during a pandemic, three months can seem like a lifetime. This is not only due to the logistics of setting meetings with VCs who have packed calendars, but also the iteration process of receiving feedback from a potential investor, working on your deck, then sending it out to new targets. With global uncertainty, many founders likely decided to shorten their time away from their business by reducing their fundraising efforts to just a few weeks.

Second, due to aggressive cost cutting at the beginning of the pandemic, many founders found themselves with more runway than they expected. In fact, according to a recent survey we did, nearly 50% of founders changed their fundraising timeline by either moving it forward or delaying it. Founders that could afford to decided to avoid the volatile fundraising marketplace in an effort to preserve their valuations.

We’re looking at more than displaced interest from March

While it was easy during April and early May to think the fundraising marketplace was experiencing delayed activity due to the crash in March, the sustained interest makes it hard to believe that’s still the case, especially taking into account seasonality. The last week of the quarter saw a 37% increase in interest over 2019 and an 18% increase over 2018. With that level of activity, we’ve clearly entered a new normal for fundraising.

While valuations might be fluctuating, it’s quite clear VCs are shopping. To figure out why, you don’t have to look any further than the 2008 financial crisis. The businesses born out of crises tend to address real, systemic problems that require big, bold fixes. And the pandemic has certainly laid bare many societal issues that are worth addressing.

What Q3 and Q4 could look like based on current trends

If it’s clear that VCs are shopping, and it’s clear that this isn’t displaced interest from earlier this year, what does that mean for the future? We would normally see an increase in founder activity starting in late summer, leading to peak VC interest in the fall. Founder activity has been up and down, and VC interest has been steadily rising, which tells us there’s still pent-up demand to deploy capital. We should also see many founders who delayed their fundraising efforts enter the marketplace in the next few months. If pandemic conditions worsen, we might also see founders who had decided to push their fundraising efforts to next year moving their timelines forward.

If the current level of interest represents the new normal for VCs, we expect it to only increase as we enter the fall. And with more founders coming online in early to late fall, that pent-up demand should result in an increasingly active market. If you’re a founder, I would recommend kicking off your fundraise now in order to capitalize on the increased interest from investors and decreased competition for at least the first pitch meeting.

Q3 2020 is primed to be an intense shopping season for VCs

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

With the high possibility of an extremely active fundraising marketplace for the rest of the year, founders need to know how to take advantage of it. As you can see from the DocSend Pitch Deck Interest Metrics, spikes in the marketplace previously have resulted in some pretty specific behaviors by VCs.

Here are some tips on how to use the increasing levels of VC interest to your advantage.

VCs are spending less time on your deck, so get to the point

We’re seeing record low time spent per pitch deck. We know from previous research that VCs spend on average 3.5 minutes per pitch deck. But over the last quarter that time has dipped below three minutes. That can actually be a good and a bad thing. It implies that VCs are streamlining their process of looking at decks, which means they most likely know what they want. The downside of this is if you break a few cardinal rules right now your deck could end up in the reject pile.

From our research, VCs expect a deck to be around 20 pages. They expect a straightforward narrative that starts with your problem, leading to the solution, and then your product and business model. Our data found that VCs respond best to 35-50 words per slide (too few words per slide is also an issue; you want to offer enough context for your deck to make sense without you presenting it). The only place you can increase your word count is on your Team page. Our data shows the average number of words on a successful Team slide is 80. This gives you room to highlight the founding team’s relevant experience and show how you’re uniquely suited to build your business.

You have to include a “why now” slide and it should mention COVID-19

We already know that investors respond well to a Why Now slide. Our research shows that 54% of successful pitch decks included a Why Now slide, where only 38% of failed decks included it. That slide now has to work twice as hard. We’re hearing from investors that they expect to see information in your pitch deck about how your business has been affected by COVID-19 and how you plan to manage that impact moving forward. Even if the pandemic has had no material effect on your business, the investor will still have the question. Get out in front of it with a well-formed response near the beginning of your deck.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Amid pandemic, returning to offices remains an open question for tech leaders

By Ron Miller

As COVID-19 infections surge in parts of the U.S., many workplaces remain empty or are operating with skeleton crews.

Most agree that the decision to return to the office should involve a combination of business, government and medical officials and scientists who have a deep understanding of COVID-19 and infectious disease in general. The exact timing will depend on many factors, including the government’s willingness to open up, the experts’ view of current conditions, business leadership’s tolerance for risk (or how reasonable it is to run the business remotely), where your business happens to be and the current conditions there.

That doesn’t mean every business that can open will, but if and when they get a green light, they can at least begin bringing some percentage of employees back. But what that could look like is clouded in great uncertainty around commutes, office population density and distancing, the use of elevators, how much you can reasonably deep clean, what it could mean to have a mask on for eight hours a day, and many other factors.

To get a sense of how tech companies are looking at this, we spoke to a number of executives to get their perspective. Most couldn’t see returning to the office beyond a small percentage of employees this year. But to get a more complete picture, we also spoke to a physician specializing in infectious diseases and a government official to get their perspectives on the matter.

