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Raspberry Pi Foundation announces Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM

By Romain Dillet

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has released a new version of its flagship model, the Raspberry Pi 4. In addition to the models that come with 2GB and 4GB of RAM, there’s a new 8GB model. This model costs $75, which makes it the most expensive Raspberry Pi out there.

As always, you get a single-board computer that is the size of a deck of cards. It has an ARM-based CPU, many ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a big community of computer enthusiasts. You’ll be able to run applications that require more RAM, whether you use the Raspberry Pi to run a server or as a desktop computer.

All the different versions of the Raspberry Pi 4 have the exact same specifications, except for RAM. Some components have moved on the board, but it’s just a minor adjustment. Earlier this year, the Raspberry Pi Foundation replaced the 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 with the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 while keeping the same price point.

So here’s the current lineup for the Raspberry Pi 4:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 2GB of RAM for $35
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB of RAM for $55
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM for $75

The foundation says that it has been working on an 8GB variant for a while, but it took longer than expected as an LPDDR4 RAM package with 8GB had to be specifically designed for the Raspberry Pi.

On the software front, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has started working on a 64-bit version of Raspbian, the operating system designed to run on a Raspberry Pi. Raspbian still uses a 32-bit kernel and needs to make the switch to 64-bit to take advantage of the 8GB of RAM. In the mean time, you can install Ubuntu or Gentoo on a Raspberry Pi now.

Raspbian, a portmanteau word of Raspberry and Debian, is now called Raspberry Pi OS. Nothing else is changing other than the name.

Vaya Africa launches electric ride-hail taxi network

By Jake Bright

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, has launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa headquartered company has acquired a fleet of Nissan Leaf EVs and developed its own solar powered charging stations.

The program goes live in Zimbabwe this week, as Vaya finalizes partnerships to begin on-demand electric taxi and delivery services in markets that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia.

“Zimbabwe is a sandbox really. We’ve moved on to doing pilots with other countries right across Africa,” Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

Vaya is a subsidiary of Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Group, which includes one of Southern Africa’s largest mobile operators and Liquid Telecom, an internet infrastructure company.

Masiyiwa has become one of Africa’s Gates, Branson type figures, recognized globally as a business leader and philanthropist with connections and affiliations from President Obama to the Rockefeller Foundation.

Working with Zimuto on the Vaya EV product is Liquid Telecom’s innovation partnerships lead, Oswald Jumira.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors, and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital product models.

Ethiopia has local ride-hail ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber’s been active in several markets on the continent since 2015 and like competitor Bolt, got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EV’s for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around two-wheeled transit.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the Government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand.

Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto, Image Credits: Econet Group

The appeal of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets — beyond environmental benefits — is the unit economics, given the cost of fuel compared to personal income is generally high for most of the continent’s drivers.

“Africa is excited, because we are riding on the green revolution: no emissions, no noise and big savings… in terms of running costs of their vehicles,” Zimuto said.

She estimates a cost savings of 40% on the fuel and maintenance costs for drivers on the ride-hail platform.

At the moment, with fuel prices in Vaya’s first market of Zimbabwe at around $1.20 a liter, the average trip distance is 22 kilometres for a price of $19, according to Econet Group’s Oswald Jumira.

With the Nissan Leaf vehicles on Vaya’s charging network, the cost to top up will be around $5 for a range of 150 to 200 kilometres.

Image Credits: Vaya Africa

“It’s the driver who benefits. They take more money home. And that also means we can reduce the tariff for ride hailing companies to make it more affordable for people,” Jumira told TechCrunch .

The company has adapted its business to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Vaya provides PPE to its drivers and sanitizes its cars four to five times a day, according to Zimuto.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from delivery to motorcycle and Tuk Tuk taxis.

On the question of competing with Uber in Africa, Vaya points to the reduced fares offered by its EV program as one advantage.

The CEO of Vaya Mobility, Dorothy Zimuto, also points to certain benefits of knowing local culture and preferences.

“We speak African. That’s the language we understand. We understand the people and what they want across our markets. That’s what makes the difference.” she said.

It will be something to watch if Vaya’s EV bet and local consumer knowledge translates into more passenger flow and revenue generation as it goes head to head with other ride-hail companies, such as Uber, across Africa.

