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Today — August 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

After a breakout year, looking ahead to the future of podcasting

By Jonathan Shieber
Justine Moore Contributor
Justine Moore is a venture investor at CRV and co-founded Cardinal Ventures alongside her sister, Olivia.
Olivia Moore Contributor
Olivia Moore is a venture investor at CRV and co-founded Cardinal Ventures alongside her sister, Justine.

2019 has been a breakout year for podcasting. According to Edison Research’s Infinite Dial report, more than half of Americans have now listened to a podcast, and an estimated 32% listen monthly (up from 26% last year). This is the largest yearly increase since this data started being tracked in 2008. Podcast creation also continues to grow, with more than 700,000 podcasts and 29 million podcast episodes, up 27% from last year.

Screen Shot 2019 08 21 at 1.10.34 PM

Thanks to this growing listener base, big companies are finally starting to pay attention to the space — Spotify plans to spend $500 million on acquisitions this year, and already acquired content studio Gimlet, tech platform Anchor, and true crime network Parcast for a combined $400 million. In the past week, Google added playable podcasts to search results, Spotify released an analytics dashboard for podcasters and Pandora launched a tool for podcasters to submit their shows.

We’ve been going to Podcast Movement, the largest annual industry conference, for three years, and have watched the conference grow along with the industry — reaching 3,000 attendees in 2019. Given the increased buzz around the space, we were expecting this year’s conference to have a new level of energy and professionalism, and we weren’t disappointed. We’ve summarized five top takeaways from the conference, from why podcast ads are hard to scale to why so many celebrities are launching their own shows.

Rise of celebrity podcasters boosts listenership

We’ve officially entered the age of celebrity podcasters. After early successes like “WTF with Marc Maron” (2009), Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing” (2011) and Anna Faris’ “Unqualified” (2015), top talent is flooding into the space. In 2017, 15% of Apple’s top 20 most-downloaded podcasts of the year were hosted by celebrities or influencers — this jumped to 32% of the top 25 in 2018. And of all the new shows that launched in 2018, 48% of the top 25 were celebrity-hosted.

Screen Shot 2019 08 21 at 1.21.50 PMThough podcasts are undermonetized compared to other forms of media, talent agents now consider them to be an important part of a well-rounded content strategy. Dan Ferris from CAA tells his clients to think of podcasting as a way of connecting with fans that is “much more intimate than social media.” Podcasts also help celebrities find a new audience. Ben Davis from WME said that while his client David Dobrik has a smaller audience on his podcast than on YouTube (1.5 million downloads per episode versus 6 million views per video), the podcast helps him reach a new group of listeners who stumble upon his show on the Apple Podcast charts.

While some podcast veterans grumble about the rise of celebrity talk shows, famous podcasters are good for the industry as a whole. Advertisers are drawn to the space by the opportunity to get to access A-list talent at lower prices. One recent example is Endeavor Audio’s fiction show “Blackout,” which starred Rami Malek, who was fresh off an Oscar win. Endeavor’s head of sales, Charlie Emerson, said brands might have to sign a “seven or eight-figure deal” to advertise alongside Malek’s content in other forms of media. Other podcasters also benefit from new listeners brought into the medium by their favorite stars — a Westwood One survey in fall 2018 found that 60% of podcast listeners report discovering shows via social media, where celebrities and influencers have huge existing audiences to push content to.

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Creator backlash against “walled garden” apps

Paid listening apps represent a fairly small percentage of podcast listenership, with production platform Anchor estimating that Apple Podcasts and Spotify control more than 70% of listenership. A venture-backed company called Luminary is trying to change this — it raised $100 million to launch a “Netflix for podcasts” this spring. Consumers pay $7.99/month to access Luminary-exclusive shows alongside podcasts that are free on other apps. Because podcasts have RSS feeds, distributors like Luminary can easily grab free content and put it behind a paywall. The platform, not the creator, benefits from this monetization.

Within days of Luminary’s launch, prominent podcasters and media companies (The New York Times, Gimlet and more) requested their shows be removed from the app. It’s interesting to note that YouTube has a similar premium plan — for $11.99/month, users can access and download ad-free videos. Unlike Luminary, however, YouTube, pays creators a cut of the revenue from these subscriptions based on how frequently their content is viewed.

Unsurprisingly, creator sentiment is more positive toward platforms like Spotify and Pandora . Though these companies do make money from premium subscribers who listen to podcasts, creators can choose whether or not to submit their shows. And podcasters benefit from making their shows discoverable to the existing user base of these platforms, which already dominate “earshare.” Spotify alone has 232 million MAUs, which dwarfs the 90 million people in the U.S. who listen to a podcast monthly.

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Industry anxiety around maintaining quality at scale

Podcast ad revenue has been scaling quickly, with $480 million in spend last year and a projected $680 million this year. Over the past four years, ad revenue has scaled at a 65% CAGR, and this growth is expected to continue. In its early days, the podcast ad market has largely been driven by D2C brands — you’ve probably heard hundreds of Casper, Blue Apron and Madison Reed ads. However, bigger brands are also starting to enter podcasting (Geico, Capital One and Progressive made the top 10 list for June 2019) due to the growing audience scale and increased precision around targeting and attribution.

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While many attendees were excited by the massive growth in ad revenue, others worried that it may kill what makes podcasting special. They’re particularly concerned that podcasts may go the way of online video, with annoying, generic, low CPM ads. Podcast hosts typically read their own ads, and are often true fans of the product — they share personal stories instead of reciting brand talking points. This results in premium CPMs compared to most digital media — AdvertiseCast’s 2019 survey found an average CPM of $18 for a 30-second podcast ad and $25 for a 60-second ad, more than 2x the average CPM on other digital platforms.

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While these ads are effective, they’re time-consuming and expensive to produce. Big brands interested in podcast ads often expect to reuse radio spots — they aren’t used to the process of crafting and approving a host-read ad that may only reach 10,000 listeners. Podcasters, meanwhile, value their trust with listeners and don’t want to spam them with loud, unoriginal radio ads. The tension between maintaining the quality of ads while scaling quantity was an underlying theme of most monetization discussions, and industry veterans disagree on how it will play out.

