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Yesterday — December 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Why Sapphire’s Jai Das thinks the Salesforce-Slack deal could succeed

By Alex Wilhelm

Who says that chats about enterprise software have to be boring? They don’t, we learned during our conversation earlier this week with Sapphire’s Jai Das, a pleasant time that touched on a host of topics including startup sectors, his investing group’s capital base and, of course, the Slack-Salesforce deal.

Our conversation took place about an hour before the deal was formally announced, but the tea leaves had been read by the market far in advance, so we were able to chat about it as if it was already consummated. Which it became a little while later.


Our conversation with Das was part of our Extra Crunch Live series, which you can learn more about here. If you’re not a member, head here to get started. Extra Crunch Live has previously hosted Bessemer’s Byron Deeter and Sequoia’s Roelof Botha, among others.


The whole chat with Das was interesting and good, but his comments explaining why Slack’s sale to the larger CRM giant stuck with me all week. Using Salesforce’s acquisition of MuleSoft (a company in which Das invested) as a prism, here’s how the venture capitalist discussed the plusses and minuses of selling to a bigger company.

After noting that MuleSoft might have been able to earn a larger revenue multiple as an independent company in today’s markets than it managed by selling to Salesforce, Das then detailed the sort of boost that a huge company can bring to one that is merely big (quote has been edited and condensed):

Going into your question about Salesforce and Slack, Salesforce, like any large company, does add a lot of value. When I talked to [former MuleSoft CEOs] Simon [Parmett] and Greg [Schott], they were astonished how much account control these large companies have with CIOs and CMOs.

MulesSoft would be beating on the door to get a meeting with the CIO and it wouldn’t happen. And you know, the Salesforce management team would just make one phone call, and Simon and Greg would be presenting to the CEO on down.

So I think that is the thing that people forget, that these large companies have so much ability to increase your sales velocity with large accounts, [so] it makes a lot of sense for some of these [smaller] companies to end up in Salesforce or SAP or Oracle, or WorkDay.

So perhaps Slack will find more oomph under Salesforce’s auspices than it could as a solo project. We spent the majority of our time talking about startups and smaller companies, so hit the jump for the full video and a few more quotes I transcribed for you.

Have fun!

Jai Das

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

This is a good time to start a proptech company

By Walter Thompson
Colton Pace Contributor
Colton Pace is an investor at Fika Ventures. He previously held roles investing at Vulcan Capital and Madrona Venture Labs.
More posts by this contributor

Like many things in life, building great businesses is all about timing. We’ve seen multibillion dollar failures from the dot-com era such as Pets.com and Webvan be reincarnated a decade later as Chewy and Instacart — this time as runaway successes.

The same could be said about real estate technology companies, but startups in this category have not gotten the same opportunity and attention as their peers in other sectors.

For decades, proptech has received the short end of the stick. Real estate is the world’s largest asset class worth $277 trillion, three times the total value of all publicly traded companies. Still, fintech companies have received seven times more VC funding than real estate companies.

These lower levels of investment were previously attributed to the slow rate of technology adoption and digitalization within the real estate industry, but this is no longer the case. Companies in real estate are adopting innovation faster than ever. Now, 81% of real estate organizations plan to use new digital technologies in traditional business processes and spending on tech and software is growing at over 11% per year. Technological adoption has even accelerated throughout the pandemic as enterprises were forced to quickly adapt.

Historically, the strength or weakness of the broader economy and the real estate industry have been tightly coupled and correlated. While some may point to COVID-19’s negative impact on certain parts of real estate as evidence that proptech can only thrive in boom times, I believe building a successful proptech company is less about anticipating economic upswings and markets and more about timing and taking advantage of the right technological trends. In short, this is as good of a time as any to start a proptech company if you know where to look.

History is littered with examples of companies that have done just this. Let’s take a look at three:

Procore

  • Founded: 2002.
  • Early traction: Used by celebrity housing projects in California.
  • Inflection point: 2012 (people start using iPads and smartphones on job sites).
  • Today: $5 billion valuation as of May 2020.

Procore was founded in 2002 in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, well before widespread WiFi and five years before the iPhone. The company saw the capability for software and technology to transform the construction industry long before practitioners did. Its team faithfully and stubbornly kept at it through the financial crisis, but only had $5 million in revenue by 2012. Here’s where the timing kicks in: At this time, iPads and smartphones had become more common on worksites, enabling widespread adoption.

Realizing this change in-market and adapting to it, Procore strategically priced its product as a subscription, rather than based on headcount, as was typical in the industry. In this way, early customers like Wieland and Mortenson got their subcontractors and temp employees to use the product, which then created a flywheel effect that spread Procore to other projects and clients. Fast forward to today, Procore now has more than $290 million in ARR and is valued over $5 billion.

Procore’s persistence and agility ultimately enabled it to capitalize on the right technological trends and shifts, despite what initially seemed like a poorly timed decision to start a software company in a recession. Procore is now on a venture exit path as it continues to acquire new-age proptech companies like Avata Technologies, Honest Buildings and BIMAnywhere.

Zillow

  • Founded: 2006.
  • Early traction: Launched with 1 million website visits.
  • Inflection point: 2009 (financial crisis mindset).
  • Today: Public — $27 billion market capitalization.

Zillow was founded by the co-founders of Hotwire and Expedia. While that might not seem relevant, the vision to bring transparency to consumers is the connecting line, the mission being to provide access to siloed data and knowledge to previously convoluted industries. Before Zillow, homeowners did not know how much their house was worth. With Zillow’s Zestimate, consumers can put a price tag on every roof across North America.

Salesforce announces new Service Cloud workforce planning tool

By Ron Miller

With a pandemic raging across many parts of the world, many companies have customer service agents spread out as well, creating a workforce management nightmare. It wasn’t easy to manage and route requests when CSAs were in one place, it’s even harder with many working from home.

To help answer that problem Salesforce is developing a new product called Service Cloud Workforce Engagement. Bill Patterson, EVP and General Manager for CRM Applications at Salesforce points out that with these workforces spread out, it’s a huge challenge for management to distribute work and keep up with customer volume, especially as customers have moved online during COVID.