Skyflow raises $7.5M to build its privacy API business

By Alex Wilhelm

Skyflow, a Mountain View-based privacy API company, announced this morning that it has closed a $7.5 million round of capital it describes as a seed investment. Foundation Capital’s Ashu Garg led the round, with the company touting smaller checks from Jeff Immelt (former GE CEO) and Jonathan Bush (former AthenaHealth CEO).

For Skyflow, founded in 2019, the capital raise and its constituent announcement mark an exit from quasi-stealth mode.

TechCrunch knew a little about Skyflow before it announced its seed round because one if its co-founders, Anshu Sharma is a former Salesforce executive and former venture partner at Storm Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on enterprise SaaS businesses. That he left the venture world to eventually found something new caught our eye.

Sharma co-founded the company with Prakash Khot, another former Salesforce denizen.

So what is Skyflow? In a sense it’s the nexus between two trends, namely the growing importance of data security (privacy, in other words), and API -based companies. Skyflow’s product is an API that allows its customers — businesses, not individuals — to store sensitive user information, like Social Security numbers, securely.

Chatting with Sharma in advance of the funding, the CEO told TechCrunch that many providers of cybersecurity solutions today sell products that raise a company’s walls a little higher against certain threats. Once breached, however, the data stored inside is loose. Skyflow wants to make sure that its customers cannot lose your personal information.

Sharma likened Skyflow to other API companies that work to take complex services — Twilio’s telephony API, Stripe’s payments API, and so forth — and provide a simple endpoint for companies to hook into, giving them access to something hard with ease.

Comparing his company’s product to privacy-focused solutions like Apple Pay, the CEO said in a release that “Skyflow has taken a similar approach to all the sensitive data so companies can run their workflows, analytics and machine learning to serve the customer, but do so without exposing the data as a result of a potential theft or breach.”

It’s an interesting idea. If the technology works as promised, Skyflow could help a host of companies that either can’t afford, or simply can’t be bothered, to properly protect your data that they have collected.

If you are not still furious with Equifax, a company that decided that it was a fine idea to collect your personal information so it could grade you and then lost “hundreds of millions of customer records,” Skyflow might not excite you. But if the law is willing to let firms leak your data with little punishment, tooling to help companies be a bit less awful concerning data security is welcome.

Skyflow is not the only API-based company that has raised recently. Daily.co picked up funds recently for its video-chatting API, FalconX raised money for its crypto pricing and trading API, and CNBC reported today that another privacy-focused API company called Evervault has also taken on capital.

Skyflow’s model, however, may differ a little from how other API-built companies have priced themselves. Given that the data it will store for customers isn’t accessed as often, say, as a customer might ping Twilio’s API, Skyflow won’t charge usage rates for its product. After discussing the topic with Sharma, our impression is that Skyflow — once it formally launches its service commercially– will look something like a SaaS business.

The cloud isn’t coming, it’s here. And companies are awful at cybersecurity. Skyflow is betting it’s engineering-heavy team can make that better, while making money. Let’s see.

ChromaCode’s tech to boost COVID-19 testing gets Bill Gates’s backing

By Jonathan Shieber

Boasting a technology that can dramatically increase the capacity of existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing used to identify people infected with COVID-19 and other illnesses, ChromaCode has attracted new funding from Bill Gates-backed Adjuvant Capital

“We want a good solution for a resource-limited environment,” says ChromaCode founder and executive chairman Alex Dickinson, a serial entrepreneur who has worked with Caltech researchers spinning out companies since the early 2000s.

The technology was based on research conducted by California Institute of Technology graduate student Aditya Rajagopal. A former researcher at Google[x] working on novel medical imaging methods, Rajagopal is the inventor of HDPCR, the tech at the heart of ChromaCode’s product.

With the help of Dickinson, Rajagopal spun out the technology he’d developed to form ChromaCode in 2012, according to Crunchbase, and raised its initial capital to develop a diagnostic tool that could use algorithms and new sensing technologies to increase the number of targets that can be analyzed by traditional PCR analysis.

The polymerase chain reaction tests were invented in 1985 by Kary Mullis, who was working as a chemist at the Cetus Corp., and use copies of very small amounts of DNA sequences that are amplified in a series of cycles of temperature changes. It’s one of the foundations of genetic analysis. 

While traditional PCR testing relies on differentiation of targets by color, the HDPCR technology developed by ChromaCode’s co-founder uses signal intensity to identify multiple different targets and signify them as curve signatures encoded into a single color channel. Think of the technology as using color gradients to identify multiple targets in a test instead of just one color.