Podcasts are still undermonetized — but there is hope!

Despite the growth in ad revenue and relatively high CPMs, the industry is significantly undermonetized. Using data from Nielsen, IAB and Edison, we calculated that podcasts monetize through advertisements at only $0.01 per listener hour — less than 10 times the rate of radio. Podcast monetization per listener hour has increased over the past year, up 25% by our calculations, but still substantially lags all other forms of media.

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Why are podcasts so undermonetized? Unlike many other forms of media, the dominant distribution platform (Apple Podcasts) has no ad marketplace. Creators have historically had to approach brands themselves or sign with podcast networks to construct custom ad deals, and the “long tail” of podcasters were unable to monetize. This is finally changing. Anchor, which reported in January that it powers 40% of new podcasts, has an ad marketplace that has doubled the number of podcasts that are running ads. Other popular platforms like Radio Public have launched programs for small podcasters to opt-in to ad placements.

The second major hurdle in monetization is attribution. Podcasts have historically monetized through direct response campaigns — a podcaster provides a special URL or promo code for listeners to use when making a purchase. However, many people listen to podcasts when exercising or driving, and can’t write down the promo code or visit the URL immediately. These listeners might remember the product and make a purchase later, but the podcaster won’t get the attribution. Thomas Mancusi of Audioboom estimated that this happens in 50-60% of purchases driven by podcast ads.

Startups are trying to bring better adtech into podcasting to fix this issue. Chartable is one example — the company installs trackers to match a listener’s IP address with a purchaser’s IP address, allowing podcasters to claim attribution for listeners who don’t use their URL or promo code. Chartable currently runs on 10,000 shows, and the early results are so promising that ad agencies expect to see higher CPMs and significantly more spend in the space.

Podcast fans of the future ≠ podcast fans today

As podcasting grows, the listener base is diversifying. Edison Research looked into data on “rookie” listeners (listening for six months or less) and “veteran” listeners (listening for 3+ years), and found significant demographic differences. Only 37% of veterans are female, compared to 53% of rookies. While the plurality of veterans (43%) are age 35-54, 54% of rookies are age 12-34. Rookies are also 1.6x more likely to say they most often listen to podcasts on Spotify, Pandora or SoundCloud (43% versus 27% of veterans). And social media is an important way that rookies discover podcasts — 52% have found a podcast from video and 46% from audio on social media, compared to 41% and 37% for veterans.

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These new listeners will have a profound impact on the future of podcasting, in both the type of content produced and the way it’s distributed. Industry experts are already noting significant new demand for female-hosted podcasts, as well as audio dramas that appeal to young people looking for a fast-paced, suspenseful story. They’re advising podcasters to share clips of their content on social media, and to leverage broader listening platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud for distribution.

International markets also represent an enormous opportunity for growth. Most podcast listeners today live in the U.S. or China, but content producers are starting to see significant demand elsewhere. Castbox’s Valentina Kaledina said that many fans abroad have resorted to listening in their non-native language, with the top 100 shows in each country comprising a mix of English and local language. Adonde Media’s Martina Castro, who recently conducted the first listener survey on Spanish-language podcast fans, said that 53% of the survey’s 2,100 respondents reported listening to podcasts in English — and only 20% of them use Apple Podcasts.

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Larger podcast producers are beginning to translate shows for non-English-speaking markets. Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez announced at the conference that the company’s hit show Dr. Death is now available in seven languages. Lopez noted that it was an expensive process, and he doesn’t expect the shows to generate profit in the near future. However, he believes that Wondery will eventually see a significant return from investing in the development of new podcast markets — and if they do, other podcast companies will likely follow in their footsteps.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Baidu beats estimates on strong video streaming growth

By Manish Singh

Chinese search giant Baidu on Monday posted a revenue of 26.33 billion yuan ($3.73 billion) for the quarter that ended in June, beating analysts’ estimates of 25.77 billion yuan ($3.65 billion) as its video streaming service iQIYI continues to see strong growth. The 19-year-old firm’s shares were up over 9% in extended trading.

The company, which is often called Google of China, said revenue of its core businesses grew 12% from the same period last year “despite the weak macro environment, our self-directed healthcare initiative, industry-specific policy changes and large influx of ad inventory.” Net income for the second quarter dropped to 2.41 billion yuan ($344 million).

“With Baidu traffic growing robustly and our mobile ecosystem continuing to expand, we are in a good position to focus on capitalizing monetization and ROI improvement opportunities to deliver shareholder value,” Herman Yu, CFO of Baidu, said in a statement.

Today’s results for Baidu, which has been struggling of late, should help calm investors’ worries. In recent years, as users move from desktop to mobile and rivals such as ByteDance win hundreds of millions of users through their mobile apps, many have cast doubt on Baidu’s ability to maintain its momentum and hold onto its advertising business. (On desktop, Baidu continues to command over three quarters of the Chinese market share.)

In the quarter that ended in March this year, Baidu posted its first quarterly loss since 2015, the year it went public.

Robin Li, Baidu co-founder and CEO, said Baidu app was being used by 188 million users everyday, up 27% from the same period last year. “In-app search queries grew over 20% year over year and smart mini program MAUs reached 270 million, up 49% sequentially,” said.

Baidu’s video streaming service iQIYI has now amassed over 100.5 million subscribers, up 50% year over year, the company said. Revenue from iQIYI stood at 7.11 billion yuan ($1.01 billion), up 15% since last year.

“On Baidu’s AI businesses, DuerOS voice assistant continues to experience strong momentum with installed base surpassing 400 million devices, up 4.5 fold year over year, and monthly voice queries surpassing 3.6 billion, up 7.5 fold year over year, in June. As mobile internet penetration in China slows, we are excited about the huge opportunity to provide content and service providers a cross-platform distribution channel beyond mobile, into smart homes and automobiles,” he added.

Revenue from online marketing services, which makes a significant contribution to overall sales, fell about 9% to 19.2 billion yuan ($2.72 billion).

Twitter blocks state-controlled media outlets from advertising on its social network

By Jonathan Shieber

Twitter is now blocking state-run media outlets from advertising on its platform.

