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Bux, a European Robinhood, raises $80M to expand its neo-broker platform

By Ingrid Lunden

A new wave of apps have democratized the concept of investing, bringing the concept of trading stocks and currencies to a wider pool of users who can use these platforms to make incremental, or much larger, bets in the hopes of growing their money at a time when interest rates are low. In the latest development, Bux — a startup form Amsterdam that lets people invest in shares and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) without paying commissions (its pricing is based on flat €1 fees for certain services, no fees for others) — has picked up some investment of its own, a $80 million round that it.

Alongside this, the company is announcing a new CEO. Founder Nick Bortot is stepping away and Yorick Naeff, an early employee of the company who had been the COO, is taking over. Bortot will remain a shareholder and involved with the company, which will be using to expand its geographical footprint and expand its tech platform and services to users, said Naeff in an interview.

“Since we started, Bux has been trying to make investments affordable and intuitive, and that will still be the case,” he said. The average age of a Bux customer is 30, so while affordable and intuitive are definitely priorities to capture younger users, it also means that if Bux can earn their loyalty and show positive returns, they have the potential to keep them for a long time to come.

The funding is coming from an interesting group of investors. Jointly led by Prosus Ventures and Tencent (in which Prosus, the tech division of Naspers, is a major investor), it also included ABN Amro Ventures, Citius, Optiver, and Endeit Capital — all new investors — as well as previous backers HV Capital and Velocity Capital Fintech Ventures.

Naeff said in an interview that Bux isn’t disclosing its valuation with this round. But for some context, he confirmed that the startup has around 500,000 customers across the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and Belgium, using not just its main Bux Zero app, but also Bux Crypto and Bux X (a contracts for difference (CFDs) app).

Crypto remains a niche but extremely active part of the wider investment market and Naeff described Bux Crypo — formed out of Bux acquiring Blockport last year — as “very profitable.” The company had only raised about $35 million before this round, and it’s been around since 2014, so while he wouldn’t comment on wider profitability, you can draw some conclusions from that.

For some further valuation context, another big player in trading in Europe, eToro, in March announced it was going public by way of a SPAC valuing it at $10 billion. (Note: eToro is significantly bigger, adding 5 million users last year alone.)

Others in the wider competitive landscape include Robinhood out of the US, which had plans but appeared to have stalled in its entry into Europe; Trade Republic out of Germany, which raised $67 million a year ago from the likes of Accel and Founders Fund; and Revolut, which has been running a trading app for some time.

The opportunity that Bux is targeting is a very simple one: technology, and specifically innovations in banking and apps, have opened the door to making it significantly easier for the average consumer to engage in a new set of financial services.

At the same time, some of the more traditional ways of “growing” one’s capital, by way of buying and selling property or opening savings accounts, are not as strong these days as they were in the past, with the housing market being too expensive to enter for younger people, and interest rates very low, leading those consumers to considering other options open to them. Social media is also playing a major role here, opening up conversations around investing that have been traditionally run between professionals in the industry.

“We’re looking for industries that solve big societal needs and fintech continues to be one of them,” said Sandeep Bakshi, who heads up investments for Prosus in Europe, in an interview. “Interest rates being what they are, there are no opportunities for individuals to save and that represents a massive opportunity, and we’re happy to partner and be a part of the journey.”

Although there is a wave of so-called neo-brokers in the market today, Bux’s unique selling point, Naeff said, is the company’s tech stack.

In comparison to others providing trading apps, he said Bux is the first and only one of them to have built a full-stack system of its own.

“It’s not on top of existing broker, which makes it a nimble and modular,” he said. “This is especially critical because fintech is a game of scale, but every market is completely different when you consider tax, payment systems and the ID documents that one needs in order to fill KYC requirements.”

And that is before you consider that doing business in Europe means doing business in a number of different languages.

“Our system is here to scale across Europe,” he said. “The fact that we are live in five countries, and the only neo-broker doing that, shows that this modular system is working.”

Indeed, the scaling opportunity is one of the reasons why China’s tech giant Tencent, owner of WeChat and a vast gaming empire, has come on board.

“We are excited about backing BUX as they are the leading neo-broker in Europe and have been able to build a platform that is sustainable and scalable. BUX is the only neo-broker in Europe that offers zero commission investing without being dependent on kickbacks or payments for order flow. This ensures that its interests are fully aligned with its customers. We will support BUX in its journey of pursuing consistent growth for the years to come”, said Alex Leung, Assistant GM at Tencent, Strategic Development, in a statement.

Dutch startup Go Sharing raises $60M to expand beyond e-mopeds and into new markets

By Ingrid Lunden

On-demand access to electric mopeds — the small, motorised scooters that you sit on, not kick — has been a small but persistent part of the multi-modal transportation mix on offer to people in cities these days. Today, a startup out of The Netherlands is announcing some funding with ambitions to make e-mopeds more mainstream, and to expand into a wider set of vehicle options.

Go Sharing, which has a fleet of around 5,000 e-mopeds across in 30 cities in three countries — The Netherlands, Belgium and Austria — has picked up €50 million (around $60 million). The startup, based near Utrecht, plans to use the funding to expand its footprint for e-mopeds; add electric cars and e-bikes to its app; and continue building out the technology underpinning it all.

Go Sharing believes tech will be the answer to creating a profitable operation, using AI algorithms to optimize locations for e-mopeds, encouraging people to drop off in those locations with incentives like discounts, and keeping that network charged.

Germany, the UK and Turkey are next on Go Sharing’s list of countries, the company said.

The funding is being led by Opportunity Partners — a firm based out of Amsterdam that also backs online supermarket Crisp, with the startup’s founders — CEO Raymon Pouwels, Doeke Boersma, and Donny van den Oever — also participating. A previous round of about $12 million came from Rabo Corporate Investments, the VC arm of the banking giant.

In a world where we now have many choices for getting around cities — taxis, public transport, push and electric bikes, scooters, walking, carpools, car rentals or our own cars — e-mopeds occupy an interesting niche in the mix.

They can be faster than bikes and scooters — 25 km per hour is a typical speed limit in cities, 40 km per hour in less dense areas — more agile than cars, completely quiet compared to their very noisy fuel-based cousins, and of course much more eco-friendly. For those managing fleets, they less likely to break down and need replacing than some of the other alternatives like e-bikes and e-scooters.

But they also represent a higher barrier to entry for picking up customers: riders need a license to operate them as you would other moving vehicles, and in some (but not all) places they need to wear helmets; and the operators of fleets need to sort out how required insurance will work and need special permits as a vehicle provider in most places, and they can also face the same issue as other vehicles like bikes and kick scooters of being a public nuisance when parked.

That mix of challenges — and the fact that fleets can be expensive to operate and might even if all the boxes are ticked still not attract enough users — has meant that the e-moped market has been a patchy one, with some startups shutting down, some cancelling cities after low demand, or retreating over and then returning with better safety measures.

Yet with on-demand transport companies increasingly looking to provide “any” mode in their multi-modal plays to capture more consumers at more times, they remain a class of vehicle that the bigger players and newer entrants will continue to entertain. Lime earlier this year said it was adding e-mopeds to its fleet in certain cities. Uber teamed up with Cityscoot in Paris to integrate the e-moped’s fleet into its app. Cityscoot itself raised some funding last year and is active in several cities across Europe.

And while it can be work to get permits and other regulatory aspects in place to operate services, Pouwels said that Go Sharing was finding that many municipalities actually liked the idea of bringing in more e-mopeds as an eco-friendly alternative to more vehicles — the idea being to provide a transport option to people who are not interested in kick-scooters or bikes and might have driven their own cars, meaning they already have licenses.

The eco-friendly option is also motivating how the company is planning out other parts of its strategy:

“What we have heard from regulators is that they want to motivate people to walk or move in other ways, for example with bicycles,” Pouwels said in an interview. “What we’ve seen with kick scooters is that they ‘deactivate’ people. This is why we see bikes [not adding e-scooters] as the healthy way of moving forward.” The plan with adding electric cars, he said, is to address the needs of people to travel longer distances than shorter inner-city journeys.

Handling supply for its services is coming by way of GreenMo, a sister operation run by Boersma that has been procuring and running a rental service of e-mopeds that are used by drivers for delivery services, with some 10,000 bikes already used this way. GreenMo recently acquired Dutch startup e-bike and a took a majority stake in Belgian company zZoomer, to expand its fleet.

9 investors, execs and founders discuss Zagreb’s startup potential

By Mike Butcher

Startups may not spring to mind when speaking about the beautiful country of Croatia. Indeed, the country is most popular as a tourist destination, and given that tourism accounted for about 20% of its GDP in 2018, to an extent, its pre-pandemic focus was mostly on growing its share of the international tourism market.