“With Service Cloud Workforce Engagement, Salesforce will arm the contact center with a connected solution — all on one platform so our customers can remain resilient and agile no matter what tomorrow may bring,” Patterson said in a statement.

Like many Salesforce products, this one is made up of several key components to deliver a complete solution. For starters, there is Service Forecast for Customer 360, a tool that helps predict workforce requirements and uses AI to distribute customer service requests in a way that makes sense. This can help in planning at a time with a likely predictable uptick in service requests like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, or even those times when there is an unexpected spike.

Next up is Omnichannel Capacity Planning, which helps managers distribute CSAs across channels such as phone, messaging or email wherever they are needed most based on the demand across a given channel.

Finally, there is a teaching component that helps coach customer service agents to give the correct answer in the correct way for a given situation. “To increase agent engagement and performance, companies will be able to quickly onboard and continually train agents by delivering bite-size, guided learning paths directly in the agent’s workspace during their shift,” the company explained.

The company says that Service Cloud Workforce Engagement will be available in the first half of next year.

The UK approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s medicines regulator has approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for emergency use, the companies said today.

The UK is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use — paving the way for some of the most “high risk” citizens, such as elderly care home residents, to get the jab before the end of the year.

The BBC reports that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the vaccine is safe to be rolled out from next week.

The request for emergency authorization was submitted by BioNTech and Pfizer to the MHRA last month — as well as to regulators in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S., none of which have yet given the go ahead.

The UK approval is based on trial data, including a worldwide Phase 3 clinical study carried out by BioNTech/Pfizer  which demonstrated an efficacy rate for the vaccine of 95% and raised no serious safety concerns.

The vaccine was also shown to be effective both in participants who had not previously contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and those who had — based on measuring efficacy seven days after the second dose.

Efficacy was also reported as consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics, with an observed efficacy in adults age 65 and over of more than 94%, they said.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted the news of the formal authorization this morning — writing that the vaccine will “begin to be made available across the UK from next week”.

It’s fantastic that @MHRAgovuk has formally authorised the @Pfizer/@BioNTech_Group vaccine for Covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week. (1/2)

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 2, 2020

The UK has ordered 40M doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, or enough vaccine for 20M people (as it requires two doses), though it will take time for the country to receive all the doses ordered.

“The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts,” the companies write in a press release.

“Now that the vaccine is authorized in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses. The first doses are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming days, with complete delivery fulfilment expected in 2021,” they added.

The UK’s National Health Service is gearing up for what NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens, described as “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”. Per the BBC, some 50 hospitals are on standby and vaccination centers in venues such as conference centres are being set up.

Moderna claims 94% efficacy for COVID-19 vaccine, will ask FDA for emergency use authorization today

By Darrell Etherington

Drugmaker Moderna has completed its initial efficacy analysis of its COVID-19 vaccine from the drug’s Phase 3 clinical study, and determined that it was 94.1% effective in preventing people from contracting COVID-19 across 196 confirmed cases from among 30,000 participants in the study. Moderna also found that it was 100% effective in preventing severe cases (such as those that would require hospitalization) and says it hasn’t found any significant safety concerns during the trial. On the basis of these results, the company will file an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday.

Seeking an EUA is the next step towards actually beginning to distribute and administer Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, and if granted the authorization, it will be able to provide it to high-risk individuals in settings where it could help prevent more deaths, such as with front-line healthcare workers, ahead of receiving a full and final regulatory approval from the U.S. healthcare monitoring agency. Moderna will also seek conditional approval from the European Medicines Agency, which will enable similar use ing the EU.

Moderna’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, which provides genetic instructions to a person’s body that prompts them to create their own powerful antibodies to block the receptor sites that allows COVID-19 to infect a patient. It’s a relatively new therapeutic approach for human use, but has the potential to provide potentially even more resistance to COVID-19 than do natural antibodies, and without the risk associated with introducing any actual virus, active or otherwise, to an inoculated individual in order to prompt their immune response.

In mid-November, Moderna announced that its COVID-19 vaccine showed 94.5% efficacy in its preliminary results. This final analysis of that same data hews very close to the original, which is promising news for anyone hoping for an effective solution to be available soon. This data has yet to be peer reviewed, though Moderna says that it will now be submitting data from the Phase 3 study to a scientific publication specifically for that purpose.

Moderna’s vaccine candidate is part of the U.S’s Operation Warp Speed program to expedite the development, production and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, initiated earlier this year as a response to the unprecedented global pandemic. Other vaccines, including one created by Pfizer working with partner BioNTech, as well as an Oxford University/AstraZeneca-developed candidate, are also far along in their Phase 3 testing and readying for emergency approval and use. Pfizer has already applied with the FDA for its own EUA, while the Oxford vaccine likely won’t be taking that step in the U.S. until it completes another round of final testing after discovering an error in the dosage of its first trial – which led to surprising efficacy results.

Wall Street needs to relax, as startups show remote work is here to stay

By Ron Miller

We are hearing that a COVID-19 vaccine could be on the way sooner than later, and that means we could be returning to normal life some time in 2021. That’s the good news. The perplexing news, however, is that each time some positive news emerges about a vaccine — and believe me I’m not complaining — Wall Street punishes stocks it thinks benefits from us being stuck at home. That would be companies like Zoom and Peloton.

While I’m not here to give investment advice, I’m confident that these companies are going to be fine even after we return to the office. While we surely pine for human contact, office brainstorming, going out to lunch with colleagues and just meeting and collaborating in the same space, it doesn’t mean we will simply return to life as it was before the pandemic and spend five days a week in the office.

One thing is clear in my discussions with startups born or growing up during the pandemic: They have learned to operate, hire and sell remotely, and many say they will continue to be remote-first when the pandemic is over. Established larger public companies like Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify and others have announced they will continue to offer a remote-work option going forward. There are many other such examples.

It’s fair to say that we learned many lessons about working from home over this year, and we will carry them with us whenever we return to school and the office — and some percentage of us will continue to work from home at least some of the time, while a fair number of businesses could become remote-first.

