FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Disney+ comes to Canada and the Netherlands on Nov. 12, will support nearly all major platforms at launch

By Darrell Etherington

Disney+ will have an international launch that begins at the same time as its rollout in the U.S., Disney revealed. The company will be launching its digital streaming service on November 12 in Canada and The Netherlands on November 12, and will be available in Australia and New Zealand the following week. The streaming service will also support virtually every device and operating system from day one.

Disney+ will be available on iOS, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Android, Android TV, PlayStation 4, Roku and Xbox One at launch, which is pretty much an exhaustive list of everywhere someone might want to watch it, leaving aside some smaller proprietary smart TV systems. That, combined with the day-and-date global markets, should be a clear indicator that Disney wants its service to be available to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.

Through Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices, customers will be able to subscribe via in-app purchase. Disney+ will also be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app, which is getting an update in iOS 13 in hopes of becoming even more useful as a central hub for all a user’s video content. The one notable exception on the list of supported devices and platforms is Amazon’s Fire TV, which could change closer to launch depending on negotiations.

In terms of pricing, the service will run $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year in Canada, and €6.99 per month (or €69.99 per year) in the Netherlands. In Australia, it’ll be $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year, and in New Zealand, it’ll be $9.99 and $99.99 per year. All prices are in local currency.

That compares pretty well with the $6.99 per month (or $69.99 yearly) asking price in the U.S., and undercuts the Netflix pricing in those markets, too. This is just the Disney+ service on its own, however, not the combined bundle that includes ESPN Plus and Hulu for $12.99 per month, which is probably more comparable to Netflix in terms of breadth of content offering.

 

Walmart Canada rolls out nationwide grocery delivery through Instacart

By Sarah Perez

Walmart’s relationship with Instacart deepened today with an expansion of their partnership across Canada for grocery delivery. Walmart Canada had previously run a 17-store pilot program with Instacart, starting last September, in both the Greater Toronto area and Winnipeg. With the expansion, Walmart Canada will offer same-day grocery delivery from nearly 200 Walmart stores nationwide.

Canadian Walmart shoppers can now shop online via Instacart’s website or mobile app, select their city and store, then add items to a grocery cart, check out and choose their delivery window. The delivery can arrive in as fast as one hour, or it can be scheduled as much as five days in advance.

The service is currently live in cities and communities throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the retailer says.

Instacart Walmart Canada Check out

Walmart Canada isn’t the only Walmart arm to have a relationship with the same-day delivery service. Last year, Walmart’s Sam’s Club also began working with Instacart to offer same-day delivery from its warehouse stores in parts of the U.S. That partnership expanded last fall, and recently began to power Sam’s Club’s new alcohol delivery service, as well.

Walmart in the U.S. also offers an online grocery service, but has chosen to work with other delivery providers, including Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire, Roadie and Postmates, after ending relationships with Uber, Lyft and Deliv. According to reports, Walmart didn’t want to work with Instacart in the U.S. because it only wants to use the provider for last-mile deliveries — and Instacart wanted to list Walmart inventory in its app.

In Canada, however, that arrangement seems to be working out.

With the expansion, Instacart delivery is now available to more than 70% of Canadian households, up from 60% in January of this year. By comparison, Instacart is available in more than 80% of U.S. households.

It’s not the only option for Walmart’s online grocery in Canada, though.

In addition, Walmart Canada offers grocery pickup at 175 stores, expanding to 190 by the end of January 2020. It also offers pickup at nine PenguinPickUp locations in the Toronto area and next-day delivery in the Toronto area through Walmart.ca.

“Canadian families are busy. By introducing more online shopping options at Walmart, we’re helping make life easier and more convenient for them,” said Lee Tappenden, president and CEO of Walmart Canada, in a statement released today. “Expanding our relationship with Instacart provides our customers with even more time-saving ways to shop at Walmart in their community.”

To kick off the deal, the code WMTCOAST2COAST can be used at checkout for $10 off a first-time customer’s order of $35 or more.

US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

By Natasha Lomas

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.

Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.

The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.

Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.

Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.

“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”

“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other issues while at the same time respecting freedom of speech.”

The international committee met for its first session in London last November — when it was forced to empty-chair Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who had declined to attend in person, sending UK policy VP Richard Allan in his stead.

Lawmakers from nine countries spent several hours taking Allan to task over Facebook’s lack of accountability for problems generated by the content it distributes and amplifies, raising myriad examples of ongoing failure to tackle the democracy-denting, society-damaging disinformation — from election interference to hate speech whipping up genocide.

A second meeting of the grand committee was held earlier this year in Canada — taking place over three days in May.

Again Zuckerberg failed to show. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also gave international legislators zero facetime, with the company opting to send local head of policy, Kevin Chan, and global head of policy, Neil Potts, as stand ins.

Lawmakers were not amused. Canadian MPs voted to serve Zuckerberg and Sandberg with an open summons — meaning they’ll be required to appear before it the next time they step foot in the country.

Parliamentarians in the UK also issued a summons for Zuckerberg last year after repeat snubs to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s enquiry into fake news — a decision that essentially gave birth to the international grand committee, as legislators in multiple jurisdictions united around a common cause of trying to find ways to hold social media giants to accounts.

Delighted to hear that @davidcicilline will be joining us for the next International Grand Committee on disinformation in Dublin in November https://t.co/TI07XEVwLm @CommonsCMS

— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) August 15, 2019

While it’s not clear who the grand committee will invite to the next session, Facebook’s founder seems highly unlikely to have dropped off their list. And this time Zuckerberg and Sandberg may find it harder to turn down an invite to Dublin, given the committee’s ranks will include a homegrown lawmaker.

In a statement on joining the next meeting, Cicilline said: “We are living in a critical moment for privacy rights and competition online, both in the United States and around the world.  As people become increasingly connected by what seem to be free technology platforms, many remain unaware of the costs they are actually paying.

“The Internet has also become concentrated, less open, and growingly hostile to innovation. This is a problem that transcends borders, and it requires multinational cooperation to craft solutions that foster competition and safeguard privacy online. I look forward to joining the International Grand Committee as part of its historic effort to identify problems in digital markets and chart a path forward that leads to a better online experience for everyone.”

Multiple tech giants (including Facebook) have their international headquarters in Ireland — making the committee’s choice of location for their next meeting a strategic one. Should any tech CEOs thus choose to snub an invite to testify to the committee they might find themselves being served with an open summons to testify by Irish parliamentarians — and not being able to set foot in a country where their international HQ is located would be more than a reputational irritant.