But Croatia’s entrepreneurs haven’t been quiet: Startups like Infobip and Rimac are significant local hero businesses now, and the region can boast of high-quality talent in the tech, automotive, manufacturing, and agtech spaces. With only two venture capital firms operating in the capital of Zagreb, the startup scene is still young, but the country’s relatively recent EU membership has given it access to a growing set of direct investment instruments.

The current tax framework on capital gains tax (zero if you hold the shares for more than two years) and a new ‘digital nomad’ visa are helping to attract investors and talent to the city, which is also close to some of the best beaches in the world.

Access to fresh, outside capital is always a catalyst for growth, so to get an inside look at Zagreb’s fast-growing startup ecosystem, we spoke with nine local founders, investors and C-level executives.

According to the respondents, Zagreb’s strongest tech areas include HR solutions, automotive, fintech, mobile gaming, IoT, insurtech, and AI. The city’s angel investor scene isn’t very strong yet, but that could be attributed to the ecosystem’s youth.


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The city has an excellent work-life balance, and most of the talent wants to stay there. “Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easier to land remote jobs and stay in Zagreb, which will positively impact our ecosystem,” one of the investors said.

However, with competition heating up, startups looking for larger, serious investment will probably have to look beyond the country’s borders while trying to retain their engineering talent. Luckily, an increasing number of international investors are looking at Zagreb for their deal flow pipeline.

Some top Croatian startups include: Agrivi, Amodo, Ascalia, Bellabeat, Cognism, Degordian, Dok-Ing, Infobip, Mindsmiths, OptimoRoute, Oradian, Photomath, Repsly, ReversingLabs, ScoreAlarm, Sportening and AdScanner.

We surveyed:


Lucija Ilicic, CEO, PlatePay

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Photomath, Sportening, and Mindsmiths.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Mostly revenue-oriented.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
People would choose to live and move here during the pandemic. Some of them did, especially having in mind that Croatia now has the digital nomad visa.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Investors: Fil Rouge Capital, Feelsgood, Zicer, Bird Incubator; Founders: Ivan Klarić, Damir Sabol, Mislav Malenica, Mate Riimac

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
The Croatian startup ecosystem really grew during last year and has huge potential. I see it as a perfect place for digital nomads, home of a few new unicorns and a European center for AI solutions development.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Sportening, Mindsmiths, and of course, PlatePay.

 

Julien Coustaury, partner, Fil Rouge Capital

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Strong in fintech, automotive, insurtech, and AI. We are excited that the whole ecosystem is growing strong with flagships such as Rimac, Optimoroute, Oradian, Infobeep, Agrivi, Tvbeat, Orqa, and Bellabeat, and our relevant funding partners with us and a new PE fund that have just been creating. There is money, talent and we have unicorns in Croatia. Very few weaknesses in Croatia at the moment, especially with the current tax framework on capital gains (zero if you hold the shares for more than two years) and the digital nomad visa. A giant leap for the region!

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Oradian, Lebesgue, Optimoroute, Gideon Brothers, Worcon, TVbeat, Orqa, Ascalia, Epoets Society, Hoss, Jade, Miret, My Valet, Sendbee, She’s Well, Spotsie, Taia, TDA, and Twire.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The ecosystem still a bit small to talk about the vertical focus. [We have] two active funds: SC ventures and Fil Rouge Capital. FRC runs an accelerator program along the YC model. The angel scene is a bit disappointing at the moment with not a lot of investments. Funderbeam [is] pretty active here. The quality and quantity is amazing at the moment in Croatia, probably a factor of the ecosystem being rather young.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
The current fiscal climate makes it very attractive for people to relocate/stay in Zagreb, no doubt. One million people here; proximity to one of the best seas in the world — all the ingredients are here to make it the beacon of the up and coming startup world!

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
FRC is definitely the main player in Zagreb; SC ventures, Funderbeam, Novak Law for lawyers, Algebra University, ZICER, Hub 385, Step RI.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
No doubt a key hub in Europe on par with Vienna.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Oradian, Lebesgue, Optimoroute, Gideon Brothers, Worcon, TVbeat, Orqa, Ascalia, Epoets Society, Hoss, Jade, Miret, My Balet, Sendbee, She’s well, Spotsie, Taia, TDA, and Twire.

 

Josip Orsolic, CEO, Lilcodelab

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
IT, automotive, manufacturing, farming (different SaaS and IoT solutions).

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac Automobili, Microblink, Five, Nanobit, Agrivi.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
It’s a small circle of people and not a lot of diversity, although it is getting better. Many new young successful investors emerged in the last few years.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
They will stay, maybe go to the suburbs, but just looking at the rental prices for flats/apartments I don’t see any shift in people moving outside of the city.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Mate Rimac, Damir Sabol, Alan Sumina, Tomislav Car, Luka Abrus.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
I believe the tech scene is going to grow more and more. Many companies from other countries are opening up engineering hubs in Zagreb. There is a lot of talent, people are drawn to tech jobs; it is heavily covered by the media. Each success is celebrated and covered by the media, so there is a feeling that tech companies are being pushed, even though there are other successful companies from other industries.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Agrivi, Parklio, Seek and Hit, Electrocoin, TestDome, Include.

Vedran Tolic, founder & CBO, Q agency

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Strongest: Online betting, HR solutions, fintech, mobile gaming, IoT.
Weakest: Gaming for serious platforms; AI solutions are still in their infancy.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
PhotoMath, Agrivi, SofaScore, TalentLyft, Jenz, and Bellabeat.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The scene is getting stronger, but for any serious investment, startups have to look beyond our borders.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Zagreb has an excellent work-life balance, and most of the talent want to stay here. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easier to land remote jobs and stay in Zagreb, which will positively impact our ecosystem.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Founders: We have many charismatic founders who are raising awareness around startups and entrepreneurship in general. They are reaching large audiences and getting attention from government, the education system and the public.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Shifting from mostly agency work for foreign companies to a more product-oriented scene — especially in AI and ML. Products will revolve around customer and employee engagement, automation and prediction of processes which are today done by a large workforce.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Photomath, Agrivi, Bellabeat, Jenz

 

Bozidar Pavlovic, managing director, airt

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
AI, SaaS, electric cars manufacturing, and software development in general.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac Automobili, Nanobit, Infinum, Five, Agrivi, Aircash, Identyum, Airt, Mindsmiths, Electrocoin, Agency 04, Oradian, Microblink, Photomath, Agency Q, Revuto, Optimoroute, Amodo, Lemax, Ampnet, RobotiqAI, and Velebit AI.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The scene is growing recently — Zagreb is capital of Croatia, thus attracting capital and people. A recent near-unicorn (Rimac, with heavy investment from Hyundai and Porsche) helped raise visibility for this vibrant ecosystem.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Even before the pandemic, Zagreb was very attractive for tech experts worldwide due to its appealing price of accommodation, security, comfort of living and relatively high salaries. I am expecting to see the masses return after vaccination.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Davor Runje, Nikola Pavesic, Drazen Orescanin, Frane Sesnic, Tin Tezak, Ante Magzan, and Luka Sucic.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
I see it blooming, mostly due to upcoming adoption of EUR as a local currency.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Amodo, Agrivi, Photomath, Identyum.

 

Matej Zelic, COO, Spotsie

What industry sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Oil and energy, Industry 4.0. Most excited to be a part of digital transformation in the old-fashioned industries.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Rimac, Agrivi, Oradian, Miret, SofaScore.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
The startup ecosystem in Croatia is still in early stages of development. The investment scene (except a few business angels) started a  few years ago backed by EU with just two VCs (FRC and SVC) without a strategic plan and focus.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
People will stay here.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Fil Rouge Capital, South Central Ventures. Mate Rimac, Damir Sabol, Frane Sesnic

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Because of micro-location, the digital nomad program, and IT talent pool, Zagreb is on the way to becoming the No. 1 tech location in CEE and Europe.

Can you recommend any companies that should appear in our global Startup Battlefield competition?
Gideon Brothers, Spotsie.

 

Miroslav Kovac, CEO, Coffee Cloud

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
IoT, software analytics, big data, coffee industry.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Agrivi, Repsly.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Very poor startup ecosystem.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
Most of the last year was in partial lockdown.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. Investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc.)
Sasa Cvetojecic, Hrvoje Prpic, Fil Rouge Capital, Bird Incubator.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
At the same place.

 

Vedran Blagus, investment manager, South Central Ventures

Which sectors is your tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What is it weak in?
Industry is very agnostic. Most of them work in B2B or the enterprise space. They lack B2C knowledge, growth/expansion plan and investor relations.

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
AdScanner, Agrivi, ReversingLabs, TalentLyft, Sportening, Codemap, Gideon Brothers.