Wall Street reactions

On November 9, news that the Pfizer vaccine was at least 90% effective threw the markets for a loop. The summer trade, in which investors moved capital from traditional, non-tech industries and pushed it into software shares, flipped; suddenly the stocks that had been riding a pandemic wave were losing ground while old-fashioned, even stodgy, companies shot higher.

AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

By Darrell Etherington

AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

YouTube suspends and demonetizes One America News Network over COVID-19 video

By Brian Heater

YouTube today confirmed that it has suspended right-wing cable channel One America News Network (OAN or OANN for short). The penalty comes after a violation of YouTube’s stated COVID-19 misinformation guidelines. As a result, the network will be barred from posting new videos for a week, while its existing videos will also be demonetized for that period.

A spokesperson for the Google-owned video service offered the following statement to TechCrunch:

Since early in this pandemic, we’ve worked to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation associated with COVID-19 on YouTube. After careful review, we removed a video from OANN and issued a strike on the channel for violating our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content claiming there’s a guaranteed cure. Additionally, due to repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policy and other channel monetization policies, we’ve suspended the channel from the YouTube Partner Program and as a result, its monetization on YouTube.

The service has a three-strikes policy in place, with the first two strikes carrying their own policies. In addition to the above actions, the offending video has been pulled from the channel. This is OAN’s first strike. Per the site:

If we find your content doesn’t follow our policies for a second time, you’ll get a strike.

This means you won’t be able to do the following for one week:

  • Upload videos, live streams, or stories
  • Create custom thumbnails or Community posts
  • Created, edit, or add collaborators to playlists
  • Add or remove playlists from the watch page using the “Save” button

Full privileges will be restored automatically after the 1-week period, but your strike will remain on your channel for 90 days.

A second strike in a 90-day period would result in a two-week suspension. A third strike in a 90-day period would result in the channel’s termination.

OAN has become a personal favorite for Trump and his administration recently, particularly in the wake of fallout between the president and Fox News, after that long-favorite cable network called the recent election for opponent Joe Biden.

One America News also came under fire for videos like “Trump Won,” which falsely reported on the election’s results. YouTube opted not to pull that video over disinformation concerns, instead adding a warning and removing ads from the video, noting, “[w]e will continue to be vigilant in the post-election period.”

Australia’s spy agencies caught collecting COVID-19 app data

By Zack Whittaker

Australia’s intelligence agencies have been caught “incidentally” collecting data from the country’s COVIDSafe contact-tracing app during the first six months of its launch, a government watchdog has found.

The report, published Monday by the Australian government’s inspector general for the intelligence community, which oversees the government’s spy and eavesdropping agencies, said the app data was scooped up “in the course of the lawful collection of other data.”

But the watchdog said that there was “no evidence” that any agency “decrypted, accessed or used any COVID app data.”

Incidental collection is a common term used by spies to describe the data that was not deliberately targeted but collected as part of a wider collection effort. This kind of collection isn’t accidental, but more of a consequence of when spy agencies tap into fiber optic cables, for example, which carries an enormous firehose of data. An Australian government spokesperson told one outlet, which first reported the news, that incidental collection can also happen as a result of the “execution of warrants.”

The report did not say when the incidental collection stopped, but noted that the agencies were “taking active steps to ensure compliance” with the law, and that the data would be “deleted as soon as practicable,” without setting a firm date.

For some, fears that a government spy agency could access COVID-19 contact-tracing data was the worst possible outcome.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries — and states in places like the U.S. — have rushed to build contact-tracing apps to help prevent the spread of the virus. But these apps vary wildly in terms of functionality and privacy.

Most have adopted the more privacy-friendly approach of using Bluetooth to trace people with the virus with which you may have come into contact. Many have chosen to implement the Apple-Google system, which hundreds of academics have backed. But others, like Israel and Pakistan, are using more privacy-invasive techniques, like tracking location data, which governments can also use to monitor a person’s whereabouts. In Israel’s case, the tracking was so controversial that the courts shut it down.

Australia’s intelligence watchdog did not say specifically what data was collected by the spy agencies. The app uses Bluetooth and not location data, but the app requires the user to upload some personal information — like their name, age, postal code and phone number — to allow the government’s health department to contact those who may have come into contact with an infected person.

Australia has seen more than 27,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 900 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Proxyclick visitor management system adapts to COVID as employee check-in platform

By Ron Miller

Proxyclick began life by providing an easy way to manage visitors in your building with an iPad-based check-in system. As the pandemic has taken hold, however, customer requirements have changed, and Proxyclick is changing with them. Today the company announced Proxyclick Flow, a new system designed to check in employees during the time of COVID.

“Basically when COVID hit our customers told us that actually our employees are the new visitors. So what you used to ask your visitors, you are now asking your employees — the usual probing question, but also when are you coming and so forth. So we evolved the offering into a wider platform,” Proxyclick co-founder and CEO Gregory Blondeau explained.

That means instead of managing a steady flow of visitors — although it can still do that — the company is focusing on the needs of customers who want to open their offices on a limited basis during the pandemic, based on local regulations. To help adapt the platform for this purpose, the company developed the Provr smartphone app, which employees can use to check in prior to going to the office, complete a health checklist, see who else will be in the office and make sure the building isn’t over capacity.

When the employee arrives at the office, they get a temperature check, and then can use the QR code issued by the Provr app to enter the building via Proxyclick’s check-in system or whatever system they have in place. Beyond the mobile app, the company has designed the system to work with a number of adjacent building management and security systems so that customers can use it in conjunction with existing tooling.

They also beefed up the workflow engine that companies can adapt based on their own unique entrance and exit requirements. The COVID workflow is simply one of those workflows, but Blondeau recognizes not everyone will want to use the exact one they have provided out of the box, so they designed a flexible system.

“So the challenge was technical on one side to integrate all the systems, and afterwards to group workflows on the employee’s smartphone, so that each organization can define its own workflow and present it on the smartphone,” Blondeau said.

Once in the building, the systems registers your presence and the information remains on the system for two weeks for contact tracing purposes should there be an exposure to COVID. You check out when you leave the building, but if you forget, it automatically checks you out at midnight.

The company was founded in 2010 and has raised $19.6 million. The most recent raise was a $15 million Series B in January.

Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today

By Darrell Etherington

Two of the companies behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their preventative treatment with an application to be delivered today. Pfizer and BioNTech, who revealed earlier this week that their vaccine was 95% effective based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, are submitting for the emergency authorization in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.K., and says that could pave the way for use of the vaccine to begin in “high-risk populations” by the end of next month.

The FDA’s EUA program allows therapeutics companies to seek early approval when mitigating circumstances are met, as is the case with the current global pandemic. EUA’s still require that supporting information and safety data are provided, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process typically used for new drugs and treatments that come before they’re able to actually be administered broadly.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate, which is an mRNA-based vaccine that essentially provides a recipient’s body with instructions on how to produce specific proteins to block the ability of SARS-CoV-19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to attach to cells. The vaccine has recently been undergoing a Phase 3 clinical trial, that included 43,661 participants so far. The companies are submitting supporting information they hope will convince the FDA to grant the EUA, including data from 170 confirmed cases from among the participants, and safety information actively solicited from 8,000 participants, and supplementary data form another 38,000 who that was passively collected.

While production is ramping globally for this and other vaccines in late stage development, and EUA will potentially open up access to high-risk individuals including frontline healthcare workers, it’s worth pointing out that any wide vaccination programs likely aren’t set to begin until next year, and likely later in 2021.

Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in final clinical trial results analysis

By Darrell Etherington

Drugmaker Pfizer has provided updated analysis around its COVID-19 vaccine Phase 3 clinical trial data, saying that in the final result of its analysis of the 44,000-participant trial, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate proved 95% percent effective. This is a better efficacy rate than Pfizer reported previously, when it announced a 90% effectiveness metric based on preliminary analysis of the Phase 3 trial data.

This result also follows a preliminary data report from Moderna about their own Phase 3 trial of their vaccine candidate, which they reported showed 94.5% effectiveness. Pfizer and partner BioNTech’s vaccine is an mRNA-based preventative treatment, similar to the Moderna one, and now it looks like they should be roughly similar in efficacy – at least in the early offing, based on a limited sample of total cases and prior to peer review by the scientific community, which is yet to come.

The Pfizer data in its final analysis shows that among a total of 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far among the 44,000 people who took part in the study, 162 cases came from the placebo group while only eight were from the group of those who received the actual vaccine candidate. The company also reported that 9 out of 10 of the severe cases among those who were infected occurred in the placebo group, suggesting that even in the rare occasion that the vaccine didn’t prevent contraction of COVID-19, it helped reduce its severity.

This should help Pfizer make its case that it be granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be able to provide the vaccine early pending full and final approval as an emergency measure. Earlier this week, the company reported that it has already collected two months’ worth of follow-up data about participants in its trial, which is a required component for said approval, and it’s pursuing it with hopes of achieving that EUA before year’s end. The company intends to ramp production of its vaccine beginning later this year, and achieving a run rate of up to 1.3 billion doses by next year.

A Biden presidency doesn’t need a Green New Deal to make progress on climate change

By Jonathan Shieber

Even without a Green New Deal, the sweeping set of climate-related initiatives many Democrats are pushing for, President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty of opportunities to move ahead with much of the ambitious energy transformation plan as part of any infrastructure or stimulus package.

Should Republicans manage to maintain control of the Senate, there are still several opportunities to build climate-friendly policies into the infrastructure and stimulus bills Congress will be pushing through as its first orders of business, according to experts, investors and advisors to the President-elect.

That’s good news for established companies and the wave of startups focused on technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. And these changes could happen despite intransigence from even moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney on climate issues.

“I think people are saying that conservative principles still account for a majority of public opinion in our country,” Romney said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I don’t think they want to sign up for a Green New Deal. I don’t think they want to sign up for getting rid of coal or oil or gas. I don’t think they’re interested in Medicare for All or higher taxes that would slow down the economy.”

Already, current market conditions are forcing some of the largest oil, gas and energy companies to transition to renewables. As those companies begin closing refineries in the U.S., Congress is going to feel increasing pressure to find a way to replace those jobs.

For instance, Shell announced earlier this month in Louisiana that it was closing a factory and laying off roughly 650 workers. The closure is primarily due to declining demand for oil brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both Netherlands-headquartered Shell and its U.K.-based counterpart BP believe fossil fuel consumption may have reached its peak in 2019 and is headed for long-term decline.

U.S. oil and gas giants aren’t immune from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and a global shift away from fossil fuels either. Two of the largest companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, have seen their share prices decline over the past year as the oil industry reckons with steep reductions in demand and other market pressures.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest utilities are working to phase out fossil fuel-based power generation.

The markets are already supporting the transition to renewable energy, without much government guidance, at least here in the U.S. So against this backdrop, the question isn’t if the government should be supporting the transition to renewable energy, but how quickly stimulus can be mobilized to save American jobs.

“A lot of the really consequential climate-related stuff that’s going to come out in the [near term] … won’t actually be related to renewables,” an advisor to the President-elect said.

So the questions become: What will economic stimulus look like? How will it be distributed? and how will it be financed?

Image Credits: Artem_Egorov/Getty Images

Economic stimulus, COVID-19 and climate

President-elect Biden has already spelled out the first priorities for his incoming administration. While trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed over 238,000 Americans comes first, dealing with the economic fallout caused by the response to the pandemic will quickly follow.

Climate-friendly initiatives will loom large in that effort, analysts and advisors indicate, and could be a boon to new technology companies — as well as longtime players in the fossil fuels business.

“If we are going to be spending that money, there is an enormous opportunity to make sure that these investments are moving us forward and not recreating problems,” said one advisor to the Biden campaign earlier this year.

To understand how the trillions of dollars that are up for grabs will be spent, it’s helpful to think in terms of short-, medium- and long-term goals.

In the short term, the focus will be on “shovel-ready” projects that can be spun up as quickly as possible. These would be initiatives like environmental retrofits and building upgrades; repairing and upgrading water systems and electricity grids; providing more manufacturing incentives for electric vehicles; and potentially boosting money for environmental remediation and reclamation projects.