Ireland’s privacy regulator is also sitting on a stack of open investigations against tech giants — again with Facebook and Facebook owned companies producing the fattest file (some 11 investigations). But there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to go around, with the DPC’s current case file also touching tech giants including Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Learn how enterprise startups win big deals at TechCrunch’s Enterprise show on Sept. 5

By Frederic Lardinois

Big companies today may want to look and feel like startups, but when it comes to the way they approach buying new enterprise solutions, especially from new entrants. But from the standpoint of a true startup, closing deals with just a few big customers is critical to success. At our much anticipated inaugural TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5, Okta’s Monty Gray, SAP’s DJ Paoni, VMware’s Sanjay Poonen, and Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory will discuss ways for startups to adapt their strategies to gain more enterprise customers (p.s. early-bird tickets end in 48 hours – book yours here).

This session is sponsored by SAP, the lead sponsor for the event.

Monty Gray is Okta’s Senior Vice President and head of Corporate Development. In this role, he is responsible for driving the company’s growth initiatives, including mergers and acquisitions. That role gives him a unique vantage point of the enterprise startup ecosystem, all from the perspective of an organization that went through the process of learning how to sell to enterprises itself. Prior to joining Okta, Gray served as the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at SAP.

Sanjay Poonen joined VMware in August 2013, and is responsible for worldwide sales, services, alliances, marketing and communications. Prior to SAP, Poonen held executive roles at Symantec, VERITAS and Informatica, and he began his career as a software engineer at Microsoft, followed by Apple.

SAP’s DJ Paoni has been working in the enterprise technology industry for over two decades. As president of SAP North America, DJ Paoni is responsible for the strategy, day-to-day operations, and overall customer success in the United States and Canada.

These three industry executives will be joined on stage by Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory, who will provide the venture capitalist’s perspective. She joined Sapphire Ventures in 2014 and leads the firm’s CXO platform, a network of Fortune CIOs, CTOs, and digital executives. She got her start in the industry as an analyst for IDC, before joining SAP and leading product for its business travel solution.

Grab your early-bird tickets today before we sell out. Early-bird sales end after this Friday, so book yours now and save $100 on tickets before prices increase. If you’re an early-stage enterprise startup you can grab a startup demo table for just $2K here. Each table comes with 4 tickets and a great location for you to showcase your company to investors and new customers.

Hardware startup North’s big pivot bet on wearable computing and platform shifts

By Darrell Etherington

Waterloo, Canada-based hardware startup North is a rare bird when it comes to the tech sector: It began life as an entirely different kind of hardware startup as Thalmic Labs in 2012, and launched a major pivot and re-brand in 2018.

The shift included a new name, and an entirely new product focus. It launched its Focals smart glasses last year, and earlier in 2019 sold the tech behind its original product a gesture control armband called Myo, to CTRL-labs.

This kind of system-shocking directional change can cause whiplash at even far less ambitious software startups, but when I spoke to co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake about the change and the company’s new focus, he spoke of the about-face more as a natural evolution long in the making than a late-stage shift.

“It goes way back when we started Thalmic in 2012,” Lake said. “Actually, we were working on our Myo product, which was an input for heads-up displays, VR headsets, etc. We realized back then, when we were pairing it up with the early versions of [Google] Glass and a whole variety of other displays and smart glasses, that the glasses were so far from being the consumer product that we actually wanted to wear and use. And we said, ‘We think directionally this is going to exist, we think there’s this future where we can bring technology with us into the world end up being less distracted, more present, but still get those benefits we get from computing today.’ Instead of the future of staring at screens, or being cut off in like Ready Player One world in the future, actually bringing technology and make it a seamless part of our world.”

Basically, Lake positions the problem as a kind of classic ‘cart before the horse’ dilemma: How could its interface device for a future class of devices achieve meaningful purchase if that class of devices was off to a slower start than anticipated? A less ambitious startup might’ve refocused on innovating accessories for an established device market, but Lake says his company instead took aim at pioneering an entirely new class of consumer device.

Google’s Titan security keys come to Japan, Canada, France and the UK

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced that its Titan Security Key kits are now available in Canada, France, Japan and the UK. Until now, these keys, which come in a kit with a Bluetooth key and a standard USB-A dongle, were only available in the U.S.

The keys provide an extra layer of security on top of your regular login credentials. They provide a second authentication factor to keep your account safe and replace more low-tech two-factor authentication systems like authentication apps or SMS messages. When you use those methods, you still have to type the code into a form, after all. That’s all good and well until you end up on a well-designed phishing page. Then, somebody could easily intercept your code and quickly reuse it to breach your account — and getting a second factor over SMS isn’t exactly a great idea to begin with, but that’s a different story.

Authentication keys use a number of cryptographic techniques to ensure that you are on a legitimate site and aren’t being phished. All of this, of course, only works on sites that support hardware security keys, though that number continues to grow.

The launch of Google’s Titan keys came as a bit of a surprise, given that Google had long had a good relationship with Yubico and previously provided all of its employees with that company’s keys. The original batch of keys also featured a security bug in the Bluetooth key. That bug was hard to exploit, but nonetheless, Google offered free replacements to all Titan Key owners.

In the U.S., the Titan Key kit sells for $50. In Canada, it’ll go for $65 CAD. In France, it’ll be €55, while in the UK it’ll retail for £50 and in Japan for ¥6,000. Free delivery is included.

 

AWS’ new text-to-speech engine sounds like a newscaster

By Frederic Lardinois

Thanks to modern machine learning techniques, text-to-speech engines have made massive strides over the last few years. It used to be incredibly easy to know that it was a computer that was reading a text and not a human being. But that’s changing quickly. Amazon’s AWS cloud computing arm today launched a number of new neural text-to-speech models, as well as a new newscaster style that is meant to mimic the way… you guessed it… newscasters sound.

“Speech quality is certainly important, but more can be done to make a synthetic voice sound even more realistic and engaging,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “What about style? For sure, human ears can tell the difference between a newscast, a sportscast, a university class and so on; indeed, most humans adopt the right style of speech for the right context, and this certainly helps in getting their message across.”

The new newscaster style is now available in two U.S. voices (Joanna and Matthew) and Amazon is already working with USA Today and Canada’s The Globe and Mail, among a number of other companies, to help them voice their texts.

Have a listen for yourself:

Amazon Polly Newscaster, as the new service is officially called, is the result of years of research on text-to-speech, which AWS is also now making available through its Neural Text-to-Speech engine. This new engine, which isn’t unlike similar neural engines like Google’s WaveNet and others, currently features 11 voices, three for U.K. English and eight for U.S. English.

You can hear a few more of these voices here.

In this age of fake news, having life-like robot voices that sound like real newscasters feels a bit problematic at first. For the most part, though, whether a robot or human reads the text doesn’t make all that much of a difference. There are plenty of good use cases for the voices, and given the examples that AWS provided, you’ll be able to listen to these voices for significantly longer than the old ones before you want to cut your ears off.

Real estate platform Compass raises another $370M on a $6.4B valuation en route to an IPO

By Ingrid Lunden

The real estate market regularly goes through ups and downs, but today comes big news for a startup in the space that has built a platform that it believes can help all players in it — buyers, sellers, and those who help with the buying and selling — no matter what stage of the cycle we happen to be in.

