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Calling Brussels VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Brussels will capture how the city is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

We’d like to know how Brussels’ startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey.

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Brussels, but would like to take part? Or you are in another part of the country? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your city next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every European country on the continent of Europe (not just EU members, btw), so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

Nordic challenger bank Lunar raises €40M Series C, plans to enter the ‘buy now, pay later’ space

By Steve O'Hear

Lunar, the Nordic challenger bank that started out life as a personal finance manager app (PFM) but acquired a full banking license in 2019, has raised €40 million in Series C funding from existing investors.

The injection of capital follows a €20 million Series B disclosed in April this year and comes on the back of Lunar rolling out Pro paid-for subscriptions — similar to a number of other challenger banks in Europe — personal consumer loans, and the launch of business bank accounts in August.

The latter appears to have been an instant success, perhaps proof there is — like in the U.K. — pent up demand for more accessible banking for sole traders. Just months since launching in Denmark, Lunar Business claims to have signed up more than 50% of all newly founded sole trader businesses in the country.

I’m also told that Lunar has seen “best-in-class” user engagement with users spending €1,100 per month versus what the bank says is a €212 EU average for card transactions. Overall, the bank has 5,000 business users and 200,000 private users across Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Meanwhile — and most noteworthy — after launching its first consumer lending products on its own balance sheet, Lunar has set its sights on the “buy now, pay later” market, therefore theoretically encroaching on $10.65 billion valued Klarna, and Affirm in the U.S. which just filed to go public. Other giants in the BNPL space also include PayPal.

Lunar founder and CEO Ken Villum Klausen says the “schizophrenic” Nordic banking market is the reason why the challenger is launching BNPL. “It’s the most profitable banking landscape in the world, but also the most defensive, with least competition from the outside,” he says. “This means that the traditional banking customer is buying all their financial products from their bank”.

It is within this context that Lunar’s BNPL products are built as “post-purchase,” where Lunar will prompt its users after they have bought something (not dissimilar to Curve’s planned credit offering). For example, if you were to buy a new television, the app will ask if you want to split the purchase into instalments. “This does not require merchant agreements etc, and will work on all transactions both retail and e-commerce,” explains Klausen.

“We do not view Klarna as a direct competitor as they are not in the Nordic clearing system,” he adds. “Hence, you cannot pay your bills, get your salary and use it for daily banking. Klarna is enormous in Sweden, but relatively small in Denmark, Norway and Finland”.

In total, Lunar has raised €104 million from investors including Seed Capital, Greyhound Capital, Socii Capital and Chr. Augustinus Fabrikker. The challenger has offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, with a headcount of more than 180 employees. It plans to launch its banking app in Finland in the first half of 2021.

France rebrands contact-tracing app in an effort to boost downloads

By Romain Dillet

Don’t call it StopCovid anymore. France’s contact-tracing app has been updated and is now called TousAntiCovid, which means “everyone against Covid”. The French government is trying to pivot so that it’s no longer a contact-tracing app — or at least not just a contact-tracing app.

Right now, TousAntiCovid appears to be a rebranding more than a pivot. There’s a new name and some changes in the user interface. But the core feature of the app remains unchanged.

StopCovid hasn’t been a success. First, it’s still unclear whether contact-tracing apps are a useful tool to alert people who have been interacting with someone who has been diagnosed COVID-19-positive. Second, even when you take that into consideration, the app never really took off.

Back in June, the French government gave us an update on StopCovid three weeks after its launch: 1.9 million people had downloaded the app, but StopCovid only sent 14 notifications.

Four months later, StopCovid/TousAntiCovid has been downloaded and activated by close to 2.8 million people. But only 13,651 people declared themselves as COVID-19-positive in the app, which led to 823 notifications. Even if you’re tested positive, in most cases, no one is going to be notified.

Hence today’s update. If you’ve been using the app, you’ll receive TousAntiCovid with a software update — the French government is using the same App Store and Play Store listing. When you first launch the app, you go through an onboarding process focused on contact-tracing — activate notifications, activate Bluetooth, etc.

France is using its own contact-tracing protocol called ROBERT. A group of researchers and private companies have worked on a centralized architecture. The server assigns you a permanent ID (a pseudonym) and sends to your phone a list of ephemeral IDs derived from that permanent ID.

Like most contact-tracing apps, TousAntiCovid relies on Bluetooth Low Energy to build a comprehensive list of other app users you’ve interacted with for more than a few minutes. If you’re using the app, it collects the ephemeral IDs of other app users around you.

If you’re using the app and you’re diagnosed COVID-19-positive, your testing facility will hand you a QR code or a string of letters and numbers. You can choose to open the app and enter that code to share the list of ephemeral IDs of people you’ve interacted with over the past two weeks.

The server back end then flags all those ephemeral IDs as belonging to people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. On the server again, each user is associated with a risk score. If it goes above a certain threshold, the user receives a notification. The app then recommends you get tested and follow official instructions.

But there are some new things in the app. You can now access some recent numbers about the pandemic in France — new cases over the past 24 hours, number of people in intensive care units, etc. There’s also a new feed of news items. Right now, it sums up what you can do and cannot do in France.

And there are some new links for useful resources — the service that tells you where you can get tested and a link to the exemption certificate during the curfew. When you tap on those links, it simply launches your web browser to official websites.

Let’s see how the app evolves as the government now wants to actively iterate on TousAntiCovid to make it more attractive. If TousAntiCovid can become a central information hub for your phone, it could attract more downloads.

Psykhe secures Seed funding to match consumer personalities to fashion products

By Mike Butcher

In an overcrowded market of online fashion brands, consumers are spoilt for choice on what site to visit. They are generally forced to visit each brand one by one, manually filtering down to what they like. Most of the experience is not that great, and past purchase history and cookies aren’t much to go on to tailor user experience. If someone has bought an army-green military jacket, the e-commerce site is on a hiding to nothing if all it suggests is more army-green military jackets…

Instead, Psycke ( it’s brand name is ‘PSYKHE’) is an e-commerce startup that uses AI and psychology to make product recommendations based both on the user’s personality profile and the ‘personality’ of the products. Admittedly, a number of startups have come and gone claiming this, but it claims to have taken a unique approach to make the process of buying fashion easier by acting as an aggregator that pulls products from all leading fashion retailers. Each user sees a different storefront that, says the company, becomes increasingly personalized.

It has now raised $1.7 million in seed funding from a range of investors and is announcing new plans to scale its technology to other consumer verticals in the future in the B2B space.

The investors are Carmen Busquets – the largest founding investor in Net-a-Porter; SLS Journey – the new investment arm of the MadaLuxe Group, the North American distributor of luxury fashion; John Skipper – DAZN Chairman and former Co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and President of ESPN; and Lara Vanjak – Chief Operating Officer at Aser Ventures, formerly at MP & Silva and FC Inter-Milan.

