Google has added its line of Nest smart home devices to its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that adds stronger account protections for high-risk users like politicians and journalists.
The program, launched in 2017, allows anyone who signs up access to a range of additional account security features, like limiting third-party access to account data, anti-malware protections, and allowing the use of physical security keys to help thwart some of the most advanced cyberattacks.
Google said that adding Nest to the program was a “top request” from users.
Smart home devices are increasingly a target for hackers largely because many internet-connected devices lack basic security protections and are easy to hack, prompting an effort by states and governments to help device makers improve their security. A successful hack can allow hackers to snoop in on smart home cameras, or ensnare the device into a massive collection of vulnerable devices — a botnet — that can be used to knock websites offline with large amounts of junk traffic.
Although Nest devices are more secure than most, its users are not immune from hackers.
Earlier this year Google began requiring that Nest users must enable two-factor authentication after a spate of reported automated attacks targeting Nest cameras. Google said its systems had not been breached, but warned that hackers were using passwords stolen in other breaches to target Nest users.
Other devices makers, like Amazon-owned Ring, were also targeted by hackers using reused passwords.
While two-factor authentication virtually eliminates these kinds of so-called credential stuffing attacks, Google said its new security improvements will add “yet another layer of protection” to users’ Nest devices.
SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.
This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.
SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.
NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.
It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.
Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.
After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.
Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.
SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.
That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.
The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.
Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.
“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.
“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”
The startup has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.
“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.
Image Credit: Carry1st
The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.
The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.
The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.
“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.
That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.
Image Credits: Carry1st
Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.
“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.
That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.
That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.
“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.
He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.
The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”
Khatabook, a startup that is helping small businesses in India record financial transactions digitally and accept payments online with an app, has raised $60 million in a new financing round as it looks to gain more ground in the world’s second most populous nation.
The new financing round, Series B, was led by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital. A range of other new and existing investors, including Sequoia India, Partners of DST Global, Tencent, GGV Capital, RTP Global, Hummingbird Ventures, Falcon Edge Capital, Rocketship.vc and Unilever Ventures, also participated in the round, as did Facebook’s Kevin Weil, Calm’s Alexander Will, CRED’s Kunal Shah and Snapdeal co-founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal.
The one-and-a-half-year-old startup, which closed its Series A financing round in October last year and has raised $87 million to date, is now valued between $275 million to $300 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.
Hundreds of millions of Indians came online in the last decade, but most merchants — think of neighborhood stores — are still offline in the country. They continue to rely on long notebooks to keep a log of their financial transactions. The process is also time-consuming and prone to errors, which could result in substantial losses.
Khatabook, as well as a handful of young and established players in the country, is attempting to change that by using apps to allow merchants to digitize their bookkeeping and also accept payments.
Today more than 8 million merchants from over 700 districts actively use Khatabook, its co-founder and chief executive Ravish Naresh told TechCrunch in an interview.
“We spent most of last year growing our user base,” said Naresh. And that bet has worked for Khatabook, which today competes with Lightspeed -backed OkCredit, Ribbit Capital-backed BharatPe, Walmart’s PhonePe and Paytm, all of which have raised more money than Khatabook.
The Khatabook team poses for a picture (Khatabook)
According to mobile insight firm AppAnnie, Khatabook had more than 910,000 daily active users as of earlier this month, ahead of Paytm’s merchant app, which is used each day by about 520,000 users, OkCredit with 352,000 users, PhonePe with 231,000 users and BharatPe, with some 120,000 users.
All of these firms have seen a decline in their daily active users base in recent months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for all its citizens and shut most stores and public places. But most of the aforementioned firms have only seen about 10-20% decline in their usage, according to AppAnnie.
Because most of Khatabook’s merchants stay in smaller cities and towns that are away from large cities and operate in grocery stores or work in agritech — areas that are exempted from New Delhi’s stay-at-home orders, they have been less impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, said Naresh.
Naresh declined to comment on AppAnnie’s data, but said merchants on the platform were adding $200 million worth of transactions on the Khatabook app each day.
In a statement, Kabir Narang, a general partner at B Capital who also co-heads the firm’s Asia business, said, “we expect the number of digitally sophisticated MSMEs to double over the next three to five years. Small and medium-sized businesses will drive the Indian economy in the era of COVID-19 and they need digital tools to make their businesses efficient and to grow.”
Khatabook will deploy the new capital to expand the size of its technology team as it looks to build more products. One such product could be online lending for these merchants, Naresh said, with some others exploring to solve other challenges these small businesses face.
Amit Jain, former head of Uber in India and now a partner at Sequoia Capital, said more than 50% of these small businesses are yet to get online. According to government data, there are more than 60 million small and micro-sized businesses in India.
India’s payments market could reach $1 trillion by 2023, according to a report by Credit Suisse .
Creatively was supposed to launch this summer, according to CEO Greg Gittrich. And then COVID-19 happened.
“We made the decision to fast-track the launch when the pandemic hit, because we felt like launching as a beta would really help the creative community,” Gittrich told me.
The startup was founded by Stacey Bendet and Joe Indriolo, who also serves as chief product officer. Indriolo told me that Creatively was designed to address a problem that Bendet had as founder and CEO of designer clothing company Alice + Olivia — finding the best freelance creative talent to work with.
“Finding creatives is really, really difficult,” he said. “At the same time, showcasing your work is also really difficult as a creative.”
And those problems are likely to get worse as social distancing forces more creative work and collaboration to happen remotely, and as a troubled economy means that more artists, designers, architects, filmmakers and other creative types are looking for work.
There are places where artists can post their work, but Indriolo argued that none of them allow the creative to control the presentation in the same way — not unless they’re building their own website.
Image Credits: Creatively
So Creatively says it’s designed to showcase photography, film, fashion design, branding, illustration, animation, CGI, app and web design, product development, interiors and architecture and emerging technologies.
