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VTEX, an e-commerce platform used by Walmart, raises $140M led by SoftBank’s LatAm fund

By Ingrid Lunden

E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management, front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.

The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers; Riverwood continues to be a backer, the company said.

Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.

VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.

This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas and property tech startup QuintoAndar.

The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered), and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.

“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”

Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the U.S. (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.

There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).

E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point: While VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relatively small return on that — $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.

“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region are now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.’ ” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”

Pitch OUT of Palace — Duke of York steps down from Pitch@Palace as event goes independent

By Mike Butcher

Prince Andrew, The Duke of York, is to completely step down from his role as head of the Pitch@Palace initiative he set up at Buckingham Palace to showcase entrepreneurs, and the operation will be relaunched as ‘Pitch’ without any royal involvement, according to a well-placed source close.

Despite indications on Thursday that the Duke had decided to stay on in the private sector after stepping aside from all public duties, TechCrunch understands there is to be “no further royal involvement” according.

This week, Pitch@Palace’s major sponsors – including Barclays Bank – were reportedly furious that the Duke had declined to resign. Other backers including KPMG, Standard Chartered and Bosch pulled out earlier this week. Mark Eavis, a director of Pitch@Palace who runs an advertising agency, quit his role on Tuesday.

The Duke, who founded Pitch@Palace, which matches investors and coprorate partners with startup companies, was previously due to host a Pitch@Palace event at St James’s Palace next month. But a planned trip to Bahrain to promote the event was canceled on Thursday night amid the furor surrounding his disastrous BBC Newsnight interview.

Yesterday royal sources said Pitch@Palace would be moved to his “private portfolio”. But it’s understood that previous sponsors have won the battle to force the Prince to resign from the initiative completely.

Pitch@Palace will now be rebranded as “Pitch” by the directors, who are headed up by Amanda Thirsk, formerly the Prince’s private secretary, a role now abolished after the Duke stepped down from public duties.

The Duke was the “significant” controller of Pitch@Palace Global Ltd, the private company set up to run the events. A controversial clause in the terms and conditions, recently revealed on Twitter, showed that it was entitled to a 2% equity share of any company that went through the Pitch@Palace programme for three years, has, say sources, been removed from the conditions to apply.

One VC I spoke to about the terms said he was “aghast” that such a clause had been inserted in the application document.

A source told TechCrunch that the terms had “never been actioned” and would no longer continue with the new Pitch entity.

Pitch@Palace was a glitzy event, using all the prestige of its royal connections – soldiers from the Household regiment as part of the theatrical staging – to showcase often over-looked startups and entrepreneurs. Although venture capitalists attended early versions of the event when it launched in 2014, in recent years its switch into more impact-led companies and charities had meant institutional investors tended to steer clear.

Speaking to Techcrunch, a well-placed source said: “The directors of Pitch are keen to find another way for it to survive after several years as an extremely successful initiative which helped many under-served entrepreneurs.”

“In a week or so there will be a full statement about its future,” they added.

“The directors are looking for new home for ‘Pitch’ out of the Palace, as an independent, going concern.”

They also said “new sponsors are coming on board and several old sponsors are sticking with it. It would be a massive shame if it collapsed.”

According to the Pitch@Palace web site, it claimed to have generated £1.345m economic activity, 6,323 jobs, 39% of its winners were female, created 1,042 Alumni and saw 2,842 pitches.

Bellman wants to simplify property management for residential buildings

By Romain Dillet

Meet Bellman, a new French startup that wants to improve residential building management using technology and a fair amount of human interactions. The startup has been co-founded by Antonio Pinto, who previously co-founded TV Time.

“I know this space quite well because I’m the son of a caretaker, so I grew up in the caretaker’s apartment until I was 17,” Pinto told me.

In France, the vast majority of property management of residential buildings is handled by private companies. As co-owners of the hallways, elevator and common space of your building, you get together every few years to decide if you want to work with a third-party company to handle all the pesky tasks that come with property management.

And Bellman wants to replace those companies, as they often have outdated processes, which leads to poor customer satisfaction. Foncia, Citya, Nexity and Immo de France dominate the market. But due to high churn rates, they regularly buy smaller residential property management companies.

“I started having problems myself with my property management company. I sent an email just to say that the elevator wasn’t working and they replied asking me ‘hello, what’s your address?’ ” Pinto said. According to him, a CRM with the name of the co-owners, their email addresses and their building address seemed like a basic feature.

Bellman focuses on two values — responsiveness and transparency. And it starts with a tech platform. The startup has developed a service to help property managers do their job properly. In addition to centralizing information, Bellman hopes to automate some of the most repetitive tasks.

Residential building co-owners regularly receive updates via emails as this is the most direct way to reach them. If you want to download invoices and other paperwork, you can connect to Bellman’s website to see all your documents.

As a full-stack property management company for residential buildings, Bellman has hired in-house property managers. “We have property managers who have five to 10 years of experience,” Pinto said.

Each property manager can manage around 50 buildings. Bellman doesn’t want to compete on price, so it costs as much as a legacy property management contract. You can expect to pay around €20 per apartment per month for a building with 20 apartments for instance. Bellman then acts as the help desk for the building.

But Bellman wants to help its clients save money by renegotiating contracts with partners — elevator maintenance, heating maintenance, cleaning company, water, electricity, insurance, taking care of the garden, etc. There are roughly 40 contracts per building, and legacy property management companies don’t have time for that.

Bellman wants to detect if you’re paying too much for heating for instance. It could be because there’s a broken part in the heating system, and the startup could detect unusual activity.

Finally, the startup also takes care of administrative tasks, such as general meetings or collecting money from co-owners ahead of some construction work.

Bellman is just starting for now. It is currently available in Paris and nearby cities as property managers need to be able to go the building. The startup manages a dozen buildings right now.