So what does it do? As a B2C aggregator, it pools inventory from leading retailers. The platform then applies machine learning and personality-trait science, and tailors product recommendations to users based on a personality test taken on sign-up. The company says it has international patents pending and has secured affiliate partnerships with leading retailers that include Moda Operandi, MyTheresa, LVMH’s platform 24S, and 11 Honoré.

The business model is based around an affiliate partnership model, where it makes between 5-25% of each sale. It also plans to expand into B2B for other consumer verticals in the future, providing a plug-in product that allows users to sort items by their personality.

How does this personality test help? Well, Psykhe has assigned an overall psychological profile to the actual products themselves: over 1 million products from commerce partners, using machine learning (based on training data).

So for example, if a leather boot had metal studs on it (thus looking more ‘rebellious’), it would get a moderate-low rating on the trait of ‘Agreeableness’. A pink floral dress would get a higher score on that trait. A conservative tweed blazer would get a lower score tag on the trait of ‘Openness’, as tweed blazers tend to indicate a more conservative style and thus nature.

So far, Psykhe’s retail partnerships include Moda Operandi, MyTheresa, LVMH’s platform 24S, Outdoor Voices, Jimmy Choo, Coach, and size-inclusive platform 11 Honoré.

It’s competitors include The Yes and Lyst. However, Psykhe’s main point of differentiation is this personality scoring. Furthermore, The Yes is app-only, US-only, and only partners with monobrands, while Lyst is an aggregator with 1,000s of brands, but used as more of a search platform.

Psykhe is in a good position to take advantage of the ongoing effects of COVID-19, which continue to give a major boost to global ecommerce as people flood online amid lockdowns.

The startup is the brainchild of Anabel Maldonado, CEO & founder, (along with founding team CTO Will Palmer and Lead Data Scientist, Rene-Jean Corneille, pictured above), who studied psychology in her hometown of Toronto, but ended up working at in the UK’s NHS in a specialist team that made developmental diagnoses for children under 5.

She made a pivot into fashion after winning a competition for an editorial mentorship at British Marie Claire. She later went to the press department of Christian Louboutin, followed by internships at the Mail on Sunday and Marie Claire, then spending several years in magazine publishing before moving into e-commerce at CoutureLab. Going freelance, she worked with a number of luxury brands and platforms as an editorial consultant. As a fashion journalist, she’s contributed industry op-eds to publications such as The Business of Fashion, T The New York Times Style, and Marie Claire.

As part of the fashion industry for 10 years, she says she became frustrated with the narratives which “made fashion seem more frivolous than it really is. I thought, this is a trillion-dollar industry, we all have such emotional, visceral reactions to an aesthetic based on who we are, but all we keep talking about is the ‘hot new color for fall and so-called blanket “must-haves’.”

But, she says, “there was no inquiry into individual differences. This world was really missing the level of depth it deserved, and I sought to demonstrate that we’re all sensitive to aesthetic in one way or another and that our clothing choices have a great psychological pay-off effect on us, based on our unique internal needs.” So she set about creating a startup to address this ‘fashion psychology’ – or, as she says “why we wear what we wear”.

E-bike subscription service Dance closes $17.7M Series A, led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Three months on since the former founders of SoundCloud launched their e-bike subscription service, Dance they are today announcing the close of a $17.7 million (€15 million) Series A funding round led by one of the larger European VCs, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Founded by Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss (ex-Soundcloud), Alexander Ljung (ex-Soundcloud) and Christian Springub (ex-Jimdo), Dance has ambitions to offer its all-inclusive service subscription package into expanded markets across Europe and eventually the US. Dance is currently operating the invite-only pilot of its e-bike subscription in Berlin, with plans for a broader launch, expanded accessibility and availability and new cities next year. 

Rainer Märkle, general partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures said in a statement: “The mobility market is seeing a huge shift towards bikes, strongly fueled by the paradigm shift of vehicles going electric. Unfortunately, the majority of e-bikes on the market today have some combination of poor design, high upfront costs, and cumbersome maintenance. We analyzed the overall mobility market, evaluated all means of transport, and crunched the numbers on all types of business models for a few years before we found what we were looking for. Dance is by the far the most viable future of biking, bridging the gap between e-bike ownership and more ‘joyful’ accessibility to go places.”

E-bikes tend to be notoriously expensive to purchase and a hassle to repair. That said, startups like VanMoof and Cowboy have brought an Apple -esque business model to the market which is fast bringing the cost of full ownership down.

Most commuters are put off cycling the average 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) commute but e-bikes make this distance a breeze. Dance sits in that half-way house between owning an expensive bike and having to hunt down a rentable ebike or electric scooter close to your location.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought individual, socially distanced, transport into sharp relief. UK sales of e-bikes have boomed, seeing a 230% surge in demand over the summer. This has happened at the same time as EU governments have put in more than 2300km of bike lanes, with the UK alone pledging £250 million in investment.

Quidenus-Wahlforss said the startup has been “inundated with positive responses from around the world since we announced our invite-only pilot program.”

Dance’s subscription model includes a fully assembled e-bike delivered to a subscriber’s door within 24 hours. This comes with maintenance, theft replacement insurance, a dedicated smartphone app, concierge services, GPS location tracking and unlocking capabilities.

Adyen alumni raise €2.6M seed to launch Silverflow, a ‘cloud-native’ card payments processor

By Steve O'Hear

Silverflow, a Dutch startup founded by Adyen alumni, is breaking cover and announcing seed funding.

The pre-launch company has spent the last two years building what it describes as a “cloud-native” online card processor that directly connects to card networks. The aim is to offer a modern replacement for the 20 to 40-year-old payments card processing tech that is mostly in use today.

Backing Silverflow’s €2.6 million seed round is U.K.-based VC Crane Venture Partners, with participation from Inkef Capital and unnamed angel investors and industry leaders from Pay.On, First Data, Booking.com and Adyen. It brings the fintech startup’s total funding to date to ~€3 million.

Bootstrapped while in development and launching in 2021, Silverflow’s founders are CEO Anne-Willem de Vries (who was focused on card acquiring and processing at Adyen), CBDO Robert Kraal (former Adyen COO and EVP global card acquiring & processing of Adyen) and CTO Paul Buying (founder of acquired translation startup Livewords).

“The payments tech stack needs an upgrade,” Kraal tells me. “Today’s card payment infrastructure based on 30 to 40-year-old technology is still in use across the global payment landscape. This legacy infrastructure is costing everyone time and money: consumers, merchants, payment-service-providers and banks. The legacy platforms require a lengthy on-boarding process and are expensive to maintain, [and] they also aren’t fit for purpose today because they don’t support data use”.

In addition, Kraal says that adding new functionality is a lengthy and expensive process, requiring the effort of specialised engineers which ultimately slows down innovation “for the whole card payments system”.

“Finally, every acquirer provides its customer with a different processing platform, which for a typical payment service provider (PSP) means they have to deal with multiple legacy platforms — and all the costs and specialised support each entails,” adds de Vries.

To solve this, Silverflow claims it has built the first payments processor with a “cloud-native platform” built for today’s technology stack. This includes offering simple APIs and “streamlined data flows” directly integrated into the card networks.