The new policy was announced just hours after the company identified an information operation involving hundreds of accounts linked to China as part of an effort to “sow political discord” around events in Hong Kong after weeks of protests in the region. Over the weekend more than 1 million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest what they see as an encroachment by the mainland Chinese government over their rights.

State-funded media enterprises that do not rely on taxpayer dollars for their financing and don’t operate independently of the governments that finance them will no longer be allowed to advertise on the platform, Twitter said in a statement. That leaves a big exception for outlets like the Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Corp., Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, according to reporting from BBC reporter, Dave Lee.

The affected accounts will be able to use Twitter, but can’t access the company’s advertising products, Twitter said in a statement.

“We believe that there is a difference between engaging in conversation with accounts you choose to follow and the content you see from advertisers in your Twitter experience which may be from accounts you’re not currently following. We have policies for both but we have higher standards for our advertisers,” Twitter said in its statement.

The policy applies to news media outlets that are financially or editorially controlled by the state, Twitter said. The company said it will make its policy determinations on the basis of media freedom and independence, including editorial control over articles and video, the financial ownership of the publication, the influence or interference governments may exert over editors, broadcasters and journalists, and political pressure or control over the production and distribution process.

Twitter said the advertising rules wouldn’t apply to entities that are focused on entertainment, sports or travel, but if there’s news in the mix, the company will block advertising access.

Affected outlets have 30 days before they’re removed from Twitter and the company is halting all existing campaigns.

State media has long been a source of disinformation and was cited as part of the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election. Indeed, Twitter has booted state-financed news organizations before. In October 2017, the company banned Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising on its platform (although a representative from RT claimed that Twitter encouraged it to advertise ahead of the election).

 

Twitter says accounts linked to China tried to ‘sow political discord’ in Hong Kong

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter says a significant information operation involving hundreds of accounts linked to China were part of an effort to deliberately “sow political discord” in Hong Kong after weeks of protests in the region.

In a blog post, the social networking site said the 936 accounts it found tried to undermine “the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”

More than a million protesters took to the streets this weekend to demonstrate peacefully against the Chinese government, which took over rule from the British government in 1997. Protests erupted months ago following a bid by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to push through a highly controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was suspended, effectively killing it from reaching the law books, but protests have continued, pushing back at claims that China is trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Although Twitter is banned in China, the social media giant says the latest onslaught of fake accounts is likely “a coordinated state-backed operation.”

“Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests,” the statement said.

china tweets

Two of the tweets supplied by Twitter

Twitter said many of the accounts are using virtual private networks — or VPNs — which can be used to tunnel through China’s vast domestic censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. The company added that the accounts it is sharing represent the “most active” portions of a wider spam campaign of about 200,000 accounts.

“Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service — they violate the fundamental principles on which our company is built,” said Twitter.

News of the fake accounts comes days after Twitter user @Pinboard warned that China was using Twitter to send and promote tweets aimed at discrediting the protest movement.

Facebook said in its own post it also took down five Facebook accounts, seven pages and three groups on its site “based on a tip shared by Twitter.” The accounts frequently posted about local political news and issues, including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said Gleicher.

Some of the posts, Facebook said, referred to Hong Kong residents as “cockroaches.”

Twitter said it’s adding the complete set of the accounts’ tweets to its archive of information operations.

US Commerce Department adds 46 Huawei affiliates to entity list

By Brian Heater

The United States Department of Commerce announced this morning the addition of 46 Huawei affiliates to its Entity List. Effective today, the companies join more than 100 entries added to the list over connections to the embattled Chinese consumer electronics giant.

The DoC also used this morning’s news to announce an extension of its Temporary General License (TGL), which affords people and companies a limited time use of goods from Huawei and affiliate companies in order to essentially wean them off of Huawei networking equipment. The license, which offers “narrow exceptions” is set to expire 90 days from today.

In a statement provided to the press, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated, “As we continue to urge consumers to transition away from Huawei’s products, we recognize that more time is necessary to prevent any disruption. Simultaneously, we are constantly working at the Department to ensure that any exports to Huawei and its affiliates do not violate the terms of the Entity Listing or Temporary General License.”

Huawei has, of course, long denied any ties to security or spying accusations from the U.S. government. Recently, stories, including alleged ties to African government spying, have continued to shine a light on concerns about the company’s ties to the Chinese government. Those concerns have led to Huawei’s addition to the entities list, along with U.S. government bans on buying equipment.

Per the DoC:

Huawei was added to the Entity List after the Department concluded that the company is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, including alleged violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiracy to violate IEEPA by providing prohibited financial services to Iran, and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of those alleged violations of U.S. sanctions, among other illicit activities.

Losing access to American software and hardware could, in turn, have a devastating impact on the company. Notably, Huawei recently unveiled HarmonyOS. The new mobile operating system is not yet an Android replacement, but is believed by many to be part of a long-term strategy to wean itself off of dependence on Google.

We have reached out to Huawei for comment.

Twitter is blocked in China, but its state news agency is buying promoted tweets to portray Hong Kong protestors as violent

By Catherine Shu

Twitter is being criticized for running promoted tweets by China’s largest state news agency that paint pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as violent, even though the rallies, including one that drew an estimated 1.7 million people this weekend, have been described as mostly peaceful by international media.

Promoted tweets from China Xinhua News, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, were spotted and shared by the Twitter account of Pinboard, the bookmarking service founded by Maciej Ceglowski, and other users.

Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw. Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the top Hong Kong protest hashtags pic.twitter.com/6Wb0Km6GOb

— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 17, 2019

I just came home from a completely peaceful march where possibly a million Hong Kong residents came out, with no police in sight, to call for basic democratic rights. What greets me is straight up lies from Xinhua about “bands of thugs”, courtesy of Twitter advertising. pic.twitter.com/pUTsnqZ5oN

— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 18, 2019

The demonstrations began in March to protest a now-suspended extradition bill, but have grown to encompass other demands including the release of imprisoned protestors, inquiries into police conduct, the resignation of current Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and a more democratic process for electing Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive.