What are the tech investors like? What is the investment scene like in your city? What’s their focus?
Two VCs operating – Fil Rouge Capital (Pre-Seed, Seed, Series A – industry agnostic; B2C and B2B) and South Central Ventures (Seed, Series A, B2B). In the past six to twelve months, C-level executives from corporates started investing in startups in early stages (up to EUR 200k), but keep their investments below the radar.

With the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, will people stay in your city, move out, or will others move in?
I believe that it will stay the same as it is. Development/operations in Zagreb, expansion to other European cities by opening offices there.

Who are the key startup people in your city? (e.g. investors, founders, lawyers, designers, etc)
Founders – Matija Zulj, Marin Curkovic, Mate Rimac, Marin Saric, Alan Sumina, Matija Kopic.
Investors – Luka Sucic, Stevica Kuharski, Vedran Blagus.
Lawyers – Marijana Sarolic Robic.
Media – Ivan Brezak Brkan, Bernard Ivezic.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
Founders who exited companies they’ve been building for the past 10 years will found new companies and/or invest in early stage startups. More international investors looking at Zagreb for pipeline/investments.

 

Daniel Stefanic, investor

Which are the most interesting startups in your city?
Infobip, Rimac seem to be hottest ones in Croatia.

Where do you see your city’s tech scene in five years?
There’s some incredibly smart people involved in STEM in Croatia – world class. They just need better pathways to commercialisation and access to capital.

Ornikar raises $120M as its driving school marketplace goes up a gear with car insurance

By Ingrid Lunden

A French startup that set out to bring a new approach to driver education and road safety, and then used that foothold to expand into the related area of car insurance, is today announcing a big round of funding to continue building its service across Europe.

Ornikar, which prepares people for driving tests by providing online drivers education courses, lets those users organize in-person lessons with driving instructors, provides a booking system for taking their written and practical examinations, and finally provides them with competitive rates for getting car insurance as new drivers, has raised €100 million ($120 million).

The company intends to use the funding to expand its business. Drivers education services are live today in France and Spain, while insurance is offered today only in France: the plan will be to expand both of those to more markets.

The Series C is being led by KKR, with previous investors Idinvest, BPI, Elaia, Brighteye, and H14 also participating. Benjamin Gaignault, Ornikar’s CEO who co-founded the company with Flavien LeRendu (who also jointly holds the title of CEO), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation, but we understand from a source that it is around $750 million. The company has raised $175 million to date.

Ornikar has been around since 2013 and was founded, in Gaignault’s words, “to disrupt driving education.”

Coming into the market at a time when most of the process of organizing, learning and booking your driving education was not only very fragmented but completely offline, Ornikar’s internet-based offering represented a step change in how French people learned to drive: the process not only became easier, but on average about 40% cheaper to arrange.

Ornikar’s driving education business today includes not just online course materials and booking services, but a network of instructors across 1,000 towns and cities in France, and a business that launched last year in Spain, under the Onroad brand. Some 1.5 million people have taken Ornikar’s driving education courses to date, with another 2 million using its driving school, with growth accelerating: 420,000 new customers signed up with Ornikar in the last year alone.

Last year was a tricky one for companies in the business of transportation. People were generally staying put and not traveling anywhere, but when they were getting around, they wanted plenty of their own space to do so.

Translating that to markets like France and Spain where many towns will have solid public transportation and taxi services, people might have opted to use these less, looking instead to private vehicles in their place. And translating that to Ornikar, Gaignault said that people being at home more, and looking to use the time productively with a view to driving more in the future, the startup saw business growing by 30% each month last year.

Interestingly, it was in the middle of the pandemic that Ornikar launched its car insurance product, which came out of the same impetus as the driver education services: it was built to fill a hole in the market rethought with Ornikar’s users in mind.

Car insurance in France — a €17 billion ($20 billion) market annually — is dominated by big players, and when it comes to first-time drivers and looking for competitive rates, “the bigger companies are not comfortable with user experience,” said Gaignault. “It’s pretty poor and not aligned with expectations of the customers.”

The car insurance product — sold as Ornikar Assurance — is now on track to hit some 20,000 users by August (when it will have been in the market for a year).

While it accounts today for a small fraction of Ornikar’s revenues compared to its driver education platform, that take up — not just from alums of Ornikar’s drivers ed, but from those who had never used an Ornikar service before — is a good sign that it’s on to something big, Gaignault said.

“In October we noticed that 80% of our new insurance customers were not coming from Ornikar but from social media, Google ads and other outside sources,” he said. “That’s why we decided to create a new business unit and explore a business as an insuretech.”

But, he added, that will not be at the expense of the driving education: the two go hand in hand for a common goal of improving how people drive and improving road safety. Indeed, Gaignault said he envisions a time when one will feed into the other: not only will the driving school serve as a way of bringing in new insurance customers, but insurance rates can be impacted by how many driving courses a person takes to keep their knowledge of the driving code and best practices fresh.

“Ornikar has done a tremendous job creating a great experience for students and driving instructors through engaging online education courses and a well-designed marketplace,” said Patrick Devine, director at KKR and member of the Next Generation Technology Growth investment team. “We are thrilled to invest behind Benjamin, Flavien, and their talented team as they expand internationally and accelerate their insurance offering following the successful launches of Onroad in Spain and Ornikar Assurance.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

By Natasha Lomas

You’ll need to prick up your ears for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

Facebook faces ‘mass action’ lawsuit in Europe over 2019 breach

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on 533M+ accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.

Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it’s commencing a “mass action” to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that’s set out in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a ‘right to compensation and liability’ for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.

The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breach — via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) — and sign up to join the case if so.

Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation.

The tech giant’s European headquarters is located in Ireland — and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.

A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations — including the length of time it’s taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true of Facebook.

With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook’s business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.

(The closest it’s come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook’s EU to US data transfers. However that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC’s processes).

Since May 2018 the EU’s data protection regime has — at least on paper — baked in fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover for the most serious violations.

Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450k (~$547k) sanction against Twitter — which works out to around just 0.1% of the company’s full-year revenue.

That penalty was also for a data breach — but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook’s failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claimed to fix by September 2019 — which led to the leak of 533M accounts now — suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.

However even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog’s caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that’s only now a few days old.

Judging by past performance it’ll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak — which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class-action style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.

“Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not,” DRI writes on its website.

It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was “also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts”.

It’s clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages — with a number of other mass actions announced last year.

In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose — claiming it’s ‘old data’ — a deflection that ignores the fact that dates of birth don’t change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).

Plenty of the ‘old’ data exposed in this latest massive Facebook data leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users — and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

By Ingrid Lunden

Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather the less structured prospect of open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are not constraining ourselves to work in any one use case,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in an interview. But to roll out auotonomous systems everwhere, he added, “we realize there are areas where we will need regulatory compliance,” among other factors. The deal is non-exclusive, and both can work with other partners if they choose, the companies confirmed.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million. Oxbotica has not disclosed valuation but Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, confirmed in an interview that the valuation went up with this latest investment.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.

Walmart, until February, owned one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.

But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.

That  could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.

So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado said it will be looking to make more investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities. While this is the company’s first investment into Oxbotica, it has made a number of investments into other startups, and collaborated to work on the next stage of technology. This has included research to build a robotic arm — which robotic pickers is something it will be introducing soon — as well as the recent acquisition of two robotics companies, Kindred and Haddington, for $262 million; and investments in robotics startups Karakuri and Myrmex, and more,

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Newman, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

Newman noted that while on-street self-driving might still be some years away, it’s less of a moonshot concept today than it used to be, and that Oxbotica is on the road to it already. “You can get to the moon in stages,” he said.

Updated with interviews with both companies, and to correct that Walmart closed its deal to sell ASDA in February.

MEPs call for European AI rules to ban biometric surveillance in public

By Natasha Lomas

A cross-party group of 40 MEPs in the European parliament has called on the Commission to strengthen an incoming legislative proposal on artificial intelligence to include an outright ban on the use of facial recognition and other forms of biometric surveillance in public places.

They have also urged EU lawmakers to outlaw automated recognition of people’s sensitive characteristics (such as gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, health status and disability) — warning that such AI-fuelled practices pose too great a rights risk and can fuel discrimination.

The Commission is expected to presented its proposal for a framework to regulate ‘high risk’ applications of AI next week — but a copy of the draft leaked this week (via Politico). And, as we reported earlier, this leaked draft does not include a ban on the use of facial recognition or similar biometric remote identification technologies in public places, despite acknowledging the strength of public concern over the issue.

“Biometric mass surveillance technology in publicly accessible spaces is widely being criticised for wrongfully reporting large numbers of innocent citizens, systematically discriminating against under-represented groups and having a chilling effect on a free and diverse society. This is why a ban is needed,” the MEPs write now in a letter to the Commission which they’ve also made public.