“It’s like image compression,” Dickinson said.

For COVID-19 specifically, the use of ChromaCode’s technology could expand available testing capacity threefold, the company said.

“Right now the basic test looks at three different things,” said Dickinson. “These machines have wells and they can do 96 tests at a time. The challenge is that you would typically use three of those wells for each test. We let them do all of the test in one well, which would give you a three times multiple.”

That means instead of testing 32 individuals using existing PCR equipment, labs would be able to perform 96 tests at a time.

Even more significant is the ability for ChromaCode’s technology to identify other illnesses alongside COVID-19. “What we’re planning for is the fall when we will be taking the existing COVID test and layering in flu and other diseases,” says Dickinson.

The ability to test for multiple pathogens has important implications for the ability to adequately test, track and trace the spread of the disease in the low and medium income countries that are now undergoing their own outbreaks. “The problem in Africa is that someone has a fever and it might be COVID or that might be Dengue fever,” said Dickinson. Using ChromaCode’s technology, diagnosticians and physicians can tell the difference without having to use new machines.

It’s the ability to work on existing technology that sets ChromaCode apart from competitors like BioFire Diagnostics and Cepheid, according to Dickinson and his co-founder Greg Gosch.

“The supply chain on the tests will continue to be strained so people will be looking for more efficient mechanisms,” said Gosch.

Adjuvant Capital, the investment fund spun out from a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and JP Morgan Chase, had already identified ChromaCode as a potential investment target well before the pandemic hit, according to managing partner Jenny Yip.

The investment firm began speaking with ChromaCode in the summer of 2019, and was drawn to the company for its ability to expand testing capacity well before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the problems of adequate testing into stark relief.

From a global health perspective, ChromaCode’s technology ability to be installed in the existing technology base is very powerful,” said Yip. Given the low resource base in some of the countries where testing is needed the most, requiring the installation of an entirely new suite of hardware and software tools is untenable — let alone developing a supply chain that can service and maintain the technology.  

The lack of adequate testing in the United States remains the biggest obstacle to safely fully re-starting the country’s economy and ensuring that any future outbreaks of the disease can be managed successfully, according to experts.

“Testing is your first fundamental step in a plan to keep infected people from susceptible people,” Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic.

“There’s a strong sense that the White House knows the amount of testing we need is far more than we have right now,” he said. “It is really stunning and disappointing.”

Bill Gates details how his foundation shifted focus ‘almost entirely’ to addressing COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke to the Financial Times (via Fast Company) about how the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has shifted “almost entirely” to working on addressing COVID-19, in the interest of making the post impact possible in the ongoing effort to contain and combat the global coronavirus pandemic. Gates told the FT that the spread of COVID-19 could have dire economic consequences which will result in more suffering globally than anyone could’ve anticipated, hence the need to address it with the full weight of the resources of one of the world’s most well-capitalized charitable organizations.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has been funding vaccine trials, clinical studies and basic research related to drug and therapy development for COVID-19 since basically the disease debuted on the world scene. It means that the exiting mandate of the foundation, which includes seeking to eradicate polio and AIDS worldwide, will be temporarily slowed or paused while the organization focuses its resources on the pandemic, but Gates’ decision to focus the group’s significant resources here should only emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

The foundation’s temporary shift is actually, long-term, the best way it can serve its core goals, since the global impact of the coronavirus crisis is likely to have repercussions for every aspect of human life, including access to medical care, testing and therapies, not to mention food and basic necessities. Curbing the disease’s spread early could have the most significant impact in economies ill-prepared to deal with the fallout, and any impact there will eventually result in better ability to work on eradicating those other diseases in a reasonable timeline, instead of undermining local infrastructure and allowing them a longer foothold.

In a 2015 TED talk, Gates predicted the coming of a global outbreak and urged global health organizations and governments to come together to prepare for what to do in case of a large, widespread contagion. Gates was working mostly from the perspective of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which exposed many of the existing gaps and flaws in the system, but his advice seems prescient in retrospect.

Unfortunately, Gates has been subject to a lot of spreading misinformation and bogus conspiracy theory nonsense owing to heightened paranoia and activity among groups that normally peddle in this kind of falsehood. Based on this interview, Gates seems to essentially expect that as something of a matter of course for high-profile individuals, however, and it doesn’t appear to be impacting the foundation’s ability to focus on potential fixes.