In all, that spending could total $750 billion by some estimates and would be used to get Americans back to work with a focus on industrial and manufacturing jobs that could have long-term benefits for the national economy — especially if that spending targets the government-designated Opportunity Zones carved out around the country to help low-income rural and urban communities.

If these efforts incorporate Opportunity Zones, there’s a chance to deploy the cash even faster. And if there are ways to preferentially rank infrastructure projects that also include a tech component, then that’s even better for startups who have managed to overcome hurdles associated with technology risk.

“Any time you craft policy, especially federal policy, you have to be so careful that the incentives line up correctly with what you’re trying to achieve,” said a Biden advisor.

Medium- and longer-term goals will likely require more time to plan and develop, because they’re relying on newer technologies in some cases, or they will have to wind their way through the planning process at the local and state levels before they can receive federal funds to begin construction.

Expect another $60 billion to be spent on these projects to finance development, workforce training and reskilling to prepare a labor force for a different kind of labor market.

Incentives over mandates 

One of the biggest risks that Biden administration climate policies face is the potential for legal challenges heard before an increasingly sympathetic conservative judiciary appointed under the Trump administration.

These challenges could force the Biden team to emphasize the financial benefits of adopting business-friendly carrots over regulatory sticks.

“Whenever possible you do want to let the markets figure themselves out,” said the advisor to the President-elect. “You always want to default to incentives rather than mandates.”

Coming off of the news this week that Pfizer has received positive results for its vaccine, there are some models from the current administration’s progress on a COVID-19 vaccine that can be instructive.

While Pfizer wasn’t involved in the Operation Warp Speed program created by the Department of Health and Human Services, the company did cut a $2 billion deal with the government that guaranteed a market for its vaccines.

FYI a lot of people are tweeting about how Pfizer didn't accept government money for this vaccine. This isn't true. HHS did a $2 billion deal with Pfizer to guarantee a market for the vaccine, making Pfizer's R&D spend viable. Classic public/private partnership.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) November 9, 2020

The type of public-private partnerships that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy mentions could also be employed in the climate space — especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the transition away from coal.

Some of that spending guarantee could come in the form of environmental remediation for orphaned natural gas wells or coal mining operations — especially in regions of the country like the Dakotas, Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming, that would be hardest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels. Some could come from the development of new geothermal engineering projects that require the same kind of skills that engineering firms and oil companies have developed over the past decades.

And, there’s the looming promise of a hydrogen-based economy, which could take advantage of some of the existing oil-and-gas infrastructure and expertise that exists in the country to transition to a cleaner energy future (n.b., that’s not necessarily a clean energy future, but it’s a cleaner one).

Already, nations like Japan are building the groundwork for replacing oil with hydrogen fuels, and these kinds of incentive-based programs and public-private partnerships could be a big boost for startups in a number of industries as well.

Image Credits: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

Sharing the wealth (rural edition)

Any policies that a Biden administration enacts would have to focus on economic opportunity broadly, and much of the proposed plan from the campaign fulfills that need. One of its key propositions was that it would be “creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal,” according to the transition website.

An early emphasis on grid and utility infrastructure could create significant opportunities for job creation across America — and be a boost for technology companies.

“Our electric power infrastructure is old, aging and not secure,” said Abe Yokell, co-founder of the energy and climate-focused venture capital firm Congruent Ventures. “From an infrastructure standpoint, transmission distribution really should be upgraded and has been underinvested over the years. And it is in direct alignment with providing renewable energy deployment across the U.S. and the electrification of everything.”

Combining electric infrastructure revitalization with new broadband capabilities and monitoring technologies for power and water would be a massive windfall for companies like Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), and other networking companies. It also provides utilities with a way to adjust their rates (which they appreciate).

Those infrastructure upgrades are also useful in helping utilities find a way to repurpose stranded coal assets that are both costly and — increasingly — useless.

“Coal … it doesn’t make sense to burn coal anymore,” Yokell said. “People are doing it even though it’s out of the money for liability reasons … everyone is looking to retire coal even in the assets.”

If those assets can be decommissioned and repurposed to act as nodes on a distributed energy grid using energy storage to smooth capacity in the same way that those coal plants used to, “it’s a massive win,” according to Yokell. Adoption of energy storage used to be a cost issue, Yokell said. “It’s now a siting issue.”

Repowering old hydroelectric assets with newer, more efficient technologies offer another way to move the needle with shovel-ready projects and is an area where startups could stand to benefit from the push. It’s also a way to bring jobs to rural communities.

The promise of infrastructure spending can be born out across urban and rural areas, but the stimulus benefits don’t end there.

For rural communities there are business opportunities in “climate-smart agriculture, resilience and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines,” as the Biden transition team notes. And there’s a huge opportunity for oil industry workers to find jobs in the new and growing tech-enabled geothermal energy industry.

The farm subsidies that have skyrocketed under the Trump administration could continue, just with a more climate-focused bent. Instead of literally giving away the farm to the tune of a projected $46 billion that the Trump administration will hand out to farmers over the course of 2020, payouts could be predicated on “carbon farming.” Wooing the farm vote with the promise of payouts for carbon sequestration could be a way to restart a conversation around a carbon price (a largely failed prospect in government circles). Beyond carbon sequestration, rapid innovations in synthetic biology for biomaterials, coatings and even food could take advantage of the big biofuel fermenters and feedstocks in the Midwest to enable a new biomanufacturing industry.

Furthermore, the expansion of rail lines thanks to the fracking and oil boom means opportunities and the potential to build out other types of manufacturing capacity that can be transported across the U.S.

vw-plant-tennessee

Volkswagen broke ground Wednesday, November 13, 2019 on an $800 million factory expansion in Tennessee that will be the North American hub of its electric vehicle plans. Image Credits: Volkswagen

Sharing the wealth (urban edition) 

The same spending that could juice rural economies can be equally applied in America’s largest cities. Any movement to boost the auto industry through incentives around electric vehicles or federal mandates to upgrade fleets would do wonders for automakers and the original equipment manufacturers that supply them.

Public-private partnerships for urban infrastructure could first receive support from funds devoted to planning and managing upgrades. That could boost the adoption of new tech from startup companies around the country, while creating new jobs for a significant number of workers through implementation.