They go on to warn over the risks of discrimination through automated inference of people’s sensitive characteristics — such as in applications like predictive policing or the indiscriminate monitoring and tracking of populations via their biometric characteristics.

“This can lead to harms including violating rights to privacy and data protection; suppressing free speech; making it harder to expose corruption; and have a chilling effect on everyone’s autonomy, dignity and self-expression – which in particular can seriously harm LGBTQI+ communities, people of colour, and other discriminated-against groups,” the MEPs write, calling on the Commission to amend the AI proposal to outlaw the practice in order to protect EU citizens’ rights and the rights of communities who faced a heightened risk of discrimination (and therefore heightened risk from discriminatory tools supercharged with AI).

“The AI proposal offers a welcome opportunity to prohibit the automated recognition of gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, disability and any other sensitive and protected characteristics,” they add.

The leaked draft of the Commission’s proposal does tackle indiscriminate mass surveillance — proposing to prohibit this practice, as well as outlawing general purpose social credit scoring systems.

However the MEPs want lawmakers to go further — warning over weaknesses in the wording of the leaked draft and suggesting changes to ensure that the proposed ban covers “all untargeted and indiscriminate mass surveillance, no matter how many people are exposed to the system”.

They also express alarm at the proposal having an exemption on the prohibition on mass surveillance for public authorities (or commercial entities working for them) — warning that this risks deviating from existing EU legislation and from interpretations by the bloc’s top court in this area.

“We strongly protest the proposed second paragraph of this Article 4 which would exempt public authorities and even private actors acting on their behalf ‘in order to safeguard public security’,” they write. “Public security is precisely what mass surveillance is being justified with, it is where it is practically relevant, and it is where the courts have consistently annulled legislation on indiscriminate bulk processing of personal data (e.g. the Data Retention Directive). This carve-out needs to be deleted.”

“This second paragraph could even be interpreted to deviate from other secondary legislation which the Court of Justice has so far interpreted to ban mass surveillance,” they continue. “The proposed AI regulation needs to make it very clear that its requirements apply in addition to those resulting from the data protection acquis and do not replace it. There is no such clarity in the leaked draft.”

The Commission has been contacted for comment on the MEPs’ calls but is unlikely to do so ahead of the official reveal of the draft AI regulation — which is expected around the middle of next week.

It remains to be seen whether the AI proposal will undergo any significant amendments between now and then. But MEPs have fired a swift warning shot that fundamental rights must and will be a key feature of the co-legislative debate — and that lawmakers’ claims of a framework to ensure ‘trustworthy’ AI won’t look credible if the rules don’t tackle unethical technologies head on.

Sales scheduling platform Chili Piper raises $33M Series B funding led by Tiger Global

By Mike Butcher

Chili Piper, which has a sophisticated SaaS appointment scheduling platform for sales teams, has raised a $33 million B round led by Tiger Global. Existing investors Base10 Partners and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC) also participated. This brings the company’s total financing to $54 million. The company will use the capital raised to accelerate product development. The previous $18M A round was led by Base10 and Google’s Gradient Ventures 9 months ago.

It’s main competitor is Calendly, started 21/2 years previously, which recently achieved a $3Bn valuation.

Launched in 2016, Chili Piper’s software for B2B revenue teams is designed to convert leads into attended meetings. Sales teams can also use it to book demos, increase inbound conversion rates, eliminate manual lead routing, and streamline critical processes around meetings. It’s used by Intuit, Twilio, Forrester, Spotify, and Gong.

Chili Piper has a number of different tools for businesses to schedule and calendar accountments, but its key USP is in its use by ‘inbound SDR Sales Development Representatives (SDR)’, who are responsible for qualifying inbound sales leads. It’s particularly useful in scheduling calls when customers hit websites ask for a salesperson to call them back.

Nicolas Vandenberghe, CEO, and co-founder of Chili Piper said: “When we started we sold the house and decided to grow the company ourselves. So all the way until 2019 we bootstrapped. Tiger gave us a valuation that we expected to get at the end of this year, which will help us accelerate things much faster, so we couldn’t refuse it.”

Alina Vandenberghe, CPO, and Co-founder said: “We’re proud to have so many customers scheduling meetings and optimizing their calendars with Chili Piper’s Instant Booker.”

Since the pandemic hit, the husband-and-wife founded company has gone fully remote, with 93 employees in 81 cities and 21 countries.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global said: “When we met Nicolas and Alina, we were fired up by their product vision and focus on customer happiness.”

TJ Nahigian, Managing Partner at Base10 Partners, added: “We originally invested in Chili Piper because we knew customers needed ways to add fire to how they connected with inbound leads. We’ve been absolutely blown away with the progress over the past year, 2020 has been a step-change for this company as business went remote.”

Feels is a new dating app with profiles that look more personal

By Romain Dillet

Meet Feels, a new French startup that wants to change how dating apps work. According to the company, scrolling through photos and reading descriptions tend to be a boring experience. Feels want to improve profiles so that navigating the app feels more like watching TikTok videos or browsing stories.

“For the past 10 years, there’s been little innovation in the industry,” co-founder and CEO Daniel Cheaib told me. “The reason why many people uninstall dating apps is that it’s boring. Profiles all look the same and we feel like we’re browsing a catalog.”

In that case, Cheaib is thinking about Tinder, but also other dating apps that feel like Tinder but aren’t exactly Tinder, such as Bumble, Happn, etc.

Feels’ founding team has spent two years iterating on the app to find out what works and what doesn’t. Now that retention metrics are where they’re supposed to be, the company is now ready to launch more widely.

A screenshot of the app Feels

Image Credits: Feels

If you want to show interesting content to your users in a dating app, you have to rethink profiles. Arguably, this has been the most difficult part of the development phase. When you install the app, it takes around 15 minutes to create your profile.

At first, only 30% of new users finished the onboarding process. Now, around 75% of new users reach the end of the signup flow.

So what makes a profile on Feels different? In many ways, a profile looks more like a story, or TikTok posts. Users can record videos, add text and stickers, share photos, answer questions and more.

“When you’re done with the onboarding process, you have consistent profiles with people sharing content about them,” Cheaib said.

Like other dating apps, there are many options when it comes to gender identity — you’re not limited to woman or man. You can then say that you want to see all profiles or just some profiles based on various criteria.

After that, you can look at other profiles. Once again, Feels tries to change the basic interaction of dating apps. Most dating apps require you to swipe left or right, or give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. When you think about it, it’s a binary choice that requires a ton of micro decisions.

Sometimes, you don’t have any strong feelings about someone. Or maybe you just want to go to the next profile. And the fact that you have to triage profiles like this leads to a lot negativity, whether it’s conscious or subconscious — you keep rejecting people, after all.

When you’re looking at a profile on Feels, it fills up your entire screen. Videos start playing, you can see what the person likes and who they are in front of a camera. You can react on some content or you can simply move on by swiping up. There’s no heart or like button.

When the startup thought they finally were going somewhere, they raised a $1.3 million funding round (€1.1 million) from a long list of business angels, such as somebody in Atomico’s business angel program, Blaise Matuidi, Eric Besson, René Ricol, Ricardo Pereira , Yohan Benalouane, Nampalys Mendy, Jean Romain Lhomme, Julien Radic and Jean Michel Chami.

Now, Feels plans to attract new users with organic TikTok posts, some TV ads and more. The company wants to reach one million users by the end of the year with a big focus on France for now. There are 100,000 users right now.

When it comes to monetization, Feels started offering a premium subscription to unlock more features. The company is still iterating on that part.

Feels is just getting started in a crowded and competitive industry. Unlike other companies, Feels has invested heavily in its own product before working on user acquisition and paid installs. It’s an ambitious strategy but it has a lot of potential as it could lead to a truly different dating app.

UserZoom raises $100M, acquires EnjoyHQ, to grow its platform to improve UX and other interactive design elements

By Ingrid Lunden

Graphic designer Paul Rand once famously said that the public was more familiar with bad design than good design. While he was referring to most of the design in the world being “bad”, these days that phrase might take on a second meaning: people typically only notice and talk about (and usually complain about) design when it is ugly, or works badly. Conversely, if it’s good, and it works, you don’t hear much.

Today a startup called UserZoom that has built a platform used by companies like Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce and many others stay off the bad design radar — with tools to evaluate their design and identify where and when it doesn’t work, and how to link it up better with bigger customer experience strategies — is announcing some significant funding to expand its business.

The company has raised $100 million — money that CEO and co-founder Alfonso de la Nuez said will be used to continue building its tools and mission to make design as critical to a company’s mission as sales might be to an e-commerce company. Alongside this, it has made an acquisition, of another experience insights company called EnjoyHQ, to expand its research operations.