Continues de Vries: “Instead of managing a complex network of acquirers across markets with dozens of bank and card network connections to maintain, Silverflow provides card-acquiring processing as a service that connects to card networks directly through a simple API”.

Target customers are PSPs, acquirers and “global top-market merchants” that are seeing €500 million to 10 billion in annual transactions.

“As a managed service, Silverflow provides the maintenance for connections and new product innovation that users have typically had to support in-house or work on long-term product road maps with suppliers,” explains Kraal. “Based in the cloud, Silverflow is infinitely scalable for peak flows and also provides robust data insights that users haven’t previously been able to access”.

With regards to competitors, Kraal says there are no other companies at the moment doing something similar, “as far as we are aware”. Currently, acquirers use traditional third-party processors, such as SIA, Omnipay, Cybersource or MIGS. Some companies, like Adyen, have built their own in-house processing platform.

So, why hasn’t a cloud-native card processing platform like Silverflow been done before and why now? A lack of awareness of the problem might be one reason, says de Vries.

“Unless you have built several integrations to acquirers during your career, you are not aware that the 30 to 40-years-old infrastructure is still in use. This is not typically a problem some bright college graduates would tackle,” he posits.

“Second, to build this successfully, you need to have prior knowledge of the card payments industry to navigate all the legal, regulatory and technical requirements.

“Thirdly, any large corporate currently active in card payment processing will be aware of the problem and have the relevant industry knowledge. However, building a new processing platform would require them to allocate their most talented staff to this project for two-three years, taking away resources from their existing projects. In addition, they would also need to manage a complex migration project to move their existing customers from their current system to the new one and risk losing some of the customers along the way”.

Facebook Dating launches in Europe after 9-month+ delay over privacy concerns

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook’s dating bolt-on to its eponymous social networking service has finally launched in Europe, more than nine months after an earlier planned launched was pulled at the last minute over privacy concerns.

From today, European Facebook users in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the UK can opt into Facebook Dating by creating a profile at facebook.com/dating.

Among the dating product’s main features are the ability to share Stories on your profile; a Secret Crush feature that lets you select up to nine of your Facebook friends or Instagram followers who you’d like to date (without them knowing unless they also add you — when you then get a match notification); the ability to see people with similar interests if you add your Facebook Events and Groups to your Dating profile; and a video chat feature called Virtual Dates.

Image credit: Facebook

Of course if you opt in to Facebook Dating you’re going to be plugging even more of your personal data into Facebook’s people profiling machine. And it was concerns about how the dating product would be processing European users’ information that led to a regulatory intervention by the company’s lead data regulator in the EU, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC).

Back in February Facebook agreed to postpone the regional launch of Facebook Dating after the DPC’s agents paid a visit to its Dublin office — saying Facebook had not provided it with enough advanced warning of the product launch, nor adequate documentation about how it would work.

More than nine months later the regulator seems satisfied it now understands how Facebook Dating is processing people’s personal data — although it also says it will be monitoring the EU launch.

Additionally, the DPC says Facebook has made some changes to the product in light of concerns it raised (full details below).

Deputy commissioner, Graham Doyle, told TechCrunch: “As you will recall, the DPC became aware of Facebook’s plans to launch Facebook Dating a number of days prior to its planned launch in February of this year. Further to the action taken by the DPC at the time (which included an on-site inspection and a number of queries and concerns being put to Facebook), Facebook has provided detailed clarifications on the processing of personal data in the context of the Dating feature. Facebook has also provided details of changes that they have made to the product to take account of the issues raised by the DPC. We will continue to monitor the product as it launches across the EU this week.”

“Much earlier engagement on such projects is imperative going forward,” he added.

Since the launch of Facebook’s dating product in 20 countries around the world — including the US and a number of markets in Asia and LatAm — the company says more than 1.5 billion matches have been “created”.

In a press release about the European launch, Facebook writes that it has “built Dating with safety, security and privacy at the forefront”, adding: “We worked with experts in these areas to provide easy access to safety tips and build protections into Facebook Dating, including the ability to report and block anyone, as well as stopping people from sending photos, links, payments or videos in messages.”

It also links to an update about Facebook Dating’s privacy which emphasizes the product is an “opt-in experience”. This document includes a section explaining how use of the product impacts Facebook’s data collection and the ads users see across its suite of products.

“Facebook Dating may suggest matches for you based on your activities, preferences and information in Dating and other Facebook Products,” it writes. “We may also use your activity in Dating to personalize your experience, including ads you may see, across Facebook Products. The exception to this is your religious views and the gender(s) you are interested in dating, which will not be used to personalize your experience on other Facebook Products.”

One key privacy-related change flowing from the DPC intervention looks to be that Facebook has committed to excluding the use of Dating users’ religious and sexual orientation information for ad targeting purposes.

Under EU law this type of personal information is classed as ‘special category’ data — and consent to process it requires a higher bar of explicit consent from the user. (And Facebook probably didn’t want to harsh Dating users’ vibe with pop-ups asking them to agree to ads targeting them for being gay or Christian, for example.)

Asked about the product changes, the DPC confirmed a number of changes related to special category data, along with some additional clarifications.

Here’s the full list of “changes and clarifications”:

  • Changes to the user interface around a user’s selection of religious belief. Under the original proposal, the “prefer not to say” option was buried in the choices;
  • Updated sign-up flow within the Dating feature to bring to the user’s attention that Dating is a Facebook product and that it is covered by FB’s terms of service and data policy, as particularised by the Supplemental Facebook Dating Terms.
  • Clarification on the uses of special category data (no advertising using special category data and special category data collected in the dating feature will not be used by the core FB service);
  • Clarification that all other information will be used by Facebook in the normal manner across the Facebook platform in accordance with the FB terms of service;
  • Clarification on the processing of location data (location services has to be turned on for onboarding for safety and verification purpose but can then be turned off. Dating does not automatically update users’ Dating location in their Dating profile, even if the user chooses to have their location turned on for the wider Facebook service. Dating location does not use the user’s exact location, and is shown at a city level on the user’s Dating profile.).

Health insurance startup Alan lets you chat with a doctor

By Romain Dillet

French startup Alan is building health insurance products. And 100,000 people are now covered through Alan . I caught up with the company’s co-founder and CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve so that he could give us an update on the product.

Alan has obtained its own health insurance license and is a proper insurance company. It doesn’t partner with existing insurance companies. The company primarily sells its insurance product to other companies.

In France, employees are covered by both the national health care system and private insurance companies. So Alan convinces other companies to use its product for all employees.

Over the years, Alan has diversified its offering with high-end coverage, partnerships with CNP Assurances, Livi and Petit Bambou, a focus on new verticals, such as companies in the hospitality industry or retired individuals.

“We’ve kept shipping, and I even think that our pace has increased. We’ve released some exciting stuff in recent months, for our members, for companies and for us internally,” Samuelian-Werve told me.