One large area where urban economic revitalization and climate policies can intersect is in the relatively unsexy area of weatherization, energy efficient appliance installation and building retrofits.

“Local governments across the country are highly interested in the green economy and transitioning to the low-carbon economy,” said Lauren Zullo, the director of environmental impact at the real estate management firm, Jonathan Rose Companies. “Cities are really looking to partner with the private real estate sector because they know we’re going to have to get buildings involved in the green economy. And any work that you do retrofitting local buildings is literally local economy.”

By channeling dollars into green retrofits and the deployment of distributed renewable energy, local economies will get a huge boost — and one that disproportionately will go to helping the communities that have been on the front lines of climate change.

You saw … a lot of investment made just this way out of the Recovery Act,” Zullo said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus bill passed in the first term of the Obama administration. “A lot of [funds] focused on low-income weatherization that were earmarked for low income and affordable housing. [Those] funds have allowed us to reduce energy consumption anywhere from 30% to 50% … and being able to gain those utility cost savings have been transformational to those communities.”

Why are these programs so important? Zullo explained further, “Low-income folks are disproportionately burdened by utility and energy costs. Any sort of energy-saving opportunities that we can earmark or target in these low-income communities is truly impactful … not just on a carbon footprint, but on the lives and success of these low-income communities.”

Paying for it

For even this more-modest legislation to make it through Congress, a Biden administration will have to answer the questions of who would pay for the stimulus and how it would get distributed.

In a tweet, the political commentator Matthew Yglesias proffered that the country could afford “to throw an ice cream party.” That policy would enable Republicans to keep the tax cuts while allowing the government to continue to spend on stimulus measures.

“[Interest] rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and ‘offset’ with tax cuts,” Yglesias wrote.

On paper the Biden agenda is full of things like “we’ll spend money on this good thing and pay for it by taxing the rich.”

But interest rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and “offset” with tax cuts.

— Matthew Yglesias 🍦 (@mattyglesias) November 10, 2020

To distribute the funds, Congress could set up a body similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was established by Herbert Hoover’s administration back at the start of the Great Depression. It was expanded under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to disburse funds to financial institutions, farms and corporations at risk of collapse.

While the success of the institution itself is somewhat murky, the RFC along with federal deposit insurance and the related Commodity Credit Corporation (which, unlike the RFC, still exists) laid the groundwork for the country to emerge from the Great Depression and gear up manufacturing to engage with a world at war in the 1940s.

The durability of the CCC could provide a model for any infrastructure credit corporation that the government may want to establish.

Some investors support the idea. “It’s more about channeling dollars to state, municipal or private businesses with the ability to underwrite heavily subsidized loans to any entity proposing a modern infrastructure project that could be paid through municipal bonds or tolling,” said one investor in the infrastructure space. “It would offer a credit backstop to anyone who wanted to invest in infrastructure and could have a technological requirement associated with it.”

Several investors suggested that capital from loans paid out through the infrastructure bank could finance the reshoring of industry, with potential tax revenues from the businesses offsetting some of the costs of the loans. Some of these measures could have additional economic benefits if the loans get funneled through local financial institutions as well.

“If you think about a vehicle to deliver these funds, you already have an existing architecture to deliver this … which is the municipal bond market,” said Mark Paris, a managing partner at Urban.us, a venture capital fund focused on urban infrastructure. 

The infrastructure answer

There’s no shortage of levers that the Biden administration can pull to reverse the course of the Trump administration’s policies on climate change, but many of these federal policy changes are likely to face challenges in courts.

Vox’s David Roberts has an excellent run down of some of the direct actions that Biden can take along the path toward decarbonization of the U.S. economy. They include restoring the over 125 climate and environmental regulations that the Trump presidency reversed or rolled back; working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a new, more sweeping version of the original Obama-era Clean Power Plan; push the Department of Transportation’s development of new fuel economy standards; and supporting California’s own, very aggressive vehicle standards.

Biden can also encourage financial markets to make more of an effort to price climate risk into their financial models for investment, which would further encourage investment in climate-friendly businesses and a divestment from fossil fuels, as Roberts notes.

Some of America’s largest financial services institutions are already doing just that, and oil-and-gas companies are wrestling with the need to transition to renewable or emission-free fuels as their share prices take a pummeling and demand plummets on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Mother Jones suggested last year, a Biden administration could declare climate change a national security emergency, in the same way that the Trump administration declared immigration to be a national security emergency. That would give Biden extensive powers to reshape the economy and directly influence industrial policy.

Declaring a national climate emergency would give Biden the powers he needs to enact much of the infrastructure initiatives that comprise the President-elect’s energy plan, but not a popular mandate to support it.

Before taking that step, Biden may choose to try and exhaust all legislative options first. In a divided Congress that means focusing on infrastructure, jobs and industry incentives.

“The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. That’s because it’s not a partisan phenomenon. It’s science. And our response should be the same. Grounded in science. Acting together. All of us,” Biden said in a September speech.

“These are concrete, actionable policies that create jobs, mitigate climate change and put our nation on the road to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050,” he said. “We can invest in our infrastructure to make it stronger and more resilient, while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change.”

Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

By Walter Thompson
Allison Xu Contributor
Allison Xu is an investor at Bain Capital Ventures, where she focuses on investments in the fintech and property tech sectors.

In the wake of COVID-19 this spring, construction sites across the nation emptied out alongside neighboring restaurants, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments. Debates ensued over whether the construction industry’s seven million employees should be considered “essential,” while regulations continued to shift on the operation of job sites. Meanwhile, project demand steadily shrank.

Amidst the chaos, construction firms faced an existential question: How will they survive? This question is as relevant today as it was in April. As one of the least-digitized sectors of our economy, construction is ripe for technology disruption.

Construction is a massive, $1.3 trillion industry in the United States — a complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, architects, general contractors, subcontractors and more. While each construction project has a combination of these key roles, the construction process itself is highly variable depending on the asset type. Roughly 41% of domestic construction value is in residential property, 25% in commercial property and 34% in industrial projects. Because each asset type, and even subassets within these classes, tends to involve a different set of stakeholders and processes, most construction firms specialize in one or a few asset groups.