Compass — a company that has built a three-sided marketplace for the industry, along with a wide set of algorithms to help make it work — has raised a $370 million round of funding, money that it plans to use to continue expanding to more markets, as well as for more tech and product development. Sources tell me that it’s also now eyeing up an IPO, likely sometime in the next 24 months.

“From day one we knew, when we had just a small amount of people at the company, we had a very clear focus,” co-founder and chairman Ori Allon said in an interview. “We wanted to bring more tech and data and transparency to real estate, and i think it’s paid off.”

Based out of New York, Compass earlier this year established an engineering hub in Seattle run by the former CTO of AI for Microsoft, Joseph Sirosh . It’s continuing to hire there and elsewhere (alongside also making acqui-hires for talent).

The Series G funding — which brings the total raised by Compass to $1.5 billion — is coming in at a $6.4 billion valuation, a huge uptick for the company compared to its $4.4 billion valuation less than a year ago. Part of the reason for that has been the company’s massive growth: in the last quarter, its revenues were up 250% compared to Q2 2018.

The investor list for this latest round includes previous investors Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), Dragoneer Investment Group, and SoftBank Vision Fund. Other backers since it was first founded in 2012 have included Founders Fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (a construction and real estate giant), Fidelity and others.

Compass

The company was co-founded by Ori Allon and Robert Reffkin — respectively the chairman and CEO, pictured here on the right and left of COO Maelle Gavet. The company first caught my eye because of Allon. An engineer by training, he has a string of notable prior successes in the field of search to his name (his two previous startups were sold to Google and Twitter, which used them as the basis of large areas of their search and discovery algorithms).

In this latest entrepreneurial foray, Allon’s vision of using machine learning algorithms to improve decisions that humans make has been tailored to the specific vertical of real estate.

The platform is not a mere marketplace to connect buyers to real estate agents to sellers, but an engine that helps figure out pricing, timing for sales, how to stage homes (and more recently how to improve them with actual building work by way of Compass Concierge) to get the best prices and best sales.

It also helps real estate agents manage their time and their customers (by way of an acquisition it made of CRM platform Contactually earlier this year). Starting with high-end homes for private individuals, Compass has expanded to commercial real estate and a much wider set of price brackets.

There is a wide opportunity for vertical search businesses at the moment. People want more accurate and targeted information to make purchasing decisions; and companies that are in the business of providing information (and selling things) are keen for better platforms to bring in online visitors and increase their conversions.

I understand that this has led to Compass getting approached for acquisitions, but that is not in the blueprint for this real estate startup: the longer term plan will be to take the company public, likely in the next 24 months.

“It has been incredible to see the growth of our Product & Engineering team, including the addition of Joseph Sirosh as CTO,” said Compass Founder & Executive Chairman Ori Allon, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with new investors, and deepen our relationship with our existing partners to accelerate our growth and further our technology advancements.”

Capital One’s breach was inevitable, because we did nothing after Equifax

By Zack Whittaker

Another day, another massive data breach.

This time it’s the financial giant and credit card issuer Capital One, which revealed on Monday a credit file breach affecting 100 million Americans and 6 million Canadians. Consumers and small businesses affected are those who obtained one of the company’s credit cards dating back to 2005.

That includes names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, self-reported income and more credit card application data — including over 140,000 Social Security numbers in the U.S., and more than a million in Canada.

The FBI already has a suspect in custody. Seattle resident and software developer Paige A. Thompson, 33, was arrested and detained pending trial. She’s been accused of stealing data by breaching a web application firewall, which was supposed to protect it.

Sound familiar? It should. Just last week, credit rating giant Equifax settled for more than $575 million over a date breach it had — and hid from the public for several months — two years prior.

Why should we be surprised? Equifax faced zero fallout until its eventual fine. All talk, much bluster, but otherwise little action.

Equifax’s chief executive Richard Smith “retired” before he was fired, allowing him to keep his substantial pension packet. Lawmakers grilled the company but nothing happened. An investigation launched by the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the governmental body responsible for protecting consumers from fraud, declined to pursue the company. The FTC took its sweet time to issue its fine — which amounted to about 20% of the company’s annual revenue for 2018. For one of the most damaging breaches to the U.S. population since the breach of classified vetting files at the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, Equifax got off lightly.

Legislatively, nothing has changed. Equifax remains as much of a “victim” in the eyes of the law as it was before — technically, but much to the ire of the millions affected who were forced to freeze their credit as a result.

Mark Warner, a Democratic senator serving Virginia, along with his colleague since turned presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, was tough on the company, calling for it to do more to protect consumer data. With his colleagues, he called on the credit agencies to face penalties to the top brass and extortionate fines to hold the companies accountable — and to send a message to others that they can’t play fast and loose with our data again.

But Congress didn’t bite. Warner told TechCrunch at the time that there was “a failure of the company, but also of lawmakers” for not taking action.

Lo and behold, it happened again. Without a congressional intervention, Capital One is likely to face largely the same rigmarole as Equifax did.

Blame the lawmakers all you want. They had their part to play in this. But fool us twice, shame on the credit companies for not properly taking action in the first place.

The Equifax incident should have sparked a fire under the credit giants. The breach was the canary in the coal mine. We watched and waited to see what would happen as the canary’s lifeless body emerged — but, much to the American public’s chagrin, no action came of it. The companies continued on with the mentality that “it could happen to us, but probably won’t.” It was always going to happen again unless there was something to force the companies to act.

Companies continue to vacuum up our data — knowingly and otherwise — and don’t do enough to protect it. As much as we can have laws to protect consumers from this happening again, these breaches will continue so long as the companies continue to collect our data and not take their data security responsibilities seriously.

We had an opportunity to stop these kinds of breaches from happening again, yet in the two years passed we’ve barely grappled with the basic concepts of internet security. All we have to show for it is a meager fine.

Thompson faces five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Everyone else faces just another major intrusion into their personal lives. Not at the hands of the hacker per se, but the companies that collect our data — with our consent and often without — and take far too many liberties with it.

Techstars Detroit announces first class after major refocus

By Matt Burns

At the beginning of 2019, Techstars Mobility turned into Techstars Detroit. At the time of the announcement, Managing Director Ted Serbinski penned “the word mobility was becoming too limiting. We knew we needed to reach a broader audience of entrepreneurs who may not label themselves as mobility but are great candidates for the program.”

I always called it Techstars Detroit anyway.

With Techstars Detroit, the program is looking for startups transforming the intersection of the physical and digital worlds that can leverage the strengths of Detroit to succeed. It’s a mouthful, but makes sense. Mobility is baked into Detroit, but Detroit is more than mobility.

Today the program took the wraps off the first class of startups under the new direction.