ClimateView raises $2.5 million for its toolkit to visualize climate mitigation plans

By Jonathan Shieber

ClimateView, a Swedish software development company working on monitoring and visualization tools for greenhouse gas emissions, said it has raised $2.5 million in its latest round of financing.

While the world is gripped by the material and economic toll of the COVID-19 epidemic, the problems society faces from longterm global climate change have not gone away.

It’s against this backdrop that investors including the Norrsken Foundation, an impact investment firm established by Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalberth; and Nordic Makers, an angel syndicate composed of founders from Zendesk, Sitecore, and Unity Technologies, decided to invest in ClimateView. Nordic Makers, Max Ventures, and GGV Capital also participated in the funding, the company said.

Using ClimateView’s software, cities around the world have a window into their climate data — including emissions and other sustainability and resilience information — so that they can plan accordingly for how best to proceed with decarbonization efforts and climate change mitigation plans.

So far, around 1,348 municipalities, townships, and villages in 26 countries have declared a climate emergency, but there’s no real effort to understand from a systems perspective what steps need to be taken to mitigate the worst impacts of the changing global climate, the company said.

“It’s an exciting time for ClimateView as we work to reinvent the way in which society works with the climate challenge,” said founder and chief executive Tomer Shalit, in a statement. “Our solution-focused approach to climate action is already gaining traction in a number of cities across the globe and we hope that, with this investment, we can continue to lay the groundwork for decision making so that, together, the world’s cities and nations can forge a common path towards global carbon neutrality.”

Historically, environmental policy and planning has been limited by a lengthy decision-making, planning-intensive process that hasn’t been able to access the latest data visualization tools and projections to make decisions based on current developments, the company said.

ClimateView’s software provides a central hub of all development, emissions, and projected urban planning data to accelerate the planning process.

The company’s premier project has been its work with the Swedish Climate Policy Council, which used the ClimateView software and suite of services to release a publicly available digital roadmap using the company’s Panorama software.

“Norrsken invests in startups that make the world better, so ClimateView is an ideal fit for us,”said Tove Larssen, a general partner with Norrsken. “We are really intrigued by their ambition to provide a global platform that makes it possible to fight climate change faster and more efficiently, and are delighted to be on board to help them achieve this goal.”

Mozilla names long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker as CEO

By Ron Miller

Mozilla Corporation announced today that it has chosen long-time chairwoman Mitchell Baker to be CEO, replacing Chris Beard, who announced last August he would be stepping down at the end of the year.

Baker represents a logical choice to lead the company. At a time of great turmoil in the world at large, she brings the stability of someone who has been with Mozilla Corporation since 2003. Writing in a company blog post, she certainly recognized the challenges ahead, navigating the current economic uncertainty and the competitive challenges the company faces with its flagship Firefox browser.

“It’s a time of challenge on many levels, there’s no question about that. Mozilla’s flagship product remains excellent, but the competition is stiff. The increasing vertical integration of internet experience remains a deep challenge. It’s also a time of need, and of opportunity. Increasingly, numbers of people recognize that the internet needs attention,” Baker wrote.

Baker has been acting as interim CEO since December when Beard officially left the company. In a blog post from the board announcing Baker’s official new title, they certainly recognized that it would take someone with her unique combination of skills and experience to guide the company through this next phase.

“Mitchell’s deep understanding of Mozilla’s existing businesses gives her the ability to provide direction and support to drive this important work forward,” they wrote. Adding, “And her leadership style grounded in openness and honesty is helping the organization navigate through the uncertainty that COVID-19 has created for Mozillians at work and at home.”

Mozilla Corporation was founded in 1998 and is best known for its flagship, open-source Firefox browser. The company faces stiff competition in the browser market from Google, Apple and Microsoft.

OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

By Darrell Etherington

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early-stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab last October at Disrupt unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible, which it now refers to as its Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first-ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process its RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

Study behind updated FDA guidance shows self-swab tests are as effective as those done by clinicians

By Darrell Etherington

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would be updating its guidance to allow self-swab tests for COVID-19, in which a patient collects a sample from their own nose for a health professional to test. On Wednesday, UnitedHealth Group revealed the results of a peer-reviewed large-scale study that provided the science behind the decision to switch to the less-invasive sample collection method.