Taking it slowly

While there are some guidelines out there to help companies, most of the executives we spoke to found that while they missed in-person interactions, they were happy to take things slow and were more worried about putting staff at risk than being in a hurry to return to normal operations.

Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder at Incredible Health, a startup that helps hospitals find and hire nurses, said her company was half-remote even before COVID-19 hit, but since then, the team is now completely remote. Whenever San Francisco’s mayor gives the go-ahead, she says she will reopen the office, but the company’s 30 employees will have the option to keep working remotely.

She points out that for some employees, working at home has proven very challenging. “I do want to highlight two groups that are pretty important that need to be highlighted in this narrative. First, we have employees with very young kids, and the schools are closed so working at home forever or even for the rest of this year is not really an option, and then the second group is employees who are in smaller apartments, and they’ve got roommates and it’s not comfortable to work at home,” Abuzeid explained.

Those folks will need to go to the office whenever that’s allowed, she said. For Lindsay Grenawalt, chief people officer at Cockroach Labs, an 80-person database startup in NYC, said there has to be a highly compelling reason to bring people back to the office at this point.

First US apps based on Google and Apple Exposure Notification System expected in ‘coming weeks’

By Darrell Etherington

Google Vice President of Engineering Dave Burke provided an update about the Exposure Notifications System (ENS) that Google developed in partnership with Apple, as a way to help public health authorities supplement contact tracing efforts with a connected solution that preserves privacy while alerting people of potential exposure to confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the update, Burke notes that the company expects “to see the first et of these apps roll out in the coming weeks” in the U.S., which may be a tacit response to some critics who have pointed out that we haven’t seen much in the way of actual products being built on the technology that was launched in May.

Burke writes that 20 states and territories across the U.S. are currently “exploring” apps that make use of the ENS system, and that together those represent nearly half (45%) of the overall American populace. He also shared recent updates and improvements made to both the Exposure Notification API, as well as to its surrounding documentation and information that the companies have shared in order to answer questions state health agencies have had, and hopefully make its use and privacy implications more transparent.

The ENS API now supports exposure notifications between countries, which Burke says is a feature added based on nations that have already launched apps based on the tech (that includes Canada, as of today, as well as some European nations). It’s also now better at using Bluetooth values specific to a wider range of devices to improve nearby device detection accuracy. He also says that they’ve improved the reliability for both apps and debugging tools for those working on development, which should help public health authorities and their developer partners more easily build apps that actually use ENS.

Burke continues that there’s been feedback from developers that they’d like more detail about how ENS works under the covers, and so they’ve published public-facing guides that direct health authorities about test verification server creation, code revealing its underlying workings, and information about what data is actually collected (in a de-identified manner) to allow for much more transparent debugging and verification of proper app functioning.

Google also explains why it requires that an Android device’s location setting be turned on to use Exposure Notifications – even though apps built using the API are explicitly forbidden from also collecting location data. Basically, it’s a legacy requirement that Google is removing in Android 11, which is set to be released soon. In the meantime, however, Burke says that even with location services turned off, no app that uses the ENS will actually be able to see or receive any location data.

Mammoth Biosciences’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 test receives NIH funding through RADx program

By Darrell Etherington

CRISPR tech startup Mammoth Biosciences is among the companies that revealed backing from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program on Friday. Mammoth received a contract to scale up its CRISPR-based SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test in order to help address the testing shortages across the U.S.

Mammoth’s CRISPR-based approach could potentially offer a significant solution to current testing bottlenecks, because it’s a very different kind of test when compared to existing methods based on PCR technology. The startup has also enlisted the help of pharma giant GSK to develop and produce a new COVID-19 testing solution, which will be a handheld, disposable test that can offer results in as little as 20 minutes, on site.

While that test is still in development, the RADx funding received through this funding will be used to scale manufacturing of the company’s DETECTR platform for distribution and use in commercial laboratory settings. This will still offer a “multi-fold increase in testing capacity,” the company says, even though it’s a lab-based solution instead of a point-of-care test like the one it’s seeking to create with GSK.

Already, UCSF has received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA to use the DETECTR reagent set to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, and the startup hopes to be able to extend similar testing capacity to other labs across the U.S.

Genomics startup Helix receives $33 million in NIH funding to scale COVID-19 testing

By Darrell Etherington

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is revealing the first beneficiaries of its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program, and San Mateo-based Helix is on the receiving end of $33 million in federal funding as a result. Helix is a health tech startup founded in 2015 that focuses on insights derived from personal genomics, but the company has also developed a COVID-19 test that detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 using RT-PCR methods.

The funding will be used to support Helix’s efforts to scale its COVID-19 testing efforts, with the aim of achieving a rate of 100,000 tests per day by this fall, and then extending the throughput capacity even further after that. Helix’s test got FDA Emergency Use Approval (EUA) earlier this month, and has since been available nationally across the U.S., promising “next day” results.