The biggest change isn’t visible to the end user. The company has built a service that lets them generate a new insurance package on demand. It uses historical data to figure out pricing on the fly. And it opens up some market opportunities as big companies want a custom insurance product depending on their needs.

The biggest Alan customer is a company with 1,000 to 1,500 employees. But the startup is currently selling its product to bigger companies. The idea is that companies above 100 employees can get a custom insurance package.

For the customer, pricing remains transparent as Alan shows you how much it costs to cover your medical needs depending on what you’re asking for. Alan adds a membership fee on top of that to access the platform and related services.

Alan is also introducing a new messaging feature. You can start a text discussion with a doctor whenever you have a question about your health — it’s included in your insurance package. Alan doesn’t want to replace your general practitioner. But having a doctor that you can text is always helpful when you’re not sure what to do next.

On the other side of the screen, there are actual doctors answering your questions. “We’ve hired a full-time doctor and we’re working with a bit under 10 doctors on a part-time basis,” Samuelian-Werve told me.

Alan’s app has been redesigned with a bigger emphasis on your health instead of your insurance. The company shows you all your interactions with health professionals. You can add documents and notes to consolidate information in the same place.

It sounds a bit like France’s DMP, which acts as a personal repository for all your health-related documents. And Alan doesn’t want to replace the public initiative. The startup would like to take advantage of the service to upload and download data at some point down the road.

If you give your consent, Alan can also proactively nudge you about your health. For instance, given your child’s age, Alan can notify you when they’re supposed to get vaccinated. Or if you haven’t been to the dentist in a year, Alan can tell you that it’s time to get a routine checkup.

Finally, the company has improved efficiency when it comes to reimbursements. “74% of reimbursements are issued within an hour. And we’re using instant transfers to send money to your bank account,” Samuelian-Werve told me.

As you can see, Alan is releasing incremental updates. They slowly add up and change the product. In the coming years, the company plans to offer its product in multiple European countries.

Acapela, from the founder of Dubsmash, hopes ‘asynchronous meetings’ can end Zoom fatigue

By Steve O'Hear

Acapela, a new startup co-founded by Dubsmash founder Roland Grenke, is breaking cover today in a bid to re-imagine online meetings for remote teams.

Hoping to put an end to video meeting fatigue, the product is described as an “asynchronous meeting platform,” which Grenke and Acapela’s other co-founder, ex-Googler Heiki Riesenkampf (who has a deep learning computer science background), believe could be the key to unlock better and more efficient collaboration. In some ways the product can be thought of as the antithesis to Zoom and Slack’s real-time and attention-hogging downsides.

To launch, the Berlin-based and “remote friendly” company has raised €2.5 million in funding. The round is led by Visionaries Club with participation from various angel investors, including Christian Reber (founder of Pitch and Wunderlist) and Taavet Hinrikus (founder of TransferWise). I also understand Entrepreneur First is a backer and has assigned EF venture partner Benedict Evans to work on the problem. If you’ve seen the ex-Andreessen Horowitz analyst writing about a post-Zoom world lately, now you know why.

Specifically, Acapela says it will use the injection of cash to expand the core team, focusing on product, design and engineering as it continues to build out its offering.

“Our mission is to make remote teams work together more effectively by having fewer but better meetings,” Grenke tells me. “With Acapela, we aim to define a new category of team collaboration that provides more structure and personality than written messages (Slack or email) and more flexibility than video conferencing (Zoom or Google Meet)”.

Grenke believes some form of asynchronous meetings is the answer, where participants don’t have to interact in real-time but the meeting still has an agenda, goals, a deadline and — if successfully run — actionable outcomes.

“Instead of sitting through hours of video calls on a daily basis, users can connect their calendars and select meetings they would like to discuss asynchronously,” he says. “So, as an alternative to everyone being in the same call at the same time, team members contribute to conversations more flexibly over time. Like communication apps in the consumer space, Acapela allows rich media formats to be used to express your opinion with voice or video messages while integrating deeply with existing productivity tools (like GSuite, Atlassian, Asana, Trello, Notion, etc.)”.

In addition, Acapela will utilise what Grenke says is the latest machine learning techniques to help automate repetitive meeting tasks as well as to summarise the contents of a meeting and any decisions taken. If made to work, that in itself could be significant.

“Initially, we are targeting high-growth tech companies which have a high willingness to try out new tools while having an increasing need for better processes as their teams grow,” adds the Acapela founder. “In addition to that, they tend to have a technical global workforce across multiple time zones which makes synchronous communication much more costly. In the long run we see a great potential tapping into the space of SMEs and larger enterprises, since COVID has been a significant driver of the decentralization of work also in the more traditional industrial sectors. Those companies make up more than 90% of our European market and many of them have not switched to new communication tools yet”.

10 Zurich-area investors on Switzerland’s 2020 startup outlook

By Mike Butcher

European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.

In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).

According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.

As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.

But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.

This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.

Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.

But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.

Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.

The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.

Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

 

Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.

 

Katrin Siebenbuerger Hacki, founder, Medows

TikTok details how it’s taking further action against hateful ideologies

By Sarah Perez

TikTok said on Wednesday it’s strengthening its enforcement actions against hate speech and hateful ideologies to include “neighboring ideologies,” like white nationalism and others, as well as statements that emerge from those ideologies.

In a blog post, TikTok explained that it regularly evaluates its enforcement processes with the help of global experts to determine when it needed to take action against emerging risks.

While the TikTok Trust & Safety teams were already working to remove neo-Nazism and white supremacy from its platform under existing policies, it’s more recently expanded enforcement will also cover related ideologies, including white nationalism, white genocide theory, as well as “statements that have their origin in these ideologies, and movements such as Identitarianism and male supremacy,” TikTok said.

The announcement was made on TikTok’s European newsroom, and follows TikTok’s recent joining of the European Commission’s Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online. However, the guidelines TikTok discussed apply to its global audience.

TikTok had made similar statements on its U.S. newsroom in August, including its plans to take action against other hateful ideologies, including white nationalism and male supremacy, in addition to white supremacy and anti-semitism. A TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch the new announcement was meant to offer “further details” on that policy.

The company’s new blog post noted how many monitoring organizations have been reporting that anti-semitic sentiment is increasing around the world.

TikTok itself had been recently accused of having a “white supremacy” problem, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, which led to the U.S. newsroom announcement earlier this year. The ADL had uncovered dozens of accounts that were using combinations of white supremacist symbols, terms and slogans as screen names or handles, its report said.

It also said it secured a commitment from TikTok to work together to remove such content going forward. At the time of the report, TikTok had claimed to have already removed 1,000 accounts during the year for violating hate speech policies, and said it had taken down hundreds of thousands of videos under those same guidelines. In the U.S. newsroom post, TikTok updated its numbers, saying it had banned more than 1,300 accounts for hateful content or behavior, removed more than 380,000 videos for violation of its hate speech policy, and removed over 64,000 hateful comments.

TikTok offered no update on those figures, or EU-specific data, in today’s post.

