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Toyota Whiffed on EVs. Now It’s Trying to Slow Their Rise

By Tim De Chant, Ars Technica
In a bid to protect its investments in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, the carmaker is lobbying against the transition to electric vehicles.

Bielefeld survey highlights an emerging B2B, crypto, deep tech ecosystem

By Mike Butcher

Welcome to the city survey of Bielefeld, Germany, part of our ongoing survey into European cities. If you’d like your city featured, just fill in this form and add your city name. Once we have enough entries from a city, we will put your city on TechCrunch!

According to local media reports, Bielefeld’s has experienced a tech boom in recent years, with accelerators like the local Founders Foundation (backed by the Bertelsmann Foundation) and Garage 33 (at the University of Paderborn) attracting a new wave of young company founders to the East Westphalia-Lippe region.

Notable startups to emerge include Semalytix, Valuedesk, Zahnarzt-Helden, StudyHelp, PartWorks and AMendate.

Unfortunately, Bielefeld suffers from the same ailment the rest of Germany is subject to: Most startups gravitate to Berlin, followed by Munich, then Hamburg (according to an initiative from UnternehmerTUM in Munich).

However, as Business Punk magazine found earlier this year, the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region in northern North Rhine-Westphalia is home to some of Germany’s biggest companies. That means startups aiding large organizations to digitize post-pandemic have ready access to some of Germany’s largest companies and institutions.

Our survey respondents pointed out that the region is strong in sectors such as B2B because of the many old-school B2B companies in the manufacturing area. There is fairly ready access to many large family offices such as Dr. Oetker, Miele, CLAAS, Schüco and Bertelsmann, so there is a lot of capital available.

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“The region has a good momentum for startups in general, [largely] because of Founders Foundation. At the same time, them being the only institutional driver leads to a certain monoculture,” said one.

Deep tech technologies are a feature of the ecosystem, but there are “almost no B2C or direct-to-consumer” startups, said another respondent.

Commenting on the investment scene in the city, survey respondents said investors have “strong bonds to the industry and Mittelstand.” However, another commented that there are “only very few local investors with NRW or OWL focus like EnjoyVenture (Technologiefonds OWL), but not much more.”

That said, companies get decent attention from “national” investors, and Founders Foundation has really boosted the scene in the region. Angels are also becoming more active, and “there is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld who have been really supportive of the new startup scene.”

We surveyed:

Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Stefan Trockel, founder and CEO, Mercury.ai

Jasper Steinlechner, CTO, Pektogram

Victoria Erdbrügger, co-founder and managing director, circuly

Manuel Rüsing, CTO, Synctive

Conner Kuhlmeyer, founder, reportio

Miriam Kleiner, talent acquisition manager, Founders Foundation

 


Jonathan Maycock, co-founder and CEO, margin

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
We are strong in the cryptotrading ecosystem. We are most excited by the adoption of Bitcoin as a financial asset by corporates and institutions as well as the ongoing network effect and adoption by the masses. We need to add support for DeFi trading venues alongside the centralized exchanges we already support.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Semalytix, Zahnarzt-Helden, Coindex and Valuedesk.

What is the tech investment scene like in Bielefeld? What’s their focus?
Since Founders Foundation started in Bielefeld in 2016 the startup scene has exploded. We joined the first accelerator and since then 24 startups have been founded and come through its programs. There is a strong business angel community in Bielefeld that has been really supportive of the new startup scene.

With the shift to remote working, do you think will people stay in Bielefeld, move out, or will people move in?
We switched completely to home office once the pandemic got underway. For us, it has worked really well and we now have three employees who work outside of Bielefeld. Everything is more flexible now.

Who are the key startup people in your city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)?
Sebastian Borek (CEO of the Founders Foundation), Eduard R. Doerrenberg (managing director, Dr. Wolff Group).

Where do you think Bielefeld’s tech scene will be in five years?
As Bielefeld is in the heart of the German “Mittelstand”, there are huge opportunities for tech startups to help these large industries take a leap forward with technical solutions using AI, blockchain and other technologies. The city is well served by Bielefeld University, which turns out highly qualified CS graduates every year. Especially with the superb backing of the Founders Foundation, the startup ecosystem in Bielefeld has a bright future.

Louis Schulze, ecosystem development manager, Founders Foundation

Which sectors is Bielefeld’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
B2B, deep tech technologies.

Biden’s sweeping executive order takes on Big Tech’s ‘bad mergers,’ ISPs and more

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration just introduced a sweeping, ambitious plan to forcibly inject competition into some consolidated sectors of the American economy — the tech sector prominent among them — through executive action.

“Today President Biden is taking decisive action to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses,” a new White House fact sheet on the forthcoming order states.

The order, which Biden will sign Friday, initiates a comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach that loops in more then twelve different agencies at the federal level to regulate monopolies, protect consumers and curtail bad behavior from some of the world’s biggest corporations.