Helix has also filed for an EUA for a second type of test, an NGS test that offers higher throughput for more testing volume, as well as increased sensitivity toward actually detecting the presence of the virus to avoid false negatives. This test, if approved, will be key to helping Helix achieve that much greater scale of testing capability that is the ultimate aim of the RADx program.

That second test system currently seeking approval would be able to process as many as 25,000 tests per day, and it uses a different method that would also help reduce the strain on the supply chain.

Opportunities (and challenges) in church tech

By Walter Thompson
Will Robbins Contributor
Will Robbins is an early-stage investor at Contrary.

Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Weekly church attendance is falling, congregations are getting smaller or even closing and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” has spiked.

Despite all this, now might be the perfect time for church tech companies to thrive.

A combination of COVID-19-induced adoption, underrated demographic trends and pressure to innovate is setting the stage for new successes in the previously sleepy church tech space. Venture dollars are flowing in, and Silicon Valley is slowly showing serious interest in the sector. Hot new startups are finding creative growth hacks to penetrate a difficult market. Major challenges remain for companies in this space, but their odds seem better than ever.

Less religion, more spirituality

Yes, Americans are going to church less often, but that doesn’t mean they’re not staying spiritual. In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown faster than any other group in this Pew survey on religiosity. This fact is reflected in other data. For example, the percentage of Americans that pray daily or weekly has stayed fairly flat even as overall religiosity declined. This opens up two distinct opportunities, as well as two challenges.

Opportunities:

  • What tools do the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd need?
  • Churches are realizing they need to innovate or die. What tools do they need to reach out to their members and gain new congregants?

Challenges:

  • Two demographics: young, tech-savvy and more willing to try a new product, but less involved in church tradition versus older, not as tech-savvy and harder to reach.
  • Very byzantine market: as documented in part one of this series, the market is dominated by small companies waging a turf war with one another. In addition, because churches are so local and hard to sell to, all of the companies to date have been smaller land-grabs rather than anything with scale or accumulating advantage.

Rapidly growing startups in the space are deftly navigating this landscape and taking advantage of these trends.

Twitter finally bans former KKK leader, David Duke

By Natasha Lomas

Twitter has confirmed it has permanently banned the account of David Duke, former leader of white supremacist hate group the Ku Klux Klan.

Duke had operated freely on its platform for years — amassing a following of around 53k and recently tweeting his support for president Trump to be re-elected. Now his @DrDavidDuke account page leads to an ‘account suspension’ notification (screengrabbed below).

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the ban on Duke is permanent, emailing us this brief statement:

The account you referenced has been permanently suspended for repeated violations of the Twitter Rules on hateful conduct. This enforcement action is in line with our recently-updated guidance on harmful links.

While the move has been welcomed by anti-nazis everywhere, no one is rejoicing at how long it took Twitter to kick the KKK figurehead. The company has long claimed a policy prohibiting hateful conduct on its platform, while simultaneously carrying on a multi-year journey toward actually enforcing its own rules.

Over the years, Twitter’s notorious passivity in acting on policy-defined ‘acceptable behavior’ limits allowed abuse and toxic hate speech to build and bloom essentially unchecked — eventually forcing the company to commit to cleaning up its act to try to stop users from fleeing in horror. (Not a great definition of leadership by anyone’s standards as we pointed out back in 2017.)

Roll on a few more years and Twitter has been slowly shifting up its enforcement gears, with a push in 2018 toward what CEO Jack Dorsey dubbed “conversational health“, and further expansions to its hateful conduct policy. Enforcement has still been patchy and/or chequered. But appears to have stepped up markedly this year — which kicked off with a ban on a notorious UK right-wing hate preacher.

Twitter’s 2020 enforcement mojo may have a fair bit to do with the pandemic. In March, with concern spiking over COVID-19 misinformation spreading online, Twitter tweaked its rules to zero in on harmful link spreading (aka “malicious URLs” as it calls them), as a step to combat coronavirus scammers.

So it looks like public health risks have finally helped concentrate minds at Twitter HQ around enforcement — and everyone (still) on its platform is better for it.

In recent weeks Twitter has cracked down on the right-wing conspiracy theory group, Qanon, banning 7,000 accounts earlier this month. It also finally found a way to respond to US president Trump’s abuse of its platform as a conduit for broadcasting violent threats and trying to stir up a race war (and spread political disinformation) by applying screens and fact-check labels to offending Trump tweets.

The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, has also had temporary restrictions applied to his account this month after he shared a video which makes false and potentially life-threatening claims about the coronavirus pandemic.

That looks like a deliberate warning shot across Trump’s bows — to say that while Twitter might not be willing to ban the president himself (given his public office), it sure as hell will kick his son into touch if he steps over the line.

Twitter’s policy on link-blocking states the company may take action to limit the spread of links which relate to a number of content categories, including terrorism, violence and hateful conduct, in addition to those pointing to other bad stuff such as malware and spam. The policy further notes: “Accounts dedicated to sharing content which we block, or which attempt to circumvent a block on the sharing a link, may be subject to additional enforcement action, including suspension.”