While China Xinhua News has repeatedly described demonstrators as violent, international observers have criticized the Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force against peaceful protestors, including incidents documented in footage verified by Amnesty International.

The irony of China Xinhua News’ tweets is that they let the Chinese Communist Party disseminate its version of events to a worldwide audience even though Twitter is officially banned in China (along with other U.S. social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat).

The Chinese government has also recently begun to keep a closer eye on citizens who use VPNs to access blocked services. For example, the Washington Post reported in January that even though there are only an estimated 10 million Chinese citizens on Twitter, its role as a platform for critics of the Chinese government means users are under increased scrutiny.

In June, Twitter was accused of censoring critics of the Chinese government after numerous Chinese-language user accounts were removed days before the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The company said that the accounts had been removed by error and, despite speculation, “were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities.”

It is unknown how much China Xinhua News has spent on promoted tweets or where they are being targeted. Twitter has been contacted for comment.

Week in Review: Snapchat beats a dead horse

By Lucas Matney

Hey. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how Netflix might have some rough times ahead as Disney barrels towards it.


3d video spectacles 3

The big story

There is plenty to be said about the potential of smart glasses. I write about them at length for TechCrunch and I’ve talked to a lot of founders doing cool stuff. That being said, I don’t have any idea what Snap is doing with the introduction of a third-generation of its Spectacles video sunglasses.

The first-gen were a marketing smash hit, their sales proved to be a major failure for the company which bet big and seemingly walked away with a landfill’s worth of the glasses.

Snap’s latest version of Spectacles were announced in Vogue this week, they are much more expensive at $380 and their main feature is that they have two cameras which capture images in light depth which can lead to these cute little 3D boomerangs. One one hand, it’s nice to see the company showing perseverance with a tough market, on the other it’s kind of funny to see them push the same rock up the hill again.

Snap is having an awesome 2019 after a laughably bad 2018, the stock has recovered from record lows and is trading in its IPO price wheelhouse. It seems like they’re ripe for something new and exciting, not beautiful yet iterative.

The $150 Spectacles 2 are still for sale, though they seem quite a bit dated-looking at this point. Spectacles 3 seem to be geared entirely towards women, and I’m sure they made that call after seeing the active users of previous generations, but given the write-down they took on the first-generation, something tells me that Snap’s continued experimentation here is borne out of some stubbornness form Spiegel and the higher-ups who want the Snap brand to live in a high fashion world and want to be at the forefront of an AR industry that seems to have already moved onto different things.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

tumblr phone sold

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • WordPress buys Tumblr for chump change
    Tumblr, a game-changing blogging network that shifted online habits and exited for $1.1 billion just changed hands after Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) unloaded the property for a reported $3 million. Read more about this nightmarish deal here.
  • Trump gives American hardware a holiday season pass on tariffs 
    The ongoing trade war with China generally seems to be rough news for American companies deeply intertwined with the manufacturing centers there, but Trump is giving U.S. companies a Christmas reprieve from the tariffs, allowing certain types of hardware to be exempt from the recent rate increases through December. Read more here.
  • Facebook loses one last acquisition co-founder
    This week, the final remnant of Facebook’s major acquisitions left the company. Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell announced he was leaving. Now, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus are all helmed by Facebook leadership and not a single co-founder from the three companies remains onboard. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Facebook’s turn in audio transcription debacle:
    [Facebook transcribed users’ audio messages without permission]
  2. Google’s hate speech detection algorithms get critiqued:
    [Racial bias observed in hate speech detection algorithm from Google]
  3. Amazon has a little email mishap:
    [Amazon customers say they received emails for other people’s orders]

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. My colleague Danny Crichton wrote about the “tech” conundrum that is WeWork and the questions that are still unanswered after the company filed documents this week to go public.

WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points

…How is margin changing at its older locations? How is margin changing as it opens up in places like India, with very different costs and revenues? How do those margins change over time as a property matures? WeWork spills serious amounts of ink saying that these numbers do get better … without seemingly being willing to actually offer up the numbers themselves…

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we published a major deep dive into the world’s next music unicorn and we dug deep into marketplace startups.

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.

Transsion’s Future Hub and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund

By Jake Bright

Transsion Future Hub, a subsidiary of Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion, is teaming up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa that recently confirmed its imminent IPO. In 2019 it opened and financed Future Hub, an incubator and seed fund for African startups.

Wapi Capital is the venture fund of Kenyan fintech startup Wapi Pay — a Nairobi-based company that facilitates digital payments between African and Asia via mobile money or bank accounts.

Starting in September 2019, Transsion Future Hub will work with Wapi Capital to select early-stage African fintech companies for equity-based investments of up to $100,000, Transsion Future Hub Senior Investor Laura Li told TechCrunch via email.

Wapi Capital won’t contribute funds to Future Hub’s Africa investments, but will help determine the viability and scale of the startups, including due diligence and deal flow, according to Wapi Pay co-founder Eddie Ndichu.

Wapi Pay and Transsion Future Hub will consider ventures from all 54 African countries; interested startups can reach out directly to either organization, Ndichu and Li confirmed.

The Wapi Capital fintech partnership is not Transsion’s sole VC activity in Africa. Though an exact fund size hasn’t been disclosed, the Transsion Future Hub will also make startup investments on the continent in adtech, fintech, e-commerce, logistics and media and entertainment, according to Li.

Future Hub’s existing portfolio includes Africa-focused browser company Phoenix, content aggregator Scoop and music service Boomplay.

Wapi Capital adds to the list of African-located and run venture funds — which have been growing in recent years — according to a 2018 study by TechCrunch and Crunchbase. Wapi Capital will also start making its own investments and is looking to raise $1 million this year and $10 million over the next three years, according to Ndichu, who co-founded the fund and Wapi Pay with his twin brother Paul.

Transsion’s commitment to African startup investments—through funding to Future Hub—comes as the company is on the verge of listing on China’s new Nasdaq-style STAR Market tech exchange. Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch this month the IPO is in process and that it could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and ahead of Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya, and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

Transsion’s move into venture investing tracks greater influence from China in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

Transsion’s Wapi Pay partnership is the second recent event — after Chinese-owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Future Hub is a subsidiary of Transsion and the source of the investments for the Wapi Capital partnership. 

