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Microsoft makes Teams video meetings less tiring with its new Together mode

By Frederic Lardinois

Video meetings. While the move to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic may have made them mainstream, they are not without issues and more and more people are now opting out. And for good reason. As it turns out, it’s really hard for our brains to sustain concentration while we’re trying to focus on 20 people in neat squares, all with different backgrounds and never quite looking at the camera. While we’ve had quite a bit of anecdotal evidence for this, Microsoft today released some of the research it did in this area, as well as new features in Teams that it hopes will make video meetings easier and less tiring.

The first of these is Together mode. The idea here is actually pretty simple. To be able to change backgrounds or add background blur, Teams already features Microsoft’s AI segmentation technology to detect and cut out a participant’s image from the background. Now, with Together Mode, it is taking everybody’s images and putting them into a shared space, starting with an auditorium. So instead of lots of little squares, all of the meeting participants now sit in this auditorium. This, Microsoft’s research shows, is actually quite a bit easier on the brain to process than standard remote collaboration tools.

“In our preliminary research — and it’s only been preliminary thus far, this has only been around for a couple of months — we’ve noticed quite a few things,” Microsoft’s Melissa Salazar explained to me ahead of today’s announcement. “First and foremost, you’ll notice the way that we’re looking at each other is obviously very different than something we’re used to, not only are we out of the grid, but we’re looking at this, ‘mirror image’ of ourselves.” This view of ourselves, Microsoft argues, is something we’re quite used to from being at the barbershop, for example, where we talk to the mirror. This also tricks our brain into mitigating some of the eye contact problems we’ve all experienced in video meetings.

“Our research has also shown that people tend to be happier, be more engaged in meetings, feel more comfortable keeping their camera on longer — even if they’re not asked to in this mode. And then — I think most importantly — be able to pick up on the behavioral social cues that are so important to human interaction,” said Salazar.

Michael Bohan, a director in Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, noted that just removing the grid view already makes a major difference here. “When you have a grid view, everybody’s boxed off and so your brain has to treat those as individual parts — it has to parse all information. When you remove those edges, then your brain can start to see a more unified view of things.”

For now, Together Mode only features the auditorium view, which can handle up to 49 participants, but Microsoft is already working on other views, including a more intimate coffee shop mode.

The other new mode Microsoft is introducing is Dynamic view. The idea here is that Together Mode is obviously not perfect for every kind of meeting, so this view provides more control over how you see shared content and the other participants in a meeting, including the ability to see content and specific participants side-by-side.

Also new in this update are video filters, to tweak your lighting levels, for example, and soon, Teams will add live reactions, which let you share your sentiment with emojis without interrupting the meeting. Coming soon, too, are PowerPoint Live Presentations to Teams, chat bubbles so you don’t have to keep a separate chat view open, and speaker attribution and translation for live captions and transcripts. For chats in teams, Microsoft is introducing Gmail-like suggested replies.

But there is more. Teams will soon let you bring the whole company together, with meetings that can support up to 1,000 participants. And for presentations, Teams will support up to 20,000 participants.

And since Cortana still lives, she is also now coming to the Teams mobile app to help you make calls, join meetings and more.

Another new feature Microsoft CVP Jared Spataro stressed when I talked to him ahead of today’s announcement was the new Reflect messaging extension. “This allows you to have a manager check in on the wellbeing of your team,” he explained. “You can do that anonymously or publicly. We’ve already been doing some of that on my team — just trying to check in with people — and this gives you a more structured way to do that. I think it’ll be really well received based on what I’m talking about with customers because this well-being  component is becoming very important.”

Image Credits: Microsoft

Slack snags corporate directory startup Rimeto to up its people search game

By Ron Miller

For the second time in less than 24 hours, an enterprise company bought an early stage startup. Yesterday afternoon DocuSign acquired Liveoak, and this morning Slack announced it was buying corporate directory startup Rimeto, which should help employees find people inside the organization who match a specific set of criteria from inside Slack.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

Rimeto helps companies build directories to find employees beyond using tools like Microsoft Active Directory, homegrown tools or your corporate email program. When we covered the company’s $10 million Series A last year, we described what it brings to directories this way:

Rimeto has developed a richer directory by sitting between various corporate systems like HR, CRM and other tools that contain additional details about the employee. It of course includes a name, title, email and phone like the basic corporate system, but it goes beyond that to find areas of expertise, projects the person is working on and other details that can help you find the right person when you’re searching the directory.