But Bellman has already raised $2.2 million (€2 million) from Connect Ventures and around 30 business angels (Xavier Niel/Kima Ventures, Michael Benabou, The Family, Jean-David Blanc, Nicolas Brusson, Nadra Moussalem, Antoine Martin…).

According to the company, there are other European countries with a similar system, such as Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy. It could open up some opportunities when it comes to international expansion.

Wonderbly launches Wonderbly Studios to let other brands use its personalisation API for printed books

By Steve O'Hear

Wonderbly, the personalised book publisher backed by Google Ventures and best known for the breakout hit “Lost My Name,” is unveiling Wonderbly Studios in a bid to make it easier for other brands to offer personalised and bespoke printed books on-demand.

Initially, Wonderfully Studios will work with select partners to provide access to its personalisation API and help create new books using its technology and expertise in the space. However, longer term Wonderbly co-founder and CEO Asi Sharabi tells me the plan is to continue developing the platform and eventually open up the whole thing so that anybody can offer high-quality and data-infused personalised books via its API.

“Selling high quality personalised products – products that extend beyond the trivial “put my name on a mug” – is no easy task,” he says. “Meaningfully personalised products and businesses are still quite complex to operate at scale. You need a rendering stack, integration with a local print house, couriers, customer support and more. These technical and operational hurdles are a barrier to entry”.

Sharabi adds that although Wonderbly is aware of some “cool” personalised book ideas already on the market, he says that very few are reaching meaningful scale. “We hope to change all that with our personalisation platform and provide a fast, seamless experience with responsive previews and high fidelity physical products for multiple and complex personalisation logics,” he says.

The first project to come out of Wonderbly Studios is an interactive journal from Wizarding World (the Official Harry Potter Fan Club), which is a joint venture between Pottermore Ltd. and Warner Bros.

The “Keys and Curios” journal is described as full of interactive surprises and secrets that can be unlocked using the Wizarding World app. It incorporates a fan’s name, house traits and more to take them on a unique journey through the wizarding year.

The book’s contents were written and designed by the Wizarding World Digital team, and feature images from across the Wizarding World, artwork by illustrator Jim Kay and specially designed Hogwarts house covers by MinaLima (the graphic designer design team behind some of the visuals from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films).

Meanwhile, the personalisation technology, e-commerce integration and on-demand printing/logistics is powered by Wonderbly.

“The end customers interact via the partner’s e-commerce stack,” explains Sharabi. “These stacks (e.g Shopify or Magento) were not built for personalised products and customisation. Adding this functionality is hard – we know, we’ve been doing it for 5 years. This is why we developed the Wonderbly Personalisation API”.

Products created on the Wonderbly platform can deliver a “limitless amount of creativity, constrained only by imagination,” says the Wonderbly CEO. That’s because Wonderbly takes cares of a lot of the remaining heavy-lifting.

“Products are rendered in real-time at scale for customers as part of the shopping experience,” explains Sharabi. “The platform handles the complexities of integrating with e-commerce systems in a developer friendly way, making it a simple task to add a personalised product to a cart. When an order is completed a simple web hook ensures that the products are rendered, printed and shipped to the customer, while feeding into our partner’s systems for progress notification and customer support”.

The breadth of personalised books we might see come to market as Wonderbly Studios opens up further is impossible to predict. That’s because the full range of potential experiences is something that no single person or team could ever imagine, which, of course is the whole point.

As Sharabi previously told TechCrunch, you can’t scale creativity in the same way as tech — you have to allow creativity to come from anywhere.

“What if you can create a customised art, poetry or recipes book at the same ease you make a Spotify playlist?” he asks rhetorically. “What would gaming printed yearbooks look like? What if travel guides and language acquisition become more personalised? What if you can order an ‘I was there’ personalised keepsake for live gigs and festivals? These and more are questions that get us very excited”.

Omnius CEO Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is joining us at Disrupt Berlin

By Romain Dillet

When you think about artificial intelligence, chances are you think about anthropomorphic robots that can make decisions on their own. But artificial intelligence already has huge impacts in the insurance space. That’s why I’m excited to announce that omni:us founder and CEO Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

omni:us is an AI-driven service that can process a ton of documents (including documents with handwriting), classify them and extract relevant data. This way, omni:us customers can use the platform for automated claims handling.

The startup doesn’t want to disrupt existing insurance companies. Instead, it is working with some of the biggest insurance companies out there, such as Allianz, Baloise, AmTrust and Wefox.

Last year, omni:us raised a $22.5 million Series A funding round (€19.7 million) led by Berlin-headquartered VC firm Target Global, followed by MMC Ventures and Talis Capital. Existing investors Unbound and Anthemis, also participated. Up next, omni:us wants to expand to the U.S.

omni:us is well aware that relying more heavily on artificial intelligence can create some issues. Many AI-driven platform act as a sort of black box — you input data and get a result without really knowing why. omni:us says front and center that it wants to make fast, transparent and empathetic claims decisions.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.


Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is an experienced managing director with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Her strategic skills coupled with a passion for AI led her to create omni:us with the goal of redefining the way people work and how companies are handling their business operations. omni:us is as an MI-based, SaaS solution to massively optimize workflows, and empower businesses to make comprehensive data-driven decisions.

Prior to omni:us, Sofie founded Qidenus Technologies which quickly became the leader in the market of robotics and digitization. Sofie is also the patent owner of the Vshape scanner Technology and winner of several awards including the Woman Technology. omni:us is an Artificial Intelligence as a Service (AIaaS) provider for cognitive claims management. Built on a fully data-driven approach, omni:us is transforming the way insurers interact with their insured parties. It provides all the necessary tools and information to make fast, transparent and empathetic claims decisions, whilst improving operational efficiency and reducing loss adjustment expenses. The company is headquartered in Berlin, with research partners in Barcelona and representations in the UK, France and the United States. For further information visit omnius.com.