Creative talent can upload their portfolio and arrange it as they choose. They can divide the work into different albums, and even nest albums within other albums in creative ways. (Indriolo showed me an architect’s album that allowed visitors to navigate their work by drilling down into specific regions and locations.)
Artists can also annotate the images and videos to explain their work, as well as listing their past jobs and their specific skills.
Brands and other potential employers can post job listings, which then get tagged with the artist who’s hired for the job, which in turn builds the artist’s résumé and portfolio. Brands can also search the site based on the skills they’re looking for, or based on who’s done work for another company that they admire.
The platform allows users to follow each other, but Indriolo said there’s an equal emphasis creating connections based on the work you’ve done and your past collaborations.
“We believe it’s a social platform, and that creatives will connect with one another … and find opportunities in a world that’s increasingly remote and global,” Gittrich added.
To get started, Creatively is working with schools like Parsons, Pratt, the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology to help their new graduates find work.
The platform is free for both businesses and individual creatives; the plan is to eventually start charging businesses to post jobs.
Welcome to this edition of The Operators, a recurring Extra Crunch column, podcast and YouTube show that brings you insights and information from inside the top tech companies. Our guests are execs with operational experience at both fast-rising startups, like Brex, Calm, DocSend, and Zeus Living, and more established companies, like AirBnB, Facebook, Google, and Uber. Here they share strategies and tactics for building your first a company and charting your career in tech.
Our two guests for this episode have very different backgrounds, one an experienced exec serving at a large digital media unicorn and the other a younger co-founder CEO of an upstart media business. But both are at rapidly growing companies who are at the forefront of what it means to be a media company today. Both experts from the online media industry have built successful careers and businesses in this age of social media and ready-to-go, instant news.
Rich Jarislowsky began his media career as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal before becoming the national political editor as a White House correspondent. He was instrumental in bringing The Wall Street Journal online years ago. For the past 25 years, Rich has been involved in digital news at wsj.com and Bloomberg, and is currently at Smart News, where he is Chief Journalist and the VP of Content.
Sam Parr is the co-founder and CEO of The Hustle, a beloved and rapidly growing newsletter, conference convener, and broadening digital media business.
Our discussion touched on some of the most important questions in digital media:
Building a brand new spacecraft means knowing when to innovate and when to stick to flight-proven methods, and for Crew Dragon, SpaceX decided to ditch the buttons and dials and go full touchscreen. The astronauts who will fly it later this month have had likewise to ditch years of training and muscle memory — but it’s not all bad, they say.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts soon to launch to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon capsule, will be the first to actually fly the craft in space.
“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” said Behnken in a press interview broadcast by NASA .
Of course they’re more than adequately prepared — not only have they spent countless hours in simulators, but they collaborated with SpaceX from the early days.
“It was on the order of at least 5 or 6 years ago that we went out to SpaceX and evaluated a bunch of different control mechanisms,” said Hurley. “They were looking at every which way of flying the vehicle, and ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface.”
“Of course, you know, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” he continued. “But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input.”
Compare the photo at the top of the story with the following shot of the physical simulator where astronauts learn to pilot the Russian Soyuz capsule:
And of course even modern aircraft are still a mess of physical controls, no doubt familiar to the pilot but inarguably dated in design.
Behnke pointed out that these spacecraft are made with a very specific purpose in mind: Going to and docking with the ISS. No one is going to Mars in one of these things, and that impacts how they’re designed and piloted.
“The flying task is very unique: To come close to the space station and fly in proximity, then slowly come into contact, is maybe a little bit different from what you would see for flying a space shuttle or an aircraft,” said Behnke, with characteristic understatement (the difference is night and day). “When we evaluated the touchscreen interface we really did focus on the task at hand and trying to get good performance for that specific task.”
A prototype Crew Dragon has already launched to the ISS and returned, having been piloted both autonomously and remotely.
“It was challenging for us and for them at first to work through those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from the manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well,” said Hurley.
“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input, relative to what you would do with a stick,” he continued. “Because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down. I actually have to make a concerted effort to do that with the touchscreen, if that makes sense.”
“I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is not to switch to a touchscreen, necessarily,” said Behnke. “But for the task that we have and to keep ourselves safe flying close to the ISS, the touchscreen is gonna provide us that capability just fine.”
Hurley pointed out that one major advantage is that the controls and readouts are all in the same place: “You’re seeing the docking target, for example, right in the same place you’re looking to fly the vehicle. So it is a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”
There’s only so much one can learn in a simulator, though, and this first crewed flight is still very much a test, the feedback from which will inform the next iteration of the capsule. It’s easier, after all, to push a software update than to rewire the pots of 20 different knobs in a system that goes back decades.
“We specifically, as part of this test flight, designed in some time in the preflight phase, as well as closer to space station, so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle,” Hurley explained. “Just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to, and the way the simulator shows it to fly. It’s a prudent part of our flight test just like anything else, in case the eventuality happened that a future crew needed to take over manually and fly the spacecraft. So we’re just doing our part, to kinda test out all the different capabilities of the Crew Dragon.”
We are sure to hear more about the version of Crew Dragon that will be flying later this month if everything goes according to plan. In the meantime, I have asked both SpaceX and NASA for more information on the control scheme and its development.
SpaceX is getting ready to launch its first-ever spacecraft with humans on board, the Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission (DM-2) that will take off from Florida on May 27. There are still a couple of things remaining to finish up prior to flight, including a final parachute system test that’s happening later today. The company also posted a video recap of its most recent uncrewed Crew Dragon flight, the in-flight escape demonstration that it flew on January 19.
The video provides a look at the processes involved in the test, including a look at mission control, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley looking on during the flight. You can see the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch with the Crew Dragon attached, as well as watch it explode in a ball of fire (as intended) during the early emergency separation. Then, watch as the capsule itself descends safety back to the ocean where it’s recovered by a SpaceX vessel.