In the build versus buy equation that companies balance all the time, it looks like Slack weighed the pros and cons and decided to buy instead. You could see how a tool like this would be useful to Slack as people try to build teams of employees, especially in a world where so many are working from home.

While the current Slack people search tool lets you search by name, role or team, Rimeto should give users a much more robust way of searching for employees across the company. You can search for the right person to help you with a particular problem and get much more granular with your search requirements than the current tool allows.

Image Credit: Rimeto

At the time of its funding announcement, the company, which was founded in 2016 by three former Facebook employees, told TechCrunch it had bootstrapped for the first three years before taking the $10 million investment last year. It also reported it was cash-flow positive at the time, which is pretty unusual for an early stage enterprise SaaS company.

In a company blog post announcing the deal, as is typical in these deals, the founders saw being part of a larger organization as a way to grow more quickly than they could have alone. “Joining Slack is a special opportunity to accelerate Rimeto’s mission and impact with greater reach, expanded resources, and the support of Slack’s impressive global team,” the founders wrote in the post.

The acquisition is part of a continuing trend around enterprise companies buying early stage startups to fill in holes in their product roadmaps.

Google says Iranian, Chinese hackers targeted Trump, Biden campaigns

By Zack Whittaker

Google security researchers say they’ve identified efforts by at least two nation state-backed hackers against the Trump and Biden presidential campaigns.

Shane Huntley, director for Google’s Threat Analysis Group, said in a tweet that hackers backed by China and Iran recently targeted the campaigns using malicious phishing emails. But, Huntley said, there are “no signs of compromise” and that the campaigns were both alerted to the attempts.

Recently TAG saw China APT group targeting Biden campaign staff & Iran APT targeting Trump campaign staff with phishing. No sign of compromise. We sent users our govt attack warning and we referred to fed law enforcement. https://t.co/ozlRL4SwhG

— Shane Huntley (@ShaneHuntley) June 4, 2020

When reached by TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson reiterated the findings:

“We can confirm that our Threat Analysis Group recently saw phishing attempts from a Chinese group targeting the personal email accounts of Biden campaign staff and an Iranian group targeting the personal email accounts of Trump campaign staff. We didn’t see evidence that these attempts were successful. We sent the targeted users our standard government-backed attack warning and we referred this information to federal law enforcement. We encourage campaign staff to use extra protection for their work and personal emails, and we offer security resources such as our Advanced Protection Program and free security keys for qualifying campaigns.”

Spokespeople for the Biden and Trump campaigns did not immediately comment. We’ll update if we hear back.

Huntley said in a follow-up tweet that the hackers were identified as China’s APT31 and Iran’s APT35, both of which are known to target government officials. But it’s not the first time that the Trump campaign has been targeted by Iranian hackers. Microsoft last year blamed APT35 group for targeting what later transpired to be the Trump campaign.

Since last year’s attempted attacks, both the Democrats and Republicans improved their cybersecurity at the campaign level. The Democrats recently updated their security checklist for campaigns and published recommendations for countering disinformation, and the Republicans have put on training sessions to better educate campaign officials.

Join us June 3 for a contact-tracing and exposure-notification app development and deployment forum

By Darrell Etherington

Exposure notification and contact tracing are two related but distinct measures many public health authorities are either considering or already implementing.

Contact tracing is a practice almost as old as epidemiology itself, but today’s technology means the way that we go about tracking the spread of a contagious illness within and between communities is changing very quickly. This presents an opportunity for learning more about the opportunities and challenges presented in extending contact tracing and exposure notification via digital means.

To that end, we’re happy to be working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host on TC to their live-streamed discussion around contact tracing and exposure notification applications, including demonstrations of some of the cutting-edge products that will be available in the U.S. to tackle these challenging, but crucial, tasks. The day’s events will include a roundtable discussion followed by a series of product demos, and will take place starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 3.