The post went on to detail other existing policies in this area. For example, TikTok says it doesn’t permit any content that denies the Holocaust and other violent tragedies — a policy Facebook only recently adopted after years of choosing to favor free speech. TikTok also says it takes action to remove misinformation and hurtful stereotypes about Jewish, Muslim and other communities — including those that spread misinformation about “notable Jewish individuals and families” that are used as proxies to spread antisemitism.

TikTok additionally noted it removes content harmful to the LGBTQ+ community by removing hateful ideas, including content that promotes promotes conversion therapy and the idea that no one is born LGBTQ+.

The company spoke about another area of policy it’s worked to improve, too. Today, TikTok is working to train Trust & Safety enforcement team members as to when it’s appropriate to remove certain language. In the case of language that was previously used to exclude and demean groups, it’s removed. But if those terms are now being reclaimed by impacted communities as terms of empowerment and counter-speech, the speech wouldn’t be taken down.

When content is taken down, TikTok users will be able to ask for a review of the action, TikTok also promised — a level of transparency that isn’t always seen today.

Much of what TikTok announced on Wednesday isn’t a new policy, necessarily, but is meant to address the E.U. audience specifically, where TikTok faces continual scrutiny over its data practices and other policies.

MindLabs raises £1.4 million for its new platform, a “Peloton for mental health”

By Catherine Shu

Ideally, mental wellness should be considered part of a healthy daily routine, like exercise. But even exercise is difficult to turn into a regular habit. Peloton addressed physical fitness by combining smart stationary bikes with live classes and community features to create an engaging experience. Now a new startup, MindLabs, is taking a similar approach to mental wellness.

Based in London, MindLabs announced today it has raised £1.4 million (about USD $1.82 million) in pre-seed investment led by Passion Capital, with participation from SeedCamp, as well as several founders of British consumer tech startups: Alex Chesterman (Cazoo and Zoopla); Neil Hutchinson (Forward Internet Group); Steve Pankhurst (FriendsReunited); James Hind (Carwow); and Jack Tang (Urban).

MindLabs was founded earlier this year by Adnan Ebrahim and Gabor Szedlak, who previously launched and ran Car Throttle, an online media and community startup that was acquired by Dennis Publishing last year. Ebrahim told TechCrunch that MindLabs’ goal is to “make taking care of your mental health as normal as going to the gym.”

Its platform will launch next year, first with a mobile app that combines live videos from mental health professionals who lead meditation and mindfulness sessions, and features to help users track their stress levels. The full platform will also include an EEG headband, called “Halo,” that measures signals, like heart and respiration rates, that can help show users how effective their sessions are.

Going from CarThrottle, sometimes described as “a BuzzFeed for cars” to mental wellness might seem like a big leap, but Ebrahim said their experience “running a media company in a tough market with a young, millennial workforce” inspired him and Szedlak to think more about the issue.

MindLabs founders Gabor Szedlak and Adnan Ebrahim

MindLabs founders Gabor Szedlak and Adnan Ebrahim

“We witnessed firsthand how there was a complete lack of investment in helping this generation with their mental health in a way that they’re used to: a community product that is mobile-first and video-led,” Ebrahim said.

“Alongside that, we had to find ways to deal with managing our own mental health given the stresses that can come when running a fast-paced, venture-backed company. And when we saw the alarming statistics in young adult suicide rates and depression, we realized that finding a solution for our own problems would help millions of others, too.”

The two left Dennis Publishing to begin work on MindLabs at the end of January. During the next few months, including time spent in COVID-19 lockdown, they began researching and developing initial concepts for the platform.

“It’s fair to say that the pandemic did end up altering the course of MindLabs,” Ebrahim said. “For example, we built more real-time community features into the app as a result of the isolation and loneliness we are all now facing as a result of lockdown. We really want to make sufferers feel less alone during the hard times, but with the added convenience now of being able to watch our videos at home.

“This has already become the new normal when it comes to physical fitness, with companies like Peloton exploding in growth, and we see the same trend happening with mental wellness, too,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been described as a mental health crisis, and downloads of meditation and mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace and Relax: Master Your Destiny, have grown as people try to deal with anxiety, isolation and depression at home.

Two of the main ways MindLabs’ platform differentiates from other mental wellness apps is the combination of its video classes and EEG headband. The videos will initially range in length from 10 to 40 minutes and, like Peloton’s classes, will be available on livestream or in pre-recorded, on-demand sessions.

Instead of categorizing videos by technique (for example, meditation, breathing or visualization), MindLabs decided to sort them into issues that users want to cope with, like anxiety, relationships, motivation or addiction. For example, meditation classes may include ones focused on “Overcoming COVID-19 Anxiety” or “Coping With Stress At Work.”

Community features will be linked to the classes: the number of concurrent users in a class will be displayed, along with a live feed showing subscriber achievements, like streaks or number of minutes spent in a “calm state,” that other people can react to for positive reinforcement.

Halo was developed with a hardware specialist that Ebrahim said has seven years of building and distributing medical grade wearables.

“Most importantly our headset will be going through the rigor of ISO 13485 so we can ensure the product is of the highest quality and the data we gather is the most accurate,” he added. “We want to make this technology accessible, so we expect the price of the Halo to be comparable to, say, an Apple Watch.”

Other EEG headbands, including products from Muse and Emotiv, have been on the market for a while. In MindLabs’ case, its headband will help users visualize data before, during and after their classes, including information about their brain waves, heart rates and muscle tension, and saved in the app so they can track their progress.

Turning mental wellness into a habit

One of the biggest challenges that all mental wellness apps need to address is user engagement. It can be hard staying motivated to use a self-directed mental health app when someone is already stressed, depressed or very busy. On the other hand, when they feel better, they might stop checking in.

Ebrahim sees this as a major opportunity for MindLabs, and its EEG headband and data visualization features will play a major role. “Even though there was been a proliferation of mental health apps, retention has proven difficult. But we think that is because these apps truly don’t understand their users,” he said.

“With the data we’re able to show, not just through the Halo but through syncing with Apple HealthKit, we can show our subscribers a positive progression of their mental health, similar to how you can see your weight change on a scale, or improvement in heart rate variability in an app. This helps build a powerful habit because we can finally help to close the loop when it comes to improving mental fitness.”

Participating in live classes provides accountability, too, he added. “The act of scheduling a class and tuning in with thousands of others is a powerful force, similar to having a personal trainer in the gym making sure you turn up and workout.”

MindLabs also plans to build communities around its instructors. During livestreams, instructors will welcome new subscribers and mention user achievements. After each workout, users will get a results screen they can share, similar to screenshots from fitness apps like Strava or Nike Training Club.

In terms of protecting personal privacy, Ebrahim said MindLabs is “firmly against any form of data commercialization.” Instead, it will monetize through monthly or yearly subscriptions, and user data collected through Halo or the app will only be used to make personalized content recommendations.