Regardless of asset type, there are four key challenges across construction projects:

High fragmentation: Beyond the developer, architect, engineer and general contractor, projects could involve hundreds of subcontractors with specialized expertise. As the scope of the project increases, coordination among parties becomes increasingly difficult and decision-making slows.

Poor communication: With so many different parties both in the field and in the office, it is often difficult to relay information from one party to the next. Miscommunication and poor project data accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction job sites, costing the industry over $31 billion annually according to FMI research.

Lack of data transparency: Manual data collection and data entry are still common on construction sites. On top of being laborious and error-prone, the lack of real-time data is extremely limited, therefore decision-making is often based on outdated information.

Skilled labor shortage: The construction workforce is aging faster than the younger population that joins it, resulting in a shortage of labor particularly for skilled trades that may require years of training and certifications. The shortage drives up labor costs across the industry, particularly in the residential sector, which traditionally sees higher attrition due to its more variable project demand.

A construction tech boom

Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper. The lack of tech sophistication on construction sites materially contributes to job delays, missed budgets and increased job site safety risk. Technology startups are emerging to help solve these problems.

Here are the main categories in which we’re seeing construction tech startups emerge.

1. Project conception

  • How it works today: During a project’s conception, asset owners and/or developers develop site proposals and may work with lenders to manage the project financing.
  • Key challenges: Processes for managing construction loans are cumbersome and time intensive today given the complexity of the loan draw process.
  • How technology can address challenges: Design software such as Spacemaker AI can help developers create site proposals, while construction loan financing software such as Built Technologies and Rabbet are helping lenders and developers manage the draw process in a more efficient manner.

2. Design and engineering

  • How it works today: Developers work with design, architect and engineering teams to turn ideas into blueprints.
  • Key challenges: Because the design and engineering teams are often siloed from the contractors, it’s hard for designers and engineers to know the real-time impact of their decisions on the ultimate cost or timing of the project. Lack of coordination with construction teams can lead to time-consuming changes.
  • How technology can address challenges: Of all the elements of the construction process, the design and engineering process itself is the most technologically sophisticated today, with relatively high adoption of software like Autodesk to help with design documentation, specification development, quality assurance and more. Autodesk is moving downstream to offer a suite of solutions that includes construction management, providing more connectivity between the teams.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The coronavirus has erased a large chunk of college’s value proposition: the on-campus experience.

Campuses are closed, sports have been paused and, understandably, students don’t want to pay the same tuition for a fraction of the services. As a result, enrollment is down across the country and university business models are under unrelenting pressure.

The entire athletics program at East Carolina University has been furloughed with pay cuts. Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated a number of programs to save $4 million a year. And Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University lost 1,000 students to online school within weeks of reopening its campus, sacrificing $3.5 million in room and board fees.

And that’s just in the last few weeks.

As universities struggle, edtech is being positioned as a solution for their largest problem: remote teaching. Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC), created a campus product to help schools quickly offer digital coursework. Podium Education raised millions last month to offer universities for-credit tech programs. Eruditus brought on more than $100 million in the last few months to create programming for elite universities. In some ways, the growth is the story of edtech’s ongoing surge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Remote schooling has forced institutions to piece together third-party solutions to keep operations afloat.

However, while some startups are helping universities offer virtual programming overnight, professors on the ground are warning their institutions to think long-term about what kind of technologies are net positive to adopt.

It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.

‘We’re talking about the next evolution of textbooks’

As the last eight months have taught us, Zoom-based school is a lackluster alternative to the in-person experience. College campuses, thus, are tasked with finding a more creative way to offer engaging virtual content to students who are stuck in their dorm rooms.

Coursera launched Coursera for Campus to help colleges bring on online courses (credit optional) with built-in exams; more than 3,700 schools across the world are using the software.

“Professors would really want super-high-quality branded content that has assessments built into it if they’re going to deliver that learning for credit,” CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said. “That’s not the kind of learning you can get on YouTube.”

For now, though, Maggioncalda says he doesn’t think the death of a physical college campus experience is the future. He’s betting that the product can help colleges save money on faculty costs and reinvest that same money into the campus.

“There will be schools that will continue to offer residential experience, and I think what they’re gonna find is, if your real value proposition is that residential experience, then lead into that heavily,” he said. “But make sure that you’ve got really good content and credentials that are available so that your students don’t have to sacrifice.”

Georgia Tech professor David Joyner says that MOOCs like Coursera “are good for outreach and access, but are not good for accreditation.” Instead, he thinks edtech needs to be built first and foremost for universities to be most effective.

Podium Education, for example, builds courses in partnership with universities to offer for-credit courses. The newly launched startup raised $12 million in October and works with more than 20 colleges. Eruditus, an edtech startup that raised over $100 million in September, creates courses in collaboration with more than 30 elite universities, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, IIT and more.

Coursera, Podium and Eruditus are all signaling a future where universities could be getting a plug-and-play model of asynchronously taught curriculum.

Moderna reports its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5% effective in first data from Phase 3 trial

By Darrell Etherington

Following fast on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement of its COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, Moderna is also sharing positive results from its Phase 3 trial on Monday. The biotech company says that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate has shown efficacy of 94.5% in its first interim data analysis, which covers 95 confirmed COVID cases among its study participants, of which 90 were given the placebo, and only 5 received Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccine. Further, of 11 severe cases of COVID-19, none were found among those who received the actual vaccine candidate.

This is another very promising sign for the potential of having effective vaccines available to the public in some kind of significant volume at some point next year. As mentioned, it’s worth pointing out that this is just a first interim report, but it is data that comes from the safety board overseeing the trial appointed by the National Institutes of Health, which is an independent body not affiliated with Moderna, so it’s a reliable result that provides hope for continued and final analysis.

Moderna says that it will be submitting for an Emergency Use Authorization of its vaccine candidate based on the results within the coming weeks, looking to get approval from the FDA to use it in emergency circumstances ahead of a full and final approval. That EUA, should it be granted, will be based on data from 151 confirmed cases among the Phase 3 participant group (which included 30,000 participants in total), and data from follow-ups extending on average over two months after case confirmation.