Below, we’ve included an agenda of the confirmed speakers and demonstrations for the day so far. Note that this is work in progress, and that more speakers and demos will be added to the day’s slate as we get closer to Wednesday. To RSVP for this free event, check out this link.

11am-1pm EDT: Roundtable Discussion – Hear from researchers, healthcare professionals, and technologists, including:

  • Andrew McLaughlin is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Andrew is the Chairman of Access Now, the former Deputy U.S. CTO for the White House, and the former Director of Global Public Policy at Google.
  • Daniel Burka is heading up the COVID-19 response efforts for New York State through Resolve to Save Lives, the not-for-profit organization led by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
  • Harper Reed is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Harper is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and was the CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
  • Jonathan Jackson is the Founder and CEO at Dimagi, a social enterprise that develops innovative technology solutions for frontline workforces and underserved populations. They have an extensive background in global health and are a leader in mobile health data collection.
  • Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science, and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Jonathan’s work focuses on topics including control of digital property, privacy frameworks, and the roles of intermediaries in Internet architecture.
  • Randall Thomas is assisting Resolve to Save Lives and other stakeholders with the New York State response to COVID-19. Randall is the CTO of Geometer, a technology incubator.
  • Mona Sloane is an NYU-based sociologist working on inequality in the context of AI design and policy. At NYU, she helps form NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, and is Co-Principal Investigator on the COVID-19 Tech Project. Mona also leads the project Terra Incognita: Mapping NYC’s New Digital Public Spaces in the COVID-19 Outbreak.

1pm-2pm EDT: Contact Tracing/Exposure Notification Product Demos – Leading organizations developing applications to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, primarily through contact tracing and exposure notification, will each demo their product. Teams include:

We’ll have a live stream available on June 3 so you can follow along, as mentioned, but you can also RSVP here to register your interest. It should be a day full of interesting, expert discussion of why there’s a need to extend contact tracing and exposure notification through connected and digital means, as well as the privacy, public health and policy implications such extension necessarily carries with it.

LetsGetChecked raises $71M as COVID-19 epidemic makes home-testing increasingly vital

By Jonathan Shieber

As the country wrestles with the COVID-19 epidemic, home health testing, checkups and diagnostics have never been more important and companies like LetsGetChecked are filling a void left in a U.S. healthcare system consumed by the outbreak.

The surge in demand for the company’s services has led to an equal surge in investor interest, and LetsGetChecked is one of many home health and remote diagnostics companies to raise new capital during the pandemic.

The company’s new $71 million financing isn’t just about the services the company can provide during the COVID-19 epidemic. Now that an increasing number of Americans are accessing home health services, they’ll likely continue to use them thanks to their convenience and ease of use, according to LetsGetChecked chief executive, Peter Foley.

“People are very focused on COVID-19. [But] we’re seeing trends of increases in everything else,” said Foley. “This situation has definitely legitimized the space of home diagnostics. We are seeing spikes in those kinds of tests. Everything that needs monitoring we’re seeing spikes in.”

Most consumers are avoiding doctors, hospitals and clinics out of concern over the epidemic and that’s pushing them to use telemedicine and remote testing services, said Foley.

And the company has stepped up to address the coronavirus outbreak itself. The company, which has a manufacturing facility in Queens where it makes its own test kits has been unfazed by the supply chain issues that have hit other companies, said Foley. And LetsGetChecked has a certified lab facility where it can conduct its own tests.

LetsGetChecked at-home Coronavirus test kit.

Right now, the company is offering both a serological test (sourced from a Korean lab and awaiting approval by the FDA) and a PCR test (from ThermoFisher) for SARS-CoV-2 and is looking to expand the scope of its tests. The LetsGetChecked tests include a rapid (antibody) serology test for results within 15 minutes, followed by a PCR-based test which requires a swab sample to be collected from a patient and later processed within the LetsGetChecked high complexity CLIA lab in Monrovia, Calif., the company said. Initially the testing was for first responders and those most at risk from the disease, but the population that the company is testing is expanding as the spread of the virus slows.

“We were fortunate enough to be in a position where we could help people now,” says Foley.

LetsGetChecked isn’t the only startup at work developing and distributing home testing services for the coronavirus. Everlywell and Scanwell Health are two other startups that have been developing and selling home test kits as well.