Circ, the Berlin-based e-scooter company, makes layoffs following ‘operational learnings’

By Steve O'Hear

Circ, the Berlin-based e-scooter rentals — or so-called micro-mobility — company founded by Lukasz Gadowski of Delivery Hero fame, has made a number of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

This has seen a reduction in headcount in its HQ and other regional operations. The exact number isn’t clear, although once source placed it at around 50 people, or less than 10% of employees.

Confirming the restructuring, Circ issued the following statement, citing the move to swappable batteries and a shift of focus to “efficiency and ops excellence”:

After fast growth in the initial stage now we focus on efficiency and ops excellence, including switching our operations mode to swappable battery scooters, [we] just introduced the Circ “KAISER” vehicle in a few German cities. Apart from being more cost efficient that is also more sustainable (cargo bikes instead of vans).

I managed to get Gadowski on a call and he added some further context to the layoffs, citing three reasons behind the decision to reduce headcount: seasonality, operational learnings, and indeed the move to e-scooters with swappable batteries.

“It’s a seasonal business, we have less riders in the winter than summer,” explained the Circ founder. “In winter you can expect less than 50% of your summer rides with the current micro-mobility devices. That may change in the future”.

With regards to operational learnings, Gadowski says the company needed to learn how to operate a micro-mobility service across many markets simultaneously. “Basically figure out how to be more efficient, how to run a micro-mobility operation; it’s not optimised yet and we learned over the summer”.

He also conceded that, within the micro-mobility space more generally, there had been something of a land grab strategy that is now perhaps inevitably shifting towards greater emphasis on capital efficiency. “When we started this there was a focus on time to market but now it is not about time to market but efficiency,” he tells me.

Finally, Gadowski says the move to swappable battery technology means that Circ can run more efficiently and therefore also requires less people.

“What happens at the moment is we have warehouses where we store the scooters, maintain them and charge the batteries. Vans bring them into the city hotspots, the user rides them, then vans pick them up again where they are maintained or batteries charged. And now this changes to swappable batteries operations in which the vehicles are equipped with batteries that are swappable so you charge only the battery in the warehouse… and mechanics do light maintenance in-field. This requires less people because it is more operations efficient”.

The Circ KAISER, equipped with a swappable battery system

Meanwhile, Circ shared some updated metrics with TechCrunch. The company says it has enabled approximately 10 million rides to date and has 3 million registered customers. It operates in more than 40 cities across 14 European countries, in addition to United Arab Emirates.

I’m also told that this year Circ has seen “positive unit economics” in cities in about 1/3rd of its countries (5 out of 14). “In 2020 we expect to be unit economic profitable across the group,” a spokesperson tells TechCrunch.

Circ — then called Flash — raised €55 million in Series A funding in January, with Target Global leading the round via its mobility fund.

WHILL brings its autonomous wheelchairs to North American airports

By Jonathan Shieber

After trials in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Abu Dhabi airport earlier this year, WHILL, the developer of autonomous wheelchairs, is bringing its robotic mobility tech to North America.

At airports in Dallas and Winnipeg, travelers with mobility limitations can book a WHILL through Scootaround and test out the company’s products.

Using sensing technologies and automatic brakes, WHILL’s wheelchairs detect and avoid obstacles in busy airports, allowing customers to get to their gate faster.

Based in Yokohama, Japan, WHILL has raised roughly $80 million for its technology to bring autonomy to personal mobility.

“When traveling, checking in, getting through security and to the gate on time is critical to avoid the hassle and frustration of missing a flight,” said Satoshi Sugie, the founder and chief executive of WHILL, in a statement. “Travelers with reduced mobility usually have to wait longer times for an employee to bring them a wheelchair and be pushed to their gate, reducing their flexibility while traveling. We are now providing an opportunity for travelers with reduced mobility to have a sense of independence as they move about the airport and get from point A to point B as smoothly as possible.”

The company is one of a growing number of startups and established technology companies tackling the massive market of assistive technologies.

The entire population of people with disabilities globally stands at 1 billion, and there are 70 million potential customers for assistive technology products across Europe. If demand in human terms isn’t enough to sway would-be entrepreneurs, then perhaps a recent market report indicating that spending on assistive technologies for the elderly and people with disabilities is projected to reach over $26 billion by 2024 will do the trick.

“Accessibility is a priority for Winnipeg Richardson International Airport and travel is now easier for passengers with limited mobility thanks to our partnership with WHILL. We are excited to be one of the first airports in North America to trial WHILL’s autonomous personal mobility devices with our travelers.”

Email app Spark receives update with new design

By Romain Dillet

Spark, the popular email app from Readdle, has been redesigned on iOS and Android. The interface has always been a bit busy in the mobile app. That’s why the updated app now features a cleaner design and a handful of new features.

On the design front, Spark now uses simple headers to separate smart sections, such as newsletters, notifications and personal emails. It looks better than the rounded boxes with a colorful background.

There’s a lot of whitespace now, but the company has also taken advantage of this update to add dark mode. When you tap on a thread, the thread view has been updated as well.

When it comes to new features, the app tries to autopopulate your inbox with profile pictures. Just like Vignette, it pulls images from popular web services. For instance, if somebody who emails you has a Twitter account under the same email address, Spark can add the Twitter profile picture to your inbox.

Everybody has their own way of dealing with their email inbox. That’s why Spark lets you choose the buttons that appear at the bottom of an email thread. For instance, if you use folders a lot, you can put a folder button. But if you want to replace that button with a snooze button, you can.

Spark is now a better citizen on iPadOS 13. You can open multiple instances of Spark. This way, you can work on a document with an email thread using Split View and you can open a second Spark window to check your inbox in a separate workspace. Spark on iPadOS also supports the floating keyboard and new iPadOS gestures.