In a statement about Passion Capital’s investment in MindLabs, partner Eileen Burbidge said, “We’re incredibly excited to be working with MindLabs as they transform the way we look after our minds. Mindfulness is more important now than ever and we know that Adnan and Gabor’s commitment to best in class content, quality production and unparalleled user experience means they’re the best to bring this platform to market.”

 

EU parliament backs tighter rules on behavioural ads

By Natasha Lomas

The EU parliament has backed a call for tighter regulations on behavioral ads (aka microtargeting) in favor of less intrusive, contextual forms of advertising — urging Commission lawmakers to also assess further regulatory options, including looking at a phase-out leading to a full ban.

MEPs also want Internet users to be able to opt out of algorithmic content curation altogether.

The legislative initiative, introduced by the Legal Affairs committee, sets the parliament on a collision course with the business model of tech giants Facebook and Google.

Parliamentarians also backed a call for the Commission to look at options for setting up a European entity to monitor and impose fines to ensure compliance with rebooted digital rules — voicing support for a single, pan-EU Internet regulator to keep platforms in line.

The votes by the elected representatives of EU citizens are non-binding but send a clear signal to Commission lawmakers who are busy working on an update to existing ecommerce rules, via the forthcoming Digital Service Act (DSA) package — due to be introduced next month.

The DSA is intended to rework the regional rule book for digital services, including tackling controversial issues such as liability for user-generated content and online disinformation. And while only the Commission can propose laws, the DSA will need to gain the backing of the EU parliament (and the Council) if it is to go the legislative distance so the executive needs to take note of MEPs’ views.

Battle over adtech

The mass surveillance of Internet users for ad targeting — a space that’s dominated by Google and Facebook — looks set to be a major battleground as Commission lawmakers draw up the DSA package.

Last month Facebook’s policy VP Nick Clegg, a former MEP himself, urged regional lawmakers to look favorably on a business model he couched as “personalized advertising” — arguing that behavioral ad targeting allows small businesses to level the playing field with better resourced rivals.

However the legality of the model remains under legal attack on multiple fronts in the EU.

Scores of complaints have been lodged with EU data protection agencies over the mass exploitation of Internet users’ data by the adtech industry since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) begun being applied — with complaints raising questions over the lawfulness of the processing and the standard of consent claimed.

Just last week, a preliminary report by Belgium’s data watchdog found that a flagship tool for gathering Internet users’ consent to ad tracking that’s operated by the IAB Europe fails to meet the required GDPR standard.

The use of Internet users’ personal data in the high velocity information exchange at the core of programmatic’s advertising’s real-time-bidding (RTB) process is also being probed by Ireland’s DPC, following a series of complaints. The UK’s ICO has warned for well over a year of systemic problems with RTB too.

Meanwhile some of the oldest unresolved GDPR complaints pertain to so-called ‘forced consent’ by Facebook  — given GDPR’s requirement that for consent to be lawful it must be freely given. Yet Facebook does not offer any opt-out from behavioral targeting; the ‘choice’ it offers is to use its service or not use it.

Google has also faced complaints over this issue. And last year France’s CNIL fined it $57M for not providing sufficiently clear info to Android users over how it was processing their data. But the key question of whether consent is required for ad targeting remains under investigation by Ireland’s DPC almost 2.5 years after the original GDPR complaint was filed — meaning the clock is ticking on a decision.

And still there’s more: Facebook’s processing of EU users’ personal data in the US also faces huge legal uncertainty because of the clash between fundamental EU privacy rights and US surveillance law.

A major ruling (aka Schrems II) by Europe’s top court this summer has made it clear EU data protection agencies have an obligation to step in and suspend transfers of personal data to third countries when there’s a risk the information is not adequately protected. This led to Ireland’s DPC sending Facebook a preliminary order to suspend EU data transfers.

Facebook has used the Irish courts to get a stay on that while it seeks a judiciary review of the regulator’s process — but the overarching legal uncertainty remains. (Not least because the complainant, angry that data continues to flow, has also been granted a judicial review of the DPC’s handling of his original complaint.)

There has also been an uptick in EU class actions targeting privacy rights, as the GDPR provides a framework that litigation funders feel they can profit off of.

All this legal activity focused on EU citizens’ privacy and data rights puts pressure on Commission lawmakers not to be seen to row back standards as they shape the DSA package — with the parliament now firing its own warning shot calling for tighter restrictions on intrusive adtech.

It’s not the first such call from MEPs, either. This summer the parliament urged the Commission to “ban platforms from displaying micro-targeted advertisements and to increase transparency for users”. And while they’ve now stepped away from calling for an immediate outright ban, yesterday’s votes were preceded by more detailed discussion — as parliamentarians sought to debate in earnest with the aim of influencing what ends up in the DSA package.

Ahead of the committee votes, online ad standards body, the IAB Europe, also sought to exert influence — putting out a statement urging EU lawmakers not to increase the regulatory load on online content and services.

“A facile and indiscriminate condemnation of ‘tracking’ ignores the fact that local, generalist press whose investigative reporting holds power to account in a democratic society, cannot be funded with contextual ads alone, since these publishers do not have the resources to invest in lifestyle and other features that lend themselves to  contextual targeting,” it suggested.

“Instead of adding redundant or contradictory provisions to the current rules, IAB Europe urges EU policymakers and regulators to work with the industry and support existing legal compliance standards such as the IAB Europe Transparency & Consent Framework [TCF], that can even help regulators with enforcement. The DSA should rather tackle clear problems meriting attention in the online space,” it added in the statement last month.

However, as we reported last week, the IAB Europe’s TCF has been found not to comply with existing EU standards following an investigation by the Belgium DPA’s inspectorate service — suggesting the tool offers quite the opposite of ‘model’ GDPR compliance. (Although a final decision by the DPA is pending.)

The EU parliament’s Civil Liberties committee also put forward a non-legislative resolution yesterday, focused on fundamental rights — including support for privacy and data protection — that gained MEPs’ backing.

Its resolution asserted that microtargeting based on people’s vulnerabilities is problematic, as well as raising concerns over the tech’s role as a conduit in the spreading of hate speech and disinformation.

The committee got backing for a call for greater transparency on the monetisation policies of online platforms.

‘Know your business customer’

Other measures MEPs supported in the series of votes yesterday included a call to set up a binding ‘notice-and-action’ mechanism so Internet users can notify online intermediaries about potentially illegal online content or activities — with the possibility of redress via a national dispute settlement body.

While MEPs rejected the use of upload filters or any form of ex-ante content control for harmful or illegal content. — saying the final decision on whether content is legal or not should be taken by an independent judiciary, not by private undertakings.

They also backed dealing with harmful content, hate speech and disinformation via enhanced transparency obligations on platforms and by helping citizens acquire media and digital literacy so they’re better able to navigate such content.

A push by the parliament’s Internal Market Committee for a ‘Know Your Business Customer’ principle to be introduced — to combat the sale of illegal and unsafe products online — also gained MEPs’ backing, with parliamentarians supporting measures to make platforms and marketplaces do a better job of detecting and taking down false claims and tackling rogue traders.