The self-swab process doesn’t change where FDA-approved testing can happen — this expanded guidance only applies to the method of collection, meaning at-home swab-based PCR tests that many startups had hoped to bring to market are still on hold. But even though people still have to go to either clinics or drive-through testing sites to get a COVID-19 test done, the ability to self-swab offers more comfort, as well as real advantages when it comes to the health and safety of the clinicians and front-line healthcare workers staffing the sites.

This new study shows that not only does self-swabbing lessen the chance of someone with COVID-19 passing on their infection to a healthcare worker, it’s also just as effective as a test where clinicians collected the sample from much deeper inside a person’s nasal cavity. UnitedHeatlh worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Quest Diagnostics and the University of Washington to conduct the study, which covered almost 500 patients who received tests at OptumCare diagnostic facilities in the state of Washington.

There are other benefits to the self-swab method as well, including eliminating the need for specifically trained medical professionals who have to administer the tests at point-of-care. This should help with clearing up backlogs owing to staffing, at least, though supplies and bottlenecks due to demand are going to persist as more people seek diagnosis.

Amazon Care to provide delivery and pick-up of at-home COVID-19 test sample kits in Seattle trial

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon is going to be working with a new research initiative backed in part by the Gates Foundation that will distribute at-home coronavirus assessment kits, and then deliver the collected samples to FDA-approved test facilities. Amazon Care, the health arm formed by Amazon initially for internal employee care, will be handling the delivery of the kits, as well as transportation of collected samples to the test labs, as first reported by CNBC.

While the FDA updated its guidance just a few days ago to specifically exclude at-home testing from the Emergency Use Authorization that is in place to enable broadened private lab testing of potential COVID-19 cases, the arrangement with the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) and Amazon Care bypasses use of the traditional mail or package delivery network. The Amazon Care drivers who are doing the test kit drop-offs and deliveries are specifically trained in proper handling of sensitive medical materials, and the SCAN project is for a limited research endeavor undertaken in order to help “understand how coronavirus is spreading in the Greater Seattle area.”

Availability of kits will be limited, but will include the kind of swab testing that is being conducted at drive-through testing facilities in the U.S. Should a sample test positive for COVID-19, the person who provided the sample to SCAN will be contacted by a healthcare worker for next steps, including advice on how to seek treatment and prevent transmission.

SCAN is the result of a partnership by Seattle & King County’s Public Health department, as well as a team of hospitals and health organizations that created the Seattle Flu Study, a similar project meant to study the spread of the traditional seasonal flu within the community. The research and data modeling work done for that study have been adapted to the study of COVID-19, and the flu study has been put on hold while researchers focus on the pandemic instead.

IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft partner with White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research

By Frederic Lardinois

During today’s White House coronavirus task force press conference, President Trump announced the launch of a new public/private consortium to “unleash the power of American supercomputing resources.” The members of this consortium are the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM . Other companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as a number of academic institutions, are also “contributing lots of different things,” the president said.

While Trump’s comments were characteristically unclear, IBM provided more details, noting that it is working with a number of national labs and other institutions to offer a total of 330 petaflops of compute to various projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also part of the consortium, which is being led by IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy.

IBM and its partners will coordinate the efforts to evaluate proposals and provide access to high-performance computing resources to those that are most likely to have an immediate impact.

“How can supercomputers help us fight this virus? These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modeling. These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms,” writes Dario Gil, IBM’s Director of Research.

AWS has already dedicated $20 million to support COVID-19 research while Microsoft has already announced a number of different initiatives, though mostly around helping businesses cope with the fallout of this crisis. Google has now launched its own coronavirus website (though it’s very different from the one Trump once promised) and Alphabet’s Verily is helping Bay Area residents find testing sites if needed. It’s unclear what exactly Google and Microsoft will contribute to these current efforts, though.

“Today I’m also announcing the launch of a new public/private consortium organized by the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM to unleash the power of American supercomputing resources to fight the Chinese virus,” Trump, who continues to insist on calling COVID-19 ‘the Chinese virus,’ said in today’s press briefing. “The following leaders from private industries, academia and government will be contributing and they are gonna be contributing a lot of different things, but compute primarily — computing resources to help researchers discover new treatments and vaccine. They will be working along with NIH and all of the people working on this. But tremendous help from IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Department of Energy’s, the National Science Foundation and NASA. They are all contributing to this effort.”