LetsGetChecked began fundraising four months ago, and even then, in the days before COVID-19 hit American shores, the environment for raising capital had tightened, Foley said.

In the days before the disease reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. LetsGetChecked was pitching its ability to test at-home or through partner retailers for cancer screening, sexual health, fertility and pharmacogenomic testing.

Users can buy tests and collect samples at home before sending them to LetsGetChecked’s facility. The company connects its customers to board-certified physicians to discuss abnormal results and determine a course of action for treatment

The company’s initial pitch and the promise of a vast remote diagnostics market was enough to convince Illumina Ventures, which co-led the round with HLM Venture Partners. Other new investors included Deerfield, CommonFund Capital, and Angeles Investment Advisors. Previous investors Transformation Capital, Optum Vnetures, and Qiming Venture Partners USA also participated.

For Illumina Ventures, the LetsGetChecked remote testing service can serve as a channel for some of the tests under development at the firm’s other healthcare portfolio companies, according to Nick Naclerio, a founding partner at Illumina Ventures and a new director on the LetsGetChecked board.

“A lot of companies developing cutting edge new tests have challenges building a channel into the broader market,” said Naclerio. “Here is a company going after building the kind of future, patient-initiated testing channel that the world needs and is probably synergistic with some of the companies that are doing next generation testing.”

Those would be companies like Serimmune, which is developing tests to map the human immune system, or Genome Medical, which applies the latest understanding of the human genome to treatments for patients. The firm also has investments in cancer screening companies like Grail, which is aiming to provide an early detection diagnostic for cancer.

Naclerio also sees a dramatic shift in consumer behavior on the horizon in the post-COVID-19 world.

“COVID presents a tremendous need for at-home infectious disease testing or at-work infectious disease testing,” he said. “This is breaking down a lot of the barriers that have historically slowed the adoption of telehealth… It creates an opportunity for LetsGetChecked even once we get over the peak of the curve. There’s going to be a lasting impact.”

Ben Horowitz, a16z general partner, is leaving Lyft’s board

By Kirsten Korosec

Ben Horowitz, the co-founder and general partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz won’t seek re-election to Lyft’s board, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.

Horowitz has served as a board of director at the ride-hailing company since June 2016. His venture firm, which he co-founded with Marc Andreessen, was an early investor in Lyft . He will stay on the board until Lyft’s annual shareholder meeting scheduled for June 19. Horowitz’s plan to leave the board was first spotted by Protocol reporter Biz Carson.

Horowitz could not be reached for comment. TechCrunch will update this article if he responds.

“We thank Ben for his longtime partnership with Lyft, including his four years of service on our board,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a email to TechCrunch. “During his tenure, Ben has helped Lyft achieve some of its most significant milestones, including our initial public offering in 2019. We wish Ben all the best as he continues his work as a pioneering investor and leader in the venture capital community.”

Horowitz serves on boards of 13 other portfolio companies, including Okta, Foursquare, Genius, Medium and Databricks.

Horowitz was selected to serve on Lyft’s board because of his extensive operating and management experience, his knowledge of technology companies and his extensive experience as a venture capital investor, the company said in filing announcing the agenda for its 2020 annual shareholders meeting.

The annual meeting will be held virtually at 1:30 p.m. PT June 19, 2020. Shareholders and others can attend the Annual Meeting by visiting www.virtualshareholdermeeting.com/LYFT2020. Shareholders will be able to  submit questions and vote online.

During the meeting, Lyft plans to elect two directors to serve until 2023 and to ratify the appointment of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP as its independent registered public accounting firm.

Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green and Ann Miura-Ko, co-founder and artner at Floodgate Fund are up for re-election as board members.

The company’s agenda includes two measures to approve, on an advisory basis, the compensation of its named executive officers and the frequency of future stockholder advisory votes on the compensation of its named executive officers.

Tesla’s newest board member has a long stance against short selling

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has added Hiromichi Mizuno as a new member to its board of directors and audit committee — the former chief investment officer of Japan’s $1.5 trillion pension fund and a longtime opponent of common market practices like short selling.

With Mizuno’s appointment the Tesla board now has 10 members, including Oracle founder, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison and Walgreens executive Kathleen Wilson-Thompson. Mizuno will also sit on the board’s audit committee.