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Invasive scheme spotted that foxes tracker blockers

By Natasha Lomas

Online privacy is facing a new challenge: A first-party tracker that appears to be unblockable with standard privacy tools such as adblockers.

The tracker in question was spotted being deployed by French national newspaper, Liberation, which in October promised subscribers an entirely tracker-free experience.

That promise garnered it a bunch of attention from privacy experts who dug around and found a first-party tracker embedded on its site which uses a subdomain (that’s mostly random) in order to redirect to a third party — thereby making it difficult to block (i.e. without also blocking Liberation’s own domain).

“To participate in this rather invasive scheme, a website operator need to make a decision to delegate the domain name alias,” explains Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent privacy researcher and advisor, and research associate Center for Technology and Global Affairs Oxford University.

“It’s a setting where the website the user visits delegates a domain name alias to a third-party script provider. So when the user visits example.com, the alias for the content might be Y.example.com, which in reality points to a site third-party.example.org, a third-party server.

“This setting can effectively bypass third-party trackers and adblockers, especially if the domain name part contains unpredictable strings. This is because the user is visiting a website where a tracker could work in context of the first party, the visited website.”

On Liberation’s site the tracker points to the domain of a French “marketing optimization” provider called Eulerian — which sells data-driven analytics to websites. Though Liberation claims its subscribers aren’t being tracked via this method for ad targeting purposes — but only so it can gather site analytics. (Non-subscribers will be tracked for ad targeting, however.)

The newspaper’s own fact check team have reported at length on the controversy here — covering both privacy and security implications of its use of the first-party tracker scheme, and noting that privacy researchers are working on methods to defeat the technique. 

Zooming out, while the unblockable (or at least tricky to block) tracking scheme does not appear to be being used very widely as yet, there’s a chance such a technique could be taken up more widely if sites look to replace third party tracking cookies with alternatives.

This is because web browsers have been taking an increasingly proactive approach to squeezing the operation range of tracking technologies. Mozilla recently switched on third-party cookie tracker blocking by default, for example. While, this summer, WebKit announced a new tracking prevention policy that put privacy on a par with security. Google has also announced changes to how its Chrome browser handles cookies.

“Exact prevalence is unknown but it is fair to say thousands of sites subscribe to this particular scheme from the provider now under discussion, among them some very popular sites,” says Olejnik. “The technical possibility of such as scheme is not entirely new, in fact I did see it in use in 2014. There may have been less motivation to use it until now, though.”

“Focusing on forward-outlook is sometimes useful, isn’t it?” he adds.

Asked about practical ways such tracking might be defeated, Olejnik suggests tracker blockers would need to devise a “custom mode of checks to detect these specific schemes” — as they work on “slightly different principles than other ways of including third-party content”.

Perhaps more effective at skewering such tricky schemes might be a recent ruling by Europe’s top court which clarified that user consent must be obtained prior to storing or accessing non-essential cookies, and cannot be implied or assumed.

Dream Games raises $7.5M seed to develop ‘high-quality’ puzzle games

By Steve O'Hear

Dream Games, a Turkish mobile gaming company founded by former Peak Games employees who worked together on hit puzzle games Toy Blast and Toon Blast, has raised $7.5 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is Makers Fund, with co-investment from London’s Balderton Capital. The funding will be used to increase headcount within the Dream Games team, targeting 20 employees in year one.

The company — which is yet to launch a product — is co-founded by CEO Soner Aydemir, the former Product Director at Peak Games. The rest of the Dream Games team are Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam (former Peak Games engineering leads), Eren Sengul (former Peak Games product manger), and Serdar Yilmaz (former Peak Games 3D artist).

“Most of the [mobile games] companies believe that the market is saturated, but we believe there are still huge opportunities in the casual puzzle market,” Aydemir tells TechCrunch. “There are too many mediocre mobile games, but players deserve better. We see that there are still millions of players waiting for new, well-designed and enjoyable puzzle games, and we are committed to creating great games to meet players’ expectations”.

Aydemir says Dream Games doesn’t believe in a “hit-or-miss approach” to game development. Instead, he frames the studio’s strategy as “evolution over innovation” and “execution over ideas”. This will see it develop a first flagship title that can be iterated over the long term.

“We plan to fix the pain points for players in existing games,” he says. “Our experience makes us confident we can build something truly global by focusing on a single high-quality, long-standing game instead of multiple flash-in-the-pan titles. We’d rather people were loyally playing our one game for 10 years than losing interest every six months when something new comes along”.

With regards to audience, Aydemir says Dream Games is targeting players over the age of 25 in U.S., Canada and Europe. He pegs gender distribution at 65% female and 35% male. “Our players can be from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but they are mainly average people who have routine lives,” he says.

Aydemir is also keen to flag up the burgeoning gaming sector in Turkey, which he claims is positioned to be one of the world’s leading ecosystems for mobile games.

In 2017, Peak Games, based in Istanbul, sold its card and board games studio to mobile gaming giant Zynga for $100 million. Zynga later opened a studio in the city and made further acquisitions, paying $250 million for Gram Games, the Turkish developers behind a number of popular puzzle titles. Other casual gaming studios with a presence in the region include Good Job Games, Ruby Games, Alictus, Rollic Games and Bigger Games.

Robinhood launches… UK waiting list

By Steve O'Hear

It is approaching a year since TechCrunch broke news that Robinhood was stealthily recruiting for a London office ahead of plans to expand to the U.K. And in August the U.S.-based company, which pioneered “commission-free” stock-trading states-side, announced it had received regulatory approval to operate this side of the pond, signalling that a U.K. launch was indeed imminent. Well, now the wait is almost over, with the launch of the Robinhood U.K. waitlist.

In a classic bait and switch PR briefing on Tuesday — pitched as Robinhood introducing its investing platform to U.K. customers, which a number of local journalists, this one included, took to mean an actual launch — co-founder and co-CEO Vlad Tenev and President of Robinhood UK Wander Rutgers revealed that Robinhood UK will be opening its doors early next year.