In the fact sheet, the White House lays out its plans to take matters to regulate big business into its own hands at the federal level. As far as tech is concerned, that comes largely through emboldening the FTC and the Justice Department — two federal agencies with antitrust enforcement powers.

Most notably for Big Tech, which is already bracing for regulatory existential threats, the White House explicitly asserts here that those agencies have legal cover to “challenge prior bad mergers that past Administrations did not previously challenge” — i.e., unwinding acquisitions that built a handful of tech companies into the behemoths they are today. The order calls on antitrust agencies to enforce antitrust laws “vigorously.”

Federal scrutiny will prioritize “dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.” Facebook, Google and Amazon are particularly on notice here, though Apple isn’t likely to escape federal attention either.

“Over the past 10 years, the largest tech platforms have acquired hundreds of companies — including alleged ‘killer acquisitions’ meant to shut down a potential competitive threat,” the White House wrote in the fact sheet. “Too often, federal agencies have not blocked, conditioned, or, in some cases, meaningfully examined these acquisitions.”

The biggest tech companies have regularly defended their longstanding strategy of buying up the competition by arguing that because those acquisitions went through without friction at the time, they shouldn’t be viewed as illegal in hindsight. In no uncertain terms, the new executive order makes it clear that the Biden administration isn’t having any of it.

The White House also specifically singles out internet service providers for scrutiny, ordering the FCC to prioritize consumer choice and institute broadband “nutrition labels” that clearly state speed caps and hidden fees. The FCC began working on the labels in the Obama administration but the work was scrapped after Trump took office.

The order also directly calls on the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, which were stripped in 2017 to the widespread horror of open internet advocates and most of the tech industry outside of the service providers that stood to benefit.

The White House will also tell the FTC to create new privacy rules meant to guard consumers against surveillance and the “accumulation of extraordinarily amounts of sensitive personal information,” which free services like Facebook, YouTube and others have leveraged to build their vast empires. The White House also taps the FTC to create rules that protect smaller businesses from being preempted by large platforms, which in many cases abuse their market dominance with a different sort of data-based surveillance to out-compete up-and-coming competitors.

Finally, the executive order encourages the FTC to put right-to-repair rules in place that would free consumers from constraints that discourage DIY and third-party repairs. A new White House Competition Council under the director of the National Economic Council will coordinate the federal execution of the proposals laid out in the new order.

The antitrust effort from the executive branch mirrors parallel actions in the FTC and Congress. In the FTC, Biden has installed a fearsome antitrust crusader in Lina Khan, a young legal scholar and fierce Amazon critic who proposes a philosophical overhaul to the way the federal government defines monopolies. Khan now leads the FTC as its chair.

In Congress, a bipartisan flurry of bills intended to rein in the tech industry are slowly wending their way toward becoming law, though plenty of hurdles remain. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee debated the six bills, which were crafted separately to help them survive opposing lobbying pushes from the tech industry. These legislative efforts could modernize antitrust laws, which have failed to keep pace with the modern realities of giant, internet-based businesses.

“Competition policy needs new energy and approaches so that we can address America’s monopoly problem,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a prominent tech antitrust hawk in Congress, said of the executive order. “That means legislation to update our antitrust laws, but it also means reimagining what the federal government can do to promote competition under our current laws.”

Citing the acceleration of corporate consolidation in recent decades, the White House argues that a handful of large corporations dominates across industries, including healthcare, agriculture and tech and consumers, workers and smaller competitors pay the price for their outsized success. The administration will focus antitrust enforcement on those corners of the market as well as evaluating the labor market and worker protections on the whole.

“Inadequate competition holds back economic growth and innovation … Economists find that as competition declines, productivity growth slows, business investment and innovation decline, and income, wealth, and racial inequality widen,” the White House wrote.

 

3 issues to resolve before switching to a subscription business model

By Ram Iyer
Jess Warrington Contributor
Jess Warrington is general manager, North America, at CloudBlue.

In my role at CloudBlue, Fortune 500 companies often approach me for help with solving technology challenges while shifting to a subscription business model, only to realize that they have not taken crucial organizational steps necessary to ensure a successful transition.

Subscriptions scale better, enhance customer experience and hold the promise of recurring and more predictable revenue streams — a pretty enticing prospect for any business. This business model is predominant in software as a service (SaaS), but it is hard to find an industry that doesn’t have a successful subscription story. A growing number of companies in sectors ranging from automotive, airlines, gaming and health to wellness, education, professional development and home maintenance have been introducing subscription services in recent years.

Legacy companies accustomed to pay-as-you-go models may assume shifting to a subscription model is just a sales issue. They are wrong.