Twitter had previously said Duke hadn’t been banned because he’d left the KKK, per the Washington Times. So it looks as if he got the banhammer for essentially being a malicious URL node in slithering human form, by using his account to spread links to content that preached his gospel of hate.

Which makes for a nice silver lining on the pandemic storm cloud.

Much like similar right-wing hate spreaders, Duke also used his Twitter account to bully and harass critics — by being able to direct a nazi troll army of Twitter supporters to target individuals with abuse and try to get their accounts suspended via tricking Twitter’s systems through mass reporting their tweets.

Safe to say, Duke, like all nazis, won’t be missed.

Also doubtless concentrating minds at Twitter on standing up for its own community standards is the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott that’s been taking place this month, with multiple high profile advertisers withdrawing spend across major social media platforms as an objection to their failure to boot out hate speech. 

A quick reminder that Twitter deserves no kudos for this.

They, like all social media companies, have been bending and making up rules to keep white supremacists on their platforms for years just to grab more engagement to show advertisers & Wall Street.https://t.co/L74XyhOMWS https://t.co/MoLwTRalPG

— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) July 31, 2020

Jesus, SaaS and digital tithing

By Walter Thompson
Will Robbins Contributor
Will Robbins is an early-stage investor at Contrary.

There are more than 300,000 congregations in the U.S., and entrepreneurs are creating billion-dollar companies by building software to service them. Welcome to church tech.

The sector was growing prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic forced many congregations to go entirely online, which rapidly accelerated growth in this space. While many of these companies were bootstrapped, VC dollars are also increasingly flowing in. Unfortunately, it’s hard to come across a lot of resources covering this expanding, unique sector.

Market map

In broad terms, we can split church tech into six categories:

  • church management software (ChMS)
  • digital giving
  • member outreach/messaging
  • streaming/content
  • Bible study
  • website and app building

Horizontal integration is huge in this sector, and nearly all the companies operating in this space fall into several of these categories. Many have expanded through M&A.

The categories

  • Church management software: Almost all are SaaS businesses, mostly using cloud hosting. Typical features include workflow management, virtual check-in for events, a database of members and online scheduling. Examples include Elvanto and One Church.

Leverage AI to optimize customer service outcomes

By Walter Thompson
Nitesh Dudhia Contributor
Nitesh Dudhia is co-founder and CBO of Aikon Labs Pvt Ltd. Nitesh has worked on market opportunity identification, business planning and strategy formulation and execution for digital transformation.

As offices worldwide shift to remote work, our interactions with customers and colleagues have evolved in tandem. Professionals who once relied on face-to-face communication and firm handshakes must now close deals in a world where both are rare. Coworkers we once sat beside every day are now only available over Slack and Zoom, changing the nature of internal communication as well.

While this new reality presents a challenge, the advancement of key technologies allows us to not just adapt, but thrive. We are now on the precipice of the biggest revolution in workplace communication since the invention of the telephone.

It’s not enough to simply accept the new status quo, particularly as the overall economic climate remains tenuous. Artificial intelligence has much to offer in improving the way we speak to one another in the social distance era, and has already seen wide adoption in certain areas. Much of this algorithmic work has gone on behind the scenes of our most-used apps, such as Google Meet’s noise-canceling technology, which uses an AI to mute certain extraneous sounds on video calls. Other advances work in real-time right before our eyes — like Zoom’s myriad virtual backgrounds, or the automatic transcription and translation technology built into most video conferencing apps.

This kind of technology has helped employees realize that, despite the unprecedented shift to remote work, digital conversations do not just strive to recreate the in-person experience — rather, they can improve upon the way we communicate entirely.

It’s estimated that 65% of the workforce will be working remotely within the next five years. With a more hands-on approach to AI — that is, using the technology to actually augment everyday communications — workers can gain insight into concepts, workflows and ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Your customer service experience

Roughly 55% of the data companies collect falls into the category of “dark data”: information that goes completely unused, kept on an internal server until it’s eventually wiped. Any company with a customer service department is invariably growing their stock of dark data with every chat log, email exchange and recorded call.

When a customer phones in with a query or complaint, they’re told early on that their call “may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Given how cheap data storage has become, there’s no “maybe” about it. The question is what to do with this data.

How to time your Series A fundraise

By Kirsten Korosec

When founders start fundraising is as important as how they make their pitch to investors.

Timing matters and it’s more complicated than founders might realize, but it’s not just about picking the right month or time of day. Finding the right time to fundraise requires a micro- and macro-level strategy, according to Jake Saper of Emergence Capital, who joined TechCrunch’s virtual Early Stage event last week.

“There are really two angles to think about,” Saper said. The first is the macro perspective that takes into account the general flow of deals in the industry. Then there’s the micro timing that is specific — and different — for every startup, he added.