“We’re very excited to be announcing that our waitlist for Robinhood UK is going to be going live,” said Tenev. “Customers will be able to sign up for early access to our commission free investing platform in the U.K. and it’s very interesting for us because it will be our first live international market and a very important step for us to fulfil our mission to democratise access to the financial system”.

“We expect the product to be in the hands of customers in Q1 of next year,” clarified Rutgers.

When it does launch, Robinhood will initially offer what Rutgers described as “the best of Robinhood” to the U.K., including, of course, “commission-free” trading of stocks.

“It starts with our core platform: unlimited commission frees trades, no account minimums, and access to a huge range of equities from both the US and from across the world,” he told TechCrunch. “Secondly, we will enable instant deposit, instant trading, without any foreign exchange fees. Users can fund very easily from from any U.K. back using a phone or debit card and withdraw just as easily”.

In addition, the Robinhood UK app will include information to help with trading, including videos from the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters, along with features to help users keep track of their investments, such as price movement alerts, analyst ratings, earnings, and being able to dial into earnings reports.

There will also be “snacks,” Robinhood’s daily podcast and newsletter, and “Robin Hood goals,” the fintech’s premium subscription service for qualifying professional investors.

What is particularly interesting about Robinhood’s pending U.K. launch is that it won’t be without direct competition. In the commission-free investing space, Freetrade was first out of the gate, and has since been joined by Revolut and Bux.

However, arguably, regardless of Robinhood’s deep pockets, a rising tide could lift all boats in the neo broker space since these upstarts are trying to grow the market by introducing new, younger people to investing, not just stealing customers from incumbents that are charging higher fees.

“We’ve been very successful [in the U.S.] at attracting multiple types of customers,” said Tenev. “You know of course there’s your first time investor that doesn’t have a brokerage account before and discovers investing through Robinhood’s product. And, you know, we think there’s a fair number of those types of folks in the U.K. as well. And then there’s also customers that invest a little bit more actively and are familiar [with] the fees… I think will will be able to attract customers from that group as well.”

Meanwhile, an intriguing element of any Robinhood-Revolut comparisons is that the two companies share a number of investors, namely Index and DST. Both companies also have incredibly high valuations, too.

“It’s not something that we spend a lot of time talking to our investors about,” said Tenev when asked if he was concerned that Revolut is now effectively a competitor, before delivering the standard startup narrative about focusing on customers not competitors.

“We’re certainly aware of competitors and, you know, believe that there’s things that we can learn from them but generally, you know, we found that if our focus is on the customer and listening really closely to them, we build products that customers love and.. that ends up working very well”.

But how did Tenev react when first hearing that Revolut was launching zero-commission trading?

“I don’t really remember the exact reaction that I had, but certainly, you know, having competitors and people entering our space is is nothing new for us,” answered the Robinhood co-CEO.

Volkswagen’s new all-electric concept wagon could be coming to the U.S. by 2022

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

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Audi’s next all-electric vehicle, the e-tron Sportback, is a “coupé” SUV

By Kirsten Korosec

Audi revealed Tuesday evening in Los Angeles the e-tron Sportback as the German automaker begins to chip away at its plan to launch more than 30 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2025.

The e-tron Sportback reveal ahead of the LA Auto Show follows the launch earlier this year of Audi’s first all-electric vehicle, the 2019 e-tron.

Audi has delivered 18,500 of its all-electric e-tron SUVs globally since March 2019 when the vehicle first came to market. And the company is hoping to grab more, and different, customers with the Sportback.

Audi plans to offer two variants of the vehicle, a Sportback 50 and Sportback 55. The Sportback will come to Europe first in spring 2020. The Sportback 55 will come to the U.S. in fall 2020.

Audi calls this e-tron Sportback a SUV coupé, the latest evidence that automakers are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional automotive terminology. This is not a two-door car with a fixed roof and a sloping rear, although there are “coupé” elements in the design.

This is in fact a SUV with a roof that extend flat over the body and then drops steeply to the rear — that’s where the coupé name comes in — and into the D pillar of the vehicle. Then there’s the classic “Sportback” feature in the body where the lower edge of the side window rises toward the rear.

There are design details repeated throughout the exterior, specifically the four-bar pattern in the headlamps, front grille and wheels. And of course there are special interior and exterior finishes – 13 paint colors in all — and a first edition version customers can buy. The base price of the Sportback is 71,350 ($79,000).

But importantly, besides some styling and design changes, this vehicle boasts longer range and for everyone outside the U.S., futuristic looking side mirrors and new lighting tech.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a 86.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has a range of up to 446 kilometers (277.1 miles) in the EU’s WLTP cycle. The EPA estimates aren’t out yet, but expect the range numbers to be slightly lower.

The company is targeting an EPA range of about 220 miles over the 204 miles of range that the regular e-tron gets.

Audi was able to improve the range by increasing the net battery capacity. It also decoupled the front motor and improved the thermal management.

Lighting and mirrors

Audi is known for its lighting and the company has made this a key feature in the Sportback. The vehicle has a new digital matrix headlights that breaks down light into tiny pixels. The result is precise lighting that has high resolution.

Inside the headlight is a digital micromirror device that acts like a video projector. Inside the DMD is a small chip from Texas Instruments that contains one million micromirrors. These micromirrors can be tilted up to 5,000 times per second.

The upshot: The headlights can project specific patterns on the road or illuminate certain areas more brightly. And for fun, animations like the e-tron or Audi logos can be projected on a wall when the vehicle is stopped.

Check out this video to see it in action.

The safety piece of this is the most interesting. For instance, on a freeway the light might creates a carpet of light that illuminates the driver’s own lane brightly and adjusts dynamically when he or she changes lane.