“We feel companies are only scratching the surface of what they could be doing,” he said. “We think experience management could become the third system of record, similar to ERP or CRM.”

This funding is being led by Owl Rock, with other unnamed investors participating. Prior to this, UserZoom raised some $34 million. It is not disclosing valuation, but de la Nuez notes that this latest investment represents a minority stake UserZoom, that the startup is profitable and grew revenues by 40% last year, and that it’s currently on an annual run rate of $80 million.

De la Nuez and UserZoom are currently based out of Los Gatos in the South Bay Area, but the company actually got its start in Barcelona, Spain, where de la Nuez and his co-founder Xavier Mestres originally ran a more old-school user experience design consulting company.

“We had physical labs, testing sites, were we ran focus groups,” he recalled. “It was tedious and manual.”

Years of working like that, and he and Mestres and a third co-founder who has since left the company, Javier Darriba, decided to see how and if they could retool the concept as a piece of software.

Their timing was perfect: It was 2007, the year of the iPhone debut, and the smaller screen of that device, and Apple’s prowess in nailing design and user experience, suddenly got the tech world (and the rest of the world) thinking about how they, too, could rethink their own digital experiences. You might think of it as an earlier iteration of the kind of digital transformation that people talk about today.

The company was growing in Spain at a time when it was much harder for startups to raise substantial rounds, so UserZoom made the decision move to California, but Mestres, who is the CTO, still runs the startup’s engineering, design and customer support teams (100 out of 300 staff in all) out of Barcelona. The cost base of employing tech people in Spain are completely different from the Bay Area, “and it’s helped us become profitable,” de la Nuez said.

The core of the company’s product is a platform that runs what it refers to as “XIM” (Experience Insights Management), which lets customers test out any digital experience — be it something on the web, or a phone, or a smartwatch or an interactive voice service, and soon, other interfaces such as automotive. (And it’s a list that is likely to grow as more hardware and services are built.) It can recruit testers to evaluate design, product interaction, marketing decisions that the company is trying out, and so on.

That testing interface is essentially started as product development begins, the idea being that customers can apply the principle of “agile development” as they continue to work on the product, rather than leave all of that to be tested after a product is technically already completed.

As a company users UserZoom, the results of tests can be shared among different stakeholders who can make notes on how product development would work (or wouldn’t work) with how they are envisioning, say, a new sales strategy or engagement goal. It also helps develop KPIs for customers to determine how and if a design is meeting KPIs.

These can cover not just basic goals like “more conversions” or “less shopping cart abandonment” or “opting in to cookies” but also whether a design is meeting accessibility goals. (As seen with the recent controversy around Ravelry, this is indeed a growing issue and one that de la Nuez said will be getting more attention at UserZoom.)

The space of UX and testing to improve it is a pretty crowded and well-funded one, with others in it including LogRocket, UserTesting, ContentSquare, companies focusing on specific verticals, like AB Tasty and many others. What’s giving UserZoom an edge, it seems, is not just its extensive and impressive customer base, but its focus on trying to provide an end-to-end concept of design and experience and how it might fit in with a bigger business strategy.

“In today’s digital economy, the quality of the customer and user experience is the driving factor that helps businesses retain customers and generate increased revenue,” said Pravin Vazirani, managing director at Owl Rock, in a statement. “Despite this, many organizations are still unable to properly extract and manage the potential insights that lie within a customer journey. UserZoom enables companies to harness these insights and drive improved digital experiences.” Andy Lefkarites, an investor at Owl Rock said in a statement, “We see a tremendous market opportunity for UserZoom, which enables companies of all sizes and industries to continually enhance and prioritize their digital experience strategy. We are pleased to be able to support UserZoom with growth capital to enable them to seize that opportunity.”

IBM acquires Italy’s MyInvenio to integrate process mining directly into its suite of automation tools

By Ingrid Lunden

Automation has become a big theme in enterprise IT, with organizations using RPA, no-code and low-code tools, and other  technology to speed up work and bring more insights and analytics into how they do things every day, and today IBM is announcing an acquisition as it hopes to take on a bigger role in providing those automation services. The IT giant has acquired MyInvenio, an Italian startup that builds and operates process mining software.

Process mining is the part of the automation stack that tracks data produced by a company’s software, as well as how the software works, in order to provide guidance on what a company could and should do to improve it. In the case of myInvenio, the company’s approach involves making a “digital twin” of an organization to help track and optimize processes. IBM is interested in how myInvenio’s tools are able to monitor data in areas like sales, procurement, production and accounting to help organizations identify what might be better served with more automation, which it can in turn run using RPA or other tools as needed.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed. It is not clear if myInvenio had any outside investors (we’ve asked and are awaiting a response). This is the second acquisition IBM has made out of Italy. (The first was in 2014, a company called CrossIdeas that now forms part of the company’s security business.)

IBM and myInvenio are not exactly strangers: the two inked a deal as recently as November 2020 to integrate the Italian startup’s technology into IBM’s bigger automation services business globally.

Dinesh Nirmal, GM of IBM Automation, said in an interview that the reason IBM acquired the company was two-fold. First, it lets IBM integrate the technology more closely into the company’s Cloud Pak for Business Automation, which sits on and is powered by Red Hat OpenShift and has other automation capabilities already embedded within it, specifically robotic process automation (RPA), document processing, workflows and decisions.

Second and perhaps more importantly, it will mean that IBM will not have to tussle for priority for its customers in competition with other solution partners that myInvenio already had. IBM will be the sole provider.

“Partnerships are great but in a partnership you also have the option to partner with others, and when it comes to priority who decides?” he said. “From the customer perspective, will they will work just on our deal, or others first? Now, our customers will get the end result of this… We can bring a single solution to an end user or an enterprise, saying, ‘look you have document processing, RPA, workflow, mining. That is the beauty of this and what customers will see.”

He said that IBM currently serves customers across a range of verticals including financial, insurance, healthcare and manufacturing with its automation products.

Notably, this is not the first acquisition that IBM has made to build out this stack. Last year, it acquired WDG to expand into robotic process automation.

And interestingly, it’s not even the only partnership that IBM has had in process mining. Just earlier this month, it announced a deal with one of the bigger names in the field, Celonis, a German startup valued at $2.5 billion in 2019.

Ironically, at the time, my colleague Ron wondered aloud why IBM wasn’t just buying Celonis outright in that deal. It’s hard to speculate if price was one reason. Remember: we don’t know the terms of this acquisition, but given myInvenio was off the fundraising radar, chances are it’s possibly a little less than Celonis’s pricetag.

We’ve asked and IBM has confirmed that it will continue to work with Celonis alongside now offering its own native process mining tools.

“In keeping with IBM’s open approach and $1 billion investment in ecosystem, [Global Business Services, IBM’s enterprise services division] works with a broad range of technologies based on client and market demand, including IBM AI and Automation software,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Celonis focuses on execution management which supports GBS’ transformation of clients’ business processes through intelligent workflows across industries and domains. Specifically, Celonis has deep connectivity into enterprise systems such as Salesforce, SAP, Workday or ServiceNow, so the Celonis EMS platform helps GBS accelerate clients’ transformations and BPO engagements with these ERP platforms.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, companies that offer services, especially suites of services, are working in environments where they have to be open to customers using their own technology, or bringing in something else.

There may have been another force pushing IBM to bring more of this technology in-house, and that’s wider competitive climate. Earlier this year, SAP acquired another European startup in the process mining space, Signavio, in a deal reportedly worth about $1.2 billion. As more of these companies get snapped up by would-be IBM rivals, and those left standing are working with a plethora of other parties, maybe it was high time for IBM to make sure it had its own horse in the race.

“Through IBM’s planned acquisition of myInvenio, we are revolutionizing the way companies manage their process operations,” said Massimiliano Delsante, CEO, myInvenio, who will be staying on with the deal. “myInvenio’s unique capability to automatically analyze processes and create simulations — what we call a ‘Digital Twin of an Organization’ —  is joining with IBM’s AI-powered automation capabilities to better manage process execution. Together we will offer a comprehensive solution for digital process transformation and automation to help enterprises continuously transform insights into action.”

Cado Security locks in $10M for its cloud-native digital forensics platform

By Ingrid Lunden

As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent Solar Winds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active, and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.

As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $10 million in funding to expand its business.

Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.

The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.

The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.

The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes are part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: this means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.

Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)

Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.

A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”

In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”

However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.

The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.

“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.

Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like Solar Winds could have been better mitigated.

The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”

“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”

Lingoda, an on-demand online language school with live instructors and Zoom classrooms, raises $68M

By Ingrid Lunden

A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.

Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $68 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.

The company currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Shangkuan said that its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.

“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”

The funding is being led by Summit Partners, with participation from existing investor Conny Boersch, founder of Mountain Partners. The valuation is not being disclosed.

Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient.

“We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.