However, businesses should be aware that the subscription model is much more than simply putting a monthly or annual price tag on their offering. Executives cannot just layer a subscription model on top of an existing business. They need to change the entire operation process, onboard all stakeholders, recalibrate their strategy and create a subscription culture.

While 70% of business leaders believe subscriptions will be key to their future, only 55% of companies believe they’re ready for the transition. Before talking technology, which is an enabler, companies should first address the following core issues to holistically plan and switch to a recurring revenue model.

Get internal stakeholders involved

Legacy companies accustomed to pay-as-you-go models may assume shifting to a subscription model is just a sales issue. They are wrong. Such a migration will affect nearly all departments across an organization, from product development and manufacturing to finance, sales, marketing and customer service. Leaders must therefore get all stakeholders motivated for the change and empower them to actively prepare for the transformation. The better you prepare, the smoother the transition.

But as we know, people naturally do not like change, even if it is for their own good. So it can be a formidable task to secure the cooperation of all internal stakeholders, which, depending on the size of your company, could number in the thousands.

Update: Google is delaying its deprecation of tracking cookies

By Natasha Lomas

Update: Google has now confirmed the delay, writing in a blog post that its engagement with UK regulators over the so-called “Privacy Sandbox” means support for tracking cookies won’t start being phased out in Chrome until the second half of 2023.

Our original report follows below… 

Adtech giant Google appears to be leaning toward postponing a long planned depreciation of third party tracking cookies.

The plan dates back to 2019 when it announced the long-term initiative that will make it harder for online marketers and advertisers to track web users, including by depreciating third party cookies in Chrome.

Then in January 2020 it said it would make the switch within two years. Which would mean by 2022.

Google confirmed to TechCrunch that it has a Privacy Sandbox announcement incoming today — set for 4pm BST/5pm CET — after we contacted it to ask for confirmation of information we’d heard, via our own sources.

We’ve been told Google’s new official timeline for implementation will be 2023.

However a spokesman for the tech giant danced around providing a direct confirmation — saying that “an update” is incoming shortly.

“We do have an announcement today that will shed some light on Privacy Sandbox updates,” the spokesman also told us.

He had responded to our initial email — which had asked Google to confirm that it will postpone the implementation of Privacy Sandbox to 2023; and for any statement on the delay — with an affirmation (“yep”) so, well, a delay looks likely. But we’ll see how exactly Google will spin that in a few minutes when it publishes the incoming Privacy Sandbox announcement.

Google has previously said it would depreciate support for third party cookies by 2022 — which naturally implies that the wider Privacy Sandbox stack of related adtech would also need to be in place by then.

Earlier this year it slightly hedged the 2022 timeline, saying in January that any changes would not be made before 2022.

The issue for Google is that regulatory scrutiny of its plan has stepped up — following antitrust complaints from the adtech industry which faces huge changes to how it can track and target Internet users.

In Europe, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has been working with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office to understand the competition and privacy implications of Google’s planned move. And, earlier this month, the CMA issued a notification of intention to accept proposed commitments from Google that would enable the regulator to block any depreciation of cookies if it’s not happy it can be done in a way that’s good for competition and privacy.

At the time we asked Google how the CMA’s involvement might impact the Privacy Sandbox timeline but the company declined to comment.

Increased regulatory oversight of Big Tech will have plenty of ramifications — most obviously it means the end of any chance for giants like Google to ‘move fast and break things’.

EU is now investigating Google’s adtech over antitrust concerns

By Natasha Lomas

EU antitrust authorities are finally taking a broad and deep look into Google’s adtech stack and role in the online ad market — confirming today that they’ve opened a formal investigation.

Google has already been subject to three major EU antitrust enforcements over the past five years — against Google Shopping (2017), Android (2018) and AdSense (2019). But the European Commission has, until now, avoided officially wading into the broader issue of its role in the adtech supply chain. (The AdSense investigation focused on Google’s search ad brokering business, though Google claims the latest probe represents that next stage of that 2019 enquiry, rather than stemming from a new complaint).

The Commission said that the new Google antitrust investigation will assess whether it has violated EU competition rules by “favouring its own online display advertising technology services in the so called ‘ad tech’ supply chain, to the detriment of competing providers of advertising technology services, advertisers and online publishers”.

Display advertising spending in the EU in 2019 was estimated to be approximately €20BN, per the Commission.

“The formal investigation will notably examine whether Google is distorting competition by restricting access by third parties to user data for advertising purposes on websites and apps, while reserving such data for its own use,” it added in a press release.

Earlier this month, France’s competition watchdog fined Google $268M in a case related to self-preferencing within the adtech market — which the watchdog found constituted an abuse by Google of a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps.

In that instance Google sought a settlement — proposing a number of binding interoperability agreements which the watchdog accepted. So it remains to be seen whether the tech giant may seek to push for a similar outcome at the EU level.