Then there are the virtual exterior mirrors. This wing-shaped side mirror doesn’t have an exterior mirror. Instead, it supports integrate small cameras. The captured images appear on high-contrast OLED displays inside the car between the instrument panel and the door.

If the driver moves their finger toward the surface of the touch display, symbols are activated with which the driver can reposition the image. The mirrors can be adjust automatically to three driving situations for highway driving, turning and parking.

Neither the mirrors of the digital matrix LED lighting is available in the U.S. and won’t be until the government changes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, which are the regulations that dictate the design, construction, performance, and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

Here’s the first look inside Orbex’s Scotland rocket factory

By Darrell Etherington

European private launch startup Orbex is getting ready to start actually launching payloads aboard its own rockets, and it’s pulling back the curtains to give a look at the factory it’s using to build its launch vehicles. The UK-based company is building its rockets from a facility in Scotland, and this virtual tour gives an idea of what they’re doing to make the first rocket field by renewable, clean-burning fuel a reality.

Orbex Prime’s Stage 2 vehicle.

The second stage that Orbex will use employs bio-prone for its fuel, which will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 90 percent vs. the kerosene based fuel used on most similar vehicles. Orbex also built reusability into their ‘Prime’ launch vehicle design, and it’s 3D-printing its engines in one single piece, working with partner SLM to make this possible. That will add more structural reliability to the engine, the company says.

Orbex carbon fibre winding machine.

In service of making this unique vehicle, the Orbex site in Scotland features “one of the largest carbon fibre winding machines in Europe,” which measures around 60 feet long and which can produce its rockets with a weight savings of up to 30 percent vs. similarly sized vehicles already on the market. That weight savings means faster acceleration and more fuel efficiency.

Also part of the new facility is a large autoclave that is used to bring the rocket components to the proper temperature for setting and curing. The company says that its equipment can wind its main stage fuel tanks in just a matter of hours using this equipment, which is a big part of ability to achieve launch vehicle construction efficiency, which leads to affordable costs for small satellite launch clients keen to make use of the Prime to deliver their payloads.

Orbex’s 3D-printed rocket engine.

The 3D printer for the engines can fully print one of the Prime’s engines in just five hours – each Prime launcher will make use of six for the vehicle that will power the first stage, and a seventh, vacuum-rated one to power the second stage as it makes the final trip to orbit to delivery its payloads.

Orbex already has a number of commercial contracts in place, and expects to fly Prime for the first time sometime in 2021. It’ll look to launch from the proposed Sutherland spaceport, which is currently in development and will be Europe’s first ever mainland orbital spaceport once complete.

Sweden drops rape investigation into WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange

By Natasha Lomas

Sweden has dropped an investigation into WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, on allegations of suspected rape.

In a statement today the country’s prosecution authority said the evidence has “weakened considerably” in the almost a decade that’s elapsed since the events in question.

“I would like to emphasise that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events. Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed; however, my overall assessment is that the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation,” said Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecution.

The prosecutor had only announced in May that it was reopening an investigation into allegations of sexual offences which date back to August 2010. The investigation was earlier discontinued in 2017 but reopened at the request of the lawyer for the alleged victim following Assange’s arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after the country withdrew diplomatic immunity.

After his arrest Assange was convicted for violating bail conditions and sent to Belmarsh prison in London where he remains.

He is now facing potential extradition to the US which quickly instigated extradition proceedings against him — initially charging Assange with conspiracy to hack into a classified computer, and then additional charges under the Espionage Act.

The extradition hearing is due to take place in February 2020 after a UK judge denied a request by Assange’s lawyers to delay proceedings to give him more time to prepare his defence.

When Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 it was an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden. The WikiLeaks founder claimed he would be at risk of extradition to the US. But after spending some seven years of self-imposed incarceration in Knightsbridge he faces a major legal fight to stave off the same outcome.

Angell is a smart bike with an integrated display

By Romain Dillet

Meet Angell, a new smart bike from a French startup led by Marc Simoncini who is mostly known for founding Meetic. The company is announcing its first electric-bike today. And the goal is to make an e-bike that is smarter than everything out there.

“We dedicate half of public space to cars even though cars only represent 12% of trips,” Angell founder and CEO Marc Simoncini told me. And according to the company’s data, only 2% of people use bikes to move around a city in France, compared to 31% in the Netherlands and 13% in Germany.

So there’s a market opportunity for a newcomer in the e-bike space in France, and eventually in other major cities around the world. “Our goal is to become the global leader in the smart bike space,” Simoncini said.

When it comes to hardware, the Angell e-bike is a 14kg bike with an aluminum frame, integrated lights and a removable battery. It has a 2.4-inch touch screen to control the bike. The battery should last 70km on a single charge. There are also turn signals that you can activate with a button.

The Angell e-bike comes with everything you’d expect from a connected bike and that you can already find on Cowboy and Vanmoof e-bikes. It connects with your phone using Bluetooth and has an integrated lock and alarm system. If somebody tries to steal your bike, the bike will play a loud sound. If somebody manages to steal your bike, you can track it using an integrated GPS chip and cellular modem.

But Angell wants to go one step further with its integrated display. First, you can select different levels of assistance directly on the bike itself. You can display information on the screen when you’re riding your bike, such as speed, calories, battery level and distance on the screen. You can also set an emergency contact so that they automatically receive a notification if your bike detects a fall.

More interestingly, you can set a destination on your phone and get turn-by-turn directions on your bike. In addition to arrows that tell you when you’re supposed to turn, your handlebar vibrates as well.

“70% of the Angell project is software,” Simoncini said.

The Angell e-bike will be available at some point during the summer of 2020. It’ll cost €2,690 ($2,966) with pre-orders starting a few months earlier. Customers can also choose to pay €74.90 per month for 36 months. Angell will also partner with an insurance company to offer a theft and damage insurance product for €9.90 per month.