Hiro has a long career in finance and investment that included a stint as executive managing director and chief investment officer of Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), the largest in the world with about $1.5 trillion in assets under management. Hiro left his position in late March.

During his time at GPIF, Hiro promoted environmental, social and governance practices. He was also known for challenging short selling — a practice that has plagued Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk . During his tenure, the GPIF suspended stock lending, which caught many by surprise. Hiro’s opposition to short selling is at odds with some market purists who believe the investment strategy — which speculates on the decline in a stock — actually provides greater price transparency. Hiro has said in previous interviews with media outlets like the Financial Times that it conflicts with his long-term perspective.

Hiro is on a number of government advisory boards, including the board of the PRI, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council and the Japanese government’s strategic fund integrated advisory board.

He also challenged many established market practices, including short-selling, to promote long-term value creation by corporations.

As a director, Mizuno will get an initial award of an option to purchase 2,778 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting and exercisable on June 18, 2020. For serving on the audit committee, he will get an initial award of an option to purchase 4,000 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting in 12 equal monthly tranches assuming continued service on each vesting date, according to a regulator filing Thursday.

Tesla’s board had sat unchanged for years until late 2018 when Ellison and Wilson-Thompson joined the board as independent directors as part of a settlement with U.S. securities regulators over CEO Elon Musk’s infamous tweets about taking the company private. Under the settlement, Tesla agreed to add two independent directors and Musk would step down as chairman for three years. Robyn Denholm, the former chief operations officer of Telstra Corporation Limited, a telecommunications company, was named chairman in November 2018.

In April 2019, the company said it would cut its board down by more than one-third, to seven directors, by 2020, a move that included the loss of some of Musk’s  early advisers and allies.

Longtime board members Brad Buss and Linda Johnson Rice, who joined two years ago as an independent director, did not seek re-election in 2019 and their terms expired at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June. The board said in the proxy filing at the time that it didn’t plan to fill their seats.

Antonio Gracias,  whose term ends in 2020, and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson will leave the board in 2020, according to a regulatory filing last year.

MigVax raises $12M for its COVID-19 vaccine efforts

By Frederic Lardinois

Worldwide, there are numerous efforts underway to create a vaccine for COVID-19. Without one, we are likely to see some form of social distancing in place for the foreseeable future. And experts like Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, think it’ll take at least a year before we’ll have a vaccine that can be approved for public use. MigVax, an Israeli startup that’s affiliated with the Migal Galilee Research Institute, thinks it can speed up this process by quite a bit, in part, because it had already worked on building a framework for the Infectious Bronchitis Virus, a coronavirus that infects chickens, and that has proven to be safe in animals.

I think everybody is currently skeptical when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, and in Israel alone there are multiple efforts underway, but crowdfunding platform OurCrowd is putting $12 million into MigVax to help the team accelerate its efforts to develop an oral vaccine.

“The experiments we have carried out so far show that because the vaccine does not include the virus itself, it will be safe to use in immune-suppressed recipients, and has fewer chances of side effects,” said David Zigdon, CEO of the Migal Galilee Research Institute. “It uses a protein vector that can form and secrete a chimeric soluble protein which carries the viral antigen into tissue and causes the production of antibodies against the virus by the immune system. We are now working to adjust our generic vaccine system to COVID-19. Using a fermentation process, MigVax aims to have the material ready for clinical trials within a few months.”

MigVax argues that its approach would offer significant advantages in manufacturing and cost because it uses bacterial fermentation to produce the vaccine, a process that’s generally well understood and commonly used today. “We are already in talks with major strategic partners able to manufacture at high volume and distribute globally,” the company tells us.

“We are humbled by the opportunity to invest in this company, which means so much to so many people,” said OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved today. “The race for a COVID-19 vaccine is about saving countless lives, and we are grateful to be able to support this important effort.”

When I last talked to Medved earlier this year, shortly before COVID-19 was officially deemed a pandemic, he was already thinking about how his existing portfolio companies could play a role in fighting the disease. No doubt, though, whoever manages to first develop a safe vaccine also stands to gain financially, and that’s not something most VC firms would turn down, so it’s no surprise that we now see funding for startups in this space, too.

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