Parliamentarians also supported the introduction of specific rules to prevent (not merely remedy) market failures caused by dominant platform players as a means of opening up markets to new entrants — signalling support for the Commission’s plan to introduce ex ante rules for ‘gatekeeper’ platforms.

Liability for ‘high risk’ AI

The parliament also backed a legislative initiative recommending rules for AI — urging Commission lawmakers to present a new legal framework outlining the ethical principles and legal obligations to be followed when developing, deploying and using artificial intelligence, robotics and related technologies in the EU including for software, algorithms and data.

The Commission has made it clear it’s working on such a framework, setting out a white paper this year — with a full proposal expected in 2021.

MEPs backed a requirement that ‘high-risk’ AI technologies, such as those with self-learning capacities, be designed to allow for human oversight at any time — and called for a future-oriented civil liability framework that would make those operating such tech strictly liable for any resulting damage.

The parliament agreed such rules should apply to physical or virtual AI activity that harms or damages life, health, physical integrity, property, or causes significant immaterial harm if it results in “verifiable economic loss”.

Study finds most big open-source startups outside Bay Area, many European, and avoiding VC

By Mike Butcher

Over 90% of the fastest-growing open-source companies in 2020 were founded outside the San Francisco Bay Area, and 12 out of the top 20 originate in Europe, according to a new study. The “ROSS Index”, created by Runa Capital lists the fastest-growing open-source startups with public repositories on Github every quarter.

Interestingly, the company judged to be the fastest-growing on the latest list, Plausible, is an ‘open startup’ (all its metrics are published, including revenues) and states on its website that it is “not interested in raising funds or taking investment. Not from individuals, not from institutions and not from venture capitalists. Our business model has nothing to do with collecting and analyzing huge amounts of personal information from web users and using these behavioral insights to sell advertisements.” It says it builds a self-sustainable “privacy-friendly alternative to very popular and widely used surveillance capitalism web analytics tools”.

Admittedly, ‘Github stars’ are not a totally perfect metric to measure the product-market fit of open-source companies. However, the research shows a possible interesting trend away from the VC-backed startups of the last ten years.

There have been previous attempts to create similar lists. In 2017 Battery Ventures published its own BOSS Index, but the index was abandoned. In September 2020 Accel revealed its Open100 market map, which included many open-source startups.

The high churn rates at Github mean the list of companies will change significantly every quarter. For instance, this recent finding by ROOS has only four companies that were mentioned in the previous list (Q2 2020): Hugging Face, Meili, Prisma and Framer.

Of course, open-source doesn’t mean these companies will never monetize or not go on to raise venture capital.

And Runa Capital clearly has an interest in publishing the list. It has invested in several open-source startups, including Nginx (acquired by F5 Networks for $670M), MariaDB and N8N, and recently raised a $157M fund aimed at open-source startups.

French TV networks team up to launch streaming service Salto

By Romain Dillet

There’s a new streaming service in France called Salto. The companies behind the new service have been around for a while though. Salto is a joint initiative between TF1, France Télévisions and M6 — three major TV networks.

Those companies already had their own apps with live TV and ad-supported catch-up content. And of course, you can access content from these networks from your set-top box. But they’re trying something new with Salto.

For now, Salto is mostly an ad-free combination of all the individual apps from TF1, France Télévisions and M6. You can watch live TV from 19 different channels. You can play catch-up content from all three networks without any video ad.

It costs €6.99 per month. For €9.99, you can watch on two screens simultaneously. For €12.99 per month, you get four screens.

Such an offering probably won’t be enough to attract subscribers. That’s why Salto is slowly adding exclusive content to its platform as well. Salto is also going to be a good way to access content for kids in a dedicated section.

You can see some TV shows before they air on TV, such as an adaption from Agatha Christies’ ‘And Then There Were None’, the new season of Fargo. There are also some classic shows, such as Parks & Recreation and Seinfeld.

Who will be subscribing to Salto then? If you mostly watch live TV and you already know how to access catch-up content, Salto isn’t for you. If you already have access to premium content through a Canal+ subscription for instance, Salto isn’t for you.

But if you’re addicted to reality TV and daily soap operas, Salto could be a nice service to consume your favorite show. If you don’t pay for any streaming service, it could be a cheap service to get started and access some basic shows and movies.

Image Credits: Salto

Microsoft Azure announces its first region in Austria

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced its plans to launch a new data center region in Austria, its first in the country. With nearby Azure regions in Switzerland, Germany, France and a planned new region in northern Italy, this part of Europe now has its fair share of Azure coverage. Microsoft also noted that it plans to launch a new ‘Center of Digital Excellence’ to Austria to “to modernize Austria’s IT infrastructure, public governmental services and industry innovation.”

In total, Azure now features 65 cloud regions — though that number includes some that aren’t online yet. As its competitors like to point out, not all of them feature multiple availability zones yet, but the company plans to change that. Until then, the fact that there’s usually another nearby region can often make up for that.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Talking about availability zones, in addition to announcing this new data center region, Microsoft also today announced plans to expand its cloud in Brazil, with new availability zones to enable high-availability workloads launching in the existing Brazil South region in 2021. Currently, this region only supports Azure workloads but will add support for Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform over the course of the next few months.

This announcement is part of a large commitment to building out its presence in Brazil. Microsoft is also partnering with the Ministry of Economy “to help job matching for up to 25 million workers and is offering free digital skilling with the capacity to train up to 5.5 million people” and to use its AI to protect the rainforest. That last part may sound a bit naive, but the specific plan here is to use AI to predict likely deforestation zones based on data from satellite images.

Beam is building a web browser that gathers knowledge from your web activity

By Romain Dillet

Remember Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer? Those applications from the 1990s used emphatic metaphors in their names to talk about a simple task — browsing the web. Today, nobody would say that Google Chrome is a web explorer.

Browsing the web has become an effortless — and often mindless — task. You grab your phone or computer, you open a new tab and you type a few words in the address bar.

Beam, a new startup founded by Dom Leca and Sébastien Métrot, is working on a brand new app that is both a web browser and a note app. Dom Leca previously founded Sparrow, an email app for macOS and iOS that was acquired by Google in 2012. Sébastien Métrot has been working for Apple for several years.

“Everybody complains that Instagram and Facebook fry your brain and make you waste time,” Leca told me. And yet, web browsers represent infinite knowledge and infinite possibilities.

If you’re very passionate about a niche topic, chances are you can learn a ton of things by reading stuff, watching videos, interacting on forums and more. But when you close your browser window, everything disappears.

Sure, there’s a web history feature — but it’s a long list of links with no connection. Sure, you can bookmark pages or take notes in another app — but it’s a cumbersome process.

More importantly, you might not know what’s important and what’s not. Most passion projects start with meaningless search queries.

Beam’s mysterious logo. Image Credits: Beam

Beam aims to bring meaning to your web history. Every time you search for something, it creates a new note card. Beam passively follows users as they click on links, open new pages and spend time looking at stuff.