UPS takes minority stake in self-driving truck startup TuSimple

By Kirsten Korosec

UPS said Thursday it has taken a minority stake in self-driving truck startup TuSimple just months after the two companies began testing the use of autonomous trucks in Arizona.

The size of minority investment, which was made by the company’s venture arm UPS Ventures, was not disclosed. The investment and the testing comes as UPS looks for new ways to remain competitive, cut costs and boost its bottom line.

TuSimple, which launched in 2015 and has operations in San Diego and Tucson, Arizona, believes it can deliver. The startup says it can cut average purchased transportation costs by 30%.

TuSimple, which is backed by Nvidia, ZP Capital and Sina Corp., is working on a “full-stack solution,” a wonky industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

An important piece of TuSimple’s approach is its camera-centric perception solution. TuSimple’s camera-based system has a vision range of 1,000 meters, the company says.

The days of when highways will be filled with autonomous trucks are years away. But UPS believes it’s worth jumping in at an early stage to take advantage of some of the automated driving such as advanced braking technology that TuSimple can offer today.

“UPS is committed to developing and deploying technologies that enable us to operate our global logistics network more efficiently,” Scott Price, chief strategy officer at UPS said in a statement. “While fully autonomous, driverless vehicles still have development and regulatory work ahead, we are excited by the advances in braking and other technologies that companies like TuSimple are mastering. All of these technologies offer significant safety and other benefits that will be realized long before the full vision of autonomous vehicles is brought to fruition — and UPS will be there, as a leader implementing these new technologies in our fleet.”

UPS initially tapped TuSimple to help it better understand how Level 4 autonomous trucking might function within its network. That relationship expanded in May when the companies began using self-driving tractor trailers to carry freight on a freight route between Tucson and Phoenix to test if service and efficiency in the UPS network can be improved. This testing is ongoing. All of TuSimple’s self-driving trucks operating in the U.S. have a safety driver and an engineer in the cab.

TuSimple and UPS monitor all aspects of these trips, including safety data, transport time and the distance and time the trucks travel autonomously, the companies said Thursday.

UPS isn’t the only company that TuSimple is hauling freight for as part of its testing. TuSimple has said its hauling loads for for several customers in Arizona.  The startup has a post-money valuation of $1.095 billion (aka unicorn status).

Another day, another reversal in stock fortunes as recession fears grow

By Jonathan Shieber

U.S. stock markets plummeted today as recession fears continue to grow.

Yesterday’s good news about a reprieve on tariffs for U.S. consumer imports was undone by increasing concerns over economic indicators pointing to a potential global recession coming within the next year.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 800 points on Wednesday — its largest decline of the year — while the S&P 500 fell by 85 points and the tech-heavy Nasdaq dropped 240 points.

The downturn in the markets came a day after the Dow closed up 373 points after the U.S. Trade Representative announced a delay in many of the import taxes the Trump administration planned to impose on Chinese goods.

In the U.S. it was concerns over the news that the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes had dipped below the yield of two-year notes. It’s an indicator that investors think the short-term prospects for a country’s economic outlook are worse than the long-term outlook, so yields are higher for short-term investments.

China’s industrial and retail sectors both slowed significantly in July. Industrial production, including manufacturing, mining and utilities, grew by 4.8% in July (a steep decline from 6.3% growth in June).  Meanwhile, retail sales in the country slowed to 7.6%, down from 9.8% in June.

Germany also posted declines over the summer months, indicating that its economy had contracted by 0.1% in the three months leading to June.

Globally, the protracted trade war between the U.S. and China are weighing on economies — as are concerns about what a hard Brexit would mean for the economies in the European Union .

The stocks of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Salesforce were all off by somewhere between 2.5% and 4.5% in today’s trading.

Autonomous air mobility company EHang to deploy air shuttle service in Guangzhou

By Darrell Etherington

China’s EHang, a company focused on developing and deploying autonomous passenger and freight low-altitude vehicles, will build out its first operational network of air taxis and transports in Guangzhou. The company announced that the Chinese city would play host to its pilot location for a citywide deployment.

The pilot will focus on not only showing that a low-altitude, rotor-powered aircraft makes sense for use in cities, but that a whole network of them can operate autonomously in concert, controlled and monitored by a central traffic management hub that Ehang will develop together with the local Guangzhou government.

Ehang, which was chosen at the beginning of this year by China’s Civil Aviation Administration as the sole pilot company to be able to build out autonomous flying passenger vehicle services, has already demonstrated flights of its Ehang 184 vehicles carrying passengers in Vienna earlier this year, and ran a number of flights in Guangzhou in 2018 as well.

In addition to developing the air traffic control system to ensure that these operate safely as a fleet working in the air above city at the same time, Ehang will be working with Guangzhou to build out the infrastructure needed to operate the network. The plan for the pilot is to use the initial stages to continue to test out the vehicles, as well as the vertiports it’ll need to support their operation, and then it’ll work with commercial partners for good transportation first.

The benefits of such a network will be especially valuable for cities like Guangzhou, where rapid growth has led to plenty of traffic and high density at the ground level. It could also potentially have advantages over a network of autonomous cars or wheeled vehicles, since those still have to contend with ground traffic, pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles in order to operate, while the low-altitude air above a city is more or less unoccupied.

HarmonyOS is Huawei’s Android alternative for smartphones and smart home devices

By Manish Singh

After months of conflicting statements from Huawei executives, the Chinese networking giant on Friday officially unveiled HarmonyOS, the much-anticipated microkernel-based distributed operating system that it has developed to power smartphones, laptops and smart home devices as the company attempts to reduce its reliance on American firms.

HarmonyOS will be made available later this year for deployment in smart screen products such as TV, smart watches and in-vehicle infotainment systems, said Richard Yu, CEO of the Huawei consumer division at the company’s developer conference. In the next three years, Huawei, the world’s second largest smartphone vendor, will look to bring HarmonyOS to more devices, including smartphones, he said.