Techstars has operated in Detroit since 2015 and has been a critical partner in helping the city rebuild. Since its launch, Serbinski and the Techstars Mobility (now Detroit) mentors have helped bring talented engineers and founders to the city.

Serbinski summed up Detroit nicely for me, saying, “No longer is Detroit telling the world how to move. The world is telling Detroit how it wants to move.” He added the incoming class represents the new Detroit, with 60% international and 40% female founders.


Airspace Link (Detroit, MI)
Providing highways in the sky for safer drone operations.

Alpha Drive (New York, NY)
Platform for the validation of autonomous vehicle AI.

Le Car (Novi, MI)
An AI-powered personal car concierge that matches you to your perfect vehicle fit.

Octane (Fremont, CA)
Octane is a mobile app that connects car enthusiasts to automotive events and to each other out on the road.

PPAP Manager (Chihuahua, Mexico)
A platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry, known as PPAP, to validate production parts.

Ruksack (Toronto, Canada)
Connecting travelers with local travel experts to help them plan a perfect trip.

Soundtrack AI (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Acoustics-based and AI-enabled Predictive Maintenance Platform.

Teporto (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Teporto is enabling a new commute modality with its one-click smart platform for transportation companies that seamlessly adapts commuter service to commuters’ needs.

Unlimited Engineering (Barcelona, Spain)
Unlimited develops modular Light Electric Vehicles as a fun, cheap and convenient solution to last-mile trips that are overserved by cars and public transportation.

Zown (Toronto, Canada)
Open up your real estate property to the new mobility marketplace.

Amazon expands Transparency anti-counterfeit codes to Europe, India and Canada

By Ingrid Lunden

Amazon is no stranger to the nefarious forces of e-commerce: fake reviews, counterfeit goods and scams have all reared their heads on its marketplace in one place or another, with some even accusing it of turning a blind eye to them since, technically, Amazon profits from any transactions, not just the legit ones. The company has been working to fight that image, though, and today it announced its latest development in that mission: it announced that Transparency — a program to serialize products sold on its platform with a T-shaped QR-style code to identify when an item is counterfeit — is expanding to Europe, India and Canada. (More detail on how it actually works below.)

“Counterfeiting is an industry-wide concern – both online and offline. We find the most effective solutions to prevent counterfeit are based on partnerships that combine Amazon’s technology innovation with the sophisticated knowledge and capabilities of brands,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Amazon Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “We created Transparency to provide brands with a simple, scalable solution that empowers brands and Amazon to authenticate products within the supply chain, stopping counterfeit before it reaches a customer.”

The growth of Transparency has been quite slow so far: it has taken more than two years for Amazon to offer the service outside of the US market, where it launched first with Amazon’s own products in March 2017 and then expanded to third-party items. Even today, while Transparency is launching to sellers in more markets, the app for consumers to scan the items themselves is still only available in the US, according to Amazon’s FAQ.

In that time, take-up has been okay but not massive. Amazon says that some 4,000 brands have enrolled in the program, covering 300 million unique codes, leading to Amazon halting more than 250,000 counterfeit sales (these would have been fake versions of legit items and brands enrolled in the Transparency program).

There is some evidence that all this works. Amazon says that 2019, for products fully on-boarded into the Transparency service, there have been zero reports of counterfeit from brands or customers who purchased these products on Amazon.

But how wide ranging that is, though, compared to the bigger problem, is not quite clear. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison — Amazon doesn’t disclose collectively how many brands are sold on its platform, although Amazon itself accounts for 450 brands itself — there are some 2.5 million sellers on its platform globally, and my guess is that 4,000 is just a small fraction of Amazon’s branded universe.

Recent developments have put an increased focus on what role Amazon has been playing to keep in check rampant activity around counterfeiting and other illegal activity.

The NYT published a damning expose in June that highlighted how one medical publisher found rampant counterfeiting of one of its books, a guide for doctors prescribing medications to help them determine dosages of drugs, an alarming situation considering the subject matter. Regulators like the FCC have also taken action to ask Amazon (among others like eBay) to make a better effort to remove the sale of products in specific categories, such as fake pay-TV boxes.

Coupled with other kinds of dodgy activity on the platform like fake reviews, Amazon has been making more moves of late to get a grip and create more channels for brands and sellers to help themselves, from product launches and expansions, to taking legal measures to go after bad actors.

Transparency is part of former category, and it sits alongside one of the company’s other recent, big initiatives called Project Zero, an AI-based continuous monitoring of products and activities launched four months ago to proactively identify counterfeit sellers and items on the platform.

Screenshot 2019 07 10 at 11.47.45Transparency works by way of a unique code — which looks a bit like a “T” — printed on each manufactured unit. When a customer orders the product, Amazon scans the code to verify that the product it’s shipping is legit. Customers can also scan the code after receiving the item to verify authenticity. Other details that are encoded in the T are manufacturing date, manufacturing place, and other product information like ingredients.

This system also throws some light on some of the strange workings of e-commerce, supply chains, and how marketplaces operate.

On Amazon, an item you buy that might be branded — say, a North Face jacket — may not actually be sold by North Face itself, but a reseller. And those resellers may just as likely never even touch the item: they are working off stock that is distributed from another place altogether, or perhaps manufactured and sent in bulk to Amazon or another fulfilment provider that sends the item when the order is made. All of these tradeoffs within the supply chain create an environment where counterfeit goods might creep in.

Amazon’s system, by working directly with brands and not sellers, is trying to provide an over-arching level of monitoring and control into the mix, and it notes in its announcement that its Transparency codes are trackable “regardless of where customers purchased their units.”

Ironically for a service called “Transparency”, Amazon doesn’t seem to list the price for sellers to use this service, but four months ago, when Amazon launched Project Zero, we reported that the serialization service are charged between $0.01 and $0.05 per unit, based on volume. It’s a price that especially smaller brands, which are even less immune to copycats than well-capitalized big brands, are willing to pay:

“Amazon’s proactive approach and investment in tools like Transparency have allowed us to grow consumer confidence in our products and prevent inauthentic product from ending up in the hands of our customers,” said Matt Petersen, Chief Executive Officer at Neato Robotics, a maker of smart robotic vacuum cleaners, in a statement.

“Blocking counterfeits from the source has always been a tough task for us – it’s something all brand owners face through nearly all channels around the world,” said Bill Mei, Chief Executive Officer at Cowin, a manufacturer of noise cancelling audio devices, in his own statement. “After we joined Transparency, our counterfeit problem just disappeared for products protected by the program.”

Toronto Raptors founder brings Bird scooters to Canada as a platform partner

By Darrell Etherington

Bird’s somewhat weird but also very clever global expansion model is to let others handle it, and one of those others is bringing their service online this month. Bird Canada, which is a wholly Canadian-owned company entirely distinct from Bird, will begin offering on-demand electric scooter rental service in Alberta this month, with plans to offer its services across more Canadian communities on a gradual rollout schedule after that.