While Saper was particularly focused on giving advice to startup founders who have already raised a seed round and are preparing to raise a Series A, he said that most of his guidance can be applied to companies at a variety of funding stages. Let’s get started with the basics.

Peak pitch deck

The reality is that founders fundraise in all times of the year. However, there are certain times of the year when investors are more actively reviewing pitch decks.

January and February, followed by September, are the most active months for investors, based on data from DocSend that measured visits per pitch deck sent out by entrepreneurs each month.

Emergence Capital pitch deck data Early Stage

Image Credits: Jake Saper/Emergence Capital

This fits with Emergence’s anecdotal evidence. The firm sees founders who spend a lot of December preparing for a big launch or fundraise in January and February, Saper said. By the time founders begin sending decks out in January, VCs are back from holiday vacations or other tech-related events, like CES. The same rhythm begins in summer with founders using these months to prep for fundraising in the fall.

While this is a common time to pitch VCs, keep in mind that you’re also fighting for their attention, Saper said.

Where is voice tech going?

By Richard Dal Porto
Mark Persaud Contributor
Mark Persaud is digital product manager and practice lead at Moonshot by Pactera, a digital innovation company that leads global clients through the next era of digital products with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, data and continuous software delivery.

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

Dear Sophie: How can I speed up getting a green card?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I’m in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. My employer won’t sponsor me for a green card, so I’m looking to apply for one on my own. My husband and I are both citizens of Germany, but I was born in India. I’ve heard that people born in India face waiting decades for a green card. Is there any way to minimize the wait?

— Dedicated in Daly City

Dear Dedicated:

Thanks for your question. It’s great to hear you want to pursue a green card on your own. As always, I recommend that you contact an experienced immigration attorney to help guide you through the green card application and interview process.

I’ll discuss the green card options that don’t require you to have an employer or family sponsor and lay out a few tricks that might support you to minimize your wait time for a green card. For more details on these strategies, listen to my podcast on priority dates.

As you may know, your country of birth — rather than your country of citizenship — is what counts when assessing your eligibility for a green card and how long it will take to get one.

All green card categories — except for those for the spouse, parents and dependent children of U.S. citizens — have a cap on the number that can be issued each year. In addition, these categories have a per-country limit of 7% of the total number available. Because the demand in most green card categories from individuals born in India far exceeds the supply for that country, the wait times are excessively long for individuals who were born there.

For individuals who must wait for a green card, their priority date determines their place in the green card line. If you self-petition for a green card, your priority date is when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your initial green card petition.

The hype, haplessness and hope of haptics in the COVID-19 era

By Walter Thompson
Devon Powers Contributor
Devon Powers is an associate professor of advertising at Temple University and the author of "On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future."
David Parisi Contributor
David Parisi is an associate professor at the College of Charleston and author of "Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing."

In March, Brooklynite Jeremy Cohen achieved minor internet fame when he launched an elaborate scheme to court Tori Cignarella, a cute stranger living in a nearby building.

After spotting Cignarella across an air shaft, Cohen used drones, Venmo, texting and FaceTime to interact with his socially distanced crush. But it was on their second date when Cohen pulled out all the stops. He purchased a gigantic plastic bubble, sealed himself inside and invited his new friend to go on a touchless walk. As Cohen wrote on Instagram, “just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant.”

Cohen’s quirky, DIY approach made for fun clickbait for a few days. But it’s also a somewhat unflattering metaphor for the kinds of touch-centric entrepreneurialism that has proliferated in the age of COVID-19. From dating to banking, education to retail, the virus has pushed everyone to rethink how touch and proximity factor into daily interactions. Businesses besieged by the uncertainty of shutdown orders, partial re-openings, remote work, disease spikes and changing consumer behavior have been forced to test-drive solutions on the fly.

Amid that confusion, a few common approaches have emerged. Some are rushing to return to normalcy, adopting quick fixes at the expense of more broad-based solutions. Others are using the pandemic as an excuse to accelerate technological shifts, even those that may be unwelcome, impractical or both. Still others are enforcing guidelines selectively or not at all, tempting consumers back, in part, through the promise of “normal” (read: non-distanced and non-regulated) interactions.

Enter haptics. Investment in touch technologies had been on the rise before COVID-19, with virtual reality fueling fresh interest in haptic gloves and full-body suits, and haptics for mobile devices like wearables and smartwatches infusing the field with new resources. While it is difficult to capture the health and growth of the haptics industry with a single number, one estimate puts the global haptics market at US$12.9 billion in 2020, projected to grow to US$40.9 billion by 2027.

In addition to established players like Immersion Corporation, founded in 1993 and active working on haptics applications ranging from gaming and automotive to medical, mobile and industrial, Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Disney and Facebook each have dedicated teams working on new haptics products. Scores of startups, too, are currently bringing new hardware and software solutions to market: Ultraleap (formerly Ultrahaptics), a Bristol-based company that develops midair haptics, has secured $85 million in funding; HaptX, which makes exoskeleton force feedback gloves for use in VR and remote manipulation, has raised $19 million in funding; and Neosensory, focused on routing sound through the skin with a wrist-based wearable Buzz, has received $16 million in funds. A recent industry-wide initiative intended to make it easier to embed haptics in multimedia content suggests that we could soon see growth in this area accelerate even further.