A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent years has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments: technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.

So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online, and it’s keen to bring more analytics and other tech into the equation to improve learning between lessons, to help teachers get a better sense of students’ engagement and progress during class, and to more — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.

This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).

“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based learning around live teachers.

There are a number of reasons for why human teaching may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner.

Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.

On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner.

Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. Students meanwhile pay for courses along a sliding scale depending on various factors like whether you opt for group or one-to-one classes, how frequently you use the service, and which language you are learning, with per-classes prices typically ranging between $6.75 and $14.30 depending on what you choose.

Students can request a teaching level if they want it: there is always a wide selection yet with dozens of levels between basic A1 and advanced C1 proficiency, if you don’t find what you want and order it, it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class. But in any case, a teacher needs to set the class herself or himself. This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.

“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”

After students complete a course, Lingoda provides them with a certification. In English, you can take a recognized Cambridge assessment to verify your proficiency.

Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.

To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.

But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.

“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.

Updated with an additional investor and a slight change in funding amount due to conversion rates.

Challenger bank N26 to offer insurance products

By Romain Dillet

Fintech startup N26 is launching N26 Insurance as it plans to offer insurance products that you can access from the company’s mobile app and website. The first insurance product is a smartphone insurance plan for German customers.

But the startup doesn’t plan to stop there. N26 says it is also working on private liability insurance, home insurance, life insurance, pet insurance and coverage for bikes, electronics and large purchases.

The idea is that you’ll be able to purchase coverage, manage your plans and initiate claims within the N26 app. As N26 already has your personal information, it should be easier to sign up to a new insurance product through N26 compared to creating a new account in a separate app.

The challenger bank isn’t becoming an insurtech company overnight. Instead, it is partnering with other companies, such as Simplesurance, for those products.

“The big thing we’re doing in Q1 and Q2 is a big focus on the marketplace,” co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf told me a few months ago. “Early on we always tried to integrate the full experience.”

N26 Insurance is the first release of this new API-driven strategy. Partners will be able to integrate their products on their own and N26 will make it easy to share KYC files (‘know your customer’), transfer money between N26 and partners, etc.

“Most fintech startups are super low frequency,” Stalf said. He mentioned mortgage as one financial product that you set up once and never touch again. These companies have high customer acquisition costs, so N26 can help on that front. For instance, if you purchase a bike online, N26 could recommend a bike insurance product after your purchase.

As for phone insurance launching today, prices will vary depending on your phone. If you spent a lot of money on your phone, your insurance plan is going to be more expensive. N26 lets you opt for annual plans to save a bit of money.

Phone insurance also contributes to the freemium strategy of N26. The company offers free and paid accounts that start at €4.90 per month. The most expensive plan, N26 Metal, costs €16.90 per month and includes phone insurance.

Some customers who might want to insure their phone might be tempted to switch to N26 Metal to insure their phone and get more features, such as travel insurance.

N26 started revamping its plans in November 2020 by introducing a new mid-tier plan called N26 You. In Germany, N26 no longer sends you a plastic debit card if you create a free account. You have to pay €4.90 per month.

Offering new products in the app and pushing users toward paid subscriptions should definitely help N26 when it comes to profitability. The startup has grown tremendously over the past few years and the company is focused on consolidating the business as much as possible now.

Kroger launches its first Ocado-powered ‘shed’, a massive, robot-filled fulfillment center in Ohio

By Ingrid Lunden

After inking a deal to work together almost three years ago, U.S. supermarket chain Kroger and U.K. online grocer Ocado today took the wraps off the first major product of that deal. Kroger has launched a new Ocado-powered customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, a gigantic warehouse covering 375,000 square feet and thousands of products for packing and delivering Kroger orders from online shoppers.

Built with a giant grid along the floor, “the shed”, as Ocado calls its warehouses, will feature some 1,000 robots alongside 400 human employees to pick, sort and move items. It is expected to process as much as $700 million in sales annually, the sales of 20 brick-and-mortar stores.

Those orders, in turn, will be delivered in temperature-controlled Kroger Delivery vans, built on the model of Ocado’s vans in the U.S. and able to store up to 20 orders. These will also be run using Ocado software, mapping algorithms to optimize deliveries along the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes.

Image Credits: Kroger

Kroger and Ocado’s partnership was a long time in the making, but the focus on what has come out of it is probably at its keenest right now, given the huge boost online shopping has had in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting push for more social distancing, has driven a lot of people to the internet to shop, opting for deliveries over physical store visits for some or all of their food and other weekly essentials.

That trend has also spelled more competition in the space, too: the likes of Amazon, Walmart, other traditional grocers getting their digital strategies in order and online players all are hoping for a piece of the market of consumers now ready to buy online.

That tide has also lifted Kroger’s boat. In a call today with journalists, Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, said that delivery had grown 150% for Kroger last year.

While some of that may well melt back into physical shopping as and when COVID-19 cases wane (fingers crossed), many in the industry believe that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak: Many consumers introduced to shopping online will stay, at least in part, and so this is about building infrastructure to meet that new demand.

(And there is some data that backs that up: Ocado CEO and co-founder Tim Steiner noted that at Ocado, pre-pandemic the average order value for the company was £105 ($144). That grew to £180 last year, and is now at £120.)

Kroger, like many brick-and-mortar players, has been building out multiple fronts in its digital strategy. Alongside Ocado, the company has also been investing in technology to boost the efficiency of its in-store operations (for example, by working with companies like Shelf Engine), and it has a grocery delivery partnership with Instacart.

Kroger’s partnership with Instacart will remain in place, not least because it covers a much wider geography than the Ocado approach, which is live now in Cincinnati, and sounds like it will also expand to Florida. While Kroger today said that CFCs will vary in size and be built on the concept of “modules” (the Monroe facility is built on seven modules), this is still a capital intensive approach compared to the Instacart model, so might overall face a slower rollout and perhaps only make sense in Kroger’s denser markets.

“The two partnerships are critical to Kroger and our customers,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s CIO, in the call today. “We expect to work very closely in strategic partnership with Instacart and with Ocado.”

Ocado, an early player that started out in the U.K. back in 2000, is seen by many as the industry standard for how to build and run an online-only grocery business.

But rather than growing by taking its direct grocery business outside the U.K., the company has been expanding its reach by way of using the technology that it has built for itself and turning it into a product — a process that is still very much in development, with the company working now on robotic pickers and other autonomous systems, along with other technology to power and make its delivery service more efficient.

Ocado’s “AWS” strategy of turning tech that it has built for itself into a product to sell to others has born fruit: it now has partnerships to power online grocery services, and specifically fulfillment centers, in Japan (with Aeon), France (with Casino) and Canada (with Sobeys). That means the Kroger rollout is now a tested model, but it’s still a very notable move for the company to break into the U.S. while at the same time giving Kroger a much-needed bit of infrastructure to better compete with bigger players in the country like Walmart and Amazon.

In that regard, it will be interesting to see how and if Kroger leverages its much bigger Ocado-powered infrastructure for its other projects. The company is working with Mirakl to develop its own marketplace for third-party retailers, going head to head with similar offerings from — yes — Amazon and Walmart.

Deepfake video app Avatarify, which processes on-phone, plans digital watermark for videos

By Mike Butcher

Making deepfake videos used to be hard. Now all you need is a smartphone. Avatarify, a startup that allows people to make deepfake videos directly on their phone rather than in the cloud, is soaring up the app charts after being used by celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.

However, the problem with many deepfake videos is that there is no digital watermark to determine that the video has been tampered with. So Avatarify says it will soon launch a digital watermark to prevent this from happening.

Run out of Moscow but with a U.S. HQ, Avatarify launched in July 2020 and since then has been downloaded millions of times. The founders say that 140 million deepfake videos were created with Avatarify this year alone. There are now 125 million views of videos with the hashtag #avatarify on TikTok. While its competitors include the well-funded Reface, Snapchat, Wombo.ai, Mug Life and Xpression, Avatarify has yet to raise any money beyond an angel round.

Despite taking only $120,000 in angel funding, the company has yet to accept any venture capital and says it has bootstrapped its way from zero to almost 10 million downloads and claims to have a $10 million annual run rate with a team of less than 10 people.

It’s not hard to see why. Avatarify has a freemium subscription model. They offer a 7-day free trial and a 12-month subscription for $34.99 or a weekly plan for $2.49. Without a subscription, they offer the core features of the app for free, but videos then carry a visible watermark.

The founders also say the app protects privacy, because the videos are processed directly on the phone, rather than in the cloud where they could be hacked.

Avatarify processes user’s photos and turns them into short videos by animating faces, using machine learning algorithms and adding sounds. The user chooses a picture they want to animate, chooses the effects and music, and then taps to animate the picture. This short video can then be posted on Instagram or TikTok.