All final data will also be submitted to the scientific community for independent peer review, which is a standard part of the ultimate vaccine trial and approval process.

Both this and Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, which it developed in partnership with BioNTech, are mRNA-based vaccines. These are relatively new in terms of human use, and differ from traditional vaccines in that they use messenger RNA to instruct a recipient’s cells to generate effective antibodies, without actually exposing them to any virus, whereas more traditional vaccines in general use typically use either small, safe doses of active or inactive virus in order to trigger a patient’s immune system to generate their own antibodies.

How COVID-19 accelerated DoorDash’s business

By Alex Wilhelm

DoorDash filed to go public today, publishing numbers that showed rapid growth, enhanced profitability and an improving cash flow record which helped explain how the company had grown to a $16 billion valuation while private. The unicorn’s impending liquidity event will enrich a host of venture capital firms that bet on its eventual maturity.


Instead of posting this entry of The Exchange on Monday, we’ve put it out today for your Friday and weekend reading. Enjoy! — Alex and Walter


But notable in DoorDash’s impressive results is the impact of COVID-19, accelerating secular trends already in place, and boosting the unicorn’s growth. Before we get into pricing this IPO and guessing what the company might be worth, let’s strive to understand what portion of its 2020 business gains could stem from the pandemic — and might not persist into the future.

We’re not being pessimistic; we merely want to better understand the company. And DoorDash agrees with our general thrust, writing in its S-1 filing that “58% of all adults and 70% of millennials say that they are more likely to have restaurant food delivered than they were two years ago,” adding that it believes “the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated these trends.”

Even more, elsewhere in its filings DoorDash states plainly that COVD-19 led it to experience “a significant increase in revenue, Total Orders, and Marketplace [gross order volume] due to increased consumer demand for delivery, more merchants using our platform to facilitate both delivery and take-out, and improved efficiency of our local logistics platform.” The company then went on to warn investors that the “circumstances that have accelerated the growth of our business stemming from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may not continue in the future, and we expect the growth rates in revenue, Total Orders, and Marketplace [gross order volume] to decline in future periods.”

We’re not idly speculating.

Let’s observe how DoorDash’s growth accelerated from 2019 through 2020 and then peek at how the company’s economics improved during the same period, giving the company a shot at adjusted profitability for the full year, a nearly unheard of result in the on-demand market.

Growth

DoorDash generates revenue when a customer orders food via its service, splitting the total bill of food costs, taxes, fees and tips, distributing them to itself, the merchant creating the goods and the delivery person.

In an “illustrative” example that DoorDash notes its 2019 “approximate average per-order information,” the split works out as follows:

  • Bill: $32.90
  • Merchant: $20.10, or 61%
  • DoorDash: $4.90, or 15%
  • Delivery person: $7.90, or 24%

Given that the company is giving us old data and DoorDash’s performance has been stellar this year in terms of generating more gross profit, I wonder what has happened amidst 2020’s upheaval. But, the old numbers do for what we need, which is to understand the link between gross order volume (GOV) and DoorDash revenue. When the former goes up, the latter goes up.

So, as orders rise:

Udemy and altMBA co-founders return to edtech with a new, stealthy business

By Natasha Mascarenhas

In 2009, Udemy co-founder Gagan Biyani tried to convince people to learn online through live classes. But what he discovered instead was that everyone wanted an online repository of content that allowed them to learn at their own pace, whenever and wherever. So, he canned his idea and Udemy created what is now called a massive open online course provider, or MOOC.

In the years since, Biyani was let go from Udemy, started a 200-person food company, shut that down, took a sabbatical, and is now returning to the seedling he left behind in 2009: live, online courses.

Today, Biyani tells TechCrunch that he is teaming up with Wes Kao, the co-founder of AltMBA, an online cohort-based leadership program, to start an edtech company that combines both of their experiences into one focus: live, cohort-based learning. The duo grew up as friends in the same hometown, but only recently reconnected over education once Biyani returned from sabbatical. Kao’s experience building an online course from scratch, with an over 95% completion rate, was validation that the format worked. And soon enough, they incorporated a company together.

The company will focus on cohort-based learning, mixing live and asynchronous components. As it’s still in early stealth, the founders said it doesn’t have a name yet. Instead of a company site, they have a Notion landing page.

Despite those missing details, what Biyani did say is that the startup’s main focus is creating a community where anyone can start their own course. Kao says that creating a course requires over a dozen people behind the scenes — teacher assistants, community moderators and the process is essentially “an entire production.” With the startup, she wants to democratize that operation.

“I see it as a way to help more traders and experts be able to share their knowledge,” she said. “And take away the question marks on how to build community.”

The company from the start will focus on the back-end production of helping teachers, but eventually create a marketplace to allow students to see a directory of classes.

“It should be as easy as building a Substack,” Biyani said, referring to the popular newsletter service. Similar to Substack, the company will only make money if the instructor, or creator, does. It takes a chunk of each student’s subscription cost as revenue.

The company is entering a crowded space. Yesterday, CampusWire announced that it has pivoted to start offering build-your-own courses to experienced professors. MasterClass allows celebrities to teach classes, Teachable allows anyone to create their own course, and the list continues.

But Biyani views their biggest competitor as teachers who have already built courses without a third-party service. The company is planning to bring those creators onto their platform by offering ways to manage their customer base.

Ultimately, the market will only be won over by the startup that has the best strategy, product, and teacher pool. Based on their stealthy vision, the duo has raised $4.3 million in a round led by First Round Capital. Other investors include Naval Ravikant, Sahil Lavingia, Li Jin, Arlan Hamilton and co-founders from Lambda School, Outschool, Superhuman, and Udemy.

It’s a stacked term-sheet for a company in the early stages, suggesting that that edtech’s boom is still very much upon us. Lavingia says that he committed right away even though he didn’t use the product.

“Gagan’s name was enough for me,” he said. “I think I followed him on Twitter a year or two ago and i’d back anything he does just based on what he shares.”

Backstage Capital’s Hamilton said that Kao has been within the Backstage mentor network for a while, and added that “there’s a perfect storm for Wes and Gagan to execute within.”

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