Despite these trends, the business of touch isn’t heading in one clear direction. And with such variety in business responses, customers have responded with confusion, frustration, anxiety and defiance. More than disgruntlement, though, COVID-19 shines a light on a longstanding debate over whether the future will have more touch or less. Tensions around touch were already high, but rapid changes, Band-Aid solutions and short-term thinking are making the problems worse.

What’s needed now is a longer view: serious, systematic thinking about where we — as consumers, citizens, humans — want and need touch, and where we don’t. To get there, we need greater investment not just in technologies that sound good, but ones that will deliver on real needs for connection and safety in the days ahead.

Plexiglass is the new mask

While the mask may be the most conspicuous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic in much of the world, the new normal has another, clearer symbol: plexiglass.

Plexiglass leads the way as our environments are retrofitted to protect against the virus. In the U.S., demand began rising sharply in March, driven first by hospitals and essential retailers like grocery stores. Traditional sectors like automotive are using much less of the stuff, but that difference is more than made up for by the boom among restaurants, retail, office buildings, airports and schools. Plexiglass is even popping up in temples of bodily experience, surrounding dancers at strip clubsclients at massage parlors and gymgoers in fitness centers.

Like plexiglass itself, the implications for touch are stark, if invisible. Plexiglass may communicate sterility and protection — though, truth be told, it dirties often and it’s easy to get around. More to the point, it puts up a literal barrier between us.

The story of plexiglass — like that of single-use plastic, ventilation systems, hand sanitizer and ultraviolet light — underscores how mundane interventions often win the day, at least initially. It is much easier for a grocery store to install an acrylic sneezeguard between cashiers and customers than it is to adopt contactless shopping or curbside pickup. At their best, interventions like plexiglass are low-cost, effective and don’t require huge behavior changes on the part of customers. They are also largely reversible, should our post-pandemic lifestyles revert back to something more closely resembling our previous behaviors.

Besides their obvious environmental consequences, plasticized approaches can erode our relationship to touch and thereby to each other. In Brazil, for example, some nursing homes have installed “hug tunnels” to allow residents to embrace family members through a plastic barrier. Given that “when will I be able to hug my loved ones again?” is a common and heart-wrenching question these days, the reunions hug tunnels facilitate are, well, touching. But as a shadow of the real thing, they amplify our desperate need for real connection.

The same with circles on the floor in elevators or directional arrows down store aisles: In expecting us to be our best, most rational and most orderly selves, they work against cultural inclinations toward closeness. They indicate not so much a brave new future as a reluctant present. And without proper messaging about their importance as well as their temporariness, they are bound to fail.

Touch tech to the rescue

To feed our skin hunger, futurists are pushing haptic solutions — digital technologies that can replicate and simulate physical sensations. Haptics applications range from simple notification buzzes to complex whole-body systems that combine vibration, electricity and force feedback to re-create the tactile materiality of the physical world. But although the resurgence of VR has rapidly advanced the state of the art, very few of these new devices are consumer-ready (one notable exception is CuteCircuit’s Hug Shirt — released for sale earlier this year after 15+ years in development).

Haptics are typically packaged as part of other digital techs like smartphones, video game controllers, fitness trackers and smartwatches. Dedicated haptic devices remain rare and relatively expensive, though their imminent arrival is widely promoted in popular media and the popular technology press. Effective haptic devices, specially designed to communicate social and emotional touch such as stroking, would seem particularly useful to re-integrate touch into Zoom-heavy communication.

Even with well-resourced companies like FacebookMicrosoft and Disney buying in, these applications will not be hitting home offices or teleconferencing setups anytime soon. Though it would be easy to imagine, for example, a desktop-mounted system for facilitating remote handshakes, mass producing such devices would prove expensive, due in part to the pricey motors necessary to accurately synthesize touch. Using cheaper components compromises haptic fidelity, and at this point, what counts as an acceptable quality of haptic simulation remains ill-defined. We don’t have a tried and tested compression standard for haptics the way we do with audio, for instance; as Immersion Corporation’s Yeshwant Muthusamy recently argued, haptics has been held back by a problematic lack of standards.

Getting haptics right remains challenging despite more than 30 years’ worth of dedicated research in the field. There is no evidence that COVID is accelerating the development of projects already in the pipeline. The fantasy of virtual touch remains seductive, but striking the golden mean between fidelity, ergonomics and cost will continue to be a challenge that can only be met through a protracted process of marketplace trial-and-error. And while haptics retains immense potential, it isn’t a magic bullet for mending the psychological effects of physical distancing.

Curiously, one promising exception is in the replacement of touchscreens using a combination of hand-tracking and midair haptic holograms, which function as button replacements. This product from Bristol-based company Ultraleap uses an array of speakers to project tangible soundwaves into the air, which provide resistance when pressed on, effectively replicating the feeling of clicking a button.