Yu said, without offering any proof, that HarmonyOS is “more powerful and secure than Android.” He said HarmonyOS’ IPC performance is five times that of Google’s Fuchsia. The top executive also claimed that HarmonyOS’ microkernel has “one-thousandth the amount of code in the Linux kernel.”

“A modularized HarmonyOS can be nested to adapt flexibly to any device to create a seamless cross-device experience. Developed via the distributed capability kit, it builds the foundation of a shared developer ecosystem,” the company said in a statement, adding that it began to explore developing its own operating system “as early as 10 years ago.”

The company said it intends to continue to use Android moving forward, but HarmonyOS is officially its back-up plan if things go south. “We will prioritize Android for smartphones, but if we can’t use Android, we will be able to install HarmonyOS quickly,” Yu said.

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Image: FRED DUFOUR / AFP / Getty Images

The availability of the mobile operating system, which is open source, will be limited to China for now, though the company has plans to bring it to international markets at a later stage, he said.

The company said it has worked on security and trustworthiness aspects of the operating system from the ground up. It said HarmonyOS uses formal verification methods to “reshape security.” Formal verification methods are an effective mathematical approach to validate system correctness from the source, while traditional verification methods, such as functional verification and attack simulation, “are confined to limited scenarios,” the company claimed.

The announcement today comes months after the U.S. government put Huawei and more than 60 affiliates in an entity list, restricting U.S. firms from maintaining a business relationship with the Chinese giant. The U.S. government has accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets, and said it poses a risk to national security. Huawei has denied these accusations and pursued legal means to fight back.

In the aftermath, Google, Intel and other U.S.-based companies that contribute much of the technology and solutions that go into a smartphone suspended their business with Huawei, thereby severely questioning the company’s future prospects.

The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China has already started to impact Huawei’s bottom line. The company’s performance in the quarter that ended in June was weak, compared to several previous quarters.

What remains unclear is the kind of impact the U.S.’ accusations have had on the Chinese giant’s brand image worldwide. According to research firm Counterpoint, about half of all Huawei smartphones ship outside China.

Huawei was poised to become the world’s biggest vendor by shipment — something it would have achieved — “if not for the trade war,” Yu said.

Auto supplier Continental shifts gears — and its capital — to an electric future

By Kirsten Korosec

Continental AG, a global auto-parts supplier, will no longer invest in parts used in internal combustion engines, the latest sign that the automotive industry is being forced to respond to increasingly strict emissions laws.

Instead, the company said it will put more focus and capital on the electric powertrain, which it believes is the “future of mobility.”

“Our customers are increasingly and consistently turning to the electrification of combustion engines through hybrid drives as well as to pure battery-powered vehicles,” said Andreas Wolf, head of Continental’s Powertrain division, which in the future will operate under the name Vitesco Technologies with Wolf as CEO.

This shift toward electrification is being driven by tighter regulations around the world. Cities are clamping down on the use of diesel- and gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs in urban centers and states like California are tightening rules to meet air quality and emissions targets to combat climate change. China has placed restrictions on gas-powered vehicles and provides incentives to electric ones. France wants to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars by 2040.

And automakers are following. Volvo, VW and others have announced plans over the past two years to increase sales of electric vehicles and move toward more electrification throughout their portfolios of existing vehicles. Electrification can mean hybrid, plug-in or all-electric vehicles.

There has been plenty of speculation and attempts to predict exactly when — not so much if — a tectonic shift to electric powertrains would occur. Suppliers have grappled with the “when” part. Putting too much capital too soon toward developing automotive parts can saddle a supplier with inventory and mounting costs.

What’s happening at Continental is starting to play out within the rest of the industry. If companies like Continental want to survive and keep up with the demands of automakers, they have to act. But not wildly. Development costs for powertrains are, after all, no small matter.

Continental is making specific choices on what exactly it pursues. The company, for instance, will not consider producing solid-state battery cells in the future. Apparently the company was open to making an investment in battery cell production. But now the company believes the market no longer offers any attractive economic prospects for battery cell production for Continental, Wolf said.

What Continental is going to do is reduce investment in its hydraulic components business, which includes parts like injectors and pumps for gasoline and diesel engines.

“Investments in research and development and in production capacity for innovations are becoming less profitable,” says Wolf, explaining the reasoning behind this decision.

Continental will fulfill existing orders. New orders will “play an increasingly marginal role.”

This shift within Continental will likely extend over a number of years, as combustion engines essentially serve as the basic drivers for hybrid solutions, Wolf said. The company will also review its business in components for exhaust-gas after treatment and fuel delivery.

All of this translates into big changes within the company, including the technologies it decides to invest in, jobs and even locations of some of its operations. Continental said it will also consider partnerships.

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion to list in Chinese IPO

By Rita Liao

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market,  Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch. 

The company—which has a robust Africa sales network—could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

“The company’s listing-related work is running smoothly. The registration application and issuance process is still underway, with the specific timetable yet to be confirmed by the CSRC and Shanghai Stock Exchange,” a spokesperson for Transsion’s Office of the Secretary to the Chairman told TechCrunch via email.

Transsion’s IPO prospectus was downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen—where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility—Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development,  including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai—a company spokesperson said. 

Transsion recently announced a larger commitment to capturing market share in India, including building an industrial park in the country for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April. 

Listing on the STAR Market will put Transsion on the freshly minted exchange seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for high-potential tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements, for the exchange, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

Transsion’s IPO process comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan from a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market—through its brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel—and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a recent research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34 percent, but expected to grow to 67 percent by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination—such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa—thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent that could enable more startups and startup opportunities—from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular if the Shenzhen company moves strongly toward venture investing.

Comparatively, China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities—further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO move is the second recent event—after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria—to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads, bridges, and buildings in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

By Jonathan Shieber

For nearly 15 years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

U.S. Treasury just designated China as a currency manipulator, so expect more economic shocks

By Jonathan Shieber

The U.S. Treasury has just taken the extraordinary step of designating China as a currency manipulator, something no administration has done since the days of Bill Clinton.

With the action, the trade war between the U.S. and China has entered a new phase that will likely see both countries stepping up both their rhetoric and actions in the trade dispute that has now dragged on for over a year.