This is a demonstration of a key system that’s designed as a safety measure, to be used only in the unlikely event of a major malfunction of the rocket during the takeoff phase, but after the spacecraft has left the ground. The system works by quickly and automatically propelling the astronaut-carrying Crew Capsule away from the booster and second stage at a very high speed, to ensure the people aboard are at a safe distance in case of any explosions.
Along with a ground escape system for quickly vacating the capsule and launch area before takeoff, there are a number of safety measures required by NASA for any human spaceflight from U.S. soil with astronauts on board. SpaceX has so far demonstrated that these systems are ready to a degree that has satisfied the agency, and now has only a number of pre-flight checks and run-throughs to get through before the historic May 27 mission.
At a time when more transactions than ever are happening online, payments behemoth Stripe is announcing three new features to continue expanding its reach.
The company today announced that it will now offer card issuing services directly to businesses to let them in turn make credit cards for customers tailored to specific purposes. Alongside that, it’s going to expand the number of accepted local, large card networks to cut down some of the steps it takes to make transactions in international markets. And finally, it’s launching a “revenue optimization” feature that essentially will use Stripe’s AI algorithms to reassess and approve more flagged transactions that might have otherwise been rejected in the past.
Together the three features underscore how Stripe is continuing to scale up with more services around its core payment processing APIs, a significant step in the wake of last week announcing its biggest fundraise to date: $600 million at a $36 billion valuation.
The rollouts of the new products are specifically coming at a time when Stripe has seen a big boost in usage among some (but not all) of its customers, said John Collison, Stripe’s co-founder and president, in an interview. Instacart, which is providing grocery delivery at a time when many are living under stay-at-home orders, has seen transactions up by 300% in recent weeks. Another newer customer, Zoom, is also seeing business boom. Amazon, Stripe’s behemoth customer that Collison would not discuss in any specific terms except to confirm it’s a close partner, is also seeing extremely heavy usage.
But other Stripe users — for example, many of its sea of small business users — are seeing huge pressures, while still others, faced with no physical business, are just starting to approach e-commerce in earnest for the first time. Stripe’s idea is that the launches today can help it address all of these scenarios.
“What we’re seeing in the COVID-19 world is that the impact is not minor,” said Collison. “Online has always been steadily taking a share from offline, but now many [projected] years of that migration are happening in the space of a few weeks.”
Stripe is among those companies that have been very mum about when they might go public — a state of affairs that only become more set in recent times, given how the IPO market has all but dried up in the midst of a health pandemic and economic slump. That has meant very little transparency about how Stripe is run, whether it’s profitable and how much revenues it makes.
But Stripe did note last week that it had some $2 billion in cash and cash reserves, which at least speaks to a level of financial stability. And another hint of efficiency might be gleaned from today’s product news.
While these three new services don’t necessarily sound like they are connected to each other, what they have underpinning them is that they are all building on top of tech and services that Stripe has previously rolled out. This speaks to how, even as the company now handles some 250 million API requests daily, it’s keeping some lean practices in place in terms of how it invests and maximises engineering and business development resources.
The card issuing service, for example, is built on a card service that Stripe launched last year. Originally aimed at businesses to provide their employees with credit cards — for example to better manage their own work-related expenses, or to make transactions on behalf of the business — now businesses can use the card issuing platform to build out aspects of its customer-facing services.
For example, Stripe noted that the first customer, Zipcar, will now be placing credit cards in each of its vehicles, which drivers can use to fuel up the vehicles (that is, the cards can only be used to buy gas). Another example Collison gave for how these could be implemented would be in a food delivery service, for example for a Postmates delivery person to use the card to pay for the meal that a customer has already paid Postmates to pick up and deliver to them.
Collison noted that while other startups like Marqeta have built big businesses around innovative card issuing services, “this is the first time it’s being issued on a self-serving basis,” meaning companies that want to use these cards can now set this up more quickly as a “programmatic card” experience, akin to self-serve, programmatic ads online.
It seems also to be good news for investors. “Stripe Issuing is a big step forward,” said Alex Rampell, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “Not just for the millions of businesses running on Stripe, but for credit cards as a fundamental technology. Businesses can now use an API to create and issue cards exactly when and where they need them, and they can do it in a few clicks, not a few months. As investors, we’re excited by all the potential new companies and business models that will emerge as a result.”
Meanwhile, the revenue “optimization” engine that Stripe is rolling out is built on the same machine learning algorithms that it originally built for Radar, its fraud prevention tool that originally launched in 2016 and was extended to larger enterprises in 2018. This makes a lot of sense, since oftentimes the reason transactions get rejected is because of the suspicion of fraud. Why it’s taken four years to extend that to improve how transactions are approved or rejected is not entirely clear, but Stripe estimates that it could enable a further $2.5 billion in transactions annually.
One reason why the revenue optimization may have taken some time to roll out was because while Stripe offers a very seamless, simple API for users, it’s doing a lot of complex work behind the scenes knitting together a lot of very fragmented payment flows between card issuers, banks, businesses, customers and more in order to make transactions possible.
The third product announcement speaks to how Stripe is simplifying a bit more of that. Now, it’s able to provide direct links into six big card networks — Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB and China Union Pay, which effectively covers the major card networks in North and Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe. Previously, Stripe would have had to work with third parties to integrate acceptance of all of these networks in different regions, which would have cut into Stripe’s own margins and also given it less flexibility in terms of how it could handle the transaction data.
Launching the revenue optimization by being able to apply machine learning to the transaction data is one example of where and how it might be able to apply more innovative processes from now on.
While Stripe is mainly focused today on how to serve its wider customer base and to just help business continue to keep running, Collison noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable impact on Stripe beyond just boosts in business for some of its customers.
The whole company has been working remotely for weeks, including its development team, making for challenging times in building and rolling out services.
And Stripe, along with others, is also in the early stages of piloting how it will play a role in issuing small business loans as part of the CARES Act, he said.