Bird Canada will be operating its service under the Platform plan that the original Bird announced earlier this year, which will see it acquire its scooters from the U.S. Bird at cost, and gain access to the Santa Monica-based startup’s tools, software and technology to operate the service, in exchange for a 20 percent cut of ride revenue.

The new Canadian e-scooter company is founded by Canadian serial entrepreneur and Toronto Raptors founder John Bitove (he led the bid that brought the NBA expansion team to Toronto in 1993), who will act as the company’s Chairman. Bird Canada’s day-to-day operations will be overseen by CEO Steward Lyons, who previously worked with Bitove on SiriusXM’s Canadian business and the startup national wireless provider Mobilicity which the two entrepreneurs founded together.

For its part, the Canadian entity will operate the fleet, including recharging the electric, battery-powered scooters and ensuring they’re in good working order. Local operators are also the ones who’ll need to work with city and any other relevant governing officials, which is a big reason why this probably seemed like the wisest or at least most expedient path to getting revenue from markets outside the U.S. for Bird.

Bird is also being selective about how it rolls out these franchise-like Platform partnerships, by picking only one partner per region and also by avoiding any such partnerships in markets where it does have an interest in eventually expanding itself.

Both Lyons and Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden provided quotes around this news that emphasize how scooter charing can offer sustainable, affordable transportation that helps alleviate traffic, and Lyons specifically said that Alberta is “leading the way in Canada.” The regulatory environment around scooters is at best murky in most Canadian cities, and local governing authorities are scrambling to figure out what the formal rules should be ahead of the scooter explosion traveling north of the U.S. border in a bigger way.

Bird Canada is likely hoping to set the tone for that conversation and be involved in encouraging more communities beyond those in Alberta to open its arms to on-demand rental businesses, but it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reception these receive, and what approach Bird Canada takes to managing their fleet in the country’s harsher winter conditions.

Facebook’s searchable political ads archive is now global

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has announced it’s rolled out a basic layer of political ads transparency globally, more than a year after launching the publicly searchable ads archive in the US.

It is also expanding what it dubs “proactive enforcement” on political ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching — starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina.

“Beginning today, we will systematically detect and review ads in Ukraine and Canada through a combination of automated and human review,” it writes in a blog post setting out the latest developments. “In Singapore and Argentina, we will begin enforcement within the next few months. We also plan to roll out the Ad Library Report in both of those countries after enforcement is in place.

“The Ad Library Report will allow you to track and download aggregate spend data across advertisers and regions.”

Facebook is still not enforcing identity checks on political advertisers in the vast majority of markets where it operates. Nor indeed monitoring whether political advertisers have included ‘paid for’ disclaimer labels — leaving the burden of policing how its ads platform is being used (and potentially misused) to concerned citizens, civic society and journalists.

The social network behemoth currently requires advertisers to get authorized and add disclaimers to political and issue-related ads in around 50 countries and territories — with around 140 other markets where it’s not enforcing identity checks or disclaimers.

“For all other countries included in today’s announcement, we will not be proactively detecting or reactively reviewing possible social issue, electoral or political ads at this time,” it confirms, before adding: “However, we strongly encourage advertisers in those countries to authorize and add the proper disclaimers, especially in a rapidly evolving regulatory landscape.”

“In all cases, it will be up to the advertiser to comply with any applicable electoral or advertising laws and regulations in the countries they want to run ads in. If we are made aware of an ad that is in violation of a law, we will act quickly to remove it. With these tools, regulators are now better positioned to consider how to protect elections with sensible regulations, which they are uniquely suited to do,” Facebook continues.

“In countries where we are not yet detecting or reviewing these types of ads, these tools provide their constituents with more information about who’s influencing their vote — and we suggest voters and local regulators hold these elected officials and influential groups accountable as well.”

In a related development it says it’s expanded access to its Ad Library API globally.

It also claims to have made improvements to the tool, which launched in March — but quickly attracted criticism from the research community for lacking basics like ad targeting criteria and engagement metrics making it difficult for outsiders to quantify how Facebook’s platform is being used to influence elections.

A review of the API by Mozilla shortly after it launched slated Facebook for not providing researchers with the necessary data to study how political influence operations play out on its platform — with a group of sixty academics put their name to the open letter saying the API does the opposite of what the company claims.

Facebook does not mention that criticism in today’s blog post. It has also provided little detail of the claimed “improvements” to the API — merely writing: “Since we expanded access in March, we’ve made improvements to our API so people can easily access ads from a given country and analyze specific advertisers. We’re also working on making it easier to programmatically access ad images, videos and recently served ads.”

The other key election interference concern linked to Facebook’s platforms — and which the company also avoids mention of here — is how non-advertising content can be seeded and spread on its networks in a bid to influence political opinion.

In recent years Facebook has announced various discoveries of inauthentic behavior and/or fake accounts. Though it is under no regulatory obligations to disclose everything it finds, or indeed to find every fake.

Hence political ads are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg.

SpaceRyde wants to make access to space more available and more affordable

By Darrell Etherington

Life can be tough for a small satellite operator – it may be relatively cheap and easy to build small sats (or CubeSats, as they’re sometimes called), but arranging transportation for those satellites to get to orbit is still a big challenge. That’s why SpaceRyde is pursuing a novel way of launching light payloads, that could help small sat companies skip the line, and save some cash in the process.

SpaceRyde’s co-founders, wife and husband team Saharnaz Safari and Sohrab Haghighat, saw the opportunity to address this growing customer base by making launches easier by reducing the impact of one of the biggest complicating factors of getting stuff into space: Earth’s atmosphere.

In an interview, Safari explained that SpaceRyde’s technology works by making it possible to use a relatively tiny rocket rather than a huge one by attaching it to a stratospheric balloon and launching from much closer to orbit. Because of the size of the rocket and the lift limitations of the balloons, SpaceRyde ends up carrying much smaller payloads than say, SpaceX or Rocket Lab, but on the upside, clients don’t have to share rides like they do with the big rocket providers.

“Just getting a ride to orbit for these small satellite, even if they have the money, or they want to pay as much as they’re getting charged right now, on big rockets, is a big problem,” Safari said. “Because they have to wait until a mission with their parameters, to the orbit they want, the inclination they want, all that becomes available and then if there’s space, they can, you know, hitch a ride. So it’s more or less like a bus system.”

No one loves waiting for the bus, least of all the emerging crop of space startups hoping to build sustainable businesses. Many of these young companies, like fellow Canadian startup Wyvern, are looking to launch and operate small sats as the backbone of their go-to-market plan. Trouble is, they’re at the whim of whatever primary client current launch providers are serving, with launch condition requirements for the largest, most expensive satellites on board dictating when, where and if launches will happen for the tag-along smaller customers.