When you close the tab, you have a new card — your search query is the title of the card and you can see all links under that note. You can then add text, remove links that weren’t that relevant, etc.

By combining passive note creation with a tiny nudge when you close a tab, you get to reflect on your web activity. It’s a way to learn more about yourself and your habits. Sure, you may realize that you waste a ton of time. But you might also realize that you care more than you thought about cooking and Russian classical music.

“From a certain point of view, I’m designing this for people who don’t take notes,” Leca said.

But even if you use a note app, they interrupt you as you need to switch between multiple apps. Leca invested in Roam Research and likes it a lot. But he doesn’t think it solves that amnesia affect when you browse the web.

The startup is already thinking about ways to expand beyond that simple concept. You could imagine a way to interact with content directly from your notes — click on a YouTube link to view the video directly in your card, click on a podcast link to see an automated transcript, etc.

Eventually, Beam could let you share cards with other users. You could browse other user profiles based on matches with your interests.

Beam is leveraging WebKit as the browser engine and is working on a Mac app for now. It’s going to take a few months before a public release, but it’s going to be an interesting company to follow.

The company raised $3.5 million (€3 million) from Spark, Alven, C4V, Amaranthine, Tiny Capital (Andrew Wilkinson), Tiny vc, Secret Fund, Antoine Martin, Simon Dawlat, Nicolas Cohen and Spetses. Loren Brichter (remember Tweetie for Mac?) and Oliver Reichenstein (iA Writer) are advising the company.

As startups accelerate in record Q3, Europe and Asia rack up huge VC results

By Alex Wilhelm

Venture capital activity in Europe and Asia saw a strong return to form in Q3, data indicates.

The two continents enjoyed more venture capital investment into their local startups than in some time, underscoring that strong VC results the United States saw in the third quarter were not a fluke, but part of a broader trend.


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Data compiled by CB Insights shows a global acceleration in the number of dollars venture capitalists are putting to work around the globe as 2020 chews through its second half. The record figures that Q3 supplied stand in stark contrast to the fear that overtook startup-land in late Q1 and early Q2, when COVID-19 threw some young technology companies surprise turbulence.

But the dip in venture capital activity was short-lived. As many startups sold software, they found their wares suddenly in greater demand; across a host of verticals, startups benefited from an accelerated digital transformation as the world adapted to a new work environment. Aside from clear winners like video conferencing tools, other categories from remote learning to security tooling also got a bump.

The COVID-tailwind, as it is sometimes called, does not appear to be specific to the United States or North America. Instead, given what the venture capital data states, we can infer that startups the world around are enjoying a similar boost.1

Let’s get into the numbers to better understand what’s up in Europe and Asia. (As an aside, if you have data on African startups’ venture capital results, please email me as I am starting to poke around for a more global picture. Recent deal activity makes it plain that American media needs to do more and better reporting on the continent.)

A strong Q3

The venture capital world’s center of gravity still lands somewhere in the United States, but here’s how the three continents managed in Q3 2020, looking at their raised venture capital dollars:

  • North America: $37 billion
  • Asia: $24 billion
  • Europe: $9 billion

Asia’s result was its best since at least Q4 2018, as far back as our dataset goes. Europe’s total tied its high-water mark set in Q2 2019. But as a combined pair, venture capital outside North America might have just had its best quarter in years, if not ever.

Here’s the data in graphical format:

Via CB Insights, shared with permission.

Pickle app puts on users, as millennials/Gen-Z latch onto location apps to fight Covid lockdowns

By Mike Butcher

As the coming of winter combined with the coronavirus continues to put new restrictions on peoples’ movements, location-based apps are on the rise again. People are looking to find out who is close to them. Who is in their community. People are understandably looking for new friends and resources close to them.

Apps that connect young mums locally (Pumpspotting, Peanut), professionals (Fishbowl, Lunchclub), Jetset daters (Raya, Bumble), digital nomads (Homeis), locals (Nextdoor ) and millennials (Friended) are all being dialed-up.

And with government lockdowns coming back for their “2nd album” the UK’s millennials and Gen-Zs are increasingly turning to location-based apps to try and hang out with each other and burst the so-called ‘rule of six’ bubble, whether the government wants them to or not.

Pickle is fast making a name for itself amongst an estimated 350,000 millennials and Gen-Zs for that reason. After starting out as a taskrabbit-style app for Gen-Z, it is now seeing growth as an app for that generation to find fellow travelers locally, even as their normal travel has been curtailed by COVID-19.

Founder Daneh Westropp says: “Loneliness is the number one fear of young people today – ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. 71% of millennials reported feeling lonely [survey conducted by Cigna] and 69% of millennials experience FOMO when they can’t attend something that their family or friends are going to [study by Eventbrite]. So it comes as no surprise that people genuinely hate doing certain activities alone.” That’s why, she says, Pickle is climbing up app-store rankings.

Westropp understands the feeling of alienation. She ran away from Tehran during the 1988 Iran/Iraq war with her mother and sister, and was raised by a single mother who suffered from loneliness and depression. After dropping out of school at the age of 15 she went on to join the ranks of other entrepreneurs.

But a few problems remain with the Pickle app that are cause for concern. It has no 2FA for starters. Plus, the lack of regulation or content filtering means it’s anyone’s guess who users might be arranging to meet. Those are big red flags for the average observer.

Whether Gen-Z cares or not during a global pandemic that has shut down their lives, remains to be seen.

Stotles secures funding for platform which brings transparency to government tenders, contracts

By Mike Butcher

The public sector usually publishes its business opportunities in the form of ‘tenders,’ to increase transparency to the public. However, this data is scattered, and larger businesses have access to more information, giving them opportunities to grab contracts before official tenders are released. We have seen the controversy around UK government contracts going to a number of private consultants who have questionable prior experience in the issues they are winning contracts on.

And public-to-private sector business makes up 14% of global GDP, and even a 1% improvement could save €20B for taxpayers per year, according to the European Commission .

Stotles is a new UK startup technology that turns fragmented public sector data — such as spending, tenders, contracts, meeting minutes, or news releases — into a clearer view of the market, and extracts relevant early signals about potential opportunities.

It’s now raised a £1.4m seed round led by Speedinvest, with participation from 7Percent Ventures, FJLabs, and high-profile angels including Matt Robinson, co-founder of GoCardless and CEO at Nested; Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, COO at Go -Cardless; Charlie Songhurst, former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft; Will Neale, founder of Grabyo; and Akhil Paul. It received a previous investment from Seedcamp last year.

Stotles’ founders say they had “scathing” experiences dealing with public procurement in their previous roles at organizations like Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum.

The private beta has been open for nine months, and is used by companies including UiPath, Freshworks, Rackspace, and Couchbase. With this funding announcement, they’ll be opening up an early access program.

Competitors include: Global Data, Contracts Advance, BIP Solutions, Spend Network/Open Opps, Tussel, TenderLake. However, most of the players out there are focused on tracking cold tenders, or providing contracting data for periodic generic market research.

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