As a result of the ongoing hostilities between the U.S. government and China, the flood of investment dollars that once came from Chinese technology companies and investors into U.S. technology companies has slowed. Acquisitions and investments made by Chinese companies have been unwound over concerns from the Committee of Foreign Investments in the U.S. and tariffs slapped on Chinese imports have hit U.S. stock prices (including in the technology sector).

The news of Treasury’s move comes less than 24 hours after the Chinese government announced a complete halt on U.S. agricultural imports. More significantly, the Bank of China has let the country’s currency slide in value against the U.S. dollar to above the seven-to-one figure that was considered a line-in-the-sand for trade.

Given the escalation, economists’ fears that global markets could slip into a recession within the next nine months are more likely to be realized, according to reports from Morgan Stanley, quoted by CNBC.

“We take its literal message of planned tariffs quite seriously. There’s a pattern of responding to insufficient negotiation progress with escalation,” Morgan Stanley said in an analyst report.

The move to label China as a currency manipulator means that the U.S. will plead its case before the International Monetary Fund to take steps to curb what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “the unfair competitive advantage created by China’s latest actions.”

If anything, China’s actions have actually been to prop up the country’s currency in the face of internal pressures to break the seven-to-one floor that had previously been set on the Renminbi’s value versus the dollar. China’s economy is slowing — in part due to tariffs imposed by the U.S., but also because economies in Europe and Asia are slowing down, which is hitting exports in the country. Indeed, much of the current growth in China’s economy has been fueled by debt-financed big infrastructure projects.

That could change as Chinese goods become cheaper thanks to the falling value of the nation’s currency. However, as Axios notes, what China is doing doesn’t actually fall under the definition of currency manipulation as it’s legally defined.

Because to be a currency manipulator a country needs to spend 2% of its gross domestic product over a 12-month period on currency manipulation. If anything, China was boosting the yuan in the face of calls to reduce its value until the President called for sanctions last week.

Even if the country’s currency devaluation does juice exports, it could have unforeseen consequences on China’s infrastructure spending and could backfire as a tool in the ongoing trade dispute.

A weaker currency means that Chinese consumers and businesses have to pay more for goods and services that are dollar-denominated. It also means that while the country is awash with cash, it could lose its competitive edge in a fight to lure top talent to the country. Losses in spending power could push the developers and programmers the country needs to transition from a manufacturing-focused economy to look elsewhere.

Stock markets are already taking note of the new U.S. action on trade. Futures show the Dow trading down about 350 points and the Nasdaq and S&P 500 indices both trading sharply lower.

Tech stocks walloped as China retaliates in the latest salvo of its trade war with the US

By Jonathan Shieber

All U.S. stock markets were down severely today, and tech stocks were hit especially hard, as China retaliated to increasing U.S. tariffs by halting imports on U.S. agricultural goods and finally acceded to market pressures by letting the yuan slide in value against the dollar.

At one point, the Dow was down nearly 900 points before staging a late afternoon rally to close off by roughly 760 points. The Nasdaq, the marketplace which is home to a number of technology stocks, saw its value drop by 3.4%, or 277.10 points.

Shares of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Twitter were all down for the day. Indeed, as CNBC reported, the biggest tech stocks — Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Alphabet — lost a combined $162 billion in market value.

Declines came as China allowed its currency to fall below what was once considered to be a red-line in the country’s currency peg against the dollar. That means that Chinese goods start to look more attractive globally as their prices decline in relation to the dollar. It could also trigger a wave of currency devaluations and protectionist measures across the globe — further putting downward pressure on global economic growth.

Stocks also continued to feel the pinch from the threat that President Donald Trump would make good on his threat to impose new tariffs on goods from China beginning September 1, 2019. Those tariffs are expected to take a bite out of every-day consumer goods and clothing, which adversely affects tech companies.

The big concern for these tech companies is the looming threat of that tariff expansion from the U.S. If those tariffs go into effect it would have significant consequences in these companies’ home market. 

“Assuming smartphones, tablets, smart watches, and computer systems are not categorically excluded from the final $300B tranche, we expect there will be material impact to Apple hardware product earnings,” analysts from Cowen & Co. wrote in a note quoted by CNBC .

Ethical fashion is on the rise

By Jonathan Shieber
Brian Kateman Contributor
Brian Kateman is President and Cofounder of the Reducetarian Foundation.

The fashion industry has historically relied on exploitative, unsustainable and unethical labor practices in order to sell clothes — but if recent trends are any indication, it won’t for much longer. Over the last several years, the industry has entered a remarkable period of upheaval, with major and small fashion brands alike ditching traditional methods of production in favor of eco-friendly and cruelty-free alternatives. It’s a welcome, long-overdue development, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Tradition fashion is unethical in almost too many ways to count. There is, of course, the monstrous toll on animal life. Every year, over one billion animals are slaughtered for their fur or pelts, usually after living their lives in horrific factory farms.

Cows, including newborn and even unborn calves, are skinned alive in order to make leather, while animals killed for their fur are executed through anal electrocution, neck-snapping, drowning and other ghastly ways in order to avoid damaging their pelts. Even wool, traditionally perceived as a more humanely-produced animal product, involves horrors on par with those at a slaughterhouse.

But animals aren’t the only ones who suffer under the traditional fashion industry. In Cambodian garment factories, which export around $5.7 billion in clothes every year, workers earning 50 cents an hour are forced to sit for 11 hours a day straight without using the restroom, according to Human Rights Watch.

Mass faintings in oppressively hot factories are common, and workers are routinely fired for getting sick or pregnant. In Bangladesh — the world’s second-largest importer of apparel behind China — a poorly-maintained garment factory collapsed in 2013, killing 1,132 people and injuring around 2,000 others. When Cambodian garment workers protested in 2014 for better working conditions, police shot and killed three of them.

Lastly, traditional fashion is killing the planet. Every year, the textile industry alone spits out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases — more than all marine shipping vessels and international flights combined — and consumes 98 million tons of oil. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water, and on the whole, the apparel industry accounts for 10 percent of all greenhouse emissions worldwide. Worst of all, the clothes produced by this massive resource consumption produces clothes are rapidly discarded: In 2015, 73 percent of the total material used to make clothes ended up incinerated or landfilled, according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur foundation.