SpaceRyde’s stratospheric balloon-based rocket launch platform concept.

“What we’re building is, instead of this bus system, where it’s a set schedule, and it can get delayed,” Safari explained. “We want to give them the taxi or Uber service to space, where they buy an entire rocket and we provide the payload capacity that smaller satellite companies typically use in one launch, and so they can basically buy the entire rocket, and they can put a bunch of their satellites, depending on how big their satellites are, and then they just tell us where they want us to drop it for them.”

SpaceRyde is early in its own journey, having been founded less than a year ago. But Haghighat, the company’s CEO in addition to being Safari’s husband and co-founder, has a PhD in Aerospace, Aeronatical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Toronto and was an early employee of success story Cruise Automation. Safari brings business and sales expertise, as well as a Master’s degree in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Waterloo . But more important than either of their credentials, they’ve already demonstrated a sub-scale prototype of their system in action.

Earlier this year, SpaceRyde launched a stratospheric balloon carrying a scaled down version of their launch platform and rocket in Northern Ontario, Canada. The test wasn’t a complete success – a modification to the off-the-shelf rocket engine they used didn’t work exactly as expected – but it did demonstrate that their in-flight launch platform orientation tech worked as intended, and Safari says the malfunction that did occur is relatively easy to fix.

Next up for SpaceRyde is to work towards a full-scale demonstration of their platform, which Safari says should happen sometime next year. The company is hiring to grow its small team and accelerate its pace of development, and Safari says they’re excited specifically about the potential SpaceRyde has to bring back domestic launch capabilities to Canada – the country hasn’t had a rocket launch in 21 years.

For the private space economy, the startup can’t commercialize its product fast enough: Safari says they’ll be able to offer their launches at “around half” of what their customers would be charged currently (thanks to using mostly off-the-self rocket parts and balloons), but again she stressed that it’s actually not cost, but availability that is the biggest challenge for most.

Creative Destruction Lab’s second Super Session is an intense two-day startup testbed

By Darrell Etherington

Canadian startup program Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) escapes succinct description in some ways – it’s an accelerator, to be sure, and an incubator. Startups show up and present to a combined audience of investors, mentors, industry players (some of whom, like former astronaut Chris Hadfield, verge on celebrity status) – but it’s not a demo day, per se, and presentations happen in focused rooms with key, vertically aligned audience members who can provide much more than just funding to the startups who participate.

North founder Stephen Lake on stage at CDL’s Super Session 2019.

Seven years into its existence, CDL really puts on a show for its cornerstone annual event (itself only two years old) clearly shows the extent to which the program has scaled. From an inaugural cohort of just 25 startups with a focus on science, CDL has grown to the point where it’s graduating 150 startups spanning cohorts across six cities associated with multiple academic institutions. It has consistently added new areas of focus, including a space track this year, for which Hadfield is a key mentor, as is Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space tourist to pay her own way to the International Space Station and the co-founder and CEO of Prodea Systems.

The ‘Super’ in Super Session

This is the second so-called ‘Super Session’ after the event’s debut in 2017. It includes roughly 850 attendees, made up of investors, mentors, industry sponsors and the graduating startups themselves. As CDL Fellow Chen Fong put it in his welcoming remarks, CDL’s Super Session is an opportune moment for networking, mentorship and demonstration of the companies the program has helped foster and grow.

A keynote track included talks by Ansari and Hadfield, as well as from Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim, and a fireside chat with North founder and CEO Stephen Lake. Subjects ranged from the importance of the linkage between exploration and technology, to what Beim described as “probably the first CDL talk to include menstrual health, vibrators, incontinence, and menopause, all in the span of 15 minutes.” Lake meanwhile discussed the future of seamless human-computer interfaces, and Ansari discussed her work founding the XPRIZE program and the impetus behind the current moment and interest in private space innovation.

Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim speaking at the 2019 Creative Destruction Lab Super Session in Toronto.

The variety in the keynote speaker mix and topic selection is reflective of the eclectic and comprehensive nature of CDL’s modern program, which scouts globally for prospective startup participants. Its six hubs then enter into a matching process with startups signed on to take part, where each scores the other and that leads to placement.

How CDL works

CDL’s originating thesis is all about supplying the limiting resource in a startup ecosystem; the thing which the program’s organizers think is the missing ingredient that differentiates Silicon Valley from any other innovation hub in the world. Namely, CDL theorizes that this missing ingredient is what CDL Associate Director Kristjan Sigurdson calls “entrepreneurial judgement.”

Sigurdson explains that this basically boils down to the ability to know what are the most important things you need to do as an entrepreneur, and in what order. The missing piece, he says, isn’t ideas, funding availability or a lack of effort – instead it’s the kind of judgement that results from experience. CDL’s model, which emphasizes five sessions held periodically during which a panel of mentors helps startups set three clearly defined objectives they can accomplish within the next eight weeks.

After each of these sessions, some triage occurs – essentially CDL mentors gathered in closed door meetings and are asked if they’d work with any of the startups that presented during the session. If startups don’t receive sponsorship in these closed door meetings, then they’re not asked to participate in the next session, and effectively are out of the program. All told, the program graduates around 40-45 percent of the startups that enter the program, Sigurdson said.

Group session with small group mentoring on site at Creative Destruction Lab’s 2019 Super Session in Toronto.

CDL is also a bit out of the ordinary in that it takes no equity from the startups it works with – it’s fundamentally an academic program, started by the University of Toronto, and its designed to provide real-world business cases for the school’s MBA students to work on. But it’s become so much more – providing mentorship and guidance as described, and also connecting researchers who often enter into formal advisory roles with CDL companies.

Sigurdson also noted that CDL has actually seen “much higher investment levels” vs. the average for more traditional incubation or acceleration programs. “It’s a program that I think allows companies to raise money much more organically even though it’s an artificial program we created,” he said, referencing CDL’s own comparative research.

Lab-grown and forged in fire

True to its name, Creative Destruction Lab in practice feels like a generative cauldron of ideas, shared with peers and industry specialists for debate, discussion and reformation. Sessions are remarkable to witness – where else are you going to see brand new companies get direct feedback from astronauts and representatives of global space agencies, for instance.

Creative Destruction Lab opening keynote for its Super Session 2019 event.

The model is unique, but clearly effective, and able to scale – as evidenced from its growth to what it is today, from its starting point in 2012, when one founder described it as ‘7 people in a room.’ The room featuring presentations from space track companies alone featured around 50 people in attendance for instance – almost all of which were top-flight industry leaders and investors, including Hadfield, Ansari, CDL alumni Mina Mitry of Kepler Communications, and prominent Toronto angel investor Dan Debow. Startups presenting in the space track included Wyvern, a hyperspectral imaging company; Mission Control, a startup that wants to be the software layer for Moon rovers; and Atomos, which is building space tug for extra-atmospheric ‘last-mile’ transportation solutions.