The Avatarify videos are taking off on TikTok because teens no longer need to learn a dance or be much more creative than finding a photo of a celebrity to animate to.

Avartify says you can’t use their app to impersonate someone, but there is of course no way to police this.

Co-founders Ali Aliev and Karim Iskakov wrote the app during the COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020. Ali spent two hours writing a program in Python to transfer his facial expressions to the other person’s face and use a filter in Zoom. The result was a real-time video, which could be streamed to Zoom. He joined a call with Elon Mask’s face and everyone on the call was shocked. The team posted the video, which then went viral.

They posted the code on Github and immediately saw the number of downloads grow. The repository was published on 6 April 2020, and as of 19 March 2021 had been downloaded 50,000 times.

Ali left his job at Samsung AI Centre and devoted himself to the app. After Avatarify’s iOS app was released on 28 June 2020, viral videos on TikTok, created with the app, led it to App Store’s top charts without paid acquisition. In February 2021, Avatarify was ranked first among Top Free Apps worldwide. Between February and March, the app 2021 generated more than $1 million in revenue (Source: AppMagic).

However, despite Avartify’s success, the ongoing problems with deepfake videos remain, such as using these apps to make nonconsensual porn, using the faces of innocent people.

Uber hit with default ‘robo-firing’ ruling after another EU labor rights GDPR challenge

By Natasha Lomas

Labor activists challenging Uber over what they allege are ‘robo-firings’ of drivers in Europe have trumpeted winning a default judgement in the Netherlands — where the Court of Amsterdam ordered the ride-hailing giant to reinstate six drivers who the litigants claim were unfairly terminated “by algorithmic means”.

The court also ordered Uber to pay the fired drivers compensation.

The challenge references Article 22 of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which provides protects for individuals against purely automated decisions with a legal or significant impact.

The activists say this is the first time a court has ordered the overturning of an automated decision to dismiss workers from employment.

However the judgement, which was issued on February 24, was issued by default — and Uber says it was not aware of the case until last week, claiming that was why it did not contest it (nor, indeed, comply with the order).

It had until March 29 to do so, per the litigants, who are being supported by the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE).

Uber argues the default judgement was not correctly served and says it is now making an application to set the default ruling aside and have its case heard “on the basis that the correct procedure was not followed”.

It envisages the hearing taking place within four weeks of its Dutch entity, Uber BV, being made aware of the judgement — which it says occurred on April 8.

“Uber only became aware of this default judgement last week, due to representatives for the ADCU not following proper legal procedure,” an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch.

A spokesperson for WIE denied that correct procedure was not followed but welcomed the opportunity for Uber to respond to questions over how its driver ID systems operate in court, adding: “They [Uber] are out of time. But we’d be happy to see them in court. They will need to show meaningful human intervention and provide transparency.”

Uber pointed to a separate judgement by the Amsterdam Court last month — which rejected another ADCU- and WIE-backed challenge to Uber’s anti-fraud systems, with the court accepting its explanation that algorithmic tools are mere aids to human ‘anti-fraud’ teams who it said take all decisions on terminations.

“With no knowledge of the case, the Court handed down a default judgement in our absence, which was automatic and not considered. Only weeks later, the very same Court found comprehensively in Uber’s favour on similar issues in a separate case. We will now contest this judgement,” Uber’s spokesperson added.

However WIE said this default judgement ‘robo-firing’ challenge specifically targets Uber’s Hybrid Real Time ID System — a system that incorporates facial recognition checks and which labor activists recently found mis-identifying drivers in a number of instances.

It also pointed to a separate development this week in the UK where it said the City of London Magistrates Court ordered the city’s transport regulator, TfL, to reinstate the licence of one of the drivers revoked after Uber routinely notified it of a dismissal (also triggered by Uber’s real time ID system, per WIE).

Reached for comment on that, a TfL spokesperson said: “The safety of the travelling public is our top priority and where we are notified of cases of driver identity fraud, we take immediate licensing action so that passenger safety is not compromised. We always require the evidence behind an operator’s decision to dismiss a driver and review it along with any other relevant information as part of any decision to revoke a licence. All drivers have the right to appeal a decision to remove a licence through the Magistrates’ Court.”

The regulator has been applying pressure to Uber since 2017 when it took the (shocking to Uber) decision to revoke the company’s licence to operate — citing safety and corporate governance concerns.

Since then Uber has been able to continue to operate in the UK capital but the company remains under pressure to comply with a laundry list of requirements set by TfL as it tries to regain a full operator licence.

Commenting on the default Dutch judgement on the Uber driver terminations in a statement, James Farrar, director of WIE, accused gig platforms of “hiding management control in algorithms”.

“For the Uber drivers robbed of their jobs and livelihoods this has been a dystopian nightmare come true,” he said. “They were publicly accused of ‘fraudulent activity’ on the back of poorly governed use of bad technology. This case is a wake-up call for lawmakers about the abuse of surveillance technology now proliferating in the gig economy. In the aftermath of the recent UK Supreme Court ruling on worker rights gig economy platforms are hiding management control in algorithms. This is misclassification 2.0.”

In another supporting statement, Yaseen Aslam, president of the ADCU, added: “I am deeply concerned about the complicit role Transport for London has played in this catastrophe. They have encouraged Uber to introduce surveillance technology as a price for keeping their operator’s license and the result has been devastating for a TfL licensed workforce that is 94% BAME. The Mayor of London must step in and guarantee the rights and freedoms of Uber drivers licensed under his administration.”  

When pressed on the driver termination challenge being specifically targeted at its Hybrid Real-Time ID system, Uber declined to comment in greater detail — claiming the case is “now a live court case again”.

But its spokesman suggested it will seek to apply the same defence against the earlier ‘robo-firing’ charge — when it argued its anti-fraud systems do not equate to automated decision making under EU law because “meaningful human involvement [is] involved in decisions of this nature”.

 

Large-scale CO2 removal startup Carbo Culture raises $6.2M Seed led by True Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Carbo Culture — a startup that has scaled an industrial process to create large-scale CO2 removal using woody waste from agriculture and forests — has raised $6.2 million in seed a financing round led by Silicon Valley VC True Ventures. The round was co-led by European early-stage venture firm Cherry Ventures. Swiss climate investor Übermorgen Ventures also participated. The new funding will be used to grow the team, product development, and build one of Europe’s largest carbon removal facilities. 

Energy from the sun creates photosynthesis in plants and turning CO2 into plant matter that eventually decomposes and re-enters the atmosphere. Carbo Culture mimics this existing process, it just makes it much, much faster.

Carbo Culture describes its process as an “ultra-rapid conversion” where woody residues are turned into functional biocarbons at an extremely high temperature. The process then “locks” the carbon into a sort of charcoal that won’t degrade for 1,000 years.

As well as removing CO2 from the wood, the whole process of generating this biocarbon from the wood waste generates renewable heat which can literally be used to heat homes or drive turbines to make electricity. The left-over biocarbon product can be used in biomaterials or environmental engineering, and could replace other polluting materials or be used in gasifiers, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or perhaps in agriculture to improve soil health.

Thus, the startup sells two things as its main products: carbon removal credits and the biocarbon itself.

CEO and co-founder Henrietta Moon said in a statement: “We have this race against time to sequester billions of tons of carbon, and we’re not fully even utilizing one of the largest drawdown mechanisms in the world, the natural carbon cycle. At Carbo Culture, we’re tapping into it with a breakthrough technology that uses the already drawn down carbon in biomass and converts it for storing away for millennia.”

Toni Schneider, partner at True Ventures said: “We believe venture capital should play a greater role in creating a sustainable planet, and Carbo Culture has so many of the right ingredients for solving one of earth’s most pressing problems. Demand for carbon capture is rising, and meeting this demand will require some reimagining. Henrietta and her team have the experience, technology, passion, and palpable vision to turn this big idea into a truly impactful one.”

Sophia Bendz, partner at Cherry Ventures said: “Carbo Culture has created one of the most effective negative emissions technologies through their patented technology and I can’t wait for them to scale up and remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Henrietta, Chris, and their entire team have the inventiveness, technological know-how, and grit required to both scale and, most importantly, succeed in tackling the larger climate issues affecting us all. We are beyond excited to partner with this brilliant team and support them on their mission to remove CO2.”

Carbo Culture’s competitors include Climeworks (raised $145m) Carbon Engineering, CarbFix, Charm Industrial and CarboFex.

CTO and co-founder Christopher Carstens said: “We’ve managed to scale up production capacity 8x in volume, develop the system further, and begin testing with private labs, customers and universities. We’re now running our shipping container scale pilot plant in California’s Central Valley, where we can process over 200lbs of biomass per hour.”

The co-founders met at Singularity University’s 3-month program in 2013 at the Nasa Ames Research Center.