In addition to that, he noted that there has been an emergence of more medical and telehealth services using Stripe for payments.
Before now, many of those use cases had been blocked by the banks, he said, for reasons of the industries themselves being strictly regulated in terms of what kind of data could get passed across networks and the sensitive nature of the businesses themselves. He said that a lot of that has started to get unblocked in the current climate, and “the growth of telemedicine has been off the charts.”
Astronauts may make a second home of space, but even they have a first time going up. NASA is hoping to better prepare its crews for the challenges of space by sending them on suborbital flights from the likes of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — suggesting a potentially huge new market for the nascent private spaceflight industry.
Speaking at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers conference in March, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that the agency was considering private carriers now mainly because previously, the possibility simply didn’t exist.
“That’s a capability we as a nation have not had until recently,” he said, in remarks reported by Space.com.
Indeed it is not entirely clear we have it even now. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both demonstrated suborbital flights that have skimmed the very verge of space, but test flights and commercial flights to order are very different.
While Virgin is already selling tickets, there’s no date set for the first flight with passengers. That flight will likely be this year, but without a reliable schedule and record of successful missions it’s hard to say that the capability is anything but aspirational at present. That’s the nature of space travel — 99 percent of the way is still nowhere.
Still, it seems inevitable that Virgin, Blue, or another provider will, some time in the next few years, offer suborbital flights with space for payloads and passengers. That’s something NASA seems hot to take them up on.
It’s rather strange, but equally inescapable, that astronauts have to do all their training here on Earth. They can take do all the simulators, “vomit comet” flights, and pool training they like — but in the end, the only way to experience space is to go there.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will fly in the first Commercial Crew demo mission to the ISS, operate a simulator of the Crew Dragon capsule.
Until quite recently that meant getting on top of a hundred million dollar rocket and going up to the ISS, or in earlier days to the Moon in an orbiter or lander.
There’s very little one can do to prepare for that, but among those few things is going to space more cheaply and temporarily. That’s what suborbital flights make possible.
The rocket-powered ascent out of the atmosphere and resulting minutes of weightlessness are a suitable venue for training, testing, and other operations that might otherwise have had to take place in orbit. And that’s what NASA is hoping will take place — though no contracts have been signed just yet.
Although the first few suborbital flights from these providers were practically guaranteed to sell out, space tourism isn’t a proven industry and events like the present pandemic and inevitable economic downturn afterwards may in fact have a serious impact on such high-ticket items (or the ability to provide them). So the prospect of regular government contracts is almost certainly a huge relief to any company aiming to provide or support suborbital flights.
“This is a big shift for NASA, but it’s an important shift,” Bridenstine said. The shift is not simply relying more on private industry, which government programs have done lately, but using private flights as official training. He indicated that the flights would need to be extremely safe, though not quite to the same standards as flights to the ISS.
More training and testing, but on flights not actually run by NASA, would both increase preparedness for new missions, speed up readiness, and reduce complexity of existing programs that rely on NASA-flown missions for those capabilities. I’ve asked the agency for more information on this topic and will update the post if I hear back.
Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.
Late last week a Chinese company called Kingsoft Cloud filed to go public in the United States. The cloud infrastructure business intends to list on the Nasdaq under the symbol “KC,” with J.P. Morgan, UBS and Credit Suisse helping out with running the deal.
Kingsoft Cloud has a $100 million placeholder figure in its F-1 filing, giving us an idea of its expectations for the size of the public offering. According to Crunchbase data, Kingsoft Cloud raised nearly $1 billion while private.
There are a few questions to answer:
Over the past two years, I’ve typed nearly every word I’ve written while traveling on the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard Folio. For more on why you can see my iPad Pro review here.
For the purposes of this look at the new Magic Keyboard, though, you should probably just know two things:
The Keyboard Folio’s plastic coated surface made it impervious to spills, but it also made the keys much less responsive. It rendered them unable to give your fingers the feedback necessary to confirm that a key had been struck, leading me to adopt a technique where I just hit every key with maximum strength at all times.
The new Magic Keyboard is as different from that device as the new MacBook Pro keyboards are from the low profile ones that dominated headlines over the last couple of years. It’s a huge jump forward in usability for the iPad Pro — and for last year’s model too.
I am very relieved I don’t have to slam my fingers onto the plastic keyboard anymore, because over long and fast typing sessions I could feel a numbness that would begin to radiate from the tips of my fingers a bit. An enervation of sorts. It wasn’t precisely painful but it was noticeable.
The Magic Keyboard offers a lovely, backlit deck that holds its own against the 16” MacBook Pro and the new MacBook Air for best portable keyboards. The key travel is excellent — in between the two laptops in my opinion — and the feel is tight, responsive and precise. This is a first class typing experience, full stop.
I’ve been testing the three keyboards alongside one another for the past few days and I can’t stress enough how stable the keys are. Even the MacBook Pro allows a tiny bit of key shift if you touch your finger to it and gently circle it. There’s such a small amount of that here that it’s almost imperceptible.
It’s a tad spongier than the 16” MBP but more firm than the MacBook Air, which has a bit more return and travel. In my opinion, this keyboard is ‘louder’ (due to the plastic casing being more resonant than the aluminum), than the 16” MBP, but about the same as the MacBook Air. The throw feels similar to the 16” though, with the Air being slightly deeper but ‘sloppier’.
So a hybrid between those two keyboards as far as feel goes, but a clear descendant of the work that was done to turn those offerings around.
Among my biggest concerns was that Apple would get overly clever with the hinge design, making the the typing an exercise in wobble. Happy to say here that they took the clear path here and made it as sturdy as possible, even if that was at the cost of variability.
The hinge is a simple limit stop design that opens far less than you’d expect and then allows a second hinge to engage to open in an arc between the 80 and 130 degrees. The 90 degree and fully open positions basically mimic the angles that were offered by the grooves of the Keyboard Folio — but now you can choose any in-between position that feels natural to you.