Thankfully, as big and small clothing manufacturers alike are realizing, there are plenty of ways to sell fashionable clothing and accessories that don’t destroy the environment, endanger workers, or cause suffering to animals.

Vegan clothes are becoming increasingly popular, and there’s no shortage of them to choose from. Some brands, like Keep Company and Unicorn Goods, offer an expansive generalized catalogue of vegan shirts, jackets, accessories and more. Other brands are more specialized: Unreal Fur has a beautiful line of vegan faux-fur, Ahisa, Beyond Skin and SUSI Studio all sell stylish vegan shoes, and Le Buns specializes in vegan swimwear. There are upscale vegan clothing retailers, such as Brave Gentleman, as well as more casual budget options, like The Third Estate.

Strict veganism isn’t the only way to manufacture clothing ethically. Hipsters For Sisters’ products are made entirely with recycled, upcycled, or deadstocked materials, earning the approval of PETA. Reformation utilizes a carbon-neutral production process to make its clothes (and offers customers a $100 store credit if they switch to wind energy), while Stella McCartney’s entire product line is vegetarian.

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British fashion designer Stella McCartney poses prior her presentation during the men and women’s spring/summer 2019 collection fashion show in Milan, on June 18, 2018. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP) (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Many vegan clothing companies, such as In The Soulshine and Della, have found ways to sell cruelty-free clothing while also providing humane working conditions to their factories’ workers. Amanda Hearst’s Maison de Mode features a combination of Fair Trade, recycled, cruelty-free, and organic products — as well as a comprehensive labeling system to inform customers which is which.

There are plenty of small, niche companies offering ethical clothing options, but make no mistake: The transition to sustainable and ethical fashion is an industry-wide phenomenon. Well-established brands like Dr. Marten’s, Old Navy, H&M and Zara all now sell vegan clothes. Gap, Gucci, and Hugo Boss have banned fur from their stores, and three of the largest fashion conglomerates — H&M Group, Arcadia Group and Inditex — recently pledged to stop selling mohair products by 2020.

Companies are rapidly investing in new ethical alternatives to traditional clothing as well: Save The Duck’s PLUMTECH jackets feature a cruelty-free alternative to down feathers, while companies like Modern Meadow are developing new biofabricated leather made from collagen protein and other essential building blocks found in animal skin that don’t require the slaughter of any animals.

There are, of course, some holdouts. Canada Goose still traps and kills coyotes to make its fur jackets, and uses a device that’s been banned in dozens of countries for its cruelty in order to do so. As a result, its store openings regularly draw protesters.

But by and large, the trend is in the opposite direction. From up-and-coming brands to the biggest names in fashion, the industry is moving away from the destructive practices of years past and toward cleaner, ethical ways of making clothes.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, being successful in fashion has always required changing with the times — and in 2019, basing an industry on labor abuse, destruction of the environment and animal torture to make their products is no longer a sustainable business model.

Elon Musk says The Boring Company will launch in China this month

By Natasha Lomas

Elon Musk wants to drill holes in China. The Tesla founder has tweeted to reveal that his tunnelling and transportation startup, The Boring Company, will be launch in China later this month.

Musk is due to speak at an AI conference, called the World Artificial Intelligence Conference, taking place in Shanghai on August 29-31. Replying to a tweet about the event he announced: “Will also be launching The Boring Company China on this trip.”

Will also be launching The Boring Company China on this trip

— E (@elonmusk) August 3, 2019

Another Twitter user chipped into the conversation to ask whether the company would also do underwater tunnels — to which Musk replied simply “yes“.

A securities filing last month revealed that the The Boring Company had raised its first outside investment via the sale of $120M in stock. So the company has some extra cash sloshing around to plough into new ventures.

It also recently landed its first commercial contract: $48.7M to build and operate an underground “people mover” in Las Vegas, focused on the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This underground ‘people mover’ is not, as you might imagine, a tried and tested metro train system. The plan apparently involves building two tunnels: One for vehicles (Musk does also sell electrics cars) and a second tunnel for pedestrians who will be carried in (modified) Tesla cars. The latter fully autonomous, under the plan.

Current generation Teslas are not capable of driving themselves, merely offering driving assistance features to humans. But autonomous driving inside a tunnel is about as much of a controlled environment you could hope for — without, y’know, sticking cars together on rails and making a driverless train (like the one that’s been serving London’s Docklands area since 1987).

The Las Vegas contract specifies three months of safety testing before Musk’s modified Teslas will be allowed to whisk people through the tunnel.

Another design that The Boring Company has proposed — for an ambitious Loop system from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore — is still on the drawing board, having attracted major safety concerns by failing to meet several key national safety standards, including lacking sufficient emergency exits and not taking note of the latest engineering practices.

So perhaps, in looking to expand The Boring Company by taking his spade to the Far East, Musk is hoping for a more accommodating set of building standards to drive an electric truck through.

A closer look at China’s smartphone market

By Brian Heater

In February 2013, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest smartphone market. More than half a decade on, it still proves an elusive target for international sellers. A glance at reports from the past several quarters reveals the top spots dominated by homegrown names: Huawei, Vivo, Oppo, Xiaomi.

Combined, the big four made up roughly 84% of the nearly 100 million smartphones shipped last quarter, per new numbers from Canalys. Even international giants like Apple and Samsung have trouble cracking double-digit market share. Of the two, Apple has generally done better, with around six percent of the market — around six times Samsung’s share.

But Apple’s struggles have been very visible nonetheless, as the company has invested a good deal of its own future success into the China market. At the beginning of the year, the company took the rare action of lowering its guidance for Q1, citing China as the primary driver.

“While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China,” Tim Cook said in a letter to shareholders at the time. “In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.”

When it came time to report, things were disappointing as expected. The company’s revenue in the area dropped nearly $5 billion, year over year. On the tail of two rough quarters, things picked up a bit for Apple in the country. This week, Tim Cook noted “great improvement” in Greater China.

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