The underlying technology has been licensed from the Univerity of Hawaii, but, say the founders, it has been independently verified by Puro.earth, a carbon-negative marketplace

The startup recently announced its first large-scale (pre) purchase of carbon removal credits by South Pole.

Moon added: “Our cost to remove carbon is currently at above $600 per CO2 ton, and we’re aiming to drive the cost to $400 by the end of next year, and looking to achieve $200 by 2024. We’re building a scaled-up facility in the next 18 months, and it will become one of Europe’s largest carbon removal facilities.”

Carbo Culture’s additional investors include Albert Wenger, Gold&Green Foods Founder Maija Itkonen, VP at Geltor Alex Patist,  alongside existing investors such as David Helgason, Moaffak Ahmed, Lifeline Ventures, and Paul and Dan Bragiel.

The vast majority of scientists believe the planet must curb CO2 emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere at the same time, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050m for global warming to stay below 2C and void catastrophic climate effects.

Ireland opens GDPR investigation into Facebook leak

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook’s lead data supervisor in the European Union has opened an investigation into whether the tech giant violated data protection rules vis-a-vis the leak of data reported last week.

Here’s the Irish Data Protection Commission’s statement:

“The Data Protection Commission (DPC) today launched an own-volition inquiry pursuant to section 110 of the Data Protection Act 2018 in relation to multiple international media reports, which highlighted that a collated dataset of Facebook user personal data had been made available on the internet. This dataset was reported to contain personal data relating to approximately 533 million Facebook users worldwide. The DPC engaged with Facebook Ireland in relation to this reported issue, raising queries in relation to GDPR compliance to which Facebook Ireland furnished a number of responses.

The DPC, having considered the information provided by Facebook Ireland regarding this matter to date, is of the opinion that one or more provisions of the GDPR and/or the Data Protection Act 2018 may have been, and/or are being, infringed in relation to Facebook Users’ personal data.

Accordingly, the Commission considers it appropriate to determine whether Facebook Ireland has complied with its obligations, as data controller, in connection with the processing of personal data of its users by means of the Facebook Search, Facebook Messenger Contact Importer and Instagram Contact Importer features of its service, or whether any provision(s) of the GDPR and/or the Data Protection Act 2018 have been, and/or are being, infringed by Facebook in this respect.”

The move comes after the European Commission intervened to apply pressure on Ireland’s data protection commissioner. Justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, tweeted on Monday that he had spoken with Helen Dixon about the Facebook data leak.

“The Commission continues to follow this case closely and is committed to supporting national authorities,” he added, going on to urge Facebook to “cooperate actively and swiftly to shed light on the identified issues”.

Facebook has been contacted for comment.

Today I spoke with Helen Dixon @DPCIreland about the #FacebookLeak. The Commission continues to follow this case closely and is committed to supporting national authorities. We also call on @Facebook to cooperate actively and swiftly to shed light on the identified issues.

— Didier Reynders (@dreynders) April 12, 2021

A spokeswoman for the Commission confirmed the virtual meeting between Reynders and Dixon, saying: “Dixon informed the Commissioner about the issues at stake and the different tracks of work to clarify the situation.

“They both urge Facebook to cooperate swiftly and to share the necessary information. It is crucial to shed light on this leak that has affected millions of European citizens.”

It is up to the Irish data protection authority to assess this case. The Commission remains available if support is needed. The situation will also have to be further analyzed for the future. Lessons should be learned,” she added.

The revelation that a vulnerability in Facebook’s platform enabled unidentified ‘malicious actors’ to extract the personal data (including email addresses, mobile phone numbers and more) of more than 500 million Facebook accounts up until September 2019 — when Facebook claims it fixed the issue — only emerged in the wake of the data being found for free download on a hacker forum earlier this month.

All 533,000,000 Facebook records were just leaked for free.

This means that if you have a Facebook account, it is extremely likely the phone number used for the account was leaked.

I have yet to see Facebook acknowledging this absolute negligence of your data. https://t.co/ysGCPZm5U3 pic.twitter.com/nM0Fu4GDY8

— Alon Gal (Under the Breach) (@UnderTheBreach) April 3, 2021

Despite the European Union’s data protection framework (the GDPR) baking in a regime of data breach notifications — with the risk of hefty fines for compliance failure — Facebook did not inform its lead EU data supervisory when it found and fixed the issue. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) was left to find out in the press, like everyone else.

Nor has Facebook individually informed the 533M+ users that their information was taken without their knowledge or consent, saying last week it has no plans to do so — despite the heightened risk for affected users of spam and phishing attacks.

Privacy experts have, meanwhile, been swift to point out that the company has still not faced any regulatory sanction under the GDPR — with a number of investigations ongoing into various Facebook businesses and practices and no decisions yet issued in those cases by Ireland’s DPC.

Last month the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of the GDPR which expressed “great concern” over the functioning of the mechanism — raising particular concern over the Irish data protection authority by writing that it “generally closes most cases with a settlement instead of a sanction and that cases referred to Ireland in 2018 have not even reached the stage of a draft decision pursuant to Article 60(3) of the GDPR”.

The latest Facebook data scandal further amps up the pressure on the DPC — providing further succour to critics of the GDPR who argue the regulation is unworkable under the current foot-dragging enforcement structure, given the major bottlenecks in Ireland (and Luxembourg) where many tech giants choose to locate regional HQ.

After the @EP_Justice and other EU DPAs raised concerns, the Irish Parliament is now also planning to look into the work of @DPCIreland in a hearing on April 27th.

Glad to see pro-active steps to debate how #GDPR can be effectively enforced in all EU member states! 😁👍https://t.co/2mDaFOwEiR

— Max Schrems 🇪🇺 (@maxschrems) April 10, 2021

On Thursday Reynders made his concern over Ireland’s response to the Facebook data leak public, tweeting to say the Commission had been in contact with the DPC.

He does have reason to be personally concerned. Earlier last week Politico reported that Reynders’ own digits had been among the cache of leaked data, along with those of the Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel — and “dozens of EU officials”. However the problem of weak GDPR enforcement affects everyone across the bloc — some 446M people whose rights are not being uniformly and vigorously upheld.

“A strong enforcement of GDPR is of key importance,” Reynders also remarked on Twitter, urging Facebook to “fully cooperate with Irish authorities”.

Last week Italy’s data protection commission also called on Facebook to immediately offer a service for Italian users to check whether they had been affected by the breach. But Facebook made no public acknowledgment or response to the call. Under the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism the tech giant can limit its regulatory exposure by direct dealing only with its lead EU data supervisor in Ireland.

A two-year Commission review of how the data protection regime is functioning, which reported last summer, already drew attention to problems with patchy enforcement. So a lack of progress on unblocking GDPR bottlenecks is a growing problem for the Commission — which is in the midst of proposing a package of additional digital regulations. That makes the enforcement point a very pressing one as EU lawmakers are being asked how new digital rules will be upheld if existing ones keep being trampled on?

It’s certainly notable that the EU’s executive has proposed a different, centralized enforcement structure for incoming pan-EU legislation targeted at digital services and tech giants. Albeit, getting agreement from all the EU’s institutions and elected representatives on how to reshape platform oversight looks challenging.

And in the meanwhile the data leaks continue: Motherboard reported Friday on another alarming leak of Facebook data it found being made accessible via a bot on the Telegram messaging platform that gives out the names and phone numbers of users who have liked a Facebook page (in exchange for a fee unless the page has had less than 100 likes).

The publication said this data appears to be separate to the 533M+ scraped dataset — after it ran checks against the larger dataset via the breach advice site, haveibeenpwned. It also asked Alon Gal, the person who discovered the aforementioned leaked Facebook dataset being offered for free download online, to compare data obtained via the bot and he did not find any matches.

We contacted Facebook about the source of this leaked data and will update this report with any response.

In his tweet about the 500M+ Facebook data leak last week, Reynders made reference to the Europe Data Protection Board (EDPB), a steering body comprised of representatives from Member State data protection agencies which works to ensure a consistent application of the GDPR.

However the body does not lead on GDPR enforcement — so it’s not clear why he would invoke it. Optics is one possibility, if he was trying to encourage a perception that the EU has vigorous and uniform enforcement structures where people’s data is concerned.

“Under the GDPR, enforcement and the investigation of potential violations lies with the national supervisory authorities. The EDPB does not have investigative powers per se and is not involved in investigations at the national level. As such, the EDPB cannot comment on the processing activities of specific companies,” an EDPB spokeswoman told us when we enquired about Reynders’ remarks.

But she also noted the Commission attends plenary meetings of the EDPB — adding it’s possible there will be an exchange of views among members about the Facebook leak case in the future, as attending supervisory authorities “regularly exchange information on cases at the national level”.

 

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