The Angell e-bike is just the first step of the company. Eventually, Angell wants to dedicate 5% of its revenue to a smart city fund and incubator, the Angell Lab. The company wants to create an ecosystem of startups that want to reinvent city mobility. Angell is fully funded by Marc Simoncini for now.

A 10-point plan to reboot the data industrial complex for the common good

By Natasha Lomas

A posthumous manifesto by Giovanni Buttarelli, who until his death this summer was Europe’s chief data protection regulator, seeks to join the dots of surveillance capitalism’s rapacious colonization of human spaces, via increasingly pervasive and intrusive mapping and modelling of our data, with the existential threat posed to life on earth by manmade climate change.

In a dense document rich with insights and ideas around the notion that “data means power” — and therefore that the unequally distributed data-capture capabilities currently enjoyed by a handful of tech platforms sums to power asymmetries and drastic social inequalities — Buttarelli argues there is potential for AI and machine learning to “help monitor degradation and pollution, reduce waste and develop new low-carbon materials”. But only with the right regulatory steerage in place.

“Big data, AI and the internet of things should focus on enabling sustainable development, not on an endless quest to decode and recode the human mind,” he warns. “These technologies should — in a way that can be verified — pursue goals that have a democratic mandate. European champions can be supported to help the EU achieve digital strategic autonomy.”

“The EU’s core values are solidarity, democracy and freedom,” he goes on. “Its conception of data protection has always been the promotion of responsible technological development for the common good. With the growing realisation of the environmental and climatic emergency facing humanity, it is time to focus data processing on pressing social needs. Europe must be at the forefront of this endeavour, just as it has been with regard to individual rights.”

One of his key calls is for regulators to enforce transparency of dominant tech companies — so that “production processes and data flows are traceable and visible for independent scrutiny”.

“Use enforcement powers to prohibit harmful practices, including profiling and behavioural targeting of children and young people and for political purposes,” he also suggests.

Another point in the manifesto urges a moratorium on “dangerous technologies”, citing facial recognition and killer drones as examples, and calling generally for a pivot away from technologies designed for “human manipulation” and toward “European digital champions for sustainable development and the promotion of human rights”.

In an afterword penned by Shoshana Zuboff, the US author and scholar writes in support of the manifesto’s central tenet, warning pithily that: “Global warming is to the planet what surveillance capitalism is to society.”

There’s plenty of overlap between Buttarelli’s ideas and Zuboff’s — who has literally written the book on surveillance capitalism. Data concentration by powerful technology platforms is also resulting in algorithmic control structures that give rise to “a digital underclass… comprising low-wage workers, the unemployed, children, the sick, migrants and refugees who are required to follow the instructions of the machines”, he warns.

“This new instrumentarian power deprives us not only of the right to consent, but also of the right to combat, building a world of no exit in which ignorance is our only alternative to resigned helplessness, rebellion or madness,” she agrees.

There are no less than six afterwords attached to the manifesto — a testament to the store in which Buttarelli’s ideas are held among privacy, digital and human rights campaigners.

The manifesto “goes far beyond data protection”, says writer Maria Farrell in another contribution. “It connects the dots to show how data maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.”

At the core of the document is a 10-point plan for what’s described as “sustainable privacy”, which includes the call for a dovetailing of the EU’s digital priorities with a Green New Deal — to “support a programme for green digital transformation, with explicit common objectives of reducing inequality and safeguarding human rights for all, especially displaced persons in an era of climate emergency”.

Buttarelli also suggests creating a forum for civil liberties advocates, environmental scientists and machine learning experts who can advise on EU funding for R&D to put the focus on technology that “empowers individuals and safeguards the environment”.

Another call is to build a “European digital commons” to support “open-source tools and interoperability between platforms, a right to one’s own identity or identities, unlimited use of digital infrastructure in the EU, encrypted communications, and prohibition of behaviour tracking and censorship by dominant platforms”.

“Digital technology and privacy regulation must become part of a coherent solution for both combating and adapting to climate change,” he suggests in a section dedicated to a digital Green New Deal — even while warning that current applications of powerful AI technologies appear to be contributing to the problem.

“AI’s carbon footprint is growing,” he points out, underlining the environmental wastage of surveillance capitalism. “Industry is investing based on the (flawed) assumption that AI models must be based on mass computation.

“Carbon released into the atmosphere by the accelerating increase in data processing and fossil fuel burning makes climatic events more likely. This will lead to further displacement of peoples and intensification of calls for ‘technological solutions’ of surveillance and border controls, through biometrics and AI systems, thus generating yet more data. Instead, we need to ‘greenjacket’ digital technologies and integrate them into the circular economy.”

Another key call — and one Buttarelli had been making presciently in recent years — is for more joint working between EU regulators towards common sustainable goals.

“All regulators will need to converge in their policy goals — for instance, collusion in safeguarding the environment should be viewed more as an ethical necessity than as a technical breach of cartel rules. In a crisis, we need to double down on our values, not compromise on them,” he argues, going on to voice support for antitrust and privacy regulators to co-operate to effectively tackle data-based power asymmetries.

“Antitrust, democracies’ tool for restraining excessive market power, therefore is becoming again critical. Competition and data protection authorities are realising the need to share information about their investigations and even cooperate in anticipating harmful behaviour and addressing ‘imbalances of power rather than efficiency and consent’.”

On the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifically — Europe’s current framework for data protection — Buttarelli gives a measured assessment, saying “first impressions indicate big investments in legal compliance but little visible change to data practices”.

He says Europe’s data protection authorities will need to use all the tools at their disposal — and find the necessary courage — to take on the dominant tracking and targeting digital business models fuelling so much exploitation and inequality.

He also warns that GDPR alone “will not change the structure of concentrated markets or in itself provide market incentives that will disrupt or overhaul the standard business model”.