Rigetti Computing took a $71 million down round, because quantum computing is hard

By Jonathan Shieber

The $71 million in financing that quantum computing technology developer Rigetti Computing recently raised came at a significant cut to the company’s valuation, according to several sources with knowledge of the company.

The company declined to comment on its valuation or the recent round of funding it secured.

Rigetti is one of a handful of startups attempting to make quantum computing commercially viable. It’s a vitally important emerging technology with implications for national security and a broad swath of industries that depend on better data analysis and more powerful computing to continue innovating around materials science, genetics and … well… pretty much anything else.

In July, Rigetti acquired QxBranch, a quantum computing and data analytics software startup, to build on Rigetti’s full-stack strategy and expand the company’s ability to deliver quantum algorithms, solutions and services, according to a statement

“Our mission is to deliver the power of quantum computing to our customers and help them solve difficult and valuable problems,” said Chad Rigetti, founder and CEO of Rigetti Computing, in a statement at the time. “We believe we have the leading hardware platform, and QxBranch is the leader at the application layer. Together we can shorten the timeline to quantum advantage and open up new opportunities for our customers.”

Huge corporations, including Google and IBM, have invested hundreds of millions to develop quantum computers, and there’s a growing push among politicians in the U.S. government to devote more money to the technology — out of fear that China’s scientists and national efforts have outpaced American advances in the field.

Quantum computing is an area that’s set for a windfall of government dollars under the budget proposed earlier this year by the Trump administration. The National Science Foundation will receive $210 million for quantum research, while the Department of Energy will receive a $237 million boost and an additional carve out of $25 million for the Department of Energy to begin development of a nationwide Quantum Internet.

Fundamentally, quantum computing is hard, and there are few commercially viable applications for a technology that’s still in its infancy. The “computers” are notoriously difficult to operate, so not many companies are pursuing the creation of the hardware itself. Instead, companies in the market are pitching the ability to adapt into a form amenable to solving by quantum computing the hard questions that corporations and research institutions would like to pose, as well as flexible access to shared quantum hardware.

That’s a variation on the wildly successful cloud computing and software as a service business models now all the rage among technology companies developing services for other industries.

If commercial traction is one issue for quantum computing startups — which lack access to the billions available to companies like Alphabet (Google’s parent company) or even the struggling tech giant IBM — then recent trends in venture capital investment have proven to be another.

It’s very likely that the company fell victim to the irrational exuberance of the stupid money unicorn era, where firms raised billions of dollars in capital in an effort to compete with massive sovereign wealth-backed corporate investment firms led by people who had previously burned dumpsters full of cash in the dot-com era made billions off well-timed investments in Chinese e-commerce companies.

That said, financing a company that can achieve a quantum breakthrough is one of those moonshot investments where the return on a successful investment is basically unlimited. There’s so much potential in the technology, and so little viable commercial business, that the first to break through the noise could be a real win.

Recently, investors are gambling more on the middleware layer of a quantum computing stack. These are companies like Zapata, Q-CTRL, Quantum Machines and Aliro, which improve the performance of quantum computers and create an easier user experience.

In 2017, Rigetti announced that it had raised $64 million over a period of several years while it developed its quantum computing technology. That was followed with another $50 million investment later that year, as Bloomberg reported. This latest investment was led by Battery Ventures, according to data available on Crunchbase.

The lack of available, non-dilutive capital for companies like Rigetti may be a problem going forward, if the U.S. wants to provide a broad base of support for the pursuit of quantum technology innovations, according to some industry observers.

This is a national security issue. We should be trying to be doing everything we can,” said one industry observer. “If we don’t fight this war and somebody else wins this war it’s going to have significant ramifications for the U.S. For some of these things… private companies and government have to collaborate. For our own national security.”

Zuckerberg details the ways Facebook and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are responding to COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the steps that Facebook and his family’s non-profit, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are taking to respond to the spread of both the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and viral misinformation about the illness, in a statement posted earlier this evening.

Facebook’s response focuses on three areas: providing accurate information; stopping misinformation; and providing data for research (which is not creepy at all coming from Facebook).

To provide accurate information, Facebook is directing users who search for information on the coronavirus on its platform to the World Health Organization or local health authority through an automatic pop-up. That notification on information is also automatically populated into the news feed for everyone who is in a country where the World Health Organization has reported a case of person-to-person transmission.