Apple has obviously put this hard stop fold out limit in place to maintain balance on tables and laps, and its clever use of counter opposing forces with the second hinge combines to limit tipping and to make typing on a lap finally a completely viable thing to do. The fact that you don’t have to hammer the keyboard to type also makes this a better proposition.
For typing, these positions should be just fine for the vast majority of users. And the solid (very high friction) hinge means that the whole thing is very sturdy feeling, even with more moving parts. I have been quite comfortable grabbing the whole assembly of the 12.9” iPad Pro plus Magic Keyboard by the deck of the keyboard and carrying it around, much in the way I’d carry a laptop. No worries about accidental floppiness or detachment.
At the same time, the new design that floats the iPad in the air allows you to quickly pop it off with little effort by either your left or right hand. This makes the Magic Keyboard take on the use case of a desktop based dock, something that never felt right with the Keyboard Folio.
The touchpad physically moves here, and is not a haptic pad, but it is clickable across its entire surface. It’s also a laptop-class trackpad, proving that Apple’s engineering teams still have a better idea about how to make a trackpad that works crisply and as expected than any other hardware team out there.
I do love the soft touch coating of the case itself, but I believe it will wear in a similar fashion to these kinds of surfaces on other devices. It will likely develop shiny spots on either side of the trackpad on the hand rest areas.
The responsive half arrow keys are extremely welcome.
Some other details, quirks and limits
The camera placement situation is much improved here, as you’re less likely to hold the left side of the iPad to keep it stable. The lift of the keyboard (at times about an inch and a bit) means that the eye line, while still not ideal, is improved for zoom calls and the like. Less double chin up the nose action. Apple should still move the iPad Pro’s camera on future versions.
The keyboard’s backlight brightness is decent and adjustable in the settings pane once it’s attached to iPad Pro. The unit did use more battery in my tests, though I haven’t had it long enough to assign any numbers to it. I did notice during a recent Facetime call that the battery was draining faster than it could charge, but that is so far anecdotal and I haven’t had the time to reproduce it in testing.
This is not the case that artists have been waiting for. This case does not rotate around backwards like the keyboard folio, meaning that you’re going to be popping it off the case if you’re going to draw on it at all. In some ways the ease of removal feels like an Apple concession. ‘Hey, we couldn’t fit all this in and a way to position it at a drawing angle, so we made it really easy to get it loose.’ It works, but I hope that more magic happens between now and the next iteration to find a way to serve both typing and drawing in one protected configuration.
A little quirk: when it’s tilted super far back to the full stop I sometimes nick the bottom edge of the iPad with my fingers when hitting numbers — could be my typing form or bigger hands but I thought it worth mentioning.
It’s a bit heavy. At 700g for the 12.9” keyboard, it more than doubles the weight of the whole package. The larger iPad Pro and keyboard is basically the weight of a MacBook Air. Get the 11” if weight is a concern.
The fact that this keyboard works on the older iPad Pro (the camera just floats inside the cutout) means that this is a fantastic upgrade for existing users. It really makes the device feel like it got a huge upgrade without having to buy a new core unit, which fits with Apple’s modular approach to iPad Pro and also stands out as pretty rare in a world where the coolest new features are often hardware related and new device limited.
If you work seriously with the iPad and that work is based on typing, the Magic Keyboard is essentially mandatory. It’s the dream keyboard for all of us who found ourselves crossing the Rubicon into iPad as primary computer over the past couple of years. It’s not without its caveats, but it is a refreshingly straightforward and well executed accessory that makes even older iPads feel like better laptops than laptops.
Forget the calendar invite. Just jump into a conversation. That’s the idea powering a fresh batch of social startups poised to take advantage of our cleared schedules amidst quarantine. But they could also change the way we work and socialize long after COVID-19 by bringing the free-flowing, ad-hoc communication of parties and open office plans online. While “Live” has become synonymous with performative streaming, these new apps instead spread the limelight across several users as well as the task, game, or discussion at hand.
The most buzzy of these startups is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you. High-energy rooms attract crowds while slower ones see participants slip out to join other chat circles.
Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humblebragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.
Clubhouse was built by Paul Davison, who previously founded serendipitous offline people-meeting location app Highlight and reveal-your-whole-camera-roll app Shorts before his team was acquired by Pinterest in 2016. This year he debuted his Alpha Exploration Co startup studio and launched Talkshow for instantly broadcasting radio-style call-in shows. Spontaneity is the thread that ties Davison’s work together, whether its for making new friends, sharing your life, transmitting your thoughts, or having a discussion.
It’s very early days for Clubhouse. It doesn’t even have a website. There’s no telling exactly what it will be like if or when it officially launches, and Davison declined to comment. But the positive reception shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to discussion that updates what Twitter did with text.
What quarantine has revealed is that when you separate everyone, spontaneity is a big thing you miss. In your office, that could be having a random watercooler chat with a co-worker or commenting aloud about something funny you found on the internet. At a party, it could be wandering up to chat with group of people because you know one of them or overhear something interesting. That’s lacking while we’re stuck home since we’ve stigmatized randomly phoning a friend, differing to asynchronous text despite its lack of urgency.
Clubhouse founder Paul Davison. Image Credit: JD Lasica
Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas. But smart app developers are also realizing that spontaneity doesn’t mean constantly interrupting people’s life or workflow. They give people the power to decide when they are or aren’t available or signal that they’re not to be disturbed so they’re only thrust into social connection when they want it.
Houseparty chart ranks via AppAnnie
Houseparty embodies this spontaneity. It’s become the breakout hit of quarantine by letting people on a whim join group video chat rooms with friends the second they open the app. It saw 50 million downloads in a month, up 70X over its pre-COVID levels in some places. It’s become the #1 social app in 82 countries including the US, and #1 overall in 16 countries.