It’s easy to see why this program results in solid investment pipeline, given the profile of the sponsors and mentors involved. And it’s another strong stake in the ground for the claim that Canada’s startup scene, with Toronto as its locus of gravity, is increasingly earning (and outperforming) its reputation as a global center of innovation.

Hyundai takes minority stake in self-driving car startup Aurora

By Kirsten Korosec

Hyundai Motor Group has invested in Aurora, the latest sign that the scope of the year-old partnership between the automaker and self-driving car startup has expanded.

Aurora and Hyundai didn’t disclose terms of the investment. However, picking part new details of its Series B funding round and speaking to sources within the industry, Hyundai’s investment is below $30 million.

Aurora announced in February that it had raised more than $530 million in a Series B round that was led by Sequoia Capital and included “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Since then, that Series B round has expanded to more than $600 million with new investment from Hyundai, Baillie Gifford and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, TechCrunch has learned.

To date, Aurora has raised more than $700 million, a figure that includes its seed round Series A round of $90 million.

Hyundai’s stake in Aurora is an affirmation of the company and their working relationship. But it’s just one measure. What Aurora is actually doing matters as much.

When the partnership was first announced in January 2018, the details of the relationship were scant. New information reveals that Aurora has been working with Hyundai and Kia for the last year to integrate its “Driver” into Hyundai’s flagship fuel cell vehicle NEXO.

Aurora says it will expand research and development of a self-driving platform for a wide range of Hyundai and Kia’s models.

Aurora, which launched in January 2017, works with companies like Hyundai, Byton, and until more recently Volkswagen, to design and develop a package of sensors, software, and data services needed to deploy autonomous vehicles. The company describes this “full stack,” (an industry parlance) the Aurora Driver.

Aurora, like many of its competitors, are focused on Level 4 autonomous systems with an eye toward Level 5. Level 4 is a designation by SAE, the automotive engineering association, for autonomous vehicles that take over all driving in certain conditions. In Level 5 autonomy, the vehicle is self-driving in all situations.

About a year after Aurora’s official launch date, the company announced partnerships with Hyundai and Volkswagen, followed by a Series A funding raise that resulted in two new board members — LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman and Mike Volpi, former chief strategy officer at Cisco and general partner at Index Ventures.

Volkswagen has since ended its partnership with Aurora. Meanwhile, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has announced a collaboration with Aurora to to develop self-driving commercial vehicles. The partnership with FCA will focus on integrating Aurora’s technology into the automaker’s line of Ram Truck commercial vehicles, a portfolio that includes cargo vans and trucks. The deal could extend to FCA’s Fiat Professional brand as well, TechCrunch has learned.

Watch SpaceX launch Canadian observation satellites aboard a re-used Falcon 9

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has a launch scheduled today from California’s Vandenberg Air Force base, currently targeting a launch window of 14 minutes that opens at 7:17 AM PT (10:17 AM ET). The RADARSAT Constellation mission will carry a constellation of three satellites to low-Earth orbit, built by MDA for use by the Government of Canada in observing Canadian territory and surrounding ocean, with the added ability of being able to also provide imagery from anywhere around the world on top of its primary purpose.

The Government of Canada will make use of the new satellites’ capabilities to generate accurate maps of the sea ice present in Canada’s oceans and across the Great Lakes to help map and navigate those bodies of water for commercial interests. The satellites also have receivers on board to help them tag and ID any seafaring “ships of interest,” according to the mission description. Other uses for the imagery captured by the satellites including helping farmers boost yields from crops will reducing energy consumption, and assisting with the handling of disasters including wild fires.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to be used in this mission was flown once before – and only a few months ago in March, when it was used in an uncrewed demonstration mission for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

Currently, the spacecraft is vertical at the launch pad awaiting the launch window. A backup window is set for Thursday, June 13 at 7:17 AM PT. The webcast above should go live around 15 minutes prior to the lift scheduled for today at 7:17 AM PT.

Amazon Alexa team uses machine learning to better handle regional language differences

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant faces a massive challenge: Operating not only as a multi-lingual product, but also ensuring that all regional variants of languages it supports are well understood by Alexa, too.

To help accomplish that, Alexa has been retrained entirely for every variant needed – a time- and resource-heavy activity. But a new machine learning-based method for training speech recognition created by Alexa’s AI team could mean a lot less rework in building out models for new variants of existing languages.

In a paper presented to the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, Amazon Alexa AI Senior Applied Science Manager Young-Bum Kim and his colleagues laid out a new system that was able to demonstrate improvements in accuracy of 18 percent, 43 percent, 115 percent and 57 percent respectively on four variants of English (from the U.S., the U.K., India and Canada) used in the trial.

The team managed this by implementing a means through which it can tweak its learning algorithm to focus its attention more heavily on just a locale-specific model when it knows in advance that answers to requests from users made in that domain are highly-region specific (ie., when asking to find a good nearby restaurant) vs. when the results are going to be relatively similar regardless of where the request is being made.

Alexa’s team then combined their locale-specific models into one and also added in their location-independent model for the language, and found the improvements measured above. 

Basically, this means they can save work by leveraging a common base and only focusing on adding differentiation for stuff that changes significantly in terms of what kind of answers it’ll prompt Alexa to give region-to-region, which should make Alexa smarter, faster and more linguistically flexible over time.

Telegram’s crypto tokens are (kind of) going on sale to the public for the first time

By Jon Russell

Telegram, the most hyped ICO in the history of ICOs, is finally making its tokens available to retail investors through a limited listing that will precede a full sale later this year — but there are a lot of catches.

The messaging company, which serves as the de facto chat app for the crypto community, raised a record-high $1.7 billion last year through a token sale that was limited to accredited investors. The listing saw unprecedented demand despite a project which, some industry critics argued, recycled old ideas and proposed unmeetable goals.

Now its Gram token will go on sale to regular crypto buyers for the first time next month through a listing on crypto exchange Liquid on July 10. The arrangement is a limited offering before a full public sale in October, but the U.S, China and Japan are among countries where it will not be sold.

It’s notable that Liquid, which recently claimed to have raised funding at a $1 billion valuation, hasn’t struck a deal with Telegram directly. Instead, it has agreed to list an undisclosed number of tokens held by Gram Asia, an organization headquartered in Korea that claims to be the largest holder of Grams in Asia. For now, neither side is saying how many will be on offer and at what price.

Indeed, the press release announcing the deal includes no contribution from Telegram — there is, for example, no quote from its reclusive CEO Pavel Durov — and it sources two media reports to claim that Telegram’s beta program on its testnet is apparently working as planned.

That’s a pretty strange situation, even for the world of crypto, since it is convention for companies to endorse sales and partnerships.

“Unfortunately, that’s Telegram and how they have operated from the beginning,” Liquid CEO Kayamori told TechCrunch in an interview this week.