“Given the developing situation, we’re working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support. We’ll also give support and millions more in ad credits to other organizations too and we’ll be working closely with global health experts to provide additional help if needed.”

To stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook was removing false claims and conspiracy theories flagged by global health organizations and the company is blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the fears of the public by pitching snake oil cures.

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Facebook is “looking at how people can use our services to help contribute to broader efforts to contain the outbreak,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Researchers are already using aggregated and anonymized Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to better understand how the virus is spreading.”

There are open questions around what controls Facebook has put in place to restrict who has access to the anonymized data and what users might be able to do with that data — or how long they can maintain access once the threat from the virus abates. Facebook had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Technology from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also helping with the medical efforts to halt the spread of the disease. Working with the Gates Foundation, researchers financed by the two organizations were able to fully sequence the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19 in a matter of days, making it easier for people infected with the virus to be identified.

That same team created a public version of the IDSeq tool so scientists could study the full genome in the context of other pathogens, Zuckerberg wrote.

Chan-Zuckerberg’s Biohub has also been working to develop a cell atlas, which maps different cell types in the body. Some researchers are using that atlas to try and assess how the coronavirus damages the lungs and identify potential treatments that could limit lung damage caused by the virus.

“There’s more we can do to help people feel less isolated and help one another and we’re working on some ideas we’ll share in the next few weeks, but for now the focus is on slowing the spread of the outbreak itself,” Zuckerberg wrote. “This is a difficult time for a lot of people and I’m thinking of everyone affected by this — the people who are sick or quarantined, their friends and family and of course the healthcare workers who are always on the frontlines of any outbreak. We’ll share more updates soon.”

Datastax acquires The Last Pickle

By Frederic Lardinois

Data management company Datastax, one of the largest contributors to the Apache Cassandra project, today announced that it has acquired The Last Pickle (and no, I don’t know what’s up with that name either), a New Zealand-based Cassandra consulting and services firm that’s behind a number of popular open-source tools for the distributed NoSQL database.

As Datastax Chief Strategy Officer Sam Ramji, who you may remember from his recent tenure at Apigee, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, Google and Autodesk, told me, The Last Pickle is one of the premier Apache Cassandra consulting and services companies. The team there has been building Cassandra-based open source solutions for the likes of Spotify, T Mobile and AT&T since it was founded back in 2012. And while The Last Pickle is based in New Zealand, the company has engineers all over the world that do the heavy lifting and help these companies successfully implement the Cassandra database technology.

It’s worth mentioning that Last Pickle CEO Aaron Morton first discovered Cassandra when he worked for WETA Digital on the special effects for Avatar, where the team used Cassandra to allow the VFX artists to store their data.

“There’s two parts to what they do,” Ramji explained. “One is the very visible consulting, which has led them to become world experts in the operation of Cassandra. So as we automate Cassandra and as we improve the operability of the project with enterprises, their embodied wisdom about how to operate and scale Apache Cassandra is as good as it gets — the best in the world.” And The Last Pickle’s experience in building systems with tens of thousands of nodes — and the challenges that its customers face — is something Datastax can then offer to its customers as well.

And Datastax, of course, also plans to productize The Last Pickle’s open-source tools like the automated repair tool Reaper and the Medusa backup and restore system.

As both Ramji and Datastax VP of Engineering Josh McKenzie stressed, Cassandra has seen a lot of commercial development in recent years, with the likes of AWS now offering a managed Cassandra service, for example, but there wasn’t all that much hype around the project anymore. But they argue that’s a good thing. Now that it is over ten years old, Cassandra has been battle-hardened. For the last ten years, Ramji argues, the industry tried to figure out what the de factor standard for scale-out computing should be. By 2019, it became clear that Kubernetes was the answer to that.

“This next decade is about what is the de facto standard for scale-out data? We think that’s got certain affordances, certain structural needs and we think that the decades that Cassandra has spent getting harden puts it in a position to be data for that wave.”

McKenzie also noted that Cassandra provides users with a number of built-in features like support for mutiple data centers and geo-replication, rolling updates and live scaling, as well as wide support across programming languages, give it a number of advantages over competing databases.

“It’s easy to forget how much Cassandra gives you for free just based on its architecture,” he said. “Losing the power in an entire datacenter, upgrading the version of the database, hardware failing every day? No problem. The cluster is 100 percent always still up and available. The tooling and expertise of The Last Pickle really help bring all this distributed and resilient power into the hands of the masses.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

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