Originally built for gaming, Discord lets communities spontaneously connect through persistent video, voice, and chat rooms. It’s seen a 50% increase in US daily voice users with spikes in shelter-in-place early adopter states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. Bunch, for video chat overlayed on mobile gaming, is also climbing the charts and going mainstream with its user base shifting to become majority female as they talk for 1.5 million minutes per day. Both apps make it easy to join up with pals and pick something to play together.
Enterprise video chat tools are adapting to spontaneity as an alternative to heavy-handed, pre-meditated Zoom calls. There’s been a backlash as people realize they don’t get anything done by scheduling back-to-back video chats all day.
While visual communication has been the breakout feature of our mobile phones by allowing us to show where we are, shelter-in-place means we don’t have much to show. That’s expanded the opportunity for tools that take a less-is-more approach to spontaneous communication. Whether for remote partying or rapid problem solving, new apps beyond Clubhouse are incorporating voice rather than just video. Voice offers a way to rapidly exchange information and feel present together without dominating our workspace or attention, or forcing people into an uncomfortable spotlight.
High Fidelity is Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale’s $72 million-funded current startup. After recently pivoting away from building a virtual reality co-working tool, High Fidelity has begun testing a voice and headphones-based online event platform and gathering place. The early beta lets users move their dot around a map and hear the voice of anyone close to them with spatial audio so voices get louder as you get closer to someone, and shift between your ears as you move past them. You can spontaneously approach and depart little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot.
An unofficial mockup of High Fidelity’s early tests. Image Credits: DigitalGlobe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images
High Fidelity is currently using a satellite photo of Burning Man as its test map. It allows DJs to set up in different corners, and listeners to stroll between them or walk off with a friend to chat, similar to the real offline event. Since Burning Man was cancelled this year, High Fidelity could potentially be a candidate for holding the scheduled virtual version the organizers have promised.
Houseparty’s former CEO Ben Rubin and Strivr VR employee training startup founder Brian Meek are building a spontaneous teamwork tool called Slashtalk. Rubin sold Houseparty to Fortnite-maker Epic in mid-2019, but the gaming giant largely neglected the app until its recent quarantine-driven success. Rubin left.
His new startup’s site explains that “/talk is an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations. We believe most meetings can be eliminated if the right people are connected at the right time to discuss the right topics, for just as long as necessary.” It lets people quickly jump into a voice or video chat to get something sorted without delaying until a calendared collab session.
Slashtalk co-founder Ben Rubin at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015
Whether for work or play, these spontaneous apps can conjure times from our more unstructured youth. Whether sifting through the cafeteria or school yard, seeing who else is at the mall, walking through halls of open doors in college dorms, or hanging at the student union or campus square, the pre-adult years offer many opportunities for impromptu social interation.
As we age and move into our separate homes, we literally erect walls that limit our ability to perceive the social cues that signal that someone’s available for unprompted communication. That’s spawned apps like Down To Lunch and Snapchat acquisition Zenly, and Facebook’s upcoming Messenger status feature designed to break through those barriers and make it feel less desperate to ask someone to hang out offline.
But while socializing or collaborating IRL requires transportation logistics and usually a plan, the new social apps discussed here bring us together instantly, thereby eliminating the need to schedule togetherness ahead of time. Gone too are the geographic limits restraining you to connect only with those within a reasonable commute. Digitally, you can pick from your whole network. And quarantines have further opened our options by emptying parts of our calendars.
Absent those frictions, what shines through is our intention. We can connect with who we want and accomplish what we want. Spontaneous apps open the channel so our impulsive human nature can shine through.
Whenever a platform breaks out, companies emerge to seize on its reach by building their services or products atop it. It happened with Facebook and Twitter and Slack. Now, it’s happening with Zoom, the video conferencing company that took the world by storm earlier this year as the coronavirus sent people around the globe indoors and into self-imposed isolation.
It’s not a brand-new trend. Plenty of companies are selling their wares through the Zoom App Marketplace, which launched in the fall of 2018 and now features 18 pages of providers. But Grain, founded in 2018 in San Francisco, might be the first to build its entire business around it, at least as a starting point.
What is that business? According to co-founder and CEO Mike Adams, the idea is to capture content in Zoom calls that can be saved and shared across platforms, including Twitter, Discord, Notion, Slack and iMessages.
Say a student wants to take notes; he or she can record part of what a teacher is saying to save or share with classmates, without having to rewatch an entire lecture. The same is true in work settings. By using Grain, a colleague can flag the most important bits of information that was conveyed, then share just those bits via a clip that has its own unique URL.
Grain also transcribes content in clips and allows users to turn on closed captions if they choose.
The video clips can range from 30 seconds up to 10 minutes. They can also be strung together into reels to create summary highlights. (These have no time limit.) Not last, users can trim or adjust the length of the highlight after it has been recorded, as well as control who else can edit the video afterward to prevent nefarious actors from manipulating the snippets.
Adams says he and his brother, Jake — a former software engineer at Branch Metrics with whom he co-founded the company — are even using Grain to save snippets of precious moments on Zoom involving nieces and nephews, though the focus is very much on the companies and schools that will pay on a per-seat basis for the software.
Indeed, Adams says the idea for Grain was really born at the last company he co-founded: MissionU, a Zoom-based one-year alternative to a traditional college whose students weren’t asked for tuition but instead agreed to hand over up to 15% of their incomes for three years once they landed a job that paid $50,000 or more.
MissionU — which was founded in 2016 and raised $11.5 million from investors — sold to WeWork in 2018 in a stock deal before its students earned anything (they were released from their income-sharing agreements). Still, the experiment was long enough that Adams, who left MissionU at the time of the sale, says he saw firsthand the need for better tools to help students capture what’s important in their online content.
The question, of course, is whether Zoom also sees the opportunity. Relying so heavily on another company is always a risk. (See Facebook and Twitter and the long list of third-party developers that have been burned by both companies.)