Ultraleap recently announced that it would partner with the cinema advertising company CEN to equip lobby advertising displays found in movie theaters around the U.S. with touchless haptics aimed at allowing interaction with the screen without the risks of touching one. These displays, according to Ultraleap, “will limit the spread of germs and provide safe and natural interaction with content.”

A recent study carried out by the company found that more than 80% of respondents expressed concerns over touchscreen hygiene, prompting Ultraleap to speculate that we are reaching “the end of the [public] touchscreen era.” Rather than initiate a technological change, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to push ahead on the deployment of existing technology. Touchscreens are no longer sites of naturalistic, creative interaction, but are now spaces of contagion to be avoided. Ultraleap’s version of the future would have us touching air instead of contaminated glass.

Touch/less

The notion that touch is in crisis has been a recurring theme in psychology, backed by scores of studies that demonstrate the negative neurophysiological consequences of not getting enough touch. Babies who receive insufficient touch show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have all kinds of negative effects on their development. In prisons, for example, being deprived of touch through restraint or solitary confinement is a punishment tantamount to torture. As technology continues to make inroads into our lives, interactions that once required proximity or touch have become mediated instead, prompting ongoing speculation about the consequences of communicating by technology rather than by touch.

The coronavirus pandemic intensifies this crisis by demanding a sudden, collective withdrawal from physical contact. The virus lays a cruel trap: the longer we’re apart, the more we crave togetherness and are willing to take dangerous risks. But giving in to the desire to touch not only exposes us and those we care about to a potentially mortal danger, it also extends the amount of time before we can resume widespread touching.

The pandemic has already revealed important lessons about touch, haptics and humanity. First is that while circumstances can change quickly, true social and behavioral change takes longer. The many examples of Americans acting as though there is no pandemic going on should give pause to anyone thinking touch-free futures are just around the corner. Atop this, there is plain-old inertia and malaise, which suggests some pandemic-era interventions will stick around while others will disappear or slacken over time. Consider 9/11 — nearly two decades later, though we still can’t greet our loved ones at their gate, most airports don’t strictly monitor our liquids and gels.

By the same token, one can imagine unfilled hand sanitizer stations as the ultimate hangover from these times. We may begin to like the plexiglass barriers between ourselves and our fellow subway passengers, but hate them at restaurants and sporting events. We may encounter more motion-detecting sliding doors and hand-tracking options, but when they falter we may revert to revolving doors, handles and push-buttons.

A second and equally important insight is that the past and the future exist side by side. Technological development takes even longer than behavioral change, and can be bedeviled by momentary trends, expense and technological limitations. For example, there are a lot of pressures right now to transform stores and restaurants into “last-mile” fulfillment centers, to embrace AR and VR and to reimagine space as contact-free. In these scenarios, objects could be touched and handled in virtual showrooms using high-fidelity digital touch technologies. But some of this pressure is based on promises that haptics have yet to fulfill. For instance, being able to touch clothing through a mobile phone may be possible in theory, but would be difficult in practice and would mean other trade-offs for mobile phones’ functionality, size, weight and speed.

Touch/more?

But just as the coronavirus pandemic did not create making us miss touching, it also did not create all the problems with touching. Some of the touch we were used to — like the forced closeness of a crowded subway car or the cramped quarters of airline seats — is dehumanizing. Social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have drawn attention to how unwanted touch can have traumatic consequences and exacerbate power imbalances. We must think broadly about the meaning of touch and its benefits and drawbacks for varying types of people, and not rush toward a one-size-fits-all solution. Although touch may seem like a fundamentally biological sense, its meaning is continually renegotiated in response to shifting cultural conditions and new technologies. COVID-19 is the most rapid upheaval in global practices of touching that we’ve seen in at least a generation, and it would be surprising not to see a corresponding adoption of technologies that could allow us to gain back some of the tactility, even from a distance, that the disease has caused us to give up.

Too often, however, touch technologies prompt a “gee whiz” curiosity without being attentive to the on-the-ground needs for users in their daily lives. Businesses looking to adopt haptic tech must see through the sales pitch and far-flung fantasies to develop a long-term plan for where touch and touch-free make the most sense. And haptic designers must move from a narrow focus on solving the complex engineering problem touch presents to addressing the sorts of technologies users might comfortably incorporate into their daily communication habits.

A useful exercise going forward is to consider how would we do haptic design differently knowing we’d be facing another COVID-19-style pandemic in 2030? What touch technologies could be advanced to satisfy some of the desires for human contact? How can firms be proactive, rather than reactive, about haptic solutions? As much as those working in the field of haptics may have been motivated by the noble intention of restoring touch to human communication, this mission has often lacked a sense of urgency. Now that COVID-19 has distanced us, the need for haptics to bridge that physical gap, however incompletely, becomes more obvious and demanding.