There is one cautionary signal in that respect in the Commission’s press release which makes a point of flagging up EU data protection rules — and highlighting the need to take into account the protection of “user privacy”.

That’s an interesting side-note for the EU’s antitrust division to include, given some of the criticism that France’s Google adtech settlement has attracted — for risking cementing abusive user exploitation (in the form of adtech privacy violations) into the sought for online advertising market rebalancing.

Or as Cory Doctorow neatly explains it in this Twitter thread: “The last thing we want is competition in practices that harm the public.”

Aka, unless competition authorities wise up to the data abuses being perpetuated by dominant tech platforms — such as through enlightened competition authorities engaging in close joint-working with privacy regulators (in the EU this is, at least, possible since there’s regulation in both areas) — there’s a very real risk that antitrust enforcement against Big (ad)Tech could simply supercharge the user-hostile privacy abuses that surveillance giants have only been able to get away with because of their market muscle.

So, tl;dr, ill-thought through antitrust enforcement actually risks further eroding web users’ rights… and that would indeed be a terrible outcome. (Unless you’re Google; then it would represent successfully playing one regulator off against another at the expense of users.)

The last thing we want is competition in practices that harm the public – we don't want companies to see who can commit the most extensive human rights abuses at the lowest costs. That's not something we want to render more efficient.https://t.co/qDPr6OtP90

12/

— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) June 8, 2021

The need for competition and privacy regulators to work together to purge Big Tech market abuses has become an active debate in Europe — where a few pioneering regulators (like German’s FCO) are ahead of the pack.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also recently put out a joint statement — laying out their conviction that antitrust and data protection regulators must work together to foster a thriving digital economy that’s healthy across all dimensions — i.e. for competitors, yes, but also for consumers.

A recent CMA proposed settlement related to Google’s planned replacement for tracking cookies — aka ‘Privacy Sandbox’, which has also been the target of antitrust complaints by publishers — was notable in baking in privacy commitments and data protection oversight by the ICO in addition to the CMA carrying out its competition enforcement role.

It’s fair to say that the European Commission has lagged behind such pioneers in appreciating the need for synergistic regulatory joint-working, with the EU’s antitrust chief roundly ignoring — for example — calls to block Google’s acquisition of Fitbit over the data advantage it would entrench, in favor of accepting a few ‘concessions’ to waive the deal through.

So it’s interesting to see the EU’s antitrust division here and now — at the very least — virtue signalling an awareness of the problem of regional regulators approaching competition and privacy as if they exist in firewalled silos.

Whether this augurs the kind of enlightened regulatory joint working — to achieve holistically healthy and dynamic digital markets — which will certainly be essential if the EU is to effectively grapple with surveillance capitalism very much remains to be seen. But we can at least say that the inclusion of the below statement in an EU antitrust division press release represents a change of tone (and that, in itself, looks like a step forward…):

“Competition law and data protection laws must work hand in hand to ensure that display advertising markets operate on a level playing field in which all market participants protect user privacy in the same manner.”

Returning to the specifics of the EU’s Google adtech probe, the Commission says it will be particularly examining:

  • The obligation to use Google’s services Display & Video 360 (‘DV360′) and/or Google Ads to purchase online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The obligation to use Google Ad Manager to serve online display advertisements on YouTube, and potential restrictions placed by Google on the way in which services competing with Google Ad Manager are able to serve online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The apparent favouring of Google’s ad exchange “AdX” by DV360 and/or Google Ads and the potential favouring of DV360 and/or Google Ads by AdX.
  • The restrictions placed by Google on the ability of third parties, such as advertisers, publishers or competing online display advertising intermediaries, to access data about user identity or user behaviour which is available to Google’s own advertising intermediation services, including the Doubleclick ID.
  • Google’s announced plans to prohibit the placement of third party ‘cookies’ on Chrome and replace them with the “Privacy Sandbox” set of tools, including the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.
  • Google’s announced plans to stop making the advertising identifier available to third parties on Android smart mobile devices when a user opts out of personalised advertising, and the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.

Commenting on the investigation in a statement, Commission EVP and competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, added:

“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetise their online services. Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary. So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising. We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack. A level playing field is of the essence for everyone in the supply chain. Fair competition is important — both for advertisers to reach consumers on publishers’ sites and for publishers to sell their space to advertisers, to generate revenues and funding for content. We will also be looking at Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition.”

Contacted for comment on the Commission investigation, a Google spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Thousands of European businesses use our advertising products to reach new customers and fund their websites every single day. They choose them because they’re competitive and effective. We will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”

Google also claimed that publishers keep around 70% of the revenue when using its products — saying in some instances it can be more.

It also suggested that publishers and advertisers often use multiple technologies simultaneously, further claiming that it builds its own technologies to be interoperable with more than 700 rival platforms for advertisers and 80 rival platforms for publishers.

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

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