If Zoom, which is starting to make venture-like bets, were an investor in Grain, it might help inoculate it from potential competition down the road.
Still, that it isn’t didn’t dissuade other investors who are betting that Zoom will prove friend and not foe. In fact, late last year, Grain raised $4 million over two seed rounds from a long list of notable investors, including Acrew Capital, Founder Collective, Peterson Partners, Slack Fund, Scott Belsky, Sriram Krishnan, Andreas Klinger, Scooter Braun and others.
Now its 11-person team is ready to take the wraps off what they’ve been building in beta with some of that capital.
Certainly, Grain — which plans to eventually integrate with numerous other companies — could do worse as springboards go than Zoom, one of the rare new breakout platform companies in memory and a tool that, early this week, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison called an “essential service” that will change how work is done.
Zoom has long been powered by viral end user adoption, enjoying growth internally and externally because of the nature of video conferencing across companies. Now, its pick-up as a consumer company is following a similar trajectory, with a high percentage of new users who are invited to Zoom calls eventually signing up for the service so that they can themselves host a call.
If Grain gets lucky, some percentage of that percentage will also discover Grain.
We’re in unprecedented times and are likely at the beginning of a long journey back to normal — whatever the new “normal” turns out to be.
While governments rush to get debt-relief packages in place, the high-risk, high-reward tech sector will need something different. To survive, the community requires fancy footwork, hard choices and a lot of shared pain between founders, staff, investors, suppliers and customers.
With my startup Moonfruit, a DIY website and e-commerce platform I co-founded with Wendy Tan-White (now a VP at X) and eirik pettersen (currently CTO at Secret Escapes), we survived the 2001 dot-com crash, when the entire tech sector was decimated for years to come, as well as the 2008 financial crisis, when we were lucky enough to experience rapid countercyclical growth. These experiences made us stronger and ultimately led to our successful exit in 2012 and post-acquisition growth to $150 million ARR.
I’ve spent the last five years as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, raising $200 million of funds and advising hundreds of startups through formation, growth and fundraising — but right now I work with many of them daily on survival.
For most companies, I think this crisis will look more like 2001 than 2008, though there will be some who are lucky enough to grow through it. The good news is, having been through this before, I know there are things you can do as a founder or as an investor that can mitigate the damage. In the U.K., I’m in several conversations about making emergency equity funding more available, and I hope this happens all over the world too.
Here is a tactical guide to surviving the crisis.
Working from home is easy for some and difficult for others, but one place it’s downright impossible is the International Space Station . So pandemic or no pandemic, the latest crew had to get themselves up there. They’ve just had a successful launch and arrival, but only after a protracted quarantine period.
To be clear, ISS crews are always quarantined prior to launch to make sure they don’t bring the flu up from a chance encounter, but given the coronavirus situation, this was a special occasion.
Update: Although some extra measures were taken, the quarantine was no longer than normal, NASA says. The crew went through a standard two-week quarantine in their quarters, while staff adhered to extra-rigorous infection control at the Roscosmos launch facility in Baikonur. They were not tested for coronavirus. I’ve attached NASA’s full statement regarding the mission’s quarantine procedures at the bottom of the article.
Expedition 63 will relieve the current crew after about a week of overlap, during which no doubt the ISS begins to feel fairly crowded.
This crew is special in that among its duties will be to welcome the astronauts aboard the first Commercial Crew mission to the ISS, who will arrive on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. That mission, too, is currently on schedule for May despite the pandemic.
Every crew mission for years has been done using Russia’s venerable Soyuz spacecraft. These have been updated continually for decades, but still feature more than a little of what might best be described as “repeatedly flight proven” technology.
The effort to engineer a state of the art spacecraft for crewed missions has lasted several years, coming down to SpaceX and rival Boeing in the home stretch. But while both have suffered repeated delays, Boeing has had numerous other failures that have pushed its launch out toward the end of the year and perhaps beyond. SpaceX, on the other hand, is ready to go.
The first Commercial Crew mission, whether it’s next month or a little later, will be the culmination of years of competition, and the first time a crew has gone to orbit in an American-made spacecraft since the Shuttle was retired. (Virgin Galactic has piloted its spacecraft to the edge of space, but its human-rated craft is not an orbital vehicle.)
If all goes well, NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner will welcome the historic mission to the ISS soon.
Here’s NASA’s statement on astronaut health and quarantine:
NASA has a robust plan in place to ensure astronauts are not ill or incubating illnesses when they launch to the International Space Station. The space program takes an extremely conservative approach toward infection control so once our crew members arrive at the space station, the risk is as low as possible. All of our crew must stay in quarantine for two weeks before they launch. This ensures that they aren’t sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station and is called “health stabilization.” NASA and Roscosmos used the standard quarantine period of two weeks for the Soyuz crew.
To prevent any illness before an astronaut goes into quarantine, NASA is closely adhering to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus. This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, and limiting contact with crew members. During quarantine, the astronauts live in their crew quarters – NASA has crew quarters for this purpose at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, and Roscosmos has them in Baikonur. They don’t have direct contact with anyone who has not been pre-cleared by NASA flight surgeons. The time is spent preparing for flight, studying and resting, as well as working out and making video calls to friends and family members.
The 2010 Flight Crew Heath Stabilization Program reflects a preflight quarantine period from the legacy space shuttle program. The Russian program has always implemented a two-week quarantine, and this has applied to all space station partner crew members that have flown on the Soyuz, including American astronauts. In 2011 the space station medical community converged on a common preflight infectious disease control plan, which included a two-week quarantine period along with other measures. This applies to all personnel flying to the space station, which includes the new US commercial vehicles.
Chris Cassidy and his Soyuz crewmates were not tested for coronavirus. They have been under strict quarantine procedures ahead of their launch and no members of their support team in Baikonur have shown any symptoms or fevers.
Apple has brought its hardware microphone disconnect security feature to its latest iPads.