Businesses feel it too, as they attempt to restore “humanity” and “connection” to their customer interactions. Yet as ironic as it might feel, now is the time not to just stumble through this crisis — it’s time to prepare for the next one. Now is the time to build in resilience, flexibility and excess capacity. To do so requires asking hard questions, like: do we need VR to replicate the sensory world in high fidelity, even if it’s costly? Or would lower-cost and lower-fidelity devices suffice? Will people accept a technologized hug as a meaningful proxy for the real thing? Or, when touch is involved, is there simply no substitute for physical presence? Might the future have both more touch and less?

These are difficult questions, but the hardship, trauma and loss of COVID-19 proves they demand our best and most careful thinking. We owe it to ourselves now and in the future to be deliberate, realistic and hopeful about what touch and technology can do, and what they can’t.

Traveloka tops up with $250M amid the coronavirus crisis

By Natasha Lomas

Indonesia-based online travel portal, Traveloka, has picked up $250M in fresh funding to beef up its coronavirus-battered balance sheet.

The travel aggregator dubs the capital injection a “strong vote of confidence” in its strategy to adjust to what it couches as a ‘new normal’ for travel by retooling its focus on domestic and short hop excursions and activities. The funding round is led by an unnamed global financial institution. Traveloka also says “some” existing investors also participated (EV Growth being one it has named).

Prior to this latest raise, Traveloka had pulled in around $950M across five funding rounds since being founded back in 2012, according to Crunchbase. Back in 2017 it passed unicorn valuation after bagging $350 million from Expedia in exchange for a minority stake in the business. But, shortly afterwards, it lost one of its co-founders — who departed citing a clash of goals as the business switched to more of a commercial mindset, as he saw it.

Fast forward a few years and the pandemic is playing havoc with the travel industry as a whole. Since the pandemic landed to decimate ‘business as usual’ in the sector, Traveloka has responded by launching a number of initiatives in a bid to reassure and woo back customers — including flights that bundle COVID-19 tests; flexible open-date vouchers for hotels (aka, ‘Buy Now Stay Later’); online experiences; flash sale livestreams; and a big push around cleanliness with standardized hygiene protocols for vacation accommodation that can be booked via its platform.

Traveloka says the latest capital injection will be used not only to beef up its balance sheet but to boost efforts and deepen offerings in “select priority areas” — including building out what it describes as “a more robust and integrated Travel & Lifestyle portfolio” in key markets.

It also intends to expand financial services solutions it offers to ecosystem partners.

Commenting in a statement, Ferry Unardi, Traveloka co-founder and CEO, said: “Without a doubt, Traveloka has been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have experienced the lowest business rate that we have ever seen since our inception. However, we always believed that the company will prevail by rapidly adjusting our strategy, working with our industry and ecosystem partners, as well as continuing to innovate for our users, our ultimate focus.”

Per Ferry, Traveloka’s business in Vietnam is “approaching” steady pre-COVID-19 levels, while he says its Thailand business is “on its way” to surpassing 50%.

“Indonesia and Malaysia are still in the early stage, but they continue to demonstrate promising momentum with strong week-to-week improvement, especially in accommodation with the emergence of shorter distance staycation behavior,” he added. “We acknowledge that the sector may go through further turbulence as it navigates new waves, but we feel we are prepared to take on the challenge and emerge on the right side of it.”

“The travel industry is facing unprecedented times, including Traveloka,” added Willson Cuaca, managing partner of EV Growth, in another supporting statement. “The leadership team has taken difficult yet commendable measures including restructuring and optimization to minimize financial health risks. We are confident that the company will emerge even stronger after this crisis.”

XPRIZE launches $5 million rapid COVID testing competition

By Darrell Etherington

XPRIZE is turning its tried and tested model of offering cash prizes to spur innovation in critical areas to the challenge of COVID-19 testing. the nonprofit has created a $5 million prize pool for a Rapid COVID Testing competition, in partnership with an organization called OpenCovidScreen formed by scientists, researchers and industry leaders to drive open scientific collaboration on the topic.

The competition calls for participants to develop low-cost, rapid result testing solutions that can supplement those already in existence in order to massively scale testing capabilities and pave the way for safe reopening strategies. It’s open to potential solutions across a number of categories, including at-home tests, those conducted at point-of-care, distributed lab testing, and finally high-throughput lab solutions.

Judging for the ultimate prize awards will focus on their innovation, their performance, how quickly they can delver results (with the max allowable turnaround time capped at 12 hours), how scalable they are and how easy to use and cost-effective they can be (with a cost ceiling of $15 per test). The XPRIZE organization is also encouraging people to try a range of different technologies in their proposed solutions in order to diversify and ensure sustainability of the supply chain.

In order to take part, teams must joint the competition by August 31, 2020. The competition aims to announce grand prize winners by the end of January, and the plan is to award $1 million each to five teams.

Following the competition, participants can also benefit from a $50 million fund established by the ‘COVID Apollo Project’ to develop, deploy and scale their solution to actual production and distribution.

❌