“True privacy by design will not happen spontaneously without incentives in the market,” he adds. “The EU still has the chance to entrench the right to confidentiality of communications in the ePrivacy Regulation under negotiation, but more action will be necessary to prevent further concentration of control of the infrastructure of manipulation.”

Looking ahead, the manifesto paints a bleak picture of where market forces could be headed without regulatory intervention focused on defending human rights. “The next frontier is biometric data, DNA and brainwaves — our thoughts,” he suggests. “Data is routinely gathered in excess of what is needed to provide the service; standard tropes, like ‘improving our service’ and ‘enhancing your user  experience’ serve as decoys for the extraction of monopoly rents.”

There is optimism too, though — that technology in service of society can be part of the solution to existential crises like climate change; and that data, lawfully collected, can support public good and individual self-realization.

“Interference with the right to privacy and personal data can be lawful if it serves ‘pressing social needs’,” he suggests. “These objectives should have a clear basis in law, not in the marketing literature of large companies. There is no more pressing social need than combating environmental degradation” — adding that: “The EU should promote existing and future trusted institutions, professional bodies and ethical codes to govern this exercise.”

In instances where platforms are found to have systematically gathered personal data unlawfully Buttarelli trails the interesting idea of an amnesty for those responsible “to hand over their optimisation assets”– as a means of not only resetting power asymmetries and rebalancing the competitive playing field but enabling societies to reclaim these stolen assets and reapply them for a common good.

While his hope for Europe’s Data Protection Board — the body which offers guidance and coordinates interactions between EU Member States’ data watchdogs — is to be “the driving force supporting the Global Privacy Assembly in developing a common vision and agenda for sustainable privacy”.

The manifesto also calls for European regulators to better reflect the diversity of people whose rights they’re being tasked with safeguarding.

The document, which is entitled Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe, has been published on the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals ahead of its annual conference this week.

Buttarelli had intended — but was finally unable — to publish his thoughts on the future of privacy this year, hoping to inspire discussion in Europe and beyond. In the event, the manifesto has been compiled posthumously by Christian D’Cunha, head of his private office, who writes that he has drawn on discussions with the data protection supervisor in his final months — with the aim of plotting “a plausible trajectory of his most passionate convictions”.

Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service

By Steve O'Hear

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Wiley and Sage are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

Earth is headed for its second warmest year in recorded history (the record was three years ago)

By Jonathan Shieber

Data from the U.S. government sure seems to indicate that the Earth is warming (despite what the current leadership may say).

Apparently, the globe just experienced the second-hottest October ever recorded and is on track for the second-hottest year to date on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only are we experiencing a run of hot Octobers (this is the tenth year that temperatures have hit recorded-history highs since 2003 and all five of the highest temperature years were in the past five years), but arctic ice has also shrunk to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.

Even as the Trump Administration enacts policies to reverse course on curbing the emissions that seem to be leading to a changing global climate, federal agencies like the NOAA keep releasing reports that reveal exactly how much the planet is changing.

Earlier this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began the process of formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. As with most momentous events of the Administration, the world was notified via Twitter.

Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 4, 2019

While Secretary Pompeo was praising the nation’s approach to “reducing all emissions”, Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands hit historic record-setting temperatures and the world’s average sea surface temperature hit its second-warmest ever-recorded temperature.

Meanwhile, new projections are revising the risk that cities face from rising sea levels that are caused by melting glaciers due to warmer temperatures.

Maps created by the research organization Climate Central, and published in the journal Nature Communications indicate that rising seas could flood land that’s currently home to some 150 million people at high-tide by 2050, if steps aren’t taken to improve the resiliency of cities to flooding or reverse course on climate.

Even the Federal Reserve is waking up to climate change risks. The regulator responsible for U.S. monetary policy convened an event earlier this month to focus on the financial impacts of climate change.

“By participating more actively in climate-related research and practice, the Federal Reserve can be more effective in supporting a strong economy and a stable financial system,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board in Washington, said in prepared remarks at the same event, according to a report in The New York Times. 

Luko raises $22 million to improve home insurance

By Romain Dillet

French startup Luko has raised a $22 million Series A round led by Accel (€20 million). Founders Fund and Speedinvest are also participating in today’s funding round.

When you rent a place in France, you have to provide a certificate to your landlord saying that you are covered with a home insurance product. And, of course, you might want to insure your place if you own it.

While the market is huge, legacy insurance companies still dominate it. That’s why Luko wants to shake things up in three different ways.

First, it’s hard to sign up to home insurance in France. It usually involves a lot of emails, a printer, some signatures, etc. It can quickly add up if you want to change your coverage level or add some options.

As expected, Luko’s signup process is pretty straightforward. You fill out a form on the company’s website and you get an insurance certificate minutes later.

Luko partners with La Parisienne Assurances to issue insurance contracts. So far, 15,000 people have signed up to Luko.

Second, if there’s some water damage or a fire, it can take a lot of time to get it fixed. Worse, if somebody breaks into your place, you’re not going to get your money back that quickly.

Luko wants to speed things up. You can make a claim via chat, over the phone or with a video call using the mobile app. The company tries its best to detect fraud and pay a claim as quickly as possible. Luko also recently announced an integration with Lydia, a popular peer-to-peer payment app in France, so that your payment is instant.

Third, Luko has a bold vision to make home insurance even more effective. The startup wants to detect issues before it’s too late. For instance, you could imagine receiving a water meter from Luko to detect leaks, or a door sensor to detect when somebody is trying to get in. We’ll find out if people actually want to put connected objects everywhere.

Finally, Luko has partnered with a handful of nonprofits to redistribute some of its revenue — it has received the BCorp certification. The startup makes revenue by taking a flat fee on your monthly subscription. If there’s money left at the end of the year, Luko donates it to charities. Investors signed a pledge so that Luko doesn’t trade this model for growth.

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