The microphone disconnect security feature aims to make it far more difficult for hackers to use malware or a malicious app to eavesdrop on a device’s surroundings.
The feature was first introduced to Macs by way of Apple’s T2 security chip last year. The security chip ensured that the microphone was physically disconnected from the device when the user shuts their MacBook lid. The idea goes that physically cutting off the microphone from the device prevents malware — even with the highest level of “root” device permissions — from listening in to nearby conversations.
Apple confirmed in a support guide that its newest iPads have the same feature. Any certified “Made for iPad” case that’s attached and closed will trigger the hardware disconnect.
It’s a subtle acknowledgement that Apple devices get malware, too. Although rare, there has been a steady stream of exploits targeting Macs and iOS devices in the past few years, prompting Apple to raise its bug bounty payouts to compete with the growing exploit market. Just last year, Apple patched a number of vulnerabilities that were used by China to break into the iPhones belonging to the phones of Uyghur Muslims, a persecuted minority group in the China’s Xinjiang state.
Apple also said that all apps running on iOS or iPadOS 13.4 will be sandboxed in a “data vault,” to help prevent apps from accessing data without authorization.
NASA and SpaceX are moving ahead full-steam with the Demo-2 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – the first launch to carry astronauts to space aboard a private launch vehicle from American soil. The Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the Crew Dragon to space will include a NASA logo that has been – technically – required from active duty since 1992.
The 1970s-era “worm” logo is a take on NASA branding that has, for more than 20 years now, been relegated to souvenir status. You’ve probably seen it adorning caps, sweatshirts, stickers and other swag, but it hasn’t graced an official NASA spacecraft since its retirement from use. The NASA “meatball” logo that the agency does use on in-space assets today actually predates the “worm” and was developed in the late 1950s – but the latter’s tubular simplicity still has a more “retro” feel.
That vibe returns to active use with the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, which is currently set for launch sometime in early-to-mid May, and which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space, and to the International Space Station, for the final step in certifying Crew Dragon for regular use in operational astronaut transportation missions.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – AUGUST 10: NASA’s “meatball” logo displayed on the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
NASA shared an image of the red “worm” logo emblazoned on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket currently being readied for that mission in Florida, and the agency also said that it’s likely not the last time you’ll see it in official, active mission use. Don’t worry, fans of the meatball classic: The agency says that one’s still its primary symbol, even if the worm has poked its head out of the ground.
Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.
It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.
Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.
What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, buut I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground,” says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.
It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.
Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based shop Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges. Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.
Know it’s hard, even in the best times
As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.
Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, ‘Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.
Hudson suggests he may have overestimated interest in his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other investors. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”
Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.'”
Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (Its now raising its third pre-seed fund).
Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.
Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instill confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.
She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be? Learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?'”
Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can
In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options, either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.
Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.
“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”
Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.
Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too
Senkut started off with certain financial advantages that many VCs do not, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.
Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds instead of search engine giants. In the end, it took him “50 no’s before I had my first yes” — not hundreds — but it gave him a taste of being an outsider in an insider industry, and he seemingly hasn’t forgotten that feeling.
Indeed, according to Senkut, anyone who wants to crack into the venture industry needs to get into the flow of the best deals by hook or by crook. In his case, for example, he shadowed angel investor Ron Conway for some time, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.
“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow, because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”
Adds Senkut, “The danger in this business is that it’s very easy to make a mistake. It’s very easy to chase deals that are not going to go anywhere. And so I think that’s where [following others] things really helped me.”
Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time. The companies that Felicis has backed and been acquired include Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit; Plaid, sold in January to Visa; Ring, sold in 2018 to Amazon, and Cruise, sold to General Motors in 2016, and that’s saying nothing of its portfolio companies to go public.
That probably gives him a kind of confidence that it’s harder to earlier managers to muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to ask the right questions of potential investors, who will sometimes wittingly or unwittingly waste a manager’s time.
He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken. They did this so they don’t find themselves in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that venture backers have been writing out checks to new funds at a faster pace than they’ve ever been asked to before.
In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”
It’s a “little bit of an eight ball to figure out what are your odds and the probability of getting money even if things were to turn south,” he notes.
Given that they have, the questions look smarter still.
NASA provided an official update about the status of its Commercial Crew program, the project it’s working on with partners SpaceX and Boeing to return astronaut launch capabilities to American soil via private launch partners. This week, SpaceX encountered an issue while testing the parachute system that will be used on its Crew Dragon spacecraft, but a new update from NASA indicates the the previously stated mid-to-late May window for its first ever launch with astronauts on board is still on the calendar.
The incident occurred on March 24, and SpaceX provided a statement detailing what happened at the time. Here’s their full statement:
During a planned parachute drop test today, the test article suspended underneath the helicopter became unstable. Out of an abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe, the pilot pulled the emergency release. As the helicopter was not yet at target conditions, the test article was not armed, and as such, the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence. While the test article was lost, this was not a failure of the parachute system and most importantly no one was injured. NASA and SpaceX are working together to determine the testing plan going forward in advance of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission.
Per SpaceX, and NASA’s blog on Friday, the loss of the “spacecraft-like” testing device that was suspended underneath the helicopter does not reflect any problem on the part of the parachute system itself. NASA included a closing paragraph in its update that noted it’s “looking at the parachute testing plan now and all the data we already have to determine next steps,” but it does conclude that it’s doing so in the interest of “flying the upcoming Demo-2 flight test in the mid-to-late May timeframe.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX also encountered an early engine cut-off issue during its most recent Starlink launch, which flew using a Falcon 9 rocket on March 18. NASA confirmed that it is participating in an investigation into what went wrong with that engine issue (which, it should be noted, didn’t actually affect the successful outcome of the launch itself).
It’s possible that either of these could impact the plans for the Demo-2 mission, but right now, things still appear to be on track. NASA is also taking measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and enforcing remote work policies where applicable, but this also hasn’t had an effect on the Commercial Crew timelines to date.