Despite that ominous radio silence, Kayamori assured us that this token listing is above board and very much part of the plan for TON — the ‘Telegram Open Network’ project that’s being developed by the funds raised through the ICO.

Kayamori said that TON is on track to make a full launch as early as October and that this partial listing from Gram Asia is part of that overall strategy.

Sure, that’s the rhetoric, but it is easy to assume other reasons behind the sale. Such as that Gram Asia is cashing in on anticipation of the full launch or, worse, that the group is dumping its tokens before a product.

Kayamori claimed that isn’t the case.

“A public sale was always planned for the window between the testnet launch and mainnet [full] launch,” he said. “They wanted to work with a regulated exchange to see how it goes before it gets listed [in full] in October.”

“Telegram already has an ecosystem, developers and early token buyers and TON ventures, there are already communities being built up. Based on discussions within these communities, GRAM Asia has put its best step forward to do this public sale,” Kayamori added.

The “regulated” part is important.

One of the reasons Telegram kept quiet during the token sale was to avoid running into legal problems, such as those that fellow chat app Kik is experiencing right now. That caused plenty of issues at the time — with scammers cashing in on demand and token buyers themselves left confused — and the approach means there are many caveats around the sale on Liquid.

Most notably, the Gram tokens will not be tradeable.

Buyers will essentially buy tokens from Gram Asia which, until the tokens are released in October, will be held in USDC — the stable coin backed by Coinbase among others. Only when the distribution process begins will the buyers receive their tokens, but the process itself will be divided into four tranches with one-quarter of the buyer’s tokens distributed every three months.

Kayamori conceded that there may be unofficial over the counter trading, but Liquid “can’t control” that.

Liquid is betting that listing Telegram’s Gram tokens, even in small quantity, will boost its exchange

Then there are aggressive limits on who can buy.

The exchange will require rigorous KYC for prospective buyers, and there is a significant list of countries where Gram tokens will not be sold, and that includes the U.S. and Japan.

The full list is as follows:

Afghanistan, Albania, Bahamas, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Botswana, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Crimea, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Macedonia, Malawi, Mali, Moldova, Mozambique, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United States of America (USA), Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

Kayamori said he is confident that there will be significant demand despite those restrictions. He explained there is the potential to add more tokens if the allocation — the size of which is not being shared — sells out.

Liquid doesn’t have anything like the volume of top exchanges Binance, OkEx and others that do more than $1 billion in trading daily — Coinmarketcap data ranks it 83rd with over $900 million traded over the last seven days — but it tries to stand out with a focus on regulation. That’s to say that it adheres to regulation in markets like Japan, the bet being that some companies will prefer that approach for their token sales or buying.

That’s worked in terms of this deal with Gram Asia, but it remains to be seen whether it can go from a splashy partnership to one that actually drives significant trading, user engagement and new sign-ups.

For Telegram, the Liquid listing will be an early but limited look at the market’s appetite for its token.

Fintech platform Synapse raises $33M to build ‘the AWS of banking’

By Jon Russell

Synapse, a San Francisco-based startup that operates a platform enabling banks and fintech companies to easily develop financial services, has closed a $33 million Series B to develop new products and go after international expansion.

The investment was led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from existing backers Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital . Synapse — which recently rebranded (slightly) from “SynapseFi” — announced a $17 million Series A back in September 2018, so this deal takes it to $50 million raised to date.

The startup was founded in 2014 by Bryan Keltner and India-born CEO Sankaet Pathak, who came to the U.S. to study but grew frustrated at the difficulty of opening a bank account without U.S. social security history. Inspired by his struggles, Synapse, which operated under the radar prior to that Series A deal, is focused on democratizing financial services.

Its approach to doing that is a platform-based one that makes it easy for banks and other financial companies to work with developers. The current system for working with financial institutions is frankly a mess; it involves myriad different standards, interfaces, code bases and other compatibility issues that cause confusion and consume time. Through developer- and bank-facing APIs, Synapse aims to make it easier for companies to connect with banks, and, in turn, for banks to automate and extend their back-end operations.

Pathak previously told us the philosophy is a “Lego brick” approach to building services. Its modules and services include payment, deposit, lending, ID verification/KYC, card issuance and investment services.

“We want to make it super easy for developers to build and scale financial products and we want to do that across the spectrum of financial products,” he told TechCrunch in an interview this week.

Synapse CEO Sankaet Pathak

“We don’t think Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo will be front and center” of new fintech, he added. “We want to make it really easy for internet companies to distribute financial services.”

The product development strategy is to add “pretty much anything that we think would be an accelerant to democratizing financial services for everyone,” he explained. “We want to make these tools and features available for developers.”

Interestingly, the company has a public product roadmap — the newest version is here.

The concept of an “operating system for banking” is one that resonates with the kind of investment thesis associated with a16z, and Pathak said the firm was “number one” on his list of target VCs.

With more than half of that Series A round still in the bank, Pathak explained that the Series B is less about money and more around finding “a partner who can help us on the next phase, which is very focused on expansion.”

As part of the deal, Angela Strange a16z’s fintech and enterprise-focused general partner — has joined the startup’s board. Strange, whose portfolio includes Branch, described Synapse as “the AWS of banking” for its potential to let anyone build a fintech company, paralleling the way Amazon’s cloud services let anyone, anywhere develop and deploy a web service.

Having already found a product market fit in the U.S. — where its tech reaches nearly three million end users, with five million API requests daily — Synapse is looking overseas. The first focuses are Canada and Europe, which it plans to launch in before the end of the year with initial services including payments and deposits/debit card issuance. Subsequently, the plan is to add lending and investment products next year.

Members of the Synapse team

Further down the line, Pathak said he is eager to break into Asia and, potentially, markets in Latin America and Africa, although expansions aren’t likely until 2020 at the earliest. Once things pick up, though, the startup is aiming to enter two “key” markets per year alongside one “underserved” one.

“We’ve been preparing for [global expansion] for a while,” he said, pointing out that the startup has built key tech in-house, including computer vision capabilities.

“Our goal is to be in every country that’s not at war or under sanction from the U.S.,” Pathak added.

At home, the company is looking to add a raft of new services for customers. That includes improvements and new features for card issuance, brokerage accounts, new areas for its loans product, more detailed KYC and identification and a chatbot platform.

Outside of product, the company is pushing to make its platform a self-service one to remove friction for developers who want to use Synapse services, and there are plans to launch a seed investment program that’ll help Synapse developer partners connect with investors. Interestingly, the latter platform could see Synapse join investment rounds by offering credit for its services.

More generally on financial matters, the Synapse CEO said the company reached $12 million ARR last year. This year, he is aiming to double that number through growth that, he maintains, is sustainable.

“If we stop hiring, we could break even and be profitable in three to four months,” said Pathak. “I like to keep the burn like that… it stabilizes us as a company.”

❌